Monday, January 18, 2016

Glimpses of the Work House on Blackwell Island, 1866

Blackwell's Island 1874 / Now Roosevelt Island

The New York Public Library recently made 180,000 items from its public domain digital collection available at no charge to the public, and those interested in New York history should definitely take a look at the NYPL Public Domain Digital Collection.    

Blackwell's (Roosevelt) Island is one of many sections of New York City that has changed so greatly over the years that its past can only be imagined with the help of old documents and images. In 1832 the Blackwell family sold the island, until then farmland, to the city, which soon set to work transforming it into a place of isolation for all the misifts of 19th century society: the contagious, the insane, alcoholics, vagrants, prostitutes and more serious criminals of all kinds.

Near the south end are the ruins of the Small Pox Hospital, built in 1856, and one of several structures remaining from the earlier era. Near the north end the restored Octagon Building- formerly the Lunatic Asylum - serves as centerpiece of a luxury rental development. Last year a major film, "10 Days in a Madhouse" was released, based on  the 1885 reporting of the intrepid Nellie Bly who had herself committed to the asylum in order to expose the mistreatment of the unfortunate patients. Her book is available for 99 cents on kindle, and free elsewhere on the net.

On Main Street is the Good Shepherd Chapel, still in active use, and surrounded by the apartment complex built in the 1970s. It was along this central spine of the island that the insitutions were built to imprison both criminals and the merely indigent. The penitentiary, opened in 1832, was moved to Rikers Island a century later after a wave of scandals. Here also was the Work  House, of which no physical trace remains. It was a place where people charged with the most minor crimes were incarcerated for relatively short periods of time, on the the theory that unpaid physical labor would cure them of idleness or other vices unacceptable to Victorian society.

The NYPL digital archive contains a number of illustrations of a visit to the Work House in 1866 by an artist/journalist named W.H. Davenport. His report on the visit was published in Harpers Weekly, as was his later story on the city orphanage on on Randalls Island. His work allows us to glimpse a few of the individuals who were consigned to the island a hundred and fifty yerars ago. 
Prisoners embarking for Blackwell Island from 26th Street pier
The work house, as seen from the East River
Breaking stones
Skulkers from work

A quarrel in the dining hall
The women's cells
Solitary confinement

The sewing room
The exercise yard

Self-Portrait by W.H. Davenport in his Harpers article on Randalls Island

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Witch Girl & The Wobbly: A Tale of the Pondshiners

TheWitch-Girl & The Wobbly” is inspired by the legends of a people known as Pondshiners or Bushwhackers who lived in isolation for many generations in the wooded hills surrounding what is now called Lake Taghanic. They kept to themselves, growing a few crops in the rocky mountain hollows, working from time to time for nearby farmers, and producing for sale a beautiful and unique kind of basket which is now highly prized by collectors.

The Pondshiner community was located
 in what is now Lake Taghanic State Park

The Taghanic basketmakers were similar in some ways to other isolate cultures such as the Eagles Nesters near Kingston, the Sloughters of Schoharie and the better-known Melungeons of the southern Appalachins, all of whose origins are shrouded in myth. When the Taghanic people came to public attention through a series of sensationalized articles by Frederic Van de Water in the 1920s, no one knew how long they had lived apart from the surrounding culture. Perhaps they had fled oppressive landlords during the anti-rent wars of the 1840s. Perhaps, as Van de Water thought, they had been up on “the Hill” for centuries. Some traced their skill at basketry to Mohican influences.

IWW leaders Carlo Tresca and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn,
 2nd and 3rd from left

What is clear is that their small society was devastated by the influenza epidemic of 1919, when this tale is set. The narrator, Tom Ryan, was a boy during the Little Falls Textile Strike of 1913 and dreams of an activist life as a “wobbly,” as members of the International Workers of the World were called. Arriving in New York City just as the war is ending, he pays little heed to the flu epidemic and is more directly affected by the Red Scare which targeted the radicals, like Carlo Tresca and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, whom he idolizes. Accepting a job with a new union, he arrives in Stottville, determined to organize the Julliard mills. Things go badly and in his flight from arrest, Tom stumbles into the forest world of the Pondshiners.

Old Yet and Mattie Hotaling, 
from Carl Carmer's "Great River of the Mountains"

Those who prefer their history straight may take exception to my depiction of what might be called wiccan beliefs among the Pondshiners. However, I believe there is ample evidence for a persistent belief in magic and witches in this isolate culture. Carl Carmer in his 1939 book, The Hudson, devotes a chapter entitled "Witches Make Star Tracks" to the supernatural beliefs of the Pondshiners and similar Hudsom Valley groups. According to him, a belief in witches, and fear of their powers, was universal among the Pondshiners. Crosswell Bowen in his 1941 photographic study, Great River of the Mountains, said that “Most of them cannot read but they tell strange stories which echo of the middle ages” and “their world is peopled with goblins and spooks and omens.”

Considering the frenzy of witch-hunting on the other side of the Berkshire Hills in the 1600s, it is conceivable that a few believers in the old ways might have fled to safety beyond the reach of the Puritan inquisitors. And perhaps a young radical might fall in love in 1919 with a girl who shared those ancient beliefs, and who possessed powers which his materialist philosophy could not explain.

An except from “The Witch-Girl and the Wobbly”

“It's when the Goddess fill your heart and show you the right path to take.”
“The Goddess?”
“Mama tol' me all about Her.” She looked anxious for a moment. “She said I was never to tell anyone from outside the Hill but I guess it's all right telling you 'cause we're...”
“Because we're in love.” I touched her face and she nodded.
“Mama said that the bad Bible folk called anybody with the light from the Goddess was witches.” She kept looking into the forest as she spoke. “That's why they hanged the mama of the first Brother and Sister and they had to run away and live up here on the Hill with the Red People. And Mama said that the gals in our family could always get a light from the Goddess when things are real dark.”
“Like now?”
“Yea, like now.” She looked troubled. “Only I don't have no light now.”
“I think it will come to you, Lizbeth, and you'll know the right path to take.”
“Do you think so?”
“Yes, I do. But that path might have to take you away from this Hill.”

 exclusively on Kindle for 99 cents.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Red Nurse: Helen Schloss at the Ludlow Massacre


In my 2012 novel, I imagine a very old Helen Schloss telling her story in Moscow in the late 1960s. She meets a young American from Little Falls, New York and describes the great strike she helped to lead in his home town a half century earlier. ( The Red Nurse is available at Amazon Kindle for $2.99 and the paperback is $9.99 at Amazon.)

Additional posts on that strike can be found on this site at:

M. Helen Schloss

After Little Falls, Helen Schloss continued to join the labor battles and in 1918 went to Russia as part of an organized effort to provide medical relief to the millions suffering from war, famine and disease. Her trail ends there, and I have never been able to find any record of Helen Schloss after that time.

Strike supporters at Paterson 

After the Little Falls strike was settled by state mediators in January 1913, Helen evidently went directly to the silk workers strike in Paterson New Jersey, which began in March of that year. Her IWW comrades Big Bill Haywood and Carlo Tresca, who had been at Little Falls, were major organizers at Paterson, as was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, with whom Helen had been arrested in 1904 in New York. At Paterson, Flynn was arrested for a speech in which she called for uniting workers across racial boundaries, and it is probable that Helen was among the 1800 workers and organizers arrested by the police.

Warren Beatty as John  Reed in "Reds"

A huge mass meeting of supporters was held at Madison Square Garden in nearby New York, featuring a pageant organized by John Reed and Mabel Dodge. The strike, and Reed's role in it, were dramatized in Warren Beatty's 1981 film, Reds. The strike, however, was a failure, and ended in July.

In 1914 Helen Schloss was at the strikers camp in Ludlow, Colorado when the Colorado National Guard attacked the tent colony, massacring two dozen men, women and children. The workers fired back over the next ten days, leading to more deaths on both sides.

The Guardsmen and hired thugs fought on behalf of the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company and two smaller mining firms. Although the miners lost the battle, subsequent federal laws on child labor and the eight hour day were probably due, in part, to the 1915 report on the strike by the House Committee on Mines and Mining.

Mother Jones with strikers' children at Ludlow

We know that Helen was a witness to these tragic events because a letter from her was read at a meeting in New York, hosted by the legendary Mother Jones. 

Excerpt from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 14, 1914:

Helen Schloss Writes Colorado Strike Story

Miss Helen Schloss is a trained nurse who has been active as a suffrage organizer in this borough in behalf of the Woman Suffrage Party. She was sent to Colorado by the Brooklyn Committee for the Relief of Wives and Children of Colorado Strikers to organize a relief station at Trinidad. Mrs. Frank H. Cothren, Mrs. Herbert Warbasse and James P. Warbasse are especially active on this committee. This is the story of conditions as Miss Schloss heard it from the strikers:

by Helen Schloss
    There has been a strike in the State of Colorado, since last September, and if memory serves rightly, there have been strikes ever since the mines began operating.
    Mines are unsafe, and hundreds of men are being killed in them every year. Water is scare in this part of the country, and coal dust is very plentiful. When a sufficient amount of coal dust has gathered in the air there is an explosion and many lives are snuffed out. When the operators are asked why they do not sprinkle the mines, they answered that the country lacks sufficient water.
    The present strike has been in progress, in a peaceful manner, since September. There was no trouble of any moment till April 20. The militiamen were in the field to protect the mines, and incidentally to break the backbone of the strike.
    The militia men had nothing to do, but to have a good time. So for just a little pastime, they started with Ludlow. Ludlow had 1200 inhabitants, with over 100 tents. The Ludlow people were about twelve nationalities in that small colony. They had parties and feasts, the women had plenty of time to go visiting, and to gossip. The men hung around, laughed and sang. There was nothing to do but wait until the strike was settled. The militiamen had work to do, and that was to break the strike.
    Long before April 20, the tents of the strikers were searched. Trunks were ransacked, floors torn up, and there seemed to have been brooding a general feeling of hatred for the militia. While the militia searched the tents, they usually had a machine gun on top of the hill. Be it known that Ludlow is sitting in a valley. The militia were stationed on the hills. This gave them a good chance to watch the doings of the strikers.

Militia Fires on Camp of Women and Children.

    Monday morning, April 20, at 10 a. m. the Ludlow people heard an explosion, and rushing out to the tent doors, they saw the machine guns in full blast, firing down upon them. Under almost every tent was a large cave. The women and children scrambled into them, while the men grabbed their rifles and ammunition, and went up on the hill to fight.
    The women and children who were in the caves tell horrible stories. The firing from the hills kept up all day, until 3 o'clock the next morning. No one knew whether his companions were alive or not. No one knew whether they would ever see his friends again. The rumbling kept up on the hill. 
    One young woman [Pearl Jolly] who had some training as a nurse, put Red Cross on her breast, and carrying a white flag, went from cave to cave with food, and drink for the women and children. She was fired at from all directions, and it is a great wonder that she lives to tell the tale. The heel was shot off one of her shoes. One time when she ran into one of the tents, to get some food, so many shots followed her through the canvass that she had to lie still on the floor for hours. A dresser in the tent was shot to pieces.
    It is said that the explosive bullets that were used set the tents on fire. The tents began to burn towards evening, and the fires kept up all night. The women and children fled from the caves, to the nearest ranch, and as they were running , shots followed them. The firing became so insistent that the people had to flee from the ranch. The militia looted the house, and left a note on a blank check, saying "this will teach you a lesson not to harbor strikers next time," signed with the initials of the Baldwin gunmen.
   On going through the ruined tent colony, one was struck with the terrible amount f bullets lying everywhere. Everything had been riddled. The stoves that might have been used after going through the fire were full of holes, where the bullets struck. Barns, sheds and everything in sight was destroyed. It was a ghastly sight to walk through the ruined colony, with the frames of the bedsteads standing out like ghosts amid the ruins.
    We stopped near the cave, where eleven children and two women were smothered alive. Big, strong men stood at this cave, in silence, with bowed head. We slid down the gruesome hole, and I gave it a sort of rough measurements and found it 5 feet high, 7 feet wide and 9 feet long. A little high chair and a baby's gocart were still there.
     The Red Cross party that went to Ludlow to recover the dead were arrested and detained for a little while. At first they received permission to pass, but later on General Chase told them he had received word they could not pass. Later this same general became abusive and called the minister choice names. The Red Cross party recovered the eleven children and two women, but it is said that there are a great many bodies still missing, which are not accounted for.

Grocery Store Looted by the Militiamen

     About one mile away there is a grocery store, which is run in opposition to the company store. A visit to this store convinces one that destructive demons had been there. Flour and cereals were spilt all over the floor. The cash register was broken open, canned stuff opened and spilled, fixtures destroyed and windows broken. hundreds of dollars worth of damage was done.
    Upstairs there was a rooming house, and the woman who ran this has lost everything. Never in my life have I witnessed such a state of affairs. The floor was strewn with papers, drawers were ransacked, bureaus, tables and chairs broken, mattresses destroyed, glasses broken. All the good things had been taken away. The poor people did not even have a chair to sit on. Unmentionable outrages were committed in this house. The poor woman sits on the floor on the torn mattress, with her hands up to her head in a state of terror. The reason this house was destroyed was because one leader, who was the strikers' best fighter, used to room there at one time.
    Louis the Greek was killed. He fought at the front all day. When the moaning of the women and children became too terrible, this big strong man went on the hill through the storm of bullets to beg them to stop firing. He was hit with a gun over the head, and knocked senseless, and then shot through the head with an explosive bullet. He was found at the foot of the hill with an old pair of shoes on. Before he was shot he had new shoes. His gold watch and chain were gone. One of the militia boasted that he traded shoes with dead Louie.
    After the terrible Ludlow massacre, the fighting began. Women and children were brought to Trinidad by the wagon load, the children fairly naked. For five nights and days the work kept up. The men went to the firing line, and the women stayed up all night cooking and sending shifts of men into battle. What a bloody war it was for five days! Those Greek men fought wonderfully. They fought against hundreds of machine guns. The strikers had a small force. They had little ammunition, but they fought bravely. A great many are soldiers from the old countries. The mixture of nationalities proved a great help in time of war, for it seemed that each nationality had something to offer and suggest against the "Tin Wollies," as they called them.
    A few days later there was another battle. The strikers fought at Walsenburg. Fire was set to some houses, men were killed, and there was a bloody war; but the women and children were protected.
   Peace has been restored in the community, the strikers are looking forward to a settlement. All strikers have been disarmed, and all mines guards are supposed to be disarmed.
    The only solution of this problem is to close the mines, and as long as there will be strikebreakers in the mines there will be hatred, and hence more bloodshed.
     Conditions among the miners are very pitiful, indeed, especially the Ludlow survivors. They are being fitted out as fast as possible, but there is still a great need. The strike benefits are $3 a week. One dollar extra is allowed for the wife, and 50 cents for the children. Babies are coming very fast, too. Since I started the work we have had two newcomers, and a dozen more are expected.
     The strikers ask for their own check man. They wanted someone representing the workers to act a a check man to weigh the coal and offered to pay him. This was denied. If they became too persistent they were kicked out and blacklisted.
     Miners say that the scales of the owners differ from the standard scales of the United States.
    When the strike was declared, the company wagons came, went into homes and hauled out all furniture, leaving the people in the streets. They then sought shelter in tents with what results I have described above.
The Ludlow massacre shows the intention of the mine owners. It shows that Colorado does not belong to the free United States, and it show that because there are thousands and thousands of miles of empty space, that because life is crude and uncivilized in the great canyons, the greedy are taking advantage of this, and using every method to gain their end.

Strikers' children at Ludlow - possibly with Helen Schloss

Colorado National Guard en route to massacre

Armed Strikers

I can find no record of Helen's activities over the next three years. Perhaps, she was radicalized even further by what she saw at Ludlow. Or perhaps she was sickened by the violence, and turned toward pacifism. What is known is that the Socialist Party and the IWW, with whom she had fought at Little Falls and elsewhere, was targeted for destruction by the Wilson administration. The US declaration of war against Germany served as a cover for a nationwide crackdown on labor organizers. The 1917 Espionage Act (which has been employed so heavily by the Obama administration against whistle blowers) was the legal justification for the arrest of socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood and many others.

Whatever her political views after Ludlow, Helen joined with the Quakers in a mission to Russia while war still raged in Europe. The last record I can find of her is in the Friends Intelligencer of June, 1918:

"Robert R. Tatlock, leader of the Friends Mission in Russia, will sail July 5 for Yokohoma on his way back to Russia. He is taking back with him two nurses who are native born Russians naturalized in this country. Their names are Helen Schloss and Ruth Hoffman, both of New York City. Their speaking knowledge of Russian and their training and experience will make them a very valuable addition to our staff of workers."

I am hopeful that readers may be able to provide more information on Helen Schloss after she left the United States. Perhaps she lost her life to disease or violence in Russia. Perhaps she returned to the U.S. and gave up her early radicalism. Or perhaps, as I imagine in The Red Nurse, she fell in love with Leon Trotsky and managed to survive the purges of Stalin, and the Nazi holocaust. I can be contacted at

Although Joe Hill is said to have written this song for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, it could as easily apply to the brave Helen Schloss. Here's a link to Hazel Dickens' version of the The Rebel Girl

Thanks to the researcher who posts as JayeRaye, who called my attention to the account of Helen Schloss in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. His ongoing series on labor history, Hellraisers Journal, can be found at Daily Kos.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Neither Rebel Nor Tory: Free promotion this week
To mark the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Oriskany this week, my 2007 novel of the events surrounding the battle will be offered as a free promotion from August 4-8, 2015.
As the fires of revolution broke out in 1775, the largely German settlers in the valley were among the strongest supporters of independence. Nicholas Herkimer, a wealthy landowner living near Little Falls, emerged as the leader of the local militia.  Even before independence was offically declared, the patriots had driven off to Canada hundreds of those who chose to side with King George III, including the powerful Johnson family.
In this emerging civil war, many families were split between loyalty to the King and the Republic proclaimed only a year earlier in Philadelphia, and this included Herkimer's own family. His brother Johann had joined the Tories and his nephew Hanyost (or Hon Yost)Schuyler was accused of treason and sentenced to be hanged.
My vision of Hanyost Schuyler, only 21 in 1777, is that his upbringing among the Mohawks near Little Falls gave him a deep affinity with native culture that made him resist taking part in the war on any side. Trapped in the middle of a battle he did not choose, Hanyost was uniquely placed to do what his uncle and no military force alone could do.
In my depiction, Hanyost is neither a traitor nor fool, but an intelligent young man with a profound knowledge of the Mohawk culture. It is this that gives the credibility to persuade the invaders that they will soon face a far larger force that the one actually assembled by Benedict Arnold at Fort Dayton. (present day Herkimer New York) In contrast to his neighbors, Hanyost is free from any taint of racism toward the original inhabitants and prefers their company to that of his fellow Palatine Germans. He is particularly close to the Mohawk girl, Ataentsic and her brother, Onatah.

In the summer of 1777, the royal government was eager to destroy the republic, planned an invasion that would bring the Tories and their Iroquois allies back into the valley in order to wreak a bloody vengeance. At the same time, a powerful force of British regulars under General John Burgoyne drove south from Montreal toward Albany.

Only a single fort protected the valley from the second force of invaders who would follow water routes south from the British base at Oswego, and that was the dilapidated Fort Stanwix. 

Interior of restored fort

exterior of restored fort, with dry moat

Colonel Peter Gansevoort,
American commander at Fort Stanwix

General Barry St. Leger,
commander of the British at Fort Stanwix

Barry St. Leger, a career officer in the British army, was promoted to general for purposes of the expedition he led south from Canada in July, 1777 as one prong of a triple attack designed to split and destroy the new American republic. A second prong, to be launched from occupied New York City, never took place, due to either to the British commander's lethargy or to a communications failure. The main force of 8000 troops, led south from Montreal by General James Burgoyne, was defeated at Saratoga a couple months after the events at Stanwix and Oriskany. American victory, and the independence it protected, may well have been due to the ignominious retreat of St. Leger from Fort Stanwix. But  this eventual victory was nowhere in sight as the mixed force of British soldiers, colonials who had joined the royal side, and a large force of allied Mohawk and Seneca warriors surrounded the fort.

Rome, NY today

Now at the center of the small city of Rome, the site of Fort Stanwix controlled the strategic point where the Mohawk River was only a couple miles from Wood Creek which led to Oneida Lake and other waterways  to the west.  The fort was built twenty years earlier duing the war with the French, but had fallen into disrepair by the time the Revolution broke out. Gansevoort and his force had made only partial repairs and had limited artillery when the British and their allies arrived from the west in late July.

The British had relied on small boats to carry them up the Black River from their gathering point at Oswego, down to Oneida Lake and up Wood Creek, now a small rivulet visible from bridges on West Dominick and West Liberty Streets. Gansevoort directed his men to fill in the Wood Creek channel with logs and debris, to block St. Leger's ability to bring up his artillery and heavier supplies. Despite these delaying tactics, Gansevoort's troops, along with many women and children, were soon surrounded in the fort, and fearful that they could not long withstand the siege. The murder and scalping of two girls as they gathered berries near the fort in the days before the battle,  let the besieged know that surrender was not an option.

View of Fort Stanwix restoration from
site of  the British lines in 1777
(present day East Dominick Street)

Bastion of the fort, with sentry box 

As the siege continued, Colonel Gansevoort sent out desperate appeals for help. With the new American Army under General Washington far to the south, only the local militia was able to respond. Assembling under  Nicholas Herkimer at Fort Dayton (now Herkimer, NY) this force of about a thousand men, joined by allies from the Oneida Nation, set off to rescue their countrymen. The amateur nature of this brave force was nowhere more evident than their rapid advance straight into a trap.

Oriskany Battlefield, site of the Military Road

On the morning of August 6, 1777, the militia were six miles east of the fort in a thick primeval forest that covered an area of low rises and ravines along the south bank of the Mohawk River, now accessible from state route 69 between Rome and Utica. As the militia trudged along a track in the woods, called the military road, they reached a ravine. Herkimer reportedly wanted to send out flanking scouts but was stung by accusations of cowardice from his unruly troops, eager to press on to Fort Stanwix. These accusations were sharpened by the fact that Herkimer's own brother Johann had joined the Tory(or Loyalist) Americans who comprised a large part of the force besieging Stanwix.

Whatever the reason, Herkimer led his men straight into the ravine where a mixed force of Tories and their Iroquois allies lay in ambush, under the leadership of Herkimer's former neighbor, the Mohawk war chief known to the whites as Joseph Brant. In the first volley Herkimer's leg was smashed and the militia suffered fearful losses. Retreating to a low rise above the ravine, Herkimer directed his men to form a circle and fight back. (Caught in the middle of the battle, Hanyost is finally forced to choose sides, relying on the Mohawk bow that is his only weapon.)
After a day of continuous battle amid the ancient trees, the American lost anywhere from 500 to 700 of their original force, their enemies considerably less. The militia retreated back to present day Herkimer, NY while St. Leger continued the siege.

The ravine where the militia was ambushed

The site from which Herkimer directed the battle

Herkimer directing his troops at Oriskany
(Painting by E.N. Clark,
courtesy Utica Public Library)

Thayendenega, also known as Joseph Brant,
 commanded Iroquois and Tory  forces at Oriskany
(painting by Glibert Stuart, courtesy
 of NYS Historical Association)

As the battered militia retreated from the scene of battle on the evening of August 4, 1777, the survivors must have feared that their struggle for independence was a futile and doomed effort. The only armed force protecting the settlements of the Mohawk Valley was now shattered, and Herkimer himself died of his wounds shortly after the battle. The only regular U.S. troops anywhere near were dug in near present day Saratoga, awaiting the advance of a formidable force of regular British soldiers and hired Hessian mercenaries, and under the command of General Philip Schuyler.

The defenders of Fort Stanwix, running low on food and ammunition, could not hold out for long and when the fort fell, St. Leger would surely unleash his allies on the unprotected settlements, stretchng east from near present day Utica to Schenectady. And the British would be free to attack the Continental army from two directions at once. The rich farmlands of the valley, which provided much of the food for Washington's army, would be in enemy hands, and defeat  of the independence movement would be only a matter of time. Britain's "counterinsurgency strategy" would have paid off.

What prevented this disaster? What saved our young republic from perishing only a year after its independence was proclaimed? For one answer, I recommend that you read Neither Rebel Nor Tory, free this week and $2.99 after the promotion ends on Thursday. (A paperback version is also available onAmazon for $19.99) As always, reader reactions are welcome at




Thursday, June 18, 2015

In the Forest of Tombolo

"In the Forest of Tombolo” is fiction inspired by the tales told by a native of Auburn, a veteran of the Second World War. At the time I knew John Squillace, he was near the end of his teaching career, a great story teller but a poor teacher by the standards of the 1970s. More than one principal at Monroe High School made an effort to fire him, but he fended them all off with repeated promises of retirement.

James Monroe High School in the Bronx

High school English teachers spend their lives immersed in works of literature, and second only to complaining about the administration or the students, their favorite topics of conversation are the great writers, from Shakespeare to Salinger. This is why I was so surprised that I knew John for years before he happened to mention his friendship with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and how he came to know Ezra Pound.

Black GI's in Italy, 1944

None of those big names mattered to John. The story that he told me was not about literature but about love, an all-consuming love for the woman he met in Italy during the closing days of the war. Michelina Colonna was herself the mother of one of the Beat poets, but she had abandoned her son as an infant and fled from an abusive husband back to Italy in the early 1930s. By the time John met her, he had deserted from the American army after witnessing a massacre and ended up with a group of renegades and deserters inhabiting a tract of wasteland near Pisa, the forest of Tombolo. The band consisted mostly of Black GI's who had deserted in the face of the overwhelming prejudice they faced in their own army. A number of Italian women, including Michelina, had joined them in the marshes and woods along the coast between Pisa and Livorno, and there was also a small camp of German soldiers left behind when their forces retreated northward. Together, this collection of outcasts survived as thieves and middle men in the thriving black market. When the outlaw camp was finally broken up by a raid led by American MPs and the local carabinieri, the story was front page news throughout Italy. (A 1948 film by Federico Fellini, "Senza Pieta," drew on these events at Tombolo in its depiction of the love between a Black American deserter and an Italian prostitute.)

Ezra Pound

At the same time, the American poet Ezra Pound was arrested for treason, having spent the war making broadcasts for Fascist Italy, and imprisoned under harsh circumstances at a detention center near Pisa. This is where John first met him, and as far as he was concerned, the poet's incoherent and deeply anti-Semitic ranting marked him as no more than an old madman. “Just plain nuts is how I saw him,” is what John said. Then a line of poetry emerged from the endless and vile monologue, words that brought to John's mind the woman he thought he had lost forever: “What thou lovest well remains, all the rest is dross.” Against orders, he spoke to the disgraced poet and came to know him as he was composing the “Pisan Cantos,” considered by many scholars as the best section of Pound's largely obscure grand opus.

An English teacher might be inclined to quote Shakespeare that “the course of true love never doth run smooth,” and that of Michelina and John certainly did not. He was sent to the Pacific, and then back home, and it was many years before he could afford to go back to Italy to find his lost love. Returning to the United States together, they searched in vain for the son she had abandoned. It was only after becoming friendly with a young Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and their fellow Beats that they found her son.

Allen Ginsberg in the early 1950s

 Jack Kerouac
It was when he told me about Michelina's son that I had to question John's story. He said that the boy's name was Gregory Corso, a protege of Allen's who became well known in the world of American poetry and died in 2001. The details John provided certainly correspond with Corso's life except when it came to the eventual reunion of mother and son. I cannot account for the discrepancy other than to think that the memory of Michelina was too painful for John to be completely honest about how their love ended.

Gregory Corso

I cannot provide any evidence for the accuracy of John's account of Pound at Pisa, or later at St. Elizabeth's mental hospital, but neither does anything he said contradict the historical record. His accounts of conversations with Allen and Jack Kerouac at the West End Bar, and at William S. Burrough's apartment in Greenwich Village, also correspond to what many others have reported of those days. The exception might be the quotations from Allen's “Howl” and Jack's “On the Road,” which literary researchers do not believe were written as early as John claims to have heard them. Perhaps both writers were already working on versions of those major works earlier than is generally believed.

Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in the 60s

A final note: John's occasional racism and homophobia reflect his upbringing but he was a man who overcame many of the limits of his early life. A high school dropout and a less than heroic soldier, he became a man capable of great love.

Seventy years after the events in this story, the swamps and woods of Tombolo are now an Italian nature preserve, still home perhaps to the ghosts of Caesar, Buffalo, Washington, Fritz, Concetta, Lucilla, Luigi, Michelina and John.

Excerpt from the novel: A scene in William S. Burroughs' apartment near Washington Square around 1951. Gregory Nunzio Corso has no idea that he is talking to the mother who abandoned him as an infant.

     When the hashish pipe made its rounds, I took a puff just to be sociable but she declined. I must have fallen asleep on the couch because when I came to, I saw Nunzio and Michelina sitting on the floor chattering away.
     “My old man is dead to me, the bastard,” he was saying. “He dumped me in a bunch of foster homes and only took me back in '41. He thought that if he had a kid living with him, they wouldn't draft him, but they did.”
     “Oh, poor boy. Who took care of you then?” she was leaning toward him, and I could see she was fighting hard not to throw her arms around him.
     “I was on my own. Tito at the Vesuvio bakery would give me bread every morning and the guys with the fruit carts gave me apples or oranges, and that kept me going. I went to school, as if nothing had happened. I got pretty good grades, too. The nuns loved me. But before long, the landlord kicked me out of the apartment. So, I slept on the subways and kept going to school. I became an altar boy just so I could sneak into the church at night and sleep there when it got cold.”
     I could see how his story was tearing Michelina apart, but he was so caught up in it that he didn't notice the effect he was having on her. Kids are like that, of course. Their own life is the biggest deal ever.
     “I'd never stolen anything at that point, and I only got into trouble when a man asked me to deliver a toaster for him. Somebody offered to buy it off me, and I took the deal because my clothes were so ragged they were falling off me. I bought myself a nice white shirt and a tie and went to see a movie. It was “The Song of Bernadette,” about the Blessed Mother appearing to a girl in France. Do you know that movie? You see, I was looking for a miracle too. I wanted to find my mother.”
     Michelina shook her head, and he continued without noticing her tears. She wiped them away as best she could.
      “The cops were waiting outside the theater and nabbed me for petty larceny. I was a thirteen year old kid, a good kid, but they threw me in the Tombs. I was in a cell with a maniac, a man who had killed his wife with a screw driver. I had nobody to put up the fifty bucks bail so I was locked away for two weeks with that nut, thinking every night would be my last. Finally, my old man's mother showed up but I couldn't take living with her, she was too quick with her hands, so I went back to sleeping on the subway. It must have been in the winter of '44 I started to sneak back into the school and sleep there. When the priest caught me, he blamed me for a string of thefts I never did and it was back to the Tombs. This time I was in such a panic I ended up in the psych ward at Bellevue.”
     “Your mother...I..” Michelina almost told him then and there that she was his mother, but he didn't catch on.
     “Yeah, by then I'd accepted that my mother was dead like my old man said she was. I was growing up and interested in girls. That's what got me into real trouble. I asked this girl out and since I needed decent clothes, I broke into a tailor shop on Orchard Street. The suit was too big for me but I put it on anyway and headed for the corner where I was going to meet the girl. We were keeping our date a secret from her parents because they thought I was a bum. Anyway, I didn't get three blocks before the cops grabbed me. This time, it was no more youthful offender status. With two priors, they gave me a three year sentence to Dannamora. You ever hear of it?”

“In the Forest of Tombolo” is available on Kindle for $2.99 and as a paperback for $9.95.