Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Red Nurse: Helen Schloss at the Ludlow Massacre

The Red Nurse will be available at a discounted price at Amazon Kindle from August 13-19, and $2.99 thereafter. The paperback is $9.99 at Amazon.

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

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 wildernesshill@gmail.com.

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 wildernesshill@gmail.com.




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.

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.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Sir William Johnson, The Iroquois, And The Catholic Highlanders – Champion Or Exploiter Of The Oppressed?

This post is by guest writer Helen Gaines.

There are a great many names which stand out in the history of upstate New York, all of which are worthy of considerable exploration. One of these is Sir William Johnson. An ambitious, grandiose, and eccentric man of ambivalent morals, he has made his mark not only on history but within popular culture. In 1993, he was played by Pierce Brosnan in the movie ‘The Broken Chain’, as a foil for the Iroquois heroes. He also features as a villain in the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ video game series [1]. During his time, he was considered a war hero by the British, and evidently (at least until his ambitions got the better of him) held in high esteem by the Iroquois. He also delighted the public with tales of his impetuously eccentric behavior – one account has him expressing his disapproval of another officer’s conduct by stripping naked and parading in front of him [2]. He was most famed, however, for his close relations with the Iroquois, and his prominent role in the settlement of many Catholic Scots families within upstate New York. However, whether he promoted these groups from pure motives or for exploitative ones remains a moot point…

Johnson And The Iroquois

Rather like T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence Of Arabia’) a couple of centuries later, Johnson has been viewed as the kind of semi-mythical colonial-native which the West adores. Tales about him are cut from the same cloth as the ‘Tarzan’ stories (Tarzan, of course, being a member of the English aristocracy) and ‘Dances With Wolves’ – tales in which the white man embeds himself in a ‘savage’ culture, excels at the ways of the natives even better then they themselves do, and ultimately saves the day. Plenty of stories about William Johnson have an uncomfortable tinge of the eternally popular ‘White Savior’ motif [3]. However, it cannot be denied that his conduct with the Iroquois nations, particularly his closest nation, the Mohawk, differed considerably to many approaches of the time. He made a point of learning their customs and ways of doing business, and was deemed useful enough to the Mohawk to be appointed an honorary sachem or civil chief. The Mohawk named him Warraghiyagey which, roughly translated, means ‘Man who accomplishes great things’. He was always careful to deal with the Mohawk according to the customs they preferred, and by all accounts his diplomatic dealings with them were faultless – so much so that he was appointed the British military and diplomatic embassy to them. Indeed, after he left the role, the Mohawk insisted that a faltering agreement with the British would only be upheld if Johnson were to be reinstated [4]. He also included Iroquois women in his numerous affairs.

 Sympathy For The Oppressed?

All of this would seem to paint a picture of a man more enlightened than others of his time, who respected the native way of life and acknowledged a certain indigenous sovereignty. Some have seen him as a kind of kindred spirit of the Iroquois – claiming that his background as a member of an ‘oppressed minority’ may have led him to sympathise with their plight. Notably, later in life he made a point of extending land to Catholic families in Scotland who were losing their land to sheep-farmers in much the same way that the Iroquois were losing their nation to Europeans. Johnson grew up as a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry – not a particularly oppressed group, until the caveat of their Roman Catholicism is taken into account. Roman Catholicism was a powerful force for those families which held it – the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness in particular providing a valuable kind of psychological security [5] denied to the increasingly self-punishing brand of American Protestantism.  At the time, Catholic powers had been making periodic attempts to take the throne of Britain and reinstate Catholicism to the place as National Religion that it had lost some two centuries beforehand. Johnson’s family had even sympathised with the latest attempt – the Jacobite Rebellion. As a consequence, to be Catholic was to be hated, derided, and denied opportunity within Britain. Johnson converted to Protestantism in order to advance his career – but it has been suggested that he retained his Catholic sympathies, and exercised them in his dealings with the Iroquois and the Catholic Highlanders. Whether or not this was true, only the man himself knew. He was vociferous in his defence of the Anglican church [6] against French Catholic attempts to build a place of worship in his town, but this may have had more to do with anti-French sentiment than with religious conviction.

Crafty Exploitation?

But was Johnson really a fair and rational sympathiser with the plight of oppressed peoples? Or was he rather more self-serving than that? It must be remembered that Johnson first came to an acquaintance with Iroquois culture in the pursuance of saleable resources like furs – resources which would ultimately make him rich. This pattern of dealing with the Iroquois only when he wanted something from them followed throughout his life. His main efforts involved persuading them to fight for the British – which he did with gusto and great success. Yet he also did so with notable grandiosity, effectively trying to assert sole control over Iroquois foreign affairs. After the war, his more dubious colors began to show through. Already a very wealthy man, he used his wheedling skills and royally-appointed position to charm, cajole, and threaten the Iroquois out of vast tracts of land. He subsequently became one of the largest landholders in the country. In this, many historians have pointed out that he acted no differently to any other man of his age [7] – but it is curious that a man painted as one so in touch with the Iroquois and thus knowledgeable of the spiritual value of the land they used should appropriate it for his own use in this manner. He even disobeyed the rules of an official Royal Proclamation which sought to restrict the amount of land taken from native groups – and pushed the boundaries of the ‘no settlement zone’ 400 miles west, enabling him and like-minded settlers to grab much more land than even the British Crown approved of. All of this speaks of a man who charmed the Iroquois more for his own sake rather than for theirs. Which brings us to the matter of the Catholic Highlanders.

Tribal Diplomacy

The tale of the Catholic Highlanders can be told in two ways: 1) William Johnson saw that Catholics and Jacobins such as his own family were suffering from shameful oppression in their native land, and invited them over to America, where he provided them with land and a living. 2) William Johnson saw a group of desperate people with tribal leanings he knew he could exploit, and imported them as a tame workforce over which he could lord it. It is doubtful that even the Catholic Highlanders themselves could have told you the truth of the matter. Certainly Johnson invited over the disparate Scots, and certainly he leased them land. He also helped them to improve their land and their stock. But many historians believe that he chose this group of people not because of any cultural sympathy, but because they would be isolated culturally and linguistically from all others surrounding them in America (thus making them more reliant upon him), and because they were already inured with a Georgian-British-style biddable nature towards feudal lords [8]. He became very rich off the rent they paid him, and his practice of using African slaves indicates that he was not averse to using human labor in an exploitative manner.

A Cultural Chameleon

Just as he did with the Iroquois, Johnson used the cultural characteristics of the Scots Highlanders to get what he wanted. He pandered to their traditions, throwing ceilidhs and banquets with one hand and raising the rent with the other. What he seemed to have been very good at was a cultural-chameleon act. He managed to identify and isolate groups which were in need of help, and convince them by mimicking their own cultures that he could help them. He helped himself greatly in so doing. However, whatever the motive, the end result was the same: the Iroquois got a measure of respect under Johnson’s tenure as ambassador to them – much more than they had enjoyed before or would enjoy after in their dealings with Europeans. The Catholic Highlanders got a place to live, and a way in which to preserve their language and culture. Unfortunately, after Johnson’s death, the situation for both groups worsened. Sir William’s son, John Johnson, had none of the diplomatic skill of his father. He was arrogant, and lordly – and ill-suited for warfare. He exhorted the Catholic Highlanders to arm themselves for the loyalist cause during the American Revolution, but his command proved disastrous. Sir John’s conduct during the war meant that the region became highly suspect to the Patriots, and most of the Highland families fled piecemeal to Canada over the course of the War and its immediate aftermath (as did Sir John). As for the Iroquois – well, their diminished state today demonstrates how they fared after the death of William Johnson.

[1] Ubisoft, Assassin’s Creed

[3] David Sirota, “Oscar loves a white savior” , Salon, 2013

[4] Timothy J Shannon, “Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier”, penguin Books, Jun 2009

[5] Arthur P Ciaramicoli, “The Heart Of Forgiveness”, Recovery.org, Mar 2015

[6] Alan Taylor, “The Collaborator”, New Republic, Sept 2006

[7] Julian Gwyn, “Johnson, Sir William”, Dictionary Of Canadian Biography

[8] J.P MacLean, “Settlements of Scotch Highlanders in America”, First pub; Royal Society, 1900. Retrieved Electric Scotland 2015

Johnson Hall in Johnstown is a New York State Historic Site and Sir William's earlier home, known as Old Fort Johnson in Amsterdam NY is a National Historic Site. Both are well worth visiting. If you are touring the area, also be sure to stop at Fort Klock in nearby St. Johnsville. A little farther west, the old Indian Castle Church near Little Falls is all that remains of the Mohawk village where Sir William's beloved Molly Brant and her brother, the war chief Joseph Brant, lived. Nearby is the Herkimer Home, the well preserved residence of General Nicholas Herkimer who was fatally wounded while fighting the British and Iroquois led by Sir John Johnson at the battle of Oriskany.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Fordham students in Mexico, 1967



“Her Name Was Margarita” is inspired by a series of events involving Fordham College students in the summer of 1967, and of one girl who was captured by an experience, perhaps a vision, that led her away from the joys of youth and love that so many in her generation were celebrating. Her name, you could say, was Margarita.

In the late 1960s the University launched a social service program in Mexico, which grew into the university's present Global Outreach Program. The Mexico Project began with the arrival of a few idealistic students in the village of Potrero not far from Vera Cruz. The town was chosen by Father Medellin, a Fordham professor and native of the town whose family ran the local sugar mill. Over time, their mission became more clearly defined, but in the early years they were often on their own.

The tale is a work of fiction inspired by those events, and the characters are composites of the students who came to Potrero. The students of the Mexico Project were distinctly Catholic and although they were often as opposed to the Viet Nam war as the rest of their generation, it was the teachings of their church that inspired them. They may have tutored in the Bronx ghetto or worked with the homeless in the Bowery, but the S.D.S. had not yet appeared on campus and no one had occupied the president's office. Fordham in 1967 was not Columbia.

The narrator of this story meets Margarita at one of the huge antiwar marches in Manhattan, but most of their fellow students back on campus were still devoted to the ROTC, and dreaming of careers with the CIA or FBI. She and her friends are among the first female students at Fordham, sharing classes with the boys but part of a distinct program then known as Thomas More College. She has recently transferred from Marymount but is restless in the conservative environment of her new school.

The tale's narrator falls in love with her at first sight, and together they join the Mexico Project. At Potrero they discover that their host, Padre Guillermo, believes the boys to be engineering students and sets them to work rebuilding his church. Only when one of its walls has been demolished, with the aid of enthusiastic local men, does it become clear that no one knows what they are doing. The girls, who were expected to act as nurses at the town clinic, have as little idea of what to do.

Margarita, whose mother is Cuban, speaks fluent Spanish and takes charge of organizing English classes, to be taught by the girls. The boys, in the meantime, take on projects requiring less skill, building foundations for new houses and repairing footbridges across the river that divides the town.

And then things begin to change. The narrator discovers what he believes to be the ruins of an ancient city. In the course of exploring a tunnel into what may have been an ancient pyramid, Margarita encounters something that she cannot explain. A local woman tells her that she is a “bruja,” a witch or, to be more precise, a kind of shaman and attributes mysterious healing powers to her. Margarita is drawn back to the ruins, unable to say why, seeking something she cannot name.

In the course of a fierce storm and flood that nearly drowns the town, she disappears, only to be found after a desperate search.  And then she disappears once more.

Her Name Was Margarita” is available only on Kindle.

(originally published as "Mi Nombre Es Margarita")

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Nearly forgotten Revolutionary War Battlefields near Herkimer, NY


After the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777, and the enemy's retreat from Fort Stanwix, the patriots never again faced a major force in upstate New York, but the war continued as Iroquois and Tory raiders launched bloody hit-and-run raids on the less defended settlements and farmsteads. A regular force of the Continental Army was stationed at Fort Dayton (located near the court house in Herkimer) and conducted patrols into the surrounding country in a search for these raiding parties. In May, 1780 Lieutenant Solomon Woodworth led a company on one such patrol and fell into an ambush. In his 1856 “History of Herkimer County,” Judge Nathaniel Benton describes the battle:

 Having proceeded a few hours on the march, an Indian was discovered who was immediately fired upon, when the rangers found themselves involved in an inextricable ambuscade, and completely surrounded by an Indian force double their own numbers. The conflict that followed was severe and sanguinary, as might well have been expected from the character of the combatants engaged, and a hand to hand fight left but fifteen of the Americans, who escaped to tell the sad fate of their brethren. Some of this party were taken prisoners, but Woodworth and about half of his men were killed on the spot.

This fatal encounter took place about three miles north of Herkimer village, on the east side of the West Canada creek, in a deep ravine, where now may be seen the mound of earth, under rest the remains of the gallant Woodworth and his brave companions. The killed, it appears, were all collected and buried in one common grave, unshrouded and uncoffined, with no monument to tell where rest the brave but unfortunate defenders of American liberty.”

Although the mound -if there was one- marking the final resting place of these heroes has vanished, a monument was erected in 1959 on Smith Road north of Shells Bush Road (County Route 94), on the left when traveling north. (Milo Smith lived on this road and made a hobby of carving circus figures. His replicas of the Sautelle Circus Boats, which traveled from town to town of the Erie Canal, are exhibited at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts)

Note: Although Benton believed that the slain were buried near where they fell, it appears that Lt. Woodworth and Sgt. Phelps were buried at Mayfield. This site also describes his earlier heroism in that area.

map courtesy of Herkimer County Historical Society
Another tragic and nearly forgotten battle took place a year later at a blockhouse built by the Schell family a few miles away. The site was near the present-day Shells Bush Road which intersects Route 169 between Little Falls and Middleville. Johann Christian Schell was a veteran of the battle at Oriskany and clearly a man of exceptional courage. Benton describes his response to the raiders:

    “On the 6th of August, 1781 a German settlement called Shell's Bush, three or four miles north of Fort Dayton, was visited by a party of these formidable asserters of the rights of the crown. Donald McDonald, a Scotch refugee from Johnstown, with a party of about sixty Indians and Tories, with whom was Empie and Cassleman, two famous traitors, the latter being the same man who was with the party that attacked Rheimensnyder's bush in April, 1780, made their appearance in the Shell settlement in the afternoon of the above day, when most of the inhabitants had retired to Fort Dayton, for protection. Some indications of this hostile movement must have been previously discovered, or the inhabitants would not have sought the protection of the fort. There was, however, one man, John Christian Shell, the husband of a brave and resolute wife, and the father of six sons, who determined to brave out the storm, let come what would. He had a strong blockhouse on his farm, well constructed for purposes of defense against marauding parties of Tories and Indians; and he resolved to fight rather than run. The first story of logs had no openings except a doorway or entrance, well protected by a massive door, and loopholes through which the besieged could fire upon their assailants. The floor of the second story projected over the lower part of the building, and had apertures in the projecting floor, affording ample means of annoying the enemy who might approach the building to fire it or break open the door below. Shell had a good supply of arms and ammunition to stand an ordinary siege. When the enemy made their appearance, Shell and his sons were in the field at work, but his two youngest, being twins only eight years old, were so far off he could not save them when he retired to his blockhouse, and they were taken and carried to Canada. Having gained his castle and secured the entrance, Shell and his little garrison were resolute and alert, and kept up a spirited fight from two o'clock until dark. Some of the incidents are worthy of particular notice. Shell's wife was active in loading the pieces fired by her husband and four sons. McDonald several times attempted to set fire to the building, but failed. His men were several times compelled to retreat, in consequence of the galling fire received from the party in the blockhouse, McDonald made an effort to force the door with a crowbar, but was wounded in the leg while so engaged, and none of his party being near enough to rescue him, Shell did not hesitate a moment to unbar the door and drag the wounded Tory leader into his fortress. This capture not only secured Shell against being burnt out by the enemy, but afforded an ample supply of ammunition to the little garrison, whose stock was becoming rather short. To save his life, McDonald gave up his cartridges to be used against his followers. A short respite took place between the belligerents, but the enemy returned and made a vigorous effort to take the blockhouse by assault. They came up to the walls and thrust the muzzles of their pieces through the loopholes, when Madam Shell by a blow upon five of them with an axe, rendered them useless; this being followed by several deliberate shots from the little garrison, compelled the assailants to retire to a respectful distance. Just at dark, Shell practiced a little stratagem which induced the enemy to suppose that troops were approaching from Fort Dayton, whereupon they fled to the woods, taking with them Shell's two little sons. After providing for the Tory commander in the best manner they could, the family started for the fort, which they reached in safety. Some of McDonald's Indians visited him, after the family went away, but finding he could not be removed, they left him to the mercy of the Americans, with the message to Shell that the welfare of his little boys depended on the treatment bestowed on McDonald. The wounded prisoner was taken to the fort the next day, when his leg was amputated. The enemy's loss on the ground was quite severe, eleven killed and six wounded. The little boys, on their return after the war, stated that nine out of twelve wounded which the enemy started with, died before they reached Canada.

In the following year Shell and two of his sons, being at work in the field not far from his blockhouse, were fired upon by a party of Indians secreted in a wheat field, and he was dangerously wounded. The sons remained with their father until a party from the fort came to their relief. One of the sons was, however, shot dead and the other wounded, before the guard arrived. John Christian Shell did not long survive his wounds, and thus closed the life of a brave and resolute man and a pure and devout Christian. During the short cessation in the attack on the blockhouse, Shell addressed his Maker in a hymn of deliverance from peril, used by the early German reformers.

The Shellsbush settlement is on what is usually called Gens Purchase, embracing perhaps some portion of the Royal Grant, and it will be observed that the name of Shell, Schel or Shaul does not occur among the patentees of Burnet field, nor is the name found in the list of Palatines remaining in New York, or taken to Livingston Manor, of the first two companies that emigrated. Enough is still known of him to authorize the conclusion that he was a German Lutheran, and he or his ancestors may have come over with the third body of immigrants in 1722, or at a later period. The singularly rude and unharmonious account of Shell's conflict with the Tories and Indians, contained in Campbell's Annals of Tryon county, has contributed very much to keep that event fresh in the recollection of the descendants of his German neighbors.”

The site of Schell's blockhouse was commemorated by a monument erected by the Daughters of the American revolution in 1908. The site is on private land a couple miles east of the intersection of Smith Road and Shells but I am not sure if the monument is still there.

Judge Benton's history is a very rare book but the entire text  may be read at Google Books. In addition I have made available an abridged version at $5.45 in paper and free as an e-book.

Those who are interested in fictional treatments of the Revolutionary War in the Mohawk Valley may be interested in my "Neither Rebel nor Tory," the story of Hanyost Schuyler and his critical role in breaking the siege of Fort Stanwix. Judge Benton, who played such a large role in the development of Little Falls, makes an appearance in my tale of the Underground Railroad, "Greater Love."