Saturday, November 5, 2016

"Tales from the Rock City" by Helen Schloss, 1913

 

 
 

Thanks to the efforts of Little Falls native Bill Simpson, a series of thirteen articles by the public health nurse and labor activist Helen Schloss is being made available at low cost, or free, to the public. Bill is the great-grandson of Irving Stacey who founded the Little Falls Felt Shoe Company in 1905.

Writing for The New York Call in 1913, Schloss describes the horrendous conditions then existing in the working class slums of the town. At that time Little Falls was home to at least twice its present population, with foreign-born immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe living in extremely crowded housing on the south side of the Mohawk River, which was itself literally an open sewer. Not only did industrial waste flow unchecked into the river but toilets were located directly over the water in many cases. Workers slept in shifts in the slums and small children did piece work for the mills in their living quarters. Schloss decries the wasteful spending of the rich mill owners on the new YMCA on Jackson Street while mothers died of untreated infections on the other side of town. She was particularly affected by the fate of a small girl who fell to her death in a terribly crowded tenement.

The Russian-born Schloss came to Little Falls in April of 1912, was hired by a group of wealthy women to address the ongoing tuberculosis epidemic among the poor. She soon developed a disdain for “the good ladies” when her struggle for better housing and safer working conditions met with obstruction from their husbands. She describes her discouragement as she realizes that the workers simply cannot follow her advice on how to avoid disease., and felt that she had become only “a fad for the ladies.” By the time strike spontaneously broke out that Fall, she was isolated from both her wealthy employers and the poor whom she was so desperate to help. Shocked by Police Chief Long’s observation that all of the strikers “ought to be shot,” she helps to organize a soup kitchen, only to be jailed for inciting to riot. After two weeks in the Herkimer County lock-up, she returns to the battle which finally ended in January, 1913 with modest pay increases for the strikers.
 
Helen Schloss and the Little Falls strikers in jail
 
The articles which the young nurse wrote for the socialist newspaper provide a very individual look at the life of factory workers of a century ago. Helen Schloss is quite candid about her own doubts and weaknesses while offering very vivid descriptions of the people and environments she encounters. She later went on to join the labor battles in Paterson, New Jersey and Ludlow, Colorado. The last record of her is from 1919 when she went to Bolshevik Russia as part of a Quaker medical mission.

The Helen Schloss who appears in her own words is, in my view, only slightly different from the version of her I imagined in my 1912 novel of the strike, The Red Nurse. Her stay in the Herkimer County jail was much longer – two weeks- than I described it in the novel. If anything, she downplays her leadership role in these pages, failing to mention her part in the speaking tour with Big Bill Haywood which is well documented elsewhere.


Interestingly, she also fails to mention the key role of the other female strike leader. Matilda Rabinowitz, who similarly did not mention Helen in her own narrative, included as an appendix to The Red Nurse. The two young women were the same age, were both Russian Jewish immigrants, shared similar politics, and both went on to other labor battles of the era – but perhaps they had some kind of rivalry or simply did not get along.



 
 
 
 
My fictional version of the same events in The Red Nurse  is available at Wilderness Hill Books and Amazon paperback and kindle.
 
 
 
 
A much more fictionalized version of Helen also appears  in Mr. Dolge's Moneypublished this month on Amazon kindle. After fighting in the IWW battles at Paterson, New Jersey and Ludlow, Colorado, Helen joined a Quaker medical mission to Russia in 1919 and there is no  record of her after that point - In this novel she is imagined as finding a new career as a Comintern agent whose humanity soon marks her as an enemy of the Bolsheviks who so quickly subverted the socialist dream.












 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Mr. Dolge's Money: a new historical novel



Mr.Dolge’s Money is a new novel loosely inspired by the final years of Alfred Dolge, the visionary founder of Dolgeville, New York. The historical Alfred Dolge was much influenced by his father, Christian, who was imprisoned for his part in the anti-monarchist uprisings of 1848. As a youth Alfred’s thinking was also guided by his father’s friend, Wilhelm Leibknecht, founder of the German Socialist Party. By the time he arrived in the United States in 1866, Alfred had already imbibed the stirring but contradictory ideas of Karl Marx and Adam Smith.

He came to what was then known as Brocketts Bridge in 1874, committed to building a utopian society that combined his highest ideals with a profitable business. Over the next twenty-four years, he build an industrial village founded primarily on the manufacture of pains and piano components but also including an autoharp factory and extensive lumber holdings. He also back Daniel Green in creating the shoe and slipper company that was a major employer in the area until 1999. Although Dolge provided a very good life for himself and his family, he never lost sight of his goal of improving the lives of his workers, many of whom he imported from Germany. The old age pensions he offered to his workers led him to credited as a forerunner of Social Security on that agency’s website. He also provided sick benefits, life insurance and profit-sharing far exceeded those available to American workers today, However, in 1898 his entire financial complex collapsed and he declared bankruptcy. For more on this intriguing history, see my short biography of Alfred Dolge or visit the Dolgeville-Manheim Historical society.

The novel takes up where this history ends and explores the implications of Dolge’ s ideas on a stage far larger than the small village at the edge of the Adirondack forests. One of the main characters is a fictional grandson who grows up in Venezuela where Dolge’s son Rudolf has gone after giving to his father’s enemies a power of attorney which they used to destroy everything he had built. Another leading character is Helen Schloss whom some readers may know from The Red Nurse or her own series of articles on the 1912 Little Falls strike, published recently as Tales from the Rock City.

Dolge’s grandson, known both as Jose and Joseph, is dispatched by the elderly Mr. Dolge to Europe as soon as the first world war ends in order to access funds secretly hidden during the debacle of 1898. In the resulting struggle for this money, Joseph becomes caught up in the beginnings of the Red Terror in Russia and fierce warfare between communist and fascist factions from Berlin to Barcelona. With the old monarchies in collapse, Joseph finds that the ideas of Karl Marx and Adam Smith which inspired his grandfather’s benevolent policies have become a pretext for unimaginable violence. Beset by treachery on every side, he sees Rosa Luxembourg murdered and is held prisoner by a crazed band of anti-Semites who will become the leaders of the Nazi party. His survival depends on women whose motivations he cannot understand, the Comintern agent and former I.W.W. agitator Helen Schloss and the Nazi mystic Maria Orsic.




Mr. Dolge’s Money is available exclusively on Kindle for $2.99.



Among the historical figures and events in the novel:

Teffi, the Russian humorist and writer
who helped Joseph flee from the Bolsheviks

The Spartacist uprising in Berlin, 1919
 
Erich von Ludendorff, an early supporter of the Nazis
 
Maria Orsic, a fortune-teller and mystic
popular with the early Nazis
 
Prince Rupprecht and Princess Antonia of Bavaria
 
Neuschwanstein Castle where Joseph is imprisoned

 IWW activist Helen Schloss
who disappeared in Russia in 1919
 
Anarchist fighter in Barcelona, 1937

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Crown Prince of Dolgeville

An excerpt from current work in progress: An historical novel inspired by the life and family of Alfred Dolge




     On a bright morning in March of 1893 when the fields and pastures were still covered with snow, two boys climbed high on the leafless branches of a maple tree and scanned the southern horizon. When they heard the steady huffing of a steam engine and saw a plume of smoke rounding the hills, they shouted to the crowd waiting in High Falls Park. “The train is coming! They're here!”
   “Ach, the crown prince of Dolgeville has brought home a bride,” declared a bearded old man, speaking in heavily accented English.
  “You must be indeed proud of your grandson,” replied the slender and younger man on whose arm the old man leaned. Then he added with a mischievous smile: “Though I cannot share your monarchical views, sir. Are you certain that you are the same Christian Dolge who fought on the barricades in 1848?”
    “You young rascal!” growled Christian Dolge. “I was there and so was your father, the bravest man of us all!”
    “I cannot wait to tell him of all that Alfred has built here in the New World.” The younger man smiled and took off his pince-nez, wiping the lenses. Karl Liebknecht had arrived in Dolgeville a week earlier on his tour of the United States and had spent much more time with Alfred Dolge's father than with the industrialist himself. His father's old pupil had barely a minute to spare from his busy schedule of supervising the felt mill, the autoharp shop, the piano manufactory, and the school board – not to mention second-guessing his wife on every detail of the approaching wedding ceremonies for his oldest son and his bride.

 Karl Leibknecht


Christian Dolge


    Karl was not disappointed to have the time with Christian. Even if he had mellowed in the decades since he and Bakunin had raised the red flag in Dresden, the old radical was still an inspiration in many ways. For one, he had actually known Marx in his youth before he had even written the Manifesto or put together the massive edifice of Kapital. The old man had paid a heavy price for his heroism, and spent years in the dungeons of the mad Bavarian king..
    At twenty-two, Karl Leibknecht had just completed service with the Imperial Guards and would begin his legal studies in Leipzig after returning to his homeland. This journey to America represented a small rebellion against his father's plans for him, one that would pass as quickly as his brief infatuation with the trappings of monarchy. As he listened to the tales of his father's old comrade, Karl's resolve to follow the revolutionary path was strengthened. And already he was beginning to doubt the efficacy of his father's decision to found a socialist party and work for a better future only within the confines of Bismarck's tightly controlled Reichstag.
    In his mid seventies, Christian Dolge's materialism was now more focused on zoology and botany than economics, and he delighted in showing off the menagerie that surrounded the sturdy home his son had built for him on the edge of the village. Prairie dogs, coyotes, raccoons and even an eagle could be viewed in their cages along the roadway beside the creek. Nearby was a five acre fenced area for deer, peacocks and a variety of wild local fowl. A den on the cliff above the creek contained a high wall that prevented, for the most part, wandering by the old man's beloved bears, Schnippsal and Schnappsal. At the foot of an adjacent hill, three fishponds were filled with trout, bass and bullheads – and the village children were welcomed to cast their lines at any time except during school hours
    To Karl, Dolgeville represented a model of what all of Germany, all the world in fact, could be once the socialist revolution was achieved. Thanks to Alfred's keen sense of business, well-paid work was provided for all. Even more, workers became eligible for old age pensions and sick leave funded by what was, in effect, a tax on their incomes. Every child was guaranteed a free education in the excellent public school he had built. Dissatisfied with the abilities of the typical, poorly paid American teachers, he doubled and tripled the salaries for teachers, thereby attracting well educated normal school graduates. In the company of Old Christian, Karl had visited the school and was particularly impressed by the charming kindergarten, an institution developed in Germany but hitherto unknown in the United States.
    “This village is a living illustration of what Marx meant by surplus value!” he exclaimed to the old man as they stepped out of the high school where a German lesson was in progress. “This is what can happen when the true value produced by workers is directed to the betterment of all instead of being diverted into the wasteful extravagances of the owner class.”
    “I agree with you, young man,” returned Christian with a sly smile. “But surely you have observed that my son also provides very well for himself and his family, have you not? Do you think that Karl Marx would approve?”
    Taken aback for a moment, Karl hesitated before answering. “Yes, I could not help but notice your son's fine mansion and of course I know of his annual trips to Europe, having met him on more than one occasion in my father's humble house. I confess, with respect, that I was concerned by the difference in wealth between your family and that of the workers. It seems at first...not truly socialist.”
    “And what is your verdict on our little utopia?”
    “In all honesty, I do not think your utopia could exist at all had not Alfred taken on himself the role and accoutrements of a capitalist. It is, unfortunately, what workers and particularly the German workers who come here, expect. They cannot imagine a successful industry without a boss, or a successful nation for that matter.”
    “I agree with you,” said the old man in great seriousness. “If this town were governed by a collective of workers, it would quickly dissolve into factions. I see how the workers of Dolgeville function when given a voice on the school board or in decisions regarding new parks and other improvements. Perhaps in the far future, after generations of careful education, workers will be able to govern themselves, but for now they need a strong hand.”
    “What Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat?”
    “No, the dictatorship of one very skillful man who is fully committed to the betterment of his people.”
   "But sir, even if I concede that your son is uniquely equipped to design and operate this small society, what future could it have in the long run? Who in the future could fulfill the role of dictator as he has done, taking just enough of the common wealth to maintain his position without falling victim to the greed of a Carnegie or Morgan?”
    “Perhaps the crown prince? Der Kronprinz?” the old man mused, puffing at his pipe.
   “His son Rudolf?” Karl shook his head. “Have we socialists truly come to a point where we must return to monarchy in order to attain our goals? There, sir, I find we must disagree.”
This conversation was much in Karl's mind as he and his elderly companion awaited the arrival of what could only be called the royal pair. He had been dismayed to learn that Alfred had hired a special train to bring Rudolf, his bride Anna and all their friends up from New York City. The costs, he calculated, must be astronomical and could in no way be justified by a need to maintain the necessary “dictatorship” of Dolge. It was, he had to admit, exactly the kind of wasteful gesture typical of the worst of the plutocrat class.
    Karl guided his companion to the open air pavilion where the rest of the welcoming committee and honored guests had assembled. The usually very sober Alfred Dolge could not conceal the intensity of his joy and kept turning to whisper into the ear of his wife, the stately Anna. By her side stood Dolge's great friend, one of the chief financiers of the newly completed Little Falls & Dolgeville railroad, Judge George Hardin. He was exchanging a comment with another of Dolge's business associates, Schuyler Ingham. In keeping with what Dolge's enemies called his “atheism,” the wedding ceremony was to be a civil one, and performed by Judge Hardin.
    As the train came into view, Karl observed that it was draped in colorful bunting and banners, one of which proclaimed in huge red letters: “This is the Dolge Wedding Party.” Glancing about, Karl did not see that anyone but he disapproved of such showiness. Even the money men, Hardin and Ingham, seemed completely overjoyed at the sight of the gaudy train and whooped with laughter to see the young people hanging off the sides of it, shouting their greetings.
   The wedding ceremony itself was brief as could be, taking place before a packed crowd in the Turnhalle, the great opera house that Dolge had built for his workers. The day had been proclaimed a sort of national holiday and the many hundreds of workers and their families who could not fit into the theater stood outside and cheered so loudly that the exchange of vows could not be heard more than a few feet away. As soon as the binding words were said, Rudolf and Anna stepped outside and waved to the throng, provoking more displays of enthusiasm. Then they returned to the bower of flowers erected on the stage and sat down to listen to speeches by the groom's father, his grandfather, Judge Hardin and too many other people for Karl to count. The young German was sure that the jewels that glittered on her dress were truly diamonds and pearls. And there was no doubt in his mind that the six fabulously gowned bridesmaids were each the daughter of some American millionaire. 
    A great quantity of food and drink was served, and not only to invited guests. The whole village lined up in the tents where tables were piled high with roast beef and steins of beer. What passed in America for a genuine German band began to play and soon the working people and the silk-hatted millionaires were dancing together with the greatest glee Perhaps, the young German thought to himself, such displays truly are necessary in order to cement the relationship between the people and their socialist leaders. 
    “Who can predict,” he said to a workman named Krebs, “what direction the revolutionary spirit will take in the new century?”
    “Who, indeed?” answered Krebs, reaching for another stein of fine German lager.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

New glimpses of the Little Falls strike leader, Matilda Rabinowitz, aka Matilda Robbins





I recently discovered a number of photos of Matilda Rabinowitz (aka Matilda Robbins) at the Walter Reuther Labor Library at Wayne State University, posted last year by an “eclemens.” Matilda was a labor organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World who played a key leadership role, along with Helen Schloss, in the Little Falls Textile Strike of 1912. Those unfamiliar with that struggle of the largely women workers of a century ago can see The Red Sweater Girls of 1912 or my novel based on the strike, The Red Nurse. The novel includes a chapter from Matilda's unpublished memoir shared with me by her granddaughter, Robbin Legere Henderson. 





One of the photos at the Reuther library shows Matilda at work during the Little Falls strike, probably in the old Sokol Hall on Flint Avenue which served as the strike headquarters.



Another photo shows Matilda with her younger brother Herman, possibly in their hometown of Bridgeport Connecticut.





Here is Matilda after being arrested for strike activities in Detroit, perhaps at the Studebaker or Ford plants. 





These photos show Matilda with strikers from the Fort Pitt Steel Casings Co. in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.



A group portrait of participants in the 1913 IWW convention in Chicago shows Matilda, the woman on the right.

The Reuther site has this note on Matilda in a 2015 article, also by "eclemens," entitled “On The Women of the Industrial Workers of the World.”



The poet, feminist, and activist Matilda (Rabinowitz) Robbins was an early organizer and a lifelong advocate and writer for the One Big Union. She first became involved with the I.W.W. during the Lawrence Strike as a volunteer, and later proved her mettle during the Little Falls Textile Strike where she became the central strike organizer after the other organizers were jailed. For 14 weeks she ran the strike office, organized the daily picket lines and strike kitchen, arranged for legal aid for the jailed workers, and recruited support, with the help of fellow I.W.W. member Helen Schloss. For three years following she traveled the country, organizing textile workers in the East and autoworkers in Detroit, where she was jailed for her activities. 


The Matilda Robbins Papers, contain personal writings, photographs, and clippings and are a tremendous resource toward understanding the philosophies of an early women’s rights activist.


The IWW – which still exists today – has this description of Matilda in a piece on IWW women  by Autumn Gonzalez, Nicholas DeFilippis and Donal Fallon:


As a young woman, Matilda Rabinowitz traveled the country with the IWW supporting organizing drives and striking workers. She may be best known for her participation in the Little Falls textile strike of 1912, where she was able to gain the trust and confidence of a diverse group of mainly immigrant workers, rebuild the organizing committee, and reform a completely female strike and picket line. While the long battle with the mill in upstate New York dragged along, Rabinowitz organized for the children of strikers to be housed by IWW-sympathetic families in neighboring communities, which prompted further community support for the mostly-female strikers. She also lead a legal defense fund for arrested strikers, going on a months long speaking tour for those who were arrested in the battle at the mill, raising money and awareness for the effort. Her leadership was key in the strike’s successful conclusion.




Rabinowitz wound her way  from upstate New York to Michigan, where her soapbox speeches began drawing lunchtime crowds of 3,000 at a Ford plant, causing Ford officials to abolish lunch privileges. Ford also had Rabinowitz and four other IWW organizers arrested for their activities, but the damage was done, and autoworkers in the area took the IWW messages to heart. Workers at a nearby Studebaker plant began organizing and calling for the eight-hour day and weekly paychecks—rather than the bi-monthly paychecks that they were receiving—held a combined skilled and unskilled walkout on June 17, 1913. This action, considered to be the first major strike at a U.S. auto plant,  not have occurred without Rabinowitz’s work. The fire spread to a nearby Packard plant, where workers were attacked by police, but in the end concessions were won on the paycheck issue, although the eight-hour day would wait. The IWW would not gain a foothold in the auto industry, but it proved to the union movement that both skilled and unskilled workers in one industry could work together in one union to fight the boss.






Wednesday, May 4, 2016

"Her Name was Margarita" now available in Spanish



Thanks to translation assistance from "Guaco" Fernandez, we are now able to offer Her Name was Margarita in a Spanish edition, available in the U.S. at only 99 cents and at a comparable price in Mexico. Most of the story occurs in Mexico, in the village of Potrero in the province of Vera Cruz, and we look forward to hearing from Spanish-speaking readers who may be familiar with some of the figures and settings found in the story.

Below is a description of Su nombre era Margarita in Spanish, followed by a link to a description of the English version published last year.

     Esta historia está inspirada en una serie de eventos que involucran a los estudiantes universitarios en el legendario verano de 1967, en particular, una niña que fue capturado por una experiencia, tal vez una visión, que la llevó a dar siempre las alegrías de la juventud y el amor que tantos en su generación estaban celebrando. A finales de 1960 la Universidad de Fordham puso en marcha un programa de servicio social en México, que se convirtió en el presente de la universidad Programa de Alcance Mundial. El Proyecto México comenzó con la llegada de unos pocos estudiantes idealistas en la localidad de Potrero no muy lejos de la Vera Cruz. Con el tiempo, su misión se hizo más claramente definida, pero en los primeros años eran a menudo por su propia cuenta.
    Los estudiantes del Proyecto México eran claramente católica y aunque a menudo eran tan opuestos a la guerra de Viet Nam, como el resto de su generación, era las enseñanzas de su iglesia que los inspiró. Pueden haber tutelado en el gueto Bronx o trabajado con las personas sin hogar en el Bowery, pero no los radicales reales no habían aparecido en el campus y nadie había ocupado la oficina del presidente. Fordham en 1967 no era de Columbia o la Sorbona.


    El narrador de esta historia se reúne Margarita en una de las enormes marchas contra la guerra en Manhattan, pero la mayoría de sus compañeros de estudios de espalda en el campus conservadora todavía se dedicaron a los valores tradicionales de su iglesia y la familia, y el sueño solamente de carreras sólidas, burgueses. Ella y sus amigos se encuentran entre los primeros estudiantes de sexo femenino en Fordham, compartiendo clases con los niños sino que forma parte de un programa distinto entonces conocido como Thomas More College. Ella ha transferido recientemente de Marymount, pero está inquieto en el ambiente conservador de su nueva escuela. El narrador del cuento se enamora de ella a primera vista, y juntos se unen al proyecto México.



   

 En Potrero descubren que su anfitrión, el Padre Guillermo, cree que los chicos que los estudiantes de ingeniería y los pone a trabajar la reconstrucción de su iglesia. Sólo cuando una de sus paredes ha sido demolido, con la ayuda de los hombres locales entusiastas, ¿será claro que nadie sabe lo que están haciendo. Las niñas, que se esperaba para actuar como enfermeras en la clínica de la ciudad, tienen tan poca idea de qué hacer.
    Margarita, cuya madre es cubana, habla con fluidez el español y se encarga de organizar las clases de inglés, ser enseñado por las chicas. Los chicos, mientras tanto, asumen proyectos que requieren menos habilidad, la construcción de bases de nuevas viviendas y la reparación de puentes peatonales sobre el río que divide la ciudad.



    Y entonces las cosas empiezan a cambiar. El narrador descubre lo que él cree que las ruinas de una antigua ciudad. En el curso de la exploración de un túnel en lo que pudo haber sido una antigua pirámide, Margarita se encuentra con algo que no puede explicar. Una mujer de la localidad le dice que ella es una "bruja", una bruja o, para ser más precisos, una especie de chamán y atributos misteriosos poderes curativos a ella. Margarita se dibuja de nuevo a las ruinas, incapaz de decir por qué, en busca de algo que no puede nombrar.
    En el transcurso de una fuerte tormenta y la inundación que casi se ahoga la ciudad, ella desaparece, sólo para ser encontrado. Entonces ella desaparece una vez más.

Link to English version of Her Name Was Margarita

All titles available  on Kindle from Wilderness Hill Books


Monday, January 18, 2016

Sketches of the Work House on Blackwell Island, 1866 by W.H. Davenport


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.