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”,, 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."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Discussion of Alfred Dolge at Little Falls Historical Society

From the Little Falls Times, April 13, 2015

Cooney to speak on new Alfred Dolge book

LITTLE FALLS – Little Falls native Michael Cooney will be joined by Herkimer County Historical Society Executive Director Susan Perkins for a presentation focused on Cooney's recent book, “Alfred Dolge.”

The presentation will take place at the Little Falls Historical Society's 7 p.m. meeting at the WCA at 534 Garden Street, Little Falls.

Perkins will open the presentation by providing much of the factual background of Dolge's eventful life while Cooney will address some of the reasons for the downfall of Dolge's various business enterprises in late-19th century Dolgeville.

By the 1880s, Dolge had established a complex industrial organization and envisioned a socialist utopia community in the small Herkimer County community that bears his name. However, by 1890, Dolge had fallen into bankruptcy and shortly thereafter moved his family to California.

The Perkins-Cooney presentation will be preceded by a business meeting of the Little Falls Historical Society. Light refreshments will be served after the presentation. All meetings of the Little Falls Historical Society are free and open to the public.


This will be a joint meeting with the Dolgeville-Manheim Historical Society. That group's president Bob Maxwell will also be part of the panel discussion and will be sharing some of the more portable Dolge memorabilia from their museum. As has been the practice for the past several years, the village of Dolgeville will feature a dramatization drawn from its founder's life during the annual Violet Festival, June 13-15, 2015.

The evening's program will be broadcast on the new Little Falls Community Radio.
Additional reading from this site:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"The True History of Joseph Smith"

In paperback at Amazon for $18.95

On Amazon Kindle for $2.99  (Special promotion: FREE DOWLOAD July18-22, 2015)

The True History of Joseph Smith is a new novel that celebrates - and closely follows - the career of one of Upstate New York's most famous sons, Joseph Smith of Palmyra. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has long been associated with the state of Utah, its origins lies among the New Englanders who flooded into western New York following the end of the American Revolution.
This historical novel gives voice to Joseph Smith's long-forgotten sister, Sophronia, who tells the story of their shared lives from early childhood to his violent death. She was there when he saw visions in the woods behind his parents' farm and dug for treasure in the hills of western New York. With an almost obsessive love for her brother, she managed to overlook or find excuses for all his adventures with girls – and with the law- in his adolescent years.

When he founded a new religion, she went along with the rest of Joseph's family and followed him as he led them from one Zion to another, from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois. When she finds him seducing a hired girl in a barn, she is stricken speechless – yet when she peeps through a keyhole and witnesses his intimacy with another man's wife, she somehow reconciles his behavior with her faith in her brother. And her faith is not simply in him but in God, whom she experiences through her relationship with Joseph - whatever his obvious flaws and transgressions of accepted moral codes.

In this novel Sophronia is not merely a passive observer. She is surprisingly independent for her time and stands up to the men around her, ranging from her father and brothers to her two husbands. Increasingly, she tells Joseph the truth even as she has to confront the evidence of wife after after wife.

In fact, she becomes friends from a number of her brother's wives – while still staying close to Emma, his only legal spouse. When Joseph heads toward his death at the Carthage jail, Sophronia and two of his wives ride after him in a failed rescue attempt.

Those who know early LDS history will find many familiar characters here: Lucy Mack Smith, Hyrum and Don Carlos Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Porter Rockwell, Oliver Cowdery. Less familiar figures like Sally Chase, who gave Joseph his first seer stone, and Prescindia Buell, the plural wife who bore him a son, also have important roles in the novel.
Those who have less, or no, familiarity with the church founded by Smith will also  find much of interest in this tale of 19th century Americans, many of them from our state. These men and women drew on beliefs and practices that were widely shared among the early settlers from England. They shared an abiding faith in personal revelations, an ancient belief in all kinds of folk magic, and an unstoppable enthusiasm for creating a new society and way of life.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A new historical novel of the South Bronx in the 1970s
The Great Monroe High School Fire is an historical novel set in an era that many would rather forget, a time barely a generation ago when New York City was beset by an epidemic of crime, drugs and arson. Unlike the 18th and 19th century conflicts whose even minor episodes are celebrated with pride here in our small upstate towns, the City's descent into near anarchy in the 1970s is not noted with any historical markers or monuments in neighborhoods like the South Bronx or Bushwick. Much of the neglect both in the 1970s and today, of course, is about race. But some, I believe, is also because it is hard to find heroes in that era. This book attempts to remedy that lack.

The new novel is based upon a forgotten episode of the violent 1970s, an unsolved arson fire that did major damage to James Monroe High School in the South Bronx. The school was built in 1924 when the expansion of secondary education became a primary means of integrating first and second generation European immigrants into American life. For a time the largest high school in the world, Monroe had become racially segregated by the early 1970s, not by law but in fact. The African American, Caribbean and Latino families who had moved into the Bronx neighborhoods served by the school faced a different world from the Italians, Irish, Germans and Jews who had preceded them. A flood of drugs and a rising crime rate collided with a school system still recovering from the racially divisive strikes of 1967 and 1968. And then came the fires, waves of arson that consumed so many of the old neighborhoods of five story walk-ups, from Vyse Avenue to Kelly Street.

Young men in the Monroe neighborhood thirty years later

The story is told by Giuseppe Sanchez in a mix of Spanish, Italian and street slang combined with a vocabulary he has learned from reading and eavesdropping. (A glossary is provided at the back of the book) The story told by the boy, whose mother is Italian and father Puerto Rican, begins when he goes to Junior High 22 on 167th Street near the Grand Concourse and meets his closest friend, Sapo.

When we got to 22 in sixth grade, the place was like the Bronx Zoo only the animals in the zoo was more civilized. First day, my English teacher Mr. Z opens the door because someone’s knocking and this gidrul spits right in his face. I almost felt sorry for the guy, a young teacher just out of college. I don’t know why he waited two whole months before he walked out of class one morning and just disappeared.

To get back to Sapo. He bumped into me in gym class for nothing so I shoved him into the wall. We each landed a couple of good punches before big fat Mr. Greenfarb came over and sat on us until we quit fighting. We were homeboys from then on.

The two of us had each other’s back and even when the whole Career Guidance crew went after us, we did okay. The CG guys were all at least 15 but too dumb to be sent to high school so they had to stay in one room all day long and weren't allowed to associate with normal kids except when they had to eat. One day in the lunchroom Sapo made some comment about them being retards and they all went after us, knocking over chairs and tables like the maniaticos they were. Sapo and I kept picking up trays of Sloppy Joes and Tater Tots and throwing them until the CGs were slipping and falling all over themselves. This kind of shit was happening every day in that school.

Giuseppe, who prefers to be called Joey, and his friend Sapo come into conflict with the principal at 22 and respond by turning to hooky playing and graffiti. When Joey and his mother are forced to move to the Little Italy neighborhood on Arthur Avenue, the two friends lose touch but reunite a couple years later at Monroe. After a stint at Spofford juvenile detention center, Sapo is now into dealing marijuana. Joey becomes a willing recruit, if only to impress Siobhan, a Fordham College student who has befriended him.
Graffiti began to be recognized as an art form in
the 1970s and is still flourishing near Monroe

Siobhan, like many Fordham students then and now, is Irish-American and far better off than anyone Joey knows. His infatuation with her, however, fades when he realizes she is only interested in him for the marijuana he can provide. (It should be noted that in more recent decades, Fordham has reached out to include far more students from Joey's economic class and has played a major role in training teachers for City schools. And unlike NYU, Fordham never abandoned the Bronx.)

Although Sapo continues to draw Joey into dangerous situations, including a botched drug deal in which both are nearly killed, he is very different from his peers in several ways. One is the fascination with reading which he owes to his mother:

I remember one time she was washing the dishes and I was drying them. “And if you make sure you have good habits, your whole life will be better.”

Like what kind of good habits, Mom?”

Reading is the best habit you can have.”

But you always say you’re too tired to read.”

That’s because I have to work. If your father had been a good man instead of a disgraziato, I would have had time to read. And I don’t mean just trashy love stories but serious books. I could have gotten my diploma and maybe take night classes.”

Not too long after that conversation she came home lugging a cardboard box. “You know old Mr. Feldman who died? His wife gave me some of his books that she thought you might like.”

And you know what? I really did like them. Mr. Feldman must have saved every book he ever read because a lot of them were kids’ stories from fifty years ago. There were all these stories of a boy inventor named Tom Swift. Some of his inventions were not exactly new any more, like his Amazing Motorcycle or his Fantastic Camera. But some of the stuff, like a flying submarine, still hasn’t been invented. Mr. Feldman also must have liked war stories when he was a kid because there was a whole stack of books about these two boys who were having adventures in World War One. They had sword fights with Germans and all kind of things that probably never happened but even so, the stories were way more interesting than TV.”

Another major influence on Joey is his English teacher, Miss Bonsecour, whose interest in the boy strikes many as inappropriate. She not only gives him books but takes him to the Metropolitan Museum. When she is targeted for removal by a new principal, a series of events is set in motion, culminating in the arson attack on the school, an attack which was completely ignored by the City's media and political elites at the time.

For Joey the fire had a larger meaning:

I’d read in the Monroe library how the old Library of Alexandria was burned down back in Roman times. The ancient scrolls that contained all the knowledge in the world were destroyed and people became incredibly ignorant. And that's when the Dark Ages began.”

The book is aimed at both young adult and adult readers, and is suitable for high school students. (Language is a bit R-rated.)

The Great Monroe High School Fire can be purchased in paperback at either or for $9.95. The kindle version is $2.99.
Also, for those who wish not to patronize Amazon, The Great Monroe High School Fire is  available in paperback at for $9.95
Monroe was finally closed in 1994. The building now houses several small schools for different age children and appeared to be quite successful during a recent visit. Those interested in educational reform in the Monroe neighborhood during recent years may want to take a look at Five Years at Fannie Lou, available for 99 cents on kindle. The short book focuses on portfolio-centered assessment at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, a successful new small high school not far from the scenes of the novel. The district, it should be noted is still among the poorest in the US.

Update  July, 2015: "In the Forest of Tombolo" is another work inspired by Monroe and is based on the experiences of a World War II veteran who taught at the school in the 1970s. Students and faculty of that era may recognize the tale's narrator and recall his stories of the war in Italy and his later encounters with poets of the Beat Generation.