Sunday, June 17, 2018

"Camp Jolly" - an excerpt from a new volume of short stories

View of Little Falls - a postcard from the 1960s

“Camp Jolly” is a story from a work in progress, a new series set in the village of Asteronga, a fictionalized version of Little Falls, New York. Readers may recall the first volume of Asteronga stories in which a young man recounts a variety of experiences from the mid 1950s through the late 1960s. Several of those stories are also available on podcast.

The new series is inspired by events from the history of the town and county in the late 19th and early 20th century. The story now made available below and as a free PDF is based on an infamous murder of 1916, moved here to 1917 to coincide with the beginning of World War I. Mike Masco, a “foreigner” living on the South Side, murdered his wife, stuffed her in a trunk, and then attempted to ship the body to a fictitious address. When his crime was discovered, he fled into the woods and fields east of the village. A manhunt ensued, in which Chief of Police Long was joined by volunteers, including firemen led by Fire Chief Cooney.

The second element of the story drawn from actual events is the Home Guard, a  loosely regulated version of what later became the National Guard. Some time before 1917, the local militia men held a picnic at Camp Jolly, a resort on the railroad about five miles east of Little Falls. Some or all of the men became drunk and, as their excursion train headed home, took a few pot shots at innocent cows peacefully grazing in their pasture. They were disarmed by Chief Long and their rifles, obsolete single shot weapons last used in the Indian Wars, were confiscated. When war came in 1917, many of the same Home Guard men were inducted into the new National Guard unit in Mohawk, NY which suffered significant losses in France. Although a Colonel Beardslee was associated with the old Home Guard, no one of that name was involved in the tragic accident depicted in this story.

Here is the story of “Camp Jolly” - Reactions by email will be welcome:

Camp Jolly

Michael Cooney
copyright 2018

based on several true stories

When the people of Asteronga heard that Home Guard boys were taking pot shots at cows on their way home from Camp Jolly, they wondered what the hell was wrong with the Colonel. Those boys were his pride and joy so why was he letting them get drunk and raise hell. Was he getting too old to manage that gang of his?
When the train pulled into the depot, his boys were ordered to hand over their ancient 45-70s to the cops, who had gotten word of their bovine mayhem. However, the troops like they were in no mood to take orders from Chief Long, and for a minute it was touch and go. The Colonel finally came out of the depot gent’s room where he had hurriedly betaken himself and called up a few military commands. Looking them up and down with disgust as they staggered and swayed to attention, he pronounced himself very glad that the State of New York in its wisdom had seen fit not to issue repeating rifles to a crew such as his. He turned to his sergeant and told him to order the men to stack their rifles. “Bear in mind, you fools,” he added a final word, “that unlike cows, the Spaniards do tend to shoot back.”
Two years later, the murdered cows had been forgotten, and it was the Germans and not the Spaniards who were on everybody’s mind. The Colonel, being over seventy, was denied the privilege of accompanying his troops into the machine gun fire, and he was outraged. He called in every favor he had, bombarding the War Department with letters, reminding the youngsters in Washington of his youthful service at Petersburg, his valor against the Sioux, and his sanguinary work in the Philippines, all to no avail.
Those lads are utter fools!” he thundered to Homer P. Snyder, Member of Congress. “No one but I can keep the Kaiser from cutting them to bits. They don’t know a damn thing about war!”
Sorry, Colonel, but I went all the way to Pershing and even he can’t do a thing. It’s a matter of age, just numbers of course, but there it is. Nothing I can do.” The Congressman stifled a yawn and offered his guest a fine Cuban cigar. “But don’t worry over the lads. The Regular Army will whip your Home Guard rascals into shape.”
Those are the same idiots who shot up eight hundred dollars worth of cows. They are drunkards, fornicators and shiftless louts. Only I can keep them in order.”
The Congressman managed to avoid pointing out that his guest had assembled, not to say hand-picked, that sorry lot that he now wished to lead to France. “Be that as it may, Colonel, Uncle Sam has declined to make use of your services this time around, despite my most vigorous efforts.”
Throwing down the half-smoked cigar, Colonel Beardslee stalked out of Snyder’s office with barely a word of thanks and made his way to Union Station. For the long trip back to upstate New York, he sat in the bar car sipping bourbon and cursing Woodrow Wilson to all who would listen. “That snooty bastard turned down Teddy Roosevelt too. Said he was too old! Why, between him and me, we practically whipped the Spaniards single-handedly, Teddy in Cuba and me in Manila.”
After boarding the Twentieth Century Limited in New York, he found a fresh audience. “The problem with Wilson,” he confided to his fellow passengers after a fourth bourbon, “is that he’s a glory hound. It would kill him to share the spotlight with real men like me and Teddy. He’s a goddamned college professor, that’s all he is and all he ever will be!”
As the train neared Asteronga, he woke from a long nap, soothed by the sight of familiar hills, farms and roads. Through the train’s grimy windows, he saw Camp Jolly, abandoned now for two summers in a row, the once bright colors of the picnic pavilions fading quickly, the walkways covered with weeds. He frowned at the sight but smiled to see the gables of his own majestic mansion at East Creek.
Clambering down from the train, the Colonel brushed aside his wife’s solicitude. “Just dandy, girl. I’m just dandy. Wasted too much time on those stuffed shirt in Washington. Waste of time. Waste of time.”
Have you heard the news?” his wife asked as they were driven toward home by Fernando, the chauffeur who had been with them since Manila. “There’s been a murder.”
Some Italian, no doubt. They have heavily infested the south side of town.”
Well, I suppose he might be Italian. Mike Masco is his name and he killed his wife. Stabbed her in the heart and stuffed her body in a trunk.
The Colonel glanced at his wife, appreciating once again her lively manner. Although they were of an equal age, he still saw her as the young girl he met in St. Joseph not long after the War ended. “So what happened? Has this Masco been arrested?”
No, that’s what has everyone in a tizzy. He killed her, that’s certain, and put her body in a trunk and can you believe he was about to ship it to Chicago when the stationmaster noticed the blood...” She paused dramatically.
The blood? What about the blood?”
Well, you see it was like this. He was all set to ship the trunk containing his wife’s body to a fictitious address in Chicago when the stationmaster, even imagine that it could be human blood so he said to the Italian fellow, ‘What’s that?’ “What’s in here, raw meat?’ Hurley says, “it’s against railway regulations to ship raw meat.’ Can you imagine the two them just conversating over the trunk containing the body of a dead woman and just chatting away?”
Can you picture it?” she continued. “there’s this Irish fellow, very officious as they always are as soon as you put them in a uniform and...”
Isn’t that the truth?” interrupted her husband.
So this Hurley is out to dot every i and cross every t and meanwhile the Italian fellow must be sweating to beat the band. And all the while the poor woman’s blood must be dripping more and more out of the bottom of the trunk and...”
Yes, Yes,” her husband interrupted her again. “Please, to the point, dear. The stationmaster sees the blood and what did he do then?”
Why, Hurley didn’t do a thing other than to ask his questions and then this Mike Masco – a very good looking fellow in a dark Italian way, they say – he just takes off like a jackrabbit! He runs right out of the depot and straight down Main Street. People say the last they saw of him he was running along the railroad tracks out toward the Burnt Rocks...”
Mrs. Beardslee paused to assess her husband’s attention before resuming her tale. “So the stationmaster pries open the trunk with a screwdriver and sure enough the sees the corpse of poor, murdered Mrs. Masco. They say she was a very beautiful young girl, long dark hair, a perfect little figure, shining dark eyes...Of course, in the trunk she didn’t look like that.”
No, I would imagine not.”
They say that she was very badly slashed by her beast of a husband. And they say he broke her legs squeezing her into the trunk.”
I see.” The Colonel was recalling images of the many young foreign women who had come to work in the mills over the past decade. He wondered if he had ever seen the murdered girl, just walking past. He didn’t realize he was smiling, but his wife noticed and took it as a sign that he appreciated her narrative abilities.
The neighbors say that he accused her of adultery,” she added.
Did the Italian kill her paramour, as well?”
Paramour? You mean, her boyfriend? Well, according to the neighbors, he was yelling at her and beating her, demanding that she tell him who the man is so that he could go and kill him.”
He was shouting all this in English?”
Well, I suppose it was in Italian but all his neighbors were Italian and they could hear every word he said right through those thin tenement walls. They’re the ones who told Chief Coughlin.”
Coughlin? But he’s the fire chief. Why did they tell him?” The Colonel had strongly disliked Coughlin ever since the Chief had found fire code violations in some of the tenements he owned on the south side.
Well, I really don’t know. Maybe they saw his uniform and just assumed he was a policeman. People say he’s very friendly with the Italians because his wife is Italian but from what I hear, she claims to be one of those Dark Irish, as if there was such a thing!”
Say, dear, this Masco fellow didn’t live in one of our buildings, did he?”
Well, I really wouldn’t know, dear. After all, you are the one in complete charge of our business dealings. I wouldn’t even know if we owned any of those terrible rookeries by the river if your sister hadn’t told me.”
They are not rookeries, as you put it.” The Colonel was irritated but not so much at his wife as at the fire chief. It seemed to him that Coughlin was always meddling in his affairs, even sticking his nose in that business about the slaughtered cows. And then there was the 1912 strike when a whole crowd of those IWW radicals were turned loose from the lock-up. Everybody said Coughlin did it just because he recognized some volunteer firemen in that mob, but of course nothing was done because the Chief of Police was another Irishman. Thick as thieves, they were, all of them.
So to make a long story short,” he said, “This Masco killed his wife because he thought she was stepping out, then tried unsuccessfully to hide her body, and is now on the loose.”
His wife was about to add another detail when suddenly they were both thrown forward as Fernando jammed on the brakes. The Packard shuddered and swerved, ending up sideways and nearly tipping over before coming to a halt.
You goddamned fool!” the Colonel shouted at his driver. His wife’s nose was bleeding and he felt a pain in his wrist. “What the hell are you doing?” He saw a man picking himself up just to the left of the car. Had the car hit him? Just missed hitting him? He leaned out the window, shouting now at the man limping away across the road and climbing up onto the rocks on the opposite hillside. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” he shouted after the man who didn’t even turn to look back.
Human stupidity!” he muttered. “I’m surrounded by it everywhere I go.” He noticed his wife holding a handkerchief to her nose. “Are you injured, dear?” she asked him. She was breathing heavily.
Palpitations? Should I ask Fernando to take us to Dr. Eveleth?”
No, it’s just’s just’s that..” She could barely get the words out. Her husband was afraid that she would become hysterical.
It’s that...that...that man...”
Yes, dear, we almost hit the fool. Ran right out in front of the vehicle but Fernando managed to bring us to a halt in time. Good man, Fernando!” The small Filipino smiled weakly.
He’s the man!” his wife was able to say. “The murderer. Mike Masco. His wife rose dramatically from her seat in the open car, still holding the handkerchief to her nose, and pointing at the trees into which the man had just vanished.
The Colonel immediately sprang into action. “Fernando, double quick now! Open the storage compartment. Fetch the Springfield 45-70 and the bandolier of cartridges.” As ordered, the chauffeur went around to the back of the car and procured the single-shot rifle, one of the many confiscated from the Camp Jolly merrymakers in ‘15. Pulling back the “trap-door” breech, the Colonel inserted a single cartridge, slung the bandolier over his shoulder and prepared to track down the murderer. He regretted that he had no bayonet but he was very glad to be going into battle once more with an old black powder weapon.
Fernando, drive Mrs. Beardslee home, call Dr. Eveleth to see about her palpitations and then stand guard with the Remington double-barrel. No telling which way this miscreant will head.”
Yes, sir,” Fernando saluted, getting back behind the steering wheel.
Take care, dear, don’t do anything foolish,” cried his wife, waving her bloodied handkerchief as the Packard pulled away. The Colonel was already striding resolutely in the direction in which the man had vanished. As he walked up a hillside and into a patch of trees, Colonel Beardslee’s memory took him back to Richmond in 1865. He could still see President Lincoln and his young son, surrounded by the grateful former slaves. “Fine people, the darkies,” he said half-aloud. “Damn fine soldiers with the right officers.”
The day was warmer than he realized and soon the Colonel had taken off his jacket. Hanging it on tree branch, he proceeded forward in his shirt and vest, Springfield at the ready. Through a clearing in the thick June foliage, he caught a glimpse of a man. Masco, surely! Who else would be out here? Dropping to one knee, the old soldier held his breath and took careful aim at the man’s legs. Before he could squeeze off a shot, a loud outcry of many voices startled him. His quarry looked over his shoulder and found himself directly in the colonel’s sights. He ducked sideways and rolled rapidly out of sight.
Rising with difficulty to his feet, the Colonel found himself facing a crowd from Asteronga, led by none other than that obnoxious fire chief, Coughlin. The chief, a heavy-set man a good twenty years younger than the Colonel, was surrounded by firemen and other loafers from town. His son, young Tom, was carrying the only visible weapon, a .22 pump gun. “Say, Colonel,” the chief grinned, “are you ready to take command of these troops?” The old soldier saw the invitation as a mockery of his recently sundered authority over the local military unit, now on their way to Long Island without him.
I nearly had him just now!” he snapped at the chief. “That was before you and your pack of layabouts scared him off.”
Layabouts?” echoed someone in the crowd, laughing.
Well,” said Coughlin, stifling a chuckle, “maybe it’s just as well, seeing as we were hoping to take him alive. Masco’s not a bad character, just lost his head. Crime of passion, as they say.”
Glad to know you have already exonerated the man.” The colonel was growing furious at what he took as a barrage of insults to his authority. “Evidently, we wont need a judge and jury. Let him go scot free instead of hanging him, is that how you see it?”
Coughlin was puzzled by the Colonel’s rising anger. He had kept his job all these years by knowing just how manage people of the Colonel’s class but his usual joviality seemed to be backfiring this afternoon. “To tell you the truth, sir, the real manhunt is led by Chief Long. He’s circling around from the river with about ten men and Deputy Walrath is coming from the Burnt Rocks. The plan is to drive Masco towards a point of convergence at the old Camp Jolly fairgrounds. Our part of it here is just to keep him moving in that direction, toward the cops.”
That’s your brilliant strategy, is it? What if Masco tries to rush through your line of men? He may still have the knife. Or even a pistol. What then?”
I have my rifle,” said the chief’s son.
That .22?” The colonel examined it skeptically. “Even if you hit him one or twice with this, he could keep on charging and slash up a few of you before dying later on from loss of blood.”
So what do you recommend, colonel?” The old soldier was gratified to see the fire chief beginning to recognize his authority. After all, who other than he had commanded men in battle? “It’s like this, chief,” he explained, making note of a new look of respect in the Irishman’s eyes. “Masco must be presumed dangerous. Forget whatever you knew of him before he committed this crime. He has now tasted blood and will not hesitate to kill again. I will shoot to kill and I recommend the same to your son. Keep in mind that the man now faces the electric chair and there is no logical reason why he would not kill one or more of us to avoid that penalty.”
He looked each man in the eyes, and each nodded. There would be no more weak-kneed talk of taking Masco alive. “You men who are unarmed must depart for town. Your presence here will endanger your comrades. Those who are armed form ranks here.”
Colonel,” the chief was clearly weakening in his resolve to recognize superior authority. “Is it really necessary for us to be armed? This isn’t exactly a war.”
And that is where you are wrong, sir! We face an enemy no less dangerous than the Hun that our men will face in France. This murderer will be as eager to take our lives as any Teuton. Here, as in France, we represent civilization and our enemy, barbarism.”
The men milled about uncertainly, no longer sure who was in charge. They began to drift off toward town with vague ideas of procuring firearms. The chief took a nickel-plated revolver from his pocket. Young Tom rested his small rifle over his shoulder in a vaguely military fashion. ‘It looks like just the three of us who are armed,” his father told the Colonel. He told the few remaining firemen to head back to the firehouse. When the last of them had departed, the Colonel silently moved forward, motioning to the father and son to follow. “Keep a sharp lookout, men, so that he doesn’t double back on us.”
The chief saw that his son was impressed by the Colonel’s military bearing and decided to go along with the old man, despite his uneasiness. After a few minutes he was hot and panting heavily. “That old goat’s in pretty good shape,” he whispered to his son. “I’ll give him that.”
His son nodded grimly. He had been very moved by the declaration of war against Germany in April. On the day when Congress gave Wilson the vote that he wanted, young Tom had marched with the other high school boys all around town, carrying a huge American flag and singing patriotic songs. He was still a few months too young to volunteer and the chief prayed that the war would be over before it took his only child.
Listen, Pa, if you’re tried, you can rest here,” the boy whispered to his father, his eyes never moving from the old man twenty feet ahead of them. “I can guard the Colonel’s back.”
No, that’s okay,” the chief panted. “A little warm weather can’t slow down an old football player like me.
The three men moved on in single file across another patch of woodland, pausing when the Colonel paused and advancing when the Colonel advanced. They reached the brow of a hill overlooking the river. “He’s probably in those bottom lands,” the Colonel said, wiping off his glasses to get a clearer look.
I see him!” Young Tom pointed excitedly toward the river. “He’s got a white shirt on! Down there!” He lifted his .22 to his shoulder and took aim.
Don’t fire, boy,” the Colonel ordered. “He’s out of range of your pea-shooter.” The old soldier squinted in the bright sunlight but could see no trace of what the boy said he had seen.
He must heading toward Camp Jolly, as you fellows had anticipated. If he has a pistol, he may hole up in one of the buildings and make a last stand.”
Somehow,” the chief said, “I don’t think he’s the kind of man to go in for any melodrama. He’s as likely to surrender as not.”
All these Italians love melodrama,” disagreed the Colonel. “Everything’s a grand opera for them. I’ve seen several of their operas in New York City and they offer profound insights into the Italian mind. Puccini. Verdi.”
Masco isn’t Italian.”
Not an Italian?” The Colonel was incredulous. Stabbed his wife? Stuffed her in a trunk? And you say he’s not Italian?”
His wife Maria was Italian. Beautiful girl. But Masco is some other nationality, maybe Slovenian.”
Whatever he is,” said the boy, “we’re going to catch him, right Colonel?”
You bet, son!”
Go ahead, sir. We’ll cover your back.”
Good man!” The old soldier held onto a tree branch with one hand and his rifle with the other as he started to descend toward the river. Then he missed a step and began to slide down the embankment. “Be careful, sir,” said Tom, taking the old man’s elbow to steady him. His father caught up with them and helped the Colonel to sit down on a stump.
Catch your breath here, sir. My father and I can go forward and apprehend this criminal. You keep watch in case he circles around to get behind us. If you see him, just blast away, sir. Shoot first and ask questions later.”
The Colonel nodded, struggling to catch his breath. The boy’s face seemed to waver before him. “Good man,” he muttered, “Keep up the pressure. Run him to ground.
The fire chief looked back once to see the old Colonel sitting on the stump, leaning on the rifle barrel with both hands, his shirt and vest dark with sweat. The Colonel waved weakly, unable to summon even his usual surge animosity toward the fireman.
As he sat on the stump, holding onto the 45-70, the old man dozed off and returned to Virginia in a dream. He had fallen asleep on picket duty. General Granthad given orders that any soldier falling asleep on picket be shot. He forced himself to wake up but he wasn’t in Virginia. He wasn’t on the banks of the Rappahannock. He was...where? He remembered the words of the boy. The boy had told him to stay here and shoot first, ask questions later. Somebody mustn’t get past him. He checked the breech to make sure he had loaded a cartridge. He squinted toward the river, the river but not the Rappahannock. What was the river called?
The brush was moving. He heard footsteps and dry branches snapping. The Colonel stumbled off the stump and fell into a kneeling position. He raised the familiar rifle to his shoulder. A dark figure appeared, moving toward him, trying to hide behind the trees. He had only one shot, he knew that. He had to make it count. He held his breath. He pulled the trigger. A huge cloud of black gunsmoke. He heard the man moaning where he had fallen.
The old man’s fingers were trembling and he dropped several cartridges before he was able to fit one into his Springfield. Several men arrived and one of them grabbed the rifle out of his hands. They were all shouting at him. One of them was the fire chief who found those violations of the fire code. The man had him by the throat but the other men pulled him off. The Colonel stood up straight and tall. “The boy? You are saying the boy was shot?”
You shot Tommy Coughlin, you old fool!”
You killed him!”
You shot my son!”
You damned fool!”
God damn you to hell!”
The Colonel looked from one face to another. “We shelled our own boys. That’s what we did at Petersburg. We shelled our own boys. No one’s fault. Accidents of war. No one’s fault.”
The other men pulled the fire chief back and took away his nickel-plated pistol.
The Colonel looked across the river to where the murderer was running along the West Shore tracks. He was escaping. He was free.
That lad over there, he knows how to throw off pursuit. I could have used more like him in the Philippines.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A letter from Vladivostok, 1919

The port of Vladivostok in 1919

Some years ago a friend who worked as a plumber in New York City found a letter, written in French, in an abandoned apartment building and passed it on to me. Although my French is not good and the nearly hundred year old letter was not completely legible, it was apparent that the writer was one of the Allied soldiers sent to Russia in 1918-19 to suppress the new Bolshevik government then struggling to extend its control over the entirety of the Tsar’s old empire. As the Reds won the Russian heartland, the White Army under Admiral Kolchak was driven into Siberia, making Vladivostok its main port for access to whatever aid the capitalist powers chose to provide to the counter-revolutionary forces. Kolchak was eventually betrayed and the Allies were evacuated. 
In many ways that failed expedition of a century ago foreshadowed the unsuccessful counter-insurgencies waged to this day by the US and its allies. The unknown soldier knows that the effort which has cost so many lives is pointless. He longs only to go home to his family. It seems probable that his goal was to return to France although Canadian soldiers were also at Vladivostok in 1918-1919. There is no way of knowing if  the soldier ever returned home or how the letter to his family ended up in New York.

The letter inspired the Vladivostok scenes found in my novel, Mr. Dolge’s Money

US troops arriving in Vladivostok August 1918

 US dead being brought out of Siberia 1919

Here is the translation:

At a Russian barracks called The Riviera near Vladivostok
March 19, 1919

Dear everyone,

It is finally ….to give you my news in a certain fashion… As I said in my letter of February, the (Name of boat – Tomax?) is already at the dock.

This embarkation is going to happen immediately.
There was nothing yesterday but then all our baggage and our gear….
to the Riviera and…a train.. will carry us there in an hour. I have had a pleasant surprise!

The immense barracks lie in a valley with stations and diverse stores. The …who dominate the seaside and the bay… in the village can all be found within twelve kilometers

I have no fear of finding barracks life... I would say it is perfect but… I have the feeling that we are at the beginning of a (constitutional?) drive…important militarily and internationally.
It is a true novel but an actual situation and the Allied organization (blurred) ! Something in our newspapers does not give good sense here
and the need will be there
the need is great for a unique order and …I believe by the Japanese!
The Americans are content to do business. (Business is business.)
And we…. too much of the world.
The French are near us in Omsk and same plus less or organize a badly defined front on the coast of the Aral Sea.
They are all more active than the British who are not as bad as the Canadians.
The town presents a curious aspect with the (Tajiks?), the Italians, the free Russians…
I find these races almost as curious as the Japanese and the Chinese.

The police are assured by the international detachment and all is calm.
Up to fifty kilometers from the city.
The cannon (or trucks) of the Allied fleet inspire great respect.
In this fashion all regard them as watch dogs (literally earthenware dogs)
and regret the trading of one for the other…

The population appears to be majority Bolshevik but not able to say because the Allies provide them with food and without them, they will be in a famine.
Life is made very simple for the Europeans and Americans who have a beneficial exchange rate.
The ruble goes at this moment …eleven… one hundred fifty francs is worth more than 300 rubles.
We are rich gentleman in this court here…and the high life is for us very cheap.
Diverse rumors circulate and are all about the situation in general.
In all cases elementary precautions border on preventing an attack on the city but not far….
Near Karbine but further than Omsk(?)
The security of the railroad is confronted by small detachments that get on the train in a hunt for loot.
Those people disperse when they pass through (blurry)
they arrive and wait for rear attacks on the food or the munitions trains.
Because of this it is necessary to escort them all.
The travel service is organized almost all the way to Karbine but not quite that far.
The scheduling is irregular and …..
The biggest job of the soldiers who preceded us is to protect these trains and their passengers.
Others drive the trucks and the autos that come from America.
I ignore in this fashion absolutely that which lies ahead…stay here for now at first.
Here it may not be interesting but it is peaceful…
To go to Vladivostok or depart from Omsk but again it is necessary to arrive in order to leave for France.
If I am here, there are two routes, the Orient Express to Marseilles and the return via San Francisco, going backwards.
If I am in Omsk the return will be via the Black Sea and the Mediterranean after leaving from Odessa.
One way or another, it will take me at least 45 to 50 days and it is impossible for me to foresee where or when from here.

In any case, don’t worry about me.
The temperature is that of a normal winter at home.
Yesterday there was a little snow but today the weather is clear and dry.
Good food.
Good lodging.
Heat and warm clothes.
I am able to await the return with patience.

I hope this letter finds you all in good health, Papa, Mama (or Emma?), Emmanuelle, Lea, and the little ones. In any case, I send to you all my greatest affection and despite the distance, the greatest kisses from your son and brother.

(Signature illegible)

White Russian cavalry in Siberia

Canadian troops near Vladivostok

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Matilda Rabinowitz memoir published by Cornell Press

Robbin Legere Henderson has published Immigrant Girl Radical Woman, the memoir of her grandmother Matilda Rabinowitz, who was a key leader of the 1912 Little Falls textile strike and an organizer in many other labor battles. The book is beautifully illustrated with Robbin's own sketches.

The book is available from Cornell University Press and following is the description from that site:

"Matilda Rabinowitz’s illustrated memoir challenges assumptions about the lives of early twentieth-century women. In Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman, Rabinowitz describes the ways in which she and her contemporaries rejected the intellectual and social restrictions imposed on women as they sought political and economic equality in the first half of the twentieth century. Rabinowitz devoted her labor and commitment to the notion that women should feel entitled to independence, equal rights, equal pay, and sexual and personal autonomy.

Rabinowitz (1887–1963) immigrated to the United States from Ukraine at the age of thirteen. Radicalized by her experience in sweatshops, she became an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World from 1912 to 1917 before choosing single motherhood in 1918. "Big Bill" Haywood once wrote, "a book could be written about Matilda," but her memoir was intended as a private story for her grandchildren, Robbin Légère Henderson among them. Henderson’s black-and white-scratchboard drawings illustrate Rabinowitz’s life in the Pale of Settlement, the journey to America, political awakening and work as an organizer for the IWW, a turbulent romance, and her struggle to support herself and her child".

And here's an example of Robbin's illustrations in the book:

      Matilda at work

More on this site about Matilda Rabinowitz plus photos

Monday, November 13, 2017

New edition of "The River That Flows Both Ways"

The River That Flows Both Ways has been issued in a revised edition drawing on new research and correcting inconsistencies noted by readers in the 2008 edition. The novel centers on Harmen van den Bogaert, a nearly forgotten early Dutch explorer and surgeon who has recently been recognized as a gay martyr. In a 2015 Huffington Post article, Gay New Amsterdam: The Queer Case of Harmen van den Bogaert, Kim Dramer describes the historical record upon which I draw in this novel. And Ted O’Reilly, the head of the manuscript department at the NY Historical Society posted an interesting article in June: The Bad Fate of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert. George O’Connor also published a well-received graphic novel on Harmen’s visit as the Mohawk villages: Journey into Mohawk Country.

My novel is told through the voice of Matouac, a young Mohican who comes to live with Harmen and his family after his own family was slaughtered by Mohawk raiders. The story is imagined as being transcribed by the Calvinist pastor, Johannes Megapolensis, who provides his own footnotes to quibble and critique the tale of the boy he views as a heathen. Many other historical figures from the Dutch settlement at Fort Orange (now Albany NY) appear, including Harmen’s wife Jelisje and his African slave, Tobias. Harmen’s downfall came when his relationship with Tobias was discovered, and they both fled to the more tolerant society of the Mohawks.  

    Navajo two-spirits

Although suppressed by Christian missionaries, indigenous tribes often made provision for same sex couples, whom many called “two-spirits.” The seventeenth century century Dutch, like other European countries of that era, provided the death penalty for the same behavior. The power differential between Harmen and his African slave certainly suggests to us today that the relationship was predatory. However, the historical fact is that Tobias fled with Harmen into Mohawk country, perhaps out of fear or dependence but also possibly out of genuine affection. Here is a brief excerpt from my book on their refuge with the original inhabitants of the Mohawk Valley:

    There were also two women living in the lodge. They dressed as men and cut their hair in a scalplock. They were seldom in the lodge and were usually out hunting with their bows.
    “I am happy here,” Harmen said to me. “These are good people and they do not say that Tobias and I are wicked or wrong. They say that they will teach me all their ceremonies and in the corn festival next year I will be made a member of their secret society.”
   “Will you be here that long?” I asked.
   “I want to stay here,” he said. “I will never return to the country of the whites.”
   “Is Tobias is happy here?” I asked him.
  “Yes,” he said, watching Tobias help one of the men-women stretch a deerskin over a framework made of branches. “The Mohawks do not look down on him because he has black skin. He can be a person here, as he could never be among the whites.”
    Realizing that Catharina was listening closely to our conversation, he added. “You, too, Catharina, can find a true home here. You will never be a slave again if you live with the Mohawks.”
   I knew that the Mohawks were capable of great cruelty and might easily turn on us as they had turned on Ondessonk. I never forgot my grandfather’s warning that they, even more than the whites, were the true enemies of my people. But for now, the Mohawks were our friends and we would be warm and have enough to eat as the winter deepened.

Ondessonk, to whom Matouac refers, meant "the indomitable one" and was what the Mohawks called Isaac Jogues, the Jesuit missionary and martyr. In the novel Matouac comes to know and admire him, and is present when he is killed at Ossernenon. 

The River That Flows Both Ways, 2017 edition is now available:

Amazon Kindle          $1.99

Lulu Paperback        $14.95

For more on the historical sources of the novel see The Tale of Harmen Meyndertz van den Bogaert on this site.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Renegade Archaeologist & other tales

Newly available in paperback at Amazon and Lulu, this collection of two novelas and eight short stories ranges from distant star systems to an America only a few years in the future. Originally published in small SF magazines in the 1970s, the stories were influenced by anthropologists and  novelists I was reading at the time, such as Chagnon, Boas, Leguin, Tolkien, and Clarke . The forty year old manuscripts have been only slightly revised but seem, at least to this author, still relevant to the issues of the present. 

The title novela, “The Renegade Archaeologist,” is composed of various documents from 90,000 years in future, after global warming provokes an ice age and diverts human evolution in divergent directions. The protagonist is inspired by a form of Christianity that reveres an ancient saint, Tayyard de Chardin, although the prevailing ideology denies both climate change and evolution.  In other parts of the continent new beliefs have accompanied the rise of new species of humanity. 

The second novela, "The Monkey Men of Driummold,"  focuses on an anthropologist who faces opposition to his claim that a peaceful species resembling spider monkeys is truly part of the aggressive pananthropoid family that has spread across the galaxy. After many months with the tiny hominids, he believes that the possession of fire, use tools, and capacity for violence are not essential to a human identity.

"Speaking in Tongues" describes an evangelical Christian dictatorship, which I originally wrote before Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids Tale. "The End of the Fourth World" is  an apocalyptic tale inspired by Hopi myth myth. In "The Wizard, The Knight and the Daughter of a God," a space traveler named Jack Murphy is worshiped as a god on a distant planet. When he disappears, a wizard and a knight set out in search of him. 

"Gullrider of Mund" is about a brave young woman who tries desperately to save a doomed human colony where all technology is based on the control of giant sea creatures. In "Long Toes," the last man on earth has never met another human being and in "aboard the Saint Jude Thaddeus," a starship commander begins to question his loyalty to the Vatican. "In the Time of the Honchos" is set in a devastated future that may remind some readers of the Mad Max movies - minus the machinery.

In the only story written in recent years, "You Don't Need a Weatherman,"a retired couple adjust to an overheated world where climate denial is official policy, but are worrying about their rebellious grandson. 

 Lulu paperback           =  $7.95

Amazon paperback      =   9.95

    Also on Kindle =             99 cents

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Albany Fire of 1793 and the Hanging of Three Slave Children

Conflagration 1793 is a short historical fiction which takes us back to a little-known episode in the history of Albany, the state capital of New York. The story begins with the drive-by shooting of three African American teenagers near the State Capitol in December, 2016. Two die on the spot but one girl, Dinah Valker, awakens in the distant past. She discovers that not only is she a slave of the local merchant Volkert Douw but that her friends Pompey and Bethany are also living in that other world.

  NYS Capitol, site of the hanging
    of three young slaves in 1793

Here's the moment of Dinah's awakening after she was shot on Elk Street behind the State Capitol:

“Girl! Come here, I say, girl!” Mistress Douw turned in exasperation to her husband. “Meister Douw, do ye see what I be saying? The wench has gone daft.”
“How long is it that the wench is so bespelled?”
“Above half an hour, I ken. She was able and cheerful as ever when she woke and ‘sisted with all the morning chores. Then of a sudden she is in such state as this, stock still and staring as if stricken with an apoplexy.”
“I doubt it be an apoplexy, mistress mine.” Volkert van Douw took the clay pipe from his mouth and went up close to the girl, waving his broad hand before her face. “She has scarce fifteen years.”
“Ye said the Ulsterman you bought her of said she was hale n’ hearty.”
“He did.” Volkert pinched the girl’s arm with getting any reaction. He pulled both her ears. She did not move.
“The dusky ones are said to be prone to sickness.”
“I’ve as oft heard the contrary to be true. My father was fond of saying that the darker the hue, the sturdier the stock.” He sat down at kitchen bench and re-lit his pipe. “Tho I will confess, my heart, that the Ulsterman did drop his price without much cavil.”
“I’ve always said you were too quick to take the lowest priced goods.”
“Oh, tush your self, my dear Anna, we’ve had good service of this wench for near two year. Perhaps if you slap her soundly?”
“In the face?”
“Try the rump. “Twill not leave her marred.
“And wherefore should I be the one to chastise the wench?”
“I’d take it as a favor, for I’m too kind-hearted to strike the maiden meself, black as coal tho she is.”
Mistress Van Douw reached down a wooden spoon from a peg on the wall and stepping behind the apparently frozen girl, proceeded to strike her first once, then twice and three times. On the fourth blow, the girl yelped and gave a little jump.
“Fuck! What’d you do that for, lady?”

Ten years after the end of the Revolutionary War, New York had not yet taken any legal steps toward the abolition of slavery the enslaved population of the Hudson Valley was the highest of any state north of the Mason-Dixon line. The greatest number of slaves worked on the large plantations owned by the Livingstons, Van Rensselaers and other wealthy families, but well-to-do families in Albany, New York and other towns relied on slaves as their household servants. Slave masters, however, were uneasy at newspaper reports of the bloody rebellion that had broken out in Haiti two years earlier. It was in this climate of fear that a fire broke out in Albany on the night of November 17, 1793, destroying the central section of the town, bounded by Market Street, State Street, Middle Lane and Maiden Lane. The primitive fire-fighting methods available, principally a bucket brigade to the river, did nothing to stop the blaze until a sudden sleet storm put out the fire.

         Maiden Lane at the present time

Dinah finds herself implicated in setting this fire, which in my version of the events, is part of a planned slave uprising instigated by two men, Sanders and Bessbrown, who played a mysterious in the actual 1793 fire but were never charged:

 “Lemme ask you both somethin,” Pompey looked from the one man to the other. “Why you come to Albany to start this here uprisin? Ain’t there a lot mo slaves down South?”
“We’ve done our research, Pomp, and the Hudson Valley has more slaves than any place north of Virginia. These old patroons have very large plantations over in Kinderhook and Claverack. Hundreds of slaves, all chained up. But here in Albany, you people have a lot of freedom to traipse about on your own. If we can get fifty men to rise here, set fire to the town and march to the plantations, those slaves will soon join us and we’ll seize the city of New York. From there, we’ll gather thousands to advance into the deep bastions of slavocracy in Maryland and Virginia and the Carolinas.”
But what do ye think all the other whi’ men be doin whilst you lead the black folks off to war?” Pompey asked them. “They gonna jus sit by and watch?”
“But don’t you understand, Pomp. I told you all about France, didn’t I? How the poor whites rose up and tore down the king and all the rich people?”
“Aye, ye tole me all that,” the boy muttered sullenly. “Back when I was yo family’s slave. Before I got sold to Vischer.”
“You know that I did not want my family to sell you, Pompey. I would have surely freed you as soon as I came into my inheritance.”
“So you say, but you went to France and yo mother sold me lickety-split. When I tole her you promised me my freedom, she had me whipped. That ain’t right.”
“I apologize, Pompey, for my mother’s actions.”
Bethany nudged her friend. “Now I seen everythin! A whi’ man apologizing to a nigger.” Dinah shook her head, still unable to believe the incredible racism even Black people took for granted here.
“Why’nt you buy me my freedom now?” Pompey complained.
“I would if only I could come into my inheritance,” Sanders tried to excuse himself. “But Judge Ten Eyck won’t budge. It’s all in the way my father’s will was written.”
Bessbrown was clearly growing impatient. “Listen, sanders, enough with all this palaver. If your boy can’t raise the men he promised, we need to change our plan to another town. Kingston perhaps.”
“No, no, Pomp can do it. And these brave girls will perform their part.” For the first time Sanders looked at Bethany and Dinah. “Are you primed to strike for your freedom, lasses? You should have seen the maidens of Paris when they rose up, kitchen knives in hand. I swear, Marat and Danton would have had no revolution at all without les femmes de Paris behind them!”
He reached out and took both their hands in his own. “And comely wenches such as you are surely capable of inveigling stout men to join the cause, are you not?”
They each nodded uncertainly. “Is we to be paid?” Bethany dared to ask. “Paid?” laughed Sanders.
“You’ll be paid with the finest coin of the realm, liberty itself!”
As they descended the hill back toward the sleeping town, Bethany asked Pompey if those white men were crazy. “It sound like they want us to burn up Albany town and kill all the other whi’ people. That don’t make no sense.”
“First of all, Mr Bessbrown, he a nigger too but he gotta act like he Mr. Sander’s slave. So they’s only one whi’ man, Mr Sanders. He kinda stupid but he truly want all niggers to be free.”
“All I know is they both stupid if they think us niggers gonna get free by doin what? Burning down all the whi’ people’s houses? What that gonna do ‘cept get us hanged?”
“Yeah,” added Dinah. All this time she had been watching Pompey and saw no signs that he had any memory of the other world. She laughed out loud at the strangeness of it all and her friend smiled at her.

    Simeon DeWitt's 1793 map of Albany, from the NYS Archives

Much like the contemporary inclination to immediately suspect Islamic terrorism for any act of mass violence, the white people of Albany assumed that their slaves were responsible for the fire. The immediate reaction can be found in an 1830 newspaper account quoted by Joel Munsell’s in his 1854 Annals of Albany:

The fire was so plainly the work of an incendiary, that not only were several slaves arrested upon suspicion, but subsequently a meeting of the common council was held and an ordinance passed forbidding any Negro or mulatto, of any sex, age or description whatever, from walking in the streets or lanes after 9 o'clock in the evening, or from being in any tavern or tippling house after that hour, under penalty of twenty-four hours confinement in the jail. At the expiration of such confinement they were to be brought before the mayor, recorder or an alderman, when they were at liberty to show, by their master or mistress, that they were out upon lawful and necessary business. If they established this fact, they were discharged upon paying the jail expenses; but if they failed, they were further punished by fine and imprisonment. The municipal authorities were active in ferreting out the perpetrators of this high crime, which, according to the English law, was punishable with death. It was then the law of this land, and as punishment was more summary than it is now, the guilty parties knew that hanging would follow conviction, proceedings in court which followed this fire attracted much attention, particularly among the colored population, in consequence of several of their number having been arrested upon suspicion of being implicated in the arson. [The above taken from the Albany Evening Journal which began publication in 1830]
Predictably, three slaves were quickly arrested. In the state archives in Albany is a very old legal document, the confession of one of the three, a slave girl known as Bet. The ancient paper bearing her mark, the signatures of three aldermen, Abraham Ten Eyck, Joseph Lansing and Durch Ten Broeck is the primary source for my fiction.

    The final page of "Bet's confession"from the NYS Archives

Her confession, written in the third person by her interrogator, outlines the role of two other slaves, Pompey and my main character, Dinah. The document also indicates a key role of two white men in instigating the fire, a man named Sanders from Schenectady and a mysterious figure named Bessbrown. According to Bet, Sanders had offered a gold watch to Pompey if he would set fire to the property of Peter Gansevoort, and Pompey inveigled the girls to join the plot.. According to her account, Sanders was angry because Gansevoort had blocked his courtship of his daughter. Bessbrown’s role is less clear, as is the role of a third white man, a jeweler named Murray.

Since 1788 slaves were entitled to a jury trial but I could find no record for the trial of Bet, Dinah and Pompey. What is known is that none of the whites were charged but after some delays, all three of the young slaves were hung at Pinkster Hill, now the site of the State Capitol building.

        from NY History Blog 

The history of slavery in Albany, and the fate of these three young people, has not been completely ignored in recent years. In 2015 Schuyler Friends, an education project sponsored by historic Schuyler Mansion produced a dramatic recreation of the events which can be found on You Tube as The Accused: Slavery and the Albany Fire of 1793. The Friends of Schuyler Mansion also developed a set of lesson plans on slavery and the 1793 fire for elementary, middle school and high school levels.

There have been significant efforts to make sure that new generations do not forget the tradition of the Pinksterfest, Albany’s Dutch-African Spring Festival which was once held on the same hill where the three slave children were executed and where the State Capitol now stands. (See reference in this article to “the merchant prince” Volkert Douw, who features in my story as the owner of the slave girl Dinah.)

Conflagration 1793 is available exclusively on Kindle for 99 cents.