Monday, June 18, 2018

Roxalana: a short version of the Roxy Druse murder story

an illustration from the Saturday Globe, 1886

"Roxalana" is an early version of what became my 2009  historical novel based on the notorious Druse murder case. In this short story I simplified the details, omitting the young nephew who played a part in the 1885 murder of the Jordanville farmer, William Druse. I also simplified the method Roxalana used to dispose of the body.  This version is told in the voice of an elderly neighbor whose testimony at the trial was discounted.  For many more details on the case, see Roxy Druse: Female Fiend or a Woman Wronged? 

The paperback and kindle versions of Roxy Druse and the Murders of Herkimer County on Amazon also includes the booklet by H.W. Tippett describing all the murders in Herkimer County up to the Druse trial.

Here is Roxalana:

(free PDF at



Michael Cooney

copyright 2002, 2018

It was the neighbors who first sent word to the sheriff. Some said it was the smell of burning flesh. Others said they knew Roxalana Druse was lying when she kept repeating the exact same words to everyone who stopped by the farm during that first week: “My man left. He’s gone away. I don’t know where he went.” Mrs. Willis, who belonged to the Baptist Church with the Druses, always said that it was the haunted look in the eyes of the seventeen year old girl, Annie, that told her that something terrible had happened on the Druse place.
Jacob Timmerman, who testified at the trial, had his own view of the matter. “Old Bill Druse never would have left that farm of his own accord if he were alive. That I knew as sure as I am sitting here today. But I have to tell you he’d been beating on Roxalana and their girl pretty bad. I could see they were both bruised up regular. When Bill didn’t show up, I figured Mrs. Druse had finally killed him.” Timmerman had paused for a moment. “He deserved killing, in my opinion, for what he done to that girl.” Both prosecution and defense rose to object, each for their own reasons, not that any of the testimony made that much difference in the end.
In later years, Timmerman told many versions of the story, each differing slightly from the previous one. After the trial, he had sold his farm near Jordanville and settled in Finks Basin, downriver from the thriving mills at Little falls. He bought a farm along the river, smaller than the old one, with ten good acres of rich black soil. He sold off his cows and concentrated on cash crops, and found a ready market for his vegetables in Little Falls and soon grew prosperous enough to spend his idle winter days in the Klock’s Tavern. The tavern stood alongside what was once the apple orchard of Chief Hendrick who had done his best to adopt the white man’s ways. The Mohawks were long gone but many of the apple trees remained, one of them right at the tavern’s doorway.
“Old Bill Druse was a bastard, truth to tell,” Jacob Timmerman had said one hot afternoon when Frank Shall dropped by the tavern. “I told the jury up in Herkimer that he deserved what he got, but they didn’t want to hear it. Bill Druse was a son of a bitch and that’s the truth.”
“You testified at the trial?” asked Shall, who had spent the day trying to break the will of an old farmer called Moses Wheldon. “You think they were wrong to hang Roxalana Druse?”
“Here’s the way I see it happening,” Timmerman plowed forward. “It was December, mind you, and cold and dark that morning. Bill staggers out of bed, still half drunk from the night before, and right off starts bitching. He starts yelling that the eggs are runny or some such. Then he smashes the plate into her face, and goes out to milk the cows. That’s the kind of man he was.”
“Roxalana wipes off her face, used to this kind of thing. She wraps a frayed shawl around her shoulders and goes out to the yard to pump some water. When the pail is full, she calls out to her daughter, who’s still not up that morning. Annie! Come here and give me a hand with this pail of water, she says.”
“Annie, she calls again but her seventeen-year-old daughter doesn’t answer. Roxalana’s shoulder is still sore from an arm-twisting Bill had given her the day before. It’s hard for her to carry the pail back into the kitchen, and the water is sloshing onto the floor. She goes to knock on Annie’s door. There’s no latch, but the mother never went into her daughter’s room, unbidden That’s what my own girl told me, God rest her soul. She was a friend of young Annie Druse and that’s how come I know what really happened.”
“Finally the girl pulls open the door, a make shift arrangement of ill-fitting boards. Her hair is uncombed, and she wears a nightgown of her mother’s. Her eyes tell the story to her mother. Roxalana asks the girl, did he do something to you? She couldn’t have put more than that into words. Maybe Annie nodded or maybe she didn’t have to. Maybe Roxalana says to her daughter, He won’t do it again.”
“This time Annie definitely shakes her head, slowly up and down.”
“He won’t do it again,” Roxalana repeats, with no clear idea yet of how she can keep it from happening again. Something very bad is going on, if you get my meaning.”
“Well, Roxalana flings about for something to say. “We’ll wait til dinner, she says. ‘Your Pa will be back from the fields for dinner. We’ll just wait for dinner, all right?” Annie nods, not saying a word.
Roxalana chooses a couple of porkchops from the smokehouse and cooks them up just the way her husband liked them, with plenty of gravy and onions. Roxalana does not eat. She waits to see what else Mr. Druse might need. She watches him noisily chewing the pork, mopping up the gravy with bread. Finally, he stops and wipes his mouth with his hand. “Where’s that gal?” he asks. “She oughta be here at the dinner table.”
“Annie comes quietly down the stairs. He cannot understand the expression in his wife’s eyes. He thinks she is looking at him but she is looking at her daughter. Don’t you be raising your eyes to me, woman. I’ll teach you some proper respect, you and that gal of your’n, he says. He pushes back the chair and stands up from the table. Balling his fist, he moves toward his wife, who moves backward toward the woodstove. Behind him, Annie lifts up the ax that had been resting in the corner and brings it down. Blood is everywhere, splattered across the floor, the table, the women’s dresses Roxalana gently takes the axe from Annie’s hands. “Go into your room, Annie. I’ll take care of him,’ she says.”
“Dragging her husband’s body across the snow and into the barn while Annie goes back to her room and falls asleep, covered in blood as she is. Roxalana cuts Bill up with the same ax Annie used on him. She chops and chops, breaking the body apart at the joints. She takes the pieces to the pig pen and throws them to the hogs. ‘Mr. Druse always said pigs’d eat anything,’ she said once to me when I visited her in jail. She had a little smile when she said it.”
“Then she goes inside to wash down the floor, the chairs and the table. She puts her dress and Mr. Druses’s clothes into the woodstove and lights a fire. Later, she manages to undress Annie and wash her off. She burns Annie’s dress, as well. Before the sheriff comes out to the farm six days later, Roxalana sits on the bed next to Annie. “I killed him, Annie.’ She tells the girl. ‘That’s all you need to know. Just keep saying ‘My mother killed my father.’ Say it, now. Say it.”
Annie says nothing. She has said nothing since she woke up on the day that she had used the axe on her father. Say it, girl. Say it. Finally, after hours of Roxalana’s pleading, Annie speaks: My mother killed my father. My mother killed my father. My mother killed my father.’”
“The trial was a great sensation in Herkimer County. Biggest story since the Civil war, as far as most people were concerned. People came in carriages from all over the county for each of the three days that the trial took. Brought picnic baskets and made a regular party of it.”
“I was there in the courtroom and I heard it all. They cut me off when I was trying togive my testimony, to tell the truth of what happened out there on the Druse place. Annie testified in a voice so low that the county attorney had to repeat very loudly for the jury the few words that she used. I couldn’t hear her, but the prosecutor told everybody that she said, ‘My mother killed my father.’”
“On the day that Roxalana was hung in the back yard of the county jail, the crowd was said to be the largest ever seen in the village of Herkimer. When they asked her if she had any last words, Roxalana looked out over the crowd and said in a voice that carried over their heads and out into the streets beyond: “I killed him. I know it’s wrong and I hope I don’t go to hell, but I’m glad I done it.”
“Annie served a couple of years, for accessory after the fact as they put it. She took up religion in the new state prison for women, and went out west where people say she married and raised a family.”
“So what was the upshot, Jacob?” Frank Shall asked him. “Was justice served?
“All I know,” Jacob paused to spit some tobacco juice into the fireplace, “is that that mother loved that girl as much as any mother ever loved a child. What did Jesus say, greater love has no man? Nor woman neither, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Well maybe,” said Shall who shot himself twenty years later.

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. In a day or two I will post a second story from the collection, a version of the Roxy Druse murder case.

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.