Sunday, August 19, 2018

When the Saints Came to the Mohawk Valley, 1830

Joseph Smith Sr, courtesy

The following short story is from a new collection of historical fictions set in a Mohawk Valley village sometimes known by its Iroquois name of "asteronga," or tumbling waters. The local protagonists of the story, Arphaxad Loomis, Nathaniel Benton and John Dygert are actual historical figures and politicians of the pre-Civil War era in Little Falls, NY. The incident around which the story is centered is the missionary journey undertaken by Joseph Smith Sr, father of the Mormon prophet and his two younger sons in 1830. At that time the followers of Joseph Smith were still living in western New York state and the elder Smith decided to return to their native Vermont in an effort to convert former neighbors and relatives to the new faith. Along the way, it can be imagined that he and his sons stopped in a village such as Asteronga and ran afoul of the nemesis of the early Saints, Eber Howe., author of "Mormonism Unvailed."

Arphaxad Loomis 1798-1885 

Nathaniel S. Benton 1792-1869

Loomis began his political career as village president later that same year and went on to serve as a judge, congressman and state legislator. His friend Nathaniel Benton was a judge, a state legislator, US Attorney and historian. Since Benton later joined the American (Know Nothing) Party and the Republican party while Loomis remained a Democrat through the war years, perhaps the close friendship pictured here did not survive the political storms of the era.

When the Saints Came to Asteronga

The first word about the new religion came in the form of a small paid notice in the Peoples Friend. “Look here,” said the attorney Arphaxad Loomis to his colleague, Judge Nathaniel Benton. “Some fool has a new Bible for sale.”
It’s always been a reliable seller, Deuteronomy and Leviticus notwithstanding,” observed the judge.
This notice is not for the good old book beloved by Methodists and Presbyterians alike. This fellow is hawking a whole new Bible. Says here his name is Smith and he acquired a copy from the Almighty Himself.”
Smith, hmm? A very popular assumed name. He’s probably a Quaker.”
Quaker? I think not. More likely one of those so-called perfectionists that follow the madman Noyes.”
The wife-traders of Oneida?”
As likely as not, your honor. Now, will you pass that jug or do you intend to drink it all yourself?”
A week later, the two jurists had nearly forgotten the notice when their evening on the judge’s front porch was interrupted by the village president, John Dygert. He invited himself onto the porch and asked the judge’s girl to fetch a third glass. Helping himself to a tot of cider, Dygert asked what they thought of the agitation in Utica. “Utica is a very fount of agitation,” said Loomis. “But of what agitation in particular do you speak?”
The Smithites showed up and took a sound thrashing. The feathers without the tar, you could say.”
Smithites?” asked the judge.
They follow the false prophet from Ontario County. Reverend Van Slyke warned us to expect them.”
John, you’ll have to tell us a bit more. Not being Reformed Church, neither the judge nor I have enjoyed the eloquence of your esteemed parson.”
Joseph Smith is the false prophet who claims that an Angel of God came down to earth and gave him a new bible, a book of big gold plates.”
Must be a heavy object to carry about,” observed the judge, winking at Arphaxad.
This Smith claims to have translated the gold bible into English with the help of magic spectacles. Then he had a no-count printer publish a stack of this so-called bibles and to top it all off, started a new church. Calls it the Church of Christ.”
Doesn’t everyone?”
Doesn’t everyone what?” demanded Dygert who did not appreciate their wit in such a grave matter.
Doesn’t every church claim to be the church of Christ?”
Except the Mohammedans.”
And the Jews,” added the judge.
I don’t doubt that they’ll be here soon,” concluded Dygert. “I am advising you to be prepared for any exigency that may arise.” And with that, the village president marched off.
The Erie Canal had been opened for five years and had brought greater prosperity each year to Asteronga. The new limestone aqueduct carried flatboats over the rushing Mohawk to a secure anchorage at a man-made harbor. Innkeepers and purveyors of all sorts kept up a lively commerce with the canal men, as did whores, pickpockets and confidence men. In short, the little town had changed greatly since the glorious day when Governor Clinton’s flotilla came down the canal bearing a pail of Lake Erie water on its way to the mighty Atlantic.
Judge Benton had served as village president for the first few years of the new dispensation. John Dygert had been elected this past year but the judge soon realized that his successor could not manage the influx of rowdies and grifters who came with the canal. The judge would persuade Loomis to successfully defeat Dygert in November of 1830 but that was still a few months off.
These village politicians were not aware of the moment the next afternoon when the three Smiths stepped off a canal boat and strode up River Street. First proceeded the grizzled farmer whose son had become a prophet. Close behind were his grown sons, Sam and Don Carlos. None had the slightest doubt that God Himself had spoken to their Joseph.
The Smiths’ intention on this journey was to preach the message of salvation in canal towns most noted for sin before seeking new converts in their native Vermont. As was their practice since leaving Palmyra, they each sought a separate bar-room or house of ill repute before which to launch their sermons.
In keeping with this practice, the elder Smith stopped a passing farm hand and asked to be directed to a house where women freely committed sins of the flesh. The lad grinned at the old-timer and sent him on his way to Madame Murphy’s. Sam Smith stationed himself before the most raucous of the many taverns on River Street, while young Don Carlos Smith went in search of a Methodist meeting house where he expected to find a more docile congregation. None of the three notice a cadaverous man, clad in black broadcloth, noting their movements.
Two hours later, Arphaxad Loomis and Judge Benton were holding forth on the judge’s porch, damning all Whigs to hell when Constable Hinman came walking up with two young fellows close behind.
Appears to be a need for judging,” said Nate Benson to his companion.
Shall I prosecute or defend, your worship?”
Remains to be seen,” returned the judge. “So what fish have you hooked for us, Hinman?”
These two lads report their Pa to be abducted.”
I’m sure it was Eber Howe what done it!” exclaimed the younger boy, who appeared to be about fourteen.
Shh! You don’t know that!” the elder, who looked to be twenty or twenty one, tried to shush his brother.
But I seen old Eber Howe lurkin about when I was searching for the Methodist house.”
Which you never found!”
I appreciate the ex parte, lads,” said the Judge. “But let’s start with some facts. Who, for example, blackened your eye, young man?”
Twas heathens, sir, that done it.”
Heathens?” smiled Loomis. “Do you mean to say that Red Indians gave you a thrashing? Have you seen any war parties about, Constable?”
No, your honor, I mean Mr. Loomis. This one here, Sam Smith he calls hisself, was given a beating by the patrons of Klock’s Tavern. Seems he tried to preach the gospel to them and they tossed him out on his ear.”
So what’s the offense brings them here, Hinman?” asked the judge. “No one was knifed, were they? Surely, we can’t call a bit of fisticuffs an assault, can we?”
No, your honor, but there’s more. They’re preachers of the Gold Bible.”
Is that so?” The judge looked from one to another. “They seem a trifle young to be hardened grifters of that sort.”
They came to town with their father.”
He’s been kidnapped, sir!” cried out the younger boy. “I swear Eber Howe done it!”
I can’t make heads or tails of this,” said the judge. “You boys stay shut and the Constable will sum up matters. You have one minute, Hinman.”
There’s other witnesses, your honor, who saw an old man struggling against three other men who threw a sack over his head and tossed him into a wagon. The older one here, Sam, was just finishing up getting his beating at Klock’s but he saw the last of his Pa being carried off.”
Did you inquire of the lads if their father owed anyone money?” asked Loomis.
I did, but they maintain that a dispute over religion is at the bottom of it. They assert that this Eber Howe was formerly a follower of their brother, and has now become an enemy to the sect.”
Nate,” said the lawyer, “These fellows must be part pf the crowd Dygert was telling us about. Here, you two lads, tell us what we should know about your church.”
Sam and Don Carlos then provided a somewhat lengthy summary of the divine revelations which had been received by their brother Joseph over the past several years. The eminent jurists heard of the first time God Almighty spoke to a boy in the woods, followed by countless angelic visitations, and finally directions as to digging up the famous golden bible buried on a hilltop by ancient Indians thousands of years ago.
And you say that the Indians are really Jews?” Loomis stifled a smile.
Israelites. They built a big boat and sailed across the Pacific,” said Don Carlos.
Tell me,” asked the judge, “Has anyone tried to steal those gold plates from your brother? They must be worth quite a sum.”
The angel took the gold plates back to heaven,” Sam promptly answered.
How fortunate,” said the judge. “And now to the matter at hand, who is this Eber Howe whom you suspect of abducting your father?”
He is an evil man who was excommunicated from our church for his sins,” Sam told them. “Now he is traveling about gathering lies about our family so he can put them in a book and make people fall away from the true faith restored for us in these latter days.”
What sort of lies is he gathering about your family?” inquired Loomis.
That we Smiths are a shiftless and indolent lot,” cried Don Carlos before his brother could answer. “He found deceitful men who have sworn that our brother Joseph was a hoaxer and fraud who pretended to find buried treasures. And that he was arrested in some town!”
I see,” said the judge, “and now Eber Howe has turned from gathering lies to abduction? For what purpose?”
We know not,” answered Sam, “other than that his purpose must be nefarious.”
The judge whispered an aside to Loomis and then turned to the Constable. “Hinman, take these young gentlemen to the lock-up for their own safety. ‘Twouldn’t do to have the whole family kidnapped.”
Yes, sir!” The constable clapped each young man by the elbow.
And then meet us at Mrs. Murphy’s establishment. We will need to fully investigate this matter. Bring a few other likely lads.” After the constable had led off the Smith boys, the judge fetched his sword cane and a cap and ball pistol that he handed to his friend. “As a judge I can’t be shooting visitors to our fair village.”
Loomis pocketed the small pistol and the two gentlemen set off from the judge’s Garden Street manse down the hill to the less elegant part of the village. Approaching the new aqueduct, they heard the sounds of merriment and commerce arising from all sides. A few shouts and shrieks drifted out of the gin mills but no one seemed to be getting murdered, as Loomis noted. In front of Mrs. Murphy’s, they found one of her large Irish relatives pummeling a pair of inebriated sailors. “What’s all this, Paddy?” asked the judge, poking the red-haired man with the butt of his cane. The Irishman, who knew that the judge’s cane was a scabbard for a sizable sword, grinned obsequiously. “Just reminding these customers that our ladies deserve some courtesy.”
Indeed they do, Paddy. And how is your charming proprietress?”
Molly? Just fine, your honor. Will you be requiring anything special this evening?”
I never frequent whore houses, my fine Celtic hero. Doctor’s orders. But do tell the Madam that we require a word with her.”
In about a minute, Molly Murphy was at the door inviting them into the parlor “for a nip of the good stuff.” The judge confided to Loomis that he had his doubts about entering such a dubious establishment. “But the exigencies of the present investigation clearly require it,” advised the attorney. Sipping some genuine Kentucky, the judge was slow to come to the point. “Molly, some hare-brained preacher’s been grabbed from hereabouts. Name of Smith. Preaches that Jesus has come down to earth once more, and in fact here to New York state. What do you hear?”
There wasn’t much happened on the street that Molly didn’t know and she had no reason to hold back. “Dygert’s in the game,” she whispered. “He and that scarecrow preacher Van Slyke and a stranger who looks like he died last week.”
Dygert!” exclaimed Loomis. “It seems an awfully low water for him to stick his oar.”
He’s a fool, Arph. Fools by definition are apt to do anything. Tell me, Molly, where have they taken the preacher? Or have they killed him already?”
They can’t have gone far. Mose Wheldon loaned them his wagon to carry off their victim, and he was back on the street not an hour later at his usual occupation.”
Shoveling up horseshit?” laughed Loomis.
Molly nodded. “And if neither of you fine gentlemen wish to sample my wares, I’ll be back to business.” The judge patted her on the rump and pressed a coin in her bosom. “A reliable lass,” he commented as they two set to wait for reinforcements. They discussed the coming legislative term and the incompetence of Governor Enos Throop. “There’s few can measure up to DeWitt Clinton,” opined the judge. “He leaves an eternal legacy, to be sure,” concurred Loomis. By then, Constable Hinman and several other men with lanterns had arrived. The judge informed them of what he had learned from Molly Murphy.
D’ye think it’s a case of ransom?” asked Hinman.
What else? Those fools probably think the gold plates to be real. Now, scatter and bring Mose Wheldon to Klock’s tavern. He’ll have the knowledge we seek.” Loomis and Benton made their way to the tavern and continued their discussion of Albany politics. They considered their colleague Van Buren an inspired choice for vice president. “Old Kinderhook will keep Old Hickory on the straight and narrow” was the judge’s view, being somewhat cautious about Jackson’s fitness for the highest office.
Twas wise not to mention Dygert to Hinman,” observed Loomis. “We need to keep his name out of this tomfoolery if we can.”
Indeed, Arphaxad, my boy. But ne’er forget I have you in mind for his successor.”
All the more reason to keep the honor of the office untainted. But tell me, Nate, do you truly take Dygert to be so avaricious as to kidnap a man?”
Seems odd, does it not?” The judge found his pipe and proceeded to poke about in the ashes of the fireplace for an ember. “We’ll soon see to the truth of the matter.”
Presently, Hinman returned with the manure collector in tow. “Let’s be short, Wheldon,” said the judge. “Where did you carry those three men and the fourth with the hood over his head?” The farmer professed ignorance until the constable hit him in the ribs two or three times. Then he recalled taking the persons to a shack across the Mohawk from Lovers Leap. Assigning one of the young men to take Wheldon to the village lock-up, Judge Benton led the remaining investigators to the shack designated by the manure man.
Following the towpath eastward for a mile, they soon saw a flickering light The judge ordered Hinman to keep his men back to prevent an escape by the kidnappers while he and Loomis advanced to where they could peer through the tilting boards of the shack. By the dim light of the kidnappers’ lantern, Arphaxad could make out a man tied to a chair and a tall figure standing in front of the bound man. “Is that a Bible he’s waving about?” he whispered to the judge.
I’d say so. It appears that Reverend Van Slyke is preaching a sermon to the messenger of the new prophet. Sounds like he’s proposing repentance. Where are the other two?”
Enjoying a libation, I’d say.” Loomis pointed to a rough bench on which the village president and another man were passing a bottle back and forth.
Let me have a go at ‘im!” The unknown man staggered to his feet.
That must be Eber Howe, the sworn enemy of the new Muhammad,” Loomis whispered. “Let’s hear what he has to say.”
Howe leaned over their victim, poking the man repeatedly in the chest. “Do you deny, Smith, that you and your boy Joe are thoroughgoing frauds? I have the affidavies right here ascertaining that you took money from numerous folks under false pretenses of treasure-seeking and such.”
I will pray for ye, Mr. Howe, lest ye be drug down to the infernal regions by Satan and his minions,” declared the old man.
I have here an affidavy from Constable Philip DeZeng of Bainbridge, New York!” Howe waved a paper in Smith’s face. “He attests, under oath mind you, that he arrested your son Joseph Smith for defrauding a farmer by name of Josiah Stowell. You recognize the name?”
Stowell was an agent sent by Satan to mock at God’s holy messenger!”
Hmm, Satan? Easy to say, sir,” Howe nodded to his companions as if some point had been proven. “It says on this paper that your son, sir, took money from that poor old farmer on the pretense that he had a magic stone through which he would look, and in such manner discover great treasures of gold and silver. Sounds very like those magic spectacles he makes so much of now, don’t it, Mr. Smithy?”
You mock at the Urim and the Thummin at your peril, sir!”
I guess that’s how Joe Jr. styles those magic specs of his, the ones he claims let him translate the golden plates which, by the by, never existed!”
Old Smith glared at his tormentor, too enraged to speak. Peering at the sight from their place of concealment, Loomis could not stifle a guffaw.
What’s that?” Dygert exclaimed. “Is someone there?”
Game’s up, Arphaxad,” said the judge. “Let’s join the dance.”
John Dygert’s face turned white and the minister frowned mightily as the judge and the atoorney entered the shack. Eber Howe barely looked up from his interrogation, posing a question to Smith about a more recent arrest of his son for being a disorderly person.
What’s all this, John?” Benton asked with seeming joviality. “What fish have you and Reverend Van Slyke hooked?”
Since neither Dygert nor Van Slyke could form an answer, the judge continued. “I see that you have caught two of the imposters for which the canal is so noted. We’ll lock them both up, if you’re agreeable?” The village president nodded weakly and the judge called loudly for Hinman and his men. As soon as the agents of the law appeared, Benton indicated that Smith and Howe should be taken to the lock-up forthwith. “Mr. Dygert and the Reverend have beat us to it, lads. It is to their credit that these two confidence men are in custody.”
When Hinman had departed with his prisoners, the Judge’s feigned smile disappeared. “You’ve been up to some monkeyshines here, the pair of you. And you don’t need to mount your high horse, Reverend. If I had not happened on this matter, the both of you would before the Oyer and Terminer by morning.”
In other words,” Arphaxad felt the need for clarity with such fools as these. “We intend to conceal your foolishness with a cloak of lies, much as it offends our consciences. Before morning, Hinman will hasten the whole passel of Smiths on down the canal.”
That man and his sons are enemies of Christianity!” the minister finally exploded. “We’ve done no wrong in condemning their infamous lies.”
Condemn all you like from your pulpit, Van Slyke,” the judge advised, “But try any more abductions and the only pulpit you’ll have will be on Blackwell’s Island.”
Leave such madmen alone and they quickly fade from public notice,” observed Loomis, taking a milder tact.
Indeed,” said the judge. “Such cranks are no threat to church or polity. Americans will never give credence to their nonsensical ravings.”
A farm boy digs up a whole new Bible of solid gold? Hah!”Loomis picked up from the floor the book which Smith’s son had published a few months before. “And this is the sacred word, I take it?”
Arphaxad Loomis tossed the book out the door and straight into the canal. “And now, my friends,” said the future village president, “let us repair to Klock’s Tavern for a needful libation.”

Monday, June 18, 2018

Roxalana: a short version of the Roxy Druse murder story

an illustration from the Saturday Globe, 1886

A sample from a new collection of Asteronga stories coming in Fall 2018:

"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:



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.”