Set in a mythical Mohawk Valley town, the linked stories trace the boyhood and young adulthood of the central character from about 1959 to 1970:
Juliana's Little Cemetery describes a cemetery for pets created by an undertaker's daughter. When a smaller neighborhood boy volunteers to help her with the project, Juliana comes to accepts the steady supply of dead animals and birds that he provides. It is only by accident that she discovers exactly how the boy obtains the candidates for her graveyard.
Jimmy Jenko Was My Double resembled the narrator so closely that he was always getting blamed for the other boy's misdeeds, from arson to brandishing knives. People Who Live in the Feeney Flats were the kind of people to avoid, as three boys learned when they set out a rescue a stolen rabbit and discovered a murder.
How Willie Zimmerman Got Crippled: Two boys set a trap for the local misfit, convinced he is a danger to children.
My Sister Elizabeth Was Different: She was a terrific athlete in great contrast to her brothers and happened to be there when a boy rose from the dead in Kubichek's funeral home.
Snowstorm in Lover's Lane: The narrator becomes convinced that the girl he loves is trapped in a car buried under the snow on a local lover's lane.
Responsible for All These Souls: When teenage vandals break into the abandoned Beardslee mausoleum, cousin Genevieve takes home in a card board box scattered bones and skulls The Drowned Village: A swimming party ends in tragedy when the lively Karen vanishes beneath a murky lake.
Gracie Was Never a Prostitute: Even though everyone in school says that she is a prostitute, the narrator not only rescues Gracie from local hoods but falls in love with her.
An Appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary: In the summer of 1969 thousands flocked toWoodstock a hundred miles south but only one draft dodger saw the Virgin Mary.
Burying Uncle Artie becomes a family project when the monsignor refuses to let Artie go to the family plot in old St. Dymphna's Cemetery.
Several of the stories are also available as podcasts on SoundCloud
A new collection of stories set in the mythical upstate New York village of Asteronga is now available at Amazon in digital and paper formats. The sixteen stories are inspired by history, legends and rumors of the Mohawk Valley from the 1830s to the present.
The title story "The Immortal Woman of Asteronga" is inspired by an eccentric lesbian who once held court in an old Model T on Mary Street in Little Falls. In the story she is befriended by a high school girl who is mystified by her knowledge of ancient peoples and languages.
"When the Saints Came to Asteronga" features the return of Judge Nathaniel Benton and attorney Arphaxad Loomis, last seen in the novela of the underground railroad, "Greater Love." In the present story, the two legal scholars take action when the father and brothers of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith bring their new gospel to the small Erie Canal town.
"Factory Girl" is a variation on the story of the 1912 Little Falls textile strike described more fully in The Red Nurse. "Pursuit of Happiness" is a happier version of the 1914 school teacher murder in Poland, NY.
"The Colonel Takes Command" features the commander of the local Home Guard and combines elements of the Guard's infamous cattle slaughter at Camp Jolly and the manhunt for trunk murderer Mike Masco just before World War I.
"Bad Water" intersects with the cattle slaughter scene of the previous story but is primarily a study of a recovering alcoholic of a century ago.
"Battle at Indian Cave" features of gang of immigrant children who fight to save a disabled older boy from the 1917 military draft. Their hideout is in a forgotten cave not far from Overlook Mansion in Little Falls.
"The Colored Murderer" is a look at racial attitudes in an almost entirely white mill town and is inspired by an infamous domestic murder. Like other stories, this features the actual police and fire chiefs of Little Falls, New York.
"Sister Margaret Mary"is a look into the often desperate yet creative lives of the nuns who taught generations of Catholic children in Valley towns.
"Displaced Person" is about one of the many refugees who came from Europe in the aftermath of World War II, hiding terrible secrets about what they had seen and done.
"The Marxist of the Mohawk" is the tale of a couple whose love was destroyed by intrusive FBI agents dispatched to Asteronga by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Golden Stairway to Heaven tells what happens when a DJ at Asteronga's radio station sees a UFO.
Check It, 99 is about Joe Halsdap who gets out of the Army in 1972 and decides to drive a taxi in New York City, only to retreat to Asteronga after discovering his own capacity for violence
"The Osatoot" is the story of a young boy trying to cope with his father's death.
"The Dead Boy's Suit" is a dark comedy of success in the 1960s.
The first collection of 11 Asteronga stories, published in 2013, is also available on Amazon . Ranging from the tale of an undertaker's daughter with her own special cemetery to "Burying Uncle Artie" and "Gracie Was Never a Prostitute," the grimly humorous stories are unified around the experiences of a boy growing up in the mid -20th century Mohawk Valley. A newly reformatted and revised version of the collection is available.
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
“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
“The wife-traders of
“As likely as not, your
honor. Now, will you pass that jug or do you intend to drink it all
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
“The Smithites showed up and
took a sound thrashing. The feathers without the tar, you could say.”
“Smithites?” asked the
“They follow the false
prophet from Ontario County. Reverend Van Slyke warned us to expect
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 what?”
demanded Dygert who did not appreciate their wit in such a grave
“Doesn’t every church
claim to be the church of Christ?”
“Except the Mohammedans.”
“And the Jews,” added the
“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
“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
“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,
“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
“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
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
“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
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?”
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
“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
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
“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.
“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
“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
“Leave such madmen alone and
they quickly fade from public notice,” observed Loomis, taking a
“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.”
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?
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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.
This site focuses on misunderstood or forgotten individuals and groups from the Mohawk and upper Hudson Valleys of New York state, a theme and setting I also explore in my historical novels. The postings here usually combine walking visits to historic sites with reflections on their implications for the present. Comments from readers are always welcome. email@example.com