Saturday, March 25, 2023

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Co-authoring with ChatGPT


You’ve probably been hearing the alarm bells ringing in academia since the arrival of ChatGPT a couple months ago. This latest free “gift” to the public from OpenAI has been seized upon by unethical students, we are told, who have used it to write essays assigned by their profs – who are sometimes fooled by the clever AI or not. When this discussion came to the teacher lunchroom in my school, I consulted with my old English Department from the 80s and they were sure they could spot a phony essay on Macbeth from a mile away, and if they couldn’t, they’d simply ask the students to write essays by hand during class time. You can see that my old colleagues are a little out of touch. Handwriting? Is this 1959?


I knew I needed to spend some time with the robot writer.


First off, the program works. Give it a simple science prompt like “Explain photosynthesis in 500 words or less” and the resulting answer deserves an A. Of course, if you know your students, you might be amazed at their sudden mastery of subject matter, syntax etc.


However, it also works very well if you give it a fairly sophisticated history prompt, like this:


Explain the roles of Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin in the development of communism in Russia and their relationship in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution.


Okay, I said to myself, the AI can draw on topics covered in textbooks but how about a subject American school books studiously avoid, like the Ludlow Massacre of 1914? So, I tried this prompt Explain the significance of the miners strike in Ludlow Colorado in 1913, the sides involved in the conflict and the tragic outcome” and got this essay back in a little over a minute:


The Ludlow Massacre of 1914 was a significant event in the history of labor relations in the United States. The conflict began as a strike by coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado, who were demanding better pay, working conditions, and recognition of their union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The strike began in September 1913 and lasted for several months.

The miners were opposed by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), which was owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and other wealthy industrialists. The company refused to negotiate with the UMWA and instead hired strikebreakers and private security guards to break the strike.

The situation escalated in April 1914 when the Colorado National Guard was called in to protect the strikebreakers. On April 20, 1914, guardsmen and company-hired guards attacked a tent colony of striking miners and their families, killing at least two dozen people, including women and children.

This tragedy, known as the Ludlow Massacre, became a rallying point for the labor movement in the US and led to further strikes and protests across the country. It also led to the formation of the National War Labor Board in 1918, which was established to resolve labor disputes during World War I.

In conclusion, the Ludlow massacre was a tragic event that happened during the miners strike in Ludlow, Colorado in 1913, where the miners were striking for better pay, working conditions and recognition of their union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr, which lead to tragic deaths of many including women and children.


But when I gave it a prompt for a little known 1913 textile strike in upstate New York, ChatGPT made up a bunch of “facts” that had nothing to do with the actual history of my small home town. I next asked it why it did this and it told me the following:


Chat GPT, like other language models, is trained on a large dataset of text, which includes a wide range of information. However, it is not capable of understanding the context or veracity of the information it's been trained on. The model is also not able to access any external information beyond what it's been trained on.

Additionally, Chat GPT is designed to generate human-like responses, which means it will try to generate an answer even if it doesn't have the correct information or doesn't know about the subject. This is because the model is programmed to provide an answer to any question it is asked, even if it is not accurate or relevant.

The model also does not have consciousness or self-awareness, it does not "know" if it doesn't know, it cannot reflect on its own knowledge or lack thereof.

In summary, Chat GPT is not able to admit when it does not know about a subject because it is not capable of understanding the context or veracity of the information it's been trained on and also because it is programmed to provide an answer to any question it is asked, even if it is not accurate or relevant. It's important to keep in mind that the output generated by the model should be considered with a critical eye, and not taken as fact.


Well, that seems like a fair answer. My new friend ChatGPT is unable to say “I don’t know.” But the I-don’t-know response could be included in a future version.


Then I tried some other prompts, like “Does God exist?” “Describe the presidency of Donald J. Trump” “Describe the Ukraine war as if Russia is winning” and I got some even-handed, noncommittal essays. It likes bothsides-ism but it did admit that Joe Biden won the 2020 election.


But wait, I thought, if ChatGPT excels at writing to a specific formula, why couldn’t it replace the kind of formula writing so many of my students love, Young Adult Fiction? I gave it this prompt which may seem familiar to anyone who keeps track of the YA world:


PROMPT: Write a short story of approximately 2000 words about a future society in which the threats of climate change, pandemics and economic inequity have been solved. The main character should be an 18-year-old woman who is dissatisfied with the lack of challenges inherent in her society. Include description of the future society and realistic dialogue.


This was the result:


In the future, society had finally solved the long-standing issues of climate change, pandemics, and economic inequity. The world was a greener, healthier, and more just place, thanks to the tireless efforts of generations past. But for 18-year-old Sarah, this utopia left her feeling unfulfilled. She longed for adventure and a sense of purpose, something that her society's lack of challenges couldn't provide.

Sarah grew up in a world where food, water, and energy were in abundance. Natural disasters were a thing of the past, and people lived in harmony with the environment. Medical technology had advanced to the point where diseases were eradicated, and everyone had access to quality healthcare. And poverty and unemployment were non-existent, as a fair distribution of resources and opportunities had been implemented.

However, Sarah couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. She couldn't help but feel bored with her life, and she yearned for something more. She had always been an ambitious person, and she couldn't help but feel that her society was holding her back.

One day, as she was walking through the city, she stumbled upon an old, abandoned building. It was the only one of its kind, as the rest of the city had been rebuilt to reflect the ideals of the utopia. Curious, Sarah ventured inside, and was surprised to find a group of people huddled together, talking in hushed tones.

"What's going on here?" Sarah asked, approaching the group.

"We're the rebels," one of them, a young man, said. "We're trying to overthrow the government and bring back the challenges that have been taken away."

Sarah was intrigued. She had never heard of such a thing before, and the idea of rebellion in this perfect society was both exhilarating and terrifying.

"But why?" Sarah asked. "Isn't this utopia what everyone wants?"

"For some, yes," the young man said. "But for others, like us, the lack of adversity has made life pointless. We want to be tested, to be pushed to our limits. We want to be able to fail and to succeed on our own terms."

Sarah was torn. On one hand, she understood the rebels' yearning for challenge and excitement. But on the other, she couldn't help but think of all the people who had been saved from suffering by the utopia.

"I don't know," Sarah said. "I see both sides of it. But I do know that I want to help you. I want to be a part of this rebellion."

The rebels welcomed Sarah with open arms, and she quickly found herself caught up in their plans and schemes. She trained and prepared for the rebellion, and soon she was an integral part of the group.

As the day of the rebellion arrived, Sarah felt a mix of nerves and excitement. She knew that what they were doing was dangerous, and that there was a real chance they could fail. But she also knew that it was what she had been looking for her entire life: a true challenge.

The rebellion was a success, and the utopia was overthrown. But the new society that emerged was not what Sarah had expected. Instead of the challenges she had craved, she found only chaos and suffering. She realized that the utopia, while not perfect, had been the best possible solution to the problems of the past. She learned that sometimes, the easy path is the best one, and that true fulfillment comes not from overcoming obstacles, but from working together to create a better world for all.


Not too bad, right? Except that ChatGPT is clearly programmed to support the status quo. Our protagonist here, Sarah, learned that “sometimes, the easy path is the best one.” Why bother to rebel? Of course, it could be programmed so the rebels always beat the oligarchy.


At present, the programs seems unable to write more than 500 or 600 words so you cannot  assign it a novel, wait ten minutes, and then submit it to your publisher but that obviously can be adjusted. And this is the free version of the program so it’s easy to see that formula fiction could easily be churned out in the very near future. 

When I tried a subject that offended the machine,  I got a content warning. I was inspired by a Muslim student who wrote in her college essay about how her parents threatened to marry her off to an old man if she continued to “act like an American girl.”  The program didn’t like that topic and I think was triggered by words like Muslim, Pakistani, and mosque. ChatGPT doesn’t want to offend anyone at this early stage of its life.

I continue to explore this, and I suggest you do the same if the future of the written word is of concern to you. There is little doubt that only slightly more advanced versions of the program could write news stories to meet certain criteria. Advances in AI image and voice technology could conceivably provide synthetic reporters to read such stories to us – or am I getting carried away???




Oh, btw, OpenAi which released ChatGPT in November is at least partly owned by Elon Musk.

This essay is cross-published at the Daily Kos site.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Disappearance of Juliet Poyntz in 1937


Today we return to the streets of New York in search of answers to another long unsolved political assassination, that of Juliet Poyntz, a leading member of the US Communist Party who turned against Stalin after witnessing first hand the terror accompanying the Show Trials of 1936-37 in Russia. After her disappearance, it was Carlo Tresca more than any other radical who pointed directly to Stalin's killers as responsible for her death. 

Shortly before her disappearance on June 5, 1937, she met with Tresca and explained to him exactly why she could no longer associate herself with the Party. She had not yet gone public with what she had seen in Russia nor with what she knew of Soviet crimes in the US, but she may well have revealed far more to Tresca than the Party could tolerate. Or at least, Party leaders may have thought so. This possibly explains why he was assassinated  in January 1943, a time when Stalin was desperate for US aid to continue the war against Hitler. If members of the Soviet consulate in New York were complicit in Poyntz' abduction, that would have proven most embarrassing to the dictator.

Poyntz' New York story begins at Barnard College, where she was a leading student not only in academics but also in drama and debate. Following a brief early marriage, she took up a life of activism,  eventually becoming education director for the ILGWU. When the Socialist Party split after the Bolshevik Revolution, she sided with the newly formed Communist Party and became head of its Women's Department in 1928. Later, she dropped out of public view, traveled to Europe and Asia, and was widely assumed to have become an agent for the Comintern, Stalin's international intelligence/terrorism branch. In 1937 she was back in New York trying to raise money from her deceased ex-husband's estate, telling her attorney Elias Lieberman that she needed to "get away fast." Both Lieberman and Tresca later said that she seemed very frightened at this point in her life.

In the spring of 1938, Juliet Poyntz was staying at the American Women's Association at 353 West 57th Street in Manhattan, a low cost hotel for women. The building is still there, quite shabby and  undergoing renovations, but 84 years ago it was a very respectable place for single women. 

According to Denise Lynn (Where is Juliet Stuart Poyntz, UMass Press 2021) the only thing hotel employees saw  as unusual about Miss Poyntz was the frequency of phone calls she received from one unidentified man:

"Sometime in the spring of 1937, telephone operators at the American Woman’s Association Clubhouse at 353 West 57th Street in Manhattan began noticing that a man with a deep, German-sounding voice was calling daily for a resident named Juliet Stuart Poyntz. Poyntz was by all accounts a good resident. She was well educated, articulate, and had a background in teaching at Columbia University, where she was also working on a historical research project. She paid her rent on time and kept her room tidy. It was not particularly unusual for residents to get phone calls, but the man with the deep voice called so frequently that the clubhouse employees remembered him. Poyntz took the calls every time, so she must have known him. These daily calls did not raise any alarms, until Poyntz disappeared."

 She must have led a very isolated life by this point because no friend or acquaintance noticed that she had gone missing on June 5. According to the same source, it was the hotel manager Mr. Thackerberry who checked on her room when the rent went unpaid for several weeks:

Still, there was nothing to alert him to her unusual life—except for those daily phone calls. The telephone operators noticed that Poyntz took the calls throughout the spring and into the early summer. Then, on a hot June evening, after speaking briefly to the man, she left the clubhouse and reportedly walked in the direction of Central Park, three short blocks away. She did not return that day, or the next. After the rent went unpaid for several weeks, Thackerberry realized that something was wrong. He went to her deserted room and found an open jar of Jell-O on the desk, stale breadcrumbs on the table, and her belongings still in their places. The operators told him about the calls from the deep-voiced man and said that he had never called the clubhouse again after the June evening she had disappeared.

Thackerberry called Poyntz’s emergency contact, Marie B. MacDonald, a former co-worker and a long-time friend. MacDonald contacted Poyntz’s attorney, Elias Lieberman, also a former co-worker, and the two went to her room to look around. There was no indication that Poyntz had planned to be away from her room for long: she had left behind her passport and her citizenship papers and had not withdrawn any money from her skimpy bank account. The two contacted another friend of Poyntz’s, and together they packed up her belongings and put them into storage. They decided not to alert authorities because they knew that Poyntz was working for the underground and they did not want the police or FBI tracking her.

Seven months passed, and still no formal missing person’s report was made. MacDonald, concerned that Poyntz had failed to contact her, claimed that she had pressed Lieberman to contact the police, but he never did. Eventually, it was Thackerberry who unintentionally alerted them. After he mentioned to a police officer friend that one of his tenants had gone missing, that officer or another employee of the New York City police leaked the news to the press.

The mystery is why neither the friend whom she listed as her emergency contact nor her lawyer ever reported her missing. Were they active party members complicit in her disappearance or simply afraid for their own lives? Carlo Tresca, the longtime editor of the weekly il Martello, had no such hesitation once he learned of Poyntz' disappearance. Largely thanks to his unrelenting drumbeat of accusations, a grand jury investigated her disappearance and called the veteran anarchist as a witness. Tresca asserted, perhaps based on what she had told him, that Poyntz had been lured to Central Park by a former lover and current Comintern agent, Shachno Epstein, but no indictment was ever returned. A somewhat unreliable ex-communist named Paul Crouch accused the Stalinist executioner George Mink of being the one who lured her to her death, but there is no evidence she ever knew Mink. 

In the late 1940s many leading American communists became what could be called professional anti-communists, offering exposes of the Party's crimes to the Dies Committee (later HUAC) and to Joseph McCarthy. Among this group was Whittaker Chambers, Sidney Hook, Elizabeth Bentley and a long-ago founder of the Party, Benjamin Gitlow. He offered a very detailed take on Juliet Poyntz' disappearance. Whether it was based on insider knowledge or speculation is impossible to say. However, Peoples World, which bills itself as the successor to the Daily Worker, dismisses it as fiction:

 Poyntz was disillusioned by Stalin's purges and was unwilling to continue as an espionage agent for the USSR. Gitlow relates that the OGPU/NKVD used Poyntz's former lover, a man named Shakne Epshtein (Shachno Epstein (1881-1945)), the associate editor of the Communist Yiddish daily Morgen Freiheit (and an OGPU/NKVD agent himself), to lure Poyntz out for a walk in Central Park. "They met at Columbus Circle and proceeded to walk through Central Park...Shachno took her by the arm and led her up a side path, where a large black limousine hugged the edge of the walk ... Two men jumped out, grabbed Miss Poyntz, shoved her into the car and sped away." Gitlow relates that the assassins took Poyntz to the woods near the Roosevelt estate in Dutchess County, and killed and buried her there. "The body was covered with lime and dirt. On top were placed dead leaves and branches which the three killers trampled down with their feet."

Did the Comintern agent Epstein really meet Juliet Poyntz at this busy spot on the evening of June 5, 1937? 

Did Epstein really lead her to Central Park Drive, in 1937 a busy thoroughfare for automobiles, where she was seized and thrown into a waiting limousine?  

This scenario is certainly possible, maybe even likely, but if Gitlow had evidence of a brazen abduction and murder, why was he never called before a grand jury? In fact, why was he never indicted for concealing evidence of a crime? There are no answers at this late date, but it does seem likely that Poyntz was silenced so that she could not reveal what she had seen in Russia. And my own growing conviction is that Tresca's murder  five years later was linked to this never-solved disappearance.

"353 West 57,"  a short story based on the Juliet Poyntz mystery, will be published in the journal, Drunk Monkeys, in 2023.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The still unsolved murder of Carlo Tresca


On January 11, 1943 the anarchist Carlo Tresca was shot to death on the northwest corner of 15th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. There was no doubt that the shooter was 33 year old Carmine Galante, known associate of Mafia boss Frank Garofalo. He was held in prison for nearly a year but never charged by the Manhattan D.A. Frank Hogan, nor was the case pursued by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

On July 12, 1979 Carmine Galante, who had risen over the next 36 years to head the Bonanno crime family, was shot to death by four masked gunmen in the garden of Joe & Mary's Restaurant in Brooklyn. His cigar was still in his mouth when this picture was taken.

You could say it was karma or quote Jesus, "Those who live by the sword die by the sword." Or you could point to the many killings Galante had himself ordered that same year in his takeover of the growing narcotics trade from the Gambino family. Or you could say it was the long delayed justice for his murder of one of the most courageous independent American radicals of the early 20th century. As Dorothy Gallagher titled her definitive 1983 biography of Tresca, he had "all the right enemies." In the pages of his Italian language weekly, il Martello, he had attacked Stalin, Mussolini, homegrown fascists and Kremlin stooges, the Mafia, the Catholic Church and an unending stream of capitalists and corrupt politicians. Although evidence and witnesses clearly pointed to Galante as the shooter, who had given the order to silence the 63 year old editor? And why now, when Tresca had been carrying on his unrelenting attacks for decades?

Years of controversy followed Tresca's death as one side and then another accused the communists or the fascists of ordering the murder. Both Ms. Gallagher and a second biographer, Nunzio Pernicone (Carlo Tresca; Portrait of a Rebel, 2010) agree that the most likely instigator of the murder was Frank Garofalo, a Mafia boss and frequent associate of Generoso Pope, publisher of the Italian language daily, il Progresso, whom Tresca had insulted a few months earlier. Pope's influence over the Italian vote had led FDR and Mayor LaGuardia to overlook his pro-fascist stance prior to Pearl Harbor, but that was not something Tresca would allow anyone to forget. However, the old radical had never attacked Garofalo in the pages of il Martello. 

Others pointed to the reported sighting in New York of the infamous Stalinist hit man Vittorio Vidali just before the murder. Tresca had reserved special scorn for Vidali, who was guilty of personally executing hundreds of anarchists and Trotskyists in Spain at the behest of Stalin. Tresca had an intense hatred for all Stalinists, especially since their abduction and murder of his friend Julia Poyntz in 1938. Her crime: after visiting the Soviet Union, she came away completely disillusioned. Could his continued focus on her disappearance have alarmed Stalin that winter of 1942-43 when continued US aid against the Nazis was so vital?

I returned to the neighborhood surrounding Union Square where Carlos Tresca spent most of his life, living in various apartments and moving the offices of his newspaper frequently, always low on funds, declaring the paper bankrupt more than once. I started where he was shot down, a few feet from the final location of il Martello. The building at 97 Fifth Ave has been renovated since his time and appears to be converted entirely to apartments. The 15th Street doorway through which he exited on January 11, 1943, according to Nunzio Perricone, has long since disappeared. and there is nothing to indicate the enormity of the crime once committed at this crosswalk.

Turning west, I looked down 15th Street where the getaway car carrying Carmine Galante and perhaps Frank Garofalo or the mysterious Vittorio Vidali sped away into the darkness of a city whose streetlights had been dimmed by wartime restrictions.

Retracing what I know of Carlo Tresca's life on these blocks, I came to 112 East 19th Street, an earlier home both to il Martello and to the Rand School, a longtime institution for workers run by American Socialists. No plaque identifies the history of the present building although it was here where a rightwing mob once stormed the school, only to be beaten back by workers and students.

il Martello, in the course of six moves from 1917 to 1943 occupied the same address as the Rand School once again at 7 East 15th Street. Today a Buddhist Center occupies the building, which might have pleased the old radical. Or might not, since he adhered to a very strict atheism.

Tresca moved his own quarters as frequently as he moved his office, but still never straying too far from Union Square, then and now a hub for demonstrations and activism. And a great place to meet the most interesting New Yorkers. Here is the square today:

The last stop of today's walking tour of Carlo Tresca's New York is at John's restaurant on 12th Street and Second Avenue, established in 1908. John's was a favorite gathering place for the radicals and writers of New York in the 1930s and it was here that Tresca enjoyed lunch with his old friend, the novelist John Dos Passos, only hours before he was killed. Perhaps they talked of Dos Passos' journey to Spain with Ernest Hemingway and his deep disillusion with the Stalinist destruction of the anarchist and socialist opposition to Franco's fascism. Dos Passos might perhaps have remembered how Carlo had warned him to beware the murderous NKVD agents sent by Stalin to wipe out any leftists who would not bow to Moscow. Or perhaps they discussed a rumor that one of those same homicidal agents, Vittorio Vidali, had left Mexico after arranging the murder of Leon Trotsky? And was possibly sighted in New York?

This coming January will mark the 80th anniversary of the still unsolved murder of Carlo Tresca. He has already appeared twice in my own works. He first appeared in The Red Nurse (2012, Amazon) as a brilliant organizer and onetime lover of Helen Schloss during the 1912 Little Falls Textile Strike. His second appearance was as mentor to the young radical Tom Ryan in The Witch Girl & The Wobbly, a novella published last year. ( Running Wild Novella Anthology, Volume 4 Book 1: Wright, Peter: 9781947041820: Books

The next appearance of Carlo Tresca is a work in progress.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Poetry from Spring 2022 In Alba, Big Windows Review and Shot Glass Journal

Several poems which will be collected in the upcoming chapbook have been published in recent months. Last Week When It Rained appears in the Winter 2022 of Alba Journal of Poetry. This journal  also published  Sappho to Gongyla and The Confusion of Katya in issue 8 back in September 2003. 

Last Week When It Rained

Last week when it rained, we were together
in my small apartment, sharing the most intimate
confessions. Despite the late hour, we continued
to uncover answers to the questions that had troubled us
for many decades. This kind of work, you said to me,
is exceptionally satisfying, and I agreed.

The Confusion of Katya
(after Akhmatova)

A river flows past
a dome of many windows.
Monks are chanting.
My sister and I hear the mass, waiting for Catherine's barge
and the sweep of her golden wheat.

On the third day the aging Tsarina rides alone through ripening fields.
She takes my grandmother's ancient hand
and on the crooked staircase
kisses my lips.


Sappho to Gongyla
(inspired by several fragments from the Greek)

My face was hot. My need was strong.
I saw you lifting your arms at the edge of the sea.

Did you truly expect to touch the sky?

You did not glance in my direction.
You did not hear me breathing as I breathed your name.

When the moon sets, I will still be here counting the stars.

Big Windows Review published the poem Purple Sun and the flash fiction New Years Eve on the Q in their May 2022 edition. This journal also published What You Said in German was Not About Kissing in the May 2021 issue.

Purple Sun 


I am back where I started. You are walking 

toward me with a glass of water in your hand. 

I look downward at your bare feet in the grass.

I understand that there are shoes you have never worn.


I know that everything might have been different.

I might not have crossed the street. You might have told me 

to go away. There might be two moons in the sky 

or a purple sun. Nod your head if you agree.

What You Said in German was Not About Kissing

Sharing a ham & cheese hero with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise and a bag of those cheese waffie things you liked on a hillside at the Bronx Botanical Garden was more fun than meeting you in that trattoria on the Piazza Navona with the waiter who spoke such good English because you were wearing the blue dress that buttoned down the front and we were caught in the rain but when we got back to the apartment on 189th street it was hotter than ever and we dragged the mattress up onto the roof and ate pepperoni pizza from downstairs where everybody spoke Italian to you but you didn’t know a word except maybe prego and scusi and although you took German at Hunter it wasn’t much help when we rode the D train to Central Park where the Met was performing something from Wagner, maybe Tannhauser which goes on forever but I loved you because you had read all of The Magic Mountain and called it Der Zauberberg and sometimes I look at you and want to tell you that Dominic’s has been closed for years and there’s probably no one else except maybe Barbara Kaufman who remembers the night when you said something in German and I thought you said “Kiss me.”

This poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Big Windows Review.

This month, Shot Glass Journal of Short Poetry published I Have No Memory, written in Austin last year.

I Have No Memory



I have no memory of getting on this bus.

I am sure I will recognize one of these streets eventually.

I will get off the bus and have something to eat.

Yesterday I drank coffee in the place that you loved on South Congress Street.

I ate the same kind of tacos with egg and chorizo that you always ordered.

Later, I will meet with old friends on zoom. 

They will tell me about people who are not dead.

I have no memory of getting on this bus.
I am sure I will recognize one of these streets eventually.
I will get off the bus and have something to eat.
Yesterday I drank coffee in the place that you loved on South Congress Street.
Later, I will meet with old friends on zoom. 
They will tell me about people who are still living.

Monday, February 28, 2022

A new view of the 1884 Roxy Druse murder case


Roxy in her cell at the Herkimer Jail

The Raven Review has been kind enough to publish my short fiction based on the notorious Roxy Druse murder case of 1884, entitled:

My Mother Killed My Father

An imagined witness at the Druse trial,  Jacob Timmerman gives his theory of the case. He is convinced that Roxy took responsibility for her husband's murder in order to save their daughter Mary from the consequences of her act. Although in that era, even the hint of incest or sexual abuse would never be mentioned in a courtroom, Timmerman is certain that was what drove the seventeen year old girl to take an axe to her father in their isolated farmhouse in Jordanville, NY.

As the trial unfolded in 1885, it drew wide attention in the newly sensation-seeking national press, notably The Saturday Globe, based in nearby Utica. On the one hand, Roxy was depicted as a monster for killing and butchering her husband Bill, and then feeding his remains to the family's pigs. On the other, she was defended by many early feminists and anti-capital punishment activists who petitioned the governor to commute her death sentence. Nonetheless, she was hung at Herkimer in 1887 and her daughter served ten years before being released.

In 2011, I published an historical novel inspired by the Druse murder, entitled:

Roxy Druse & The Murders of Herkimer County

In that much longer fiction, the narrator W.H. Tippetts visits Roxy and Mary in their cell act the Herkimer County Jail and eventually comes to a similar conclusion about Roxy's sacrifice of her own life in order to save that of her daughter. Tippetts, as I picture him, is not the most perceptive character and is involved in many mysteries and adventures before reaching a somewhat muddled understanding of what happened. He is based on an actual journalist who interviewed the Druse women and wrote the short history of the county's murders included in my volume.

Here is a link to my much more detailed article from 2011 on the Druse case:

Roxy Druse: Female Fiend or a Woman Wronged?

and here are some sources and suggestions for further research:

The Herkimer County Historical Society maintains extensive files on the Druse case, as well as on the even more notorious case of Chester Gillette, who was executed for the murder of Grace Brown in 1908. The Society also owns the old jail which is occasionally opened for public visits. It is a grim place and after Roxy’s death,  her spirit was said to haunt its dark corridors.

The Little Falls Historical Society holds a vast scrapbook collection compiled by my grandfather,  which includes numerous local articles on the Druse case.

The author of  The Forgotten Central New York Murder Case maintains  that the botched nature of Roxy's hanging led to the invention of the electric as a more "humane" method for taking a life. That instrument made its debut at the state prison in Auburn, NY in 1889, and Chester Gillette was one of its most famous occupants. Gillette was tried at Herkimer for the murder of Grace Brown  and held in the same jail occupied by Roxy a few years earlier.

A search of the New York Times archive under Roxalana Druse will yield several articles from the period of the trial.

The New York State Library has a comprehensive collection of local newspapers from the years of the trail and  appeals.The case attracted many opponents of capital punishment.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

That, you tell me, is true poetry

 Published in Sledgehammer Lit 

The Edge of the Bed




At first, we are waiting on a large terrace. A clatter of plates.

Distant footsteps. All the languages are foreign. Everyone has a dog.


Twice as many people as expected are here. 

We are on a list but not the most important one.


We are asked to leave. By whose authority, I loudly demand.

People turn to stare. Some mutter. Perhaps this is all a mistake.


You point out inconsistencies in the man’s vocabulary.                                                     

It appears that he is reading from a script on his cell phone.


We are sitting on the edge of a king-sized bed.

Our foreheads are touching, or possibly our hands.


We review what has happened. We seek explanations.

None of our theories are an exact fit for the circumstances.


I ask if other people always finish your sentences.

That, you tell me, is true poetry.