Saturday, October 6, 2018
Originally published in 2013, the eleven stories collected in Asteronga, New York have been re-published in a newly formatted and revised edition.
On Amazon in two formats: Kindle at $2.99 and paperback at $9.95
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
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
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 cannot account for her ability to speak multiple languages and her vast knowledge of history until a half century later.
"When the Saints Came to Asteronga" features the return of Judge Nathaniel Benton and attorney Arphaxad Loomis, featured 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.
"Roxalana" is a variation on the story of the 1884 ax murderess of Jordanville explored in much more detail in Roxy Druse and the Murders of Herkimer County
"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 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. Thsir 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 draws on 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 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.
Sunday, August 19, 2018
Joseph Smith Sr, courtesy LDSanswers.org
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 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.”
The first collection of tales from Asteronga as well as the novel based on the relationship of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and his sister Sophronia are available on Amazon
Monday, June 18, 2018
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:
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.