View of Little Falls - a postcard from the 1960s
“Camp Jolly” is a story from a work in progress, a new series set in the village of Asteronga, a fictionalized version of Little Falls, New York. Readers may recall the first volume of Asteronga stories in which a young man recounts a variety of experiences from the mid 1950s through the late 1960s. Several of those stories are also available on podcast.
The new series is inspired by events from the history of the town and county in the late 19th and early 20th century. The story now made available below and as a free PDF is based on an infamous murder of 1916, moved here to 1917 to coincide with the beginning of World War I. Mike Masco, a “foreigner” living on the South Side, murdered his wife, stuffed her in a trunk, and then attempted to ship the body to a fictitious address. When his crime was discovered, he fled into the woods and fields east of the village. A manhunt ensued, in which Chief of Police Long was joined by volunteers, including firemen led by Fire Chief Cooney.
The second element of the story drawn from actual events is the Home Guard, a loosely regulated version of what later became the National Guard. Some time before 1917, the local militia men held a picnic at Camp Jolly, a resort on the railroad about five miles east of Little Falls. Some or all of the men became drunk and, as their excursion train headed home, took a few pot shots at innocent cows peacefully grazing in their pasture. They were disarmed by Chief Long and their rifles, obsolete single shot weapons last used in the Indian Wars, were confiscated. When war came in 1917, many of the same Home Guard men were inducted into the new National Guard unit in Mohawk, NY which suffered significant losses in France. Although a Colonel Beardslee was associated with the old Home Guard, no one of that name was involved in the tragic accident depicted in this story.
Here is the story of “Camp Jolly” - Reactions by email will be welcome: email@example.com
(also on free PDF at Lulu.com)
based on several true stories
When the people of Asteronga heard that Home Guard boys were taking pot shots at cows on their way home from Camp Jolly, they wondered what the hell was wrong with the Colonel. Those boys were his pride and joy so why was he letting them get drunk and raise hell. Was he getting too old to manage that gang of his?
When the train pulled into the depot, his boys were ordered to hand over their ancient 45-70s to the cops, who had gotten word of their bovine mayhem. However, the troops like they were in no mood to take orders from Chief Long, and for a minute it was touch and go. The Colonel finally came out of the depot gent’s room where he had hurriedly betaken himself and called up a few military commands. Looking them up and down with disgust as they staggered and swayed to attention, he pronounced himself very glad that the State of New York in its wisdom had seen fit not to issue repeating rifles to a crew such as his. He turned to his sergeant and told him to order the men to stack their rifles. “Bear in mind, you fools,” he added a final word, “that unlike cows, the Spaniards do tend to shoot back.”
Two years later, the murdered cows had been forgotten, and it was the Germans and not the Spaniards who were on everybody’s mind. The Colonel, being over seventy, was denied the privilege of accompanying his troops into the machine gun fire, and he was outraged. He called in every favor he had, bombarding the War Department with letters, reminding the youngsters in Washington of his youthful service at Petersburg, his valor against the Sioux, and his sanguinary work in the Philippines, all to no avail.
“Those lads are utter fools!” he thundered to Homer P. Snyder, Member of Congress. “No one but I can keep the Kaiser from cutting them to bits. They don’t know a damn thing about war!”
“Sorry, Colonel, but I went all the way to Pershing and even he can’t do a thing. It’s a matter of age, just numbers of course, but there it is. Nothing I can do.” The Congressman stifled a yawn and offered his guest a fine Cuban cigar. “But don’t worry over the lads. The Regular Army will whip your Home Guard rascals into shape.”
“Those are the same idiots who shot up eight hundred dollars worth of cows. They are drunkards, fornicators and shiftless louts. Only I can keep them in order.”
The Congressman managed to avoid pointing out that his guest had assembled, not to say hand-picked, that sorry lot that he now wished to lead to France. “Be that as it may, Colonel, Uncle Sam has declined to make use of your services this time around, despite my most vigorous efforts.”
Throwing down the half-smoked cigar, Colonel Beardslee stalked out of Snyder’s office with barely a word of thanks and made his way to Union Station. For the long trip back to upstate New York, he sat in the bar car sipping bourbon and cursing Woodrow Wilson to all who would listen. “That snooty bastard turned down Teddy Roosevelt too. Said he was too old! Why, between him and me, we practically whipped the Spaniards single-handedly, Teddy in Cuba and me in Manila.”
After boarding the Twentieth Century Limited in New York, he found a fresh audience. “The problem with Wilson,” he confided to his fellow passengers after a fourth bourbon, “is that he’s a glory hound. It would kill him to share the spotlight with real men like me and Teddy. He’s a goddamned college professor, that’s all he is and all he ever will be!”
As the train neared Asteronga, he woke from a long nap, soothed by the sight of familiar hills, farms and roads. Through the train’s grimy windows, he saw Camp Jolly, abandoned now for two summers in a row, the once bright colors of the picnic pavilions fading quickly, the walkways covered with weeds. He frowned at the sight but smiled to see the gables of his own majestic mansion at East Creek.
Clambering down from the train, the Colonel brushed aside his wife’s solicitude. “Just dandy, girl. I’m just dandy. Wasted too much time on those stuffed shirt in Washington. Waste of time. Waste of time.”
“Have you heard the news?” his wife asked as they were driven toward home by Fernando, the chauffeur who had been with them since Manila. “There’s been a murder.”
“Some Italian, no doubt. They have heavily infested the south side of town.”
“Well, I suppose he might be Italian. Mike Masco is his name and he killed his wife. Stabbed her in the heart and stuffed her body in a trunk.
The Colonel glanced at his wife, appreciating once again her lively manner. Although they were of an equal age, he still saw her as the young girl he met in St. Joseph not long after the War ended. “So what happened? Has this Masco been arrested?”
“No, that’s what has everyone in a tizzy. He killed her, that’s certain, and put her body in a trunk and can you believe he was about to ship it to Chicago when the stationmaster noticed the blood...” She paused dramatically.
“The blood? What about the blood?”
“Well, you see it was like this. He was all set to ship the trunk containing his wife’s body to a fictitious address in Chicago when the stationmaster, even imagine that it could be human blood so he said to the Italian fellow, ‘What’s that?’ “What’s in here, raw meat?’ Hurley says, “it’s against railway regulations to ship raw meat.’ Can you imagine the two them just conversating over the trunk containing the body of a dead woman and just chatting away?”
“Can you picture it?” she continued. “there’s this Irish fellow, very officious as they always are as soon as you put them in a uniform and...”
“Isn’t that the truth?” interrupted her husband.
“So this Hurley is out to dot every i and cross every t and meanwhile the Italian fellow must be sweating to beat the band. And all the while the poor woman’s blood must be dripping more and more out of the bottom of the trunk and...”
“Yes, Yes,” her husband interrupted her again. “Please, to the point, dear. The stationmaster sees the blood and what did he do then?”
“Why, Hurley didn’t do a thing other than to ask his questions and then this Mike Masco – a very good looking fellow in a dark Italian way, they say – he just takes off like a jackrabbit! He runs right out of the depot and straight down Main Street. People say the last they saw of him he was running along the railroad tracks out toward the Burnt Rocks...”
Mrs. Beardslee paused to assess her husband’s attention before resuming her tale. “So the stationmaster pries open the trunk with a screwdriver and sure enough the sees the corpse of poor, murdered Mrs. Masco. They say she was a very beautiful young girl, long dark hair, a perfect little figure, shining dark eyes...Of course, in the trunk she didn’t look like that.”
“No, I would imagine not.”
“They say that she was very badly slashed by her beast of a husband. And they say he broke her legs squeezing her into the trunk.”
“I see.” The Colonel was recalling images of the many young foreign women who had come to work in the mills over the past decade. He wondered if he had ever seen the murdered girl, just walking past. He didn’t realize he was smiling, but his wife noticed and took it as a sign that he appreciated her narrative abilities.
“The neighbors say that he accused her of adultery,” she added.
“Did the Italian kill her paramour, as well?”
“Paramour? You mean, her boyfriend? Well, according to the neighbors, he was yelling at her and beating her, demanding that she tell him who the man is so that he could go and kill him.”
“He was shouting all this in English?”
“Well, I suppose it was in Italian but all his neighbors were Italian and they could hear every word he said right through those thin tenement walls. They’re the ones who told Chief Coughlin.”
“Coughlin? But he’s the fire chief. Why did they tell him?” The Colonel had strongly disliked Coughlin ever since the Chief had found fire code violations in some of the tenements he owned on the south side.
“Well, I really don’t know. Maybe they saw his uniform and just assumed he was a policeman. People say he’s very friendly with the Italians because his wife is Italian but from what I hear, she claims to be one of those Dark Irish, as if there was such a thing!”
“Say, dear, this Masco fellow didn’t live in one of our buildings, did he?”
“Well, I really wouldn’t know, dear. After all, you are the one in complete charge of our business dealings. I wouldn’t even know if we owned any of those terrible rookeries by the river if your sister hadn’t told me.”
“They are not rookeries, as you put it.” The Colonel was irritated but not so much at his wife as at the fire chief. It seemed to him that Coughlin was always meddling in his affairs, even sticking his nose in that business about the slaughtered cows. And then there was the 1912 strike when a whole crowd of those IWW radicals were turned loose from the lock-up. Everybody said Coughlin did it just because he recognized some volunteer firemen in that mob, but of course nothing was done because the Chief of Police was another Irishman. Thick as thieves, they were, all of them.
“So to make a long story short,” he said, “This Masco killed his wife because he thought she was stepping out, then tried unsuccessfully to hide her body, and is now on the loose.”
His wife was about to add another detail when suddenly they were both thrown forward as Fernando jammed on the brakes. The Packard shuddered and swerved, ending up sideways and nearly tipping over before coming to a halt.
“You goddamned fool!” the Colonel shouted at his driver. His wife’s nose was bleeding and he felt a pain in his wrist. “What the hell are you doing?” He saw a man picking himself up just to the left of the car. Had the car hit him? Just missed hitting him? He leaned out the window, shouting now at the man limping away across the road and climbing up onto the rocks on the opposite hillside. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” he shouted after the man who didn’t even turn to look back.
“Human stupidity!” he muttered. “I’m surrounded by it everywhere I go.” He noticed his wife holding a handkerchief to her nose. “Are you injured, dear?” she asked him. She was breathing heavily.
“Palpitations? Should I ask Fernando to take us to Dr. Eveleth?”
“No, it’s just that...it’s just that...it’s that..” She could barely get the words out. Her husband was afraid that she would become hysterical.
“It’s that...that...that man...”
“Yes, dear, we almost hit the fool. Ran right out in front of the vehicle but Fernando managed to bring us to a halt in time. Good man, Fernando!” The small Filipino smiled weakly.
“He’s the man!” his wife was able to say. “The murderer. Mike Masco. His wife rose dramatically from her seat in the open car, still holding the handkerchief to her nose, and pointing at the trees into which the man had just vanished.
The Colonel immediately sprang into action. “Fernando, double quick now! Open the storage compartment. Fetch the Springfield 45-70 and the bandolier of cartridges.” As ordered, the chauffeur went around to the back of the car and procured the single-shot rifle, one of the many confiscated from the Camp Jolly merrymakers in ‘15. Pulling back the “trap-door” breech, the Colonel inserted a single cartridge, slung the bandolier over his shoulder and prepared to track down the murderer. He regretted that he had no bayonet but he was very glad to be going into battle once more with an old black powder weapon.
“Fernando, drive Mrs. Beardslee home, call Dr. Eveleth to see about her palpitations and then stand guard with the Remington double-barrel. No telling which way this miscreant will head.”
“Yes, sir,” Fernando saluted, getting back behind the steering wheel.
“Take care, dear, don’t do anything foolish,” cried his wife, waving her bloodied handkerchief as the Packard pulled away. The Colonel was already striding resolutely in the direction in which the man had vanished. As he walked up a hillside and into a patch of trees, Colonel Beardslee’s memory took him back to Richmond in 1865. He could still see President Lincoln and his young son, surrounded by the grateful former slaves. “Fine people, the darkies,” he said half-aloud. “Damn fine soldiers with the right officers.”
The day was warmer than he realized and soon the Colonel had taken off his jacket. Hanging it on tree branch, he proceeded forward in his shirt and vest, Springfield at the ready. Through a clearing in the thick June foliage, he caught a glimpse of a man. Masco, surely! Who else would be out here? Dropping to one knee, the old soldier held his breath and took careful aim at the man’s legs. Before he could squeeze off a shot, a loud outcry of many voices startled him. His quarry looked over his shoulder and found himself directly in the colonel’s sights. He ducked sideways and rolled rapidly out of sight.
Rising with difficulty to his feet, the Colonel found himself facing a crowd from Asteronga, led by none other than that obnoxious fire chief, Coughlin. The chief, a heavy-set man a good twenty years younger than the Colonel, was surrounded by firemen and other loafers from town. His son, young Tom, was carrying the only visible weapon, a .22 pump gun. “Say, Colonel,” the chief grinned, “are you ready to take command of these troops?” The old soldier saw the invitation as a mockery of his recently sundered authority over the local military unit, now on their way to Long Island without him.
“I nearly had him just now!” he snapped at the chief. “That was before you and your pack of layabouts scared him off.”
“Layabouts?” echoed someone in the crowd, laughing.
“Well,” said Coughlin, stifling a chuckle, “maybe it’s just as well, seeing as we were hoping to take him alive. Masco’s not a bad character, just lost his head. Crime of passion, as they say.”
“Glad to know you have already exonerated the man.” The colonel was growing furious at what he took as a barrage of insults to his authority. “Evidently, we wont need a judge and jury. Let him go scot free instead of hanging him, is that how you see it?”
Coughlin was puzzled by the Colonel’s rising anger. He had kept his job all these years by knowing just how manage people of the Colonel’s class but his usual joviality seemed to be backfiring this afternoon. “To tell you the truth, sir, the real manhunt is led by Chief Long. He’s circling around from the river with about ten men and Deputy Walrath is coming from the Burnt Rocks. The plan is to drive Masco towards a point of convergence at the old Camp Jolly fairgrounds. Our part of it here is just to keep him moving in that direction, toward the cops.”
“That’s your brilliant strategy, is it? What if Masco tries to rush through your line of men? He may still have the knife. Or even a pistol. What then?”
“I have my rifle,” said the chief’s son.
“That .22?” The colonel examined it skeptically. “Even if you hit him one or twice with this, he could keep on charging and slash up a few of you before dying later on from loss of blood.”
“So what do you recommend, colonel?” The old soldier was gratified to see the fire chief beginning to recognize his authority. After all, who other than he had commanded men in battle? “It’s like this, chief,” he explained, making note of a new look of respect in the Irishman’s eyes. “Masco must be presumed dangerous. Forget whatever you knew of him before he committed this crime. He has now tasted blood and will not hesitate to kill again. I will shoot to kill and I recommend the same to your son. Keep in mind that the man now faces the electric chair and there is no logical reason why he would not kill one or more of us to avoid that penalty.”
He looked each man in the eyes, and each nodded. There would be no more weak-kneed talk of taking Masco alive. “You men who are unarmed must depart for town. Your presence here will endanger your comrades. Those who are armed form ranks here.”
“Colonel,” the chief was clearly weakening in his resolve to recognize superior authority. “Is it really necessary for us to be armed? This isn’t exactly a war.”
“And that is where you are wrong, sir! We face an enemy no less dangerous than the Hun that our men will face in France. This murderer will be as eager to take our lives as any Teuton. Here, as in France, we represent civilization and our enemy, barbarism.”
The men milled about uncertainly, no longer sure who was in charge. They began to drift off toward town with vague ideas of procuring firearms. The chief took a nickel-plated revolver from his pocket. Young Tom rested his small rifle over his shoulder in a vaguely military fashion. ‘It looks like just the three of us who are armed,” his father told the Colonel. He told the few remaining firemen to head back to the firehouse. When the last of them had departed, the Colonel silently moved forward, motioning to the father and son to follow. “Keep a sharp lookout, men, so that he doesn’t double back on us.”
The chief saw that his son was impressed by the Colonel’s military bearing and decided to go along with the old man, despite his uneasiness. After a few minutes he was hot and panting heavily. “That old goat’s in pretty good shape,” he whispered to his son. “I’ll give him that.”
His son nodded grimly. He had been very moved by the declaration of war against Germany in April. On the day when Congress gave Wilson the vote that he wanted, young Tom had marched with the other high school boys all around town, carrying a huge American flag and singing patriotic songs. He was still a few months too young to volunteer and the chief prayed that the war would be over before it took his only child.
“Listen, Pa, if you’re tried, you can rest here,” the boy whispered to his father, his eyes never moving from the old man twenty feet ahead of them. “I can guard the Colonel’s back.”
“No, that’s okay,” the chief panted. “A little warm weather can’t slow down an old football player like me.
The three men moved on in single file across another patch of woodland, pausing when the Colonel paused and advancing when the Colonel advanced. They reached the brow of a hill overlooking the river. “He’s probably in those bottom lands,” the Colonel said, wiping off his glasses to get a clearer look.
“I see him!” Young Tom pointed excitedly toward the river. “He’s got a white shirt on! Down there!” He lifted his .22 to his shoulder and took aim.
“Don’t fire, boy,” the Colonel ordered. “He’s out of range of your pea-shooter.” The old soldier squinted in the bright sunlight but could see no trace of what the boy said he had seen.
“He must heading toward Camp Jolly, as you fellows had anticipated. If he has a pistol, he may hole up in one of the buildings and make a last stand.”
“Somehow,” the chief said, “I don’t think he’s the kind of man to go in for any melodrama. He’s as likely to surrender as not.”
“All these Italians love melodrama,” disagreed the Colonel. “Everything’s a grand opera for them. I’ve seen several of their operas in New York City and they offer profound insights into the Italian mind. Puccini. Verdi.”
“Masco isn’t Italian.”
“Not an Italian?” The Colonel was incredulous. Stabbed his wife? Stuffed her in a trunk? And you say he’s not Italian?”
“His wife Maria was Italian. Beautiful girl. But Masco is some other nationality, maybe Slovenian.”
“Whatever he is,” said the boy, “we’re going to catch him, right Colonel?”
“You bet, son!”
“Go ahead, sir. We’ll cover your back.”
“Good man!” The old soldier held onto a tree branch with one hand and his rifle with the other as he started to descend toward the river. Then he missed a step and began to slide down the embankment. “Be careful, sir,” said Tom, taking the old man’s elbow to steady him. His father caught up with them and helped the Colonel to sit down on a stump.
“Catch your breath here, sir. My father and I can go forward and apprehend this criminal. You keep watch in case he circles around to get behind us. If you see him, just blast away, sir. Shoot first and ask questions later.”
The Colonel nodded, struggling to catch his breath. The boy’s face seemed to waver before him. “Good man,” he muttered, “Keep up the pressure. Run him to ground.”
The fire chief looked back once to see the old Colonel sitting on the stump, leaning on the rifle barrel with both hands, his shirt and vest dark with sweat. The Colonel waved weakly, unable to summon even his usual surge animosity toward the fireman.
As he sat on the stump, holding onto the 45-70, the old man dozed off and returned to Virginia in a dream. He had fallen asleep on picket duty. General Granthad given orders that any soldier falling asleep on picket be shot. He forced himself to wake up but he wasn’t in Virginia. He wasn’t on the banks of the Rappahannock. He was...where? He remembered the words of the boy. The boy had told him to stay here and shoot first, ask questions later. Somebody mustn’t get past him. He checked the breech to make sure he had loaded a cartridge. He squinted toward the river, the river but not the Rappahannock. What was the river called?
The brush was moving. He heard footsteps and dry branches snapping. The Colonel stumbled off the stump and fell into a kneeling position. He raised the familiar rifle to his shoulder. A dark figure appeared, moving toward him, trying to hide behind the trees. He had only one shot, he knew that. He had to make it count. He held his breath. He pulled the trigger. A huge cloud of black gunsmoke. He heard the man moaning where he had fallen.
The old man’s fingers were trembling and he dropped several cartridges before he was able to fit one into his Springfield. Several men arrived and one of them grabbed the rifle out of his hands. They were all shouting at him. One of them was the fire chief who found those violations of the fire code. The man had him by the throat but the other men pulled him off. The Colonel stood up straight and tall. “The boy? You are saying the boy was shot?”
“You shot Tommy Coughlin, you old fool!”
“You killed him!”
“You shot my son!”
“You damned fool!”
“God damn you to hell!”
The Colonel looked from one face to another. “We shelled our own boys. That’s what we did at Petersburg. We shelled our own boys. No one’s fault. Accidents of war. No one’s fault.”
The other men pulled the fire chief back and took away his nickel-plated pistol.
The Colonel looked across the river to where the murderer was running along the West Shore tracks. He was escaping. He was free.
“That lad over there, he knows how to throw off pursuit. I could have used more like him in the Philippines.”