an illustration from the Saturday Globe, 1886
"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:
(free PDF at lulu.com)
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.