Archive for May, 2011

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was not the first nor the last to scour Pennsylvania’s Conemaugh River Valley–only the worst.

The South Fork Dam had been built in the years 1838-1853 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as part of a canal system that was never implemented; it became obsolete as railroads replaced canals and river traffic as the most common form of transport. The state sold the dam to the Pennsylvania Railroad; the railroad in turn sold it to a group of wealthy speculators from Pittsburgh, who included Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, and the lawyers Philander Knox and James Hay Reed. The group maintained the lake and surrounding area as a private hunting and fishing preserve.

The collapse of the South Fork Dam, nearly sixty years old and weakened by “improvements” made by its owners, followed a day when water levels rose precipitously due to a rainfall variously estimated as between six and ten inches in a twenty-four hour period. With cast iron discharge pipes having been removed and sold for scrap even before the club’s “improvements” and the spillway covered by debris-clogged fish screens, the dam had no chance of holding.

At 3:10 PM on May 31, it gave way, sending twenty million tons of water roaring down the Little Conemaugh. On its route down the valley, the flood took out the villages of South Fork, Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, and Woodvale, but all hell broke loose in Johnstown because debris formed a dam at the railroad’s Stone Bridge. Although the water was temporarily diverted to another streambed, gravity brought it plowing back, and to worsen matters, debris at the Stone Bridge caught fire, burning for three days and killing at least eighty.

The Johnstown Flood 5/31/1889

The loss of life was staggering: two thousand two hundred nine known dead, ninety-nine whole families wiped out, one hundred twenty-four women and one hundred ninety-eight men left widowed, ninety-nine children losing both parents, and of the bodies recovered seven hundred seventy-seven never identified. The death toll remains the second greatest by natural disaster in US history, surpassed only by the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

Help came in eventually: Clara Barton and the fledging American Red Cross, workers from nearby areas to help clean up debris, trainloads of morticians and coffins–and money, much of it raised, ironically, by the very wealthy Pittsburgh businessmen whose failure to maintain the South Fork Dam had contributed to the disaster.

Lawsuits filed against said wealthy businessmen came to nothing; among their number were lawyers who persuaded the courts that A) since the club had no assets of its own it could not be held liable and B) given the circumstances the flood was not a manmade disaster, but an “act of God.”

The people of Johnstown didn’t see it that way. It was left to a local poet named Isaac G. Reed to sum up their feelings in a scathing poetic indictment that ended:

All the horrors that hell could wish,
Such was the price that was paid–for fish!

All in all a harrowing story, one I first read in David McCullough’s 1968 book The Johnstown Flood.

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The New York Times reminds me that on May 29, 1953, New Zealand beekeeper and climber Edmund Hillary and his climbing partner, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, became the first men to summit the mighty Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. However, there is an admittedly slim possibility that that feat was accomplished some twenty-nine years before Hillary and Norgay, by the legendary British climber George Leigh-Mallory and his partner, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine.

George Leigh-Mallory is a fascinating story in himself, even without the story of how the great mountain killed him. Born on June 18, 1886, and a skilled Alpine climber, he accompanied expeditions to Everest in 1921 and again in 1922. On the 1922 expedition, an avalanche killed seven Sherpa members of the group, and Mallory returned to England to sharp criticism and a bout of depression.

By 1924, Mallory was determined to return to Everest and make one last attempt to summit; he was certain this would be his last attempt due to his age and the difficulties of the climb. He chose the younger and relatively inexperienced Sandy Irvine as his partner for the attempt because Irvine was familiar with the very latest, but very cumbersome, equipment for using bottled oxygen.

Mallory and Irvine were last spotted on the ascent by fellow climber Noel Odell on June 8, 1924. Odell would say he spotted them silhouetted against the snow at the fabled Second Step before they disappeared into a cloud bank. Neither of them was ever seen alive again, although an oxygen canister was found at the First Step and a nearby climbing axe was later identified as Irvine’s.

In 1986, it was reported by a Chinese climber that a friend of his had found an “English dead” on Everest’s North Face in 1975, but the Chinese refused to allow a followup search to determine if this were true. It has been speculated that this body may have been that of Sandy Irvine.

In 1999, a body was found at 26,760 feet and positively identified from tags in the clothing and from personal papers still in the pockets as the remains of George Leigh-Mallory. The climbers who located him left him on the mountain, burying him under a cairn of stones after holding an Anglican funeral service for him. (This was the second such; in 1924, a state funeral had been held for Mallory in London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral and was attended by the royal family–then headed by George V–, the prime minister, J. Ramsey MacDonald, and many other dignataries.)

In order to prove definitely whether Mallory and Irvine summited Everest, the camera they were known to be carrying to document the event needs to be located. It was not with Mallory’s body.

I confess to a certain romantic notion, myself; it is known as well that Mallory was carrying in his pocket a picture of his beloved wife, Ruth, which he intended to leave at the summit. That photograph was not on his body when it was found in 1999, and I like to think that was because he left it precisely where he intended: atop the great mountain.

Mallory most likely died of exposure after breaking a leg, very badly, in a fall. There is some evidence to suggest that he was roped to Irvine at the time, and therefore Irvine’s body must be somewhere nearby, but it still has not been located.

I’ve heard that Edmund Hillary, with typical humility, did not find the idea that Mallory and Irvine summitted in 1924 so outrageous; his attitude seemed to be that it would simply mean that he and Norgay were the first to summit and live to tell about it.

In 1963 the great country singer and songwriter Mel Tillis wrote a song called “Matterhorn”, about an Alpine expedition of four climbers attempting to summit the Matterhorn, on the border between Switzerland and Italy. The song was recorded, most famously, by the bluegrass group The Country Gentlemen.

Although “Matterhorn” is a ballad about a totally different mountain and a fictitious expedition, there’s a couplet at the end that always makes me think of George Leigh-Mallory and Sandy Irvine and what their last thoughts might have been as they lay dying on Everest:

The {king} would surely knight me if I could get back down
But it’s closer here to heaven than it is back to the ground

They’re still there, closer to heaven than earth, Mallory with a proper burial and Irvine still lost, two of many who lost their lives in that heartbreaking, exhilarating, cold place high atop the world.

Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing are no longer with us, as well.

No matter which of them actually conquered the great mountain first–and in the long run, it matters less who did than that someone did–may they all rest well.

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There are many stories of ghostly weddings, some of them simple sweet remembrances that hover in churches for a few minutes, then vanish; others are truly gothic affairs, with re-enactments of murder, suicide, and general mayhem.

This story, which comes from nineteenth century Cornwall, is a gothic affair, with murder, execution, a promise kept, and the devil to pay.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, in the village of Ludgvan, not far from Penzance, there lived an old man name of Polgrain. Polgrain had a beautiful, and very young, wife named Sarah. Now, for whatever reason she may have married him, Sarah was tired of her elderly husband, who was no fair match for a young and passionate girl. They had battles royal, in which the neighbors would hear furniture overturning, glass breaking, the old man’s shouts and Sarah’s shrieks of rage. These quarrels were so common that the neighbors finally ignored them altogether.

The fights became a daily thing after Sarah met, and fell in love with, a handsome scoundrel who wandered into town claiming to be a horsedealer, who went by the name Yorkshire Jack. Nobody knew much of him save that he apparently did come from that far northern shire of England, an alien place to a tiny Cornish village. If Sarah Polgrain knew more, she never told it. In any case, it wasn’t his antecedents she was interested in. He was a passionate and sensuous man, a perfect match for a passionate and sensuous young woman.

Now Sarah wanted to spend the rest of her life with her slice on the side. One morning, she showed up at a neighbor’s house begging for help, seemingly worried half to death, saying her old husband seemed to have taken the dreaded cholera. Cholera is hellishly contagious, and the neighbor declined to come aid her. Sarah went home, only to come back a few hours later to announce the old man was dead.

Now, exactly what set off suspicion of Sarah’s story, no one knows. It may have been her suddenly very public relationship with Yorkshire Jack; it may have been undisguised relief, rather than grief, over her husband’s death that damned her in the eyes of the village. In any case, the authorities soon exhumed the old man’s body, and at autopsy found it full of enough arsenic to kill any number of elderly husbands.

To his credit, Yorkshire Jack didn’t desert his Cornish lass; he stood by her as she was accused, tried, convicted and sentenced to hang for murder. Sarah’s last request was not for a minister to accompany her to the scaffold; she asked that Jack be allowed to walk up those thirteen steps with her. Her request was granted.

On the scaffold the pair exchanged a last kiss and some few last words. The hangman would later say that Sarah looked deep into Jack’s eyes and asked a question: You will?

And Jack, looking deep into her eyes, but seeming far more nervous than she, answered, I will.

He climbed down from the scaffold and vanished in the crowd come to witness the young wife’s death. The drop broke her neck. She swayed in the wind from the sea for an hour, then was taken down and buried.

Yorkshire Jack didn’t immediately leave town, but those who knew him noticed he was literally a wreck of his former self, creeping around the back roads of the town, glancing over his shoulder at all times as if he felt a shadow following him that didn’t belong to him. He drank more, lost weight, and seemed to find no rest in sleep.

Finally, he confided in an old friend. In the days leading up to Sarah Polgrain’s hanging, he said, she had–so he thought–lost her mind. She kept telling him she wanted to marry him, and he had promised he would. On the scaffold, she had told him that, sometime in the future, she would return from the grave and they would be wed, and he, thinking to ease her addled mind, agreed.

You will?

I will.

But, Jack complained, he was beginning to think that she hadn’t been mad after all. He had begun to sense her presence within a very few days of her death. She followed him everywhere, he complained. He believed she really meant to return from the dead to marry him!

And he was not looking forward to that wedding.

Jack eventually joined the merchant marine, sailing out of Mount’s Bay and as far as the Mediterranean. If he thought to rid himself of his ghostly love’s presence, he was dead wrong. His fellow sailors were as aware of her as he was, especially in the long watches of the night, when she stood unseen among them: an eager, undeniably feminine presence that bore a taint of evil, it seemed to them.

Jack’s ship at last returned to Mount’s Bay. He told his fellow sailors that the time was fast approaching when Sarah would come to marry him: at midnight on a certain night.

On that night, as midnight approached, Jack became more and more nervous, and the eerie evil presence of Sarah more palpable. A storm had blown in from the sea, and the ship rocked and groaned as she rode the waves coming in beneath her. His companions could hear Sarah now, above the noise of the storm, walking among their hammocks below decks, skirts swishing and heels tapping, stopping at last by Jack’s hammock.

Jack finally rose, like a marionette pulled by strings, and walked to the bow of the ship. There, he hesitated, and out of nowhere a mighty wave rose over the ship and washed him away. His friends, watching from a safe distance, saw his face once as the wave took him. Beside him was another face, white with exultation as his was with fear–

a woman’s face, radiant as only a bride’s can be.

Another wave covered the faces.

The watchers were distracted by then by a sound–of church bells, ringing gaily as if for a wedding.

The legend grew up that, on that last night, Sarah Polgrain had known her lover was no longer willing to honor his promise, and had called upon the Devil himself to raise a storm, which had washed Jack overboard to his nuptials.

For at least a century after that strange wedding, fishermen and others out on the bay reported they heard bells ringing from shore when no bells were ringing.

And often, they added, they would hear a man’s echoing, moaning voice above the bells, calling I will. . .I will. . .

I found most of this story in Raymond Lamont Brown’s Phantoms of the Sea: Legends, Customs and Superstitions (1972). Other details were found at Bartleby, from a 1921 book by Ernest Rhys.

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May 21, 1924

I was walking home from school with some friends when a car pulled up beside us. There was a man I didn’t know at the wheel, and my cousin Dickie was calling to me from the back seat.

He wanted to talk about a new tennis racket, and offered me a ride home.

I almost didn’t get in the car.

If I’d known Cousin Dickie meant to kill me, I wouldn’t have.

Until it was eclipsed, some eight years later, by the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, the Bobby Franks case was America’s most notorious child murder. On that May day in 1924, Bobby Franks, the son of a wealthy Chicago businessman, was only fourteen.

His killers–Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb–were, respectively, eighteen and seventeen.

Leopold and Loeb were, we would say, spoilt rich kids. When it came crunch time, their “attorney for the damned”, the great Clarence Darrow, would make much of their backgrounds: showered with money rather than love, emotionally stunted, and way too much of their education unsupervised.

They were disciples of Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman philosophy, devoutly believing that they were smarter than the whole world around them. And, being smarter than all the world, believing that the rules that bind mere mortals didn’t apply to them, and with criminal tendencies to boot, they decided they would commit the perfect kidnapping and murder.

They made careful plans: they obtained a rental car, stole a typewriter on which to write a ransom note to Bobby Franks’ father, bought a chisel as a weapon and hydrochloric acid to blur their victim’s identity.

Initially, they planned to kidnap and kill Dickie Loeb’s kid brother, but gave that up when they realized it would be hard to collect the ransom–a mere ten thousand dollars, they asked for–right there under the Loebs’ noses.

They ended up choosing Bobby Franks, who was a distant cousin of Loeb’s, more or less at random.

I got into the front seat beside the man I didn’t know. Cousin Dickie called him “Babe”. We drove off.

A few minutes later, it was all over. Cousin Dickie hit me four times in the head, from behind, with some heavy hard instrument.

I bled out and died there in the front seat.

Can’t say for sure, but the last words I heard may have been Babe’s: Oh, God, I didn’t know it would be like this!

Leopold and Loeb took the body, eventually, to a culvert on 118th Street, near some railroad tracks. They stripped the corpse, poured hydrochloric acid on the face, then thrust it into the culvert.

Babe Leopold never noticed that he dropped his glasses.

And neither of them noticed that Bobby’s foot was sticking out from the culvert.

They went off and left me there, naked and my face obliterated by the acid. They didn’t think I’d be found right away.

They were wrong; I was found within twenty-four hours.

The murderous pair had been busy during those twenty-four hours. They had called the Franks house, using the alias George Johnson, and told Bobby’s mother her son had been kidnapped, but was safe; a ransom note would follow. They got rid of Bobby’s clothes and schoolbooks. They tried, as best they might, to wash the bloodstains out of the rental car. They even tried to establish an alibi, inventing two girls named May and Edna with whom they said they spent the evening.

It all went awry, of course. The Leopolds’ chauffeur caught them washing the car, and would later testify that said car had never left the garage that night, so they couldn’t have picked up the elusive May and Edna.

Worse yet, just about the time that the ransom note was being delivered–the clever Dickie had left it in a streetcar, where it was found and quickly, but not quickly enough, forwarded–to Jacob Franks, a railroad maintenance man found Bobby’s body.

Nearby, the police found a telltale pair of glasses.

I knew who my killer and his accomplice were, and within ten days, so did everybody else.

The glasses were an extremely rare pair; only three people in the Chicago area had glasses with such frames. One of those three was Nathan Leopold.

The chisel, the typewriter–all the paraphernalia of a murderous plot gone wrong were found, and within ten days, Leopold and Loeb were arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping.

America was howling for their blood.

Dickie Loeb’s family promptly disowned him. His father, his health, never especially robust, undermined by stress, was dead of a heart attack within two months of his son’s arrest.

It was up to Babe Leopold’s father to find someone willing to represent his son and his partner in crime.

They say Mr. Leopold went on bended knee to the one man who might have a chance to save his son’s, and Cousin Dickie’s, necks: Clarence Darrow, the Attorney for the Damned.

He offered Darrow a million dollars to save their lives.

A hundred times the value they placed on mine.

Darrow knew he couldn’t get the pair off scotfree. The best he could do was to get them prison sentences. Therefore, he opted for a bench trial, instead of putting his clients before a jury; he pled them guilty; he opted to present them as emotionally stunted, unloved, and twisted by that lack; and, he declared, he would, while the court was trying Leopold and Loeb, put capital punishment itself on trial.

I had been laid to rest in Rosehill Cemetery, where my family had a crypt. But already, as the trial of my killers began, there were whispers that I wasn’t resting well.

And he wasn’t. Bobby Franks’ spirit was beginning a long vigil.

Ater a thirty-three day trial before Judge John R. Caverly, Darrow won his case. His summation is quoted to this day, generally out of both literal and historical context:

I am pleading for the future. . .I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men, when we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth living and that mercy is the highest attribute of man. . .

He won. Judge Caverly, while acknowledging the power of Darrow’s eloquence, said that he based the decision on the boys’ ages and the fact that Illinois had never executed anyone so young as them.

He handed down sentences of life imprisonment plus ninety-nine years for murder and kidnapping. Neither of the two was ever to be paroled, and they were to serve their sentences at Joliet, Illinois’ most notorious prison. And, he emphasized, they were to be kept apart for the rest of their lives.

Money talks, though, although not always to those to whom it’s owed; Clarence Darrow never received the full million Leopold’s father promised him–he got thirty thousand dollars, with a snide remark to the effect that Darrow should pay him for the privilege of distinguishing himself in this notorious case.

Dickie and Babe, meanwhile, although initially estranged from one another, patched up their differences and lived in luxury at Joliet: expensively furnished cells, meals cooked to their specifications (which they ate in a staff lounge), booze, drugs–the money bought them all. Leopold, an enthusiastic gardener, had his own garden plot, which the two visited frequently.

And still, Bobby Franks walked and played in Rosehill Cemetery: a young boy was repeatedly seen playing in the area of the Franks crypt. When he was approached, he would vanish.

Though they took my life, they had theirs, and their lives tethered me to earth.

I had a long wait ahead of me.

Dickie Loeb was killed in prison twelve years into his sentence, slashed to death in a shower in 1936.

Clarence Darrow died in 1938.

And then there was one. I held no grudge against Mr. Darrow, but Babe Leopold was still alive.

Despite Judge Caverly’s instructions, Nathan “Babe” Leopold was paroled in 1958, his cause taken up by, among others, the poet Carl Sandberg. Babe had been a model prisoner.

He moved to Puerto Rico, wrote a book called Life Plus 99, married a widowed florist, and worked as a lab technician.

And still, I waited.

Nathan Leopold died in 1971 of a heart attack. He was sixty-six years old.

And only then could I, forever fourteen, rest at last. The last tether holding me to earth was broken.

In Chicago, so they say, Bobby Franks haunted Rosehill Cemetery for forty-seven years. Since Nathan Leopold’s death, there have been no more reports of his spirit.


Jay Robert Nash, Bloodletters and Badmen, 1995 edition.

Crimes of the 20th Century: A Chronology. 1991

Richard T. Crowe and Carol Mercado, Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural, 2000 (Richard Crowe, incidentally, has a connection to the Leopold-Loeb case and the murder of Bobby Franks; a relative of his, Robert E. Crowe, was the prosecutor at the bench trial.)

Purely as an exercise in style, I’ve written the story of Bobby Franks’ ghost in the manner of an episode of the Investigation Discovery Channel series Stolen Voices, Buried Secrets. Y’all decide if I succeeded or not. 🙂

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With Every Stitch, a Prayer

As a frequent lurker and occasional contributor at Craig Crawford’s Trail Mix blog, I’ve been following the progress of a brain cancer patient, journalist and blogger Sean Holton. After a period of time when chemotherapy and radiation were holding the cancer at bay, word has come that Sean’s cancer is growing again.

I’m not much of a good hand at prayer. I believe in a spirit of Infinite Good, which I call God for shorthand, but some days it seems my prayers are making their way to that Good and other days it seems they stick somewhere between my voice and the ceiling.

Today is one of those latter days.

Then I remembered something a Methodist minister once told me: that even the most innocuous activities can be prayer; our mere act of breathing can be prayerful. (I cannot remember, now, where he said that particular definition of prayer comes from, but it stuck with me.)

I’m involved in a project called Share a Square. The heart project of my friend Shelly Tucker, Share a Square is a group of crocheters making squares for afghans that will be stitched together and ultimately distributed to kids at camps who suffer from cancer.

Shelly is presently, with a group of willing hands, engaged in stitching afghans together; others of us are already crocheting squares for the next Share a Square project, which will begin in August.

It occurs to me that, if every breath is a prayer, so can every stitch be. And so today, as I stitch, every one will be a prayer of hope–for the campers, and for Sean.

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Mom has had little wooden birdhouses hanging out on the front porch for years, but we’d never noticed any birds making use of the free accommodations until this year. I looked out today and saw a nesting pair of Eastern Bluebirds feeding their babies–at least two, possibly three–working in tandem, Papa an exuberant blur of blue and orange, Mama a more sedate and dignified slate in color, both flying fast as they could to fill up those voracious little mouths in the house.

It occurs to me in passing that in country music, we have a lot of songs about bluebirds (although our preferred bird 😉 is probably a tie between the mockingbird, who gets its name from being nature’s perfect mimic, or the whippoorwill, whose melancholy call at dusk can bring both a smile and a chill). Here are a few of them:

Hank Snow, “Gonna Find Me a Bluebird”

The Browns, “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing”

Mac Wiseman and Lester Flatt, “The Bluebirds Singing for Me”

The birds, and the songs, brighten up a chilly, damp, sunless day here in Knobite Corner.

(BTW, I have a sneaking suspicion this might be whippoorwill winter, the cold snap that usually accompanies the first calls of the whippoorwills in late spring.)

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Golden Feather

The past couple of nights, while I wash dishes and tidy the kitchen, I’ve been listening to Robbie Robertson’s 1994 CD Music for The Native Americans. The Native Americans was a CBC documentary series for which Robertson, whose mother was a full-blood Mohawk, wrote the music. I purchased the CD up at the Sequoyah Museum in Vonore a couple of years after it was first released in the US. The music took my breath then, and still does, many years later.

In his liner notes for the CD, speaking of the gorgeous, sensuous love song “Golden Feather”, Robertson comments: in some Native American traditions, a golden feather, or a stone in the shape of a heart, are ultimate findings, akin to a four leaf clover. . .”

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