An American Story (Part 12)

I guess that I was not exactly surprised when he said that, although the concept of stealing an exhibit or any items kept by a historical society of any kind would not have been something I could have done.  Maybe it was just my own reverential viewpoint on history, its facts and tales, the lessons it can teach us, that would have kept me from doing such a thing.  Or perhaps it would have been my belief in karma that would have stopped me.  Vann apparently had no such limitations even though he did seem to share my historical bent.  That was a lesson for me on the relative inconsistencies of how people’s similar beliefs or interests translate in the real world.  At least I could clarify that.

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“Not really.  I spent a lot of time in the area and I used some of their resources when I was picking through this story, trying to put it together.  I guess that I feel badly that I went behind old Jim Stover’s back to take them, but overall it doesn’t bother me.  I don’t think they really understood the magnificence of this tale, or the real impact it could have on framing the history of that area.  The candlesticks were just random items collected up in a box and labeled ‘Tom Sexton Property Box 3’.  There is no appreciation in that.  I looked at every item in all of those boxes, read the notes on how they were found, checked the provenance details.  I gave them some much needed attention, and those candlesticks, well they just seemed to draw me in, so I kept them.”  He paused for a moment then held up his hand as I started to form a question.  “And before you ask, Jim Stover is the curator of the society.”  I took a deep breath and asked the actual question I had been beginning when he interrupted.

“Don’t you think that you could have helped them understand it?  You seem to have done quite a bit of research.  Maybe they just never got around to all of this info on Tom Sexton.”

Vann scoffed.  “They never got around to the details of the life of what was basically the main pioneer of the area?  Shabby if you ask me, a shabby excuse.”

“I’m sure there is much to tell about the area, and really how big is this historical society anyway?  It doesn’t exactly sound like a major population area.  It’s probably two guys working out of their garage.”

“True, close to correct actually, but still, shabby.”

I waved that argument off and prompted a return to the story.

“So, he actually ended up in a shipwreck?  Was that in the same boat he had purchased after the railroad had all of his land except for those four acres?”

Vann winked at me and got up, starting to walk off into the night again, muttering, “such an impatient one,” over his shoulder as he went.  I did jumping jacks until he returned to warm back up and when he did we both sat down.

“Yes, getting back to the story.  Once Tom saw that blood on his cuffs, and considering that those two murdered women were most definitely dead and mutilated on his property, he knew that he had to act fast. I guess some people might say that he should have stuck around and fought it, should have kept standing up to the railroad, but I just don’t think he had one ounce of energy left for that.  Plus, he had to have been in a state of some shock and panic, and it certainly had been a rough couple of weeks since that terrible beating he took that almost killed him.  Now, Tom did leave info on how he found things when he got to the cabin, however he never wrote anything about exactly what he did at the point when he realized it was over for him in Two Harbors.  A few things can be surmised.  The dog was never found and it wasn’t not on the boat so either Tom put it down or, as unlikely as it may be, it jumped off the boat when it wrecked and sank or swam from memory.  Also, the bodies of both women were found inside the cabin, lying next to each other on the floor and each covered with a blanket.  The fire never touched either of them although pretty much everything else was at least charred.  He must have spent at least a few minutes gathering up items he wanted to take, personal items and the things from the pit that were found with the wreck.  The boat was pretty well provisioned when it was searched, one of the reasons some people, including me, think he had been planning to take off anyway.  Still, I don’t think he ever got to the point where he really thought he was going to be forced to leave, especially not on his own terms, so he must have had some last minute gathering to do.   And then, of course he set fire to his shack, imperfectly as it turned out.”

“Why do you think he did that?”

“It’s hard to tell for sure, and he never left a clue about it.  It may have been to try to disguise what happened to those women, maybe to burn the bodies so they wouldn’t be seen in such a horrible state.  Maybe it was panic.  Or spite, to make sure that he left them nothing he couldn’t take with him.  He obviously did it in a rush, as at that point he probably figured the railroad had sent someone out to innocently discover what a terrible crime he had committed and arrest him.  And they must have shown up not long after he left because the first reports are dated that same day.”

two harbors shoreline courtesy city-data.com

two harbors shoreline courtesy city-data.com

“Yeah, I guess it’s hard to tell at this distance from the whole thing.  So, he takes off on the boat and?”

Vann held up a hand. “One more thing, and I tell you only in the interest of providing the complete information.  There is an Ojibwa tale that says Mashkikiikwe met him down by the water and asked him to stay, to come back with her to her tribal area and live there. He refused her,  saying that he had to go and make his place in a totally new area.  It’s hard to know if that is true or not of course.”

“And then he left?”

“Yep.  He walked down to the part of his property that touched the lake and cast off in Castle, headed out into the water and away from Two Harbors.”

“Castle is the boat?”

“Yes, I guess I forgot to tell that part of the story.  He named it…,” but I interrupted him, smiling as I did so.

“He thought it was a safe place?”

Vann of course was irritated but played along.  “No.”

“It looked like a castle?” That was out of my mouth before I could stop it.  Vann at least let it go without comment.  I had to pause to think and then continued with, “because he thought he was the king of Two Harbors?”

“No.”

“Damn. Well, how about it was because it was something he had wished for?  Dreamed about?  You know, the whole castle in the air thing?”

“No.”

“Fine.  Then what?”

“It was a chess reference, to the rook.”  He of course left it momentarily at that, probably as some twisted punishment for my impatience.  I dug into my mind to figure out what he meant but five minutes later had nothing but was not about to admit it.  Vann finally had mercy.

“It’s not anymore complicated than that.  He was a keen student of chess and named his boat after the rook.  Actually, if you ask me he probably thought its name was Rook, however the folks that found the shipwreck obviously did not appreciate the game of chess.”

I gave Vann my best ‘what the hell are you talking about face’ and waited for him to stop blowing his nose into some rag he had pulled from inside the Army coat.

“There wasn’t a name painted on the boat.  Just a drawn picture of a chess piece, the rook.”

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 11)

Vann remained silent after stretching and I refused to look his way, knowing that I would betray my impatience.  Finally he looked at me with approval and continued.

“Tom’s out there, digging up that skeleton, which is what he found out it was after just a few minutes of shoveling, and he starts seeing other things come up with his shovelfuls of dirt.  He cataloged some of it, like these candlesticks, a rotten leather bag with fifteen silver coins, two pair of boots, a sextant, some other bones that did not look human.  He kept some detailed lists the first few times he was out there, but after that it is just phrases like ‘more items found’, ‘another of the long metal rods recovered’, ‘an item that was marked with strange letters or markings’ and the like.  I found a few notations that make me think he was still keeping a list but that it was somewhere else, somewhere that I never found.  Still, he kept at it for all those years and by the time he fled that area it wasn’t a hole, it was more like an excavation, and one that he kept hidden with a series of evergreen screens he constructed.  They were cleverly done and you would not have been able to see the site until you were right on it.  Once he was gone, the railroad sent a crew out to level the cabin and start setting the land up for their use.  The crew leader, named Ben Boga, reported back to them a few days later about what he called ‘a hidden area, which we did not see when first walking the land, which was found to contain a large pit with artifacts in it on the north side of the property.’  That report actually got the president of the railroad out to look at the place however the pressures of the moment, making money and all, must have won out, because once he left they just filled the whole thing back in without ceremony.  Pretty much without notice or record either except for a few things I found in Boga’s work journal.  Those are cryptic though as they lack a frame of reference, mostly just short lists of things and poorly described at that.  The only good list is the one he made the day they arrived, probably right along with when he was filing that report back to the railroad.”

“Weird that they just plowed it under like that, unless maybe it wasn’t so remarkable after all.  Sounds like a couple old graves and what, maybe the scattered leftovers of an old explorer camp?”

Vann nodded back and replied, “I kind of thought so also at first reading.  It was weird enough but like you said, maybe not remarkable.  Then I went back over my notes from the whole thing and found a few things that struck me as really weird.  Tom’s lists of what he found may have been lacking in many ways but the details of how far he had dug were fairly specific.  Like I said, it turned into an excavation, but it was a fairly shallow one.  Wide and not that deep, so what was found should all have been from around the same time frame.  The area was also relatively small, at least on a historical scale, and you would not have expected to find a large mix of items.  The list of recovered objects that I was able to assemble though, some of those things really should not have been found together.  From the few details that I found of Tom’s, and Ben Boga’s one good list, it looks like it was all a mixture of Indian, French and English goods and remains, all in the same area and but some of it not likely to be from the same time in history.  Also, Tom’s notes make it clear that Mashkikiikwe was with him at times while he was digging and it doesn’t quite fit that she would be involved in digging up Indian graves, of which at least three for sure were clearly found.  And then, some of the the items that are described by Boga just, well are really strange sounding, foreign.”

“If you say alien artifacts, I’m leaving.”

He waved me off. “No, not that, just odd descriptions that’s all.  Read ‘em yourself if you ever go there, it’s in the archive.”

“Hmm, maybe.”  Vann had gone quiet and I contemplated some of what he had just told me.  Some parts of it sounded like a bad conspiracy book, the kind I refuse to read, and other parts tugged at my mind and left me incredibly curious.  Other things needed an explanation.

“How do you know that these candlesticks of yours are the ones that Tom had?  I mean, are they really that old?  They hardly look it.”

“They are in pretty good shape, I agree with you there, and especially considering their history.  But they truly are that old, standard three-piece mold candlesticks, which was how they were making them in the 1800’s.  Tom noted his find of these really well as it was one of the first things he dug up near the grave.  He noted them as being found six feet from the north side of the grave, tucked inside one of those pair of boots I told you about before.  He figured all of it belonged to the same person at the time, and if he ever changed that opinion he never made mention of it.  He kept them with him once he found them, and he took them with him when he fled.”

“How do you know that?”

“He made a list of everything he took.”

I could not keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “He stopped to make a list before he fled from the scene of a horrible murder.  Please.”

“Not before my friend.  He ended up having to stop for several hours fairly soon after he left and when he did he wrote an entry in his journal, his last one actually. It included a list of what he had taken with him from the shack.  Those candlesticks were on it.”

I picked both of them up.  “These were on his list?  You know, these are not exactly notable in any way.  I will just accept your statement that they are old, but they’re just plain glass.  There are, or were, probably a lot of candlesticks just like these back then.  For all you know he had other sets of his own and these are just ordinary candlesticks with no story behind them at all.”

Having said that I looked down at Vann, whose face showed a mixture of shock and anger.  His voice sounded like he was scolding a child.

“Has it sounded to you like I don’t know how to research things?  Like I would somehow miss a detail like that?  Tom did have only one set of glass candlesticks, a fact noted in his last journal entry in fact.  It says quite specifically ‘my rescued candlesticks, my only set now, so I guess I will have to use them much as it dismays me’.  Additionally, when he first found them he noted a flaw in the glass of both, ‘three air bubbles in one, and the other with one oval air bubble trapped inside another.  So, if you care to…”  I was already holding them up to the starlit sky and saw the telltale bubbles almost immediately.  I lowered them and handed them back to Vann.

“Point made.  Sorry.”

“Quite alright I suppose.  It’s good to question if what you are being told is true, especially if it is a wild story like this one.  I spent plenty of my time when I was looking into this questioning all of it myself.  One more point of fact.  When the shipwreck was searched they made specific note of items recovered and these were on it.  And from there, even though they changed hands a few times, the provenance is pretty clear, right up to the point they were turned over to the historical society.  These are the same candlesticks.”  He finished with a grin which I thought was going to be followed with ‘Ze-bam’, however I was disappointed in that as he just kept smiling.

There was still an unanswered question.

“So, how did you end up with them?”

Vann did not miss a beat.  “I stole them of course.”

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 10)

I remained troubled by the severity of the crime.

“It sure seems like they went way overboard in killing those women.  I mean it’s a bit extreme to be torturing them, flaying their skin, all of that.  I don’t get it.”

“I felt the same way, however as it turned out all of that happened after they were dead, at least as far as the doctor who examined them could tell.  On their death certificates he listed the cause of death as strangulation and all of the other wounds, except some bruising and scratches on both of them, as postmortem.  The rest of it was staged, probably to terrify old Tom.”

I had a baffled look on my face and asked, “How did that work to frame Tom for the murder then?”

“Ahh, yes, well it may have been that the railroad was not in control of this doctor, however they did manage to get hold of those certificates and they never saw the light of day, at least not in any timeframe that mattered to Tom’s story.  And that doctor never said a word either, maybe they got to him after all.  By the time that anyone with an outside interest managed to read those certificates, Tom was dead, the railroad had their land, and well, it didn’t really matter.”

I nodded my agreement at that just as the second set of candles went out, almost in perfect synchrony.  There was just enough light from the stars to allow me to see Vann snapping his fingers next to the wicks a few times, for no real purpose that I could tell, and then he picked up one of the candlesticks.  After taking a penknife out of his jacket pocket, and starting to remove the wax with measured cuts, he returned to the story.

“Now I have to step sideways on you again my friend because I just realized that you are missing some information.  I kind of got caught up in telling that murder tale, however do you remember the boat?

“Yep, the one you thought he might have been planning to leave in?”

“Indeed. And these?”  He held up the candlestick he was working on.  I nodded and waited.

“Like I had told you, these here were part of the reason Tom stuck around through all that abuse.  I admit, he was as stubborn and tough as they come, however I think even he would have left way before it ever came to murder except for what he had found on his property.  And that,” and here Vann held up up his hand to stop my question, “was something or somethings, that I never did really get complete info on.  If I ever get back that way I am going to make it a mission to get the rest of the details, however here is what I do know.”  He put the candlestick down after wiping off the small amount of remaining wax with his untucked shirt, and then placed the other, uncleaned one next to it.  He waved his hands around for a few moments, silently voicing some incantation I imagined, and then picked them both up.

jack pine stand northern Minnesota

jack pine stand northern Minnesota

“These he found on his property, off in a clearing that lay within the woods that surrounded his cabin, in an area he had dug up, and had been working on, for what had been a considerable amount of time.  Some part of his notes remain in a local archive there and the first mention of what would lead him to that clearing is dated for 1856, a detail about one of his dogs coming home with a tattered rag in its mouth.  Unremarkable right?  Tom even wrote that he was about to toss it into the fire when he realized it had something embroidered on it.  The design was too soiled and torn up to identify, however it sparked his interest and he went out the next day looking for where it had come from.  He found nothing for a week, even after letting his dogs loose and trying to follow them, just to see is they went back to wherever the one had found that cloth in the first place.  Eventually though, he found the small clearing, closely ringed by jack pines, and a shallow hole near the eastern edge with a few other articles of clothing sticking up from the ground.  It was a grave of course, an old one, and Tom wrote that he felt pretty bad that his dogs had disturbed the eternal rest of whomever it was that lay there.  He figured to rebury the fella, for it was a man as far as Tom could tell from the clothing, and after getting a shovel he started on the project.  Along the way though, he started digging up other stuff, including these.”  Vann placed the candlesticks back on the ground, took up his penknife again and began cleaning up the remaining one with wax on it.  He was deliberate enough about it that I realized he was testing me, waiting to see if I cut in with another impatient question.  I remained quiet and started moving around, cold again and realizing that Vann’s story had made me forget it for a few minutes.  When I looked his way again he had stopped working on the candlestick and was grinning at me.

“Pretty cold huh?”

“Damn yes, how the hell are you staying warm anyway.  I mean, you at least have some other stuff to wear but man, it’s pretty chilly and you hardly even seem to care.  You didn’t even zip up that jacket.”

He winked at me, said, “practice, my friend,” and then finished up with the second candlestick.  He placed them both on the ground, then picked them up and changed their positions, repeating that several times in a way that reminded me of maneuvering chess pieces.  Finally he seemed to believe they were in whatever cosmic alignment he needed them to be in and he leaned back to stretch.  I stared out into the night, catching a small moving shadow at the edge of my vision and wondering if it was a coyote come in to ask me just what the hell I was still doing under the water tower with the strange homeless person.

map two harbors area around 1880

map two harbors area around 1880

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 9)

“So, what did Tom do?  Follow them in?”  I gave Vann a leering smile and raised my eyebrows.

“No, not at all.  Actually he just sat there.  I figure that the effects were already starting to set in, but of course it’s hard to tell since he never mentioned the details of that himself.”

“The details of what?  And effects of what?”

Vann shrugged his shoulders up and then cracked his neck, a sigh of satisfaction escaping his lips as he did so.  He rubbed his nose and continued.

“Now part of what I’m about to tell you is partly my own speculation, from what I learned and putting some things together in my head.  Anyway, what is known for sure is this.  Those railroad boys came back out with the girls about thirty minutes later and Tom Sexton was throwing up, violently, in the corner by the wood stove.  He had stood up about three minutes before that, knocked over a couple of chairs with a staggering lurch once he was on his feet, and then stumbled over to the corner.  My opinion, well I think that bar owner, who was the one pouring drinks that night, I think he slipped something into Tom’s whiskey.  I think he was working with the railroad or doing them a favor.  Maybe they blackmailed him, scared him, who knows?  But I definitely think he slipped Tom something.”

“Just because he got sick?  Maybe he shouldn’t have been up and about so soon?”

“Maybe true, maybe but,” and here Vann paused with his index finger held up in the air, “I do know that two weeks after the murders that owner had enough extra money to fix up the inside of the Half-Acre and his was also the only business allowed to stay open after the railroad took over the land.”

“So, they did end up with all the land.”

Vann looked up at me with his exasperated look as I was obviously skipping ahead in the story.  He did however give me this one.  “They did, and kicked everyone out so they could build over it, everyone except the Half-Acre which was allowed to stay open for another six months to service the crew building the coal storage buildings.  They kept a few of the buildings actually, moved them to other places in the town, but the land, they took it over.”

The railroad operation in Two Harbors, MN - courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The railroad operation in Two Harbors, MN – courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

“Interesting.  So, then Tom was sick and…?”  I figured I had better get back to the correct place in the story after being allowed this skip ahead moment.

“Yes, very ill, and like I said I believe that was done by the owner of the Acre, and that Tom had probably been starting to feel its effects earlier in the night.  So, out come the ladies with their customers and Tom is spewing in the corner.  The owner tells Jenny and Mary to carry him to one of the rooms in the back and put him into bed until he felt better.  Those two were pretty tough ladies and they hauled him up like the proverbial sack of potatoes and took him back.  Along the way Tom managed to throw up right at the feet of one of those railroad boys, which I guess may have been the only revenge he ever exacted on them.  Back he went with the girls and they disappeared into the rooms behind the bar.  And that was the last time those two ladies were ever seen alive by the way.  Last seen alive with Tom Sexton. “

I had returned to tapping my feet up and down to try to get some additional blood flowing into them as my toes were right at that point where they are so cold they begin to hurt.  As it was not working very well I took off my Melvin’s and began massaging my feet.   After a few minutes I looked back at Vann, who had paused when my shoes came off, and asked, “They never came back out of the rooms?”

Ella G Stone at Ore Dock in Two Harbors, MN courtesy C. Patrick Labadie Collections, Duluth, MN

Ella G Stone at Ore Dock in Two Harbors, MN courtesy C. Patrick Labadie Collections, Duluth, MN

“They did not, at least not that anyone saw.  As soon as they were out of sight those two railroad thugs departed, the taller one cursing the owner for the vomit on his boots, and then they walked out the front door.  The owner did not think much of Jenny and Mary not coming right back, and by the time he did all he found was Tom passed out in one of the beds and the girls gone.  He looked around a little for them, didn’t find them and then turned to other things as both girls were prone to disappearing without notice anyway.”

At this point I wanted to guess what happened next, however I held my tongue and waited for the story to continue.

“Nobody thinks much of any of this in the moment of course.  It may have been weird for Tom to be sick and passed out, however as things went at the Acre, it wasn’t that unusual.  So Tom wakes up the next morning, not remembering the last few minutes before he blacked out, in fact not one hundred percent sure how he even ended up in the bed.  He also in not feeling much better but also is not throwing up anymore, so he starts walking home.  Almost right away he hears a dog howling in the distance and thinks it might be his, however he also knows that his dog never howls unless something is wrong or really bothering it.  As he gets closer he realizes it is his dog and he starts running, not sure what may have set it off.  He finds the dog sitting under the maple tree on the east side of his shack, almost directly under the strung up and gutted body of Mary Flynn.  That gets him to throwing up again, and then he hauls the dog away and ties it up at the front door.  Inside he finds Jenny, tied up to a chair and her throat slit, horrible marks of torture on her body, burn marks, a skinned left forearm, nasty stuff.”  Vann looked away toward the night and shuddered.  I had my own sense of revulsion at his description and the story paused for several long moments.  I could hear an insect that I could not readily identify making clicking sounds in the cold night and off to the west the occasional hum of a vehicle on the highway gave a little background noise to the darkness.  Finally Vann turned back.

“I’m not sure that Tom realized exactly what had happened to him in those first few moments.  He was horrified of course by the condition of the girls and he paced around aimlessly for almost ten minutes, going back and forth between the two bodies. It was when he finally decided to take some action that he realized the true depth of the problem.  He took off his jacket, which he had slept in at the bar, and when he did that, he realized that the cuffs were soaked in blood and there was additional blood on the front.   The implication was obvious to him.  He knows that he doesn’t remember a few things about the night before but also knows he would never have killed Jenny and Mary.  And that’s when he knows he has been set up.

“He didn’t realize his coat had blood all over it?”

“I figure he was pretty hazy from the whiskey and whatever else they gave him, probably had that blurry headed nonchalance you get after a good night out ya know?  That after-buzz that makes the details of the following morning a little less important?”

I had to admit I knew all about that so I nodded and asked another question.  “The blood was probably dry too, huh?  Makes it less noticeable especially if the cuffs were that soaked.”

Vann nodded back at me and rubbed his nose on his jacket again before speaking.  “Interesting side fact by the way, nobody saw those railroad boys for a few days and when they did, the tall one had twenty-five stitches across his cheek from a deep cut and the other one had his hand wrapped up.”

“Those ladies must have put up quite a fight.  I mean, you are saying that the railroad guys are the ones that really killed Jenny and Mary right?”

“Indeed, indeed on both my friend.”

…to be continued