Authors Note: Vann did allow me to take a photo of the pages he gave me although we had to do so with the light of some trash we briefly lit on fire- I transcribed them here as the writing is somewhat difficult to read. My notes are included below in italics.
Friday October 16, 1885
Current position off-shore Agate Bay – taking on water
Not a pleasant day. I awoke in town, at the Acre, painfully hung over and unable to recall some of the details from the previous night. Before I had even cleared the edge of the village I heard an animal howling and thought it might be Allie, although that would be a long way to hear him from. I was not quite myself so I walked slowly for a bit, however the howling continued and I became convinced it was him which put a hurry in my steps. Even at that it took me over an hour to reach my property and it was horror when I did.
(there seems to be a break in the writing here, possibly attributable to his next comment and also due to the lightly sketched pictures that appear underneath)
I find it hard to write about this however I think I must as it is the only record anyone will have other than whatever my tormentors come up with. The horror on arrival began with a woman hung up by the neck in the maple tree, face contorted, clothing ripped and dirty and her entrails strewn out in a pile on the ground beneath her. Allie looked as though he may have been nosing around that pile, however when I arrived he was sitting about thirty feet away and almost hoarse from howling. It may have been that the swarm of insects drove him away. I was ill immediately and then I hauled that poor boy away and tied him up by the door post. I went inside to get some tools however found another, and if possible, more wretched scene. Another woman, one I recognized, her name might be Jenny from the Acre, was trussed up to my chair. She had been violated in ways that I really cannot bring myself to write, other than that she was burned and cut. The smell inside was terrible, death and blood, and I became ill again and continued in that way for some minutes. I closed my eyes but the scene would not leave me. Even as I write this it is still there. I am certain it always will be.
In that poor condition I continued, eventually I must have stood up because when I next was aware of myself I was outside, cursing and shouting. It may have been fifteen minutes and I realized I had been pacing between the two bodies. Finally Allie stopped howling, which snapped me out of my despair, and I realized I needed to take action. When I took off my jacket to begin, I knew that this crime was not only terrible but one that was intended to be traced back to me. My cuffs were stiff and rough, covered in blood, as was a portion of my jacket front and collar. It gave me a moment of pause, did I do this?, before I knew the truth. Up to that moment, perhaps naively, I had not thought of what was obvious now – I had to leave Agate Bay forever and very quickly.
I cast off mid-afternoon and headed out onto the lake, regret still in my mind for leaving behind such a chapter in my life. I am proud of what I did there. The light was just starting to fade as it does this time of year and I hoped that the darkness would come before anyone set off after me. I need to have a good lead on any pursuit. What will I do if I am caught?
(there seems to be another break in writing here and the page has some water damage on it.)
I will protest my innocence until the last, however in present circumstances, and among the present company in this area, I fear that may to be no avail.
I am headed north. I need to get away from Duluth, Agate Bay, Burlington, all of this burgeoning population, up toward the more empty parts of this great wilderness. I made good progress for perhaps twenty minutes before I noticed that my vessel was riding lower than I expected her to. At first I gave this no more than a passing thought as I had loaded some additional items before I left. It was not long however before my curiosity got the better of me and I poked around below, only to discover that I was in fact taking on some water. Improbable or impossible I thought, as this vessel has been tight and worthy so far, however it was a fact not to be driven away by these beliefs. I bailed, keeping up pace and working on the problem, hoping for a quick repair. It was however not to be, as several times I believed I had achieved success only to find more water leaking in soon after. I was still just within sight of land, although thankfully far enough from my property to not be visible, and the darkness was coming now which I knew would cover me.
A night on the water does not appeal to me, however I seem to have no choice. I am tired and distraught, full of anger, sorrow and pain and may not be in the best mind to solve my problem. It is 2330 now by my watch and I believe I can keep bail all night and maintain through to morning when a better solution may present itself.
0015 – maintaining well, almost feel asleep while on a break from the work, however slipped and bumped my head which was good luck I suppose
0200 – all well although the leak does seem to be increasing. I am bailing about five minutes out of every fifteen.
0410 – I bailed like the devil to catch myself a break – as dry as it can be down here for the moment. My back rests against the two trunks that I filled with my collection. That, my provisions and the personal items (journals, letters, the photograph I had taken in 1859, father’s razor and my camp kit and gun), are all that remain to me. I started with less in Agate Bay. As far as what I have brought from my collection, I believe this list is complete:
– the three pointed iron poles (only the ones with the runes / other script on them – I had to leave the others).
– Wooden handled cutters
– Uniform jacket found with the skeleton in grave one (I remain certain it is British enlisted from the war)
– My rescued candlesticks (my only set now, so I guess I shall have to use them much as it dismays me).
– The zoetrope and the only remaining good strip (with the horses – I broke it off its spindle trying to load it…however it still intrigues me).
– Argand lamp
– Tombstone shako cap (all three were in very poor condition, I took the best one).
– Fishing lures and birch box (which to date I still cannot determine origin – Indians ? or Frenchmen?)
– Wooden box carved with ‘Abigail 1792’
– fifteen silver coins
– Indian birch bark basket (has scratch art on it…beautiful)
– a round earthen vessel (the larger one with what appears to be the inlaid colors)
These are all I could safely carry away with me. I left the pit as it was as I had no time to cover or conceal it – I suppose it may provide someone a few odd moments trying to determine its nature. The items from my known and unknown lists I did bury separately, with the lists themselves included as inventory.
The water rises again and I have written too long. Thankfully morning comes soon.
The entry ends there and Vann would continue his story after I was done reading. The condition of the pages left me skeptical in regard to how much longer he was going to be able to keep them safe in his bag, regardless of what protection he had around them. In some ways I was tempted to ask him if I could take them with me, however I thought better of that in the end. Later I did some research into just what some of these items were and what they looked like. I have included some pictures here as a reference.
…to be continued
“Do you suppose he meant anything by that? Was it a symbol of something?”
Vann had a faraway look in his eyes, reliving his research I supposed. “You know, I thought about that too, a lot really. At the time, I guess I was trying to derive some bigger meaning from it. Did he see himself as part of a game? Was there some kind of meaning to him about his relative power in the area?”
“It’s a chess piece value thing. You know, how folks that play rate the value of one piece against another?” Vann’s hands were waving in front of his crossed legs, moving invisible chess pieces around in the air. Although I knew how to play, or supposed I did, I had no idea what he was talking about.
“This get complicated, huh?”
“A bit, not too much, but you probably don’t want to hear a gaming lecture from me.” His eyes twinkled a bit at that, and I took it that he would have been happy to give me one.
“Not really. Let’s just leave it at my understanding that people have values attached to them.”
“Ok then.” He sighed and reluctantly continued. “So, maybe it was a value thing, or any of another whole mess of potential analogies relating to even more obscure chess information. The history of the pieces and such. A person could get, did get in my case, lost in that for a bit.”
More details I was ignorant of no doubt. “You researched the history of chess pieces?”
“Yes, kind of fascinating actually. You know, in ancient versions that piece, the one we call a rook, was actually a chariot. Or in some other cases berserker warriors. Plenty of room there to put meaning into the name of Tom’s boat, but in the end I just decided he liked playing chess.”
I was quiet for a moment and Vann seemed content to take a break from the story. It did not seem logical to me that this piece of information meant so little. After all, Tom had not named his boat in the usual way but had instead chosen to put a picture of a chess piece as a nameplate.
“That seems like one hell of a loose end you left there, I mean there has to be more to that than the fact that he liked to play chess. Did he really actually play?”
My question snapped Vann out of what, from his facial contortions anyway, seemed to have been a troubled reverie.
“Ah, yes, at least it seems so. It’s mentioned quite a few times in his journals and a set was recovered from the boat.”
“Why did you decide to leave that one alone?” My query sounded harsher than I meant it to. Perhaps the night air was adding malice to my words.
“Leave what?” He replied quickly but with an undertone of understanding.
“Leave this idea of what or how he named that boat with such a lame explanation. You dug up plenty of other information and certainly drew plenty of critical conclusions, but then you leave this with your, ‘liked to play,’ chess solution?”
Vann was still sitting cross-legged and now propped his chin up on his hand, elbow resting on his right knee, the thinker pose I thought.
“Well, somethings aren’t for me to figure out I guess.” Several seconds of silence and then he began again.
“Tom left and cruised off into the fading light. His journal mentions that he didn’t think anyone would follow him into the darkness, giving him at least a little bit of a lead on his likely pursuers.”
“I’m no sailor but isn’t travel on the water fairly dangerous at night?”
“Of course it is, but Tom knew that area really well and figured he could disappear safely. Although this boat was new to him, he had spent plenty of time on that water in others ones.”
“Did he have a plan, some place that he was going?”
“He definitely planned to go north, although how far initially is hard to say. Me myself, I probably would have given some consideration to the group of islands that is across the bay from where Tom left, might have been a good place to disappear. Not Tom though, his journal states, ‘need to head away from Duluth, up toward the more empty parts of this great wilderness.’ He had enough supplies, like I said before the boat was well provisioned, enough to survive for a good amount of time on his own. I think maybe he just planned to head north and see what happened, maybe find another place like what Agate Bay had been when he first arrived. Pristine and empty, ya know?”
I nodded and shook my head, wishing that I had some water as the after effects of the Thunderbird were starting to hit me, leaving me with a rapidly approaching headache and a tacky feeling in my mouth. I looked at Vann’s bag, hoping this somehow alerted him to my condition, however he was still just starting at me after his last sentence. I decided it was not that important.
“Yeah, I guess he liked places like that. So he headed north. How far did he get?”
“Not far actually, although he certainly wanted to. After about thirty minutes on the lake he started to notice that the boat was taking on some water, not quickly but steadily, enough that he decided he did not want to be any further off shore than he was. He had turned north almost right after leaving and was out of sight of his cabin, so I figure he took some small comfort from that anyway. It was not dark when he discovered this problem so he spent some anxious hours, bailing, trying to stem the flow of water and waiting for the light to fade. A few times he thought he had it fixed up, however within a few minutes the water would start to accumulate again. Once night fell, he kept bailing and hoped he would be able to fix the problem once the sun came back up.”
“That couldn’t have been a fun night.”
“I doubt it was, however the situation did not require him to work constantly. He did have time to write his final journal entry.”
“And that’s the last thing we know about him?”
“It is certainly the last bit of information that he provided. Everything else is speculation.”
I could not take it any longer.
“Do you have any water in there?” I said, pointing at Vann’s bag.
He grinned back. “No way. But I have this,” and he reached into a pocket of his jacket and pulled out a pack of gum. That was going to have to do at this point. I took it gratefully and popped it into my mouth, tossing aside the wrapper which Vann reached over and picked up, giving me a look of admonishment. I waved an apology and asked a question.
“Is this journal in the archive up there? Is it something a person could go look at and read?”
“Well, it’s a long way to Minnesota from here but who knows…and yes, it’s interesting. Do you know what else it said?”
“Of course I do.”
“So,” and I made the come-on motion, feeling as though I were dragging information out of an uncooperative prisoner.
“Calm down. It’s easier to just read it.”
“I will, hopefully I guess, someday. Just tell me what it said.”
“Read it for yourself.”
My headache was stronger now and my patience was even less than usual.
“Seriously, just,” at which point I stopped because Vann had reached into his bag and produced a black presentation folder, the kind that people use to keep certificates or award letters. He opened it to reveal a plastic bag that enclosed a yellowed set of pages.
“I don’t even believe this. You stole the journal too?”
Vann looked offended. “Just the last entry. Here, read it for yourself.”
…to be continued
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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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