A Burning Cold Morning (Part 2)

I am sure that convicts, even dying ones, tell lies all the time.  I do not think that sets them too far apart from the rest of humanity.  Truthfulness may not be our strongest virtue.  Researching things as frequently and as in detail as I often do has also made it obvious that there are all kinds of false leads, apocryphal stories, urban legends and misreported facts about every imaginable historical event.  So, some random journal entry about a generally insignificant criminal’s death is not exactly a eureka moment.  I have always given a little extra weight to “dying utterances” though and it did seem likely from the info in the journal that Leo probably knew his time was up when he pulled that guard in close for those last words.  It struck me as interesting and worth a second look so I dove in and, well, that was a long time ago.  The story that unfolded from my research is truly an interesting one, a hidden tale of Minneapolis and the surrounding area that includes all of the usual trigger words; criminals, murder, deceit, gangsters and explosions.  It also includes things that will give you more hope, things such as bravery, courage, forgiveness and redemption.  And I definitely found out that Leo Humbert was not as insignificant as he seemed to be at first.  For now, let’s step back into time a ways and onto the baseball field in New Munich, Minnesota on July 6th, 1910.

new munich mn 2017

new munich mn 2017

 

It was, and still is, a very small town, although between 1900 and 1910 it had gone through one of its two large population booms.  A forty percent increase had left New Munich with one hundred and ninety residents by 1910 and that growth would continue for another decade, ending in 1920 when the population was three hundred and twenty five.  Since that time, things have pretty much stayed the same.  The Hombert’s (for that was Leo’s last name at birth) had been in the area for awhile by the time this growth started, having moved to the area in 1891 after getting married in Ohio.  The patriarch, Benjamin Hombert, a man with sloping shoulders, blue eyes and thick brown hair, was a farmer and occasionally picked up extra work as a day laborer.  He and his wife Lizzie produced a large family of four girls and four boys, of whom Leo was the third youngest of all, and the most junior boy.

part of 1910 census hombert family only

part of 1910 census hombert family only

As a child Leo was wiry and “all angles and edges” as his mother wrote in her diary several times, and he had the sharp features which he would carry with him through most of his life.  They all helped their father on the farm and the family was generally known as honest and hard-working.  The Hombert’s took good care of their children and seven of them became solid parts of the Stearns County community.  Leo, however, would do little to ever repay or appreciate the nurturing and safety they provided.

Ben Hombert’s  great passion, other than his family, was baseball and he played on the local team, a collection of energetic and scrappy men, all much younger than him.  The team was known for getting into fights on the field, although Leo’s father never participated and was know as “Softy” because of it.  He played mostly in the outfield and could still catch up to a fly ball pretty well although his arm was “not the force it used to be,” as he would say.  Ben encouraged his children to come and watch his games and practices, hoping to give them insight into his own love of baseball.  He had not been greatly successful in this though, and although his daughter Olivia though it was a grand game, Ben had hoped one of his son’s might pick up the sport and play alongside him.  Leo seemed to be his last chance for this and he often would take the boy, protesting or not, along with him.  It probably was not the best way to encourage a youngster to like something, and young Leo would usually misbehave in some way as his father was on the field.  This usually amounted to pranks or general mischief but this particular day would mark what could later be identified as the beginning of a long criminal career for Leo Hombert.

It was a Wednesday, their usual practice day, and the team was trying to get in a practice session before the rain, which was threatening in the eastern sky, started to fall in earnest.  A game was coming up against a good Saint Cloud club and every man on the team wanted to beat them.  Light, intermittent showers had been falling throughout the day but there was a break in the weather around two p.m.  Although on many occasions only a few of the players made it, this session was fully attended as the local newspaper was sending a photographer to take the team’s picture.

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

Whether they would admit it or not, all of the men were looking forward to cutting that page out of the edition in which it appeared, or buying a few extra copies to keep around and show off.  There were not many opportunities for celebrity in New Munich.

The team manager was Charlie Amsden, a man born in Sauk Centre who had moved over to New Munich to work in a bank owned by his brother Michael, who was also the owner of the local baseball club.  While Michael was tall and imposing, Charlie had been crippled by an accident in his early teens and years of limited mobility had left him frail and thin.  He often looked like he was wearing clothing that was several sizes too big, usually because he just could not find items to fit his very thin frame.  The move to New Munich though had seemed to energize him and his brother had purchased a top of the line wheelchair for Charlie.  After that he was often seen zipping down the aptly named Main Street of the town and the residents liked his quick smile and dry sense of humor, especially when he applied it to himself.  He also had taken on the task of managing his brother’s baseball club and found great enjoyment in the camaraderie of the team.  As they were all assembled that day, circled around their proud owner in front of the chicken wire outfield fence of the field, Leo began his life of crime with a crippled man as his victim.

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 47)

Claudia shook her head.

“I mean it.  You and I need to go.  We need to get the doctor.”

Claudia shook her head again.  “Too long.  I go with Unc before.  Long walk.”

“I know how far it is.  I walk it everyday and we will be fine.  I will carry you if I must but we need to go now.”

She shook her head again.  “I stay.  She’s sick.” She pointed toward the bedroom.

“That’s why we need the doctor.  And you can’t take care of her anyway.  You are too little.  Now let’s go.”  As he spoke Isaac put on a light coat and grabbed the key for entrance to the factory.  “Come along.”

It took a little bit more convincing but eventually Claudia came willingly and seemed to have largely forgotten her worries as she ran along in front of Isaac.  He carried her twice but only for about twenty minutes total, and he felt more tired than she seemed by the time they arrived near the town.  Taking the side road, away from the house of the town doctor, he led them up to the porcelain factory.

It loomed before them in the deepening twilight, smoke from the ever-burning furnace leaking into the soft blue sky.  The windows were few and they mostly reflected the darkness, waving shadows and occasional flashes of the moon the only interruptions.  Isaac walked toward the entrance but Claudia stopped.

“Doctor’s house?”

“No.  I have to check in at work.  I missed coming today and need to check on some things.  Come along.”

She did, stopping once they were inside to look around at all of the shelves full of various porcelain pieces.  She reached out to take one down but Isaac stopped her, telling her to follow him deeper into the building.  He entered the furnace room, holding the door for her, and then closed it slowly behind them.  It took four minutes to strangle Claudia, her resistance minimized by the fact that he had pushed her to the ground with her one arm pinned underneath her body.  By the time it was done the adrenaline was coursing through his body once again, the elusive rush from early that same morning returning in full force.  After he calmed down enough, it was a simple matter to load her body into the furnace, although the intensity of the heat did leave a slight burn on Isaac’s face.  As he watched from the thick glass window of the furnace door, her clothes flared, her skin lit like candle tallow, flickering and resisting the fiery force, and then it was washed over in a rush of flame.  He stayed there, peering in, until every last trace of her had vanished.

The next morning, almost delirious with exhaustion especially after the long trek back to the property and the lighting on fire of the cabin, Isaac was back in town to fetch the doctor.  Two days after that, Lydia was feeling much better and Isaac had answered all of the relevant questions from an inquisitive but generally non-energetic police force.  They had seemed to believe that the misadventures of foreigners were little of their concern, although they did press Wyatt on how he received the scratches on his face.  He put that off to Lydia’s flailing around as he tried to put the fire out on her dress.  The question Wyatt had expected to be the hardest, in regard to the whereabouts of Claudia and Wyatt whom everyone in town knew lived on the property, had been easily explained.  They had left last week, homesick for the states.  Isaac had not thought it something worth talking about at work or in town, where he was generally thought of as a quiet type anyway.  That seemed to satisfy the authorities and Isaac breathed an internal sign of great relief.  On the sixth day following Claudia’s murder Isaac got up to finally return to work.  They had insisted he take several days off to recover from the ordeal with his wife.  He wrote the letter as he drank some tea.

April 7, 1884

Harriet,

I write with sad tidings from Lippelsdorf.  Wyatt and Claudia perished several days ago in a fire here on the property.  They were asleep when it started, no one seems to be able to say exactly how, and never made it out of their cabin.  None of us here at the other house, which is some distance away, even knew it was on fire until it was much too late.  I gave them both a proper burial here on the property where we have a cemetery in a nice, quiet place.  I am sure that they will rest peacefully.  I am moving on from here with my family, the sorrow being too great for me to remain.  I know this news will be hard for you to bear and you will remain in my thoughts.

With sympathy,

Issac

When Harriet received that letter on May 9th, just six days before her scheduled departure to visit Wyatt and Claudia in Germany, it shook her to the very core.  It took her the remainder of that day to do just two things.  Burn all of her remaining clothing that was not black and to walk into town to purchase two large frames, behind which she mounted one item each.  Olivia and Claudia would be together forever in that frame, their carefully cleaned and ironed infant dresses staring down at Harriet from the place on the wall where she mounted them.  That was all that she really had left.

 

Claudia's dress

Claudia’s dress

 

Olivia's dress

Olivia’s dress

Isaac, returning home from work on that sixth day after Claudia’s murder, presented his wife with a special present, items she had been eager to acquire for quite some time.

Porcelain coffee mugs.

The End

Porcelain (Part 46)

Lydia was in very bad condition.  Once Isaac had managed to get her off the floor, he had carried her carefully to their bed, laying her down with hands still clutching the money.  She seemed determined to keep hold of it but eventually the pain took over and all of her attention was focused on suffering.  Placing the bills into a bucket, Issac had poured water over them before returning to care for his wife.  It took him over three hours to get all of her clothing off, as he was forced to carefully cut around many places where the dress had burned into her skin.  Once this was completed he could see that about twenty percent of her body was covered with significant burns and another twenty percent in smaller, less serious patches of damage.  Lydia was in and out of consciousness during this time, delirious and raving when awake, twitchy and moaning when not.  Isaac understood that he lacked the knowledge to properly care for his wife’s injuries and that she was in serious danger of dying if he did not get her treatment as quickly as possible.  Going for the doctor was of course the obvious thing to do, but then what was that going to bring down upon him?  He knew he was in a dilemma.

The doctor would of course want to know how such serious burns had occurred, and the only obvious thing Issac could think of was that either the house or the cabin needed to be set on fire.  He did not really feel like the house was a good option, especially since that would mean losing all of their possessions.  The cabin was definitely better.  The story could easily be that Lydia had been trapped inside and that he had bravely rescued her.  But there was also now likely to be police involvement and someone, either the doctor or a detective, was going to end up talking to Claudia.  What would the girl say had happened?  Whatever it was, there was little chance that any of it could be made to match up to any story that made sense about his wife’s injuries.  And that of course meant that Claudia simply could not be there.  He considered that carefully for a long time, that one simple and unavoidable idea.  It meant that he needed to act again, and the thought made him scared but also excited.  He was already missing the rush of the moment he had felt when he had killed his father.  It was going to take another murder to clear this mess up.  His actions after that were driven by that simple fact.

Cleaning up the wounds as well as he could, efforts that only seemed to put his wife in more pain, he then left her in the bed and returned to the kitchen area.  He had made no effort to speak to Claudia during the time he had been caring for Lydia, and it now took him several minutes to find her.  She was curled up next to the pantry door, asleep and with a half-eaten piece of bread lying next to her on the floor.  He woke her  with a shake.

“Get up Claudia.  All is better.”  A howl came from the bedroom and he gave the girl a rueful grin.  “Well, maybe not all better, but you and I don’t need to worry about that right now.  Let’s get something to eat.  I can see that you must have been hungry.”

Claudia got up slowly and followed him to the kitchen table.  As she watched he prepared two sandwiches and filled a jug with water.

“Grab a couple of those glasses and follow me.”

They walked outside and across the property, sitting down under an oak tree about one hundred feet from the house.  Claudia was quiet but was constantly looking at Isaac, her eyes full of questions.  He was content to let them stay there, trapped in those youthful eyes, especially since he was not sure he had any answers that were going to make any sense to the girl anyway.  Finally she spoke.

“Unc really gone? Dead?”  Her eyes were teared up but she was holding it together, so he answered her.

“Yes.  He’s dead.  I’m sorry.”

“How?”

“Sometimes people just die.  He was pretty old you know.”

“Why?”

“It’s the same answer as the other Claudia.  He was just old.”

“Why did I leave cabin?”

“We didn’t want you to see his body.”

She stared back at him and then continued eating her sandwich.  The morning was passing quickly, at least for Isaac, and he was surprised to see the sun so high in the sky.  At least that would make the waiting less, which was good because he knew what had to be done and was plenty nervous about it.  The rush was great but thinking about it still made his stomach sour.  He needed to keep himself busy.

“Well, I’m done.  You stay here until you finish that and then you can walk back over to the house.  I’ve got work to do.”

Isaac began splitting wood as soon as he got back to the house, the thunking and banging sounds drowning out his wife’s cries.  He worked at it longer than he ever had before, hours and hours of splitting wood, his muscles aching and sore, his body wet with sweat.   He checked on Lydia whenever his back locked up badly enough that he could not swing the axe, tending to her as well as he could, and then returning as quickly as he could to his labor.  During this time he also finished burning the mattress, cleaning up the area where the fire had been with a rake.  Claudia did walk over when she was done but refused to enter the house, instead choosing to sit by the side door and watch, trancelike, as Isaac swung the axe.  Eventually it was time to eat again and Isaac fed them both at the kitchen table, more sandwiches but this time with some fruit and cheese.  Once that was done, and with another check on Lydia, Isaac spoke to Claudia.

“I hope you are rested girl.  We need to walk into town this evening.”

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 45)

Cleaning  up took awhile, especially getting the blood off the old floorboards of the cabin where it had started to stain the wood.  She scrubbed long enough to get the color to change to a deep brown, a process that took over an hour, after which Lydia was covered in sweat and laboring for breath.  Standing up to look at her work, which was lit by the warm glow from two lanterns she had placed on the floor, she realized that no amount of work was going to make it any better.  At least the mark was mostly under the bed, and maybe no one would notice if they did come out looking for Wyatt.  Or maybe just a little bit of time would soften the staining enough to make it less noticeable.  The rest of the work had gone easily enough, although burning the mattress proved harder than expected, with the flame constantly sputtering out before it could catch properly.  Lydia finally grabbed some brush that had been collected for kindling, placing it into a large pile and letting it get well lit.  She then slowly pulled the mattress over that fire, raising it above the flames with a few large logs that she rolled underneath.  As it caught and the linen cover of the mattress flamed over, Lydia screamed.  The edges of the bills, which Wyatt had carefully placed within his mattress for safekeeping, were catching fire rapidly.  Isaac emerged quickly from the main house, just in time to see his wife leap onto the top of the burning mattress, wildly jumping around in an effort to put the flames out.

“What are you doing?” he yelled, running toward her as tiny flames started to peek out from the bottom edges of her dress.  “What is this madness?”

“The money, the money, the money!” That was all Lydia would say as she danced around, losing her battle to extinguish the mattress.  By the time that Isaac reached her she had a line of flame running up the back of her dress.  He dove, knocking her off her feet, and they both landed in a pile about three feet away from the fire.  Lydia promptly began to struggle to get up again.

“The money Isaac!  He put it in that damn mattress and it’s burning up.”

Isaac pulled her back, rolling her over and beating out the flames.   The wind had shifted and placed them both directly in the path of the smoke from the smoldering mattress.  Lydia continued to protest; however, most of her words were swallowed by a violent fit of coughing caused by the smoke.  When she recovered she stood up, the edges of what remained of the bottom of her dress sparkling with dying embers.  Isaac could tell that she was contemplating another attempt and he held firmly onto her left arm.

“It’s gone.  We should have thought of that I guess.”  He was blinking hard, trying to clear the soot from her eyes.

Lydia took a deep breath, bent over and then drove her elbow into Isaac’s side, which caused him to lose his grip.  Before he could recover, she was back on top of the mattress, tearing away at what remained of the  cover.  As she uncovered bills that had not yet burned, or which had at least not burned completely, she began stuffing them rapidly down inside of her dress.  Isaac tried several more times to pull her off but she fought back, clawing at his face and kicking at him, blows aimed at sensitive parts of his body.  Her dress caught on fire twice more, but each time she put it out herself before going back to ripping into the mattress.  Finally, exhausted and coughing from the smoke, Isaac gave up, sinking down onto his knees to watch.  As he did so, Claudia emerged from the house, rubbing her nose and crying.  With a final look over at Lydia, Isaac got up and walked over to the girl.

“Come on Claudia.  There is no need for you to be out here.”  He offered out his hand, and when she did not take it he grabbed her’s and started moving toward the house.  The girl was staring wide-eyed at the fire and the shadowy figure atop it.  “Come along now girl.”

They walked into the house together and Isaac guided Claudia to a chair in the kitchen.  Thirsty and with a mouth dried by embers and smoke, he had gulped down two glasses of water before he realized that Claudia remained wide-eyed, her attention now turned instead to him.  Seeing real fear in her eyes, Isaac strode into the bedroom and picked up his wife’s hand mirror off the vanity.  His appearance was indeed shocking.  Eyes ringed by soot, hair a tousled mess and three rather deep gouges under his left eye that ran all the way to his chin.  The blood from those wounds had run over his jawline and down his neck, which was also coated in fine black ash.  No wonder Claudia was frightened by his appearance.  Going to the wash basin, Isaac cleaned himself up for several minutes, a quick check in the mirror on the way out to the kitchen revealing mixed results.  As he stepped through the bedroom doorway and back into the kitchen, Lydia burst through the door.   Her appearance was much worse, frightening even to Isaac, and Claudia bolted out of the chair, running across the room and hiding behind a cabinet in a far corner.

Hair smoking and partially burned off the left side of her head, Lydia was wild-eyed and breathing heavily.  Almost the entire bottom of her dress had burned away, the waist line still smoldering from small embers.  The front of the garment was also partially burned away, although she had both hands clasped to her chest, clutching loose scraps of money, several of which fluttered out onto the floor.  There were significant burns, red and orange patches ringed by edges of rough black skin, damage that she was just beginning to actually feel as she stumbled and fell to the floor.  As she did so the screams began, low at first but then building to wails of agony, her voice scratchy and hoarse.  Not sure exactly what to do, Isaac approached her slowly as she writhed on the floor.

“Please dear, stop moving, stop moving so I can see what you have done.  I can’t, I don’t really know, I mean, I need to look at you for a minute.  Please stop moving.”

The wailing continued and Lydia was crying, beckoning him with her burned arms.  He approached and could hear his name being repeated over and over.  When he leaned in, she said only one thing.

“I couldn’t save it all.”

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 44)

Lydia was sitting up in bed when he returned, an anxious look on her face.  The only light in the room was a low, sputtering candle which gave an eerie glow to her eyes.  Isaac was calm now but that eeriness gave him a start and he took several deep breaths before speaking.

“My part is done.  Now go and get the girl.”

Lydia got up quickly, already dressed beneath the covers in a grey house dress, and strode quickly across to the cabin.  Isaac heard Claudia let out a short scream as Lydia abruptly woke her up.  In the cabin it was still very dark.

“Get up now, quickly girl.  We need to get  you out of this place.”

Claudia had screamed just the once but was now hyperventilating out of fear.  Lydia was not someone she really trusted or had ever expected to awaken her in the middle of the night.

“I said get up girl.  Stop crying and come with me.”

Claudia continued to sit in her bed, silent tears falling as she fought to regain control of her breathing.  Lydia would not wait any longer, grabbing the young girl’s arm and hauling her out of the bed before throwing a blanket around her shoulders.  With that, and another admonition to stop with the tears, she dragged her toward the cabin door.  Claudia, who did stop crying as she attempted fiercely to resist, pulled backward and grabbed onto the table as they passed it.  She also called out for Wyatt.

“He won’t answer you.  He’s gone.  Gone!”

That set Claudia to crying again and she lost her grip, banging her chin against a chair as Lydia hauled her up and out the door.  By the time they were back in the main house her knees were also dirty and bruised from falling several times as she was dragged along behind the older woman.  Isaac took over once they were in the kitchen.

“Sit down Claudia.  It’s okay, it will be okay.”

Lydia leaned back against the wall, content to let Isaac provide whatever signs of kindness might need to be shown at this moment.

“Here, drink a little of this water, and let me wipe that blood off of your chin.”

Claudia was still sobbing and turned her head away from the offered glass.  Isaac reached up and grabbed her chin, which elicited a yelp, but he maintained a tight grip, forcing her to look at him.

“Drink this water.  It will make you feel better.”

She resisted a little bit but then opened her mouth and Isaac tipped the glass, holding it there until it was empty.   She sputtered on the last of it, spitting a little bit out.

“Yucky.”

“Don’t worry, it will help you feel better.”  Isaac knelt down next to the chair she was sitting in.  He tried once again to wipe the blood off of the girl’s chin but she turned her head away.  He sighed and continued.  “Now listen Claudia.  We had to come and get you because a terrible thing has happened.  I’m sorry but your Uncle Wyatt is not with us anymore.”

Claudia was calmer now.  She blinked and responded.

“Unc not here?”

“Not anymore.  He’s passed on.”

“Where Unc go?  Walk?”

“No, that’s not what I mean.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake Isaac, this girl is too stupid for your silly attempts to soften the news.”  Lydia had come over and looked down harshly at Claudia.  “He’s dead.  Dead and gone forever.”

Claudia howled, a low tone that seemed too deep for her age, then she broke out into hysterical tears and curled up on the floor.  Her sobbing continued on until the effects of the large shot of vodka that Isaac had added to the glass of water took over and she fell asleep. Isaac rose up slowly, a slightly distasteful look on his face.

“You get her into bed.  I will go now and finish up over at the cabin.”

Lydia scoffed.  “She can stay there on the floor.”

He hesitated, just long enough for Lydia to understand that he was contemplating picking Claudia up and putting her somewhere more comfortable.  She gave him a scornful look, followed by a command to get over to the cabin, which he did without another look back.

They had planned this part out in detail and he set straight to work.  Initially Lydia had thought they could just board the cabin up, figuring that would keep Claudia out and that was all that mattered.  Isaac had managed to get her to understand that, although they could easily keep a young girl out this way, you never could tell when an inquisitive police officer might come looking for details on Wyatt.  He did have a sister after all, one whom had been communicating with him.  He won that argument.  They would bury Wyatt, clean up the bloody floor, replace the bed and then Isaac would write to notify Harriet.  By the time that old woman managed to get any kind of an official inquiry lodged it would be too late.  They just had to hope that no one suggested digging up the body, but that seemed like a far-fetched possibility.  Wyatt had been an old man after all, and they had just buried him like it seemed everyone else who ever lived on the property had done.  That is what they planned to say anyway, and if it came up, well, they were not from the area.  How were they supposed to know what the proper procedure was when someone died of natural causes?  In all likelihood it would all be just fine in the end.

It was a long and difficult trip back to the cemetery in the dark, the way lit only by the lantern he carried, and dragging his father’s body behind him in a sack.  The ground also proved harder than expected and Isaac was completely worn out by the time the burial was complete.  He was supposed to do the rest of the clean-up also but he was just too tired.  Besides, he really did not want Lydia get away with not helping in some way with the cover-up.  He returned to the house and dropped heavily into his favorite chair.

“All done then?”  Lydia inquired from the kitchen.

“Does she still sleep?”

“Now yes.  She was up a few times but I told her to go back to sleep.  I asked you though, if you were done?”

“I’m done, you’re not.  You go over and finish.  I am too tired for more of this today.”

Lydia came out of the kitchen, again with a scornful look, but this time it had no effect on Isaac.  Rolling her eyes, and reminding him to keep a close eye on Claudia, she stormed out of the house.

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 43)

Once his boots were back on, Isaac walked out the side door, stopping when he reached the wood bin. Then he went back inside, emerging five minutes later in different clothes, shabbier ones, what Lydia called his tramp clothes. He paused again by the wood bin, picking the axe up this time and then walking over to the cabin. Despite the fact that he had realized months ago, on that night when Lydia had steamed open the letter and they had resolved to not send that or any other of his father’s correspondence to Harriet, that this moment would come, it still made him pause. It had been one thing to think about it; How hard would it be? Would he really be able to do it when the moment came? What was the best way? What would happen afterward? Those thoughts had kept him up on a few odd nights and had distracted him several times at work. It had also been an entirely different thing to whisper about it in bed with Lydia, usually after one of their generally unsatisfying sexual encounters. She seemed mostly concerned about where his father kept whatever money he was hiding, bracing up Isaac for the ultimate moment (as she called it, usually with a smirk), and asking what in the damn hell they were going to do with that troublesome little girl afterwards. That question had never really been answered and now, as Isaac stood on the porch step with the axe held in one sweaty hand, he also was not sure that Lydia had braced him up well enough. His stomach was sour and he had a slight tremble in his jaw. There was, however, no way that he could go back and face his wife’s derision. Taking a deep breath, and wiping his hands once again against his dirty pants, he stepped up onto the porch and listened at the door.

It seemed completely quiet inside and Issac gingerly reached down and pushed the lever, unlatching the door, which swung in with a slight creak. The sound seemed loud in the silence of the night but no reaction came from either of the cabin’s occupants. He waited several long minutes as his eyes adjusted to the gloom inside the cabin and then he slowly made his way across the main room to the doorway of his father’s bedroom. Here he had to pause once again to wipe his hands, and then he set his jaw firmly, grinding his teeth together to keep them from chattering. There was no door on the room, only the doorway, which seemed somehow darker than all of the other darkness that surrounded it, some kind of pit that he was about to step through and into. He did so, feeling his stomach flip once again, and then three steps later he was standing over his father’s bed. The darkness of course made it difficult to perceive the actual person lying there, but he knew the general arrangement of the room, and the bed, and knew that his father always slept on his back. Then Isaac just waited, willing his eyes to adjust better, while at the same time silently praying that no sound, no urge to urinate and no special sense woke his father up. A sharp but low scratching sound came suddenly from the main room, probably a mouse, and he heard a cat, likely that unnamed thing his son had brought home, meowing somewhere outside the cabin. His heart rate, which had been fast and loud up to this point, started to slow down and a small sense of calm began to creep out and cover up Isaac’s nervous state. He could do this. Finally he could see just a little better, enough to see the edges of his father’s face, the red blanket spilled off the end of the bed, the opaqueness of Wyatt’s fingernails where his hands were resting on his chest. And then he did it, fast and without any hesitation.

He swung that axe with all of his might and anger, driving the blade right down and through his father’s face. The swish of the weapon passing his ear was exhilarating and the loud crunch of it bashing though skull and skin brought a malevolent, lopsided grin to Isaac’s face. His father grunted as he died and that was it, although the sound of the axe slamming into the bed frame did wake Claudia up. She called out from the small nook where she slept, and then Issac heard the rustle of her moving around on her mattress. What to do if Claudia woke up had never been part of the planning, as Lydia believed the girl would not be disturbed as long as Isaac kept the noise to a minimum. Who could have guessed that the axe would go completely through his father’s skull? Isaac briefly thought about what to do if she did walk into the room, then was startled by a sharp bang from the porch. It sounded like a animal had knocked something over, the scamper of small feet audible for several seconds afterward. That seemed to reassure Claudia, who called out one more time and then went silent. Gingerly he pried the axe out and then waited for thirty minutes, listening to the blood drip onto the floor while trying to calm the shakes that were running through his body. He then rose silently, his nerves almost completely settled, and walked back out of the cabin to get Lydia. There was other work to be done.

…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