An American Story (Part 14)

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.

first page tom sexton last entry

first page tom sexton last entry

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.  

tombstone shako cap courtesy history.army.mil

tombstone shako cap courtesy history.army.mil

Ojibwe scratchwork courtesy richard and dorothy nelson collection

Ojibwe scratchwork courtesy richard and dorothy nelson collection

british enlisted coat war 1812 courtesy cape ann museum rob bibelhauser

british enlisted coat war 1812 courtesy cape ann museum rob bibelhauser

argand lamp courtesy english-heritage.org

argand lamp courtesy english-heritage.org

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 13)

“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?”

“Power?”

“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?”

shatranj pieces and modern chess pieces courtesy ancientchess.com - the rukh is third from left

shatranj pieces and modern chess pieces courtesy ancientchess.com – the rukh is third from left

“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.”

two harbors area nautical map courtesy noaa.gov

two harbors area nautical map courtesy noaa.gov

“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?”

“Interested, huh?”

“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

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 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

An American Story (Part 8)

I guess I should have seen that coming.  I let Vann’s comment hang in the air while I looked past the shadowy supports of the water tower.  It was darker now, past twilight and right at the cusp of the true night.  A thin fraction of light remained, just enough to provide a murky contrast in my surroundings.  The sky itself was brilliant as we were far enough from the city lights for the stars to be displayed in all their numbers, Orion hanging directly in my view as I looked west.  I felt the need to relieve myself so I shuffled off into the darkness, trying to judge the proper distance for privacy in a situation like this.  As I walked away I heard Vann get up and when I looked back I could see that he too was making his way into the night.  Hopefully he had not been waiting for me.  When I returned he was just sitting down again, after which he pulled out a black watch cap and put it on with the sides pulled down low over his ears.  I was getting fairly cold also, however had little additional clothing to put on so I tucked my hands in my armpits and spoke.

“Your story gets more fantastic as it goes.  How did the police ever make someone kill two women?”

possible photo of John Beargrease Robert N. Dennis collection photographed by B.F. Childs

possible photo of John Beargrease
Robert N. Dennis collection photographed by B.F. Childs

“Well, it began on the night that Tom Sexton finally was able to get up and walk around again, having recovered as much as he was going to from that last beating he took.  There was a doctor in the town who told him that he should stay in bed, however Tom had also been being seen by Mashkikiikwe, an Ojibway medicine woman who lived with Mok-qua Bennete.  Mok-qua was also called John Beargrease by the way in case you ever want to look him up…it’s an interesting story.  But anyway, Tom had more faith in the medicine woman and she told him that he was as healed as he was going to get, so he went out, walking all the way down to Whiskey Town.   There’s a local legend that Mashkikiikwe followed him down there in secret, trailing behind him to see that he made it, keep him safe you know?”  Vann’s arms had been moving again and were in full rhythm by the time he finished this part of the story.  He tucked them under his legs as I began to pace around the area under the tower. My feet, barely protected by my favorite Melvin’s,  were starting to get fairly cold at this point.  I also had a question.

“Why the hell would she do that?  I thought you said that she told him he was ok?”

“You’re getting pretty cold, huh my friend?  Wish I had something to offer you.  Maybe you should head off now, or go to your truck over there.  It would be warmer.”

“I’ll be fine, I’ve got the blood flowing.  So why?”

Vann was giving me a look, one of pity I guess and that made me feel ridiculous.  Why was I not going to my truck?  I shot him back my best ‘get on with the damn story’ look, which he accepted with a shake of his head.

“Hard to say.  It’s all just legend but some people believe that there was more going on between Tom and the woman than spiritual healing.”

“You mean more than the usual amount of spiritual healing?”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.  So she followed him, and then what?”  I stopped pacing as the tight circle I made was making me a little bit dizzy.

“I don’t know if she followed him, it’s just a local story.”

“Ok, ok, so then?”

Vann held up his hand.  Apparently my impatience was wearing on him again.  I watched with amusement crossed with fury as he removed a blue comb from his pack, took off the watch cap and carefully smoothed his ratty brown hair back, following each stroke with a look up at me.  After placing the cap back on, and the comb into it’s pocket on the outside of the pack, he pulled another candle out to replace the one which had gone out some time ago.  Once the flame was properly set he continued on.

“Tom had been out of commission like I said for ten days and really felt like showing his face in the town again.  He never had been one to back down and I guess figured that he wanted the railroad to see that he was back in action.  So, he walked all that way and once he was there wandered over to the Half Acre looking for a tug of whiskey.  He knew the owner of course and liked checking up on things, sad as they were, in the businesses on what little remained of his property.  Walked in, took a look around and sure enough, ze-bam!, those railroad thugs were sitting next to the bar just like they had been expecting him.”

I offered a muted chuckle and said, “go figure.”

“Indeed, indeed my friend.  Tom hardly faltered a step, just walked up to the bar and asked for some whiskey.  Then he sat down at a table and looked around at what was pretty much the usual scene.  Small groups of men playing cards, telling dirty jokes and funny stories, women sitting on a lap or leaned up against a fella in the corner, a few odd lonely ducks tucked into dark spaces by themselves, muttering and rubbing their faces.  He tapped his empty glass to get more whiskey and then stared hard at those railroad boys.  I don’t know what might have been running around in Tom’s mind but he could not have felt good on the inside.  He  might be stubborn and brave but I don’t think he imagined he was going to survive another beating.  But he waited, ordering a few more tugs and staring right at those boys.  Finally, they both got up and went over to the bar, walking past Tom on the way but not looking at him.  Both men stood at the bar and took out silver dollars, spinning them on the bar top and letting them ring down as they finished.  This was a well-known custom at the Half Acre, a call for a girl if you will, and it brought several of them over to the bar quickly.  They picked two and headed back behind the bar.”

“Jenny and Mary?”

“Who else my friend, who else?”

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 6)

I had to take a few minutes to stretch my legs before he went on, so I held up my hand and stepped out from the cover of the water tower.  Walking out to the road I realized that it really was getting very late and I was in some way contemplating the need to spend the rest of the  night in this strange desert refuge.  The air was cooling quickly and although it was not exactly comfortable it was a big difference from the heat of the day.  As I turned to walk back, the crisp white of the tower against the darkening blue sky stopped me for a moment as it had a kind of magnificence about it.  After several long moments I nodded at the sky, a thank you I guess, and wandered back to Vann who greeted me with a question.

red rock water tower july 2013

“Ya know what that Whiskey Town was all about?”

“Well, I guess I’m not completely sure but four acres of merchant-ville surrounded by a bunch of guys busting their ass all day probably means bars and prostitutes.  Isn’t that the way it usually goes?”

“Ha!  I guess you know about that then, that was indeed what it was, gambling too and other things but I guess you know what I’m talking about.”

I nodded my agreement and arched an eyebrow to get him to move the story along, which he did after a pause to scratch his legs vigorously through his jeans.

“So, like I said, it was four acres of all that but still owned by Tom.  He collected lease money and made a few attempts to make it better but it was pretty much a lost cause.  He was still getting a regular treatment from the railroad thugs but holding up against it to keep his land.  Right about the time that the row really started to get bad, Tom purchased a new boat for himself.  Some of the local history would tell you it was because he planned to make a serious go at commercial fishing, and the boat was built to be rigged for that, for sure it was.  Other stories say he was planning on leaving and just figured that was a good way to go.  Some evidence would later support that also.  I guess that’s one mystery we might never solve.”

“So, you seem to have read a lot about it, what do you think?”

“Considering what…,” and here Vann paused and stared off into the twilight.  He blinked and was back.  “I always think I have an answer for that, but then you ask me and ze-bam! It’s all confusion again.  I guess, I think he was leaving.”

“Considering what?”

“What about considering what?”

“You, you started to say considering what before you went all ze-bam.”  As I said that I realized what a passion Vann had for his catch phrase.  Coming out of my mouth it truly sounded lame.

“Oh, well I was saying considering what they found later, I think he was leaving.”

“What did they find?”

In his eyes I actually saw exasperation.  “Won’t you let me tell my story?”

“Sure, sorry, go on.”

He took a moment to close his eyes and breath deeply, calming himself I guess from my impatience.

“Anyway, Tom up held good like I said, until they turned their final trick on him.”

I was curious about a man who would bother to take so much abuse especially in a cause that had to be easy to see as lost by then.  “Did you ever figure out why he stuck it out?  I mean other than just stubbornness, or maybe that was the reason?”

“Oh, there was a reason and it will be obvious in a bit, just let me get to that part ok?”  Exasperation again.

“Ok, go ahead.”  I made the zip-my-lip motion and threw away the key.

“So by this time it is 1885, getting on toward fall and the railroad really wants that final piece of land.  By that time they had expanded every part of their operation, including branching out into shipping and they had a need to build a large coal storage and shipment facility on the lake.  Of course, the only place left was Whiskey Row and the little bit of land Tom still had for himself to live on, the same place he had lived the whole time.  Once those rail thugs beat him so badly that he spent ten days basically at death’s door, but he pulled through and still refused to sell it.  So, realizing that they were not going to get rid of him that way, they came up with a different idea.”

I raised my hand, partially in a jest about my lips being sealed, but I did have a question to ask and waited for Vann to look at me, which he did and said, “go ahead,” with a wistful smile.

“What was the police situation there at the time?  Or whatever law enforcement there was at the time up there?  It seems like all of these beating might have registered with them, or that Tom would have complained about it to them?”

“Ahh, you see, that’s where you have to understand the way it was there at the time.”

“And how was it?”

“The railroad, well they were the police.”

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 5)

That seemed serious and Vann had stated it with authority.

“Really? Interesting start, go on.”

He winked at me, then punched his right arm forward and said “Ze-bam!”  He had done this a few times previously and I had eventually worked out that it was his statement of excitement and accomplishment.  Then he continued.

“Like I was saying, Tom Sexton owned a bunch of the land up in Two Harbors, including down by the lake.  There was an iron company in the area at the time, Northwoods Iron, and they wanted all of that land Tom had, both for mining and for allowing their railroad to run in and out of the bay area.  It was real important to them if you know what I mean?”

“I’m guessing that means they didn’t take no for an answer?”

“That’s what I’m saying.  Tom sold them those first few plats, just figuring I guess that it was some extra money.  Plus, there weren’t a whole lot of people up there at the very beginning.  He just didn’t see the harm in it.”  Vann paused for a moment.  “You want any more of this?”  He stretched his hand up toward me, fingers wrapped around that emerald green bottle.  I waved it off but had a question.

“I’m liking this story, but how do you know so much about Tom Sexton anyway?”

“I read things, read them while I was there, asked around, did research man, real research.  And…well forget that.  So, he sold them some land and it was no big deal.  But they kept coming back around his shack wanting to buy more.  Always the same two guys, big as lumberjacks but dressed nicer, politely dressed I guess is what they used to call it. They would just be there when Tom walked back in from the woods or from fishing.  For awhile it was all nice conversation ya know, good day Mr. Sexton, what’s the trapping like this year Mr. Sexton.  It didn’t last long that way, not once Tom kept saying that he would just as soon keep his land.  He had two dogs, brothers, black and tan setters which were pretty rare in the states at the time.  He woke up one morning to the howl of one of them, sounding like it was hurt bad.  He found it about ninety feet outside his door caught up in a bear trap.  There wasn’t much to do except put it down.”  Vann looked up at me.

“So, the bear trap…”

“That’s what I’m saying, the trap wasn’t his, he didn’t have any worries about bears himself and he sure wouldn’t have put one where his dogs could come across it so near to his shack.”

“And that’s what made him sell his land to the pretty lumberjacks?”

“No, no, hardly that, not yet anyway.  It’s just how it started.  They did things to him, took away things, spread rumors, all that stuff.  They wanted to intimidate him because they wanted that land.”

Two Harbors - showing construction of the ore docks  photo courtesy of collections.mnhs.org/

Two Harbors – showing construction of the ore docks
photo courtesy of collections.mnhs.org

“Yeah, I get that. So how long did it take for them to get him to sell all of his land?”

“Twenty years.”

I had to laugh at that and I did.  “Well, they weren’t very good at it I guess.”

“That’s not it.  They didn’t really start to put the pressure on until the last three years or so.  That was when the work on the railroad was really heating up.  Tom took some pretty thorough beatings before he gave in but in the end he did.  By 1883 they had all of his land expect four lousy acres that he ended up renting out to merchants who wanted to sell things to the workers putting in the railroad.  It turned into a real bad place, Whiskey Town it was called.”

“And then they somehow took that from him too?”

“You bet.  Ze-bam!”

…to be continued