By Daniel Hubbard | April 15, 2012
I find that family stories often take multiple forms as they are preserved. It reminds me of one of the truly strange things that one learns in physics—that a subatomic particle can take more than one path to its destination. It seems truly bizarre. Yet it is fairly easy to show, though it does require rethinking what one means by “particle.” A particle doesn’t always behave like a thing.
Stories behave in a similar way. A story isn’t a “thing.” It can take more than one path to its destination, behaving both as one story and as many. One path is often a sanitized version. It is a child-friendly account, at least as child-friendly as possible. Often, these are the stories that survive. A child needs to be told something and then later in life, it may not seem like there is a need to correct the story or the people who knew the darker parts of the tale might no longer be alive. That safe version of the story then becomes the one to be passed down.
I have run into “Rated-G” or PG stories before that have turned out to have been based on R rated occurrences. This week I came across another.
I was given a client’s family story of a long ago relative whose first marriage was brief. Her husband got into a fight with a neighbor over a fence and when the fight got out of hand, the neighbor died. The husband went to prison and his wife divorced him. All in all, I would give the story that I was told a PG rating. It might be close to the truth but there is always the chance that it was the kind of story told to children. It was bad enough that it would explain why the husband was no longer around and yet it wasn’t so bad that it couldn’t be told at all. It was something that might have been used to explain to a son about why his father was absent. The death was not an accident but it was the product of two men’s anger and some bad luck. It is a comprehensible explanation.
I searched for some information about the husband but came to the conclusion that nobody by the name handed down actually existed. In a census, I did find a farmhand living with the bride’s family with what might be the correct surname, taking into account the enumerator’s bad handwriting and spelling. I had looked at it before without the misshapen letters catching my eye. Suddenly, it became very interesting. She was obviously not yet married but if there was any truth to the story, it must have been a year or two before the wedding at most. It all seemed rather suspicious. It also gave me a new name and constrained the time when the marriage might have occurred. I investigated the marriage records and sure enough, she had married her father’s farmhand. Now I had a different name on which to work and an approximate time frame. I tried again to find any information about some deadly occurrence but nothing. At least not at first.
I ordered a newspaper on microfilm that I thought might provide at least a clue. What I found was not a simple argument that got out of hand. It was not an even fight and it was not spontaneous. I found the first part of the story’s R-rated path. So far it is a story of a possibly illegal claim, claim jumping, and multiple written and explicit death threats over more than a year. There is little left to the imagination in the words “sever your connection with the affairs of this earth,” at least I wouldn’t be left wondering what the letter writer meant. Just to make the situation perfectly clear, he closed that letter with, “the world would gain if you were shot and I will do my duty.”
The conspiracy eventually involved a dozen men. When coercion failed, four men, including the husband that I was investigating and his father, began to consider following through on their threats. What I have pieced together so far makes it unclear if all four men proceeded with the scheme or only three but there can be no doubt that someone followed through.
The bomb they dropped down his stovepipe as he slept turned his cast iron stove into shrapnel. Investigators found his door fifteen feet from its frame. It would have traveled farther if it hadn’t smashed into a woodpile. Yet, their victim didn’t die. He ran through his doorway swinging a scythe and so surprised the men waiting outside that he made it down the road before the shotgun blasts hit him in the back. To make sure he was dead, someone crushed his skull with repeated blows that reduced the butt of the gun to the splinters found the next morning.
Suspicions in the death of a claim jumper naturally turned to the man who registered the claim. When his hired man lacked a finger that he had possessed the day before and a scythe-severed finger was found at the scene, there could be little doubt. When rumors spread that it was not a question of who the locals would lynch but who would be first, the three men arrested were moved to a distant county to await trial. All three were quickly convicted and sentenced to prison.
I have much more to do on this story but the gruesome basics are clear. The saying is that the devil is in the details. If that is true, I can only wonder what additional devilishness awaits.
I still think the PG version should be preserved. It has itself become part of the family’s history. It is what was remembered. It needs, though, to be accompanied by the full tale, whatever details court records, land records and newspapers can bring back.
A year after the murder, a county history mentioned the father, who had been an upstanding citizen. The writers of the book were clearly caught between his former role as a bulwark of the community and what had happened. I can imagine that a good bit of what they published about him had already been written. Instead of going back and expunging him from the book, they simply concluded with “He is currently engaged in the facilities of our state.” Yes, indeed he was.