Colonial Genocide

The Great Swamp Massacre
South Kingston, Rhode Island

"The shrieks and cries of the women and children, the yelling of the warriors, exhibited a most horrible and appalling scene, so that it greatly moved some of the soldiers.  They were in much doubt and they afterwards seriously inquired whether burning their enemies alive could be consistent with humanity and the benevolent principle of the gospel."

Good question.  Written after Colonial soldiers torched the Narragansett nation's stronghold in the heart of Great Swamp, this journal entry was a rare example of reflection among New England's settlers.  The Narragansetts were the largest and most powerful tribe in the region, but they had been largely peaceful and became a target for a Colonial attack mainly because they offered shelter for more aggressive tribes.  In December, cold weather froze the surface of the otherwise impenetrable swamp, and a force of a thousand soldiers attacked the Narragansetts' fortified community.  An estimated six hundred women, children, and aged men were burned alive when the fort was set afire, and at least two hundred warriors were killed. 

The battle critically weakened the strength and unity of the Narragansetts, who whose original territory covered most of Rhode Island.  Most fled the region, while some survivors became indentured servants in the Colonies and others were sold in the West Indies slave trade. Their language was all but extinct by the early 1800s. Today, there are just nine people of Native American descent living at the Narragansett Indian Reservation in Rhode Island.

Great Swamp remained inaccessible for more than two centuries.  It wasn't until 1906 that the Rhode Island Society of Colonial Wars erected a granite spike to memorialize colonial fatalities.  Four low markers were added as a tribute to the colonies that participated in the battle.  The site became overgrown and was seldom visited until the National Park Service put in an access road and path in the 1930s.  Since 1950, Great Swamp has been a state wildlife management area, home to osprey and migratory waterfowl species.  As yet there is no memorial noting the mass killing of Narragansett innocents within the fort's walls, but Native Americans visit the swamp to perform rites.  The site is on Great Neck Road, off State Route 138.  

Call it ghoulish or call it compassionate, people are drawn to witness the sites of violent deaths.  On one level, rubbernecking drivers slow down to catch a glimpse of car accidents.  But death sites also have the potential to bump us into an alternate way of thinking.  They can temporarily quiet the mental chatter with which we habitually defend, define, and promote ourselves, so that we have the potential to slip into a meditative reverie. 

Romancing the Dismal
is a field guide to visiting the hallowed and haunted places that lurk in every American town.  It suggests that death is not only the greatest of human mysteries but also a powerfully grounding phenomenon, snapping into tight focus our sense of time and place.

The book celebrates the sites of fifty tragedies across the United States, most of which were well known at one time and since have faded from public memory.  Unlike recent events such as the 9-11 crashes or the Manson murders, time has eased away the gore, the grief, and the sensationalism.  This leaves us better able to contemplate life's big imponderables--why we're here, and what becomes of us when we aren't here in a physical sense. 

This project takes its inspiration from the Victorians.  Whatever limitations our ancestors might have had in terms of sexual expression, they were on cozy terms with mortality.  For them, life and death weren't mutually exclusive, but mingled in an enchanted twilight.  Travelers visited disaster scenes of all kinds--historic battles, freak accidents, fires, building collapses, railroad derailments, and storms.  Less dramatically, families flocked to cemeteries to stroll and picnic, and lovers spooned there. 

In this spirit, Romancing the Dismal includes such infamous brooding meccas as the Massachusetts home where Lizzy Borden was accused of murdering her father and step-mother, and the remote spot where James Dean wrecked his Porsche.  You'll also find the now-obscure death sites of martyrs to the labor movement; the first person to die in an airplane crash; and the victims of historic floods and fires.  The entries are illustrated with properly atmospheric watercolor paintings and include directions for reaching the spot.
  Desert Gaper Delay

   James Dean Crash Site
Cholame, California

In the movie "Rebel without a Cause," James Dean accepts a dare from another teen rebel and manages to stop his car just short of plunging over a cliff. He approached his off-screen life as an ongoing dare, and was on his way to a road race when he had a fatal accident on California State Highway 46.

Driving his Porsche 550 Spyder, Dean was issued a speeding ticket earlier that day. There is ongoing disagreement over how fast he was traveling at the time of the crash, two hours later. He collided with a 1950 Ford driven by college student Donald Turnupseed, who was making a left turn onto State Highway 41 and didn't see Dean's tiny silver car materialize over the flat, featureless horizon. Dean died on the way to the hospital. Turnupseed received relatively minor injuries and was not charged. Dean's passenger, German mechanic Rolf Wutherich, also survived the crash. But he is said to have been hounded by hate mail from Dean's fans who felt he had some share in the accident. In the years that followed, Wutherich survived several suicide attempts, tried to murder his wife, and himself died in a car crash in 1981.

Dean and Wutherich made their last stop at a roadside convenience store in Blackwell's Corners, where this photographic memorial stands. There also is a sober steel-and-concrete monument by the post office in Cholame, a tiny hamlet just under 1 mile east of the accident.
The crash site is at the intersection of state highways 41 and 46, east of Bakersfield, with an official state roadside marker.


Bloody Bore

Hoosac Tunnel
1851 to 1875
Western Massachusetts

The boldest adventurers used to be those who explored the seas. Today, outer space is the new frontier. But for a time in the eighteen hundreds, the riskiest quests were into the Earth itself. As railroad networks spread across the country, their planners relied on tunnels to avoid routing tracks around mountains or over them. 

Tunneling was technically demanding, and of the many occupations spawned by the Industrial Revolution it may have been the most dangerous. The Hoosac Tunnel, blasted through the Housatonic Range in northwestern Massachusetts, ranks as one of the most costly engineering feats in terms of human life. Nearly five miles in length (and the longest tunnel in the Western Hemisphere for more than forty years), it claimed the lives of 196 men during its drawn-out construction period.

Small wonder, then, that ghosts have been showing up reliably ever since. In 1865, a careless mistake by blaster Ringo Kelley crushed two coworkers. Kelley fled the area, but his  remains were found at the scene of the accident exactly one year later. The local police couldn't discover a murder weapon or even establish the cause of death. The following year saw the worst disaster, when thirteen miners were either crushed or asphyxiated in an explosion. Only some of the corpses were recovered, and workers claimed to hear moans from deep within the bore. The haunting went on for twelve months, until the last bodies finally were brought to the surface and given formal burials.

Four years later, drilling superintendent James McKinstrey and a guest, Dr. Clifford J. Owens, strolled into the shaft at midnight.  They heard "a mournful sound" and saw what appeared to be a workman with a lantern, according to Owens' account. "As the light drew closer, it took on a strange blue color and . . . the form of a human being without a head. . . . The headless form came so close that I could have reached out and touched it, but I was too terrified to move.  The blue light remained motionless for a few seconds as if it were actually looking us over, then floated off toward the East End of the shaft and vanished."  The apparition may have been caused by glowing gasses trapped in the tunnel. But there's no overlooking the historic fact that the Hoosac is a battlefield lacking a memorial, where the casualties remain anonymous.  The tunnel serves as their crypt.
The east portal of the Hoosac Tunnel is a short drive off Route 2, traveling east from North Adams. Turn left onto Whitcomb Hill Road and bear right at the fork that comes up almost immediately. Turn left onto River Road, just before crossing the river bridge, and continue until you come to the tracks. Poke around in the woods to the right of the bore and look for a secluded waterfall. You also can find an earlier attempt to tunnel through the mountain, to the left of the bore. Stay off the tracks and resist the temptation to explore the tunnel itself, at the risk of adding yet another ghost to the Hoosac's legend--the line still is in daily use.
America's Most Infamous Unsolved Murder

The Lizzie Borden Incident
 Fall River, Massachusetts
The temperature was approaching one hundred and the smell of simmering mutton broth was heavy in the air, when the double axe slayings took place at the Bordens' prim clapboard home.  The murders were never solved, and they remain among the most publicized crimes in American history.  Lizbeth Borden, thirty-three, was charged with killing her father Andrew, a wealthy businessman, and her stepmother Abby.

The crime was troubling both because of its brutality--the heads of the victims had been staved in by repeated blows--and because Lizzie was a calm, articulate woman with whom some in the crowded courtroom must have empathized.  She claimed to have been out in the backyard stable at the time of the murders, on a somewhat improbable mission: she was looking for lead sinkers in preparation for a fishing trip, she explained, and lingered to pick pears from a tree.

The events following the murders were grisly as well, and it is remarkable that Lizzie, whether innocent or guilty, held up through it all. The corpses were autopsied on the Bordens' dining room table; the funeral was held in the sitting room; the burial ceremony was interrupted so that the bodies could be decapitated for forensic study. And Andrew's head made a surprise courtroom appearance when the prosecutor allowed the object to fall from its wrapper, no doubt for dramatic effect.

Despite the histrionics, the thirteen-day trial ended with an acquittal. Lizzie Borden inherited a fortune and continued to live in town, purchasing a handsome home on French Street. She died there, alone and a millionaire, in 1927.
Fall River is a splendid place to brood--or to gawk, depending on your sensibilities. The Borden house is now operated as a B-and-B, allowing you to inhabit the very rooms where the murders took place. The Fall River Historical Society (451 Rock Street) is not shy about playing up the town's most notorious event. Its displays include a bedspread spattered with Abby's blood and Andrew's battered skull.

Traveling south on I-195 into Fall River, get off at exit 6, turn right on Harwell Street, left on Borden Street, and continue to the Borden house at 92 Second Street. To reach the historical society, continue on Second, turn right on Spring, right on South Main, right on Maple, left on Rock Street.  To see the home in which Lizzie spent the rest of her life, go right on Rock and left on French Street to 306.
Visits to 50 American Tragedies
Watercolor tends to be a relentlessly cheery medium, and by accident I found that those transparent veils of color would become dark and mysterious if I converted the painting to its negative image.  For this book, I am doing the original paintings in complementary colors-- pale green for dark red, as an example-- for a properly gothic effect.