02 Aug 2015 2 Comments
The killing of Cecil the lion earlier this week by American dentist Walter J. Palmer got me thinking about Kristen Lindsey, the young Texas veterinarian who earlier this year exercised the tragically stupid impulse to post a photo of herself on Facebook with the corpse of a cat she had shot with an arrow. In both cases, the roar of outrage from social media was immediate and deafening. Both cat killers have been doxed, received countless death threats, and have seemingly gone into hiding. And who can blame them? The online public is not ready to hear their apologies—let alone any explanations or exculpatory details. If there is one thing a mob doesn’t need, it’s facts. Facts are pesty little obstacles that tend to slow down the momentum of the story they tell themselves. And, in these cases, it’s all about the story.
The story of Kristen Lindsey, however, is (or at least might be) a shade more understandable than that of Walt the Lion Killer. I believe it to be. Yet I’ve observed that her treatment by the social media outrage machine has been even worse than his. Already, I’m starting to see posts crop up here and there suggesting that, regardless of our feelings about the dentist’s actions and motives, it doesn’t serve the dead lion to destroy his business and his ability to function in safety; and it certainly doesn’t seem fair to direct any of our righteous rage toward his wife and family. Even the Oxford conservation biologist who collared Cecil several years ago for research purposes is able to speculate that the lion’s needless death could, in some way, sound a clarion call for the world to focus its energy and awareness on the plight of wildlife and their ever shrinking habitats. Yet months after the death of a not-endangered Texas domestic cat, I’ve seen no such posts—none—advocating the exercise of any sort of objective perspective in the case of Kristen Lindsey. The mob still seems wholly united in its desire to see her career destroyed and her future obliterated. Just as troubling, there is a movement to have her mother fired from her job for the sin of showing support for her own daughter. Social media has vowed to remember “Tiger” the same way earlier generations pledged to remember September 11, Pearl Harbor, or the Alamo—without even a hint of irony to suggest awareness that these events might not represent the same scale of tragedy.
As I do whenever I hear about a case of animal abuse, I’ve tried to re-imagine Lindsey’s case in a way that would explain her actions as being something other than simple evil. In her case, it wasn’t easy. She captioned her gruesome photo with, “My first bow kill, lol. The only good feral tomcat is one with an arrow through its head! Vet of the year award…gladly accepted.”
The way I see it, there are two components are work here: first, what she did; second, her attitude about it.
Here’s an alternative story we could tell ourselves about what she did. You might have a harder time than I do with this version, but please understand that my speculation is colored by my experience as a foster parent for new or recently born kittens that are turned over to my local human society. Along with a small group of other volunteers, I keep these kittens in my home to nurture and socialize them until they are big and strong enough to undergo neutering. Once they hit their milestones, they are returned to the humane society for surgery and then go on the adoption floor to find their permanent homes.
I’m not going to lie—it’s one of the most fun and gratifying “jobs” I’ve ever had. Yet, two years in, I find myself wishing for a couple days off between litters to do some deep cleaning and airing out of the house, or to give my resident cat a short break from the tiny intruders who unwisely insist she must be their mommy. But these breaks really don’t happen. Just yesterday I turned in a litter and was asked to choose between four more litters that were confined to cages and waiting for a foster placement. I’ve had kittens sicken, fail to thrive, even (once) die in my care, but there is no opportunity to pause and process these experiences. The pressure of the unplanned kitten population is relentless; it just never stops. The only good news is that I can be pretty much assured that my graduates will all find placements. They always do.
(And whenever a young kitten is adopted, there are several wonderful adult cats who will have to linger on indefinitely in their cages because they just can’t compete with the youngsters. And even though our humane society doesn’t euthanize healthy, adoptable animals, this is still what breaks my heart.)
So perhaps Kristen Lindsey, a licensed veterinarian, had also experienced the unrelenting tide of animal suffering that results from kitten over-population. And, although it’s pretty clear now that her victim might have been a pet, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she did believe this was a feral cat. An unaltered, feral tomcat is a constant source of kittens in a world where there are simply not enough homes for all the cats that are born. He is also potentially a source of injury or disease to other people’s (including Lindsey’s) own house pets. And there was an early source—immediately silenced in the tsunami of outrage—that said she had been concerned about a rabid stray cat that had been spotted in her neighborhood.
Once she had killed the cat, it would have been perfectly obvious (for this link, you’re welcome) to her if the cat had been neutered. If that was the case, I doubt she would have ever gloated over the kill—she would have realized that the cat had an owner who would have been understandably outraged when her act was discovered. No, I believe the cat was unaltered and that she could honestly have thought she was doing a good thing by eliminating an unaltered, feral cat from the breeding pool. It’s a variation of the famous Trolley Problem; she chose to save many by sacrificing one. No matter how queasy we might be with the ethics of that decision, we certainly can’t argue with the math.
(I find it telling that in everything I’ve read about this case in social media about poor Tiger, no one has reported if he was neutered or not. Why is that? Are we afraid that a fact like the contributory negligence of a-pet-owner-irresponsibly-allowing-an-unaltered-cat-to-roam might distract us from the story we’re telling ourselves?)
So why did Lindsey have to kill the cat? Wouldn’t it have been more humane to trap-neuter-release the cat? Certainly this is now becoming the accepted best practice to deal with feral populations; more progressive locales even refer to these colonies as “community cats,” denoting that, despite their unsuitability as house pets, they are still under the care of nearby people and should be afforded a life free of harassment. However, TNR programs, in much of the country, are still a new, novel, and progressive approach. In much of the country, ferals are still seen as threats to domestic animals and nuisances. Exterminating them remains a goal in many communities. It’s not my viewpoint, and it’s probably not yours, but that doesn’t mean the act was outside the local norms for her area. Remember, we’re talking small town Texas here.
So that leaves us with her attitude—her unapologetic glee and pride in her act of killing. Something about that smile and those glib words just sets our teeth on edge. We feel deeply that she should demonstrate remorse for taking what she may have thought was a necessary (but still repugnant) action. We conjure up junior high memories of a stoic Atticus Finch shooting a rabid dog for the good of his community and safety of his children. His act might have been necessary, but he would never have allowed it to be celebrated. This is attitude we want modeled by the people who do distasteful things for the sake of others. Even if we can bring ourselves to understand that Lindsey might have believed she was doing a good thing in preventing a feral tom from breeding indiscriminately, we have even greater difficultly in stomaching her social media touchdown celebration. Something about that just doesn’t sit right.
Really, this is the part of the story that’s most troubling; not the act—after all, humans kill animals every day, through the food and farming industries, through hunting, accidents, misadventure, and, yes, even through thoughtless cruelty—and (Walter Palmer notwithstanding) we seldom see the mob turn on these people with the single-minded fury that we’ve seen in the case of Kristen Lindsay. If we can tolerate being perfectly honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we are at least as angry about her attitude as we are about her act.
Why is this? I can’t help but feel there is at least some element of sexism here. When we look at photos of Kristen Lindsey we see an attractive, presumably single, young lady from the south. Our society has certain behavioral expectations associated with her demographic, and those expectations do not include indulging in any sort of professional braggadocio. Had she been a professional male athlete, as an alternative example, this attitude would not have surprised us in any way—most of us would have expected it; some of us may have even been amused by it. Coming as it did from someone who looks like Lindsey, we are incensed by the attitude. But are we responding to the attitude itself? Or to the image of a young woman choosing to act outside our expectations of what we consider to be acceptable behavior?
Yes, I know. Walter Palmer is currently in the same social media pillory that Kristen Lindsey has been trapped in for many months, and there are no threads of sexism running through his narrative. But were their actions similar enough to justify their similar treatment? She killed an animal that was contributing the suffering of an over populated species. He shot an animal that was keeping a threatened species from sliding ever further down the slippery slope toward extinction, subverting an important research project, and complicating the already ultra-complex issue of trophy hunting in Africa. Yes, each life matters. But, no, the long term consequences of these kills for their species are going to be substantially different.
This summer we were reminded that Atticus Finch is a fictional character, and one far more nuanced than we assumed when we were looking at the world through the eyes of a child. For those of us using social media as a vehicle for blame-and-shame, it’s time for us to grow up too. Even the most black-and-white cases of abuse reveal a startling range of grays when examined closely. If we’re not prepared to devote our time to those examinations, we need to trust the systems and laws that we’ve establsihed to do so on our behalves. We need to step back and put down our slings and bows & arrows. Because the human lives at the heart of these stories matter.
01 Jul 2015 1 Comment
Benevolent sexism. The sexism of those who think they are honoring women by continuing to treat them by different standards than they do men, albeit in ways they perceive to be complimentary.
I am a fan of Jon Katz’s blog; in it he seeks to discuss and honor the women in is life; he also seeks to discuss and honor the animals in his life. But I’m growing frustrated on his insistence of speaking of both groups in the same terms, as if they are similar enough in his esteem to be discussed as one. His wife Maria, along with her pony Chloe, are both praised as being wonderful “creatures.” Fate and Zelda (and dog and a ewe) are both described as determined “women.” His dog Red, on the other hand, and donkey Simon, have never been referred to as “strong and determined men.” His friends George Forss and Scott Carnino have never been referred to in his writing as forthright and creative “creatures.”
How big of a deal is this? In the grand scheme of things, not very; I know that the intentions behind his writing are honorable. There is no doubt about that.
I guess the problem is that, because Jon Katz is one of the good guys, it’s especially discouraging to see these patterns persist in his writing. A double standard, after all, is still a double standard.
13 Apr 2015 4 Comments
I acquired an antique book recently—one of life’s small joys. Although I had never heard of Beautiful Joe, I discovered that it was a best-seller in its day. Originally published in 1893 by Canadian author Marshall Saunders, Beautiful Joe was, in fact, the first book to ever sell more than a million copies in Canada. It was the story of an unloved puppy born in the run-down stable of the horse who pulled the morning milk wagon through their small hometown. The cruel milkman who owns the stable abuses his animals, eventually killing all of Joe’s littermates (described in horrific detail) before turning his evil attentions on poor Joe. In a drunken rage, the milkman pins Joe, calls for a hatchet, and hacks off the helpless puppy’s ears and tail. The disfigured, desperate puppy is then rescued by the children of a neighboring family. Because his appearance is so appalling, they give him the ironic name “Beautiful Joe.” The remainder of the novel recounts Joe’s gratitude for his new family and his adventures with the adoring children—told in his own words.
Interesting subject matter for a kids’ book, don’t you think? I’m not sure any modern day publisher could be convinced to market such a dark story as children’s literature. But in the late 1800’s, publishing a book like Beautiful Joe wasn’t just a good idea, it was actually just one example of a growing genre of similar, first-person narratives told from the perspective of abused animals—a genre that had been spawned, single-handedly, by the resounding success of a similar novel published in 1877: Anne Sewell’s Black Beauty.
Although you probably haven’t heard of Beautiful Joe, there is little doubt that you have at least a passing familiarity with Black Beauty. It’s the imaginative story of a horse, told in his own words, who was born on a bucolic farm in England. The story begins with his memories of his mother and companions living an idyllic life on an estate where they are well cared for and happy. Unfortunately, Beauty’s fate soon takes him away from rural comforts; he is brought into the midst of urban squalor in London, forced to earn his keep pulling a carriage under the most depressing and difficult circumstances.
Sewell describes in great detail some of the common practices in the carriage horse industry of her day, always from the perspective of the helpless animal forced to endure them. She describes how the fashion of the times called for docked tails on horses, and the pain this procedure caused as it was inflicted without any medications. She also took issue with the practice of using blinkers (those piratical eye patches frequently attached to bridles) to partially block the horse’s vision; through Sewell, Beauty complains about how awful it is to perform his job under this needlessly inflicted sensory handicap. But perhaps most harrowing is Sewell’s description of the bearing rein, a piece of harness that runs from the bit in the horse’s mouth through the top of the bridle and then down to his withers, creating a sort of pulley system. The leverage created by the rein forces the horse to hold his head up and keep his neck fully arched, an unnatural position that prevented horses from leaning forward into the work of pulling. The resultant air of military attention appealed to the fashion-conscious Victorians, but the impact on horses, over time, was crippling. And all of this was so much easier for readers to grasp when told from the victim’s own viewpoint. In fact, the outrage spawned by Black Beauty resulted in a movement to ban the bearing rein altogether.
Unfortunately, as with most experiences from early childhood, we tend to forget such details and retain just the feelings they inspired. When we think of carriage horses, we tend to think of them as pitiful, tortured creatures, suffering at the hands of uncaring humans. We don’t pause to analyze if the circumstances that lead to these conclusions are still valid, if they ever were. And since few of us have any direct experience of the lives of carriage horses, this legacy of pity and outrage that has been handed down to us by Black Beauty remains the single, unchallenged—perhaps even unconscious—source of our beliefs about the lives of these animals. It has become immutable part of the hive-mind for those of us living outside of the world of working animals.
Because of the current controversy in New York surrounding the fate of the Central Park carriage horses, I’ve given some thought to the seeds of outrage that Anna Sewell unknowingly planted with her best-selling novel. I’ve been analyzing Jon Katz’s photos of these horses to help guide this analysis. Since I live on the opposite side of the country, this is as close as I can reasonably get.
In Katz’s photos, I see no evidence that carriage horses are forced to endure tail docking. But is this because the practice was recognized as cruelty or because it simply passed out of fashion? Do we physically alter other animals to satisfy the whims of fashion? Certainly there are dog breeds that traditionally endure ear docking even today. Unlike in Victorian England, these procedures are presumably carried out by veterinarians and under anesthesia. Some animal lovers would argue passionately that the practice is nevertheless cruel, but, since there is still enough demand for the practice that it endures, it would be difficult to reach that categorical conclusion. Regardless, since we no longer dock carriage horses’ tails, it’s a moot point.
Sewell described Black Beauty suffering from the restricted vision resulting from the use of blinkers. I see blinkers present in every photo that Jon Katz has published of carriage horses in harness. If the practice of restricting a working horse’s side vision is cruel, why does it persist today?
The answer, of course, goes to the anthropomorphism of animals. When we imagine ourselves laboring in the streets with artificially restricted vision, of course we’re alarmed. How could any person be expected to carry out his work efficiently—or even safely—under those circumstances? But have we ever considered the impact of sensory stimulation on horses? Anna Sewell, unfortunately, lived far too early to review the studies that eventually explored this issue. Certainly Dr. Temple Grandin, in far more recent times, has helped the public to understand that reducing sensory input endured by animals in stressful situations, is, in fact, one of the more humane things we can do for them. She has revolutionized the livestock industry by designing processes and equipment that intentionally limit stimulation. Blinkers on horse bridles operate on the same, ultimately beneficial, principle. Some may think them cruel, but we could just as easily argue that forcing horses to work in an urban environment without their benefits would be the real cruelty.
Bearing reins, despite the ardent intensions of Sewell’s fans, also persist into the present day. I’m no expert on horse tack and livery, but such reins appear to be evident in several of Katz’s photos. That said, they do not appear to be employed to force the horses into maintaining an unnatural posture. Unlike the illustrations from Sewell’s day, the reins in Katz’s photos appear to have a great deal of slack between the top of the bridle and the horse’s withers. Without interviewing carriage drivers, I couldn’t tell you what their true purpose is, but I suspect it’s the same as the reins used on any riding horse—to establish communication between the animal and the human, a means for the human to communicate direction to the horse or to tell him when to slow or stop. It does not appear that the rein is being used to force the horse to “stand at attention.” I see no evidence of cruelty by its presence in these photos.
Black Beauty obviously had a profound impact on the carriage horse industry, but, even more importantly it touched a nerve with the general public. It virtually propelled the nascent Humane Society movement from sleepy beginnings in England across the Ocean to North American and even beyond to Australia. Beautiful Joe, in fact, was written as a contest entry for one of these early societies in New England; the society had sponsored a writing contest in order to generate sympathy for the sorts of animal cruelty highlighted in Black Beauty (which is why Beautiful Joe was set in Maine rather than the author’s native Canada). Even in the few years between the publication of the two books, the carriage horse had become such an entrenched symbol of animal cruelty that Saunder’s created the tone for Joe’s “autobiography” by first describing the horrendous conditions and treatment endured by the friendly milk horse in scenes already potently familiar from Black Beauty. Saunders actually referenced the presence of Sewell’s book in the home of Joe’s saviors. Even by that time, less than 20 years after Black Beauty was published, the carriage horse had become the virtual poster child of the entire humane movement.
This legacy was built on unshakable narratives, delivered by appealing and pathetic first-person protagonists and served to most of us at a time in childhood that predated objectivity or analysis. In some cases, the narrative had been designed to support specific political goals. For better or worse, carriage horses remain firmly harnessed to Black Beauty’s legacy even today. If these modern horses require liberation, perhaps we can make an attempt to liberate them from our own childish beliefs built on the agendas of a previous century. Only then can we begin to look at their circumstances with any semblance of objectivity.
27 Mar 2015 10 Comments
I had a realization this week that horses have reached a critical place in their relationship with humans, at least here in the United States. They have arrived at a place where, no matter what their circumstances, there are animal “activists” who will be outraged about their conditions. As each activist group successfully moves horses out of one category and into another, another group waits in the wings prepared to voice outrage and insist they know better.
Horses no longer have a role in our country where they can be safe from the meddling outrage of their self-appointed advocates–because the advocates themselves have not–and will not–reach any sort of consensus (and isn’t it interesting that they consider it a forgone conclusion that they should have the right to make decisions on the lives of other people and their animals?). Consensus, after all, is not a goal of the animal rights movement as it currently exists. They maintain themselves through divisiveness. And they’re quite good at that.
Of course horses aren’t alone in having attained this regrettable position. Many “exotic” animals actually arrived at this joyless station first. And other farm animals surely won’t be far behind.
I tried to put together a simple flow chart this week to illustrate how animal rights activists would move horses into a “safe” role. I soon realized that the chart couldn’t be lateral, it would have to be circular–a never-ending cycle of moving them from one role to another, probably endlessly.
I’m going to miss horses.
(Click image to enlarge)
01 Nov 2014 Leave a comment
I wrote yesterday about the plight of so-called wild horses in the American west—how their over population has led to a movement to round them up and find them homes among people. If work could be found for them, they could possibly be saved from slaughter. Even though the federal government effectively prohibited horse slaughter in the United States in 2007, Native Americans are not bound by federal restraints. Because many of these horses are over-grazing reservation lands, tribes frequently round up mustangs and send them out of country to be slaughtered—usually to Canada.
The great irony for those of us who follow Jon’s work is that so much controversy over the New York carriage horses is driven by the human surety that a horse’s natural environment and highest ideal is to roam free on the open plains. There they can be free from work or human contact, living out their lives as part of a natural landscape. This appealing notion, compared to the image evoked by a horse “shackled” to a carriage or otherwise “imprisoned” in a tiny stall, has served as a powerful driver of some very ignorant assumptions. The first of these is that the appealing, even spiritual notion that horses are meant to roam freely and away from human contact is just, flat wrong.
What seems to be forgotten here is that horses are not native to North America. Yes, the ancestors of the modern horse roamed the continent at one time, but those smaller, proto-horses were driven to extinction about 10,000 years ago. The horses we see on the western plains today are actually feral horses, brought to the new world with the first Europeans, probably in the 1600’s. As horses escaped or were set loose, they formed herds and bred unchecked. And they became some of the largest herbivores competing with other species, both wild and domesticated, for limited graze lands. Although such lands seemed like a limitless resource even as recently as a century ago (especially after we all but eliminated the largest herbivores—the bison—from the equation), that is no longer the case. These horses’ continued existence in the wild is no more “natural” or intentional than the existence of a monkey colony in Florida (as Jennifer Bowman wrote about this week).
So now we are in a position where many of these horses are being rounded up and removed from the wild for their own survival and the survival of competing species. The highest ideal for these surplus horses? That homes can be found for them so that they can live out their lives in the company of people who will be able to care for their needs, people who will have work for them so that their relevance—and therefore their survival—can be assured.
But if that doesn’t work, animal rights activists have a vague notion that they can be sent to equine rescue farms. After all, these facilities are widely available and well-funded.
Photo: public domain from Pixabay
28 Oct 2014 3 Comments
On this day—October 28—in 1855, Johnny King woke up to rare autumn sunshine streaming through the cabin windows and the enticing smells of his mother cooking breakfast. He joined his little sister Olive and baby brother Percival with their mother in the kitchen as he sat down alongside their hired man Enos Cooper. Johnny’s step-father Harvey, unfortunately, lay sick in bed that morning with an attack of pleurisy.
By noon that day, all three adults would be dead, and Johnny would watch as his home burned to the ground; the responsibility for the lives of the two younger children would be placed solely in Johnny’s young hands—he was not yet seven years old.
The trouble began two days before when an elder of the Muckleshoot tribe known as “Nelson” had visited the family homestead. Although Johnny’s family had always known Nelson to be a reasonable man, he had remained sullen and uncommunicative as he sulked about the yard that day, finally taking his leave with a complaint about how the white men would soon have all the land in their area. As Johnny’s step-father’s symptoms worsened the next day, the family forgot all about the old Indian’s petulant behavior the day before and what, if anything, it might bode for their future.
That morning as they ate their breakfast Johnny’s mother Eliza became aware of activity in their dooryard. She opened the cabin door and immediately spotted an Indian at the corner of an outbuilding with a rifle trained on her. She jumped back, slamming the door, as a bullet splintered through the doorframe.
From that moment, Chaos erupted in the little cabin. Johnny’s step-father Harvey Jones drug himself from his sick bed only to be shot by a bullet that whizzed through the cabin wall; he was killed immediately. The hired man Cooper exited through a back window at Eliza’s urging. She herself did her best to hide her three children under a mattress in the back room before resuming her position at the front of the cabin to return fire on the attackers.
But quite suddenly, ominously, quiet descended on the tiny house. Johnny clutched the younger children close under the mattress as they heard footsteps enter the cabin and advance to the back room where they huddled in fear. They were soon discovered and marched into the front yard—their mother was nowhere to be seen.
Nelson was there, however. He indicated that the children would not be killed, but that Johnny should take his little brother and sister—and go.
Johnny knew that the Brannans’ cabin was about a mile away on the adjoining homestead. He took the hands of the little children and started a slow march toward their neighbors’ home. Little Percival was not quite two years old; Olive not quite four. Their progress was painfully slow. Johnny finally hid two children in some bushes to complete the final leg of this journey on his own.
Arriving at the Brannan homestead, Johnny saw that the cabin there had been trashed and looted. The windows were shattered and the door stood open revealing broken furniture and ripped up bedding. If Johnny had found the courage to investigate further, he might have discovered the bodies. The Brannans too had been attacked by the natives. Mr. Brannan’s corpse would later be found in the cabin. The slaughtered bodies of Mrs. Brannan, along with her newborn baby, were eventually found stuffed down their well.
Johnny had no choice but to take the children and retrace their steps in order to reach the neighbors on the other side of their homestead. Approaching the now-smoldering remains of their own home, they saw no sign of the Indians; however, about a hundred feet from the cabin, the children found their mother in a crumpled heap on the ground, shot, but still miraculously alive. Johnny didn’t want to leave her, but with great effort she was able to insist that he continue with the smaller children on to the Thomas homestead where they might find safety. It was her dying wish that they leave her for the sake of their own safety. They bid their mother their final, agonizing farewells and continued their journey northward.
Unfortunately, there was no sanctuary to be found at the Thomases. After marching the little ones another two miles to that homestead, they found the cabin deserted. Next Johnny walked his exhausted siblings to the Kirkland farm—again, there were no people to be found.
By this time, the afternoon was rapidly fading into evening and darkness. In desperation, Johnny put little Percival on his back and instructed Olive to follow him up the narrow trail that embroidered the edge of the Green River. He had no idea where it would lead as it traced past the neighboring homesteads, but at least it would be a route that would put greater distance between them and the horrors to the south—and the cruel men who committed them.
Almost immediately, however, he spotted a Muckleshoot man walking toward him along the trail. Johnny tried to hide the children in the thick scrub growth at the side of the river, but it was too late—they’d been spotted. As the man approached, Johnny recognized him as the man the Thomas family occasionally hired for odd jobs. Tom Wiletchtid, although a member of the same tribe as Nelson, turned out to be the children’s salvation. Understanding immediately what had happened to their family, Tom brought the children to his own campsite and, with his sisters, fed and cared for them before conveying them safely to military authorities in Seattle. If there is a hero in this sad story, it’s Tom Wiletchtid.
Of course the horrors inflicted on the King-Jones children or the Brannans or any of the other white settlers in the valley aren’t any worse than the on-going and casual cruelties inflicted on the native Americans over years by the white people. Certainly there is blood-soaked horror on both sides of the equation, and there is no way to balance or perhaps even measure the many tragedies that each side inflicted on the other. That said, I hold Johnny and his story close in my heart, and remember it especially as the big leaf maples erupt into their fall colors and the wind picks up a chill in the night. Part of the reason is because this is the anniversary of the massacre, and another part is because, as Halloween approaches, I think about ghost stories and the events that might plant the seeds of a haunting. I wonder about such mysteries as I put a crudely carved jack-o-lantern on my front porch and hang the black cat ornaments my sister sent to me years ago.
But mostly I contemplate them when I go out to my backyard to gather some of the maple leaves that have fallen there from the trees that grow in the park on the other side of my back fence. I open the gate in the chain link and lean into windblown Brannan Park, dark under a gloomy autumn sky. My fence, you see, marks the boundary between what was once the King-Jones homestead and the Brannan property. Somewhere along this fence line, as near as I can figure, young Johnny King once hid his little brother and sister, pleading with them to stay quiet and not reveal their hiding place as he went on ahead to try to find help—and instead finding horror. On my side of the fence, the Jones family was massacred on this day in 1855; on the other side, the Brannan family met the same fate. If their ghosts are here, they’re lost in amid the carports and soccer fields, the paved streets and neglected landscaping. They would see nothing here that would have been recognizable in their time.
But on October nights when the wind kicks up and the coyotes travel down the same path that still embroiders the edge of the river, it might sound very much the same to them: unearthly, desolate, and even now isolated. It might be enough to summon a spirit back—just barely enough.
Do they ever return? I don’t know. And I never want to know.
13 Aug 2014 3 Comments
The story first came to my attention on Facebook, delivered with a heaping side order of vilification and outrage. Justifiably so, or at least it seemed. After all, there was no misinterpreting the event: a woman had taken four pitbull puppies and drowned them in a toilet tank. She’d been charged with four counts of animal cruelty and was being held in lieu of $20,000 bail. “This makes me sick,” declared the person who shared the news story. “If you can’t afford dogs, you shouldn’t have them,” chimed in another. “If she can do this to puppies, what’s to stop her from deciding to kill a person next?” It seemed there was no room for nuance or even the possibility of mitigating circumstances. The internet was eager to assume her guilt (according to the story she admitted the act but pled not guilty to the cruelty charges) and use it as de facto evidence, not just of crime, but of evil.
The remainder of this story has been moved. You can view it here.
28 Jul 2014 Leave a comment
Listen E. Baldwin, despite having a given name that was both unique and good advice, was instead known by his middle name from his earliest days: Earl. He was a typical New York farm boy, born in the village of Jackson in 1878, the first child in a large family that relocated to nearby White Creek while the boys were still small. As they grew up, Earl and his three much younger brothers—Arty, Charlie, and George—became their father Hiram’s crew, working tirelessly to care for the animals and the crops as soon as they were old enough to hold a hoe. Their mother Lucinda gave birth to her first little girls only after fulfilling her husband’s requirement for enough sons to run the farm—or so it seemed to the boys. A new world of petticoats and pin curls, hair ribbons and high button shoes arrived with the two tiny girls, mystifying but amusing the contingent of older brothers who made it their business to protect their little sisters from the difficult realities of farming in upstate New York.
Earl assumed his own life would follow the same blueprint as his parents’ when he married a local girl with a unique name of her own. Danna was only 18 when they wed; Earl was 25. He had waited, wisely, until his father was ready to carve acreage off of the family farm so that he could start his own farm and his own family at the same time—a new life coincidentally set to begin in the earliest days of a brand new century. He was thrilled when on one fine May morning Danna confided in him that their first child was one its way. Earl whooped in the dooryard, spinning Danna in a circle that scattered the chickens and sent their collie dog barking in delighted confusion. By Earl’s calculations, his son would be old enough to start learning to help with the farm work just as his younger brothers would leave their dad’s place to start families of their own. It was so easy for Earl to visualize what was to come; he had only to remember his own childhood to see the past repeating itself happily into the future.
That fall (1904), Earl had an earnest conversation with his three teenaged brothers about their usual Halloween hijinks. He pleaded with them to show some compassion to Danna if not to him. She was due to give birth at any time and could not possibly be expected to cope with pranks like overturned outhouses or soaped up windows. As Earl spoke, Charlie dragged the toe of his boot through the scattered straw on the barn floor in a guilty way. Arty promised they would behave while staring fixedly at the ground. And George gave Earl his personal assurance that he’d beat anyone who violated Danna’s peace into a bloody pulp. The new baby, who still existed only in theory as far has his brothers were concerned, was already changing Earl in unanticipated ways.
Two days after that uneventful Halloween, Danna finally gave birth to a little girl just as the sun peeked over the horizon on a grey Wednesday morning. Of course Earl knew that such an arcane eventuality as a girl child was possible, but it really hadn’t occurred to him to plan beyond his own experience of sons arriving first. But he wasn’t concerned. There’d be more babies, and still plenty of time for the sons he knew he would eventually need to keep the farm going. Danna suggested that they name the delicate, grey-eyed infant Theresa, and Earl readily agreed as he stared into the baby’s drowsy, pink face for the very first time. No, Theresa wasn’t a son, but she was beautiful, and she was his, and he was smitten.
But the future continued to unfold in an unrelenting departure from Earl’s plans. His wife Danna, despite all odds, did not become pregnant again. And little Theresa turned out to be a delicate child, frequently ill and capturing Danna’s time and attention more fully than Earl had even dreamed possible. As his brothers drifted away to lives of their own, oldest son Earl was left to shoulder the burden of not only his own farm, but his aging father’s as well. It wasn’t in Earl’s nature to ask for help, but he found himself frequently still at his chores as the moon rose, repairing fences or hauling water to the milk cows with only his collie dog for silent company. When he thought of the future, he could only see his work mounting without cease. A niggling worm of desperation had taken hold of his heart. He couldn’t help but make a repeated wish that something would break the log jam of work and worry; something eventually had to give.
And change did come, but not in a form Earl would ever have wished for or anticipated. It happened just after Halloween when Theresa was six years old. She was sick again, probably exposed to some bug or another by one of her schoolmates. There always seemed to be some sickness passed from child to sniffling child at the school, and Theresa could never dodge any of it. Danna even kept her at home in her bed over Halloween, although she was too sick to protest the decision. Her parents hoped she would recover in time for the small birthday party they’d planned for her on November 2, but despite the doctor’s best efforts, Theresa did not rally. Instead, she declined steadily, her breathing worsening until it became an alarming wheeze that kept even the dog agitated while anchored firmly to her beside. Finally, on November 2—her seventh birthday—Theresa passed away at home, her desperate parents pacing at her bedside. Earl didn’t think Danna would ever stop crying. And he didn’t think he’d ever be able to look at himself in the mirror, knowing the secret wish he’d made but never even voiced out loud. He scraped together enough money for a marble tombstone for Theresa’s grave topped with a small lamb, still feeling like her death was probably in some way his fault.
Theresa died in 1911, well before the discovery of antibiotics or the arrival of childhood vaccinations. In those days, the death of a child was a tragically common occurrence, and parents were expected to soldier on. That’s what Earl and Danna did, attending Christmas services and 4th-of-July picnics, and tending their house and farm. They even continued to try to have more children through increasingly joyless couplings that never again resulted in conception. By 1920 Earl had largely given up on his childhood dreams of a family farm. He took a job as a laborer with the railroad, leaving Danna at home to care for the chickens and the lethargic hound that replaced their collie dog not long after Theresa’s death. The Great War had finally ended, but prohibition had arrived with a joyless finality. The days of frivolous, lighthearted happiness seemed to have passed by before they had even fully arrived for the Baldwins. Certainly this was true for Danna; she was a mother without a child, and (in those days) a woman without a role. She died in 1926 at age 41, an age at which she had probably lost all hope of ever being a mother again.
And Earl? He didn’t stay with the railroad for long. By 1930 his was back on a Washington County farm with a new wife. Hannah was a couple of years older than he and had probably been widowed, leaving her to attempt to tend a farm entirely on her own—on her own, that is, except for the company of her only daughter Charlotte. In Earl, Hannah found a replacement for the husband she had lost on the farm. In Hannah and Charlotte, Earl found replacements for the family he’d lost when first Theresa died and then Danna passed away. For Earl, it was a time of returning to the farm, with new expectations borne of difficult experiences.
Did Earl live happily ever after? I wish there was a simple answer to that question. I can tell you only that there is evidence (or lack of evidence) for either that conclusion or its opposite. Listen Earl Baldwin is buried beside Danna Baker Baldwin in the same cemetery where they buried their daughter Theresa in 1911. He lived the remainder of his life in Washington County, although there is no trace of Hannah (or Charlotte) beyond their brief enumeration in the 1930 census. Did Earl and Hannah divorce? Or live joyfully together for decades to come? That, I cannot say. I know only that Earl died in 1962, having reached his 84th birthday. He lived and died attached to the farmland, community, and family connections of Washington County, New York. He may or may not have lived the life he planned; we can only hope he eventually embraced the life he lived.