Conflicting Tales of the Thayer Brothers
Riding the high of having made a research request from a university special collection like I’m Indiana Jones in the Biblioteca di San Barnaba, I decided that the only way to properly research another story I’m working on is with print outs as well.
A few weeks ago I found the podcast produced by the Buffalo History Museum and this is going to come out wrong, but I was really surprised with how good it is. I should explain that I’d tried to listen to a Buffalo podcast several months ago that was at best a trainwreck. It was the living, unnecessarily profanity drenched embodiment of all the memes that say friends don’t let friends start a podcast during a pandemic. I tried three times to listen to the first episode and while I understand the choices they made for telling the story, all of those choices were wrong. That isn’t the case with the history museum’s podcast. It was excellent from the start. Well produced, well researched, and Anthony Greco, the museum’s head of the exhibits who narrates the podcast does a great job.
I started with the first of three episodes they’re doing on the Pan Am Expo and assassination of William McKinley, and then went back to see what other interesting stories they might cover. They’re pretty short episodes, which is nice. It seems like the trend over the last year is for a lot of podcasts to get longer and longer. What were once a solid forty five minutes episode are now getting close to two hours because the hosts have nothing else to do and think they’re funnier than they are.
Instead, the history museum tells a concise, intriguing story and, as in the case of the three Thayer brothers, might send some listeners looking for more information.
A week or so after I listened to the episode I was reminded of a monthly flash fiction contest from a great little horror publisher, Cemetery Gates. The theme for May is true crime and it took me about thirty seconds of brainstorming to connect it with the story I’d just heard about the first and only public execution in Buffalo.
Buffalo wasn’t even a city at the time of the crime. In December of1824 when the three brothers murdered a man of o whom they owed money the Erie Canal had yet to be opened and Buffalo was still a village of a few thousand. The site of the brothers’ execution in Niagara Square is actually where Buffalo’s City Hall would be built a hundred years later.
I was able to find a great copy of a pamphlet printed at the time of the Thayers’ executions that detailed their lives, trials and executions, along with one of two long poems written at the time about the crime. Apparently lyrical odes to vicious murders were a thing back in the day.
It’s great to have this contemporaneous account of the trial testimony too since it’s the fourth account I’ve read or listened to of the crime. All four have been slightly different and while I may lean towards the pamphlet as the definitive record I’m sure that one isn’t free of errors or embellishments.
The story I’m working on has to be under 1500 words, I’ve been doing pretty well staying on target there. I’m not entirely sold on my structure for it but maybe once I finish it and take a couple passes through it, reread the pamphlet for the sound I wanted, I’ll feel better about it.
Maybe it’s the multiple poems and conflicting accounts of the crime, but I’m reminded of John Horner Jacobs’ short novel “My Heart Struck Sorrow,” the second tale in his “A Lush and Seething Hell.”
It’s an unfair oversimplification of the story to say it’s about the history of the song ‘Stagger Lee’ but I am going to leave it at that for now. The story is horrific in multiple ways and the history it plays with is fascinating. I didn’t live the first story in the collection, but ‘Sorrow’ has definitely stuck with me. My appreciation of Chris Whitley’s cover of Stagger Lee may have something to do with it as well, but Jacobs certainly crafted an engaging tale.
I don’t have the word count right now to attempt telling the Thayers’ story in the way Jacobs did for Stagger Lee, but you never know, maybe I’ll revisit it later.
Dearborn Street Sketch
Looking for something else entirely, I went down the rabbit hole of my external hard drive, which had been a labyrinthine dumping ground of folders and files and enough potential writing and design projects to keep me busy for years if I had the time to organize it all into something manageable and accessible.
While fishing around, I came across this Photoshop sketch that I’d worked up off a photo or Google maps shot three or four years ago in a similar onslaught of nostalgia.
I’d wanted to put together maybe a dozen or so sketches like this to breakup a story I was trying to figure out. I had a short story that I was working off of and wanted to make it into something else, something longer.
I had come up with this idea after reading Edouard Levé’s novel, “Suicide”. It was his last book, as shortly after turning in the completed manuscript to his editor, Levé took his own life. The novel is interesting as it’s narrated to the main character, essentially turning the reader into the victim of the title suicide. It’s haunting and puzzling, infectious and entirely successful in calling into question what it means to exist.
I didn’t suddenly want to write every book I had in my head in this style forever now, but there are two ideas that have followed me around for several years that lend themselves to the style. Oddly enough, both deal with death, just as Levé’s work did, although in my case, one is a violent death at another’s hand, and the other is a tragic accidental one.
I wonder what about this writing style, this voice, that lends itself to tragic subject material? The ability to so easily accuse and question within the unfolding of the narrative? The way in which it immediately makes the reader a character, and can borrow their own prejudices and experiences, their fears and doubts, without needing to put those words on the page? Both ideas are a collection of photographs and written scenes, but are barely more then bones and bullet points, and a few odd fragments. I’m not sure how the stories will work out yet, or whether they will at all. For now, at least for this story, this is all I have.
Village Green Bookstore
Village Green Bookstore opened in 1972 in a 600-square-foot basement store at 766 Monroe Avenue in Rochester, New York, before its reputation among the community’s book lovers spread and it expanded into the larger storefront upstairs.
The store had a coffee bar before they became common in bookstores and despite starting out by selling only the local Sunday edition, would offer more than 100 newspapers and 2,400 magazines. Eventually, while books were still a staple of the business, they became lost behind their rapidly expanding merchandise line.
By 1992, Village Green had added as many as eight new stores throughout Central and Western New York, including locations at 1089 Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst and 765 Elmwood Avenue in the Elmwood Village. But the growth for the company had become troublesome. Hoping to solve their financial problems, the chain continued to expand locations and product offerings. In doing so, as tends to happen when a company forces growth in order to dominate the market, Village Green forgot their purpose and mission. The company had forgotten what one of the founders, John Borek, had said not long after opening; their intention was to cater to “people who were hungry for books.” Instead, they were selling ice cream and inflatable bagels.
Within a few years they had added stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but with a series of catastrophic financial decisions that involved lawsuits, criminal charges and SEC investigations, the company began closing “underperforming” stores, including a third location in Western New York, in the McKinley Plaza in Blasdell. The closures and merchandise sell offs could not keep the company afloat however and in 1998 they had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
The following year, the flagship store on Monroe closed it doors for good, eventually becoming a Pizza Hut.