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.
Exploring the Archives
History, Podcasts and the Craft of the Metanarrative
Episode seven of “The Magnus Archives” has been one of my favorites, weaving together the horror of war, historical figures and folklore in a tragic haunting manner.
Set during World War I, “The Piper” tells of the narrator’s experience with Wilfred Owen, who was an English poet and soldier. He was one of the leading poets of the First World War, writing on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare. His poem “Dulce et decorum est” condemns the rallying cry that “it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”
Owen was killed in action during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice, which is fictionalized in the archive statement in this episode along with the calling of the Pied Piper as almost a god of death who stalked the battlefields. It is said that his mother received word of his death while the bells of the nearby church tolled for the end of the war.
I haven’t read very much of Owen’s poetry but this episode did a great job capturing the bleakness and horror of which he wrote.
“The Magnus Archives” is not a new podcast, but while I may be four years and about 180 episodes behind, just in case I wasn’t the last person to ever hear of it, I wanted to share how creepy, thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable the show has been.
I hope more of the episodes begin to play with historical events or figures as connections between archive statements and subjects begin to appear as this episode was one of their best. From a pure entertainment standpoint, this podcast has been great, but even more than that, the structure of it and the storytelling had been excellent with a fine balance between the individual stories and the connecting story arcs.
Definitely worth checking out as much as a short story anthology as a lesson in crafting narratives.
A Tragedy Recreated: Reading “Clap When You Land”
As I was reading the last few chapters of “Clap When You Land” news broke of a horrible plane crash in Pakistan that I can’t help but find similar to the crash that acts as a catalyst in Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel.
The crash that inspired Acevedo was Flight 587, which due to pilot error and mechanical failure, crashed in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens shortly after take off.
The flight was en route to the capital of the Dominican Republic, and as Acevedo writes in her author’s notes at the end of the novel, ninety percent of the passengers were of Dominican descent, many of whom were returning home. She shares her personal experience as a young girl as the New York Dominican community was shattered.
Twenty years later, Acevedo was able to use that tragedy and the stories from her community that came out of the event to craft a poetic novel of family, of resilience and the strength that can be found when one is able to meet their history head on, even if in grief or anger or betrayal, and make it their own.
Now, in a city on the other side of the world, another plane destined for another capital city has crashed into a heavily populated area. Mechanical failure is again seemingly to blame, with reports of malfunctioning landing gear preventing a safe landing at the nearby airport.
But that certainly won’t comfort the families of the 99 people on board or the dozens believed to have been killed on the ground. Families who, like Acevedo’s main characters, will oscillate between denial and hope and heartbreaking grief in the weeks ahead.
One further tragedy of Flight 587 is how it was overshadowed by 9/11 as it occurred two months and one day after that event. When the cause of the crash was ruled pilot error and not terrorism the story seemed to be abandoned by the media and many of us not affected by it probably have little or no memory of it even happening.
I would hope that our memory of Flight PK8303, overshadowed this time by a global pandemic, is not so short as it was in 2001. But as Acevedo proves by so powerfully and poetically capturing the dynamic and turbulent grieving process of her characters, and her own memories and experiences two decades ago, there will always be those who remember, who transform their memory and heartbreak into something tangible and shareable, and in doing so welcome those of us not touched directly by tragedy into their community.