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.
The Folly of Expectations: Reading Salema Nazzal’s ‘The Folly Under the Lake’
An article I came across about a secret ballroom built in the 19th century beneath a lake piqued my curiosity and led me to search out more information and photographs about this incredibly intriguing hidden marvel. The history of Whitaker Wright, his property at Lea Park where the underwater ballroom is located, his shady business deals and eventual suicide when his deception was uncovered seems ripe to transform into any number of plotlines and stories.
While gathering information for my own story (one that leans more towards Lovecraft than Agatha Christie), I found the Facebook page for “The Folly Under the Lake”. It hadn’t been released yet and I kind of dismissed it, but as I kept writing and tinkering and going back to search for new information, it kept popping up until finally I bought it.
To be honest, I underestimated “The Folly Under the Lake”. I didn’t expect to enjoy it and maybe I didn’t want to, so at first, I didn’t.
Initially, I was put off by being thrust into the story through two characters who seemed set up to be a secondary, annoying couple you pity but deep down can’t stand. From there, too many characters were introduced too quickly where I got to the point I didn’t care who was talking anymore and had no interest in trying to keep them apart.
But I kept reading and they kept talking. And talking. And there was a lot of dialogue. But then I told myself to stop trying to hate the book, to stop trying to look for what was wrong. I would read a couple chapters and put it down, read a couple more the next night, and during the fourth day, when I was six or seven chapters in, I found myself excited for later when I would get to pick it up and read some more.
While this was not a great book, it nevertheless had me hooked.
Whether it was my interest in the underwater ballroom itself or curiosity over how Walter would be killed, and whether I was right about who did it (I wasn’t), I was excited to keep reading it, pacing myself as I did to tease the story out.
Could “The Folly Under the Lake” have benefited from deeper characterization and more thorough descriptions to build up of this incredible setting? Definitely. The book synopsis says the story is set in the 1930s, but I didn’t feel there was anything in the text itself to establish that. Given that the historical basis for the setting and characters is rooted at the turn of the 20th century, with Whitaker Wright committing suicide in 1904, my knowledge of the background and the claims from the synopsis were always at odds and that left me with a feeling of inconsistency that more attention to setting by the author could have avoided.
But ultimately, it was a fun read and I enjoyed more than I expected I would. The book did exactly as it needed to keep the reader engaged and moving forward through this little murder mystery, offering up valid suspects in each of the characters that kept you excited to read on and solve the crime.
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