By Matt Schaeffer
Dedicated to the
HISTORICAL BOTTLE DIGGERS OF INDIANA
(seriously "H.A.R.D.C.OR.P." diggers)
all the other bottle diggers of the
I sat unmoving and mute. The silence of the small, windowless room closed in on me. Were it not for the distinct palpitation of my heart, I might have dismissed it as a cruel dream.
"Are you ready to tell us your story?"
The full weight of guilt bore heavily upon me. I swallowed and managed to utter a reluctant "Yes."
"Finally we're getting somewhere…well, we're listening."
"It all began last October. My breath hung visibly in the crisp air of early morn, it wasn’t a bad day at all, at least as far as a late October day goes.
I loaded the shovels, tarps, probes, and other privy-digging necessities into the trunk of the car and my thoughts turned to the object of the day’s outing. Visions of what might lie buried in the Wilson’s Grove privies mounted in my mind’s eye. Trembling in anticipation, I seated myself in the car, slammed the door, and sped along the road to collect Hugh, my bottle-digging partner.
I’d spent the better part of the summer and into autumn researching the history of Wilson’s Grove. Settled in 1833, the place now merely blended into the landscape, inconsequential to the ordinary traveler who might chance to pass the grid of limestone foundations that remained standing in a pasture alongside a gravel road. My research had revealed that the first structure erected there had been a large, rambling roadhouse. Until the time of the War Between the States, it had served as an important stopping-over point for the stream of early settlers, land speculators, and others as they pushed through the area on their quest toward the promise of a better life. Some, perhaps already wearied from a long, hard journey, had elected to stay, building their cabins and making a home at Wilson’s Grove amid the stately thicket of beauteous oaks from whence the place derived its name, in part. By the time the nation was torn apart and a call for volunteers arose in 1861, the place was a bustling little village with a promising future. Although Wilson’s Grove might have endured in spite of the loss of loved ones whose lives were extinguished during the Rebellion, the village could not withstand the fate to which it was destined when the railroad went north. Thus, like so many other now long-forgotten places that proliferated along the expanding frontier, the nineteenth century optimism that gave rise to Wilson’s Grove suddenly faded, commensurate with the distant whistle of an unseen iron horse. In the manner of a lantern sputtering for want of fuel, the flame of hope dimmed and flickered--perhaps to be momentarily revived--but only to pale, and then die, forever; and with it died the place. Such had been the fate of Wilson’s Grove.
Hugh stood outside waiting. He bounded forward as I pulled in. He was obviously as excited about digging the Wilson’s Grove privies as I was. I popped the trunk and cranked down the window. "Ready Hugh?" I shouted as he threw his gear into the trunk.
"You betcha! Let’s go after the pontils, man!" He slid into the passenger’s seat. "You sure you have permission to do this?" he inquired. His face was twisted in an expression of concern. The question wasn’t unreasonable. Hugh had been my digging partner for over twenty years, and we’d certainly been run out of our share of digging holes for not having permission. But that was years ago, and we’d become much more seasoned over time.
"Permission granted!" I replied, beaming. The look of concern on Hugh’s face evaporated and was replaced with a smile.
It had taken some serious effort, but I’d managed to gain the favor of the property owner, Miss Beatrice Wilson. Having seen the passage of perhaps 350 seasons, she was a fifth generation descendent of Silas Wilson, the original owner and proprietor of the inn that had once stood near the crossroads. Miss Wilson had never married, and consequently had no heirs to which she might pass the family property. A few weeks earlier I’d rapped on her door and stood waiting in the cold, awaiting a response for what seemed like an eternity. As I stood there persistently, whiling away the minutes, I could plainly hear the details of the current Oprah episode playing within the house. Out of the corner of my eye I had noticed a slight movement of the curtains.
I knocked again, and as I contemplated the possibility that I was scaring her, I began to feel like a first-class jerk. I waited. I waited longer. I grew self-conscious standing there like that, my foot tapping away on the floor of the porch. Was she peering at me from some hidden vantage, sizing me up? Was she wondering if I was an encyclopedia peddler? Did she read me as a ubiquitous siding or window salesperson? Did she suspect I was a serial killer or something? I grew increasingly uncertain and demoralized, until I could bear it no longer. Finally, given my diminished mental state, I resolved that I was in no condition to ask her if I could probe and dig the privies on her property; after all, it’s hard enough to summon the courage to ask to do that even on your best day. I slid my customized "Privy Reclamation and Historical Reconstruction Specialist" brochure into her doorjamb, turned, and hustled away.
Upon returning home, I was quite surprised to find a message from Miss Wilson on the answering machine. I returned her call immediately, and we arranged a tea engagement. That evening, over steaming cups of her finest Darjeeling, I proceeded to attempt to explain my exceedingly peculiar and eccentric interest in the privies at Wilson’s Grove and the process by which the excavation would occur, if she would consent. Sharing pictures of previous digs, I explained the importance of a partner in such a venture, and discussed what might be learned from such an endeavor. Miss Wilson was noticeably amused, and at many points during my strange spiel she openly laughed in my face! This was to be expected, so I took the humor in stride. Eventually the evening mounted toward a conclusion with that which I’d been seeking.
She chuckled. "Well, I’ve never heard of anything quite so odd as this, but I see no harm in it, that is, if you’re certain you will not contract some dreadful disease or something." I assured her, again, that all organic waste decomposes into soil, and that germs, bacteria and other disease-bearing organisms cannot survive for more than 40 years beneath ground.
She paused, then nodded. "Well, never in a million lifetimes would I have dreamt that someone might ask me for permission to do this. But go ahead, I guess, if you think you must." She placed a sere hand on mine and slowly bent forward, whispering, "I must confess—it’s all quite interesting; and I’m very, yes, very curious to know what you might learn about my relatives" she added, winking, and laughing rather nervously. Did I detect a blush?
"You might be surprised—or shocked!" I smiled. Her hand remained on mine, and her eyes twinkled with, well, I didn’t know… With permission in hand, I sought the very first opportunity to retreat from what increasingly seemed like some sort of an advance, and I soon bid her a fair evening.
"YES!!!!!" I thought to myself repeatedly as I walked to the car. By the time I was behind the wheel I was literally giggling aloud as my mind raced with a torrent of imagined possibilities. During the drive home I mentally calculated the vintage and number of privies that should exist at Wilson’s Grove. By the time I reached home I was drooling at the thought of what might come to light from the Wilson’s Grove privies. I failed to sleep at all that night.
During the short drive to Wilson’s Grove, Hugh and I took turns trading bottle fantasies. We conjured up incredible finds in our minds, each in turn sharing his dream of unearthing a rare and coveted container from a mid-nineteenth century privy.
"I suspect that there must be close to 50 privies there, Hugh; oldest ones would be 25 paces or so from the foundation of what used to be that roadhouse."
"1830s, huh dude?"
"Yeah. Hard telling what’s in those. There might not be much, since the place was really just a frontier outpost, kind of out on the edge of nowhere. Probably wasn’t much going on in the way of commerce and supplies. Besides, that’s almost too old for anything except black glass. The 1840s and 50s holes should yield some sweet stuff though."
Turning off the highway and onto on a gravel road, we traveled north toward the distant stand of stately oaks that marked the site of Wilson’s Grove. The ascendant sun on our right held forth a promise of mid-autumn warmth. I slowed and stopped at the site, and we hastily unloaded the digging gear. Negotiating a rusty barbed-wire fence, we stepped into the pasture and made our way toward the many crumbling limestone foundations that rose from the short, withering grass of the pasture.
The foundations of the old buildings lay strewn across the corner of the pasture like so many little Stonehenges. There was no organization or grid layout apparent, but rather a scattering of random remains of former dwellings rising here and there, punctuating the surface.
"From what I’ve been able to determine from the 1858 county atlas, the gravel road runs precisely where the old frontier road ran. That being the case, then that would mean that south sides of these foundations were probably the fronts of the buildings, since they face the road. So the crappers should be out back, on the north side."
Hugh glanced in that direction. "Makes sense to me. So where do you suppose we ought to begin?"
"Well, we could strike stuff anywhere in this place, but I figure the sweetest spot might be behind that large foundation, over there. That’s most likely the old roadhouse, don’t you think?"
"You’re probably right. Let’s do it!"
Without further hesitation we carried the gear over to the north side of the large foundation. Pausing, we scoped out the ground in an attempt to detect any surface variations that might hint of a possible privy location.
"Hey, dude! Look over there." I pointed to a long, slight depression in the ground. The telltale sign of a possible row of privies was clearly evident, despite the passage of well over a century. The area was some twenty feet or so long, and perhaps four feet wide, and looked somewhat unnatural compared to the surrounding ground surface. "Let’s check that out."
We hustled over to the spot and gave it a cursory inspection. "Man, this looks real promising. Let’s probe it!"
I grabbed the short probe and, positioned it above one end of the depression and pushed down. The probe sank with ease. "Ohhh yeah! This feels really good." I tested the ground outside of the depression, finding that the probing was much more difficult there. I probed the depression itself once again and the rod sank with comparatively less resistance. "I think we’ve got something here. Probe sinks like a hot knife through soft butter!" I probed a little more. "Yeah, this dirt’s is definitely fill. This ground’s been disturbed at some time or another."
I threw the short probe aside and grabbed the five-footer. Hugh had grabbed his probe and was working on the other end of the impression. "Hey, I think I feel rock on this end," he said as he repeatedly sank his probe around the edge. "Might be stone-lined."
We’d heard of stone-lined privies, but had never dug one. Hugh worked all around the other end, hitting stone at about ten inches all the way around. "Might be the first one. I bet they just used the same stone for the privy that they used in when they laid the foundation of the inn."
"I don’t feel any stone over here." I probed deeper. At about four feet, I felt something. "Hmmm…there’s something down here, Hugh. Feels like glass." I probed again, then again, each time with the same result. "Hey…I think I’m hitting glass here." I pulled the probe out and examined it. Sure enough, a few tiny splinters of glass clung to the soil around the filed ball bearing on the end of the probe. I sank the probe again and retrieved it with the same result. "CRUNCH!" I shouted. "Definitely got some crunch here! This is it. I think we found it, man."
"Yeah, it feels pretty good on this end, too!"
Throwing the probes aside, we ran over and grabbed the tarps. We positioned them neatly on either side of the depression, preparing each end of the depression for test pits. Each taking up our shovels, we carefully removed the sod and laid it off to the side. "I can’t believe this was so easy," I remarked as we quickly revealed the black, loamy soil beneath the layer of sod on each end of the depression. Within minutes we had each peeled off a small patch and began to dig down.
At about two and a half feet I began to hit a layer of sand, followed by some ash at three feet. I paused to probe again, feeling crunch everywhere. Shards of glass began to appear. Hugh was digging like a madman on the other end. "I’m into it now!" I hollered as I dropped to my knees and began to dig more carefully.
"Me too. Hey! Check this out!" Hugh held up a piece of glass. "Majorly crude, man! Look at that rolled lip! We’re talkin’ old stuff here!" He tossed it over toward me. Although broken, the lip that rolled over the top of the bottleneck indicated that he was definitely into a seriously old pit. "What would you date that at?"
I carefully inspected the primitive artifact. "Looks like pre-Civil War to me. Probably 1840s or early 50s."
We were now digging like badgers, and each proceeded to clear off a five by five feet patch of sod. Clearing the sod, we dug down. It took some time, but at about three feet Hugh stood up and exclaimed, "Man! I think I got a whole one here!" Hugh exclaimed. We were each about three feet deep into our respective pits, and I climbed out and hustled over to watch. On his knees in the hole, Hugh reached up and grabbed the trowel. As he carefully scraped away the dirt the side of a bottle emerged into view. I crouched down to observe more closely, anxious to see what he had found. "Here’s the base." He scraped away more dirt and the rough and jagged circular scar was suddenly apparent. "OPEN PONTILLED! It’s pontilled, dude!" I got down on my belly and stared into Hugh’s pit for a closer inspection of the base of the bottle.
"Sure enough is, Hugh! Sweet! Well come on, damn it! Dig that baby out and let’s see what it is!" If there had been any doubt whatsoever about the age of Hugh’s pit, the discovery of a pontilled bottle put it to rest. The pit he was digging was definitely pre-1860.
Hugh worked around the bottle with the trowel and quickly loosened it. "It’s embossed!" Lifting the bottle from the soil, he held it up, and the first light of another century illuminated the glass. "Shecuts Southern Balm for Coughs, Colds, etc." I stared in awe as he wiped the soil from its sides and held it up. It was a brilliant aqua hue.
"Holy mackerel! That’s gotta be rarer than hell, Hugh! I’ve never heard of that one before." With trembling hands, Hugh admired his find for a minute then handed it to me. It was an excellent first find. "That’s some intense color!" I added, as I looked the bottle over.
I handed the bottle back to Hugh, who placed it on the ground atop the pit. I sped back to my pit and began to dig again. Old porous, salt-glaze crockery shards began to surface. Hugh hollered and held up the bowl of what had once been a long-stemmed clay pipe, the "cigarette" of its day. Then another, and another. "I’m into it now, man!" he yelled. "I’m into the use layer!"
As he spoke, I struck something. "Whoa! Think I treed one here, Hugh." I raked some soil away and a bottle emerged, which I quickly retrieved. Directly beneath it, I noticed the chamfered corner of another bottle. Hugh had abandoned his pit and raced over to mine. "Here’s a Sand’s Sarsaparilla. This one’s OP, too." I handed it to Hugh.
"Sweet! Looks mint, too" As he inspected it, I worked the trowel around the other bottle that I’d exposed beneath it.
"Wow, here’s another one here," I replied, as I lifted a second Sand’s from the soil and held it up to the sun. I set it up on the bank. Hugh laid the other one next to it and ran back to his pit.
We each continued scraping away at the dirt in our pits. Amid the broken shards of crockery, we each began to strike more bottles.
"Oh, sweet! A Mrs. Allen’s Hair Restorer! It’s OP too!" Hugh wiped the soil from the face of the bottle and lay it aside. "Man, I’ve wanted one of these babies for years."
Acknowledging the find, I continued to busily work the plastic-tined hand rake. The shape of another bottle gradually emerged into view. "I think I’ve got a flask here…" With a dexterity that only comes from years of digging, I quickly and skillfully I excavated around the flared lip that emerged at an angle from the soil. The shoulders of the bottles came into view. "Sure enough. This one's a flask. Dark glass, too." As the shoulders of the bottle loosened, I reached down and gently began to wiggle the bottle. It yielded easily and I pulled it out. "Oh, damn! Nooooo!" My heart sank like a rock. "Grab me that bucket! I think I’m gonna blow groceries! This one is—or was—a scroll flask, Hugh! And an amber one, too." I held up half of a flask.
Hugh laughed and continued to dig away. "That’s a crier, dude! But, hey, as old as this stuff is, there’ll probably be a lot of criers before we’re finished. You know our luck—for every decent one we find, there’s at least a hundred that are broken."
"Yeah. Why, why, WHY? Why is it that the choicest stuff is always broke?" I stared despairing at the half of the flask I’d found. "Gee whiz. This thing would have been worth a thousand bucks!" But there was no time for mourning. As I looked back into the hole near where the flask had been, I noticed another bottle peeking out of the dirt. Grabbing the trowel again, I dug away. Now at about four and a half feet deep, the soil was blacker. In the time that it took me to loosen the bottle, Hugh had recovered an aqua Dr. Gayle’s Anodyne of Opium and a Trask’s Liniment, both pontilled. Finally, I pulled my bottle from the earth and held it up, wiping the soil from its face.
"Ha! Dr. Langley’s Root and Herb Bitters here, Hugh." I proudly held the bottle high.
"Excellent! Looks like you get the prize for first bitters. Just keep ‘em coming!" Hugh shouted toward me. "Dig on, bro! I got another one here, too!" Hugh reached down and lifted another bottle from the ground, pausing long enough to holler "Dr. Schenk’s Pulmonary Syrup! "Man, this is just too incredible!" He placed the bottle on the bank, next to its mid-nineteenth century peers, and proceeded to dig away.
Meanwhile, I'd pulled another bottle from my pit. "Hell. Here’s another Sand’s. That’s three of those. They sure must have liked that stuff!"
"Here’s an old spoon. A little bottle, too!" Hugh held up a Dr. Thompson’s Eye Water/New London, Conn.
We had dug for just under two hours, and already we had retrieved a nice little collection of open pontils. "This is just too easy," I shouted toward Hugh. "I think I’ve got another one cornered over here. Looks like a big one. Another OP, too. Man, we’re spoiling ourselves to hell!"
By this time, our good fortunes had worked us each into a frenzy of excitement. We were totally pumped! "Dude! This hole is definitely 1850s or late 1840s. We’d be finding iron pontil or hinge mold bottles if it were any later," Hugh proclaimed. Of course, we’d already determined that!
"Yep. Hard to tell what we might find in the rest of these privies." I continued to work away at the soil around the large, square bottle. "Hey! I think I’ve got a Townsend’s here," I announced. "Says Albany on this side." Seconds later, indeed, I had unearthed a brilliant, deep-teal Dr. Townsend’s /Sarsaparilla/Albany, NY. "Whew! Look at this!" I raised it up to the light triumphantly. "Look at the color of this baby!"
Hugh, busily working on another bottle, grunted back an acknowledgement. Then, rising from his pit, he lifted a small bottle, wiped it off, and burst out laughing. "Unreal. No way! You’re not gonna believe this one—here’s a Ree’s Remedy for Piles! How do you like that?! Can you imagine riding for days on horseback if you had piles?! Oh, man! I wonder who the poor dude was that had to use this stuff?
"Whoever he was,"—"or she,"—I quickly added, "they probably decided they’d just better stay." Hugh sank to his knees in his pit, doubled-over in laughter. "Anyway, what’s he big deal? You’d kind of expect to find something like that in a privy pit, wouldn’t you?"
We dug with similar success for the remainder of the morning, working our way down to the five-foot level. Amid broken clay pipes and chamber pots, crockery and redware shards, I pulled out three more pesky Sand’s Sarsaprilla, two more Townsend’s, one of which was olive, a Holman’s Nature’s Grand Restorative, two aqua umbrella inks, and an A.H. Bull/Extract of Sarsaparilla/Hartford. Over in the other pit, Hugh scored two of his own Sand’s Sarsaparilla, an Anderson’s Cough Drops, a choice Barry’s Tricopherous For Skin and Hair, and a really sweet-looking, aqua Dr. Keeler’s Sarsaparilla, with an embossed Indian. Every one of the bottles we had found bore an open pontil scar on the base.
At five feet we were still hitting glass, but the digging was getting harder. At this point, we had to take turns digging for safety reasons. While one dug, the other stood by the pit and hoisted the bucket, dumping the soil into the growing piles atop the tarps. At 12:30 we decided to stop for a drink and a bite to eat. I reached an arm down into the pit to assist Hugh as he clambered up and out. We stood momentarily, transfixed and staring at the bottles we’d each unearthed that morning. Shaking our heads in pleasant disbelief, we turned and made the pilgrimage of twenty-some paces from the privy pit to the foundation of the old roadhouse. There we sat on the convenient ledge and proceeded to eat.
"You know, Hugh, this is totally beyond belief. We’re pulling out pontils right and left, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of this place yet. It’s hard to even imagine what else might be buried here."
I quickly devoured one of my sandwiches, then took up a second one. "I’ve been thinking…You know how we’ve always split the bottles in the past?—flip the coin and start picking, winner picks first?"
"Yeah. I always get burned, too."
"Right. Well, I think we ought to re-think that policy. After all, this place is pretty special, you know? And the bottles we’re scoring are mighty special. So, you got any ideas about how we might go about splitting this stuff up? I mean, like that Keeler’s Sarsaparilla with that Indian embossed on it—now, don’t get the wrong idea, but I’d almost kill to have that baby! That’s a top shelf piece, man. But then, you know, it just wouldn’t mean nearly as much to me as it would to you, because you found it, Hugh. There’s something extra special about a bottle you’ve dug yourself. You can look at it and you know its story, firsthand. In a sense, it’s a part of you, and vice-versa. You’re connected. A bottle’s meaning is just not the same unless you’ve actually found it. Getting a bottle you didn’t find just on the luck of a damn coin toss, well, somehow it loses its meaning."
"Yeah." Hugh listened as he busily stuffed potato chips into his face, grunting, nodding.
I continued, "Well, what do you think about each of us just keeping what we dig here? Just let dumb luck prevail. Take what we get. Keep what we dig. Whatever will be, will be. To be, or not to be. So, if luck is on a person’s side, then so much the better. If not, hell, there’s always tomorrow."
"Sounds fair enough to me."
"Okay, then. The Keeler’s is yours. You don’t have to worry about losing it—which you probably would—on the chance of a stupid coin toss. It’s settled; what each of us digs, he keeps."
"Uh-huh, sounds fair enough," Hugh muttered, nodding in agreement.
"Great." I reached for my apple. "Something I’m wondering about, Hugh--what do you suppose the deal is with all those sarsaparillas? We’ve found, what, ten of 'em or more? Different kinds, too. I'm not complaining, but why do you suppose there's so many?" I sank my teeth into the red fruit.
"Syphilis. Treatment for syphilis."
I pondered Hugh’s interpretation. "Syphilis?"
"Yep. Huge problem back then. People died right and left from it, dude. You know, the standards of bodily hygiene were a little different 150 years ago. I mean, it took a lot of effort just to take a bath. Couldn’t just turn a faucet and take a shower. People got kind of ripe, and when they caught stuff it just sort of hung on them. And when they did, sarsaparilla was their hope, the cure of choice; cure, in a manner of speaking. I suppose that when you finally died from it, you were cured, technically speaking."
Hugh had an interesting point, so I pressed the issue further. "But what about its tonic purpose? Wasn’t it an invigorator or some kind of blood purifier?"
"Phooey. So people claimed. That was merely a charade to mask its real purpose. People bought it under the guise of a general tonic, but they weren’t fooling anyone. For the most part, they had a bad case of something else. Perhaps later, in the 1880s or 90s, people bought it for those other reasons; but we’re talking 1840s or 50s here. You have to interpret things in their proper historical context. In the 1840s, it was predominantly used by the hopeful as a cure for syphilis."
Eating away at my apple, I began to wonder. Who, and why? My thoughts drifted to ninety- year old Miss Wilson. What in the world would she think if I told her about this?
After lunch we moved back into the pit. It was my turn to dig, and I pulled out a Dr. W.S. Lunt’s Family Medicine, a Liquid Opodeldoc, a Jean Marie Farin Cologne, and another Sand’s Sarsaparilla. Hugh scored an incredible six-sided, olive green Gibb’s Bone Liniment, a Resley’s Buchu Extract, a Brandt’s Indian Balsam, and a Dr. Sanford’s Liver Invigorator. When we had finally reached the bottom of the pit, we were six feet below the sod.
The adjacent, stone-lined pit yielded much the same treasures. Pontilled medicines proliferated as we dug into Wilson’s Grove’s past. Upon each new find, we would pause but momentarily to admire the bottle, then lay it carefully aside the others in our respective collections. Among the great gems found that afternoon was a Morse’s Celebrated Syrup, Providence, RI, in extremely rare deep-emerald green, which Hugh added to his finds. Although not as valuable, I unearthed an open pontilled, golden olive-amber Success to the Railroad pint flask and added it to my horde. As I held it in my hands, the strange irony of the message embossed in the whittled glass could not escape me. The bottle spoke of the hope that had once buoyed the spirits of those in Wilson’s Grove as they anxiously awaited the arrival of a railroad that never came. I could only surmise who might have once possessed the flask, and under what circumstance it found its way into the privy. Perhaps an eastern land speculator or agent for the railroad had paused for an overnight at Wilson’s Grove and, for whatever reason, found its location unsuitable for the railway? Whatever the case, its resting-place in a privy pit aptly symbolized a turning point in time for Wilson’s Grove and the spoiled dreams of the people who once called it "home."
At day’s end, we carefully packed the bottles and headed for home.
"Gonna clean yours tonight?" I asked.
"Yeah, I suppose."
"It’ll sure take awhile, won’t it?" I tried to imagine how the bottles would look when cleaned and placed in a row on a backlit shelf.
"A lot of bottles, that’s for sure. Nice ones, too."
"Hey--about all those sarsaparillas…What’s the deal there? You really think they had a scourge of syphilis there?" At least a dozen more of the ubiquitous sarsaparillas had come to light that afternoon in the second pit, fueling the growing mystery surrounding their presence in such great numbers.
"Must have. That’s just not normal. I mean, one or two of them--now a person could understand that. But twenty, or twenty-five of them? That’s pretty strange. That’s downright weird. Somebody had a bad problem, and they turned to the sarsaparilla to cure it."
I pondered that likelihood, as Hugh continued.
"Some of that stuff had mercury in it, too. Lot’s of it. They thought that’s what a person needed to cure it."
"Sure. Loaded with the stuff. It cured ‘em alright; dead as a doornail."
I wondered who at Wilson’s Grove might have suffered such a horrible fate. It occurred to me that it must have been someone who actually lived there. It simply could not have been itinerant travelers who were responsible for the quantity of sarsaparilla bottles we’d recovered from just two pits. Almost certainly, it was a resident. And since the pits we’d dug were those of the roadhouse, the most likely candidate was the innkeeper himself, Silas Wilson. Mr Silas Wilson?
Just as a possible solution to the mystery began to unfold, we arrived at Hugh’s place. We unloaded his bottles and gear, then paused to affirm the sacred tenets of our bottle digging code of ethics. We vowed to keep the site a secret between ourselves, lest others move in and plunder it of the treasures that still lay buried. Equally important, we promised not to dig in the other person’s absence. Thus satisfied by the day’s good fortune and the reaffirmation of our sacred digging code of ethics, we made quick plans to dig the next day and parted.
Back home, as I unpacked my finds that evening, I marveled at the imperfections of each wonderful specimen. I cleaned each bottle with great care. Piece by piece, the long-buried history of Wilson’s Grove gradually revealed itself beneath the dirt of the ages, and a story of the daily existence, tastes and preferences of its people unfolded in a menagerie of colorful, whittled glass containers.
As luck would have it, rain was pounding against the bedroom window as I awoke at daybreak the following morning. All through the previous night my mind had conjured sweet and vivid dreams of remarkable bottles, and the nocturnal promise of the following days’ dig, albeit imagined, was pleasant panacea for any insomnia that might have otherwise impeded my rest.
Staring out the window into a downpour, I turned on the radio…
Rains will continue throughout the day and into tomorrow, as a trough of low pressure pushes its way on a northeasterly path across the state. Some areas are expected to receive heavy rains, with flooding of low-lying areas a possibility. An average of one to two inches is expected for most parts, although isolated areas may receive up to four inches. Expect a high of 48 degrees, with an overnight low of 36. By noon tomorrow, clearing will begin as a dome of high pressure moves in, and temperatures will climb into the mid-to-upper 50s. Until then, it looks like…
I grabbed the phone and dialed Hugh. The phone rang once.
"Bummer, dude," I groaned.
"Got an ark?"
I laughed. "How’d those bottles clean up?"
"Never got to them. I was so bushed after all that digging, I just put them in a big tub with some warm water, Winks Rust Remover and dish soap. Can’t wait to have a look at them."
"Well, you think we should try to dig?"
"Are you nuts?"
"I don’t know."
"I think we’d need scuba gear and life jackets in those pits today. Have you even looked outside?"
"Yeah, I suppose you’re right. I just can’t help thinking about getting in there again. Dreamed of bottles all night long."
"Me too, but I think we should just hang for awhile and see what this weather does. This is awfully heavy stuff. I bet those pits are a serious quagmire by now. I’d rather stay put and just clean those bottles."
"Anyway, so we just hung out that day."
Detective Nolan cleared his throat and interrupted. "Okay, enough, damn it! I’ve heard about enough of this bottle crap." His eyes pierced my soul as he glared directly at me. "Let’s cut to the chase. Bottles or no bottles, Hugh Burton is dead. You've signed a confession. Now, in an effort to avoid a lengthy, expensive, and particularly disturbing public trial, the state is willing to offer a bargain; that is, if you’re so inclined to enter a plea. I need not remind you what's at stake here. Let’s get on with it."
Wondering what I should do, I turned and looked sheepishly at my attorney. She sat directly at my side. Across the table sat DCI agent Ben Nolan and District Attorney Jeremiah Graves. Behind them was the county sheriff, William Tilden, arms crossed and standing next to the door of the small, sterile interrogation room. It was three in the morning. We’d been here for hours. My attorney rose from her seat.
"I do not feel that it is in the best interest of my client to enter a plea at this time," she asserted. The prosecutors shook their heads in incredulity.
"The defense has strong reason to believe that the purported actions of the accused are the unavoidable result of an unfortunate medical condition for which he is not responsible. We have acquired medical evidence which I am prepared to share with the DA."
Visibly frustrated, the officials sighed and shook their heads. District Attorney Graves rose and reached out, wagging his finger at my lawyer. "Come now Miss Sanborn. What could you possibly have that could raise doubt about the guilt of your client? Have you even reviewed the evidence the state has collected? The sworn admission. The body--beaten, and bludgeoned, buried in, of al things, a privy pit!? The murder weapon—the blood-caked shovel covered with your client’s fingerprints? Witnesses who can place the defendant at the scene at the time of the crime? And most damaging of all, witnesses from Spillman’s bar who are prepared to testify under oath to the effect that the accused and the deceased argued and nearly came to blows the evening before the crime was committed! Miss Sanborn, I submit that the preponderance of the evidence against your client points overwhelmingly to his guilt. Moreover, need I remind you, Miss Sanborn,"--he looked squarely into my face as he continued—"that by placing this case in the hands of a jury, its disposition would almost certainly result in the return of a verdict of guilt? Now, we are offering you a chance; we are proposing a bargain that will spare your client from an almost certain verdict of guilt, a verdict that would result in a sentence of death."
I cringed at the horrible words. My pulse raced. My body ached. My entire being felt as though it were made of lead.
"And may I remind you, Mr. Graves, that the defense is entitled to present its own evidence. I repeat--indeed, I assert--the defense has compelling evidence that will cast strong doubt on the state’s case. Put on the state’s evidence! We will not dispute the matter of guilt or innocence; the confession that you coaxed from my client is damning! We will, however, argue vehemently against the state’s contention that this was an act of premeditation."
During the months leading up to the trial, my health declined precipitously. I was experiencing a multitude of symptoms--respiratory, gastrointestinal, immunological, neurological, psychological. My appetite diminished, I was plagued by diarrhea, and I continued to lose weight. I was wracked by insomnia and prone to irritability and nervousness, punctuated by bouts of intense depression and fits of anger. I felt terrible. Despite my condition and against the strong advice of the team of doctors who were treating me, I elected to attend my trial.
It was standing room only when the trial finally convened. As I was led into the courtroom the atmosphere in the room was electric. Repeatedly pounding the gavel upon the bench, the Honorable Justice Sarah Cordeman called the court to order. A strange silence fell over the room. The charges against me were read, the jury received its instructions, and the District Attorney rose to present the opening argument for the state. In dramatic fashion, the prosecutor laid out the case. Shackled, I sat trembling amid the surreal surroundings as the cruel words dripped from his lips, each resounding throughout the courtroom chamber and striking me hard in succession, an interminable verbal torrent of leaden blows. The portrait of a despicable monster gradually emerged as he spoke--the veritable image of evil itself--painted in a scathing diatribe of vengeful accusation. Having stripped me of whatever semblance of humanity and vestige of a soul I might still have possessed in the minds of the jurors, at long last the prosecution concluded its opening argument.
"The crime of which the defendant is accused demands the extraction of the most severe form of justice. The state maintains that, given the hideous nature of this crime, the punishment must be commensurate. In conclusion, the state seeks consideration of a sentence of death upon the return of a verdict of the defendant's guilt."
My body went numb as a chorus of muffled voices arose behind me. Justice Cordeman called a 15-minute recess. Against my will, my mind conjured up images of the event for which I was now being condemned and they burst forth in an anguished cascade of lurid scenes, as though acts in a tragedy…
…the collective voices of the bottles as they beckoned to me, crying out from the growing pile next to Hugh's pit, pleading to me not to let Hugh take them. Like glass chimes in a breeze, they mourned to be mine…
…the empty bank above my own pit, the glance toward Hugh, then back to the empty bank above me…
…the bottles screaming out…
…the shovel in my hand…
…the look of surprise on Hugh's face as I charged out of my pit…
…the expression of fear as I stormed his pit, shovel in hand…
…the staccato thud as I swung the shovel repeatedly…
…the crumpled and bleeding body at the bottom of the pit…
…the bottles cheering me in the manner of a crowd saluting a victorious matador as I back-filled the pit…
The gavel resounded and the defense was immediately called. My attorney, Luetta Sanborn, rose to address the court. With grace and confidence abounding, she strode toward the jury, turned toward them, and clenched the banister behind which they sat, arranged in two neat rows of six.
"Ladies and gentleman of the jury," she began," "citizens, you have assembled here to carry out a most important responsibility. The state has presented you with its version of the tragic events surrounding the death of Hugh Burton. Indeed, the death of Mr. Burton was a tragedy, and the gravity of the offense which brought about his death, and the evidence associated with that offense, must be conceived of and weighed objectively within the scales of justice. The death of Mr. Burton compels us, as a society which values law as a precondition of order, and one which recognizes the preeminent rule of law as fundamental to the preservation of liberty, to seek justice. I have no doubt that you will rise honorably to the task for which occasion you have been assembled here." Pausing, Attorney Sanborn turned toward me. Stretching out her arm, she pointed directly at me.
"There sits a man"--I felt the eyes of the jury bore into my very being as she spoke--"accused of taking Mr. Burton's life, and whose own life now hangs in the balance on the scales of justice. The District Attorney has offered a characterization of the defendant as a cold-blooded, depraved, wanton and unrepentant killer." I hung my head.
"In addition, they have introduced the fact that this man--this man of whom you now sit in judgment--has signed a confession which, in effect, constitutes an admission that he is responsible for the death of Mr. Burton. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defense will not deny this fact. The defense will not shrink in denial of the fact that the defendant is responsible for the bludgeoning death of the deceased or the subsequent attempt to hide the body by burying it in a pit. The defense will concede these points."
A tightening noose of fear gripped me as I listened to the opening argument of my attorney unfold. What was this? My own attorney had conceded! With sudden force, a sense of impending doom filled me. Instantly I grew nauseous and my thoughts fleeted randomly and simultaneously in all directions only to converge in my mind's eye upon the image of the stark, unforgiving execution chamber that likely awaited me.
"However, the defense reminds all those present that an admission of responsibility is not an admission of guilt." Again she faced the jury. "I repeat--ladies and gentlemen of the jury, an admission of responsibility is not an admission of guilt."
Upon hearing this, a minuscule spark of hope flickered within me. With great effort I looked up, but could manage only to stare directly ahead.
"The high measure of justice demands that a mere admission not be equated with guilt, in spite of however compelling such an admission might seem. Again I remind you that in this, a capital case, guilt must be measured by a standard far more compelling, a standard so rigorous that certitude beyond a shadow of a doubt is established. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defense holds in high esteem and applauds the great sacrifices that each of you has willingly made to sit and hear the evidence pertaining to this case. You are each to be commended for assuming this grave burden and for the selfless exercise of your responsibility as citizens. In consideration of this, the defense submits that it sees no purpose in wasting your time."
Sanborn turned and addressed Justice Cordeman. Your Honor, the defense requests that the case against the defendant be dismissed on the reason of insanity and that its disposition be determined on the basis of the court's consideration of medical evidence that casts serious doubt on the state's claim of premeditation.
Gasps filled the courtroom and Justice Cordeman repeatedly slammed the gavel upon the bench. "Order! Order! People, please come to order!"
District Attorney Graves rose in objection and shouted over the noise. "Your Honor! This is preposterous! I respectfully submit that this motion is highly irregular!" The court quieted, and Graves continued. "The state maintains that justice in this case can only be carried out by means of public trial."
Justice Cordeman addressed my attorney. "Ms. Sanborn, I agree with the District Attorney that this is highly irregular. Would you care to please enlighten the court on the foundation of your request by explaining the nature of the evidence upon which you move to dismiss?"
"Certainly, Your Honor. The defense wishes to introduce medical evidence to the effect that the defendant was, indeed, still is, not of sane mind, and that the etiology of his unfortunate condition was the direct result of activity related to the acquisition of collectible bottles from early nineteenth century privies."
Upon hearing this, the courtroom erupted in laughter. District Attorney Graves dropped into his chair, threw his arms high and scoffed audibly at the notion. Justice Cordeman again slammed the gavel, herself smiling in amused bewilderment.
As the laughter abated and order was gradually restored, Graves again rose and requested that he be allowed to address the bench. Justice Coredman consented.
"Your Honor, the state vehemently objects to the defense motion. On behalf of the people of the state, I respectfully submit that the defense claim of "privy madness," or whatever they might choose to call it, is tantamount to a mockery of the justice system. Moreover, for the court to even consider such a patently ridiculous claim threatens the very stability of the foundation of justice itself."
"The state's objection is noted," replied the judge. "Would both sides please approach the bench?" Without hesitation Graves and Sanborn walked to the front. As the noise again rose in the courtroom, the judge called another recess. My attorney, Graves, and Justice Cordemen retreated into the judge's chamber. Nearly two hours later, they reemerged. District Attorney Graves wore a somber expression. As my own attorney took her seat beside me, she smiled.
Cordeman again called the court to order. Clearing her throat and with voice trembling she addressed the jury. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it has come to the attention of the court that the circumstances surrounding this case are rather unique, exceedingly complex, and quite multifaceted. During the recess the defense introduced preliminary evidence to support their contention that the accused was afflicted with delusions resulting in loss of self-control, and was thereby disposed to violence, as a result of a medical condition of dementia. Furthermore, the evidence they have introduced supports their claim that this dementia was associated directly with the manner in which the defendant and Mr. Burton procured historical artifacts, to wit, bottles, from early nineteenth century privies. The defense has entered a motion for continuation, during which time the state, under the court's supervision, will scrutinize this evidence. It is the opinion of this court that the defense evidence warrants a grant of continuance, and thereby this court will be in recess until such time as a determination can be made relative to the how this case should proceed. Finally, it is my duty to remind the jury that inasmuch as this case is ongoing, you are under court order not to speak to others about this case. Nor should you submit yourselves, either intentionally or unintentionally, to the views and opinions of other parties who might seek to unduly influence you and the decision you may be called upon to make. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, be it known that the court appreciates your services. You are hereby dismissed until such time as you may be called upon to hear this case and assist with its disposition. Thank you. This court is in indefinite recess."
The sheriff's deputy approached to escort me back to the county detainment facility. I turned to my attorney and meekly muttered a "thank you." Spectators hissed as I was led before them through the courtroom. Out of the corner of my eye I was surprised to notice Miss Beatrice Wilson. I turned my head slightly toward her as I passed, at which she smiled, nodded once and gave me a thumbs-up. Perhaps I did have one friend left in this cruel world, after all.
Memoirs of a Madman
During the next several months the District Attorney and my defense met periodically to review and argue over the accumulating medical evidence relating to my purported condition. During that time I was subjected to a rigorous regimen of medical examinations, including regular blood tests, as well as psychological testing. As my health deteriorated, I made repeated requests that I be informed of the nature of the medical condition of which I purportedly suffered. My attorney, however, steadfastly refused on the ground that my knowledge of the condition might compromise the integrity of the defense's case.
As I lay on my cot one late afternoon, the guard approached my cell and ordered me to get up. "This is your lucky day," he proclaimed, adding "maybe. The attorneys request your presence." In pain, I slowly rose from the hard tick mattress and slowly dragged myself toward the cell door. The guard led me down a maze of halls and finally into a tension-filled room where the District Attorney Graves, Sheriff Tilden, and my own attorney awaited me. "You better have a seat," the sheriff advised, sighing and pointing to the chair that had been pulled out from the table in anticipation of my presence. I trudged forward and glanced at my attorney who wore a stern expression. I dropped into the chair, wincing in pain.
After a great period of silence, my attorney spoke. "The defense is filing a motion to dismiss."
I slowly raised my head and looked at District Attorney Graves who glared back at me. Ms. Sanborn continued, "Upon careful review of the medical evidence, the District Attorney has agreed that the charge of murder in the first degree is unfounded. The action of which you have admitted could not have been premeditated, nor were you of sane mind at the time of its commission. Consequently, the state has agreed to dismiss the case in exchange for a plea on the reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter. I advise that we should accept the plea."
The District Attorney pushed papers across the table toward me, placing a pen on the table beside them. With hand trembling I reached out, took up the pen, and pressed it to the paper. Pausing, I looked up and turned to face Ms. Sanborn.
"Please tell me. What's the matter with me?" I asked.
"Just sign the papers. Your medical condition will be revealed tomorrow. Justice Cordeman has agreed to convene at 9:00 in the morning to hear the motion for dismissal and consider the plea."
Summoning the strength necessary to overcome the weight of regret which bore heavily down upon my soul, I willed my hand to move; and in so doing, my fate slowly flowed from the pen as my signature gradually assumed form on each paper.
Amid the shaking of hands I was taken from the room and led through the twisting gray maze of corridors and back to my cell. I stood by as the guard fumbled with the keys. Every sound resonated as though magnified a thousand-fold: the clank of the keys against the lock, the mournful groan of the heavy door as it was pulled open on aching hinges, the sudden and terrible shriek as it was slammed shut, and the horrendous thunder of steel against steel as it locked securely within the frame. For extra measure, the guard routinely pulled twice on the door and, thus satisfied that I was securely locked away from the rest of the world, turned and left, whistling as he walked.
The courtroom was strangely empty the following day. A few spectators, mostly relatives of Hugh, had been allowed into the hearing. The jurors were nowhere in sight. Instead, at the front of the room behind a long table sat an assemblage of eight men and women, all tidily-suited and wearing a stern expression. I imagined that such a scene was reminiscent of an inquisition.
"Who are they?" I asked my attorney.
"They're medical experts. They're here to enter testimony as to the nature of the illness from which you suffer, and explain its relationship to the perpetration of the act of which you are accused." She went on to explain how medical experts from the National Poison Control Center, the State Department of Health Services, and several prominent universities had been called upon to assist in the analysis of the mounting medical evidence pointing toward my innocence.
Cordeman called the proceeding to order. The District Attorney entered the reduced plea and my attorney consented to the effect that the plea was to the mutual satisfaction of the defense.
Over the next several hours, each expert related the independent conclusions of medical examinations to which I had been subjected during the past months. Unable to concentrate and overcome with severe boredom, I was restless and disinterested throughout the duration of the first expert's testimony. My attention was momentarily piqued as he spoke the last sentence…
"In conclusion, based on an examination of all the medical evidence, compelling evidence I might add, it is my inescapable conclusion that the defendant suffers from acute mercurial poisoning, and that the symptoms that are manifest and the actions that purportedly were committed are wholly consistent with such a diagnosis."
My jaw dropped to the floor. Mercury poisoning? I turned to my attorney.
"Mercury poisoning?" I managed to mime. She nodded slowly. I searched my memory in an attempt to understand why. I shook my head; how could this possibly be?
Sensing my consternation and as if reading my thoughts, she whispered, "The privies. The privies were laden with residual mercury. The bottles--sarsaparillas--they were an important clue."
The remainder of the day passed as if but a dream. Perhaps I slept. Reality returned with a jolt, as my attorney shook me to attention. Cordeman was addressing the room.
"This has been a remarkable case. It is my opinion, and also that of the District Attorney and the state, that the defense has presented compelling evidence that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the actions of the accused were the unfortunate result of highly unusual mitigating circumstances of a very serious medical nature. The incontrovertible evidence they have presented reveals that the actions of the defendant were, in fact, the result of acute dementia--an insanity, or a "privy madness," so to speak--the existence of which condition is indisputable based on the testimony of several medical experts. Moreover, this evidence correlates with the defense contention that the etiology of this dementia, odd as it may be, lies in the debilitating and progressive symptoms of mercurial poisoning, the result of the procurement of antique bottles from early 19th century privies. Furthermore, the evidence assembled proves that the actions of the accused were in no way intentionally vindictive or premeditated in nature."
The prosecution and the defense attorneys listened as the justice prepared to render disposition of the case on the involuntary manslaughter charge.
"Indeed, tragic although this situation is, the light of justice can and must prevail. The defense has proven that the defendant suffers from a grave medical condition and that his actions were a direct result of that condition. The defendant has admitted culpability; this confession was entered prior to his knowledge or awareness of the condition from which he suffers. It would be a miscarriage of justice to render a sentence of punishment for an act over which the defendant had no control. However, the issue of the general public's safety remains, and this consideration demands prudent action. Too, the defendant's own well being demands compassion. Therefore, it is my decision that the only fair and compassionate course of action is to guarantee the public's safety by ensuring that the defendant receives the necessary medical attention whereby his condition may be gradually ameliorated. To this end, it is my decision that the defendant shall be confined to the State Mental Health Facility; there he will remain under close supervision and care until such time as the court deems his treatment has been successful, and that he no longer poses a threat to the general public."
Six sides surround me with whiteness and I gradually meld with the room. A solitary steel door offers little respite from the monotony of my cubic existence. The infinite sound of silence fills the cube, and its pressure, unbearable, threatens to rupture time. My only possession is my self--a hollow being that exists merely to ponder the perpetual thought of what still lies buried there.