Archive for April, 2020

Do you love poetry, music, Americana, and Gothic Romanticism—that is, old-school drama, both realistic and sentimental, steeped in the miseries and mysteries of Nature and the harshness of the human condition, playing your heartstrings and gently squeezing tears from your eyes? If so, you might forgive today’s detour from Mattole history.

If not, stop reading and return another time. This post is categorized in “Laura’s Ramblings.” I decided to share this musical-poetic experience as a special indulgence for myself on my birthday weekend, since it’s an old favorite of mine… and I hope that you, too, may shed a cathartic tear or two as you listen.

Edgar Lee Masters, born in Kansas in 1869, who would become known as one of the leading lights of the American Midwest’s poetic renaissance in the early twentieth century, published in 1915 a collection of poems called Spoon River Anthology. Its setting was a fictional town, with fully mapped social and business relationships between hundreds of residents, all sprung from Masters’ head. “The Hill” is the first poem in the book, set upon the site of the community’s cemetery and posing the questions answered by each graveyard denizen in his or her verse. “The Hill” asks, in names common in any local histories of that time,


“Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom, and Charley,

The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?

All, all are sleeping on the hill.

One passed in a fever,

One was burned in a mine,

One was killed in a brawl,

One died in a jail,

One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife.

All, all are sleeping on the hill.


“Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie, and Edith,

The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?—

All, all are sleeping on the hill.”


The introduction to my 1992 paperback “Signet Classics” edition of Spoon River Anthology is by poet and Yale English professor John Hollander. He writes, “[The book] creates a fictional community through the short dramatic monologues spoken by its deceased inhabitants, rather than by overt description…. [The volume] was an immediate success, praised extravagantly—and alternately condemned—for its skeptical energy, erotic specificity, reforming nay-saying coupled with romantic transcendent yearnings, and unfamiliar structure and mode of verse. It went through seventy editions in many languages, and remained a canonical work which was itself widely and heavily anthologized.”

Eighty years after the book’s publication, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Richard Buckner, encountered the Spoon River Anthology, chose eighteen of the over 200 grave-dwellers to interpret musically, and recorded The Hill. The album is a thirty-four-minute emotional powerhouse, combining Masters’ words and Buckner’s musical compositions. (Merge Records reissued The Hill in 2015, the 100th anniversary of Spoon River’s original publication.)


Of course, the stories of Spoon River’s dead are not unlike those of many in our Mattole Valley cemeteries. I can’t read the poems of Edgar Lee Masters or listen to Buckner’s The Hill without thinking of the women, men, and children laid to rest on the hill in Petrolia. Perhaps someday, a writer with poetic or musical talent will tell the stories of some of our locals:

The three toddlers, first cousins—Hiram Wright, Elsie Hunter, and Almon Duff, children of three Wright siblings, playmates who were laid to rest below a neat row of tiny headstones, dead of Scarlet Fever in 1880.

Or Charles A. Roberts, who died, along with his 13-year-old son Harry, far from home in a shipwreck piloted by a drunk captain—the tragedy of the Hanalei off Duxbury Reef in 1914.

And what of Margaret Chambers, the Irish-born wife of Moses J. Conklin, who laid to rest the very first occupant of the Petrolia Pioneer Cemetery, their 11-month-old son Alonzo Conklin? Margaret was the first white woman in the Valley, and went on to bear at least nine children, dying at age 48 of tuberculosis.

Walter Boots, a divorced 39-year-old lovelorn man, shot young Addie Reynolds, who had spurned his affection. Thinking he had killed her, he turned the gun on himself.

Jack Harris was a Native man born in 1858, just as white settlement was kicking in and the genocidal wars beginning. He was adopted by the white husband of his sister, Ellen, and lived in the Valley for many decades peacefully, employed as a ranch hand. At the age of 45, he attempted to save the two Hadley sisters (buried at Upper Mattole) who were drowning in the Mattole River. All three perished.

John McAuliffe, born in Ireland, lost a two-year-old son, possibly of Scarlet Fever or Diphtheria, a natural yet horrible scourge in those days; five years later, his insane wife, in a very unnatural act, dragged their three young daughters from their beds, took them to the barn, and slit their throats. A fourth daughter was born to the woman while imprisoned in the Napa insane asylum, where she lived out her life. The girl was said to be the idol of her father in his declining years. He died at the age of 73, known locally for his humor and wit.

Theodore Aldrich, renowned Indian killer, was haunted by memories of killing twin papooses by smashing their heads against a tree in the Squaw Creek massacre, while proclaiming “Nits make lice!” He has a nice big flat stone, convenient for seated contemplation of Death, the great equalizer, on the Petrolia cemetery hill.

Helen Maude Adams was ten years old when she drowned at Roberts Hole. Her would-be rescuer, English-born Charles Gilbert, who was 37 years old then, died in his attempt, and is laid next to her.

There are plenty of tragic and sad stories to be gleaned from the lives and deaths of those interred in our Mattole Valley cemeteries. (This post is a reminder to me to integrate corrections and more photos, and post the entire Petrolia Pioneer Cemetery guide on this blog, sooner than later.)


But for now, let the stories, sufferings, and joys of the fictional inhabitants of Spoon River move you via the words of Edgar Lee Masters and the musical mastery of Richard Buckner.

(I am posting a link to the official Merge Records recording on YouTube for each of eight excerpts I chose from Buckner’s album; I typed the words from the paperback Spoon River Anthology. Since the videos have no visual content, you can open a tab for YouTube by clicking on each video link, and just listen there, while looking at the lyrics on this page.)

Also, I highly recommend that if you enjoy these selections, you order Richard Buckner’s “The Hill” or Edgar Lee Masters’ book Spoon River Anthology.  I only linked about half the content of the album; much of it is musical, without lyrics, but still each passage represents a Spoon River character.



Tom Merritt  Tom Merritt YouTube video

At first I suspected something—

She acted so calm and absent-minded.

And one day I heard the back door shut,

As I entered the front, and I saw him slink

Back of the smokehouse into the lot,

And run across the field.

And I meant to kill him on sight.

But that day, walking near Fourth Bridge,

Without a stick or stone at hand,

All of a sudden I saw him standing,

Scared to death, holding his rabbits,

And all I could say was, “Don’t, Don’t, Don’t”

As he aimed and fired at my heart.


Ollie McGee  Ollie McGee YouTube video

Have you seen walking through the village

A man with downcast eyes and haggard face?

That is my husband who, by secret cruelty

Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty;

Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth,

And with broken pride and shameful humility,

I sank into the grave.

But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart?

The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!

These are driving him to the place where I lie.

In death, therefore, I am avenged.


Julia Miller  Julia Miller YouTube video

We quarreled that morning

For he was sixty-five, and I was thirty,

And I was nervous and heavy with the child

Whose birth I dreaded.

I thought over the last letter written me

By that estranged young soul

Whose betrayal of me I had concealed

By marrying the old man.

Then I took morphine and sat down to read.

Across the blackness that came over my eyes

I see the flickering light of these words even now:

“And Jesus said unto him, Verily,

I say unto thee, To-day thou shalt

Be with me in paradise.”


Elizabeth Childers    Elizabeth Childers YouTube video

[This is one of the saddest and most haunting, I think, of these songs. A friend disagreed with the last line, and resented its assertion that “Death is better than life.” I tend to think that, since both the narrator and her child are speaking from the grave, it’s more a sour-grapes rationale that they got the better deal; might as well prefer the conditions you find yourself in. But listen and consider for yourselves. –LC]

Dust of my dust,

And dust with my dust,

O, child who died as you entered the world.

Dead with my death!

Not knowing Breath, though you tried so hard,

With a heart that beat when you lived with me,

And stopped when you left me for Life.

It is well, my child. For you never traveled

The long, long way that begins with school days,

When little fingers blur under the tears

That fall on the crooked letters.

And the earliest wound, when a little mate

Leaves you alone for another;

And sickness, and the face of Fear by the bed;

The death of a father or mother;

Or shame for them, or poverty.

The maiden sorrow of schooldays ended;

And eyeless Nature that makes you drink

From the cup of Love, though you know it’s poisoned;

To whom would your flower-face have been lifted?

Botanist, weakling? Cry of what blood to yours?—

Pure or foul, for it makes no matter,

It’s blood that calls to our blood,

And then your children—oh, what might they be?

And what your sorrow? Child! Child!

Death is better than Life!


Oscar Hummel   Oscar Hummel YouTube video

I staggered on through darkness,

There was a hazy sky, a few stars

Which I followed as best I could.

It was nine o’clock, I was trying to get home.

But somehow I was lost,

Though really keeping the road.

Then I reeled through a gate and into a yard,

And called at the top of my voice:

“Oh, Fiddler! Oh, Mr. Jones!”
(I thought it was his house and he would show me the way home.)

But who should step out but A.D. Blood,

In his night shirt, waving a stick of wood,

And roaring about the cursed saloons,

And the criminals they made?

“You drunken Oscar Hummel,” he said,

As I stood there weaving to and fro,

Taking the blows from the stick in his hand

Till I dropped down dead at his feet.

Johnnie Sayre   Johnnie Sayre YouTube video

Father, thou canst never know

The anguish that smote my heart

For my disobedience, the moment I felt

The remorseless wheel of the engine

Sink into the crying flesh of my leg.

As they carried me to the home of Widow Morris

I could see the school-house in the valley

To which I played truant to steal rides upon the trains.

I prayed to live until I could ask your forgiveness—

And then your tears, your broken words of comfort!

From the solace of that hour I have gained infinite happiness.

Thou wert wise to chisel for me:

“Taken from the evil to come.”

Reuben Pantier   Reuben Pantier YouTube video

Well, Emily Sparks, your prayers were not wasted

Your love was not all in vain.

I owe whatever I was in life

To your hope that would not give me up,

To your love that saw me still as good.

Dear Emily Sparks, let me tell you the story.

I pass the effect of my father and mother;

The milliner’s daughter made me trouble

And out I went in the world,

Where I passed through every peril known

Of wine and women and joy of life.

One night, in a room in the Rue de Rivoli,

I was drinking wine with a black-eyed cocotte,

And the tears swam into my eyes.

She thought they were amorous tears and smiled

For thought of her conquest over me.

But my soul was three thousand miles away,

In the days when you taught me in Spoon River.

And just because you no more could love me,

Nor pray for me, nor write me letters,

The eternal silence of you spoke instead.

And the black-eyed cocotte took my tear for hers,

As well as the deceiving kisses I gave her.

Somehow, from that hour, I had a new vision—

Dear Emily Sparks!


William and Emily   William and Emily YouTube video

There is something about Death

Like love itself!

If with someone with whom you have known passion,

And the glow of youthful love,

You also, after years of life

Together, feel the sinking of the fire

And thus fade away together,

Gradually, faintly, delicately,

As it were in each other’s arms,

Passing from the familiar room—

That is a power of unison between souls

Like love itself!




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