Friday, October 25, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 185: Celia Thaxter, A Memorable Murder (#13)

Celia Thaxter, "A Memorable Murder" (1875) from True Crime: An American Anthology:

Two years after the "Memorable Murder" of the title, poet Celia Thaxter records the story of this double (almost-triple) homicide that took place on the Isles of Shoals, off New Hampshire. As she says in the first paragraph,
The sickening details of the double murder are well known; the news papers teemed with them for months: but the pathos of the story is not realized...
Which is a pretty good sign that she's going to fill her 25-page account with pathos. Since today's readers don't usually agree with what the 19th-century considered acceptable levels of sentimentality, I thought this piece was going to be a painful slog, notable more for the story and for the historical tangents that come off this story.

In those regards, Thaxter does not disappoint. The story of the murder is very interesting, with Louis Wagner invading this island home when he knows the men will be away, but failing to kill the third woman, who escapes into the cold with her dog; though she at first has trouble getting the attention of workmen on another island. (Moral: don't live on islands.) Thaxter doesn't dwell on it, but it's chilling to read of Louis Wagner eating some food in the dead women's kitchen, all so he has energy to row back to the mainland.

The historical asides are also a lot of fun, with Thaxter praising Norwegians and Swedes; and even quoting a newspaper article noting that Louis Wagner seemed very calm, even for a German.

And Thaxter has a heavy hand when it comes to the sentimentality, giving a picture of this house's happiness before it was struck by the bolt of "ruin and desolation." The 19th-century style even allows Thaxter to name this quality, talking about the sentiment of this or the pathos of that ("Ah me, what pathos is in that longing look of women's eyes for far-off sails"). I just about reached my limit when I read that the light coming from a lighthouse was like arms reaching out to succor the travelers at sea.

And yet, for all that there's some (to our taste) overlarded sentimentality here, Thaxter keeps up the atmosphere of dread with the recurring mention of what is coming to this house. Sure, when she notes that nature itself seems to be on the murderer's side, this has a certain overdone quality... but it still effectively carries that notion of the unavoidable bad end that's coming. Thaxter's steady (and omniscient-like) recounting of every step of Louis Wagner's journey--of death!--is pretty riveting, even when that "of death!" sentimentality interrupts.

Thaxter's end to this long piece seems a fitting conclusion, a mix of sentimentality and horror, with her imagining--in that same omniscient voice--the ghosts of the dead women watching forever as the ghost of their killer searches the house for the third victim, whose evidence condemned him.

In it's way, this piece reminds me both of Jewett's Country of Pointed Firs and of Angela Carver's "The Fall River Axe Murders."

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