Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Thriller Thursday: The Murder and (Repeated) Burial of William James Jones

The Jones family is replete with expert BSers, who sometimes go too far.  There is even a family phrase for it, based on an incident where my grandfather tried to convince his sons that the Douglas Fir was named for a long-lost Governor of Oregon.  "Governor Douglas" means that you've spun the tale out too far, that you've created a story or faked a fact so utterly absurd that you've lost credibility.

So when I heard that there was a great-great grandfather out there who'd been murdered, you'll forgive me for taking it with a tablespoon of salt.  But it turns out that not only is the murder story based in fact, but it sounds like the family BS talent may have done him in . . . .

Based on newspaper clippings that kind people have linked on, the story seems to be as follows:
  •  William James Jones was born in 1811 in Kentucky, married in Indiana, and in about 1848 had made his way along the Oregon Trail, with his children and several related families to Yamhill County, Oregon, where they founded the town of Newberg.  
  • By the 1890s, everyone in town knew he had a lot of money.  According to the local paper, everyone knew this because he had told everyone this.  The generally accepted figure was $17,000 - or about $450,000 in today's dollars.  But in terms of relative wealth, it was 3.5 million dollars (according to this useful calculator).
  • In 1891, at the age of 80, William went to live with his daughter Irene and her husband, David Everest.  About $7000 of the $17,000 was in the bank, but the rest, according to William, came with him in a locked trunk. 
  • On Feb 15, 1892, Irene made him a special meal of his favorite food.  Right after the meal, he stumbled out to the outhouse, complaining of stomach pain, and died.   
  • Irene's sister Rosanna and her husband, the McGuires, lived nearby but seemed to be feuding with the Everests.  So Rosanna only heard of the death of her father when her son went to town, and then drove quickly to the Everest house.  Rosanna claimed that his mouth was foaming, and that his stomach was so bloated they had to use an unusually large casket.  
  • The McGuires decided that the Everests had poisoned William, to get his money.  And they tried to hire a Pinkerton detective to figure it out, but couldn't afford the $250 it would take.  They apparently asked the Everests to chip in for the detective, but they weren't interested.
  • There apparently wasn't any money in the trunk.  This is not a surprise to anyone familiar with the Jones BS skills, but was apparently very surprising to Irene and Rosanna.  William's four other children, you'll note, seem to be staying well away from this drama.
  • William was buried in Dundee Cemetery, but in 1893, his body was found on top of his coffin.  Some said it had been disturbed by rooting pigs, but most seemed to suspect either the Everests or the McGuires.
  • In early 1894, the Everests spent $1000 (!!!) to hire a detective to prove that the McGuires had injected poison into the body after William had died, when they had dug up the body in 1893.  The detective could only find evidence that pointed to the Everests, who then refused to pay him.
  • In September 1894, the McGuires convinced the county to get the body disinterred officially, so that the contents of his stomach could be examined.  They did this, and the examiner concluded that there was poison in his stomach, but charges were never brought.  
Now, I suspect that there was Governor Douglasing going on in this family a long time before my grandfather coined the term.  I suspect that Rosanna and Irene couldn't tell when they were being Governor Douglased, and didn't have a sense of humor about it when it happened.  All Jones kids have this phase at about age 13, but Irene and Rosanna don't seem to have grown out of it.

I also suspect, based on decades of experience and on the fact that each of my relatives has been, with great public outcry, written into and out of my grandmother's will many times, that William discovered that his life was a little better as an old man with $17000 than it was as an old man with $7000.

At least for a while . . .

So I'm off to watch Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry in memory of William, my poor murdered, buried, unburied, buried again, unburied again, and finally buried great great grandfather.

May your wealth be high enough to make you happy, but not so high that it becomes dangerous to health or final resting place . . .

Saturday, December 28, 2013

New Year's Day Special: Phraseological Genealogy of "Until The Last Dog Is Hung"

"We'll keep going until the last dog is hung"

It's funny how the phrases that your mother uses are so woven into to your worldview that their strangeness never occurs to you.  Years later, you use them and your spouse gives you a quizzical look and you realize that your ordinary phrase is someone else's complete non-sequitur.

So that phrase - "We'll keep at it until the last dog is hung" has always been part of my world.  When my mother is at her most tired, and her most determined, out it comes.  We always knew exactly what it meant.  Sure "Come Hell or High Water" could be used.  There are probably dozens of phrases women have used to describe that moment of exhaustion and determination.  But this one is my mother's.

Then I read this in a novel:
"Even now things that people thought of as regional attitudes and expressions come straight from the Senecas. When anybody from around here wanted to say they were still present at the end of a big party, they would say they had 'stayed until the last dog was hung.' Most of them probably had no idea anymore that they were talking about the Seneca New Year's celebration in the winter, where on the fifth day they used to strangle a white dog and hang it on a pole, Nobody had done that for at least a hundred years." Dance for the Dead by Thomas Perry (Random House, New York, 1996)
I don't know whether this is true or not - if so, I'm glad the actual ritual had disappeared.  But its metaphoric remnants intrigued me.  My mother was born and raised in Oregon, and raised me in Colorado.  Her parents were both born in Oregon.  Her grandparents were born on the West Coast as well.

How could a phrase from a tribal ritual in upstate New York have ended up completely integrated into my mother's vernacular?  I asked her where she learned it, and she doesn't remember her vocabulary without it.  For her it isn't specific to staying until the end of a celebration or a party, but rather sticking to any situation until it is completed.

So into the family tree I went.  And sure enough, four generations back from mother, there he is.  A great grandfather born in 1820 in Schroon Lake, Essex County, New York, deep in the Adirondacks.  Here is a Thomas Cole painting of the lake from about 1840.  And his father was born in Floyd, Oneida County, New York in 1783.  Floyd wasn't officially founded until 1790, and Schroon in 1804.  This was a frontier family, living in Mohawk and Oneida territory.  Maybe the ritual was more widespread than the Seneca alone..

So there we have it - maybe, somehow, (and remember, this is Genealogy Imaginings not Genealogy Certainties) this phrase was passed down and persisted all the way to the other side of the continent.  Maybe the meaning changed a little to reflect the things that made these new generations tired, or maybe the original party sense didn't translate well in the first place.  But it was a useful phrase, and it lasted, and I enjoy the idea.

Happy New Year.  May you party just long enough, avoid harming any pets in the process, and have a great 2014.