Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Politicians Usually Go to Their Own Funerals"

WALTON DWIGHT, wounded war veteran and pillar of his community, became in his time a kind of one-man Flying Dutchman, a mysterious and elusive legend that refused to die even though, as far as the world knew, he overdosed (or did he hang himself?) during the Hayes administration—or, maybe not . . .

"His Honor Is Missing."
By Theodore Roscoe (1906-92).
First appearance: Argosy, March 15, 1941.
Novelette (19 pages).
Online at (HERE).
"Over a floodtide darker and more terrible than the River Styx, ferried by a babbling broken-down Charon, two young people sought a fabulous diamond—and the key to a seventy-year-old mystery. What they found was the gateway to madness."
Chapter I: "Long Live the Corpse!"
Chapter II: "Man Out of Darkness"
Chapter III: "Charon's Ferry"
Chapter IV: "The Five"
Chapter V: "The Black Dog Howls"
Chapter VI: "The Colonel's Face"
Chapter VII: "End of the Line"
Chapter VIII: "Monster of the Flood"
Chapter IX: "Medwick's Mill"
Chapter X: "Cream of the Jest"

"This is the mystery story," we're told . . .
". . . of a mayor who committed suicide and then, after he was buried and the grave-diggers went home, the insurance companies said it wasn't the mayor at all; that some stooge had been buried in the mayor's place.
"And the question then, naturally, was where was the mayor? Whose funeral was it? Good citizens wondered if His Honor was so honorable after all.
"How could the mayor of an American city disappear? Why? Was it kidnaping—a traction scandal—politics—an insurance gag—a case of cherchez la femme?"
Tenacious newspaper reporter Edith Johnwell is in pursuit of a hot lead in what is indeed a very cold case, the baffling disappearance back in seventy-nine (that's eighteen seventy-nine) of a major public official, along with all of the confusing speculation that inevitably comes in its wake. The vanishing whiskers, the full-length portrait, the old dark house on an island (haunted, they say), a mysterious woman in black, and five men who've died searching for a diamond worth at least thirty grand—but especially that diamond—have all piqued Edith's interest:
"If a man [she says] were going bankrupt and planning a vanishing act, a diamond would be a handy thing to vanish with."
But then comes that dark and stormy night in a rain-sluiced, rocking boat on a swollen, raging river with a man who claims he sees ghosts, carries a huge gun, and maintains he's not as dumb as people think even if he has been kicked in the head by a horse, which is why everybody calls him "Crazy"; and that dog's howl coming through the dank gloom; and a pair of pants and a shirt with nobody in them; and a canine skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull; and . . .
. . . and if you think any of that's going to scare Edith away, you have another think coming 
. . .

Main characters:
~ Edith Johnwell:
   "I'm looking for the mayor of Binghamton. He's very much missing. And his disappearance is causing me a lot of worry."
~ Charlie, the narrator:
   "I'd never been able to entice her on my knee in more comfortable circumstances, and I'll admit it was another reason for my joining the expedition."
~ Clyde Burlap:
   "Pa was right there at th' grave-side when th' coffin was reopened fer th' autopsy. Pa said it wasn't th' colonel, an' he knowed for sure it wasn't the colonel. On account of th' hair."
~ The man in the lobby:
   "I supposed he was the president of the local Go-Getters Association and resented us as New York slickers until I saw him expectorate a cud of tobacco into a convenient brass gaboon."

Comment: A lot of fun, this one, perfect for Halloween. Theodore Roscoe's expert authorial abilities are on display, as in this example of descriptive writing used to establish mood:
"Moonlight only exaggerated the blackness of underbrush and trees. Twisting like a snake, the foot trail wound through the dripping boscage; the rain had raised a dank vapor, and the soaked night steamed. Through the trees at the left we could see the river sliding by like a great tide of coffee. Coasting along the bank, it tore at bushes, slapped the roots of willows and made a sound like a vast gurgling in a cemetery."
Typos: "he didn't give a hang about th' give a hang about"; quotation marks missing or misplaced several times
- It's been over a year since we last touched base with Theodore Roscoe; go (HERE) to see what he was doing last time.
- Edith is engaged in researching other famous disappearances as well: Elizabeth Canning (HERE), Charlie Ross (HERE), and perhaps the most well-known disappearer of all, Ambrose Bierce (HERE).
- There really was a Walton Dwight (1837-78) (see HERE), who has been compared to Donald Trump (HERE). According to the historical account—The 149th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Unit in the Civil War (1994; HERE), which he commanded—Lieutenant-Colonel Walton Dwight . . .
". . . was elected mayor of the city of Binghamton, New York. Within three years he became the foremost developer of real estate in the area, creating housing developments with paved streets and sewers — modern conveniences for that day. Walton Dwight died under mysterious circumstances (possibly suicide) at the early age of 40."
Another source (Famous Mysteries: Curious and Fantastic Riddles of Human Life That Have Never Been Solved, 1919; online HERE) goes into some detail about Dwight's controverted death, including the gelsemium:
 "Although this mysterious drug was almost unknown to the physicians of Dwight's day, there were some who learned that its effect was to paralyze the motor nerves without the loss of consciousness and to thus produce temporar-ily an absolute simulation of death. Medico-legal authorities, considering the possibility of Juliet's suspended animation in the tomb where Romeo found her, have held that 'gelsemium' would have produced her deathlike trance [leading to the speculative theory that Dwight faked his death and funeral to collect on the insurance]." (HERE)
The bottom line: "When avarice takes the lead in a state, it is commonly the forerunner of its fall."

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