Sunday, April 11, 2010

More on Jacques Millere

This week, additional insight into the mysterious death of Jacques Millere arrived in the form of a nice, thick parcel bearing a Newfoundland postmark. My friend in St. John's, who recently retired after a long career in the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, scoured the provincial archives for me and made a few calls to police outposts near Deer Lake, where Millere's body was found in March 1909. The package, which contained photocopied news articles from the Western Star and a hastily scrawled police report, is what he calls his first 'check in'.

On the afternoon of March 15, 1909, a mill worker named Frank Penny discovered a half-frozen male corpse in an abandoned camp belonging to the Humber River Pulp and Lumber Company in Deer Lake. Although so terrified that he could not recall later whether he left the shanty "by the door or window", he reported the gruesome find to the manager, who in turn alerted authorities in St. John's. A local judge named March, accompanied by two police officers and a physician named Fisher, boarded the next east-bound train.

Upon arrival, Dr. Fisher examined the body, which laid on its side in a bunk, knees drawn up and arms folded across the chest. Death had evidently occurred several days before, as the stench of decomposition was so strong that even Fisher blanched. Seeing no wounds or any other mark of violence, the doctor opined that exhaustion and exposure had killed the stranger. "The end was evidently peaceful," the Western Star informed its readers on March 17th, "the countenance bearing a look of serenity as if the unfortunate had passed quietly into the great beyond."

Peaceful or not, the five mill workers that the manager had sent to assist the police took one look at the dead man and refused to touch him, citing superstitious fears. Fisher, Judge March, and the two policemen were forced to carry the corpse themselves across the frozen lake to a waiting sleigh, where a new development in the tragicomedy unfolded: " The driver absolutely refused to drive the horse and put as much space between him and the corpse as his legs could accomplish," stated the Western Star. Despite the mass desertions, the men from St. John's managed to convey the body to a nearby house, where the owner, who was made of stronger and more sensible stuff, allowed it to be prepared for burial.

The dead man's pockets contained astronomical drawings, a crude airship blueprint, and rambling dissertations on the relationship between mankind and the planets. Combing through the damp and crumpled paperwork, investigators found two identifying items: a crude self-portrait with 'Jas. R. Millere' scrawled beneath it, and a receipt from a Summerside, P.E.I. post office indicating that a Jacques Millere had recently registered a letter to the Duke of Orleans in Paris.

At the magisterial inquiry, a railway section hand testified that he recognized the body as that of a 'Frank Millere' he had met about eight miles west of Deer Lake the previous week. Millere said that he had been kicked off a train near the small community of Riverhead, and intended to make his way to St. John's. One might naturally conclude, then, that the deceased had been a foreign wanderer, one of thousands that tramped their way throughout the North American countryside during the early 1900s.

But the police weren't so sure. There was something about Millere -perhaps his outlandish scribblings, or the undeciphered connection to the Duke of Orleans- that made them hesitate to dismiss him as a tramp. Newspapers all over the province published an appeal for more information.

"Whether he was some visionary royalist dreaming of the restoration of the French monarchy or an ordinary crank will probably never be ascertained, " the Western Star concluded. And that seems to be the case so far. I'll see if my ex-copper friend digs up additional information. Even if he doesn't, the Millere tragedy is one of those fascinating mini-dramas that make an inquisitive writer or historian pause and wonder whether there's more to the story than meets the eye.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Meet the Ann Rule of Victorian era mayhem

In Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven, attorney and college professor Virginia McConnell focuses on two murders that shocked the residents of New Haven, Connecticut in 1878 and 1881 but have since been forgotten. The victims were not showgirls or society ladies, but average young women who fell prey to unscrupulous men. Their sensational deaths, however, spawned media frenzies that exposed the contemporary attitudes toward male promiscuity and female virtue.

The first half of Arsenic Under the Elms describes the killing of Mary Stannard, a simple-minded, 22-year-old unmarried mother, who convinced herself and the Reverend Herbert Hayden, a married minister, that she was pregnant with his child. He lured her into the woods in September 1878, saying that he had procured some medicine that would induce abortion. What he actually gave her was ninety grams of arsenic, which did such a surprisingly slow job of killing her that Hayden had to complete his grim task by clubbing her and slitting her throat. The evidence against Hayden was damning, but he went free after his blindly devoted wife provided exculpatory testimony on the witness stand, perjuring herself to protect him.

The second murder case is that of 20-year-old Jennie Cramer, a beautiful girl known as the Belle of New Haven, who defied propriety by associating with two rich, morally bankrupt young men and their prostitute associate. Her body was found floating in Long Island Sound in August 1881, and an autopsy revealed that she had been raped and poisoned with arsenic. Jennie’s erstwhile companions were hunted down and tried for murder, but presented a united front on the witness stand and were, like Reverend Hayden, acquitted.

McConnell’s lucid prose and detailed research make this book more than just a recount of two Connecticut tragedies. The sufferings of Mary Stannard and Jennie Cramer ended the second they died, but McConnell eloquently shows how their deaths forever altered the lives of their loved ones and the communities they called home. By way of example, she delves into public records to show that Mary’s illegitimate son Willie suffered from anxiety-driven rages for the rest of his life, and Jennie’s mother committed suicide.

I read somewhere that Virginia McConnell wants to be the Ann Rule of Victorian era crimes. After reading Arsenic Under the Elms, I’d say that she has an excellent chance of grabbing that golden fleece.