Wednesday, January 19, 2011

From the Ashes of Hannah Bradshaw

As the eighteenth century waned, the Age of Enlightenment settled over Europe, and its impact could be felt as far away as America. One of its byproducts was an explosion of literature with previously taboo themes: social upheaval, ruling class tyrannies, and supernatural influences. The American press catered to the public’s increasingly macabre tastes by printing grisly stories next to war reports and shipping news. One such tale appeared in the January 3, 1771 of the New York Journal.
The Journal informed its readers that on the evening of December 31, a young charwoman visited her employer, thirty-year-old Hannah Bradshaw, in the latter’s Division Street lodging house. Bradshaw was almost certainly a prostitute: author William Dunlap remembered her as being “a woman of large dimensions, masculine person, coarse manners, and notorious in the neighborhood for her boldness, habitual intemperance, and the vices allied to, and engendered by it.” Her nickname, ‘Man-o-War Nance’ allegedly derived from her fondness for sailors and the dives they frequented.
When the two women parted company at seven o’clock, Bradshaw was slightly drunk but otherwise in good shape. She asked her visitor to return the next day to clean her room.
The charwoman dutifully arrived early on New Year’s Day. To reach Bradshaw’s room, she trudged up a rickety wooden staircase on the outside of the building. When no one answered her repeated knocking, she presumed at first that her employer was sleeping off a spree. But when 11:00 a.m. arrived without a response, she became worried and summoned a male lodger to help her break the room’s window and climb inside. There she saw what the Journal described as “the most shocking spectacle imaginable.”
A charred and smoking hole, four feet in diameter, yawned in the middle of the wood floor. Near its edge lay a leg fragment with the flesh still attached and an assortment of bones, some of which had been reduced to ashes. A blackened partial skeleton lay in the dirt of the crawl space below. The intestines remained intact, as did some flesh on the head, shoulder, and leg. A foul-smelling, greasy matter coated the walls and ceiling, and the heat generated by the strange blaze had even drawn the turpentine from the wainscoting. A rush-bottomed chair was burned on the leg nearest the hole, but nowhere else.
Hannah Bradshaw’s bizarre death appears to be the first (recorded) American case of the phenomenon now referred to as spontaneous human combustion. Whether it exists as described (a human being bursting into flames triggered by internal causes) continues to be a source of debate. In Bradshaw’s case, authorities did not know what to think. An overturned candle holder lay a short distance away from the fragmented body, but it did not appear to be the source of the blaze: the candle burned itself out without harming the flooring. So was she murdered by a client who burned her body afterward, or did she really combust?
It’s interesting to note that Hannah Bradshaw died not long before the dawn of the Gothic novel, which used equally creepy mysteries to chill the reader’s blood. William Dunlap, who recalled her in his written history of New York City, was a close friend of Charles Brockden Brown, the American novelist and pioneer of Gothic fiction. Since the two men almost certainly discussed it, Bradshaw’s death may have been an impetus for the literary genre that made violent death and emotional alienation a staple of popular fiction.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hope Burned Means a Future Lost

The back cover of Brent Laporte’s debut novel Hope Burned promises that the story is “at once as bleak and moving, tense and beautiful as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” The comparison fits: both books are emotionally provocative tales of horror and hope. I’d even venture to say that Hope Burned suggests the dangerous repercussions of child abuse with the same sinister intensity that The Road stresses the importance of a healthy ecosystem to human survival.

A nameless boy endures years of abuse at the hands of his father and grandfather, who keep him isolated and enslaved on their remote farm. The only other human being he ever encountered was a young blond girl whom his guardians / jailers lured to the property and later raped and killed. We know nothing of the boy’s mother, but one surmises that she probably met a similar fate after giving birth. The memory of the girl haunts him for the remainder of his days. When he finally escapes and stumbles into civilization, he is taken in by kind people who finally give him a name- Tom.  Although he grows into a successful and happily married adult, Tom can’t stop questioning what kind of a future he has when his past refuses to stay buried. So he returns to the farm, kills both his father and grandfather, and writes a memoir to help his young son to understand why.

Laporte structured Hope Burned so that it reads like a letter from Tom to his son. It has no chapter divisions, but in this instance such structure might hinder the flow and personality of the prose.  Because Tom presents his story as both an apology and confessional, the reader’s voyeuristic instincts are quickly aroused, making it the type of book that’s consumed in a couple of sittings.
The character of Tom reminds me a lot of Canadian-born Sanford Clark, who was abducted from his Saskatoon home by his uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott, in 1926. Northcott took the boy to his isolated chicken ranch in California and used him as farm hand and sex slave. During that time Northcott also raped and murdered at least three young boys, setting the authorities on his trail. In 1928 they rescued Sanford Clark, whose testimony ensured his uncle’s conviction and execution. (The entire tragedy later became the subject of a Clint Eastwood film, Changeling.) Clark returned to his native Saskatoon and became a leading citizen, but the memories of Northcott’s victims stayed with him. Like Tom, he always blamed himself for his failure to save them.
This is one novel that I highly recommend to True Crime fans. The people and events have so many real-life equivalents that it’s easy to forget that Hope Burned is fiction and not a survivor’s memoir.