The Ossian Giant’s Second Interview

Short Story by Jones DeRitter

The Ossian Giant’s Second Interview

Where would you like me to start?

I was born in 1836. I have an older brother, a younger sister, and a younger brother. Another sister passed away very young of the scarlet fever. We were all of us born on the farm that is now Henry’s, over by Ossian Corners. If I had been first-born, the farm would have come to me, but it is just as well. Henry has prospered, and I have made my way. I have a house of my own here, and Mary and the children. They can all read and write. I have a good head for numbers and can sign “F. D.” for Fred Decker when I need to, but I cannot read.

When they measured me on my thirteenth birthday, I was six feet three and one-half inches tall. I passed my father later that year and Henry the year after that. By the time I was seventeen, people on the road to Geneseo would sometimes stop to ask if our house was where the giant boy lived. If I was somewhere close by, Father would call me over so they could see me up close, and if they were polite I’d shake the man’s hand or take off my hat to say hello to a lady. It was probably a relief to everyone when I left home because after I was gone they could just say I didn’t live there anymore.

A few weeks after I turned eighteen, I walked twelve miles to Mr. Swain’s lumber camp in Groveland and signed on. The crew was twenty men, give or take, and six horses. Our pay was twelve dollars every two weeks, brought to us from the mill by Mr. Griffith who recently passed away. We cut mostly pine and spruce. We skidded the logs down the slope on the southeast ridge to the block and tackle at the bottom of the hill and loaded them onto wagons so the teams could haul them down the valley road to the mill. I do not mind hard work, and in the woods my size and strength were advantageous because I could reach and lift more than the other jacks. I did not much like the deer flies in summer or the cold rains in March and November, but over the years I have mostly been able to tolerate the things I could not escape.

If you’re cutting live trees, you want to do it when the sap isn’t running and the ground is frozen. A big snowfall could shut us down for a week or more, so we worked hard whenever we could. Spring and summer were for cutting dead trunks into lengths and sliding them down the hill—steady work, but not so hectic. We usually did next to nothing from the beginning of September until a week or so after the first frost. We worked dawn to dusk Monday to Saturday, and sometimes at the end of the week some of us would go into Dansville to carouse. We drank at Shakey’s on Brant Street and visited Mrs. Mitchell’s house two streets over. Shakey’s is gone now, but the house is still a going concern, though under new management. I lived this way for six years.

The summer before I left the lumber camp, the crew had a run of bad luck. First there was the snakebite that cost Patrick the two fingers from his left hand, and one of the older men broke an arm, but the worst of it was Donal’s death in an accident. Donal was only a year older than me but had been in camp three years before I showed up. He was short and thick and well-liked even though he talked continuously, which suited me in the beginning because I was new and needed to find things out. Not about the work—I knew how to do that. What I needed to know was when to step forward, so to speak, and when to hang back. I had been in camp for only five months when the supply wagon coming up from the railroad station slid into the ditch, and it was Donal who called me down to help and Donal who told everyone later that I had set the wagon back on all four wheels and pulled it back onto the road by myself, all without ever unloading it, which was mostly true.

Donal died because he slipped trying to get out of the way of a log that rolled when it should have skidded. It happened so fast he did not cry out, but Francis on the uphill side did, saying first just “Look out!” and then “Donal! Donal!” and then more quietly “Donal you clumsy mick, what have you done.” I saw this from fifteen yards away and came over to help, but could see before I got close he was done for. In truth, Donal was not clumsy, just unlucky. Even so, Francis blamed himself. This was unfair, because he could not have helped from where he was. After a day or two of moping, he walked out of camp without his pay and did not return.

Francis and Donal were replaced early in July by Pete and Oscar, who had come west together from the Catskills after hurting a man in a bar fight. I was by this time seven feet two inches tall, but Oscar still came up almost to my nose. He was lanky rather than broad-shouldered, but a hard worker and a good fellow. Pete was a good worker but an ornery drunk. Talking at supper one night, Oscar told me he and Pete had once paid ten cents each in Binghamton to see two dwarves and a giant in a show. The dwarves pretended to be Jack and his mother and the giant menaced them while a man played a fiddle. After the show, Oscar talked to the giant, who told him he was paid twelve dollars a week for six shows in four days, with his part in each show lasting less than an hour. Oscar asked facetiously whether there was another show close by to be in, but the giant missed his tone and said quickly he knew of none. He said there was museum work down in New York City, but Oscar would not be suited for it because he was not big enough. “But Fred,” Oscar said, “this giant was not so tall as you nor so wide. I could almost look him in the eye. You could do this work.”

I said it did not seem much like work. Oscar laughed and said I was an honest man, but for his part he hoped in the future to find a job where he could do less work for more money. He said there were places in the big city where giants and dwarves were paid just to stand on a stage while other people looked at them. This did not make much sense to me at that time, but the idea stayed with me and the mood in the camp did not improve. I set a few dollars aside here and there, and when September came I rode the New York and Erie from the Groveland station all the way to Piermont on the west bank of the Hudson River. From there I took a packet boat down to New York.

***

This is not the first time I have been interviewed. On the packet to New York in 1860 I met a newspaperman named McCaskill who had been visiting his sister and brother-in-law in Spring Valley. He asked me what business I had in the city, and when I told him I planned to look for museum work, he said “I thought so,” and told me I was in luck because the best museums were on the lower half of Manhattan Island, which was where we were headed. He said because I was new to the city I would certainly have my pocket picked, and advised me to put a few of my dollars into the lining of my coat and one in each shoe, which I did. He also told me how to get to the Barnum museum from the docks by going north before I went east in order to avoid the Five Points, where he said the Irish footpads would think nothing of setting upon any lone stranger (“even a very large one,” he said) and then fighting amongst themselves over what they had taken.

McCaskill asked if I came from out West, so I told him I grew up close to Ossian Corners in the Genesee Valley, which seemed to tickle him. He said there was once an Irish giant named Finn who played a trick on a Scotch giant. The Scotch giant was bigger and wanted to fight, but when he arrived Finn was wearing a baby bonnet and pretending to be his own infant son. The Scotch giant concluded there was another giant bigger than himself who would be back soon to protect his boy and waded back to Scotland. Finn later had a son called Ossian, who was a giant like himself. I said it was a good story, and McCaskill said “yes it was,” and did I have someone who could get my name in the papers. When I said no, he said he would write a story about me and print it in the Herald-Tribune, which he said would give me a chance at Barnum’s and get him a byline. He asked how old I was and how tall and how big was Ossian Corners and what were the other towns close by. He asked if there was a K in my first name and I told him if you like, which was something Donal told me to say about spelling questions in the lumber camp. “Good man,” said McCaskill.

The ferry terminal turned out to be on the west side of Manhattan Island across the river from Hoboken, New Jersey. I found a boardinghouse three blocks in from the river and paid for a week in a second-floor room with a half-sized window that looked out on an alley. The room was so narrow there was no place in it where I could not touch at least two walls from where I was standing, but I paid an extra dollar in return for a promise I would not have to share the bed. I spent the rest of the day out on the streets, trying to get my bearings.

On that first day I stayed close to the water, walking south and curving around to the Battery and then back north, past Canal to where the street names changed to numbers, all the way to the southwest corner of the big park. Later that afternoon, the western breeze ceased for an hour and the sun began to cook the surface of the streets. The stench of manure and offal rising from the ditches and the paving stones and the alleys got worse as it warmed up, so I filled my pipe and smoked as I walked, which is not something I ever had to do in the woods. Even in city crowds, I could not pass unnoticed, but very few people talked to me. Back in Groveland, children and grown men I had never met would step up and announce they had never seen anyone as big as me. I answered them just as I answered the people who stopped by the farm. My name is Fred, I’d say, what’s your name, and then I am pleased to meet you. That and a quick handshake were usually enough to send the kids scurrying back to their friends or their parents, but sometimes a brave one would ask how big my shoes were or who made my coat. I didn’t mind the kids, but some of the men were harder to dismiss. “How tall are you, anyway?” usually meant the fellow had a wager going with his friends, and somebody was always going to be disappointed.

After lunch on my second day in the city, I walked over to Barnum’s American Museum. It was a big square block of a building with one corner cut off so that the main entrance faced the corner of Broadway and Canal. The ground level was stone, and above that were four rows of large windows set into white stucco, and all the blank spaces between the upper windows were filled with pictures of things you could see in the museum—a white fish with a big head in a round blue pool, an orange and black tiger’s face, a bearded lady wearing a white dress with pink ribbons. I paid my two bits at the door to get in and asked the man at the ticket booth whether they were hiring. He started with “sorry, not today,” but when he looked up he switched to he wasn’t sure. He said I could speak with Mr. Washburn, who managed the exhibits in Mr. Barnum’s absence. Mr. Washburn was not in the building at present but would be back around 2:30. His office was in a back corner on the third floor.

I had an hour or so to wait, so instead of going up the big staircase, I walked around the first floor and looked at the mock-ups of famous places—an Italian church, an English palace made mostly of glass, a big French garden with the bushes cut into squares and half-circles. I found out which countries the famous places were from because some women were reading out loud to their kids from the little books they gave you when you paid to get in. On the second floor there were lots of tables with fossils and small stuffed animals under glass. Back in the lumber camp, I saw lots of fossil shells and bugs in the rocks that cracked open whenever a tree landed hard, but the ones in the museum were whole fish skeletons and skeletons of crested birds that were twice the size of the big woodpeckers in the woods back home. There was also a fancy lecture hall with velvet curtains and gold paint and padded seats and two rows of balconies along the sides and at the back. When people started to file in for the stage show, I ducked out and went up another flight of stairs and around to where the offices were.

Mr. Washburn turned out to be a thin man with glasses who was balding on the top of his head. He shook my hand and asked how tall I was and how much I weighed and where I was from. He asked what my story was and I started to tell him about the farm and the lumber camp, but then he stopped me and said “no, I mean what story would we tell the people who come to look at you.” At first I said I just say hello and shake their hands, but then I remembered McCaskill and told him the Ossian story instead. “So you’re going to be the Ossian Giant then,” said Washburn, and I said I could be I guess. He asked when McCaskill’s newspaper piece would be published, and I said I did not know but I thought soon. He told me I was large enough to be a human oddity, but Barnum’s American already had two giants and a marriage story to keep up the public interest, so he could do nothing for me at present. If I could wait until after the wedding he might be able to try me out during the honeymoon. In the meantime, he said, he thought there was a storefront museum in the Battery that might be hiring. Then he said I should see some of the human oddities before I left so I knew what I was getting into.

This was mostly bad news, but I went up the last flight of stairs to where the human oddities were to see what museum work was like. In the first exhibit room I saw a Dog-Faced Boy who had reddish brown hair all over his face and quiet brown eyes. He said he missed his home country, but I forget where that was. He said he enjoyed living in New York, where he had many friends. After that I moved next door to see the bearded lady. The bearded lady invited two women from the front row to approach her and inspect her face to prove that her beard was real. Then her assistant, a short man with slicked-down hair named Mr. Garland, read a letter from a doctor saying that even though she had a beard, she was a human female in every other respect. A man with his collar unbuttoned sitting two rows in front of me whispered too loudly to his friend that it was probably just a case of the lady’s beard being in the wrong place. A few of the men laughed, but the rest of us pretended not to hear him, and the bearded lady did the same.

The bearded lady talked with people in the first two or three rows about clothing and flowers for maybe twenty minutes, and then she thanked everyone and left through a door on her side of the room. I heard some people talking about giants on their way out, so I got up and followed them into another room two doors away. The room was crowded, but there were still a few empty chairs in the back row. In the front of the room I could see two oversized stuffed chairs set at an angle to each other, and a small piano off to one side. Mr. Garland popped in and told us to direct our attention to the door behind him, because “here was a human marvel, a man who towered over all other men.” That was the way he talked. The first giant was as big as I was or maybe even a little bigger. He had dark hair, a beard, an eyepiece, and a walking stick made of burled wood with a polished brass handle. When he handed the walking stick to Mr. Garland, it came all the way up to his ear, and a few people laughed and whispered about that. Mr. Garland told us the giant was a Count from Portugal and invited the audience to ask questions. He had always been tall. His tailor had to stand on a ladder to measure him for his coat. Once in a great while he forgot to watch out and knocked his head on a doorframe. People were sometimes afraid of him, which made him sad. Portugal was warm and sunny, and he had never met anyone there as big as he was.

Someone asked whether he knew how to play the piano and he said no, the piano was for his fiancée Miss Gosling, who would be here soon. “You know how women like to fuss over their appearance,” he said, and then “why, here she is now.” Miss Gosling was as tall as he was even though she was wearing flat shoes. She had a round face with gray eyes and dark hair and a pleasant shape. She greeted him and the audience and sat down at the piano and played a song. Then Mr. Garland played while she sang in French, and after that she sat down in the chair next to the Count and answered questions. She was raised in Nova Scotia, where her father was a minister. She had been introduced to the Count by Mr. Barnum himself. She looked forward to becoming a mother. When she said that, the man with the open collar whispered to his friend that the Count probably had a better way to make her sing, and again a few of the men laughed and most of us pretended not to hear, but the more they laughed the more he kept going.

And suddenly the Count was looking at me. The rudeness of the man with the open collar had angered me, I guess, and I had moved forward a little in my chair, but when I saw the Count looking at me I knew right away he was not a Count from Portugal but someone more like myself, and his look also told me I should stay calm and do nothing because this was nothing, this was part of some bargain I was not privy to. So nothing happened. I leaned back in my chair and watched as Miss Gosling talked about cooking in a friendly way with a woman in the second row. Mr. Garland popped back in to thank everyone for coming and said tickets were already on sale for the marriage ceremony, which would take place the week before Thanksgiving.

On my way back to my room, I saw a crowd brawling on Canal Street, so I walked two blocks to the south to go around it, but when I rounded the corner to turn toward the river there was suddenly a man to my left and a man to my right and one more in front who waved a knife and told me to stop where I was. I was considering how best to take them on when something hard hit the back of my head and knocked me senseless. I woke up on my back behind a dung heap maybe twenty feet from where I had been stopped. It was still light out, but there was no one around. My head ached and I had to squint to see anything clearly and there was dried blood in my hair and on my neck. The four dollars from inside my coat and the five dollars from my pants pocket were gone. My pipe and tobacco were also gone, but they had not checked my shoes. I stopped at a pump next to a stable to wash up, but when I reached for my kerchief to dry off I learned they had taken that too.

When I got back to my room, I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until mid-afternoon of the next day, but even after the long rest my head still hurt and I could not see clearly. When I pulled back the curtain to guess the time of day, my headache grew worse, so I closed it again and lay on the bed with my face turned away. I fell back to sleep and woke up at dawn with the pain somewhat less, at least until I went outdoors after breakfast to look for work. I had no choice—my last two dollars would not feed me for long, and by themselves they wouldn’t cover a ticket back to Groveland or another week’s rent on my room. I followed two fellows from the boardinghouse down to the place on the docks where they hired odd jobbers, and for the next twelve days I worked loading and unloading cargo. Where I was it was mostly dry goods from Europe coming in and lumber going out.

By the third or fourth day on the docks, my headaches eased up a little, and as long as I could face away from the sun I liked being outdoors in the breeze. I was just getting used to the idea that I could do this work for six or seven weeks until the Barnum giants got hitched when two rough-looking men showed up on a Saturday morning. They moved from one crew to the next without saying much, and every time they stopped, every man in the crew reached into his pocket and handed them a dollar, which was all our pay for that day. When I asked about this, they said the money was for Mr. Tweed.

I gave them my dollar and watched them write down my name, but it rankled me. After they left, I found out the men didn’t keep a regular schedule. Sometimes they’d appear twice in one week, sometimes they’d go ten days between visits, but whenever they showed up, it was always the same story. If you didn’t pay, you couldn’t get hired anymore—not just on the docks, but pretty much anywhere on the island. Most of the other jobbers had made their peace with it, but when the two men came back only five days later, that was it for me. I walked off the dock and up to the ferry terminal and bought a ticket for the next boat going north.

***

I stayed in Piermont for seven weeks, and for most of that time there was nothing much to say about it. My headaches stopped at last, and there was work at the depot and on the docks, another cramped bedroom, another saloon, another bawdyhouse. I’m not sure why I didn’t go back to Groveland as soon as I could pay for a ticket. Maybe I didn’t want to go back to the lumber camp, or maybe I didn’t want to return until I had a little money in my pocket and a good story about where I had been. It was a long time ago, and some things are hard to remember. Anyway, I was still working at the depot in early November when a man named Albert Norton appeared out of nowhere and asked me who I was. My name is Fred Decker, I said. I am pleased to meet you. “The name is familiar,” he said, and I told him I did not know why it would be. He asked whether I had ever considered working as a human oddity, and I told him I had been to New York in search of museum work but had been unable to find a position. “The city is not for everyone,” he said, “and there are paying customers in other places.”

Two days later I boarded the New York and Erie again and rode it all the way west to where it ended in Dunkirk. I was headed for Cleveland, Ohio, with Albert and three performers—Mina, George, & the Little Fairy. The Little Fairy was a nine-year-old dwarf girl who was only three feet tall. Her real name was Alice, but in the show Albert called her Dolly Dutton. Mina was fourteen and small for her age, and Albert always introduced her as being only two or three years older than Alice. She had light brown hair and a pretty face. George came from Rhode Island and played the fiddle. Albert’s show was called The Levées of the Little Fairy, so Alice was the star. Mina pretended to be her best friend. The show was mostly the two girls singing and dancing and having a tea party with little children from the audience. George played music to go along with their dancing and singing and also played two songs by himself that Albert called instrumental interludes.

Before we left Piermont, Albert told me he had seen an article about the Ossian Giant Boy in the Herald-Tribune, so that question was answered. He seemed to be very interested in making me part of his show. He said he would put Alice on one side of the stage and me on the other and talk about the infinite variety of God’s creation. He said he would have me join the two girls on stage for a cup of tea, answer questions from the audience, circle the hall once by myself so that everyone could get a good look at me, and then circle the hall again with Alice standing on my hand.

It turned out that Albert had already paid someone to make an engraving of Alice standing on someone’s hand which he used for newspaper ads. At first, the idea was just to show how little she was, but now he was very excited about the chance he saw to make it come true. For this I would be paid a single share of the ticket receipts for each performance. I was the only one to get only one share because I was new and didn’t have much to do yet. Mina and George received two shares each, Albert got two for himself and kept two more in trust for Alice, and another share went for overhead. George and Albert and I paid for our own food and lodging, but Albert paid for Mina’s room because she shared it with Alice.

On the train going west, Albert talked more or less without stopping. George told stories once or twice about some towns he liked in Massachusetts and Connecticut and a few he didn’t, but mostly he stayed in the back of the car reading or tinkering with his fiddle. Alice sat by herself and looked out the window. Mina helped her with her meals and arranged the blankets around her so she could sleep. Sometimes Mina would see a well-dressed woman on a station platform and tell Alice the lady was “exquisite,” and sometimes she’d see a hillside or a river crossing and call it “picturesque.” I think she was trying to sound like Albert.

I couldn’t go near Alice myself. The first time Albert tried to introduce us, she just shook her head and backed away. We tried once more before we left Piermont, this time with me sitting at a table with my hands folded while Albert held Alice’s hand and moved toward us slowly, but when she got close she got scared again and moved away. It was embarrassing. After that second try I was pretty sure she was never going to get used to me, but Albert always explained his plans until everyone around him was sure they were going to come to pass, and he just kept saying I was a fine fellow and she would come around soon.

The show was a big success at first. I made eight dollars the first weekend in Cleveland, and eleven dollars over the week that followed. There really wasn’t much to my part of it. After Albert talked about the infinite variety of creation he’d say Fred, would you like to say anything to these good people, and I would pretend I had just decided to say “welcome to all you fine ladies and gentlemen, and to you young people as well. I hope you enjoy our show. My name is Fred Decker, and I am very pleased to meet you.” Later on, I walked into the crowd and back out again, and I bowed with everyone at the end. I also set up the furniture for the tea parties. Just before the final song, Albert would invite some of the smaller kids in the first two or three rows to come on stage and sip tea with Dolly Dutton. One night he’d whisper “five tonight” to me, and I’d put out a low table and make sure there was seating for Mina and Alice and five guests, making a big deal about carrying the table and two chairs in one hand and the guest chairs in the other. The next night he’d say “two guests,” and I’d set up the table and only four chairs in all. Albert said he wanted to keep the customers in suspense, and maybe to trick some of them into coming back a second time if they didn’t get the chance to come on stage the first time around.

After two weeks in Cleveland, the crowds thinned out and the weather turned bad, so we took the train down to Canton and over to Columbus. Columbus was a small town then, and there were lots of unfinished buildings around, but they had a grange hall and we pulled in good crowds for two weekends. Then we went down to Cincinnati, which turned out to be warmer than Cleveland and better kept. Really, though, the best part of Cincinnati was that I stayed in a room above a saloon that had good beer, and I ended up drinking with some rivermen and their lady friends at night. To tell the truth, I was already a little bored with the traveling show. Albert and George were good fellows, but the one spent his days visiting newspaper offices, doing the books, and planning where we would go next, and the other didn’t seem to do much besides reading and playing his fiddle. Both of them were more frugal than I am, and both were in the habit of going straight back to their rooms when the show finished up. Mina was friendly enough, but a big part of her job was looking after Alice, and Alice was too young to go anywhere after dark.

After a while, our audiences in Cincinnati thinned out just like they had in Cleveland, so we packed up and headed north again. We rented the same place in Cleveland that we rented in early January, but we couldn’t fill it, so we switched to a smaller hall and then we couldn’t fill that either. Albert said we had come back too soon, and also that people tended to hunker down toward the end of winter. I think he was probably right about that. For myself, I can swear that the wind coming off the big lake somehow felt colder in early March than it felt in January. Anyway, people stopped coming to see us. Albert and George started sharing a room to keep their costs down. By the tenth of the month, I was sleeping backstage and I had borrowed three dollars from Albert against my future earnings.

Albert said there were ups and downs on every tour, and predicted our fortunes would improve with the weather, but that didn’t happen. He finally decided we needed to do something big and new to attract attention, so he walked out on stage one Friday afternoon and announced it was time for Alice to learn to stand on my hand. It didn’t go over well. Alice ran backstage and cried for fifteen minutes straight. At first, Albert tried to wait her out, but then he and Mina left to talk to her, and a few minutes after that Alice walked out calmly with Albert on her right side and Mina on her left. Her eyes were still red, but they’d cleaned up her face, and she was trying to smile. I stood in the musicians’ pit and leaned over the stage so I could set my lower right arm flat with my palm facing upward. I tried to smile too, and I made the “here you go” motion with my other hand that I’d seen Albert use many times to invite the little kids to sip tea with Dolly Dutton.

I don’t want you to think badly of Alice. She was nine years old, smaller than any child I have ever seen, and she was scared, but she was calm and she was going to try. She got almost all the way to my hand, and for a moment I think we all thought it was going to work, but then she started to sway on her feet. Then her eyes rolled back in her head and she fell backward and started to twitch. Albert pulled out his kerchief, balled it up, and shoved it in her mouth. Mina kneeled next to her and arranged her shawl so Alice wouldn’t bang her head on the floor. George sat in a chair off to my right and watched quietly. I couldn’t tell you how long the twitching went on, but it was terrible to see. When she finally stopped moving, the first thing I felt was relief.

I had never seen a seizure before, and I thought Alice was dead, so when she sat up and gave us all a weak smile, I was surprised, and I backed away from her pretty much the same way she’d been backing away from me for three months. The show went on that night as usual, but two days later we left Cleveland for good. On the train back to Dunkirk, I got to talking with Mina, and she told me that when she was hired, Albert told her Alice had fits when she was home but not when she was away. Later on Mina found out from George that it was Alice’s parents back in Boston who had hired Albert to train Alice and take her on tour. The parents told Albert the fits had started after the death of Alice’s sister Corinne, who was not just her sister but her twin, except that Corinne was not a dwarf. They said that in her family home, Alice sometimes claimed she fainted because she had seen Corie’s ghost. The parents thought Alice’s health might improve if she went away for a while.

“I do not think they were entirely candid with Albert,” said Mina, sounding like Albert again, “or maybe Albert was not entirely candid with me. When she fainted like that in Pittsfield, he already seemed to know exactly what to do, and when Alice woke up she smiled, and the first thing she said to me, clear as day, was ‘well, here’s the wrong sister again.’” It turned out that around the time Corinne died—I don’t remember whether it was just before or right after—Alice’s mother in her grief had said something horrible, and Alice had been close enough to hear. I said it was a sad story, and Mina said “yes, it was.” And it turned out George had also been listening from his seat on the other side of the coach, because he spoke up to say “yes, it was sad, especially if it was true, but it didn’t explain why she was so dead set against standing on Fred’s hand.” Water under the bridge, I said.

***

After we switched trains in Dunkirk, I went to Albert and told him I was quitting. He didn’t argue—looking back, I think he was probably relieved he didn’t have to fire me. I offered to send him the three dollars I still owed him in a week or two, but he told me to consider it a parting gift. That was kind of him, though it was probably also true that he had no idea where he and the others would be two weeks from that day. When we reached the Groveland station, I said a quick good-bye to him and George and Mina and walked away. I visited with Henry and my mother in Ossian Corners for a few days and then I came here.

I started at the mill in late March of 1861, and in early May I was introduced to Mary at a county fair in Wellsville. We were married five months later. It is long ago now, and we have done well together, so I can safely admit there was some policy in my choosing to pursue a quick courtship and a brief engagement. The Southern states rebelled that April, and at first the war did not go well for the Union, and Mr. Griffith told me in early May that able-bodied single men who were not yet thirty would be the first to be conscripted from Allegany County. I cannot say whether he warned me because he valued me as a worker, or because Mary was his second cousin and he wanted to help her get settled.

My boys have done well for themselves in Hornell, and my daughter is now engaged to a young man in Geneseo with good prospects. My children are not unusually tall. Mary and I have friends and relatives throughout the region. I have been ailing now for four months. I am not in much pain, but I have lost my strength and if I exert myself, I cannot catch my breath. Dr. Mullin has told me that large bodies sometimes seem to wear out too quickly.

It has been pleasant to talk with you. Have you found out what you came here to find out? Perhaps in some future time there will be an easy path to success in the wider world for a young man who is seven feet tall and strong enough to pull a loaded wagon out of a ditch. In 1860 I went looking for that path but could not find it. In my fifty years I have suffered no extraordinary losses and enjoyed no great triumphs, but on balance my life has been pleasant enough.

Perhaps I should also tell you that I have sometimes led or allowed others to believe I was more successful during my time away than I really was. I never worked for Mr. Barnum, and when I returned from Ohio, I had only the clothes on my back, but if you wish, you may write my death notice based only on what you hear from my friends and relations. I will not be around to dispute your account and they will, and you probably have a boss and your readers to please. I did not feel like a hero or a prodigal in 1861, and I do not feel that way now, but people seem to prefer stories with heroes, and you may tell my story that way if you like.

About the Author

Jones DeRitter

Jones DeRitter grew up in Western New York. He teaches film and literature at the University of Scranton.