What could Senator Conkling have possibly been thinking? The Blizzard of 1888 struck in March and had brought the entire Eastern Seaboard to a virtual standstill. Telegraph and telephone lines were snapped, public transportation was shut down, and all businesses were closed. Thirty--foot snow drifts piled up against buildings and blocked streets in Brooklyn and New York City, making normal, everyday life almost impossible. Absolutely nothing was untouched by what was dubbed the Great White Hurricane. So, what could have possessed the former New York senator to go for a stroll that had resulted in his falling ill and presently being on his deathbed?
Mary Handley couldn’t get this thought out of her mind. It was odd. She knew there had to be some skewed logic behind his illogical behavior, but absolutely no one was questioning it. She didn’t think anything untoward had happened to him. Wondering about it was just a mental exercise, the kind to which she kept gravitating: questioning the inexplicable until it was explained. She had no illusions that anyone would take her musings seriously, no matter what she had concluded. She was a woman and poor, and therefore nothing she said could possibly be of import. As she had been told many times, she should confine her interests to family and children or trivial pursuits such as theater and art.
On occasion, when a man would feign interest in her opinion, it usually meant he was flirting. Though her appearance was offbeat, at twenty--four, Mary was quite attractive. Her nose was somewhat long and her chin a bit short, but her thick blond hair and penetrating blue eyes more than compensated for it. But no physical description could do Mary justice. She had a magnetic aura about her, fueled by her strong spirit and her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, that only those purely interested in the superficial could possibly miss. Much to Mary’s chagrin, her mother, Elizabeth, was one of them, and she could often be heard saying, “My Mary falls just short of being pretty.”
Looks aside, no one could question Mary’s intelligence, and though being patronized or dismissed by a society that valued individuals based on gender or money infuriated Mary, she had learned to live with it. She knew that the world was governed by many prejudices, and she also knew that if she dwelled on that fact, her anger would prevent her from accomplishing anything.
Mary didn’t mind living in a tiny one--room apartment with a minuscule corner kitchen. She didn’t mind that her tenement building was on Elizabeth Street, in one of the worst sections of Brooklyn. Nor did she mind working for slave wages at the Lowry Hat Factory, a death trap where health hazards abounded. What she did mind was her boss, the Widow Lowry, who thought her ability to thrive on the misery of others made her superior. Though often tempted, Mary never challenged the Widow Lowry yet refused to kowtow to her, and thus received fewer working hours than those who did. Still, her continued employment there was a testament to her restraint. She viewed the Lowry Hat Factory as a mere stop on the way to achieving her life’s plan. One day, against all odds and the prevailing wisdom, she would get her opportunity, and she needed to be ready. Her patience and determination were exemplary, for she had harbored this ambition for quite some time, ever since she took the train from Greenport to New York City when she was twelve.
That night, Mary and her family had been returning from a summer weekend at a farm on Long Island owned by the parents of their neighbors and very close friends in Brooklyn, the McNishes. The families had a lot in common: both sets of parents were Irish immigrants, and all the children were first--generation Americans. The weekend was supposed to be a respite from the intense heat of another Brooklyn summer and a chance for the children to experience the country, but thunderstorms and pouring rain had kept them indoors, where Mary was forever under the watchful eye of her extremely critical mother. Elizabeth had known for a while that Mary was “different.” After all, the girl admired such figures as Darwin and that Elizabeth Blackwell woman with her fancy medical degree, and Kierkegaard, whoever that was.
“The girl’s gone all loony. She wants to be a scientist or a philosopher or both. Imagine that,” she whispered to her good friend Abigail McNish. Elizabeth sat next to Abigail on the train, their husbands, Jeffrey and Archie, in the seat behind them, and their children in front of them. At thirty--five, Elizabeth’s sensible hairstyle and matronly clothes didn’t entirely obscure her natural good looks. As a young woman, she had allowed herself to be more stylish, and many men had taken notice. But it was Jeffrey who had charmed her and stolen her heart. In hindsight, it had crossed her mind more than once that she should have ignored her emotions and aimed higher, a mistake she hoped to help Mary avoid.
“If anyone can do it, it’s your Mary,” replied Abigail. Her daughter, Sarah, and Mary had grown up together and were the best of friends. Sarah would never be as bright as Mary, but she admired Mary’s intelligence. It wasn’t that life hadn’t also blessed Sarah. With her jet--black hair, porcelain skin, and large, soulful eyes, Sarah was more classically pretty, which Elizabeth never hesitated to point out.
“The one who’s special is your Sarah,” she responded, again in a low voice. “Mark my words. With her beauty and easy disposition, she’s going to land herself a fine husband one day. A very fine husband.”
And that summed up Elizabeth’s attitude. She felt that marriage was the only realistic way a girl could advance herself, and that it was her job as a mother to bring Mary’s two feet down to earth “for her own good.” If it meant belittling her ambitions, so be it. There were precious few opportunities for women and almost none in the lofty fields to which Mary aspired. But her mother’s negativity just made Mary’s resolve stronger. As a result, they were always at odds. Nonetheless, Elizabeth was unprepared for what happened next. Loud and clear, a voice rang out and reverberated throughout the car.
“Pick it up, Sean. Pick it up, or I’ll box your ears, you jealous shit!”
Elizabeth closed her eyes, hoping she was wrong about the voice’s origin. This would have been an unacceptable exclamation for any man outside of a rowdy saloon, and here it was coming from a twelve--year--old girl.
Mary’s expletive was directed at her brother, Sean, and he had done his best to earn it. After losing to Mary in a game of chess, he had thrown a tantrum and had knocked the chess set to the floor. He was a full two years older and a boy, and the prevailing wisdom had taught him that boys were smarter than girls. Yet, with Mary as his sister, he had learned firsthand that the prevailing wisdom was not always correct. Whether it was at chess or anything that required a reasonable level of mental acuity, Mary outwitted him time after time. He kept trying as if his absent male superiority would one day magically appear and help him defeat her, but it never did. He had to settle for being annoying (something at which he excelled) or getting her in trouble. Either one put a smile on his face.
None of that mattered to Elizabeth. Avoiding public embarrassment was paramount, and her daughter had just made her bathe in it.
Mary had a vast vocabulary for a girl her age and was definitely aware that proper society frowned upon certain words. Because of her mother’s constant scrutiny, she normally kept her true emotions in check, but these pent--up feelings inevitably led to occasional outbursts. What added to the ease with which swear words rolled off her tongue was that society’s obsession with such words didn’t seem logical to her. If they added the appropriate emphasis to what was being said, she saw nothing foul about them. What was foul was using words to lie, to deceive, or to render harm. And what was most certainly foul was the taste of soap. In no time Elizabeth was at Mary’s side with a full bar. She always kept one in her pocketbook for disciplinary reasons.
“You know what to do with it, girl, and don’t be stingy,” commanded Elizabeth, her Irish accent more pronounced when she was upset.
As Mary took the bar from her, Elizabeth glanced at Sean, who was slouching. He immediately sat up as straight as he could. Then, having done her duty, Elizabeth returned to her seat, holding her head up high as if daring someone to say something about her, her family, or her mothering skills.
Mary looked at Sarah, whose large, round eyes were full of empathy for her friend and the daunting task she had ahead. They had always confided in each other, revealing their most personal thoughts and feelings, but now all they could do was exchange looks and shake their heads at the annoying smirk Sean was wearing. Mary soothed herself, though, with the knowledge that any satisfaction he felt over getting her in trouble was the result of flawed logic. Mary had no intention of eating any of the soap.
As soon as her parents and Sean weren’t looking, Mary slipped away. Her idea was to carve up the soap to make it look like she had been eating it. The task at hand was to find someone with a pocketknife. With rain pounding against the train, thunder exploding, and lightning occasionally illuminating the darkness, it became an adventure where Mary imagined ghosts and demons popping out of every crevice. She had stopped at a large window to gaze at the foreboding weather when a passenger appeared out of the blackness and startled her. She spun about, and it was then that she noticed the Frenchman’s door ajar for the first time. If Mary hadn’t been so scientifically oriented, she would have thought his contraption magical. There had to be an explanation for it. So on her way back, after an extremely friendly conductor had helped her carve a jagged masterpiece she was sure would fool her mother, she hoped to find his door ajar again. Though he was mostly hidden in shadows, she spied an austere--looking large man wearing a bowler hat exiting the Frenchman’s compartment. They locked eyes for a brief moment, but her attention was more drawn to the door that he had left open. She decided that it was worth risking another sampling of the Frenchman’s bad humor for a second look at the contraption.
When she entered the compartment and saw the Frenchman with the noose around his neck, her mind kicked into an analytical mode. She had never seen a dead body before. Her parents had shielded her from going to the wake of her aunt who had died in childbirth, yet Mary behaved as if this experience were a common occurrence. She was sure the Frenchman was dead, but she checked his pulse anyway. Nothing. The poor man was gone all right. There was nothing she could do for him, so she looked around the compartment, taking a visual inventory. She saw the clothes that were hanging to dry and a suitcase, but where was that strange object that made the sound? She had no fear, no emotion, just a desire to find out what had transpired. It was not until the adults arrived that hysteria broke out.
“Little girl, you need to get out of here,” a man with a pipe said as he looked wildly down the corridor, but Mary didn’t budge. “Conductor!” he screamed. “Somebody get the conductor!”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” the conductor cried upon seeing the Frenchman hanging there. “Someone help me get this poor soul down.”
By now a crowd had gathered. Too many rushed forward to help, although more stayed back, frozen by the sight of the dead Frenchman. The noise level and the size of the crowd were multiplying. Taking charge, the conductor pointed to three men.
“You, you, and you, help get this man down.” As they promptly jumped to, the conductor turned to the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, please go back to your seats. There’s nothing to see here, just a poor fella who killed himself. Let’s give him some of the peace that he obviously did not find in life.”
As the passengers dispersed, the conductor felt a tug at his side, and he turned to see the little girl he had helped carve a piece of soap.
“This is no place for you, child. Go back to your mother.”
“But, Mr. Conductor, sir, this man did not commit suicide.”
“You mean, you saw . . .” And the conductor paused for a moment to choose his words carefully. He was talking to a child. But Mary was too quick for him.
“Not exactly.” And Mary explained about the man with the bowler hat, whom she hadn’t seen that well, and about the object that made sound, which was no longer there.
The conductor realized he was dealing with a little girl who had a big imagination and ordered her once again to return to her mother.
“But it makes no sense, Mr. Conductor. Why would a man take off his shoes to hang himself? Why would he hang clothes to dry he wasn’t ever going to wear again?”
The conductor had no answer, but he also had no time to deal with a child’s logic. “He was probably crazy.” And he gave Mary a gentle push into the corridor, then closed the door.
Word of the Frenchman’s suicide had traveled fast and was already the topic of excited conversation when Mary returned to her car and calmly announced she had actually seen the dead man. Her family and friends were anything but calm. Immediately forgetting the swearing incident and the soap, Elizabeth hugged Mary, doing her best to soothe her young daughter, who really needed no soothing. In this rare burst of warmth from her mother, Mary informed her that she’d had a change of heart.
“I no longer wish to be a scientist or philosopher, Mother.”
“Really?” said a relieved Elizabeth, thinking this awful incident may have somehow netted a positive result.
“I’ve decided I want to be a detective.”
Elizabeth flinched. This daughter of hers would never give her peace.
Mary spent the rest of the trip trying to think of reasons why the dead man would have taken off his shoes and hung up his clothes before killing himself. There were none. She was sure he had been murdered.