High Moral Worth

This story was inspired by an 1850s-era petition in the author's possession

Photo credit: Flickr CC Melinda * Young

By Thomas Clark


Sarah ran headlong through a knot of Blue Andalusian hens, her father’s favorite. They scattered to the barn’s dark corners, where they sent up a cloud of straw and feathery detritus. Despite her haste, Sarah recognized some of her favorites – Francis, Rebecca, and Molly – among the many hens she’d grown up with. For the moment, she needed to ignore them until she could find her older brother.

“John. John! Where are you?”

The clucking of fowl and the frantic movement of livestock drowned out her cries. She looked for John among the darkened recesses of the stalls. Finding once again she was alone only added to her despair. But then, just as she was leaving, she detected a creaking floorboard above in the loft.

The loft.

The word caused her to shudder. Nine-year-old Sarah recalled the interminable scream of her middle brother Luke falling from the top of the ladder, and how, after he hit the floor, the blood draining from his ears and the vacant stare in his eyes. Days later, she overheard her parents utter “crippled for life.” It was the first time she’d heard the phrase, and she struggled to understand its implications.

But now with her father absent, she desperately needed to find John.

She turned to face the ladder, not daring to count the number of rough-hewed rungs to the top. With eyes fixed forward, she reached out with her left hand and grasped a rundle. With a calm that surprised her, she remembered last Sunday’s hymns and started to climb.

Suddenly she found herself astride the loft’s floor. How long it took to accomplish this, she had no recollection. It could have been two or even twenty minutes, though it didn’t matter, because her footing was now solid. Bales of fresh hay filled the loft with the smell of autumn and the recognition that summer had passed. Sarah followed the muffled sound toward the hay-loading door. At the end, she saw the outline of a figure prone across the floor, the head buried between elbows.

“John, I’ve been looking for you.”

He rolled over, exposing swollen eyes. “How did you get here?” he asked.

“I just thought I…”

“You didn’t think nothin’. Me and Ma will figure this thing out, and you will just get in the way.  Fetch some kindling or tend to the young ’uns, but get out. Know your place.”

“But are you gonna be able to do it?  We need to eat something. I knowed you never did it before, but it has to be done, even if Ma says you don’t have the stomach for it.”

John struck her heavily across the face. Before she could extend an arm, she fell flat to the floor. She lay for a moment, trying to hold back tears, before gathering herself. She rose tentatively and faced him, running a dirty sleeve across her lower lip. “Why’d you do that?”  

John looked away. Minutes passed before either said a word.

“When’s Pa coming home?” she asked.

“I’ve told you before, no one knows. It could be a week or a month. It’s up to Pa’s friends to free him.”

“You mean break him out of prison?”

“He’s not in prison, he’s just in jail. Some of Pa’s friends want to do things legal like, so it might take more time.”

He added: “I wish Pa never did what he did.”

“But why did they arrest him? Pa’s not a bad man, is he?”

“Pa just lost his temper. It’s old man Boynton’s fault. Pa quartered and dressed his steer, but when it came to pay, Mr. Boynton said he had no money. So he was really stealing from Pa in this way, so Pa bloodied his face pretty good and broke his nose. They say if Captain St. Clair wasn’t there, Pa probably would have taken out his butcher knives and cut him up like he was workin’ on a hog. That’s why word is out in the valley that Pa is like Sam Green.”

“Who’s he?”

“Sam Green was from Meredith, and his parents believed they had raised the devil himself. Many years ago, he threw his dog down the well, not only killing the family dog but spoiling the well. His parents beat him severely. But that wasn’t the end of it. He got angrier and slashed the family pig ear to ear, then ran away and became the biggest murderer in all of New England. Some say because Pa was born in Meredith, his kin is related to Sam Green, and that’s why Pa became a butcher. Beating Mr. Boynton to within an inch of his life doesn’t help things right now.”

*  * *

Friday passed without word of Benjamin P. Woodman’s release. The Laconia administrative offices were closed for the weekend, leaving Benjamin’s wife Elizabeth near physical and emotional exhaustion.

With no money and little food, she had to rely on offerings from their friends and some unenthusiastic neighbors. She couldn’t stop the news of her husband’s “alleged” assault from spreading across Belknap County, and now it seemed that many of his customers could recall a recent uncomfortable encounter with her husband. Their recollections were now viewed through the lens of what was now being called the “Boynton incident.” Some were calling her husband a danger to the community. If this continued, the family’s financial ruin was assured.

Elizabeth alone understood why Benjamin was prone to fits of rage; he was frustrated with his work, his children, and their marriage. He had trapped himself. Because of his rigid upbringing, he could never abandon his family responsibilities, no matter how much he had to give of himself, and he felt he received little in return. And it was this resentment that caused husband and wife to argue the morning of the incident. Because of his agitated state of that morning, Elizabeth had known the day would not turn out well for either of them.

Yet there were some who did advocate for Woodman’s release. They accepted his shortcomings, but saw him as an honest businessman, churchgoer and devoted to his family. In a New Hampton tavern, Benjamin once shared this view of life. He believed he was placed on earth to serve a particular role, like an actor in a tragedy, and bear life’s unpleasantness and pain.

He likened himself to the nearby White Mountains that withstood the long brutal winds of winter. The crags did so without complaint, conceding to minor erosion each day, but never let the granite appear to be any less defiant and steadfast.

The other men who wished to see Woodman free were not concerned for him personally. They sought retribution. They wanted to punish the larger Boynton clan, to continue a countywide feud that had existed for generations. They believed they had been consistently cheated in agricultural dealings receiving underweight or inferior-quality feed.

And then there was the matter of property rights: fence lines were moved, livestock stolen. Any challenges were met with threats of physical harm or destruction of their crops before harvest, followed by taunts of “Bad Luck!” by the younger members of the clan.

With this background of dual purposes, dozens of men decided to gather at Bradbury Robinson’s tannery to discuss what they could do for the Woodman family.

*  * *

The building was one of the few in Belknap County that, one might say, was situated by design. The building sat east and north of the village, separated from human habitation when it was erected in 1790. The prevailing westerly winds coursed between Pinnacle and Harper’s Hill and carried the tannery’s stench for a great distance. Miles away, the effluvium mixed with the miasma over the Pemigewassett pond, where theoretically the effects cancelled each other out – or so the original owners had convinced themselves.

The speckled gray stone structure was wider than tall, with red shutters bordering the windows and a slender brick chimney stretching skyward. A large square vat, filled to the top with a noxious brew of reddish-brown fluid, sat in the front yard.

Isaiah Wenck arrived wearing a thick topcoat and passed the vat, holding his breath, until he reached the building’s steps. He quickly pushed past the oak door and went inside, where he discovered heaps of bleached white hides laying across a long hardwood bench.

On the opposite end sat rows of pelts stacked atop several wooden barrels, the furs not recognizable to him. A complex array of metal pulleys hung from the ceiling, where leather straps connected them to machinery, now idle, resting on the tannery floor.

The tannery spoke to Isaiah. Somehow he could sense the heartbeat of the hundreds of animals whose skin was the only reminder that they had once existed. And now they were stacked one upon another, not one distinguishable from another, their souls, if they had one, lost forever.

*  * *

Robinson met him halfway across the floor and jarred Isaiah back to the business at hand. He ushered him to the large room in the rear.

The room was noisy, occupied by well over three dozen men, many of Isaiah’s neighbors: Charles Prescott, John Palmer, John W. Beede, James Perkins, N.G. Meade, Palmer Chase. There were also some men he didn’t recognize, perhaps from Center Harbor. He settled alongside the Waldleighs and saw more men arrive.

Robinson held up his hand and asked to speak.  

“Gentleman, first I wish to thank you for coming this morning to address the Woodman situation. I’m not here to discuss what happened on Boynton’s property last week, I’m just here to present simple economics. Having Woodman sitting idle in Laconia serves no one’s benefit. It deprives him of the opportunity to pay for a good attorney, never mind earning an income to support his destitute family. If he is ever to get back on his feet, he needs to find a way to support himself.

“I have taken the liberty of creating a petition to help free Woodman as soon as Monday. The petition also requests the removal of the onerous fines and costs associated with his detention. I see no other way of righting the situation. I ask each of you to sign your name legibly so there can be no doubt who is supporting this petition. Let me read it to you.

“To the County Commissioners of Belknap County:

We respectfully represent the undersigned legal voters and citizens of said County, that Benjamin P. Woodman of New Hampton in said County, stands committed to the jail in said County, on a fine of fifty dollars and costs of prosecution amounting to about one hundred and twenty five dollars for an alleged assault and battery upon one Mark W. Boynton.”

Robinson paused and added: “Gentlemen, I still need to remind you that the assault is ‘alleged’. Nothing has been proven. For all we know, Woodman may have acted in self-defense and the wrong man is in jail. Just keep that in mind.”

An older man in the crowd offered: “I don’t know if that rings true. We all know Woodman is ill-tempered.”

“I know, I know, but we need to give him the benefit of the doubt. Please bear with me.”

Robinson continued to read from the petition.

“…that said Woodman has a family of six small children, the eldest only twelve years, and the youngest an infant of not even seven months, and that his means are such as to render it out of his power to pay said sum, without depriving his family of so much of the absolute and necessary means of living, to say nothing of an aged Father and Mother who rely upon him for care and protection, that in the opinion of your petitioners from the known good habits and high moral worth of the said Woodman, his case most clearly calls for early attention, and that he should be discharged at once, and made to pay neither fine or costs.”

After Robinson finished, there was several side conversations among the men. Then  he posed a question:

“Any concerns among you about signing?”

The men exchanged glances with one another across the room, and fell silent. With no debate or further inquiries, the men rose and formed single file to pen their names on the document. Seven of the men signed in pencil, which paradoxically gave the document a greater sense of weight and immediacy.

An hour later the men had cleared the tannery, leaving Robinson alone with his thoughts. He reread the document one last time, and was pleased to see the phasing was clear and contained no misspellings. He counted out the signatories: fifty-five. A good showing for the county.

He was hopeful this could persuade the officials to acknowledge that their plea was genuine. It also contained a veiled threat. Election Day was just weeks off, and these officials had to know that at least fifty-five men were counting on their support of the petition. To ignore the petition might jeopardize their chances for reelection.

*  * *

Back in the kitchen, Sarah was struggling to keep things in order. Luke sat quietly in the corner, his eyes blank and his face thin and gaunt, while the newborn Abagail vied for her mother’s attention. Sarah turned to John and asked about Sarah’s whereabouts.

“I don’t know. Last time I saw her, she was in the barn with the chickens. She is always with those chickens.”

“Well, if you ain’t going to help me, go out and fetch her. I can’t do everything around here myself.”

“If Pa didn’t put us in this fix, I wouldn’t have to do so much around here myself. I’m tired and hungry, and I don’t see why all the big chores have fallen to me.”

“Because you’re the eldest, and you must help out the family. Send Sarah here and go do your duty. We need to eat if we are going to survive.”

“I told you, I can’t. It’s against my nature. Pa does it because it’s natural for him. I can’t see them in any pain.”

“But you must. You are now the man of the family,” sobbed Elizabeth.

John ran out of the house and into a nearby field. He never stopped at the barn.

Moments later, Sarah presented herself in the kitchen. She carried a cloth-covered tray, stained crimson. Elizabeth looked deep into Sarah’s eyes, but they were expressionless and distant.

“What do you have here?”

“Rebecca,” replied Sarah.

“I don’t understand.”

“I have brought us dinner and bones for soup.”

“Yes, but who is this girl Rebecca? And why did she bring us a chicken?”

“Ma, Rebecca is Miss Rebecca, one of our hens. Remember, I have names for all of them.”

“Goodness gracious, I’m sorry that someone killed your Miss Rebecca, although we sorely need the food.”

“But Ma, I did it myself. It has been left to me to fill Pa’s shoes.”

1 Comment

  1. This short story is worth the read! It combines well thought out fictional context for a true historical document, giving the reader perspective on what life might have been like in a small New England town. Despite the short length of the story, the reader does get emotionally involved in the each member of the family discussed! Totally recommend taking ten minutes to read “High Moral Worth.’

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