Bad Penny16 min read
But really, the whole damn country is haunted. Every community theatre has an old actor who won’t leave the lights behind; every college and university has a pretty co-ed who hanged herself or jumped out a window; every bed and breakfast has a little child in white. Every Lover’s Lane has a Hook Man, a Goat Man, a Skunk Ape.
Just here in the tip end of Western New York you have the North Star Tavern, Goodleberg Cemetery, Fort Niagara, the Amherst Synagogue, and so many others. They’re profiled in books with titles like Weird America, get visited by crews from ghost-hunter TV shows. No one, oddly enough, ever mentions Town Line. Or if they do they get part of the story. The bare facts.
The facts being: In 1861, Town Line left the Union. In 1946, it came back. Cesar Romero turned up for the ceremony and a man name Landon Bruce left the town forever. The last fact, in particular, is rarely mentioned, except by Bruce’s family, the grandchildren who never met him and have a cottage industry of stories about why. You’d think the ghost hunters would at least give them a look-in, but as I said, they have a great many stories competing for their time.
Town Line was, and is, a hamlet. Sandwiched between the larger but equally obscure towns of Alden and Lancaster, it shares with one or the other an area code, a fire department, a school district. It has almost nothing of its own except this story and a slightly higher-than-average per capita population of old coin collections in attics and cupboards.
Not one species of poisonous snake has ever been native to Town Line, but it is most famous for its infestation of copperheads. ‘Copperheads’ is what they called the Northerners who didn’t support the Union, who worked against it from behind its own back. They were numerous, loud, they owned newspapers and guns, they took money from Confederate agents and spoke of helping Confederate prisoners-of-war rise against their captors—only spoke. The hamlet of Town Line in all the states above the Mason-Dixon was alone in actually acting, seceding from the Union.
The few surviving first-hand accounts describe the night of the vote as embittered in a way that seemed strange even to the loudest when they reminisced. No one in town owned slaves, nor did they have brothers wearing the gray. Thurston Carpenter, scribbling a few lines in his account-book among the daily business of his shop, can only “shake his head” at the “unexpected damnfoolishness” of his neighbors. His chief opponent, the banker George Bruce, gloats in his victory but attributes it to “the Hand of God, like a Thunder’s Clap, for in my Own Right I little thought to succeed.” It is interesting to note that nowhere in the rest of his journal does Bruce succumb to either pious generalities or the abuse of capital letters. In fairness, the unseasonable thunderstorm that racked the region that night may have colored his choice of words—it made a certain impression, spawning tornadoes that whirled with snow, taking down large trees and small barns from the shores of Lake Erie as far inland as Rochester.
With storm damage dominating the more practical local minds, the secessionists of Town Line did not get much response to their triumph. No one bothered to record the names of the five men who left the following week when the roads cleared, intending to skirt the Union lines and join up with the Confederate army; their departure was attended by no such fanfare as had accompanied the twelve local men who’d marched off to join the Army of the Potomac just after Fort Sumter.
This neglect was just the start of the indifference that Town Line’s stance provoked. Neither the U.S. nor the C.S.A. ever formally recognized the gesture. Tax bills and draft notices continued to arrive. George Bruce and his sons were never threatened with arrest for sedition, nor exiled behind Confederate lines without benefit of habeas corpus—although all but the youngest of the Bruces decamped to Canada after the first few local boys came home in blue uniforms and pine boxes, after the grieving fathers started to mutter about having a small private lynching of some traitors to soothe their feelings.
There is no record of whether the five ever came home, in a box or of their own accord. After the war, no one wanted to talk much about the bravado with which they’d joined the losing side. For eighty-five years no one spoke of the matter, except a few old men who turned over uneasily in bed when a rare night brought snow and thunder.
They might not speak of it today but that World War II sparked a new case of virulent patriotic fever in the nation, and patients in a fever will babble. Dade County, Georgia and Vicksburg, Mississippi rejoined their country, and Town Line’s status, dug up as a novelty by the Courier Express for a few days after July 4, became a local embarrassment.
It was up to Alden and Lancaster, like the humiliated parents of a shoplifting grade schooler, to do something about Town Line. John H. Cooke, the town supervisor of Alden in that year, promptly promised the Courier Express reporter “We will come back to the United States very soon.” With his opposite number in Lancaster, Joseph Schaefer, he began to plan a small ceremony, in the same blacksmith shop and using the same desk where the original articles of secession were signed.
The thunderstorms that followed were to be expected in the high summer. Cooke had a brand-new dog, a shepherd rescued from a bombed-out trench in France and brought home by his G.I. cousin; when she cowered from the flash and bang, he thought she was only remembering.
The next day the Buffalo Evening News reported on Town Line’s prospective return to the fold. It also reported that a house in Lancaster, struck by lightning, had burned to the ground. Nobody reported, because nobody knew, that the house had once belonged to George Bruce.
Cooke soon got distracted from his planning. The dog, Maisie, didn’t seem able to overcome the fear from that storm; she shook whenever she stood still, and whined when Mr. Cooke left the house. When he returned she would press against him, crying as if he’d just gone over the top into a hail of bullets and she never expected to see him alive again. Cooke, whose own experience in World War I had left him with much the same expectations, could barely bring himself to leave for the office, but as a lawyer he didn’t really have to. Let them think him sickly for a week or so. He had earned the right.
He was glad he’d made that decision as the week wore on. A series of accidents beset the household, each something minor that could have turned serious in a breath. A grease-fire on the stove. A knife in the toaster as his wife fished for a burnt slice. A sprained ankle for Cassie, his daughter, when she leapt clear of the bathtub after dropping her hair dryer.
Then, the soaking hot afternoon when he woke from an uneasy doze at his desk to hear Maisie barking in a high urgent tone. He’d never heard this sound from her before; he thought at first that it was an entirely different dog, some stray invading his yard.
He was still not quite awake when his body took him outside, ready to defend his home from the enemy. He came very near to hitting Maisie with his cane, for in his bleary state he thought her maddened barking and growling was aimed at his twelve-year-old son Edward.
It was Edward who stopped him in time. The boy pointed to the ground, where a red-and-gray snake lay coiled, ready to strike. Cook’s eyes focused and he shifted his swing just enough, just in time.
Pinned to the ground, the snake was smaller, but smaller meant only that it was not the dragon he’d seen for an instant, that he’d see later in his dreams. It was still a good three feet long. Albert Rochna, the high school biology teacher from Alden, would later tell Cooke that it was the largest specimen of copperhead snake that he’d ever seen, to say nothing of the fact that they were well outside the creature’s normal range. He sent it to the Buffalo Museum of Science. Edward was disgusted; he’d recovered enough by then that he wanted to stuff the snake and show it off to his fellow Boy Scouts.
With all that, and the press of other business, Cooke put the question of Town Line aside, and as things calmed down he didn’t take it back up. It was embarrassing, sure, but the Evening News and Courier Express dropped the matter as quickly as they’d taken it up and who was he to say that their approach was wrong? A couple of local reporters put together an informal poll, and those residents who could be bothered to answer still favored the C.S.A., somehow, 29-1.
It could have ended with that, and with the bad case of food poisoning that laid up Joe Schaefer, and with young Landon Bruce and his new wife and baby boy moving into a room in the Wagon Wheel Motel until they could get their feet back under them, but Harry Truman got involved.
In a psychological twist typical of the time, the 29 who supported the Confederacy were willing, as great patriots, to defer to the President’s opinion on the matter. And when word finally reached him, in October, he of course was more in favor of a pro-Federal stance. He offered a fatted calf—in the form of veal barbecue—if prodigal Town Line would return. Such a rich bribe could turn the course of history, and it did.
Cooke heard the voice of the people, and respected it. He would organize another vote, a real vote. It was so unwelcome—there were budgets to draw up, snowplows and salt to purchase for the coming season since it was by now October. And Maisie was acting up again, his wife and daughter nervous and querulous for no apparent reason. Only Eddie stayed cheerful; deprived of his snake, he was researching for his coin collecting merit badge, and Cooke had borrowed the Alden Historical Society’s best specimens for a night so the boy could make rubbings.
“What is this?” he asked his father one night after dinner, interrupting a whiskey and some pondering about the old Wagon Wheel and how to put the undesirables out. Rezoning would be easiest, but it seemed likely to irritate many of the other property owners nearby.
The object in the boy’s hand made the skin look pale, even though Eddie’s summer tan was only starting to fade. Cooke leaned in close. It was a token shaped like a woman’s head in profile, formed in flat copper, with an unfashionably robust neck and a prominent jaw. The crown on her head bore letters that spelled out “LIBERTY.”
“Well, son.” Cooke leaned back and sipped his whiskey to lend his words authority, since he’d only learned about such things very recently himself. “What you have here is the cause of about half my troubles lately. That is a Liberty penny that once belonged to a Copperhead.”
“A snake with a penny?”
“No, a Confederate supporter in the North. The fellows who voted Town Line out of the Union. They carried the Liberty heads cut out from pennies to identify themselves. Because it’s a copper head, you see.”
“But Copperhead was a rude name, wasn’t it? After the snake?”
“So was Yankee a rude name, once. People are changeable, son. You’ll learn that soon if you don’t know it already.” The Wagon Wheel had been a perfectly fine little hotel on Broadway not that long ago, but if you looked at it now you’d think that it was due to fall down any day and nearly all the people staying there were heavy drinkers if not worse. The old blacksmith shop looked like a better place to stay. He pitied the handful of families who still lived there through lack of options.
Edward nodded and retreated back to his own bedroom. The next day the committee to honor Truman’s request met for the first time. From there out, Cooke was just as happy that his son was staying out of his hair, until he got the phone call from Albert Rochna a week later.
“I hope I’m not being too suspicious,” Rochna began. “I know Edward is a good boy, at heart, and …”
Cooke had been a lawyer for a long time, he didn’t need to hear this. “What has he done?”
“He’s been showing a Copperhead penny off in school, and I wanted to make sure he had permission to take it from your collection.”
“My … thank you for letting me know, Albert. I’ll talk to him.”
“If it’s any comfort to you, all the boys are ridiculously excited about the Confederacy now. They don’t seem to understand exactly who won the war. The temptation must have been tremendous.”
“They’re not the only ones over-excited. Did you see the ridiculous flag the town council bought to fly over the blacksmith shop?”
“All this future ahead of us, and they will dwell in the past.” Rochna sighed. “Well, I won’t keep you. I’m sure you’re busy.”
“Thank you,” Cooke said. He was busy, it was true, and he didn’t know Rochna well enough to tell him that he wouldn’t even have minded his neighbors living in the past, had they at least lived in the real past and refrained from making up a fantasy past, changing all their memories to suit themselves.
Landon Bruce had been drinking, there was no doubt about it, the evening John Cooke met him. He was drunk enough to think it was a good idea to tear down the Confederate flag over the old blacksmith shop, and he was drunk enough that when he tried he lost his footing and fell straight through a rotten board in the sagging roof. Cooke happened to be passing by, and when a pair of police officers pulled Bruce out onto the sidewalk, the younger man cried his name.
Cooke looked at him. In Alden everyone had a vague idea of everyone else, but he’d never exchanged conversation with this man before.
“Pull it down!” Bruce insisted. “It means nothing but failure and pain.”
There was nothing Cooke could do to help. And he had another difficult conversation waiting when he got home. He took a long, meandering path to give himself time to think.
Edward had always been a good, compliant boy. But he wouldn’t give up the stolen penny head, despite whippings and threats. He’d been confined to his room on bread and water for a week, now. It must have been torture for an active boy, but though he didn’t deny taking the Liberty head, he hadn’t breathed a word of where it was hidden. Anne had searched his room twice a day while he was at school, and Cooke had taken yet another day away from the office to pry up floorboards and check drawers for loose joints. But a coin was such a small thing, and it could be anywhere. Unless Eddie would confess, it might be gone for good. The humiliation would be unthinkable.
Cooke knew that growing boys had to kick traces sometimes, but he’d never thought of it happening so soon and so sudden. Anne was weeping at night, and wondering aloud if a boarding school was the only option left. Cooke had always had faith in his lawyer’s words, in his ability to reason judges and juries around, to break down witnesses and defendants. But a child was coming close to breaking him instead.
Meanwhile, the matter of Town Line’s nationality was still moving slowly forward, but it didn’t feel forward, not at all. The resolution to suspend the ordinance would pass tomorrow, unless someone was sick and they lacked a quorum, and that meant that until the people voted Town Line would be in limbo, lacking not only a viable nation but even so much as a county of its own. They’d petition Governor Dewey for personal protection, submitting a resolution to “restrict ourselves and our children against all manner of hostilities or overt acts contrary to Federal and state laws.”
Cooke, lawyerly, had pointed out in the writing process that technically they were all giving their word that no crime would be committed in Town Line for however long it took to get this sorted out.
It was only symbolic, though, they insisted. Only a fantasy, all of it. It hadn’t made any difference at all, all these years; why couldn’t it have been left alone?
He shook his head. No time. He had to think of what to say to Edward, before he failed as a father forever.
But there was a policeman, another one, waiting discretely as he turned onto his block. Sergeant Trybuscowicz tapped Cooke on the elbow.
“What’s this about?”
“You’ll need to see this.”
For a moment he thought that maybe the Historical Society had grown sick of waiting and decided to press charges after all; they’d be wanting their Confederate artifacts for the ceremony, whenever the vote happened and however it turned. But that wouldn’t require him to see anything.
Then his heart leaped. “Have you found it?” They’d been told to look out for it, just not exactly why.
Trybuscowicz gave him a look he couldn’t interpret.
Albert Rochna was lying in a field on the Laben farm, under a lone dead tree. Glenn Laben was giving a statement as Cooke approached. “… looking for birds,” he said, and then clammed back into his habitual silence.
Rochna looked utterly natural in death, no wound, no blood, but on each of his eyes was a chunk of copper, the head carefully carved from a penny.
The Alden Historical Society had only owned one. Edward could not have had two, could not have had a thing to do with this, could not have been in this field without his parents’ knowledge, could not, could NOT have killed his teacher over a bit of minor spite. Cooke’s lawer logic circled him protectively; that it could still do. That night, Edward would not talk at all. Nor the next day, nor the next.
Bruce’s arrest barely made the paper in the wake of a murder—if it was a murder, because the coroner said Rochna’s death was most consistent with a bolt of lightning, and Laben said the dead elm where he’d been found had been a live elm the day before. But lightning didn’t put pennies on a dead man’s eyes.
So Landon Bruce sobered up in jail and was out the next day. He asked the police not to make him go. There was nothing to go to. His wife had taken the baby and gone to her mother. Just for a while she said, but he didn’t believe it. He couldn’t make a living, he couldn’t make a home for her. When he went back to the Wagon Wheel, he just listened to the voices all night, the drunks mingling perfectly with his dead ancestors who held him in contempt and the five men whose names would never come home, who called him a brother. They were angry, the living and the dead alike. They didn’t even know what they were angry at, but this business with Confederate flag was the focus of their anger right now.
The cops gave him a cup of coffee, and a ride back to the Wagon Wheel, and told him to stay off roofs.
Cooke heard nothing of this, it was none of his business. But he realized on his own, through no logic he could explain, that the vote had to happen soon. Nothing would be right again until they could put this whole secession matter behind them.
They’d allowed a half a year to organize the vote. Instead, he got it bumped to January. He couldn’t imagine bearing the silent presence of his son upstairs even that long, and he folded. Edward rejoined the family, and they didn’t speak of the penny. Eddie wouldn’t let the rest of it alone though. There were badges that said “Last Stand of the Confederacy” and he bought one and wore it though he’d been forbidden to do so in his father’s sight. There were miniature flags, replicas of the one that still flew over the blacksmith shop. There were books; he even read Gone with the Wind through, not once but twice.
The police picked Landon Bruce up again when a salesman who’d stopped through at the Alligator Bar and Grill told them the man had hinted drunkenly at knowing something about Albert Rochna, but he had the perfect alibi: at the time of death, he’d been climbing onto the roof of the blacksmith shop in full view of half the town. He told Sergeant Trybuscowicz that he didn’t mind. He would tell them how things had been. Gwen hadn’t come back, he’d been right about that. The five still talked to him, singing their songs of futility, but his ancestors were leaving him alone now. They’d moved on, found other fools they liked better. They could call him a disappointment if they liked. He wouldn’t give in to them, and he hadn’t killed the science teacher like they’d asked. He had nothing to hide.
The police would have charged him if they could, but the coroner held firm.
The day of the vote brought snow and thunder, but no one remembered why that was important. Cesar Romero smiled at the crowds. A woman brought her spaniel, Damn Yank, with his name knitted into the sweater he wore. Telegrams of congratulations came in from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia. As the Confederate flag came down, Landon Bruce stood in the crowd and smiled. Sergeant Trybuscowicz smelled him and did not roust him on. Eddie sat in front with his family and was silent and polite as his father made a speech. He would grow up a normal kid, a good kid. Through college, marriage, children, grandchildren, his only eccentricities would be a passionate devotion to Civil War reenactments and the fact that he never told anyone what had become of his copper head.
That night the Wagon Wheel burned to the ground. There were three bodies and what might have been fragments of a fourth in the ashes, but the coroner was pretty sure that none of them was Landon Bruce. I hope, as much as one can have opinions about people one has never met, that it wasn’t. I hope he moved on, away from the voices. I hope he didn’t carry the voices with him, and I hope he wasn’t forced to realize, as I have, that this whole damn country is haunted.
But wait, there's more to read!
when I was fifteen my younger brother slapped me hard in the face to prove to us both that he was the stronger faster meaner