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A very bizarre story

March 28, 2009

That was the headline carried in the Enterprise on Sept. 19, 1945.

Headline writing is a specific talent of journalism, which is probably missed by most readers as they scan the newspaper. The information in the headline should be written from the first couple of paragraphs of the story. But once in a while, the editor goes down a long way in the story to find some shorter or longer words that will fit better. Depending on the size of the type and the width of the column, only a certain letter count will fit.

When I was at the Enterprise, the headlines had to be "justified," meaning to exactly fit the space. The headline above has exactly 16 letters in each line, including the spacing, and is a 30- or 36-point font. Using that formula, try writing your own headline for this story. Here is the best I could do:

Article Photos

(Photo provided)

"Bones of 10 Men

Kept at Her Home

By Miss McClellan"

I only managed 16 characters on one of the lines.

The test of the John Brown story

Gloria Woulfe and her daughter, Sarah, were doing research in the Adirondack Room of the Saranac Lake Free Library recently, and as we shared a table, Mrs. Woulfe handed me this clipping regarding John Brown. I volunteered that he had a lot of kids from two marriages and Sarah immediately said, "Yes, he had 20."

Here is the lead on the story as published in 1945: "In 1899, a large but ordinary trunk arrived in Saranac Lake village at the home of Miss Katherine E. McClellan. It contained the bodies of eight men killed at Harper's Ferry 43 years before." (The headline says ten men, two men were added later.

That paragraph is so misleading because there is no way to get eight bodies in one trunk, but not until much later in the story does the reader discover that the trunk contained the bones of eight men - should the editor have changed the lead and written a different headline? I think sobut I could not wait to read the story of how she could possibly stash eight bodies at her house.

Here is what happened

At the time, Miss McClellan operated a photo studio and was well known for her pictures of Adirondack scenery. She was also known at the John Brown farm in Lake Placid because she sold illustrated sketches there that she had done of Brown.

From the Enterprise: "It was through this association with the place that led to her receiving a letter from an utter stranger who revealed to her the rather startling plan to exhume the bones of several of John Brown's followers and have them brought to North Elba to be buried beside their leader."

The stranger was Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh of Washington, D.C. who begged Miss McClellan and finally convinced her to help him carry out the scheme. He said he could not leave Washington. Miss McClellan apparently later had grave misgivings, no pun intended, about what she was getting involved in as the Enterprise story related: "She worked with a constant fear of discovery and interference of the authorities". The bodies had been taken from the grave without the knowledge or consent of anyone except for the owner of the land where they were buried.

I would say that had she been discovered "interference of the authorities" would have been the understatement of the year.

Bodies disinterred

"Of the twenty-two men who took part in the Harper's Ferry (W. Va.) attack, seven were captured and hanged, five escaped, and ten were killed. Two of the bodies in the last group were given to a medical college for dissection. (I wonder who gave permission for that act.)

Now the story gets even stranger. A guy in Massachusetts gets wind of the scheme (so much for the secret mission) and asks if he can throw in a few more bones from his relatives - Dr. Featherstonhaugh being a good fellow apparently says, "Sure, go ahead." So this gentleman had an uncle and a pal who had been caught and hanged as an outcome of the raid and had been buried in Perth Amboy, N.J. So, they dug up these guys and sent the bones along to be added to the trunk. That made the total of ten.

There seemed to be no question about the identity of the bodies since they found one James Mansfield of Harper's Ferry who had been paid five dollars to bury them and he was hired to dig them up in July 1899.

They were buried in two large boxes on the banks of the Shenandoah River only a short distance from Harper's Ferry. Much of the clothing was preserved including blanket shawls in which they had fought and which had been given to them as gifts a few days before the raid.

Mission accomplished

A Professor Libby of the University of Wisconsin, a friend of Dr. Featherstonhaugh's, accompanied the remains to Saranac Lake. Here are the concluding paragraphs to the Enterprise story of 1945:

"Miss McClellan hid the bodies in her house on Old Military Road during the entire month of August. The exact house has not been determined as Miss McClellan owned three houses on that street. During this period she persuaded the Town of North Elba to furnish a handsome casket in which the bones of all ten men were eventually placed.

"The men were buried on August 30, 1899 the final episode in a story begun at Harper's Ferry nearly a half century ago."

John Brown was born in 1800 and married Dianthe Lusk in 1820. She died 12 years later during the birth of her seventh child. The next year Brown married a teenager named Mary Ann Day (he would have been age 33), and they had 13 children. Two of them died at Harper's Ferry. Only half of the children survived childhood. Brown moved to North Elba in 1849 and he was hung in Charleston, Wa. in 1859.



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