Issue #0, Online Only
Magpie and Maniac
An interview with Fritz Swanson
Magpie and Maniac
Fritz Swanson’s “A Dirge for the Doubly Dead” (True Story #16) is the birth-to-death saga of Jacob Crouch (1809 – 1883), whose life unfolds against a remarkable period in American history. The story is a feat of research and synthesis; it encompasses not only the major events of Jacob’s life on a farm in Michigan but also the advent of electricity, the eruption of Krakatoa, the invention of the murder mystery, the expansion of the railroads, and more. During the editorial process, it emerged that Swanson had been working on the piece for more than 15 years; we wanted to know more about the story behind the story.
Swanson is the director of Wolverine Press, the letterpress studio and publisher staffed by MFA students at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. He teaches writing at the University of Michigan.
CNF: When did you first hear the story of Jacob Crouch, and in what context? And what made you decide to write about the family and the murders?
Swanson: My mother was a librarian for the Jackson District Library system. She worked at, and sometimes ran, libraries across the county. As a kid in the 1980s, I spent many afternoons in all of the different villages and towns in the county. I always liked reading the local history book that each historical society would put together, and naturally when my mother was working at the Spring Arbor Branch of JDL, I was excited to see that there was a ghost story in their local history!
So, I knew about Jacob Crouch and his daughter Eunice when I was young. I knew them as ghosts. I knew that people sometimes would wait at night on Reynolds Road in late November to see Eunice drift down from the city to that old farmer’s grave.
I was also naturally attracted to all of the gothic qualities of 19th century American life. I think a certain kind of bookish child always is. My mother was originally from West Virginia, and so we spent summers at Civil War battlefields in those ancient mountains. I fell in love with Poe and Ambrose Bierce first, and then later Walt Whitman and Thoreau.
The Crouch family had all of these elements that pleased me: a bit of the House of Usher, a bit of Rue Morgue, some of the elements of In the Midst of Life, and just Leaves of Grass through and through.
Perhaps most pointedly, in the Spring Arbor local history there is a reproduction of Jacob Crouch’s photograph, which you knew had been taken when he had just died. I think that more than anything struck me when I was a kid.
CNF: What was the genesis of this story?
Swanson: When I grew older, the kernel of the story that made me realize I wanted to write about it was the trains. It was the fact that, when the murder happened, the train just stopped and let everyone out to pick through the bodies and tramp through the house.
The 19th century is a paradox. This is the age when modernity is made physical, when science and engineering really lay down the concrete foundation of the world we live. So, the rational enlightenment is finally coming into full flower as a vital force in the world, and not just an abstraction.
But at the same time, this is the age of Spiritualism. This is the age of Theosophy and Occultism.
In “An Entrance to the Woods” Wendell Berry writes about human consciousness and how our minds can’t move as fast as, say, our transportation technology. When the pioneers of the 18th century “arrived” in the Appalachian Mountains, they were present there, because their conscious awareness of their environment was moving at the same pace as their feet. But for Berry, when he drives to a campsite in his car, on an expressway, he physically arrives at the woods but his brain is still left behind, back in the city, with his job. And so, in that essay, it takes the full three days of the weekend camping trip before his brain finally “arrives” and “enters the woods.” And of course, by that time, the trip is over and he has to leave.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the US labor market was, like, 90 percent agricultural. And this was a labor reality that had persisted for 10,000 years or so. Like, we are an agrarian society. But by the end of the 19th century, agriculture as a percentage of the labor force was cut by a third; by the early-to-mid 20th Century it was about 50 percent; today it is 3 percent. So, in 200 years the number of farmers went from everyone to, like, no one. But our society is still consciously, spiritually, conceptually, agrarian. Our children, in kindergarten (the garden of childhood), learn what the cow says, they learn what the rooster says, they sing songs about barns and horses and pigs. Maybe they learn that the train says Toot-Toot. But they don’t sing songs about the insurance claim adjuster or the financial consultant or the yoga instructor or the marriage counselor or the ethicist of geriatric medical care.
Which is to say, our entire society has walked out of the fields and into office cubicles, and—culturally speaking—we did it at light speed. We didn’t even know that light had a speed when this process started, and now we vaguely worry that we won’t be able to surpass that speed within our lifetime, or maybe at all. It’s cliché to say that technological progress is overwhelming. But it’s also true.
I feel like the train passengers, traipsing mud through the Crouch family parlor, giddily dragging about the corpses, are experiencing this profound and dislocating fugue. I think we’re still living within the miasma of this fugue. It’s basically a “What? Wait. What?” kind of situation where this whole huge thing—modernity—has just suddenly arrived and we have no tools whatsoever to deal with it. And I read how people are confused by machine learning algorithms, and I think, man, people are still struggling with bicycles and automobiles and the electric light. Like, we blithely accept cars, but we don’t really comprehend what they do to us.
We are all wandering through the murder house, bemused. I looked at those people, and I felt a sincere identification with them in that moment.
CNF: Can you describe your research process? Specifically, one of the things we talked about during the editorial process—which included a really intense fact-checking component—was how the available research tools have changed. On balance, it seems like having easier access to information is an advantage, but is it fair to say it also caused some problems? One of the interesting challenges of writing about the Crouch family is that they’re mostly exceptional because of their deaths, so the records up to that point are pretty sparse. You refer to census records, but what other sources did you draw on?
Swanson: Mechanically, I had a few sources. I started writing this essay back in 1997, really. And back then I had a copy of the Spring Arbor local history, and I had an issue of the Jackson County Genealogical Society Lexicon (volume 6 number 2), where this story is worked out in detail by genealogist Betty Winter Wier, in November of 1983. She did a rough family tree, she drew a map of the landscape based on her research. I supplemented this with plat maps and census reports. And then I went into the archives and, on microfilm, went through the complete contemporaneous Detroit Evening News and Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper accounts of the murders, and the trial/investigations.
Also, I had long noticed when browsing books in antique stores that books before 1880 were way rarer than books after 1880. Later, I would learn that the Civil War and then the Long Depression of the 1870s meant that there was a profound dip in economic output overall. For example, my A History of Jackson County Michigan by Inter-State Publishing of Chicago was published in 1881. So, arbitrarily (or, perhaps it is better to say, because of rationalized but non-human economic reasons), there was a lot of publishing activity in the 1880s. In some ways, the sensationalization of the murder was likely a product of the economic moment in which it happened. There was “pent-up consumer demand,” as they say. And this story was one way society was feeding itself.
In any event, I became kind of obsessed with the year 1883, and I would see it popping up a lot, and that drew a lot of random (now forgotten) sources into my orbit. I would hear 1883 on the radio, see it in a TV show, notice it in a magazine article, and track back to the original source and see if it fit in my story. That’s how both Krakatoa and Atlantis got into the story.
And, finally, I had a copy of The Timetables of History: The New Third Revised Edition by Bernard Grum.
This was all pre-internet in a way. The internet existed, of course, but there was no Wikipedia, no Ancestry.com, none of those huge repositories of fact that one can draw on now.
Once this (present day) editing process re-opened this essay, then Ancestry.com and Wikipedia became big new sources, as well as poetry.org. I’m not sure I would have been able to write this essay today. There is too much information available. Not about the murders, per se. But about the world.
CNF: Despite the scarcity of information, you nevertheless manage to make the Crouches come alive on the page, at least briefly. How did you get your sense of them as individual characters?
Swanson: This is the easiest thing. The newspaper accounts were obsessed with “solving” the crime. So every little personal anecdote they could dredge up was reported out. Like that whole night before the murder with Ellsworth comes directly from newspaper accounts, and also things like that get repeated by Betty Wier. People at the time wanted to solve, to know, to understand. They collected all the facts as a totemic guard against the reality of the world, which was frankly cold and meaningless.
I think I empathized most with the maid, earnestly making breakfast for the dead.
CNF: Your telling of the story of the murders comes (I believe) primarily from newspapers, which even then were contradictory in details and sensationalistic. Can you talk about that process, and the kinds of decisions you had to make about how to tell the story, and which details to include?
Swanson: Of course this is the problem. What fascinated me about this story was how everyone felt like they had the capacity—and the right—to “solve” the murder. This was the beginning of detective mania in the Victorian world (Sherlock Holmes would first appear just a few years later, in 1887, and of course Jack the Ripper would strike in 1888.)
I happen to think “detective mania” is one of the symptoms of our modernity-induced fugue. We are convinced we can make sense out of the world, when really, the world is rationally proceeding along an utterly senseless course.
So you have all of these wonderful anecdotes about the characters, where each little story is being reported by someone who thinks they may have the key to the mystery.
It reminded me of how Agatha Christie wrote her books. She would write many of her mysteries in such a way that any of the characters could have done it. We get a series of damning anecdotes, character portraits, and bits of furtive action. Then, in her second draft, she will pick a killer, and do some minor revisions to give everyone else an alibi. Once you know this about her books, all them become much clearer, and you can see the relationship between, say, Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express. They are basically identical books, but with permutational differences.
In this case, we have an assortment of would-be Agatha Christies assembling a working draft of the mystery, but—horror of horrors—there is no author in the end. There is no one to decide on an ending.
So, for me, I tried to leave some sense of that shagginess in place. I tried not to decide who I “thought” was the murderer. I didn’t want to edit it.
There are three main motives, really. First, you have the money motive, probably on the part of Byron. He wants to take claim to all of the land, and he seems to have fought with Jacob about this. Second, the Catholic community strongly felt that there was a religious motivation. They go on to say that Eunice was “assassinated,” presumably because of her conversion to the faith. And perhaps Byron had both those motives. But then you also have the “abandoned son” motive, what we might now call the “Tyrion Lannister”—Jud, Jacob’s last son.
Then again, maybe Polish vagabonds on a pump car killed the family for fun?
In a distant fourth place, there is race. I was fascinated by how George Bolles, the black servant, chose to portray himself. I honestly do not know how to properly present his story, or the story that the newspapers write about him. Did he consciously choose to present himself as a bumbling fool? Did he seek out a safe stereotype so as to avoid being persecuted for the murder? Or did the newspapers impose that stereotype on him? I guess, given the complexity, I wanted to give him the dignity of agency.
Jud’s disability and Eunice’s religious position also make for uncomfortable reading in the original sources. I wanted to reflect those conflicts in the essay, because they were definitely at the center of the drama. But I also wanted to navigate those ideas carefully. I’m not sure if there is any good way to represent these things, except to say that I tried my best, and I listened to the good advice of different editors over many years.
It’s also worth noting that I largely leave the trial alone. There was a full record of the trial, and of the inquest. But in 1999, when the court house moved, all of the old ledger books were moved by inmates of the county jail and no care was taken to keep them in order. When I came to the material, it was a huge stack of books with no catalogue and no order. Maybe someday, I will sort them out and find the court account. But not today.
CNF: Of course, part of what’s so wonderful about this piece is the breadth of its scope; the narrative covers the 74 years of Jacob Crouch’s life but is also full of other stories and information—about Edgar Allan Poe, about electricity, about the eruption of Krakatoa, the expansion of the railroads, and so much more. How did you decide what to include, and what to leave out? Were you just sort of a magpie, collecting shiny pieces of information along the way, or did you start out with a plan?
Swanson: Magpie and maniac. I believe, like Philip Dick did, that God speaks through kipple. This is what underpins Tagomi’s use of the I Ching in The Man in the High Castle.
As I said above, I was moved by the vapid horror of the train passengers dragging the bodies around. Farmer murdered, body desecrated by rail commuters. It feels like a profound intersection of ancient and modern.
Part of what I wanted to capture was the sense of global forces intersecting on the human scale. And I guess, in that sense, I did have a culprit in mind: Modernity did it.
I don’t lament modernity, and I am not entirely atavistic. But I am respectful of, impressed by, unsettled by, modernity. And I am not persuaded that we will ever catch up with it.
So I was tracking that stuff in the background. Like, here is a simple farmer ascending along his ancient path, following in footsteps laid down for 500 generations. But Newton and Adam Smith and Andrew Carnegie and etc. all set in motion some processes that were finally picking up steam around Jacob Crouch. A great big machine was set in motion.
Berry, in “Entrance to the Woods,” writes: “From where I am sitting in the midst of this island of wilderness, it is as though I am listening to the machine of human history—a huge flywheel building speed until finally the force of its whirling will break it in pieces, and the world with it.”
And while I did not have that fully in mind when I started, as I proceeded it became clearer and clearer that that was what I was trying to depict. Like, I felt this in my heart from the very start, from even before I started. But it has taken writing this essay for me to fully understand it.
The other thing, of course, is that I felt compelled to array this like a poem. A stichic poem, in a way. Something ancient. Timelines are very modern, and stichic verse is very ancient, and—well, there it is.
CNF: You said during the editorial process that it had taken you 15 years to figure out what this piece was, and what you wanted to do with it. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Swanson: I think all of the answers up to this moment are the answer to this. I didn’t realize, for example, how essential Walt Whitman was to my way of thinking until this year. In my life now, as a teacher, I have become more explicit in how I articulate my thinking. I don’t know if that is an improvement, or a compromise. But this essay is how my mind actually works, and how I communicated twenty years ago. My answers in this interview are much more of what teaching has forced me to become—a kind of forward-facing interface, which gains in clarity, but loses in intensity what is really going on inside me. So the essay has struggled as it has evolved with me.
I’m not sure I could, or would, write this essay today.
In all these years, I have grown more and more sympathetic to the ghost story at the end. Both to the ghosts, and to the need on the part of the community to latch on to those ghosts as the ultimate, final, and most appropriate answer. Because, yeah, there are clear and direct ways to talk about these events. There is a rational way to engage with this experience. But that’s not what these events are about, and I think people at the time understood that in that deep, inarticulate way that cultures know things that people can’t say.
As I was told the story as a boy, Eunice would come down the road and stand by Jacob’s grave. And sometimes—only sometimes—he would rise to meet her.
It’s the “sometimes” that makes me believe the story, though I have never seen the ghosts myself. It’s a humane detail that communicates how perpetually unsettled Jacob must be in his eternal repose; that he likely will always remain uncertain about what forces have carried him to this place; that he will carry on into eternity a love tinged with doubt, and a confusion that comes from a jumbled rush of action.
That feeling of cautious, unsettled love feels realer to me every day.
Hattie Fletcher has been the managing editor of Creative Nonfiction since 2004. read more
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