Wednesday January 7, 1925
Martha Brianka had put her three children to bed and then sat down to darn one of her husband’s shirts. John wore a full beard, a plaid shirt and miner’s woolen pants. He smoked his pipe as he sat by the fire reading the Torah. It was a strange book, written in a strange language, not even Russian like her husband.
She knew her husband had been well-educated, before the attack on his village had killed his parents and his first wife. He had immigrated to America, drank heavily, but had stopped drinking even before Prohibition became the law of the land. Then he started working as a laborer. He had drifted north, boarded at Almasy House and there he had met her. She had been working as a maid there in that huge house. Rose, the innkeeper, had fired Martha for marrying the “dirty Jew.”
Many of her friends had also deserted her when she married a Jewish man, but she loved John; she loved his gentle laugh and his warmth. She had never been popular with the men folk, so when this big bear of a man showed her attention, she had been grateful. Now they had three children.
As she sat sewing, she watched him, and she saw in his face much of the beauty that lived in the faces of her children, John Jr. who had already adopted the nickname of Jack, Yvonne whom they called Vonnie, and little Lisa.
When John looked up, from his book, he noticed her watching him and he smiled across the small area between them. He suggested that Lisa start school when classes resumed after the holidays. Lisa their youngest was just five years old and terrified of the dark, of strange noises, and of people outside the family. Lisa would hide under the bed to avoid having to go out with her mother and once they left the house, she would try to hide behind her mother’s skirts.
“She’s so shy,” Martha said.
“She’ll get over it.”
They were silent for awhile. Then he asked, “What did Doc say?”
She hadn’t gone. She had promised him she would consult the doctor about her chest pains. “I just didn’t have the time,” she said. “The children keep me so busy, and whatever would I do with Lisa.”
Not only had she not gone to see the doctor, she had not told her husband that her chest pains were getting much worse. It seemed like almost anything set them off, including thinking about sending little Lisa to school.
She resumed her sewing.
He sighed. “Make sure you get down to that doctor’s office tomorrow.”
“We can’t afford doctor bills, you know that,” she reminded him.
“We can’t lose you.” He said it simply, but she knew how much he hurt. His first wife had perished in a pogrom in the old country. While he loved Martha and their children, she knew he still hurt for those he had lost. “I’ll go tomorrow,” She said. “Doc is always in on Thursdays.”
Little Lisa the youngest of their three children wandered in.
“You’re supposed to be in bed,” her father told her.
“I had a bad dream.”
He took her onto his lap and gently rocked her.
Martha didn’t go to church anymore. She wasn’t welcome since she had married a Jew, but today had been Epiphany. She missed the holiday. When she was growing up, her mother had made an Epiphany cake with a dried bean baked inside. Whoever got the piece with the dried bean, got to be king for a day and wear the paper crown her mother cut and sewed each year.
She should have made such a cake and a crown for her own children, but butter, eggs, and milk were precious. Their cow had not been giving much milk lately, and John had killed the last of the laying hens for Sunday’s supper.
She decided that she would not go to the doctor. Money was needed for other more important things.
Almasy House, 1925
The clock struck midnight at Almasy House, the biggest boarding house on the Menominee Range. Epiphany was over. So were the free drinks.
Rose Almasy moved among the drinking men; she signaled the bartender with a nod of her head. “Gentlemen please,” she said. “It is time to begin the business of tonight.”
Her guests were Klansmen. They met at her house every Thursday. This was Wednesday or it had been until a few minutes ago. The drinks usually weren’t free. Rose had a job for the men to do this night.
The bartender started gathering up glasses. Several of the half dozen men in the room groaned. “Just one more. How about it, Rose?”
Rose smiled at the miners. They followed her with their eyes as she moved to the corner table where Sheriff Leo Olson and his ten-year old son, Miles, sat. “Come back and report as soon as you’re finished,” she told the sheriff.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Leo gave her an exaggerated mock salute.
“Wasn’t that the plan?”
She needed him sober. That way there would be less chance of anything going wrong. “Nobody is going to get hurt. Nobody,” she emphasized.
“You’re going to owe me more than free drinks.”
A maid came in with a pile of cut up sheets and pillow cases. The men drifted over and started putting them on. Rose had removed any embroidery or marks that could trace the bedding to Almasy House. These were old sheets used in the cheap rooms. It would cost her some to replace them, but tonight’s work was important.
“Can I come along?” ten-year old, Miles asked.
“Best you go home to bed,“ his father said.
“You can stay here and have a root beer with me,” Rose said to the child. “I wanna go.” Miles said. His father gave him a warning stare, and the son backed down. “I’ll go home,” he decided.
“See that you do. We don’t need any spectators. If I catch you in the woods…”
“Don’t worry, Pa. I’m going home.”
Over in the corner another boy sat. He too had been brought to Almasy House with his dad. He was new to town and the kids called him Sonny, but his name was Norman Cain. A similar conversation took place between this boy and his dad. The two boys left together.
Rose thought their exit was too fast. Would they spy on the men? That shouldn’t matter because no one was going to get hurt. The Klansmen were just going to have some innocent fun. The two little boys knew what was going to happen. So what if they watched.
Leo, the sheriff, took off his badge.
Enrico Rinaldi had been reading his newspaper in the foyer. He set it down and studied the color design in this part of Almasy House. His own new home was being built on five acres of land across the woods from Almasy House. Rinaldi, owned the Virginia City mine, named after a town in Nevada where he had owned several silver mines.
The Nevada mines had mostly played out, but here in Upper Michigan iron ore flowed. His few mining investments had earned him millions during the Great War. He used his profits to invest in other mining properties.
His little daughter who slept upstairs would be a very wealthy heiress. He was anxious for their house to be finished, and he planned to move into their new mansion as soon as possible. Almasy House gave him the shivers. He knew that creepy old woman who ran the place also ran girls and booze. Rinaldi himself had nothing against a glass of wine or even something stronger now and then, but he didn’t approve of breaking the law. Rose had business partnerships with several notorious gangsters.
Rose scared him. She had a menacing quality like a disease, invisible but fatal. At least his home would be ready soon. He could move out of Almasy House.
Enrico saw his reflection in the mirror across from the lobby. He was 36 years old, a first generation millionaire. He had light copper colored skin, curly black hair that he wore short and straightened to a wave instead of a tight curl. His double breasted suit came out of the best New York tailor shop.
He closed his eyes for a moment and when he opened them, he was startled to see Klansmen in sheets and pillowcases rushing toward him. For one second he thought they were there to lynch him.
They flowed past him like so many ghosts. Rose Almasy walked behind them.
“What the hell…” he said. “A bunch of drunk fools wearing bed sheets. Mrs. Almasy, I must tell you…”
“Please call me Rose.” Seeing his discomfort, she hurried to reassure him. “I am so sorry. I should have insisted they use the back entrance.”
“Looks like they’re ready to lynch someone. Is there a Negro family here in town? We should warn them?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Where’s the sheriff?”
“Don’t worry; he’s keeping an eye on them.” She said truthfully.
“I’m from the South. I’ve seen Klansmen before. Those men were drunk and they’re up to no good.” He tried not to shudder at the memory of the Klansmen he had known in Louisiana. He had not expected them to be active this far north. “Rose, if I see another hooded fool, my daughter and I are going to find another place to stay. I don’t care if we have to live in a stable.”
“I’ll see they don’t you disturb you again. I promise.” After tonight she would have no more use of the Klan, and she hoped neither would anyone else in town.
She didn’t know much about Negroes. Would she have tossed out the wealthy and elegant Enrico Rinaldi if she knew he was a Negro instead of Italian as he and his daughter pretended to be? They had money and Rose liked money. She would surely find some way to work with the Rinaldis no matter what they proved to be.
Rose accompanied the wealthy mine owner as he made his way up the stairs to the rooms he shared with his eight year old daughter, Lucinda.
“We’re not a hooligan town,” she assured him.
Martha checked all three children. They slept like the babies they still were. Jack was just nine years old, and sweet like his little sisters. She smiled as she left them to their dreams.
Miles had never intended to go right home. Neither had Sonny. They walked down the sidewalk for awhile, but then turned north and entered the woods behind Rose Almasy’s house. Some people called it Central Park, although it was not central. The wooded area was practically at the edge of town.
On the other side of the woods, a new house was being built by Enrico Rinaldi, one of the mine owners. There were more homes on the east side. That is where the action would take place tonight.
Sonny followed Miles. The two boys crouched in the shadows and waited. The moon was dark, but their eyes adjusted quickly. Then they heard the wagon tumbling along. They smelled the tar and saw the torches.
Little Lisa was the first in her family to awaken. She saw the lights moving outside. Her five year old legs were too small to reach the floor, so she slid from the bed. Silently she moved toward the window. Just as she raised herself up over the small dresser to look outside, a hooded figure appeared.
She screamed and ran blindly from the room.
Miles and Sonny watched the men as they a rolled the tub of hot burning tar from the wagon. Torches illuminated the night. The boys crept deeper into the shadows. If their fathers saw them, they would each get a beating.
The men seemed more drunken than they had seemed in Rose’s drawing room when they were drinking the free whiskey. Sometimes the whiskey took awhile to take effect.
Miles heard his dad remind them that they were supposed to scare the family, and no was supposed to get hurt.
That was when everyone heard the first scream. Miles did not at first know who was screaming, but the sound went on and on.
John awoke to his daughter’s screams. Torch lights paraded outside his bedroom window and hooded figures hurrying past. “Get the children downstairs. Hide them,” he told Martha.
In his mind, he was back in Russia at the time when he had lost his first wife. Martha opened the door to the children’s bedroom and felt them rush past her. “Run to the cellar, now. Hide.” She ran after them and as her terror increased, she saw just the two children. “Where’s Lisa?” She whirled around. “John,” she screamed her husband’s name.
Outside a dog barked.
Lisa ran in circles. She stumbled against the doorway or was it a wall. White sheeted men rushed past her. They were in the house.
She hit the outside door and it opened. She found herself outside and running. She slipped on the snow or the ice. She fell. She crawled. Someone stepped on her fingers.
White sheets swirled around her. One of the men grabbed her, but then something knocked him over and Lisa hit the ground again. The dog barked. “Sheppie,“ Lisa cried, recognizing the neighbor’s dog. A gun barked and she saw the dog fall down. “Sheppie. Sheppie.”
Lisa tried to crawl, but she was kicked and her hands were stepped on again. She saw her daddy dragged from the house. He was knocked down, and kicked.
Inside the house, Martha ran up and down the hallway. Dark figures rushed past her. She knew Lisa was outside, and she had to reach her baby, but her chest hurt. She stumbled into the kitchen; she couldn’t catch her breath. She fell and tried to get up. The pain stabbed her. She collapsed against the stove and lost consciousness.
“Tarring’s too good for ‘em.”
The two boys watched and listened.
It was about then that Miles saw the rope. One of the hooded men swung it over a tree branch. John had been stripped to the waist for the tarring; but they hadn’t tarred him.
John was now being dragged toward the tree.”
“Just scare ‘em,” Miles heard his father say.
Leo was trying to maintain order. He was, after all, the sheriff.
“They ain’t gonna just scare him,” Sonny said. “This is gonna get good.”
A ladder appeared from somewhere.
“Daddy,” Lisa screamed as she tried to crawl to her father.
“Get the child away,” John begged. “Don’t let her see.”
Those were his last words.
Miles watched like he would watch a movie. But unlike the movies he was used to watching this had sound. After awhile, he even forgot Sonny crouching there beside him.
First the men were very drunk and then and then…they sobered up; the men were shocked by what they themselves had done.
The little girl sobbed, and her sobs seemed louder and certainly more disturbing than her screams had been. Miles didn’t think it, but somehow her sobbing added to his own excitement. After awhile he looked at the little girl, much younger than he himself was. Make her stop crying, he thought.
Her thin nightgown could not protect her from the cold. Her hands were red and bloody from being stepped on. She had been kicked. The men had been so drunk and so intent on what they were doing, they had not even noticed her.
A man stumbled over the little girl.
Someone kicked and spit on the body of the dying dog, and then a shot rang through the air to stop the animal’s whimpering.
“Do something with the kid. Shut her up,” a man said.
Some of the men got sick and lost their booze-soaked suppers in the bushes. Miles and Sonny had to move back further, so they would not be discovered. Miles climbed a tree to be more out of the way, but then he could better see the hanged man with his red blotched face in the torch lights and his purple tongue sticking out, and his neck in a grotesque position.
So this is what a hanging looked like. Miles had seen drawings of hangings in books about the wild west. He now understood the excitement of the townspeople at those events.
Someone climbed up and cut the dead man down.
Miles watched as his father tore off his robe and hood and hurried among the Klansmen. “We were supposed to scare him. You stupid bastards.” He had never seen his dad so mad. “We were to get him out of town, nothing more.”
The hooded men mumbled; they whispered.
“He married a Christian lady.”
“How many more Jew bastards was he gonna make.”
“God needed this done.”
“God had nothing to do with what happened tonight,” Miles’ father sputtered out the words. “And when Rose…. When she finds out what we did, she’ll have us all strung up.”
Would she really? Miles wondered if even the mighty Rose Almasy could get so many of the townsmen killed.
Then the men turned their attention to the sidewalk. Someone new had arrived.
It was one of the servants from Almasy House.
“Rose sent me to get Martha and the children.”
“The children,” Miles heard his dad say.
The men all seemed to turn at once and look at little Lisa who was now still. The child was dirty and bloody and her eyes were the eyes of someone much older. She looked like a cartoon drawing of a child lying there beside a snowbank with torches casting an unearthly light around her.
I gotta go,” Sonny whispered. “I can’t tell if my dad is still there. If I’m not there when he gets home, I’ll get a beating.”
Miles nodded. He would get a beating too if his dad caught him. The boys retreated deeper into the woods and then out of the woods.
Miles walked the sidewalks for awhile, and then finally he walked home and crawled into bed, but he couldn’t sleep. He had to pretend he slept. His dad must not find out that he had been there watching. He lay quietly in the darkness.
In his mind the event replayed over and over like one of those movies at the theater, But better. This had really happened. And it thrilled him.