Chapter One: The Beekeeper
On October 16, 1859, a gaunt, white-haired, wild-eyed man with the remarkably unremarkable name of John Brown seized the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, seeking to incite an insurrection of slaves throughout the southern states. The news of this action came over the newly laid telegraph lines, with the result that whatever one thought of Brown, whether he was a murderer or a saint, he was instantly transformed into the most famous man in America.
Four days later, on October 20, 1859, another event took place that made no telegraph lines hum, and yet was as replete with augury about a bloody future as the anti-slavery crusade of John Brown. This event was the savage murder in Cambridge, Massachusetts of a gentle and learned man named Martin J. Wiley, who was without enemies or any unlikable qualities, a man with a family and an unvarnished reputation whose innocuous life’s work was the study of honey bees, nothing more.
A week before Wiley was killed, a young man of aristocratic bearing and heritage arrived at his home on horseback, having followed the coach of the United States Postal Service. The man watched as letters were placed in the Wiley mailbox, which stood on a post outside the professor’s white clapboard house, and as soon as the mailman had left, first looking to be sure he was unobserved, he opened the box and examined its contents. After many such clandestine visits, the letter he had been searching for, postmarked London Borough of Bromley, England, appeared in the Wiley mailbox. Quickly, the man put it in a pouch, remounted his horse, and cantered the considerable distance across the West Boston Bridge to an office near Haymarket Square.
There a man who went by the remarkably unremarkable name of Peter Smith took the letter. After getting assurance that the young man had been unobserved at the Wiley house, Smith opened the envelop and, as he read, a smile spread like a blush across his broad, fleshy, greedy face. “This confirms our suspicions,” he murmured, more to himself than to the man who had brought the letter to him, whom he dismissed with a casual wave of his hand.
The philosopher Hegel spoke of the ruse of history. If John Brown had never attacked the federal arsenal in Virginia, if the letter in Wiley’s mailbox had never been mailed; if a certain book had never been written, then Martin J. Wiley, exemplary professor of natural history and beekeeper at Harvard College, would have remained unmolested. So too would three other estimable persons, whose lives were lost in Massachusetts in the fateful year 1859. Such are the unfathomably intricate connections that govern the lives of men, and their untimely ends.
Oct. 20, 1859
While Massachusetts buzzed and roared over the events at Harper’s Ferry, Wiley walked out of his house on Sherman Street in Cambridge to tend to his bees. It was a late afternoon. The light was fading. There was a chill in the air following what had been a brilliant Indian summer day. The ground behind Wiley’s house was covered with oak and maple leaves, which crinkled under the beekeeper’s boots. He walked, as he always did, down a narrow path, past a few apple trees, and a dense thicket where blueberries, pollinated by his bees, grew in the summer. He climbed over a low point in a stone wall covered in honeysuckle and poison ivy, the latter a brilliant and beautiful scarlet in the fall. On the other side of the wall was an expanse of open meadow whose whose clover and thistle and clumps of bluegrass were matted down by recent rain.
Wiley’s hives were placed along the stone wall on the near side of the field, a semi-circle of wooden frames mounted on railroad ties that were tilted forward so rain couldn’t flow onto the floorboards. Wiley was meticulous in everything he did, whether it was tending his hives or making his measurements, which were models of geometrical precision exercised in the infinitesimal spaces of a honeycomb. A mesh of chicken wire was nailed to the hives’ openings to keep out the winter mice. Mounds of hay were piled up to prevent the bees from freezing in the looming winter. A few bees circled the hive lazily, but most were inside where they were beginning their annual cluster, clinging together for warmth, moving like a single animal covered in rough felt.
The bees were too slow and sluggish for Wiley to have bothered with his large hat and the cheesecloth mesh that normally hung over his shoulders and protected him from stings. He had on a heavy twill jacket, a peaked wool hat, and heavy gloves, and he carried a bucket of molasses that the bees would need to get through the winter. He poured the molasses into wooden tubs near the top of the hive—knowing that even hungry bees move upward in their cluster as the winter progresses and that they will not move downward, even if they are hungry and there is food for them at the bottom of their hive.
This was a mystery. Why would bees starve to death rather than eat food placed below them? This behavior seemed to contradict the new theory of natural selection that had come from over the seas like a foreign invasion, sowing turmoil at the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard, dividing it into factions, for and against. Wiley was for, with reservations, and the bees in this one strange characteristic gave rise to these reservations. Perhaps he contemplated that question in the last few minutes of his life. Perhaps he contemplated the larger question: Did all this--the trees, the grass, the apples, the bees, and the man standing in his twill coat alone under the darkening sky--come about by accidental mutation, or was it the work of a Creator?
It is somehow fitting that Wiley thought of these questions in the final minutes of his life, as he had thought of them for the previous few years, though the truth is we don’t know what he thought. We do know that he would have checked the bottoms of the hives to ensure that the wire wrapping was snug around their base, because he always did that. A hive is a vulnerable fortress, and nothing destroys it more quickly than a field rat penetrating its defenses in winter. The beekeeper stood for a moment on the knobby soil of his domain and contemplated the damp beauty of fall. Mary, his daughter and oldest child, said he did that often, simply gazed at the scene before him, the meadows, the grass, the trees, the burrows made by ground hogs, the nests of sparrows, and the hawks wheeling over the distant line of trees, standing there for a long time. Finally, feeling the chill, he turned toward the house, his boots crunching on the uneven ground.
He was a tall man, angular, with a distinctively long, narrow face, the features delicate and elegant despite the strong jaw and the creased jowls on either sides of his wide mouth. Lately he’d grown the mutton chop whiskers that signaled a man resigned to enter into his middle age. Wiley was fifty. His complexion was pale; his gold pince-nez gave him a scholarly aura. His wife, his daughter, and his two younger sons, waited for him at the house. Mary, who was seventeen, would likely have been playing the piano by the light of an oil lamp, which she often did at night. The boys, John and Elijah, who sometimes accompanied their father on his evening visit to his hives, were lying on the parlor room rug playing a game of checkers before going to bed.
The evidence from where the bucket was dropped on the ground was that it was a few paces before the break in the stone wall that divided the meadow from the blueberry patch and the apple trees where Wiley first saw the men who murdered him. There were two of them. This is known now, though it wasn’t at the time. They were standing there in their short jackets and hats, one of them holding a knife that came from some exotic place in Asia, Sumatra or Borneo or Malaya, made distinctive and somehow sinister by its wavy blade.
It was too dusky for Wiley to make out the features of the two murderers, though he must have known right away that they were among the larger posse of men who had issued a warning to him only the night before. Now he understood that it had been a grave error on his part to have ignored them and to have decided not to mention their visit to Mrs. Wiley. A considerate husband and father, he had not wanted to alarm the others in his household, and now he realized the fatal insufficiency of his caution. Wiley also believed that there was an inherent dangerous to the activities he undertook in combat against what he regarded as the dark and evil forces in American life, and he knew that if he grew alarmed at every threat he would live in constant fear, and he declined to do that.
One of the men was young, barely twenty, clean shaven, tall, and big-limbed, powerful as a gorilla, his flat square face tinged with something brutal and menacing. He wore a dark hat with a silk band and a low brim, out of which poked a shock of sandy-colored hair. The other was older, shorter, leaner, with a face the color of brick, as though it had been rubbed with pumice, fringed by a black stubble of curly beard, a beard like Lincoln’s unaccompanied by a mustache. He had recalled someone to mind when Wiley had glimpsed him in light of his lantern the night before, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember who he was or where he had seen him. Their names?…well, their names are a complicated matter, which I’ll wait for a later moment in this narrative to reveal, though as we will see they both had two names, one from a past they wished, each for his own reason, to hide, the other applied to an equally shameful present.
Wiley greeted them in cautiously cordial fashion; he was a courteous and courtly man, and perhaps he nurtured the hope that the visit contained no greater threat than the one of the previous night. No doubt he thought of Harriet and Solomon Grandy, in whom the men had been so keenly interested, Harriet whose bonnet suggested that she was a maid; Solomon, her husband, wrapped in a cloth covering much of his face, making it appear as though he suffered from a serious dental affliction. It was not an uncommon trick, the fake black servant and master of a lighter complexion, by which fugitive slaves were able to travel unmolested and unsuspected on trains and coaches, though it was always dangerous. Wiley would remember Solomon’s face when, in the light of a lamp in the hidden room in the cellar of his house, he removed the sling that appeared to hold his jaw in place and smiled broadly, showing a row of solid teeth whose only flaw was a gap where the left molar should have been.
Whatever Wiley thought, whatever false assurances of safety he may have made to himself, the two men soon made it known to him that he was in danger, in need of help, though no help would be forthcoming. His interrogation as to their purpose would have been met by an ominous silence. The men blocked the break in the stone wall where Wiley would have taken the path that led back to his house. Very likely the men eventually said something, because murderers wish their victims to understand the reason their lives are to be cut short. “This is what happens,” they might have said, “when you steal the property of another man.” The blade of the shorter, older man would have glinted in the fading light.
Wiley retreated. He dropped the bucket and it tipped over, leaving a pool of black molasses on some small stones beneath the clumps of grass. Wiley knew the woods behind him and its paths, even in the dark. If he could get to them ahead of his pursuers, he might lose them in the darkness.
If he shouted for help, nobody heard him, and nobody would have for the hives were placed beyond the carrying power of the human voice, though it seems likely that he would have remained silent, for to cry out in fear would have given the murderers a sort of victory over him. Wiley retreated toward the dark line where the trees bordered the far edge of the meadow, which dipped downward for a hundred yards or so before ending at another stone wall. He knew a path starting on the other side of the wall that led into the woods and descended to a pond where muskrats, turtles, and snakes darted and crept and slithered in the warmer weather. Wiley tramped across the withering grass, the clumps of burdock, his feet sinking where the moles had tunneled. Perhaps he felt some shame at fleeing, at not making his stand where he first encountered these two men with their now all-too-evident mission. But he also knew that he had no chance in a direct confrontation.
He managed to reach the curtain of trees and the path that descended with treacherous steepness toward the muskrat pond below. The thugs who came for him came for him slowly, in unhurried and implacable fashion, which was a kind of arrogance, a gesture of their omnipotence as the dispensers of death. Brambles tugged at Wiley’s jacket. Low branches whipped his face, and may have knocked off his pince-nez, or so it was thought at first, until the pince-nez was found elsewhere. Perhaps he tripped and fell over a protruding root, because, by the evidence of the blood later found dark and coagulated on the ground, the two men caught him midway to the pond.
There was a struggle, indicated by the gashes the several boots made in the ground and by the trampled bushes and broken saplings alongside the path. Perhaps, just before the fatal knife entered through the twill collar of Wiley’s jacket and severed his carotid artery, he had a moment of startling recognition, remembered where he had met the shorter, florid-faced man with the ring of beard, or not met him exactly but seen him, perhaps a decade before when the face was clean-shaven and pale. But whether he had that epiphany or not, Wiley died quickly once the knife with its wicked wavy blade had done its work, though even then, the murderers were not done. They performed a grisly act there on the path, wrapping what they must have regarded as a trophy of their deed in some kind of sack. They dragged the body the rest of the way to the pond. There they weighted it with stones that they wedged underneath Wiley’s buttoned jacket. The spashed up to their hips as they dragged what was now a mutilated corpse into the pond, just past a partially sunken sapling whose branches stuck out into the air, and there they allowed it to sink.
This deed done, the murderers returned and picked up their sack, which they must have left temporarily on the pathway. They retrieved Wiley’s pince-nez from where it had fallen among the grass and brambles. “This will add a touch of humor,” the older man said to the younger one. The younger one didn’t laugh at this dark joke. He seemed not to share the triumphalism of his partner.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said.
They walked back the way they had come, across the clumpy field, past the hives, over the low point of the stone wall and between the blueberry bushes, staying outside the row of bushes that formed a kind of hedge alongside Wiley’s house whose flickering lights they could have seen through the lace curtains of the windows. Once on Sherman Street, they would have made their way to the buggy and the single horse that awaited them under some trees by the side of the road, where it meets with Concord Avenue, the actual murderer concealing his knife under his jacket. A third man, who had been watching the conveyance, took the reins. The second man, the one who had not performed the execution, slung the burlap sack over his shoulder while the shorter man took a seat next to him, and the buggy was pulled toward the College and the notable exhibit that would be desecrated ever after.
When her husband didn’t return to the house, Mrs. Wiley sent John and Elijah to the hive to see what could be detaining their father. John, who was twelve, led the way, carrying a feeble lantern, while Elijah, who was ten, followed. By then it was night. There was no moon. Despite the lantern, the boys could barely make their way through the brambles. At the stone wall, they found the toppled bucket. “Pa,” they shouted into the darkness. Getting no reply, they walked along the stone wall to the hives, but their father wasn’t there. “Pa.” The boys’ voices dissipated under the overhanging branches. They were drowned out by the breeze crinkling the brown and yellow leaves that hadn’t yet fallen from the trees. .
“Maybe he tripped over a woodchuck hole and can’t get up,” Elijah said.
“Pa,” John shouted out, “Where are you?”
“Stay close,” John said, and holding the lantern ahead of him so as to cast as much light as he could over the rough ground, he led his brother in concentric half-circles out into the meadow. The trees on the other side were now indistinguishable from the ink-purple sky. Seeing nothing in the meadow, they made their way back to the break in the stone wall, where they picked up the overturned bucket and went back to the house.