Thursday, December 27, 2018

THE LEGEND OF QUEEN LIL — Part Three


We’re back in Jim Bowsher’s parlor, Mary Jo, Mark and I. And I, right away, pose my question again before we go off on a tangent. That’s easy to do with Jim, because just about any topic you mention, he has a story to go with it. That’s why, first thing, I say, “So Jim, whatever happened to Queen Lil?” And, according to what he tells me, the unintentional reference to the Bette Davis-Joan Crawford movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, is not all that far off the mark.
Jim Bowsher and Mark Gallimore in Jim's incredible
"story museum" of a parlor  
“After the murder and the public scandal,” Jim tells us, “her life changed forever. Nobody wanted to go to the house anymore for fear of being pulled into the murder investigation.”
He says that Queen Lil was seen less and less, and eventually became a recluse, shutting herself away in the big house on West Auglaize Street that had once been the venue for high society shindigs and that had put Wapakoneta on the “blue book” map.
“She lost everything she had except the house,” Jim says. First, it seems, through her continued flamboyant lifestyle and lack of financial discipline, and eventually too through the stock market crash and bank closures that gave birth to the Great Depression.
All of this very likely got worse after she was left completely alone and to her own devices, since the Historical Society indicates that in the years following the murder at McFarland House, her husband, William McFarland, divorced her. There are also indications that she ended up being involved in several lawsuits involving money matters, some that she initiated and others that were initiated against her. And these too very likely took their toll in her financial downfall.
But it was the murder that did her in, that took her from being the belle of the ball, the hostess whose parties everybody who was anybody wanted to attend, to being at the center of a scandal and of a terrible and haunting mystery that just wouldn’t go away.
“Some say it was the Gypsy curse,” Jim says, “the one that Angela Mercurio put on the McFarlands and on that house.” For anyone who believed in such superstitions then—perhaps even including Lil herself—McFarland House had become a place of evil, a venue where, instead of blue bloods partying, darkness now lurked. In small town society, no one would ever go by there again and simply think, “That’s Queen Lil’s mansion.” Now when they went by they would think, “That’s where that Harris woman was murdered,” and a chill would run down their spines as they hurried past.
So it was that Queen Lil lived the rest of her life shunned by her wealthy high-society friends and left to herself and her solitude by the local community. But not completely to herself. Despite Queen Lil’s conflictive relationship with locals, despite their having had to bear her disdain and her superior flamboyance, despite ordinary small town people’s distrust of the rich and powerful, when Lillian McFarland’s luck ran out, there were members of the Wapakoneta community who made sure that she didn’t starve. If she wanted to shut herself away in that rambling old house, in was up to her, but there were neighbors who left food on her back doorstep. And they knew she was consuming it, because when they went back to leave more, it had disappeared.
(Courtesy Auglaize County Historical Society)
But no one ever saw Lil anymore. She had become an enigma, almost a ghost. And her isolation only further fed the legend.
“When Bernard Wisener was almost a hundred,” Jim says, “he told me the best Queen Lil Story I’ve ever heard. Seems Bernie was one of the people who left groceries on Queen Lil’s back porch,” Jim goes on. “He’d go put the groceries on her doorstep and then he’d leave. Well, one day Bernie gets curious and he decides to try and catch a glimpse of the town’s famous recluse. So he puts the groceries down and then he hides in the bushes where he can see the door.
“When I asked Bernie to tell me this story, I even took him to where the house had stood. So when he’s telling me the story, I’m watching his face, and I can tell he’s seeing it. He’s not just remembering it, he’s there again, hiding in the bushes, waiting to get a glimpse of Queen Lil.
“So Bernie’s there waiting for a while in his hiding place and all of the sudden, out come just these hands and a bit of Lil’s forearms. The hands are gnarled and the nails are long and dirty. The arms are covered by the sleeves of what looks as if it was once a fine gown. But now the cuffs are frayed and soiled. So, these hands reach out, grab hold of the box of groceries and drag it inside. Then the door slams shut.
“Bernie said he could never get the image out of his head of those hands and ragged sleeves dragging that box inside.”
Bernard Wisener’s granddaughter (and Jim’s cousin), Donna Wisener Wright, confirms the story Jim heard from the lips of the century-old man, but with some added detail.
Says Donna:  “My Grandpa Wisener, who was born in 1881, told me many stories about Queen Lil. In the years following the murder, Queen Lil became a recluse, never leaving the house. Grandpa worked for a local grocer and delivered groceries on a weekly basis in a horse drawn cart. The horse's name was Harry.
Bernard Wisener in a 1976 photo when he was 95 years young.
“Grandpa was instructed to leave the metal box of groceries on the back porch, knock on the door and then leave. He was under strict orders not to loiter but to leave immediately.
“Well, curiosity got the best of him one week and he hid in the bushes after he knocked on the door. After several minutes, he said, the back door slowly opened and a hand reached out to pull the box of groceries into the house.
“Just then a bumblebee stung Harry on the rump, the horse reared up and took off down Auglaize Street, running through backyards down to the river. Groceries were flying everywhere and by the time Grandpa reached the horse the cart was on its side. And that, he said, was how he lost his job.”
Donna also has a few details about the estate sale after Lil died, and about the death itself.
“I inherited a Baroque mirror that once hung in Queen Lil's house,” Donna says. “My Mother, Annabell Bowsher (Jim's Aunt) and her mother and our Grandma Anna Bowsher, wife of Walter Bowsher Sr., purchased the mirror at the estate sale after Queen Lil's death.
“Mother said the house was in such bad repair that Queen Lil's body had to be lowered by ropes out of a second floor window when she died.”
I can only assume that her death was discovered after groceries accumulated on the back porch and were never taken in.
“She’s buried out at Greenlawn, you know,” Jim says.
“Really, where?” I ask.
“You know where the road in curves right? And there’s that big natural stone there?”
“Absolutely,” I say. I know the cemetery well. My mother’s father, Vern Weber, was the caretaker there for over twenty years. I used to visit him there sometimes when he was working, and every hunting trip or hike he and I made together started at Greenlawn. We’d drive out, park the car by the cemetery sheds and then set out on foot across the fields behind the graveyard. I knew every corner of Greenlawn by heart back then.
“Well, that big rock is her father’s grave and she’s buried right behind it,” says Jim, and then he goes on. “She was so poor when she died that, for years, there was no marker on her grave. Then eventually, somebody put a small granite headstone on it. After a while, the stone started sinking into the ground. My brother Walt and I jacked it up once, but it’s sinking again. I figure that they buried her in a pine box and that over the years it has rotted and caved in and the soil has sunk down over it.”
“We need to get out there so I can get a picture of it,” I say.
“Sure,” Jim says, “as soon as the weather gets a little better.”
So we leave it for another day.

X X X
It’s another day—my last full one in Wapakoneta before I head back to Miami and then Patagonia. I’m just back from Cleveland where I spent a week visiting my sister and her family. It was while in Cleveland that I had two of only about four sunny days of my entire month-long vacation during this dreary November. Other than that, it has been mostly rain, snow, freezing rain or drizzle since I arrived. I’m back in Jim’s parlor and, once again, Mary Jo and Mark are with me.
I ask Jim a few more questions about Queen Lil and he answers them, but today he’s off on other topics. For instance, the chilly, dark weather reminds him about the time he was in New York and heard that Nelson Mandela was going to speak.
“I go to the place early,” he says “but already there’s a line of people waiting to get in that goes all the way around the block. Now, it’s really cold, and I really don’t like the cold.  So I almost decide not to stay. But finally, I get into line and wait with everybody else to get in and see this great man.
“Well, Mandela gives his talk and it’s great! Inspiring, and when he’s through, people line up to get his autograph. They’re carrying books, photographs, and things they’ve specifically brought along to have his signature on. All I’ve got is a great "Free Mandela" t-shirt and a red Magic Marker. When it’s finally my turn, I hand both things to him and I go, ‘I don’t care if you to sign this, unless you really want to, but I’d like to ask you to write one word on this shirt, any word you want.”
Write any word you want...
And with that, Jim produces a t-shirt from a chair behind him and holds it up for us to see. Mandela’s name and picture are emblazoned on the t-shirt, but alongside of the portrait, in big red block letters, Mandela has written, FREEDOM!
The four of us spend the afternoon talking, arguing politics, reminiscing about our home town, exchanging views about writing and writers, about actors and movies,  about prisoners and prisons—where Jim has spent an enormous amount of time...but not as an inmate—a typical afternoon when we all get together and all subjects are fair game. Now it’s getting dark out. It’s been raining most of the day but now, as the light fades and the temperature dips, a light snow is falling.
“Well, darn it, Dan,” Jim says, “It looks like we’re not going to be able to get out to the cemetery and get that picture of Queen Lil’s grave after all.”
Checking the window and seeing the evening starting to fall, I resignedly say, “Yeah, I guess not.”
But then, Mary Jo says, “Why not?”
“Look at it,” I say. “Not enough light.” As if on cue, the streetlamps on Wood Street, which runs past the front of Jim’s house, come on.
“Well, maybe not for your phone camera, but my camera will still take it in this light,” Mary Jo says. She is an extraordinary photographer and has the equipment to match her talent.
We all look at her, then look at each other. She says, “Come on, what the hell, let’s go!”
And suddenly, we’re all on out feet and putting on our coats. In no time, we’re out the door, climbing into my rented Jeep, and off on an unexpected adventure. I don’t know about the others (although I can sort of feel their excitement as well), but I’m feeling like when a group of bored teens confabulate a spontaneous raid of some sort—to go soaping windows, to toss eggs at the front door of the police chief’s house, to sneak up and shine the brights on the steamy windows of a car parked out at the old swinging bridge, to rig up a barrage of water balloons above the neighbor’s garage door, to blow rural mailboxes off their posts with M-80s and cherry bombs...not that I ever did any of those things!
Granted, this is tamer and less vandalistic, in keeping with our years, but an adventure all the same, and there’s a giddiness to the mood. The gates of Greenlawn Cemetery, when we arrive, are still open despite the approach of nightfall. Like a photographic SWAT team we race to the big stone Jim was talking about and pile out of the car. It’s as Jim is showing the others Queen Lil’s humble little gravestone and Mary Jo is snapping pictures of it that I notice something on Lil’s father’s stone.
Photo by Mary Jo Knoch
It’s been barely cold enough for snow to stick all day today. This big rock has been capped with snow and then the thin white mantel has thawed and retreated, rather like the ice of a dying glacier, and the only place the snow has remained, except for the very crest, is in the chiseled crevices of the birth and death dates. It’s an eerie, delicate sight.
“Hey look at this!” I say, and the first one to answer my call is Mark. “Cool!” he says as he stands beside me in front of F.G. Forbes’s grave.
Mark says, “Let’s brush away some more snow so we can see the name too.”
Jim and Mary Jo are setting up a picture at the headstone of Lil’s grave. Jim has pocketed Queen Lil’s hand mirror on the way out the door, and now he is arranging it on the tombstone as a sort of...I don’t know...symbol or reference. Maybe a contrast between the ornate and obviously expensive mirror and the humble grave marker.
Photo by Mary Jo Knoch
By this time, however, curiosity has gotten the better of Mary Jo as well, and she’s now standing on the other side of me, checking out the effect with her artist’s eye. “Careful!” she admonishes as Mark and I swipe our mitts over the stone’s white crest. “Don’t brush off too much or it’ll fall out of the letters.” We correct our progress, working now, under Mary Jo’s supervision, with the care and gentleness of two assistants at an archeological dig.
“The three of you go stand behind the stone together and I’ll take your picture,” Mary Jo says eventually. She tells us to look sober—not that we’re drunk or anything; she just means we shouldn’t smile.
When we’re done with the shoot, we all pile back into the Jeep. There’s not a lot of room to turn around in the narrow cemetery streets, so I decide to drive on down to the end and take the last lane along the cemetery’s western boundary back to the main road out.
It’s as I turn right there that I have a dizzying instant of déjà vu. I mean, yes, I’ve been here before, of course, although not this far back into the graveyard in at least fifty years, but this is something else. There’s a line of tall evergreens along here that my lights sweep as I turn, and it is this image that triggers the feeling of having been here, specifically in this place, before. These trees didn’t exist when I was a boy. There was a plain wire fence along the western boundary back then. So where was this coming from?
And then I recall it, a recurrent dream, one I’ve had only, perhaps, three or four times, in which I come out to the cemetery to visit my Grandpa Vern. It’s winter and dusk. I search the cemetery for him everywhere and eventually find him still hard at work in a part of the place with which I’m not familiar. He’s by himself and he’s digging a grave by a gravel lane in front of a stand of tall pines.
The hair stands up on the back of my neck, but I say nothing to the others. It’s all too internal and intimate right then to put into words.
This leaves me pensive and I’m now paying little attention to what’s being said in the car. As we reach the five hundred block of West Auglaize driving back into town from Greenlawn, I do hear Jim telling Mark and Mary Jo, “Now, right here is where Queen Lil’s house would have been. Right there, in that space there in the middle.”
Enjoying ourselves at Woody's
But I’m only half hearing him. In my head, a song is stuck. It’s called Enjoy Yourself, a Latin-rhythm Guy Lombardo tune from the forties written by Carl Sigman and Herb Magidson. The chorus of it, which I’m hearing over and over in my head, goes:
Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think,
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink.
The years go by, as quickly as a wink,
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think!
Maybe it’s all this musing about Queen Lil and how she never saw it coming—the Gypsy curse, the murder, the end of everything she thought was her life. And then the sadness, madness, solitude and tragedy of all the rest of her years.
I feel lucky, privileged, rich, and grateful here in this car, with my friends, in our home town. A “senior moment” of high adventure! A stroke of luck to still be here and still be enjoying life.
“Hey,” I say, “Let’s go to Woody’s and get some supper,” and the others enthusiastically assent, “...and some beers,” I add.
And that’s just what we do.



Monday, December 24, 2018

THE LEGEND OF QUEEN LIL — Part Two

Read Part One at
 https://southernyankeewriter.blogspot.com/2018/12/the-legend-of-queen-lil-part-one.html
Jim Bowsher, talkin' the talk...
Highly energetic for a man of advancing years, Jim Bowsher exudes enthusiasm over any topic he might touch on. And in our marathon sessions—which often include dinner and a couple of beers just up the street at Woody’s bar and grill when we’ve been hard at, two inveterate storytellers, for hours on end, and suddenly realize we’re starving—he will often bounce like a tightly wound spring from his chair and speak standing, pacing, waving his hands in the air, when a tale gets him so excited that it will no longer allow him to remain seated.

You can tell he’s proud of this unabated level of energy, and his brilliant mind seems to constantly nurture it. He refuses to accept aging, a sort of Peter Pan ad hoc anthropologist, who’s ready on a moment’s notice to toss a shovel into the bed of his battered Toyota pickup truck and drive anywhere on a tip that there might be some artifacts to be had. He’ll also gladly rifle through old barns, sheds, abandoned houses and wrecking sites, sifting through the layers of time like some cultural vulture, to find something discarded, if very specific, that he’s looking for—something juicy, something with a great story to tell. And nobody I’ve ever known has been better at it than Jim. The inkwell that was on Leon Trotsky’s desk when he was murdered, the sunglasses Capote once wore and that Philip Seymour Hoffman took possession of when he played Truman in the movie, the bottom step from the entrance to the town’s erstwhile Ku Klux Klan hall, the slot machine that a local land baron installed in his house to try and quench his wife’s insatiable gambling habit,  the marble slab from the Bluffton bank onto which John Dillinger first hopped up and declared, “I’m John Dillinger and I rob banks!” They are all—and so, so much more—under Jim’s roof or in his yard, forming part of his eclectic collection, his wide-ranging and ever-ongoing storyline.
...and walkin' the walk

Today, I’m afraid, we’ve wounded his pride, mutual friends Mary Jo Knoch, Mark Gallimore and I. Jim had told us to come over about one and, for once, we were all punctual. Jim, I might add, is always punctual. Or at least that’s been my experience. If he tells you such-and-such a time, you can pretty much set your watch by him.
So, we walk up onto the front porch, knock and wait. Nothing happens. We knock again, harder this time. Still nothing. Mark says, “Maybe he’s out back.” So we go around to the back door. It’s raining like crazy and there’s no real shelter at the back door so we’re getting wet. We hammer on the back door and again, nothing. Both the front and back storm doors are hooked from the inside, which, we surmise, means Jim has to be in there.
Mark says, “I’ll call Walt (Jim’s brother and partner in crime) and see if he knows anything,” In the meantime, Mary Jo and I go back around to the front porch. There, we call Jim’s house phone (he doesn’t own a cellphone or a computer and does all of his writing long-hand or on a manual typewriter) and leave a message on the answering machine that we’re out there waiting for him to open the door.
Mary Jo puts her hands up to the sides of her face like blinders and peers through the glass of the front door. “There’s a light on in his writing room,” she says. But if he’s in there and conscious, he has to have heard us, because the room she’s talking about is just off of the living room, and there’s no door on it. This does nothing, then, to ease our minds.
Mary Jo knocks hard on the storm door again and calls Jim’s name. Nothing.
Mark reports that he got Walt on the phone and that Walt asked if the storm doors were locked and if Jim’s truck was in the garage. When Mark answered affirmatively to both queries, Walt said, “I’ll be right over.”
When Walt pulls up in his pickup, he goes around back with Mark to see if they can find a way to jimmy the back door and get in. Mary Jo and I remain on the front porch knocking. From inside we hear a couple of thumps that at least give us hope that Jim’s alive. And that’s when we see him rushing down the stairs and coming to the door.
“What a relief,” Mary Jo says as Jim opens the door. “We were really worried about you!”
“Why were you worried?” Jim asks, naïvely oblivious to the concern that he has inadvertently caused.
“Well, you didn’t answer the door or the phone...” I say, trailing off.
“I was taking a bath,” he says. “I went out to dig up some artifacts a guy told me about and was so dirty when I got back I decided to take a bath before you guys came. Sorry guys, but why the heck were you so worried?”
“Well,” I said, “at our age, when you knock and there’s no answer and you know the person’s home...”
Jim irritatedly brushes aside my response with a hand gesture and growls, “Ha! I’m gonna outlive all you fuckers!” Then he says, “Have a seat. I’m going up and finish.”
“Well,” I say, “you’d better let Walt know you’re okay first.”
Walt?! 
“Yeah, he’s out back with Mark, and they’re about to break your back door down.”
It’s a short time later when we’re all seated in the living room (all but Walt who, once he has ensured that his brother isn’t dead or in a coma, has gotten into his truck and gone back home, with our thanks and apologies) that I bring up Queen Lil and Jim leaps from his seat to go fetch some historical artifacts—an ornate silver-backed hand mirror, a small sepia-colored photograph, a little jade carving of a rabbit, and a color portrait of a young Gypsy woman.
That’s when Jim says, “They always say that it’s an unsolved murder, but it’s not. The Gypsies did it.”
And how does he know this?
“Because I interviewed the Gypsies,” he says.
Not the same ones, of course. Their descendants, Jim explains. He proudly shows me the hand mirror and says it was the one that was on Queen Lil’s dresser when she died. “The back is silver,” he says. He tells me that the little carved jade rabbit was also from McFarland House. The sepia photo is of the house itself. “The only one I’ve ever been able to find,” he says, “taken during the famous flood of 1913.”
The photograph shows the house that was torn down in the 1930s and now only exists as an image—and perhaps in the childhood memories of the town’s eldest of elders, the ones who are still holding out hope of making it to their hundredth birthdays.
People in Wapakoneta still talk about the 1913 flood. It’s another piece of Wapak folklore, the time the streets turned to rivers. Queen Lil’s house was on a pretty prominent rise and the Auglaize River was across the street and way down behind the long sloping back lots of her neighbors’ houses. Despite growing up here and seeing the Auglaize get pretty scary during the spring thaw, I’m still amazed that it could have risen enough to be up to the front windowsills of McFarland House, but here’s the proof. The photo doesn’t lie. It pictures two rescue boats, one in the foreground and the other close to the front door of the house. Jim later tells me that a tiny, barely visible figure seated amidships in the boat closest to the door and wearing a hat with a white feather in it is Queen Lil herself.
“So who’s the portrait of?” I ask.
“Angela Mercurio,” Jim informs me, “a Gypsy fortune-teller that Queen Lil met in Chicago.”
She, Jim indicates, is the key to the twist in the story. Jim’s account of the murder at McFarland House pretty much matches the one on file with the Auglaize County Historical Society. But the part Jim doesn’t buy is about no one ever finding out who killed Nellie Harris, Queen Lil’s intimate friend and long-term house guest who was found in Lil’s closet with a fatal gunshot wound to the head following one of the high society parties that were a McFarland House staple.
Jim holds up the portrait of Angela Mercurio
Just how “high society”, you ask? High enough that the McFarlands figured in the American social register commonly known as “the blue books”, which tracked the wealthiest and whitest people in numerous cities around the nation—this too, according to research carried out by the local Historical Society. To make that register you either had to be an original pedigreed American “blue blood”, or you had to be sitting on a major pile of wealth—or both. The parties were, then, not just friendly get-togethers, but a tangled web of political intrigue and vested interests, and this may have had something to do with why the original inquiry decided that the murder was unlikely to ever be solved.
“The suicide theory was ruled out right away,” Jim says. “I mean, who shuts themselves up in a closet before shooting themselves?” And then, as mentioned earlier in this story, the angle of the wound and the lack of powder on the victim’s head and hand simply weren’t consistent with a suicide, despite the body’s being found with the murder weapon.
But it was when Jim was researching the Romani community in Ohio that he came across what he finds to be a plausible answer to the until then unsolved murder of Nellie Harris, the murder that gave rise to the legend of Queen Lil. Jim points to a large hand-carved wooden ornament high on his parlor wall, above the staircase. “That,” he says, “is off of a Gypsy wagon.”
He happened across the wagon while searching for artifacts on a local farm. It had been on the farm for so many years that almost nobody recalled where it had come from. At the moment that Jim first saw it, the farmer was using it for a manure spreader. Jim ended up inheriting the manure-splattered ornament on its side, which, after a good cleaning, ended up on his densely story-populated wall.
Not many folks know that the Romani people were a significant influence in historical Ohio. “In fact,” Jim tells me, “there’s a Gypsy queen buried in Woodland Cemetery down in Dayton.”
Jim tells me that “Queen of the Gypsies” was the quasi-official title of a woman called Matilda Stanley, who lived from 1822 to 1878. The Stanleys were, according to Jim, a highly influential tribe within Romani society, having originated in England. A clear sign of that influence was the turnout for the Gypsy Queen’s funeral, which, a Woodland Cemetery brochure states, was attended by some 25,000 people.
But Angela Mercurio, the woman in the portrait that Jim is now showing me, was from an Italian Gypsy tribe—one, he assures me, that had close ties to the Cosa Nostra. “They were Gypsies,” he says, “but they were also mobsters.
So anyway, while Jim is doing this research on the Roma tribes of Ohio, the story of Queen Lil comes up. Some of them know it! And their version differs from whatever else we’ve heard before. Their story goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a Gypsy fortune-teller called Angela Mercurio, who met a woman from Wapakoneta named Lillian McFarland, better known as Queen Lil, and from then on, Lil’s life would ever be the same again.
According to the Gypsies he interviewed, Jim says, Lil met up with Angela at a party in Chicago. She found the young woman’s fortune-telling act absolutely delightful. And it’s very likely that Lil fell for it hook, line and sinker, since, as I mentioned earlier, she and many of her idle-rich friends were deep into the occult, into séances, into the conjuring of spirits and so on. So Lil decides to invite the Romani woman to one of the famous bashes at her house in Wapakoneta.
The fortune-teller takes a liking to Lil and accepts the gig. At the subsequent party at McFarland House in Wapakoneta, things go along swimmingly, with the Gypsy fortune-teller keeping the guests highly entertained. Until—one version of the story goes—Lil’s husband, William McFarland (who is practically as well-known for his drinking as he is for his wealth) stands watching Mercurio perform for a while and then says, according to Jim’s Gypsies, something like, “You guinea bastards are all alike. Never producing anything, never working for anything, always playing an angle, always seeing how you can take other people’s hard-earned money from them.” The young woman is taken aback. Shocked at first, then angry, then crying as McFarland rampages on with his insulting tirade. Eventually, humiliation becomes rage and Angela Mercurio begins creating a real scandal herself. She looks to Queen Lil to come to her defense, but instead, Lil takes her to task for making a scene and orders her to leave the house immediately. It is then, so the story goes, that Angela Mercurio puts a curse on the McFarlands and on McFarland House before taking her leave, never to return.
But it doesn’t end there. Mercurio’s pride is deeply wounded. She can’t shake her surprise and anger at how she’s been treated and she tells the men in her family about the incident. Remember, these are not only men of a Romani tribe, but also mobsters. An affront to their Roma sister is an insult to them as well, and they decide they aren’t going to leave things as they stand.
Jim with Queen Lil's hand mirror...The killers
got the wrong woman
Jim’s Gypsy sources told him that the answer was to put out a hit on the McFarlands. A couple of killers are sent to one of Lil’s next parties. They successfully mingle with the guests. It isn’t known for sure whether they simply couldn’t find William McFarland in the party crowd or what, but at one point they see a woman whom they take to be Queen Lil going upstairs to the second floor. They follow her, shoot her in the temple at close range to make it look like suicide and stuff the dying woman—if it’s going to look like suicide, they can’t shoot her twice—into the closet, with the murder weapon, before fleeing the scene.
But they’ve shot the wrong woman. They’ve killed Nellie Harris instead of Lil.
So Jim has two questions he asks the Gypsies. First, why didn’t anybody hear the shot when the assassins killed Nellie Harris? Why did they wait until they realized she was missing before going to look for her? Even over the noise of a party, a pistol shot is surely loud enough to be heard. Their answer is that, even back then, mobsters used silencers. Not the sophisticated kind that would be hired killers’ standard issue twenty or thirty years hence, but rather, homemade silencers that each hit man crafted to render his pistol quieter. Second, why, when they discovered their error, didn’t the killers go back and whack the McFarlands? Because, the Gypsies told him, Nellie was an important politician’s daughter and the heat brought to bear by law enforcement meant that everybody who’d had anything to do with the crime had to quickly find a place to lie low.
“So whatever happened to Queen Lil?” I ask.
Jim stands and moves to the middle of the room, as if he were about to give a speech. I can tell he’s glad I asked this question. But I tell him to hold that thought until the next time we meet.
To be continued...
     


Thursday, December 13, 2018

THE LEGEND OF QUEEN LIL, Part One


Jim says it was the Gypsies who did it. Gypsies...that’s what we called them back in the day. It was before we knew—a recent development—that they no longer like to be called Gypsies. Now they prefer to be known as Romani, Roma or Rom, which, I’m told, means Man in some variations of their language, also called Romani. The moniker Gypsy was hung on them by Europeans who thought they were an Egyptian tribe. Egypt...Gyp...Gypsy. That, I understand, is how the name evolved, and why they now no longer want to be called that. But I’ve heard there are still those among the Romani people who don’t object to the term Gypsy, which is so filled with fantasy, romanticism and color, if also sometimes with prejudice and disdain.
That’s neither here nor there, however. This is a story about my friend Jim Bowsher, some Gypsies he met, and a long-deceased woman named Lillian Forbes McFarland (1865-1935), better known as Queen Lil. Queen Lil is an urban—small town, actually—legend in my home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio. Although, if you ask millennials about the tale, they’ve very likely never heard of Queen Lil. It’s one of those stories my (boomer) generation is still curating, handed down by parents and grandparents, and once we’re gone, so will Queen Lil be...finally and definitively, despite the fact that she’s already been dead these 80-odd years and her heyday was long before that.
Lil was famous (and infamous) in Wapak for putting on airs, for being wealthy and arrogant, and for flaunting her inherited fortune every chance she got. She was nothing if not flamboyant. She had, they say, a matched team of chestnut bay horses to pull her fine carriage before the advent of motorcars. She dressed to the nines and was haughty as could be with the neighbors, who, people say, grew really tired of her loud parties and carryings-on any night of the week.
Queen Lil’s father, F. G. Forbes, wasn’t the typical industrialist magnate who built an empire during the industrial revolution and beyond. In fact, when Lil was a girl growing up in Middletown, Ohio, Forbes and his family were quite poor. There are those who theorize that his daughter’s high-flying lifestyle was a way of whistling in the dark, of warding off the curse of poverty she’d suffered as a child, of telling the world, “I’m rich, and I’ll never be poor again.” Although he missed out on the gold fever of the 1840s and the California Gold Rush that started at Sutter’s Mill, Forbes did indeed later strike it rich in gold and after that showed his natural gift for high finance by investing in a variety of fields, and very successfully so, amassing a hefty fortune.
Other than as evidence of the source of Lil’s wealth, the story of F. G. Forbes is not, however, really relevant to the tale of Queen Lil. Those who know her legend probably wouldn’t be able to name her father (or her husband) if you asked them. Nor would Queen Lil have been famous as anything but a vaguely recalled, eccentric personality of another era, had it not been for the murder.
In small towns, homicides are not nearly as common as they are in the big cities, and so, they become a kind of mile-marker in small town history, as in, that was before that murder over at that roadhouse on the Dixie Highway. Or, So-and-So was the brother of that guy they shot in the head during a card game at the Nag’s Head Saloon. Murder, in a small town, is a major incident, because there’s no anonymity. Everybody knows everybody else and their brother. And the fact that the murder involving Queen Lil and her circle is an officially unsolved one makes it an even more memorable slaying. Although, Jim Bowsher would argue that it’s not unsolved at all. He’s pretty sure he knows exactly who was behind it.
Like I say, Queen Lil was a party girl. And her parties were truly major events for a small town like Wapakoneta. VIPs from cities all over the country attended them, so well connected were Lil’s father, and her husband, Wapakoneta native William McFarland, who, it was rumored, had also made his seed fortune in gold and might once have been Forbes’s business partner. Like Lil’s father, McFarland was a wise investor, who would later make a vast fortune in real estate.
McFarland House on West Auglaize as it appeared in 1893
So well attended were Lil’s parties that even Ohio-born President Warren G. Harding traveled to Wapakoneta for them before and after he became a presidential candidate. Indeed, Harding’s wife, Florence (neé) King was said to be an intimate friend of Lillian McFarland’s, and to share Queen Lil’s passion for spiritism—a trending topic in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Queen Lil’s fascination with “the occult” meant that her parties sometimes ended with groups of her closest guests remaining behind to participate in séances and other manifestations of spiritism.
The urban legend the way I heard it was first told to me by my fifth grade teacher, Jessie Crawford. Miss Crawford was old enough to vividly remember the incident. She had first started teaching, fresh out of Normal School, in the days when she still drove a horse and buggy to work. Indeed she had been my mother’s teacher before me, back when Jessie taught at, and my mother attended, one of many one-room red-brick schoolhouses that dotted the rural Ohio landscape every two miles or so—this particular one in Shelby County, near the Auglaize County line. But like many other Wapakonetans, she remembered the tale of Queen Lil in a version that was told to her rather than as it happened. 
According to Miss Crawford’s version, Queen Lil was the talk of the town for all the years that she held court in her big rambling house on high-end residential West Auglaize Street. It was Jessie who told me about Lil’s matched team of chestnut bay horses (later historians would speculate that the horses were matching white) and her fine carriage, built specially for her by the locally owned and operated Kreitzer buggy factory.
In Miss Crawford’s version, the crime was an utter mystery. It took place at Queen Lil’s home during one of her legendary parties. The house was full of guests drinking, dining and dancing. In the midst of it all, people heard a scream on the second floor. A woman who had climbed the stairs to fetch something from her coat or in search of the bathroom found another guest, “a man from Chicago”, according to Jessie, lying dead on the floor in a pool of his own blood.
There were theories, of course: that the man had quarreled earlier with someone over an outstanding debt; that the man from Chicago had been Lil’s lover and that either Lil’s husband or another would-be suitor had killed him in a jealous rage; still others figured it was random, a spur of the moment argument or insult that ended with one man dead and the murderer slipping anonymously into the party crowd.
Miss Crawford claimed that murder seemed to bring a curse down on Queen Lil’s head and home. She eventually lost everything, her fortune, her myriad acquaintances and, finally, her mind.
After her death and before that cursed and haunted house was finally torn down, people swore, Miss Crawford told me, that if you happened by the abandoned mansion on the darkest of nights, you could see a light in the second story window. And if you looked more closely still, you would also see a specter, the ghost of Queen Lil, holding a candle and then stooping low to inspect the bloodstained floor where “the man from Chicago” had died.
Miss Crawford’s story was, like so many other versions of the legend of Queen Lil that took shape over the years, one in which facts, with time, became merely  anecdotal, a frame on which to hang a legend, a ghost story. In the main, they were simply wrong—right down to the gender of the victim. The victim was, in fact, not “a man from Chicago” at all, but Lillian McFarland’s close friend, Nellie Harris.
“How could local storytellers even get the sex of the victim wrong?” I wondered, and indeed posed that question to Rachel Barber of the Auglaize County Historical Society. Rachel’s theory is that confusion arose because of made-up details parents passed on to their children. At a time of strict don’t-ask-don’t-tell social norms when it came to sexuality, the probability that Queen Lil and Nellie Harris were lesbian lovers was a hard pill to swallow in Wapakoneta society, especially considering that Nellie was the direct relative of an Ohio politician.
“So,” says Rachel, “everybody made up their own version of the story and people heard lots of different things.”
At the time of her death, Nellie Harris had been living with Queen Lil in the big house on West Auglaize Street for about a year, according to research files collected by the Auglaize County Historical Society. Nellie was from a well-to-do family, the thirty-four year old daughter of a former Republican congressman, and a native of Bucyrus, Ohio. The real story pieced together by local historians has little to do with most of the versions of the tale of Queen Lil that those of us from the boomer generation heard as children, a half-century or more after the fact. The fact is that there was a fairly detailed inquiry into Miss Harris’s death at the time, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that local historians probed public records and discovered details that allowed them to separate truth (or a reasonable version of it) from fiction and from the ghost stories that grew out of it.
The bare-bone facts are that Nellie Harris, Queen Lil’s friend, house guest and likely lover, disappeared from one of the numerous parties for which McFarland House was famous. Some say that a search was mounted by other guests. Others say that Queen Lil stumbled upon the mortally wounded Miss Harris on entering her boudoir and opening the closet door. Whatever the case may be, Miss Harris was found in an upstairs closet, critically wounded as a result of a gunshot to the head. Yes, the dying woman’s body was not discovered lying in a pool of blood in the upstairs hallway—as was said to be the case of “the man from Chicago”— but was found in a closet along with the murder weapon.
At first the death was reported to be a suicide. Nellie had shot herself in the head. And that was the story that Lillian McFarland would push like crazy, even after a coroner’s inquest was initiated. An interesting side light is that, although there was apparently no “man from Chicago” connected with the incident, there was indeed—cherchez la femme—a woman from Chicago somewhat involved, if for no other reason, then at least because of her suspicious behavior. According to reports from that time, it wasn’t half an hour after the body was discovered in the wee hours of the morning that another house guest, a socialite named Mae McPherson, was rushed out of the McFarland home, taken to the train station, and placed on a passenger train back to her home in Chicago.
It wasn’t long before the suicide theory was challenged. In the first place, it seemed odd that the woman would have shut herself in the closet before shooting herself. In the second place, the coroner found none of the traces of gunpowder on the corpse that would have been consistent with her having held a gun to her head and shot herself. The angle of the entry wound also called the suicide theory into question, since rather than being in the temple just behind the eye, the bullet had entered the skull from an angle consistent with a shooter’s position being somewhat behind and to the side of the victim.
The coroner, Dr. F.C. Hunter, was clear about his belief from the outset. On the very day of the murder, October 23, 1909, Dr. Hunter would state, “"I do not believe that the wound was self-inflicted." The subsequent investigation, however, failed to connect anyone to the murder and no one was ever indicted—despite the fact that Mae McPherson, “the woman from Chicago”, never again set foot in Wapakoneta, or that Queen Lil was said to have burned some of Miss Harris’s clothes along with some documentation that was never identified, even as Nellie Harris lay dying.
Jim Bowsher (left) discussing the Queen Lil saga with mutual 
friend Mark Gallimore 
Anyway, on a recent visit to my friend Jim Bowsher’s mind-bogglingly eccentric house, I brought up the legend of Queen Lil in one of our marathon conversations that, for the past several years, have become a sort of annual event for both of us, whenever I can get back to Ohio from my home in Patagonia. Now, Jim is something of a local legend himself. A storyteller by trade (he makes his living writing, as well as giving talks far and wide), Jim Bowsher is also a respected local historian and a kind of curator of Wapakoneta culture and folklore. He is also the creator of a fabulous rock garden and its centerpiece, the Temple of Tolerance, which fill the entire center of the block behind his house, and that is such a stunning phenomenon that it draws visitors from all over the United States and the world. But that’s a topic for another day.
Jim’s house in itself is an ad hoc museum. Actually, more than a museum, which it is hard to describe. But suffice it to say that it is an otherwise unremarkable house from the early twentieth century in which its owner and heir has amassed the most incredible array of objects imaginable. There is practically not a square inch of wall or other flat surface in the entire house that is not jam-packed with items that Jim has been collecting ever since he was in grade school (and he is now seventy). The question almost every collector will inevitably ask is, “So what does he collect? Art, antiques, artifacts...what?” The answer is, “Stories.” The pieces that cover—indeed, clutter—every square foot of the house have only one thing in common. Each and every one has a story behind it. Jim doesn’t collect anything that doesn’t come with a story. The objects are only important to him because of the stories they tell. They are all pieces of an historical puzzle that only makes sense when Jim pieces them together.
I’ve learned over the last few years of short but intensive contact with Jim that there’s hardly a subject related to the history of our town that won’t prompt him to spring from his seat and go fetch an object (and a story) to go with the theme. So I wasn’t surprised when I brought up Queen Lil and Jim leapt from his seat and retrieved the painting of a Roma woman in full Gypsy garb and excitedly exclaimed, “It’s not an unsolved murder! It was the Gypsies who did it. And they got the wrong person!”
To be continued...