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...       

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Loved this reading! I had heard bits and pieces before however this piece pulls most of those together? Thanks Dan for your writings and musings! Tom