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.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been mesmerized reading all three installment of Queen Lil. You certainly have a gift for making your subject matter real and engaging. Thank you for sharing it.

Carolyn Harshbarger
701 East Benton
Wapakoneta, OH 45895