Monday, December 24, 2018


Read Part One at
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.”
“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...


Susan Melody said...

I'm enthralled, waiting for your next installment!

Lilly said...

Can't wait to find out more about Queen Lil!

Dan Newland said...

Thanks Susan!

Dan Newland said...

Thanks Lilly! Cariños.