The Strange Fishing Excursion of a New York Reporter
Drifting in Search of the Dead
The River Resurrectionist and His Queer Calling
The Romances of the New York Waters
[New York Dispatch.]
“Candidly now, Mr. Walker, don’t you find corpse-hunting a dismal calling?”
“As you say, sir, it ain’t the most cheerfullest business in the world. But somebody’s got to do it, and why not me?”
“You have been at it a good while?”
“Nigh onto twenty year.”
“And you like it?”
“Well, I don’t hanker after it to break my heart. But I don’t see much differ between fishing for whales or dead men, likewise women, ‘cept that dead men makes the least trouble. If you want to, you can have a seat in my boat to-night and jedge for yerself. That is, if you are lucky, for the
STIFFS HAS RUN VERY LIGHT LATELY.”
Mr. Zachary Walker spoke as if he was discussing a run of menhaden or shad, and in a voice that seemed to proceed sepulchrally from some phonographic mechanism buried in his stomach. He sat in the back room of a South-street saloon, which looked like a vault in an Egyptian pyramid as befitted such a rendezvous. It was eleven o’clock on the dark and airless light of Monday last, and, as Mr. Walker expressed it, “as hot as the hinges of perdition and as black as the Earl of Hell’s Jack-boots.” But in spite of the heat that gentleman was so wrapped up in a heavy pea-jacket that he bore a singularly close and most appropriate resemblance to a mummy. As if this was not enough, he was drinking hot rum and spice.
“It fetches the sweat,” he explained to the Dispatch representative; “and you’ve either got to fetch sweat or the sweat’ll fetch you.”
Mr. Zachary Walker’s theory, amounting in fact to a rooted belief, is, that as long as a man’s pores are open he is safe from danger of any human ill. Consequently he never permits his to close or “shut pan on him,” as he phrases it. For years he has been famous among those who know him for never imbibing any beverage but hot spiced rum. Water he never drinks.
“And neither would you, sir,” he said to the reporter, “if you seen them in it which I see twenty year. Ugh!”
“’TAIN’T A CANNONBILL.”
Conducted by his perspiring friend, whose progress in the darkness was marked, even in the unsavory waterside odors hanging fetidly over the wharves, by the rank, sour reek of sweat, the Dispatch representative stumbled out on the wharf next to Fulton Ferry. A ghostly young man in a checked jumper started suddenly out of the darkness at the end of the pier. He had a little lantern in whose light he showed to be so soaked and slimy with perspiration that he might just have been fished out of the river. His humid countenance wore a dissatisfied expression, and he grumbled;
“Well, I thought you never was a coming.”
“Never’s a longer day than you ever see yet, Dave,” returned Mr. Walker, casting off the painter of an unseen boat from a ring on the string-piece.
“We’ve most lost the tide, we have, and I hope you’re satisfied.”
“Well, allow that I am, Dave, and call it square. Tumble in, sir.”
WITH HIS HEART IN HIS MOUTH
The reporter dropped into the darkness out of which the swirl and gurgle of the strong ebb tide among the wharf-posts rose. He landed rattling in a boat. Dave followed with the lantern, which he guarded as jealously as if it was some imperial gem. Zachary Walker came last, and in a minute more the dead sweet smell of pineapples and oranges faded behind the boat as the tide carried it swiftly from the rot-dock where the fleet of West India fruiters were asleep.
Dave pulled a stout pair of oars, but there was little exertion with them necessary, for the current bore the boat along so swiftly that the scattered lights on the Brooklyn shore fairly flew past. Zachary Walker squatted in the bow, with the lantern held at the level of his breast. The reporter counterbalanced him on the stern. A long wake of phosphorescent fire trailed along behind.
The first thing that struck the scribe was the intense and keen business attention displayed in Zachary Walker’s every movement. He only spoke in monosyllables now. His eyes were every-where. The flash of the little lantern dotted the water with rapidly changing discs of light. They were here, there and every-where, dancing on the black river, glancing along the piers and diving deep into the gloomy caverns formed by the timbers of the wharves.
BUT THEY REVEALED NOTHING.
At least nothing of the sort of which the boat was in search. Driftwood and garbage matted the docks where the tide raced in and out again, forming strong eddies in which the floating objects whirled round and round as if they were the component parts of a vast hellbroth which some spirit hand was stirring. A few dead animals and fish showed among the wreck, but the fisherman in the boat, though his prey, too, was dead, had no eyes for them. The skiff went steadily in and out one dock after another, and the fiery eye of the lantern peered into every dark hole and corner, but it revealed no prize for the river resurrectionist.
Zachary Walker received these disappointments with philosophical calmness, but Dave, whose other name the reporter had now discovered to be Kimo, enveloped a strong sense of wrong.
“I never see such luck,” he said. “Bust my crust if I don’t think people have stopped getting drownedead.” [sic]
“All the better for the people,” returned Zachary, winking at the reporter. “Eh, sir?”
“The people!” repeated Mr. Kimo, disgustedly. “Oh, yes! To be sure, yes. The people is to be considered—they is. An’ where the bleedin’ ___ does we come in, I want to know?”
The fact of the matter is, sir,” explained Zachary, “Dave’s temper is sort of soured lately. You see
HE HAS BEEN CROSSED IN LOVE.”
“Crossed in love”
“Yes, sir. Last January we was a picking of our way down the river about two o’clock in the morning .The stream was full of ice, but the night were werry bright with a full moon. Suddenly I see a woman on the end of that werry dentical dock there,” pointing to Pier No. 8, which the boat was just rounding. “She stood there jest about a minute, and then she throws her arms up, and over she goes into the drink.
“Well, sir, we couldn’t get the boat through the pack ice atween us and the shore to save our souls. Wot does that Dave Kimo do but snatch a oar and go out on the ice, a-crawlin’ on his belly toward the wharf. Close in the ice was swashed by some wessel as had been towed out that arternoon, and it hadn’t frozen together solid gain. The woman had gone through this, come up, and grabbed the edge of the hard ice, an’ there she hung now, a-yelling for help like a catamount. She wanted to die, but preferred warmer water.
“Dave got her out and brought her aboard the boat. She were a pretty young thing, about twenty year old, and werry nice dressed. She were most crazy, and from her talk we made out she had been left by her husband at the Stevens House, where they was a-stopping.
DAVE KIMO FELL IN LOVE
With her at once. He wrapped her up in the blankets we allus carries, and when we got in at Pier 1 he carries her to the hotel and rushes for the doctor. The nearest one lived at the werry hotel she had run away from, and there Dave finds the husband raving round like a crazy stud-horse, threatenin’ to tear the roof off if he couldn’t find his wife. He hed been away a day and a night on business, and the dispatch he’d senet her to tell her of it hed gone astray. So she thought he hed deserted her, you see. He gev us a clean hundred cases apiece, and you never see two happier people than them. But it was rough on Dave, I allow.”
“A dead skin, that’s what it was,” commented the victim of disappointment. “You show me a deader skin now, ef you kin.”
The boat now passed the South Ferry slip, and held a course of the Brooklyn end of Governor’s Island. A South Ferry boat passed so close that the rough water of her paddles set the skiff dancing crazily, and the reporter asked:
“Don’t you ever get into trouble with the ferry-boats?”
“I never did but once. I was run down by the Atlantic once. My boat was bursted all to splinters and my pardner killed. But I was picked up. Sence then I look twiste afore I cross a ferry-boat’s bows, you can bet your life. Ah! Here’s the channel. Now, then, Dave, take her through easy.”
The skiff slid slowly through the channel separating Governor’s Island from South Brooklyn. The fall of the oars broke the water into phosphorescent bubbles. On the landing wharf the steps of the sentry could be distinctly heard. A dog barked, and a boat moored to the wharf rattled and banged against the piles. Otherwise the silence was as profound as that of an abandoned graveyard.
“This here channel was our best lay onct,” said Zachary Walker, in a husky half whisper. “The shores used to be shoke up with weeds, and many’s the corpse would come down with the tide and get tangled here. Do you mind that young Frenchman, Dave?”
“Ay, do I.”
“Just at daylight one morning we found a stiff here. It was a young Frenchman in a spike-tail coat, and dressed like as fi for a ball. He had a bullet-hole in his head and a revolver in his hand. The police made him out to be a young artist named Pierry. About four days afterward we picked up a young lay at the werry same place. She were dressed elegant and wore diamonds. My souls! Do you ‘member them diamonds, Dave?”
“Oh, don’t I!”
“Well, sir, that pair, so the police found out, was lovers. Both had tempers of their own. One night the was coming from a party in New York—they lived in Brooklyn, you see—and they had a spat. Pierry he puts the gal into a car and walks back, aboard of the boat. About half-way betwixt Brooklyn and New York the people on the boat hears, from the bow,
A SHOT AND A PLUNGE.
“Two days afterward we found young Pierry down in the Buttermilk Channel. When the gal found out about it I s’pose her conscience smote her. Anyway, the same river as drifter her lover down among the mud and tangled grass fetched her there afterward.
“Most of the people we finds, though is unknowns. About three-quarters is poor, poverty-hunted wretches, that is better off in the river than any where else. The rest is, say half accidents and the t’other half wiolences. The accidents generally pans out well enough from their pockets. The wiolences is allus cleaned out.
“Sakes alive! What fearful things I see among them wiolences. Onct I picked up a man which his entrils was eat right out’n him and a lot of eels in there instead. He had been ripped open. Dozens have I found without heads, either rotted or cut off. I can tell you, when I first got to handlin’ them the sights an’ the smells was enough to turn me inside out. But I got used to it, an’ here I am. There’s a way of handlin’ a river stiff, you see, as makes the work easy enough when you know how.
“Our spear of usefulness ain’t limited to stiffs though. Ef we had to depend on them we’d schaww wind instead of beefsteaks most of the time. It’s live men as plays in best for us. Years ago, you see, afore the police was so strict, if you caught a corpse you went through its pockets, and frequently, specially on sailors,
“FOUND A COMFORTBLE PILE.
“Now, however, every thing has to be handed to the police for purposes of dentification. Of course, in cases like Piorry and the young gal, the relatives comes down handsome. But then for two of them we ketch two hundred that ain’t worth the rope we tow ‘em ashore with hardly. Why, sir, in the old days we used to not only empty a body’s pockets, but strip its clothes off. I’ve seen men which wore the duds off of twenty different corpses at one time for a Sunday suit. That was the reason you hardly ever heard of any drowned people being identified in them days. If they hadn’t no marks on their bodies, they couldn’t be.
“Now, contrarywise, we tows a corpse ashore and gives it up to the police just as it lays.
“But I was a talking about live men. There’s more suicides tempted round New York than ever the police dreams of. Men is drunk or down-heareted, or something or other, and they happens to be on a ferry-boat. Every things handy, so over they goes. As soon as they tastes water, though, they weakens, and wishes they hadn’t gone and done it. That’ sour chance. If we can only pick them up, then we’re good for all the money they can lays hands to for rescooing of them and keeping the thing quiet. I raked in seven since the first of the month. One of ‘em is one of the owners of the werry line of ferry-boats he jumped off of. Another is
THE CAPTING OF A OCEAN STEAMER.
“Generally, though we never find their names out, and of course we never ask, most of that sort has money with them. When they hasn’t they says, ‘Meet me at so and so to-morrow, my man,’ and they never misses fire. If you ever see shame-faced men, it’s them, and they’d ruther pay hundreds of dollars than have the stories against them come out.
“The queerest start I ever had in this way was about four years ago. It was one rainy night in the fall of the year. I was pulling for home with Dave here at the tiller, when a boat drifted past us. We rowed alongside, intending to take it in tow, when we found a man in the bottom. He was sensible, but hit hard with a bullet in his breast. The bottom of the boat was full of blood, and he was so weak he could hardly speak.
“He had tongue enough to beg us not to take him to the Police Station. I didn’t know what to do. I see at once that he were a river thief, and knew I art to give him up. But the pore devil was hurt so bad and begged so hard that I give in at last and took him home along with me. He laid in our room a week. A doctor, which he sent me to hisself, and which was a friend of his, tended to him. As soon as he was well enough he went away in a hack. I never see him again, but one day a Adams Express comes to the house with an envelope
“IT HAD $250 IN IT.
“All I could find out was that it come from a man named John Smith, which, in course, was as good as no name at all. From what I was able to hear I concluded that my man was Big Mike Shanahan, the river pirate. He answered the description anyhow, and about that time he was shot by a watchman on the ship Australasia, but escaped. His pardners was captured on that job and sent up. Mike was reported to have hid somewhere till he could get away afrom the city. If I ain’t very much mistaken, he was hid in my room.”
Another and much more legitimate source of profit to the river resurrectionist, Mr. Walker went on to explain, is grappling for families who have lost a relative, presumably by drowning, frequently employing him day after day dragging suspected points in the river of the missing one. Accidents on the river are also fat jobs. A blow-up like the Westfield’s is a red letter event in the corpse-hunter’s history. Grappling for dead is paid for by the day, and at a very fair rate of remuneration. The relatives of those found generally reward the finder with extra presents.
In regard to the gains of the corpse-hunter, Zachary Walker was adamantinely secret. The reporter could not ascertain whether this proceeded from a fear that he was going to enter into competition with him or not. But only the vaguest and most unsatisfactory hints could be gained. One point, however, struck the Dispatch representative very forcibly. That was that in spite of the police regulations a corpse with any money in its pocket stood or floated a poor chance of ever reaching shore
WITH ITS PROPERTY INTACT.
There are any number of channels of gain open to the river resurrectionist beside that which he claims for his legitimate one. Many and valuable objects are lost overboard from vessels in the harbor and picked up by him. He is a steady customer at the water-side junkshops, where scarcely anything originally worth money can be so badly damaged as to not be worth buying. Then, again, the smuggler must find him a valuable auxiliary. He knows every point and winding of the river front, from the lonely landing places far up town to the somber wharf caves, like “Hell’s Kitchen,” where the river thieves conceal their boats and land their plunder.
A vast quantity of the smuggling of this city is performed by sailors on the sailing vessels plying between here and the West Indian ports. Cigars, bay rum and brandy are the chief objects with which the cunning mariner seeks to evade the vigilance of the Custom-house officials. Contrabandist Jack finds the corpse hunter’s boat a handy vehicle for his purpose, if his own admissions are to be credited.
ZACHARY WALKER’S BUSINESS
Last Monday night was, however, unmarred by any lawlessness. The long pull around Governor’s Island brought the turn of the tide and dawn with it together, and the skiff’s head was turned to New York. A light fog drifted smokily along with the tide, deadening even the steady sound of the falling oars. Suddenly there was a soft jolt, and then the skiff swung slowly round. Zachary Walker sprang up and leaned over the side, a cord with a noose at its end in his hand.
“What’s the matter? Asked the reporter. “Are we aground?”
“Aground! No much we ain’t. Ease her off a little, Dave. Ah! There it is. Now pull a stroke.”
Zakary Walker spoke in the hurried accents of an excited man. The face of Dave Kimo, the misanthrope, shone. The reporter felt an uneasiness in his stomach which grew to positive nausea as the boat ran alongside of a hideous, sodden, shapeless, floating thing at which the tide was softly lapping. The corpse hunter, cord in hand, leaned out over the side, and a brief pause followed.
“Have you got it?” then demanded Dave Kimo.
“Got it, be d___d!” returned Zachary Walker, dropping on the stern thwart. “Give way for home. It’s only a dog.”
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 June 1879: p. 11
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.