January 19, 1735
Mary Pinkerton heard the faint clip clop of the horse’s hooves as the cart carrying her friend Alice Riley was pulled ever closer to Percival Square. She tucked the blanket tighter around the baby boy she held nestled securely beneath her chin.
Mary glanced around at the jeering, raucous crowd. One couldn’t stir these bloodthirsty onlookers with a stick, despite the wind and the cold, slow drizzle. Mary wouldn’t be here herself were it not for the fact that Alice had asked her to come. The poor child had said she wanted to see one kind face among the glaring throngs...and she’d hoped to look upon her baby—the son she’d given birth to only days ago—one last time.
While hangings always generated a great deal of interest, this one promised to be especially entertaining for the crowd. Alice was to be the first woman hanged in the Georgia colony.
Mary clutched the babe firmly as the horse neared the square and she caught a glimpse of Alice. The young woman’s face was ashen, a sharp contrast to the cloud of black hair visible beneath her blue hat. She was whispering...praying, Mary supposed. She wore a gown of white trimmed in blue. It had been made for her by some of the women of the colony who’d felt sorry for the seventeen-year-old girl.
Many believed Alice had been wrongly convicted. Others knew that William Wise had been an evil man and that if Alice had indeed killed him, he’d deserved it. Some of the other servants who’d been in the Wise household had hinted that their employer had raped Alice, and that the child she’d carried was his. However, none of them would dare make such accusations outright for fear of their own conduct being called into question. No one wanted to follow Alice and Richard White—her alleged accomplice—to the gallows, and no one wanted to be branded a troublemaker either. Besides, the court wouldn’t deem that Wise had done anything wrong since indentured servants were considered their master’s property to do with as he wished. Alice and Richard had been convicted of drowning William Wise in a wash bucket. Richard had been hanged soon after the sentencing. Alice had been allowed to give birth to her child first.
Mary remembered the first time she’d ever seen Alice. The poor girl was painfully thin, pale, and disheveled. Her clothing was dirty and torn. She’d blinked and teared in the sunshine, holding a hand up to shield her eyes as she—along with the hundred other indentured servants aboard the ship—stumbled down the gangplank onto the dock. Despite her bedraggled condition, Alice was lovely. Mary, who’d come to the dock to bring lunch to her husband, who worked loading and unloading cargo ships, was afraid for the girl.
Alice either tripped or was pushed, and she fell onto her hands and knees. No one stopped to help her up. They simply stepped over or around her and moved on.
Mary rushed forward to the side of the gangplank. “Are you all right?”
Alice turned those deep blue eyes on her. They were filled with sorrow and doubt.
Mary thrust out her hand. “Come on. I can help you stand.”
Alice took Mary’s outstretched hand and managed to get to her feet. When she made it onto the dock, Mary pulled her to the side.
“Are you hurt?”
“No. Thank you for your aid,” Alice said in a voice that had obviously not been accustomed to being used for the past several weeks.
Mary furtively reached into her basket and took out one of the biscuits she’d brought for her husband. She pressed the biscuit into Alice’s hand. “Careful that no one sees you with it. The other immigrants might take it from you.”
“I know they would,” Alice said, slipping the biscuit into the pocket of her black dress. “Thank you.”
“My name is Mary. Mary Pinkerton.” She smiled. “I wish you good fortune here.”
“My name is Alice Riley.” She, too, attempted a smile. “I doubt good fortune is what I will find, but whatever fate awaits me here has to be better than starving to death in my native Ireland.”
“Your parents...are they with you?” Mary asked.
Alice shook her head. “They are dead—Father from an accident, and Mother from the famine.”
A spirit—a man who haunted the docks, recruiting and selling indentured servants—bellowed, and Alice started in fright.
“I must go,” she said.
“I hope we meet again,” Mary told her.
Mary later shuddered and felt nauseated when she learned that Alice had been bought by William Wise. By all accounts, Wise was a cruel master. He raped his female servants and beat both male and female servants on a regular basis. Mary knew that poor Alice would suffer much at the wealthy landowner’s hands.
The cart was driven up to the gallows. The sheriff stepped forward and placed the noose around Alice’s slender neck.
“Please!” she cried. “I am innocent! I did nothing wrong!”
“The court passed sentence,” the sheriff said firmly. “May God have mercy on your soul.”
Mary looked at the priest who merely stood by the sheriff with a solemn expression on his pinched face. God would be merciful to Alice, she thought. The English judge who reviled the Irish indentured servants who’d come to the Colonies to escape the potato famine certainly had not been.
Mary had not seen Alice again after their initial meeting on the dock until after Alice was arrested for murdering William Wise. Mary had visited her at the jail. Still looking as gaunt but now even more haunted than she had when they’d first met all those months ago, Alice showed no recognition when Mary was shown to her cell.
“Hello, Alice. We met the first day you arrived here.”
Alice frowned, but then she remembered. “On the dock...you gave me a biscuit.”
Mary smiled. “That’s right. How are you?”
“I was wrong when I said my fate here had to be better than dying of starvation at home,” Alice said. “Would that I had died there before ever stepping foot on this wretched soil.”
“What happened? Did you really do what they claim you did?”
“Aye. I suppose I did.”
“But perhaps it was an accident,” Mary said. “I doubt you meant for the man to die.”
Alice glanced around, making sure the jailer could not hear her. “I did.”
“Tell me what happened.”
Alice sighed. “There was a man there—the butler. His name was Richard, and he was strong and handsome, and he loved me.”
“But ‘tis against the law for an indentured servant to marry,” Mary said.
“Richard was willing to wait for me. We were discrete, Richard and I, but Mr. Wise...he saw something...he knew. It made him jealous and angry. He set out to expose me to every humiliation...every torture he could devise.” She pressed her fist against her lips as tears rolled down her sunken cheeks. “The night he...died...I was bathing him as always. He asked me to disrobe. I began to do so, but I was too slow. He took a riding crop and began flailing at my flesh.” She raised the right sleeve of her gray wool dress to show Mary a long, bloody welt. “Most of the others are on my back.”
Mary gasped. “Did you show this to the judge?”
Alice nodded. “It made no difference. Richard heard me screaming, and he burst into the room. Mr. Wise threatened to kill Richard.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I had no idea what to do. God help me, I plunged Mr. Wise’s head into the wash bucket.”
“But you could not strong arm a man as burly as William Wise.”
“No, I could not. Richard helped me. We held his head under the water until he stopped moving.” She reached her hand through the bars to grasp that of her friend. “What shall I do, Mary? My baby will pay for my sins.”
“Yes,” said Alice. “I am with child.”
“You must tell them,” Mary said. “It could save your life.”
Mary was barely able to hear one last “please” pass through Alice’s lips over the noise of the crowd. Then the sheriff slapped the bay horse’s hind flank with a small whip, and the cart lurched forward out from under Alice.
Suspended in the air like a marionette, Alice jerked and kicked. Her hat and one of her shoes fell off, and several people—men, women, and even some older children—made a dive for the souvenirs. The crowd taunted and cheered as Alice struggled, until Mary could stand it no more. For goodness’ sake, a woman—a girl, really—was being murdered before their very eyes and it was mere sport to them!
“The Lord is my shepherd,” Mary yelled in a strong voice.
The noise startled the baby, and he began to cry. But Mary didn’t let that deter her.
“I shall not want,” she continued over the wails of the baby. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
“Hush,” an elderly lady beside her hissed. “‘Tis unseemly to quote Holy Scripture for her.”
Mary moved away from the woman and tried to get nearer the gallows as Alice gasped for breath. “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
A menacing group edged toward Mary, intending to make her stop, but it wasn’t necessary. Alice had stopped struggling. She was dead. Mary turned and made her way out of the square.
* * * *
Glade Spring, Virginia
March 20, 1908
Sally Hess poured coffee into Bertha Tomlinson’s cup before topping off her own and setting the pot back onto the stove. Sally was tall, even slightly taller than Bertha. With her dark brown hair and ice blue eyes, she’d have been considered pretty had she been dainty. As it was, people referred to Sally as a handsome woman.
“That’s a lovely brooch you have on,” she said.
“Thank you.” Bertha raised a hand to fondle the octagonal pin fastened at the collar of her blouse. “My mother gave it to me. It’s the one thing I haven’t had to sell...yet.”
“I’m glad you haven’t. It really is striking.” The bezel-set shell brooch depicted Ceres—the goddess of agriculture, fertility, and motherhood—with wheat and roses entwined in her hair. “Sugar?” she asked, placing a sugar bowl in front of her guest.
“Please.” Bertha helped herself to two cubes of sugar as Sally sat down across the table from her. “What would my duties be?” She stirred her coffee.
“Some light housekeeping,” Sally said. “Mainly I’d just like for you to be here for the children.”
“You expect to be away often?” Bertha tasted her coffee. She avoided looking at Sally as she wrinkled her nose and dropped another sugar cube into her cup.
“A bit stout, is it?” Sally asked, a hint of a smile playing about her lips.
“It...it’s fine.” Bertha hesitantly raised the cup to her lips and took another sip.
“In answer to your question,” Sally said, “I do anticipate being away some. When the crops begin to come in, I’ll need to take them to the market...that sort of thing. It’s not easy being a farmer’s wife. I’m left to run all the errands while he stays here and works the fields.”
“And there are three children?” Bertha asked.
“Yes, two girls and a boy...all under the age of nine.” Sally smiled. “They are usually well behaved...not too rambunctious.”
Bertha’s mouth widened as if she’d intended to smile, but her expression froze.
Sally’s smile broadened. “Anything wrong, dear?”
Bertha’s eyes held panic. Her right arm convulsed, sending the china cup half full of coffee crashing to the floor.
Sally calmly pushed her chair back from the table, rose, and strode to Bertha’s side of the table. Bertha’s eyes were pleading—she apparently thought Sally had come to help her. Instead, she merely unfastened the brooch and slipped it into the pocket of her skirt.
“Thank you, dear. I’d hate for this to be ruined,” Sally said.
She went to the hall closet where two packed suitcases were waiting. She placed her traveling hat on her head and stopped to adjust it and to admire her reflection in the hall mirror.
“Momma, can we come down now?” a little girl’s voice called from upstairs.
“Not yet, Betsy,” Sally said. “Get back in bed and don’t let me catch you sneaking downstairs.”
When she returned to the kitchen, Bertha was on the floor, her entire body wracked with convulsions as she fought for breath.
Sally set the suitcases by the kitchen door. “It’ll be over soon, Bertha...or should I call you Sally?” She removed her simple wedding band, caught hold of Bertha’s hand, and placed it on her finger. “You might need that.” She plucked Bertha’s drawstring purse off the table. “And I might need this.”
She opened the pantry and took out a can of kerosene and doused it onto the floor. Leaving the can overturned, she hurried to the door. She lit a match and dropped it into a pool of the fuel before hurrying out the door.
Bertha had arrived in an old wagon pulled by an even older bay horse. This is what Sally took her leave in. As she drove the horse down the dirt road, she turned once to look back at the house, now engulfed in flames. She wished Betsy had stayed asleep. It might have been more humane to have smothered the children before setting the house on fire, but it was too late to think about that at this point. The brooch in her pocket had not been refastened, and it stabbed her in the thigh.
“Goddess of motherhood indeed,” she muttered under her breath.
She figured that with the fire, she wouldn’t have long before Harvey was found out in the cow pasture. She hadn’t buried him very deep—hadn’t had the time. She’d sell the horse and trap as soon as she got into town, and she’d begin getting as far away from Virginia and as close as she could to a fresh start first thing tomorrow morning.
Sally was in a diner in Saltville the next day when the waitress refilled her coffee cup and mentioned the terrible fire that had claimed Sally Hess and two of her three children.
Sally tsked and shook her head. “What a tragedy. You say one of the children survived?”
“Do you know which one?” asked Sally.
“No. Poor thing will probably be shipped off to an orphanage or something.”
“May I bring you anything else, Miss Tomlinson?” the waitress asked.
“No, thank you, dear,” Sally said with a smile. “I have a train to catch.”
* * * *
Two Years Ago
Alexandra stood in the doorway of the kitchen. Her mother held a butcher knife covered in blood—her stepfather’s blood. It was spreading slowly over the linoleum. Later—at trial—the prosecutor would say Frank had been stabbed thirty-five times.
Maggie, Alexandra’s younger sister, huddled whimpering in the corner. She’d curled herself into as small a ball as she could manage and was rocking ever so slightly.
Alexandra suddenly felt like a child...not the sophisticated twenty-three-year-old she imagined herself to have become. “What are we gonna do, Mom?”
“The only thing that can be done. I’ll call the police and turn myself in.”
“No! You can’t!”
Alexandra was to remember the rest only in flashes: the police arriving...leaving with their mother...an ambulance taking her sister away while another took Frank to the morgue...scrubbing the kitchen floor until her hands were raw.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish