Tuesday, July 25, 2006


I just got an email from a very upset woman in Virginia claiming that I used an unauthorized image in a previous post. I told her I had no idea what she was talking about but then looked at the post from an hour before and I saw the image of the child she was referring to. I have no idea where this image even came from. To the best of my knowledge the computer isn't even allowing me to load images, let alone random JPEGs from the internet, but it's obviously happening and until I figure out how to edit the image out of the post, it's still there. I have a message into the webmaster and I'm going through the various help menus for images trying to figure out how to delete it. This dial-up connection in the motel is part of the problem but there's something up with the laptop itself.

Gray Haven

Okay, news flash: this place couldn't be more aptly named. We've been here a week now and it seems much longer. It's not that there's so much to do or even check out -- they don't even have a historical society here -- but all the little wrinkles that arise from being away from home all of a sudden seemed to have ganged up on us over the last few days.

It hasn't exactly been a New England dream vacation by anybody's estimation. (Was it ever supposed to be?) Yesterday and the day before, the temperature's been up in the high-90s, and the window A/C in our room can barely make it tolerable at night. We talked to the hotel management the very first time we got here, and they've been in to look at it, but apparently they can't find anything wrong. I want to say, gee, maybe the fact that it's dripping coolant on our floor? Anyhow we took the boys to see Pirates of the Caribbean and Cars at the one movie theater in town, in hopes at least that would be a little cooler, but the air conditioning was even worse there. By Wednesday Tyler's allergies were acting up, probably because the amount of dust in the room. C. thinks there's probably mold in the floor too. We couldn't find his inhaler that night, and in the morning we had to drive twenty miles to find a Wal Mart that actually had a refill. It was worse again on Thursday night. Tyler and his brother were both awake half the night with nightmares, and in the morning C. and I got into a huge fight over something so stupid and trivial I can't bring myself to mention it. We didn't talk most of that day. To make matters worse I couldn't get online -- at first I thought it was the modem but it seems like some kind of virus somewhere. I'm not Mr. Computer Guy but I ran Norton Antivirus and I think it worked but there's still some bugs and it's slower than molasses. Ugh.

Weirdly enough, Thursday was when things finally started to turn around for us. We drove to meet Alun and Karen for a barbecue dinner, our kids (our two, their three) all played and ran riot through their back yard for most of the evening while we sat around drinking beer. It was one of those much-needed nights were everything went perfectly.

Friday morning I got another email from Jay and Amy asking if we could hang here for the weekend because they really wanted to show me this house they were exploring not too far from here. They had pictures for their own site and wanted to post them there first, but I've seen some of them and they're pretty incredible. The basement in particular made me want to check it out. C. told me she wasn't going anywhere near the place which only confirmed my feeling that I have to get there before we leave the area. Jay and Amy are going to email again when we can meet up. I thought I'd hear from them today but with my laptop getting buggy again I can't tell if I'm just not receiving all my messages. I hate to harass them on the cell phone but if I don't hear from them by tomorrow I'll give them a call.

Friday, July 14, 2006

East Newbury

We got to East Newbury late Sunday night. It’s a little farther than Alun made it sound, closer to the coast than the center of the state. Once you get off 95, the roads up here aren’t so clearly marked, and they tend to change names five or six times whenever the landscapers felt like it. C. got a little worried when we started seeing signs for the New Hampshire border. Fortunately we got an early start—I don’t think we ever would’ve found the place at night.

Our bed and breakfast, the East Wind Inn, had the kind of quaint New England charm they make calendars out of, but by the time we finally got there, all we needed was a place to crash and get some food. C. was exhausted and the boys needed a break after nine-plus hours on the road. It was almost nine o’clock but the couple that owns the inn, Deb and Charlie, were nice enough to reopen the kitchen and whip us up a late dinner. After we put the kids to bed, C. went up to take a bath, and I went out on the porch and asked Charlie if he knew anything about Isaac Hamilton. Right away he asked if I was writing a book. Apparently nobody else asks. When I mentioned the historical society, Charlie looked dubious. He said they’re hardly ever open.

In the morning I stopped by anyway. Sure enough, they weren’t open and there wasn’t any indication of when they might be back. C. and the boys and I spent the rest of the morning wandering through town but there wasn’t much to see, a few streets, shops, an old garage. It was getting hot and I couldn’t even find the statue of Isaac Hamilton that Alun had told me about. By the time we got back to the B&B for lunch, I was seriously starting to wonder if there was enough material to make an article about, let alone a whole book. C. wanted to call her friend and former employer in Concord and possibly take the boys out to Nantucket.

After lunch Charlie introduced me to two other guests at the Inn. Jay and Amy run an urban exploration web site called ohiotrespassers.com and they’d come out to take a look around the old Shaw House—an abandoned estate outside of town. When I told them I was writing a book about Hamilton, they were more than willing to let me tag along.

Depending on who you ask, the Shaw house was either built just before or just after the turn of the 19th century. Apparently Leonard Shaw had been a wealthy shipping magnate and he and his wife had three children. Jay told me there was some kind of local legend that Hamilton had murdered all three children one afternoon in October and Mrs. Shaw had spent the rest of her life in an asylum while Mr. Shaw drank himself to death as the house crumbled around him.

We got to the house late that afternoon. It was at the end of a long dirt road (unmarked, of course). I never would’ve found it by myself. Jay and Amy knew what they were doing and once we got in, they took some pretty amazing pictures of the interior.

When we got back to the B&B for dinner, C. told me that Alun had called. He wanted to meet us the next day in a town called Gray Haven, further west, closer to where he lives. He said there’s at least five other towns with some association to Hamilton. After I scanned in the Shaw house pictures Jay and Amy had taken, we talked more about possibly going out there together—Alun said were at least two old homesteads of Hamilton’s victims still standing. We made arrangements to meet before they left to go back to Ohio.

So tomorrow we’re supposed to head west, to Gray Haven. C. is basically okay with this but I can already tell this isn’t exactly the vacation she’d expected. The compromise is that once we’ve covered this ground, come August, we’ll go spend a week on Nantucket. If the University of California Press has a hard time with that, I’ll pay for it out of pocket.

Meanwhile, I’ll post again when and if I get anything interesting in Gray Haven.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

I first read about Isaac Hamilton fifteen years ago, back in college, when I found a picture in an old history book. The man's expression was remote but intense, and the caption beneath it read simply: Isaac Hamilton, Murderer. East Newbury.

That was it. No explanation as to how he killed or why the good people of East Newbury felt the need to immortalize him on film. Hell, I didn’t even know where East Newbury was. New Jersey, maybe?

If you google Isaac Hamilton (and I have) you won’t come up with much. Most of the information I found came from Clay Mather’s now out of print MURDER IN OLDE NEW ENGLAND. Hamilton hardly warrants a paragraph in Jay Nash’s classic BLOODLETTERS AND BADMEN. He’s a footnote and not much else, a frayed corner of history more or less forgotten. Mather describes him this way:

Ship records show that Hamilton served on a whaler out of New Bedford in the late Eighteenth Century. When he came back, he started his reign of terror. Before his death by lynching in 1802, Hamilton was charged with the murders of 34 innocents throughout New England, almost all of them children under the age of twelve.

Now hold it right there. Thirty-four kids? It had to be a misprint. There was no way something like that hadn't already found its way into pop culture. But it was still an interesting enough coincidence for me to email my friend Alun, a high school teacher who lives with his family up in Worcester, and ask if he’d ever heard of Hamilton. He never had, but he said he’d ask around. I didn’t hear anything for months, but when he finally got back to me, the news was worth waiting for.

Big Jeff:

Sorry it’s taken me so long. We’re still settling in from the move but Karen says if we haven’t unpacked it yet, it’s just going to stay in the box till next time.

Anyway, I got tired of dead ends and finally took a drive up to East Newbury last weekend. It’s basically a dead industrial town with some old bungalows and closed businesses. Think Allentown without the charm, ha-ha. I asked at the historical society about your guy Hamilton. Jackpot. It’s the same guy.

Here’s something else: they've actually got a statue of the guy in the town square. The woman at the historical society said Hamilton’s statue is up in a bunch of different towns through Massachusetts. She didn’t give me a lot of details except he was definitely the one that killed the children back around the turn of the century. When I asked her what they were doing building monuments to a serial killer she gave me this I-just-work-here look. She said she’d try to find out what the other towns were but no promises.

Dude, you ought to come and check this place out when you and Christina come up with the kids in August. You and I could take drive over there. By then they should at least know the other towns where Hamilton’s statue is up. Let me know and I’ll try to set something up.

That’s about all that’s going on right now. I have to finish grading these papers for tomorrow and I promised Karen I’d at least try to install the ceiling fan in the kitchen. It’s supposed to get hot next week.

Your pal,


When I got that email, I went back and dug up everything I could about Hamilton and East Newbury and typed it all up as a nice tidy Word document. I sent it as an attachment to another old high school friend who’s now an editor at University of California Press. It was a lark more than anything, because I was pretty damn sure that the last thing anybody in academia needed was another analytical monograph on some historical criminal, plus it’s no secret that I can’t write anything more sophisticated than a grocery list. There’s a reason why I teach high school math for a living.

To my surprise I got a phone call from my editor friend, a week later. At first I couldn’t believe what she was saying. Not only would UC Press be interested in publishing an account of what happened, or might have happened, with Isaac Hamilton, they were offering a five thousand dollar advance against expenses and research for me to check it out. It was her idea that I start a blog now, just to keep her posted about what I find out, and maybe pique her boss’s interest to expand this into an actual book.

When I sprung the news on C. about heading up to New England, six weeks between now and the end of summer, she was ecstatic. We’re looking at it as an all-expenses-paid vacation to Massachusetts, and if I actually do get a book deal out of it, all the better. If not, I’m posting everything interesting. Either way my job’s waiting for me when we get back to Pennsylvania in September.

I was up late last night confirming reservations at a bed and breakfast in East Newbury. Alun said we were welcome to stay with them, but a week is way too long to be someone’s houseguest, especially since there’s four of us…and the UC advance will easily cover the hotel bill and then some. That’s what it’s for.

C. finished packing after we put the kids to bed. We’re leaving in the morning. Hopefully I’ll get some time to post again when we arrive.