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.
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.
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.