May 26, 2015 09:25:06
Posted By Michael Bell
The description of the “old superstition” in the anonymous “Quick Consumption” (1871) is mirrored five years later in Fairfield’s “A Century Ago” (1876): “The old superstition in such cases is that the vital organs of the dead still retain a certain flicker of vitality, and by some strange process absorb the vital forces of the living; and they quote in evidence apocryphal instances in which exhumation has revealed a heart and lungs still fresh and living, incased in rottening and slimy integuments, and in which, after burning these portions of the defunct, a living relative, else doomed and hastening to the grave, has suddenly and miraculously recovered.” Both texts have the exhumation taking place at night by a single individual, which, in the New England tradition, is a remarkably rare occurrence—not to mention a nearly impossible task.
Has forensic linguistics identified the parent of this orphan text, “Quick Consumption”? Regardless of authorship, how do we know that the narrative is fiction? Several features argue that the event did not happen as described. First, none of the named individuals can be found in the records for the town of Stafford: no contemporary birth or death record, federal census entry, or gravestone records the existence of any person identified in the narrative. Second, the patterning of the narrative motifs, seamlessly moving the action forward in regular and predictable steps, belies a sense of reality. Each person dying at three-week intervals, for example, seems just too perfect. The happy ending is just icing on the cake.
Like the events that Fairfield wrote about in the West Stafford cemetery, his own story was not without tragedy. The headlines of his obituary, in the form of a letter penned by a longtime associate at the New York Times, summarized Fairfield’s personal misfortune: “Some of the Many Tragedies of Journalism. Josephine and Francis Gerry Fairfield. Deadly Opium Leads Both to an Untimely End. Bright Writers Whose Lights Went Out Unpleasantly.” The letter related how Fairfield had graduated from college, studied theology, then earned an advanced degree in veterinary medicine. But writing was his calling, as his colleague wrote:
In 1865 a bright-eyed, fragile-built, clean-cut young man entered journalism in this city. He was well born, well bred, and his education was along broader lines than those of most of us. He had a peculiar mind, which sought information in unusual channels. . . . No sight more common in Printing House square than Fairfield, with his cigar or pipe, a bundle of books or papers under one arm, and his little wife upon the other.
Then, the brilliant couple began experimenting with opium. His former associate described the dimming of the once-bright lights:
His work was as brilliant as ever, his articles, whether for magazine, weekly or daily, were as readily accepted as ever, but little by little his manner changed, and as he went so went she.