by Merril D. Smith
“DOUBLE CRIME, Pittston Man Shot Scranton Girl, Then Committed Suicide.”
Wilkes-Barre Record, September 13, 1909, p. 5
In my mind, I see her, Pearl, walking on the bridge, a factory girl in her Saturday night finery. The days are still warm in early September, but the violet evening skies hint that summer is dying and autumn is on its way. She stops and stands for a moment looking at Jesse; her long skirt twitches in the breeze. She is alive and vital at fifteen years old, on the cusp of womanhood.
It is 1909, the Progressive Era, a time of immigration, strikes, social work, and lynching. Distant news arrives in telegrams. Railroads crisscross the country, and a few people even have motorcars. Pearl’s siblings will live through two world wars; live to see telephones and airplanes, the Great Depression, shorter skirts, bobbed hair on women, Bobby-soxers, Elvis, and the beginning of the civil rights movement. Pearl will never see these things.
But the complexity of human emotions is a constant in every era. Love and hate can tangle tighter than any sailor’s knots.
Jesse was twenty-eight, infatuated and jealous—insanely so, some said. His friends insisted he was sober and industrious, as in shock—they later reported what they knew--that
he had threatened to do “something awful,” if Pearl refused to be his wife. Jesse had argued with her because she had kept company with other men. Still, his friends all claimed to be surprised by his “rash act.”
Yet, Jesse had planned carefully. He took a pistol to the meeting on the bridge, and he shot Pearl, firing first at her heart, then to her brain, as if to destroy feeling and thought, body and soul. “Homicide,” the coroner wrote in his official report. Just the facts, one human killed another. But there is no word for the broken hearts that still beat in traitorous lub dubs, surviving even when fragmented. No word for the unnatural grief of parents burying their children.
Jesse also brought carbolic acid in a bottle that he pulled from his pocket, after he killed Pearl, and drank it before anyone could stop him. Bystanders carried him to the police station. He died there, never regaining consciousness. “Suicide,” according to the official report--the what without the whys.
Jesse ran a motor in a mine; Pearl worked in a silk mill, six-day weeks for little pay.
She agreed to that Saturday night meeting with Jesse, wanting to say, according to her friend, that she wouldn’t marry him. She wanted to make it plain—again—there and then on that Scranton bridge, where now the blood is washed away, the bodies gone, and the events forgotten, a crime of passion from long ago.
Still, I am obsessed by this crime and this young woman, my husband’s ancestor, haunted by what could have been. This woman-girl, a pearl not fully formed, was dead at fifteen, killed, murdered. Her blood dripped from that railroad bridge, and it sank deep into the soil of Pennsylvania coal country. One more woman killed by a jealous man. Their ghosts glimmer in the hills, rusty diamonds formed from compressed rage and fear. But that was then, in a time long past—when things, of course, were different.
I’m sure they offered thoughts and prayers. I offer her story, brief, like her life.
Pearl V. Rought (1894-1909)
Photo by Paul Varnum on Unsplash.com
Merril D. Smith is a writer, editor, and poet. She has a Ph.D. in American history and is the author/editor of several books of history, gender, and sexuality. She lives in New Jersey, near Philadelphia, with her husband and cats. She shares poetry and random thoughts on her blog, https://merrildsmith.wordpress.com/