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Murder, suicide, fire and a crazy Mallory locked up at home in early Mystic

January 12, 2019

One of my favorite stories of Helen May Clarke’s, in her memoir about growing up in Mystic, “An Account of My Life, 1915-1926,” was related to the fire that destroyed the biggest building in town, the Gilbert Block, on a windy day in the summer of 1917, despite firefighting help that came from as far away as New London and Westerly.

It seems Charles Cameron, a storekeeper, ran from his home to the scene of the fire to retrieve things from the store safe. As the fire roared around him, Clarke wrote, Cameron kept spinning the wheel of the safe, unable to remember the numbers of the combination, “though he knew them as well as his own name.”

He finally got it open and made it out of the burning building safely but, Clarke wrote, his fear had knocked out his voice.

“They said it would come back, but it hasn’t so far. He says it was scared out of him for all time,” Clarke wrote. “Of course we are used to him, but when he leans on the counter and whispers to summer people, they act kind of taken back.”

And then there are the many other interesting Mystic stories, like the fisherman from Noank who went to Town Hall, where his wife worked, shot her “dead as a doornale,” then went to his mother’s house in Noank, retrieved his son, and took him to a barn and shot him dead, too, before killing himself.

Or the story about a member of the prominent Mallory shipping family, who was kept locked behind bars in a room in his Mystic house because he was violent. It was, Clarke noted, a time before crazy people were sent to “Brewster’s Neck,” the place up the Thames River in Preston where Norwich Hospital eventually was built.

I was introduced to Clarke’s charming book, and her clever accounts of people and places in early 20th Century Mystic, by Mary Hendrickson of Stonington, someone I consider a local hero of historic preservation. It was Hendrickson’s dedication and financial support that led to the nomination of the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District, her neighborhood, to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

If not for that nomination, the town’s plans to demolish buildings in the district for Boathouse Park would not have been interrupted by the state’s architectural historian.

In explaining to me how she recruited the professional help to assemble the nomination historic material, Hendrickson recommended Clarke’s memoir.

Indeed, Clarke, after graduating from Stonington High School, then in the red brick building on Little Narragansett Bay in Stonington Borough, eventually went to work at the Rossie Mill, which was run by a friend of her father’s.

“I started out alone this morning, meeting Howard who was simply grand to me,” she wrote, describing her first day on the job. “He took me through the mills, a vast place of crashing machinery. Everywhere were men, staring men. But the finishing room was almost as bad, dozens of pairs of feminine eyes, some curious, some friendly, and some inimical.”

“In short time I was able to manipulate the small switch-board without making appalling mistakes,” she wrote of that first day of work life. “It was the longest day I ever put in and by late afternoon my head ached, my back ached and my ears were sore from putting on and taking off ear phones.”

Clarke’s diary style of writing gets lost sometimes on dull tangents, but overall the book is a clever and charming account of life in the little village of Mystic at the time. You can’t help but grow fond of her insights, intellect and quirks. She is also a faithful recorder of events through her childhood and early adulthood. The book stops with her engagement.

She often is opinionated, like when she writes about the statue of Capt. John Mason, the architect of the slaughter of the Pequot Indians at their Mystic settlement: “Perhaps Capt. Mason thought his awful act necessary, but I should not want it on my conscience, and though I am descended from him I never look at his monument without wanting to spit on it,” she wrote.

Her vivid descriptions, like one of the riverfront on Water Street, which she says is known as Rotten Row, are especially interesting and evocative.

“One of the things I like, besides fog horns and boats blowing for the draw to open, is the salt that hardens on the black dirt sidewalks down on Rotten Row,” she writes. “When the tide is high it brings it in and the sidewalks get like iron and make lovely plunky sounds when ladies walk over it in high heeled shoes ... The first high heels I have I shall walk up and down and listen to my heels plunk and click. Flat heels won’t do it worth a cent ...”

“The neighborhood is dirty but I like it. It smells of tar and rope and paint and drying nets, besides the salt from the river and a good big whiff of fish thrown in.”

New London, to Clarke, is the big city and always exciting to visit. She describes going to a Pablo Casals concert there.

Stonington Borough, on the other hand, the focus of so much attention by the historical society today, was hardly a match for the wonders of Mystic, to Clarke’s sensibilities.

“I can’t love it, even though I love so many things about it,” Clarke wrote about the borough. “The Main Street and only business street is tintsy and narrow. There aren’t any stores as good as those in Mystic, but I do like the way it meets the ocean .... And I love the breakwater and the narrow road and the sagging old houses, and the old light house.”

“Parts of the town are plain shabby, but the residential section with its shady streets and fine old houses is lovely.”

Clarke is at her best writing about the history of Mystic.

“Those were exciting days in Mystic when the shipyards were so busy you could hear the pounding of hammers and the clinking of metal on both sides of the river all day long,” she wrote. “The launchings ... there was music, speeches and everyone dressed up for the occasion.”

She then goes on to describe some of the great shipyards, ships and ship captains of Mystic.

“Captain Holmes sailed around the Horn 84 times before he left the sea and he was just about that old before he really retired. Grandma says his retiring was a standing joke. He was always saying each voyage was his last and he was always sailing again.”

“One time he really did retire and went into the fish business in New York, but within a year he was sailing again. Maybe he is still sailing.”

She stopped the diary at the age of 20, in 1926.

I wish she were still writing about Mystic today. She could teach us all a lot.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday

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