• The Curses: Part II

    John Jeremiah Sullivan

    Spring 2017

    This is the house where the boy was born, and where he played on the floor as a toddler while the Civil War began. The house was not where it is today, in a small park on the banks of the Wabash. It stood about a halfmile farther north, at 318 South Second Street in downtown Terre Haute, Indiana, a couple of blocks from the river, in a row of similar-looking structures that precisely one hundred years later were scheduled to undergo demolition as part of a “slum clearance program.” But the citizens proved unwilling to let this particular house be destroyed, since it had briefly belonged to a favorite son of Indiana, or to his family. People mailed in donations as small as a dollar to the county historical society, a couple of area businesses pitched in, and a government grant came through. Finally, moving day arrived: June 5, 1963. The number-one song on the radio was “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore, a first big American hit for a young producer named Quincy Jones. In Terre Haute, a reporter watched workmen wrap the two-story Federal house in “cables and metal strapping, as though it were a large box.” A crowd cheered. A new foundation waited at the park, where, fifty-three years later, a person can still visit.

    Look up from the floor where he’s sprawled in his rag diaper with his crude toys at the family as it existed at the start of the 1860s. The boy’s mother, Sarah Maria, had grown up in Ohio, but her parents were Pennsylvania Dutch, that term “Dutch” being in this case not our surviving word meaning Hollanders but a corruption of “Deutsch”—Germans who had left the homeland, settling among their own far-flung people in Pennsylvania’s evangelical townships. Pennsylvania, founded by early Quakers, had always been friendly to breakaway sects. Moravians, Dunkards, Mennonites—the family belonged to all three, at different times. But her parents had met among the Moravians, radical Pietists from Central Europe and Saxony. By the testimony of Sarah’s daughters, she carried that mystical streak all her life. Much good in her, mixed with coldness. Considered a beauty in youth, in late-life pictures she looks out through a pleasant, round, half-smiling face. Now she is working “for fifty cents a day for Wabash avenue merchants” to make “miserably small payments” on the house. Her parents have disowned her for marrying a Catholic. There he stands, beside her, towering over the fat little boy, who later remembers him as “a religious fanatic.” He was German-born, from a place called Mayen, a small walled city in the west. When Indiana census takers came around, he identified himself as Prussian. A fiercely hard worker but contentious. The family never starved but was always poor while he ran it. The Civil War ended, and less than a year later, a board fell onto his head at the mill. After that he was thought somewhat simple-minded. “The old tyrant wore earrings and behaved like a cruel gypsy,” according to one who had known the boy. “He beat them unreasonably and made of their home a kind of noisy sepulcher.”

    The boy already had a younger brother, Marcus Romanus, just a year old, and before these two, there had been three other sons, but all had died as infants. For this Sarah blamed herself. One night, in the exhaustion of young motherhood that runs to madness, she had wished herself free of the burden. Shortly after that, she saw three glowing orbs float past in a field (possibly ball-lightning, which occurs for unknown reasons with some regularity in Kentucky and Indiana) and considered it an omen. When soon thereafter her three boys died in just two years’ time, she viewed it as a fulfillment. Weeping by the third grave, she swore to God that if he would send her more babies, even as many as ten, she would never again indulge such dark and selfish thoughts. God sent her ten more exactly, boys and girls, and all of them lived. The ninth became the naturalist novelist Theodore Dreiser and changed the course of American literature, but that great and tormented man’s birth remains a decade off. The one who concerns us now is this little strapping round comedian, whom the sisters, when they arrive, will nickname Pudley. His real name, or the name we know him by, is Paul Dresser. He will grow into one of the fattest men in America, and for a time its most successful songwriter.

    John Jeremiah Sullivan is a writer who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. The Prime Minister of Paradise, his book about an eighteenth-century Utopian philosopher who lived among the indigenous Cherokee in present-day Tennessee, is forthcoming from Random House.

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