A shack on a crooked bluff on the eastern fringe of a small town. A shambling thing, barely defying gravity. Looking as if the punishing January winds might sunder it, send it reeling over the bluff into the vaporous bottom lands below. Iced fingers seeping, no stabbing, through the cracks in the wall, surging through broken panes stuffed with rags and paper.
Let no one kid you. January can be a wicked month. Even the warmest fires fall in battle to January. The month comes to bite the face, make fingers rigid, curl the body until it longs for the womb. The worst of Januaries can wither a soul.
A shack above the bottoms at West Terre Haute on a January day is not a place to be with ebbing strength, all fortitude gone, hope lost somewhere along the path behind him. But that is where James Furlong found himself on January 19, 1914.
He had been there but a few days. Somehow his life had led him to West Terre Haute. Somehow he had met two men squatting in the shack who had let him join them. The shack was just a few hundred feet from a “hobo jungle” enlivened by many passers-through during warmer months (West Terre Haute was known as a good place for a handout or a day’s paid work).
Furlong’s companions went out that Monday morning, likely to scrounge for food, clothing or wood for the fire. James Furlong was alone. Did he look around and see nothing but his misery? Was his vision clouded or did the restless night and frigid morning bring him clarity? Why this day as the day of decision? Why this place? What interior vein opened to let his last drop of hope trickle out?
What we do know is that he dug into his poke. In it was his razor of silvered steel. Did he see it as an instrument of peace when he opened the blade? Even with a sharp razor it must take determination to use it. There must be some strength left in a man to impel the needed force. James Furlong used what strength remained in him, willed the blade to cut across his neck, felt it bite deep. He lay back, letting the warm blood bathe his chest.
It was then his “friends” returned to the shack, saw James in a red pool. One grabbed a rag to place on Furling’s throat, hoping to dam the flow of blood. The other ran out and down Paris Avenue looking for help. Dr. R.J. Danner was found and hurried to the shack. “Doc’ had seen a lot of blood in his life (and within ten years would see his own spilled by his lover’s enraged husband) and knew there was little to be done. He asked Furlong his name. James told him. With time fleeing he also told him he had only been in town a few days and that he was 65 years old. Danner then asked the golden question, “Why?” James Furlong gave him the quintessential answer: He “was tired of living.”
Though he knew there was nothing left to save him, Danner had Furlong sent to Union Hospital on the north side of Terre Haute. Too late.
James Furlong may have been surprised to learn that he made the front page of the Terre Haute Tribune the next day. A short paragraph down the page told his meager story. The last line said, “No arrangements have been made for the disposal of the body as he was unknown here.” One wonders how many papers in other places where James Furlong lived would have ended the story the same way.
So who was James Furlong? I wondered if I could find out, so I began a search for him, some glimpse that might tell me how or why he came to die in West Terre Haute. The only clues I had were his name and his age. I checked census records, military files, city directories, all the usual suspects of the historian’s craft. I found several James Furlongs, but none that could be said to be our James. Even eliminating those who were born at around the same time, but appeared in records after 1914 was of little help.
He was likely not in the area because he had family there. There were no Furlongs listed in any of the Vigo County records until the 1970s. I was left to surmise. Furlong is a name often associated with the Irish. His age was right for the Hungry Time of the Irish Famine. Were he and his family, victims of the famine, forced to leave their home for America. Were they of the haunted Skalpeen class, the itinerant farm laborers so effected by the terrible want brought on by the famine?
Did he once have a family, a job, a life? Was he a farmer, a craftsman, or merely a man forced to take on whatever job was at hand? Did losing them slowly diminish him? What road brought him the West Terre Haute? What happened in those two or three days in town that forever forestalled his next step?
As for James Furlong’s body. I could find no record of how or where he was buried. Most likely, the unknown man was buried in an unmarked grave in an unknown place.
Just this morning I did my annual presentation on being a historian and the uses of history for an AP History class from Carmel High School. Of course I quoted Santayana, talked about the importance of knowing history, and how history is used. I talked of primary sources, external and internal criticism, of the changeover to social and minority history, etc. But I also told them that no matter what rather high sounding rhetoric we historians may use, the very essence is to remember. And I am a professional rememberer. And everyone who has ever lived deserves to be remembered.
We only know James Furlong from his death, but he is remembered.