copied with permission from the print newspaper
rountown review  - January, 2002   -  Jackie Corr 
A New Years Tale
 
The Charles Dickens Interview
 
Place:
Silver Bow County Poor Farm Cemetery,
2 and 1/4 miles SE of Butte, Montana, 
Date:
January 1, 1903
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 'She was brought here last night,' replied the old woman, 'by the overseer's order. She was found lying in the street. She had walked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces; but where she came from, or where she was going to, nobody knows.'
The surgeon leaned over the body, and raised the left hand. 'The old story,' he said, shaking his head: 'no wedding-ring, I see. Ah! Good-night!'
The medical gentleman walked away to dinner; and the nurse, having once more applied herself to the green bottle, sat down on a low chair before the fire, and proceeded to dress the infant.
What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was!  Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society. But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once--a parish child--the orphan of a workhouse--the humble, half-starved drudge--to be cuffed and buffeted through the world--despised by all, and pitied by none.
  Oliver cried lustily. If he could have known that he was an orphan, left to the tender mercies of church-wardens and overseers, perhaps he would have cried the louder.
 
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist - 1841
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"Potters Field"

Jackie: You picked an unusual place to meet sir.
Dickens: As we agreed. I would choose the time and place.
Jackie: You have. And it is a rare view of Butte from here. And of the world for that matter.
We have come to what is known in many places of the world as "Potter's Field."
Dickens: The ancient name for the unmourned regions. 
Jackie: The origin of which is?
Dickens: It is biblical. " Potter's Field" came down to us from the last moments of Judas Iscariot. After Judas returned the thirty pieces of silver, he went to the elder tree with a hanging rope and perished. Of course, the  high priests quickly removed themselves from the payment of the silver. "And they bought with it the potter's field to bury strangers in." Roughly, that is the scripture of it. 
Jackie:  It is not the custom in Butte to speak of this place as "Potter's Field." And yet is has come to your attention. 
Dickens: One becomes alert to such matters here. Beneath the surface in this little city we find the fiercest of struggles, a contest between the spirits of ancient cultures and the grinding forces of industrial efficiency and degradation.  Why on the very day of my arrival a large funeral for three underground miners was passing through the crowded center of town. And such an event was not in the least unusual I was told. Why already this infant of a place has the reputation as the only city in the very young United States where the cemeteries, the cities of the dead, have a greater population then the living.
Jackie:  Many of our visitors are quite shocked at what they see here. But we seem to think of it as normal if we even think of it.
Dickens:  Yes. Even the busy trolleys that go up and down Montana Street are known as the "cemetery cars" with the word visible on both front and back.  I know of no other place that can claim such a sight.
Jackie: And you joined in. 
Dickens:  Of course! I followed the procession eagerly. And such a sight!  It was led by coal dark horses pulling a polished ebony carriage with a top-hatted driver attired completely in black. And it was down the hill we marched, to the sounds of mournful trombones and slow drumbeats; another of the peculiar customs of this city and one that is rooted in the powerful miner's union. Finally we we reached the bottom of Montana Street and the cemeteries.  Here I would not be disappointed. Not at all. 
Jackie:  I can see that.
Dickens: A strange march it was to an even stranger place followed by the strangest of ceremonies.
Jackie:  And why so?
Dickens:
Imagine! One moment the services would be cloaked in darkness only to vanish as if these shadows feared the wrath of the heavens itself.  And as suddenly as the light prevailed, why the gloom of the vapors would return and if possible, in even more fantastic forms. And soon again the light would reappear for the sole purpose of suddenly disappearing, or so it seemed, and leaving us as we were, helpless spectators before some mythical struggle between the forces of light and darkness which came and went time and time again. 
 If that wasn't enough, we were standing on ground without trees or shelter. And in a city, where it is said,  no green grass or flowers grow, even in the middle of summer. A landscape more barren then the fiercest desert!  All in all, one of the great stages of the world. 
Jackie: The flames and the vapor fumes have an earthly origin in a nearby smelter. And all the trees, not just here, but for hundreds of miles in all directions were cut down to feed the hungry mines and smelters long before the sulfur had a chance to strangle them. And now, because of the sulfur,  neither grass, trees, or even weeds grow in Butte itself. There are even some sections where cats and dogs will not survive breathing the air.
Dickens: As you say. But all in all, it makes for serious drama and I wouldn't have missed any of it for a minute. Or even a second. The contrast and the metaphor of it all, of such a graveyard.  Strange, and very comforting. 
Jackie: Comforting? An unusual word considering your surroundings. 
Dickens:  Not at all.  What I saw and what I felt was faith. No matter the setting or circumstance of the graveyard, the message is always the same. Time and tide wait for none!
Jackie:  Unfortunately I would think. Yet we are now some distance to the east, far away from Montana Street.
Dickens: I first came to Butte on the North Coast Limited,  on what is called the Northern Pacific line. You can see the tracks are only a dozen steps or so from the cemetery and the train passes here four times every twenty-four hours. Naturally on the train there was talk about the cemetery, its nature, and how near it was to the tracks. Railroad lines do not normally pass near a graveyard. Some think of it as a bad omen.
Jackie: Omen or not, the explanation is the cemetery was here before the train came through. These tracks were not laid until 1889 and the cemetery was then 15 years old. But what were your intentions? 
Dickens:  I had wandered and walked around for three nights and two days. Remember my allotted time is three full days and nights. I had at first passed through the exotic and blatant underworld where all forms of vice are brutally and openly paraded and sold at any hour. And from there I went to the western edge of the city where the town is building up. 
Jackie: You have been busy.
Dickens: 
Very!  But there is more. I was quite curious about what is known as "the hill."  For hours I walked up and down the Anaconda Road, following its many paths, and  all the while  traveling among  men and machines engaged in a relentless assault on the underground. Even the great Dante would have envied me as I moved among  the shrouds and sounds of sparks, shreiks, whistles and bells. It was, I tell you, a full stage and with such a chorus in the background, nothing less then a choir of hissing vapors, serpentine fumes and mocking flames from which emerged, screaming frenziedly, the darkest of locomotives madly rushing in and out of the massive and flaming works that support the mining. A scene of industrial madness it was, and one that brought the very night into day and the day into night.  
  
Finally, and I must admit I was nearly exhausted from this unchecked fury, I caught a trolley car out to the "flat" as it is known.  I remember getting off on a road called Ottawa and a gentleman, in a dark carriage with two dark horses stopped.  Seeing my confusion he offered me a ride.  I mentioned the train and the cemetery and he told me it was part of the poor farm complex. He dropped me off at the door. A quiet and yet a brooding man. And with a name that startled me. 
Jackie:  His name?
Dickens:  Marley! Jacob Marley he called himself. Can you imagine that? 
Jackie:  Very strange indeed!  And to add to the mystery it is a name that is not known here. And it was there he left you?
Dickens:  (Pointing down the hill.) The big building.
Jackie:   And you went inside?
Dickens:  Of course. 
Jackie:
And who did they think you were?
Dickens:  What I told them.  That I was an English journalist, a writer. An eccentric in their eyes.  Who else would come out to a county poor farm in the dead of winter? 
Jackie: And you talked to Dr. Donnally?
Dickens: Briefly.  His is a thankless calling.  A busy and tired man as are all the doctors in the world who administer to the poor and needy.
Jackie:  So you were taken in by Mr. O'Brien.
Dickens: Mr. O'Brien became my guide.  I became his charge.  Mr. O'Brien is a tale in himself. 
Jackie: Just the mention of his name brings a smile to you.
Dickens: It does indeed.  He is from the West of Ireland and settled himself upon the world at a very young age. As he says, he has traveled and mined the entire globe.  Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, Michigan, Colorado, Idaho, and finally here in Butte.  And an adventure in every stop. Now he has come to the age where we become slower. And minus a leg besides. So Mr. O'Brien has secured a commission, a position with the county out here. His chief occupation, and how he makes what he makes, is the digging of graves for the place we are standing on.
Jackie: You are struck by him. 
Dickens: Mr. O'Brien and his kind are gifts to the world. The cheer, the smile, as well as his optimism and encouragement draw me to him. A degree of kindness and the willingness to employ it are all supreme virtues in my eyes.
Jackie:  How long has Mr. O'Brien been here?
Dickens: On a matter like that Mr. O'Brien would never be specific.  One moment it is " a little bit." The next it would be "a long while." Which is why we cherish the Mr. O'Briens of the world.  They are free of the tedious and the specific.   
Jackie:  Agreed  We can always use more of that.  
Dickens:  An excellent guide and a better companion. What I don't know is the why of it.  Which is how did he break free of all that dreariness?  
Jackie:  You are fortunate to have come across him.  And how long has the cemetery where we are standing been here?
Dickens:  Mr. O'Brien tells of it in the early 1870's.  It is a fact the cemetery was established when the Northern Pacific laid track here in 1889.
Jackie: Which is my understanding. Can the population of this place be guessed at?
Dickens: Mr. O'Brien keeps whatever books are kept on this subject.  So I can make a good a guess as anyone.
Jackie:  And your estimate?
Dickens:  The records indicate 500 or so lie within the fence but these are the kind of records that contradict themselves.  And even the fence was not here until 1903.  So the only complete records are recent and there is no record of the burials before 1892 and few between then and 1900.  Besides there is also no way of knowing if burials went on outside the fence, and if so, for how long. Like most other such places that matter for little in the eyes of the world, the records kept are a humbug.
Jackie: And the markers?
Dickens:  The count from the headboards below is 259.  Above are another 250 or so. Yet here, in the slope of the cemetery, there are none.  Which is understandable since where we stand is where the cemetery began.  As it progressed it moved down the hill.
Jackie:  We are some distance from most of the buildings except one.
Dickens:  The building you see just across the tracks  is known as the pest house.  It is probable that the distance between where we are, in the cemetery and near the pest house, is an adherence to the popular medical theories of an earlier era.
Jackie: And the pest house?
Dickens: Short for pestilence.  I imagine a better name could be used.  In some places it is called the detention or quarantine hospital. An infirmary for contagious diseases and frequently  the last stop in the world for the residents that are usually here.
Jackie:  What about the wooden headboards?
Dickens:  Before 1896, what markers there were, were of a low quality and few remain.  Then a change came over the grounds and the headboards below are evidence of that.  I have had some time to look at them so let us go down the hill a bit.
Jackie: Alright. 
Dickens: This is the oldest headboard in the cemetery. Fred Miller, who died in 1892 at the age of 45.  This is all that we can make out from before 1896. Only good friends or family would have put up such a large and substantial cross.
Jackie:  It was quite an effort.
Dickens: Now step down a little here.  Look at this.
Jackie:  "Jennie Wells, Oct. 13, 1898." And then "Baby is at 318 S. Arizona."  A mystery to me!
Dickens: Quite a mystery. But now over seven years old.
Jackie:  Surely there are no answers at that address. It  belongs to a collection of shacks in the heart of our most ancient slum, the "Cabbage Patch," which borders on the underworld. You must have passed closely by in your travels. 
Dickens: If I had been there I would have remembered. So we will never know. And then there are others who die unmourned, and far away from home.  Here is a poor sick girl from Mercury Street,  brought out here dead with the smallpox. From  the line according to Mr. O'Brien.
Jackie:  "Babette.  Died September 16, 1900."
Dickens: Poor Babette.  You were pretty once and life had many promises didn't it? A full-breasted girl from the bright fields of France and now you lie so far from home on the slope of a frozen mountain far across the ocean.  If all is weighed, you paid for all you lost.  So who could not hope for you now, when even death refused you burial in your sunny and faraway France?
Jackie:  You would be familar with the idea of Babette. A sister of your own creation. Nancy Sikes, perhaps?  Nancy, the pickpocket - prostitute and finally martyr?
Dickens: If you remember, Nancy gave up her life  so Oliver Twist would live. Like Babette, She too was redeemed. I am certain. 
Jackie: Redemption is fundamental to you. The Mary Magdalen characters are an important part of your world. 
Dickens: My world is the world as it is. 
Jackie: Or as you think it is. Which is equally true.
Dickens: 

 

We can only describe what we can see. And many are blind. Now if you will look further down you will begin to notice  a change in the markers. You can see that these humble markers now offer the slightest of memories of who lie here.  It is a distinct change from earlier days.  Flowers and vines are carved into the wood and in some cases the names have been branded onto the marker.  It seems there was a period of about five years, from 1894 to 1899,  when some unknown person took responsibility for the wooden markers and then the work simply stops.  Which is Mr. O'Brien's guess. Neither he nor I have any other explanation. I would also guess that this mystery caretaker lies here unknown to us.
Jackie: His name is unknown yet he has left something of himself behind.
Dickens:  Such work reveals a higher instinct. If our affections are our consolation and comfort; then memory, however sad, is the best and purest link between this world and a better one.
Jackie: Yes. The later markers lack the earlier qualities.  Like here.  "Unknown Man. Died here in June of 1900."  But  if we step back again we can see the earlier and more finished work.  "Unknown Man.  Died at 240 E. Park, May 18, 1898." 
Dickens:
But no matter the marker or headstone!   There are those who die with nothing, not even a name. But even the graveyard is a recent idea is it not?
Jackie: Quite recent. And  what are those small rows alongside the fence.  We must walk over there.
Dickens: This section of the cemetery has been set aside for infants and children.  Poor and lonely little babies left out where the only lullaby to be heard is sung by a cold and desolate wind.  Would it surprise you that up here on this mountain, in the deep and dark of the night, dead mothers wander about looking for lost children that poverty and death tore from their breasts?
Jackie: I have no reason to doubt what you say.  But you will not find me up here in the middle of the night to find out. Or will you? Is this one of your ideas? And how do you feel about these little graves?
Dickens: In what way?
Jackie:   May I mention Little Nell?
Dickens: You may.
Jackie:  A difficult time it was in your life. A great success yet you were violently criticized.
Dickens: Violently and more! There were those who thought me a monster. A child's death!  And a poor sweet child at that. And yet there was another result.
Jackie:  Which was?
Dickens: Over the years many a mother and father have told me of such a loss, of how he or she lost such a child at such a time, and where she is buried, and how good she was and how, in this or that respect, she resembled Little Nell.
Jackie:  Your expression is changing. You seem lost in thought.
Dickens: Ah!  Now I am starting to see!  Do you understand ? No, but how could you? But I do. It is no quirk of fate that I have come to this place.   --   

End of Stave One.  (to be continued)

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