Fall River,  Potpourri

The Skeleton in Armour

One pretty mystery which rivals the Borden case is that of the Skeleton in Armour found near Hartwell St., just around the corner from the Borden house.  Who was he and how did he come to be buried there and when?  All that remains of him now are a few bits of metal tubing which may have been an adornment, buried in the inventory of the historical society.  He is immortalized in poem by the great Longfellow who was visiting his Unitarian preacher brother Samuel in Fall River, while on the way to Newport when he heard of the mystery and was inspired to write about it.  Read all about it at the link skeletoninarmor

NEARA Journal, VOLUME VIII, No. 2, Summer 1973, page 36. (excerpt)

Almost every book or article relating to pre-Columbian contacts with New England makes reference to the “Skeleton in Armor” found near Fall River, Massachusetts, in the early 1830’s.  While there is little or no evidence to support any assertion that the “armor” was anything else but late 16th century or early 17th century brass plates and tubes for personal adornment, supplied to the Indians by Elizabethan-era traders, NEARA readers will doubtless welcome having available for their files the following complete text of the first published account of the discovery.  It. appeared in Vol. III of the “American Magazine”, Boston, 1837, and was written by John Stark of Galena, Illinois, who was interested in the Indian mounds and other American antiquities. Two years later, in 1839, the account was reprinted in John Warner Barber’s “Historical Collections of Massachusetts” (Dorr, Howland & Co., Worcester) from which we have retyped it:

“These remains were found in the town of Fall River, in Bristol county, Massachusetts. about three years since.  In digging down a hill near the village a large mass of earth slid off leaving in the bank, and partially uncovered. a human skull, which on examination was found to belong to a body buried in a sitting posture; the head being about one foot below what had been for many years the surface of the ground. The surrounding earth was carefully removed, and the body found to be enveloped in a covering of coarse bark of a dark color.

Within this envelope were found the remains of another of coarse cloth made of fine bark, and about the texture of a Manilla coffee bag.  On the breast was a plate of brass, thirteen inches long, six broad at the upper end and five at the lower.  This plate appears to have been cast, and is from one eighth to three thirty-seconds of an inch in thickness.  It is so much corroded, that whether or not anything was engraved upon it has not yet been ascertained. It is oval in form, the edges being irregular, apparently made so by corrosion.
    “Below the breastplate, and entirely encircling the body, was a belt composed of brass tubes, each four and a half inches in length, and three sixteenths of an inch in diameter arranged longitudinally and close together: the length of a tube being the width of the belt. The tubes are of thin brass, cast upon hollow reeds, and were fastened together by pieces of sinew. This belt was so placed as to protect the lower parts of the body below the breastplate. The arrows are of brass, thin, flat and triangular in shape, with a round hole cut through near the base. The shaft was fastened to the head by inserting the latter in an opening at the end of the wood, and then tying it with sinew through the round hole – a mode of constructing the weapon never practiced by the Indians, not even their arrows of thin shell. Parts of the shaft remain on some of them. When first discovered, the arrows were in a sort of a quiver of bark, which fell in pieces when exposed to the air.
    “The annexed cut will give the readers an idea of the posture of the figure and the position of the armor. When the remains were discovered the arms were brought farther closer to the body that in the engraving. The arrows were near the right knee.
    “The skull is much decayed, but the teeth are sound, and apparently those of a young man. The pelvis is much decayed, and the smaller bones of the lower extremities are gone. The integuments of the right knee, for four or five inches above and below, are in good preservation, apparently the size and shape of life, although quite black. Considerable flesh is still preserved in the hands and arms, but none on the shoulders and elbows. On the back, under the belt, and for two inches above and below, the skin and flesh are in good preservation, and have the appearance of being tanned.  The chest is much compressed, but the upper viscera are probably entire. The arms are bent up, not crossed; so that the hands turned inwards touch the shoulders.  The stature is about five and a half feet.  Much of the exterior envelope was decayed, and the inner one appeared to be preserved only where it had been in contact with the brass.
    “The preservation of this body may be the result of some embalming process; and this hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that the skin has the appearance of having been tanned; or it may be the result of the action of the salts of the brass during oxidation, and this latter hypothesis is supported by the fact, that the skin and flesh have been preserved only where they have been in contact with or quite near the brass; or we may account for the preservation of the whole by supposing the presence of saltpeter in the soil at the time of the deposit.  In either case, the preservation of the remains is fully accounted for, and upon known chemical principles.
    “That the body was not one of the Indians, we think needs no argument. We have seen some of the drawings taken from the sculptures found at Palenque, and in those the figures are represented with breast-plates, although smaller than the plate found at Fall River

The Skeleton in Armour by Henry W. Longfellow

“Speak! speak I thou fearful guest
Who, with thy hollow breast
Still in rude armor drest,
    Comest to daunt me!
Wrapt not in Eastern balms,
Bat with thy fleshless palms
Stretched, as if asking alms,
    Why dost thou haunt me?”

Then, from those cavernous eyes
Pale flashes seemed to rise,
As when the Northern skies
    Gleam in December;
And, like the water’s flow
Under December’s snow,
Came a dull voice of woe
    From the heart’s chamber.

“I was a Viking old!
My deeds, though manifold,
No Skald in song has told,
    No Saga taught thee!
Take heed, that in thy verse
Thou dost the tale rehearse,
Else dread a dead man’s curse;
    For this I sought thee.

“Far in the Northern Land,
By the wild Baltic’s strand,
I, with my childish hand,
    Tamed the gerfalcon;
And, with my skates fast-bound,
Skimmed the half-frozen Sound,
    That the poor whimpering hound
Trembled to walk on.

“Oft to his frozen lair
Tracked I the grisly bear,
While from my path the hare
    Fled like a shadow;
Oft through the forest dark
Followed the were-wolf’s bark,
Until the soaring lark
   Sang from the meadow.

“But when I older grew,
Joining a corsair’s crew,
O’er the dark sea I flew
    With the marauders.
Wild was the life we led;
Many the souls that sped,
Many the hearts that bled,
   By our stern orders.

“Many a wassail-bout
Wore the long Winter out;
Often our midnight shout
   Set the cocks crowing,
As we the Berserk’s tale
Measured in cups of ale,
Draining the oaken pail,
   Filled to o’erflowing.

“Once as I told in glee
Tales of the stormy sea,
Soft eyes did gaze on me,
   Burning yet tender;
And as the white stars shine
On the dark Norway pine,
On that dark heart of mine
   Fell their soft splendor.

“I wooed the blue-eyed maid,
Yielding, yet half afraid,
And in the forest’s shade
   Our vows were plighted.
Under its loosened vest
Fluttered her little breast
Like birds within their nest
   By the hawk frighted.

“Bright in her father’s hall
Shields gleamed upon the wall,
Loud sang the minstrels all,
   Chanting his glory;
When of old Hildebrand
I asked his daughter’s hand,
Mute did the minstrels stand
   To hear my story.

“While the brown ale he quaffed,
Loud then the champion laughed,
And as the wind-gusts waft
   The sea-foam brightly,
So the loud laugh of scorn,
Out of those lips unshorn,
From the deep drinking-horn
   Blew the foam lightly.

“She was a Prince’s child,
I but a Viking wild,
And though she blushed and smiled,
   I was discarded!
Should not the dove so white
Follow the sea-mew’s flight,
Why did they leave that night
   Her nest unguarded?

“Scarce had I put to sea,
Bearing the maid with me,
Fairest of all was she
   Among the Norsemen!
When on the white sea-strand,
Waving his armed hand,
Saw we old Hildebrand,
   With twenty horsemen.

“Then launched they to the blast,
Bent like a reed each mast,
Yet we were gaining fast,
   When the wind failed us;
And with a sudden flaw
Came round the gusty Skaw,
So that our foe we saw
   Laugh as he hailed us.

“And as to catch the gale
Round veered the flapping sail,
Death I was the helmsman’s hail,
   Death without quarter!
Mid-ships with iron keel
Struck we her ribs of steel
Down her black hulk did reel
   Through the black water!

“As with his wings aslant,
Sails the fierce cormorant,
Seeking some rocky haunt
   With his prey laden,
So toward the open main,
Beating to sea again,
Through the wild hurricane,
   Bore I the maiden.

“Three weeks we westward bore,
And when the storm was o’er,
Cloud-like we saw the shore
   Stretching to leeward;
There for my lady’s bower
Built I the lofty tower,
Which, to this very hour,
   Stands looking seaward.

“There lived we many years;
Time dried the maiden’s tears
She had forgot her fears,
   She was a mother.
Death closed her mild blue eyes,
Under that tower she lies;
Ne’er shall the sun arise
   On such another!

“Still grew my bosom then.
Still as a stagnant fen!
Hateful to me were men,
   The sunlight hateful!
In the vast forest here,
Clad in my warlike gear,
Fell I upon my spear,
   O, death was grateful!

“Thus, seamed with many scars,
Bursting these prison bars,
Up to its native stars
   My soul ascended!
There from the flowing bowl
Deep drinks the warrior’s soul,
Skoal! to the Northland! skoal!”
   Thus the tale ended.

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