“Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss is a fantasy about a contemporary woman investigating the murder of an ancestor suffering from a rare disease who was a famous sideshow attraction in the nineteenth century.
I can hear them whispering.
I cannot see them, not yet. And when the curtain is pulled back, what will I see? Faces, pale and almost indistinguishable in the gaslight. My shows are only at night, for that, he tells me, makes them more impressive.
But I know my audience. Clerks heading home from their offices, tired after a day of crouching over a ledger, wanting to see a miracle. Serious young ladies who would never condescend to the spectacles of Battersea Park, but this is different—a scientific lecture. A tutor shushing his charges, boys who will one day go to university—until they see me, and then they shush of their own accord. They recognize me from their lessons in the classics and wonder, how is it possible? Gentlemen in top hats, headed afterward to more risqué entertainments. An old woman in black who peers at me through her pince-nez, disbelieving. She must have seen an advertisement and become curious—is it real? Or a hoax, like the Genuine Mermaid?
I am improbable, am I not?
Almost, but not quite, impossible.
And when the curtain is pulled back and they see me, sitting on my pedestal, arms raised, branches swaying, they will gasp. As they always do.
Come See the Living Dryad
Proof that the ancient mythologies were veritable truths!
You have read of them in Homer and Hesiod. Now, tonight, you may see for yourself, one of those “dwellers in the lovely groves,” those daughters of Gaia. Living proof that the wonders of the ancient world have not passed away altogether in this age of technological marvels.
Viewing at 8.30, special lecture at 9.00 by Professor L. Merwin, M. Phil., D. Litt., LL.D., Member of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
Tickets two shillings, half price for children.
Who killed Daphne Merwin? By 1888, she was famous enough that the case was mentioned in the London Times:
A tragedy in Marylebone. On the morning of June 7th, Mrs. Lewison Merwin, who has become famous as Daphne, the Living Dryad, showing nightly at the Alhambra, was found brutally murdered at her home in Marylebone. Her husband, Professor Merwin, is distraught and stated that he does not know who could have committed such a crime, as she had not an enemy in the world. According to Inspector Granby of the Metropolitan Police, Mrs. Merwin was stabbed in the chest with a kitchen knife. This crime was doubly brutal because, due to her physical peculiarities, Mrs. Merwin was unable to defend herself. Members of the public are urged to bring any pertinent information to the attention of the Metropolitan Police, who promise a swift investigation.
As this edition of the paper was going to press, the man who would be hanged for her murder had already been arrested. Alfred Potts was a pauper and occasional petty thief. That morning, he had come to the Merwin residence. The maid of all work had let him in at Daphne’s insistence. According to her account, he had offered to do whatever work needed doing of a heavy nature, in exchange for a hot meal. Daphne, who was habitually charitable, said he could do some work in the garden. After the maid let him in, she returned to the basement kitchen to prepare lunch for the Merwins. Lewison Merwin, who had a meeting with a business associate, was expected back at noon.
She did not leave the kitchen again until she heard the front door bell. It was Lewison, who had forgotten his latchkey. The maid let him in and returned to the kitchen, expecting to serve lunch. A few minutes later, he ran down the back stairs and told her to come quickly, that Mrs. Merwin had been murdered. When she followed him up to the parlor, she saw Daphne lying on the carpet, with a red stain spreading across her nightgown. Alfred Potts was gone. So was the money for miscellaneous expenses kept in a side table drawer, in the front hall.
It was the nightgown that first struck me about the case, now more than a century old. Why would Daphne Merwin meet a strange man in her nightgown? In 1888, no lady would have done such a thing, and Daphne was trying very hard to be a lady. Potts was arrested in a public house in Spitalfields, where he had been drinking most of the day. The money that had been in the drawer was found in his pocket. He claimed Daphne had given it to him. He knew nothing about any work in the garden, and indeed there was nothing to indicate he had done any. The gardening tools were still in the shed, and there was no evidence they had been used. After she had given him the money, he had left and gone straight to the pub. He had been sitting there drinking at the time the maid claimed he was murdering Mrs. Merwin. The woman who owned the pub confirmed his story, but since she had once been arrested for prostitution, neither the police nor the jury believed her. The pub being otherwise empty at that hour, there were no other witnesses.
The inspector asked why Mrs. Merwin would give him money, without him having done any work. But Potts, who was drunk, merely cursed and tried to assault him. Then he was taken away in a police wagon.
This was all I could learn from the records of the Metropolitan Police, which had been digitized the previous year and placed online. The online archives of the London Times contained an account of the trial, which lasted only three days. During the trial, Potts made an extraordinary claim: that Daphne Merwin was his sister, and that she had given him money several times since he had discovered her address, following her home one night from the Alhambra. But when asked for evidence, he could produce nothing, claiming that any proof of their relationship had been stolen from him long ago. Indeed, the police found few possessions of his in the squalid room he shared with two other men, both dock workers. Lewison Merwin stated that his wife had been an orphan and alone in the world when he met her. He insisted that he had never seen Potts before in his life, and the maid confirmed that she had never seen him at the house before the day of the murder. Surely, if Potts had come to solicit Mrs. Merwin before, the maid would have been the one to let him in.
Needless to say, neither the judge nor jury believed Potts. Not even his own barrister seems to have believed him. He was poor, sleeping on street corners or in that disreputable boarding house, and an alcoholic. The jury reached its verdict in under an hour. He was condemned to death and hanged on September 27th, 1888.
—The British Freak Show at the Fin-de-Siècle, D.M. Levitt, Ph.D.
Every morning, he prunes me. I sit in a chair in the middle of my bedroom and raise my arms. Carefully, he trims away any small branches that are not aesthetically pleasing.
“We don’t want you to look pollarded,” he says.
His goal is always beauty, grace, lightness.
I was neither beautiful nor graceful when he found me. The branches had grown from my hands so I could hardly lift them. They had grown on my feet so I could scarcely walk. Bark had begun to grow over my face. I was worried that soon it would cover my eyes, and I would be a poor, blind, crippled girl, a pitiable object.
Every day, my brother would place me on my little cart and pull me down to a street corner near Brick Lane Market. There we would beg for pennies. Some passersby would throw pennies on the ground, pitying my grotesqueness. Some would turn away with a shudder. Sometimes the bric-a-brac sellers would give me bits of their lunch. Sometimes we were spit upon, or a group of boys would throw pieces of pavement and rusted nails.
But he found me and saw what I could become. If you come with me, he said that day on the street corner, I will make you beautiful. I will make it so all men look at you and gasp in admiration rather than fear. I will make you a celebrity.
My brother had gone off—young as he was, he had already succumbed to the Demon Drink. I knew he was spending our pennies at a public house while I sat on the cart, waiting and hungry.
Yes, I said. I will go with you.
Look how my branches rise into the air, so gracefully, so lightly. The bark grows up my arms to my elbows. My feet he prunes more thoroughly, so only a few small branches sprout from my toes. I have no need of shoes, for my soles are hard. The bark grows up to my knees.
There is a little bark on my forehead, but it does not encroach on my eyes. My ears are clear. I can see and hear and speak. A human heart beats in my chest. And yet I am like no other woman. That is why he loves me, he says. Because I am unique.
After he prunes me, Lucy removes my nightdress and bathes me, because of course I cannot bathe myself. She dresses me. And then she brings me the child.
You schoolboys sitting in the front should know, or your schoolmaster should have told you, that the dryads and oreiades were the nymphs of the trees and woodlands. They were associated with particular trees, and when her tree died, the dryad died with it. Woe betide any Greek villager who felled a tree with a dryad, for misfortune would follow him all the days of his life!
The dryads and oreiades sprang from Gaia herself. Who is Gaia, you ask? Surely that learned young woman in the back . . . yes, exactly. Gaia was the goddess of the earth. And their father was Ouranos, god of the sky. So they were born of heaven and earth. There were many kinds of dryads: the meliai, nymphs of the ash trees; the pteleai, nymphs of the elms; the aigeroi, protectors of poplars. The balanis for holly trees, the sykei for figs, and moreai for mulberry. And then there were the orchard trees: the meliades protected apple trees, and kraneiai could be found beneath the cherry boughs. But the most graceful of all were the daphnaie, the nymphs of the laurel trees, and that is what you see before you tonight.
Where did I find such a marvel? Why, in the hills of Arcadia, of course. I was walking through the verdant groves when I came upon her, sitting by a stream, looking down at her reflection in the water, as laurel trees do. Since I spoke the language of ancient Greece, whose study I recommend to those of you who are diligent and have the time, I convinced her to return with me to the greatest city in the world, to London itself. So you, citizens of the age of steam and iron, could see that the wonders of the ancient world are not wholly gone from the earth—nay, they are only hidden from our eyes. But if we have faith, if we listen with open hearts and see with unclouded vision, we may still witness miracles.
Turn, Daphne, so our audience can see the beauty and delicacy of the daughter of Gaia and Ouranos, nymph of laurel trees—a modern wonder!
Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia is one of the rarest diseases in human history. In the late twentieth century, two cases brought the disease to public attention: those of the Romanian Ion Toader and the Indonesian Dede Koswara. This hereditary genetic disorder makes the sufferers abnormally susceptible to an HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) of the skin. As a result, wherever the skin is cut or abraded, the patient develops macules and papules, particularly on the extremities, such as hands and feet. In extreme cases, these can grow into “limbs” that resemble tree branches and must be removed by surgery. More common are bumps and ridges on the skin that may turn cancerous. Toader was fortunate: he was diagnosed by a prominent dermatologist, who was able to remove most of his growths surgically, and his continuing medical treatment was paid for by the state healthcare system. Since his surgery, the Lewandowsky-Lutz has not progressed, and he has been able to live a normal life.
The second case, that of Dede Koswara, was both more serious and more widely reported. He had a particularly advanced case of the disease, both because he lived far from modern medical facilities and because his immune system lacked an antigen that would have helped him fight the HPV infection. By the time his condition was diagnosed, he was almost completely incapacitated, working in a freak show to support himself, like Daphne Merwin, but without the help of a consummate showman such as Lewison. Once his condition was discovered, he was profiled on various cable television shows, as well as in a Medical Mystery episode titled “Tree Man.” The show paid for surgery to remove most of his growths, but there was no way to stop them recurring, and he recently passed away from what the internet describes only as “complications.” There is still no cure for Lewandowsky-Lutz.
Since the age of twelve, I have developed flat, scaly macules regularly on my hands and feet. Fortunately they have not spread to other parts of my body, and the university provides me with excellent health benefits. I visit a dermatologist monthly to have them removed. Underneath, the skin is lighter, so my hands and feet look mottled. I could cover them with concealer, I suppose. But when I look at them, I remember Daphne. In a small way, they bring me closer to my great-great grandmother.
—The British Freak Show at the Fin-de-Siècle, D.M. Levitt, Ph.D.
I thought Lucy was my friend.
Of course she is my maid, but where else could she find work, with her disfigurement? I knew her when she was begging on the street corners of Spitalfields: a dirty, hairy girl with wild, scared eyes. It was I who insisted that he hire her. And now?
He says she should not have told me, that he is still negotiating a contract. But she is to come before me . . . before me! And thus, he says, he will show them both our evolutionary and mythological pasts. Both the Primitive Eve and the Living Dryad.
But she is not beautiful. No amount of grooming could make her beautiful. She looks like . . . yes, a monkey. A sly, low, ill-bred monkey of a girl that I took off the streets, and clothed, and housed. And this is how she treats me.
I heard them last night, long after he thought I was asleep. I did not drink my laudanum, so I lay awake and heard noises, for her bedroom is above mine. First the two of them talking, although I could not make out the words. And then other noises.
Has he not considered me? Has he not considered our child? Our Daisy, asleep in her cradle. How I love her, and yet it is even more difficult for me to hold her than to write.
Come See the Primitive Eve
The missing link in Mr. Darwin’s theory!
Hitherto, the argument against Mr. Darwin’s theory has been that no creature has been found in a state between man and monkey. The Primitive Eve is that creature—an attractive, well-formed maiden covered entirely with a pelt of dark hair.
Found as a child in the wild forests of Borneo, she has been brought back to England and taught the benefits of civilized society. Hear her read from the Bible. Watch her perform her native dances and then curtsy with the nicety of an English schoolgirl. All should see this living marvel!
Viewing at 8.30, special lecture at 9.00 by Professor L. Merwin, M. Phil., D. Litt., LL.D., Member of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
Tickets two shillings, half price for children.
My mother first showed me the diary when I began developing Lewandowsky-Lutz. She wanted me to understand where it had come from—why I had bumps on my hands and feet, although evidently it had skipped a generation, because she never developed symptoms. But my grandmother died young of cancer from Lewandowsky-Lutz. My great-grandmother, Daisy Merwin, lived to a hundred and one, although she had to clip the growths on her forearms at regular intervals. It affects us all differently.
After Daphne’s death, Lewison sent their daughter Daisy to the United States, to be raised by his sister’s family in Virginia. That would free him to travel with his newest marvel, Lucy Barker, advertised as the Primitive Eve. She belonged to the “hairy woman” type of freak show performer, like her contemporaries Krao and Julia Pastrana, both of whom are discussed in Chapter One. Merwin traveled all over Europe with the Primitive Eve, who became particularly popular in France—until she died of a laudanum overdose. Deprived of his major source of income, he returned to New York and worked in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, becoming one of its managers after Barnum’s death in 1891. Although he tried to arrange his own shows on the side, he never again attained the success he had with Daphne or Eve.
After his death, his daughter Daisy received a small inheritance, mostly wiped out by his debts, and a box of her mother’s effects. They included Daphne’s diary, as well as a silver brush and comb set that I still use to subdue my hair and a necklace of coral beads I wear almost every day. In the nineteenth century, coral was believed to protect against diseases—that is why children were given coral necklaces to wear. The necklace didn’t help Daphne; nevertheless, I find it reassuring. It is an attractive placebo.
We must remember that Lewison was a charlatan. Despite his claims, he was not a university professor, nor had he earned any of the degrees or distinctions listed on his advertisements. He had started his career at a theological seminary in Virginia, training to be a minister. One week, P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus, as it was called in the 1870s, came to town. Lewison bought tickets for every show, and finally asked to meet Barnum himself. That was the beginning of his career as a showman. Barnum hired him as an agent and sent him to London to arrange bookings for his various shows. And that is where he found Daphne, the Living Dryad.
Her diary contains no dates. It is rambling and impressionistic, written in large looping letters made by a woman who had difficulty simply holding a pen. There are misspellings, although her grammar is almost self-consciously correct, for which, I suppose, we must thank Lewison: he taught her to write. Nevertheless, the entries are suggestive.
What they suggest is that Daphne Merwin was not killed by Alfred Potts.
—The British Freak Show at the Fin-de-Siècle, D.M. Levitt, Ph.D.
This cannot continue. I will speak to him, I will tell him that he cannot have us both.
Think of the publicity! he says. Think of the money we will make! But I do not care about that.
I would rather be back on the streets of London, begging for crusts of bread. Am I insensate, a piece of wood for him to move about as he wishes? Am I the mythical creature he likes to call me? No, I am human, whatever I may appear to be. I breathe, I feel, I love.
I will not let him treat me like this. I will not let her speak to me as she has in the past few days. She has been boasting about how successful she will be, more successful than I am. She has been wearing my dresses, neglecting the child. My child—who deserves better, who deserves everything. I cannot let this continue.
I will speak to him and tell him so.
MISS LETITIA MERWIN
SENDING YOU DAISY CARE OF IRISH NURSE ARRIVING U.S.S. MERRIMACK AT NEWPORT JULY 3RD WILL SEND CHEQUE FOR EXPENSES SOON AS NEW SHOW OPENS AT ALHAMBRA LOVE LEWISON
MISS LETITIA MERWIN
ALSO REMEMBER WATCH FOR SYMPTOMS SHE MAY BE AS DISTINCTIVE AS HER MOTHER IF SO SEND WORD IMMEDIATELY IMAGINE THE SENSATION A CHILD DRYAD
The evidence from the Merwin murder case is collected in a small box in the basement storage facility of the Metropolitan Police. In the summer of 2014, I traveled to London for two weeks on a research grant. I visited the neighborhood in Spitalfields where Daisy Potts, who would become Daphne Merwin, spent her childhood. It is now filled with restaurants—Indonesian, Albanian, Bangladeshi. I stood near the corner of Brick Lane Market, thinking of what it must have been like for Daisy, begging here, almost blind, until Lewison Merwin found her.
I visited the house in Marylebone where she had lived, but it was now a dentist’s office, with flats on the upper floors. I visited Leicester Square, where the Alhambra used to stand. Even Newgate, where Alfred Potts was hanged for her murder.
Then I went to the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police. It had been difficult to get an appointment. The head of my department had written a letter describing my research, on university stationery. When that received no response, I asked a friend at Oxford, with whom I had gone to graduate school, to intervene. I thought Oxford would mean more than a regional American college. At long last I received an e-mail from the head archivist: I would be allowed to examine the evidence for two hours, 4:00-6:00 p.m., on a Thursday afternoon. A camera would be allowed, without flash.
The junior archivist who met me in the waiting room was a serious young woman in glasses with thick black frames. Her badge proclaimed her Dr. Patel.
She handed me a similar ID badge, conspicuously marked TEMPORARY, with my name on it: Dr. Daphne Levitt, University of Southern Vermont.
“I’ve never been to America,” she said as we rode down the elevator. “I would be a little nervous, especially in New York. You have so many shootings!”
“Not so many where I live,” I told her. “My university is in a small town up north. They mostly shoot deer there. And street signs.”
She looked at me as though scandalized that I would joke about such a thing.
“Your job must be so interesting,” I said. That is my magical phrase. As an introvert, I’ve always found it supremely useful at parties. Once I say it, I don’t have to talk for the next half hour.
She described it to me enthusiastically, but I only half-listened. I was wondering what I would find in the evidence box, and whether it would help me solve the Merwin case. When I started writing this book, I asked my mother to send me Daphne’s diary. I had not read it since I was a teenager. Then, I had only been interested in the disease itself, in what might happen to me if the Lewandowsky-Lutz progressed. But something about the newspaper account of the trial kept bothering me, and when I looked at the diary again, I saw it. Daphne had mentioned a brother. Could it be Alfred Potts? If so, Lewison had lied. Why?
I followed Dr. Patel down a long beige hallway that reminded me of middle school, and then into a room filled with shelves, rather like university library stacks except that all of the shelves were filled with carefully labeled boxes. We walked down one of the rows while she scanned them. “There,” she said, and took down a box labeled Merwin, Daphne 1888.
I had expected an evidence box out of Dickens, yellowed and moldering, but this was thoroughly modern.
“Everything was recataloged in the 1990s,” she said, I suppose in response to my expression. Perhaps the Metropolitan Police trained even archivists to read people.
She carried the box to a long table under fluorescent lights. “Just a moment,” she said, as I reached for the lid. From a nearby cabinet, she produced two surgical masks and gloves of some artificial material that felt like plastic trying to be cotton. When I was properly outfitted, I sat at the table and opened the box.
In it were the items the police had collected on the day of Daphne’s murder. At the top of the box, protected by a plastic sleeve, was a stack of yellowing papers. On the first sheet of paper was written, in a sloping nineteenth-century hand,
Evidence in the death of Mrs. Lewison Merwin:
Item 1: Nightgown torn by knife, with bloodstain.
Item 2: Branches broken from the body of Mrs. Merwin in altercation.
Item 3: Photograph of Mrs. Merwin.
Item 4: Statement of Professor Merwin.
Item 5: Statement of Lucy Barker, housemaid.
Item 6: Statement of Mrs. Polansky, neighbor.
Item 7: Statement of Alfred Potts, suspect.
Item 8: Statement of Alice O’Neill, barmaid.
Item 9: Kitchen knife stained with blood.
I opened the sleeve and drew out the stack of papers. Beneath the list was the statement of Lewison Merwin, describing how he had found his wife in the parlor, stabbed to death. He had been out of the house all morning, attending a business meeting at the Alhambra, where Mrs. Merwin had shows three nights a week. Under his statement was written, Husband clearly distraught. I took photographs of each page with my iPhone. Next was the statement of Lucy Barker, describing how she had answered the door at around ten o’clock and found Alfred Potts on the doorstep. She had not wanted to let him in, but her mistress had insisted, out of the goodness of her heart. She was always one to help the poor. Lucy had given him a meal in the kitchen at Mrs. Merwin’s request, at which point he must have taken the knife, and no, she could not have watched him more carefully. She had lunch to prepare, hadn’t she? Then he had gone out into the garden. She had heard nothing more until noon, when Professor Merwin rang the bell and she had let him in. A few minutes later, he had run into the kitchen, saying that her mistress had been stabbed. Of course he was upset, Mrs. Merwin had been stabbed, hadn’t she? He had asked for a towel and hot water, but by then there was nothing to be done. Mrs. Merwin was dead. No, she had heard no sounds of an altercation in the parlor. The kitchen was in the basement, on the other side of the house, so why should she? And now if he could stop bothering her, she needed to feed the child. Under her account was written Seems devoted to her mistress. UGLY! The statement of Mrs. Polansky was short: she had been sitting in her parlor at around 11:30 when she had heard a man and woman arguing next door at the Merwins’. The walls were that thin, to the shame of these modern builders. Yes, she remembered the time because she had a grown son who was a clerk and came home for lunch, so she kept looking at the clock, knowing he would return around quarter till. No, she could not hear what was being said, but one voice was deep, a man’s voice, and the other she thought was Mrs. Merwin’s. A nice lady, although one couldn’t exactly invite her over for tea, could one? Under her statement was written Not English—Polack? The statement of Alfred Potts was not much longer. He had gone to the Merwins’ house asking for money, had been given money out of the hall table drawer, and had left, that was all. He had gone to the pub, where he had been sitting on this [objectionable language] chair ever since, as Alice could tell you. Asked why he had gone to the Merwins’, which was half across town, rather than begging in Spitalfields, where he was no doubt better known. He had assaulted the officer and sworn in the most inventive and objectionable terms. At that point, he had been arrested. Under his statement was written DRUNK. The statement of Alice O’Neill was also short: Alfred Potts had come into the pub at 11:00, sat down in that chair right there, and had been sitting there ever since. Under her statement was written Known to police as Alice O’Connell, Alice Ferguson.
Dr. Patel sat patiently while I photographed each page. At the bottom of the stack was the photograph that forms the frontispiece of this book. It is the only photograph we have of Daphne Merwin, since in her advertisements she was usually drawn in a way that exaggerated her arboreal qualities. When I first located it on the internet, on a website devoted to freak show history and paraphernalia, I printed out a copy and pinned it to my office bulletin board. But this was one of the original prints. It shows her seated on what looks like a column with a Corinthian capital, about the height of a kitchen stool, wearing a long white gown that leaves her arms bare. She is holding her arms up as though they were a bifurcated trunk with branches and twigs growing from them. Her skin is rough and bark-like to the elbows, but perfectly smooth above. Her hair is done up in the Victorian idea of a classical chignon. The gown is floor-length, but she is raising one foot so you can see the thick, gnarled growths on her toes. They do, indeed, look like tree roots. You have to give Lewison Merwin credit for one thing: he did a good job pruning her. The branches are thinned out, trimmed back in places. Despite their weight, she could lift her arms. She could walk. If you look closely at the original photograph, you can see what is not obvious from the online version: the rough skin on her forehead. But it does not grow down to her eyes. She could see. She could even have a child. She looks off to the side rather than at the viewer, but her chin is raised, elegantly, proudly. If you ignore the growths on her arms and feet, it is the photograph of an ordinary, if very attractive, Victorian woman.
“My God,” said Dr. Patel, leaning across the table. “What was wrong with her?” She had been quiet for so long that I had almost forgotten she was there.
“Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia,” I said. “Or, you know, being murdered. Can I take out the nightgown?” I had now photographed every piece of paper in the stack. I slipped the stack back into the plastic sleeve and set it aside. It was time to look at the physical evidence.
“Yes, as long as you’re wearing gloves,” said Dr. Patel. Now she was leaning forward, clearly interested. I pulled the nightgown out of the plastic bag. It was made of a thin white cotton batiste, very finely embroidered: an expensive article in the 1880s.
“You see all these buttons on the shoulders,” I said, as though lecturing one of my students. “She couldn’t have pulled the nightgown over her head. It had to be buttoned up, probably by her maid.”
“A wound that deep would have killed her almost instantly,” said Dr. Patel, looking with professional curiosity at the place where the nightgown was torn. Around the tear it was bloody, and blood had soaked down one side, probably where it had dripped and pooled. “You see, the knife went right in: the hole isn’t ragged. But there’s a lot of blood. It would have been a deep, clean wound.” She put on a pair of fake-cotton gloves, pulled the plastic sleeve of papers toward her, and started reading through them.
I imagined Daphne Merwin lying on the floor, with a deep, clean wound in her chest, bleeding her life away while my great-grandmother lay in her cradle upstairs. Did she cry out? There is no record of any cry, so maybe she was too startled, maybe she died too quickly. Who stood over her, watching her die? That was the question I wanted to answer. I folded the nightgown and slipped it back inside the plastic bag. It had told me only that Daphne was indeed stabbed—and that the Living Dryad had bled like an ordinary woman.
Below the nightgown were two other plastic bags, both containing pieces of linen. Perhaps wrapped around whatever was inside? I lifted the one on the left, distinguishable from the other only because it was more square than oblong. I unwound the linen. Inside were a bunch of horny, bifurcating growths.
“Some of her branches,” I said in response to Dr. Patel’s inquisitive expression. “Parts of her, hardened like keratin, almost like your nails? They must have broken off during the struggle.”
“There was no struggle,” Dr. Patel responded, frowning above her glasses. “Not judging by those bloodstains—just stabbing and bleeding. She wouldn’t have had time to fight back. Can I take a look?”
“I’m glad you’re here, because bloodstains don’t tell me anything,” I said. “Then I suppose these must have broken off when she fell, after she was stabbed?” I pushed Daphne’s branches toward Dr. Patel and turned to the third and final plastic bag, knowing what it must contain: the murder weapon. While I unwrapped it, she examined the broken growths. It made sense that she would be curious—after all, how often did you hear of a person like Daphne Merwin, a malnourished nineteenth-century orphan with a full-blown case of Lewandowsky-Lutz, turned into a living myth? And then a murder case.
I unwound the final piece of linen. Here was the knife that had killed her. I laid it on the table in front of me.
It was about seven inches long, four of handle and three of blade: a sharp, curved knife that would inflict a particularly vicious wound below the skin. The blade and part of the handle were stained an ancient, rusted red.
“That’s a strange-looking knife,” said Dr. Patel. She had the branches spread in front of her and was lining them up, like a child playing with twigs.
“It is,” I answered. “The Victorians often used very specific tools. I wonder if it had some sort of specialized use in the kitchen . . .”
I took a picture of it with my phone. “Can I use your Wi-Fi? I want to do a Google search, but it says I need a password. I can’t get a cell signal down here.”
“You won’t, in the basement of one of these old buildings,” said Dr. Patel. She pulled off one glove and held out her hand. “Here, I’ll type in our guest password.”
When she handed the phone back to me, I did a Google image search.
And there it was, the same knife, with the wicked curved blade, although without the bloodstains of course. The Orchardman’s Best Friend, regularly £35, on sale for £25 until Thursday, Home Orchard and Garden Supply, Berkshire. By Appointment to Her Majesty The Queen.
“It’s a pruning knife,” I said. I stared down at the image on my screen, then showed it to Dr. Patel. I think, at that moment, the truth was just beginning to sink in. “You see, he used to prune her . . .”
“Well, that makes sense,” she said. She held up one of Daphne Merwin’s branches. “These ends are cut, not broken. The . . . growths didn’t break off during a fight. They were cut off, probably with a blade just like that.” She peered at my phone screen, and then at the knife, with the intellectual curiosity of a born scientist who dissects reality for the sheer pleasure of understanding. I could not be quite so dispassionate, but whatever I was feeling, looking down at the weapon that had killed my great-great grandmother, I put aside for the moment. This was not the right time.
“Let me start at the beginning. You see, she left a diary . . .” I told Dr. Patel everything I had learned so far about Daphne and the Merwin household. “So he’s pruning her,” I concluded. “They quarrel, and he stabs her with the knife. All it would take is him going out again, maybe through the back door into the alley, then coming back half an hour later. Lucy Barker verifies the time of his arrival, identifies the knife as one of the kitchen knives, and tells the police about Alfred Potts’s visit earlier that day. All it would take is Lucy lying for him.”
“What happened to Lucy?” asked Dr. Patel.
“She died two years later, of a laudanum overdose. Accidentally—or so it was assumed at the time. Perhaps it was suicide—perhaps she felt guilty for her part in the murder? I suppose you could call her an accessory after the fact.”
“Are you sure it was murder?” Dr. Patel tapped the papers piled on their plastic sleeve with one gloved finger. “The statement of Mrs. Polansky describes some sort of altercation. Perhaps he stabbed her on impulse? That would make it a case of manslaughter.”
I stared down at the knife. “I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, for sure.” Anyway, did that sort of legal distinction matter? Whether he had planned to do it or done it on the spur of the moment, Lewison had stabbed Daphne Merwin. I was sure of it.
“What happened to Professor Merwin after Eve’s death?”
“He wasn’t a professor—he just claimed to be. And he returned to America.” As though nothing had happened, as though he could go on with his life. Yet that was what people did, wasn’t it? Go on? Although Eve had not been able to . . .
“He must have been a clever, charming man, to attract two such women,” said Dr. Patel. “But unscrupulous. Men like that often are.”
“Why didn’t the police officer who originally investigated see this?” I said. “It was right there in front of him.”
Dr. Patel smiled—now she was the one lecturing a student. “One of the first things they teach us is that people don’t see what’s in front of them. They see what they expect to see. It’s very hard to get beyond that.”
“So we walk through a world already created by our preconceived notions?”
Precisely was also how she packed all the evidence back in the box. This, I thought, was Daphne Merwin’s coffin, as much as the one in which her body lay decomposing.
That was in Highgate Cemetery. It was the next to last place I would visit in London.
“I’ll look for your book,” said Dr. Patel as we shook hands. Mine felt odd from being inside those gloves.
“I’ll send you a copy,” I said. And when I do, I thought, you’ll see yourself in the acknowledgments. Thank you, Dr. Patel, for showing me what I could not have seen on my own: who killed Daphne Merwin.
—The British Freak Show at the Fin-de-Siècle, D.M. Levitt, Ph.D.
Dr. Daphne M. Levitt, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of English
University of Southern Vermont, Ascutney Campus
Ascutney Falls, Vermont 05001, USA
Dear Dr. Levitt:
I was so interested in the case of Daphne Merwin that I decided to look into it a little further. I hope you will forgive me, but your great-great grandmother was a fascinating woman. I did not find anything pertinent in our archives, so I asked a colleague of mine at the British Library to investigate as well. He suggested that if Daphne Merwin, or Daisy Potts, was living in Spitalfields at the time she was discovered by Lewison Merwin, she might be on the rolls of one of the poorhouses in that area. Most of those documents have been lost, so I did not have much confidence that he would be able to find anything. However, after several weeks, he sent me the following scan of a page dated March, 1880 from the record books of the St. Joseph Street Charitable Institution. If you look approximately a third of the way down the page, you will find the following entry:
Alfred Potts, 17 years of age, able-bodied workman, and sister Daisy, 15 years of age, cripple.
I believe this entry refers to your great-great grandmother and her brother Alfred. It would be a great coincidence if there were an Alfred and Daisy Potts of exactly the right age, siblings and the sister described as a “cripple,” in Spitalfields at that time. I hope this helps with your research. I very much look forward to reading your book!
Dr. Devi Patel, MSc, PhD
Junior Archivist II
I read your book, and the chapter on Daphne just made me cry! I recommended it to the book club, and we’re supposed to talk about it next Thursday. Honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to get through the meeting without starting up again—I’d better bring a box of tissues. She was a remarkable woman, and Lewison was just rotten to her. Though I hate to think he was a murderer—maybe it was an impulse, as Dr. Patel said? Although I don’t know if that makes it any better. And I can’t help blaming that Eve person for helping him, although I’m sure Lewison was just as bad to her as he was to Daphne. It’s too bad we have to be related to him too, hunh? But that’s how families are, I guess—a mixed bag.
You inspired me to go through Grandma’s boxes up in the attic. I know I should have done it sooner, but it took me a long time just to get over her being gone. Even now, I keep expecting her to be in the kitchen baking biscuits, or in the living room watching her soaps. I guess your mother never leaves you, not really. When your dad comes into a room and catches me just staring out the window, he says, “You’re thinking about Judy again, aren’t you? I sure do miss her cooking.” Even he says she was the best mother-in-law, and I don’t know how he could give a bigger compliment than that!
Anyway, yesterday I finally went through all those boxes, and I found an old photo album I’d never seen before, under a prayer book. It’s filled with photos from her dad’s family, and you know she never talked to him after he forbade her to marry grandpa. Well, you won’t believe what I found, tucked right into the back—it’s a picture of Daphne Merwin! That photo you used in the book, the one you found on Ebay a couple of months ago and wanted to buy, except you said it was too expensive. Well, here it is! I used a photo envelope so it wouldn’t get bent and paid the earth for special delivery—you know how those postal people are! You send a package through the regular mail, and it’s like wolves tore it apart.
It’s a real original photo! The name of the studio is printed on the bottom, and on the back you’ll see some words—I’m pretty sure Daisy wrote them. It looks like a child’s writing, though children wrote so much more neatly back then, and with real ink! It says, My beloved Mama. Isn’t that sweet? There, I’m going to cry again. I’m glad her daughter remembered her. Seriously, someone should make a movie based on Daphne’s life story—except I wouldn’t want everyone to know my great-grandpa was a murderer. Your book is fine, of course—it’s all scholarly, with footnotes. But seeing it on a screen would be different.
I heard it snowed again up there—down here the crocuses are out, and Dad is complaining that he’ll have to start mowing the grass soon! Tabby brought in a baby bird—we put it out on the back porch and half an hour later it was gone. I don’t know if it got away, or if Tabby found it again. Drat that cat! That’s all the news from down here. I hope you get some time to rest, with all those students—you work too hard, sweetie! Dad sends a big hug, and we’re looking forward to seeing you this summer.
Lots of love, and we’re so proud of your book, Mom
After meeting with Dr. Patel, I stopped at a Costa for a chai latte and a cheese and chutney sandwich, then took the Northern Line up to Highgate Cemetery, where I knew Daphne Merwin was buried. My visit to the Metropolitan Police Archives had taken longer than anticipated, and I had just enough time to find her grave, then take some photographs for this book. Her gravestone was a simple obelisk, on the pedestal of which was written,
The Living Dryad
Long ago, someone had planted a vine at its base, and it had grown up over the obelisk, almost obscuring it in dense, shrubby growth. That day, the vine was covered in green leaves and small white flowers. I wondered if Daphne would have liked that, if she would have considered it some sort of tribute.
It was getting late: the shadows of gravestones lay dark across the paths. So I took the tube back to central London. In the university dorm room I was renting for two weeks, I typed up the notes from my visit to the archives and started packing my suitcase. The next day would be my last in London.
That night I dreamed I was lecturing my students, back in Vermont. But when I looked down at myself, I realized I had become a tree. They did not seem to notice, typing on their laptops as usual, although I was standing at the front of the lecture hall covered with bark, waving leafy green branches instead of arms. I remember the lecture was about Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The next day, I slept through my alarm and woke up with a headache. I took two Advil and finished packing for that evening’s flight back to New York, where I had an appointment at the Barnum and Bailey Museum Archives, which contain a collection of Lewison Merwin’s papers and paraphernalia. I had already visited the Barnum and Bailey Museum once: there I had seen a transcript of Lewison Merwin’s lecture, taken in shorthand during one of Daphne’s performances, as well as letters and telegrams. After his death, Daisy Merwin sent all of his papers to the museum, but she kept the diary—the archivist there had not even known Daphne Merwin’s diary existed. (My family has agreed to loan it to the museum for a Merwin exhibit, focusing on both Daphne and Lewison, to coincide with the publication of this book.) Now, however, I would be looking at them from a different perspective. Now I would know how Daphne had died. Perhaps I would see things in Lewison’s papers that I had not seen the last time. After that, I would go back to Vermont, where I was scheduled to teach Classics of English and American Literature II during the second summer session. And I had a book to finish.
But that morning, my last in London, I would visit the Royal College of Surgeons.
It was a gray, wet day, typical for summer in London. I got off the tube at Holborn and walked to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then to the imposing gray building with its classical portico and Latin engraving across the front. There was a smaller sign for the Hunterian Museum, where I was headed. Once you enter the Royal College of Surgeons, you go up one flight of stairs, and there, to your right, is the Hunterian Museum: a collection of anatomical specimens and curiosities that dates to the late 1700s. You enter, expecting oak cabinets and dim lighting, as it might have looked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no. What you see are glass cases, all around you, brightly lit as though you were in a dissecting room. The cases are filled with glass bottles, as anatomy students would have seen them a hundred years ago. Some of them still have their original labels, with Latin names written in ornate script. They contain animal embryos preserved at every stage of development, tumorous growths of various sorts, the brain of the mathematician Charles Babbage. There are skeletons, from a bat’s to the tall bones of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant. The exhibit is arranged on two floors around a central space that allows you to see from the top of the museum to its bottom, so you can walk around and around that macabre display.
At the back, there is a small gallery, a dark alcove of paneled wood hung with paintings: some of prominent scientists, some of freak show performers. It is an unintentional reminder that to many Victorians, genius was a frightening, freakish quality—as much a deformity, in its own way, as a beard on a woman. Eng and Chang are in that alcove, as is Julia Pastrana. In a dark corner, under a prominent surgeon, are two paintings, hanging side by side. I had deliberately left them for my last day, not wanting them to affect my interpretation of the research. Now here they were, and here I was. Under one, on a brass plaque, was engraved The Living Dryad. Under the other, The Primitive Eve. Both were by the same artist, both set in an idealized natural landscape that resembled the Royal Botanical Gardens. In one, a woman dressed in a classical Greek chiton held up her arms, which were also branches—recognizably Daphne Merwin, although more arboreal. She even had leaves at the ends of her fingers. In the other crouched a woman dressed only in a loincloth, covered with light brown hair. Lucy Barker had died and been buried in France, but here she was reunited with Daphne. The both of them together, counterparts of each other, as Lewison had wanted them in his show.
I stood there, looking at them for a while . . . not sure, as a modern woman, what to think of that tragedy, long ago. That tangled relationship between two women, and the man who had helped and used them both. Who had been, directly or indirectly, responsible for their deaths. I blamed Lewison for what had happened. His was, after all, the hand that held the knife. But like everything else in life, it was more complicated than I had assumed it would be. History always is.
But I could not stay long. I had a plane to catch, a life in America to return to.
On my way out, the front desk attendant said, “I hope you enjoyed the museum! Bit gruesome for some . . .”
“I enjoyed it very much,” I replied, and put my last British coins in the donation jar. I still had ten pounds in notes, which would be enough to buy me coffee and a magazine at Heathrow before I boarded the plane for home.
If we had been living in the late nineteenth century, you and I, we might have paid a shilling or two to see the human wonders of the age: the Bear Woman, the Dog-Faced Boy, the Elephant Man, the Primitive Eve, the Living Dryad. A century later, we must rediscover Julia Pastrana, Fedor Jeftichew, Joseph Merrick, Lucy Barker, and Daphne Merwin: the human beings behind the labels and advertisements. Who were they? What did they think? How did they feel? By and large, they left no records, although perhaps there are papers moldering somewhere, like Daphne’s diary. We owe it to them to learn as much about their histories as possible. That has been, in part, the aim of this book: to see beyond social and ideological constructs and recover, to whatever extent possible, the voices of the voiceless. To let the spectacles speak for themselves.
—The British Freak Show at the Fin-de-Siècle, D.M. Levitt, Ph.D.
But do they actually see me?
Or only the creature he has created? To them, I am merely a curiosity, and sometimes I wish that I could speak—he has told me not to speak, that only he is to speak, ever. My speaking would destroy the illusion. But I wish to tell them . . . what? That I am real, flesh and blood, not wood. That I am a woman, not a fairy tale. I have a soul, as they do.
Would they listen?
You, beyond the lights, I would say. When you look at me, what do you see? When I speak, what do you hear?
“Come See the Living Dryad” copyright © 2017 by Theodora Goss
Art copyright © 2017 by Allen Williams