By Maddi Davidson
Rock Ledge, Idaho
September 5, 1865
Dear Miss Dickinson:
I was pleased to receive your letter in the city of the Mormons. It is exceedingly gratifying to me that my gift of a few flowers afforded you so much pleasure.
I left Great Salt Lake City on the 24th. From there to Boise the great features are the falls of Shoshone, said to be higher than Niagara, and the valley of the Snake River bound by perpendicular walls of several hundred feet. Boise City, the new Capitol of the Territory, boasts a pretentious hotel and little else.
Rock Ledge is two days from Boise by rough road. The mountains enclosing Rock Ledge like sentinels rise 3,000 feet in every direction. Even the sun is unable to pass these giant guardians but for a few hours each day, so we receive little of its warming. The town is one long rambling street of shanties and log houses. Wooden buildings lose their newness rapidly in this harsh climate. My modest cabin appears to be fifty years of age, but I’m told it is but a mere ten months in existence. The busy river that defines the valley is but twenty feet from my modest house and wakes me each morning with its rumblings and glad shouts.
The occasion for the rush to this area was the discovery of traces of gold in Pine Creek that runs through the next valley. Promising quartz veins have been detected in the hills above the river and like burrowing woodchucks, prospectors swarm the elevations digging large holes in hopes of uncovering gold. When none is found the holes are abandoned so that one must be ever alert whilst walking the hills. Two weeks before my arrival a miner fell into such a pit and was killed.
The population of Rock Ledge is about seven hundred, largely formed by men who declined to fight for the rebel confederacy and have moved to this wild place where they can shoot and knife one another quite readily with little fear of consequences. Females are in short supply and the eligible ones rarely to be found. It was with some shock to the town that a well-respected woman, Mrs. Fabens, was killed most violently two days before my arrival. The sheriff from Rocky Bar, the county seat, has arrived to oversee the apprehension of the killer.
I enclose a flower picked by me along the wild Snake River. I would send my heart if I could.
Truly and sincerely yours,
November 8, 1865
My Dear Miss Dickinson:
Your letter of October 5th arrived yesterday and was read with eagerness and pleasure.
I did not say more of the murder of Mrs. Fabens out of a desire to spare you the unpleasantness. Since you have requested Everything I Know, I must comply. I plead you do not share what I write with your mother or father lest they believe I have undertaken the corruption of their proper young lady.
I would not have you think that Rock Ledge is dangerous. Indeed, respectable women are as safe here as in the churches of New Haven. The only killings heretofore have been of men filled with drink engaged in argument. The murder of Mrs. Elizabeth Fabens has been a great shock to all. Her husband discovered her dead when he returned late from working his claim. She had been viciously struck many times with a knife and bled much on the floor. The sheriff stayed for four days before leaving without a resolution.
The matter is subject to much conversation and speculation. My housekeeper and cook Mrs. Elmore, an amiable looking woman of about thirty, is of the mind that not so gentle savages are responsible. She fears their return and carries a rifle everywhere. Her booming voice I think, which can be heard through two closed doors and a long corridor, would be equally effective to her rifle in dispelling any Indian attack.
Mr. Augustus Fabens suggests that a young prospector may be responsible for the death of his wife. He avows Mr. Thomas Deacon took an unhealthy interest in Mrs. Fabens and annoyed her some. Prominent men confirm that they saw Mr. Deacon talking with Mrs. Fabens on many occasions, but no one saw Mr. Deacon near the cabin, situated ½ mile from town.
Mr. Deacon reminds me of my young brother, also named Thomas. Both tall and lanky with a crop of straw hair and not much inclined to drinking and gambling. Young Thomas died two years ago this November at the hands of vile southern rebels and Mother still grieves daily for his loss.
I’m given to understand that Mrs. Fabens was a young woman nearly twenty years junior to her husband. He claims to be from New York, but the times I have heard his discourse he sounds as much a part of Boston as your esteemed father. Did you not say your father’s sister married a Mr. Fabens from Salem? Might you not ask your aunt if Mr. Augustus Fabens is of that particular family?
I can say little to Mr. Fabens’s character as he has been occupied these past months mining for gold and drinking to his sorrows. Some of the public women say he is a mean drinker. I am glad to have no reason to make his acquaintance.
My Dearest Annie: You now possess all the knowledge of one who has spent the past two months in Rock Ledge. Have I not fully answered your question? Am I not entitled to express a desire for a photo of somebody?
I’ve made few investments for my employers but in truth, gold mining is one great gamble. Companies may sink thousands into building dams and flumes and find little gold. I have assured personal financial success by securing contracts to supply three mining companies with mills that extract gold by crushing rocks rather than the current grinding method requiring the efforts of many men.
I am in good spirits and remain
November 26, 1865
My Dear Miss Dickinson:
Your letter of the 20th of October reached me today along with several others from friends and family. The mail arrives at the convenience of the contractor who wastes no time in waiting for replies but hastens to leave the same day. With such impatience he should not need thirty days to bring mail from the East when one can make the journey in nineteen. Your letter requires my careful reply and must wait for the next opportunity to send my thoughts eastward. So that you receive Some Word from me I will relate what has transpired lately regarding the death of Mrs. Fabens.
Two weeks ago Mr. Fabens encountered Mr. Deacon returning from the mines and accused him of having called on Mrs. Fabens and murdering her when she rebuffed his attentions. Mr. Deacon avowed that Mr. Fabens killed his own wife in a fit of temper. Mr. Fabens reply was to attack and stab Mr. Deacon. Unarmed and bleeding profusely, Mr. Deacon was dragged to safety by several men. The altercation is spoken of by everyone and in interest exceeds even news of the latest gold takings. One is not allowed to have an opinion other than for one or the other. I have had several meals with Mr. Deacon and in interests and manner he does so remind me of Thomas. I cannot think ill of him.
The people will not have the sheriff from Rocky Bar return. He was not elected by the voice of the people but appointed by the governor and miners enjoy ruling themselves. The miners’ council is the main arbiter of disputes. Mr. Deacon appeared before the council and allowed that the estimable Mrs. Fabens was full of grace and kindness and had been like an elder sister to him. Their conversations were oft about books for Mr. Deacon is a Reader and Mrs. Fabens held a great interest in the written word. She loaned Mr. Deacon two books by Wilkie Collins from her own library, which Deacon still possesses, not being able to bring himself to read such words as would remind him so of her death. He declared that he offered to lend her his second edition of Mr. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but she dared not take it lest her husband should find her reading it and beat her as he’d done before when she had read poetry by Edgar Allan Poe. Perhaps you are aware Mr. Whitman is a writer of immoral verse. I advised Mr. Deacon that his statement was unwise and he has put himself in an unfavorable position.
Mr. Fabens addressed the council and called Mr. Deacon a murderer, seducer, and thief. He denied that Mrs. Fabens lent her books as Mr. Deacon claimed. She had but few books and they were among her most prized possessions. In Mr. Fabens’s grief he had not noticed her books were missing and avows Mr. Deacon took them when he struck down “my beloved Elizabeth.”
No man could testify against Mr. Deacon’s character although he is not well liked because of his preference for solitude. He is said to be haughty, oft quoting what he has read. Nor could any man offer evidence of Mr. Deacon’s improper behavior toward Mrs. Fabens. Several miners supported Mr. Deacon’s claim that Mr. Fabens showed a temper at times regarding his wife. Mr. Fabens admitted to boxing his wife’s ears when she had not properly prepared his meal but professed he had never beat her.
The council could not agree to convict either man but with few supporters on the council or in town, Mr. Deacon would do well to leave. Many prospectors have already gone for fear of being buried in the winter snows. Perhaps three hundred remain in town. Mr. Deacon states he is in the Right and will not depart until God’s justice is done.
The looming winter has been evident in the lessening of daylight. Miners cannot work so late and spend their evenings in one of the bars where the lights are bright.
Most truly yours,
December 29, 1865
My Dear Friend:
I write this letter without any expectation of when it will be read. The snow has scarcely stopped to draw a breath since December showed its face.
Two completed letters await the arrival of the stage or of any person from outside this forlorn outpost. You cannot realize how dreary winter is in this narrow valley. We now have five feet of snow on the ground and more where the strong winds have created piles that can swallow a child. My small library is proving insufficient to divert me during the short days and long nights I must endure and I fear I’ve taken to visiting the bars much too often to escape the awful solitude of my rooms. I reread your letters frequently. Your news gladdens me as for a time I can imagine being in a place far removed from this endless cold and dark.
As they are unable to break through the hard frozen river the panners have given up. Men of lesser constitution have been unable to surmount the deep snow and bitter wind to reach their mines. Idaho law requires the claim to be worked one day in seven or it is forfeit. The miners’ council hears frequent cases of claim jumping and needing a large space conducts its business at the Gold Saloon, which is already full of those contemplating their misfortune. Fights are commonplace and three men have been killed recently. Dozens have died from diseases and disorders but the frozen ground prevents proper burial. It is said that more than one of these deaths was a self-murder.
I pray to escape this cauldron of discontent and hope I may leave at the first sign of spring. The mills I sold for rock crushing did not arrive before the snow and a great improvement in the weather is required before they can be transported through the mountains. Perhaps the roads will be passable by February. I hope the purchasers are still in business and able to pay me upon receipt.
I dream each night of the green rolling hills of New Haven in summer and your most pleasing countenance.
Most truly yours,
January 22, 1866
My Dear Friend:
I acknowledge your loving letters of the 20th of November, the 8th of December, and the 15th of December. The stage arrived this morning after many weeks absence with mail and much needed provisions for the town. I hasten in this reply as the skies are gray and those that have lived several winters in these parts say the worst of the snows is yet to be felt.
Your letter of the 8th astonishes me. That Mr. Augustus Fabens’ first wife died of a vigorous knife attack and that he blamed a neighbor of inappropriate attentions to his wife and of killing her when she did not reciprocate his ardor. It can scarce be a coincidence with the events here. I fear a grave mistake has been made in Salem and in Rock Ledge for Mr. Deacon is dead.
Mrs. Elmore opined that the dark spirit of Mrs. Fabens hovered overhead and would not rest until avenged. Perchance others believed the same for on the last day of the old year a young woman of no great reputation made an improbable assertion: in the latter part of August Mr. Deacon had told her of his strong feelings for Mrs. Fabens and proclaimed that she “deserved a better husband.” You might wonder at the lateness of her confession. The young woman declared that she could not enter a new year with this knowledge buried in her conscience. A meeting of the miners was convened wherein judge and jury were chosen and Mr. Deacon was seized. He denied that he had spoken thus to the girl but that the words were true and that had Mrs. Fabens allowed it, he would have professed his love for her. He was convicted of murder and hung immediately. Such recklessness by all! I had shared a table with Mr. Deacon but one day earlier and engaged in pleasant conversation about the stories of Mr. Edgar Poe. His death distresses me greatly.
I am now convinced of Mr. Fabens’ guilt in the murder of both his wives. I feel the burden of sharing your news so that others will perceive the wrongful hanging that has occurred. I cannot write more at this time.
Please believe me to remain in whatever may transpire
Most truly yours,
February 8, 1866
My Dearest Annie:
The mail that arrived today brought me your loving letter of the 5th of January.
Did you see the shooting stars last night? The skies cleared and in the words of Robert Browning, Now a dart of red, Now a dart of blue. Do you think heaven’s display is a sign of better fortunes? Dare I hope that upon my return to New Haven you will allow me to lay before you flowers and a Proposition? I would not ask you to commit yourself at once but ask your kind Consideration. I cannot offer you a home surrounded by the luxuries of wealth and taste you now enjoy. My battle of life has been an active one, and will probably continue so to be due to deficiencies of education and want of influential friends. If these shortcomings can be forgiven by your graciousness, then I will formally propose a union of hearts and hands when next our eyes meet. I pray that He who orders all things will strengthen me and enable me to make your future happy.
February 28, 1866
My Dearest Annie:
God willing I will be by your side shortly for I leave Rock Ledge on the morrow. I would fill this letter with all my longings and hopes for our future, but then I might find myself without words when we again meet. So I will complete my writings with last words about this place. Indeed, I have no intention of speaking more on it once I depart.
I informed the miners of the circumstances of the death of Mr. Fabens’ first wife. There was great reluctance to consider the hanging of Mr. Deacon to be a mistake for Mr. Deacon admitted his affection for another man’s wife. Mr. Fabens disappeared before the great snowstorm of three weeks past. Many thought he had fled, but warmer temperatures and melting snow revealed his body yesterday laying five feet from his cabin. Justice has been done. He was struck repeatedly with a knife and endured the same awful death as his poor wife. The miners’ council is reluctant to investigate this new killing and a rider has been sent to Rocky Bar for the sheriff.
I hope to be many miles south before the sheriff arrives. Indeed, I have been the bloody hand of Justice. I blame this cursed place for casting its spell upon me, for with Tom Deacon’s death I felt again the loss of my brother at the hands of odious southerners. I pray God grants me a measure of grace for ridding this earth of Fabens’ evil.
Now you know the worst of me my dear Annie. Should you reject my offer of marriage for this? I fear it might be so; I dare not confess the Truth to you and risk the loss of your affection. I will pen another letter and drop this in the Snake River upon my journey home. May the waters wash away my sins.
My Dearest Annie, I will strive to be pure in heart and in deed, and worthy of your affection.
With earnestness, truth and love
Maddi Davidson is the pen name for two sisters: Mary Ann Davidson and Diane Davidson. Mary Ann resides in Idaho while Diane lives in Northern Virginia. In addition to several published short stories, the sisters have written three novels in the Miss-Information Technology Mystery Series. This story, “Gold Rush to Judgement” is loosely based on a series of letters written by their second Great-Grandfather from Rocky Bar, Idaho in the latter part of the 19th century.