July 28, 2011
It was a typhoon, or so it’s said, that cast up David O’Keefe on Yap in 1871, and when he finally left the island 30 years later, it was another typhoon that drowned him as he made his way home to Savannah.
Between those dates, though, O’Keefe carved himself a permanent place in the history of the Pacific. So far as the press was concerned, he did it by turning himself into the “king of the cannibal islands”: a 6-foot-2, red-haired Irishman who lived an idyllic tropical existence, was “ruler of thousands” of indigenous people, and commanded “a standing army of twelve naked savages.” (“They were untutored, but they revered him, and his law was theirs.”) [New York Times; New York Tribune; Watchman & Southron] It was this version of O’Keefe’s story that made it to the silver screen half a century later in the forgettable Burt Lancaster vehicle His Majesty O’Keefe (1954), and this version, says scholar Janet Butler, that is still believed by O’Keefe’s descendants in Georgia. [Butler pp.177-8, 191]
The reality is rather different, and in some ways even more remarkable. For if O’Keefe was never a king, he certainly did build the most successful private trading company in the Pacific, and—at a time when most Western merchants in the region exploited the islanders they dealt with, then called in U.S. or European warships to back them up—he worked closely with them, understood them and made his fortune by winning their trust and help. This itself makes O’Keefe worthy of remembrance, for while the old sea-captain was most assuredly not perfect (he had at least three wives and several mistresses, and introduced the Yapese to both alcohol and firearms), he is still fondly recalled on the island. It doesn’t hurt, so far as the strangeness of the story goes, that O’Keefe ingratiated himself on Yap by securing a monopoly on the supply of the island’s unique currency: giant stone coins, each as much as 12 feet in diameter and weighing up to four and a half tons. But wait; we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Let’s start with the convoluted history that brought O’Keefe to Yap. So far as it is possible to tell, the captain was born in Ireland around 1823, and came to the U.S. as an unskilled laborer in the spring of 1848. [Butler pp.26-7] This date strongly suggests that he was one of more than a million emigrants driven from Ireland by the potato famine that began in 1845, but—unlike the many Irish who landed in New York and stayed there—O’Keefe continued traveling, eventually washing up in Savannah in 1854. After working on the railroads, he went to sea and worked his way up to be captain of his own ship. During the Civil War, it is said, he worked as a blockade runner for the Confederacy. [Butler pp.76-8; Hezel]
Whatever the truth, O’Keefe did flourish briefly in the Reconstruction period before the hot temper he was noted for landed him in serious trouble. As captain of the Anna Sims, moored in Darien, Georgia, he got into a violent argument with a member of his crew. The sailor hit O’Keefe with a metal bar; O’Keefe retaliated by shooting the man through the forehead. He spent eight months in jail charged with murder before winning an acquittal on the ground of self-defense, and at around the same time—it was now 1869—he married a Savannah teenager named Catherine Masters. [Butler pp.33-4, 79-80]
What drove O’Keefe from Georgia remains a minor mystery. Family tradition holds that he knocked a second crewman into the Savannah River some months later; fearing he had drowned the man, O’Keefe signed up to join the steamer Beldevere, fleeing to Liverpool, Hong Kong and the Pacific. [Butler p.80] Yet there seems to be no evidence that this fight actually occurred, and it’s just as likely that fading fortunes drove the Irishman to desperation. One historian points out that, by 1870, O’Keefe had been reduced to running day excursions up the coast for picnickers. [Hezel]
In any event, the captain left Savannah, and little seems to have been heard from him until he popped up in Hong Kong late in 1871, writing to send his wife a bank draft for $167 and vowing that he’d be home by Christmas—a promise that he failed to fulfill. The next Catherine O’Keefe heard from her husband was when he wrote requesting that she send him the Master’s certificate he needed to skipper a ship—a sure sign that he was staying put in the Pacific. By early 1872 O’Keefe was in Yap, a little archipelago of connected islets in the Carolines. [Hezel]
July 21, 2011
One afternoon in mid-January 1901, Murray Hall called a doctor to his home in lower Manhattan, ordered his maid and daughter to stay out of the parlor, opened the buttons of his gray morning coat, and waited to hear how much time he had left. The doctor saw that the cancer on Hall’s left breast had scythed a path clear to the heart; it was only a matter of days. Hall realized his death would set off a national political scandal, and perhaps he took small comfort in knowing he’d escape the aftermath, all the ceaseless queries and lurid speculation, the pious condemnation and bawdy jokes, the genuine wonder that he had never been what he seemed.
He could predict every story they’d tell. Murray Hall had been a savvy fixture in New York City politics for 25 years, shaking every hand in the 13th Senatorial District, rustling up the vote for Tammany Hall. And indeed, he was right: after his death they’d discuss how, on Election Day, he—they couldn’t quite say she—had actually cast a vote, posing for a photograph at the ballot box; how bold, how brazen that a woman would appropriate the franchise. How strange to think there might be others, too.
One of Hall’s old nemeses, Abraham Gruber, Republican leader of the 17th Assembly District, quipped that there should be a law requiring Tammany captains to “wear whiskers” so no woman could ever cast a ballot again. “You Tammany fellows are a very clever lot,” added State Senator John Raines. “I don’t wonder you pull such an overwhelming vote down there, when you can dress up the women to vote.”
Hall seemed to take solace in habit and was selectively fastidious. If he set down his hat in the middle of the floor, his maid knew not to touch it. He spent his days at Jefferson Market Police Court furnishing bonds for prisoners and his nights at various saloons around the city, playing poker and guzzling whiskey and plotting against Republicans, wisps of cigar smoke fogging his face. Get him drunk enough and he turned his thoughts inward, offered small glimpses of his private self. How he loathed his first wife and missed his second, the latter dead now for nearly two years; they had adopted a daughter and raised her together, a smart girl of twenty-two who shared his quick temper. Get him drunker still and he reversed course, turning outward again, hurling his voice (oddly falsetto, it must be said) across the room, flirting with any woman who passed, once accosting two policemen on the street, putting a “storm cloud draping” under one officer’s eye before they managed to cuff him. His long, tapered hands had the grip of a giant’s.
It was a remarkable deception, but there had been clues—slight clues, the sum of the parts falling far short of the whole. Hall’s face had always been uncommonly smooth, his frame Lilliputian, his feet so small he had to custom-order his shoes. He wore a coat two sizes too large, lending a boxy heft to his shoulders. One old acquaintance recalled him practicing his penmanship, smoothing out flourishes so it appeared to be “in the hand of a man.” He had a secret fondness for romance novels. He once entered a bar on Greenwich Avenue with a woman on either arm, and the three seated themselves at a table in the rear. The bartender took the orders of Hall’s companions, and then turned to Hall and asked, “And what will you have, little old woman?” Hall called the bartender a dozen unprintable names, threatened to throw a bottle at him, and had to be restrained.
There was something else, come to think of it: Hall had grown uncharacteristically reclusive in the past few months, skipping meetings down at the Iroquois Club, cutting back on his bail-bond business. One person saw him more often than most, C.S. Pratt, proprietor of a Sixth Avenue bookstore. Hall had been a loyal customer for years, taking his time perusing the shelves, usually selecting a tome about medicine, including an 1881 volume entitled The Art and Science of Surgery. He always asked to study the books at home before he purchased them, and if they proved to his liking he would pay any price Pratt asked. “He was well read,” Pratt said, “and had no use for light literature.” The bookseller never suspected the desperate nature of Hall’s collecting. Imagine Hall rummaging through the pages, feverish, frantic, memorizing recipes and gathering ingredients: arsenic, conium, iron, iodine, lard, ointment of the hydriodate of potass. He highlighted a passage about physical collisions accelerating the growth of tumors, and sent a letter to the district attorney complaining of being struck by a man on a bicycle. Perhaps he followed the instructions about applying pressure to the breast but still could feel the tumor leaking through his skin, smell its deadly perfume. He must have calculated how much morphine he could inject without losing control of a scalpel. Three months ago, when he had run out of options, he sold every medical book in his library one by one.
Every private moment, real or perceived, was twisted and turned and held up to the light, but in the end Murray Hall told no stories of his own—not even to his daughter, who refused to call her father a “she.” A month after Hall’s death, sexual psychologist Havelock Ellis dug at the roots of his life. Murray Hall was Mary Anderson, born circa 1840 in Govan, Scotland, an orphan who fled to Edinburgh and eventually to America, wearing her dead brother’s clothes. His colleagues offered tributes to the press (“She’s dead, the poor fellow!” exclaimed state Senator Barney Martin), but none of them would attend his funeral. Late on the afternoon of January 19, the undertaker collected Hall from the parlor of his home and brought him to Mount Olivet Cemetery. For the first time in forty years he was dressed in women’s clothes, in death becoming a different kind of imposter, this time against his will.
Sources: Havelock Ellis. Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. II. New York: Random House, 1937; Samuel Cooper and David Meredith Reese. A Dictionary of Practical Surgery. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854; “Amazed at Hall Revelations.” Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1901; “Serum Treatment for Cancer.” New York Times, June 25, 1895; “Mystery of Murray Hall.” New York Tribune, January 19, 1901; “Tell-Tale Hands.” Boston Daily Globe, January 21, 1901; “Wife’s Relatives Amazed.” Boston Daily Globe, January 20, 1901; “Whiskers for Tammany Men.” New York Times, January 20, 1901; “Death Revealed Her Sex.” New York Tribune, January 18, 1901; “She’s Dead, the Poor Fellow!” New York Tribune, January 19, 1901; “Murray Hall Fooled Many Shrewd Men.” New York Times, January 19, 1901; “Murray Hall’s Funeral.” New York Times, January 20, 1901; “Woman Lives as Man.” Chicago Tribune, January 18, 1901.
Looking back, the really strange thing was the silence. The way the church bells stopped ringing as the little group of naval cadets neared the village. The way even the ducks stood quiet and motionless by the shallow stream that ran across the road where the main street began.
And, when the boys thought about it afterward, they recalled that even the autumn birdsong faded as they neared the first houses. The wind had dropped to nothing, too.
Not a leaf stirred on the trees they passed. And the trees appeared to cast no shadows.
The street itself was quite deserted—not so odd, perhaps, for a Sunday morning in 1957, especially in the rural heart of England. But even the remotest British hamlets displayed some signs of modernity by then—cars parked by the roadside, phone wires strung along the roads, aerials on roofs—and there was nothing of that sort in this village. In fact, the houses on the high street all looked ancient; they were ragged, hand-built, timber-framed: “almost medieval in appearance,” one boy thought.
The three, all Royal Navy cadets, walked up to the nearest building and pressed their faces to its grimy windows. They could see that it was some sort of butcher’s shop, but what they glimpsed in the interior was even more unsettling. As one of them recalled for the author Andrew MacKenzie:
There were no tables or counters, just two or three whole oxen carcasses which had been skinned and in places were quite green with age. There was a green-painted door and windows with smallish glass panes, one at the front and one at the side, rather dirty-looking. I remember that as we three looked through that window in disbelief at the green and mouldy green carcasses… the general feeling certainly was one of disbelief and unreality… Who would believe that in 1957 that the health authorities would allow such conditions?
They peered into another house. It, too, had greenish, smeary windows. And it, too, appeared uninhabited. The walls had been crudely whitewashed, but the rooms were empty; the boys could see no possessions, no furniture, and they thought the rooms themselves appeared to be “not of modern day quality.” Spooked now, the cadets turned back and hurried out of the strange village. The track climbed a small hill, and they did not turn back until they had reached the top. Then, one of the three remembered, “suddenly we could hear the bells once more and saw the smoke rising from chimneys, [though] none of the chimneys was smoking when we were in the village… We ran for a few hundred yards as if to shake off the weird feeling.” [MacKenzie pp.6-9]
What happened to those three boys on that October morning more than 50 years ago remains something of a mystery. They were taking part in a map-reading exercise that ought to have been straightforward; the idea was to navigate their way across four or five miles of countryside to a designated point, then return to base and report what they had seen—which, if all went to plan, should have been the picturesque Suffolk village of Kersey. But the more they thought about it, the more the cadets wondered whether something very strange had occurred to them. Years later, William Laing, the Scottish boy who led the group, put it this way: “It was a ghost village, so to speak. It was almost as if we had walked back in time… I experienced an overwhelming feeling of sadness and depression in Kersey, but also a feeling of unfriendliness and unseen watchers which sent shivers up one’s back… I wondered if we’d knocked at a door to ask a question who might have answered it? It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
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