In Memortam: Ira Dutton

I THINK it was that owlish and truculent editor, the late George Harvey, who first in our time gave voice to the now traditional nostalgia for Vermont. Frostbitten by his dear Woodrow Wilson during the chill of the 1912 campaign, Harvey had stalked off in his wounded pride down a road so strange and sorry that it led him, by way of a smoke-filled hotel room in Chicago, even unto the Court of St. James’s. Speaking there at the Guildhall dinner of the Royal Society of St. George, his thoughts ran back to a morsel of the Eighteenth Century left behind and forgotten in the Green Mountains — the tiny, unchanging village of Peacham, whence, years before, he had gone forth to make his fortune. Next day sundry ink-stained wretches of the New York press (including a cub named Frank Sullivan) were rushed to this lost Atlantis to investigate our Ambassador’s boast that it contained ‘no man, woman, or child of other than English blood.’ These inquirers found the point already up for discussion by the farmers (mostly of Scotch and Irish descent) who were loitering in Peacham’s general store. The storekeeper, a man of German birth, expressed the sense of the meeting. ‘Ach,’ said Herr Richter, ‘George has again through his hat been talking.’

Three months later the same attention was caught and transfixed by an event which invaded the quiet of a village called Plymouth, not far down the valley from Peacham. Shortly after an August midnight in that year, old John Coolidge was awakened by the noise of a motorcar which had snorted importantly the three twisting miles from Bridgewater. Leaning from his second-story window, he got the tidings which had just come over the wires from San Francisco. It was he who had to wake his son with the news that Warren Harding was dead. ‘Well,’ said Calvin, ‘I guess I’d better get up.’ A little later — toward three it was, and sunup not far off—the witnesses gathered in the living room below: wife, secretary, chauffeur, a few hangers-on.

I do solemnly swear . . .

‘I do solemnly swear . . .’

It was old Coolidge, notary public, administering the oath of office by lamplight.

. . . that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States....

. that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States. . . .’

Less than ten years later they brought him back through the January rain to lie in that grudging, wind-swept half-acre where Coolidges have been buried since time out of mind. His stone differs from the others chiefly because the local stonemason carved an eagle on it in bas-relief. He had copied it from a quarter someone loaned him.

In no more critical spirit, sixty years before, the same Vermont crossroads, one after another, had gazed in noncommittal curiosity when Jim Fisk came slowly back to Brattleboro. A handsome, hightoned blackmailer named Stokes had shot down that buccaneer on the gaudy staircase of the Broadway Central Hotel in New York and there had already been an elegant lying-in-state in the foyer of his own Grand Opera House at Twenty-third Street and Eighth Avenue. Now, with Jay Gould forgotten, — and Black Friday and Josie Mansfield, too, — Jim was coming home to Brattleboro, whence he had taken to the road as a jaunty peddler less than twenty years before. He lies there to-day on high, lovely ground which looks out across the Connecticut River into New Hampshire. His grave is marked by a tasty obelisk of Italian marble at the base of which several vapid marble maidens wait for eternity. One of them has a locomotive graven on her headpiece in memory of the Erie Railroad, and in her stony hands another holds a steamboat, as if it were a diploma. You are left to mischievous speculation as to what the next one may once have held. Whatever it was, some passing vandal — happening, perhaps, to have a pneumatic drill with him — has carried it off.

George Harvey, Calvin Coolidge, and Jim Fisk — these three had one thing in common. They were born in Vermont but achieved their fame by (or, at least, after) leaving it. Indeed, that has been true of all the Green Mountain boys. Thus Stephen A. Douglas was born in Vermont — his bronze head still glowers down the main street of his native Brandon — but he went to the Senate from a quite different commonwealth. And certainly Joseph Smith, who was from over Sharon way, and his trusty Brigham Young —Vermont lads both — are still remembered for the sowing of a seed which would have had a tough time taking root in the scornful soil of their native state. Neither was ever brought back to that soil. Young was far from Vermont when, at the age of seventy-six, he was laid low with cholera morbus after an injudicious snack of green corn and peaches. To the anxious and considerable family gathered at his bedside he murmured, ’I feel better,’ and gave up the ghost. But though they buried him there in Salt Lake City, certain pious Mormons made a pilgrimage to his Vermont birthplace, a bleak mountain farm near Whitingham, and marked it with a tablet. Now slightly askew and half-hidden by brambles, that tablet is still legible enough to startle the passerby. ‘Brigham Young,’ it gravely records, ‘Born on this spot in 1801. A man of much courage and superb equipment.’

If so many of his like, with their possessions in a handkerchief on the end of a stick, have gone out into the world, it has been under the same compulsion that put wind into the sails of the Vikings long ago. The snowbound homeland was too crabbed and lean to feed them all. In a Viking household only one son could hope to stay at home. For each of the rest there waited, when he came of age, a ceremony. An arrow would be tossed into the air, and as it might be pointing when it fell, so must the youth go forth. Southeast to Muscovy? Southwest to the vineyards of the Franks? West to Albion and beyond? No matter. Go he must. Thus it has ever been with the Green Mountain boys. As a result, Vermont is even now little larger in population than Jersey City or Louisville. Indeed, it can hold up its head around Washington in the proud consciousness that at least it contributes only one member to the House of Representatives.

As for the émigrés, they sigh like the Irish for the cleaner, greener land from which they have let themselves be driven. From time to time, on the seamy face of some prosperous old codger watching the New Year’s Day carnival at Pasadena — Roses in January! Good God! — you may note an expression of incredulity mixed with distaste. Be sure there is being borne to him across the years the faint distant sound of sleighbells on the road that winds its way from Burlington to Montpelier. Or consider that pursy banker chap out in Chicago. His stenographer will tell you that in the fall the old boy always wears a faraway look. I think he is seeing Lake Dunmore as it lies turquoise under an October sky. I suspect he is wondering if that big silly house of his on the shore at Evanston is not just a mess of pottage.

Of all these lives that began in the Green Mountains but were spent elsewhere — lavished, perhaps, or even squandered might be a better word than spent — the one that has ever taken the strongest hold on my interest and stirred most my speculative wonder is that of a man named Dutton. Designed for an improbable use which he was long in discovering, Ira Dutton came into the world in 1843 at the fairest spot in all Vermont. That is the town of Stowe, which is a reserved seat at the endlessly enchanting spectacle presented by Mount Mansfield. His father, Ezra Dutton, was the shoemaker at Stowe, and his mother, Abigail Barnes, had been the schoolmarm at Rochester in the next valley. By a twisting road which no one now can chart completely, the destiny of this son of theirs took him at his appointed time to a ‘gray, lofty and most desolate island’ — the one called Molokai. That is the distressful colony which was the scene and witness of the martyrdom of Father Damien — a martyrdom that first became known on a certain Sunday when, in the rude wooden church which his parishioners had built with their own rotting hands, Damien changed the familiar beginning of his sermon. On that Sunday the sermon did not begin as usual with the salutation ‘My brethren.’ Instead the first words were ‘We lepers.’

If the story of that laughing and violent peasant with the burning eyes soon spread to the ends of the earth and is still familiar in partibus infidelium, thanks are in no small measure due to an evangelical clergyman named C. M. Hyde. The Reverend Dr. Hyde was one of those early missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands of whom it has been said that they went out to do good and did well. From his luxurious manse on Beretania Street at Honolulu, he made an injudicious effort to nip the Damien legend in the bud. Indeed, he issued a statement to the effect that Damien had been a coarse, dirty, and bigoted fellow who — as Dr. Hyde reported with unconvincing regret — was no better than he should have been. To-day Dr. Hyde is remembered at all only because this statement of his brought down upon him the generous wrath of Robert Louis Stevenson, to whom Hyde’s name must have seemed vaguely familiar. In an open letter to him written at Sydney in Australia just fifty years ago this August, R. L. S. administered one of the most exhilarating and generally satisfactory thrashings in all literature.

One day, at a time when Damien was no longer able to walk and therefore, in order to meet the Honolulu boat which would drop off the mail for Molokai, had to have himself wheeled down to the shore in a cart, he saw disembarking a rugged giant who, judging from his luggage, had apparently come to stay. He had, as it turned out, come to stay for four-and-forty years. This was the lay brother who, when Stevenson visited Molokai after Damien’s death, was to serve as his guide and informant. This was the Brother Joseph who nursed Damien through his last hours, buried him with his own hands, administered his estate, and then dedicated the rest of his own life to taking Damien’s place among the lepers. Brother Joseph’s real name was Ira Dutton.

A good deal must have happened in and around Ira Dutton along the road that led from Stowe to Molokai, and there have been several recent attempts to reconstruct that journey. But none of them gets at the heart of the man. We see him as a young officer in the Union forces during the Civil War and later as an unhappy husband. There was a scandal, a divorce, and a subsequent conversion to the Catholic faith, for back in Stowe he had been born into a good Baptist household. It was at this, his second christening, that he took the name of Joseph.

Among the wild surmises about Brother Joseph there was common talk for many years that he was a renegade Trappist. Indeed, I have had it confided to me in a deafening whisper that he was the very one who inspired the tale of the faithless monk which Robert Hichens wrote and called The Garden of Allah. This explanation of him labors under the disadvantage of being untrue. It has as its basis only the fact that, not long before he took ship for Molokai, Dutton had spent twenty months of retreat in the voiceless monastery of Gethsemane in Kentucky. But in returning to the world, still haunted by that from which he was in flight, he broke no vows, for he had made none. It was in New Orleans a little after this that he first heard of Father Damien — came across some account of him in a magazine he chanced upon. The next thing we know he was bound west from San Francisco, and these shores knew him no more. All this is part of a long-familiar record. What none of these accounts supplies is any clue to the trouble that was in his heart. If those forty-four years were offered as an expiation for some act of his back home, he told no one save the leprous priest to whom it was his privilege to make confession.

Brother Joseph never set foot again on the soil of these United States, but always, in front of his home on Molokai, the Stars and Stripes was run up the flagpole by his own hands and by them taken down at the end of every day. They say that in these sunset ceremonies there always came a moment when, for the space that a breath is held, the gaunt exile would pause with the tumbling folds resting on his shoulder. It was as if he felt a caress. Indeed, the picture of Brother Joseph that emerges from the mist whenever I hear his name mentioned shows him standing there beside that flagpole of his on a certain July day in 1908, twenty years after the death of Damien. That was the year in which Roosevelt sent the fleet around the world. After it had started across the Pacific, troubling word reached the White House that Brother Joseph, in the innocence of his faith, had been promising his charges at Molokai that they should see the battleships when they passed by. But the fleet was not scheduled to go near Molokai at all. The great Theodore, bless him, set the cables humming with a change of sailing orders that caught the Admiral at Honolulu.

I like to remember that hour when the line of battleships passed Molokai in single file. Up there on a promontory where his house was built, with all the leper boys gathered around him, Brother Joseph stood — an old man, by this time, with the white beard of a patriarch. Very straight he stood, and his flag snapped in the breeze. As each ship in the passing fleet went by, her flag dipped in salute.

I find myself wondering now if Brother Joseph knew the battleships by name. I hope he knew that one of them was the Vermont.