Historical Friends

Dexter Marsh

I guess anyone who reads makes literary and historical friends: people you like, whose stories are interesting to you and kind of reach out and grab you. Sometimes you get a sense of someone from reading what they wrote or what others wrote about them, so your mind can kind of conjecture what they might say or do in a certain situation.

A lot of people ask, “What would Jesus do?” and try to figure it out. I often ask, “What would Lincoln say?” and kind of leave the question open in the back of my mind and come back in a few days, and generally I find some pretty good answers.

But there’s a fine line here, and if you cross over it, you start thinking that they’re actually talking to you. Ever had that happen?

I liked Dexter Marsh the first time I met him. He was the thirteenth child of a poor family in Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts in the early 1800s, and he never went to school. But he discovered the first traces of dinosaurs in America and belonged to many learned socieities. He used to row up and down the Connecticut River collecting fossilized dinosaur footprints.

Mary Phylinda Dole

I remember wondering if he knew John Putnam, the barber, fiddler and conductor on the Underground Railroad. Then one day I saw a letter in Irmarie Jones’ column in the Greenfield Recorder. It was written by Dexter Marsh’s daughter, who described going out into her yard as a little girl and finding a group of black children. Her mother told her it was only a dream. Of course. You don’t ask a little child to keep a secret; it’s too hard for them.

So that answers that question. Dexter Marsh’s house was a station. But the way I learned it really gave me the feeling that my old friend was actually communicating with me from beyond the grave. I got that tingling up and down my spine that I used to get when Charlie Sheerin preached in St. John’s Chapel to a group of awkward preppies. I think of it as a kind of truth tingle.

Mary Phylinda Dole was a physician in Greenfield in the 1890s who grew up on a farm in Ashfield. I found a copy of her autobiography, which was privately published, at a tag sale in Northfield. That got burned up in a house fire. I got another copy from her niece which I gave to my mom, but I couldn’t find it among her effects when she passed away.

Years later, there it was in the Whately Antiquarian Book Center: a beautiful copy in mint condition with –get this! — ephemera! (Papers tucked inside) There was a review of the book and an article from the Mt. Holyoke alumni bulletin. I got so tingly, I may have done a little dance.