“Hmm, no, I wouldn’t say Benjamin Halley was the worst of the branch. In fact he may have been the best.”
I looked over the table at my cousin Bill. Bill was the family historian and had once thought about writing a book about the whole Hawkins clan, all three branches.
“Do say,” I said. “I thought he was a racist bastard with a nasty temper.”
Bill laughed. “Did I say he wasn’t?” he asked. “Actually, for most of his life he seemed to be no more racist than the average person of the times, which would be very racist in our era. He did resent that he was related to the black Hawkins branch, but that was a feud that had been going on for century or more. Did you know that when they rebuild the Octagon in granite and redid the crypts back in 1803 the Halley’s didn’t contribute one red cent? They kept their crypt shuttered, so the renovation went to their door frame but not into their vault. My guess is that it is still the original brick from the early 1740s. Their side was by far the richest back then, yet they refused because they didn’t want to do anything with the Hawkins. I say ‘they’, though of course in 1803 it would have been George. That was the year Jeremiah was born, which George used as an excuse not to contribute.”
Bill took a sip of his coffee and sat back in his chair. We were in the kitchen of his house in Woburn.
“Wait, back up. You said they didn’t rebuild in 1803 when our crypt was expanded. Is the Halley branch’s crypt tiny, then?” I asked.
“Well,” Bills said, “it’s not like they need a huge vault since there are only six bodies in it.” He saw my quizzical look then continued. “You know, the heads of the branch, Mary and Gustave, of course. Then there was their son, Thomas, born around 1750. Then Thomas had a son, George, born in 1782. Then, as I said, George’s son Jeremiah was born in 1803, and he was Benjamin’s father. That’s it, just Mary, Gustave, Thomas, George, Jeremiah and Benjamin; six.”
“So, except for the matriarch of the line, Mary, there are no females interred there?” I asked. He nodded his head. “And no other children, just, I assume, the oldest sons?”
“Just the oldest son and in every single case the only son and the only child,” Bill answered. “In each generation the mother didn’t live much beyond the birth of her son and the father never remarried. I think five years was the longest any of the women survived giving birth.”
I sat back and thought about it. The Halley line was fragile, only one child per generation. That’s why it came to such an abrupt end.
“You mentioned a feud. I think I heard about it, but I don’t remember any details,” I said.
“Come on, you know family history better than that, don’t you?” Bill asked. “OK, as I’m sure you know, Miles had three kids. The oldest daughter Mary married Gustave Halley, a importer and shop owner in Boston. Ebenezer Hawkins freed and then married a slave from Virginia, originally named Phebe but later changed to Faith. And of course there was the youngest, Abigail, who married Jonathan Hawthorn, a sailor and later ship captain.”
I nodded. This was just basic family history.
”So, when Miles died in 1747, he left the biggest share of his inheritance to his son, as was usually the case back then,” Bill continued. “Ebenezer was to get two thirds of the fortune, which was pretty sizable. The girls would then split the remaining third, so a sixth each. For the day it seems reasonable.
“Mary and Gustave, however, thought it was a bad deal. Not only was she the oldest child, but Ebenezer had married a slave which meant the estate would eventually go to the children of a slave. They took it to court. Gustave was friends with the judge. Abigail tried to intervene, but caught a fever and lay at home in a cold sweat through the whole proceedings. Her husband was in the Indies. So the two thirds went to the Halleys while the last third was split between the Hawkins and the Hawthorns.
“Now, the Hawkins didn’t hold a grudge as much as you’d think. It was the way of the world back then. But the Halleys always seemed to think that Hawkins were plotting against them to reclaim their inheritance. In fact, the Halleys often went out of their way to make life miserable for the Hawkins. There is even written evidence that George had planned to try to poison the whole family. But Benjamin acted like he wanted to end the feud so in that way, Benjamin was the actually the nicest, at least at first.”
Bill sipped his coffee and looked out of the window. It was a beautiful August day. I, however wasn’t interested in the day. I was thinking back to my repressed memory of Benjamin.
“From what I’ve heard, Ben wasn’t a nice boy,” I said.
Bill laughed again. “No he wasn’t,” he said. “But compared to the others he was a saint, at least at first. He wanted to set things right and make up to the families. He still hated that he had black relatives, but he let them be and could actually be civil on occasion.
“He also married a Hawthorn. Although Dorothy’s last name was “Smith”, she was close to the main Hawthorn branch. On the Hawkins side, he hired Bernard Hawkins to help around the house and work the garden. He said he wanted to close the loop, make the family whole again. But that ended in flames.
“About six months after Dorothy bore him a daughter, Benjamin’s house caught fire. Dorothy and the girl were in a second floor room. Bernard heard her screams and ran into the house to save her. The house collapsed a minute later. Everyone knew Benjamin wanted a son, not a daughter and was very upset. They all suspected he caused the fire but there was no proof. He, of course, placed the blame on the shoulders of Bernard, an impossibility. That was the start of his slide.
“He was caught lying, cheating and stealing, but his money and influence kept him free. But even his money started to slip out of his hands, with one unhappy incident after another. The famed Halley business luck had run out.
“He remarried a few years after Dorothy died, but after five childless years his second wife had an unfortunate accident. It was never explained. So he remarried one more time. A little over a year later his third wife died in childbirth. Her son died three hours later.
“They say this is when he truly went insane.”
“So,” I said, “this is when he started doing all of those heinous crimes.”
“No, there were no heinous crimes” Bill said. “He made a lot of enemies. He always had a cruel side, though he hid it well before Dorothy’s death, but history shows it was always there. So some of his misdeeds were magnified and new imaginary ones invented. Some were so wrong as to be hilarious, but his reputation had sunk so far that people believed them.”
“Like the burning of the slaves,” I said.
“Exactly. There was some history, of course, with Bernard and his family. There was also a fire in one of his warehouses that killed two men, both black. Again, nobody could prove it was him, but some believed he set it. He’d made promises he couldn’t keep and the fire was just too convenient. So, like the more credible, if fictitious stories, this story stuck.”
Bill leaned forward and pointed at me with his coffee cup.
“Most of the worst rumors and accusations may have been false, but that man did some evil things in the last two years of his life, don’t doubt that,” he said. “And weird things seemed to happen around him. The family stories say they continued after he died in 1875.”
I had heard some of the stories, but was curious. “Such as?” I asked.
“Less than a year after he was interred part of the outer structure of the mausoleum collapsed. The part over the Halley crypt,” Bill said. “The current building was put up then, but I hear there is a hidden shrine build into the floor just above that crypt, a religious spot to keep spirits from passing. Also, you know the sitting corpses in the Hawthorn side.”
“The story is that two months after Benjamin was interred someone came in and seven previous members of the Hawthorn family were sitting watching the door. Some said they were sentinels to guard against evil. No one admitted to moving them and setting them upright. Nobody dared move them back to their original spots. There they still are, though five have since collapsed in on themselves.”
I shivered. The watchers had always frightened me, even as an adult.
“Strange things were said to occur when anyone entered the Mausoleum. Within a year the Hawkins started making a cross in front of the door and leaving charms against evil to keep anything from exiting the Halley crypt. The strange things slowed down and stopped. I have noticed the Hawthorns no longer keep up that superstitious practice, not since old Rosaline passed away.”
“And what do you think?” I asked.
“As the family historian I’m just reporting what has been said,” he answered. “I don’t believe in spooks. I’m a scientist, so nothing can convince me that evil lives beyond the grave.” He took a sip of coffee. Then look straight at me. “But nothing, not a damn thing, can convince me to ever go down into the Halley crypt. Nothing. Wild-fucking-horses couldn’t drag me down those steps.”
An hour and a half later I was southbound on 128, heading home, running over Bill’s information in my mind. There seemed to be some large holes, something I was missing, something obvious. There were parts that just didn’t add up. I finally gave up. I decided I’d discover it eventually, that there was no sense in being in an accident over it.
As I forced myself right to get off there was nothing farther from my mind than the Halley branch.