The Luck of Jedediah Brownhead, Esq.
“TAKE THE PISTOL, LANE.” Frost nudged an old-fashioned brass single barrel across the desk at his sharp-jawed friend. “One of those blacklegs is going to start shooting. Then what’ll you do?”
“Same as last time.” Lane squint-smiled with his one good eye. “Run.”
Sam’l Lane was not a man to accept a fight unless it was worth it; and along the lower Cuyahoga in the 1830s, a fight could be for keeps. Specifically, he saw no gain in a physical fight. Unfortunately, his character, principles, and devil-take manner stirred up enemies in his wake like dry leaves after a fast horse. The Cuyahoga valley echoed with the damning of Sam’l Lane.
The damners wanted action, not debate. And Sam’l Lane’s only weapon was his pen. He became the first biographer of the Cuyahoga.
To fill in the profile of Brownhead’s life, one needs to use what he wrote of himself, what others wrote of him, and assume the language that must have been used between Brownhead and his loyal friend, Henry Frost - which follows.
Scarce 19-years-old when he came to Akron in 1834, Lane was already well-traveled. Therefore, the finely attired strangers who inhabited the canal taverns did not impress his worldly eye as they did the local settlers. He’d seen them before in every big town from his home in Connecticut to New Orleans, which pumped these blacklegs up the Mississippi river arteries. To Sam’l Lane, the ruffle shirts, plug hats, kid gloves, and bejeweled fingers were the plumage of gamblers, counterfeiters, and thieves.
Four years in canal-bustling Akron grew Lane’s first fringe of chin whiskers and his first head of real anger. While still practicing his trade of sign and house painter, he took up the pen to write a little semiweekly newspaper that voiced his opinions of blackleg activity and life in general.
While Lane’s pen flushed out coveys of blacklegs, it was a poor defense against their bullets, bludgeons, and bare knuckles.
“Dammit, Lane, you were lucky to get off with only one buttoned-up eye!” exploded Frost. “You’re tweaking the nose of every gambler, saloonkeeper, counterfeiter b’hoy, thief, pickpocket, and ...
“... con man,” added Lane.
“And to top it off,” bellowed Frost, “you even dig at law-abiding citizens.”
“Now, Henry,” Lane rasped in the harsh Connecticut dialect that characterized his articles in the Buzzard. “Uncle Jed sez that a real jolly, nothin’-tu-du-with-polyticks, anti-blackleg, respectable paper will du well here, an’ that’s jist what I’m goin’ tu print.”
“Lane, that phony accent and the false name, Jedediah Brownhead, Esquire, won’t protect you. They know who writes it. Half the town calls you ‘Jed’ already.”
This time Frost picked up the heavy little cannon and held it out to his friend. “Careful. It’s loaded.”
Lane squinted down the sights, lining them up through the window at a stem-legged stranger across the street who was ushering an awkward giant farmer into the saloon.
“Bang!” he said. “There goes another blackleg, compliments of Sam’l Lane.”
A smile crinkled the wide mouth. With the fringe of whiskers framing the smooth-shaven upper lip, the mouth and jutting cone of a nose, Sam’l Lane came closer to being the clownish Jedediah Brownhead, Esq., than the sophisticated editor of Akron’s much talked about newspaper. Lane gently laid the pistol on the desk.
“Henry,” he drawled, “I was raised to the occupashun of teechin’ the young idear how to shute. But seein’ as how that’s rather poor bizness in this secshun, I’ve concluded to try my hand at editerin’ awhile.”
Frost sat as stone faced as the blacklegs did when they read Lane’s humor.
In booming Akron, blacklegs made no attempts to front their professions, or purpose. It was every man for himself, and while all communities had their reform groups, the general attitude toward transients, upon whom the blacklegs preyed, was that “he who gets fleeced should have kept his coat buttoned.”
The traffic through Akron was heavy. Inland farmers from as far south as the big bend in the canal at Newark shipped north to Akron. They accompanied their farm produce that far north, where it was transferred to boats bound for the mouth of the Cuyahoga. The farmers stayed in Akron to make purchases of goods imported from New York via Cleveland. Very often these men had with them most of their savings. Sometimes they brought with them their land payment money.
Now these were lonely men who had licked a hundred acres of hardwood and supported with their bare hands life amid nature. For some, it had been several years since they had been among strangers or seen a woman wearing new cloth and bracelets. The big U turn on the Cuyahoga was a bright new world to them, and they were not expecting it to be peopled by predatory blacklegs. They fell easy prey to the friendly smiles of the handsomely clothed people.
When the witty pen of Jedediah Brownhead, Esq., went after them in his strictly reform paper, the Buzzard, it made good reading. And when people read, they sometimes acted. So with half the state’s blacklegs concentrated right here in the new canal city like gaudy green horseflies on slow-melting sugar, a man could stir up a lot of trouble with hardly tossing a name.
Along with their dazzling display of high fashion finery, the blacklegs presented an elegant friendliness which bored travelers on the canal packets found overpoweringly attractive. Boston and Peninsula were already favorite haunts during the blackleg working hours. There the boats began the laborious stair-step through the locks to the summit.
To eat, the passengers often had to disembark and cook their own meals over open fires. This, along with the practice most canalboats had of carrying their spare horses on board, led many passengers to accept the hospitality of the well-dressed strangers, ride with them into Akron for a friendly glass or two to wait until their boat caught up with them on the summit ... “And perhaps a hand of cards or two.”
This was part of what Sam Lane was determined to clean up. This was what moved the pen of Jedediah Brownhead, Esq., and kept the brickbats flying at Lane’s head. Plain, hard-headed luck kept them from doing damage.
“Sum folks may think, perhaps, that I’ve got a curious name for my paper,” Jed quipped in one issue of the Buzzard. “You see, a buzzard is a kind of hawk, an’ my Buzzard is near of kin tu the turkey buzzard that I’ve hern tell on way down South where it’s a fine tu kill ’em, cause, you see, they remove all the filth and carin from the streets. Now, you see, I calkulate to make my paper prodigous handy in this way. If there’s enny thing wrong goin on, I calkulate to tell on’t, an expose, an endevor to remove newsances and so forth from the city.”
The Buzzard’s sweeping forages on blacklegs were extremely successful. But Lane had many close squeaks. Pelting with rotten eggs was common. Once he was cowhided for his commentary on a local drunkard and cohort of the blacklegs; but the whip wielder was relatively easy to outrun. She was the drunkard’s wife.
The buttoned-up eye Lane now displayed to his friend Henry Frost was still tender from the fist of a notorious Negro pugilist and dancer named John Kelley who had attempted to obtain possession of a hall for a “distreputable exhibition” and had been severely criticized by the Buzzard. Having been knocked to the ground on this occasion, Lane had been saved from a lethal stomping by his own agility at pivoting on his back while keeping his feet toward his attacker - and the timely intervention of bystanders.
Lane was constantly being lured by invitations into dark alleys, secluded back rooms, and lonely woods by irate blacklegs. It wasn’t common sense that saved him. This was why Henry Frost now pushed the pistol toward Lane, more insistently.
“Lane, you’ve proved you don’t show the white feather. But you’ve also proved wit and words aren’t going to help. Take the pistol.”
Lane stared at the miniature cannon, fingering his beard.
“I was a barkeep once,” he said. “Only way I could earn a living.” His right hand reached for the dull gleaming pistol. “The meanest of all occupations,” he continued, “is that which requires a man to dole out whiskey at three cents a glass when he knows perhaps a whole family is suffering for the bread which should have been bought with the coppers.”
Lane was idly checking the primer. Suddenly he leaned forward, roughly clattering the pistol to the desktop. “Say,” he exclaimed. “That’d make a good temperance item. ‘Man’s most miserable occupation.’" He reached for his pen.
Henry Frost started for the door. “Promise me you’ll carry the pistol?”
The scratching of his pen on paper drowned out Lane’s soft answer. “Like the barkeep, Henry, a man’s got to live.”
Only a few days later, with the brass pistol pulling at the skirt pocket of his overcoat, Sam’l Lane called at the Hall Hotel, on business with the landlord’s brother. There were no threats to his person this day - no rotten eggs, no horsewhips, no fist-swinging pugilists.
Just Dwight Spooner.
Through drink-puffed eyes, Spooner, a leader, watched the editor bustle through the taproom. Dwight Spooner rubbed the stubble on his face and nodded to other men.
Half a dozen lounging blacklegs caught the look, and waited with him.
Lane didn’t keep them waiting long. As he picked his way through the taproom toward the door, Spooner’s hulk rose and blotted out the light. A fist like a hand of bananas knotted around Lane’s collar and he was yanked into mid-air by a yard of beef. Sam’s hand instinctively flew to his hat, keeping it squared on his head. The other dipped into the coat pocket.
A well-manicured hand, trimmed with starched cuff, fell on his elbow, a hand decorated brightly with several razor-sharp diamonds that can slash a man’s face. A voice hissed in Lane’s ear, “Don’t pull the pistol, Jed, or it’s the end of you.”
Lane managed to roll his eyes enough to make out the town’s most notorious blackleg. He could also see Spooner’s other fist suspended.
“Landlord!” choked Lane, quietly withdrawing an empty hand from the pistol pocket. “Give me protection!”
The landlord smiled, pushed open the front door and turned to Lane who still dangled limply from Spooner’s grip. “If you are going to fight, gentlemen, do it outside.”
Lane was dragged out.
“Go ahead, Spooner - mash the polecat!”
Lane’s right hand sneaked into the coat pocket again.
Spooner’s eyes glistened. “How ’bout it Jed Brownhead,” he taunted, “shall I strike you?”
Lane’s hand came out of the pocket, the pistol cocked.
“Shall I mash yer face for you?”
The pistol was against Spooner’s belt buckle.
“You can do as you please about it, Dwight,” Lane gasped as calmly as he could. “But you may feel bad about it afterwards. Real bad.”
Another hand linked into the crook of Spooner’s arm. “Now hold on, Dwight,” drawled a friendly voice. “You could get into serious trouble mashin’ up a prominent citizen like J. Brownhead, Esquire, here.” Spooner’s fist wavered. A howl went up from the blacklegs.
Another friendly voice drifted into Lane’s now pounding eardrums. “Lay off, Dwight. There’s nothing to gain by mashing our friend.” The emphasis was threatening. Spooner’s fist dropped a little and his eyes circled the ring of bystanders. The circle was complete - blacklegs on one side, friends of Jed on the other.
The clamp that bunched Lane’s collar relaxed and, slowly, the pistol was uncocked and slipped into the pocket again. Apparently no one had even seen it.
But Sam’l Lane had only half an hour to recuperate from big Dwight Spooner. He returned to his office, taking care to place the pistol on a convenient shelf above the editorial table.
Dwight Spooner was herded into the tavern by the blacklegs. There he filled up with more corn courage and a few proddings.
Jedediah Brownhead looked up from his editorial as the stumbling thumps scuffed up the stairs to his office. He laid the pen down and took the pistol from its shelf just as the door banged open.
Spooner swung on the doorframe eyes glistening, “Lane! You gonna buzzard me any more?”
The pistol cocked. Spooner saw it this time.
“Get out of my office, Spooner, or I’ll buzzard you so you’ll stay buzzarded!”
Spooner got. Lane stood at the office window, watching the giant disappear down the mud street.
He chuckled. So, Sam’l Lane - the pen can start a fight, but it takes a pistol to finish it. You might even run for sheriff one day and put some of these pen-scratched principles into action.
Lane looked hard at the pistol. No need to keep it primed now that danger’s over. With his pen, he pried the wadding from the barrel and shook the charge onto the desk. Out tumbled four large shot, three slugs of lead, and a pile of powder which even to an unpracticed eye was a large mouthful for any pistol, not to mention this one with its old-fashioned brass barrel.
Sam’l Lane shuddered. In his great concern, Henry Frost had tried to double the protection for his friend. But if the trigger had been pulled, it would have backfired Lane off the earth.
Sam’l Lane had been carrying a bomb.
If the experience of very nearly blowing himself from the lives of the blacklegs was any lesson to Sam’l Lane, he never showed it by future caution. His long and varied career was a continual oscillation between the pistol and the pen.
He served as editor of several publications alternately with terms as sheriff, probate judge, and finally mayor of Akron.
The same bravado characterized both his pen and his pistols. But he never actually fired. He just used it to protect his pen ... and this was what people remembered.
In later years, Lane helped Akron’s Beacon-Journal make a name for itself that continues today; and he wrote perhaps the most detailed book on the embattled Cuyahoga - to which most subsequent regional books are indebted, including this one.
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