Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Brave Dead

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Brave Dead

Article excerpt

I've heard it said that when people tell you a secret they are, in effect, giving you a stone to carry in your pocket for them. I think it was my mother who said this. Yes, as a matter of fact, it was my mother. For every secret has some specific weight depending on its seriousness, she claimed, and if you carry enough of those little stones, sooner or later you'll find your pants fallen around your ankles. More good advice that I haven't taken. I'm drawn to anyone's secret, often released from it only upon the teller's death.

Max Pepper handed out a few such stones. He kept the corpses of five Sioux Indians hidden in the cellar of his home in the village of Breton, New York, where I grew up. They were his inheritance. They were also the one important thing about Max that people in general didn't know, and which kept him aloof from everyone.

His grandfather, Joshua Pepper, a mineral prospector and Western adventurer, had robbed their frozen bodies from their prairie funeral scaffolds one winter before the end of the nineteenth century. Joshua crated them and hid them, stiff and frozen, in a barn at a white settlement while he hurriedly ordered five custom-made coffins with glass covers and signed over some four-hundred acres of mineral rights to pay the bill, thinking he'd found a new kind of gold. He treated the bodies with a preservative mixture of peanut oil and resin; and, although the remains still shriveled like raisins, they retained their human features. He carried the coffins to Chicago, where, with the help of an old pal on the Daily News who had a flair for the exotic, he transformed himself into Professor Pepper and began a series of lecture hall appearances, exhibiting the corpses, and weaving sensational yarns of his reputed life among the Indians, becoming a celebrity. When sophisticates lost interest, he-ever resourceful-traded his evening suit for a Western hat and chaps and took his Indians to Vaudeville.

In the autumn of 1960, when I first saw the corpses, Joshua Pepper was long since discredited and forgotten. By then, of course, laws against improper disposal of cadavers were taken seriously, which was one reason Max kept them out of sight. Moreover, it's safe to say that Joshua's brand of adventurism was no longer so universally admired. But Max wasn't about to give them up. I think he hoped that, somehow, there was another romantic fortune to be made from them.

Breton is an Upstate village, mid-road between Buffalo and Rochester, where the total cultural amenities are a bar, a motel and a diner. A farcical tradition in Breton was to take in all three with an overnight intimate, ending with breakfast in the diner. It was called hitting a triple. Max owned the motel, where he kept a bottle of Jim Beam in the desk drawer of the office and watched TV with his feet up, day and night. In the mid-1950s when travelers shifted from old Route 5 to the new Thruway, his business began catering less to travelers and more to triple-- hitters, most of whom bothered only with second base. He didn't like it one bit and claimed it made him sick to run a flophouse. He even said it was going to shorten his life. Eventually, the bottle was no longer hidden in the drawer.

Max had a son, Eddie Pepper, an overweight kid who cried and threw tantrums in school, was bullied in gym class for his poor coordination and earned dreamily poor grades that eventually kept him out of college. I was one of his few friends, perhaps his only real one. Solemnly respectful of the Indian corpses, he kept his family's secret until one autumn afternoon when we were walking home from school amid clouds of smoke that were a rite of fall when leaf-burning was still legal. Eddie asked me if I wanted to "say hello to the Indians."

We had covered Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in school that day, and I thought he was playing some kind of followup joke. He led me into the Peppers' kitchen, where his mother had a whole chicken simmering in a kettle, steaming the chilly windows. …

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