I am a poor, simple shoemaker from Rosedale, Kansas, certainly not an eloquent writer. No writer at all, I assure you. I will therefore ask your forgiveness if, when reading this story, you find the account pitifully and dismally incompetent in describing what I assure you is a haunting and fantastic tale.
To my credit, many long years have elapsed since then, and either my memory is sorely lacking, or it is too terrifying and traumatic for me to accurately recreate. Nothing so bizarre has happened in my life before or since.
Unfortunately for the reader, it was not Edgar Allan Poe, nor was it Nathaniel Hawthorne, who accompanied the great Daniel Webster to plead with the widow of Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee shaman and brother of Tecumseh, for the life of the ninth President of the United States.
The curse, it is said, was uttered by that great devil after the Battle of the Thames, a decisive victory for the United States in the War of 1812, and a feather in the cap of General William Henry Harrison. Twenty British soldiers and another thirty Indians were killed, the greatest of them being the Shawnee Chief, Tecumseh. When the chief’s brother, Tenskwatawa, learned that Tecumseh had died at the hand of his sworn enemy, and knowing General Harrison aspired to become President, he placed on him a curse, saying that if Harrison ever did become the ‘Great Chief,’ he ‘will not finish his term; he will die in office.’
Nearly thirty years later, Harrison was elected President of the United States.
Inauguration Day, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1841. An account given to me by the Great Daniel Webster himself.
“I’m not riding in a carriage! I’m the President, not the King.”
His administrator implored, “But Mr. President, the weather is indeed most foul.
“Yes, William,” said Daniel Webster, President Harrison’s closest friend and advisor. He stood by a warm hearth, looking through the nearest window at an ominous sky. “If you’re set on riding a horse, at least wear a coat and hat.”
“No, Damn it! They’re already calling me Petticoat Bill. I won’t have them see me weak and tired. I may be the oldest president, but I’m as determined as I’ve ever been. You ought to know better, Daniel Webster, than to tell me what to do. Has Mrs. Harrison made it from Ohio after all?”
Webster gave a serious look to the administrator and shook his head, knowing that if Anna had been well enough to travel to Washington, she surely would have made the President act right.
After traveling by horseback from the Executive Mansion to the ceremony, without wearing a hat or an overcoat, giving a two-hour speech, riding through town in a cold, rainy parade, and enduring three inaugural balls, the President finally made it to his bed early the next morning. He had become quite ill, and every day after he became worse, until it was the greatest of chores to rise from bed. Doctors tried everything to heal him, including leeches, Castor oil, opium, and even Virginia snakeweed. What started as a mild cold swiftly formed into wicked pneumonia.
Three weeks later, in North Bend, Ohio.
Daniel Webster entered the Harrison mansion and Anna, the President’s wife, offered him a seat in the front parlor. As Webster had been known to do, he declined to sit in the parlor, requesting an informal spot in the kitchen. So, there they sat, Webster asking how she was feeling and the First Lady saying much better, thank you, but that she had not asked the great Daniel Webster to come all the way from the Capital to North Bend for him to ask her how she was doing.
“As I told you by telegraph,” she said, “I met personally with Marie Anne Lenormand in Paris years back, and these,” holding out a deck of tarot cards, “are a gift from her directly. A secret gift, of course, since you know the President is adamantly opposed to things such as witchcraft, as is most of our society. When I received the message about William, I set to know the outcome, to put my heart at ease about this curse that I surely have not forgotten. Were you to mention it to William, he would barely remember the name Tecumseh, having several arch-enemies since then, much less a curse laid on him twenty-seven years ago by Tecumseh’s brother. But the name of that man, the one who retired to Kansas with so many other outcasts, has haunted me many a night. So, I took out the set of cards that the great cartomancer herself gave me and commenced to read them in regard to poor William. No matter how the cards worked themselves out, the answer was always death.”
She showed Mr. Webster a card with a coffin painted on it and another one with a scythe.
“I know,” she continued, “that you claim to have no faith in such things, but William is a dear brother to you, and I, your sister, bound by the blood of this country and strong belief that we are all sovereign individuals. So now I tell you that my husband is about to die, cursed to fulfill the utterance of a man who, in his career, was rarely wrong about his predictions. You remember when Tenskwatawa told my husband that the sun would disappear on that particular day, years ago, and William scoffed. And what happened? The sun indeed disappeared behind the moon. The President never changed the way he viewed him, but I took note. You may not believe, but I beseech thee to visit his widow. Beg her to intercede on the President’s behalf. Speak to the dead if you must. Reason with the spirit of Tenskwatawa to forgive poor William and lift the curse. You yourself know, Daniel, what it is to lose a spouse. Please. Save my husband’s life.”
The Great Daniel Webster was speechless. He gave his consent forthwith.
Two days later, in Kansas.
A frighteningly cold night it was, when a violent rapping on the door gave my heart a terrible shock. Out of the rain and into my humble abode stepped Daniel Webster. I recognized him instantly, with his stern forehead and piercing eyes.
“The President of the United States needs your assistance at this very hour,” he said precisely.
It took me for such a surprise, I forgot to offer him tea, until my wife came from her bed and pointed out the oversight.
“There’s no time,” he said. “We must make haste!”
Why was a lowly shoemaker to join the great orator into perilous Shawnee country? His interpreter’s son had fallen deathly ill, and I was the only one for miles who could interpret on such short notice. Short notice, indeed. In less than fifteen minutes, we bundled up and rode into a Shawnee village that only a few white men had ever seen with their own eyes.
After midnight, under soundless and starless sky, we met the widow at the appointed time and place inside her rather large wigwam. I know not how to truly describe this dark and dreary abode, other than to say I felt an insufferable heaviness, like a millstone being laid slowly down upon my very heart, inch by inch, half-inch by half-inch. Being expected, we were straightaway and quietly ushered to a seat on the earth in front of her shadowy figure and left completely alone with her.
I could barely breathe. She was an ancient looking woman; her features appeared mummified, sitting as she was, decrepit in dusty garb, head bowed to her chest, on a small concealed stool. She sat still as a corpse in front of us, for what seemed like years being subtracted from my life. Minutes only had passed and no one said anything. I looked at Mr. Webster and began to speak, but he restrained me.
Then she spoke.
“It cannot be undone,” she said, and I repeated it to Mr. Webster in English. “Thoughts are themselves the seed,” she said, “but they are also the crop.”
“Anything can be undone” he said. “It’s merely a matter of how.”
“You wish to hear the answer from the Prophet himself?”
She then moved her body for the first time and, from under her cloak, she pulled out a bony staff that she used to etch a circle in the ground around her.
“Step inside,” she said, and Mr. Webster, without hesitation, stepped forward and sat down in the earthy circle. I remained where I was.
“How do you think you will hear from there?” she asked with a devilish grin, pointing sharply and authoritatively at a spot inside the circle where I should sit. I accordingly obeyed.
She fell silent again for another lifetime until, low and steady, she moaned and mumbled prayers, unnatural prayers, to remote and ancient places beyond light and darkness, fear or trepidation, and her vocalizations came back amplified and echoed, as from deep cisterns or bottomless caves, and coming back with companions. Words became indiscernible volumes of worlds, and the tremendous sound of the utterings could have brought back the dead from tombs and shook mountains into seas. Shrieking and broken-voices! Throngs of wild cries mixed with echoed laughter! We were enveloped in clouds of lightning and fiery smoke, and a thousand eyes were upon us. Somehow we were not destroyed. Then, in the utter chaos, a clear voice came forth from the widow’s chest, like a twenty-thousand year old whisper.
Many words were spoken and thusly taken to heart by Daniel Webster, and I admit, for years to come, those words have frequented me in less than heavenly and sublime dreams. But as I have said, memory was a blessing in earlier years and has forsaken me in later ones. However, there is one solitary word that I cannot forget and on which my memory faileth me not.
“Tapalama.” Over and over, the voice replied from inside the ancient woman. “Tapalama.”
One word, repeated sternly, with great fierceness, “Tapalama.”
Coming to my senses, remembering where I was and why I was there, I was about to interpret the word to Mr. Webster, when he himself said it.
How was it possible that he knew the word? I did not know. Perhaps it was a word uttered in all languages or just in a language for him. I then knew it wasn’t Shawnee, but a language beyond what I knew before. However still, one that we all understood.
“Who is speaking?” Mr. Webster asked. “Are you truly saying, ‘Never,’ to Daniel Webster? he said defiantly.
From that time forward, Daniel Webster and the voice coming from the Shaman’s widow traded soliloquies that I understood less and less, but I will try to share the substance of this most sinister seance.
The voice said something I couldn’t grasp and Mr. Webster referred to the President or to his wife, I am not sure which, saying that he, or possibly she, was a venerable person, using the word grace several times, perhaps pleading for a life worth sparing. Then the voice said that in the afterlife a person’s name made no difference. As a rebuttal, Webster mentioned that at least judgment was something the voice should be familiar with, and the President (I am assuming) in this life was judged by the standards of the Bible, which was unquestionably the highest law of the land, other than the Constitution. The voice laughed maniacally at this argument but said very little in response that I could understand.
Barb by barb, I comprehended less of the subject matter, although grace was a returning theme, and it became confusing to me of whom they were speaking. They now spoke a language only Daniel Webster and the voice knew. I did, however, understand Mr. Webster earnestly saying things like, ‘Charity,’ ‘Devotion,’ ‘Faith,’ and of course, ‘Grace.’ With every powerful plea Daniel Webster made, the voice emanating from the Shaman’s widow was equally convincing.
At one point, it felt as if the voice had become completely separate from the old woman, that she and myself were the sole witnesses to the greatest debate in history. Every fiber of my being desired to escape that devilish wigwam, but I was too afraid and intrigued to move an inch.
For hours, they argued back and forth. Daniel Webster, folding his hands behind his back, responded with powerful oration, as if he were filibustering before the Senate. He spoke with such fire and fury that I feared even he had become possessed.
Finally, the voice’s responses became shorter, and at times, stammering. In the end, the tide had turned in Daniel Webster’s favor.
The sparkling glow of a new day broke through that wigwam, and the last two things I recall Daniel Webster saying was that ‘the greatest factor’ of all that had been discussed was ‘Love,’ and ‘I trust in the justice of Heaven!’
We left the Shaman’s widow with the sun peeking over the horizon, shining into our eyes as we rode away. Arriving home, I dismounted my horse and apologized to Mr. Webster for failing to understand much of what was said, but pointed out that he seemed to do all right without me.
“You pleaded most fervently for the President’s life,” I said of Mr. Webster’s performance. “I will assure anyone of that.”
Still mounted, Daniel Webster looked down at me, puzzled. “How much did you understand?”
“Not much,” I said, “but you put up a fierce fight for one you truly believe in, I can attest to it.”
“For the President?” he asked.
“Yes, for President William Henry Harrison,” I said proudly.
Daniel Webster laughed heartily. “He’s going to die and there’s nothing we can do.”
“But you won the debate,” I said adamantly. “I clearly saw it in your eyes and the respect that the Shaman’s widow had in hers as we left.”
“You did not understand much, did you? We did discuss the President,” he explained, “but that was an open and closed case. ‘An eye for an eye,’ we both agreed. But the real discussion was the afterlife, and would I see my beloved first wife, Grace, when I pass. He claimed I would not, and as you saw for yourself, I eventually convinced him that even he, so powerful on this earth and among the dead, would not stop me from seeing my true love again.”
“Were you not speaking with the spirit of Tenskwatawa?” I asked.
From his horse, he shook his head and smiled a truly whimsical smile, tossing to me the agreed payment.
“Let’s just say, an old adversary,” he answered, “destined to rear an ugly head in a life like mine, on occasion.”
And Daniel Webster rode away.