X

Now in Paperback and Kindle!

Prev | Next

Chapter 18

Saratoga Waters; A Camp Meeting.

Saratoga was a pleasant surprise. I had expected just another dreary river town filled with hardworking, churchgoing citizens, where I would have to seek out the darker parts of town just to get a drink. But what I found was quite the opposite. It was a resort town and everyone there was bent on having a good time, or at least on feeling better than they did at home.

The town was built around natural springs of mineral water with powerful medicinal qualities. People flocked here from around the world to cure their ills, both real and imagined, by bathing in and dosing themselves with the miraculous waters. I can personally attest to the cathartic properties of the water; after downing two large bumpers of the stuff, I was driven to the outhouse for an extended stay. The baths were less effective. The rough coach ride had broken the spell of the Poughkeepsie Seer, and my wounds began to ache again. A Saratoga doctor recommended cold mineral baths which, though refreshing, did little to quell the pain.

On the major thoroughfares were row after row of grand hotels, each more fashionable than the last. The streets were lined with clothiers offering the latest fashions and restaurants featuring European chefs. Throughout Saratoga could be found every form of public house, from the most genteel tea room to the most vicious gambling hell— and with every shade in between.

The clientele of these establishments were married couples and single men, most of them extremely wealthy and not afraid to let the world know it. They were attracted by the healing waters, but expected all the comforts of home and then some. The rich, in turn, attracted mountebanks, confidence men, fortune tellers, fortune hunters, courtesans, prostitutes and every form of thief known to man.

Most of the visitors, both prey and predators, were from New York City. Present, of course, were the Fifth Avenue types; the women, dressed with conservative elegance, always in the appropriate attire, whether strolling down Church Street or taking tea with their peers; the men, unless the event called for something finer, always dressed for business, as if even at leisure, they were ready to deal. These were the people who were emulated by the confidence men.  Broadway was represented as well, by those who closely follow fashion and dress to be seen. The man who sneaks into your hotel room to steal your jewelry while you are taking the waters is likely to be a Broadway swell. And I even saw one of the Bowery B’hoys at Saratoga. The unmistakable uniform—tall hat, long coat, wide cravat, plaid trousers tucked into hobnailed boots—that seemed so natural on the Bowery was hopelessly out of place at the resort. He seemed to turn up all over town; I didn’t know what he was up to, but I knew he was not there for the cure.

I had the rhino, since lifting Mr. Ridley’s wallet, so I decided to play the part of a man of means. I bought myself a new suit, not too flashy, but one that looked its cost, giving me the air of a man with money in the bank.  I took a room at the Grand Union Hotel, the finest in town, and ate at the best restaurants. So successful was I at this ruse that wherever I went, I was winked at by one of the fortune-hunting young women whose sole purpose at Saratoga was to bag a wealthy husband or steal someone else's.

The most telling validation of my perceived wealth was when I was preyed upon by two rather inept confidence men. As I was walking back to the hotel from my spa treatments, a man called out and asked if I had dropped my wallet. He pointed to a wallet on the sidewalk, which of course was not mine. Another man nearby suggested we open it up and, lo and behold, it was filled with cash.

Well, I knew this game; it was the “pigeon drop.” Dugan, who had a finger in every rancid criminal pie in New York, employed men who specialized in confidence games of this sort. I knew that if I let the game play out it would proceed something like this:  one man would suggest we split the cash three ways after making a cursory attempt to find the owner; the other would suggest that, for good faith, we each put up an amount equal to our share, and put it all in the wallet, then meet later to divide the cash. When the money was in the wallet, one of them would pull a switch and I would be left holding a wallet full of newspaper; the men would be gone forever and so would my money.

The secret to success at this game is to have a good roper to select an easy mark before starting—someone who is not “in the know” and someone not too pious to want a share of the found money.  Though I was the former, I pretended to be the latter. I told them we must take the wallet to the police and no matter how hard they tried to persuade me to split the money I would agree to nothing else. The more they pressured me, the more I dug in my heels and said no. Finally, in desperation, they gave it up. They left me with the wallet and hurried away. The wallet, of course, had no money in it but at least they had gotten none of mine.

I noticed that someone had been watching the entire proceedings from a restaurant window. His face was now mostly obscured the menu he was reading, but I knew who it was—that ever-present Bowery Boy.  I wondered if he had anything to do with the planning of this little performance, then dismissed the thought. Spending much time in a town like Saratoga will have you distrusting everyone you see.

The following day I learned that a camp meeting was to be held outside the city limits. As if the town were not entertaining enough, the great Charles Grandison Finney would be presiding over a convocation of the faithful. Their nights would be spent sleeping in tents, their day spent in prayer, with sermons delivered by the most prominent evangelists of the day. Given my ecclesiastical history, it was a show that I did not want to miss.

I joined a group that was heading to the campgrounds by wagon, and when I arrived, I could not believe the size of the gathering. Rows and rows of tents had been pitched, and I saw hundreds of men, women, and children gathered in groups throughout the grounds. There were easily as many seekers of salvation at the camp meeting as there were sinners in Saratoga.

One group was singing hymns, and I joined in on the songs that I knew. When the singing was done, the praying commenced. These were not the quiet, humble prayers I was used to, but load, boisterous pleas, calling upon the Lord to cast the devil from their midst, to help those in need of forgiveness, and to give the faithless the strength they needed to come into the glow of Christ’s love. When the prayers were through, I said “Amen” with the rest each time.

As I walked through the grounds, I saw people crying, wailing, struggling with their demons, begging forgiveness for their sins, surrendering their souls to Jesus.  Everywhere the glory of God was triumphing over sin, and I was not anxious to stand in any one place for too long.

One of the great ministers was scheduled to speak inside a large tent in the center of the grounds. As I walked toward it I passed one of the lesser preachers stepping down from his stage and being congratulated by his followers. It was the same scene I had witnessed throughout the grounds, but something about it caught my eye. I turned to look again, and I gasped as I recognized the preacher as Reverend Travis. And there on the stage, laying aside her lap organ, was Mirabile. She was dressed in white, as beautiful and radiant as the day I first saw her. As I walked toward her, she looked up, and I could see that she recognized me as well. She hurried off behind one of the tents, and I followed after her calling her name. When we were both behind the tent and out of eyeshot from the Reverend and his followers she turned toward me.

“Jonathan, how good to see you,” Mirabile said. She was smiling, but I sensed her unease.

“It is wonderful to see you Mirabile,” I said.

“You look as though you have done well for yourself, Jonathan.”

“You can’t imagine, Mirabile,” I said, “come with me, let me tell you about it.”

She shook her head, “You must leave here, Jonathan. You must go before the Reverend sees you. He hasn’t forgiven you for running away.”

 “Come with me, Mirabile.”

“You must leave here, Jonathan.”

“Come with me.”

She sighed. “Where are you staying Jonathan?”

“Grand Union Hotel.”

“I’ll meet you there, in the lobby tonight. But you must leave here now."

I could ask for no more. I left the camp meeting elated.