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Chapter 20

A Devil's bargain.

Jack had stolen another thirty-two dollars from her brothers before fleeing into the woods. Jason took me back to Utica, County Seat of Oneida County to be arrested for that theft as well as for the four hundred dollars she took last April. He sent word back to Caleb to take the boat on to the next town and wait there. If he didn’t return the next day Caleb was to continue without him—Jason meant to see this case through to the end.

Fearing the possibility that my true name was already associated with crimes along the canal, I gave my name as George Ridley, the name of the man whose wallet I had lifted in Poughkeepsie. Jason, of course, had no idea what my real name was, but the sheriff looked at me askance when I told him I was George Ridley.

“We’ll see about that.” He said as he locked me in a jail cell to await the arrival of the Justice of the Peace.

When the Justice arrived I learned why the sheriff had doubted me—my case would be heard by the Honorable George A. Ridley Esq. He was, no doubt, the same George Ridley that I had robbed in Poughkeepsie.  In attempting to obscure my true identity I had, unknowingly, greatly multiplied the suspicion against me; I would need to step carefully around this. The Justice, of course, commented immediately.

“George Ridley is your name, sir?” looking over his spectacles and peering down on me from his bench.

Yes, sir,” I said with due humility.

“Are you aware that my name is George Ridley as well?”

“A wondrous coincidence, Your Honor.”

“What was your father’s name, Mr. Ridley?”

“I never knew my father, sir.” I said, “I have been an orphan all my life. George Ridley was the name I was given at the orphanage; where it came from, I know not.”

“And where were you orphaned?”

“In the State of Maine, sir.”

“And how is it that you are now in the State of New York?”

I told the Justice a long and convoluted story of my life since the Maine orphanage; it was a rich tapestry of fabrication with each lie compounding the previous, but with enough detail from what I had experienced or heard in my travels to make it, I thought, somewhat credible. After escaping from a cruel master at a cooperage where I had been indentured by the orphanage, I traveled to New York City. There, I said, I had made my fortune as a speculator.

“A speculator, you say,” said the Justice.

I nodded.

“Have you ever been to Poughkeepsie, Mr. Ridley?”

“Your honor, I can’t even pronounce it.”

 The Justice scowled and said, “Let us go on with the case at hand. Captain Horne says that you came on board his canal boat accompanied by his sister. She had been in disguise, and the two of you were intent on robbing from him. She escaped with thirty-two dollars. He further states that this past April you and she stole four hundred dollars from him under similar circumstances. What have you to say to these charges, Mr. Ridley?”

“First of all, Your Honor, I had no way of knowing that  Miss Horne was the sister of the canal boat captain, and I had no way of knowing that she was a thief. As for the second charge, I have never before been on a canal boat and last April I was in New York City practicing my trade.”

“That of speculation.”

“Yes sir, it left me little time to travel.”

“How is it that you were traveling with Miss Horne.”

“We had met in Saratoga, and I agreed to accompany her for her protection,” anticipating his next question I said, “I was in Saratoga for the therapeutic waters, as I was recovering from a serious accident.”

“What kind of accident?” he asked.

“It is rather indelicate, Your Honor. I fell off a speeding horse onto a gravel road and severely wounded my backside.” I was prepared to pull down my trousers as proof, but the Justice did not pursue it.

Justice Ridley removed his spectacles and took a moment to contemplate. Then he made his pronouncement.

“As for the theft last April, this court does not have sufficient evidence to prove Mr. Ridley’s involvement. However in the recent theft of thirty-two dollars, since Mr. Ridley boarded the boat with Miss Horne, and attempted to flee the scene the same time that she fled with the money, the court has no choice but to find Mr. Ridley guilty.”

Then to me, he said, “Young man, whatever your true name is, I feel that you have started down the wrong path at a tender age. I further feel that time in prison, rather than aiding in your reformation, will only destine you to the wrong path for your entire life. So I will give you this choice, you may take a six-month prison sentence at Auburn State Prison, or you can join the society of Shakers and begin a life of purity. “

“What about my money?” said Captain Horne, who had remained silent up to this point.

 “Have you thirty-two dollars, young man?”  the Justice asked.

“No, sir.” I still had some money in my boots but thought it better not to bring it out.

“You appear to be out of luck, Captain, unless you can find your sister.”

“Ya call that justice?” Jason shouted.

The Justice scolded Jason for his outburst, then said to me.  “Mr. Abernathy of the Shakers will be here this afternoon. Until then you can return to jail and ponder your choices.”

When they took me back to jail, I found I was now sharing the cell with another boy about my own age. He introduced himself as Charley. His eye was blackened, and he appeared a bit battered; he told me he had been arrested for fighting.  I told him I had been arrested for theft from a canal boat and was given a choice between six months in prison or joining the Shakers.

“Well that’s a devil’s bargain,” said Charley.

I told him that I didn’t know anything about the Shakers, but I thought they had to be better than prison.

“They are celibate; that’s all you need to know.”  He told me that the Shaker’s lived in an isolated community. They believed that they must stay pure for Christ’s second coming, and that meant no sexual intercourse for anyone. They did nothing but work and pray.  “They’ll teach you how to make chairs, but you will never be with a woman again.”

Charley told me that he was also part of a community that believed in the second coming, and in fact they believed it had already happened and we were already living in the millennial kingdom. His was called the Oneida Community.

“The difference is,” said Charley, “while the Shakers believe in no marriage and no fornication, the Oneida Community believes in complex marriage, where all men are married to all women and fornication is encouraged as long as both parties agree and the mating does not result in pregnancy.”

“That sounds like the community for me,” I said, “I wonder if the Justice will let me join the Oneida Community instead of the Shakers.”

“Our founder, Reverend Noyes, is coming here this afternoon to bail me out,” said Charley, “perhaps if he speaks on your behalf, the Justice will let you join our community.”

Charley gave me instruction on the beliefs of the Oneida Community—the concept of perfectionism; living free from sin; communalism, shared ownership of possessions; and complex marriage which he had already explained.

“Try to steer clear of complex marriage,’ Charley told me, “they don’t understand it outside of the community. That is how I ended up here. I told someone I was from the Oneida Community and he said we practiced free-love and all of our women were whores.  I could not let that stand, so here I landed.”

That afternoon Reverend Noyes came for Charley. He was a very gentle but intense gentleman of about forty years with dark eyes and long chin whiskers. He chastised Charley for fighting instead of turning the other cheek, and Charley apologized profusely. Then Charley told Reverend Noyes about my case, and Noyes took an interest in me. He agreed to stand up for me when I went before the Justice and to do what he could to get me into his community instead of the Shakers.

When I was called back before the Justice of the Peace I received another great surprise. I was introduced to Mr. Hiram Abernathy of the Shakers and I could see right away that it was the same Abernathy that we had met in the Adirondacks. It was the Millerite hermit who had been waiting so long for his final judgment and who had given me his money to facilitate his salvation. His beard was shaved and his long ratty locks had been shorn, and he had exchanged his filthy ascension robe for a conservative suit of clothes, but he could do nothing about his eyes.  Deep and searching, they were barely of this world; I would recognize them anywhere.

He was now a Shaker—maybe a sensible choice for a disappointed Millerite—and he was there to give me the opportunity to join his stern religion. Also still in court was Captain Jason Horne, hoping somehow to at least get his thirty-two dollars back. And of course, Justice George A. Ridley Esq. was still presiding. All told, the money I had stolen from these three men, either alone or by association with Jack, totaled more than one thousand dollars. I wished to go with Reverend Noyes to the Oneida Community, but all things considered, I felt lucky to be sentenced to only six months in prison. I wished the proceedings to end quickly before any more of my crimes were revealed.

Mr. Abernathy, though eyeing me suspiciously, expressed his willingness to take me to the Shakers, teach me a trade and purify my life. Then, to the surprise of both the Justice, and Mr. Abernathy, Reverend Noyes made a similar offer, stressing the correctness of his doctrine, and proclaiming my natural affinity for it. I offered to explain why I thought Reverend Noyes’s religion was true, but the Justice was not interested in hearing. Everyone began speaking at once then, and the Justice pounded his gavel for quiet.

“Reverend Noyes,” he said, “I am less familiar with your religion than I am with the Shakers’, but in all honesty, I am not fully conversant in either. It is not the role of the criminal court to choose favorites among the various sects. That the convicted man prefers the Oneida Community means nothing to me and I am half tempted just to send him to Auburn Prison. However, that would do nothing to restore the thirty-two dollars that were stolen from Captain Horne. So I will put the proposition on these terms: whichever of you two gentlemen is willing to pay Captain Horne thirty-two dollars restitution can take custody of my young namesake.”

“The Shakers are not in the practice of paying for their converts,” said Mr. Abernathy.

“I have thirty-two dollars,” said Reverend Noyes, pulling out his wallet.

At that, the Justice of the Peace pounded his gavel and said: “Case closed.”

“If the issue is restitution, I might have a complaint against this young man as well,” said Abernathy.

But the justice was through with me, and would not listen to anything more.

That evening I rode away in a wagon with Reverend Noyes and Charley to start my new and perfect life as part of the Oneida Community.