Damned Interview: Michael J. Bielawa
Historian Michael J. Bielawa’s latest book is Wicked Bridgeport, “a precarious path through the unforgettably macabre and scandalous misdeeds of Bridgeport.” From pirates and mobsters to bizarre murders and attempts to reanimate the dead, he uncovers some of the most unusual and evil events in the history of the Park City.
He recently took a few minutes to answer a few of our questions about the book via e-mail.
What inspired you to write Wicked Bridgeport?
Thanks for the opportunity to discuss my book, Wicked Bridgeport, and Connecticut’s paranormal history. It’s a pleasure being interviewed by Damned Connecticut. You have a fascinating and incredibly well-researched website.
Every New England town, every village green, every harbor, owns a litany of legends and folklore. Bridgeport is no exception. I grew up right on the shores of Long Island Sound, in both Bridgeport and the Lordship peninsula of Stratford (the place had actually once been an island separated by a creek on one side and a massive saltwater marsh on the other). Sure our towns are documented in history books; Colonial days and the Industrial Revolution, especially about the armament factories and how Bridgeport workers helped win both World Wars. But when I was a young teen I’d walk down to the beach, stare out at the waves and wonder. Whatever happened to our local folklore? Once there were pirates and paddle-wheelers and oystermen. What happened to the stories, which I was positively sure, were whispered at night near the chimney or around old-time bonfires?
My research started with a love of pirate lore; which, in turn, introduced me to a love of reading. Edward Rowe Snow wrote a story entitled, “The King of Calf Island.” I stumbled upon it when I was in 5th grade… it was all about his search for a lost treasure. Secret codes and old ruins on an island; how could an 11-year-old not be hooked? Later, visiting the Stratford [CT] Library I found an entire shelf of Snow’s books. (Who would have thought that a library could be so “boss”?) Years afterward I discovered that Stephen King haunted the same library when he was a kid, too. Strange karma.
Let me backtrack a little; maybe there’s a reason for connecting with the unknown. I was born in the Mohawk Valley, in the old mill town of Amsterdam, New York. The Iroquois, Black Robes, Revolutionary War, Erie Canal… a lot of history right on the surface of things. Years later I would mull over the mystical spirits at work in the Valley. Shakers started here. Joseph Smith founder of the Mormons, too. I associated the Mohawk River region with the same mind-expanding beliefs and fringe religious groups that folks nowadays associate with the West Coast during the 1960s. It all started in the Mohawk Valley and moved west to California. It was only later, much later, I found out that this region of New York State is referred to as the Burned Over District. The name came about because of the burning spiritualism experienced by everyone being converted by evangelists.
Perhaps being born into this realm’s inherent mysticism, or maybe because once I did move to Bridgeport at 3 years old I took to traveling with my grandparents back and forth from the Connecticut shore to the Mohawk Valley… gazing out through the car’s back window thinking about all those little villages and hills and forests off to side of the road. One couldn’t help but imagine what took place in those woods and fields and abandoned farm houses and factories… or what phantasmagoria might be taking place just a few paces from the car. My grandfather was great at entertaining me with ancient fables and mythical creatures on all those drives through the New England and Berkshire countryside. We here in New England have our own decidedly rich folklore. I decided to grasp, or at least attempt my best to preserve, the stories around my Connecticut home that might otherwise be forgotten.
Why did you choose to focus on the era [late 17th through the late 19th century,] that you did?
While outlining Wicked Bridgeport I had a lot of material to choose from. I consciously focused attention on the most bizarre, and frightening, stories while keeping in mind the preservation of our maritime heritage. Bridgeport has had a huge impact on the nation’s history as a whole. The stories I selected show, just a little, Bridgeport’s far-reaching influence. The characters in this book were household words over a century ago.
What was the most surprising story you discovered during your research?
It’s a tie. First is Captain George M. Colvocoresses’s strange demise. The man is a naval hero. He was found shot dead over on Clinton Street. The little lane doesn’t even exist anymore; it’s now buried under I-95. Some say his death was a suicide, others state that the poor fellow was murdered. Witnesses, medical reports and legal shenanigans create a fascinating whodunit. The Captain’s story is definitely a Victorian Sherlock Holmes tale; with a touch of the supernatural.
Then there is Dr. George Porter. After the Civil War he relocated to Bridgeport. His story is so incredible it wouldn’t even be believed if it was labeled fiction. But it’s one hundred percent fact! Porter, a battlefield surgeon, had a direct connection to a White House cover-up in 1865. What’s more, later in life he was involved with attempts to reanimate the dead. It’s New England gothic at it’s best; very dark and very real. I love symbolism and hidden meaning and such things in what I read and what I write. With “The Strange Notebook of Dr. George Porter, Reanimator” I wanted to celebrate H. P. Lovecraft and how he painted themes of New England horror, so I had fun with the title of one of his novellas, but with a twist, “Herbert West—Reanimantor.”
Yes, one of the most morbid and bizarre stories is that of Dr. George Porter, who experimented in human re-animation—can you talk about that chapter a bit?
It’s strange just how this chapter came about. There was a brief article in an 1888 Bridgeport newspaper mentioning how police officers at the local jail were afraid of patrolling the prison yard at night. Seems they sensed something lurking in the dark. Scary stuff. Those few paragraphs are what led me to research (or rather, re-remember Dr. Porter’s story… I can’t claim to have discovered what was already once so well-known) Doctor Porter’s galvanistic experiments. Additionally, the man was a scholar, war hero, explorer, gifted orator and patriot entrusted by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton with a secret mission, dealing with the disposal of John Wilkes Booth’s corpse. What a story! I’d love to expand Porter’s tale into a novel.
Talking about the craft of writing, how much time did you spend researching Wicked Bridgeport?
I am always happy when people who’ve read the book come back and tell me how impressed they are with the variety of sources I was able to uncover (oh, and they like the stories too!!). A lot of books nowadays, especially ones dealing with the paranormal, lack original research. They merely beat an old broken drum reusing material that was already hackneyed 20 years ago.
It’s a love of researching, thinking like a detective, that allowed me to apply a lot of information that was never, or hardly ever, mined. Back in the early 1970s… wait, probably even earlier. I remember the phone company put out a phonebook one year when they listed Connecticut towns and included a few sentences highlighting a strange fact about the place. I was a kid and wanted to learn more about these bizarre locales. I clipped the little squares (I hope after my parents were done with the phonebook) and read and re-read the paragraphs. I started collecting strange stories from newspapers and pouring over brittle histories. It was just a little bounce from that point to start interviewing older folks from around town, or visiting/calling Historical Societies.
When I was about 15-years old I called the police department to discuss skeletal remains found on Ferry Boulevard in Stratford. I could hear the little beep emitting from the recording device they were using. After 30-plus years of this kind of leg-work I’ve collected and collated a lot of bizarre information. I store it in an old-antique wooden chest, a pirate chest of stories. I contacted The History Press with my idea for the book. I was lucky. The editors loved the concept. It was merely a matter of 10 months to get the finished manuscript on paper.
Why do you think there were so many unusual murders in the Park City?
Every murder, I suppose, is naturally unnatural. Why so many slayings in Bridgeport? Rail lines, the old Post Road, a vast harbor full of ships… folks coming and going. Back in the day there were lots of transient factory workers. Bridgeport is definitely one of the largest cities in New England. The Park City owns a lot of love stories as well as business opportunities (legal and otherwise), so emotions run high. Sadly, shake these ingredients together and the result will sometimes beat a path to serious crime, luckily, only once every now and then.
Would you consider Bridgeport a haunted hotspot?
The Bridgeport area is one of New England’s greatest haunted hotspots. The place is a portal to another dimension. Hey, the city’s down county neighbors merit mention in Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone. But another way to see Bridgeport is to step back and consider our town’s long-standing familiarity with Spiritualism. We are a lightning rod for New England Romanticism.
Was the first rule of The Suicide Club “You don’t talk about The Suicide Club”? Have you heard of anything else like it in the years since the story in your book?
Sadly, throughout the Nineteenth century, Suicide Clubs were whispered about more than one might think. Life was beyond difficult. Crushing physical labor in the fields and factories, the lack of good medical care, financial burdens, poverty, over-crowding… debilitating stress was the norm. Ironically, suicide was a fact of life. The newspapers were filled with sensational suicides. Maybe Yellow Journalism subconsciously empowered readers to fight the good fight, struggle and survive. Bridgeport’s secret Suicide Club was divulged so the story became better known than the other morbid organizations. It’s one of the few instances when such a thorough study of a “13 Club” has been made public.
The exploits of P.T. Barnum while he was alive are well known, but lesser known is what happened to him after he died—why do you think there were attempts to steal his body?
People all over America, the world, know P. T. Barnum. Everyone hears about his connection to the circus. The Grateful Dead sing about him. There is much more to the Barnum story. A political figure, a fervent Abolitionist, a temperance man, a newspaper editor, Barnum did it all. Fact is, his work in New York preserving the marvelous in his expansive “museums” has a greater history than the circus. With all his fame, and business and individual interactions, he was bound to have detractors. When Barnum died in 1891 his own voice was silenced and his enemies had the upper hand, and their hands picked-up a graveyard shovel. Hardly anyone remembers the attempt to steal Barnum’s corpse. Wicked Bridgeport provides an in-depth examination of the events surrounding the cemetery desecration.
What’s your favorite story from the book?
As I became engrossed in writing each story, that particular one became my favorite. Maybe it’s that way with most writers. To fulfill that one narrative, you have to really delve into the research, your notes, thoughts, and place all your creativity into the specific material you’re pounding away on. Then after an outline and two re-writes I usually found the story to my satisfaction. It’s a long process. I had to wrench myself from one piece in order to begin composing the next. It was like starting over from scratch. Eventually the next chapter began coming together. Focusing total attention on the page in front of you… I had to force myself to step forward from that chapter, in order to begin the next, and on and on.
So, with all that said, each of the stories in Wicked Bridgeport became “favorites.” Still, in thinking over your question, I’d have to say I devoted a lot of research to lending a possible solution to the unsolved James Beardsley murder. Beardsley is one of Bridgeport’s many heroes and another reason why we’re called the Park City. James donated a sizeable amount of his landholdings to ensure Connecticut residents would have a beautiful natural setting to enjoy. He was brutally killed during a robbery in December 1892. During my research in Bridgeport, Hartford and Great Barrington, Massachusetts, I believe I uncovered those parties responsible for Beardsley’s murder. Certainly this is theoretical. But the facts now printed in Wicked Bridgeport, I feel, may finally help solve a century-old murder.
Is there a story you would’ve liked to include in the book that you couldn’t?
Dutch Schultz, the gangster. Good Lord I drove my wife Janice and brother Matthew crazy with my stories about the Dutchman! Matt even went so far as to say “I’ve never seen you so animated about a subject, and you get totally hyper about everything about history.”
During Prohibition Schultz had been one of the most powerful crime barons in America. He’d also collected millions of illegal dollars overseeing the numbers racket out of Harlem. During the waning years of his empire, in the mid-1930s, he set up headquarters in Bridgeport, CT. Why not? He had friends here; the city was near New York. There was nightlife. It was a perfect place to call the shots.
Well, Dutch started calling for the assassination of New York prosecutor Thomas Dewey (as in that mocking “Dewey Defeats Truman” photo). The rest of the country’s crime bosses couldn’t tolerate that kind of notoriety. So they ordered Schultz to be taken care of; in a permanent way. Dutch left Bridgeport, I don’t know why he’d ever leave his safe haven, and next thing you know, he’s collecting lead in a New Jersey chophouse. Murder Incorporated caught-up with him and that was the end of Dutch.
My questions concern the very real cache Schultz was said to have on-hand during his summer in Bridgeport. Every treasure hunter in America is aware of the ongoing search in New York’s Catskills. Supposedly that’s where the Dutchman hid his multimillion dollar bankroll. Maybe someone found something? Maybe not. But I keep wondering why a wanted criminal would take a chance and cross state lines to bury trunk-loads of loot when securing them right here in the Bridgeport area would be a smarter move. I’d like to throw some light on the Dutchman’s treasure in my next book about Bridgeport.
Which leads to the next question… Do you have any plans to write another book? On what subject?
Wicked Bridgeport has attracted a really strong following. I enjoy meeting individuals and audiences and discussing history as well as ghost stories. Lots of people ask about the art of writing. It’s all good. From the get-go people were interested in a city where true crime meets the paranormal. There are so many creepy and fascinating stories about Bridgeport that a second volume, a “Wicked Bridgeport: The Sequel” is already in the works. Ghosts and gangsters and murders, oh my.
Thanks again to Mike for taking the time to answer our questions!