This morning I sat down and tried to return to writing for this blog, ready to produce some “serious” content. Of course, the consequences of the arrival of covid-19 – business shutdowns, millions potentially or actually out of work, bogus shortages of certain consumer goods, and the threat to the health and even the lives of everyone around us – are deadly serious. I thought of doing a piece on the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and its effects locally; however, in researching the topic I came across a long paragraph in David A. Conner’s Milton News column (in the Milford Chronicle) of October 2, 1918. I’ve transcribed it below, verbatim. As you read it, bear in mind that in October of 1918 the American Expeditionary Force in France was engaged in furious combat with German forces, suffering tens of thousands killed or wounded, and the curtain was about to go up on Act II of the Spanish flu story in the U. S.
Conner’s piece offers a uniquely Miltonian perspective on the news that matter.
From the Milford Chronicle, October 2, 1918
“A little nonsense now and then
is relished by the best of men.”
The people of Milton had become so accustomed to get the newspapers at noon, as well as in the evening, that to be deprived of the former sends a feeling of dullness over our anatomy that makes us almost shiver with ennui. And this ennui has been endured almost a week; only one spurt of enlivenment as far as we now. Last Wednesday was one of those balmy September days that one often reads about in romance and story. The mellow rays of the afternoon sun were scintillating down Federal Street, which was deserted save by a few who were loitering along the sidewalks or ensconced in their driveways. Silence reigned supreme. When suddenly from the mysterious of recesses of Hog Alley the most unearthly yells were heard; and as two spectators turned themselves to gaze into the alley a dog with a tin can partly filled with nails and tied to his tail spilled into Federal Street and continued his melodramatic yells. Turning suddenly into Front Street and making for the opposite corner, he ran into Sam Smith who was reclining on a goods box, and upset that individual. The aged vendor of newspapers picked himself up and stood for awhile, rubbing his lumbar vertebra, while he muttered “By Mighty! Wasn’t that a remarkable occurrence!” Meanwhile the dog kept up his unearthly Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! The employees of Fidelity Trust and Savings Bank rushed to the front door to see what was the matter; John Crouch slipped from his shoe bench and, stumbling over his door sill, fell sprawling into his front porch; J. B. Welch, aroused from his afternoon siesta, came out his front door with disheveled hair, and took one look, then sat down in the doorway to meditate on the vanity of human life. And the dog kept on until he was lost to our view on North Union Street. It is said there had not been such excitement in the city of Milton this summer. But it was soon over, and as we returned there were but three persons visible on Union Street. Dr. Welch had returned to his nap, John Crouch to his bench. “But say,” said he, “Wasn’t that the biggest iniquity you ever saw?” We admitted the fact, and passed on.
A few notes on the places referenced by Conner
I will go out on a limb and assert that “Hog Alley” is today known as “Strawberry Alley.” The unfortunate dog ran out of the alley and made a left onto Federal Street, crossed the intersection of Federal and Union Streets, then shot north, across the bridge, past the Welch house and beyond.
The Fidelity Trust and Savings Bank building is today occupied by the Milton Police Department
Yet another mystery
Conner began his Milton News letter with a couplet, as he often did. When I tried to identify the contemporary source of the verse, I found only references to Roald Dahl, the British children’s book author, who is credited with originating the phrase when he wrote it into the screenplay of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” – in 1962, some 44 years after Conner used it. I invite any literary sleuth out there to find the source that Conner would have used, and set the record straight.