Because of my romantic fixation upon the city of my birth, I have a glorious photograph of the Millyard in my bedroom.
The photo was taken by Randolph Langenbach, who used his camera in collaboration with historian Tamara Hareven, the result being a book called “Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory City.”
One thing I love about Randolph’s photo is that it captures the gentle curve of the mill buildings, but for me, most importantly, the image includes one of the two canals that once ran through the heart of the mills.
There are a lot of old-timers (like me) who wish the canals had been preserved — they were filled in during an outbreak of urban renewal in the late ’60s — but as my recent hair-raising research will soon illustrate, many of us may be alive today simply because the canals are gone.
Apparently, from the very day that Samuel Blodget hatched his plan to build the city’s first canal, the people of Manchester — by accident, by design or via some sort of individual personal derangement — began hurling their bodies into the city’s man-made channels.
At one point in the 19th century, bodies were being hauled out of the canals with such frequency that headline writers were strapped to come up with new phrases to describe the watery mayhem.
“Body Found in Canal” was seen as often as “Dog Bites Man,” so the headline writers tried to make things more personal. Thus, we got headlines in The Manchester Union and The Daily Mirror and American such as “Unsound Mind; Martin Burke Sought and Found a Watery Death,” or “A Despondent Woman; Mrs. Glancy Attempts Suicide by Jumping in Canal.”
Mrs. Glancy failed, by the way.
A courageous mill worker named Charles Hughes “exercised great presence of mind by throwing a plank (into the canal) and jumping to her rescue,” according to a story in The Union dated May 7, 1891.
“As Mrs. Glancy got hold of the plank,” the paper added, “she changed her mind about suicide and called out, ‘For God’s sake, save me!'”
Hey, it was only May. The water was probably a bit chilly.
A change of heart was not that uncommon amongst canal splashers. Certainly that was case with a gentleman named Peter McKendree, who took the plunge on June 11, 1894, only to generate this headline in The Union: “He Wanted to Die; But the Water was Wet and He Yelled to Be Saved!”
Better yet was the sub-head, which made his motivation perfectly clear to me: “Probably Despondent After Getting Out of the Rum Business.”
Some reporters brought a distinct literary flair to these soggy, sometimes sordid stories, as seen in this clip from March 15, 1915: “The fate of Odilion Bloomey of 80 Bridge St., was settled without conjecture yesterday when his dead body was found in the canal directly under the Middle Street Bridge.”
There was also an unusual emphasis on the personal effects found upon the bodies of those who perished in the canals, as if those possessions might offer insight into the plight of the deceased.
What then, might we know about the plight of Jeremiah Connor — he died on May 13, 1897 — “in whose pockets were found a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles, a bone-handled knife with two blades, a metal covered briar pipe with a horn stem, a match box, and a small Catholic prayer book bound in black cloth.”
The journalistic forensics were made easier when people left notes before jumping into the canals. Such was the case with Samuel Foss way back on Sept. 14, 1869, who left “almost illegible pencillings” that said, “My money is gone; I have no friends. Good bye! My body will be found near the bridge. I am not drunk. Farewell! I join my friends in the other world.”
If it seems from this piece that the local media put too much emphasis on the people who were jumping into the canals, you need to know there was major public interest in the phenomenon.
After a while — and perhaps this was due to the absence of the National Football League — canal suicides developed into a macabre spectator sport, as these next few passages from The Mirror will demonstrate.
Back on June 19, 1889, as police searched for the body of a suicidal man named Philip Goudreau, “The alarm was quickly spread and in less time than it takes to tell, there were hundreds of people lining up on the banks of the canal. For three hours, they surged back and forth, patiently watching the operations of the men who were to search for the unfortunate man’s body.”
The scene was similar when the search was on for Miss Abbie Rollins.
“The throng of men, women and children, all actuated by the same unhealthy and greedy curiosity, filled every spot on the bank and rushed up and down every few minutes, when the cry was raised that the missing girl was discovered,” The Mirror reported.
“When, at length, she was in truth found, the rush was enormous. The people rushed helter-skelter over the railway tracks and onto the edge of the banks, caring nothing only that they might catch a sight of the unfortunate woman. They formed a crowd ten deep around the body and pushed and elbowed each other to no purpose.”
That turned out to be a very big day for that demented throng, because just a few hours later, officials discovered another body in the canal — a poor soul named Daniel Devlin — and as they fished him out of the water, The Mirror noted that “The usual crowd was arrayed at the canal bank when the body was removed thither and plied with questions anyone who seemed pliable.”
You know, maybe I don’t miss those canals so much after all.
John Clayton is the author of several books on Manchester and New Hampshire, including his newest title, “Remembering Manchester.”