Archive for the ‘History Lessons’ Category

It Was the 3rd of June

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

While we won’t ever know for sure just what she and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, Bobbie Gentry’s lazy, throaty delivery of the story makes us feel the weight of its secrets and innuendo.

Why not click the big, shiny button on the left and give “Ode to Billie Joe” a listen now? After all, it is the 3rd of June.




Ode to Billie Joe” tells such an elegant and economical story; it’s like quick, loose pencil strokes that give us precise renderings of a few minute details, but go soft and suggestive in their depiction of larger pieces of the picture. Gentry tells us so many little things about the hours from breakfast through dinner: who said what while passing which bowl around the table. She captures whole characters by quoting only the smallest pieces of their conversation. But she tells us almost nothing about what happened that day on the Tallahatchie Bridge, just enough for us to sense the pall it casts over the entire scene and the rest of our narrator’s life.

While most of us would never know the Tallahatchie Bridge without that song, for some its name brings to mind the story of a boy lynched nearby in 1955.


That summer, 15-year-old Emmett Till had come from his home in Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. The story goes that he whistled at a white woman on a dare. A few days later, when the woman’s husband returned home from a trip, she reported the offense to him. Three days after that, Emmett was found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. His murderers had beaten him and gouged out one eye, then shot him through the head and thrown him in the river. When the authorities recovered his body, the fan from a cotton gin was tied around his neck.

There was overwhelming evidence to support a conviction of the three men charged with the murder: witnesses who testified that the men had bragged about their crime afterward; testimony from Emmett’s great uncle who was present when the men abducted the boy; and another eye witness who saw Emmett in the back of a truck with the accused.

All three were acquitted.

The jury deliberations took 67 minutes. As one juror explained, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken us that long.”


The genius of Bobbie Gentry’s song is that it doesn’t really matter what happened that day on the bridge. What matters is the mood she creates with her careful balance of first-person narration and direct quotes from the conversation. And somehow that mood — slow and heavy — manages to convey the weight, the quiet oppression of the summer heat and rural southern morality.

This song made for an auspicious debut. The album even knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band out of the #1 spot on the U.S. charts. But Bobbie Gentry’s debut didn’t follow through to the kind of stellar career her talent deserved.

She followed this 1967 album with another impressive single in 1970. But that song, “Fancy,” didn’t gain the same broad appeal, reaching only #31 on the U.S. pop charts and #26 on the country charts.


And don’t bother going looking for the bridge; it was demolished in 1987.

The Ballad of Jeffrey Dahmer, Part IV

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

This Is Out of Control

(the last of four parts)

On February 18, 1992, the New York Times ran an article about the sentence passed on Jeffrey Dahmer. I might not have paid it much mind if not for the photo beside it depicting a woman being subdued by court officers. The caption gave her name as Rita Isbell.

It’s one of those rare photos of a real-time event which, thanks to some stroke of luck or the sheer number of shutter closures rattled off in the passage of a few seconds, produces an image almost classical in its composition. There’s something transcendent — (OK, I’ll say it) even mythic — in the story it suggests. Her expression of rage and frustration, fatigue and resignation as she looks toward the camera lens. The triad of generic white men who frame her figure as they hold her back. The bold letters of her tee shirt stretched taught against her breasts. This isn’t just some angry woman. This is the face of a woman who is railing against an epic injustice. This is Milwaukee’s version of Judith or Medea.

I clipped that article and kept it all these years. And I still get lost in that image, yellowed and brittle as it is. In that woman’s face the story of Jeffrey Dahmer suddenly took on a meaning beyond all the hype and sensational details of his crimes.

Rita Isbell, New York Times, February 18, 1992

That image from the end of our story was what led me to uncover its beginning. And by the chance nature of blog postings — the last to go up being the first most readers will see — you might be uncovering this story in the same backwards progression.

In the last three posts, we’ve covered the basics of what Jeffrey Dahmer did. We’ve looked at the response — or lack of response — from the community, the police and the justice system of Milwaukee. We’ve touched on the evidence of deep-rooted racism and homophobia in the city, their likely role in retarding any reasonable investigation of the disappearance of 15 men from its gay bars, and the insistence of the authorities that race and homosexuality were not issues open for discussion.

Finally, we looked at the public responses of the families when at last they were given a chance to speak at the sentencing hearing. Of course, they were allowed only limited time under very controlled conditions in which to express themselves; they had hanging over them the judge’s threat of clearing the courtroom in the event of any inappropriate words or actions. But even under such formal restraints, what we heard from the family members was odd. After everything they’d been through, almost everyone who spoke made a point of thanking the system for removing Dahmer from the community, rather than asking why it took so long to do so.

Every gesture in that hearing seemed carefully choreographed to demonstrate that the system had worked like a well-oiled machine. Dahmer was found to be competent and guilty of his crimes. The city of Milwaukee and its agents were free of any responsibility for what happened. And now the system was about to remove this rogue and unique element from the community; it was about to bring justice and resolution to the people it serves. In this piece of public theater, everyone performed his scripted role. There was no mention of frustration from the families, not even from people who later expressed those very sentiments to the press. Everyone behaved.

Everyone except Rita Isbell.

Rita Isbell starts talking before she gets near the podium. She doesn’t even pause to acknowledge — much less heed — the judge’s condescending admonishment. She’s mad. She expresses her anger directly at Dahmer. [Maybe I'm just projecting here, but] her manner suggests to me that she’s had enough of the whole affair; that she’s just as angry at the court, its rules and restrictions and, perhaps, at all the other speakers who have said little about what’s gone on over the years their loved ones have been missing. With her cardigan open just enough to reveal the big, bold lettering on her tee shirt — 100% BLACK — she blows in like a storm and says at least some of what no one else had been able to say.

It’s a glorious fuck you moment.

When she gets to Dahmer’s name, she blanks. It’s as if whatever is keeping her behavior in check won’t let her make that direct connection with the man who has come to represent all the fear and anger, the injustice and disregard of the last few years. She just calls him “Satan.”

Then suddenly that wall inside her — the one keeping her apart from the deepest well of her anger — gives way. She finds Dahmer’s name. And in naming him, in giving her own shape and focus to all of her feelings, she takes control of the situation. All hell breaks loose.

Angry that he’s lost control of the affair, the judge storms off and orders a recess. Five court officers descend on Isbell and subdue her. If only the Milwaukee police force had been half as aggressive in pursuing Dahmer, her brother might still be alive today.

I wonder what happened to Rita Isbell after the officers escorted her from the courtroom. I wonder if the other family members — shocked and weeping after her outburst — ever thanked her for expressing what they seemed unable to get out on their own. I wonder if anyone came up to her in the days and years since that afternoon and told her that she was the only hero in this whole long and very sad story.

I don’t expect anyone is going to build a monument on her behalf. But, for what it’s worth, this is mine. And that’s where this long series of posts has been leading. Thank you, Rita Isbell, wherever you are.