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0 Comments | Aug 15, 2022

Eliot’s Ghost


brooklyn-bridge-1109671_1920November 7, 1933—The following account was reconstructed by the author, principally utilizing diary entries included in the estate of Mister Charles Priestly, formerly of 124A West 4th St., New York City. Mr. Priestly served in the 9th New York Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, and upon the war’s completion joined Empire City Casualty Corporation, where he worked in various capacities from 1866 -1883, his final position being that of Vice President of Finance. The final portion of the account is derived from hand-written notes and other related documents found with Mr. Priestly’s remains upon their discovery in the New York caisson of the Brooklyn Bridge earlier this year. Mr. Priestly’s wife Emily survived her husband, but passed away three years after the final date of this account. The historical records of the Brooklyn Bridge Company and detailed diary notes of Master Mechanic Frank Farrington fully support the veracity of the account.

*          *          *

 As I lie here, a bold new century fast approaching, my own brief tenure among the living draws to its ineluctable end. Wise men say this is the moment one’s life ought to pass before one’s eyes, as we contemplate, seriously for the first time, whatever reward awaits beyond death’s chasm. I am, though, fortunate in many respects, not least for the fact that my now imminent demise creeps toward me with gradual and measured intent, affording me the leisure to reflect upon the many adventures that have comprised this life. Indeed, my nearly seven decades upon this earth have been blessed—if that is the right word—with experiences aplenty. I have fought in the greatest conflict this young nation has yet endured, while managing to avoid the violent end that took so many of my comrades in arms. And I have borne witness to some of humankind’s greatest technological achievements—illumination without flame, communication at a distance—each invention more astonishing than the last. But I have written of all these in prior missives. It is my intention herein to describe an occurrence of an entirely different nature, one that involves perforce a belief in the supernatural, or at least a willingness to admit of its possibility. For I can conceive of no other explanation for what I experienced in those days following the dedication of the grandest achievement of the late nineteenth century. I refer, of course, to that architectural masterwork of John and Washington Roebling, the design and construction of the great bridge that now spans the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The events attending the following account took place approximately three months after the dedication of the great bridge in late May of 1883. Though several months past, I remember the day of the dedication as though it were yesterday. My firm is located downtown near Wall Street, and, like nearly every other firm in the city, we had closed up for the day and given our staff leave to participate in the festivities in whatever manner suited them. Countless thousands had descended on lower Manhattan, many from outside the city proper, all of them keen to witness not only the official dedication of the great bridge, but also perchance to catch a glimpse of President Arthur, Governor Cleveland, and the numerous other dignitaries scheduled to be on hand for the celebration. Never one for the press of great crowds, I nonetheless steeled myself and joined the immense throng that day, thoroughly enjoying the parades, speeches, and, in particular, the entirely astonishing display of fireworks that ensued once the sun had gone down. It was an absolutely memorable day, one I shall not forget for whatever remaining interval the good Lord chooses to bestow upon me. Indeed, it was the fireworks performance that was much on my mind on the fateful night later that summer for reasons that will shortly be apparent.

As earlier asserted, I have never been one for great crowds. This fear—if that is not too strong a word for it—is a peripheral manifestation of a much greater personal foible, that is, a debilitating claustrophobia that I take enormous pains to keep at bay by avoiding all instances of confined spaces, any of which quickly set my pulse to racing and generate copious perspiration. I am also given to taking every opportunity to enjoy moments of solitude, moments that were surpassingly rare in my profession in those days, but which I nonetheless availed myself of in the hours outside the office whenever practicable. In particular, I was quite fond of late night walks, the bracing air and background din of the city combining to provide me with an environment I found altogether conducive to thinking through and resolving whatever business problems had arisen in the preceding days. Thus it was with the greatest delight that the completion of the bridge afforded me the opportunity to walk at leisure across its magnificent raised promenade, an activity I undertook with some regularity in the weeks following the opening. Several months on, with the bridge still as great a novelty as ever, the crowds remained substantial during daylight hours, but fell to near nonexistence once darkness had descended. Indeed, on the night in question—which, to the best of my recollection was August 17, a Friday—the crowd, at least so far as I could see in either direction, comprised only myself, this unusual fact a consequence of a mild drizzle that had arisen around the time I first made my way up onto the promenade and began my perambulation to Brooklyn and back.

Had I had advance knowledge of how the storm would evolve during my hour or so upon the bridge, I would certainly have made my way home that evening and saved the walk for a less inclement night. In the event, there was only a light drizzle upon my embarkation and, being equipped with an umbrella, I thought little of it and began making my leisurely way to the Brooklyn side, enjoying all the while the mesmerizing effect of the thin undulations of rain against the backdrop of the brilliant arc lights that illuminated the bridge and walkway. By the time I had made my way to the anchor station on the Brooklyn side, the rain had increased noticeably in intensity, in addition to which the rumbles of thunder, only distant at the start of my evening stroll, had risen in intensity and frequency, auguring ill for the remainder of my journey. Still, there was now nothing for it but to make the return trip, weather notwithstanding, and so I turned back, drew my collar up tighter against the rising wind, and began making my way back toward the Manhattan side, intent by this point on home, a dry change of clothes, and a relaxing dinner.

The still-rising tempest, though, apparently had other plans, so that by the time I made the center of the great span, at its highest point above the East River, the rain was falling with remarkable vigor, so much so that I would have flagged down a carriage for the remainder of the journey, had there been any upon the bridge. Sadly, though, all of the carriage drivers had by now had the good sense to make their way back to their stables, assuming that there would be no one so foolish as to be out upon the bridge in such a storm.

It was at this odd moment, with my umbrella having proven of little worth against the intense wind and rain, and my suit very nearly soaked through, that a singular event occurred, one that I am today convinced marked the genesis of all the ensuing days’ events. With the now nearly constant drum of thunder accompanying the storm, there came up the river a great gust of wind, so profound that it obliged me to reach out and grasp the iron railing of the promenade to steady myself until it had passed. And in that precise moment, a great streak of lightning descended from the heavens and struck the top of the New York tower. At least it seemed at the time that this was what had occurred, for the brilliance of the flash combined with the instantaneous cacophonous crash of thunder rendered my senses and judgment more than a little suspect. I am, however, entirely certain of one aspect of what happened in that moment. At the instant of the lightning strike upon the bridge tower, and with my right hand still gripping the wet iron hand railing, I felt a distinctly electrical sensation course through my hand and body before dispersing itself in the drenched surface of the promenade below. Mind you, there was nothing terribly painful or jarring about the shock, certainly not on par with the jolt of lightning and thunder that had precipitated it. It appeared simply that a small fraction of the energy deposited upon the tower by the bolt had made its way through the steel fibers of the bridge’s suspension cables, into the iron handrail, and through my person. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems now that the sensation was more surreal than anything else, electricity of course still being a quite new phenomenon in those days of Edison, Tesla, and their compatriots in that burgeoning industry, with few ordinary citizens as yet having had cause to be exposed to its discomfiting manifestations.

And so, now perceiving no little risk in remaining out in the open in such conditions, I made my way briskly back to the New York side, where as I descended the staircase that led to the street level, good fortune smiled upon me in the person of a lone carriage, horse, and driver, an individual of notable height—a fact apparent despite his seated position—and an especially copious beard which flowed from beneath the wide brim of his hat and which appeared a singular shade of red in the light of the streetlamp beneath which he had brought his carriage to a stop. Thanking him repeatedly for having delivered me from the downpour, I promptly climbed inside for the remainder of my journey home.

It was a mercifully brief ride to my home in the East Village, but one not without its bit of drama as the carriage rocked vigorously to and fro in the still-violent wind. Now safely ensconced inside, I could but imagine the time of it that the poor driver was having perched atop the carriage. Still, arriving at my home some ten minutes later, I departed the cabin and glanced up to see with relief that the poor fellow appeared none the worse for wear, his broad hat and mackinaw having afforded him a good deal more protection than my suit and umbrella had provided for me. Fidgeting in a pocket for the fare, I withdrew the requisite amount, including a gratuity sufficient to the night’s grim conditions. As I reached up, money in hand, toward the shadowed figure, there came yet another violent burst of lightning, one that for an instant illuminated the visage beneath the brim of the wide hat, revealing in that fleeting second, a face which though earlier had appeared unremarkable save for the great beard, now seemed to my wild imagination to be gashed and bleeding in singularly horrific fashion. The blood streaks were rendered black by the glare of the lightning flash, so much so that I started at the sight, dropping a portion of the fare to the street whence I quickly retrieved it, placing it back into the driver’s hand before retreating hastily and making my way inside the foyer. There I was greeted by my wife Emily’s startled gaze, though it was unclear whether her look of concern was in response to my thoroughly drenched condition or the look of incredulity that no doubt still lingered upon my face as a consequence of what I’d seen—or imagined I had seen—beneath the brim of the driver’s hat.

That night, after a thorough drying off and a welcome dinner, I relaxed on our sitting room sofa with a glass of good scotch, my head filled with visions of the events preceding, and in particular the slashed and bloody face of the carriage driver, a visage which while doubtless an artifice of the stark lighting, nevertheless stayed with me through the remainder of that night and on into my dreams. Indeed, the vignettes that accompanied my sleep that night were, for the most part, populated by but a single individual, one whose face I now know well, though the hideous injury I had witnessed on the carriage driver was absent, his expression instead one of recurring terror. Curiously, the individual who haunted my dreams, that night and in the nights that followed, admitted a significantly improved visage from what I had discerned during my mercifully brief encounter with the carriage driver. For in my dreams he was always the same, singularly so. He was preternaturally tall, at least six and a half feet, and slender to the point of gauntness. Further, he was possessed of striking red hair and beard, the former of which was strewn about as though the man were out in a windstorm, and the latter of which I had witnessed on full display whilst dismounting from the carriage earlier in the evening. Having spent the entirety of the night with this fellow, metaphorically as it were, I could not envision anyone encountering him in reality and failing to recall him later.

It was, mercifully though, a Friday night and so the torturous and intermittent sleep I managed that night, though it left me unrefreshed the following morning, did not risk impinging upon my professional duties at the office. My generally soporific state that following day did, however, contribute (or so I imagined it did) to a number of curious, and progressively more disturbing, visions that occurred as the day advanced. As it happened, the weekend was largely my own, Emily having departed quite early that morning for a visit with her sister in Connecticut, advising me as she departed not to expect her return until Friday a week hence. This was, in fact, an increasingly common occurrence, as my wife was on quite close terms with Sarah, her only sibling, who had, just the previous year moved out of the city and away to southern New England, and who was now enduring a medical problem whose details I was uninformed about, but which I was assured by Emily was of a minor nature.

Having seen Emily off to Grand Central station, I made my still-drowsy way to the bathroom for the usual round of morning ablutions. Opting for a hot shower to wash away the residual traces of chill from my previous night’s walk in the rain, my first occasion to gaze into the mirror came thereafter, the glass, however, by now obscured with steam. Thus it was that the first swipe of my hand across the hazy glass caused a start that instantly removed all remaining traces of torpor from my mind. For with that single swipe of my moist hand was revealed not my own familiar face but instead a repetition of the horrific visage I had seen so fleetingly the previous night beneath the brim of the carriage driver’s hat upon the flash of the lightning. There, plain as the morning sun, though only for the briefest of seconds, once again stared back at me the torn and bloody face of the man from my dreams, his expression an enigmatic combination of pain, confusion, and, it seemed to me, accusation. Only then, upon returning my terrified gaze back to the hazy mirror, I saw that it was once again only me, though with eyes very much widened in fright.

Having now been visited twice in quick succession by this ghastly apparition, as well as the hideous dreams of the night preceding, I set out upon a leisurely if slightly trepidatious Saturday, undertaking at first nothing more ambitious than a rereading of Longfellow’s immortal poem Evangeline, the great poet’s passing the previous year having revived my interest in his work. The prior evening’s rainstorm had cleared the air nicely and provided an unexpectedly cool afternoon, particularly for a mid-August day in the city. Having sated my appetite for poetry, I stepped out for a late lunch at a nearby bistro. As I stood atop my stoop locking the front door to the house, I could see beyond the tops of the neighborhood houses the very top of the New York tower of the great bridge, and I found myself lingering for a long moment there, considering what had passed the night before, my thoughts quickly gravitating back to the surpassingly strange visages I had experienced in the hours since returning from my rain-soaked late night walk.

The more I stared out at the distant northern tower, the more I felt drawn to it. Indeed, so engrossed was I in pondering the tower that I utterly failed to hear or acknowledge the greeting of a neighbor passing by on the sidewalk below. It was only upon his repeated attempt at a greeting that I was roused from my trancelike state.

“Rogers,” I replied, slowly making my way down the half dozen stairs that connected my porch to the sidewalk. “So sorry, I’ve been terribly preoccupied today. Forgive my rudeness.” We shook hands and he walked away seemingly none the worse for my inattentiveness. As I had the day to myself, I decided that lunch at a favorite delicatessen on Fulton Street in Brooklyn was in order, a course of action that would take me once again across the bridge, though this time under much more favorable meteorological circumstances than I had endured the preceding night.

As I slowly made my way up the gradually rising New York side of the bridge, I could not help but turn my gaze upward at the colossal granite tower that rose into the New York sky, its deep blue punctuated by only a handful of small clouds. The complex array of cables that rose to meet the tower was a dizzying sight indeed, particularly as passing clouds created the distinctly visceral impression of falling. It was this view that made real the immensity of Washington Roebling’s achievement. The work had taken more than a decade, and had cost the man’s father his life, along with, so they said, no fewer than twenty-eight other men. Indeed, the fatality count varied—from as few as fifteen to as many as forty—depending on the source of the information. Still, there was no denying the majesty of the thing, and I stopped a hundred or so feet shy of the tower and simply stared rapt upward. In that moment of intense focus, a strange thing transpired, only the first in what would turn out to be a day of several strange occurrences.

As I gazed upward at the great tower, I steadied myself with a hand upon one of the iron rails that lined the promenade, just as I’d done in the previous night’s rainstorm. And for a brief moment, I felt, as during the previous night’s storm, that same distinct tingle, as though a small electric current were once again passing through me. As before, it was nothing intense or painful, simply a few seconds of energy that seemed to make its way up my arm and through my body before abating as quickly as it had begun. Having attributed the previous night’s such experience to the lightning strike upon the top of the tower, there was, though, no acounting at all for such a thing in the midst of such a perfectly clear day. I glanced one final time up to the top of the tower, then continued making my way to the Brooklyn side.

A couple of leisurely hours later, around two in the afternoon as I recall, having enjoyed a pleasing lunch and made my way once more back to Manhattan, I was approaching my house when I encountered a good friend and colleague Foster Higgins. We had attended Columbia at the same time, with he a year ahead of myself. And whereas I, being the better at mathematics, had gone into the insurance and investment field, he had been given much more to literature and logic and had made an excellent go as an attorney. We had both remained in Manhattan for our entire subsequent careers, and our professional paths crossed from time to time when my firm required legal advice, which was not at all infrequently. In the years since college we had remained reasonably close, attending one another’s weddings as well as various parties and other affairs. He approached me smiling broadly and extended his hand.

“Priestly, you old dog!” he enthused as he gripped my hand. “I’ve not seen you in two weeks or more. I’d begun to suppose you were avoiding me.”

“Not at all,” I replied. “Just this and that. You know, the vagaries of life.”

“Quite so,” Higgins said. “And besides, I suppose if you truly meant to avoid me, you’d’ve made a better job of it than this. So, where’s your better half today?”

“Off in Connecticut visiting her sister, I’m afraid,” I replied. “She’s seen fit to leave me in charge of the household for a full week, if you can believe that.”

As we stood chatting on the sidewalk, I suggested that we rejoin our conversation over a drink at the pub around the corner from my house, an invitation he readily accepted, his Saturday, to all appearances, being as leisurely as my own. Soon we were ensconced in a booth at the rear of Woodrow’s, a small but well regarded establishment of great tenure in the neighborhood. The place was nearly empty, save for the two of us, and a not terribly busy bartender, owing to the mid-afternoon hour.

My invitation to share a drink with Higgins had not been an entirely random thing. Indeed I was quite keen to share with my friend the curious occurrences of the prior night and this morning. I had always found his mind to be a keen one and I imagined that he might have a theory or two concerning these curious occurrences. And so, after a perfunctory round of catching up on family life, professional travails, and the usual banter, I came around to the business of the bridge and the events attending it. I described in detail my walks of the previous evening and this morning, describing in both cases the curious electrical sensations I had experienced. I went on to share, with some hesitancy for the bizarre nature of it, the visions I had experienced with the carriage driver and the mirror. When I’d described it all, I lifted my glass, took a healthy draught, and leaned back in my seat.

“So what on earth do you make of all that?” I inquired of my friend. “Have I gone mad?”

“You’ve discussed this with Emily?” he replied.

“Good God, no,” I replied. “She’d have me shipped off to Bellevue before the day was out.”

“Yes, just as well,” Higgins agreed. He sat quietly for a moment, considering, I supposed, the details of my account. “You understand,” he said after some uncomfortable seconds of pondering, “that you’re asking me to discard utterly my much cultivated reputation for logic and pragmatism. For it seems to me you’ve set your foot squarely into the realm of the supernatural with all of this.”

“I understand that, of course,” I replied. “But surely logic and pragmatism apply every bit as much in the nether world as they do in our own.”

He considered this rejoinder for a moment and nodded tentatively. “It’s quite possible that you’re right, though of course it goes without saying that my experience in this field is limited, to put it generously.”

I agreed and gestured to the bartender for refills.

“But if, as you suppose, logic and pragmatism are to be applied to your curious circumstance, we need only pick apart the facts of the case, if you’ll pardon the legal parlance, and see where it leads.”

“I knew I’d come to the right place,” I said, offering a smile and receiving one in return.

“Fact number one is that your curious electrical sensation took place not once, but twice, and in precisely the same location upon the bridge. This suggests strongly that whatever underlies your situation has materially to do with the bridge itself. And twice you say you’ve encountered this strange apparition, once beneath the hat of a carriage driver, and then again in your very own bathroom mirror, only this morning. And you’re quite certain it was the same image, and one you’ve never before encountered in any context.”

“That is correct,” I said, “though I have to say that the clarity of the image was greater and of longer duration in the mirror than it was in the attenuated light during the storm last night. Still, I would have to say yes, the same individual.”

“And then,” he continued, “the grimmest detail of all, the disfiguration and blood upon the face. The same both times, you say? That must have been a bit alarming in the midst of a lightning storm.”

“You can only imagine,” I agreed.

“All right, my friend,” he said, “indulge me while I set aside all manner of rationality and share with you the only logical and pragmatic conclusion that this seasoned legal mind can conjure, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

I leaned forward eagerly to hear his assessment.

“It seems clear to me,” he said, “that you’ve been accosted by the spirit of a man who has lost his life during either the construction or subsequent operation of the bridge.”

He stopped and took a sip of his ale, remaining silent for a long moment as though having just delivered a verdict in a courtroom. But he wasn’t quite finished, as it turned out.

“But here’s the intriguing bit,” he continued. “We know from the various news accounts that the number of construction fatalities is not at all certain. Further, if recollection serves concerning the various ghost stories I’ve read in my youth, the spirit would only have cause to reach out—to raise a fuss, as it were—if its fate had gone unacknowledged. After all, men perished in any number of ways during that long decade of work, did they not? They fell from the towers or from the roadbed, died of depth sickness in the caissons, all sorts of things. Is it possible that one or more workers shuffled off this mortal coil without anyone’s knowledge at all? Who can say?”

“Who indeed,” I replied quietly, considering the extraordinary conclusion to which my friend had arrived based upon the evidence I had offered.

“Pity,” he said without elaboration.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, pity that you aren’t more given to the visual arts. Otherwise you could create a drawing of this poor fellow who’s been accosting you.”

“Well, it’s true I’m no artist,” I agreed. “But I’m certainly capable of providing a verbal description. He is . . . was . . . after all, quite singular in appearance.

“All right then, if it’s resolution you’re after, and you’re quite prepared to put yourself out there as perhaps being of less than sound mind, here’s a recommendation with which you can do what you like. Mind you, it’s a terrifically long shot, but still, one never knows. Understanding that many hundreds of men worked on that bridge over the years, and that many came and went without so much as a how-do-you-do to their bosses or coworkers, you might track down and approach whoever was in charge of the day-to-day work, proffer your description, and see if by some miracle the man is recalled, either by a coworker or supervisor.”

“A miracle indeed,” I agreed. “They might ship me off to Bellevue more quickly than my wife.”

“There is always that risk,” Higgins replied. “Of course, if you wish to minimize such risk, you could tell your story in a manner that omits the more . . . spiritual elements.”

“How do you mean exactly,” I asked.

“Simplicity itself. You’re simply searching for a man—of your apparition’s singular appearance of course. He’s a family friend or any other such story you can conjure up. You’ve heard in recent days that he might have been employed in the construction of the bridge and you’d like to track him down. You know, to reestablish communication, that sort of thing. No need to get into electrical currents or ghostly visages in mirrors or driving carriages. Those sorts of details do tend to put people off, you understand.”

“I’m sure I can grasp that,” I said.

“I tell you what,” he said, tossing off the last of his glass and sliding out of his seat to stand. “I do have someplace I need to be in a short while, and it sounds like I’ve perhaps given you a bit of an assignment to tackle. So I’ll leave you to it. But I’ll expect a full report the moment you’ve put this business to rest.” With which exhortation he offered his hand, shook mine briskly, and made his way out of the bar and into the fast approaching evening, leaving me to finish my drink alone and watch as the bar began to fill in earnest.


The following day—my sleep once again assailed by visions of the tall thin red-haired man with the horribly scarred face—I set about in search of a way in which I might act upon Higgins’ advice. It was a Sunday and so no businesses or offices were open. Nevertheless, I felt I might gain some measure of intelligence into the matter by randomly accosting various and sundry people in the vicinity of the bridge. I recalled having heard rumors to the effect that, despite the bridge’s construction being complete, there nonetheless still existed an operations office of some sort. Locating this seemed as reasonable a start as any if I were to get to the bottom of whatever was happening to me.

In the end it proved almost too easy. I made my way to the New York anchorage building where Hicks and Fulton Streets intersected. There, adjacent to the immense front doors, was affixed an ornate brass plaque commemorating the completion of the great bridge, and directly beneath, a more pedestrian one stating that all matters of day-to-day bridge function, along with any questions that members of the public might have on the project, could be addressed at the Office of the Chief Architect, which could be found three blocks to the west, near Fulton and Nassau. I made my way to the stated location and found it, unsurprisingly, to be closed for the day. I made a point to pay it another visit during lunch the next day, Mondays being the closest thing my company had to a slow workday.


As events transpired, the following day was even a bit slower than normal, and I availed myself of the rare opportunity to make my way to the bridge’s operations office in the mid morning. Stepping through the front doors, I was unprepared for the sheer immensity of the interior of the structure, for it was nearly as awe inspiring as the great bridge itself. The ceilings were of the same Gothic design as the bridge and they arose some fifty feet into the air in a series of barrel vaults of the sort often found in cathedrals. The space was so utterly cavernous that it was at first unclear precisely where business was transacted. Only then I noted a smaller, more modest door to my left and tried the door handle, which opened easily, admitting me into a quite traditional office setting, a modest reception desk closest to the door, and behind that a seated woman who seemed genuinely surprised at my appearance.

“Why, good morning, sir,” she said at my approach. “How may I help you?”

“Good day, ma’am,” I replied, removing my hat and glancing about the office. “My name is Charles Priestly.” I instinctively reached into my jacket pocket and produced a business card, handing it to her across the desk. As I stood there before her, it occurred to me that I’d given no thought at all to how I should present my request for information. Surely sharing with a stranger the bizarre events of the preceding few days would give them just cause to question my sanity. Then I thought once again of Higgins’ final advice.

“Ma’am, this may seem a curious request,” I began, “And, to be frank, I’m not even sure I’ve come to the right place. I’m seeking information on an individual who I believe served as a workman on the bridge. I think that he . . . uh . . . he may have been a family member, and I’m keen to learn his whereabouts if it can be determined.”

“Mister Priestly, I believe you almost certainly have come to the right place,” she said. “We maintain quite comprehensive records of everyone who worked on the bridge, from its very inception to the commemoration this past May. Can I ask the individual’s name?”

“Well, that’s the problem, you see, for I do not, in fact, know the man’s name. I have only a physical description. I don’t suppose that makes the business of tracking him down any easier at all, now does it?”

“No, no, I’m afraid it doesn’t,” she agreed, “but perhaps all is not lost. If you can share as much distinctive information as you’re aware of, it’s possible that Mister Farrington might have some recollection of the man. He’s been here ever since—“

At which moment a somewhat spare man with a great gray beard and striking blue eyes emerged from an adjoining office door. “Louise, I wonder if you’ve seen—oh, we have a guest. I do so apologize,” he said, approaching and extending a hand toward me. “Frank Farrington, Master Mechanic, at your service.”

“Charles Priestly, and it’s a genuine pleasure to make your acquaintance,” I replied, recognizing him at once as the man who had gained great notoriety seven years earlier for being the first man to cross the East River by way of the newly erected bridge towers. He had, though, achieved this feat without the benefit of a roadbed, crossing instead using the flimsy expedient of a boatswain’s chair suspended from a single steel cable. “Your assistant believes you may be able to help me identify one of your former workmen. I’ve no doubt there were hundreds during the bridge’s construction, but I’m hopeful that this man’s singular appearance may allow you to recall him.”

“Well, Mister Priestly, why don’t you step into my office and we’ll see if my memory serves as well as I like to think it does.” He turned, drew open his office door, and gestured for me to proceed ahead of him. I noticed immediately a framed copy of the newspaper, the front page of which had borne his image following his renowned crossing of the river.

“It must have been a terrifying thing,” I offered, stepping to the displayed page and giving it a momentarily closer scrutiny.

“You have no idea,” he replied. “Though I, of course, put up a brave front. My primary thought throughout the crossing was whether we’d made a wise decision awarding the steel cable contract to the lowest bidder.”

I, of course, had no knowledge of whether his statement was true or mere hyperbole, so I simply smiled in response and moved to the far end of the office where there stood upon an enormous table an extraordinarily detailed model of the great bridge some twelve feet long. As I bent to examine it more closely, Farrington approached from behind.

“Your work?” I inquired.

“Oh heavens no,” he replied. “I haven’t the eyesight or the patience for such an undertaking. It’s the work of a model maker in Roebling’s company. I’m told it was nearly as challenging an undertaking as the real thing.”

Returning to his desk, he gestured for me to take a seat, then did so himself as well, settling heavily into the large oak chair. “So tell me about this mysterious associate of yours.”

“It’s possible that I may end up wasting a good bit of your time,” I said, “for not only do I not know the name of the man I seek, I also cannot tell you when he might have begun working for you or, for that matter, when he might have departed. I’m afraid all I have to offer is a physical description.”

Farrington leaned forward as though genuinely intrigued, but he said nothing in response.

“He’s a middle aged fellow,” I began, “extremely tall—at least six foot five if he’s an inch—and preternaturally slender. And here’s the unique bit, at least it seems to me anyway. The man had a shock of brilliantly red hair and a long beard and mustaches to match.” I paused, looking for any glimmer of recognition. It was not long in coming.

“Mister Priestly, here I thought you were going to challenge me this morning, and I’m afraid you’ve failed utterly. The man you seek is, as you say, singular, and I couldn’t forget him if my advancing senility were to become complete tomorrow. The man you describe is none other than John Eliot, one of my very finest high tower workers, absolutely fearless of wire work or any other task that required being at the top of the towers or suspended from the cables. Alas, my memory is not quite so rigorous on the specific dates of his employ with the bridge company, though that is easily solved with the help of Miss Chester.”

He rose peremptorily and stepped through his office door and back into the reception area, returning a moment later bearing an immense leather-bound volume, which he dropped with a great thud onto his desk.

“The employment and payment records of every man who so much as lifted a board or pounded a rivet to create the bridge. Sadly, though, it’s all organized chronologically rather than alphabetically. Only give me a moment,” following which exhortation he lifted a pair of spectacles from the desk, dropped them onto the bridge of his nose and began flipping pages in the book. Clearly he’d spent many a long hour with the volume in the past, and his search took no more than a minute.

“Ah, yes, here we are—John Eliot, tower foreman. Says here he began work on August 27, 1872, right around the time the caissons were completed for the New York tower and we’d begun the above-water construction in earnest. The Brooklyn tower was farther along by then, of course, so we needed more men on the New York side, and I recall Eliot arriving at a propitious time, particularly given his ability—preference really—for working at height.”

Farrington flipped numerous additional pages before stopping at one and making a suddenly quizzical face.

“Now there’s an odd thing,” he said. “Eliot was with us right through completion of both towers, but his payment records end in April of 1877. By then, both towers were up and we’d have been well along in the process of running the cables.” He turned one additional page and then flipped back to the prior one. “And this is stranger still,” he said. “According to these records, the man never even claimed his final paycheck. It’s as though he simply vanished, and with the company owing him for two additional weeks’ work. Now there’s something you don’t see every day. Certainly plenty of workmen came and went with little notice, but I don’t recall any of them foregoing a final paycheck.”

I rose at Farrington’s observation and stepped once more toward the enormous model of the bridge. “So,” I said, “peering again at the minute details of the model, “I suppose there’s nothing to it but to spend some time with the tax or census offices if I’m to track the man down. That’ll be a challenge. Not a terribly uncommon name, is it?”

“No, no it is not,” Farrington agreed. “And I don’t envy you your task, though I’m pleased we were able to at least supply you with a name and a bit of employment history. That ought to count for something in your search. Wish we’d been able to provide more.”

“Oh no,” I said, as I reached for my coat and hat. “You’ve been more helpful than I had any reasonable right to expect. If I do manage to track down Mister Eliot, I’ll be sure to let him know that you owe him a bit of money.” I placed a business card on the edge of Farrington’s desk and offered an outstretched hand in his direction.

So now I had a name to accompany the visual image that had haunted my past three days. This new information consumed my thoughts for the remainder of the day, so much so that colleagues back at the office noted more than once my apparent lack of concentration on whatever it was they were endeavoring to share with me. Later that evening, still alone at the house, but increasingly anticipating Emily’s return at week’s end, I composed a modest dinner and then sat back in my reading chair to spend a bit more time with my Longfellow anthology. But in the end it proved pointless. My thoughts couldn’t escape the images that had haunted my dreams of late, and Farrington’s observations about John Eliot and his unexpected disappearance six years earlier only exacerbated the turmoil that accompanied my attempts at sleep later that night. The events of the following day did nothing to assuage the situation.


I managed at most three hours of sleep that night and awoke far earlier than my normal time. Tuesday was typically a busy day for the firm and so with no better alternative, I made my way to the office just as the sun was making its way above the horizon. No one was there to greet me save for the night watchman and janitor, and I managed to get quite a lot of work done in the ensuing two hours before the office staff began appearing. Later that morning, following a lengthy meeting with my senior managers, I was passing by the front desk when I was unexpectedly accosted by Miss Henderson, our receptionist.

“Oh, Mister Priestly,” she said, “a courier has just been by and left a message for you.”

Having no cause to expect any such deliveries, I returned to her desk and accepted a small envelope from her outstretched hand.

“I would have brought it round sooner,” she offered, “but you’ve been locked away in meetings all morning.”

“It’s quite all right, Miss Henderson,” I replied. “Thanks very much.”

Nearly all of the mail we received at the office was of an official nature and, as such, usually contained a return address and company logo of some sort on the envelope. This envelope simply bore the name “New York Bridge Company” in the upper corner and my thoughts quite naturally returned to my brief meeting with Farrington the previous morning.

Returning to my desk, I took a seat, cut open the envelope, and withdrew a single twice-folded sheet of paper on which was typed one lengthy paragraph followed by Farrington’s signature.


Mister Priestly,” it began, “It was a genuine pleasure to make your acquaintance yesterday. I am pleased that we were able to supply you with the information you were seeking, but I am writing to beg your indulgence and forgiveness in so far as my assistant and I have located one additional bit of information that may be of further value to you concerning our former employee John Eliot. A short time after his unexplained failure to appear for work back in April 1877, a woman appeared at our office inquiring after him. Based on her physical appearance (quite tall, slender, and with hair every bit as red as John’s) I surmised her to be a relative. Indeed, she revealed herself to be John’s younger sister Gretchen, and she seemed, as I recall, to be in a good deal of distress. The two, she subsequently explained, occupied an apartment in Brooklyn at 242B Fulton Street and her brother had always been a man of singularly regular habits, leaving from and returning to the apartment in a predictable manner, and, more importantly, being altogether forthright in his handling of debts such as rent, food, etc. Thus it was that his failure to appear one evening following work in early April of that year, or on any day thereafter, had clearly caused her a significant amount of agitation. I share this information in case you wish to continue pursuing your search for the man, though I cannot, of course, vouch for whether the woman still occupies the apartment at this same address. I wish you all the best in your endeavors, and do not hesitate to visit again if we can be of further assistance. Fondest regards. Frank Farrington”


I read the note a second time and was just refolding it when there came a knock at my office door, a colleague needing to address a business matter of some urgency. The remainder of that Tuesday was consumed with the usual panoply of office tasks and it wasn’t until the walk home that evening that I had the first opportunity to give earnest thought to how I ought to respond to Farrington’s message. There was, though, never the slightest doubt that I would employ the information he had provided and attempt to locate the sister. Indeed, so suddenly committed was I to this course of action, that I forewent my journey home and hailed a carriage, instructing the driver to deliver me to the address the message had provided. This, of course, necessitated yet another passage over the bridge, a crossing which, though it had previously filled me with wonder at the architectural achievement, now instead increasingly caused me no small amount of trepidation.

The driver made short work of locating the Fulton Street apartment, and I stepped down from the carriage, handing him the fare, half expecting to again see the horrific visage beneath his hat brim that I had on that rainy night now four days hence. Mercifully no such event ensued and he simply offered a smile and a tip of the hat as he departed. I briefly pondered asking him to wait there for the return trip home, but, uncertain how long my visit might be, opted against it.

The apartment building offered a single modestly framed door, leading up to which were seven stone steps, which I counted as I ascended each one. Though I had as yet no clear premise upon which to build my conclusion, I nonetheless felt that events were building to some sort of conclusion, and I was keen to etch every nuance of the experience into my mind as best I could manage. Hesitating only a moment at the top of the stoop, I reached for the brass knocker and gave it a couple of sharp raps. After what felt a lengthy wait, accompanied by various rustling about beyond, the door was tentatively opened and an elderly man met my gaze with a mix of suspicion and tiredness.

“Apologies for the late hour,” I began. “I am looking for apartment 242B. Perhaps you could point me in the—”

“That’ll be Gretchen,” he offered briskly, gesturing up the staircase. “Second floor, third door on the left.”

He turned peremptorily and entered the apartment doorway whence he had come. “Such a terrible business,” he said by way of final comment before closing the door behind him. “Terrible business indeed.” He offered no further explanation for the unsolicited observation.

Following the man’s clear but mysterious directions, I made my way up the staircase, each step offering a creak of protest at the imposition of my weight. Making my way down the dark hallway, I found that indeed, the third doorway on the left was 242B. I could hear from beyond the door the sounds of dishes being moved about, though the lack of voices suggested that the occupant was alone. I knocked gently on the heavy wooden door, waiting just seconds until it was drawn open and I knew that I had come to exactly the right place. For there before me stood the precise visage, albeit female, of the man whose face had haunted my waking and sleeping hours these past few days.

“Ma’am,” I began awkwardly, removing my hat and extending a hand, “I apologize profusely for disturbing your dinner hour, but I’m afraid I’ve come on a matter of some urgency. May I assume that you are Miss Eliot?”

“You may indeed,” she replied, “though I’m afraid you have me at a bit of a disadvantage. She had as yet made no gesture suggesting that I was welcome to enter the apartment.

“Oh, again my apologies. Where are my manners? My name is Priestly. Charles Priestly.”

“And what is it I can do for you this evening, Mister Priestly?”

“I’ve come about your brother John,” I offered in response. And in that moment, a terrible shadow seemed to pass across her face, though only for a second, following which the pleasant smile returned and she drew the door wide and motioned me to enter.

“Again,” I said, “ I am so terribly sorry to disturb your dinner. Indeed as I entered I could clearly see the table set for one and could smell the aroma emanating from the kitchen area. “I’ll be as brief as I can manage.”

“Nonsense, Mister Priestly. I will discuss the matter of my brother for as long as we have something to talk about. I should, though, preface our discussion with the fact that I have not seen so much as a trace of John for more than six years. Neither had my sister, I’m afraid.”

“Ah, so he had two sisters then,” I replied. “The man at the bridge company who provided me with your information suggested that there was only one—one named Gretchen.”

“An understandable confusion,” the woman said. “Gretchen is . . . was . . . my younger sister and this is her apartment. I am Clara and I’ve only just arrived in town yesterday. My sister has just passed away, you see, and I’ve come to look after her affairs.”

“Well, I’m terribly sorry to hear it,” I said. “Was she ill?”

“For a long time in fact. But she was unfortunately never one for complaining or communicating her problems with her family.”

I did not respond, but only looked at her with an expression that must have been curious enough for her to feel the need to clarify.

“She passed four nights ago from a long-standing case of influenza. Honestly, how she managed to survive this long without medical care or decent heat is beyond me.” She dropped slowly into a nearby chair and momentarily put her face in her hands.

“It was Friday night that she passed, right in the midst of that terrific thunderstorm we had.”

I nodded, thinking back in that moment to my late-night walk across the bridge and the curious incident of the lightning bolt.

“Well, I trust you will accept my sincerest condolences,” I replied in response to the woman’s terse account of her sister’s passing. “So Gretchen would then be the one who lived here with John during his time on the bridge?”

“Yes, indeed,” she said. “And never a better brother could you possibly encounter. He stayed with her here for the entire five years he worked on the bridge. In truth, he saved her from penury, Mister Priestly. Not to air too much family laundry for a stranger, but I’m afraid Gretchen was never one for earning a living on her own. John was her salvation . . . until, of course, he disappeared.”

“Yes, yes, I am aware,” I replied. “April of 1877 if my information is correct.”

“Why, that is correct as correct can be, Mister Priestly. And may I ask how you came to learn of John’s disappearance with such precision?”

“I’ve had a recent chat with a Mister Farrington, former master mechanic on the bridge where your brother worked. He is quite fastidious in his record keeping.”

She gestured for me to remove my coat and take a seat in a living room chair, whilst she joined me in another, sitting directly across, perched lithely on the chair’s very edge, as though energized by the thought of learning something new about her missing sibling.

“Yes,” she said, leaping up once again, and stepping toward the kitchen. “Can I offer you a drink, Mister Priestly?” I accepted gratefully and was shortly presented with a glass of sherry of more than passing quality. As she placed it on the table before me, she continued. “John was on the bridge for nearly five years before he vanished as you say in April six years ago. He lived here with Gretchen the entire time. He is—was—older than she by a bit over four years.” A noticeable tremor had entered her voice. “She queried the police at the time of course, but nothing came of it. All they would say was that bridge workers came and went all the time and that there was really nothing at all they could do on the matter.”

“And did you or your sister have occasion to speak with Mister Farrington or anyone else on the bridge following John’s disappearance?”

“She did speak with someone in that office, in fact. It may have been Mister Farrington, but I can’t be certain. In any event, whomever she spoke with was of no more help than the police. So far as they knew, he had simply failed to show up for work one day, and that was that.”

“And did they mention when Gretchen spoke with them that he had failed to even claim his final paycheck?” I asked.

“That they did not mention,” she said. “And it certainly darkens the mystery, don’t you think? Men who run off don’t typically do so without claiming all of the money to which they’re entitled, now do they.”

No, ma’am, they do not,” I agreed. A lengthy silence ensued.

“But what does all of this have to do with you, Mister Priestly?” she asked, finally getting to the most obvious question of all, and the one I had done the least to prepare an answer for.

I was keen to not give the woman any reason for hope in the matter of her lost brother, but keen as well to not deepen the already clearly deep hurt she felt at his loss and that of her sister. Still, there was no way of dancing around the matter.

“I have reason to believe that he may indeed not have run out on his job at all,” I said, building to what exactly I wasn’t at all certain. “I have it on the authority of the bridge’s master mechanic that your brother was both diligent and skillful in his work, and dependable as well in the timing of his morning appearances and his evening departures.”

“He was indeed, Mister Priestly,” she replied. “Gretchen assured me that he left here every morning precisely at 6:45, and returned promptly at 7:00 in the evening, excepting only the occasional stopover for groceries on the way home. And, for the record, the night that he failed to return was not a grocery night. That was usually Tuesday, and Gretchen said it was a Thursday that he failed to return.”

She sat in another long moment of silence before asking the question whose inevitability was exceeded only by its utter lack of sufficient response.

“Mister Priestly, do you believe that something awful happened to John? I mean, it was known to be a quite dangerous job. I read in the papers that by the end of it something like twenty-five men had died.” Whether or not she was curious as to why I was in possession of knowledge about her brother was unclear, but she chose not to pursue the matter, for which I was genuinely glad, considering the nature of the matter that had brought me to her door.

“Miss Eliot, I honestly do not know the answer to your question, though it strikes me as one worthy of more investigation than it clearly received at the time. Of course, if something indeed did happen to your brother, it’s only fair to observe that it might have been at the bridge or indeed elsewhere in the city. However, given what we know about his punctuality and diligence, if an accident did take place, the bridge is the logical expectation.”

“But surely,” she said, “all of the other men who suffered accidents there were accounted for and treated with—well . . . “ She lowered her eyes momentarily, displaying more strength in maintaining this discussion than I’d had any reasonable right to expect. “Still,” she continued, “it’s been six years.”

I rose from my seat, keen to not delay the woman’s dinner any longer. Bidding her goodbye, I indicated that it was my intention to explore the matter further in the days to come and that on the remote chance I learned anything of consequence, I would of a certainty share the information with her.

“Mister Priestly, I thank you sincerely for anything you can do, especially if it brings any sort of closure to the matter that would suffice for the insurance company. There are still burial expenses, that sort of thing.”

Her parting comment took me by surprise and I stopped in the midst of putting my coat back on. I’m sorry, “I said. “How is an insurance company involved?”

“My brother was, as we’ve discussed, an extremely responsible man, Mister Priestly. He had taken out a life insurance policy upon joining the bridge crew. He recognized, of course, that his work was terribly hazardous, and he wanted to ensure that Gretchen would be taken care of in the unlikely event that something terrible should befall him on the job.”

“And was the policy never paid?” I asked, certain that I knew the answer already.

“Never a penny, Mister Priestly, and that is the circumstance that caused my sister’s penury in the years following his disappearance. They blamed it, so they said, on our inability to prove that he had, in fact, passed on. He was never found, you see.”

As the details of her account slowly emerged, I could not help but note a coldness arising inside of me as I slowly finished inserting my arm into my coat sleeve. “I wonder, Miss Eliot, Do you happen to recall the firm’s name?”

Oh, without question, Mister Priestly,” she said without hesitation. “Empire City Casualty Corporation. We have the original policy and all of our correspondence right here in her desk.”

I stood for one more silent moment before turning toward the door.

“Well, I will certainly get in touch with you or your sister if I should come across any information that brings this unfortunate matter to a resolution,” I said, offering her my hand in a parting greeting.

As I descended the seven steps outside her door and raised my hand to a passing carriage, I was suddenly uncertain whether the chill I felt was the night air or the weight of what I had just learned from John Eliot’s older sister.



The following day at the office was characterized by such a complete lack of focus and productivity on my part that colleagues offered uncertain glances in my direction on multiple occasions. By mid-afternoon, I conceded defeat, picked up hat and coat, and made for the front door, making a point of not looking at the company name emblazoned on the wall, precisely as I’d done numerous times throughout the day to that point. For though I was not now employed in the insurance and casualty area of my firm’s business, I most assuredly had been six years ago and my membership in that fraternity whose name Clara Eliot had uttered the previous evening had set like a stone within me ever since.

Even as I made my way from the office, I was as certain of my destination as I was that I must now get well and truly to the bottom of whatever fate had befallen John Eliot, if not for my own sanity, then surely for his sister’s benefit. Within the hour I was sitting once more before Frank Farrington’s capacious desk. During the forty-odd minutes it took me to walk across town to his office I had resolved to do whatever was within my power to determine—and if at all possible to prove—the fate that had befallen John Eliot, this resolution due in more or less equal measures to the curious apparitions that had beset me in the past few days and my direct connection with the firm that had denied his insurance policy, thus potentially contributing to his younger sister’s premature demise.

Despite this newfound resolve, I had nevertheless not put nearly the degree of forethought that I should have into what additional germane insights I might glean from the master mechanic, and yet there I sat.

“So then,” Farrington said, “you’ve met Eliot’s sister.”

“I have,” I replied, “though not the one I expected to meet.” I explained to him the tragic fate of Eliot’s younger sister and the current state of affairs of the elder one. I saw, though, no point in bringing up the matter of the insurance, constructing the rationale for my interest in the matter on my earlier foundation of Eliot having been a distant family member.

“Clara describes him as singularly diligent in having cared for his younger sister—not at all the sort to have simply disappeared without a word,” I continued. “Is there any chance an accident might have occurred? The sort of thing that might go unreported? The family is, of course, as keen as ever to learn what happened.”

“I understand fully,” Farrington replied, raising a hand to his chin as though in deep consideration. “Eliot was a superior worker at height, spent nearly all of his workdays at the top of the tower, hanging cable, that sort of thing.”

“And might there . . .” I paused before completing the thought. “Might there have been a fall then?”

Farrington considered this for a moment before reaching into a desk drawer and extracting a thin folder of papers, which he opened and regarded briefly.

“I keep a list of the fate of every man who gave his life in the service of the bridge, Mister Priestly,” he said, gesturing to the folder. “All thirty-seven of them.”

“Can I assume,” I said, “that more than one met his fate in a fall . . . I mean given the nature of the work and all?”

“Of course, of course,” he replied, “though fewer than you might have thought. Just six of the thirty-seven, in fact. The men who worked at height were, as you can imagine, extremely good at it. We lost more to early problems with pressure in the caissons.”

“Also, one imagines that were someone to fall from a tower, there would be plenty of others around to know of it.”

“Indeed,” Farrington agreed. “Not to put too fine a point on it, Mister Priestly, but there were only two places to land, either in the river or onto the base of the tower itself.”

“Were there times when a worker—one such as John Eliot—might have been working alone on a tower, after the others had left for the day? Might an accident then have gone unnoticed?”

“I suppose it’s possible,” Farrington said. “Still, falling into the river so close to the shoreline would have resulted in discovery of the body shortly thereafter. Or, if the unfortunate wretch were to strike the tower, he would be discovered promptly the next workday.”

“And did either of those occurrences take place to your knowledge?” I asked.

“As it happens, no, Mister Priestly. Every fatality was witnessed by one or more coworkers.”

As I pondered Farrington’s words, I rose from my seat and wandered about the office considering the blueprints and other framed technical documents with which the office was replete. I stopped before a large diagram of one of the mammoth tower structures, peering at it quite closely.

“The base of each tower is solid, yes?” I said, continuing to peer closely at the diagram.

“Quite solid, Mister Priestly. Solid granite or limestone block, depending on which section you’re looking at.”

I lifted a finger to the glass that protected the diagram. “And yet there are hollow bits throughout. Quite large ones.”

“You have a keen eye, Mister Priestly. There are four capacious openings in each tower that extend from the top of the base down to where the stone meets each caisson below the water. They are vestiges of the entrances through which workers entered and exited the caissons.”

“And these openings, they would have been open at the top, at least for some portion of the construction?”

“Indeed they would,” Farrington said. “Though they’ve now been sealed, of course. There are doors for inspectors, but they are quite secure. It wouldn’t do to have vagrants finding their way inside, you understand. It’s not at all safe. Are you positing that Mister Eliot perhaps fell into one of the caisson access openings?”

“It seems a very low probability event, doesn’t it,” I said, scrutinizing further the astonishingly detailed diagram. Besides which, if he had met such a fate, surely a caisson worker would have discovered him the following day.”

“Well, only up until the caisson work was complete, which would of course have been the case long before the towers began going up. The New York caisson was complete and filled in the summer of 1872, so no one would have had cause to enter the access chambers in the five years between then and when our Mister Eliot went missing.”

“Meaning that a body might go unnoticed at the bottom of a hole like that for a very long time, or perhaps never be discovered at all.”

Farrington sat quietly, seeming to ponder this bizarre possibility. “Mister Priestly,” he began, “it’s eleven years since anyone’s been in those caisson rooms. I’m afraid the company would never conscience . . .”

“Oh no, of course,” I replied promptly. “You misunderstand me, Mister Farrington. I’m not suggesting anything . . . just, you know, contemplating distant possibilities.”

I remained before the technical diagram for some time, continuing to ponder its many intricacies. And in that moment, as Farrington continued to sit in silence, I made what would, in the end, turn out to be a fateful decision.

“Tell me, Mister Farrington,” I said, turning to face him directly, “are you a believer in the supernatural?”

He made in response a face that seemed to suggest that this was the most natural question in the world. “Mister Priestly,” he responded after some consideration, “I count myself a God-fearing man, which, of course, means I am obliged to answer your question in the affirmative, though what it might have to do with the matter of John Eliot is not at all apparent, save of course for the ultimate dispensation of his immortal soul, a matter beyond the abilities of you or I to influence, I’m afraid.”

“Indeed, indeed,” I said, returning to the chair before his desk and retaking my seat. “At risk of imposing further on your already generously offered time, I wonder if you’re up for hearing the entire truth of this matter,”

In response, Farrington leaned forward, looked at me inquisitively, and silently extracted a fresh cigar from a box on his desk. Lighting it thoughtfully, he leaned back in silent encouragement of whatever I might have to say.

Twenty-five minutes later, he knew everything that I knew about the curious matter of John Eliot, his sisters (including the grim fate of the younger), the visitations I had endured since that first night in the storm, and even my firm’s involvement in this tragic saga. Having divulged it all, I sat silently for a long moment, pondering how I might conclude my strange tale.

“I cannot say whether it is from guilt or fear or simply justice, Mister Farrington,” I said. “But I mean to get to the bottom of the matter if God wills it.”



Later that evening, as I sat aimlessly sketching from memory some of the details I had noted in the technical drawings on Farrington’s walls, there came a sharp rap upon my front door. I opened the door to discover a messenger with a thin envelope bearing my name and the same New York Bridge Company logo as the envelope I’d received in my office the previous day.


Mister Priestly, the message began, deepest apologies for the late intrusion, but I’ve given a great deal of thought to our discussion of earlier today and I’ve concluded that I should like to assist in whatever manner I can to enable you to resolve the unfortunate matter of John Eliot’s disappearance. Doing so will not only help to set your mind at ease, but also mine, as I have always had a deep affinity for the men who worked with me throughout the bridge project. Eliot’s disappearance has, since its occurrence, been a source of deep frustration for me, and your appearance in my office on Friday last has only served to reopen a wound that I thought to have been long closed.

Please meet me at the base of the New York tower tonight at 11:00. Wear old clothes and come equipped with a lantern and plenty of fuel. I look forward to working with you to resolve this mystery once and for all if possible. Yours sincerely, Frank Farrington



It was a remarkable turn of events and I did not at first know quite what to make of it. But in the end there was nothing for it but to meet Farrington, for, after all, who knew more about the bridge and its construction than its master mechanic? And if, perchance, Eliot was to be found somewhere in the foundations of the great bridge, I was certainly ill equipped to undertake such a search on my own.

And so it came to pass that I found myself ascending the bridge promenade from the New York side around 10:30 that evening. The night air was unpleasantly warm and dank, with just enough of an occasional cool breeze to portend a storm before the night as over. As I approached the tower, I could not help but gaze once more up at the massive stone works that soared into the night sky. I made the base of the tower with fifteen minutes or so to spare and so stood gazing back at the magnificent lights of the city. Far in the distance to my left, on Bedloe’s Island, construction works were being put in place for what was expected to become a massive pedestal on which would stand an even more massive monument to be shipped here from France in a few years time. This enormous new statue, it was said, would serve as an exclamation point on the continent’s most extraordinary city, welcoming all who made their way here, whether from elsewhere in the country or from even farther away.

Shifting my gaze now to the city skyline, I discerned a lone figure coming up the promenade from the New York side. Though the slow-moving figure was of no particular distinction, I took it immediately to be Farrington, for who else had cause to be in this place at such an hour? In the end, my instinct was correct, and I extended a hand as the man drew near.

“It’s an astonishing achievement,” I offered by way of greeting. “Simply astonishing.”

“I cannot disagree,” he replied. “And I will surely participate in nothing grander in whatever days remain to me on this earth.”

We stood for a moment, gazing silently up at the vast granite tower that rose above us. I had followed Farrington’s instructions to the letter and had beside me on the ground a lantern and a half-gallon can of fuel, the combination of which could be expected to last for several hours if necessary. He had arrived similarly equipped, bearing, as well, what appeared to be a tool bag.

“Your message seemed to suggest that you have a plan of some sort for how we might proceed in investigating the matter of what transpired with Mr. Eliot,” I said after a long moment. “You seem prepared for any contingency,” I added, gesturing to his bag.

“Indeed,” he replied. “My years on the bridge taught me, if nothing else, to be prepared for all manner of unexpected events. I mean to conduct a thorough exploration of the caisson base below us, and it’s been a very long time since anyone has been down there.”

“And will we have cause to examine the Brooklyn tower as well,” I asked, realizing my mistake nearly as soon as the words were out of my mouth.

“No need, Mr. Priestly,” he replied with the expected response. “John Eliot never worked on that tower during his employ with the company. Which is not to say he wouldn’t have visited it from time to time, only that he never spent protracted periods there.”

“So,” I said, looking about uncertainly, “how does one go about getting below?”

He lifted his bag and lantern in response and gestured with his chin toward a heavy iron gate at a spot in the promenade fencing. In my many weeks of traversing the promenade I had never noticed it, so elegantly was it integrated into the structure.

“I trust you’ve brought comfortable shoes, Mr. Priestly,” he said. “We’ve a bit of climbing ahead of us.”

He did not exaggerate. For no sooner were we through the gate, which opened with the shriek of neglect using one of the myriad keys on his belt hook, then we were faced with a great iron doorway set into the side of the tower’s stone wall. This succumbed to yet another of Farrington’s keys, following which we found ourselves inside the tower atop a spiral staircase that plummeted downward into a black void whose bottom was utterly indiscernible despite both of our lanterns.

“You’re not afraid of heights, I hope,” he asked, glancing back over his shoulder.

“Doesn’t much matter now, does it?” was my only rejoinder.

The descent was narrow and treacherous and it wasn’t long before I began to feel the chill of the narrow stone column in which we were descending. We were fifteen minutes or so making the descent, arriving at last upon an open expanse of stone some fifty feet on a side with vaulted ceilings ten or so feet above us. He stepped briskly to a spot some twenty feet distant where set into the floor there lay a double iron doorway held fast by an immense padlock.

“Imagine a time only a few years ago, Mr. Priestly, when dozens of men were up and down those stairs all day long, and also in and out of the caisson through this hatchway here.” He gestured toward the ancient-looking iron doorway. It appeared to my eye to be hundreds of years old and not the sort of thing that would have been in active use only in the prior decade.

“Now comes the tricky bit,” he said auspiciously, placing his tool bag and lantern on the stone floor and searching his key ring once again. He produced a suitably large, ominous-looking skeleton key and inserted it into the padlock. It did not at first appear to be keen on turning.

“The river air is tough on iron,” he offered laconically, reaching into his bag for a small can of oil. Within moments, the lock succumbed to his efforts.

“Give us a hand here,” he said, grasping one side of the great door. The pair of doors were great heavy things, each eight feet or so by four, and it was all the two of us could do to flip each one up and over, leaving behind a square black opening in the floor some eight feet square. I cast a dispirited look at the opening.

“And you mean to go down there,” I asked uncertainly.

“I’m afraid it’s why we’ve come, Mr. Priestly,” he said.

As I stared into the abyss, I felt the familiar chill across the back of my neck that was not the product of the river air but rather of my own encroaching fears. There was, though, no turning back at this point, and so I did my level best to regain control of my senses.

“This will take a couple of trips,” he noted, setting aside his tool bag, attaching his lantern to his belt, and swinging his legs out over the edge to access the top of the wall-mounted ladder that was our only means of descent into the void. “It’s a bit of a climb down, so take care and keep a good grip on the rungs.” Then, without further comment, his head disappeared below the edge and he was gone into the blackness. I took care to mimic his actions, attaching my lantern to one side of my belt and the fuel can to the other. These while somewhat awkward were not especially heavy and so I managed to get my legs swung round and onto the ladder without great difficulty. A quick glance downward revealed that Farrington had already made it to the bottom, which appeared to be some thirty feet below. Moments later I joined him there and we found ourselves standing on a vast floor of granite slabs whose surface was noticeably moist.

“At this point, we are some twenty feet below the surface of the river,” he noted, causing me to glance involuntarily around at the walls that surrounded us. “There are dozens of men,” he continued, “who worked down here every day for more than a year.”

He cast his gaze about the great space for a long few moments and then placed a hand back on the lower rung of the ladder.

“Mister Priestly, I’ll need a couple of items from my tool bag,” he said. “Indulge me, if you will, and begin having a look around while I fetch them. It won’t be a moment.” And with that he began his ascent.

“And what exactly is it I’m looking for?” I called after him. It seemed difficult to believe, but in all of the effort of getting here, I had momentarily lost sight of why we had come.

“Why, any signs of John Eliot, of course,” he replied, providing the obvious response, peering down from now nearly halfway up the ladder.

And so, lifting my lantern, I set off toward the far corner of the vast open space, still unsure exactly what I was searching for. I supposed in that moment that if there were anything to be found, it would be obvious when it appeared. As I made my way uncertainly across the farthest areas of the caisson’s upper surface, holding my lantern before me, I began to notice a series of grinding sounds emanating from the opening in the ceiling whence Farrington and I had made our entry into this chamber. I thought little of it, however, trusting that the master mechanic was attending to some engineering matter or other. As I searched, I found little of note, save for occasional bits of old lumber and, at one point, what appeared to be a large masonry hammer. After ten minutes or so of this futile searching about, Farrington suddenly called out to me. From the resonance of it, it sounded as though he was still up at the top of the ladder.

“Mr. Priestly,” he called, “where have you gotten to?”

I made my way quickly back to the base of the ladder and peered upward at the impossibly small, dimly lit square opening high above. I could make out the silhouette of Farrington’s head and shoulders centered in the opening.

“Still here, Mr. Farrington,” I responded, “just having a look about as you said. Nothing much to report, I’m afraid.”

“Ah well,” he replied, his voice having taken on an oddly calm tone that seemed suddenly not at all in keeping with the gravity of our situation. “Do me a favor, Mr. Priestly, and stand to one side if you would.” He gestured with one arm, suggesting that I should move to my right somewhat, though I had no earthly idea what he was getting at. Nevertheless I complied, continuing to peer upward.

“Will you be joining me in the search, Mr. Farrington,” I called up, endeavoring to effect a light-hearted tone.

“Sadly, I’m afraid I will not, Mr. Priestly,” was his reply. And just as I was beginning to comprehend the meaning of this incongruous response, there came a great wrenching sound of iron on stone from above and I watched in horror as the iron ladder slowly fell away from the wall and crashed to the floor beside me.

I was momentarily dumbstruck and could only stare upward as he continued looking down.

“What on earth is the meaning of this?” I called up to him. “How am I to climb out now?”

“Mr. Priestly, now that you are safe and secure, I am going to take a moment to tell you a story, one that will, I hope, help you to understand the circumstance in which you now find yourself.”

He first proceeded to assume what I thought a singularly insouciant pose, sitting on the edge of the hatchway opening, his legs swung down over the edge, his head still a black silhouette against the faint light of his lantern. I still had no idea what was happening, but repeated glances down at the massive iron ladder lying on the floor caused the chill on the back of my neck to grow.

“Some years ago—six actually,” he began, his voice low now, but quite clear due to the resonance of the stone walls that surrounded us, “it was brought to my attention by one of my foremen that one of our finest high-line workers, John Eliot, had, for no good reason that anyone knew, stopped appearing for work. The sad truth of the matter is that to this day, no one has any idea what might have happened to him. Personally I doubt your accident theory, though you’ll have plenty of time to explore and satisfy yourself that he did not, in fact, fall into the tower base. I knew John well and watched him work many times. He was as gifted as any circus aerialist, Mr. Priestly, and the likelihood of him falling to his death is, in my view, inconceivable. Still, one never knows; you may find him yet. In any event, you’ll have plenty of time to look.”

At this point in his diatribe, my only conclusion was that I was in the hands of a madman, for I had no idea at all what he was going on about.

“If that is true,” I called up, “then why all of this?” I threw my arms outward. “Why did you bring me down here at all?”

“Ah, that is a question, isn’t it, Mr. Priestly. Why? I do suppose I owe you an explanation, especially seeing as how this is the final time you and I will have occasion to speak. You see, about a month after John went missing, his sister Gretchen visited me in my office asking after him, just as you did last Friday. Pity you never got to meet Gretchen, Mr. Priestly; lovely girl, cared deeply for her brother. But it was quite clear that she was utterly helpless without him, both financially and psychologically. The good news—if you care to call it that—is that John, being the stalwart guardian that he was—and knowing full well the risky nature of his work—had taken out an insurance policy in Gretchen’s name. The problem, the reason she came to me, was that she needed affirmation of his demise in order to make a claim against the policy. And so I did the very best I could for the girl, Mr. Priestly. But I was in a bind, you see. I could only testify that there was no evidence he had suffered any sort of accident on the bridge, but that we had not seen him in several weeks and so perhaps some unfortunate mishap had befallen him elsewhere in the city. Would you like to see what I sent to the insurance company, Mr. Priestly?”

At which point, he tossed down to me a single sheet of paper that floated slowly to the floor at my feet. I lifted it and considered the words. The letter was a carbon copy, bearing the bridge company letterhead and dated a month after Eliot’s disappearance from work. It read precisely as Farrington had said.

“Anyway,” Farrington continued, “she sent my letter—that letter there—along with the requisite insurance documents to the company as a claim. Of course it was a modest policy, not the sort of thing that would have made the girl wealthy, you understand. It might not have even sustained her for more than a few years. But it would have been something, Mr. Priestly. Something. And would you care to have a look at the response she received from the insurer? She brought me the return letter a few weeks after she’d applied. I’ve saved it all these years.”

Once again, he tossed down a single page as before. This time, I hesitated a long moment before bending to lift it from the floor, for I knew what I would see as surely as I knew now what fate awaited me. The logo of the Empire City Casualty Corporation stood boldly at the top of the page and beneath it a terse two paragraphs addressed to a Miss Gretchen Eliot explaining that no payments would be made against the policy unless the remains of the deceased could be produced and positively identified as those of the named individual on the policy. And there at the bottom, the signature of Charles Priestly, written with the same bold fountain pen I had been given by my father upon graduation from college many years hence.

“She visited me several times in the years after that, Mr. Priestly. Many times indeed, hoping against hope that some news of John would save her from the penury that was now her lot. With each visit, she was a bit more frail, a bit more hopeless. You know, in some ways I may be as guilty in all of this as you are, Mr. Priestly. I saw where it was all going and I did nothing aside from continually assuring her that I would let her know the moment I heard something definitive about her brother, which of course never came to pass. But there were no official actions at my disposal, no company mechanism for handling such a tragic situation. You, on the other hand, had a responsibility, a duty, Mr. Priestly. Don’t get me wrong though. I’m sure you had well-established policies in place that forbade payment without proof of death. And no, we couldn’t prove definitively what had befallen the man. But still, it was such a trivial amount for a firm like yours, don’t you agree? Still, rules are rules, aren’t they? And if we allow humanity to get in the way of our rules, what then would become of civilization? Better that a helpless young girl dies of starvation and sickness. Mr. Priestly, I’ll wager you never knew a thing about poor Gretchen’s fate until you happened to visit her apartment yesterday.

Well, what’s done is done, I suppose. And so I’ve waited all this time. I’d thought it was all over and done with myself, truth be told, particularly once I saw the obituary about Gretchen a few days ago. And then, not three days later, there appears at my office door Mister Charles Priestly himself. It’s been a challenging five days, of that I can assure you, pretending to converse with you in a calm professional manner, all the while imagining a moment like this one. To be honest with you, I wasn’t certain how I might bring about justice for Gretchen, Mr. Priestly. Only then you handed me the means on a silver plate, with your ghost stories and your grim apparitions. Surely John is calling out to have his remains located so that he can rest in peace. And so here we are, Mr. Priestly. Or rather, here you are.”

The cold sweat that had begun across the back of my neck upon our initial descent down the tower stair, and which had grown with each ensuing moment, had now advanced to a state of full panic as the thought of what Farrington had in mind became ever clearer.

“Mister Farrington, you’ve more than made your point,” was the best I could muster in that moment of terror. Surely the man was only carrying out these theatrics in order to somehow assuage his own sense of responsibility over the fate of Gretchen Eliot, and by extension my own complicity as well. “Help me out of here and I will see to it first thing tomorrow that the policy is paid in full . . . with double indemnity as well. I swear it on my life.”

I then heard from the opening the slightest and yet most horrifying sound I had ever experienced in my life. For it was no more than the faintest of laughs, the self-satisfied sort that one hears from a person convinced he has a firm upper hand in whatever negotiation is occurring.

“Mr. Priestly, your company’s money does not matter any longer,” he replied. “Poor Gretchen is past hope, as you well know.”

“But there is a sister, Farrington. An older sister named Clara. Surely . . .”

“Surely nothing, Mr. Priestly. I’m no insurance expert like yourself, but I know that Gretchen was the only beneficiary named on the policy. She showed it to me, you see. And so, with her demise, all obligations of your firm vanished. Legally speaking, the matter is ended . . . only not quite, as it happens, now that I think on it.”

The man was, it was now apparent, quite mad with vengeance, and I was to be on the receiving end of it.

“The company—their money, their rules—don’t matter,” I shouted up at him. “I’ll pay the policy from my own funds. I have more than enough in the bank.”

“That’s quite generous of you, Mr. Priestly,” he replied, “but you keep forgetting that there is no longer a beneficiary. Poor John is gone to wherever he’s gone to, and Gretchen has departed for what we can only hope is a better place.”

“But the older sister . . . “

“The older sister has no part to play in our little drama. She has her own life to lead. But, Mr. Priestly, there is one other player in this that you’ve not thought to mention at all.”

“I could not imagine who he was now referring to, until in a flash it came to me and my eyes grew even wider with fear.”

“Emily is innocent of any of this,” I shouted. “She knows nothing of my professional work. She’s never even heard of John Eliot, or Gretchen, or any of it.”

“But Mr. Priestly, don’t you see the sheer beauty in that; the circularity of the entire situation? It’s so perfect, it’s almost mathematical. You, her beloved husband—just like John Eliot—have simply disappeared from the face of the earth without explanation. And although you will have, no doubt, taken out an insurance policy on your own life to provide for her, she will sadly never receive that payment for precisely the same regulatory reasons that Gretchen was never paid. So unless she has the wherewithal to provide for herself from here on, Emily, like poor Gretchen, will live out her days in an ever-increasing state of penury, all while believing that her loving husband has abandoned her. You see how it is . . . When I first learned of Gretchen’s passing, I merely wanted to make you aware of—to at least feel a measure of guilt for—your role in her tragedy. But with your able assistance, it has all worked out so much better, don’t you agree?”

With this bit of rhetorical flourish, he rose from his seated position and reached for one corner of the heavy iron hatchway door, which ne now flung closed with a tremendous reverberation and with a strength that seemed far in excess of what he had demonstrated when we had both opened them earlier. With half of the opening now closed, Farrington peered down through the remaining section for a parting observation.

“Oh and fear not, Mr. Priestly. Unlike poor John Eliot, whose fate we will never know, you will be discovered, though at some length, I’m afraid. In my engineering instructions, I’ve specified that all of the caisson chambers are to be thoroughly inspected every fifty years in case there should be leakage from the river or any other structural defects. You require only patience.”

And with that awful assertion, he threw closed the other half of the iron hatchway door. A second later, I heard the terrible heavy click of the closing padlock as he returned it to its place on the hatchway hasp.



My lantern and additional fuel will sustain me for two hours, perhaps a bit longer. After that will come blackness, starvation, and slow torturous death. There is no reason to suppose that anyone will come in search of me. Emily will not return until Friday, two days hence, and I, like an imbecile, have left no note or other information at home indicating contact with Farrington, or providing any other information that might give her cause to search for me. It is just as Farrington said: She will think me to have abandoned her to her fate without explanation or remorse.

Attempting to lift the iron ladder back into place is as pointless as it is futile. It weighs many hundreds of pounds and would be beyond the abilities of half a dozen men of my size, besides which even if I were to succeed in lifting it into place, the hatchway is locked.

Neither can there be justice for Farrington’s murderous act. If his assertion is correct about the length of time before anyone visits this dank tomb again, he will have long since deceased before that time. I will, though, note here for posterity, if nothing else, that it is he, and he alone, who is guilty of my cruel murder. May his posterity and that of his descendants be the worse for it.

And so, with the remaining moments of light that remain to me, and in the hope that sometime in a distant future these notes will be discovered, I write only that I love my dear Emily beyond words, my final thoughts are of her and her alone, and I apologize deeply for the pain and anguish that this turn of events will doubtless bring upon her.


As my lantern flickers and dies for the final time, I note also for posterity the greatest grimmest irony of this entire miserable situation. In the brief moments of light afforded me after Farrington closed the hatchway door, I did, in fact, discover in the rearmost area of the caisson access room a badly decayed set of human remains, twisted and contorted as though from great injury, and beyond all recognition save for the immense and unmistakable red beard and hair of John Eliot, with whom, it appears, I am fated to spend my eternity.


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