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Present At A Hanging

An old man named Daniel Baker, living near Lebanon, Iowa, was
suspected by his neighbors of having murdered a peddler who had
obtained permission to pass the night at his house. This was in
1853, when peddling was more common in the Western country than it
is now, and was attended with considerable danger. The peddler with
his pack traversed the country by all manner of lonely roads, and
was compelled to rely upon the country people for hospitality. This
brought him into relation with queer characters, some of whom were
not altogether scrupulous in their methods of making a living,
murder being an acceptable means to that end. It occasionally
occurred that a peddler with diminished pack and swollen purse would
be traced to the lonely dwelling of some rough character and never
could be traced beyond. This was so in the case of “old man Baker,”
as he was always called. (Such names are given in the western
“settlements” only to elderly persons who are not esteemed; to the
general disrepute of social unworth is affixed the special reproach
of age.) A peddler came to his house and none went away–that is
all that anybody knew.

Seven years later the Rev. Mr. Cummings, a Baptist minister well
known in that part of the country, was driving by Baker’s farm one
night. It was not very dark: there was a bit of moon somewhere
above the light veil of mist that lay along the earth. Mr.
Cummings, who was at all times a cheerful person, was whistling a
tune, which he would occasionally interrupt to speak a word of
friendly encouragement to his horse. As he came to a little bridge
across a dry ravine he saw the figure of a man standing upon it,
clearly outlined against the gray background of a misty forest. The
man had something strapped on his back and carried a heavy stick–
obviously an itinerant peddler. His attitude had in it a suggestion
of abstraction, like that of a sleepwalker. Mr. Cummings reined in
his horse when he arrived in front of him, gave him a pleasant
salutation and invited him to a seat in the vehicle–“if you are
going my way,” he added. The man raised his head, looked him full
in the face, but neither answered nor made any further movement.
The minister, with good-natured persistence, repeated his
invitation. At this the man threw his right hand forward from his
side and pointed downward as he stood on the extreme edge of the
bridge. Mr. Cummings looked past him, over into the ravine, saw
nothing unusual and withdrew his eyes to address the man again. He
had disappeared. The horse, which all this time had been uncommonly
restless, gave at the same moment a snort of terror and started to
run away. Before he had regained control of the animal the minister
was at the crest of the hill a hundred yards along. He looked back
and saw the figure again, at the same place and in the same attitude
as when he had first observed it. Then for the first time he was
conscious of a sense of the supernatural and drove home as rapidly
as his willing horse would go.

On arriving at home he related his adventure to his family, and
early the next morning, accompanied by two neighbors, John White
Corwell and Abner Raiser, returned to the spot. They found the body
of old man Baker hanging by the neck from one of the beams of the
bridge, immediately beneath the spot where the apparition had stood.
A thick coating of dust, slightly dampened by the mist, covered the
floor of the bridge, but the only footprints were those of Mr.
Cummings’ horse.

In taking down the body the men disturbed the loose, friable earth
of the slope below it, disclosing human bones already nearly
uncovered by the action of water and frost. They were identified as
those of the lost peddler. At the double inquest the coroner’s jury
found that Daniel Baker died by his own hand while suffering from
temporary insanity, and that Samuel Morritz was murdered by some
person or persons to the jury unknown.

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