The Deadly Tale of Jedediah Kornman
We've received many requests for Untapped History to re-post the fictional account of "Jedediah Kornman". Eric spent several weeks researching and preparing this story as part of the launch of our October Candlelight Tours. It was shared on our Facebook page last week.
Jedediah Kornman (1780 - 1804) worked on the planking gang at Jackman Shipyard. Untapped History recently uncovered Kornman’s journals during a research effort and, we believe we are the first to see them in over 100 years. We bring you Kornman’s last few entries which he scribed in October/November 1804. They have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Wednesday early evening, October 31, 1804
‘I stopped by the dry goode to partake of a ladle or two of Caldwell’s [rum] in the back room,’ Kornman wrote. ‘I was grateful to see my olde friends from the yard, Jacob and Quint.’ Apparently in the mood to imbibe, the crew drank ladle after ladle at three cents a pop. ‘We were all moore than half waye to Manchester early in the night,’ he added.
Around nine o’clock, an aged sea captain known only as Gideon wandered into the back room. Kornman had never seen him before and complained that he smelled ‘sulph’rous’. His two other friends were too far gone to notice.
The old man said that he had just arrived from the Orient and had one last shipment to unload from his vessel. He claimed his crew had been a sea for three years and they were anxious to get ashore so they quit early and said they would return tomorrow. ‘I cannot wait,’ Gideon said. ‘It has to be off my shippe before November 1.’
Feeling generous, most likely because of the rum, Kornman followed the man down to the docks while his two friends slept in a boozy haze.
Wednesday night, October 31, 1804
It was after 9 o’clock when Kornman stumbled out of the dry goods store and followed Gideon down to his ship. The local lamp lighter was snuffing out the street lamps for the evening. ‘It was black as pitche. I could barely see my feet as I walked,’ Kornman noted.
The two wound their way to the western docks where they found Gideon’s ship—the Pall’tin. ‘It was a pitifull shippe—an East Indiaman, three-masts—and I would not have set foote in it to cross the river,’ he wrote.
Nevertheless, they boarded the vessel. Kornman remarked how it looked as if the crew had abandoned the ship in mid-job. ‘There were ropes and barrels and tooles strewn everywhere.’ Kornman thought about turning back but the sea captain, now holding a lantern, grabbed him by the elbow and guided him below deck.
The air in the cargo hold bore a stench that Kornman had never encountered in his 24 years. It reeked of men three years at sea—old tobacco, rancid wine, urine, and the same ‘sulph’rous’ stink that clung to the captain. Kornman’s guts twisted. ‘I felle to my knees and felt the Caldwell’s pour out of me in a vile stream.’
11 o’clock pm, October 31, 1804
‘While I was on my knees heaving, old Gideon kicked me in the ribs with the toe of his boot!’ Kornman wrote. ‘He shone the lantern in my face and pointed to a pocketwatch dangling from his hand. We have one hour till this day ends and I’ll be damned if I’ll leave this cargo here.’
The captain wrestled the still drunk laborer to his feet and took him to the deepest part of the hold where the air hung with a dense odor that was so thick Kornman felt that he had to push his way through the darkness. Regretting the events of the whole night, he forced himself to follow the sounds of Gideon’s quickening footsteps as they descended into the furthest bowels of the vessel.
At last, the two came to a locked door. Gideon swung an axe against the lock and the door burst open. He lifted his lantern up to show Kornman the cargo. Jedediah peered into the hold and gasped in horror as he looked at the three sets of unblinking eyes that stared back at him. ‘Let’s get to work,’ Gideon demanded.
11:30 o’clock pm, October 31, 1804
‘Who are they?’ Kornman asked after seeing the eyes peering out the cargo hold. ‘They? What they?’ Gideon returned. ‘They is caskets, you damn’d pompkin! Now, move your arse!’
Kornman took another look and realized the ‘eyes’ he had seen were merely decorations painted onto the wood. Gideon explained, ‘I’m bringing them back from India. They say they bring the dead back to life or some such crankum. All I know is I got them for nothing and I can sell them here high.’
The two men dragged the caskets out of the hold and brought them on deck. They had just positioned them on the gangway when the church bell struck midnight. Gideon’s mouth burst forth with ‘a string of oathes I wish never to hear again.’ With that, all hell seemed to break around the two men.
Kornman recalled ‘a flashe of light’ and then felt himself tumbling down the gangway with a casket falling on top of him as he hit the wharf. Gideon and the two other caskets seemed to disappear all together. ‘I heard a splash and a hideous screame and then nothing—a dread silence.’
12:01 o’clock pm, November 1, 1804
The church bell gonged one last time, breaking the silence. Kornman struggled to get to his feet but felt the casket press down on him. He wondered if Gideon had fallen on top of it and added the extra weight. When he finally freed himself, he examined the casket and found it empty.
Kornman decided that whatever fate had befallen Gideon, it was not his business to know. He began tromping back to the dry goods store and the comfort of a ladle of rum and his two friends.
Bedeviled by the bizarre night, Kornman took little notice of his surroundings until he heard the scraping of wood on wood when he was just in sight of the dry goods. ‘If that’s the old man, he’ll have no more help from me,’ he thought as he quickened his pace.
The scraping sounds grew louder and closer. Kornman ignored it and kept his mind on reaching the back room. When he turned the corner and headed down the alley, he took a glance over his shoulder and saw the lone casket about 15 paces behind him. ‘You’re on your own Gideon,’ he shouted.
Kornman slipped into the back room and wedged a chair underneath the knob. Jacob and Quint had long since departed. Jedediah grabbed a ladle and dipped into the barrel. He drained it and took another draught when he heard a loud banging on the door. ‘Go away! You’ve got your help from me!’
The banging continued—louder and harder. The chair began to slip and the door strained at the hinges. Kornman raised the ladle above his head and prepared to throw it when the chair shattered and the door swung open. Moonlight flooded into the room filling it with a bluish hue.
Kornman saw the glaring eyes of the casket and they seemed to blink. Convinced it was the rum, he looked for a sign of Gideon but saw nothing. The casket seemed to enlarge and fill the space as it advanced on the stunned planker. Kornman slipped out of the back room and into the main shop. The casket followed clumsily knocking over everything in and around its path.
Kornman tried to find the front entrance but the casket blocked his way. He ducked behind the cashier’s counter and the casket only closed the distance. Kornman picked up anything he could and flung it against his menacer but it bounced away. Finally, his back against the wall, Jedediah flung his arms upwards in a desperate search for one more weapon. The eyes on the casket were closer and they were red and blinking. There was no doubt. He clutched a bottle of Thompson’s Throat Elixir and heaved it.
It exploded with a force that surprised him. He felt the sting of syrup-drenched shards of glass cutting his skin. Even though blood streamed down his face, he opened his eyes and what do you know? The coffin stopped.
Editor’s note: Later that November, Kornman was tried and convicted for crimes against the literary public including: ‘excessive using of puns, willingly committing cheap endings to stories, and skullduggerous & wanton splitting of infinitives’. He was the last person to be publicly executed in Newburyport. The event still holds the record for the largest crowd ever assembled in the city.