Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Murder of Crows

We know to say “pride of lions, gaggle of geese, school of fish,” but why? As it turns out, social standing among Medieval European nobility required that men should know their venery – the proper naming of groups of animals – else be taken for crass and uneducated. Collections of these terms culminated in a master list compiled in The Book of St. Albans, in 1486. The term “A murder of crows” dates back at least that far, but unfortunately without any historic explanation as to why “murder.”

Anyone delving into the history of venery should consult "An Exaltation of Larks," by Jame Lipton. Older versions of "murder of crows" were written as "mursher of crowys" and "murther of crowes." The 'murther' (or 'murthre') spelling was common into the 1600s but is now archaic. Similarly, 'crawe' was Old English and 'crowe' Middle English before evolving into 'crow.'  

From Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."  Crows were trained to fly
to the jungle gym. Special effects crows were added to make the
number of birds larger than it actually was.
Crows do gather. One of the key scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, cuts back and forth between the inside of a small school and the progressively larger number of crows gathering on the playground equipment outside. In real life, when crows happen upon an owl they will sound an alarm call that draws other crows from miles around. The resultant mob of crows, all cawing loudly, will harass the owl until it leaves the area. Crows will also mob hawks. It sounds very much as if the crows intend bloody murder, and perhaps that led to the historic term.

An oft-mentioned folklore on “murder” is that a group of crows can decide to turn on one of their own, pecking it to death. The truth in this is debatable. A solitary crow happening upon a crow family’s space will be set on, but driven away, not killed. These attacks can be many-against-one because families are more than just the mated pair. Offspring from the previous year or two stay near their parents and help with feeding and defending the new babies.

During the spring/summer nesting season families are scattered, but in fall and winter crows prefer to congregate, especially at night. Foraging flocks of 10 to 50 will start to cluster as evening nears, then fly to join other flocks in a preferred night roosting area, where numbers can be as high as in the thousands. In northern regions these tree roosts may be in parks and cemeteries within cities; the thinking being that the winter temperatures in cities are slightly warmer than in the surrounding countryside, and also that the ambient night light of cities discourages marauding owls.

Locally, the population of crows has been impacted by West Nile Virus (WNV). The virus is endemic and non-lethal in many species of birds in Africa and the Middle East. It was first detected in the United States in 1999, in wild crows living at the Bronx Zoo. WNV then rapidly spread across the continent. Mosquitoes are the major vector, but raptors and scavengers can become infected by eating ill or dead animals. The viral strain that reached North America was particularly lethal to crows. The crow population in Massachusetts is half of what it was fifteen years ago. There is evidence that the negative impact of WNV is stabilizing in recent years, with some states showing recovery from the lowest bird counts. 

WNV also infects people. Most will have no symptoms. About 20 percent will develop fever, headache, muscle ache, nausea or skin rash (risk of symptoms increases with age). Less than one percent will develop a severe illness. In Massachusetts there were fewer than ten cases reported each year for 2013 and 2014.

WNV is not the only bird virus troubling the U.S. Apparently, wild ducks or geese migrating overhead over chicken and turkey farms in the mid-west have caused an avian flu epidemic. Tens of millions of birds are either dead, dying or else being euthanized to prevent spread of H5N2 avian virus to other farms. The risk of human cross-infection from this strain of virus is very, very low, but do expect to be paying higher prices for eggs, chicken and turkey for months to come. And pet food, too, as laying hens, when culled for declining egg production, end up in cat and dog food.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Murders in Maynard, MA

This entry combines two columns: "Murders in Maynard?" and "More Murders in Maynard

MURDERS IN MAYNARD?   Maynard's major crimes rate is below average for Massachusetts and the state is below average for the nation. Looking only at murders, the state's rate is roughly 2.5 per 100,000 population per year. For Maynard's 10,000 population that works to one murder every four years or so. Actual numbers are lower - according to Police Chief Mark Dubois, town records appear to show no murders in the past twenty years. Maynard was not always so quiet. Back around 1910-1940 there was a murder almost every other year! And this was at a time when the population was smaller. Here is a sampling of murders from long ago:

1896: John Dean, age 75, living on his farm on Acton Street, was murdered by Lorenzo Barnes. Dean was struck on the head with the back side of an ax and robbed of approximately $70 he had on his person. Barnes did odd jobs around town, including for Dean. He was frequently intoxicated. He was arrested because he was spending more money in town than he typically had. In evidence were his bloody boots recovered from the Assabet River. Barnes was the second to last person in Massachusetts to be executed by hanging. After that, it was the electric chair until executions ceased in 1947.

1912: Cora Olsen, 19 years old, was shot several times by Charles Lowrey, a young man she had been dating for several years. Olsen had joined the Navy, deserted, returned to Maynard, was drinking heavily and no longer welcome at the Olsen household. After the shooting, Cora ran to the nearby mill for assistance, leaving a bloody trail behind her. Doctors were swiftly contacted by telephone, as were the police. Lowrey was apprehended in South Acton trying to catch a train to Boston, where he had re-signed with the Navy and was expecting to ship out shortly. Olsen recovered from her wounds.

1919: Luigi Graceffa, age 30, found floating in Charles River, knife wounds. He had testified as a witness in a murder case in Waltham, and this was thought to be a revenge killing. Later the same year, Joseph Graceffa, Luigi's brother, along with two friends, opened fire shortly after noon on two men who were visiting from Fitchburg. Joseph Sipoli died. Rizzo Dianisa survived a serious bullet wound to the head. The attack was in thought to be in retaliation for Luigi's death. 

1921: Hannah (Ingerdella) Johnson, age 24, was shot at 7:20 PM, while walking on Main Street with her husband. By her husband. The young couple had been married for just over a year, but the marriage was strained, and reports of the time state that Mrs. Johnson intended to file for a divorce. After shooting his wife, Walter Johnson lit a cigarette, sat down next to her body, and shot himself through the chest. He died about 20 minutes later, smoking to the very end. Police found a note on the body that read in part "...I bought the gun to do this act. You [Hannah's uncle and aunt] will never understand why I would do such a thing."

Sometimes a newspaper article from the period cannot be found in the microfilm records, so all that exists is the town's Annual Reports listings of dates, deaths and causes. From this we get 1909; Joseph Fiorentino, bullet wound; 1915: Stefana Terrasi, revolver shot, 1916: Jeannie Marie Clark, bullet wounds; 1923: Rosario Buscemi, bullet wound; 1924: Oscar Hietala, bullet to head; 1924; Frank Vodoklys, pistol shot. Unfortunately for historians, the deaths reports stopped listing details after 1927, so from then on only the annual police reports. The decade 1930-40 notched nine manslaughter deaths, but without details.    
Image from Boston Globe, 1953

1953: Referred to in the Boston Globe as the "Mill Pond Murder," Lila Taryma, mother of four, disappeared the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday. Her body was found seven weeks later in the Mill Pond, lashed to a heavy radiator. Cause of death was head injuries. Her husband, Anthony Taryma, was initially charged with her murder. They had been seen arguing at a bar that evening, but he left and she remained. Anthony was not brought to trial due to insufficient evidence. He moved away, remarried, died years later in an automobile accident.

MORE MURDERS IN MAYNARD: As noted in a 2014 column, Maynard 100 years ago was a violently different town than it is today. Town records and newspaper accounts show roughly a murder every other year during the period 1910-1940, placing our town well above the national average even during that violent era. A sampling of murders from long ago: 

1901: Joseph Fredesco, age 18, was found dead in the Assabet River. Fredesco had been in the country just two weeks, in Maynard just two days, and was employed with a railroad work crew as water boy. He had eaten the noonday meal with co-workers, but his absence noted late afternoon led to the search that found his body early that evening, upstream from the Ben Smith Dam. An examination discovered a head wound on the right side, bleeding from the left ear, and multiple bruises on his back, although the actual cause of death was drowning. The supposition was that he had gone to the river bank to bathe in the shallows, his clothes being found on the riverbank, and was attacked there by a person or persons unknown, then pushed into the river while unconscious. Fredesco did not know how to swim. This was the third sudden death in Maynard within 24 hours, but the other two were clearly natural causes.

In a non-fatal incident that same 4th of July week, Richard Parmenter was shot in the thigh while walking down a street with his daughter. It was determined that the bullet was from a stray rifle shot from some distance away. Unlike others mentioned in this column, Parmenter was not a recent immigrant - his family had crossed the ocean in 1639. Dr. Frank U. Rich came to Parmenter's house and removed the bullet with a forceps. The newspaper account did not mention any use of anesthesia, and this was decades before the invention of antibiotics. Parmenter survived his wound - Glenwood Cemetery records have him dead and buried in 1934. From an 1899 news item, Dr. Rich was the first citizen of Maynard to own an automobile.    

1915: Stefana Terrasi, age 27, was shot dead on a late Sunday night in April in the front hallway of a house not his own. Police identified him as living in West Concord and working at the gunpowder mills. The medical examiner determined Terrasi had been shot three times from behind. Given the position of his body - face down, head away from the entrance - the thinking was that he had been trying to get away from someone he knew (or else had recently meet and deeply offended). A news report at the time mentioned that "...there was a crowd of people about the place all the afternoon, Sunday, and there was a great deal of noise and evidences of drinking."

1923: Rosario Buscemi, age 38, shot in an apartment building on Main Street. He and his brother had gone there to confront someone. When that person would not open the door the brothers started shooting at the door. The occupant shot back through the door, hitting Rosario. His brother fled to New York, where he stayed and raised a family.

1924: The town's annual report listed two men dead from bullet wounds to the head, but perusal of newspaper accounts found both to be suicides. Frank Vodoklys, age 59, immigrant from Poland, was despondent over the failing of his meat and provisions business (in the building now Morey's Tavern). Survived by his wife and five children. Oscar Hietala, immigrant from Finland, age 45, had recently learned of his wife's death, in Finland. He had taken to drinking heavily (despite this being during Prohibition). Survived by four children in Finland.

Nationally, there were peaks in murder rates from 1920-1935 and 1970-1995; both periods exceeded eight per 100,000 population per year. Current national rate is 4.5 per 100,000 with Massachusetts at two per 100,000. There are some interesting theories as to why murder rates go up or down, such as up during bad financial times or popularity of new illegal drugs creating violent competition amongst sellers, down from better policing, more violence-prone people in jail for lesser crimes and the availability of birth control reducing unwed mother pregnancies. One novel theory is that childhood exposure to lead (from lead paint and leaded gasoline) results in violence-prone adults, so as blood lead levels decreased nationally so did murders, decades later.