The Bargain of Benjamin Gerry

Benjamin Gerry is said to have been a man of great courage. The following incident will prove it to be the fact. At that time this country was inhabited to a considerable extent by wolves. On a certain day, Gerry was out either for labor or business. He called upon a family, living upon or near where the Almshouse now stands, about dusk. It was thought rather dangerous for him to return home; however, having an axe with him, he proceeded homeward, but before proceeding far, he came in contact with a number of wolves. He braced himself against a large tree and pitched battled with his antagonists. The neighbors heard the conflict, notwithstanding he was left to conquer or die. He conquered, and returned home. In the morning, he went to the place where he fought, and there found that he had killed no less than four wolves, the fifth having walked off, leaving blood to show that he also had been wounded…

The house … afterwards occupied by the father of Benjamin Gerry .. was formerly known as the Matthews place. It is thought to have been built about seventy years since… At the season of harvesting a quantity of pumpkins were carried into the garret; one evening while the father was absent, and the mother with the children and other members of the family sat by the fireside, a noise was heard; something appeared to be coming down the stairs. It came stamp, stamp, down the garrett stairs; it then came to the entry stairs, which led to the lower door, and with increased force, came pound, pound into the entry below. There the noise ceased. The afrighted family waited with great anxiety for the return of the husband and father. When he returned, the news was communicated to him. He repaired to the entry, when on opening the door a good lusty pumpkin was reposing on the floor. Whether the house was ever afterwards haunted, is not known.

Gerry remained here for many years, but was called upon to fulfill his engagements, made previously to settling here. He left his wife and children, never to return; as it is said he fell during an engagement with a foreign enemy.

A Brief History of the Town of Stoneham, Massachusetts: From it’s First Settlement to the Year 1813 With An Account of the MURDER of Jacob Gould on the Evening of Nov. 25, 1819

Written in 1870 by Deacon Silas Dean


Everyone said my father was the second bravest man they knew. This was an old yarn they’d spin out. I think Scotchman Hay told it best, wicked grin curving around the stem of the pipe which was the only thing he’d brought from the old country. As stories about him told, whenever we were confident he was not listening, he’d even left his clothes behind when he showed up naked in my father’s barn. He had been running, as he said, from an impression aboard a redcoat war ship. But he brought the pipe, and he kept it with him.

“Ye see, my lad,” he’d say above a haze of blue Virginia smoke, “The bravest man I know’d was braver than he was wise. It was Phillips, laddie, who was the bravest I ever did meet. Why, he was out with the other men, a few years after the unpleasantness with the British, chasing after some Indians who murdered a local family. They followed ’em all the way to Concord – and a long way it was too. The sons of the forest were hiding in a rye field, and Phillips – he was warned they were there. Told him to be on his guard, they did. Told him that there was death and trouble in that field. But he answered in his decided way that ‘I am not afraid of the black rogues!’ Scarce had the words escaped his lips, ere a musket was discharged. Phillips took a fatal wound, sprung several feet off his horse and died right there on the spot.” So see, you dunna want to be the bravest man, son. You want to be the bravest man alive, lad. And your father, he is that.”

As my father’s eldest son, I worshiped him from afar, working hard on my labors to win his approval, and facing all life’s young challenges with the resolute chin and unwavering hand that seemed his legacy to me. But the closest I ever came to shaming my name was that All Hallows Eve night when he made his name as the bravest man alive.

As the sun on that day reached it’s zenith, my father made known to us that he intended to go up to see Richard Holden before dark, for he had promised his aid in setting some foundations for a new house before the ground froze for the winter. We’d spent a long morning in the uncommon heat of the fall day harvesting all our pumpkins from the patch. They’d done well this year and were plump and plentiful. We had a time carrying heavy loads of them out from the fields and straight up the stairs into the garret, where they’d be safe from freezing. Even my littlest brother had to take a hand carrying one small pumpkin at a time up the narrow, dark stairs.

It was heavy work, and we were all tired by the time the sun reached the top of the day. I hadn’t thought my father would then go on to more heavy work at the Holden’s – which was quite a walk away besides! But Benjamin Gerry was a man of his word, and he said that he thought as he carried the pumpkins that the cold might come early this year, and he had said he’d help. So weary though he was, he left after wetting his lips and tasting a morsel.

Wanting, as I did, to make my father proud of me, I returned to harvesting the fields. Without the watchful eye of my father, my brothers found other occupation in fishing nearby Doleful Pond for stripers, and I cursed them under my breath as I carried heavy load after heavy load up the rapidly dimming stairs. As the evening purpled, my mother greeted me with a cold heavy mug of cider, and turned with her faithful broom to sweep the stairs of all the mud we’d tracked in with our labors. Her face had a look of concern under her bonnet.

“Mother,” I asked, “I thank you for the cup! This year’s press is particularly fine I think. Does something give you fear?”

She turned in the black door frame, broom in hand, and looked back at me. “Well, son, I don’t doubt I’d not dare to say such a thing if your father was here. But it’s All Hallows Eve. In the old country, we’d be extra careful on such a day. We’d not go haring off to our neighbors’ so late when the work could just as easy be done on All Saints Day. Your father is a honest and brave man, and takes no stock in foolish nonsense. But I can’t help but wish he was already home tonight.”

As I sat and listened to the hiss of her broom on the rough planks, I couldn’t but think that she was right. I lit the main lamp, as the room grew dark and my brothers returned with their catch. Then I lit a second, and hung it over the door frame. I tried to tell myself that the full moon rising thick, twined about by wisps of flog, over the great expanse of the ocean between us and the old country was a good thing. My father was not yet home, but with such a bright moon he’d hardly need a lamp to find his way.

My mother had just latched the door to the stairs and switched from her cleaning apron to the cooking apron and was putting on our dinner when we heard, thin against the cold air of the night, the voices of the wolves raised in fearful chorus, rising and lapping over each other like a braiding of fell songs. My heart knew fear. My father was out there. The wolves were hunting. And it was All Hallow’s Eve. My mother’s face in the lamplight looked pinched and scared as she raised her face to the one glass window whose shutters remained open, to look at the moonlight streaming past.

“I’m sure father will be home soon, mother” I comforted her. We sat at table, my father’s place laid but bare of food. I led us in grateful thanksgiving, letting the food cool a bit as I asked that my father return safely to us, when we heard the first stamping sound from the attic, as though of men’s boots. After a quick Amen, I turned to the window to see if it might be my returning father. It wasn’t. I sat back down, and started in on my porridge.

“Stamp, stamp”

The sound was clearer now. It was certainly not outside the house. It was inside. My littlest brother left his place at the table and climbed onto my mother’s frail lap. My younger brothers, the twins, exchanged guilty looks. Poor five year old Paul dove under the table and couldn’t be brought out.

“I must’ve stacked the pumpkins wrong. A pile must’ve knocked over. Maybe if I’d had a little help,” I shot a meaningful glance at the twins “They might’ve been piled better.” Wee Tommy began to wail “I tried to help but my legs is too smaaaaaallll” he bawled.” “Crying is for sissies, Tommy. Father will be wroth if he catches you at it. Besides,” I added – a little ashamed of my temper – “I didn’t mean it for you.”

Stamp. Stamp stamp.

There was far too long between those thumps to be a settling pile of pumpkins, and we all knew it. We waited in silence, holding our breaths, the lamplight flickering over uneaten porridge and fish still steaming on the table.

Stamp stamp stamp stamp.

“Dear God, it sounds like it’s on the last stair” said my stricken mother.

There was a knocking – a polite rap – on the door to the garret stairs, as if some stranger waited there requesting entry. I thought of my father, and of his bravery, and I called out “Who is it who goes there.” The only answer was the howl of the wolves.

We waited a few minutes. I looked at the porridge – my appetite vanished despite the labors of the day – and thought of what my father would do. I took up my spoon and begin to eat. After a few moments, my family did likewise. My sister Ruth had almost coaxed young Paul out from under the table, and the twins started arguing about who’d caught more fish, when the rapping came again from the door. This time, it came louder.

The spoons clattered to the table. I held mine in limp fingers. Paul fled under the table, and after a moment of quick reflection, Ruth went with him.

Over the next hour, the banging grew and increased in intensity, pounding on the door as though the very fist of the devil knocked and sought entry. Four great crashes it gave, quick against each other. The door shook and rattled with the battering from the darkness on the other side. I looked at the latch and wondered if it would hold. I took the splitting maul from the side of the door – my father had taken the axe with him when he went to the Holden’s, as there would be cutting to be done for the posts – and stood in front of the door in case it should break. My mother, sister and brothers all clung to each other – backs pressed against the far wall – porridge and fish alike uneaten. After the fourth crash, there was a smaller pounding, and then all fell silent.

When the door flung open, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Not the door to the garret, no. But the front door. And in strode my father, limping, carrying an axe covered in blood and brains and fur – as he himself was.

He stopped short when he saw me, pale as February, facing the door in fear.

“What’s happening lad?” he asked.

“Father,” I gulped. Here he was covered in blood, and I needed to explain that there had been knocking on the door, and we had been scared by it. I was saved from this when the door gave the most terrific crash.

“Ah, I see.” He said. It seemed like he did. He was totally unsurprised. He walked over to the door, raised the sturdy latch, and the moonlight through the yet-unbarred window streamed past the golden lamplight to reveal what had knocked.

There, at the landing to the door, were five pumpkins. Or rather, they had been five pumpkins. They were smashed to smithereens. Their pulp reached all the way up the walls in gory orange entrails – up to even the ceiling itself. It showed brilliant against the new whitewash. In the oozing pulp, you could see the tops of four pumpkins scattered amidst seeds. On the third stair up there stood a more whole pumpkin. It was cracked down the middle, and juice leaked down the stairs in a trickle, but it looked to my fevered mind as though it was escaping from the slaughter below.

My father raised his axe and smote the last pumpkin, smearing it on either side with red blood. The blade bit deep into the stairs, almost cleaving the broad board in two.

He turned back to us, staring white-faced and wide-eyed.

“I smell fish.” He said, “Is there enough for a hungry old man?”


I was a man grown, and my own eldest son was the age young Paul had been, when my father got news that he was needed and that he must go. In the few days given him to prepare, he found time to pull me aside.

“Elbridge” said he. “Do you remember the pumpkins?”

I’d always thought it remarkable that a man of such courage, a man who on that fateful All Hallows Eve had slain four wolves with a back against a tree, and then come home to cheerfully dispense with our fears before digging into my brothers’ ill-gotten-fish, had been very kind in not teasing us about our fears of that day. In fact, he’d never spoken of it, even as the legend of his battle with the wolves was the talk of every tongue, and the 16 pound bounty he’d claimed from their pelts had allowed my father to pull me from the fields and send me to Harvard, an act which would change my life. The only change was that we no longer planted pumpkins. Given that none of us could even stomach a pumpkin pie, this seemed no odd thing to me.

“I do father. Will you throw my fear and cowardice in my face now, when you have forborne to do so for so many years?”

“Nay” he said. “Before I go, I wanted to explain. You see, there was something great to fear that night. I never should have left under that cursed witches moon, on that cursed night, in the twilight. You know the story of how I set my back to a tree and faced those wolves. It was a mighty pack. I killed four and mortally wounded the fifth before the others fled. But what I never told anyone was that it was uncanny. I knew as they circled me in the dark, the full moon gleaming off their eyes, that I was already as good as dead. I prayed as hard and fast as I could. It’s possible that I forgot to be quite a good Christian man at the worst possible time, and I found myself praying for a bargain, to anyone who might be listening.

“It came to mind mind that someone was very curious what bargain I’d make. I said I’d pay later if I could come through this all right and make it home. I said that for each wolf I’d kill, I’d ask for a year years. It made no sense, even in my head, even as my axe spun around me.

“But it came to me that my bargain was granted, and that my family would be let to know too. That part didn’t seem quite… nice shall we say.

“So I laid about me with my axe. I killed two easy. The third I took a wound in my leg as I killed it. The fourth is the one that got me arm. And the fifth knocked me down to the ground and it’s teeth were bared to rip out my throat when I laid about with the axe and managed to knock it off me. It slunk away bleeding, and the rest of the pack went with it, but…”

He paused from oiling his old sword.

“Well, son.. it talked to me as it went, laughing. It said, “Four of us killed. Very good. That’s four years. And I’m wounded, you might call me almost a fifth. Not quite five. But when not quite five are come, it will be your time to make good on your bargain, Benjamin Gerry, and present your soul to the one you bargained with. You know old Jack. He makes a good pie, and a better bargain. Go home to your family. Jack o’ the lantern knocks on their door too. And think to that day when you will be called upon to keep your part.

“And then, son, he faded into the darkness. And I came home and found the four and a half pumpkins, and I knew.

“That was four and a half years, ago, Elbridge. And now I’m called – old though I am – to go fight with my former legion. I think that I shall not escape death again. But I wanted you to know. Never again plant those devilish gourds. And never make a bargain where your soul is at stake. Pray for me, for I will never see your face again nor know aught of heaven’s joys.”

That All Hallow’s Eve, I found on the front steps of my house a pumpkin, carved with a face like a wolf, gleaming in the light of a full moon.

Of my father, no word ever came again.

Notes:
1) Silas Dean makes it clear that Benjamin Gerry was not actually the father in the pumpkin story – only that it was Benjamin Gerry’s father’s house prior to the incident.
2) Scotchman Hay did come off a boat and did work on Benjamin Gerry’s land, and there WAS a naked sailor who showed up naked in a barn, but it wasn’t Scotchman Hay, it was a man named Hadley. There are no fewer than three residents of Stoneham who got their start jumping overboard from unwelcomed stints in Boston harbor.
3) The story about Phillips is also in the book, and much of the language is exactly what Silas Dean used in telling the story. Nineteenth century authors were often very racist and one-sided. They omit to remember in their writing that they were conquerors who had stolen much of this land from the native folk they rightly feared.
4) I’m not sure exactly where Richard Holden’s land’s, or the Matthew’s place, are. We know that the wolf attack took place near the Almshouse – which is now the Senior Center and the soccer fields nearby. I often think of this when I watch my sons play soccer there, and wonder just where Benjamin stood in his fight for his life against the wolves.
5) Silas Dean says that Elbridge Gerry served in the Madison administration. There’s an localish Elbridge Gerry who signed both the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, but did not sign the constitution. That Gerry doesn’t seem to have grown up in Stoneham. His father owned major mercantile resources, and was less likely to be out late at night taking on predatory carnivores. There was also a line of Elbridge Gerrys in Stoneham, but none of them were born to Benjamin. I think Silas may have gotten confused with the reoccurrence of such a rare name.

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