A census-taker in backwoods Kentucky, found hanged, naked, with ‘FED’ scrawled in black magic marker on his chest: most people remember hearing about it. No one I’ve asked remembered any more than that.
Rich Schapiro explains why in ‘The Hanging’ in the March 2013 Atlantic. In the process, he reveals a story more compelling than I imagined on first hearing. The reality is a 21st century tragedy.
Telling a story about Appalachia without making its topography and climate a dominant character is like starting Genesis without God. It’s why ‘Justified’ is just another California cop show with a gimmick: southern (not Kentucky mountain) accents.
Rich Schapiro does not make this mistake (or any others). His first three paragraphs:
The road to Hoskins Cemetery snakes deep into the Daniel Boone National Forest, a 700,000-acre swath of rugged wilderness in southeastern Kentucky.
The cemetery isn’t easy to find; it lies hidden about 100 yards off Arnetts Fork Road, a narrow, winding stretch of pavement that ends abruptly at a grassy clearing, about a mile farther on. Hunkered down along its final half mile are about 15 weathered ranch houses and ramshackle trailers. Most of the families living along the road have been doing so for generations, eking out a hardscrabble existence driving tow trucks or repairing cars or digging up and selling wild ginseng and other herbal roots. Jagged ridges wall off this tiny community, making it a lot like many other places in Clay County—remote, clannish, and foreboding, even to Kentuckians from the next county over.
To reach Arnetts Fork, you must drive two miles into the forest on Big Double Creek Road. In late spring and summer, the thick brush lining the road and a canopy of leaves overhead form a sort of cocoon. Cellphone service is spotty. Outsiders say that if you stumble across any people in these woods, chances are they’re up to no good. It’s the kind of place you don’t go without a gun.
Rich Schapiro, a New York Daily News staff writer, went to the cemetery in reporting the story of William Sparkman Jr., a census-taker living in ‘the next county over’, forty miles away. Said former Clay County magistrate, Jimmy Lyttle: ‘Once you go east of I-75, there’s two things they don’t like: change and strangers.’
On Sept. 12, 2009, a family (well-armed, Schapiro reports) looking for ancestors’ graves found him hung from a strangely rigged noose.
The story afforded a momentary sensation for an internet and national media focused on the rampaging right. In the absence of a chatter-worthy follow up, the story died.
But Sparkman’s life and death deserved remembering. Schapiro tells his story and the investigation of his death as it should be told, false scents and all.
There’s Sparkman, a stranger in a very strange land. Raised in a small Florida town, he was briefly a student at Vanderbilt and had moved in his 30s to London, KY.
There.s an obvious suspect, Sparkman’s adopted son, a troubled youth who at least verbally abused his loyal stepfather.
There’s a suggestion of pedophilia: Sparkman was a Boy Scout leader and executive. After moving to Kentucky he chose to work as an elementary school teachers aide.
There’s an inference of homosexuality: he never showed an interest in dating women and worked a woman’s job.
False scents all.
In fact, Sparkman’s death was an American tragedy of the century’s first decade unique only in its details.
Schapiro tells his story in an understated tone and with a fine reporter’s attention to nuance and detail. And, he leaves his crushing conclusion to the reader’s imagination, the same imagination that had led him wrong in 2009 when he’d heard of Sparkman’s death.
Sparkman was an intelligent man, who despite three jobs, was about to lose his rundown house. He’d just been turned down for the teaching job he’d long coveted. He couldn’t pay his bills, partly because he subsidized his son’s habit of totaling cars. He was paying old credit card balances with money from new cards. He still borrowed money from his mother.
A year before his death, he’d taken out two life insurance policies, one naming his son as beneficiary, the other a friend of his son’s. Neither paid on suicide. Hence Sparkman’s choice of setting, the condition of his body and the horror of his nearly botched hanging and his will to die.
Two agencies – the Kentucky State Police and the FBI – not usually associated with rapid, meticulous case work and honest reporting co-operated in discerning Sparkman’s bleak existence and lonely death. They closed the case in 35 days.
The insurers, in fact, did not pay.