Behind the Wall

Now I know why black cats are bad luck (courtesy of The Hellfire Club)

Despite warnings from friends and family members about the marketability of my college degree, I decided to major in English and loved every minute of it. Granted, my specializations were in journalism and creative writing, but I also enjoyed the literature classes I was required to take—with the exception of 18th century British literature, that is. Nothing could make that stuff appealing to me.

I may be biased because of my nationality, but American literature has always been my favorite. And there were few authors more interesting or intriguing than the father of detective fiction and master of the macabre himself, the infamous Edgar Allan Poe.

Long before writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King came along to frighten us with their fiction, Poe set the standard for horror, mystery and suspense. There can be little doubt that he influenced these authors—not to mention countless others—through short stories like “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and my personal favorite, “The Black Cat.” That one scared the hell out of me the first time I read it, which must have been in grade school. And to be honest, it still creeps me out a little. I know because I just reread it before writing this post.

“The Black Cat” focuses on a man who was once happy but suddenly begins to slip into darkness. His relationship with his wife deteriorates—due to his “intemperate language” and proclivity for “personal violence”—and even his beloved cat Pluto suffers. One evening, the man returns home—“much intoxicated”—and grabs Pluto, whose first instinct is to bite his master’s hand in an effort to escape. Doing so throws the man into a blind rage and “the fury of a demon instantly” possesses him. Holding Pluto by the neck, he pulls a small knife from his pocket and uses it to gouge out one of the cat’s eyes.

The next morning, the man awakens to find his pet maimed, but recovering. Pluto avoids him at all costs, of course, but otherwise seems no worse for wear. At first, the man feels remorse for injuring the animal, but this is quickly replaced by “perverseness” and since he has tasted evil, he does so again by hanging Pluto by the neck from a tree limb. Presumably, this is when Pluto meets his ultimate demise.

A short time later—as the man is again sitting in the pub getting hammered—he notices a black cat that looks almost exactly like Pluto, save for a patch of white hair on its chest. Still feeling guilt over Pluto’s “murder,” he decides to take the cat home and his wife immediately takes a liking to it. Of course, this only serves to irritate the man further and before he knows it, he starts to loathe his new pet as much as he did poor Pluto.

Stranger still is the fact that this cat, like the one before him, is also missing an eye. Is it possible this is Pluto come back to haunt him?

Despite his ill will and obvious irritation, the cat grows fond of its master and starts to follow him wherever he goes, a fact that only serves to annoy the man more. Before long, he confesses that “evil thoughts became [his] sole intimates” and continues to slip into darkness, moodiness and, worst of all, misanthropy. His outbursts of fury intensify, but somehow his wife still manages to tolerate him—her being “the most patient of sufferers.”

One day, the man and his wife venture into the cellar for a “household errand,” followed closely by the cat. The presence of this unwanted guest again sets the man off and in another fit of rage, he grabs an axe and prepares to slaughter another feline when his wife interferes and grabs his arm. This only serves to enrage him further and instead of killing the cat, he buries the axe in his wife’s skull, killing her instantly.

Now he has a problem: what to do with his wife’s corpse. He knows the body cannot be removed from the house since his neighbors would surely see him. And though he toys with the notion of chopping her into little pieces—destroying each segment in his fire—he instead chooses to hide her within his cellar wall. After carefully removing bricks and making mortar to match what was already there, he seals his wife in her “tomb,” replaces the bricks and patches the wall so it doesn’t show “the slightest appearance of having been disturbed.”

Poe knew the evil in men’s hearts (courtesy of Court Jones)

Then he searches for the cat, but his efforts are fruitless: the animal has disappeared.

Days pass and despite several inquiries as to his wife’s whereabouts—as well as a search of his home by the authorities—no one suspects a thing. And for a while, the man is once again able to “breathe as a freeman,” content in the knowledge that his crime will go undiscovered.

On the fourth day after his heinous act, the police drop by unexpectedly to again search his home, this time more thoroughly. Without even breaking a sweat, the man complies and even guides the party through his home, completing the search in the very place he succumbed to his evil nature: the cellar. But his efforts to conceal his wife’s body were so successful that after only a few minutes, the investigators decide to end their search.

He has somehow managed to avoid suspicion and now appears to be in the clear. Unfortunately, a “phrenzy of bravado” overtakes him and he decides to brag about how sturdy his home is constructed.

“These walls are solidly put together,” he tells the officers as he raps on the wall with his cane. The gesture is intended to prove his point—and for a moment it does just that—but as the police are leaving, they suddenly hear a faint cry, much like the “sobbing of a child.”

The cry intensifies into a wail, but still the investigators have no idea of its source, at least not until the man swoons and staggers to the cellar wall. Within minutes, “a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall” and there inside is the decomposing body of his missing wife. And sitting quietly on her head—with its “solitary eye of fire”—is the cat he never realized that he sealed in the wall!

Classic.

I recount this story because as I was perusing some of the news sites recently, I found an example of life imitating art—or life imitating Poe, I guess you could say.

Last December, 82-year-old James Nichols of Poughkeepsie, New York was found dead of natural causes in his home. Neighbors were concerned when they didn’t see him for several days and called the police, who entered the residence and discovered Nichols dead. Sadly, he had no family to speak of and thus, no one claimed his body. He was eventually buried in an unknown location by the Dutchess County Department of Community and Family Services. And since there was no executor for Nichols’ estate, a temporary administrator was appointed to handle his business.

Decades earlier—in December of 1985—Nichols’ wife Joann, an elementary school teacher, failed to show up for a hair appointment and seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Nichols called the police to report her missing, but despite several leads—including the discovery of the couple’s car in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center—Joann was never found. Her case remained open for years and officers reviewed it annually, but always with the same result.

She had simply vanished, or so everyone thought. Can you see where I’m going with this?

Joann Nichols was reported missing in 1985 and her body was found behind a false wall in her late husband\'s house.

Joann Nichols in 1985 (courtesy of the Poughkeepsie Police)

After Nichols’ death, contractors were brought in to clean his vacant home and behind a fake wall in the basement—or cellar, if you will—one of them made a gruesome discovery. Sealed inside a large plastic bin that had been wrapped in a plastic bag and sheet was… you guessed it… Joann’s “skeletonized” remains. Her hands were bound and a portion of her skull was missing.

Medical examiners were able to identify Joann from her dental records and later determined her cause of death to be blunt force trauma to the head. The missing part of her skull must have been a dead giveaway, huh? And even though he is dead and likely burning in a jet-fueled fire in hell, James Nichols is now the primary suspect in the case. Not that it matters much anymore.

What does matter is that after more than two decades, Joann’s family finally knows what happened to her so long ago. And they might have known sooner if, like the man from Poe’s story, Nichols had also owned a cat… preferably a black one.

Posted on July 3, 2013, in Perspectives, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m a huge Poe fan! If I remember correctly he’s also credited creating the detective fiction genre with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, The Mystery Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter” and his Detective C. Auguste Dupin. I know he’s credited with first using the term Detective

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