(Warning: this post contains difficult subject matter. It also assumes some familiarity with the Donner Party, so if you are unfamiliar, you may want to read up on the story first.)
I’d like to share an experience I had recently. It’s one of those things that happens when walking with one foot in the spiritual world and one foot in the physical. Or perhaps, after an eight year stay in California, it was time for me to face some old business.
I live about eighty miles from Sacramento. One day some friends and I decided to go for a drive to Chico, several hours from here. On our way back, on the freeway, we passed by the historic cemetery in Marysville. Knowing my traveling companions were as fond of photographing old cemeteries as I was, I begged them to stop so we could take pictures, but we passed by and missed the turn off. Instead, we parked in downtown Marysville and walked around.
Downtown Marysville is all but abandoned, and on Memorial Day it was so empty you could hear the crickets and tumbleweeds. We walked around to take photos and moved on to dinner in Sacramento. But I found as the hours (and cities) ticked by, my mind was still in Marysville. Why was it so empty? Why were there so many abandoned mid-century businesses?
Later that night in bed I decided to investigate. Turns out, the cemetery is indeed historical and I was right to want to stop. I learned how and why the city stopped growing, and in addition to its history, I learned that it had been named after a surviving member of the Donner Party.
I didn’t know much about the Donner Party, except that my best friend (and one of my travel companions that day) was descended from one of George Donner’s daughters. So I clicked the link on Wikipedia to see if she was the namesake for Marysville and spent hours reading about the entire Donner story instead.
Afterwards, I couldn’t turn off the lights, I was so perturbed. The feeling of Marysville would not leave me. I went to work the next day and felt miles away from where I was. I was haunted by the Donner story. Not just because it is a truly frightening story, but because something about it just felt…too close to home.
My head was swimming. I read anything I could get my hands on to flesh out a few of the parts that were haunting me most. The Murphy cabin at the lake in particular, which, according to the Wikipedia quote from George Stewart, “passed the limits of description and almost of imagination.” I couldn’t get past that sentence. I had to know what that meant. Not out of some morbid curiosity. It was more like I already knew somehow.
I could see her standing beside my bed even before I could see her. She was there since I had been to Marysville, waiting as I followed a chain of research to find her form which was beginning to coalesce in my mind’s eye. At first she came to me as a feeling of horror, of guilt and distress about what had happened. I asked the feeling what the worst part of the Donner experience was, and got the following response:
The children. The sound of the children’s cries.
I didn’t want to see her. I couldn’t sleep in the dark anymore. In fact, I couldn’t sleep at all. She was the very image of the frightening skeletal ghost, in filthy rags and overgrown hair, emaciated, terrible looking. But she hovered around me, no matter how much I begged her to go. She wouldn’t budge. She had to go inside me first.
Here’s what I knew: she looked like an older woman, and in her care were many children. She held on until the very end. She wasn’t especially well-to-do, maybe middle class at best, with a modest and pragmatic attitude about life. She lived in the cabins at Truckee Lake, and from the feeling, it had to have been the Murphy cabin. And she didn’t survive.
Levinah Murphy, 36 years of age, mother of seven children, grandmother of three.
What followed was a series of memories from her perspective. First they were disjointed memories: Cooking grease. The snow. The awful, howling wind. Graying and soggy ox hides. I watched as she wailed in the snow, a hand from one of her concerned children helping her up, as she realized the full extent of the situation they were all in. Later I saw her collapsed on the floor of the cabin, wailing in grief. It was an incredibly difficult moment of human suffering to witness. These were regular people with families, wanting nothing more than to do some interstate traveling and relocate. They could have been any one of us. I couldn’t get past the feeling that I might have had to make any of the choices they faced.
Instead of showing me the memories distantly, like one would remember past lives, my consciousness connected to hers as though I were seeing/feeling her body and her memories from the first person. Other times, if I was lucky, I got to see them from the third person perspective as a spectator. I’ll put the following behind a cut so you can choose whether you want to read the rest of what I saw. If not, you can skip ahead to Part 2.
The effects of starvation and nutrient-deprivation, such that would be experienced by being trapped in a cabin under the snow for months without sunlight, were indeed beyond imagination. I thought I was familiar with the effects of torturous living, having had a lifetime during the Holocaust, but little could prepare me for what I saw. Her skin was translucent and wasted away, held together only by the thick layers of clothing she had on. She bled easily and simply scratching would tear flesh away. Her hair was so brittle touching it might make it shatter. The cartilage of her nose seemed to have worn away, adding to her skeletal appearance. Altogether frightening. And, as in the records, her mental stability was eroding as well.
She showed me a baby. I knew it would be a hard scene to swallow and the guilt from her radiated within me, as if I had always carried this pain. All the children were crying of starvation, but this baby’s cries were different. One night Levinah sat by the bedside of the baby in the cabin and fed it a mixture of medicine and whatever passed as food, pausing to make sure it had taken effect. Afterwards, I saw her, still recognizable from her former life as a pioneer, trekking across the snow with a bundle of gray rags. The lifeless baby was inside. The baby whose life I took.
There was one baby who died at the beginning of February, before the relief parties showed up and any hope was available to them. The Eddy and Murphy families shared a cabin, and in the cabin Eleanor Eddy, the mother of two small children, lay dying as her baby was. They died a few days from each other. That would have put Levinah Murphy in the care of Eddy’s children, and the baby, Margaret Eddy…I got the sense there was no hope for her.
They talk about the starvation, and chalk up the causes of death to hunger, with little regard to what the starving condition actually paves the way for. They weren’t just hungry. They were sick, bleeding, infected, exhausted. The baby was sick. And who could give her the kind of care she needed? There were other small children who needed care and food. As much as it pained her, Levinah did what she had to do to help the baby pass on as painlessly as possible. But seeing the baby dead in her hands…of her own doing…the sight reverberated through both of our souls. It’s a sight I’ll never forget the feeling of.
I think something in her changed after that. She became listless, neurotic. Her oldest son had died days earlier, and three of her children had gone out with the snowshoe party. Lewis Keseberg shared the cabin with the Murphys at that point. In her deteriorated state weeks later, she sat at one end of the cabin, shouting at Keseberg about an heirloom that had gone missing and must therefore have been in his possession. Whether he stole anything from her or not is unclear, because as I watched the scene, I wasn’t entirely sure she had remembered whether the heirloom had even made it into the cabin in the first place.
Why was she showing me this? I asked her over and over, and she just smiled, asking for my forgiveness. What could I possibly forgive her for? How would I be in a position to judge any of them? I just felt an incredible well of empathy for the people in this situation, as if I had experienced it myself.
The second part of the story continues here.
(Photograph above of Donner Lake in Truckee, CA, taken on my recent trip to the Donner sites.)