Summer 2014

After the Falls

On the loss and return of William W. Slack, architect

Edward Eigen

Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, was once called Littleworth, or a place of little worth, and its annals, perhaps on this account, have received but little attention.
—C. C. Haven, Annnals [sic] of the City of Trenton, with Random Remarks and Historic Reminiscences (1866)

It is no doubt a mere coincidence that Trenton architect William W. Slack went missing in the same month, October 1898, that Clark University psychologist Linus W. Kline published “The Migratory Impulse vs. Love of Home.” In his expansive study of voluntary and compulsive behaviors ranging from thermotropism in tadpoles to truancy in children, Kline wrote that wandering and roving “have been woven into legends and myths, carved upon stone and written upon parchment, ever since the advent of human thought.”[1] Whatever likelihood that people, animals, or indeed things as such are prone to go astray, the indelible tendency was for the act and fact of it to be embroidered, incised, or stylized and made ready to be variously retold. The impulse to narrative is anything but accidental; (in)evitability is its master plot. What makes Slack’s all-too-familiar story remarkable is not that he left home, if that was his design when he went missing, but rather that he came back. The inconclusive reports of his loss and the imperfectly explained details of his return form the tick-tock-like components of the news items that ran during the final months of 1898 in the Trenton Evening Times.[2] The intention here, in hewing closely to the reported facts, is to consider what use, if any, Kline’s contribution to the science of “home-finding”[3] might have in explaining the circumstances of Slack’s temporary (as it happens) absence from Trenton, if not more specifically its planetary significance.

The four-deck headline in the Monday, October 17 edition of the Trenton Evening Times succinctly stated the current but shifting balance of knowns and unknowns: “Went Sailing on Saturday and Not Heard from Since. Thought to Be Drowned.”[4] That same Saturday, news had arrived over the wires—wires in all likelihood manufactured in Trenton—of the sinking of the Atlantic Transport Line’s Mohegan. Seven miles off her true course after passing the Eddystone Lighthouse, the steamship had struck the dreaded Manacles Rocks, near Falmouth Harbor, costing the lives of more than one hundred passengers and crew.[5] Yet aboard his tiny, shallow-water craft, known as a “sneak-box” for the way it allowed hunters on the watch for fowl to sneak up on their prey,[6] Slack was hardly tempting (mis)fortune at sea; he was simply out for an afternoon of wild-fowl shooting on a calm stretch of the river, or so he is reported to have said before departing. The last person to have seen Slack was his friend William J. Lee, of the New Jersey Steel and Iron Company, with whom he often went sailing.[7] Slack told Lee that he was going down to the Ivinses’ place (presumably Newbold’s Island, opposite Minor Ivins’s fishery at Penn’s Manor). He did not make it that far down the Delaware River, however. According to the final deck of the headline: “His Boat Found Near White Hill Bottom Up—Peak Halliard Broken. No Signs of His Body.”

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