Smashing


A woman who couldn’t stand her life any more went out for a walk. Her neat little high-buttoned boots dragged in the dirt, the cold was pitiless and merciless, or perhaps she just felt that everything was pitiless and merciless. But the cold really was bad and besides she didn’t know where to turn, which made walking difficult. I must insist on how she felt although she herself didn’t. She would have been glad to be rid of her feelings, to have struck them under her heels. But if she was looking to be distracted by her walking, she was in the wrong place. The town consisted of a single street of overgrown shacks and the countryside beyond it scarcely deserved the name, being a featureless plain. The plain stretched as far as the eye could see and farther. Only a bird could love it because only a bird’s eye could take it in.

The woman was a schoolmistress in Wisconsin, or was it Wyoming? One of the shacks was the schoolhouse in which she taught the town’s children, who were as crude, as ignorant and as violent as their parents. Since our heroine was plain and poor, she had no choice. It was either school teaching or prostitution. Truly, I feel sorry for her, don’t you?

She stopped outside the saloon. Being a respectable woman, and conscious of the requirements of her profession, she didn’t go in. Otherwise, this might be the story of one more drunk, hardly worth the telling. On the other hand, she might simply have stopped to look in the window where she would have seen the reflection of the sky. Everyone talks about the skies in these one-horse towns and indeed they are spectacular, superior in every way to anything that’s on the ground. In that event our anti-heroine might have been impressed enough to take up photography as another, more famous woman did, also in the 1890s, also in a W state, which this time was certainly Wyoming. Instead, the schoolteacher stooped down, picked up a rock and hurled it through the glass.

A schoolmistress behaving like a juvenile delinquent, like one of her own pupils! And in broad daylight! I’m sure you’re shocked and, secretly, a little envious. It’s human nature. One has only to encounter a beautiful pristine sheet of plate glass to fantasise about what it would be like to shatter it. Anyone who hasn’t broken at least one window in childhood, “by accident on purpose”, is doomed to a life of failure and regret.

As for our heroine, the result of her shameful and precipitate act was everything you can imagine and more. The sound was like a jangling peal of bells joyously ringing out across the town, which could not afford church bells of its own. The glass rained down with delicacy and precision, leaving the jagged edges stuck in the frame like stalactites. Following the window smasher’s strike, a sort of holy calm descended on the place and the people alike. As for the smasher herself, she experienced her action as an epiphany. She felt it was almost enough to justify the name of the town, which was Hope or Redemption or something of the sort, one of those names that are like a cruel joke.

Everyone came running. Was the woman mad? People always try to explain things and they always get them wrong. The general consensus was she suffered from religious mania because everyone suffered from religious mania in those parts. In fact, there was an unnatural number of murders and suicides around that time due to religious mania or despair, and done by shooting, stabbing, bludgeoning and hanging. Under these circumstances, window-smashing can be considered a witty variation on a theme, whose wit went unappreciated by all except its perpetrator.

Only a few years later and in a different place, the whole world would have acclaimed her act as a triumph of slapstick comedy. As it was she played to an audience of one, contentedly.

The schoolmistress’ career as a window-smasher went forward, each incident leading to the next as one sentence leads to the next or one note to a mighty symphony. Her case featured in the papers. From time to time, she was dragged off to the asylum where they welcomed her with pleasure as a change from the everyday religious maniacs and lavished their best efforts on persuading her that, when smashing windows, she was acting out of rage and self-hatred towards her own reflection in the glass. She was grateful for the idea and even more for the trouble everyone was taking.

Another peculiarity was the dress she wore for her window-smashing forays. She always wore a bonnet and crinolines, and this in a community where overalls and farm clothes were the rule. Her reticule hung on her wrist and she would have liked to carry an umbrella too except she needed both hands free to pick up stones. She looked as if she was going to the opera, that distant echo from the cultured world. She maintained the most impeccable standards on her desperado outings and the windows played their part as well, glittering darkly and richly in their proscenium arches as if holding their breath until she raised her arm and the first stone hit.

She also took up sniffing cocaine. I forgot to mention this detail, which strikes me as colourful but unimportant though I am as susceptible as any man to the charm of a coke-sniffing, window-smashing schoolmistress. In her life at the school, she’d drunk nothing but pure spring water. When she changed careers, she took up sniffing coke as more appropriate for a window-smasher, her essentially didactic nature impelling her to do everything properly.

A poetic account would draw comparisons between spring water and the springs of learning or compare cocaine crystals with the crystals in plate glass. However, our own approach is strictly scientific.

Was every window destroyed in Wisconsin in those years down to her? Or did her sensational crimes inspire a copycat crew of smashers? And what about the younger generation- can we be sure that her own pupils, in a shocking reversal of the social order, didn’t hide their all-too-common misdeeds behind the skirts of their former mistress? History doesn’t tell, so neither can I.

Around this time, the window-smasher discovered the railway, which enabled her to increase her productivity and baffle her pursuers. This same railway brought the homesteaders, grocers, saloon-keepers, owners of stables, telegraph clerks etc. whose children she had once taught and whose windows she now smashed, from Scandinavia to Wisconsin-or is it Wyoming I’m thinking of? - in the first place, having deceived the immigrants into thinking they were journeying to paradise rather than to a brutal, desolate land where the soil blew away through their fingers and took their dreams along with it.

As she rode on the railway through the night, the window-smashing schoolmistress calculated the damage she had caused, with pedagogical exactitude. Instead of the butter, cheese and eggs of a housewife’s shopping list, she wrote down, “ item: one large, bevelled window with the inscription ‘County Bank’ in Thunder Creek $4.50”-and so on. Newspapers that published inaccurate estimates of her crimes received anonymous letters to the editor correcting their figures, though it is not clear the letters came from her. If so, she disguised her handwriting. While busy with her record-keeping, which necessitated removing at least one glove and moistening her pencil with her tongue, she glanced from time to time at her own reflection in the train window, where it showed as sharp as the head on a postage stamp against the impenetrable blackness of the prairie. Her expression in the glass was calmly confident. It never occurred to her to smash it.

The final tally for the Wyoming- or Wisconsin -Window-Smasher was $50,000 at 1890s prices. This total doesn’t include mirrors in which she developed a late and, in my opinion, frivolous sideline.

In Europe, there were chandeliers, balls, cavalry officers with supple leather boots and glinting spurs, gas-lit boulevards, grand lakeside hotels and war. Across the Western plains, plate-glass windows marched in ranks, a modicum of civilization in which it was possible for people to see what they were missing rather than what they had. The window-smasher’s stones rang out like shots followed by the glorious martial music made by the smashed glass.

Her window-smashing went beyond harmless eccentricity, finally reaching a pitch of destruction that revealed an urge to sweep the world clean. But clean of what? Certainly not of windows. She adored windows. She felt a particular affinity for glass, her partner in crime, due to its own cleanliness and its humble desire to efface itself in favour of whatever lay behind (or before) it. She would never have chosen as a target something she despised. If she had been asked to justify herself, she might have spoken thus: what is the point of having windows without someone to smash them?

One day, an art critic from New York happened to pass through Wisconsin- Wyoming on his way West. Since his stopover coincided with the smasher’s latest outrage, he was taken to see her handiwork, whereupon he exclaimed at the aesthetic impact of the empty window frames stuck all around with irregular edges of glass, along with the sheets and slivers of broken glass lying in the foreground. The next season, several examples of original smashed windows were exhibited at a leading New York gallery, when they sold for vast sums to the likes of J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. The fact that this never happened is due entirely to the remoteness of Wyoming, or for that matter Wisconsin, and not to any lack of energy or perspicacity on the part of our leading critics and gallery-owners.

The only known photograph of the smasher herself shows her in her cell after the authorities captured her for the last time and sentenced her to spend the rest of her life in the insane asylum. Her look of terrible fury and anguish may reflect her circumstances. On the other hand, it may be that she was thinking how many windows remained intact and thus how lamentably she had fallen short in her life’s work- something I’ve often felt myself.

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014