It had not yet become a “household word,” or an attraction as notorious as, say, the site of the Boston Massacre. It had yet to draw the media hordes or their satellite trucks, or to spawn memorial websites with hundreds of flickering virtual candles. No soggy mounds of teddy bears had accumulated on its steps; no bouquets of wilting supermarket flowers spilled from its threshold onto the sidewalk. Mingo House was not yet the site of a nationally famous crime but simply a lesser-known historic property, a four-story brownstone built in 1863 by Corinth Hollis Mingo (“Corinth One”), the armaments manufacturer who had made his fortune during the Civil War.
Mingo House held no artistic masterpieces—no Titians and Roman mosaics like Fenway Court—and no gilded ballrooms like the Newport mansions. Instead, it functioned as a Victorian time capsule because Corinth Mingo’s sole surviving child, Corinth Mingo II (“Corinth Two”), had chosen to preserve his childhood in amber, so that future generations could marvel at it—like a prehistoric insect with extravagant wings and obsolete mandibles. My involvement with Mingo House began with a dream-shattering phone call at eleven-thirty one spring night. I picked up the receiver, dreading some death, some car wreck, to be greeted by the most blasé of voices: “Mark, Mark Winslow? This is Rudy…” He assumed I would know precisely who he was, and, in fact, I’d met no other Rudolph. I recalled meeting Rudy Schmitz at a fundraiser for the Boston Ballet, when he’d mentioned that his mother, “an incurable romantic,” had named him after the Austrian archduke who’d perished with his mistress in the suicide pact at Mayerling.
“Mark, I’ve just been thinking, you’d make a terrific trustee of Mingo House. What with your advertising savvy and love of history. And your terrific sense of humor, of course.”
I think I said Yes just to hang up the phone, just to get back to sleep… How many sleepless nights, how much angst and irritation, that would cost me in the future!
That year, I lived not far from Mingo House, with my partner, Roberto Schreiber, in one of the “luxury” condominiums that went up in Boston during the 1980s. It was a postmodern pile, a federalist brick ziggurat with brass and granite touches, looming above one end of the Public Garden. Ours was one of the smallest units in the complex, but facing the greenery and pond of the park. Years earlier, Roberto and I had been through hell together, confronting a cult and a kidnapper on Cape Cod. Now, in the new millennium, we were determined to experience crime only through certain select shows on television. Roberto had abandoned his job as a courier—shedding his Spandex and bicycle—to enroll in law school, and I was trimming my standup comedy schedule and considering getting my master’s degree in history.
I might have mentioned that to Rudy Schmitz or to one of his friends, because when we spoke later, he quipped, “Perhaps you’ll do your thesis on Mingo House. Who knows?” Who indeed?
Before I attended my first meeting of the board of trustees, Genevieve Courson, a young docent, was assigned to “orient” me. This meeting kept being perpetually postponed because… one trustee had a trade show in San Jose, another a big project with the Massachusetts League of Women voters, and Rudy had family business in Baltimore, where his father owned Schmitz Brothers, the city’s largest department store.
“Do they ever actually meet?” I asked Genevieve. “The trustees?”
“They have good intentions,” she said. “Well, most of them. They’re not a tight-knit group, they’re all business. They don’t socialize outside their involvement with Mingo House.”
Genevieve was a junior at Shawmut College and had an internship at Mingo House, working Thursdays and Saturdays. I shadowed her for a number of weeks. She was thin, with the bones of a sparrow and a sharp nose pierced by a ring of all-but-invisible silver. Her short dark hair was singed with henna, and her wide eyes were colored a liquid brown that seemed to drink you in with wonder and curiosity.
On my first day at Mingo House, we had lunch together, just the two of us, at a vegetarian hole-in-the-wall in Copley Square, and decided to take a quick walk in the Back Bay. Genevieve was bundled in a vintage coat of Navy-blue wool over a rayon dress printed with Forties cherry blossoms. On the lapel of her coat she’d fastened a heavy zircon pin in the shape of a comet. She was, she admitted, “a thrift shop junkie.” Her favorite, Past Lives, was a couple of blocks away, on Newbury Street.
“How did you hear about Mingo House?” she asked me. I told her.
“That Rudy’s a character,” she said.
“How did you? Hear about Mingo House?”
She smiled with both her mouth and her eyes. “My mother brought me. On my tenth birthday, believe it or not. It was my first time at Mingo House and my first ride on the swan boats. It was an ultra-special day.”
“So which made the bigger impression?” I was sure it was the swan boats.
“Boy, that’s a tight call.”
We had come to the entrance to the Public Garden, where the lawns shone with a young green and new leaves were swelling on the weeping willows. In the flowerbeds, pansies trembled in a chill wind and tulips offered the sun their Technicolor cups. The fountains had been partially filled, so that the statues of children—nude, pudgy with pageboy haircuts—played under bright jets of water. The swan boats circled the little pond which was the golden-brown color of root beer.
“Oh, they’re back,” she said.
The swan boats are narrow, barge-like craft, flat in front with open rows of varnished seats, and ending with a touch of bravado—huge swan-shaped shells containing the college students who paddle them with their feet.
“Oh, let’s take a voyage,” Genevieve said.
“Are you sure there won’t be icebergs?” I teased her.
“The swan boats are unsinkable.” She began humming the theme song from Titanic, then seized my elbow in her hand and tugged me toward the iron-and-granite bridge spanning the pond; she was strong for such a diminutive person. “Since this is your first day, the voyage is my treat. Welcome to the Mingo family.” Descending the squat steps from the bridge to the swan boats’ dock, she took her wallet from her bag, a thrift shop find vivid with gold sequins, and bought us two adult tickets. Our fellow passengers seemed to be all out-of-towners, packing large cameras and small children. The dockside crew requested we shift to the left to balance the boat, and Genevieve giggled. She retained all of the enthusiasm of her ten-year-old self, pointing at the ducks pecking under their wings as they sunned themselves on their green wooden house in the center of the first lagoon. “Oh, aren’t they cute? Look at the babies!” We passed under the bridge, into a coolness where chicken wire had been fixed to the bridge girders to discourage pigeons. Genevieve nodded at the cast-iron Japanese lantern on the shore to our left: “That has the most wonderful bas-relief of monkeys. My mother gave me a stuffed monkey that looked just like them.” Then we rounded the small island in the second lagoon, which, ringed by boulders and cool with shade, was populated by ducks, sleeping amid the ivy and their discarded down. “I always meant to explore that island. Some winter, when the pond is drained. It’s so mysterious.” Then she gave me a penetrating stare. “The way inaccessible things always are.”
Something about her stare had unnerved me, even though it had lasted only a microsecond. I edged away. “I read that the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on that island. Landscaping it with new trees and re-enforcing it. It was eroding, falling apart.”
“Like poor Mingo House,” Genevieve said.
Then the boat glided flush with the dock, and the crew steadied it as we stepped out.
“I worry about Mingo House, I really do.”
That struck me as extraordinary for a person of her age, to feel so keenly about a historic property. “Do you really?”
“Oh, absolutely. It was love at first sight when I saw it. And it really needs help. The brownstone is crumbling like stale fudge, and the roof—why you could take a shower in the library during a good rainstorm. The wallpaper needs conserving, so do most of the paintings.” The wind lifted the branches of the willows and the tufts of Genevieve’s henna-singed hair.
“Are your parents artists?” I thought that might explain her precocious empathy for old things.
“God, no.” She pointed across the pond, toward the base of the Japanese lantern. “Look, the live swans are back. See them together?”
One of the birds submerged its noble head, in quest of an insect or some delicious strand of slime.
“Let’s go see them,” Genevieve said, and then, abruptly, she wheeled around, changed her mind. “Actually, I’d rather go this way.” She commandeered my arm and steered me in the opposite direction, back toward the dock—out of our way, in fact, if we were returning to Mingo House immediately.
When we returned she gave me the tour. “Not the regular tour or the VIP tour. The insiders’ tour.”
The house was crammed with pretentious walnut and mahogany furniture of the quality to please a nouveau-riche merchant of the mid-nineteenth century. Its walls were sheathed with stout-dark paneling or gilded and embossed wallpapers adorned with berries, vines, and leaves. The rooms were busy with bric-a-brac, with family photographs, and with curtains and upholstery all tassels, embroidery, and fringe. Hung through- out were Italian paintings of classical subjects—the oracle at Delphi, Circe with her pigs, Cleopatra clasping the asp to her neck—done in lustrous, enamel-bright colors. Corinth Hollis Mingo, who had been conceived in Greece, had also purchased plaster casts of the Parthenon frieze, of warriors, slightly yellowed with age, as well as what was possibly the most valuable item on the premises, a painting that some contended was a Millet, of peasants bending in a field of stubble. The Mingoes seemed to be a family of hoarders, throwing nothing away, neither pin cushions nor Worth gowns, curling irons nor salt cellars, so that the diverse stuff of Victorian life, the breadth of the building’s contents, made it extraordinary, less museum than time machine. The Mingoes had arrived in Massachusetts from England in the seventeenth century. “Legend had it” that Barnabas Mingo had played a role in the trial and execution of King Charles I, and had fled with some important ecclesiastical silver, including a royal monstrance. If so, neither he nor his immediate descendants converted this cache into cash. The family subsisted as yeoman farmers for several generations, until Asa Mingo entered the China trade, and his son, Corinth Hollis Mingo, established his armaments factory in Maynard, Massachusetts—just as John Brown was raiding Harpers Ferry.
“Corinth One had timing,” Genevieve said.
Genevieve guided me through the building, through Clara’s bedroom, Corinth’s bedroom, the nursery with its three lemonwood beds, each holding a fragile stuffed lamb… Our last stop was the library, overlooking Beacon Street. “You could call this the Crisis Room.” She described in detail the leaks in its ceiling, which was crumbly, puckered. Then, she blew dust from a copper inkwell featuring a pair of angry eagles. “Would you like to see Clara’s private…albums?”
She pulled one of several cardboard Cutty Sark cartons from the bookshelves. Her knees buckled momentarily.
“Do you need help?”
“The weight of history.” Genevieve slid the carton onto Corinth One’s desk. From it she extracted one of the photographs, which I now saw were ponderous glass plates, about eleven by seventeen inches in size.
I recoiled when I saw what the plate depicted—piles of pale amputated human feet, stacked in the grass outside an army tent. Then Genevieve produced still more plates, all focused on wounds, corpses, gore—severed arms, suet-white, and two severed human heads, of bearded men, their open eyes startled by death. The photographs were true portraits of horror, a Victorian Armageddon, Hell under glass. How could Corinth One have tolerated their presence, especially in a house with young children?
“Clara hired Ezra Morton, a rival of Matthew Brady’s, to photograph the damage done by Mingo armaments during the Civil War. Both sides used the family’s ‘products,’ so Ezra had plenty of…opportunities.”
“Clara did it as a kind of penance. She later became a famous medium, contacting dead soldiers to apologize, and helping their families make contact.”
“These…aren’t included in your standard tour.”
“No. These are for special occasions.” I’ve forgotten: did she smile when she said that?