When I left the beach it was pouring the rain. I had not intended to leave for another day but I got a call that my daughter was ill. She’d texted me the night before and we both had assumed she was suffering from a virus, but by morning she was worse. A trip to urgent care revealed a kidney infection gone awry.
Her sister, the one who isn’t married, doesn’t have children, was having difficulty trying to figure out how to fix a bottle for her nine-month-old nephew.
Should I come? I asked.
She didn’t say no, don’t. What she said was that her sister was pretty sick, needed help.
So I loaded the car and headed back over the hills. The wind was whipping. The rain a’ pouring.
Don’t go through Portland, my son said. Head for Salem, over Santiam Pass.
It’s Friday, I replied. I’m not about to get on I-5 South on a Friday afternoon.
But I hate that Sandy to Madras route. Idiot drivers. They drive too fast over the mountain, and they don’t heed the signs about the deer, or the road construction, or like last night, the roads sloshing in rain.
So even though it would take longer, I took the longer route, the one that passes through Shaniko, a real Wild West ghost town, and over the Crooked River Bridge.
That same bridge where Jennance Freeman and her girlfriend, Gertrude Jackson, tossed those babies over back in 1961.
I think about that incident whenever I drive across that bridge. For years now, I tell anyone who is in the car with me, “This is the bridge that momma threw her babies over.”
Last night there was no one in the car with me.
Last night there was hardly anyone on the road, owing to the blowing wind and pounding rain.
It was just me and slick darkness and the voice of a Native American speaking Sahaptin, telling a story about what the basket woman does to disobedient children.
Gertrude Jackson was Jeannance Freeman’s lover, back during a time when lesbian women were all considered “not right in the head.” As it turned out, there may not have been a more fitting term for Jackson, 33, and Freeman, 19.
The children, 6-year old Larry, and 4-year old Martha, belonged to Jackson. No one but the two women really know the circumstances of the murder, but the story often retold is that the two women decided to kill the children because they got in the way, as children often are prone to do.
At first, Jefferson County Sheriff S.E. Summerfield had no idea who the slain children were. Nobody had reported any children missing. Surely, only a demonic soul could have inflicted such torture on children. The boy had been badly beaten, his genitals and that of his sister, mutilated, before being thrown like rag dolls into the 360-foot gorge. The girl, it would later be reported in court, was still alive when Jackson and Freeman threw her over the bridge.
And because Highway 97 is part of the North-South route from California through Oregon, Summerfield knew he may never know whose children these were, who did the killing.
I was thinking about all that last night, when I pulled the car over just before the Crooked River Bridge. It was raining so hard, that kind of rain that comes at you from everwhichway, I couldn’t see the white or yellow lines anymore, so I stopped. True Oregonians never pull over for rain, but that’s just further proof that I was raised in the South, where we do pull over during frog-drowning storms.
I sat there, just listening to the guttural sounds of a Native American storyteller on Oregon Public Radio, thinking about Jackson and Freeman and how their lives might have been different if they had lived in a time when being a lesbian wasn’t considered perverse. When we marginalize people, we give them no recourse but to turn on us like wounded animals.
My front window began to fog up as it always does whenever I’m in the car and there’s no defrost blowing, and it’s raining out. So I did what I always do, I rolled down the windows, all four of them, just a couple of inches, hoping the cool air would clear the windshield.
That’s when I heard it.
It sounded like the screech of the seagulls I’d heard earlier in the day at the coast. Only fainter. Further off.
A coyote, maybe?
The Sheriff may have never discovered the identities of the children were it not for a Culver man by the name of Clyde (Red) Whitcraft. There are those who think that Whitcraft’s real name was Witchcraft. He was the one who told the Sheriff that those children may belong to the girlfriend of his stepdaughter, Jeannance Freeman. The two women had stopped by his place early in the morning on May 11 and said they were headed to Oakland, California. The kids weren’t with them. When Whitcraft asked after them, he was told they were in foster care.
Whitcraft told the Sheriff that Freeman and Jackson lived together in Eugene. The Sheriff sent photos of the bodies to Eugene authorities, who tracked down Phyllis Round, Freeman’s sister. It was Phyllis who identified the children as those of her sister’s lover. Jackson and Freeman were arrested in San Francisco after an all points warrant was issued.
Jackson pled guilty to the murder of her children and was sentenced to life in prison. She was released after serving only seven years. Freeman took her chance at trial in the new courthouse in Madras. The jury gave her the death penalty. The first woman in Oregon to be sentenced to death.
In 1974, Freeman wrote an open letter to the Oregonian insisting that she had never meant to kill the children. That was all an accident. She had really intended, she said, to kill their mother.
To the People of Oregon:
My name is Jeannance June Freeman. Remember me? I was tried and convicted of first degree murder back in 1961. I was given the death sentence; I was under that for three years. Then I was commuted to life imprisonment. I got transferred back here to Alderson, W. Va., in 1969.
I have a few things to say that I have kept to myself for too many years. The crime that I committed was indeed horrible. Any crime of murder is. But, what made mine so bad, was that fact that it was a small boy that I killed.
Would it interest anyone to know that I meant to kill his mother, only she pushed him in the way; and he caught the blow that I meant for her? Can you understand how I did panic?
How out of this panic, I tried to hide the terrible thing that I had done, by throwing his body down in that canyon? That I wasn’t thinking of how it might look later, but thinking that I myself couldn’t face up to what I had done! That I was running scared… That I made up all kinds of lies trying to deny to myself, as well as everyone else what I had done.
They said I am sadistic and perverted because I am a lesbian! Well hey, who and what made me a lesbian? Are you interested enough to keep reading?
When I was four years old, I was brutally raped by ———. This didn’t twist my mind, except in the sense that I don’t care for men. I did say men, not boys! In other words, when it comes to making love, I prefer women. Why?
Because my body was brutally torn up when I was raped! And I can’t even stand the thought of a man touching me in that way. If it happened just once, then maybe I could have gotten over it…but it happened four times in all.
A four-year-old girl just isn’t built to have “relations” with a man. For years I was afraid for them to even touch me. Can any of you mothers honestly say that you would censor your daughter if, under the same circumstances, she had turned out the same way? Your answer has to be no! If you have any understanding of a human being, who needs love and affection, the same as everyone else.
I started my fourteenth year in September…for killing a child, when I meant to kill his mother! What kind of person was she, that she could push her own flesh and blood in the way of a blow meant for her? And what kind of mother would deliberately throw her own daughter into that same canyon; and then, firstly, try to blame it on me…then admit it…only instead of admitting that she set it up, for it to happen exactly as it did.
Knowing me well enough to know that I do have a violent temper…and would try to bust her head open.
And so, consequently, played right into her hands, and trying to hurt her, I killed the boy, with a blow that was meant for her!
Then, she plays crazy, and says the kids loved each other so much, that she felt the little girl would want to be with her brother! Well, I have news for you…the woman isn’t crazy…“maybe like a fox” and she got “LIFE,” did seven years, made parole, went out, violated…and is felt sorry for!
One question, does her conscience bother her? Does she have trouble sleeping nights? Does she have nightmares? I DO!
She had her chance at trying to make another go of it out in the free world…so when do I get my chance? How long does being locked up stay punishment? When does a person cease to be punished, and become like a vegetable? Where does the “hard time” leave off, and a person becomes adjusted to the prison life, and it ceases to be punishment? Where does punishment leave off, and CRUEL & UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT come in? What says it is “JUST” to give the mother a chance and not me? If I had killed an adult, and if I wasn’t a Lesbian, I would have been given my freedom a long time ago! How can anyone rightfully blame me, at that time, nineteen years old; the mother, thirty-seven! I was still a child in many ways myself!
Don’t you people know and understand that I will pay for what I did for as long as I live? That I can’t forgive myself! Even though it was an accident, I suffer knowing that I did do it! And what everyone seems to be forgetting, is the fact that my final judgment is still to come. No matter how long the laws of the land keep me locked up…my final judgment will come from God, not no mere mortal!
And while we are on the subject of judging, what gives the people of Oregon, the Parole Board, or anyone else the right to stand in judgment of me? When ALL OF YOU, somewhere, at some time, have most likely done things, if not just as bad, then at least still wrong in a moral sense.
But yet, you will judge me, because I am a lesbian. Because I have gone against the conventional code and led a different type life than what the laws of our land say we are to lead!
But again, who and what made me different? What one of you can say that you wouldn’t have turned out the same, given the same circumstances? Or was I such a big sensation because it was election year?=
All the judges and district attorneys really made a name for themselves with my case! They must have been re-elected at least three or four times because of me! And how many of the “Shrinks” and lawyers just had to mention my name, to have clients busting down their door? Great for the business world!
So here I sit, waiting for the parole board to decide that I can have a parole. I meet them again in March. It would be nice to be free! I think that fourteen years is long enough for what I did. What do you think? Can you truthfully say that I deserve to be kept locked up longer?
Or do you even care? Did anyone ever really care? When it comes to caring, who cared when I was so brutally abused? My mother, yes, but she wasn’t there at the time or it wouldn’t have happened!
In closing, I remain, ME! I can’t change what I did, or what I am! But I still say, fourteen years is enough time for what I did.
Turns out that person Freeman claimed raped her all those years?
Yeah, that was reportedly her stepfather, Clyde “Red” Whitcraft. The one who told the Sheriff who the dead babies where thrown off the Crooked River Bridge.
Oregon eventually got shed of the death penalty and in 1983, Freeman was paroled.
Neither woman served the sentences due them, and it continues to this date that courts all across America make allowances for women that they would never make for men.
I was thinking about all that when I heard that hollering again. Only this time it sounded ever so much like a little girl’s cries. Grabbing the umbrella from the backseat, I crawled over to the passenger side door and got out of the car. The cries continued, growing louder now.
The only light was the flashlight from my iPhone. I walked toward the crying until I was standing in the middle of the bridge. I wasn’t thinking anymore, just listening, trying to discern where those cries where coming from.
The wind whipped the umbrella upwards. I got drenched. Pulling my wool sweater tighter around me, I yelled, “Heyyyy.” If the canyon whispered it back to me, I never heard it. Only the wind, the rain, and the cries of a little girl falling, crying out to her dead brother, and the mother who failed to love her the way good mothers do.
Headlights flashed around the corner. I jumped, startled, unsure of whether to make a mad dash for the car or curl to the railing, hoping to remain unseen.
The car slowed. It was a deputy.
“You okay, ma’am?” he called out from car.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“You’re not thinking of jumping, are you?”
“Not tonight,” I replied.
He drove off. The cries stopped. I returned to my car, sopping wet, grabbed the stuffed animal I had bought earlier that day for my grandson and carried it back to the bridge, where I tossed it over.
“I hope this bunny keeps you company, Martha,” I said.
The bunny grasped a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit.
“I wish you and Larry had been loved as well,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
The rain stopped. The wind died down. Somewhere far off, a coyote called out.