So the murders we do have are newsworthy, and shocking, perhaps none so much as the October 5, 1976 killing of Anne Payson Holt. Daughter of one of the oldest and most influential families in Maine, wife to a well-respected war veteran and lawyer, Mrs. Holt was related by blood and marriage to some of the most recognizable names of the old-money WASP hierarchy. But she was also a grandmother, a gardener, a volunteer at her local church. Her murder - at home, in her bed - by a pair of drunken ne'er-do-wells who had broken in to steal her television appalled and terrified her friends, family and community.
One of those deeply affected was her granddaughter, Anne Fowler. The author of several collections of poetry, Anne has shaped the events, moments and emotions of her grandmother's death into a unique work: a true crime story, by an intimate witness, told in a series of linked poems. I read THE CASE OF THE RESTLESS REDHEAD (Perry Mason fans may recognize that title) for a possible quote, and was bowled over. Today, Anne shares part of her process, her family's story, and one of the poems from THE CASE OF THE RESTLESS REDHEAD.
I remember exactly the day I decided to write about my grandmother’s murder. It was the very beginning of my August month of vacation from my work as a parish priest. I said to my husband Sam, “I think it’s time to write about Granny.”
My grandmother was murdered in a home invasion in Falmouth, Maine, in 1976. She was 80, and we were about to celebrate that momentous birthday. My grandmother and I were very close; I was named for her and I loved her very much. My mother said once, bitterly, “Of course I’m jealous; you’re the daughter my mother always wanted.”
|Young Anne "Nancy" Carroll Payson|
What happened next was eerie. First, I had a visit from a friend and colleague who had done prison ministry early in her ordained life. She asked if I was curious about what had happened to the men who killed my grandmother, and I said, “not really.” But her question did make me wonder, and when my next visitor was a young woman who did opposition research for a living, I asked if she could find anything out. A couple of days later she called and said, “I didn’t want to send this news in an email. Leon Rich (the killer) was released from prison on July 28 of this year.”
|Nancy Holt in her middle years|
I’m not a mystic or a psychic. But I do believe in a fourth dimension, or a collective unconscious, and this weird sequence of events only confirmed that belief.
So began a journey into territory I’d never traveled before. The Victim’s Advocate in Maine Attorney General’s office sent me a huge pile of documents: crime scene photos, witness statements, police reports, the autopsy report, and the statements of all but one of the 6 participants in the crime. The killer made no statement, either when he was arrested or at the trial, which I had attended.
|One of the last pictures of Nancy.|
Our family, my grandmother’s family, has been prominent in Portland, Maine, for many generations. A number of my grandmother’s letters to her mother and father are archived at the Maine Historical Society. Reading them gave me a poignant picture of her life as a young wife and mother. And of course I knew her very well for 30 years.
Now, my genre is poetry. My challenge was to transform this vivid material into poems. I studied a number of poets who had worked original documents into books of poetry: Maggie Nelson, Catherine Sasanov, Martha Collins, to name just a few. I spent the rest of my summer vacation sitting on our dock or on the beach, reading and writing.
|Window to the bedroom where the murder occurred.|
The project took seven years from that August beginning to the book’s publication this month, and demanded more from me as a woman and a poet than I would have imagined. Even now, I can barely believe that the book came out of me.
The book is called The Case of the Restless Redhead– the title of the very first Perry Mason episode, which of course was in black and white. My grandmother had red hair, and red runs through the book like a trail of blood.
Dr. Charles F. Branch, Post Mortem Report
One’s first impression
is that this lady
had auburn hair.
But rinse away
the stains. Wipe
away the dried
head and neck.
this comely, slight,
gold white hair
very well kept.