J. Bowers

Fred W. Loring and His Mule, “Evil Merodach”
48 Hours Before Death

this story is about a man named frederick wadsworth loring. In the stereogram reproduced above (which is the last known image of him) he is shown posing with his saddle mule, “Evil Merodach,” somewhere just outside the town of Prescott, Arizona Territory.

It is November 4, 1871. Loring appears youthful and handsome, even in the left frame of the diptych, where the slight shifting necessary to create the illusion of three-dimensional space has smudged deep shadows under his hat and eyes and nose. Canvas tents dominate the background. His shirttail is loose, and his left hand rests just above his hip pocket, which bulges as if concealing whiskey or a gun. These cocksure details remain enough to convince the casual stereogram viewer that Loring is some minor outlaw or train robber, and not a recent graduate of Harvard University, summa cum laude.

When this photograph was taken, Frederick Wadsworth Loring was playing the role of an intrepid freelance journalist on assignment for a New York magazine, following the government-sponsored Wheeler Survey through a part of America that few white men had ever seen. The subject of this stereogram is accustomed to raw oysters, not ground chuck. He misses bathhouses and clean pressed trousers, and no wonder. Just a few months ago, his college friends couldn’t contain their laughter when they heard that Loring, the poet, was to become a leather-clad king of the wild frontier.

Really, Fred W. Loring went west because his heart was worn raw by love. But this cannot be divined by looking at the picture, which is exactly what he hoped for when he posed for it. He knew that a happy image of himself at home in Arizona would please his widowed father, who had too often heard that his only son and heir was “soft,” and needed evidence to the contrary to show his pals. And certainly young Loring enjoyed imagining his own image doubled in a thousand American drawing rooms, sandwiched between buffaloes and ruined pueblos, there to remain until the merry hour when kneeling boys pressed the cold metal stereoscope to their foreheads and crossed their eyes to make “Fred W. Loring and his mule, Evil Merodach” emerge in glorious 3-D.

But beyond these aspirations to glory and front parlor celebrity, Fred W. Loring hoped that his carefree expression would wound Mr. William Wigglesworth Chamberlin to the core as he lounged amid brass and mahogany in a flickering Boston parlor, smoking his postprandial cigar. Perhaps Chamberlin’s innocent bride would pass over the stereoscope, in love and wanting to hear him laugh at that funny picture of a man hugging a mule. Then she’d spend the rest of her married life wondering why that silly picture had blanched her new husband’s face talcum white.

These unkind thoughts and others thinned Loring’s smile as he slung his arm around Evil Merodach’s ewe-neck, faced west, and watched the birdie.


Prior to the Class of 1870’s graduation from Harvard University, Fred W. Loring and Wm. W. Chamberlin were a familiar sight around the Yard. The duo were inseparable due to their mutual passion for Thackeray and a general disdain for anything they deemed “common,” a broad list that included baseball, Confederate sympathizers, and suffragettes. Then as now, it wasn’t considered strange for young gentlemen at college to form intense attachments to one another, so long as both parties maintained a general chumminess with the other men in their year, and each eventually broke off to marry a respectable lady. Closeted as he’d been at home, Loring found this social milieu both liberating and baffling, particularly when it came to his best friend.

A Boston Brahmin destined for a long career in philanthropy and dinner parties, Chamberlin hurled himself into the social sphere with ancestral relish, joining numerous class elections, secret societies, and regattas. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been coxswains for the Harvard lightweight crew, and to Loring, the sight of Chamberlin’s lean torso skimming over the water, borne forth by the tanned forearms of his fellows, carried with it an aura of perpetuity and rightness.

Loring was not popular at college, where life is a play in which the actors forget any divisions between themselves and the characters they are impersonating. The strikes chalked against him by his peers were legion. He didn’t bother concealing his disdain for minstrel shows and clog dances, which were beloved pastimes. It was considered odd that he didn’t use tobacco. In a history of Boston literary luminaries, a well-meaning former professor printed the unhelpful suggestion that had Loring “been a bold, swaggering fellow who wore loud trousers and played the banjo, he might have been quite a favorite.” In his natural state, the poet was thought far too sensitive and excitable to be a good presiding officer. Indeed, when several campus trees blew over during the September hurricane of 1869, his hall-mates found his alarm, excitement, and fruitless efforts to help so amusing that the storm was memorialized in the yearbook as “the night Loring battened down the hatches.”

Still, his wit won him admirers. The best of his society verse appeared in the Advocate, where he was named editor-in-chief, and often asked to read his pieces at class dinners. On the strength of these performances, it was supposed as a matter of course that he would be named class poet, and he had many supporters for the position. But the choice fell instead upon the nephew of a distinguished American poet. When questioned about the upset, many among the student body said that they could see no reason for Loring’s disfavor; others candidly averred that he was “conceited in the Shakespearean sense,” an insult that also acknowledges a certain otherworldly grandeur in the man, perhaps even a flash of the bard.

Loring’s revenge was swift. Two weeks after the defeat, his ballad “The Queen and Elisor” appeared in a magazine called Old and New. Replete with “shell-hued cheeks” and “fair knights,” “The Queen and Elisor” is not a good poem, but its publication was a credit to Harvard nevertheless, and certainly more than the reigning class poet had achieved. Within a week, Loring and Chamberlin’s room was littered with scented envelopes from ladies seeking autographs. Hot on the heels of this triumph, our hero was awarded a $100 cash prize for his senior thesis on the authorship of Shakespeare’s tragedies, in which he took the then-controversial stance that they were, in fact, written by Shakespeare.

After this laurel fell at Loring’s feet, there was even talk of carrying him in a procession around the Yard. Now no one could doubt his supremacy, save Chamberlin, who worried that such attention might spoil his friend. “If such stuff can do it, I deserve to be spoiled,” countered Loring, but the truth is he never really was. If anything, the modest celebrity he enjoyed during the spring of 1870 only cultivated a necessary self-confidence in him, and refined his contempt for base and trivial things. He stayed up late reading Whitman, and became obsessed with opera, especially Lohengrin, with its giant swans and crusading knights. In his starriest moments, Loring even talked about quitting Boston for New York City, where he’d charm all the publishers and spend each evening perched in velvet box seats, chatting with the intellectual elite.

But nature was against him, for each spring semester a fog of nostalgia threads through the Harvard elms, transforming the graduating class into misty-eyed confessors. Seniors become freshmen, compelled to pare their initials into desks and weep over their “last” hasty pudding, or “last” Latin exam. Loring was not immune. Consider, for instance, the following anecdote from an early anthology featuring “The Queen and Elisor.” Late May, and the two friends were hiking through a hayfield near Lake Quinsigamond, where last summer’s bales collapsed like rotting mammoths. Chamberlin, fresh from a European holiday, was describing the plays he’d seen and the people he’d met at parties, when Loring interrupted, saying, “Now, I just want to say here that I have missed you very much, and I hope we shall never be separated so long again.” Just then, the earthly remains of a long-dead housecat appeared in the gentlemen’s path, orange fur still clinging to its ribcage. “There, look at that,” gasped Loring, chapfallen, his arm outstretched to stop his friend. “Nature no longer abhors a vacuum, but I believe she does abhor sentiment!”


On the afternoon that this stereogram was taken, Fred W. Loring has been living on the frontier for eight months, but he still feels uneasy in his campaign clothes, like they are a costume or a uniform. He seems comfortable leaning against Evil Merodach, but really he is ready to leap clear of the beast at any second, if/when he shifts his weight unexpectedly, or emits his trademark earsplitting bray.

Evil Merodach and Fred W. Loring aren’t especially close. The pinned ears are a dead tell, even if the animal’s expression remains inscrutable. An aged john used to packing luggage, not poets, Evil Merodach was rented for Loring three weeks prior to this photo session at a trading post in what is now Yavapai County, Arizona. Since then, he has thrown Loring seven times, trampled his hat twice, and relieved himself at several inconvenient moments, including just before this exposure was taken—which may account for Loring’s expression.

For these and other injustices, when O’Sullivan asked after the mule’s name for the stereogram caption, Loring told him “Evil Merodach.” This joke deserves further investigation. A minor character, Evil Merodach is mentioned just twice in the Bible (Jeremiah lii. 31; II Kings xxv. 27), where his uncharacteristically kind treatment of an imprisoned “king of Judah” indirectly leads to the fall of Babylon and his own execution. Maybe Loring saw a version of himself in the Babylonian king’s willingness to sacrifice his own life for his forbidden friend. This much is clear: even if Loring didn’t intend symbolism, he certainly knew that reading the mule’s ridiculous name on the back of the stereogram card would make Chamberlin laugh.

On the warm nights of that last spring term, the two of them used to climb out onto Grays’ sleeping porch just as curfew cleared the Yard of war-whooping baseballers, drunk on ale. It was far cooler there than in the dormitory below, and while sprawled across the damp slates they founded a new literary journal to serve as a national stage for Loring’s poems and Chamberlin’s plays, freeing them from the constraints of editorial prejudice and heathens who didn’t want to read quatrains about swans. During one of their last nights on campus, before everything went wrong, Loring outlined how they’d spend afternoons rowing gilt catamarans up and down the Seine, then evenings half-reading manuscripts from hopeful supplicants in libraries gleaming with brushed furs. And maybe it was the weather, or the wine, but in the dark Chamberlin had let their lips brush, just once, like a promise.

Whenever Evil Merodach’s saddle pinched his knees, or the heat made him itchy, Fred W. Loring inadvertently conjured up that ghost of a chance. He was annoyed to realize that he was just a beaten dog still wagging at its master’s stick. Of course he’d made new friends on the expedition—O’Sullivan was a man he could talk to, and the hired Mojave guides also took an interest, riding alongside Evil Merodach’s outside shoulder to shield both poet and mule from the canyons below. But none of these fellow travelers drew close enough for Loring to confide his real reasons for going west, and he didn’t discuss the decision with anyone in Boston before he left for Arizona. Therefore, Loring’s reasons for leaving were clouded by the agendas of those he left behind, friends who would prefer to pretend he liked girls.

According to Frank Preston Stearns, Loring’s friend and biographer, after the runaway success of “The Queen and Elisor,” the young writer grew infatuated with a Massachusetts senator’s raven-haired daughter. Stearns claims he was seen “dancing about her on the sidewalk on her way from school.” Concerned that his darling would meet her ruin in a poet’s arms, the senator allegedly paid Loring to quit Boston and forget the girl. In this version of the story, a friend in New York City was the last to speak with our jilted hero. Drunk on strong liquor, he vowed to “make a fame that would win the love of the girl whose love he lived for.” This false account convinced some, and indeed, the well-meaning Stearns, who had helped Loring establish a foothold in the Boston press, cannot be blamed for inventing it. He was only giving his protégé what he thought he must—an easy closet to back into, should history need one to permit “The Queen and Elisor’s” inclusion in poetry anthologies. Alas, he underestimated Loring’s almost pathological need to have the last word.

It is known that on the Class of 1870’s graduation night, during a lavish party held at the family home on Massachusetts Avenue, young master Chamberlin announced his betrothal to a peanut-nosed ice heiress he’d been seen in public with only twice before. While the other guests toasted this happy news with good champagne, Loring let himself assume for a dizzy moment that this meant he and Chamberlin would spend their twenties meeting in secret while his oblivious wife devoted herself to his brood, two towheaded babes conceived as further armor against discovery. In an instant, he decided he could come to like children, if they were Chamberlin’s, or if they were little girls with curls—he would be their Uncle Fred, and direct them in amateur theatricals.

Of course, these were but the hollow fantasies of a desperate man. At the end of the evening, Chamberlin made it clear that his engagement marked the dissolution of their intimacy by leading a gin-soaked lampoon of “The Queen and Elisor” to the great enjoyment of all assembled, save Loring. When confronted, Chamberlin was distant, saying only that he hoped they’d see each other at class reunions, and wishing him the best with his writing career. Loring reacted badly to Chamberlin’s proffered handshake, and the ensuing struggle left one of Boston’s leading lights with a broken nose.

This would have been a scandal, had Loring not played drunk as soon as he realized he’d drawn blood. As it was, everyone forgave him at once. Still, pride drove him to quit Boston the day after the party. Perhaps he had already been considering the offer from Appleton’s Journal to accompany Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler’s geographical survey through the Arizona Territory before he boxed Chamberlin; perhaps not. Either way, the journal had offered him an advance of $300.00, plus carte blanche regarding the content and subject of his articles. Coincidentally, this sum was enough to pay for his first novel to be released by his uncle’s publishing house while he was encamped on the far side of Death Valley, writing dispatches from the frontier. In toto, the plan was well engineered to disguise Loring’s wounded flight from Boston as a brilliant new chapter in a promising literary career—and it would have worked beautifully, had the novel in question been anything other than Two College Friends.

Part roman à clef, part historical fantasy, Two College Friends is the maudlin tale of a star Harvard athlete and his reclusive roommate, both from the class of 1864. The youths enlist in the Union Army, where they forge an attachment “passing the love of women.” When Ned dies from war wounds, Tom must carry on alone. Crestfallen, Tom marries and conceives a son. At the novel’s end, Tom’s wife volunteers to name the newborn “Ned,” an odd choice that hints at a ghostly godfatherhood while simultaneously signaling her easy acceptance of her husband’s one true love.

If the plot and sentiment of Two College Friends seems pointed, the first line of the novel’s tart preface (penned in the bleak hours between Chamberlin’s public betrayal and Loring’s abrupt departure from Boston) reveals its author’s habitual inability to resist twisting the knife. To whit:

“My dear Friend,
Indignation at my dedicating this book to you will be useless, since I am at present three thousand miles out of your reach. Moreover, this dedication is not intended as a public monument to our friendship; I know too much for that.

For Mr. Wm. W. Chamberlin.”


The bifurcated view. The blur to one from two. Loring himself had so often been that boy kneeling with the stereoscope, dreaming himself into the fairyland that swam before his aching eyes. After a bout of dehydration-induced double vision in Death Valley, seven months into the expedition, he took a keen interest in optics. He tried to watch each time O’Sullivan disappeared behind his buglike tripod, his head and shoulders swallowed by the camera’s black cape. Now that they neared the end of the Wheeler Survey, the photographer had started taking posed portraits of his fellow journeymen. A common technique in stereographic series of the mid-19th century, these stills were meant to be viewed after the armchair explorer finished all the buffalo, native caravans, and looming buttes—a kind of primitive credit sequence, a who’s who. Seized by enthusiasm for technology, of course Loring leapt at the chance to be shot.

It is essential to recall, as we look at his image, that just a few days before this stereogram was taken, this same man wrote: “I am bootless, coatless, everything but lifeless. I have had a fortnight of horrors. This morning an Indian fight capped the climax. However, I am well and cheerful.” It is important to know that in the photograph, Loring’s left hand is in his pocket because he has been touching his stagecoach ticket all afternoon, thinking of ivy and bricks and home until the cardboard edges are as frayed as his nerves.

In the morning he is scheduled to ride down the La Paz road to San Bernardino, then north to San Francisco, where he’ll catch the Overland Flyer. He is optimistic yet cautious, having decided to use the journey home for metamorphosis. Upon awakening in his berth each morning, he’ll shave in the swaying mirror, tuck in a chrysanthemum, and assemble a winning smile. Eastward bound through Chicago, he will alight on the platforms of one-horse towns and practice flirting with the sandwich girls who sell watery egg salad. When he reaches Boston, he’ll look up O’Sullivan’s cousin, the one the other guys called pretty when her picture got passed around the fire. He’ll give it the old college try, and see if Chamberlin might speak to him again once he, too, had joined life’s grand masquerade.

Who knows what Fred W. Loring might have been, had he managed to peel the scales from his eyes, and see his beloved Chamberlin for what he was? He might have had a career in the Boston press, where he was well liked enough to sustain a regular column. Or he could have gone on to New York after all, and fallen in with the crowd at Niblo’s, where he would have met a broad-shouldered German juggler who spreche nur ein bißchen Englisch but loves to hear poetry read aloud, sehr musikalische, sehr schön.

Instead, on the morning of November 5th, 1871, Fred W. Loring was in Arizona trying to hug a mule goodbye. Having never owned a pet, the young poet was confused and surprised by the pain he felt at their separation. During the many hours he spent perched atop Evil Merodach, he’d developed a begrudging trust in the mule’s celebrated surefootedness, and come to know the subtle tonal variation between a frustrated snort and a contented one. As he scratched Evil Merodach’s rough neck, Loring wondered who, if anyone, would smash the horseflies that landed on him now. Just before leaving, he picked some green tanglehead and served it to the mule in his hat. Evil Merodach’s ears stayed pinned to his skull as he ate, but Loring read this as a mark of his friend’s constancy, and turned to board the San Bernardino stage with wet eyes.

According to William Kruger, the military clerk who took the seat next to Loring, the ride was crowded but merry, with all the passengers in high spirits, “especially Loring, who anticipated a speedy return to his friends back East.” The poet retained his inside seat until the stagecoach rattled into Wickenburg, where they had to change horses due to a lost shoe. “After leaving there, he preferred an outside seat, to which I most decidedly objected,” claimed Kruger. “I had two revolvers and he had none, in fact, no arms whatsoever.” Loring then laughed off his chivalrous offer of a gun, declaring, “My dear Kruger, we are now comparatively safe. I have traveled with Lieutenant Wheeler for nearly eight months, and have never seen an Indian.” After that, Kruger writes, “the first warning I had was the driver’s cry: ‘Apaches! Apaches!’”

Kruger said that the natives lay concealed behind some rocks, but he recognized them immediately as members of the nearby Deer Creek Reservation, “those so-called ‘friendly’ Indians whom Uncle Sam feeds and clothes.” The Apaches launched the first volley of bullets, hitting poor Loring, the driver, and another outside passenger. They also shot the off lead horse. Startled, the rest of the team galloped forward about twenty yards, then drew to a sudden halt, flinging Loring’s body headfirst from the stage. At the same moment, the natives fired their second volley from three sides, killing all of the remaining passengers save Kruger (who clipped two assailants with his revolver) and one Miss Mollie Sheppard, the only woman on the stage, who he dragged unconscious from the bloody scene “by the grace of God alone.” “Loring, poor boy, was not mutilated,” assures Kruger in the newspaper report, implying that sometime during his heroic escape and rescue he had a quiet moment to assess his slain seatmate’s corpse. “He looked calm and peaceful, excepting his fearful wounds to the head.”

There are a number of questionable points in Kruger’s account. We know that Loring was not naïve about tribal aggression, given his written accounts of his travels with the Wheeler Expedition, so his outright refusal of a revolver seems unlikely, as does the insinuation that he wouldn’t know how to use one. To believe that Loring would say he’d never seen a native would mean believing he was a liar. The bravado Kruger assigns to Loring also does not match the poet’s documented tendency to panic in a crisis.

Furthermore, although the natives involved in what came to be known as the Wickenberg Massacre did indeed ride from the nearby Date Creek Reservation, they were Yavapai, not Apache, as Kruger claimed. He also misconstrued their relationship with area settlers, in a bid to buttress his reputation as a pioneer hero. Months before the Wheeler Survey arrived in Arizona the people of Wickenburg had promised that the tribe could remain on their ancestral lands, only to force them into a government encampment to the north. The Yavapai plan was simple. They knew that mostly uniformed men traveled on the San Bernardino stage, and thought that killing a random selection of them would send a clear and fair message about what was owed the Yavapai. They didn’t know that shooting the young man who rode atop the stagecoach would cause his mediocre poetry to appear in numerous anthologies until the late 19th century, after which everything about him was slowly forgotten except a souvenir stereogram that makes him look like a cowboy. The Yavapai riders couldn’t know that this “massacre” would be the main event that people remembered their whole tribe for, or that their sacred land would remain under the control of the American government, including the rustic-looking knot of graves repurposed as an “Indian country” tourist attraction just outside Wickenburg, Arizona.

So Fred W. Loring, cowboy-poet, watches the horses’ shadows race as he sails the San Bernardino stage westward through an ocean of dust. He dared himself to ride outside, speeding shotgun through a Fordian wide shot of red crags and cacti, his left hand knuckled around the threadbare cushion (glued to the seat), his right hand pressing his hat to his head. And of course Loring had the cocky thought if he could see me now, because it was a moment of wild abandon unlike any he’d known—but then he caught himself, because he was done imagining his life’s high points as short plays put on for Chamberlin’s benefit.

There were hoofbeats to the north, and our hero glanced at the driver, who mouthed back “buffalo?” just as the first shot whizzed past Loring’s right temple. The second connected, flinging his body headfirst from the speeding stage. The poet lay in a twisted heap as the horses galloped off, unable to turn from his last sight on Earth: a vertical horizon shimmering with visible heat, Arizona cracked into red land and blue sky. Gunshots popped through the hiss in his bleeding ears.

Then all at once Fred W. Loring felt pleasantly warm, and the thin oxygen reaching his occipital lobe during his last sip of life let him believe, with utter conviction, that the silhouette he saw resolving along the horizon was not a mirage, but a lonesome mule, come to carry him home.

Winner of the 2016 Winter Anthology Contest