Editor’s Note: Herewith, Chapters 1 and 2 of Portrait of Ignatius Jones, Peter David Shapiro’s third novel, now published. Capitalizing on the late-19th-century fascination with psychics and confidence games, with a dash of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the novel takes the reader from Victorian Boston to the Peaceable Kingdom of Vermont, where things are not as peaceful as one might think.
September 12, 1896
Testimony of Mrs. Eugenia Stephenson concerning a Meeting at the Boston Spiritualist Lyceum
I WAS SEATED AMONGST THIRTY others in the audience in a meeting hall of the Boston Spiritualist Lyceum on Tremont Street when Ignatius Jones entered, accompanied by Mr. William Price following several steps behind.
Ignatius Jones sat behind a table at the front of the room.
To be sure, I’d heard the whispers emanating from certain quarters in Boston, that he takes liberties with women without regard to their marital circumstances, that his appetites are ravenous and cannot be sated, and that his temper rises to ungovernable proportions once roiled by insults or betrayals.
They say that unaccompanied women enter and depart his house on Pinckney Street at all hours and in plain view of his Beacon Hill neighbors, that they flaunt their identities without shame, even some who are well-known in polite society, as well as others who are more familiar to devotees of our city’s gentlemen’s clubs.
Such calumnies failed to dissuade me. I resolved to see for myself the most renowned spiritualist in Boston and to hear his words directly.
Now that I was in his presence, I had to acknowledge that he was as striking a man as I had imagined, exhibiting no indicia of the horns and tail that might be inferred from the malicious stories about him. Tall, strong featured, and elegantly dressed in a fine wool suit and purple silk cravat, he made a wonderful impression. In particular, his eyes, as dark as coal, which at first glance appeared harsh in their intensity, in truer fact expressed a most powerful empathy once they were met with an open accepting mind that was unobstructed by fear or hostility.
In short, I cannot deny that my heart beat faster on seeing him in person for the first time.
Mr. Price, who was described on our program as Ignatius Jones’ tour manager and close friend, also offered an attractive appearance, being about the same age and height as Ignatius Jones, very light complexioned with long blond hair and blond eyebrows like those of a Teutonic knight’s. He grasped in his arms a painting in a wood frame that he carried in such a way that we could not see its subject. He carefully leaned the painting against Ignatius Jones’ table so that it continued to face away from us, and then strode to the back of our meeting room where he stood to watch the proceedings.
We remained completely quiet, except for a gentleman behind me who could not control his infernal cough, while Ignatius Jones surveyed each of us, saying nothing. When his eyes met mine, I felt with the greatest certainty that they were penetrating into my very mind and heart.
Finally, he spoke to us in a voice so deep that it rumbled like thunder even while his tone remained conversational as if he were addressing just one other person.
“This evening I will conduct five readings,” he said. “Depending on my ability to receive communications from your beloved Departed, each reading will last fifteen minutes, more or less.”
He reached into a straw basket on the table. It contained note cards on which I and other audience members had written our names. An assistant had dropped the cards in the basket after we paid a fee, ten dollars each, to attend the session.
“Mrs. Eugenia Stephenson.”
“That’s me!” I ejaculated, incredulous that Ignatius Jones would ever have occasion to utter my name with his very tongue and lips, let alone in public before an audience.
“Please come forward, Mrs. Stephenson, to join me at my table.”
I did so, not daring to look at the others in the room. I dreaded to see the envy they must have felt that I was selected for his first reading, and not them.
His firm, warm hand enveloped mine as he held it on the table.
“You have lost someone,” he said.
That was true. I was recently widowed.
“Yes,” I said. “My husband.”
“He is with us now,” Ignatius Jones said. “He is telling me that he died unexpectedly. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“He suffered a mishap of some kind. Am I making sense to you, Mrs. Stephenson?”
“Yes,” I said. “An accident.”
“He is telling me that he lost his balance and he fell. Is that what happened?”
I was struck speechless. Indeed my poor husband had fallen while hiking in New Hampshire.
“Is that what happened?” he repeated.
I nodded, still unable to speak.
“I regret having to recount this terrible history,” he said, looking at me with the kindest sympathy imaginable, “but it is important that you know that my communications are truly with your husband.”
“I understand,” I said, finally finding my voice.
“He is telling me that he was present with you in spirit when you learned about his accident. He says that that you should not worry about him, that he passed into spirit so quickly that he didn’t suffer.”
On hearing this, I felt tears welling in my eyes. Ignatius Jones pressed my hand, and said, “He is telling me that he remains near you always.”
Then, to my growing wonderment, Ignatius Jones recited to me facts, one after another, that he could only have learned from my dear departed husband or from me, except that the great man and I had never conversed before this evening. He noted that I had been ill but had now mostly recovered; that the broach I was wearing was a gift from my husband that he gave to me just after we were married; and that I was introduced to my husband by a close relative, my dear older sister, now also passed.
After I returned to my seat, my mind was too occupied with all that I had just experienced to pay close attention to the next four readings conducted by Ignatius Jones, although I did join in the audience’s exclamations as undeniable proofs were delivered of his contacts with his subjects’ loved ones.
Then, having completed the readings, Ignatius Jones addressed all of us in the room.
“I will now show you a truly wondrous object.”
He turned the painting that was leaning against the table so that it faced us directly.
It was his portrait, a perfect likeness, in which he wore the same suit and cravat as he did this evening. But it was more than his image captured by skillful application of oil paint on canvas. The portrait that Ignatius Jones held in his arms was alive. It glowed, positively radiant from an internal source as if charged with Edison’s electricity. His eyes, as represented in the portrait, exerted a magnetism that was almost beyond description; they touched my soul as effectively as those of the living and breathing man who stood before us.
“As you can plainly see, this is my portrait.”
Some members of the audience chuckled. Yes, that was plain to see.
“It was painted by Desmond Wilkins to my exact specifications.”
All around me I heard murmurs of recognition. Of course we knew well of Desmond Wilkins, the most sought-after painter of members of Boston’s leading families.
“However what I hold here is more than an oil painting by Desmond Wilkins,” Ignatius Jones continued. “For a full day and night after it was completed, I clutched it in my hands, staring into the image of my own face and of my own eyes. By sheer force of will, I invested in this object a portion of my aura, of my very self, so that it is now and will forever remain part of me, and I of it.”
A quiet settled onto the room as we contemplated the portrait that was revealed now to represent even more than it first appeared.
“Someday I will pass into spirit.”
“No!” cried out a fat young man in the front row.
“Yes, I will pass into spirit, like all men, indeed like all creatures,” Ignatius Jones replied. “Even so, I will continue to communicate with you from the Other Side.”
We tried to comprehend. Were we beholding a man who was in fact an immortal being who would speak to us from his grave? Upright men of the church held spiritualism in low regard as I well knew having suffered their lectures on that topic, and in particular they looked askance on wonderful personalities such as Ignatius Jones. How would they react to what he was telling us now? How should we react? Were we like the disciples in the time of Jesus when they received prophecies of His resurrection?
“You are wondering how I will speak to you,” Ignatius Jones said. Without waiting for any of us to reply, he continued, “My answer is that persons who possess the gift of sensitivity will feel my presence in this very portrait. They will hear my voice as clearly as I now hear the voices of others who have passed to spirit. And amongst such persons, one will emerge as my messenger to relay my words to those who remain in the physical world.”
“But how will we know the truth of what we hear?” persisted the fat young man, clearly still in distress.
“You will know,” Ignatius Jones said. “Believe in me, my followers, and treasure my portrait so that together we shall pierce mortality’s dark veil.”
Boston Evening Globe, July 7th, 1903
Spiritualist Murdered. Suspected Killer Escapes.
IGNATIUS JONES, THE FAMOUS SPIRITUALIST, was declared dead today in the gentlemen’s changing room of the University Club on Beacon Street. According to police, he was assassinated by bullets fired at close range into his head and chest.
Members of the Club who witnessed the shooting identified the assailant as Mr. William Price, brother of Miss Melissa Price, a young lady with whom Ignatius Jones was believed to have had a personal relationship.
It was Mr. Price, a longstanding member of the Club, who sponsored Mr. Jones for membership despite objections in some quarters. Mr. Price was associated with Mr. Jones as director of the Ignatius Jones Spiritualist Lyceum on Tremont Street, formerly known as the Boston Spiritualist Lyceum.
Witnesses state that a loud altercation ensued between the two gentlemen in the changing room. Mr. Price accused Mr. Jones of causing Miss Price to become with child. Mr. Jones objected to the tone of Mr. Price’s accusation. At which point Mr. Price revealed that he was carrying a pistol. He fired shots at Mr. Jones and then fled the Club.
The Reverend Artemis Hutchins, a spokesman for the Price family, told the Boston Evening Globe that the family would have no comment.
Police are searching for Mr. Price and request the assistance of the public in reporting his whereabouts.
Boston Evening Globe, July 8th, 1903
Theft in Spiritualist’s Home. Portrait Missing
A THIEF GAINED ENTRY last night into the Pinckney Street home of spiritualist Ignatius Jones, who was murdered yesterday.
Mr. Jones’ housekeeper, Mrs. Shirley Kennedy, told police this morning that the only object missing, to her knowledge, is a portrait of the noted spiritualist that he had commissioned from Desmond Wilkins.
Police are questioning persons of interest with previous involvement in thefts of fine paintings. Although they have yet to announce any arrests, they are confident that this crime will be solved quickly. They declined to speculate whether the theft of the portrait of Ignatius Jones might be related to his untimely, violent death.
The Ignatius Jones Spiritualist Lyceum has offered a reward of five thousand dollars for return of the portrait.
The following statement was released to the Boston Evening Globe by the Lyceum:
“The portrait of Ignatius Jones embodies more than just a fine work of art. He commissioned it to serve as a portal for him to communicate with us after he passed to spirit. Spiritualists in Boston and around the world pray for its safe return so that we may continue to receive the words of our inspired leader, Ignatius Jones. Please be assured that whoever returns this portrait safely to us will receive the posted reward, no questions asked, and will not be subject to prosecution.”
Boston Evening Globe, July 11th, 1903
Body of Suspected Killer Found in Charles River.
THE BODY OF WILLIAM PRICE was discovered by a Harvard University student early this morning in the Charles River, floating near the Weld Boathouse.
Police have been searching for Mr. Price in connection with the slaying of famed spiritualist Ignatius Jones.
According to police, there are no signs of wounds on the body apart from the effects of being in the river.
Mr. Price is survived by his sister, Miss Melissa Price, who resides in Boston, and by his three brothers, who reside in Cambridge and in Concord.
Mr. Price’s family has submitted a claim to the police for his body. Services will be private.
Boston Evening Globe, October 9th, 1934
Spiritualist Lyceum Changes Name
A CHANGE IN NAME has been announced by the Ignatius Jones Spiritualist Lyceum on Tremont Street, which will be known henceforth as the Boston Spiritualist Lyceum, as it was known originally.
The announcement states that financial difficulties require the Lyceum to open its doors to all who are involved with spiritualist experiences, henceforth no longer limiting membership to those who adhere specifically to the example and teachings of Ignatius Jones.
Also, the Lyceum will cease licensing adherents of Ignatius Jones as Ignatius Jones Portraitist Readers since “they have no means to demonstrate the efficacy of his portrait which has been missing for more than three decades.”
* * *
SETTING UP for the rummage sale commenced well before daybreak.
Doreen Marrone, Ladies Auxiliary President in Bethel Congregational Church, marshaled her troops to lay out the items donated by church members on eleven tables, one each for toys, kitchen utensils, electronic devices, books, tools, household products, collectibles, and clothes piled separately for babies, children, men, and women. By the time the early morning sun had warmed sufficiently to consume the mist rising from the damp grass and from nearby Loon Lake, all the sale tables were arranged in their appointed spots in front of the church, a simple white wood-frame structure with a white steeple just across the road from Loon Lake Inn.
The women of the Ladies Auxiliary took their places behind their respective tables where they would answer questions about their items.
Doreen also organized a food table offering delectable home-made baked goods, and the cashier’s table to collect money for purchases.
Weather was predicted to be sunny for the Saturday of the rummage sale, so Doreen opted not to erect a canopy over the tables. A good decision, as it turned out. The dappled morning sunlight made everything look fresher and nicer, and it brightened the mood of the early-bird customers who were sauntering up from their cars in search of bargains.
Suzie Prestowicz presided over the collectibles table. This made sense since she had donated almost everything on it, plates, old photos, silverware, porcelain dolls, vinyl records, and other well-worn treasures. Sturdy, energetic, and known in town for her readiness to take on new tasks that needed to be done, Suzie waited behind her table eager to chat while also watching that her smaller items didn’t end up sliding into people’s pockets rather than being carried in the open to the cashier’s table.
Suzie had affixed little red stickers on each of her collectibles with prices ranging from fifty cents for the old photos, up to fifteen dollars for her late husband’s silver-plated shaving brush and razor.
A man stopped in front of Suzie’s table. He appeared to be about her age in his late forties, or early fifties. He had thinning brown hair behind a receding hairline, a round face, wide-set eyes, and soft smooth-shaved cheeks. His light-weight powder-blue cashmere sweater draped gently over his generous belly, the serene casual look favored by Hollywood agents, not that Suzie had met any, but she’d seen them on TV. His trousers were well cut of fine wool, and sharply pressed, in Suzie’s opinion a welcome change from the plain cotton chinos and scruffy blue jeans favored by most men in Tudorsville.
He looked like a man who denied himself nothing and harbored no regrets.
“Does anything here catch your fancy?” she asked, laying the groundwork for a friendly chat.
“It’s all wonderful stuff,” the man replied. He had a surprisingly high voice. He bestowed a tight-mouthed smile, which made Suzie think all of a sudden of a turtle that had just swallowed a fly.
“Let me know if you have any questions,” Suzie said, smiling back. “My name is Suzie Prestowicz.”
The man nodded and continued lifting and inspecting her items, and then putting them back down.
“What’s your name?” she asked, after a moment passed.
“Where are you from, Charles, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’ve got a place up the road a bit, in Woodstock,” he replied, without raising his eyes from her table, a hint that he’d just as soon not prolong their conversation.
A hint that she chose to ignore
“I would have figured you were up from Boston or New York,” Suzie said.
The man picked up a bunch of her old photos.
“May I?” he asked.
“Of course,” Suzie said.
He leafed through them, photos of men in rough work jackets and pants and women in loose-fitting black dresses posed with solemn faces in front of farm equipment or wood fences, and studio shots of men, women, and children in town clothes, seated or standing stiffly while their images were captured for posterity.
“Who are these people?” the man asked.
“Tudorsville families. They go way back. Great grandparents, great aunts and uncles. My husband called them ancestor pictures.”
“What about this painting?” The man gestured casually towards an oil painting in a wood frame that was propped against Suzie’s table.
* * *
Peter David Shapiro was born in Montreal, Canada, and now lives in the Boston area, where he maintains a practice as a management consultant. He has written two previous novels, Ghosts on the Red Line and The Trail of Money. Both feature as a main protagonist Harry Forrest West who is, by amazing coincidence, a management consultant. Learn more about Peter and his fiction at his website, and purchase his books in paperback and ebook formats at at Amazon.