Dead Men’s Shoes

Tamsin Spargo
















IMAGE 1 – “Pinkerton Agency Mugshot of Oliver Curtis Perry” from 1895, Reproduced from the Collection of the Library of Congress.


What calls me most radically into question? Not my relation to myself as finite or the consciousness of being before death or for death, but my presence in the proximity of another who by dying removes himself definitively, to take upon myself another’s death as the only death that concerns me, that is what puts me besides myself, this is the only separation that can open me, in its very impossibility, to the Openness of a community.[1]


This paper is a small experiment in a larger project that I am describing to myself, and now to you, as a critical auto-vivisection, a peeling back and peering through the layers of my own construction or composition as a researcher and writer engaged with what passes for the past. What I am dissecting is my relationship as a researcher and writer with a dead writer whose life and death became the subject of my last book and took me to the limit point of my own critical method. In so doing, I hope to ask a few questions (my ambitions are no more lofty) about how we manoeuvre within the space created by, and, perhaps, within, the ‘irreducible distance’ identified by Blanchot.[2]


This is by no means a conventional philosophical or literary-critical exploration of the themes we are considering in this conversation, hosted by the International Association for Philosophy and Literature, but it will, I hope, suggest some of the thoughts that have been engaging me as I negotiated the space in which I have found myself. 


The dead men’s shoes of my title may be heard, perhaps faintly, along the paths of my argument: the felt and iron tread of a German pilot talking of art to a dead hare,[3] cast shoes on the rails of an Iron Path.[4] These figures from, as you will recognise, the work of Josef Beuys and of Anselm Kiefer, whose different engagements with the traces of the past have often spurred me on, connect with and inform my own, but while they explored, and in the case of Kiefer continue to explore, more ambitious political or historical subjects,[5] I have found myself caught up in the web of attractions and anxieties that attend the delineation of a single human life. In other words, I have become, initially unwillingly and latterly embarrassedly, that least post-structuralist of writers, a (whisper it) biographer!


And so I open with the story of how a “Reader in Cultural History” was rewritten as a romantic biographer. In the late summer of 2002 I found myself walking through pine trees on a steep hillside covered in half-buried bricks. I was accompanied and watched over by a uniformed guard as I peered at each brick in turn, brushing away pine needles and earth, scraping away layers of moss to read numbers etched on each stone. I worked through the afternoon with the light fading and the guard’s growing impatience increasingly evident from his comments on the time. Eventually I gave up my quest. I took a photograph of the stones against the backdrop of the forest and we embarked on our long and winding road down to the penitentiary below where I was searched, as I had been on my way in, and ushered out into the free world.

IMAGE 2 – “Graveyard”, photograph by Tamsin Spargo, 2002



That night my sleep was disturbed, as it had been for some months, by a recurrent nightmare, a nightmare in which I discovered that I was a character in an A.S. Byatt novel. The dream had a very literal origin in a novel I had started reading as I embarked on my new project. The uneasy poststructuralist haunted by a longing for the real whose unravelling is the story of The Biographer’s Tale felt uncannily like me. Phineas G., a postgraduate student, rejects his planned career as a “postmodern literary theorist” because of “an urgent need for a life full of things” and ends up on a quest to reconstruct the life of a biographer, a quest that involves the unravelling of his own identity.[6]


My identification with Byatt’s character was only partial. I had no yearning for things or desire to affirm the existence of a reality before, behind or above, representation, but I had embarked on a quest that seemed to resonate with that longing. I was writing a book that could most properly be called a biography. I had tried calling it, and thinking of it as, many other things: a cultural history, a narrative history, a “not-quite-true story.” I was under contract to a mainstream publisher with no expectations of genre, just of market share, so the generic definitions were self-imposed and were in part an experiment in how far I could deviate from the constraints of the negative catechism of post-structuralism which had always felt intellectually right but socially uncomfortable.


I had spent the summer in upstate New York on the last phase of my research into the history and stories of Oliver Curtis Perry, a train robber, notorious escaper, and prison protestor who could fairly be described as one of America’s first, and certainly most knowing of, “celebrity criminals.” Although I was initially interested in this process of constructing celebrity, my research project had increasingly become a search for the man, for traces of a life, in ways that tested my own understandings of my position as a cultural historian. A few months before my failed search for the traces of a “body,” I had sat on the porch of a clapboard house, holding Perry’s Colt 45 in my hand and talking uneasily with the great granddaughter of the Deputy Sheriff who had captured Perry. As she spoke of her heroic ancestor I began to feel a distinctly non-academic hostility: her dead man had fought with my dead man and won. I was in the grip of what Richard Holmes, the most reflexive of romantic literary biographer’s has called the “pre-biographic phase,”[7]a love-affair with the subject characterised by irrational identifications and passions where objects owned by the “beloved” take on a numinous – one might almost in Benjaminian terms say “auratic” – property.[8]


IMAGE 3 – “Pinkerton Dtective Agency Flyer” from 1895, reproduced from the Collection of  the Library of Congress.


In Holmes’ argument, to become what he calls truly biographical this identification must be broken: “the true biographic process begins precisely at the moment, at the places, where this naïve form of love and identification breaks down.  The moment of personal disillusion is the moment of impersonal, objective re-creation.”[9] For me this was not a particular issue, as I had no, or only a residual, belief that what I was seeking was a unified subject. I would concur with Jo Burr Margadant in her succinct summary that: “The subject of biography is no longer the coherent self but rather a self that is performed to create an impression of coherence or an individual with multiple selves whose different manifestations reflect the passage of time, the demands and options of different settings, or the varieties of ways that others seek to represent that person.”[10]


Nevertheless, as I embarked on my research, I found myself squeezed, at first by others and increasingly by myself, into the narratives of romance and detection that form two dominant strands of biographical activity and Richard Holmes’ observations would prove uncannily accurate in identifying the emotional or non-rational aspects of my experiences. As someone who once addressed a conference of historians on the validity of prurience and lust as motives, I am convinced of the need to acknowledge this aspect of my own motivation at least.


In Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Holmes records what he describes as a “haunting”: “an act of deliberate psychological trespass, an invasion or encroachment of the present upon the past, and in some sense the past upon the present.”[11] He connects this with part of the biographical process that sees “the creation of a fictional or imaginary relationship between the biographer and his subject; . . . a ceaseless discussion, a reviewing and questioning of motives and actions and consequences, a steady if subliminal exchange of attitudes, judgements and conclusions. It is fictional, imaginary because of course the subject cannot really, literally, talk back; but the biographer must come to act and think of his subject as if he can.”[12]


There was, in my own experience of researching the life of Oliver Perry, a “haunting” but the ghosts were from my own past, the shades of founding impulses- of curiosity, compassion, even sadism, that led to the childhood fascinations which had brought me to the point and condition at and in which I was searching for my Wanted Man.[13] This, the title of my book was set in my mind long before the first words were written, signalling to me, if to no-one else, the lack and desire at the heart of my biographical quest.


In truth, one of my motives in exploring Perry’s story was that he had evidently struggled against extraordinary odds and in the most atrocious conditions to make his mark, and as we will see this was quite literal, and another was to continue that process by getting his name and story into print once more. Another motive, which intrigues me in relation to more ambitious analyses of the role of visual images in our engagement with the past, was the extraordinary impact of his photograph – a challenging image of bruised and defiant masculinity that repeatedly shocks viewers in its apparent modernity. In a sense, I fell for a dead man who wasn’t quite dead. Twin impulses of justice and attraction combined to impel me towards my project, to find out what had happened to this man. Michel de Certeau describes the historiographical quest for the meaning of the past as aiming at “calming the dead who still haunt the present, and at offering them scriptural tombs” but was I seeking to calm this dead man or raise him once more?[14] And was meaning really what I sought at all?


Intriguingly, in the context of our discussions today, the dead man whose life I was attempting to reconstruct in writing, and through reading the traces of his existence, had been explicitly presented in his lifetime as speaking from a living tomb.  “Out of His Living Tomb Speaks Oliver Curtis Perry” was the headline of one newspaper story that claimed to report the prisoner’s own version of his life story. But while the press implicitly deployed the trope of the conversation with the dead that has figured so dominantly in ancient and modern historiographical theories, it was the fact of his writingnot speaking that gave me pause in my seemingly inexorable progress towards a romantic biography. What signalled the existence of the prisoner within the living tomb was his writing- the writing produced and reproduced in print in newspapers but also unpublished writings that I uncovered for the first time and, ultimately, the act of writing itself.


I was, from the first, aware that I was writing a history of a man who was engaged throughout his adult life in trying to shape his own public and historic meaning, a man who the night before his trial wrote to his father bequeathing him his robber’s mask and other clothing to sell to a museum and who engaged a lawyer to sue a museum that had displayed a waxwork dummy of him for profit. At times, I felt that I was in a contest with Perry, racing through the archives to keep ahead of him as he negotiated his own construction in the newspapers and in the records that would stand unread for decades. But, as my research uncovered new layers of his writing, I was faced with a challenge – how would I testify to the existence of this dead man writing in a way that did not seal him up in a new “scriptural tomb”?


I can identify three phases, or if figured spatially rather than temporally, layers, of Perry’s relationship to writing. The first could be seen as a life in others’ writing, being written about, as a child criminal and adult criminal and inmate, constructed in press reports, prison and medical records, but swiftly he develops an active life in his own writing after being sentenced to nearly 50 years hard labour for robbing the American Express Special train single-handedly, twice. 


My archival research uncovered a mass of written material by Perry.  There were many, many letters and accounts, sent to individuals and newspapers campaigning, explaining, complaining, there were demands for particular types of food written as part of his twenty-three year hunger strike. The letters and stories formed the basis for the press construction of the, as good as dead, man speaking from his living tomb and they are largely conversational in style and tone, albeit evidently anticipating the concerns and interests of the media and political campaigners of the day.


But there is, and I find myself changing tenses automatically, another form of writing that appears to be less concerned with communication and more with a desire to control the limits of existence within the “living tomb.” Perry wrote poetry. Its subjects varied from bitter ironic celebrations of feast days like Thanksgiving to a risqué limerick on a young lady and a flower, sealed up and marked as “obscene,” and many – a majority – were in the form of acrostics. The visual impact of these acrostics with the first letter of each line spelling out a vertical phrase or name, was enhanced by the distinctive signature that appeared at the foot of almost every poem. The poems were written in pencil on scraps of notepaper and all were written, in the sense of transcription, by someone other than Perry.


Perry had been blind since 1895, three years after his sentence, when he had constructed an apparatus to drive nails into his own eyes.  Declared insane and doubly incarcerated in the “living tomb” of a State Hospital or asylum within a prison, he was dependent on others – prisoners, inmates and sometimes keepers – to physically write on his behalf. 


Intriguingly, while the handwriting differs, implying a range of writers, the signature, a quite flamboyant one, remains constant, indicating that he retained this act of writing, the inscribing of his identity. This aspect of Perry’s writing can be seen as literally and figuratively “making his mark.” Perry’s writing obviously connects with other ways in which he tried to control and manipulate his bodily existence, from his self-blinding and hunger strike, to a refusal to wear prison clothing, preferring to be near naked in sub-zero temperatures. Perry’s bodily campaigns can be read as attempts to negotiate a position of control over the limits of life and death; was writing, I wondered, a similar exercise? It was obviously a way of literally inscribing an alternative identity to the one assigned by the institution (No 216), and offering a form of escape, but the gaming aspect of the acrostics and other poems playing on identity suggested the existence of implied readers who would be dazzled by Perry’s skills. Acrostics may have a mnemonic function for the blind as an aid to composition, but they are also defiantly visual and spatial as a written form and in their puzzling aspect display an ingenuity that had been a mark also of Perry’s crimes and even of his presentation of his self-blinding which he described to reporters as being effected by an extraordinarily ingenious machine when, in fact, it may have been two nails in a piece of wood.


One significant disclosure in letters by a friend was that Perry’s writing had also become a property to him – the most poignant of letters about him refer to his near total collapse when a book of his poems had been confiscated as a punishment and pronounced lost. The book seems to have been Perry’s only possession of value and appears, if the correspondence I traced is accurate, to have triggered a bout of extreme depression resulting in Perry entering an escalating cycle of disruption and punishment. Significantly, Perry’s loss of his writing coincided with the date of a loss I experienced as I tried to track the remainder of Perry’s life through his written traces.


The final phase in Perry’s writing, as I encountered it, was a total cessation or, more properly, an absence. Perry’s inmate’s file stuffed with scraps of paper – his poems, letters and correspondence – contained nothing written by him from the date 1912 until his certified death, in prison, in 1930. The inclusion of some other materials and letters by others indicate that this was not merely because of changed record-keeping or increased censorship. It seems that the loss of the book may have become for Perry the end of writing. Was this because of the perceived loss of this literal and historical record of his writerly existence? Very occasional newspaper articles from this period presented a figure remodelled in the terms of prohibition-era crime as a bloodthirsty gangster but the outlaw was out of time, a literal and figurative anachronism, and these figures had clearly broken free from any relation to the body in the asylum.


As a researcher and as a writer I was faced with a dilemma. How was I to respond to this lack, this absence of evidence? Nothing indicated a reason. Had Perry stopped writing and if so why? Was there writing that had been censored or simply discarded or lost? The records of the institution gave no clue. I could, and perhaps should, have just made this the end of the account. I had been confronted by a living death of writing. My subject had escaped. But I found that I had become enmeshed in a relationship and a process that made such a break almost unbearable. I needed to create a version or vision of Perry beyond, as well as in honour of, his writing.


What I actually did, regarded retrospectively, was to fall back on literary figures. And in so doing, I found that I was participating in a process that had begun in his own lifetime. Early in his “career” Perry had exploited literary capital, making reference in interviews to Hawthorne and Dickens among others, to create for himself a character of greater gravitas and significance than that constructed in the press. As contemporary reporters inserted Perry into ever more anachronistic scenarios of mobsters and blood-soaked fiends, dime-novel writers created fictionalised versions of Perry and his story in terms of boys-own adventure and sentimental romance. I found myself re-writing, figuring the final years of his life in classical and literary terms. One press impression of Perry wrapped in a blanket in his cell with a bandage around his eyes, became for me an image of Tiresias, while I found myself imagining his final years as a bare man, past fighting and past writing in terms of the figure of Lear on the heath. In both examples I seemed to be filling the gap left by the lack of words with a visual textual figure of greater “status” than those supplied by others.  I had taken over Perry’s position in a game of literary reference and was playing the classical card in an unconscious attempt to trump time.


IMAGE 4 – “Wanted Man Cover,” Designed by William Webb for Bloomsbury, 2004.


I end this stage of my enquiry, or in-quest, by finding that my unconscious decision to write Oliver Perry into a literary history must be judged as an attempt to refute his death. As a postscript, I would like to mention one last encounter I had during my research that testified to the permeability of the boundaries between life and death, truth and fiction. On my last day in the prison, I interviewed a former keeper. The man had certainly been born before Perry died but had only worked in the institution ten years after his death. Yet he happily regaled me with tales of his personal experiences with Old “Blind Eye Perry.” Long before my attempt to testify to his life, Perry had evidently slipped the bounds of death.




[1] Blanchot, Maurice, The Unavowable Community (Barrytown: Station Hill, 1989), 9.

[2] Blanchot, Maurice, The Infinite Conversation (Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 1993), 76.

[3] Josef Beuys, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1963), a performance piece featuring Beuys, his face covered with honey and gold-leaf, walking through the Galerie Alfred Schmela in Dusseldorf, carrying a dead rabbit in his arms, to which he seemed to explain art.

[4] Anselm Kiefer, Iron Path (1986), oil, acrylic, and emulsion on canvas, with olive branches, iron and lead, depicting a bleak landscape with two railway tracks receding into the distance where they diverge. Part way up the tracks, attached to the canvas are cast-iron replicas of working men’s shoes. The work is conventionally interpreted as a representation of the Holocaust.

[5] For a trenchant exploration of the work of both Beuys and Kiefer, and for directions to further and contrasting analyses see Matthew Biro, “Representation and Event: Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys, and the Memory of the Holocaust,” The Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 16, Number 1 (2003): 113-146.

[6] A.S.Byatt, The Biographer’s Tale (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000), 3, 4.

[7] Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (London: Flamingo, 1995), 66-69.

[8] Walter Benjamin’s conception of the aura is developed in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), reprinted in Walter Benjamin,  Illuminations: Essays and Reflections , ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Shocken, 1969), 219-253.

[9] Richard Holmes, Footsteps, 67.

[10] Jo Burr Margadant, ‘Constructing Selves in Historical Perspective’, in Jo Burr Margadant (ed.), The New Biography: Performing Femininity in Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University ofCalifornia, 2000), 7.

[11] Richard Holmes, Footsteps, 66.

[12] Richard Holmes, Footsteps, 67.

[13] Tamsin Spargo, Wanted Man: The Forgotten Story of Oliver Curtis Perry an American Outlaw (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2004).

[14] Michel de Certeau, “Writings and Histories,” in Tamsin Spargo, ed., Reading the Past: Literature and History (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), 157.


Tamsin Spargo is a Reader in Cultural History and Director of the School of Media, Critical and Creative Arts at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom. She is the author of The Writing of John Bunyan (1997), Foucault and Queer Theory (1999), Reading the Past (2000) and Wanted Man: The Forgotten Story of an American Outlaw (2004).

Layers of Time: Life, Death, Memory, January 2008