EDITOR’S NOTE: This story by Paige Craig was the second-place winner in the 2022 Wrting Competition sponsored by the Paris-Henry County Arts Council. The contest required entrants to tie their stories into the Henry County-Paris Bicentennial that is being celebrated this year. This is Part Three of the story written by Craig.

It wasn’t long until the entirety of Dunlap was either awakened by the choking soot, or Braxton’s desperate cries for help. Some panicked, others tried fighting the blaze with buckets of water, and a few rushed to alert the volunteer fire and sheriff department on the square, who later arrived on scene with a hose wagon, and sleepy lawmen, tired but willing to help. By this point however, the house was already engulfed, as the use of buckets proved very ineffective at fighting the blaze. The volunteer firemen and authorities then took over, and began the long, slow process of fighting the fire.

The hoses were rolled out and set to work on extinguishing the flames. However, the flames were proving to be very resilient, and before long, the wagon had to be rewatered. While the wagon crew began searching for a well to pilfer from, the other volunteers and the sheriff began attempts at entering the home. Some progress was made by the individuals, with a couple making it as far as the building’s mudroom, but the intense heat, as well as the thick, black smoke made it nearly impossible to safely traverse the burning structure. These attempts were then called off, when part of the shingled roof fell in, proving the structure was no longer safe to properly search. Shortly afterwards, the wagon had been refilled, and the smothering of the fire continued. Despite this newfound hope, it wouldn’t be until morning, and over five more trips to the local wells, that the fire was finally put out.

By morning, the house was little more than a few charred frames and a blackened chimney. Smoke blew off burnt planks and large heaps of ash were strewn across the house’s interior. The earth around the house had also been burnt by the fire, reduced to ebony strands of grass and bare soil. The only parts of the property untouched by the fire were the surrounding forest, the old oak, now lacking a well-known hoot, and the wooden fence.

Shortly after nine, the recovery commenced. Most of the town, waking up to the distant smoke, had already arrived at the scene, and many decided to aid the volunteers and lawmen. They all approached the destroyed property, and dug through piles of scorched wood and hot roof tiles, hoping to find the family. With this extra help, it wasn’t long before two family members were soon discovered in the remnants of what was thought to be a bedroom.

One of the cadavers laid alongside the remains of a window sill, slumped down and naked. It was burned jet black, with large, oozing cavities bursting from its shoulders and chests. Gelled blood seeped from these orifices and trickled down its purplish, leathery skin, dripping onto the floor. Its face was shriveled and stretched tightly over its skull, with its eyes and nose entirely gone. Similar to its face, the arms and legs were more skin and bone than human flesh. Its acrid smell, mixed with the presiding smoke, made many of those who observed it vomit. It was unknown which family member it was, but the charred nub resting between its legs led most to assume it was one of the men in the family.

The second corpse was curled in the middle of the room, and was in a much worse condition than the first. It was little more than charred bones and black, shriveled flesh. Parts of its arms and legs lay still alongside it, the ligaments having melted away. Its chest cavity was wide open, with discolored and deflated organs still resting in place. It no longer had a face and was just a dark, shattered skull. Unlike its ghastly counterpart, this body only smelt of ash, but its appearance more than horrified the volunteers. Sadly for the investigators, it was reduced to such a basic state, that no one could even try to identify it.

Unsurprising, most of the locals decided they had seen enough and left the rest of the recovery to the authorities. With the first “bedroom" completely searched, they then moved to what they believed was the second. They sorted through the rumble, until someone noticed something covered by a seared support beam in the corner of the room. Removing it revealed a saddening sight: a body huddled against the wall, with its head shielded by its arms and knees.

It was of similar appearance to the one found alongside the window sill, having cracked, leathery skin, as well as holes leaking from its back. It did, however, have less burn damage than the other corpses, with the remains of a nightgown still present, as well as its chest and face. Despite burns and missing appendages, it still appeared human. Despite this good condition, a facial identification could not be made, caused by a combination of fire deterioration and the locals struggling to remember the faces of the reclusive “Silents.” It was, however, identified as a female, confirmed by the charred mounds on her chest, as if the nightgown wasn’t evidence enough.

With the third member now discovered, focus was entirely placed on finding the last relative. Wood was sorted. Tiles were thrown into heaps. Burned furniture was cast aside. And yet, a fourth body could not be found. At first, many were hopeful that someone had somehow made it out of the house alive. But due to their absence, thoughts soon shifted toward a more grim conclusion. Was this really an accidental tragedy, or was this murder?

The remains of the other family members were then wrapped up in bed sheets provided by their neighbors, and carefully removed from the final resting place, to a stretch of grass left untouched by the flames. The recovery now was completed, and the town sheriff began his investigation. With help from neighbors, the property was extensively searched for any clues to the fire, and surviving family members. The house itself proved useless, as most of its interior was burned beyond all recognition. However, the outskirts of the property did bring in a lead, which was a note, shoved between a fence post. It was written in a language none of the spectators understood, but was inferred to be German. The sheriff sent Solomon Fuller, a member of the crowd and longtime friend of the Hunt family, to fetch one of their members to translate the writing. He soon arrived with the family’s aging, yet jolly patriarch, who then revealed the note’s contents:

It was hopeless to try to fix things. I’m so sorry, Angelika. May God forgive me.

The cryptic nature of the message gave few answers. The only conclusion that it provided was that one of the victims was named Angelika and that the perpetrator was remorseful for their actions. But with no other evidence being discovered on the property, the mystery of the “Silent” family tragedy was proving to be as confusing as the family themselves.

To fill in these gaps, gossip and rumors acted as popular explanations. Perhaps the father burned down the house and killed his family, due to their dysfunctional nature, and ran to avoid the consequences. Perhaps the family accidentally left the gas oven on overnight, and the son was the only one to escape, and survivor's guilt made him skip town. Perhaps Angelika started the fire, and left the message on the fence to throw the police off her trail. Such leads were considered and quickly dropped by police, as there was little evidence to support any theory, and the case only grew colder and colder. But even with the mysterious deaths of the “Silents” remaining unsolved, life in Paris simply moved on.

After the three members were buried in the Paris City Cemetery, the townsfolk continued with their daily lives. Mr. Schreiber’s job was quickly remanned, the remains of their house were soon removed, and the only talk of a German family in town was that of the Hunts. But with their tenure at 29 Dunlap St. now over, the “Silents” still left one, everlasting mark on the town. Its impact, however, was one that greatly haunted the residents of Dunlap Street for decades, and its discussion was entirely a sealed lip affair. It was a detail that was so miniscule, yet so poignant to those who experienced it firsthand. For if you press a neighbor about what they remember the most from the night of Nov. 1, 1886, they will always respond that it was the fact they couldn’t hear a single cry for help from within the burning house on 29 Dunlap St.

NOTE: This story is dedicated to Dr. David Webb. Thank you for your extensive work in researching Henry County’s history, as well as fact-checking my work.

Load comments