In the dining room, there is an elegant table set for two. Even from a distance, the delicate rose pattern on the china can be made out, the flower’s stems linked together by ornate threads of real gold.
In the kitchen, cabinet doors hide cans of food. There is no clutter, no fruit on the counter, no crayon drawings to distract the eye. The refrigerator is empty.
In the sitting room, a grand piano stands open, though there is no sheet music above the keys. Black and white photos sit on a tall table near the window. Years of dust have obscured the faces.
In the garage, obsolete tools hang side by side.
In the library, first editions line the shelves. A heavy maple desk sits in the middle of the room. The desk is locked, but in its drawers rests a Last Will and Testament. The last line, each word capitalized for emphasis, says, “...Nothing In The Estate Is To Be Disturbed Until We Return With The Lord.”
And nothing has been. The windows are boarded tight against prying eyes. The doors are padlocked. The treasures they stored up are safe.
Outside, the once-pristine garden is overgrown, weeds edging out the ferns and bleeding hearts. Trees have fallen in the yard. The gravel driveway can’t be found.
In the beginning, people marveled at the house, its owners, the will. But over the years, they all became part of the town’s landscape: accepted first, then ignored and eventually forgotten.
The visitors come now, not for the house or its long-gone inhabitants, but for the child who lived and died in its shadow. Just across the road, she might have watched and wondered as the house became frozen in time. She was three when it was boarded up; three too when she died, the victim of her father’s rage and her stepmother’s indifference.
She was a beautiful child, everyone said. Long curls framing a classic face with searching blue eyes. Those eyes stared out from newspapers all over the world after her cigarette-burned, bruised and broken body was found. Such stories were new then; shocking for a world not yet tainted by Auschwitz, Dachau and the depths to which humanity could fall.
“America’s child,” they called her. They wondered why no one stepped in, responded to her cries. “Little Mary Magdaline,” one headline read, “Our National Shame.” And another: “Where were YOU the Day She Died?”
The funeral crowd, estimated at 20,000, took three days to pass her coffin. It was the only safe haven her body had ever known. A gentle rain (“God’s tears,” they said) fell as they lowered her into the ground.
Alone, the silent house watched it all. The rain drummed into its tin-shingled roof with a strong and steady rhythm. Tha-thump, tha-thump, like the beating of a heart.
Mary Magdaline Pitts lived and died in a small Kentucky town. On December 29, 1927, she was beaten to death by her father in what remains one of the worst cases of child abuse ever documented. Her death set off a national push for laws protecting children from abusive caregivers. Both her father and stepmother were sentenced to “life without mercy,” the first such sentence ever handed down in the South. Over 20,000 people from across the United States were reported to have attended Mary’s funeral. Townspeople, most of whom are far too young to remember Mary, still regularly place flowers on her grave, which is marked by a stone angel with uplifted arms and a plaque reminding us of Matthew 25:40: “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (KJV)
Just as Mary Magdaline's story is true, so is that of the house. It still stands, boarded against the world, within sight of Mary's grave.
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