Saturday, September 19, 2009

Revealed: The Lonely One

"The Lonely One" is a shadowy figure in Bradbury's novel Dandelion Wine. A serial killer who haunts the Ravine by night, and suffuses Green Town with an unwelcome air of fear and death. He is brought most vividly to life in the chapter about Lavinia Nebbs, which has also frequently been reprinted as a self-contained short story called "The Whole Town's Sleeping":
And Death was the Lonely One, unseen, walking and standing behind trees, waiting in the country to come in, once or twice a year, to this town, to these streets, to these many places where there was little light, to kill one, two, three women in the past three years. That was Death...
Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
Bradbury has never disguised the fact that his Lonely One is a fanciful extrapolation of a real criminal who held Waukegan, Illinois, in his grip:
Was there a Lonely One? There was, and that was his name. And he moved around at night in my home town when I was six years old and he frightened everyone and was never captured.
Ray Bradbury, "Just This Size of Byzantium", introduction to Dandelion Wine
In some discussions, Bradbury has clarified further, and reported that the real Lonely One was a kind of cat burglar. This is the version of events recounted (albeit briefly) in Bradbury's official biography:
The identity of the real-life Lonely One would never come to light. The cat burglar was never captured.
Sam Weller, The Bradbury Chronicles
Actually, Weller is incorrect. The real Lonely One was identified and captured. His name was Orvel Weyant, and he was captured in 1928. He spent at least a year behind bars. And he looked like this:
Orvel Weyant, image from Chicago Tribune, 18 Oct 1928


The real Lonely One's modus operandi was rather odd. According to the Chicago Tribune (2 August 1928, page 11), he would break into a gas station or a store and leave a note for the police, after helping himself to cash or goods. After months of such break-ins he became irritated at the lack of press coverage of his bad deeds, and wrote a letter of complaint to a local newspaper.

Eight months after he started his crime spree, Weyant was captured. He was spotted breaking into the Frank Burke Hardware Store in Waukegan, where he swapped his gun for a shiny new pistol.

The police cornered him. Weyant threatened to shoot himself, unless the police promised not to mistreat him upon his arrest. He was taken into custody in October 1928 (Chicago Tribune, 18 October 1928, page 16).

After his arrest, the previously unreported aspects of Weyant's crimes finally appeared in the press. Starting on 1 February 1928, he had broken into 33 places of business. Each time he broke in somewhere, he would write three letters. One was left for the owner of the premises, expressing his sympathy for their losses. A second was sent to the press, telling them how he did it. A third letter went to the police - telling them that they needed practice in solving crime. All letters were signed: "The Lonely One".

After just over a year in jail, Weyant was considered for parole. At this time, the Chicago Tribune (30 January 1930) reported that Weyant had stolen about $100 worth of goods from his burglaries, but was actually poorer after his spree than he had been to begin with. Police Chief Tom Kennedy suggested that Weyant was far from a master criminal, but was not averse to violence. He took potshots at the police on more than one occasion, although he didn't do this on the night of his arrest...but only because he picked up the wrong calibre of bullets to go with that shiny new pistol.

Weyant's parole was denied, and he continued serving a jail term of "one year to life".

It's not clear what happened to him after this point, but on 17 April 1974 the Waukegan News-Sun carried an article by one Arne Christensen, who claimed to have been at school with Weyant. Christensen contrasted the Weyant he had known ("a friendly, outsize, unmotivated sixth grader with a colossal contempt for anything smacking of book learning") with his recollection of the press coverage of The Lonely One ("...antics catapulted him into the role of a folk hero...the public found humor in the ineptness of the police in failing to foil him.")

Christensen's article ends with him asking if anyone knows what became of Orvel.

While some of the news reports name him "Orville Weyant" or "Orville Wyant", he is more often named as "Orvel Weyant". Beyond this, all we know is that he was born circa 1910, and that before his arrest he worked as a stoker for the E.J. & E "railroad roundhouse".

"Orvel Weyant" is quite a rare name. Google pulls up very few links. One of those few points to a reference to a 1920 Federal Census, showing Orvel (or Orville) as living in Lake County, Illinois, and with a birth date of circa 1910. Waukegan is in Lake County.

The other Google link points to a gravesite record in Honolulu: Orvel Weyant, 3 December 1909 - 6 November 1986.

I can't swear that this is the grave of The Lonely One, but it sounds a pretty good match. I wonder if he ever knew that he had been immortalised in Dandelion Wine?

If it were me, I'd have it etched on my gravestone.

(I am indebted to Beverly Millard of the Waukegan Historical Society for unearthing the newspaper clippings relating to the real Lonely One.)


UPDATE: In October 2021, I produced a podcast episode about "The Lonely One". Find it here:

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I returned from my first ever visit to Ray Bradbury's home town of Waukegan, Illinois. From Bradbury's fictionalised version of Waukegan, as it appears in his books Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Halloween Tree and Farewell Summer, I felt I knew the place well - although I wasn't expecting an exact one-to-one correspondence between the fiction and the reality.

Because I knew I would only be in Waukegan for a very brief time (one working day, to be exact), I made detailed preparations. First, I made a list of all the locations I had read about in Bradbury's books and in the books by his various biographers. Then, I prepared a customised Google Map to help me plot a driving and/or walking route between the various places of interest.

My Google Map can be viewed here. I have included annotations describing each place on the map. Some of the locations I have marked are real landmarks, such as the historic Genesee Theatre. Others are more notional, such as intersections where significant carnivals came to Waukegan during Bradbury's formative years.

If you browse my map - and I would certainly encourage you to do so! - you may also find it useful to play with the Google "Street View" feature. You can access this easily, just by zooming right in on any spot on the map. You will find that Bradbury's childhood home, his grandparents' house, and the old Carnegie Library show up with remarkable clarity.

I have blogged previously on the close resemblance of the geography of Waukegan and the fictional Green Town. Now I have visited the place, I am even more taken with the resemblance. Take a walking tour of Bradbury's Waukegan, and you will get a clear sense of the scale of the world inhabited by Dandelion Wine's Douglas Spaulding.

Naturally, I toured Waukegan armed with a camera. You can view my photo album - complete with explanatory captions - by clicking here. (There's a pause button at the bottom of the screen if the slideshow is too fast.)

Highlights of my whistlestop tour of Waukegan included a behind-the-scenes tour of the Genesee Theatre, a rare visit to the hidden depths of the disused Carnegie Library, a chance to view some unique Bradbury materials in the library of the Waukegan Historical Society, and a strange hour spent alone in a graveyard, trying to find Bradbury's forebears. Thanks to the Historical Society and Union Cemetery, I have been able to make some updates and corrections to my Bradbury family tree.

Why did I bother to visit? Was I just being an obsessive fan, the ultimate geek?


However, Bradbury's work is all about transforming the familiar into the unfamiliar. Reworking the real into fantasy. Writing and re-writing. Adaptation. And if we think of Dandelion Wine et al as adaptations of Waukegan into Green Town, then visiting the real Waukegan is simply another attempt to get back to the source of Bradbury's writings.

I believe I have gained an insight into Bradbury's work from making this trip. Stories such as "Exchange", "The Night" and "The Utterly Perfect Murder" have not - as I feared - been rendered mundane by my experience of the real Waukegan. On the contrary, these stories are now much more grounded in realism for me: before, perhaps, they were "magical realism"; now, they are "magical realism".

For making my visit such a success, I owe a debt of gratitude to the remarkably hospitable people of Waukegan, especially Wayne Munn, who provided important personal contacts and was instrumental in getting me into some less obvious places. I am also especially indebted to Rena Morrow of the Genesee Theatre; David Motley, the city's P.R Director; Richard Lee of the Waukegan Public Library; and the remarkable archivist Beverly Millard who, from the slightest of clues, was able to track down gravesites, coroner's reports and much else.

In the coming weeks, I will be blogging more on my Waukegan discoveries, including:

  • the TRUE STORY of "the Lonely One", the murderous presence that holds Green Town in fear in Dandelion Wine. Yes, there really was a "Lonely One" - and despite what you may have read in Sam Weller's biography of Ray, he was caught and imprisoned.
  • the mysterious case of Lester Moberg, Bradbury's uncle who was murdered in the same year that Bradbury had his fateful encounter with Mr Electrico.
In the same US trip, I also visited the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies for the first time. I will blog about this soon.