We’ve had requests to publish “The Lost Letters of Jehoshaphat Pratt: How Zombies Saved Oswego During the War of 1812,” written and read by the rotting corpse of Tim Nekritz at this year’s Oswego Zombie Crawl. Here it is:
Tis well known that this harbor, this port has long been of strategic importance, particularly in the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War), Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, some two centuries ago.
What is not well known, because the keepers of history have attempted to extinguish the flame of it, is how a group of zombies played a prominent role in our city’s history. This secret may have remained kept, except that as I undertook some projects in my basement this year, looking to mortar a beaten wall, I noticed it did not connect with the outer wall. It was instead a small hidden chamber, and inside it sat a trunk full of letters.
They included the letters of an American private by the name of Jehoshaphat Pratt, a man as anonymous as the episode he describes. The first time I read them, my eyes grew wide, hackles danced upon my neck and my head was struck with the staggering truth of the greatest military cover-up in our nation.
Which is this: Zombies saved our city during the War of 1812.
The war’s titular year was a quiet one in the town, as the action concentrated to the north, around Sackets Harbor. Yet the hand of fate pressed its bony fingers upon our port city on June 19, 1813. The history books showed that an American militia outsmarted and repelled a vast British attack force. The tomes of the times say nary a British foot fell upon the city’s soil. And until I read the letters of Private Pratt, I believed that to be truth.
But it was, according to those yellowed pages in the old trunk, a band of zombies that turned the tide.
A letter from that date begins:
I have told you the tales of my training and tension as we waited for the British to attack. Indeed, until this week, it was so much drudgery and disappointment. Until we heard word that the Redcoats planned an approach by the lake. Any available men and munitions made a heroic trek down from Sackets Harbor, but this battle would not be won by the living, but by the dead.
To our astonishment, the long-awaited attack of the British would prove to be only the second-most notable event of the day.
We heard of the size of the force and realized we were outmanned and outgunned. We chose not to be outwitted. We made the most of what we had, positioned ourselves ingeniously and prepared for a brave stand. The British brigades came in awe-inspiring number from the west.
The formidable General Wolf, Prince Regent and Royal George led the fierce fleet of the world’s most foreboding navy into our modest harbor. Shortly before noon, we let loose with cannon fire, upward of 160 shots in nearly a half-hour! Yet they kept coming through the hellacious hail of steel. We prepared for a firefight by the lake’s edge, hidden by woods both for protection and to mask their overwhelming advantage in men and munitions. Every man was valiant and disciplined, fighting with skill and courage as the smoke of spent weaponry obscured the trees around us.
But for all this, the British still landed and pushed inland on the city’s east side. They were an impressive army, so resplendent in their Redcoats, their shiny weapons and regal bearing a dispiriting sight as our ragtag militia mustered. They must have outnumbered us 10 to 1. We prepared for their onslaught, saying our silent prayers, hoping that our impending sacrifice would not be in vain.
But then we smelled our saving grace before we heard and then saw it. An aroma of rotting flesh arose, which I at first assumed was the man beside me befouling his britches. But as the stench became stiffer, I could hear the sound of moaning, the most pitiful and woeful moaning I e’er heard.
And then we saw them. The hideous horrific horde of undead.
Our town was beset by zombies.
Their faces were caved in and carved, some missing eyes, noses worn to the bones. Their skeletal arms — for those with all their appendages — grasped in front of them, clutching at air as if they attempted to snatch sustenance from it. Their spindly withered legs somehow held them aloft as they scuttled, scrambled and stumbled. They lurched, lumbered and limped forward to find the two armies face to face, the strong and stately British set to spring upon the slender and slight hometown army.
They looked not upon our pathetic band of morsels but instead cast their hollow eyes upon the hale and healthy British brigade.
Zombies, we suddenly surmised, love brains and blood, yes, along with all things red. So as the mighty British strode ashore, strapping and stout in their Redcoats, in what was left of their rotting brains, the zombies seemingly all had the same thought.
Dinner is served!
I did not want to watch what happened, and yet the gruesome spectacle was so captivating that I could not, for a time, pull away. The Redcoats, for all their bravado and bluster, had defeated the greatest living armies of the age. But an undead army? Against that, they had no defense.
The smorgasbord was a woeful wonder to behold. Captains became canapés, lieutenants lapped up like licorice, sergeants snapped up like sausages. Though greatly outnumbered, the zombies had the greatest hunger even known at that point, so excited they were by this feast served into their midst. While many zombies were felled by firing muskets and bludgeoned by bayonets, several survived the onslaught, slaked and satiated by their majestic meal. The most feared army alive was felled by an armada of undead warriors.
The townsfolk celebrated, yet remained wary. The remaining engorged zombies were overcome by sluggishness and required a mass nap. The town militia, seeing its chance, moved in and slapped the strongest irons upon the zombies. The city fathers debated what to do with the zombies. While heroic, the zombies are still a threat to the public health.
The letter enthralled me, and yet the subsequent events were alternately fantastical, fearful and furious to behold.
Private Pratt wrote the debate raged for months, threatening to divide the town, while the bailiffs warily fed the zombies the remaining scraps of the British and those felled by fever.
His letter of September 29, 1813 tells of what became of the heroic yet horrifically hungry horde. He wrote:
At long last, it was decided the zombies could not remain among the local citizenry, yet no man was brave nor foolish enough to offer to kill these valorous victors who had saved us from the British brigade. We did not want the undead, even if returned to the dead, in our town, nor their blood upon our hands, nor their destruction upon our heads. The decision was decided for a lake-going exile, either to a watery grave or into enemy territory, with their fate literally cast into the wind.
And so, the remaining zombies were hauled aboard a captured British schooner, which was towed onto the lake and then cut loose during a late-September storm. The black clouds, bracing winds and brackish waters carried the ship out of sight. Not a trace of the ship nor its undead cargo was ever seen again.
Reading the amazing account, I wondered why this most monstrous chapter of our history remained unknown. Then, in Pratt’s private papers, several decades later, I found the answer. He wrote:
The city fathers have asked that we destroy all accounts of the day the zombies saved Oswego. The witnessing of the British coming ashore was scrubbed as well, as their defeat otherwise seemed unexplainable other than to say we kept them out to the lake and turned them away as they refocused their energies. The reported numbers of defenders were rewritten from the ragtag dozens to hundreds of fictional reinforcements.
We kept it among ourselves but then a public decree was passed that stated we destroy all accounts of the zombie adventure. With traders and merchants and settlers looking to build our Port City into a center of commerce, it was decided our zombie past could scare potential business and citizens to Rochester or Buffalo or Hamilton. Thus letters and papers and diaries burned upon the public square, and into that conflagration I placed a great many sheets.
But all of those pages were blank.
The true account I stuffed into this trunk, and into it will go this last page. This final confessional, the Rosetta Stone of all, tells my tale of guilt and of grief, of a troubled and tangled mind that has seen more than any human ever should.
Because besides the zombies, the thing I remember most from that fateful time was a haunting proclamation by Old Sam the Medicine Man. Until that wintry night, we never took his predictions seriously, and many called him a drunk and a fool, but on Christmas Eve in Turner’s Tavern, he looked me in the eye, never more serious in any moment in his life.
“Young Jehoshaphat,” he said, his gaze fixed fearfully upon my person, “tis a terrible thing we’ve done. Verily, the zombies wanted to rip us limb from limb, but if we are to become an honorable nation, we must pay and acknowledge our dues, not slip them out to sea and purge our memories.”
“What do you mean, old man?” I responded, a load of grog and a general lack of patience buttressed by the impudence of my youth. “The zombies are a vicious brood, and a good riddance.”
“That may well be,” Old Sam said, and his voice went soft. “But a debt is now owed to them, a debt we did not pay. A debt they shall reclaim in blood. I have seen it. They shall return.”
I nearly spat out my drink. “Return?” said I. “We sleep with muskets loaded and sentinels sharp. If they come back to town, they shan’t ‘scape a head full of lead.”
Old Sam shook his head slowly and sadly. “Young man, ye need not fear,” he replied. “Nor your children, nor children’s children, nor their children. I saw it all in a dream, their fearful bodies marching among the flying of calendar pages. The premonition said that in one hundred and ninety-nine years, the wronged zombies will sail back into this port and return with a vengeance. Mark my words. Leave a warning.”
The words of a crazy man. And yet. I feel a need to mark those words, spake in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and thirteen, that citizens one hundred and ninety-nine years hence should know this precocious predication of a zombie return. Feels like fie and folly, and yet the marrow of my bones bades me put it to paper. By my reckoning and from what I have seen in all my years, the citizens of the twenty-first century shall be less rooted in superstition and soothsayers, and should these papers find them, perhaps they will raise a good laugh.
Or perhaps, if the prediction be correct, ’twill be their last laugh.