By: Elisa Korentayer
Place: First

Nine o'clock in the morning in Crookston, Minnesota, and, despite the heat, there was already a line around the block to see the Petrified Man. He was a sensation. The Petrified Man had been discovered just a few weeks before when Richie Omand dug a culvert on his rented land and found a body buried in the red dirt. The papers said the body might be 150 to 200 years old or even a member of some prehistoric race. Local entrepreneur Peter Bergo bought the body from Richie and rented a storefront to charge customers to see it. I was twenty-fourth in line for the grand opening.

Back in 1896, I wasn’t yet John Olaf Todahl, professional illustrator and newspaperman. I was just young Johnny with a sketchbook. When I read about today’s grand opening, I convinced Ma to let me walk four miles into town by myself to see it.

I couldn’t believe that a prehistoric body had actually been found in my hometown, but I wanted it to be true. I needed to know if something found in our little town could be as remarkable as the papers said. I sketched the onlookers as I waited, pencil slipping in my sweaty palm. 

News of the Petrified Man had even made it to the Minneapolis Journal. “Nature has in a wonderful manner preserved the form and features of this man in a far more perfect condition than in any Egyptian mummy embalmed by the hands of man. Teeth, finger nails, moustache and even the color and texture of the skin show plainly.”

Better than a mummy? I couldn’t wait to get in. I’d never seen anything that old. 

I peered over shoulders as I inched ahead. A hawker lifted his top hat and made bold claims about who the man might have been. After what seemed like hours, I was inside. Between an old woman’s hat and a farmer’s arm I caught a peek of something white and vaguely man-sized. Finally it was my turn to approach. The corpse was naked, save a large leaf covering its privates. It lay propped on a cot, arms by its side. Its white and chalky skin looked hard to the touch. I asked the hawker why, and he hushed me. “He’s faded from being buried so long. Move along, son. Everyone deserves a turn.” I stood by the corpse for a moment, ignoring the jostles from behind. I wanted to memorize the Man so I could sketch it later.

Something was off about it.

Something about its lines. Too perfect, perhaps? Milton, my drawing teacher, would say that nothing is perfect except Nature, which is only perfect in its imperfections. Milton was an artist too. He sculpted things out of plaster. And something about the Petrified Man felt… well, crafted, to me. 

Three months later, all the people in all the towns within a day’s ride had already paid their ticket price. The line around the block had disappeared, and the local paper reported the Petrified Man had been sold. It was going on tour.

I told Ma, “That’s no fair! People making money off something that they aren’t even sure is real.”

She responded, “Peter wouldn’t have been able to sell it for a thousand bucks unless it were real, would he?”

Hmmmm. I wasn’t sure. The Petrified Man had captured my imagination. If it wasn’t born of woman, then it was fake. And if it was fake, then someone had to have made it. But…who?

I tried to follow the progress of the Petrified Man across the country, tracing its journey through the newspapers I read at the Crookston Public library. I lost it for a while, and then, suddenly, the papers started covering it again. There was new controversy. Not about its authenticity, oddly enough, but about its ownership. The Petrified Man was making people good money. George McPherin, who owned the land where Richie’d found it, decided he was due a piece of the action. After all, the corpse had been found on his land. According to the courts, ownership of the Petrified Man ultimately hinged on one legal question: was a dead body to be considered real estate or personal property?

I laughed so hard at that I almost dropped the newspaper. Trying to figure out who owned a body? My drawing hand tingled. The artist in me was talking again. I was more and more sure there hadn’t ever been a soul in the Petrified Man.

But everybody still wanted that corpse. The La Count brothers, Antoine and Malve, showed up to lay claim. They declared that the Petrified Man was the body of their father, whom they had buried in a shallow grave fifty-eight years before. The Crookston newspaper said, and I had to agree, that there was a striking resemblance between the body and the brothers. But I was still skeptical.

By this time, the Petrified Man had been sold to some North Dakotans, and the Grand Forks sheriff—sure the body would be extradited to Minnesota any day—put it in the safest place he could think of: the county jail.

The whole affair niggled at me. What an uproar over something that had no certificate of authenticity. If my gut was right, if the body wasn’t even a body, then there was someone out there who had made it. An artist like me. And if the body was found here near Crookston, then that someone might well be… in Crookston.

I thought and thought. The body was white. The hawker had said it was because it had been in the ground so long. But my boots turned red after one day in our iron-rich mud. Surely if something was going to be buried in our soil for centuries, it would be stained redder than a maple leaf in fall.

What material could explain the whiteness of his skin?

And then I dropped my forehead into my palm. How could I have been so slow? It was plaster, of course. And I knew someone who knew plaster.

I knocked on Milton’s door and waited. I knew it took him a little while to wipe enough goop from his hands to manage the latch.

“Why, hello, young  John. I wasn’t expecting to see you today. Did we have a drawing lesson scheduled?”

“No, sir. I was just wondering. I’ve been following the progress of the Petrified Man. You know the one?”

Milton began to look everywhere but at me. He mumbled a few words about having heard something about it. The skin around his lips went all tight.

I looked closer, and suddenly recognized his expression. He was trying so hard not to smile he was working his jaw like he had a wad of tobacco stuffed inside.

“Milton!” I exclaimed. “You’re the one. You made the Petrified Man out of plaster, didn’t you?”

He wrinkled his nose and tilted his head. “And what if I were?”

“Then you must claim it! The people ought to acknowledge you. Your skill, your talent!”

“And what if they claim that I’m just trying to lose them all the money that they’re earning? People don’t like other people coming in to tell them their cash cow is a fraud.”

That stopped me. “But, don’t you want credit? And isn’t it a crime for so many people to pay good money to see a fake?”

Milton picked a piece of dried plaster off his apron. “Son, the world is a complicated place. But, you have a point. Maybe I have an ethical responsibility to let people know. At the same time, I don’t much want credit or blame.”

“How’d you do it?”

His grin was full across his face now. “Last winter was slow. Remember? I occupied myself by whittling a very large piece of wood into a human-sized plaster mold.”

“That’s brilliant!” I had an idea. My foot began to tap with excitement. The molds were proof of the Petrified Man’s origins. Proof that didn’t have to be traced back to Milton. “Where’s the mold now?”

“Buried in the pile out back.”

“How about we dig it up, and deliver it to the park? Let someone else find it and figure it out.”

He put out a white-streaked hand for me to shake. I took it, all scratchy and rough in my hand. “You have a deal, son.”

So that’s what we did. Took that plaster mold to the park, where it was soon found. The next thing we knew, George McFerrin and the La Count brothers had backed off their legal cases. No one much wanted a Petrified Man who was neither Petrified nor Man. Last we heard, Milton’s plaster masterpiece had been sold again. This time, to a salesman, who traveled far away to places that had never heard about Crookston, Minnesota or its fantastic Petrified Man.


About the author

Elisa Korenne/Korentayer is a speaker, songwriter, writer, and performer known for her original songs and stories about oddballs in history. Her debut memoir, Hundred Miles to Nowhere, was a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award, the National Indie Excellence Book Awards, and the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. 

Rural life influenced art, and Elisa began to specialize in thematic song-and-story concerts featuring her oddball songs. Soon Elisa became known as a pioneering rural artist, performing across the region. Elisa has degrees from Yale University and the London School of Economics.

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