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The house of nil repute

If you’re a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, you’ve probably read his short story “The Purloined Letter.” If you haven’t, it’s a fun read. It’s not one of his Gothic tales, and there’s no blood, murder, madness or even entombment. Instead, it’s a story of villainy defeated by deduction.

It’s one of his detective stories, starring his ace gumshoe, M. Dupain. The plot revolves around a letter sent to a lady of the upper crust. We’re never told what was in the letter, except that if it fell in the wrong hands, it could be used as blackmail. Of course it gets stolen, by some swine high in the government, pardon the redundancy.

The gendarmes know he stole the letter. They search both his person and his digs scrupulously, but cannot find it. The prefect of police tells this to M. Dupain, and a month later, on a subsequent visit, tells him they still haven’t found it. In fact, the prefect is so desperate, he offers a reward of a year’s pay to anyone who can find the letter.

Dupain, with classic arrogance, tells him to write the check. The prefect does, and whattaya know, Dupain produces the letter, then and there.

So how did Dupain solve it?

Simple.

He figured, for a multitude of reasons, the thief would not hide the letter in the usual, obscure places. Instead, he’d hide it in plain view. He did, and Dupain snagged it back.

The moral of this: Sometimes the best hiding place is the most obvious one. This was true for that billet doux, and it’s also true for The Confounding Case of the Camouflaged Cathouse.

Location, location, location

The Camouflaged Cathouse, known to us as The Antlers, the subject of my last two columns, is an intriguing bit of local lore. While its existence was sworn to by most local adolescents, I think it was a fantasy construct, and it “existed “ only because my fellow ragamuffins and I wanted it to. Certainly, finding proof it existed is as easy as lassoing a unicorn.

I referred to it as camouflaged, not because it was painted in woodland pattern but because no one ever located it. Consensus said it was on Dorsey Street. But the issue was where on it, exactly? According to my unreliable sources, it was a couple of houses down from Dr. Bouton’s office. According to Bunk Griffin, it was in a building immediately behind what is now Fiddlehead Bistro. My brother heard it was on Dorsey Street but didn’t have any idea where. Then again, given his scholarly and sensitive nature, I wouldn’t have expected any less of him … or any more.

According to Al Pozzi, it was at the top of Dorsey Street, just off Petrova Ave. And even better, not only would that fleshpot have been in a family home; it had a name change as well: Al remembered it not as The Antlers but as Madame Petrova’s.

Something else made my seeds of doubt about The Antlers germinate, sprout and flourish: While it seemed all the boys knew about The Antlers, I never heard any men talk about it. They talked about bars and bootleggers, boozers and embezzlers, poachers and pyromaniacs, and all the local dregs and demimondaines, but not a local house of ill repute. So if they didn’t mention it, I figured it was because it never existed rather than that they’d had a sudden — and uncharacteristic — attack of discretion.

Continuing my investigation, I called my go-to guy for All Things Before My Time in Town, Howard Riley. Howard said that as a young fellow, he never heard rumors of The Antlers. I decided there could be only one of two reasons for this. Either the rumors were a 1950s invention, or Howard had been so busy as an altar boy, he was oblivious to goings-on outside St. Bernard’s confines. You can decide for your self which is more plausible.

Howard did tell me something relevant, though. When he was in the National Guard, on summer maneuvers at Camp Drum, a sergeant arranged his group of 50 guys in one long line. Then he whispered something to the first guy, told him to whisper it to the next one, and so on, to the last man. It was only one sentence, and a simple one, but by the time the last guy said what he’d heard, it bore no resemblance to the sergeant’s original sentence.

“And that’s pretty much the way these things go,” said Howard. “Stories get passed down and around, adding this detail and that, and after a while you’ve got something everything believes, but may have only a kernel of truth to it … if that.”

There, but for a consonant or two

Now we come to something that always puzzled me — where did that brothel’s name come from?

OK, I realize the name “Antlers” has a real woodsy je ne sais quoi about it. But I’d think it would be too much. After all, isn’t the essence of a bawdy house to pretend it’s the opposite of what it is? To pretend it’s exotic, romantic and intriguing, rather than just a sordid downtown drag? If so, why give it a name that conjures up the image of a Vermontville garage rather than a sophisticated pleasure palace?

Compare the names of others — The House of the Rising Sun, Malabar, The Sphinx, Sweet Evening Breeze — with The Antlers. Which ones produce the image of elite dens of delight, rather than some rube jacking deer at midnight?

Years ago, one of the town ancients said there’d been a bar named The Antlers in what is now the village parking lot, and I accepted it as the truth. But it’s not. I was wrong — no bar with that name had ever been there.

So where did the name come from, and was there any way to find it out?

I never thought so till Monday, when I found an envelope in my mailbox at the Enterprise. In it was a card from Mrs. Mary Kent. It said to call her, since she thought she knew how The Antlers’ name came about. So I did.

In age, Mrs. Kent is between Bunk and Howard. She moved here as a teen, has lived here for 70 years and is sharp as a tack and delightfully feisty.

After we got through the basic greetings, I asked her theory on The Antlers’ origin.

“Well,” she said, “I think it came about by mistake.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Because” she said. “there never was an Antlers.”

“Oh?” I said.

“I read your article, and when I read Antlers, I kept turning it over in my mind. Antlers, Antlers, Antlers,” she said. “And suddenly I remembered something, Adler’s.”

“What’s Adler’s?” I asked.

“It was a bar on Dorsey Street, near the bridge. It was pretty run down and disreputable looking, and at some point it got torn down.”

“OK,” I said.

“So I think that’s where the rumor, and the name, came from. Somehow, after the story getting told and retold, Adler’s became Antlers.”

And then it hit me — the story Howard told about that exercise at Camp Drum. At long last, and after all those years, it made perfect sense: The name, the general location, and the sleazy ambiance of Adler’s gin mill shed their actual trappings, and transformed into — Voila! — The Antlers, legendary cathouse!

Now, after doing as much research as I could and coming up with no proof The Antlers ever existed here as a bar, a bordello or anything other than a deer or moose’s rack, do I think I’ve laid that rumor to rest?

Of course not.

People almost always believe what they want — facts be damned — especially if what they believe is a popular tale from their Gilded Youth.

It was stated so well in the Western movie classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Or in the case of the Antlers and My Home Town — speak it.

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