From The Demon Rift: The Cuyahoga County Orphanage

Note: For a time, because his young father had died 
suddenly and his mother was forced to clean the floors 
of a railroad station, my grandfather and his brother 
were “charity kids,” and residents of a Cleveland orphanage. 
A story he told me inspired this segment.

The Cuyahoga County Orphanage


The Tea Kettle and the Potato Peel

Cuyahoga County Orphanage

August, 1903 Cleveland, Ohio

“Mrs. Kray, I believe you’re spoiling this child;
I warn you, he’ll not be ready for the world when
he leaves.”  Mrs. Murphy was beginning to wear out
her welcome.  Plump, motherly, and younger looking
than her sixty years, the cook was causing problems,
some more serious than others.  Her rules, including
no talking when in the kitchen and scrubbing spotless
pots, were bewildering to the unfortunate orphans
assigned kitchen duty.  Miriam, the previous cook
had given notice after fifteen years. “I’ve taken a 
position in Columbus,” she said, avoiding Mrs. Kray’s
stricken face.  Mrs. Kray didn’t ask why Miriam was 
leaving.  She already knew.
The week before they found Mr. Buchner hanging in the
shed, she had seen “Bernie” standing at the open door
of the classroom. The teacher’s attention was on verbs.
Of the fifty-three students, some sitting at the thirty
or so desks, many on the floor, the little ones sitting
on the lap of an older student, none seemed aware of him.
“What’re you doing? Go sit with the others.”
She looked in horror to see seventy-year-old Mr. Buchner.
The boy’s face tilted up to meet his disapproving gaze. 
The old man paled; his sunken mouth opened, but no sound
emerged. The child never moved—an owl eyeing a mouse.
Leave—run! Inside the classroom, the children were reciting
the tenses of verbs. Mr. Buchner shook his head several 
times as words failed to form on his moving lips. He turned,
his elbows swaying wildly, his wooden leg, the result of a
bullet from rebel fire in ’61, clomping down the hall.
Suicide? How did such a small boy engineer the murder of a 
grown man? Suicide, but they never explained the pulley. 
How did the old man hoist himself up? His throat torn open, 
cut by his own bloodied hand, the dead fingers locked 
around the knife.
Poor Darcy found him. The girl still wasn’t right, 
insisting on sleeping on the floor at the foot of Mrs. 
Kray’s narrow bed, a liberty she had never allowed 
before Mr. Buchner’s death. “He was looking up and
his mouth . . . open . . . and . . . his tongue . .” 
The girl kept sobbing.
“Darcy put it out of your mind. Think of something else. 
Pray.”Darcy promised to try, but Mrs. Kray knew that 
Mr. Buchner’s dead eyes, looking up to heaven, the blood
dripping from his stiff shirt, weren’t easily forgotten 
by anyone. The death of Mr. Buchner resulted in a series
of handy men, each only staying a week or so until she 
found Leon.  Hard of hearing and simple-minded, Leon a
large and amiable man in his early sixties, stayed.  
The fact that he was less than efficient and that he 
left many chores undone until Mrs. Kray or one of the
older boys took care of them was less important than
the fact that Bernie had no effect on him. Mrs. Kray
thanked God for sending her Leon.
Dread now lived at the orphanage. Mrs. Murphy, newly
arrived from Boston, had a crisp manner. The kitchen 
ran with military precision, the pots were shining 
on new hooks, and every scrap of food used in a stew, 
soup or a pie. Mrs. Kray realized that the cook’s 
complaints were more than an annoyance; they were deadly.
The trays prepared and left for the strange boy, who 
spent most of his time secluded in the small storeroom
were an outrage to Mrs. Murphy.  She had been pressing 
Mrs. Kray for an explanation for weeks. “He has special 
needs,” Mrs. Kray said again.
Mrs. Murphy narrowed her eyes in disbelief. She patted 
and smoothed her copper hair swept up in a knotted bun 
that sat like a small pot handle on top of her head.  
“It won’t do for too much longer,” she snapped, “I must 
be honest . . .” The cook lingered for a moment standing 
over Mrs. Kray who focused on a stack of papers sitting 
on her cluttered desk. “Thank you Mrs. Murphy, I’ll let
you know when there is a change.”  With a look of tight-
lipped disgust, Mrs. Murphy did an abrupt turn and left.
Mrs. Kray sighed and finished the last of August’s 
accounts.  It had been a successful summer. Darcy was 
adopted by a family with two small boys and a set of 
five-year old twins orphaned by a fire, were taken by a 
childless couple in Cleveland.
As the afternoon light faded, Mrs. Kray decided to place
an ad for another cook and give Mrs. Murphy her notice.  
Searching her desk for paper, she saw the rabbit’s foot.  
It had been in Harold’s hand when he pounded on Bernie’s 
door.  She had hoped she’d been in time, pulling him by 
the ear, scolding him for “picking on sickly Bernie.”  
His eyes wide with false innocence, Herman cocked his 
head and grinned at her, “Lord save me Mrs., I won’t 
bother the poor soul again.”  She knew he was lying; 
he was in danger, but she could do nothing.  Soon after, 
Harold disappeared.  He’d been gone for more than a day.  
He ran away, she told herself.  Two boys found Herman 
floating in the pond.  Mrs. Kray blamed herself
for Harold’s death. She should have protected him, 
saved him, from what? Oh, she wished she knew! Maybe if 
she knew what he was, she could fight.
It was too dangerous to continue.  A monster was in 
her care, left by the dead man, Baker. Crispin, the 
suspect in the murderer of a wealthy London widow, 
kidnapped Bernie, the missing orphan, seen with him 
on a ship to New York.  She’d written the orphanage 
in London and was shocked to discover that the person 
she had thought was a ten-year old child, small for 
his age,was in fact, seventeen, much too old to be 
at the orphanage.  Many would consider him a man, 
yet he was scarcely the size of Darcy when she left. 
She wrote more letters. There were so many questions.
The London home returned them unopened. She’d have 
to find a way . . . perhaps if she wrote again, they 
might know of a relative . . .
As she began to compose the ad, she heard screaming. 
“Mithus Kray! Mithus Kray, help!”  A small girl 
staggered as she came through the open office door. 

Mrs. Kray jumped from her chair and followed six-year 
old Maryanne, who barely paused at the door before 
turning back. “What’s wrong, Mary,” she asked as they 

“Mmmmisss—cook! The cook lady—she—oooh—hooo.”  
Maryanne ran toward the kitchen, her sobs echoing 
as Mrs. Kray followed. At the kitchen’s open double 
doors, a hot mist greeted her.  Heavy pans lay upturned
or face down on the floor.  On a large table near the 
pantry door, she saw shattered jars of preserves, their 
contents spilled on several ears of new corn.   Next to 
the table, six children huddled in its shadow, their 
bodies rigid with terror, eyes fixed on the huge iron 
stove where Mrs. Murphy was inspecting the stew for . . .
An odor, it was the broth, beefy, thick and bubbling with 
vegetables . . . What is she doing?  Why are her hands 
waving? She must be waving the children away because 
something had fallen into the deep pot, steam rising and 
the hiss of boiling water splashing out onto the stove, a 
mouse, perhaps. No, it must be bigger to displace so much 
water and cause such fear in the children. The four girls 
and two boys, all between eight and ten, were transfixed, 
watching the pot as it shuddered on the large burner. Clouds 
of steam rose and curled under the glare of the new overhead 
light. A rat must have . . . or—OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD!
Mrs. Murphy wasn’t inspecting the stewpot. Her body folded 
from her ample waist, the starched white apron, no longer 
white, but stained with jam and grease . . . Mrs. Murphy 
had wedged her face firmly in the stewpot. The handle of 
red hair moved up and down, as if someone were grasping it 
to inspect the contents of the stewpot, then closing the 
lid made of Mrs. Murphy’s face. Her extended arms began to 
make circles as if to beckon them.
“Huhhuhahhhaaaaa!” Maryanne began to wail, breaking the 
spell. The other children started screaming, Mrs. Kray 
joining them. The pot spewed broth, vegetables, and pinkish 
lumps of tissue. Glops of stew flinging onto the stove’s surface 
and the suction creating a loud pop, the cook pulled free of the 
stewpot. She stood up straight, the pot teetering for an 
instant, before continuing to bubble.  Burgundy liquid splatted 
her apron as she turned.  Her knob of copper hair collapsed, 
following her ear as it slid down the side of her neck.  The 
eyes had melted—the sockets a shiny red. “Miz Kray?” She turned 
to see Leon and two older boys. The boys were holding baskets 
filled with apples. 

“Yes, Leon . . . ” she marveled at the calm in her voice.
“Me and the boys got them apples Miz Murphy wanted” . . . 
Staring at the cook, whose ear now rested on her shoulder, 
he began to swallow and grunt, patting the wisps of grey on 
his bald head and feeling his own ears as if to make sure 
they stayed in place. He let out a high-pitched sigh. 
“You ladies got yer hands full, so I best let you git to it.” 
He motioned to the boys who nodded, their mouths hanging open, 
the baskets poised for delivery. “Go git washed up fer supper.” 
He backed out of the doorway, and the boys dropped their 
baskets. As they left, Mrs Kray considered what to do.

Mrs. Murphy was trying to say something. Her lips were wide 
ridges supporting the drooping folds of what had been her nose. 
As she opened her mouth, the tissue formed an oblong opening 
the size of a jellybean. Steam began to leak out, a long whistle 
coming from it.  A teakettle, thought Mrs. Kray.  

Still whistling, Mrs. Murphy collapsed onto the floor. Maryanne 
was screaming.  Mrs. Kray scooped the little girl into her arms 
as the other children began to scream. She comforted Maryanne, 
began to collect her senses and saw Bernie standing in the 
kitchen doorway. He’s finally grown a little she thought. It’s 
about time, he . . . he was eating something.  It was a potato 
peel, the lunch, she discovered later, that Mrs. Murphy ordered 
served on his tray.