The Last Days of Night - Graham Moore
May 11, 1888
ON THE DAY that he would first meet Thomas Edison, Paul watched a man burn alive in the sky above Broadway.
The immolation occurred late on a Friday morning. The lunchtime bustle was picking up as Paul descended from his office building onto the crowded street. He cut an imposing figure against the flow of pedestrians: six feet four inches, broad shouldered, clean-shaven, clothed in the matching black coat, vest, and long tie that was to be expected of New York’s young professional men. His hair, perfectly parted on the left, had just begun to recede into a gentle widow’s peak. He looked older than his twenty-six years.
As Paul joined the throng along Broadway, he briefly noticed a young man in a Western Union uniform standing on a ladder. The workman was fiddling with electrical wires, the thick black cables that had recently begun to streak the skies of the city. They crisscrossed the thinner, older telegraph wires, and the spring winds had gusted them into a knotty bundle. The Western Union man was attempting to untangle the two sets of wires. He looked like a child flummoxed by enormous shoelaces.
Paul’s mind was on coffee. He was still new to the financial district, new to his law firm’s offices on the third floor of 346 Broadway. He hadn’t determined which of the local coffeehouses he preferred. There was the one to the north, along Walker. And the slower-serving but more fashionable one, on Baxter, with the rooster on the door. Paul was tired. The air felt good against his cheeks. He hadn’t been outside yet that day. He’d slept in his office the night before.
When he saw the first spark, he didn’t immediately realize what was happening. The workman grabbed hold of a wire and tugged. Paul heard a pop—just a quick, strange pop—as the man shuddered. Paul would later remember seeing a flash, even if at the time he wasn’t sure what it was. The workman reached out for support, grasping another wire with his free hand. This, Paul would come to understand, was the man’s mistake. He’d created a connection. He’d become a live conductor.
And then both of the workman’s arms jolted with orange sparks.
There had to be two hundred people crowding the street that morning, and every head seemed to turn at the same time. Financiers parading in their wide-brimmed top hats; stock traders’ assistants sprinting down to Wall Street clutching secret messages; social secretaries in teal skirts and sharp matching jackets; accountants out hunting for sandwiches; ladies in Doucet dresses visiting from Washington Square; local politicians eager for their duck lunches; a fleet of horses dragging thick-wheeled cabs over the uneven cobblestones. Broadway was the artery that fueled lower Manhattan. A wealth heretofore unknown on the face of the earth was burbling up from beneath these very streets. In the morning’s paper Paul had read that John Jacob Astor had just become officially richer than the Queen of England.
All eyes fixed on the man in the air. A blue flame shot from his mouth. The flame set fire to his hair. His clothes burned off instantly. He fell forward, his arms still wrapped around the wires. His feet dangled against the ladder. His body assumed the position of Jesus upon the cross. The blue flame fired through his mouth and melted the skin from his bones.
No one had screamed yet. Paul still wasn’t even sure what he was watching. He had seen violence before. He’d grown up on a Tennessee farm. Death and the dying were unspectacular sights along the Cumberland River. But he’d never seen anything like this.
Epochal seconds later, as the man’s blood poured onto the teenage newsboys below, the screaming began. A stampede of bodies fled the scene. Grown men knocked into women. The newsboys ran through the crowd, not heading anywhere in particular, simply running. Trying to pull the charred flesh from their hair.
The horses reared on their haunches, kicking their legs into the sky. Their hooves flew at the faces of their panicked owners. Paul was frozen in place until he saw a newsboy fall in front of the wheels of a two-horse carriage. The stallions shook at their reins, lurching forward and drawing the wheels toward the boy’s chest. Paul was not aware of making the decision to lunge—he simply did it. He grabbed the boy by the shoulder, pulling him out of the road.
Paul used his coat sleeve to brush the dirt and blood from the child’s face. But