Gilbert Imlay is something of a Man of Mystery in Mary Wollstonecraft’s story. In my initial research—back in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s—I had not pursued him very far. He was somewhat tangential to the story of Mary Shelley—there was just so much to learn about her—but as the years went along, I grew more and more curious about him. Who was he? And why on God’s green earth had he abandoned one of the great women of history?
Tuesday, 27 September 2011. Imlaystown, New Jersey.
I learned of Imlaystown a dozen years ago. But I did not travel there at the time—another of the loose ends I left dangling when I decided to slow the Shelley research and start writing.
But now I’ve finally found an excuse to visit this place where Gilbert Imlay was born—was it in 1754? Scholars put a question mark beside his birthdate. We know his family arrived in America in the 1680s and soon afterwards were living in the area of what would be Imlaystown. By the time Gilbert was born, the Imlays were substantial landowners and operated the grist mill—Saltar’s Mill—that stood where now stands another one, not currently functioning.
As I drive east this early fall day, Imlaystown is not my primary destination. I am on my way to Princeton, where I’ve recently arranged to tour the house where writer John O’Hara, 1905–1970, a recent interest (obsession?), lived his final thirteen years. Now owned by an eminent Princeton philosophy professor, the house is something I’ve longed to see since I first began reading about O’Hara a few months ago. I’ve seen his boyhood dwellings in his hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania; I’ve photographed a couple of other places where he lived in Princeton. But the house he built, Linebrook—so named because it sits near the junction of Province Line and Pretty Brook roads—is much more obscured by foliage than it was when he was living and writing there. When I drove by only about two weeks ago, I could barely see the house at all. I stopped the car on Province Line, right behind the house, and picked my way through a thick copse. Recent heavy rains had made a mire of the ground. I took a picture or two. Couldn’t see much. Back on Pretty Brook, I added a shot of the long driveway leading up to the back of the house. Again—not much to see. Frustrated—and afraid a neighbor might alert the police about a prowler—I didn’t stay long but drove off, annoyed at my own timorousness.
But now, just seventeen days later, I’ve used some connections—among them: one of my wife’s high school classmates, who’s now a special collections librarian at Penn State (which holds the principal collection of O’Hara papers)—to arrange a tour of the house. But I will not do so until Wednesday morning. What will I do in the area on late Tuesday afternoon when I arrive at my motel after my long, 440-mile drive from Ohio?
Visit Imlaystown. It’s only about twenty-seven miles away.
The little town is really just a cluster of buildings near Doctor’s Creek. Old houses cling closely to the narrow roads. The only place of commerce I can find is the Happy Apple Inn, once a stagecoach stop. Its website tells me that a fire destroyed that old building; the present one rose from the ashes in 1904. I can have supper there—but the Apple Inn is truly Happy (open) only Wednesday through Sunday. Today is Tuesday. Foiled again! Right behind the Happy Apple is the old millpond, now called Imlaystown Lake. Mere yards away is farmland.
I walk along the streets, taking pictures—of the dam, the creek, the millpond, some older looking houses, the terrain. But I realize that no building occupied by the Imlays still stands. As I walk by the defunct mill, I see an open door. On it is a marker noting that Saltar’s Mill is on the National Register of Historic Places. I walk in. No one’s there. A couple of broad planks serve as a walkway across the old mill machinery, now idle but still sitting in the open basement below me. More photographs. If the planks break, if I fall, how soon before anyone finds me? I imagine the headline:
Local Mystery: Strange corpse of old man found in mill. Foul play? Or foolishness?
Below: some images of Imlaystown ...