14th October

Old Tom and Liver-Eating Johnson

An old fellow called Tom was, like myself, a regular user of the library. I never knew his surname but the librarians addressed him as Tom and I often saw him reading the papers when I changed my books. He read the local paper, the national dailies and the weeklies – the Listener and the Spectator. Once I overheard one librarian telling another that Tom stayed with his sister who put him out every morning and didn’t let him back till teatime. The library was a place to keep warm and dry yet Tom had a perpetually damp sniff. The librarians’ other name for him, perhaps in ironic reference to his reading material, was the Sniffer.

Tom wore an overcoat that smelled like soup when dry and like a collie dog when wet. Strong though it was, that smell was fascinating to a boy. I used to fill my lungs with it and wonder what it would be like having Tom living in your house. He had a tangled beard and thick, stiff hair sticking out as if in a permanent gale. He was the living likeness of another character in the library, Liver-Eating Johnson.

Liver-Eating wasn’t his original name of course. Neither was Johnson. He was born John Garrison but changed his name after deserting from the US Army during the Mexican War. He headed west and became a fur trapper, and married a woman of the Flathead tribe. One winter when he was away from their cabin a Crow hunting party turned up and murdered her. Johnson went on the vengeance trail, killing Crows wherever he found them and eating their livers, which was a great insult because the Crows believed that organ to be essential for full enjoyment of the afterlife.

Johnson was a legendary figure of the Wild West. He once survived most of a winter on the severed leg of a Crow he’d killed, but his final days were in an old folks’ home in California where he lasted just one month.

I found Liver-Eating Johnson in a book whereas Tom was flesh and blood, but both inhabited the library and I can never think of one without remembering the other.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Subscribe here for more stories & music