More than one New Castle local has told me that they think the town looks like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie. That’s not fair at all but, walking down certain desolate streets in the unluckiest neighbourhoods, you can see what they mean.
(Photograph by Jeremy Michael Cohen)
What’s more, the area has a genuine and quite major connection to modern-day zombie culture, which comes up in the story behind the mug shot of James Grinnen.
James had been a local baseball hero. In 1947, two years before his arrest, he and another player, Robert Barber, had been invited to try out for the Boston Braves, spending a year in a farm team. The sports page of the New Castle News led with a story that said: “the players are well-known and liked by the fans here in Lawrence country, who will be pulling for them to make good in their first year of organized baseball. Their careers will be followed closely by their friends, who wish them the best of luck.”
It came to nothing. Neither was picked up. Their return to New Castle wasn’t mentioned in the press.
Sometime after midnight on the fifteenth of October, 1949, James parked his car alongside the Repman store in Wampum, just south of New Castle. Robert was with him, along with another young man, Robert Kirkwood:
They tried to remove a small window to get at the front door lock. That didn’t work, so they removed the large pane of plate glass from beside the door and entered that way.
They stole cigarettes, cigarette lighters, a $69 Admiral radio, four Eastman cameras, 12 billfolds, an electric razor, several safety razors, pen and pencil sets, two Westclox pocket watches, three wristwatches, several other watches. They didn’t open the cash register but lifted several dollars that were on the counter.
The three boys carried everything to James Grinnen’s car. He drove them to an abandoned limestone mine in the wooded hills outside town and they stashed the stuff there. They were arrested the next day and immediately confessed. They were sentenced to five to ten months in the county jail and paroled after four.
The mines provide the zombie connection. Between the 1890s and the 1940s, the Crescent Cement Company dug more than thirty miles of tunnels into the limestone hills south of New Castle. Thirty-five years after the night James and his friends hid the stolen items in the entrance to the mine, George A Romero—Pittsbugh native and, through his 1968 movie, Night of the Living Dead, the father of the modern zombie genre—shot his third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, there, using the tunnels as the location for the underground bunker where scientists and soldiers hide out from (and are eventually eaten by) the hordes of reanimated corpses that have overrun the world.
Watching the film now, I can’t help but wonder how many of the people in the hundreds of New Castle mug shots I’ve collected once mined limestone in those same tunnels.
And whether any of their descendants, unable to find any real work after the town’s heavy industries shut down or shipped out, ended up painting themselves blue and shambling around down there for minimum wage. I’m sure there’s a metaphor around here somewhere—whatever could it be?
James died in 1982, at the age of fifty-five. Robert Kirkwood died in 1999, at the age of seventy-six. I have no further information on Robert Barber, and I don’t have his mug shot. It’s still out in the world somewhere. Perhaps I’ll find it, one day