Orrin Pharris and the Heart of Mansfield

In the broadest sense he wasn’t really homeless because he knew everybody in town: and they were all happy to feed him, and he was welcome to sleep anywhere he wanted.

So his home was Mansfield.

But Orrin Pharris had stopped maintaining the tenuous tether that bound him to any commonly agreed upon sense of reality, and he was living in an uncommon parallel universe.

Right here on the streets of Mansfield, in the decades of the 1820s through the 1850s, he was walking the streets of heaven that are paved in gold.

That’s what people assumed anyway, because he said the earth glowed sometimes.

There were times when Orrin himself seemed to have a luminous quality.  It was when he played his violin.

They called him the town “fiddler,” and he certainly had a gift for setting down a rhythm that made girls want to dance, and boys to stomp their feet.

But fiddle tunes at barn dances could hardly give full expression to the broad spectrum of his art, or the profound depth of his soul.

Orrin Pharris could tap softly on the door of your heart with his bow, and get you to open up.

There were sweet and rapturous songs in him that had no lyrics.

To try capturing his music with mere language was binding the wings of an angel and chaining it to the ground.

Orrin stopped even trying to communicate with words after that fateful night.  Everything that he had to say that was worth hearing he said with his violin.

There was a time, earlier in his life, when he could talk faster than a babbling brook, and it all made sense too.  But the world stopped making sense after the night of the conflagration.

The Turning Point

That critical night he was fiddling a dance in Granville and spirits were high.  There were a couple of boys in the crowd who were a little too high—tough young men whose loud enthusiasm came from spirits of corn.   They were the kind of rough characters from the early American frontier who rolled like boulders over women’s pretty gardens.

These two guys pushed the happy pace of the dance a little faster than anyone felt safe, and when they saw that folks were flinching, they pushed even harder.

It made the room seem uncomfortably warm, and when a pair of nervous girls made for the door it challenged the rough guys to take a tough stance on the dance floor.

They grabbed the girls by the wrist and dragged them back into the ring of gaping townsfolk; and when the room got horribly quiet they turned to Orrin and told him to play.

You have to understand that Orrin Pharris was a true gentleman, as in gentle man.  He sang when he worked, and he fed stray dogs, and he dusted the cheeks of youngsters with golden pollen just to hear them squeal with glee.  He had a meek and earnest way of asking if he could help that could make even gruff old men get protective of him and act like mother birds shielding their young.

He had that perfect innocence that you never see past the age of very young children.

You were a better person when you were around Orrin Pharris because there was a goodness about him that rang so true you couldn’t help but resonate to the tone.

Orrin had a natural empathy for all living creatures, and when he saw those young girls in Granville squirming under the grip of a couple drunks he hardly knew how to react.

And when the bullies demanded that he play a jig, he couldn’t even lift his bow.  The joy had fled the room and left him powerless and shaking.

At that point everything in the room took a dangerous turn.  It happened as swiftly as when the square dance caller tells everyone to switch partners in the middle of a swing.

Those drunken guys suddenly dropped the girls and their focus lighted on Orrin.

Their rage ignited quickly and, before anyone even had time to step in the way, one of the drunks hurled a cup of moonshine in Orrin’s face; and when he staggered backward with his eyes burning, the other guy struck a match.

They lit Orrin’s beard on fire.

It was far too much horror for Orrin Pharris to live with.  After that night he simply moved out of his head.

A Folk Diagnosis

All of this is to explain how he came to be the way he was.

Before the fire he was described as handsome, intelligent, well-spoken and well dressed.  He came to town as a tailor, so he necessarily knew the patterns of society and he operated within those parameters with grace and aplomb.

He could take care of himself.

If he had never changed it is not likely we would ever have heard anything about him.  But he turned into somebody rare, and somebody who everybody remembered.

The expression they used back then was “tetched:” as in he was ‘touched in the head,’ or perhaps ‘touched by God.’

He was not the first person in Mansfield to be tetched; but he was one who was well loved and owned by the community.

The town was small enough then that everyone was known to one another, and he was well known as being quite different from everyone else.

Orrin Pharris was born sometime around 1790 somewhere in New York, and he died sometime around 1860. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

The Bigger Story

In a way, at that point in his life the story becomes less about him as a character in town, and more about Mansfield and the character of the community.

Because people of this city took him to their heart.  He became less an individual, and more a defining part of the town: this is a place that would not only protect a man who is tetched, but would cherish him.

How do we know this today?  Because they wrote of him in their letters and diaries. They made photos of him and paintings.

When an artist of the 1850s drew a portrait sketch of the Mansfield public square he included two images of people who the city was proud to recognize: Johnny Appleseed: the American legend; and Orrin Pharris: a disfigured and hapless, homeless man who was the town fiddler.

The artist who created this portrait of the Square included two notable early Mansfielders: Johnny Appleseed on the left, and Orrin Pharris on the right. (Close up below.)

In his later years he sometimes suffered from overwhelming melancholy, and he drank to numb the pain.

Yet the legacy of him, as he was portrayed in reminiscences written long after he was gone, is that of a character who children followed around town because they loved him so much.

It takes a very big-hearted community to be proud to claim a man whose value is not apparent to strangers.

Mansfield became many things throughout its centuries of life; and like a many-facetted diamond it has shown bright in many diverse ways.  But at its heart, at the core of the community, at the beginning formative years of establishing its identity, this story of Orrin Pharris proves that—whatever else it may become: excelling in business, industry, arts & sciences—our town originates from a humanitarian heart that is pure and true.

Post Scriptum

(Violins: William Harnett 1848-1892; Paul Kotlarevsky  1883-1950; Bjoern Ewers)

Long ago as a kid I first heard the tragic tale of Orrin Pharris, the town fiddler from Mansfield’s pioneer era; and it wasn’t long after that when I first encountered the paintings of Marc Chagall. I was quite certain I recognized those mystic fiddlers he painted floating over a snowy village as our local folk lore.

Ever since then these two disparate elements: Orrin Pharris and Chagall paintings, have been inextricably bound together in my imagination as simply different iterations of the same archetype.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s