The Curious case of Harry Fisher, Part I

Posted by Ken Campbell January 27, 2010 0 Comment 1094 views
“The enlisted man, although stupid and oftentimes lazy, can be incredibly sly and cunning and bears considerable watching.”
US Army’s Officer Handbook, ed. 1898.

As stories go, this is a good one. It starts out with this one man, whose name was Harry Fisher. As far as you know. No, that’s not true… the man’s name really wasn’t Harry Fisher at all; it was James B. Hanmore. Not a bad name, for all that, when you think about it. No reason to assume another name, at least on the surface. I mean, it’s not like his parents hung a nasty one on him (Dick Boyles, Pat McGroynigan or Drew Peacock come to mind, for instance). But, as it turned out, he had reasons for going incognito…

He (being James Hanmore), was a Hoosier, Indiana born and bred. He joined the Army for the first time in 1883, and served as a druggist at Fort Omaha, Nebraska, for five years. Not bad duty, and all accounts are that he did a decent job. No statues were erected in his honor, but he did his work well, kept his nose clean and received an honorable discharge, the holy grail of every enlisted man.

Less than a month later, he enlisted again. He was sent to Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory, and later transferred to Fort Douglas, Utah Territory, where he was kicked out with a dishonorable discharge as a result of bad conduct and drunkenness on duty. The change in character seems to have been related to his volitile working relationship with his superior officer (or, as I was taught to refer to that kind, the “officer appointed over him.” Follow orders, yes, but never concede superiority.)

For a creative soul, there is always a side entrance, another way in to where you want to be. Hanmore was a creative individual indeed, and 10 days after his expulsion was carried out at Fort Douglas, he resurfaced at the Presidio in San Francisco and enlisted in the Fourteenth Infantry, using the name Harry Fisher. His subterfuge worked – record keeping was less vigorous back then, and official communication was slow – and shortly after his fraudulent hitch began, he went on to participate in Lt. O’Neil’s 1890 Olympic expedition.

O’Neil (pictured at right) kept the official record of that expedition in his journal but he was not the only one keeping a diary. Of all of the excerpts I’ve been able to read, Private Harry Fisher’s are by far the most informative, entertaining and well-written. There is no arguing that he was an intelligent man, an able writer and a competent naturalist. He was a valuable member of the exploring team and his lyrical accounts of the adventure are a delight to read:

“What a pleasure to emerge from the silence of those dark forests into this warm sunshine, its rays seem to penetrate the body with a pleasant effect not unlike the soothing effects of an opiate. Here small willows fringed the high water line, burds chirped and warbled their wild songs, flitting from bush to tree, while bright-winged butterflies went skimming near the water as if in defiance of the wily trout in his brooklet home beneath. It was now that we enjoyed camp life, surrounded as we were by nature’s grandest charms. No woodsman’s axe had as yet despoiled the forest. No red man’s moccasin had tracked the earth. In the poet’s language it was like leaving this mortal vale of tears to enter the enchanted lands.”

Clearly, Harry Fisher was enamored of the Olympic environment. He was in his element on the creeks and in the high country, poring over plant and animal specimens in the evenings after spending the days cutting trail. He was among the most stalwart of the O’Neil group, seeming to revel in the often difficult duty and keeping a good sense of humor about him as they traveled.

The thing is, there really was a Harry Fisher, and the day would come when he would want his name back.

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