The White Mittens

Paul Doiron here—

My wife and I were having lunch at Morse’s Sauerkraut in Waldoboro recently when we overheard two couples talking in the next booth. The conversation turned to hunting, and inevitably one of the wives brought up the 1988 shooting of Karen Wood. “She was wearing white mittens,” the woman said, “The hunter said he thought it was a deer’s tail. She was in her own backyard, and a jury let him off scott free!”

Karen Wood

Over the past twenty-three years the death of Karen Wood and the acquittal of the man who shot her has acquired the status of a contemporary folk legend in Maine. Every November, the Hermon woman’s name is invoked as a cautionary tale intended to frighten non-hunters—especially those new to the state—into a state of heightened alertness. On other occasions the story is offered as proof that rural Mainers are uncaring and prejudiced against outsiders (a slur if ever there was one). Sometimes it’s just a blanket condemnation of deer hunting in general. There has been no developments in this closed case for years, and yet I am routinely pitched the story by freelancers who have just learned about Wood and are so outraged by what happened to her that they believe Down East should retell a story that’s been told hundreds of times before.

Megan Ripley

No one pitches me the story of eighteen-year-old Megan Ripley who was shot to death by a hunter outside her house during the December 2006 muzzle-loader season, days after most nonhunters assumed it was safe to venture outside. For some reason Ripley’s death has not resonated as deeply as Wood’s, perhaps because the man who killed her pled guilty. (He had no choice: Maine law was changed after Karen Wood’s death to make it a crime for a hunter to shoot at anything unless he or she can positively identify it as a deer.) Still, the hunter was only sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years probation, now served.

This past deer-hunting season was fraught with bloody incidents (Maine game wardens prefer not to call them accidents since to do so would suggest they were unavoidable). A Sebago man, wearing blaze orange no less, was shot to death by another hunter on November 5. Within days of that fatality, two other hunters were injured in unrelated shootings. A Waterville hunter died of a heart attack in the woods of Piscataquis County while a Belgrade man injured himself a few days ago when he fell from his tree stand in the opening hours of the muzzle loader season. And then were the three dead German shepherds “mistaken” for coyotes.

I’m not the only hunter who was mortified by each and every one of these stories. As John Holyoke wrote in the Bangor Daily News:

All it takes is a single weekend. . . to convince plenty of people that the woods of Maine are full of wild, gun-toting folks who don’t care what they shoot at, whether it’s a deer, the family pooch or another hunter.

It doesn’t matter that statistics show that hunting is less dangerous (to people if not deer) than riding a bicycle or playing baseball. What matters are the stories of men with guns inflicting violence on other human beings. Even fragmentary narratives have tremendous power to incite our imaginations. A man in blaze orange falls to the ground, clutching his bloody stomach in disbelief; a mother in white mittens drops dead in her backyard while her twin girls play inside their new suburban house. We’re hard-wired as human beings to look for meaning in events, and so we create stories to convince ourselves we’re unlike people we disdain (those wild, gun-toting folks), or to make sense of deaths that would otherwise seem incomprehensible.

That’s one of the reason I write crime novels: to understand why my own thoughts turns so frequently to violence. And to confront the reality of my own mortality in the deaths of others.

It’s also the reason the name Karen Wood is destined to live on for many Novembers to come.

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14 Responses to The White Mittens

  1. Vicki Doudera says:

    Karen Wood’s tragic death revealed an ugly “locals versus newcomers,” sentiment. She was blamed for her own death and her widowed husband received scorn instead of support. That’s the reason the case lives on. I hope that if something similar were to happen today compassion would be showed to the victim’s family.

  2. Yeah, I remember that, Vicki. I confess to my shame that my first thought upon hearing the news was, “She was waving white mittens? In the backyard? By the woodline?” With all the new development and people coming into the state back in the 80s, the law was overdue for changing. It’s terrible that it took her death to make it happen.

    I’d like to see hunters required to retake the hunter safety course every couple of years. Several of my son’s friends have newly qualified for an adult hunting license, and those 17-year-olds seem more knowledgeable about – and more aware of – safety precautions than some of the middle-aged guys I know.

    Hunting is a great sport and a long and honorable tradition in Maine – it shouldn’t be tainted by doofuses acting irresponsibly.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    I’m not a hunter. I’ll put that out there before I write anything else. But I have neighbors who hunt (with licenses) as part of their plan to feed their family. As much as I’m against guns in houses, and essentially nonviolent — I can’t argue with people who need food. But the gun culture in Maine was truly brought home to me one day about ten years ago when, after spending time on the telephone discussing with my editor just how much detail I should include in a book for children I was writing about a boy who was born in slavery (SEAWARD BORN). She was concerned that some of the details I included were too graphic for an 8-14 year old. Too much blood involved. I put down the telephone and went to my local town office to re-register my car. In line ahead of me (“Licenses and Registrations”) was a 6th grader from a class I’d spoken to the week before. Excited to see me, she introduced me to her father. I asked why she was there. “To get my first moose license,” she announced. “She’s a good shot,” her dad assured me. She usually gets a deer. She was lucky to get a moose license this year.” I congratulated her and wished her luck — clearly what was expected. And wondered where my editor had grown up …..

    • Just Wondering says:

      Lea, I am curious why in your view it is okay for deer hunters who eat the meat to have guns but not those who want to protect themselves or their loved ones from home invasions. In each case, death of the homeowner may occur from lack of a gun but you are bothered by people starving to death from lack of deer meat and not bothered by them dying violently at the hands of home invading murderers/burglars. Those who are hungry MIGHT find help in soup kitchens but those attacked before the police have time to arrive have no recourse without weapons. I find it extra curious if I am correct that you write mysteries and would be fascinated with your thoughts in answer.

  4. Barb Ross says:

    I agree that Karen Woods tragic death became emblematic of a perceived culture clash and that is why it’s remembered today.

    I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania where absences from school on the first day of deer season where considered “excused.” But a close friend from high school was killed in a hunting accident, shot by his own cousin, and I have to admit that has colored my feelings ever since.

  5. Sarah Graves says:

    This past summer my husband was floating in an inner tube a hundred feet or so from the dock at our camp. I was standing on the path not far away. Maybe a quarter-mile or so from us was the gravel pit where people sometimes go to shoot for fun. The high walls of the pit keep the ammo safely contained. On this day, we could here the fast powpowpow of an automatic weapon being fired. Didn’t think anything of it… until a bullet came cutting through the leaves and branches forty feet from me — zzzzzzt! A low, ugly sound, I’ll never forget it. The shot flew past my husband’s head so close that he flinched, and hit the water way, way out on the lake with a hard smack-plop that we both heard very clearly.

    I guess you could say my opinion’s been colored, too. I’m just glad it wasn’t with blood.

  6. What horrifying stories. I live in a state with a bear hunt–which must require some pretty high caliber bullets–and it seems we’ve been lucky.

  7. Vicki Doudera says:

    I will add that I grew up in a family of hunters — duck, deer, pheasant, moose — and I miss wild game so much that I’m almost tempted to take it up.

  8. Sarah Graves says:

    I’ve picked a lot of buckshot out of my dinners, and a few bits out of my teeth. Don’t miss that part. I do miss deer meat salami, though. Fried for breakfast with ketchup.

  9. Brenda says:

    I grew up with hunters & with family friends who had deer heads everywhere. Saw one today in an office I visited. BTW, I would not have known not to wear white mittens either. I have never understood why some of the older hunters grumbled about wearing orange though they didn’t understand that the deer couldn’t tell and the other hunters needed to. Remember a certain family member grumbling about his orange stocking cap. The time I was most frightened was when I was spelunking with friends wearing dark clothes as is my usual habit, & I went to the car alone for more batteries for the head lamps, got lost and hearing gunshots realized it was deer season. Luckily for me, those hunters were cautious ones. Though I’ve sold deer licenses before & had hunters in the family I did not — up until that time — keep an eye on when deer season (and the other various seasons) were.

  10. I have to say I was wondering what the hunter was doing shooting at what he thought was a deer’s tail in a suburban backyard.

  11. I will always remember this case, thinking about how unfair it was to be killed in your own backyard. I’m an avid hiker, and we’ve had a couple of cases of hunters killing hikers in Washington State. One was a 14-year-old hunter who killed a woman on a hiking trail. There were even other hikers with her! These killers typically get a slap on the hand, if anything; it’s declared an “accident,” only because of the location of the shooter. If a guy with a rifle shot someone walking down a city street, he could never get off by saying “Whoops! It’s hunting season and I thought you were an animal.” Or could he?