THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 21

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“The Silent Highwayman: Your Money or your Life,” Cartoon from Punch Magazine 35, 1858

In Chapter 21, Jack London falls prey to beliefs of the time that were on their way out. One in particular was that somehow bad smells carried disease. Miasma (bad smells) was still feared as the bearer of disease when in fact unpleasant odors are often merely a product of active bacteria. Still, where the smells occurred often disease soon followed. The diseases and the bacteria that caused it was real, but one could not become ill merely from the smell. Although our understanding of microbes was growing, much advice about staying healthy came from obsolete assumptions.

Curiously, I have family members who insist that one can catch a cold by becoming cold.

Because the people of the abyss were exposed to so much bacteria, their immune systems were probably in much better shape than what many of us have today. Still, imagine a time when receiving a deep cut to the skin was perhaps a real source of fear. Infected cuts in 1902 frequently killed.

Life and death for each of us is an affair of chance. For most in London of 1902 it was one with poor odds. The British people then were much like they are today: strong, capable, imaginative, intelligent, and enterprising, but for the poor, much stood in their way. The frequency of childhood illnesses that killed or crippled was much greater. Malnutrition that could inhibit one’s physical and mental development was a real possibility. Living in an unclean environment brought with it the risks of countless illnesses. Those illnesses or environmental poisoning could leave one permanently damaged and frail. Labor often consisted of such long hours and such repetitive movement that bodies and minds were worn down, contributing to the frequency of accidents in industry.

Here are statistics that Jack London provided of deaths and injuries on the job in Great Britain of the time:
1 of every 1400 workmen is killed annually.
1 of every 2500 workmen is totally disabled.
1 of every 300 workmen is permanently partially disabled.
1 of every 8 workmen is temporarily disabled 3 or 4 weeks.

from The Illustrated London News, 1845

“Newgate Market” From The Illustrated London News, 1845

Almost 2 million people in London were one week’s wages away from destitution. The loss of one bread winner could throw an entire family into the streets as paupers within a few short weeks. In the middle Victorian period, the quality of food in Great Britain was actually quite good, it’s nutritional value greater than what most of us enjoy today. The trick in the East End of London would have been to consistently acquire the variety of nutrition available and to eat that food before it rotted away. The effort to gain at least a portion of that every day must have been very difficult.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 20

Riot2While the Gilded Age occurred in America in the late 19th century, and the Belle Époque in France, England experienced a similar technological boom. The American expression comes from The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner and is meant to be sarcasm contrasted with the expression “Golden Age.” The term “gilded” suggests that the American era was a thin veneer of prosperity over a rotten social structure. Conditions in Great Britain and many other nations were much the same. Tsarist Russia, an authoritarian state lagging behind in technological and economic development, and with an oppressed people recently emancipated from serfdom, was increasingly in turmoil.

The rich got richer, more powerful. The poor got poorer, and political philosophies arose to address the grievances of the powerless. Is it any wonder? Over the course of the 15 years following Jack London’s stay in the East End of London, the Bolsheviks, Russian socialists, would take power in Russia. They intended to bring power back to the majority of the people. I am not one who believes in communist ideals, and I am also merely moderately socialistic in my beliefs, but I certainly understand and sympathize in part with the communists and socialists. I do not demonize them. With the world as it was, and perhaps as it is increasingly becoming again today, such ideals become attractive to otherwise powerless people. Fights, including political fights, always have two side, both having a role in instigating the conflict. Those with power as the 19th turned into the 20th century had a leading role in creating the conflicts that followed, their callous disregard for the average man the major fuel for the fire.

Power is power, whether it is wielded by nobles born into their role and wealth, wealthy industrialists who started out as self-made men, or socialist organizers who take the reigns of government to right the wrongs inherent in a class system meant to protect wealth and power from the hoi polloi. And of course power corrupts, as it did even perhaps the initially well-intentioned latter group.

I have no answers or suggestions. Human beings are complex, so I’m always suspicious of those who present pat answer, especially those that seem to emerge from hardened political or religious ideals.

I don’t agree with some of Jack London’s opinions in The People of the Abyss. He did not foresee how tough, resilient, and creative the British people are. Yet his eye-witness account, if only half true, would be a powerful indictment of any government. It is a wonder to me that the people of England did not rise up against their government. After reading Chapter 20, I have to wonder if they had had better nutrition and rest, and therefore more energy, if the people might have done so.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 19

RookeryChapter 19 is about overcrowding and the growing sprawl of the London ghetto in the East End. The housing was increasingly owned by what we would call euphemistically “slum lords,” but would more appropriately be called heartless, unprincipled criminals. With the overcrowding in the East End, the situation was a seller’s market for landlords, and the price to let a room went up, just as wages went down. Renters were paying 1/4 to 1/2 their earnings on housing while sharing one room with several others. Rooms were sublet and sub-sublet. One with a night shift at a job shared a room with one who had a day shift, and possession of the room was handed off between shifts. Space under beds was rented as a place to sleep. Jack London cites numerous heartbreaking cases of human neglect and degradation.

Rookery1Toward the end of the chapter, Jack London said that the incidences of husbands beating their wives was quite high, that while men should have been committing the violence toward their employers, they instead took their frustrations out on women. I know that the laws protecting married women in England improved over the course of the 19th century.

Here’s a scene from A Brutal Chill in August. In it Polly Nichols has been severely beaten by her husband, then taken in by neighbors, Susan and Paul Heryford, for her protection. Polly’s husband, Bill, comes to collect her. The year is 1878.

“We fear for your safety,” Paul said to Polly. “You don’t have to go with him tonight. You can stay here.”

“I don’t have to listen to this,” Bill said. He grabbed Polly by the arm and turned toward the door.

“You would do well to listen,” Susan said. “What we have to say involves legal proceedings.”

Bill blustered, his brows knitting furiously and his mouth working to make the cruelest arching scowl, yet a shade of concern trembled in his eyes.

“I learned something of the law today,” Susan said. She stood and walked to a cabinet, opened a drawer, and pulled out leaves of paper folded together. “It so happens that Parliament amended the Matrimonial Causes Act earlier this year. If Paul and I provided testimony that you severely beat your wife, you might be convicted of the crime. If that came to pass, Polly would be within her rights to leave you, and you’d be required to provide a monetary maintenance to her for the rest of her life. The new law also allows for her to take the children.”

Bill’s eyes had become great angry orbs bulging from his red face. “You learned nothing of the kind! You are a wretched, meddling hay—” He glanced at Paul uneasily as the man took a step toward him. Mr. Heryford’s face became as hard and determined as any Polly had ever seen.

He’s looking for an excuse to strike Bill, Polly thought. While excited to have champions defending her, she feared further reprisals for her husband’s shaming.

“The company what employs you,” Paul said, “was among those the House of Commons tasked with printing and distributing the amendment.”

Susan held forth the publication.

Bill approached her slowly, then snatched the pages from her hand and tore them up.

“You might tear the paper, Mr. Nichols,” Susan said, maintaining her calm, “but the law remains, and now you cannot claim ignorance of it.”

“Now, as your boys are gone,” Bill said, sneering, “leading your husband around by the nose isn’t good enough? You’ve got to mind somebody else’s business. There’s little more despicable than a neighbor who listens through the walls for advantage.”

“There’s no call for you to mistreat my wife too,” Paul said. “You are no great specimen, sir. I could easily defend both women.”

“I can see you’d like to try.”

“Yes, sir, I would.”

Bill spun on his heels to face his wife. “Come, Polly, we’ll go home.”

“Take great care in how you treat your wife, Mr. Nichols,” Susan said.

Polly didn’t want to go with him. She was afraid. But she’d only delay the inevitable if she stayed, and to go seemed the best way to reduce his anger at the moment. He had been shamed and threatened. Although she found that satisfying, she feared that the Heryfords had fed his anger.

Polly Nichols and her family at the time were not among the wretched poor, so she had an advantage that allowed her to accept help from the neighbors. In a poverty stricken household, if the one dolling out the beatings was the major bread-winner, the family would go hungry if he were jailed, so most violence of that type went unpunished.
wifebeater
Jack London makes dire predictions for Great Britain’s future at the end of the chapter. History proved him wrong in many cases, but I can certainly see why he feared the worst based on what he witnessed.

Why didn’t the people of the abyss flee, travel to live in another city or even another country? For one, they hadn’t the means to flee. Sure one could up and leave town, but there remained the question of how to get by as a stranger elsewhere. And such downtrodden people frequently don’t have the imagination required for hope.

In my last post I referred to “magical bootstraps.” That is in reference to the expression “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” meaning to better oneself by ones own efforts, yet the expression points to an impossible feat—to lift oneself into the air by pulling up on the straps attached to boots.

If such a thing is possible at all, either lifting oneself into the air by pulling up on the straps attached to boots or bettering oneself against difficult, perhaps prohibitive or forbidding odds, it will be done in the imagination. Once conceived in the imagination, the former remains impossible due to gravity, but the latter does become more possible. That’s assuming one has confidence in the use of imagination, a sense that once a course of action toward a goal is “seen” within the mind’s eye, hope and perseverance will carry one forward to the objective.

“Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” was originally an ironical statement meant to indicate the impossible or nearly impossible, but in modern times the sense of that irony seems to have become lost. Those who feel they have succeeded in life and resent having to share what they’ve accumulated are sometimes heard to complain of the needy that they should “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” as if doing so were an easy thing.

MagicalBootstrapsYet, again, gravity in a symbolic sense often holds the needy down; the gravity of their situation. Can anyone actually pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” literally or figuratively without help from someone else? Perhaps, but it can seem in the face of steep odds a nearly impossible task. If you were malnourished, had few means, and were kept from opportunity by suspicion, disgust, and disdain for your class, how likely would be your success at bettering yourself and your situation?

While imagination is powerful, like any trait, it varies from person to person. Some have it, some don’t. Whether one has it or not says nothing about the worth of the person. How many of our family and friends have the imagination to lift themselves into a better life without the help of others either more fortunate or more imaginative?

Magical bootstraps equals imagination plus hope.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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Visit Alan M. Clark online: www.alanmclark.com

THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 18

BreakingStones1

Breaking stones for roads—Illustrated London News, 1868

In chapter 18, Jack London addressed wages. Most of the chapter deals with comparing the wages received by individuals for certain labor with the cost of living: food, shelter, heating, etc. Without going into the detail he did, I cannot give a good sense of his discovery beyond saying what so much of these posts have established: Many Londoners of the period were dirt poor. He cites a statistic that claims that 1,292,737 people supporting families in London in 1902 did so on 21 shillings or less per week?

The basic problem was too many people and too few jobs. The buyer’s market for labor drove down wages.

So, one might say to the unskilled laborer, “Gain a skill.” Many did, and still had so much competition that they could not find work. One might then say to that person, “Become an entrepreneur and invent something, create a product, or offer a service that’s new and different.”

One of the reasons that some people are unskilled laborers is that they don’t have the imagination to create and invent, nor do we expect that everyone should be an entrepreneur. Would that even be possible for the roughly 1.3 million people supporting a family in London in 1902 on 21 shillings per week or less?

1.3 million entrepreneurs?

Well, many were entrepreneurs to some extent or another. Many scavenged, which helped keep the city from falling into a ruin of refuse and raw sewage. But most people were not going to invent anything worthwhile, or think up a service not already in existence. Gaining a skill and joining the ranks of those employed using such a skill or offering services that countless others already offered, an individual would still be entering a market in which the pay for the skill or service had already been whittled extremely low by the heavy competition for jobs.

The class system in existence also helped to keep the poor in place. Manner of speech and vernacular marked the lower classes in a way that made climbing the rungs of financial success more difficult. A pauper’s invention might more likely be stolen than find investors. Higher class individuals were accustomed to purchasing the services of lower class individuals for menial tasks only. The lower class person offering a service that required substantial pay was looked upon suspiciously as one trying to engage in commerce above their station.

In America, during the middle to late Victorian period, we’d had tracts of land that were not owned and where an enterprising person might stake a claim and make a run at success. Virtually all land in England had been long since claimed. If one wanted to start a business or a farm, one would have to rent the land and what structures were needed, and then compete in a market, the profit margins of which had been whittled down by intense competition.

None of these things are absolutes. The class system was fraying at the edges. And of course a clever person, assuming one had an excellent education and good social skills could find ways around these difficulties. That wasn’t going to happen for all 1.3 million of the people supporting their families on 21 shillings a week in London of 1902. There just weren’t enough magical bootstraps to go around.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

MagicalBootstraps

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 17

factoryIn chapter 17, entitled “Efficiency,” Jack London spoke of those who had employment as if they were mechanisms—gears perhaps— within the great machine of the British economy. He pointed out the obvious about employment; that those who were not designed well enough to perform the functions of their jobs were quickly demoted to labor more appropriate for their abilities. This was worth pointing out because the process was accelerated and the expectations placed on the employee were so much greater in London of a time when so many were looking for work. Such high unemployment and such deep poverty existed that many would willingly make sacrifices to their own happiness to gain employment, perhaps by taking less pay, working longer hours, taking on extra duty, or even compromising their principles. Like gears within a machine, the working man had to keep his sprockets (the numerous engaging projections on a gear) perfectly shaped and spaced or he would be replaced. Worse yet, in the buyer’s market of employment at the time, the human mechanisms within the greater machine had to find a way to do their work with increasing efficiency for the employer or they’d be considered obsolete. Then the question for the gears was, “How can I prevent my sprockets from becoming worn down?”

All hope was lost for workers who grew ill or became physically or mentally handicapped in any way. Because the relief system in England at the time provided so little, such severe privation would follow loss of employment that death would not come soon enough to be merciful. Instead, a lingering descent awaited the infirm pauper. Statistics of the time told Jack London that 1 out of every 4 people in England died on what little public charity provided in either the workhouse, hospital, or asylum.

factory3Jack London also speaks of workers in very human terms, telling of the plights of several individuals who were harmed on the job or some other way and lost everything. Employers frequently provided next to nothing to help out those injured on the job. One man lost both legs in an accident at work due to negligence on the part of his employer. In compensation, the man was given 25£, which is equivalent to about 12 weeks wages for a low-skilled laborer. He spent 9£ on a wheelchair. If the burden of care wasn’t assumed by family or friends, the injured person withered away and died, whether in or out of the workhouse, hospital, or asylum. That is exactly the sort of end that faced many who could not find steady work, especially the old or sick.

I believe in having a social safety net. When I hear conservatives in the United States talking about doing away with it, I think of the plight of the poor during the Industrial revolution, and the old throughout history. When I hear conservatives talking about privatizing the safety net—because they believe that industry manages efficiency better than does government—I have to wonder if they’ve thought much about the fact that those setting up the system would keep at least one eye on making a profit.

How are we doing in the U.S. with privatized prisons? Some of the contracts private companies have with states like Arizona require a 100% occupancy or compensation must be paid for unused beds. I don’t truly know if the compensation represents enough of an incentive to the state to fill the beds through the process of arrest and conviction, but it remains an inefficiency that the company running the prison wants addressed to their benefit. What does that suggest about the priorities of private companies doing public work? I’m not suggesting that wanting to make a profit is evil. I’m saying that it doesn’t necessarily dovetail with keeping the best interests of human beings in mind.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 16

PoliceCourt

Cartoon from PUNCH 1861

In chapter 16, titled “Property Versus Person,” Jack London explored how the courts provided stiffer punishments for offenses involving damage or theft to property than they did for offenses against human beings, including violence. He gave examples of both types of cases from different English police courts, and placed them side by side for comparison. Consistently, one can see that the penalties were worse for crimes involving property, while man’s brutality to man got a comparatively light punishment.

A man caught sleeping rough got 14 days hard labor, while one who beat his wife severely was fined 1£, 8 shillings, which at the time amounted to about a week and a half of wages for a poor, low-skilled worker. A coal miner attacked a man, knocked him down, beat him about the head and body, then picked up a pit prop (a wooden beam used to prop up a mine ceiling) and continued the beating with that. He was fined 1£, while a 62 year old man was sentenced to 4 months hard labor for poaching rabbits. Poaching of this type was usually hunting for food on large tracts of land owned by a wealthy, often titled individual.

Jack London’s opinion was that the sentences chosen by the magistrates involved in the cases indicated that the wealthy had representation in local government and law enforcement, but the poor largely did not. He wasn’t alone in those sentiments. The gap between the haves and have-nots in Great Britain fed a growing resentment among ordinary human beings, just as we see happening today in the United States. Would it take throwing much of a generation of young Englishmen on the fire of WWI to relieve the pressure in England? I’m not suggesting that was the plan, but the war took so many men off the streets of Great Britain—just under a million Englishmen lost their lives—and innumerable jobs were created to support the war effort. Did it alleviate to some extent the problems of poverty and homelessness?

What does it take here in the U.S. to relieve the pressure we experience when there are too many people looking for work and too few jobs? During the Great Depression, the federal government poured money back into the pockets of the people by funding work projects, most of them needed infrastructure improvements. Laws were passed to place regulations on financial institutions to help avoid the problems that led to the depression.

Many of those regulations were weakened in the 1990s. During the Great Recession of 2008, the congress had a tug of war between austerity and liberal spending policy. I believe the austerity measures that prevailed slowed the recovery.

Many Americans were angry after the crash of the U.S. economy with the Great Recession  when none of the major players in the credit default swaps debacle went to prison. Instead, some of the financial institutions involved were bailed out to the tune of billions of dollars at the tax-payers’ expense during a time when the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown into a gulf. The banks got bailed out, but the little guy, hurt by the financial institution that gambled and lost, did not. Again, we seem to have much better representation in government for the haves than the have-nots.  For the gamble taken by financial firms, many people world-wide suffered tremendously.

The anger and resentment have not gone away.

In the United States today, we have Presidential election coming soon. One of the candidates, of a nationalistic bent, preys upon that resentment to gain power. He uses illegal immigrants and a particular religious group as scapegoats, and lies about the dangers in the world to increase fear as he works to divide and conquer the American electorate.

I see very creepy parallels with the time of terrible depression in Europe following WWI when several dangerous nationalists used similar tactics to seize power. We, in America, have not just gone through a blood bath like that of WWI. Our economy is slowly recovering. I have hope that we are smart enough to not buy what our nationalistic candidate is selling.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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Visit Alan M. Clark online: www.alanmclark.com

Liveblogging THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS (no tickets necessary)

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(Go straight to The People of the Abyss LiveBlog Part 1)

Beginning July 4, in preparation for the August release from Word Horde of my third Jack the Ripper victims novel, A BRUTAL CHILL IN AUGUST, I’ll be liveblogging my reading of Jack London’s THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS. The book is a piece of investigative journalism in which the author wrote of his experience living in the guise of an impoverished person in the East End of the city of London in 1902, fourteen years after Jack the Ripper terrorized the area.

Unlike the liveblogging that occurs with a television or sports event, my posts will not come every few minutes, but instead every couple of days—Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—for 9 weeks. The blogging will consist of my impressions of the tale as I proceed in my reading, a post for each of the 27 chapters. They will appear on my blog, on the Word Horde site, and I’ll provide links on my Facebook page, where I’ll also be able to carry on conversations with those interested in following the liveblogging of the book.

This is Historical Terror: Horror that Happened in the words of one who lived it.

If you would like to read along with me, get a copy of Jack London’s THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS, then join the conversation on Facebook starting July 4. You can buy a paperback or get a free ebook edition. Here’s a link for a free ebook copy, available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, from Project Gutenburg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

Historical Terror: Horror that Happened—Another Murderer in Victorian London

This post is about the historical basis for the murderer in my novel,
The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir.

Cover_TheSurgeonsMate_ADismemoir_smallest

Someone took apart women in the most gruesome fashion in London in the late 1880s. Following that statement, many would say, “Yes, Jack the Ripper terrorized London in 1888,” yet I do not refer to the Ripper.

Between the years 1887 and 1889, headless, limbless torsos appeared in odd places in London. One turned up in a chamber within the excavation for the future home of Scotland Yard in the heart of Westminster, the seat of the British Government. Another was found under a railway viaduct. Several homeless people sleeping nearby were unaware of the horrid presence. Another washed up along the banks of the River Thames downstream from London. Body parts were found in the city or likewise washed up along the waterway. Few of the women were identified. One, possibly identified as Elizabeth Jackson, turned up along the Thames in at least ten pieces, often wrapped in cloth, tied with string.

Of course, as many of us would do today, the media of the time presumed that the killer known as Jack the Ripper had committed the crimes, but since insufficient similarities existed between the manner of dismemberment in the torso murders and the mutilations performed by the Whitechapel murderer, the police authorities in London of the 1880s did not believe the crimes were committed by the same person. They also did not believe that the remains were somehow the mislaid remnants of legitimate medical dissection of cadavers.

While the torso murders didn’t get the kind of press the Ripper killings got, they are to my mind just as  horrific, the mutilations similarly revolting, if different. The Ripper’s victims were left in plain sight on the streets, an affront to the sensibilities of any society. Identified and their names and histories given out through the media, they were made somewhat whole again, that personhood making the outrageous insult to their flesh, and the theft of their lives all the more horrible.

The unidentified random body parts of the torso killings were just that—parts, objects.  One can imagine that’s all they were to the perpetrator of the crimes. Life was cheap in Victorian London. A prostitute could be had for 4 cents, the same as the cost of a pint of ale or a glass of gin.

AnIllusionOfSafeSex_Blog

“An Illusion of Safe Sex” copyright © 2003 Alan M. Clark

In an economic environment in which jobs were disappearing, many taken from human hands and backs and given to machines, countless people became unemployed. Employers had the upper hand. With a threat of termination, they could push any employee hard. In the unregulated, laissez-faire capitalist system that existed in London at the time, workers were frequently exposed to working conditions that destroyed their health through exposure to dangerous chemicals, mechanical equipment, toxic work environments, or sheer exhaustion from severe hardship. If an employee failed, or worse, fell dead from exhaustion, he or she could easily be replaced, perhaps more like business equipment or raw materials than human beings.

The Ripper’s victims were all unemployed middle-aged women, worn out drunkards who survived on odd jobs, begging, and casual prostitution. Likely, so were the victims in the torso murders.

Yes, life in Victorian London was cheap, and at least two murderous bastards took advantage of the over-abundant commodity wandering the streets.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Historical Terror: Horror that Happened—Relating to Psyches Long Dead

“All that She’d Need” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark. Interior Illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: THE DOUBLE EVENT

This post is based on a presentation about writing historical fiction I did for the WordCrafters in Eugene writers’ conference under the title “Relating to Psyches Long Dead: Developing Characters in Historical Fiction”

Here are some questions concerning setting that I consider when developing a piece of historical fiction:
*What were the differences, both opportunities and limitations, in the roles of females and males, both as adults and children?
*Was there a class system in place and how did it work?
*What were the prevalent religious and social beliefs of the time?
*What moral strictures were in place concerning religious faith, sexual activity, social conduct, and social mobility?
*How did people find happiness?
*What were the common ways in which life and happiness were endangered?

The key to helping audience relate to characters in a story, whatever the setting, is the emotional aspects of the tale. How we respond to the world has a lot to do with personality, but our time and circumstances have some influence on who we are as well. In developing characters within a historical setting, its important to know something of how people within the chosen environment were affected by events of their time. Also important is considering how characters’ knowledge of their environment’s history prior to their respective births might effect their thinking. That seems like a lot, and perhaps it is. The good news is that we’re basically the same creatures we’ve been for thousands of years, with all the same emotions. What stimulates those emotions varies for all of us, and we’re used to interpreting others moods within the context of their experiences. Dealing with emotion in historical fiction is no different. We just have to know the context.

Research gets me only so far within a reasonable amount of time and effort. Therefore, it’s good to have an overarching sense of history, to knowing something of when and how technological advances occurred and how they effected the lives of human beings. Something as simple as the electric drill, has an elaborate history. The tool is descended from various hole-making devices made of wood, sometimes tipped with stone, turned by hand power alone at first, later turned with the help of bows. With time, helical metal tips or bits were developed. These were turned by hand cranks. Later added leverage was provided by hand-driven cogged mechanisms. Eventually drill bits were powered with steam, electricity and compressed air. An electric drill could not exist in a tale about ancient Egypt without serious justification for its existence being provided. Perhaps the device is the invention of a genius of the period, and the advancement was later lost to history. Perhaps it arrived in ancient Egypt with a time traveler. The latter justification takes the story into the realm of science fiction or fantasy. Reasonable explanations are possible, but whatever is used, it must be important to pushing the story forward.

Those descriptions and events that help build a sense of time and place within a story should not be added arbitrarily. I shouldn’t have the hanging of a witch occur as backdrop for a town square scene in my 15th century tale about Salem, Massachusetts unless it has some bearing on what the story is about. The descriptions of objects within an environment, the actions and words characteristic of a time period, and the use of vernacular within dialogue are helpful for setting the scene, but should only be added to give atmosphere if they also help move the story forward. I must find ways to make the introduction of such things incidental to the action and dialogue to lighten the load of describing them in summary narrative.

Dear reader, what are the historical flaws and possible solutions to the scenarios below? Each scenario has at least two flaws, and some have numerous. If you’d like, use the comment feature to list them. Number three has one flaw in particular that is very subtle. See if you can figure it out.

1) In the year 1500, renaissance painter, Antonio da Roma, loses his job decorating the ceiling of a church because he’s become too obese to climb the extension ladder used in the job. He’s dissected enough cadavers to know about plaque buildup in blood vessels. Fearing a stroke, he decides to lay off all high cholesterol, fatty foods. His family can’t get along on his wife’s income, and they are about to enter the poorhouse when an opportunity arises. An insurance adjuster who knows of Antonio’s dissections, hires him to perform an autopsy. The adjuster wants to know if his client committed suicide or died of natural causes.

2) In 1820, Melody, the unwed sixteen-years-old daughter of a plantation owner outside of Atlanta, Georgia, wants to have a sleepover party with three girlfriends on an evening when the servants have the night off. Her parents agree. The night of the sleepover, Melody’s aunt Alice, her father’s sister, comes to the house to call the parents away. “Mother is very ill,” Aunt Alice says. “The Doctors says she will surely die tonight. Please hurry. We have 50 miles to travel to get to her.” While Melody’s parents are gone, four young men the girls don’t know crash the sleepover party. They spend the night, and, on a lark,  Melody has sex for the first time.

3) In 1854, during the Crimean War, the medical facilities near the front lines are overburdened with the wounded as well as with those having unseen wounds. Dr. Martin Roberts says to his superior, Dr. Susan Lee, “If they have no apparent wound, they are simply malingerers, and have no excuse not to return to battle.”
“Perhaps their wounds are of a subconscious nature.” she responds.
Doctor Roberts nods thoughtfully. “I hadn’t considered that.”

Here are links to some of the historical fiction novels I’ve written:

A Parliament of Crows

ebook

paperback

The Door That Faced West

ebook

paperback

Novels in my Jack the Ripper Victims Series:

Of Thimble and Threat

paperback

Say Anything But Your Prayers

paperback

Click the link below for both of the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novels in one ebook.

Jack the Ripper Victim Series: The Double Event.

 

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Historical Terror—Horror that Happened

Interior illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: THE DOUBLE EVENT

What Were They Thinking? How could the people of Jonestown drink the cyanide laced Kool-Aid? How could Jim Jones ask them to do it?

How did Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. decide to fall on a grenade during fighting in Bougainville in WWII? Surely, he didn’t do it for the posthumously awarded Medal of Honor. No doubt he did it to save his fellow soldiers, but that’s a pat answer that leaves out all but the barest glimpse of the emotions involved. When it’s difficult to put myself into the shoes of the people making these sorts of mind-blowing decisions, their choices can become a fascination for me.

This post was originally developed as a presentation about writing historical fiction for the WordCrafters in Eugene writers’ conference under the title “What were They Thinking: The Drama Available in History.” The driving force of human emotion can be quite mysterious when we’re not present to see it in action. If the emotional context is missing, I am frequently befuddled by the decisions of my fellow human beings. History is filled with dramatic events that involve momentous and pivotal choices, some heroic, some dastardly, taken by human beings under great emotional strain. Those situations that ended in tragedy were often a result of decisions made, often hastily, based on a poor selection of choices, none of them good, or in the pursuit of a desperate agenda. Those that ended well often resulted from a persistent hope, faith, love, or just dumb luck.

Here are some of the types of choices human beings make that are difficult for me to understand on the surface.

1) Suicide (sometimes there’s no explanation left behind).
2) Maintaining relationships with those who are emotionally difficult, abusive, or dangerous.
3) Engaging in activities that are known to easily lead to addictions.
4) Unusual risk-taking or other self-destructive tendencies (sometimes referred to as a death wish).
5) Self sacrifice (a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others).
6) Courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
7) Striking out for the unknown with little but hope to sustain the effort (Christopher Columbus comes to mind).
8) Acting on intuition alone (trusting oneself to anticipate something of great import).
9) Willingness to pursue a course despite the obvious pain endured or caused to others.
10) Unwillingness to consider anything but one’s own agenda or beliefs in the face of obvious reality (Hitler comes to mind).
11) Collective belief systems that seem obviously harmful to others (South African Apartheid comes to mind).
12) Falling in love with highly flawed, even destructive individuals.
13) Hating individuals for reasons that seem to have little depth.
14) Scapegoatism.

For this paper, I’ll refer to these quirks of human decision-making as “fascinating choices.” Most of the choices seem unreasonable on the surface, so why should I trouble myself to understand? I’ve certainly made some weird, even bone-headed decisions in my life, but then, I know why, at least most of the time. If hindsight is 20 20, I should be able to evaluate others’ fascinating choices objectively, right? Of course not. If there’s no record left behind of what the actors involved were thinking and feeling, a lot of information is missing. Should I dismiss my astonishment with the notions that those who made the fascinating choices were insane, ill-informed, or merely bad at decision-making, some lucky and some unlucky? No! I think the fact that I’m left scratching my head in wonder is an indication that something particularly human and emotionally complex has occurred in these situations, something that holds great drama. Sometimes, we have the pat answer—he gave his life to save his fellow soldiers—but that doesn’t satisfy my curiosity. Was he motivated by patriotic fervor or was it a special relationship with those particular men that motivated him? If the latter, what events led to such strong feeling?

HistoricalFictionI’ve written five historical fiction novels in an effort to explore how certain seemingly unreasonable choices, or, as I’ve called them, fascinating choices, became reasonable for those who made them.

Three of the novels are part of my Jack the Ripper Victims Series. Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, and Say Anything But Your Prayer, about the life of Elizabeth Stride have been released. A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, has not been released yet. Of Thimble and Threat and Say Anything But Your Prayers are available separately, but they’re also published together in the ebook volume Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event. All three novels are inspired by my fascination with what seems unreasonable choices on the part of the women involved. Surely, all three knew about the dangers hidden in a Whitechapel, London night. Since the Ripper killings had already begun and were widely reported, Eddowes and Stride would have been well-aware that a murderer stalked the city looking for victims, yet they were willing to stagger drunken along the streets at night, looking for strangers to pay them for sex. What sort of desperation leads one to take such risks to earn a crust? What level of disregard for oneself is required to allow that kind of vulnerability? People don’t set out in life to become drunkards and prostitutes, so what in their lives led to such a fall from grace? These are a few of the questions I’ve addressed in the novels. There being five canonical victims, I have two more novels to write for the series.

A Parliament of Crows is my historical fiction novel about the Wardlaw sisters (I changed their name to Mortlow in the novel). The sisters were the daughters of a

Cover art for A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS

Supreme Court Justice of South Carolina. They were born in the 1840s and ‘50s, and would have been teens during the Civil War. After the war, they stuck together. Though two married and had children, the sisters most often lived with each other, and apart from their families. They took positions in women’s colleges, teaching primarily social graces, and bilked those institutions of funds. Mourning clothes, including veils, seemed to be their perennial dress. They had homes in 3 or 4 states of the United States. The houses and apartments had virtually no furnishings. Taking out insurance policies on certain of their children, the sisters did them in for the payouts. The media circus of their trail at the beginning of the 20th century was only rivaled by that of Lizzy Borden’s almost a half century earlier. As they awaited trial, one went insane and was institutionalized, and one starved herself to death. I wanted to know how they saw the life they led as reasonable. How could it be? I had a lot of fun with that one.

Interior illustration for THE DOOR THAT FACED WEST

Finally, there’s The Door That Faced West, which involves dreadful events from early Tennessee and Kentucky history.

I am from Tennessee, and learning about my State’s history when younger, I happened upon the tale of Big and Little Harpe. They are consider some of the earliest serial or spree killers in America, having committed their crimes around the year 1800. As land pirates, they haunted the trails in what was at the time the frontier territory of the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky, robbing and killing to earn a living. They had three wives who traveled with them. Life on the trail was tough, but being wanted, the men had little choice but to keep moving, and the women went with them. One of the wives, Sally Rice, was a minister’s daughter. What we know of the young woman from history is that she traveled the wilderness trails with the Harpes and was witness to terrible violence. The Harpes killed virtually everyone they robbed, at least fifty human beings. At one point, as the outlaws attempted to escape the law, the wives became separated from them. Instead of escaping the frightful life on the trail and seeking asylum in the nearest settlement, the three women traveled one hundred and eighty miles through the wilderness to the agreed-upon rendezvous point to be reunited with the Harpes. They really wanted to be with those guys!

When the wives were finally separated from the men for the last time, Sally Rice, the minister’s daughter, remarried, settled down, had children, and lived out her life in an unremarkable, seemingly normal fashion. That is virtually all history tells us about her. As far as we know she committed no violence herself, yet she had a role in terrible events, a witness at bare minimum.

I wanted to know what she was thinking. How had that life become reasonable? What sort of emotional gymnastics were necessary for her to live with herself? Having come from what people of the time considered a good, spiritual background, why would she endure the hardships of life on the trail with the horrible Harpes? How could she go on with a peaceful life after witnessing and benefitting from their most terrible deeds? What of regret, guilt, and shame did she experience or was she secretly filled with glee for what she’d seen and done? The possibility exists that she felt both extremes.

I wrote The Door that Faced West to explore through character and story development the emotional evolution of one who found herself in such a state of affairs. Adding up what’s known about the circumstances in her story provided me with some indication of the emotions experienced by those involved. Also helpful was knowing something about the environment in which those feelings emerged, the religious, political, and social beliefs and pressures of the time and place. Creating the characters to move through that environment and make the decisions that we know about helped me to understand. Once my characters were well-developed, I could see what rang true in their fascinating choices.

Inevitably, as I try to dramatize such events, I’ll get them wrong. I can only fictionalize, and, in the end, the telling of a good story has to be the priority, not telling the truth. I cannot know what people said or felt unless they expressed it somehow. Even then, their expressions may not hold the full truth. Still, the drama hinges most soundly on the fascinating choices. History as presented isn’t always the truth, but generally speaking, these choices are pivotal moments in time, after which things have changed. All evidence points to the fact that Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. did indeed purposely fall on that grenade. Afterward, he was dead and his fellow soldiers were still alive, and they knew why. Jim Jones didn’t have enough enforcers to compel all those people in Jonestown to drink the Kool-Aid. They willingly decided to die just because he asked them to.

What I get out of writing such a novel may not be an accurate portrayal of events, but I certainly find good drama and an answer to the question of how one might reasonably arrive at the fascinating choices in question. The writing itself is an incredible adventure of discovery.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon