Mysteries of Elizabeth Stride

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In researching the life of Elizabeth Stride, the third victim of Jack the Ripper, for my novel, Say Anything But Your Prayers, I discovered several fun mysteries beyond the most obvious one concerning the identity of her murderer. In the process of writing a fictionalized account of her life, I had to make sense of the mysteries, and that meant coming up with reasonable story elements to stand in for missing information. One of the most interesting mysteries involves a misidentification of her body while it was at the mortuary. I will get to that shortly. First a couple of smaller mysteries.

On the surface, Elizabeth and her husband, John Stride, seemed to have had good opportunities. They opened a coffee shop in London in 1870. Although the shop was moved to two other locations within the city over time, they ran it until 1875 when their ownership of the business was sold. John Stride was a carpenter during a time when London was growing in leaps and bounds. Despite these endeavors, in the end, the couple was impoverished and both spent time in the workhouse.

Concerning the coffee shop—the Strides could have been terrible at business. In researching the possibilities, I discovered another likely explanation: The Ceylon coffee crop, which was the main source for the British Empire, was all but destroyed by a fungus known as coffee rust in the early 1870s. As a result of the damage to the crop, the price of coffee might have become too high.

Concerning John’s carpentry—yes, London was growing by leaps and bounds, but the industrial revolution had eliminated so many jobs throughout the countryside and the unemployed flooded into the city to find work. Competition for jobs was fierce. Any stain on a worker’s reputation might leave him out in the cold, and that could include not making the required “contributions” to organizations that organized carpentry work and workers. Victorian London was a challenging environment in which to live and thrive. The possible reasons for a lack of success for John Stride’s carpentry are endless. I chose one that made sense within the context of the tale I was telling and helped further the plot.

Two days after Elizabeth Stride’s death, on Tuesday, October 2, during the inquest into her murder, a woman named Mary Malcolm testified that she’d seen the body at mortuary twice and was certain it was that of her sister, Elizabeth Watts. She said that she met with her sister each Saturday on a street corner to give her financial assistance. She’d been meeting her for that purpose for at least three years, yet on the previous Saturday, her sister didn’t show up. Mrs. Malcolm recounted a strange experience she’d had that night. “I was in bed, and about twenty minutes past one on Sunday morning, I felt a pressure on my breast and heard three distinct kisses. It was that which made me afterwards suspect that the woman who had been murdered was my sister.” This occurrence, coincides approximately with the hour of Stride’s death.

Under questioning by the coroner, Detective-Inspector Ried, and the Foreman of the inquest, Mrs. Malcolms said of her sister, Elizabeth Watts, that she’d once had a policeman as a lover, that she’d lived with a man who kept a coffee shop in Poplar, that she’d gone by the nickname Long Liz, that she was a drunkard who had been arrested more than once for public drunkenness, and that she’d gotten released from jail on one occasion by saying that she was subject to epileptic seizures. All six of these descriptions seemed to also hold true for Elizabeth Stride.

Mrs. Malcolm said that in part she could recognize her sister’s body because the right leg had a small black mark. “It was from the bite of an adder. One day, when children, we were rolling down a hill together, and we came across an adder. The thing bit me first and my sister afterwards. I have still the mark of the bite on my left hand.”

The Coroner had already received information from other borders at the common lodging where Elizabeth Stride had been living that the body was hers. He instructed Mrs. Malcolm to go as usual on the upcoming Saturday to the corner where she met Elizabeth Watts to see if her sister turned up.

Elizabeth Watts—who had taken the name of her current husband and was named Elizabeth Stokes—did turn up.  When the inquest reconvened on Tuesday, October 23, the woman became a witness, declared herself very much alive, and said many things meant to discredit Mary Malcolm.

Still, there are the six elements of description Mrs. Malcolm gave that fit Elizabeth Stride. I found only weak explanations for this mystery. Applying the principle of Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation is that Mary Malcolm lied, but coincidentally offered up so many descriptions that actually fit Elizabeth Stride that she might have been believed if Elizabeth Stokes had not shown up.

The solution to the mystery that I chose seems to be the next-simplest, and helped me to further develop the character of Elizabeth Stride. I had a lot of fun fitting my solution into the greater puzzle of her life.

Say Anything But Your Prayers, was released by Lazy Fascist Press in 2014. The novel is the second book in my Jack the Ripper Victims series, the first being Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes—Lazy fascist Press in 2011. Exploring the long gone, but not lost world of Victorian London has been an immense pleasure for me as I perform research for the books. The first two volumes within the series are also available in one ebook titled Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event.

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The third novel, A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of the first victim, Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, was released on August 31st, 2016, the 128th anniversary of her death.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

The artwork with this post: “Her Client” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark.

The Flotsam and Jetsam of History

If you love words as I do, you probably love history. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years writing historical fiction. In performing research for the novels, I’ve leaned about the origins of certain English words and phrases I’ve used in both written and spoken language throughout my life, but didn’t completely understand. Although many expressions that came into existence long ago are still in use and their meanings as idioms are clear to us, the original meanings of the phrases may be lost without a search in history.

Because the gun played such a large role in events over the last few centuries, many idioms are related to firearms of the past. Here are a few that are still widely used, but the context of their origination not widely known.

Lock stock and barrel is an expression we use to mean “all of it.” I used to think it meant the whole store, like a mercantile of some kind. It means the whole rifle or musket. The lock is the firing mechanism, the barrel is, well… self-explanatory, and the stock is the part that helps you hold onto the firearm.

Bite the bullet means expose yourself to possible pain and danger to get a job done. Many people believe it originally meant to bite down on a lead bullet to endure pain, perhaps while having a surgical experience without an anesthetic, but it comes from a time when to prepare a rifle for firing you had to bite the end off a paper-wrapped cartridge before placing its contents in the barrel of your firearm. Doing this while under fire took brave resolve.

Stick to your guns means remain true to principles or goals. The expression has less to do with guns per se and more to do with maintaining a particular post during battle, especially if you’re told to hold a position without retreating. Well, of course you will need that gun, won’t you?

Flash in the pan in an idiom we use to mean a great start but little or no follow up. It’s a great metaphor for a one hit wonder in the music industry who puts out a single very popular tune, yet never does any better afterward and soon falls out of favor. To do justice to this one takes some explaining, so bear with me.

The original meaning comes from a time when pistols, muskets, and rifles had flint lock firing mechanisms. To load a flintlock firearm, gunpowder was poured into the barrel followed by a lead ball, called “shot,” wrapped in a bit of rag to make it fit snugly and hold everything in place. A small pan beside a hole in the side of the barrel was primed with a little gunpowder and then protected from spillage by a hinged iron part called a frizzin (see the diagramed illustration above). When the trigger of the flintlock was pulled, the hammer, which held a piece of flint did two things: it struck sparks off the iron frizzin and knocked that hinged part off the pan. With the frizzin out of the way, the sparks could reach the powder in the pan and ignite it. The hot expanding gas of the lit powder was meant to travel down the small hole in the side of the barrel and ignite the powder behind the lead shot. If this last step didn’t occur, there was merely a flash in the pan and the gun didn’t actually fire.

Understanding the metaphor of this idiom creates a mental picture that enhances the meaning of the expression. A flash in the pan is an exciting event, with a hiss, a flash, and billowing smoke, but the results are disappointing if that isn’t followed by the loud crack of the shot flying from the barrel and striking a target. Without the mental picture some of the power of the expression’s metaphor is lost.

The original meanings of many single words are unknown to most of us today. I’m thinking of several having to do with the production of linen. A lining, like what you might have in the inside surface of your coat, means something made from line flax. Line flax is the fibers of the flax plant that don’t break off when run through a device that looks like a small bed of nails called a hackle (aka heckle). The fibers that survive going through a hackle and remain long are spun together to make fine linen thread (note the word “line” in “linen”). So a lining is something made of linen. The lining of my stomach or my water heater is not made of linen, though. When my dog gets upset, wants to look bigger and more threatening, he gets his hackles up, but that doesn’t mean he has metal spikes sticking up out of his back. In the past, the flax fibers that broke off short in a hackle were called tow flax. They weren’t good enough to make fine thread and were spun into a rough cord to make tow sacks, which are much like the burlap sacks of today. Tow fibers are very blonde, but a tow-headed child doesn’t have tow flax for hair even if the tyke is referred to as flaxen-haired. The act of drawing flax fibers through a hackle is known as heckling. The purpose was to worry, to tease (in the old sense, meaning to comb), and straighten the fibers to determine which would stand up to stress and were worth using for linen production. When a stand-up comedian is heckled, that doesn’t mean he’s drawn through a small bed of nails to straighten his fibers and break off his weak parts. Okay, so maybe it does mean he’s being teased, but still, you get my point.

Here’s an expression I like a lot: flotsam and Jetsam. It’s not the most commonly known phrase, but it’s still a fun one using curious words, and I want to use it in the last paragraph of this post. We use it now to mean odds and ends. For example, somebody might say, “The project is finished except for the flotsam and jetsam of small problems I discovered along the way.” Flotsam and jetsam are separate nautical terms, but frequently appear together, both as words and in the context in which the words have meaning. Flotsam is the remnants of a shipwreck that floats on the sea after a vessel has gone down. Jetsam is what is jettisoned from a ship going down to lighten its load and help it stay afloat longer.

In the time in which the idiom, flash in the pan, came into existence, the context from which it emerged was well-known to most individuals. An expression like that becomes popular perhaps because it’s frequently used in conversation as a metaphor in lieu of lengthier descriptions. If an idiom becomes useful enough that it’s overused and becomes cliché, it will be so universally understood that the significance of its original context can be discarded. It can far outlive the simple context of its birth. The idiom still performs a meaningful function although many who hear it and repeat it may not understand where it came from. Although the expression, flash in the pan is very much alive, having outlived the technology of the flintlock by more than a century, the metaphor it presents can be considered broken since most people today don’t understand how the firing mechanism works. I’ve heard and used many idioms for years in partial ignorance. As I became more interested in history, the original meaning of some idioms came clear. Finding the discovery satisfying, I became much more curious about the origins of words and phrases, and my interest in history intensified.

My latest historical fiction novel is the Word Horde release of A Brutal Chill in August, part of my Jack the Ripper Victims Series. Because the stories take place in Victorian times or earlier among English speaking people, British or American, they employ characters that use the language a little bit differently than we do today. The trick is to provide scenes in which the context makes clear the meaning of what is being said. The characters are involved with simpler, humbler domestic and labor situations and technologies often in early development or infancy.

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I like to think of idioms with broken metaphors as flotsam of history. The ship has long since gone under, taking its passengers with it. Phrases remain, floating above the wreckage on the surface like lost luggage, filled with words that once had specific meaning, and, in combination, still have an idiomatic meaning. The specific sense of the words might have been lost, but the phrases still have value. We all claim salvage rights from time to time, but often don’t ask the simple questions: Who owned these expressions and why did they find them valuable? If we seek answers to the questions, we can learn something about those who left them behind and perhaps find out why the phrases float so well even today.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Reaching for a 19th Century State of Mind

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Revised detail from acrylic painting “Ethan’s Hair” copyright©2010 Alan M. Clark

In developing Victorian era characters for my historical fiction horror novels, whether they are Americans from my early western, The Door That Faced West, or those from across the Atlantic Ocean used in my Jack the Ripper Victims series novel A Brutal Chill in August, I give each of them a mindset appropriate for the environment of the tale in which they appear. Although broadly our forbears reacted emotionally the same as we do, the thinking behind their response to the natural world, disease, death, violence, and perpetrators of violence could be very different.paperbacknovelspromobanner

The mindsets of my characters often contrast dramatically with my own. Science provides me with answers to things that might have been mysterious and therefore mystical to those who lived in the 19th century. While writing The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir, as it is both memoir and fiction, I had the opportunity to juxtapose my thinking with that of a 19th century serial killer. Although a weird, creepy exercise, it was a lot of fun.

Living in the United States in modern times, I did not grow up around much death. My grandfather, my father’s father, died when I was very young. I didn’t know him well. Other family members who lived in other cities died, but I knew little of the events surrounding their deaths. My family didn’t go to funerals. A boy who I played with was killed in a car accident, and he seemed to disappear from my life. He was an only child, so I had virtually no contact with his family after he was gone. I did not truly know much more of death until my early twenties, when I pulled a drowned friend from the ocean off the California coast and held his lifeless body in my arms.

If I’d lived in 19th century London, I would most likely have known much more of death and the rituals surrounding it. The infant mortality rate was very high throughout the Victorian period in both America and England. In London, through most of the 19th century, at least 30% of children died by the age of five. With that, the life expectancy of the average human being hovered around 40 years. The infant mortality rate was responsible for the lifespan number being so low. If one lived to become an adult, there was the chance, although somewhat slimmer than what we have today, that one might live to a ripe old age.

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Detail from etching “Forgotten” copyright©2016 Alan M. Clark

Death visited the living earlier, more often, and for what could frequently seem mysterious reasons in the Victorian period. The rituals surrounding the loss of life had a large presence in social culture, especially for the higher classes, with set terms for grieving, mourning clothes, and other observances meant to help the living let go of the dead.

A simple cut that drew blood could easily develop into a fatal infection. Of course, that can also happen today, but we have many ways to prevent or fight off such bugs. A secondary illness from a cold or flu, such as a sinus infection or bronchitis, was more likely to become fatal in a time before antibiotics. Because of the unknown associated with infection at the time, If I’d lived in the 19th century, I believe I’d have had more concern than I currently do about small wounds and simple viruses.

Science usually provides us with solid answers regarding cause of death today. The question of why some survive what kills others has never been settled easily by considering who is more fit physically, emotionally, intellectually, or morally, but imagine having to sort through such things without the aid of the science of today. Human beings have a tendency to seek what’s equitable, even in nature. If I were one living in the Victorian era, perhaps with religious views, I would probably view deaths by natural causes, disaster, and disease very differently. Regarding the mysteries that arose concerning who survived and who perished from such misfortune, I might have even considered whether or not the individuals involved deserved what they got. That is not how I do think of such things, in part because I am not a religious fellow.

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“A Vast Landscape” copyright©1991 Alan M. Clark

The discovery of and acceptance of microbes as a matter of fact was a slow process in the 19th century. Although the word “virus,” meaning slime or poison—something that causes illness—had existed for many hundreds of years, the distinction from bacteria as a mechanism to bring on something like the common cold or flu would not be established until later. The discovery of the first pathogen of a type we call a virus today would not occur until 1901. Even late in the 19th century, when those in the medical community were accepting the science of microbes (we’re talking primarily about bacteria that could be seen with the aid of instruments of the period), the majority of human beings knew nothing of bacteria and continued to view infection, whether bacterial or viral, with a superstitious eye.

Today, although many seem to lack an understanding of the difference between bacteria and viruses, most of the people I know assume that pathogens have no motive beyond simple survival and reproduction. Infection is neither deserved by the infected person, nor is it a particularly personal attack upon that individual. My view is that death, whether caused by violence—accidental or purposeful—or as a result of disease brought on by exposure to pathogens, wear and tear of tissues, or as a product of genetic traits, says little about the deceased’s character.

Many in the Victorian era could not understand crimes committed for reasons other than passion, greed, or hatred. If such abhorrent acts as killing, raping, or maiming resulted from impulse, superstition frequently colored the thinking of those trying to interpret motive. Today, with studies of criminal behavior and psychology, we often have much more substantial ideas as to what motivates those who commit violence and murder. Although we still do not understand completely, we don’t often call such criminals “Fiends.” The word means evil spirit or demon, which suggests the acts committed by such disturbed individuals have supernatural origins and are somehow furthering the motives of powerful, unseen entities. Jack the Ripper was referred to as a fiend, but I don’t recall the modern serial murderer, the Green River Killer, ever being referred to that way. He may have been, but that was probably not the trend.

Since the concept of the subconscious was young in the 19th century, the average person had no knowledge of it. Therefore, one was either consciously and rationally responsible for ones thoughts and feelings, impulses and compulsions, or, since those can seem to come out of the blue, one might consider they arrived in the mind from supernatural agencies or as a product of lunacy, both possibilities clearly a cause for extreme concern.

If a Baptist man working a coal mine in Virginia in the19th century found the impulse to strike his boss destructive, then did it on several occasions against his own better judgement and despite the consequences, he might decide that he was beset by demons.

If a Catholic woman from the Victorian era in Scotland found herself in the downward spiral of alcoholism, she might decide that the corrupting compulsion in her life was punishment for sinful thoughts or actions.

A soldier in the American Civil war whose eyes showed no injury, yet whose sight had been lost because his mind could not accept what he’d seen in battle, would be considered a willful malingerer. Consider how the soldier’s commander viewed him. If he didn’t believe that the soldier was indeed blind, he might reasonably think him a coward or insane.

If these uncontrollable aspects of the human psyche were attributed to insanity, again frequently supernatural forces were blamed.

I don’t mean to single out religion as the only purveyor of strange beliefs. Science of the 19th century, especially medical science, had just as much weirdness in it, but since science is a growing thing, most of the bizarre notions from the time, like the idea that illness was transmitted by smell, are not well known today.

Of course, I have generalized throughout this article. There are few absolutes when talking about the trends in human thinking. Little exists today in the way of human attitude and thinking that didn’t at least get its start among those living in the 19th century. And the people of modern times hold just as many, if not more, boneheaded beliefs and superstitions as did people of the past. Some throwbacks persist. For instance, I have family members who insist that I’ll catch a cold if I get wet and cold. I am certainly not immune to such thinking and have a powerful imagination. Human beings seek to make sense of what they don’t understand and work with what they have, even if that is purely imagination. That doesn’t mean we’re backwards or nuts. It just means we’re human, our thinking much like those who have gone before. Since I like history and human beings, I find it intriguing.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

 

Historical Terror—Horror that Happened

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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.

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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

Women and Children in the Time of The Door That Faced West

(In this post, I speak in general terms about women’s issues in the years 1799-1800. Exceptions to what I’ll note existed, but they were few and far between.)

The point-of-view character in my new novel, The Door That Faced West, (released in February by Lazy Fascist Press) is a sixteen-year-old woman named Sadie from North Carolina. She is escaping the abuse of her father. Since he has absolute authority over everything in her life and depends on her labor to get by, if she is to get away from him, she must go somewhere that he will not search for her. She must flee into the wilderness to the west, but she knows that to survive, she’ll need to be with people who know the territory and are tough enough to fight and defend against the dangers to be found there.

In the time in which the story takes place, children and unmarried women were frequently laborers. A child’s efforts could be employed by their parents or sold as a commodity to another master. Women had no legal identity as separate from that of their husbands or, if unmarried, the eldest male member of their families. A woman could not take part in a contract, own property, find her own job, own the wages she earned, or initiate any legal proceeding, such as a divorce or law suit. Many women lived their lives, working and bearing children under near-slavish conditions. If a woman was lucky, she received a primary education, but had no opportunities for schooling beyond that. She had no say in political or economic issues. If a woman was abused, she had little chance of redress unless some male person who had the leverage to do so took it upon himself to address the problem on her behalf. If she bore children, whether legitimate or illegitimate, the offspring belonged to the man considered to be the child’s father whether he was a fit parent or not.

These legally institutionalized attitudes toward children and women may be appalling to us now, but were a given in the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth century, and had a destructive effect on countless lives. In The Door That Faced West, these issues play a major role in driving the plot and are demonstrated in the thinking and motivations of the characters of the novel.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Paperback at amazon.com- $12.95

Kindle Edition – $7.95

The Criminal Climate in The Door That Faced West

“The Brothers Harpe” copyright©2014 Alan M. Clark

Throughout life, hope for a better future can encourage us to strive for our own betterment and to contribute to that of our family, friends, and community, but the circumstances of our birth can dictate what options we have available. If the options are grim, we have few choices, and little hope, we can become opportunists with little regard for those around us and turn to criminal activity to better our lot in life.

The rather obvious statements I’ve made about human experience are as true today as they were 200 years ago, yet imagine a time when the circumstances of our birth had much more influence over what was possible for us in life. My new novel, The Door That Faced West, released by Lazy Fascist Press, takes place in America in such a time, the years 1799 and 1800. In that period, a class system reigned within American society, much as it did in Europe. The quality of one’s clothing and other possessions, appearance of health and physical development, accent, and vocabulary of speech were signals of one’s station in life. If an individual was seen to be a poor, then in that low station that one would most likely remain throughout life. The class system was an age-old contrivance that allowed those in higher stations, those with wealth, to support each other while jealously guarding their advantage. The disparity between the haves and have-nots was large. The majority of Americans were poor, underfed, over-worked, and willing to consider underhanded measures to better themselves. They were often so desperate for a better life, they were easy for those well-to-do to manipulate.

Nearly fifty percent of immigrants to America from Europe came as indentured servants. An indentured servant was one who was contracted to work for his or her master to pay off a debt. Many of those who came to America were paying off the debt of passage to the continent by serving a term of four or more years of work for the master, generally the captain of the ship that bore them across the sea. Once in America, the ship captains sold the indentures to employers and the servants then had new masters.

A master had nearly complete control over how the indentured was treated; the quality of food, shelter, and clothing provided, and control over the servant’s hours of rest and labor. Largely, that treatment was not subject to review or questioning by others. Indentured servants mistreated by their masters frequently ran away and became wanted. Newspapers advertised rewards for their capture and return. If a person with an appearance of being poor arrived in a community, any concerned male citizen could stop and question the individual. If the person was found to be an indentured servant, they were returned to their master. Indentured servitude could be virtual slavery except for the fact that the contracts defined a time limit for service.

Indentured servitude was only one of several methods of binding the poor to highly controlled positions of labor. Conditions for those in apprenticeships were frequently not much better. If greedy, those with power over other’s lives could push their charges to the breaking point in an attempt to gain as much service as possible.

Some born into poor families sought to raise their social status by gaining glory in the military. A bold man who acquitted himself heroically on the field of battle could earn respect and thereby rise to a somewhat better station. The fear existed that life could be cut short in battle, however, and the life of a soldier was often extremely harsh. Frequently men were pushed too hard and desertion was common.

The labor of many wives and children was considered of primary importance in helping a family to survive. A hard man, husband, father or both, much like a greedy master, might work his family to the bone to make ends meet. One generation of cruelty often begat a similar one.

For the poor, the potential for suffering inhumanity in most walks of life was high, much of the callousness institutionalized as appropriate and important aspect of maintaining order and discipline. Under harsh conditions, desperation drove many individuals to criminal acts in order to survive. To hide from those pursuing them for their crimes or their masters, many fled into territories where the law was less likely to find them.

The vastness of the wilderness of the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky in the years in which The Door That Faced West takes place, 1799 and 1800, was intimidating to most Americans, yet could be a haven for criminals. To some outlaws, it was a playground. The dense, seemingly endless forest that stretched from the east coast to the Mississippi and beyond was a dangerous area in which human lives were frequently lost due to exposure to the elements, accidents, or deadly encounters with forest animals or Indians. The best land for hunting, much of middle Tennessee and Kentucky, was sacred to the Indians, and they were willing to kill to defend it. Many of the non-indigenous persons who entered that forest to hunt, to carve out a home, to help develop a new settlement, or merely to explore, were never heard from again, lost without a trace. A few more lives lost to the activities of brigands in the forest was hardly noticed.

Inevitably, settlements sprang up along rivers and well-worn animal and Indian traces, but the going was rough. The forest was largely uninterrupted in the eastern half of the continent, and had never been logged. The trees were massive, blocking out much of the light and making farming difficult if not impossible. Under the forest canopy, sometimes hidden beneath the undergrowth as well, were swamps that might be the size of a small pond or cover hundreds of square miles in area. These bogs were rimmed with canebrakes that were nearly impossible to penetrate. Consequently, what traffic there was through the wilderness—those traveling for personal reasons or involved in commerce—was often funneled along the well-worn paths. Criminals had only to wait, hidden in the forest along the traces, until victims happened along. Leaving no witnesses became a standard for seasoned footpads since the immensity of the forest allowed bodies to be easily hidden. Frequently the victims were never found and countless murders during the period went unpunished.

Within settlements, law and order was loosely held by those who appeared tough enough to do the job. Often those were men with criminal backgrounds, willing to do whatever they thought they could get away with to better their positions. Facing possible death in order to fight crime was not at the top of their agenda.

Communication between settlements was poor. Going through the rumor mill as it travelled, information communicated between settlements was often unreliable. With a few outrageous acts, an outlaw’s persona could become larger than life and twice as intimidating within a short time.

The environment described in this post, both geographical and societal, is the landscape in which The Door That Faced West takes place; one in which a couple of ruthless, opportunistic brothers with bloodlust might rampage with impunity for an extended length of time, and, indeed, they did.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Paperback at amazon.com- $12.95

Kindle Edition – $7.95

New Novel – THE DOOR THAT FACED WEST


My latest novel, The Door That Faced West, is out now from Lazy Fascist Press.

Here’s what people are saying about it:

“It is not hyperbole to say that Alan M. Clark’s The Door That Faced West left me absolutely stunned. A thoughtfully haunting blend of historical fiction and thriller, this is one of Clark’s best works to date, across any medium. Simply amazing, and undoubtedly one of the best books you’ll read this year.”

Brian Keene, bestselling author of The Rising and Ghoul

Alan M. Clark is a master of the dreadful. The Door That Faced West through Lazy Fascist Press is absolutely brutal. Definitely not to be missed.

Molly Tanzer, author of A Pretty Mouth and Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations

The Door That Faced West opened, and I was fast on the trail with savage murderers, the Harpe Brothers. In the Post-Revolutionary War Era, they were infamous marauders attacking and killing travelers between towns on their way to “The Wilderness” – The West. Through the eyes of the downtrodden women who followed them willingly to escape the abuse from their fathers, Alan M. Clark tells a powerful tale of choosing the lesser of two evils and does it to perfection.”

Rena Mason, author of The Evolutionist and East End Girls