I went on to write two other mysteries, Murder Knocks Twice and The Fate of a Flapper set in 1929 Chicago, featuring Gina Ricci, a cocktail waitress in a Chicago speakeasy. (And some readers have asked me if Gina is Lucy's great-great-great-great-great granddaughter, and I always say, 'sure why not?' When the series is complete maybe I'll work out Gina's genealogy).
I honestly thought that my time with Lucy and 17th century London would be over after DARF was published. But then Severn House approached me about writing another Lucy, and continuing the series, and I jumped at this amazing opportunity.
Getting back into Lucy's world was not nearly as difficult as I imagined. Essentially I just had to push my cocktail glasses off the table, stack my Prohibition books back on the shelf, and change my music from flappers fun to classical (I can't quite bring myself to listen to madrigals and baroque music, or drink mead for that matter, to get myself in the right mood).
Each of my first four Lucy books all came to me in the form of an image, and The Sign of the Gallows was no exception. I immediately had the image of Lucy standing at a crossroads, because that's where I mentally pictured her (and me) to be. It can't get more "on the head" than that.
This image was particularly appealing location for a mystery because in the 17th century a crossroads was still very much viewed as a dangerous and frightening place. Murderers and suicides were often buried at crossroads since they could not be buried in sacred grounds. The idea was that their tortured spirits would not be able to find their way back home and they'd get confused at a crossroads. That also meant, of course, that travelers needed to be wary, when passing through a crossroads, lest they attract one of these unfortunate souls and carry them back home with them....
That image gave way to a plot...Lucy discovers a dead man hanging from a gallows at the crossroads, drawing her into a puzzling mystery.
The image of Lucy at the crossroads also informed Lucy's lot in life, and I wrote much of the novel with the idea that Lucy would be on a definite path by the story's close. However, ironically, just as I was writing the last chapter, I was asked by Severn House to write a sixth Lucy Campion mystery-- which meant I had to rethink Lucy's crossroads conundrum. A fun challenge to have!
It's been so fun to jump back into Lucy's world. As I was writing, I did have this weird sense my characters had been waiting for me. A little like Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author," only the 17th century version. (Although that's a little disturbing, if you think about it too much).
It's been really gratifying to be able to move Lucy's story forward, and to tell a story I never thought would be told.
When cases were solved by a corpse's pointing finger....how does that fit with the "Detective's Oath"?
Recently* I came across the Detective’s Oath, written by Dorothy Sayers and first administered by G.K. Chesterton, as part of the initiation ceremony for the British Detective Club. The club, created in 1930, included the likes of Sayers, Agatha Christie, and a slew of other Golden Age mystery writers.
The oath was this: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
While I think we’ve all seen authors—well-known ones at that—break these principles regularly (after all, why can’t a ghost solve a crime? Or for that matter, a cat?), there was something to these expectations that made sense. A reader should be able to work out whodunit, at least after the fact, to be fair.
But when I first read the oath, I had to laugh. I have situated my mysteries in early modern England, a time when divine revelation, providence, acts of God (or the Devil, for that matter) often served as the explanation for most mishaps and misfortune. It would have been so easy—and realistic—to have my sleuth solve crimes in that fashion.
After all, there are many incidences of a community “solving” a murder when a corpse’s finger pointed to its murderer. Or when the corpse’s eyes would open and stare in the direction of the murderer’s house. There are even examples of a corpse bleeding from the nose or ears, indicating that the murderer was in the vicinity.
Sometimes, logic and reason and evidence would prevail and sometimes…they did not. There are many examples of superstitions, hearsay, and feelings making their way into court testimony, especially in ecclesiastical courts.
Certainly in A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET, when a young woman is found dazed and confused with blood on her clothes, there is immediate suspicion that she might be bewitched.
But I wanted Lucy Campion, my chambermaid turned printer's apprentice, to be someone who was resourceful and intelligent, despite having little formal education. But it wasn’t just about creating a character who would use her wits and evidence to solve crimes; I wanted her to question how the community identified murderers in the first place.
I also wanted Lucy to be someone who rejects the notion of providence as a means to explain murder. I wanted her to dismiss the idea that divine revelation could be a reliable way to identify a murderer—even if that meant challenging the expectations of her community.
I’d like to think that Lucy would approve of the Detective’s Oath.
This post was first published on the Bloody Good Read.
Probably one of the most frequently asked questions I get from people seeking to write historical fiction is this: How much research should I include in my historical novel?
And my reply, which may sound more flippant than I intend, is just this: Enough to tell the story.
I've written elsewhere about balancing historical accuracy and authenticity. So, I thought today I'd given an example of how I seek to have my characters interact with historical details, hopefully without just dumping my research on my readers.
I could have picked any passage, but in honor of Easter, I picked an excerpt from my forthcoming novel, A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET. In this, scene Master Aubrey has just returned from selling pamphlets (unsuccessfully) on Maundy Thursday, (known in other parts of the world as "Holy Thursday.")
There were a couple of factual details about Easter that I wanted to bring up in the scene. First, since the Middle Ages, there was a tradition in England that on Maundy Thursday, the monarch would give money to the poor and wash the feet of twelve poor people. [Indeed, while the etymology is not certain, the word "Maundy" may have come from the Latin world mendicare ("to beg.")] But we know from the diarist Samuel Pepys, in 1667, King Charles II opted against the practice that year, asking the Bishop of London to do it for him.
Second, there had been an ongoing debate about the moveable date of Easter--some scholars of the time insisted that the date should be the same each year, similar to how Christmas was always on December 25.
Third, in general, I wanted to allude to the fact that England was on a different calendar (the Julian Calendar) than Catholic nations like France and Italy, which had adopted the calendar created by Pope Gregory (the Gregorian Calendar).
I couldn't use all the research I had at my fingertips, but I tried to work in a few of the more salient points within their trade as the printers and sellers of books. So you can see what details I managed to include...
Master Aubrey laid his pack down. “I sold a few. I went to Whitehall to see the King wash the feet of the poor people, but the Bishop of London did it on his behalf.”
The printer seemed a bit disgruntled. It had long been the custom for the monarchs of England to wash the feet of twelve men and women, as Jesus had washed the feet of the Apostles before the Last Supper. Having the Bishop of London take on the task instead of the king clearly irked him. Sometimes Lucy suspected the printer had Leveller sensibilities and liked it when the royals took on more mundane responsibilities.
“Which pieces did you bring?” Lucy asked, changing the subject. In truth, she was always intrigued to know how the packs got decided. Master Aubrey had a knack for knowing what to sell to attract a crowd that she desperately hoped to learn for herself one day.
“Could not very well sell murder ballads and monstrous births on Maundy Thursday, hey? Brought along John Booker’s Tractatus paschalis and John Pell’s Easter Not Mis-Timed. Too many of them, it seems. Only the sinners’ journeys, like the one you wrote about that Quaker, sold today.”
He kicked the still-full bag, looking in that moment a bit like Lach, causing Lucy to hide a smile. A rare miss for Master Aubrey. Most people did not care how the date of the moveable holy day was affixed in the almanacs each year. Nor did they care why Catholic nations celebrated Easter and Christmas on different days than they did in England.
I'm sure some readers might think that I have provided too much detail here, and other people think I have not offered enough. But, for me, this was "enough to tell the story."
When I first began to conceive of A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET (to be released April 12, 2016!), an image came to me that ultimately informed the entire novel.
That image was of a young woman, barefoot and clad only in her shift, stumbling at dawn through the rubble left by the Great Fire of 1666 (and yes, I am counting down to the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire! See counter to the right!)
And, of course, I needed her to run into Lucy, so that my intrepid chambermaid-turned-printer's apprentice would have a reason to be involved in the mystery that follows.
But it took me a while to figure out exactly where this encounter could reasonably occur.
I thought at first the woman could be found on London Bridge. And I really wanted to write something about how the impaled heads of traitors, which lined either side of the Bridge, had caught fire. After all, in Annus Mirabilis Dryden had described in macabre detail how sparks had scorched the heads:
"The ghosts of traitors from the Bridge descend,
But then when I did a little more digging, I discovered that London Bridge had been damaged in the Fire, and really was not much of a thoroughfare in the months that followed the blaze. Indeed, there would have been no good reason for Lucy to be traveling in that direction, particularly so early in the morning.
So I realized that, first, I needed to think through what Lucy was doing out of Master Aubrey's house, just before dawn. Not too hard to figure out actually. She needed to be delivering books.
But then the question became, in what direction did she need to travel to deliver those books? Most people were living to the west of where the Fire had stopped. So why would she be going into the wasteland at all? To figure out this challenge, I began to systematically create a large scale map of Lucy's London using photocopies of reconstructed maps of the period.
As I marked in red the burnt out area of London, I realized that the Fire line had been stopped to the west along the River Fleet.
The River Fleet? This was not a river I knew anything about. A vague recollection that the Romans had used the river to transport goods, but I couldn't remember ever hearing about it otherwise.
I became even more curious when I saw that several bridges, including the Fleet Bridge and Holborn Bridge, crossed it. Clearly, the river was wide enough or significant enough to require actual bridges, so it couldn't just be a stream.
Intrigued, I began to read more about this mysterious river. From the maps I could see that the river flowed from the north, went through the Smithfield butcher markets, traversed Fleet Street, and emptied into the Thames. There was also a region that surrounded it, awesomely called "Fleet Ditch." [Sidenote: I really wanted my book to be called "Murder at Fleet Ditch," but that title didn't even make it past my editor. A little too stark, I guess.]
By all accounts, by the 17th century, the River Fleet was no longer a river where boats could easily travel, but had instead become a place where people would dump animal parts, excrement, and general household waste. Indeed, Walter George Bill, one of the great original historians of the Great Fire, described the River Fleet as an "uncovered sewer of outrageous filthiness." And yet, there were still accounts of people bathing in its waters (yuck) and even drinking from it (yuck, yuck, double yuck), despite its considerable stench and grossness.
So the River Fleet--and the original bridges that crossed it--formed a natural backdrop for my story. I could not find a picture of the 17th century Holborn Bridge, but I thought this artist's rendering of Fleet Bridge might serve as a model.
And because the Holborn Bridge was still in place after the Fire, with the unburnt area and markets on one side, and the burnt out area on the other, it became the perfect place for Lucy to encounter this desperate woman.
But of course, I was still curious...is there still a River Fleet?
The answer is, yes, of course, but it was finally bricked over in the 1730s, after being declared a public menace.
It was still problematic though, particularly in the 19th century, when a great explosion occurred as a result of the expanding gasses in the pipes below the streets. Raw sewage apparently spilled everywhere!!! (Don't even think I wouldn't use that awesome detail if I ever set a book in 19th century London. But I doubt it would make it to the cover!)
And if you want to know more, here is a nice overview of the history of the River Fleet in all its--ahem--glory.
I've been waiting for 2016 for a while. Since the Great Fire of London serves as the backdrop for my Lucy Campion mysteries, I decided I wanted to personally commemorate the 350th anniversary of the event here on my blog.
And what better way than a countdown?! Check out my nifty calendar to the right!
What is interesting, of course, is that the Fire was commonly understood to have begun on September 2, 1666 around 2 am.
Yet, as I have pointed out elsewhere, that was according to the Julian calendar. In France, where they used the same Gregorian calendar that we use today, the tragedy actually occurred on September 12, 1666. So confusing!
I'll talk about some of the other aspects of the Fire in future posts, (including 1666 as the "Devil's Year") but I thought for now, I'd offer the first-hand description from diarist Samuel Pepys. Personally I'm always struck by the calm way he describes the events, particularly in the first passage:
"Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .
So down [I went], with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it began this morning in the King's baker's house in Pudding Lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus's Church and most part of Fish Street already. So I rode down to the waterside, . . . and there saw a lamentable fire. . . . Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.
Having stayed, and in an hour's time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it, . . . I [went next] to Whitehall (with a gentleman with me, who desired to go off from the Tower to see the fire in my boat); and there up to the King's closet in the Chapel, where people came about me, and I did give them an account [that]dismayed them all, and the word was carried into the King. so I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw; and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses. . .
[I hurried] to [St.] Paul's; and there walked along Watling Street, as well as I could, every creature coming away laden with goods to save and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs. At last [I] met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent, with a [handkerchief] about his neck. To the King's message he cried, like a fainting woman, 'Lord, what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.' . . . So he left me, and I him, and walked home; seeing people all distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; and warehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things.
"Where do you get your ideas?"
I don't know what it is about this question that drives some writers bonkers, but it's one we all get at book talks and literary events.
In response, some authors take the humorous approach ("In Aisle Twelve"), and others try to ignore the question outright ("Next!")
Some will roll their eyes and joke about banning the question before offering their response. Personally, I never really understood the reluctance because I love answering this question. I find it so much fun to tell people about the murder ballads that inspired my first novel, A Murder at Rosamund's Gate.
I wonder sometimes whether the real question is not "Where did you get your ideas?" but really, "Where did you get your questions?" Because at the heart of all my books are questions I'm trying to answer, and I suspect this is the same for many authors, perhaps particularly those who write crime fiction.
Indeed, I get a lot of my ideas--and questions-- simply by poking around the Early English Books Online. For example, I've been thinking a lot about poisons lately--because, you know, writer--and I came across this gem. The story from 1677 pretty much writes itself!
"Horrid News from St. Martins: Or, Unheard of Murder and Poyson. Being a true relation how a girl not full Sixteen years of age murdered her own mother at one time, and a servant-maid at another time with ratsbane. As also, how she very lately gave poyson to two gentlewomen that since met her Mother's Death kept and maintained her. Upon which being apprehended, she has confessed the former villanies, and was on Tuesday last the 19th of this instant June, committed to Prison, where she now remain."
What a great story, right? A sixteen-year old serial killer poisoning the women closest to her? What's up with that? And with ratsbane? That's not an easy way to go either... So of course I have lots of questions...
This story may not make it into one of my novels, or who knows? It could be the crux of the whole tale. But the point is, ideas don't come fully formed, they come in bits and pieces. The important thing is what we do with those ideas--the questions we ask when we ponder different ideas. It's not just whodunnit--its all the other questions that drive the story forward.
I think, ultimately, that the idea is not a story until the writer learns to get beyond the "What happened?" and begins to ask "Why?"
But what do you think?
It seems like every day I receive a Google Alert, kindly informing me that another site has popped up, allowing my books to be downloaded for free. Not only are these parasitic companies stealing from me and other authors, but to add insult to injury, many users actually post comments on these sites, thanking these bottom-dwellers for the "service" they provide to readers. Sometimes these comments are so heartfelt it makes me wonder if the users don't realize they are committing an actual crime. Is that possible?
Taking a step away from my indignant high horse for a moment, I do find it interesting that plagiarism and piracy of books has been around since the invention of the printing press. Initially, imitation in the Renaissance was seen as a compliment, a form of flattery, at least in art.
In the world of the cheaply printed piece, necessity and practicality were at the heart of imitation. Printers regularly used the same woodcut again and again--say, of someone being hanged--most likely for ease of use and to evoke a certain image or memory in the audience.
But over the next century or two, there seemed to be growing concern with the ability of printers to simply reset a piece and sell it for themselves. On occasion, advertisements to booksellers were created, informing them when a "sham" edition of a book had been created.
They would implore the bookseller to consider the nature of property; they also seemed to speak to the bookseller's sense of quality, by reminding them of the inferiority of the sham piece. For example, this next advertisement reminds the bookseller that "The sham edition has several mistakes and blunders, contrary both to sense and grammar."
Some of these advertisements even specified that the printer, publishers and dealers would be prosecuted by the Company of Stationers, who as a royal guild had the sole power to oversee the publication of most written work, including almanacks as described in this next advertisement.
In particular, I like the last line, which warns against those who would claim not to have known they were doing anything illicit: "This notice is given to prevent all persons from coming into trouble through ignorance."
Lastly, I suspect this is where the practice of authors signing their own books came from--the author was attesting to the authenticity of his (or possibly, her) books.
I don't know if its particularly heartening to realize that piracy and plagiarism are not a new phenomenon for authors. But it is interesting to think that such acts had long been condemned by the publishing community, even if the problem is still present 200 years later.
In my next post, I will tell you what happened to one of these plagiarists...
I'm thrilled to be joined today by Alison McMahan, author of The Saffron Crocus, a Young Adult novel set in 17th century Venice.
From the synopsis: Venice, 1643. Isabella, fifteen, longs to sing in Monteverdi’s Choir, but only boys (and castrati) can do that. Her singing teacher, Margherita, introduces her to a new wonder: opera!
Then Isabella finds Margherita murdered. Now people keep trying to kill Margherita’s handsome rogue of a son, Rafaele.
Was Margherita killed so someone could steal her saffron business? Or was it a disgruntled lover, as Margherita—unbeknownst to Isabella—was one of Venice’s wealthiest courtesans? Or will Isabella and Rafaele find the answer deep in Margherita's past, buried in the Jewish Ghetto?
Isabella has to solve the mystery of the Saffron Crocus before Rafaele hangs for a murder he didn’t commit, though she fears the truth will drive her and the man she loves irrevocably apart.
Sometimes readers ask me why I set my YA historical mystery/romance novel in Venice in 1643. Why 1643? Most novels set in Venice are set during its heyday, from the 1300s to the 1500s. Or they are set in Vivaldi's Venice of the 18th century. Or they are set in the 19th century, mirroring the society Henry James setting in novels like Wings of the Dove.
But the 17th century in Venice doesn't get much love. Venice was in decline, in between its period of grandeur and the invasion by the Ottoman Turks and Napoleon. Periods of decline are historically just as interesting as periods of greatness. There is much we can learn from them. I picked 1643 Venice for seven special reasons:
1. THE BLACK DEATH. In 1630 Venice, and the rest of what we now call northern Italy, was hit by the Bubonic Plague. Eighty thousand lives were lost in just seventeen months in Venice laone. On the 9th of November, for example, five hundred and ninety-five died. These enormous fatalities greatly affected the city. Even the Doge, Nicolò Contarini passed away. I wanted my heroine, Isabella, to have lost her parents at the age of five to the plague, and to be fifteen at the time the story begins, so the date of the of the story had to be 1643.
2. THE BIRTH OF OPERA. Yes, I know most teens consider opera to be uncool at best, unmentionable at worst. But I'm an opera fan, so there's a little bit of "write what you know" here, and I was hoping that my own love of opera would communicate itself through the pages. The word "opera" itself is an Italian word – it means "labor" or "work" in Italian. Opera originated in Italy when courtiers decided they preferred the "intermezzi," the light-hearted singing and dancing interludes that broke up heavy Roman plays, to the plays themselves. Opera evolved from these Intermezzi. The first complete opera, "Euridice" by Jacopo Peri was performed in Florence in 1600.
3. MONTEVERDI: If, like me, you are a fan of what the human voice can do in song, then you are a fan of Monteverdi. At the time the story of The Saffron Crocus takes place, Monteverdi was the musical director of the chorus of San Marco's Basilica. Because I admire his music so much, I wanted to give him a small role. My heroine wants to sing for the chorus, but only boys can do that, and she uses various ruses to get what she wants, which pits her against Monteverdi.
4. LOST OPERAS: There is something so romantic about lost works of art. Of course, in the 1600s, opera performances weren't recorded. But the scores were written down. You'd think it would be easy enough to keep a score, and copy it over when you need to. But one of the world's greatest operas, L'Arianna, is a lost opera. All we have is one recitative from it, "Arianna's lament," which plays a key role in my story.
5. CASTRATI: Castrati were male singers who were castrated before puberty to keep their voice artificially high. In other words, the baroque world was so opposed to women singing that they preferred to castrate little boys (only a lucky few survived the procedure) rather than let women perform. I was fascinated both by castrati themselves – what were their lives like? And enraged by the idea that Venetian society would prefer to go that far rather than let women sing. A key character in the story is a castrati.
6. CONCERTO DELLE DONNE (consort of ladies). Women could sing in private homes. This practice started after Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, who established the first group of "amateur" singers to perform for him. They were considered "amateur" because they were women and could not perform professionally (that is, for pay), but in fact they were renowned for their technical and artistic virtuosity. I know professional musicians today who have tried to re-create some of their music and couldn't do it. My heroine sings in salons before she finds a way to sing professionally.
7. THE JEWISH GHETTO: The Jewish Ghetto in Venice was not the first, but it is where we get the name. The English term "ghetto" is an Italian loanword, which actually comes from the Venetian word "ghèto", slag, and was used in this sense in a reference to a foundry where slag was stored located on the same island as the area of Jewish confinement. I have always been fascinated by how the Jews lived in Venice, and almost half of the book takes place there.
I could go on and on about what was special about Venice in 1643, as Venice is endlessly fascinating, but I'll stop there. Read the book, or better yet, listen to some of this music, preferably in Venice itself!
Alison McMahan chased footage for her documentaries through jungles in Honduras and Cambodia, favelas in Brazil and racetracks in the U.S. She brings the same sense of adventure to her award-winning books of historical mystery and romantic adventure for teens and adults. Her latest publication is The Saffron Crocus, a historical mystery for young. Murder, Mystery & Music in 17th Century Venice. She loves hearing from readers. Feel free to check out her website, visit her on instagram, pinterest, tumblr, or on Facebook, or just send her a tweet! Her books can be found at Black Opal Books, AMAZON US; AMAZON UK.
I'm so happy and honored to say that my third historical novel, The Masque of a Murderer, officially launches today, April 14!
And while I may not be quite as giddy when my first novel, A Murder at Rosamund's Gate (2013) launched two years ago--because nothing can ever compare to the release of a first novel--I'm still as loopy as I was last year, when From the Charred Remains (2014) entered the world.
Recently, in preparation for the launch, I've been answering a lot of fun and interesting questions about The Masque of a Murderer (the historical background, the story and characters, and my writing process etc). So, I thought I'd do a quick round-up here!
I welcome you to:
Thanks so much for sharing this journey with me!!! And I appreciate all the bloggers and reviewers who hosted me, including those through Amy Bruno's Historical Fiction Virtual Blog Tours!
And I'm always so grateful to the wonderful people at Minotaur, especially Kelley Ragland and Elizabeth Lacks, and my agent David Hale Smith, and of course my wonderful alpha reader, Matt Kelley!!
(and now, I turn my attention back to A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET, due out April 2016!!!!)
In my third historical mystery, The Masque of a Murderer, Lucy Campion, printer's apprentice, has been asked to record the last words of a dying Quaker. He had been run over by a cart and horse the day before, and was slowly dying from his extensive injuries. A number of people have gathered by his bedside, listening to his final rambling words, testifying to his journey from sinner to one who has found the "Inner Light."
And before the man finally succumbs, he regains a moment of lucidity and manages to tell Lucy that he had, in fact, been pushed in front of the horse and his death was no accident. Moreover, he believed that his murderer had to be one of his closer acquaintances, perhaps even a fellow Quaker.
The premise came from a tradition that was common in early modern England of recording the "last dying speeches" of different types of individuals. Such speeches were common for criminals about to be executed, for example, and which would be distributed at the gallows for eager spectators. [In From the Charred Remains, I have Lucy selling some of these at the public hanging of a criminal].
Often written by clergymen, such chapbooks or pamphlets were usually both pious and didadic in tone. As historian J.A. Sharpe has put forth:
“The gallows literature illustrates the way in which the civil and religious authorities designed the execution spectacle to articulate a particular set of values, inculcate a certain behavioral model and bolster a social order perceived as threatened. Only a small number of people might witness an execution, but the pamphlet account was designed to reach a wider audience.”*
Indeed, there was a similar quality to other types of sinner's journeys that were published as chapbooks or pamphlets. Quakers, who produced hundreds of tracts in the 17th century, frequently recorded the last words of Friends whom they wished to hold up as a means to extol a certain value or set of virtues for others.
For example, when I was writing my dissertation on 17th century Quaker women, I came across a poignant tract--The Work of God in a Dying Maid (1677)**--written by one of the more prominent Quaker leaders, Joan Whitrowe, detailing the death of her daughter, fifteen-year old Susannah.
The 48-page tract tells the story, not just of Susannah's death, but of the young girl's early struggles with temptation. The testimonies, written by Joan and other local leaders, demonstrates how Quaker children and youth were supposed to behave, and why they should listen to the advice of their parents and other elders. Indeed, Joan dedicates the work as a warning to those wayward souls, "who are in the same condition [Susannah] was in before her sickness."
But the back story that emerges throughout the pious testimonies is quite compelling. As Susannah lay dying in her Middlesex home in 1677, neighbors whispered that the cause of her "distemper" was a recently thwarted romance. Questioned by her parents, the young Quaker admitted that a certain man was "very urgent with [her] upon the account of Marriage" and since her father had been a "little harsh" to her she thought she would set herself "at liberty."
But upon reconsideration she allegedly told her suitor, "I would do nothing without my Father and Mother's advice." She assured her mother, "before I fell sick this last time, I did desire never to see him more." [Here are some of the lessons about virtue and obeying one's parents--and the consequences of not doing so.]
Feverish, restless, and in pain, the young Quaker reportedly clamored for God's swift judgment, mercy, and an end to her suffering. For six days her mother and father and various friends maintained an anxious vigil at her bedside, praying and recording Susannah's final excited visions and earnest penitent speeches to God. She chastised herself for her vanity, "How often have I adorned myself as fine in their [her female acquaintances] fashions as I could make me?" She berated herself for bringing shame to her family and lamented speaking out against her mother’s sect: "Oh! How have I been against a woman's speaking in a [Quaker] meeting?"
What we can not know of course, is how much of this Susannah actually said, and how much was expanded upon in the written narrative to make the larger point about godliness. But it gives a sense of the way that people's final words were recorded, and it offers a fascinating backdrop for a murder mystery...
*J. A. Sharpe, "Last Dying Speeches": Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England. Past & Present No. 107 (May, 1985), pp. 144-167. quote on p.148.
Joan Whitrowe, The Work of God in a Dying Maid: Being a Short Account of the Dealings of the Lord with one Susannah Whitrowe (n.p., 1677), 16.
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