Sunday, August 28, 2011

Day 27- A Book you would write if you had all the resources

In every family tree, when you start poking around, you find the "human" aspects of it. Sometimes, those aspects can be more "human" than you expected.

There is a murderer in my tree, a man who was tried and convicted for murder. My mother stumbled upon it in the late 1960's as she started poking around, getting names and dates and stories. It's on my dad's side of the family.

His great-grandfather murdered a woman and her 3 kids. Not only that, the woman was pregnant and the child was probably his as it was well known he was seeing her. He had a wife and children and his wife was pregnant at the same time as the mistress.

Even in 1869, these kinds of things can't stay hidden for long. Although he dumped the bodies in the Mississippi River in the winter, come the spring thaw, they were found. He dumped their personal possessions into the river, but a fisherman pulled up one of their trunks and the connection was made between the bodies and the trunk. As he was last seen with them, he was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in their deaths. The Iowa Supreme Court threw the case out on a technicality, saying the State did not prove premeditation, which was needed for first-degree. He was given the option of another trial or to take the lesser charge of second-degree murder and spend the rest of his life in prison. He opted for the lesser charge.

I've got copies of the newspapers of the time where the trial was printed on the front page for people to read the testimony. Imagine that today. We found his last will and testament in the county courthouse. Supposedly, he published a pamphlet explaining his side of things, the proceeds of which were to go towards his family. According to the newspaper, these pamphlets sold very well. I'd love to find one. Supposedly, there were photos, called 'likenesses', of the man and his uncle, whom he came to the US with. I'd love to find that too. He was disowned, as you would imagine, by his family. The family farm was sold to neighbors the year he went to prison. We don't know why, but it was sold back to the oldest son two years later. It's still in the family.

It's a fascinating story. Over the years that I've known about it and I stumbled upon it in the fall of 1975 while doing research on a topic for Comp and Lit in college, pieces of the event have gradually been revealed. I still don't have a motive. One was never printed in the paper. The papers say his lawyers didn't deny a crime had been committed, only that Iowa had no jurisdiction over the case as the bodies were found on the Wisconsin side of the river. I keep meaning to look at Wisconsin papers from that era to see if they covered the trial. Supposedly, papers as far away as San Francisco and New York sent reporters.

Would it make a best-seller? Probably not. In talking with grandchildren of the man, they refused to discuss him or their grandmother. They either quit talking or changed the subject. We have no clue what kind of person their grandmother was. She never remarried and is buried by her parents and brother in the city cemetery, her grave unknown to us until last fall when mom and I spent a chilly morning looking for everyone.

How do I tell the story? Do I tell it from his point of view? That would certainly be interesting, but I don't have a motive. Autopsies were never performed on the bodies so how they died is open to speculation. Should I tell it from her point of view? The two of them were married to others when they met. From the testimony of women at the trial, I'm thinking she didn't have many friends because of this liaison. Or maybe tell it 3rd person, with someone stumbling upon the trial as they were taking the train west. I've started this. I've stopped. I've done some research and I've quit. I have everything in my dad's briefcase, all the work I've done so far. Some day, I tell myself, some day.

I read somewhere that everyone has a book inside of them just waiting to come out. This would be my book if ever I sat down to write it. No, I don't have a title. If I did, if there was a title, maybe that would be more inspiration to write. I don't know. For now, knowing the story, if in bits and pieces, is enough.

Beverage:  Boston Harbor tea


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