Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts

13 May 2021

What's in a Name—Ancient Egyptian Edition: Ptolemy


The following is adapted from material published in my book The Book of Ancient Bastards (Adams Media 2011). Although there were fourteen (or depending on whom you believe, fifteen) Macedonian Greek kings of Egypt named Ptolemy, here below are featured the three most interesting. And by "interesting," I mean they lived up to the title of the book in which I featured them: three truly "ancient bastards."

Read on!

Ptolemy I Soter (ca. 367 B.C.-ca. 283 B.C.)

“And thus Aridaeus, who had spent two years in preparations, brought the king’s [Alexander’s] body from Babylon to Egypt.  Ptolemy, in honour of the king, met the corpse with his army as far as Syria, where he received it, and accompanied it with great care and observance: for he had not resolved as yet to accompany it to the temple of Ammon, but to keep the body in the city [Alexandria] which Alexander himself had built, the most famous almost of any city in the world.  To this end [Ptolemy] built a temple in honour of Alexander, in greatness and stateliness of structure becoming the glory and majesty of that king; and in this repository he laid the body, and honoured the exequies of the dead with sacrifices and magnificent shows, agreeable to the dignity of a demigod.  Upon which account [Ptolemy] was deservedly honoured, not only by men, but by the gods themselves: for by his bounty and generosity he so gained upon men, that they flocked from all parts to Alexandria, and cheerfully enlisted themselves into his service, notwithstanding the king’s army was then preparing for war against him: and though he was in imminent danger, yet all readily ventured their lives to preserve him.  And the gods themselves, for his virtue, and kind obliging temper towards all, rescued him out of all his hazards and difficulties, which seemed insuperable.'

                                                                            — Ancient Greek Geographer Diodorus Siculus

The Guy Who Gave His Name To The Greek Pharaonic Dynasty In Egypt

Bust of Ptolemy I in the Louvre Museum
The most successful of Alexander the Great’s successor-generals, Ptolemy I Soter (“Father,” also more than that: "Savior," as in "Father of His Country.") succeeded because he was shrewd, calculating, and able to control the political narrative in an age when spin-doctoring was first coming into its own.  We’re talking, of course, about the Hellenistic Age, that period in the historical narrative of the ancient Mediterranean that began with the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon (323 BC) and ended with the suicide of the last Hellenistic ruler, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 30 BC.  

During the intervening three hundred years a whole lot of ambitious and unscrupulous people (all of them related by blood in one way or another, frequently several times over) did a whole lot of awful things to each other, and all in the name of furthering their own political aims.  The seemingly inevitable wars that followed Alexander’s death are known collectively as the Wars of the Diadochoi (“Successors”).  In dizzying succession this ruthless pack of scoundrels began to pick each other off, the survivors of each round of violence circling each other looking for an advantage, making alliances and breaking alliances as it suited them.

This sort of bad behavior became so widespread that the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” tends to be near interchangeable with the word “bastard” for scholars who study the period.

General, Courtier, Governor, Cadaver Thief?

But for all that, Ptolemy, childhood companion and advisor to the young Alexander, seems different: when offered a command as a royal governor in the aftermath of Alexander’s death, Ptolemy chose Egypt: rich, fertile, both a breadbasket and a gold mine, easily defended because the deserts that surrounded it made travel across them by large military forces nearly impossible.  And from there he ventured out to steal Alexander’s body (as laid out in the lengthy quotation of Diodorus Siculus excerpted above) from the caravan taking it home to Macedonia.  This was a real political coup: control of Alexander’s body, to which he publicly paid every possible honor, gave Ptolemy the opportunity to set himself up as Alexander’s most legitimate successor.  And this is what he did, for the most part settling back and allowing the successors to pick each other off for the next four decades.

The Victor Who Wrote The History

Ptolemy’s greatest accomplishments weren’t founding a dynasty that lasted for three centuries in Egypt, though.  They were two-fold: first, he wrote a history of his famous king, which was used by countless historians during the next millennium (thereby allowing Ptolemy to by and large set the narrative of not just Alexander’s life story, but his own).  Second, he did what no other Diadochus (including the incredibly successful Seleucus) managed to do: he died in bed, of old age.

Truly a coup for a bastard in an age reknowned for its bastardry!

Bastard Son, Bastard Brother?

Ptolemy is listed all over the historical narrative of the period as “Ptolemy, Son of Lagus.”  No further mention is made of Lagus anywhere except his brief mention as Ptolemy’s father.  His mother was a distant relative of the Macedonian royal house and the rumored one-time mistress of Philip, father of Alexander the Great.  It is possible (perhaps even likely) that Ptolemy’s actual father was Philip himself, making Ptolemy Alexander’s bastard half-brother.  This would help explain why a boy eleven years older than the young prince was listed as one of his “childhood companions,” even going into exile with Alexander when the prince fled to Epirus shortly before the murder of his (their?) father.

A silver tetradrachm coin depicting Philip II, father of Alexander, and perhaps, of Ptolemy as well?

Ptolemy Keraunos: the Guy Who Made Oedipus Look Like a Boy Scout

“(T)hat violent, dangerous, and intensely ambitious man, Ptolemy Keraunos, the aptly named Thunderbolt.”

— Modern Historian of Ancient History, Peter Green

In an age where the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” and “bastard” were interchangeable, one of the most notorious bastards on the scene was a prince who rebelled against his father, married his sister, murdered her children, and stole her kingdom.  And all this after stabbing a 77 year-old ally to death in a fit of rage.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ptolemy Keraunos (“Thunderbolt.”)

Bastard Out of Time

The Thunderbolt’s father and namesake Ptolemy I carried the honorific "Soter" (Again, Greek for "Savior.") for a reason.  In his own way the elder Ptolemy was as much as bastard as his hot-tempered son.  But where the father was wily, the son was aggressive.  Where the father plotted, the son preferred movement.  Putting it kindly, the Thunderbolt was the prototypical “man of action” born into an age where intrigue ruled.  He was literally a man out of step with his own time.

In his eightieth year, with the question of succession pressing upon him, Ptolemy I gave up on his impulsive, hot-headed offspring.  Instead he chose a more sober half-brother (also confusingly bearing the name of “Ptolemy”) as his co-ruler and eventual successor.

Furious, Ptolemy Keraunos fled to Thrace, and the court of one of his father’s rivals, Lysimachus.  Ptolemy hoped to have Lysimachus’ backing in a war with his father for the throne of Egypt.  Lysimachus put him off with vague promises, but did allow the younger man to stay at his court (possibly so he could keep an eye on him).

Bastard Marriages

Since the time of the pharaohs dynastic marriage has been a political tool used by rulers to cement alliances and found dynasties.  At no time was this practice more in fashion than during the Hellenistic period, when Alexander’s generals married the much younger daughters of their rivals, and married off their own children to yet others of their rivals’ offspring.  Such was the case at Lysimachus’ court: the old man himself was married to one of Ptolemy Keraunos’ sisters, a woman named Arsinoë, and another sister, Lysandra, was married to Lysimachus’ son and heir from a previous marriage, Agathocles.  Confused yet?  Keep reading!

If the Thunderbolt expected things to be different for him in Thrace, he was mistaken.  His sisters were busy plotting against each other.  Arsinoë eventually succeeded in convincing Lysimachus that Agathocles was plotting to overthrow him.  The king responded by having Agathocles executed.  Lysandra and Ptolemy Keraunos fled, traveling to Babylon, to the court of Seleucus, by now the only other one of Alexander’s generals still left standing.  Largely for his own reasons Seleucus assured the two that he would support their bid to take the throne of his old rival Lysimachus.

Betrayal

Seleucus’ forces triumphed in the resulting war.  Ptolemy, who had fought on Seleucus’ side, demanded Lysimachus’ kingdom as Seleucus had agreed.  And just as Lysimachus had, Seleucus stalled, all the while planning his triumphal march into Lysimachus’ capital of Cassandrea.

It was a fatal mistake on his part.

Enraged at having again been denied a throne he considered his by right, the younger Ptolemy stabbed Selecus to death in his tent.  The act earned Ptolemy the nick-name “Thunderbolt.”

Ptolemy then slipped out of Seleucus’ camp and over to Lysimachus’ army.  Upon hearing that Ptolemy had killed the hated Seleucus, the soldiers promptly declared him Lysimachus’ successor and the new king of Macedonia.  The only problem was that Arsinoë still held Cassandrea.  So Ptolemy struck a deal with her.

A Devil's Bargain

Arsinoë agreed to marry her half-brother, help strengthen his claim to the Macedonian throne and share power as his queen.  In return for this Ptolemy agreed to adopt Arsinoë’s eldest son (also named, not surprisingly, “Ptolemy”) as his heir.  

Coin minted by this Ptolemy during his short reign in Macedon: the likeness is of his sister/wife Arsinoë

You can guess what happened next.

The Betrayer Betrayed, and a Further Betrayal

While Ptolemy was off consolidating his new holdings in southern Greece, Arsinoë began plotting against him.  She intended to place her eldest son (the one named “Ptolemy”) on the throne and rule in his name.

Once again furious (it seems to have been his natural state), Ptolemy killed Arsinoë’s two younger sons.  Arsinoë headed home for Egypt and the court of her full brother, Ptolemy-II-King-of-Egypt-not-to-be-confused-with-any-of-the-other-Ptolemies-listed-herein.

But Ptolemy Keraunos did not live to enjoy his throne for very long.  In 280 BC a group of barbarian tribes began raiding Thrace.  The Thunderbolt was captured and killed while fighting them the next year.

Ptolemy VIII Eurgetes: Gluttonous, Murderous, Unspeakable Bastard (ca. 182 B.C.-116 B.C.)

“The Alexandrians owe me one thing; they have seen their king walk!”

                                                                                —Roman General & Politician Scipio Aemilianus

Ptolemy VIII being crowned: apparently stone is slimming!
That’s right, another Ptolemy.  But where the first of our Ptolemaic bastards was ruthless and shrewd, andthe second was brave, intemperate and violent, Ptolemy VIII Eurgetes was an insane, gluttonous monster who celebrated one of his marriages by having his new stepson (also, because of his family’s in-breeding, his nephew twice over, since he was marrying his own sister, who was already the widow of one of his brothers!) assassinated in the middle of the wedding feast, and later murdered his own son by this same sister in a brutal and sadistic fashion.

Turns out all of those generations of in-breeding tends to have crazy results.

What’s in a Bastard’s Name?

When he took the throne of Egypt in 145 B.C. the Ptolemy took the reign name “Eurgetes” (Greek for “Benefactor”).  In truth he was anything but.  Quickly tiring of his lying, his murderous rages, and his rampant gluttony, his subjects began to refer to him as “Physcon” (“Potbelly”) because he was so fat.  The quote that leads off this chapter references that physical characteristic as well as his laziness.  Beholden to the Roman Republic for its support, Ptolemy VIII was forced to actually walk through the city of Alexandria while playing tour guide to a visiting collection of Roman V.I.P.s, including Scipio Aemilianus.

Originally a younger son of Ptolemy VI, this Ptolemy bounced around from Egypt to Cyprus to Cyrenaica (Libya) until his older brother (also a “Ptolemy”) died in 145 B.C.  In short order he manipulated the common people into supporting him for king, in place of his nephew (a boy who was crowned shortly after his father’s death with the reign name of “Ptolemy VII,” with his mother, Cleopatra II- no, not that Cleopatra- as regent/co-ruler), and managed to work out a compromise with his sister-also-brother’s-widow wherein in he married her and the three of them became “co-rulers” of Egypt.

Murderous Bastard

Not only did Ptolemy then promptly have his nephew killed at the aforementioned wedding feast, he seduced and married as his “second wife” the boy’s sister, his niece, his wife’s daughter (confused yet?  It gets better), also named “Cleopatra” (No, still not that Cleopatra, the Ptolemies, like the Romans weren’t very original with names).  This after knocking up his sister/wife/widow of his dead predecessor herself, siring a son named Ptolemy (again) Memphitis.

When the people of Alexandria eventually rebelled and sent Ptolemy VIII, the younger Cleopatra and their children packing off to Cyprus, Cleopatra II (the sister/widow/first wife) set up their son as co-ruler and herself (once more) as regent.  Within a year Ptolemy VIII had the boy, his own son murdered.  Pretty awful, right?  Unspeakable?

No, that’s what came next.

Unspeakable Bastard

Once he’d had the child (no older than 12) killed, Ptolemy VIII had him dismembered and (no lie) sent to his mother as a birthday present!

As if this wasn’t enough, Ptolemy went on to re-take his throne and share power with his first wife until he died of natural causes after a long life in 116 B.C.

*    *    *

And there you have it: saved the best (okay, the WORST) for last! See you in two weeks!


15 April 2021

Historical Bastards Revisited: Aristagoras-Tyrant of Miletus


[Today's entry is the latest in my on-going, on-again-off-again miniseries cataloging infamous bastards throughout history. For previous entries, click here, here, here, and here.]

While the cities were thus being taken, Aristagoras the Milesian, being, as he proved in this instance, not of very distinguished courage, since after having disturbed Ionia and made preparation of great matters he counseled running away when he saw these things (moreover it had become clear to him that it was impossible to overcome King Darius)...                                                                                                                        

                                                                            — Herodotus, The History

How’s this for cynical: yesterday’s tyrants becoming today’s liberty-loving embracers of democracy?  We’ve seen a lot of this during the modern era; Boris Yeltsin in Russia for example, rejecting communism out of convenience rather than out of conviction, and being catapulted to power as a result.

But it’s hardly a new story.

Take Aristagoras, Persian-appointed tyrant of the semi-independent Ionian Greek city-state of Miletus, the guy whose push for home-grown democracy touched off the so-called “Ionian Revolt” of the Greek city-states along the coast of western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in 499 B.C.; a conflict that led to the loss of thousands of lives, and served as the precipitating event in a wider conflict between the Greeks and the Persians over the two centuries that followed.


Bastard-in-Law

Aristagoras owed his position as tyrant to his father-in-law, Histiaeus.  Histiaeus had been tyrant before him, and had done his job so well that the Persian great king Darius appointed him to his own governing council.  When Histiaeus went east to the royal court at Persepolis, he recommended Aristagoras succeeded him.  Later, when Aristagoras was attempting to foment revolt among the Greek cities of Asia, Histiaeus secretly helped him, hoping that a rebellion led  by his son-in-law would lead to his own being appointed to re-take the city and re-establish himself as Miletus’ tyrant.

The modern-day ruins of the ancient Ionian Greek city of Miletus

Hardly a born-and-bred defender of personal liberty, Aristagoras’ opportunism was born of the most instinctive of human impulses; self-preservation.  Here’s how it happened.

Naxos, with the ruins of the temple of Athena in the foreground
The Proposal & The Vig

Shortly after he’d become tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras had been tapped to help the empire pick up some new real estate in the form of the Greek island of Naxos, a strategically placed island in the middle of the Aegean Sea.  In exchange for helping with this, Aristagoras was to receive a large portion of the anticipated loot to be taken when the island fell.

In anticipation of this, Aristagoras took out a large cash loan from the local Persian satrap (governor) in western Asia, in the city of Sardis.  With this money he hired mercenary soldiers and ships to help with the conquest.

The Crash

The only problem was that Aristagoras got into a major personal feud with the Persian admiral set to lead the expedition which became so ugly that the guy scotched the whole deal by secretly warning the Naxians of an invasion on the way.  Not surprisingly, the whole venture failed.

But, in a set-up that 20th century mafia bosses would admire, Aristagoras was still on the hook to the Persians for the money he’d borrowed, regardless of the success or failure of the invasion.  Desperate to save his own skin, Aristagoras set about quietly stirring a rebellion in Miletus and the neighboring cities, inviting such mainland Greek cities as Sparta and Athens to help their cousins across the Aegean Sea.

The Results

The Spartans not surprisingly refused (it was too far from home for these xenophobes).  But the Persian king had just succeeded in really pissing off the Athenians by baldly interfering in their internal politics and insisting that they take back the tyrant (Hippias) they had given the boot (with Spartan help) a decade previously.  So they agreed to send a fleet of ships to help.

And with that the Ionian Revolt was born.  The immediate result?  Sardis, the western-most provincial capital in the Persian Empire (and home-base of the satrap who had strong-armed Aristagoras in the first place) was sacked and burned by the Greek rebels.  The Athenians, horrified by the wanton destruction of the ancient city (and the Persians' western capital), withdrew their forces and went home.

The longer-term results: After a five-year-long campaign and the investment of much, time, effort, blood and money, the Persians crushed the Ionian rebels at the battle of Lade. Then they spent the next year picking off the Ionian cities one by one. By 494 BC, all of the Greek cities of the Ionian coast were back under the Persian yoke.

And then the Persians turned their attention toward the interlopers from across the western (Aegean) sea. As it turned out, just because the Athenians were finished supporting the Ionians, that didn't mean the Persians were finished with the Athenians.


The resulting conflict would rock the ancient world. All of the Greek cities on the Greek mainland, on the islands, and even along the Ionian coast, were drawn in. On both sides of the Greco-Persian struggle. And by the time it was over, in 479 BC, the unthinkable had happened: Persia had lost, thousands of her soldiers slaughtered, hundreds of ships sunk or captured, millions in treasure spent. All to upstart barbarians clinging to the western edge of the known world.

And Aristagoras?  Still fearing for his own skin, he relocated to Thrace, where he tried to establish a colony from which to continue the war against Persia, and was killed trying to strong-arm the locals (see how this sort of thing just keeps running downhill?).



01 April 2021

Drake's Plate: Happy April Fools Day!


The so-called "Drake Plate"
In 1936 a sales clerk named Beryle Shinn blew a tire while driving in the north end of San Francisco Bay, not far from the prison at San Quentin. Shinn, a decidedly "free spirit," decided not to waste a sunny afternoon changing a flat. So instead, he hiked to the top of a nearby hill, and stumbled across a most unusual cast-off: a square brass plate with a hole punched in the lower right hand quarter, and covered in peculiar writing.

Thinking he might find a use for it, Shinn took the plate home with him, where it languished in his garage for several months until he decided the writing on it might mean it was valuable. So in February of 1937 he took it down the road to the University of California, in Berkeley, on the advice of a friend who had been a student there.

Professor Herbert E. Bolton
Shinn wound up in the office of Herbert E. Bolton; director of Berkeley's Bancroft Library, who also held the Sather Chair in American history, and was a leading expert on the history of early California. Bolton deciphered the writing on the plate, and became visibly excited.

Bolton offered to purchase the plate from the bemused Shinn on behalf of the university. When Shinn agreed, Bolton informed Shinn that he had brought him an artifact of singular historical value, and insisted on settling on him the princely sum of $2,000 (Nearly $38,000 in inflation-adjusted 2021 dollars). The university board of regents approved the purchase based on Bolton's expert recommendation. (Interviewed decades later Shinn spoke of how grateful he was to Bolton. The two grand he got for the plate allowed him to buy a house and propose to his sweetheart.).

And just like that, the University of California acquired the legendary Drake's Plate.

Statue of Sir Francis Drake in Plymouth
In 1579 English privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to captain a ship into the Pacific Ocean. In his ship The Golden Hind, he navigated the treacherous southern passage through the Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, ostensibly on a voyage of exploration, on orders from Queen Elizabeth of England herself.

Of course the voyage was a thinly-disguised excuse to prey upon Spanish shipping, and Drake captured and looted a number of Spanish vessels while working his way up the western coasts of first South American and then North America. It is widely believed that one of his final landfalls before heading west across the Pacific toward Asia was at the bay which still bears his name, just north of San Francisco Bay.

Upon making landfall at Drake's Bay, Drake claimed the land in his monarch's name, and dubbed it "New Albion." To commemorate the event, so the story went, Drake had made a solid brass plate, with an English sixpence embedded in it as proof that the plate's creators were English. Then he had the plate mounted somewhere along the coastline of Drake's Bay, and sailed off, eventually circumnavigating the globe and returning to England fabulously wealthy (and with a hefty share for the queen herself, as well, of course.).

A modern replica of Drake's ship The Golden Hind
Bolton, a scrupulously honest, hard-working and prolific historian, was intimately familiar with the legend of Drake's Plate. The long lost artifact was a well-known obsession of his. For decades he had admonished undergraduates with weekend or vacation plans including trips to the region of Drake's Bay to keep their eyes peeled for Drake's Plate. (It is possible that one of Shinn's neighbors, a former student of Bolton's was the one who eventually steered him in Bolton's direction).


Upon deciphering the writing on the heavily weathered plate Bolton became more certain that it was authentic.It was at this point he began negotiating with Shinn to purchase it on the university's behalf. Electroplating testing conducted on the plate helped convince Bolton that it was the genuine article.

The inscription reads:

BEE IT KNOWNE VNTO ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS.
IVNE.17.1579
BY THE GRACE OF GOD AND IN THE NAME OF HERR
MAIESTY QVEEN ELIZABETH OF ENGLAND AND HERR
SVCCESSORS FOREVER, I TAKE POSSESSION OF THIS
KINGDOME WHOSE KING AND PEOPLE FREELY RESIGNE
THEIR RIGHT AND TITLE IN THE WHOLE LAND VNTO HERR
MAIESTIEES KEEPEING. NOW NAMED BY ME AN TO BEE
KNOWNE V(N) TO ALL MEN AS NOVA ALBION.
G. FRANCIS DRAKE

But if Drake had left the plate somewhere along the bay near Pt. Reyes, how had it made its way nearly thirty miles to the east to that hill overlooking San Quentin? That remained a mystery during Bolton's lifetime.

It has since come to light that the plate was originally discovered near Drake's Bay by a chauffeur named William Caldeira. Caldeira later discarded somewhere along the road near San Raphael, and somehow it made its way from there another ten or so miles to the hilltop near San Quentin.

Which brings us to the question: "Is the Drake Plate genuine?"

Of course not.

The plate is the product of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by several members of "E. Clampus Vitus," a “historical drinking society or a drinking historical society,” of which Bolton himself was a member. Light-heartedly dedicating themselves to "the erection of historical plaques, the protection of widows and orphans, especially the widows, and having a grand time while accomplishing these purposes," the "Clampers," as they dubbed themselves, included many prominent California residents, and were infamous for the practical jokes their members played upon each other.

George Ezra Dane- The Mastermind
Keenly aware of Bolton's obsession with the Drake Plate, Several of his fellow "Clampers," including such prominent historians as George Ezra Dane, Carl Irving Wheat and George H. Barron, former curator of American history at San Francisco's famous De Young Museum, decided in 1933 to play a joke on Bolton. 

The hoax was originally Dane's idea, and he quickly recruited several of his fellow Clampers to assist with the prank. With the possible exception of Barron (who, it was later reported, secretly nursed a grudge against Bolton for supposedly being instrumental in Barron's eventual dismissal from his position at the De Young), the intent of the Clampers involved in the hoax seems to have been to have a bit of innocent fun pranking a friend. Either way, things got out of hand.

They bought a piece of brass at a San Francisco shipyard, and one of them tapped the words of the inscription into the plate with a cold chisel. But they also left hints that the plate was a fraud: the group's initials, "E.C.V." painted on the back in paint that would only be visible under ultraviolet light. George Clark," the "chisler" of the inscription, even added his initials to it. Bolton took the "G.C." to stand for "Captain General," a rank which did not exist in Elizabethan England.

Carl Irving Wheat- Fun Guy
Then the Clampers planted the plate out near Drake's Bay and waited for it to be found. When it turned up in Bolton's office nearly four years later, with Bolton believing it to be the genuine article, the members of the group realized the joke had gone too far.

But rather than come forward and potentially publicly embarrass their friend Bolton, the Clampers anonymously joined the ranks of those who challenged the plate's authenticity. They even "satirically" wrote an article hypothesizing how the plate could have been faked in precisely the manner in which it actually was. They faked another plate, this one clearly a forgery, with a satirical verse, poking fun at the authenticity of the original, inscribed instead of a supposed proclamation by Drake.

Nothing worked. Bolton was undeterred by any of the criticism of his analysis, and died in 1953 still believing the plate Shinn brought him was genuine. And apparently none of the Clampers who were in on the joke had either the nerve or the heart to come forward blow the whole thing up. They all also eventually took the secret of their prank gone horribly wrong to their respective graves (Dane, the mastermind of the entire prank, wound up dead of a gunshot wound in Golden Gate Park, just a few years later, in 1940, aged just 36).

The plate itself resided on public display in the Bancroft Library for decades, even as the doubts as to its authenticity lingered in academic circles. Eventually, with the 400th anniversary of Drake's voyage looming, the plate was tested again, using new technology, and was proven to have been rolled- a modern process, rather than hammered, as would have been the case had it been forged in the 16th century.

UC Berkeley's famous Bancroft Library

It was not until 2002 that the secret notes of one of the members of E. Clampus Vitus kept about the perpetration of the hoax were discovered (in, where else? The Bancroft Library!), that the Clampers's connection to the whole affair actually came to light. A group of historians published their findings based on researching the notes in California History in 2003. They announced those findings at a press conference in a room at the Bancroft, where the fake Drake Plate was still on display, under glass.

And yet many historians still believe in the existence of the genuine plate, and that Drake left in the bay which bears his name. And it continues to be the subject of intense speculation in academic circles to this very day.

As one of the co-authors of the 2003 article, marine historian Edward P. Von der Porten, noted at the time: "There is still a plate of brass out there."

And on that note: Happy April Fools Day!

See you in two weeks!



18 March 2021

A Kinder, Gentler...Bootlegger


Roy Olmstead
 Two weeks ago I wrote about rum runners and the ships that anchored out into international waters anddelivered illegally imported booze to them. This week I've decided to move ashore and talk about the guys who offloaded the hootch and ran the considerable risks (at equally considerable profit) of delivering to a thirsty nation.

And one guy in particular. Ex-cop and "gentleman bootlegger" Roy Olmstead.

Born and raised in Nebraska, Olmstead moved to Seattle in 1904 (aged 18) and worked in a shipyard before joining the Seattle Police three years later, in 1907. Within ten years, Olmstead was a lieutenant. That lasted for three years, because once Prohibition kicked in Olmstead realized the massive amount of money to be made supplying illegal liquor to the masses, and began a side business running hootch. 

And this very week in March of 1920, Olmstead was nearly caught in a raid. He escaped, but was recognized by one of his fellow officers, and was arrested at his home the next morning. The whole escapade cost Olmstead a $500 fine and his job.

Rather than be discouraged, Olmstead threw himself whole-heartedly into the illegal liquor distribution business, and over the next five years became one of the most successful 'leggers in America. By 1925 his operation was one of the biggest employers in the Puget Sound region, had started up his own successful radio station (which his wife largely ran out of their home, and which he used to help get coded messages to his contacts in the liquor business.).

He delivered to such infamous speakeasies as the "Bucket of Blood" (actual name: the Hong Kong Chinese Society). He put cops (LOTS of them) on his payroll to act as lookouts for his operations. He eventually had his own boat, the "Zambesie," which he sent to pick up shipments in the Haro Strait.

Olmstead always seemed able to either stay one step ahead of or buy off both the feds and local law enforcement. This included the Canadian authorities, who taxed liquor bound for the States at a higher rate than booze bound for places like Mexico (after all, it was only illegal to bring liquor into the U.S. In Canada there was no law against exporting to the States.). So Olmstead would hire ships in Vancouver, fill them to the gunwales with booze, forge papers saying they were bound for Mexico, then have them sailed down into Puget Sound and offloaded with no one the wiser.

And he managed this without resorting to the varieties of violence so common everywhere else in America that Prohibition ran up against organized crime only too willing to break legs to get what it wanted. And no prostitution, racketeering, no other illegal activities. Just running booze. The best booze money could buy. Olmstead didn't cut his liquor with furniture polish. Only the best for his customers.

And it worked. Eventually he was profiting to the tune of $200,000 a month. 

It couldn't last.

The Seattle Police tapped his phone. In 1925 Olmstead got hauled before a federal grand jury on two counts of conspiracy to violate the Prohibition Act. He was convicted, sentenced to four years in prison, appealed all the way to the Supreme Court (Olmstead v. United States), claiming that the wiretap evidence was inadmissible. (The Supreme Court disagreed.)


Olmstead went to jail at McNeil Island in 1927, once his appeals had run their course. He was a model prisoner, served his entire four years, converted to Christian Science and even testified on the government's behalf on a number of subsequent federal cases. 

He learned carpentry in prison and once he was released in 1931, he began volunteering in a number of prison outreach programs, focusing specifically on dealing with alcoholism. He taught Sunday school. For the remaining thirty-six years of his life (he died aged 79 in 1966), Olmstead remained popular with the community, never losing the famous charm that had stood him in such good stead while he was the so-called "King of the Bootleggers."

Roy Olmstead on his way to jail in 1927. Smiling.


04 March 2021

Rum Rows & Rum Runners


There were no floodlights on the seaward side of the ship. Red cut his motor to half of nothing and curved in under the overhang of the stern, sidled up to the greasy plates as coyly as a clubman in a hotel lobby.

Double iron doors loomed high over us, forward a little from the slimy links of a chain cable. The speedboat scuffed the Montecito's ancient plates and the sea water slapped loosely at the bottom of the speedboat under our feet. The shadow of the big ex-cop rose over me. A coiled rope flicked against the dark, caught on something, and fell back into the boat. Red pulled it tight, made a turn around something on the engine cowling.

He said softly: "She rides as high as a steeplechaser. We gotta climb them plates."

I took the wheel and held the nose of the speedboat against the slippery hull, and Red reached for an iron ladder flat to the side of the ship, hauled himself up into the darkness, grunting, his big body braced at right angles, his sneakers slipping on the wet metal rungs.

After a while, something creaked up above and feeble yellow light trickled out into the foggy air. The outline of a heavy door showed, and Red's crouched head against the light.

I went up the ladder after him. It was hard work. It landed me panting in a sour, littered hold full of cases and barrels.Rats skittered out of sight in the dark corners. The big man put his lips to my ear: "From here we got an easy way to the boiler-room catwalk. They'll have steam up in one auxiliary, for hot water and the generators. That means one guy. I'll handle him. The crew doubles in brass upstairs. From the boiler room I'll show you a ventilator with no grating on it. Goes to the boat deck. Then it's all yours."

"You must have relatives on board," I said.

"Never you mind. A guy gets to know things when he's on the beach. Maybe I'm close to a bunch that's set to knock the tub over. Will you come back fast?"

                                                                           — Raymond Chandler, "The Man Who Liked Dogs"

As with so many things, when framing this scene of his early detective Carmady sneaking aboard a "gambling boat" anchored out in Santa Monica Bay, Raymond Chandler was writing from life. There were a number of such "gambling boats" that sat anchored in international waters, off the coast of Southern California during the 1930s.

I was reminded of both this story and its basis in fact earlier this week, when I heard the sad news that fellow Sleuthsayer, the great Paul D. Marks had passed away. In addition to being one hell of a writer, Paul was quite the student of history, including a stated obsession with Southern California's historic gambling boats. And a few months back, he wrote one of his best Sleuthsayers posts about them.

So, in honor of Paul, in today's post I'm going to riff on his wonderful piece about the gambling boats by harkening back even further—to the 1920s—and a similar enterprise of questionable legality: Prohibition-era rum runners, and the so-called "Rum Row."

Background

In 1919 the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act, ratifying and enforcing the 18th amendment to the Constitution, and for the next fourteen years the production, importation and distribution of alcoholic beverages was against the law. Not until the act's repeal in 1933 would Americans be able to buy a drink legally again.

Of course, this meant big money was out there for the taking, as long as you didn't have any qualms about breaking the law. "Prohibition," as it quickly became known, helped bankroll a massive expansion of organized crime syndicates in both the United States and a host of other countries.

Why?

Simple. Turns out most Americans liked to have a drink every now and then. And since it wasn't illegal to drink or to possess alcohol you had "bought before Prohibition," flouting the Volstead Act turned into something of a national pastime.

Americans taking the 18th Amendment about as seriously as you'd expect them to.

And with the Mafia and a host of other criminal gangs locking down the terrestrial trade in illicit hootch, that left sea-borne smuggling. And so-called "rum rows."

Rum Rows

A "rum row" was, quite simply, a line of ships anchored outside of U.S. territorial waters, holds full of liquor, waiting to do business with smugglers who would come out in smaller, faster boats, take on cargo, and run it in to shore. Rum rows sprung up almost overnight, on both coasts, and especially in the Caribbean. But for the purposes of this post, we'll focus on the Canadian liquor runs down the West Coast generally, and on the "Queen of Rum Row," a former timber schooner called the Malahat.

The Malahat

We have remarkable documentation of the Malahat's operations, both because the son of one of its captains wrote a book about his father's exploits, and because the engineer on one of the small boats buying booze from rum row ships including the Malahat recorded "home movies" of a number of his boat's runs on an early Kodak camera. AND one of HIS descendants (a grandson) digitized and uploaded whole portions of them to YouTube. Take a look. Fascinating! According to the grandson, his grandfather "had many, many great stories to tell us as kids of his colourful life rum running and other adventures on the coast."

According to author Jim Stone in My Dad, the Rum Runner, ships like the Malahat didn't have to be fast, and they didn't have much to fear from the likes of the Coast Guard. Unless there was criminal activity the Coast Guard left the rum rows alone in most of the spots where they congregated along the West Coast (The Farallon Islands, fifty miles off the Golden Gate, were supposedly a popular spot for the rum row ships to set up shop for months at a time). The speedboats, trawlers and other smaller craft used by local smugglers to load up at rum row were their preferred targets.

On a typical run south from her homeport in Vancouver, the Malahat would carry “200 cases of well-known brands of scotch whiskey, gin, champagne, and liqueurs, followed by 1,000 cases of Old Colonel Rye and Corn Hollow Bourbon.” It could often take months for her owners to sell off all of their stock and return to Canada for another load.

And they made money like they were printing it in their mom's basement.

And on that (bank) note, that's all for this go-round. More on rum rows and rum runners next time.

And lastly, God bless you, Paul Marks.

04 February 2021

Setting as Character


In my previous Sleuthsayers post I promised that with this post I would leave off talking about politics and get back to talking about the craft of fiction writing. I'm returning to this topic by dusting off one of my first posts on this blog, wherein I explore the use of setting as another character in your story. This originally ran in 2013. I think it holds up, and hope you get something out of it.



Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.

And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Employed correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:


The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.

                                                       —Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest


Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.



And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.

                                                 — Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.
  1. While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.
  2. I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.
  3. Imagination!

An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.
  1. I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.
  2. I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.
  3. Imagination!
Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimly lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!

21 January 2021

I'm Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight


 Last go-round I talked about New Years' resolutions and the domestic terror attack on our national capitol

Today I'm writing on another banner day, but this time the occasion is a much happier one: the orderly (can't say "peaceful") transfer of power between one presidential administration and its successor.

A hopeful note sounds in the middle of a world consumed with chaos, disease, and misery.

We have the pandemic, a sluggish economy, three million jobs lost, and millions going hungry, or on the verge of losing their homes. Or both. Or all of the above.

No I'm not...no I'm not...
We've got our work cut out for us. And that's saying something in light of how hard so many of us are already working just to try to hold everything together.

But—with apologies to the Atlanta Rhythm SectionI'm not gonna let it bother to me tonight.

I'm just not. Tonight is for celebrating. In fact (sorry, have to do it) at Casa Thornton it's already shaping up to be an outright Champagne Jam.

On the National Mall. In New York. In Florida. In St. Louis. In Denver. In Chicago. In Los Angeles. All across the nation, and definitely in our living room!

Beginning with my next post in a couple of weeks I will be back to posting strictly about writing (at least for a while). Right now, I am giddy with visions of not waking up to embarrassment tomorrow morning; no more wondering "What did the object of our national shame do or say to humiliate, belittle or scorn whole swaths of our people today?" 

Nope. Tomorrow morning I'm going to wake up and not worry about what the most powerful man in the world is up to. Same the day after that. And the day after that. And the day after that...and...and...

Because we have a new president! And a new vice-president! A good and decent man partnered with a good and a formidable woman. And married to a woman better educated than he is (and according to him, the "smart one" in their marriage).

So we have as president a man who respects women. A man who respects traditions. A man who respects precedent. A man who respects alliances (and allies!).

Now, if you'll excuse me, that champagne ain't gonna drink itself!


See you in two weeks!

24 December 2020

A Christmas Eve Retrospective


 Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

And so we find ourselves at the terminus of 2020. 2020, the year that seemed like it would never end.

Nearly a year into a raging pandemic, nine solid months into a waxing and waning quarantine, and yet the end seems to finally be in sight. Not just of the year, but of the pandemic. A vaccine is on the horizon, and from here we can see a potential return to a fully functioning society.

Is it the Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning?

I suppose it all depends on your point of view.

I for one am hopeful. Then again, I'm the mid-fifties father of an eight-year-old son, and I teach middle school, so, as I've said before in this space, I'm in the business of hope.

And so, in this time of hope, this season of generosity, I'm here to glean a few positives from the detritus of 2020. After all, the Yuletide is also the Tide of "End-of-the-Year"lists, so let me give a brief recap of mine.

So this isn't a post about COVID. I'm going to recap my writing goals for the year, and how I did with them.


Goals

I started 2020 determined to wrap up several half-finished writing projects. I had a rough draft of a novel, two partially-completed short stories, and a dead-line for expanding three previously published short stories into novella length for publication as a three-novella collection.

At the beginning of 2020 I was riding the tail end of a streak where I'd collected and edited two companion crime fiction anthologies. This endeavor had consumed the better part of a year, and my publisher had released both of them within the previous six months.

So 2020 was going to be the year I finished things.

So This Happened
Results

I succeeded in finishing all of the above save the novel, which is half-completed (second full and final draft). And even with the novel, I can see the end of the road out on the horizon. I will definitely be putting this one in the can and sending it off to my agent before Summer begins.

My short stories are completed and off with the editors who requested them, and that includes revisions based on requested changes. And my three novellas were published by Down and Out Books just last month!

So I'm going to end of this hopeful note. I wish us all the best and only good things in the coming year of 2021.

Happy New Year, and See You In Two Weeks!



29 October 2020

So This Happened....


It's always gratifying to be able to announce the publication of a new work. We writers work damned hard, and as a rule we toss more than we publish. So, yes, it's nice when you can add something new to your existing body of work. It's even nicer when you can announce the publication of something on which you've toiled for a long, long time, and of which you're (hopefully justifiably) proud.

So it's with no little pleasure that I announce that on Monday, October 19th, 2020 Down and Out Books published my three-novella collection Suicide Blonde. It was the culmination of an insane amount of work over a roughly eighteen-month period, during which time I also collected and edited a pair of crime fiction anthologies inspired by the music of jazz-rock legends Steely Dan: Die Behind the Wheel, and A Beast Without a Name.

Each of the novellas in my new collection started life as a short story. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine published the original "Suicide Blonde" way back in November of 2006. The short version of "Paper Son" found a home in the Akashic Books anthology Seattle Noir in June, 2009. And "Bragadin's Skin" was commissioned by the upstart webzine The Big Click (that rarity of rarities: a webzine that paid, and well, too!) in 2013.

So I guess you could say that these characters have lived with me for a while.

Each of these original stories managed to garner many variations of the same feedback from my loyal first readers: "I wanted to know more." "I didn't want the story to end." "I would have liked to learn more about this (or that) character." "You ought to expand it into a novel."

I decided to start smaller.

It's a long story
Crime fiction has a long tradition of writers publishing stories in the shorter form, only to expand them at a later date. The most famous example of this is probably that of Raymond Chandler, who developed his early writing chops by publishing in the pages of the storied Black Mask, the same magazine which helped launch the career of Chandler's idol (and mine), Dashiell Hammett. Chandler later cobbled several of these stories into longer novels which became The Big Sleep and The Lady in the Lake. In 1929 Hammett himself wrote his first novel Red Harvest as a collection of  four related novellas ("The Cleansing of Poisonville," "Crime Wanted — Male or Female," "Dynamite," and "The 19th Murder") for initial serialization in Black Mask before appearing in book form later that same year.

So I resolved to try my hand at something similar: turning short stories into novellas. 

I've written in this space before about the process of expanding the first of these, the title story, into a longer work. I was (and am) quite pleased with the final result. And Down and Out publisher Eric Campbell liked it too, and agreed to publish it. He just wanted more word count in order to be able make the production costs balance out. So one novella became three.

Like Hammett I also initially intended to generate several related novellas which could be read together as a single long work. I talked about that idea here. However, I eventually abandoned the notion of expanding "Suicide Blonde"'s initial premise that far. I wanted to enhance the story, not pad it. And I was concerned padding it would be precisely what I'd have wound up doing.

And that's when I decided to give "Paper Son" and "Bragadin's Skin" the "Suicide Blonde" treatment. And a lot of writing and rewriting, sweating, proofing and swearing and starting over ensued. And now, lo these many months later, you see before you the cover art of the end result.

And I gotta say, as was the case with my other two recently published long-term crime fiction projects, it's really satisfying to finish something this long in the works. The sense of completion is hard to put into words, but tangible and no less enjoyable in spite of remaining hard to quantify.

I've got other irons in the fire: a really long-term project (a novel) I'm putting the finishing touches on; and a couple of short stories due soon to the editors who've asked for changes to them. Got a couple of other projects in the early drafting stages. And I'm going to get rolling on them pretty quickly.

But not before I take a little time and savor this achievement.

See you in two weeks!



15 October 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part Three


This is Part Three of a three-part series. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here

I have a jack-in-the-box in my desk, at work (for those of you who don't remember, I teach middle school history). It's not a traditional jack-in-the-box. It's an Iron Maiden (the British metal band, not the torture implement) jack-in-the-box, and it's got Eddie, Iron Maiden's ghoulish mascot, as the jack-in-the-box. It's still in the box.

This particular jack-in-the-box was a gift from a former student. And the kid who gave it to me was one-of-a-kind. As a seventh-grader he'd gotten himself into a remarkable amount of trouble, and by the time I got him as an eighth-grader his parents had tossed out all of his black clothes, his guy-liner, every piece of studded black leather, all of the things that he had worn or used to drive them crazy before the final time he'd gotten himself kicked out of school. When I met him, he dressed like a preppy, because his parents picked out his clothes and insisted he shut the door on the black leather and the emo music.

So when I mentioned that I had first seen Iron Maiden in concert as a high school senior in 1982, he decided I was alright. One thing I've learned in all of my years of teaching is that people can connect over the smallest of things. British metal band Iron Maiden was my point of connection with this young man.

His family moved out of state at the end of the year, and right before he left, he gave me the aforementioned jack-in-the-box. I was really touched by the gesture, and by how happy his family was with how much better this very intelligent young man was doing in school. So when his parents sent me a Facebook friend request before they left so we could stay in touch, I was happy to agree to it.

Three years later he killed himself. Over a girl.

I had another student once who robbed a guy in a parking lot drug deal after the guy (who was his dealer) showed him the big bag of money he had made from selling pot. So my former pulled a pistol, took the money, and jumped into a waiting car (driven by another former student of mine). The robbed dealer gave chase on foot. The robber used his gun and shot out the window as they drove off. He killed the the guy.

Both he and the driver are still in jail.


Just a few years ago I had a student who had been diagnosed with O.D.D ("Oppositional Defiant Disorder"). He spent his days at my school acting out, cussing out teachers, and doing no work. Once again I got lucky. I knew who Tupac Shakur was, and had seen him in concert when he was just starting out (how that came about is a long story in itself.). This kid loved Tupac.

So we got along. 

But I wasn't very successful at convincing him to cut other people (students, staff, you know, everyone) any slack. So he was always in trouble. It was shame too, because he was a big, funny, goofy kid. A talented athlete, too. He played basketball on a really good AAU team. He just had no common sense and a get-out-of-consequences-free (for the moment) card.

He went off to high school and I wondered whether he was going to be able to stay out of jail. 

He wasn't. 

He's been busted several times in the intervening years for a string of burglaries, and recently tried to rob a convenience store late one night. The clerk he tried to rob was armed and the two exchanged gunfire. Both were hit. And my former student ran off. He has since turned himself in to police.

These are real stories. This is literally "True Crime." I find it in no way entertaining. There's a human cost here that is painful to recall. And for me there's no escaping it.

And that's why I neither read nor write True Crime.

01 October 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part Two


This is Part Two of a three-part series. For Part One click here.

When I was a boy in elementary school I lived on a rural bus route far enough from school that if I missed the bus, it was either a long walk or a briefer, but not insignificant, bike ride to school.

Both my parents worked jobs that got them out of the house early, so if I did miss the bus, I was indeed on my own. My mother used to set the timer on the kitchen stove before she left for work every morning, and I knew that when that timer went off, it was time for me to go out to the stop in front of our house.

This was our system from the day I started 2nd grade until I moved on to junior high school several years later. In all those years I only missed the bus a couple of times.

And yet for a stretch of several months in fifth grade, I began riding my bike to school. I did it because another boy in my grade suggested we do it together.

His name was Greg, and we had been in the same class a few times, although that year we weren't. We occasionally played Foursquare or on the monkey bars at recess, and we were briefly in Cub Scouts together, but I wouldn't say we were exactly "friends." We just did things together, at school, and riding to school together. 

Greg was a nice enough guy. Not really ebullient. Not flashy. He talked about how he already knew how to make French toast and how he made it himself for breakfast most days. As someone who had yet to move past mastering cold cereal, I was duly impressed by that. Greg was just "handy," or at least seemed so, in ways where I felt deficient. 

Best of all, Greg wasn't mean. We didn't have a lot of "mean" kids at school. Don't get me wrong, every kid has it in them and we all channeled that regularly, and even with people we may have actually liked. But that was mostly kids trying things on, figuring out who they were and how they were going to get through their days. You know, "growing up." Most of the kids I grew up with weren't that kind of "mean," the sort of person who takes joy from actually making someone else miserable. Certainly not mean like Peter, the kid who stole my dad's stocking cap off of my head while my class was lined up waiting to get on the bus one afternoon in 5th grade. Boy, do I remember that guy.

I started riding to school with Greg because of Peter. On that day when Peter stole my dad's hat I missed the bus home because I stayed behind looking for it. None of the other kids admitted to seeing who had taken it, and I was afraid to leave school without trying to find it.

Bear in mind, this took place during the mid-1970s. Teachers were around, but it wasn't like it is now, when you can't walk three feet in an elementary school parking lot during morning drop-off or afternoon pick-up without having two or three staff members cross your line of sight. And it didn't even occur to me to ask a teacher for help.

So the bus left without me.

Within fifteen minutes I had given up the search, resigned to walking home and hoping my dad would forget about his stocking cap, and maybe never ask me about it. And all of a sudden, there was Greg, unlocking the combination lock on his bike chain, getting ready to ride up the long, steep hill that made up the first one-quarter of my coming walk home.

We started talking. Him asking me why I missed the bus, me telling him (I didn't yet know it was Peter who took my cap.). Me asking why he was leaving school so late, him telling me (getting help with math.).

Without either of us so much as suggesting it, we went up Stone Road to the top of that long hill together, Greg riding in slow circles around me as I walked. And then we also took the straight-as-a-preacher's-back, mile-and-a-bit stretch of Tieton Drive together until we reached my house.

As he was riding off, he said, "You should ride to school with me tomorrow."

So I did.

And I continued to for most days after that. And this went on for weeks.

And then one day, Greg didn't show up at my house, so I rode to school by myself. Greg wasn't at school either.

It wasn't something I questioned. I didn't find it odd. I didn't even give it too much thought. Like I said, Greg and I weren't really "friends." We rode to school together. And I liked him. He was a part of my day, but I didn't think of him as a "buddy." 

Looking back, Greg was clearly something of a loner. During those rides we rarely talked, and never about his family. He never mentioned his parents. When he did talk about home, it was always about something he was doing, a project he was working on. But mostly we just rode together. Greg seemed pretty comfortable with long stretches of silence.

And that's what set us apart. I was a blabbermouth (there are some who would say that hasn't changed). I wasn't comfortable with silence. I didn't have "projects." In the afternoons before my parents got home (my mom bringing my two-year-old brother from daycare), I read Hardy Boys books and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, and played in the big empty barn on our acreage and fortified it as if I were the U.S. Cavalry fighting off the Sioux. I rode my horse. I changed sprinklers if it was the right season (and sometimes not even then.).

And I watched a lot of Star Trek. Okay, and Gilligan's Island. It was the '70s. We had three broadcast channels and PBS.

But Greg didn't show up the next day. Or the day after that. I thought it was odd, but wasn't really concerned. After all, I was ten.

And no one said a word about his absence at school. I knew something was up, but like I said, I was ten, and I didn't really know what to say or do about it. I just did what everyone else around me did: went about my day. I even rode the bus again a couple of times.

About a week went by before my mom told me that Greg had died. Now, this was in 1975 or so, and memory is an imperfect thing. I honestly don't recall how my mom found out about Greg's death, whether it was in the paper, or whether she heard about it from a neighbor, or even at work (she worked at a hospital), and I haven't asked her about it before sitting down to write this blog entry, so I can't really say how she knew, she just did.

I asked if she knew how Greg died. She said he'd hanged himself from the banister in his house. He'd used his own belt. I remember thinking at the time, "That's handy." It wouldn't have even occurred to me to use one. Being ten, I kept that part to myself.

I did ask my mother whether it was an accident, maybe he was just goofing around? Nope, she said. He'd climbed up there meaning to kill himself.

I remember wondering why he'd done it. I remember asking my parents why he might have done it. They both supposed there were problems in Greg's home, but no one seemed to know for sure.

Mostly I remember just being baffled.

In my quiet moments (yes, I had them. Not a lot of them, but I did have them.), especially when riding my bike to school, I would occasionally think about riding with Greg. I didn't possess the perspective or vocabulary to ask myself these questions then, but I have often in the forty-five years since: were we actually friends? Was Greg just sad, and kept it bottled up? I didn't really know the word "depression" then, and I certainly wouldn't have understood the concept to the extent to which I've come to comprehend it in the decades since. 

But I did wonder. I still do.

And I'll never know. And neither will Greg's parents, or the rest of his family, or any of the other kids he went to school with, now well into their mid-50s. I wonder how many of them even remember him? Does Ralph? Does Jack? Does Sheri? Does Terri? Does Rhonda? Does Brett? Does Gina?

I moved to Spokane a couple of years later and lost track of the kids I went to elementary school with, so I have no idea.

I'd had encounters with death before this. A cousin died of leukemia when I was six. Various great aunts and uncles passed away in the years before I turned ten.

But these relatives were ill for a long time before passing away. Greg just died. One day he was there, and the next he was gone. Snuffed out. And no one talked about it.

I didn't talk about it at school, and none of the other kids mentioned Greg's passing.  I have no idea why not. Of course that sort of thing would never happen nowadays. Now, the school district would put out a statement about the sad news of a student's passing, and mention that grief counselors were on-hand to help the deceased's classmates cope with his death, should they require the support.

And I don't think that's a bad thing.

We might currently be a society that loves to talk a problem to death, but there are times when being open with kids about what's going on, encouraging them to ask questions and helping them make sense of the senseless isn't some scene out of a Woody Allen movie: it's a kind and humane thing to do.

But there is a line. Had Greg been murdered instead of taking his own life, would he be better remembered? Would his passing be more interesting to the public? If unsolved, would his death be fodder for message boards and true crime podcasts? Would there be a latent profit motive to discussing his last moments? Would speculating about them allow someone who knew him—maybe "rode to school with him, except for that final, fateful day..."—to cash in with the sort of "hybrid true crime memoir" one of my writer friends mentioned in my previous entry in this series?

I don't know. 

I just know that's a book I could never write.

And I damned sure wouldn't read it.

In two weeks: the final installment of my "Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime" series, complete with Russian Roulette, a parking lot drug deal gone horribly wrong, and the goofiest criminal I've ever met.