Irony Meter Cleanup On Aisle Four!

Rarely do I come across a piece of legal history I know nothing about that is so steeped in irony it almost hurts.

I recently saw, for the first time, The Ox-Bow Incident. I’d heard about it before and it was on one of the high-numbered pay cable channels we get and figured it was worth checking out. Released in 1943 (and based on the novel of the same name published in 1940), it’s the story of a mob in a small western town that forms to track down and lynch a trio of cattle rustlers who apparently murdered a local rancher. Of course they didn’t – the whole thing is a taught psychological study of mob justice and how inflamed passions can lead to horrible outcomes. In this case, the three men and hanged and only later does the mob learn they were innocent.

OxBow

The movie struck me as the kind that law profs like to write about (there’s a thriving trade in analyzing how lawyers are portrayed in media), so I went looking for any scholarly discussion of The Ox-Bow Incident. I found a couple of interesting articles, one of which had an astounding tidbit in it that I had to follow up on.*

As I said, the movie came out in 1943. The author of the article expressed amazement that such a movie got made in the middle of World War II, given that it took aim at the traditional Western narrative of rugged frontier exceptionalism. Whatever else it is, The Ox-Box Incident is an unflattering portrait of the American West. It could never have been made during the First World War when, he writes:

[when even a patriotic epic celebrating the American Revolution became a target for federal seizure and prosecution on the chance that the film might excite anti-British sentiments.

What the holy hell? I followed the footnote and saw the same of the film was The Spirit of ‘76 and off to Wikipedia I went.

Ad_for_1917_silent_film_The_Spirit_of_'76

Released in 1917, just after the United States entered World War I, it was, as you’d expect, about the American Revolution. It’s the tale of Catherine, a woman of mixed heritage (French father and Native American mother) who, somehow, becomes the “morganatic wife” (I had to look it up) of King George III. Honked off at George and by the treatment of the American colonists, she returns to become a hero of the American Revolution.

Pretty stirring stuff, right? I mean, hugely melodramatic, but still, it makes you want to stand up and waive a flag, doesn’t it? So what was the problem?

The problem was that, at the time the movie was released, we had just begun to fight in the war with the British as our allies. Allies who apparently weren’t up for depictions of

[quote]multiple atrocities committed by the British side during the war, including soldiers bayoneting babies and raping unarmed women, the Wyoming massacre, and the Cherry Valley massacre.[/quote]

So when the film premiered in Chicago the head of the local film censorship board – whose name was, I shit you not, Metallus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser – confiscated it and forced edits. It showed in Chicago in edited form, but after the cuts were restored for a showing Los Angeles the producer, Robert Goldstein, was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced under the Espionage Act. He served three years of a ten-year sentence before he got a commutation from Woodrow Wilson.

There you have it – a movie about the “spirit of 1776,” which presumably has more than a little to do with love of liberty and fighting tyranny – was suppressed by the nation it celebrates, to the point that the person who made it went to prison for years. They used to say that irony died after 9/11, but I’m surprised there was enough of it left after that explosion of ironic particles for that to matter.

ObiWonIrony

Fun fact – if you’re wondering why the First Amendment didn’t protect Goldstein from going to prison, consider two things. First, the Supreme Court, in general, was bad on the First Amendment around the time of the First World War. Second, at the time the Supreme Court had held that the First Amendment didn’t cover movies. They were “a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit” not “part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.” The case was overruled in 1952, but that was much too late for Goldstein.

Not quite so fun fact – according to the Wikipedia entry, it’s unclear what became of Goldstein after his prison term. He returned to Europe and it was thought he died in the Holocaust, but there’s some evidence he might have gotten out in 1938. Nobody’s really sure.

* Not online – Harry F. Tepker, Jr., The Ox-Bow Incident, 22 Okla. City U. L. Rev. 1209 (1997)

Advertisements

Whither West Virginia?

Writing alternate history is a tricky business. There’s a long way between weed-fueled gab sessions about what would have happened if the American Revolution failed or whatever and writing a story in a believable world that’s diverged from our own in a particular way. Who can really tell what that one change will make?

The conceit of Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines is pretty intriguing: Abraham Lincoln is assassinated just prior to his first inauguration, rather than at the end of the Civil War. That leads to the “Crittenden Compromise,” a group of amendments to the Constitution that permanently protects slavery. Over the years several states emancipate, so that by the time the book takes place in the “modern” era slavery still exists in the “hard four” – Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Carolinas (united for reasons never explained).

underground-airlines-1

The story itself involves Victor, a runaway slave who becomes an undercover bounty hunter for the US Marshals tracking down other runaways. That means infiltrating the modern equivalent of the Underground Railroad, which is still trying to shuttle escaped slaves to Canada. It’s told entirely from his point of view, which gets deep down into his head as he deals with issues of guilt, anger, cynicism and a bunch else. It’s a pretty good character study that loses its feet a little bit when the narrative heads south (literally) and concludes with some of those twists you don’t see coming that characterize detective stories.

Naturally, most of the world we see is through Victor’s eyes and there are some interesting nuggets about what a 21st-century United States with slavery looks like (spoiler – it’s not a non-racist utopia in the rest of the country), but for the most part it looks like history mostly marched on as we know it. There were, apparently, two world wars, for example (FDR used arms manufacturing contracts as a carrot to get a couple of states to abolish slavery), which doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it’s not necessarily wrong either.

On the other hand, there are some things that maybe don’t quite make sense in a world where the United States never abolished slavery and avoided the Civil War. Would a nation isolated by the rest of the world played any role, much less the same one, in the world wars? Winters gives us a Vietnam analog with a failed attempt by Texas to secede in the 1960s, presumably in recognition of the fact that the Cold War probably doesn’t happen. In her review of the book at Tor, Alex Brown writes:

]The details are extraordinary, although some of the larger questions are left untouched. The biggest omission for me was the lack of world building in the West. Outside a couple of references to Texas, the entire western half of the US is never even mentioned, yet in the real world slavery had a huge impact on the West (says the woman who wrote her MA US History thesis on Black life in the West). Southerners traveling overland often sold some of their slaves to finance their journey. Those left behind were devastated by broken homes, and after the Civil War thousands of freed slaves took out ads looking for their families; most were never reunited. Countless slaves worked in the gold mines, cattle ranches, and citrus orchards in California in the 1840s and 1850s, while even more were cowboys on the plains. Dozens of Black-founded towns are scattered across the West, and, of course, one of the worst race riots in American history took place in Tulsa in 1921. Alt-history or no, you don’t get the modern United States—including its scientific advancements and racism—without the development of the West, and you don’t get the West without Black people.

Which is what makes me wonder about West Virginia in the world Winters created. Here’s a map (helpfully available online and in the front of the ebook preview for those of us who absorbed the audiobook) of the United States of Underground Airlines:

UndergroundMap

As you can see, West Virginia is there, just like it is in the real world. The problem is that West Virginia was literally born in the Civil War. Given the timeline for the book Lincoln was killed before  Virginia voted to secede, which prompted the crisis that eventually spawned West Virginia. Without that, there’d be no West Virginia. That’s not to say there weren’t divides between the folks living west of the mountains and the Tidewater plantation owners that dominated antebellum Virginia politics – there was a pretty good reason to spin the western part of the state off on its own. But given how difficult it is to carve a new state from an existing one, it’s unlikely it ever would have happened but for the breach that was the Civil War.

None of that has anything to do with the story Underground Airlines is telling, of course, but it is an example of how alternate history worlds sometimes raise questions in the peripheral vision that will catch the attention of a few readers, but blow by most. I’m not sure what that means in the long run, but this West Virginian is ready to “repeat to yourself that it’s just a [book], you should really just relax” and just enjoy.

Weekly Read – The Great War

Ever just fall down a rabbit hole and disappear into a topic for a while? For the past couple of months I’ve been reading nothing but books on the First World War. I hadn’t been driven to do so during the 100th anniversary observances over the past few years, so what dragged me in? Would you believe me if I said it was an interest in genre fiction?

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror is exactly what it sounds like – an exploration of how men (mostly) who fought in World War I impacted the development of horror, particularly in the nascent motion picture industry.

Wasteland

Many of the early classic horror films – from Nosferatu through Bride of Frankenstein – have connections that date back to the carnage of World War I. Wasteland does a good job of surveying the various developments in the arts as people began to process the industrial scale of death that the war brought, different in orders of magnitude from anything before. Plus, I had no idea Salvador Dali was such an asshole!

Reading Wasteland made me realize that, aside from some broad brush strokes I picked up in school, I really didn’t know much about World War I, so I decided to dive into some of the history of it. Where better to start than the beginning, right?

On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist name Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (and his wife), heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Most people know that as the “start” of the war, but the truth is much more complex (and interesting). In fact it was a month before hostilities broke out, a month during which diplomatic wheels were constantly in motion. That month, the “July Crisis,” is the focus of July 1914: Countdown to War, which exhaustively covers the debates, maneuverings, and petty squabbles of parties all over Europe as the continent slouched towards war.

Coutdown

What was most amazing to me (aside from the fact that in a large number of states a hereditary autocrat was actually in charge – 100 year ago!) is how little emotional investment the various players had in Ferdinand’s death. Certain his own father didn’t seem all the broken up, as did most of the power brokers in Austria-Hungary, who saw him as a potential reformer and were happy to be rid of him. Only German Kaiser Wilhelm really seemed broken up about it. So what Ferdinand’s death just a cynical crisis used to give everybody an excuse to go to war? No, the roots of the war date back into the 19th century (who knew the integrity of an independent Belgium was so important?), but what is clear is that everybody involved had a plan if war was coming and once they committed to them, the die was pretty much cast.

Moving on from the start of the war, my next read was A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.

WorldUndone

Rather than getting bogged down in the details of a particular battle of campaign, the book provides a swift (if lengthy) overview of the war on all fronts. Sometimes it’s a little too much overview. For example, the chapter on Gallipoli mentions how a British force could have taken advantage of something had it moved quickly, but it took four weeks – we never learn why. Unfortunately for me, it spends the first section (of six) on the July Crisis, so it was a little redundant for me. More disappointing, it didn’t deal in similar detail with what happened after the war and during the various peace talks. In between, though, it’s a depressingly fascinating catalog of the various failures of the parties to figure out something to do other than grind millions of people through useless battle after useless battle. You’d think, for example, that generals and politicians could put aside petty personal differences in the face of existential threats to their country (one of the interesting recurring themes is how the propaganda of the war made pursuing peace settlements hard – who wants to make peace with the devil?), but, alas, people are people, even in the middle of the Great War.

Since A World Undone didn’t touch much on what happened after the war I decided that I needed one more book to finish things up. Rather than dive into a book about the peace conferences and treaties (of which the Treaty of Versailles was just one) I went with The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End. Provocative title, no?

Vanquished

The point of The Vanquished is that the war destabilized Europe and the Middle East to such an extent that the “peace” actually constituted a lot of revolutionary violence and civil wars. Most of it was in Eastern Europe (don’t forget that Russia got out of the war once the czar was deposed) and the places that had been carved out of the late Ottoman Empire like new-fangled countries Iraq and Jordan. Of course, Germany didn’t escape unscathed by all this, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler. Even countries on the winning side, like Italy, fell to popular revolution.

On the one hand he First World War wrought huge changes in the world. It swept away the last vestiges of most European monarchies, at least as the people who actually ran their countries. It launched the United States into place as a major international player. And, technologically, it introduced a host or horrible things to modern warfare. But, in a lot of ways, it didn’t change much. Or, more accurately, it left so much unresolved that the Second World War was almost inevitable.

I’ve got a better handle on that now, thanks to all this reading. I can’t say it restored any of my faith in humanity, though. I recommend all these books – but maybe not to read all in one go.

Why We’ll Never Win the War

Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently – or perhaps on jury duty – you’re no doubt aware that infamous drug lord Joaquin Guzman (aka El Chapo) was convicted of charges in a New York federal court that will likely leave him in prison for the rest of his life. The US Attorney had a big press conference afterward in which he hinted that maybe this time, they’ll finally make some headway in the War on (Other People’s) Drugs.

That is, of course, horseshit. I’ve long said that the War is really a war on the human desire to escape our shitty world and no amount of law enforcement is really going to change that. Writing at The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe sums this up more succinctly than I’ve ever seen before:

But there is a deeper sense in which the rhetoric we use when we talk about the border and the war on drugs is misguided and always has been. The real engine for the cross-border trade in marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl is not the clever salesmanship of Mexican crooks—it’s the rampant demand of American addicts and recreational users. This is a point that seldom impinges on our national dialogue about the border with Mexico: the drug trade is dynamic. What makes it unstoppable is not weak border protections or wily Mexicans but the insatiable American appetite for drugs. Where there is money and demand, trade will flourish, borders be damned. Years ago, I interviewed a former D.E.A. official who told me about a high-tech fence that was put up along the border in Arizona. ‘They erect this fence,’ he said, ‘only to go out there a few days later and discover that these guys have a catapult, and they’re flinging hundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the other side.’

Under, over, through: as long as there is an American demand for drugs, drugs will find their way into America.

I’m in the middle of a book about another long, pointless, costly war – World War I. One recurring theme of A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 is that once the Western Front settled down into a stalemate, generals kept throwing offensives at the other side in spite of all the evidence that the only result was to get lots of men killed. It’s as if no one was capable of backing away and saying, “this isn’t working, we need to try something different.” The War on (Other People’s) Drugs is the same. It’s failed and it’s been failing for decades. When are we going to realize that one more offensive, one more big prosecution, isn’t going to change anything.

we-would-like-to-congratulate-drugs-for-winning-the-war-5436383

Favorite Reads of 2018

Since it’s getting down to the wire – I’m not down with “Best of” lists that show up in October – I figured now was the time to give a shout out to my favorite books from 2018. Two important notes: (1) these are favorites, not necessarily bests or whatever; I just loved them, and (2) the key phrase is “that I read in 2018,” so it includes books from before 2018. With that said, here we go (in no particular order) . . .

Nemesis Games (2015)

Nemesis

I’ve basically been keeping one book ahead of where the TV version of The Expanse is, but with the next season on Amazon taking parts from both the fourth (Cibola Burn) and fifth (this one) books, I figured I had to get a little more down the road with this series. I read Cibola Burn this year, too, and while I got the criticisms some people had with it, I didn’t think it was this bad. In comparison to Nemesis Games, however, it was a wet patch on the road. To say “things change” in Nemesis Games is to severely undersell it. That the writing hive mind that is James S.A. Corey managed to explode the cast, sending them off in different directions before pulling them back together, is no small feat, either.

Saga, Vol. 9 (2018)

Saga9

Oh, boy, that last twist. The good news is that after nine volumes Saga continues to be inventive, thrilling, thoughtful, and capable of numerous gut punches. The bad news is that writer Bryan K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples are taking “at least” a year off from the series before getting back to work on it. Part of me thinks that’s a good idea, but part of me worries if this shunts Saga into the realm of great, unfinished stories. Given the way this one ended, I sure hope not.

If you’re not reading Saga yet, here’s why I think you should.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)

FieldofBlood

Many people know that, in the run up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten by one of his Southern colleagues with a cane, providing the perfect metaphor for the turmoil that would soon rip the nation apart. What most folks don’t know is that, while Sumner’s beating stood out for its brutality, it was merely different in degree, rather than in kind, from numerous other incidents of Congressional violence. One Congressman even died in a duel (not on the House floor, to be fair). Not just a colorful “you were there” history, The Field of Blood looks back at another time when the political norms broke down and things sound frighteningly familiar to modern ears.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009)

JohannesCabal

Pure fun. Well, pure darkly humorous fun, at the very least. Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the devil. To get it back, he’s have to deal in bulk, gathering 100 souls for the devil to replace his own, all while running a demonic travelling circus right out of the darker portions of Ray Bradbury’s psyche. This was probably the most fun I had with a book this year, partly because of what I’d just read before (see below), but also because there’s a sharp, dark wit that runs all the way through it.

Shattered Earth trilogy (2015-2017)

Broken

N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy – The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – made history early this year when it won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row, an unprecedented achievement. Is it that good? Absolutely. The Fifth Season, in particular, is a structural high-wire act that shouldn’t work, but completely does and leaves the reader knowing precisely why it was done. The other two books don’t quite reach that level, but the overall arc of the story and the characters that drive it is brilliant. Pretty heavy (I needed Johannes Cabal . . . to brighten me up a bit), but completely worth it.

I’ve written before about these books here and here.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)

CadaverKing

I wrote a review of this one here, so I won’t say much more. If you want to get really pissed off about what “justice” looks like in this country (and you should), this is the book for you.

Neuromancer  (1984)

Neuromancer

Yeah, I know, very late to the party on this one. My college roommate read it and, for some reason, I let it get away from me. Does it hold up? Pretty much, although it’s clearly a product of its time. As a foundational text for cyberpunk it’s something every sci-fi fan and writer should check out. That it continues to tell a gripping story while introducing a lot of ideas we now take for granted is icing on the cake.

Children of Time (2015)

ChildrenofTime

I gushed about this one right after I read it, so check out the details here. Suffice to say, any book that can make you care about the macro evolutionary development of sentient spiders is an achievement.

Weekly Read: The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist

There’s a long-running thread on one of the writers’ forums where I hang out about “books you’ve thrown across the room with force.” The examples are most books that are badly written, not otherwise infuriating. That being the case, if I actually had a copy of Radley Balko’s The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, rather than the Audible file on my phone, I’d definitely have thrown it across the room a few times while reading it. As it is, I can’t afford the new phone, so I just had to grin and bear it.

From the main title you’d think this book might be one of the nifty mysteries where a pair of mismatched souls find the killer in the end. The subtitle dispels that: “A True Story of Injustice in the American South.” The spine of the book is the story of two men wrongfully convicted of murder in Mississippi and what it took to reclaim their freedom. It’s a story with a pair of clear bad guys, but the lesson of the book is much broader than that.

Said bad guys are the ones mentioned in the title. The “Cadaver King” is Steven Hayne, a medical examiner who at one point was doing 4 out of every 5 autopsies in the state (plus others in Louisiana and some in private cases, too). He did so much work for a couple of reasons. One is that, for decades, the death investigation system in Mississippi was completely fucked up. It was left in the hands of local coroners (elected officials, not necessarily medically trained – the history of the office is fascinating and has little to do with death investigations), who then contracted with actual doctors to do autopsies. The other is that Hayne told prosecutors what they wanted to hear, pushing well past the bounds of what science could say to provide clinching evidence that whatever person the state charged was guilty of the crime.

Bad as Hayne was his sidekick, “Country Dentist” Michael West, was even worse. West started out as the purveyor of a an always sketchy and now debunked field of forensic practice that allowed someone to match bite marks they way others might match fingerprints. With Hayne an expert at finding bites on corpses, even when it made no sense, West could be another link between a suspect and a conviction (why nobody questioned the rise in murders that involved biting is a mystery. As the years went on he developed other skills so that, before his eventually unraveling, he was basically a one-man CSI.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Hayne and West get their comeuppance (West is finally pinned down during a deposition about his magical testimony by an Innocence Project lawyer named – I shit you not – Fabricant) and that two innocent men are freed. But that’s far from a happy ending. There are almost certainly others similarly situated in Mississippi and what makes the book so infuriating is that the entire system is setup to keep them in prison. I’ve had to explain this to clients before – once you’re found guilty, it’s next to impossible to prove otherwise. Finality reigns supreme. The system simply doesn’t care if that might not be the truth and most people don’t want to know (one revealing anecdote is how the Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi got pushback initial because people feared it might suggest some alumni had gotten the wrong people convicted). As Balko puts it in the book, “[w]hat you’re about to read didn’t happen by accident.”

That’s bad enough, of course, but when politics and perverse prosecutorial incentives are thrown into the mix it practically guarantees bad outcomes. That’s mostly because politicians have been so good at weaponizing fear of crime (even as crime rates drop to historic lows) and most prosecutors are elected. You’ll rarely lose an election for being too tough on crime, but go the other way and better start planning for another career. And, as Balko points out, this is a bipartisan problem. When a blue-ribbon federal panel issued a report calling into question large swaths of forensic evidence, the Obama Justice Department dismissed it. Truth is, people rarely care about the details of the criminal justice system unless they or someone they love get caught up in it.

But that only works they way it does because, at bottom, the modern American criminal justice system doesn’t place any priority on determining what actually happened in any particular case. Prosecutors want convictions. Defense attorneys want the best results for their clients, which may be at odds with the actual truth of the situation. Defendants, sometimes facing long potential sentences and no real option of winning in court, plead guilty to things they didn’t do. And, as I said, once that verdict is in, the system is not designed to examine it again.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is a good read. It’s engaging and compelling, frightening and maddening. “If you’re not outraged,” the saying goes, “you haven’t been paying attention.” Pay attention. Read this book.

CadaverKing

Author Interview – Gerald Swick

We’re back with Gerald Swick, who wants to take you on a trip through West Virginia history.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m the love child of Joseph Heller and Carol Burnett. No, wait—I’m a native of Clarksburg, West Virginia, now living in Nashville. I’m an incorrigible punster, a master of one-liners, and a serious researcher who was half of the research team that solved the 70-year mystery of why the eldest child of Abraham Lincoln was not buried with the rest of the family. Most of all, I’m a writer drawing inspiration and techniques from such disparate sources as academic journals, novels of all types, comic books, songwriting, screenwriting and poetry, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had experienced, successful writers in most of those fields share their knowledge with me.

I fell in love with the printed word at a very early age when my mother and my older siblings would read to me, so I started teaching myself to identify words as they read when I was three or four years old. I don’t remember Dad reading to me, but there was an auctioneer named Paul Bastin who could always unload a box of books by saying, “Swick, you’ll bid a quarter, won’t you?” Dad would grin and nod, and we’d be bringing another box of books home. The writing grew out of all that, plus the stories of family history Mom and Dad told.

How did you get involved with research into Abraham Lincoln’s family?

Actually, my research has primarily been into Lincoln’s in-laws, the Todds. A friend and I were thinking of writing an article about why the position known as The Hornet’s Nest at the Battle of Shiloh collapsed suddenly after holding out for hours.

A different friend went with me to walk the ground at Shiloh National Battlefield Park. She happened to be reading a biography of Mary Lincoln and asked if I was aware Mary had a half-brother who was killed fighting for the Confederacy at Shiloh. I got to looking into that and realized the Todds weren’t a family, they were a soap opera, and I started researching them seriously. I’ve never written the book about them, but it is a project I want to finish. Finding the letter about why the Lincolns’ eldest son isn’t buried with the rest of the family was a coincidence of Todd research.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

The first two books in my West Virginia Histories series were published by Grave Distractions Publications in late 2017. This series collects most of the 800-plus articles I wrote over 16 years that appeared as a weekly column of West Virginia history in the Clarksburg Exponent Telegram. The columns were very popular and received an Associated Press excellence in journalism award for Lifestyles writing. They were also a factor in the state Humanities Council awarding me a literary fellowship in nonfiction writing.

Over the years a number of readers recommended I put them into a book. When I finally sat down to do that I realized, with over 800 articles to draw from, I needed to do a series of books.

I spent part of 2016 and most of 2017 organizing the columns into themes such as West Virginia women, the Civil War, sports, ethnic history, politics, crime and so on, then divvying them up into eight books based on those themes. Each book in the series will contain 100 articles, including some never-before-published ones written specifically for this series.

Volume 1, Unique People, Unusual Events and the Occasional Ghost, is an introduction to and sampler of the series. Volume 2, Days of Slavery * Civil War and Aftermath * Statehood and Beyond provides readers with background on Western Virginia’s separation from Virginia, incidents of the Civil War within its borders, and the political struggle to be admitted to the Union as a state of its own. There’s also information on the state’s 50th and 100th anniversary celebrations.

Putting the former columns into book format allowed me to include addendums in cases where I found additional information after the columns were published, and this format also gave me a way to index names and places to help genealogists and other researchers find what they are looking for.

Vol. 1 cover

How many books will be in the West Virginia Histories series? Will you be adding new articles to it as you go along?

The publisher and I are planning for eight books, each covering multiple themes, but the series may expand if we feel a given book tries to cover too many themes. That doesn’t apply to Volume 1, of course, because it is an introduction to and sampler of the series, so it contains four or more samples from each of the themes.

I am researching and writing some new material for each theme, e.g., Social Change, Labor, Education, etc., so that each book will contain several never-before-published stories among its 100 articles.

How I originally came to write these columns?

I had been doing other freelance work for the Exponent Telegram and its weekly publications, the Marion Xtra and Taylor Xtra. I conceived the idea for the column and asked the managing editor if he would be interested in publishing it; his eyes lit up like a man who’d just drawn his fourth ace.

I knew people who are interested in history would read the columns, but I wanted to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally read history because they regard it as boring. I wanted to share with those readers how much fun history can be. I regard historical research as a never-ending Easter egg hunt; you never know what you’re going to find when you look behind the next bush. So I wrote in the storytelling style a fiction writer might use, while still sticking to the known facts, and I frequently incorporated editorializing, humor, puns and other wordplay, and occasionally a dose of snark.

For example, I wrote a column on West Virginia’s concerns over pollution throughout the 20th century. Not exactly the stuff for a ripping good yarn, so I enlivened it with comments like, “Mess with the fish, Bubba, and we send in the Marines,” after explaining that in 1913 the U.S. War Department had control over what was dumped in the Ohio River. Later in that same article I cited the 1970 “Kanawha Valley Air Pollution Study” and added parenthetically, “Soon to be a major motion picture starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones.”

In my research I primarily look for stories my readers likely wouldn’t know about, mostly drawn from old newspapers and supplemented by additional research to put the story in context: the feud between William Jennings Bryant and a WVU professor over evolution, for example, or the tornado that destroyed a church during Easter services in Wellsburg; the attempt Kanawha County’s Jews made to have the county chosen as the site of America’s first rabbinical college; the heroic tale of Jim Brown, a black man in Welch who risked his life trying to save two little white girls from an oncoming train, and the story of Minnie Martin, a young woman who saved a passenger train from derailing in Wetzel County. There’s the personal account of the infamous serial killer known as H.H. Holmes concerning what he claimed was his first murder, a man in Morgantown, and the story of a fraud ring comprised of Lincoln County housewives who scammed a soap company—and no, they didn’t get away clean.

The stories are drawn from all parts of the state and cover people and events from the 18th century through the 1960s, the decade in which West Virginia marked its statehood centennial.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

As noted, mostly I write nonfiction, history in particular. My first book was a coffee-table book, Historic Photos of West Virginia, from Turner Publishing in Nashville. I’d been one of Turner’s editors but had moved on to being web editor for the magazines of the Weider History Group when Turner called and asked me to author the West Virginia project. I’ve written for America’s Civil War, American History, Blue Ridge Country, Lincoln Lore, Wonderful West Virginia and other magazines, as well as the new West Virginia Encyclopedia published by the state Humanities Council in 2006and ABC-CLIO’s Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social and Military History. With a life-long love of both history and writing, it’s not surprising this is how things turned out, even though I started out wanting to write fiction.

I have had some short fiction published in literary journals and a fantasy anthology. I worked in the game field for years and authored or co-authored short fiction for roleplaying games, like “A Day in the Life of Dennis-O-VCH” and “The New, Improved Fear and Ignorance” for the Paranoia game. If you go to my website, GeraldDSwick.com, you’ll see how checkered my writing past is. Presently, in addition to future volumes in the West Virginia Histories series, I am working on a novel of alternative history, but I generally don’t like to talk about works in progress. Somehow, talking about what I’m working on takes away some of the impetus to get it down on paper.

Vol 2 cover

Do you have any training or background in historical research or are you self-taught? What made you dive in to that field in the first place?

Primarily self-taught. I’ve buried myself in researching the Todds at archives and libraries from South Carolina to San Francisco, and that experience taught me a very great deal about doing historical research. It also made me skeptical of anything I can’t effectively cross-reference. I’m amazed at how much has been written about the Todds in secondary sources that turns out to be untrue when compared to original source material and cross-referenced.

As for the origins of my interest in things past, it developed at the same time I was falling in love with the written word. My parents, who had me late enough in their lives that they almost named me R. U. Joking, often talked in the evenings about their childhoods and early lives, providing a window into a world that had already vanished. Also, growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s there were television programs, comic books, games, and movies about historical events. They weren’t necessarily accurate, but they made history fun and inspired me to read more of it. I have a T-shirt I was given that says, “History Buff. I’d find you more interesting if you were dead.”

I wanted to major in history, but a high school guidance counselor talked me out of it. Like one of my favorite nonfiction authors, John C. Waugh, my training is in journalism, not historical research. Both require fact-checking and multiple sources, but the nature of those sources usually aren’t the same. As things turned out, I’m a man with two mistresses: writing and historical research.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

Coming up with viable ideas is one of the most difficult things for me. My magazine and encyclopedia articles were assigned to me by editors. Even most of my published fiction came from assignments in which I was given a worldview to set a story in, but it was up to me to come up with a story and characters that fit within that worldview.

I mull over the assignment, think about the audience it is aimed at and what they might want to read, do preliminary research—even my fiction usually has historical elements to it—and then do some “clustering,” in which I write the basic premise in the center of a page, circle it, and then outside that circle I write any ideas that come to me, no matter how outrageous. A hit songwriter and music publisher, Ralph Murphy, once told me to never quit writing the cluster until I have over a dozen ideas jotted down, because the first ones will be obvious, but by the time I get to the thirteenth or fourteenth idea I’m probably breaking into fresh approaches.

As an example, the editor of America’s Civil War magazine asked me to write about the “First Land Battle of the Civil War” at Philippi. The question I faced was, “Okay, I can relate the events, but what does it all mean?” I concluded that the Confederacy’s epitaph was already written at Philippi: “Too few trying to defend too much with too little, against a people in whom the bonds of Union had become too strong to be severed.” Based on that conclusion, the article was published as “Omen at Philippi.” Anyone interested in reading it can find a link under Nonfiction on my website.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

Elizabeth O’Cleary, a teenage Irish girl with Down Syndrome who develops a magical power when magic returns to modern Ireland. I created her for the story “Warriors of Destiny” in the Dragons Over England anthology. This was one of the situations in which I was given a worldview and a deadline, then left to my own devices. The stories in the anthology were based on the Torg roleplaying game from West End Games, in which Earth is invaded from several parallel dimensions simultaneously, each invader setting up a reality based on his or her own dimension. In the British Isles, it was a reality like that of traditional Northern European fantasy stories, while in France the Cyberpapacy had won the Great Schism of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition never ended. I envisioned an initial attempt by the Cyberpapacy to convert all those good Roman Catholics in Ireland to this new papacy. Elizabeth and her recently awakened new friend, a leprechaun named Letitia Blossomwalker, thwart the bad guys but at terrible cost.

The characters formed in my mind after I contracted to write a story for the anthology. I kept resisting the idea of Elizabeth having cognitive disability due to Down Syndrome, but she refused to be written any other way. I never said this in the story, but in my mind she was descended from the Tuatha De Danann, the legendary race with magical powers who some people have said came to Ireland from Atlantis. I imagined that when magic went away, their descendants still had the ability within them but no way to use it; in Elizabeth’s case, that produced the extra chromosome that resulted in Down Syndrome and a blockage in her mind that ultimately she breaks through.

Coming up with character names is another toughie for me. Ironically, shortly after I sent the “Warriors of Destiny” story off to West End, I visited the Presidio cemetery in San Francisco to pay my respects at the grave of a woman I was researching, the Great Western, Sarah Borginnis Bowman, a heroine of the Mexican-American war and later proprietor of some of the finest bordellos in the Southwest. As I was walking away from her grave I noticed a headstone a couple of graves away. The name on it was Elizabeth O’Cleary, the same as my fictional Irish girl, and a chill went up my spine. Odd coincidences like that seem to occur when I write fictional stories about Ireland.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

Well, for “Warriors of Destiny” I had to research Irish history, folklore and fauna, plus the Great Schism of the Catholic Church and Belgian machine pistols. In nonfiction, I’d have to say the five articles I was asked to write about Romania in World War II and one about South Africa’s role in the conflict for ABC-CLIO’s WWII encyclopedia. I knew virtually nothing about either country, so I had to do some serious research and do it quickly, since I also had three other articles assigned for the same publication. A decade later I reused some of the information while writing “Romanian Nightmare at Stalingrad” for Armchair General magazine. That’s why I’m loathe to throw away old research materials.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Oh, man, that’s like asking what the most import lesson is that I’ve learned in life. I’m going to name two: First, rewriting doesn’t mean just tweaking; it may mean finding the kernel of the story that is worth keeping, discarding everything else and starting over. Second, despite all we are taught about finding our writer’s voice, staying true to our vision, etc., ultimately writing isn’t about the writer: it’s about the reader. In genre fiction that means staying true to the conventions of your genre, because readers expect them, but finding fresh ways to present those conventions. In nonfiction it means not cramming everything you’ve learned about a topic into a single article or book; that’s oh, so tempting, but data dumps stink as badly as garbage dumps.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I wouldn’t have to work at anything else to meet bills. I could just research and write six to ten hours a day. So if any patrons of the arts out there are looking for someone to sponsor, you can contact me through my website!

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I read Susan Orleans’s Rin Tin Tin The Life and the Legend in 2012, and I still find myself thinking about it occasionally. She did incredible research and a great job of telling a story both uplifting and tragic. More recently the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series impressed me because the author created a compelling narrative inspired by old, strange photographs of children.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

Bringing out volume 3 in the West Virginia History series, which will be titled Crime, Politics, and Other Disasters. It will probably be released in late summer or early autumn 2018. And continuing to work on the alternate history novel.

Learn more about Gerald at his website, or check out excerpts from Volume 1 and Volume 2 of his West Virginia History series.

Weekly Read: The Lost City of Z

I generally roll my eyes at people who see a movie based on a book and then tut tut that “the book was better.” Even as a writer, it comes off as snobbish to me. The written word is a different medium than film, which makes adaptations their own things. One’s rarely “better,” even in a subjective sense, than the other. They’re just different.

The film, The Lost City of Z (released last year), got a good amount of praise when it was released. I’ve even seen people list it as being snubbed in the Oscar race. It’s the story of Percy Fawcett, who repeatedly search the Amazon jungle for evidence of a lost city in the early part of the last century. The wife and I put it on our list of flicks to see and, the other weekend, were able to pay per view it. My thoughts at the time was that it was a fine flick, but it suffered in comparison to such jungle fever dreams as Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

It did interest me enough to go read the book upon which the movie is based. Also called The Lost City of Z, it weaves the history of Fawcett’s expeditions in with the attempt of author David Grann to track down evidence of Fawcett’s final expedition (no spoiler alert – Fawcett’s disappearance in 1925 is one of the everlasting mysteries of the golden age of exploration). I’m glad I did, not just because the book provides more detail than any movie possibly could, but it makes clear that large hunks of the movie are complete and utter fiction.

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about whether the film itself, or the book, is “accurate” from an historical standpoint. There was a lively debate at the time the movie came out with historians arguing that it portrayed Fawcett in a much more positive, progressive light than the historical record supports (also, he sucked at exploring). Naturally, the director’s response to this was, in essence, “it’s art and you can’t talk like that about it.” That’s not what I’m really interested in. However, I will note this observation from one critique of the movie version of Fawcett:

The original book, by David Grann, was much more intelligent and nuanced, as one would expect from a staff writer on the New Yorker. But everything has gone wrong in its clumsy adaptation for the screen by director James Gray, who has written his own script and then filmed it with great reverence – almost always a mistake.

That sounds about right, although “clumsy” is perhaps too kind. It’s simply bizarre for a movie based on a particular non-fiction book – it even uses the title! – to break from the book in so many fundamental ways. I’m not talking about the inevitable compression that happens to turn a biography into a movie – that Fawcett had 8 Amazon expeditions, not 3, or that he and his son had a third person on their final voyage makes sense. I’m talking about things that get the character so wrong I don’t understand why the writer/director used the name of a real person.

For example, one of the most obvious diversions from the book is the in the film Fawcett is portrayed as having fallen into exploration after being tapped by the military and Royal Geographical Society to survey a river on the border of Brazil and Bolivia. In fact, Fawcett caught the exploration bug while stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) when he fell hard for a story of buried treasure (he didn’t find that, either). He’d already attended a 1-year course at the RGS before the surveying mission came up.

Or take the depiction of Fawcett’s relationship with his eldest son, Jack. In the film Jack is shown as an angry kid, raging against his father as a failure after an expedition collapses spectacularly (bonus point – the book never mentions that Fawcett resigned from the RGS in the aftermath, as the film portrays). They’re reconnection as they plan the last expedition is a moving part of the film. But, according to Grann’s book at least (the source material for the film!), the two were always close and Jack wanted to join his father in his explorations almost as soon as he could.

But the most egregious example involves World War I. Fawcett was well into his Amazon explorations when the war broke out. He went back to England and, eventually, to the Western Front. The film portrays Fawcett leading a Paths of Glory style assault over the top (after consulting with a Madame Blavatsky type – she died in 1891) during which he’s wounded by gas. No just wounded – blinded. A doctor even tells the blind Fawcett that he’ll never see the jungle again. This is utter fiction, unless Grann decided to skip the episode completely in his book. Fawcett wasn’t wounded, much less blinded, and didn’t sit around the English countryside recuperating for years until his son convinced him to give it one more go. Why the director (who also wrote the script) decided to put it in is anybody’s guess.

Somebody could have made a really interesting movie out of the Grann’s book. Even without the modern day overlay of Grann’s own expedition, the atmosphere of doom that clung to Fawcett’s final expedition could have really worked as the backbone of the movie (cover what else needs to be covered in flashbacks). Or, alternately, somebody could have used Fawcett as the basis for a truly fictional character and played around with the details as he saw fit. The Lost City of Z the movie isn’t either of those and it suffers for it. The Fawcett of the book is much more interesting than his celluloid counterpart.

But it did lead me to the book, for which I thank it. For, in this instance, the tutters would be right – the book really is better than the movie.

lost city z bookLost City of Z film

We All Need Some Light

The other day at work I was doing some research at a different end of the West Virginia Code that normal and came across a provision that made absolutely no sense to me. It’s WV Code §2-1-2, titled “Ancient Lights” for those playing at home:

The common law of England in regard to ancient lights is not in force in this state.

The background for this is that the prior section (WV Code §2-1-1) adopts English common law “except as altered by the general assembly of Virginia” before June 20, 1863. In other words, we adopted Virginia’s law as is when we left the commonwealth during the Civil War. But apparently it was important to exclude from that this law on “ancient lights.” So what are we missing here in the Mountain State?

Turns out it’s a right to light! In some places, at least. Specifically, it’s a kind of easement, which is a property interest that someone has in someone else’s property – think of someone who has the legal right to use a path across their next door neighbor’s property. In England, if a person has a building with windows that for 20 years have received daylight they can prevent someone else from building in a way as to obstruct the light.

Thus, you have things like this on some old English buildings:

Ancient_lights_signs_Clerkenwell FULL

Pic by Mike Newman via Wikimedia Commons

As it happens, West Virginia isn’t alone in not adopting this doctrine, so very few Americans actually have an enforceable right to light. Which is a shame, since, as the song says, we all need some light.

Weekly Read: The Road to Jonestown

There’s a passage in Jeffrey Toobin’s book on Patty Hearst where, after the heiress is captured, her kidnappers demand the Hearst family set up a from scratch program to feed the poor. Various groups come out of the woodwork to try and run the program, including Peoples Temple, the cult led by Jim Jones that, a few years later, would mostly die out in the Guyanese jungle. Toobin presents it as a freakish aside, the intersection of two infamous historical figures. After reading Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown it becomes clear that there wasn’t anything freakish about it – Jones and his followers could have pulled it off.

That is, perhaps, the most interesting thing about Guinn’s book, which takes a deep dive into the founding of Peoples Temple and the founding, if you will, of Jim Jones. Born poor in rural Indiana Jones gravitated toward two things when young – social justice and fire-breathing religion. Neither of his parents were religious, but he had a neighbor who was constantly on the prowl to recruit souls for Christ and she exposed Jones to her church. He took to preaching and honed a miracle-working approach in Indiana that would serve him well for decades. It was also the spark of the dark charisma that would lead to so many more than 900 dead in Guyana.

Fact is, Peoples Temple got things done for people who were too often left behind by society. Jones and his followers helped drive desegregation in Indianapolis. Both there and later in California they ran nursing homes, drug treatment programs, and, yes, food giveaways. All those programs were successful (at least as successful as other similar programs) and properly run.

The problem was that, from the beginning to the end, Peoples Temple was always the fiefdom of Jim Jones. All the good work came at the expense of a staggering cult of personality that merged with Jones’s rising paranoia (aided, no doubt, by a cocktail of drugs he used to work and sleep) to make for one of the more frightening cults in recent history. Jones was Father, at the very least, and perhaps God herself (or some reincarnation of past holy figures, like Buddha or Jesus) and the only one who could save his people from the destructive world around them.

At first the destruction was nuclear war. That was reason Jones moved Peoples Temple from Indianapolis to California, setting up shop in a rural area north of San Francisco that supposedly was far enough away from primary targets that, with favorable winds, residents could survive a nuclear attack. That fear didn’t keep Jones from barnstorming around the country on a fleet of busses doing revival shtick, however.

The threats quickly became more personal. There were defectors from Peoples Temple, people who either saw Jones for the con man he was or simply grew tires of giving everything they made and owned to the organization. To Jones each was a potential villain, providing fodder to the press or authorities about what went on in the increasingly secretive group. Journalists started to close in, too. The final straw was a group of former members who focused on getting other family members, including children, out of the group who, they claimed, were being held against their will.

Although Jonestown itself had been founded earlier, these existential threats are what drove Jones and most of his followers there well before the settlement was ready to support them. Harsh conditions, piled on top of Jones’s paranoia and iron grip over his followers, soon degraded into homicidal/suicidal tendencies. Jones simulated an attack on the compound and later staged a mock suicide, just to make sure everyone reacted in the proper fashion. By the time San Francisco-area Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in November 1978, the keg was set to blow. Ryan and several others were murdered at a nearby airport, while Jones led the mass of his followers in Jonestown to their death via a mix of cyanide and Flavor-Aid (not Kool-Aid, to set the record straight).

More than 900 people died in Jonestown and there’s always been some controversy over what label to apply to it. Jones called it “radical suicide” (?), but given that at least a third of the dead were children it’s easy to say that many of the deaths were flat out murders. Beyond the children there’s evidence that some adults were held down and injected with poison, rather than having drunk it on their own. Still, hundreds of people, at least, appear to have willingly laid down their lives when Jones said so.

The big question, of course, is why? Guinn doesn’t do much evaluation of the aftermath of Jonestown or bring in any kind of experts to attempt to explain it. Instead, he lets the work he’s already done, showing how Peoples Temple developed, do the work. What he shows is that people really believed in Jones. Some believed in his commitment to social justice. Others came at it from a more religious angle, drawn in by the healings and such that Jones performed on the revival circuit. Because once your religion has primed you to believe miracles exist, why would you doubt the con man that actually says he performs them? Regardless, they believed in Jones and the outside world gave them just enough reason to buy into his paranoid rants. More than anything else, they let Jones come to define their world, to the exclusion of any critical thinking or close examination of what he was doing.

It’s hard not to think of Donald Trump while reading The Road to Jonestown. Not because Trump is going to lead us into ritual suicide (with a side of murder) anytime soon (we hope), but because of the freakishly similar way Trump and Jim Jones interacted with the outside world. To Jones’s followers he was the only person who could solve their problems and save them from the injustices of the world. Trump during the campaign repeatedly expressed similar sentiments. Jones never failed – he was only failed by underlings or thwarted by shadowy outside forces. Likewise, Trump never backs a loser and is constantly doing battle with the “deep state” or “fake news.” More than anything else, Jones and Trump share a complete aversion to dealing with reality. That way lies madness, as Jones and others have proven.

Hopefully, we’re not all on the road to Jonestown again, without quite realizing it.

RoadtoJonestown