A History Mystery

Abraham Lincoln sat behind the counsel table in the Springfield, Illinois courthouse. Beside him, his clients, Archibald and William Trailor, waited anxiously. They would soon, according to all observers, be convicted and hung for the murder of Archibald Fisher.

            The prosecution’s case was straightforward. William Trailor lived in Warren County, Illinois. In May 1841 he traveled to Springfield to visit his brothers Archibald and Henry. All three brothers were described as “sober, retiring and industrious” men. Accompanying William on the journey was his housemate, Archibald Fisher. Fisher worked as a handyman, performing odd jobs and, by means of a frugal lifestyle, was rumored to have saved a great amount of money.

            The men arrived in Springfield, where William’s brother, Archibald Trailor, worked as a carpenter. After lunch, the four men went for a walk about town. The three brothers became separated from Fisher. After dinner that night, when Fisher had not returned, they searched briefly for him.

            The next day, they searched again without success. They looked again the following day. Fruitless, in their searches, William returned home, without his housemate.

            The story circulated through Warren County that Fisher had died and willed his fortune to William. The local postmaster notified Springfield of the suspicious circumstances. Within days, all three Trailor brothers were arrested.

            Henry Trailor confessed, after interrogation by Springfield’s mayor and the Illinois state attorney general. He claimed that his brothers had killed Fisher and stolen his money. Henry admitted to helping hide the body. The entire town looked for Archibald Fisher’s remains without success. Abraham Lincoln later wrote, “[e]xaminations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed. All the fresh or tolerably fresh, graves at the grave-yard were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disinterred.”

            The mood of the public darkened. Even though the body had not been recovered, it seemed clear that only a speedy trial followed by prompt punishment might avoid a lynching. During pretrial hearings, Henry Trailor repeated his confession. Investigators testified that in the woods they found deep buggy tracks and signs that something had been drug through the grass. The tracks, they reported, ended near a pond, a perfect place to hide a body. Investigators further claimed they found human whiskers on a club near the tracks. Finally, a responsible local woman testified that she had seen two of the Trailor brothers walk into the woods with Fisher. Later, she saw them return from the thicket alone.

            The crowded courtroom felt hot on the cusp of summer, 1841. The heat must have felt even more oppressive for the defendants who felt the weight of the evidence and the townspeople pressing down upon them.

            Then, Abraham Lincoln called his lone witness, Dr. Robert Gilmore. A physician respected in the area; Gilmore ascended the witness stand. Following the oath, he testified that Archibald Fisher had lived with him in the past and he knew the man well. Fisher, the doctor swore, had suffered a head injury in his youth and had never fully recovered his senses. Prone to forgetfulness, the doctor opined, Fisher had likely wandered off and lost track of where he was.

            The doctor offered proof to support his theory: Archibald Fisher was still alive and recovering from illness at the doctor’s house. The ailing man had no memory of his time in Springfield and had journeyed all the way to Peoria before recovering his mind.

            In a letter to Joshua Speed written the day after the trial, Lincoln said that “[w]hen the doctor’s statement was first made public, it was amusing to scan and contemplate the countenances and hear the remarks of those who had been actively in search of the dead body: some looked quizzical, some melancholy, and some furiously angry.”

            The charges were dropped and the Trailors released.

            I have stretched the definition of the “Trial-of-the-Month”. The investigation began in May, although the case itself did not commence until June. The Trailor trial offers the opportunity to consider the limits of the criminal justice system from one of several perspectives. Henry’s damming testimony came after three days of interrogation by investigators. He had likely been coerced into a false confession. The case, from an era before Miranda rights, reminds citizens of the constitutional protections we assume today. Psychologists reading the story might see the confirmation bias: the mayor and Attorney General, certain of their rectitude, allowed their conclusions to drive the facts. Finally, we might focus on “junk science”: the whiskers on the club turned out to be hairs from a cow, while the grass by the pond had been matted by children attempting to hang a rope swing.  

            As a writer’s blog, however, I’d like to focus on the story. Abraham Lincoln penned a fictional tale about the murder trial and published it in The Quincy Whig on April 15, 1846 under the title, “A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder”. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine republished that story in March 1952 as “The Trailor Murder Mystery”. Finally, Otto Penzler included it The Best American Mystery Stories of the Nineteenth Century (albeit labeling it a curiosity rather than an example of compelling storytelling or distinguished literary style).

            Abraham Lincoln, therefore, can rightfully claim to be America’s most famous mystery author. To the list of his accomplishments: rail splitter, lawyer, politician, president, please add “crime writer”.

Mark Thielman

For more information, see “Logan and Lincoln” by William Townsend in The American Bar Journal, February 1933.

A PI’s Tools of the Trade

A group of items on a table

Description automatically generated

-Ben Keller

We find ourselves in strange days.  As I write this, the nation – and the world – are weeks into a stay-at-home mode.  A grand experiment in an effort to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 virus circulating around the globe.  The impacts have been broad, esoteric, and unexpected.  Who could have reasonably guessed such a thing would happen?  Who could have foreseen that toilet paper would become the symbol of both reasonable preparedness and abject greed?  Knowing the community this blog is aimed toward, the answer “fiction writers” would be acceptable. 

One of the widely shared impacts is a massive transition for many to work from home.  People have been finding desks, kitchen tables, outdoor patios, and other nooks and crannies, pressing them into service as a de facto workstation.  And oh, what mighty conquests arise from rival claims for the limited home internet bandwidth.  These are the first world struggles of the apocalypse.

Yet as I and others discuss alternate, sometimes creative, venues for work, I’ve reflected on some of my stranger work environments in my private eye career.  Then, inspired by another Murder-Books blogger, I thought of not only the office equipment required for private eye on the move, but the other commonly used tools of the private investigator.  For example…

The Office in Your Vehicle

A picture containing photo, black, sitting, room

Description automatically generated

A PI’s life involves a lot of time in your vehicle.  Driving from one case to the next, waiting for witnesses to arrive, and long surveillances means hours upon hours behind the wheel.  And the PI business is, after all, a business.  There are reports to be written, videos to be edited, bills to be sent… the list goes on.  The best way to manage the paper tiger is to use the downtime between shoot-outs and car chases (yes, I’m being sarcastic) to complete those more administrative tasks.  Laptops are great, but when you’re in the driver’s seat, the steering wheel is exactly where you want to place the computer.  Awkward.  So many of my brothers and sisters invested in a product like the above.  Such a mobile desks allows for papers, files, and other equipment to be at one’s fingertips.  A slot in the middle allowed for the seatbelt to anchor your desk in place, meaning the sometimes aggressive and erratic driving required wouldn’t send your most sensitive files careening across the dashboard.

The fanciest models had a swing-out platform to make working on the laptop even easier.  Some of my friends had office supplies organizers hanging on the rear of their sun visors.  Some had mobile printers placed in the lower storage well of the mobile desk.  Some had a rollerball mouse permanently attached to their center console.  Still others had a second battery and alternator installed in their vehicles to ensure powering the office equipment didn’t impair the car’s electrical function.  The most elaborate vehicle office I’d ever seen belonged to a friend and involved a tower PC – not a laptop – anchored to the floor of the vehicle.  A 19” monitor was mounted to the ceiling and flipped down while in use.  And he removed the polarization filter from the screen and had made 3-D type glasses out of them, meaning only he could see the data on the screen, not curious passersby.  Generally, the more one invested in their mobile office, the more productive one could be in unusual circumstances.

Wi-Fi Before There Was Wi-Fi

Come children, gather around the fire, and let your elders tell you of the dark times before wi-fi was ubiquitous and before cellular data was sufficient enough for streaming HD video. For much of my career, mobile connectivity was a pipe dream.  You simply saved emails in your Outbox, and they would be sent when you connected to the internet back at your office.  Via dial-up internet, of course.  Anyone remember the sound of the dial-up modem talking to the host computer?  Good times…

But towards the end of my time as a PI, some of the more tech-savvy colleagues were sharing locations on a map of a new option for getting online.  Some warehouses, hotels, and hospitals were using some sort of radio-based network (the word “wi-fi” hadn’t been popularized yet, if it even existed) to track inventory and staff movements.  Cyber security around these networks was non-existent, which meant if you parked their lots close enough to the building, you too could get online.  IF you had an antenna that would pick up the radio signal.  To that end, we shared secret blueprints on how to home-brew your own antenna from a coffee can.    Why yes, I do feel quite old, thank you for asking.

GPS, Old School Edition

Long before Google Earth gave you reconnaissance photos via military-grade satellites on demand, and long before we held extensive maps for entire continents in the palm of our hand, getting around and navigating the world took some planning.  I had an entire drawer in a filing cabinet dedicated only to maps.  Most PIs I knew invested in a series of city guide reference books that not only detailed block-by-block addresses, but also allowed for reverse telephone number look-up, paired to the address.  Of course, this was back when most people had landlines.  More Stone Age stuff here.

Eventually, GPS data was available.  The map data wasn’t pre-loaded, and the mobile internet wasn’t nearly fast enough to download it on the fly.  So in order to use it, you had to carry around CD-ROMs for the geographic area you wanted to see.  It would require 7-8 discs to cover the continental US.  And  obviously, they would not be updated based on new construction or road closures.  Access this data on the go meant a laptop with this software installed and a dongle connected from your laptop to the roof of your vehicle.  Not exactly sleek, but it worked.  Kind of.  Unless there was a single cloud in the sky or a low-flying bird…

A car parked in a parking lot

Description automatically generated

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t THAT bad…

LOCATION TRACKER

In my mind, the prototypical James Bond movie is Goldfinger.  Best Bond.  Best henchman.  Best theme song.  Best femme fatale.  It’s got it all.  And it’s got the best gadgets.  I’m not referring to Oddjob’s razor bowler (though I’m non NOT referring to it).  Rather, the tracking device Bond used.  Maybe MI6 had access to tracker technology in the mid-1960s that could ping a location around the entire world and still fit into the heel of a shoe, but Gulf Coast PIs didn’t have the same technology. 

What we did have was a sonic tracker.  Imagine a small metal box we called a beacon.  It would emit a constant hypersonic tone, undetected to the human hear.  We would install that covertly onto the target vehicle.  Then we would attempt vehicle surveillance.  If we lost visual contact, we would strap on a pair of headphones attached to a hyperbolic antenna.  We’d spin in a slow circle until we heard a squeal of sound.  That told us which direction the beacon was in, so long as we were within about a two-mile range.  No maps.  No glowing dot on a grid.  Just an ear-splitting tone and frantic driving.  And we thought we were high-tech to have that!

VHS Camcorder

A person holding a camera

Description automatically generated

Finally, a basic tool of a private investigator is his trusty video camera.  These days, covert cameras are nearly invisible, and you can get days of video storage in the palm of your hand.  But again, back in the day, we were a bit more limited.  The very first camera I used in my PI duties was a VHS camcorder.  Shoulder mounted, with about 20 minutes worth of video capacity.  Lovingly referred to as “the beast,” there was no covert recording with this bad boy.  Although once, in a fit of creativity, I did try to hide it in a microwave oven.  But that’s another story. 

A Final Note

This trip down memory lane had me thinking a lot about the early days of my career.  I started when I was ridiculously young, and I was fortunate to find several key mentors in the business who took me under their wing and taught me about the art of investigation, the business, and to one extent or another, about life.

A person smiling for the camera

Description automatically generated

One of the most prolific was a man named Julius “Buddy” Bombet, sometimes called “The Father of Modern Day Private Investigation.”  He was garrulous, bombastic, demanding, and very kind-hearted.  Once you got to know him!  He was highly respected in the industry, and the fraternity of investigators he’s influenced spans the globe.  His pupils and protégé’s today work in the investigations and security departments in Fortune 250, federal law enforcement, the largest security consulting company in the world, and even the nation’s very first private investigation agency.  Buddy opened professional doors around the world to me, parts of which still benefit my career to this day.  His international network of contacts was mind-bogglingly impressive, and one of the industry’s most prestigious awards is named for him.  No fictional character I could ever hope to write would surpass him.

Buddy passed away earlier this year, and no reminiscing would be complete without a tip of the fedora (or Sherlock’s deerstalker cap) to a titan of the field.  Thanks for everything, Buddy.

Interview with Elena Taylor about All We Buried

Please join me in welcoming Elena Taylor to the blog today, where she’ll tell us about her latest mystery, All We Buried, out this past April, from Crooked Lane Books. Full disclosure, I first read this book because I was asked to provide a cover blurb––which I was super happy to do, ‘cuz it’s outstanding. It’s always interesting to be in on the dawn of a new series, which this is, and it’s even more interesting to be able to dig into the thinking of an author who is shifting gears from an existing series into a new one, which, again, is the case with Elena and All We Buried. For all you readers out there looking for a new character and a new setting to get excited about, and for all you writers out there looking for some serious how-to on series writing, here you go:

1. Your new book, All We Buried, which is out on April 7, by the way, is the beginning of a new series for you, which of course heralds the creation of a new main series character. With All We Buried, which I hope is just the first of a long-running series, you introduce us to Sheriff Bet Rivers, a police officer who, while on leave from her ‘regular job’ in  L.A., finds herself stepping into the shoes of her recently deceased father as the sheriff in a rural county in the Cascades. Tell us where the idea for Bet came from, and why you decided to make her the way you did.

The idea for Bet started with the lake. I used to live in a neighborhood that had a very dark lake in the middle of it. While that lake wasn’t particularly deep or mysterious, there were stories about things hidden on the bottom. Because the water was so dark, there could be all kinds of things down there that no one would ever know about. So I started thinking about what could be hidden for years in cold, dark water, and how that represented the unconscious. We have things we bury in our minds, things from our history, that our conscious minds try to protect us from. So that’s where I started. Then I began to think about a character who lived in that world. I write crime fiction, so a law enforcement officer made sense. I wanted a small town, so a sheriff fit. Then, I wanted her to be isolated in numerous ways. Because isolation shows us how hardy a person is. Given our current situation, I think we all know that a lot better, how much we are dependent on other people for our well-being. So Bet started to take shape. I knew her name was Bet Rivers. I knew she’d just lost her father, her only parent. I knew she was tough, but kind. I knew she had secrets that were going to come to light. And I knew she had to solve a murder, which would relate, or at least parallel, events from the past. She began to form in my imagination, along with a story for her. Then I sat down to write.

 2. Sheriff Rivers is a departure from Eddie Shoes, the main character in your earlier series, which you wrote under the name Elena Hartwell. What was it like letting go of Eddie to build a completely new character in a new world?

I actually wrote the early drafts of Bet Rivers first. I had set this book aside when I wrote my first Eddie Shoes book, so the reality is Eddie was a departure, not Bet. When Eddie turned into a three-book deal, I was completely committed to her, but I never forgot about Bet. One day I brushed Bet off and and rewrote the draft I had, and those changes landed me with my amazing agent Madelyn Burt and Stonesong Literary Agency and found us a home with the brilliant Jenny Chen and Crooked Lane. So, to answer the question, both Eddie and Bet live fully in my mind all the time. I think about both even when I’m focused more fully on one. For me, they exist in the same world – they just don’t know each other. Eddie is over in Bellingham doing her thing, and Bet is in Collier doing hers. It’s like having two friends that aren’t aware of each other. I continue to “work” on my next Eddie book, by mulling over events in my mind, I’m just not actively writing her right now.

 3. Although your new book is a new beginning, I find it interesting that in both series your main character has a strong connection to a parent. In your Eddie Shoes Mysteries, Eddie and her mother are what your website refers to as “a quirky mother/daughter crime fighting duo.” In All We Buried, Bet’s father is deceased, but she clearly has a strong connection to him because the person he was in life, and in her life, remains a powerful influence on her. With so many fictional crime fighters as loners, what motivated you to create characters with such strong emotional bonds to a parental figure, something I find refreshing and endearing in a character, by the way?

Thank you! I love that you enjoy that aspects of both my characters. I think “loner” can be a bit of a misnomer. I’m a bit of a loner, despite being very gregarious and outgoing. I have very few people that I depend on, I’m incredibly independent that way. So first off, I think a “loner” can also be a person who just functions well independently. I think I’ve infused both Eddie and Bet with those characteristics. The idea that to be a great detective requires no close personal relationships works well, and I understand why it’s used so often, but for me I think having someone that matters in life actually makes the character and their situation more complex. Having to care for another person makes life richer but it also gives the character more to lose. It’s also more “real” to me, more genuine, to have characters struggle with the relationships that matter the most. Dysfunction makes for great fiction, but it’s not the only human characteristic that’s interesting. Real people struggle with actual relationships and I think we like to see that reflected in fiction as well. Plus, one of the thing that interests me most is human interaction and how we engage, so that’s of personal interest to me. That brings me to my own parents. In a lot of ways my mom is my best friend. She’s been a constant in my life. We travel together, we enjoy each other’s company, we trust each other. That’s rare. While she’s nothing like Chava, Eddie’s mom, their love for each other is a reflection of what I have with my mom. Bet’s father Earle is nothing like my own father, but the imprint of my father’s influence on my life is equally strong. I am a lot like my father. We are very much wired the same. Art represented life, however, as my own father died in October. I didn’t expect to have that parallel when I wrote the first draft so many years ago. It made the final rewrites incredibly poignant and will no doubt inform future books.

CREDIT MARK PERLSTEIN

 4. All We Buried centers around the discovery of a body in a mountain lake. It turns out this is a very unusual body of water. Without giving away the story, what can you tell us about lakes like this? Do such geological phenomena actually exist? What was your research process like?

Here in Washington State, we actually do have lakes very similar to the lake in All We Buried. Though I took characteristics from various different lakes, nothing in my novel is outside the realm of possibility with regards to how the lake was formed or what it looks like. Our Cascade Mountains are craggy and deep, built through violent volcanic eruptions. We have millions of acres of land, which no person has ever walked. A spine of mountains that stretch from Northern California up into Canada. There are thousands of unexplored bodies of water, from tiny glacier fed pools to dark lakes hundreds of feet deep can be found throughout our mountains. For research, I have personal, swum-and-boated-on-them experience with lakes such as the one I describe. I also found an expert at the University of Washington who answered some of my geological questions for me. Then, I did a lot of research into specific lakes in my state, some of which are very hard to get to, but which there is information available through the internet. Then – I wrapped it all up with a healthy dose of imagination. 

5. What advice would you give to writers who find themselves on the cusp of letting go of an old character to begin writing a new one?

You never think of it as permanent. It’s like taking a vacation with one friend, then spending the holidays with another. Characters are different, just like people, so we can enjoy the things that make each of them unique. 

 6. What’s next from the pen of Elena Taylor?

Currently, I’m working on a second book for Bet. I also have a fourth book for Eddie on the back burner and a suspense novel I’m dying to get back to. There may be a couple other things on my stove waiting for the right time to come forward. I think being a writer is like being a gourmet chef – there are a lot of dishes being prepared at one time, each at a different step, and we’re just waiting to serve the right course at the right time. With the correct wine of course!

Elena Taylor was interviewed for Murder Books by Roger Johns

Family Matters – Rivalries Between Agencies

The relationship between firefighters and cops is an interesting study of pigheadedness, pride, one-upmanship, and respect — although more often than not, that respect is cloaked in sarcasm and ribbing. Truth is, when the chips are down, both agencies know they’ll always be there to bail out the other.

Firefighters call cops blue canaries — a reference to the coal mining days when miners would take caged birds into the depths of the mine to determine if the air was dangerous. When cops enter a burning building without proper protection, firefighters shake their heads at our impulsiveness.  Cops call it heroic; firefighters call it reckless. The name calling goes downhill from there, but well, this is a family blog. The simple fact is cops and firefighters belong to one big emergency services family—and like family, squabbling and sibling rivalries abound. 

In 2008, I was a captain in Durango, Colorado. A restaurant fire had been reported in our historic downtown. The fire department controlled the scene while police officers assisted with traffic control and evacuation of buildings in the fire’s path. Nothing to get excited about.

An hour later, the windows of my office shook with a concussive blast. A gas line in one of the buildings had exploded while numerous firefighters were on the roof.  

Everyone on duty responded.

The explosion had blown out the fronts of three stores, peppering the street with shrapnel and transforming the fire scene into a rescue operation. The perimeter had to be expanded, buildings in the entire block evacuated, and routes cleared for ambulances and additional resources. Reporters on-scene for the fire were now clamoring for information on the explosion.

damage from a gas line explosion

I found the fire chief standing in an alcove juggling a cell phone and his radio while controlling the chaos around him. When he finished his conversation, he wrapped his arms around me in a quick but fierce hug, and briefed me.

A command post was established and we all went to work.

Fortunately, this story had a happy ending — and this isn’t a blog about a specific incident, but relationships.

That hug conveyed the humanity, fear, and duty of both our jobs. In those few seconds, the enormity of what almost happened manifested itself and we both gave thanks that although nine firefighters went to the hospital, none went to the grave. 

There was a t-shirt tacked to the wall in our sergeants’ office that read “God created cops because firefighters need heroes, too.” We joked that they “fought” fires but fires don’t run away — or punch back. We teased them about how heavy a television remote can be while they reclined in their lounge chair. Truth is we were mighty pleased when we needed them and they showed up.

There’s a slogan in the firehouse that goes something like this: “God created firefighters because cops need heroes, too.” I actually think they came up with the phrase first, but then again, firefighters have more free time to think this stuff up. All I know is that when someone had a gun and was threatening a firefighter, they seemed mighty pleased when we showed up on their calls.

I no longer wear the uniform, but that sense of camaraderie is something that never fades. In this time of COVID-19, the family has expanded again. I think we can all agree that there should be yet another slogan that reads: “God created medical personnel because everyone needs heroes.”

Thank you message to emergency responders

It takes all our emergency services working in concert to provide communities with comprehensive public safety. I’ve been in a situation where I was on the ground looking up at firefighter who was providing first aid to me. Lest you think medical personnel aren’t our wacky first cousins: at the ER, a nurse I knew well, came into the room holding a huge irrigation syringe filled with bright blue mouthwash and told me it was my tetanus shot. As I reached for my gun, she began laughing. 

Family. 

Stay safe.

Micki Browning

Kindness is Needed More Than Ever

By Brian Thiem

With the COVID-19 Pandemic affecting everything in our lives, I worry more than ever about our law enforcement officers. The job was tough enough before this crisis. Crime hasn’t slowed. Add demands to enforce vague and ever-changing emergency orders in communities where half the population opposes the guidelines, and the potential for violence is brewing.

I can only imagine how difficult it is for officers trying to protect and serve sick, frightened, and stressed citizens while worried about becoming infected themselves. Cops, along with other first responders and medical professionals, are becoming sick in record numbers. They fear infecting their families.

Now is the time to support and show kindness to our first responders and medical workers. I pray the officers’ leaders—the sergeants, lieutenants, and above—step up and demonstrate the support and kindness toward the working cops that they so desperately need right now.

As I racked my brain this morning for a topic to write about in this blog, the normal subjects of crime fiction writing and such seemed unimportant. When the “stay at home” orders started coming out across our nation, I thought it was a sort of godsend for my writing—an opportunity to spend more time writing with fewer distractions. However, as most other authors have discovered, I find it is incredibly hard to tap into my creative side when the world outside is in chaos.

The divisive fringes of our nation are more divisive. Social media feels meaner than ever. I thumbed through a file of old memories that I had saved to possibly write about some day. I found the following, written four years ago for an automated email group of active and retired Oakland police officers. The author remembered a day in 2004. I edited it a bit for brevity and anonymity.

Today is my son’s 11th birthday. Over cake and ice cream I was recounting some of the highlights of his early days with him. He had some significant health issues when he was born, and on about the 5th day of his life he was forced to make a trip to UC Davis for one of those life or death type surgeries. I advised my chain of command of my circumstances and my commander released me immediately. I raced home and drove the boy to UC Davis Medical Center. Within hours of my arrival I received two phone calls. The first from my District Sergeant. He was upset because in my haste to depart I had failed to turn in my patrol “stat sheet” for the day. God forbid! Hours later the second call was from my commander. The lieutenant called to check on the status of my son and to tell me, “You take as much time as you need.” His concern for my son’s well-being was genuine. No discussion about work, only questions concerning my family and an advisement that if I needed anything to call him directly. I’m certain he’s forgotten it after all these years, but I never will. Many a young leader today would do well to mimic the leadership qualities of that Lieutenant.

I remember all too well the challenge of getting the job done when I was a police sergeant and lieutenant. Too much crime and insufficient resources to combat it. Bosses constantly on my ass to do more. Politicians screaming whenever we made a perceived mistake.

But what will we be remembered for long after we retire? Will it be for achieving a 70% clearance rate as a homicide investigator? For reducing burglaries in our sector or thwarting a home invasion spree? For instituting the latest community policing program?

No. Citizens remember the officer who treated them with kindness when they were the victim of a rape or robbery. Citizens remember the detective who not only arrested the man that murdered their son but took the time to listen to their stories about their child’s life. And police officers remember those supervisors who cared about them more than they cared about pleasing their superiors or getting the next promotion.

To the working officers during this difficult time—it’s about helping the citizens and your brother and sister officers. To police supervisors and managers—it’s about taking care of your communities and especially taking care of the working cops. And finally, to the officer who had written about that day in 2004, thank you for remembering, and for reminding me that it is our acts of kindness for which we are remembered.

Remember This Day (Revisited) By Bruce Robert Coffin

I wrote this blog in 2016 to commemorate the arrival of my first novel. It was a day for much rejoicing and given our current plight I thought it might bring you all a much needed smile. Here is the original posting, warts and all. Be well.

Among the Shadows

“Remember this day.” That was Paul Doiron’s advice to me the day I received paperback copies of my first novel.

It was Saturday morning and the sun was shining and the temperature was nearing eighty as I loaded my pickup with trash, returnables, and a full recycling bin. It was getting close to eleven and I hadn’t really eaten anything you’d likely call breakfast. My plan was to hit the town dump then head back into North Windham to drop off the bottles and cans at Hannaford’s. After that I figured I’d swing by the post office, hoping for something other than bills, maybe even a bit of positive cash flow, before grabbing lunch at a fast food joint.

I held the door for a polite young woman then headed into the gloomy interior of the postal facility hoping for good news. Upon opening the box I discovered a new registration certificate for my wife’s car, a single piece of junk mail, and a yellow slip informing me that I needed to see the desk clerk for an item. Now I’ve seen these slips before. Usually deliveries are only kept at the counter when they’re either too big for the package bins or when all the bins are full. My mind raced. What could it be? Being early September, I surmised a pre-holiday fruitcake was probably out of the question. I hadn’t ordered anything recently and I couldn’t remember Karen telling me that she was waiting on anything. Although, maybe she had but I hadn’t been listening. Maybe she’d mentioned the purchase of some latest fashion, and instead of listening I’d glazed over like she does whenever I try and explain the inner workings of something mechanical, like the stereo remote. It was possible. The only thing I could imagine was the case of novels my publisher had promised to fulfill their contractual obligation. My pulse quickened. What was waiting for me behind the post office counter?

I dashed back to the lobby with my yellow card. Two clerks were working the counter, but the line was out to the door. My heart sank. What time does the North Windham Post Office close on Saturday? Damn. I couldn’t remember. Noon? That sounded right. I checked the time. 11:35. It was gonna be close. One by one I watched in horror as the two employees waited on my fellow Mainers. Each had a package or letters needing special handling, and wrapping, and weighing. And stamps! A collector was buying sheets. What the hell?

“Oops, hang on. That one needs another piece of packing tape,” a clerk said to one of the customers.

I was sure of it now. They were trying to kill me.

I checked my phone again. 11:40. OMG. I looked down and caught myself nervously tapping my right foot on the linoleum. I stopped.

“Yes, it has been a very dry summer, Mrs. Smith. How’s your garden?”

How’s her garden? Who cares? Jesus, if you’d just hurry up I’ll drive you to the grocery store myself and buy you all the vegetables you could ever want!

11:43.

I examined the yellow card in my hand. Read it again. I realized there was something familiar about it, this yellow card. Ah ha. I had it. The Yellow Card Man, from 11/22/63. Stephen King’s novel about the Kennedy assassination. My only hope was it didn’t foreshadow that I was about to step through some portal to the past, where I’d never find out what had been delivered.

11:46.

A customer finished at the counter and the line inched forward. I took one step. I thought again about the possibility of it being my novel. Was that even likely? I’d been in constant contact with both my editor and my publicist all week, and neither mentioned anything about the books being ready. Wouldn’t they have known? Of course they would. Maybe it wasn’t the books after all. Maybe I was being silly. How long does fruitcake keep? I looked down at my foot again. It was moving a little. I willed it to stop.

11:50. Another satisfied customer peeled off and walked past me. One of the clerks looked at her watch.

Oh, no you don’t, I thought. Nobody leaves until I get my package.

The next customer shuffled up to the counter in slow motion.

I was due to be next. I glanced left and right, watching each transaction closely. Who would finish with their customer first? The male clerk on my left or the female on my right? People read left to right. I was betting on left. Come on, come on.

11:55. I was beginning to feel a little like Oswald.

Finally, the customer at the window on my left was done and the male clerk waved me forward. Hot damn! I was working hard to hide my angst.

“May I help you?” the clerk asked.

“Yes,” I said, my voice cracking. “I received this slip in my mailbox.”

He took the slip from me. “What number?”

“What?” I said.

“Your box number. What is it?”

I couldn’t remember! I’d just emptied it and now I couldn’t remember the number!

I stared at the clerk. He stared back at me. What the hell? I couldn’t leave the line to go look. There were people behind me. They’d close before I ever made it back to the counter. I looked down at what I was holding in my hand. Mail. Ha! Correspondence from the state that had my address on it!

I recited my box number to him, fighting to stay calm. He repeated it back then walked out of sight. If this turned out to be clothes for my wife or a fruitcake, I’d be tying one on. Without question, the Yellow Card Man had reached his limit.

I watched in astonishment as the clerk rounded the corner with a large nondescript cardboard box. He had it on his hip and was struggling a bit with it’s weight. It certainly wasn’t a fruitcake. Too big for that. And clothes wouldn’t have been nearly as heavy.

Remain calm.

I watched him set the box atop the counter. A piece of paper was taped to the backside, but I couldn’t see what it said. I lowered my voice an octave trying to project cool. “Does it say who it’s from?”

He bent down to look. “Um, says it’s from HarperCollins, the publisher.”

My publisher! It was my books! Hallelujah!

“Man, I’ve been waiting for that,” I heard myself say from outside of my body.

I heard murmuring from the line behind me. Most likely someone thinking about driving me to the local bookstore to buy me some books if I’d only get moving.

“What is it?” the clerk asked.

I dropped yet another octave, moving from cool to nonchalant. “Oh, it’s just a bunch of copies of my debut novel, Among the Shadows.”

“What’s it about?” he inquired.

More murmuring.

“It’s a mystery,” I said, smiling proudly as I lift the box and headed for the door.

Spread Out and Still

The shirtwaist, a button-down blouse, served as a functional piece of ready-to-wear clothing for fashionable women of the turn-of-the-century era. Available in every color with a variety of embellishments, the shirtwaist became a symbol of female independence in a progressive era at the early stages of the women’s movement. Women, freed to work outside the home, wore them in their quest to better themselves.

            The production of shirtwaists became highly competitive. At the dawn of the 20th Century, Manhattan had 450 textiles factories filled with 40,000 workers, many of them female and recent immigrants. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory located on the top floors of the ten-story Asch building in Greenwich Village was but one of many operating at the time.

            On March 25th, 1911, a warm Saturday, just about quitting time at the factory, a fire broke out in the discarded rags and cloth scraps on the 8th floor of the building. The fire spread quickly across the wooden floor, to the tables and hanging cloth patterns. A few employees threw buckets of water in a vain attempt to douse the blaze. One shipping clerk dragged a hose through the stairwell only to discover that the hose had no water pressure. The terrified teenage employees, most speaking little English, jammed the stairwell and the single elevator attempting to escape.  

            The climbing fire transformed the 9th floor into a vision of Hell. Forced to choose between the advancing flames and the windows, many girls jumped. 145 employees died. (The 10th floor employees escaped by improvising a gangplank to a nearby building.) Joseph Flecher, a 10th floor worker, described seeing “my girls, my pretty ones, going down through the air. They hit the sidewalk spread out and still.”

            The fire department, upon their arrival, brought the blaze under control in eighteen minutes.

            The push to assign blame quickly began. Although the factory had a policy of no smoking, fire investigators reportedly picked up many cigarettes near the spot the fire allegedly started. The fire chief announced that the 9th floor workplace doors appeared to have been locked and that firemen had to chop their way through to get at the fire. Cries for justice against an industry which prized profit over safety grew.

            Approximately two weeks after the fire, a New York grand jury indicted the Triangle Shirtwaist owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, on charges of manslaughter. 

            Their trial began on December 4, 1911. Harris and Blanck were defended by Max Steuer. Few today have heard of the attorney Max Steuer. Defense attorneys such as Clarence Darrow have garnered the publicity of the era. The difference between the two men is simple, Darrow often worked for causes. Steuer worked for money.

            He certainly faced a hostile environment. On the trial’s second day, Harris and Blanck, upon exiting the elevator, were set upon by women calling them “Murderers, Murderers” and “Give us back our children.” Extra police were deployed during subsequent days.

            The prosecutor called over 100 witnesses. Kate Alterman in particular gave a vivid account of the ninth-floor inferno. She found the escape door locked and poignantly described the fate of a coworker, Margaret Schwartz, who collapsed and died near her. 

            Steuer’s cross-examination of Alterman broke all the traditional rules for trial advocacy. He asked her to tell her story again and again. Steuer had her describe the fire, reminding the jury of the details usually the prosecutor would want to reinforce:

            Q. It looked like a wall of flame?

            A. Like a red curtain.

            Q. Now, there was something in that you left out, I think, Miss Alterman. When Bernstein was   jumping around, do you remember what that was like? Like a wildcat, wasn’t it?

            A. Like a wildcat.

            Q. You left that out the second time. 

            Steuer’s emphasis on the repetition of phrases suggested to the jury that the witnesses had been over-coached. He challenged her credibility without attacking her directly. Combined with the other elements of the defense strategy, it worked. The jury acquitted the defendants in just under two hours.

            Harris and Blanck, surrounded by five policemen, fled the courthouse, using the judge’s private exit. They raced to the nearest subway station, a hostile crowd in pursuit.

            On March 11, 1914, three years after the fire, plaintiffs settled a score of lawsuits against the owner of the Asch Building. The average recovery was $75 per life lost.

The public outcry over the fire did usher in an era of improved building codes and labor reforms. Many of these originated with New York’s Factory Investigating Commission. One member, Frances Perkins, went on to become Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, the first female to serve in a presidential cabinet.

            Although the trial itself did not occur in March, I’ve made the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire my Trial of the Month for March. The tragic events occurred this month as well as the subsequent civil settlement. March is also Women’s History Month. The story of women entering the workplace is central to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The clothing of women, the deaths of immigrant girls assembling those blouses and, finally, the ascendance of Frances Perkins all played a critical role in the tragedy and its aftermath.

Mark Thielman