Image: Andersontown, NJ, where Jacob Harden rented a room (and where he poisoned his wife).
Image from: Murder by Gaslight, published 23 September 2017
Earlier this year I wrote quite a bit about scenes and other information in the latest Saint Maggie book, A BALM IN GILEAD. So, I am decided to move on and write a different blog. This one is about how I started on my journey with Maggie.
While enrolled in a Ph.D. program in North American Religion and Culture, I took a tutorial. Tutorials are a one-on-one with a professor, who presents the student with subject matter and then guides the student through the research and writing process.
In this case, the tutorial was about scandal in ministry, and two of us had enrolled. The professor was Leigh Eric Schmidt, currently the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. After a brief introductory meeting, Dr. Schmidt turned us loose to go forth and do historical research about our scandal of choice.
Little did I know, but the research I was about to do would set me on an unexpected journey.
While I was nosing around the archives and other materials, I happened upon information about a young, charismatic, talented Methodist Episcopal Church minister by the name of Jacob Harden who had been appointed to a congregation that had lost membership. The congregation was on “mission status,” which was a polite way of saying the church was on the edge of dying.
Fortunately, Harden was a handsome young man and an engaging speaker, and the little church began to grow again. In fact, the congregation doubled in population during the young pastor’s first year.
Did I mention that Jacob Harden was single? He was and so he also became the object of ambitious mothers who thought that he would make the perfect husband for their daughters.
As the story goes, one mother, a Mrs. Dorland, invited Harden to celebrate New Year’s Eve with her family. During the evening, the entire household abruptly left and went upstairs to go to bed, leaving Harden and the daughter, Louisa, all alone in the parlor, which in the 1850s, was a big no-no. After all, because no one was around, they did not know what went on between the couple. Anything could have happened! After more "alone time," Harden and Louisa were forced into a shotgun wedding.
Predictably, the marriage was not a happy one. Harden wanted out and Louisa was miserable - but divorce was out of the question. Harden eventually decided to dissolve the relationship in a manner that only was illegal, but shocking. To be blunt, he poisoned her. He then was put on trial for murder, the jury found him guilty, and sentenced him to death.
If you wish, you may read the original research paper by clicking on https://www.squeakingpips.com/the-story-behind-saint-maggie.html But, be aware that the paper looks at the way in which the newspapers of the era covered the story. It’s grad school geekery on full display!
After grad school, the story stayed with me. I began to wonder how I might go about fictionalizing it.
Around 1999 or 2000, I started writing and making changes in the fictionalized version. For instance, although Harden rented a room from a member of the congregation, the setting felt claustrophobic in the fictionalized story. I ended up creating a boarding house run by a good-hearted widow with two teenage girls.
I also felt that the pastor in the story should not be devious or amoral. Rather, he should be confused, desperate, and perhaps even misled.
The original event is still shot throughout the story. In SAINT MAGGIE, the Rev. Jeremiah Madison is handsome, charismatic, and an inspiring preacher, just like his real-life counterpart. In fact, Maggie’s daughters (especially Frankie) develop a crush on Jeremiah. But he has eyes instead for Leah Beatty, Maggie’s niece, a relationship that is encouraged by Maggie's brother Samuel.
However, the novel deviates from the historical event and becomes a bit of a mystery. When a scandal involving Jeremiah shakes the town, Maggie begins to sense that something has gone terribly wrong and looks to uncover the truth.
My studies in religion and culture allowed me to create Maggie as a credible historical character. A widow, she is a faithful Methodist who is serious about Jesus’ command to love others. I also dove into 1860s life, describing Sunday worship services, camp meetings, funerals, and even wash days.
To balance Maggie’s religiosity, I added Eli Smith, a boarder who both lives and publishes his penny weekly newspaper in the old caretaker’s house on her property. A former Quaker, Eli is a religious skeptic and a bit impulsive. From the beginning of the novel, though, he and Maggie clearly are sweet on each other and eventually marry.
To add to the drama of the era, Maggie’s property has a Underground Railroad station hidden on it. A Black couple, Emily and Nate Johnson, are Maggie’s closest friends and have invited her to participate in the illegal activity. Ex-Quaker Eli, true to his roots, also takes part in managing their station and the people traveling through it.
At the time of SAINT MAGGIE’S publication in 2011, I thought I would move on to different subject matter in my second novel.
I was wrong.
That story continues in the next blog.
In the meantime, practice love and peace.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder