While I often say that the Saint Maggie series is about hope, love, forgiveness, and faith, it also has a darker side. The negative aspects of being human turn up in all the novels with subjects as diverse as the Battle of Gettysburg, soldiers with PTSD, the treatment of the mentally ill, and industrialization, to name a few. In the original novel, Saint Maggie, the darkness emerges in murder, trial, execution, and how people respond to these things.
When an execution is carried out these days, only a select few are chosen to watch and to be witnesses. While the press may interview the victim’s family members about the murderer’s death and while there may be articles focusing on forgiveness, pain, vengeance, and anger, it is rare for us to gather around the penitentiary, unless there is a protest.
By the mid-nineteenth century, public executions in New Jersey were illegal, just as they are today. But with regard to high-profile murder cases things were quite different.
The Rev. Jacob Harden’s execution was like a rock festival. It was a carnivalesque party. Officials had distributed tickets to control the number of people who could witness the murderer’s death – but we know that some tickets were scalped, and “unauthorized” individuals somehow got into the proceedings. And, outside the jail, people were selling souvenirs to the massive crowd of curiosity seekers that had invaded the town of Belvidere, the county seat where the trial was held.
The attitudes expressed in news articles of the time reveal the ambiguous and confusing emotions that accompanied this particular murder trial and execution. Also, Karen Halttunen’s excellent essay, “Early American Murder Narratives: The Birth of Horror,” gave me insight into how early-to-mid-nineteenth century Americans responded to murder, trial, and execution.
We probably have been struggling to understand why people commit murder as long as humans have been around. How often do we hear of a heinous crime committed by a person who inevitably is described by neighbors as quiet, polite, friendly, and private? We desperately want to paint the murderer as a soulless monster but cannot rectify the murderer's violent actions with the more benign aspects of his or her personhood. The individual may be or appear to be charming, friendly, and caring, and yet do horrific things to other human beings. So, we often label the murderer as a hypocrite, liar, mentally ill, or perhaps even possessed (Halttunen). And yet, somehow, someway, our explanations and diagnoses are not satisfying. Something feels wrong. Something is missing.
Perhaps our Puritan forebears were correct. Their public executions almost always included a sermon reminding the crowd that any of them also could commit a horrible crime (Halttunen). You know. There but for the grace of God. But we don’t want to believe that we personally could ever do such terrible things. It is far easier to see monstrous acts as committed by someone who is “other.” They are not, cannot, should not be like "us."
A significant storyline in Saint Maggie is a community leader who has the trust of the entire town but who does a reprehensible thing. How do the town's folks respond to it? Is forgiveness at all possible when someone has let them down in such an appalling way? Having a central character (Maggie) who knows the murderer allowed me to wrestle with these questions.
The history behind my story says that Jacob Harden rented a room from a family. I could not find any details about his landlord and landlady. I don't know how they felt about what their pastor did. But for my version of the story, I needed a protagonist who tries to look at the world through the lens of love. I decided it would be more effective to tell the story through the eyes of a woman who ran a boarding house, rather than one who simply rented an empty room to the minister. Having a widow with two daughters alone with my minister, Jeremiah Madison, was too claustrophobic. I needed more space. So, Maggie became the landlady of a rooming house containing four boarders, her two daughters, and two close friends (Nate and Emily Johnson).
Another thing I avoided was having Maggie fall in love with Madison. I did not want her to meet Louisa Dorland Harden’s fate. It was a practical decision. If Maggie got killed off, through whose eyes would the story be told? I needed and wanted a central character with conflicted feelings toward the minister, but one who would not be involved romantically. So I gave Maggie a suitor. Enter Eli Smith, the newspaperman who rents Maggie’s outbuilding as his print shop and living quarters. At the outset of the novel, we learn that he and Maggie, after five years of friendship, have developed deeper feelings for each other. I made Eli pudgy, short, and bespectacled. Not your ordinary historical fiction hero, but one who contrasts nicely with the tall, handsome, and charismatic Jeremiah Madison.
To put up another barrier to romance between Maggie and Jeremiah, I placed her at age 39 and his at 25. Yes, I know older women can fall for younger men. But the idea of Maggie as a cougar makes me fall over laughing. No, she would be attracted to someone nearer her age (Eli). It also gave me the opportunity to have Eli mistake Maggie's maternal and friendly feelings for Jeremiah as something else. He wrestles with his own feelings of dislike and jealousy, things that threaten to creep into the editorials and articles he writes for his newspaper.
Since my central characters would not fall in love with Jeremiah, he needed to become entangled with another person. That person happens to be Maggie’s niece, Leah, and it worked for me. The relationship between Jeremiah and Leah more or less followed the historical storyline.
I’ll conclude on Friday with some background into race relations, feminism, and bad behavior by the churchy people in Saint Maggie.
Halttunen, Karen. “Early American Murder Narratives: The Birth of Horror” (The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History. Ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993).
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