If you haven’t read the first novel in my series, you should. It set the stage for the books that followed. I named the debut novel Saint Maggie. It is a nickname bestowed on my central character by her husband, Eli. I liked the nickname and thought it would make a good book title. After all, the story is about a woman with a good heart who struggles to live what she believes. Much of this blog and the one that follows is information about the novel, where it came from, and the history behind it. Most of the content you'll read comes from the notes at the back of the novel with some embellishment. Hey, authors can’t help editing, correcting, and embellishing, and I am no exception.
Saint Maggie has its roots in a paper I wrote around 1995 while pursuing a Ph.D. in North American Religion and Culture at Drew University (Madison, NJ). I was enrolled in a tutorial with Dr. Leigh Eric Schmidt, who these days is Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor with the John D. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Wow. That’s a mouthful. Leigh is brilliant, and I was honored to have studied with him back in the day. Both he and another amazing professor, Dr. Kenneth Rowe, were my mentors during the process. And I am taking this opportunity to give them a shout out. So, in a most unscholarly fashion, allow me to say, "You guys rock!"
The tutorial itself was comprised of another student and me, and the topic was ministry and scandal. Leigh encouraged us to ferret out stories about ministers gone wild or bad, or perhaps wild and bad (not his words). In the course of my research, I happened upon a story about the Rev. Jacob Harden, a young pastor in Warren County, NJ. Harden apparently was a gifted preacher, charismatic, good-looking, and a ladies’ man to boot. That last bit is important because his unchaperoned moments with a young parishioner by the name of Louisa Dorland led to the inevitable shotgun wedding.
If the wedding was forced, the marriage was not any better. Louisa and Harden had a rocky relationship and, desperate to get out of a terrible situation, he murdered her in 1859.
Exactly why Harden resorted to murder haunted me. An unhappy, nagging wife and a shotgun wedding are difficult to contend with, but what on earth made this young minister think it was a good idea to sprinkle arsenic on apples and give them to Louisa eat? It makes absolutely no sense. Harden's career as a clergyman was taking off and most likely a bad marriage would hold him back, especially if word got out that Mr. and Mrs. Harden were not compatible. At the same time, a divorce would have destroyed his career. But, as Eli says, "Egad!" Didn’t Harden realize that murdering his wife not only would end his career but cut his own life short, as well?
Apparently, he didn’t realize it, or at least he was playing dumb. In an autobiographical pamphlet entitled Life, Confession, and Letters of Courtship of Rev. Jacob S. Harden. Harden states - incredibly - that he did not know poisoning was a capital offense and did not know arsenic was detectable. Was he really that stupid and/or naïve? Also, a man of the cloth, what part of Moses' fifth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" (or in a more contemporary translation, "You shall not murder"), did he not get? The real “why” behind his reasoning is unclear and most unsatisfying.
The strange, tragic story stayed with me. A few years after receiving my degree, I decided to write a novel based on the event. I always thought it would make interesting fiction and wanted to give it a try.
The grad school research paper itself had focused on how Harden was portrayed by the media of his day. I discovered that the further a newspaper was from Warren County, the more likely it was that Harden would be portrayed as wicked and evil. For example, The Warren Journal was nearly sympathetic, portraying him as a poor boy gone wrong. The Easton Evening Express (Easton, Pennsylvania), meanwhile, saw Harden as a moral monster but extended sympathy to his family. The New-York Times, on the other hand, took the hardest line, painting Harden as a devilish confidence man, portraying the parishioners who visited him as fools, and lambasting the carnivalesque crowd that gathered outside the Belvidere, NJ jail on the day of his execution. These primary sources helped me build Saint Maggie’s environment during Madison’s arrest, trial, and execution.
In the novel, I strayed from my findings and had Eli taking a harsh stand against the Jeremiah Madison. But then again, Eli has good reason to paint the young pastor as a "moral monster." We watch as Eli struggles with his feelings about Jeremiah, the power of the press, and Maggie's focus on the power of forgiveness and compassion.
On Wednesday, I'll write more about how the research on Harden formed the novel’s core, as well as about executions, how murderers are perceived, and how and why I created Maggie the way she is.
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).
Life, Confession, and Letters of Courtship of Rev. Jacob S. Harden, of the M.E. Church, Mount Lebanon, Hunterdon Co., N.J. (Hackettstown, N.J.: E. Winton, Printer, 1860)
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