Saturday, May 29, 2010

Secrets & Mysteries

The main characters in mystery fiction should have at least three or four secrets that are revealed through the course of the book, according to the instructor of a writing workshop I recently attended.

I've been thinking about this for weeks, both in terms of constructing fiction plots and also how our secrets can change people's lives -- and even history. In this age of instant communication and everything shared on reality TV and through social networking, it's difficult to believe that anyone keeps secrets. But they do.

Not long ago I learned a family secret so shocking that I am still flabbergasted that none of my relatives alive today knew about it either. The entry in the official City of Portsmouth 1886 Death Ledger tells the basic facts:

Margaret Blute: DOD: December 25, 1886; 34 years old 10 months and 28 days; Birthplace: Portsmouth, NH; Father: William Quinn; Mother: Johanna Crowley; Father's Birthplace: Ireland; Mother's Birthplace: Ireland. Cause of Death: Kicking and Bruising.
What the ledger doesn't reveal is the name of the person who inflicted the kicking and bruising: my great-great grandfather. According to newspaper reports from that time, Patrick Blute murdered his wife, Margaret, in a drunken rage on Christmas Day 123 years ago in the presence of their four children, one of whom was my father's grandmother.

My father's half-sister discovered the details while doing genealogical research and handed me copies of the original news stories while I was at her house in search of old family photos.

I called my parents. Neither knew about the murder. Nor did my aunt or their cousins. When I expressed surprise that something like this was kept quiet for so long, my father noted that it isn't exactly the type of information one shares at the dinner table. Perhaps, but you'd think someone might have been whispering about the murder at some point.

Now, the only details we have are from the official death record and the newspaper reports, which are grim but fascinating. “Christmas Revelry Ends in Murder” proclaimed one headline under the heading “Shocking Tragedy.” According to the reports, the “pair have had a reputation of living unhappily together, owing to strong drink.”

Patrick Blute, 42, was described as a strongly built teamster and “valued employee of the Eldredge Brewing Co.” Margaret, 35, weighed about 125 pounds and her body showed scars of “old healed-up wounds.”

The newspapers contain varying accounts of her death, although most indicate she died of her injuries after being beaten and thrown down the stairs. According to one witness, Patrick Blute calmly admitted he had been beating his wife for years and told the marshal: “I don't care what you do with me, I just as soon you'd take me down to the wharf and throw me overboard.”

We also know they had four children, ages 2 to 12. One of them was Julia, my great-grandmother who died a year after I was born. I wonder today who raised her after her mother was murdered and her father sent to prison. There is no one alive to tell us. But we do know her father's fate from this 1891 news report:

"Patrick Blute, who on the night of Christmas day, 1886, murdered his wife by kicking her to death in the most brutal manner in their miserable home at the Creek, and was sentenced to state prison for 20 years for the crime, died in prison on Friday morning. Blute recently petitioned the governor and council for a pardon, on the grounds he was dying of consumption, could not live but a few weeks at the longest, and wished to spare his children the disgrace of having their father die in the penitentiary. His request was very properly refused by the governor and council; his sentence in the first place was ridiculously disproportioned to his offence (sic), and if his innocent children are to bear any disgrace, it was his crime and not its punishment which brought it upon them.”

As a mystery writer, their story intrigues me. But as their descendant, it unnerves me to realize I walk the same streets and their DNA is inside me. I think about them whenever I drive by the location where the murder occurred, although their tenement was replaced by a commercial enterprise years ago.

I also find it interesting that the murderer's grandson later headed the police force in their city, my cousin served as a police officer in the next town, and now my child—their great-great-great grandson—also is a policeman.

In the writing world, we might call that an ironic twist.


MaxWriter said...

Whew, Pat! That's some story. Thanks for sharing it.

ALittleGuitar said...

great tale!