Monday, October 27, 2008

Take A Little Salt With Your Facts

     Many people say they never read fiction, because "it's not real. What's the point of it?" They'd rather spend their book time on history, "which really did happen."
     Is that a fact?
     John Stark, Scott Joplin's publisher for "Maple Leaf Rag," comes across in historical accounts as an honest and honorable man, blunt-spoken, hard-working, a pillar of society. But when I read in They All Played Ragtime (the widely- and rightly-acclaimed first comprehensive history of ragtime music) that Stark had married a New Orleans girl when he was 24 and she, 13, I had trouble representing Stark in The Ragtime Kid strictly according to history. Even allowing for the fact that the marriage took place in 1865, I couldn't help feeling there was a kink in Stark's nature no one had picked up on. So I decided to look further into the situation.
     In a 1915 military pension application, Stark stated his wife was 15 when he married her, and also that they were married in 1864 (contrary to every other document that's been uncovered), as opposed to 13, as reported in TAPR.
     John Stark's claim was supported by information on Sarah Ann Stark's death certificate, in which her son, Will, represented that his mother had been born on Oct 29, 1849. That would have made Sarah 15 at the time of her marriage.
     However, in an affidavit, sworn before a New Orleans Justice of the Peace on Feb 18, 1865, Mrs. Mary Casey gave consent to the marriage of Sarah Ann Casey, a minor of eighteen years, to John Stark. Another affidavit, signed the same day, before Justice of the Peace, M. Weisheimer (what a great name), bore affirmation by two witnesses that "they are well acquainted with John Stark and Sarah Ann Casey, and know them to be above the age of twenty-one."
     At that rate, I thought, the bride would have been menopausal by the time of the ceremony.
     But a copy from the New Orleans Birth Records Index stated that Sarah Ann Casey, daughter of William and Mary Eagan Casey, was born on Oct. 13, 1848. That would have made her 16-1/3 years old when she married Stark.
     Family recollections nearly a century after the event gave rise to the statement that Sarah Ann had been 13 at the time of her marriage. Stark's pension application was full of factual errors. Will Stark did not even know his maternal grandmother's name, and may never have known his mother's actual birth date. And the affidavits could well have been misrepresented to get around inconveniently-illegal youth on the part of the bride-to-be.
     So, once I decided to give the most credit to the Birth Records Index, which likely was filed reasonably soon after the baby's birth, the kink in my fictional John Stark vaporized.
     Not all history is carved in stone - and what is, we usually don't understand,anyway.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Very Satisfying Writer's Moment

     It's always nice when a reader tells me s/he enjoyed one of my mysteries, but some compliments really stand out.
     A woman home-schooling her thirteen-year-old son told him to read the first part of The Ragtime Kid, then report to her on the use of language in the material. When the boy finished that portion of the book, though, he didn't want to go on to his next assignment because where he'd stopped, a group of bigots seemed to be getting the upper hand, and he couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen. His mother agreed. A while later, her son ran up to her, waving the book, and shouted, "All right! Those sons of bitches got exactly what they deserved."
I'll be grinning for a while.