Monday, March 18, 2013

Jean Henry Mead has a new book out, NO ESCAPE: THE SWEETWATER TRAGEDY! What's more, she graciously agreed to tell us about it on my blog. So here we go. Read all about the book, and then read the book!



Writing an Historical Mystery/Suspense Novel




by Jean Henry Mead

I was researching a Wyoming centennial history book during the mid-1980s, by reading 97 years’ worth of microfilmed newspapers. During that period I read about a young woman named Ellen “Ella” Watson, who had been hanged by cattlemen along with homesteader James Averell. The lynchers claimed that the pair had been running a rural bawdy house and taking cattle for Ellen’s services. 

They called Ellen“Cattle Kate” and vilified her by claiming that she was not only a prostitute but a rustler. The Cattlemen’s Association, headquartered in Cheyenne, controlled a local newspaper and reports of the hangings were published worldwide, resulting in considerable condemnation that a woman had been hanged, despite the cattlemen’s claims.

I was mystified by the newspaper reports of 1889, when the murders took place, and decided to write a novel about it, someday. When I learned that Thomas Watson, Ellen’s father, believed the lies, I thought they must be true. A number of writers had written about the hangings from the cattlemen’s point of view, and western films had been produced, portraying Ellen as a pistol packing outlaw. That didn’t jibe with news reports from the Casper Weekly Mail, which published James Averell’s “letters to the editor,” complaining that greedy cattlemen were gobbling up all of Sweetwater Valley, so they could graze their cattle on government land, without paying for it.

James and Ellen had legally filed homesteads under the Desert Land Act, which happened to be located in Albert Bothwell’s hay meadow. Aha, I thought, there’s more to this story than the cattlemen claim. But finding out more about it would require more time and travel than I could spare at that time. Later, George Hufsmith’s nonfiction book was released and I was able to write my novel. Hufsmith had been commissioned to write an opera about the hangings, and was so intrigued that he spent the next 20 years researching and interviewing residents of Sweetwater Valley, who had intimate knowledge of the people involved as well as the real reason for the hangings
.
To my surprise, Hufsmith discovered the wedding license that James and Ellen had filed in Lander, Wyoming, and the fact that they kept their marriage secret, so the government wouldn’t take Ellen’s homestead land away from her. Only single women could own homestead land. 

Because I didn’t want to end my novel with the Averells' deaths, I wrote the story mainly from the viewpoint of a single woman homesteader, a neighbor of the Averells. From my research I learned that some 200,000 single women filed for homestead land of their own. Many of them married before they proved up on their land, but quite a few persevered, and even thrived, alone on their land.




25 comments:

Alice Duncan said...

Thanks for telling us about NO ESCAPE, Jean! Love the story.

Patricia Johns said...

How interesting! Sounds like a great read!

Alice Duncan said...

Thanks for stopping by, Patricia!

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks for featuring my new novel, Alice.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, Patricia. I hope you get a chance to read the book.

Alice Duncan said...

You're more than welcome, Jean!

Anonymous said...

How very interesting, thanks for sharing with us!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Alice and Jean,

This is such a fascinating account! I'm certain the novel is excellent as well. Thanks for sharing with us.

Mona Karel said...

What an interesting blog, thanks for sharing your research. Of course all sorts of questions pound around my head
To prove up did they have to live on the homestead for a certain period of time or did they also have to make continuous improvements?
Of course this also illustrates the arrogance of those who believe they have "the right" when they want something someone else has.

Susan Oleksiw said...

This is a terrific story about the dark sides of our history, the way people try to hold onto something not their own, the fate of those who challenge entrenched interests. Thanks for sharing this.

Sharon Ervin said...

I always "write to a premise," have a goal/point. This is a marvelous premise and it sounds as if you handled it beautifully. Just your usual.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Jean, I've written blog posts about Cattle Kate and also did a workshop on her once as part of western women outlaws. In doing research, I found a website by a relative that proclaimed her innocence and the greed of the large ranchers. I truly believe that is the case, and that she and her husband were wrongly attacked and hanged. Such a tragedy, but greed is powerful. I'll look forward to reading your book.

ANNETTE said...

I love the sound of this story. Thank you for sharing this interview with us, Alice.

Alice Duncan said...

Thanks for visiting and commenting, everyone, and thanks to Jean for agreeing to tell the story here!

Jean Henry Mead said...

Mona, after considerable resarch, I learned that a homesteader had to stay on the land seven consecutive months, provide water to the homestead and build a dwellling fit for habitation. I marvel at the single women homesteaders who actually did all that and proved up on their land.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Anonymous, Jacqueline, Susan, Sharon and Annette, thank you for your kind words. I hope you get a chance to read the book.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Carolyn, after George W. Hufsmith's book was published, I can't imagine why there are still poems, stories and films depicting Ellen Watson-Averell as a soiled dove, rustler, and outlaw. I had an argument with her great nephew in a feed store he owned. He still thinks his great aunt was all of the above. But her own father believed the lies that cattlemen spread about her.

Sheila Deeth said...

I love it when history and story combine.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Shheila, I love to write historical novels because the plot is already laid out for you. :)

Arletta Dawdy said...

Intriguing post, Jean and Alice. I look forward to reading NO ESCAPE.

Charleydog said...

Sounds like a great story, especially since it is historically-based.

Jean Henry Mead said...

It's a story that haunted me for nearly 30 years, Charleydog. I still think about an innocent young couple who lost their lives needlessly.

marja said...

This is a book I know I have to read. It sounds fascinating. Sometimes real life stories just grab us and won't let go.
Marja McGraw

Jean Henry Mead said...

The story sure grabbed me, Marja, and wouldn't let go for over twenty years. :)

Charleydog said...

It must be amazing to be able to write fiction. Personally, I am a technical writer and am comfortable writing "how to" procedures - preference being servicing construction equipment. Congratulations, Alice, on your author's voice.