Identical twins made successful moonshiners

People often ask where writers get their ideas. The answer is “everywhere.” Here’s one specific example:

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I read this marvelous article in the Richmond newspaper about twin brothers who made moonshine in the 1950s and 60s when it was illegal in Virginia. Being identical twins helped when they reached a courtroom, because witnesses couldn’t identify the accused for certain. Which brother was it? They couldn’t say for sure. That gives me a good idea for a plot device: having identical twin bootleggers beat the rap because no one could tell them apart. Read the whole article here:

http://www.richmond.com/life/bill-lohmann/article_ab06ec1e-04a9-5914-8d81-82e6a71a9d64.html

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Published in: on January 28, 2017 at 1:13 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Good Bootlegger: Roy Olmsted

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When I created my bootlegger character David, I had in mind the real bootlegger, Roy Olmsted. I learned about him in Daniel Okrent’s LAST CALL: “Olmsted had entered public life as a promising member of the Seattle Police Department, praised by the department’s very dry chief as ‘quick and responsive . . . bright and competent.’ But Olmsted’s competence extended beyond ordinary police work, and while still a member of the department . . . he began running liquor from Canada. Roy Olmsted was handsome, personable, intelligent, and remarkably ethical. He never diluted his imports or blended them with industrial alcohol as so many other bootleggers did, and he dealt in such volume that he was able to undersell every other bootlegger in the Pacific Northwest. . . he ‘avoided the sordid behavior of others in the same business–no murder, no narcotics, no rings or prostitution or gambling’–and as a result, ‘many people could not regard him as an authentic criminal.'”

What happened to Roy? Like my fictional David, he served time in prison–four years. President Roosevelt later pardoned him. Not sure whether a pardon is in David’s future . . .

Published in: on December 30, 2016 at 9:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Great Houdini as an author

Coincidentally, the great magician, Harry Houdini, wrote a book that was published in 1924, the year that the mystery I am currently writing takes place. And it pertains directly to my topic: Spiritualism.

41WET3XBKHL._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_Houdini spent most of his adult like debunking Spiritualism, a quasi-religious movement that is based on communication with the dead through mediums. It is, of course, shot through with fakes, then and now. Houdini’s thirty-five-year mission was to “out” the fakes whenever he could. One of the ways he did this was by writing a book, A MAGICIAN AMONG THE SPIRITS.

To my delight, Houdini also describes many of the tricks that he discovered mediums using. I’ve incorporated some of those in my novel, which concerns a young woman who works as a shill for a Spiritualist medium. 

MV5BYTIxY2M2YjgtNjQzOS00ZTI3LWFhYTMtNDAxMDU1MjZkN2NlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTU3NTAwNDI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Again, coincidentally, there is a new series coming up this week on Fox about Houdini and his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the title is “Houdini & Doyle.” They solve mysteries together in England–Houdini being the pragmatist and Doyle being the ardent believer in Spiritualism, which he was. (Poor man, he was totally duped; he also believed the faked photographs of fairies were real.) The premise is accurate–they really were friends but were in complete disagreement about the authenticity of mediums. I can’t wait to see it! 

(And be sure to note what the REAL Houdini and Doyle looked like . . . )

Published in: on April 30, 2016 at 8:49 am  Comments (3)  
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Looking Up People and Places in Roaring Twenties

Before there were telephone directories, there were city directories, which listed (or tried to list) every person in the city by address and occupation. Needless to say, these are great resources for historians doing research in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I found the perfect one for my story–Polk’s Chicago Directory of 1923, the exact one that would have been on the shelf of most Chicago businesses and in all libraries. Few individuals owned copies. With this, I’ve been able to understand how my main character, Maddie, is able to investigate certain people. 

1923So I was confident about writing this short passage:

“If we could find those men—we might learn something from them. We know their names.” I checked my notes and added, “Samuel Brown and Earl Smith.”

“How we gonna find two men with names like that in a city this size? Chicago’s got more than a million people, and I’ll bet half of them are named Brown and Smith. Samuel and Earl are pretty common too.” To prove his point, he reached for Carlotta’s Chicago Directory and handed it to me.

I flipped a few pages and started counting. “There are eleven pages of Smiths but only twenty-four Earl Smiths. And . . . and . . . geez, you’re right. Fifty-one Samuel Browns!” I sighed. Although most names had occupations listed with them, we didn’t know what sort of work the two men did. None had telephone numbers, of course—these were people, not businesses. I racked my brain for a way past this roadblock. Knocking on that many doors would keep me busy until Easter. Supposing Brown and Smith were relatives—cousins, say, or in-laws—might they live at the same address? I crosschecked the two lists without success. Freddy was right. Stumped, I could only say, “Well, here’s an idea: the police know who they are, because they questioned them after the drowning.”

“You’re gonna walk into the police station and ask them for their files?” Freddy snorted.

Published in: on April 17, 2016 at 8:38 am  Comments (1)  
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“Sign a Song of Gangsters:” A Gangster Map

When I found this gangster map of the Chicago gangland territories in the 1920s, I was thrilled. It is a big help to me as I’m trying to figure out which gang operated in which area. (Click on the map to make it bigger.)

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Published in: on April 2, 2016 at 2:03 pm  Comments (1)  
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Getting Arrested in the 1920s

The mystery I’m currently working on (one-third complete so far!) is set in Chicago in 1924. I have a scene where a speakeasy is raided and the patrons are arrested and taken to the police station. It’s night time. What do the police look like? What does a paddy wagon look like? What does the inside of a police station look like in those days, and at night? I compiled a few pictures to help me describe the scene:

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Published in: on March 11, 2016 at 4:52 pm  Comments (5)  
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Little Caesar by William R. Burnett

220px-LittleCaesarPSome people call Little Caesar the first modern crime novel. That may be. I read it for another reason: it was written in 1929 from the point of view of gangsters in Chicago, the site of my next mystery. I learned a lot I can use in my story.

What interested me most was the language. My story is set in 1924 and Little Caesar was written in 1929, but that’s close enough for me to rely on the language. Here are some phrases I’ll try to work into my narrative: 

*What’s the dirt?

*Hand the boy some dough and he’ll spill the news.

*swell people (for rich people)

*gangsters look down on “saps” and “softies”

*dame (I wasn’t sure this term was in use quite that early)

*She’s an up and up girl

*She’s the real thing

*a cup of Java

*hijackers

Edward_g_robinsonI also picked up a few tips on gangster clothing. One of the gangsters, Rico, was described as wearing a striped suit, “dead black with a narrow pink stripe. The color scheme was further complicated by a pale blue shirt and an orange and white striped tie adorned with a ruby pin.” Gives me some idea about how they dressed.

The book was made into a movie of the same name in 1931, starring Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. I watched that too.

Published in: on January 30, 2016 at 8:49 am  Comments (4)  
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Champion Hooch Hunter

Izzy_Einstein_and_Moe_SmithNew York’s prohibition officer Izzy Einstein styled himself the “champion hooch hunter.” He and his partner, Moe Smith, had no background in law enforcement, but who needed that during Prohibition? They developed their own techniques and methods for catching bootleggers–techniques that involved impersonation, such as my character, Jessie, would use in her crime solving. Here are a few:

  1. The impersonator method: Pose as someone who would not be a suspected, such as football players, Texas Rangers, streetcar conductors, gravediggers, fishermen, ice deliverymen, opera singers, and a Yiddish couple. Buy a drink, bust the place. 

    Izzy and Moe disguised as a Yiddish couple.

    Izzy and Moe disguised as a Yiddish couple.

  2. The emergency method: One would jump into icy water, his partner would rush him into a speakeasy and plead for a drink for a freezing man. Bingo.
  3. The straight-forward method: Go into a speakeasy, order a drink, pour some into a small bottle in a pocket, then arrest everyone who served them. 

It worked. Izzy and Moe were perhaps the most successful and notorious prohibition agents in New York City. 

Published in: on January 23, 2016 at 12:05 pm  Comments (2)  
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Lecture at the Downton Abbey Exhibit

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 On Nov. 14, I gave this talk at the Virginia Historical Society as part of their Downton Abbey exhibit, “Dressing Downton.” My presentation was titled Weird-but-True Things Most People Don’t Know about the Roaring Twenties. The VHS always records its speakers, so if you’d like to hear/see it, just click on the title. It’s a light, but serious, lecture that lasts 40 minutes (plus a Q&A). In it, I share some of the surprising things I learned during my research for my Roaring Twenties mystery series, things I have incorporated into my novels. 

 

Who were the most ardent supporters of Prohibition?

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When I examine the spectrum of Prohibition supporters, the only conclusion I can draw is that it was a very odd group.

flo_klan1021_8colThe most ardent supporters of Prohibition included gangsters, the Anti-Saloon League, Methodists, Baptists, the Ku Klux Klan, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Coca Cola, and theater owners. These last hoped that emptying saloons would fill their theaters. It didn’t happen.

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Published in: on November 14, 2015 at 8:57 am  Leave a Comment  
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