Friday, October 29, 2010

The Case of the Vanishing Sheriff

Off to the right is old Robert Right Rea (pronounced "ray"), bidding us a faretheewell. His violent demise may never be accounted for, but one small mystery has been solved: that of why his name as sheriff of Jefferson County, Indiana, doesn't appear on the list of elected sheriffs that hangs on the wall of the current office.

According to Ron Grimes, archivist of the Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library:

The dates of his slave-hunting is not definitely known, but there is little record of his activities after Sept. 1854 when he lost in his bid to be elected Jefferson County Sheriff after a well publicized incident involving the arrest of abolitionist Delia Webster.  He owned and operated a hotel in Madison for some time after 1854 and died under suspicious circumstances in 1869.
We don't have the exact dates of his term as sheriff.  He was never elected to the office, but apparently replaced Sheriff William Wharton who resigned while in office in the early 1850's, and served until fall of 1854 when he lost the election.
 Case closed. For now.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Burying a Long-dead Corpse

He's a mystery man, a rogue sheriff who took the law in his hands and twisted it into what he wanted it to be.

"Could he be just a legend?" someone asked.

No. Reliable researchers swear there are newspapers on file that tell of his shenanigans. Another expert on local history told me how to get to his family burial site where his stone stands, proclaiming the reality of his existance. Yet, the large wall poster listing sheriffs of the county all the way back to 1815 makes no mention of the elusive man. But lists a younger man--perhaps a son or, more likely, a grandson--bearing the same name.

The newspaper journalist in me wants to check further into the story or Robert Right Rae Sr., but since time is short, having promised an agent that I'd complete this manuscript in five months, I've had to find another solution. After all, historians have been on his trail for years and discovered what I've shared here.

Several of you gentle readers shared your wisdom, and this is my solution.

History is a precious thing. It has suffered great harm at the hands of revisionists recently. I do not want to do further damage to the truth. Therefore, I have fictionalized the locations and the characters. In that way, I can base my scoundrel of a slave-hunting sheriff "loosely" on the man himself. I've renamed the towns and counties. To protect the guilty? No. To protect history.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Searching for a Dead Man

I know he lived. His tombstone stands among others of his family near the landfill. The report of his brutal murder appears in old newspapers. His corpse was found naked, with one sock on and one off. He had been bludgeoned on both sides of his head. The man inflicted violence on others all his life and died by violence. And he was supposedly the county sheriff in the mid-1800s.

Though the spelling of his name was a mystery to me for a long time, I finally managed to interview the right person who provided that: Robert Right Rae Sr.--not Wright Ray or Wray. But as for his holding the office of sheriff, I can find no evidence. I called the public library, the historical society, the Sheriff Department where he supposedly served more than a 150 years ago, and a local historical site, but to no avail. The Sheriff's office has on the wall a large poster that lists all sheriffs and their term years, but Rae is not listed, nor are there gaps in that record, according to the office staffer who looked. While he doesn't figure prominently in my work-in-progress, he is mentioned, so of course I want to be accurate.

What does a writer do when your research trail lands you flat up against a stone wall--a jail wall, at that? As I see it, I have two choices. I can keep searching for answers, squeezing in some time to travel to the location and pore over old newspapers for hours, or I can accept what I've gleaned from reliable sources and create a fictional character based on the elusive reality.

Brother and sister scribes, what would you do when faced with such a conundrum? Please leave a "Comment."

Friday, October 8, 2010

Reclaiming All Hallows' Eve

Reclaiming All Hallows'?

[Note: Whenever I refer to the Church, I mean the regenerated followers of Jesus Christ, not some brick-and-mortar structure.]

The Church has allowed Satan, the ancient enemy of Creator God, to steal, or at least taint, many of our celebrations. The man Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who gave his all to follow the Savior, has morphed into a jolly, rotund, caricature we call Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny continues to try to usurp the position of the resurrected Savior. Children are taught erroneously that Thanksgiving was a time when the Pilgrims thanked the Indians for helping them to survive in the wilderness.

All Hallows' Eve also has suffered at the hands of the enemy, though not as much as the afore-mentioned, since it was never purely Christian and has clearly pagan origins. Most agrarian cultures celebrate significant events in the seasonal growing cycle: harvest time, solstices and equinoxes, and planting time, for example.

The origins of All Hallows' Eve--Hallowe'en (don't forget the apostrophe)--go back 2,000 years to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The word means "end of summer." Pumpkins, apples, and various gourds were a significant part of that event. The Celtic new year began on November 1.

By 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered the Celts, and within the following 400 years, had integrated their own pagan festivals into Samhain, including Feralia, occurring in late October. Feralia was a day to commemorate the dead.

"Christianity" spread through the Celtic lands by the 800s. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III established that November 1 would be All Hallows' Day. According to Roman Catholic belief, All Hallows' Day was when souls were released from Purgatory and allowed to wander the Earth for 48 hours. Apparently, Pope Gregory was attempting to supplant Samhain with a Christianized version. That was Pope Gregory's M.O. He often claimed pagan celebrations and buildings and imposed a "Christian" significance on them. For example, he claimed the Pantheon (which was dedicated by the Romans to "all gods") for a Christian purpose. His All Saints' Eve was celebrated much as Samhain had been, with bonfires, parades, and people wearing costumes of saints, angels, and devils.

Today, many people claim that Hallowe'en is an innocent harvest festival, but a quick trot through the costume section of the local Wal-Mart tells a different story. With a glance backward to Samhain, Feralia, and, yes, All Hallows' Eve, one can see that the culture of death lives and thrives in today's celebration. It amazes me that many Christian parents continue to celebrate this time of ghosts, ghouls, goblins, and witches, labeling it "innocent fun." What is innocent about rubber masks that portray people who have been maimed, disfigured, frightened out of their minds, or murdered? Parents who encourage such "innocent fun" are opening the creaking door on the occult and nudging their wee ones over the threshold. Hallowe'en always has flirted with the macabre. May our All-wise God grant to those children the wisdom that their parents and grandparents lack.

Jesus says that He Is the Light of the World (John 8:12). As His followers, we are commissioned to reflect that light in today's dark world (Matthew 5:14).

As for Hallowe'en, we need not reclaim it; we never owned it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Best First Lines Ever?

American Book Review's website lists what the editors consider the "100 Best First Lines from Novels." 

Your assignment, should you agree to accept it, is to peruse the list and then come back here and comment as to whether or not you agree with the list. Why or why not? Which ones would you toss off the list? With what would you replace, so that the list would still contain one-hundred? What great fist lines have you read lately or in contemporary works?