Kaitlyn Dunnett here. First, an announcement. There are FREE BOOKS associated with this post. Keep reading to find out more. And now, back to your previously scheduled program:
Recently, I was going through some material that, once upon a time, was online at www.KathyLynnEmerson.com, the website of my “evil twin,” when I came across a piece I wrote several years ago around the publication date of the fourth book in my (or rather, Kathy’s) historical mystery quartet set in 1888. These novels (Deadlier than the Pen, Fatal as a Fallen Woman, No Mortal Reason, and Lethal Legend) feature Diana Spaulding, a journalist working for a New York City scandal sheet, and Ben Northcote, a physician from Bangor, Maine, as a sleuthing couple.
“You can’t get there from here” is the tag line of an old joke here in Maine, but in writing Lethal Legend I discovered there was even more truth to that saying back in the 1880s than there is today. For reasons relating to the plot of the mystery, I had to move Diana and Ben from Bangor to various nearby locations—Belfast, Bucksport, Ellsworth, Islesboro (spelled Islesborough in those days) and a fictional island in Penobscot Bay. You’d think this would be easy. The distances aren’t great—all in the twenty mile range. But disputes over railroad right of ways and the geographical intricacies of the Maine coast meant that things were seldom as simple as they appeared on paper.
I pride myself on being as accurate as possible when I write my historical mysteries. That means I can’t change a county border just because it is in the wrong place. The county line between Waldo and Hancock Counties happens to run right down the middle of the Penobscot River and out into Penobscot Bay. Yes, I invented an island, but for a number of reasons it ended up being on the other side of the county line from Islesboro and Belfast. That meant that when I needed a county sheriff and coroner, my characters had to send to the Hancock County seat at Ellsworth. You wouldn’t think that would be too tricky . . . except that to sail out of Penobscot Bay and along the coast and then back inland to Ellsworth would take most of a day. To take a boat to Bucksport and a train from there to Ellsworth wasn’t in the cards either. There was no rail line between those two points. To reach Ellsworth, one had to go from Bucksport to Bangor, change lines, and then make the trip from Bangor back to Ellsworth. Naturally, train schedules were not set up to make this trip any easier.
Sometimes the quest for accuracy ends with the writer tearing her hair out in frustration. I consulted the Bangor Whig and Courier for the dates in question and found railroad timetables in all the detail I could possibly want. I also found steamship and ferry schedules. The problem came when I wanted to move my characters from place to place on my schedule. Most of the time, I was able to put Diana and Ben on real trains and steamers, but for their frequent trips to the fictional Keep Island, I had to invent a mail boat owned by the same wealthy gentleman who owns the island. It was really the only solution.
To give you an idea of what the real schedules were like, trains left Bangor for Bucksport, eighteen miles away, at 7:25 AM, 2 PM, and 6:55 PM and arrived there at 8:35 AM, 3:40 PM, and 8:08 PM. On a different line, trains left Bangor for Belfast at 8 AM and 3:30 PM and reached there at noon and at 7:55 PM. Rail travel to Ellsworth, connecting to the ferry to Bar Harbor “in pleasant weather only” one could leave Bangor at 5:50 AM, 1:35 PM, or 6:30 PM. The trip as far as Ellsworth took a little less than an hour and a half.
Travel by steamer, when the river wasn’t frozen over, was the other most popular option and the only way to reach the island of Islesboro (unless you had your own boat). The steamer Rockland made daily trips (after May 17) from Bangor to Rockland, leaving Bangor at 6:30 AM, Bucksport at 8:15, and Belfast at 11:00. The return trip arrived in Bangor at 7 PM. The steamer Cimbria left Bangor on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 7:30 AM and made a number of stops, including Bucksport at 9:30, Islesborough at 11:30 and Bar Harbor at 5:30 PM. Return trips took place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and offered connections to Belfast aboard the steamer Electra when the Cimbria stopped in Castine.
Of course, people also had the option of riding from place to place on horseback or in a buggy or wagon, but that generally took much longer. Bar Harbor, for example, was a one day trip by steamer but could take three days from Bangor by road. On the other hand, someone could ride the eighteen miles between Ellsworth and Bucksport more quickly than they could sail along the coast or make the trip to Bangor and back.
Frustrating as it can be at times, I enjoy doing research, especially when it turns up odd little details. One terrific source of trivia was the annual report of the City of Bangor for March 1887-March 1888. That year, the city had more arrests than usual, mostly due to “strangers” working on the railway. Half of all arrests were of non-residents. Of the 1,443 arrests in all, 895 of them for drunkenness. Two people were committed to the Insane Hospital in Augusta, Maine. There were no murders.
I learned quite a few things that didn’t make it into the novel, among them that although the terms police department and policeman were used in the report, law enforcement in Bangor was actually in the hands of the city marshal. There appear to have been between thirteen and seventeen policemen and nine constables, but some of the names appear on both lists. There was no city coroner, but there was a city physician, which is, more or less, the job Ben Northcote holds in the novels and in the short story “The Kenduskeag Killer.”
One thing I learned about the office of county coroner that didn’t make it into the story is the sort of thing that is perfect to include in a blog on crime writing. It seems that these officials, elected every two years, were responsible for investigating unnatural or violent deaths and, according to A Bicentennial Look at Bygone Bangor (1975), they followed a rule of thumb when it came to bodies found floating in the Kenduskeag Stream or the Penobscot River. If the deceased had money in his pockets, he was a suicide. If he had no money on him, he’d probably been murdered.
Ah, the good old days when things were simple . . .
The Diana Spaulding 1888 Quartet is available in ebook format and my evil twin also has a good supply of print copies in storage. A complete set of these will go to one lucky reader of this post. Just leave a comment below and in a day or two I’ll throw the names in a hat and pick one. Good luck.