A fan of historical fiction and nonfiction, I’m always curious about the research behind a book. I’m just as interested in an author’s note on her research and sources as I am in the story itself.
I knew the Jefferson newspapers would have covered Bessie’s murder, and in nearby Marshall, Texas. Unfortunately, very few articles by Jefferson’s papers survive from that time. Luckily, both of Marshall’s newspapers covered the case extensively, and I spent countless hours scouring them. Some of the original court documents also survive, and I read those as well.
When I started my research, newspapers.com didn’t exist. Older newspapers are stored on microfilm or microfiche, and so that’s how I did most of my research for several years. As I learned of places Bessie and Abe had lived or visited, I used the interlibrary loan system to borrow newspaper reels from those cities. The murder case was well-covered across the country, and I also learned some personal details about Bessie and Abe’s lives. Of course, newspaper articles aren’t primary sources. They are a reporter’s observation or an account of information given to them by someone who may or may not be reliable. But when you do enough research, you start to see what’s erroneous and what’s accurate. Research is like a big puzzle. You can never know all the pieces, but you can paint a pretty good picture from what you piece together.
In addition to conducting research in Jefferson and Marshall, I also traveled to Chicago, where Bessie worked at a parlor house (what the high-class brothels were called); to Cincinnati, where Abe was from and where Bessie also worked at a parlor house; Hot Springs, Arkansas, where Bessie and Abe first met; New Orleans, where Bessie wintered; Danville, Illinois, where Bessie and Abe married on their way to Texas; and Bessie’s hometown, Canton, New York, where I spent a day with the town historian.
In each city, I drove around to see the places associated with the couple, but unfortunately, nearly everything was gone. I’ve found photos of many of the buildings, which is helpful of course, but it would be nice to walk through the Brooks House to see the room where Bessie and Abe stayed in Jefferson, or tour the opulent Burnet House in Cincinnati, where Abe lived. Those are just two examples of the dozens of buildings I looked for that no longer exist.
I visited the historical societies and museums in each city, and of course the public libraries. In Cincinnati, I found an atlas of the city from 1883 and spent hours at the library making 11″ x 14″ copies of each section, and then piecing them together when I got back home. The map was large enough to cover my dining room table!
One of my favorite trips was to Edmonds, Washington, north of Seattle, to visit the daughter of a man who had seen Bessie on the streets of Jefferson as a very young boy. Ed McDonald was captivated by Bessie’s beauty. After her body was found, Ed told his mother that when he grew up, he was going to hunt down the man who killed Diamond Bessie. Years later, in the early 1930s, Ed carried out a secret mission late at night to ensure Bessie was never forgotten. His daughter, Aree Risley, had already left Jefferson by then, but she shared many memories of her time there, and about her parents. Aree was in her early nineties when we met; she died two months after my visit.
I also read – a lot – about life in the late nineteenth century. One of my most interesting finds were three autobiographies of late nineteenth/early twentieth century prostitutes. Talk about fascinating stories! These books contain a wealth of information about every aspect of a prostitute’s life, including the reasons women became prostitutes.
You can see a bibliography of my sources by clicking here.
Thanks for stopping by!