Q & A

Where did you get the idea for “Peter Pike and the Murderous Mormons?”

I was in Quincy, Ill., on Veterans Day a few years back, bought a red poppy from a veteran at the restored town square. Lincoln debated Douglas there, among other events.

Quincy has a remarkable number of beautiful Victorians, Federal and Greek Revival structures, some 3,500 buildings in four National Historic Register Districts, according to the city. It also has Indian Mounds Park, with the requisite trails, playgrounds, shelters and picnic tables and a large swimming pool, built around at least eight burial mounds; and Woodland Cemetery, with more gigantic, unexcavated mounds. Both have great views of the Mississippi. All more than enough reason to take a drive and walk around on a dreary November day.

There was a lot of trash on a steep cobblestoned street in the old warehouse district down by the river – snack and junk food wrappers, microwave burritos, soda cans. I kicked a can of Diet Mountain Dew for the heck of it  — ouch, my toe! It was a full can. As I looked closer, I saw I was wading through full cans and unopened wrappers. WTF, I thought? It all must have fallen off a truck.

I then saw a homeless man down by the river. I saw the same man in the historic district, slinking into an abandoned building a block from those magnificent mansions.

And I started thinking – who is this guy? Why is he wandering around? What does he find?

The answer hit me a few days later – he’s a homeless vet, and he stumbles upon an excavation in Indian Mounds Park and the legendary items. All the rest – Shaitan, Chief Fear, the Mormons – followed from that.

 

 

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The plot of “PP & MM” seems familiar. Where have I seen it before?

S. Eliot once supposedly said “Good writers borrow but great writers steal.” After re-reading Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” I realized his was the perfect plot, with lost artifacts worth killing for, shady characters, a beautiful and treacherous woman, a dying character who staggers in with the treasure, private detective and all. Peter Pike, however, is no ruthless Sam Spade. He is, in fact, kind of a mess. Things are looking up after “PP & MM,” though, when he stumbles upon some lost Lincoln  … well, that’s the next novel.

There’s a lot of history in “PP & MM.” How much is fact, how much fiction?

Mississippian civilization is real. This sprawling culture – stretching from Wisconsin to Florida, the East Coast to Kansas — with its pyramids, ports, harbors, highways, super-cities like Cahokia, suburbs and farms flourished from about 600-1400 AD, depending on who you ask. It was in a steep decline by the time Columbus got here. St. Louis was called Mound City because of its many Mississippian pyramids and other structures. All but one have been leveled. That there were large, complex civilizations before the Europeans got here and that this was not exactly untouched paradise is one of those pesky inconvenient truths that die hard. People still believe it today, I find.

The lost city of stone is fiction. Sort of. That there were people here before the Indians is certain. Who? How’d they get here? What happened to them? There are persistent hints and rumors of both European and East Asian exploration and colonization, old stories of people who looked Chinese or European, not Indian. But all this is still conjecture.

The Sword of Laban, say the Mormons, is real. (Not the crystal part.) Laban, a contemporary of Nephi 1 in Jerusalem (~600 B.C.), possessed a truly nifty sword: “The hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and the blade thereof was of the most precious steel” (1 Ne. 4:9). God ordered Nephi to kill Laban (1 Ne. 4:10) with the sword. The sword then found its way to the Western Hemisphere. So did Jesus, by the way.

In 1829 the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon plates said they saw the sword (D&C 17:1). President Brigham Young reported that the Prophet and founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Joseph Smith and one of his disciples saw the sword when they entered a cave in the hill Cumorah with a large room containing many plates. “The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: “This sword will never be sheathed again until The Kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our God and his Christ”‘ (JD 19:38).

So the sudden appearance of the sword might just trigger a strong Church reaction.

Smith also said he saw the entire Book of Mormon emblazoned on golden tablets or plates, transcribing every word with a seer stone, or peep stone, his face buried in his hat. “Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument,” says an official Church account. (The Church released photos of this seer stone in 2015, if you’re interested.) These tablets, among other revelations, declare that the Garden of Eden was in northern Missouri, that Christ visited America, and that a lost race of Israel colonized America only to be wiped out by Indians. These were just one of many plates the lost tribe of Israel left scattered around.

The lost tribe myth was remarkably persistent in the 19th and even early 20th centuries, and not just among Mormons. Who the heck built these huge structures? Must have been Aztecs! Welsh! Vikings! Atlanteans! Because surely the ancestors of the sparse, bedraggled Indians settlers encountered could not have built these pyramids and cities. That European diseases wiped out up to 90% of the population is another inconvenient truth.

Bloody Ben is also based on a real, bloodthirsty Civil War guerrilla, Bloody Bill Anderson. Anderson rampaged across Missouri into Kansas, earning a rep for extreme violence in a truly guerrilla war, as close to Vietnam as America ever got. (Yet).  Anderson was part of Quantrill’s gang that burned Lawrence, Kan. After his sister died when a Union Kansas City jail collapsed, Anderson swore revenge, and broke off from Quantrill’s troop to form his own gang. Jesse and Frank James rode first with Quantrill then with him and probably participated in both the Lawrence and 1864 Centralia Massacre, where Anderson and his boys executed a train full of wounded and convalescent Union soldiers. Anderson himself was shot down about a month later by trained guerrilla hunters – antiterrorism squads are nothing new — and reportedly dragged by his heels to a garrison in Orrick, Mo., where he was beheaded and his head stuck on a pike. There’s a monument at the ambush spot, and I’ve visited it. Bloody Ben’s dandyism, long hair and hat are also based directly on Bloody Bill. Some guerrillas swore to never cut their hair until the South won or they were dead.

The spirit Prudence Desperes is based on a spirit called Patience Worth. Between about 1913 and 1937, an St. Louis housewife named Pearl Curran channeled Worth through a Ouija board. Patience, said Mrs. Curran, was born in Dorsetshire, England during the 17th century and migrated to America where she was killed by Indians at the age of 44 or 45. Using first a Ouija board, graduating to automatic writing then “clairaudient dictation,” Patience, through Curran, rattled off seven books, including an eyewitness account of the life of Christ, dozens of short stories and plays, thousands of poems, countless epigrams and aphorisms in both archaic and 20th century English. Patience was acclaimed a literary genius, her writing compared with Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Spenser. Respected professors of English literature, psychologists and philologists all declared Patience genuine, too.

For more on Curran and Patience Worth, see my notes in the back of “PP & MM.”

Phineas Taylor’s Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome is based directly on Phineas Taylor (“P. T.”) Barnum’s traveling show of the 1870s. He really did exhibit Commodore Nutt, giant snakes, the “What is It?” and a hippo. He really did denounce slavery in antebellum Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Barnum brought the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind to the U.S. in the 1850s, and that made his fortune. Old-timers were still raving about her angelic voice at the end of the 19th century – the very word “Jenny” was instantly understood.

What’s your question?

Write to me, and I will answer to the best of my ability.