Researching The Heirloom Murders

 

Color postcard of Sasso's Bar in the Village of Eagle, Wisconsin, circa 1982.

 

Front cover of the Chloe Ellefson Mystery #2, The Heirloom Murders, by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst, published by Midnight Ink Books.

Mr. Ernst here. This month the focus is on things interesting and indicative that turned up while researching The Heirloom Murders, the second book in the Chloe Ellefson mystery series.

Some of the following made it into the book. Other things influenced the story. And some things below are included merely to reflect the times.

Kathleen and I hope you find them interesting too.

THM takes place at Old World Wisconsin (an actual outdoor history museum in the Southeast corner of the state), the nearby Village of Eagle, and the Village of New Glarus in Green County, WI.

A Modern Mystery with Historical Roots

THM is the first book in the Chloe series to feature an historical thread, which in this case centers on the actual 1876 discovery in Eagle of an extremely rare glacial diamond. Kathleen also chose to weave the modern mystery of this gemstone into the story’s 1982 timeline.

EagleDiamond16CaratStolen500w
The Eagle Diamond changed hands many times over the decades between being unearthed and its donation to the American Museum of Natural History. It was one of a number of precious gems (including the legendary “Star of India”) stolen from there by a 3-man crew led by a jewel thief playboy named Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy.

Black and white photo of Jack Murphy and his girlfriend Bonnie Lou Sutera taken in 1964.

Jack Murphy and his then girlfriend Bonnie Lou Sutera, 1964.

Murph made the fateful mistake of bragging about the heist and was quickly arrested. He served 21 months; Bonnie Lou committed suicide. All the jewels were recovered — except for the Eagle Diamond.

The history and mystery of this rare gemstone is fascinating. Read Wood V. Boynton and the Incredible Journey of the Eagle Diamond by Mara Kent (Wisconsin Magazine of History, Volume 97, number 2, Winter 2013-2014).

Anatomy of a Scene

Kathleen often builds individual scenes around historical events uncovered while doing research. One was inspired by this article.

newspaper clipping about film schedule for 1982 Summer Movie program in the Village of Eagle, Wisconsin, 1982.

Palmyra Enterprise newspaper, June 10, 1982.

This series of free public movies was proposed by the Chief of the Village of Eagle Police Department (EPD) as a way to deter crime. His thinking was that if local teens were at a police-sponsored, police-chaperoned film, they couldn’t get into too much trouble.

Wielding some artistic license, Kathleen put EPD Officer Roelke McKenna in charge of organizing and running the July 10th showing of MacKenna’s Gold, which she has his co-worker, Officer Skeet Deardorff, select (sight unseen) as a humorous play on Roelke’s name.

Color movie poster for MacKenna's Gold.

Copyright 1969 Columbia Pictures. This Western had an all-star cast, including Gregory Peck, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif as a Mexican bandit, and Julie Newmar playing an Apache Indian who goes swimming in the nude. The film was a financial failure, costing $7M ($47M in 2018 dollars) while earning just $3.1M ($21M now), despite becoming a long-running hit in the Soviet Union.

Next Kathleen introduced a series of challenges resulting in Roelke being the sole officer present that evening, and added an angry teen couple whose loud argument disturbs the movie and forces Roelke to intervene.

Note from Kathleen:  I wanted readers to learn more about Roelke’s approach to policing. When Mr. Ernst turned up the notice about Movie Night, I knew I could make that work. Roelke is a good cop. Sure, he wants to catch bad guys, but he also wants to be proactive about keeping kids out of trouble. And dealing with TJ and his pregnant girlfriend shows Roelke’s ability to de-escalate a problem, not simply chase after lawbreakers.

Say What?

Kathleen uses the popular-in-Wisconsin term “soda” in the scene above. For those who are not familiar with it, there’s the wonderful Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).  The article below describes the then 17-year old University of Wisconsin project to gather and publish it, including explanations of three popular Wisconsin-isms.

Regional dictionary is place for 'bubbler' headline.

July 29, 1982 – Waukesha Freeman newspaper.

“When you’re frying out and forget your soda, you can always look for a bubbler… Fry out is an expression meaning grill out or barbecue. It’s unique to to Calumet, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, and Fond du Lac Counties. …The heavily Germanic population took it from the practice of frying sausage. Soda describes soft drinks in the area of Wisconsin along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Elsewhere, pop or soda pop is preferred.

Bubblers are drinking fountains. …Researchers traced the word back to a 1914 publication of the Kohler Co. in Sheboygan, which mentioned a “bubbling valve” on a fountain. In 1915, company literature began talking about a “continuous flow bubbler” and the word was coined… While fountains no longer bubble continuously, the word is still used.”

Color photo of a 'bubbler' - a Wisconsin term for water fountain.

By Sulfur (Own work) GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)


Indicative of the Times

Kathleen chose not to make reference to any of the following in THM, but each tells us something about the summer of 1982, and enables a perspective on events of today.

Three States Short of Approval, ERA Dies article newspaper clipping.

June 22, 1982 – United Press International.

One wonders how things might be different today had the ERA been adopted back then.

Speaking of which…

Businesswomen 'too sexy' in pants headline.

June 25, 1982 – Waukesha Freeman newspaper.

“A survey of corporate employees shows businesswomen who wear pants to work have plenty of sex appeal but not much professional standing. In the survey of 480 firms selected from the Standard & Poor’s register 99.8 percent of the men who responded felt pants on the job were inappropriate for an executive woman.

Men and women …thought women who wore dresses to work were more confident and did not feel the need to “dress like a man to convince other people of their abilities.” That refutes the traditional advice that career women wear suits on the job.”

And then there’s this ‘man bites dog’ piece below written by Joan Beck. The article uses a Wisconsin sexual harassment case to make a series of pointed observations about the very real challenges, and double standards, that women workers were experiencing back then. The snarky headline was probably written by a man.

State sexual harassment case is something to snicker about headline.

July 27, 1982 – Chicago Tribune newspaper

“Sexual harassment on the job isn’t for snickering. It’s heavy stuff, abhorred by women, forbidden by company policies, outlawed by federal regulations, punishable by the courts, a sin in the eyes of management training manuals and feminist manifestoes alike.

So it won’t do to admit a sneaky little snicker of satisfaction about the sexual harassment story from Madison, Wis. This time, the victim was male. And the supervisor who demoted the employee for resisting sexual overtures is female.

So let’s just say it’s OK to be encouraged that at least one complaint of sexual victimization has been taken seriously enough to move a jury to give the victim $196,500 in punitive and compensatory damages.”

That’s $504,724 in 2018 dollars.

But Wait, There’s More

Hopefully this article has piqued your interest in discovering more about the ‘people, places and the past’ in the The Heirloom Murders.

There’s a whole page full of information about it on Kathleen’s website, including a discussion guide for the book, a custom Google map and a locations guide about where key scenes are set, a recipe mentioned in the book, a slide show of objects featured in the story, public radio interviews with Kathleen, additional blog posts, links to booksellers that carry THM — and more. To explore them, click HERE.

Next month I’ll post an article about researching The Light Keeper’s Legacy, the third book in the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series.

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2 Responses to “Researching The Heirloom Murders”

  1. Nijole Etzwiler Says:

    so timely, as I’m re-reading the book right now. Enjoying it so much, as New Glarus has always been dear to me and my family.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Mr. Ernst here. I’m delighted that my post coincides with your re-reading of The Heirloom Murders. Kathleen, my Swiss Miss, and I have spent many happy hours in and around New Glarus. It is a very special place.

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