The Sinking of the Sultana

As a historian I may be more aware of anniversaries and significant dates than most people are. As someone born and raised in the South, I was made particularly aware of the significance of dates between ’61 and ’65. In the early 1960s I attended a new high school named after a Confederate general, at a time when the centennial of the “War of Northern Aggression” was being observed.

And now, somehow, we’re up to—even just past—the sesquicentennial of that war, with less attention paid to it than I would have expected. April of 1865 was a tumultuous month in American history, with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House (Apr. 9), the assassination of President Lincoln (Apr. 15), the death of John Wilkes Booth (Apr. 26), and the disaster of the steamboat Sultana (Apr. 27).

Okay, you were probably with me right up to the steamboat. The explosion and sinking of the Sultana was the greatest maritime disaster in U. S. history, killing at least 1800 people. (About 1500 people died on the Titanic.) It got far less media coverage than it should have at the time because of the drama surrounding Lincoln’s assassination and the death of Booth on the 26th. I was reminded of this tragedy by the recent sinking of the ship carrying refugees from Libya to Italy, which resulted in over 900 deaths. Sadly, there are similarities between the two disasters.

The Sultana was a side-wheeler built in 1863 for service between St. Louis and New Orleans. It was designed to carry 375 passengers, a crew of 85, and cargo. In April of 1865 the boat was docked in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when its captain, J. Cass Mason, was approached with an opportunity to make a considerable sum of money.

Prisoners released from Confederate camps in Georgia and Alabama were housed in Vicksburg, awaiting transport north. The U. S. government offered $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer to anyone who would carry the men. Captain Mason needed money and so was receptive to an offer made by Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch. Hatch proposed putting 1400 prisoners on the Sultana, with himself receiving a kickback from Mason.

On April 24 the Sultana took on cargo and about 100 passengers. Then the Army loaded 2100 paroled prisoners—many of them sick or injured—onto the boat. When she pulled away from the dock in Vicksburg, every conceivable spot was packed with men, so much so that the decks began to sag. When the boat docked at Helena, Arkansas, on April 26, a photographer took a picture which shows men occupying every square foot of the decks.

The boat was driven by four steam boilers. Before she left Vicksburg one of the boilers had been given a temporary repair, instead of being replaced as the mechanic urged. Captain Mason had not wanted to replace the boiler because he knew some other steamboat would take the ex-prisoners while the work was being done and his lucrative deal would vanish.

The Mississippi River was in flood stage that month, spreading up to three miles over its banks on either side. The Sultana made slow progress against the current. Early in the morning of April 27, seven miles north of Memphis, her boilers exploded and the boat was turned into an inferno, eventually burning down to the waterline. Those who weren’t killed by the blast had to choose between staying on the burning hulk or jumping into the cold, swirling Mississippi. Many drowned. Several hundred survivors who were picked up died later from burns or exposure.

Captain Mason died in the explosion. No one was ever found culpable.

I see similarities between the Sultana tragedy and what happened to the Libyan refugees, as well as others who have died in smaller-scale incidents. Desperate people were taken advantage of by greedy people who ignored the most basic safety precautions in order to maximize their profit. The governments involved had no meaningful plan to help their people. We’re supposed to learn from history, but, sadly, things haven’t changed much in 150 years.

The Places I’d Go ….

Lea on Wiscasset town pierLea Wait, here, at home in Maine. A state I’ve always loved, and where I’m constantly amazed that I really am living full-time. And I have been for almost seventeen years now. (Before that I was a “summer complaint,” “from away,” as Mainers would say.)

People vacation in Maine — in the summers and fall and, if they ski, even in the winter.  .

Before I left corporate life (what some might call retiring,) I’d dreamed of taking one month a year, renting an apartment somewhere in the world, and really absorbing that place. England. Scotland, Spain, France. Maybe Japan, or Australia? Even another part of North America would be fun. I love New York City, where I lived years ago. Washington, D.C. Santa Fe. San Francisco.

I have daughters who were born in India and Korea and Thailand and Hong Kong … maybe I’d visit there.

So many options! So many dreams.DSC01258

But – life (and dreams) change. I inherited a wonderful home built in 1774 which needed many, many repairs and updates … I’ve now got a heavy mortgage, and the house needs to be painted again, and there are still several rooms with 19th century wallpaper (literally) hanging off the walls. I’m married, and my husband needs to be in his studio. I have book contracts …something I’ll never complain about, but that require me to be at my computer almost every day. (Three books due in 2015, not counting a couple I’m working on without contracts.) All reasons to stay home.

In the first years my husband and I were married we traveled a bit. Our major trip was to Beirut, Lebanon, where he graduated from high school, followed by a week in Paris, staying with friends . We  went to mystery conferences in Las Vegas and El Paso and Santa Fe and Maryland and Florida and Pittsburgh. Working vacations, where we visited friends and family along the way. We spent New Year’s Eve in Quebec.

But we’re a bit older now, and our savings a bit depleted. Like other couples, we have bills to pay, and obligations to meet.

When I worked for a corporation and was raising my children and caring for my mother, I imagined this time of my life I’d be alone, my days full of time. I’d read; write; run my antique print business. I was afraid I’d be lonely.

Instead, I am married to the guy I’d loved for years. I have readers waiting for my books. No; I don’t travel much. But a glass of wine on a porch overlooking the river tastes as good as one sipped in Paris. Especially when it’s shared with someone you love.

Travel? That would be lovely. But, at least for now, I’ll happily do my traveling through the pages of the books I read. And write.

The Writer’s Office

I don’t tend to look around at my office very often.  Its walls and drawers and surfaces are like an exhibit of  my past. And I don’t want to think about my past when I’m “at work.”

When we first moved to this house about three years ago, I set the room up the way I wanted it then and have rearranged the furniture once—a couple of weeks ago. But the walls are pretty much the same, and the elements of each surface have stayed the same. My computer is on the same desk, but the desk has been moved to a side wall. My printer is on the same shelf, my catchall roll top that I repaired and refinished is at my back.

Now that I’m thinking about it, this room is almost a museum. The walls display my sister’s wedding, a photo of my sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew from at least thirty years ago, my parents’ wedding picture, a family photo taken at my niece’s wedding. But my own wedding picture, taken just a couple of years ago, is on the piano in the living room.

I have a poster of the old Minneapolis North Side, where I grew up, that includes the Homewood movie theater, the deli, and a fiddler dancing on the roof of the Plymouth Avenue streetcar. And near that, for no particular reason, a poster of Marlene Dietrich. When I look up from my laptop, I see a photo of the Minnesota Daily office from 1960. There’s a guy lying on the copy desk I don’t know, but everyone else in there was a close friend. The typewriters are as ancient as the Royal I have displayed on a living room table. Four book covers, framed, a Sylvia cartoon Nicole Hollander did during a class she took from me at UC Extension. A self-portrait our dear old friend Luigi drew and sent to us. He no longer has any hair. A self-portrait of me, in oils, that I painted from a photo Luigi took of me.

And a Certificate of Merit my father earned at the Twin Cities Ordnance Plant for a suggestion he made that was adopted by the Federal Cartridge Corporation that “aided the nation in its war effort.”

It’s been a while since I took the time to look at these pieces of my DNA.



Is Hemingway’s Writing Advice Really His?

You’ll often read or hear the advice that writing is basically just sitting down and doing it, or more elegantly that “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Someone on Twitter asked me if I thought Hemingway had said a version of it: “apply seat of pants to chair.” Well, that sounds as if it might be Hemingway. It’s terse and matter-of-fact enough–but I was dubious.  I’ve read a good deal of Hemingway over the years and many Hemingway biographies and never encountered anything like it.  As an author, I wouldn’t forget a line like that.


As usual, the Internet isn’t much help. And even though it shows up as my Twitter contact says in a book about Hemingway, it’s also attributed on the Internet to Kingsley Amis, Mark Twain (isn’t everything?), and more frequently to someone you’ve probably never heard of, Mary Heaton Vorse.

According to Wikipedia, Vorse wasn’t just the author of apparently a dozen books of fiction, she was also an activist dedicated to “peace and social justice causes, such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, pacifism (specifically including opposition to World War I), socialism, child labor, infant mortality, labor disputes, and affordable housing.” Amazing, no?


But there’s that quote…. Did she actually say it? When you check an authoritative page of Vorse quotes, all of which have attribution details, it doesn’t show up. In fact, none of the quotations listed there are about writing. They’re all focused on much larger issues. Here’s a typical one:

This philosophy of hate, of religious and racial intolerance, with its passionate urge toward war, is loose in the world. It is the enemy of democracy; it is the enemy of all the fruitful and spiritual sides of life. It is our responsibility, as individuals and organizations, to resist this.

But of course, Vorse is listed on Goodreads as the author of those words about the pants and the chair. Good old Goodreads, you can always depend on that site for a vague or even bogus attribution when you need one.

So is it Twain, Hemingway, Kingsley Amis, or Honoré Fauteuil, inventor of the chair of that name? (I made him up, actually).

Well, it’s far more likely to have been famed and caustic humorist Dorothy Parker.  The version she’s credited with is sharper: “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.”  For what it’s worth, it appears on almost every site of Parker witticisms and if you’ve read Parker and read about her, it feels right.

parker writing

Whoever said it, though, it’s only arguably good. Plenty of us writers have spent idle hours with butts stuck to our chairs not getting very far–but that’s the subject for another blog.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books, most recently Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police forces.  His web site is

The Brontës never wrote about Fluffs

Please welcome our newest blogging author, K. K. Beck, whose book TIPPING THE VALET Perseverance Press will be publishing this coming fall, September 2015. It’s a light-hearted, satirical mystery on everything from parking valets to annoying foodies at upscale restaurants to the Russian mafia. It takes its place in Beck’s previous oeuvre as a Workplace Mystery. Like The Body in the Cornflakes, The Body in the Volvo, and We Interrupt This Broadcast, it features the same (sometimes clueless) two Seattle cops, and it’s about how ordinary people in everyday jobs can be much smarter than the professionals in solving mysteries. Anyone who’s been reading in our genre for a while will recognize K.K. Beck’s byline from both the Iris Cooper and the Jane da Silva series, as well as over 10 stand-alones. We’re longtime fans and are thrilled to be publishing her new book!
—Meredith Phillips

By K. K. Beck

When I was a child, one of my favorite books was about the Brontë’s literary output as children. Everything was so romantic with Branwell, Charlotte, Emily and Anne—brilliant motherless children in a grim, isolated parsonage—making it all bearable by creating fabulous worlds of their own with dashing characters and dramatic doings. And there was also the appealing aspect , of course, that the books they wrote were teeny tiny books in teeny tiny letters. ( I couldn’t see them on line, but now you can.)

A few weeks ago I came upon a stash of my own juvenilia. I naturally didn’t expect it to be up the Brontë’s level, but I was curious to see if would reveal some sort of evidence that I would grow up to write books.

I discovered that not only was I no Brontë, it turned out I couldn’t plot worth a damn and was a pandering hack by the second grade. My books were written on 8 ½ by 11 stationary, stapled together and lavishly illustrated by me. The earlier ones, before I could write, were dictated to my mother.

In the unoriginally-titled Pippi Longstocking, the mousy protagonist bears no resemblance to the real Pippi Longstocking. One senses in her a sad yearning for some sort of excitement, rather like an Anita Brookner character. She goes shopping for toys with her mother but doesn’t find any. She sees a tall building so she looks up. She walks home with her mother, and, in what is clearly the climax of the narrative, some mean boys stick out their tongues at her. She and her mother go home and have dinner with her father.

The title of another effort promises something more lively. The Story of Susie the Wonder Girl starts with plenty of action when the wind blows away the heroine’s umbrella. She sits on a bench for a while, “and forgetted the umbrella,” then goes home and cooks dinner. Her father arrives home late from work and reads the paper. Suddenly, a police car pulls up, but all that happens is the policeman shakes hands with someone named Joe, and then the police car goes away. The next-to-last last page, with a picture of a friendly spectral creature reads “At midnight a ghost went in her room to wonder what was going on.” As well it might. The answer was, well, nothing was going on, actually.

Undaunted, I learned to print and put together books without my mother’s help. In Mr. Fiddlesticks, Mr. Fiddlesticks is an unhappy protagonist who has been saddled with a nickname he doesn’t like. He solves his problem by throwing a party and wearing a shirt with his actual name, Billy, on it. Everyone starts calling him Billy. Plotting was improving. The book is also branded. On the cover, it says it is “A Gold Pot Book,” and on the back is a logo consisting of a row of yellow trapezoids, all clearly a rip-off of the Little Golden Books that made up the bulk of my personal library.

The next Gold Pot Book shows a creeping commercialism and a banality that starts on page one.  “My Kitty by Kiki Beck,” my childhood nickname, begins “I had a kitty and her name was Fluffs. She had a bell and ate on the floor.” The back cover promotes more Gold Pot Books, including Jesus, At the Lake, At the Farm and Merry Christmas.

It was pretty depressing to see what dull, derivative juvenilia I had produced. In the same file was a series of crayon drawings that looked like the kind of “Hey Kids!” content that I used to read off the backs of cereal boxes at the breakfast table back in the 1950s. They are pictures of cutesy animals, with names about as exciting as Fluffs the Cat—Sally Squirrel and Ed Elephant. Buddy Mouse wears blue pantaloons and a little scarlet jacket with brass buttons. Now that I think about it, perhaps I copied these creatures off a cereal box.

I turned hopefully to my later work—the issues of Family Journal typed on my mother’s Smith Corona portable. By now I was eleven. “Kiki will try to make a vest to wear over a blouse. It will simply be two rectangles of knitted squares,” and “The washing machine was hooked up recently … and Mother washed four loads. ” Write what you know is usually pretty boring when you are a kid, or any age really.

The Want Ads showed a little more oomph. I’m sure I felt really sophisticated writing, “wanted: a typewriter with capital letters—e.e. cummings,”  and witty with “Wanted: One bird cage. Apply Polly Parrot. (no home address)” and “Young man with stove would like to meet young lady with frying pan. Object: Fried egg.”

But I also saw the beginnings of what might actually work for me someday. Another ad read “Wanted: 1 crowbar, 1 machine gun, 1 saw and chisel. Apply: prisnor(sic.) no. 64963012, State pen, Penn. State.” In the personals, “Joe—have the car ready at 12:00 in front of the 1st National Savings Bank. Mugsy,” might make the reader want to know more. Maybe crime would provide me with a creative outlet. And parody, which I used a lot in a real book I wrote called The Revenge of Kali-Ra, may have had its roots in the Family Journal want ad that read, “All Believers in the Eye of India come tonight to the Field of Destiny—The SUPERIOR.” Finally, it seemed, I had found my voice.

Home Again, With Takeaways

To paraphrase my father, it’s fun to get away for a while. But it’s great to get home and sleep in my own bed, surrounded by my cats.

When I am planning a trip, it all sounds wonderful. However, the closer I get to the actual event, I wonder why I’m leaving my comfortable home to travel.

So many things to do – arrange cat care and someone to take in the mail and look after the garden, pack, a ride to the train station or airport.

Why, I ask myself, did I think it was a good idea to go to all this kerfluffle and expense to leave home?

I recently attended the Left Coast Crime convention, held in Portland, Oregon, I had a good time but was glad to get home. LCC is a smaller convention and that’s what I like about it. Plus Left Coast is in my part of the country, the Western United States. It usually doesn’t cost as much to get there, exceptions being the former and upcoming LCCs held in Hawaii. But I did go to the convention that was held on the Big Island’s Kona Coast, because I’d never been there before. And I am going to the 2017 Honolulu LCC, planning a few days of playing tourist before the convention starts.

So that’s part of the appeal of LCC, or any convention, such as Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans. I’m signed up for that one because it’s an excellent reason to visit the Big Easy.

Travel isn’t the only reason I go to conventions, though. I enjoy the opportunity to see readers and fellow writers. I did have to laugh when I ran into writer Steven Saylor. At almost the same time we said, “It’s been ages!” And it had, despite the fact that he lives in Berkeley and I live in Alameda, a distance of some ten miles. Ironic, to go all the way to Portland to see people who live nearby.

But that’s not surprising. When we writers are at home, we’re in front of our keyboards. I even brought my keyboard with me, since I was nearing the deadline on the latest California Zephyr mystery, Death Deals a Hand. I wrote on the train going to and coming home, and even managed a few hours of writing time at the hotel.

The biggest takeaway from Left Coast Crime, and last fall’s Bouchercon, was that I came home energized and eager to write. The panels I attended were interesting and informative. The discussion on novellas and short stories left me eager to try my hand at a novella, since with the advent of electronic publishing there is new life in this shorter form. I also found good information in several of the publishing panels that looked at traditional, independent and hybrid authors.

Once I write that novella I may publish it myself, just to dip a toe into those waters. And since I have finished my latest book, the time to explore that novella is now.

Not today, though. I am going out of town for a few days and I have to pack.

And why did I think it was a good idea to schedule another trip so soon after LCC?


Conventional Behavior

I attended Left Coast Crime March 12-15 in Portland OR, across the river from where I live.  Carola Dunn and I were co-hosting a table at the banquet Saturday night, and I decided to stay that night at the hotel so I could have a convivial glass or two of wine at dinner.  My e-book editor, Judith B. Glad (Uncial Press) agreed to share a room, but the hotel was already full.  We booked room at a smaller hotel nearby.

Saturday, after five hours of panels, Jude and I checked into our small hotel, I parked the car in the garage beneath the structure, and we opened the trunk.  I’d forgotten to bring my suitcase.

Did I mention it was raining stair rods?  We schlepped Jude’s suitcase to the elevator and went up to our room.  I had several hours to drive home, fetch the bag, return, and dash to the convention hotel bearing sacks of party favors for the table Carola and I were sponsoring.

I abandoned Jude to a nap and drove home.  It was 3:30. Traffic was as coagulant as week end traffic gets, thanks to the downpour, but I contrived not to smash anyone.  My husband smirked and pointed me to the bedroom where my suitcase awaited me.  I drove back as smoothly as I’d driven over, parked outside instead of using the underground garage, thought about climbing the stairs but walked down to the elevator and pressed two.  My key did not work in the room door nor did Judith answer my knock.

I refused to panic.  With lordly calm I snagged a sweet-faced housekeeper.  I persuaded her that my roommate was in there, just asleep and, uh, a bit deaf.  Presto, the room was mine.  Judith was not there.  I thanked the maid profusely and used the loo.  Perhaps Jude had gone out for a stroll, just singin’ in the rain.  It was almost five.  I had about an hour but heck I could lie down and take a snooze while I waited for Jude to return.

I slept for half an hour and woke to the conviction that I was IN THE WRONG ROOM, that I was up a floor from where I ought to be.  An unpleasant substance was about to hit the fan.  I changed into party clothes, grabbed my handbag and the balky room key, and clattered down a flight of stairs.  The key didn’t work in the room directly below the one I had appropriated, but Jude answered my knock at once and opened the door.

“Oh, thank heavens, you’re safe!”  She clasped her hands.  “There’s a horrible wreck on I5.  I thought you were trapped in traffic.”

With quavering voice, I confessed my incredible blunder.  We raced upstairs.  I had closed the door behind me, leaving my suitcase, membership badge, and nightly medications in the second floor room.  I could not get in.  The obliging maid had disappeared.

We dashed down and out into the deluge.  The handsome young man at the desk dealt deftly with two customers, then turned to me.  “How may I help you, ladies?”

I explained.  Several times.

He was wonderfully sympathetic.  I thanked him but pointed out that I had about fifteen minutes to get my bags from “my” room, transfer them to “our” room, and drive Jude and the all-important party favors to the other hotel.  His massive calm did not waver.  So sad, he said, but he could not allow me into the room to retrieve my belongings.  It was against company policy and quite possibly against the law.  Until he contacted the man who had rented the room and got permission, he could not use his master key to enter it.

When did he think that would happen?

He didn’t know.  It was Saturday night and all kinds of things were going on, including a mystery convention (“I know!” I wailed) and a very nice Christian music concert plus all the local pubs and restaurants operating at full blast and something taking place at the Coliseum.  He was going off-duty at ten-thirty himself.  OMG

Jude and I dashed to the car; I drove to the convention hotel and abandoned her with the party favors at the conference entrance.  I drove back and engaged in heavy-duty pacing in the hotel lobby.  Rain sheeted down.  The young man at the hotel desk tried a couple of phone calls to a cell phone number given by the patron whose territory I had violated.  No dice.

Finally I gave up, told him I’d return around ten, and thanked him for his efforts.  I darted out into the deluge and stood at my car, fumbling in my purse for the car keys.  Also no dice.  Back in the hotel lobby, I groped the chair I’d been sitting in, found the keys, dashed out again, opened the door, slid in, started the engine, and checked my wallet to see if I still had the ticket that would allow me to park at the convention hotel.  I did, but my driver’s license had disappeared.  I emptied my handbag.

Back to the lobby.  Half a dozen curious Japanese teenagers (just checked in) watched me sympathetically as the hero at the desk produced my license.  Someone had spotted it in a puddle in the parking lot.

Despite Gar Anthony Heywood’s best, which is very good indeed, the banquet went by in a blur.  The food was good.  Awards were handed out amid cheering.  Carola was charming.  Our party favors went over nicely, and why not with a free book from Carola and a stuffed rat from me in each little “evidence bag.”  Seven nice women including a delightful librarian and Jude, wearing her editor hat, and a cheerful man from Friends of Mystery kept things buzzing at our table.  It was no use.  I felt like those baffled detectives who cannot solve the whodunit puzzle.  I HAD to know what had happened to my belongings.

We got back to our ill-fated hotel at ten.  The desk clerk wasn’t optimistic.  He promised to keep calling the cell phone number.

Jude and I went to our room.  I borrowed a tee-shirt to sleep in and lay down, exhausted, while poor Jude read.  About eleven I woke with a start.  Jude was standing over me, beaming and holding my little carry-on.  The nice clerk had retrieved it.  Ahhhh.

I could moralize.  Stop me, somebody.

This strikes me now and struck me at the time as one of those true situations that are more bizarre than anything I could imagine.  I can guess at negative consequences for the maid who helped me, though I hope she wasn’t fired.  I thanked everyone at the hotel profusely and explained that it was all my stupid fault.  But what of my victim, the man whose room I usurped, the nice Christian gentleman who just wanted to attend a concert and returned to discover that an elderly and elusive lady of the night had invaded his space?


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