March 25, 2021, will commemorate the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The 1911 fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC before 9-11. It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated significant reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. You may remember a similar fire at a factory in Bangladesh several years ago.
When I decided to write a mystery against the backdrop of the Triangle, I had no idea what I was in for. Research took me in several directions: the forensics of fire, the consequences of “defenestration,” that is, vertical falls from high places, the difficulty in identifying bodies falling from such heights, the safety hazards for garment workers, women’s rights, workers’ rights, changes in the American workplace.
But I also researched the time and place of the disaster. 1911, Greenwich Village, New York City. A time when Ellis Island kept its arms open to immigrants from many countries — immigrants who came for a better life, but often wound up in sweatshops, or worse. A time of Tammany Hall and corruption. A time of women’s suppression. But also a time of new beginnings, hope, and freedom in a new land.
I am a native New Yorker and was amazed at the fantastic bits of information I dug up. I learned, for instance, that Washington Square Park is built on what was once a potter’s field, where 100,000 people were buried for a century and a half. I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, saw the buildings my characters would have seen, drank in bars they patronized, and gazed up at the ninth story of the Asch Building (now part of NYU) to visualize the flames bursting through the windows and the workers leaping to their deaths.
The cover of my book is a photo I took of the building in 2010, with smoke and color added for dramatic effect. For those of you who write about history, or simply enjoy reading it, I know you’ll agree that real-life events in the past make a grand backdrop for a fictional story.
Murder, in particular.
It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog, mainly because I’m deep in the heart of writing my seventh novel.
This book has been challenging. My first six mysteries take you back in time to a particular time and place. For instance Deadly Provenance brings you to Paris and World War II; Pure Lies to the Salem Witch Trials; and Time Exposure to the American Civil War.
My current book, whose working title is The Tree of Lost Secrets takes place in my hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont. Readers travel back to four different time periods, hence, four sets of new characters. Plus, in keeping with my tradition, a modern story which threads through all.
The four time periods and locations:
Italy, World War II, 1943
Halifax, Nova Scotia, World War I, and the great Halifax explosion, 1911
The Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War, 1856
The American Revolution, 1776
In my research I have come across some interesting and amusing material worth a mention here. For example, one of my characters in the section on the American Revolution is a real character named John André, a British spy who was also an actor, artist, and poet. I learned that André had Sometimes history astounds! a statue erected to him in the South Transept of Westminster Abbey, along with Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Tennyson, among others.
I was impressed. Out of curiosity, I wanted to read one of his poems. Here are a few verses from a poem he wrote called “Yankee Doodle’s Expedition to Rhode Island:”
From Lewis, Monsieur Gerard came,
To Congress in this town, sir,
They bowed to him, and he to them,
And then they all sat down, sir,
If that didn’t compel you, here’s one more snappy verse:
So Yankee Doodle did forget,
The sound of British drum, sir,
How oft it made him quake and sweat,
In spite of Yankee rum, sir.
Believe it or not, it can be sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy, which was written in 1755. Not to be confused with the Hollywood version sung by James Cagney.
In the end, André was hung for spying. Frankly, I think he should have swung from the gibbet for his poetry. Sometimes history astounds!
Mystery writers have a tough decision: how to kill their fictional victims. There are far too many ways to murder to mention here. (If you want unusual methods, watch Criminal Minds or Supernatural.) I’ll mention one way that was based on a sad but true story.
One of the more gruesome aspects to my research for The Triangle Murders was learning about defenestration. This nasty means of murder is the act of throwing someone out the window or from a high place. The term comes from two centuries-old incidents in Prague. The first in 1419 when seven town officials were thrown from the Town Hall, no doubt precipitating the Hussite War. The second in 1618, when two Imperial governors and their secretary were thrown from Prague Castle, sparking the Thirty Years War. The latter was referred to as the Defenestration of Prague.
Now, while there’s something appealing about throwing political officials out of the window, remember that when they hit the ground the results are quite grim.
Falling as a cause of death can be very effective. There are two ways a person can fall. A vertical “controlled” fall is when the person lands upright and feet-first. An “uncontrolled” fall is when some other part of the body hits the ground first ie: head or back. Not pretty.
The vertical fall is survivable up to about 100 feet, but an uncontrolled fall can be fatal at very short distances such as from a stepladder. With a controlled fall, the initial energy transmits through the feet and legs and spares vital organs. The uncontrolled fall, however, can cause massive internal and head injuries.
146 people, mostly young women, died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in New York City, on March 25, 1911. Many chose jumping out the ninth-story windows to escape the raging fire. Safety nets were ineffective and bodies crashed right through them. Strictly speaking, defenestration was not the cause of death because they were not pushed out the windows. However, the result was the same. Death by impact on a hard surface.
Unrecognizable bodies lay on the sidewalk along Greene Street, together with hoses, fire rescue nets, and part of a wagon. All were drenched by the tons of water used to contain and extinguish the fire. Photographer: Brown Brothers, March 25, 1911. Photo courtesy of Kheel Center, Cornell University, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/
I use defenestration as the actual cause of death in another book Pure Lies. It’s a clean way to murder (no blood on your hands) and allows easy escape for the killer. There is the problem, however, of actually shoving someone who might be bigger and heavier than you out the window.
But that’s a story for another blog. Ideas welcome.
When my third book was published, I had originally titled it Provenance until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island. Of course it is a mystery and contains several murders, so I decided to call it Deadly Provenance. The story revolves around the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.
The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it was hard to know where to begin. First, there was the Nazi confiscation of art: the logistics of stealing, storing and moving millions of pieces of precious artworks. Next, what happened to all that displaced art? How much was recovered and how? How much is still missing? Then there’s my world — the museum world. How have museums been involved? Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?
Then there are the players. An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork. She is portrayed in Deadly Provenance as the heroine she truly was. Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire. Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers. Did he ever forge a van Gogh? In my book he did.
There is the modern story, where the mystery is solved years later. Protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph. Can it be done? Has it ever been done? What is the science of art authentication today? How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis? Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply here.
As mentioned in a former blog, I always visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen from Jews and other “undesirables” and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there. Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.
And last but central to the storyline, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever. “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights. But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting. Which it is.
The painting was owned by the Bernheim-Jeunes, a French Jewish family of art collectors. When they realized their art was about to be confiscated by the Nazis, they hid their collection, including the Van Gogh, at a friend’s mansion – The Chateau de Rastignac, near Bordeaux. Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nazis raided and looted the Chateau then burned it to the ground. Was the Van Gogh trundled aboard a Nazi truck and whisked away? Did a soldier steal it? A civilian in the town? Was it burned with the Chateau?
Today, there is still a great deal of interest in this subject and the world of art looting and theft. I’ve spoken about it to a number of different audiences and each time I must update it because new information appears almost weekly in the news. Lost paintings found, fought over by heirs in the courts, and, sometimes, won. Like Maria Altmann and the portrait of her aunt, The Woman in Gold.
History can never remain solely in the past. Past events have a profound influence on the present and the future. I believe they should.
This is a re-post of a blog from earlier days. There never seems to be a wane in the interest of missing WWII art and even today, art and artifacts are being returned to their rightful owners. The blog:
The most amazing thing just happened. My latest book, Deadly Provenance, recently went online. It’s a fictional story of the Nazi looting of art during WWII, set against the backdrop of an authentic historical drama that is still unfolding today. That’s not the amazing part.
Alfred Rosenberg in Berlin
A central “character” in the book is the ERR or Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Third Reich’s bureau, if you will, tasked with confiscating the precious art of Europe from “undesirables.” It was led by Alfred Rosenberg, fanatical henchman and confidante of Hitler, who also played a major role in the extermination of millions of Jews. So why is this amazing?
The long lost diary of Rosenberg has just been recovered. 400 pages that are now at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The diary is hand-written (that in itself is amazing!) and spans events from spring 1936 to winter 1944. It could offer insight into many occurrences that remain unclear today. For instance, there might be details about the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union, or such incidences as the flight of Rudolf Hess to Britain in 1941.
My personal hope is that the pages shed light on the missing art pieces. Is it possible that in addition to formal ERR records of confiscated works, that perhaps Rosenberg mentioned some of these in the diary?
Still Life: Vase with Oleanders by Vincent van Gogh is one of those missing paintings and the one I focus on in my book. Did Rosenberg happen to make note of it in his diary? When he tried to steal it from a gallery in Paris but it had already been removed for safekeeping by the owners – the Bernheim Jeune family. Did he mention that it was found again, or not, when the place of safekeeping, the Château de Rastignac near Bordeaux, was burned to the ground?
Where is the missing van Gogh?
According to Haaretz, a Jewish world newspaper, Rosenberg “. . . elicits a rare consensus among many World War II historians: the man, they say, was a pretentious fool.” Besides being a monster of the highest order. But now his diary may shed light on history, assuming words of a pretentious fool are to be believed, and that he said anything worthwhile, and did not blather on about inconsequential personal events in his life.
Which brings me back to the original premise. Does history ever stop unfolding or are there always new discoveries and uncoveries that deny or confirm the facts as we know them? Think about how your writing can reflect all the many possibilities. Alternative histories or histories true to the last detail . . . until we find out otherwise.
For now, I’m hoping to read the text of Rosenberg’s diary when it becomes public. Maybe there are clues within it to help me hunt down that van Gogh. (See link: http://lynnekennedymysteries.com/the-hunt-for-the-missing-van-gogh/)
Oh. Did I mention I was going to do that?
As part of the research for my next mystery, The Final Note, I visited Regensberg, Germany, a medieval town in the heart of Bavaria. Like my book, Deadly Provenance, about a Nazi-confiscated Van Gogh painting, the backdrop of this book is once again Nazi Germany, but instead of art theft, the theme is music. To set the stage, the following excerpt from The Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem, “Here Their Stories Will be Told . . .” gives you an overview of the Jewish situation beginning in 1933 in Regensberg. What is significant is the reference to The Cultural Federation of German Jews, musicians, in this case, who feature prominently in The Final Note.
The images I included were taken by me in Regensberg just last week. They depict the first new synagogue in 80 years, which just opened, a plaque placed in a wall stolen from the Jewish cemetery, and “stumbling” stones embedded in cobblestones – a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Here is the grim history.
“In 1933, there were 427 Jews in Regensburg, out of a total population of 81,106. Branches of many Jewish organizations were active in the community: the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (Central Verein), Jewish Assistance (Jüdischen Hilfsverein), the Reich Federation of Jewish Front Soldiers (Reichsbund Jüdischer Frontsoldaten), the Jewish History and Literature Association and many Zionist organizations. The Cultural Federation of German Jews (Jüdischer Kulturbund), which had some 200 members, organized performances and concerts featuring Jewish artists invited to the city. The Jewish youth had the choice of the Ultra-orthodox Ezra movement, the Association of Jewish Youth (Jüdischer Jugendverein) and the Maccabi Zionist sports association.
The community maintained a synagogue, several other religious institutions, a school that was operative until 1937 and a public library. A number of charitable, welfare and cultural organizations were active in the community, including an organization supporting the school, an organization for the development of social and cultural life in the community and a loan fund that also maintained activity until 1937. There was a hevra kaddisha (burial society) – the first for the general public, the second for women only, the later was also responsible for arranging the hospitalization of poor children and assistance for impoverished Jews recovering from illness. A charitable fund helped provide heating for poor families, and another fund helped new brides. Some of the children were taught religious studies by the community rabbi Magnus Weinberg. He retired in 1935 and was succeeded by Rabbi Dr. Felix Salomon.
Antisemitic incitement against the city’s Jews began when the Nazis rose to power in 1933. In 1934 a Jewish trader was arrested on suspicion of murdering a Christian boy; the Nazi press in Regensburg accused the Jews of murder, but the trader was released when the perpetrators were discovered to be Christian. An economic boycott was also imposed on the Jews. Jews in the marketplace – traders and suppliers – were attacked and their wares were destroyed. In 1934, the Jewish pupils were evicted from the city high schools. After the publication of the Nuremberg Laws, the Jews’ financial situation declined. The Nazis ordered hotel and restaurant owners not to serve Jews.In response to this antisemitic pressure, many Jews joined the local Zionist movement, and the community began to help traders who had been affected by the economic boycott as well as who wished to emigrate. This assistance included loans, foreign language courses and professional training courses. The local branch of the Histadrut Hatzionit ran Hebrew language classes. In 1936, with the consent of the Gestapo, a Beit Halutz (pioneer club) was opened in Regensburg to prepare the youth for immigration to Eretz Israel, but in December 1938, the Gestapo shut it down.
By 1938, 268 Jews had left Regensburg, more than half of them fleeing Germany entirely. As a result of this emigration, many senior citizens were left without support; the community initiated a “Winter Assistance” campaign (Winterhilfe) with the help of the Association of Jewish Women in Bavaria, and in the same year a senior citizens’ home was opened. In 1938, before Kristallnacht, a Jew was imprisoned on the charge of “racial desecration,” and the glass storefronts of Jewish shops were smashed. Thirteen Jews from Regensburg were deported in the Zbaszyn deportation of October 1938, but in January 1939 an agreement was reached between Poland and Germany, and the deportees from Regensburg were permitted to return home.
During the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, local Nazis destroyed the property in the Synagogue and the community center and burned them down. Jewish homes and stores were destroyed, as well as their belongings and wares. Some 220 Jews, including women and children, were arrested and held at the local police station. Dozens were publicly humiliated and some were sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Members of the Nazi party broke into and looted their apartments. Rabbi Salomon and his wife were forced out of their apartment and ordered to stand outside in their nightwear while their home was being demolished by Nazi thugs. A 66-year-old Jewish trader was beaten to death on arrest.
The Jews being held were released after agreeing to leave Germany. Rabbi Salomon immigrated to England in July 1939 but was killed about a year later in the Blitz.By 1939, all the traders’ and businessmen’s property had been transferred to Christians as part of the “Aryanization” process. Persecution and imprisonment of Jews continued after Kristallnacht.”
Sadly, you know the rest.