Just in time for Halloween, an Ohio historian might have discovered the secret origin of the president’s vampire.
I recently got an interesting email from Mark Butler, who works for the Ohio Historical Society. He ran across some new information about James Brown, the real-life prisoner who was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, and the inspiration for the story behind my fictional vampire, Nathaniel Cade.
Brown, according to some sensationalistic headlines at the time, killed two of his crewmates on a whaling vessel and drank their blood. He was pardoned by Johnson for reasons unknown. (You can get a more complete account from Robert Damon Schneck’s The President’s Vampire: Strange-but-True Tales of the United States of America. )
However, Butler has discovered something new in the story. He was researching Brown as part of a presentation he did called “Infamous Ohio” and found what might be the original source of the story that Brown was a killer who drank his victims’ blood: a warden seeking to boost tourism revenues.
And of course, there’s a new presidential angle, as well.
…In addition to the fact that other papers covered this story, the reality is that James Brown was mentioned as being a “human vampire” months before the Brooklyn Eagle published its article. The Stark County (Canton, Ohio) Democrat included this in its August 25, 1892 article on Brown’s impending transfer. The article jokes that had Brown committed his vampirism in 1890, he might have been asked to co-lead the Republican Party alongside William McKinley. (This article is available online at the Chronicling America project.) The Democrat cites the Chicago Herald for its information on Brown.
Therefore it is unlikely that a writer for the Brooklyn Eagle created the myth of James Brown’s vampirism. In addition to challenging the notion that the Brooklyn Eagle created this myth, a review of an additional source debunks the notion that the myth creator (whoever they were) developed this myth by merging it with the sad story of Mercy Brown, who died in 1892, the year of James Brown’s transfer.
In his book, “The Ohio Penitentiary Annex and Noted Convicts”, Warden B.F. Dyer writes that Brown was known to have “killed a shipmate and drank his victim’s blood.” Dyer’s book was written in 1891. This means that the story of James Brown being a vampire pre-dates not only the Brooklyn Eagle article, but also pre-dates the death of Mercy Brown. In other words, James Brown was an alleged “vampire” during Mercy Brown’s lifetime. Dyer’s book is available at the archives/library of the Ohio Historical Society.
If a Brooklyn Eagle reporter did not create this myth and the myth was not connected to that of Mercy Brown, who is responsible?
I think it is more likely that Dyer himself created this myth. He also writes that Brown stabbed a fellow prisoner with a fork (an eating utensil) while in the Ohio Penitentiary. What was Dyer’s motivation? Just as a vampire can sell newspapers, a vampire could also help sell his book. The Ohio Penitentiary had quite a tourism industry, including tours and even postcards, during its heyday. Imagine if potential visitors heard that they might catch a glimpse of a real vampire!
I love history. Thanks very much, Mark.
If you’re taking a leisurely five-day weekend to celebrate the Fourth of July, you’re going to need something to read. And I’m assuming you’ve already read all the adventures of everyone’s favorite patriotic vampire. So it’s time for you folks to branch out a little.
If you’re looking for something scary, then I suggest the latest collection of short stories from my friend and teacher John Rember. Sudden Death Over Time is set almost entirely among the academics at a tiny liberal arts college as they struggle to find their own reasons to live. And while that might not sound like the stuff of horror, in places it is absolutely terrifying. John’s prose is as mercilessly lucid as ever, and he wrestles with the existential questions most of us prefer to avoid without strong chemicals. My personal favorite was the piece about the professor who’d personally taken charge of the college’s stash of deadly materials accumulated in the glory days of the Cold War, when you could get plutonium and biotoxins through the mail. You can order the book direct from the publisher here.
Coming To My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride is by Alyssa Harad, another refugee, like me, from the great state of Idaho. I admit, I haven’t read this yet, but Alyssa was always a gifted and ridiculously smart writer, so it’s worth checking out. It hits July 5, and sounds fascinating. After thinking of herself as primarily a bookish intellectural, she discovers an unknown sensual obsession in perfume just before she’s about to get married. Think Eat, Pray, Love without the entitlement issues. Wouldn’t be surprised to see this hit Oprah-like levels of success, so get your copy now.
Yet another Boise native, Stephanie Reents just released The Kissing List, a collection of short stories about the early days of semi-adulthood: the escape from grad school; the first, crappy apartments; and the inevitable collisions with love and mortality. Filled with effortless, elegant prose and surprising moments of grace.
When I was at the University of Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program, (#humblebrag) I got to meet a writer I’ve admired for a long time, Steve Almond. He was gracious about my fanboy piddling all over his sneakers, so I suggest you pick up his new collection of stories, God Bless America, or any of his seriously funny, smart and occasionally sex-drenched work.
Or you can do yourself a favor and read anything by Emily Rapp and be amazed by her ability, her strength, and her breathtaking honesty. (Seriously, I write about vampires to avoid thinking about the stuff she confronts in just a few paragraphs.)
After all that, you might be in the mood for some lighthearted mayhem. Fortunately, my friend Cody Goodfellow has got you covered. His book, All-Monster Action, destroys the entire planet in a war fought between weaponized Godzillas and bioengineered freaks, and it is ridiculously fun.
Finally, there’s Glen Duncan’s Tallula Rising, the sequel to The Last Werewolf. It’s brilliant. Read both books if you haven’t already. Then read everything else he’s done. Duncan is one of the greatest prose stylists I’ve ever read. Werewolves and vampires are just the bacon and hot fudge on top of the sundae.
As it turns out, there’s nothing like monsters fighting monsters to take your mind off — or maybe illuminate — the great struggle of humanity to simply live through all the joy and pain the world serves up to us, every day.
Okay. That should hold you until at least next week. Get reading.
There is a company that will turn your cremated remains into vinyl LPs. That’s an especially strange and sobering thought for a Friday morning, so let’s move onto the shameless self-promotion before we get too deep into wondering what songs should be pressed onto those discs…
(“Don’t Fear the Reaper” seems a bit on the nose, doesn’t it? Of course, if you’re into 80s Wave, you have two versions of “Forever Young” to choose from, but that might be a little tasteless for some. “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode? “The Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash? “Story of My Life” by Social Distortion?)
Right. This week’s RED, WHITE, AND BLOOD news:
Reading the adventures of Cade and Zach may cause some bleeding. You’ve been warned:
Thanks to Richard L. Powell, who sent the image of his blood-spattered copy of THE PRESIDENT’S VAMPIRE.
Bob Reiss has an awesome review of the audiobook version of RED, WHITE, AND BLOOD up at his site, The Guilded Earlobe. Thanks, Bob. (Once again, I am very lucky to have Bronson Pinchot narrating.)
Clark Isaacs at the Kingman Daily Miner says RED, WHITE, AND BLOOD is a “five-star book for all, not just fans of the vampire occult.”
A great review and summary of BLOOD OATH, the first book in the series, at Examiner.com.
And in other news:
I got to see Weezer this week at the Roxy. It was for a fundraiser for my daughter’s preschool, but I’ll take my cool points where I can get them. Of course, when Rivers Cuomo ran into the audience and high-fived my wife, I almost missed it completely, because, like an asshole, I was tweeting.
Still, I stayed out late and heard some great music. I loved the covers of Tiffany and Poison, and heard a song Cuomo wrote in Japanese that sounded like the prom theme of a high school where the kids fight giant monsters. And above all else, the band was incredibly kind to donate the time and effort.
Here’s my grainy, photographic proof:
Last week, I also was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the UC Riverside MFA program, held in Palm Desert, by Tod Goldberg. (Goldberg is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met, and — perhaps not coincidentally — his stories are amazingly heartbreaking. Check them out and you’ll see).
I’d known grad school could take place at a resort with its own Splashtopia water park, I would have stayed in academia. I got to geek out over meeting Steve Almond and Geoff Dyer and finally, in person, my agent-sibling Jillian Lauren. I sat and tried to be as smart and funny as the faculty (did not even come within 100 yards of any of them). And then gave a lecture on the proper care and feeding of a monster and met a lot of sharp writers. With any luck, I didn’t damage too many of the students with my advice, because I would sure as hell like to go back again.
People have been wishing me “Happy Release Day” all morning. Although that might sound like a special form of massage or what you hear when you get out of prison, it actually means that today is the day you can buy RED, WHITE, AND BLOOD at your friendly neighborhood bookseller.
So if you’ve been coming to this blog and somehow missed my relentless self-promotion, here’s a little more.
- My old paper, Boise Weekly, has a very flattering profile by Josh Gross, that answers some questions about Cade and the twisted pathways in what I laughingly refer to as my writing process.
- Carol Thomas at the Examiner has a great review of the book, if you need more convincing to read it.
And thank you all, once again, for supporting and reading my weird books. I really do appreciate it.
More good news and reviews for RED, WHITE, AND BLOOD:
- Stefan Blitz at the indispensable site Forces of Geek was kind enough to interview me about the new book and Cade’s whole twisted history. Check it out here. And thanks, Stefan.
- Great reviews for the book from Jenn at Jenn’s Bookshelves and Caleb at Luxury Reading. Many thanks to them both.
- My first “Parents’ Brains” postcard arrived. Love it. Remember, if you want a free CADE 2012 baseball cap, details are here.