Welcome to Episode 2 of The Search Artist. Search Artist posts will take an author and dig into the research they did to write a book. History gives us meaning. Our culture informs who we are. If we do not understand why things were done, how things were done, our very definition of self is lost.
I'm always on the lookout for books about Nashville's crime history. When I set out to write Crime Novels set in Nashville, it was clear the city is not like Memphis, New Orleans, or Detroit, other mid size cities which have a grit to them. Of course, L.A. is the crown jewel of American Crime fiction. I'll say that because Chandler, MacDonald, and Ellroy all base their work in La-la Land. New York and Chicago, both chock full of gold era gangsters, make for great narrative back drops. But those are America's largest cities, they get a leg up. So Historically speaking it seems Nashville lucked out with a Gingham past; nothing checkered. Before you send me 'yeah but' and 'well actually' notes, I know, there is crime here. I know there is violence. I know we are a human trafficking hub. But for now, I'm digging in the past. I had the Stringbean murder in my pocket for book #1. But when I finished that I had to keep digging and keep my eyes peeled for more Nashville dirt. I came across the book Murder and Mayhem in Nashville at the now defunct Book Man and Book Woman shop in Hillsboro Village. The following is an interview with Brian Allison the author.
AHW-The first book I remember seeing like Murder and Mayhem was Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury. Not long after that I read Lowlife by Luc Sante. My high school history education was typical but I got lucky in college with some really interesting professors that pushed notions that the histories of criminals were compelling. You explore Printers Alley, Hell’s Half Acre, Smoky Row, as you say, “People didn’t always make the paper for the right reasons.” Did you set out to make a book like this, or did the stories just find you? So with your book, what sort of histories like Sante or Asbury inspired you? What sparked that curiosity that these stories needed to be told?
Brian-Asbury was a pioneer in the field and a great influence on me when I was young. He was a gifted storyteller and a former journalist who actually knew some of the folks he writes about in Gangs of New York. However, he wasn't a formal historian and never cited his sources. So many of his stories are unverifiable today. However, he set the stage for the genre of informal "true crime" books to come. Luc Sante is a fantastic writer, and I enjoyed Low Life immensely. I think it's fair to say it was the spiritual descendant of Asbury's work. And there are several modern writers tackling similar subjects today such as Rose Keefe, Patrick Downey, Jim Knight, Rick Mattix and others who have all influenced me.
Criminal behavior seems to be one of those things that fascinates people - myself included. Maybe it's a vicarious thrill, or maybe - as one of my professors once said - you study what you're afraid of. I'm not sure. For me, though, it serves as a window into the forgotten areas of the past. We all know (or think we know) great names like Andrew Jackson or James K. Polk, but what about those that barely scraped out an existence on the edge of their world? It seems comforting somehow to know that people have always come in all types, and for those who want to worship the past, it helps to know that people were no more noble or ideal then than they are now.
I've always had a fascination with that part of the past, and I think it's fair to say that the stories found me as much as I found them. I've collected stories like these for the past twenty years, and it was wonderful to have an opportunity to tell them in the book.
AHW-History is dynamic and one great way to illustrate that are the changes in technology. I noticed in your bio you’ve done work at Traveler’s Rest and the State Penitentiary. Are there stories that you found where technology really made a difference in either of these two buildings? Like an incident where without the technology see the story would be different. For instance in my novel two burglars are able to listen to a man perform live on the radio so they know he isn’t home while they ransack his house.
Brian-I've only worked at Travellers Rest, although I've written about the Penitentiary a great deal. In the chapter about the 1938 prison break in Murder & Mayhem, there is a fine example of technology "saving the day," so to speak. The escapees commandeered a truck and drove out of the prison in a hail of gunfire, then promptly got lost on Centennial Boulevard looking for a bridge to take them across the river. A few years earlier the police response probably would have been slow and haphazard, but as it turned out, the Nashville PD had just invested in a new piece of technology - radio cars. For the first time, the car had two-way communication with dispatch, and the police were able to quickly isolate the escaping truck, trap it, and recapture the prisoners after a nasty shootout. If the radios hadn't been there, the prisoners might well have found a way across the Cumberland, and it might have taken weeks to track them down.
It's hard today to imagine something as simple as a two-way radio was once cutting-edge technology, and realize the impact it had when it was introduced.
AHW-I really got the feeling from your book that you spent a-lot of time in the microfiche. It's thrilling when you in it and realize how much info exists that isn't on the internet! And it’s not all ephemera. There are some really jaw dropping stories out there that are gone. What are some of your favorite places in town or in the state to go dig up the pieces that you can’t Google? Were there any stories in the book that you’d not seen a reference to them before hand and you found them by virtue of the archives? Did you do any interviews?
Brian-Absolutely! The internet is a fantastic tool for researchers, and many of my initial inquiries into a story started with a simple Google search. However, in a case like this, a good 80% of what an author needs is still not available online. Newspapers can give simple (often inaccurate) summaries of an incident, but to flesh it out you need trial records, prison files, diaries, letters, books and articles, many of which still have to be rooted out by hand.
Luckily, Nashville is blessed with several fine repositories of information. The Tennessee State Library and Archives, the Metro Nashville Archives, and the Nashville Room at the Public Library were vital to the completion of this project, and I owe them a debt of gratitude. There are also libraries and archives as far afield as Oklahoma who have helped me out, finding rare sources that can't be located on the internet.
And almost every time I'm doing research, I stumble across a story I've never heard before. I usually make a note of it for future reference. When I started this project I doubted I could fill an entire book with stories from Nashville. I'd estimate that with the information that came to light during the writing process, I probably could put together two sequels if there's interest enough in them.
The research process teaches you to be diligent, but also flexible - sometimes the story you stumble across turns out to be better than the one you started with.
AHW-So you worked at Traveler’s Rest and did a book on the Penitentiary. Let’s talk about the different state these two buildings are in currently and the values on history, how they get placed, what gets saved, what gets lost. With the prison a-lot of the history is probably documents that had original uses for the prison? With Traveler’s Rest I imagine there is a-lot more that exists for posterity?
Brian-Travellers Rest is well preserved and a fascinating place to visit. The Penitentiary on the other hand is not open to the public and is falling apart. I think both situations have to do with cultural memory.
Travellers Rest was the home of a Nashville pioneer and a friend of Andrew Jackson. It presents a window into a world that is two centuries lost to us. I find that stories that took place outside of the scope of living memory are somehow more interesting to most people - they want to be transported to a time or place that's somehow more exotic, and I think most historic house museums provide that opportunity to view a world that's long since gone. And, fair or not, people see that world (for all its sins and desperation) as somehow more "noble." It's "good history."
The prison, on the other hand, is "bad history" -- it brings with it too much baggage. Taken apart from its story, it's a rare and fascinating piece of late Victorian architecture, and very valuable just on that note. However, the fact that it was a maximum security prison up until the 1990's, and the scene of much violence and misery over the years seems to make people uncomfortable today. It seems to be a reminder of a barbaric past that people don't want to visit - or I should say "respectable" people don't want to visit. If you mention that you have an interest in that sort of history, people do seem to react differently than if you say you want to go to a Civil War battlefield - even though at its worst the prison was a much less bloody place than the battlefield of Shiloh. That stigma of "bad history" is hard to get away from, understandably.
However, I believe that, like a Civil War battlefield, a prison is a valuable slice of our common past. History can serve as an example of what not to do, as much as what to emulate.
AHW-So I’ve read that Jesse James lived in East Nashville. I’ve read Mickey Cohen hung out in Printer’s Alley in the 1950’s and gambled. Do you have a favorite local sighting of a national criminal?
Brian-I have a real interest in the "Depression Desperadoes," the Public Enemies of the 1930's. I come by it honestly - when my dad was a kid in Texas, his father took him to see the bullet-riddled car that Bonnie and Clyde had been killed in a few weeks earlier.
So my favorite story involves the Dillinger gang and its brushes with Nashville. I'll hold off on details, because I'm hoping to include it in a later project, but as far as we know John Dillinger and his gang-mates Harry Pierpont, Charley Makley, "Red" Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter all visited the town on a couple of occasions. Their second trip to the city caused quite a panic, and led to a tragic accidental shooting.
There used to be a saying here - that "all roads lead to Nashville." It's not an exaggeration. So many roads, railroads, and rivers pass through here that the city has seen probably more than its fair share of famous visitors over the years - both upstanding and infamous.
AHW-The story with Edward Carroll Judson, the Kentucky Detective who comes to town in 1846, woo’s some polite lady of town, invokes the justifiable anger of her straight laced husband and it all ends in scandal. This one seemed like a good candidate for narrative non-fiction. Do you ever plot out some of these stories to yourself? I noticed you add a-lot of plausible scenarios to fill in details and I think every historian has to do that. It’s interpretive art. Sometimes you have to make that work for you instead of against you. Did you write some of it in this manner and then edit it back later?
Brian-I think that's the key difference between fiction and non-fiction - the balance between art and science. It is okay to speculate in non-fiction - so long as you state that what you're expressing is your own opinion or interpretation. Fiction, on the other hand, is completely your own interpretation or opinion. Each approach has its challenges and its limitations.
Generally, as I write I'm attempting to understand the people I'm writing about. Even in the worst cases, I find it's best to try to find something sympathetic about them - and that's very hard to do with some of the murderers and maladjusted characters you stumble across in your research. However, you have to remind yourself that these were real people, with real problems, and that none of them set out to do wrong.
This interpretive approach is my way of staying neutral as much as I can. If you write off someone's actions as simply good or evil, you reduce them to a caricature - a two-dimensional and unbelievable figure of fun. Life is never that simple today, and it was no different in the past.
AHW-You say that Nashville does not revere it’s past. What makes you think this is the case?
Brian-I think we're seeing a phase where Nashville has focused its natural tendencies into an over-the-top version of itself. This incredible building boom is nothing new - the only thing different is that there's a lot more money and demand available to fund it. But Nashville has always looked to the future rather than the past.
I think you can chalk it up to its "gateway" status. It's always had a fluid population, with people coming and going from different places, bringing ideas from all over. This means the town has always had a vision greater than itself, and if you think the current crop of historic buildings being demolished is bad, I just point to my youth when it seemed a week never went by without some old house or structure falling to the wrecking ball.
And the ultimate irony is that when you see one of the few survivors - some old 1890's office building or 1820's farmhouse - do you ever stop and wonder what was there before it was built? Even as early as the 1880's, there was still a pioneer log cabin built in the 18th century standing in downtown Nashville. And the War of 1812-era capitol building (a small brick farmhouse) was still standing in the 1890's. Both of them were later demolished - unheralded, quietly, with little or no outrage from the people of the time.
I think it's fair to say that Nashville doesn't revere its past. However, it has always revered its future, and I suppose there is something to admire in that.
AHW-So there you have it dear readers. If your on the fence about buying a paperback at $21.99 it’s because the book has great historical photos in it and the paper used is a higher quality than a standard paperback thus you really get a great reproduction of the images.
Please buy the book at your local bookstore.
If you are here in Nashville try Parnassus Books.
Or buy it from the publisher The History Press/ Arcadia Publishing.
Another great book called The Secrets of the Hopewell Box gives great insight to Nashville's past and went a good ways towards showing me that crime here might be along the lines of War is Politics by other means.