Anne Stinson - June 2007

Mystery, Intrigue and "Just People"


Anne Stinson

     The Conjurer, by Cordelia Frances Biddle. Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Minotaur Press, New York. 306 pp., $23.95.
      Here’s a mystery novel to conjure up shivers of pleasure and fear among the naive and the naughty. Set in Philadelphia in the 1840s, the novel limns a period when being a lady was a full-time occupation, when marriages were arranged by wealth and social position and reputations were as fragile as the economic climate of the day.
      During the whole 19th century (and well into the first two decades of the 20th, if truth be told), unsettled times brought charlatans to the forefront. The conjurer of the title was one such performer, a man of great magnetism and charisma. In addition to his theater appearances, he could be induced by a goodly sum to make private visits to the homes of wealthy socialites to entertain dinner guests.
     Martha Beale is the leading lady in this mystery. She’s the unmarried only child of a wealthy banker – and in her mid-twenties, it begins to look as if she’ll wind up as a spinster, albeit a very rich one. Daddy has been extremely controlling, and he considers himself her only suitable escort on their infrequent attendance in society. Aside from visiting lady friends during their afternoon at-homes, Martha is sheltered almost to the suffocation point.
      The opening chapter telegraphs the dread scene ahead. It could have begun with “It was a dark and stormy night....” Indeed, Martha’s father had not returned from an afternoon jaunt on their country house property with his hounds and gun. The Schuylkill is in flood and roaring below the hill. A search party is reluctantly organized by the old gentleman’s private secretary, to no avail.
      Not even the dogged efforts of police detective Thomas Kelman can unearth a clue in the old man’s disappearance. Martha is desperate and so undertakes a desperate move – she accepts a dinner invitation that her father would surely have disapproved.
      All of Philadelphia society has been abuzz with talk of the uncanny gifts of Paladino, an Italian “spiritualist” who seems to have occult knowledge. Martha accepts the invitation to dine with a social-climbing couple who have hired Signor Paladino to answer questions about loved ones who have died and gone “to the other side.” She hopes the man can guide her to her missing father.
      Paladino puts on quite a show, ignoring all the guests except Martha. At last, he gapes at Martha and begins weeping. “Dead,” he says in halting English. “You will dead.” Meanwhile, Detective Kelman’s intuition tells him that there are too many blank spaces in his investigation of Mr. Beale’s death, and although he is troubled, there’s no shortage of crime in Philadelphia. He’s also called in to find the killer of two young girls, prostitutes who have been strangled and had their tongues cut out by a customer. One peculiar aspect of both murders is that each girl’s severed tongue has been placed on the pillow of her bed.
      In the meantime, Singor Paladino remains in the city, still drawing crowds to his theater performances and carrying on an adulterous affair with the leading society lady. Worst of all, he has abducted Martha, which calls him to the attention of Kelman. When Paladino goes into a trance during his show, he turns ashen and nearly faints after shrieking that he sees a bloody tongue on a pillow.
      The convoluted plot begins to unravel with surprises around every corner. Big surprises, indeed, for the unwary reader who thinks the story’s all sewed up. Pure innocence, pure evil, greed and corruption swirl in a tale that ends in pure romance.
      The author is a direct descendant of two Philadelphia banking families, the Biddles and the Drexels. With her husband, Steve Zettler, she created the Crossword Mystery Series of 12 titles. The couple’s nom de plume is Nero Blanc. The Conjurer is the first in a projected series set in Victorian-era Philadelphia.
      I couldn’t put it down.

     And from a tale of high society, here’s a small new book about “Just people.” The fact that they are our people and neighbors makes them of special interest.

     Hoopers Island, by Jacqueline Simmons Hedberg. Arcadia Publishing. 125 pp., $19.99.
      If a picture is worth a thousand words, native-born Jacqueline Simmons Hedberg saved herself the chore of writing enough words to fill several dictionaries with her labor of love, a recent history of her island home. Nearly every page has at least two photos of houses, families, watermen at work and local scenes.
      Hoopers Island is one of those unique, vanishing places – small villages at the end of the road with many of the same family names that have persisted for almost 400 years, where everybody knows everybody else and most people are cousins, one way or another.
      Until post-World War II, Hedberg writes, the string of islands at the foot of Dorchester County was generally isolated, independent and self-sufficient. Captain John Smith noted the islands on his Chesapeake Bay ‘Mappe,” as he called it, in 1608. And it’s still a place where families have stayed in the same place for generations.
      Ferries, and then bridges, knitted the three islands together – Upper, Middle and Lower Hoopers and four communities arose – Honga, Fishing Creek, Hoopersville and Applegarth. The latter, at the bottom of the bridge-connected and slender islands, was abandoned when the great storm of 1933 took out its bridge and all the inhabitants moved up the chain. Today, wave erosion from the Bay side continues to gnaw at the edges of lawns in a relentless process of land loss.
      Hedberg’s lavish use of photographs, judiciously edited, spans the time from the 19th century to the present. The book’s frontpiece is an 1877 map that Hedberg calls a treasure for historians because the cartographer labeled each homesite with the name of the owner.
      The first of nine chapters highlights the outstanding features of Hoopers Island; Water Everywhere. And indeed there is. In the early settlement of the area, farming was a prominent occupation, but as storms and incessant wave action ate away at the land, water harvesting became dominant. Hedberg’s photo captions give a succinct history of bridge links and their evolution, with aerial shots graphically exposing guts and inlets that snake into backyards and gardens.
      The two final photos in the chapter vividly illustrate how the islanders and their buildings are hostage to too much water in bad weather.
      The book is essentially about people and the monuments they left behind. In Fine Old Houses and Early Families, Hedberg has not only collected pictures of local architectural interest, but also the families who either built them or lived in them. The ubiquitous center peak in the roof is generally known as Tidewater Vernacular, and it’s remarkable how the early builders adopted it as the proper way to build a house.
      Her research is painstaking and fascinating, including such arcana as the names of the homeowners who died in the great influenza epidemic of 1918-19. Men’s beard styles and ladies in high-necked shirtwaist dresses will stop the reader in his or her tracks. Most remarkable is the incidence of the same family names over and over again, attesting to the relative isolation of this road more connected to water than to fast land.
      While water was the signature employment for most Hoopers islanders, a diverse economy also flourished. As long as there remained enough land, it was farmed, but by 1950, only kitchen gardeners remained. Hedberg includes a vintage photo of the village blacksmith shop that produces horseshoes, but also boat rudders and bands to secure sails to masts as well as tongs and rings to be assembled into the bags of oyster dredges. Crab and oyster packing houses provided more on-land employment.
      On and on the parade goes in this charming book. The milestones in lives quietly lived – churches, schools, graveyards with treasured records, including a 1929 report card of a graduating senior from Hoopers Island High School who made all As except for the dreaded trigonometry. Some things never change.
      A section devoted to domestic arrangements reveals the daily life close to the kitchen stove, universally wood-burning, and summer kitchens away from the house, free-range chickens for Sunday dinner fare, often a family cow, and big families to raise. Death in childbirth was not unusual, and one photo shows a stalwart second wife. She raised the five children left behind by her predecessor plus the nine new babies she bore.
      In the pre-television era, amusement was, like the food on the table, home-grown. Baseball, bicycles and baby dolls were popular, and music came from the parlor organ and the local bands, heavy on the side of stringed instruments like guitars, banjos and fiddles, rounded out with accordion, piano and drums.
      Hedberg’s book will be cherished by families who still live on, or once hailed from, Hoopers Island, but should have a broader audience. It’s admirably written and painstakingly assembled to create an accurate portrait of a small pocket of America, one that may not survive rising sea levels and eroding storms.
      Hoopers Island is both unique and universal. Hats off to its author for an impeccable job, and to Arcadia Publishing, the leading local history publisher in the United States, for including the book in its Images of America series.