Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Murder in the past -- and present

By Pat Remick

The entry in the official 1886 Death Ledger reveals the facts in stark black and white:

Margaret Blute: DOD: December 25, 1886; 34 years old 10 months and 28 days; Birthplace: Portsmouth, NH; Father: William Quinn; Mother: Johanna Crowley; Father's Birthplace: Ireland; Mother's Birthplace: Ireland
Cause of Death: Kicking and Bruising
What the ledger does not reveal, however, is the name of Margaret Blute's murderer: her husband, Patrick--my great-great grandfather.

I first learned about this tragic piece of family history in August and as a result, this holiday season will not pass without my remembering that one of my ancestors brutally killed another, apparently in a drunken rage, on a Christmas Day 123 years ago.

When I asked my father why he never shared this information with me, he said he did not know about it but  this was hardly the sort of information most families spoke about easily. His half-sister apparently discovered the details while doing genealogical research. She handed me copies of the newspaper reports while I was at her house in search of old family photos this summer. They are difficult to read, and yet also strangely fascinating.

“Christmas Revelry Ends in Murder” proclaims one headline under the heading “Shocking Tragedy.” According to the reports, the “pair have had a reputation of living unhappily together, owing to strong drink.” Patrick Blute, 42, was described as a strongly built teamster and “valued employee of the Eldredge Brewing Co.” Margaret, 35, weighed about 125 pounds and her body showed scars of “old healed-up wounds.” The newspapers contain different accounts of her death, though most indicate she died of her injuries after being beaten and thrown down the stairs. According to one witness, Patrick Blute calmly admitted he had been beating his wife for years and told the marshal: “I don't care what you do with me, I just as soon you'd take me down to the wharf and throw me overboard.”

I also know they had four children, ages 2 to 12. One of them was Julia Blute, my great-grandmother who died a year after I was born. I wonder today who raised her after her mother was murdered and her father sentenced to prison. There is no one alive to tell us. But we do know her father's fate from
this news report:

“Patrick Blute, who on the night of Christmas day, 1886, murdered his wife by kicking her to death in the most brutal manner in their miserable home at the Creek, and was sentenced to state prison for 20 years for the crime, died in prison on Friday morning. Blute recently petitioned the governor and council for a pardon, on the grounds he was dying of consumption, could not live but a few weeks at the longest, and wished to spare his children the disgrace of having their father die in the penitentiary. His request was very properly refused by the governor and council; his sentence in the first place was ridiculously disproportioned to his offence (sic), and if his innocent children are to bear any disgrace, it was his crime and not its punishment which brought it upon them.”
I am still shocked by these revelations, but as a mystery writer I am also intrigued. The people involved in this sad tale are too far removed to seem real. But I cannot deny that they once walked the same streets I do or that their DNA is inside me. And I cannot help but think about them whenever I drive by the location where the murder occurred, though the tenement was replaced by a commerical enterprise years ago.

It also seems ironic that their grandson became the chief of police of their community and now my child—their great-great-great grandson—also is a police officer. However, another of their descendants, my cousin, was fatally stabbed 10 years ago less than a quarter-mile from where their tenement once stood.

I am still trying to process all of this. It reminds me again how truth is often stranger than fiction. I also believe these developments cannot help but change my view as a writer of murder and its aftermath – and forever remind me that horible things do happen to real people even on what may be for some the most blessed of holidays.


Joyce Tremel said...

Pat, how tragic--and fascinating! It's amazing that no one in the family knew about the murder. You'd think that there would have been rumors that something shocking occurred, even if no one wanted to talk about it.

You should think about writing their full story.

PatRemick said...

I know -- it does seem so bizarre. How do you keep something like that secret? And if I submitted their the story to an editor, I suspect I'd be told it isn't plausible that their current day relatives would have had no idea....

Jenna said...

See, this is the kind of thing I deal with in the DIY books. Some sort of long-ago tragedy or mystery that Avery has to look into, in addition to the modern day murder. I may borrow yours sometime, Pat, if you don't mind.

Funny you should mention how unlikely it is that no one would know, because I had to tackle just that in Plaster & Poison, which comes out in March. One of Derek's (Avery's boyfriend) relatives was murdered in 1918, and nobody knew. It's a couple generations ago, and not something anyone wanted to remember fondly, so it was never talked about. My editor didn't query it at all, nor did my agent. I agree with Joyce, you should write it.

Gina said...

In earlier times, pre-Tell-It-All talk shows, families did keep secrets. Not only crimes, but mental illness and even some physical illnesses (like cancer) were concealed. My mother once told me, in a hushed voice when I was in my late twenties, that there might be mental illness in the family as if it were some deep dark secret (which I guess it was to her). Myself, I'd thought it obvious since early childhood that some of the extended family members were certifiable. My college best friend's family concealed family childbirth difficulties from her, which resulted in her being in labor for 2 days before the doctors realized that she'd need to have a Caesarean. And my ex-husband's family kept it very, very secret that one of his grandmothers had some non-White ancestry.