Questions and Answers with Frances McNamara about Death at Pullman
Q. Your protagonist is Emily Cabot, a young woman from Boston who comes to Chicago to be a graduate student at the University of Chicago when it opens in 1892. How did you decide to choose that time period and that character for you stories?
A. I can remember working the reference desk of the Wellesley College Library. I used to be scheduled occasionally on nights and weekends. When they renovated that building they kept the original stone building as the core and built a modern set of wings around it. The Reference room was in the middle of that space with high ceilings hung with huge portraits of the women who had been college presidents. There was one of a young looking woman in a romantic white dress. I remember I even used that picture in an early story that was never published. I later learned that was Alice Freeman Palmer, an advocate of women’s education. Year later, when I was inspired to look into a story set at the University of Chicago I learned that President William Rainey Harper had convinced Alice Freeman Palmer to come to Chicago as Dean of Women. Harper had gone back East and raided the academic institutions there to form a faculty that would ensure the new university was the impressive institution the businessmen of Chicago imagined it should be. Everything was about putting Chicago on the map. Dean Palmer couldn’t agree to spend the whole year in the Midwest but she brought Marion Talbot, also from Wellesley. Talbot eventually became Dean and she wrote a memoir More Than Lore that describes how important it was to women of the time that they were finally able to do graduate level research. From attending Mount Holyoke and working at Wellesley, I knew those early women’s colleges had been important to women looking for education. I hadn’t realized that even with that education they were limited from moving on to graduate work. That limitation was lifted at University of Chicago and some other institutions during the 1890’s and American women were excited about the possibilities that opened up for them. So when Chicago and the university in the 1890’s seemed like a rich setting, I remembered those women and created Emily Cabot as a representative of the. Personally, I’m grateful to women of that time and others whose determination to prove women could do work restricted to men, allowed later generations, like mine, to have many more opportunities and choices. Like the city which was just growing up at the time and like the university which was just beginning, women like Emily were at the start of a challenging future.
Q. The first two books in the series are set at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and at Jane Addams’s famous settlement house on the West side, Hull House. What made you choose the town of Pullman for the third book?
A. It’s really amazing to learn how rich the history of the city of Chicago is. There was so much going on, and so much that helped shape the world we live in even now in the twenty-first century. The Pullman Strike was one of those events in Chicago that had enormous impact.
Just about when the World’s Columbian Exposition started in the summer of 1893, there was a big recession in the whole country that caused a lot of pain and unemployment (sound familiar?). The Pullman Company where they made and maintained the Pullman Palace Cars saw business decline. They lowered salaries of workers as a result. But most of the workers lived in the famous factory town of Pullman and paid rent to the company. When the salaries were lowered, the rents remained the same. By spring of 1894, workers were unable to pay rent and pay for food. Desperate, they tried to send a group to talk to George Pullman, the company founder and president but they failed in that and there was a walk out by the workers followed by a lock out by the company. The American Railway Union got involved because the members were sympathetic to the Pullman workers, then the General Managers Association of railroad management groups who wanted to stop spread of the union got involved and eventually even the U.S. Army was called in. The U.S. Army in an American city? Unheard of, but it happened. There was a huge amount of suspense and drama in the whole situation so it makes a great backdrop to an imagined murder of one worker in the midst of all the turmoil.
Q. Why would a strike that happened over a hundred years ago be of interest to modern readers?
A. The really interesting thing is when you see parallels to things happening in our world today. That turn of the century from nineteenth to twentieth was a time when some essential issues and stresses in American society were surfacing and various responses were being forged. We hear echoes of the same arguments today, as we continue to struggle to reach the best form of our society.
One of the most amazing things to me was the way that George Pullman refused to talk to the workers. His refrain, often quoted in the newspapers was “there is nothing to arbitrate.” While there had been some public portrayal of the company town of Pullman as some sort of good works, created to help workers, Pullman never made that claim. He said the town was an investment and it needed to provide a return on investment as planned. In that year of layoffs and salary reductions the Pullman company still paid dividends. High dividends. Even other business people thought George Pullman was being unreasonable, but he was adamant.
The stance that Pullman took sounds to me a lot like some of the folks today who seem to want to treat free market capitalism as a kind of religion with absolute precepts that must be obeyed. They put their case with religious fervor when they argue that investment bankers must get bonuses or we can’t tax the richest among us. The arguments are not always practical, but more on principle. Free markets must be “free”. They echo George Pullman’s stance that even if the people of Pullman were starving (and they were, at that point they did not have money for food because salaries were lowered but rents remained the same, literally they were starving surrounded by that very nice, neat company town), the company must make the maximum profit. The rents must pay off the four percent payback planned for and the company must pay the dividend it planned for.
I hope the dramatization of the story lets the reader draw their own conclusions about issues. The story is really about some smaller, fictional figures who have lives that are impacted by the big story of the strike in the background. But there are echoes of the same attitudes and issues that were important back then in the news stories of today, especially these issues of “free markets” and “class warfare” and how we live and build a particularly American society. I hope people will be surprised to learn about what was going on then. We don’t remember these things and they can be fascinating. A lot of the research I did was in reading daily newspapers during the strike. I hope the book gives people a feeling for what it was like during this episode.
Q. Your father was Police Commissioner in Boston for ten years. Did that influence your decision to write crime fiction?
A. My father was an FBI agent in the 1950’s, then he was Boston Police Commissioner 1962-72, some very interesting and turbulent years. Perhaps his biggest influence on me in writing crime fiction is that I don’t write noir or police procedurals. I tend to steer away from those. He really was a tough guy, he received a Silver Star in WW11 when he was on PT boats and he played pro football briefly, but he actually valued keeping the peace not pulling a gun. When he saw “detectives” on TV shows he would denigrate the characters as “hot shots”. The day to day keeping people safe, keeping traffic moving, patrolling the neighborhood was what he really valued, not solving crimes, preventing them. Not pulling out a gun would be more admirable than pulling one. I remember him being asked by some older ladies at the time of the Boston Strangler killings whether getting a gun for protection would be worthwhile. “What are you going to do? Shoot someone?” he would ask.
I would say that the experience gave me a sense of the forces at work in a big American city. It’s not easy working in a city administration. I found a memoir of a Chicago police detective Clifton Wooldridge where he harangued against the Great God Graft, an inevitable element of American cities. I did not use that real character but the police detective Henry Whitbread who works with Emily Cabot and becomes her mentor is an incorruptible member of the police force whose integrity gets him in trouble sometimes. That type of integrity is something my father strove for despite pressures of the job. He had strong opinions about how integrity was essential for an official in an American city, especially in the police.
Aside from that, my father liked to watch who-dun-its on TV, like Perry Mason, and to guess the villain. I did, too.
Q. The next book in the series is set in Woods Hole on Cape Cod? How do the characters wind up there?
A. Yes. The fourth book I am currently working on is Death at Woods Hole. I discovered that the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole was established in the late nineteenth century. And, as it turns out Charles O. Whitman and his successor Frank Lilly were both from the faculty of the University of Chicago and came to Woods Hole in the summers to do research. So, of course, I thought of bringing my characters to Cape Cod where I have a family house with my sister. The type of people who founded the MBL and studied there were typical of the scientists who would work to bring so many changes to the world during the twentieth century. And science was another area where women wanted to venture but they had many hurdles to overcome. When you look at pictures from the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory at the beginning, you see many women on the boats and in the laboratories. It seems natural that Emily should visit her friend Clara Shea who is in science. And Dr. Chapman has left medicine for research so it’s a good place for him to go as well. I was surprised to find out about the connection between Chicago and Cape Cod, so I wanted to exploit it.