A Young Voice from the Past
|From the Idaho Register, 1885|
The trial transcripts, written in the elaborate cursive of the day, included witness statements. Even though the assortment of witnesses didn’t all remember what happened in exactly the same way, it was pretty clear that it was James Oscar and not his father who fired the shot. But even if that was true, how was it that a ten-year-old was sent to serve time in the penitentiary? A retired Idaho judge agreed to read the transcripts for me, and he explained how that happened.
Someone (perhaps his attorney) had told James Oscar that he should plead guilty to manslaughter, that if he didn’t do that, he might end up being convicted of murder and spend the rest of his life in prison. So he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and because of that, he had to serve time. There was only one place to do that in 1885 Idaho: The Idaho Territorial Penitentiary. It didn’t matter his age. Guilty = Must serve time.
Through letters from the attorneys for James Oscar’s parents, I found that James Oscar had been disowned by his parents while in prison. When he was released, it was to the custody of a man named Cyrenius Mulkey – a friend of the governor – and his wife. That information was corroborated by a book called Eighty-Three Years of Frontier Life, the autobiography of Cyrenius Mulkey written when he was eighty-one years old and revised two years later.
What I didn’t find was a day-to-day record of the boy’s time behind bars or of any inmate at that time. So I immersed myself in 1880s Idaho including everything I could find about the Old Pen.
|Close-up of stone wall, Old Pen|
The penitentiary was self-sustaining all the way up through the Depression with the inmates working in an orchard, in gardens and with livestock. The prison walls were built of local sandstone blasted from the hills nearby, blasting that was done by prisoners (who handled the dynamite) due to a lack of money to hire workers. Prisoners included Chinese men who had come to America to discover gold or perhaps were brought over to work on the railroads. Some prisoners were Mormon “cohabs,” polygamy still being supported by the Mormons at that time.
|Old Pen, three layers of cells|
Once I had 1880s Idaho absorbed into my consciousness, I let my protagonist, Jake, write his story. There were days when I would pick up from my previous day’s writing and I would think, Where did that come from? I like that, but I don’t remember writing it. As though Jake truly was writing his own story. And for me, that’s the beauty of historical fiction. Finding that voice – in this case, a young voice – and letting the past speak for itself.
Leah Pileggi has published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Chautauquan Daily and Hopscotch Magazine. She has been writing for about ten years, and her first book of nonfiction, How to Design a World-Class Engineering College: A History of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, was just released. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she bikes whenever possible, practices yoga and occasionally plays the mandolin. Visit her website at www.leahpileggi.com and follow her on Twitter at @pileggi88.
Prisoner 88 was published in 2013 by Charlesbridge ($16.95, hardcover, 144pp).