Monday, January 20, 2014

A young voice from the past: a guest essay by Leah Pileggi, author of Prisoner 88

Leah Pileggi, author of Prisoner 88, is my guest at Reading the Past today.  Prisoner 88 is categorized as a middle-grade historical novel, yet I believe it will also intrigue adult readers due to its young hero and his experiences which are based on a true story.  Please read on!

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A Young Voice from the Past
Leah Pileggi

I stumbled onto the inspiration for Prisoner 88 while touring the Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise on a blazing hot day in June of 2007. Built in the 1870s and closed as a prison since riots in the 1970s, the remains of the “Old Pen” bake under the summer sun and frost over in winter. I couldn’t help thinking How could anyone have survived in this place? Toward the end of the tour, the docent said, “The youngest prisoner ever held here was ten years old.” What? “It was in the 1880s,” he said. “He shot a man.” I had to read that book. Not only were there no books about that particular ten-year-old boy, there wasn’t very much known about him at all other than the fact that he had been there, he was 4’ 6” when he arrived, and his name was James Oscar Baker.

From the Idaho Register, 1885
Since I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Idaho Historical Society was my lifeline to primary sources. Vintage newspaper clippings set the stage. In 1885, James Oscar Baker was in a saloon in Soda Springs, Idaho, with his father when an argument erupted. A man threatened to shoot James Oscar’s father. The son stepped in, grabbed a gun and took a shot. The man died right there in the saloon.

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.

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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).

9 comments:

  1. The oddest thing in the whole story is that he was disowned.

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    1. I was thinking the same thing. He was defending his father, right? Doesn't seem right at all.

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    2. I know - that part seemed particularly unfair and hurtful to me too.

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  2. This is an amazing story that I look forward to delving into. My great-great grandfather, Joseph Loewenstein, was shot in the gut in his saloon (known as a barrel house) in st. Joseph, MO. He got caught between two men settling a bet. Bravo Leah Pileggi for uncovering this bit of history.

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  3. This sounds like a fascinating story. I just put a hold on it at the library and I'm really looking forward to reading it.

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  4. I don't think I could read it, too painful. It's one thing to read a sad novel of fiction, but something like this that really happened?? No, I can't.

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    1. Hi, I responded to your comment (although I don't think I put it in the right place!). Please check for my comment and let me know if there's anything else you'd like to know about James or Jake!
      Thanks,
      Leah

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  5. Hi readers! I wanted to let everyone know that PRISONER 88 is not a sad book! I want to explain a little more about James Oscar being disowned. There was some sort of arrangement between the governor at the time and his friend, Cyrenius Mulkey, that Mulkey and his wife would have to take custody of James if he was released early. The governor didn't like James's father. It seems obvious that his father might not have been very likeable, but I found out that the father had been shot off his horse in the Civil War, and the horse landed on him. He was lame. When he was being threatened, it's possible that he couldn't physically defend himself. Not that it was a good idea to encourage (if he did) his son to shoot the man. It's impossible to know exactly what happened, but James eventually reunited with his mother and at least some of his 11 siblings! And in PRISONER 88, Jake truly does make the best of his situation.
    Thanks to everyone who commented. Let me know if you have more questions!
    Leah

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