Abel Bodied Speech at Converse Family Reunion

June 25, 2022

The Story of my novel, Abel Bodied

Part 1

Malden Public Library

Page one of fulfilling my childhood dream of writing a novel began in this very building. I just was not aware of it at the time.

When I was a boy, I spent hours and hours in this library. I was a student at Cheverus which is a block away.

I would come here after school, do my homework, borrow books from the shelves. Dive deep into another form of knowledge, a form of escape – which is the joy of reading.

As I entered, I would look up at the portrait of Frank Converse, surrounded by the portraits of his father, Elisha and his mother, Mary.

I was aware this library was built as a memorial to Frank but I was a child and didn’t fully comprehend the significance of his young life ended far too soon. I was too focused on the book in front of me and to where it led my imagination.

In high school, I did some creative writing and then I was an English Literature major at Suffolk University. Four years of reading, Four years of delving into the minds of Joyce, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and others. However, I wasn’t sure if I could make a living a writer.

So, in the last semester of my senior year, I interned at New England Cable News and I have worked for the last 27 years in Boston television news, as a video editor, as a writer, tuning in liveshots.

During that first summer after college, I had a nightmare of a Union soldier chasing me around my childhood home. The next day I started writing a novel set in the 1860’s to the 1880’s in Malden. I worked on that novel throughout my twenties without ever finishing it. It is on a hard drive and I hope to return to it at some point.

In my thirties, I married, life goes on, work, commuting, vacations. My desire for becoming a novelist was set aside.

As I turned forty in 2012 – I wrote an article about the bank murder as a piece of Malden history. I knew a little bit about it but found myself truly drawn to the story, more and more.

Click book cover to buy!

Part 2
The Novel:

Writing this novel, I thought of myself as an archeologist, digging and digging until the story revealed itself. I researched hundreds of newspaper articles related to the crime.

Many of the numerous articles I read on a particular topic were often verbatim as they were transferred around the country by telegraph from one newspaper to another.

But occasionally, after reading the same words over and over, I would find one new little fascinating tidbit. It was like panning for gold. If you think of the task of what the 49ers did in California, it was many hours of tedium for that one moment of discovery and that for me was what the research of this book was like. It was always the thrill both of the research and then forming that research into the narrative.

Besides newspapers, I also sought out the census records and the genealogy of the main players in this tale, The Greens, The Shilohs and of course, The Converses, not as much as Peter knows by any measure – but I did my best.

Peter Converse, 2nd Great-Grandson of Elisha and Mary and organizer of reunion

I enjoyed researching the facts from long ago – but my muse also wanted to be creative and imagine how these real people lived, how they thought, what life was like in the time they lived, the struggles they encountered that were unique to them and more importantly the struggles that are familiar to us today, issues truly timeless to all people.

I was learning as I was going. Both of the history of the story and also of the craft of becoming a writer.

I have been working in journalism for more than half my life – but truly pining to be a novelist since I was a boy, this book is a combination of the two, allowing me to write a novel based on the true events.

Pleasant Street 1867 looking east toward Main Street. The Malden Bank was located right of the buggies, but just out of sight.

I had been waiting my whole life to write a novel and this story and the era in which it occurred allowed me to explore the themes which are universal to the alchemy of America since its inception which include race, class and gender.

But I like to think of all of my research as tent poles. I acquired all of this knowledge, the whole story, the timeline of these people’s lives, of the murder, of the Edward Green, the postmaster’s involvement and hints of what his motivations were. Of William Shiloh, a black barber, who witnessed all that occurred on Pleasant Street and testified of seeing Green pass back and forth across the street often to visit his young friend, Frank. And I filled in these tent poles with dialogue and the what-ifs of a fiction writer until I had my completed structure.

This is historical fiction. The title, Abel Bodied, is initially based on the fact that this was the first murder during a bank robbery in American history, more than two years before the James-Younger Gang, which may have included Jesse and his brother Frank that day, robbed a bank in Liberty, Missouri shooting and killing a bystander as they rode away. Coincidentally, the victim was also 17 just as Frank was.

Frank Converse’s grave in Woodlawn Cemetery, Everett, Ma – which was part of Malden at the time of his death

I was fortunate since the story occurred here that I could visit many of the pertinent locations like you are doing on this reunion weekend. Like Frank’s grave, the location of the bank and the former location of Green’s post office which is currently where Hugh O’Neill’s pub stands. It didn’t hurt that this pub was my local.

So, I thought of Cain and Abel. Though not blood, Frank and Edward were reported to be the closest of friends by many townspeople after the crime. Green, a horrible bookkeeper was deeply in debt with a baby on the way, his daughter, Alice, was born just ten days after the murder on Christmas day 1863 – so, it was an easy leap to think he was jealous of Frank the way Cain was jealous of Abel. I also thought of the Civil War raging where brother was killing brother.

The original First National Bank where the crime was committed was demolished before 1901, the current larger structure had housed a variety of other banking institutions until it recently was converted into Faces Brewery.

The Malden Bank a few years after the murder next to the larger Bailey Building

When I began this book, I wanted to visit the scene of the crime to get a sense of the place where it all occurred.

In 2012, it was a Bank of America. I was not a customer, had never been in the building before but my mind was full of my research and the portions of the novel I had started writing, I walked to the middle of the bank, did not approach any tellers or anyone else. Knowing the former footprint of the smaller original bank, I began to pace around like I was traveling back to 1863. It was as if I was all alone, just me and the story unfolding in my mind. Those around me vanished as I entered further and further into my imagination.

After a couple of minutes. Quite content with my visit and the sense and time of the crime, I wandered back out on the street, imagining how Green, the postmaster, had done so almost 150 years before. Trying to conjure what he was thinking after the crime, his emotions, what was going through his mind after killing his friend, regret, fear of being caught, relief of having a large amount of money, $5000, for the first time in his life.

I stood there contemplating all of these ideas and didn’t budge. I was disturbed from daydream by the fast approach of a burly security guard who must have thought I was a lunatic or was simply casing the joint. I walked away slowly and luckily, he went back into the bank. I never returned to that bank after that.

My novel, Abel Bodied: Murder at the Malden Bank, took 8 years to research, write and edit. At some points I was concerned I would never finish it. My fear was that like so many others, I would be a middle-aged man with a half-written manuscript buried deep in a desk drawer.

Forgotten about just like my first attempt at writing a novel in my twenties. Yet, I persevered because I was compelled to tell this story. To finish it. I couldn’t stop working on it. Even when I took a pause from writing, I couldn’t cease thinking about this historic event in my hometown which was unknown to most people.

I was shocked a book had never been released on the subject before. I wanted to finish as soon as possible in case some other author stumbled across the first bank robbery murder in our country’s history before I could publish my book.

Part 3
Finding the story arc:

The novel focuses on the grief of Frank’s parents and also on Edward Green’s wife, Clara, who had a difficult time being married to him.

But there are three people involved who are the main focus of this novel for me and this story. There is, of course, Frank, the victim, Edward, the killer, his motivations, the reasons he would do this to his friend and then you have someone I didn’t expect initially to be such a big part of my novel, William Shiloh.

William Shiloh standing in front of his barbershop on Pleasant Street

William, a black man born in Delaware below the Mason/Dixon line, moved to Malden before the Civil War to ply his trade as a barber. At this time in our nation, there were some German immigrant barbers but African Americans made up a large portion of the profession.

A barbershop was a place for affluent white men who expected an ornate parlor and a certain standard of elegance in these parlors. To put it simply, they wished to be waited upon.

One of the greatest compliments I have received as a writer was from my proofreader who loved my line that Wiliam’s shop faced north and the south was behind him. He had moved north, away from the threat of slavery. Yet, though his and his family’s lives were safer, they remained fraught with peril while the war to determine the freedom of his people was fought hundreds of miles away.

In between haircuts and shaves as he awaited his next customer, William could see everything that occurred on Pleasant Street. I imagined him as a careful, tactful man who observed the townspeople with great detail without being truly seen by them himself.

So, he allowed me to have a character with a unique perspective. He was a witness and as a black man certainly saw things differently than his white peers. He was an outsider who had carved out a little place for himself in town as a barber.

I had trouble finding the perfect way to start the novel. There were at least three first chapters which I wasn’t happy with. I moved a chapter I liked a lot, originally in the middle of the book, where William sees Edward approaching his barber shop days after the murder which William suspects Edward had committed, to the beginning of the novel.

This allowed me to have one of the main focuses of the story hinge on William’s decision whether to come forward or not with what he knows while considering the consequences of both options.

I wrote his character as someone who desires justice for the Frank and the Converse family – but also a man who has to be cautious for the safety of his own family and their place in Malden. For a story to work, a character has to face a dilemma or challenge and so William became the engine to move the narrative.

Part 4:

At my first ever book signing right across the street from the location of the 1863 crime.
June 26, 2022 Malden Summer Festival

I’ve looked at your itinerary the last couple of days and I think it is terrific! The reunion organizers did a great job of connecting you to every part of the Converse family in this area. What your family has imparted to this area, particularly to Malden. What Elisha meant to our city as its first mayor and what Frank’s passing meant to his parents and all they gave to the city including this beautiful building in Frank’s memory. The legacy they left of philanthropy is truly astounding.

I published my book last summer and the city has been very kind in supporting me. They gave me a prime spot on Pleasant Street feet from the scene of the crime during several summer festivals last year and more this year.

Murder at the Malden Bank Pub Crawl July 2021

Last year, they also staged a pub crawl with actors portraying the real people involved in the crime at locations pertinent to the true story like the killer’s office and the location of the bank robbery and murder. This year, we have some staged another pub crawl and five more are planned. There are 80 tickets per event. The next one on July 9th is sold out like the previous one and the others are also selling quite well.

Click the image below for ticket information and availability

Idle Hands Craft Ales

The crawl starts and ends at Idle Hands Craft Ales which is not too far from where the Boston Rubber Shoe Company once stood. At the end of the tour, I sign and sell copies of my book. I tell my wife all the time, the two things I enjoy doing the most are drinking beer and talking about my book and she is very happy that I have now found a place to do so outside our home! It did take 8 years to write the book.

Incantrix Productions during Murder Mystery Pub Crawl June 2021

When Mayor Gary Christenson read the book, he tweeted, “I started it on Saturday and finished it today. It was that good and the only thing that could top it is if the book was made into a movie or Netflix series!”
And I said, “Keep talking, Gary!”

I am very grateful to his and the city’s support especially Business Development Officer Kevin Duffy.

I had so much research and detail of this book that a few years into writing it, it grew to about 900 pages. It was too long and too unwieldy to finish so I cut it in half and focused on the first part, rewriting and editing it before I hired a copy editor, a cover designer, an interior designer and proofreader.

I self-published because I wanted to retain creative control of my work. Oftentimes, a publisher can change the characters, the plot, the cover, anything they want. I didn’t want to cede my autonomy – but I did want to hire professionals to allow me to create the best book I was capable of writing.

The remaining manuscript will be part two of the story which ends with Mary passing in 1903 and Elisha in 1904. I hope to have it published in the next year or so. While still a work in progress, I would like to read a passage from it now.

Appropriately enough, it’s Elisha speaking to Mary. It is how I imagined they discussed building this library as a memorial to their slain son.

“Our lives are finite and the best intentions we leave in our wakes are also finite – but with some luck, they can span not just decades but centuries.

For this reason, we must try. We must give even after our last breaths, Mary. Frank loved books and reading. He always had a book in his hands. We will construct this library for our home of Malden and in our heart of hearts we build this for our son. We do this for Frank!”

A terrible act of violence shows the fragility of the human body and the temperament of the mind of a troubled man. Edward Green was a desperate opportunist; he robbed the bank and killed his friend.

In contrast, the parents of the victim were givers, not takers. Years of philanthropy by the Converses proves the enduring triumph of their spirit after such a tragedy.

When the anniversary of the bank robbery and Frank’s murder, December 15th, was approaching last year – I went to the mayor with an idea. I wanted to emulate the philanthropy of Elisha and Mary on the terrible anniversary of their son’s murder.
Just as their lives were a beacon of charity and giving after the horrendous loss of Frank, I wanted the date of his murder to focus on the good works they had accomplished. I proposed we honor the legacy of your family to the city with a ‘Converse Day of Giving.’

I had only sold and signed trade paperbacks up to that point. I numbered my first signed hardcovers from 1-17 since that was the age to which Frank had lived. The first signed hardcover raised $90 in a drawing for Bread of Life – our local food bank.

Janet Andrulli won the first numbered and signed hardcover copy of Abel Bodied.

I gave the majority of the profits of the next 16 signed hardcovers, as well for a total of over $400 to Bread of Life. I plan to continue this event on the anniversary this year and hopefully for many years to come. To give back to Malden as the Converse family always has.

I have lived in Malden all of my life. Three weeks from today, I will celebrate my 5oth birthday.

My writer’s journey began here when I was a child and it is truly a marvelous bookend for me to be speaking about my novel based on the tragic murder of Frank Converse in the building dedicated to him surrounded by members of the Converse family knowing Abel Bodied graces the shelves of this library.

It was a thrill when the first copy of my novel arrived in the mail. It was fun for me to visit the gallery@57 in Malden Square steps from the scene of the crime, some Barnes and Noble locations and other book stores and take a picture of my novel on the shelves surrounded by so many other books. I felt a pure sense of accomplishment and joy.

Yet, when I met Dora St. Martin here last year and donated copies to the library and she informed me the library had purchased even more, this was surely the greatest thrill of them all.

To have my novel about a significant event in my hometown on the shelves of this library is astounding. Something I never could have guessed would occur when I was a boy doing my homework here or reading a book someone else had written. I have written my own novel and it is on the shelves in this library. There is nothing I am prouder to say.

Elisha left an indelible mark on this city. I am humbled and hopeful to say, I may have left a minor mark myself in Malden with this novel as well.

Thank you ever so much for listening and all the Converse family has given and continues to give to the citizens of Malden!

2 thoughts on “Abel Bodied Speech at Converse Family Reunion

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