Frank Converse: two portraits, one poem, an image carved into a gravestone weathered by time and a crime mostly forgotten by history… until now

This portrait of Frank Eugene Converse is one few people outside of his family have ever laid eyes upon before.

Frank was born on October 1st, 1846 in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

Before noon on Tuesday, December 15th, 1863, the seventeen-year-old teller of the First National Bank of Malden became the first murder victim during a bank robbery in American history when Edward Green, the indebted Malden postmaster, shot his close friend twice in the head and stole $5000.

Discovered close to fifteen minutes after he was shot, Frank was unable to utter his assailant’s name. Alerted to the shooting, neither of his parents could arrive before their child gasped his last breath.

In 1885, Elisha and Mary Converse constructed the Malden Public Library as a memorial to their slain son as well as a gift to the town in which he had lived. They installed an art museum and established a trust to fund the library so their gift could live on in perputity – even if their son could not.

Like so many others who grew up in Malden, I walked past the familiar portrait of Frank Converse each and every time I entered the long room of the Converse Memorial Building.

I spent hours as a child there, surrounded by books, hoping to eventually write a novel of my own.

During my twenties, I endeavored to finish a manuscript without success. I took a break in my thirties from making another attempt and then in 2012 as I turned forty, I became transfixed by the historic crime committed in my hometown and couldn’t let go of my desire to tell the tale shocked that no one else had ever written a book about it before.

I dived deep, committing eight years of my life to researching hundreds of newspaper reports from the time as well as census records and the genealogy of the main characters involved to create my historical fiction novel. I wanted the book to be based on my gathered facts and then let my muse add dialogue and some scenes to move the narrative.

I published Abel Bodied: Murder at the Malden Bank in the summer of 2021.

You might think that eight years is a very long time to write a novel and I would completely agree with you! It was not an efficient process, but it was the journey I was capable of completing.

I am very grateful to the City of Malden and all of those I have met in person or online in the past year. Thank you!

Here is a quick photo compilation of people at my book signings.

Special thanks to Malden Mayor Gary Christensen, Business Development Officer Kevin Duffy and my pal, Pete Caso, and his All About Malden Facebook page!

After the success of one event last year, the city scheduled a series of sold-out pub crawls this summer based on the historic crime in my novel. Actors from Incantrix Productions portray the real people involved – immersing participants within the true crime while on a pub crawl held in drinking establishments with connections to historic locations – such as the killer’s office and the scene of the murder. The pub crawl concludes at Idle Hands Craft Ales where I sign and sell copies of Abel Bodied.

Click the the image below for ticket information.

This year, my novel caught the attention of the Converse family and I was honored to be invited as both a guest and a speaker at their long-planned family reunion.

Talking about my novel based on the murder of Frank Converse in the library, a building dedicated to him, before an audience of his relatives was a surreal experience. A bookend of sorts to my childhood dream of becoming an author while studying within those very same walls.

Though slightly overwhelmed by the significance of the moment, I was also thrilled and grateful to where my writer’s path had led me. In fact, in an email I wrote to one of the organizers afterward, I stated that, “it certainly was the greatest family reunion I ever attended where I was not a member. But I felt like an honorary Converse just the same thanks to all of you!”

Read my blog about the experience and a transcript of my speech here: Converse Family Reunion

The welcome reception of the reunion was held on Friday, June 24th at the library. As I stood next to this bust of Elisha Converse, the man beside me introduced himself as Christian Costello Converse and asked me if I could take a photo of him alongside the sculpture of his 2nd great-grandfather.

After taking his photo, Christian informed me that he possessed another portrait of Frank in his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

The portrait we were gazing at beyond our view of the sculpture of Elisha, Malden’s first mayor, was painted after Frank’s death – but Christian informed me that Frank had sat for the artist in the one which had been passed down to him as a family heirloom. He forwarded this image to me.

Though I was aware that this other portrait existed, having an opportunity to finally see it was an unexpected surprise. That flimsy mustache where a boy is almost a man but not quite – sums up the potential of what Frank Converse might have been. A life with promise ended too soon.

Even now, contemplating this novel perspective of Frank as I write this – after being so immersed in the narrative of his murder for so long, I have the sensation of being in very select company – at least until I click on the publish button for this blog.

This likeness of Frank has been glimpsed by very few eyes over the last century-and-a-half. I am grateful to Christian for sending me this image and giving me permission to share it with all of you.

I owe so much to the portrait that I am familiar with, the one that I gazed at as a boy. The Malden Public Library has been a resource of learning for generations and Frank’s tragic end became a catalyst for my creativity. The portrait in the library ignited the fuse allowing my imagination to burn until I was finally able to complete my novel.

But this other portrait, though older than the one I’ve known all my life, perhaps just by a year or two, is brand-new to me and so enthralls my writer’s mind in unique ways. Frank was alive when it was painted, he had a pulse, he had a tremendous future ahead of him – yet no way to perceive how little time he had remaining.

Hundreds of miles away, a civil war was raging with men not much older than him dying by the thousands each day. Frank would not perish on a battlefield – but his death would be just as brutal while also being completely unexpected – for it was at the hands of someone he trusted and knew very well.

The reason I named my novel Abel Bodied is because Frank’s murder, like Cain killing Abel, was the first of its kind. Also, while Edward was not Frank’s sibling, they were reported to be the closest of friends and the postmaster was, in my fiction, and perhaps in real life as well, jealous of the life Frank possessed which was far beyond his own means.

I visited the Converse family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in the neighboring city of Everett countless times as I was writing my novel. Frank was buried in Malden but in 1870, Everett broke off to become its own city.

Frank’s image on the facade of his grave has faded with time and exposure to the elements. I imagined the crime and those involved to create my novel – but I also pondered what Frank’s face must have looked like when the stone was new.

I tried to conjure the image his parents and his friends gazed upon when they visited his resting place in the initial years after he was buried. In my novel, I even created a scene where his killer visits the grave of his dear friend. Guilt-ridden, Edward is absolutely transfixed by the likeness of Frank and begins to talk to him as if he is really there. The postmaster then awaits a response which never comes.

The carved image of the friend he murdered lay so very clear, so vibrant before him, almost glowing in the late morning light as the sun rose behind him, that Edward expected an answer.

He paused for several moments. He imagined what Frank would say to him now if he was able to communicate or if he had been able to do so as their eyes met before the firing of the second chamber.

But the stone’s facade of his slain friend just looked past him and deliberately into eternity.

Superimposing Frank’s face from the portrait new to me onto his image etched in stone – but eroded by time, gives us this possible view of how his gravestone might have once appeared and how I imagined Edward Green saw it as he contemplated the great crime he had committed against his young friend.

The Converses were affluent enough to not only chisel their son’s countenance onto his gravestone but also to commission a poet to compose a tribute to him in the short window of a few days between his murder and his funeral.

This tender elegy, written in honor of a slain son – like the portrait of a living Frank Converse – has been viewed by a scant set of eyes. Copies of it were passed out at Frank’s burial service to the mourners. I included it in full in my novel, but you can read it here as well.

     A TRIBUTE TO THE MEMORY OF FRANK EUGENE CONVERSE
     AGED 17 YEARS
     WHO WAS ASSASSINATED IN THE BANK OF MALDEN
     DECEMBER 15TH, 1863

     The youth went forth at   early morn
     All healthy, bright and gay: 
     Before the sun the zenith reach'd
     A mangled corpse he lay.

     Pity and fear stalk'd through the town, And thrilled was
     every breast: Commotion dire filled the day,
     And darkness brought no rest. 

     To hunt the murder'r from his den
     Each lent a willing hand, 
     Nor sought they long before they found
     And mark'd him with Cain's brand

     Had the wretch died on battlefield
     A lustrous name he'd won,
     In death dishonor'd now he lies,
     That killed the well lov'd son.

     The boy's true heart would never yield
     From virtue's path to stray: 
     True to his trust, his life he gave,
     The cruel robber's prey. 

     A life so young, so well begun,
     He bravely might aspire
     To win the civic crown of worth
     With honor to his sire

     What anguish tore the parents' breast
     When death untimely came,
     And treachery with bloody hands,
     Put out his life's young flame.

     Tears avail not, nor loud laments,
     To ease the throbbing heart: 
     Remembrance of his virtuous life
     Alone can peace impart

     Where Woodlawn spreads its stately
     boughs
     With winding walks around, 
     Beside a snow white monument
     His bed of rest is found

     There flowers are strewn - there wreaths
     are hung -
     There woodbine marks the grave
     Of all that was mortal was of him 
     Whom Jesus died to save.

     Midst that Sacred Sepulchral Scene,
     Nearby a shady bower,
     Where water sparkling from the fount
     Within a rustic tower
     
     Upon the mount the stone is rais'd,
     There should you ever coy
     In marble you will see impressed
     The image of the boy

     --John Davidson

Time has slowly wore down the face of Frank Converse chiseled upon his tombstone – as it has also erased the story of his historical murder from our collective memory.

I hope with my novel, these two portraits, a poem and a visage of his gravestone restored, at least digitally, that the tragedy of his murder gains meaning and significance once again.

Michael Cloherty

2 thoughts on “Frank Converse: two portraits, one poem, an image carved into a gravestone weathered by time and a crime mostly forgotten by history… until now

  1. I LOVED THIS!!!!!! Thank you, Michael. This is wonderful. I will pass this on to my children. They will love it also. Hope your summer is going well. My regards to Guiness. Judy Cutting

    Liked by 1 person

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