Shiloh’s Razor

This image of William Shiloh, flanked on one side by Frank Converse and on the other by Edward Green, was created using AI by Gene Sticco, General Director of the Mystic Side Opera Company.

Shiloh and Co.

A poem by John Holland 


What numerous barbers arrive in our town 

They raise their poles and they next take them down

Because there’s no man can successfully go

And hold out his own against Shiloh and Co.;

For who can a razor so tastefully strap,

Or friz up curls on a dignified chap

When Sunday comes around 

Every girl to her beau 

Says, “You’ve been to the sanctum of Shiloh and Co.”

These are the only known images of William Henry Shiloh, pictured above – and possibly below as well in the second photo, standing in front of his establishment at 42 Pleasant Street in Malden, Massachusetts.

Photographer E.C. Swain, whose studio was located next door to Shiloh’s barbershop, captured many views of life in Malden during the 1860’s.

He utilized stereographs where one image was slightly different than a second creating an illusion of depth when viewed together using a stereoscope.

Visore stereoscopico portatile, con messa a fuoco manuale

Swain’s self-portrait.

When I began researching and writing my novel, Abel Bodied: Murder at the Malden Bank, based on the true crime of the first murder during a bank robbery in American history, my focus was on the bank teller, Frank Converse, the victim of the crime and Postmaster Edward Green, who shot the seventeen-year-old teller and robbed the bank on December 15, 1863. There was abundant source material on each and more than one clear image of both men.

Abel Bodied is a work of fiction but it is based on years of researching newspapers, census records, and genealogy. Because of the coverage of Frank’s murder, dozens of newspapers from as far west as San Francisco and as far east as London reported on the crime and the search for the criminal. Even while tens of thousands were dying on Civil War battlefields on a daily basis, the daylight murder and bank robbery was so shocking, so unexpected – it captivated readers across the divided country.

The first chapter of my novel initially focused on Green’s thoughts as he walked away from the bank after shooting Converse twice and stealing $5000, worth close to $120,000 in today’s money. I continued writing the first draft but was never really satisfied with it. I considered a couple of other ways to start the book but thought I would circle back to it when I was truly content with the novel as a whole. Little did I know then that eight years would pass before it would be published. I continued working on the story – adding details and chapters – but I realized the beginning of the book was vital and I would need to find a way to entice the reader, and more importantly at the time – myself as a writer, so I could discover the motivation to complete a novel.

I did not set out to write a story where William Shiloh played such a prominent role. In the newspaper coverage after the murder, he is barely mentioned. Both the images and the details of the man are obscure. The life of Green was portrayed not just in numerous newspapers but in a twenty-three page pamphlet, “The Life, Character and Career of Edward W. Green, Postmaster of Malden” written by Benjamin Russell in 1864. This was the prime source material I uncovered at the Malden Public Library, built as memorial to Frank Converse by his grieving parents and opened to the public on Frank’s birthday, October 1, 1885, more than two decades after his murder. When I researched other items collected in the library about the crime and studied maps from this era of my hometown, I pondered, “Maybe this will be basis for the novel I always hoped I would one day write!”

I thought this book would be an Edward Green story and, in large part, it still is – but my muse also had other ideas along the way and William Shiloh’s perspective on the crime would soon intrigue me the most as an aspiring author.

After the robbery, Green spent some of the stolen money to sit for his portrait with a photographer in Boston named R.J. Chute. I thought it curious why he would not instead simply visit Swain’s Malden location a short distance across the street from the post office. I had no idea and no way to ever find out the true reason for his decision. Now with smart phones, we take selfies all the time but sitting for a professional photographer during this time was a rare, time-consuming event beyond the reach of many people except the affluent. Green, days after the robbery, possessed enough purloined, expendable cash on hand to splurge on this item of vanity.

The idea came to me to create a scene where Green visits Shiloh to tidy up a bit before taking the train into the city. This provided an opportunity for the barber to pose the question for me to Green about his choice of photographers. With the true answer forever unknown, I would defer to the alchemy of my muse instead.

Any question a character in a novel asks leads to answers, and then hopefully a series of further questions and answers for the writer. This somewhat frivolous question of Green’s choice of photographers led me to the more compelling queries involving complex themes. Shiloh’s barbershop became the setting of an author’s laboratory leading me to explore the subjects of race, class and position in the 1863-1864 town of Malden with the Converse murder as the catalyst to delve into each topic.

My initial inquiry was how would Shiloh react to a man he suspected was the villain entering his shop unexpectedly and sitting in his chair? And then what were his inner thoughts as he held a sharpened straight razor so close under the suspected murderer’s neck? Did he believe Green was aware he had spotted him walking away from the bank before the crime was discovered?

There were tales of black barbers, slaves in the Confederate South, killing white men with a slice of a straight razor. There seems to be some debate of their historical veracity. Whether they were true or not, I placed the rumor in Shiloh’s head with my fiction. In the scene, he portrays a practiced calm demeanor externally but inside he is accessing the situation and contemplating his present and future safety in the presence of the postmaster. The intensity of those fight or flight options before Shiloh were so palpable that they caused me to inhabit the scene myself as I wrote – as if I was a participant instead of just the author conjuring their description.

I thought a man who had already committed murder was dangerous and capable of further bloodshed if he was perceived to be a suspected killer and that William would realize the same as I amped up the barber’s uncertainly and anxiety on the page.

Here is an excerpt from that scene in my novel:

“Was the postmaster suspicious of the knowledge William held of him? The barber contemplated his options. If Edward tried to attack him, he thought he could flee and surely outrun him. Yet if Edward was carrying a gun on his person, perhaps the one recently wielded for the heinous violence at the bank, William feared there could be no escape.”

This was the very first scene I wrote that I experienced the absolute thrill of being a novelist! A shudder ran up my spine as I wrote from Shiloh’s perspective. My thoughts and his thoughts converged as one collective mind. Typing this chapter caused a visceral sensation in me as if I was holding his straight razor myself instead of my laptop.

Feeling momentum, I kept this chapter in the middle of the book and continued to work on the first chapter I was unhappy with periodically as I added scenes and chapters. Yet, when I re-read this chapter once more during my editing process, I was aware it was the best one I had written up until to that point.

So, I moved it to the start of the novel and this solved my first chapter problem with a clean cut and paste of Shiloh’s razor. Eureka! I had my story. It was now not just a book about the killer and the victim – but the witness of the crime as well. This changed the whole novel for I began to write more scenes about Shiloh and his perspective.

I asked myself, who was he? This distant image of a man standing there in the street, proud, conveying dignity in front of his business enticed me to imagine more of who he might have been and how his part in this narrative could develop. If the photo was unclear, his story in my creativity was forming details and coalesced in his character as the sentences and paragraphs shaped my narrative.

The photos of Shiloh, blurry and from a distance, are still the foundation of the man that I decided to make, if not the center of the story, its very conscience. I wanted to know more about William – so taking off my journalist hat and instead wearing my novelist’s hat, I invented the story. I had the template and I could fill in the rest with my imagination. Being a writer can be very powerful. The man and all the other real people in this novel have been dead for well over a century but in my mind’s eye, they were all alive once more and I could connect the dots of their stories within the perimeters of my research any way my muse led me.

Who was he? The historian in me had these images and an odd paragraph here and there in 1864 newspaper reports. Then, there were census records and genealogical background. Learning all I could about him directly, was just the starting point.

The following is my description of his part in the story from the back of my novel and as well as the home page of my website:

William Shiloh was born a free man in Delaware but by the end of the 1850’s, he was not certain he would remain one much longer. He fled north with his growing family to Malden and opened a barbershop, along Pleasant Street, catering to the affluent men in the town. From his windows, William could witness all that transpired in Malden Square – although he was barely seen by the townsfolk he observed.

Life was difficult, but William remained optimistic that it was improving day by day. That hope was obliterated by dread the morning Frank Converse was found shot and the bank robbed. Being the only one who held the knowledge that Edward Green was the last person to exit the bank before the crime was discovered, William suspected that the postmaster was the villain and that belief would only continue to grow.

In many ways, William Shiloh is the heart and soul of this novel. A righteous man, yet a reluctant witness. He fears the townsfolk won’t believe him for the mere fact that he is not one of them. He is an outsider. The color of his skin also makes him worry that an accusation directed toward a white man as the criminal might instead fasten the guilt squarely upon himself.

The fact that Edward Green committed murder in broad daylight terrifies William. William’s main priority is to keep his family safe and the best way to accomplish that, he believes, is to not bring any undue attention on to himself. Yet his conscience struggles with the dilemma of what is safe for him – and what is just for the family of the murdered Converse boy and the frightened people of the town.

In my novel, Abel Bodied: Murder at the Malden Bank – Shiloh is fictionalized since I was drawn to the story but wanted to tell it in a narrative form.

When my novel was released, someone chided me that I got parts of the story wrong since they had access to the internet and read a couple of articles. Even though I had dedicated many years to learning all I could about the Converse murder and the time period, I replied that I was a fiction writer. The book is historical fiction not a non-fiction book.

The past is convoluted, memories are fallible and historical records are not always reliable. For example, a crime blog that comes up high in any google search when you type in “Edward Green Malden” states Edward Green was thirty-two when he committed the crime while his birth record and all other evidence I researched on his age points to a June, 1837 birth, making him twenty-six at the time of the crime.

There are discrepancies in the accounts of William Shiloh’s age. Census records before 1850 are less detailed. The 1865, 1870 and 1880 census records state Shiloh was born in 1817. His death record infers his birth occurred in 1819 whereas a newspaper account of his death implies he was born in 1813. My research does point to his being born in New Castle, Delaware about six miles south of Wilmington below the Mason/Dixon line.

He married Emily Butler from New York. They had seven children. The oldest, William, died at a very early age. By the time of the events in my novel. William and Emily’s remaining children were Henrietta, aged sixteen, Caleb, aged eleven, Mary, aged eight, John, aged four, Phillip, aged three and Annie, aged one.

My book is not about what Shiloh looked like for the only images of him were distant with his features indiscernible. but more importantly, what he saw. He was a witness to a crime but he was also a witness to a whole town, a whole era in American history. In many ways, as an outsider, he noticed more than others expected and with far more certainty than he could reveal.

He was my spectator to all the action but by being so, he became larger part of the focus of my main story. Like Nick Caraway’s perspective in The Great Gatsby of the conflicted love story of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan or Ishmael in Moby Dick as he watches Ahab frantically and foolishly chase the white whale, Shiloh treaded carefully around Edward Green after Frank Converse’s murder and contemplated with care how to proceed.

At this stage of writing the book, each chapter had a title. Shiloh’s Razor was what I called the first chapter representing the barber’s profession and the sharp line he had to navigate as a witness to the crime. As a black man, every decision was perilous to him and the consequences of each could cost him his freedom or his very life. Since I had changed the start of the book from Green’s internal thoughts to those of Shiloh’s as Green enters his shop days after the murder, I wanted the book cover to convey the barber looking out the window as the postmaster walked away from the bank after his crimes. This cover was one possible option but I settled on a closer perspective of Green as he traveled away from his crime.

A deeper dive into where Shiloh was from in Delaware and a law enacted that a black man in that free state seen as indolent could still be enslaved clearly drove Shiloh north and propelled my novel about the murder of Frank Converse by Edward Green also into a story about William Shiloh.

As I finished my final edits, I reread the brilliant Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. His nameless narrator was an invisible man in the 1950’s New York City. William Shiloh in 1860’s Malden was the same but with the added danger of bondage depending on the outcome of the ongoing Civil War. The uncertainty of his fate, determined by others, placed every action he took and didn’t take as a chess match with men who didn’t perceive him capable of playing. I wrote him as a character who was both aware and astute as he was forced to navigate the unknown perils he faced.

The Converses are the most prominent family in Malden’s history. Elisha Converse, who would serve as the city’s first mayor, amassed a fortune running the Boston Rubber Shoe Company. His distant cousin, Marquis Mills Converse, after Elisha’s death, founded The Converse Rubber Shoe Company also in Malden. It would eventually become world famous with the creation of its Chuck Taylor’s All Stars and the expanded popularity of basketball.

In June of last year, I was invited to speak about my novel in the Library dedicated to Frank Converse at the Converse Family Reunion.

As president of the First National Bank, just a short distance from Shiloh’s barbershop. Elisha installed his first-born son, Frank, as an apprentice of the head cashier, Charles Merrill. Frank was alone in the bank on that fateful December day and Edward Green, a desperate opportunist deeply in debt, took advantage of his friend’s trust to rob a large sum of money and steal Frank’s life in the process.

When Gene Sticco, the General Director of the newly formed Mystic Side Opera Company, contacted me about producing an opera based on William Shiloh’s story within Abel Bodied. I suggested we call it Shiloh’s Razor after the chapter that had been my epiphany to finding my focus as a novelist.

To have William Shiloh now be the focus of a planned opera is very rewarding. His character began as an instrument in telling the tale of the Converse murder story – but he eventually metamorphosed into a full orchestra in my mind in order for me to complete my lifetime goal of writing a novel. I am excited to see his story performed on the stage!

Get ready for an exciting collaboration between Malden author, Michael Cloherty and Malden’s Mystic Side Opera. We’re thrilled to announce the creation of an original modern opera “Shiloh’s Razor,” based on Cloherty’s historical novel, Abel Bodied!

“As a novel, Abel Bodied is an emotionally intelligent piece of writing that not only takes readers inside the psyche of its characters but delves deeper into what’s in their hearts;” said MSO General Director Gene Sticco (Above left w Cloherty), “but Williams Shiloh’s story, his conflict and emotions about the challenge he found himself facing… there’s no art form other than Opera that can bring that to life in way that will impact everyone who see it.”

This powerful and thought-provoking story centers around the life of barber William Shiloh, a free black man during the Civil War, who is the only witness who can help solve the murder of Frank Converse at the Malden Bank. But as fear spreads through the community that there is a killer on-the-loose, Shiloh must confront his own internal conflict about exposing the killer, knowing that in doing so he risks everything, including his own life.

It’s the Opera you didn’t know wanted! … and as always thank you @idlehandsbeer for the encouragement in a stein to pursue our dreams!🍻

Mystic Side Opera Company

On Thursday, March 9th at 6:30 P.M. at Pearl Street Station, I will be reading Shiloh’s Razor for the first time! This will be a book-signing event and it’s a special occasion as “Chalk Outline” the beer brewed in conjunction with my novel, Abel Bodied, by Bone Up Brewing Company will be on tap! I hope to see you there! Cheers, Michael Cloherty!

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