First Person: Margalit Fox in Conversation with Ruth Franklin

hi hello everyone welcome thank you for your patience we just wanted to make sure everybody got here and I guess it’s not raining yet which is very good so I’m Judy Greenspan director of public programs here at the Center for Jewish history and on behalf of the center and our co-sponsor tonight the Jewish Book Council I am really delighted to welcome you to our program our goal efox in conversation with Ruth Franklin the program I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while now the program this evening is part of our series which we call first-person a series inspired by really a love of history and great storytelling and the connection between both of them David McCullough says it better than I did so I’m going to quote him he said history is about people it’s about life it’s about cause and effect it’s about stories so first person is just that a series of personal stories each illuminating an aspect of the Jewish experience and together revealing the richness of Jewish history here at the Center for Jewish history the series is part of our mission in excusing part of our mission to preserve and remember the past and to use that knowledge to better understand the present so before I introduce Marguerite and Ruth a few words about where we are today are there any people in the audience who have never been here before okay nice all right good so for those of you and a little refresher for the rest of yous the Center for Jewish history is a world-renowned research institution it’s a destination for public programs concerts exhibitions a place to explore your family tree and most importantly the center is home to our five partner organizations and their extraordinary archives our partners the American Jewish Historical Society the American Safari Federation the Leo Beck Institute Hashima University Museum and the Evo Institute for Jewish research together possess a treasure trove of historical artifacts documents artworks and photos that make up the largest repository of Jewish archival material outside of Israel and that is right here on West 16th Street our partners combined collections include five miles of archival materials 50,000 digitized photographs 500,000 books in a variety of languages and span hundreds of years of history best of all these collections are not meant to be hidden away you can spend hours on the online collections looking through everything that has been digitized and any member of the public is welcome to visit our reading room where our librarians are available to help you dig into these wonderful resources so margul each box knows all about the treasures and archive can reveal her new book Conan Doyle for the defense the true story of a sensational British murder a quest for justice and the world’s most famous detective writer is the result of extensive archival research in Scotland Margaret will discuss her adventures in the archives with Ruth Franklin the stories she uncovered that are in her book and her illustrious career writing obituaries for the New York Times so I imagine most of us here have been familiar with Margaret’s byline for quite a while show of hands for those of you who have enjoyed yes let me know guess everybody there we go um mark elite originally trained as a cellist and a linguist and she worked for The Times for 24 years 14 of those as a member of the celebrated New York Times obituary department an award-winning writer margulies wrote an astounding 14 bitch you Ares during her career beautifully crafted biographies and many written under what could only be considering could only be considered excruciating deadlines pressure so I must ask how many people here saw the documentary open yes again happened so in 2016 Margit was one of the writers featured in the wonderful documentary öbut directed by the Vanessa Gould who may be here tonight aren’t you ok the documentary offered a terrific behind the bylines look at the New York Times obituary Department and is one critic wrote one comes away from the film grateful that the paper has at its disposal a team of humane gifted people who make commemorating the dead a lively lasting art during her career Marguerite wrote front page send offs to some of the leading cultural figures of our era including betty Friedan than my the writer Maya Angelou the advice columnist Dear Abby and Ann Landers as well as many obits of many people whose names you might not have known like the inventor of the plastic lawn flamingo so does anyone here know who that was anyone remember yes right so that was done Featherstone which I learned from reading her obituaries so not surprisingly many of the people Margaret wrote about also have a place in the collections here at the Center for Jewish history advertising copywriter Judith protis is one of those but from her largely anonymous pen sprang a slogan esteemed to this day for its warmth wit and genial inclusiveness Margaret wrote when Miss protis died in 2014 and if you don’t remember her name or recognize her name I’m sure her blockbuster ad campaign and that vintage poster is here in our collections of the Ashima University Museum so when Margo LEED announced her retirement on June 28th of this year she received an outpouring of thanks and online comments from her readers which I enjoyed reading very much a couple of them here I have truly truly enjoyed your words these many years they have been a gift and a noble calling another person wrote so grateful to Margolese Fox not only for your beautifully written obituaries but also for providing the inspiration for our daughter’s name and this one I think is really quite good I’d always pictured you to be tall old and snobby go figure your picture shows you to be not so tall definitely not old and not snobby I may have been wrong about my vision but I’m not wrong about how wonderful your work has been whenever I found myself reading one of your opens I knew it was going to be a treat so to have the opportunity tonight to bring together two such impressive writers is also a treat and we’re thrilled that Ruth Franklin will be on stage tonight with margulies Ruth whose numerous credentials are more or less are listed more completely in your program is a book critic and former editor at the New Republic her work appears in many publications including The New Yorker the New York Times Book Review The New York Review of Books and Harper’s her first biography Shirley Jackson a rather hon life was named a New York Times notable book of 2016 won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography and was named a New York oh I’m sorry among many other honors I have a type of her first book a thousand darknesses lies and truth and holocaust picked was published in 2011 and was a finalist for the Samm Aurora prize for Jewish literature so a final note tonight’s conversation will include questions and answers from the audience and there will be a book signing and small reception right outside the auditorium when we finish so no further ado I welcome Margaret Fox and Ruth Franklin good evening it’s so nice to be not tall old we’re snobby and thank you Judy Thank You Ruth thank you all so much for coming out on this rather raw evening which is very representative of the weather and a place where I have spent a lot of time so I’d like you to come with me to the scene of a murder in Edwardian Glasgow and the trial and wrongful conviction of a Jewish man in Edinburgh nearby for that murder but first I want to take you 200 miles north to Peter head a raw place the northernmost point on Scotland’s East Coast for it was there that our hero Oscar Slater spent nearly 20 years incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit and it is there in the winter of 1925 that our story begins I’d like to read to you the prologue of Conan Doyle for the defense it is entitled prisoner 29 idiot on january 23rd 1925 William Gordon lately known as prisoner 2988 was released and His Majesty’s Prison Peterhead a Victorian fortress on Scotland’s raw northeast coast Gordon would very likely have passed into history unremarked except for his present possession of a vital anatomical feature he wore dentures beneath his dentist that day hurled into a tiny pellet with a scrap of glazed paper rolled round it to keep it dry Gordon carried an urgent note from a fellow convict though prison officials had made a thorough search of Gordon before releasing him no one thought to examine his guns and so the message which would culminate in the release nearly three years later of Oscar Slater from a life at hard labour was spirited into the world where earlier efforts to free Slater had been made by lawyers this last desperate stratagem was set in motion by Slater himself he had slipped Gordon the note written in pencil on a fragment of brown tissue paper during a meeting of the prison debating society a clandestine pellet like this was the safest means of communication between them like most British prisons of its era Peterhead maintained a regimen of enforced silence prisoners supervised round-the-clock by armed guards were allowed to speak to one another only in direct connection with their work by 1925 Slater had already been disciplined for talking to a fellow convict through a ventilator between Slater’s message now fragile and faded has been preserved in the archives of the Mitchell library in Glasgow and that is it I’ve held it bearing many of the hallmarks of his idiosyncratic idiosyncratic spelling punctuation and syntax it reads Gordon my boy I wish you in every way the best of luck and if you feel inclined then please do what you can for me give to the English public your opinion regarding me personally and also in other respects you have been for five years in close contact with me and so you weren’t quite fit to do so friend keep out of prison but especially out of this godforsaken hole farewell Gordon we likely may never see us again but let us live in hope and it may be otherwise your friend Oscar Slater and then yes don’t forget to write or see them deep that Gordon carried out Slater’s instructions can be gleaned from a second communication an unbound misled err that reached Peter head in mid-february addressed to Slater it said just a few lines to try to cheer you up you have staunch friends in the outside world who are doing their utmost for you so you must not lose heart Sir Arthur Conan Doyle bids me say that you have all his sympathy and all the weight of his interest will be put in the scale on your behalf we should like to get a line from you if you are allowed to write in the meantime keep up your heart and hope for the best and rest assured we are doing our utmost for you the letter which prison officials strongly suspected came from Gordon was suppressed on arrival but those Slater did not know it his anxious note had accomplished its purpose he persuaded Conan Doyle who had long sought with immense energy but disheartening results to commute his sentence to take up the case one last time now the crime for which Oscar Slater had barely escaped the hangman’s noose was in the words of a late 20th century writer a case of murder which has frequently been described as without parallel in criminal history it was stunningly violent its victim Marion Gilchrist was refined wealthy and more than slightly eccentric under great pressure to solve the case the police soon announced that they had a suspect 36 year old Oscar Slater when arrived in Glasgow that year with his young French mistress nominally a musical singer but quite probably a prostitute in the eyes of Edwardian Glasgow Oscar Slater was in every way a desirable he was a foreigner a native of Germany and a Jew his dandified demi-monde to life affronted the sensibilities of the age slater build himself variously as a dentist and dealer in precious stones that’s his actual business card but was believed to earn his living as a gambler even before the murder the Glasgow police had been monitoring him in the hope of having him arrested as a pimp as I found to my delight in the decorous diction of the aged the charge they sought to press was immoral housekeeping I’ve been guilty of that myself laterz trial took place in emprah in May 1909 and there he is vigorously in the dock between two uniformed cops with the case against him founded on circumstantial evidence and outright fabrication circumstantial evidence Conan Doyle wrote is a very tricky thing it may seem to point a very straight to one thing but if you shift your own point of view a little you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different those words are Sherlock Holmes’s spoken in an 1891 story the Boscombe Valley affair they stand as a precise on hearing of this later case the Slater jury deliberated for just 70 minutes before finding him guilty and the judge sentenced him to hang this is a period scribal copy of his death one hang by the neck upon a jib it until he be dead couldn’t be more stark the pronouncement had a terrible finality there was no criminal appeals court in Scotland at the time pardons when they were occasionally granted were by prerogative of the British monarch by the time nearly three weeks later that slater sentence was commuted to life at hard labour he had made arrangements for his own burial transported to peterhead he pasted his tiny cell hewed granite and rail diseased jailers for much of the next two decades that is an actual Peter head so a man can barely in late nineteen eleven or early 1912 Slater’s lawyers asked Conan Doyle tremendous support to their cause though he deplored Slater’s ungentlemanly like Conan Doyle a Scotsman himself soon came to believe that the case was a stain on the British character he trained his diagnostic eye on every aspect of the crime manhunt and trial wrote the case of Oscar Slater is scathing 1912 indictment of the affair penned a stream of letters to British newspapers edited published and contributed to trenchant introduction to the truth about Oscar Slater the 1927 book by the journalist William Parke and lobbied some of the most powerful in Britain the reprieve came last in November 1927 in 1928 after a criminal appeals court was established in Scotland on development brought about partly through conan doyle’s agitation Slater’s trial was reviewed and his conviction quashed the hearing which Conan Doyle covered for a British newspaper in March the only time in their long association that he and Slater met face to face then after the triumphant resolution highly public rupture now these developments form the long painful sequel to an exceptionally strange event that occurred in Glasgow in December 1908 about a week before the death of Marian Bucharest more than a week in other words before Oscar Slater even knew of her existence though the fact would not be widely known for years miss Gilchrist told at least one person that week that she there we are thank you Dory’s but it seems okay as I was saying you can see from this introduction that Margo Lane has such a flair for storytelling this story seems like it really just begs to be told it’s got you know it’s got everything it’s got the wrongful conviction it’s got the foreigner with a shady past it’s got Arthur Conan Doyle I know there’s a story and how you came to this story can you talk a little bit about that absolutely of course I make no claim to have discovered it the story is in the historical record it was always there it’s been there for exactly 110 years and every Conan Doyle biography and there are dozens has anywhere from a paragraph on the case to a chapter but in this country to my amazement there are no standalone books just on the author’s later case and there are very few even in Britain on the case feel like we G listening to a live mic right you know what that did to have the Durst case for the live mic so be very careful but to my amazement it’s the Oscars later story over time for various reasons which I can conjecture slipped into a crevasse in history and those happen to be the kind of stories I like best I came to it literally 30 years ago when I had first come to New York after graduate school I had a rather uninspiring entry-level job in publishing was writing the a train to work one morning the book I happen to have brought with me to read on the train was John Dixon cars biography of Conan Doyle that was published in 1949 just 19 years after Conan Doyle died and towards the end of the book almost just in an awesome way John Dixon Carr says oh by the way also I almost dropped the book Conan Doyle wasn’t playing Sherlock Holmes no but I was scarcely in a position to do anything about it yet I had not gone into writing I haven’t gone to journalism school yet so I filed the story away in that cranial recess that Holmes so wonderfully calls the brain addict and there it stayed for thirty years six years ago when my last book the riddle of the labyrinth came out and I was casting around for what to do next I remember the Oscars later story by that time I was a senior writer at the times I’ve written a couple of month aging books and I thought all right now I’m in a position to do something about it and so were you at Conan Doyle and how did you just happen to be carrying around this 1949 biography I was not a Conan Doyle completest or a Conan Doyle freak and I’m in freakin the nicest possible way I’m not someone who can recite chapter in verse of every story in the Canada love though of course I read the entire canon to prepare for this book but Conan Doyle was always fascinating to me and my father was a physicist and a mathematician on so of course I didn’t hew to that professionally but he taught me how to think rationally and how to look at evidence and see if it militates for this conclusion for that conclusion so of course he loved writers like Conan Doyle he loved writers like Lewis Carroll where you could see that rationalist clever mathematical mind at work and so it seemed even in the 1980s it seemed eminently reasonable to take a coder don’t bioW to read on the a train on the way to work it’s interesting that you say that about your father I think that’s something that your book does so well it’s not just telling this very you know exciting and twisty story of Oscar Slater’s conviction and the the way it was a recurring but also the way you fill in so many of the historical pieces that give context to why this happened and how Conan Doyle was the perfect person to uncover it the way you talk about the history of criminology and it’s not it’s not deductive reasoning you correct us on that it’s inductive or better still abducted detective even though Conan Doyle himself makes that mistake repeatedly so how did you tell us a little bit about the process of the book together how did you kind of pull together all these different strands it was excruciating and in fact the the little slide that you got a sneak peek of in 2014 the principle archives for this material are in two places in Glasgow where the crime was committed and then in Embera where they had a change of venue for the trial because the nation’s highest court is there and so in 2014 I spent a week in archives in each city and of course you can’t just walk in say I want X Y & Z and walk out with it you have to fill out endless forms giving chapter and verse of the accession numbers and then I tacked their poor reprographics departments to depth because I ordered literally I had to thousands of pages of materials from each place this is a certain place where you’re not allowed to go in with your camera digital interrogator but they they wouldn’t have worked for me to really study from the image quality would not have been good enough or big enough and there are literally period your stenographic trial to grant transcripts on paper this big copies of Marian Gilchrist will and testament witness statements police reports class formerly classified government documents you name it between the Mitchell library and Glasgow and national records of Scotland both super archives in in M bruh I wound up about six months later having this many jiffy bags come and it took me a year and a half to go through everything I was also working full-time and then I also did a lot of reading just from good old-fashioned books so I took those pictures either to make myself feel virtuous or to feel really really sorry for myself if I’m not quite sure which so as always with project the the rigor and the challenge and the hysteria the despair sometimes but also the exhilaration comes from what you leave out because I’m sure I had to leave out 90% of what I found just for reasons of sheer volume and another writer or I myself on a different day could approach the material right a completely different book for the same sources equally comprehensive an equally legitimate and of course you could have written a book twice this size easily it sounds like what was the most surprising thing you found in that archive I think the most beautiful thing and the thing I’m really proud of stuff because they were available to the few other British writers on the case but who for one reason or another didn’t make much use of them the great beauty for a biographer for a nonfiction writer if you have to write about someone write about someone who’s been incarcerated in a very restrictive prison because they will have kept on file every single letter that person sent and received in this case in 18 and a half years and so there are literally bulging files at national records of Scotland but from Peterhead prison of every single one of Oscar Slater’s letters and slater poor man was in a sense shafted twice by history first by being the object of this terrible wrongful conviction a conviction by the way for a crime of which police knew within a week that he was not guilty but because he was an immigrant jew that they wanted to run out of town they went ahead with the prosecution anyway who were perfectly happy to railroad him almost to the gallows but he was shafted once by the wrongful conviction and the second time by being as I say a cipher at the center of his own story he was almost bitten out of his own history so in the few other published accounts of the case he is just as he was at the time sort of a bogeyman anarchical archetype and much more but in these beautiful beautiful letters which I could only quote a fragment of he comes alive he’s incarcerated so long that he wants up corresponding with three generations of his family poor German Jews back in Silesia his father was a baker there in this dusty little coal mining town they he came from nothing but there are these extraordinary letters from his mother saying my dear innocent Oscar a thousand kisses from your mother who loves you with her last breath and then you see because so much time goes by the parents aging and suddenly they’re not there anymore you see then Oscar Slater’s sisters take over writing the letters and he’s in prison so home you then see letters from the sisters children and so I and was so moved by those I wish I could have included more but they give a sense of the man and of the Jewish family no yeah yeah it’s so it’s so touching that the family passed down through generations this this obligation to keep up contact with us later in prison and so impressive also that they they don’t ever seem to have questioned that he was in a sense which I also found really it is notice and of course I suppose that’s part of the Jewish condition isn’t it that you know that somebody is going to make all sorts of horrible false allegations against you and yeah they’re in him never wavered and it’s hard they were very poor so there are heart-rending letters from the parents saying you know we are trying to find a lawyer to help you but we can’t afford it we would love to come visit you but we can’t afford passage and for the 18 and a half years Slater was in prison from 1909 until he got out at the end of 1927 he did not see a single member of his family even once yeah it’s really really heartbreaking and I was I was fascinated by the way you you draw out the Jewish element of his story with it without making two more making more of it than it is but kind of restoring to it what was erased from it clearly by the other biographers and you know one thing I’ve also found so fascinating was the way you place it in the context of the prejudices of this time you have this wonderful phrase where you say that that he was cast by the police he was cast as the convenient other and it really makes you think about the way you know these tropes of other notes you know the stranger and the emigrant you know in many ways have evolved since laterz time and in other ways not so much so so shown as I said a thing in the introduction to the book little did I realize when I started work on this material in 2013 that this story that was all about racism anti-semitism xenophobia and aggressive efforts to put tight restrictions on immigration livid little did I realize how painfully realized it relevant it would be to our own moment oscar slater it’s interesting I mean we don’t in a sense we don’t know much about him because have it enough but for this he would have been just a guy you know an ordinary European Jewish working-class guy that probably didn’t make a ripple in history but he clearly had a sense of Jewish identity and that you can see that from the letters there was a circuit riding rabbi from Aberdeen that would come up occasionally but not often enough he has these beautiful letters that say I feel so downcast and spiritually neglected I have not had a Jewish service for two years a later letter he says for 17 years I have been in the only Jew in this prison and there’s an extraordinary line in a letter where he’s writing to one a rabbi in Glasgow who was his great supporter let me see if I can find it look at that that’s from Oskar Slater’s on hand l’shanah Tovah he could tear those so I don’t know whether he was copying from something or he had some Hebrew education as a boy there’s no way but the sense of Jewishness and the sense of being uttered in Edwardian and post Edwardian Britain comes through loud and clear in his correspondence and I think that’s also something that makes Conan Doyle kind of jump out of your pages as such a hero is the way he really is you know a crusader against the prejudices of this time you you talk a lot about the construction of the criminal identity as being you know the theory from which the accusations followed rather than that the reverse and then he comes in as sort of the bearer of scientific evidence and actually looking at all the details of putting together the picture as it actually is what’s so interesting is we and I was very guilty of this when I went in to us Conan Doyle has become this received archetype and you know we think of him as as Basil Rathbone or later Jeremy Brett but we think of him as this lovable London gentleman remarkably his background has weird affinities with Slater’s they were both dirt poor marginalised for their religion corridor was Roman Catholic and neither was an Englishman Conan Doyle grew up very poor in Edinburgh of the de facto head of a family with seven children his father was a mentally-ill alcoholic who couldn’t work he came from nothing and to his credit although he was mostly the best but in some ways the worst of kind of Victorian imperialism he never entirely forgot where he came from and he although he’s not as well remembered for this in his heyday he was as well known for social Crusades as he was for his Jericho girls so it’s everybody here I’m sure he knows from reading your writing you are no stranger to writing about dead people who weren’t able to meet and bring them to life which is a little bit different from the work of most journalists right can you talk about that a balance you know the connection between obituary writing and my kind of nonfiction that your even thought to be doing down well with obits of course ideally it’s recently dead people otherwise we have fallen down on the job but indeed there really is quite an affinity between the two what we are so prized still say we what we are still so proud of doing at the times is producing obits that don’t read like the obits of old but they do all the work of a nova in terms of news value and conveying information but they read like good narrative nonfiction and what is a narrative nonfiction book then that kind of a nonfiction news story structurally gridded up a hundredfold because the whole structure of a book is there in the thousand word news story in kernel form and if you want to turn that into a hundred thousand word book you just keep gritting up and gritting up and grinning up and what’s so great about obits and why it really is the dirty little secret is it’s the best beat in journalism is an Avant Ryder is taxed with taking her subject from cradle to grave if there’s that boilerplate language you know John Doe was born on january 1st 1910 John Doe died yesterday and between those two points you have this wonderful built-in ARC and it’s such a wonderful exhilarating feat because one is it is the most purely narrative thing in any daily paper and so having done that for a number of years already before I began to write books I think it was I never would have predicted it but it was the best possible preparation I could have for reasons of of structure and form how did you first come to start writing of it well as I often said that child has not been born who comes home from first grade clutching a theme that says when I grow up I want to be an obituary writer I came through and through the back door as I seem to have done at every stage of my career I was a copy editor at the time Sunday Book Review for my first 10 years of the paper and while it was a lovely job I really had wanted to write by that time I had gotten a journalism degree and trained for a writing career which I’d hoped to have I began writing advanced Ovitz freelance because there is always a need there’s this gaping maw that cook that’s in the lap of the gods that needs to be fed advanced Ovitz and so when a staff job on Ovitz opened up quite a number of years later I applied for it and was lucky enough to get it because I had a track record so I wrote my way onto obits because historically it’s the job nobody wanted even though it turns out to be a great job just because it sexier never cover politics well that I think there are a number of reasons I think there’s a kind of primal taboo of avoiding anything that has to do with death even though as all of you who read our page know the death is one sentence and the whole rest of it is about the life but still there’s that kind of taboo and stigma then attached and also until this generation in American newspapers obits were a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy because of the taboo because of the stigma newspapers tended to put the dead wood on obits they would put people on obits to punish them they would put people on over to them they were trying to encourage to retire or at least put out to pasture and so of course the writing that those not-so-great people produced was not so great so it was this N deeply self-perpetuating cycle and for a very long time obits on most american papers weren’t particularly good and yet you know so many people say that it’s the first section of the paper that it’s very 2:00 in the morning right that’s right which i think comes from a kind of primal schadenfreude again it is these succulents healthy right it’s the secular counterpart to the prayer that observant Jews say you know thank you for letting me live to see another day but I absolutely believe that now let now let me see who didn’t write it I imagine that many journalists also probably have some kind of hesitation about calling up the grieving families right and wanting to check the facts get over and you realize didn’t see wait Betty well you get over any reluctance because you have no choice but the reluctance is natural and its inherent because there’s no Emily Post for the truly bizarre social situation which is reducible to hello I’m a stranger I’m cold calling you you don’t know me from Adam but I want to ask you some possibly delicate questions about a loved one who has just dropped dead and then I’m gonna put him where a million people can see them that’s a very preposterous situation so it has to be done delicately I will say for better or worse ^ the times in 1400 obits I’ve done we whether his family we call the family for each one in all that time I think I’ve had three families refused to speak to me so those awful take do you did you have certain questions that you always asked or did you change it for each specific person both there’s we actually have a form because there’s certain basic biographical boilerplate that the families are best positioned and you know really elemental things name middle name date of birth parents names where was he born and we have learned through bitter experience but supposedly definitive print sources like the who’s who are just rife with errors and a Camino if it’s one letter off in a name or one year off on a date a missus as good as a mile and you’re gonna have to run a correction so we go to the family is to to solicit or confirm and that information and then of course there are more particular questions that we can ask a family of colleagues of other experts in the field depending on what it is this person has been famous for in life I know you’ve said the bid section is the jolliness section of the paper why is that well I’ll show you since the all of these slides are about Slater I thought I’d better put in what about obits so the last one this is the prison that is Slater’s actual cell number 34 that’s my umbrella after 20 minutes of dim peterhead and he spent he spent eighteen and a half years outside breaking up granite but here is up all right this for this audience this is the treat this was the Time magazine review of corridor through the defense and I was very very pleased with it but the layout is not to be believed that this book that is so essentially about anti-semitism and Jewish identity was laid out next to a giant ad for bacon but here’s now we’re getting to obits that’s our departmental Christmas display from last year yeah that’s a book that’s our voluminous shrine it just really really wonderful people have landed there partly by histone what happens dance partly by contemporary hiring choices and the work as booth alluded to the work of reporting Opeth’s is not like any other thing so for the my 14 years there I actually kept a semi covert list of the unusual things that people say because we could all kill one another in the line of duty and my favorite because it’s very much like a Jewish joke is my wonderful colleague Doug Martin whose byline you will know was calling someone and he said deadly serious so did her friends know she was a spy or was it something she kind of kept to herself [Laughter] and you can’t put a price on that it’s just absolutely delightful so web thing we’ve seen happening in the paper recently is these retrospective obits for lack of a better word of people who didn’t get one the first time around mainly for political reasons can you talk a little bit about the the thinking that went into that that the this drive to kind of and if you’re here you know what’s about to happen Amy are you here no mine was helping my wonderful colleague Amy putt nonny whose brainchild the overlooked series is would be here tonight and then I would make her stand up and put her on the spot Amy stand up what do you mind it’s absolutely brilliant today and you can talk about it much better than I can I’ve contributed only one piece to it on the first american women’s olympic champion who didn’t even realize she’d won the olympics which is kind of a strange state of affairs thank you Amy I should have warned you I was gonna do this to you but this brilliant series is Amy’s brainchild and so you want to talk for a second about how came about sure I join of it’s only about two years ago at that time I was really curious about diversity and how we could incorporate it more into our coverage and we occasionally had these emails from readers saying hey why don’t you have more women and people of color in your pages and I thought yeah why don’t we and so I just sort of tucked in the corner of my mind and one day for our typical day to day obits research I came across a woman named Mary Outerbridge she was credited with introducing tennis to America in 1874 on Staten Island of all places I thought oh this is really interesting I wonder if she ever got an open when she died in 1889 and so I checked the Times Machine archives if you’ve never been it’s a wonderful place to explore you get lost in it easily so I checked to see if she got in New York Times open and spoiler alert she did not so so I started took that away in the corner of my mind and then started coming across more and more interesting people whose histories that would chuck in the archives of the times I told Margo about this project and she had some ideas of her own along with some other colleagues who said to get an obit to that person get an obit and so soon I had this long lesson about we have something here now maybe if you look back to 1851 when the New York Times began publishing we can finally tell these stories and it’s a powerful time as anything so that’s kind of how I came about well thank you for answering my question somewhat thoroughly I’m gonna just sit back and what you guys taught them so I cannot think in the context of this book have you ever yes I did Charles Manson so bit which ran yeah that was done in advance and it’s interesting because still in in regional papers and small town papers obits are a very different animal and they have a very different social function partly because of staffing and budget restrictions there if you even big papers have obit departments anymore so in a local paper what is set at iPad called a Tobit is usually just straight from a family or from the funeral home and so it’s a journalistic in that sense it effectively represents their interests and it tells people where to pay a condolence call and so on but that has kind of that brush sort of tars all obits and so we often get people very well any who say oh you wrote such a lovely tribute for so-and-so and we kind of bristle a little bit and we say thank you but they’re not tributes they’re new stories and by way of example we’ve done Holocaust war criminals we’ve done enforcers of segregation in the Jim Crow South I did Sheriff Jim Clark we do notorious murderers I did Manson I did the crazy misguided hippie guy who killed someone blowing up the army mathematics Research Center at the University Wisconsin during the Vietnam War and they have to be done they have to be done right but believe me when you’re doing one of these unpalatable people it makes your blood run cold and you want to just go home and watch them off you the same thing where you contact their family and say can you share your memories of your dear departed I wasn’t going to contact Milton’s family you can though I mean in all seriousness you can if there is family it’s very very rare in that case that such a family will talk to you or even that such a family can be found because they’re sort of you know upright people they’ve probably changed their names and disappeared into the seething mass of American and an invade long ago but you check it anyway you can you can involve your our research department you work public records and so the same you have to have the same kind of feel to feel to you to historical fact and the same kind of fealty to checking it may be more difficult because nope no family has presented itself here a little bit of gallows humor one of my colleagues did just a little item on a mass murderer guy named Arthur Shawcross who was kind of notorious in the day and when he filed the story our section had bill McDonald who was reading it down said I hesitate to ask you this he said to the reporter but are there any survivors so all that stuff still have to be in there one way or another you know maybe you already were an expert on the Scottish penal system probably no but looking at some of the slides you showed reminded me I was really shocked to see the way the conditions in the prison that you documented it really was like a penal colony yeah and it was know it was in its way a slightly progressive the Peterhead His Majesty’s Prison Peterhead or Her Majesty’s Prison when it was built it was built in 1888 was this Victorian fortress you know in the middle of nowhere on this windswept promontory on the North Sea and he operated as a prison until 2013 and what had the long since acquired the reputation as one of the most brutal and dangerous prisons in Britain it was called Scotland’s gulag it is now strange as it sounds a museum and I actually commend you to go there first of let me see if I can back this up enough you make the weather look so nice oh this is the country on the way to it’s the most beautiful country in the world up an Aberdeen chair you have to take the train to Inverness and then it’s so far north the train doesn’t go to Peter head you take a bus it’s about an hour and a half through this gorgeous country and it is this absolutely fascinating Museum they’re completely upfront about what a terrible prison that was and all of the horrible riots and the privations and things that happened there of really interesting exhibits you can stab him Oscar Slater self and what is so interesting as I thought who’s going to go to this they’ve had something like 90 thousand visitors in their first year of operations and I pictured dads and her teenage sons out for a nice Sunday at the prison but after I’d drawn all over the cells with the you know stage blood exhibits splattered I went to the cafe and there are these proper little Scottish ladies in nice hats having tea so everyone go it’s the at prison museum and if you do go to Scotland I I’m not kidding it’s actually worth the trip people right so I just have one last question I think we’re running towards the end of our allotment and then maybe we’ll have time for a couple questions from the audience but do you know what happened to Oscar Slater’s family during World War two it’s in the book it’ll tear your heart out but that’s all I can say but I’m in a painful way very proud because mine is the only account that as far as I know took the trouble to find out what happened to his family and what I will say is Oscar Slater when he got out of peterhead he couldn’t go home he and those years anyway of German who had lived outside the country for more than ten years lost his German citizenship he’d been outside for almost 20 years so he was an effective man without a country he wound up settling in Scotland and remarrying happily he lived he died in his bed in his 70s in 1948 having outlived almost all of the principles in the case against him in a very strange way had this case not kept him out of Germany for so long as long as you do questions right here your fraud center why did he go from Germany help what were his stops along the way to Scotland and what was the murder well this is in the book but he was just a Footloose young man there’s some theories he quit Germany to avoid conscription in the army but just like a lot of Wharton class II and then he didn’t want to work in an office he tried it from Wilde didn’t like it and he went all over he lived in London for a while he lived in New York for a while he lived in Scotland a couple of times Conan Doyle interestingly caught him a disreputable Rolling Stone of a man and indeed he was a rolling stone so there is Conan Doyle’s Victorian distaste but what is so admirable about Conan Doyle is he was such a principled person that considerations of justice and fair play trumped you should pardon the expression his personal activity I loved audiobooks um how’s the audiobook oh I thank you for asking about the audiobook I’m really proud of the audiobook because I suggested they get a Scottish reader which they did it’s a Scottish voice actor and it is absolutely super and he does all the accents just you know subtly but he makes Slater sound slightly German and Conan Doyle Conan Doyle up to the end of his life though he lived the last 40 years of his life in England never he has a Scottish burr you could cut with a knife so your homework when you go home is go on YouTube and Google Conan Doyle 1927 newsreel and there are these it’s three years before he died and he has this excellently cooked weather night even it’s so great and it’s so antithetical to our concept of him as this English gentleman thank you right in the middle there oh thank you sir thank you so much for the book I have a question about charters mr. Tartarus ah that may involve a spoiler when there is a family tree in the book the in brief the murder the murder victim was a very eccentric wealthy 82 year old woman and Miriam Gilchrist who lived in Glasgow kept what would be the equipment now look for about half a million dollars of jewelry secreted in her flat and the way they got out to Oscars later it’s just devastating coincidence after she was murdered who may testified that the only piece that was missing was a diamond brooch in the shape of a crescent moon and woe betide Oscar’s later he had pawned a diamond crescent moon brooch right around that time and even though the police knew within a week that his brooch was not the one of the murdered woman they said this God we want to get this guy off our street anyway this is too good to be true let’s get him so I’ve always sort of friends with the speed I mean I understand if somebody’s sick that you would prepare so you start writing there well it’s there’s no one hard and fast rule it’s done on a case-by-case basis but what we can say with confidence is if you’re the president or the king or queen of something we probably have you on file you know you know politicians honor on a certain level old-time Hollywood silver screen stars that sort of thing that said of course sometimes there are gaps in the record and even being figures Seamus Heaney I wrote on deadline Adrienne Rich I wrote on deadline not because then we haven’t thought they were important but just because our department is small and the work of accounting for all of the newsworthy Undead is Sisyphean so we do the best we can in terms of advances we have about 1900 on file but the rest is in the lap of the gods I love what you said in your appearance review interview by the way about how I think your editor your predecessor would use the euphemism of updating the biographical file right that was the type of people who are still alive the great old equipment and I use that a lot because it’s as awkward as it is to call families of someone who’s died imagine the thousandfold more awkward situation of calling someone who is not dead and in effect saying I’m a circling vulture I know you’re gonna be gone soon and so the one that of great mid-century times men obut all the women have this wonderful euphemism this is Whitman from The Times we’re updating your my graph of a file and people can take on as much as they can handle although I said that to a woman who invented something really cool that I can’t tell you what it is that shaped mid-century American culture and she’s well into her nun days and so I thought I want to be delicate I said this is Fox at the Times we’re updating your biographical file to which she chirped gaily oh you’re writing my obituary I guess when you get to a certain age you talked about the communication between Slater and his family but was there a break during World War one very astute question a heart-rending break he Slater crime was just before Christmas 1908 he was tried and convicted in the spring of nineteen nine and got out in 27 and so at the national records in Everett there are these boxes and boxes of letters by year and the time marching along and then you’re absolutely right 1914 into actually in 1919 nothing nothing for five years and he doesn’t his parents are very old by then he doesn’t even know if they’re alive we did for those five years and then finally there’s a letter from the sister and indeed the parents I think are still alive at that point but not for much longer and it is just that gut-wrenching silence to see as negative space on the archives you know I can’t even imagine what it was like for him you’ve mentioned that you are very touched by the correspondence between him and his family because he was a German immigrant now assumed that it was in German with these letters translated and and different the prison or within the archives or or not and and the last one that you showed was in English and it seemed very eloquent you said he was very poor family and he had some kind of very very good education because he really wrote very according to print in keeping with prison regulations because every every prisoners letter had to pass the prison censors so that meant you couldn’t write in the foreign language so indeed slender’s English wasn’t bad but it wasn’t his first language so when he wrote to his parents he had to write them in English and then his poor parents who knew no English had to find someone in their little village who could translate the letters for them and there’s one letter where his mother says the teacher the schoolteacher who had been translating your letters has moved away and I have no one and then the parents are in the other direction would write him in German and when those German letters arrived in Scotland they would have to be sent to M bruh to be translated into English then the prince prison censors would read them and if there were okay then Slater would get to see them so it was a whole many degrees of separation and indeed in the archives the letters are in English in the handwriting’s and ability is of a variety of translators over almost 20 years they determined that he was actually wrongly convicted was that something that was clear to you from the very beginning or did you have to do your research to figure that out I wouldn’t have taken on the story because it would have been much less of a story you know what would the story have been really Conor and I’ll go Conan Doyle worked for 20 years to free a man who turned out to have been convicted correctly I don’t think I would have been able to sell a book that aspect of the story was known and and it Conan Doyle himself and his subsequent biographers make it clear that he took this on it was sort of a cause celeb and very much like the work of groups like the Innocence Project today and of course done in his case without DNA without anything vaguely resembling modern forensics seems like he never made the corridor remained agnostic on it he the conviction was in 1919 Conan Doyle enjoyed the case two or three years later and it’s clear that he made a point of doing his homework before agreeing to take on the case but once his mind was made up and this of course was the man who invented you know rational literary the criminological inquiry so he was very very quickly persuaded as he said he says in its correspondence I am I persuaded that a terrible injustice has been done at the end of the first section and now it’s the different sections and I have a hard time finding it because I like to read it first as well why is it the open page notes it’s dependent on its those of us of a certain age would say it’s it’s a makeup issue it’s now called page design but I much prefer to call those guys makeup men and they come it’s dependent on how many of the how much agate but paid death notices we sell which are on our page or just opposite and so all of these decisions are made by page designers late in the day and they come at 6:15 and we’ll tell our section head you’re in you know the a book today you’re in the B book today you’re on page 26 you’re on page C eight and this is how many columns you have before my time that I can speak to but the wonderful things come out of it when the makeup men come one time he came at 6:15 and said to us you’re under the weather and we said no we we feel fine you said no here’s the weather here’s all bets you’re under the weather so I [Music] guess we should it seems like it’s time for us to wrap up so that seems as good a note Thank You Sara fighting so thank you to mark elite and to Ruth it’s a wonderful conversation we’re going to have a book signing now out here as well as some refreshments and if you’re interested our next first person is going to be on October 28th with Jamie Bernstein who will be talking about her father and next week one of margulies former colleagues on the 25th Clyde Haberman will be here leading a panel talking about the midterm elections and the Jewish vote because it’s the Center for Jewish history so I hope that you’ll come to both thank you

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