Monday, September 6, 2010


There is a powerful tug on hearts that begin to research their ancestors, or write a personal history. To Latter-Day Saints--Mormons--that tug is called the Spirit of Elijah, referenced in verses 5 and 6 in Malachi 4 of the Old Testament.

I've felt that spirit, and I've seen the miraculous doors that open when one is doing that work--the sudden appearance of a critical piece of info in a document you've read a million times, the nagging feeling you're missing a child in a family you're researching,unseen help in locating a document, a grave in a cemetery of thousands of headstones. A chill settles into your bones and you know your aid came from a more divine source.

Something similar happens when conducting research on historical figures, and why not? After all, what we're writing adds to their personal history, a history that because of the impact their lives had on history, now affects each of us in some tiny way.

I don't claim to be an historian. I'm a debunker. My digging frequently reveals a myriad of variations on a life, and I try to separate the truth from the folklore. This is what happened this past weekend.

Unlike many historical figures whose personal papers get rounded up into one or two creditable collections from which people can draw, Key's papers are scattered in far too many places. And with the coming of the bi-centennial, every town that can claim hold to a sliver of his life or experiences, is holding on to their portion with tight fists, and worse, random stories are emerging from threads of truth.

There is a tale circulating in Frederick, Maryland--where Francis Scott Key once practiced law and where his family members lived. It claims Key stopped by his attorney's home the night before he went to Baltimore, presumably to set his affairs in order and send his family to safety at Terra Rubra, his parents' farm in the area. When I couldn't find any info to either confirm or debunk the myth, I decided to write the story that way with a caveat in the notes section alerting readers to a possible "folk-lore" thread. I wrote the chapter, and it was beautiful, tender, a real-tear-jerker. But it nagged at me. I knew I could track this down. I simply hadn't done enough legwork to get to the truth and make Key's story accurate.

I sent the manuscript off to the editor, and then I found a single quote floating around the Cyber-universe with no reference. "I cannot go [to Frederick] yet, as I have to make a journey to the Fleet to try to get Dr. Beanes released from the Enemy- I hope I may succeed but think it very doubtful."

And so, a new journey began to get to the source of this quote. After some digging, I was informed of an obscure book of poetry written by Key and published after his death. His brother-in-law, Chief Justice Roger Taney, (Of Dred Scott Decision fame) wrote a touching letter in the preface revealing some details Key had shared with him about his mission to the British fleet. In it, Taney reveals that it was he, Taney, who ferried Key's family to safety.

I spoke with a docent at the Taney House, and then I called Scott Sheads, who is the curator of Fort McHenry and the Star Spangled Banner Exhibit at the Smithsonian. He has been very generous with his knowledge and research, and an invaluable asset over the course of this Free Men and Dreamers project. Interestingly enough, Scott had just recently come across a stack of Key's personal correspondence which included the letter from which this quote was taken. Just recently . . . it was more than curious. . .

So I withdrew the submission of the manuscript and rewrote the chapter, making it as accurate as possible with all the new information. It feels right.

Of course, there are some details we'll never know. . . how his last hours at home were spent, how his wife Polly handled the thought of him heading off to met with the British whose recent exploits had been so brutal, how he felt at leaving his family during such a dangerous time. This is where we take literary license and apply the things we do know about Key's personality to create a plausible supposition. In the end, it often comes down to that spirit of Elijah thing. We somehow know when it's right. Maybe the subject's spirit confirms it to us, maybe it comes from somewhere or someone else, but we know. Yes. . . now it feels right.

The research referred to is woven into Laurie's upcoming 4th novel in her Free Men and Dreamers series-- "OH SAY CAN YOU SEE?" debuting in October.

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