Jean Henry Mead is a national award-winning photojournalist and novelist. She writes the Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense series, Hamilton Kids’ mysteries, historical fiction and nonfiction. She began her career as a news reporter and has served as a news, magazine and small press editor. Her magazine articles have been published domestically as well as abroad and she has published 19 books, half of them novels. She has done some superb collections of author interviews, focusing on mystery writers and writers of westerns.
Jean: My new release, No Escape, The Sweetwater Tragedy, is a Wyoming historical mystery/suspense novel. It’s the story of an innocent young woman and her husband hanged by the greedy cattlemen who wanted their land. The incident was worldwide news in 1889, and books have been written vilifying the couple as well as films that depicted Ellen Watson-Averell as an outlaw called “Cattle Kate.” I spent 20 years researching the story on and off, and here it is at last.
Tim: What elements of this tragic story most appealed to you?
Jean: I was mystified when I read about the hangings of a young Wyoming couple while researching a centennial history during the mid-1980s. The more I read and researched, the more curious I became because there were such conflicting reports in the 1889 newspapers. James Averell was reportedly an honeset, law-abiding citizen who served as justice of the peace and postmaster in Sweetwater Valley. The cattlemen who hanged him and his wife Ellen claimed that Averell ran a rural bawdy house and accepted rustled cattle in exchange for his wife’s “services.” After considerable research, I learned that the cattlemen wanted the Averell’s homestead land, which they had previously used for free grazing. In the case of Ellen Watson-Averell, news reporters confused her with Kate Maxwell, who ran a dance hall and house of prostitution in the Casper area. So, after sifting through conflicting research while writing other books for more than twenty years, I was finally ready to write the true story of “Cattle Kate.”
Tim: How do you think the meaning of this story might be different for your readers than it was for those who could have read about it when it happened?
Jean: A cattlemen-controlled newspaper in Cheyenne broke the story and other newspapers around the world repeated the lies, which were believed by nearly everyone, including Ellen Averell’s own father. I got into an argument with Ellen’s great nephew, who said that his aunt had been a prostitute. The story was believed by nearly everyone until recently when George W. Hufsmith’s nonfiction book was published, which dispelled the lies. Hufsmilth had been commissioned to write an opera about the hangings and was so intrigued by the story that he spent the next 20 years researching the murders. His research, coupled with my own, enabled me to write No Escape, the Sweetwater Tragedy.
Tim: You’re really telling two stories here, aren’t you? Can you summarize each in a few sentences and tell us why you chose to do a sort of double narrative and how you feel the two stories relate to, or illuminate, each other?
Jean: I didn’t want the novel to end with the hangings, (I dislike sad endings), so I created a single woman homesteader to live through the events which followed the murders. Susan Cameron is a composite of some 200,000 women who decided to try homesteading on their own during the late 19th century. Some were successful, others not. Susan settles on land adjacent to the Averells and befriends them, so she’s able to accurately describe what happened before and after the victims’ deaths while endangering her own life in the process.
Tim: When you’re writing a novel based on an historic figure, does it change your approach? What do you feel are your responsibilities to the person whose life inspired the story? Do you ever feel circumscribed or fenced in by fact in a way that you’re not in fiction?
Jean: I’m very careful to stick to historical facts and personal characteristics (as near as can be determined), which probably stems from my training as a journalist. In my first historical, Escape, a Wyoming Historical Novel, I researched members of the Wild Bunch for a number of years to make certain that I knew their true characteristics before I wrote the book. I was even more cautious with No Escape because there were so many conflicting reports about the Averells. I didn’t feel fenced-in because the plot was already laid out for me, so I just tried to accurately fill in the pertinent details once I felt I knew the actual people well.
Tim: And finally, what do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Jean: That greed can drive people to murder as well as other serious crimes. In the days before Wyoming became a state, wealth and political connections could shield a killer from prosecution, especially in the territory where law and order were all but nonexistent. Five years later, the Johnson County War occurred, when 52 hired gunmen converged on the small town of Buffalo, Wyoming, determined to wipe out so-called rustlers and town officials. They got off scot free when the president and governor intervened, although they had killed a number of homesteaders. Such was the case of James and Ellen “Ella” Watson-Averell.
The first two chapters of No Escape, The Swetewater Tragedy can be read here on Amazon.com.
Jean’s website is www.jeanhenrymead.com.
Her main blog site is http://mysteriouspeople.blogspot.com/