Inspired by an Ax Murder ~ A Skeleton in the Closet Brought Out the Writer in Me
[“Inspired by an Ax Murder ~ A Skeleton in the Closet Brought Out the Writer in Me” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on November 1, 2020.]
When I learned about the 1897 unsolved ax murder of my third great-grandfather Thomas Boxell and his second wife, Lydia, I was hooked. I hadn’t written anything creatively since junior high, but it was clear to me that a book needed to be written about the accused family members. That was the beginning of my writing.
Shortly after my retirement ten years ago, I attended a birthday celebration of a great-aunt. I was spellbound when an elderly second cousin regaled me with the story that a common ancestor, a great-grandfather of varying degrees, had been murdered. He invited me to read what his mother had written about the event, and I made plans to visit a few weeks later. As with any undertaking, I love research and planning. The Boxell Murders were the focus of my extra time for two years and led me to the conclusion that I needed to tell this story. Nine years after the birthday party, the manuscript What Amelia Knows was completed. My emergence as a writer occurred during that time.
When I decided a book needed to be written, I had hundreds of newspaper articles and court documents. I had a 150-page chronology that covered the time from the murders in May 1897 through the end of the trial in July 1899, and a photograph of the entire Boxell family, numbering nearly 50, standing in front of their home in Howard Lake, Minnesota, a year and a half before the murder. I had plenty of facts, but I knew very little about the family.
I learned the Boxell’s had 47 third-generation descendants who were still living and in their eighties and nineties. Of course, none had been born at the time of the murders, but most of their parents were. I decided I needed to visit some of them and learn what I could about the Boxell family, and maybe a little more about the murders. With a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, I interviewed over a dozen living in Minnesota. I embarked on several road-trips and had delightful visits. Some were great-aunt and great-uncles, but most were second or third cousins, who became instant friends. Collectively they knew about as much about the murders as would fit in a teacup, but I did understand the Boxell family a bit better.
There were some factions that believed the murder had been committed by family and others that were vehement that they were not responsible. More than half of the original Boxell family moved from the county in which they were raised. A handful settled near Randall, in Morrison County, and another group moved to Polk County, Wisconsin. Some division continued through the generations, though many cousins had no idea they stemmed from a murder.
Fear of something nefarious happening lasted generations with varying degrees of caution. Most everyone kept their doors locked at night and several made sure there was always a weapon of some sort near the bed. When Catherine (Boxell) and George Taylor built a new brick house, Catherine insisted there was no door installed on the side facing the road!
Armed with a better understanding of my ancestors, I was ready to write. I took an online class through the Loft, Your Book Starts Here, facilitated by author Mary Carroll Moore. I was thrilled by everyone’s feedback but realized I had a long way to go before writing this book. One looming question was whether it should be fiction or nonfiction. Another was that I honestly doubted my ability to write. I needed a way to test the waters, so I asked the local paper if I could write a weekly column. The editor said yes but cautioned she could only pay me $20 an article. So, in September 2014, “Reminisce” debuted, and the book project was temporarily filed away. Eventually, I developed my voice, had a following, and feedback once in a while. Feeling optimistic, I joined an online writing program, Writers Village University. Since January 2015, I have taken many courses and made friends from around the world.
With 187 columns to my credit, I was ready to write about the murder. It would be historical fiction and begin with the arrest of the man they had the most evidence against. I started on an extensive outline in July 2018 and had the first draft completed by December 2018. A grant from the ARAC, allowed me to start working with a professional editor in June 2019. I finished revisions and entered The Many Voices Project sponsored by the New Rivers Press. With a prize of a publishing contract, I submitted to six additional contests. There was no rush for me to publish, so I have spent the year working on my other writing projects. I am still waiting to hear from the three with the most potential. One is for historical fiction, one is a crime novel, and one is for a book written by a woman over the age of 40. Of course, once I found that skeleton, I had to keep looking. One of my Boxell in-laws spent time as an inmate in the St. Peter and Fergus Falls State hospitals. His story is part of my Blurred Visions Short story collection, a work in progress. The linked stories (connected by a common thread) are based on the lives of actual patients in the Fergus Falls hospital at the turn of the 20th century.