Gideon Stoltz's America

In 1835, Sheriff Gideon Stoltz patrolled the town of Adamant, Pennsylvania, the setting for my historical mystery A Stranger Here Below.

I located fictional Adamant in central Pennsylvania, where I was born and lived for many years. I was always fascinated by the abandoned iron furnaces that dot the landscape there: truncated stone pyramids that once gouted smoke and yielded great quantities of pig iron. The heyday of the charcoal-fired iron industry was in the early 1800s, and central Pennsylvania, with its abundant wood, ore, and limestone resources, was a key ironmaking region.

“Pine Street, Bellefonte.” Used by permission of Centre County Library and Historical Museum , Bellefonte, PA

“Pine Street, Bellefonte.” Used by permission of Centre County Library and Historical Museum , Bellefonte, PA

In doing research for A Stranger Here Below, I learned not only about the technology of ironmaking; I also learned about the way people lived in the 1830s, and about the many radical changes that were taking place in our country during those years. It was a time when our young nation was flexing its muscles and finding its identity – Waking Giant is what the historian David S. Reynolds called his seminal book about early 19th-century America.

Andrew Jackson, also known as “Old Hickory” and “The Hero,” was President. He carried around a pistol ball lodged near his heart, the souvenir of a duel he had fought as a younger man. A populist, Jackson determined to carry out what he believed to be “the people’s will” during his presidency. He displaced more than 45,000 Native Americans from the South, forcing them west into the “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma), leading to hot speculation by whites on their appropriated lands.

In the South, planters grew cotton, relying on the labor of African slaves. Settlers advanced westward: Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee (the slave-owning Jackson ran a plantation there, The Hermitage, near Nashville), and Texas were on the frontier.

A period of religious zeal known as the Second Great Awakening was underway, with folks attending revival services across the land. Circuit preachers depicted heaven as a paradise to which all true believers could ascend. They also described the terrors of hell to frighten sinners into giving their souls to Christ. Western New York was called the Burned Over District because of all the fire and brimstone spouted there.

Religion was on everybody’s mind. You had Millerites and Mormons, Swedenborgians and Shakers, Quakers and Rappites and Zoarites and Finneyites and Universalists and Pietists and Transcendentalists and Adventists and Dunkards and Unitarians, not to mention Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists (at least seven sects), and Presbyterians (no fewer than eight sorts). Worshipers who embraced these various sects all thought they followed the one true religion.

The country was a ferment of new ideas. Controversy raged over foreign immigration, prison reform, free education, birth control, the rise of capitalism, a growing inequality of wealth, the first labor unions, increasing urbanization, who should have the right to vote, whether alcohol should be prohibited, and that overarching and hugely incendiary issue, slavery.

In addition to the wagoners and peddlers and drovers who moved about on the poor roads with their freight and wares, their flocks and herds, average Americans in the Northeast (including the residents of my fictional town, Adamant, Pennsylvania) could encounter revival preachers, polygamous prophets, traveling mesmerists and phrenologists and teachers of shape-note singing, radical abolitionists delivering scathing lectures (and sometimes getting tarred and feathered for their trouble), escaping slaves and pursuing slavecatchers. Also oddities and freaks: In 1836, P.T. Barnum began a three-year tour showing off Joice Heth, a blind, partially paralyzed black women whom he declared to be 161 years old and George Washington’s nanny.

Scientific discoveries proliferated. New machines cleaned cotton and wove it into cloth; steam power sent boats chugging up rivers and railroad engines huffing down their tracks. The bicycle, the mechanical reaper, the steel plow, percussion-ignition and repeating firearms (Gideon Stoltz’s gun-nut deputy Alonzo Bell would have filled his ear about such modern weapons), the telegraph, the sewing machine, and the daguerreotype photograph all arrived on the scene.

Yet the early 1800s was also a primitive era in many ways. Men engaged in fisticuffs (organized and not), no-holds-barred wrestling matches, horse races, and turkey shoots. People drank like fish. Each year the average American gulped down more than 7 gallons of absolute alcohol, about three times today’s per capita consumption.

Doctors were often illiterate and had no idea of how illnesses arose (the germ theory of disease would not gain acceptance until the century’s end) or how to cure it. A family might lose all of its children to the bloody flux (dysentery) inside of three days. Influenza, yellow fever, tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox, and typhus scythed the population. Some people said that disease was “God’s flail,” his way of punishing sinners.

Bigotry and discrimination reigned. Many whites thought that African Americans and Asians were inferior and even subhuman. In many places, immigrants were deeply resented, particularly the Irish, who began entering the country in large numbers around 1820 (almost two million would arrive between 1820 and 1860). Germans poured in by the millions, along with other Europeans.

Many writers have set novels during the American Revolution and the Civil War. Yet the tumultuous period between those events, some scholars suggest, may have been the richest in American history and the time when the foundations of the modern United States were laid.

A growing number of historical novels signal a quickening of interest in the era. Among them are Mr. Emerson’s Wife, by Amy Belding Brown (set in Massachusetts); Lost Nation, by Jeffrey Lent (New Hampshire); Ahab’s Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund (Nantucket Island and Kentucky); The Known World, by Edward P. Jones (Virginia); The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier (Ohio); The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (Kansas); and The Whiskey Rebels, by David Liss (Pennsylvania). As far as I am aware, no mystery series has been set during the period.

A Stranger Here Below is the first in a series of mysteries with the same main character, Gideon Stoltz, a young sheriff of Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania German) extraction who resides in the fictional town of Adamant, in an iron-producing area in backcountry Pennsylvania. I plan to people these stories with fascinating characters of the sort who enlivened the early 1800s, and who could well have shown up in Adamant, where Gideon does his best to uphold the law.