Guest Post by J.R. Lindermuth
I write a weekly history column for my local newspaper, and when I stumbled upon the Great Arctic Outbreak of February 1899, I knew it was fodder for my column and also an element to be used in the novel I was then working on. This storm impacted the whole of the United States but brought record low temperatures and snow to the eastern two-thirds of the nation, including Pennsylvania where my story is set.
I like to give my sheriff big problems in addition to the central crime with which he’s dealing.
When Sylvester Tilghman isn’t dealing with crime his major concern is trying to convince Lydia Longlow, the strong woman he loves, to relinquish some of her independence and marry him. He’s persevered with this and other problems in the two previous novels of the series (Fallen From Grace and Sooner Than Gold). In the past Syl’s dealt with such issues as poisonings and stabbings, scary predictions by a gypsy fortuneteller, horse thieves, a political enemy, and even a few culprits taking pot shots at him.
But a blizzard of this magnitude was an obstacle of another kind. The impact of the storm was felt as far south as Florida, where temperatures dropped below zero in Tallahassee on February 13. The cold was so intense cattle froze in the fields in many places. Telegraph lines–still the major means of communication between communities–were downed, rail traffic was halted by drifting snow, and cities and towns were completely cut off from one another for days. Orchards and crops were destroyed. It has been estimated more than 100 people died as a result of the Great Arctic Outbreak of February 1899, also known as the St. Valentine’s Day Blizzard.
Here’s a peek at J.R.’s mystery novel
Why would thieves steal the body of a dead woman?
That’s the most challenging question yet to be faced by Sylvester Tilghman, the third of his family to serve as sheriff of Arahpot, Jordan County, Pennsylvania, in the waning days of the 19th century.
And it’s not just any body but that of Mrs. Arbuckle, Nathan Zimmerman’s late mother-in-law. Zimmerman is burgess of Arahpot and Tilghman’s boss, which puts more than a little pressure on the sheriff to solve the crime in a hurry.
Syl’s investigation is complicated by the arrival in town of a former flame who threatens his relationship with his sweetheart Lydia Longlow; clashes with his old enemy, former burgess McLean Ruppenthal; a string of armed robberies, and a record snowstorm that shuts down train traffic, cuts off telegraph service and freezes cattle in the fields.
It will take all of Syl’s skills and the help of his deputy and friends to untangle the various threads and bring the criminals to justice.
Tuesday, February 7, 1899
“She’s gone,” Virgil Follmer said.
Virgil’s head shot forward, his face going red as he rose up on the toes of his boots in an effort to appear taller than he actually is. “Dammit, Tilghman,” he bellowed, “open your ears. Don’t make me repeat myself. Time’s a-wastin’.”
Virgil’s our town undertaker and generally the most docile, quiet man you’d ever want to meet. So, seeing him get this excited, I knew something terrible must have happened. “Calm down,” I told him. “I’m not a mind-reader. You’ll have to explain if you want my help. Now—who’s missing?”
“Why Mrs. Arbuckle, of course. Somebody’s stole her body. Zimmerman’s gonna have a fit.”
The late Mrs. Arbuckle was Nathan Zimmerman’s mother-in-law. Zimmerman is burgess of Arahpot, which makes him my boss. This news imposed a bit more urgency on my response. “I’ll get my hat and coat and be right with you,” I told Virgil.
I’d just returned home and was heating up a pot of soup Doc Mariner’s wife had sent over when Follmer commenced pounding on my door.
He waited impatiently by the door while I took the pot off the stove and got my garments. “If you’d subscribe for phone service a body wouldn’t have to go runnin’ half way across town to fetch you,” Virgil snarled.
I’m the third of my family to hold the job of sheriff here in Arahpot, Jordan County, Pennsylvania, and I take my responsibilities seriously. But I have enough people yammering at me during the day at the office and prefer not to make it so convenient for them once I’m home for the evening. Of course I didn’t explain this to Virgil. Instead, as we strode down the hill toward town, I asked, “Didn’t you stop at the office? Cyrus should be there.”
Virgil huffed. “If I’d wanted your deputy, I’da gone there. Thought this was important enough for your attention.”
I couldn’t dispute his remark.
Slush from the last snow made walking precarious and we had to concentrate on where we stepped to avoid slipping. It didn’t prevent Virgil from continuing to harp on the subject of the telephone.
“I’m sure Miss Longlow would have seized the opportunity for the telephone contract if she’d known about it in time,” he said.
I couldn’t argue the point. Lydia is one of the most astute business women I know and she certainly would have added the telephone to her various enterprises if McLean Ruppenthal hadn’t got the jump on her with prior knowledge—one of the benefits of being on the borough council, I suppose. He got the telephone franchise and has his sister Cora operating the switchboard. That makes him privy to many of the secrets in town—another advantage I’m certain he hasn’t overlooked.
Still, this wasn’t the subject on my mind at the moment. “Never mind all that for now,” I said. “Why don’t you fill me in on what happened before we get to your place and I have to face Zimmerman.”
Virgil gave me a look like a startled deer. “God, I haven’t told him yet. I wanted to talk to you first.”
“Well, you haven’t told me a thing so far—other than that the old lady’s body is missing. How’d it happen?” I drew my collar closer round my neck against the damp chill of the evening, wishing I’d have thought to bring the nice warm scarf Lydia has knit for me.
Follmer heaved a sigh and skipped his short legs in an effort to catch up to my longer pace. “I wish to heaven I knew how it happened. We had her all laid out nice in the coffin, set to deliver her for the viewing. Before goin’ out for supper I stepped in to make sure all was in readiness. The casket was empty. Syl, I know that old lady didn’t get up and walk out of my place on her own.”
“That don’t make a bit of sense, Virgil. Why would someone steal a body?”
“I don’t know. But they sure as heck did.”
“I take it Floyd helped with the layin’ out,” I said, referring to Virgil’s assistant.
“’Course he did.”
“Maybe he moved the body and you looked in the wrong coffin.”
He peered at me as though my remark was the most idiotic he’d ever heard. “Why would he do that? I know which casket I put her in.”
I shrugged. “Just a thought.”
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About the author
A retired newspaper editor/writer, J. R. Lindermuth is the author of 18 novels and a non-fiction regional history. He is now librarian of his county historical society and a frequent contributor of articles and short stories to a variety of magazines. He is a member of International Thriller Writers and is a past vice president of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Additional information on his books and writing is available at his website.