The Butcher, the Embezzler, and the Fall Guy is on She Reads roundup of Must-Read Historical True Crime Books for fans of Killers of the Flower Moon. One of my favorite books of 2018 so I'm truly honored.
Count down to PUB DAY:
It's the last day of May and one week before my book comes out. Hurrah!
As the sun shines and there are "great bursts of leaves growing on the trees" (as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby) I think of the larger than life Ransome Josiah Thomson as the con man of my family story. Through the course of nearly a decade he had the courage? audacity? recklessness? to steal over a million dollars from the Hormel company and build a larger-than-life amusement park in the middle of "nowhere" (aka Cresco, Iowa) that could attract as many as 60,000 visitors on a weekend. And yet....AND YET....hardly anyone questioned seriously where his money came from.
There was a postwar boom afloat across America, with jazz bands playing at Thomson's dancing pavillion, hedonism and pleasure sought after the terrors of World War I. As prosperity came to southern Minnesota, maybe it was easy to play down the excesses of Thomson's contrivances.
Like most con men, Thomson groomed those around him. He kept meticulous accounts for the company. He took no vacations. He was at his desk day and night, ensuring that all the numbers balanced and that he alone caught every incoming and outgoing transfer of funds. Without almost no corporate regulation or oversight back then, and an ever hopeful executive class enjoying a period of fast growth, Thomson's practices and behaviors helped create the illusion of his success.
In Eugene Soltes' terrific book WhyThey Do It — Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Crminal, an embezzler needs three conditions to succeed. First he needs to have opportunity which Thomson had as the sole keeper of the Hormel books. Second he needs either external or internal pressure. I believe Thomson's pressure was mostly internal — a great desire to be more like my grandfather and George Hormel than like the day laborer family members he'd come from. It would take money, and money was what he had his hands on. Finally, fraudsters require justification. Who among us hasn't justified a small act of malfeasance (the candy bar I stole from a downtown market when I was about ten years old — and that has made me feel guilty ever since). At the time I justified it as just a candy bar, something the owners would likely never miss. Thankfully, I never stole anything else. Thomson multiplied that kind of justification by a thousand.
But cons rarely last forever. Either the con person (there are women cons though most are men) slips one day, and ultimately is found out. What Soltes emphasized in our email exchange and phone call is that it's nearly impossible to erradicate all white collar crime, though decreasing the opportunitiy (through regulation, oversight, dual and triple controls, etc), the pressure (supporting employee motivation to get ahead through advancement programs, etc.) and the justification (engaging employees in a company culture that enhances their felt sense of belonging) can go far to decrease it. To eliminate it 100%, as Soltes told me would probably put most companies out of business, the cost would be so great.
Those who did question Thomson's access to the money he spent on building his amusement park were met with explanations of inheriting the money from a wealthy aunt and investing it wisely. In fact, his approach to grooming everyone to believe him was part of his own self-mythologizing--that his generosity and entrepreneurship in the community couldn't be considered anything but above board. For a respected and thriving meatpacking plant in southern Minnesota and those who lived in Austin, MN, this was mythology they wanted to believe.
The timing of his actions worked well. This was the era during and post-World War I when new prosperity was present, when illegal schemes like a black-market for selling of liquor during Prohibition abounded. Such criminal enterprises were also the source of Gatsby’s income and how he financed his lavish parties, Ransome J. Thomson was doing it five years before F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was published.
My book comes out next week while "great bursts of leaves are growing on [our] trees!"
June 8 at 7 pm: Norwich Bookstore, Norwich, Vermont. Penny McConnel and I have had two + conversations about this event and I can't wait for it to happen! We've got a lot to say (as usual for us!). Click here to pre-order my book signed for pickup and learn more about the event. Please pass the word if you're in/near the Upper Valley!
June 19 at 7 pm: Mechanics Hall, Portland, Maine in collaboration with Longfellow Books. Please note change of venue from Longfellow's store to Mechanics' Hall. I'm delighted to be in conversation with Bob Keyes, author of The Isolation Artist: Scandal, Deception, and the Last Days of Robert Indiana. Bob and I will likely be in conversation about my desire to write this story, how I developed my voice, my reflections on my family after the book was done, how I feel about legacy. We share a love for the place--Bob lived in South Dakota and his prior in-laws were from Austin. His father-in-law and brothers-in-law all worked at the Hormel plant., the nature of industrial agriculture. will be a wonderful conversation, likely. Click here to learn more. Books can be preordered through Longfellow HERE or PRINT: A Bookstore HERE. Portlanders — please pass the word! And let me just say that Bob's epigraph "A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people" (Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater) could have been mine!June 22 at 12 noon: I'm enormously excited to launch this book in the town in which the story takes place, Austin, Minnesota. I will be speaker at the Lunchbox History Series at the Mower County Historical Society at 1303 Sixth Avenue SW, Austin, Minnesota. Bring your lunch and your questions and I'm sure this will be a particularly lively conversation.
June 25 at 9:30 am: I'm super grateful to have been asked to be a featured author at Bookstock in Woodstock, Vermont. The fabulous crime novelist Sarah Stewart Taylor will be with me for a free-wheeling conversation about true crime vs. fictional crime and especially the current true crime craze. I can't wait!
June 26 at 6:30 pm: A true home-coming for me at the brand new Meriden Library, in Meriden, New Hampshire, I hope to see a lot of old neighbors and friends for this conversation with Marjorie Nelson Matthews, two time fiction author and a writing critique partner who watched The Butcher, the Embezzler, and the Fall Guy arise from my pages twenty years ago. Join us!
July 6 at 7 pm: Blue Hill Public Library with Blue Hill Books, Blue Hill, Maine.
July 13 at 6 pm: Brooksville Free Public Library, Brooksville, Maine.
August 24 at 6 pm: Thompson Free Library, Dover-Foxcroft, Maine.
November 2 at 7 pm: National Association of Memoir Writers. In conversation with Linda Joy Myers.
Queen of the Snails
My very favorite book of the last two months is Queen of the Snails: A Graphic Memoir. I absolutely love this book. Santa Fe author Mauren Burdock is not only an exquisite illustrator but a fabulous memoirist and this book follows her first twenty years as she is uprooted from her childhood home in Germany and plopped down in the American Midwest. Her mother loves Jesus most — perhaps more than her daughter feels she loves her. Her grandmother misses Nazi Germany after World War II. Burdock's characters are both drawn and narrated beautifully (and terribly) and it's through her true and arduous search for her authentic self that she comes to complicated terms with her past. Unpacking the emotional wreckage of religion, politics, identity, violence and abandonment, Burdock takes us on a taut and emotionally lancing, yet transcendent, journey. I could not put it down. Received as a gift from my bestie Ellen Schecter in Placitas, New Mexico, I hope to meet Maureen when I'm visiting in September! There is something truly beautiful about graphic books — the spareness of language mixed with the alertness of illustration cuts through our preconceived notions of storytelling and how we see the world. I could not put this book down!
My next newsletter arrives on pub day, June 6th, and I hope you'll enjoy what has been GREAT FUN for me to create. Advance thanks to Ruth Shepard at Pages & Platforms for making all my graphic dreams come true!!