This novel is based on an actual court case, “T.J. Cluverius v. the Commonwealth.” A paragraph in a book on Richmond history got me digging deeper. I found copious newsprint dedicated to what became a sensational trial; it was wonderfully detailed, but it gave no clear idea of who the participants were, where they had come from, and why they ended up doing what they did.
I continued to dig up as much as I could about the case, while doing general research on the period. Though most of Richmond’s early buildings have fallen to the wrecking ball, a good sample from various periods remains. Finding Lillian’s grave early on—which took more effort than I’d thought it would—gave me a tangible link to the story and made me feel committed to telling it with as much passion and honesty as I could.
I soon realized that I was going to have to imagine most of the story. By this point I felt so connected to these long-dead people that I thought I owed it to them to get it right, which in fictional terms meant that the story would have to rise up out of the facts like a holographic image from a flat screen.
But the question remained; what was the story? I was lucky in that the events of the case suggested a rough plot line, as all interesting court cases do. There was a real Tommie, Lillian, Willie, Jane Tunstall, Richardson, a shadowy character on whom Nola was based, and so on. In my research I came across key pieces of evidence, carefully preserved for more than a century: letters, photographs, and, most interesting of all, a watch-key and a torn note. I integrated much of this into the story, though not always exactly as it appeared in the actual case.
While I have done my best to keep the novel true to its historical period, I have tailored the facts to suit the story’s dramatic purposes. Most of the pre- and post-trial story is of my own creation. For the trial itself I borrowed freely from the transcripts, employing the standard writer’s tricks of cutting, adding, and moving. Time was collapsed in some places—Tommie, for instance, spent much longer in jail than he does in the novel; the lawyers are composites and minor characters have been added as necessary; events such as Hatcher’s visits were filled out; and so forth. The details of the case, then, were the fence posts on which I hung the story. The tragic love triangle at its heart was my invention, but it was suggested by the facts.
As to Tommie’s guilt, the record remains tantalizingly unclear. One can pore through pages of material and be convinced one way, then sift some more another day and completely change one’s mind.
The following sources were invaluable: The Richmond Dispatch, Chataigne’s Richmond City Directory (1885), Cluverius: My Life, Trial and Conviction (Thomas J. Cluverius, 1887), Houses of Old Richmond (Mary Wingfield Scott, 1941), Old Richmond Neighborhoods (Mary Wingfield Scott, 1950), Richmond: The Story of a City (Virginius Dabney, 1990), Celebrate Richmond (ed. Elisabeth Dementi and Wayne Dementi, 1999), Richmond: A Pictorial History from the Valentine Museum and Dementi Collections (ed. Thomas F. Hale, 1974), American State Trials (ed. John D. Lawson, 1936), Along the Trail of the Friendly Years (William E. Hatcher, 1910), John Jasper (William E. Hatcher, 1908), William E. Hatcher (Eldridge B. Hatcher, 1915), Old Houses of King and Queen County Virginia (Virginia D. Cox and Willie T. Weathers, 1973), Old King William Homes and Families (Peyton Neale Clarke, 1976), Architecture of Historic Richmond (Paul S. Dulaney, 1968), and General Fitzhugh Lee: A Biography (James L. Nichols, 1989).
–John Milliken Thompson