I always include a disclaimer at the front of each book: While every effort was made to be historically accurate, this is a work of fiction.
I really do try hard to make sure that I get the history right. I always enjoy the research stage of the writing process. But it takes a long time, and there’s no way I can hunt down every last authority on the subject. In the end I must stop the research and begin to write.
But after I had mapped out the whole plot of How Sweet the Sound another piece of information fell into my hands: “The Pirates of Cave-in-Rock in Myth and Legend” by Mark J. Wagner and Mary R. McCorvie.
And then I realized that on one key point, How Sweet the Sound is more fiction than history .
I knew that there were lots of myths and exaggerated stories about the pirates of Cave-in-Rock floating around. But I relied on Otto A. Rothert’s scholarly The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock. His research was extensive and thorough and included lots of primary material. Throughout his book he gives his sources and is careful to distinguish between unsubstantiated legends and documented proof or eye witness accounts. At least I thought he did.
Now it turns out that he may have perpetuated some of the myths, either unwittingly or because like so many of us, he so badly wanted the legends to be true.
Many wild stories about the pirates and Cave-in-Rock began to appear after Samuel Mason’s death in 1803. Something about the man and the cave really caught people’s imaginations. British traveler Thomas Ashe was certainly intrigued. He included a whole section about it in his Travels in America, published in 1806. He clearly states in the foreword that his book is meant to be entertainment not fact, but who reads forewords?
Among other things he describes a spooky upper room in the cave where he says he saw the bones of over sixty people who had been murdered by the pirates. And he tells about a deep and “frightful chasm” too. Neither of those exist in the real cave, which is a single, unremarkable room.
But people swallowed his stories as gospel truth, because after all, if it’s in print it must be true. What readers did not know was that he had made up large portions of his book (and plagiarized others). But Travels in America was reprinted and anthologized so many times that Ashe’s intent was forgotten and the stories accepted as history.
During the early 19th century other stories appeared in the style of American romantic fiction based on the myths in Ashe’s Travels in America. Some authors fictionalized real men such as Davy Crockett and Mike Fink into larger-than-life characters. Other characters, such as Colonel “Plug” were completely made up, and the stories about his pirate activities on the Cache River were passed on so long that some popular histories list him as an actual historical figure. Wikipedia presents his as fact not fiction.
Rothert’s The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock. is much more accurate. Yet, according to the Wagner and McCorvie article, in a few instances Rothert ignored facts he had available, choosing instead to present local legends as fact. If he had been totally honest with his readers he would have told us that historian Lyman Draper interviewed eyewitnesses who testified that the Harpe brothers fled to Tennessee to avoid the Regulators and not to Cave-in-Rock. There’s no dispute about the bloody trail the sociopathic serial killers laid through three states, but it did not lead to the cave and thus they were never river pirates. And thus my portrayal of them as part of Samuel Mason’s pirate gang falls into the fictional not the historical department.
If I had had the time to check the primary sources Rothert lists, I would have figured it out for myself. But I’m not the only one to fail to adequately do her homework. Disney’s Davy Crockett and the River Pirates was based on the myths perpetuated by Ashe and Rother’s inaccuracies. So was the classic movie, How the West Was Won, starring Walter Brennan as Samuel Mason. And surprisingly, so was the History Channel’s 1999 feature, River Pirates. I’ll never watch their presentations with the same degree of eagerness I used to have.
When I decided to write How Sweet the Sound, I wanted so badly to get a chance to see Cave-in-Rock again. The last time I’d seen it was when I visited there with my family back in 1972. But things conspired against a trip. When I called Cave-in-Rock State Park they told me the walkway to the cave entrance was under water. So I did not make the trip.
But I thought of another way to get a look inside the cave. I ordered How the West Was Won from Netflix and watched eagerly for a glimpse of the cave. Guess what? The interior they showed was not even remotely like the real cave. Even though the movie makers filmed on location, they decided to forego reality and recreate the spooky, winding interior described in Ashe’s book, including the “frightful chasm.” I was so disgusted I didn’t even finish watching the movie.
I wish I had read the article before I finished the story instead of afterwards. A part of me wishes I had not read it at all. If I were more a historian and less a fiction writer, I’d go back and change How Sweet the Sound to reflect the truth as I now know it. But, I decided not to do it. Having Mason and the Harpes at the cave together allows me to succinctly tell their tale and contrast the men. In that sense, my story is true to who those men were. Most southern Illinoisans, steeped in the legends, would say it is absolutely true. And in the end, I want the myth to be true more than I want to write the truth. So there.
The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock. Otto A. Rothert. 1924
“The Pirates of Cave-in-Rock in Myth and Legend” by Mark J. Wagner and Mary R. McCorvie, published in The Springhouse, Vol. 28 No. 1. First appeared in X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen.It would be so nice of you to share!