Friday, December 11, 2009

Rewriting the Past for More Compelling Fiction

by Norman German

While researching my third novel, A Savage Wisdom, I discovered that in real life Toni Jo Henry was not a sympathetic character on which I could build a true crime novel. At that point I became interested in “rewinding” her life, recreating her as an ingénue deceived into high-class prostitution. A Savage Wisdom thus became a study in deception and an exploration of identity development.

Put to death in 1942 for the 1940 Valentine’s Day murder of a Houston businessman, Toni Jo Henry is still the only woman ever executed in Louisiana’s electric chair.

Toni Jo’s story has intrigued me since childhood, when I would read about her in special features in the Lake Charles American Press, which tantalized readers with reproductions of her leggy portrait as a coddled death-row inmate.

When I decided to “novelize” her life, my four-year research led me to the newspaper archive room, legal documents, and Toni Jo’s gravesite.

First, I read dozens of newspaper articles on the murder, capture, trial, and execution. To create the dense, “textured” world of a novel, I immersed myself in magazines and popular histories from World War I to 1963 (JFK’s assassination).

From antique stores, I bought ten copies of magazines from the period, including Life, Look, Collier’s, and Saturday Evening Post. I read every article and studied every ad in order to realistically recreate the clothing, slang, and pop-culture icons of the era.

Two indispensable histories were Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s and Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America, both by Frederick Lewis Allen. However, my most valuable source was written by a hobbyist historian. New Orleans in the Thirties, by Mary Lou Widmer, includes hundreds of photographs chronicling the interior décor, men’s and women’s clothing styles, cuisine, and social customs reproduced in the novel.

For the 1950s, I ordered legendary journalist David Halberstam’s The Fifties. From Time magazine’s special issue “Time Capsule: 1950, The Year in Review,” I became familiar with everything from automobile models and colors to whiskey brands.

The authoritative source for the trial was the Southern Reporter, a series containing summaries of regional court cases—dull reading, indeed, but it led me back to the newspaper accounts describing the various parties in the courtroom. For example, during Toni Jo’s three trials, members of the courtroom audience often made slitting motions across their throats.

For years, I had heard the rumor that Toni Jo’s grave was not marked by a headstone for fear of vandalism. I went on my scavenger hunt in the Orange Grove-Graceland Cemetery on Broad Street, thinking to walk in concentric squares until I found her tombstone or proved the rumor valid.

I discovered that the name of Louisiana’s most notorious murderess had been misspelled. Annie Beatrice McQuiston, carved as “Anna,” adopted the name “Toni Jo” as a prostitute and became Toni Jo Henry upon marrying Claude “Cowboy” Henry, himself a murderer on the lam.

Norman German is Professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, Fiction Editor for Louisiana Literature, and Winner of the Deep South Writers Contest for No Other World. Visit the author at
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