Imagined places and characters: Louise Erdrich’s Recasting of “The Plague of Doves”

Erdrich’s Research on the Spicer Murders

Erdrich did not allow herself total freedom to imagine. She apparently did considerable research into the Spicer murders and the lynching of the three Indians. She could scarcely not have known at least the basic facts about the Spicer murders. In the New Yorker story “The Plague of Doves” she reveals one direct source of her knowledge:  “In Erling Nicolai Rolfsrud’s compendium of memorable women and men from North Dakota, ‘Mustache’ Maude Black is described as not unwomanly, though she smoked, drank, and was a crack shot and a hard-assed camp boss” (“PD” 96; Erdrich uses virtually identical wording in the novel, PD 16). Rolfsrud’s Extraordinary North Dakotans contains a chapter on Mustache Maude, a chapter that Erdrich surely consulted. Mustache Maude and her husband Ott Black were well known in Winona in 1897, since they owned and operated one of its notorious saloons. Rolfsrud put it this way:

With her Texas cowpoke husband, Ott Black, she drifted into Winona, situated on the east bank of the Missouri across from Fort Yates.

A roistering cluster of six saloons, two dance halls, two stores, a makeshift hotel and a post office—this was Winona in its first years. The inhabitants of the tawdry town were mostly gamblers, saloonkeepers, bartenders and dance hall girls; and soldiers from the Fort Yates military post and cowpunchers of the area came there for drunken revelry. Mustache Maude and her husband added a saloon and gambling den to Winona’s business section.

Mingling freely with the quick-shooting customers, Mustache Maude, a six-shooter holstered at her hip, held her own. Gunshots enlivened the ribald nights at Winona. Sordid incidents were not uncommon and there were tragedies. When the Spicer family north of town was murdered by Indians crazed with fire-water, Winona residents quickly lynched the murderers. (Rolfsrud 49–51)

Having read that, Erdrich was perhaps led to consult a book that Mustache Maude’s husband, A. P. “Ott” Black, wrote about his experiences as a cowboy- gambler. In Black’s The End of the Long Horn Trail, she might have read these breezy paragraphs:

On February 17 [, 1897], one of the saloon proprietors, “Red” Caldwell, sold a bunch of liquor to some Indians and they proceeded to get drunk and raise hell, but somebody threw a scare into ‘em and they headed out of town. The Tom Spicer farm was right in their path on the Bismarck road. It was close enough to town so’s the chimney could be seen from town.

Early next morning Jack Spicer, Tom’s brother, who lived over east of town close to the “Cat-tail,” harnessed up a team and started over to his brother’s place to borrow  a “hay-rack.” He said he figured it was funny there was no smoke comin’ out the chimney, but just figured the folks had overslept.

When he opened the door he saw the God-damnedst sight. His mother, “Grandma” Waldron, lay clubbed to death on the floor. […] Mrs. Rouse, lay on the floor beaten to death and her two twin children, each eighteen months old, had been knocked in the head and thrown up on an old davenport or a day bed.

Jack turned and raced down to the barn where he found his brother shot to death and his sister-in-law lying alongside of him with a pitchfork run through her body.

Well, Jack “wheeled” out of there and got to town. A posse was organized and trailed the murderers to the banks of the Missouri, where they were forced to give up as the Indian reservation was under martial law. Pretty soon Pete Shier, the sheriff, and deputy U.S. marshal Livermore got passes to travel on the reservation, so they took up the trail. The five Indians were finally captured at the mouth of the Cannonball River and taken back and locked in the county jail at Williamsport. (Black 54–55)

Ott Black gets some of his facts wrong. Mrs. Waldron was not Jack Spicer’s mother, but his brother’s mother-in-law. Shier and Livermore did not trail the murderers to the banks of the Missouri and did not arrest the Indians at the mouth of the Cannonball River. He leaves out key facts, such as the mob’s lynching of three of the five Indians who were eventually arrested.

Still, there is evidence that Erdrich knew Ott Black’s book. When the Ojibwe Indian Mooshum comes upon the Lochren place in The Plague of Doves, “he knew there was something wrong” because there was “no smoke from the chimney” (PD 61). That is a curious statement because Mooshum and his three fellow Indians come to the Lochren farm in the “early summer” (PD 60), at a time when the “wild plum trees were blooming” (PD 70). At that time of year they would not have expected to see smoke coming from the chimney. The absence of smoke was apparently a holdover from the Ott Black account of Jack Spicer’s observation when he visited his brother’s place the day after the murders: “He said he figured it was funny there was no smoke comin’ out the chimney.” The absence of smoke would have been unusual indeed in February, especially in a house with small children visiting in it, but it would not have been unusual in the summer. Erdrich might have found the reference to the smokeless chimney in other sources—for example in the report in “Devilish!” in the Emmons County Record for February 19, 1897—but Ott Black’s book would have been closer at hand.

I call attention to three other pieces of evidence from the novel that suggest that

Erdrich had done some fairly comprehensive historical  research. First, the method of killing Mr. Lochren in The Plague of Doves is curiously similar to the method of killing Thomas Spicer. Mooshum and the others find Mr. Lochren outside with his back “blasted out” (PD 62), presumably by a shotgun. That killing is reminiscent of the killing of Thomas Spicer, who was shot in the back with a shotgun. Second, when the men in the lynch mob in The Plague of Doves are casting about for a place from which to hang the Indians, one of them, William Hotchkiss, suggests that “Maybe we could use Oric’s beef windlass” (PD 74). Oric Hoag refuses to let them, and the mob eventually settles on a large tree with branches strong enough to support the victims. Erdrich could have read about the beef windlass in one of the many accounts of the lynching of Alec Coudotte, Paul Holy Track, and Philip Ireland. For example, an article entitled “Mob Law in North Dakota,” that appeared in the New York Times on November 15, 1897, the day after the lynching of the Indians, reported that “The men were dragged to a huge beef windlass.” The mobsters in Erdrich’s novel do not use the windlass, so Erdrich need not have mentioned it at all unless she had read about the one that was used at Williamsport. Third, Erdrich tells us that the mobsters, as they get ready to lynch Mooshum, Asiginak, and Holy Track, are temporarily delayed in their task by “two others who appeared dragging Cuthbert behind a horse. They pulled him slowly, so they could hang him too” (PD 70).

That reflects various published reports that the mobsters in Winona had dragged the prisoners. For example, that same New York Times article had reported that: “Holy Track and Ireland were so nearly unconscious from the effects of being dragged to the spot that they did not realize what was about to happen.”

Erdrich, then, certainly knew more about the Spicer murders and the resulting lynching than she could have read in the one sentence that appears in the Rolfsrud book that she cites. I cannot identify for sure the specific source or sources that Erdrich consulted, but she could easily have found out as much as she wanted to know about the Spicer murders and the lynchings in almost any library. Near the end of The Plague of Doves, Cordelia refers to Neve Harp’s having “showed me all the clippings” (PD 307) about the lynchings following the Lochren murders. Glenn McCrory, a descendant of the Spicer family, gathered together a number of the clippings about the Spicer murders in his Tragedy on the Prairie: The Spicer Family Murders, 1897. Whether or not Erdrich knew that small booklet, she would not have had to seek far to discover the basic facts of the Spicer murders and the lynchings.

I emphasize that Erdrich had done some research into the Spicer murders at Winona and the lynchings at Williamsport to show that the many discrepancies between the facts of the Spicer murders and the fiction of the Lochren murders in The Plague of Doves were not the result of Erdrich’s ignorance of the facts of history. Rather, they were her conscious departures. Erdrich knew what had happened near Winona to the Spicers, but she imagined a quite different story about what happened near Pluto to the Lochrens.

Erdrich moved the murder scene some two hundred miles north of Winona, North Dakota, to the fictional town of Pluto, North Dakota, not far from her fictional north- central towns of Hoopdance and Argus, on or near the reservation that had served as the setting for several of her earlier novels. She changed the date of the murders from 1897 to 1911. She changed the nocturnal lynching of Alec Coudotte, Paul Holy Track and Philip Ireland to the broad daylight lynching of Asiginak, Cuthbert Peace, and Holy Track. She changed the tribal affiliations of the lynched Indians from Dakota to Ojibwe. At the Spicer farm were killed four generations: an elderly mother, her daughter and son-in-law, their married daughter, and that daughter’s two twin infant sons. At the Lochren farm were killed but two generations: two parents, their unmarried teenaged daughter, and their two sons, aged four and eight. These were large differences indeed. Several even larger differences require more extended discussion.