This is a guest blog post by Amy Stewart, the award-winning author of six books, including the bestsellers The Drunken Botanist and Wicked Plants. She and her husband live in Eureka, California, where they own a bookstore called Eureka Books.
Most people come to Ancestry in search of their family. I went looking for three complete strangers.
It started when I was researching a gin smuggler named Henry Kaufman for my last book, The Drunken Botanist. I wondered what else this Henry Kaufman might have gotten up to when he wasn’t smuggling gin, so I poked around in the New York Times’ archives until I found a 1915 article about a man with the same name who was convicted of harassing and threatening three sisters: Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp. The trial capped a year-long ordeal in which the sisters faced kidnapping threats, had shots fired at their house, and survived an arson attempt.
Well, I thought. Isn’t that interesting.
This happens to writers all the time. We take a detour in our research, run across some shimmering little gem of a story, and set it aside, perhaps in a folder marked “Shimmering Little Gems of Stories,” and we go back to our work.
But I couldn’t leave those sisters alone. Before long I found lively headlines, fabulous photographs, and a dashing sheriff who came to their aid. He issued revolvers to the Kopps, taught them to shoot, and enlisted the help of the oldest sister, Constance, in catching and convicting their attacker. This was not ordinary behavior for a woman of 1915! I knew right away that I’d found an amazing story, and that I’d have to write a novel about these women.
That night I took my first deep dive into Ancestry. I found the Kopp sisters growing up in Brooklyn in the late nineteenth century, the daughters of immigrants. I found them living on a remote farm in Wyckoff, NJ in the 1910s, where Henry Kaufman first went after them. And—on that very first night—I found their family. Their brother’s grandson had started a family tree. And he was more than happy to call and talk to me about his three rambunctious great-aunts.
It took another two years to piece the rest of their story together. I did all the legwork that anyone interested in their own family’s story would do: I visited city halls to get birth certificates, I went to courthouses to track down wills, and I walked around cemeteries, looking for gravestones. And in every case, I came back to Ancestry, to update what I knew, to connect new names and dates to the census records and directory listings I’d already found, and to search for other Kopp family members who might be online, putting their own version of the story together.
Some of the minor characters in the Kopp’s real story became major characters in my novel, Girl Waits with Gun, because of what I found on Ancestry. For instance, a lawyer named John Ward was only on the periphery of their lives, but when I saw a picture of him on Ancestry, posted by his granddaughter, Patty Becker, I fell in love with him immediately and had to give him a bigger role. In the novel, he’s a charming, funny, whip-smart young attorney who’s always got a pipe between his teeth and a bottle of whiskey in the desk drawer.
Patty shared everything she remembered about her grandfather, and after she read Girl Waits with Gun, she told me that he could be “a funny and quick witted guy,” and that he did have a bit of a reputation as a ladies’ man in between marriages, just as I suspected.
One night, frustrated that I had lost track of the youngest sister, Fleurette, in the historical record, I did a search for any woman named Fleurette who was alive at any point in the first half of the twentieth century. To my amazement, her married name popped up alongside her maiden name on a newly-created family tree, and within a few days, I was making arrangements to fly across the country to visit Fleurette’s son, and to hear the rest of the Kopp sisters’ incredible story from the only person still alive who knew it firsthand.
It was then that the Kopps really came alive. He put a photograph of Fleurette in my hand. He told me that she used to catch frogs in the creek behind her house to sell to a lady down the street. He told me that Norma was the most stubborn, opinionated woman he’d ever met, and that she hid cash between the pages of a notebook in her purse. And, between the two of us, we put together the pieces of a family secret about Constance that had been buried for over a hundred years.
I don’t want to give away too much of what I found out. It’s all in the book. Together we corrected a few mistakes in the family tree and shared photos and newspaper clippings. I put him in touch with cousins he didn’t know he had. And with Ancestry’s help, we brought the rebellious and remarkable Kopp sisters back to life. Even though Girl Waits with Gun is fiction, it’s rooted in the historical record, and in the family memories that brought them to life.
Amy Stewart is the author of Girl Waits with Gun (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2015). Find book tour dates and more at www.amystewart.com.