Author Gwen Mayo is a history buff. She writes mystery novels set in the late 19th century with a strong female heroine, like I do, which is one reason I wanted to talk to her.
Gwen’s passion for history comes through in this wide-ranging interview where we talk about everyting from the political atmosphere in Kentucky after the American Civil War, to a madam who was the model for the character Belle Watling in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcript of Interview with Gwen Mayo
Alexandra: Hi everyone, I’m Alexandra Amor and this is It’s a Mystery podcast. I’m here today with Gwen Mayo. Hi, Gwen.
Alexandra: How are you doing today?
Gwen: Doing great.
Alexandra: Is it warm there in Florida?
Gwen: Not for Florida.
Alexandra: No? I heard a voice in the background.
Gwen: Yes. I’m afraid Sarah can’t but help join me.
Alexandra: That’s great. I have some relatives who winter in Florida and they’re on the panhandle. They’ve had a lot of rain they said this year.
Gwen: It’s been fairly wet but the temperatures are…usually the 50s and 60s about now so it’s not as warm as they would like it to be. Usually, they’re wanting 70s and 80s here.
Alexandra: That’s right. Exactly. Yup, that’s what my Canadian relatives are looking for. So, just for everyone’s benefit, I’m going to tell them a little bit about you.
Gwen Mayo loves reading and writing mystery fiction. She currently lives and writes in Safety Harbor, Florida, but is forever a Kentucky Wildcat. Her stories have appeared in anthologies at online short fiction sites and in micro fiction collections. She currently has two novels in the Nessa Donnelly series, and is working on one fiction, and one nonfiction book set in Florida.
So it was the Nessa Donnelly mysteries that I really wanted to talk to you Gwen. Before we got on the call, I mentioned that I’m writing mystery novels in sort of the same period, late 19th century.
Let’s start with Nessa. So she was a Pinkerton agent, so tell us a bit about her and that job.
Gwen: The Pinkertons were basically putting people into places where they can pick up information. In Nessa’s case, they had her working as a nurse in one of the army hospitals, and so as she was writing letters from the troops, she would copy any important information, and send it off to Pinkerton. Pinkertons are kind of their own secret society at the time. They were wearing the little pinky ring to identify each other, which is where they got picked up that pinky ring on the finger from.
Alexandra: Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s where the expression came from.
Gwen: Yes. It’s really the place where the tradition started in putting a ring on that finger. So, they would now know the other Pinkerton agents that were in the field. So they had to have some way of identifying each other and they chose the little gold ring.
Alexandra: Nessa did that for a while during the war and then…
Gwen: She did that till the end of the war. And then, her brother was investigating a secret society called “The Knights of the Golden Circle” who were doing a lot of train robberies of the army payrolls. And he got killed right about the time the war ended. While he was investigating this group, they figured out that he was in fact a spy, and they killed him for it. So she’s been looking for the Splinter Rogue that was doing the robberies for 14 years, but she had to impersonate her brother, because in Kentucky in the late 1800s, women could not get on a train alone.
You weren’t allowed to travel alone. You couldn’t check into a hotel. So to travel and actually search for these people, she assumes his identity.
Gwen: And she’s been doing this for so long that it’s left her in kind of a situation where she’s not sure who she is anymore.
Alexandra: Right, yeah, okay
Gwen: So she’s having to deal with the local police sergeant, who is a friend of hers but his wife is an incredible matchmaker, and she’s related to everybody. So she keeps fixing Nessa up with these people, and she’s developed a reputation for only going out with them once. And she doesn’t know this until her date for the evening points it out to her. Everybody’s already told her that.
Gwen: So it’s been kind of a fun thing to do. Nessa has a drinking and gambling buddy – he’s the local medical examiner. Although, at that time they didn’t call them medical examiners, but I leave it that way in the book because that’s the term we’re familiar with now.
Alexandra: Okay, yeah, which brings up an interesting question. I encountered the same kind of thing.
In looking into your background you’re a real history buff yourself, and is it this period in particular that you’re interested in or are you a general history fan?
Gwen: I’m really interested in just about all kinds of history. I’ve read a lot of historical novels, and it’s fun when you’re looking at them, and you go, “Wait a minute, that couldn’t have happened. This wasn’t invented then.”
Alexandra: Right, yes, yes, when you catch them out. Yeah, exactly. And you mentioned you’re a Kentucky native, from Kentucky, and that’s where the Nessa Donnelly books are set.
Alexandra: Okay, okay, great.
One of the things I read on your website is that after the Civil War, murder was more common in Kentucky than anywhere else in the United States. So, tell us a bit about that. What was going on that made Kentucky so dangerous?
Gwen: Well, Kentucky was always dangerous. It wasn’t a new thing. It used to be that when a Kentuckian checked into a hotel somewhere else, they had to specify that they were there on peaceful business.
Alexandra: Oh, wow. Okay
Gwen: Because they had such a reputation for the violence. The Civil War brought out a lot more of it because Kentucky was so divided. And it was divided in an odd way. The center part of the state was the confederate part of the state, and both sides supported the union. So you had this huge problem, but it also developed a lot of the secret societies that went on during the late 1900s. Pretty much everybody belonged to some sort of secret group, or at least if you were male, you belonged to one of them. They estimate that probably four out of every five people were members of some sort of secret society.
Alexandra: And so, say a bit more about this because I noticed this mentioned on your website as well, or maybe it was in the book’s description.
What were the secret societies like? Pinkertons was sort of a secret detective agency, would you call it that?
Alexandra: And then what were the others? Like, what were these secret societies?
Gwen: The first book deals a lot with the Knights of the Golden Circle which was a splinter group of Southern sympathizers who were basically raising money for the South, or in some cases like the ones in Kentucky stealing money for the South. They all together robbed about half a million dollars in payroll from the Union Army, and most of it went South, but not all. Some of it they were still looking for. I discovered I had a splinter group of my own of treasure hunters who were reading the books to find out what I know about those treasures that are supposed to be hidden.
The second book is dealing with the Klan, which I’m sure everyone’s familiar with. It’s a little different from the Klan the way we picture it because they had the sheets and the hoods, but the cross burning and stuff came in the 1920s. It wasn’t connected with religion in the post-Civil War era.
There’s a lot of the black community had secret societies of their own to try to protect themselves from the raids that were going on. There was a raid in Frankfort, Kentucky where an entire community was burned to the ground, and people who tried to escape were pulled back into it. So that men, women, children, even the pets were just slaughtered. There were about 63 people in the community at the time, but it was just surrounded by Knight Riders. And that’s another group, the Knight Riders, the Regulators. The Red Strings were active in Kentucky.
I’ll probably come back to the secret societies in Kentucky at some point, but right now I’m going to branch out and go into Chicago a little bit. So she can go back into her past a little more, and bring some of that out.
Alexandra: Oh, interesting.
Is that where she and her brother were raised? Chicago?
Gwen: They grew up in an orphanage in Chicago. Their father was actually alive, but their mother had died on the ship crossing, which is what happened to a lot of Irish families. And what would happen is that the father would put them with the orphans and that he would contribute to their care, but he couldn’t take care of them. Five year old twins, they’re raised in an orphanage by The Sisters of Charity and get into all kinds of trouble.
Alexandra: I bet, yeah. And, so does Nessa continue in this book to keep her brother’s identity? Is she living as a man?
Alexandra: Okay, and does she just find…
Gwen: She’s filled this reputation as male detective. So she’s kind of stuck with it.
Alexandra: Right, yeah, yeah, exactly.
She wouldn’t, as you say, wouldn’t have been allowed to be a detective if she had kept her female identity.
Gwen: Well, Pinkerton actually had female detectives, but when his son Robert took over, he fired them all.
Alexandra: Oh, okay.
Gwen: So after the war, when Robert took over the business from his father, they fired all of the detectives.
Alexandra: And that was the end of that.
Have you always been interested in history? Is that always been something that’s fascinated you?
Gwen: It is. I majored in history and politics. When it comes to Kentucky history, I pretty much know why everybody got killed. You know Kentucky was at the time the only state who had ever assassinated a governor.
Alexandra: Oh, wow.
Gwen: One of our Kentucky Supreme Court Justices in 1879 was shot in front of 800 witnesses, and nobody saw it.
They couldn’t find one person who would come forward and identify just because they were so afraid of these organizations that were running things.
Alexandra: Good heavens.
It must be rich with stories. You must just find a lot of fascinating facts to weave into your books.
Gwen: It is a lot of fun to weave some of this stuff in. And when I use real people, I have started putting the author’s notes in the back. When the first book came out, I was with a publisher who wouldn’t let me do that. After that press folded, Sarah and I took over the publication of our own books as well as some of the other people who lost their publisher. And then I was able to put in the historical notes so you could know who’s real and who isn’t, and what they were. There were some incredibly wonderful people. I talk about the bad people a lot but really there were some great people in Kentucky at the time that were doing incredible things, but…it was a strange time to live because you never knew who your friends were.
Alexandra: My mind is kind of boggled and I just had no idea about all this secret society stuff. It must have involved a lot of political allegiances and that kind of thing.
Gwen: It did, and it also was within the police department so you could not trust the law.
The Klan pretty much had control of most of the central Kentucky legal system. The judges, the police departments, the city counselors, all this kind of stuff were usually Klan members. So it was very hard to trust anyone.
Alexandra: And the time itself, post-Civil War, I had to look up the year that the war ended was 1865.
That was a time, I’m guessing, of quite a bit of unrest in the States because it was a transitionary period would you say?
Gwen: It was, but in Kentucky and in Kansas, it was very different than it was in the rest of the country because those two border states had outlaw bands running through them that were renegades from the war. People who got a taste for killing and decided to keep doing it.
So, that was going on and there was also a power vacuum, because the army had been running Kentucky. And then, after the Civil War, they stayed for about three years, and when they pulled out, there was no law.
Everything had been under military jurisdiction. They controlled all of it, so reforming a state government took some time. And Kansas had a lot of those problems as well. So it makes for an interesting period of time
Alexandra: You must have to weed out stories that you don’t want to tell rather than search for ones you do. There must be just so much you can choose from.
Gwen: Yeah, I once commented that I could write 300 stories and not run out of murders in Lexington, Kentucky.
Alexandra: Just in Lexington.
Gwen: Just in Lexington. During the worst of the Klan years, there was at least one lynching a month. And that went away for a little while, and then in the 1920s it came back again. We had people who were killed in some pretty terrible ways.
Alexandra: Fascinating. I wasn’t aware of any of this, really.
Gwen: That’s kind of why I just started writing these books is because it’s a very unique place in time, and I wanted to bring that out in a way that people could enjoy it, and the things that are going on. So when it comes to the secret societies, and the rituals, and the things they do, there was one chapter in the book I was telling Sarah that I just absolutely didn’t know how to write it because it was so awful that nobody would want to read the book. These guys actually beheaded people. Turned the skull into a lantern, supposedly to light their way to hell.
Alexandra: Oh, god.
Gwen: And there’s a scene where this happens to one of the people who they thought that told some of their secrets. And so, I had pieces of the ritual kind of things they did so I had to kind put it together from different sources, but it was very hard to write, because you don’t want to make it as grody as it would’ve been.
Alexandra: Oh, it must have been really awful, yeah. Wow. Not for the faint of heart.
Gwen: No, it was not a time for the faint of heart.
And of course, we had this wonderful prostitute and Madam in Lexington named Belle Brezing.
Alexandra: Oh, say more about her.
Gwen: So, at the time she’s like 18, in 1879, and she’s a friend of Nessa’s. So she plays into the book a lot. But she’s very outspoken. She says what she thinks, and there are so many statements made for her by her to various people that she just had this wonderful idea of what she was like as a person. They actually used her as a model in Gone with the Wind for the madam there. It was based on Margaret Mitchell’s husband went to school in Lexington, and so he knew about Belle and her house. It’s that hard not to.
Alexandra: She’s that famous?
Alexandra: Wow, and a woman with a good business head? Would you say?
Gwen: Definitely. And also a good heart. She was constantly doing these charitable things, and helping people. There’s a lovely story about her when she arrested as a prostitute. Now, she was never kept in jail overnight. Never.
The one time that they thought they were going to keep her overnight, the governor issued a pardon before it ever went to trial. You just did not bother her.
But they had her in court and women had to have an occupation if they were single women, so all of the prostitutes were squaring to be seamstresses, millinery workers, and this kind of stuff. So they get to Belle and they ask her her occupation and she says, “Prostitute.” And the judge says, “How’s business?” and she says “Plum terrible, I’m competing with all these milliners and seamstresses.”
Alexandra: She sounds like quite a character.
Gwen: She was. So, she had this very rich kind of thing to pull from when you deal with it to that.
Alexandra: Oh, yeah. She was an actual person, but you’ve created kind of a fictional version of her…
Gwen: I have.
Alexandra: …and folded her into Nessa’s story. And that, as a writer myself, that just sounds like so much fun. Especially when there’s so much that was known about her.
Gwen: It is. Someone wrote to me once and said that I put her in this house a year before she actually was actually there. And he was basing it on the information in her biography, which was based on her obituary in the Times, or in Time Magazine rather. They got it wrong. And I knew they had it wrong, because I had her diary.
Alexandra: Oh, no way.
Gwen: So I copied a couple of pages of the diary, and I mailed them back to him, and I never heard from him again.
Alexandra: Wow, and how did you get a hold of that?
Gwen: It was part of the special collections of the University of Kentucky.
Gwen: They had some of her papers there, and it was mixed in with them, and it was just for like four or five months that she’d written this stuff, which gives you great insight into what she was like. So I read it all, I just devoured and copied everything.
Alexandra: Yeah, good for you.
Has there ever been anything you’ve uncovered, I mean maybe there’s been lots of stuff, that has really surprised you.
Gwen: Not really. Growing up in Kentucky, and I was in the Eastern part of the state which is a strange sort of mix there as well, because there was very few slaves and that kind of thing in there, but there was a lot of coal mining and very poor people in that part of the state. Most of them fought for the Union.
The fourth book in the series is going to be set in Eastern Kentucky. And I’m going to get into The Regulator Uprising of 1879, which is in the fall of the year. That’ll be the last of the 1879 books. We’ll turn the decade.
Alexandra: Have you ever lived in Chicago? Do you know much about that city?
Gwen: I haven’t lived there. I’ve done a couple of trips there, and actually went by the buildings that are still standing before the Chicago fire, which I’ve done an awful lot of it. So Nessa’s going to go back to a city that’s very different from the one she left.
She left in 1861. And the fire was, I believe in ’72, but I’m not certain of that. But it burned down before ’79, that I can say for certain. So the city is being rebuilt, and it’s a totally different city.
Alexandra: That’ll be fascinating too for you as a writer.
Gwen: Yeah, I think it would be good to go back and look at what was like after the fire, and how they rebuilt it because there were some really interesting construction stuff. I would highly recommend a book by the name of “The Devil in the White City,” because it’s set a little later than what this is, but it’s with the exhibition there, and then the Ferris wheel was built, and all of that. And it’s a really great reading. And lots of the history of the time, and the architecture, and what they were doing. How they managed to float the buildings on Chicago’s main section of town there, their million-dollar mile or whatever those buildings are actually floated above the water, because the lake is right there, and everything was mud.
It was written about some great architecture and interesting reading. And of course, it was about murder, so, you know.
Alexandra: You enjoyed it.
Gwen: Yes, I enjoyed it.
Alexandra: Yes. Well, this has been great, Gwen. It’s just been so fascinating to talk to you. I could keep asking questions for hours, I can tell. But since we’re almost out of time, why don’t you tell everyone where they can find your books? Your website address is gwenmayo.com?
Gwen: Yes. It’s really easy to find me, just put my name in and probably 9 out of 10 entries will be me.
Alexandra: Great, okay. I also noticed that you’ve got a blog where you blog regularly about historical events, anniversaries, and that kind of thing.
Gwen: Yes. I like to. Every day I read the papers from a hundred years ago.
Alexandra: Oh, Okay.
Gwen: At least the major ones. So if there’s something really interesting that I think people should know about. In fact, the last one I did was about Canada, and…
Alexandra: I saw that.
Gwen: But it’s a lot of fun to look back a hundred years ago and see what was going on, because that again is a very interesting time. Because Europe is in the middle of this war, and America is trying to stay out of it.
Gwen: And there’s a lot going on. And then of course, the president got married in the middle of it and then they had to cancel his honeymoon to come back for the war crisis.
Alexandra: Oh did they? Good grief.
Gwen: Yes, they got two days of their honeymoon then they had to come back to Washington.
Alexandra: And your books are also available on Amazon.
Gwen: They’re on Amazon. You can get them from any bookstore with the ISBN so you could order them directly from us if you like.
Alexandra: And does the publishing house have a website as well?
Gwen: Yes, it’s called Mystery and Horror, LLC.
Alexandra: Okay, there you go. So people can find the books there as well.
Gwen: And they can find books from a lot of other good writers and some really bad writers like Monster Matt.
Alexandra: Who’s he?
Gwen: He’s a great artist, but he writes books of puns, and bad jokes.
Alexandra: And those are available.
Gwen: He’s such a great guy. He does wonderful artwork. If you like monsters or any of the fandoms, he’s just wonderful at it, and he’s in Buffalo, New York, so, or outside of Buffalo.
Alexandra: Oh, great. Well, thank you so much for being with me. It’s been great chatting with you.
Gwen: Well, thanks for having me.
Alexandra: And take care, bye-bye.
Gwen: You too, bye-bye.