Sunday, April 27, 2008

REVIEW: In Search of Sarah Ware

In Search of Sarah Ware: Reinvestigating Murder and Conspiracy in a Maine Village by Emeric Spooner has been eagerly awaited by local history fans, as is attested to by his success so far in selling copies of the small self-published first edition. This well-printed volume arrived in my mailbox hot off the press, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve stolen time here and there to read it.

The most compelling element of this book is precisely what drove Spooner to write it – the tragedy of an unsolved murder with an innocent victim. Swept under the judicial rug after a late trial of the primary suspect, who was acquitted, Sarah Ware’s case has continued to call out from the mists of the past to Bucksport residents such as Spooner, who is the assistant librarian at the Buck Memorial Library. When I asked him what the starting point had been for him, he replied, “The place where Sarah lived, and the beginning of [Miles] Lane -- in my backyard, literally. The house lights I see at night are from the house that Sarah lived in, not more then 150 yards across a field and bush.”

The story is a sad one. Sarah Ware, a middle-aged divorcĂ©e, disappeared from the route of her evening errands in Bucksport on the night of Saturday, September 17th, 1898. No one seemed much concerned with her disappearance at first. Two weeks after the fact, Deputy Sheriff Genn’s suspicions were aroused enough for him to approach Mrs. Miles, with whom Sarah had been living as a housekeeper, and begin asking questions.

Men in the village turned out for the initial organized search effort on October 1st. On the second day of their search, when their eyes turned to the pastures near Mrs. Miles’ house, they found Sarah’s deteriorating corpse. Found as it was, with terrible damage to the skull, the state of the body was enough to arouse dire opinions about the method of her demise. A few optimistic men tried to put forward theories of what sort of “accident” might cause such a death.

A handful of local men preparing to lift her remains into a coffin at the site discovered, on jostling the body, that she had not only been bludgeoned, but also decapitated, as her head dislodged and rolled away from the corpse. When all was said and done, the inquest jury came back with the judgment that Sarah Ware had “met death at the hands of a person or persons unknown.”

Spooner has transcribed the available documentation of the proceedings, giving us the rare chance to examine what emerged in them for ourselves. What is immediately apparent is that, from the beginning, her death was the cause of conflict and supposition among the townspeople.

The text does not include the questions levied upon witnesses by the examiners, so we are unable to know how much of each person’s statement was volunteered, and how much was steered by questioning. Statements regarding supposed knowledge of Sarah Ware’s habits, morals, personality, mental health, and all manner of details of her personal life are peppered throughout the testimony, leading the careful reader to believe that although a murder may have been committed, in some people’s minds the victim herself was on trial as well.

This is the state of affairs as Spooner launches us into the complicated morass that is the search for Sarah Ware’s murderer. Having spent so much time wading through this material, the author has had time to piece together theories of his own and develop opinions about some of the town characters that people the landscape of this case.

Additional materials are provided here and there to flesh out otherwise unattached names, and to give the reader a feel for how all of the lives in this tiny Maine town intertwined at the turn of the century. Even if there had been no murder, this material would make for a fascinating read, enough to make even Agatha Christie herself inspired.

The accounts of surrounding events vary from witness to witness, and even from one telling to another. People contradict themselves regularly, and some, including William Treworgy, the defendant in the eventual murder trial, avoid explaining themselves entirely. It is no wonder that over a hundred years later the story is still not resolved, if the community was unable to determine the truth of the matter at the trial four years after the killing.

Spooner has been researching the story of Sarah Ware for over two years, and has dug through piles of old newspaper clippings, court documents, and other historical ephemera in his quest for answers. Most recently he was rewarded by finding a photo which includes among its members a woman he thinks can only be Sarah Ware. The resemblance to newspaper portraits of her is indeed startling.

In addition, he interviewed every living descendant of the people mentioned in the newspapers and court documents that he could find, in the hopes of gleaning insight into what the families of the area thought or knew about the murder. “About 80% of the witness list, both defense and prosecution, still have family members who live in town today. It is these people who I interviewed.” A few declined to divulge all the sensitive details they knew, but most were very open with their information.

When I asked Emeric Spooner what his goal was in publishing this book, he replied, “My hope in publishing the book is to set the record straight with the true facts behind the mystery, while making it interesting to read, and spur those families still around to check in their attics for trunks full of photos, diaries, and [examine these] belongings for any piece of evidence that might shed light on the case. That, and slap any of the professionals investigating cold cases, with today’s technology, across the face and say, ‘We have the blood stained cape!’ We have the personal effects and evidence taken from her murdered body. Do DNA testing on it! Check the bloodstains to see if they are all hers.”

Spooner has certainly succeeded in making the subject interesting to read. While some tangents of his arguments and suppositions are at times hard to weave together in the sequence presented by the book, one only has to look at the maze of information to realize that the task was a difficult one at best, and, as Spooner himself says in closing, “The investigation is ongoing.”

The publishing quality is very good, especially impressive considering it was self-published. The restrained design of the front cover features a photo of the area near which key elements of the story take place, while the interior pages are printed on a very pleasant antique white paper stock, which I must say made turning the pages an enjoyable experience.

Readers may have some trouble with Spooner’s syntax and sentence structure, but after a while this seems to blend in with the somewhat archaic tone of the court transcriptions, and the interest of the material itself in many cases makes up for the lack of an editor. Researchers may find themselves frustrated by the lack of citations, leaving this book out of the running as a scholarly historical text, but this could easily be amended with an appendix in a future printing. No doubt Spooner himself will be happy to furnish any necessary information in the meantime, as his meticulous research bespeaks a record-keeping nature.

All in all, the book is well worth the read, and as Spooner sets to work on his next book about another local mystery, the historic Trim family triple homicide of 1876, we can only hope that someone in the publishing world will pick up on this book and, with some careful engineering, set it on the right track for a full-scale printing, so that it reaches a wider audience.

In Search of Sarah Ware: Reinvestigating Murder and Conspiracy in a Maine Village is for sale at BookStacks, at 71 Main Street, and Bittersweet Gift Shop, at 81 Main Street, both in Bucksport, or online at Readers may also visit to purchase the book and find out about other area mysteries.

NOTE: In an effort to expand ourselves into the the wide world of Strange Maine related books, historic and otherwise, this post represents the first of hopefully many book reviews. We hope these will help our readers find even more material that is of interest to them. If you have a book that you think would fit our interests, please feel free to mail review copies for consideration to:
Michelle Souliere, Editor
Strange Maine Gazette
P.O. Box 8203
Portland, ME 04104
Our readers may also be interested to know that there is a short video clip from the Boston Chronicle’s television segment about the Sarah Ware murder and Spooner’s work on it here:

1 comment:

Joanna said...

I purchased this book through Amazon and eagerly awaited its arrival. Unfortunately, Spooner’s “syntax and sentence structure" make it impossible to read. I had no problem whatsoever with what you call the "archaic tone" of the transcripts and other original sources. In fact, they are the only parts of this book that are readable. This could have been a great book if Spooner would have just availed himself of an editor and proofreader. Another book ruined by an author who can't write!