Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Meet the author of The Sword & Scabbard

Today I am happy to host Allen Woods, a writer and historian who has written the novel The Sword & Scabbard: Thieves and Thugs and the Bloody Massacre in Boston. Apparently, many colonists were not as well behaved as our Founding Fathers! Please feel free to ask him questions and comments.

Crude vengeance, angry mobs

Author Allen Woods
One of the reasons I find history so fascinating is that there is so much to learn compared to what many of us learned in school. As George Orwell pointed out in 1944, history is written by the winners. In general, the winners have a narrative they’d like to convey whether it strictly matches the facts or not.

Most of us have ingested a view of Revolutionary times that involves noble speeches and actions, and a unified pursuit of democratic ideals (this is true of most other periods of American history as well). There were certainly instances of noble thoughts and deeds during the period, but there was a lot more going on as well. My research brought to mind the modern cliché about politics and making sausage: you might like the product, but the process is rather unsavory.

In doing research for some American history textbooks, I began to think about some of the realities that were suggested but not emphasized, such as the practice of tarring and feathering British officials or their supporters. It all sounds rather jolly until you imagine a man stripped of his clothes, cowering before an angry mob, painted with boiling tar from the docks, covered in foul poultry feathers and dragged about town to the delight of jeering crowds. According to one historical account, removing the tar took off layers of skin as thick as steaks. Suddenly, Revolutionary ideals seem a long way off.

The same was true of the protests against the Stamp Act in Boston. Anyone willing to sell the tax stamps or support those who did risked the crude vengeance of a rough and angry mob directed by leaders who stayed in the background and often hypocritically deplored the violence in public. It was common for a British Customs family to have their house surrounded and windows broken out as a mob howled threats, for businesses to have their doors painted with urine and feces during the night, for officials to be accosted in the street, knocked down and dragged through gutters filled with sewage.

An early depiction of the Boston Massacre
Of course, the British soldiers responded in kind once they were ordered to occupy Boston to maintain order in 1768. There were constant scuffles and brawls in the streets between angry British soldiers who were paid a pittance and forced to live in harsh conditions and dockworkers and sailors out of work because of the British occupation. It was this physical violence, especially the threats to the British upper class and their property, that propelled England and America down the path toward a formal war more than any of the speeches or writings by American leaders.

Another issue suggested by my research and that inspired my book was the intersection between politics and crime. Smuggling was common in American ports before the war and was the foundation of John Hancock’s fortune and that of some other large merchants. At some point, it dawned on me that when John Hancock’s ships filled with taxable wine were unloaded beneath the noses of British Customs officials, it wasn’t Hancock unloading the hundred-gallon barrels in the middle of the night and transporting them to be hidden nearby. He, or those working with him, needed a connection with people willing to work in the night and able to evade capture by heavy-handed officials. Later, when a rival British newspaper had its office wrecked and equipment vandalized, American leaders needed people skilled in criminal activities to do the deeds.

I used factual accounts of many criminal incidents and political actions in my book to illuminate the times from the ‘street level’ rather than present the flowery writings and speeches that dominate much of the common historical narrative. My intent in this book, and those will follow, is not to tear down the heroes of the time, but simply to provide a more accurate picture. Just as the mythology surrounding the personal life of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon have been fleshed out with more realistic and unflattering detail, careful attention will allow us to understand the Revolutionary period better as well. From my point of view, an honest portrayal of a fallible hero is better than any mythical, sanitized one.


Allen Woods has been a full-time freelance writer and editor for almost 30 years, recently specializing in social studies and reading textbooks for all ages. The inspiration for The Sword & Scabbard came while doing research for an American history text. He resides in Massachusetts and has been married to his wife, Irene, for over 30 years.

His blog is at www.theswordandscabbard.com. The paperback and Kindle version are available at this link.


Eric Petersen said...

Mr. Woods, I'd like to commend you for bringing to light the often ugly truth behind the American Revolution. American children have been brainwashed for centuries by propaganda in schoolbooks that practically depicts the founding fathers as ancient Greek gods and demonizes the British and the colonists who remained loyal to the Crown.

Does your novel make mention of the disastrous French and Indian War (1754-63), which was essentially a land grab fought on behalf of wealthy American colonists? Parliament mistakenly believed that the war would be won quickly.

Instead, the French and their Native American allies proved to be formidable foes, and the British Army made many mistakes. The war lasted almost ten years. Though the British won, the cost was staggering, doubling England's national debt.

Facing financial disaster, Parliament was forced to tax the American colonies heavily to recoup the costs of the war. The "no taxation without representation" slogan was bogus and logistically impossible given the fact that a messenger or mail shipment would have had to travel back and forth by boat - a round trip taking about 12 weeks to complete - in order to exchange information with a colonial representative in Parliament. Do you agree?

Bob Sanchez said...

Welcome to my blog, Allen Woods. I look forward to "meeting" you here and reading your replies and comments. As you can see from Eric's comment, you'll encounter thoughtful, intelligent people today.

My question is pretty straightforward. Who are the main characters in your novel?

Gary Presley said...

I'm always interested in the place race plays in American history, especially before Jim Crow struck post-Civil War. I know too that even though there were free African-Americans in the north, many families there profited from the slave trade. How does race play into your work?

Allen said...

Wow! Great questions and comments. I'll start with Eric.

The French and Indian War was also the source of a good portion of John Hancock's fortune (starting with his uncle) through war contracts for supplies to British troops, charging exorbitant prices (a custom well-continued in the 20th and 21st century Pentagon contracts) for supplies including food, canvas, ropes, etc.

It was also the motivating factor behind the Stamp Act and Townshend Act as British officials tried to collect some payments to alleviate the debt incurred in what they claimed was a necessary defense of the colonists. Of course it was also a part of the more global Seven Years War in which England and France competed for power in many different locations.

I see the issue of taxation, as highlighted in my book, as stemming from more personal, financial concerns rather than theoretical ones involving "freedom." In my book, The Sword and Scabbard, you'll find that wealthy merchants who would pay most of the taxes were at the head of the tax opposition. The book also makes it clear how the non-importation agreement served to consolidate the power of the larger merchants (Hancock, Rowe, Dorr, etc.) at the expense of smaller "mom and pop" ones and how the Sons of Liberty enforced the agreement selectively to help the powerful merchants who supported the cause with important financial help.

But it was also true that the colonies were governed by the British almost feudally, making decisions that made no effort to address American concerns or issues. It was this attitude, in my view, that spurred the anger of the colonists, rather than the details of the debate about an "internal" and "external" tax that drove the people into the streets to terrorize their British opponents.

Allen said...

For Bob -

First I'd like to thank you for your support of my book, and compliment you on the quality of your blog. There is simply too much "stuff" online that is not thoughtful or intelligent, or that shows respect for true dialogue of sometimes opposing viewpoints.

My main characters in The Sword and Scabbard are the proprietors of the tavern of the same name. (The title of the book is a bit misleading, but here's hoping people see beyond it. The subtitle is a bit more descriptive: Thieves and Thugs and the Bloody Massacre in Boston.) Both are members of what might be termed the "underclass" in Boston, London, and other cities around the world, a group that is seldom considered in history, but that often played a central role in historical events.

Nicholas Gray (1st person narrator; self-described in Ch. 2) was orphaned early in Oxford, England, and eventually ran away to London where he grew up in the streets, finding shelter in a brothel as a teenager. He was taken by a "press gang" to serve in the British Navy during the Seven Years War (French and Indian War in America) and deserted in Jamaica, eventually escaping to Boston. The circumstances surrounding these events provide some of the plot intrigue in the later chapters, so I don't want to give away too much. He relies on some of the illegal skills learned in his early years to make his way in Boston and some political leaders find his skills very useful to the cause. However, he remains skeptical of the movement towards Revolution, since his own survival and well-being don't always coincide with the needs of the Sons of Liberty.

Maggie McGowan escapes her life as a prostitute in London only to find herself attached to a harsh and brutal man. Some suspect that she was responsible or at least complicit in his death, but she receives the license for The Sword tavern as a widow and manages it well. She finds an ally and partner in Nicholas, but their differing needs make for a very rocky relationship through most of the book. Above all, she is a survivor, and is even more of a political skeptic than Nicholas. (I have always remembered some of Faulkner's work that had women who knew war as only a loss for all sides.)

I hope you and others get to explore a bit more about Maggie and Nicholas in this book and others in the future.

Guilie Castillo said...

This is a fabulous piece, Allen—and it sounds like a must-read book. I'm a fan of history—well, of under-history, so to speak: of the real story behind the varnished versions, past the embellishments and the smoothed-over details... And THE SWORD AND SCABBARD sounds just up my alley. No, it's not about undermining the heroes; I like my "heroes" human, and fallible. Also, history often misses some real heroes... Maybe because they were unsavory, or didn't have the right background, or... Books (and research) such as yours sets the record straight. And truth will, indeed, set us free.

I really enjoyed this. And I'm sure I'll enjoy the book. Thanks, Bob, for featuring Allen!
Guilie @ Quiet Laughter

Allen said...

Thanks Guilie! It sounds like we share a passion for history - especially the history untold or glossed over.

I look forward to comments here or on the book web site. If you do decide to purchase, I am encouraging everyone to go through my web site, www.theswordandscabbard.com, rather than Amazon - the net costs, including shipping, should be about the same or less than on Amazon, and Amazon takes a HUGE chunk.

Bob Sanchez said...

I just ordered my e-copy from Lulu (through the link Allen mentioned), and look forward to reading and reviewing it.

Allen said...

For Gary -

Race is not a central part of the plot, but the issues of slavery and the slave trade are noted through one of the major characters. Julius is the cook and a resident at the tavern, the Sword and Scabbard, and he eventually reveals to Nicholas that he is also a fugitive from Jamaica where he was a part of Tackey's Rebellion, a slave revolt there in 1760. (There were many more slave revolts throughout history than most of us were aware of.) He uses a ruse to remain free in Boston, but he knows to steer clear of the Boston docks when there are slave traders about. He and Nicholas remain close and Julius and his growing love interest, Eve, will continue as characters in future books.

As for the slave trade itself - I don't have the plot of the next book(s) clearly established, other than that the events and realities of life in Boston will remain factual. That means that it's likely that the slave trade in Boston will be featured at some point.

Gary Presley said...

Thanks for responding to these points, Allen.

Even with the hero-worship high school texts people of my generation crew up with, I think to judge the Founding Fathers on the basis of 21st century mores -- social, ethical, economic, etc. -- blinds a person to their accomplishment. Whatever their human frailties, a nation of 3 million managed to produce a couple dozen political geniuses -- men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not to mention critics like Paine. That's amazing to me -- as amazing as the genius of Abraham Lincoln sprung whole from a backwoods cabin to be raised in the meanest of circumstances.

Allen said...

Gary -

I certainly agree that making judgments on historical figures using the standards of modern society just isn't fair. We are all products and reflections of the world we inhabit.

In many other venues, I have been emphatic in my admiration of Samuel Adams (a central figure in my book) as one of the best community organizers in history, even though his tactics today would be seen as unscrupulous. He and other patriots also had no respect for what today we call a "free press" that allows and publicizes opposing viewpoints, but this was before the Constitution established that idea as a basic right.

Thanks for your very informed interest.

Bob Sanchez said...

Allen, does your novel touch on the subsequent trials in which John Adams agreed to defend the British soldiers in court when no one else would? Without his aid, Captain Preston and a number of his men would have been hanged. I can't imagine that John Adams was popular with many of your story's characters.

Ninjagaiden78 said...

"History is written by the winners" - powerful quote.
Good blog entry. I didn't realize that the Revolution was awash with criminals.

Allen said...

Bob -

My book essentially ends with the Boston Massacre, so the trial isn't covered. However, I considered using it in my book, so I did the research and wrote it up as a possible postscript that I have now published on my blog at http://www.theswordandscabbard.com/category/blog/ for October 24 - the 245th anniversary of the trial.

The trial itself also figured in an op-ed piece on "Stand Your Ground" issues that was published by the Daily Caller at http://dailycaller.com/2015/10/08/stand-your-ground-lethal-force-at-the-boston-massacre-kent-state-and-today/ (although I wasn't fond of their add-on poll related to gun laws).

Before the Massacre trial, John Adams was an up-and-coming lawyer in Boston, but I didn't find that he was fully engaged in the political struggles over the Stamp Act, etc. There is even a bit of controversy about how self-serving John Adams was in his defense of Preston and the other soldiers, gaining a lot of publicity while staying on the good side of the ruling British officials at the time. I find that it's always hard to determine motivation when there are several factors in play and even the actors don't always understand their own motivations, or willfully misrepresent them. So . . . I do think John Adams will get more attention in the next book.

Allen said...

Ninjagaiden78 -

Not necessarily awash with criminals, but there were certainly a lot of illegal acts that people now romanticize or accept as a part of an honored history. For example, smuggling was common and accepted in the Colonies, while British Customs officials tried everything in their power to catch and prosecute smugglers (very unsuccessfully). Were these businessmen and their smuggling crews criminals? Was someone who knocked down a hated British official (ostensibly for political reasons)guilty of a crime?

It was a time with complex issues, much more gray than black and white, similar to many issues today.

Anita Lee said...

I have read The Sword and the Scabbard and have to say, if anything reflects the gritty truth of the American Way it's this book. Allen Woods has uncovered in an accomplished dialogue of the not-so-polished truth of us. The then and now reflection and relevance is spot-on in human behaviors and current events, so his characters are not unlikely. I can only look forward to the next read that carries us through the adventure with characters that desperately act out of fearful necessity and in ignorance provoked by the times and situations. Applause Allen, for delving to your inner-most to display openly the instinctual moments of people, place, and time. The interview covered a lot of my questions but would still love to know when to expect the next book. Thanks for your continued writing, publishing, and blogging.

Peter Lacey said...

Hi, Allen.

As a person educated in the 60s and 70s, I really appreciated the "social history" that this book represents. To me the lives of the ordinary are generally more interesting in revealing that the polished stories of history's "winners."

I was struck in your story by the perilous position of Nicholas, who is caught in the middle of the two primary currents of the time. He seems neither one of them as honorable or commendable and is forced to pick his own middle way.

I'm curious about who you think the Nicholas Gray's of today are? How are people who are repelled by the "passionate intensity" that you see on the right and left supposed to behave in our world?

Dennis Rizzo said...

Allen: I truly appreciate you opening the sack of "ordinary" folks. For years I have worked on local histories and stories that serve the premise that it is those who are the least investigated and most ordinary who define a community or society. History, as we were taught, always seemed to me to be like the records of some sports figures...followed by several asterisks. I like the way you have provided those asterisks.
I have found history is made up of a lot of people who are, essentially, just like us. I have always pondered a scene at the barber in ancient Rome with two fathers commiserating over the lack of responsibility and odd clothing of the younger generation.
That some people stand out seems to be due more to circumstance and serendipity than thoughtful planning on their part. It seems to me that we should embrace most historical "heroes" precisely because of their failings. Despite these misgivings and doubts and quirks they made critical decisions or took critical actions that made history. But we cannot forget that they did not act in a vacuum or alone. They simply got the press.
We have to see historical figures within their own time and among those with whom they interacted. Too often a glaze is applied afterward by people adopting historical characters for their own purposes. Studies like yours are critical in cracking that glaze and letting us see the real actors, in all their grime and nastiness, and still realize that they were acting in heroic ways. Also, to realize that there were many others acting in their own heroic ways along side the one who got the press. Just like today. Makes me look at the Bible differently as well.... sorry for the early morning ramble

Xina Uhl said...

You've chosen a fascinating time period for your novel, Allen. Historical novels are so wonderful because they can really put us in the mindset of the people who are living these iconic events. Indeed, tarring and feathering sounds amusing but the reality of it was so far from it!

Congratulations on your book - I recommend it to anyone for a rousing good read!

Melinda Hobausz said...

This book is really interesting and enjoyable. Of course, I like history and fiction, particularly when the details are based on research. I do agree that "an honest portrayal of a fallible hero is better than any mythical, sanitized one." It does, however, seem true that we accept fallibility in our historical figures, but not in our current politicians. I wonder if the "founding fathers" would have accomplished as much if they had been pushed to the wall by a media onslaught. The fact that they most likely used criminals to accomplish things would probably have been discovered and dissected today—perhaps diffusing the spirit that led to the Revolutionary War. Of course, today we want to make sure that we are selecting people of upstanding character, etc. But, perhaps our standards are too high. Can our public figures live up to them? I believe that books like this show how conflicted and fallible people were then, and now. It is important to examine as much as possible how less well known people contributed and lived. We have so much in common with the lives of the "real" people, and can still learn from their experiences.

Allen said...

For Anita -

Thanks for your interest and support. So far, I've only been turning over plot, etc. for the next book, but that's a part of my process anyway. Next, I need to clear some space, both mentally for the writing, and logistically to have the time and meet other needs (including editing, etc. to make some $). I hope to get a good beginning after Jan 1. I'll keep you informed on progress.

Allen said...

Peter -

Great analysis of Nicholas and his situation! I have a hard time myself in that it seems only the loudest and most outrageous voices are heard today in what seems a cacophony (correct term?) rather than a discourse. I have a hard time listening to MSNBC as well as Fox News - it seems both engage in the most predictable responses, sometimes with little or no real analysis.

It's especially disheartening to live in a state that is already colored-in on the presidential election map, so that our issues get little response by most candidates in the end, since they are working so hard on "swing states."

What to do, what to do? I guess keep trying to pose good questions and participate in some civil discourse when it makes sense. On the other hand, I had great admiration for both the demonstrations of Occupy Wall Street (just too little directed energy and too few details) and Black Lives Matter (wishing again there could be focused legislation or actions to follow up). My experience from many years ago indicates that there is little action or response by "the powers that be" if they don't actually feel threatened in some way.

Allen said...

Dennis -

I heartily agree. I've also had the thought (and seen plenty of primary research) that every generation thinks the next is missing out and gives little attention to the things that matter. Oh for the good old days - of the 1740s maybe?

People do rise to the occasion, while still remaining profoundly human.

Allen said...

Thanks Xina! It's a time when historic actions and fierce conflicts were almost everyday occurrences - an interesting period, but not one that was always comfortable for those living it.

Allen said...

Melinda -

It's a tough time when every act and utterance is recorded, analyzed, etc. I think we do often forgive public figures for everything but their most serious mistakes (the news cycle just moves on). Certainly Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty wouldn't have been able to get away with all they did in the modern world. I have enormous respect for those who are willing to persevere in the face of constant scrutiny, vicious anonymity, and think tanks dedicated to bringing down one personality or another.

monideepa sahu said...

Ah! the fascinating interpretations and angles to history. Never straighforward, but rife with nuances and limitless probabilities. The conquerors always get to tell their own version while suppressing the viewpoint of the vanquished. Thanks for shedding fresh light on the past, and provoking readers to think, rather blindly accept any single version of the truth.

Allen said...

To Monideepa Sahu -

There was an old motto/bumper sticker originating (I think) in the 1960s and 70s that said simply "Question Authority." I think this is good advice, as long as in questioning, a person is open to the fact that "authority" may be right and proper as well as untrustworthy and skewed, and nearly everything in between.

Thanks for your interest. I hope that the book adds to the "fresh light" on the past without blinding us to exceptional people and accomplishments.

Bob Sanchez said...

My glib answer to that "Question Authority" bumper sticker was always "Why should I?" Maybe a more apt slogan would have been "Question Everything." One of the infuriating responses to critics of the Vietnam War was that the government knew things they couldn't tell the public, and we should therefore trust them. The Boston street rabble certainly didn't believe the Crown's line that the taxes merely paid for the colonists' protection.

This is a great discussion.

Carol said...

I have to say that I really approach the viewpoint of this book. As a high school teacher, I am always trying to get my students to approach complex events with complex thinking and this book encourages us all to re-evaluate those two-dimensional appraisals of the early revolutionary figures. And it's just an entertaining read. Good work. I say, A plus.

Allen said...

Carol -

Thanks. The book certainly suggests more questions than answers. The characters were forced to make choices because of their circumstances, in the same way the real historical figures were. For many, I'm sure, the issues were so complex that they weren't entirely comfortable with them, but they didn't have the luxury of continued analysis and questioning.

Tough times and tough choices.

Laura said...


Just a note to say how much I've enjoyed your book; I'm about half-way through. I enjoy learning about historical events through narrative, particularly the history I never learned in school. This book is clearly meticulously researched, and the character narrative makes the events come alive. I am glad (if that's the right word) to know that our founding fathers were just as fallible as the rest of us. I'm looking forward to finishing the book, and already awaiting the next one.

Allen said...

Thanks Laura. I'm looking forward to the research and writing for the next one, too. Just need to find the mental and financial space to do it.

Bob Sanchez said...

Alan, would you talk about your research? How do you go about it, where do you look?

Allen said...

Bob -

I may be a little old-fashioned but I really spent a lot of time just thumbing through books in large libraries (such as UMass in Amherst, MA and Boston Public Library) that are shelved together because of the time period they cover. I can get a good feel for how useful they might be through the TOC and chapter heads. Then, I need to write out notes as I read, keeping track of the pages where I found something. This helps for questions about the research and it seems to help me retain the information as well when I write something down. I also used several specialty libraries, like the Essex Peabody in Salem MA that specializes in maritime information.

For this book, I made charts that included columns for actual historical events and the events in the fictional plot, so that I could keep track of what was happening and how the characters might be affected by one thing or another. I also used several maps - the larger the better to know the logistics of people's movements.

And of course, I used the Internet but was stunned one day when I looked at the citation/source for a great journal of a seaman/adventurer during the period, found it to be supposedly discovered at the UMass Library a few years ago, checked with the librarians there and found the entire thing to be a hoax! Someone had gone to great pains to create an entire series of journal entries, which seemed fairly realistic, and then publish them. Identifying real sources is crucial and can't be dismissed because of our own impatience or gullibility.

Once the research is in hand, I can begin to "live" in the time period and follow the characters in their adventures. But for me, the research comes first to give them a realistic context for their thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Peter Lacey said...

Allen, the research and period detail was one of the things I really enjoyed about the book. It was clear you had done your homework, which as a reader of fiction and history is greatly appreciated.