The Belfast Project’s secret tapes, Facebook’s (and our) profound mistake, and more on America’s first female detective: newsletter, March 8, 2019

March 11, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, newsletter.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,884) on Friday, March 8, 2019.



March is not the most reliable of months weatherwise in East Tennessee — not like January or July. More often than not, the first week of March is balmy, giving us a little pre-spring, if you will. This year, however, it’s cold, windy, and damp. Another big rainstorm poured water all over us last weekend, so that when the garden is planted — if it ever dries out enough to get planted — watering should be minimal.

The bad weather is always good for reading, research and writing, and this week’s newsletter reflects some of that. Ireland is still on my mind, as it was last week, and I follow up with part 2 of some of what I’ve learned about America’s first female detective Kate Warne. Next week we’ll move on to a great mystery writer whom you may not have heard from in a while: Dick Francis.

Whatever you are reading this week, have a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,891 subscribers and had a 31.3 percent open rate; 7 people unsubscribed. 

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The Belfast Project and the murder of Jean McConville

The Troubles is how everyone refers to it — the violence that wracked Northern Ireland for much of the latter half of the 20th century.

It was a vicious and violent time that produced few heroes and no honor. All three sides in the conflict — the Catholics, the Protestants, and the British Army — committed atrocities that no amount of rationalization can justify.

Emblematic of those acts was the murder of Jean McConville, the mother of 10 children, who was dragged out of her home in 1972 — many of her children watching in horror — by the Irish Republican Army, taken to an unknown location and shot in the back of the head. Her body was undiscovered for more than 30 years.

After thousands had died, peace of a sort came to Northern Ireland in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to the constant cycle of murder, torture, and retribution.

Not long after that agreement, a journalist who had covered both sides of the conflict began the Belfast Project, a secret project of interviewing participants on all sides of the Troubles. Ed Moloney would set up the interviews, and the tapes would be sent to Boston College for safekeeping. The agreement Moloney had struck with his interviewees was that the tapes would not be made public until after their deaths. It turned out to be an oral history goldmine, but no one knew about it

The secrecy of the agreement worked well until 2010 when, after the deaths of two of his interviewees, Moloney published a book, Voices from the Grave, based in great part on what they had said:

In 2010, the existence of the Belfast Project was revealed: After two of the participants in the project died, Ed Moloney published a book incorporating their interviews, called Voices From the Grave. A Belfast tabloid revealed that another participant, a former IRA gunwoman named Dolours Price, who was suffering from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder, had entrusted “taped confessions” to BC (which, in a reflection of how far away Belfast is from Boston, the article erroneously referred to as “Boston University.”) Source: Who killed Jean McConville? Did a secret archive at Boston College hold clues? – The Boston Globe

The above was written by Patrick Radden Keefe as part of an article about the tapes that appeared last month in the Boston Globe. Keefe is the author of the recently-published and well-reviewed Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.

Keefe did his own research for his book and used only a single transcipt from the Belfast Project. The story he tells is a fascinating — and horrifying. I recommend it with caution.

The Belfast Project — like one of the car bombs the IRA used in the 1970s — has blown up legally in the faces of all of the participants. Those who conducted the interviews had no legal standing to promise anonymity to people suspected or murder, and British and American legal forces have combined successfully to get their hands on the tapes. Keefe outlines what has happened in recent days to those tapes.

Who was Jack the Ripper? That’s not the important question for Hallie Rubenhold

Who was Jack the Ripper — possibly the most famous murderer in history?

Decades of evidence and speculation have surrounded that question and provided no definitive answer. But for Hallie Rubenhold, author of the recently-published The Five, that’s not the important question. The really important question is this:

Who were his victims?

We know their names, certainly, and if we know anything else, chances are it’s that they were “prostitutes.”

Rubenhold’s research for the book — recently reviewed by Sian Cain in The Guardian — shatters that bit of wisdom:

Beginning The Five with the idea of focusing on the most famous sex workers in history, Rubenhold was shocked by what she found while searching through coroner inquests, medical, workhouse and police records, and sensationalist newspaper reports – or rather, what she didn’t find. There was no evidence that three of the women – Polly, Annie and Catherine – were sex workers at all. Instead, Polly and Catherine had worked as domestic servants or in laundries, and Annie was supported by her husband, who worked as a private coachman. Source: Hallie Rubenhold: ‘Jack the Ripper’s victims have just become corpses. Can’t we do better?’ | Books | The Guardian

The names of the murdered women were Mary Ann “Polly” Nicholls, Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kell. Each has a story, and Rubenhold tells that story, and she sets those stories in the context of late 19th century London, where as many as 70,000 did not know where they would spend the night from day to day. Women who found themselves in this situation were assumed by many to be prostitutes.

Rubenhold — for reasons not immediately clear — has received a lot of pushback about her findings from the online Ripper communities (who knew, right?), but she has persisted in saying that to get the lives of the victims wrong is to get the whole story wrong.

Rubenhold is the author of a number of novels and non-fiction books about Victorian and pre-Victorian women, most notably The Lady in Red, a history of the marriage and divorce of Lady Seymour Dorothy Fleming and Sir Richard Worsley, which caused much comment and scandal in Georgian England.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Kate Warne, the first female detective (part 2)

Kate Warne wanted to become an actress. A Canadian by birth, she found herself in the mid-1850s in Chicago and recently widowed.

Then she saw an advertisement, and it changed her direction and an entire profession.

The ad was from the Pinkerton Detective Agency and said agents were being hired. It said nothing about “male only,” although that’s what Allen Pinkerton had in mind. Nobody’s fool, Kate knew that would be the assumption and had her arguments ready when she walked into Pinkerton’s office. (See last week’s post.)

Pinkerton was no fool either, and Kate got the job. In 1856, she became the first full-time female detective.

And in a way, she fulfilled another dream: She became an actress — though not one that performed on stage.

In her duties as a detective, she often took on roles, such as an anti-Union aristocratic belle or a sweet-talking, pitiable widow, or even a young male. Kate quickly proved her worth by helping to gather key evidence against an expressman who had stolen $50,000 from the Adams Express Company. To do so, she traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, where the suspect lived and befriended his wife, who confided their secrets to her. With the evidence she acquired, Pinkerton was able to recover most of the money that had been stolen, and the thief went to jail for 10 years.

The role of her life came in 1861 when President-elect Abraham Lincoln traveled to Washington, D.C., from Springfield, Illinois. The president of one of the railroad lines on which Lincoln was to travel got wind of an assassination plot and hired Pinkerton to prevent it. Kate played a key part in this drama by going to Baltimore and posing as a thickly-accented, rich Southerner. She fell in with the secessionists and learned their plans, which were detailed and elaborate.

Those details helped convince a skeptical Lincoln to take the plot seriously and to work with Pinkerton and his agents to avoid the danger. Kate worked to re-arrange the president-elect’s travel plans and to escort him onto a different train when it left Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania, for Baltimore. Kate and Pinkerton traveled with Lincoln on that leg of the trip. As the train traveled through the night, Lincoln slept, but Kate stayed awake and kept watch — giving rise to the Pinkerton motto, “We never sleep.”

With a disguise provided by Kate, Lincoln slipped through Baltimore unharmed and made it to Washington safely.

During the Civil War, Kate continued her work as a detective, often penetrating Southern circles and reporting back valuable information to her boss, who had become the chief intelligence source for the U.S. Army. After the war, Kate — by then head of Pinkerton’s female agency — worked on numerous important cases. She once posed as a gypsy fortune-teller to extract evidence from the wife of a murder suspect.

Her career was tragically short, however, because she died of pneumonia in 1868 at the age of 34.

Possibly because her life and career were so brief, Kate has remained largely unknown and uncelebrated. A Canadian television series about the Pinkertons had her as a major character, and there is a single biography directed toward children. But Kate’s skills and accomplishments deserve more.

Pinkerton in his memoirs wrote: “Mrs. Warne was the first lady whom I had ever employed, and this was one of the earliest operations in which she was engaged. As a detective, she had no superior, and she was a lady of such refinement, tact, and discretion, that I never hesitated to entrust to her some of my most difficult undertakings.”

Read part 1 about Kate Warne in last week’s newsletter.

Facebook: promising to make the hard things easy

If you missed it last November (as I did), you should go back and read Bret Stephens’ short column in the New York Times about the promise of technology.

Technology always disappoints, he says. It always promises to make the hard things easy. Sometimes, they are simply hard.

It was something that Socrates and Plato figured out 2,400 years ago.

Stephens writes with a particular view toward Facebook and many of the other Big Tech operations that dominate our lives.

To read The Times’s account of how Facebook dealt with its problems is to be struck by how desperately Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg sought to massage and finesse — with consultants, lobbyists and technological patches — what amounted to a daunting if simple crisis of trust. As with love and grammar, acquiring and maintaining trust is hard. There are no workarounds. Source: Opinion | How Plato Foresaw Facebook’s Folly – The New York Times

This column is worth the few minutes that it takes.


Bruce H.: I’m reading . . . Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth. I’m about a third of the way through and enjoying it so far. Maybe she does  this later the book, but I would have enjoyed a few pages comparing the founding and evolution of Vice and BuzzFeed, which hardly began life adhering to conventional journalistic reporting and ethical standards, to the emergence of the daily, and particularly the tabloid, press in the late 19 th and 20th centuries – a lot of what she says about V and B sounded vaguely familiar from some journalism history class I had a long, long time ago.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Talking it over, the Blount County Library

Best quote of the week

In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it. John Ruskin, author, art critic, and social reformer (1819-1900) 

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Ireland, the first female detective, and Aristotle on storytelling: newsletter, March 1, 2019




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