The inspiration behind House of Bellaver, a literary ghost story

Guest post by Erika Mailman

house of bellaverThe House of Bellaver arose out of two things. One was learning that an early California governor, Governor Henry H. Markham, had vetoed suffrage after it passed the House and Assembly in 1893.* That fact boggled my mind because in California, suffrage didn’t pass until 1911. It appeared like one man set the movement back 18 years.

Further, when I continued researching, I found he was the father of five daughters and no sons. How could a man whose home life revolved around feminine power dare to veto a successful suffrage vote?

(California and other states were on the forefront of giving women the vote; suffrage didn’t pass nationally until 1920, long after Susan B. Anthony was dead).

As I daydreamed about Governor Markham returning home with his news, I began crafting a narrative about a wife who hosted secret suffrage meetings in her parlor, who rubbed elbows with lobbyists to sway the vote.

I love the idea that behind the men whom history has remembered, in books and gubernatorial portraits, are quiet women doing seditious things!

For me, the most powerful scene in the book is based on a real-life event. Suffrage activist Marietta Stow held a “porch vote” for women on her front porch in San Francisco, using the same ballot that men were using at official polls. This popular event both called attention to the fact that women should be voting, as well as giving them a powerful taste of what it could feel like.

I wrote a scene in which the governor’s wife brings her teenaged daughter to the porch vote and although she is underaged, the impassioned crowd insists that the daughter vote, because she will be doing so legally soon enough. The joy and wild emotions of that yardful of women (and a few good men) made tears prickle at my eyes while I wrote it.

I decided to fictionalize the Markham family and conflate them with another gubernatorial family, the Pardees. I mentioned above that this book arose out of two things. The second was my involvement with a house museum in Oakland, California, the Pardee Home Museum. It is the home of former governor George C. Pardee, who was in office at the time of the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 and is therefore known as the “earthquake governor.”

George’s home is (nearly) perfectly preserved since his four daughters stayed in the house until their deaths. Mrs. Pardee globetrotted and so the house is filled with wonderful and strange treasures from the world. The Pardee Home is said to be haunted by any number of people, and so I mentally merged the suffrage issue from one governor with the haunted home of the second, and came up with the House of Bellaver.

The book hinges on a modern-day docent who is a young Goth girl who not only sees the ghosts at the property but is motivated to untangle their secrets, including the mysterious death of the governor’s son (I bucked tradition and added a boy to the nursery!) The book also contains Shakespearean melodrama and intricate coincidences, with an ongoing exploration of the Shakespearean “follies” scattered around the Bellaver property.

* It wasn’t until I was about halfway through writing this novel that I understood that Markham’s veto was not for blanket suffrage. It was for a half-conciliatory measure that would allow women to vote for school issues and run for school offices. He may have felt it was too confusing to have half the ballot available to women. I can’t put my finger on it, but I found one source that claimed men feared that if women were physically in the polling halls, they would then try to sneak in a real vote.

Credit: Petra Hoette

Erika Mailman is a California-based journalist and writer of historical fiction. Her other novels include The Witch’s Trinity, centering on a witchcraft trial in a medieval German village, and The Murderer’s Maid, based on the infamous Lizzie Borden murder case that gripped Victorian New England. You can read my review of The Murderer’s Maid here.

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