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Candy Moulton: Reading the West 9-10-12

Chris Enss has turned her attention to a diverse cast of characters for the nonfiction books she writes about the American West. When the question popped into her mind “Did they fight?” Chris began researching the correspondence of George Armstrong and Elizabeth Bacon Custer. This relationship then became the focus of her book “None Wounded, None Missing, All Dead: The Story of Elizabeth Bacon Custer.”

While that frontier romance captured her attention, Chris shifted to the area of frontier justice for her book “Thunder Over the Prairie,” which chronicles the killing of Dora Hand in Dodge City, Kan., and the posse of Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Bill Tilghman, which organized to bring Hand’s killer to justice.

Turning to more contemporary subjects, she researched and wrote two books about Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, “The Cowboy and the Senorita” and “Happy Trails.” These will soon translate to the Broadway stage in a play that casts country singer Clint Black in the role of Roy Rogers.

Chris Enss’ books deal with the exceptional and the ordinary people living in the American West. Her most recent titles are “Object Matrimony: The Risky Business of Mail-Order Matchmaking on the Frontier,” “Outlaw Tales of California” and “The Bedside Book of Bad Girls: Outlaw Women of the Midwest.” Among her earlier nonfiction books are “How the West was Worn: Bustles and Buckskins on the Wild Frontier,” “Tales Behind the Tombstones: The Deaths and Burials of the West’s Most Nefarious Outlaws, Notorious Women, and Celebrated Lawmen,” “Buffalo Gals: Women of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,” “A Beautiful Mine: Women Prospectors of the Old West” and “Gilded Girls: Women Entertainers of the Old West.”

She has three books forthcoming in October: “Object Matrimony: The Risky Business of Mail-Order Matchmaking on the Frontier,” “Outlaw Tales of California” and “The Bedside Book of Bad Girls: Outlaw Women of the Midwest.”

I recently had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her work.

Q: Since so many of your books are about lesser-known characters, why did you turn to Elizabeth Custer as a topic of research?

A: I wanted to know why Elizabeth Custer loved George. If they fought and about what mostly. I believe that elephants don’t marry giraffes and I wanted to know what the similarities were in this husband and wife team. Did she ever have a hard time after his passing distinguishing the man from the myth she helped create? I wrote about their courtship and their marriage because that approach to this well-known couple had never been tackled. I was criticized because I didn’t include all of Custer’s battles in the book. The title itself clearly states what the material was about but that didn’t seem to matter to a few folks who posted their irritation on Amazon.com. I had a wonderful opportunity to go through many of Elizabeth Custer’s personal items — one of which was a love letter to George from another woman. I was hooked from that moment and knew I wanted to write about the devotion Lizzie had for George.

Q: What about Dora Hand attracted you to her story?

A: The fact that the bad guy who murdered her got away with it. Even in the Old West the color of justice was green. Spike Kenedy eventually got what was coming to him but not because he shot an innocent soul as she was sleeping. Until I researched the story of Dora Hand I didn’t realize the influence wealthy cattle ranchers had over legal matters at that time in history.

Q: Which of the fascinating women of the mining booms did you like researching the most?

A: Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, also known as Kate Rockwell, Klondike Kate, and the “Flame of the Yukon.” She was a talented singer and dancer in the mid-1870s who got her start in Alaska. She wore an elaborate red chiffon dress and hat and carried a jewel-encrusted cane in her stage act. When the music began she would dance and twirl about. The 200 yards of red chiffon in her dress would fan out as she spun around, giving the audience the illusion that she was on fire. Hence the name “Flame of the Yukon.” Her husband was her booking agent and he had her performing all over the country. Her husband used the money she earned (approximately $2,300 a month) to invest in a chain of playhouses. He divorced her without telling her what he was doing and quickly married his mistress. Few people remember Kate Rockwell, but everyone has heard of Alexander Pantages and the Pantages Theatres.

Q: Many of your books focus on “ordinary” people in the West. But are those people really “ordinary?”

A: I like to think that most of the people I write about are ordinary individuals who did extraordinary things. For example: Olive Mann Isbell, your ordinary, run-of-the mill teacher came west to educate children. After she established a makeshift school she attended class armed with weapons in order to keep the students safe from hostile natives. Eleanora Berry was an average mail-order bride who traveled west to marry a man she had been corresponding with for a year. Her coach was held up en route and it wasn’t until she was standing at the altar that she learned the highwayman and the man she was about to wed are one in the same. ❖


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