Will Rees, the traveling weaver who serves as the detective in my historical murder mysteries, has a strong connection to the Shakers. In my first mystery (A Simple Murder) Rees is drawn in to an investigation at the Shaker village of Zion and develops strong bonds with them. Additionally, his wife Lydia is a former Shaker from that community. After the events in A Devil’s Cold Dish, Rees and his family seek refuge with the Shakers in Zion once again.
The Shaker Murders begins with Rees’s arrival at the village. The very next day Brother Jabez, a Shaker who had been away working with the current leader Mother Lucy Wright, is found murdered in a washtub. Several other murders quickly follow, terrifying the village and setting Rees on the hunt for the murderer.
Surely he cannot be one of the Shakers! They are a non-violent pacifist faith.
Officially named The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the name ‘Shakers’ is a contraction of Shaking Quakers. They were so-called because of their enthusiastic services with wild dancing, speaking in tongues and other manifestations of the Holy Spirit occurred. The faith was brought to the colonies in 1774 by Mother Ann Lee and still exists today although only three of the once many thousands remain.
They believed in the simple life and because every action honors God they strove for perfection in everything they did. A well-known Shaker saying is “Hearts to God, Hands to work.” In an era with no safety net, and a time when families could be expelled from villages to the dangers of the open road at the whim of the Selectmen (a practice I explore in Cradle to Grave) the Shakers provided a refuge for many. They adopted orphans as well as taking in children whose parents could not care for them. Some were ‘contract apprentices’ but the Shakers made no distinction in the treatment of the children. Both boys and girls were educated, (girls in the summer, boys in the winter) and by adulthood could read and write and ‘figure’ as well as run a farm. Although the Shakers hoped the children would ‘make a Shaker’ – and many did, it was not required and most children married out of the community. Quite a few of these children wrote about their experiences and it is clear the bonds between the Sisters and the children remained both affectionate and strong.
The Shakers also took in adults. Anyone who made it to a community and expressed an interest in joining was welcomed. As a consequence people who were down on their luck would join in the fall – and enjoy three meals a day and a bed to sleep in all winter – but leave again in the Spring. These temporary converts were so common the Shakers had a name for them – Winter Shakers.
So I asked myself what happens if one of these converts is a criminal on the run? Or even a murderer? They would be hiding among gentle peaceful folk who would suspect nothing. Since unnecessary speech was discouraged questions about one’s past would not have been asked. And, in the days before fingerprints, DNA and nationwide databases, detecting these wolves would be difficult if not impossible.
With the regular influx of people, some criminal, there could be any number of secrets that a person would try to hide. Since the Shakers are a celibate faith, sexual transgressions are treated harshly, usually with expulsion. Keeping that a secret would be important. Converts were – and are – required to surrender their assets. The community owns everything. What if one of these new Shakers is hiding property or jewelry? Would that be a secret worth killing for? And those fleeing the consequences of past crimes would certainly want to keep their pasts secret.
Blackmail, in other words, would be a strong motive for murder, especially if the secrets were in direct opposition to the Shakers’s core values.
The Shaker community might prove to be a refuge for some but in The Shaker Murders it is another dangerous situation for Will Rees and his family. The murderer has a lot to lose and will stop at nothing. It is up to Rees to find the wolf hiding among the sheep before another murder, this time maybe of himself or one of his family, occurs.
Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel. A lifelong librarian, she received her Masters from Columbia University and is currently the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in Orange County New York.
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