Local author's book published by university

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dr. Susan Swartwout was skeptical when she originally heard from author Alan Terry Wright regarding the manuscript for his first book, "Murder on Rouse Hill."

"I was worried before I read it, because he said part of it was from the point of view of a horse, and I thought, 'OK?'" recalls Swartwout, director of the Southeast Missouri State University Press.

The equine's point of view isn't used throughout, just as an eyewitness to the murder of its owner, Jasper "Jap" Francis -- a murder that actually occurred in a real Missouri town, Stoutland, in 1915. This murder and the subsequent attempt to bring Francis' killer to justice provides the story for "Murder at Rouse Hill," the university press' newest book set for release Thursday.

Wright, an investment banker and partner in the Edward Jones Inc. office in Manchester, Mo., calls the book a docudrama -- a mix between real history culled from hours of research and some creative license.

Swartwout labels the book "historical fiction," though "Murder at Rouse Hill" is different from most historical fiction in that its story revolves around real-life events.

Stoutland is a railroad town in the Ozarks, a few miles off Interstate 44 near Fort Leonard Wood, home to 177 people according to the 2000 census.

The story begins with Francis' murder and recounts the trial of Charles Blackburn, a business associate who defrauded Francis on a cattle deal. Francis was a well-known and highly respected farmer and businessman with memberships in civic organizations and a seat on the local bank's board of directors, Wright said. Francis' murder shocked the town, and due to his fraud, Blackburn was the primary suspect.

Stoutland, and the surrounding area, was riveted by the trial, Wright said, and in some ways still is.

"Even after all these years there's a lot of curiosity about what really happened in that murder case," Wright said.

Wright's own mother was one of the people fascinated by the trial -- she grew up in Stoutland but was born after the events of "Murder on Rouse Hill." Wright said his mother originally planned to write the book, but she became ill at age 80. Wright took over the project himself at his mother's encouragement.

"Murder on Rouse Hill" is about more than the Francis murder; it's also about the well-known historical figures like Missouri politician Frank Hiram Farris, who took part in the trial, and the history of the Missouri Ozarks just after the dawn of the 20th century.

"This evolved into a major trial ... involving some very important people in Missouri at the time," Wright said. "It's a history of the era in Missouri and the world and rural living."

At the time of Francis' murder the town was a place where people were more likely to ride a horse than to drive a car, Wright said.

Wright spent years interviewing descendants of the major characters living in Stoutland and elsewhere, as well as archival research.

The author still has family in Stoutland. Part of his motivation in writing "Murder on Rouse Hill" was his love of the people in Stoutland and his fascination with rural Missouri. In the end, Wright thinks he found the real story of a murder without a human witness, or at least as close as someone can get in 2007.

"I hoped to get to the bottom of it, to tell people what really happened," Wright said. "I think that was accomplished."


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