11. Herman Melville used the events of the Essex shipwreck in 1820 in the plot of Moby Dick
Born into a merchant family, Herman Melville became a sailor at nineteen years old. Although his career on the sea didn’t last long, he used his experiences as inspiration for several of his works. While serving on the whaling ship the Acushnet, he met the young sailor William Henry Chase. Melville’s new friend gave him a copy of a book that his father wrote twenty years before, entitled Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. In the memoir, First Mate Owen Chase described the terrifying ordeal he survived at sea.
In 1820, the Essex sank in the Pacific Ocean after a sperm whale attacked it. Twenty crewmen piled into small boats, saving only a little food and water. While drifting on the sea, trying to find land, members of the crew died of dehydration and exposure. As the food ran out, the survivors resorted to cannibalism, eating their dead crewmates. After three months, rescuers only recovered eight survivors. Melville used details from Chase’s account in his new novel, Moby Dick.
The fictional whale in Melville’s novel also existed: in the nineteenth century, a real albino sperm whale lived off the coast of Chile. For twenty-eight years, whalers attempted to hunt “Mocha Dick” without success. In his pamphlet “Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific,” published in 1839, sea explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds explained that the whale was not violent until provoked, but he was finally killed in 1838. When the hunters recovered Mocha, they counted almost 20 harpoons stuck in his body from past attacks. This pamphlet no doubt inspired the personification of the great white whale that became Captain Ahab’s obsession.
12. Harper Lee’s father, Truman Capote, and a strange neighbor all inspired memorable characters from To Kill a Mockingbird
When the novelist Harper Lee began shopping around her first manuscript, known then as Go Set a Watchman, publishers told her she had a good story, but she was a new writer who needed guidance. After working with an editor, Lee eventually published her only novel, renamed To Kill a Mockingbird, in 1960. After she won the Pulitzer Prize, Lee withdrew from the public eye, refusing to do interviews or press tours, overwhelmed by her new fame.
In a few published articles over the years, she denied that the novel was autobiographical. However, much like Louisa May Alcott and her sisters, Lee’s characters resemble some of her family and friends. Harper Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, the inspiration for Atticus Finch, was an attorney who defended two clients, an African-American father and son, Brown and Frank Ezell, on charges of murdering a Caucasian shopowner. Lee was unsuccessful in his defense, and the men were found guilty and executed.
When she was a little girl, Lee befriended Truman Capote, who lived with relatives nearby; he became the model for Dill, Scout’s best friend in the novel. He would become a successful author in his own right, with books like Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. According to Capote, Boo Radley was based on a real person from their neighborhood. Harper and Truman remained friends into their adult years, and she traveled with him to research his book, In Cold Blood.
13. Truman Capote investigated an ongoing murder case for In Cold Blood
After the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote read an article in the New York Times about the brutal murder of the Clutter family in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. Intrigued, Capote and his childhood friend Harper Lee traveled to Kansas to document the case. They interviewed almost every person involved in the murder investigation, as well as many members of the community. Using the information, Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood.
The patriarch of the Clutter family, Herb Clutter, was a prosperous farmer in the small town, respected for his kindness and fair wages for his laborers. One of Herb’s former laborers, Floyd Wells, was in jail at the Kansas State Penitentiary when he told his cellmate, Richard “Dick” Hickock, that Clutter kept massive amounts of cash on his property. After Hickock and another friend, Perry Smith, were paroled, they planned to rob the Clutter family.
The two men entered the Clutter home and woke the family to find the stashed money. When the family informed the robbers that there was no cash on the property, the men tied up the family while they looked for valuables. After a disappointing take, they murdered the Clutter family to eliminate witnesses. When Wells heard of the Clutter family murders, he informed the authorities that he believed that Hickock was responsible. Hickock and Smith confessed to the killings after their arrests.
Published in serial form in 1966, In Cold Blood made Capote one of the most famous writers of the 1960s. The public consumed the book, but Capote’s colleagues criticized his writing style. The relatives and friends of the Clutters disapproved of Capote’s representation of the murders, and they condemned the book and the movie adaptation that followed. Capote himself labeled his work as a “nonfiction novel,” and In Cold Blood led to a resurgence in true crime stories.
14. Agatha Christie used the Lindbergh kidnapping as a plot device in Murder on the Orient Express
Much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, mystery writer Agatha Christie featured her character, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, in a series of stories and novels. Using her own life experiences and a famous American kidnapping case, Christie created one of her best-known tales, Murder on the Orient Express. In December 1931, Agatha Christie boarded the Orient Express to return home from her archaeologist husband’s excavation in Nineveh. She observed her fellow travelers, many of whom inspired the characters that appear in the novel.
Four months after Christie’s experience on the train, one of the most famous kidnapping cases in history made international news. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh’s successful solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris made history. The army officer received the Medal of Honor, and he promoted air travel with his new fame. Unfortunately, that recognition made him a target. On March 1, 1932, his son Charles Jr. was kidnapped. Even though the Lindberghs paid the ransom, the abductors murdered the child and left his body almost five miles away from his home. A truck driver discovered Charles, Jr.’s body about ten weeks after he went missing. Charles Jr.’s fate captivated the nation, and several labeled his kidnapping and murder as the “Crime of the Century.”
News of the little boy’s fate reached Europe, as Lindbergh was a global celebrity. In letters to her husband, Christie confirmed that she had already begun drafting parts of her new novel, in which Poirot investigates a murder onboard a train. In Murder on the Orient Express, Christie documented the strange characters she encountered on the train a few months before. When Christie read the news of Charles Lindbergh Jr.’s death, she incorporated the American kidnapping case into the plot, connecting Poirot’s investigation to the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong.
15. Robert Louis Stevenson’s drinking partner killed his wife and became Mr. Hyde
A student of human personalities, Robert Louis Stevenson believed that every man could be good and evil. In searching for inspiration for his novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he didn’t have to look very far. In May 1878, Stevenson attended the trial of his friend Eugene Chantrelle, a French teacher accused of poisoning his wife after taking out an insurance policy on her. With the discovery of Mrs. Chantrelle’s nightgown, which contained evidence of a lethal dose of opium, Chantrelle was found guilty of the crime. The thought that his friend and drinking companion killed his wife in such a calculating manner remained in Stevenson’s mind for years afterward.
One night, in 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson was trying to think of a good story that would demonstrate the duality of a man’s personality. His wife, Fanny, heard him screaming in his sleep, and she woke him from his nightmare; he scolded his wife that she interrupted “a fine bogey-tale.” According to his family, Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde feverishly, going days on end without rest. This episode, recounted in Graham Balfour’s biography of Stevenson, details that when Fanny woke him, Stevenson was dreaming of the first transformation of the shy Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.
16. Minstrel shows destroyed the legacy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
In the nineteenth century, the United States was in turmoil over “the slavery question.” Pro-slavery factions resisted the growing abolitionist movement that called for the end of the practice as violence escalated across the nation. Harriet Beecher Stowe was an author and vocal abolitionist from a prominent Calvinist family. While living in Cincinnati, she met several free blacks who shared their experiences in slavery. These experiences would encourage her in her abolitionist writings.
Some escaped slaves detailed their journeys to freedom in a new literary genre: the slave narrative. In 1849, Josiah Henson wrote of his experiences in his memoir, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Using the Underground Railroad, he left Maryland and settled in Canada, where he helped other escaped slaves start new lives. The following year, when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the law threatened to prosecute anyone who helped runaway slaves, even in free states.
After Harriet Beecher Stowe read Henson’s account, she wrote a novel about slavery in the United States in protest of the Fugitive Slave Act. The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 had two goals: to strengthen the abolitionist movement and to help slaveowners sympathize with their slaves. It became the most famous American novel of the nineteenth century, bringing the conditions of slavery front and center to an already volatile nation.
In the aftermath of the novel’s popularity, minstrel shows traveled around the country, even making an appearance in Europe, to entertain the masses. These “Tom shows” made fun of Stowe’s characters, emphasizing ethnic stereotypes. They continued to tour until the early twentieth century, when these negative images transferred to the film industry. Reaching an even wider audience, these representations have lasted through the decades, having a lasting effect on depictions of African-Americans in the media. In recent years, scholars have reexamined Uncle Tom’s Cabin for what it is: a novel that became an effective political weapon.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: