History Mystery #16: Whistler in the Dark

Author: Kathleen Ernst

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Jean-Paul Tibbles

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting:  Colorado, 1867


It seems to twelve-year-old Emma Henderson that her mother has gone out of mind. Mrs. Henderson has been involved in women's rights for some time, especially in the last two years since Mr. Henderson was killed in action near the end of the Civil War. But now Mrs. Henderson is wearing reform dress. The short skirt and loose trousers are a far cry from the full skirts and corsets Emma is used to seeing women wear. And her mother has accepted a job as a newspaper editor in Colorado, far from their Chicago home (she oversaw newspaper production in place of her husband for six months after he enlisted, stopping only to raise money for the war effort).

In just a few weeks, Emma and her mother arrive at their new home--but it's not really as it was described. The town isn't bustling, there's no church or library, and they have to stay in a boardinghouse rather than the home they were promised. Emma is hopeful that this means they'll return to Chicago, but her mother is determined to press on, even after she finds taunting notes about her doing man's work and her printing press missing parts. To be specific, they were stolen. Someone doesn't want Mrs. Henderson to succeed. Also troubling is that Emma hears a man whistling her father's favorite song late at night--just as she did the night before they left Chicago.

Still, despite the opposition to a woman heading the newspaper (and to Mrs. Henderson's reform dress), there's potential. Some of the townspeople are very welcoming, and one even mentions that his brother is heading to Illinois in six days to encourages a group of settlers to come to the town. Fifty copies of the newspaper would show that the town might be worth their time. Emma sets out with a boy from town, Jeremy, to find ideas for articles and sell subscriptions--and maybe to see who stole the printing press parts. She gets to know town some, and Jeremy too. He moved out to Colorado Territory with his parents and brothers from Indiana. His mother didn't want to move, and then died a few months after family settled. His father promised her that the family would succeed in their new home, and that it wouldn't be a waste. The newspaper and the new settlers it will attract are a critical part of the town's chance to make it.

But more sabotage happens. The paper Emma and her mother were to print on is destroyed in a fire. Someone breaks into the printing shop and upturns the printing trays, sending the tiny letters set out just so tumbling to the ground--a whole day's work, gone. And Emma is still hearing that whistling at night.

All this just makes the Hendersons more determined to succeed. As they're cleaning the spilled type, a man named Tom who Emma speculates might have been a slave comes in asking about a job. Mrs. Henderson is glad that someone's answered her ad--seems most people won't work for a woman. Later that day Emma comes up with a solution for the burned newsprint: they can use the brown paper one of the store owners uses to wrap delicate purchases until more newsprint arrives. The merchant is happy to help, and the newspaper can get started. With Jeremy's help, Emma, Mrs. Henderson, and Tom get three hundred copies of a prospectus (a sort of newspaper preview) printed.

Most people are thrilled to receive the prospectus, full of bits of news about nearly everyone in town. The settlers who live out in the outskirts are especially happy to have something to read and to help them feel connected to their neighbors. Not everyone is so happy though. One woman, Miss Amaretta who's been trying to bring some civility to the frontier town, is outraged that Mrs. Henderson printed a few lines about reform dress. Listening to the woman argue with her mother, Emma finds herself thinking that women who do more physical labor, like the ones she met outside of town, could really benefit from less confining clothes.

Over the next couple of days, Emma learns more about the town residents. A local drunk, Dixie John, rambles to her about some gold "in a bird's eye." The tavern owner rudely tells her that he doesn't care whether the town survives or not: he can just as easily take his business to the next town. Miss Amaretto turns out to be as sharp a debater as Mrs. Henderson, and clearly is concerned with women's rights apart from clothing. At least one settler never received the deed to her land (Mrs. Henderson says that Mr. Spaulding, who got her the job, must have forgotten it and hilariously describes him as having the business sense of a caterpillar). Emma even finds out the identity of The Whistler, who she's sure by now is the saboteur. He's George Troxwell, a new employee of shopkeeper.

Emma soon gets to meet The Whistler in person. She's trying to figure out the bird' eye business when she ends up eavesdropping on Mr. Spaulding gambling with the tavern owner and some others. Mr. Troxwell suddenly grabs her and forces her away. But it turns out he's trying to protect her, fearing she'd be seen by a losing gambler and hurt. Tom shows up and takes Emma and Mr. Troxwell back to Mrs. Henderson, where Mr.s Troxwell explains himself. He served under her father in the war, and when her father was gravely wounded, he asked Mr. Troxwell to look after his wife and daughter. Mr. Troxwell was hurt as well, so while he was able to write Mrs. Henderson a letter explaining what happened to her husband, he couldn't travel for some time. He ended up in Chicago just before the Hendersons left and followed them to their new home. He whistled Captain Henderson's favorite song, thinking that hearing it might bring his widow and daughter some comfort. Mrs. Henderson thanks Mr. Troxwell for his help. She privately tells Emma that she thinks he suffered some mild brain damage during the war, but she's excited to hear stories he might have of her late husband.

However, the next morning bring bad news. The printing office was broken into and vandalism. Mrs. Henderson's daguerreotype (a sort of photograph printed on glass) of her husband was even smashed. Thinking over the events of the last few days, Emma realizes that the most likely suspect is Mr. Spaulding himself. Putting the pieces together, Emma realizes that Mr. Spaulding is holding out on certain tracts of land and deeply in debt...he and Dixie John must have discovered gold on some properties and is trying to get them back so he can mine it. The papers proving it must be in his locked birds-eye maple box. Emma tells her mother and some others her suspicions, and they all confront Mr. Spaulding. He confesses, admitting to them that he only hired a woman so it would be easier for the newspaper to fail. Despite his efforts against the newspaper, the fifty editions are printed the next morning, just in time to be taken to the potential new settlers.

Two months later, the newspaper is a bustling affair. The gold mine wasn't really one, just a small vein of gold. Emma has settled in quite nicely to her home, now a boomtown. She wears her own reform dress when she goes riding with Jeremy, but otherwise prefers more traditional clothes. Her mother is just happy that Emma has the option. Emma and her mother might even buy a house with Miss Amaretto--they would all get along surprisingly well together!

A Peek into the Past

Dress reform was part of the women's rights movement as early as the 1820s, but it took a while to catch on. Women's fashion was cumbersome and sometimes dangerous (corsets gave many women the figures they wanted, but hindered their ability to breathe and digest). In the middle of the nineteenth century, some women took to wearing simpler dresses with bloomers underneath, a more practical fashion but one that opened them up to scorn and ridicule. Many suffragist leaders chose to wear more typical women's clothing, concerned their appearance would detract from their goal of making it legal for women to vote. The Civil War further hindered dress reform, as the nation devoted it resources to more immediate concerns. During the war some women found work outside the home, and enough liked it that they struck out west, where jobs for women were more plentiful.


Dedicated to Barbara Ernst and Michael MacGeorge.

As happy as I am to not have to wear a corset and layers of petticoats (or dresses at all very often; I love jeans), the reform dress is sort of hideous. I like the bloomers from Samantha's time better.

A man is described as wearing a bowie knife on his belt and smelling of onions. I was reminded of The Simpsons line in the episode "Last Exit to Springfield" that the grandfather gives about wearing an onion on his belt, as was the style at the time.

Because Tom is described as being large and muscular, I can't help picturing him as Michael Clark Duncan in The Green Mile.

Emma exclaims "Crackers!" to herself a lot and it's sort of distracting from the rest of the text.

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