By Stephanie Schorow
Like so many kids who grow up in Malden, Michael Cloherty spent long hours hanging out at the Malden Public Library. There, looking up from a book, he would see a portrait of Frank Converse and his family. Converse was the son of the library’s benefactor, Elisha Slade Converse (1820–1904), a rubber-soled shoe tycoon, bank president, and Malden’s first mayor.
When he was older, Cloherty learned how Frank Converse, as a 17-year-old bank teller, was shot to death during a brazen bank robbery on Dec. 15, 1863, just a short distance from the library. On that day between 11:30 a.m. and 11:45 a.m., someone walked into Malden’s First National Bank, when the teller was alone, shot the teenager, and made off with $5,000. The crime is considered America’s first armed bank robbery. Accused of the crime was Edward Green, a 26-year-old postmaster with a drinking habit and heavy debts.
Later, as an aspiring novelist, Cloherty realized no book had been written about the crime and he should be the one to do so. An award-winning video editor who has worked in Boston television news, Cloherty began research in 2012 on what became his recently published novel, Abel Bodied, Murder at the Malden Bank, The First Murder during a Bank Robbery in American History, a fictionalized account of the crime that drew national attention, even during the Civil War.
He started the book intending it to be a work of nonfiction but soon discovered that fiction allowed him to fill in gaps in research and bring the narrative to life. The self-published book can be purchased at select bookstores, and on Amazon and other online outlets.
Cloherty, dressed in a period costume to resemble Green, will read a chapter of his book that details the crime and sign books on Tuesday, Dec. 14, beginning at 5 p.m. at Idle Hands Craft Ales and on Wednesday, Dec. 15, at 5 p.m. — the anniversary of the murder — at Hugh O’Neill’s Restaurant and Pub on Pleasant Street. The first numbered hardcover of Abel Bodied is being offered in a drawing to benefit Bread of Life. Also, proceeds from the first 17 hardcover copies will also go to Bread of Life to honor the number of years Frank lived. See Cloherty’s website for more information.
Last week, Cloherty sat down (via Zoom) with Stephanie Schorow, a Neighborhood View editor, and the author of a book on the infamous 1950 Brink’s robbery in Boston, to talk about the challenges of writing books based on real-life criminals. The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: You’ve written a novel, but you try to stay pretty true to the facts. Where there are gaps, you let your imagination do its work, is that right?
A: The analogy I like to use is that having done all this research, I thought of it as tentpoles, and I fill in the rest of the space with my imagination.
Q: The challenge of any novel is, of course, creating characters, even those based on real people. In Abel Bodied, you have the murderer, the victim, and the witness – just to start off with. How did you frame those individual characters?
A: Initially, I was really focused on Edward Green. I tried writing from aspects from Green’s life. I think I may have written four different beginning chapters. Then, the fascinating thing for me became the barber, William Shiloh, who was born about 1813, a free [Black] man in Delaware. Delaware was a free state. But Delaware in the late 1850s had a law that that said, in effect, that if a Black man was idle (or words like that from 1850 terminology) then they could be enslaved even though Delaware was a free state and slave traders were no longer allowed to come in. Shiloh moved to Malden probably around 1859 and ran a barbershop on Pleasant Street near the bank. He became a very interesting character because he was a witness [to Green’s entrance and exit of the bank].
So I thought, what if William Shiloh was watching and suspects Green is the murderer. However, his place in the town was very fragile. [The Civil War was raging,] so he was trying to figure out if he should come forward for justice or just protect his own interests, his family, and his status in town and his livelihood. Shiloh is the conscience of the book. I thought of him as a kind of Nick Carraway [of The Great Gatsby]. He’s not the narrator, but his eyes are seeing things the way that the rest of his citizens aren’t seeing it.
Q: Let me ask you about the character of the murderer. I speak from my experience writing about the Brinks robbers and my struggle to not become enamored of the men who did the robbery. Of course, no one was killed in that robbery. Still they were criminals and yet fascinating. How did you relate to the character of the murderer in this case?
A: From my research, I knew Edward Green was very desperate. I named the book “Abel Bodied” because beginning at age 9 he had an infection that caused him to limp for the rest of his life. Also, at the time during the Civil War, they were looking for able-bodied men. I also thought of Cain and Abel since Green and Converse knew each other. They were like brothers. I wanted to have some motivation for him, not just to be kind of a cardboard killer.
Green inherits the post office postmaster position from his father and he’s terrible at bookkeeping, and he has some dependency issues. There’s a love triangle where he has stolen his best friend’s girl. They get married and a year into their marriage, there’s a baby on the way so there’s more mounting pressure to take care of his family and solve his debt. So that was kind of the motivation.
Frank was the 17-year-old son of Elisha Converse, the president of the Malden bank, who became our mayor in Malden in 1881. I came up with the idea, which I would think would be true, is Elisha was going to groom his first-born son to take over his [business] empire. It made sense for me that he was going to do that. So I had the class issue in which Edward was struggling and Frank had everything handed to him
Q. So Green is not exactly sympathetic, but you understand his motivations.
A: He’s not a psychopath per se. He does have some qualities that are kind of built up in his devious nature, which is somewhat based on what I researched and then elaborated on by me. It was a really daring kind of a robbery. Yes, it was one of desperation, but here was some derring-do involved with it. So I like to say that Green was not a famed gunslinger, but he was something just as dangerous — a desperate opportunist.
Q: You only tell part of this story in Abel Bodied and you will tell the rest in an upcoming book. Why did you decide to do two books?
A: Well, I had so much research! My first manuscript was 900 pages. Part two, which completes the story, will hopefully be published in 2022.
Q: One last question: do you ever worry about glamorizing crime with your work?
A: I do a little bit. Spending so much time researching the story and writing the novel, I often wondered how this tragic event shaped our city and the events that followed it. Elisha was a pioneer in the rubber shoe industry. I believe he hoped his first-born son would carry on the name of Converse and make it known far and wide. However, when Elisha grew older, he sold off the company. After his death, his distant cousin, Marquis Mills Converse, followed in his relative’s success and well-known name and started the Converse Rubber Shoe factory in Malden as well, becoming world-famous with the Chuck Taylors basketball sneaker. Like a butterfly effect, I ponder sometimes, that without the tragic event, if the Converse sneaker we all know today would ever have existed.
Copies of “Abel Bodied: Murder at the Malden Bank” can be purchased locally at The Gallery@57, 57 Pleasant St. in Malden and ordered online.