New novel based on Florida convict labor available
Paul Legler's new novel is based on historic events of nearly a century ago.
Nearly a century ago, a young man from Munich, N.D., died a violent death in the swamps of Florida creating the backdrop for a story that spans decades by Paul Legler.
Legler, a native of the Jamestown area, will be signing copies of "All the Terrible Things" from 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday, June 23, at the Dakota Store on First Avenue in Jamestown.
The book is considered true-crime fiction because it is based on the actual events of the death of Martin Tabert, who left his home in North Dakota to see the world in the 1920s. He is pulled from a train in Dixie County, Florida, and charged with vagrancy. He is sentenced to a prison work camp or chain gang. While there he is whipped to death and his body buried somewhere in the swampy lands around the camp. It has not been located to this day.
"This book goes back a few years for me," Legler said. "The book 'Worse than Slavery' by David Oshinsky had a reference to a young man from North Dakota who had been whipped to death in a convict labor camp in Florida."
Much of the information about the incident comes from the records of Gudmunder Grimson, an attorney hired by the Tabert family to investigate the death of Martin Tabert. Grimson went on to become a North Dakota Supreme Court justice and his records are available through the archives of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
Grimson's investigation of the incident also caught the attention of reporters for the New York World who also investigated. Articles written by the World received the Pulitzer Prize in 1924.
The light shed on Florida convict labor practices by Grimson and the New York World resulted in changes to Florida law regarding convict labor.
Legler said his book is a work of fiction.
"It is based on a true story but I've added two fictional characters," he said. "It is three stories interwoven and covers a period of about 100 years."
Those characters deal with topics of justice in the modern world.
Legler said he wrote the North Dakota scenes of the book first because he was familiar with the area. The author grew up near Jamestown and currently works as a poverty and civil rights attorney in Minneapolis.
He also went to Dixie County, Florida, which is located in the "armpit" of the state. In this case, the armpit refers to the area of Florida that turns from running north and south to running east and west.
"Half the Terrible Things" is Legler's second novel based on historic events.
"You can learn a lot by looking at and writing about history," he said. "People haven't changed that much."