Real-life roots of HERON ISLAND

The first Dade Wyatt historical mystery, Heron Island, germinated in the spring of 2001, when my husband and I made a farewell visit to an island in Lake Champlain’s Inland Sea owned by a friend. She was about to sell the birch-shaded, thyme-turfed Eden, whose ten acres featured a bird sanctuary and a miniature Adirondack Great Camp built in 1902 by the heir to the International Paper fortune.

A largely unaltered slice of the past, the Vermont lodge boasted a gallery ringed with trophy heads, huge screened verandahs with white wicker furniture, and acres of Oriental rugs. In a curio cabinet sat an 1895 Mauser rifle—the service weapon, we learned, of Spanish troops in the Spanish-American War.

“They say a daughter of one of the early owners married a Rough Rider,” our friend said. Local folklore also had it that Teddy Roosevelt had visited the island for their wedding.

A few weeks later, the image of a handsome, mustachioed man with a brimmed hat came into my head, and my detective Dade Wyatt rowed an Adirondack boat into the story. A melancholy widower, former Shakespearean actor, Pinkerton agent, and Rough Rider,  he’s providing security for the island’s politically ambitious owner, who’s trying to lure Roosevelt for a summer visit in 1903. On a dry run for the event, somebody ends up dead. Suspicion falls on an Italian anarchist musician—perhaps from the granite works of nearby Barre, a hotbed of labor radicalism, or from the teeming immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side.  Wyatt sets off to track down a killer and gets mixed up in more than he bargained for.

I discovered some intriguing historical nuggets in the course of writing and revising Heron Island: Vice-President Roosevelt learned about the shooting of President McKinley in 1901 while attending a reception at the Isle La Motte, Vermont home of Lieutenant Governor Nelson Fisk; Roosevelt and his Cabinet members were frequent Vermont visitors (in some cases summer residents), and the leading Italian anarchist of his day, Luigi Galleani, who inspired the devotion of the more famous Sacco and Vanzetti as well as the “Red Scare” of 1919, hid out in Barre, Vermont from 1903 to 1912, publishing a radical underground newspaper called Cronaca Sovversiva.

There are two terribly sad things about the real-life roots of this story. The Adirondack lodge on the island burned to the ground in the fall of 2007. Our friend who’d owned the island died last year, much too young. Perhaps she’d be pleased that the place lives on in fictional form.

Cross-posted from Kingdom Books’ blog,, with thanks to owners Beth and Dave Kannell.

Category: Heron Island, a historical mystery 2 comments »

2 Responses to “Real-life roots of HERON ISLAND”

  1. Margaret Blanchard

    Hi, Roberta. I’m a very occasional member of the Mystery Book Club. I was hoping to participate in the reading and discussion of Heron Island this winter but a death in my family prevented that. So I just got around to reading it. I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed it–the excellent writing, the dialogue and descriptions, the observations about class, your detective, the setting and the spirited speeches at the end about class and politics. A terrific read! Also noticed your acknowledgements of Dick Hathaway and Verbena Pastor, former colleagues and friends of mine at Vermont College. So I told Verbena who now lives in Italy about your book (by email). She has become a very successful mystery writer herself, under the penname of Ben Pastor. (I recommended her books to George for future reading and discussion.) Anyway, thanks for this book. I look forward to the next one. I’m curious to see how Dade gets back more fully into the world. As a novelist myself, I know how much work it is to write one, especially when historical research is required and when local lore must be respected. Congratulations!

  2. Miriam Hansen

    I completed by MFA at VT College at the same time as Verbena but have fallen out of touch with her. If you would be willing to share her e-mail address or get a message to her that I’m trying to get in touch with her I would really appreciate it. Thanks!

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