True Confession: The Murder Quilt

I was looking back through old issues of PieceWork the other day, and hovered over the ones for 1996. That was a very good year—among many other things, it included a special issue on textiles and their makers who came through Ellis Island early in the twentieth century. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

But honestly, what I stopped and actually read, start to finish, was the “Murder Quilt” story from the March/April issue. That is consistent with my habit of slipping some trash novels into my usual reading list of high-minded literature. I am not proud of this, but there it is. And who could resist? The plot turns on the trial of a woman and her lover who were thought to have murdered her husband by shooting him on the bank of a creek in rural Oregon. The story is complicated by the fact that the woman in question was homely and ill-tempered, as well as ten years older than the hired man with whom she purportedly strayed.

And what is such a story doing in a historical needlework magazine, you might ask. Well, throughout the trial, a small group of women sat together making crazy quilt blocks. It’s speculated, but not known as fact, that they meant to auction off the finished quilt to help the defendants pay their legal fees.

There are no obvious clues in the quilt itself. Many of the squares contain the names of women who show up in court records as witnesses for the prosecution; but were they also the makers? We don’t know. The blocks are otherwise typical of the random, fey design sensibility of this quilt style. Did the makers believe in the innocence of the wife? Of the lover? It’s a mystery.

The author of this piece, Gayle Neyman, does a terrific job of tracking down clues and drawing plausible scenarios, making this a very good read. That is, if you’re attracted to “trashy novels,” as the wife was said to be, and to which I confess. But enough about that. You can get all six issues of PieceWork published in 1996 on one handy searchable CD. It is simply packed with good stuff.