31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 8: “The Body Swap” by Emma Donoghue

May 8, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

From Astray

AstrayA stranger comes to town. That’s one of the most reliable of plot motifs, and for a very practical reason: it’s hard to describe a town if it’s already banal to its inhabitants.” So writes Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue in the Afterword to her 2012 collection of historical fictions. “The writer,” Donoghue continues, “needs the stranger not just to set change in motion, but to reveal the town in all its peculiarity in the first place. Of course, put another way, what the town does is reveal all the strangeness in the stranger.” The strangers in Donoghue’s stories find themselves on the margins – of society, of convention, of accepted morality. The stories in the collection focus on issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation; the material is often fraught with the weight of history and humanity’s collective sins.

In this respect, “The Body Swap” is something of an outlier. It is a more or less straightforward caper story, which also showcases the author’s frequently overlooked facility for humour.

The story follows a group of counterfeiters in 19th-century Chicago who are suffering because their most skilled engraver of phony bills, Ben Boyd, has wound up in Joliet State prison, serving a ten-year sentence. The counterfeiters come up with a wild scheme to spring him: they will steal the corpse of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom in exchange for Boyd’s release.

The stranger in this story is Jim Morrissey, first seen in a Madison Street bar known as the Hub, where he has been regaling the owner and regulars about his recent prison stint. The group of conspirators adopt Morrissey as a member of their gang, albeit reluctantly at first. The dialogue-driven exchange in the Hub’s back office highlights Donoghue’s skills at ventriloquism, and her playfulness:

“I’m hoping you gentlemen have a mind to bring me in on some business,” Morrissey volunteers.

“What kind of business?” asks the older man.

“Oh, come on, Mr. Hughes. The coney trade, the bogus; shoving the queer.”

“Knowing the lingo doesn’t mean knowing the business,” observes Hughes.

“I never claimed to. The proverbial blank slate, that’s me. You need a shover, is that it? I could pass bad bills with a straight face.”

Hughes releases a sigh like air from a tire. “The business is all done in.”

Morrissey looks taken aback. “You say?”

“Time was, there was more queer than good floating round Illinois,” Hughes laments. “With all those newfangled notes and greenbacks the Government printed during the War between the States, who could tell bogus at a glance? But since they formed this Secret Service to crack down on us, trade’s turned tight as blazes.”

“It used to be you could bribe them to turn a blind eye,” Mullen contributes, “but these days …”

“And now they’ve banged up our Michelangelo.”

The group accepts Morrissey into its fold, not realizing that he is actually an undercover Secret Service agent who has been charged with breaking up the gang.

This whole story – the counterfeiters, the undercover agent, the audacious grave robbery – may seem far-fetched in the extreme, but for one small detail: it actually happened. In a note following the story, Donoghue sketches the historical incident that serves as the basis for her tale, and acknowledges a debt to two books on the subject, The Great Abraham Lincoln Hijack and Stealing Lincoln’s Body.

What clearly fascinates Donoghue is the nebulous line between the cop and the criminals in this story. According to the author, Lewis Cass Swegles, the Secret Service agent upon whom Morrissey is based, himself ended up in Joliet on a burglary charge. (This after the jury in the counterfeiting trial attempted to get him brought up on charges of entrapment.) In her Afterword, Donoghue writes that Swegles/Morrissey “is clearly more akin to the counterfeiters he lives among (if undercover) than to the detectives for whom he works.” Indeed, the very business of working undercover is itself a kind of counterfeiting: passing oneself off as something other than what one really is.

The theme of authenticity pervades the story, and it is often difficult to determine which side is more “honest.” Hughes, who is something of a philosopher, muses about the fundamental nature of money in American society: “Money’s not real gold anymore … It’s only a kind of paper that the government calls precious; it’s a trick in itself. Well, I say Boyd’s bad notes are just as good. Who am I robbing, tell me, if I buy a horse with a queer bill?” Hughes posits that by switching from gold to paper – that is, from an object of actual wealth to a mere signifier of wealth – the U.S. government is acting as a kind of counterfeiter (“it’s a trick in itself”), pawning off something with no intrinsic value and claiming it is worth something. This, in Hughes’s eyes, is at least as duplicitous as what the counterfeiters get up to in their business. (The character of Hughes reminds the reader of Bob Dylan’s famous admonition, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.”)

The theme of honesty versus duplicity is extended in the story’s backdrop, the disputed presidential election of 1876. Although Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote, the election was called in favour of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, notwithstanding controversial recounts in several states, including Florida. It is said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. If all this has depressing echoes of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, those echoes are probably intentional on the part of the author. Of the 1876 election, Michael F. Holt writes:

With control of Congress split between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, disagreement about exactly who could count the votes produced a constitutional crisis that evoked threats of armed violence from some Democratic quarters. To resolve it, Congress created an unprecedented and as-yet unreplicated Federal Electoral Commission consisting of fifteen members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court. There was no bargain, usually described as the Compromise of 1877, to end Reconstruction; the Commission’s Republican majority, voting on a party line of 8-7, awarded all twenty disputed votes to Hayes. The resulting 185–184 victory proved the narrowest margin in American history. Bitter Democrats declared the election “the Fraud of the Century.”

In some quarters, the results of this election remain in dispute today. For Donoghue, this adds yet another level of resonance to her comic tale of counterfeiters and would-be grave robbers, another level of implication, and heightens the irony in the story’s closing line: “Now that’s the truth.”

Comments

One Response to “31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 8: “The Body Swap” by Emma Donoghue”
  1. Thanks for the close reading, Literary Lad! Nobody’s paid this calibre of attention to this story before and I deeply appreciate it.