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Written by JJ Barnes

www.jjbarnes.co.uk

I interviewed author Charles Oldham about his career, what inspired him to start writing, and the work that went into his latest release, Ship Of Blood.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

I’m an attorney who practiced criminal defense law for about 12 years, and had some very interesting experiences in and out of court. After a while the daily grind of legal practice started to wear on me, and so I tried an experiment. I set aside the time to research and write a true crime book, to see if I had the skill and experience to weave the facts of the case into an interesting story. I’m pleased to say that my first book turned out well enough, and now I’ve completed my second!

When did you first WANT to write a book?

The idea for my first book, The Senator’s Son, had been bouncing around in my head for years.

I first came across a brief account of Kenneth Beasley, a young boy who disappeared and was presumed kidnapped, in a book when I was in middle school, some 30 years ago.

Charles Oldham, author of Ship Of Blood, interview on The Table Read

The account was just a brief summary, 20 pages or so, but I was intrigued. It was a true-life unsolved mystery, and I was surprised that no one had ever written a full-length book to explore it fully. So even as a middle school kid, I was thinking to myself, someone really should look further into that case.

When did you take a step to start writing?

The idea stayed with me for years, and around 2013 — when I was still practicing law full-time — I made a commitment to myself that I would tell the story of Kenneth Beasley. Even if it took years, I would do the research, get all the facts, and write the book in a way that would do justice to the events and people involved.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release? Can you tell me about the research process for Ship of Blood?

The Senator’s Son took a while, nearly five years. As you might imagine, I had to cram a lot of work into weekends and holidays. It involved a good bit of travel, visiting the scene of the crime, the State Archives and libraries to hunt down all the court records, and interviewing people. And after that, of course there was the process of putting it all together. When it came to my second book, Ship of Blood, it was a similar process because both books involve true stories from around the same time period, the early 1900s. But by that time, I had free more time to devote, and I think I had honed my research skills a bit more.

Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Ship Of Blood? What about the story is relevant or significant for your audience?

The story behind Ship of Blood also came to me by chance. I came across a historical review article about this mutiny and mass-murder that place on a ship off the North Carolina coast, an area that I know very well.

The case was so sensational, and had so many unusual legal twists and turns, that I was surprised again that no one else had written a book about it before. But I knew someone should. To think that three Black men were put on trial for murdering four white men in early 1900s North Carolina — and two of them were ultimately exonerated — is extraordinary.

The case is such an interesting postscript to the Wilmington Insurrection and White Supremacy Campaign of 1898, which have received a lot of attention from writers in the past 20 years or so. And especially these days, when our media are so focused on racial justice and due process, this case shows that those issues are not unique to our “woke” era. Attorneys and journalists, even a century ago, were very aware of them. 

What were your biggest challenges with writing Ship Of Blood? 

The toughest challenge was simply the passage of time, plus the obscure origins of the people involved in the case. The events occurred between 1905 and 1912, so there are no living memories left. Also, the defendants in the case were sailors who had traveled far and wide in their lives, so it was difficult to track down where they were from, and whether they had surviving family. For most of the story, I had to make do with the written records, of which fortunately there are plenty.

How did your legal profession impact the way you wrote Ship of Blood?

Charles Oldham, author of Ship Of Blood, interview on The Table Read

As someone who has actually selected juries and tried criminal cases, I can put myself in the position of the attorneys in this case. As I read the trial transcript, I could say to myself, “Yes, I could see that happening,” and so I tried to infuse my writing with as much of that first-person perception as I could.

I also know the importance of professional duty to one’s client, and so I have a lot of respect for the defendants’ attorneys who did their level best to advocate for their clients, even when the local politics must have made it so hard.

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Is there a message you hope people will find through reading Ship Of Blood?

My hope is that they will draw a message of hope — and optimism. These days, the media focus so much on theories of systemic racism, and they question whether it is possible at all for minorities to obtain justice in America today, at a time when our society is more open and pluralistic than ever before. Yet my book tells a true story of how two Black men, charged with murdering four whites in the South in the very worst days of White Supremacy, eventually did win justice. It happened because so many people — however unexpectedly — decided in the end to do the right thing. If that isn’t cause for optimism, I don’t know what would be.

Why was this story a forgotten one?

Sadly, I suspect that for a long time, many people in Wilmington’s African-American community didn’t want to bring the story up — even though it was a remarkable legal victory for two Black defendants in that era — because they just couldn’t be too openly proud about it. Throughout the segregation days, Black people were expected to be silent, humble, and not revel in their accomplishments. But fortunately, these are better times.

Who or what inspired you to write about the trial and events that took place on the Harry A. Berwind? 

Aside from the fact that the case is so dramatic, and unfolded in such unexpected ways, I was just struck with surprise that no one else had written a full account in the century since it all occurred. With all the attention that we’ve focused on Wilmington and 1898 in recent years, it seemed like an oversight that needed to be corrected.

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What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write?

I would caution them that writing a book is a very rewarding endeavor, but also very challenging. It takes a lot of dedication and persistence. Therefore, my recommendation is to find a story that really captivates them, that is close to their heart. A writer needs that level of personal investment in order to see the process through.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I’m weighing several possibilities. Thus far, I’ve written two books about true crimes in eastern North Carolina in the early 1900s, and now I’d like to broaden my horizons a bit. Maybe find a story would draw more national interest more

And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Yes, absolutely! I’m still honing my craft as a writer, but I feel satisfied that Ship of Blood has accomplished my purpose. I set out to gather all the facts about the mutiny and murders, to relate them in a way that is authentic, and also relatable to readers in the present day. If people come away from the book with a real sense of how unique the events were, then I’ll count it a success.

Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:

My personal website is www.charlesoldhamauthor.com, and my social media handles are:

Facebook: @CharlesOldhamAuthor

Twitter: @OldhamAuthor

Instagram: @CharlesOldhamAuthor

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