“A Savage Wisdom” is inspired by the life, crimes and legends of Annie Beatrice McQuiston, aka Toni Jo Henry, the only woman executed in Louisiana’s electric chair. ShelfLife@Texas asked author and University of Texas at Austin graduate alumnus (English ’79) Norman German about his new book.
How did you first become familiar with McQuiston’s story?
Toni Jo’s story has intrigued me since childhood, when I would read about her in special features in the Lake Charles American Press, which tantalized readers with reproductions of her leggy portrait as a coddled death-row inmate.
What compelled you to write her story?
Annie Beatrice McQuiston, mis-carved as “Anna” on her tombstone, adopted the name “Toni Jo” as a prostitute and became Toni Jo Henry upon marrying Claude “Cowboy” Henry, himself a murderer on the lam when he met Toni Jo. This dual identity gave me the idea of treating the novel as a way to explore identity formation.
However, the real-life woman was not a sympathetic character, being a drug addict and prostitute by age 15, so I reconceived her life and wrote the novel to answer the question, “What would make an innocent woman transform into a cold-blooded murderer?” The novel, then, became a study in deception, with a fictional character who has multiple identities deceiving Toni Jo into a form of high-class prostitution. She then seeks revenge. (Actually, the opportunity almost literally falls in her lap.)
I thought it was striking, too, that Toni Jo committed the murder on Valentine’s Day, probably without even realizing what day it was.
Most compelling to me, though, was the rumor that the sheriff had an affair with and a child by Toni Jo while she was awaiting execution. The fictional possibilities were enormous, and many readers have said that the novel’s real gut-punch comes after Toni Jo is no longer alive.
What were your overall impressions of the character?
The historical Toni Jo Henry seemed to have been an uneasy mix of compassion and anger. She grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, the daughter of a hard-drinking, abusive Irishman. Her mother died of tuberculosis, compelling her to work in a macaroni factory until she was fired when the TB risk was discovered. She left home at 13, became addicted to cocaine, and resorted to prostitution to make her way in the world.
In 1939 in a brothel she called home, Annie, now going by “Toni Jo,” fell for Claude “Cowboy” Henry, an ex-prize fighter. On November 25, 1939, shortly after he isolated her in a hotel room and forced her to go “cold turkey,” they secured a marriage license in Lake Charles and married in Sulphur.
While Toni Jo’s life is compelling as a “human interest” story, I didn’t see much potential in building a novel around such a character. After Truman Capote launched the new genre of “faction” with “In Cold Blood,” turning fact into fiction has almost become a cottage industry in the publishing world, so I can’t take much credit for being original in my “imaginative reconstruction,” as I like to call it. My trick was simply to reverse many of the events in Toni Jo’s life. To cite just one example, in real life she was a hitchhiker who killed the man who picked her up. My version is a little different than that.
What is it about her crimes that led her to become the first and only woman to die in Louisiana’s electric chair?
By contemporary standards, her crime was not especially heinous, but it was “cold-blooded,” and the man she killed was merely being kind to her and a male friend she was with. In my opinion, Toni Jo’s thinking was clouded by desperation. She hatched a plan to rob an Arkansas bank for money to shorten her husband’s sentence by legal appeal or perhaps bribery. On Highway 90 just east of Orange, Texas, outside the Night Owl bar, Houston tire salesman Joseph Calloway picked up Toni Jo and Army deserter Horace Finnon Burks. Wanting his Ford V8 as their getaway car, they forced him at gunpoint to a field south of Lake Charles and led him to a rice-stalk stack, where Toni Jo plugged him once in the forehead with a .32.
At home in Houston that frosty Valentine’s night were Calloway’s wife and nine-year-old daughter. (This fact certainly didn’t help her cause in the courtroom.) Although her conviction was appealed twice, the time between the murder and the execution was only two and a half years—swift justice indeed by modern standards, when appeals often drag out for a quarter of a century.
What is it that eventually led this “love-struck southern girl” to snap on a stranger?
As mentioned above, my opinion is that she was desperately, perhaps insanely, in love with Cowboy Henry and tried to do the only thing she knew to “spring him.” In her favor, I suppose, is the fact that because of a tormented conscience, she did turn herself in and confess as the lone trigger-woman in an attempt to save the life of her accomplice, who was nevertheless executed four months after Toni Jo.
Can you describe how your approach may differ when researching and writing about true crimes?
Because this is my only “true crime” book, which in fact is about 90 percent fiction, I can’t say that my approach was much different from the research conducted for my other novels. In order to steep myself in the time period, I first read dozens of newspaper articles on the murder, capture, trial, and execution. To create the dense, “textured” world of a novel, I immersed myself in magazines and popular histories from World War I to 1963 (the novel concludes on the same day as John F. Kennedy’s assassination).
From antique stores, I bought ten copies of magazines from the period, including Life, Look, Collier’s, and Saturday Evening Post. I read every article and studied every ad in order to realistically recreate the clothing, slang, and pop-culture icons of the era.
Finally, to see how established authors approached fictionalizing the lives of murderers, I reread “In Cold Blood” and for the first time read Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song,” about Gary Gilmore, the man who insisted he be executed by firing squad in Utah rather than languish in prison.
Where did you spend time in Louisiana & Texas to prepare?
There are three main settings for the book: southeast Texas, Lake Charles, and New Orleans. I’ve spent considerable time in all three locations, but oddly the most influential “location” was the actual gravesite of Toni Jo Henry.
For years, I had heard the rumor that Toni Jo’s grave was not marked by a headstone for fear of vandalism, so I went on my scavenger hunt in the Orange Grove-Graceland Cemetery on Broad Street, thinking to walk in concentric squares until I found her tombstone or proved the rumor valid.
I had two surprises. The first was coming upon the headstone within five minutes. The other was discovering that the name of Louisiana’s most notorious murderess had been misspelled. Annie Beatrice McQuiston, carved as “Anna,” adopted the name “Toni Jo” as a prostitute and became Toni Jo Henry upon marrying Claude “Cowboy” Henry.
Seeing the tombstone had a galvanizing effect on me by making the woman behind the name come to life as a real person. The tombstone, in fact, serves as the ghosted background to the novel’s front and back covers.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
Of course I want readers to have a riveting reading experience. (One woman found herself hating the content but incapable of putting the book down until it was finished, even cooking the family’s supper with the novel in hand.)
Also, the novel dramatizes the fact that anyone at any time can simply CHOOSE to redefine themselves and become a better person. “A Savage Wisdom” is not only a case study in deception; it is a testament to the fact that anyone can radically transform themselves—instantly and by an act of will. Thus, one character at the end of the novel rejects Toni Jo Henry’s savage wisdom, replacing it with a “wary goodness.”
About the Author: Norman German is a professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, fiction editor for Louisiana Literature, and winner of the Deep South Writers’ Contest for “No Other World.” “A Savage Wisdom” is his third novel.