A ghost town is the home of the stories of its past residents.
[This post was written by reader Brigid Amos. Maybe you have seen her comments here. She is the author of a new book, A Fence Around Her. I’ll let her continue…]
There is something bittersweet about a collection of abandoned homes, businesses, churches and civic buildings, all decaying slowly in a remote location. A visit to such a place always seems to evoke the dashed hopes and bitter disappointments of those who once walked its now-lonely streets, and this is true even if the ghost town is well-maintained and heavily visited, as is Bodie, California, a prosperous gold and silver mining district in the Eastern Sierra that boomed in the 1880s. Of all the stories I’ve read or heard about Bodie, the one that always gets to me is that of Lottie Johl. I find her story so sad and touching that I loosely based a major character in my novel A Fence Around Her on this real-life Bodie resident.
Lottie was a sweet, good-natured woman who found herself, through unfortunate life circumstances and limited employment opportunities, working in a house of ill repute in Bodie’s red-light district. There she met a hard-working German immigrant named Eli Johl. Although he was quite successful as a butcher, he was a lonely bachelor, perhaps due to his limited English skills, and he seemed to be searching for someone to share his life. The woman he found was Lottie, and much to the horror of the respectable people of Bodie, he took her as his legal wife. He built her a comfortable house and furnished it in the best style he could afford. Lottie showed an interest in painting, and Eli bought her an easel, a palette, and brushes, and he kept her well-supplied with oil paints and canvases. Isolated in her opulent parlor, Lottie painted fantastical landscapes. Eli had them elaborately framed in red velvet and gilt and displayed them on the parlor walls, although no one came to their house to look at the paintings, because Lottie was still shunned by society.
Finally, Eli hatched a plan to almost force Lottie upon Bodie society. A masquerade ball was to be held at the Miners Union Hall, and Eli sent Lottie to the event alone, dressed in a white satin gown covered in fake diamonds and pearls, with a matching crown perched on her blond curls. All the men wanted to dance with the lovely lady in the diamond and pearl-encrusted dress, and all the women envied her. The committee assigned to give out the costume awards decided to give the mysterious lady the first prize. But when midnight struck and everyone took off their masks, poor Lottie was abandoned by her dance partner. A member of the committee discreetly asked her to leave, and she went home in humiliation.
And if the events of Lottie Johl’s life weren’t sad enough, her death and burial are truly heartbreaking. Lottie felt sick one day (though probably not sick enough to die), and a doctor wrote a prescription. The druggist filled it, and Lottie took the medicine. She was dead by next morning. Instead of the prescribed medicine, the druggist had given her a deadly dose of a toxic substance. It was probably a mistake, but I have to wonder if the druggist took less care in filling the prescription when he saw that it was for Lottie Johl, someone he considered of little importance.
Eli was not allowed to bury his beloved wife inside the fence of the cemetery with the “respectable dead,” so he erected an ornate wrought-iron fence around her grave. He was determined that she would have a much finer fence than the one around the cemetery, so that people would see what a fine woman she was. I think it’s ironic that so many of the people who made Lottie’s life miserable are completely forgotten, while the memory of Lottie Johl lives on.
I felt that it was important to honor the real-life inspiration for Lilly Conoboy, the mother of fourteen-year-old Ruthie Conoboy, the protagonist of my novel A Fence Around Her. I want to make it clear that Lilly is not Lottie. While Lottie was an innocent victim, Lilly brings on her own tragedy. While Lottie seems like someone I might seek out as a friend, Lilly is someone I would avoid if I could do so. But that is what we historical fiction writers do. We take history and turn it into fiction, and the two are not the same. I will always feel gratitude to the historical Lottie Johl for being who she was and leaving behind her story.
Pamela: You can read an excerpt of A Fence Around Her, Young Adult Historical Fiction published by Clean Reads, and purchase at the links below.
Brigid and I would like to hear your comment!
11 thoughts on “A Fence Around Her: Lottie Johl”
What a heart-breaking tale. And hos interesting to read the author’s musings about writers of Historical Fiction that take scraps of stories and develop them into living, breathing (on the page) characters. I hope my current WIP is as interesting as this story sounds.
Writers can change them, too. Unlike Lottie Johl, Brigid’s character “brings on her own tragedy.”
I’ve long had a soft spot for the prostitutes, and former ones, of the Old West and their children.
This is what I love about reading history. Somewhere I will find a story or character that triggers my imagination and inspires me to write. I think that I sympathized deeply with Lottie’s isolation. Lilly’s isolation is similar, but her reaction to it is so different. Lottie accepted it with quiet dignity. Lilly fights against it with everything she has. I changed Lottie/Lilly in this way because my novel needed a character like Lilly to drive the story forward.
What a sad but fascinating story about Lottie. I also find Bodie an interesting historical place. Have you read “Bodie” by Anne Sweazy-Kulju? This story knits together the violent and mysterious events of 1879 and two Oregon sisters in 1993. The history of Bodie seems to draw writers to reveal some of its secrets.
Bev, Thanks for the recommendation. I will check out that book. Yes, there is something so evocative about Bodie. Even though I now live so far away in Nebraska, I have never been able to forget it.
This was a wonderful piece, Brigid and Pam, about Lottie Johl. I read with great interest about Lottie’s sad past, and how some of the character traits of Lilly in Brigid’s current novel nearly parallel Lottie’s. I love that historical fiction authors have the “poetic license” to take “attributes” from a person who lived during the time of the fictitious character. And the best part, for me, is learning where and how the author’s character came from while a story formed in the author’s imagination.
Thank you Alice! In this case, I did feel responsible for getting Lottie’s story out there. If you read the book, you will see that I did take a lot of poetic license in adapting her story to the character of Lilly. I don’t think Lottie Johl would ever have behaved as badly as Lilly!
Fascinating story. It adds depth to your novel and makes us pause to wonder how our actions may offend. People don’t always change. Beautiful cover.
I have great sympathy for those women and their children, who were up against Victorian “morality” in the western US.
Thank you Anne! About the cover, It was designed by Cora Bignardi. She was wonderful to work with, and even incorporated my own photo of Bodie into the background. Photoshop eludes me, so I’m always amazed by what people can do with it!
I am reading your book now, A FENCE AROUND HER. Deeply moving, great story.