The Stockton Insane Asylum Murder

Portia of the Pacific Historical Mysteries

Fiction - Mystery - Murder
171 Pages
Reviewed on 12/09/2019
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite

The Stockton Insane Asylum Murder: Portia of the Pacific Historical Mysteries, Book 3 is a sleuth mystery novel written by James Musgrave. Polly Bedford was only twelve years old and had somehow gotten herself institutionalized in the Women’s Ward of the State Insane Asylum in Stockton, California. She was actually a child of privilege, a member of one of the prestigious Nob Hill families of San Francisco. Her parents believed she was a witness to a murder in their home. To protect her from the legal system, they had had her committed, presumably to keep her safely out of the hands of the law. Bertha May Foltz was a seventeen-year-old who had herself committed in Stockton voluntarily to help her mother, Clara Foltz, Esq, find out the truth behind the death of Winifred Cotton and Polly’s role in it, if any. Clara was all too aware that mental institutions were being used by the state and unscrupulous relatives to defraud inmates of their wealth and women of their voice and liberty. Wives and mothers were being routinely committed by their husbands or families. Clara and her group of suffragists were determined to get to the heart of this corrupt and cruel practice while also getting to the answer behind the death of Winifred Cotton.

The Stockton Insane Asylum Murder is the third book featuring the trail-blazing feminist attorney and detective, Clara Foltz; however, the author gives enough background information for this book to be read as a stand-alone novel. That said, I’ve read and enjoyed each of these books and would advise not missing a single one. The heroine of Musgrave’s books is based upon the historical person of the same name who was the first woman attorney on the West Coast and first woman admitted to the California Bar. Musgrave’s plot is thrilling and suspenseful; the Stockton Insane Asylum is a suitably dark and terrifying setting for this tale. His characters are well defined and credible, and the author’s gift for historical writing gives the tale vibrancy and authenticity. The Stockton Insane Asylum Murder: Portia of the Pacific Historical Mysteries, Book 3 is most highly recommended.

Grant Leishman

The Stockton Insane Asylum Murder (Portia of the Pacific Historical Mysteries) by James Musgrave takes us inside a typical Californian asylum at the end of the nineteenth century. At this time, committal of a patient in the asylum was common for both women and children in the patriarchal paradigm of that era. It seemed that when women became too strident or too annoying to their husbands, or they could see a financial benefit in jettisoning her, it was an all too easy thing to do. Clara Foltz is a private detective and a loud champion of women’s rights. When she is approached by an aunt of a young girl placed in the asylum after witnessing a murder committed on her wealthy parents’ estate, Clara joins forces with a former asylum inmate, the redoubtable Mrs Elizabeth Packard, also a crusading activist, to investigate what may be a miscarriage of justice. What Clara and her team find is much more than just a wrongly committed patient, but a systematic and endemic attitude of corruption, misogyny and racism at the highest levels of the asylum and the government. The crusading team is determined to unravel the mystery of the committed child but also to bring down the corrupt and evil experimenters who are trying to prove the superiority of the white elites of America.

What I did enjoy about this book was the mirror it held up to us today. Despite well over a century having passed by, many of the deep set beliefs and ideals portrayed by author James Musgrave in this story of “white superiority” are still alive and kicking and sadly finding more traction than ever before in the United States at present. I found it fascinating that these strong, crusading women even back then knew the answers to society’s ills, and yet today we are still crying out for powerful female leadership, with the compassion and common sense evident in this story. Clearly the patriarchal paradigm is still a long way from being fractured and done away with. The secondary characters in the story were, in some ways, the stars of the tale. I was particularly taken with the two sets of triplets, two sets of whom were conjoined twins. They added an almost Barnum and Bailey character to the story and brought to mind the sorts of experiments that would be practised some sixty-odd years later in another evil attempt to prove Aryan elite superiority. The story flows well, with the author’s style being readable and succinct. If you love historical fiction rooted in reality and you look for strong, independent and fierce female lead characters, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy this book immensely.

Patricia Reding

James Musgrave offers readers The Stockton Insane Asylum Murder, the third volume in his Portia of the Pacific Historical Mystery series. While I did not read the first two volumes, I was able to step right into the story. Clara Foltz, its main protagonist, is California’s first female lawyer. Together with her friend Ah Toy of Chinatown, her love interest Captain Isaiah Lees, and her young adult children, Clara investigates the goings-on at the Stockton Insane Asylum. There resides 12-year-old Polly Bedford, who had witnessed a murder in her parents' home on Nob Hill. Polly’s parents, not wanting her involved in the investigation, declared their daughter insane in an effort to keep her unavailable for questioning. But Clara seeks to interview the girl. Thus, she sends her 17-year-old daughter, Bertha, undercover into the asylum to try to discover what the girl witnessed. Before long, a series of murders is committed inside the Stockton State Insane Asylum that Clara and her gang investigate and ultimately solve.

If it seems strange to you that the Bedfords would institutionalize their daughter to keep her from being questioned, or that Clara would allow her daughter to become an asylum inmate to try to question the girl (particularly given what we know of such institutions from that period), you should know that The Stockton Insane Asylum Murder is far from your typical murder investigation mystery—or historical fiction tale. Although much more fiction than fact, James Musgrave includes a bit of both, along with a nod to mysticism, as Clara’s investigative team includes Adeline Quantrill, a young woman who can hear the thoughts of others. Numerous additional unusual characters are added to the list, including by way of example: Francis Galton, a scientist concerned with the problems of hereditary genetics who is also a telepath; Katherine Sue Yantis, a young woman who, believing herself to be Annie Oakley, wants to return to the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show; and a couple “sets” of “identical triplets, each of which includes two co-joined members and one separate one. With Clara’s role in the early women’s rights movement, and issues relating to racism in the widely diverse city of San Francisco in the 1880s, this story has a bit of something for everyone.