Land Schemes and Scoundrels

While researching Arkansas land purchases for Dangerous Deeds (the next in the Waterside Kennels mystery series), I came across some fascinating information. Although my initial intention was to simply research property deeds stretching back to the days of the Arkansas Territory, I soon became immersed in historical references to land surveys. As Robert Logan wrote in his article “Notes on the First Land Surveys of Arkansas” published in The Arkansas Historical Quarterly:

When the first settlements took place in the United States no one realized the vastness of the empire lying before the settlers nor saw reason for careful survey and description of wilderness land that was literally as free as air and seemingly as abundant. Out of this pioneer carelessness came descriptions that to this day puzzle and confuse alike surveyors and abstractors, lawyers and courts. Descriptions by “Metes and bounds”—that is by measures and courses or directions from a specified beginning point—start from “the forks of the branch,” or “from a stake set in the ice,” . . . . or “from the corners of a red barn.” . . . . Mrs. Jim Greer of the Greer Abstract Company, Fayetteville, remembers this description in an abstract that came through her hands: “Beginning at this rock on which I sit . . . .”  

The use of natural landmarks when creating land descriptions can be found in myriad old land surveys, deeds, and other property-related documents. One such example is the image at the top of this post, which shows part of an old survey in which the surveyor described “acres of Land” as being “situated near the River.” Imagine the confusion such language likely caused in the event of legal challenges and boundary disputes!

Decades after Logan’s work was published, professional surveyor T. Webb presented a historical overview of survey practices used in Arkansas through much of the 19th century and highlighted what he called “the wild and wooly land grabbing in territorial Arkansas.”

In the Arkansas Territory the singular interest of both the common citizen and the ruling elite was to shake the federal money tree and harvest the resulting shower of wealth that fell in the form of land warrants. A whole menagerie of frauds and schemes resulted. Land speculators hired straw men to file and witness bogus preemption certificates and questionable colonial land grants. . . .

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Fast-forward to present day, when you might reasonably conclude that modern methods used by credentialed surveyors put a stop to the illicit “land grabs” described in this post. Unfortunately, the criminally minded have found other ways to acquire property through fraudulent means. As one character in my own Dangerous Deeds explains:

Property fraud happens when somebody submits forged documents to the courthouse and claims they purchased the property. Here in Hogan County, the clerk would record the transfer of ownership, and it’s a done deal. Odds are the real owner won’t even know what’s happened until they try to sell the property themselves or there’s some other reason to check their land deeds.

While my own research focuses on Arkansas, it’s important to know that illegal acquisitions are not restricted to Arkansas. In fact, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, property fraud and mortgage fraud are among the fastest growing white-collar crimes in the United States.

From T. Webb’s description of Arkansas Territory land speculators to tales of present-day scoundrels, schemes to seize property by any means—fair or foul—leave a trail of corruption and greed. In Dangerous Deeds, that trail hits close to home and threatens to change the landscape of the Ozarks and the lives of all who live there.

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The images included in this post are from the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands website (http://history.cosl.org) and have been used with express written permission.  

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Sources included in this post and available online in their entirety include:

Logan, R. R. (1960). Notes on the First Land Surveys in Arkansas. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 19(3), 260–270. https://doi.org/10.2307/40030646

Webb, T. (2020). History of 19th century surveys in Arkansas 1815-1883: A lively heritage.  https://www.missourisurveyor.org/images/1185/document/19th-century-surveys-in-arkansas_548.pdf

This Writing Life

For reasons that totally escape me now, I convinced myself it would be a good idea to plot my current work in progress (WIP) Dangerous Deeds by writing segments based on themes, characters, and key plot lines.

So what, you might wonder, was wrong with that approach? The short answer: everything. Imagine dumping dozens of jigsaw puzzle pieces onto the table and you’ll have a glimpse of the mayhem I’ve been sorting through for far too long.

On the bright side, I have an editor who’s intelligent, patient, and open to the back-and-forth that so often accompanies plot development, revision, and rewriting. Then there are all those who send a steady stream of support and encouragement, and my ever-present writing companions Sasha and Buddy The Wonder Cat.

With all this support, it’s time to be the green arrow and aim for the finish line!

 

Dangerous Dogs: Fact and Fiction

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Who was it who said that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans? That’s certainly true for writers–at least, for some of us. I’m frankly awed by those who produce well-crafted novels every year (and sometimes more often than that) and I’m the first to agree I’m not in that league. Instead, I’m comfortable doing things my way in my own time. Since the major plot lines for the series are drawn from both life and legend, the research process for each book is proving to be an adventure all its own.

Dangerous Deeds, the second book in the Waterside Kennels mystery series, tackles two hot topics that are rumbling through the region: land fraud and dog ownership. Researching these real-life issues led me to courthouses, community meetings, newspaper archives, legal records (both on- and off-line) and animal shelters. Along the way I’ve interviewed county deputies, elected officials, and environmentalists as well as kennel owners, dog trainers, veterinarians, and community activists. Along the way I learned that people are prone to what scholars term confirmation bias–that is, they’re most likely to believe whatever evidence supports their personal beliefs. They’re vocal in expressing their opinions and quick to dismiss opposing perspectives.

Take the issue of “dangerous dogs” for example. You can find plenty of anecdotal information supporting the position that some specific breeds are inherently dangerous and should be banned. Look further and you’ll find scholarly studies disputing that. Based on these studies, it would appear that Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is a flawed approach while Breed Neutral Legislation (BNL) takes a more responsible view. In summary:

The data, scientific studies, and risk rates all confirm that serious dog bite-related incidents are not a breed-specific issue. For canine regulation, it is important to understand the differences between the two major forms of regulation – breed-specific legislation (BSL) and breed-neutral legislation (BNL). BSL is a limited, single-factor, appearance-based approach while BNL is a comprehensive, multi-factorial, behavior-based approach. For public safety, BSL imposes regulations on a minority of dogs based only on their appearance or breed (regardless of a dog’s behavior or responsible ownership) while breed-neutral regulations address all potentially dangerous dogs, all irresponsible owners, and all unsafe dog-related situations – regardless of a dog’s appearance or breed. Consequently, multiple peer-reviewed studies have concluded that BSL is ineffective; furthermore, it is a discriminatory trend in decline evidenced by the vast majority (98%) of cities and towns that use breed-neutral regulations as their primary and only form of regulation because of the many advantages of breed-neutral regulations summarized on our breed legislation page. For public safety and to reduce dog bite incidents, the data and scientific studies both validate that the most effective solutions are breed-neutral and address the human end of the leash.

While there are some who may question the value of this source, the inclusion of scholarly studies, reports, and position statements from credible associations suggest it’s worth taking the time to review the information and links before making up your mind.

And despite the plethora of peer-reviewed studies and expert positions, there are many who prefer instead to support boycotts and breed bans.  I’ve drawn upon real-life incidents, actions, and attitudes reflecting both sides of the issue to create authentic conflict for my protagonist as she finds herself in legal jeopardy when an opponent is found murdered on her property. To save herself, Maggie must unravel the web of deceit and discover the truth before nefarious foes can succeed in their efforts to destroy all she holds close to her heart.

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The Middy Chronicles

In Dangerous Deeds (book #2 in the Waterside Kennels series) Maggie Porter’s dog Sweet Pea rescues an injured stray kitten she finds beneath the dock. Although Maggie initially describes him as  “not much more than bones and fur” the kitten turns out to have a tiger-sized attitude and soon claims the kennel—and Sweet Pea—as his own.

Whether real or fictional, kitties certainly make life interesting for us! Here’s an excerpt of the tale of one kitty who earlier this year joined the household of award-winning mystery author Susan Cox. Susan admits finding the new addition to be a challenge. As she says, “I’m used to poodles–and poodles are very smart–but this cat seems ‘nuclear physicist smart’ and I’m not sure I can keep up.”

Read on to learn the latest in The Middy Chronicles.  (Middy, by the way, is short for Midnight.)

I can’t sleep tonight (although Middy’s sleeping just fine, thanks), so I thought I’d let you know how Middy and I are doing as we spend more time in each other’s company due to social distancing and lockdown and such. Short form spoiler–we’re doing fine.

Photo ©Susan Cox

INDOOR/OUTDOOR:
For a cat who was an outdoor cat until a few weeks ago, scrounging for bugs on the driveway and drinking from sprinklers, Middy has entered wholeheartedly into indoor life. When I open the door to offer her an outing she dithers in the doorway (the better to let in as many mosquitoes as possible) and then declines my invitation. I’m not sure why, but outdoors has been crossed off her list of acceptable places to visit. Indoors however, preferably in a patch of sunshine, is the bomb.

THE RED DOT LASER THINGY:
She’s figured out I’m responsible for the red dot laser thingy, and stares at the pen in my pencil pot when she feels like chasing it. I of course immediately leap to do her bidding which is how it should be, she tells me. The red dot laser thingy was cheap, so I found I had money left over to spend on other things.

TABLE SETTINGS:
I bought her two new dishes because…I have no idea why. I have a bunch of little bowls that have been working just fine, but they don’t match and they’re not cute. The impulse to buy the matching pair of very cute square bowls (they were $59 each, btw) was something to do with the availability of one-click ordering, and a fairly large helping of guilt about the mis-matched bowls. Not that she’s ever said anything about them, but a person knows, somehow.

MENU ITEMS:
So far the things she likes to eat include tomatoes, apples, canned chili (with sour cream), Havarti cheese, roast beef, yellow mustard, mashed potatoes, tomato soup and Pepperidge Farm coconut cake. She likes her tea with milk, and lemonade holds a strange fascination for her. I hasten to add, before you call the SPCA, that these are mere morsels and licks, not huge helpings. The things she doesn’t like to eat include milk, ice cream and chocolate.

THE NECESSARIUM:
This week I bought her a chic new litter box because, while the other one was fine, it didn’t have much in the way of panache. And panache, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a critical component of one’s litter box. The new one is a top entry one and it looks nicer in the guest bathroom. After worrying that she would find switching to the new litter box stressful, I watched her hop in and use it before I could do any of the things Google recommends as helpful to the transition. I may use the old one–although “old” is stretching it when describing something that’s only a few weeks old–for raising seedlings in the garden. So there’s that.

FASHION:
I found her a cute black collar with gold moons on it and a tiny bell and a half moon charm with a little cat on it. The collar looks so incredibly cute I may buy her a couple more in different colors. For the first few hours she found the bell distracting, sure it was chasing her and not too happy about it, but we persevered and now she seems to appreciate being fashion forward. She looks completely adorable.

TOYS:
I’ve been trying to get some writing done on my laptop, which I suspect Middy is unhappy about, because she tends to stamp around on my keyboard a lot. So I’ve been tearing out pages of my notebook and crumpling them up for her to chase. I’ve also made her a couple of “enrichment” toys by cutting holes in my Tupperware and filling them with small balls, and I made her some pompoms on strings to hang from the dining room chairs. I found a packet of shiny gold and silver plastic coins in the kitchen junk drawer and I toss them around for her to chase and kick the crap out of. She likes that. The house seems a bit like a Traveller’s encampment, but we’re both happy with the stylin’ Boho look of the place.

Catnip fish –looks like a new favorite! Photo ©Susan Cox

SLEEPING:
Even though tonight it’s eluding me, I do generally sleep quite well until about 5:30 every morning. FYI, this is about three hours before my preferred time for getting out of bed. For a cat who doesn’t even weigh five pounds, Middy has extraordinary strength and powers of hypnosis or something. She purrs so loudly I can’t possibly sleep through it, insists on head rubs and ear scratches, and then drags me into the kitchen to prepare her breakfast. So, I do that and then, if she doesn’t want to play with the red dot laser thingy, I sometimes go back to bed for an hour.

In short, Middy and I are learning to give and take. She is taking pretty much everything she wants; while I’d give nearly anything for a couple of extra hours sleep in the morning.

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Note: Middy’s story and photographs are the exclusive property of Susan Cox and may not be used without the author’s express written permission.

Susan Cox is the author of The Man on the Washing Machine which earned the winning place in the First Crime Novel competition jointly sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America and Minotaur Books. Watch for The Man in the Microwave Oven (next in the Theo Bogart Mysteries) scheduled for publication this year. In the meantime, you can keep up with Susan (and Middy!) on her website and via Facebook.

If you like complex characters, strong plots, and a touch of humor, be sure to check out Susan’s work!

Breed and Behavior

Photo courtesy of PetPlace.com

In Dangerous Deeds, residents are divided by a proposed ordinance to ban what some consider “dangerous dogs” in the county. Those in favor of the ordinance believe some breeds can never be trusted, while others disagree and refuse to endorse the proposal. When asked her opinion, dog trainer and owner of Waterside Kennels Maggie Porter has this to say:

“Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s only breeds on somebody’s banned list that can be dangerous. Any dog that’s not properly trained or supervised or exercised regularly is capable of harming others. The answer isn’t a ban. The answer lies in better training for dogs and education for everyone in the community.”

Maggie’s stance on Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is similar to the positions held by the American Kennel Club and the American Veterinary Medical Association. The AVMA’s published position statement argues that “breed does not predict behavior” and offers a thoughtful and comprehensive review of BSL and offers cogent alternatives.

And while some people think bans are limited to what they consider dangerous breeds, research by groups such as the Responsible Dog Owners of The Western States suggests at least 75 breeds are listed as either banned or restricted. You might be surprised to learn that two of the most popular breeds—the Golden Retriever and the Labrador Retriever—are included on the list. Even more troubling, many bans extend beyond named breeds and instead rely on physical descriptions. Consider this excerpt from the article Why Breed Bans Affect You published by the AKC this year:

Does your dog have almond shaped eyes? A heavy and muscular neck? A tail medium in length that tapers to a point? A smooth and short coat? A broad chest? If you said yes to these questions, then congratulations, you own a “pit bull” …At least according to the City and County of San Francisco’s Department of Animal Care and Control.

The American Kennel Club takes exception to this generalization. In fact, AKC does not recognize the “pit bull” as a specific breed.  However, across the country, ownership of dogs that match these vague physical characteristics are being banned – regardless of their parentage. The City of Kearney, Missouri, for example, only requires a dog to meet five of the eight characteristics on their checklist before they are banned from the city. Would your pug with its broad chest and short coat be in danger of getting banned under these requirements?

Whether you support or oppose breed bans, I hope you’ll agree that responsible ownership can go a long way toward improving the quality of life for people and dogs alike.

Responsibilities evolve over the lifespan of your dog. Check out the AKC’s 75 Ways to Be a Responsible Dog Owner for a comprehensive overview. A great read for anyone new to sharing their life with a dog, and a great reminder for all of us!

Photo courtesy of AVMA.ORG