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Literature / Talma Gordon

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A short story by Pauline E. Hopkins, first published in the October 1900 issue of The Colored American Magazine. It is often cited as the first African-American mystery story.

A gentlemen's club is meeting at the home of one Dr. William Thornton. The topic of interracial marriage comes up, and the doctor says he believes it to be inevitable. To illustrate his point, he begins to tell them about an incident that occurred some years ago — the murders of Captain Jonathan Gordon and his wife and young son.

The story can be read here.note 

Contains examples of:

  • Character Title: The story is titled after one of its central characters.
  • Chocolate Baby: Isabel's third child was born with dark skin. Captain Gordon assumed she had been unfaithful, but it was actually from inherited genes on her side.
  • Deathbed Confession: Simon Cameron confesses to the Gordon murders on his deathbed, dying a few hours later.
  • Dead Man Writing: After Jeannette dies, Talma receives a letter from her which begins: "MY DARLING SISTER TALMA: When you read these lines I shall be no more..."
  • Death by Childbirth: Isabel, the first wife of Captain Gordon and mother of Jeannette and Talma, died at the birth of her third child.
  • Death by Despair:
    • Jeannette dies a year after the murder trial, the stress having taken its toll on her.
    • Isabel died after birthing her third child. Captain Gordon's raving accusations upon seeing the child's appearance were apparently too much for her after the stress of childbirth — she fell into convulsions and died soon after.
    • Near the end, Talma comes close to this; her emotional suffering causes her health to fail rapidly.
  • Disinherited Child: After Captain Gordon's murder, it comes to light that he planned to leave his daughters only a small annuity, the bulk of his fortune going to his son.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Talma's first appearance in the story is at the garden party, where a few paragraphs are spent focusing on her, establishing her as lovely and talented through others' descriptions and conversations about her.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Talma is blonde and draws admiration at the garden party.
  • Family Extermination: Captain Gordon, Mrs. Gordon, and their baby son are killed together.
  • Framing Device: Dr. Thornton is telling the story of the Gordons to guests at his house.
  • Greed: Captain Gordon committed many terrible deeds out of desire for money.
    Gold was his idol; and many a good man walked the plank, and many a gallant ship was stripped of her treasure, to satisfy his lust for gold.
  • He Knows Too Much: Cameron's father was killed by Captain Gordon after helping him bury his treasure to keep the location secret. Cameron notes that this was a custom among pirates.
  • Hostile Weather: A brief but intense storm looses a lightning strike that sets fire to the tower where Captain Gordon and his wife and son are sleeping.
  • Inheritance Murder: When it's discovered that Captain Gordon intended to leave the bulk of his fortune to his son and only a small annuity for his daughters Talma and Jeannette, that the will and other papers were missing, and that Talma and her father had a terrible fight over her lover, it's assumed that she was responsible for his murder, since no one would have so much to gain from it as her and her sister. Later it turns out Jeannette had planned to murder him for the inheritance, but someone else got to him first, so she gathered the papers and fled.
  • Innocent Blue Eyes: Talma has blue eyes and is described in ways evoking innocence — at the garden party, she is merry, wears white, and is compared to a flower.
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: After the initial setup and introductions, the plot kicks off with a storm that arrives in the middle of the night. Within Thornton's story, it's the second scene.
  • Jacob and Esau: Jeannette and Talma Gordon. Jeannette is described as taking after their father, and Talma their mother.
  • Nested Story: The story gets three levels in at its deepest — Thornton narrating reading Jeannette's letter, in which she relays her father's story as told from his perspective.
  • One-Drop Rule: Though Isabel is only one-16th black and her daughters one-32nd, it's enough for them to be discriminated against by those who know the truth.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Capt. Gordon vehemently opposed the idea of Talma marrying Edward Turner. At first it seems like it was because he was a poor nobody, but when the truth about Talma's mother Isabel Franklin is revealed, it's apparent that her ancestry was the reason.
  • Posthumous Character: Some of the people involved in Thornton's story were either dead by the time it began (e.g. Isabel) or are dead by the present day (e.g. the murder victims).
  • Secret Path: The murderer used a secret path to reach Captain Gordon's chambers from the shore, which only the Captain and trusted members of his crew knew about.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Dr. Thornton quotes Hamlet while giving his thoughts on intermarriage to illustrate that he believes it to be inevitable.
      We may make laws, but laws are but straws in the hands of Omnipotence.
      "There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
      Rough-hew them how we will."
      And no man may combat fate.
    • A writer watching Talma at the garden party quotes Tennyson's "Madeline" to express his admiration.
      "Smiling, frowning, evermore,
      Thou art perfect in love-lore,
      Ever varying Madeline,"
      quoted a celebrated writer as he stood apart with me, gazing upon the scene before us.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: The Gordon sisters. Jeannette is described as tall, dark, and stern, and Talma as a fairylike blonde, sparkling in smiles.
  • Smoky Gentlemen's Club: The Canterbury Club of Boston's members are of high social standing. Aside from Dr. Thornton, they include a jurist/politician, a theologian, and a college president.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: At the end, Dr. Thornton's hitherto unseen wife, who was mentioned only briefly at the start, is revealed to be none other than Talma herself.
  • Wanted a Son Instead: Capt. Gordon was disappointed at the births of his daughters because he wanted a male heir.
  • White Anglo-Saxon Protestant: The Gordons are described as old New England Puritans who had come over in the Mayflower.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Captain Gordon's second wife Mary treats Jeannette and Talma, the daughters of his first wife, with contempt and speaks badly of their mother. It's said that she envies the inheritance that the first Mrs. Gordon left her daughters.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Captain Gordon's killer kills not only the Captain and his wife, but also their baby son.
  • You Killed My Father: The man known as Simon Cameron killed Captain Gordon to avenge his father, a crew member of Gordon's who was killed by him after helping him bury his treasure to keep the location secret.