top of page

Author Interview: Carol Booker of 'Waterman's Widow'

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

Carol McCabe Booker, author of the well-received Cove Point on the Chesapeake and other books, is back with a tantalizing whodunit that transfixed Maryland a century ago: Who shot waterman Littleton Condiff dead in his bed?

Booker unearths documents and relies on newspaper coverage of the murder and the Baltimore trial with its crafty lawyers. She dedicates the book to journalists, including those who turned out the many stories people clamored for back then — a bittersweet reminder of the historical function of newspapers struggling these days to exist.

“In the history of Solomon’s Island, there is no record of such a crime as this,” the Baltimore Sun wrote in 1900.

National journalist Eleanor Clift says of Waterman’s Widow: “The historical detail is breathtaking,”

You’ll leave this book, available at New Bay Books and online booksellers, with a new understanding of how our justice system worked and opinions about Bessie Condiff, the wife in bed by his side that night. You’ll likely sit back in your chair wondering, who did kill ‘Lit” Condiff.

Booker, a journalist and lawyer by trade, answers a few of our questions:

QIn Waterman’s Widow, you unearthed a great story from Maryland history. You say in acknowledgements that you ran across this tale while researching your recent book, Cove Point on the Chesapeake. Did you have an aha moment right then, or did the idea for a book come after?

A—I came across the story of the murder on Solomons Island in a Baltimore Sun news article headlined “Her Life at Stake,” which reported on the first day of Bessie Condiff’s trial in February 1901. I was very curious to know more, but since it had nothing to do with the history of Cove Point that I was writing at the time, I put it aside to look into later. I had no idea it would lead to another book. But there was something very compelling about it, and I returned to it as soon as time allowed. That’s when the “aha” moment came. This was a story that had to be told.

QWell-known national journalist Eleanor Clift described the historical

detail in this book as breathtaking. I agree. You’ve got great details, like the Order of Heptasophs and the Secret Daughters of America. We learn that the Calvert County coroner was also the ice cream man. (Were bodies kept in an ice cream freezer?) As a writer you must get a kick out of telling us all these things we didn’t know:

A—I admit, I do. These are also things I never knew, and look upon as surprising discoveries. I never knew, for example, that it was common for county jails in southern Maryland to be left unattended, with a janitor or other employee of a local hotel coming by twice a day to deliver meals.

QWas Calvert County’s jail back then really a shed in a field with no toilet?

A—Yes, indeed! And the county kept it that way for decades, while it was repeatedly rated the worst in the state. County officials bragged that its deplorable condition was a deterrent to crime.

QLiving along Chesapeake Bay, watermen are our friends and neighbors,

and often their lives are mythologized. But you write that the life of a waterman was pretty rough at the turn of the 20th century.

A—They said a man had to love it to do it. And then they added that no one had ever heard anyone say he loved it! Oystermen had a particularly hard life since their work was done in the winter months when the weather could be pretty bad.

QI took note that you dedicate this book to journalists who labor to

get down the first record of history, often without bylines. I found

this especially poignant at this moment in history, with newspapers

hammered by predatory Big Tech. Were the Baltimore Sun's and other

stories essential for you in completing this book?

A—There would be no book without the excellent reporting of the Baltimore Sun. The paper covered the story from the shooting of Capt. Condiff through the inquest, the grand jury, and the Baltimore trial five months later. And since the trial transcript is missing from the state archives, the Sun’s detailed reporting of the testimony provides our only insight into the case laid before the jury by some of the best lawyers in Maryland.

Q—We won’t give away the book's ending but did this story’s element of

mystery keep you digging?

A—Absolutely! That’s why the final chapter describes an event a dozen years later involving one of the main characters in the mystery. This event sheds some light on a personality whose role in the murder, in my opinion, was never adequately investigated.

Q—Do you have an opinion of Bessie Condiff, the widow, that you’d care

to share with us? Or do you want us to reach our own conclusions about

her and who shot "Lit" Condiff?

A—Unlike the jury of inquest, which consisted of Solomons Islanders who knew the family, and freely voiced their own prejudices, I would like readers to put themselves in the role of the Baltimore jury, and examine the evidence presented by both sides, but this time in the light of modern science, particularly with respect to human behavior. I am very curious to know if most readers will agree with my conclusions, which I’d rather wait to share at that point. Let the readers be the jury!

144 views1 comment

1 Comment

Mairead Stack
Mairead Stack
Jun 13, 2023

Great Q & A!! Really makes you want to real all about the case. Congratulations, Carol.

bottom of page