Shelby County Indiana
In the summer of 1898 a new book was issued from the press of the Bowen-Merrill Company, at Indianapolis, which gained almost instantaneous notice from the press and public. It proved to be a historical novel under the title of "When Knighthood Was in Flower." It purported to have been written by Edwin Caskoden,* but soon rumor prevailed that this was a pseudonym, and search began for the real author. He was soon found in the person of a young lawyer at Shelbyville, as yet unknown to fame, and the gossip growing out of the discovery intensified the desire to see the book. It was soon universally in demand and its popularity increased with each reading, and it was soon heralded as one of "the six best sellers." It deserved all of its reputation, too, as it was by far the most entertaining romantic novel ever published in Indiana, and one of the best of its class that had appeared in the United States since the Civil war. The plot dealt with one of the most romantic episodes of English history, and the story was told with a skill that denoted a master of literary craft. Its characteristics were, consistent development of the characters, cleverness of dialogue, rush and sweep of incident, dramatic handling of the situations, and above all, the forcible distinctness and effective simplicity of the narrative. It brought to its author instantaneous fame and fortune, gave him recognition as one of the successful novelists of the day and established his name permanently among the literary lights, whose productions have shed such luster upon Indiana letters. As the most distinguished citizen of Shelby county, there is a natural curiosity to hear what manner of man he is, and no apology is offered for giving his biography at some length.
The family is of English origin and the name has for more than a generation been familiar in Central Indiana. Stephan Major was born in the county of Longford, Ireland, near Edgeworthtown, and his early education was supervised by Miss Maria Edgeworth, the novelist, and her brother, Doctor Edgeworth. Later he went to the Isle of Wight, entered one of the old English colleges and prepared himself for the law. When a young man he came to America, studied law for a time under Judge Switzer, of Columbus, Indiana, and afterward located at Shelbyville, for the practice. Shortly after he removed to Indianapolis and met with such success at the bar as to lead to his election as Circuit Judge, a position which he held for a number of years. His circuit covered six counties, including Marion and Indianapolis, and he became noted for his legal acumen, his poise and his bright-minded methods of administering justice. He was especially popular with younger members of the bar, who sought him for advice, and among his students was the late Thomas A. Hendricks. He returned to Shelbyville in 1870, and resumed practice, but on July 4, 1883, his valuable life came to an end and his remains were interred in Crown Hill cemetery at Indianapolis. He [Stephen] married Phebe A., daughter of Dr. George Gaskell, the latter a pioneer physician of Shelbyville, and a prominent man of his time. He [Dr. Gaskell] married Jane Allen, related to Ethan Allen, of Revolutionary fame, and the families on both sides were of Virginia stock. Judge and Mrs. Major had three sons, Stephan F., Charles and Edward Ames.
Charles Major, the second son, was born at Indianapolis, July 25, 1856, in a house that stood where the city library now stands. He was in his fourteenth year when the family removed to Shelbyville. He entered the city schools and graduated in 1872. His hobbies in school were English literature and history. In 1877 he was admitted to the Shelby County Bar, and paid rather close attention to his practice for some time, but of late years, his entire attention has been given to literary work. His first success was speedily followed by others, and numerous fine stories have proceeded from his versatile pen since "When Knighthood Was in Flower" flashed upon an unexpecting public, to fascinate and enthrall millions of readers in all parts of the world. His second book "The Bears of Blue River," is regarded as a capital story for boys and, assisted by its profuse illustrations, became popular. "Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall," a strong rival of his first book, has been characterized as a romance brilliant and refined, filled with the passion as old as humanity and appealing with special fascination to lovers of the "old time entombed." "A Forest Hearth" is more in line with modern times, though it is not lacking in the flavor of genuine romance and has proven quite popular. His "Yolanda" is a story of Burgundy in the sixteenth century. "Uncle Tom, Only Bill," a book for boys, old and young, was published in 1908. "A Gentle Knight of Old Brandenburg," a story of the time of Frederick the Greatís boyhood, is his latest book. Mr. Major developed the literary taste very early, and as far back as his eleventh year we find him indulging in a burlesque of "The Merchant of Venice." He gives an interesting account of the genesis of his first two books. In Guizotís "A History of France," he found a reference to Mary Tudorís marriage to Louis XI, of France, and the bare statement that she was at the time in love with Charles Brandon, a handsome favorite of her brother, Henry VIII. In a 1548 edition of "Hallís Curious Chronicle," he found that after Louis XIís death she wrote to Brandon from Paris, intimating that if he wished to marry her it would be better for him to come to Paris without obtaining her brotherís consent than it would to wait until her brother prohibited the marriage. The romantic situation interested Mr. Major and he began to wonder about the incidents whose sum total went to make up the chief events. History was silent, but the novelistís imagination was equal to the occasion and produced the storms and episodes which lend such romantic charm to "When Knighthood Was in Flower." The romantic marriage of Dorothy Vernon and John Manners, the son of her fatherís enemy, was known in outlines, but the filling-in incidents, which constitute the chief charm of stories, were entirely absent. It was necessary to reconstruct them, and it was by doing this with such skill that Mr. Major placed the reading world under renewed obligations to his genius. "Knighthood" met with honors seldom bestowed in the most successful novel. It was dramatized for Julia Marlowe, and under the management of that brilliant actress proved one of the most popular plays of the day. It was also converted into a comic opera set to music, and in that form made a third fortune for the fortunate possessor of the copyright.
September 27, 1883, Mr. Major married Miss Alice Shaw, a woman of striking personality and pronounced literary tastes. Mr. Major lives in a charming home surrounded by a library of choice books, many of them rare and costly, which he has secured through collectors from time to time for years. He cares nothing for politics, but in 1885 was elected City Clerk, and in the following year was sent to represent the county of Shelby in the lower House of the Legislature. He served through the session of 1886-1887, but one term was enough.
In personal appearance Mr. Major is a man of striking physique with dark gray hair, blue eyes, an unusually brilliant conversationalist, with the affability and genial address that bespeak the gentleman.
From pp. 338-340 of Chadwickís History of Shelby County Indiana, published 1909
Submitted by Don T. Mitchell
* Note how similar this is to Cuskaden, another Shelby County, Indiana, immigrant family from Ireland.
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Charles Major is the second of three children, born to Stephen and Phoebe (Gaskill) Major. His early boyhood was spent in Indianapolis, where until the age of thirteen he attended a private institution of learning, obtaining a thorough rudimentary education in the meantime. In 1869, he accompanied his parents to Shelbyville, in which city he pursued his literary studies until 1872, graduating from the high school that year, and the following year entered the Michigan University at Ann Arbor, where he remained until 1875. Returning to Shelbyville after completing his literary education, he began the study of law, under the able instruction of his father and Alfred Major, and in 1877, was admitted to the bar, and at once entered upon the successful practice of his profession. In 1881, he effected a co-partnership with H. S. Downey and the firm thus constituted, continued until 1884, since which time Mr. Major has been alone in the practice. He is and always has been an earnest supporter of the Democratic party, and as such was elected in 1885, City Clerk of Shelbyville, the duties of which position he discharged until his election to the General Assembly the following year. His race for the Legislature in the primary election was made against one of the most prominent men of the county, and his majority of votes attests to his personal popularity and standing. He defeated his competitor in the election by a majority of 520, and has proved himself an able and trustworthy member of the House, participating in all the deliberations and taking an active part in the debates upon the leading measures presented for discussion. As a lawyer Mr. Major, though still a young man, has already won some prominence in the profession. He is a member of the Masonic and Odd Fellows fraternities and a friend and liberal patronizer of every movement having for its object the welfare of the city and county. In 1883, he married Miss Alice Shaw, of Shelby County, Ind.
History of Shelby County, Indiana, Brant & Fuller, 1887, "Shelbyville Sketches," page 509-10.
Contributed by Phyllis Miller Fleming
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Charles Major (July 25, 1856 Ė February 13, 1913) was an American lawyer and novelist.
Born to an upper-middle class Indianapolis family, Major developed an interest in both law and English history at an early age and attended the University of Michigan from 1872 through 1875, being admitted to the Indiana bar association in 1877. Shortly thereafter he opened his own law practice, which launched a short political career, culminating in a year-long term in the Indiana state legislature.
Writing remained an interest of Major, and in 1898, he published his first novel, When Knighthood Was in Flower under the pseudonym Edwin Caskoden. The novel about England during the reign of King Henry VIII was an exhaustively researched historical romance, and became enormously popular, holding a place on bestselling book lists for nearly three years. The novel was adapted into a popular Broadway play by Paul Kester in 1901, premiering at the Criterion Theatre that year. The novel also launched relatively successful film adaptations in 1908 and 1922.
With a successful writing career, Major gradually lessened his legal obligations, closing his law practice over a year after his first novel, in 1899. Published in 1902, his third novel, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, another historical romance, this time set in Elizabethan times, rivaled the success of his first. Once again, the novel was adapted for the theater by Paul Kester, and saw a film release in 1924 starring Mary Pickford.
Major continued to write and publish several additional novels, to varying degrees of success, as well as a number of children's adventure stories, most set in and around his native state of Indiana. Charles Major died of liver cancer on February 13, 1913, at his home in Shelbyville, Indiana.
In 2006, Shelbyville, Indiana native Eric Linne wrote and copyrighted a motion picture screenplay adaptation of Mr. Major's novel The Bears of Blue River.
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