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«Fundraising The Dead», Sheila Connolly

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The first book in the Museum Mysteries series, 2010


W.C. Fields once said, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Of course, he was talking about an epitaph for his tombstone, but Philadelphia is a lot better than dead. It’s a great place, with something for everyone-culture, sports, history. I’ve spent a big chunk of my life in and around the city, and that’s why I set my new series there.

This book is based on an institution in Center City where I worked for several happy years, and where I met some wonderful, dedicated people. Let me assure you that no character in this book is based on any employee there, past or present, living or dead, and the crimes in the story are my own invention. There has never been a murder there, to my knowledge.

There was, however, a real crime that was discovered while I worked there. That event and its aftermath inspired this story, because it became painfully obvious how easy it is to take advantage of both the trust and the shortcomings of such a venerable cultural institution. In that case the culprit was caught quickly and prosecuted successfully, thanks to the FBI. As for the rest, the descriptions of the outstanding collections, and the ongoing efforts to digitize catalogs and make the collections more widely available to the public, are all true. And like many peer cultural institutions in Philadelphia and throughout the country, this place suffers from chronic underfunding, which contributed to my decision to make my protagonist a fundraising professional (that and the fact that I was one), one of the people who fight to keep the doors open and the lights on so that the public can enjoy the collections.

Of course my thanks go to Jacky Sach and Jessica Faust of BookEnds, who made this book possible, and my patient editor, Shannon Jamieson Vazquez, who has shepherded this through more than one revision, making it stronger each time. Carol Kersbergen, a colleague of mine at the museum, reminded me of a number of details about how things really worked behind the scenes. And as always, the ongoing support of the generous members of Sisters in Crime, and particularly the Guppies, has been essential.

I hope this story gives you something to think about the next time you visit a museum. And please do visit-collections are meant to be enjoyed!


The sight of Marty Terwilliger charging into my office with fire in her eyes was never a good thing, but it was particularly unwelcome right now, as I was trying to put the finishing touches on the grand gala planned for this evening. Tonight was a big event, a really big event, and I was in charge of making it happen. The venerable Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society in Philadelphia was celebrating its 125th anniversary as the guardian of the historic treasures of Philadelphia and the surrounding counties. We were expecting nearly two hundred people, which would set a new record for a Society event.

Our famed vaults housed at least two million books, documents, and ephemera, ranging from manuscript letters signed by William Penn and George Washington, to advertising flyers from late nineteenth-century hatters, to financial records for several of the long-defunct companies that had put Philadelphia on the map of the commercial and industrial world. And that’s not including our fairly respectable collection of paintings, silver, clothing, and some truly weird artifacts (like a horse’s hoof made into an inkwell with silver fittings). The Society’s stately neoclassical building had been constructed to reflect the seriousness of its purpose, and loomed over a neighborhood that had seen many transitions, both good and bad, and had weathered them all.

I’m Eleanor Pratt-Nell to my friends-and I’m the director of development for the Society. If that job title means nothing to you (I get a lot of blank looks), it means I’m a fundraiser. I’m the one who writes those begging letters you get from nonprofit organizations every couple of months. It’s not my name at the bottom-oh, no, it’s the president’s, or, if your bank balance runs to seven figures or you’re sitting on your great-grandfather’s priceless library of Americana, the president’s and the board chair’s. But I’m the one who writes the letter, and also makes sure that there is a current address and the correct, intimate salutation on each one (Dear Binkie, et cetera), and that there is enough of the good stationery to print them all, and that the president actually gets around to signing them (well, most of them-my staff and I usually end up doing a bunch), and that they get into the mail, with postage on them. I’m the invisible person who keeps the money flowing.

I’m also the one who, when I say I’m a fundraiser, you run screaming from, your checkbook tightly clutched in your hand. Why would anyone go into fundraising? What starry-eyed college student ever said, with a gleam in his or her eyes, Gee, I want to beg for money when I grow up? Well, my answer is simple: I was an English major in college. Need I say more? I had drifted into development after a few years of trying to find an academic job, and then discovered that I liked the work. I’ve been at it for more than a dozen years now, and at the Society for the last five of them. In addition to sending out endless mailings and grant proposals, and currying favor from potential donors, party planning is one of my responsibilities. And finally, after many, many months of agonizing over the theme of the evening, the perfect font for the invitations, the menu selections, the arrangement of the tables, and dozens of other details, here we were, just hours away from the anniversary gala.

Now, however, instead of talking to the caterer just one more time to be sure he had the head count right; instead of counting the wine bottles that the liquor store had just delivered; instead of supervising the tables and plates and glassware that were at this very moment being off-loaded in the back alley, I pasted on what I hoped was a sympathetic smile and welcomed Martha Terwilliger, aka Marty.

“Hi, Marty. What brings you here so early? The party doesn’t start until six.” It was barely past three, though I needed every minute between now and then.

Martha Terwilliger was a board member-actually, a third-generation board member; her grandfather had been president of the Society in the distant past, and her father had grudgingly accepted a board position as an inheritance-and she took it quite seriously. She was fiftyish, with a brusque, wry manner and a sharp intelligence, and related to half of Philadelphia. Following the disintegration of her third marriage, she had decided that she needed some focus in her life, and she had adopted the Society with a vengeance. Her father, upon his death several years earlier, had bequeathed to the Society his vast collection of family papers-records that went back to the original Terwilliger settlers, in the early eighteenth century, and included one of the great leaders of the Revolution, Major Jonathan Terwilliger, as well as a host of lesser dignitaries and movers and shakers of Philadelphia political, economic, and social life. The collection was huge, a true treasure trove, and it was quite literally priceless.

Marty’s father had also left an endowment to support the daunting undertaking of cataloging the Terwilliger papers. Unfortunately, the endowment had produced only enough income to cover a cataloger’s pay for a couple of days a week; as a gesture in recognition of the importance of the papers, the Society was underwriting another day or two, bringing the position up to bare full-time status. A few months ago we had hired Rich Girard for the position, fresh out of college, and he had barely scratched the surface. Marty, annoyed at the glacial pace of progress, had decided to step in and get to work herself. Luckily, she was smart and persistent, and it was possible to visualize an end to the project… some five or ten years down the road. In any event, Marty was now bearing down on me with a full head of steam.

“Nell, I need to talk to you. We’ve got a problem,” she said curtly. “It’s about the Collection.” Whenever Marty spoke about her family’s papers, you could see the capital letters: The Terwilliger Collection.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Marty. Please, sit down and tell me what I can do,” I said, far more calmly than I felt.

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