The War That Didn’t End All Wars: World War I

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Today is Veteran’s Day, and we want to honor all people who fight for our country. I want to look at a war that is sometimes forgotten, or, rather usurped by its older brother later in the 20th century: World War I.

There’s no doubt World War II has gained in popularity in the last several years. There was a time when you looked on the Amazon bestseller list for Historical Fiction and saw only (or mostly) books set during the Second World War. But World War I has always been more fascinating to me. I got interested in this war after binge reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ classic series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. Though the series is set in the 1920s, Wimsey is a World War I vet and there are references to his experiences during the war and even a mystery with the foundations set during the war in the book The Nine Tailors

When we look at the history of World War I, we find people had very high hopes for it. It was, and still is, referred to as “The Great War” (even though few would deny World War II was greater) and “the war to end all wars” (which, sadly, it did not). This war was a modern war and a coming-of-age for warfare.

Photo Credit: American Soldiers on the battlefield in France during WWI, date unknown, U.S. National Archive: Picryl/Public Domain

World War I was the first war fought on a grand scale, involving 30 nations (including the United States). Wars up until that time tended to be confined to certain geographical areas so this war was the first real global war. 

It was also the first to use modern technologies such as tanks, machine guns (the infamous “Tommy gun” was originally designed to be used during the war), automobiles, and airplanes. That made mass destruction easier (sad to say) and so the toll it took physically on those fighting, including the dead and wounded was massive. The total casualties are estimated to be around forty million! While WWII  had about twice the casualties, for the early 20th century, this was phenomenal.

But what made World War I stand out above other wars before it was the psychological toll it took on those fighting and on their loved ones. Since such death and warfare hadn’t been seen on a massive scale before, the devastation it brought was huge. Post-World War I was the first time people began to recognize war could cause heavy psychological damage. A new term came into being after the war: shell shock (which we know today as PTSD). One of the things that fascinated me about Sayers’ series is how she shows the effects of shell shock on her protagonist Lord Peter Wimsey even a decade later, including nightmares, migraines, and nervous breakdowns. 

So let me call out to honor those who fought and died in World War I. Sadly, none survive today, as the last died in 2011. But we can still appreciate their bravery and the way they showed us the effects of global war.

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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Fun and Mischief: Halloween in the Early 20th Century

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It’s Halloween in the United States today, and if you live in America, you likely already have bags of candy stashed on the front table near your door, expecting little nippers to come knocking and calling “trick or treat!”

Halloween these days is a relatively tame affair where fun is the name of the game. It means dressing up in costumes, taking the kids door to door to get candy, and for some, attending a party or settling on the couch to watch spooky movies (I already have my collection of Val Lewton films geared up). But in the early 20th century, kids had a very different idea of what constituted “fun” for Halloween. Mischief and mayhem were the order of the day (or, I should say, the night).

What do I mean by mischief? Watch this clip from the 1944 classic film Meet Me in St. Louis. The film is set in 1904 and gives a pretty accurate glimpse of how kids celebrated Halloween in the early 20th century. In the scene, kids build a bonfire, throwing into it anything flammable they can get their hands on (and one suspects some of the chairs they’re throwing in might have been ripped off neighborhood porches). Then, they huddle together, trying to figure out who they’re going to torture with their bags of flour (yes, knocking on someone’s door and throwing flour in their face was a thing back then). That was the turn-of-the-century’s idea of Halloween fun.

Photo Credit: A non-grotesque and non-creepy Halloween costume of a witch, 1910: jamesjoel/Flickr/CC BY ND 2.0

Another thing about this scene is that it shows how kids dressed up for Halloween over one hundred years ago (and if you’re curious to see more costumes from this era, you can look here). Unlike today where we’re more likely to see cute costumes on smaller kids and spooky-fun costumes on older kids, kids used whatever they could find around the house. The results were creepier and, in some cases, even grotesque.

Trick-or-treating is a largely organized affair in the 21st century, as in my neighborhood in a small Ohio town, where the local newspaper designates specific days (not necessarily October 31) and times when trick-or-treaters can go around town. In the early 20th century, things were a lot more chaotic. Kids would go trick-or-treating in parades and they could become quite unruly. And did they get candy? Not always. Until the mid-20th century, kids got whatever was lying around. That could be a toy or a game the child of the house didn’t want anymore or some non-candy goodies or fruits or nuts (which would make many moms and dads very happy today).

But what really characterized early 20th-century Halloween was mischief. In addition to the bonfire and the flour-in-the-face, it wasn’t unusual for kids to vandalize the homes of people in town they didn’t like or even steal things off their lawn or porch (in the film clip above, one of the adults warns her children to make sure and return a neighbor’s hammock after they steal it). I remember when I was a kid, Halloween meant you were at risk of being “egged” (having kids throw rotten eggs at your house) if you didn’t open the door and give out candy. Thankfully, that practice has largely gone out of style. 

Want to have even more Halloween fun this year? Come solve a mystery with the protagonist of my Adele Gossling Mysteries series as she helps search for a missing child from the community Halloween party! You can get this story (plus a novella and other goodies) only if you sign up for my newsletter here. And to check out my Adele Gossling Mysteries series, you can’t do any better than the box set for the first three books in the series! That’s on preorder right now at a great price, so pick it up here

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Death Outside the Battlefield: Lida Beecher

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Last month, I posted a tribute to World War I veterans. The war made people realize death can come too easily in the 20th century. However, not all deaths in 1914 took place on the battlefield. Some, in fact, happened in the backwoods of America and were just as shocking as those happening in Europe. 

Book 2 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries is about the death of a schoolteacher. During my research, I stumbled upon the case of Lida Beecher which both horrified and intrigued me. I wasn’t the only one. Residents of Herkimer County, New York where the murder took place were so devastated by the crime that a history of the area written in the 1970s completely excludes any mention of it. 

The story involves many complex players. To begin, the victim is Lida Beecher, a young and lovely schoolteacher whose eagerness to help her students usurped her experience in dealing with the troubled ones. Then there is the perpetrator: Jean Gianini, a sixteen-year-old from a very unstable family environment that included alcoholism, mental disabilities, and physical abuse. Gianini lured Beecher into the woods, hit her with a monkey wrench, and then stabbed her to death, hiding her body in the brush. 

The case exemplifies the limitations of education and medicine in the early 20th century. Schools at this time, especially in rural towns, were a one-room affair (think: Little House on the Prairie). Students of all ages attended and the teacher had to accommodate different learning levels, from the six-year-olds to the fifteen and sixteen-year-olds. Teachers were then, as they are now, grossly underpaid and they were also undertrained, especially in dealing with special needs children or children with disabilities. 

Photo Credit: Herkimer County Courthouse where the trail of Lida Beecher’s murder took place, Herkimer, NY, 19 September 2009, taken by Doug Kerr: Pubdog/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY SA 2.0

All the sources on the case agree Gianini was both intellectually and mentally below average. During the trial, he went through several intelligence tests, including the Binet Test, which was used at the time to assess the mental age of children, and he was found to have the intellectual capacity of a ten-year-old even though he was sixteen. He also showed signs of mental disabilities. Some have said if Gianini were examined today, he would probably be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Accounts of his time at school clearly showed neither his teachers nor the principal were equipped to understand or help him. Beecher tried but when he misbehaved, she called in the principal, who resorted to the same kind of humiliation and violence Gianini experienced at home. This set off feelings of resentment in Gianini and vows of revenge and, indeed, he gave his reason for killing Beecher as vengeance. 

The case set the precedence for the insanity plea, which became almost overused in the early 20th century. The defense was able to convince a jury that Gianini didn’t know what he was doing and get him committed to an institution rather than suffer the death penalty.

Teachers don’t fare well in Book 2 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, A Wordless Death, either. The book is part of my 3-book box set, which includes Book 1 (The Carnation Murder) and Book 3 (Death at Will) is on preorder right now. So to get 3 books at a great price, check out this link

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Resort Life in the 19th Century

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When doing some research recently, I discovered that today is the day summer officially ends and fall begins.

This summer hasn’t been easy for many of us. I recently moved from Texas to Ohio and it looks like I might have chosen a good time to leave, as many of my Texas friends experienced higher-than-usual temperatures this summer (I’m taking 105 and 106-degree type weather). Even in the Midwest, people told me it was an unusually hot and humid summer for our town. One of my neighbors posted the following sign on her lawn, maybe in an effort to encourage the colder weather to come:

A few weeks later she took it down. I guess she got discouraged by the continuing high temperatures!

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when there were no A/C units, no cooling systems, and fans that were inadequate, summer was the time for people to get away. Remember my blog post about Grace Brown and Chester Gillette (which you can find here)? Gillette lured his victim to the Adirondacks with the promise of a honeymoon vacation. The Adirondacks was a popular resort town in the East in the early 20th century.

Both Brown and Gilette were working-class people, and at the turn of the century, resorts such as the Adirondacks were just becoming accessible to them. But for the very wealthy, such resorts had been at their disposal since the 19th century. There were even those who made hopping from resort to resort a way of life.

Photo Credit: The Beach and The Sea, Blankenberghe, Belgium, from “Views of Architecture and Other Sites in Belgium” catalog, 1905, Detroit Publishing Company: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 100)    

Resort life for the wealthy, as Charles Dudley Warner depicts in his book Their Pilgrimage (1884), was relaxing, exciting, and, oftentimes, boring. Some traveled for their health to places such as Palm Springs in California. Others traveled in the winter to get away from the harsh weather in their hometown. And many did it because it was “the thing to do” among the wealthy. 

The idea of seeing and being seen was prevalent throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and resort life offered just the place for this. What people did or what they saw in terms of the local attractions was less important than who they met and mingled with. At the same time, the anonymity of resort life gave the tightly-laced blue bloods of this time freedom to be themselves, a luxury they couldn’t afford at home. Away from the resorts, the wealthy had to watch what they said and did so as not to be shunned by their neighbors or get their names in the papers. But at a hotel, no one knew them, and they could loosen their grip a little bit.

Resort life was predominantly for women, though there were men and children as well. The hard-working, aggressively competitive Gilded Age and Progressive Era man couldn’t take time off for vacations. Ironically, women found a level of release and independence in the resort hotels that they couldn’t have at home, with the rigid boundaries of the separate spheres

Those who have read my Waxwood Series know the way of life of resort towns well. The Alderdice family aren’t exactly the kind of Gilded Age travelers that Warner’s novel depicts, as their lives are firmly rooted in San Francisco society. But, like their blue blood companions, they take full advantage of the extravagances offered once they do arrive and, in more ways than one, they become different people immersed in resort life for even just that short a time.

You can read about the Alderdices’ experience of resort life in Book 2 of my series, False Fathers. Book 3, Pathfinding Women, coming out this summer, also gives you a sense of resort life in the last year of the 19th century. If you want to find out more about the Waxwood Series, you can check out this page.               

The Adele Gossling Mysteries is grounded more in the grim realities of murder and crime, but I’m not quite done with resort life yet in my books. I already have on my agenda to write a book for this series set in a resort town which will include all of its fascinating psychological aspects amid a backdrop of crime and mayhem.

In the meantime, you can pick up The Carnation Murder, the first book of the series, for free from all book vendors. All the information and links are here. And if you’re interested in a more dramatic look at resort life, you’ll find my Waxwood Series right up your alley. You can start with Book 1, The Specter, which is free on all vendors, here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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The Spanish Lady and the Mexican Spitfire: Hispanic Heritage Month

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Today is the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month and cause for celebration! 

I’ve been watching a lot of silent films from the 1920s lately as research for a new historical cozy mystery series I’ll be working on next year and launching in 2025 (keep an eye out for more on that in the future). I’ve found classic films to be one of the best means of getting a sense of the atmosphere and everyday life from those eras.

I was pleased to find that Hispanic actors and actresses did exist during this early Hollywood era. Even more interesting, two Hispanic women dominated the screen during the 1920s and early 1930s, presenting two very different, and sometimes controversial, images of Latina women during this time. 

Photo Credit: Dolores Del Rio, 1927, gelatin silver print, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute: Intellectualpropri/Wikimedia Commons/CC-Zero (public domain)

Photo Credit: Lupe Velez in Sailors Beware, 1927: Mahar27777/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

Dolores Del Rio came from Mexican aristocracy and was dubbed “The Spanish Lady” in the press. Her roles in this early period of Hollywood often centered around dignified and refined ladies of Hispanic origin. She blended the acceptable behavior of elegant women with a touch of exoticism that audiences loved. But during the 1940s, her roles grew more stereotypical and it was harder for her to control her scripts and how her Latina characters were portrayed. She abandoned Hollywood and went back to Mexico and became a very successful film star in the Mexican cinema.

Lupe Velez was completely the opposite. Nicknamed “The Mexican Spitfire,” she wasn’t afraid to present herself as the hot and sexy Latina lady who said what she felt, shrugged off conventions, and even yelled and screamed when the situation called for it, both on screen and off. Audiences loved her vivacious and high-spirited personality and her Mexican Spitfire comedies were a big hit with audiences. Her life ended tragically in the mid-1940s when rejected by her fiance, she took her own life.

Today many critics dismiss Del Rio as having played into the hands of white producers and directors in an Anglo version of “the Spanish lady” and Velez for having played the stereotype of the uncontrollable Mexican woman. But it’s important to remember that in the 1920s and 1930s, the Hispanic community was very much isolated and ostracized. For Hispanic women especially, there were few opportunities to see themselves represented by Hispanic actresses. Dolores Del Rio and Lupe Velez gave voice to the existence of the Latina-American woman not only in film but in real life. 

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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