Thieves, Pickpockets, and Sex: The Dark Side of Circus Life

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While today we think of the circus as something fun, colorful, and family-oriented, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, before the Progressive Era, the circus was considered adult entertainment and not very savory entertainment at that. Even in later years, Hollywood liked to portray the circus as a place filled with vice and crime. For example, the film noir Nightmare Alley (the 1947 version, not the 2021 version) opens with a view of some typical circus side shows with thieves lurking in the crowds and a swindling spiritualist. The police suddenly raid the circus, making accusations of soliciting crime and claiming one of the performers’ costumes is indecent (as defined by the standards of the 1940s). Of course, the circus manager has an explanation for everything, but the police order them to move to another town anyway.

The circus worked hard to clean up its act (no pun intended) in the 20th century. The circus in America really began in the 18th century and for two centuries, was considered the place for crime, vice, and sexual titillation. Circuses were rumored to have made deals with pickpockets who roamed the crowd and then gave the circus manager a cut of whatever they got. Men could come and ogle women in tights and leotards in eras where women kept their entire bodies covered and even a curvacious table leg could be considered risque. There were rumors of prostitution, though there is no evidence that this actually occurred. 

This cartoon is taken from a book called Peck’s Bad Boy at the Circus by George W. (Wilbur). According to the caption, the boy Peck’s father is run out of the circus by the police because he was caught standing behind the lion’s cage creating the animal’s roar when the lion had a sore throat. This is an example of how even in the early 20th century, circuses were still seen as dishonest places that were always trying to swindle the public.

Photo Credit: Image from page 108 of “Peck’s bad boy with the circus [microform]” by George W (Wilbur), 1907, University of California Libraries: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr/ CC0 1.0 Universal

Circuses started to reassess their image in the late 19th century and move toward the more family-oriented entertainment we know today. Circus managers became very strict about things like drinking and men and women socializing together. They included more children-friendly acts such as animals and clowns. The more adult entertainment moved away to the side shows rather than the main circus tent. 

Why did the circuses change their image in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? First, these eras marked a period of change and reform in America. America had prospered in the Gilded Age but with it came the baggage of greed, corruption, and extravagance. These reformers wanted a cleaner, better America and pushed for reform in the entertainment field as well, including burlesque, vaudeville, and circuses. And second, they changed for the same reason Las Vegas changed in the 1990s: money. This era also was the birth of leisure and family fun and circus managers shrewdly realized, just as the Vegas hotel managers did, that children were a lucrative market they were missing by entertaining only adults. 

Book 5 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, which turns a year old this month, is all about the circus. The conflict between the circus as vice and the circus as decent entertainment unfolds within the mystery of the death of the star performer. If you want to grab your copy, you can do so 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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Introducing the Grave Sisters Mysteries Series!

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If you’ve been subscribing to my newsletter (and if you haven’t, you might want to check out the link below because you’ll get a bunch of cool stuff, including a couple of freebies) you know I announced last year that I would be working on a new series in 2024 to launch in 2025. I’m now ready to talk a little bit about that new series.

The Grave Sisters Mysteries is going to be another historical cozy mystery series (like my Adele Gossling Mysteries). The two series have several elements in common. They both feature strong women sleuths who defy the conventions of their time. They are both set in small towns in California and they both include women who help men in law enforcement solve crimes. 

But the Grave Sisters Mysteries has a few differences that set it apart from my current series. As the name suggests, there is more than one sleuth in this new series. The sleuths, in fact, are three sisters. Eve is the oldest and most involved in solving the crimes. The middle sister, Helena, is her aide and brings different skills to the table. Their younger sister, Violet, is less involved in crime solving (at least at the beginning) but she nevertheless puts her hand in.

Another thing that makes the Grave Sisters Mysteries different from the Adele Gossling Mysteries is the sleuths’ non-crime-solving occupation. Adele runs her own stationary store in town. The Grave Sisters own a family business and its nature might surprise you. They run the only mortuary in town! That’s right. They deal with dead bodies in their line of work, though most of them get that way from natural causes rather than murder. Eve handles the administrative and accounting side of things while Helena is the resident mortician who prepares the bodies for burial. Violet, who is only eighteen in the first book, doesn’t get as involved in the family business until much later.

The time frames for both series are also different. Those who know the Adele Gossling Mysteries know the first book is set only a few years after the turn of the 20th century and the series is currently up to the middle of its first decade (spoiler alert: Book 7 is going to take place during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire). Adele’s values and ideas fit the Progressive Era and her New Woman status lends interest and background to the mysteries.

The Grave sisters live in a later era. The first book is set in 1921, a period in American history that was just as vibrant as the Progressive Era, though in a different way. World War I  was behind us but the Roaring Twenties wasn’t exactly in full swing. In fact, the nation was experiencing a sort of dip in prospects with so many World War I veterans who returned home to find they couldn’t get jobs (this becomes one of the themes of Book 2 of this series). But the sisters are firmly planted in this era that was experiencing a transition from the old to the new. America was still trying to hold on desperately to its old values and yet, the younger generation was sick and tired of the old ways and bringing in the modern age against their parents’ and grandparents’ resistance. All of these things affect the sisters and their relationship to one another. Future blog posts will address some of these topics. 

Even though Book 1 of the Grave Sisters Mysteries won’t be released until the spring of 2025, don’t despair! I have more information for you about the series here. Book 1 will be available for preorder sometime later this year. I’ll also be including more updates about this series as well as details and excerpts in my newsletter this year, so if you’re not signed up for my newsletter, now is a great time to do so!

If you’re new to my site and haven’t yet checked out the Adele Gossling Mysteries, I encourage you to do that too! Book 1 of that series, The Carnation Murder, is free on all bookseller sites so you lose nothing but picking up a copy. You can find all the links 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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Release Day Blitz for Adelel Gossling Mysteries Box Set: Books 1-3!

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Title: Adele Gossling Mysteries Box Set 1: Books 1-3 (Adele Gossling Mysteries Box 

Series: Adele Gossling Mysteries

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Cozy Mystery

Release Date: November 25, 2023

Can a forward-thinking woman help the police solve crimes in a backward-thinking town?

“Great new series!”

Smart, inquisitive, and a firm believer in Progressive Era reforms, Adele Gossling seeks a new life after the devastating death of her father. She flees San Francisco for the town of Arrojo, planning a life of peace and small pleasures. But both elude her when she and her spiritual sidekick, Nin Branch, get involved in helping the local police solve the case of a dead debutante, a poisoned schoolteacher, and a family matriarch who may or may not have left a generous will.

The Carnation Murder: Adele Gossling has barely been in Arrojo for a week when she discovers her neighbor’s dead body in her gazebo. Can Adele and Nin solve this puzzling case involving a striped carnation, a diamond ring, a note, a muddy pair of boots, and a broken promise?

A Wordless Death: Millie Gibb, the new teacher at the local girl’s school, is found dead and everybody in town assumes the homely, unmarried spinster committed suicide. Can Adele and her clairvoyant friend Nin prove Millie’s death was foul play based on a cigar stub, a letter fragment, and a cigarette lighter before the case is closed for good?

Death at Will: When the affluent Thea Marsh dies unexpectedly, the trail of suspects leads to Thea’s beloved and favored eldest son, Theo. Will Adele make a case against Theo’s guilt for the police out of a stained teacup, a fountain pen nib, ashes that should have been in the fireplace, and daisies that should have been fresh?

Pick up this box set of the first three Adele Gossling Mysteries and immerse yourself in turn-of-the-century Northern California in all its dynamic and chaotic glory for a fun and cozy read!

You can get your copy of this box set at a special price at the following online retailers.


About the Author

Writing has been Tam May’s voice since the age of fourteen. She writes stories set in the past that feature sassy and sensitive women characters. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and features suffragist and epistolary expert Adele Gossling whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with the town’s more conventional ideas about women’s place. She has also written historical fiction about women breaking loose from the social and psychological expectations of their era. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in the Midwest because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting yummy plant-based dishes.


Social Media Links

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Instragram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/tammayauthor/ 

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16111197.Tam_May

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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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