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 Murder That Inspired a TV Cult Classic

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Last month, I wrote this blog post about the fascinating unsolved case of Hazel Drew and how it inspired The Case of the Dead Domestic, Book 6 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries.

It turns out my book wasn’t the only creative endeavor inspired by the Hazel Drew case. A more unexpected connection exists between a cult classic TV show that aired in 1990 and this unsolved crime that occurred back in 1908. 

Photo credit: Photo of co-creator David Lynch and actor Kyle MacLachlan at the premiere of Season 3 of Twin Peaks, 21 May 2017, Ace Hotel, Los Angeles, CA: Esprus4/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0

I remember the huge success of Twin Peaks back in the early 1990s, though I never saw the series myself. But there was something fascinating about a beautiful blond teenager found floating in a lake in a small town and the psychologically complex story that unfolds for the detective sent to solve her murder. If some of these elements sound familiar, it’s because they are. The Hazel Drew case unfolded in much the same way — with the body of a lovely young woman found dead in a lake near a small town.

Mark Frost, the co-creator of the series, came onto the story of Hazel Drew in a much more organic way than I did. As a boy, he used to spend summers with his grandmother near the Taborton area where Hazel Drew’s murder took place. He heard of Drew not as a murder victim but as a ghost. His grandmother used to entertain him and his younger brother by telling them ghost stories about the ghost of Hazel Drew who still roamed Teal Pond,  using it as a cautionary tale for the boys not to go wandering in the isolated area at night.

The story seems to have gone the way that most childhood ghost stories do until the adult Frost was brainstorming ideas for a TV series with David Lynch in an L.A. coffee shop. They suddenly had a vision of a beautiful blond girl found floating face down in a lake. This brought to Frost’s mind the stories he had heard as a child about Hazel Drew and thus, the character of Laura Palmer was born. Frost’s further investigations into the Hazel Drew case led to the plot of the series that was such a hit thirty years ago.

My fascination with the Hazel Drew case came from factors other than Twin Peaks. First, it’s an unsolved crime (in spite of recent theories about who might have killed her) and thus, Hazel Drew’s death hasn’t yet been avenged, which suits my protagonist Adele Gossling perfectly, since her purpose in solving crimes is to make sure women, dead or alive, receive justice. Second, it’s a classic crime that occurred at the turn of the 20th century, which feeds my love for the era. And third, the murder victim was as complex as the murder itself (which I talk more about in my blog post on the case). 

Book 6 of the series has just been released, so you can get it 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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Family and Servant: Domestic Relationships in Upstairs, Downstairs

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When I first conceived the idea of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, I wanted to know what life was like in the first years of the early 20th century. I knew my first book, The Carnation Murder, was going to involve an aristocratic family, so I went in search of anything (books, movies, etc) that portrayed life among the aristocracy. I stumbled upon a series that, although it takes place in Britain, mirrors the life wealthy Americans would have lived during this time. I immediately fell in love with it.

Photo Credit: Jean Marsh, who co-created and starred in Upstairs, Downstairs at a signing at the Broadway Theater in Barking, East London, cropped, 12 December 2009, taken by Tim Drury: Rhain/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.0

Photo Credit: Dame Eileen Atkins, co-creator of Upstairs, Downstairs, reciting poetry at the British Library, 7 October 2021, The Josephine Hart American Poets Hour: Starkinson/ Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 3.0

The British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs was the brain-child of two veteran British actresses: Jean Marsh and Dame Eileen Atkins. The two women were dismayed when they watched an earlier British drama The Forsyte Saga (from 1967, not the 2002 mini-series), and realized the series never portrayed the life of the servants who played such a major role in the Forsyte family members’ lives. They wanted to make a comic series set during a time when the class hierarchy was still pronounced in Britain about the troubles and turmoils of those who worked for these aristocratic families – the “downstairs”.

However, when the series was sold, the production company that bought it changed a few things. First, they decided the series should portray not just the downstairs but also the “upstairs,” or, the aristocratic family for which the servants in the series worked (the Bellamys). Second, they decided to take the comedy out of the series and make it more of a drama along the lines of The Forsyte Saga, which had aired four years before the launch of Upstairs, Downstairs in 1971.

One of the fascinating things about this series is that you see how life in the early 20th century (the series ends in 1930) wasn’t easy for either masters and mistresses or servants. Aside from the modern conveniences both had to do without (even though the Bellamys were wealthy so money was no object), the social expectations for both were sometimes difficult to manage.

The pilot episode shows this beautifully, though more from the “downstairs” point of view. Right from the first scene, we see a young woman (played by Pauline Collins) who comes to the house to interview for a position as a maid make the social faux pas of the century — she knocks on the front door. The butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson), his expression one of stoic rage, motions for her to descend the stairs and come through the kitchen entrance and then chews her out for not knocking on the proper door. It’s clear the young woman has never worked in service before, something the other servants, even more than the lady of the house, grumble about. In fact, Lady Marjorie Bellamy (Rachel Gurney) is more sympathetic to the nervous young lady — until it comes to her name. The young lady gives her name as Clemence — a rather “uppity” French name. Lady Marjorie immediately changes it to Sarah and insists she be called by this name. This was actually not uncommon, as mistresses oftentimes either changed the names of their servants or they simply couldn’t be bothered to remember their name so they called them by the name of a former servant they had become used to.

Sarah ends up leaving service quite early in the series (though she does return later on) because, after getting a taste of not only the physical harsh labor but the social and psychological humiliation as well, insists on something better for herself. Members of the family feel the constraints of their social position as well, though in different ways. We see this with the father (whose background is respectable but whose aristocratic standing comes from his wife, and his Parlament peers never let him forget it), the son (whose military position doesn’t always suit his tastes), and the mother and daughter (both of whom suffocate under the constraints of the separate spheres so heavily cherished, especially in Britain, during this time).

Sometimes research can be really fun, and I was lucky enough to catch this series when it was on Netflix in its entirety. It served me well for my upcoming release, The Case of the Dead Domestic, which involves the death of a lady’s maid and the divide between the wealthy of Arrojo and the working class. The book comes out at the end of this month but feel free to pick up a copy now at a special preorder price 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 History of Forensic Ballistics

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I am not much for guns. I was actually taught how to shoot an M-16 and an Uzi gun during my army service in Israel but I was more interested in getting rid of all the bullets so I could get off the rifle range as fast as possible. I could care less if I hit the target or not. 

However, guns are sometimes essential when writing mysteries. That said, there has never been a death from a gun in my Adele Gossling Mysteries. But Book 6 does include murder by gunshot, so that required me to include a ballistics expert in the story.

When I was doing revisions for the book, I became concerned I might be including something that in 1906 (when the book takes place) didn’t yet exist. When things come up in the plot that I didn’t anticipate in the first draft, I tend to write first and do research later (just to get the entire draft written). Ballistics is a fairly new field, right? So maybe in the early 20th century, there were no ballistics experts.

It turns out this was far from true. Forensic ballistics, or, firearm fingerprinting, existed as early as 1835 when in England, police were able to match the bullet in a victim’s body with a bullet mold made by a suspect. Thirty years later, police in England were also able to identify wadding (before cartridges were in use) of a newspaper found in a suspect’s home which helped to convict him. 

In the early days, firearm fingerprinting was easier because guns and bullets tended to be handmade by the person who owned them or by a gunsmith whose unique style could be traced. But in the 19th century, men like Samuel Colt began manufacturing guns and bullets so it became harder to identify a bullet found in a victim with a specific firearm. So forensic ballistics had to become more sophisticated.

Calvin Goddard was the man called in to help the police examine the firearms used in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. He invented a compound microscope earlier in the decade that could do a side-by-side comparison of bullets. His aid helped answer some questions about this mass murder.

Photo Credit: Calvin Hooker Goddard, from an interview given to The Washington Star on 28 July 1931: Wvdp/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

And it did — with the use of the microscope. In the 1920s, the comparative microscope was invented which could place a bullet alongside one recovered from the victim and compare the grooves to identify it as matching or not matching. This comparative microscope was used to help convict those responsible for the infamous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.

Read about how a ballistic expert helps Adele and the police solve the murder of a lady’s maid in my upcoming book, The Case of the Dead Domestic. You can order it for a special preorder price at your favorite online bookstore 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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