Chaos and Commerce: The Gilded Age

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Big businesses controlled the government in the Gilded Age. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons,” the name given to railroad tycoons (and the businesses that made them possible, such as steel), pictured as bloated bags of money, lording over the tiny mice of the senate. 

Photo Credit: The Bosses of the Senate cartoon, Joseph Ferdinand Keppler. First published in Puck, 23 January 1889, lithograph, colored: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

I’ve been fascinated by the Gilded Age since 2009 when I went back to school for a short time, intending to get a Master’s degree in history, and took a course on the Gilded Age. For some reason, the Gilded Age got buried in the annals of American history in favor of other eras. Most notable were the 1920s, which made a comeback ten years or so ago when the film The Great Gatsby was released, and World War II, which still dominates the bestseller lists in the historical fiction genre.

There is some dispute as to the time frame we know of as the Gilded Age. Most historians and scholars don’t dispute it began in the 1870s. But some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push the end to 1900. For my purposes, because the new century brought about the Progressive Era, I consider 1900 as the stopping point.

The publication of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today in 1873 coined the term. Ironically, the title wasn’t meant as a label for the era but as a tongue-in-cheek dig against it that turned out to be wildly accurate. When we think of the word “gilded” we think of something that is bright and shining but also fake and misleading. With a sharp eye and sardonic humor, Twain and Warner observed what was going on around them and used it as fodder for their fiction. The book, which is actually my favorite of all Twain’s work, depicts various scoundrels, fools, and charlatans who seek success and prosperity by taking advantage of the era’s propensity for “wheeling and dealing” — and getting away with it because the American public was too naive or ignorant or both to see through them (this would be rectified in the Progressive Era). 

What was happening in America was, in the context of the time, understandable. When Twain and Dudley Warner published their book in 1873, America was going through a recession that ended with the Panic of 1873. People were determined to bounce back financially and politically to show the world the United States was anything but finished. Since finance and politics are, let’s face it, inherently dirty, many used dirty methods to do it. Stories of graft, greed, and corruption permeated every corner of American life. Money and commercial interests ruled. In an effort to encourage the kind of economic growth that could rival European markets, America became, as the saying goes, too big for its britches.

This painting represents the kind of gaudy extravagance common with the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Hofball in Wien. Aquarell, Wilhelm Gause, 1900, Historisches Museum de Stadt Wien: Andrew0921/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old)

As many of us know, when Americans have money, they aren’t shy about spending it. All this wheeling and dealing created a new class of aristocrats. Novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about the nouveau riche (people who had recently become wealthy through business rather than inheritance) infiltrating the established societies of big cities like New York and San Francisco where “old money” families dictated what was and wasn’t socially acceptable. The recently launched series The Gilded Age is all about a young woman trying to break into the heavily guarded New York upper class.

The Gilded Age became notorious for the gaudy displays of the socially privileged. The very rich became very extravagant, sometimes ridiculously so, displaying their money and social power even in the face of the growing poverty and working-class resentments that would explode into the unions and reforms of The Progressive Era.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Twain and Warner’s book did not do well when it was published. An important critic of the day, author William Dean Howells, thought it degenerative and disgusting. In the 21st century, the book gives us a new way of looking at social, economic, and political life with an eye toward not repeating the same mistakes (we hope!).

If you’re interested in the Gilded Age, you’ll want to check out my Waxwood Series, a family saga set in the last decade of the 19th century. It’s a great time to do that because I’ve just updated and revised Book 1, The Specter, to make it even better! And you can get it for FREE on all book vendors. For more details, go here.

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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Tragedy and Survival: The Ohlone of California

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Today is Columbus Day, a day many of us in America learned about in school. When I learned about it (I won’t tell you how long ago that was…) teachers only talked about Columbus but not about the people already inhabiting America or about their suffering and their strength. Luckily, we live in much more enlightened times and kids today are also taught that this is also Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a celebration not just of Columbus but also of the Indigenous people who were already on American soil.

Photo Credit: A modern Ohlone family in traditional Ohlone dress, taken 21 February 2-15 and displayed in the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, CA: Noahedits/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

I came across the history of the Ohlone of California after doing research for Book 5 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries (coming out next year). I was interested in Native American tribes that settled specifically in the Bay Area and the Ohlone interested me. Calling the Ohlone a “tribe” is actually incorrect. These people indigenous to the Bay Area actually made up at least fifty tribes with different languages, practices, and cultures. The Ohlone population decreased with rapidity during the years Mexico owned California for several reasons, including infant mortality, plagues, and persecution. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Ohlone population had been reduced by almost ninety percent. 

That was also the time when the already dwindling Ohlone population suffered more tragedies at the hands of the new American government, as California became a state in 1850. Massacres took away more of their people and the government took away much of the land that had been theirs. By the turn of the century, there were less than fifty Ohlone people left and the majority of them lived more of a Mexican than an Ohlone life.

We can be thankful that today, the diverse tribes of the Ohlone have been recognized and the culture of these tribes revitalized and celebrated. 

So happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Amateur Doctors: Forensic Pathology in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

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It’s well known that mourning practices were an art form in the 19th and early 20th centuries. When I did quite a lot of research on mourning for my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, there was no shortage of information. These rituals and fascination with death is the subject of a future blog post.

Indeed, when it came to mourning death, early Americans were experts. But when it came to explaining death, that was a different story. It’s understandable when we think of how uncomfortable any discussion of death makes many of us feel. I have a friend who builds alters to honor the dead, and she’s always saying how difficult it is for her to talk about what she does because she’s afraid of getting into morbid territory and making people squirm. 

Photo Credit: Woman in mourning, carte de visite photograph, 1860s, Nashville, Tennessee: Et0048/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

And yet, in cases where death isn’t obvious (such as from illness or accident), it’s the law (then and now) to investigate the cause to determine if foul play was involved. For this, a medical examiner is called in and a pathologist (who may or may not be the medical examiner) conducts an autopsy on the body. 

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, you couldn’t even say American forensic pathology was in its infancy. More like it was in the womb. The role of the medical examiner was pretty ad hoc and didn’t even officially exist until the 1930s. Examiners were not explicitly trained in pathology and often were local doctors who were good at treating the living but had little experience examining the dead. They were amateurs in pathology, though there’s no doubt many of them did the best they could. 

In addition, medical examiners and pathologists were, like policemen and mayors, government-appointed, and as such, they were subject to the kind of corruption that ran rampant in the 19th and early 20th centuries (until the Progressive movement called for reforms). In other words, these men could be bribed to cover up evidence for various reasons. Maybe the victim was a well-respected citizen of the town and the pathology brought up something that pointed toward a less-than-stellar life the influential family didn’t want to be made public. Or maybe the examination of the victim showed foul play that would require important people to be involved in the case who didn’t want to be involved. The examination might even implicate someone important to the town in a dastardly crime so evidence needs to be covered up or distorted. I’m reading a true crime book right now about the death of a woman in the early 20th century where the writers surmise this is exactly what happened.

Pathology (whatever little of it there was in the early 20th century) plays a role in Book 3 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, though not in a corrupt or gruesome way. A doctor is asked to write out a new death certificate because what looked like an accident proves to be anything but. It was possible to retract the death certificate if further examination suggested otherwise. This is what starts the investigation into Thea Marsh’s death in the book.

Death At Will is coming out at the end of this month, but you can grab your copy now at a special preorder price here. And did you know Book 1 of the series, The Carnation Murder, is now free? Get your copy here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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The Poison With The Pretty Name: Belladonna

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As a mystery writer, I’m always looking for interesting murder weapons. I’m sure the internet gods would be shocked if they saw my browser history with all the research I’ve done on poisons for my books! 

Poison is tricky because it’s easy to give readers the sense of “been there, done that”. When you look at the immense plant life on this planet and how many species are poisonous to humans (about seven hundred out of more than fifty thousand), there just aren’t that many a mystery writer can choose from (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if we’re talking about human life).

Now doesn’t that look like the ripest, plumpest berry you’ve ever seen?

Photo Credit: Tinieder/Depositphotos.com 

The Atropa belladonna has always fascinated me but I didn’t know its history until I started doing research on it for the third book of my series, Death At Will. It is indeed a pretty plant with a pretty name. The typical belladonna has a reddish-blackish berry similar to a cherry and is actually sweet when eaten. This is one of the things that makes it so dangerous, as it isn’t bitter like many poisonous plants. There’s no real indication it’s poisonous when you put it in your mouth.

Interestingly, the belladonna has a long history with the beauty industry (if you can call it that). In the Middle Ages, it was used as a beauty remedy. The juice of the berry made women’s cheeks redder (a sort of precursor to commercial blush powder or cream). Women sometimes rubbed the berry and leaf on their skin as a sort of skin enhancer to give it a blueish tint. Women also used a tincture of berry juice in an eyedropper to dilate their pupils. We can be thankful our ideas of beauty have changed since then!

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the belladonna was used for something else: healing. It might seem odd that poison could be considered medicine but consider we didn’t have the scientific and medical knowledge we have now about plant life nor did we have the synthetic drugs we have now so we had to rely more on Mother Nature. There was also no awareness of the long-term health effects of certain substances (think about arsenic being added to paints and wallpapers of the time). Belladonna plasters (i.e., band-aids with belladonna on them) were thought to help relieve pain and even cure tuberculosis. These plasters were sold in drug stores over the counter, an idea that makes us shudder today.

But in my book, Nin Branch, Adele’s sidekick who also happens to be a skilled herbalist, is well aware of the dangers of the Atropa belladonna. She has an argument with one of the characters about using herbs and plants responsibly or it could lead to disaster (which is pretty much what happens in the book).

Only a little over a month to go until Death At Will comes out! But you can get it here at a special discount on preorder now!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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The Birth of an Art Form: The Kodak Camera

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This Sunday will mark one hundred and thirty-four years since the birth of the Kodak camera. While it’s an interesting fact for us history buffs, I wouldn’t have thought much about its significance except that several years ago, my brother got interested in street photography (as a hobby). Living in San Francisco gave him plenty of subjects, and some of his photographs are pretty amazing. You can view some of them here

So many of us in the 21st century don’t think of photography as an art form and for good reason. Most of us now have access to a camera at our fingertips, from our phones to our computers to other devices we might not even think of (like my iPad mini). It’s so easy for us to just point and shoot that we do it without thinking. It’s not for nothing the word “selfie” was invented some twenty years ago even though the concept of taking a photograph of yourself existed long before that.

In many ways, George Eastman (the inventor of the Kodak camera) is responsible for many of us overlooking the potential of photography as art. In 1888, he did what Ford would do twenty years later with cars: He made cameras affordable and accessible to the general public.

Photo Credit: The original Kodak camera, 1888, Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, National Museum of American History, National Treasures Exhibit: National Museum of American History/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

Before then, having your photograph taken (which didn’t really become a thing until the 19th century) was an ordeal. It required a professional photographer to set up the photograph and people had to stay still for a long time to get the picture. If you’ve ever wondered why people look so serious in 19th-century photographs, part of the reason is that it’s hard to keep smiling for that long while you’re waiting for someone to set up the camera and the picture.

But Eastman’s Kodak changed all that. When people could get their hands on a Brownie camera in the early 20th century, for example (which cost only one dollar then – don’t we wish that were true now!) photography became all the rage. People could take pictures quickly and efficiently (so there was a lot more smiling and spontaneity going on). Of course, they had to wait to get the pictures developed, since photo processing labs in places like drugstores didn’t exist until later. People had to send the camera with the film to the Kodak company for development and were sent back the camera with a new roll of empty film along with the developed pictures. 

This was when photography began to get more attention. Photographers like Alfred Stiegler and Walter Evans set the standard in the early 20th century for documentary-style photographic art that captured life in America as people lived it. One of the more famous examples of this was photographer Dorothea Lange, whose documentation of the realities of the Great Depression left its mark in its brutal depiction of life during economic hardship (and makes us shudder when we look at them today, given the more recent post-pandemic economic downturn). 

New inventions characterized the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (as I mentioned in this blog post about the invention of the automobile) and people viewed them with more excitement than we do now. When Missy Grace, the editor and reporter of Arrojo’s only newspaper in my Adele Gossling Mysteries, shows up with her camera, people are all abuzz. She manages to even tame a group of schoolgirls in Book 1 with her camera!

You can read about that in Book 1 here. And don’t forget that Book 2 is also available and Book 3 is now up for preorder!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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