Friday the 13th: Religious, Literary, and Cultural Origins

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I’ve been fascinated by the number 13 since high school when I had a morose phase that included an obsession with Sylvia Plath’s poems. In “Doomsday”, Plath talks about “lunatic thirteens” and the idea of the number thirteen having madness hidden behind it intrigued me.

Photo Credit: Black and white photo of black cat with arched back: BlueGarou/FreeIMG/CC0 

But the legend of Friday the 13th (the day, not the movie) is more innocuous than that. Some of its roots are, interestingly, religious rather than occult. The story of the Last Supper is about a table set for thirteen. According to some sources, the last guest to arrive was Judas who, of course, betrayed Jesus, a betrayal that eventually led to the crucifixion. That led to the idea that the number thirteen is an unlucky number.

Many believe the significance of Friday the 13th is more literary. For example, many authors exploited this idea of the unlucky and even haunted thirteen throughout the years, beginning with Hesiod in 700 BC, who warned farmers not to plant their seeds on the 13th day on the month because they wouldn’t grow. Others who singled out Friday the 13th as a day to watch out for include Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales (1387), where Chaucer hinted trying to start a new journey on the thirteenth wasn’t a good idea, and Thomas Lawson in his novel Friday the Thirteenth (1907), where the plot combined the unluckiness of the day with Progressive Era ideals about corrupt business practices that had to go. Right now, I’m reading M. R. James (said to be the godfather of the ghost story), and one of his stories, “Number 13,” also focuses on the idea of the unlucky number and its relation to the supernatural.

Culture also had a hand in determining the number thirteen as an unlucky number. There are superstitions surrounding the idea of “the thirteenth guest”. There’s even a classic pre-code film by that name that stars a non-dancing Ginger Rogers you can watch on YouTube here. Agatha Christie’s book Lord Edgeware Dies, renamed Thirteen for Dinner when made for TV in 1985, carries this idea of the unlucky thirteen. One of the characters at the dinner mentioned above reminds Hercule Poirot about the superstition that bad things happen to the first person who gets up from a table set for thirteen. When Poirot asks him who did get up first, the young man grins and says, “Me.” Since the story is a murder mystery, you can guess what happens to this dinner guest in the film!

While Friday the 13th doesn’t have its day (no pun intended) in my upcoming release, The Mystery of the Golden Cat, there are plenty of unlucky things that happen on another important day of the year: Labor Day. To read all about it, you can preorder the book 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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For Richer or Poorer: The Gold Standard in America

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As of this writing, America is experiencing the highest inflation rate in 40 years. Inflation shot up from 1.7% in 2020 to about 7% in 2021 and 2022, with the highest rate in 2022 being 9.1% in June! In spite of the fact that we’re shelling out more money at the grocery store (a friend of mine recently reported she spent over $100 on baking supplies for the holidays), the 7% this year is peanuts compared to 1920, when the nation had almost 24% inflation, or after the American Revolution in 1778 when inflation was 30%.

But there is one way to fight inflation: create a gold standard. This is exactly what people in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era did, though the results weren’t favorable to all. The concept of the gold standard is very difficult to explain and for people to wrap their heads around, so bear with me while I try to outline what it is and why it failed.

In 1900, Congress passed the Gold Standard Act which meant the value of American money was tied to the value of gold. Until then, the currency exchange was based on bimetallism (gold and silver). That meant people were able to buy gold or silver coins with paper money, which was to their advantage because these precious metals were much more stable in their value over time, whereas the value of paper money was basically determined by what federal or state officials determined it to be worth. It was also not an international currency (just as today when we can’t use British pounds to do our Walmart shopping in Cleveland) and it wasn’t even always, at that time, transferable from state to state, since states had their own paper money. So if you moved from Vermont to California and tried to cash a $20 Vermont bill in a California bank, you weren’t guaranteed to get the full $20 value of that bill in exchange.

The gold standard also meant silver was no longer an accepted exchange for paper money. People could only buy gold coins. There were a few problems with this. First, gold coins were in limited supply. Second, since gold was valued at the time at about $22.00 an ounce, people needed to shell out $22 in paper money for one ounce of gold ($1 bought them about 25 grams worth of gold). 

Why did people even want to buy gold coins when they paid much more for them with paper money? Why didn’t they just keep the paper money? Because at that time, paper money was very unreliable in terms of value, as I explained above. Also, gold and silver were precious metals and scarce compared to paper money so they were worth more and their worth didn’t fluctuate as much.

The gold standard was such a hot-button issue that this campaign poster for the Republican party (with William McKinley as the presidential nominee and Theodore Roosevelt as the vice-presidential nominee) put the party’s support of the gold standard as the top political issue on their party’s agenda during the campaign.

Photo Credit: Headshots of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt against the American flag for a Republican party campaign poster during the 1900 elections, Library of Congress: Picryl/Public Domain

The gold standard became a major political issue in the Progressive Era because it was tied to class. The poor and working class were usually paid in paper money and used paper money to buy their goods, and since the value of paper money was now tied to the gold standard, they had to pay more for their purchases. For example, if something cost $2 gold coins, they would have to pay $44 in paper money for it. 

Hence, the Populist movement was born. This movement largely consisted of farmers and poor people who wanted to convince congress to go back to the bimetal standard (because silver was valued less than gold and they were able to secure silver coins more easily than gold.) In 1896, the Populists merged with the Democratic party, as the two shared several items on their political agenda such as limiting the number of terms a president could serve and advocating an eight-hour work day, as well as the call for bimetallism. This accumulated in Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan’s moving and rallying “Cross of Gold” speech.  

Bryan ran for president in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era with bimetallism as one of his main themes three times and lost three times. But then, so did the gold standard, eventually. It was withdrawn in the early 1930s by FDR in an effort to combat the Great Depression. From the post-World War II era to the 1970s, the gold standard did make a comeback, but in 1971 Nixon abolished it, both to combat the inflation at the time and to keep foreign governments from buying up American gold supply with their dollars. 

In my upcoming new release, The Mystery of the Golden Cat, the Gold Standard Act is in full force (the book takes place in 1904) and not everyone is happy about it. For one person, it leads indirectly to crime. Though the book comes out at the end of this month, it’s at a special preorder price now, so don’t wait to snag your copy!

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 Theft Made the Mona Lisa Notorious

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The Mona Lisa has been scrutinized and poeticized and theorized for decades, even centuries. It’s probably one of the most famous paintings in all the world, if not the most famous painting. And yet, before the 1910s, it wasn’t that big a deal. Thousands of people had been through the Louvre and caught a glimpse of it in a row with other paintings of similar size. 

It might be a little hard to tell here, but the space on the wall is where the Mona Lisa was discovered missing after the theft. As you can see, the painting was hardly a standout among other paintings at that time. It sat below the massive painting of Paolo Veronese’s The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee (a painting, ironically, that was seized by Napoleon and his men illegally during the Napoleonic wars), which got top billing in the display.

Photo Credit: The Mona Lisa’s vacant place in the Salon Carre after it was stolen in 1911, unknown author, Century Magazine, 1914 February, The Century Company: Meidosensei/Wikimedia Commons/PD anon expired 

So what happened to make the Mona Lisa warrant a wall of her own with a heavy wooden railing and bulletproof glass to protect her? In a word: theft.

Many people aren’t aware the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911. And not by some world-renowned professional gang of thieves or a highly skilled and experienced cat burglar either. It was a working man, an everyday house painter, who walked off with the Mona Lisa.

An Italian immigrant working in France by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa. He had been arrested twice before, once for theft (though he claimed it was a misunderstanding) and once for not having his immigration papers on him. He was highly suspicious of the French, who showed a lot of xenophobia at that time, especially against the Italians, who were the largest immigrant group at that time. There are theories he was psychologically unbalanced due to lead poisoning from the paint he used in his job as a house painter. Yet, he managed to steal the Mona Lisa (painting only – he left the frame on the service stairs of the Louvre) and keep it hidden for two years.

Why he stole it is still a mystery. One theory is that it was an act of patriotism. Tensions were heating up in Europe, especially between France and Germany, and Italy, tensions that would eventually cause the outbreak of WWI in 1914. Peruggia, as mentioned earlier, had been subject to a lot of ridicule and prejudice in France for being Italian. His coworkers had nicknamed him “Macaroni” and he vowed one day to show them just who was a “macaroni.” In addition, the Mona Lisa was painted by an Italian — Leonardo da Vinci — and it was believed at the time France acquired it illegally during the Napoleonic wars when it was known Napoleon and his army would loot a conquered city of its precious artifacts and ship them to France. This story turned out to be untrue (da Vinci left all his works to his assistant, who later sold them to representatives of European monarchs, including the King of France) but maybe Peruggia wanted to believe it to have a reason to steal the painting.

Others surmise it was purely for money. Though the Mona Lisa didn’t have the notoriety it has today, it was still pretty famous and could fetch a cool $5 million at that time by some estimates (today the Mona Lisa is estimated to be worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars.) 

Whatever the reason, this relatively small painting (roughly, 2 1/2 x 2 feet – compare with the Last Supper, which is roughly 15 x 29 feet) became a celebrity of its own after it was discovered missing. Media mayhem ensued and a frantic international search began, though it lasted only a few months. After that, all became quiet until 1913, when the painting showed up and Peruggia was apprehended.

Want the full details of this fascinating crime that didn’t involve murder? I’ll be doing a series of newsletters next month where I’ll be exploring all the ins and outs to celebrate the release of Book 4 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries (which is also about the theft of precious items, though none as precious as the Mona Lisa) on January 28, 2023. If you’re not a subscriber of my newsletter, now is a great time to join and find out all about the Mona Lisa heist. And you’ll get a free book when you do!

And if you’re into thieves and golden cats, check out Book 4, which is now at a special preorder price, here

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A Gilded Age Christmas

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Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with banner and band. 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100 

A few years ago, I did a survey for my newsletter subscribers, asking them questions about what they liked in my newsletters, what they could do without, and what they would like to see in the future. The overwhelming majority loved it when I wrote about holiday traditions in history. I think the holidays are all about traditions, both personal and collective, and we’re interested in what people did in the past because it shapes what we do today. So let’s talk about Christmas in the Gilded Age.

You might recall from my post here that the last quarter of the 19th century was about opulence and flashiness. There was nothing that couldn’t be packaged and sold to the American public, and Christmas was at the top of the list.

German settlers brought the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree with them in the 1830s, but the Gilded Age turned this into something more elaborate. Gilded Agers loved sparkle and shine, and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned decorations of simple popcorn strings and beads, which had been the norm, into displays of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels. Christmas tree ornaments became a commercial enterprise during this time, replacing more modest homemade ornaments.

The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the Gilded Age. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of this era, began producing Christmas cards with a dream in mind. He wanted to create mini lessons in fine art for people on a budget. He saw his cards as artistic achievements even the working class could afford. But Gilded Agers weren’t yet willing to embrace the idea of democratizing fine art. They were, however, happy to make the Christmas card more illustrious and attractive to buyers. Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards fell by the wayside but started a trend where other illustrators produced cheaper variations. Although they weren’t fine art, they were, as this article shows, still quite beautiful.

Gift-giving, which dominates Christmas advertising, became big business in the Gilded Age. Elaborate and expensive gifts were a way to show one’s generosity which, as we know, is part of what Christmas is all about. Wrapping presents was a Gilded Age invention, making gift-giving more exciting. And the kind of wrapping paper that people used mattered. Plain white wrapping paper said something unpleasant about what the giver could afford while elaborate wrapping paper told loved ones the gift came from the “right” places.

Photo Credit: Merry Old Santa Claus, Thomas Nast, 1 January 1881, Harper’s Weekly: Soerfm/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100)

Last, but not least, there’s Santa. We think of Santa as a jovial, white-bearded, and somewhat heavy-set man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. In the 19th century, Santa took on political and social implications. Santa was the glorified symbol of Capitalism with a capital “C”, an authoritative and somewhat mystical figure who held gifts aplenty — for those who deserved them, of course. The deserved ones were judged not by their goodness but by their political beliefs or support of Capitalism.

Want to know more about life in the Gilded Age? Check out my Waxwood Series! You can start immersing yourself in this fascinating era by following the life of a Gilded Age debutante as she unravels the family truths and finds meaning in her life for free 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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Ghosts From the Past: Penelope Alderdice in The Specter

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My historical family saga, the Waxwood Series is about more than just an affluent Nob Hill family coming to grips with the startling changes happening in the last decade of the 19th century. It’s also a story about a Gilded Age family whose lies, half-truths, and myths force every one of its members to change. And it begins not with the current generation but with the previous generation.

It begins with Penelope Alderdice, protagonist Vivian’s grandmother. Penelope, in spite of her old-fashioned name, is one of the most evolutionary characters in the series. When I wrote the novel on which this series was based back in 2014, she wasn’t even a character. When I turned the novel into a family saga, I added the grandparents because, by definition, family sagas tell the story of several generations. I wanted to write a series about generational trauma: The trauma past generations pass down to present and future generations. As this is something I’ve experienced first-hand, the topic is very close to me. I knew Vivian’s story of breaking the cycle would only be meaningful if readers knew where that cycle began. 

Since this post is about grandmothers, I thought I’d show a few photos of my own. The first is my grandmother and grandfather with me in 2011, the year they both passed away. The second is of my great-grandmother (whom many in my family say I resemble in looks and personality). I don’t know when this photo was taken but she died in 1966 so probably sometime in the late 50s or early 60s.

In 2017, I started my newsletter and wanted to give subscribers a free gift for signing up. So I took a scene from the old novel and expanded it into a short story called “After the Funeral”. The plot took place at Penelope Alderdice’s funeral where an uninvited guest claimed to have known “Grace” in her youth, revealing an entirely different person than the Penelope that Vivian knew. As I was developing the books in the series, I realized Penelope’s story had to be expanded into a book. That story became The Specter, the first book of the Waxwood Series.

I realized my earlier mistake in dismissing Penelope as just another Angel in the House. She was, in fact, a much more complex character, emotionally and socially. Her secrets follow Vivian like the ghost in the book’s title. Penelope’s story, which begins about halfway through The Specter, tells of the sort of woman you would expect to see in Gertrude Atherton’s The Californians, a book about  San Francisco’s high society in its infancy in the 1850s and 1860s. Penelope’s upbringing prepares her for her role as the wife of a successful San Francisco businessman, but there is more to her than that. Her one moment of rebellion in 1852 has ramifications for the entire family, past, present, and future.

What those ramifications are, you’ll have to read about in the series. But you can start with The Specter, which has been updated with a new prologue and a better pace (at the request of readers). You can get your hands on it for free here https://tammayauthor.com/books-2/waxwood-series/the-specter-waxwood-series-book-1.

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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