America’s Mini War: The Spanish-American War of 1898

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Today, on Memorial Day, we honor those who fought for our country and the sacrifices they made. We think of war as a big, complex thing — that is, they go on for years and cost many lives. World War I lasted 4 years (though America didn’t get involved until the last year of the war) and World War II lasted six (though, again, America didn’t enter the war until three years after it started). The Vietnam War was even longer and more complex. It began in 1955 and ended in 1975, though American involvement lasted from 1965 to 1973. 

So it’s no wonder many do not remember the war that happened in between the Civil War (1861-1865) and World War I (1914-1918). But its implications and impact resonated for years to come and even today.

Photo Credit: Headline in the New York Journal of Congress declaring war which began the Spanish-American War, 25 April 1898, New York Public Library: Picryl/Creative Commons CC0 1.0

The Spanish-American War stands out in the annals of American history for several reasons. First, it was a very short war. War was officially declared on April 21, 1898, and the fighting ended on August 13, 1898 (though the war itself officially ended four months later). America was involved in this war for financial and humanitarian reasons. The consequences of the war for the United States helped to push the nation toward one of the greatest changes that occurred during the Gilded Age — it hurled the country onto the world stage.

The war involved fighting in Cuba, a colony of Spain at the time. Spanish rule was oppressive to Cuban insurgents, and they had been fighting three years prior. The brutal treatment of the Cubans by the Spanish gained a lot of sympathy in the United States, thanks to the yellow journalism popular at the time. It was very much on the minds of Americans. In Senator North, a novel by Gertrude Atherton published in 1900 but set a bit earlier, shows Washington society discussing the war constantly at their dinner parties and picnics, and outlines some of the great debates going on in the Senate about whether America should or should not enter the war. The thing that pushed America to declare war on Spain was the sinking of the battleship USS Maine, which newspapers played up as having been caused by either mines or torpedoes fired by the Spanish army (though it was never established whether this was really true, or whether it was some kind of technical error having nothing to do with the Spanish). 

A major player in the war was Teddy Roosevelt, who left his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to join in the fighting with a group of soldiers known as the Rough Riders. This short war made Roosevelt a hero and cemented his emerging political career at the turn of the 20th century. The nation ensured independence for Cuba (which helped with political and financial trade) and gained control over the Pacific, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The war also allowed the United States to declare Hawaii its territory (though Hawaii wouldn’t become a state until 1959).

There were relatively few casualties in this war (about two thousand, as compared to 116,000 during World War I, 700,000 in World War II, and 58,000 in the Vietnam War). But those who fought made this little war an important part of American foreign politics and trade.

False Fathers, the second book of my historical coming-of-age series, the Waxwood Series, takes place during the summer of 1898, so the war is very much on the minds of Waxwood’s resort guests. In one scene, Jake and Stevens, a father figure who guides Jake throughout the book on his journey to manhood, are watching Stevens’ cousin Roger and his friends play billiards, and the subject of the Spanish-American War comes up:


The sky grew black, and the sea calmed. The young men played and drank into the night, and Stevens showed no signs of retiring. Jake wanted to leave, but his feet felt cemented int hat room. He listened as their talk moved from college professors and sports to the war in Cuba. 
“We ought to pull out while we can,” said Mr. Harrington. “It’s not worth the lives we’ve already given for it.”
“We’re not there for fancy, boy.” Mr. Trent shot two balls in the left side pocket. “Let Spain and every other country see we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
Mr. McDonaugh cocked his head. “The frontier’s all taken, so what have we left?”
“Virile man conquer virgin territory,” Roger agreed, his words sounding thick.
“We’ve almost won anyway,” said Ivan Morvell. “Not two weeks ago, the Rough Riders—”
“Those braggarts!” Roger snarled. “Posing for the papers like gladiators. And that goose with his mustache and spectacles!”
Stevens jumped up. In the shadow left by two lamp, his indignation was unavoidable. “I suggest you speak about Mr. Roosevelt with respect.”

For these young men who are coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, the war symbolizes the potential for bigger and better things, not only on a national level but on a psychological level for them as young men going out into the world. The idea of power expands both in the public and private spheres. 

The complete Waxwood Series will be out in one box set next month, but feel free to get a head start by grabbing Book 1, The Specter, now. The book is free on all book vendor sites and you can get all the details and 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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The Princess Who Was Never Queen: Princess Ka’iulani

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This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and I always like to talk about the women since minority women don’t get mentioned much, especially in history. An article from Atlas Obscura caught my eye about the history of women surfers. The idea of a princess bringing surfing to Hawaii intrigued me.

But Princess Ka’iulani was much more than a surfer. Her story is a tragic (though not surprising for the Gilded Age) one of a princess who never got to be queen.

To begin with, Princess Ka’iulani was the child of an interracial marriage, which was not as popular or accepted at the time as it is now (a subject I incorporate in Book 7 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries). Her mother was a Hawaiian princess and her father was a Scotland-born businessman who had emigrated to Hawaii as a child. So she was born into royalty with the expectation that she would take her place in the Hawaiian monarchy some day. 

From all accounts, Princess Ka’iulani was an intelligent, and even precocious child. Some described her as “willful” and Princess Ka’iulani referred to herself as a “naughty” girl. Today, we know these to be euphemisms for highly-spirited women who refused to be bound to the separate spheres and asserted themselves as more intelligent and independent than most people thought women ought at the time.

As a teenager, she embarked on a path that would have been typical of wealthier young ladies of the time (royalty or not). She traveled to Europe and received an education in the United Kingdom that would have been expected of an upper-class young lady and especially one from a royal family. In 1891, her uncle (who was King in Hawaii at that time) died, leaving her aunt to inherit the throne. Her aunt, Queen Liliu’okalani, named her as the heir to the throne. 

A very majestic pose for a 17-year-old indeed!

Photo Credit: Princess Ka’iulani, photograph by Elmer Chickering taken in Boston, Massachusetts, 1893, Hawaii State Archives. Picryl/Public Domain

However, in 1893, her entire life changed when she received a telegram that her aunt had been dethroned and a group of American businessmen with financial interests in Hawaii intended to lobby the President to annex Hawaii. With her “willfulness” and “naughtiness”, Princess Ka’iulani returned to the United States, intending to see the president (Grover Cleveland). She released to the press a moving statement regarding her return which proved to be an impressively self-possessing statement coming from a 17-year-old:

I am now told that Mr. Thurston [one of the businessmen who overtook the monarchy] will be in Washington asking you to take away my flag and my throne. No one tells me even this officially. Have I done anything wrong that this wrong should ‘be done to me and my people? I am coming to Washington to plead for my throne, my nation and my flag. Will not the great American people hear me?”

Princess Ka’iulani’s visit was successful, as the American people were indeed moved and President Cleveland listened to her pleas. She managed to stave off this political coup. 

I say “stave off” because, after the Spanish-American War of 1898, Hawaii was annexed and became a U.S. territory. While Hawaii did not become part of the United States until 1959, its status of being a territory did away with the monarchy structure of government which meant Princess Ka’iulani would never become queen. Even sadder, she died just a year later of a weak heart which, some say, was brought on by the shock and disappointment of having her throne and her country taken away from her. She was just twenty-four years old. 

Book 7 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries will be coming out later this year, but for now, if you haven’t delved into this series, I highly recommend you pick up the first book, The Carnation Murder, for free at any online bookstore. The details and links are here

Works Cited:

Fahrni, Jennifer. “Princess Kaiulani: Her Life and Times”. Princess Kai’ulani Project. The Kai’ulani Project. 2006. Web. 10 May 2024.

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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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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Love Hurts: Vinegar Valentines

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I am a huge Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac fan (what can I tell you? I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s). One of the well-known facts about Fleetwood Mac’s bestselling album Rumours is that many of the songs were written in reaction to the multiple break-ups that were happening with the band members at the time. The most famous was between Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. But the other members were also going through their own heartbreak. Christine and John McVie were getting divorced and drummer Mick Fleetwood was separated from his wife at the time. If you’re super curious, read this article for more about how souring relationships influenced this brilliant album.

But giving someone the brush-off via written verse started way before Fleetwood Mac. It dates back to the 19th century with what we now call “vinegar Valentines.”

Photo Credit: Vinegar Valentine: The Suffragette, 1919, John Hopkins University Women’s Suffrage Collection: Special Collections at John Hopkins/Flickr/CC BY NC ND 2.0 DEED

What are vinegar Valentines? We all know Valentine’s Day cards express love and devotion, right? Vinegar Valentines were completely the opposite. These little bombs either told off a past or present suitor or discouraged a would-be suitor from pursuit.

This form of valentine became very popular in the 19th and early 20th century with the rise of the written form in the United States (which is one reason why the protagonist of my Adele Gossling Mysteries series is a stationery store owner and epistolary expert). Since there was no email or text messaging at the time, people communicated through letters, postcards, and other written forms. So Valentine’s Day cards became another form of communication. 

In general, these valentines were meant to be more comic and sassy. However, their message could range from light comedy to downright aggressive. Not surprisingly, many of these vinegar Valentines were sent anonymously so the sender would never suffer the repercussions of his or her vicious message.

Just how bad were they? You can judge for yourself by checking out the slider (about a third of the way down the page) on this page

One of the main targets of these vinegar Valentines was suffragists. Women who fought for the right to vote were, in the eyes of many Victorian men (and, sadly, some women) “unfeminine” and “unwomanly” so who could be more fitting to receive the vinegar message on the day that represents love and courtship (which puts women firmly in the separate spheres) than women who believed they and other women should transcend the barriers of love and marriage?

Thankfully, vinegar Valentines began to fall out of fashion after World War I, and today we rarely see Valentine’s Day cards that are more than mildly annoying in their sense of humor. 

If you want to read how Adele uses her epistolary expertise to help the police of Arrojo solve crimes, look no further than Book 1, The Carnation Murder. It’s free on all bookstore sites! Check out this page for more about the book and links where you can download it.

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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Historical Christmas Traditions

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I recently started teaching English to students from all over the world and one of the things I love to hear from them is about their holiday traditions. I was surprised to hear from a student of mine that she celebrates Christmas in mid-January and her traditions are more focused on the religious aspect of Christmas than gift-giving (although her family exchanges plenty of gifts too!)

In America, Christmas traditions haven’t changed much. Love it or hate it, Christmas in America has been big business since the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were filled with opulence, glamour, and progress. There was nothing that couldn’t be packaged and sold to the American public, and holidays were at the top of the list.

Before the late 19th century, ornaments on the Christmas tree were pretty simple. The tradition of Christmas tree decorations was brought over by German settlers in the 1830s, but Gilded Agers turned it into something much more elaborate. The word “modesty” was not in the vocabulary of the era. Gilded Agers loved sparkle and shine and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned the decorations of simple strings of popcorn and beads of past decades into displays of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels. Christmas tree ornaments became a big commercial enterprise during this time, replacing these homemade ornaments.

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

The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of this era, began producing Christmas cards with a dream in mind: 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 this idea of democratizing fine art was not one Gilded Agers were yet willing to embrace. They were, however, happy to take the idea of the Christmas card and make it more illustrative and attractive to buyers. Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards to art fell by the wayside but it started a trend with other illustrators producing cheaper variations. However, as this article shows, they were still quite beautiful.

The gift-giving that now dominates today’s Christmas commercials on TV and online became big business during this time as well. It was an opportunity to show one’s generosity with elaborate and expensive gifts. Wrapping presents was also a Gilded Age invention, as it fits in with the idea of garnish presentation that characterized the age. Plain white wrapping paper said something unpleasant about what the giver could afford, but 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)

We think of Santa as a jovial and white-bearded man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. But in the early 20th century, Santa had 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 their support of Capitalism.

Why not treat yourself to some fiction from the past that features women who don’t just take the confines of their era lying down? You can start with two free books! The first book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries is free on every online bookstore and so is the first book of my Waxwood Series. You can get  The Carnation Murder here and The Specter 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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