The Spanish Lady and the Mexican Spitfire: Hispanic Heritage Month


Today is the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month and cause for celebration! 

I’ve been watching a lot of silent films from the 1920s lately as research for a new historical cozy mystery series I’ll be working on next year and launching in 2025 (keep an eye out for more on that in the future). I’ve found classic films to be one of the best means of getting a sense of the atmosphere and everyday life from those eras.

I was pleased to find that Hispanic actors and actresses did exist during this early Hollywood era. Even more interesting, two Hispanic women dominated the screen during the 1920s and early 1930s, presenting two very different, and sometimes controversial, images of Latina women during this time. 

Photo Credit: Dolores Del Rio, 1927, gelatin silver print, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute: Intellectualpropri/Wikimedia Commons/CC-Zero (public domain)

Photo Credit: Lupe Velez in Sailors Beware, 1927: Mahar27777/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

Dolores Del Rio came from Mexican aristocracy and was dubbed “The Spanish Lady” in the press. Her roles in this early period of Hollywood often centered around dignified and refined ladies of Hispanic origin. She blended the acceptable behavior of elegant women with a touch of exoticism that audiences loved. But during the 1940s, her roles grew more stereotypical and it was harder for her to control her scripts and how her Latina characters were portrayed. She abandoned Hollywood and went back to Mexico and became a very successful film star in the Mexican cinema.

Lupe Velez was completely the opposite. Nicknamed “The Mexican Spitfire,” she wasn’t afraid to present herself as the hot and sexy Latina lady who said what she felt, shrugged off conventions, and even yelled and screamed when the situation called for it, both on screen and off. Audiences loved her vivacious and high-spirited personality and her Mexican Spitfire comedies were a big hit with audiences. Her life ended tragically in the mid-1940s when rejected by her fiance, she took her own life.

Today many critics dismiss Del Rio as having played into the hands of white producers and directors in an Anglo version of “the Spanish lady” and Velez for having played the stereotype of the uncontrollable Mexican woman. But it’s important to remember that in the 1920s and 1930s, the Hispanic community was very much isolated and ostracized. For Hispanic women especially, there were few opportunities to see themselves represented by Hispanic actresses. Dolores Del Rio and Lupe Velez gave voice to the existence of the Latina-American woman not only in film but in real life. 

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!


Early 20th Century Circus Gals: Brave and Tough


March is always a special month for me. For one, it’s my birthday month, and for another, it’s Women’s History Month. As a historical fiction writer whose passion is writing about strong women living in the past, I find that rather fateful.

Since Book 5 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries is coming out next month and the book focuses on murder at the circus, I thought it would be fun to take a look at women circus performers of the 19th and 20th centuries. What I discovered was a handful of women who had more guts than their male counterparts. They were brave and resilient and not ladies you’d want to mess with.

Probably one of the most well-known of these was Lillian Leitzel. She was an aerialist who worked with a rope or brass rings, very similar to what Gina Lollobrigida does in this scene in the 1956 film Trapeze. The aerial rope requires a lot of strength in both the legs and arms and Leitzel would wow the crowds by spinning around so hard she would dislocate her shoulder at nearly every performance. In spite of this, she kept on going, sometimes for a hundred rounds or more. Her act brought in millions and, like many circus stars who knew their worth, she commanded top dollar, including luxuries such as her own tent and her own private railroad car. Like many circus women, she believed in suffragism, advocating for women’s athletics at a time when women were thought to be “too delicate” for physical activity. She was also not a fan of corsets and believed women should have freedom of movement (not surprising, given her circus background). Sadly, Leitzel went the way of many daredevil circus stars. While doing a handstand on a brass ring during a performance in the 1930s, the brass ring broke and she fell on her head from twenty feet in the air, dying of a concussion the next day.

When we think of lions, tigers, and cougars in the circus, we think of the big, manly man as their tamer (there is actually a character like this in Murder Under a Twilight Roof). But there were a small handful of women who tamed cats as well. In 1911, Mabel Stark became the first woman tamer of big cats. One of the thrills of her act was wrestling with one of her lions. She was once asked how she did it and she advised that training cats required a subtle and soft tone of voice and, above all, never showing fear. It obviously worked, as her death was not caused by the mauling of one of her cats. However, it was tragic nonetheless. In the late 1930s, one of her cats escaped and was shot down. She was said to have been very devoted to them and the grief was too much for her so she took her own life.

Photo Credit: Lillian Leitzel (standing on the running board) and May Wirth (sitting behind the wheel), 1924, National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

If we’re talking about bravery with animals, how about May Wirth? She was an equestrian who did somersaults and flips from one horse to another while circling the ring. She was one of the Ringling Brothers’ early stars and when she first auditioned by doing a somersault while riding a horse, she fell and landed on her back. But as all circus women, she was resilient and got up, went right back on the horse, and did it again, this time succeeding. Unlike many circus daredevils, Wirth’s life did not end in tragedy. She simply retired, still in one piece, and lived a quiet life until her death in 1937.

My book Murder Under a Twilight Roof features many daring women, including a trapeze flyer, a tightrope walker, and three sisters who handle three mighty big elephants. You can read about them and about murder at the circus in April when the book comes out, but copies are now available 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!


The Man Who Brought Down Al Capone


Did you know May is National Mystery Month? 

Today, May 4, marks a milestone in American criminal history. On this day in 1931, one of the most ruthless and famous crime bosses of the Prohibition Era, Al Capone, began serving his 11-year prison sentence for tax evasion.

America has always had a bee up its bonnet about liquor and in some ways, still does (I live in a county that was a “dry” county — i.e., no selling liquor within county lines — until 1999). Temperance was high on the list of reforms during the Progressive Era. After World War I, the nation’s government decided to do something about it. So in 1919, the Volstead Act was passed, prohibiting the making and selling of liquor in America. In 1920, the Prohibition Era kicked off in America, bringing with it the birth of the gangster, the speakeasy, and the Tommy gun. It also marked the most violent era in criminal history in America.

I meant to write this blog post about the criminal (Al Capone). But digging deeper into the history of Prohibition law enforcement, I became more fascinated by the crime fighters than the criminal. Because there was a team of crimefighters that brought down Capone and they were led by one man: Eliot Ness. 

Photo Credit: Eliot Ness, 1933, retouched: Melesse/Wikimedia Common/PD US government

Ness worked for the federal government and he and his men had a reputation for being smart, heroic, and incorruptible (no mean feat during this era). He worked for the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) department which put the fight to enforce anti-liquor laws right up his alley. In 1930, his department paired with the U.S. Department of Justice and Treasury in the fight against violent crimes in America which had reached their peak. That year was also Hoover’s declaration of war against the gangsters largely responsible for those crimes. At the head of the list was Al Capone, who had risen to fame as Chicago’s kingpin and evaded every criminal accusation made against him.

The message was clear: get Al Capone on something, anything. Agents worked several angles, including the (obviously) prohibition violation angle and the income tax evasion angle. In the end, the treasury won. Though Ness and his team managed to get enough evidence together to bring forth thousands of prohibition violations against Capone, the kingpin eventually was sent to jail not for the many people he had killed and the violence he and his gang instigated but for avoiding his income taxes.

Why was Capone found guilty of tax evasion rather than prohibition violations (those charges were eventually dropped?) One theory is prosecutors were afraid the jury would find Capone not guilty of the violation charges because, frankly, everybody hated prohibition, and many saw gangsters that fought against it as heroes rather than criminals. Tax evasion, though, was a different matter. Most citizens weren’t sympathetic to those who didn’t pay their taxes (just as we are today). Keep in mind Hoover’s orders: get Al Capone on anything. 

Still, Ness made his mark in history. In fact, he was so well known during this era that in that same year, cartoonist Chester Gould created a tough-talking, smart private eye who would become an icon in detective fiction. 

Come meet the crime fighters of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, starting with Book 1, The Carnation Murder, which is out now and at 99¢ (though not for much longer!) You can get all the details about the book Barnes & Noble chose for their Top Indie Favorites list here

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