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History | VRChristensen


Poking around in the archives

archives-departementales-de-la-haute-loire.-magasins_imgI don’t know when I’ve had so much fun. And yes, I know that makes me sound like a geek. And I’m OK with that.

There were a few things I knew when I bought my house. Mostly things I’d learned from hearsay. I knew that my house had been owned by a woman named Evelyn Day. She was my neighbor, after all. (We rented a house nearby for a year or so.) I had never met her, but I do remember walking by and waving hello. I do that, it seems. I remember sneaking a peek, while her foyer light was on, into the house through the window in her front door. I wanted to know what it looked like inside. I wanted one of those grand old Sutherlin houses, or perhaps one on Holbrook, so bad it hurt. I had been told, after I bought it, and from a local old house and history expert, that the house had been owned by that family for perhaps a 100 years, but that he did not believe they had built it. He believed, in fact, that they had purchased it in the teens, maybe 1917. He suggested I go down to the archives to find out. Only I couldn’t quite remember just where I needed to go. To the courthouse? To City Hall? And, having just moved in, I had a million other things to do. I put it off.

But then the local Historical Society had that same expert come and speak on just how to do it. It was noted, while I was at the meeting, that I had very little work to do since everyone knew that the Days had always owned the house. With such conflicting information, I was understandably confused. Shortly after that, a very wonderful and generous neighbor brought me some photographs he had. I don’t know how he came by them. Perhaps, like me, he found them at the estate sale. I had picked one photograph up myself, though I don’t know who it was of. He had evidently asked around and had been told that the photographs were of  a mother and daughter, who had both lived in the house, and that they had been the only family to live here.

Day pic 1 Day pic 3 Day pic 2

(Elsie Saunders Day (?) left, Evelyn Day center, a photo I bought at the estate sale right)

With so many conflicting stories, I was curious, and so I headed down to the Circuit Court Clerk’s office, where the archives are kept. Now I was in for a treat, I’m telling you, because not only was I going to look through records, but I was actually going to physically handle THE records. Meaning all the deed books are there for people to look through, complete with indexes and maps. The actual books. Not microfilm. Not photocopies. Not digitized images. No. But the books, however old they may be. I gave myself two hours to search, and within and hour, I’d found everything I needed.

Now whether that first very knowledgeable gentleman told me they had bought it around 1917 or if that was just the date I fixed arbitrarily into my skull, there’s no telling. But I had found a cancelled check when we had excavated the fireplace in the bathroom. The check was dated 1915, so I had begun to wonder. Sure enough, searching back, I found where H. Fenton Day, the man to whom the former owner of the house, Mrs. Evelyn Day, had been married, had inherited the house from his mother, Elsie Saunders Day, her husband Henry F. having died in 1954. The will was dated November 1959. Now with deeds, you search for what you know and you go back. In my case, the last three deeds (the ones indicating the foreclosure, and then the sale to us) were listed on the tax records. Along with it was the will’s document number. And from there the trail ended. Each deed will list the document before it, usually another deed, so they are quite easy to search, but the will lists no other documents. Fortunately the indexes are easy to use, and so I was quickly on the trail again. Cole advert

The true story!

In September of 1915, Elsie Saunders Day bought the house from Oliver W. and Annie Bell Cole for $7,200. Interestingly, the deed stated “this conveyance includes the Mills Range now installed in the kitchen of said dwelling house, and all heating fixtures and appliances.” I’ve tried to search for an image of such a stove, but so far have had no luck. I looked up Mr. Cole in the directory and found an advertisement for his photography studio in the 1906 directory. He did indeed live at 134 Sutherlin.

Cole bought the property in August of 1904 from P.F. Conway and his wife, Maggie B. “a married woman holding separate property.” Mr. Cole sold the house for $5,000. It seemed, however, that Mr. Conway did a great deal of real estate transacting in the area, and so I wanted to be sure that he actually lived in the house and, possibly, built it. The next deed took me to a man named Robert Brydon. In that deed it states that Brydon sold the property in October of 1896 for $1,000 cash “All that certain lot of land situated in the city of Danville…” Then it goes on to give the lot description. No building or improvement is mentioned. I know the house was built in 1897. A plaque near the front door says so. In December of 1897 there is another deed, in which Mr. Conway grants the property, “all that certain lot or parcel of ground together with the improvements thereon and the appertanances thereunto belonging….” to his wife “in consideration of ten dollars paid by said Maggie B. Conway, and of the natural love and affection he bears to said…” So it looks like he bought the property, built the house, and gave it to her. They lived in it, it seems, from the time it was built until Cole bought it. I found them, too, in the directory for the years 1898-1899. And doing a little more digging, found reference to him in two books on local history, Virginia: Rebirth of the Old Dominion and Men of Mark in Virginia.

Powhatan Fitzhugh Conway

PF Conway

Mr. Conway was born 11 Nov 1867 near Danville. He attended public school, but he was not a robust child and so was forced to quit his education early. Upon leaving shool in 1886 at the age of 17, he commenced work as a solicitor and collector for Messrs Bass, Brown & Lee, who, at the time, had the largest coal, wood and manufacturing business in Danville. He worked there for four years, until 1890, when he formed a partnership with F.L. Walker to start their own business dealing in the same. Six years later (1896) they bought Bass, Brown and Lee, consolidating with Anderson & co and incorporating as Danville Lumber & Manufacturing co. It grew to be a large firm, over which Conway served as chief executive and genral manager. They had an “extensive line of millwork, including interior trim, sash, doors, frames, molding, blinds and other materials.” Conway served as vice president of the Masonic Building Corp, which erected the handsome Masonic Temple on the corner of Main and S Union Streets.

On Feb 14, 1893 at Richmond, VA, he married Maggie Bradford Brown of Richmond. She was educated at Danville College for Young Women. She died Apr 2 1925. They had one daughter Margaret (Moore).

Digging around a bit more, I discovered that Mr. Conway bought the two lots east of mine at about the same time, built houses on them and sold them. In 1903 he bought two lots to the west of mine and built houses there. At one point they lived in a house on Main street, in which there was a fire that caused considerable damage. My next research project is to learn which houses he built and how many of them there are. It does make me happy to know he was such a big part of Danville’s development.

So now I know the history of my house, and, as history does, makes me feel like I am a part of something important. And this house will something significant once again. That I’m truly looking forward to.





The Mystery of Mary Rogers

Mary Rogers and her mother, Phoebe, arrived in New York in 1837. For the first few months of their residence, they lived with a gentleman named John Anderson, who owned a tobacconist shop. Anderson employed Mary and there she earned a sort of celebrity. She was universally considered a striking beauty and had many admirers, all of which, of course, were pleased to buy tobacco from Mr. Anderson. The hiring of attractive shopgirls was a common practice in Europe. It was still considered rather indecent in the US. Still, Mary needed the work, and Anderson paid her well to maintain her post safely behind the shop’s counter.

In October of 1838, Mary disappeared. Her mother found a note on her dressing table which bid her “an affectionate and final farewell.” It was speculated that she had been disappointed in love. She had recently had a suitor, it was said, who had deserted her, and some believed she had gone with the intention of taking her own life. Others speculated she had eloped. A search party was organised, but Mary returned on her own, some say a few hours later, others claim it was a matter of weeks. The following day, the motivation of suicide was reported to have been a hoax, and that the letter had either never existed, or had been written by someone with an eye toward mischief. When exactly Mary returned, it is unknown, but it is known that it was a matter of a few weeks before she returned to work. Anderson, naturally, was quite worried for her. Some say he made a public plea for her to come home. His interest in the family, and the true nature of his relationship with them, is a point of interest to those who study the mystery today.

In time, talk of Mary’s disappearance and subsequent return quieted, and she continued her work at Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium. In 1839, having come into a little money, she and her mother purchased a boarding house and she left Anderson’s shop. Here Mary was once more beset with suitors, two of which being Alfred Crommelin, a polite gentleman with good manners and elegant bearing, and Daniel Payne, a cork cutter, who was known to be hot tempered and inclined to drink very heavily, even by the standards of the day. Both gentlemen were lodgers in the boarding house.

By June of 1841 Payne was recognised as Mary’s preferred suitor. Crommelin returned to the boarding house one evening to find Payne and Mary engaged in “unseemly intimacies”. He rebuked Payne for his ungentlemanly behavior and quit the house for good. Before going, he apologised to Mary for the step he was taking and begged her to remember him if she should everfind herself in trouble. And then he was gone.

In July Mary disappeared a second time.

According to reports, Mary arose before dawn on 25 July 1841, helped to prepare breakfast for her mother’s lodgers and attended her various morning chores. Shortly before ten o’clock she knocked at Payne’s room and she informed him, through the half open door, that she was going to visit her aunt, Mrs. Downing, who lived fifteen minutes away by omnibus. It was her plan to return in the early evening, and she wished for Payne to meet her so that he might escort her safely home.

A few days earlier, according to some reports, Mary had been persuaded by her mother to break off her engagement to Payne. That same day,  Crommelin received a note asking him to call at the boarding house. When he arrived at his office, he found a second note, written on a chalk slate. Despite her summons, and the romantic intentions implied by the red rose she left in his keyhole, Crommelin did not go to the boarding house again.

Payne, on the day of Mary’s visit to her aunt, kept himself busy by visiting his brother, a market, a tavern then an eating house before going home to take a long nap. He arose in the evening and went to meet Mary, and only then realised the omnibus did not run on Sunday. An approaching storm soon drove him back home, where he decided Mary must spend the night at her aunt’s.

The following morning, Mrs. Rogers was in great anxiety, for Mary had not returned home. Payne was not yet worried, and so went to work, but when he returned at lunchtime, and finding Phoebe in an even more anxious state and Mary still not at home, he went then to the aunt’s house to discover that Mary had never arrived there. Nor had the aunt ever expected her. He posted an ad in the paper giving Mary’s full description, and then returned to the boarding house, where Mary’s mother was now in a state of lethargy.

On Tuesday, Payne went to a tavern on Duane Street, where Mary was said to have passed several hours, but upon arriving there he found the description did not match Mary’s at all. From there he went to the ferry launch at Barclay street which crossed the Hudson to Hoboken, where he asked several strangers, and stopped at a few homes along the way to find out if Mary had been seen there. He then wandered on toward Elysia Fields, where he continued to make inquiries

Crommelin was now aware of Mary’s disappearance, but took no action until Wednesday when he was shown the missing person’s report that Payne had put in the paper. He hurried to the boarding house, where he found Phoebe, glassy eyed and in a state of mourning, and Payne standing at her side. Crommelin, then began a search of his own, retracing the steps Payne had taken the day before, going to Hoboken, and then to Elysian Fields.

While he was searching Hoboken, a body was found floating in the river. Two men in a rowboat towed it to land and the body was pulled ashore. Crommelin pushed his way through the crowd to see it. What he saw must have shocked him a great deal. He certainly could not have recognised her by her face. To identify her, he ripped open a portion of her sleeve and examined the hair on her arm. This, evidently providing ample proof, he declared it to be Mary Rogers, then crouched protectively over the body until the crowd dispersed and an official was called to the scene.

Dr. Richard H. Cook, the New Jersey coroner, was the first to arrive. It was a hot July day, and the condition of the remains threatened to deteriorate further as her body veritably consumed itself in the heat. When at last the justice of the peace appeared on the scene, the body was removed to a nearby building and the autopsy was performed. The face he examined was suffused with bruised blood. She had clearly been beaten, and there was no foam in her mouth or lungs. This was no drowning victim. On her neck, he observed deep bruising in the shape and approximate size of a man’s hand. As he examined the marks more closely, he found that a piece of lace was tied so tightly around her throat that it had embedded itself into her skin. He had not so much as seen it, but felt the knot which was situated just behind her ear. The undergarments of her clothes were found in disarray, and, upon closer examination, he found evidence of bruising and abrasions in the “feminine region”. He concluded she had been raped by no fewer than three assailants. Her arms had been positioned as if her wrists had been tied together, and the abrasions caused by the tethers seemed to indicate she had tried to raise her hands to her mouth. A loop of linen was found tied loosely about her neck, as if it had been used as a sort of gag. These strips had been torn from her own clothes, which matched precisely the description of those last seen upon Mary Rogers. What’s more, a foot wide strip of fabric had been torn from her petticoat and wrapped around the body to form a sort of hitch to aid in the carrying of the corpse. Her hat had been tied on her head with a sailor’s not, rather than the typical knot tied by a lady, suggesting it had been replaced by her assailant or someone connected with the crime, before her body was thrown in the river.

About the time the autopsy began, one of the men, H.G. Luther, who had pulled the body from the water, arrived at Mrs. Roger’s home to deliver the news. Payne was there, standing protectively by her side. They received the news with apparent indifference. Perhaps it was resignation. But the lack of emotion was curious to Luther. Even more curious, Payne took no action that night. It was still early. He might easily have gone to Hoboken. He might have hoped to add a second witness to the identification of the body. He might have gone with a hope of finding that Crommelin had been mistaken. He stayed at home with Mrs. Rogers.

In the time it took for the officials of New Jersey and New York to decide who would take responsibility for investigating the death of Mary Rogers, rumors and speculations began to fly from every direction. For a time it was believed Mary had fallen into the hands of one of the many and notorious gangs that frequented the Hoboken area. Others were certain it was one of her jilted lovers. Some felt it wasn’t Mary at all, supported by the belief that a body that was in the water for no more than three days could not have decomposed to such an extent, or even, for that matter, risen to the surface.

Of course Payne and Crommelin were suspects. Payne’s alibi, at least for the first few days of Mary’s disappearance, were solid. He had been with his brother, had frequented taverns and eating places, and witnesses could attest to his being there. Crommelin, too, was a suspect, but as he had been so outspoken and proactive in finding her, and then in discovering the killer, it seemed impossible it could be him.

And then, on the 25th of August, as two boys were hunting for sassafras bark in a thicket in the woods near Weehawken, some articles of clothing were found. Among them was a petticoat, an umbrella, a silk scarf and a handkerchief with M.R. embroidered upon it. The boys took the articles to their mother, the owner of a nearby tavern, who put them away, and then, a day later, took them to the police. Frederica Loss’s tavern was very near, and often frequented by those who visited, Elysian fields. Mrs. Loss, upon being questioned, remembered, if rather belatedly, that a young woman of Mary’s description had been seen at her establishment. She had been accompanied by a young man of ‘swarthy complexion’, and went on to describe Mary’s attire and appearance exactly. Mrs. Loss told police that a short time after the couple left, she heard screams issuing from the area of the thicket. She thought it was her son, whom she had sent out again, but he returned a short time later unharmed.

The discovery of the ‘murder thicket’ raised as many questions as it answered, however. It was so close, and so overgrown, that a person could only enter it on hands and knees. There were many footprints about, the clothing found had been caught on brambles, had mildewed and been overgrown with grass. If the path to the tavern was so well travelled as to give Mrs. Loss a steady flow of customers from Elysian Fields, how was it possible the articles were never seen before? How was it possible, through the July and August rains, that the footprints still remained? Was it likely a man would attempt a murder so nearby the tavern, a mere 400 yards away?

It was suggested by some that Mrs. Loss had planted the articles there herself. The truth of this is impossible to know, but she certainly enjoyed a brisk business after the discovery, for there were many who came to get a glimpse of the place for themselves.

Payne was one of them, but he got no pleasure from viewing the scene. At ten o’clock on October 7, he arrived at a nearby tavern, where he ordered a drink and announced, “I’m the man that was promised to Mary Rogers. I’m a man in a great deal of trouble.” It seems he left the tavern and arrived at the thicket with a bottle of laudanum in hand. Upon entering the thicket, he drank it down and crushed the bottle against a rock. Two hours later he was found dead with a note in his pocket. “To the World—Here I am on the spot; God forgive me for my misfortune in my misspent time.” There was also a bundle of papers in his pocket. What they contained was never revealed. It is assumed by most, that they contained nothing of import. At the time, the silence of the investigators on the subject aroused a great deal of speculation.

Poe, eager for the same success he had experienced with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, found an opportunity to employ his deductive reasoning skills, or, as he preferred to call it, ratiocination. C. Auguste Dupin was called into action again, and this time, he bragged, would perform the feat of solving the mystery from his armchair and by using only the newspapers for his source. How accurately anyone can determine a true cause of a crime from newspapers is beyond me. Sensational journalism is not factual reporting by a long shot, as I mean to prove in an upcoming post. (Link to come.)

What Poe did manage to convince his readers of, was that the murderer had acted alone. Why else would he need the aid of the ‘hitch’ found tied around Marie’s waist.  He also connected Mary’s first disappearance with her first, suggesting that the sailor with which she had meant to elope the first time, had returned from sea. He also went on to suggest that perhaps a falling out had occurred, and the romance ended, instead, in tragedy.

But that wasn’t the conclusion his readers received.

Poe’s manuscript was some 20,000 words in length, and so it was published in three parts. At this point two of the three had been published. The third promised to “indicate the assassin.” But it had not yet hit the presses when the New York Tribune published headlines that read “THE MARY ROGERS MYSTERY EXPLAINED.”

Indeed, new evidence had arisen that blew all of Poe’s theories out of the water. He revised the third part to sort of indicate he knew the solution all along. All it succeeded in doing was muddying the waters of his ‘ratiocinating’. He ends by telling his reader that Dupin has solved the mystery, that all will soon know it, but for the sake of justice and respect for the police, he will leave them to tell the tale. Years later he would take another stab at realligning his solution with that which was soon to be the commonly accepted one. He added passages and footnotes that, for the first time, showed a direct relation to Mary Rogers. He also added a caveat, that he might have been better prepared to solve the mystery had he been in New York, and not had to rely on the papers, a complete reversal of his earlier boastings of the skill of a detective who could solve a mystery from his armchair.

So what was the evidence that reduced Poe’s Marie Roget into inconclusive and muddled literary nonsense?

On November 1, 1842, Police arrived at Nick Moore’s Tavern in Weehawken to discover that Mrs. Loss had been accidentally shot by one of her sons, who was later heard to remark, “The great secret will come out.” What was that secret? For some time, it seemed, Mrs. Loss had been under the attention of the investigative police in connection with a famous abortionist named Madame Restell, whose services were advertised in huge, prepaid advertisements published on the back of every paper in town. Her money was not spent at the papers’ alone, but to the police as well, who arrested her on several occasions, but always released her again. Perhaps her habit of paying her $10,000 bail money in cash (and with an extra $1,000 as a tip) helped her some.

Though Madame Restell was somewhat protected by the police, she was considered an enemy to the people, and to society at large . Giving birth alone came with incredible risks. Add to that poisons, unctions of curious make, unsanitised instruments, the mortality rate was astounding. Mary’s body was not the first to be pulled from the Hudson river, merely the most famous. She had so far been lauded as a chaste, respectable maiden. What was she now? That Madame Restell was a millionaire with a brownstone mansion only attested to how sought after were her skills. Sad to think what combination of circumstances would have driven these women to seek her services.

But Madam Restell was rather expensive. Who did you go to if you could not afford her? Why she would refer you to some of the other foetocidal houses in the city, those who charged less and were less proficient in their trades.

The conclusion of Mary’s mystery was accepted by most. It provides a not quite tidy solution. Mary’s mother seemed to have known that when Mary left she was going to her death. It would explain her stoicism upon the news that Mary’s body had been found. She had gone to have an abortion. Had it been a success, she would have returned already. It explains why Mary went to Crommelin to begin with. It was said she went to him to exchange a boarder’s IOU for money. A sum of some fifty dollars. If Payne were the father, it might explain his apparent guilt at her death. It might explain why Crommelin was hesitant to help her. Perhaps she meant, by leaving the rose in the keyhole, that she might marry him instead, were he to help her. Perhaps his not giving her the money was the reason she went to Mrs. Loss rather than Madame Restell.

But if this soon to be accepted solution provided answers to these questions, it left many more unanswered. If she had died at the hands of an abortionist, what need had they for a garote to strangle her? Why was she so violenty beaten and strangled? Was it to disguise what had really happened? Or was it a combination of the two? Had she gone to have the abortion? Had it been a success? Had she met Payne and refused to marry him. Had he killed her? Or had she died under Mrs. Loss’s roof after all? No one, it seems, will ever really know. They Mystery of Mary Rogers, remains, and will likely always remain, a mystery.

Edgar Allan Poe and the beginning of Crime Reporting (Stateside)

Over on Goodreads we’re having a discussion about Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin Mysteries. Some really interesting discussion has been going on there, and the question of the history of Crime reporting and detective novels came up. Last October, during my Poe-athon, I bought, but did not read, “The Beautiful Cigar Girl” by Daniel Stashower. As I’ve already read the Dupin Mysteries, I decided it was time to read “The Beautiful Cigar Girl”. This is one riveting book, and I highly recommend it if you are a fan of Poe or even of murder mystery and reporting.

I find it interesting that the subtitle of the book is “Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder.” Also on my soon to be read list is Judith Flanders’ most recent book, “The Invention of Murder.” It’s an intriguing premise if you think about it. Murder was not invented in the Victorian era, but, rather, the reporting and sensationalising of it was. What does this have to do with Poe’s Dupin Mysteries? And how do they influence the detective novels that followed, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes? The answers are in Stashower’s book, and for the sake of the current discussion going on at Goodreads, I’m making an attempt to roughly delineate them here.

In 1825 “The Kentucky Tragedy” went to trial. Known as the Beauchamp-Sharp murder case, it involved a young woman, Ann Cooke, who was seduced and cast aside by Colonel Solomon P. Sharp, solicitor general of Kentucky. She had his child and then turned to another suitor, Jeroboam O. Beauchamp, whom she agreed to marry if he would avenge her honor. Sharp would not agree to a duel and so Beauchamp, donning a disguise, stabbed him to death. Beuchamp received a death sentence and on the eve of his execution, Ann joined him in his cell where they both attempted suicide by poison and self inflicted stabbing. She died that night. He lived long enough to be hanged.

The story inspired many people to write about it, including Poe, who, finding it the stuff of Shakespearian drama, placed it in an Italian setting and began to serialise it. It was not received well, and when a close friend advised him he would do better staging his stories in France, Poe abandoned the story.

At the time, Poe was editing and writing for <i>The Messenger</i>. His best pieces were generally considered to be literary criticism. One of these he criticised, and quite soundly was a book called <i>Norman Leslie</i> by Theodore Faye.  Faye had taken his story from sensationalised and highly pulicised Manhattan Well Murder in 1800, which was said to have been the first recorded murder trial in US history.

The Manhattan Well Murder involved the murder of a young woman named Gulielma Sands, who disappeared on the evening of 22 December 1799 after telling her cousin that she and her fiance, Levi Weeks, were to be secretly married. Two days later, some of her belongings were found near Manhattan Well in Lispernard Meadows, known as SoHo today. On 2 January, her body was recovered from the well. Weeks, who had been seen with Gulielma the night of her murder, and who, on the Sunday previous, had been seen taking measurements of the well, was the chief suspect. The trial was held on 31 March and 1 April, 1800, and after five minutes of deliberation, Weeks was acquitted.

Poe called Fay’s work “the most inestimable piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or villainously insulted.”

The book, as was the trial so many years before, had proved quite popular with readers, and Poe’s criticism, which was usually respected, was met on this occasion with vehement disapproval on this occasion.

Though the Manhattan Well Murder was the first to be reported, the first efforts in crime and investigated reporting are generally attributed to James Gordon Bennett. Working as a reporter for the Enquirer, Bennet covered a sensational murder trial in Salem, Mass, of a retired sea captain, Joseph White, who had been murdered in his bed. (Incidentally, some say this story inspired Poe’s the Telltale Heart.) The state attorney general, however, issued a set of restrictions forbidding any further investigative reporting on the case. Of course Bennett, who felt (or at least declared) that he was performing a public service, was outraged.

Six years later, in 1836, when another sensational murder was in the public’s attention, Bennett, now the owner of his own very successful newspaper, seized upon the opportunity to advance the cause of journalism by “discovering and encouraging the popular taste for vicarious vice and crime.” Helen Jewett was a prostitute savagely murdered with an axe and then set fire to. Polite society was shocked by the very detailed reports which appeared in Bennett’s paper. No other paper felt the subject fit for print. Bennett felt otherwise. As he proclaimed when he was refused his right to report upon the murder in Salem, “It is an old, worm-eaten Gothic dogma of Courts to consider the publicity given to every event by the Press as destructive to the interest of law and justice. . . . The press is the living Jury of the nation.”

The man wanted to sell papers, in my opinion, and that was all. Neither did he limit his reporting to fact. Though he did visit the murder scenes, though he did dig into the histories of the victims and suspects, he often took an opposing course to those who, realising the profits the Herald was making, followed in his footsteps and covered the trial as well. When the murderer was discovered, and his conviction sure, Bennett took the opposing view (no doubt with a mind to sell a few more papers) and declared the suspect innocent. Enough of his readership sympathised with Bennett’s version of the murder’s story, that he walked free, though Bennett himself later admitted to believing in the man’s guilt.

In 1840 Poe was working for <i>Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine</i>, for which he wrote and published “The Man of the Crowd”, which took up, as “Politan” had, the workings of the criminal mind, and in which, using the art of deduction, the narrator reads the histories of passers by from observing the minutest details in their appearances.

In 1841, Poe exercised his literary exercises in deductive reasoning once again in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and drew (for perhaps the first time) a great deal of positive notice. However, a handful of reviewers pointed out “there could be no great skill in presenting a solution to a mystery of the author’s own devising.” Poe understood that the effect of the story was accomplished by his having written it backwards. The idea of unraveling a web which he himself had woven troubled even him. He wanted to be the detective himself, and to apply these powers of deductive reasoning on a real case. The story by which he would find such an outlet was unraveling as he pondered upon this problem, and the fact that it was already the most sensational murder in U.S. history provided him with an already certain audience.

Mary Rogers was already a celebrity when her body was pulled from the Hudson River on 28 July 1841. Having worked for some time behind the counter at Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium, she was well known to much of the city as the beautiful cigar girl. Posters were made of her and she was very much admired.

If the case of Mary Rogers was fodder for Poe, it was also fodder for Bennett, who took up the case as his symbol for moral reform. But as he’d already set the pattern for investigative and sensational crime reporting, so did others, and the murder of Mary Rogers became an instant sensation.

As the murdered woman was from New York, and the body found in New Jersey, weeks went by before any real investigations occurred. In the mean time, theories were bandied about between the papers. Bennett began reporting about the incompetency of the men of law in both New York and New Jersey, and it was largely owing to him that the necessary money was raised to pay the investigators and to offer a reward for finding the murderer. Still the case stagnated, and when, months later, the unsolved case seemed to have been very nearly forgotten, Poe put pen to paper, once more revived C. August Dupin, and attempted to solve the crime for himself, using his own genius and powers of deductive reasoning  and relocating the story into that French setting he was so expert creating.

What was Poe’s conclusion? The present version of “The Mystery of Marie Roget” does not give it. Poe seems to have ramped himself up to some grand revelation and then omitted it. In truth, Poe’s conclusion was wrong. What is the true story of Mary Roger’s death? Well, I’m only half way through the “Beautiful Cigar Girl”, and the discussion of the story on Goodreads has not yet begun, and so, perhaps, I’ll save the details of her murder for next week.

And they lived happily ever after . . .

…or not.


While I read a lot of non-fiction books about the Victorian era, I spend as much time, if not more, in fiction contemporary to the era, Dickens, Meredith, Hardy, Eliot (etc., etc., etc.) Here I get a real feel for what it was like to live then. I get the atmosphere and the nuances of language and setting that it’s hard to get in non-fiction (with perhaps the notable exception of Judith Flanders and Gillian Gill, who seem to write their non fiction works as engagingly as the best authors write their prose.)

The sad fact is, however, that when it comes to writing weddings, fiction is an infertile crop. There’s nothing there. Weddings are mentioned briefly, or described as something that took place. We hear of the befores and afters, and then there is a blank … wherein we are meant, I suppose, to assume that the honeymoon took place and the maiden emerges a bride like a butterfly from it’s cocoon. But I wonder how often that was truly the case, particularly when women, by and large, were ignorant of the facts of life, while men were oft times all too familiar. Of course it is the common argument that a woman having grown up on a farm understood the laws of reproductive science. This may or may not be true. It was certainly not the case for Hardy’s Tess, and I have to wonder if the average Victorian maiden would even have supposed that the way of animals was the way of humans when the lights were out and clothes were off. Or, in Tess’s case … well, you get my point.


A young woman, dreaming of married life, preparing herself for it, turned to the many etiquette guides available and read advice columns on how to keep a house and how to be a good wife in all matters publicly observable. But on the actual ceremonies (formal and informal) of being married, here again we find a lack of useful information. And, more often than not, these etiquette guides provide a great deal of room for argument. They are not, after all, records of what people did, but a guideline of what the ideal situation should call for.

So then, what exactly was involved in the average Victorian wedding? If, indeed, there ever existed such a thing.

From the point of proposal, the parents granting consent, a date being set, legal and financial matters having been decided, the first thing to be done was to announce the intentions of the couple to the local clergyman. According to The Marriage Act of 1753, the couple must have the announcement published (by banns) for three consecutive weeks. If the couple lived in different parishes, the banns must be read in both parishes. The marriage must be performed by an Anglican clergyman and both parties, unless given consent by a parent or guardian, must be 21. (Of course the laws changed throughout Victoria’s reign, and by mid-century there were allowances for other faiths, as well as for secular marriages. I should consequently note that this is not a concise guide, simply an idea of what it might have been like for the ‘average’ couple. If, once again, there was such a thing.)

In Regency literature we often hear of ‘special licenses’ which were rather expensive and implied a certain amount of haste to the union. They were also so prohibitively expensive that they were reserved for those of high rank and connection. A respectable Victorian, however, had a third option. An ordinary license, at a cost of £2 2s 6d.  What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, (which is an entertaining read, if not actually very scholarly, as it lumps the Victorian and the Regency eras together) quotes a mid-century etiquette manual as saying: ‘Marriage by banns is confined to the poorest classes, and a license is generally obtained by those who aspire to the “habits of good society.’

There is much more to all this than I have time for here, but for a more detailed outline of the laws governing marriage look here and here.  And also at Jennifer Phegley’s thoroughly concise book Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England. (I’ve also relied heavily on Mary Lyndon Shanley’s Feminism, Marriage and the Law in Victorian England, and on the a reprinted book The Married Women’s Property Act, 1882)

In an age where waste was thing to be avoided at all costs, the bride’s dress was either chosen from the very best of that which she already owned, or it was bought special with the idea of being worn again. Victoria herself set the trend for wearing white at her own wedding in 1840, but it was hardly a universal custom even fifty years later.

The service, assuming it was an Anglican service, was read from the Book of Common Prayer. (For an example of how just such a wedding might play out, see here. WARNING, SHAMELESS PLUG.)

And at last we come to that crucial element: the kissing of the bride! Did it, or did it not take place within a Victorian wedding ceremony? Well, the jury is out, and believe me, I’ve done my research. The following is from the 1873 publication, The Bazaar Book of Decorum. The Care of the Person, Manners, Etiquette, and Ceremonials.

When the ceremony is over, the question sometimes arises whether the bride is to be kissed by the bridegroom. We should leave its decision to the instinct of affection were we not solemnly warned by a portentous authority on deportment that “the practice is decidedly to be avoided; it is never followed by people in the best society. A bridegroom with any tact will take care that this is known to his wife, since any disappointment of expectations would be a breach of good breeding.” The bride is congratulated by all her friends in the church, and elderly relatives will kiss her in congratulations: This is, of course, now settled beyond all peradventure of doubt by the fact that, according to the same authority, “The queen was kissed by the Duke of Sussex, but not by Prince Albert.”


This is one of those cases where I find the etiquette guide rife with opportunity for argument. For example, as it states, in 1873, “the question sometimes arises.” So evidently there was room for this question to be asked. Is it done, or isn’t it? Which implies some see it done, or hear of it’s being done, (wish for it to be done?) have wondered if it should be done, and from other sources have heard that it is a practice to be avoided. To me this only proves that it is hardly an established rule. And the idea that the matter should be discussed beforehand leaves me simply reeling with ideas for plots. Can you imagine it? Cecil asks of Lucy, “My dear, do you think I might be allowed a kiss at the end of the ceremony?” “Why Cecil, upon the completion of the ceremony I am yours to do with what you will.” Ok, yes, that’s just my mind running rampant on the subject, (and perhaps A Room With a View does not provide the best characters from which to draw. The story, I’m sure, would be quite different were it George rather than Cecil, who’d no doubt take advantage of an impulsive moment, whether Lucy, or the crowd, objected or not. [And yes, I am aware Forrester is Edwardian and not Victorian.]) At any rate, the mere suggestion that there should be a discussion beforehand, and that the bride might be disappointed, only leads me to suspect there were as many ceremonial kisses as there were not.

I also find it interesting that the example of the Queen was used. (Note that the author did not cite said ‘portentous authority’.) The Queen was married some thirty years previous. Did that mean, then, that Victoria’s example was only just catching on if the question was still being raised in 1873? Neither was Victoria the prude we like to think her. Her marriage was as much a marriage of state as it was romance. Also they were neither of them showy people when it came to their own sentiments. It’s also noted that her uncle (Augustus, Duke of Sussex) kissed her. Not entirely sure he’s a reliable foundation upon which to set a pattern of appropriate social behavior, but… ok.

And what of the honeymoon? Well, literature is simply bursting with examples of these post-wedding conjugal trips, are they not? Er…maybe not. Once again, turning to Jennifer Phegley, she cites a rather cynical work entitled, How to Be Happy Though Married.

You take … a man and a woman, who in nine cases out of ten know very little about each other (though they generally fancy they do), you cut off the woman from all her female friends, you deprive the man of his ordinary business and ordinary pleasures, and you condemn this unhappy pair to spend a month of enforced seclusion in each other’s society. If they marry in the summer and start on tour the man is oppressed with the plethora of sight-seeing while the lady, as often as not, becomes seriously ill from fatigue and excitement.

Not a very pretty picture, is it? And it is not so difficult for me to imagine what it was like for a very innocent wife to be suddenly educated in the ways of married life. For the innocent, I imagine it was rather a shock. For the not so innocent, it might actually be traumatic, particularly if the man is inexperienced with inexperienced women, or inexperienced himself, or not quite certain how to merge his carnal impulses, heretofore deemed evil, with those of wholesome family life.

Yes, the Victorians were complicated. Roll your eyes if you will, but I relate to them, and I admire them in my way.


But here, perhaps, is where it might be best to take the Queen’s example, after all. She may not have taken much of a wedding holiday, but she made the most of her time. From what we understand of her now, related in Gillian Gill’s gripping We Two, she was no shrinking violet when it came to matters of conjugal romance. In fact she might very well have taken the lead. At least we understand, from trustworthy accounts, and by the number of children they had (which she would rather not have had) they had a very healthy love life.

Personally speaking, I like to think that the general silence on the subject was out of respect of the union and not because they were all fumbling around in their bed clothes.

But then I’m an idealist.

So, what do I do when there is such a lack of reliable information to draw from? How do I write these weddings and newlywed scenes? All I can do is try to strike a balance between what I deem would be appropriate to the situation and what my modern day readers would want. And really . . . a wedding without a kiss? Are you kidding me?







Why it matters

The Charge of the Light Brigade

We’ve all heard the axiom that those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it. And so we study our history lessons and believe our teachers and know with everything that is in us that we would never allow another dictator to take control of us, to kill millions, to tell us what to think and believe and love and hate. We know the dates. We know the names and places. We have seen, in black and white, the atrocities. And yet, for those of us who did not live during WWII, it’s a very difficult thing to understand how humanity can ever have come to that. We cannot look within a man’s mind and know with any certainty what it was he was truly thinking when he devised his plan–if it came all at once or by degrees. It is impossible to know exactly what it was that made him feel so strongly and how he was able to influence so many to agree with his philosophies. Just what was it that got us there in the first place?

Was it possible that WWII all started because of an innocent case of English xenophobia? Was it simply because the common Englishman could not abide the thought of a German king? It’s sort of a reversal of thought, isn’t it? An irony. And yet it’s just possible.

Victoria, herself, was of German stock. It was only because her mother had the foresight to keep her in England, near her more powerful English relations (though they had turned their back on her) that Victoria was considered truly English. Albert was Victoria’s first cousin, a Prince of Belgium, and the nephew of the man who had once expected to sit on the English throne himself. Leopold trained Albert to be the perfect King. And he endeavoured to be. In fact he worked himself quite literally to death designing exhibitions and art museums, promoting technology and invention, trying to figure out the best mode of avoiding war with this nation or that, enlightening the people and educating the common man. By bringing prosperity, security and power to a nation made greater by his influence. And still his subjects despised him. They would give him no glory, no honour. They did not trust him. They could not. He was a foreigner.

Victoria and Albert’s eldest daughter had married Prince Frederick of Prussia. It was a political alliance, though amicable. Their union was meant to unite the ever changing (and consequently unstable) German state. The only problem was that Vickie was as despised in Prussia as her father had been in England, yet young Vickie and her husband had both been trained in international politics and diplomacy. Had they the power to influence political opinion, they might have shaped a peaceful future for all Western nations for generation to come.

They had that opportunity, too. In 1862, the Prussian legislature opposed William I’s plans for his army. In response, the Prussian King wrote a statement of abdication. Frederick need only have signed the document to become king. But he didn’t. William ruled for a further 17 years, and in that time instilled in his grandchildren a violent hatred of all things English. Young Wilhelm was taught to despise his English grandmother, and in fact to blame her for much of the evil of the day.

Had Albert had the strength to bear through one more year, he would certainly have advised Frederick to accept the throne and, by a sort of partnership, or mentorship, perhaps, the Prussian political landscape would have been steered along paths of peace and mutual prosperity. And, perhaps more importantly, the infant Kaiser would have been reared in love and with an understanding of the good and peaceful intentions of his English relations. Instead he became a warmonger, determined to own all of Europe and to control it for himself. WWI ensued, and the War to End All Wars ended not in victory and defeat, but in an armistice and sanctions so strict and oppressive they created an atmosphere ripe for the rise of yet another tyrannical leader, more powerful and far madder than the last.

It is speculation, of course, that Albert’s prolonged life would have absolutely prevented WWI and the suffering and violence and unconscionable waste that followed. And yet the story (presented brilliantly by Gillian Gill in her book We Two) does serve as a lesson to me in my private dealings with my fellow men.

Is not Society, after all, nothing more than the sum total of individual choices?

As I said, it is impossible to know what truly went through the minds of these people. That is where the narrative biographer, or, just perhaps, the historical fiction author takes over.

First Afghan War 1842

Although none of my books deal with actual historical figures, they are no less true. I write of what I know, of conflict of unhappiness and struggle. Of joys and victories. Of obstacles. Circumstantially, we live in a world entirely different from those who lived a hundred years before. We have wireless devices and unrestrictive clothing, laws that deem us (mostly) equal. And yet the same emotional struggles define our lives. We are no freer of responsibility than our predecessors, even if we choose to ignore the consequences. Laws and society do not limit us in the same way they once did, and yet we are a society of addicts and debtors and dependents. We say we are more compassionate, and yet we still have our prejudices, our hatreds and intolerances, just the same as those before us. We still have poverty, we still have desease. We are so smart…and yet remain so unwise.

I’m not very good at memorising dates and events. When I do my research it all goes into binders and files and blog posts and I have to turn to it again and again. And yet when I pick up a book with a good narrative, whether it be Non fiction or fiction, and the author allows me to truly engage with those events, even if they are merely events of attitude and societal cannon, I become engaged, I remember. The wisdom of those who came before me is retained. And I learn. I feel. I cease to judge.

To gain wisdom from another person’s knowledge is a blessing. Much better than learning by personal experience. And whether I am reading it or writing it, I’ve learned to consider Historical Fiction one of the greatest of gifts. It is a powerful tool for learning of past events and social climates, of attitudes and philosophies in a way I can truly relate to and engage in. It allows me to compare past circumstances to my own. To compare, even, past lives to my own.

History is the story of us. It has relevance and importance. It has meaning. And it matters.

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Regarding Annie
Regarding Annie
The Bath Novels of Lady A~
The Bath Novels of Lady A~

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