Arsenic has been known as a poison for millennia. It was so commonly used during the Victorian Age it was called inheritance powder. (Seriously.) It occurs in nature and contaminates water and foodstuffs. (New Mexico has the dubious distinction of having high levels in their water and rice is particularly susceptible to absorbing arsenic.) A slightly sweet odorless and colorless powder, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning mimic cholera or some kind of intestinal distress. It has been used as a cause of death by many many mystery authors.

Women in the Elizabethan era used it in a paste to whiten their complexions. Of course it was absorbed through the skin and a lifetime of use must have meant serious health complications. (Talk about dying for fashion.)

What interests me, though, are the inadvertent poisonings. Napoleon’s hair was shown to have very high levels of arsenic. Was he poisoned by his nearest and dearest while on Elba? What about King George III, the so-called mad King who reigned during the Colonial period and Revolution? He had porphyria, a blood disease that results in dark urine and extreme sensitivity to the sun. (Some scholars think that porphyria was the original seed of the vampire legends.) Well, when they tested King George’s hair, it too displayed high levels of arsenic. Was he poisoned?

They were both probably poisoned by environmental factors. As that time a beautiful emerald green was all the rage for wallpaper. When George Washington built his house he ordered rooms papered in this fashionable color. The problem is that beautiful color was created by arsenic and in damp or humid weather the arsenic came out of the paper into the air. Instant poisoning.


Demon Rum – and sugar

There is no rum without sugar (this is true for any alcoholic drink). Prior to the Revolutionary War most people drank rum or hard cider. Sailors were paid partly in rum. The early settlers, however, drank it in a punch or toddy. Early on, rum was distilled in the Caribbean where sugar was grown. Then it made sense for the rum to be distilled where the prime market was – New England. By the mid-1700s, though, most rum was made, and made more cheaply too, in New England. Many fortunes were made by this rum and I’ve read that one of those fortunes was made by. the Kennedy family.

But I digress.

What were some of the consequences of this cheap and easily obtainable rum?

Well, sugar is very labor intensive so the cultivation of sugar resulted in a tremendous need for slaves and was one of the big drivers of the slave trade.

Second, sugar exhausts the soil quickly so planters had to keep finding new land. This was certainly a big reason for the push for plantations and slavery westward.

Third, Americans drank more than ever. ‘Demon Rum’ became one of the many names for rum, leading to the temperance movement and to Prohibition with all of its associated crime and other problems.

And yes, although many New Englanders were abolitionists, New England profited hugely from the trade. New England ships brought slaves to the New World. New England ships brought sugar north. And New England ships brought codfish south for the slaves to eat.

Rum drinking declined after the Revolutionary War since rye was grown in the frontier – then around Pittsburgh – and distilled into whiskey. Of course, that came with its own set of problems.

Sugar is still grown in Louisiana and Domino has a big presence there. (Their factory looks abandoned – broken windows and shabby exterior.) In Louisiana there are two plantings a year.

How much sugar do we consume now? Well, in the early 1700s, a few pounds or less might be ingested by the average person per year. In 1999, the peak of sugar consumption, it was 111 grams a day, just about half a pound a day.  In 2016, that dropped to 94 grams a day. Soda is one culprit but actually sugar and high fructose corn syrup is in just about everything.

And what about rum? Well, by Prohibition, although rum was castigated as the ‘demon’, most people were drinking whiskey. Rum’s big day had already passed. And in a weird twist, New Englanders again made fortunes by becoming ‘rumrunners’, making available alcohol during Prohibition.

And it all started with sugar.


Dental care in the late 18th century

First of all, there were no dentists perse. There were surgeon dentists since the people who practiced did both. (Most were men but in 1797 the Columbian Centinel lists an ad from Mrs. Dodge, newly arrived in Boston from New York and claiming expertise in “Art Dental”.) Most of these so-called dentists were itinerants (like my traveling weaver Will Rees.) Not only service people like Rees and the dentists traveled but also ministers, magistrates and other professions. The routes began to settle into regular circuits by about 1800.

But I digress.

Many of these surgeon-dentists were quacks, promising all manner of cures. Some were reputable, however, promoting dentrifice (that’s toothpaste to us) and genuinely possessing some kind of medical training.

So what did these early dentists do?

Well, without novacaine and the drills we take for granted, dentistry was a painful affair. Some reputable surgeon dentists ‘plumbed’ the teeth, scraping out the decay and filling the tooth with gold or lead. (I can only imagine how awful this must have been.) Most decayed teeth were simply extracted with a tool that resembles a corkscrew with a hook on one end. Teeth, by the way, were not pulled but drawn. Interestingly, in light of current knowledge on how dental health affects the entire body, doctors of that time already predicted one’s health would improve with good teeth. No less a personage than Dr. Rush, a Philadelphia doctor who gained fame during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793, predicted cures for several diseases once a rotten tooth was pulled. It was a case of overreach, however, since not only rheumatism would be relieved but also such ailments as epilepsy.

What about George Washington’s wooden teeth? First of all they weren’t wooden. They were ivory (carved at various times from elephant and hippo teeth,) Washington’s first set were carved of ivory with human teeth inserted and with a hole for his one remaining molar. Sounds awkward and painful both.

And while we are on teeth, Napoleon’s Josephine learned to smile with one hand shielding her mouth since several of her front teeth were decayed. As a child she had a great fondness for sugar cane.

Better lives for women

I tend to think of the 1700s as static in terms of women’s lives but of course it wasn’t. Although Colonial women spent significant time spinning, weaving (if they had a loom) and making candles, as the century wore on households transitioned from frontier living where everything had to be made in-house to a time where necessities could be purchased. Of course the coastal cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston enjoyed a higher standard of living even before the Revolution. Clothing or fabric, furniture and other luxuries were imported from England and the daughters of affluent households, well staffed with servants and/or slaves, had no need to use the wheel. They did ‘fancy’ work: embroidery of other decorative needlework.

But I digress.

By the late 1700s even rural communities, even in Maine, had access to items which could be purchased – such as dress goods – that would make a woman’s life easier. (Salem with its fast merchant ships and ties to the Orient, imported cloth of all kinds from cotton muslin to silk, cashmere shawls from India and more. Some of these goods made it away from the coasts. It is no surprise to learn that Salem at this time was the wealthiest city in the United States.) Labor could be hired to help in the fields and in the house. Will Rees, traveling weaver, was not the only (male) weaver who went from house to house plying his trade. (Women weavers were bound to their homes.) Spinners could also be hired, Usually widows or unmarried daughters in a large family, these women would spin for an agreed upon price.

But what about the frontier women. The frontier continued to push west and, by the late 1790’s, was pushing past Pittsburgh. Contemporary observers of Pittsburgh were vastly critical of the dirty streets, through which hogs ran unheeded. Most of the houses were wood or frame, but brick was beginning to take over. Glass for windows was imported at large expense. For women, moving to town no matter how dirty, made their lives less arduous. Tasks could be given over to the candlemakers, the washerwomen, dressmakers and shoemakers. Galatin (an important figure during the Whiskey Rebellion) was a weaver. By 1807 there were six professional bakers. In fact, by the 1800’s, the wealthy began building mansions outside of town and Pittsbugh began offering social and cultural opportunities.

The frontier had moved west to Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois.

Child Soldiers


In an interesting juxtaposition of events, I just finished reading Boy Soldiers of the Revolutionary War by Caroline Cox at the same time I saw The Fifth Wave. (I think I have read way too many books and seen too many movies like this – I found the plot predictable. But I digress.)
Anyway, both had as core ideas the use of children in war.

According to Cox, some boys enlisted in the Continental Army as young as nine. You read that right – nine. Admittedly, they became drummers and fifers and quite a few entered the army with fathers or older brothers.  Cox reminds the reader that all children were well accustomed to hard work then and that even toddlers might be put to collecting wood or other chores.

Cox researched pension documents to confirm the existence of these boy soldiers. From their testimonies, the officers were more concerned with the physical strength of these boys than any  moral concerns about putting children into war. Even though the musket was lighter than it had been (due in advances in the technology of bullet making) ten pounds still had to be carried. The soldiers also had to forage for food and were significantly more at risk of dying from disease than from any actual fighting.

What I found so interesting were the actual reasons for enlisting. In some cases patriotism was the reason but usually enlisting was prompted from more pragmatic reasons. Boys ran away from strict fathers, stepfathers and masters to whom they were apprenticed. In some cases, the father or master who could choose someone to serve in their stead chose the boy. (Can you imagine?) In some cases impoverished and/or orphaned boys joined because they had nothing else and at least they would be fed. For many of them, the army became their family. Not all served as drummers or fifers either.

One of my favorite stories involves a boy who joined the Patriot cause while his father served on the Loyalist side. Conversation at supper must have been wild. The father finally compelled the boy to desert the Continental Army and join the British but when the father was killed in battle the boy returned to the Continental Army.

By the War of 1812, opinions about child development had changed. Boys 18 and older were permitted to enlist and the age of majority had been set at 21. Although some boys accompanied their fathers into the army, they usually served as servants more than soldiers.

WritingTools – 1700s

My first book, A Simple Murder, was written entirely in longhand on lined paper. I can tell you, writing in this way takes a long long time. And the finished product still has to be put onto a computer (unless one wants to type on a typewriter and that’s assuming one can even find such a tool now.)

So, for my second boo, Death of a Dyer, I wrote the entire thing on my laptop. (There are advantages and disadvantages to both but I digress.)

How far we’ve come since Rees’s time.

The quill pen and ink were the approved methods of writing at this time. But paper was valuable and ink expensive. So how did children learn to read and write? I know I had the picture of a slate in my head but Noah Webster says slates were not in common use in schools prior to the Revolution. They came into common use in the late eighteenth century so Rees’s children might have had slates. Rees probably would have used birch bark and would have made his own ink. I can only imagine how pale and unreadable some of those concoctions might have been.

But what about the pencil? Well, although Benjamin Franklin advertised pencils in the early 1700s, they did not become common. First American manufacture of pencils with a graphite core was 1812.

So the frameless slates hung on a string were actually an advance for the early students.

Most of the students were, of course, boys. It was not thought important for girls to learn to read and write, let alone cipher (do arithmetic). Her household duties were far more important. As I have indicated in previous posts, the Shakers were far in advance of this thinking, as they education the girls as well as the boys.

I don’t know if this is true but I read that the shape of the Ipad is based on the slate. Cute.

Shakers andPets


Although the simple life is certainly a draw in this hectic over-scheduled modern life, I would find living as a Shaker difficult, if not impossible. For one thing, I am not obedient. But also the shakers do not have pets.

The Milennial Laws of 1821 and then again in 1845 laid out rules governing every aspect of Shaker lives. They were not allowed pets, primarily because their focus was supposed to be upon God.

For me, this is a deal breaker. I have had a dog since I was ten, with only a few years here and there without. Plus a few cats scattered among the dogs.


Shelby is my current dog, although she actually, emotionally, belongs to my husband. I wanted a dog for my birthday. When we went to the rescue, she raced to him. Once she’d chosen him, we couldn’t leave her behind. So, I got a dog for my husband for my birthday.

But I digress. Sandy was my previous dog. She looked similar to Shelby – a little lighter in color. Sandy was my best friend. She went everywhere with me. Although a medium dog (65 pounds) she lived to be 17 1/2. The vet was astonished she lived so long. by then she was blind, deaf, and had hip displasia. I was so heart broken I did not get another dog for a few years.

So, having a dog is one thing I could not surrender.

Goodreads Giveaway

The Giveaway ends tomorrow at midnight; two days left to add your name for the Giveaway.

Will and Lydia travel to New York just outside of Albany after a frantic plea for help from Shaker friend Mouse. There they find Mouse had been accused of kidnapping – and she admits it. Shortly after, the mother of the children is found dead and Mouse is the the primary suspect.

Devil’s Cold Dish – contracts and edits

I am happy to announce that I received both the contracts and the edits for the Devil’s Cold Dish.


The contracts have been signed and  put  in the mail.

I am still working on the edits but they are almost done. These are line edits; i.e. the editor goes over the manuscript and comments/questions items. This is when the editor has the author correct the manuscript – are there too many repetitions of the same information? Does the plot need some changes? Too many characters?

I enjoy this part of the editing because it makes me think of the manuscript and the story in a new way. Confusing sections are clarified and sometimes I take the opportunity to expand on something. this is my chance to look at the story with fresh eyes – for good or ill since I can either think this book is good or terrible.

The next time I see the manuscript I will be working on copy edits which I don’t like at all. This is grammatical mistakes, any double periods I haven’t caught. If I haven’t paid close enough attention to the time line, I can be sure the copy editor will pick it up.

Witches and witchcraft – beyond Salem

Although I don’t address witchcraft of the trials in Death in Salem, I write about a period 100 years later, I do use it in The Devil’s Cold Dish.I am fascinated by the persistent belief in witches. Although the trials ended before 1700 and reparations began to be paid to surviving victims and families of the executed, belief in witches and the trials did not end then. As I have written in other posts, belief – and accusations – continued well into the 1800’s. ( And actually into modern times ). With Halloween only days away, it seems appropriate to address the topic again. The craze in Massacheusetts came after several centuries of the trials and burnings in Europe. Belief in magic was widespread. Girls used spells to try and see the faces of future husbands and superstitions regarding illness, birth, harvest were rife. Harelips were caused when the mother saw a rabbit, birth marks because the mother ate strawberries, for example. One of my favorites: to protect a mother and child during birth put an ear of corn on the mother’s belly. Reasons given for the explosion of belief and hangings in Salem are many. I just read several pieces on Tituba. Variously described as an Indian or a black slave, her testimony apparently drove much of the content of the stories and was a direct cause of the eventual hangings of women described as her confederates. (Although they all protested their innocence, sixteen were hanged. Tituba was set free.) A shadowy character, she has been also described as practicing voodoo. Her testimony. at least to me, reads more like the Christian belief in demons and the devil. Once she was released, however, she, like the girls whose fits started the terror, faded into obscurity. By the late eighteen hundreds her name was used to frighten children and she is shown in illustrations in the witches’s black dress holding her broom. Considering the amazing staying power of accusations, one has to wonder about the psychology behind these beliefs. Of course malice plays a huge role as does mysogyny. But why the belief in evil supernatural powers and submission to the Devil? I still have trouble wrapping my mind around it.