Monday, July 28, 2014

Research, Research, Research!

At the risk of revealing my advanced age, I have a few interesting comments on the topic of research.  Back in the day, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, I spent countless days and dollars traveling to different libraries, historical societies and museums in search of the primary sources that would provide me with the historical background necessary to construct a research question and a few testable hypotheses. Those were among the happiest years of my life!  I spent hours pouring over big leather bound ledgers and squinting at blurry microfilm as I collected the data necessary to accept or reject my carefully laid out hypotheses.  These many years later I have made some delightful discoveries, the most important being that many of the primary sources I need to provide accurate historical details to my stories are available online! I can access maps, directories and municipal reports while still in my pj's and in the comfort of my own office. As there are no delicate pages to protect, no gloves are necessary and I can eat and drink coffee to my hearts content while I work!!  What luxury compared to over air conditioned reading rooms, or worse yet, moldy basements!!

For example, one of the characters in Orphans and Inmates owned a seed company.  A point here and a click there and I had the history of seed companies in the United States, where and when certain varieties of flowers were imported from Europe and what varieties people were cultivating in the early nineteenth century.  These details helped give life to the character and his story.

I have particularly enjoyed having access to historic maps via the internet.  As a result of the completion of the Erie Canal in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the city of Buffalo grew rapidly.  Street names changed as the city expanded to accommodate the increasing number of entrepreneurs who flocked to Buffalo to make their fortunes.  It is simply brilliant to have the ability to download a map and use other software programs to plot your character's movement around the city!

Although online research has increased my productivity as a writer, it can't replace good old fashioned leg work (not yet anyway!).  I have still spent plenty of time in research libraries with my old friends the leather bound ledgers and the microfilm machine.  Nothing replaces a detailed study of the lives of the individuals you are writing about.  For me, that means examining the Erie County Poorhouse Inmate Records, Hospital Records, Mortality Ledgers and the Annual Reports of the Buffalo Orphan Asylum.

In these reports I read the names of the people who spent a part of their lives there as inmates, or perhaps even died there.  I learned about where they were born, what they did before they came to the poorhouse, and why they came to the poorhouse.  I know what kinds of clothing they wore, what kinds of food they ate, and what kind of medical treatment was provided to them if they were sick or injured.  I know that they were assigned chores if they were able to work.  Women did domestic chores such as laundry, cleaning and meal preparation.  Men worked the farm and kept the buildings in repair.  I learned that they made a variety of clothing and often sold surpluses of food produced on the farm to defray the cost of their care.

From the administrators reports I learned about many of the challenges the Keepers of the Poor faced in trying to provide care for a rapidly growing impoverished class. They faced over crowding, sanitation issues, food shortages, and shortages of able-bodied inmates to assist in the running of what was supposed to be a self sufficient farm. There was the ever present threat of diseases like cholera and influenza, in addition to the ever increasing frequency of mental illness and alcoholism to manage. 

Some inmates were lazy and apathetic, while others were hardworking.  Similarly, some Keepers of the Poor were benevolent and some were greedy and cruel.  By carefully studying the primary source data, I can weave the experiences of real people and events into the story and provide readers with a more compelling (although fictional) account of the history of the social welfare system in America.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Where do characters come from?

The article above is from the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal and describes how, in 1840, a person came to the Erie County Poorhouse claiming to be a hermaphrodite and that this affliction made it hard to find work.  I found this interesting for a variety of reasons.  First, I thought it unusual that the average person in the early nineteenth century would be familiar with such a rare condition, which lead me to assume that the individual making the claim was far from average.  Also, how desperate would a person have to be to admit to such a condition?  Now remember, this was the early nineteenth century and even in a city growing as fast as Buffalo was at the time, there were still plenty of superstitious folks who would have thought the person cursed, or worse.  It was risky and downright dangerous  to have made such a claim and the individual left himself or herself vulnerable to potential abuse and even violence from the other inmates (however, it is interesting to note that no such abuse was reported in this article).

My original intention was to mention him/her as an incidental character to illustrate the wide range of interesting people who passed through the poorhouse at any given time.  However, my beta readers liked the character and suggested that I develop this particular thread of the story more. I started with the assumption that Michael/Michelle Ketchum was educated and highly motivated to follow through on a preconceived plan, thus the character was willing to do some less than honorable things to achieve these goals.  He/she had a secret, beyond whether or not he was also a she, and was desperate to keep it.  However, I decided that this character had limits in terms of what he or she would do to maintain this mysterious persona.  From there I added some made up details about the character's past, a real life like-minded scholar as a friend and colleague, and some historical facts for color.  I ended up with a fascinating story thread that my readers loved.  Now that Orphans and Inmates is out, many readers have asked if the adventures of Michael/Michelle will continue on in the next book.  I tell them that they will find out in about five months when the second book is released!

Monday, July 14, 2014

This past weekend I had the honor of attending the Grand Opening of the Monument for the Forgotten at the Museum of disABILITY History in Buffalo, New York ( This monument is the creation of Brian Nesline and is made up of the images of over 1,000 headstones belonging to individuals who died in institutions like almshouses, asylums and prisons and were buried in what have become unmarked and forgotten cemeteries.

Many of the individuals were not buried with headstones, or even numbered markers like the ones seen below.  For example, the Erie County Poorhouse marked the burial location of inmates who died there with a numbered wooden stake.  The number on the stake corresponded with the same number in a ledger that included the individuals personal information (name, age, cause of death and occupation, among other details).  That stake remained to mark the grave for a year in the event that a family member or friend  might claim the body for reburial in a private cemetery, or, at the very least, reimburse the county for the burial in the almshouse cemetery.  However, at the end of the year, the stakes were all pulled up to be re-used during the upcoming year, thus leaving the individual interred there forgotten forever.  The Monument for the Forgotten is just part of a larger and continued effort of behalf of the Museum of disABILITY History and its parent company, People, Inc., to recover and restore institutional cemeteries across the state of New York and provide identity to those buried there.  This is important because many of these individuals, particularly poorhouse inmates, were employed in occupations such as masonry, carpentry, brick laying, etc., before circumstances beyond their control forced them to seek refuge in the county poorhouse.  In the case of the Erie County Poorhouse, many of the inmates there likely contributed to the building of the city of Buffalo, which was expanding rapidly throughout the nineteenth century.  

I touched on the anonymity of institutional burials in my novel, Orphans and Inmates.  In the later decades (post 1850) of the Erie County Poorhouse inmates were buried in coffins, some very elaborate.  However, it is unknown how the dead were interred during the early years in which the book took place (1830's).  I borrowed from what little I know of the Monroe County Poorhouse Cemetery, in Rochester, New York, and described the inmates as buried in shrouds rather than coffins.  Often these shrouds were made by other inmates as part of the daily chores which all able-bodied persons were assigned.  In the book, Ciara is shocked that most inmates were buried without any religious service or even an individual to say a prayer over their grave. Sadly, this was often true of real burials at the Erie County Poorhouse and even became an issue of public concern in the later decades of the nineteenth century.  The slogan of the Museum is "Forgotten No More" and I am honored that my story contributes in some small way to providing at least some understanding of the lives and deaths of poorhouse inmates.

Monday, July 7, 2014

We have survived the Fourth of July weekend and ten canine guests with our sanity and limbs intact, the details are irrelevant.

It never ceases to amaze me where inspiration comes from.  My friend gave me a copy of Garden Walk Buffalo magazine (the Garden Walk is a big deal in Buffalo, and well worth the trip into the city for historians and gardeners alike).  While admiring the many spectacular local gardens, I read an article on the oldest tree in Buffalo. Said tree, a Sycamore, has presided over Franklin Street (once called Tuscarora Street) for the past 300 years. This tree was there before the Revolutionary War was even a secret thought in the minds of our forefathers.  It saw that very war, it survived the burning of Buffalo after the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Surely it will have something to tell me about life in the early decades of Buffalo if I ask it nicely!  I think something very important needs to happen under that tree in my second book, so ask it I will.  I intend to visit the tree, examine it carefully, sit underneath it for a while and see what it has to tell me.  Can you imagine what it might say?  At the risk of sounding a bit daffy, I used to walk through the forests of a southern plantation that served as one of my first archaeological field sites with my eyes closed.  I took in the smells of the leaves and under growth, pungent in the humid July heat.  I listened to the birds chatter and the small creatures as they scurried above and below me on their important errands.  Just above the sounds and smells of nature, if you were really paying attention, were the sounds and smells of early plantation life. The gentle slapping of bare feet on a dirt path, the slice of the hoe through red Virginia clay, the smell of ham and turkey hanging in the smokehouse.  I could really feel the buzz of life and what it would have been like as the slaves went about the various activities that kept the plantation running smoothly.  More than a few times a chill ran up my spine, stopping me dead in my tracks.  Perhaps one of the occupants of the small, unmarked cemetery had tagged along with me on my stroll through the forest...I am hoping the Sycamore on Franklin St. (and chills!) will provide similar insights for the city of Buffalo during its infancy.

I am honored to have been asked by the Museum of disAbility History to serve as a panelist in a discussion panel on preserving institutional cemeteries this Saturday.  This discussion will follow the Grand Opening of their Forgotten People exhibit.  This exhibit honors all those individuals who were buried in institutional cemeteries like the Erie County Almshouse Cemetery.  I first met the incredible people from the Museum of disAbility History, a project of People, Inc., at the dedication ceremony of the Niagara County Almshouse Cemetery, which they had restored.  I was impressed that there is an entire museum in Buffalo dedicated to helping people appreciate the largely misunderstood concept of disability, and that their historic focus extends to the individuals who sought refuge or were committed to the various institutions and asylums of early Buffalo.  I am looking forward to participating in this important event and learning more about the Museum of disAbility History and its goals.  I am hoping that this is the beginning of a very productive relationship between the Museum (and People, Inc.), my Anthropology colleagues, and perhaps a few other local history groups.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

 It's hot, muggy, and Baby Huey and Howling Henrietta are both in the house so today should be an interesting day in Dogdom!  Recall that Baby Huey is the HDD (Huge Dumb Dog) in the process of learning to be a gentleman (we're getting there, slowly).  Howling Henrietta is HHH (Howling Hound from Hell), who feels the need to comment (rather loudly) on everything.  The heat and humidity has done nothing to dampen the spirits of either dog!  Doggy Daycare is like a box of chocolates, "ye neva know whatcha gonna git!". This statement is particularly true when there is a major holiday within the week.  With the fourth of July on a Friday, many folks are already off on their summer adventure.  However, if we look forward to a slow and easy day, we are sure to be packed to the rafters!

Regarding my inmate with the diagnosis of chorea, I have abandoned the theory that she and her family suffered from some sort of fever.  I had narrowed it down to intermittent fever (a generic term that could mean malaria, or some other recurring fever).  Intermittent fever is mentioned often in the poorhouse hospital records and discussed in detail in an 1840's article in the Boston Medical Journal, particularly at the Erie County Poorhouse.  I think if our woman had been ill with fever, it would have been mentioned as part of the very detailed discussion of her case in the hospital records since intermittent fever was of interest to physicians at the time.  I have moved on to the theory that they were exposed to some sort of environmental toxin (heavy metal poisoning?).  This is a rather difficult theory to prove as we really have no idea where she may have lived.  I looked in the City of Buffalo Directory (an incredibly valuable source of information for a rapidly changing city!) for 1854 and found six individuals who share her last name (five men and one woman).  My plan is to look in the obituaries to see if any of these men died that year or the previous few years and if my inmate was married to the deceased.  The working theory is that if this woman was widowed, she and her five children may have been taken in by her mother. The only woman listed in the directory owned a boarding house, perhaps the extended maternal family all lived there.  With the family living together, they may all have been exposed to some kind of toxin.  If we can narrow down a place of residence (from the City Directory), perhaps we can learn what, if any, manufacturing was done around the area, or where the water supply was, or what type of dishes were typically used by people of that socio-economic strata (ceramic with lead based glaze? pewter?).  So now that I have identified six potential relatives, the next step is to determine if obituaries were typically written this early, and if so, if any of the five men may have died in the few years before 1854 (I am also wondering if obituaries were written for woman).  I have also (mostly) abandoned the idea that this inmate's diagnosis would make a great case study to be presented at the American Association of Physical Anthropology next spring.  It wanders too much into the area of speculation for a scientific conference.  However, I am definitely going to develop this case into a character for the third book in the Orphans and Inmates series.