Friday, December 4, 2015

The State of the Adventure: Writing, Research, Dogs, and High School Sports

A little more than a year and a half ago I released my first book in the Orphans and Inmates series, a fictional account of the lives of poorhouse inmates in Buffalo, New York, during the early nineteenth century.  With the third book in the series, The Seer and the Scholar, recently released, I thought it was time to assess the state of the adventure.  I hadn't intended to be a writer, and I never expected anyone but my mother and a few close friends to read my books.  Now "the adventure" has become a real job and it's time to determine if it is a job I can keep.

Since the fall of 2012, I have written and released three novels of historical fiction, ran a business that requires a 60 hour work week, produced scholarly research presentations and articles, and mentored my son nearly through high school (he graduates in May of 2016).  It would not be an understatement to say I have been busy.  Many of my fellow authors might decide that writing three books in three years is not a worthy accomplishment.  Never-the-less, I am still hoping for a few pats on the back from my friends in historical fiction, who are well aware of how long it can take to do the research for each story.  I count myself lucky that many of the resources I need can be obtained online (period newspapers, city directories and maps), but I also spent a significant amount of time in local libraries, museums, and even surrogate court in search of other primary source data to add color and authenticity to my tales. With most of my time consumed with the running of my business, my trips to the museum have become less frequent.  If I intend to keep doing this, I'll have to figure out where I can carve out some more time for research.  I'd gladly give up a few hours sleep, but sadly the library is not open at midnight.

The other time consuming part of self publishing is marketing.  I'll admit to being a bit of a slacker in this department.  I try to stay active on Facebook, Google+ and my blog (sorry, just can't do Twitter), but it takes valuable time away from research and writing. All of the experts say the best way to build an audience is to keep giving them books to read, so when I have to choose between posting on social media or writing my book, I choose writing. I usually break my research down into short blogs that give my readers a sense of where the series is going while at the same time keeping organized the important points that I will need as I write the actual book.  However, there are only 24 hours in each day and I tend to run out of time in the middle of a sentence.  In my defense, I have a very unusual day job.  My husband and I own two doggy daycares.  This is a unique business in that the clients have teeth, claws and poor toileting habits.  Thankfully, I have the best business partner and an outstanding staff, so I manage to squeak out a few hours to work most days.  Having said that, there are plenty of days when the dogs keep me going and I get nothing book related done.  

The other reason I have little time for marketing is that I am a wife and a mother.  Over the last century, women have been conditioned to devalue this part of our lives, but the truth is that one of the most important contributions to society is raising well adjusted children to be productive adults.  It's not easy, which I'm sure many of you know.  I have often joked that I want to change my name to Dad, but actually my husband works just as hard as I do. My son is active in sports, so we spend many weekends watching football games, track events or rowing competitions.  We have served as the school bus, the team bus, and even the ambulance. My son is a scholar athlete and is currently applying to colleges to study engineering, so I'm feeling pretty proud of my parenting skills, even if my marketing skills need work.

Having stated my accomplishments over the last few years and offered my excuses for why I have not yet achieved fame and fortune, it is time to evaluate if it was all worth it. Are the books commercially successful?  No, but as I understand it that will take more time.  Have I achieved some success?  Actually, I am hoping you can tell me!  Over the last year I have averaged about two speaking engagements or book signings a month to audiences of 50-60 people each time.  Locally, I have sold hundreds of print copies of my books, enough to motivate me to keep writing but not nearly enough to quit my day job.  My online sales pale in comparison, but given my meager marketing efforts, that is hardly surprising.  

So, what is a working mother, new author, and researcher to do? Keep on keeping on, I guess.  I have learned some important lessons and I'm hoping they will see me through to a bit more success.  First of all, people like my books.  Maybe not a whole lot of people at this point, but enough that I think with some additional effort, I can build a reasonable audience (don't ask me what reasonable is because I am still trying to figure that out).  Also, there is a substantial interest in local history here in Western New York, which can be used to my advantage. I have found a supportive community of indie authors who are willing to share their successes and failures, which I also intend to use to my advantage.   Finally, I learned a long time ago in grad school never to waste my efforts and that lesson has served me well in this writing adventure.  My scholarly work inspires my novels.  My research for an academic article or book is also used for my fictional stories.  That research can be tailored into blog and social media posts to draw in readers and keep them interested in between books.  My public appearances result in more public appearances and they also result in book sales (both online and in person).  I just need to put the plan into overdrive.  In truth, I'm still trying to figure that part out and would welcome any suggestions.  While I'm working on that, book four of the Orphans and Inmates series is underway, so you can look forward to some interesting blog posts about the lunatic asylum, communication with the spirit world, and my old favorite, nineteenth century medicine.

Friday, October 30, 2015

More from the world of Modern Spiritualism and Clairvoyant Healers

The Marion H. Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York

       The advent of Modern Spiritualism is a fascinating part of American history that empowered women and returned to them the role of healer just as Western medicine as we currently understand it was emerging.  Beyond that, it has been suggested that high rates of mortality due to infectious disease and war during the mid-to-late nineteenth century motivated members of a growing leisure class to explore communication with the spirit world.  The complex relationship between biology (mortality) and culture (religion) demands further investigation.

     Lily Dale, New York, is one of the oldest Modern Spiritualist communities in the United States whose history is chronicled in both its library and museum.  Marion Skidmore was one of the founding and most influential members of the early Lily Dale community as well as the organizer of its library.  Originally just a tent in the middle of the early campground, the Marion H. Skidmore Library now boasts solid construction and a rare collection of the earliest published works on a wide variety of topics, some written by Spiritualists and others written by the spirits themselves.  While Skidmore was a strong and formidable woman, Librarian Amanda Shepp suggested that perhaps the loss of Skidmore’s children was the driving force behind her passion for Spiritualism.  Marion Skidmore’s library had no shortage of stories of women like her, who overcame tragedy or the limitations placed on them by social convention and accomplished great things.

Antoinette Matteson.  From The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Healing
available at the Marion H. Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York.
     Because I am interested in women as healers, I was drawn to Antoinette Matteson, another strong and independent Spiritualist.  She was benevolent, powerful, controversial and talented.  As an adult she was known as a clairvoyant healer.  She would achieve a trance state to diagnose and devise the treatments for illnesses.  Her book, The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Healing, published in Buffalo, New York in 1894, describes her methods for diagnosis and her receipts for treating a variety of ailments.  A first edition signed by the author can be found at the library in Lily Dale. 
     Mrs. Matteson did not have a medical license, but practiced under the authority of the New York State Association of Spiritualists.  Herbal remedies were given to Antoinette by her spirit guide, who was a Native American medicine woman.  Her passion for herbal healing is evident in the passage below from her book:

Our object is to give our quota to strengthening the bulwarks of Medical Botany, and we wish it to be so in truth, and trust that the day is not far distant that it will be taught in our public schools, so that the people may gain sufficient knowledge to enable them to remove all diseases that flesh is heir to, and that man may know himself and leave not a single outlet but that of old age. For such is our confidence in the benevolence of the Creator, that within the vegetable kingdom may be found remedies for all the maladies of mankind.

     Originally from Boden, Germany, Antoinette came to the United States in the 1850’s at the age of five and lived in the Western New York area, eventually settling in Buffalo.  She married Judah H.R. Matteson, a blind musician, in 1867 and had six children.  Interestingly, several of her children also found a passion in healing.  Her daughter, Martha, attended the Medical Department of the University of Buffalo and graduated in 1891.  A second daughter, Nellie, followed in her mother’s footsteps as a spiritual healer and took over Antoinette’s substantial practice upon her retirement in 1912.  Her son, George, eventually took over the manufacturing of her herbal remedies and sold them through newspaper advertisements. 

     Mrs. Matteson practiced what she called The Medicine of Nature for several decades.  By many accounts she was a respected healer and had a lucrative practice.  There were, of course, those who doubted her abilities.  In January of 1882 The Buffalo Evening News reported that she was arrested for telling bad fortunes based on the complaint of a man whose wife became convinced that he was trying to kill her so that he could be with another woman.  The man accused Mrs. Matteson of delivering this premonition to his wife, who subsequently ran off.  Antoinette vehemently denied both the accusation of fortune telling and that the woman had been a client of hers, resulting in the need to secure an attorney for trial.  Unfortunately, a report of the outcome of said trial could not be found.
     During the final two decades of the nineteenth century, her name was often found in the newspapers associated with some sort of legal action.  Some cases involved lawsuits for non-payment of services rendered.  Another, against her daughter Nellie, involved a piece of property in foreclosure.  Many of these actions involved the acquisition or sale of real estate holdings.  Her last will and testament, written in 1910, recorded eighteen pieces of property in the name of Antoinette Matteson, collectively worth over $30,000. 
     Mrs. Matteson’s vast estate was a source of controversy for her daughters in the years before her death in 1913.  There was an attempt in 1911 by Dr. Martha F. Caul, Antoinette’s physician daughter, to have her mother, by then a widow, declared incompetent.  The Buffalo Courier reported that it was Dr. Caul’s opinion that her mother’s considerable estate was in danger due to the greed of Martha’s sister, Nellie Whitcomb.  Nellie had taken over the clairvoyant healing practice and was accused of transferring Antoinette’s assets into her own name.  Through cross examination it was revealed that Martha had tried to have her mother arrested for practicing medicine without a license and that she had borrowed a substantial amount of money from her mother and only paid back a small portion.  The case represents attempts on both her daughters’ parts to claim her assets, which were reportedly valued at $60,000.  A jury found Mrs. Matteson competent to manage her own affairs. 
     A closer look at Antoinette’s will reveals more possible family discord due to financial matters.  While the estate was to be divided equally among her four surviving children, she instructed that an amount of $6,000 be deducted from her daughter Martha’s inheritance and $6750 from her son George’s inheritance, these sums being loans from their mother that neither had paid back.
     Antoinette Matteson died on October 11, 1913 at the age of 66.  The Tonawanda Evening News reported a general nervous breakdown as the cause of death.  She left behind substantial real estate holdings, a thriving healing practice and a solid reputation as a clairvoyant healer.  In 1933, twenty years after her death, The Erie County Independent ran a story on her, reminiscing about her bravery as a clairvoyant healer in the face of the medical establishment, her considerable skill in herbal medicine and her far reaching benevolence.  Clearly Antoinette Matteson was a remarkable woman.  She was strong willed and would countenance no transgression against her.  She had the tenacity to fight for that which was due her and was not afraid to invoke the aid of the judicial system when needed, even against her own children.  She was hardly the average Victorian woman and there is most certainly a place for a character like her in my next book!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Research and Revelations: My adventures in Lily Dale, an historic Spiritualist community.

Inspiration Stump, Lily Dale

It has been a while since I last posted.  The truth is I have had some interesting experiences during the course of my research for the third book in the Orphans and Inmates series (tentatively titled Storyteller) and I have not been able to find a box in the attic of my brain to put them in.  The attic is where I store all of the experiences that have, in some way, shaped my life. More often than not this is not a difficult task.  Eventually I find a box in which I can place the experience, put it on the shelf and recall it when I need to.  There is still plenty of room on the shelf, but I can't seem to find the right box.

I write historical fiction that takes place in Western New York.  I recall reading a while ago that the beginnings of Modern Spiritualism were occurring in that area around the mid nineteenth century in a small town called Laona. A Spiritualist believes in the continuity of life and in individual responsibility.  Some, but not all Spiritualists are mediums or healers.  A Spiritualist endeavors to find the truth in all things and to live their life in accordance therewith. The journey leading to Modern Spiritualism has always intrigued me. Swirled into its history of floating objects and bending spoons was the rise of women's rights and the suffrage movement.  Spiritualism gave women a voice and returned to them the power to heal.  This fascinating history demanded a place in my book.  

Whether it was the Universe, my Spirit Guide, or dumb luck, I found a friend on google+ who is a psychic medium, a healer and a spiritual counselor.  She is also a former resident of Lily Dale, one of the oldest and largest Spiritualist communities in the United States.  Lily Dale is located in Chautauqua County, about sixty miles from where I live.  It strikes me that I met her when I was struggling with my book and unsure where the story was taking me.  Again, whether it was meant to be or not, my friend was visiting "The Dale" this past month and I had a wonderful opportunity to visit and speak with her.

As someone who has lost a child, it comforts me to believe that my son is still around and I often see what I take to mean as indications of his presence in my everyday life.  Having said that, I did not go to Lily Dale hoping for a message from my son.  I went there as a researcher hoping to learn more about the history of Spiritualism in Lily Dale and to write about inner senses (psychic abilities) accurately.  My experience there left me with much to think about and it is my hope that in the writing of this blog, I will find the box I need to put it all in.

The Maplewood Hotel, Lily Dale

My first impression as I went through the gate of this beautiful community on the edge of Cassadaga Lake was that I was a guest rather than a tourist.  Nestled in the Leolyn Woods, one of New York's few remaining virgin forests, The Lily Dale Assembly started out in the mid nineteenth century as a seasonal camp where like minded free thinkers gathered to share ideas.  Over time it developed into a year round community.  Then and now, one must be a member of a Spiritualist church to reside there.  A resident may own their home, but they lease the property on which it is built.  The earliest tenants paid three dollars per year on a 99 year lease.  Now The Dale is a mixture of dilapidated cottages and Victorian grandeur.  Lily Dale was established for the free thinkers.  You can visit if you want (and tens of thousands of people do each year), but to the residents it is home and they see no need to fuss over visitors.

I met with my new friend on the porch of the Maplewood Hotel.  I was nervous, not wanting this woman I had never met to think I was trying to expose a hoax, or worst yet trying to scam a free reading under the guise of research.  She was professional, knowledgeable, and absolutely fascinating.  We discussed the experiences I would write for my character and the ways in which she might process these events.  During the conversation I shared some interesting coincidences that occurred while I was doing research for the first two books.  I told her about very specific details I had made up that turned out to be completely factual, down to the names of the people involved.  At the time I had laughed them off as odd, as I had with the ghosts who had followed me home when I was working with the actual skeletons from the Erie County Poorhouse.  They provided great inspiration for the story, that was all.  She told me that they weren't coincidences, but really made no attempt to convince me otherwise.

One of the many free spirits of Lily Dale

We had lunch and my new friend graciously introduced me to many of the local people.  It was evident to me that as a resident of the Lily Dale Assembly she had been well liked and respected.  She told one of my new acquaintances of the coincidences I experienced while doing my research.  I think I might have detected the slightest hint of a smirk exchanged between them as she spoke, maybe not.  Within a few minutes my head was spinning as each of the women explained to me the concept of past lives and that my experiences were likely a result of just that.  I became alarmed when both of them warned me that I might also come across some details of a past life that were disturbing.  Yikes!  Was a I murderer in past life?  The conversation made me so uncomfortable that I asked them not to tell me anymore.

I came away from Lily Dale with my book related questions answered, some great new twists in the story thanks to the insights of my new friends, and a whole lot to think about.  Do I believe my experiences were a result of a past life?  The jury is still out, although I would argue that it doesn't matter if I do or if I don't.  I was presented with some information.  Those who presented it truly believed what they were telling me, of that I am sure, and they had only the best of intentions in doing so.  As a result of this new information, I have done a considerable amount of thinking.  The results of these meditations are numerous and valuable.  I also wrote a much better book.  So maybe I don't need a box to put this in just yet.  Maybe I need to stay on the path for a while longer and see where it leads me.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What about the Women? A Brief History of Female Physicians in Buffalo, New York

Sketch by Robert Higgins

There's no harm in telling you that in the third book of the Orphans and Inmates series (as yet untitled) Martha, the youngest of the Sloane sisters, becomes a doctor.  As I researched the history of female physicians in Buffalo, New York, during the nineteenth century, I found that, once again, I needed to stretch the truth a bit to tell Martha's story.

My third novel takes place in Buffalo during the cholera pandemic of 1849.  However, it was not until 1874 that Mary Blair Moody, the first female student, was accepted to the Medical Department at the University of Buffalo.  There was nothing in the charter that denied female students admission and so there were no special petitions to allow her to attend.  Dr. Moody practiced in Buffalo for several years before moving to Connecticut. 

 Interestingly UB was among the first medical schools to accept women.  Niagara University did not accept women into their medical school until 1892.  Between 1874 and 1896 fifty-six women received medical degrees from the University of Buffalo. Among them was Dr. Jane Wall Carroll.  Dr. Carroll graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1891 at the age of 43.  Among her 10 children, daughter Evangeline Carroll received her medical degree from the same institution in 1893. 

Female physicians also found their way into the asylums of Buffalo. Thanks to the efforts of Mrs. Harriett A. Townsend, President of the Women's Union, a law was passed in April of 1890 allowing female physicians to practice at State hospitals for the insane.  The first physician appointed under this law was Dr. Eleanor McAllister, a graduate of Syracuse University.  Dr. McAllister was placed on the medical staff of the Buffalo State Hospital.  Maude Josephine Frye, M.D., another graduate of the University of Buffalo, served for a time in the Infant's Ward at the Erie County Hospital, which was a part of the Erie County Poorhouse.

So, there are some extraordinary role models to keep in mind as the story of Martha Sloane unravels.  I have no doubt she will be able to hold her own along side these pioneering women of medicine.  Stay tuned...

Monday, May 4, 2015

Past and Present, a Guest blog by Traci Lawrence

I am always grateful when a person enjoys my blog enough to leave a question or comment.  However, I consider it a compliment of the highest order when a reader thinks enough of the topic to ponder it in the context of a larger picture.  Traci Lawrence, author of Accept No Trash Talk: Overcoming the Odds, and regular reader of my blog did just that.  Traci also writes often about how we as a society treat those who are different from us in her blog, Daily Musings.  Today I am pleased to offer you her unique insights on our social journey from the nineteenth century.  Enjoy!

This is the information age. Immediate worldwide news is at our fingertips. Technology is advancing so quickly, it’s hard to keep track. I’m sure contemporaries of The Industrial Revolution (of the 1800’s) were amazed by the proliferation of inventions, such as:

The Telephone
The Automobile
Steel and Iron
Humongous factories fueled by new machines
Mass transportation connecting opposite sides of the country

We’ve come a long way! Comparing our advances today is similar to relating the Mario Brothers games of the 1990’s to Sims 4:
Preset gaming levels—randomly generated world
Small (virtual) play area—huge (virtual) universe of play
Closed gaming world—completely interactive gaming world
Uncomplicated software—professionally computer-engineered software, including calculators and computers

Those are a few examples of how technology has become bigger in capacity, faster, brighter, clearer, smarter, and more interactive. That’s just in the past 3 ½ decades! Watch for publicly accessible virtual reality in the coming decade!

Does our intelligence match our technological advances?
I’d like to look at both sides of that coin:

Example:Disease and Poverty
Mankind has learned much since the mid-1800s, and the days of the Buffalo, New York, Poorhouse. We don’t isolate people with certain limitations in the same manner as before. In addition, we know the cause of certain diseases, such as cholera. That’s why many illnesses have been eradicated in developed countries. Everyone understands the importance of sanitation, plumbing, and adequate medical care.
In summary, it’s safe to say the non-technological sciences have also progressed in leaps in bounds. The proof is in the lesser amount of fatal contagious diseases in many areas.

Example: Baltimore, Maryland
The recent riots in Baltimore were a repeat of the 1968 uprisings following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. The same neighborhood was nearly destroyed 47 years ago. Hordes of volunteers are cleaning up some of the identical streets and buildings their grandparents may have walked. Political issues aside, have we learned nothing in 47 years?

My Conclusion

Recent advances in technology show mankind is moving forward at breakneck speed. On the other hand, there are ways in which we haven’t changed. Humans don’t seem to learn from some of our past mistakes; we’re stubborn. That’s why history repeats itself. This happened with the Israelites in the Bible, the Western European nations as their empires began shrinking, and the list goes on.
Will future generations be willing to learn from our mistakes?

Traci Lawrence writes about her passion: communication, relationships, the value of individuals, and rising above verbal bullying (trash talk). She lives in the Northern Virginia area of the United States and teaches English, among other subjects.  Please find more on her blog, and view her book: Accept No Trash Talk: Overcoming the Odds

Monday, April 27, 2015

Unexpected treasures: The story of Dr. Timothy T. Lockwood

By Robert J. Higgins

We are still waiting for the arrival of Spring in Western New York so I am keeping busy with Dr. Newman's cholera ledger from 1854 at the Buffalo History Museum.  Dr. Newman, who was the city Health Physician during the epidemic that year, recorded both area hospital cases as well as patients attended in their homes by local physicians.  Often when I am doing research my attention gets diverted by interesting details that are not necessarily related to my novels or my scholarly work.  This time it was the list of attending physicians in the ledger that piqued my curiosity.

The efforts of local doctors to understand the nature of cholera were evident in their case notations.  Comments on patient habits or residences
sometimes revealed both compassionate and judgmental attempts to determine the causation of illness.  Dr. Rochester wrote of a particular fatal case where the patient had diarrhea for a week and neglected it, while Dr. Nott's comment "Had been injudicious in drink and died" was one of several made by physicians that implicated alcohol abuse in the disease process.  Dr. Hamilton wrote of a particular location near Jefferson Street where the accumulation of standing water invited a variety of infectious diseases during the summer months, while Dr. Bronson attributed one death to "very poor and filthy habits."

Beyond the physician comments were the men themselves.  Several names appeared over and over in the ledger.  Drs. Newman, Dellenbaugh and Weiss saw two or three new patients each day at the height of the epidemic in July and early August.  Dr. Pratt, the poorhouse physician, saw as many as 8 or 9 new patients each day during that time.  Cholera is an acute disease characterized by explosive gastrointestinal symptoms.  Managing multiple new patients each day for weeks on end must have been a formidable task.  Eventually I discovered a physician listed among the patients.

On July 30 Dr. Timothy Lockwood, a physician whose name I had observed sprinkled throughout the ledger, was recorded as one of the patients, with Dr. Pratt serving as his attending physician.  It seemed odd to me that the poorhouse doctor, who was inundated with cholera patients, attended one of his colleagues. Perhaps the two gentlemen were friends.  Even more unusual, on August first Dr. Lockwood was again listed as the attending physician for a few new patients. Unfortunately there were no comments attached to Dr. Lockwood's record and therefore no details regarding his illness and apparently miraculous recovery.  However, I became intrigued with the man who contracted a near fatal disease one day and was back to work just a few days later.

After a bit of searching, and I learned that Dr. Lockwood became a member of the Medical Society of the County of Erie in 1842 and published occasionally in the Buffalo Medical Journal on a variety of topics.  He became the city Health Physician in 1851 and the mayor of Buffalo in 1858 and 1859.  He died in December of 1870.  Dr. Lockwood had not made any notations in the ledger that aroused my interest, as other physicians had.  If he had not contracted the disease himself, I would never have learned of his contributions to the city during its formative years.  Perhaps there is a place for a character like him in the third book of the Orphans and Inmates series. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Life at the Erie County Poorhouse at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Sketch of the Erie County Poorhouse by Robert Higgins

I have been collecting data from the reports of the Medical Department of the Erie County Hospital (1880-1910) for the last several months for a scholarly paper I am writing. The hospital was part of the almshouse complex and so these reports were contained in the Report of the Keeper of the Erie County Almshouse in the Proceedings of the Erie County Board of Supervisors (available at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library). I've found that I have fallen into yet another rabbit hole! The Keeper's Reports are absolutely fascinating. In addition to vital and demographic statistics, they contain detailed inventories of every single item made, purchased or otherwise obtained for the care of the inmates and the support staff who lived on site. These reports provide a glimpse of life at the poorhouse, particularly at the turn of the century when they contained the most detail.

The inventories become more inclusive through time. Looking at the report from 1900, the enormity of the facility becomes apparent. Supply rooms documented thousands of pounds of meat, produce and dry goods. Hundreds of sheets, pillow slips, items of clothing and even funeral shrouds were listed in the various storage rooms. Kitchens housed piles of dishes, flatware, pots and pans. High end items, like an ice cream freezer, were noted in the Keeper's private kitchen.

In addition to the Keeper's quarters, there were private sleeping chambers for the Matron, physicians, and attendants. The 1900 Report also documented a Firemen's Room with furniture enough for two occupants.  Fire was a persistent problem at the Erie County Poorhouse throughout its ninety-seven year history and the reports often indicated precautions taken to reduce that risk.

The various inventories provide some insight into how life at the poorhouse was organized. Administrative space included an office, a private office, and a reception room. The carpet, furniture and wall hangings were noted for each space, along with equipment and supplies. The Keeper had private quarters for himself and his family, including a separate kitchen, laundry, cellar and garret. The inmates quarters, clothing storage, washrooms and dining areas were segregated by sex. There was also a Old Ladies' Dining Room, an Old Men's Dining Room, and a Workingmen's Dining Room. The dining areas for elderly inmates had tables and chairs, whereas the dining room for able bodied working men had tables and benches.

Institutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were designed to be self sufficient, many were working farms. Barns and storerooms contained livestock, equipment and stores of produce grown on the farm. The 1907 Report listed 115 tons of hay and 16,000 heads of cabbage among its bounty. There was a bakery, a tailor shop, a boot and shoe room, a barber shop, a carpentry and paint shop and a lamp and oil room. There was even a Religious Services Room with a pulpit, an organ, bibles, hymnals, benches and chairs.  

On the surface, it seems as though the almshouse had adequate facilities to care for Buffalo's institutionalized poor. Certainly there were times when the facilities were over crowded and had fallen into disrepair. There were often discussions in these reports of the need to replace or repair different parts of the poorhouse, insane asylum, or hospital. Early reports indicated times when the quantity of food was not adequate. However, it must be remembered that individuals who chose to seek refuge there or were sent there by the authorities, had no other options and might have died from starvation, disease or exposure if they had not found their way to the poorhouse.   

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History, Buffalo, NY

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History, Buffalo, NY. 

Last Friday evening I attended the grand opening of The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History in Buffalo, New York.  After 126 years of operation as a state mental health hospital in Upstate New York, the Willard Psychiatric Center closed its doors in 1995.  The discovery of over 400 suitcases and trunks in the attic have provided unprecedented insight into the lives of mental health patients in the early twentieth century. The exhibit is based on the book of the same title by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.  I highly recommend both.

Haunting, riveting, and heartbreaking, seem insufficient words to describe the stories told through the contents of baggage left behind in the attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center.  It did not come as a surprise that most of the suitcase owners were admitted to the facility against their will.  The revelations lay in the lives they had before that fateful day. Some of the patients came from well to do families, some from the military, and some were just hard working folks.  Photos and other mementos found among their belongings indicated good times with loved ones, talents and skills that were abandoned with their luggage upon admission, and important vocations that involved helping others or serving their country.  

Case files reported many reasons for commitment to the Willard Asylum, like anger management and mild paranoia.  Often patient interviews were not indicative of serious mental illness by modern standards, although the diagnosis dementia praecox, later called schizophrenia, was used often.  Patient records told of personal tragedies in the past that were not considered in the diagnosis or treatment of the individuals being evaluated.  Their physical ailments were often dismissed as hypochondria and their emotional needs were simply not considered.

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History, Buffalo, NY.

Many of the suitcase owners lived out the remaining decades of their lives at the hospital, subject to what we now deem appalling treatment.  Some patients accepted their fate without question, others argued tirelessly for their release.  A few managed to carve out a niche for themselves, or maintained contact with friends and family outside of the hospital.  However, when they passed, many were completely forgotten.  If it were not for the objects they left behind in that dusty attic, we would never have known who they were before they became patients.

 The Museum of disABILITY History, a project of People, Inc., is dedicated to advancing the understanding, acceptance and independence of people with disabilities.  Bringing this exhibit to Buffalo is part of their commitment to illuminating over a century of forgotten history.  Poorhouses, insane asylums, workhouses and orphanages were established throughout the United States during the nineteenth century to meet the growing needs of an impoverished urban population.  These institutions ultimately were unable to accomplish their goals and many ceased to exist or transitioned into modern institutions like elder care facilities.  Many people ended up losing their battle for survival in the very asylums that were supposed to help ease their suffering.  Those pour souls, for the most part, were buried in unmarked graves, their plight long forgotten by the modern world.  In addition to the Willard exhibit, the museum boasts the Monument for the Forgotten, which commemorates the individuals who lived and died in institutions around Western New York and Almshouses and Schools, which focuses on the evolution of care for people with disabilities and the development of early poorhouses and schools.  If you are local, I highly recommend a visit.  If not, check out their Virtual Museum.  Either way, you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What did they do before they were poor?

A common theme in both my scholarly and creative writing is the idea that during the nineteenth century just about anyone was one tragedy away from the poorhouse.  Similarly, distinguishing between the worthy and the unworthy poor was no easy task.

Many of the characters in Orphans and Inmates and A Whisper of Bones are people who had some "respectable" job but ended up in the poorhouse as the result of illness or injury.  Although the names are often different, the circumstances of many characters are derived from the actual inmate records.  For example, Lucinda Gefroren from Whisper is based on a real person who had lost many of her children and other female members of her family to a mysterious condition recorded as chorea.  The real woman was unable to hold a job because of her frequent fits and was admitted to the poorhouse, where she lived until her death four years later.

Original cover sketch for A Whisper of Bones by Bob Higgins

Among the many primary documents from the institution are the Erie County Hospital Mortality Ledgers from the last two decades of the nineteenth century (soon to be available at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library).  These ledgers listed the individuals who died under treatment at the Erie County Poorhouse Hospital.  Among other variables, the occupations of the people who died there were recorded.  Not all of these people were inmates of the poorhouse.  Most of them simply could afford no other care.  A look at the means by which these early residents of Buffalo made their living reinforces the notion that reversals of fortune were not uncommon in those days.

The majority of men listed in the ledger were unskilled laborers, and many of the woman were domestics. For these folks even one day of lost wages could have left them destitute.  Also of no surprise were the prostitutes and those having no occupation.  However, there were over 1,300 people (just over 21% of the entire sample) who had skilled jobs or professions before they were admitted to the poorhouse hospital.  They were confectioners, slate cutters and ship builders.  Some were machinists, engineers or teamsters.  There were some jewelers, stonemasons and carpenters.  I had to look up more than a few jobs.  A hostler works with horses, a huckster is a door to door salesman, and a hackman drives a carriage.  The most unusual occupations listed included that of an evangelist, a florist, a showman, and a fur model.

What stood out to me the most was that many patients did not end up at the poorhouse hospital because they were lazy or apathetic. Often they were regular people who had experienced accidents, illness or violence. We may never know why or if they chose the poorhouse hospital over the others.  It may have simply been the most reasonable solution for the immediate crisis facing them at that point in their lives.  Some patients may have expected to die in hospital, but others likely saw their situation as temporary and planned to continue in their chosen lives when they were well again.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Buffalo, Books and Beer...Brilliant!

Last night was the inaugural event for Buffalo, Books, and Beer, the brainchild of Matt Higgins, author of Bird Dream: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight and Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows.  The idea of combining books and beer is a no brainer. Who doesn't enjoy a bottle or two with their favorite paperback?  However, combining the two in a bar, in Buffalo, New York, was nothing short of brilliant!  It's the dead of winter here in the Nickel City and cabin fever is setting in for those of us not into hockey, skiing or curling.  The promise of a good story and a pint of sponge candy stout are sure to get even the most stubborn winter recluse out of hibernation.

You may look at the last name of one of the co-founders and think this is just the talk of a proud auntie, but I can assure you that this innovative author event was a class act.  The featured speakers included local author Jeff Schober, who wrote Bike Path Rapist: A Cop's Firsthand Account of Catching the Killer Who Terrorized a Community and Kevin Maurer, author of No Easy Day: A Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden.  If you pay attention to these things, you will already know that No Easy Day ended the reign of Fifty Shades of Grey in the number one spot of the New York Times Best Seller List.  

It was a typical night in Buffalo, alternating sleet and snow, but still Resurgence Brewing Company, known for their craft beers and receptivity to innovative ideas, was packed.  We sat mesmerized in our wooden folding chairs as each author spoke of their experiences with just the right mixture of intrigue and humor. When the Q&A was over, we mingled, drank our beer and bought some books.  I'm already looking forward to next month!

Friday, February 6, 2015

I really love my job, but not today!

I thought today I might write about the working mom part of my split personality.  We are well into winter here in Western New York and that presents certain challenges in the running of a doggy daycare.  

On good days, when temperatures reach well into the double digits, we are able to enjoy a good thirty minute romp in the snow a few times a day.  On those days, our canine companions are exhausted from their frosty frolic and are easily managed for the rest of the day.

Other days are not so enjoyable.  Often we lay in bed just before daybreak listening for the telltale scraping sound of the city plow already at work.  With a groan, we rise and dress for the single digit temperatures that will bring even the dogs in their coats and boots.  FYI it takes about as much time and effort to undress a dog wearing cold weather gear as it does a toddler! With a sigh and a few F-bombs, we find that it is first necessary to dig out the plow before the sidewalks can be cleared.  No time for breakfast or a shower if all the snow is to be out of the way in time for our first furry arrivals at seven o'clock.

Recently, the intestinal fortitude of even the most stoic Western New Yorker has been put to the test with a particularly long spell of frigid temperatures and relentless snow.  These days the F-bombs start before we are even out of bed, knowing that we will, once again, be faced with enormous piles of hard packed snow left behind by the city plow drivers who had worked through the night to keep the streets clear.  They are working hard, but still we curse them as we hack away at the frozen concrete mountains blocking our driveway and street access.

With all hands on deck (two adults and one teenager) we are up and running with just minutes to spare.  Watching the wind blow the snow across the sidewalk I had just shoveled, I wait for the chaos to begin.  A little thing like a blinding snow storm seldom slows down life here in the City of Good Neighbors, and soon the windows are rattling as twenty three dogs of all shapes and sizes greet one another and the day begins.  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

More from the Erie County Poorhouse Hospital

          Well, January is almost over, and my anthropology conference is earlier this year than usual, so it is time to finish the paper to be presented at the American Association of Physical Anthropology conference in St. Louis.  The paper is entitled “Understanding the quality of health care available at the Erie County Hospital, Buffalo, New York, 1880-1910.”  The Erie County Hospital was part of the Erie County Poorhouse complex, which included a poorhouse, insane asylum, and hospital.  As the needs of the poor evolved, so did the hospital, eventually including maternity and tuberculosis wards.  Understanding the quality of care available at this facility seems a straightforward task at first glance, but the city of Buffalo changed dramatically with the building of the Erie Canal in the early decades of the nineteenth century.  Rapid population growth contributed to high rates of infectious diseases and an ever increasing number of people unable to support themselves or their families.  The burden placed on the Erie County Hospital must be examined in the context of a constantly growing subpopulation, namely the poor, and their changing needs.
            To complicate matters further, the Erie County Hospital was not the only hospital in the city.  The Buffalo Hospital of the Sisters of Charity was established in 1848, and Buffalo General Hospital opened its doors in 1858.  These facilities also served the poor.  So the first question one might ask is why would a person go to the poorhouse hospital if there were other options?  The obvious answer is that the poorhouse hospital served the inmates of the poorhouse.  The records indicate that to be true, but they also indicate that a great many other people sought care there as well. 
            Clearly the issue is more complicated than it appears.  One might argue that the poorhouse hospital served only those who could not pay for care at the other hospitals.  That may be true, but we have no definitive evidence indicating that.  Also, in general, during the nineteenth century, most hospitals were considered public and treated patients even if they could not afford to pay.  One of my co-authors suggests that bed space was likely a factor.  One might have gone to the Erie County Hospital if the other hospitals were full.  Another factor was likely the proximity of the hospital to one’s residence and the means one had to travel that distance.  A person might have chosen the poorhouse hospital because it was within walking distance.  It may be hard for us to imagine a sick or injured individual walking several miles, but one of the realities of nineteenth century urban life was that most people lived within walking distance to where they worked because transportation was so expensive.  It would not have been unusual, for example, for a person with tuberculosis to walk themselves to the nearest hospital.

Physician's Report from the Erie County Hospital, 1899
from The Proceedings of the Board of Supervisors of Erie County
Available at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library

            So in order to truly understand the data obtained from Physician’s Reports for the Erie County Hospital (contained within the Reports of the Erie County Board of Supervisors) it is important to realize that they provide only a small corner of a much larger picture.  Over a 30 year period (1880-1910), 42, 351 people were served by the Erie County Hospital.  Of those, 57% were discharged either cured or improved.  The percentage of people discharged as cured/improved decreased through time from a high of 60% in 1894 to 26% in 1908.  The crude death rate increased through time from a low of 99 per 1000 population in 1882 to 216 deaths per 1000 population in 1907.
            These are very general statistics that summarize a thirty year period of time.  Refining them further is not always possible because many variables are not consistently reported.  For example, many individuals absconded (over 5,000 for the period) and so we don’t know if they were cured, got worse, or died.  Mortality statistics would be better understood if they were broken down by disease category (a process that will soon be underway for the years in which we have those data).  Also, the risk of death would depend on the amount of time spent in the hospital, a variable which is not consistently recorded.  Furthermore, in order for these numbers to be understood, similar statistics from the other hospitals would be needed.
            So, what can be said about the quality of care available at the Erie County Hospital during this period when at most, slightly more than half of the people served were discharged as cured or improved and the crude death rate increased through time?  It might be tempting to say the quality of care was poor, but without comparable statistics from the other area hospitals, the statement would not hold much weight.  Life was difficult during this period of our history.  People worked long hours for meager wages.  They often lived in overcrowded and unsanitary places and had poor quality food available to them.  Infectious diseases were the leading causes of death throughout much of the nineteenth century.  For most of  this period, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death.  Keeping those factors in mind, the statistics presented here may not paint as bleak a picture as we think.

Physician's Report from the Erie County Hospital, 1899
from The Proceedings of the Board of Supervisors of Erie County
Available at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library

            There are other ways that we might measure the quality of care.  Looking at the detailed inventories of the Erie County Hospital, it appears on the surface that they possessed the proper equipment and medicines of the period to provide adequate care (a closer scrutiny of these items is also under way).  While the average number of patients treated daily was not consistently recorded, for the period between1882-1895 the average number of patients treated daily rose consistently from 96 to 239, but did not come close to the 400 bed capacity of the hospital, suggesting that during that period, the facility was not overcrowded. 
            So this small corner of the larger picture may just suggest that the Erie County Hospital was able to provide adequate care to those who sought treatment there.  Having said that, comparable data from the other area hospitals is welcome!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A chat with Mike Crowl

One of the best parts of this journey as a writer is the people I have met along the way. Mike Crowl is the author of Grimhilda! and The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret.  I would have never found Mike if not for social media as he is from New Zealand and I am from New York. As a person who grew up before the Internet, I still think that is pretty cool! I thought it would be a nice change of pace to introduce you to him.  We had chatted earlier in the week and I have posted our conversation here.  If you find him as fascinating as I do, you can learn more on Google+ and Goodreads.

Hi Mike, thanks for joining me.  You are a musician, a composer, and occasionally, an actor.  What made you want to write children’s books?

I’ve been a writer for at least as long as I’ve been a musician, so writing is nothing new. It’s just taken me a long time to get to the point of publishing books.

In the past all the books I’ve written (but not necessarily finished) have been for adults, with one exception. However, there have been some children’s short stories in the past, at least a couple of which have been published. The first children’s book I completed (Grimhilda!) was based on a musical a friend and I had written a couple of years earlier. I thought it had some ‘life’ beyond the theatrical version, and that’s proved to be the case.

How do you balance your writing with your other creative pursuits?

It can be a bit of a juggling act, but usually it’s a matter of which creative venture needs priority. A deadline helps, but at the moment I have deadlines in two different areas, one musical and one writing. It’s not unusual for two things to be running along together: they just have to give each other elbow room.

You have referred to The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret as a sequel of sorts to your first children’s book, Grimhilda!.  Please explain what you meant by that.

In terms of the ‘sequel of sorts’ I mean that only two of the characters from the earlier book appear (though Grimhilda is mentioned several times). In other words, it’s a story about a new lot of characters who have some connections to what happened in the previous book.

You mentioned that Grimhilda! was adapted from a musical that you wrote.  What motivated you to write The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret?

I’d had a sequel in mind for Grimhilda! when we produced the musical, partly because some of the cast talked about what happened next and were enthusiastic about me writing another musical. However, the idea I had in mind didn’t seem to work as a musical, or as something that could be done on stage. And I enjoyed the freedom a book version gave me to let things happen that would have been far too complicated to put in a script.

Do you foresee a third book in the Grimhilda! series?

I’ve since written a draft of a third story which will probably be described as a prequel: it’ll take place some twenty years before the events in Grimhilda! and will again only have a couple of characters in common with the first book. But it will (probably) also explain how something that was rather curious in Grimhilda! actually came about.

You have 10 grandchildren and one foster grandchild.  Have they read your books?  If so, what did they think of them?

Strangely I don’t think any of my grandchildren have read the books! They are all readers (at least those who are of an age are) but it’s mostly been their parents who’ve read to them. I think it’s probably not entirely unusual that family members are so close to you they can’t see you as someone separate: a person who writes books. However a number of the grandchildren did come to the musical, and enjoyed it, so I’ll have to do a bit of promotion amongst them in terms of the books… Thanks for the reminder!

What are the challenges unique to writing children’s books in your opinion?

I think everything has to keep moving; you can’t have too much reflection on what’s happening, or too much description of things that aren’t immediately related to the action. On the other hand, someone did comment that The Blood Secret didn’t seem to have any breathing places as the book headed towards its climax. It’s a tricky balance.

I’ve just been reading more of Diana Wynne Jones’ books. She wrote a large number of fantasy stories, with lots of magic and big events. She was a highly successful author of books for children, and yet the books vary enormously in pacing. The one I read most recently had a rather long patch towards the end when things went rather slowly and then suddenly, all of a rush, everything was sorted out and the book was over. Even one of J K Rowling’s books, I think it was the last,  had a long stretch in it where very little seemed to be happening. They tightened this up considerably in the movie. I’m not sure that children worry too much about these things; maybe it’s adult readers who do. (I think adults should read children’s books regularly; I certainly do.)

I have noticed that your blog covers a wide variety of topics, some are about writing, some are religious in nature and some are observations.  What motivates you to write your blog?

As I said earlier, I’ve written since I was young, and it seems part and parcel of my nature to record what I think about things. Before blogging came along I used to do it in exercise books or in diaries or journals on the computer. Blogging just became a way of making these things more public! I wrote a weekly column for a local newspaper back in the 90s, for five years, and in it I was free to write on anything I fancied. I guess the blogging is an extension of that. For me, blogs that keep on hammering away at the same subject week in and week out get a bit uninteresting after a while, just the same as newspaper columns that are focused only on one thing. I like variety!

Do you find social media to be more useful in marketing or in helping you to learn more about the self publishing universe?

I don’t know that I’ve made a distinction like that between them. I tend to read anything and everything that’s going when I’m first learning about something. Social media’s certainly been helpful in discerning what’s useful in terms of marketing though you have to sift between what are often opposing viewpoints. Equally there’s a heap of information about self-publishing out there: some of it is excellent, some rubbish, some marginally informative and so on. It’s the nature of the Internet. But it often points you to books that are of value: I’ve discovered several books about self-publishing/marketing, and these have probably been more helpful because they’re more focused. Deb Vanasse’s book What Every Author Should Know is one I’ve read recently that I found very good all round.

If you could ask any question on social media about self publishing and get an honest answer, what would it be?

“How can I guarantee that my books will sell very well?” I’m sure I’d get plenty of honest answers, but I don’t think I’ll get one that will guarantee sales! 

I would ask "How many books have you sold?"  There are so many of us out there and I think it would help to have a better understanding of the goals (in terms of sales) that other authors set for themselves and the timeline they set for achieving them.

With e-books by relatively unknown authors, the secret seems to be perseverance: keep on reminding people about the books through social media. But don’t do it in a way that makes it sound like you’re insisting on a sale, or like you’re advertising. Make it part of the overall conversation. Encourage people to help your books to sell by word of mouth. An endorsement from someone who’s enjoyed your books to one or more of their friends is still one of the best ways of getting the books known, even better than good reviews.

I was pleased this morning to find a tweet from a friend saying: My daughter is again reading Grimhilda, by @mcrowl. She thinks it’s ‘awesome’.  That sort of publicity is invaluable, because it’s sincere.

Well, judging by your reviews on Amazon, others find Grimhilda! awesome as well!  I really enjoyed The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret and I look forward to reading Grimhilda! (I agree with you that adults should read children’s books, and I do!).  Mike, thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts with me.  I wish you success in all of your endeavors!