Monday, December 14, 2020

In the Shadow of the White Oak


The latest book in the Orphans and Inmates series spans three centuries of Buffalo's history.  I'm excited to share In the Shadow of the White Oak: Fact Behind the Fiction, where I discuss the research that went into the story.

Friday, October 9, 2020

An Interview with Jennifer Liber Raines, Local Historian


I'm excited to share my discussion with local historian and researcher extraordinaire, Jennifer Liber Raines.  Jennifer is also a member of the Erie County Poorhouse Cemetery project at the University at Buffalo and is the inspiration for the character of Abby Stevens in the Orphans and Inmates series.  Here we discuss our mutual love of Buffalo history, the Erie County Poorhouse and archival research.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

An Interview with Psychic Medium Jackie Lunger

The course of the Orphans and Inmates series found its true north in the Spring of 2015, when I met psychic medium Jackie Lunger.  Jackie has served as an advisor for the series as it continues exploring the early Modern Spiritualism community of the Lily Dale Assembly, and also  inspired the character Charlotte Lambert.  Click on the link below and learn about our journey together. Stay safe!

An interview with Jackie Lunger

Thursday, March 28, 2019

A Brief History of Mental Health Care in New York

It was truly an honor to be interviewed for WNED's documentary Reimagining A Buffalo Landmark, about the Richardson Olmsted Campus (formerly the Buffalo State Asylum).  Check out my essay, A Brief History of Mental Health Care in New York and the accompanying interview.

The Richardson Olmsted Campus, formerly the Buffalo State Asylum.  Image by Rosanne L. Higgins.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Bridge to the Past, an excerpt from The Girl on the Shore

Lily Dale, New York ca. 1910.  Courtesy of The Lily Dale Assembly 

           “I am sorry to have sounded so dramatic.” Charlotte ushered Maude into a parlor that looked like it hadn’t changed since the cottage was built in the late nineteenth century. Her great-grandmother came to Lily Dale as a child. There was no safer place for a gifted child of color. The house had been passed along in her family, each generation producing an heir with highly developed inner senses. “I do wish you lived closer.”
The other thing passed through the family was the sense of safety and security felt in the close-knit community of Lily Dale.  Charlotte remembered well the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and what life had been like for people of color before that. Her family and others like her had always been accepted and respected in Lily Dale, and she seldom left the gated community.
“No worries.  I was happy to get away from the shop.”  Maude took a seat and reached for the cup and saucer that sat atop the fine lace tablecloth brushing against her knee.  “So, what have you got to tell me?”
“Well, last night I was walking through the woods and I was joined by a woman named Mary.  She was wearing early nineteenth-century clothes, nothing fancy; she wasn’t a woman of leisure.”
Maude knew that Charlotte was not talking about a living person, but rather a spirit. “Do you think she is connected to me?”
“Yes, I do.  She showed me images of the sea, a small thatched cottage on a remote island, and a red horse pulling a wagon over a stone bridge.  I think she was from Ireland,” Charlotte told her.
“I know I have ancestors who came from there, but I never did get around to finding out anything about them,” Maude told her.
            “She may not be your ancestor, dear.”  Charlotte looked at Maude with eyebrows raised, waiting for her to catch up.

The Leolin Woods in Lily Dale, New York. Photo by Rosanne L. Higgins 
            “I don’t understand.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she realized that wasn’t true. “Oh, wait, this woman was somehow connected to Martha.” Maude made no attempt to hush the audible sigh at the end of her statement. A visit to Charlotte usually had something to do with Martha Sloane Quinn, a nineteenth-century physician who had lived in both Buffalo and Lily Dale.
Maude had come to realize that the research started in graduate school would become her life’s work.  A project analyzing the ledgers of the Erie County Poorhouse helped complete her doctorate in anthropology, and had also connected her to Ciara, Patricia and Martha Sloane.  When Maude left her career in academia to open a business with her husband, her connection with the poorhouse and this family was not severed.  She had no idea that the building where she and her husband Don had started their antique business (and now lived in as well) only brought her closer to them.  As the details of their lives manifested themselves through dreams and research, Maude’s relationship to this family deepened.  With this connection also came the realization that Maude had some gifts not previously revealed.  She could conjure up accurate details from the past in her dreams.  With Charlotte’s help, she pieced together the clues she received. Between the dreams, historical research and a few whispering bones from the poorhouse cemetery, Maude began to understand the lives of the Sloane sisters in the burgeoning city of Buffalo.  Orphaned on the journey emigrating from Ireland, the girls had no choice but to seek refuge in the county almshouse when they arrived in Buffalo.  Each sister rose above her humble beginnings.  Ciara worked tirelessly to help the poor, Patricia became a teacher, and Martha a physician.  
           “What did this woman have to tell you?  Wait a minute; is she here now?” Maude asked cautiously.  The appearance of spirits from her past had occurred before during visits to Charlotte.  Maude took a few deep breaths to relax and  see whether she could sense the presence of this spirit. 
Charlotte watched as Maude made the effort to connect with this unseen companion, pleased that she was open to the experience.  After a few minutes, the blank look on her face indicated that Maude’s effort was unsuccessful.  Charlotte then answered her question.  “Yes, she is here now.”
“How does that work, exactly?  How can this woman, whom I have never met, know to contact me through you?”  Maude was asking partly out of curiosity and partly to delay further communication with the woman named Mary.
“The love connection is boundless; it is not unusual for someone from the other side to go to great lengths to try and make contact.  This woman loved Martha very much.  I felt the maternal energy the minute I realized she was with me in the woods.”
“So, are you saying Mary is Martha’s mother?”  Maude asked.
“I wasn’t certain last night, but now that you are here I am convinced of your past relationship,” Charlotte told her.
“What is so urgent that Martha’s mother needs to speak to me?”  Maude braced herself for the answer.

The Cliffs of Moher, Ireland. Photo by Rosanne L. Higgins 

“Well, I’m not sure exactly.  As I said, she just keeps showing me these images of the sea, the cottage on the remote island, and the horse-drawn wagon on the bridge.”  Charlotte closed her eyes in concentration.  “Along with these images, I am feeling a sense of dread.  Something unwelcome is connected to that location.”

Friday, December 29, 2017

The First Women of Lily Dale: Spiritualists, Suffragists and Psychic Healers

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the advent of Spiritualism gave women a voice and returned to them the power to heal during a time when medical education was a privilege enjoyed only by men.  The history of the Modern Spiritualist community of Lily Dale, New York emerges in book three of the Orphans and Inmates series, The Seer and the Scholar,  during the mid nineteenth century.  The ongoing story has opened the door for the introduction of new characters with psychic abilities as the series moved forward, exploring the relationship between highly developed inner senses and insanity throughout A Lifetime Again (book four). The most recent addition to the series, The Girl on the Shore, weaves characteristics from some of the strongest women of the early Modern Spiritualist movement as it takes us on a journey from the banks of Cassadaga Lake in New York, to the shores of a remote island on the west coast of Ireland.
In the United States, the early decades of the Industrial Revolution ushered in a growing wealthy class.  Unfortunately, their affluence did not shield them from the high mortality associated with acute infectious disease and war, which characterized the period.  With the chores of the household and the raising of children left in the hands of servants, many upper class women had considerable time to dwell on their losses.  It is understandable how the idea of being able to communicate with the spirit world would appeal to these women, who did not have the mundane tasks of everyday life to distract them from their tragedies. 

The Marion Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York.  Photo courtesy of Rosanne L. Higgins

One such woman is Marion Skidmore.  She was the wife of a builder and the daughter of William Johnson, one of the first Mesmerists in Laona, New York, where the earliest of the Free Thinkers in the state gathered.  Marion lost her only two children, one in infancy and the other as a young woman.  After the death of her older daughter, Marion and her husband, Thomas J. Skidmore, became very focused on Spiritualism.  They were among the original stockholders of the Cassadaga Lake Free Association, the organization that gave rise to what is now the Lily Dale Assembly.  What started out as weekly demonstrations of mesmerism in a small church in Laona evolved into week long camp sessions at nearby Cassadaga lake, where like-minded people came to practice and discuss other forms of mediumship. 
Marion Skidmore poured all the love she could not bestow on her daughters into the Spiritualist community in Cassadaga.  Under her influence and guidance, the lakeside retreat transitioned from a summer camp to a community of year-round residents.  She actively participated in every aspect of its growth from the planting of flowers and trees to the establishment of a public library and school.  She was also organizer and President of the Cassadaga Women’s Suffrage Club and was an officer in the Chautauqua County Political Equality Club.  In 1894 she represented both clubs in Washington D.C. at the National Women’s Suffrage Association conference.
Early Spiritualists called themselves Free Thinkers, and the members of the Cassadaga Lake Free Association dedicated their camp to free speech, free thought and free investigation.  Both men and women believed in the enfranchisement of women.  This kind of progressive thinking was unusual for the time period.  The woman’s suffrage movement found a home in Lily Dale, and hosted Women’s Days each year which attracted suffragists from all over the country.  Leaders in the movement including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Elizabeth Lowe Watson visited there often to participate in these events.  These women devoted their lives to woman’s suffrage, the Temperance movement and the abolition of slavery and found thousands of like-minded women warriors in Lily Dale. Elizabeth Lowe Watson gave a speech in June of 1880, opening day, dedicating the grounds to free thought, free speech, and free investigation for all time.

Women's Suffrage Tent, Lily Dale, NY, ca. 1893.  
Marion Skidmore holding the banner indicating
 that two states had given women the right to vote. 
 Susan B. Anthony seated in the middle row, third from the right.  
Courtesy of the Lily Dale Museum.

  Many women were also fighting to reclaim their role as healers during a time when the male dominated field of modern medicine was emerging.  Antoinette Matteson was a clairvoyant healer who could diagnose and treat illness with the help of her Native American Spirit guide.  Matteson had a very successful practice in Buffalo and invested much of her wealth in real estate.  In addition to her residence on North Division Street in Buffalo, she had a cottage in Lily Dale.  Matteson was a strong willed woman who locked horns with the medical establishment often.  She was arrested for practicing medicine without a license, and occasionally brought suit against those who did not pay her for the services she provided.  She also had adversarial relationships with her own children.  Matteson’s daughter, Martha Caul, a university trained medical doctor, tried to have her mother declared insane for fear that Matteson was allowing her other daughter, Nellie Whitcomb, to squander her mother’s considerable estate.  Matteson was able to avoid the supoena to appear before a judge by fleeing Buffalo.  Frustrated, her daughter dropped the charges.

Antoinette Matteson.  From The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Healing
available at the Marion H. Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York.

The Orphans and Inmates series depicts strong female characters during a time when most women were considered a liability and were passed directly from their fathers to their husbands without any say in the matter.  The women of Lily Dale are a refreshing change from the nineteenth century norm and you are likely to recognize many of their extraordinary attributes in the women of The Girl on the Shore!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A grave undertaking in A Whisper of Bones

             Ciara stood in the pouring rain vigorously rubbing her hands along her cold and wet arms to keep warm.  Two equally drenched and shivering young men removed the casket from the wagon and tried to ease it into the muddy hole they had dug by the light of a single lantern. It was just dawn on Saturday morning and the poor lads could barely see what they were doing.  It was difficult to maneuver the large wooden box on the slick ground and the men were not timid about expressing their annoyance at having to bury the body so soon after death.
            “We've gone and dug the grave in the middle of the night.  Can we no’ save the burial until after the storm has passed?”  Thomas Mulligan, the larger of the two, complained after he had lost his footing on the wet ground for the second time and nearly dropped the casket.
            “No!”  Ciara's comment was punctuated by roar of thunder so well timed, it made both men shudder.  “She'll have a decent burial, or at least what passes for decent 'round here.  She was a good woman and deserves as much.  Quit yer wailin’ and get on with it!” and then another well timed burst of thunder, this time with lightning.  If the men were back in the old country they would surely think her a witch.  Ciara pulled her soggy shawl around her shoulders as she and Michael moved under the large oak tree thinking its few remaining leaves would provide some sort of shelter from the storm.
            As the wind picked up, driving the rain directly into their eyes, the desire to get out of the weather overrode any fear of Ciara Nolan's wrath, supernatural or not.  “Mr. Proctor says three days in the death house before they’re put in the ground, just in case one of these poor sod's ‘as got someone willin' to pay for a proper burial.”  Joseph Buxton argued hoping the mention of the Poorhouse Keeper's name would change her mind. “Mr. Proctor will no’ be pleased we didn’t wait,” Buxton continued.
            More likely he was not pleased that the general good health of the inmates and the scrutiny of the Board had left him with precious few poor souls he could sell to the medical college, Ciara thought.  “Never ye mind, Mr. Proctor,” she said.  “He'll be none the wiser unless one of you tells him.”  At present he was at his family hunting lodge in Williamsville. When he returned on Monday, everyone would have forgotten about this poor woman. “To be sure he'll make you dig her up so that she can wait her few days in the death house.” Ciara placed special emphasis on the word wait to indicate to the two men that she knew full well there would be no period of waiting.  The body would be dug up and sold if Proctor learned of her death.
            The men nodded to each other as they took a minute to consider the miserable task of slogging through the mud and clay to exhume her body, which would be harder to take out of the grave than it was to put in, not to mention that, should they be caught, they’d likely be thrown in jail. “He'll no’ hear about it from us, but should he notice this,” Mulligan gestured toward the swamp that had been created by digging a grave in the pouring rain, “I'll be tellin' him 'twas you stood out here and forced us to do it.”

                “The more you should hope he doesn’t,” she replied. “For if I must, I will explain my reasons to Mr. Pratt and the Board of Directors, and where will ye come out of all this if I do?”  While both Mulligan and Buxton lacked any formal education, they were smart enough to know that William Proctor would likely deny any wrong doing and point the finger at them.  Without another word, the men completed their task.