100 years ago today: Dying for drugs

One hundred years ago today Walter Wyman died as a result of a carbuncle. Wyman had access to the best medical care in the United States, perhaps the best medical care in the world. He was surgeon-general of the United States Public Heath and Marine Hospital Service. Details of Wyman\’s illness can be read in CARBUNCLE KILLS HEAD OF PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE (The Washington Herald, Nov. 21 1911) and DR. WALTER WYMAN DEAD (The Boston Evening Transcript, Nov. 21 1911).

It is easy for us to forget now deadly boils, abscesses, carbuncles and even small cuts could be in a world without penicillin, sulfa or all the other drugs we now have access to. Wyman had been hospitalized for other reasons but it was the infections that resulted from the carbuncle that killed him. This was not at all unusual in 1911 and even today people in the \”western world\” still die of sepsis.

Next time you (or someone else) is fantasizing about how well you (or they) would fare \”come the apocalypse\” remember that even those with the guns and the food stores are likely to be brought low not by other human beings but by simple blood poisoning. Or measles. Or mumps. Or influenza. Or rabies. Or tetanus. Or……

100 Years ago today: Calling on San Francisco

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

One of the things that jumps out at the reader of the newspapers of one hundred years ago is how clearly the \”flavours\” of different regions, cities, states and even classes survives over time. It isn\’t that the newspapers of the relatively undeveloped territories and comparatively newly admitted states reflected a more rural and geographically isolated view of the world than did the newspapers of the larger cities. Indeed, one of the surprising things one finds that most newspapers, once they reached the stage of daily (or at least six day a week) editions, included news from all over the world. It is easy to follow the news of the rebellion in China, the Italian campaign in Northern Africa, the unrest in Mexico and the major political issues in Canada and Great Britain.

Armed with some knowledge of the history of segregation and \”Jim Crow\” laws in American history one isn\’t too surprised to come across an almost gleeful description of a lynching in a newspaper published in a southern city or town. However it is not difficult to find the same story picked up several days later in a newspaper printed in a northern city. One may more often come across the descriptor \”colored\” after someone\’s name in a southern newspaper than those in the north but that may be due more to the fact that there were fewer African-Americans living in the regions served by some of the northern newspapers.

While most newspapers made an effort to cover news of national and international interest some events and concerns are simply more salient to one community than they would be for another. For example, much of the front page of The Tacoma Times of November 20 1911, was taken up with news about the water emergency of nearby Seattle. Reading the headline is enough to explain why the editors of The Tacoma times felt their readership would be very interested in that particular story.

SEATTLE PEOPLE RUSH HERE / Panic Stricken Over Water Shortage

But why, the casual reader might wonder, did The San Francisco Call run so many \”human interest\” stories about this fellow named Ishi? The following are just a few of the headlines about Ishi that appeared in the The Call over the previous few months.

Who exactly was this Ishi? As Georges T. Dodds explained in his review of George R. Stewart\’s Earth Abides:

In 1911, an emaciated man who spoke an unknown language wandered out of the mountains of Northern California and was jailed as a vagrant. \”Discovered\” by Dr. Alfred Louis Kroeber (Ursula K. Le Guin\’s father) and his associates in the anthropology department of The University of California at Berkeley, this wilderness man was identified as the last survivor of the white man\’s slaughter of his Californian Native American tribe, the Yahi, and probably the last entirely free-living Indian in North America.

Ishi appeared out of the mountains at a liminal time in the history of the state of California. The west coast was no longer a frontier. The only areas of the contiguous United States that had not yet been admitted to the Union as states were interior territories. Comfortable in their assurance that they have \”won\” the battle and displaced (often by killing them) the original inhabitants of what became California people could exoticize and fetishize this lone remnant of those they had deplaced/replaced and erased. And like shoppers anxiously reading Consumer\’s Digest after making their purchases, the public gained assurance that they had done right every time Ishi was reported to have done something \”savage.\” See, they could think (or say), see how childish he is. He is better off now. Someone like this couldn\’t build the great cities we have erected on the coast. Ishi\’s people could not have forged a nation that spread from coast to coast.

Ishi had become for the readers of The Call a symbol of their power, their might and their (self perceived) meritocratic right to control the lands on which Ishi\’s people had once lived.

100 Years ago today: Marked from birth to death


Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

One hundred years ago the \”color bar\” in the United States was quite firmly in place. Indeed it was so well entrenched that when reading newspapers from one hundred years ago it is easy to overlook many of the \”every day\” and pervasive aspects of segregation. Of course it stands out when, I have mentioned in other posts in this series, newspapers are reporting on lynchings but many of the rules that governed what African-Americans could do or where they could go are invisible to the casual reader of long ago newspapers. For example, it wasn\’t necessary for \”whites only\” to be included in an \”for rent\” listing because housing was so segregated at that time that contemporary readers would knows simply from the address whether the house or apartment in question was in the white or \”coloured\” part of town.

Sometimes it is a \”by the way\” and casual item that makes the modern reader sit up and remember just how heavily segregated life was for African-Americans in almost all areas of the United States in 1911. Here, for example, are the birth, death and marriage announcements on page 2 of The Washington Herald November 18 1911:

From the moment an African-American was born to the moment they died they were marked as \”other.\” If they were born in the same hospitals it would not be in the same rooms or even on the the same floor. They didn\’t go to the same churches and they were no doubt laid out at different funeral homes.

How carefully must African-Americans have negotiated the byways of a new town? If an African-American moved to Washington D.C. one of their first steps was probably to get a copy of The Washington Bee, the local African-American newspaper. If you glance through the pages of the November 18 1911 edition you will find some ads for the same stores and services as in The Washington Herald and some ads for different stores and different services. Readers could assume that any business that advertised in the pages of The Washington Bee would serve African-Americans. In fact one can find on page 3 of that edition an answer as to how people figured out if businesses were friendly to African-Americans:

Of course, there were businesses that would take money from African-Americans but not treat they as well as they did white customers. And there were businesses that wouldn\’t even take the money. If African-Americans patronized businesses run by other African-Americans they could assure themselves of good service at the same time that they supported their own community. As the writer of the article on page 4 SUPPORT YOUR OWN put it:

Since there are so many \”Jim Crow\” theaters in the city, The Bee would advise the colored people to support their own theaters. There is no reason for ninety thousand colored people to support moving picture theaters that have been set apart by white men for Negroes and bar them out of their theaters down town.
Let us support our own.

Too often the history we read of the United States excludes the voices, faces and stories of African-Americans. The great businessmen and businesswomen are white, the doctors and nurses are white, the inventors and mechanics, the painters and poets—everyone is white. Because the \”others\” are invisible we forget that they too were being born and dying, marrying and divorcing, running businesses, schools and hospitals. Reading papers such as The Washington Bee is a reminder that there was a thriving and interesting separate community of African-Americans whose stories are still not being heard.

Book Review: Strong Poison

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers (1930)

Now that\’s more like it.

After a comparatively weak outing in The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club both Wimsey and Sayers are back to fine form. Sayers adroitly introduces a new character to the regulars of the Wimseyverse while allowing characters introduced in previous books to grow, change and interact in convincing ways. Sayers demonstrates here how an author can delegate important parts of the action to \”non lead\” characters without undermining the detecting authority of the main characer. For example, the intelligence and initiative of Miss Murchison reflects well on Miss Clipsom as the person who recognized her talents and abilities. The intelligence and initiative of Miss Clipsom reflects well on Wimsey as the person who recognized her talents and abilities. Chief Inspector Parker, unlike the \”official\” detectives in so many series based on the sleuthing of unofficial detectives, is not stupid, not a bad detective, not slavishly dependent on and impressed by the amateur sleuth nor childishly resistent to pay attention to the opinions of someone who has often been right in the past.

Sayers plays absolutely fair with her readers in this murder and its detection. The final piece of information, the final datum necessary to solve the case, was something that anyone who was well read in British murder trials could be expected to know (althought they may be forgiven if they forgot that they did know it.)

This reader\’s main regret after finishing this book is that Sayers never wrote a novel, or series of short stories, that centered around Miss Clipsom. Clipsom was what I think Agatha Christie wanted Miss Marple to be, a convincing demonstration of the acuity and worth of the neglected spinster. I like to think of the many tales that Miss Clipsom could have told about what really went on behind the doors of polite British society. And then I realize that Miss Clipsom, being Miss Clipsom, would have either brought the matters to the attention of the relevant authority or taken with her to the grave those things which were immoral rather than illegal.

Rating: 4-1/2 stars

100 Years ago today: Calculating the cost of living

One of the difficult things to negotiate when reading fiction not only set in but, more importantly, written in the past is determining how much things cost and how much they were worth. For example, when Agatha Christie\’s short story \”Philomel Cottage\” was published in the November 1924 issue of Grand Magazine[1] its readers found it quite reasonable that a comfortable country cottage with heating, electricity and plumbing (not a given at that time in England) could sell for two thousand pounds.[2] Alix Martin (from whose point of view the story was written) had been able to buy it outright because she had inheriting \”a few thousand\” pounds–an amount that yielded \”a couple of hundred a year\”–on which she would be able to live. Meanwhile in \”The Manhood of Edward Robinson\” (originally published in the December 1924 issue of Grand Magazine) the titular character buys a very, very nice car for just under 500 pounds.[3]

However the modern day reader cannot simply deduce from those two data points how much it would cost to live in a certain fashion in the England of the mid 1920s since at that time very few people (even well to do people) owned their own cars and almost everyone who considered themselves part of the \”gentry\” aspired to having several servants. The cost of eating dinner then is hard to compare with the cost of eating dinner now unless one knows what the food cost at the store, how much it cost to cook it, how expensive it was to heat the house, buy the china or pay for the hot water used to prepare and wash up the dinner.

One of the best places to go for that type of invaluable information is old newspapers where advertisements and want ads provide the modern reader with information about what people wanted then and how much they were willing to pay for it.

Page six of The Tacoma Times of November 16 1911 gives today\’s reader a sense of what various things cost in Tacoma at that time:

One could rent a furnished apartment for $12.00 to $16.00 a month
Both men\’s and women\’s \”long\” coats could be bought for $10.00 apiece.
$1600.00 would buy you a 40-acre farm along with two houses.
For $1150.00 you could get 20 acres of cleared land 3-room house, barn, 6 stalls for cows, 4 large cherry trees, about 20 apple and pears, a good stove.
A (live) rooster could be bought for $5.00 and a (live) hen from $1.25 to $2.00
A sewing machine cost $5.00
You could rent a 5 room house for $10.00 a month
An upright piano could cost anywhere from $80.00 to $150.00
A \”small grocery and cigar store\” was on sale for $250.00
Hotel rooms were available from 25¢ a day
Houses in the city were for sale at prices varying from $900.00 to $1700.00
For $2200.00 (only $200.00 down and $15.00 a month) you could get a 7 room house that stood on two lots–on a paved road, with a sidewalk, sewer, and gas already connected. Both a steel and a gas range were included in the sale price.
Looking over that list some things jump out at one. The costs of a \”good\” coat was surprisingly high. A piano could easily cost as much as a year\’s rent. There seemed to be a much greater variation in \”how people lived\” than there are today. (Good) hotels rented out rooms on a monthly basis. Furnished apartments were quite common. People took rooms in boarding houses. Rooms and apartments were available with housekeeping included.

This is before the dawn of the \”homeowner\” society in North America and England. Yes, there are houses for sale in the city, but a surprisingly large number of the houses are either for rent only or far sale or rent. Outside the city the house came with the land almost as an afterthought whereas today it is often the land that comes with the house. Given the costs of houses, pianos, farms and apartments on page six it isn\’t surprising to find this item in the wanted column:

A young man with $4000 savings would like to get acquainted with a good, honest lady.

$4000 was indeed a substantial amount of money at that time and I imagine that the young man in question was able to get acquainted with at least one good honest lady.

I wonder what happened next……..


[1]Republished in 1934, under the same name, as part of the short story collection The Listerdale Mystery.&#8617

[2] The reader can deduce from other details in the story that Alix Martin inherited approximately six thousand pounds in bear bonds.&#8617

[3] Republished in 1934 as part of the short story collection The Listerdale Mystery.&#8617

100 Years Ago Today: Suffering Suffrage


WOMEN DESTROY CREDIT / Oregon Official Says Suffrage Hurts Western Cities ran the headline in the New York Tribune of November 15, 1911. According to the article, the corporate counsel of the City of Portland, Oregon (Frank Salisbury Grant) had told the Major of Boston (John F. Fitzgerald[1]) that by granting women even limited suffrage western cities were doing damage to their credit ratings. According to Grant western cities that granted women partial suffrage had more difficulties raising \”Eastern\” capital than did similar western cities that accorded women no voting rights.

Of course, even if Grant\’s claim were true it still wouldn\’t be a good argument against giving women the vote else one is opening up the door to arguing for and against the rights of anyone[2] to vote purely on the basis of whether it would help or hinder the city in which they live to get credit. However Grant\’s was concerned about what was right he was concerned about what was good for business:

Especially are women juries in civil cases the cause of much concern to business men, according to Mr. Grant.[3] Their lack of training and complete absence of everything but feminine ideas concerning things they know nothing about lead many parties to civil suits to waive jury trials and rely upon a single judge\’s opinion, he declared.

Leaving aside the validity of either of his claims (that business men were more likely to waive jury trials in areas where women have been granted partial suffrage and that female civil juror voting patterns differ from those of male civil voting patterns) let us consider his claim that female jurors vote differently than do male jurors because \”they know nothing.\” Perhaps female jurors were more cynical about the claims and arguments of the overwhelming male businesspersons who came before the court? Perhaps female jurors, knowing that they had little to no chance of ever opening or running a business suffer from fewer conflicts of interest in such cases than did male jurors. Perhaps female jurors were more inclined, given the socialization of the day, to think about what was right or wrong rather than what was profitable or good for business.

There is a tinge of real anger and concern in the statements of Grant. He, and many others, were becoming very concerned that sooner than later women across the United States would become fully enfranchised. That would not happen until the 1920 ratification of the 19th amendment however women had been voting in some states and territories for decades. The areas that granted suffrage were not notably poorer or more badly organized than were the areas that denied women the vote.

Of course there was, even as Grant made these statements, a campaign going on in his home state to extend the franchise to women–which happened in 1912. Perhaps what Grant should really have been worried about is that his statements would be read by the men and women of Portland who would be voting in the next civic election.


[1] Maternal grandfather of John F(itzgerald) Kennedy.&#8617

[2] Even male, adult, white, American citizens.&#8617

[3] The rather \”interesting\” sentence construction is in the original.&#8617

Technology and the mystery writer, part one


Technological changes may require that mystery/detective writers make changes to plots, circumstances, and situations that have worked well for a long time. For example, the current ubiquity of cell phones has made it harder for the writer to explain just why it was that Charater One did not simply call Character Two to let them know that Character One\’s car has broken down and thus their arrival will be delayed. Just a few decades ago such a breakdown might result in Character One having to walk for miles/kilometres on a dark road on a stormy night in order to reach a farmhouse from where a call might be made to the nearest garage. What opportunites this simple circumstance opened up to the inventive writer.

Someone writing a similar story set in current times needs to explain why Character One didn\’t simply call Character Two (and the towing service) on their cell. (The standard explanation now is usually \”the car broke down in one of those areas with little to no cell phone reception.) Sometimes the explanation as to why modern technology could not be used becomes rather convoluted and requires some (or a lot of) suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.

The Agatha Christie short story Philomel Cottage is a good example of a story that would have be written very differently if it were set in present day England rather than the England of 1924.[1]. In 1924 it was still almost disturbingly easy for people to move from one place to another and begin anew. Even long distance [trunk] telephone calls were unusual (and expensive.) There were no fax machines, no video conferencing, no television, most newspapers carried few photographs and it was highly unlikely that someone in one country would even see a news article that had been published in another country. If someone grew up and stayed in a small town or a closed community then they probably had few secrets from other people in the same community or social circle but it was often nearly impossible to find out much about the background of someone who had lived far away or had been out of the country for an extended period of time. That was one of the reasons why people would actually present letters of introduction (from people already known to the community) when they moved to a new place.

As Philomel Cottage begins Alix King is worried that a face from the past will bring uncertainty and unhappiness into what seems to be a perfect married life. What happens to Alix and her husband over the next few days is an example of Christie in her quietly chilling mode rather than the comfortably cozy mode that most modern readers associate with her name.

In this reviewer\’s opinion one of Christie\’s best short stories and well worth the read (or the rereading.)


[1] The story was published in Grand Magazine in 1924 and then in 1934 republished in the short story collection The Listerdale Mystery.&#8617

100 years ago today: Copyright and the moving picture industries

Today when we hear about the \”moving picture\” industry and copyrights we expect another story of some portion of the film industry charging others with infringing on the copyrights they hold. 100 years ago the news was about copyright infringement in the other direction.

In the November 14 1911 edition of The San Francisco Call reported (COPYRIGHT DECISION HITS PHOTO PLAY MEN) that on the previous day the United States Supreme Court had handed down a decision affirming the 1908 lower court ruling that the Kalem Co. had violated copyright when it filmed an adaptation of Ben Hur without permission from the copyright holders.

The importance of this decision in upholding the rights of writers is not recognizable only in hindsight. The New York Times not only reported it on the day they followed that up with a piece in the Topics of the Times on November 15 1911 which argued in that some vague \”public benefit\” should not stand in the way the rights of those who create through \”mental effort\” owning and benefiting from the that which they produced.

The Tardis in the Library, part four: The Sweet Smell of Class Essentialism

I have time machines in my library. They work like magical one-way windows for when I gaze into them I can see and listen to people from times past yet they cannot see or hear me. Some, I think, suspect that people from the future might occasionally look in on them and so they are on what they feel to be their \”best\” behaviour. It is interesting and informative to see what they consider \”best\” behaviour.\” Other people from the past seem either to be totally unaware or totally unconcerned that people from the future might pass through every once and a while.

Anyone who wants to get a sense of just how strong (and unexamined) the class essentialism of the \”gentlefolk\” of England still was in the period between the two World Wars should read popular fiction written at that time specifically aimed at that class.

Take, for example, one of Agatha Christie\’s short stories, The Listerdale Mystery, originally published in 1925 [1]. Class essentialism doesn\’t lurk in the background of this story–it is the point of the story.

Warning, past here there be spoilers.

As the short story, The Listerdale Mystery, opens Mrs. Saint Vincent and her two grown children, Barbara and Rupert, have been \”reduced\” to living in what they refer to as \”cheap furnished lodgings\” after her late husband \”speculated unfortunately\” and in consequence they lost most of their money as well as Ainsley, the home in which their family had lived for generations. Money has become scarce indeed. Barbara has been unable to find a job doing the type of work she has recently trained for (shorthand and typing) and is now considering taking any type of job if only someone would hire her. The family clearly see themselves, not only as in dire straights, but as suffering in a qualitatively different manner than all the other people living in the same house or in the \”dingy line of houses opposite,\” because because the St. Vincents had known what it was to live otherwise.

Mr. St. Vincent had both speculated and \”borrowed\” and thus a different family now lived in the house that was for generations home to the St. Vincent family. His widow explains it all by saying that her husband was not a businessman. To which this reader responded (out loud I must admit) \”then why the hell did he put his family at risk by borrowing and speculating?\”

The St. Vincents are running so short of money that soon they will not be able to afford more than a bed-sitter and Barbara will have to receive Jim Masterton (a potential suitor) in the common sitting room just like everyone else. Meanwhile Mrs. St. Vincent fears that the \”tone\” of their surroundings is have an influence on her son:

he\’s quite different from what he used to be. Not that I want my children to be stuck-up. That\’s not it a bit. But I should hate it if Rupert got engaged to that dreadful girl in the tobacconist\’s. I daresay she may be a very nice girl, really. But she\’s not our kind.

Everything changes when Mrs. St. Vincent answers a curious advertisement in the Morning Post

To gentlepeople only. Small house in Westminster, exquisitely furnished, offered to those who would really care for it. Rent purely nominal. No agents.

It turns out that the rent is indeed small enough to be of little concern even to a family as short of funds as the St. Vincents. Especially when it turns out that the beautiful Queen Anne house comes not only with furniture but also with a butler (Quentin), cook, maid and flowers and game sent weekly from the estate of Lord Listerdale (the owner of the house.) The St. Vincents are told that Listerdale has gone to Africa leaving behind instructions that his various properties be rented at extreme modest rates to the \”type\” of people who would truly appreciate them.

After the St. Vincents begin to wonder if Quentin has actually made off with Lord Listerdale it turns out, of course, that the real Quentin has retired and Lord Listerdale has taken his place in order to make up for a life of selfishness by rescuing the groups he sees to be in dire need of his help–the \”genteel poor.\”

I thought I\’d try a little altruism for a change, and being a fantastic kind of fool, I started my career fantastically. I\’d sent subscriptions to odd things, but I felt the need of doing something – well, something personal. I\’ve been sorry always for the class that can\’t beg, that must suffer in silence – poor gentlefolk. I have a lot of house property. I conceived the idea of leasing these houses to people who – well, needed and appreciated them. Young couples with their way to make, widows with sons and daughters starting in the world.

And thus, by the end of the story, the truth has been revealed and all ends happily. Lord Listerdale has fallen in love with Mrs. St. Vincent while serving her as a butler and so will marry her and take her away to live a life of leisure, comfort and no dingy rooms. Jim Masterton and Barbara have become engaged now that he has seen Barbara in a setting that showed off her true gentility. Rupert is no longer spending time with girl in the tobacconist\’s (or is doing so very quietly and on the side as have generations of his forebears.)

All ends well as a genteel family who were in danger of losing their class status are rescued without making the least effort of their own.

The class essentialism is laid on so thick in this story that if it were penned today one might presume that it was a parody or a pastiche. A wealthy man who had inherited property and income frittered it away. His widow and children are forced to live just like ordinary people. There are no inherited treasures in the house where they now room and it seems not to occur to them that particular aesthetic tastes might be social constructions or indeed that the people with whom they are now living never had enough money to \”waste\” it things that were not utilitarian. Nor does it occur to them that the cracked and cherished items that are now heirlooms were, when first purchased, expensive symbols of status as must as aesthetic choices.

Perhaps the reason that members of this class \”do not beg\” is that the usual response they get when they go to charitable organizations is to be told that they still have more than do most people in England. Or perhaps they don\’t beg because to do so would be to lose the one asset they still have– their \”genteel\” status. That status would get them in the doors of clubs and accepted at universities that might not otherwise accept them. That status allows them to marry into families were still turning away all but the richest of the \”non-genteel.\”

Note too how in this story there is no questioning, by any involved, that the \”genteel\” can be recognized almost immediately. And of course they can. Having gone to the same schools, read the same books and frequented the same society they all speak the special code. They all know the really important things in life such as which fork to use for each course at dining table and how many minutes to linger over the port after dinner.

The message to the readers is clear. The only truly worthy charity is charity to those who once had more than most people and now have to endure the horror of having no more than the average person. And the short story is a comforting read to current “members\” of the genteel telling them they need not worry if they are temporarily displaced by the current economic upheavals since they, like the St. Vincents, can be assured that their class status will always protect them from the vagaries of modern economic life.


[1] It was originally published in Grand Magazine as \”The Benevolent Butler.\” In 1934 it appeared under the name The Listerdale Mystery in the short story collection of the same name. &#8617

100 years ago today: When smoking is a civil right

Yesterday I blogged about the fact that newspapers across the United States picked up the shocking story about Mrs. Craig Riddle smoking in public. I ended that piece by making a statement might have seemed overwrought:

Mrs. Biddle may have chosen to smoke in a public place simply to demonstrate her social prominence. Yet in a way Mrs. Biddle was a pioneer of women\’s rights to the full enjoyment of citizenship just as were women who were campaigning to extend suffrage to women as well as men.

Well, 100 years ago today the following headline WOMEN MAY SMOKE IN PUBLIC SAYS CITY COUNSEL ran on the front page of The New York Evening World. The city counsel had responded to a question from an alderman as to whether an ordinance could be passed forbidding women from smoking in public. The counsel replied:

My opinion is that the courts would more likely hold an ordinance prohibiting public smoking by women to be void than valid.

It is possible also, that such an ordinance might conflict with Section 40 of the Civil Rights law, providing that all persons shall be entitled to equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges in inns, restaurants, hotels &c.

The counsel was making the point that forbidding women from engaging in behaviour that men were allowed to engage in was against the law. By creating this situation Mrs. Biddle provided the opportunity for hundreds of thousands of people to realize that that law existed and what its implications were.