Community Values

So, it looks like Alexandria legislators have decided to leave a famous statue of a Confederate soldier in historic Old Town at the intersection of Prince and Washington streets, opting to keep their powder dry for other issues.

Theoretically, communities’ actions reflect their values. That being the case, it’s worth exploring why the Appomattox statue is at that intersection in the first place, along with some parties’ concerns of whether “moving” was (and still might be) simply a first step to “removing.”

Today, the statue is largely ignored as cars zoom past. It’s unlikely many people hazard the traffic to get close enough to read the inscriptions on its base. The north side reads, “They died in the consciousness of duty faithfully performed.” The south side reads, “Erected to the memory of Confederate dead of Alexandria, Va. by their Surviving Comrades, May 24th 1889.” The east and west sides bear lists of Alexandrians who died during the war.

The lists probably don’t mean much to the average passerby, even one motivated to get close enough to read them—just unfamiliar names to skim through, perhaps finding one’s own surname in coincidence or connection.  But each name represents a person, someone who—at some point—was cherished and sorely missed.

One name blends in with the others: Hayden Fewell of Company H. He wasn’t famous, even in his day. He was, in fact, a 17-year-old boy. Chances are, he wasn’t worried about holding on to his family’s slaves or particularly well versed in tariff issues. He was probably more interested in girls than politics and went to war because his contemporaries expected him to—it would have been extremely difficult to do otherwise. He and his twin, Lucien, both enlisted as privates on April 6, 1862.

If you’ve read my book, you know that Lucien made it home and Hayden didn’t. Less than three months after enlisting, before turning 18, Hayden would be dead, killed at the battle of Glendale (or Frayser’s Farm, as the Confederates called it). His family received $87.16 for his service, about $2,000 today. A tally sheet of his effects at time of death lists the boy as “17, gray eyes, brown hair, 5 feet 8 inches tall; student.”

Edgar Warfield, also a private in the 17th, likewise lost his brother in that battle—George Warfield and Hayden Fewell shared a mass grave at the site, buried by another Alexandria native, Dr. Harold Snowden, who would return home and serve as editor of the Alexandria Gazette for decades. Warfield would run a drugstore in Alexandria for 40 years after the war and become the city’s oldest living Confederate veteran.

Many, if not most, of these stories are forgotten, or they suffer for being interpreted through a modern sensibility. The community of Alexandria is not what it was in 1861, nor even in 1961, and it is fair to discuss whether the monument represents current values. But in doing so, it is also fair to bear in mind what the monument originally represented—honor for those who made the greatest sacrifice for their community and did what their families and friends expected of them. Although it may be perceived as such now, the statue was not erected as a paean to an offensive (and lost) cause, it was a marker of grief still felt for lost souls 20 years after their passing.

In April 1885, Warfield proposed to the United Confederate Veterans that a monument be erected to the Confederate dead of Alexandria. In November 1888, the group approached the City Council about placing the statue at the intersection of Washington and Prince Streets, the point from which Alexandria troops left the city, and the Council quickly granted permission. Even then, the United Confederate Veterans foresaw that controversy might arise and petitioned the Virginia House of Delegates “that such monument shall remain in its present position as a perpetual and lasting testimonial to the courage, fidelity and patriotism of the heroes in whose memory it was erected” and that “its erection shall not be repealed, revoked, altered, modified, or changed by any future Council or other municipal power or authority.”

The area around the monument at one point measured 40 feet by 60 feet, bounded by a fence. As traffic increased, the island dwindled. Attempts were made in the 1980s to remove the statue altogether for much the same reasons cited today: Its presence was an offensive reminder of slavery, its location impractical. The emotional argument then reflected a larger debate: In its efforts to move toward greater equality and understanding, is the community better served by acknowledging its history and upholding free speech—even offensive free speech? Or is it more effective to eradicate markers and memorials that are, for many, offensive and painful reminders of the worst kind of oppression?

That time, like this time, the statue remained at its location. But the ongoing fate of this monument—now and 100 years on—will speak volumes about the community and its values.

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My First Lecture

If you manage to get a book published, and then you manage to land a gig where people are willing to sit and listen to you talk about that book, I highly recommend working it so that you have a small and friendly audience for that first outing.

I also highly recommend that you arrange to give that first lecture in the dark, with only a heavy-duty Mag-Lite illuminating the room. It hides the anxiety in your own eyes from your audience while also making it hard for you to see if your audience is falling asleep, thereby removing a source of said anxiety.

I had the absolutely wonderful opportunity to do just this last Friday, at a fund-raising overnight event for the Brentsville jail, where people got to actually spend the night in the jail and learn a little bit more about it.  People got to be a part of the jail renovation by driving nails into the floorboards (my son may have a future as a carpenter’s assistant, based on his performance), and then a mock trial was held to offer up some of the finer points of slave law and how legal representation has changed entirely for the better in the past 150 years.

Then we all trooped into the jail, which had no electricity, and I did my spiel while my kid aimed our industrial flashlight at the ceiling  so that the room was bright enough that nobody tripped but dim enough that I did not experience the aforementioned anxiety. Then the site manager escorted us all outside for s’mores and s’more stories about the jail and its history—and then we all went to bed. The site manager is an absolutely lovely man who went above and beyond and made sure that my son and I got to sleep in the room where James Clark died. I was so flattered and excited by this, I can’t even tell you. It almost made me wish I believed in ghosts so that I’d see Clark’s. (I didn’t. I flopped onto that wooden floor, buried myself in a sleeping bag and immediately zonked out til sunrise.)

Next morning I signed a few books, had a doughnut, and raced home to share the whole experience with my husband, who is far too intelligent to ever sleep on a wooden floor in an unheated building with no bathroom.  He totally missed out!

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When Your Dreamboat Turns Out to Be a Footnote…

I had a dream last night that Elvis Costello wanted to write a song about my book—he was talking about Lucien Fewell and how he had a great musical hook for the name Pistol Johnny. I didn’t get to hear the song in my dream, but I bet it was awesome.

This is particularly funny to me because back when I was first researching the book and looking for material on “Pistol Johnny” and his New Mexico exploits (which also sounds like a band name), I kept getting hits for “Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten.”  I don’t think I would like his song about my book nearly as much.

All this got me thinking about playlists. I don’t listen to music when I write. I like it quiet. That, or some kind of sporting event on TV. That’s become almost white noise for me, in that I can ignore most of it but know to look up for the replay when there’s a big commotion.

However, I do love music when I’m not writing, and I like to think about music as it relates to people I know. When I was writing fiction, one of the things I used to determine who my characters were was what I thought they would have on their iPod. It was a fun exercise and it helped me keep the tone and rhythm of different character voices in my head.

It’s a little harder to do that when writing nonfiction. I mean, the only songs I’m absolutely certain that the folks in my book were listening to were Dixie and the Bonnie Blue Flag, and I would assume some hymns and religious tunes. I don’t know a lot about the music of Reconstruction or of 1872 Virginia. And even if I were familiar with that music, I’m not sure it would really help me all that much with these guys.

But it is kind of fun to speculate about what they might listen to if they were alive today, so I’ll do that.

I suspect that James Clark would mostly be a talk radio kind of guy — lots of news, lots of keeping his finger on the pulse of public opinion. But he also liked dances and flirting, so there’d have to be some time devoted to Top 40 so he could be up to speed on that, too, and able to impress the ladies. His daddy was a Primitive Baptist elder, so odds are he’d get a lot of personal mileage out of that Dusty Springfield song when putting the moves on someone.

Fannie Fewell was 16 and from everything I can tell, smart but not very serious—the Billboard Top 40 Target Audience. To me, this means she’d either be really into angry ovaries like Sara Bareilles or she’d be all about the Katy Perry bouncy fun. Because I  had to spend a lot of time with Fannie and didn’t want to hate her, I chose to believe she fell into the Katy Perry camp, with a side of Adele. (Go ahead and hate me now: I think Sara Bareilles has an amazing voice and a horribly bratty outlook about life.)

Lucien Fewell was my favorite to wonder about. He was raised to be a Southern gentleman, but he was a mean drunk. I don’t think he was really a redneck, per se, but he wasn’t totally distinguished and confined to a drawing room. So maybe Hank Williams but not necessarily Lynyrd Skynyrd.  He took off for a new life in the wild West when it was still wild, so he was up for some rough stuff. Maybe he’d be a thrash metal kind of guy.  I finally decided he would have let Sturgill Simpson play on the jukebox without smashing a bottle into it. But I also kinda think that, like me when I’m writing, he’d probably be more inclined to settle in with the sports broadcast du jour rather than any particular music.

I really do wish my dream would have let me hear Elvis Costello’s song about him, though.

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In Which My Feminist Card Is Revoked

A friend sent me an article last week that said women undermine themselves by using the word “just” — that it is a “permission word” and makes one look weak. Hoo, boy.

This is one in a long series of “empowering” things women have been told to start or stop doing. Stop saying sorry. Don’t use qualifiers. Don’t ask “does that make sense.” Be sure to shoulder-check men walking toward you, because stepping aside shows weakness and they’re jerks if they don’t move.  But don’t let them open the door for you, because that means they think you’re weak and can’t do it yourself.

Let me get this straight. According to the zeitgeist or whoever is calling the shots out there, I—as a woman—am entitled to wear whatever I want, walk in any violent area I please, and drink myself into a stupor in any situation without any consequences or repercussions whatsoever, but I’m simply Asking For It if I am not hyperconscious about policing my words and actions to be more aggressive and abrasive in the workplace?

Frankly, all this reminds me of the convo I overheard in a ladies room a few years ago, wherein two women were laughing about a third (absent) woman who peed so loudly that it was impossible to converse over. Really? Of all the things I’m screwing up in life, now I have to worry about that, too? Jeezopete.  I’ll be too paralyzed and bewildered to speak or move at all.

I’ve read that women are culturally conditioned to be sympathetic and empathetic, like that’s a bad thing. I’ve read that women in management must worry about being perceived as a bitch or a nag if they tell employees what to do.  I’ve read that women can’t get into management because men don’t listen to them and steal their ideas.

Well, I know women make it into management.  Maybe not enough, but they are there. Every job I ever had, there was at least one woman in position as publisher, executive editor, vice president, board member. Women are CEOs, politicians, doctors, you name it. A woman is front-runner for president.

I really don’t think it’s possible that all these women got where they are because they lucked out and didn’t get their ideas stolen or because they all made conscious decisions to Stop Apologizing. I know for a fact that the women I knew in management were not considered bitches or nags because they expected people to do their jobs.

Now, they might have been considered bitches or nags because they were—surprise!—bitchy or naggy.  The same way a man would be called a dick if he pulls a dick move. There’s a difference between the woman who calls you into her office and tells you, “Look. You’re not stupid. Don’t do stupid shit, and you’ll be fine,”   and the woman who stomps out into the middle of the office and screeches at top volume, “I can’t believe this happened! WHO DID THIS?”  and stands there tapping her foot waiting for someone to step up (when nobody else even knows what “this” might be.) What would you call the person who took the latter approach?  There’s a difference between the man who takes you aside and tells you “you really fucked up,” and the guy who kicks a chair across the room demanding to know “who let this happen” (because, you know, we all LET mistakes happen.)

I have been witness to all four of those scenarios.  Guess who I thought the bitch and the dick were. Here’s a hint: It wasn’t the ones who swore. Language was not the problem.

And I think that’s really the issue, here. Language isn’t women’s problem, either. Behavior is.

Look, if you have a boss who steals your ideas, or who appears not to listen and then hijacks your comments, the problem is not that your boss is a misogynist or a woman who keeps other women down. The problem is that your boss is a jerk, gender-neutral.

And if your boss steals your idea more than once?  SORRY, but your problem is not that you’re a woman, it’s that you’re a doormat, gender-neutral. JUST to let you know, changing your vocabulary won’t fix that.

Deeds, not words. Someone who steals your idea isn’t going to care if you started that idea with “sorry” or qualified it with “just.” Working the problem is what solves the problem.

If you have ideas worth stealing, you’re obviously not stupid. Use that brain power to your advantage. Don’t do stupid shit, and you’ll be fine. Keep those ideas to yourself until you figure out how to get credit for them. Confront your boss. Confront his or her boss. Find another chain of command to advance your ideas. Go to HR. Find a new job. Start your own business.

Ever heard the phrase “talk is cheap?” That’s because it is. Being hyperconscious about trying to talk like a badass will not make you a badass. If  a badass is what you really want to be, then work on actually BEING a badass, and you will naturally talk like one. Amelia Earhart learned to fly.  Hatshepsut grabbed that crown for her own.

But why do we all have to be aggressive badasses?  I suspect Mother Teresa spent great gobs of her time saying she was sorry. Does that diminish her work? (Although now she’s being demonized for being canonized, so maybe that’s a poor example.)  Katherine Hepburn probably never yelled at anyone for opening a door for her, does that make her a sellout? How about we all start trying a little harder to operate in a way that benefits everyone?

I just don’t buy the idea that women need to “be more like men” to make it in business. Bashing into someone in the hallway because he didn’t move first doesn’t make you management material. And despite the fact that we seem to be training men to act more like women, I think that’s an equally poor choice.  I tend to agree with Almina Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon: “In the dark ages, which are not very far behind us, we used to be call the weaker sex … we are neither inferior nor superior, but only very different, and I am convinced that we shall do most good to our country and her cause if instead of imitating men we endeavour to widen and perhaps enrich the spirit of public life by simply being ourselves.”

There’s nothing wrong with saying “sorry” if you truly regret having to upset people by telling them to improve their performance.

There’s nothing wrong with saying “just” if you are merely conveying information or imparting a warning.

If the person you’re talking to has a inch-thick glaze on both eyes, PLEASE ask them “does that make sense,” —and maybe ask them to say everything back to you—because heaven knows what result you’re likely to get otherwise.

There’s nothing wrong with letting a man hold the door if your hands are full or he happened to get to the door first, and there’s nothing wrong with stepping aside and saving yourself a bruise if the guy coming toward you is more intent on his phone screen than the traffic in front of him. If he’s looking right at you and doesn’t move — again, he’s a jerk, and probably not just to women. That’s when you be a badass, chuckle, and warn him, “I’ll turn sideways if you do!”

But one can’t really control jerks, much as one might wish to; one can only control one’s self. So how about we all try being a little more human? That might even solve problems beyond one’s own personal advancement.

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Weekends of Fun

… but without the leather straps (at least, so far). Sorry, Whit Stillman.

My calendar has blown up with book events.  Two weekends ago, I was in St. Louis for an extremely enjoyable Living History weekend that included a straw poll for the Grant-Greeley election. (Spoiler: Grant won.)

Last weekend, I was up before dawn to set up my booth at Haymarket Day, a local event we’ve been going to as consumers since we moved here. One benefit of having a booth? Not having to jockey for a place to sit and watch the parade.  Plus having a canopy so the sun wasn’t beating down in my eyes.  I also got to talk to a lot of really interesting people and was pleasantly surprised when I sold more than three books, some of them even to actual strangers.  It’s funny; I don’t really enjoy being “on” and having to be convivial and engaging, but once the conversation starts, I have been known to catch myself actually enjoying the exchange.

This weekend, I’ll be doing a signing at a local bookstore. It will be interesting to see if I get more or less interest at a book-based venue.

I already have three events lined up for October and another one in December.  Plus Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations.

And yet, I feel like I probably ought to be doing more, and faster. Like if I don’t reach out immediately to This Bookstore and That Library in neighboring counties, they will reject me. But I only have so many hours in a day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.  Every new sale is a sale I didn’t have yesterday.  And all the other platitudes and bromides.

Meanwhile, I’m still dithering over whether I’ll follow this whole mishegas up with some other project or just consider this my victory and depart the field. The answer you get will depend on what moment of what day you happen to ask me, what the weather is like, if the house is a mess, etc., etc.  Part of me wants to embark on a long-term something; another part of me wonders if I should direct that energy toward volunteering at the local archives or museum instead, since the research is the part I really love doing.  I only have so many hours in a day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint … Wait, did I already say that?

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We Are the Goon Squad …

… and we’re coming to town…

I’ve been thinking a lot about fashion over the last couple of days. Not modern fashion, however. Next weekend is DragonCon, and the kid considered his outfit. (He’s going as a Stargate army dude, with his dad’s old Air Guard shirt as the basis.) I don’t dress up for DragonCon; I actually try to wear as little as possible given that it’s Atlanta in August/September. I did give half a thought to dressing up as Linden Avery from the Thomas Covenant series — all I’d need to do is wear a red flannel shirt and some marked-up blue jeans, wear a ring around my neck, and carry a big walking stick.

But then I was invited to go sign books at an 1872 event in St. Louis next month, and they asked if I could show up in period dress.

What, me? Play dress-up? With a possible tax deduction!? Twist my arm.

I am not, in fact, going to be strictly period. I’m going to be a few years behind the times. I figure this is OK; I tend to run a few years behind the trends in my current life, who’s to say I wouldn’t have in the 1860s? I’ll be wearing a big ol’ crinoline (I can’t bring myself to do hoops) and maybe a bonnet; I’ll have a fan and a parasol.

But in reality, the early 1870s had moved past hoop skirts and flared jackets. In 1872, the Dolly Varden was all the rage.

Dolly Varden got her start in life as a Dickens character. Barnaby Rudge, set in the 1780s, was written by Dickens in 1839. For whatever reason,  century-old retro became chic after the war.  The Dolly Varden fashion was a really fussy look with a lot of layers and gathers and frills. This was generally accompanied by a foofy hat with a lot of flowers and ribbons.


While I realize people ran around like this in the 1870s, I don’t think I have it in me to sit outside for two days covered up in this much fabric. Imagine if it rains!

The Dolly Varden craze went beyond clothing, however. It inspired songs and the label got slapped on just about everything from trout to cigars. There was a Dolly Varden sewing machine. A Dolly Varden cocktail. There was also a Dolly Varden cake—this was originally just a multicolored layer cake, but evolved to be the one we see today with the fake Barbie doll on top of a giant billowing skirt.


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Finally Bona Fide

“Certainly not, I gather, the world’s greatest living expert on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg . . .”

But I am, I think, maybe the world’s greatest living expert on Lucien Fewell and James Francis Clark.

This was the big week. The book is in print and available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. It’s even near the top of the hit list when you search for the title.

Click and share and retweet this link:

It is exciting stuff. I can officially call myself an author. I have a lot of fun stuff to look forward to, and I’m happy and hopeful the story will find an audience.

But the funny thing is, I don’t feel any different. I don’t feel relief or satisfaction or successful, per se. In fact, I feel like it might be  to start working on something else.  This is funny when you consider the fact that the coming months should see me talking more than ever about Brentsville and 1872. Maybe these guys have been in my head for so long now that I take them for granted?

Still, I’m glad they are there and I’m glad I got them on the page. And I’m beyond grateful to the 50 berzillion people who helped me with the project. That was probably the best part.  Well, one of the best parts. The other best part was when people whose writing and knowledge I love and respect told me I’d done a good job. Those were some over-the-moon compliments, believe me.

So now I will intersperse 1872 history tidbits with scheduled appearances and plugs for purchase. And maybe some updates on new projects, who knows?!

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Sunday Laws—on Tuesday

It’s weird to think about it now, when everything is open 24-7, when you can buy things off the Internet without even leaving your bed, and when people are hollering about letting store employees stay home on Thanksgiving, but once upon a time, Americans were spun up because you couldn’t buy things on Sundays. Nowadays, just about the only things you can’t get on Sundays are booze (depending on where you live) and your junk mail—and even mail carriers are now trucking for Amazon. (The story of Sunday mail delivery is the topic of an article my husband wrote that I really hope he turns into a  book someday. I can’t wait to read it.)

Sunday laws (or “blue” laws), which made it illegal to work on Sundays, have a long and sprawling history, and I can’t begin to wrap my arms around the topic in a blog post. The first one was enacted in Virginia in 1699. Largely grounded in religion, they varied in severity and scope over the years. By 1872, the law allowed for certain vocational exceptions and allowed counties or cities to opt out by holding referenda to override it.

The Alexandria papers were howling about the law that year because the city was poised to vote on it. Some (a majority, as it turned out) backed the law’s selling points of rest and respect (what’s wrong with rest and worship?), while others seemed understandably baffled by the law’s uneven application and lack of common sense (drug stores that sold cigars and soda water could remain open, but cigar shops and ice cream saloons had to close). There were also the sorts of protests you’d see today: the law’s fundamentally un-democratic nature (capitalism ain’t a modern invention; people wanted to make money on Sundays back then, too), opposition to it as violating the First Amendment, and its general ineffectiveness (since you just had to head over to the next town to get wasted if you chose).

Among those for whom warrants were sworn out, in addition to retailers of liquor, are the proprietor of a news store, the keeper of an ice cream saloon, the proprietor of a brewery and an ice merchant—these being reported by the members of the Anti-Sunday Law Association who say they want the law carried out according to its strict letter.

Wait, what? Why would the ANTI-law group want the law carried out? Well, because full enforcement—no ice, dairy, or poultry sales, no public transportation, among others—would inconvenience more people, thus spurring another vote on the issue and possible repeal.

In consequence to the difficulty experienced in procuring liquor in the city, the drinking places at West End and at other points outside of the Corporation limits were visited by numbers of persons who imagined they required stimulation, may of whom having found what they desired concluded to spend the rest of the day where their appetites could be indulged. During the morning a large quantity of cherry bounce was surreptitiously taken from a restaurant on the corner of King and Union streets and distributed gratuitously to persons on the wharf nearby. The bar of the Railroad Shades, kept by Mr. Henry Herbner, one of the parties fined last week with violating the law, was hung with crape during the day.

(“Cherry bounce” just sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Apparently it’s 10 lbs of cherries, 4 cups of brandy, 3 cups of sugar, and a generous pinch of pumpkin pie spice. I’ve never found a place where I could order a glass. I may have to try making it myself. If I do, I’ll let y’all know how it turns out.)

Though based in religion, the Virginia law as of 1872 at least had a veneer of secular sanctimony: “a Sunday law enacted under the police powers of the state for the purpose of providing a day of rest for persons, to prevent the physical and moral debasement which comes from uninterrupted labor does not infringe upon the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.”

Other statutes dealing with a day of rest gave a break to shellfish, making it illegal to harvest oysters (except by hand) or load them on a vessel, to take clams at all, or to catch crabs for commercial purposes. Hunting on Sunday was also verboten.

These days, Sunday laws in Virginia mostly focus on hunting restrictions. You can’t kill bears or deer with a firearm on Sundays. You can’t hunt on public lands. You can, however, shoot other things on private property as long as you have written permission and are more than 200 yards from a church.

As you might imagine, the current Sunday laws generate just as wide a range of reaction as the 1872 versions.









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FUBAR Love Triangle


My book (coming out soon, I swear!) focuses on a Southern murder in 1872. In the eyes of the jury, it was a pretty open and shut case.

By contrast, a much higher-profile murder that occurred in New York in January of that year required three trials (and the space of about a year) before all was said and done.

You might have heard of Jim Fisk. He was a war profiteers. He and Jay Gould snagged the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt. His effort to corner the gold market triggered the 1869 “Black Friday” market crash/panic. (This was back before Black Friday was a shopping thing. I think it might have been the first time a market crash was referred to as “black” but I can’t verify that.)

Jim put the gild in Gilded Age. Waxed moustache. Diamond studs. Velvet collars. He aimed for the biggest and best in all things and in sating all his appetites. Naturally, he was married, and just as naturally, he catted around as he saw fit.

One of his Kept Women was Josie Mansfield. Now, this woman is routinely described as amazingly beautiful. (Which… well, look at her. I don’t reckon she’d do so well today. It’s kind of funny how often this pops up in historical commentary, when someone is described as particularly handsome or lovely, and then you see a photo and go, ‘Huh? Him? Really!?”) Anyway, the lovely Josie aspired to be an actress (at least, that was her story) until she landed Diamond Jim, who set her up with a snazzy house near his own, not to mention clothes, jewelry (LOTS of jewelry) and whatever else she wanted. Maybe a nice coach and four.

Edward (Ned) Stokes ran a refinery controlled by the aforementioned Erie Railroad. Ned and Jim had a lot in common—both married, both big spenders with extravagant lifestyles—except Ned wasn’t as good at it as Jim because he had a bad habit of spending money he didn’t have.

(Incidentally, Jim’s wife apparently didn’t care he cheated on her; according to some reports she was off with a woman of her own.) So things are moving along nicely, everyone’s having a grand old time, til New Years 1870. Josie throws a party; Jim brings Ned. Josie and Ned hit it off—better than Jim anticipated. (Surprise!) Josie doesn’t bother to change partners, she just hides her dalliances with Ned from Jim.

So, Jim finds out he’s not the only one getting bang for his buck, so to speak, and he sends a letter to Josie telling her to set things straight. Not entirely unreasonably, she points out the he sees other women (although she’s not subsidizing his affairs—so maybe there’s a little bit of difference there). Anyway, one thing leads to another, and Josie chooses Ned. But she also chooses Jim’s money and tries to get him to hand over money she says he promised her. He declines, but does agree to pay any bills incurred up until the time she formally dumped him.

Meanwhile, Jim and Ned are also at odds. (Surprise! Again.) Fisk and Stokes fight over the refinery. Stokes says he’ll give the newspapers all Jim’s old love letters to Josie if Jim doesn’t pay up. Jim tells him to stuff it and sues him. In arbitration, Ned ends up with somewhere around $10,000—$15,000 and Jim’s attorney gets the letters.

But $15 grand doesn’t last long with Ned. So he goes back to court, saying Jim owes him $200,000 in refinery profits. He also says the love letters prove his claim. The press gets all excited, convinced that the letters are full of racy sex talk AND juicy business intrigue. Jim thinks for half a minute that he might as well have them published, but decides against it.

So things have dragged on like this for two years. A judge finally rules that Ned’s got the wrong end of things, and that the letters are where they belong. Jim decides to toss some salt in the wound and charge Ned and Josie with blackmail. Well, sir, this will not stand. On January 6, 1872, Ned sets off to confront Jim at the Grand Central Hotel, waits for him on the second floor landing, pistol in hand, and plugs him twice before trying to run off. Jim, hit once in the gut and once in the arm, lives just long enough to identify Ned as the killer.

Jim Fisk did a lot of living in the time he was around. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, it is sobering thought that when Fisk was my age, he’d been dead for nearly a decade. More than 100,000 people showed up at the Grand Opera House, where his body lay in state. A week after he died, the New York Herald printed about 40 of the disputed letters. Turns out, it was all domestic intrigue: loving on Josie and hating on Ned.

Ned is put on Murderer’s Row in Manhattan’s Tombs prison. Maybe you’ve heard about the posh digs that Al Capone had during his time at Eastern State Penitentiary? Ned did it first. He had a fancy carpet, meals brought in from Delmonico’s, bottles of cologne shipped in. He met with reporters wearing a ruffled shirt with diamond studs.

Ned goes to trial during June and July (which is why I’m writing this now) with several defense tactics: He shot in self-defense. He was insane because of Jim’s persecution of him. The shot didn’t kill Jim, the doctors poking around in his guts did—or maybe they gave him too much morphine. Result: a hung jury, with a couple jurors suspected of being bribed.

So Ned goes to trial again in December. That time he’s convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to be hanged, but the verdict is appealed and overturned on a technicality (the judge didn’t give the jury sufficient explanation on the explicit intent to kill that is required for first degree murder).

In his third trial, in October 1873, the jury finds Stokes guilty of manslaughter. He’s sentenced to six years at Sing Sing Prison, but is let out after serving half that time for good behavior (but not before his wife divorces him). He continues to have disputes in all his business dealings until he dies of kidney disease in 1901.

Josie, after trying to sue Fisk’s widow for $200,000, throws in the towel on the whole mess and takes off for Paris with a friend of hers in 1873. She dies there in 1931.

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Mary Walker and Her Knickerbockers

Late posting, again. This time I lagged because I was off on a business retreat where colleagues and I talked about fun things like serial commas, loaded language, the best way to cite weird and complicated documents in bibliographies, and how to make Word and InDesign your formatting bitches.  Then I came home to a proof copy of my book waiting for me to go through it and find all the horrible gaffes I missed in previous versions.  So that’s this weekend’s project.

First, though, some history!

This week in 1872, Washington, D.C. had a special form of celebrity striding along its boulevards. She was so well known that contemporary newspaper accounts only referred to her as “Dr. Walker.” And yet, she is virtually unknown today. Odds are you’ve heard of Susan B. Anthony. If you read Karen Abbott’s book, you’ve heard of Emma Edmonds. If you read my book when it comes out, you’ll know about Victoria Woodhull. So how many of you have heard of Mary Edwards Walker?

Honestly, the argument could be made that Dr. Walker was more of a badass and a way more useful human being than any of the other women mentioned above. She was a doctor, she was an abolitionist, and she’s still the only woman ever to win the Medal of Honor.

Part of the credit for her accomplishments must be given to her parents for her upbringing. Her mom raised her to know that women can—nay, should—pitch in with the men on hard farm labor, and her dad demonstrated that men are capable of whipping up as good a beef stew as any woman’s. Her parents were also responsible for founding the first free school house in Oswego, N.Y.,  in the late 1830s. When she was old enough, Mary taught school so she could pay her way through Syracuse Medical College, graduating with honors as a medical doctor in 1855. Naturally, she was the only woman in her class. And a fat lot of good it did her. Most people in those days didn’t think much of lady doctors, so her practice failed. Didn’t stop her, though.

She also took a dim view of women’s fashion—corsets were bad for the respiration; long skirts and petticoats were not only cumbersome, they were unhygienic,  spreading dust and dirt. Dr. Walker wore trousers from an early age. It’s interesting that there’s more commentary on her disdain for women’s fashion than just about anything else; she herself wrote two books on the issue. And it’s possible (though not necessarily probable) that if she had dressed more traditionally, she might have been taken more seriously in other areas.

In any event, this progressive was also (surprise!) an ardent abolitionist and suffragist. At the beginning of the American Civil War, she volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian, and was allowed to sign on—as a nurse. She served at the First Manassas and worked as an unpaid field surgeon near the front lines at the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga. Apparently a supporter of women masquerading as men so they could serve as soldiers, Walker applied in 1862 to serve as a spy for the Union, but was declined. (The interwebz seem to indicate she did serve as a spy at some point, however.) In 1863, she became the first female surgeon employed by the U.S. Army Surgeon, later being appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During her service, she frequently crossed battle lines and treated civilians. She was captured in 1864 by Confederate troops, arrested as a spy,and  imprisoned for four months in Richmond, Virginia, until her release as part of a prisoner exchange. After the war, she was recommended by Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas for the highest U.S. Armed Forces decoration for bravery, the Medal of Honor, and approved by President Andrew Johnson.

The war having dealt with abolition, Walker hopped on the women’s suffrage bandwagon. She’d actually been preaching this well before most of her peers, and led the way in the argument that women already had the right to vote, and Congress needed only to enact enabling legislation. She attempted to register to vote in 1871, but was turned away. When it was clear Walker’s argument was getting them nowhere, the movement changed course and promoted the adoption of a constitutional amendment. Walker, unwilling or unable to change her position to gain the advantage, fell out of favor with the majority of her former sisters.

(As an aside, it’s fascinating—and more than a little depressing—to read the old news clippings about suffrage meetings and events. Even setting aside the somewhat sexist slant of most editors of the time, the women’s movement does appear to have been greatly hindered by what might be considered traditionally feminine shortcomings. In much the same way we have Mommy Wars today, so did the suffragists struggle with infighting and women undercutting one another to serve their own personal agendas. 150 years and we still can’t get out of each other’s way about skirt lengths, bottle-feeding, working outside the home, or anything else. Are these really the issues we should be focusing on to judge each other? Sheesh!)

Clothing continued to be a cause for Dr. Walker. Newspapers in 1872 discussed how the U.S. Commission of Patents would not allow her “military costume” to be included “in the glass cabinet containing the garments of Washington and Lincoln … as an historic relic for the inspection of future generations!” adding that “the breeches are said to be much admired.” In other clips, the “Dr. Mary Walker style is the prevailing fashion for bathing suits,” and she is reported as appearing “on the streets of Washington in Dolly Varden coat and pants. She looked jaunty though.” I think my favorite retort of hers was, “I do not wear men’s clothing. I wear my own clothing.” She was reportedly arrested on a few occasions for impersonating a man. (She’s not the only one. Plenty of women were arrested for violating anti-cross-dressing laws over the years.)

In 1917, Congress dealt Dr. Walker a dirty blow, although she was likely just collateral damage. Lawmakers created a pension act for Medal of Honor recipients, leading the Army to review eligibility for inclusion on its Medal of Honor Roll and changing the rules to require “active combat.” As a result, the review board chopped Walker from the list, along with 910 other people (including Buffalo Bill Cody). But she wasn’t ordered to return her medal, and she continued to wear it until her death two years later in 1919 (when she was buried in a black suit). Her medal was restored posthumously in 1977.

There are a number of books about Walker. Pick one up, and learn more about one of your foremothers!


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