The Winner of Hanging Mary

Joye has won a copy of Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham. Congrats to Joye!

Thanks to Susan Higginbotham for a glimpse of Sarah Slater aka “The Veiled Lady,” courier for the Confederacy. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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The Veiled Lady: Sarah Slater, Courier for the Confederacy

Susan Higginbotham author photoRelevant History welcomes Susan Higginbotham, a prize-winning author who has published historical fiction and biography. Her latest historical novel, Hanging Mary, her first to be set in the United States, is narrated by Mary Surratt and her young boarder, Nora Fitzpatrick. To learn more about Susan and her books, visit her web site and blog, and follow her on Facebook.


One of the shadier characters—literally—to frequent Mary Surratt’s Washington, D.C., boardinghouse in the spring of 1865 was a mysterious young woman named Sarah Slater, who kept her comely face hidden under a veil.

Confederate Courier
Born in 1843 in Middletown, Connecticut, to parents of French extraction, Sarah Antoinette Gilbert, known also as “Nettie,” grew up in that state. In the late 1850’s, however, most of the family moved to eastern North Carolina, where in June 1861, Sarah married Rowan Slater, who had been working in New Bern as a dancing master. Rowan enlisted in the Confederate army, as did three of Sarah’s brothers. One brother died in Goldsboro, apparently of illness, and the other two grew disillusioned with army life and eventually deserted.

Meanwhile, Sarah, childless and deprived of her husband’s company, decided in January 1865 to return to New York, where her mother was living. Confederate officers granted her a pass to cross through the Confederate lines. Someone, however, realized that Sarah, with her fluent French acquired from her parents, would be an excellent choice to convey messages between Richmond and Montreal, where the Confederacy had an outpost. If caught, she could always claim that she was a native of Canada. Why she agreed to this proposal we cannot know. Perhaps Sarah wanted to do her part for the cause in which her husband was serving; perhaps she was simply adventurous and bored.

Sarah’s first assignment was to carry papers to Montreal, a task she accomplished in February 1865. Mary Surratt’s son John, another courier, met Sarah in New York and traveled with her to Washington, D.C., where yet another Confederate operative, Augustus Howell, met Sarah in front of Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse and took her to Virginia.

Mary Surratt's boardinghouseIn March, Sarah once again made the hazardous trip North, this time staying overnight at the Surratt boardinghouse, much to the interest of Mary’s boarder Louis Weichmann, who gave up his bedroom for the veiled lady. General Edwin Gray Lee, a Confederate agent based in Montreal, wrote on 22 March that he had “helped . . . to get the messenger off. I pray she may go safely.” On 25 March, Sarah arrived once again at the Surratt boardinghouse. This time, Mary and John Surratt traveled with her to Maryland, where they were met by the distressing news that Howell, who had been assigned to take Sarah across the Potomac and then to Richmond, had been arrested. John Surratt took it upon himself to take Sarah to Richmond, where they remained until 1 April. Two days later, they arrived in Washington, to be greeted with the news that Richmond had fallen to the Union. The next morning, 4 April, they went North again. It was Sarah’s last mission for the Confederacy.

New York Matron
John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln on 14 April 1865, a crime that sent Mary Surratt and three others to the gallows in July 1865. In the investigation and trials that followed the assassination (John Surratt was tried in 1867 but went free), the name of the lady known only as “Mrs. Slater” or by her aliases of “Kate Thompson” or “Kate Brown,” came up frequently, but no one seemed to know her whereabouts. One defendant, George Atzerodt, who had been assigned to kill Vice President Johnson but lost his nerve, claimed in one of his confessions that Sarah “knew all about the affair.” He described her as “about 20 yrs of age, good looking & well dressed. Black hair & eyes, round face.” In another confession, he added, “Mrs. Slater went with Booth a great deal.”

Nonetheless, the government failed to locate Mrs. Slater. This was left to the Hartford Evening Press and the Hartford Courant, which with help from their readers identified her as the former Sarah Gilbert of Middletown and Hartford; in the latter city, the Courant sniffed, she had “enjoyed a doubtful reputation.” But no one followed up on this information, and it was not until 1984 that James O. Hall, noted for his research into the Lincoln assassination, traced Sarah’s history from childhood through April 1865. Even then, it was left for later researchers to find her history past that date.

In fact, Sarah had made little effort to hide. She and her husband, Rowan Slater, reunited in New York City after the war, but their marriage would not last. In August 1866, Sarah took what was then the extraordinary step of seeking a divorce, alleging that Rowan had been unfaithful to her. The divorce was granted in November 1866, apparently because Rowan did not contest the allegations. He returned to North Carolina, but Sarah stayed in New York. On 5 December 1867, she married for a second time. Her husband, twenty years her senior and with a number of children, was Jacob M. Long, the superintendent of the Harlem Gas Light Company and also an alderman associated with the Tammany Hall political machine. The marriage produced no surviving children.

Jacob Long died in 1889. By 1902, Sarah was living in Poughkeepsie, New York, and working as a nurse. Then, in 1912, Sarah’s sister Laura Louise Spencer died in Brooklyn, leaving a widower, William White Spencer, a police department clerk. A year later, on 22 July 1913, Sarah, the former Confederate courier, married her brother-in-law William, who had served in the Union army. The couple moved to Manhattan.

The marriage was short-lived. William died in October 1914. Sarah eventually returned to Poughkeepsie, where she died of chronic parenchymatous nephritis on 20 June 1920, leaving behind land in several states, numerous articles of jewelry, and a collection of souvenir spoons. Like many ladies of her time, she felt no need to be candid about her age; as a result, her tombstone shaves a dozen years off her date of birth. Perhaps it also helped to conceal an exciting past about which, as far as we know, the old lady who died in Poughkeepsie had been completely silent.


Hanging Mary book coverA big thanks to Susan Higginbotham. She’ll give away a paperback copy of Hanging Mary to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available in the U.S. only.


Did you like what you read? Learn about downloads, discounts, and special offers from Relevant History authors and Suzanne Adair. Subscribe to Suzanne’s free newsletter.

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The Winner of Thunder Beneath My Feet

Jody has won a copy of Thunder Beneath My Feet by Carolyn Mulford. Congrats to Jody!

Thanks to Carolyn Mulford for describing the devastation of an earthquake before modern seismology. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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World’s End in New Madrid

Carolyn Mulford author photoRelevant History welcomes former magazine editor and freelance writer Carolyn Mulford, who worked on five continents before making the transition to fiction. Thunder Beneath My Feet is her second middle grade/young adult historical novel. The Missouri Center for the Book selected the first, The Feedsack Dress, as the state’s Great Read at the 2009 National Book Festival. Show Me the Ashes, the fourth in her award-winning contemporary mystery series for adults, will be released in hardback and ebook on 16 March. To learn more about her and her books, visit her web site, and follow her on Facebook and Goodreads.


The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 must have been part of my Missouri history class in grade school, but I’d forgotten about them by the time I wrote a reading comprehension exercise about the quakes for a textbook. Soon after I wrote a travel article featuring Tennessee’s 15,000-acre Reelfoot Lake, an overnight creation of the quakes.

Memories of those assignments resurfaced thirty years later when I was searching for a topic for my second middle grade/young adult historical novel. I’d loved reading historical novels since discovering Lucy Fitch Perkins in the third grade, and I wondered why I’d never seen a novel about three of the country’s most powerful earthquakes.

By the time I figured out the answer, I was committed to the project.

Just the facts
I began by reading everything I could find about the quakes. Opinions differed on whether three or five quakes occurred and whether they rated closer to 7.6 or 8.6 on the Richter scale. The latest and most official source, the U.S. Geological Survey, recognizes three big ones: 16 December 1811, 23 January 1812, and 7 February 1812.

Sources agree that Jared Brooks, a Louisville engineer, made the best contemporaneous measurements of the severity of the shocks (quakes) and shakes (aftershocks). He recorded 1,874 shocks, eight violent and ten very severe, over three months. His records of the shocks (and the weather) gave me a basic timeline. I filled it with fragmented accounts from residents and travelers. The title, Thunder Beneath My Feet, comes from one of those accounts.

No one can cite an exact number of deaths. Older books said about 100 people died. A recent source estimated 1,500. The disparity derives from neglecting to count Native Americans (the major inhabitants of the hardest hit area), slaves, and many who vanished in the Mississippi.

The river became deadly. It ran backwards, carrying flatboats upstream or capsizing them. Oceanic waves swamped canoes. Falls formed. Giant trees from the banks and dead ones dislodged from the river floor clogged the water. The water rose like a tide at night, forcing boaters to cut their moorings to avoid being dragged under.

In New Madrid, brick homes and chimneys crumbled. Log homes fared better, but many caught fire. Giant trees split up the middle. Sand boils erupted. Ravines appeared. Lakes formed and drained. Furrows resembling giant waves appeared in the fields. A stench rose from the eruption of rotted vegetation and gases. The shocks and shakes went on and on, sometimes around the clock, sometimes concentrated in one part of the day or night, always unpredictable.

I had the facts. They yielded no natural narrative line, no obvious heroes or villains, no dramatic climax, no happy ending. That’s why novelists had avoided the story. I spent weeks conceiving a satisfying plot.

Plus the people
Events become memorable when we see how they affect individuals. Obviously the quakes brought months of intermittent terror and constant misery to New Madrid. They also frightened people in most states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Louisiana.

I focused my research on the 1,200 or so people in New Madrid, Upper Louisiana Territory—soon to become Missouri Territory. Positioned on a huge river bend roughly 200 miles south of St. Louis and 50 miles south of where the Ohio entered the Mississippi, the ambitious river port drew traders, suppliers, and the usual restless frontier folk. Some envisioned New Madrid competing with St. Louis.

The quakes took place eight years after the United States bought Louisiana from France, which had just acquired it from Spain. In the village’s broad streets and parks, people spoke English, Spanish, French, and Native American languages. Apparently the groups both objected to and adapted to each other’s ways.

One person’s trauma
Choosing a protagonist was easy. I preferred to relive the disaster with a teenage farm girl. Left in charge of her younger brother and the family farm outside New Madrid, she has no idea what’s happening when the first quake throws her out of bed. A French-Canadian identifies the disruptions as earthquakes but can’t explain what causes them or, more important, say when they will end. The sensible, courageous girl concentrates on food and shelter, on surviving the chaos. My childhood experiences on a pre-electricity farm and many visits to historic sites helped me figure out what she would do.

The odds are that no one there had ever experienced an earthquake. Some probably had heard that quakes toppled steeples in Boston in 1755. Certainly no one anywhere anticipated the diverse damage this series would cause and how long it would last.

By the third day, hundreds of people near the epicenter believed the world was ending. They fled from the flatlands to the nearest big hill, about a two-day walk, to escape anticipated floods and to pray for deliverance. A dark, dense, odiferous fog and occasional flashes of light coming from the ground make the teenager wonder if they could be right.

Circumstances compel her to remain on the farm, but she realizes she and her younger brother can’t stay alone. Their parents may have died in the quakes, and the nearest relatives live in eastern Kentucky. She takes in four newly homeless people—a French-Shawnee teenager, a young French-Spanish couple, and a mute slave woman. The story centers on how these six people respond to disasters and to each other.

As I worked on the manuscript, I realized that the frontier society’s problems foreshadowed the divisions that turned Missouri into hell during the Civil War and haunt it today.

Seismologists say that the earthquakes come in 200- and 500-year cycles. Human behavior appears to be a continuum. I can’t do anything about either, but I added earthquake damage to my home insurance policy.


Thunder Beneath My Feet book cover imageA big thanks to Carolyn Mulford. She’ll give away a paperback copy of Thunder Beneath My Feet to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available in the U.S. only.


Did you like what you read? Learn about downloads, discounts, and special offers from Relevant History authors and Suzanne Adair. Subscribe to Suzanne’s free newsletter.

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The Winner of Hand of Fire

Ashley McConnell has won a copy of Hand of Fire by Judith Starkson. Congrats to Ashley McConnell!

Thanks to Judith Starkson for the scoop on Pharaoh Ramesses II’s sneaky propaganda machine. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


Did you like what you read? Learn about downloads, discounts, and special offers from Relevant History authors and Suzanne Adair. Subscribe to Suzanne’s free newsletter.

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Figuring out the Winner: Propaganda and Reality, Hittites vs Pharaoh Ramesses

Judith Starkson author photoRelevant History welcomes Judith Starkson, who writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Her debut, Hand of Fire, set within the Trojan War, combines history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’ captive Briseis. Hand of Fire was a semi-finalist in the prestigious M.M. Bennett’s Award for Historical Fiction. Starkston’s upcoming mystery series features Queen Puduhepa of the Hittites and won the San Diego State University Conference Choice Award. Puduhepa signed the first surviving peace treaty in history with Pharaoh Ramesses II; now she’s a sleuth. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. UC, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell). For more information, visit her web site, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


Getting to the truth in wartime has always been challenging. Governments save face and misrepresent their military strength and their moral rectitude as combatants. As a child, I remember the photographs of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam undermining my own sense of my government’s position in that unfortunate war.

Ancient propaganda in stone
Ramesses smiting the Hittites[Ramesses smiting the Hittites, Ramesseum, Photo by Morgana] In Egypt following the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE, Pharaoh Ramesses ordered a version of this battle carved onto walls of his Ramesseum, his memorial temple to himself (as well as some other buildings—repetition was a virtue in his propaganda efforts). The Pharaoh, giant-sized, is shown crushing the very tiny Hittites single-handedly with his scepter. You would assume from this grand and heroic scene that Ramesses had retaken all the disputed lands in Syria from the Hittites, that he was the undisputed victor. Pharaohs get to tell history their way in their own land. Who’s going to argue with a god who rules the land with absolute authority? (More or less, putting aside those pesky uppity priests and internecine family squabbles, etc.)

Reality on the Hittite side
However, the Hittites, Ramesses’ foes, were no weaklings, even if they didn’t leave a pictorial version of their own of this key battle. A close look at the aftermath of Kadesh shows that Ramesses engaged in some unjustified propaganda.

First of all, you may be wondering who the Hittites were. Ramesses, of “let my people go” Moses fame (if we can stray from history into possibly legendary material), is a relatively familiar character from the dust pile of history. But there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Great King Muwattalli and his younger brother and most reliable general, Hattusili. The Hittite Empire sprawled from the western Aegean coast of what is now Turkey across the Anatolian plateau and down into what is now Syria and Lebanon. The Hittite Great King and the Egyptian Pharaoh addressed each other as “Brother” in recognition of their equal power. Sometimes a Babylonian or Syrian king got to claim such lofty status, but not always. So the fact that the Egyptian kingdom stretched up into the Levant and the Hittite Empire stretched down into the Levant, and thus they butted up against each other was just sure to cause trouble.

Ramesses, early in his reign, was determined to match the heroic achievements of his predecessors after a generation or two of less than heroic pharaohs dimming the glory of Egypt’s martial reputation. He made a series of raids into these disputed areas in 1275 and then launched a full-scale war in 1274. Muwattalli was ready for him. More ready than the inexperienced Ramesses, as it turns out.

The battle
In his eagerness to take back his Syrian territory, Ramesses launched ever northward, ahead of his main fighting divisions. Not far from Kadesh, he found two Bedouins who claimed to want to leave the service of the Hittite Great King and join the Egyptians. They explained that Muwattalli’s army was far away in the Land of Aleppo. Ramesses took them at their word, sent no scouts out, and crossed the river (thus separating himself even more from his troops who hadn’t made it there yet) to set up camp outside Kadesh.
Actually, the Hittite main force was camped on the far side of Kadesh. They made a secret attack and nearly wiped out the whole Egyptian army. The eminent historian Trevor Bryce describes what happened next: “Ramesses, making up for his earlier recklessness and gullibility, stood his ground with an exemplary show of courage and leadership—at least according to his own version of the events” (The Kingdom of the Hittites p. 237).

How much this turn of the battle was due to Ramesses’ personal leadership skills in battle and how much was due to the timely arrival of some Egyptian reinforcements will forever remain debatable. But what we do know is that Ramesses listed the slain Hittite officers on the walls of the Ramesseum, and we have no reason to doubt the accuracy of that part—the Hittites took huge losses. We also know that the Hittites avoided renewed conflict, which again shows the losses they must have suffered in men and weaponry.

The long-term result: peace
Treaty of Kadesh between Ramesses and Hattusili/Puduhepa[Treaty of Kadesh between Ramesses and Hattusili/Puduhepa]It was a war whose large scale had done permanent damage to both sides, and these two sides eventually signed the first extant peace treaty in history, which you can see in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. By that time, younger brother Hattusili was Great King and his indomitable wife, Puduhepa, also placed her seal on this treaty. Queens got a lot of respect among the Hittites, not at all like most of their ancient contemporaries.

The key to understanding who “won” Kadesh lies in the spoils. The Hittites regained control of some cities that had recently fallen into Egyptian influence and they took control of several cities that had always been in the Egyptian camp. Does not sound like an Egyptian win. The eventual treaty does not spell out the boundaries in detail, but it leaves in place the status quo after Kadesh—noticeably in Hittite favor.

So whatever you see while touring the famous temples and mausoleums of Egypt, the Hittites came out marginally ahead. Both sides came out chastised into peacemaking. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of those currently engaged in self-destructive wars in this same region today came to a similar conclusion? Maybe they should read some history.


Hand of Fire book coverA big thanks to Judith Starkson. She’ll give away a paperback copy of Hand of Fire to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available in the U.S. only.


Did you like what you read? Learn about downloads, discounts, and special offers from Relevant History authors and Suzanne Adair. Subscribe to Suzanne’s free newsletter.

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You Can’t Put That in the Movies

Sheila York author photoRelevant History welcomes Sheila York who, after a successful career in TV and radio, began writing novels combining her love of mystery, history and the movies. Her series features screenwriter Lauren Atwill (and her lover, private detective Peter Winslow) chasing killers in the last hurrah of the Great Golden Age of Film. Sheila’s first novel, Star Struck Dead, won a Daphne du Maurier award. Lauren’s latest adventure, No Broken Hearts, was praised by Charles Todd: “If you love a terrific mystery, York is a must read!” To learn more about her and her books, visit her web site, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


Censorship has a long, complicated history in America. Don’t worry, I’m going to spare you that.

Instead, we’re going on a short, high-points tour of the censorship of American film. Ah, maybe you didn’t know movies were once heavily censored. You thought in all those Golden Age films when passion overcame lovers, they just naturally pressed their cheeks together and faced the camera rather than locking lips. And never noticed the lack of cleavage and that nobody got away with a crime.

There were, you see, rules. They were called the Production Code, and they controlled the content of American films from 1934 until replaced with an early form of our ratings system in the late 1960s (following years of rebellion by filmmakers and audiences).

OK, here’s our first stop: the very first line of the Production Code.

No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.

Wow. You’ve got to wonder what led to that.

The power of silents
The impact of silent films is hard to imagine today, in an age of instant communication, but they were our first shared national cultural experience. Across the country audiences thrilled to the same movies with the same stars, and devoured the same fan magazines (a new sensation) awash in stories about them. American film stars were the most famous people in the world – Fairbanks, Swanson, Chaplin, Pickford, Keaton, Valentino.

However, silent films had no rules, and pretty quickly communities and religious groups worried about movies’ influence, and what some filmmakers were up to: flouting conventional morality, ridiculing authority, reveling in sexual innuendo, and joking about drunkenness and drugs.

By 1921, five states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Kansas, and New York—had established censorship boards. With nearly 30% of America’s ticket sales, they had the muscle to ban individual films in their states or delete scenes they deemed inappropriate. Some cities followed suit. After traveling through a few towns, a film could be rendered incomprehensible.

Some citizens thought the federal government should control films.

We can police ourselves. Yeah, sure.
In 1922, the major studios formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and picked Will Hays, a man well connected in Washington, to run it. The best the MPPDA could do was create a long list of content guidelines, “The Don’ts and the Be Carefuls”. Compliance was voluntary.

The sound and more fury
Mae WestIn the late 1920s, films began to speak; reformers could be shocked by what they saw and heard. And they saw and heard plenty. When the Depression cut into box office, studios discovered sex and violence could sell tickets. Tommy-gun-toting gangsters ruled in films like Little Caesar. Mae West brought her shocking double-entendres to Hollywood.

Sign of the Cross with gorillaAnd Mr. DeMille made a movie called—I’m not kidding—The Sign of the Cross. Orgies, Christians sacrificed, Claudette Colbert bathing naked. The theory seems to have been that this would demonstrate Roman degeneracy.

Maybe Mr. De Mille just couldn’t control himself.

Hey, what about a Code? It was already there.
The Code was written in 1929 by a priest named Daniel Lord and Martin Quigley, a movie-industry-publication owner (and devout Catholic). Quigley (and many others) lobbied for its adoption. Studio heads agreed, but the administration they created in 1930 had only the power of persuasion.

In response, the Catholic Church developed its own ratings system. Then came their Legion of Decency. Its pledge’s first line gives you some idea of how the Church felt: I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures.

Seal of ApprovalFinally the MPPDA ceded full power to control content. Beginning 1 July 1934, films could not be distributed without the Code seal of approval. The Code finally had teeth. Joe Breen, a public relations man and movie lover with excellent Church connections, ruled the Code Office for the next twenty years.

His office screened books/plays whose rights the studios were considering purchasing. Studios submitted draft scripts for early advice. While filmmakers could negotiate (and the Code Office would sometimes change its mind), they had to get approval of their shooting scripts and the final cuts of their films.

So this, briefly, is how we ended up with movies striving not to lower moral standards, in which adultery could never be justified and marriage was sacred. No nudity or suggestive costumes. No excessive kissing or drinking. Justice must triumph.

Here are a few of my favorites from the 1940s, the decade in which my heroine must grapple with the Code, with some Code notes you might enjoy.

The Best Years of Our Lives (46): The Code Office wanted all drinking eliminated. Try handling that when your script has a crucial bar-hopping scene.

The Big Sleep (46): Notice how much sexual innuendo they get away with in the bookstore.

The Blue Dahlia (46): In the original script, the wounded ex-Navy flyer (William Bendix) was the killer. Shown the script, the Navy objected. The movie got a new killer.

Casablanca (42): The censors forbade any overt indication that Captain Renault exchanged visas for sex; notice Strasser must draw his gun before Bogart can fire.

Crossfire (47): The murder victim in its source novel, The Brick Foxhole, was homosexual. Breen called it “completely unacceptable.” The victim became Jewish. The writer made sure to give him a girlfriend.

Double Indemnity (44): The poignant ending was made possible because the Code Office forbade any portrayal of an execution in early notes.

The Lady Eve (41): Check out Stanwyck/Fonda nuzzling in her stateroom. Pretty hot, but notice she’s on a chaise and he’s on the floor.

The Maltese Falcon (41): The Code Office forbade the suggestion of Spade’s affair with his partner’s wife (though it’s still crystal clear).

Notorious (46): It’s amazing this movie ever got made: a woman of loose morals as the heroine? Screenwriter Ben Hecht is my hero.

Rebecca (40): No one can get away with murder. The book’s resolution changed.


No Broken Hearts book cover imageA big thanks to Sheila York. She’ll give away hardback copy of No Broken Hearts to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available in the U.S. only.


Did you like what you read? Learn about downloads, discounts, and special offers from Relevant History authors and Suzanne Adair. Subscribe to Suzanne’s free newsletter.

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Travel in the Sixteenth Century

Anna Castle author photoRelevant History welcomes back Anna Castle, who writes the Francis Bacon mysteries and the Lost Hat, Texas mysteries. She’s earned a series of degrees—BA Classics, MS Computer Science, and PhD Linguistics—and has had a corresponding series of careers—waitressing, software engineering, assistant professor, and archivist. Writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning. To learn more about her and her books, visit her web site and follow her on Facebook.


Many of us traveled over the last Christmas holidays, heading out in trains, planes, and automobiles to visit friends and family. December isn’t the best season for travel in the northern hemisphere. Snow falls and wind blows, even across the southern tier. Still, all in all, we expect to get where we’re going in a day or two under fairly predictable circumstances.

Let’s travel back four centuries to Elizabethan England. Many people journeyed home from the capitol to spend the holidays with their families, like the gentlemen of the Inns of Court, who only came to town when the courts were in session.

Horse or carriage?
Your options for transport were horse or shank’s mare (foot). Coaches appeared in England in the 1590s, but they were only for the wealthy and chiefly used inside the metropolis. Men like Sir Horatio Palavicino and Anthony Bacon, both of whom suffered terribly from gout, traveled by coach, but neither traveled far. Anthony once tried to get from Twickenham to Windsor to answer an invitation from the queen, but was forced to cut his journey short at Colnbrook, about six miles away. The coaches must have been dismally uncomfortable.

Catherine de Medici riding sidesaddleMost barristers would have ridden their own horses with their own handmade saddles and a servant or two to carry their packs and keep them company. Women traveled on horseback as well. They could choose to ride astride or sidesaddle. The sidesaddle was improved by Catherine de Medici in the sixteenth century, making it easier for women to control their mounts and thus ride independently.

Lesser folks walked when they needed to get from one place to another. I love to imagine Christopher Marlowe loping along with his rangy stride from Canterbury to Cambridge. As a cobbler’s son, he wouldn’t have owned a horse. University scholarships didn’t run to that level of luxury. Still, he was young and healthy and would easily have found companions on those well-traveled roads.

Are we there yet?
A horse walks at 3–4 miles per hour and trots at 8–10. 2–3 mph is normal for a person walking. Your servants could comfortably walk alongside your horse. Twenty miles a day—ten there and ten back—was typical on a market day. This is why towns in places like England (settled before horses and carriages became common) tend to be about ten miles apart.

Twenty miles a day would make a good day of travel, whatever your mode of transportation. This delightful tool will draw a twenty-mile radius around any location you please. Francis Bacon could reach his mother’s house in Gorhambury, near St. Albans, in one day—if it weren’t for his hemorrhoids, which frequently drove him back to his chambers at Gray’s Inn.

A person on horseback with reason to hurry could travel 30–40 miles in a day, but then he’d have to change horses to go further. Robert Carey famously rode from London to Edinburgh in just under three days, to deliver the news that Queen Elizabeth had died.

Lost and found
I’ve gotten lost two miles from a major road in England, or rather I’ve reached forks in the road between which I could not choose and been forced to turn back. I once went rambling with a group of experienced hikers, equipped with maps and GPS apps, and stood waiting while these gadget-minded men debated the correct turn to take. It’s amazing how quickly landmarks disappear behind trees or gentle hills.

Unless you knew your road and knew it well, you would need a guide. Major roads, like those used by the nascent royal postal service, might be clear enough to get from town to town with minor assistance at crossroads. Major roads ran between Dover and London, London to Edinburgh, and Canterbury to Oxford (among other routes.) In December, these major thoroughfares would be muddy and badly rutted. To venture farther afield, you’d have to rely on locals for directions and hope they gave you good information.

1570 first map of ScotlandThere were maps aplenty in those days—map-making was a booming craft—but they weren’t meant to aid travelers on land. Maps of coastlines, made by sailors, were amazingly good, but interior spaces were not often well represented. The Tudors were just beginning to get England’s roads organized into some kind of system. This map gives you an overall sense of Scotland’s topography, but it won’t get you from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

In 1586, Michaelmas (autumn) term ended on 3 December. The courts re-opened for Hilary term on 12 January. That gave you a little less than six weeks vacation. If you lived in the north, in someplace like Lancashire, it might take you ten days to get home. Another ten to ride back and you’ve barely had time to kiss your wife and watch your children open their New Year’s gifts. At least you wouldn’t be stranded in an airport!


The Widows Guild book coverA big thanks to Anna Castle. She’ll give away an ebook or autographed paperback copy of The Widows Guild, her third Francis bacon mystery, to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide for the ebook and the U.S. only for the paperback.


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The Winner of Murder in the Merchant’s Hall

Carole Weiss has won a copy of Murder in the Merchant’s Hall by Kathy Lynn Emerson. Congrats to Carole Weiss!

Thanks to Kathy Emerson for showing us an example of how she extrapolates a mystery plot from historical facts. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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Extrapolating from the Facts

Kathy Emerson author photoRelevant History welcomes Kathy Lynn Emerson, aka Kaitlyn Dunnett, author of over fifty books. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries as Kathy (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall). The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. To learn more about her and her books, visit her web site and group blog, and follow her on Facebook.


It always amazes me that television shows and movies claim they have to change historical facts for the sake of the story. What really happened, especially in sixteenth-century England, has all the action, adventure, sex, violence, and intrigue anyone could ask for.

In my Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries, and in the earlier Face Down mystery series, as well as in the non-mystery historical novels I wrote as Kate Emerson, I set my fictional stories against a backdrop that is as real as I can make it. I’ve been reading and writing about Tudor England for over forty years and maintain the online “A Who’s Who of Tudor Women,” containing over 2000 mini-biographies, to share some of my research. When writing fiction, the technique I use most frequently is to start with a little known bit of history, find out everything I can about it, and then extrapolate from the facts to create my plot. It might not have happened that way…but it could have.

Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster
Sir Francis WalsinghamSir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary and spymaster and a secondary character in Murder in the Merchant’s Hall and the first book in the series, Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, appears in fictionalized form in a great many novels, so the challenge for me is to make my portrayal of him accurate but also distinct from what others have done. Here’s the tidbit I found to extrapolate from in Murder in the Merchant’s Hall: in August 1583, the queen sent Walsingham to Scotland on a diplomatic mission, and while he was there he fell ill. His poor health continued after his return to England in mid-October. It struck me that this might affect his ability to supervise his vast spy network and therefore offer one of his underlings an opportunity to advance his own agenda. From there it wasn’t much of a leap to imagine that this man’s plans could go awry and cause all kinds of difficulties for my fictional amateur detective, Rosamond Jaffrey.

The underling in question was right there waiting for me. His name was Walter Williams, called “Watt” by his boss. In December 1582, Walsingham put him in charge of the house in Seething Lane that served as headquarters for his intelligence gatherers. Some historians dismiss Williams as incompetent, but the truth is that not much is known about him. Prior to 1583 he delivered letters between England and the Continent, conducted surveillance, and went undercover in various prisons as an agent provocateur. In June 1583, he acted as the contact for a spy working undercover in the French embassy.

Plot and subplot
Since the books in the Mistress Jaffrey series are murder mysteries, a fictional murder is at the heart of the plot, but the subplot comes straight from history. In addition to material from other sources, I found a treasure trove of factual detail in Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair (1991) and Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story (2001), both written by John Bossy. The second book adds information he discovered after the publication of the first. To blend plot and subplot, I have my sleuth, Mistress Rosamond Jaffrey, visit the French embassy as part of an attempt to clear a friend of the charge of murder. There she has a chance encounter with a fellow named Throckmorton, an Englishman who has been translating coded letters from Mary, Queen of Scots for the French ambassador. This propels Rosamond into the middle of the spy story. Walter Williams’s attempts to first warn her off and then use her for his own purposes create twists and turns in both plot and subplot.

In real life, Throckmorton was arrested, and both the French and Spanish ambassadors were implicated in a conspiracy to invade England, overthrow Elizabeth, and put Mary on the throne in her place. Could an English gentlewoman visiting the French embassy have overheard a vital clue and reported it to the authorities? Since we will never know all the details that led up to Throckmorton’s arrest, I see no reason why it couldn’t have happened that way.


Murder in the Merchant's Hall book cover imageA big thanks to Kathy Emerson. She’ll give away an autographed hardback copy of Murder in the Merchant’s Hall to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available is the U.S. only.


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