Posting to a timeline for historical fiction

photograph of timeline

Posting to a timeline is one of my most useful tools in writing historical fiction. Have a peek at my five-foot-long timeline of the Anthony-Osborn family, beginning in the 1700s and ending in 1930. On it, I have recorded not only events that were significant to the Anthonys but to the United States in general. So we have a mix of births, deaths, and marriages alongside events of the Civil War, the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, dates of military service, arrests, and acts of civil or military disobedience.

My chronology of the Anthony family shows me where their lives intersected with each other or with important historic events. For example, a newspaper snippet mentioned that Daniel and Annie attended the nation’s centennial in July 1876. Posting it to my timeline reminded me that Susan was there for that nation’s birthday, too. She and her friends deemed the women’s pavilion at the Centennial Exhibition too apolitical for their taste and created their own headquarters.

While they were all in Philadelphia for the celebration, Daniel set Susan up to take control of the formal celebration of the Declaration of Independence proceedings and read the Women’s Declaration of Rights. He must’ve been grinning from ear to ear. Do you suppose that Annie chewed her cheek raw with anxiety until the whole demonstration was over? Or did she, too, cheer Susan on?

photo of baby dressed in white christening gown
Daniel and Annie named a daughter after
Susan B. Anthony

Here’s another thing I’m pondering. In September 1872, Daniel and Annie named a newborn daughter Susan B. Anthony II. Two months later, in November 1872, the elder Susan registered to vote and was subsequently arrested and convicted. This coincidence made me wonder: After Susan’s conviction, how did Annie and Daniel feel about naming their baby after Susan? We’ll likely never know the answer to this question, but they could certainly lead to an interesting fictional chapter.

Finally, I came across this surprising fact as I studied my timeline. n 1875, Daniel sustained a near-fatal gunshot wound that required him to stay immobile in bed with compression on his neck for three months. During that period, he lost a lot of weight. Yet my timeline reveals that he and Annie traveled to Rochester, a trip of 1,000 miles, almost as soon as he was allowed to get up. If this isn’t a testament to his heartiness, I don’t know what is!

The Anthonys were real people who responded to current events and sometimes fretted over each other’s choices. I hope you enjoy getting to know them as much as I do.

Using historical newspapers to write fiction

I discovered the value of historical newspapers on my second visit to Kansas to research Daniel Read Anthony and his family.

An eloquent packet

While at the Spencer Library, University of Kansas, I found a packet of news clippings neatly folded and tied with a black grosgrain ribbon. My breath caught in my throat as I gently untied it. There I found a couple of newspaper articles recalling how, in February 1889, Susie Anthony (named after Susan B.), had died by drowning in a pond while skating with friends. This little packet spoke as nothing else could of Daniel and Annie’s grief at losing their daughter..

Wax and wane of Daniel’s strength

Here’s another important detail I learned from historical newspapers. This one is dated several years before Susie’s death. It appeared in the Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY, which was Daniel’s home in his 20s.

I sat up and took notice. Here’s why:

  • This clipping describes D.R. as “incompetent to defend himself” owing to the impairment of his right arm. In his younger years, people feared and admired him for his daring and physical strength. But apparently that changed ten years before this news clipping, when a bullet to the right side of his neck nearly killed him. At the time I read about his wound, I wondered whether he sustained a permanent injury from that episode. This article strongly suggests that he did.
  • Also, although he couldn’t use his arm to protect himself, he still didn’t pull any punches with words. The same belligerent attitude that got him shot in the first place prevailed even when he could no longer defend himself physically.

This concludes my three-part series on ways to learn about historical people. Biographies, census records, and family trees can help us glimpse the skeleton of a person. But to discover their thoughts and feelings, their temperament, and how they responded to their place and time requires considerable more digging.

Plotting events on a timeline, reading newspaper articles about them, and visiting places that historical people frequented, give further details that put flesh and blood on the skeleton and present a much more satisfying account.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the toolkit of a historical researcher. BTW, here’s a link to Newspapers.com, where you can subscribe to hundreds of old newspapers. Enjoy!

Historical research: Walk where they walked

When I first researched Susan and her family, I walked where they walked. Wearing a long skirt, wool cape, and boots, I trudged snow-clogged streets of old Rochester. A bit later, I was dismayed to learn that the Rochester home of Frederick Douglass no longer exists. Undeterred, I branched out to visit Seneca Falls, where she met her good friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Because of Susan’s many travels, the list of places to visit never seemed to end!

The Kansas connection

When I finally had the opportunity to visit the home of her brother D.R. in Leavenworth, KS, I set about walking where he walked. There was so much to see: the port of Leavenworth, the site of his home (now greatly remodeled), and the commercial district. I roamed the backcountry of Kansas and the town of Lawrence that he helped to settle with the Emigrant Aid Company.

Walking where Annie walked

Through Daniel, I met his wife Annie and from there took a leap back east to her home in Martha’s Vineyard. Questions began to form as I gazed out to sea from her home in Edgartown and as I visited the cliffs at what was then called Gayhead (now Aquinnah). My romantic imagination kicked in when I walked the winding paths of the Gingerbread Cottages.

Leavenworth, Kansas

Walking Leavenworth’s business district gave me a sense of the busy, moneyed man who was Daniel Read Anthony.

Annie’s birthplace

…in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard gave me a sense of her wealth and gentility.

Gingerbread Cottage

…in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, gave me a perfect setting for Daniel’s first mention of marriage to Annie

Victorian garden ramble

My novel characters often take a ramble when life gets too much for them. Victorians particularly loved their gardens, but any movement in the fresh air calmed their heart rate and lowered their blood pressure. It’s the same for us today. In fact, it’s all the more possible since the pandemic allows more people than ever to work from home.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of spending a few glorious hours outside in the gardens of the Stevens-Coolidge House in Andover, Massachusetts. Though built in 1914, both the house and gardens had elements that harked back to earlier times. These reminded me of the Victorian era when Daniel Anthony and his wife Annie furnished a beautiful home in Leavenworth, KS.

Author Jeanne Gehret at Stevens-Coolidge House

Botanical and historical delight

During our July visit, the rambling perennial garden was in full bloom. The garden view from the home’s morning room made me nostalgic for times when I’ve relaxed with a book and lemonade outside.

I was particularly interested in the serpentine wall in the above photo where I’m enjoying the shade. This wall commemorates one of the owners’ ancestors Thomas Jefferson, who built a similar one at the University of Virginia. Besides its beauty, it’s notable because it is only one brick wide, as you can see in this photo of the wall’s top.

Top of serpentine wall

I do a lot of research into Victorian culture, architecture, and fashion for my historical novels about the Anthonys of Kansas. I’ve seen pictures of the lovely plantings around their Leavenworth home. And I’ve read newspaper accounts of them picnicking in their yard, swinging in the hammock. While the serpentine wall isn’t a hallmark of that era (1837-1901) I did find a beautiful Victorian home in Knoxville, Tennessee that has a similar wall. It’s not surprising, really, because many Victorians were avid gardeners.

Here’s a peek at more details of Westwood in Knoxville.

What can we learn from the garden-obsessed Victorians?

The Victorians, and even people before Thomas Jefferson, knew the value of gardens to calm and restore us. They knew that observing the patterns of nature reminds us of whatever is stable and reliable in our lives. As a grandmother, I’ve seen several educational bandwagons sweep through our schools. Even so, I have confidence in teachers who suss out what’s best for individual children, regardless of trendy teaching practices. The presence of mature trees reminds us that desired social changes really can blossom over time. An hour in the woods removes us from people who expose us to dangerous viruses or toxic thoughts. These things never alter.

Like us, the Victorians experienced a period of tremendous social adjustment. Their contemporaries were debating reforms such as the antislavery movement and women’s rights. Industrialization was causing pollution and prompting those who could afford it to move out of cities, at least for the summer. They endured the Mexican War and the American Civil War. The sewing machine, telephone, and electric lights changed home life.  Cholera struck, and so did economic downturns such as the one in 1837 that bankrupted Daniel Anthony, father of suffragist Susan B. Anthony and her brother Daniel. As a result, neither sibling could complete their schooling. Despite this traumatic event, both went on to score big social reforms.

Take a page from the Victorians: spend some time in the shade of a tree or even in the moonlight. Listen to the wind and marvel at nature’s many forms. Breathe.

Three Fun Ways to Learn About Historical People

Historical people are fun to research–if you know how. It’s one thing to look them up on the census or visit their graves. Even reading about them in a biography gives only a one-dimensional view of them. It’s another thing altogether to get a sense of their manner of speaking, temperament, and habits.

Historical research since 1992

For 30 years, I’ve had a great time learning about historical people who lived 150 years ago–Susan B. Anthony, her brother Daniel, and his wife Annie. Though I’ve never met them, I have a strong sense of what interested them, where they spent time, and what kept them up at night.

Woman removing book from bookcase
My personal library contains many books on the Anthony family

A couple of times I’ve been especially satisfied when I’ve created a fictional interest and later found out it really did characterize them. This happened as I was writing about Annie in my first book when I portrayed her as loving to sing. After it was published, I found evidence that her family owned one of the first pianos on Martha’s Vineyard and that she performed songs at soirees with her friends.

Three of my favorite techniques

Watch this space for my upcoming three-part series on how to research historical people. In it, I’ll cover some of my favorite techniques, including:

  • Walking in their footsteps–I’ve visited the home where Susan and Daniel were born, Susan’s adult home, and the house that Daniel and Annie built. More than that, though, I’ve walked the halls and lingered in the front yards of their many friends and acquaintances.
  • Making a timeline–I’ll show you portions of my Anthony timeline ranging from the late 1700s to 1930. It contains historical events of general interest (i.e. the Civil War) as well as new technologies, births, deaths, and other items of particular interest to the Anthony family
  • Using newspapers of their time and place–Because Daniel and Susan were both well-known, it’s easy to find new stories about them. In addition, Daniel published the Leavenworth Times in Kansas, which he vowed to make the most radical newspaper in town. Wait till I share snippets of some articles by and about him!

Famous Black Woman Spurned by Racist

Ida B. Wells Activist Against Lynching

Susan B. Anthony Champions Ida B. Wells

In 1895, Susan B. Anthony went out for the day instructing her (white)
stenographer to help her guest, journalist Ida B. Wells, to catch up on her
correspondence. When Susan returned, the journalist was doing her own typing
while the stenographer sat idle. Asked why she was not helping Wells, the white
woman responded with a racial slur.

On the spot, Susan fired her. Losing this employee came at quite a cost
to Susan, who had hired the stenographer to help handle an oppressive mountain
of paperwork.

Ida B. Wells was one of the most famous black women of the late
19th century. Three years before visiting Anthony, she owned a press
in Memphis, TN. There the lynching of three friends jolted her into activism. The black men started a grocery across the street from awhite man’s grocery, cutting into the latter’s profits. A mob of whites trashed the blacks’ store and, in the melee, three white men suffered injuries. In short order, the mob jailed and lynched the black grocers.

Investigative Journalism

After that, Wells wrote Lynch Laws in Georgia, showing that,
contrary to the popular belief, lynching was not reserved for black criminals.
Instead, her investigative reports showed, it was used to terrorize and subdue
African-Americans who threatened the economic and political clout of whites.

Her paper urged black townspeople to leave Memphis, prompting 6,000 people to do
so. Soon, she experienced death threats and the destruction of her office and
press. After she moved to Chicago, her stories received widespread coverage in
other black-owned presses nationwide. She never stopped fighting for justice
for African-Americans and women, and founded several national organizations.

Some statements by Susan B. Anthony have been interpreted as racist.
However, Susan’s treatment of Ida B. Wells, as well as Susan’s early career as an abolitionist, give some evidence to the contrary.

Mary Bowser, Confederate White House Spy

Even now, it’s hard to get a clear description of Mary Bowser, who greatly aided the North by spying on the Confederate White House during the Civil War. Maybe that’s because she wanted it that way.

Here is the closest we can come to facts about her life. Mary Bowser (AKA Richards) was born a slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond, VA, and later freed by Elizabeth Van Lew, heiress to the family fortune. Van Lew sent Bowser to school in the North and later as a missionary to Liberia, a nation of free blacks. Upon her return to the U.S., she lived in Van Lew’s household as a servant and was eventually hired out to work in the Confederate White House.

Successful Spy Network

Van Lew disguised her activities by presenting herself as mentally ill—“Crazy Bet,” they called her. She had a very successful spy network of a dozen men and women who were both white and black. Even though Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina knew that there was a spy in their midst, they never suspected Bowser, who appeared as an illiterate, dumb servant. After all, very few black men in the South could read and write, even less likely a woman.

Van Lew said, “Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion, and prudence which is wonderful.”

Teacher of Former Slaves

After the Civil War, Mary Bowser quickly went to work educating formerly enslaved people for the Freedmen’s Bureau; her only known correspondence was from this period of her life. During this time, she single-handedly taught a hundred Sunday school pupils as well as 70 day students and 12 adult night students. Two years later, after meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, she disappeared entirely from the historical record.

Here is a link to a historical novel about Bowser.

Here is a link to a historical novel about Van Lew.

Civil War Nurse Who Outranked General

For those who prefer to read, here’s the text of the video.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke, Civil War Nurse
Mary Ann Bickerdyke, Civil War nurse

I love Mary Ann Bickerdyke for her fierce devotion to the soldiers she called “her boys.” As a Civil War nurse, she was a particular favorite of the soldiers.

Bickerdyke set up more than 300 field hospitals for soldiers and made sure they were clean in an era when many wounded died of contagious diseases. She gathered nutritious food and medicines for them and set up laundries, often finding that their clothing was in rags.

Nineteen times she accompanied troops to warfare, going with a lantern at nightfall to take wounded men off the battlefield.

Mother Bickerdyke, as the men called this Civil War nurse, had no patience with officers who didn’t treat their men right. One morning when a surgeon was late because of a drinking spree, she called for his discharge.  When he protested about her to General Sherman, the general replied, “Well, if it was her, I can do nothing for you. She ranks me.”

In my Civil War era novel The Truth About Daniel, Annie Anthony works with a local chapter of the Sanitary Commission to supply soldiers with sewing kits called “housewives,” because it helped them to repair their own clothing.

Great American Women of Susan B.’s Era

Susan LaFlesche Picotte was the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree.

During Women’s History Month we will use this space to celebrate several great American women who were comrades of Susan B. Anthony. (Click here for an earlier blog post on Women’s History Month.)

Though Miss Anthony did not know all of them, each one came from her era and worked to make us a more equitable and just nation. We have far to go to complete the reforms they championed, but knowing of their work can help us go and do likewise whenever we have a chance.

 

Today we remember Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte as one of these great American women.  She traced her desire to study medicine to an experience at the age of eight. Young Susan LaFlesche kept vigil at the bedside of a Native woman while waiting for a (white) doctor who promised to come, but never arrived. The patient died. In those dark moments, Susan realized that Natives needed doctors devoted to their care. Rather than lament the lack, she became one.

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