Three Fun Ways to Learn About Historical People

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Do you ever wonder how novelists learn about historical people?

     Today I’m going to start a three-week series on how to learn about actual historical people. Not their genealogy; though that’s important, it’s just the skeleton. I’m interested in their flesh and blood, how they thought, and even what they wore!

Beyond Genealogy    

In my books on Susan B. Anthony and her family, I’m writing about people who lived more than 150 years ago—Susan, her brother Daniel, and his wife Annie. Although I’ve never met them, I have a real sense of the places they frequented, what interested them, and what kept them up at night.  

In my mini-series on learning about historical people, I’m going to cover:

  • Using newspapers of their time
  • Walking in their footsteps
  • And Posting to a timeline

By the way, if you enjoy this blog, please give us a “like” or, better yet, post a comment. Now, read below for the first of three ways I’ve gotten to know the Anthony family.

I love writing historical fiction because it brings to life people who lived long ago, adding the authentic details that give us a real idea of who they were.

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.

Continue reading

Susan B.’s 200th

It is good to see Susan venerated on her birthday, especially since she was often regarded as troublesome during her lifetime. I wonder how troubled she would be by some of the current causes that have tried to co-opt her support posthumously.

Susan B. Anthony and Daniel Read Anthony

Though I have not been blogging recently, my interest in Susan never flags. My focus since 2012 has been on Susan in the context of her family, which was very important to her, especially formative about her attitudes on the abolition of slavery.

Today’s Google slideshow about her mentioned how important the family’s Sunday antislavery dinners were, and even noted her brother Merritt’s involvement with crusader John Brown in Kansas. However, Google failed to mention her other abolitionist brother Daniel, whose influence on Kansas society and on Susan was much greater. This assures me that my work on Daniel in my Dauntless Series is still plowing new ground.

My first historical novel on Daniel’s family, The Truth About Daniel, was published in 2017. Now I am putting the finishing touches on the rough draft of the second book in the Dauntless Series and hope to have it published by the end of this anniversary year. In this new book, Susan’s abolitionist activities and reform methods both inspire her Kansas family and critique it. The novel examines the Civil War from three important viewpoints: that of a slave, an abolitionist, and a family that was attacked by abolitionists.

It features the many ways women were affected by the war, a theme that historians often forget to notice in their focus on soldiers, battles, generals, and bloodshed. I like to think that Susan, who was always living and writing herstory, would approve of my approach.

If you are looking for an easy-read biography of Susan based on the biography that she authorized during her lifetime, please check out my book Susan B. Anthony And Justice For All, available on Amazon and Kindle. And stay tuned for my next novel where she makes cameo appearances.

One More River to Cross at Underground Railroad Heritage Area

 

When fleeing slaves from the southern U.S. reached Niagara Falls, they knew they had one more river to cross. But what a river it was with its roiling cataract. The new Underground Railroad Heritage Area in Niagara Falls, NY. chronicles some of the notable African-Americans who escaped across the river and helped others to make their way to freedom.

Recently I had the privilege of touring the new museum. For those unfamiliar with the term, “Underground Railroad” refers to a series of places where escaping slaves could receive shelter and assistance after leaving the South. Following the North Star, they headed for the northern U.S., where slavery was outlawed.

However, after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, bounty hunters could recapture slaves in the north and return them to bondage. For this reason, it was far better for these fugitives to go all the way to Canada. When they reached Niagara Falls, they had one more river to cross.

Anthony Involvement in the Underground Railraoad

The Anthony family approved of this civil disobedience of helping slaves escape. They hosted many antislavery dinners at their farm home in Rochester, and three of their children (Susan, D.R., and Merritt) campaigned against slavery with speeches, petition campaigns, and physical warfare. Among the family’s closest friends were Undergound Railroad “conductors” (owners of safe houses) Amy and Isaac Post and Frederick Douglass.

Active or Passive Escapees?

Sometimes conductors used the code word “parcel” for a fugitive needing assistance. This term erroneously suggests that freedom seekers were passive goods carried away from slavery by other (usually white) people’s initiatives. The term gives little credit to the courage and intelligence exhibited by fleeing slaves themselves. (I strove for the correct balance in The Truth About Daniel, when I wrote about the escape of Randall Burton on Martha’s Vineyard.)

The Underground Railroad Heritage Area tips the racial balance by showing black abolitionists at work, united in the effort to help freedom seekers cross their last barrier  to freedom, the Niagara River.. A daring feat, to say the least. More next time.

 

 

Daniel Anthony’s Abolitionist Activities

“Well mercy me!” as they might have exclaimed in the 19th century. It seems I never published the post explaining why Daniel Anthony’s abolitionist activities were controversial. So let’s play catch-up. The photo above, from a mural in Pleasant Hill, Missouri, should give you a clue.

When Susan B. Anthony was four, her brother Daniel Read Anthony was born on August 22, 1824. The family called him “D.R.” to distinguish him from Susan’s father, whose name was also Daniel. Brother and sister grew up to be ardent abolitionists.

Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers

Before the Civil War, while Susan was hosting speaking tours for the New York State Antislavery Society, D.R. joined Jennison’s Jayhawkers on the Kansas-Missouri border, sparking fear in slaveholders’ hearts by laying waste to farms and liberating their slaves. Some blamed the Jayhawkers’ raids for inciting rage in Quantrill and his band, who attacked Lawrence.

After the jayhawkers raided Missouri slaveholders, they would free people in bondage and also “liberate” livestock. That is why midwesterners either hated or revered the jayhawkers, depending on politics of the onlooker. (Click here for a previous post about the livestock issue.)

The Border War between Kansas and Missouri involved Southern sympathizers (“bushwhackers,” usually from Missouri) tampering with Kansas elections. Bushwhackers were typically young plantation residents who made guerilla raids and retreated to the safety of their homes. The only way the abolitionists could rout them out was to attack the homes where the bushwhackers received provisions and protection.

The Kansas Seventh

Later, when the Civil War began, D.R. helped Charles Jennison organize a Union cavalry unit called the Kansas Seventh. They were so thorough in burning out bushwhackers that only the chimneys survived, nicknamed “Jennison’s tombstones.”

As hated as he was by some for the border raids, D.R. was also called “The Moses of Kansas” for the number of African-Americans he liberated. Sometimes as many as a hundred slaves followed the Seventh across the Kansas border into freedom.

New Underground Railroad Exhibit at Niagara Falls

A whole new source of information on the Underground Railroad is opening next weekend in Niagara Falls, starting May 4. I’m excited because it will offer more in-depth background for my historical novels in The Dauntless Series, featuring abolitionists Daniel Read Anthony and his sister Susan.

Here’s the scoop on the new museum:

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

825 Depot Avenue W.
Niagara Falls, NY 14305

Why is this new museum important?

States bordering Canada, particularly in the East, were the last frontier for enslaved people seeking freedom before the Civil War. Niagara Falls, NY, just across the river from Canada, admitted many freedom seekers traveling through New York State. I am familiar with many such stories that took place near my home in Rochester, and always wondered what happened to those travelers after they left here.

Gala Opening

The opening weekend includes a gala on Friday, a dinner on Saturday, and community day (for the general public) on Sunday. Thereafter it will assume a regular schedule.Read all about it here.

Their website offers some intriguing and detailed stories about an organized group of African-American waiters who risked their lives and businesses to help enslaved people to cross the border. Click on the tab “Underground Railroad Sites” to read about these individuals and some of the places where those escapes occurred.

For those of us who love the grandeur of the falls at Niagara, it’s just one more reason to visit this well-known northern city. Hope to see you there!

The Anthony Connection

Daniel and Susan B. Anthony lived in Rochester, about 60 miles from the famous falls at Niagara. Each of them, but especially Daniel, lent a hand to escaping fugitives. It would not have been unusual for either of them to visit Niagara Falls, since it was already a well-known tourist attraction during their time. Already my mind is conjuring up images of them speaking to a waiter and setting foot on one of the paths that led to river crossings.