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!

Air and water bad for your health?

In the 19th century, before modern medicine, you could easily die from what you inhaled or drank. This was particularly true if you were a baby. That is because they did not yet understand the nature of infectious disease or have the means to prevent it.

I was always puzzled when I read that the average lifespan for Americans in the 1800s was about 45. After all, all of Susan B. Anthony’s siblings and most of her friends lived well beyond what we consider middle age. Finally, I asked my friend Terry Lehr for help. She is a former nurse and author of an upcoming book on the flu epidemic of 1918. Terry explained that it was extremely common for children to die before they were five years old, and this brought down the average age considerably. (Click here for an overview of 19th century medicine that focuses on the highly-contagious puerperal fever.)

Infectious Diseases Varied By Season

Cold weather brought respiratory diseases spread through the air, especially pneumonia, influenza, and diphtheria, which was called “the strangling disease” because sufferers frequently developed a membrane in their throats that cut off their airways.

Warm weather, while easier on the lungs, was harder on the digestive tract. Illnesses–especially cholera, but also typhoid fever and dysentery–could reach epidemic proportions, killing thousands of Americans during  bad seasons and causing others to evacuate affected towns. Rivers, streams, and ground water, polluted with feces, carried the illness across the continent. Closer to home, babies were particularly susceptible to germs in spoiled milk because it was a disproportionate percentage of their entire diet.

What does this have to do with this website on the Anthony kin? Because as I’ve been visiting Anthony grave sites and reading letters and diaries, I keep coming across sad remembrances of family members who succumbed to such diseases. At least one of those deaths will darken the pages of the sequel of The Truth About Daniel.

Photo of the Anthony burial plot in Rochester by Jeanne Gehret.

How losses form bonds between lovers


This week marks the sinking of the whaling ship Ocmulgee, owned by Annie Osborn’s father. Thirty years earlier, Daniel Read (D.R.) Anthony’s father went bankrupt, causing him to lose his business and have to start over in another city. I believe that the sadness of those troubles may have formed a bond between Annie and D.R..

Read more about the Ocmulgee here.

What Annie Missed

The Osborns’ loss could have had a two-pronged effect. First, Annie’s family may have had less money to pay for her “coming out” to society and attracting a mate who lived closer to their Vineyard home. Second, seeing the repercussion of such a loss may have made her want to get away from herseafaring community. Why else would a captain’s daughter be willing to leave everything familiar to start life anew with Daniel in Leavenworth?

How Loss Shaped Daniel

The Panic of 1837 caused Daniel Anthony Sr. to lose his entire business and bankrupt the family. This prompted 18 year-old Susan to quit her private education and take up teaching, where she learned self-reliance. Like his sisters, D.R. also had to end his private education, but he had fewer years of expert instruction than his older siblings. He finished his education at a normal school and helped his father in the mill instead.

Throughout his several terms as mayor of Leavenworth, he made bids for the post of governor. But he never realized that high position. Would he have achieved his dream if he had had the benefit of a law degree?




Posse Hunts John Brown

Why was D.R. Anthony so fiercely abolitionist? Events such as the following would have fueled his anger. Today’s post gives us a typical example of how proslavery forces treated John Brown, an antislavery man whom  Anthony revered and probably knew. (D.R.’s brother Merritt had fought with Brown several years earlier in southern Kansas.)

Living only 25 miles away from the following tense encounter between a proslavery posse and  Brown, Anthony might  have stood with the guards who protected the famous hero. Even if Anthony didn’t, he certainly would have followed the news with as much anxiety as did New Hampshire  emigrant Julia Louisa Lovejoy, whose letter back east gives us this riveting account.

For the death of John Brown, the Missouri governor and others offered $5,500. Lured by this “bait,” Lovejoy reported, a pro-slavery posse headed by Marshal J.P. Wood  tracked “our champion” (Brown) to a cabin where the abolitionist holed up with a dozen African-Americans.

This cabin he had strongly barricaded, and told his pursuers “he would never yield, neither would he be taken alive.” The Marshal and his force surrounded the cabin and ordered Brown to “surrender!” Brown replied, “Come and take me.” The officer dared not undertake the job, and one hundred more like him could not capture those indomitable spirits that well knew what would follow if they were taken prisoners.1

A stand-off occurred. Brown’s group, armed with Sharpes rifles, was guarded by a company of twenty-five antislavery supporters. Giving voice to the bodyguard, Lovejoy wrote, “Take care, sir, if one gray hair on that venerable head is singed, your whole party will be riddled with balls!”

The Marshal’s posse sent for reinforcements to Atchison (about four miles away) and rumored that two cannons would soon arrive to explode the cabin. In an oddly turned phrase, Lovejoy wrote that United States Army troops who engaged in “pretended pursuit” seem to have sufficiently distracted the posse, during which time:

Brown sallied forth and took three of the Atchison men prisoners (one of them, it is affirmed, he recognized as the miscreant who shot his own son, F. Brown, at the “Ossawottamie battle.”) He also took four of their horses that they had secreted in the timber, and then with his freed slaves and party pulled for Iowa, taking prisoners and horses along with him!

Thus Brown escaped from Kansas in February 1859, just eight months before his fateful raid on the arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, WV. In a summary of this western event, Lovejoy correctly predicted the manner of Brown’s death, saying, “We fear now that Brown and his party will be intercepted by an overwhelming force, but he cannot be captured alive.” “

Photo courtesy of Kansas Historical Society

  1. Bell, Sarah. “Lovejoy, Julia Louisa” Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Mar, 31, 2017 at



Women Whalers

It’s been awhile since we’ve spoken of Annie Osborn Anthony, daughter of a whaling captain from Martha’s Vineyard and eventually the wife of Daniel Read Anthony. Today’s post references her sister-in-law Lucy Hobart Osborn, who will represent dozens of women who accompanied their husbands in worldwide voyages in search of whales.

Continue reading

Penning a (Love) Letter

Valentine’s Day’s coming up, and I will be on Rochester’s WHAMTV31 at 8:50 AM to discuss The Truth About Daniel, which is among other things, a love story. (Plese note: earlier, the channel was listed as 13. The correct channel is actually 31)

Let’s consider this romantic painting, which I love for for many reasons. First of all, my husband and I nurtured our long-distance romance with letters for two years. Snail mail made for difficult delays in hearing from my heart-throb, especially since the post office near my Toronto residence often went on strike for a couple weeks. Now, though, I consider myself fortunate to have corresponded with Jon before email because I still have every letter he sent me tied up with a neat bow.

The second reason I love this painting is that the woman looks the way I picture Annie Osborn, heroine of my book, right down to the strawberry blond hair that won’t stay put. And the inkwell reminds me of one I saw in an Anthony collection somewhere. Memory fails me at the moment.

And my third reason is that the letters of Annie and Daniel play a pivotal part in the novel. Like my husband and me, these lovers sometimes experienced lapses in snail mail—and their lapses almost led to romantic disaster.

Just for fun, here’s a picture I took of post office boxes at Alley’s Store on Martha’s Vineyard, near the 19th century home of Annie Osborn.

I highly recommend this post on letters in literature. And don’t forget to watch the news at 8:50 on TV13 WHAM on Valentine’s Day!

Post office box photo by Jeanne Gehret

Three-Way Courting Chair–Really?

Courtship in the nineteenth century was a carefully-controlled affair, especially among the upper classes like the sphere where  Annie Osborn lived. Unmarried women were carefully chaperoned, as this three-way chair in St. Augustine’s Lightner Museum demonstrates.

Here is a wonderful excerpt from a book I bought in that museum gift store; this is from a chapter entitled “Professor Hill’s Guide to Love and Marriage.”

Any gentleman who may continuously give special, undivided attention to a certain lady is presumed to do so because he prefers her to others. It is reasonable to suppose that others will observe his action. It is also reasonable to be expected that the lady will herself appreciate the fact, and her feelings are likely to become engaged.


Should she allow an intimacy thus to ripen upon the part of the gentleman, and to continue, it is to be expected that he will be encouraged to hope for her hand; and hence it is the duty of both lady and gentleman, if neither intends marriage, to discourage an undue intimacy which may ripen into love, as it is in the highest degree dishonorable to trifle with the affections of another.”


p. 109, The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette, by Professor Thomas E. Hill.

Suppose a man from Kansas were to travel all the way to Martha’s Vineyard to visit a woman who had encouraged him, only to find that she did not trust him with her affections?

Photo by Jeanne Gehret