Recent Articles & Podcasts
Some of the magazines I write for also post my articles on their on-line versions. Help yourself!
A Richmond magazine devoted a long article with many photos to my Brandermill book.
Click here to see the online version. http://richmondmagazine.com/home/uncovering-brandermill/
In May I was invited to give a lecture at the DAR museum and headquarters in Washington, D.C., on history myths that pertain to women. The DAR records most of its visiting lecturers and posts the presentation online for those who couldn’t make it to the event. It’s about 35 minutes long. If you’d like to listen in, click on the word “lecture” above.
I recently gave a talk at the Virginia Historical Society as part of their Downton Abbey exhibit, “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashions for Changing Times.” My talk was titled Weird-but-True Things Most People Don’t Know about the Roaring Twenties. It was a light, but serious, presentation which lasted 40 minutes (plus Q&A). In it, I shared some of the surprising things I learned during my research for my Roaring Twenties mystery series, things I have incorporated into my novels.
The leading local promoter of the restoration of Williams-burg to its eighteenth-century aspect, the Reverend Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin, summoned townspeople to a meeting June 12, 1928, to put his plan to a vote. A College of William and Mary fund-raiser and professor, as well as rector of Bruton Parish Church, he had negotiated the details with the city and county governments. They had surveyed public properties, drafted contracts, and secured the assent of Goodwin’s once-anonymous backer . . . The ballots tallied one hundred-fifty to four in favor, but not everyone with an interest in the outcome got to cast one, as pro forma as these may have been. In those years, seven hundred of the town’s 2,500 residents were African Americans. None attended the gathering. In Jim Crow’s Virginia, they could not enter the whites-only school. Williamsburg’s black citizens heard secondhand the official word that the town would become a museum, and that white Williamsburg had voted its approval. Click here to continue reading . . . and see slide show.
There may be no better guide to the plants that grew in eighteenth-century gardens than The British Herbal, a rare collection of botanicals by artist John Edwards, published in 1770. “It’s one of the most valuable books we have,” said Wesley Greene, garden historian in Colonial Williamsburg’s historic trades department. “It lets us document the sort of plants that were available in the colonial era.” Edwards referenced Linnaeus for every plant, allowing Greene and others to identify species precisely. Keep reading . . . and see more pretty pictures!
Chancellor George Wythe ate strawberries and milk for supper May 24, 1806. The next morning, an hour after his usual light breakfast with coffee, he doubled up with stomach pain and vomiting. The following day and the day after, Wythe’s cook, the freedwoman Lydia Broadnax, and the freed lad Michael Brown fell violently ill. Within days, suspicion fell on the fourth member of the household, teenager George Wythe Swinney. Keep reading
Thomas Jefferson came late to the maple sugar scheme. He was an ocean away in Paris, serving as the United States’ minister to France, when a group of Quakers and Dr. Benjamin Rush collaborated in Philadelphia to promote maple sugar over cane sugar. The advantages of maple sugar were many, Rush wrote, but the clincher was its moral superiority: Cane sugar was grown by slaves, maple sugar by free Americans. His goal was “to lessen or destroy the consumption of West Indian sugar, and thus indirectly to destroy negro slavery.”
Pity West Virginia schoolchildren, having to study two state histories! They must first learn about Virginia’s origins in 1607 and then, when the teacher reaches the Civil War, begin anew with the birth of their own breakaway state. Not only that, but they must also try to make sense of what is surely the most complicated creation story of all the states in America, layered as it is with dubious elections, conventions and referendums, questionable legalities, parallel governments, appalling wartime violence and enough political factions to make the Balkans look harmonious. (Keep reading . . .)
The cochineal is an odd sort of bug. The female lives her life in a spot on a nopal cactus, or prickly pear. As soon as she hatches, she buries her mouth in the cactus pad and starts sucking. She will live, breed, and die on that spot, parasitically attached to the cactus beneath a bit of cottony fluff. The males have wings and lead more exciting lives, flying about in search of females. But the price for their mobility is a one-week lifespan—their mouthparts deteriorate, and they starve. The female, not much bigger than the head of a pin, lays her eggs on the cactus and continues to feed. Her offspring, if they are not blown by the wind to another nopal, crawl only as far as they must to find a place to dig in, and the cycle repeats. Keep reading . . .
Conquistador Girolamo Benzoni, one of the first to taste the spicy Aztec beverage called cacahuatl, wrote, “It seemed more a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity. I was in this country for more than a year and never wanted to taste it, and whenever I passed a settlement, some Indian would offer me a drink of it and would be amazed when I would not accept, going away laughing. But then, as there was a shortage of wine. . . .” Keep reading . . .
When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898 and prepared to invade Cuba, the army faced its worst nightmare. A war in the tropics promised massive epidemics of typhoid and yellow fever beyond anything Americans had experienced. These murderous diseases had ravaged the Western Hemisphere for centuries, killing more than a hundred thousand people in the United States alone. The new science of bacteriology offered some hope for a breakthrough, so the Surgeon General ordered Major Walter Reed, the army’s leading bacteriologist, to try to solve the mystery of how these scourges spread. (no longer online)
Lie #1: Most colonial Americans were illiterate, so shop signs had to have pictures on them. Shop signs and inn signs with pictures were no doubt helpful to people who couldn’t read, but mass illiteracy does not account for their use. Keep reading . . .
There are more myths about the origins of ice cream than flavors at Baskin-Robbins. Debunking them is among the jobs of the Historic Trades cooks at Colonial Williamsburg’s Governor’s Palace kitchens. They concoct eighteenth-century versions of the frozen treat in front of guests every month.
Some sources say the ancient Romans invented ice cream, others that Marco Polo brought the discovery back to Italy from China. All agree that Catherine de Medici introduced the French to ice cream when she married the future King Henri II. Not to be outdone by Europeans, some Americans have said ice cream was first made by Martha Washington, or brought to this country from France by Thomas Jefferson, or invented by First Lady Dolley Madison at the White House. By dint of repetition, these entertaining tall tales go unchallenged—at least until they reach the Governor’s Palace kitchen. Read more . . .
Sometime after the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, they learned from the Pequot Indians of an edible berry called ibimi, or “bitter berry.” The Indians mixed these berries with dried venison and fat to make pemmican, a long-lasting, portable fast food for hunting trips or trade expeditions. Ibimi berries are red, and the juice worked nicely as a red dye. They served, too, for a poultice for healing wounds because, raw, they have an astringent effect that reduces bleeding. The story goes that the Pilgrims, who had never seen such a fruit, were struck by the ibimi flower’s resemblance to the head and bill of a sandhill crane and so named them crane-berries. This, however, sounds suspiciously like one of those Parson Weems fables about chopping down cherry trees—charming but fictional. Keep reading . . .