The Virgin Cure and Professional Curiosity

 

On International Women’s Day

I’m reading Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure, a novel set in Manhattan in the 1870s.  It’s always a bit of a gamble to read novels set in approximately the same time and place I’m writing about. If the novel is poorly done I can put it aside and forget about it; if it’s well done I’m wracked by curiosity.

The Virgin Cure is extremely well done. The story is about Moth, a little girl raised in the worst slums the city had to offer until her mother sells her to a rich woman to be trained as a lady’s maid. It would be a very short novel if the rich woman treated Moth well and trained her as promised. Or, to quote Jim Thompson: There’s only one plot: things are not what they seem. 

Moth escapes that  bad situation to find a place for herself among the city’s low life, setting out to become a first class thief. This is as far as I have got in the novel, and anything else I could say would be conjecture. The story has definitely kept my interest, but I have to confess that what really makes me eager to read is the historical detail.

It’s professional curiosity that gets in the way of just enjoying the story.  I keep coming across things that take me by surprise, and I have to stop and wonder where McKay found the details. Some of it will be invention, but some of it will be drawn from her research.

So for example, a friend directs Moth to the best fence in the city (the word fence was used then as it is today, someone who will purchase stolen goods from a thief and makes a profit by finding a way to get the stolen item back into circulation).  In this novel the person is Marm Birnbaum, whose Fancy Goods and Haberdashery is located at 79 Clinton Street. 

Because I’m familiar with the period I saw right away that  McKay had based the Birnbaums on Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, a German immigrant who did in fact have a fine dry goods shop at 79 Clinton Street. Marm Mandelbaum and her husband were hugely successful both as shopkeepers and patrons to the criminal element. From a Smithsonian  article very much worth reading: 

Marm didn’t so much join the underworld as tweak it to her preference, treating crime itself as a commodity to barter. No mere receiver of stolen goods, she was, according to the newspapers of her day, “the greatest crime promoter of all time,” the person who “first put crime in America on a syndicated basis,” and “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York City.” She dealt in plunder of all kinds—silk, lace, diamonds, horses, carriages, silverware, gold, silver, bonds—and could estimate the value of a thief’s swag with a quick and ruthless scan. A large portion of the property looted during the Chicago fire of 1871 ended up in and out of her possession, for a sizable profit. Her own hands, of course, remained unsullied; she cracked no safes, picked no locks, dodged no bullets. A student of the law, she understood that uncorroborated testimony meant little, and so took care to deal with one crook at a time. […]  By 1880, Marm was inarguably the most successful fence in the United States, selling to dealers in every major city along the East Coast and Canada. Over the course of her career, she handled an estimated $5 million to $10 million in stolen property. Dozens of preeminent bank robbers and thieves sought her business, and she mentored those who displayed exceptional cunning. Through Marm’s patronage and connections, Adam Worth became a notorious international art thief known as the “Napoleon of Crime.”

When you’re writing historical fiction you can’t follow every interesting lead, or you’d never finish anything. For McKay this particular minor character was worth pursuing, so I would guess that she sought out every source provided in the Smithsonian article, starting with a thesis:

Rona L. Holub. The Rise of Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum: Criminal Enterprise and the American Dream in New York City, 1850-1884. (In Partial Completion of the Master of Arts Degree at Sarah Lawrence College, May, 1998).

At this point I have to talk myself out of getting hold of this unpublished thesis. It is relevant to what I’m writing, but not relevant enough (or at least, that’s my story and I’m trying to stick to it) to interrupt the flow of writing. To which I have to return. Right now.

Story Prompt: Newes from the Dead

Anne Greene
Anne Greene

Whores of Yore (yes, a catchy title) at Twitter  is stuffed to the gills with crazy interesting historical tidbits having to do with women’s lives and sexuality. The description on Twitter: ‘A catalogue of jilts, cracks, prostitutes, night-walkers, whores, she-friends, kind women & others of the linnen-lifting tribe.’  (18+)’ 

Often the bits posted there are just too good for a storyteller to ignore, as is the case with the life of Anne Greene. If you have been looking for material for a historical novel, this might be it.  It’s true that Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost includes a character based on Anne, but she is peripheral in that otherwise very dense and challenging novel. 

The case is so interesting that there was an 1982 article about it in the British Medical Journal: “Miraculous deliverance of Anne Green: an Oxford case of resuscitation in the seventeenth century” which you can download as a pdf.  

Anne was convicted of infanticide and hanged. The next day when the anatomists were getting ready to start a post-mortem exam, they realized she was still breathing. This was considered a miracle and act of God, and she was pardoned.  Her father saw the possibilities, and once she returned home, starting charging people to come have a look at her. From the BMJ article:

This collection and a subsequent financial appeal on her behalf produced many pounds, which paid the bill of the apothecary, her food and lodging, and the legal expenses of her pardon. Anne Green’s fame continued after her full recovery, when she returned to some friends in the country taking with her the coffin in which she had lain. She then married, bore three children, and lived for 15 years after her famous execution and resuscitation. 

If I were to take this on, I’d start with the day she was revived and the aftermath. I keep wondering what use she made of that coffin. 

Margaret Lawrence (Hearts and Bones) 1945-2011

Hearts and Bones
Hearts and Bones, first in the series

I was thinking of sending somebody Margaret Lawrence’s three Hannah Trevor novels (and The Iceweaver, which isn’t technically part of the trilogy but is, kinda), which are out of print but (I hoped) might have been released in ebook format. So I went to see and found instead that the author died four years ago. 

This article about Margaret Lawrence (a pen name)  appeared in her hometown paper at the time of her death.

It makes me melancholy to think of all the interesting women novelists of my generation (so to speak) who are gone, women I would like to have had the chance to talk to. Ariana Franklin aka Diana Norman (I actually did have an email correspondence with her, but I would have loved to sit down with her over tea), Jetta Carleton, Margaret Lawrence are just a few of them.

And unfortunately the Hannah Trevor trilogy is not available for Kindle or any other ebook format. Seems like some savvy publisher would jump on that.  

Medical Mystery: I need some input

This post concerns a very detailed and vivid obstetric case with a bad outcome. If you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant (ever), or have a very young baby, probably better not to read this.

When I’m trying to sort out the fine points of the way medicine was practiced in the 1880s, I sometimes come across medical journal articles that strike me as improbable. Because I’m not a medical professional, I have to rely on my study of 19th century medical texts and friends who are to interpret for me. For example this article with the title A PERFECTLY DEVELOPED MALE CHILD WITHOUT A PLACENTA.  Both the mother and child died. 

Maybe my M.D. friends will clarify for me if such a thing is possible. Some of the symptoms I recognize from studying other journal articles, but I wouldn’t venture a guess on what was actually wrong here. 

Any thoughts?


July 7, 1883. THE MEDICAL RECORD.

A PERFECTLY DEVELOPED MALE CHILD WITHOUT A PLACENTA.

To the Editor of the Medical Record.

 Thinking that a short history of this case may be of interest to many of your readers, and desiring to learn from them if any similar case has occurred in their practice (having searched the text-books in vain), I take the liberty of requesting space in your valuable journal for its insertion. November 14, 1882, I was summoned to Mrs. C_____ a well-formed and healthy woman, aged thirty-eight, a primapara [first pregnancy].

Found the patient suffering from labor pain ; pulse, 120; some vomiting ; respiration rapid, and considerable œdema of the lower extremities. Vaginal examination revealed slight dilatation of the os, the vertex presenting. A specimen of urine was obtained and examined for albumen with negative results. Previous history of patient very good, having menstruated at the age of fourteen, and continued to do so regularly without pain until fecundation occurred nine months previously. The pains being unsatisfactory, I left the patient, saying I would return soon. At 11.30 A.M., about one hour after I left the sick-room, I was called in great haste to the patient, messenger saying she had a fit. Arriving at the bed-side found her in a very violent convulsion, which I learned was the second in half an hour.

Inhalations of chloroform were resorted to, which had the effect of modifying the severity of the spasm, for the time at least; full doses of bromide of potassium and chloral were administered, but without effect; the convulsions returning about every twenty minutes. Repeated efforts to dilate the os uteri failed, Barnes’ dilators and the douche being frequently applied in vain, the uterus being anteverted, and the os extremely rigid. At 2 P.M. a hypodermic injection of sulphate of morphine combined with atropiæ sulphas was administered, the bowels having been previously moved.

A marked diminution of the spasms immediately followed the injection, the convulsions not returning up to 4 P. M., but the patient remained unconscious from the first convulsion. At 4.30 P.M. had her thirteenth convulsion. Morphia was again administered hypodermically, but œdema of the lungs set in and the respirations reduced to 14 per minute, the morphia was suspended and the convulsions returned, the patient slowly sinking. At 5 P.M. a consultation was held, when the case was deemed hopeless. All efforts to dilate the os had to be abandoned. Distinct movements of the fetus being observed up to 5 o’clock P.M., a request was made to remove the child by Cesarean section, but was refused. At 6.30 P.M., pulse 100 and feeble; respiration, 17; temperature in the axilla, 99¾; patient rapidly sinking until 7.15 P.M., when she died after her twenty-second convulsion.

In about one hour after the death of the patient I was requested to take the child from its mother, some scruples on the part of friends demanding the separation of the child before interment. I accordingly commenced the operation by abdominal section. On reaching the uterus careful section of that organ was made, when a fœtus was observed partly immersed in an inky-black liquid. An effort was now made to remove the child, but as something seemed to hold the fœtus firmly, I inserted my hand into the cavity of the uterus, when I found the cord very rigid and unyielding. Having severed this obstacle, a perfectly formed male child, weighing about twelve pounds, was removed. Search was now made for the placenta, but without success. There was no placenta. The umbilical cord was found attached to the fundus of the uterus, and the length of the cord did not exceed four inches.

Permission to remove the uterus for examination was refused, and as every movement in connection with the operation was most earnestly and critically watched, I found it impossible to gain possession even of that portion to which the cord was attached. I did succeed, however, in dividing this particular part, but failed to observe any marked difference between it and that portion of the organ previously divided. The amniotic fluid, which was excessive, measuring, I should say, over three pints, was exceedingly black, but in other respects normal.

VALENTINE BROWNE, M.D. 
Yonkers, N.Y.