The Cost of Research

I couldn’t write the novels I write from where I live if not for the internet. I would have to have access to an academic library, or to the libraries and historical societies in New York, New Orleans, DC, Chicago and more recently, St. Louis and Santa Fe.

When I first began writing Into the WIlderness I was on the faculty of the University of Michigan, which has an outstanding library. And still I had to buy a lot of material for research purposes.  I spent as much as $5,000 a year on  books, old newspapers, journals and maps.

Now it’s rare that I buy an actual book. Last year I think I bought a total of eight books that I couldn’t access in any other way, and about as many old journals that research libraries don’t carry. But I have the internet.  There are what may seem like infinite places to find historical resources — The Library of Congress, for example — which are free for anybody who cares to go rummaging through their attics in the clouds.  That is not to say that I don’t spend money.  I pay for a wide variety things. This is a partial list.

Service NamePurposeAnnual Cost (approx)
Zoteroreference management database, unlimited storage*$100
Evernote Premiumresearch notes organization and storage$96
JSTORacademic publication access$200
Ancestryincludes Newspapers.com and Fold3.com$400

*I have to be able to find the articles I use in research once I have them, thus the need for reference management. I have to be able to find my notes about those resources I’ve found, too.

Ancestry is the resource I depend on most often, because it includes full access to newspapers.com.  I use the census and other databases accessible through Ancestry every day, but I depend most often on the millions of pages of newspapers that were printed on the exact day in the exact place I’m writing about.

If I need to know what a dozen eggs cost in Boston on January 1, 1872, I can find that. Usually exactly, but sometimes within a day or two. 

click for larger image
click for larger image

There are very good maps on Manhattan in the 1880s, but sometimes information on the map itself isn’t enough. I needed to know about a bookstore on Union Square, and I found that info in a newspaper ad.

 

 

When historical, real life people wander into something I’m writing, it gets serious.

click for larger image
click for larger image

For example, I have done a lot of research on two people who practiced medicine in Manhattan in the 1880s. Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi and Dr. Abraham Jacobi, a married couple, both well known to historians of medicine. They both appear now and then in The Gilded Hour, and a little more often in Where the Light Enters, and I have done family trees for them both. Mary interests me because she was the first female physician to challenge the idea that a woman must be maternal first, even in her role as a doctor. The newspaper editorial you see here helped me flesh out her character.

You’re wondering why I would need to do genealogical research on the Jacobis, right?

I know from biographies that they had a son who died as a child.  The idea that I would have either of them popping into my storyline to participate in a light-hearted meal with friends on or near the day their son died? Nope. Can’t take that chance. Thus the need to research their lives.  I blame my training in the social sciences. I just can’t leave that kind of thing to chance. 

I often run across incredibly interesting bits and pieces in the newspapers that make a storyline come to life, and sometimes I post them here, or more likely on  Facebook.  Here’s one I may put to use at some point:

AIMED AT COURT HARPIES.
Lawyers ask for an Italian speaking-officer In the Tombs Police Court.
 
Lawyers who practice in the Court of Special Sessions and the Tombs POlice Court are anxious to have a policeman attached to the Court squad who can speak Italian.
This, they say, has become necessary from the fact that a great many worthess Italians hang around the courts and make a living preying upon their unsophisticated countrymen, making all sorts of promises to influence their cases for a consideration.
John J Delaney recently appointed to the Tombs, has done a good deal towards the abolition of the system but enough of it remains to call for the intervention of the Board. With this object in view a step will be taken within a day or two to lay the matter before the Police Commissioners.

Clipped from 

The Evening World,  26 Jun 1890, Thu,  Second Edition,  Page 1

Odd connections in historical fiction: the lottery, Cuba, New Orleans, and Little Birds

It has been a while since I posted here on the weblog. I think of it as a bone pile, a huge mountain of stuff that should be sorted and ordered and made useful, but: no time. 

Today I’m using it to record an odd set of coincidences that shouldn’t surprise me, really. Historical fiction research often results in this kind of Frankenstein-ian monster, a creaky breathing thing with real potential but at the same time, offputting.

My friend Jason did some research for me last year in the DC libraries, and in the process he ran across reports about Italian immigrants in 19th century New Orleans being lynched. I’m very interested in the huge pile of docs he put together but I haven’t allowed myself to jump in because I’m trying to get this new novel moving. Little Birds is set in New Mexico territory in 1857, you see, so no excuse to be wandering around New Orleans.

But of course I have to get these two people from New York to New Mexico, and that means (1) early train travel — not as well documented as you would guess, unfortunately; (2) St. Louis in its time as doorway to the west — also not as well documented as I would like (for instance, if you can find a street map — any street map, no matter how rough — of St. Louis ca. 1857, you are the more creative researcher than I); (3) travel by steamboat on the Missouri River from St. Louis to Independence (there is more, but not enough information on this).

It’s the last bit I’ve been working on lately, this morning going through Hiram Martin Chittenden’s 1903 History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River (Volumes 1 & 2). As anticipated there were lots of missionaries traveling west (Jesuit, Mormon, etc etc) and the whole Bleeding Kansas business had New Englanders headed for Kansas territory (you thought the Civil War started in 1861 when Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston?)… but really what I’m looking for are odd bits like this:

It so happened that two St. Louisans, Sam Gaty and a man named Baldwin had recently won a prize of forty thousand dollars in the Havana lottery, and were using it in building a boat […] Captain La Barge made the annual voyage of 1855 in this new boat.

$40,000 in the Havana lottery? That was a huge amount of money at this point. So off I go to look into the Havana lottery and I discover… that I’m back in New Orleans, where the Cuban lottery was very, very popular. In fact, all lotteries were so popular that they were the primary way of funding all kinds of projects you would expect to be financed by taxes.  From a website which is much too short for my tastes:

By the 1810s the number of lotteries began to rise exponentially, making way for an entirely new profession, the lottery broker. Once sponsoring parties had been granted a franchise, the middleman-broker would oversee every aspect, including ticket sales, advertising, and payouts. Many lottery brokers would go on to stellar careers in banking, such as ticket salesman John Thompson, who founded the Chase National Bank (Chase Manhattan) in 1873. Although states began outlawing lotteries in the 1830s, they remained popular throughout the century; believing as much in luck as in the self-made man, Americans continued to buy lottery tickets in the hopes they could obtain something for nothing. Capitalism by Gaslight

So now I’m straddling New Orleans, St. Louis, the Missouri River, and I’m also back in Manhattan and I’ve got this very interesting character giving me the eye. He’s a lottery broker. Originally from Cuba. Or maybe Italy. A brand new copper by the name of Oscar Maroney who likes card games knows him, and can tell some stories. This lottery broker wants a spot in Little Birds, and he’s going to be persistent about it, I can tell. 

Meanwhile I’ve got to get these two characters off the train, through St. Louis and onto a steamboat on the Missouri.  One of them is wondering about maybe a detour to New Orleans, and he’s over there talking to a good looking young guy who has just starting his apprenticeship as a steamboat captain on the Mississippi. Name of Sam.

A Manhattan You Won’t Recognize

If you could step into a time machine and go back to Manhattan in 1884, this is what you’d find where today the New York Public Library stands.

The Croton Distributing Reservoir was the above-ground reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue that provided  the city’s drinking water for much of the 19th century.  From Wikipedia: “The reservoir was a man-made lake 4 acres (16,000 m2) in area, surrounded by massive, 50-foot (15 m) high, 25-foot (7.6 m) thick granite walls. Its facade was done in a vaguely Egyptian style.”

 The reservoir  was a favorite destination for tourists because the view from the promenade  was excellent:

In 1844 Edgar Allen Poe recommended the promenade:

When you visit Gotham, you should ride out Fifth Avenue, as far as the distributing reservoir, near Forty-third Street, I believe. The prospect from the walk around the reservoir is particularly beautiful. You can see, from this elevation, the north reservoir at Yorkville; the whole city to the Battery; and a large portion of the harbor, and long reaches of the Hudson and East Rivers.

Just across from the reservoir on Fifth Avenue was Rutger’s Female College, which was founded about 1840 (as a female ‘institute’)  on  the lower east side. 

Looking south on Fifth Avenue
Looking south on Fifth Avenue

In 1860 the institution was upgraded to a college and moved to  the buildings at 487-491 Fifth Avenue,  built in 1856   as an early attempt at luxury apartments.

Sophie and Anna of The Gilded Hour attended Rutgers Female College. 

Why Anna and Sophie have chapped hands

In the 19th century the most important advance in medical science was called (at the time) Listerism.  Simply put, Joseph Lister, working with  Louis Pasteur’s advances in microbiology and the discovery that bacteria cause putrefaction and infection, came to a conclusion:  In a medical setting the first line of defense is to keep the patient isolated from all such bacterial agents. There were two ways to achieve this: Antisepsis (using chemicals, usually carbolic) or asepsis (using heat) to sterilize.  In 1881 John Tyndall wrote

Living germs  … are the causes of putrefaction. Lister extended the generalization of Schwann from dead matter to living matter, and by this apparently simple step revolutionized the art of surgery. He changed it, in fact, from an art into a science.

In 1876 Lister came to the U.S. to lecture about his findings.

In 1878 Dr. Lewis Stimson performed the first demonstration of an antiseptic surgery in the United States, using  Lister’s antiseptic technique while amputating a leg.

In 1881 President Garfield died not from the bullet fired by an assassin  but because the physicians treating him rejected Listerism and caused massive, systemic infection by probing his wounds with unsterilized instruments and dirty hands.

As the summer waned, Garfield was suffering from a scorching fever, relentless chills, and increasing confusion. The doctors tortured the president with more digital probing and many surgical attempts to widen the three-inch deep wound into a 20-inch-long incision, beginning at his ribs and extending to his groin. It soon became a super-infected, pus-ridden, gash of human flesh.

This assault and its aftercare probably led to an overwhelming infection known as sepsis, from the Greek verb, “to rot.” It is a total body inflammatory response to an overwhelming infection that almost always ends badly — the organs of the body simply quit working. The doctors’ dirty hands and fingers are often blamed as the vehicle that imported the infection into the body. But given that Garfield was a surgical and gunshot-wound patient in the germ-ridden, dirty Gilded Age, a period when many doctors still laughed at germ theory, there might have been many other sources of infection as well (Markel).

At least some people were paying attention, because in 1883 Dr. Stimson was asked to operate on former President Grant’s leg.

This photo was taken in the surgical amphitheater  at Bellevue in the early 1880s.  By modern standards it’s shocking (note especially the bloody floor), but it should have also been shocking to physicians in 1880.  I’m sure medical historians have written about the factors that led American physicians to reject the findings of Pasteur and Lister, but my guess is that it was simple hubris.

Because there were physicians and surgeons who accepted scientific findings and practiced antisepsis and asepsis, I felt justified in having Anna and Sophie act like sensible human beings and wash their hands. And instruments. And everything else. In carbolic.


Cheyne, W. W.  Antiseptic surgery: its principles, practice, history and results, London 1882.

Kessin, Richard H.  and Kenneth A. Forde. “How Antiseptic Surgery Arrived in America.” P&S 2007.  link.

Markel, Howard. The dirty, painful death of President James A. Garfield. PBS,  September 16, 2016. link 

Pennington, T. H. “Listerism, its Decline and its Persistence: The introduction of aseptic surgical techniques in three British teaching hospitals, 1890–99.” Medical history 39.01 (1995): 35-60.

Tyndall, J. Essays on the floating-matter of the  air. London, 1881.