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.

What ails you?

I had an email from Cristy:

Hello,
I am most of the way through The Gilded Hour and loving it! Yet I am torturing myself trying to figure out what “common ailment” the slack faced young girl from chapter 43 suffers from?! Please enlighten me!

It’s a very short passage Cristy is asking about. Anna and Elise are discussing a patient who is very young and whey-faced, or pale. She is pale because she’s lost a lot of blood, which follows from abortion. A woman who takes too much of certain herbal combinations that stimulate menstruation can end up hemorrhaging.

If there is no infection present and the abortion wasn’t incomplete, there is a good chance the young woman can be saved. 

Cristy, thanks for taking the time to write and ask about what interests you.

In which I embrace and celebrate my historical-geographical nerdiness

It’s amazing sometimes what you come across. For anyone interested in France, the history of France (or Europe), and maps, this is pretty wonderful.  Bless the Wikipedians, say I. 

Watch this dynamic map and it will show you how the borders of France changed over time, lands lost and gained. It would be even more interesting if they had links to the wars that were responsible for the shifts, but that would be a fun little project at some point when I’m bored.

I embrace and celebrate my historical-geographical nerdiness. Nerditude?

French borders from 985 to 1947

By http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Obscurs [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The historical novelist’s nightmare

If you’ve followed my ramblings at all you’re aware that I take research really seriously. Most historical novelists have this quirk, in my experience. Most of us have at least a dollop of ocd, would be my guess.

When I’m working out themes or major plot lines I am especially careful with my background research. So for example, I read widely about the development of sterile techniques in medicine after Lister’s work began to be accepted. Something that really jumped out at me early in my research was the fact that until late in the 1800s doctors and nurses operated with bare hands. There were no rubber gloves, and so they had to dig right in, bare handed. The idea makes me a little woozy, to be truthful. I can watch any kind of surgery without a problem, but I can’t quite cope with the idea of a bare hand digging into an abdomen to locate a tumor. 

Because physicians and nurses understood about contagion and the importance of sterile technique, they went to extremes in washing their hands. They used a combination of antibacterial solutions, many of which were highly abrasive and corrosive, which played havoc with skin and nails and caused all kinds of problems. This is actually a famous paragraph in the history of medical science, written by William Halsted (full citation to be found here).

In the winter of 1889 and 1890—I cannot recall the month—the nurse in charge of my operating-room complained that the solutions of mercuric chloride produced a dermatitis of her arms and hands. As she was an unusually efficient woman, I gave the matter my consideration and one day in New York requested the Goodyear Rubber Company to make as an experiment two pair of thin rubber gloves with gauntlets. On trial these proved to be so satisfactory that additional gloves were ordered. In the autumn, on my return to town, an assistant who passed the instruments and threaded the needles was also provided with rubber gloves to wear at the operations. At first the operator wore them only when exploratory incisions into joints were made. After a time the assistants became so accustomed to working in gloves that they also wore them as operators and would remark that they seemed to be less expert with the bare hands than with the gloved hands.

an original surgical rubber glove
an original surgical rubber glove

It wasn’t until 1892 this venture started by Halsted came to pass and the first rubber gloves were used in surgery — by the nurse Halsted mentions in the excerpt above, the woman we went on to marry in a twist worthy of any romance novel. Dermatitis My Love.  You can read the whole story of how he circumvented this problem in an article called Venus & Aesculapius: The Gloves of Love at Discovery Magazine.  

it wasn’t until the end of the century that sterile gloves were widely used by surgeons as well as nurses. 

If you have read The Gilded Hour you will remember that both Anna and Sophie deal with this issue, which will evolve into a bigger plot point in Where the Light Enters.  

Now, with all that in mind, consider this excerpt I came across today:

chronology-gloves

My blood pressure must have jumped twenty points when I read that. Now, I knew this had to be a mistake — which it is — but it certainly got my attention because if it were true and rubber gloves had been in use in operating rooms by 1882, I’d have some finagling to do. 

Consider this a tempest in a teapot, if you like. I think of it as a reminder (to myself) that my ocd actually serves a good purpose. 

Ms Middleton poses a few questions

Not every book is for every reader. There are many novels out there that don’t work for me, even well-written novels that are broadly praised. And yet, here I am responding to an email from someone who is very dissatisfied with The Gilded Hour

I have questions about The Gilded Hour.  I just finished reading it and, of course, I’m confused by the ending.  Why was the murder plot story not finished?

Also, I was confused as the story is supposed to take place in 1883 but, there is mention of cabs, hotels, and traffic.  Really?  In 1883?  The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel didn’t even open in NYC until 1893.  I felt like the setting kept jumping back and forth in-time and I had a hard time believing it was really 1883 since there was constant mention of “taking a cab”, “staying at the hotel” and “dealing with traffic.”  I’m curious as to why these were part of the setting if it was supposed to be 1883.  Any answers?

Also, I’ve never written to an author before, but, The Gilded Hour was very confusing for me since it jumped around in-time.  I’m looking forward to your explanations since you are the author.  

Kristi

Rather than talk about the fact that the murders will be resolved in the sequel (as I did here if my regular readers want to be reminded), let me address historical accuracy.

Pictures may speak louder than words, but heck, I’ll supply both of them.

Gilsey House Hotel

Manhattan was a very crowded place in the 19th century.

The actress Jenny Lind  arrived to perform at Castle Garden (then a performance space) on September 11, 1850.   30,000 people met her at the dock and another  20,000 lined the streets to her hotel.  You can read about this in more detail at the New York Times.

But then you could just go to one of the many city guides such as The City of New York: A Complete Guide, published in 1876, and read the ads for the city’s many hotels. You can read this online; the list of hotels starts on page 65

The Gilsey House hotel, mentioned in The Gilded Hour  opened for business in 1871, and is still standing, and is still a hotel.  Daytonian in Manhattan — a blog dedicated to New York city history — has a great post about the Windsor Hotel, which was standing and in business in 1883. In general I’d recommend Daytonian in Manhattan when you’re wondering about history.

omnibus-horses-in-winter-stieglitzIn 1883 traffic was a major problem. It was worse, in many ways, because thousands of horses pulling wagons of all kinds meant manure, and no easy way to get rid of it. The photo to the right I like especially because I think it makes it clear what it was like to be on the street in the winter. It’s a Steiglitz photo. 

There were train tracks everywhere, and accidents were common.  You can read about one in heavy traffic in 1874 here. There were elevated trains, more accidents. And there were cabs. Such as this line of handsome cabs waiting for customers on the north side of Union Square. That arm you see in the background is from the Statue of Liberty. While they were fundraising to build the pedestal in the bay, they put the arm in Union Square Park and charged people to climb to the top.

All of the images at the end of this post date from between 1880 and 1890. You’ll note the large number of small horse drawn carriages — cabs. Lots of them. 

Ms. Middleton, I hope I have resolved your confusion. There’s more information about the historical aspects of The Gilded Hour on the novel’s webpage, in case more questions occur to you.

Union Square, cab line
Union Square, cab line

madison-square-1893 sixth-ave-shoppers washington market

Lower East Side
Union Square
Union Square
Winter traffic 1887
Winter traffic 1887

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.