historical fiction

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?



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.

Yonkers, N.Y.

Newspapers & Racism in the 1880s

married-a-mulattoIt won’t come as a surprise that there was blatant racial discrimination in the 1880s, but once in a while I am still taken aback by things I come across in the newspapers of the times.

In this case (click for a larger image) on 23 December 1883, the New York Times reports (page 3) that  a woman is seeking a divorce because she came across evidence that her husband of a short while is part African American (the term used is  mulatto). She first claims she had never heard of such a thing, and then that the very idea gives her great distress. She sues for divorce.

Stories about mixed race marriages show up on a regular basis (He married a Mulatto!) and are generally short. Most of the feature outraged family.

What is surprising here is that the paper argues that if women were to ask for divorce solely because they find their in-laws objectionable in some way, things would quickly get out of hand.

I’m unclear on what to make of this: is it meant to hold her up for ridicule as ignorant, or prejudiced? 

Then weeks later there is a front page, two-column article also in the NYT with the provocative title “The Real Southern Darky: A He Coon, A She  Coon, and a Lively Young Coon” dated 3 February 1884.  It is as fine a crude and moronic piece of Amos-n-Andy or minstrel-show performance as you could find anywhere .

The final piece for comparison is from a Michigan newspaper and dated 1880. In Toronto a woman of mixed ancestry, someone hired to teach on a temporary basis (as a substitute, it seems from the wording) in a white school, faces but overcomes racism in the community. 

10 January 1880

10 January 1880

Things are never straight-forward, and generalizations are dangerous.


Realities: Manhattan 1880s

There were indeed rich women who loved cats so much that they made hats out of them. Kate Fearing wore this cat-hat (I assume it came out of a taxidermist’s shop) to the Vanderbilt costume ball in March 1883.

Kate Fearing and Puss

Kate Fearing and Puss

Poverty was deep and pervasive and heartbreaking.*

destitute mother child

Prostitution was another fact of life. It was illegal, but tolerated to the degree that women told the census taker what they did for a living.

101 Forsyth Street. 1880 Census for Mary Brown, Keeper of a House of Ill Repute, and the nine prostitutes in her employ.

101 Forsyth Street. 1880 Census for Mary Brown, Keeper of a House of Ill Repute, and the nine prostitutes in her employ.


For those of you who have read The Gilded Hour and were wondering about the Mezzanotte florist shop, here’s a postcard that gives you an idea of the kind of thing you would find in Manhattan:


Florist at Fifth Avenue and 36th Street, Manhattan, ca 1890

I’ll be adding to this list now and then. 

*Usually I keep notes about images I come across, but not in this case. If you recognize the photo, please let me know.