The Spy Who Stole Tea from China

The Spy Who Stole Tea from China


With stories in the news lately about hackers from China breaking into corporate computers and stealing proprietary software and information (for example, this 60 Minutes’ feature: The Great Brain Robbery), here’s a little historical gem about Robert Fortune (1812-1880) who accomplished the reverse. The low-tech version.

Image via Wikipedia Commons.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

From 1845-1848, this Scottish botanist managed to acquire China’s closely-guarded tea-growing and production secrets, along with actual plants to transplant in India. For the tea-drinking world, this was a game-changer. Within a short time, China no longer had a monopoly on tea, and Brits had control over the production of their favorite beverage.


Robert Fortune was working for the Horticultural Society of London and had already traveled to China and learned a great deal about tea production, along with some surprises:
Chinese merchants had been telling their customers for decades that green and black teas came from different plant varieties. Fortune learned that the difference between black and green teas wasn’t the variety of plant, but the method of drying the leaves. He also discovered that the Chinese were dyeing the green tea purchased by the English.

from Three Years Wanderings in the Provinces of Northern China, by Robert Fortune.

He published his discoveries in book entitled Three Years’ Wanderings in the Provinces of China. It drew the attention of the East India Company, which commissioned him to return to China and acquire tea plants for them. In Fortune’s own words:

I was deputed by the Honourable the Court of the Directors (sic) to proceed to China for the purpose of obtaining the finest varieties of the Tea-plant, as well as native manufacturers and implements, for the Government Tea plantations in the Himalayas.

Fortune had no ethical problem with such a request. In his view, plants belonged to the world for everyone’s use.

The Caper:

The Chinese were incredibly secretive (and rightly so, given what did happen) about how their tea was produced. Fortune spent two and half years in China, shaving his head and adopting the attire of a Chinese merchant (read Sarah Rose’s fascinating book, listed below, for more details). It was sometimes a challenge to evade China’s in-port restrictions, which only allowed foreigners to travel one day’s distance from the ports allowed to Europeans by treaty. But Fortune managed to travel to areas few Europeans ever saw.

Here is Fortune’s own account of how he transported the tea plants he collected, using what was called a glazed case, first devised by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward:

fortune tea2


The mission was a rousing success:

Upwards of twenty thousand tea-plants, eight first-rate manufacturers, and a large supply of implements were procured from the finest tea-districts of China, and conveyed in safety to the Himalayas.

Wow, 20,00! And the equipment and experts to successfully start a tea-growing operation in India. Can you imagine?


Want to read more?

Fortune, Robert. Three Years Wanderings in the Provinces of China. London: Spottiswoode and Shaw, 1847.

Fortune, Robert. A Journey to the Tea Countries of China; Including Sung-Lo and the Bohea Hills. London: W. Clowes and Sons, 1852.

Rose, Sarah. For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History. New York: Viking Press, 2010.  Click here for Amazon link.

NPR: Tea Tuesdays: The Scottish Spy Who Stole China’s Tea Empire


Happy tea drinking,


P.S. – Be sure to check out the following post for my giveaway and flash fiction fun! Entry deadline is January 31.

You tell the story!

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State of the Union as spectator sport

State of the Union as spectator sport

Tomorrow night’s State of the Union address will be President Barack Obama’s last, during an election year already rife with divisive and derisive rhetoric. So, how about we have some fun instead? Below is a post from 2015 that surveyed social media responses to that year’s SOTU. It reaffirms my faith in mankind’s intrinsic smart-a$$ery, an important self-preservation skill in any election year.

What’s new this year? Looks like the White House is trying to sit at the cool kids’ table by joining SnapChat.

POTUS snapchat

For you political wonks out there, here are a couple of links to help you get ready:

5 Things to Watch for in Obama’s Final State of the Union (NPR)

From this article, I learned that the following phrases would make great SOTU Bingo spaces (or key words for a drinking game), for those so inclined:

shared prosperity

inclusive growth

gun control

immigration reform


long way to go

let’s not let the Republicans take us backward

Everything you need to know about the 2016 State of the Union address (Politico)

My favorite paragraph from this source is the explanation of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nap last year:

politico Ginsburg

Wow, I never knew Ruth was a party girl! Makes you wonder who else isn’t “100 percent sober” at the event. A tweet of Justice Ginsburg’s sleeping pic is included in the original post below.

Will you be watching the State of the Union address? Will you be tweeting, bingo-ing, or drinking? I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,


P.S. – don’t forget to submit your flash fiction tale about the barber shop pole for a free audiobook or ebook! End of January is the deadline. Details here: You Tell the Story!


Originally posted 21 January 2015:

Today’s post is a bit different from our usual historical and mystery-based themes, and is just for fun. No policies or partisanship here. We want to talk about the stuff that people really care about.

Preparing for the event:


After all, what State of the Union address is complete without a fog machine?

We viewers at home had some preparations to make as well. Bring on the drinking games and Bingo!

Here’s a drinking game that devised for the occasion:


For the rest of the rules, click here. I would add “veto,” “children,” and “community college.” posted this Bingo card:



Not sure how you win when everyone’s card is the same, but at least you won’t be falling asleep:


Although some appreciated the Supreme Court Justice’s approach:


Okay, so now we’re ready. Let the pageantry begin.


The President Makes an Entrance:





Face-Off: the Men Behind the Man

There were tons of tweets about Biden and Boehner.


You know, I can see it….

Boehner’s tan drew a lot of attention:




And what was that silver thing on Boehner’s desk? A couple of theories:



Biden got his share of tweets, too:






I’d missed Biden’s facial expression during Obama’s off-the-teleprompt zinger. Thank goodness for social media, LOL.



The Quaker Oats Guy, or Mad-Eye Moody?

Someone else caught the eye of the Twitterverse last night:





When generations collide: the astronaut on instagram

The President to astronaut Scott Kelly: “Good luck, and post pictures on instagram!”



Do they have wifi in space?

Wrapping it up:

There seemed to be a lot of standing ovations. Here’s one reporter’s tally at the end:


At least the Democrats got their aerobic workout for the night.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems strange to see the President signing autographs after the address. To add to the weirdness, he signed a tie last night.


Maybe it will start a trend. But what’s next? Groupies throwing their underthings at the President to sign? *shudder*


If you skipped the State of the Union address altogether, here’s one guy’s strategy for catching up:


Hope he’s not part of this teacher’s class today. There may be a quiz:



Did you see the State of the Union address last night? Were any naps or drinking games involved? I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,



P.S. – 10 more days until the end of the Unseemly Ambition giveaway!

Unseemly Ambition Giveaway


To celebrate the release of my most recent Concordia Wells mystery, Unseemly Ambition, I’m holding a prize giveaway. There’s still time to get your name in!

Click here for easy ways to get your name in the drawing, and a list of prizes!

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You tell the story!

You tell the story!

writerHi everyone! I’ve decided to start off 2016 with something fun and interactive. You all read my stories (thank you!); now I’d love the chance to read yours.

As you may know, much of my primary research comes from the 19th century newspaper archive, Chronicling America. I often stumble upon fun little gems that I didn’t anticipate.


Here’s the last line from a newspaper article in The Dalles Daily Chronicle (April 4, 1894). Can you write the story preceding it?

newspaper banner

If you meet a party of eight young men with a barber pole, don’t arrest them. They own it.

Isn’t that a great ending? What do you think happened before that? Let your imagination run wild.

Some guidelines:

  • Just because the original is historical doesn’t mean yours has to be. Set it in any time and place you want.
  • No more than 500 words, and as short as you’d like.
  • Post your story in the comments section of this post.

What will you win?

In addition to the satisfaction of entertaining your audience, each storyteller (up to 30 participants) can select either an ebook from my Concordia Wells mystery series (choose from books 1 through 4), or an audiobook version of book 1 or 2!

Concordia series 1to4



So, start creating! This will be open until the end of January, when I will post the original story for your amusement. Those 1890s college kids were a mischievous bunch….

What stories have inspired you lately? I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,




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Is there a Santa Claus? A 19th century answer.

Is there a Santa Claus? A 19th century answer.

Today I’m re-posting something from 2012 that I hope will get you all in the holiday spirit. For those of you who celebrate, I wish you a very Merry Christmas! See you in 2016!


It seems fitting that, with just a few days to go before Christmas, we take a look at that classic editorial from a veteran newspaper journalist to a little 8-yr-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon.

Yes, I’m talking about the unsigned editorial:  “Is there a Santa Claus?” published in The New York Sun on September 21, 1897.  The writer was later identified as Francis Pharcellus Church.

F.P. Church; image via

Looks very serious, doesn’t he?  He should; he was a Civil War correspondent.  What he wrote in reply to this young girl has become a timeless piece, reprinted whole or in part more often than any other newspaper editorial in the English language.  The phrase “yes, Virginia” has become part of our lexicon.

Virginia O’Hanlon, date unspecified, via wikipedia

When 8-yr-old Virginia asked the question that makes all parents of young children squirm -“Is there a Santa Claus?” – her father, Dr. Phillip O’Hanlon, suggested she write to The Sun for her answer.  (Strategic parental deflection; quite impressive).  Below appears the entirety of the editorial in answer to her letter (which has since been verified as genuine).

For more about Virginia’s life, the editorial, and what has been done with it since, check the following links:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” – Wikipedia

“Yes, Virginia” – Newseum

I wish each of you a wonderful holiday season, whether Santa is part of it or not!  And thank you for reading and supporting this blog over the past year.  I so appreciate all your comments and tweets.

After today, the blog will be on holiday hiatus until the new year.  I’m looking forward to catching up with you then!

Happy New Year,


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Grandma under the mistletoe!

Grandma under the mistletoe!

…and you thought folks were prudish in the 19th century. Ah, the magic of mistletoe. For the young, and the young at heart. Go, Grandma!

The Corvallis Gazette (Corvallis, OR), Dec 24, 1897. Chronicling America, Library of Congress.

The Corvallis Gazette (Corvallis, OR), Dec 24, 1897. Chronicling America, Library of Congress.


Careful who you kiss under the mistletoe, however:

Anaconda Standard (Montana), 24 Feb 1895. Image via Chronicling America, Library of Congress.

Anaconda Standard (Montana), 24 Feb 1895. Image via Chronicling America, Library of Congress.


Was he letting people kiss his wife so he’d have an excuse to kiss the girl? Hmm.

Mistletoe was a sought-after item at Christmas-time in the 19th century, and holiday revelers placed “kissing boughs” in strategic places (though never in a church, as the custom originated among the ancient Druids, and sometimes involved human sacrifice). There is a difference between English and American mistletoe, and apparently back then clients in the northeastern U.S. were very picky, preferring the English variety. Perhaps some “explosive kissing” was anticipated? See below:

The Evening Star (Wash, DC), 24 Dec 1889. Image via Chronicling America, Library of Congress (highlighting mine).

The Evening Star (Wash, DC), 24 Dec 1889. Image via Chronicling America, Library of Congress (highlighting mine).

Those folks really knew how to revel, didn’t they? How does one “use up” mistletoe? …never mind.

Do you decorate with real mistletoe? (We have an artificial mistletoe ball in our house – the berries are poisonous. A sick cat is hardly romantic). For that matter, has anyone even seen real mistletoe recently, or has it gone the way of the Druids?

I won’t ask y’all about any plans for “explosive kissing” (*wink*), but I’d love to hear what else you’re up to! And I’m still giving away ebooks to commenters (up to ten copies in total, and good until Christmas), so if you want a free copy of any book in my series, let me know which book and whether you prefer epub (Nook, iPad) or mobi (Kindle), and I’ll send it off to you.

Concordia series 1to4

No matter what you are celebrating this season, I wish you the brightest of holidays!

Until next time,



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Gifts for the avid reader, 19th century style

Gifts for the avid reader, 19th century style

‘Tis the season for buying gifts, and books are among the best gifts out there! (So sayeth the book lover). If you go on Amazon (which got its start as an online bookseller back in 1994) and look for best-selling book suggestions, you’ll see something like this:

21st century books


But what did readers – and those who loved them – choose from in the 1890s? How did they decide? Obviously, there were no internet recommendations to consult. They relied upon ads in magazines and newspapers, recommendations from friends, or their corner bookshop proprietor. Not so different from today, if you think about it. The ad below gives us an idea of some of the hot books of the time:

1895 chromolithograph, Armstrong & Co, Boston. Image via wikimedia commons.

You’d better know your Latin numerals! 1895 chromolithograph, Armstrong & Co, Boston. Image via wikimedia commons.


Famous authors often put out new pieces around the holidays, too. These days, we have Grisham and Patterson. In the late-19th century, readers had Mark Twain:

Cover of the New York World, Christmas 1899. Image via wikimedia commons.

Cover of the New York World, Christmas 1899. Image via wikimedia commons.

Nothing says “Christmas” like “My First Lie and How I Got Out of It.”


Perhaps a magazine subscription for the avid reader in your life? But the December 1893 issue of The Strand Magazine is when Doyle kills off the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Sorry folks, Holmes is dead. Oh well…Merry Christmas!


The Strand, December 1893. Image via wikimedia commons.

The Strand, December 1893. Image via wikimedia commons.

Do you give books or magazines as gifts? I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,


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The Spirit of Christmas

The Spirit of Christmas

The more ad-weary among us have wondered if the spirit of Christmas is shopping, but after a few cleansing breaths we can see that it’s really about stepping outside ourselves to serve others in some way. Whether it’s a bottle of Aunt Gertie’s favorite perfume, donating a turkey dinner, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor, we are making someone’s day a bit brighter.

We are inspired by stories of a person’s need being met by a generous heart. And our great-grandparents were, too. Here’s a December 24, 1899 article from The New York Times:



Now, with the power of social media, we can make our charitable giving less haphazard and even more effective. Today is #GivingTuesday, a designated day of charitable giving. It was first created three years ago, in response to the uber-consumerist traditions of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

givingTues2 Check out their website (or Facebook or Twitter) for more info on how you can get involved today. You can even share your story on their Facebook page and on Twitter. They are going for the Guinness World Record for most online charitable donations in a single day! Wouldn’t that be awesome? Many local television and radio stations are also participating, offering apps for your smartphone that make it easy to check out the needs of local schools and charities in your neighborhood. Amazon has also set up Amazon Smile, where you select your charity, make purchases through that site instead of the regular Amazon site, and Amazon donates 0.5% of certain purchased items (indicated on the screen whether the item qualifies). There are a lot of charities participating, so if you don’t immediately see your favorite (our fave is S.O.M.E. – So Others Might Eat – and it’s on there!), there’s a search bar you can use.

In the spirit of giving, I want to offer the first twenty commenters of this post a gift. No strings, no random drawing later. If you’ve already read all of my books, feel free to gift it to someone else. Just let me know which one of the following you would prefer:

Your choice of ebook (please indicate your preferred file format – epub or mobi):

…or my new release, Unseemly Haste!



Or, you can choose an audiobook instead:




Not familiar with The Concordia Wells Mysteries? Read more about the books by clicking on the blue square below:

Concordia logo FINAL small

What’s your favorite charity? Have you heard of Giving Tuesday? I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,


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Thanksgivings past

Thanksgivings past

To all of my American friends, Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a re-post from one I wrote a few years back, about the similar ways in which Thanksgiving was celebrated a hundred years ago. Food, football, helping those in need…notice that Black Friday is conspicuously missing.

Enjoy your holiday,



Check out these snippets of late-19th/early-20th century Thanksgivings, through the eyes of reporters from The New York Times. Enjoy!

Even back then, it was all about the turkey:

…although Thanksgiving was about generosity, too:

Click here for the entire November 26, 1908 article.


College football was another Thanksgiving tradition:



Click here for the entire November 30, 1899 article.

Hope this helps get you in the mood for the upcoming holiday!  What do you consider absolutely essential for your Thanksgiving?  I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,


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