Other historical periods

Merry Christmas, Sherlock Holmes style


Illustration by Sidney Paget, 1892. Wikimedia Commons.

Happy Holidays! As a mystery lover, Christmas reminds me of one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” The mystery starts with a dropped hat and a Christmas goose left behind.

The following recording is from the Sherlock Holmes audio archive of stories, many of them (including this one) narrated by none other than Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. My favorite team! The recording includes the classic touches of dramatic organ interludes and even a couple of commercials. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Let the adventure begin!



From a different adventure...Basil Rathbone (Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (Watson), Universal Pictures, 1943. Wikimedia Commons.

From a different adventure…Basil Rathbone (Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (Watson), Universal Pictures, 1943. Wikimedia Commons.

To listen to other stories in the archive (more than 125 of them!), click here.

May your Christmas be filled with fun and mystery!

Until next time,


P.S. – Book 1 of the Concordia Wells Mysteries, Dangerous and Unseemly, is on sale! You can now get the ebook version for only 99 cents. (Psst…it makes a great gift for the mystery lover in your life). The discount is available through Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo, and is good until January 6th.

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The Ides of March: more than the Shakespeare play you read in high school

The Ides of March: more than the Shakespeare play you read in high school

I first heard the phrase “the ides of March” in ninth grade, when we were assigned Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s a great play for your average teen, full of intrigue, deceit, betrayal, prophecy, political power, and murder. The soothsayer’s prognostication in the play is now legendary:

Beware the ides of March.

That’s it: short and sweet. Ever notice that most soothsayers in these stories are cryptic old men? A little more information would have been handy for Julius, who was assassinated on the ides of March in 44 B.C.

Death of Caesar, by Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1865. Image via wikimedia commons.

Death of Caesar, by Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1865. Image via wikimedia commons.

How did the old man know? Shakespeare doesn’t say. There were all sorts of divination techniques back then, from ooh to eww. Check out this wikipedia article for the complete list. I like to think it was owl entrails. Just call me old-fashioned. *wink*

Even though we don’t examine entrails (known as extispicy) or watch the peckings of roosters (known as alectromancy) anymore, we continue to look for patterns to make sense of our world. Pattern recognition is hard-wired into us by evolution and has saved us many times in our early survival days. But it’s also tricky. Some patterns are significant, and some are purely coincidental.

I doubt I would have given the ides of March another thought in my lifetime if not for a klutzy mishap in eleventh grade. I broke my ankle on March 15th of that year, slipping on the wet floor in the pool locker room. Even then I didn’t get it, until my mom pointed it out and wrote Beware the Ides of March on my cast. Everyone got a chuckle out of that. I got off easy compared to Caesar, right?

Me and my prom date, 3 months later. I was glad to be out of a cast!

Me and my prom date, less than 3 months later. I was glad to be out of a cast!

In the decades since, I have managed to get through the ides of March unscathed, and those locker rooms got non-slip mats for the floor, so we’re all good.

A few interesting facts about the Ides of March (Idus Martii):

  • The term “ides” referred to the middle of the month, at the time of the full moon. Based on the Romans’ lunar calendar, the ides were on the 13th for most months of the year and on the 15th in March, May, July, and October.
  • The ides, no matter what the month, were considered a holy day dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter, and commemorated by animal sacrifices.
  • By the oldest Roman calendar, March was the first month of the year; therefore, the ides of March was the new year’s first full moon.
  • In Rome, the ides of March was when one settled debts. Kind of like an IRS tax deadline.

You can see that Caesar’s assassins picked a significant day to do the deed. Here we have the death of Caesar linked to sacrifice, the settling of a debt, starting a new year, and a celebration of the Romans’ most important god. Patterns yet again.

The unluckiness of the ides of March doesn’t end with Caesar’s assassination. Here are some ominous things that have happened in history on March 15th:

  • 1889: cyclone in Samoa destroys six U.S. and German warships docked in the harbor at Apia, killing over 200 sailors.
  • 1917: Czar Nicholas II signs the papers to abdicate his throne, turning over his rule to the Bolsheviks. He and his family are imprisoned and executed.
  • 1939: the Nazis seize Czechoslavakia
  • 1952: record rainfall hits La Reunion (an island in the Indian Ocean), dumping over 73 inches in a 24-hour period.
  • 2003: the World Health Organization issues a world-wide health alert for the emerging SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus. Panicked populations across the globe don surgical masks and close schools.

For the rest of the list, check out this Smithsonian Magazine article.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that March 15th is more unlucky than any other day of the year. At least, I hope not. Crutches are a pain in the neck on the stairs.

Happy Ides,




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Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena

Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena

Happy Leap Day, everyone! I’m taking liberties with the word leap today, to talk about a different kind of leap: taking a personal risk.

Image via ell.stackexchange.com (public domain)

Image via ell.stackexchange.com (public domain)

I was walking around Burke Lake yesterday morning with a good friend and we spoke of how difficult it can be to strive for something we’re not sure we can attain. A lifelong dream may whisper in our soul, but we are reluctant to listen. Ironically, the more we care about it, the more we struggle with openly taking steps to make it happen. What if we fail? What if we look foolish? What if others criticize us? We already know our chances of succeeding are remote. We worry that others will think we have delusions of grandeur…or just delusions.

On our walk, my friend quoted from memory something Theodore Roosevelt had said, a passage that has come to be known as “The Man in the Arena.” It has stuck with me, so I decided to dig into the context of it a bit further and share it with you today. But first, Roosevelt’s inspiring words:

Teddy Roosevelt at family home, 1910. Image via wikimedia commons.

Teddy Roosevelt at family home, 1910. Image via wikimedia commons.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

This was part of a 1910 speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic,” given at the Sorbonne to an audience of more than 2,000 – including a number of foreign dignitaries. Roosevelt had completed his second term as president 15 months before, and was touring and giving speeches in Europe and Africa (after a year of hunting, that is – we’re talking Teddy Roosevelt, after all).

The French loved it. According to Erin McCarthy, in this Mental Floss article:

“Citizenship in a Republic” ran in the Journal des Debats as a Sunday supplement, got sent to the teachers of France by Le Temps, was printed by Librairie Hachette on Japanese vellum, was turned into a pocket book that sold 5000 copies in five days, and was translated across Europe.

Since then, it has become widely used as a inspirational tool (and also in a car commercial, of all things). Check out this Wikipedia entry for more about the contemporary impact.

Want to read the entire speech? Click here.

Have you taken a leap? Are you contemplating one? I would love to hear from you.

Image via truthinsideofyou.org (public domain)

Image via truthinsideofyou.org (public domain)

Until next time,



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Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood Bombshell…and Inventor

Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood Bombshell…and Inventor

image via wikimedia.org

Since today is Hedy Lamarr’s 101st birthday (thanks for the reminder, Google!), I’m re-posting something I wrote about her, three years ago.

Thanks for stopping by!



Fans of old movies know Hedy Lamarr, star of 1930s and 40s American films, such as Ziegfield Girl, and Samson and Delilah.  She was dubbed “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and worked with such Hollywood greats as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Louis B. Mayer, and Cecil B. DeMille.

Ah, but you know there’s more, right?  Apparently, Lamarr was one smart cookie, and loved to tinker.  Did you know that, during World War II, she co-invented a frequency-hopping torpedo guidance system?  It was designed to evade the enemy’s jamming devices.  She received the patent for it in 1942.  If you think about it, it’s a precursor to what we now call spread-spectrum communication technology, used in wifi and cell phones.

So how did this come about, and why didn’t the U.S. Navy jump on it when she offered to give it to them during the war?  Check out the following video clip (only 4 minutes) for the fascinating story:

So what do you all think: was the device not taken seriously because one of its inventors was a beautiful, wildly successful actress, or the idea itself seemed too weird?  What about today’s Hollywood celebrities: do they struggle to “cross over” in the public sector, and be taken seriously in other endeavors?  I’d love to hear from you!

For anyone who’s interested, The Atlantic website has an index of links to more celebrity patents.  Check it out here:  Celebrity Invention.  My fave?  That’s a tough one: I’m torn between Lawrence Welk’s accordion ashtray and Bill Nye’s ballet slipper.  LOL!

Until next time…keep tinkering!


…and in case anyone missed it:

Just Released: a new Concordia Wells Mystery!

Unseemly Ambition: book 4 of the Concordia Wells Mysteries


cover by Melinda VanLone

cover by Melinda VanLone

Murder aboard the Overland Limited…

It is the summer of 1898. Professor Concordia Wells is eager to accompany her friend, Pinkerton detective Penelope Hamilton, on a cross-country train trip to San Francisco. Breathless vistas and exciting locales will be a welcome change from a fiancé impatient to set a wedding date and the threat of revenge from the remaining Inner Circle members back in Hartford.

But Concordia should know there is no such thing as a free ride. When the Pinkerton Agency switches assignments at the last minute, she and Miss Hamilton have their work cut out for them. Fellow passengers prove to be both help and hindrance: a lady reporter in hiding, a con man…and a corpse or two. Then there is the handsome gentleman with the dark hair, green eyes, and a secret agenda of his own. Good thing Concordia is an engaged lady. Or is it?



Start reading at the click of a button:

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This election day, thank the suffragists

This election day, thank the suffragists

With election day coming up  in the United States, my thoughts are turning to a woman’s right to vote. We are so accustomed to any U.S. citizen being allowed to cast a ballot that it’s difficult to conceive of parts of the world where that still isn’t the case. There’s an interesting story from last year’s post about how the amendment was finally ratified, if you’d like to check it out: a woman’s right to vote.

The suffragists sacrificed a great deal in order to agitate for change. It was a long, hard road that began with the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 and continued on until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. If you’re curious about the Seneca Falls Convention, click here for my page on the subject.

A satirical portrayal of what the world would be like if women got the vote. 1869 lithograph by Currier and Ives, NY, via wikimedia commons (CC).

A satirical portrayal of what the world would be like if women got the vote. 1869 lithograph by Currier and Ives, NY, via wikimedia commons (CC).

Much of society, including women, resisted the idea of female suffrage. People made all sorts of dire predictions if women got the vote: “petticoat rule” would ensue; women would leave their children and their kitchens to meddle in men’s affairs; women would then make “unreasonable” demands for rights in other areas of their lives.

Just to give you an idea of the attitudes the suffragists were up against, here are two pictures from a widely-circulated handbook on “Household Tips” (date unknown, probably 1914-19):


women vote Fb


Here’s the inside of the pamphlet:


women vote anti ad p2


What a zinger: “You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout. A handful of potash and some boiling water is quicker and cheaper.” Wow.

The women’s suffrage movement gained ground during World War I, and activists suffered greatly for their cause during this time. They were mocked and spat upon as they marched; they were arrested and jailed; they were beaten and force-fed through the nose when they went on hunger strikes in prison.

One night, in 1917, Lucy Burns (an oft-arrested activist) and her fellow activists endured what has been termed the “Night of Terror” in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. They were beaten by the guards who then withheld any medical attention for their injuries. To keep their spirits up, Lucy conducted a roll call of her fellow women suffragists and would not stop, despite the guards’ threats. They handcuffed her hands above her head to the cell door and left her that way all night. I’ve not been able to confirm it with additional sources, but one version of the story goes that her fellow activists showed their solidarity with Lucy by assuming the same posture and enduring it along with her in their separate cells. On another occasion, Lucy went on a hunger strike and was force-fed so violently that she had severe nosebleeds.

Mary Winsor (Penn), 1917. Photographer: Harris & Ewing, via Library of Congress

Mary Winsor (Penn), 1917. Photographer: Harris & Ewing, via Library of Congress



What the suffragists endured became widely known after their release, and the public outrage over women being treated so harshly for peaceably conducting marches and holding signs helped to fuel their cause. The experiences took their toll on Lucy Burns, who retired from public life as soon as the amendment was passed.

"Lucy Burns in Occoquan Workhouse" by Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party / Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. - Library of Congress / [1]. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lucy_Burns_in_Occoquan_Workhouse.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lucy_Burns_in_Occoquan_Workhouse.jpg

“Lucy Burns in Occoquan Workhouse” by Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party / Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. – Library of Congress / [1]. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Women suffragists picketing in front of the White house. The first picket line - College day in the picket line line, 1917 via Library of Congress.

Women suffragists picketing in front of the White house. The first picket line – College day in the picket line line, 1917 via Library of Congress.

Want more information about the Occoquan Workhouse?

From the White House to the Workhouse to the Franchise

Struggle at the Workhouse

Photos from the Women’s Suffrage Movement (slideshow)

General info on the suffrage movement:

Suffragist History


What piece of history moves you and influences your life? I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,


UnseemlyAmbition small

P.S. – My Unseemly Ambition giveaway is in full swing! Click here for the list of prizes and how to get your name in the drawing (multiple times!).

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Happy New Year, Downton Abbey Style

Happy New Year, Downton Abbey Style

Many of us are eagerly awaiting 2014, ready to implement those resolutions and goals.

I’m with ya on those, too, but there’s another event I’m looking forward to this week: the start of Season 4 of Downton Abbey!  In our neck of the woods, the first episode of the new season airs this Sunday, January 5th.

Highclere Castle, setting for Downton Abbey.  Photograph by Richard Munckton, via wikimedia commons.

Highclere Castle, setting for Downton Abbey. Photograph by Richard Munckton, via wikimedia commons.

For those of you not familiar with it, Downton Abbey (created by Julian Fellowes) is a BBC series set in early-20th century England, revolving around the Earl of Grantham’s family and their extensive below-stairs staff.  The series began with the family being affected by the sinking of the Titanic, proceeded on to and through WWI, and is currently set in the post-WWI years.  The costumes and set are breathtaking, the stories are riveting, and the actors bring to life the memorable characters.

A fan favorite is the character of Dowager Countess Violet Grantham, portrayed by Maggie Smith.  A few months ago I shared an amusing clip (the swivel chair scene) in this post.  For anyone interested in the 60 Minutes interview with Maggie Smith and have the time (it’s 15 minutes long), click here.


But for those of you looking for a quick laugh and a refresher of what you love about this series, here’s a mash-up clip of one-liners and scene bits featuring the irrepressible Lady Grantham.  Enjoy!

Do you follow Downton Abbey?  What are your favorite moments?  I’d love to hear from you!


new years2


Best wishes for a happy 2014!


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An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving?

An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving clipartHappy Tuesday, everyone!

I’m sure most of you are aware that Thanksgiving this year falls on the latest date it can possibly be, much to the hand-wringing dismay of Christmas retailers.  And we’ve all been getting the “early Black Friday” emails and advertisements to prove it.

Have you ever noticed that when life gets hectic, traffic gets heavy, commercialism becomes more intrusive than usual, and patience wears thin – as often happens around the holidays – that we hanker for an “old-fashioned” version of the holiday?  I know I do.

So what would an old-fashioned Thanksgiving be like?  Most of us draw upon childhood memories in constructing that image.  (And of course as kiddos we didn’t have to worry about cooking, cleaning, or Uncle Fred’s antics after having a few too many).  We envision a slower pace, simple fare, family around us, catching our breaths, and being thankful.

Being the history junkie dilettante that I am, when I think “old-fashioned” I think of “old.”  So naturally I looked up early-twentieth century newspaper articles to share with you.

I think what will surprise you most is what we have in common with the people of those days in preparing for and celebrating Thanksgiving.  Yep – food, football, and shopping!  Today we’ll focus on the shopping, and then the next two Tuesdays we’ll talk about football and food.

Retailers from a hundred years ago were just as eager to entice holiday shoppers as they are today.  And they used the same tactics:  the SALE and the GIVEAWAY.

The Sale:

In this advertisement from the East Oregonian (Evening Edition), November 18, 1910, there are choices aplenty for budget-conscious shoppers:

image via Chronicling America, Library of Congress

image via Chronicling America, Library of Congress

Notice the food portion of the advertisement is just a teeny paragraph on the lower left side?  I was surprised it wasn’t more prominent.  In fact, it was similar in size to the Children’s Underwear section.  

Quick!  All of Johnny’s tighty-whities have holes in them, and Grandma’s coming over!  

But what’s with the bear skin?  Is that really what folks back then were running out to buy right before the Thanksgiving feast?

(Burt Reynolds may come to mind for some of us.  For you youngsters, if you Google “Burt Reynolds bear skin” you’ll see what I’m talking about).  

The Giveaway:

Even today, stores like to give away freebies to draw in shoppers.  What’s the best freebie at Thanksgiving time?  The turkey, of course.  According to this advertisement, Wentworth Clothing House made it a tradition:

The Spokane Press, November 17, 1910 (via Chronicling America, Library of Congress).

The Spokane Press, November 17, 1910 (via Chronicling America, Library of Congress).

After all, who can resist a free turkey?

Speaking of giving away free turkeys, I’d like to leave you with a clip from WKRP in Cincinnati.  I think you’ll get a kick out of it!


Until next time, keep those turkeys grounded.


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Declaring Independence

Declaring Independence

Happy July!  For those of us living in the U.S.A., we’re gearing up to celebrate Independence Day.  As our thoughts turn to fireworks, barbecues, and sharing time with family, I’d like to take a moment to recall the turning point that led us here.


The Declaration of Independence

image via digitalhistory.uh.edu

Artist John Trumbull (1817). Image via digitalhistory.uh.edu


A quick 1776 timeline:

June 7: Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee, during the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, puts forward a motion for independence from Britain.  It’s seconded by John Adams.

Richard Henry Lee, via wikimedia commons

Richard Henry Lee, via wikimedia commons

 Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

June 11: Congress appoints a committee to draft a Declaration.  On the committee are Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston.  The committee decides to give Jefferson the task of putting together a first draft.

June 12-27: Jefferson works on the Declaration, and the committee reviews and makes revisions before presenting it to Congress.

June 28: The committee’s draft of the Declaration of Independence is read in Congress.

July 1-4: Debates and revisions of the document.

July 4: Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence.  July 4-5, broadside copies are printed by Dunlap (a local Philadelphia printer) and sent by horseback to all thirteen colonies, various assemblies and councils.

July 6: The Philadelphia Evening Post is the first newspaper to print the entire text of the Declaration of Independence.

July 8: The first proclamation (reading aloud) of the Declaration of Independence takes place in the State House in Philadelphia, followed by another proclamation later that day to the militia.

July 9: George Washington reads the Declaration aloud to the Continental Army in New York.  A rowdy crowd later that day tears down a statue of George III in the square, which is later melted down and made into 42,000 musket balls for the army.  Ironic, eh?

During the month of July, as word spread – through newspapers and additional public proclamations throughout the colonies – America celebrates its first “Fourth of July” with bell ringing, musket-firing, and burning of effigies of the King.

Ah, but we’re not “official” yet.

July 19: Congress orders the Declaration of Independence to be officially inscribed by its members.

August 2: Signing begins.  Richard Henry Lee, the man who started the motion in Congress but had gone home before the vote, signs the document.


4thSome interesting tidbits about the Declaration of Independence:

  • The oldest signer was Benjamin Franklin (70); the youngest was Edward Rutledge, from South Carolina (26).
  • 8 of the 56 men who signed the document were born in Britain.
  • Additional copies have been found in the past 25 years.  In 1989, a man in Philadelphia found a Dunlap broadside inside a picture frame he bought at a flea market for $4.  It later sold for 8.1 million.  Another broadside was found in the British National Archives in 2009.  It had been in a box of papers from American revolutionaries captured during the war, and languished in obscurity for centuries.

Want to read more?

History.com: 9 Things You May Not Know About the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence: the first public readings

National Park Service: the Signers of the Declaration

USHistory.org: The Declaration of Independence

U.S. Department of State (the Office of the Historian): The Declaration of Independence


Just for fun…

One of my favorite scenes from the musical 1776: “Sit down, John!”


How do you celebrate American independence?  If it’s not a holiday for you, what’s your opinion of our antics on that day?  I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,


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