Where my research takes me: having a blast in the 19th century


I have a confession to make: I’m having way too much fun writing this third book in the Concordia Wells Mystery series! I’m hoping you’ll enjoy reading it, too. (It should be out by late summer).

One component of the story, set in 1898 Hartford, Connecticut, involves the use of dynamite by the bad guys. I won’t go into any more of the plot than that – you’ll want to read it for yourselves when the book comes out.

So I needed to get educated about the use of bombs in the late 1890s. Time for some research! My job is sooo cool.

I learned about famous anarchists in America and Europe, such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman; incidents such as the Haymarket Riot (Chicago, 1886), where someone threw dynamite at police as they were trying to break up a striking workers’ demonstration, and the bombing of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (1894); assassination attempts with the use of explosives, such as that of Alexander II of Russia (1881).

Harper's Weekly lithograph, 1886, via wikimedia commons.
Harper’s Weekly lithograph of Haymarket Riot, 1886, via wikimedia commons.

That’s just a sampling. Those anarchists were a busy crew.

I also wondered what these devices looked like. How would they work? What were their limitations? How would one make them from scratch?

Image via Amazon.com

I found this book, written in 1884 by Johann Most, a German-born activist who emigrated to the U.S. and gained much of his knowledge of explosives by working in an explosives plant in New Jersey. It’s really a pamphlet, being only 74 pages (originally written in German), as a guide for his like-minded friends back in central Europe.

In case you can’t read it, here’s the subtitle:

A Handbook of Instruction Regarding the Use and Manufacture of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Gun-cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Arsons, Poisons, Etc

I mean, really – who can pass up a title like that? So I ordered it from Amazon, to the despair of my security-clearance hubby…gee, honey, I don’t see the problem…




But if you didn’t want to make the explosives yourself, where could you lay your hands on them in the late-nineteenth century?

Here’s one of the biggest suppliers in the U.S. at the time:

1883 ad by the California Powder Works Company. Image via wikimedia commons.


The California Powder Works ad above depicts Hercules (the brand name of that particular explosives line, which later became the new company name) slaying the “giants.” In this case, the “giants” aren’t mythological: it’s a jab at its biggest competitor, Giant Powder Works. Their products (gunpowder, blasting caps, dynamite, etc) were marketed to railroad companies, mining companies, farmers, and sportsmen.

I’m seeing some possibilities here.

My best source of all: 

The most indispensable resource for me was a person – Jay Holmes, part of the spy thriller writing team of Bayard and Holmes. Piper Bayard graciously put me in contact with him, since his day job is, shall we say, of the covert variety. There’s no way I’d be able to find him on my own…and survive the experience.  In back-and-forth emails, he patiently answered all of my questions. Thank you, Jay! And don’t worry: I’ll make clear in the book acknowledgments that any errors are mine, not yours. 😉 

So, what adventures have your internet searches taken you on lately? I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,


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15 thoughts on “Where my research takes me: having a blast in the 19th century”

  1. Coleen PatrickColeen Patrick

    Hercules powder! All of this sounds like fun. I love the research part of writing. I’m sure once the NSA sees you’re a writer, there won’t be any security clearance issues. 🙂

  2. Kassandra LambKassandra Lamb

    Ha! No doubt you’re on somebody’s short list somewhere after googling or ordering books on so many ways to create murder and mayhem.

    Let’s see, this week I was researching criminal judges in White Plains, NY (so I didn’t accidentally use one of their real names, because the judge in my story is a bigot). Then I looked into how to create secret rooms in one’s house and then how much someone would bleed if tortured postmortem. Just innocent little things like that. 😀

    I’m quite sure there’s now a picture of me plastered on the wall of the White Plains courthouse security staff’s office, with the words “Watch out for her!” underneath it.

    • PatriciaPatricia

      So, Kassandra, you’re the one they warned me about? I had no idea. You, and you alone, are the reason I’ve avoided visiting New York.

      Fun stuff.

      Patricia Rickrode
      w/a Jansen Schmidt

      • Kassandra LambKassandra Lamb

        You gotta admit, Patricia, I keep things interesting. 😉

  3. PatriciaPatricia

    My goodness, my research is so boring compared to THAT. You exchanged e-mails with a guy who cannot be found, you bought a book about bomb making on-line, and you found advertisements for purchasing bomb making supplies. Hopefully Homeland Security won’t be breathing down your neck.

    I can’t wait for the book. Now I have visuals to look forward to.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  4. Kit DunsmoreKit Dunsmore

    Don’t you love the weird stuff that you find/learn while doing research? I sometimes think there’s a whole blog in just the stuff I dig up while getting my facts straight.

    I’m in the midst of research on life in Petra, Jordan, 550 AD. My latest internet find was Arabic poetry written down in the 8th c but probably dating back a few hundred years. I hope it will help add a human element to the picture I am building since most of my info is based on archaeology right now.

    Much as I love the research, I hope to get back to writing soon. I dreamt about camels last night, so I’m taking that as a sign the world is taking shape in my head.

  5. Karen McFarlandKaren McFarland

    Oh this is too funny Kathy. You are not going to believe it. For years, my father worked for Hercules Powder Company. Yes, I know! When I scrolled down the page, I started laughing. He worked for them for, well, until after I graduated from high school. By that time they had moved their main headquarters to Wilmington, Delaware and my dad was the west coast manager based in Los Angeles. And here’s another tidbit of information. My father before working for Hercules, was in the CIC, aka Counter Intelligence Corps. Now I wonder if there was some kind of connection, eh? Hee, hee, hee, how interesting. 🙂

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