Prohibition’s Greatest Myths

The perfect book for me, right? This new (2020) book, Prohibition’s Greatest Myths, combines two of my main interests: history myths and the Roaring Twenties. It’s a small book, only about 150 pages, with ten essays by ten scholars (historians with a couple of sociologists and political science professors thrown in for good measure) that purport to reveal “the distilled truth about America’s anti-alcohol crusade.” A good debunking, right? Wrong.

What I found was a bit different. The only myth actually debunked was #5: Alcohol Consumption Increased during the Prohibition Era. Alcohol consumption did not increase. It declined quite a bit in the first years then gradually rose, but even after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, people drank less on average than before. Not until the 1970s did alcohol consumption rise to pre-Prohibition levels. Okay, good debunking job.

The other nine essays serve merely to show that the statement (called a myth) is an accurate generalization that becomes more complex when one digs deeper. Which we could say about any generalization. That’s what generalizations are for. For example, in the essay “Prohibition Started Organized Crime” I read that there was some manner of organization in crime before Prohibition, but Prohibition “provided an unparalleled opportunity for expansion and development of such crime.” Sure. But generally speaking, Prohibition marked the explosion of organized crime like nothing that had ever been seen. In another example, the author intending to debunk the myth that “Religious Conservatives Spearheaded the Prohibition Movement” says it is “only partially true.” The movement appealed to more than just religious conservatives. The religious conservatives who led the movement in the early 19th century “were evangelical Christians of course” but their motives were different than modern Christian fundamentalists. Okay, but they’re still religious conservatives leading the movement. It’s a valid generalization.

The essays were interesting. It is the title that misleads. These aren’t myths that are debunked. These are valid generalizations that are explored in greater depth. But perhaps Prohibition Generalizations Explored in Greater Depth wouldn’t be as appealing a title.

Published in: on February 11, 2021 at 9:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Gangster Map 1927

When we think about gangsters in Chicago in the Roaring Twenties, we think of Capone’s outfit, O’Banion’s North Side Gang, the Gennas, and a few others. Those were certainly the main ones, but according to research done by Frederic Thrasher, a sociologist at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, Chicago had some 1,300 gangs. He estimated that there were about 25,000 men and boys in those gangs. This is the map he drew to show their location. (See https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/map-monday-chicago-gangland for more information.)

Published in: on January 28, 2021 at 2:25 pm  Comments (1)  

Kiddie Koop: The 1920s version of Pack-N-Play

I remember my grandmother talking about the Kiddie Koop she used back in the 1920s when her two sons were babies. I also saw it when I was young. The wood frame was blue and the fine mesh screen around it was just like window screen. So I gave my main character Maddie a Kiddie Koop (a used one, because she’s poor) for Baby Tommy. The ad above is later, probably from the 1950s, but you get the idea.

Published in: on January 20, 2021 at 4:29 pm  Comments (2)  

Snow Removal in the Twenties

The mystery I’m working on is set in Chicago during the winter of 1924. I had to do some serious thinking and a bit of research to figure out how people got around during those times, when snow was thick and constant. There was snow removal on the main streets of the city, using machines like the one above.

This is from Canada in 1920, but still, it shows the sort of removal that would have been available in Chicago during those years. They had to clear the main streets for the streetcars and buses, but side streets and residential areas would have to wait. Sidewalks in commercial blocks were cleared by shovel and spread with ashes from the fireplace or sand.

Here is New York in 1899, but this is what they did in Chicago too–dumped the snow in the river.

Published in: on January 10, 2021 at 11:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Favorite Games during the 1920s

While researching popular board games during the 1920s so I could mention something other than chess, bridge, and poker in the novel I’m currently writing, I found this marvelous photo of a Wizard of Oz game. Wish I had the real thing! I hope you can read some of the names and places that Dorothy passes through on her way to the Emerald City. Remember, this game precedes the famous 1939 movie that deals only with Munchkinland. It’s based on the series of Frank Baum’s books which, in their day, were as wildly popular (and vilified by far right wing Christians) as the Harry Potter series. The similarities between the two are astonishing: wizards, witches, odd creatures, magic wands, boarding schools for kids, etc. I recently re-read several of my very old Oz books, inherited from my grandparents (The Lost Princess of Oz and Tik-Tok of Oz) to see how they stood up to time. In a word, terribly. The prose is heavy and boring, and they would be a huge turnoff to kids today. Someone needs to re-work and re-publish them. (No thanks.)

Published in: on December 29, 2020 at 2:36 pm  Comments (1)  

Cover Art for Next Book

Cover art.

There’s a story here. When a publisher’s art department designs the cover for a new book, they read a summary of the book and do their best to create an imaginative, appealing cover that will draw the eye and give a clue as to the nature of the book. With my newest book (publication date spring 2021), the first attempt was as follows:

I loved it. BUT . . . and this is a big BUT . . . it was inaccurate. An important character in the story is a mystic, a spiritualist who connects people to deceased loved ones. This is very different from fortune telling, so the Tarot cards and crystal ball are not correct. In fact, at one point in the book, the mystic says dismissively that she’s no fortune teller. So, I told the publisher that the cover was terrific from an artistic standpoint but that it would be more accurate if they could replace the Tarot cards with something else, like an image of hands touching on a table, or a spooky ghost figure, or candles. And they listened.

Much better, yea! But . . . the words 1920s Mystery need to be centered a bit and the S in 1920s needs to be smaller so it doesn’t read like 192 OS. Final version:

I’m really happy with the final version.

The book is scheduled for release in March-April 2021 in England and Australia, then 2-3 months later, in the U.S. When I have more definite information, I’ll share it.

Published in: on December 7, 2020 at 6:28 pm  Comments (3)  

Bootlegger’s Stash Discovered!

A New York couple found dozens of bottles of illegal Prohibition-era whiskey stashed inside the walls of their old house. The house, built in 1915, was once owned by a German-American who was rumored to have been a bootlegger. Seems the rumors were true and here’s the proof!

Check out the whole story at https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/25/us/whiskey-bottles-found-new-york-home-walls-trnd/index.html

You can buy a bottle and taste it yourself, but the asking price is $1,000. I’m afraid I’ll pass. But I wouldn’t mind having an empty bottle–I’m more interested in the label than the contents.

Published in: on November 29, 2020 at 7:42 am  Leave a Comment  

Chicago Morgue

Most murder mysteries involve dead bodies, and most dead bodies end up in the morgue, so I needed to know something about the Chicago morgue in 1924, mostly: Where was it? Did it have refrigeration (or use ice)? I found this helpful postcard (sorry it’s so small). Can you see the small #8 building behind the famous City Hospital? That’s the morgue. I also learned it was colloquially called the Deadhouse. So that’s what my characters call it. And yes, they had refrigeration in the 1920s. It wasn’t even new.

Published in: on October 29, 2020 at 3:33 pm  Comments (1)  

Book Titles 101

Some people don’t realize that a book’s author doesn’t necessarily choose his/her book’s title. I’ve been fortunate thus far in that the titles I suggested for my first 4 books (The Impersonator, Silent Murders, Renting Silence, and Murder in Disguise) were accepted by my publishers. My luck ran out with my upcoming book, which is the first in a new series set in the Roaring Twenties.

The background of the new series is Chicago; the year is 1924. The main character is a young mother whose husband has just been killed in turf war between Al Capone’s Outfit and Dean O’Banion’s North Side Gang. The only way she finds to support herself is as a shill for a fraudulent medium, sitting a the seance table pretending to connect with her late husband so as to convince others that the mystic is genuine. The other part of her job involves researching the backgrounds of the mystic’s customers through wills, newspapers, gravestones, and gossip, finding out those little no-one-could-have-known-that details the mystic can use.

So . . . I thought a good title for this first-in-the-series would be THE SHILL.

My publisher disagreed. In their view, the word is not sufficiently familiar to readers. I’ve conducted an informal survey at every chance I get and I’m afraid the publisher is right. More than half of the people I ask recognize the word, but that isn’t really enough. How about you? Did you know it?

Imagine my surprise when yesterday’s Word of the Day from the Webster Dictionary folks was my word–SHILL. They list it as a verb, not as a noun, but acknowledge its use as a noun. Here’s their definition:

1 : to act as a decoy especially for a gambler or pitchman

2 : to act as a spokesperson or promoter

Someone who shills today may very well be employed to simply extol the wonders of legitimate products. But in the early 1900s, when the first uses of the verb shill were documented, it was more likely that anyone hired to shill was trying to con you into parting with some cash. Practitioners called shills did everything from faking big wins at casinos (to promote gambling) to pretending to buy tickets (to encourage people to see certain shows). Shill is thought to be a shortened form of shillaber, but etymologists have found no definitive evidence of where that longer term originated.

See the full website here: https://www.merriam-webster.com/word-of-the-day/shill-2020-10-11

So . . . we dropped THE SHILL and replaced it with THE MYSTIC’S ACCOMPLICE. What do you think?

I’ve finished working with the editor to make some minor changes, changes that make the story much better, I might add. Next comes the cover art, my favorite part of the publication process.

Published in: on October 12, 2020 at 10:05 am  Comments (4)  

New Roaring Twenties Series!

Last month I signed a contract with my publisher, Severn House, for the first two books of a new Roaring Twenties series. The first should appear in the spring. I’m working on the second right now.

I’m setting this series in Chicago. As always, I’m enjoying the research, learning details about the 1920s that I can incorporate into my story. When I was wondering about snow removal in the city during those years, I discovered a photo of a snowplow. And then I learned what happened to the snow–where did it go? Into trucks that dumped it into the Chicago River. Thus my short snapshot of life during the Twenties, where I write:

Yesterday’s fierce wind had died down but the morning temperature was surely below freezing. One of Chicago’s new snow loaders chugged its way along our street. . . “Where do you suppose they take all that snow?” I asked idly, not really expecting a reply. But Freddy, wise to life in the street, replied, “To the river. They dump it in there.”

 

Published in: on September 14, 2020 at 2:06 pm  Comments (4)