Lecture Notes

I’m working on a talk about Prohibition that I’ve been asked to give next month, and in reviewing the literature, have come across some interesting tidbits I thought I’d share.

Everyone knows that liquor taxes provided the federal government (and some local ones) with an important percentage of their annual revenue. I had forgotten quite how much. During the decades after the Civil War, liquor taxes comprised between 30 and 40% of the federal government’s  revenue. That’s HUGE. No wonder politicians were reluctant to consider prohibiting alcohol manufacture and consumption–they’d be out of business. And what on earth would replace that money?

Published in: on September 2, 2019 at 9:17 am  Comments (1)  

Prohibition in Sweden

Skansen, Stockholm, Sweden

In America, we tend to think of Prohibition as an American phenomenon. When I was in Sweden last month, I learned the movement was strong in that country as well, and at the same time.

This is a picture of a Temperance Hall. I saw it in Skansen, which is a Colonial Williamsburg-sort of outdoor museum in Stockholm. Some of the buildings have been moved there from elsewhere in Sweden, and this was one of those.

According to the information I read, the movement heated up in Sweden in the mid-nineteenth century, which is about the same time it strengthened in the U.S. It never reach the stage of the legal prohibition of alcohol there–I suspect Swedes are a bit easier going in that regard than Americans, who tend to want to pass laws to make others conform to their own religious and moral preferences.

Anyway, Stockholm is a lovely city, the Swedes are gracious and hospitable, and I urge everyone to visit if they can!

Published in: on August 25, 2019 at 7:45 pm  Comments (1)  

Inheritance Powder

One of the murder “weapons” I use in my mysteries is arsenic. This popular poison has been used for centuries (remember the Borgias?) and before the development of forensic science, it was hard, or impossible, to detect, especially when it was administered gradually. Death from arsenic poisoning could look like flu, cholera, or heart disease. One thing helped detectives: arsenic slows down natural decomposition of the corpse so digging up a body and finding it well preserved was a good indication of arsenic poisoning. I use that one in my as yet unpublished mysteries, THE SHILL, when an over-eager nephew bumps off his rich uncle. No wonder the substance was nicknamed inheritance powder!

Lab Bottle & Watchglass of Powder.
As2O3 , Arsenic (III) Oxide, Reagent & Powder. The compound is a highly toxic, known carcinogen which, as the drug Trisenox, was FDA approved in 2000 for treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia.

White arsenic was the preferred form; it was difficult to taste when mixed with food or beverages, particularly alcoholic ones, which plays into my plots in the Roaring Twenties when cocktails came of age.

But not all arsenic deaths were murder–some were suicide and others were purely accidental. Women used it cosmetically–advertisements assured people that the stuff was perfectly safe. Can’t imagine why anyone believed that, since every household would have had arsenic around for mice/rat control.  

Published in: on July 25, 2019 at 11:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Who was Lois Long?

Lois Long was only twenty-three when she started writing for the new magazine, the New Yorker. The Vassar-educated daughter of a Congregational minister, Lois must have horrified her parents with her wild flapper ways. The stereotypical “minister’s daughter,” she covered the city’s nightlife scene with its speakeasy lifestyle, mixed race crowds, drinking and dancing, and flappers. But she didn’t use her real name–she signed her columns “Lipstick”–so maybe Daddy never knew . . . I got some good tidbits for my novels from her writing: for example, her choice of words and slang and her descriptions of the customers and speakeasies.

Click here to see the excellent Ken Burns 7-minute film about Lois Lang that includes some of her biting commentary on New York speakeasies.

Published in: on July 7, 2019 at 4:40 pm  Comments (2)  

Prohibition in Virginia Beach

While on vacation at Virginia Beach, we dined at the beautifully renovated Cavalier, a historic hotel that has sat high on a hill overlooking the ocean since 1926. They have a distillery in the basement, and I noted an interesting wall display that gave a brief, romanticized history of Prohibition in Virginia Beach for visitors who are unfamiliar with the topic.

In part, the script reads: Virginia had a long-established tradition of moonshining in the mountainous western part of the state. The Cape Henry area, from Norfolk to Virginia Beach, was a mecca for ‘shiners due to the demand for drink along that dry stretch. So dry, that region was actually referred to as the Desert.  . . . ladies and gentlemen flocked to the Cavalier, eluding the authorities as they satisfied their thirst for the illicit.”

For a longer, illustrated article about Prohibition on Virginia, click here.

Published in: on June 1, 2019 at 8:31 am  Comments (1)  
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SLEUTH: What sort of word is that?

What do you think of when you hear the word “sleuth?” I think of Nancy Drew.

That made this post on Merriam-Webster’s word origins site pretty interesting, especially for someone like me who writes mysteries.

The etymology of SLEUTH:

“They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” Those canine tracks in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles set the great Sherlock Holmes sleuthing on the trail of a murderer. It was a case of art imitating etymology. When Middle English speakers first borrowed sleuth from Old Norse, the term referred to “the track of an animal or person.” In Scotland, sleuthhound referred to a bloodhound used to hunt game or track down fugitives from justice. In 19th-century U.S. English, sleuthhound became an epithet for a detective and was soon shortened to sleuth. From there, it was only a short leap to turning sleuth into a verb describing what a sleuth does.

Examples of SLEUTH

“Farmer would go sleuthing in the archives of Arizona State University’s Center for Meteorite Studies to find evidence of an undiscovered landfall in Canada, and Ward could build a rig that trailed an 11-foot metal detector behind a combine, which is how they unearthed $1 million in pallasite fragments from several square miles of Alberta farmland.”
— Joshuah Bearman and Allison Keeley, Wired, January 2019

“For more than five decades, Morse has sleuthed out long-lost family trees for a living. From his home base here in Haywood, Morse travels the world tracking down missing heirs.”
— Becky Johnson, The Mountaineer (Haywood County, North Carolina), 20 Nov. 2018

Published in: on January 31, 2019 at 1:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Teetotalers Unite!

Well, what do you think the Merriam-Webster Dictionary word-of-the-day was for Jan. 18? (Hint: that is the first day that Prohibition was fully in effect.) Where does the word come from?

I was interested to learn that the word Teetotaler did NOT originate with prohibition, as I had thought.

Teetotaler–one who practices or advocates teetotalism : one who abstains completely from alcoholic drinks

A person who abstains from alcohol might choose tea as his or her alternative beverage, but the word teetotaler has nothing to do with tea. More likely, the “tee” that begins the word teetotal is a reduplication of the letter “t” that begins total, emphasizing that one has pledged total abstinence. In the early 1800s, tee-total and tee-totally were used to intensify total and totally, much the way we now might say, “I’m tired with a capital T.” “I am now … wholly, solely, and teetotally absorbed in Wayne’s business,” wrote the folklorist Parson Weems in an 1807 letter. Teetotal and teetotaler first appeared with their current meanings in 1834, eight years after the formation of the American Temperance Society.

Published in: on January 24, 2019 at 10:40 am  Comments (2)  

Tap Dancing History

I stumbled across this interesting video. Don’t worry-it’s short. Have a look. Tap Dancing History



Published in: on January 18, 2019 at 3:36 pm  Comments (1)  

Happy New Year!

It wasn’t a very happy new year in 1920 for most people. Sure, those who backed the prohibition amendment were eager for the arrival of the liquor-free world, where there would be no violence from drunken husbands and no hungry children whose father drank up his paycheck. Most women were eager to vote for the first time. But for the majority of Americans who drank beer, wine, cider, or spirits, 1920 looked bleak.

People who had money and storage space had stocked up on their favorite beverages, but no one at the time labored under any illusion that prohibition would be temporary. With hindsight, we know it was repealed 13 years later, but they didn’t know that, and frankly, no one believed a constitutional amendment could ever be repealed. It had never happened, and there was no mechanism for it. Prohibition looked permanent.

On Jan. 17, 1920, the country went “bone dry.”

Published in: on December 28, 2018 at 9:49 am  Leave a Comment  

A commercial break

We pause our regularly scheduled programming for a brief commercial break.

Severn House Publishers brought Murder in Disguise out in paperback for the holiday season. This, the fourth in the Roaring Twenties series, is now available in stores and online for prices that vary from $14-$17. (E-books from $6; hard cover from $25) Find out what Jessie is doing and who she’s doing it with . . . who’s dead and who’s accused and how does the little deaf girl figure into everything?


Published in: on December 11, 2018 at 6:53 pm  Leave a Comment