About Me

I was always good at Show and Tell. It was my best subject in elementary school, and I managed to continue the practice through junior high and high school by bringing stuff to my history classes, things like my grandfather’s old Army helmet when we studied the Battle of the Bulge and my family’s letters from Helen Keller when we read about her life.  It wasn’t until I started working for Colonial Williamsburg during college that I could give this a name–as the jargon would have it, I was using material culture to teach history. 

View More: http://photographybynicolejohnson.pass.us/laurenjohnweddingI can’t stop. After ten years working at Colonial Williamsburg making eighteenth-century history come alive through antiques and other objects, I spent 13 years teaching American history and museum studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, still schlepping stuff into every class: antiques and reproductions, song recordings, period foods, whatever would capture the students’ attention. As my own children went through elementary and middle school, I volunteered to bring  items to class to supplement whatever history lesson was being taught that week: Roman coins, colonial-style licorice sticks, runaway slave advertisements. My collection continues to grow as I buy, find, trade, or inherit items I can use and share.

So now I’m a writer with 12 nonfiction books and more than 200 magazine articles (most on history, museum, or travel topics) to my name. See my web page, www.marymileytheobald.com, for more on both books and links to articles. A few years ago, I started writing fiction. Historical fiction, of course, set  in the 1920s, and I still can’t stop with the material culture impulse. In the course of my research, I come across all sorts of intriguing tidbits, objects, music, and movies from the Roaring Twenties, some of which I can work into my plots, but most of which was going to waste. Hence this blog, my latest effort at Show and Tell, this time aimed squarely at the fascinating Roaring Twenties. Vaudeville and silent movies, gangsters and flappers, bootleggers and bathtub gin, votes for women and bobbed hair liberation, and all that jazz.  

The first in my Roaring Twenties series, THE IMPERSONATOR, was published in 2013 by St. Martin’s/Minotaur. it won the national award for Best First Crime Novel. The second, SILENT MURDERS, came out in September of 2014; the third, RENTING SILENCE, is due in fall, 2016 and the fourth in 2017.  My stand-alone gothic mystery, STOLEN MEMORIES, came out in 2016 and is a finalist for the Daphne Award for best historical mystery. All are available online or in local bookstores in hard cover, paperback, audio books, and ebooks. Here’s the short summary of THE IMPERSONATOR:  

To Jessie, a young vaudeville performer who occasionally finds herself on the wrong side of the law, the stranger’s proposal spells Trouble. But desperation drives her to accept a major role in his inheritance scam, impersonating a long lost heiress for a cut of the fortune. The charade convinces everyone—except the one person who knows what really happened to the heiress and now must kill the impostor. With help from a handsome bootlegger, a mysterious Chinese herbalist, and a Small Timer named Jack Benny, Jessie deduces the identity of the murderer. But it’s a stand-off—exposure of either destroys them both.  

Published on August 8, 2009 at 5:12 am  Comments (40)  

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  1. Your site is very interesting. I’m writing my first novel and it’s set in the 1920’s. I was looking at the pictures on the blog, cool idea. Great to know that you’ve written several books and lots of articles. 🙂

    • Really? What sort of novel? How far along are you? I’d be delighted if my blog helped you get “into” the Twenties in any way, and facilitated your book. All my previously published work is nonfiction. So I’m at the same place as you, hoping my first fiction manuscript sells. We’ll see. I’m pretty well-informed about the Twenties, so if you need help, I might be able to answer a question or suggest a resource. Don’t hesitate to ask. Mary

      t 06:12 PM 9/22/2009, you wrote: >

  2. Hello,
    I have been enjoying your site very much. I’ve spent the last couple of hours, searching and marveling at all you have. I looked at each thing I could see well enough to study, as I am always looking for a clue that might lead me to my grandparents’ information. They were both in Vaudeville and that’s about one-third of all the information I have. It has been a very loooooong search.

    You do have a very interesting site. I can see from your writing on here that your books must be the type that, once started, cannot be put down. Thank you for posting all that you have. Good luck with your writing and thanks for the Show and Tell.

    ~ Yaya
    Yaya’s Changing World

    • Glad to hear you found my site interesting! I find your own history interesting–grandparents in vaudeville? How cool! What did they do? Maybe I can help you find out about them.
      Obviously you’ve googled their names, but that seldom provides much because so little is online from that era. Have you tried the book VAUDEVILLE by Joe Laurie? Published in 1953, it’s a little hard to find, but amazon.com should lead you to a used copy. Ot tell me your grandparents’ names and I’ll check the index to see if they are listed.

  3. I just discovered your blog and want to connect with you as I am going to re-create an authentic 1920s-era town in Seibert, Colorado on I-70 near the Kansas border. It will be a tourist destination…a living history lesson about that remarkable decade with costumed “cast members” who will assist in dispensing “fun facts” about the Roaring Twenties. The goal will be for the guest to effortlessly learn about this exciting era with every entertaining visit. It would be similar to Williamsburg except that it is a real town that I hope to transform over time. I plan to start with two restaurants (county cooking and fine dining), a bed and breakfast hotel, a speakeasy, a silent movie theater and three gift shops.
    You are a historian and would be a great resource for those “details” that I need to incorporate in my town. I have been contracted by many people worldwide who are very interested in the Roaring Twenties. Many call themselves “vintage” people and want to come live and work in my town. The popularity of the era seems to be growing and I am convinced that as long as it is done in a first-class manner that if I “build it….they will come”.
    Please check out my website http://www.1920sEraTown.com for all the details.

    • Wow! What a great ambition!
      Here’s an idea you’ve probably already had . . . last week I was selling some old (Twenties and older) clothing from my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s closets at a vintage clothing store, and I learned that there is a line of new clothing (dresses, skirts, etc.) made according to patterns from the Twenties (and Fifties and other decades). They use reproduction fabrics. People buy them for costume parties, Halloween, and so forth. You could sell those in one of your stores, or open a separate clothing store.
      Keep us posted on your progress!

  4. Great site – about a decade that I too find intriguing! I came to love history through lots of genealogy research, which led to the old photos, which led, finally, to a fascination with the past – specifically, the 20’s and also the 1880’s. I’ve been writing non-fiction for a while, fiction for longer, but so far have only succeeded in publishing non-fiction through a newspaper column. Thanks for a site that is both inspiring and intriguing. I plan to visit often.

  5. Well heck, that’s a good start! (the newspaper column) I’ve never tried that route, but it sounds pretty impressive to say “I’m a newspaper columnist,” when asked what you do. Good luck expanding!

  6. I have always been interested in the 1920’s, the history, people and events. I operate a travel and tour agency therefore any opportunity to take people to this new town or any related destination would be great.

    I am sure I have many clients that share my interest.

    Wow, this period truly excites me. What is the timeline on the development of the new/old town near Kansas City? Please keep me posted.


  7. I am about to post an interview with the Hollywood Sign Girl website on my own website, and would like to use your photo of the old Hollywoodland sign, with photo credit, of course.
    May I use it?
    Thank you.
    Henry Zecher

  8. You’re welcome to it. It’s not mine. It’s from Wikipedia and available for use.

  9. Dear Mary,
    Would you please help me so i dont have to look through all the years postings to see if there is any archives anywhere for Louella Parsons?
    I am trying to find the columns she used to write for Hearst papers to find an articl for June 1 or 2, 1932. She was a friend of Marc Edmond Jones and set up a private party with Mary Picford for Meher Baba at Pickfair on June 1. I would like to see if she wrote about it afterwards or if she was there too.
    thank you,

    • Jeanne, I wish I could be more helpful, but you’ve got a tough job ahead. It seems the Los Angeles Public Library has old copies of the LA Examiner (which went out of business in 1989) but they don’t seem to be digitized. You might contact the reference section at the library and ask if they would look up a particular date and story for you, since it shouldn’t take too long. You might offer to pay a small fee for their time. http://www.lapl.org/index.php Good luck. Mary

  10. Thank you, Mary, but since i live in Northern Ca they wont help me. I’ll try to find someone to walk in and help. Thank you. J
    ps. just read your bio. My mother taught shooting at West Point for awhile. she belongs to the gun club in Wappingers Falls and won lots of the NY Olympics shooting contests.

  11. quite fascinating. i am a history buff. this is wonderful. thank you for your efforts. i have parents and in-laws born in 1913 and 1918. my mother-in law [who is still living] would remember some of these things, even though she was young. [her mother used a horse and buggy for a while]. this will make me feel some what closer to my family’s past.

  12. Hi Mary–I’m this year’s winner of the St. Martin’s/MWA First Crime Novel contest. I would love to talk to you about your experiences during your own winning year and beyond. I wasn’t sure how else to contact you!

    Sue Cox

    P.S. I use Face Book and if you do I will send you a friend request.

    • Hello Sue! How wonderful to hear from you! COntact me directly by email at mmtheobald@comcast.net.

  13. I read you articles with interest. I’ve recently been devouring biographies and articles of the poet Shelley. You might be interested to know that he took comfort in the fact that that 3-4 grams of “veronal” would provide the lethal dose that he sometimes imagined he might desire for a graceful exit to existential issues.

    • Interesting. I use Veronal to poison off a couple people in the third book in the series (due out Sept. 2015) I wasn’t sure how much to use, so consulted with a PhD pharmacist friend who advised how much and how long it would take to act. All just educated guesswork, but his guesswork is better than mine!

  14. The articles here are very interesting. I spend a lot of time reading newspapers in the 1905-1920 range, just prior to this period.

    Regarding the August 22, 2010 post about the 1910 Chrystal Theater playbill. It is quite a leap to conclude that “animated pictures” refers to Blackton’s 1906 chalk-and-blackboard animation. I believe “animated pictures” simply meant a movie. If you do a text search for animated pictures at the Chronicling America newspaper site, restricted to, say, 1908-1912, you will find many ads with this term, used similarly to the playbill.

    One example is the November 1, 1908 Bismarck Daily Tribune (page 8). This lists four different titles under “the latest animated pictures” — “Blackmailer”, “The Press Gang”, “Husband Wanted”, and “Smells of Smoke”. Thus the phrase animated pictures must include a much broader category that that single Blackton film.

    I will probably search a little deeper. That 1908 ad has the animated pictures under “Powers Latest Camerograph”. The Camerograph was an early projector. Perhaps I can find an article about the Camerograph that uses the term animated pictures, and contains more information.

    • A little more searching reveals a theater ad in the October 21, 1903 Yakima Herald, page 6. The ad lists “Animated Pictures: Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. And imdb has an entry for a 1903 movie with this title. Admittedly, this was a commonly performed play in that era, so I can’t definitively say the movie in the ad is the same as the one listed in imdb.

      The same ad also lists “Animated Pictures, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. And imdb has an entry for a 1902 movie with this title.

      • I see your point. If “animated pictures” means movies rather than cartoons, your logic is convincing!

  15. Taking the search back a few more years, I found an instance describing animated pictures of Queen Victoria’s funeral (1901) and McKinley’s inauguration (1897). It’s pretty clear that in the 1890s “animated pictures” meant the same thing as what we’d now call “motion pictures”.

    Whether it still had that meaning in 1910 is hard to say. But even if by then it meant what we’d now call cartoons, it would still be a leap to conclude that it was Blackton’s film. Charles Urban was doing stop motion animation by 1912 (see “Circus Dolls” at http://www.charlesurban.com/films), and it’s plausible that there were other crude animation attempts between 1906 and 1912.

    On a related note, during this search I learned of the “animated songs” which were a vaudeville staple in this time frame. Very interesting. My first thought was that they might be “follow the bouncing ball” song animations. But they were actually slide shows illustrating scenes from a song, accompanied by a live singer.

    During my past reading of newspapers from this era, I’d noticed the vaudeville ads but never paid any attention to them. Today I learned a lot. Thanks to you and your blog for spurring this investigation.

    • Your information about animated songs is fascinating. I think I can use that in a subsequent book . . . mentioning a vaudeville act where the singer illustrates his songs. Thanks!

  16. Your third book will get some pre-publication orders from my family–my grandfather was Gus Sun’s brother. Until now “Sun Time” was mostly vague family lore; we will benefit from your research and read the book with great personal interest

    • Oh my gosh–really??? That’s so cool. I had the devil of a time learning anything at all about Gus Sun, but I used what little I found. So many entertainers started out in Sun Time–I focused on Les Hope (soon to be known as Bob) in the third book. Does your family still live in Ohio?

  17. I recently came across a series of vaudeville ads, very similar to the playbills you’ve posted. These are for Poli’s theater in Bridgeport (part of the Poli’s circuit). They’re in the Bridgeport Herald, a weekly, usually on the last page.

    For example, the Feb/13/1910 ad features the headliner “King Peter”, a chimp. (page 16 at http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=4p5LGG1h9z0C&dat=19100213 ). There’s also a story about Peter on page 11.

    Also indicated is the “Poli Electrograph”. The Jul/24 ad reveals this is a motion picture projector. It seems that by 1910 nearly all vaudeville bills included motion pictures.

    • That was fun to read! I wonder how the other performers felt playing second fiddle to a monkey. It is interesting that this line-up included a movie. I don’t find many vaudeville programs that include movies.

  18. Hi Mary, not sure if you’d be interested, but I recently discovered a series of diaries of my great-great-grandmother from 1927-1931. I’m publishing her entries each day (88 years to the day later) over on my little ancestry blog gnarlyroots.wordpress.com.

    I mean, it’s super interesting to me just because she’s my ancestor and I find her hilariously Puritan. Each day that I read gets funnier and funnier. She reminds me of the Dowager on Downton Abbey… so formal! So disapproving of the younger generation!

    But it could be interesting historically as well… or not. No idea! Just thought I’d share! (I stumbled across your blog when I was looking for images to add to my historical notes on each entry.)


    • Mariana, I looked at your blog and loved it! Of course, I don’t have the personal connection but the word usage and vocabulary are priceless for a writer, as are the details of everyday life. I bookmarked it. Thanks!

  19. sorry, did the link wrong:

  20. Salutations!
    I just wanted to let you know that I am in love with the Impersonator series! Please tell me that the third book is coming out soon! Also, if you ever make your way over to Utah please have a book signing.


    • Thank you very much! The publisher says #3 will be published in England in August; later in the U.S. So I don’t have a good answer yet. Sorry. I’d like to know too!! I hope you like the third one: RENTING SILENCE. It’s about blackmail that leads to murder. One of the characters says, You can’t buy silence, you only rent it. And the rent keeps going up.

    • Emily–The third book is being released today! RENTING SILENCE is now available in bookstores and online in hardcover and ebook formats. Libraries should have it in a couple of weeks. The publisher tells me that a paperback version will come out in 6 months. I hope you enjoy this one as much as you did the others.

  21. Hi Mary –
    I found your blog while googling for information on religious exemptions during Prohibition (I got the idea from the Ken Burns documentary), and I couldn’t be more thrilled. You have some great information here! And, of course, I’ve really enjoyed the first two books in your Roaring Twenties series. I’m thrilled that a third book – Renting Silence – is on its way, even if Amazon is saying I won’t be able to get it until December!

    I’ve been researching a cozy mystery series to be set in New York in the mid-1920s for more than half a decade now. I’ve found a lot of wonderful information, though I’m beginning to fear that I’m using research as a method of procrastination. At least it’s an enjoyable one.

    Sharing your research is a great idea – and very generous. I’ve subscribed and look forward to future posts!


    • Glad you enjoyed the first 2 books! The third one will be released in the U.K. in August and in the U.S. in December, but if you’re the impatient sort, I think you can order it in August if you go to the amazon.uk site. I’m going to try that myself to make sure, but I see no reason that won’t work. It’s not exactly against the law . . . 🙂

  22. Hi!
    From what I’ve seen of it, your articles are full of fantastic information, and I love your work. Do you had any information specifically on New York (i.e. Bayport), and do you had any advice for someone who has tried (and failed) multiple times to write a book?

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