Monday, December 16, 2019

The Giving of Gifts

Gift giving is a significant part of a modern Christmas celebration, but where did it come from? The annual giving of gifts is a tradition that has evolved through the ages to bring us to our highly commercialized holiday.

For Christians, the tradition of giving gifts is often thought to have been put in place by the Magi who brought prophetic gifts to the baby Jesus. However, the early church did not immediately adopt this habit, partly to differentiate themselves from pagans, who had long been giving gifts to each other as part of the winter festival of Saturnalia.

Gift giving has always taken place to some extent, but the extensive level of gift giving that we have grown used to did not begin until the 19th century, when mass produced goods became inexpensive enough for most people to afford purchasing gifts. Even as recently as the early 20th century, practical and homemade gifts were very popular.

Culturally, the giving of gifts has often gone hand in hand with an expectation of receiving something in return. During the medieval era, gift giving was largely limited to the rich nobility. Gifts of tapestries, gold and silver plate, and other exotic items would be exchanged between those in power as they negotiated treaties and betrothals. King Henry VII gave gifts of jewels and cloth-of-gold to his queen, Elizabeth of York, and an inscribed Book of Hours to his daughter, Margaret. However, these gifts were not given on December 25th. Preferred gift giving times were New Year's Day and special occasions, such as weddings and children's baptisms.

In addition to giving to those who could reciprocate, people of the middle ages gave gifts to the church and to the poor. Some of these gifts were purely charitable, but it was also believed that gifts of this sort helped reserved one's place in heaven and reduced time spent in purgatory. Gifts to the church were also made as part of people's last will and testament . . . just in case.

Many of our most familiar Christmas traditions - decorating trees, giving gifts, and singing carols - were popularized during the Victorian era. Images of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert next to an elaborately decorated tree took this German tradition worldwide. And what could look finer surrounding such a beautiful tree than elaborately wrapped gifts?

The desk that 140 years of US Presidents have sat behind in the Oval Office was a Christmas gift from Queen Victoria. Made from timbers of the British ship the HMS Resolute, the desk is one of the many historic Christmas gifts found in the White House and National Archives. Each President has also been challenged to give gifts to foreign rulers that match the creativity and value of what is received.

And you thought it was difficult to shop for your mother-in-law.

Christmas gift giving continues to evolve. In this age of abundance, many charitable organizations urge people to donate instead of purchasing gifts for friends and family who don't really need anything. Groups come together to purchase items for families in need or to perform acts of service. And we buy LOTS of gifts. The National Retail Federation estimates that over $465 billion will be spent on Christmas gifts this year, proving that this tradition isn't going anywhere.

A gift for you!

As a small Christmas gift for my readers, I am offering the short story, Farewell to Anne. It is a snippet of Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen from King Richard III's point-of-view. Happy reading and a very blessed Christmas to you all!


Interested in more fun Christmas posts? Don't miss the Historical Writers Forum blog hop!



Thursday, December 5, 2019

Cause of Death: Radium Poisoning

On September 12, 1922, a twenty-four year old woman died in her home. The tissue of her mouth, jaw, and throat had disintegrated so thoroughly that she bled out while her horrified family helplessly looked on. For months, she had been visiting doctors and dentists, searching for a solution, or at least a diagnosis. No one could help Mollie Maggia. She deteriorated quickly and died a horrible death.

Unable to determine what had plagued her and unwilling to investigate the idea that it might have had something to do with her work as a dial painter, the coroner listed Mollie Maggia's cause of death as syphilis. Mollie's family not only had to cope with grief, but they were burdened with the blackening of Mollie's name.

Then, on June 3, 1923, Helen Quinlan died in her home. She was twenty-two and had suffered from a raging infection in her mouth, jaw, and throat.

Irene Rudolph died on July 15, 1923. She was twenty-one years old and suffered from jaw necrosis.

Each of these girls lived in Orange, New Jersey, and worked at US Radium Corporation.

During the 1920s, hundreds of products containing radium were sold. The element, recently discovered by the Curies, was considered magical. Products claimed to cure cancer, clear skin, and improve digestion. At US Radium Corporation in New Jersey, young women worked as dial painters, tracing the digits on watches and clocks with radium infused paint so that they would glow in the dark.

Since radium was believed to have health benefits, little control was exercised over the use of radium paint. The girls would paint their nails and use it like makeup. Their dresses would glow in the evening from the dust that settled on them while at work. When applying paint to the tiny watch faces, the girls would create a fine point on their brushes by placing it between their lips.

The radium consumed by the dial painters was absorbed by their bodies like calcium, where it attacked their bones and infected them with an incurable radioactivity. Women continued to die of complications of jaw necrosis. Others suffered from cancerous tumors or disintegration of the bones in their limbs and spines. Dozens suffered before radium poisoning was recognized as their cause of death.

These women's deaths began a crusade to end worker exploitation and hold employers responsible for putting employees' lives at risk. Significant changes in workers' compensation laws were made and OSHA was created. Greater caution was used in handling radioactive materials, protecting the scientists who developed nuclear weapons during World War II.

Five years after her death, Mollie Maggia's body was exhumed, glowing with radiation, and her name was cleared. Cause of death: radium poisoning. However, it was too late to save her sisters, who had counted themselves lucky to obtain high-paying jobs at US Radium Corporation alongside each other. Mollie's sister, Quinta, died of a leg sarcoma in 1929, as did another sister, Albina, in 1946.


Further Reading:
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore
Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy by Ross Mullner
Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 by Claudia Clark

Coming in 2020:

Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl by Samantha Wilcoxson

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Historic Places: Ottawa, Illinois

I know what you're thinking. What? Where?

Hear me out. (If you do, there's a surprise at the end!)

Ottawa is a little city that you've probably never heard of, but it boasts a hefty historical background that includes Abraham Lincoln, the I&M Canal, and the Radium Dial Corporation. Murals throughout Ottawa's downtown depict scenes like Native Americans hunting buffalo, soldiers marching to join the Civil War, turn-of-the-century children playing with marbles made in their own Peltier Glass Factory, and the centennial of the Great Debate.

Ottawa's Great Debate and proudest moment in history occurred on August 21, 1858, and there is no way to visit Ottawa without learning this! Starting with a giant monument in the center of Washington Square, where the debate occurred, but also included in multiple murals, every local museum & historical society, and tourism marketing, the Lincoln-Douglas debate is a pretty big deal.

Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were debating the hot topic of the day: slavery, in a debate that was attended by a crowd of 14,000, an astounding turnout for a senatorial debate in the mid-19th century. If your brain is churning through dates right now, you will have calculated that Lincoln lost to Douglas. Otherwise, he would not have been able to be elected President in 1860. One might say that Lincoln excelled at losing the battle but winning the war.

Washington Square is also home to memorials to Ottawa soldiers in the Civil War, Spanish American War, WWI & II, Korean War, and Vietnam.


Across the road from Washington Square, Douglas supporters watched the debate from the Reddick Mansion. Ardent democrats and the wealthiest family in town, the Reddicks had finished their Italianate mansion just a month before the Big Day, so it was a great opportunity to show off the four story, 22-room beauty. When William Reddick died in 1885, he left his luxurious home to the city to be the home of the Ottawa library. It served in this capacity for almost 90 years, and since the 1970's, efforts have been made to restore the Reddick Mansion to its former glory. A few spectacular examples of workmanship have survived, such as woodwork painted to create the appearance of different species of wood and detailed trimwork.

Just east of the Reddick Mansion is a construction site. It is a future Subway - the sandwich shop, not underground trains - but some local residents have vowed never to eat there. Why? The lot used to be the address of Radium Dial, a company that left the town poisoned by radioactivity and caused the painful unnecessary deaths of many young women who worked there from WWI until they closed in 1934.

Catherine & her children, Chicago Daily Times, 1938
One of those young women was my reason for visiting Ottawa. Catherine Wolfe, later Donohue, started working at Radium Dial in 1922 when she was 19 years old. It was a dream job for a young, working class girl. Women painted watch faces with glow-in-the-dark paint, a job that was considered a step above other manual labor and paid 2-3 times as much. Little did they know that they were slowly and irreversibly poisoning themselves. The girls would dip their brushes in the radium-infused paint and then point the bristles with their lips to create the point necessary to trace the fine markings of the watch dials. They would also paint their nails & faces with the paint, just for fun, or wear their going-out dresses to work to collect the omnipresent factory dust, so that they would glow like angels when they went on their dates.

Long after experts understood the dangers of radium and long after Radium Dial understood what was happening to these girls, the girls themselves figured out that the teeth they were losing, the diseases they were suffering, the pain coursing through their bodies, and the cancers they were dying of were caused by radium poisoning. Radium Dial fought with lies, lawyers, and deep pockets to avoid paying restitution to the women and their families or making changes to the workplace.

Catherine Donohue worked at Radium Dial until 1931, when she was fired because her limp (caused by radium poisoning) was disconcerting to the other girls. When she and some of her friends brought suit against Radium Dial, they became the basis for reform in workplace safety and employer responsibility. Safety standards were finally established for radioactive materials, but it was too late for Catherine. She died in 1938, her body riddled with poison and weighing only 70 pounds. She left behind two children, aged 3 & 5. In Catherine's lead-lined, concrete encased casket, her body is still glowing.

Catherine is the reason I went to Ottawa. She will be featured in my next novel, because the story of the Radium Girls, as she and her friends became known, needs to be told. It is a story not just of worker exploitation and corporate greed, but more importantly of friendship, faith, and resilience.

I know that I am asking my readers to take a big step out of the early Tudor era and into those years between The Wars. Into the years of scientific advances that outpaced safety, years of prohibition and women's suffrage. But every era & every woman's story share timeless connections of life, love, and discovering our purpose.Catherine faced her calling and a fate that no one would ever ask for with courage, determination, and the deep faith of a little midwestern Catholic girl in a way that both breaks my heart and makes me want to be a better person.

I hope that you will look forward to reading Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl in 2020!

Friday, October 4, 2019

Katherine - Tudor Duchess

New release from Tony Riches!

Attractive, wealthy and influential, Katherine Willoughby is one of the most unusual ladies of the Tudor court. A favourite of King Henry VIII, Katherine knows all his six wives, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and his son Edward. When her father dies, Katherine becomes the ward of Tudor knight, Sir Charles Brandon. Her Spanish mother, Maria de Salinas, is Queen Catherine of Aragon’s lady in waiting, so it is a challenging time for them when King Henry marries the enigmatic Anne Boleyn.

Following Anne’s dramatic downfall, Katherine marries Charles Brandon, and becomes Duchess of Suffolk at the age of fourteen. After the short reign of young Catherine Howard, and the death of Jane Seymour, Katherine and Brandon are chosen to welcome Anna of Cleves as she arrives in England.

When the royal marriage is annulled, Katherine’s good friend, Catherine Parr becomes the king’s sixth wife, and they work to promote religious reform. Katherine’s young sons are tutored with the future king, Prince Edward, and become his friends, but when Edward dies his Catholic sister Mary is crowned queen. Katherine’s Protestant faith puts her family in great danger - from which there seems no escape.

Katherine’s remarkable true story continues the epic tale of the rise of the Tudors, which began with the best-selling Tudor trilogy and concludes with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.


Tony Riches is the author of the best-selling Tudor Trilogy, available in eBook and paperback from Amazon UK and Amazon US. Also, find it on Goodreads.(Audiobook edition coming in 2020)

Connect with Tony


Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. Tony’s other published historical fiction novels include: Owen – Book One Of The Tudor Trilogy, Jasper – Book Two Of The Tudor Trilogy, Henry – Book Three Of The Tudor Trilogy, Mary – Tudor Princess and Brandon – Tudor Knight. For more information about Tony’s books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, September 20, 2019

How to Determine if Your Opponent is a Nazi

The habit of comparing those we disagree with to Nazis of the 1930s & 1940s has escalated to epic proportions. Any political opponent, any group one may disagree with (strongly!), and anyone daring to base their opinion on a different worldview is called a modern day Nazi by someone. During the last presidential campaign, I saw memes and articles battling it out over whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was the next Hitler.

The truth is that neither of them are anything close to what Hitler was, and I may not know who your political opponents are but I promise they are not modern day Nazis either. (Even those actually calling themselves modern day Nazis are nothing in comparison to historical Nazis.)

It says something about how far removed we are from the events of World War II that we now sling the word Nazi around as a baseless insult. We use this word, make this comparison, with little to no thought for the actual Nazi's real and numerous victims. Do we really think that those who hold different opinions than our own are just as bad as those who perpetrated the Holocaust?!

My teenagers came home from high school on 9/11 this year and one of them mentioned that people had told some 9/11 jokes at school. "That," I told them, "is how you tell the difference between the people who watched it happen and those who have only heard about it." That is how we look when we compare anyone to Nazis.

There seems to be no bounds limiting who can be called a Nazi. Conservatives call Democrats Nazis over gun control and abortion. Democrats call Republicans Nazis for immigration policies and lack of LGBT legislation. This habit has so much become the norm that there is a name for it. Godwin's law is defined as the increasing probability that a Hitler/Nazi comparison will be made the longer an internet discussion goes on. Neither US Republicans or Democrats are defined by the same beliefs as the German Nazi party. Whatever minor parallels we do see are not comprehensive enough to make these comparisons. The fact that supposed Nazi-like policies are divided between our modern day parties should be proof of that.

But those who study history have to look for the signs that caused these events to happen. We have to be careful not to look the other way as Germans did when the Nazis came to power. These are popular justifications for making the Nazi accusations of our political opponents. Therefore, I would like to consider the situation that enabled Nazis to rise to power, keep it, and use it to violently target specific groups of people.

The German Nazi party was able to gain control during a time of economic depression and societal defeat unlike anything America has ever experienced. They did it during a time of divided politics that enabled them to rise to power with nothing close to a majority vote. They did it through fear and anger and the need to blame someone for Germany's problems. Once in place, the Nazis outlawed other parties, violently enforced their supremacy, and censored all media. So, let's take a step back. Our media ruthlessly critiques our political leaders, none of whom are calling for the mass jailing, torturing, or killing of any specific group of people. Neither of our main political parties have the power necessary to eliminate the other (for better or worse).

Comparing those we disagree with to Nazis demonstrates a lack of understanding of history and a lack of respect for those who suffered and died during Hitler's regime. Civil discourse is challenging, but without it we are no better than name-calling children. History can be used for good or evil; please use only for good.