Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Society of the Living Dead


In the years following World War I, Radium Dial was one of the best places for working-class girls of Ottawa, Illinois to earn good wages to help support their family or set savings aside for when they were married. Little did those girls know that the material they used to paint watch and instrument dials was slowly poisoning them. Even when realization dawned, they were faced with opposition from the radium industry, which did not wish to see their profits disappear, and the medical community, which had been using radium as a miracle cure. One group of dial painters decided they did not want to see future workers suffer their fate, so they decided to form the Society of the Living Dead.

Pearl Payne took the lead on forming the shockingly named organization. She worked at Radium Dial for less than a year, but she suffered health problems for the rest of her life that were attributed to radium poisoning. Along with coworkers, Catherine Donohue, Marie Rossiter, and Charlotte Purcell, Pearl convinced their lawyer, Leonard Grossman, that they needed to do more than win their own case against Radium Dial. They wanted to “band together, secure legal aid and in general use our organized presence to simplify, promote, and improve the laws relative to those who are maimed due to occupational hazards.”

The called themselves the Society of the Living Dead because some victims of radium poisoning had the eerie appearance of walking corpses. Charlotte Purcell had an arm amputated, and Catherine Donohue’s body wasted away to less than half of her healthy weight. Other women grew giant tumors or had their jaws and noses rot away. The varied symptoms of radium poisoning was one of the factors that made it difficult to diagnose and hold employers responsible.

The Society got the attention of the press and used it to spread awareness of the struggle of the “radium girls,” as they came to be known. Even the women who did not enjoy being the center attention allowed media photos of their emaciated bodies and underdeveloped children to increase sympathy and action. The news stories requested that readers send funds to help support the disabled workers whose families were struggling with medical bills and loss of wages.

Leonard Grossman was vital to the success of the women’s legal cases and the Society’s success at raising awareness. “You hear the voice of the Society of the Living Dead. That is the voice of the ghost women speaking not only here in this room but to the world. This voice is going to strike the shackles off the industrial slaves of America,” he stated in one interview. The women could not have succeeded without his tireless efforts and countless hours of free legal work.

As the former dial painters sickened and died, Radium Dial and other companies in the radium industry fought to deny liability or even the idea that radium might be causing their health problems. Without the work of the Society of the Living Dead, the fight to see radium poisoning recognized as an occupational hazard might have taken years longer. These women’s quest to protect others from the harm they had suffered saved countless lives, even as they lost their own.


My book, Luminous, tells the story of Catherine Donohue, one of the key members of the Society of the Living Dead. Photos of her shrinking frame and her tiny children inspired sympathy and increased awareness across the country, but there is much more to her than those media photos and news stories. Her private struggle is what I strive to capture in Luminous. What did it feel like to fight for your life when even the medical community seemed to be an enemy? How did she cope with watching her health fail at the time of her life that should have been filled with health and happiness? How did a quiet Catholic girl stand up to the might of the radium industry? Find out in Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl.

Enjoy other articles in the Historical Writers Forum's American History Blog Hop!


Friday, June 25, 2021

America’s War of Independence Was Just One Front in a Global War


I was recently introduced to the work of Tom Durwood, and I think you will find it as interesting as I do. Americans tend to think of the War for Independence as a purely & uniquely American event....but was it? It is my pleasure to welcome Tom to the blog today to discuss this fascinating topic.

Welcome, Tom!

~ Samantha


America’s War of Independence Was Just One Front in a Global War

Guest Post by Tom Durwood

The premise of my historical fiction project, The Illustrated Colonials, is that the American Revolution was not strictly American at all, but part of a global struggle to anchor the high ideals of the Enlightenment in real-world governments.

Among others, historians Larrie D. Ferreiro and David K. Allison make the case for setting our Founding Fathers is a global context, Anyone with a interest should pick up their book The American Revolution: A World War, with its dozen essays on the topic.

… The French Navy won the war. Led by the young Marquis de Lafayette, French money and naval support tipped the balance of military power in favor of the United States.

… A network of Dutch merchants supplied the American rebels with food, money, and arms, and paid the price for it. Britain declared war on the Netherlands in 1780.

… Mexico’s silver mines financed Spain’s support of the Colonial cause. The war was about trade and economics as well as ideology.

… In 1784, when the American War for Independence was barely over, the first ship to sail under an American flag left New York. It was the merchant ship Empress of China, bound for Canton, China. Foreign trade helped young America survive.

… Catherine the Great was approached by King George and asked to contribute 20,000 Russian Imperial troops to put down the American rebellion. She declined. She went on to help form the First League of Armed Neutrality, which allowed American ships to enter all ports.

Illustration copyright 2021 by Mai Nguyen.
From The Illustrated Colonials Book One: The Pact.

Traditional histories have tended to follow the “great man” script. Excellent historians like Edward Gibbon and Barbara Tuchman roamed the halls of power to depict individual leaders making crucial decisions. This is one way to view history. More recently, a generation of historians has taken a different approach – one that uses primary courses to tell these stories from a multitude of perspectives, often from the bottom up.

One theory connecting these global forces is that the American War of Independence represented the coming of the modern age: that the industrial revolution was bringing an economic end to the slave trade, and the beginning of full rights for all. In books like Empire and Colossus, one of my favorite historians, Niall Ferguson, paints the picture of a world of rising empires and falling cultures, a world convulsed by global economic forces, and social forces set into motion by the engines of modern production.


Six international teens join the American Revolution.

Coming of age and making history.

They went into 1776 looking for a fight. Little did they know how much it would cost them…

Six rich kids from around the globe join the Bostonian cause, finding love and treachery along the path to liberty.

A new perspective on one of history’s most fascinating moments.

Amply illustrated edition of a young-adult historical fiction novel.

Get The Pact now on Amazon.

Also available FREE with #KindleUnlimited

Connect with Tom

Tom Durwood is a teacher, writer and editor with an interest in history. Tom most recently taught English Composition and Empire and Literature at Valley Forge Military College, where he won the Teacher of the Year Award five times. Tom has taught Public Speaking and Basic Communications as guest lecturer for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group at the Dam’s Neck Annex of the Naval War College.

Tom’s ebook Empire and Literature matches global works of film and fiction to specific quadrants of empire, finding surprising parallels. Literature, film, art and architecture are viewed against the rise and fall of empire. In a foreword to Empire and Literature, postcolonial scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty of the University of Chicago calls it “imaginative and innovative.” Prof. Chakrabarty writes that “Durwood has given us a thought-provoking introduction to the humanities.” His subsequent book Kid Lit: An Introduction to Literary Criticism has been well-reviewed. “My favorite nonfiction book of the year,” writes The Literary Apothecary (Goodreads).

Early reader response to Tom’s historical fiction adventures has been promising. “A true pleasure … the richness of the layers of Tom’s novel is compelling,” writes Fatima Sharrafedine in her foreword to The Illustrated Boatman’s Daughter. The Midwest Book Review calls that same adventure “uniformly gripping and educational … pairing action and adventure with social issues.” Adds Prairie Review, “A deeply intriguing, ambitious historical fiction series.”

Tom briefly ran his own children’s book imprint, Calico Books (Contemporary Books, Chicago). Tom’s newspaper column “Shelter” appeared in the North County Times for seven years. Tom earned a Masters in English Literature in San Diego, where he also served as Executive Director of San Diego Habitat for Humanity.

Connect with Tom on his Website, the My Colonials Website, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Amazon Author Page, and Goodreads.

Monday, June 21, 2021

The Logan Act & Devotion of a Revolutionary Wife

The Logan Act was an early legislative bill that outlaws negotiation with foreign governments on behalf of the United States without the approval of Congress. This 1799 bill takes its name from the man who inspired its creation: George Logan.

George Logan

A physician from a loyalist family who had recently returned from obtaining his education in England, George Logan joined the infant US government without ever having to endure the trials of war. Upon joining the Pennsylvania legislature on the side of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, Logan decided to travel to France on behalf of the fledgling nation to negotiate peace with France in 1798. He returned home to find himself denounced by his own party and a law passed in his name by the Federalists. In a time of the Alien & Sedition Acts, Logan could have expected far worse.

However, worse did not come to him. In fact, he was elected to the US Senate in 1800, which emboldened him enough to travel to England in 1810 in an attempt to avert another war on the horizon. He had chosen this peace mission rather than running for another term in congress, a decision for which his wife was less than thankful. Although he was not prosecuted for his efforts under the law bearing his name, Deborah Logan lamented, "He declined a re-election to the Senate, which he might have obtained, and which I had reason to regret he had not accepted, as it furnished reflection and employment to a mind so devoted to the best interests of his country and of society that they appeared peculiarly his province, and that mind seemed to refuse to occupy itself with interest in less important concerns."

Deborah Norris Logan

One can sense Deborah's patience being strained by her passionate, if impetuous, husband. She was a well educated woman for her time and could remember listening to the reading of the Declaration of Independence from her family's home near Independence Hall. While her husband never earned any acclaim as a legislator, Deborah is remembered as a prolific writer who provides us a unique peek at the Revolutionary era. Her diary ran to thousands of pages, and she kept decades of personal correspondence. Since many women of this era, including Martha Washington, destroyed personal papers before their death, Deborah Logan's legacy is priceless.

Deborah Logan's diary details daily life in post-Revolution America in a way that few resources do. Few records provide a female point-of-view of this era or cover so many years in so much detail. From daily chores to recipes and politics to quiet evenings before the fire, the Logan's family life is intimately exposed. Deborah especially reveals her inner feelings in a way not typical for the era when she spills out her grief over her husband's death and later her son's. 

Diary of Deborah Norris Logan

In addition to these writings, Deborah wrote a Memoir of Dr Logan of Stenton, which was written in the years after his death in 1821 but not published until 1899. In this work, George Logan is lovingly and optimistically described by a clearly devoted wife. Many of his contemporaries considered George little more than a fool, although Thomas Jefferson described him as, "the best farmer in Pennsylvania." George Logan's wife defended and loved him enough to create a book to memorialize him.

Stenton - Logan's Germantown mansion

Besides her own papers, Deborah Logan was responsible for preserving letters between William Penn and James Logan, her husband's grandfather and mayor of Philadelphia. She found the cache of documents in the attic of Stenton, the Pennsylvania mansion inherited by her husband. Deborah Logan was the first woman elected to membership of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the society published a transcript of the old family letters. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Asylums: Enough to Drive Women Crazy


In our not so distant past, women could be institutionalized based on nothing more than the word of their husband. Asylums were a convenient place to dispose of an inconvenient wife. Author AB Michaels is here today with more insight into how easily a woman might find themselves labeled 'crazy' in the early 20th century. I think it might surprise you!

~ Samantha


Asylums: Enough to Drive Women Crazy

Guest Post by AB Michaels

We all know that women’s rights have been late to the party. State laws didn’t start allowing us to control our own earnings until the mid-nineteenth century, and in many states, women couldn’t manage their own property after they were married. Laws prohibited women from doing things that men took for granted (like smoking in public or using contraception) on the pretext of “protecting women’s health.” Divorce, extremely difficult to obtain, was fraught with social and financial peril (Today’s “no fault” variety didn’t come into play until the 1960’s!). Children were the “property” of the husband, not the wife—she had no right to them if she left her marriage, no matter how disastrous it turned out to be. And of course, we didn’t get to vote in federal elections until 1920, fifty years after the Fifteenth Amendment granted that right to men regardless of color (although it took nearly a century for that right to be solidified without prejudice).

So, it isn’t surprising that when progressive ideas about treating the mentally ill led to the construction of state mental hospitals across the country, many of these institutions were used to keep women in their place. In researching my latest novel, The Madness of Mrs. Whittaker, I came across several cases where women were unjustly committed to such asylums under the guise of treating them for some form of “neurasthenia.”

Neurasthenia, which emerged in the 1830’s, was made popular by the neurologist George Beard in 1869. The diagnosis was used to describe a broad range of maladies that seemed to afflict primarily the middle and upper classes during the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. According to Beard and countless physicians who followed him, these patients were suffering from the “stress” of modern American life. Symptoms included headaches, rashes, painful menstrual periods, and melancholy, all the way up to overly sexual behavior (deemed “lasciviousness”), excessive anger, alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicidal thoughts—in short, any behavior that was not in line with the societal dictates of the time.

I explore how men were treated for neurasthenia in my novel The Price of Compassion (Book Four of “The Golden City” series). The main character, Dr. Tom Justice, has gone through a traumatic experience that results in a physical impairment. The prescription for men back then was action a la Teddy Roosevelt (who was said to suffer from neurasthenia himself). Rigorous physical activity was supposed to get rid of the stress—not a bad idea!

Charlotte Perkins Gillman

Unfortunately, the opposite was true for women. Doctors (overwhelmingly male) told them the cure for their emotion-driven ailment, no matter what it was, was complete removal from the stress of everyday life. They were to have as little stimulus as possible in the hope that their “nervous disorder” would calm down and go away.

To get a sense of what women suffered through during this period, check out the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” written by Charlotte Perkins Gillman in 1892. You can download it here.

I won’t reveal anything about the piece except to say it was often categorized as a horror story!

Such a treatment plan was made to order for asylums. Originally such institutions were designed to proactively treat patients with kindness and modern therapeutic techniques. Unfortunately, as soon as the mental hospitals were built, they were filled to excess capacity, leading to overcrowded conditions and a business model that paid more attention to maintenance than therapy.

Thus, if you were a woman who didn’t know your place, and you had a spouse or family member who wanted you out of the picture, it didn’t take much to have you committed against your will so that you could “relearn” what it meant to be an acceptable female in society.

I came across a newspaper article from 1903 in which this happened, and I used it as the historical seed from which my novel grew. A young mother who happened to believe in Spiritualism (a phenomenon I also cover in the book) was accused of being crazy by her mother and sister and was committed against her will to an asylum in South Dakota. How she dealt with her situation inspired me to write my own version, and The Madness of Mrs. Whittaker is the result.

Elizabeth Parson Ware Packard

But a more notorious example can be found from the mid-nineteenth century and has been written about by Barbara Sapinsley in her history, The Private War of Mrs. Packard. Elizabeth Parson Ware Packard, married to a minister, had six children and was active in her husband’s church—until she began teaching principles that he and the church elders disagreed with. She and her husband clashed on theology as well as child-rearing, finances—even the issue of slavery. If ever a marriage was destined to fail, this was it! One argument led to another until Elizabeth’s spouse was angry enough to have her committed to an asylum in Jacksonville, Illinois because she was “a little insane.”

Illinois law in 1860 said that a public hearing had to be held before a woman could be committed—the exception was that a woman’s husband could commit his wife without a hearing and without his wife’s permission! Needless to say, Mrs. Packard was pissed and spent the next three years working to get herself released. Eventually her children pressured the asylum’s doctors enough to release her and they did so—after pronouncing her “incurable.” When she returned home, her husband locked her in an upstairs room and nailed the window shut but she was able to get a message to a friend, who helped her escape and arranged for a hearing at which she was finally pronounced sane—after hearing from male witnesses, by the way, who agreed that it didn’t make a woman insane just because she disagreed with you!

In the meantime, her estranged husband had left the state, taking the children with him; it took several more years for her to right that particular wrong. During that decade and beyond, she worked tirelessly, through speaking, writing and petitioning state legislatures, to get laws passed that protected women from the horrors she’d experienced.

We have come a long, long way from those trying times, and we have strong-minded and strong-willed women like Elizabeth Packard to thank for many of the rights we take for granted today.


While exploring the remote possibility of contacting her dead husband through a spirit medium, a young widow is pronounced insane and committed to an asylum against her will. As she struggles to escape the nightmare she’s been thrust into, she is stripped of everything she holds dear, including her identity and her reason to live. The fight to reclaim what is rightfully hers will test every aspect of her being, up to and including her sanity. Is she up to the task, or has her grip on reality already slipped away?

Book Six of The Golden City series, The Madness of Mrs. Whittaker explores two major forces of early twentieth century America: the religious movement called Spiritualism and treatment of the mentally ill. Like all of A.B. Michaels ’novels, it is a stand-alone read.

Connect with AB Michaels

A native of California, A.B. Michaels holds masters ’degrees in history (UCLA) and broadcasting (San Francisco State University). After working for many years as a promotional writer and editor, she turned to writing fiction, which is the hardest thing she's ever done besides raise two boys. She lives with her husband and two spoiled dogs in Boise, Idaho, where she is often distracted by playing darts and bocce and trying to hit a golf ball more than fifty yards. Reading, quilt-making and travel figure into the mix as well, leading her to hope that sometime soon, someone invents a 25+ hour day.

Connect with AB Michaels on her Website, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Book Bub, Amazon Author Page, or Goodreads

The Golden City Series

The Art of Love

The Depth of Beauty 

The Promise 

The Price of Compassion 

Josephine’s Daughter 

The Madness of Mrs Whittaker

Monday, June 14, 2021

Spicing Things Up! The Medieval Luxury Food Trade

My faithful blog readers will recognize Toni Mount as a guest who always has exciting insight to share about medieval times. Her books are some of my favorites, and I'm sure her latest, How to Survive in Medieval England, will be no exception. Toni is here to give us a fun sneak peek!

Welcome, Toni!

~ Samantha


Spicing Things Up! The Medieval Luxury Food Trade

Guest Post by Toni Mount

My new book, How to Survive in Medieval England, published by Pen & Sword, is a guide to travelling in history: what to expect, how to dress, how to stay safe and what to look for on the menu.

If you were able to go back in time to medieval England, so much would be very different and so many things missing – all technology, from engines to the Internet. Medical care would be primitive in comparison to the twenty-first century and public transport non-existent. All work would be manual and cookery recipes and methods mostly guesswork, so you may be surprised to discover that medieval cooks used all manner of exotic spices from faraway lands. In fact, the list included spices we have almost forgotten about today. Medieval folk adored spicy food; in fact, the spicier the better. (There were no chillies because they originated in the Americas and weren’t known until c.1500.) It was all a matter of flaunting your wealth because spices were an expensive luxury, available only to the rich.

How to Survive in Medieval England contains some imagined interviews with people of the time as a novel means of telling about true aspects or incidents in their lives. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Lady Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, in the year 1263 about running the household at Odiham Castle, Hampshire. She talks about the spices she purchased for a special occasion and her shopping list still exists. 

‘What about feeding your household, my lady?’   

‘We have the produce from our desmesne – the home farm – both stored and fresh, the villeins’ rental payments in kind, as well as our own livestock for meat and the castle fishponds for fresh fish, plus our fishing rights on the river. Although the local abbey disputes our sole rights there.’

‘But the local produce only supplies the basics. What about luxurious foodstuffs? So noble a household must surely be able to afford them?’

‘Such impertinence! Of course we can afford them. Why, last Easter, I entertained two bishops and their retinues. The meals had to impress because Simon wanted me to persuade them to his cause. I sent to London, to the grocers and pepperers, to supply me with all manner of delicacies. I ordered six pounds weight of ginger from India, costing fifteen shillings. Eight pounds of peppercorns at eighteen shillings and eight pence and six of cinnamon costing six shillings. Did you know that cinnamon bark is washed downstream from the Garden of Eden itself? Or so the merchants say. I ordered just a pound of saffron, it being the most expensive spice, even though we grow it in England, and that alone cost fourteen shillings. I debated whether to order cloves and nutmeg but the bishops don’t deserve too much luxury. I settled for twelve pounds of sugar, six pounds of sugar mixed with mace, ten pounds of rice... You look surprised.’

‘I didn’t know you ate rice, my lady.’

‘Well, it is a luxury your sort can’t afford but it’s imported, like the sugar, from Cyprus – the island wrested for Christendom by Richard the Lionheart. But back to my order: I included twenty pounds of almonds at four shillings and tuppence and an Easter treat for Simon: a box of gingerbread but don’t tell him it cost two shillings and four pence. He’s a frugal man where his own pleasures are concerned and will berate my extravagance.’

Sugar, almonds and rice were counted as spices in those times and the countess mentions the story that cinnamon bark is washed downstream from the Garden of Eden. The origins of other spices also included some fantastical stories. It seems incredible that such tales were thought necessary to embellish the truth when spices came from places as yet undiscovered by Europeans in the Far East, being transported unimaginable distances over oceans, deserts and mountains. Perhaps that was the trouble: the Garden of Eden [thought to be somewhere just south of Jerusalem at the centre of the world] was easier for the medieval mind to deal with compared to thousands of miles of uncharted land- and seascape.

Spices at a medieval market in Archeon, Netherlands

Ginger, the first item on Countess Eleanor’s shopping list, came from India, as she tells us, but it originated in China and is thought to have been grown in tubs aboard the great sea-going Chinese junks and eaten by the crews to stave off scurvy – although ginger only contains modest amounts of the vital vitamin C necessary to do this. Ginger was used as a medicine in both Chinese and Indian cultures and the Chinese were eager to exchange their home-grown spice for Indian pepper. Muslim physicians eagerly made use of ginger which was thought to reduce bleeding after injury or childbirth and it quickly spread west into Europe. Its extensive use in medieval cookery was because various medical remedies containing ginger tasted so good they were adapted for special-occasion recipes.

Pepper was always the most important spice. In fact, in medieval England, grocers who sold spices and all kinds of dry goods, including currants, sultanas, dried cherries and apricots, candied fruits and citrus peel, nuts, sugar and rice were known as ‘pepperers’ because pepper was their main money-making commodity. The pepperers formed one of the very earliest companies in London, their guild receiving its royal warrant in 1180. Isidore of Seville, who died in 636 AD, knew peppercorns came from India but believed they were naturally white. However, because the forests of the Malabar coast, where the pepper vines clambered up trees like ivy, were infested with venomous snakes, the underbrush had to be burned to drive off the reptiles before the berries could be harvested. It was the fire that turned the berries black, according to Isidore. 

Pepper was known in forms other than the dried berries of peppercorns. The countess could have bought long pepper which was known in Ancient Persia. Long pepper is a little hotter than peppercorns but with a similar flavour. It looks rather like catkins but is actually a spike of tiny fruits. It grows in the Himalayan region of northern India. Pliny, a Roman who wrote in the first century AD, said long pepper cost four times more than black peppercorns. He had no liking for peppercorns and couldn’t see the point in bringing them all the way from distant India at such great expense. 

Grains of Paradise (Aframomum melegueta)

Long Pepper (Piper longum)

Grains of Paradise were another available peppery spice believed, like cinnamon [see below] to come from the Garden of Eden – hence the name – although it grows in the swamps of West Africa. It isn’t a pepper at all but belongs to the ginger family. Oddly, there seem to have been two similar spices, both peppery in taste and looking much the same, but medieval literature has one type used as an aphrodisiac and the other to reduce monks’ libidinous inclinations. Can these possibly be the same spicy seeds? Cubebs were yet another option if the countess wanted something peppery. They are dried berries with the stalks attached and have a slightly bitter after taste but was popular with medieval diners. This spice came from even farther away than India or Sri Lanka, from the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra

Cinnamon bark had been used in Ancient Egypt, as a perfume rather than as a food seasoning. The Egyptians believed it came from the mysterious Land of Punt – probably Ethiopia or Somalia – but the climate in those parts of north-western Africa isn’t suitable for the evergreen cinnamon tree, so it must have been imported from elsewhere. Herodotus, a Greek writing in the fifth century BCE, admitted that he didn’t know where it came from but he’d heard a strange story about harvesting the spice as told by the Arabs. They said that cinnamon sticks were brought to Arabia by large birds to be used as nesting material but the birds always built their nests on inaccessible mountain tops. The local people would butcher oxen and leave them for the birds to feed on. The birds preferred and had strength enough to carry the oxen back to their cinnamon nests but the weight of the carcasses would cause the nests to collapse and fall down the mountain. The locals could then collect up the cinnamon sticks. The bark – the important bit – was then stripped off the sticks and rolled into ‘quills’.  

Theophrastus [died 287 BCE], a colleague of Aristotle, would be known as a botanist today. He told another story about cinnamon, though he warns the reader that it’s probably a fable. According to this version, cinnamon trees grow in valleys swarming with poisonous serpents so those who collect the bark must protect their hands and feet from snake bite. Having gathered the precious bark, they divide it into equal portions – one for each collector who risked their life, reserving another portion for the Sun. The Sun’s portion they leave behind and Sun promptly consumes it in fire. 

Pliny said that wherever cinnamon grew, it was protected by terrifying bats. However, he thought this story was simply invented by the cinnamon dealers so they could charge a higher price. In fact, in Roman and medieval times, cinnamon was worth more than its weight in gold. The true source of the spice was Sri Lanka, the large island off the southern tip of India but it was used in ancient China, Indonesia, as well as across the Roman Empire. Just to show off his wealth, the Emperor Nero burnt a year’s supply of cinnamon on his wife’s funeral pyre. You can see why the Countess of Leicester wanted to serve it at her Easter feast to impress the bishops.

The countess had mace on her shopping list but not nutmeg. However, both spices come from the fruit of the same tree. Rare in medieval times, the nutmeg tree was native to only a couple of the tiny Banda Islands. These islands, now part of Indonesia, are too small to appear on any but large-scale maps and lie a thousand miles farther east than Java. What a journey these two spices had made! The nutmeg is the nut itself which is surrounded by a red lacy membrane within an outer skin. The dried membrane is mace. Although both Theophrastus and Pliny mention ‘macis’, from their descriptions the Greek seems to be referring to cubebs and the Roman to cinnamon. 

Mace from the red ‘Aril’ surrounding nutmeg seed

Nutmeg fruit

The first authentic reference comes from the imperial Byzantine court in the sixth century AD. The rest of Europe certainly had nutmeg by the twelfth century when it was used to sweeten the smelly streets of Rome for a royal visit. In fourteenth-century England, Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, tells of ‘notemugge’ being added to improve the taste of ale that was past its best. Nutmeg was used medically as it has antiseptic properties and was believed to be good for the brain. In fact, the spice contains elements which the human body converts to amphetamine-type compounds so you could ‘get high’ on too much nutmeg. It can also abort unwanted pregnancies as well as treating indigestion and wind.  

Cloves, not mentioned in the countess’s shopping list but another popular medieval spice, are dried flower buds and were known about almost two millennia before Christ in Ancient Babylon. It was believed that cloves created such a great heat that nothing could grow around the clove trees. Also, if you stored cloves alongside anything moist, the heat would dry it out or even evaporate a jug of water. In the beginning, cloves only grew in the Spice Islands of Indonesia, now known as Maluku. A journey of seven thousand miles brought them to England, having crossed the Indian Ocean by Arab dhow, up the Red Sea to Syria or Alexandria where they traversed the Mediterranean into European hands. Transported over the Alps to the markets of Northern Europe, English merchants would import them back to London. After this, with exposure to salt seas, blistering sun, howling gales, rain and snow, it’s surprising that these spices had any taste left at all. No wonder the Countess of Leicester required eight pounds weight of pepper and six of cinnamon to flavour her impressive Easter feast.

Readers can find out far more about medieval lives, meet some of the characters involved and get a ‘taste’ of the food of the time in How to Survive in Medieval England, my new book from Pen & Sword, published on 30th June 2021 and available for pre-order now on Amazon.    

Connect with Toni

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for www.MedievalCourses.com and created the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons.

Connect with Toni on her Website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  

Friday, June 11, 2021

Sneak Peek: Women of the American Revolution

I've been on a research trip this week, and I can't wait to share this wonderful history with you in my upcoming book from Pen & Sword Publishers! Here are a few photos to whet your appetite. 

Hamilton Grange - New York City
Home of Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton

The Dolley Todd House - Philadelphia
Home of John and Dolley Todd (Madison)

Independence Hall - Philadelphia

Betsy Ross House

Mount Vernon - Virginia
Home of George and Martha Washington

Montpelier - Virginia
Home of James and Dolley Madison

Reproduction of Martha Washington's wedding dress
Mount Vernon, Virginia

Letter written by Abigail Adams
currently exhibited in Philadelphia
Museum of the American Revolution

Tomb of the Unknown American Revolution Soldier
Washington Square, Philadelphia

*The Room Where It Happened*
Assembly Hall in Independence Hall

Statue of James and Dolley Madison
Montpelier - Virginia

Trinity Church - NYC
Final resting place of 
Alexander and Eliza Hamilton

Coming from Pen & Sword Publishers in July 2022
I'm so excited! How about you?

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Insurrections under Henry IV


The Wars of the Roses can trace their beginnings back to the usurper king, Henry IV. Even during his own reign, he endured challenges that were a foreshadowing of what was to come. Author Mercedes Rochelle is here with a look at the insurrections of Henry IV's reign. Don't miss her new book in the Plantagenet Legacy series, The Usurper King!

Welcome, Mercedes!

~ Samantha


Insurrections under Henry IV

Guest Post by Mercedes Rochelle

Henry Delivers Richard to Londoners-Harley 1319 f53v (British Library, Creative Commons license)

It goes without saying that any usurper will have to deal with resistance. Considering the wave of popularity that thrust Henry Bolingbroke onto the throne, I imagine he never would have suspected the number of rebellions he would have to confront in the first five years of his reign. Some were major, others were minor. Two nearly condemned him as the shortest reigning monarch in English history. All must have been disheartening to the man who saw himself as an honorable, chivalric knight.

What could possibly have gone wrong?

The first rebellion wasn't much of a surprise—though the timing was shocking. Only three months after his coronation, King Richard II's favorites launched the Epiphany Rising of January, 1400. Their aim was to capture and kill the king and his family on the eve of a tournament at Windsor Castle. Unfortunately, they were in too much of a hurry; Henry was still at the height of his popularity. At the very last minute, King Henry was warned and he made a frantic escape to London. Nonetheless, the ringleaders were committed; after they found their prey had flown they continued with their revolt, though they weren't able to attract as much support as they expected. Rather, most of them suffered the indignity of being killed by the citizenry, who took the law into their own hands.

Needless to say, the Epiphany Revolt put an end to Richard. Or did it? Although he was reported dead by February 14 and a very public funeral was held, rumors spread that he had escaped to Scotland and was going to return at the head of an army. Disgruntled rebels were quick to challenge the usurper in his name, and the spectre of a vengeful Richard haunted Henry for the rest of his life. Or, if Richard was dead, the young Earl of March—considered by many the true heir to the throne—served the same purpose. As far as the rebels were concerned, one figurehead was as good as the other.

During most of Henry's reign, the country was bankrupt—or nearly so—and the first few years were the worst. It didn't take long for the populace to cry foul, for as they remembered it, he promised not to raise taxes (untrue). Things were supposed to get better (they didn't). Mob violence was everywhere. Even tax collectors were killed. Meanwhile, a fresh source of rebellion reared its head: the Welsh.

On his way back to London after his first (and only) campaign into Scotland, the king learned of a Welsh rising led by one Owain Glyndwr, who visited fire and destruction on his recalcitrant neighbor Reginald Grey of Ruthin. Turning immediately to the west, Henry led his army into Wales, chasing the elusive enemy deep into the mountains. Unfortunately, lack of funds and terrible weather forced them to turn back. But this just added fuel to the proverbial fire. Repeated Welsh raids unsettled his border barons, who were quick to complain. During parliament—only one year after Henry's coronation—the Commons insisted on enforcing the most repressive anti-Welsh legislation since Edward I. None of these laws would have been enacted in Richard's reign. The Welsh were in no mood to acquiesce, and their rebellion gained steam for the next several years, sapping an already exhausted exchequer.

Then there were the Percies. The Earl of Northumberland and his son, Harry Hotspur were instrumental in putting Henry on the throne. They also ruled the north as though it was their own kingdom. This would not do, and Henry followed his predecessor's strategy of raising up other great families as a counter to their ambitions. Disappointed that Henry did not appreciate them as much as they expected—especially after they won Homildon Hill, the most significant battle against the Scots since Edward I days—the Percies launched a totally unexpected assault in 1403. It was Harry Hotspur who drove this insurrection, using Richard II's imminent return as a means to raise the restive Cheshiremen to his cause. Once his soldiers realized that Richard wasn't coming, they fought to avenge him instead. The resulting Battle of Shrewsbury was a very close call; if Henry hadn't unexpectedly traveled north from London that week to join Henry Percy, he never would have been close enough to intercept the rebels when he learned about the uprising. The fighting was ferocious; it was only Hotspur's death on the battlefield that determined which side had won the day. As it was, Percy's ally, the Earl of Douglas, allegedly killed two knights who wore Henry's livery, giving their lives to save the king in the confusion of battle.

Royal MS 14e iv f.14v (British Library, Creative Commons license)

The Earl of Northumberland was still in the North when the Battle of Shrewsbury took place. Historians can't decide whether Percy's failure to assist his son was planned or unplanned. But one thing was for sure; Henry Percy was still a force to be reckoned with. Although the king reluctantly pardoned him (with the urging of the Commons), he was back two years later, leading another rebellion in conjunction with a rising led by Richard Scrope, the Archbishop of York, and Thomas Mowbray, son of Henry Bolingbroke's old rival. Northumberland's thrust was repelled before he gained much speed, yet Scrope's forces waited at York for three days before being tricked into disbanding by the Earl of Westmorland, Percy's nemesis. Poor Archbishop Scrope became the focus of King Henry's rage. Despite resistance from all sides, the king ordered him to be executed, creating a huge scandal and a new martyr.

Henry Percy suffered outlawry at that point, but he returned three years later, fighting one last battle, so pathetic one wonders whether he had a death wish. He was killed on the field and subsequently decapitated.

These were the major rebellions. Other disturbances were usually dealt with without Henry's presence. In 1404, Maud de Ufford, Countess of Oxford—mother of the ill-fated Robert de Vere, Richard's favorite—organized an uprising centered around the return of King Richard. This was in conjunction with Louis d'Orleans, the French duke who planned to invade the country in December. Alas, he was held up by the weather and Richard failed to materialize. In 1405, Constance of York, sister of Edward (Rutland), Duke of York concocted a plot to kidnap the young Earl of March (remember him, the other heir to the throne?) and his brother from Windsor Castle. She was taking them to Owain Glyndwr but got caught before they entered Wales. She implicated her brother who was imprisoned for 17 weeks, but no one knows for sure whether he was complicit or not.

Bad weather, failed crops, an empty exchequer, regional disorders, piracy that disrupted the wool trade, all contributed to general unrest that plagued the fragile Lancastrian dynasty. Henry's willingness to accept criticism from friends and supporters—and sincerely try to act upon it—could well be one of the reasons he survived and King Richard failed.


From Outlaw to Usurper, Henry Bolingbroke fought one rebellion after another.

First, he led his own uprising. Gathering support the day he returned from exile, Henry marched across the country and vanquished the forsaken Richard II. Little did he realize that his problems were only just beginning. How does a usurper prove his legitimacy? What to do with the deposed king? Only three months after he took the crown, Henry IV had to face a rebellion led by Richard's disgruntled favorites. Worse yet, he was harassed by rumors of Richard's return to claim the throne. His own supporters were turning against him. How to control the overweening Percies, who were already demanding more than he could give? What to do with the rebellious Welsh? After only three years, the horrific Battle of Shrewsbury nearly cost him the throne—and his life. It didn't take long for Henry to discover that that having the kingship was much less rewarding than striving for it.

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Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. Her first four books cover eleventh-century Britain and events surrounding the Norman Conquest of England. The next series is called The Plantagenet Legacy about the struggles and abdication of Richard II, leading to the troubled reigns of the Lancastrian Kings. She also writes a blog: HistoricalBritainBlog.com to explore the history behind the story. Born in St. Louis, MO, she received by BA in Literature at the Univ. of Missouri St.Louis in 1979 then moved to New York in 1982 while in her mid-20s to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended! Today she lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.

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