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Monday bookishness – The Lost Orphan by Stacey Halls

Okay. New week, new plan. Every Monday I’m going to post something about a book I want to read/want to recommend/have on my mind.

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Stacey Halls

And so I’m kicking off with a new piece I have up on the Historical Novel Society website, based on a Q&A I was lucky enough to do with historical novelist Stacey Halls. I’ve read both Hall’s books now and am a definite fan. There are so many great books about these days, but I’d put her very high on my list of go-to authors. The Lost Orphan (The Foundling in the UK) is one of my favourite books so far this year.

Forced to abandon your child into public care with only a token and a number to trace them again by, what token might you choose?

You can read my write up by clicking here:HNS1But here is the full set of my questions and Stacy’s answers:

What was the original spark for the novel?

lost orphan
American title/cover

 

I get my story ideas from places, and this one came to me when I visited the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, London. I wasn’t looking for a story idea – in fact I’d just finished the first draft of The Familiars the week before – but I was so moved by the museum and the concept of the Foundling Hospital, which was established in the 1730s for babies at risk of abandonment. I was particularly moved by the tokens left by mothers who hoped one day to claim their children – they were like secret deposits that only the mothers knew about, and would describe to prove their identity if they ever found themselves in a position to claim their son or daughter however many months or years down the line. They are all worthless objects like scraps of fabric, coins, playing cards, made priceless because of their significance; they were the only things connecting the mothers with their children. The idea came to me to write about a woman who has saved enough to buy her baby back, as a fee was payable for the care the child had received at the hospital – only to be told her daughter has already been claimed.

You have two very different narrators, both flawed in some ways. How did they come to be and how do they help you explore themes of motherhood, nature v nurture etc?

I’m not a writer who dreams up a character and feels compelled to write a story about him or her – all my characters develop from my story idea, or rather I create them to fit into the story. The problem is then they do take on a life of their own – I feel as though all my characters, particularly my main ones, have their own souls, and don’t always do what I want them to, and they often surprise me. I knew that the two narrators in The Foundling – Bess and Alexandra – had to be very different, each providing different things for their daughters. Bess is straightforward and Alexandra complicated, exhibiting characteristics we would now associate with mental health disorders including OCD, PTSD and agoraphobia. Saying that, she was the easier one for me to write; I felt as though she was channeling me and I was just a medium for her voice. I’ve never written anyone quite like her before.

Historical fiction is sometimes criticized for a lack of diversity in its characters but you have people of colour and immigrants feature in this story. Was that a conscious decision, a natural result of your research, or a bit of both?

A bit of both. I wanted the London in the book to reflect the London I live in now, and the city in the Georgian period was just as diverse as it is now. It was a few decades before mass immigration, but I think there’s a preconception that London was white until 1945, and that’s just not the case.

This is such a vivid picture of mid 18th century London. Did you have any research highlights?

foundling
UK title/cover

Loads! London has taken on many personalities in its lifetime but the Georgian city was particularly rich, with new wealth from the empire and overseas trading. The book might have been set 250 years ago but there’s so much that we would recognise: the theatre, gin, magazines, hot chocolate, shopping. But as well as that, it was also a place of crushing poverty that led directly to high mortality – in London, 75% of children died before their fifth birthday. It was also much smaller then, with a population of about 750,000 at the turn of the 18th century – it’s ten times that size now – and its boundary was much smaller. Where the Foundling Hospital was located in Bloomsbury was the very edge of the city, with countryside beyond, and Lambeth (where I live) was completely rural.

The book is called The Lost Orphan in the US and The Foundling in the UK. Do you have a view on that, or a preference of one over the other?

The Foundling was the working title of the novel while I was writing it, and was changed for the American market because I think the word foundling is less known there.

You have jumped period from The Familiars – early 17th century – to mid 18th. What’s next?

My third novel is set at the turn of the 20th century, which feels like a huge leap forwards in terms of modernity – they had cars and phones then, so it feels almost contemporary to me!


Reading this book and chatting with Stacey made me really want to visit the Foundling Museum in London. I love these tokens and the part they play in the novel.

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Tokens from the Foundling Museum

Thanks for joining me for my first Monday Bookishness post! Have you read The Lost Orphan/The Foundling? What did you think? Any views on the different titles and cover styles? I’m leaning toward the American version on this one…

Escaping with a good book (for free!)

easter saleI’ll be honest… I’ve always read as a form of escapism. It’s the quickest and easiest way to get out of the day-to-day and forget any worries – major or minor – that I might have.

So I was thrilled that my publisher Darkstroke/Crooked Cat wanted to make lots of our titles free to download over the Easter weekend.

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The Girl Puzzle and The Road to Newgate are therefore FREE to download this weekend. Please grab them for free and know that when you read them, Amazon will pay me royalties (double win!). If you already have them, tell your friends! The more the merrier!

And if historical fiction is not your thing, please do look at all the other books that are FREE this weekend. I’m tweeting as many as I can at HERE.

I’ve loaded a few on the kindle myself for the long, quiet weeks ahead.

Happy reading xxx

The comfort of re-reading

We are living in strange times. Many of us are finding we need new ways to work and also new ways to relax. Some of us are more isolated than ever before. Others, like me, are actually less so. I’m used to having a traveling husband, one kid away at school and the other two out at school and swim practice from 7.30am until after 6pm most days. Now we are all home and thankfully, all feeling well.

We are on week 3 of online school & college. For the first two weeks I stopped my work in favor of theirs. We established some new routines, took dog walks, implemented new exercise plans and looked at what we can do in the house to keep that feeling of moving forward in life, while we all know that for now there is nothing more important than standing still. I also washed a lot of dishes and the laundry ramped up.

For those two weeks I definitely couldn’t settle to writing and even reading was tough. On social media I saw a lot of buzz from authors, suggesting that a thin silver lining on this ghastly cloud might be people having more time to read new books. But I haven’t been feeling that way. I’ve watched the news compulsively, checked on twitter, talked to family and friends and tried to monitor the situation in both the UK and the US – becoming doubly anxious in the process.

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The Masqueraders, Georgette Heyer

One thing that has helped though, is re-reading. Last week I picked up a copy of The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer as part of a facebook challenge to post all the many covers of all her many books. It was never my favorite Heyer by any means and yet I found myself sitting down and opening it up.  I’ve re-read many of her books umpteen times, but this was only my second time around with this story. And what unexpected fun it was.

 

That’s because I realise that I’ve no interest right now in the unexpected. I don’t need any more worry about what is going to happen. The real world is offering that in spades. What I enjoyed – and what didn’t know I needed –  was gentle humour, heroes and villians, romance, and adventure. The Masqueraders delivered. I read. I relaxed.

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Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, John Dickson Carr

Of course I talked to my mum on Facetime about this. And she reminded me of my Dad, and how in his last months, when he knew that his pancreatic cancer was incurable, he re-read all his John Dickson Carr crime novels – and escaped. It seemed strange to us then. Not so now. Here’s my copy of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, which used to be my Dad’s. Readers of The Road to Newgate might want to take a look at this one 😉

And it doesn’t have to be a book either. This is the time for classic movies, for re-watching James Bond films in order, or Star Wars, or timelessly watchable favourites like Some Like It Hot, Singing in the Rain, The Scarlet Pimpernel or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. We’ve watched a couple of remarkably similar Liam Neeson movies as a family and the predictability is honestly part of the pleasure! I’ve also been sneaking off from the family for half hour indulgences with episodes of the new BBC series of Mallory Towers. With nothing more to worry about than how mean Gwendoline will be and when Darrell will ever figure out what’s up with Sally, I’ve loved every nostalgic minute so far.

Here’s the cover from the series I first read (and re-read) in the 70’s and a photo from the new series.

I hope everyone out there is finding ways to relax and cope with the stress and uncertainty that we’ve all been thrown into by this virus. All I can tell you is that this is mine. Comfort reading. Maybe it will work for you too.

Kate

 

A new cover & a giveaway!

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I’ve very excited today to share a brand new shiny cover for The Road to Newgate. I so love these characters and their story, so it’s great to see the book get this awesome new look.

As with The Girl Puzzle, each ‘slice’ has been chosen with care. Here’s the low-down on each one, and how they relate to the novel.

Titus_OatesI first came across Titus Oates in a newspaper article about the ten worst Britons ever – one for each of the last 10 centuries. Titus, quite rightly, ‘won’ the 17th century and totally deserves to be known as one of the greatest liars in history. In our current times of fake news, wild claims and counter-claims, the story of The Popish Plot is alarmingly relevant.

Politics isn’t at the heart of The Road to Newgate though. It’s far more a story about how larger events effect everyday people, and in particular, my lovely married couple Anne and Nat Thompson and their excellent friends William Smith and Henry Broome.

369px-ObservatorAs with The Girl Puzzle – and with all good historical fiction where real events and people come out to play! – the written word is an important factor in the story and in the lives of my characters. Nat Thompson is a writer, based on a composite of two real political writers of the late 17th Century, Nat Thompson and Roger L’Estrange.

L’Estrange was a real thorn in the side of Titus Oates, particularly with his newspaper, The Observator.

In the edition pictured here, and used on the cover of The Road to Newgate, you can see how L’Estrange used a Q&A format to create mock interviews to test out – and undercut – the claims of his opponents. Printing and the written word are important to many characters in the novel, not least Nat’s wife Anne.

Frances_BrookeSpeaking of Anne…

Although Anne Thompson is not a real historical figure, she’s very important to all aspects of The Road to Newgate and I was very keen to signal that on our new cover.

This is in fact Frances Brooke (1640 – c1690). She’s slightly older than Anne, who in my head was born around 1658, but she fits my image of Anne perfectly and is pictured here in a portrait painted by Peter Lely, as part of his Windsor Beauties series.

And last but not least, there is a slice of this wonderful map:

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Not only do I have this map hanging on my dining room wall, but it was an incredible resource as I sat thousands of miles and more than two centuries away from Restoration London, writing The Road to Newgate. This map is interactive, made available by Briish History Online here, and can be zoomed in and out with amazing clarity. All the key central London locations in the novel are on that map… Nat and Anne’s home, Henry’s print shop, Smithfield, Sam’s Coffee House by the Royal Exchange and, of course, Newgate Prison. I’m delighted to keep the map in this new cover and can’t wait for paperback purchasers to see the wonderful back cover. I love it almost as much as the front!!

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GIVEAWAY?

Almost forgot! The other great news is that The Road to Newgate ebook is free for this weekend only. I hope you’ll take a look!

Thank you!

Kate xx

 

Audio book, anyone?

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Who reads audio books? Up until this week, not me. But with the big news that The Girl Puzzle is going to be made into an AUDIO BOOK I thought it might actually be a good idea to listen to one.

Here’s my very first pick, recommended by a friend:

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The Blurb

A twisty, compelling new audiobook about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in death…

From the moment Lucy met her husband’s mother, she knew she wasn’t the wife Diana had envisioned for her perfect son. Exquisitely polite, friendly, and always generous, Diana nonetheless kept Lucy at arm’s length despite her desperate attempts to win her over. And as a pillar in the community, an advocate for female refugees, and a woman happily married for decades, no one had a bad word to say about Diana…except Lucy.

That was five years ago.

Now, Diana is dead, a suicide note found near her body claiming that she longer wanted to live because of the cancer wreaking havoc inside her body.

But the autopsy finds no cancer.

It does find traces of poison, and evidence of suffocation.

Who could possibly want Diana dead? Why was her will changed at the eleventh hour to disinherit both of her children, and their spouses? And what does it mean that Lucy isn’t exactly sad she’s gone?

Fractured relationships and deep family secrets grow more compelling with every chapter in this twisty, captivating new audiobook from Sally Hepworth.

I LOVED IT! Loved the book, loved the whole listening experience. It made me enthusiastic to do laundry! And walk my dogs (although I like that anyway) and do the washing up (a major occupation right now as we are having our kitchen redesigned and have no sink or dishwasher).

It’s definitely a different experience from reading but I found it perfect for keeping my mind busy when my hands were doing something. The only downside was when I sat down I didn’t feel like just listening but I wanted to know what would happen so I probably got more jobs done than I usually do… maybe that’s not a downside at all. There were certainly moments when if I’d had the book I would have sat down and read the whole thing and felt frustrated. And in some ways the experience was longer than I wanted it to be (I can read much faster than I can listen)… but it also meant I could have more than one book on the go. Right now I’m reading this for research:

plantation mistress

 

And I’m also reading this for pleasure:

the testaments

And I’m so thrilled with this audio experience that I’ve started this, which I have in hard copy but think I’m going to really enjoy listening to for the next week or so (it’s 18hrs long!)

the witches

 

Have you tried audio books? What did you think?

 

I’m joined by author Kate Braithwaite today as she shines the spotlight on a character from her novel #TheGirlPuzzle @KMBraithwaite @crookedcatbooks

Really enjoyed writing this character spotlight for The Girl Puzzle and focusing not on Nellie, but on her secretary, Beatrice Alexander.

Emma The Little Bookworm

Welcome, Kate!

Please introduce the character in terms of job, relationships, family etc. …

Beatrice Alexander is a character in my latest novel, a fictional biography of journalist Nellie Bly. For those who don’t know Nellie, the short version of her story is that she took New York’s male-dominated newspaper industry by storm in 1887. Aged twenty-three, she feigned madness to report from inside an insane asylum, and two years later she travelled solo around the world to beat Phineas Fogg, Jules Verne’s fictional hero’s, record of circumnavigating the globe in eighty days. Nellie changed the face of journalism for women, ran her own manufacturing business, promoted equal rights and pay for women, and supported many causes throughout her busy working and writing life.

 In The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly, Beatrice is Nellie’s secretary. At this point, Nellie is in her fifties, and Beatrice, thirty…

View original post 1,058 more words

New Book – The Refuge by Jo Fenton

Today I’m introducing my author friend, Jo Fenton, and her new book The Refuge which is released on Tuesday, May 28th. The Refuge is the sequel to The Brotherhood, a gritty psychological thriller set in a religious cult. What a page turner! I’m really looking forward to the sequel to see what happens to Jo’s characters next. Here’s all the details on The Refuge and a chat about writing with Jo…

The Refuge - cover picFollowing the death of The Brotherhood’s charismatic but sinister leader, Dominic, Melissa and her husband Mark resolve to turn the Abbey into a refuge for victims of domestic abuse. But when Melissa’s long-lost sister, Jess, turns up at the Abbey, new complications arise.

The Abbey residents welcome the new arrival but find it hard to cope with the after-effects of her past. As Jess struggles to come to terms with what she’s been through, her sudden freedom brings unforeseen difficulties. The appearance of a stalker – who bears a striking resemblance to the man who kept her prisoner for nine years – leads to serious problems for Jess.

Meanwhile, Mark also finds that his past is coming back to haunt him. When a mother and daughter venture from the Abbey into the local town for a shopping trip, there are dreadful consequences.

A build-up of tension, a poorly baby and a well-planned trap lead Mel, Jess and their family into a terrifying situation.

Can Jess overcome the traumas of her past to rescue her sister?

The Refuge and The Brotherhood are available from Amazon. Together they make up The Abbey Series (NB. The Kindle version of The Refuge is available for pre-order, and will be released on 28th May):

The Brotherhood (The Abbey Series Book 1): https://t.co/YXdn8AM506


Jo - profile photo 2 - croppedWhy did you first decide to write a novel set in a religious cult?

When I first decided to write a book, my first idea was to write a fantasy set on some imaginary world. Given I’d never written any story longer than 2000 words, common sense kicked in as I told myself that might be a bit ambitious for a first novel!

I scaled down dramatically, and decided to do my world-building in a ‘closed room’ environment, such as Agatha Christie used in some of her books.

As soon as I thought of that type of setting, the idea of a religious sect popped into my head, with all its inherent possibilities.

What research did you do?

I did some research for The Brotherhood early on, such as checking out the Waco siege, and David Koresh, but many other bits were done as I went along or between drafts. Research included watching various programmes by Derren Brown, googling numerous bits of information that I needed to know (my search history is very scary!), and consulting with a Pharmacist on the best ways to kill someone to make it look like suicide!

For The Refuge, I had different sorts of research to conduct. I spent half a day walking and driving around Macclesfield to help with the setting. I consulted with some of my midwife friends to ascertain key information related to Mel and her baby. I also checked out google (again) for information about drug overdoses, self-harm, and domestic abuse refuge requirements.

There are some dark passages in The Refuge – were certain scenes difficult to write?

I think ‘harrowing’ is a more accurate description, as in some ways, the more traumatic the scene, the more easily the words flowed out. But yes, certain scenes, particularly the flashbacks and the scene in the shed, left me feeling drained and emotionally exhausted. I have to put myself in the place of the narrator when writing those scenes, so when they’re done, it takes a while to break away from it. The best therapy for those is to turn to a good movie or Regency romance novel to take my mind away from what I’ve just written.

As a writer, how do you go about describing experiences that might be very far removed from your everyday life?

I’ve always been very empathic. I can’t watch a sad film without drenching a couple of boxes of tissues. Over the years, I seem to have absorbed those experiences – from reading, watching TV, and from listening to people tell their own stories – and I use that empathy, combined with a healthy dose of imagination, to get things down on paper. I’ve got a dreadful memory, so I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) use other people’s experiences directly, but I believe that everything I hear, see and read merges together to inform my own writing. I think all writers do that to some degree.

51x48mQ2EsL._SY346_How do you think readers have been affected by the darker elements of your work?

A friend who managed to get an early copy of The Refuge messaged me when she’d finished, to say she was sitting in shock eating chocolate. Another friend, after reading The Brotherhood, said it was brilliantly written but she’d found it ‘disturbing in parts’.

My books were written with an aim of inspiring empathy with the characters. I personally don’t like reading books where I can’t empathise with any of the protagonists, so it wouldn’t be fair to expect my readers to continue without that empathy. The downside of that is the battery of feeling that goes with it. I think it’s okay to cry when reading, or to be shocked, or to eat chocolate. I’d rather people did that than felt nothing and were disengaged from the book.

Have you been surprised by any reaction?

I was surprised and delighted when someone I knew came up to me after finishing The Brotherhood, and said it was the first book they’d read since school, but now she wanted to read lots more books. To have turned even one person onto reading is a huge achievement.

The funniest reaction I got was from a friend’s mum, who rang me up and said, ‘how did you manage to come up with all that? You’ve always seemed so sweet.”

The Refuge is a sequel. Should readers start with The Brotherhood first?

The Refuge contains a few spoilers for The Brotherhood. I tried to limit it, but some were inevitable. Each can be read as a standalone, but a fuller experience would be obtained by starting with The Brotherhood, and moving on to The Refuge.

About the author:

Jo Fenton grew up in Hertfordshire. She devoured books from an early age and, at eleven, discovered Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer. She now has an eclectic and much loved book collection cluttering her home office.

Jo combines an exciting career in Clinical Research with an equally exciting but very different career as a writer of psychological thrillers.

When not working, she runs (very slowly), and chats to lots of people. She lives in Manchester with her family and is an active and enthusiastic member of two writing groups and three reading groups.

Website www.jofenton137.com                      

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jofentonauthor/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jl_fenton

5 feisty Nellie Bly quotes for #mondaymotivation

Nellie Bly had a lot to say for herself over the years, priding herself on her frankness. Here’s some fine examples…

six-months-mexico-nellie-bly

 

Aged 21:

“The Mexicans surveyed myself and my chaperone in amazement. But I defied their gaze and showed them that a free American girl can accommodate herself to circumstances without the aid of a man.”

Pittsburg Dispatch, June 20th, 1886


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First article:

Take some girls that have the ability, procure for them situations, start them on their way, and by doing so accomplish more than by years of talking.”

The Girl Puzzle, Pittsburg Dispatch, January 25th 1885

 


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Re-visiting her madhouse story:

 

“Energy applied rightly and directed will accomplish anything.”

 

Among the Mad, Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1889


Often motivational:

Energy applied rightly and directly will accomplish anything


And one of my favorites:

“That women should work is necessary. That they should be treated with equality for their labor is just and right. There should be no difference in the recompense for work, whether done by a man or a woman, so long as it is done equally well.”

New York Evening Journal, September 12th, 1921


Nelly Bly. As consistent in her support for women’s rights and equality for women in her 50’s as she was in her 20’s. Who wouldn’t want to read a novel about her?

2d girl puzzle cover“a well-researched and engrossing tale that focuses on female empowerment,” – Kirkus Reviews

“Grounded in historical research, brought to life by a novelist’s imagination, here is Nellie Bly in all her fascinating complexity: outspoken, courageous, kind, clever, sometimes headstrong, other times self-doubting. “Grounded in historical research, brought to life by a novelist’s imagination, here is Nellie Bly in all her fascinating complexity: outspoken, courageous, kind, clever, sometimes headstrong, other times self-doubting. In The Girl Puzzle Kate Braithwaite has created a character who is not easily forgotten.” –  Matthew Goodman, bestselling author of Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World

“Everything a historical novel should be – illuminating, intriguing and intelligent. Kate Braithwaite has woven a fascinating and atmospheric story from what is known about the pioneering feminist journalist Nellie Bly (née Elizabeth Cochrane).  Braithwaite skillfully blends Bly’s early and later career to give a new insight into a remarkable and complex woman.” –  Olga Wojtas, author of Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar

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If walls had words… a brief history of the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum


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Alexander Jackson Davis via Wikicommons

Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum – a pivotal location in The Girl Puzzle – was designed in 1834 by famous American architect Alexander Jackson Davis. His plan was for a U-shaped building near the tip of Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island looking across toward Manhattan, roughly level with Seventy-Ninth and Eightieth Street, but only a portion of the building was ever erected, with two wings stretching out at right angles from a central octagonal tower.

There was already a prison on the island, opened in 1832, and the addition of the asylum was part of a policy decision to locate institutions on ‘quiet islands’, including Blackwell’s, Ward, Hart, Randalls and Long Island. With more construction on Blackwell’s Island – including a Penitentiary Hospital, a Charity Hospital, an almshouse, a Smallpox Hospital and more – by 1872 there were eleven institutions operating on the Island. It’s not hard to imagine that these islands were a convenient place to confine undesirable elements of society, notwithstanding the grand and costly architecture.

View_of_the_lunatic_asylum_and_mad_house,_on_Blackwell's_Island,_New_York_(NYPL_Hades-1792045-1659187)
From the New York Public Library

This 1853 illustration appears tranquil at first glance. The scene is pastoral with a dog frolicking and a couple sitting under a tree. The asylum looks like a museum more than anything else. But what about that building on the left of the picture? What is that?? Is that the Lodge? Or the Retreat?  – gentle, caring names for buildings that were anything but those things. As Stacy Horn writes in “Damnation Island – poor, sick, mad and criminal in 19th Century New York”, things at the lunatic asylum “went south almost immediately.” On the day that it opened, June 10th 1839, 116 men and 81 women were transferred there from Bellevue. That’s 197 patients from day 1. The place was only supposed to house 200. Additional structures were added. Horn describes the Lodge, built in 1848, and the Retreat:

“The Retreat was built to house chronic cases, those who were suicidal and generally too “noisy” and unhinged for the main Asylum, but not as violent as the people sent to the Lodge.”

By 1868, 190 women were housed in the Lodge (and there would still have been male inmates too). The building’s capacity was 66. (2)

Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in the Madhouse

MadhousecvrWhen a new asylum for the insane was built on Ward Island in 1872, Blackwell’s Asylum became an all-female establishment. Nellie Bly carried out her undercover work there in September and October of 1887 and brave though she was, Nellie was not fool enough to get herself sent to either the Lodge or the Retreat. Here’s one of her descriptions:

“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. I had intended to have myself committed to the violent wards, the Lodge and Retreat, but when I got the testimony of two sane women and could give it, I decided not to risk my health – and hair – so I did not get violent.”

Nellie’s expose, detailing cold baths, dreadful food and the violent conduct of some staff had immediate effects. Doctors and nurses in the asylum read her articles and improvements were made, even before a Grand Jury was summoned to visit the Island and inspect the premises.

Entertainments in the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum

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Photo by Jacob Riis, likely of the women at Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum

In her 1887 expose, Nellie Bly described hours of tedium with women confined to hard benches with little to occupy them. Mild patients, according to her report, could work in a scrub-brush factory, a mat factory, and the laundry. Patients were expected to do housework, including keeping the wards and nurses bedrooms tidy. An important component of the daily routine was a walk in the asylum grounds but this was wholly weather dependent and strictly monitored by staff. Unruly patients walked roped together to keep them under control.

Other entertainments included dancing and a carousel. Nellie Bly reports that staffed danced with patients and both Halls she was placed in during her stay had a piano. This excellent post by Ephemeral New York, describes an annual Lunatic’s Ball reported by Harper’s Weekly:

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Harper’s Weekly, Dec 2, 1865

The one entertainment that Nellie Bly reports she heard much about, although never experienced due to poor weather, was a carousel. The following image is of the Central Park Carousel, built in 1871, so perhaps the Blackwell’s Island one looked something like this:

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1871 carousel, from carouselhistory.com

It’s hard to imagine a group of grown women in their ill-fitting striped asylum dresses, shawls and battered hats riding round and round, but that’s what they did.

Closing Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum

Following Nellie Bly’s expose, changes were made in the asylum. Improvements were made to food and bathing arrangements as funding increases were approved. But in 1894, the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum was closed and its patients dispersed into other facilities, particularly the on Ward Island where space became available after the opening of immigration facilities on Ellis Island.

The building, after significant renovation, became the Metropolitan Hospital, specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis. The hospital operated until 1955 but afterwards the building fell into disrepair. Today, only the original Octagon remains, but it has been restored. The building is an apartment complex and can be toured. More information here. If only the walls had words… imagine what stories they could tell.

Roosevelt Island today – The Octagon

I visited the Octagon in October 2018, and although the inside was closed so I didn’t get to see the spiral staircase, just being on Roosevelt Island and seeing the building in person was wonderful. There are scenes in The Girl Puzzle that definitely benefited from that research trip. Here’s my then & now photos of the asylum:

Sources & further reading:

“Images of America – Roosevelt Island”, Judith Berdy and the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.

“Damnation Island – poor, sick, mad and criminal in 19th Century New York”, Stacy Horn

www.asylumprojects.org

Ephemeral New York


2d girl puzzle coverThe Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly

Her published story is well known. But did she tell the whole truth about her ten days in the madhouse?

“…a well-researched and engrossing tale that focuses on female empowerment” Kirkus Reviews

“Here is Nellie Bly in all her fascinating complexity: outspoken, courageous, kind, clever, sometimes headstrong, other times self-doubting” Matthew Goodman.

“Everything a historical novel should be – illuminating, intriguing and intelligent.” Olga Wojtas

Book recommendation: The Suspects by Katharine Johnson

After all these last busy days talking about Nellie Bly, it’s a pleasure to take a break and celebrate someone else’s publication day! Fellow Crooked Cat author Katharine Johnson’s The Suspects is out today. Katy’s books are perfect for curling up with: engrossing crime stories with great characters with lots of secrets. Who doesn’t love a book with a secret! Here’s  my review…

thesuspects“The Suspects is a gripping page turner, full of strong characters with dark pasts and secrets – all revealed at just the right moments – by talented thriller writer, Katharine Johnson. Five graduates in late 1980’s Bristol buy a house together, despite knowing little of each other outside of their new workplace. Tied together financially, they have no idea how they will be tested when they discover the body of a man in their basement after a drunken New Year’s Eve party. The Suspects works so well because the strength of its characters and the secrets they’re hiding. Their actions and reactions are believable. As the police close in on the truth, the tension experienced by narrator Emma, and the rising panic and mistrust felt within the group, is palpable. This is a book to be read in one or two great gulps. Addictive reading.”

Here’s the official book blurb…

Shallow Grave meets The Secret History in this quirky psychological thriller.
When you’re bound together by secrets and lies who do you trust?
Bristol, 1988.
Five young graduates on the threshold of their careers buy a house together in order to get a foot on the property ladder before prices spiral out of their reach. But it soon becomes the house share from hell.
After their New Year’s Eve party, they discover a body – and it’s clear they’ll be the first suspects. As each of them has a good reason from their past not to trust the police, they come up with a solution – one which forces them into a life of secrets and lies.
But can they trust each other?

I loved both Shallow Grave and The Secret History and wanted to see where Katy would take this. Both that movie and the book were very much in my mind when I started reading but almost at once I forgot about them and became immersed in this totally original story. Congratulations, Katy! It’s another great book.

For more about Katharine Johnson’s novels, click on the book cover above or find her on Goodreads, Bookbub and Amazon.