It isn't a surprise that in the 19th century, health standards were much lower than they are today. Life expectancy in 1850 was only 40 years old.
People rarely went to the hospital, and very few home remedies really worked. Laudanum (a tincture of opium) was used for severe pain, but other drugs such as aspirin did not appear on the market until 1899.
Surgical procedures were often performed in the home under less-than-hygienic conditions. A strong shot of whisky or a rag wrapped in ether were used as anesthetics. Later, chloroform became the anesthetic of choice.
From advertisements in local newspapers, I discovered a few so-called “cures” offered by medicine men who roamed the streets in the Victorian era selling their wares to the unsuspecting:
Since the earliest days of the Fort in Victoria, BC, a plethora of these medicine men drifted in and out of town, advertising themselves as doctors but having little or no medical skill. Most were soon found to be imposters, earning them the title of “quack.”
By contrast, the professional doctor was a much-respected man, despite having few genuine cures at his disposal. He would make home calls only if someone was very sick. Most people could not afford medical attention, and if a doctor was called out, he knew that he would probably not be paid. As a result, many people turned to those “medicine men” who roamed the streets selling their wares and offering cures for “all that ails you—from hangnails to falling hair.”
Well-established doctors in Victoria such as Dr. John Helmcken were incensed by these imposters and the “quackery” they practiced.
By the time the 19th century drew to a close, a group of established Victoria physicians (Helmcken, Fraser, Hannington, Holden, Carter, Milne, Robertson and Hall) had formed a medical association to finally regulate the profession and give it the respect it deserved.
But many people still died far too young.
Women frequently died in childbirth, and people continued to expire from such simple ailments as the common cold turning to pneumonia, infections, or malnutrition over a long period.
Coroners’ reports written between 1865 and 1937 reveal many other strange causes of death, such as “poisoning while in a state of insanity” or “shooting while temporarily insane.”
I also discovered that two men in 1872 died after eating poisonous mushrooms, and two others lost their lives to a knife cut and a gunshot wound, respectively. Many committed suicide or were listed as having died from shock.
One person was attacked by bears in 1873, and another died from a rock falling on him! The following year, one man “took an overdose of a drug used for sun stroke”—perhaps sold to him by one of Victoria’s street medicine men.
Railway workers’ deaths were also numerous, especially among the Chinese population, and many inquests were held after such tragedies as the explosion on board the steamship Queen of the Pacific in 1886, the Point Ellice Bridge collapse in 1896, and the collision between freight and passenger trains on the BC Electric Railway in 1909.
So, even though we might complain about today’s medical plans, if you live in Canada and become sick, aren’t you glad you live in the 21st century?
What do you think? Please leave a comment below.
Through the years, many famous visitors have come to Victoria on Canada’s west coast. The history books and newspapers of the day describe their visits in detail.
For instance, although Queen Victoria herself never visited her namesake city, her daughter Princess Louise, came to the city in 1882. She apparently loved Victoria so much that some thought she would never leave! She was often spotted wandering along Government Street.
Another famous visitor was Winston Churchill, who came in 1929 and planted a tree in Beacon Hill Park.
Members of the British Monarchy are always visiting Victoria. In 1919 the then Prince of Wales came here after WWI and in 1939 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited prior to WWII. In more recent years, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles, Prince William, and the Duchess Cambridge with Prince George and Princess Charlotte have graced our shores.
But one man is seldom remembered when we discuss our famous visitors.
That man is Rudyard Kipling, who made three visits to Victoria (in 1889, 1892, and 1907) and included it in his poem “Song of the Cities”:
From East to West the circling word has passed,
Till West is East beside our land-locked blue;
From East to West the tested chain holds fast,
The well-forged link rings true!
Here’s more about the British poet and novelist:
Kipling loved to travel the world, but his time in Victoria, British Columbia, made a special impression on him.
For instance, while staying at the Oak Bay Hotel, he wrote a poem (unpublished) after a "night out" with John Virtue, the proprietor of the Oak Bay Hotel where he stayed in 1907. The first verse of that poem reads:
Judging from Kipling's description of coming back to his room later that night, he must have been a little the worse for wear after a good night out!
In 1908 he wrote his famous description of the city for Collier's weekly magazine in 1908 (vol. 41):
Kipling continued to travel the world for years and published many more books, poems, and short stories before his death in 1936 at age 70.
He received various honorary degrees and awards, some of which he declined, but he did accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. He was the first English writer to receive this award.
The pallbearers at his funeral included UK Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, an admiral, and a general.
He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in London. In Victoria, we still have an apartment building in Oak Bay named for him: the Rudyard Kipling.
Did you know about Kipling’s visits to Victoria? And do you agree with his description of our fine city?
Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think.
If you enjoyed reading about Kipling, check out this post about another historical figure who chose a significantly different line of work.
Many love themes run throughout my historical family saga series, The McBride Chronicles, set mainly in British Columbia, Canada, and taking place from the 1830s to present day.
While researching romance during those years, I discovered, for instance, that in the Victorian Era (1837–1901), there was a great deal of formal courting. In the upper classes, it was almost an art form.
A gentleman interested in a certain lady could not simply start up a conversation with her at a social event without a formal introduction. And it would be some time before it was considered appropriate to speak to her or for them to be seen together.
After they had been formally introduced at an event, the gentleman would present his card to her if he was interested and wished to escort the lady home. At the end of the evening, the lady looked over the cards she had received and then chose who would be her escort. She would then notify the lucky man by giving him her card in return.
Actual courting only took place in the young lady’s home and always with a chaperone close by, usually her parents. Eventually the courting might progress to the front porch. Any marriage proposal would usually be handwritten, after the gentlemen had first approached the lady’s father.
Fun Historical Tidbits
Here are some more facts I discovered about romance and courtship throughout history:
Love in the 19th Century
But, as I also discovered, not all courting couples adhered to the traditions of their time in history. I decided to portray some such characters in The McBride Chronicles, so I created relationships and love between different classes, women who risked their reputation for love, and love affairs during times of war, when men and women lived only for the moment.
In the 19th century, even the love affair between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was far from ordinary or conventional. She had to propose to him because of their stations in life.
There was a great love between them, despite their frequent quarrels during the marriage. When Albert died at a young age, Victoria went into deep sorrow and mourned him for the remainder of her life.
My own grandparents, Ernest Coulson and Annie Letitia Barber (their wedding in 1898 seen below), had a traditional courtship and were apparently a very loving couple who raised six children.
But judging from their wedding picture, the celebration looked to be rather a sombre affair!
I must admit I regret how love and courtship has changed over the years—even since the 1960s and 1970s when I was young.
Relationships between partners today are more informal. Many choose to live together and have children without the benefit of traditional marriage.
But who am I to judge? Everyone should do what works for them—as long as love is present. Love is really all that matters.
Please leave a comment below and let me know your views about love and romance in the 21st century as opposed to days gone by. I would love to hear from you.
After years of writing historical nonfiction books, I am more than a little excited to announce my debut novel, Providence, the first in the McBride Chronicles historical family saga series, will be released later this fall.
Years ago, a very wise teacher once told me "only write about what you know." Well, I always loved history, my educational background was in history, and I thought I was pretty good at it!
But how, I wondered, can anyone know exactly what it was like to live back in the past?
As a nonfiction book writer, I was more than a little familiar with researching historical figures and situations and then writing about them—the true facts.
Now as a fiction writer, I seem to be doing even more research, analysis, and investigation into living life in another century while at the same time trying to forget everything about life as we know it in the 21st century. It's no easy process!
For the past weeks, months, and even years while the McBride Chronicles series has been coming to life, I have found myself researching some of the following topics while trying to think and act like someone living in the 19th century:
Placing my characters in these settings has been a challenge—but a most enjoyable one.
For a fiction writer, though, research alone is not enough. Creating real-life flesh-and-blood characters is essential.
Over the next several months, I will be blogging about some of these topics. SO if you enjoy historical fiction as much as I do, I hope you will follow along on my adventurous journey.
Please read my blogs, leave a comment (good or bad), join my email list by signing up for my "freebies" (the first is "Poker Alice"), and watch for the release of Providence, my debut novel, to be published by Sandra Jonas Publishing, Boulder, Colorado.
I hope you will be in for a treat . . .
Prohibition days certainly encouraged “rum-running” and “bootlegging,” and many became very proficient at the game.
But how could a once-honest cop possibly turn into an infamous bootlegger?
I love discovering characters from the past that were just a little different from the rest. Crossing the line of respectability made them that much more intriguing.
And such a man was Roy Olmstead from Seattle.
He was born on a farm in Nebraska in 1886 and was raised by good farming folk to become an upright citizen. In 1907, he joined the Seattle Police Force, following in the footsteps of his older brother.
And by 1910 he had been promoted to sergeant.
In 1916 Washington joined the “dry" states as a result of prohibition, and a year later, Joe Warren was appointed Seattle chief of police. He soon noticed Olmstead’s diligent work and squeaky clean record so by 1919 had appointed him to lieutenant.
Although not officially working on the “dry squad” himself, Olmstead soon became very familiar with the way bootleggers operated as they plied the waters of the Pacific Northwest between Seattle and Vancouver Island. Many of them made money while others continued to just make mistakes so they were caught. Olmstead realized where they went wrong and was convinced he would do much better at the game.
So he began to operate his own small bootlegging business, believing that working on the other side of the law would be a piece of cake! Unfortunately, he too made mistakes and was soon caught, fined, and eventually dismissed from the police force.
That didn’t bother him, because he had wanted to go into the bootlegging business full time anyway. Eventually he became one of the largest bootlegging operators and employers in the Puget Sound.
By 1924, his operation was so successful that he was able to wholesale liquor to numerous clients, many of whom were Seattle’s elite and even some police officers who turned a blind eye to what he was doing.
At the height of his career as a bootlegger, Olmstead’s organization alone was delivering 200 cases of Canadian liquor into the Seattle area daily, and he was grossing $200,000 a month. He owned a fleet of vessels and had purchased a farm outside town to store the contraband goods.
Strangely, he never allowed his men to carry guns. He believed it was better to lose a shipment rather than lose a man’s life. This was quite a departure from other bootleggers at the time and certainly contrasts today’s views of owning guns in the US.
But soon Olmstead was caught, and his operation came to an end. On January 19, 1925, Roy and his second wife, Elise, were both arrested.
Elise Olmstead (using the name “Aunt Vivian”) had been broadcasting children’s bedtime stories over a radio transmitter from one of the bedrooms in their elegant home. In point of fact she was really sending out coded messages to rum-running vehicles!
Many in Olmstead’s organization were also arrested and two of his vehicles, the Eva B and the Three Deuces were seized and over 700 cases of liquor and 240 cases of contraband goods were confiscated.
Olmstead’s Trial became one of the largest and most controversial in US history. Olmstead was sentenced to four years in the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary and fined $8,000. His wife, Elise, and seven other defendants were acquitted.
Having studied the law well and with his wife’s help from the outside, Olmstead made frequent appeals to the higher courts during his incarceration, and in February of 1928, the Supreme Court heard the famous Olmstead v. United States case. His lawyers claimed that wiretapping set up by the Prohibition Bureau was illegal.
In May of 1931, Olmstead was finally released from prison, and on Christmas Day 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted Roy Olmstread a full pardon, restoring all his constitutional rights plus canceling the $8,000 fine and another $2,288 in court fees.
A CHANGED MAN
By then Olmstead was a changed man. While in prison, he had embraced the Christian Science faith and now believed that liquor was a curse!
Following his release, he made a living as a furniture salesman and his wife divorced him, maybe finding him less appealing as an honest man. He began to visit prisoners in the King County Jail, preaching to them about the evils of drink! He even became a Sunday school teacher, and many alcoholics were released into his custody for counseling.
Roy Olmstead the “good cop” had returned. You can read more of his story in my book Legends, Liars and Lawbreakers.
But what, I wonder, happened to all those rum-running boats? Two of them (the Eva B and the Three Deuces) were seized by customs officials during the 1920s. During WWII, George E. Murry was the officer in charge of a boat called the Zev, which he believed had once belonged to Olmstead. The Zev had been confiscated by the US Coast Guard Reserve and later put into service by them based in Elliott Bay in Seattle.
There were a fleet of other boats that had once plied the waters of the Pacific Northwest. Does anyone have any information about what happened to any of them?
If so, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.
If you have ever visited my hometown of Victoria in British Columbia, there were probably two landmark structures that caught your eye—the Parliament Buildings on Belleville Street and the Johnson Street "Blue Bridge" leading to Esquimalt.
The impressive Legislative Buildings still stand and have since 1897, officially opening in February of 1898. Sadly, however, the old blue bridge erected in 1926 will soon disappear, replaced by a new state-of-the-art bridge, currently standing alongside. Ironically, there is an interesting connection between these two landmarks—budget—and therein lies this tale.
The Parliament Buildings were designed by architect Francis Rattenbury, who won a competition to design them under the pseudonym of “ABC Architect.”
Parliament had initially been housed in buildings known as the “bird cages” because of their unusual and rather ugly appearance. So you would think that people would have been delighted to have the new grand structure overlooking the harbor.
Not so! The erection of the buildings had vastly exceeded its original budget of $500,000. Final cost of construction came in at $923,882, and completion had also been delayed by two years.
Almost 30 years later in 1926, the original “blue bridge” was constructed. And despite a long-held nostalgic affection for the old bridge, in 2009 it was decided by the powers that be that updating the bridge to today’s seismic standards would cost too much and a brand-new bridge would be cheaper to construct.
But the final cost of the new bridge turned out to be almost three times the original estimate:
Isn't it strange how two Victoria landmarks are connected by “budget issues”—a big topic of controversy back in the 1890s and an equally controversial subject over 100 years later in 2018?
These problems of budget are not restricted to Victoria. I discovered some fascinating global facts about this topic. For instance, statistically at least 85% of every construction project around the world will go over budget.
This happens because certain things are seldom factored into the original estimate, including:
All adding up to a lack of foresight!
So, as for Victoria, what do you think? Do you agree that the elegant Legislative Buildings were well worth the extra expense despite being over budget?
And how do you feel about the new bridge, about which there are still ongoing discussions?
The problem now seems to concern its name. In point of fact, it leads off Pandora Street and NOT Johnson Street, so should it be called the Pandora Bridge or will it forever be known as “the blue bridge”?
Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.
Through the ages, hats for women have been both a necessity (to keep warm) and a mere fun accessory. Milliners (mostly women) have been creating hats and bonnets with style and flare for centuries. But did you know that the term "milliner" originated in Milan, Italy, where many of the finest straw hats and hat forms were made during the 1700s?
A few years ago, I met a young woman working as a receptionist in Victoria but designing hats on the side. It was her dream to become a milliner of note.
Tierre Taylor moved to Toronto where there was more opportunity to realize her dream. On a trip to New York one day in 2015 (wearing one of her own creations), she was spotted by a newspaper reporter who ran a story about her . . . the rest is history. She now has her own business and is catering to women of all ranks in life. People love her hats, and it is obvious that hats have not gone out of fashion. You can also find her on Facebook. Take a look at those gorgeous hats.
The woman protagonist in my upcoming novel, Providence, probably wore many hats from the 1840s to the year 1945. Even in the orphanage where she grew up, she would have worn a cap. When she worked in service as a maid, it would have been a small white lace arrangement. Later when she was the chatelaine of a large house, her hats would have ranged from smart to ornate, many with feathers to adorn them, perhaps similar to the one above.
Other famous women during those years are pictured here:
Let us not forget the hats worn by gentlemen . . .
There might be a revival in hats. Women are wearing them more now at weddings, and the hats of my little milliner friend in Toronto who realized her dream are becoming more and more popular.
What goes around comes around.
In 1839, in his play about Cardinal Richelieu, Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote that the pen is mightier than the sword. In the play, this famous quote applied to using words to gather support for a cause, as opposed to fighting with weapons. I believe it can also apply to being able to write through times of intense sorrow.
But what happens when the writer holding the pen cannot find the words to describe the indescribable? Does that allow the sword to win? No, it does not!
Being a writer, I am rarely at a loss for words, but today I find I cannot adequately describe the atrocious tragedy that happened to our family and to the entire community of Victoria, British Columbia, on Christmas day. The story has been widely reported by the media so I won't expound on it here.
I was reluctant to write this blog, other than to add that the mother of the two little girls who were murdered by their father was like a daughter to us, and when her own parents died, my husband and I were honored to act as surrogate grandparents to her beautiful daughters.
But no one wants to be reminded of the deaths of two innocent children. So, instead, I have searched my heart to try to find another side to this tragedy and our own insurmountable grief. Once again, I have resorted to the written word.
By doing so, I have discovered that on the opposite side of evil, there is incredible good. I have become more aware of the kindness of people. I have realized that none of us is alone in this world. I have known the comfort of hugs and prayers and the warmth of people who truly care. I have seen the strength of the human spirit, which is so much stronger than the evil in men's hearts.
Although we are angry about a tragedy that should never have happened, we also have hope for a peaceful but vastly changed tomorrow. As the shock lessens, we will recall only the happy memories of two sweet angels who died far too soon but will remain in our hearts forever.
The path through grief is different for everyone. Some find it in solitude. Some need to be surrounded by others. Some find it by walking in the wilderness and discovering the beauty of nature. And some, like me, find it in writing and expressing my feelings that way.
It will be a long journey ahead for us all, but I'm thankful that today I found the strength to write this blog because it has proved to me that the pen is indeed far mightier than the sword. The pen will always win. It is a much more effective tool than direct violence.
To my mind, there are just four gifts of Christmas that we need: peace, freedom, good health, and love. Without those things, there is no meaning to life or to Christmas.
In recent times, we have perhaps become somewhat jaded about the Christmas season. People are much more materialistic than they used to be, so much so that we often forget what is really important.
As I live in Victoria on the west coast of British Columbia in Canada, I decided to take a trip back into the past and see what Christmas was like here over 100 years ago. Have things changed and, if so, how far have we come from the days of those old-fashioned Christmases? One of the best places to visit to find the true meaning of Christmas long ago in Victoria is Helmcken House, the home of Dr. James Helmcken, the Fort doctor, who was much beloved by his patients.
It was definitely a simpler time then. The main “business” center of Victoria over 100 years ago was on Government Street, bounded by Fort, Douglas and Yates Streets. There were no large department stores. Government Street boasted mainly dry goods stores and a few toy shops, which always delighted the children.
Most people apparently did their shopping on Christmas Eve, not weeks or even months ahead of the big day! On Christmas Eve they ahead of the big day! On Christmas Eve they also could admire the decorations and greet their friends to offer the “compliments of the season.”
Going further back into the 1860s, the main butcher in town was also the first mayor of Victoria, Thomas Harris, who loved to wander the town at Christmas talking (and oft times arguing a political point) with people.
Harris was a well-known character, and as Victoria's first mayor, he made quite an impression on people because of his enormous size. At the first council meeting, he apparently sat down and promptly broke a chair.
Later, a butcher shop called Messrs. Goodacre and Danley stood at the corner of Government and Johnson Streets. The shop always held an annual fat beef show at Christmas when evergreens and holly hung next to sides and quarters of grain-fed beef. An 18- to 20-pound roast of prime beef was favorite Christmas day fare in those days, but there were also the traditional turkeys, geese and little suckling pigs (usually with an apple in the mouth).
In the 1880s, if the weather obliged, Christmas Eve in old Victoria often ended with a sleigh ride into the countryside of Cadboro Bay, Oak Bay, or Fairfield, with the horses' harness bells jingling as they traveled through the snow. Such simple pleasures.
Of course, admittedly, the population was much smaller then, and with fewer stores, there was far less commercialism. I often think it would be nice to bring back those days when people seemed to appreciate the four gifts of Christmas much more. They certainly enjoyed the peace of this area and the freedom of living here; and if they had good health and love in their lives, that was all they needed.
So, with a little less commercialism and a little more true human spirit, miracles can happen even today. Merry Christmas to all and . . . to all a good night. See you in 2018.
The above picture shows some fish wives in Scotland during the 19th century. Today, if the word "fish wife" is used, it usually means a woman who is both loud and obnoxious.
But the name "fish wife" originally referred to women whose husbands were lost at sea. These widows had to find a way to earn a living to support their families. Their only means of livelihood was to gather the herring fish scraps left on the beach from the catches and then sell them to the farmers inland. It was a very hard life.
One of the characters in my forthcoming novel, Providence (first in the McBride Chronicles series), is the son of such a woman. He is determined that when he is old enough, he will leave his herring fishing village near Fraserburgh on the northeast coast of Scotland where he was born.
He wants to seek his fortune in the New World to make a better life for his mother and younger sisters. Like many others at that time in Scotland, he joins the Hudson's Bay Company and leaves the herring fishing industry behind forever.
I discovered this in-depth account of the herring industry at that time written by Dr. J. R. Coull. It is well worth reading.
My second story, although not about fish, also comes from Scotland and is about a small Island on the west coast called the Isle of Eigg (pronounced “egg”). It is one of the most beautiful Hebridean islands, just five miles long and three miles wide. The story of this fascinating place, with a population of just under 100 people, was told recently on the CBS program: 60 Minutes.
You would have to be tough to live on Eigg—so not many people do. They rely mainly on cottage industry crafts and tourism to survive. Tourists visit Eigg because they are intrigued by the characters who live there. If you want to “get away from it all,” this is definitely the place to go.
The only means of transport is the one taxi cab. Otherwise you walk! The weather is bleak, but the scenery is outstanding.
The island is now owned by the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, who has managed it since a community buyout in 1997. Eigg Electric, a subsidiary of the Trust, provides the island with electricity.
The story of the hardy folk of Eigg sounds “fishy” but it's true!