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Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Author Guest Post - Mariah Fredericks

Please welcome Mariah Fredericks to the blog today.  Mariah Fredericks was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives today with her family. She is a graduate of Vassar College with a BA in history. She has written several novels for young adults; her novel Crunch Time was nominated for an Edgar in 2007. A Death of No Importance was her first mystery for adults (Jane Prescott Mysteries) set in the Gilded Age.  Her second in the series, Death of a New American, is just released and I will be reviewing shortly.

Writing About the Gilded Age
People sometimes ask what drew me to the Gilded Age as the setting for a historical mystery series. Was it the opulence? Edith Wharton? The elaborate facial hair?

My answer would be yes…and no. Like any devotee of period drama, I relish the spectacle of the past. But for me, the mansions of Newport, the Poiret gowns, and Tiffany lamps are only truly fascinating when you look at the cruelty that existed alongside the beauty. The Gilded Age is an astonishingly violent time; a few decades after the Civil War, Americans are still slaughtering one another in large numbers through assassination, anarchist bombings, and working conditions that cost tens of thousand of workers their lives in tragedies like the Triangle Factory fire and the Ludlow Massacre.

And it’s that contrast that makes the Gilded Age a wonderful time to set a murder mystery. So much rage! So many possible motives!

One of the most famous crimes of the Gilded Age was the murder of Stamford White, who was shot by the unhinged Harry K. Thaw. Thaw claimed he had killed White in order to avenge the ravishment of his wife, Gilded Age beauty Evelyn Nesbit. It was a sensational trial, pitting a wealthy famous family against a wealthy famous architect. The country was riveted by the lurid vision of the secret lives of great men, especially Nesbit’s testimony of how White had “seduced” her when she was just a teenager. It had sex, scandal, and celebrity, and the rich guy got off lightly, serving his shortened sentence in a mental asylum under fairly luxurious circumstances.

At first glance, the White murder doesn’t seem to have much to do with labor strife—until you look at the economic arc of Evelyn Nesbit’s life. Solidly middle class, the Nesbit family fell on hard times when Evelyn’s father died. Her mother went to work at a department store. 14-year-old Evelyn and her 12-year-old brother also worked there, doing twelve hour shifts, six days a week. It didn’t take the family long to figure out Evelyn’s face and body could earn much better wages, first as an artist’s model and then as chorus girl. This led to the attentions of wealthy men, notably Stamford White. And one evening when Mrs. Nesbit had agreed to be elsewhere, White took Evelyn to his apartment, drugged her and raped her. She would continue with White for a time before marrying a mentally unstable man who beat her with a rawhide whip, shot one man and attacked another. After the trial, the Thaws divorced. While Nesbit would eventually build a life teaching art in California, she was often economically insecure, battling addictions to alcohol and morphine, and attempting suicide in 1926. There are easier ways to make a living.

The Jane Prescott novels are told from the perspective of view of a servant, someone close to power but too powerless to be worth noticing. And so she hears and sees a great many things. Jane is an excellent maid: loyal, intelligent, and resourceful. She appreciates the beauty of the Poiret gowns. But she also sees what she calls “the tarnish, the wrinkles, and the dirt.” And when the Stamford Whites and Harry K. Thaws commit crimes, she takes the side of their victims.

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THANK YOU Ms. Fredericks for sharing with us.  The Gilded Age is a cautionary era and it is good to remember it.  We tend to romanticize it because of the massive wealth and forget about all the horribly downtrodden.  Which makes for a great setting for murders!

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prince said...

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