Monday, November 27, 2023

Open Access to the White House

Starting this week, my aim is to be back to blogging regularly--I hope! Today I'd like to share a very interesting fact I learned many years ago when I read Destiny of the Republic, a meticulously researched account of the shooting and eventual death of President James A. Garfield by Candice Millard.

You may think that the reason the Secret Service was created was to protect the president of the United States. However, that is incorrect. According to Wikipedia:

With a reported one third of the currency in circulation being counterfeit at the time, Abraham Lincoln established a commission to make recommendations to remedy the problem. The Secret Service was later established on July 5, 1865, in Washington, D.C., to suppress counterfeit currency. Chief William P. Wood was sworn in by Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch. It was commissioned in Washington, D.C. as the "Secret Service Division" of the Department of the Treasury with the mission of suppressing counterfeiting. At the time, the only other federal law enforcement agencies were the United States Customs Service, the United States Park Police, the U.S. Post Office Department's Office of Instructions and Mail Depredations (now known as the United States Postal Inspection Service), and the United States Marshals Service. The Marshals did not have the manpower to investigate all crime under federal jurisdiction, so the Secret Service began investigating a wide range of crimes from murder to bank robbery to illegal gambling.

After the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, Congress informally requested that the Secret Service provide presidential protection. A year later, the Secret Service assumed full-time responsibility for presidential protection.

But before that, anyone could just walk into the white House. Check out this article from the Washington Post, "People Used to be Able to Walk into the White House. Legally," by Katie Zezima:

...once upon a time it was possible for just about anyone to stroll into the president's home during an open house and partake in the free-flowing booze. Like that time people nibbled on a 1,400 pound block of cheese and ground the crumbs into the upholstery. Seriously.

Let's take a look at White House access through the years:

The White House opened in 1800. John Adams was the first president to live inside the mansion. But it was Thomas Jefferson who saw the White House as the "people's house" and opened it to the public. He built a stone wall around part of the mansion's perimeter, but it was to corral livestock that grazed on the lawn, not people.

For decades, people were allowed to stroll the White House grounds during the day and enter the mansion. Jefferson, who was instrumental in ensuring the White House was a house for and of the people, not a grand mansion, started the practice. He put taxidermied bears on the lawn and displayed artifacts from the Lewis and Clark exhibition, said William Bushong, Chief Historian for the White House Historical Association.

"In the time of Jefferson you could go walking up, look at the artifacts from the Lewis and Clark exhibition," Bushong said.

Jefferson and subsequent presidents, along with their wives, would greet visitors in the East Room around lunchtime. People were not allowed in during the morning, when the president was sleeping, or while he was out of town. People were, however, allowed to have essentially unfettered access to the White House grounds.

Jefferson also started the practice of inviting people back to the White House for a post-inauguration open house. Things got a bit out of control in 1829, when thousands of people descended on the mansion after Andrew Jackson was sworn into office. People swarmed into the mansion and crushes of people attempted to greet Jackson, many standing on furniture to catch a glimpse.

At the end of his presidency, Jackson opened up the White House to the public so they could help him eat a 1,400 pound block of cheese he was given as a gift years earlier. Pieces of cheese fell on the White House carpet and guests ground them into the upholstery with their shoes. The White House smelled like cheese for the next year, Bushong said.

James Fenimore Cooper wrote about a man who visited the White House during the presidency of James Monroe. “I have known a cartman leave his horse in the street and go into a reception room to shake hands with the President," he wrote.

Wow! How times have changed. Could you imagine doing that today? For the complete article, click here. And I highly recommend Destiny of the Republic! If you love history, you'll love that book! 

Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

Monday, October 16, 2023

Why Rotting Teeth Were Once a Sign of Wealth

Nowadays, teeth whitening is all the rage, but check out this article from to find out why blacked teeth were once desired instead!

The consumption of sugar has been a ubiquitous part of life for centuries, with modern countries importing record amounts of it. In ancient India (the origin of sugar cultivation), Greece, and Rome, sugar was treated as a medicine for various ailments (via Czarnikow). They did not know the consequences of a sugar-laden diet, however, as honey and lead were typically their sweeteners of choice (via Smithsonian Magazine). Even as sugar cane cultivation and culinary use spread from India to China, the Middle East, and Europe, it remained an expensive additive and its rare use was indicative of wealth. 

European discovery of the Americas changed this, as the Caribbean environment was perfect for massive sugar cane plantations (which was, in turn, a driving force for Native and African enslavement). As sugar production increased dramatically, so too did its demand from Europe's wealthy. Now it was not only one's ability to buy sugar that was a symbol of status but how much one could buy. Where the Romans (unknowingly) exchanged lead-poisoning for good dental health, 16th century England, in particular, would take sugar in the opposite direction with a disgusting method of displaying wealth (via CNN). 

Prior to the introduction of sugar, people in the British Isles had fairly comprehensive oral hygiene methods, including chewing seeds, using toothpaste, and making use of mouthwash (via Slate). For the most part, this was still the case for the lower classes by the time of the House of Tudor. For the elite, however, societal expectation would lead to such progress being thrown out the window. According to ZME Science, Queen Elizabeth I's desire for sugar and her ability to purchase large quantities of it led to her teeth becoming black and cavity-ridden. 

Not wanting to be seen as unable to afford such a sugary diet, many of England's upper classes did all they could to induce a similar appearance. One product, a sugar-based toothpaste, would be the bane of modern dentists as Tudor aristocracy even used it to further their oral decay (via Throughout the era, these darkened smiles became as meaningful as expensive jewelry or clothes before eventually falling out of popularity. Given this and other dangerous sources of vanity, like the Queen's lead-based makeup, it actually paid health-wise to not be rich in Tudor England.

I learned about this when I started using a product to promote gum health. Had you ever heard about this? Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

Monday, October 9, 2023

The Sad Life of Audrey Munson

I'm a history buff and I love research, so whenever I read something interesting in a novel that's based on fact, I enjoy looking it up so I can read more.

Today I'm recycling a post from a few years back that I wrote after learning about Audrey Munson. She's mentioned in Linda Fairstein's Hell Gate, a novel filled with all kinds of New York City history and trivia.

The tragic life of this model and silent screen actress intrigued me, so I had to do a little research on my own to satisfy my curiosity.

Audrey Munson (June 8, 1891 – February 20, 1996) rose to fame prior to World War I.  She was  known as "Miss Manhattan," "the Exposition Girl," and "American Venus." She was the model or inspiration for more than 15 statues in New York City.

Ms. Munson, who posed nude and clothed, was eventually involved in a scandal. While Munson lived in a rooming house, the married owner of the house fell in love with her.  To be with Munson, he killed his wife.  Munson was never interested in this man, who was eventually convicted of murder, but the scandal ruined her career.

Munson began suffering from schizophrenia, and at age 39 was committed to a mental institution.  She remained there for the rest of her life, dying at age 104.

As many monuments and statues that Audrey Munson posed for, it's ironic that she herself is buried in an unmarked grave.

Do you have some interesting trivia you'd like to share that you've found in fiction?

Monday, October 2, 2023

The Big Country: A Western for Everyone

I've been dealing with an elderly parent over the last few months and finding the proper place for her care has been a challenge. Yet all has finally worked out and I couldn't be happier with the facility I found to meet my mother's assisted living needs and her memory care issues. After getting her settled, my husband and I went on vacation to Utah to see Bryce Canyon and Escalante National Monument. What breathtaking scenery! God's exterior design is magnificent and unbelievable! While vacationing, we passed by numerous cattle ranches that reminded me of the movie The Big Country, which I absolutely love! I told my husband about the plot with cattle and a fight for water rights, and he actually wanted to see it. He's not a fan of old movies like I am, but last week we watched The Big Country together on Amazon Prime where it's available for free. He enjoyed it, and so did I for about the seventeenth time! But I can  appreciate it even more now because of all the canyon scenery I've had a chance to experience for myself.
With my mother taken care of, I believe I can finally get back to writing, blogging, and podcasting! So in honor of The Big Country and my vacation, I'm reposting an article I wrote from November 26, 2012. Enjoy!

I'm not a fan of westerns, however, one of my favorite movies of all time is The Big Country, starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, and Chuck Connors.

This is a great film, with an amazing cast and an unforgettably awesome musical score!  I fell in love with this motion picture when I was in middle school--back in the days of the CBS late night movie.  Anybody out there remember those, or am I the only one?

I enjoyed The Big Country so much, that as an adult I purchased it on video--as you can tell, that was quite a few years ago.  I haven't gotten around to ordering it on DVD yet.

The setting of the story helped to inspire part of my upcoming novel, Masquerade: Book Two of the Unchained Trilogy.  Masquerade is not a western, but the hero and heroine of part one, Escape, eventually end up in California where they raise their family on a huge ranch.

The Big Country actually takes place in Texas (though filmed in California), as an easterner, the honorable Jim McKay (Gregory Peck), moves there to be with his fiance, Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker), whose family owns an enormous ranch.  In Masquerade, a New Yorker ventures to California in search of answers.

Although the plots aren't similar, (The Big Country focuses on two clans fighting over water rights, while Masquerade revolves around the revelation of true identities), I love the feel of the West portrayed in The Big Country.  Watching it inspired my writing, and Chuck Connors's bad guy, Buck Hannassey, inspired one of my characters.  And yes, I admit, I re-crafted a little of his dialogue for one of my scenes!

My kids love Chuck Connors in reruns of the Rifleman television show, but they'll probably hate him after watching The Big Country--he plays such an excellent dirt-bag. They'll hate Burl Ives too, the jovial grandfatherly folksinger of "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Frosty the Snowman."  He plays Connors's father, a senior dirt-bag, and he did it so well, he won a best supporting actor Oscar!

Here's a great article at the Bijou Blog for some fun behind the scenes facts!
If you haven't seen The Big Country, it's worth watching--even if you don't like westerns!  It's actually based on the serialized magazine novel Ambush at Blanco Canyon by Donald Hamilton.

Do you like westerns? Have you ever seen The Big Country?

Thanks for visiting and have a great week! 

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Stagecoach Mary Fields

Talk about inspiration for a great character, look no further than Stagecoach Mary Fields! She has certainly inspired me to create a rather vibrant character in a future novel based on her extremely unconventional lifestyle. If you've never heard of her, take a look at what The National Postal Museum says:

Standing six feet tall and powerful, many bandits learned to stay clear of Stagecoach Mary in the American Old West. Stagecoach Mary Fields carried a gun, smoked, drank and had a wicked temper. Mary was the first African American woman to carry mail on a Star Route for the United States Post Office Department.

Mary Fields was born into slavery in either 1832 or 1833; her exact birthday is unknown. Mary's birthplace and other details about her early childhood are also unknown. What is known is that she worked for the Warner family in West Virginia in the years leading up to the Civil War. Mary was emancipated in 1863 or shortly after the Civil War; she then moved from West Virginia and went up the Mississippi River where she worked on steamboats.

Mary ended up in Ohio, specifically Toledo. There, Mary began working at Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart. There is debate over how and why Mary ended up working at the convent. Yet, what is known is that Mary’s gruff style was not something that fit into the serene calm that was the convent.

During her time at the convent, Mary washed laundry, bought supplies, managed the kitchen, and grew and maintained the garden and grounds. Mary was known to lose her temper and was quick to yell at anyone who stepped on the grass after she had cut it.

It is unclear why Mary left Toledo. Many sources think that she moved to take care of an ill friend. Mother Amadeus Dunne, who had been Mother Superior in Toledo before moving West, had fallen ill. Mary and Mother Amadeus were known friends. Some records date their friendship all the way back to the Warren family in West Virginia, though this claim is not substantiated.

Once she arrived West, Mary got to work. Mary mainly worked for Saint Peter's Mission near Cascade, Montana where she did many of the jobs she had done before in Toledo. This mission was run by Ursuline nuns and was where Mother Amadeus Dunne resided. Mary performed maintenance and repair work. She also gardened and did the laundry. One major thing that Mary was also in charge of was the locating and delivery of supplies needed for the mission. Yet Mary had no official contract with the mission and nuns; thus, she was free to come and go as she pleased, taking additional work outside the mission.

Mary was unfortunately dismissed from the mission. This was due in part to her crass behavior, unruly temper and penchant for drinking and smoking in saloons with men. The final straw appears to involve an argument in which Mary and another mission janitor, a male, got into a fight and were agitated to the point that both drew guns. While neither ever fired their gun, this incident was enough to make the Bishop of the area demand for the nuns to relieve her duties.

Mary moved to neighboring Cascade, Montana, where she tried but failed to open one or more eateries. They were said to have failed due to her giving nature of allowing folks who could not pay to eat for free. Mary also reportedly set up a laundry shop and did other odd jobs to make money. It is around this time that Mary’s drinking, gun toting, and smoking become well known to the townspeople of Cascade.

In 1895, in her early sixties, Mary obtained a contract by the United States Post Office Department to be a Star Route Carrier. A Star Route Carrier was an independent contractor who used a stagecoach to deliver the mail in the harsh weather of northern Montana. Mary was the first African American woman and the second woman to receive a Star Route contract from the United States Post Office Department. This contract was secured with the help of the Ursuline nuns. The nuns wished to look out for Mary as they felt connected with her. This was because they did not wish to see her go as the nuns heavily relied on Mary for work done around the mission.

Mary built a reputation of being fearless while working as a mail carrier. Mary’s job was not only to deliver the mail but to also protect the mail from bandits, thieves, wolves and the weather as well. Mary gained her nickname “Stagecoach Mary” due to her use of a stagecoach as a method of transportation to deliver the mail. Mary was also known for the guns she carried. During the time that Mary was delivering the mail, she was known to carry both a rifle and a revolver.
Mary spent eight years delivering the mail as a Star Route Carrier. During this time, Mary became beloved by the locals of Cascade, Montana for her fearlessness and generosity, as well as for her kindness to children. Mary retired from being a Star Route Carrier in the early 20th century. After her retirement, Mary settled into life in Cascade, Montana.

For the rest of the story, click here.

Had you ever heard of Stagecoach Mary Fields? Thanks for visiting and have a great week! 

Originally published 6/21/21