It might be a little dangerous to ask us about our research for our new illustrated novel, Picture the Dead. Over the course of writing the book, we had become obsessive fanatics about historical detail, completely immersed in the archival day-to-day of the 1860s. Any whiff of inaccuracy plunged us back to our resources, where we’d dig deeper, counter-sourcing and resurfacing with better evidence.
Truth be told, what kept us so hard on the hunt was the sheer quantity, the crazy amount of primary source documents from the US Civil War era floating around that sometimes-dubious galaxy known as the World Wide Web. There, we were able to examine 19th century daguerreotypes, tintypes and cabinet cards. We poured over antique maps, menus and dance cards. We read love letters, telegrams and diaries. And newspapers. The newspapers were Amazing.
We found a good deal of material at the “Valley of the Shadow,” a website jointly maintained by the Virginia Center for Digital History and the University of Virginia Library. It contains information about daily life in two communities, one Northern (Pennsylvania) and one Southern (Virginia), through the years 1859-1870. Much of that information can be found within the transcripts of four newspapers. The names of these papers are as fantastic as their contents: The Staunton Vindicator, The Staunton Spectator, The Franklin Repository and The Valley Spirit.
Even a cursory perusal of topics in these papers could unearth a wealth of tidbits about the daily lives of 19th century folk. Consider these article titles and descriptions from the pages of The Valley Spirit and The Franklin Repository.
(author comments on articles in blue)
"Terrible Effects of Rum." Notes death in a fire as a result of overindulgence in liquor. Here, it’s the understated title that makes the piece so terrific.
"Accident." Man run over by fire engine. Help Is on the Way. Oh, Maybe Not.
"Accident on the Chambersburg Turnpike." Bridge collapses; wagon and four horses fall into stream. No injuries; some flour lost. Some flour!
"Messrs. Editors." Letter to the editors suggests the new town council break up a gang of rowdy boys.
"Outrageous." Some "villainous scamps" who congregate on the street corners "have been amusing themselves by spitting Tobacco juice on the Ladies' dresses as they pass along. These scoundrels are being watched—and by-the-way had better leave town—and if caught will be severely dealt with." and by-the-way!
"Ye Skeeters Hev Cum." A humorous ode to the mosquito. It’s a poem. Not dirty.
But our very favorite article, bar none, was a short piece that concerned the wicked activities of the local children of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania during December of 1864. Entitled “A Barbarous Custom,” it described how children would gather in the homes of people who had died in order to look at the dead body. “The nuisance has become almost intolerable.”
The Valley Spirit, December 7, 1864
A Barbarous Custom
The children of our town have fallen into a confirmed habit of flocking in a body to any house in which a death has occurred, for the purpose of gazing upon the remains. At such a time the grief of survivors in a family from which a loved one has been taken is too sacred for such rude intrusion, and parents should see that their children are not permitted to make these untimely visits.
The above applies with equal force to our own community. No death can occur without crowds of rude ill-mannered children rushing into the house containing the corpse, to the annoyance of relatives and friends. The nuisance has become almost intolerable and some of our citizens on the occasion of a death in the family, have been compelled to lock their doors in order to keep out these rude intruders.
You can’t learn stuff like this from a history textbook. Bravo, Valley Spirit.
Lisa. Adele. Thanks so much. We really enjoyed reading about how you guys found out so many nifty factoids! And how awesome is it that you found such a great resource on the web? Now that you guys are thoroughly engrossed and mesmerized by Lisa & Adele's awesome, you're going to wanna go pick up a copy of PICTURE THE DEAD from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository or Changing Hands. I just know it. You can also check out picturethedead.com and make sure to follow Lisa and Adele on Twitter!