Archive for the ‘Latest Posts’ Category

Molly Bannaky – The Amazing Woman Who May Have Existed

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

There is no doubt that Benjamin Banneker was a remarkable man and I argued in an earlier blog post that he should be considered among the Founding Fathers. Since March is Women’s History Month, I thought it would be great to write about his grandmother, Molly Bannaky. Her story was memorialized in a children’s book published about 18 years ago. She was a milkmaid in England convicted of theft because of a spilled pail of milk. Fortunately, she was able to avoid being hanged for theft because she knew how to read, and therefore she was eligible to be transported to the American colonies as an indentured servant.Kate Dolan writes about Benjamin Banneker's grandmother Molly Bannaky

She arrived in Maryland in 1683, worked as a laborer for seven years until her indenture was up, eventually started her own tobacco plantation, bought slaves, married one of them named Bannaky, and in time became the grandmother of Benjamin Banneker. Overcoming hardships on her own with no training and no support and then turning her back on “white” society to live with her husband’s disadvantaged culture would make Molly a remarkable woman.

The problem is that there’s not much hard evidence that she ever existed. For instance, legend has it that she taught Benjamin to read. But he never mentioned her. Her story comes down through time via oral traditions that may have been embellished or entirely fabricated.

This makes her a great candidate for historical fiction. I’ve been reading a master’s thesis by Sandra Perot that argues against the validity of many of the myths around Molly. As someone accustomed to making things up, I can fabricate a lot of scenarios that could make the myths reality, or at least much more plausible.

Writing the story of what Molly might have experienced will require a great deal of research so I haven’t yet delved into it, but I hope to start before too long. In the meantime, we can salute the women in Benjamin Banneker’s life who helped mold him into the remarkable man he turned out to be, whoever they were. Like so many remarkable women, their names may be lost, but their legacy lives on.

Today, as we commemorate Maryland Day, the day British colonists landed to found the colony of Maryland, we should remember that many of those early settlers did not come here by choice. Nevertheless, they worked hard and the colony would not have succeeded without them.

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Molly’s story, as I originally learned of it in the children’s book Molly Bannaky by Alice McGill, provided the inspiration for one of the characters in my first book, Langley’s Choice. Like Molly, my character rejects white society to be with a negro slave, and she faces the possibility of severe legal punishment for miscegenation, the “crime” of being in a mixed race relationship.

The master’s thesis I’ve been reading is “Reconstructing Molly Welsh: Race, Memory and the Story of Benjamin Banneker’s Grandmother” available online here: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/theses/210/

The photo above is from the reconstructed cabin at Banneker Historical Park. For more information, visit https://friendsofbenjaminbanneker.com

Irish Whiskey Has a Surprising Past

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

For some reason, the other day I had to look up Irish whiskey to see whether it was spelled with an “e,” and while I was checking the spelling, I learned about the history of Irish whiskey, too. It was interesting enough to inspire me to share (the knowledge, not my stash of liquor. I’m not that generous.)Kate Dolan writes about the history of Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey is one of the very oldest European distilled spirits. Legend has it that monks took the knowledge of distilling perfume from Mediterranean culture and altered the technology to create ardent spirits sometime around A.D. 1200. The name “whisky” even comes from the Irish branch of the Gaelic language –  uisce beatha, which roughly translates as “water of life.” Those monks knew they were onto something.

Early records of whiskey distilling in Ireland are scarce, but there was enough of it going on that the English Parliament felt a need to pass a law in 1556 restricting distillation to “gentleman” unless the distiller had a license. This law was promptly ignored. In 1661, Great Britain instituted a tax on whiskey distillers, but registering to pay the tax was voluntary, and not surprisingly, few volunteered. Finally, in the 1761 started to get serious about collecting taxes from producers, and whiskey was then divided into two types – “parliamentary whiskey” and poitín (often spelled “poteen”) small pot-stilled liquor produced and sold illegally.

The popularity of the drink grew phenomenally fast and by the the end of the 1700s, the whiskey sold better in Ireland than rum, brandy and gin combined. By the 1820s, the distilleries in Dublin were among the biggest in the world and for a time Irish whiskey became the most popular spirit worldwide, far surpassing Scotch whisky.  Irish distillers even added an “e” to the word to differentiate their product from the inferior version produced in Scotland.

But this popularity didn’t last. Changes in distillation processes and aggressive moves by Scotch distillers cut into the market. Then the market virtually disappeared as Ireland engaged in a series of conflicts with it’s biggest market, the U.K., then engaged in civil war with itself, and then saw its American market plowed under the blanket of a ten year prohibition. By the 1930s, there was virtually nothing left of the booming industry and the decline continued until there were only five distillers remaining by the 1950s. When those consolidated, there were only two left in the 1970s-and they were both owned by the same company.

Frankly, I think if it hadn’t been for Irish coffee, the world would have forgotten about Irish whiskey.

But fortunately in the late 1980s, the trend slowly started to reverse. A new distillery opened for the first time in 100 years. Others followed and the market share has been steadily growing. However, it’s hard to imagine it will ever catch up to Scotch whisky, which today sells 15-16 times better.

But who knows? America is a big market, and we don’t hold huge drinking festivals to celebrate any Scottish saints. So maybe it’s just a matter of time until Irish whiskey regains its title.

I know I’m doing my part to make that goal a reality.

Slainte! And Happy Patrick’s Day

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Much of the information about the history of Irish whiskey came from Masters of Malt (https://www.masterofmalt.com/blog/post/irish-whiskey-everything-you-need-to-know-part-1.aspx)

If you enjoy reading about fictional characters who drink a lot of Irish whiskey or whatever else they can get their hands on, you might like my 18th Century historical stories Restitution, Langley’s Choice and Avery’s Treasure (although the pirates in that book drank far more brandy than whiskey.) And the characters Jack McCready (Restitution) and Edward Talbot (Langley’s Choice and Avery’s Treasure) both happen to be from Ireland as well.

The Term “Self-Published” is Misleading

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

Some of my books are offered for sale on Smashwords, an ebook distributor that specializes in independent books. In other words, the books offered directly on the Smashwords website are considered “self-published.” And for many readers, that label translates to “not-worth-it.”

But the industry has changed so drastically that fewer of the self-published books are truly self-published these days. Authors are recovering rights to their older, out-of-print titles and re-releasing them on their own through platforms such as Kindle Direct and Smashwords. These are books that major publishers invested time in editing for content as well as grammar and the other fine points. These are not amateur productions, although when the authors create their own covers, it may look that way. (I’m pointing the finger at myself here!)

Again, because of changes in the industry, authors who have published numerous titles with publishing houses are now deciding that they would prefer to release some projects on their own. Knowing the value of good editing, these authors usually hire or trade professional editing services to bring their manuscripts up to professional standards. These new books, too, would not be amateur productions in my opinion. A professional writer and professional editor can put out a professional product even without a professional publisher.

This change took about ten years longer than I thought it would and that was good for me because it gave me the chance to work with some fabulous editors at different publishing houses. Now those publishers are all either out of business or have cut the series that I wrote for, and I’m on my own with a stack of previously-published works to put back out however I see fit. George Washington Stepped Here by K. D. Hays

I’m not going to suggest that they’re fabulous. But the content in them is no less than it was when they had a publisher’s name imprinted on the cover. In fact, often self-published older titles are often better than the original because authors frequently undertake revisions before re-releasing their older books. And every day, more and more of these previously-published titles hit the metaphorical shelves of independent publishing platforms.Christian Mystery George Washington Stepped Here by K.D. Hays

So if you’re looking for something to read, don’t cringe if you see that a book is “self-published.” That label carries less meaning with every passing day.

Smashwords has designated the week of March 5-12 as “Read an Ebook Week.” Since they sell ebooks, this would seem to be somewhat self-serving. However, they encourage authors to deeply discount their books. I’m offering my first mystery for free during the week. Of course, this is not an altruistic move on the part of Smashwords or myself. We both hope that when people read the first book for free, they will want to come back and buy the other two. Since the other two in the series are priced at $1.99 and $3.99, even if readers gobble up all three, no one is getting rich.

For myself, I’m hoping a few people enjoy reading my work. I hate the idea of spending much money on a bunch of computer coded words (an ebook) so I’ve never wanted my ebooks to cost more than a few dollars. Even $3.99 seems a bit high to me, but I do hope to recoup the costs I’ve invested in editing and promotion, if nothing else.

Anyway, the bottom line is that this is a good week to try out some new authors on Smashwords. It won’t cost you anything but time.

Happy reading!

George Washington Stepped Here will be available for free from March 5-12 here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/category/1/newest/1

You can learn more about this cozy mystery and my other books at http://katedolan.com/george-washington-stepped-here-by-k-d-hays. The drawing above shows artwork from the publisher while the book was in production. The new cover at the bottom was created for me by a professional artist, Henry thor Straten. My comment about amateur covers refers to some other titles, some of which will be making their re-debut soon.

Benjamin Banneker, a not-so-famous Founding Father

Monday, February 20th, 2017

One of my hometown’s best claims to fame is its association with Benjamin Banneker, often referred to as “America’s First Black Man of Science.” In 1737, Banneker’s father, a former slave purchased 100 acres of land in what is now considered the western part of Catonsville.Kate Dolan writes about Benjamin Banneker He made his son Benjamin co-owner so that the property could pass to him without any legal requirements. This also helped ensure that his family would maintain their free status in a state where slavery was common.

Banneker was fortunate in being able to attend a small Quaker school during the winter months with a few other local children, both white and black. His grandmother, a former indentured servant from England, had already taught him to read and write and he was known in his student days as a child who would rather read than play. After he was old enough to work full time on the tobacco farm with his father, his former schooling ceased. But he never stopped learning. (more…)

Remus Adams Left More Than Old Stones

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

For years, I’d seen the picture of the old stone blacksmith shop owned by Remus Adams, but only recently did I learn a bit of the story of the remarkable man who owned the business that once stood on the main street of Catonsville.Kate Dolan researches the man behind the blacksmith shop at 615 Frederick RoadThe picture is old and grainy, which is not surprising. The shop was torn down well over a hundred years ago to make room for a new school. Now, of course, that school is old, and some people want to tear it down, too. But that’s another story.

The blacksmith who owned and ran the shop at 615 Frederick Road would not have been able to send his children or grandchildren to that school because he was African-American, and the new school would only be open to white children. (more…)

Smallwood’s House is Now a Retreat for Us

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Smallwood’s Retreat sounds like a battle maneuver, but it’s actually the name of the historic house in Charles County. We discovered the house while we were camping in a park named (not surprisingly) Smallwood after the original owner of the property. General William Smallwood was the highest ranking Maryland general during the Revolutionary War. I’d never heard of him.

Kate Dolan describes a visit to Smallwood's Retreat

We came across the red brick house while hiking the “Generals Walk” which was the only real trail in the park. (And when I say “hiking,” I’m making it sound more adventurous than it was, but when you walk two miles on a path that isn’t paved I think you get to call it “hiking” without cheating too badly.) Smallwood’s Retreat is not a large house, but the brickwork is quite handsome. It of course wasn’t open when we walked up. But we asked about it at the park office and were told it might be open on Sunday.

We didn’t get our hopes up. But on Sunday as we were hoisting the canoe onto the car, a member of the park staff drove up to our campsite. We immediately wondered what we’d done wrong. (Actually I didn’t wonder—I was thinking of the empty beer bottles in our screen tent. Maryland State parks don’t allow alcohol and I thought we were busted.) But it turns out we weren’t in trouble after all. (Well, now we will be since I just confessed to a crime.)Smallwood portrait 2 “Are you the ones who wanted to see the Smallwood House?” she asked. “I’ve been driving all over trying to find you. The house is open now.”

Well, that was unexpected service. So the canoe had to wait while we headed over to Smallwood’s Retreat.

General William Smallwood commanded the Maryland battalion during the Revolutionary War. Not long after the war ended, his neighbors elected him Congress and at the same time, the Maryland General Assembly offered him the position of governor. He took the latter job and served for three years before returning to his Retreat to manage his estate and help restore his church.

While he was pretty good at serving his country, he was not so good at managing his finances. Like many southern planters, he mortgaged future crops to fund the current year’s production on the plantation. When he died, he was so heavily in debt that his dwindling estate was sold to pay off the creditors.

Smallwood houseAnd I know this because the reenactor who gave us the tour of the small house also offered to give me a 30-page book on Smallwood when she saw that I was interested enough to ask questions.

What I thought was the most wonderful part of the tour was that at the end we learned that our guide was a collateral descendant of the general.

The other thing that struck me was the general’s portrait. While he was described by teen journalist Sally Wister as “tall…well made” with a “truly martial air,” I don’t think he considered himself attractive by any means. He ordered his portrait artist to “make me look more like George Washington,” the rock star of the day.

Compare this portrait to the one above. I think the artist succeeded in making Smallwood look like commanding officer

Compare this portrait to the one above. I think the artist succeeded in making Smallwood look like commanding officer

Smallwood’s Retreat was rebuilt from ruins in 1958 so the inside is only a conjecture as to layout of the rooms. I liked the “warming room,” which is not often seen in 18th C houses but probably existed in many of them as a place to reheat dishes brought in from the separate kitchen building. And the fact that Debbie Sharek, the woman posing for a picture in the warming room, is related to the original owner was probably the most charming feature of all.

The site advertises itself as being “40 minutes south of Washington,” but I think you’d have to drive in the middle of the night to make it there that fast. While it’s not worth driving hours to see, it was interesting and makes a good side trip while visiting other sites like Mallows Bay and Port Tobacco. Plus, the countryside is so quiet and removed from the congestion of DC that it feels like you’ve traveled to a truly distant place or even another time. Smallwood’s Retreat is still a retreat, but now it’s open to all.

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If you enjoy visiting 18th Century sites and learning about colonial history, check out my book Restitution, which explores some of the feelings and activities associated with the beginning of the Revolution in Maryland. To learn more about the parking and camping options, visit http://dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/southern/smallwood.aspx.

 

Domestic Patriotism: Lessons from Abigail Adams

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

On this day in 1775, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, who was in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress. Of course this was long before she knew she would be some day be the First Lady, that the rebellious colonists would succeed in their fight against the British Empire, or even that the 13 colonies would band together to declare their independence. She did know that her own colony of Massachusetts had rebelled and was being punished for it. And she knew that her husband was enmeshed in that rebellion. abigail-adamsIn an offhand way, she mentions that while she might normally feel pity for a woman with no children, perhaps instead she might consider the childless woman in a happier condition since she would be spared the “anxiety every parent must feel for their rising offspring” in such “perilous times.”

Many people today worry that they live in perilous times, but I think truly perilous times have been rare for most residents of the United States, at least within the last 100 years. Today we do not fear that a hostile occupying army could march through at any moment and destroy our livelihood and maybe even our families. We don’t need to worry that an outbreak of smallpox could wipe out our town. Those worries were quite real in Abigail’s time, but she chooses not to dwell on them. Instead, her worries are practical concerns about daily living. Of course she asks her husband to send her a few goods from the big city. But she spends the majority of her letter urging her husband to persuade Congress to tackle some trade issues, taking a wide world view of a narrow problem. She advocates for keeping hard currency—gold and silver—in the colonies rather than allowing so much of it to be spent in the West Indies for molasses, coffee and sugar. She notes that silver currency is becoming rare and worth far more than paper money. “If any trade is allowed to the West Indies,” she suggests, “would it not be better to carry some commodity of our produce in exchange?”

I find this remarkable thinking on the part of a woman concerned with her own family’s shortage of affordable cotton-wool and flax. Personally, I would be inclined to simply complain about inflation and perhaps lament the causes. For me to go so far as to envision a solution and propose it to lawmakers would take far too much effort. Yet that’s exactly what Abigail did in an era when women were not given equal educations or permitted to vote.

The reason she was concerned with the rising cost of cotton-wool was that it was “wrought up with less trouble than any other article of clothing.” She was concerned with the difficulty of making homespun clothes. While we often have it in our minds that all colonial women spun yarn and wove cloth for their families, this was generally not true until the years just before the Revolution, when patriotic motives encouraged home manufacture to avoid importing goods from Britain. Women had their hands full cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, caring for children, assisting their husbands businesses and other domestic duties. They did not have extra hours to spin or the equipment to weave. But they took on these additional chores as a sort of domestic patriotism. Again, I find myself sadly falling behind their example. My sense of patriotism once caused me to spend an hour online looking for an American flag produced in America (but still affordable.) I might occasionally try to “buy American,” but I would not inconvenience myself so much as to actually avoid buying something made somewhere else.

After mentioning that her uncle advised her to “procure another husband” if her current one didn’t come home soon, Abigail closes her letter by admonishing Congress for taking a wishy-washy stance about separation from Britain, a nation she finds to be “so unworthy of us.” She likens the colonies to obedient spaniels, spurned yet still fawning on their masters. “I would rather endure any hardship than submit” she declares.

And thus speaks the fairer, gentler sex at the dawn of the Revolution. Domestic patriotism like that displayed by Abigail, the women of Edenton (see http://katedolan.com/featured/have-we-forgotten) and others in the private sphere fueled the rebellion far more effectively than the carefully crafted documents negotiated by men in their elected assemblies.

I’m not sure we could count on such domestic patriotism today. I hope we don’t have to, because I, for one, don’t think I could pass the test.

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We are fortunate to have Abigail’s letters preserved and easily accessible. I’ve been using The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Frank Shuffelton, (Penguin Books, 2004). Her letter of December 10, 1775 is letter #81.

If you enjoy reading about the different views of patriotism in the days leading up to the War of American Independence, you might like my book Restitution, which is set in Maryland in 1774.  Maryland was a “middle of the road” colony and while leaders wasted little time in raising a militia, most policy makers declared that they were prepared to fight to protect their rights as Englishmen, not to separate from England. The main characters in Restitution may come in contact with the “better sort” who set the policies, but they themselves are on the lower end of the social spectrum, having to concern themselves with the business of day to day living as much as questions of where their allegiance lies.

 

 

The Real Man in the Iron Mask

Friday, October 28th, 2016

It has nothing to do with Halloween, but it’s still a creepy image – a man forever locked in an iron mask, trapped without an identity until death. Kate Dolan writes about the real man in the iron mask Of course, historians say it’s mostly fiction—while there was a famous masked prisoner, there was no real “man in the iron mask.”

Or was there? It turns out, history really does have a true tale of “the man in the iron mask,” but it takes place about 250 years after the French story made famous by Alexandre Dumas.  The story most of us think of involves a prisoner held in the Bastille and other French prisons from 1669 to 1703. The French philosopher Voltaire theorized that the unknown prisoner, who was never seen without his mask, was the illegitimate older brother of King Louis XIV. Dumas took that story and elaborated it enough to create fodder for several movies, including one starring Leonardo DiCaprio. But he did some research too, or at least explored several theories about the prisoner in a series of books he co-authored about famous crimes and criminals.

And by the way, the mask was velvet, not iron. But who wore it?

It seems every few years a historian claims to have found the true identity of the man-in-the-not-really-iron mask.  While they disagree on an actual identity, most believe he was the valet of an important high-ranking official and had to keep his identity secret to protect his own life. The most plausible theory is that he knew of some serious embezzlement on the part of his employer and was threatened with death if he were to reveal his identity. But because he was kept in such secrecy with extremely limited contact with others for so many years, the nameless man became quite famous soon after his imprisonment began. People theorized that he was the king’s brother or even his father, a disgraced general, the son of the deposed English king, or an Italian or French diplomat. Very likely, no one will ever know for certain and if the truth comes to light, it will not be nearly as much fun as the speculation.

man-in-the-iron-mask-3But what about the real man in the iron mask? He was supposed to keep his identity secret too, but since his tenure in iron was limited, he was able to capitalize off his fame.  Harry Bensley accepted a challenge that set him on a remarkable journey from 1908 to 1914. He agreed to attempt to walk around the entire world without being identified. Moreover, he had to raise money along the way to pay for the journey and find a wife during the journey, even though he could not reveal his identity. And for some reason, he had to push a baby buggy the whole way. If he completed all the terms of the bet, he would win an enormous sum of money.

Some say the whole thing was a hoax – he invented the story of the bet to make himself rich and famous. But regardless of why he started out on the journey, there is definite evidence that he did. And he sold postcards of himself along the way to earn money.  On January Kate Dolan writes about Harry Bensley1, 2008 he set off wearing an iron mask from a suit of armor. Some time later in Kent, he was arrested for selling his postcards without a sales license. He appeared in court wearing the mask and was ordered to remove it. However, when he explained the bet, the judge allowed him to keep his identity secret. Thus, he was sentenced and fined as “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

He continued on his journey for six years and passed through 12 countries before the outbreak of WWI put a stop to things.  After that, he ended up back in England, though accounts differ as to whether he came back as a patriot to fight for his country or simply returned because the bet was called off and his escapade had no further hope of financial remuneration. Speculations about Bensley’s life are almost as rampant as the speculation about the masked man who preceded him in France centuries earlier.

But he was, for a time, the real man in the iron mask, imprisoned not in the Bastille but in public and kept locked up for his own financial gain. And money wasn’t the only potential benefit. During his six years in a mask, he claimed to have received over 200 marriage proposals from all over the world.

Maybe Halloween isn’t the only day we should be wearing masks…

Thanks to The Official Harry Bensley website for providing some of the information and pictures for this article. If you enjoy reading about hidden identities, you might like my story Deceptive Behavior, which was inspired by Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer.” In both tales, a young lady who is mistaken for a maid decides to continue the deception to see what happens. (If you’re interested in getting a copy of the story, contact me directly because the publisher is closing down. And I can sell it for less than list price now!) 

Freedom Trail is Best When it’s Not Quite Free

Sunday, September 18th, 2016

I had one day to spend in Boston and had done zero research about the best places to visit. The only outing planned in advance was a trip to Fenway in evening, so that was one landmark we knew we’d see. What to do before that? My husband said I had to follow the Freedom Trail.

It’s like following the Yellow Brick Road, except that the bricks are red and the flying monkeys look more like pigeons.

There is no charge to walk between the landmarks on the Freedom Trail and the route is marked on the sidewalk, but if you want to know what the landmarks actually are, it helps to have a guidebook. So my walk started with the purchase of a $9 guidebook in the visitor’s center on Boston Common. I followed the red brick trail from the visitor’s center to the first landmark. It was a statue. At that point, I was ready to toss the book in the trash. Even to a history nut like me, statues are BORING.Kate Dolan finds a graveyard on the Freedom Trail

The next stop was a church that was locked. But the third stop was a burial ground that advertised more famous skeletons than any other graveyard in America. Things were looking up. Trying to avoid the groups of tourists clustered around costumed tour guides, I decided to focus on the gravestones of un-famous people, figuring they might feel left out. I took pictures of the stones with the best skull-carvings coated with the least amount of bird poop. Only after about ten minutes of this did I see the polite sign asking me to stay off the grass-covered graves. (more…)

Catonsville Elementary: the history of an abandoned school

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

For only the second time in the last 107 years, no students entered the building at 615 Frederick Road at the start of the school year. Instead, the students of Catonsville Elementary School walked into a newly refurbished building around the corner on Bloomsbury Avenue. But the memories of years of learning fill the halls of the red brick building on Catonsville’s main street. CES

In 1907, the Catonsville School Committee went to the Baltimore County School Board to ask for a new school building. In support of their cause, the Committee pledged to raise $10,000, estimated to be a quarter of the building cost. They also agreed to find a location for the new school. This all proved to be easier said than done.

A team of concerned citizens went door to door collecting money for the project, but this effort fared so badly that a May 1908 article in the local newspaper reported that the new school project had been abandoned. Money was not the only problem. It turns out that the proposed location on Frederick Road was also a concern to parents who didn’t want their children educated in close proximity to an electric streetcar line and three bars. (more…)