The Good Old Days--They Were Dangerous
edited: Sunday, September 30, 2007
By Rosemary Poole-Carter
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2007
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19th Century Hazards
Whenever I hear someone speak of the good old days or wax poetical about some distant, simpler time, I wonder if the person slept through history class. Was there ever a time when something awful wasn’t going on somewhere? Probably not. Of course, modern times bring us new was to do ourselves harm or do each other in, but there have always been ways. I write Southern gothic novels set in the 19th century and hold few illusions about idyllic rural or city life.
On a plantation where the master’s word was law, crimes might be and were committed with impunity. On a remote farm or homestead, if violence were done, who would know? Hunting rifles, knives, hatchets, pitchforks were all at hand. While researching my first novel, WHAT REMAINS, an historical mystery set on a plantation, I came across a little manual of “Handy Farm Devices”, and my first thought was of handy farm devices gone terribly wrong. In that novel, a hog isn’t the only thing hoisted and cured in the smokehouse.
While isolation could be a danger in the country, crowded conditions could be perilous in the city. Many people lived in poverty and worked in sweatshops. Tainted and adulterated foods, sewage in the streets, urban epidemics of diseases such as yellow fever all threatened the lives of city dwellers. Single instances of robbery, mugging, rape, or murder occurred, and organized criminal activities flourished, including graft, drug dealing, and prostitution. Besides the usual weapons of harm—firearms and blades— poisons were easily obtainable at the pharmacy, which carried opium, mercury, arsenic, cannabis, and other dangerous substances. In JULIETTE ASCENDING, my young adult romantic Southern gothic, the heroine compounds a sleeping potion from ingredients that, in greater concentration, her mother uses to rid the house of vermin.
In town or country, when injury or illness befell a person, submitting to medical care brought further risks: possibly poisonous medicine, septic operating conditions, or procedures that did more harm than good. For my latest novel, WOMEN OF MAGDALENE, I researched the treatment of women in a post-Civil War lunatic asylum. Harsh restraints, heavy doses of laudanum, and brutal punishments were commonplace. Moreover, what was considered insanity in women was determined by men, in a culture in which misogyny was as pervasive as racism. For the inmates of Magdalene Asylum, the good old days were dangerous, indeed.