Recently, two brief newspaper mentions of deaths caught my eye—not on the obituary page, where deceased individuals are named and their lives honored. These mentions appeared on a back page of the news section and are of particular interest to me because they offer glimpses into 19th century American history. The first article describes a hiker’s discovery of human bone fragments and a metal button lying in a Sharpsburg cornfield, which had once served as a Civil War battlefield in 1862. Examining the remains, experts concluded the bones belonged to a young soldier from New York State, who was perhaps between 19 and 20 years old when he fell in combat. The second article describes the discovery of more anonymous dead, 957 individuals buried in unmarked graves between the years 1889 and 1957 in what had been a Nebraska psychiatric hospital cemetery. Both articles resonate with me as I continue researching Civil War and post-Civil War history for my novel-in-progress and as I reflect on research done for my novel Women of Magdalene, set in a 19th century ladies’ lunatic asylum.
In Nebraska, a historical society is fighting for the release of the identity of the long-dead patients, many of whom were committed against their will for a variety of health conditions and reasons, including poverty, and whose very existence was erased with burial. A chilling thought—and similar to one that ran through my imagination years ago when I created my fictional asylum for “inconvenient women”, who never went home again. Like other writers of historical fiction, I hold a mirror up to the past and, in doing so, frame that past, limit it, and bring a particular aspect of it into focus. I look back at the sweep of history or catch a glimpse of it in a newspaper article—reminders of the haunting stories of those who actually lived and died in the real, not the fictional, world. Then I turn again to my story-mirror and, for a moment, find a whisper of frost on the glass.