|Lithograph by J. Childs depicts two of Philadelphia's notorious |
Moyamensing gang killers of the mid-1800s
Take the typical misbehaviors for women at this time, where the punishment seems out of whack with the crime: a thief getting five years imprisonment for stealing a dress from a tailor, or a large plate of oysters from a tavern.
There were children in prison as well. One of the youngest girls in the records, 11-year-old Ann McQuillan, was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for 'theft by housebreaking'.
Con men advertised in newspapers to sell “oxygenizing machines” that actually contained laughing gas to supposedly cure folks with lung disease! They hawked counterfeit currency to gullible businessmen, who received a package of green cut paper (thus, the “green goods swindle”). Big Bertha Heyman was so good at conning money from men, she could even pull it off in prison.
|Big Bertha, an ingenious swindler of the 1800s |
conned a man out of $900 (now about $20,000) while behind bars!
Even in the supposedly civil city of Philadelphia, Irish gangs like the Schuylkill Rangers, began by resisting anti-Catholic attackers, then evolved into organized delinquency. They became river pirates, demanding a tax from barges heading to the city, and robbing the trade carried across the river at nearby Gray’s Ferry.
One of my characters is a “retired” prostitute, and I hit the mother lode yesterday, when I discovered there were Gentlemen’s Guides to Dens of Iniquity, a kind of wink-wink description of the “worst” establishments in the city. These guides were printed for most big cities. One of the funniest revelations was that a religious seminary on the west side of NYC was once an infamous brothel.
|Built in 1819 for a seamstress, this brick house in what is now the New York University area, became a brothel in the mid–1800s—about the time the city’s wealthier citizens relocated uptown.|
When I have enough interesting factoids the challenge will be to cull the best of my research and piece together the criminals and cons to form the core band of my players. Each will have their own backstories, flaws and quests.
Do you write historical fiction? If so, do you like doing research? What is the strangest tidbit you’ve unearthed so far along the way?
It sounds like you're finding all kinds of interesting things. It's a good thing I don't write historical fiction as I'd have too much fun researching and not get much writing done. The guides to the Dens of Iniquity are hilarious, at least now, looking back.ReplyDelete
Yes, the research is often as thrilling as writing the book.Delete
This sounds like so much fun! I do love researching, and most especially the darker side of things. Now I'm really excited to see the story you're crafting from this research! :)ReplyDelete
Thanks. Yeah, my search history is looking pretty skeevy.Delete
It must be exciting researching and stumbling on all the historical happenings around that time. All the best with everything!ReplyDelete
I grew up in Philly so I have that extra passion to unearth its twisted history.Delete
I love rabbit holes! It's easy to get lost in them. :) Your research has picked up some real gems. Right now I struggle with finding information on medieval Highlands of Scotland that can be twisted for my writing but I love the folklore of the Scots unique mythology!ReplyDelete
Cool. The folklore of the Scots is something I'm pretty ignorant about!Delete
The research is why I have shied away from writing historical fiction and most science fiction, although I do enjoy learning such facts. It sounds like you're finding some interesting information!ReplyDelete
I love research. I've started two historicals, none fantasy. One set in the Roman Empire, the other in the Wild West. One day I'll finish them. I've done a lot of research on women in the west.ReplyDelete
Very cool information especially about Big Bertha who could con all sorts of dumb ass men(sorry if I am just smirking a little bit). Apparently, my grandfather had a saloon in the late 1880's or early 1890's in Chicago. I wish I could find out moreReplyDelete
Cherie, yes, the vast amount of scientific knowledge out there is daunting. Mary, research on the west is interesting. At least as far as I've uncovered. Birgit, wow, you could do a novel based on your granddad's saloon!ReplyDelete
Lots of snake oil being sold in the 19th century! I did a lot of research for my steampunk novels, and it was fun to create an alternative history - it's like getting the best of both worlds!ReplyDelete