What fun Bouchercon was. And what a let down to return home. Besides the pleasure of California’s climate, the panels were wonderful.

Although it was odd to see Christmas decorations against palm trees.

xmas decoration palm


xmas decoration

Here’s another shot of the wreath. Am I the only one that thinks Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving is wrong? But I digress.

I served on a panel of historical mystery writers including Charles Finch, S K Rizzolo  , Emily Brightwell, Susanna Calkins I was glad to hear that they too struggled over questions of accuracy and language. I also attended several panels. One, with Barbara Hambly, Edward Marsten, Caroline (charles ) Todd, Kim Fay and Tasha Alexander was particularly interesting in that they discussed the difficulty of balancing historical accuracy in all its ugly glory with modern sensibilities.


I’m already looking forward to Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC, next year.

Silly superstitions and more

Here are some of the superstitions I find silly. If a cow moos after midnight, someone in the immediate family will soon die. Since cows moo all the time I think we can all be glad this one isn’t true. Or maybe it is. Since a cow moos all the time, it’s bound to coincide with a death, right?
If someone places three chairs in a row, someone will die. (really?)
Opening an umbrella in the house means someone will die in six months.
If a young girl sleeps with an apple under her pillow, she will dream about the man she will marry.
If a cat sharpens his claws on a wooden fence there will be a heavy downpour later that day. In fact, there are quite a few involving cats. Perhaps this is so because cats were so often seen as witches’s familiars.
Many superstitions relate to unmarried girls seeing the face of their future husbands or superstitions guaranteeing a happy future marriage. The tradition of “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” is one of these. Not following this prescription is supposed to result in an Unhappy marriage.
Silly or not, there are quite a few old beliefs that we still sorta kinda follow today, as with the above. Another one: it’s bad luck for the groom to see the bride right before the wedding.
Poor man’s fertilizer: A snowfall in April or May means a good harvest. This one is actually true: a late snowfall puts nitrogen into the soil which is good for plants.
Speaking ill of the dead will mean someone close to you dies within the year.
The one who gets the bigger piece of a wishbone will achieve their wish.
A black cat means bad luck.
13 is an unlucky number. Some hotels still do not have a thirteenth floor.
Here’s a big one: Halloween. It may have degenerated into a candy collecting orgy but the costumes and the connection with food have a long history back to times before the Romans.
The groundhog and his shadow. With all the furor around Puxatawney Phil one would think the rodent some form of royalty.
What I find so interesting about these old beliefs is their staying power. My mother used to quote:
“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight
red sky in the morning, sailors take warning”
as a predictor of the next day’s weather. I still think of it when I see a particularly fiery sunset.

True, many of them have become celebrations for children or ones that adults enjoy with tongues firmly planted in cheeks. But I know that there are many conversations about the groundhog and his shadow so there still is some belief.

Superstition and health

Folk beliefs (superstitions has a pejorative connotation) cover all kinds of things, from seeing the face of one’s future husband to scaring away witches. However, not all of these beliefs are silly. Some, especially the ones relating to health, have arisen from trial and error or simple observation.
For example, the Navahos have a prohibition about sweeping their hogans at a certain time of the year. Come to find out the hanta virus is spread in mouse excrement which, at that time of the year, dries up and goes into the air. So what seemed like a superstition actually had a scientific basis. Another such example is willow bark tea for aches and pains. Since willow bark contains the active ingredient found in aspirin, another true belief. And drinking rose hip tea is good for what ails you. Rose hips are a great source of Vitamin C.
Other beliefs, not so much. You can remove warts by rubbing it with a live toad until they are drawn into a toad’s skin. (really!) You will never have arthritis if you wear a ring of dried raw potato on the middle finger of your right hand. You can cure a simple headache by wearing a necklace of corn kernels. You can cure respiratory illnesses by placing the skin of a black cat on the afflicted person’s chest for three days. If you place an ear of corn between a mother and her baby, he will have a long and prosperous life.
Other beliefs I think need some investigation. Wounds will heal much faster if you place cabbage or plantain leaves on the affected area. This one sounds to me like it might actually work. Another is curing sunburn by placing a mash of wet tea leaves on the area. Since tea leaves are full of antioxidants this one may work as well. You can cure diarrhea or colic by drinking a tea made of blackberry leaves. This treatment at least would do no harm. Diarrhea was a killer of babies back then and one of the other treatments of choice was giving them opium.

Superstition and disease

The current furor over the Ebola outbreak prompted me to consider the role of disease in the past. During the Middle ages there was no conception of the role bacteria and viruses play in the transmission of disease so everything was ascribed to God, the Devil, or witchcraft. The birth of a deformed calf, destruction of crops, soured milk or ale or an outbreak of some disease could mean a witch had set a curse. As I mentioned in a previous post, witch hunts continued in the United States until the middle of the 1800s. (And belief in the supernatural did not end then. There was tremendous interest in spiritualism, attracting no lesser a personage than Arthur Conan Doyle, and belief in fairies encouraged by faked photographs. But I digress.) Paradoxically, it is believed that some of the worst incidents of witch hunts and trials were magnified by poor harvest (so people were hungry and scared) and by the growth of ergot on the grains (so people were also tripping). Talk about a perfect storm.

I suspect Granny medicine – the old wise women who knew treatments from trial and error – like that certain kinds of mold could cure infection also played a part in tarring these women with the taint of witchcraft.

A host of measures to counter spells were in use. Some of the measures employed to keep a witch out of a house: storing apples (really!), a bag of salt under the master bed, a horseshoe or a clove of garlic hung over each entrance. Of course, if a spell was cast upon you, you had to employ certain methods to counteract that spell. To counteract a spell one would put seven drops of vegetable oil in a dish of water with some iron and rub the outside of the dish clockwise for three minutes. Doing so seven days would completely break the spell.

Of course such treatments had no effect on diseases. Diptheria, cholera, smallpox, the list of diseases is long. Smallpox, although us moderns have never seen a case, has been around so long scientists are not sure when it began. The theory is, though, that this disease also came out of Africa (like Ebola) and spread via trade routes.. Mummies with smallpox scars have been found in Egyptian tombs so it has been around for millennia. By my character, Will Rees’s time, advances in treating disease were beginning. At the beginning of the 1700s, vaccination as a treatment for smallpox was spreading. ( Live smallpox virus from an infected person was used – Yipes!!) The death rate for vaccination was 2%, unvaccinated and infected naturally = 14%. Edward Jenner, an orphan, was vaccinated as a boy. He had heard tales that dairymaids infected with cowpox never got smallpox. A few experiments later and in 1796 vaccination with cowpox as a treatment for smallpox was born. Rees would have seen many people with the characteristic round scars left by smallpox.

Except for some vials that are in storage, smallpox has been eradicated. I suspect Ebola will be also, eventually.

Saddest day of the year

I love the fall. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful of all the seasons.

But I hate taking down the garden. still, it has to be done. We are beginning to see frost at night. The cucumber plants all died and the tomatoes are starting to exhibit dead leaves, curled in the characteristic ‘I am too cold” manner.

So I picked all the green tomatoes and brought them into the house to ripen. All the pepper plants and beans are gone. I left one tomato plant that is gamely trying to survive and flower, the broccoli – I think we might have a late harvest -, the turnips and the swiss chard. Even they will have to be cut down in a few weeks. The compost will be spread on the ground and the whole thing covered with black plastic for the winter.

empty garden

everything but broccoli and swiss chard are gone.

A word about the beans. I love green beans and always plant a lot of them. Beans are the plant that keep on giving. This year, somehow, I ended up with pole beans and they really keep giving. I cannot even guess how many pounds I froze. Anyway, I have always planted the bush variety. And after seeing the stalks on the pole beans I have a whole new feeling about Jack and the Beanstalk. The little tendrils that clung to the fence, the strings, the poles, thickened into strong green vines. I had to cut them off the supports. I now believe that if a bean plant grew that tall, the stalks would indeed support a giant.


Salem, witchcraft and religious freedom

A visit to Salem offers numerous opportunities to see dramatizations of the witch hysteria.


Numerous theories have been put forth to explain this frenzy, including one I mentioned in an earlier post – ergot.

However, I think it important to remember that the Puritans who came here for religious freedom, came out of a history of witch trials. In Europe there were recurring trials and burnings. Some of these outbursts seemed to have roots in ordinary human nature – heirs who accused a wealthy widow to obtain property for example. But the strong religious fervor clearly played a large part. One only has to look at the Spanish Inquisition to see to what lengths men will sink, convincing themselves all the way that they are operating for some higher purpose.

And magic was already a part of the culture. Witch balls, glass balls with elaborate designs inside to capture the witch’s essence, had been in use in Britain for years. I mentioned the witch cake in a previous post. But there was also other beliefs. an egg dropped in a glass of water could help determine one’s future husband. Dried apple faces were used to keep away evil spirits. An ear of corn on a woman’s belly as she gave birth would protect her and the baby.¬† The effect of spells could be lessened by dry apple seeds. Of, if one was in the woods, witches could be frightened away by the clacking to two sticks together. And so on.


witch ball

So the residents of Salem were already primed to believe in the existence of witches. When Tituba recounted stories and spells from her religion to the girls, they took root and helped inspire the hysteria.

Witch hunts and trials continued in the United States until well into the 1800s.


One last comment: I don’t think we can sneer at these poor superstitious fools from this earlier time – not when shows such as Ghost Hunter on the SYFY channel are so popular.