Dame Schools

In several of my books, Rees’s children attend dame schools. I mention them almost without a description. (Of course I mention the schooling received at the hands of the Shakers. Boys and girls were segregated: boys were taught by the men during the winter and girls by the women during the summer.)

Well, what are dame schools?

The New England Puritans believed that Satan would try to keep people from understanding the scriptures so it was decided that all children be taught to read. In fact, the first American schools arose in New England. The Boston Latin School was founded in 1635 and the Mather School in 1639 in Dorchester.In 1642 the Massachusetts Bay Colony made town schools compulsory and other New England colonies soon followed. These were for white boys only. Common schools were established in the 1700s but a tuition was charged.

If parents could not homeschool their children they went to dame schools. Considering how busy most women were I wondered how that worked out. With that said, however, there were enough educated women in the North who could function as teachers. Usually they were widows who taught in their own home. They were paid in money but also in kind – baked goods, produce, alcohol and the like. (I imagine the abilities of these untrained teachers varied widely – from essentially a day care to a real school. But I digress.)

In the beginning education focused on reading and ‘rithmetic but soon it was the four R’s; ‘riting and religion as well. Some of the dame schools offered girls embroidery, sewing and other such graces. Dame schools went up to eight grade and most girls went no farther. Boys, however, might move to a grammar school where they were taught advanced arithmetic, Latin and Greek by a male teacher.

There was also a huge divergence between the North and the South. Planters educated their children with tutors and son were frequently sent to England or Scotland for schooling. During the early part of the 1800s, it was against the law to teach slaves but schools for white children were opened in Georgia and South Carolina (1811). Segregated schools for children of all races began opening during Reconstruction and continued until 1954 when the Supreme Court declared state laws establishing segregated schools unconstitutional.

A final note: These schools went only to the eighth grade just like the dame schools. For many rural areas of the country eighth grade school was the norm until 1945.



Goodreads Giveaway

I am giving away ten copies of Death of a Dyer, my second Will Rees mystery on Goodreads.

In this book, Rees returns to his hometown and tries to settle down. Lydia accompanies him as his housekeeper -both are not sure where their feelings might take them. David also returns home although he and his father are still at odds.

Rees has been home for only a short time when he is asked to look into the murder of a childhood friend.


Speaking Engagements

I had a great talk at the Newburgh Library last Wednesday. I have two more coming up. On Sunday, October 23, I will be talking at the Orangeburg Library – in Rockland County, New York. The talk begins at 2.

The following Sunday, I will be speaking about witchcraft at my own library – the Goshen Public Library in Goshen, New York. Hard to believe but I have never spoken there. I felt shy pushing myself into a slot where I work.

Come and ask questions.

Witches and Witchcraft – Not just Salem

With the release of my new book, The Devil’s Cold Dish, just over a week away, I decided to reprise some of my research and the reasons I wrote this book.


Witches and Witchcraft – Not just Salem

While I was researching Death in Salem, I visited this city several times. Since Will Rees, my amateur detective (and traveling weaver) visits Salem in the mid 1790’s. a full one hundred years after the trials, I did not write about them. I alluded to them of course but by 1796 Salem is a wealthy and cosmopolitan city, the wealthiest in the new United States and the sixth largest.

But I couldn’t get the  witch trials out of my head. Why did it happen?  What happened to the people afterwards, especially to the people who saw their loved ones accused and, in some cases, hanged? That question formed the beginning of The Devil’s Cold Dish.

The facts of Salem’s witch trials are these. In 1692, a group of girls including the daughters of the village minister Samuel Parrish claimed that they were being tormented by witches – and the girls accused some of the women in Danvers (this did not happen in Salem but within a small village just outside).  Before the fury ended,150 people were imprisoned and 19 people – and two dogs- were hanged.


Because the people executed as witches were not allowed to be buried in sacred ground, the cemetery in Salem has monuments bearing witness to the names. No one is sure where these people are buried. It is thought the families cut down many of the accused after they were hung and buried them in secret.

One man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death. He cursed all future Sheriffs of Salem to die of some chest (respiratory) illness. Apparently most have, but in an era without antibiotics (forget about good hygiene or healthy food) I don’t think that is surprising.

What happened? Reasons given for the explosion of belief and hangings in Salem are many.

This event occurred in Massachusetts after several centuries of the trials and burnings in Europe. Probably everyone is familiar with the Biblical injunction about not suffering a witch to live. In 1200 Pope Gregory IX authorized the killing of witches. In 1498  Pope Innocent VIII issued a declaration confirming the existence of witches and inquisition began. Thousands, mainly women, were burned at the stake during the 1500s and 1600s. (Accused witches in this country were never burned. They were hanged instead.)

This was a superstitious age and belief in magic was widespread. Girls used spells to try and see the faces of future husbands and superstitions regarding illness, birth, and harvest were rife. Harelips were caused when the mother saw a rabbit, birth marks because the mother ate strawberries, for example. One of my favorites: to protect a mother and child during birth an ear of corn was placed on the mother’s belly. But I can’t believe EVERYONE believed in the supernatural. In fact, one of the essayists of the time, Robert Calef, suggested that the trials had been engineered by Cotton Mather for personal gain. (I doubt that. Evidently fighting out different opinions in print is not a new phenomenon). And anyway, other motivations for accusing someone of witchcraft have been documented. Sometimes it was for gain: the old biddy hasn’t died and I want her little farm, for example. (No surprise there, right?) Sometimes it was to settle scores. Apparently at least part of the reason behind the accusations directed at the Nurse family had at the bottom resentment and the desire for payback.

Tituba, a slave owned by Samuel Parrish, and her stories she told the girls played a part. Variously described as an Indian or a black slave, her testimony apparently drove much of the content of the stories and was a direct cause of the eventual hangings of women described as her confederates.  (Ironically, Tituba was set free.) A shadowy character, she has been also described as practicing voodoo. Her testimony. at least to me, reads more like the Christian belief in demons and the devil. Once she was released, however, she, like the girls whose fits started the terror, faded into obscurity.

Then there are the girls themselves. To modern eyes, the easy belief in the veracity of a group of girls is incredible. Samuel Parrish believed in the truth of the accusations until the end of his life. I suspect there is another explanation. Women, and young girls especially, at this time were supposed to be quiet, meek and submissive. The claims  made by these girls and the charges against others in the village put them on center stage. I do not wonder that they kept ratcheting up their stories; anything to keep that attention.

Then there is the possibility of ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye during wet and cool summers. It releases a toxin similar to LSD. So it is possible that people were genuinely suffering hallucinations.

The hysteria ended in 1693. After 1700 reparations began to be paid to the surviving victims and families of the executed. But belief in witches and the trials did not end.  In the new United States a trial and a judicial solution to perceived witch craft became unlikely (and I imagine that the uncritical acceptance of spectral evidence by Samuel Parris in Salem had a lot to do with increasing skepticism) but accusation and hanging by  mobs could still happen.

In Europe women were still attacked and in some cases executed for witchcraft: in Denmark – (1800), in Poland( 1836) and even in Britain (1863). Violence continued in France through the 1830’s. Accusations continued in  the United States as well.  In the 1830s a prosecution was begun against a man (yes) in Tennessee.

Even as recently as 1997 two Russian farmers killed a woman and injured members of her family for the use of folk magic against them.


Writing tools – circa 1795

My first book, A Simple Murder, was written entirely in longhand on lined paper. I can tell you, writing in this way takes a long long time. And the finished product still has to be put onto a computer (unless one wants to type on a typewriter and that’s assuming one can even find such a tool now.)

So, for my second boo, Death of a Dyer, I wrote the entire thing on my laptop. (There are advantages and disadvantages to both but I digress.)

How far we’ve come since Rees’s time.

The quill pen and ink were the approved methods of writing at this time. But paper was valuable and ink expensive. So how did children learn to read and write? I know I had the picture of a slate in my head but Noah Webster says slates were not in common use in schools prior to the Revolution. They came into common use in the late eighteenth century so Rees’s children might have had slates. Rees probably would have used birch bark and would have made his own ink. I can only imagine how pale and unreadable some of those concoctions might have been.

But what about the pencil? Well, although Benjamin Franklin advertised pencils in the early 1700s, they did not become common. First American manufacture of pencils with a graphite core was 1812.

So the frameless slates hung on a string were actually an advance for the early students.

Most of the students were, of course, boys. It was not thought important for girls to learn to read and write, let alone cipher (do arithmetic). Her household duties were far more important. As I have indicated in previous posts, the Shakers were far in advance of this thinking, as they education the girls as well as the boys.

I don’t know if this is true but I read that the shape of the Ipad is based on the slate. Cute.


Cradle to Grave and a Goodreads Giveaway

Beginning November 1, I am beginning a giveaway of twenty copies of Cradle to Grave.

cradle to grave

This is my third book and of the four I have published, and the one coming out next spring, is the one with the most emotional resonance for me. My daughter had had a baby the year before. There were some problems and she had to have a C-section. Then there were some problems with the baby, most of which he has grown out of of. That poor kid was in the hospital more times than I can count.

I had already come across the practice of warning out in my research for A Simple Murder and Death of a Dyer but it wasn’t an appropriate topic for those books. (And I must say, the research for the first two and then Death in Salem were a lot more fun. I love Salem, the Shakers are fascinating and, for Death of a Dyer, I messed around with dyes for months. The research was pretty grim for Cradle.) But I started thinking, what happens to single mothers? How would I feel if I had children and was trying to feed and raise them? What happens to orphans? How could a single mother even try to fight the power structure?

At the same time, I read an article in the New York Times about the practice in Las Vegas of rounding up the homeless and shipping them to California. The more things change, the more they remain the same, right?

I was also babysitting some older children so their mother could work. So, I based Jerusha, Simon and Nancy  on these kids, and the mixed race foundling that no one wanted is my first grandson.

I had to have a happy ending. Spoiler alert.

It may not be the best mystery of the lot but, for me, it has the most heart and the one that means the most to me.