The Shakers

With the upcoming release of The Shaker Murders in two weeks, I thought I’d review some of the facts about the Shakers.the shaker murders

First, they are still in existence, but there are very few. Although there were eleven when I began my research, there are only three now. These three live in Sabbathday Lake in Maine, near Alfred. They live as the Shakers have always lived, although the schoolhouse is now a library/repository of Shaker history.

Begun by Mother Ann Lee in the 1700’s, they are in effect an evangelical offshoot of the Quakers. (The name Shakers means Shaking Quakers). Ann Lee brought her small band to the new country from Great Britain in 1774. They set up their first colony just outside of Albany, calling it Niskayuna. The remnants of it are still there although the fields are now under the Albany airport.

The Shakers were celibate and men and women were separated. It was a top down organization and each ‘Family’ was run by two Elders and two Eldresses who were themselves under the main headquarters. (Later on that was New Lebanon in New York.)

Perhaps because their spiritual inspiration came from a woman, from the first, men and women were of equal importance. Eldresses were of equal clout in running the community. (This in a time when women could not inherit from their husbands unless he specifically named her in his will. Otherwise, she was in the care of her eldest son.) To keep their numbers up, they took in apprentices as well as orphans. Boys were taught to read, write and ‘figure’ in the winter while girls were educated in the summer. (Another difference from the outside world. Illiteracy was epidemic and girls especially were not taught to read.) By the time the children grew up, they knew how to run a farm as well.

The work was divided along gender lines, with the Brothers working outside and the Sisters doing the cooking, cleaning and so on. They also made whips and brooms (the Shakers had the patents on a number of items including the round broom and the humble clothespin), sold seeds and had a very profitable business in herbs, primarily medicinal. As anyone who has priced Shaker furniture knows, it is very costly.  But it is perfect. The Shakers soon developed a reputation for perfection. They had a saying: ” Hands to work, hearts to God”. Work was valued and good work served to honor God. An imperfect job could not be offered to Him.


Goodreads Giveaway -The Shaker Murders

I am happy to announce I am running a giveaway on Goodreads for the newest Will Rees. The Shaker Murders begins with Rees joining Lydia and his family at Zion the Shaker community. The next morning he is awakened by a scream. His roommate has been assaulted: hit in the head and then dropped in the laundry tub to drown.

The Elders and Eldresses prefer to believe it is first an accident, and then with the death of a disabled boy, the work of someone from the World. But Rees begins to believe there are secrets within the community itself that has lead to the murders.

The Shaker Murders is officially released February 1. Be one of the first to get your copy.

the shaker murders

Speaking engagements

I had the pleasure of speaking at two libraries over the weekend. I met with a group at the Florida Library (in New York) on Friday and spoke at a fundraiser in Cohoes on Sunday. (It is pronounced Co-hoes, accent on the second syllable).

This is one of my favorite things to do. I do talk about my books, but the best part is always engaging the audience. I enjoy answering the questions and finding out what readers think. And it is sometimes surprising. We might have a long conversation about American History. Usually we talk about the Shakers. Or both shipping and witches in Salem. I did not realize how many see Will Rees, my main character, as self-centered.

I also get suggestions, some of which I take.Always a pleasure for me to get out into the world.

The Luddites

A friend called me a Luddite the other day after a fit of yelling about computers.. (I am actually good with computers. But after my laptop crashed in June, I still haven’t gotten my finances straightened out. According to Quicken, I am $14,000 in the hole. Hence my rant about computers in general and online banking in particular.) But I digress.

The name-calling prompted me to research the Luddites. Yes, it was a real group – of weavers and other textile workers in the early nineteenth century. New weaving and spinning machines were coming into the factories.The owners said that the machines were more efficient – they probably were – and would make cloth cheaper – and they did. (The word ‘shoddy’ came into being shortly thereafter. Coincidence? I doubt it.)  The weavers were not opposed to the new machinery; that was not the issue. The problem was greed.

Weavers spent seven years in an apprenticeship before they could set up shop. Now they feared that the time and effort put into this craft was wasted. They had reason to worry. As the factory owners fired the men, they hired women and children, who they paid much less, to work instead.This was the beginning of six year olds working 14 hour days in a factory.

So the men protested. They blackened their faces and broke into the factories to destroy the new and expensive machinery. They purported to follow a fictional character called Ned Ludd(a stocking weaver) or another fictional personage King Ludd. Thus the name.

The British Government sided with the factory owners and made breaking machinery a capital crime. Soldiers were sent to quell the protests. A large number of men (both members of the protests and not) were swept up and accused of being Luddites. Those that were found guilty were either executed or transported. That ended the protests very quickly.

The situation was slightly different in the United States. The first textile factory came into  being in Massachusetts in 1814. Lowell, who had seen the textile machines in Great Britain, wanted to do the same in the U.S. (The city of Lowell is named for him.) He built his first factories beginning in 1816. But the  United States had a smaller population and there was not a large number of unemployed men so there was not the same labor pool. To solve the problem Lowell hired young women, who became known as mill girls, between the ages of 15 and 35. He of course paid them less than men. (To his credit, he chose not to employ children.) The mill girls were housed in company owned boarding houses, were strictly chaperoned and offered other ‘improving’ activities so the jobs had decent working conditions. This changed as the century wore on. The mill girls unionized, went out on strike a few times, and finally joined forces with another union.

Since my character,  Will Rees, is a weaver he is going to be affected by the increasing industrialization. In fact, will lose his profession in less than twenty years. He will be in his middle fifties by then, however, a fairly advanced age for the time, so he will have missed this huge change by only a few years.

Bouchercon and More

I haven’t blogged for awhile. Quite awhile. We moved and moving absorbs all of your energy, psychic as well as physical. Now we are unpacking which is almost as bad.

The week, yes, one week after moving, we left for Bouchercon in Florida. This was another wonderful conference. St. Pete’s was actually cooler than New York! And a wonderful breeze off the water kept the air pleasant. The Vinoy hotel was magnificent. I love this chandelier in the Grand Ballroom. It was huge. It looks like glass snakes, doesn’t it?


I attended several great panels. And, of course, I sat on a panel of my own. Jonathan Putnam (Lincoln and Speedwell mysteries) Christopher Huang ( a new author who writes about the 1920’s) Laura Anderson ( who writes about the Tudor Period). The panel was moderated by James Ziskin who writes the Elly Stone mysteries.


I also had the opportunity to talk to several authors I admire besides those on my panel. I greatly enjoyed meeting R. J. Koreto who writes the Alice Roosevelt and Lady Frances Folks mysteries set in Edwardian times.

As usual, I came away with a long list of authors that I now have to read!


The Shaker Murders

After the events in A Devil’s Cold Dish, Rees and family return to the Shaker community of Zion seeking refuge. But Rees barely arrives when the body of a murdered Shaker Brother is found in the washtub. More murders quickly follow. Surely the Murderer cannot be a Shaker!

I am happy to announce this sixth Will Rees mystery will be published by Severn House, coming out in the United States next spring (2019.) I just finished the edits on the ms and sent it off. The seventh book, working title Simply Dead, will be published the following spring (2020).

I am hard at work on the eighth.

When I have a finalized cover, I will post it.

Princess Helen

My knowledge of Helen is taken from popular culture: movies, myths and the like. I began to realize that I actually knew very little of the story. I picked up a biography by Bettany Hughes called: Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore.

Very interesting.

One of the things that has always puzzled me is the description of the God Apollo – the sun God. He has blond hair. Why?  This is Greece after all.  Helen is always described as blond. And Menelaus is described as having red hair.

Like all of the countries in Europe, Greece has seen regular influxes of new people. In the Neolithic and Paleolithic such movements populated islands like Crete. But once a area is populated a wave of new people is viewed as an invasion.

The Mycenaeans were one such group. Described by archeologists as an Indo-Duropean culture, they swept onto the Greece mainland and then to Crete. By around 1500 B.C. the pottery and architecture on Crete, although heavily influenced by the Minoans, was now Mycenaean. And they were a warrior patriarchal culture.

But I digress.

These Mycenaeans apparently carried genes for both blond and red hair.

Helen is also described as fair and white-skinned.  Pale skin certainly goes with blond hair, that is true, but I think the association with fair skin and beauty has a much longer history. Both Egyptian and Cretan art color males as reddish-brown. The women, even the bull-leapers wearing loincloths like their male teammates, are white. White lead for the skin has been found in tombs. (So white lead to whiten the skin has a long history – take that Queen Elizabeth I.) Some of the frescos and cult figures show women with that unnaturally white skin. Red circles are painted on their cheeks and chin and the scarlet suns are surrounded by dots.  The research I have done suggests these decorations had some religious meaning but I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

Anyway,  Paintings of Helen right through the Middle Ages portray her with an almost corpse like pallor.  Why is that considered beautiful?  Because she clearly did not toil in the fields?

The other cosmetic used throughout the Mediterranean is kohl. We are familiar with the frescos that show both men and women with the heavy black lines around their eyes. The use of kohl actually had a practical purpose: it protected the eyelids from sunburn and acted as an insect repellent. A recipe for kohl includes charred almond shells, soot, and frankincense. It must have been incredibly sticky. However, it was probably necessary.

In the well-known bust of Nefertiti, one eye is blind. Is the statue damaged? Or is this an accurate representation of Nefertiti? Caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis, trachoma is easily spread through direct personal contact, shared towels and cloths, and flies that have come in contact with the eyes or nose of an infected person. If left untreated, repeated trachoma infections can cause severe scarring of the inside of the eyelid and can cause the eyelashes to scratch the cornea (trichiasis). In addition to causing pain, trichiasis permanently damages the cornea and can lead to irreversible blindness.

One other note. Writings from that time, including Homer’s Iliad, describe Helen as ‘shimmering’ and ‘glittering’. Besides the jewelry she wore, Helen would have been dressed in the finest of clothing. According to Hughes, the linen clothing of that time would gave been brushed with olive oil which leaves a shiny residue. So she actually would have glittered. Who knew?