If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? --Albert Einstein

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Back to the Classics Challenge 2013

Okay. So this past year, I attempted my very first reading challenge. I pledged to read and review nine classics by December 31st. I read five. Five books I wouldn't have read otherwise, though, which I found personally enriching. This year, thanks to the blog, Sarah Reads Too Much (, I'm trying again. For the 2013 version, there are only six required books to read in predetermined categories, and five optional ones. The six main categories and my choices are below:

Nineteenth Century Classic: Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Twentieth Century Classic: Light in August by William Faulkner
Eighteenth Century Classic: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
African-American related Classic: Beloved by Toni Morrison
Classic Adventure: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Animal-related Classic: Call of the Wild by Jack London

Thanks to Sarah for hosting this challenge. Stay tuned for my reviews throughout the year.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Truth About the First Thanksgiving

This week millions of kindergarteners dressed in paper Pilgrim hats or Indian headdresses. They learned how these English adventurers came over on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom, and in 1620 at Plymouth Rock, gave birth to the American experiment. They also learned of friendly Native Americans like Squanto who cheerfully helped the settlers.

It’s all a nice story. But according to the research of James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, the facts may be a mite different.
For instance, the passengers of the Mayflower were not the first settlers in the New World. Obviously, people had lived here for about 12,000 years—likely much longer.

Yeah, but weren’t they the first non-Native group? Nope. In 1526, nearly 100 years before the Pilgrims set foot in Plymouth, Spaniard left African slaves in South Carolina when they abandoned a settlement.
Okay, then. The first European settlers.  Wrong again. You’ve heard of that group seeking religious freedom, right? The Spanish Jews who made their homes in what is now New Mexico in the late 1500s? Thanks to the Spanish, America now has horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs. None of these are native to the Western Hemisphere.

First English colonists? Remember Jamestown, Virginia, 1607? Sure, you do. But they don’t get much coverage in our history books. There, instead of friendly Squanto, the English took Indians prisoner, demanding they explain their farming techniques. Instead of a great shared feast, the Virginian English offered a toast to the friendship between them and two hundred Native Americans, only to have all the Indians drop dead from poisoning. These fools never farmed. They were too busy digging random holes in search of gold. They finally had to hire themselves out to the Native Americans as servants just to survive. Not exactly the story we want our five-year-olds re-enacting in November.
Okay, okay. So they weren’t actually the first. No. And they didn’t exactly carve a colony out of the wilderness. Likely due to European fisherman off the Massachusetts coast, diseases unfamiliar to the native population ravaged between 90 and 96 percent of them. Entire villages were deserted. According to Loewen,  the Pilgrims “chose Plymouth because of its beautiful cleared fields, recently planted in corn, and its useful harbor and ‘brook of fresh water.’ It was a lovely site for a town. Indeed, until the plague, it had been a town…”

 A few other misconceptions and I’ll finish with my myth-busting. First, out of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, only 35 were actually Pilgrims. Most were seeking their fortunes like real Americans.
Also, the kindly Squanto, who “mysteriously” knew English, may have learned it when he was kidnapped by an English slave trader in 1614 and sold into slavery in Malaga, Spain.

And, as a final insult, the Indians thought the Pilgrims stank. Since they thought it was unhealthy and immodest, the Pilgrims rarely washed and resisted poor Squanto’s efforts to teach them the benefits of a bath.
Wonder if they’ll act that out in kindergarten.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Who You Calling a Paunchy Toad-Spotted Harpy?

In my book, Aroon, there’s a heck of a lot of animosity between the characters as there is in any self-respecting plot. Hence, I need tons of insults and they had to be current in 1750. You’d be surprised which of our libelous vocabulary is relatively recent.
A mild word like “jerk” has only been around since 1935. “Jackass,” meaning stupid person, only came to prominence in 1823. Can’t use it.  “Bastard” has been in use since the thirteenth century, but I need some variety in my abusive language.
Imagine my glee when I googled “Medieval insults” and found the Shakespeare Insult Kit at Check it out. They give three columns with words in each taken from the Bard’s various plays. Start with the word “thou,” then choose one phrase from each column. It’s fun. Here are two I’ve put together:
Thou frothy flap-mouthed foot-licker. (I love alliteration.) OR
Thou yeasty onion-eyed pignut.  (Now I didn’t actually know what a pignut was, so I looked it up. It’s the tuber of some European plant. Which isn’t bad either: You yeasty onion-eyed tuber!)
If this isn’t fun enough—and it is—try the Shakespeare Insulter at Here you hit a button that says “Insult me again” and a bonafide slight straight from one of Shakespeare’s plays comes up. And let me tell you, he was the master of mockery. Here are a couple I got:
“Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins!” compliments of Richard III
“We leak in your chimney.” from Henry IV, part I (Now I’m not positive what that means, but it certainly sounds gross and demeaning.)
“Thou wouldst eat thy dead vomit up, And howl’st to find it.”Henry IV, part II (Ewww)
And you thought Shakespeare was too highfalutin for you. His plays have been around for four hundred years for a reason. Needless to say, our modern-day mud-slinging now seems mundane and repetitive. Where’s our flair? Where's our creativity?

As in all areas of life, when in doubt, turn to the master.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Mystery Mystically Unmasked

My favorite part about research is the unexpected discovery. This comes in many forms and is always exciting, but what happened last week was exceptional.
I lost my mother in September. I am not ready to write about this yet, except in the context of this ironic occurrence. While we are South Carolinians now, Mom spent her first fifty years in New Jersey. Last weekend (just days before the devastation to our home county by Superstorm Sandy) a memorial service was held there in her honor.

Although I did not make the trip, the very day before the service, I was connected to Mom through a distant cousin’s email who found me through This lovely woman wrote to ask me about my mother’s family and to see if I could identify the people in an old photo she had.
I certainly could. Front and center stood my six-year-old Mom making her First Communion. I have seen very few childhood photos of her, so this is a great treasure.

Beside her is her younger sister, Margie, my aunt and godmother. The taller girls are their cousins. My grandfather, Luke Pryor, is the dapper gentleman on the right and the tall man is his older brother, John Benjamin Pryor III. Both are grandsons of John Benjamin Pryor, the trainer of the legendary racehorse, Lexington, and his ex-slave wife, Frances Bingaman. The older woman is my great-grandmother, Luke and JB III's mother.
Long-time readers will know that I have been trying for some time to definitively determine the parentage of Frances Bingaman. That’s where the unexpected discovery comes in. This distant cousin, a genealogist extraordinaire, has copies of the death certificates of Frances and her sister, Cordelia. Both list their parents as Adam and Amelia Bingaman.

This answers two questions. Yes, I am the descendant of the colorful plantation owner, Adam Lewis Bingaman of Natchez, Mississippi, but not his New Orleans placee, Mary Ellen Williams. I had determined that Mary Ellen Williams was too young to be Frances’s mother, but another descendant found “Millie” listed in their family Bible. “Millie” is obviously short for Amelia, mother of Frances, Henrietta, Amelia, and Cordelia—all mixed-race daughters of Adam Bingaman.
Mystery solved in a remarkable way at a most significant moment.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Writer's High

Meeting authors, chatting with agents and editors, winning an award—all in Myrtle Beach! And the weather was exquisite. For writers, it was Nirvana. Last weekend I attended the 2012 South Carolina Writer’s Workshop Conference at the Hilton resort and I couldn’t have had a better time.

Friday night, my husband, Wendy, and I attended an outdoor reception where fellow Aiken critique group member, Steve Gordy, introduced me to published authors, agents, and best-selling writers of the future. Being naturally shy, this was a blessing. It is incredibly uplifting to speak with people who all share the same passion.
Soon we filed into the banquet where I was awarded first place in the Novel First Chapter category of the Carrie McCray Memorial Literary Award. I am humbled by and proud of this honor. This year, they included the winning pieces from all categories in the annual anthology, The Petigru Review. It was a thrill to see my writing in print.

I was also excited to meet one of the judges of the competition, Barbara Claypole-White, an enthusiastic writer who offered me a tremendous amount of encouragement. Her book, An Unfinished Garden, just came out in August and is wonderful. Watch this blog for my review.
Each time I go to a conference, I like to “stretch” myself and this time I chose to make a pitch for my book to an editor. The conference scheduled a slot for me for ten dollars, a bargain for such an opportunity.
To pitch, you’re expected to excite an industry professional with your book idea in a one- or two-sentence summary, hopefully delivered from memory. I was a nervous wreck. Wendy drilled me throughout the four-hour drive to Myrtle Beach and at random times after we arrived.

Finally my 2:15 appointment arrived. After a minimal amount of small talk (too nervous), I blurted my spiel, hopefully not too fast. Nothing actually came of it, but I DID IT. Later that night, Wendy and I celebrated with a bottle of Asti Spumanti.
I am greatly encouraged by two agents who invited me to send them my book for their consideration. It’s not quite ready, but I am pounding the keys. A door has opened and I’m determined to walk right through.

Shameless plug: Search for The Petigru Review Volume 6 or click here to order a copy for $9.99.

NOTE: If you're a writer from South Carolina, look into the SCWW. This organization has schooled me, guided me, and encouraged me. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Results Are In!

Pryor ancestors: my grand-
father, great grandmother,
and aunts
Well, my DNA results came back. They’re confusing. And somewhat unexpected.

When I sent my saliva off, I told my mother what I had done and what we might expect. “We may find out which African tribes we’re from.”
If you’ve read any of my previous posts on this topic, you know my great-great grandmother was born a mulatto slave and married my great-great grandfather who worked on her plantation in Mississippi.

“What if we’re Zulu?” Mom asked.
“Zulu?” Not the response I expected. “We’ll hold our heads up,” I said. “It means we have spirit, that we don’t take it from The Man.” I was getting wound up. “We won’t have our identity defined by some 1960s propaganda movie.”

“Mmm,” was all the response I got.
In this regard, I am disappointed. Not only did we NOT find out where in Africa we originated, there is no mention of Africa at all. In fact, the results are listed in generalities, not specific countries or regions.

So where was I from? Eighty-four percent of my genetic material is from the British Isles. No surprise. Growing up, I identified myself as three-fourths Irish and one-fourth English.
But I am also 12% Eastern European. That would include anywhere from Estonia to the Ukraine to Greece. I have discovered no indication of any such ancestry. France, yes. Belgium, maybe. But those areas were not represented at all. Instead, I may have Romanian blood. Who knew?

The final four percent is listed as Uncertain. Ugh! Very frustrating. My African ancestry must be included in that. According to, “Uncertain’ usually means that you have traces of a specific genetic population that were too low to pinpoint to an ethnicity.” So, I told my mom, no Zulu—that we know of.
My mercenary daughter said she was not mentioning her African roots anymore. “Two percent of uncertain won’t get me any scholarships.” Pitiful.

This process has created a lot more questions. But, notes that, as their data grows, they may have more answers. Onward—the journey continues.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Last Discoverer of America

Does Christopher Columbus matter? You bet. Historians use his accomplishment to delineate different epochs in world history, especially that of the Western Hemisphere. Days before 1492 are known as Pre-Columbian. The only other person I’m aware of who has influenced our view of history to that extent is Jesus Christ.

Also, Columbus Day is one of only two national holidays named for an individual. He is an American hero.
But what about that discovering America stuff? There is evidence, even very strong evidence, that other (non-Native American) people set foot on American shores before Columbus. “Hello-o-o,” I can hear them saying. “Where's our holiday?”

The spirits of Thorfinn and Gudrid Karlsefni, Norsemen who led a party of hopeful colonists to Vineland (now Canada) in 1005, may be shouting, “Hey, Columbus visited Iceland in 1477. Who do you think clued him in to the existence of another continent?” There’s no proof of that, but a man of Columbus’s curiosity surely would tune into the epic tales of these journeys that Scandinavians continued to recite.

Oh. You’ve heard about the Viking voyages. How about the Phoenicians and West Africans?
Olmec statues--you decide
There's lots of evidence, albeit controversial, that early Africans migrated to Mexico. Statues of Olmecs, “ranging up to 9 feet and 4 inches in height, with a circumference of 22 feet, and weighing 30 to 40 tons, … depict helmeted Black men with large eyes, broad fleshy noses and full lips. They appear to represent priest-kings who ruled vast territories in the ancient New World from provinces near the Gulf of Mexico,” according to Legrand H. Clegg II in his article, “Before Columbus: Black Explorers of the New World.” [] There are also claims of African skulls found in the area.
"Where did you say you got those points?"
Columbus himself wrote of meeting the Arawaks of Haiti during his second voyage. The Native Americans showed him spear points made of “guanine,” claiming black traders from the south and east brought them. They were made of the same alloy used in West Africa, where it was also called “guanine.”

There are claims by historians of pre-Columbian visits from Siberians, Indonesians, Japanese, Chinese, Irish, and Polynesian explorers as well.
The heroified version of Columbus

So why the heroification of Christopher Columbus? Many reasons, but one might be that his was the right voyage at the right time. Due to a number of reasons, Europe at that time was ready to embrace this new “discovery.”

Whether hero or villain, the man was an adventurer who greatly influenced world history. But, like all historic figures, he did not work in a vacuum. The real story—which deserves to be examined—is bigger and more magnificent than one guy. A combination of events, people, cultures, and trends created a “perfect storm” for Christopher Columbus to define an epoch and get his own holiday.
I can feel the rants of the other explorers from here.

Many of the ideas in this post came from Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, an excellent starting point for re-examining our historical myths.
Photos came from the website of the Library of Congress.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Genealogical Journey

I’ve written a fair bit on this blog about investigating my ancestors. Now I’m taking an exciting leap. Via Ancestry.Com, I put my name on the waiting list a few months back to have my DNA tested. Last week, to my great excitement, I was informed my number had come up.

Collecting data
According to the site, “unlike the other tests, which only tested the Y-chromosome or Mitochondrial DNA, AncestryDNA uses an autosomal DNA test that surveys a person’s entire genome at over 700,000 locations.” I will be provided with an ethnicity map that pinpoints from where in the world my ancestors came and discover just how diverse my background is.  
They give you only seven days to respond, so I wasted no time putting the $99 on my credit card. The kit arrived last Friday. Saturday morning, I began to spit. And spit. And spit.

The box they sent included a test tube with a little funnel on top. I had to dribble and drool until my saliva came up to the black line. And you can’t count the bubbles!
Then I removed the funnel and sealed the tube with the enclosed cap. Into the special sealed Baggie it went, then into the mailer. Around noon, I deposited the key to unlocking my genetic mysteries into the mailbox.

The wait begins…
Sending off my spittle

Friday, August 17, 2012

An Unwelcome, Unwanted Haitus

It's been a while since I've posted on this blog, but I'm back! On June 24th, my mom had a heart attack and we've been working on getting her well ever since. She's been home from the hospital, incident/event-free for eleven days now and gets better and and stronger every day.

For those who've been aware of our situation and sent cards, food, have visited, and/or have kept her in your heart and prayers, she, our family and I are profoundly grateful. We are now travelling the road toward her increased stamina and a return to independence.

UPDATE: Mom lost her battle on September 25, 2012. She is already profoundly missed.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Am I a "Janeite" Now?

Romances are not my genre of choice, but I truly enjoyed Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The writing, while clearly in typical nineteenth-century style, was not bogged down with description like many books of that era--or even some romance novels of today. I found the characters engaging and especially enjoyed the sassy protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet.

Elizabeth and her four sisters are anxiously looking for advantageous marriages to prevent the poverty they face at their father’s death. Having no male heirs, the family estate will be inherited by a distant cousin.

The story revolves around the complications of the Bennet household that includes a detached dad, a mother with the sensibilities of a fifteen-year-old, and five young women engaged in a myriad of flirtations and romantic entanglements. Elizabeth is the most intelligent of the daughters and more adverse to an unhappy marriage than a reduced station in life, proven by her refusal to marry the cousin in question.

Elizabeth meets Mr. Darby, the close friend of her sister, Jane's, beau, and immediately finds him detestable. She is appalled when he also requests her hand in marriage and, in no uncertain terms, tells him exactly how she feels about him. Not your usual demure ingenue. By the next morning, however, she makes discoveries that shake her formidable self-confidence to the core. A tumble of events follows that kept me glued to the book until the last word.

The story takes place amid the conventions and hierarchy of the nineteenth-century English gentry which fascinated, yet confused me. Published in 1812, Austen assumes these practices and class distinctions are common knowledge, but to me, they are quite foreign.

However, due to the author’s delightful writing style, colorful characters, and intriguing setting, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and plan to add Sense and Sensibility to my reading list. So include me on the long list of Jane Austen fans. I am now a "Janeite."

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Making Sweetgrass Baskets

Miss Margaret's sweetgrass baskets
Last month I gave myself a birthday gift--sweetgrass basketmaking lessons. To me, this is the best kind of research there is. Hands-on!

I am very interested in the rice culture of colonial South Carolina. I hope for it to play an important role in one of my books. While my husband attended a professional conference in the Georgetown, South Carolina area, I toured an old rice plantation, Hopsewee.

I will write more on the plantation itself soon. While I was on the website investigating what they had to offer, however, I noted they offered the basketmaking class. I promptly emailed them and signed up.

Miss Margaret
On a very soggy May 9th, after touring the plantation, I met Miss Margaret outside their tea room where she had surrounded herself with her works of art. This craft was brought to the Charleston area about 300 years ago by West African slaves, and the methods and designs have changed very little since then. Miss Margaret informed me that some within her community were unhappy about these lessons to outsiders, but my participation was purely for fun and curiosity.

I was the only student so I got the best possible attention. The baskets are made from a local reed called sweetgrass which has the most wonderful natural scent. Apparently it is quite hard to come by these days, as I was informed by my tutor. “I don’t know who would sell it to you,” she said.

Again, not to worry. If I get very ambitious, pine straw is also used and we have a glut of that in my town. The bands that weave the grasses together are made from strips of palmetto fronds, which are specially treated to keep them flexible. That secret is also safe; I don’t know how to do it.

Miss Margaret started a basket for me before I arrived. “I don’t teach people how to start ’em,” she told me. I really don’t know what the community is worried about. She obviously left out plenty of crucial information.

The tool I used
I watched closely as Miss Margaret worked. We used a simple tool made from the handle of a spoon which had been rounded and smoothed by one of her family members. With this, I eventually learned to work the grass and bind the rows together.

Miss Margaret is seventy-five years old and has worked this art all her life. Although I am basically a shy introvert, I felt immediately comfortable with her and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Her personality was delightful.

I’m not sure how she felt about me as a student, however. When learning, I like to repeat the instructions given in my own words to be sure I understand. On a couple of occasions, while I did that, she leaned forward and said, “LISTEN to me!” and repeated her instructions more slowly. Hmm.

Finally, she said, “You’re a school teacher, right?”


“You ask an awful lot of questions,” she said flatly. I don’t think it was a compliment.

Well, within two hours I made myself a little basket to collect--whatever. I had a fun time learning something most people don’t know and met a perfectly charming person while doing so. On top of that, I have a very cool conversation piece in my den.

Happy birthday to me!

My masterpiece!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Another Roadblock, Another Lead

It’s been eating at me. Am I a descendant of Adam Bingaman and his consort, Mary Ellen Williams? I love to watch Finding Your Roots on PBS and wondered if matching a DNA test with a known descendant was possible. Like I’ve got that kind of money.

There are many people who list my known ancestor, Frances Bingaman Pryor, as one of the couple’s children, but more academic investigations do not. So I decided that if it could be verified chronologically, I would make the leap of faith that we are descended from her.

According to census records from England in 1861 and 1871, Frances was born in Mississippi around 1826. Her sister, Cordelia Bingaman, lived with her in England and died in New Jersey at the age of 63. I found her obituary in the old Red Bank Register of 1891. Therefore, she was born around 1828.

But when was Mary Ellen Williams born?

Looking for evidence of Cordelia’s earlier life, I discovered that both her name and Mary Ellen’s were listed on the New Orleans Register of Free People of Color. This information has been bound in a book published by Le Comité des Archives de la Louisiane. I had to have a copy.

When it arrived in the mail, I boldly ripped open the envelope. The answers to my questions lay inside. I flipped to page 126 and there it was.

Mary Ellen Williams registered as a free person of color in April of 1857 following an act of the legislature allowing her move from Natchez. This I knew from previous investigations where her protector, Adam Bingaman, had appealed to his legislative cronies to act on Mary Ellen’s behalf. At that time she was thirty-eight years old.

That puts her year of birth at 1819. She would have been seven years old when Frances was born. Mary Ellen Williams is NOT my ancestor.

HOWEVER, Cordelia Bingaman is also named in the register. To my surprise, she was listed in 1857 as the three-year-old daughter of Amelia Bingaman. This was not my great-great aunt, Cordelia. But it says that her mother, Amelia, was born in Natchez in 1827. Could she have been another sister to Frances and Cordelia? Did she name her daughter after her own sister?

On, a descendant of Amelia Bingaman lists her mother as the child of Adam L. Bingaman and a woman named Millie. Could Millie also be the mother of Frances?

Stay tuned as I delve into this possible link.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"The Feast of All Saints"

While Ann Rice can be credited for starting our modern fascination with vampires* (The Vampire Chronicles), her second novel, The Feast of All Saints, is a study in the 1840’s New Orleans world of the gens de couleur libres, or free people of color. As I have noted in earlier posts, the system of plaçage played a huge role in the lives of these people, a life I believe my ancestors knew well.

Rice’s website describes her book as “a painfully historically rich and accurate novel that delicately and clearly draws patterns of irony and injustice together through complex family relationships and social structures.” In 2001, it was made into a mini-series with an all-star cast which Rice claims is the most faithful adaptation of her work. See the trailer below:

Watching this movie added another layer to my understanding of the privileges and deprivations imposed on those then called “colored.” Amazingly, the mini-series has been divided into twenty-one segments and posted on YouTube, but for a less chopped-up version, we rented from Netflix. Either way, it’s a fascinating scrutiny of this long-ago way of life.

*These days we are inundated with vampires. Hollywood has even turned Abraham Lincoln into a “vampire slayer”! (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) Is there no end?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Benjamin January, Detective

“A lush and haunting novel of a city steeped in decadent pleasures...and of a man, proud and defiant, caught in a web of murder and betrayal.”

So begins’s book description of A Free Man of Color, the first in the Benjamin January mystery series.

Like millions of others, I love a good mystery. But what sets this series apart is where it is set--in New Orleans of the 1830s when the transition from a Spanish/French culture to an American one was just beginning. The protagonist is also unusual. Benjamin Janvier/January is a man of mixed heritage, but free. His mother was a mulatto slave, freed to become the placé e (consort) of her master and she took her slave son, Ben, with her. The boy grew to be educated in Paris, as was the custom for young free men of color, where he became a trained surgeon as well as an accomplished musician.

Life circumstances, including saving his own skin, led him to also become an amateur detective. You see, the murder in this story was that of a young, ravishing octoroon during the Bal de Cordon Bleu, the Octoroon Ball where placé es were presented.

Now you see my interest in this book. If you have read my posts (go to Labels in sidebar, click "placage") regarding my family history, you will know that I suspect my ancestors have been part of the tradition known as plaç age. One way to research a lifestyle is through fiction, thereby utilizing the research of someone else. Truth be told, doesn’t all research depend on the knowledge and discoveries of someone else?

I'm reading this one now.
Of course, I do not take the customs and lifeways of novels as facts. But they are a jumping-off point to verify such things on my own. For instance, author Barbara Hambly has the Octoroon Ball held a mere passageway from a corresponding ball for legitimate wives, daughters, and nieces. This is fascinating and amazingly bold of these husbands and brothers, but I have yet to find confirmation of this practice from another source. It may just create great story tension--which it does when a plantation mistress, the former student of January, sneaks into the Octoroon Ball in disguise moments before the murder takes place.

If this period of history and the very unique racial hierarchy of New Orleans interest you--and you love a good murder mystery--I highly recommend this book. There are at least eleven books in the series and I am reading the second now. I will tell you that the beginning is a bit of a struggle to keep straight with several characters having confusing French names. But stick with it; it soon becomes clear and exciting.

With the search into my past, I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new world I had never heard of before. Research boring? I don’t think so.

Monday, May 14, 2012

"I went to Manderley again..."

I first read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier in the eighth grade and loved it for its romance, but more for its darkness and mystery. Now, about forty-six (yikes) years later, I loved it again, but obviously with a new view.

This English romantic suspense written in the 1930s features a protagonist whose first name is never revealed. Du Maurier later stated she just couldn't think of one. However, the very young lady’s companion falls into company with the older, more cultured Maximillian de Winter, master of the country estate, Manderley. The two meet in the south of France where he is recovering from the tragic death of his wife, Rebecca.

They fall in love, marry, and return to the beautiful, yet oppressive manor house. There, when compared to the fabulous Rebecca, the new Mrs. de Winter falls painfully short in the eyes of the servants, friends, and family of her new husband. She finds the memory of her “perfect” predecessor an overwhelming obstacle to happiness. And then things go bad.

The second Mrs. de Winter is meek, unsure, and eager to please--a good description of my eighth-grade self. She is not beautiful or classy like Rebecca had been; it seems she has little fashion sense or charm of any kind. Again, a good description of me at thirteen. I could feel her humiliation at each faux pas and snide remark about her hair, her skirts, even her reticence to offer opinions.

Now, closing in on sixty, I read the book from my post-menopausal perch and mentally urged the character to speak up, ask questions, talk to the more friendly characters, wishing on her a confidence I only learned over years. Yet, I fully empathized with the girl and pulled for her every step of the way.

Another difference is the lifetime of experiences that helped me comprehend the complications and deep personal risks for the players. My goofy little grade-eight self had no reference for such emotions--except fear and humiliation. But the story grabbed both “me’s” with equal passion.

Rebecca, it seems, has the greatest trait of a classic story: it holds up over decades. Here is a book I loved as much at thirteen as fifty-nine, albeit for different reasons. It has a depth that appeals to many aspects of the reader and never disappoints. I cannot recommend this book more strongly.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Who's Your Daddy?

In 1869, the Supreme Court of Louisiana published its recent findings, including Case No. 1639, St. Felix Casanave, Administrator, v. Adam L. Bingaman. To understand the premise of this case, please read the post below or click here. Otherwise, suffice it to say that Adam Bingaman and his consort, Mary Ellen Williams, may well be my ancestors.

I don’t know if these two guys hated each other or were just greedy; either is possible. Casanave was unofficially Bingaman’s son-in-law. I found a letter from 1860 written by Mary Ellen Williams to inform her friend, as she says, “of the marriage of my daughter, Marie Sophie Charlotte Bingaman to St. Felix Cazanave” in the St. Louis Cathedral on April 30th of that year. Yet, Charlotte’s obituary lists her by her maiden name and as Casanave’s consort. Casanave was mulatto like her, so I’m confused.

Either way, on July 12, 1867, following the drowning of his brother-in-law, James, Casanave put through the paperwork to be named administrator of the boy’s considerable estate (again, see the previous post).

On the 9th of July, three days before, Bingaman had filed a claim that he was the boy’s natural father and sole heir. Court records state that ol’ Adam had formally recognized his mixed-race children in July of 1865. To do that, one needed to make a formal statement before a notary public and two witnesses. The lower courts recognized this as legal and named Bingaman as the heir.

This seems to have incensed Casanave, who took the case to this higher court. Quoting the court’s decision, “The grounds upon which the plaintiff chiefly relies are: First, that the defendant was not the father of J. A. Williams; second, defendant could not legally acknowledge him” because Louisiana laws forbid a white man from “legitimating his colored children.” Casanave claimed that Bingaman’s profession of fatherhood came after years of public denials and it was “evidently made in the exclusive interest of himself, and was therefore inadmissible without additional proofs…”

This is where it gets sticky. Further research took me to the New Orleans’s newspaper, The Times-Picayune, which printed the obituary of Casanave’s wife/consort, Charlotte, under the name Bingaman, taken from the man he claimed was NOT the father of her brother. Also, I was stunned to discover Charlotte was already dead before her brother’s tragic accident, and Casanave had remarried two days after James died, merely two months after Charlotte’s death. I smell greed.

Whatever the case, the court didn’t give much weight to any denials of paternity Bingaman might have uttered. They probably made a few such denials themselves. To the point that it was illegal to do so, they claimed the law only forbid such recognitions when the children were deemed “adulterous and incestuous bastards.” Harsh. Since no incest had occurred and Bingaman was not married at the time of their conception (his wife was deceased), the judges saw no impediment to his declaration of fatherhood.

They did make clear that “illegitimate children who have not been legally acknowledged, are allowed to prove their paternal descent provided they be free and white; provided also, that free illegitimate children of color may also be allowed to prove their descent from a father of color only…”

We can’t have a darker version of the master knocking on the plantation door, crying, “Papa!” now, can we? But since this was a white guy claiming his child of color, and no wife existed to be disgraced, it was okay.

Chalk another one up to the Good Ol’ Boy System.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Consort--A Profitable Career Choice

Wow! These relationship issues in nineteenth-century New Orleans are confounding.

Yesterday, while combing the internet for clues about Adam L. Bingaman and Mary Ellen Williams, I happened across a Louisiana Supreme Court case pitting Bingaman against his daughter’s “husband,” St. Felix Casanave, a free black man of New Orleans.

It seems Mary Ellen died in 1861 and left her three minor children her considerable holdings. Her son, James Adam Williams or Bingaman (take your pick, he was known by both), perished when the steamer, Fashion, sank in December of 1866. He had no heirs nor will and was worth $25,197. Look at that again--$25,197. That translates to around $664,000 in today’s money!

Stop and think here. He was only one of Mary Ellen’s three heirs. She was either a freed slave or a free woman of color from Natchez who became Adam L. Bingaman’s consort. I don’t know if all her children were given equal portions of her fortune, but chances are, in today’s terms, she was a millionaire! Holy cow! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but I am blown away by this.

When I first learned of her existence, I pictured her and her children living in a small cabin on the edge of Bingaman’s plantation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It also lends credence to her having been a placée. Those relationships between a free woman of color and her white “protector” as he was called were based on a legal contract. Certainly one must have been in place for her to accumulate such treasure.

Think about this. While socially considered beneath a legal white wife, the placée could keep her money and holdings. Once married, all a wife's wealth became the property of her husband. She personally owned nothing. Oh, the irony. (I resisted another !)

Anyway, Casanave and Bingaman were arguing over who got James’s property. The dispute must have been heated since it went all the way to the state supreme court.

Stay tuned to my next posting for the lowdown on this complex legal battle.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"Left-Handed Marriages"

New Orleans placee*

Researching my great-great grandfather’s nineteenth-century world, I came across a curious practice called plaçage. Mariages de la main gauche, or left-handed marriages, were common in New Orleans and other French and Spanish colonies. Within this system, prominent white, and later Creole, men could enter into common-law type marriages with African, Indian, or Creole women, thus evading the law prohibiting mixed unions.

My ancestor, John Benjamin Pryor, was a prominent horse trainer who worked for Adam L. Bingaman, a rich Natchez planter and well-known racing aficionado of the day. Pryor married Frances Bingaman, my great-great grandmother. She was a woman of color, very possibly Adam Bingaman’s daughter, but my research is not definitive on that.

If so, she was also the daughter of Mary Ellen Williams, Bingaman’s concubine. Sources conflict as to her status. Was she a free woman of color or a freed slave of Bingaman’s? I wonder if she was a placée, a woman “placed” with him through this curious system.

Female Quadroon
It worked like this: A wealthy white gentlemen might attend a Quadroon Ball for the steep price of two dollars. There he could mingle with teenaged quarteronnes or quadroons and their mothers. A quadroon was one whose father was white and mother was mulatto, therefore one-quarter black. These girls and their mothers were free women of color and this was their ticket to a good life.

The young girls were dressed in the best Paris had to offer, at great expense to the mothers, and were guaranteed to be virgins. Once a man made his selection, he requested the girl’s “hand” from her mother and a contract was negotiated.

Through this agreement, the girl and her mother were placed in a clean white cottage near Rampart Street, the edge of town, where the man could stop in each evening on his way home from work. Any children from the union were to be recognized, well-kept, and were often educated in Europe.

Asher Moses Nathan and his son
The mistress promised to be faithful throughout his or her life. She became part of a separate class of people--not raised to the status of her white counterparts, but above the lowly slave. She may even have had her own servants.

This practice was also prevalent in Natchez and surrounding cities, which leads me to wonder if Mary Ellen Williams was a placée. She and Adam Bingaman actually lived together openly in New Orleans in his declining years.

New Orleans is an exotic place with an exotic history, and the practice of plaçage only adds to its mystique.

*This portrays Marie Thereze Carmelite Anty Metoyer. It and the Nathan portrait were done by free black painter Jules Lion.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Justice for William Johnson and Trayvon Martin

The murder weapon?
One aspect of research that amazes me is that historical events I come across are often remarkably similar to news of the day. It reminds me of old saws about history repeating itself and the more things change.

One of the biggest news stories today revolves around Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was shot in Florida by a local white watchdog/vigilante. People of all political stripes agree that if racial identities were reversed, the gunman would be in jail.

The journal of William Johnson I recently got in the mail abruptly stops at June 14, 1851. Known as the “Barber of Natchez,” Mr. Johnson was a prominent member of the free black community in antebellum Mississippi. As I mentioned in my last post, he wrote of his day-to-day business and personal dealings for fifteen years. He is not my ancestor, but wrote of my ancestors in his diary.

He was only forty-two when he stopped writing and I wanted to know what happened. As you might guess, he died--but not of natural causes.

According to the Natchez Courier of June 20, 1851, “Our city was very much excited on Tuesday morning, by hearing what could only be deemed a horrible and deliberate murder had been committed upon an excellent and most inoffensive man. It was ascertained that William Johnson, a free man of color born and raised in Natchez, and holding a respected position on account of his character, intelligence and deportment, had been shot.”

Apparently, he and a fellow named Baylor Winn had not gotten along for some time. On this day, they were arguing over a boundary when Winn shot and killed Johnson. Winn was arrested and put on trial three separate times, keeping him in jail for two years. But then he was released.

Why? Because the courts could not decide what race he was. Although he was thought by all to be of mixed white and African American blood--hence, black--he claimed to be of white and Native American heritage. Mississippi law prohibited black people from testifying against whites. Since the only witnesses to the murder were black, no one could testify against Winn, and he was acquitted.

Today, we have a kid who was targeted for “looking suspicious.” His “crime” appears to be “Walking While Black.“ One television commentator even opined that Martin brought it on himself by wearing a hoodie. (I wear hoodies all winter long.) We don’t know all the details yet, and Zimmerman (the Florida gunman) has yet to be arrested or tried, but it sure seems like he is getting a pass men of color could not expect.

Winn sat in jail for two years, as the system tried to get justice in an unfair world. In my opinion, even if found that Zimmerman acted in self-defense as he claims, let’s get it all out in a court of law.

Apparently today, as in 1851, our stereotypes and misconceptions have us tied up in knots.

*Information on William Johnson’s death came from the website “Natchez City Cemetery” at

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Diary: A Window into the Life

Lexington: trained by my great-great
grandfather, J.B. Pryor
In an online newsletter from The Reading Room, I found a good explanation of why I write historical fiction.

It asks, “Are you inquisitive, investigative and interested in almost everything? Are you looking for facts as answers?” YES

“If so chances are that you are an avid non-fiction reader.” ABSOLUTELY. IN BOOKSTORES, I ALWAYS MAKE A BEELINE TO THE NONFICTION SECTIONS.

“Do you want to know how it would feel to be in someone else's skin? Do you want to imagine what they would smell, hear, feel, see or say?” SURE DO.

“If so you are probably more of a fiction reader.” I DO ENJOY A GOOD STORY. 

“And what about readers who like the mix of both questions and answers? If you fall into this last category you will really enjoy…historical fiction…a very demanding genre [that] requires extensive research and great imagination.”


This research can include genealogy, a great source of ideas. I have written a good bit about how I stumbled onto the premise of my story, Aroon, but through family tree investigations, I have found a story that could write itself. (See sidebar, Pryor Knowledge) It seems I come from far more fascinating stock than I ever imagined. 

One of my favorite ancestors is my maternal great-great grandfather, John Benjamin Pryor. A prominent horse trainer, he was best known for his work with "Lexington," the premier racehorse of the 1850s and the leading thoroughbred sire since pre-Revolutionary days. Pryor worked for Colonel Adam L. Bingaman of Natchez, Mississippi, and married Frances Bingaman, who may or may not have been the colonel’s daughter by his black mistress, Mary Ellen Williams. The plot thickens.

Which brings me back to why I love writing historical fiction. I am very curious about people's lives in the past—their hopes, their dreams, what made them laugh, what made them cry. But usually, we know little more than their dates of birth and death. Fiction can fill in the gaps.

UNLESS—someone writes a diary or journal. Yesterday in the mail, I received a copy of William Johnson’s Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro. It is the “lengthiest and most detailed personal narrative authored by an African American during the ante-bellum era in the United States” according to the introduction. And my ancestor, John B. Pryor, is mentioned seven times. Mary Ellen Williams, possibly my ancestor, is noted three times. And if Adam Bingaman is Frances’s father, another ancestor is mentioned seventy-seven times!

This book covers fifteen years of the day-to-day lives of free African-Americans in the pre-Civil War South. Through William Johnson's eyes, I'm hoping to peek in on my forebears, symbolically tap them on their shoulders and ask, "Who are you?" 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Poetry in the Raw"

Do you have children? If so, you have been awarded the delicate task of naming a human being. This seems so simple to middle school girls; they can discuss the names of their future sons and daughters for hours. In the fifth grade, my daughter was to be named Abigail. I had three chances to use that name and it never happened.

One thing little girls forget is that their child will have a father, who may not have sat around his boy scout campfire comparing names with his buds, but who has definite ideas about the names of his own children. And sadly, he does have a say.

For better or worse, people have impressions about who you are as soon as they hear your name. As a kid, I once lamented to my mother that no famous person had my name, Mary Beth.

“Oh yes,” she said. “There was an actress named Mary Beth Hughes. But she didn’t fit the name.”
Mary Beth Hughes:
the Anti-Me

Me: “What do you mean?”

Mom: “She was very glamorous.”

Thanks, Mom.

According to Confucius, “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.” So I guess my Plain Jane name is in accordance with the truth of things. Sigh.

A quote from W.H. Auden: “Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.” I like that, too. It emphasizes the important task one has when naming someone.

It is not trivial, then, to consider the names of the characters of your novel. This chosen name will carry a piece of their personality to the reader. There are blogs and websites galore to help authors choose the perfect name, and an entire book (Character Naming Sourcebook) on the matter. When I googled it, I got over twelve million hits.

So I took it very seriously last week when a member of my critique group questioned the name of one of my main characters, Margaret or Marg with a hard G. It sounds too close to her antagonist, Maeve, for one, and the female lead should have a softer sounding name, for two.

I brought this up to my husband, who said, “I never liked that name.” Oh.

I first went to Ancestry.Com to look through the names of my paternal ancestors, almost all of whom were Irish. I came up with Ann. My husband vetoed that. Too plain, he said. The part he did like about Marg was that it was not ordinary.

Next, I googled "Irish girl names" and found This is a very marvelous site. Not only do they have lists of girls’ and boys’ names, they have the Gaelic version (with far too many consonants. sorry.), as well as the English versions, and their meanings. As a really cool bonus, they have Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, read each name so you can get the actual pronunciation. I love it!

My husband and I agreed that, of my short-list names, the best is Eveleen (pronounced Ay-Vleen). It is not too strange since Evelyn is another version of it, but has enough of the exotic to be, as Auden says, poetry. And it has no hard sounds; it is soft and melodious. So Marg becomes Eveleen. Um, it also has the benefit of being close to the name of my sister, Evelyn, and I owe her. But that’s a story for another day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

iPod Research

Mumford and Sons
I am going to confess to a guilty pleasure: I am enthralled by American Idol contestant Joshua Ledet’s performance of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Maybe a better verb would be ‘obsessed.’

Since his Wednesday night performance, I have watched it online more times than I can comfortably admit. If you haven’t seen it, it's worth the five minutes. Click here.

Joshua Ledet
I am hypnotized by the passion in his voice, but also by his body language, and the intensity of his facial expressions. Every atom in his body is expressing the powerful emotion of this song. He brings chills to my spine and tears to my eyes.

It is my dream to engross my readers in the emotions of my characters in much the same way. Obviously, a very tall order.

While Google searches, interviews, books, and newspapers are great research tools for information, I find music is one of the best resources for the emotional tone of my writing. My iPod has African drumming for my Stono Rebellion research, Colonial music for my Revolutionary War story, and Gregorian chants for the Middle Ages.

As you can see in the sidebar, my story, Aroon, has the clash between the poor Irish and the English gentry as its primary theme. While walking this morning, I listened to the contemporary music of Mumford & Sons, introduced to me by my daughter. “They’re an Irish band,” she said. “You’ll love them.”

She got that half right. I do love them, but they aren’t Irish. They’re from West London, yet I believe they have an Irish flavor. My favorite song, “Dust Bowl Dance,” is speculated to have been based on Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Reportedly, the band has said they’ve been influenced by East of Eden, which I reviewed, ironically, in my last post.

However the writers were inspired, I find it speaks to my book and the struggles of the poor Irish during the time of the Penal Laws. The intensity of emotion in the song helps me imagine the suffering of my characters. Have a listen:

To me, both the music and the lyrics express the anger, despair, and even desperation of the oppressed in a way that cries out to the heart over the head.

That is why music is a critical resource. It immerses me as a writer into the feelings that create the emotional core of the story. In short, music will help me write the way Joshua Ledet sings.

Monday, March 12, 2012


After finishing John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I have two thoughts: (1) I’m going to have to reread this book, and (2) I should have read it years ago.

Steinbeck uses his own family history to intermingle the stories of two families and three generations to probe the story of Cain and Abel of the Biblical book of Genesis. This is an exploration of good and evil, and sibling rivalry. Half-brothers Adam and Charles Trask struggle to win their dishonest, but formidable father’s affection and respect. Adam marries near-sociopath Cathy Ames, who also sleeps with brother Charles. They have twin sons, Aron and Caleb. Both sets of brothers are prototypes for Abel and Cain.

The most compelling theme of the book, however, is the very nature of our purpose here as people. Samuel Hamilton (Steinbeck’s grandfather), Adam Trask, and his servant, Chinese-American Lee, discuss the different translations of the Genesis story.

“Don’t you see?” he [Lee] cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin [do thou], and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel--‘Thou mayest’--that gives a choice. It may be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open.”

The concept of choice, free will, is central to the point of this story. We are not governed by our circumstance of birth and heritage. We may choose. The very idea frees the characters and can free the reader as well.

The philosophies in this book are deep and so I will need to reread. There are so many subtleties, I know I did not catch all in this first reading and I will read this book again, possibly many times. I give East of Eden the highest recommendation.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Execution by the State

Because he had expressed sympathy for the peasantry of their distress, Father Nicholas Sheehy was convicted on a trumped-up charge of murder, in the town of Clonmel in 1766, and was hanged, drawn and quartered. His grave in Shandraghan soon became and place of pilgrimage, and his death provided later generations of Whiteboys with a patron saint.
--“The Course of Irish History”, page 186

The above is the catalyst for my journey to discover Father Sheehy. That’s all that was written about the martyred priest in this history, but as I’ve told you before, my curiosity was piqued.

I had read the expression “drawn and quartered” before this, but to be honest, did not really know what that meant. What was the procedure for this form of state-sanctioned execution?

Well, if anyone tells you we are a more violent society now than the good old days, feel free to use the classic Joe Wilson line, “You lie!” We are justifiably squeamish about the electric chair (see The Green Mile) and unsettled over lethal injection. But a mere two hundred years ago, a more heinous method of legal extermination than many of us can imagine was performed before entertainment-hungry crowds.

If a person was convicted of high treason against the crown, he was first drawn by horse or sledge to the place of execution. He was hanged, but not until dead. Still alive, he was cut down so that his intestines could be pulled out and burned before his very eyes. I can only imagine the person became unconscious or dead at this point from pain and loss of blood.

But he then had his head cut off and his body ripped into four parts (quartered), usually with an arm or leg in each. Sometimes horses were tied to each limb and driven in different directions in order to tear the body apart. The heads were then spiked and left to rot in a prominent location--a grisly example to others.

Father Sheehy’s execution was held on March 15, 1766 (Beware!), the day after he was sentenced. According to an account by Jerry Griffin of Clogheen, he was brought out of the jail where he blessed the people and proclaimed his innocence. He also said of his persecutors and jury, “I forgive and pity them all, and would not change places with any of them.”

Since the hangman’s noose was directly across the street from the jail, it is doubtful he was drawn on a sledge. He was hanged until dead, so did not have to witness the burning of his entrails that followed. He was quartered and his head spiked before the jail for twenty years.

This horrifying death was typically reserved for treason. Yet, Father Sheehy had been charged, tried, and acquitted for treason. In evidence of the hatred toward this man, although the charge was murder, he suffered this most grievous punishment.

Below is a clip from the series, The Tudors, in which Catherine Howard’s “playmates”, Culpepper and Dereham, are executed. The first was fortunate enough to be decapitated, but the second endured the same terrifying execution of Father Sheehy. The clip portrays the horror of this death without showing the most gruesome parts.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The John Tuohy Files: Final Chapter

Saint Mary's Church, Clogheen*
I stood outside St. Mary’s Church of Clogheen, studying the monument built to Father Sheehy’s memory in 1991. Each side had symbolic reliefs, which I was photographing when John Tuohy and Caspar strolled up.

This was John Tuohy’s church and his passion; he had already told me much about it and his diocese. It was built in 1864, nearly a hundred years following Father Sheehy’s execution, but the martyred priest’s church no longer exists.

Monument dedicated to
Father Nicholas Sheehy
On our way inside, Tuohy pointed to a young tree, still held up with cables to steady it. “We planted that tree in honor of the victims of 9-11,” he told me. I stopped and looked for a moment, stunned really. So caught up in the tragedy ourselves, I was reminded that the whole world was affected. The little tree touched my heart.

Inside, the sanctuary was larger and more ornate than I expected. It held a medieval beauty with its very high ceiling and statues atop each pillar. John Tuohy showed me images of Saint Patrick, of course, and Saint Cataldo, a monk native to the area who became shipwrecked in southern Italy following a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He settled there and became as beloved, they say, as Saint Patrick is to the Irish.

The view of the church from
the choir loft*
“Would you like to see the choir loft?” he asked after the sanctuary tour.

Of course, I would. He unlocked the door with an old skeleton key and up we climbed the narrow staircase to the balcony. This was an unexpected treat. The view of the church from there was gorgeous.

He brushed some papers from a stool beside the organ and invited me to sit. It was then I learned that my tour guide was none other than the church’s organist. He offered to play for me.

Monument panel:
Fr. Sheehy saying mass
3rd from bottom
Wow! He played “How Great Thou Art” and two other hymns. I was certainly taken aback and resolved never to forget it. “Reality check,” I remember thinking. “You are in Ireland, in a small town’s beautiful church, in the choir loft, while the organist plays music just for you.”

Life takes wonderfully unpredictable turns.

John Tuohy reminded me of one of my favorite people, my grandfather, Luke Pryor. Both seemed to live rich, full lives in very small towns. Each were somewhat absent-minded, funny, and brimming over with fascinating stories. Without a doubt, during my fantastic two-week stay in Ireland, my day with John Tuohy was my hands-down favorite.

*Photos with asterisks are from the parish website at