Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Texas State Penitentiary--And A Giveaway


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Authors often find themselves researching the strangest things. In my story, The Outcast’s Redemption, one of nine novellas in The Secret Admirer Romance Collection, I found myself needing to know details about where a prisoner would have been sent in Texas in the 1860’s. The answer was…the Texas State Penitentiary.

My hero, Lucky Tolliver, was a wayward young man who got himself into a fair bit of trouble in his youth. So much trouble, in fact, that he spent several years in this prison facility. What would life have been like for him, I wondered. To know that, I needed to research the history of the prison. Here’s what I found.

3rd Governor of Texas,
Peter Bell
In 1848, it was decided that Texas needed a prison, and the location of Huntsville, Texas was chosen. The first inmates moved into temporary cells in October of 1849 while permanent structures were being built. By 1853, the Texas Governor, Peter Bell, had discovered just how costly it could be to run a prison. To defray that cost, he built a cotton and wool mill on the prison property, to be manned by the inmates. This served two purposes. The first was to bring in revenue from the sale of the cloth created in the mill. The second was to teach the inmates a skill and the disciplined work ethic they would need to reintegrate into society. By the end of the 1850’s, the inmates were able to process 500 bales of cotton and 6000 pounds of wool per year into finished cloth.

Interestingly, the cotton and wool mill served another purpose during the early half of the 1860’s. It supplied the Confederate Army with cloth for uniforms during the Civil War. The army (along with some of the civilian population) purchased so much inmate-made cloth that the gross earnings exceeded $1 million.

Postcard depicting the South View of the Texas State Penitentiary
However, after the Civil War’s end, things changed in the West. Many soldiers from both the North and the South left their respective homes and traveled west to the frontier. Lawlessness increased, and as the only prison left standing in the Confederate states at the end of the war, this prison’s population exploded. The Texas government was nearly bankrupt, and the population of the state wouldn’t agree to a tax increase to pay for more prisons, so a creative solution had to be found. This ushered in the “convict lease system.”

The new system would have come about at exactly the time when my hero, Lucky, would have been at the Texas State Penitentiary—the late 1860’s and early 1870’s. So what was the convict lease system? It was a program that allowed private citizens to “lease” manual labor from the inmates of the prison. They could be hired to build the railroad, work private farms, or dig rocks in nearby quarries. Businesses which were hired to build out new prison cell blocks and remodel the existing buildings used inmates for the physical labor. Those inmates who weren’t leased to private individuals or businesses remained at the penitentiary to work the various mills and workshops like the cotton and wool mill located on the prison grounds. The goods made in those facilities were then sold on the open market for revenue to run the prison.
The view from within the prison walls, circa 1870.

So that was the snapshot of Lucky’s prison life that I needed. He would’ve been put to work, possibly outside the prison walls. That fact lent itself nicely to the fact that, during the course of my story, Lucky was a hard worker, trying with all his might to reform himself from his wayward youth and remake himself into an upstanding citizen. I’ll let you, the reader, decide if I accomplished the task of making Lucky’s transformation believable.

It’s Your Turn: Would you have been brave enough to hire prison inmates to work on your private farm or business had you had such an opportunity? Why or why not? Make sure to leave your email address along with your answer, and I’ll select one reader to receive an autographed copy of The Secret Admirer Romance Collection (drawing to be held on May 30).


Declaring one’s love can be hard—even risky—especially when faced with some of life's greatest challenges. Separated by class, time, distance, and more, some loves must remain secret until the time is right. Instead, notes of affection, acts of kindness, gifts of admiration, and lots of prayer are circulated. From New England mansions to homestead hovels, love is quietly being nourished and waiting for the right time to be revealed. But when love can finally be boldly expressed, will it be received by love in return?




 Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Internet of the Old West



Scams, advertisements and demands from “Prince Wants Your Money;” Sound like your e-mail? You’re close. Only back in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was called the telegraph.  Not only did the telegraph create a quicker way to get junk mail, it changed the way Victorians lived, did business, received news and, yes, even fell in love.
In his fascinating book, The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage tells us that there really is nothing new under the sun.  Meetings, chat rooms, games, and illicit affairs were just as prevalent 150 years ago as they are today.  And what, for that matter is a text message but a telegram, the high cost of which forced people to be brief and to the point?
If you think acronyms are a modern concept, think again. Telegram security was an issue and secret codes were devised.  Government regulators tried to control this new means of communication, but failed. Sound familiar?
Though the telegraph was first conceived in the 1600s and an optical one developed in the 1700s, it took a tragedy to make the dream of fast communication over long distances a reality.
Samuel Morse: A Love Story
Samuel Morse was an artist commissioned to paint a portrait in Washington.
Photo: wikipedia
Upon receiving a letter informing him of his wife’s sudden death, he returned to his New Haven home as quickly as possible.  But he had already missed her funeral.  This had to be very much on his mind seven years later when in a chance conversation aboard a ship he learned that electricity could travel along any length of wire almost instantaneously.  Unaware that others had tried and failed to create a fast way of communications using this method, he immediately set to work.    
What Hath God Wrought?
It took Samuel Morse twelve years to perfect his invention and many trials and tribulations, but he was convinced that this new way of communicating would allow a husband to reach a dying wife’s bedside or save the life of a child.  He thought it might even prevent wars.  

His hard work and perseverance paid off.  On May 24, 1844, he sent the telegraph message "what hath God wrought?” from the Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to the B & O Railroad Depot in Baltimore, Maryland.
No longer was it necessary to communicate solely through trains, mail or messenger. Even Morse himself couldn’t have imagined how telegraphic communications could change society.
Boon and Bust for Outlaws
Esther Bubley [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons




Then as now, the first to embrace the new technology were criminals. The first telegrams sent were horse bets and lotteries.  A man named Soapy Smith opened a fake telegraph office in Skagway, Alaska during the gold rush of 1897. The wires went only as far as the wall. The telegraph office obtained fees for "sending" messages from gold-laden victims.
Though outlaws such as Butch Cassidy routinely cut wires or jammed telegraph keys to prevent lawmen from tracking them down, the telegraph eventually helped put an end to the train robberies that plagued the west. 
Western Union might have been the first equal opportunity employer; women telegraphers were prevalent.  The ratio of men to women in the New York office in the 1870s was two to one.
Wire romances bloomed and one couple even married by telegraph. However, not all online romances had a happy ending.  In 1886, The Electrical World magazine ran an article titled The Dangers of Wired Romances. That same article would no doubt be just as timely today.
Tom Standage wrote that time traveling Victorians arriving in today’s world might be impressed with our flying machines but they would be unimpressed with the Internet. They did, after all, have one of their own.

Did you or anyone in your family ever send or receive a telegram? 



There's a new sheriff in town and she almost always gets her man!



B&N 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Bayeux Tapestry

by Susan Page Davis



The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the world’s most curious art objects and historical records. It’s probably the most detailed and most complete existing account of the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066, and also gives an overview of life in England and France during the eleventh century. Although a few minor historical errors have been discovered in its content, it is extremely accurate as far as can be told, and therefore is generally accepted by historians.
This work of art has always been referred to as a tapestry, despite the fact that it is not really one at all. Tapestry is cloth made on a loom, with the design woven in. 

Photo—Norman Cavalry in tapestry: By Myrabella - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25450703
However, the Bayeux Tapestry is actually embroidery. On long strips of bleached linen, the story was stitched using the method known as crewel embroidery, in which woolen thread or yarn is used instead of floss.

The pictures were probably drawn lightly on the linen first. It was then given to teams of craftsmen (or women) who did the actual embroidery. The work is made of eight long strips of linen, which were probably worked separately and sewn together after the embroidery was completed. Done in eight bright colors, the finished tapestry is 230 feet long by 20 inches wide. It depicts fifty scenes.

The theme of the piece is Harold’s downfall and William the Conqueror’s subjection of England. The most important and detailed scenes are Harold’s sacred oath to support William in succession to the throne of England, the death and burial of Edward the Confessor, Harold’s coronation, the preparation of William’s invasion fleet, and the vast, finely detailed battle scenes with which the tapestry ends.
Captions in Latin help to explain some of the scenes and to identify some of the more important characters.
 
This scene shows Harold taking his oath on relics to William the Conqueror. Public domain photo.

For many years, the tapestry’s origin was shrouded in legend and romanticism. Many believed it was created by William’s wife Matilda and her ladies while their husbands were off conquering England. As her personal gift to her husband, Matilda had a special ship built and outfitted to carry William across the English Channel. This ship was called the Mora. It is depicted in the tapestry as the finest in the fleet of seven hundred or more vessels that transported the soldiers, armor, supplies, and horses to England.

After the Conquest, Matilda became Queen of England. Although it is now almost certain that she had nothing to do with the making of the tapestry, many people continue to believe the legend. In France, it is still referred to as La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde, or “Queen Matilda’s Tapestry.”

Permission to use granted under the GNU free documentation license: Copyright (C) 2000,2001,2002 Free Software Foundation, Inc., 51 Franklin St, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1301 USA

The prevalent belief today is that Bishop Odo, half-brother of William, ordered the tapestry made for display in his new cathedral at Bayeux, a small town near the sea in Normandy. Nothing is known about the designer, except that he or she was highly gifted and skilled and probably a Norman, since the entire story is told from the Norman point of view, with Harold’s breach of his sacred oath emphasized. Also, a great deal of Nordic detail and mythology is seen throughout the tapestry.

Strangely enough, most historians now believe the tapestry was constructed by English needle workers at the School of Embroidery at Canterbury, in Kent. One reason for this is that Bishop Odo was made Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings. The promise of lands for all was the main incentive used by William in raising his army.

The tapestry was completed after the Norman Conquest, probably between 1070 and 1080. Much of the truth about the events portrayed may have been lost, since the work was probably based on the reports, rumors, and gossip that followed the invasion.
 This portion of the tapestry portrays Harold as he arrives to inform William that he is the successor to King Edward. Public Domain.
 
After its completion, the tapestry was taken to Bayeux, where it was hung around the nave of Bishop Odo’s new cathedral, which was consecrated in 1077. There, all could see Harold’s sin and downfall, followed by the glorious triumph of the Normans. A treasured item at Bayeux Cathedral, the tapestry was displayed mainly on feast days and holidays. For hundreds of years, it was reverently cared for and cherished there, with little notice taken of it by the outside world. 
During the French Revolution, it received some damage, but was saved from destruction. It was carefully and meticulously restored. Later it was exhibited in Paris, and after that it was moved many times and incurred damages which again had to be repaired. It is now permanently on display at the former Palace of the Bishops of Bayeux, in a special hall.

Bishop Odo himself is depicted a number of times in the tapestry. It is assumed that, since he commissioned the work, it was considered polite to mention him as often as possible.

Susan Page Davis is the author of more than seventy published novels. A Maine native, she lived for a while in Oregon and now lives in western Kentucky. Visit her website at: www.susanpagedavis.com , where you can sign up for her occasional newsletter, enter a monthly drawing for free books, and read a short story on her romance page.