One of the joys of writing historical mysteries is the research. I love it! And as I write the sequel to my award-winning FANNY NEWCOMB AND THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER, I’m still on the hunt for unsavory snippets about barroom brawls, riverboat rivalries, and Canal Street cutthroats in Gilded Age New Orleans.
In addition, I’m always eager for news about any type of death that seems innocent, but that ultimately might really be, well, murder.
I recently came across two strange deaths that raised my mystery writer suspicions immediately. And I can’t wait to use them somehow in a future Fanny Newcomb story.
On the December 29th, 1889, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported this tragedy:
Death at the Dance
Montgomery, Ala. Dec. 28.—At Wetumpka, Ala., last night a social dance was given by the young people at the town hall. During the dance Miss Marie Bates, a beautiful and popular young lady, while dancing with Mr. C. T. Kidd, slipped and fell, her head striking the floor with tremendous force. She sustained injuries which it is feared will prove fatal.
Death by dancing! Makes me wonder: what dastardly dance did her in? Was it a two-step, waltz, or cakewalk? And how exactly did she slip? And why wasn’t Mr. C. T Kidd holding her firmly in his grasp? Or did he deliberately trip her up? Was her death really…murder?
Happily, it seems that news of Miss Marie Bates’ death by dancing was somewhat exaggerated; I can’t find any death notice for her in the Louisiana or Alabama papers of 1889 or 1890. Although it looks like Marie Bates lived to dance again, but my suspicions keep me wondering…how can I use this curious episode in my next book or short story?
This next death—described in the July 22, 1889 New Orleans Times-Democrat—is equally suspicious:
DIED OF DRINKING ICE WATER
Yesterday afternoon at 5 o’clock Mr. Thomas Conlon died suddenly at his residence. No. 120 Pleasant street. Mr. Conlon was overheated and drank several glasses of ice water, after which he was taken ill and died before medical assistance could be rendered him.
Ice water? Really? Or could there have been something—like rat poison—dissolved in the ice water? And medically, could anyone actually die from drinking too much ice water? (Further research shows that, yes, you could, if you had a pre-existing heart condition.)
I’ve got to wonder…in 1889, did people know that ice water could kill you? Or were the police and doctors of 1889 just as suspicious as I am in 2018? Did they wonder about what poison might have been in the water and if so, what did they do about it?
In the end, I’m glad to know that Miss Marie Bates did not die and that there was a perfectly logical medical explanation for Mr. Thomas Conlon’s icy death.
But I’ll always have my suspicions about unusual types of deaths. If I didn’t, how could I write historical mysteries?