Who do You Think You Are? (And a Tale of Missing Fifes)



When I lived in England there was a popular show on the BBC called Who do You Think You Are? In the show, celebrities searched for their family history, traveling wherever a clue takes them in order to discover his or her past. There is also an American version and it’s just as compelling as the British one.

I have long been fascinated by my family history, and when I was in the 8th grade I made a science project about family trees. I remember sitting on the floor at my grandma’s house listening as my Great Aunt Mary and Great Aunt Elaine told me a little bit about the Medved side, which is on my father’s branch. The Medveds were immigrants from Austro-Hungarian Empire and came through Ellis Island. Even though I was only 12, these people, whom I’d never met, fascinated me. Did I look like them? Did we share some of the same habits? Was there anyone in the past who loved to write and ride horses like I did?

Being a historical novelist, I’m even more fascinated by my past, and my Aunt Shirley (the one I dedicated my novel to) is the family registrar on my mom’s side. She and my mother traced our family line all the way back to England in the 1400s.

One of my many times grandfathers was responsible for bringing British emigrants to Virginia in order to settle it. The more people he arranged passage for, the more land the Crown granted him. Most of his land is now a state park. Another grandfather, Bennett Crafton, fought in the Revolutionary War as a major. Normally this piece of info would be interesting, but nothing I would spend a lot of time pondering. Until I found a letter of his, archived in the Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. Photos of my ancestors always amaze me, but I suppose because I’m a writer, letters and journal entries thrill me more.

Here is what he wrote:

Major Bennett Crafton to Brig. General Sumner
Camp Durham Halls, Febry. 6th 1782
Dr. Sir:
By Col. Sewell’s Express I must beg Leave to inform you of my having One Lewis Gant a man who has been Detected in Aiding & Assisting one of the State Legion to Desert. He has been Condemned to serve during the War by a Board of Justices. I should be glad you will let me know what I am to do with him.
I am Sir with Respt.,
Yr. very Hble. Servt.,
Bennett Crafton

A few weeks later my grandpa was writing again. This time you can really hear the irritation that flowed from his quill.

To Gov. Burke, From Maj. Bennett Crafton; Camp at Dr. Hall’s, February 28th, 1782
On my return to Camp last evening, I found the Camp out of provision. I this morning sent to the Commissioner of Franklin County who was ordered by His Excellency Gov. Martin to furnish me with all necessaries for the men and horses until ordered from this station. He has refused to furnish me with any thing further. I am at a loss what to do on this occasion and would be glad if you would send me some orders and let me know in what manner I am to be supplied with provisions, &c, as I have not one ounce of any kind on hand.
There are, since I was down with you, ten men who have joined the Regiment from New Berne District. When I was at Halifax I did not receive the several articles that I much need that I did not mention in the memorandum I gave you, viz; drums and Colors and Fifes, pots and fifty men.

Bennett Crafton

I think I love this letter the best. No sign off, just his name, dammit. I can understand the need for pots (I’m assuming we’re talking cooking here and not chamber). What I really love is the anger over the missing drums, Colors and Fifes. I mean, grandpa, get a grip. Can’t you live without a few fifes and a drum or two? And a Color (or flag) is probably just for show or tradition. It’s nothing to get upset about. But usually, as with most things, it’s the small things on top of the bigger things that tip the boat over. And so it is, that in this last letter, I found the link between my ancestor and me. Like my many times great grandfather, I’m not easily irritated and I have a long fuse, but when something like a missing fife shows up on a bad day, I’m apt to act like Grandpa Crafton. I first name the culprit (Gov. Martin has refused) jump to sarcasm (I have not one ounce of any kind on hand), and then move on to blatant disregard for niceties (Bennett Crafton).

What about you? Is there something in your family history that you’ve found and can relate to? I’d love to hear it.

What’s Your Poison?

That is, assuming that poison is your weapon of choice.  This week, I asked the Corsets, Cutlasses and Candlesticks crew what their favorite historical weapon might be, and received a fascinating assortment of responses.

From Jenn McGowan:

Crossbow! Despite its downsides of not being silent (although more quiet than a gun, certainly) and the lack of a quick-loading mechanism, it’s a great weapon for distance shooting, and is suitable for women and children to wield effectively without heavy training.

Of course, in the halls of Windsor Castle, discretion is king (or queen). To kill most effectively there, you’d more likely choose a sturdy, silent knife–or a well-placed cup of poison.

From Sharon Biggs Waller:

A hatpin! Because of the huge Edwardian hats, hatpins became quite long, over a foot! They were basically skewers with a very sharp end. These were decorative items and meant to secure the hat to the hair (through the chignon or bun) and so they weren’t exactly meant to be used as a weapon. But I can’t imagine any woman worth her salt not reaching for the thing if she were approached by a thief or someone who meant to do her bodily harm. I’ve heard tales of suffragettes using the pins to defend themselves, for instance. They certainly needed it as many men and some police officers became quite violent against them.

Laws requiring a set length and protective corks on the ends were discussed in some cities like New York and Berlin, but mainly to protect passersby and innocent bystanders in crowds who might be scratched or lose an eye because a lady turned her head.


Here is a fabulous illustration teaching a woman how to use a hat pin from a website called The Bartiitsu Society. (www.bartitsu.org). It’s from a 1904 self defense article in the San Francisco Sunday Call newspaper. I love this!

From Jessica Spotswood:

I vote for poison! This article over at Slate suggests that “the weapon was a great equalizer. Murder required administering a poison in repeated or large doses, tasks that women could conveniently perform since they were trusted with the preparation of food and the administration of medicines. As a group, women had plenty of reasons to commit murder, too—lack of economic opportunity, limited property rights, and difficulty in escaping the marriage bond. In his recent book Elements of Murder: A History of Poison, John Emsley describes multiple cases of women who killed to gain courtly power, get rid of husbands, collect insurance, cover up swindling and theft during domestic employment, and receive inheritances.” Fascinating, no?

From Cat Winters:

I second the vote for poison! A character needs to be sneaky and smart to do the job just right. For fun, check out musician Jill Tracy’s diabolically delicious, Victorian-inspired video for her song “The Fine Art of Poisoning.”

From J. Anderson Coats:

My favorite historical weapon is the printing press. Fewer things have brought down kings and lords and governments and the encrusted weight of accepted truth quite like regular people reading and writing and thinking for themselves and sharing ideas with other regular people across time and

And I (Katherine Longshore), unsurprisingly, am fond of character assassination.  In a time and situation where appearance is everything, where others must be made to believe you think like them (or even that you simply like them), a good, believable rumor can work wonders.

What about you?  What’s your poison?

Beating the Heat in Elizabethan England

English merchant (left), noble, and a lady-in-waiting for Elizabeth IThe title is a bit of a misdirection, but it seemed indelicate to call too much attention to a post about how much Elizabethans, well, stunk. But there’s nothing like a steamy summer in Ohio to turn my mind to how our heavily-dressed Tudor counterparts must have suffered through the long and occasionally hot and humid summers of the mid 16th century!

First, I have to clear the air, as it were: Elizabethans were not an unhygienic people. A wonderful book by Alison Sims, “The Tudor Housewife” sets this record straight. Given the limited technology of the period, Elizabethans did the best they could—washing their faces and hands, particularly before and after meals, and bathing as often as it was expedient to do so. Given that a proper bath (which involved dunking oneself in water) required a large wooden tub lined with linens, and water heated from the fire, this did not happen very frequently.

For many peasants, bathing was only possible a few times a year. In fact, one of the reasons why June was considered an excellent time for marriages, is that it happened to coincide with the time where many villagers regardless of station had recently bathed. In between baths, Elizabethans took care to keep their shifts (the long smock worn next to the body) as clean as possible, changing it as often as their circumstances allowed. To the shock of no one, living in the countryside allowed for cleaner living standards than in the heart of the city, but this was less due to an individual’s bathing preferences and more to do with the overwhelming problem of sewage. Without running water, Elizabethans had very little recourse other than to dump bodily and household refuse into the streets. Add to that the heat and humidity of a long summer, and thousands of people crammed together in poor housing conditions, and you can see how living in Elizabethan London might not be terribly enjoyable for the average man or woman.

However, the nobility and royal houses took bathing very seriously. They had endured several generations of dealing with the Plague, and had come to realize that squalid, dirty conditions seemed to contribute to the spread of sickness and disease. In addition to such luxuries as the permanent, plumbed-in bathrooms of Henry VIII at Hampton Court and Whitehall, fine ladies could expect to have at their disposal scented toilet soap and washing water, which included sage, marjoram, chamomile, rosemary and orange peel as potential ingredients. Elizabethans also were interested, at least to some extent, in dental hygiene. While toothpaste was still centuries away from being created, the proper Elizabethan used tools like herbal rubs of rosemary and sage, mouthwash made of vinegar, wine and alum, and minty sweets to clean teeth and freshen breath.

On the subject of scents, there is divided information. Elizabeth was a tremendous fan of pomanders and perfumes, and the assumption has always been that this is because such scents were needed to mask body odors. Sims disagrees, suggesting that perfumes were simply another luxury of the rich. I would counter that, based on my research.  Given the vast array of recipes that existed for various perfumes and scented washing waters, as well as the number and layers of clothes that Elizabethans wore—often without frequent washing of the material—AND the very real problem of a lack of sanitation (and all of its attendant smells), I believe that scents performed a very vital function in addition to their luxury. They helped everyone get through the day with a bit more cheer! In fact, the use of nosegays was quite popular during this time. Nosegays were small items that users held up to their noses while walking through a crowd—such as a tiny bouquet of flowers, a sachet containing dried flowers or herbs, an orange studded with cloves, a sprig of herbs, or the like.

Then again. . . some Elizabethan practices regarding scents were just unfortunate. In one entry, I read where it was common practice for an Elizabethan maiden to peel an apple, place a slice in her armpit to absorb the smell and then present it to a potential suitor as a memento. Which . . . seems unappealing, as it were—at least to my modern sensibilities!

Nevertheless, the next time you hit the showers, apply deodorant, or throw your clothes into the washing machine (or, heck, flush a toilet!), send up a cheer for all of the ways we have today to keep fresh and clean! Elizabethans had a far more difficult time beating the heat.



Happy Birthday!

Whistle jkt legal

Today I’m celebrating two birthdays: my own, and my book’s! Whistle in the Dark is brand new in paperback this summer, and I’m looking forward to this year’s fresh new edition of me. Or whatever.

I love my summer birthday–as a kid, I often got to unwrap a new hardcover book. Here’s the inscription my sister painted inside her gift to me one year.



When Whistle in the Dark was published last fall, the Corsets, Cutlasses & Candlesticks team asked me all about it, and (following Katherine Longshore’s lead on the recent celebration of her new book, Courted) I’ll link to that excellent interview here.  The book enjoyed an exciting first year – appearing on Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2013, and Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Books, 2014, honors I share with many of my writer-friends and idols, and for which I’m truly grateful.

I hope you enjoy a season of summer reading: now that’s always something to celebrate.


Susan Hill Long grew up in New England, and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two daughters. Her books for beginning readers have been published by Macmillan and HarperCollins, and her fiction has appeared in Hunger Mountain. She is the recipient of the Katherine Paterson Prize.




Celebrating COURTED!

The publishing industry is ever surprising, and I was not only surprised but delighted when my publisher announced that two of my novels would be wrapped into one lovely little paperback volume.


COURTED is a compilation of GILT, a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII, and TARNISH, the story of a young Anne Boleyn. I’ve been lucky enough to have been blogging with the Corsets, Cutlasses and Candlesticks crew long enough that we celebrated publications of both books with our trademark interviews.

For GILT, I was asked questions that ranged from “How much of the novel was based on fact?” to “Which character did you most want to slap?” and for TARNISH  “How was the process of writing a second book different form writing the first?” and “Which scene do you think will surprise readers most?”  Follow the links to find out my answers to those and more.

And thank you, dear readers, for celebrating with us, every step of the way!