It's a Mystery--Baby Mabel's Death

(Please note: If this article sounds familiar, you may have read another version of the story that I posted on the Borrowed Book Blog several years ago.)

I love writing fictional mysteries--walking my sleuths through clues to a satisfying conclusion. I'm also fascinated by true-life mysteries. And when the mystery is one involving family, it’s even more fascinating.

Mabel VanArsdale

This particular mystery began almost twenty-five years ago, when my grandmother and I were going through a box of old photos. I came upon this picture of a baby (see photo), and my Grandmother said, “That was Mabel. She was born two years before me (1896) and died when she was eight months old.”

“How did she die?” I asked.

My grandmother shrugged and said, “Some sickness called phantom.”

I questioned her further, but she remembered nothing else. I had no clues to aid me in discovering what this disease or illness was that killed little Mabel. At that time, in the early 1980s, computers weren’t personal, so I had no access to anything even resembling Google.

My wonderful grandmother died a few years after that discussion. With her passing, I lost the only person who remembered little Mabel and her tragic death. I entered her into my family tree, then wrote down the few facts I knew on the back of the cardboard picture and tucked it into my genealogy notebook. But I never forgot her or my desire to find the truth.

Fast forward about ten years when I got my first computer and internet access. I tried to research the disease in the relatively new online world. I assumed the word phantom was my grandmother’s interpretation of something she’d heard as a child. Kids often hear words wrong. I used the spellings “phantom,” “fantum,” and “fantom,” but found nothing in the online lists of old diseases available at that time. Eventually I stopped looking. Mabel’s memory and her picture were once again relegated to my genealogy notebook, but she never left my mind.

Little Mabel remained there until a couple years ago when my husband and I were watching Marshall Dillon (the show that preceded Gunsmoke). I’m fascinated by the history of medicine and disease, so when Doc Adams, the grizzled doctor in the show, diagnosed a cowboy with “brain fever,” I decided to Google it. One thing led to another, as often happens with internet exploration, and I found a site that contained a long list of old-timey diseases and the modern disease equivalents.

Old-Timey Diseases and Their Modern Equivalents

After I read about brain fever, I glanced down the list to check out other diseases. That’s when I spotted Cholera Infantum. Boom! Suddenly I knew what had happened to Mabel. In all likelihood, as a youngster, my grandmother heard about Mabel’s death, and her child’s mind remembered only the last portion of the disease: fantum. Now I had a likely cause of death to put in my genealogy album, along with Mabel’s picture.

Cholera infantum was a ruthless, brutal summertime killer of babies and small children during the 1800s. Despite its name, it was not really cholera and was not caused by the water-borne bacterium called Vibrio cholerae. The symptoms, however, were similar and included hot head, cold extremities, vomiting, and diarrhea, all of which rapidly led to dehydration and death in tiny children.

The online information I found about this disease is mixed. It includes antique medical texts, which make for fascinating reading, but are lacking in the medical knowledge we have today. Some of those texts say the disease was contagious, others say it was caused by heat. One even said it was caused by hysterical mother’s milk. Can you imagine holding your dying child and having the doctor tell you it was your hysteria and breast milk that caused the disease? Included in the information I found was a present day listing in Wikipedia (which may or may not be accurate) that states that cholera infantum is one of the diseases caused by a family of bacteria called campylobacte. You can read more about this at this link. In the article, cholera infantum is specifically mentioned under "history"

I didn’t pursue detailed research about the causes of cholera infantum because the purpose of my original search was to find Mabel’s killer, and I did that. The mystery of Mabel’s death is solved. I just wish I could tell my grandmother what I found. She would have enjoyed the story of my search, and she would have been fascinated to know what I’d found, just like I was.

Does anyone else have a story like this to share about a long ago family member?

What I Love About Miss Marple

I love a good cozy mystery, and there’s nothing like a review of classic cozies to remind me why I fell in love with the genre. Like most of my fellow cozy authors, I read Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Bobbsey Twins as a little girl. Later came Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Patricia Wentworth, to name a few.  

When I’m asked who my favorite author is, the short answer is, I don’t have one. That’s because there are too many good authors to name just one, or even ten. But as far as cozy authors go, I think Agatha Christie is the queen.   

Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks
I have a set of two books called Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie Murder in the Making. Both are by John Curran, who was given access by the Christie family to the notebooks in which Agatha Christie jotted her notes over the many years of her successful career.  (I recommend these books to anyone who is a Christie fan. They are slightly repetitious, but full of fascinating insight into Christie and her books.)

While cozy mysteries seem simple, they aren’t. They often depend on deep characterization, and, in some cozies, even a bit of caricature. (To write good caricature, the author must have a good grasp of characterization.) The twists and turns of clues have to be presented in such a way to lead to a satisfying ending. The bad guy needs to be obvious, but not obvious. Agatha Christie expresses it perfectly in her biography. “The whole point of a good detective story was that it must be somebody obvious but at the same time for some reason, you would then find that it is not obvious, that he could not possibly have done it. Thought really, of course, he had done it.”

In my cozy-in-progress, I recently changed my mind about who the bad guy is because my original wasn’t developing as I thought he should. That often happens to me as I write a book. Changing bad guys midstream used to make me feel I wasn’t a good author or not organized enough. No more! According to John Curran and the Christie notebooks, Agatha Christie didn’t always know, either. In some of her notebooks, she changed her mind about the bad guys in stories several times.

One of my favorite cozy heroines is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. She is the ultimate amateur detective. My husband and I just finished a Miss Marple marathon. We watched the PBS versions starring Joan Hickson, who is my favorite Miss Marple of all time. The shows in which she stars are some of the only ones to stay faithful to the plots as written by Christie.  

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple
Joan Hickson is perfect in the role in my opinion. In fact, in 1946, Agatha Christie wrote a letter to Joan Hickson after seeing her in a play. She said, “I hope that one day you will play my dear Miss Marple.” That didn’t happen for another 38 years. When Joan Hickson was 78 years old, she filmed the first Miss Marple for television. (Seventy-eight! Wow.)

Miss Marple made her first appearance in print in a series of six short stories published between December 927 and May 1928 in the Royal Magazine. In the first of those stories, Miss Marple is dressed completely in black and sit in her cottage in St. Mary Mead, knitting and listening and solving crimes that have baffled the police. The first full-length book that featured her was The Murder at the Vicarage. In that book, the vicar’s wife describes Miss Marple as “that terrible Miss Marple. . .the worst cat in the village.” On the other hand, the vicar describes her as “a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner.”

And I guess that is the key to a great hero or heroine in a cozy. The character is multi-faceted—seen by the other characters in the story in many different lights. And that’s what I love about Miss Marple. She can be tough, kind, catty, humorous, and even when she acts befuddled, her brain is ticking like the best clock in the world.

The Shelbourne Restaurant Arsenic Poisonings

I like real life mysteries, especially those of an historical nature. Probably because my writer’s mind begins filling in all the details that are lost in time. Often, I even imagine a book in my mind. (If I wrote every book that I imagine, I’d be quite prolific.)

Every once in a while I come across mysteries interesting enough to write a blog about. The Shelbourne Restaurant arsenic poisonings is one of them, and in this case, the mystery was never solved.

The arsenic poisonings happened on the last day of July, in the summer of 1922. That day, the temperature was a balmy 80 degrees in New York. Local employees were eager to escape their office buildings and enjoy the weather. One young woman, stenographer Lillian Goetz, left the office of her employer and walked to a popular lunch spot, the Shelbourne Restaurant and Bakery on Broadway. The restaurant was known for its sandwiches and freshly baked berry pies. That day, Lillian ate a beef tongue sandwich for lunch. Then she chose the huckleberry pie for dessert--an unfortunate choice. She died that day, along with five other people.

An investigation ensued, resulting in the discovery of arsenic in the huckleberry pie. At first, police speculated that lazy exterminators accidentally poisoned the pies, but that was quickly ruled out. Instead, police concluded the poisonings had been deliberate. The lead suspect was a baker at the Shelbourne who thought he was about to be fired.

In 1922, arsenic was still easy to acquire. It was used in rat poison and even in health tonics. Forensic science had a reached a point by 1922 that death by arsenic could be proved in many cases, but pinpointing a killer was still a matter of detective work. In the case of the Shelbourne poisonings, the police weren’t able to prove the baker was responsible, and he was never charged.

Many people's lives were changed that summer day. Grief-stricken family members of the victims lived the rest of their lives wondering who was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. If the baker was guilty, he got away with murder. If he was innocent, he suffered, living the rest of his life under a cloud of suspicion.

I initially read about this incident in a book called The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum. It’s a fascinating read about many poisons.

Who Says Real Men Don't Eat Quiche?

My hubby is on the Atkins Diet. He's lost thirty pounds, which is awesome. Breakfast has been a difficult meal for him because he doesn't have time in the morning to make eggs and bacon or sausage. I found a crustless quiche recipe that contained bacon, but he didn't like that, so I fooled around and developed the following recipe.

Crustless Sausage Mini Quiches
(Makes six muffin cups of quiche)

4 large eggs
1 8-oz package of cheddar-Jack cheese
1/4 cup half & half
1 1/2 tbls. chopped onion, sauteed
1 cup ground sausage, browned
1 teas. sea salt
pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375.

Brown the sausage (I usually make two or three batches at a time and freeze the rest until needed.)

1. Chop and saute the onion.
2. Let the onion and sausage cool a bit.
3. Whisk together the eggs with half & half, salt, and pepper.
4. Add onions and sausage to the egg mixture and stir well.
5. Grease six glass Pyrex muffin cups (I bought some with plastic lids).
6. Divide egg/sausage mixture evenly between the six muffin cups.
7. Put the muffin cups on a cookie sheet.

Bake for 20 minutes.

Let cool and refrigerate.

You can let your imagination go with these and change the recipe. Maybe cut back on the meat and add veggies. Sky's the limit.

Hubby loves these. I can't eat them regularly because I'm allergic to dairy, but I confess I tried a half of one, and they are delish.

Recent Blog Articles from Cozy Mystery Magazine

I recently wrote a couple articles for Cozy Mystery Magazine, and thought I'd post links here for anyone who missed them.
My Mind on Paper

The first one is how I approach writing a new book. It's an interesting look into the chaos that is my mind.

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

The second article is about my love affair with all things cozy, and in particular, Miss Marple, Agatha Christie's famous amateur sleuth.

The Wise Owl Says, "Just Listen!"

Mr. Owl
This little owl is my new office friend. She's hanging from a hook on the floor lamp next to my chair. She makes me smile. Mrs. Owl was an impulse purchase. Walgreens had an endcap filled with all sorts of outdoor décor, and she was among it all. I try not to succumb to impulse buys, but this little girl was too cute. 

There's more to Mrs. Owl than cuteness. She reminds me of a poem I had to memorize in elementary school—like in fourth grade.

A Wise Old Owl

A wise old owl sat in the oak.
The more he saw, the less he spoke.
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that bird?

That simple little poem has come to mean a lot to me. What my child-self saw as a school assignment and a silly poem about an owl, my adult-self sees as true wisdom that I can apply to my life on a daily basis.

“Candice, shut your mouth and listen.”

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone in which they were so busy talking, or so busy thinking about how to reply to what you’re saying, they never really heard what you had to say? In fact, if you said nothing during the rest of the conversation, it wouldn't matter.

There have been times when, on purpose, I've kept my mouth shut during a conversation, nodding and saying mmm-hmm at the appropriate times, just to see if the person notices. Sometimes they don't. The person simply leaves, never once asking me what I think or how I feel or what I've been doing. It makes me sad. . .and I wonder, does that person really know me at all? Do they really value me enough to want to know my thoughts or feelings?

This reminds me that I need to really listen to others, as well. Granted, there are times when someone is ranting, raving, or complaining, and has axe to grind or wants to let off steam. That's not the kind of thing I feel it's essential to listen to over and over again for hours--in fact, after a while, it's rather pointless. I mean giving someone a chance to be heard and understood at a heart level. Making someone else feel I care by understanding their heart.

This is also very clear in my relationship with the Lord. I don't want to be guilty of one-sided conversation, Lord, fix this do that bless me bless others give me blah blah blah. . . I want to endeavor to listen to the Lord through Scripture or through the wisdom of Godly people or His still, small voice deep inside. But to do that, I have to be still and quiet. I have to listen.

There are a lot of reasons that Mrs. Owl is now hanging in my office. Cuteness. A school poem. But I think the most important is to remind me, “Be quiet, be still, observe, and listen."

Missing: Snow Blowing Husband

Today we had a bunch of snow. I’m guessing twelve to fifteen inches, but I didn’t measure. That kind of snowfall meant two things. First, hubby would be using his handy dandy snow blower. Second, Jack the dog would not want to poo because he wouldn’t be able to find his regular poo place. I was right on both counts.

But the thing I didn't expect was to lose my husband. Usually I can keep track of him on snow days by the sound of the snow blower’s motor. Hubby pretty much has a routine he follows, so I stopped listening and began to work on a photo album. I did that for a while and then suddenly realized I couldn’t hear the snow blower anymore. I looked out all the windows. No hubby. I went outside to the shed to make sure he wasn’t there. Nope. I tried to call his cell. No answer. And no answer for the next 90 minutes.

It’s a little concerning when the sun is starting to go down, the weather has turned bad again, and you know your husband is out there somewhere with a snow blower. Next step? Go looking for him to make sure he hasn’t fallen into a snow drift or something. But just as I started down the driveway, here he comes down the street and up the driveway, grinning like a little kid. Yeah. Him grinning. Me frowning.

“Is something wrong?” he asked when he finally reached me.

“Yes! Where have you been!? You didn’t answer your phone! I was worried!” (Explanation points mean that my voice was louder than normal.)

“Oh, I realized that George [a couple houses away] needed his driveway cleared. He’s getting on in age, you know. So I did it. Then they asked me in for coffee. I lost track of time.”

SIGH. Yes, that’s my husband. He’s a good hearted soul who likes to clear everyone’s driveways. He also enjoys shooting the breeze. And he can't hear his phone. You can’t stay irritated at a guy like that.

He apologized. I accepted. We ate dinner and watched a Miss Marple mystery.

Now Jack the dog is sleeping because he wore himself out trying to find his regular poo place. Hubby is sleeping because he wore himself out snow blowing. All is well in the House of Prentice.