The Triangle Factory Fire

I’m working on my next Aggie and Abe historical fiction, time travel novel. This one will focus on the struggles of women garment workers in New York City in the early 1900s. One important event in this history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, occurred on March 25, 1911.

The fire took the lives of 146 workers, most of them young women immigrants. It was one of the worst workplace disasters in U.S. history. The Triangle factory made “shirtwaists” (blouses) and was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the ten-story Asch Building. The building still stands. It is now owned by NYU and is called the Brown Building.

The fire occurred on a Saturday, right before the 4:45 P.M. closing time. It began on the 8th floor and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors. Escape routes were few. Some workers jumped to their deaths in front of horrified onlookers.

Why was the fire so deadly? Many know about a locked door that prevented some workers from escaping. But there are dozens of additional reasons, each contributing to the death toll. Here are a few:

  1. Each floor of the factory was about 10,000 square feet of space. There were only two exit doors on each floor.
  2. On the 8th and 9th floors, one of the two exit doors was routinely kept locked. At closing time, workers were required to line up at the single unlocked door. The handbags of women workers were inspected to make sure they were not stealing thread, fabric, or a bit of lace.
  3. When the fire started, a key was found to open the locked 8th floor door. The locked 9th floor door stayed locked, trapping many workers.
  4. On the 8th floor, a wooden partition created a narrow corridor to the unlocked door making access difficult.
  5. The exit doors swung inward to the room, not outward to the stairs. This was necessary because the staircases were so narrow. They spiraled around a narrow shaft, and there was no room for a door to open onto a landing.
  6. There were only two staircases in the Asch Building, although the NYC Department of Buildings said there should have been three. The developer’s architect argued that since there was a fire escape, it was “practically” another staircase.
  7. The staircase steps were not wide enough for multiple people to go up or down abreast.
  8. One of the two staircases ended at the 10th floor and did not lead all the way up to the roof.
  9. A container of oil was stored near one of the staircases. It is thought to have exploded in the fire, making access to that staircase nearly impossible.
  10. The fire escape that the architect had argued was “practically” another staircase ended at the second story above a skylight that provided light to a basement.
  11. The courtyard at the bottom of the fire escape was surrounded by buildings. There was no pathway or other exit to the streets. It was essentially an airshaft providing no way out.
  12. To get to the roof from the top of the fire escape, those fleeing the fire had to climb a very tall, thin “gooseneck” ladder attached to the side of the building.
  13. The fire escape stairs leading to each level were extremely narrow, approximately 18 inches wide.
  14. To exit onto the fire escape, heavy metal shutters needed to be swung open and secured against the outer wall of the building. If one of these shutters was not secured properly, it could swing open, get stuck, and effectively block the passageway.
  15. The fire escape was shoddily constructed and unable to bear the weight of dozens of people. During the fire it collapsed, sending many workers to their death.
  16. The two passenger elevators that were operating on the day of the fire were small, less than 5 feet by 6 feet, and designed to hold about 15 people. Approximately 500 people were working at the factory on the day of the fire.
  17. The arrangement of furniture on the 8th and 9th floors made movement and exiting difficult. Long tables, some more that 65 feet long, were set in rows with an exit at only one end of the aisle.
  18. The materials worked with—cotton, linen, and other lightweight fabrics—were highly flammable.
  19. The cutter’s tables were boarded off at the bottom to create scrap bins. As the workday progressed, these under-the-table bins would fill with highly flammable scraps.
  20. Other flammable materials were present. Wicker baskets for scraps were under the tables that held the sewing machines. Paper patterns were hung above the cutters’ tables.
  21. Although fire sprinklers had been invented, they were not installed at the Triangle Factory.
  22. The phone system required routing through a switchboard. When the fire started on the 8th floor, the administrative offices on the 10th floor were alerted, but the 9th floor was never called.
  23. Workers sometimes disobeyed the No Smoking signs. It is believed the fire started when a cigarette butt was discarded in a scrap bin under a cutter’s table.
  24. Fire drills had never been held.
  25. The fire wagon’s ladders only extended as high as the 6th floor. The fire was on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors.
The collapsed fire escape from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911
A newspaper article showed the collapsed fire escape

The fire led to popular support for changes to unsafe working conditions. One of the witnesses to the fire was Frances Perkins, who would become FDR’s Secretary of Labor, the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet position.

As a writer of historical fiction, I rely on historians who study and report on events from the past. Two excellent resources on the Triangle fire are Leon Stein’s classic, The Triangle Fire and David Von Drehle’s excellent and compelling book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.

History, Family, and a Love Story

People’s stories play out against a backdrop of history. Here’s a love story that took place in a world affected by the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Vesta Coal Company, and World War II. Don’t worry. This story has a happy ending. The people in the story are Jack and Bette. They were my parents.

Jack was born into an Italian-American family in 1925. His childhood was spent in a Pennsylvania coal mine “company town” operated by the Vesta Coal Company. His father, older brother, and sister’s husband all worked in the mine. In the 1940’s, Vesta’s No. 4 mine was the largest bituminous coal mine in the world.

A 1942 picture of the Vesta bituminous coal mine no. 4 in Pennsylvania taken by John Collier of the Office of War Information.
A 1942 photo of Vesta No. 4 taken by John Collier of the Office of War Information. I think the young man in the middle looks like Jack.

Jack was bright and loved school. In high school, he did well in math and English, wrote stories, played basketball, and was quarterback on the football team. In the summer, he worked in the mine to help his family, but he hated it. Hated the hours of darkness, the danger, the claustrophobic world deep inside the earth.

In early 1943, the spring of his senior year in high school, Jack made the decision to enlist in the Navy immediately after graduation. World War II was raging, and he wanted to help the war effort on the oceans rather than in the mine. He spoke with a Navy recruiter who told him FDR had just approved a new initiative called the V-12 Program to expand the number of officers with training in certain technical fields such as engineering. A nationwide standardized test would be given in April. If he did well, he might be sent to one of the more than one hundred universities slated to participate in the V-12 program.

 Jack sat for the test and scored well. By the fall of 1943, he was on the beautiful campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, right on the shore of Lake Michigan. He had likely never before traveled outside Washington County, Pennsylvania. Neither his parents nor his siblings had had much formal education. Now he was at college.

 Bette was also born in 1925, a few months after Jack. Her home was in a suburb north of the city of Chicago. Her mother had grown up on a poor farm in Indiana, the tenth child of German-American parents with barely any schooling. Bette’s father’s family had come to the United States from Canada. He’d worked for a Y.M.C.A. then landed a job as an athletic coach and drill instructor at New Trier, a giant township high school serving Winnetka and other communities.

The Great Depression hit the family hard. They lost their home when they had medical bills to pay and missed a single mortgage payment. Bette remembered sitting at the top of the stairs at night, listening to her parents argue about how they would make ends meet. In most of the photographs taken of her as a child, she was unsmiling and solemn.

Bette Jackson (Bono) as a child at the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago.
Bette as a child at the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago

As Roosevelt’s New Deal programs began to spread money into local communities, Bette’s father convinced New Trier to fund the construction of a giant indoor swimming pool. He soon added the title of Swim Coach to his job description and initiated a wide range of swimming programs for both students and the wider community. Things steadied, and the family’s welfare improved, but hard times had left their mark. Bette was quiet and studious in high school. She earned good grades but did not have a boyfriend and rarely went out to parties or other gatherings, unlike her much more sociable younger sister.

Bette Jackson Bono in 1943 or 1944
Bette Jackson in 1943

In the fall of ’43, Bette started her freshman year at Northwestern University. She was considering becoming a nurse. Somehow, she summoned the courage to visit a few of the sororities on campus, and was invited to join Alpha Xi Delta. Bette was convinced the only reason she was selected was because a few quiet studious girls were needed to increase the sorority’s grade point average.

As the semester began, the sororities at Northwestern decided to sponsor a dance to welcome their new Navy classmates from the V-12 program. Bette was disinclined to go, but her sorority sisters insisted. Jack had expected to miss the dance because it was his turn to be the V-12 “duty officer” for that Saturday night, charged with signing his V-12 classmates in and out for the evening and making sure all returned by curfew. But then a V-12 classmate asked to switch duty officer dates with him, so he was free to go to the dance.

Jack was standing at the edge of the dance floor when he saw Bette arrive and start down the stairs into the ballroom. Decades later, he could still describe the dress she was wearing—a navy blue frock with tiny white polka-dots. He walked right up to her and asked her to dance. And they danced, and danced again, and didn’t dance with anyone else, just like in a fairy tale.

Before the night was over he had her phone number. Before the week was over, they had seen each other again. Before the month was over, they were in love.

On the morning of February 28, 1946, Jack graduated from his V-12 engineering program. That evening, Jack and Bette were married. Were they as happy as they look in these photographs? Yes. They lived happily ever after. Just like in a fairy tale.

The First Three Madison Square Gardens

In my historical fiction, time travel novel, Fear Itself, the characters go back to 1939 to observe a pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden. The building where that rally took place no longer exists. As many know, the current Garden is the fourth building to bear that name. Here’s a short history of the first three Gardens:

The first Garden was an open-air structure located near Madison Square, at the northeast corner of East 26th Street and Madison Avenue. P.T. Barnum and others leased it for exhibitions and sporting events such as boxing and bicycle racing. It was not a financial success and only lasted for eleven years, from 1879 to 1890.

The first Madison Square Garden.
The first Madison Square Garden

The second Garden, built on the same site, was designed by Stanford White and financed by wealthy investors like J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. It had Moorish elements including a 32-story tower. Inside was a huge main hall, a theater, and a rooftop restaurant.

In 1906, White met his end at the Garden’s restaurant. While dining with friends, White was confronted and shot by Harry Thaw. Thaw was a multimillionaire with mental problems who was angry over an exploitative relationship White had had with Thaw’s wife when she was a teenager. White was known to be a predator. Mark Twain stated that White “eagerly and diligently and ravenously and remorselessly hunted young girls to their destruction.”

Although the second Garden was a far more elaborate structure, able to host more types of events, it was a failure financially like the first Garden. It closed in 1925 and was demolished to make way for the New York Life Building.

The third Garden was built by a boxing promoter and went up in 1925. It was built on the west side of 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets and had room for almost 20,000 spectators. Many different kinds of shows, sporting events, and political gatherings took place in the third Garden.

The third Madison Square Garden
The Third Madison Square Garden

One of the most controversial events—and one which I included in my novel—was the February 20, 1939, rally of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization active in the United States in the 1930s. During the rally, approximately 100,000 anti-Nazi protestors gathered outside. Mayor LaGuardia arranged for more than 1,500 uniformed police officers to maintain order.

Footage from this event was used to create the 2017 seven-minute documentary film “Night at the Garden” which garnered an Oscar nomination. In the photo of this rally, you can see American symbols—George Washington’s portrait and the American flag—displayed alongside antisemitic slogans and the Bund flag which featured a gold swastika on a red-and-white background. The third Garden was taken down in 1968. One Worldwide Plaza now stands on that site.

My novels The Better Angels and Fear Itself are available on Amazon in print and Kindle formats. They are free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Remembering the Titanic

The Titanic sank 108 years ago on its maiden voyage. It had set sail from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912. After picking up additional passengers in Cherbourg and Queenstown, it headed for New York. At 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14—a calm, frigid, and moonless night—it struck an iceberg. By 2:20 a.m., Monday, April 15, it had disappeared beneath the waves. There were more than 2,200 aboard. There were lifeboats for only a fraction of this number.

Over the years, the Titanic disaster became a metaphor for many human failings including imprudence and hubris. It also spawned countless books and movies, especially after oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck on the ocean floor in 1985.

One of the best books on this event is Walter Lord’s classic, A Night to Remember. It was first published in 1955 and has never been out of print. As a child, Lord had traveled on the Olympic, one of Titanic’s sister ships, and became fascinated with the famous disaster. In the process of writing his book, Lord interviewed over sixty survivors, and those firsthand accounts are what make his narrative unforgettable.

Stanley Walker, who reviewed A Night to Remember for The New York Herald Tribune, said Lord’s writing was a kind of literary pointillism that arranged “contrasting bits of fact and emotion in such a fashion that a vividly real impression of an event is conveyed to the reader.” If pointillism in art is the application of dots of color to create an image, in Lord’s book, the points are distinct images created by the individuals he interviewed.

Here are some of the passengers’ descriptions of what they saw and felt just as the Titanic brushed against the iceberg:

Quartermaster George Thomas Rowe, standing on the after bridge first noticed how cold it was. There were what sailors called “whiskers ‘round the light.” These were “tiny splinters of ice in the air, fine as dust, that gave off myriads of bright colors whenever caught in the glow of the deck lights.” Then Rowe detected a break in the rhythm of the engines, and, glancing forward, saw what appeared to be a windjammer, sails set, passing by the side of the ship. Then he realized it was an iceberg, “towering perhaps 100 feet above the water.”

In the first class dining saloon, the passengers were long gone, but the tables had been set for breakfast. A small group of stewards were sitting together in the giant room, gossiping about the passengers, when the ship brushed against the iceberg. There was no large jolt, but suddenly the silverware on all the tables around them began to rattle.

Mrs. E. D. Appleton heard an “unpleasant ripping sound” like someone tearing a long long strip of fabric.

Mrs. J. Stuart White was about to turn off her light for the night when it seemed like the ship was rolling over “a thousand marbles.”

Mr. James B. McGough, a Gimbel’s buyer (remember Gimbel’s?) had his porthole open, and as the berg brushed by “chunks of ice fell into the cabin.”

Stockbroker Hugh Woolner was playing cards and drinking a hot whiskey and water in the smoking room. When the men in the room felt the “grinding jar” produced by the berg, Woolner raced outside and saw “a mountain of ice standing black against the starlit sky.” Then it vanished into the dark behind them. It seemed like a momentary bit of excitement. Woolner and the others returned to the smoking room and resumed their card game.

Down in the boiler rooms, things were quite different, of course. Fireman Fred Barrett heard an ear-splitting crash “and the whole starboard side of the ship seemed to give way” as the sea cascaded in, “swirling about the pipes and valves.”

Just over 700 people survived. Approximately 1,500 perished. George Rowe would serve aboard a hospital ship in World War I and die in 1974 at the age of 92. Mrs. Appleton was on the ship with her two sisters. All three women survived. Mrs. White survived and later testified that the Titanic broke in two before sinking—a view that was disputed at the time, though verified decades later when the wreck was discovered. When she died in 1942, Mrs. White was living at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. James McGough returned to work as a department store buyer. He died of cancer in 1937. Hugh Woolner helped some of the women passengers into lifeboats. As the ship was about to sink, he and a friend jumped into one of the last of the lifeboats that had been lowered to the water when they noticed there was a bit of space. Fred Barrett survived in Lifeboat 13. He later married and had several children.

One of the most interesting stories is that of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the most senior member of the crew to survive. He oversaw the loading of the lifeboats, then dove into the water from the roof of the officer’s quarters as the ship began its final plunge. He was able to swim to an overturned lifeboat and climb aboard along with about thirty other men. Lightoller served in World War I, and was retired by the time World War II began. He owned a boat, the Sundowner, which was licensed to carry 21 passengers. When a call went out for private citizens to rescue English servicemen at Dunkirk, Lightoller, one of his sons, and a Sea Scout crossed the English Channel and brought back 127 servicemen.

A film adaptation of Lord’s book was made in 1958. It followed the book closely, and is considered quite accurate in its presentation of the sinking. It does not, however, show the ship breaking in half because, prior to Ballard’s discovery of the wreck, the accepted view was that Titanic went down in one piece. After the wreck was discovered in 1985, Walter Lord wrote a follow-up book called The Night Lives On.

How fast can you lose democracy?

It is impossible to avoid this question if you look at pre-World War II history. I have been researching this era for my current writing project, a sequel to The Better Angels. In the case of Germany, the loss of democratic norms and structures happened step-by-step, and it happened fast. For this post, I decided a list would suffice. Here it is: Ten months in Germany, 1933.

January 30: Hitler is appointed chancellor.

February 27: The Reichstag is set afire giving Hitler an excuse to arrest opponents without charges, dissolve political parties, and limit the press.

February 28: Hitler prevails on President Hindenburg to sign a decree suspending seven sections of the constitution guaranteeing individual and civil liberties including free expression, freedom of the press, rights of assembly and association, and privacy of postal, telegraph, and telephone communications. The decree also allows the Reich government to take power in the states.

March 5: The last democratic elections until after Hitler’s death are held. The Nazis win only 44 percent but carry on with a coalition government.

March 13: Joseph Goebbels is brought into the cabinet as “Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda.”

March 20: The first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, is completed under the direction of Heinrich Himmler.

March 21: “Special Courts” take over cases of “political crime.” These courts consist of three judges, who are Nazi party members, and no jury. Hitler and Hermann Goering interfere in the judicial branch, quashing criminal proceedings against their friends and allies.

Hitler gains absolute power when the Reichstag passes the Enabling Act in 1933
By March 23, Hitler has absolute power

March 23: The Reichstag passes the Enabling Act giving Hitler absolute power, including the power of legislation, the approval of treaties, and the initiation of constitutional amendments. The Act passes 441 to 84. In the words of journalist William Shirer, the parliament “turned over its constitutional authority to Hitler and thereby committed suicide.”

April 1: Hitler proclaims a national boycott of Jewish shops.

April 7: The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service excludes Jews and political opponents of Nazis from civil service positions. This law will lay the foundation for the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935.

April 11: By decree, Nazis define who is “non-Aryan.”

April 25: The Law Against Overcrowding in Schools limits the number of Jewish students in public schools. It is followed up by legislation curtailing “Jewish activity” in the medical and legal professions.

April 26: The Gestapo is established in Prussia.

May 2: Hitler outlaws trade unions. Their offices are raided, leaders arrested, and funds confiscated.

May 10: Organized book burnings are carried out throughout Germany.

July 14: All non-Nazi political parties are banned by law.

July 14: The Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases mandates sterilization of individuals with certain physical or mental disabilities.

July 14: The Citizenship and Denaturalization Law allows the Reich government to take away citizenship from “undesirables.”

August 30: The 5th Party Congress “Rally of Victory” kicks off in Nuremberg. Leni Riefenstahl directs her first propaganda film, The Victory of Faith, documenting the rally. At the following year’s rally she will film Triumph of the Will.

September 29: The Hereditary Farm law prohibits Jews from owning farmland or engaging in agriculture.

September 29: The establishment of the Chambers of Culture under Joseph Goebbels allows regulation of cultural activities and the exclusion of Jews from film, theater, music, fine arts, literature, broadcasting and the press.

October 4: The Reich Press Law makes journalism a “public vocation” regulated by law. All editors must be “Aryan.” Editors must not allow anything in the newspapers which is “misleading” to the public or tends to weaken the German Reich.

November 24: The Law against “Dangerous Habitual Criminals” allows courts to order indefinite imprisonment.

In 299 days—slightly less than ten months—all these events occurred. These events and more. For so many, their individual stories were never told. Whose shop was destroyed? How many Jewish doctors and lawyers were barred from their professions? Who was sent to Dachau in its early months? Who stood in the public square in Berlin and watched 25,000 books burning in a massive bonfire?

Spanish Flu Pandemic – 1918

One of the characters in my novel, explains that he was raised by his grandpa because his parents died in New York City from the Spanish flu. According to my own family history, my grandmother lost her oldest daughter, a child of ten, when the Spanish flu spread to their tiny village in northern Italy. Here’s what I discovered when I researched this terrible illness.

Some historians have called Spanish flu—which swept around the world in 1918—the “forgotten pandemic.” Why forgotten? Some say it was overshadowed by the events of World War I. Others note that epidemiologists of the time were unaware of the true number of disease victims.

Ward in Kansas handling Spanish flu victims in 1918.
Flu victims in a makeshift ward in Kansas

But it was a true pandemic, one of the worst in recorded history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four years of the Bubonic Plague (“the Black Death”) which occurred in the 1300s. World War I killed approximately 9 million combatants. By most estimates the Spanish flu killed approximately 50 million people worldwide. In New York City, the setting for much of my novel, 20,000 to 24,000 deaths—out of a 1918 population of 6,000,000—were attributable to the flu.

The effect of the Spanish flu was so severe that the average life span in the US fell by more than 10 years. The virus had a mortality rate that was much higher than previous strains of the flu. Another striking thing about Spanish flu was that its victims were primarily healthy young adults rather than children or the elderly. The death rates for 15 to 34-year-olds of influenza and pneumonia (often brought on by the flu) were 20 times higher in 1918 than in previous years.

People struck with the illness often died rapid deaths. One physician wrote that patients with seemingly ordinary influenza would quickly develop pneumonia and struggle for air until they died. An anecdote shared in 1918 was of four women playing bridge together late into the night. They all felt fine. Overnight, three of the women died from influenza. Other stories told of people on their way to work suddenly developing the flu and dying within hours.

The unusual severity of the strain of virus that became known as Spanish flu contributed to the huge number of deaths. And the time period did as well. There were no flu vaccines and no antibiotics to treat secondary infections. This meant the flu had to be fought in other ways. In many communities, police officers, mail carriers, and other workers began wearing masks in public in an effort to avoid infection. In some cities, street car passengers were required to wear masks. Boy Scouts reminded people not to spit. Cartoon drawings told people to use handkerchiefs. Posters warning about the disease were placed in public areas. Schools, gyms, and military tents were used for extra hospital space. In New York City, the health commissioner established shifts for different types of businesses in order to avoid overcrowding on the subways. Fear of the flu affected all aspects of life. Children would jump rope to the following rhyme: I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened the window, and in-flu-enza.

By the summer of 1919, the Spanish flu pandemic had ended. An interesting—and chilling—article on the Spanish flu may be found on the website of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention at  In 2018, The Atlantic published an amazing collection of photos documenting the Spanish flu’s effect. It can be found at  In 2009, The New York Times published an article on the city’s health commissioner who oversaw efforts to prevent spread of the flu. It’s available at

Standing on Broadway, 160 Years Ago

In my novel, The Better Angels, a group of time travelers journey back to Civil War-era New York City to solve a mystery. One of the locations they explore is 209 Broadway in lower Manhattan. Let’s pretend you, like my characters, can time travel. What will you see when you journey 160 years into the past and arrive in 1860?

Vintage drawing of St. Paul's Chapel in Manhattan
St. Paul’s Chapel

At 209 Broadway you’ll find St. Paul’s Chapel. It was built in 1766. George Washington worshipped there on his inauguration day. Many years later, on 9/11 it will be given the name “the little chapel that stood.” Exhausted rescue workers and first responders will use it as a place of rest and refuge.

Looking to your right you see the studio of Mathew Brady, the city’s most famous photographer. Here, Brady takes many of his most famous portraits, including those of Dolley Madison, Daniel Webster, Winfield Scott, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Walt Whitman, and John Audubon.

Drawing of 19th century Broadway showing Barnum's Museum, Brady's Studio, St. Paul's Chapel, and the Astor House
Drawing of 19th century Broadway showing Barnum’s Museum, Brady’s studio, St. Paul’s Chapel, and the Astor House.
Picture of Abraham taken in 1860 by Mathew Brady.
Abraham Lincoln in 1860

Now look to your left to see the Astor House, the most fashionable hotel in the city. It was built by John Jacob Astor and opened in 1836. Brady has lodgings at the Astor House which allows him to rub elbows with many of the political and cultural leaders of the time. In February 1860, Brady will take the first ever photograph of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln will return to the Astor House a year later on the way to his first inauguration. One sad footnote to the Astor House is that John Jacob Astor’s great grandson, John Jacob Astor IV, will die on the Titanic in April 1912.

Drawing of the Astor House in 19th century New York City.
The Astor House, with St. Paul’s Chapel to the left.

Now look directly across the street. If you have 25 cents, you can visit the most famous tourist attraction of the time: Barnum’s American Museum. It opened in 1841 and attracted thousands of visitors who wandered among the fabulous exhibits of animals, inventions, archaeological artifacts, and oddities on display. In 1865, the museum will be destroyed by fire.

Vintage drawing showing 19th century view of Barnum's Museum and Mathew Brady's photography studio
Bird’s eye view from roof of St. Paul’s Chapel showing Barnum’s Museum across the street and Brady’s photography studio to the south (right).

Once you return to present-day New York, what do you see? To your left you see a Staples where the Astor House stood. Barnum’s has been replaced by a bank and a clothing store. On the site of Brady’s studio is an early twentieth-century building whose tenants include media and publishing firms. But turn around. St. Paul’s Chapel, now more than 250 years old, still stands. It is the oldest surviving church building in Manhattan.

The Angel of the Waters

The cover of my novel, The Better Angels, features a photo of the Angel of the Waters statue which rises above Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain. Let me tell you a bit about the statue’s history, and how one woman’s vision was validated and embraced by generations of park visitors despite a sharply critical negative review published in the New York Times at the statue’s unveiling.

Cover of the novel The Better Angels by Bette Bono showing the Bethesda Fountain Angel.
Photo by Douglas Biklen. Cover design by All Things That Matter Press.

The angel was New York’s first major public art commission awarded to a woman. The sculptor, Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), was from a prominent New York family. Her brother, Henry, was chairman of the park’s Committee on Statuary, Fountains and Architectural Structure, and many assumed that was how Emma received the commission. This is not to say that Emma was untrained or untalented. She had shown promise from an early age and had studied sculpting in Rome. While in Rome, she also met and fell in love with the American actress Charlotte Cushman, and the two exchanged “unofficial vows.”

The angel is the only sculpture commissioned as a part of the park’s original design. It was intended to embody the idea of love. As the Central Park Conservancy puts it, Emma “put her own spin on the work, interpreting the statue’s directive, that it be dedicated to ‘Love,’ liberally by adding several layers of meaning.”

One of the meanings invested in the statue was healing, particularly the healing power of water. The design referenced the biblical story in which an angel gives healing powers to the waters of Bethesda. The fountain was also meant to celebrate the new Croton Aqueduct (a water distribution system built between 1837 and 1842) which supplied clean drinking water to the city.

The angel herself is eight feet tall and made of bronze. She carries a lily, the symbol of purity. The four cherubs that support her represent health, purity, temperance, and peace. Construction of the terrace and fountain occurred during the American Civil War, but the angel did not appear until 1873.

Now here’s the part of the angel’s story that had me shaking my head. I found the June 1873 New York Times review of the statue’s unveiling, and, reading it now, it is clearly wrong in every respect—completely, inarguably, laughably wrong. The unnamed reviewer hated just about everything about the statue and even disagreed with the placement of the fountain itself. (Placing a fountain directly beside a lake was described as “ill-chosen” because it was like adding “sugar to sweetmeats or carrying coals to Newcastle.”)

Close up of the Angel of the Waters. Photo by Douglas Biklen.
Photo by Douglas Biklen

He (I’m assuming the reviewer was male) began by saying everyone had expected “something great” and experienced “a revulsion of feeling” at the “feebly-pretty … thing of bronze.” He goes on to opine that the head is male, the breasts female, and the rest of the body a combination of male and female. He compares the figure to a servant girl doing a polka in the back kitchen and a dancing girl jumping over stepping stones. He apparently doesn’t like the fact that the angel seems to be wearing “voluminous folds” of petticoats that are nonetheless diaphanous and reveal the angel’s figure. The wings come in for criticism as well, as do the four cherubs (“hopelessly nondescript”).

Bethesda Fountain Angel with lake and trees in the background.
Photo by Douglas Biklen

All who have seen the angel, know how wrong the reviewer was. I found myself wondering how he could fail to fathom—to truly see—the beauty and the love embodied in that sculpture. If you would like to see the angel yourself, she can be found mid park, at about 72nd. Street.

The 1873 review is at In May of this year, the New York Times published an “overlooked no more” obituary of Emma Stebbins. It is at  My publisher is All Things That Matter Press which can be found at  The photo of the angel on the cover of my book is by Douglas Biklen. His website is


Imagine you could travel back in time … could close your eyes and move 100 years into the past. What would you encounter in the year 1919? Let’s explore.

Want to catch a movie? We are in the silent film era. On-screen titles help you follow the story, and someone plays the piano or organ to accompany the action. A Day’s Pleasure, Charlie Chaplin’s fourth film is released this year. In February, Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith incorporate the United Artists studio.

If you’d rather read, Sherwood Anderson, Jack London, Virginia Woolf, H.L. Mencken, Carl Sandburg, Franz Kafka, and Baroness Orczy have books coming out. If you’re a fan of L. Frank Baum, his 13th Oz book, The Magic of Oz, is published in June. And heads up you language nerds! Professor William Strunk Jr. will publish The Elements of Style. If you’d rather roam about outside, Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Zion enter the National Parks system.

What music is playing? Maybe “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” or “Mandy” or “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree).” It’s quite an interesting year in baseball. The Chicago White Sox throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds resulting in the Black Sox Scandal. 1919 is also the last year Babe Ruth plays for the Red Sox. Want to shop? Women’s skirts have risen several inches above the ankle. Some women are bobbing their hair. Many women are ditching their corsets in favor of less-confining undergarments. Women still cannot vote, but in June, after years of work by suffragists, the Senate passes the 19th Amendment and sends it to the states for ratification.

Most of the adults you encounter have not graduated from high school. It will be more than 20 years before half the young adult population has a high school diploma. So if children aren’t in school, what are they doing? Many work full time. It will be years before there is a direct prohibition on child labor. There will be a prohibition, however, on alcohol. During 1919, three quarters of the states ratify the 18th Amendment. Prohibition will take effect in January of 1920.

Woodrow Wilson is in his second term as president. WWI broke out in 1914, but the United State remained neutral until 1917. An armistice signed on November 11, 1918, ended the fighting. The Paris Peace Conference will begin in January of 1919 and produce the Treaty of Versailles in June. Wilson advocates ratification of the treaty and U.S. participation in the new League of Nations, but in October he suffers a serious stroke and is unable to advance his agenda. The Treaty is not ratified by the Senate, and the U.S. does not join the League of Nations.

World War I had cost more than 115,000 American lives. Shockingly, about 45,000 of those deaths are a result of the Spanish flu pandemic which began in 1918 and continued for more than two years. The flu killed an estimated 50 million victims around the world. Ten to twenty percent of the people infected with the flu died from it. In the United States, estimates of the number of flu deaths range from 500,000 to 675,000. Unlike most flu epidemics, those most likely to die from Spanish flu were young adults.

The summer and fall of 1919 is also scarred by brutal actions against workers and those suspected of being leftist radicals. In addition, there are white-supremacist attacks on African Americans in a number of cities, which result in hundreds of deaths. One of the most horrific of these events occurs in Elaine, Arkansas. An exchange of gunfire at a meeting of black tenant farmers leads to days of indiscriminate killing of African Americans by white vigilantes and troops called up by the governor.

The country is on the doorstep of the Roaring Twenties. But there are hints of great evil to come. In May, 1919, Benito Mussolini will found the Italian Fascist Party. In September, 1919, 30-year-old Adolf Hitler becomes a member of the newly-formed German Workers’ Party. By 1920, he will remake this group into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party—the Nazi Party.

Who is born in 1919? Jackie Robinson in January, Nat King Cole in March, and Pete Seeger in May. What new words find a place in literature and dictionaries? Some include ad-lib, bagel, phooey, skivvies, and snookums.

The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, has mounted a fabulous exhibit on the year 1919, the year Henry and Arabella Huntington began to transform their estate into a public institution. The exhibition is organized around the themes Fight, Return, Map, Move, and Build. It runs until January 20, 2020. Find out more at

Similes and Stereoscopes

My most recent dive into history started with an attempt to find the right simile to use in my novel. I wanted to describe an episode of double-vision that hits my main character. (She doesn’t yet realize that double vision is a symptom indicating she’s developed the ability to travel through time.) This is what I came up with:

It was an odd feeling, like peering through a View-Master and discovering the cardboard reel was bent and stuck between two pictures. She had owned a View-Master in her childhood and remembered those out-of-kilter images: the Statue of Liberty listing to one side, Mount Rushmore with a few extra shadowy faces superimposed on the originals.

View-Master stereoscopic viewers and reels
View-Masters and reels

I figured everyone would understand this comparison because everyone, at some point in time, has looked into a View-Master and marveled at a 3-D scene. So I was satisfied with my simile, but found myself curious about this toy I remembered from my childhood. I decided to learn more.

Just in case there is someone who doesn’t know about View-Masters, let’s start with the basics. A View-Master is a type of stereoscope. A stereoscope is a viewer that allows someone to look at a pair of stereo pictures and see them as a single three-dimensional image. Stereo pictures are left-eye and right-eye views—views at slightly different angles—of the same object or scene.

Early Holmes style stereoscope
Holmes stereoscope

The first stereoscopes were invented in the early nineteenth century. Because photography was still in its infancy, these early stereoscopes showed drawings, not photographic scenes. By mid-century, things had changed—both with stereoscopes and the pictures they showed. David Brewster, a British scientist and inventor, developed a hand-held stereoscope that used lenses to merge the two pictures. And the pictures were photographs—not drawings—thus adding an additional layer of reality. Brewster exhibited his viewer in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London. Queen Victoria became a big fan, and interest in stereoscopes spread rapidly.

In the United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes (the father of the man who would become a Supreme Court Justice) invented an inexpensive stereoscopic viewer and photographers began producing stereoscope cards of famous people, majestic natural wonders, and faraway lands. Soon companies in Europe and the United States offered thousands of stereograph “views” to the thousands of families that kept a stereoscope in the parlor for entertainment and education. During the Civil War, Mathew Brady, known as the father of photo journalism, exhibited stereo views taken at the Battle of Antietam.

Eighty-eight years after London’s Great Exhibition, the View-Master stereoscope premiered at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. The View-Master differed from older stereoscopes by replacing stereograph cards with round cardboard reels each holding 7 small pairs of Kodachrome color film images. The View-Master was first marketed as an educational aide, then as a way to view tourist sights.

Vintage ad showing whole family enjoying View-Master stereo pictures
Vintage ad for View-Master pictures

Another transformation occurred in the 1950s when View-Master partnered with Disney and began offering reels featuring Disney characters and scenes from the newly-opened Disneyland theme park. In subsequent decades 3-D viewers would continue to find a place both on the toy shelf and in the classroom.

The View-Master, the Holmes stereoscope, and several other types of 3-D viewers are still available along with hundreds and hundreds of reels on almost any topic. Some companies offer kits to build your own stereoscope or will make reels based on your own photographs. In addition, there are many books showcasing vintage stereo images.

Of course, the real magic of stereoscopes is what happens in the brain. The stereoscope presents the two slightly different views. The brain merges them into a fascinating three-dimensional picture.