In my last blog I mentioned the short story, ‘Kingdom Come.’ I just sent the story off to the Missouri Review. Wish me luck. I’ll know by December. Back to the short story, ‘Kingdom Come.’ While doing research I came across these bizarre photos taken during the Victorian period. The photos were called memento mori. They are photos of dead people. I know that sounds a little macabre, but as I thought about the technology of the era, those photos did make sense. Finding out a loved one passed could be most times after the funeral had taken place. Infant mortality was high, so a relative may never have met the little child. A photo was the next best thing.
A hundred plus years ago death was experienced on a much more personal level. Wakes and viewing were held in the home of the deceased, not in a funeral home. There was also a very well established code concerning the different aspects of the funeral process, even down to the width of the black border that decorated the death announcement card. The wider the border, the more important the person who passed away was. You can thank the trend setting Queen Victoria for her morbid obsession with pomp and ceremony having to do with funerals. The American public wanted to emulate her. She never quite got over losing her husband, Albert.
Of course death was always just two steps away. Imagine a world with no antibiotics, outright medical quackery, dubious public and private sanitation practices. Diseases that are considered third world were the norm back then. You could literally die of a blister on your heel. President Woodrow Wilson’s teenage son died from blood poisoning from an infected blister caused by ill fitting athletic shoes. There were the “plagues” of the times. Influenza seemed to find its way into the larger cities, especially those cities that were ports of call for international trade.
The more research I did on the peoples’ lives during this era, the more disturbing and familiar I found it. It seems somethings don’t change. The wage disparity between men and women existed then. Unions were just beginning to form and were strongly fought against by business owners. You were expected to work ten hour days, six days a week with no overtime. Child labor was the rule. Children were smaller. They could fit their little arms and hands in those tight places between those spinning gears and whirring belts that drove the mill machinery. There were unfortunate accidents, but replacement workers were easy enough to find.
God help you if you were orphaned. The plight of the street kids was bleak. Human trafficking of children was rampant. The national average age of consent for girls was twelve years old. A hungry child might be convinced to do anything.
I tried to keep all of this in mind when I created the atmosphere for the story. Another source of inspiration was a movie taken the day before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it’s on YouTube, well worth watching.
Until next time, Regards, Mark