Drop everything …..

It is not very often after reading a book based on historical facts woven with fictional characters that I feel compelled to tell the world of what I have read. However the book “Among Kings” by Joey O’Connor prompts me to do just that.

Not only is this book a riveting read, even if a little gruesome at times, but the author’s note explaining how he came to write it is itself just as fascinating.

The book is an interesting read. At first one would be forgiven in thinking it was about American missionaries, and racial differences, but persevere as it becomes a consuming page turner.

Reading further one finds out about King Leopold III of Belgium and later his consuming thirst for bringing ivory then the more lucrative rubber to Europe. The atrocities that were inflicted on the various tribes in the Congo, all because of this greed, is described such that one does not need pictures. One is exposed to many images of emancipated human suffering at the various German concentration camps, but images of humans whose hands are severed in exchange for ammunition, because they failed to pay their dues?

I thoroughly recommend this book as it is well written and weaves facts into a believable account of missionaries exposing the atrocities of Congolese people at the hands of the Force Republique under King Leopold III.

There are various other publications that enhance the validity of this book and are themselves interesting reads.

Wicked Bleu

This is the second book of E. Denise Billups in the series about Simone Doucet, a successful travel writer.

The first ‘Tainted Harvest’ introduced Delphine, an ancestral ghost who appeared to haunt Simone.  In reality Delphine showed Simone her past and persuaded her to write and publish her story.  She opened Simone’s eyes to the afterlife and revealed she had a gift of second sight and could help other ancestral souls.

Some months after the encounter with Delphine, Simone is living in New York and is being troubled with noises, scents, flashes of vivid blue colour and blurry spectral images, prompting her to take her three flat mates to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The authors description these paranormal events engages the readers full attention. A short lull in the reading follows and then the intrigue starts and develops to the point that you dare not put the book down. 

Mardi Gras is a vibrant time to visit New Orleans.  Outrageously costumed merrymakers with top hats decorated in purple, green and gold representing justice, faith and power, happily swarm the streets singing and dancing to the playing of brass bands. New Orleans has always been a place of mystery – a place of lively music, good food, with roots in Creole and French influences.

The vibrant red sweet fruity Hurricane drink seems innocuous but contains two types of rum and has a liberating and alcoholic effect.  This signature drink was invented during World War II at Pat O’Brien’s when distilleries were repurposed making whiskey scarce. One case of whiskey required the bar to buy 50 cases of rum.   A glass, shaped like a hurricane lamp was the perfect vessel and the Hurricane drink  was born.

The infamous Storyville area was a red light area of 38 blocks where prostitution was tolerated and not illegal. Blue books, known as the “guidebooks to sin,” were booklets that advertised the activity of Storyville and served as a directory for the prostitutes and “madames” of the district, many of whom were categorised by race. “W” for white, “C” for coloured, and “Oct.” for octoroon, meaning one-eighth Black. Many light-skinned, mixed race, and/or Creole women worked at Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, a luxurious parlour occupied by rich, white men.  Many famous jazz players got their start in these brothels including Jelly Roll Morton, Joe “King” Oliver, Buddy Bolden. Even a young Louis Armstrong made money by bringing coal to the brothels within the district. 

Piece by piece little fragments are revealed to Simone as she and and her flat mates stroll through the famed French quarter, or Vieux Carré, whose name translates to “old square”.  The heart of the city was built in a sharp curve around the Mississippi River, and earned itself the name Crescent City. The ghost ‘Bleu’ reacts to certain buildings and streets and the loud whistles of the steam calliope, a steam pipe organ on the Steamboat Natchez. Bleu takes Simone through closed doors to reveal bits of her past.

The elegant Bourbon Orleans hotel where Simone stays has the reputation of being the most haunted hotel.  It is the home of many a scene in Bleu’s past. It was once home to the famous Quadroon Balls, where on the wooden balcony outside, it’s said that on quiet moonlit nights, the ghosts of a young woman and her suitor can be seen standing. At these balls, free women of colour, who were one quarter African-American, attended the balls chaperoned and were introduced to wealthy French suitors, who if agreeable to the mother, would buy the daughter a house and support her for life. This custom known as a ‘placate’ was unique to New Orleans.  The first born children considered themselves to be ‘Creoles of Colour’.  Later on the building became a convent and school (St Mary’s Academy), and the ballroom became their chapel.  There are said to be as many as 15 – 20 separate ghosts roaming the hotel and many of these are children running and playing in the rooms.

Mahogany Hall in Ms Lulu White’s mansion was quite elaborate.  She was known all around the district as Queen of the Demi-Monde because of her elegance and beauty.  Mahogany Hall was built of mostly marble and had about fifteen bedrooms.  It was the most beautiful house in Storyville. Ms. White was known for having the most beautiful and best women around, whose names were listed in a book called the Blue Book, which was given to the visitors so that they would know what services were offered as well as what women were available at each mansion.  Ms. White hosted parties in the parlours where we had men playing jazz music on the piano, one of whom was Louis Armstrong while some of the women danced naked for waiting clients. 

Back to the story. Bleu has opened up to Simone and recounts happy memories helping to make pomades and learning to use enfleurage, a perfume manufacturing technique. However there are scenes of much anger and sorrow, visions of rape, murder and remorse.  Just as Simone is starting to piece together these fragments there is a twist. Are there two ghosts? Images and stories of darker, angrier ghosts emerge, entangled with a love affair.

Will Simone be able to resolve these and put the troubled ghosts to rest?

The author has a talent to write descriptive and colourful text that evokes strong emotions in the reader.  For example “I reach out my hand, at once retracting it when something skims my arm, sending a shiver rolling through me. I step back, halted by a phantom grip. The laundry basket drops to my feet. The scented aura encroaches upon my face, icing my skin with a frigid blast as though it blew a forceful breath intentionally.”

I urge you to pick up a copy and start reading.

Viking Ships Unearthed

This Norwegian funerary warship was the grave of two women, one aged about 75 and the other 50. The women’s identities still present a mystery.  They died in A D 834 and had a magnificent burial, judging by the treasures they left behind.  Possibly Queen Åsa, the grandmother of Harald I (A.D. 860–940), the first king of united Norway, or maybe a sorceress.    

Reading this discovery of the Norwegian Oseberg oak longship in a farm near Tønsberg, Norway, reminded me of the historical novel “The Dig”  by John Preston and the subsequent film of the same name. 

On farmland in Sutton Hoo overlooking the river Debden in the UK,  the landowner Edith Petty wanted to discover what were the mysterious barrows on her land.  Ipswich museum introduced the landowner to Basil Brown, a Suffolk  labourer, insurance agent  and self taught astronomer and archeologist.  His finds did not sit nicely with men from the British Museum and Cambridge University who muscled in to take over. Brown’s discovery caused history books to be rewritten, but his name was only recently associated with the discovery.  But although his crucial contribution is now acknowledged, there is much that remains uncertain about the ship burial. Who was it honouring? The lead candidate is Raedwald, a powerful regional leader who died around 624, and who was part of a dynasty that claimed descent from the Norse god Woden. He was the first English king to convert to Christianity, while also being cannily careful not to upset the pagan gods.

The book, The Dig is a gripping and interesting read.

John Preston is also the author of A Very English Scandal, about the disgraced British politician Jeremy Thorpe.  After discovering that his aunt, Peggy Piggott, an archaeologist, prehistorian, and finds specialist, had been one of the key participants in the actual dig, Preston wrote the book The Dig, as a novelised account.

The film received five BAFTA awards. It is available on Netflix and in DVD form.

Tainted Peaches

Tainted Harvest by E. Denise Billups.

Her teaser : ”She escaped servitude for a worse fate. Now she wants everyone to know what happened. Travel writer Simone Doucet is searching for a meaningful life, but she hasn’t found a purpose yet. But after she accepts an assignment that takes her to Magnolia Sunrise – a historical bed-and-breakfast on the bluffs of Natchez, Mississippi – strange events begin to take place.”

I settled down for a comfortable read of this book and mystery but after the first few pages I was wide awake, sitting up, intriqued and living Simone’s nightmare.  The author had a way of writing such that you were immersed in the horrors and emotions of the characters.  I couldn’t put this down until the last few ‘happy’ pages.

This was a heart breaking story well written. It described some of the cruelties, hardships and conditions of the slaves at the end of the Civil War. Full credit to the author that the slavery appeared to be a sub plot, but in fact was the main one.

This story left me curious to find out more. Was there any truth behind the story? I discovered that The Devil’s Punchbowl is remembered as post American atrocity in Black history which took place in Natchez, (Adams County) Mississippi. In the book “Natchez” dedicated to Louise and Mary by Nola Nance Oliver describes the derivation of the name and describes the area. Although the inroads of the river have washed away the streets, and only a few buildings remain, one very interesting home, “Magnolia Vale”, has been preserved and is presented in her book.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile recreational road and scenic drive through three states. It roughly follows the “Old Natchez Trace” a historic travel corridor used by American Indians, “Kaintucks,” European settlers, slave traders, soldiers, and future presidents.

The Devil’s Punchbowl is remembered as post American atrocity in Black history which took place in Natchez, (Adams County) Mississippi. 

After the American Civil War, a massive exodus of former slaves from Southern plantations trekked northwards to freedom. The town of Natchez quickly went from a population of 10,000 to near 100,000 people. In order to deal with the population influx of recent freedmen (formerly enslaved persons who have been released from slavery), a concentration camp was established by Union soldiers to essentially eradicate the slaves.  Don Estes, former director of the Natchez City Cemetery, said. “So, they decided to build an encampment for ’em at Devil’s Punchbowl which they walled off and wouldn’t let ’em out,”

The camp was called the Devil’s Punchbowl because of the way the area is shaped. The camp was located at the bottom of a cavernous pit with trees located on the bluffs above.  The women and children were locked behind the concrete walls of the camp and left to die from starvation. Many also died from the smallpox disease. In total, over 20,000 freed slaves were killed in one year, inside of this American concentration camp. However this number is contested.

Devils Punchbowl
Devils Punchbowl study area
Devil's Punchbowl by Greg Iles

Researcher Paula Westbrook adds that “The union army did not allow them to remove the bodies from the camp. They just gave ’em shovels and said bury ’em where they drop.”   Today the bluffs are known for the wild peach grooves, but the locals will not eat any of the fruit because some are aware of what has fertilized the trees. Also reported as “An American Concentration Camp so horrific it was erased from history.

The Jackson Free Press profiled Paula Westbrook. It said that she coordinates the Southern Paranormal and Anomaly Research Society, a society for ghost hunters. She supports herself through her Ghost Hunting Academy and her work at K-Mart.

The book quotes a poem with a line “For whose story was never told”  by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. He was an American sociologist, historian and a Pan-Africanist civil rights activist. He became the first African American to earn a doctorate and was one of the founders of the (NAACO) National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

The Girl in the Barrel

This is a novel by Eileen Enwright Hodgetts featuring the fictitious Evangeline Murray as she challenges the majestic Niagara Falls in 1923. The romantic thriller is entwined with facts of the majestic Niagara Falls, the residents, the jumpers and perhaps answers why people wanted to brave the fall.

 The year is 1923 and the Jazz Age is in full swing. Evangeline Murray, a young widow from Ohio, is recruited by the Women’s Freedom Movement to represent the spirit of modern womanhood by going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Evangeline eagerly embraces her opportunity to achieve fame and fortune, until she sees the power of the river and begins to understand the risk she is taking. Joshua McClaren, an enigmatic battle-scarred veteran of World War I, and the best boatman of the Canadian shore of the Niagara, reluctantly agrees to launch the headstrong Evangeline. Before the barrel can be launched each of them will have to face their own demons, painful secrets will be revealed and the Niagara River will claim two more lives.

Eileen wrote in her promotion: ”  “From the very first time I saw the Falls and visited the Daredevil Museums, I have wondered why anyone would take such risks. However, I have to admit that the rushing water has a powerful pull as it cascades smoothly and endlessly over the edge and down into the churning rapids. I have visited the Falls many times in all seasons of the year and I have seen tourists from all over the world turn to each and ask the same question. “Why would anyone do that?” The Girl in the Barrel is my answer to that question.”

Niagara Falls – Canadian Horseshoe

Some historical facts

History records that the first person to plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive was Annie Edson Taylor, an enigmatic school teacher from Michigan who turned up at Niagara Falls on October 24, 1901 with a barrel that she had constructed herself. She was forty-six years old.

She certainly does not endear herself to the animal lovers among us when it is revealed that she first tested the barrel on a stray cat that she named Iagara. It was only after the cat had survived the fall that she decided to take the risk herself.

She dressed for her adventure in a long skirt and a flowery hat and rested her head on a heart shaped pillow. She took the 200 foot plunge at 4:30 p.m. and fifteen minutes later she was retrieved at the base of the Falls. When she was released from the barrel she was heard to say that “no one ought ever do that again”. It is not recorded what the cat said, but it may have been something similar.

Annie Taylor survived the plunge in a barrel, but is it possible to survive without a barrel? It has happened although many would call it a miracle.

On July 9th 1960, seven year old Roger Woodward and his 17 year old sister Deanne, set out on a boat ride through the upper Niagara with family friend James Honeycutt. About a mile before the brink of Horseshoe Falls the motor malfunctioned and ceased running. Unable to restart the engine, Honeycutt began to frantically row in the direction of the shore but the strong current was carrying the boat swiftly towards the Falls. Honeycutt ordered the Woodward children to put on their life-preservers, although he was too busy rowing to put his on.

The boat capsized in the rapids above the Falls separating Deanne from both Roger and Honeycutt. Deanne held onto the side of the boat until a wave forced her under. When she surfaced she was spotted by John Hayes and John Quattrochi who were standing on the shore. Hayes grabbed Deanne by her fingers and called for help from Quattrochi. Together they pulled her from the water.

Roger Woodward was in Honeycutt’s arms until the raging water pulled them apart as they rode over the crest of the Falls. Roger was forced into the deep water at the base of the Falls but quickly floated to the surface, due to his life-preserver. The crew of the Maid of the Mist spotted his orange life-jacket and, after eight minutes and three approaches, they finally rescued him by using a life ring. He sustained only minor cuts and bruises and his sister was treated for shock. James Honeycutt did not survive.

Roger describes the moment he went over the brink. “I fell into a cloud,” he says. “There was no sensation like vertigo, no sensation in my stomach. There was a dense cloud of mist and I could not see anything and only hear the roar.”

The Canadian Horseshoe Falls has a brink of 792 metres and a height of almost 51 metre with 2,271 litres falling every second.

Since 1850, more than 5,000 people have gone over Niagara Falls, either intentionally (as stunts or suicide attempts) or accidentally. After a death in  1951 it is now illegal to go over Niagara Falls, whatever method is used and hefty fines are imposed.