THE SPIRITED MRS. PRINGLE by Jillianne Hamilton - Nellie Bly, the Fox Sisters, and Finding Fame
Spiritualists in the 1800s? The Fox Sisters? If you don't know about either of those, keep reading because Jillianne Hamilton, author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle, gives us a nice look at both with a read-worthy guest post.
The Spirited Mrs. Pringle
Upon the death of her husband, self-involved social climber Cora Pringle assumes her recent dalliance with a wealthy gentleman will be her second chance at a happily ever after. That is until her paramour turns out to be a penniless imposter. Despite his betrayal, Cora can’t quite let go of the tug the handsome playwright has on her heart.
Desperate for an income, Cora becomes a séance-performing spiritualist and gets a taste for celebrity—and it’s so delicious. So what if she can’t actually communicate with the dead? Her eager patrons don’t need to know that.
Amelia Baxter, an ambitious journalist and suffragist, is discouraged when her editor refuses to let her cover the horrific Jack the Ripper murders. Instead, Amelia pours her frustrations into bringing Cora’s deceptive and manipulative act to an end, even if it means risking her family’s reputation.
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"Nellie Bly, the Fox Sisters, and Finding Fame"
a Guest Post by Jillianne Hamilton
The Spirited Mrs. Pringle features two point-of-view characters. Cora Pringle is an ambitious spiritualist who pretends to be able to communicate with the deceased from the other side in an effort to become rich and famous. My secondary heroine is Amelia Baxter, a suffragist reporter who is determined to bring Cora down.
While Cora isn’t based on any specific spiritualist, there were several 19th century women who made a very good living from doing séances and live performances, including Victoria Woodhull (the first woman to run for president in the United States), Cora Hatch, Ann O’Delia Diss Debar and many others. But the most famous female spiritualists of the 1800s are probably the Fox sisters.
The Fox Sisters and the Birth of Spiritualism
The year was 1848. In order to prank their family and give them a scare, Maggie (age 14) and Kate (age 11) Fox learned they could crack their ankles. Their upstate New York home already had a reputation for being haunted so the girls, taking advantage of this, claimed the cracking sounds were messages from ghosts. Family members and neighbors began asking the spirits simple questions and the girls would secretly crack their ankles to respond. The sisters garnered celebrity-level attention while they went on tour and performed séances.
The spiritualism movement was born. Since the Fox sisters were temporarily cared for by radical Quaker family friends, spiritualism quickly became associated with other social movements of the time including abolition, suffrage and temperance.
Spiritualism ramped up just after the American Civil War when thousands of young men had died and thousands of family members were desperate for emotional closure. An entire population was vulnerable. Seeing an opportunity to make some money, other self-proclaimed mediums appeared and began offering their services to connect the bereaved with their dearly departed—for a fee, of course.
Spiritualism would again rise in popularity after the first World War. Again, people were vulnerable. Again, grifters gonna grift.
In 1888, Maggie Fox went on record and in front of an audience and explained how she and her sister faked the famous “rapping” sounds that had made them celebrities. She later recanted her confession but the damage had already been done to their credibility—but not to the spiritualism movement, weirdly enough.
Amelia Baxter, however, is based loosely on Nellie Bly, the intrepid 19th American investigative journalist. In her relatively short career as a reporter, Bly became famous for her daring stunts. Many of her early articles focused on working conditions for women and her criticisms of the Mexican dictatorship almost got her arrested while working as a foreign correspondent.
After hearing of the horrible conditions within the Women’s Lunatic Asylum of Blackwell’s Island in New York, Bly went undercover and wrote an exposé. She checked herself into a boarding house and, basically, acted like a stereotypical “crazy” person. She was soon taken to Blackwell’s Island and kept there for ten days, only released when her newspaper, The New York World, insisted she be released. Her articles for the World were later published in her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, in 1887 and led to substantial changes in New York’s asylum treatment.
In 1889, the now famous Bly sent on a trip around the world, following the path set by the hero in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. Without her knowledge, Cosmopolitan had their own “stunt girl reporter” ship out at the same time in order to beat Bly back to New York. (Even back then, the public loved pitting women rivals against one another.) However, the New York World reporter arrived home first after traveling mostly alone for 72 days. (The Cosmo reporter was only four and a half days behind.)
Bly would later become an inventor, novelist, war correspondent, and philanthropist.
Although Nellie Bly and the Fox sisters (great band name if anyone is looking) found fame in very different ways, they almost certainly advanced the causes of women in public spheres.
Books & Benches: Fascinating post, Jillianne! Thank you so much for sharing. And yes, it is a great band name.
Jillianne Hamilton is the author of three novels and one non-fiction book. Her debut novel, Molly Miranda: Thief for Hire (2015), was shortlisted for the 2016 Prince Edward Island Book Award. The Molly Miranda sequels were published in 2016 and 2017.
Her lighthearted look at the 16th century, The Lazy Historian’s Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII, was published in 2018.
Jillianne has been published in Macleans, the Truro Daily News, the Sackville Tribune-Post, and Career Options Magazine. She also blogs about history at The Lazy Historian. Jill graduated from Journalism at Holland College in Prince Edward Island in 2010.
She lives in Charlottetown on Canada’s beautiful east coast.
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Genre: Historical Fiction
Release: June 30, 2021
Publisher: Tomfoolery Press
Content Rating: PG
Enter to win a paperback copy of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle by Jillianne Hamilton!
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