Sunday, April 26, 2015

A TALL TALE FROM TEXAS: Western Superman, Pecos Bill 

I am of that generation who grew up gnawing on crib rails covered in lead-based paint, riding with bare feet dangling off the tailgates of bouncing pickups, and eating warm-for-hours potato salad. I somehow survived without benefit of helmets, seat belts, and childproof caps. 

Perhaps best of all, I watched a constant stream of cartoons featuring anthropomorphic animals who smoked, drank, blew themselves up with dynamite and flattened their foes’ heads with anvils on a regular basis. That’s as close as I get to issuing a disclaimer for this blog.

With that out of the way, allow me to share a slightly unwholesome video clip of one of my favorite childhood heros–that towering Texan, the tallest tale of all tall tales–Pecos Bill. Watch him mulitmask like a master as he ropes and rides a cyclone, rolls a cigarette with his tongue (yes, folks, this is from Disney), fires off a few hundred hip shots with twin revolvers and YODELS. Even Widow Maker the horse joins in. Roy Rogers narrates and the Sons of the Pioneers provide background music for this 1948 classic.

I just loved Pecos Bill stories as a kid. That could explain my difficulties in elementary school. (You mean the Rio Grande wasn’t a trench dug by Pecos Bill?)
Pecos Bill, riding cyclones and swinging
his rattlesnake lariat
( image)
According to Legends of America...
The mythical folk hero, first written about in 1917 by Edward O’Reilly, is said to have been based on tales told by range hands at the end of a long day of tending cattle, and is in the same spirit of other "Big" characters like Paul Bunyan or John Henry. O'Reilly would publish these writings in the 1923 book ‘Saga of Pecos Bill.’”

Slue-foot Sue
(Walt Disney Company image)
For a while, Pecos Bill had a lady friend named Slue-foot Sue who traveled via a giant catfish. Pecos shot out all the stars in the sky to impress her. Of course, he left one which became known as the Lone Star. The relationship was fated to end when Sue insisted on riding Bill’s unrideable horse, Widow Maker. Apparently, Slue-foot Sue is still bouncing off the moon to this day.

Patrick Swayze starred in the 1995 Disney remake “TALL TALE,” wherein Pecos gets to hang out with his super-buddies Paul Bunyan and John Henry. They save the day by appearing in a troubled boy’s dream. (Boy, does this clip make me miss Patrick Swayze.)
Patrick Swayze as Pecos Bill
(Walt Disney Company image)
Click here to view TALL TALE preview.
So maybe Pecos Bill could save the day once again. Could he be the rootin’ tootin’ superhero who gives modern youngsters a taste of the Wild West? If we tell our kids and grandkids the bigger-than-Texas tales of his adventures (complete with sound effects!), might it whet their appetites for more Western fiction?

Only one way to find out. Tonight at bedtime, Pecos Bill will shoot out some stars and Slue-foot Sue will bounce off the moon during story hour. And, just because I love them, the younguns in this family are all getting rattlesnake lariats for Christmas.

All the best,

Keep up with Vonn:

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(2015 SPUR Award Finalist,
Best Short Fiction
(2015 PEACEMAKER Award Finalist,
Best Short Fiction)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

80 years ago – April 14, 1935 – Black Sunday – Dust Bowl by Kaye Spencer

Library of Congress - "The Winds of the Dust Bowl..."
April 14th, 1935, went down in American history as “Black Sunday”. A dust storm that people later described as a black blizzard swept over the Oklahoma Panhandle area in the afternoon and made it to Amarillo, Texas that same evening. People who left the region later gained the name, 'exodusters'. That the dust bowl years coincided with the Great Depression made the entire decade one of extreme hardship for a large population (estimates of upwards of 2.5 million people) of the United States.

Ken Burns made an outstanding PBS documentary in 2012 about the Black Sunday storm, and author Timothy Eagan compiled a book of memories from people living in the dust bowl region. Eagan's book, The Worst Hard Time, is an interesting read of anecdotal stories told by people who lived through the Dust Bowl years or who had heard stories handed down to them by family members.

The dust bowl years were roughly 1931 through 1939 with the worst of the drought between the years 1934 to 1937. The map shows the general area of the United States that was affected the most and labeled the ‘dust bowl’ region. I added the black arrow/line to the map to show where I live, which is right smack dab in the bowl itself.

The dirt blew from a combination of prolonged drought and that grasslands had been plowed and planted to wheat and/or over-grazed, which proved to be a poor agricultural endeavor for the particular time and place. So because of this, the top soil was unprotected and vegetation roots were so shallow, that the winds simply scooped up the dirt as it blew along.

For people who lived through the “Dirty ‘30s”, dust and dirt became a nearly permanent yellow-brown haze in the atmosphere or it was a series of rolling walls of black dirt depending upon your location. People breathed dust and dirt. It sifted through walls. It found its way into the ice boxes. It settled in bedding. It garnished your meal. People walked in it. Livestock died from dust pneumonia. Children wore dust masks when playing outside and when they walked to and from school. Even when you were inside your house, when the dirt blew, you wore a wet bandana tied over your mouth and nose to keep from choking on the dust. Crops blew away, and farmers were helpless to do anything to intervene. Women hung set sheets and blankets over windows and doorways in futile attempts to stop the dirt and dust from coming into the house. In some areas, dirt that was fine as sifted powdered sugar would pile in drifts just like snow drifts. The constant presence of dust literally drove people mad. If you read/watched James Michener's Centennial, you'll recall the part in which the mother killed her family because the dirt had driven her over the edge.

In May 2014, this article appeared in Forbes: Drought Worse Than Dust Bowl In Some States The opening reads:

Three years of relentless and severe drought has made large parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Texas are drier than they were during Dust Bowl in the 1930s. In the Texas panhandle, Amarillo is about 10% drier now than the 42 months that ended April 30, 1936 and drier than the state’s record drought in the 1950s, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor…

Here is an except from this article, Dust Bowl Revisited, that was published in November 2012:

On October 18, 2012, the Associated Press reported that “a massive dust storm swirling reddish-brown clouds over northern Oklahoma triggered a multi-vehicle accident along a major interstate…forcing police to shut down the heavily traveled roadway amid near blackout conditions.” Farmers in the region had recently plowed fields to plant winter wheat. The bare soil—desiccated by the relentless drought that smothered nearly two-thirds of the continental United States during the summer and still persists over the Great Plains—was easily lifted by the passing strong winds, darkening skies from southern Nebraska, through Kansas, and into Oklahoma...

Significant time has passed since both of those articles were published, but the drought conditions here in southeastern Colorado have not improved. We’ve already experienced several ‘dirty’ days this spring, and we've had not appreciable precipitation nor do we expect rain any time soon.

While this picture doesn't do justice to the amount of dirt that accompanied these tumbleweeds, it does illustrate the dry and windy conditions here. The tumbleweeds were every bit as thick, or worse, in the spring of 2014.

Back in 2013, I drove into the first of the several dust storms that hit our area that year. To show you a comparison of the Dust Bowl Then and Now, here is a collage I made of ‘history repeating itself’ using images from 1935 and the ones I took in 2013. It makes me shudder to think how much *things* haven't improved in 80 years.

So just in case you don’t have enough sand in your craw from reading about dirt and dust, I’ll leave you with the dust storm scene from the movie, Hidalgo.

 Current articles commemorating the 80th Anniversary of Black Sunday:

 Links for resources in this blog post:

Until next time,


Friday, April 24, 2015

CELEBRITY in the OLD WEST -- Meg Mims


Even in the Old West, people craved knowing all about those considered celebrities. Here's one of the "stars" who made the rounds in the California mining camps before "making it big" on the New York stage.

Charlotte "Lotta" Mignon Crabtree was born on November 7, 1847, in New York City. Her English father John Ashworth Crabtree was a bookseller who left his English wife and daughter in 1851 to "see the elephant" in California - in other words, seek his fortune in  the California gold fields. Lotta and her mother, Mary Ann (née Livesey) Crabtree, traveled west in 1853 and joined John in Grass Valley and then Rabbit Creek where they ran a boarding house.

Lola Montez was their neighbor, and she "discovered" that Lotta had talent and enthusiasm for performing. Lola even wanted to take the red-haired vivacious child on tour to Australia, but Mary Ann refused. She was shrewd enough to enroll Lotta in dancing lessons, and soon the little girl became a touring favorite in California and Nevada, dancing, singing, and playing the banjo at mining camps. Workers would shower her with coins and gold nuggets. Mary Ann would sweep the stage in case she'd missed any speck of gold. They soon moved to San Francisco, and Lotta became a favorite there. Her mother kept their earnings in a leather bag until it was too heavy, and then used a a steamer trunk. Mary Ann also bought real estate.

When Lotta was sixteen, she gave a farewell performance in San Francisco. The Crabtrees left California for New York. Lotta acted in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and became very popular in the play Little Nell and the Marchioness, adapted from Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. Being petite and youthful, Lotta portrayed children well into her adult life. Famous by the age of 20, she began smoking thin cigars - which became her trademark, despite the habit keeping her out of fashionable social circles.

Lotta began touring as a member of her own theatrical company by 1875, bypassing the local stock company route. She was called "the eternal child" and "the Nation's darling" as well as "the Belle of Broadway during the 1880s. Lotta was also the highest paid actress! She could pull in $5,000 per week, which was astonishing for the era. She even traveled back to California, where she performed as Little Nell, and San Francisco loved her. And her mother Mary Ann still acted as her manager - for bookings, organizing the troupe, supporting charities, and investing. Lotta learned to speak French while abroad, enjoyed painting as a hobby, but never married. She had very little social time.

But all good things must come to an end, and Lotta suffered a bad fall in 1889. Due to her injuries, she had an extensive recovery - and a comeback in 1891 wasn't much of a success. Lotta retired from the stage in 1892 at the age of 45. She and Mary Ann retired to a summer "cottage" her mother had built on the shore of Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey, designed by the architect Frank Furness. "Attol Tryst" - Lotta spelled backwards, of course - had eighteen rooms, gorgeous fireplaces, verandas, a billiard room, a music room and a library. More of a mansion than a cottage!

And of course, Hollywood grabbed onto the Crabtree legend with their 1951 film, Golden Girl, with Mitzi Gaynor playing the title role. Mitzi is certainly young-looking, although the film is quite inaccurate -- they show Lotta beginning her career at 16, when she actually began at age six. Most of the film is set during the Civil War, while the song "Oh Dem Golden Slippers" wasn't written until 1879. While Lotta did wear quite short skirts, she NEVER would have appeared as Mitzi does in the above poster! Good grief! And Lotta did not have a romantic interest, or share the stage with a man. 

Hoo boy. Hollywood. Still, I suppose it might be an entertaining film. Lotta's life sure was!

Mystery author Meg Mims earned a Spur Award from WWA and also a Laramie award for her western historical mystery series, Double Crossing and Double or Nothing. Meg is also one-half of the writing team of D.E. Ireland for St. Martin's Minotaur mystery series featuring Eliza Doolittle & Henry Higgins -- lives in Southeastern Michigan with her husband and a sweet Malti-poo. She loves writing novels, novellas and short stories, both contemporary and historical. 
Follow her on FacebookTwitter & Pinterest!

Thursday, April 23, 2015



- the blog about 19th century medicine and surgery

by Keith Souter aka Clay More

The 19th century saw some of the greatest changes in both medicine and surgery, thanks to the germ theory and the introduction of aseptic surgery.

Yet it is wrong to think that there was complete ignorance about infections before this time. Indeed, if we look back through the centuries we can see that there was a slowly developing and evolving concept about the way infections were transmitted.

The Roman scholar and writer Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC - 27 BC) contributed to many fields of knowledge and wrote over 600 books. Sadly, only one has survived to this day, but he was influential and his writings are referred to by others, including Cicero, Pliny the Elder (who died  trying to save friends from the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompei).

He wrote that swampy lands were dangerous and should be avoided because:  'certain minute animals, invisible to the eye, breed there, and borne of the air reach the inside of the body by way of the mouth and cause disease.'

The Middle Ages
Ever since biblical times people suffering from leprosy were cast out of communities. Over time the condition came to be thought of as a punishment for sins, yet it was also realised that the condition could be transmitted somehow. Accordingly, lepers were made to carry a leper bell, warning people of their presence.

Medieval leper bell at the museum Ribes Vikinger, Ribe, Denmark

During the Middle Ages throughout Europe leper colonies or leper houses started to be used, where people with leprosy were effectively quarantined. They were often run by Roman Catholic monks. These places were often referred to as Lazar houses, named after Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. We shall be looking at leprosy in a later post.

This segregation of the ill, especially during epidemics was extended to all sorts of illnesses, including the Black Death or 1346-1353 which ravaged Europe. 

Ackworth Plague Stone at the top of Castle Syke Hill leading from Ackworth to Pontefract

A small town called Ackworth, a few miles from the author's home, was struck by the Plague in 1645. The town was quarantined, during which time 153 people died. In keeping with the rule of quarantine no-one from the town was permitted to wander beyond the parish boundary. Merchants would leave goods at the boundary beside a plague stone. This was a stone trough filled with vinegar into which money was left to pay for the goods, since it was found that this seemed to protect against the transmission of the disease.

The Elf-shot belief
During the so-called Dark Ages  people widely believed that illnesses in people and cattle were caused by elves or fairies who shot with invisible arrows, which they called elf shot. All sorts of talismans were used to try to stave off elf shot and deflect the arrows of malevolent elves. 

A commonly used charm was a flint arrowhead. Although in those times people were not aware of it, many of these arrowheads were neolithic and had been used by people who had lived and hunted in the area thousands of years before. 

'Elfshot' flint arrowhead

Carrying an elf shot arrowhead was thought to be a powerful health talisman, which had to be kept safely. As with most superstitions, however, it came with a stipulation. That was that once it had been found and picked up t should never be allowed to fall to the ground again, or else it would lose its magic. They were therefore usually tied and worn around the neck. It was also thought that if someone else did succumb to an infection, that they could be helped by immersing the elf-shot in water and giving the liquid to the sufferer.

In later centuries in Scotland elf-shot would be considered tangible evidence of witchcraft and swede often cited during the witch trials that took place between 1563 and 1736. Woe that any local wise woman should be found with one in her possession.

Bad air and bad water
Hippocrates, the father of medicine (circa 460- 375 BC) had taught that many illnesses were caused by drinking tainted water and breathing bad air. This was of course based on observation, for people who drank stagnant water often fell ill. So too did people who lived near swamps and marshes where the air was bad. Indeed, this is how the disease malaria obtained its name from the medieval Italian 'mala aria', which literally means 'bad air.'

 Once again, these astute observations became distorted as religion became involved in folk medicine. Flies became associated with bad air. Also, since disease was thought to be bad and caused by evil or malevolent spirits, the old name for Satan - Beelzebub - was considered evidence of his influence, for it literally means 'Lord of the Flies.'

This idea of bad air inevitably led to the idea that good air could counteract it and be sued to combat illness. Accordingly, breathing in sweet smelling herbs like rue and wormwood, coupled with prayers, of course, was thought to be a treatment for all types of contagion. 

In 1546 Giralamo Fracastoro, known by his latinised name of Hieronymous Fracastorius, a Veronese scholar, poet and physician wrote a book entitled De Contagione, in which he postulated that infection was spread by tiny living particles that he called seminaria, 'which multiply rapidly and propagate their like.'

Giralamo Fracastoro by Titian

Unfortunately, the majority of doctors of his day did not accept Fracastro's ideas. They still subscribed to the Doctrine of Spontaneous Generation, which had been propounded by Aristotle back in the days of Classical Greece.

Abiogenesis - The Doctrine of Spontaneous Generation
This doctrine was based on empirical observation. It was the belief that creatures could be generated from non-living matter in certain circumstances. Thus the name, a-bio, meaning without life and genesis meaning origin of.

 For example, if bread or cheese was wrapped in rags and left in a dark corner,  after a few weeks mice would grow spontaneously from them.

The  ancient belief that dental caries occurred because of a toothworm was another example. Indeed, this idea persisted right up until the development of then germ theory.

Yet it was the phenomenon of maggots appearing in rotting flesh or on festering wounds that most convinced people that creatures generated spontaneously, since no way that such creatures could suddenly appear.

There was a subtler reason why people accepted spontaneous generation, perhaps. It all may have reinforce the belief that life could be created, just as the bible said that God had created Adam from the dust of the ground.

The invention of the microscope
Science does not advance in a linear fashion. Some of the greatest advances have been the result of chance discovery rather than logical progression. The germ theory was still some way off and some means of seeing beyond the capability of the human eye was needed.

The first compound microscope was invented by Hans and Zacharias Janssen, two Dutch lens grinders in 1590.  Their device was a simple arrangement of two lenses mounted in a tube.

The next advance was made by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), perhaps the greatest scientist of the Renaissance when he invented a really effective compound microscope in 1609, using a convex and concave lens. He called his instrument 'the occhiolino,' or  'the little eye.

Portrait of Galileo by Justus Sustermans 1636

Anton van Leewenhoek (1632-1723) was a Dutch draper living in Delft, who was fascinated by microscopes. He made over four hundred instruments of varying complexity throughout his life, of which nine have survived.

Anton van Leewenhoek subjected everything he could think of, including his own body fluids  to microscopic examination. Indeed, one day he used a piece of wire to scrape some matter from between his own two from teeth which he then examined in a drop of water under his microscope. There he saw what he described as animalcules. He said that he saw: 'little animals more numerous than all the people in the Netherlands and moving about in a most delightful manner.'

Grenada stamp to commemorate Anton van Leewenhoek and the microscope that he used to see animalcules

He sent all his findings to the Royal Society in London. Among the 'animalcules'  he described as being present in the teeth scrapings, he observed and sent illustrations of other organisms in his body fluids, including protozoa, yeast cells, blood cells, bacteria and spermatozoa.  He had literally opened up the microscopic world to scientific interest.

Anton van Leewenhoeck's own drawings of bacteria

The above plate is extracted from Leewenhoeck's letter to the Royal Society. It shows his drawings of bacteria that he found in the scarping from between his teeth. Figures A and B represent rod bacteria and C and D indicate the pathway of their motion in the water. Figure E shows a spherical  form, while figure F shows longer types. Figure G is a spiral organism.

A contemporary of his, the English architect, physicist and curator of experiments at the Royal Society, Robert Hooke (1643-1703) also made extensive investigations into the miniature world with his microscope. In his book Micrographia published in 1665 he included a series of beautifully illustrated pictures of the things he saw through the microscope lenses.  Among these were pictures of the compound eye of a fly and the first depiction of a plant cell. Indeed, he was the first person to use the word 'cell' in a biological sense, since he likened its appearance to that of a monk's cell, from the Latin cella meaning 'small room.

The illustration of his microscope in Micrographia, 1665

Hooke's contributions to science were phenomenal, yet his place in the history of science was largely suppressed by Sir Isaac Newton, because they had fallen out. Newton removed all references to Hooke in his subsequent books. Interestingly, there are no surviving portraits of this great scientist!

In 1688 the  Italian physician Francesco Redi (1626-1678) blew a hole in the Doctrine of Spontaneous Generation by demonstrating that rotting meat or fish do not produce maggots if they are kept away from flies. 

Francesco Redi 

He concluded in a series of experiments that flies laid their eggs in the decaying meat or fish and that larvae (maggots) hatched from them and ultimately, turned into adult flies. He did it by using  jars into which he put identical quantities of meat or fish. In one they were In one group the jars were covered with gauze which let air in, but excluded entry to flies. The others were left open and exposed to flies. No larvae developed from the fly-excluded jars, but the others produced larvae and then a cocoon stage adult flies. 

Front cover of Experiments on the Generation of Insects by Francesco Redi, 1688

Illustration illustrating the life cycle of flies, which disproved the Doctrine of Spontaneous Generation

His book entitled Esperienze Intorno alla Generazione degl'Insetti (Experiments on the Generation of Insects) was published in 1688 and is regarded as one of the classics of science. As you can see from the illustration he included, he accurately described the life cycle of the fly, which undergoes a complete metamorphosis as it develops from egg to larva to pupa to imago or adult fly. 

The interesting thing about the story thus far is that although bacteria and other organisms had been described by Anton van Leewenhoeck back in the 17th century, yet no connection was made between them and illness. This was despite the fact that Giralamo Fracastoro had postulated 'seminaria' or seeds of some sort whole century before that in 1564. 

In 1835 Agostino Bassi de Lodi (1773-1856) was an Italian entomologist who demonstrated that muscardine, a disease of silkworms (silk production was an important and lucrative industry) was cause by a fungus. This was the first micro-organism to be proven as a causative factor in a disease. This 

Agostino Bassi de Lodi

After a decade of research on other diseases he proposed that other diseases like measles, cholera, typhoid, smallpox and syphilis could be caused by micro-organisms. Agostino Bassi de Lodi had effectively proposed a germ theory of disease. Yet it is a French scientist, Louis Pasteur whose name has gone down in history as the originator of the germ theory. 

Before that, however, we have to consider the work of Ignatz Semmelweiss (1818-1865) a Hungarian physician who was working as the director of the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria. The death rate from puerperal fever, otherwise known as childbed fever, was extremely high. He deduced after performing various statistical analyses that women attended in their labour by doctors or medical students had a far higher risk than women delivered by midwives. 

Ignatz Semmelweiss  in 1860

The reason, he concluded, was that the doctors and medical students did not change clothes or wash their hands between performing operations or autopsies and going to the maternity wards to deliver babies. Something was being transmitted by the unwashed hands. Accordingly, he instituted a rule that hands had to be washed before entering the delivery rooms and the wards. The rate of puerperal fever plummeted. 

For his work Semmelweiss became known as the 'saviour of mothers.' Sadly, however, he developed what we now suspect to be early onset Alzheimer's disease (which was not described until the early 20th century). He was admitted to an insane asylum where he was beaten by the staff. Tragically, he died from his injuries.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) was a French chemist who was one of the  true giants of modern science. He discovered that microbes were responsible for making wine turn sour and that they did this by turning alcohol into vinegar. This led him to develop the process of pasteurisation (named after him) in which bacteria are destroyed by heating beverages and then allowing them to cool.  In 1860 the Academy of Science gave him an award for this very important discovery. 

Louis Pasteur working on experiments in his laboratory

Pasteur then turned his attention to the study of disease. His researches led him to conclude that micro-organisms were the cause of various infectious diseases. He proposed the germ theory and such was his standing in science that within a short period of time it was widely accepted.

In 1865 building on the work of Agostino Bassi de Lodi he saved the silk industry by showing that if the fungi that caused muscardine in the silkworms could be eliminated then the disease would disappear.

He went on to develop vaccine therapy, producing a vaccine against chicken cholera in 1879. He went on to develop vaccines against anthrax, smallpox, TB, cholera and rabies.

We conclude this overview of the fight against infection with Robert Koch (1843-1910). He was a German physician who is regarded by many as the father of microbiology. He had an advantage over Pasteur in that he was a qualified doctor with a good knowledge of anatomy and physiology. 

He also did work on anthrax, but is famous for having devised the four principles of microbiology, known as Koch's postulates.

Robert Koch

Koch's postulates
These are 4 criteria that must be met to demonstrate a cause and effect between an organism and a disease:

1. The organism must always be present, in every case of the disease.
2. The organism must be isolated from a host containing the disease and grown in pure culture.
3. Samples of the organism taken from pure culture must cause the same disease when inoculated into a healthy, susceptible animal in the laboratory.
4. The organism must be isolated from the inoculated animal and must be identified as the same original organism first isolated from the originally diseased host

In Egypt he worked on the devastatingly dangerous disease of cholera and demonstrated that it was caused by Vibrio cholera. 

In the 1880s he did ground-breaking work on tuberculosis, applying good laboratory techniques and using his flu Koch postulates, he demonstrated that TB was caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. His work won him the 1905 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. 

Next time we will look at Lord Lister and Aseptic Surgery, one of the most important discoveries of medicine and surgery.


Some of Clay More's latest releases:

Redemption Trail published by Western Trail Blazer
- a novelette- novella

Sam Gibson used to be a lawman, until the day he made a terrible mistake that could never be taken back. Since then, he has alternated between wishing there were a way he could redeem himself and believing he deserved punishment. 

He’s about to get both… 


And his collection of short stories about Doc Marcus Quigley is published by High Noon Press

Available at

And his latest western  novel Dry Gulch Revenge was published by Hale on 29th August.