Louisa May Alcott — Stories From a Civil War Nurse

Many readers relegate Miss Alcott to being the author of Little Women and other novels marketed to young girls. But since her father did not excel in earning money, and her eldest sister was widowed early in life, Louisa took up the role of financially supporting her extended family. She wrote constantly, often churning out books, short stories, and magazine articles as fast as her pen could be rushed across the paper.

My favorite portion of Miss Alcott’s writings were the stories based upon her tragically brief time (December 1862 to January 1863) working as a Civil War nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in the Georgetown section of the District of Columbia. While nursing at the unsanitary former hotel she contracted typhoid pneumonia. For weeks she was close to death, and never completely recovered her good health.

Fiction written during or soon after the events portrayed is an excellent source of historical research, for the writer gives everyday details rarely found in scholarly history books. For anyone with an interest in learning more about Civil War medicine (or the depths of Louisa May Alcott’s life experiences) I recommend the following:

Hospital Sketches – based on Miss Alcott’s letters home, this short book was first published in 1863, and later revised in 1869.

Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle tells of her adventures at the “Hurly-burly House” hospital. There is much levity as she tells of the government red-tape she needed to untangle before arriving at the hospital, and of such not-in-the-job-description trials as a one-legged sleepwalker hopping about the ward during her night shift.

There are also deathbed vigils and other heartbreaking scenes, told by someone who didn’t have to imagine what may have been – she was reporting what she’d seen and done. I always cry when I read Hospital Sketches – but I keep re-reading it.

(Download book at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3837 )

My Contraband – first published in an 1863 issue of Atlantic Monthly, this short story was reprinted in the 1869 Alcott book Camp and Fireside Stories, as well as numerous later anthologies. It can be found in the Dover Thrift Editions’ Louisa May Alcott collection entitled Short Stories (1996, Dover Publications, Inc.)

Contraband was the term used to categorize former slaves, especially those helping the Union Army. Set in a military hospital, a nurse must confront a wounded mulatto who has excellent reasons for wanting to murder his former master. The drama is intense, and if this story doesn’t make you ponder what you would have done, you have no business reading good fiction.

These next two stories were also in Camp and Fireside Stories. They were likely first published in magazines during or soon after the Civil War.

The Blue and the Gray – A nurse has good reason to believe a wounded Confederate soldier wants to make sure a Union soldier does not survive. The mercy and forgiveness shown in this story may come across as unrealistic, but for anyone attempting to live a Christian life, the outcome is worth some reflection.

A Hospital Christmas – I consider this to be more of a series of vignettes than a strongly-plotted story. A long stay in a military hospital is always a burden, but it is doubly trying on December 25th. The ward nurse provides small gifts left at each bedside, and oversees decorating the room with evergreens. When the most disliked invalid receives a generous Christmas box, can he be pursuaded to share?

Meg Duncan Mysteries

(This is based on my article published in the February, 2013 issue of Yellowback Library magazine)

Meg Duncan is the heroine of a six-volume book series that was published by Whitman Publishing Company between 1967 and 1972. In 1978 the series was reprinted as Golden Press paperbacks, and translated into hardback foreign editions. (The Meg books were available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch.) Not bad for a grade-school age girl living near the tiny village of Hidden Springs, Virginia!

I became acquainted with Meg Duncan when I bought a copy of The Secret of the Witch’s Stairway found in a Goodwill Store’s 25¢ book bin. Since I already owned way too many books my plan was to read the novel, and then donate it to my library’s next used book sale. That plan gave way to collecting all six books, then researching, writing, and posting an article about the series on Wikipedia. Such is the power of what I call Chronic Book Ownership Syndrome.

The Meg Duncan mysteries were developed by Whitman editor Dorothy Haas, and written by Holly Beth Walker, a pseudonym. Some researchers believe all of the Meg books were written by Gladys Baker Bond, but the 1981 volume of Contemporary Authors lists only the first book, The Disappearing Diamonds, among Mrs. Bond’s writings.

I could play amateur scholar and write several paragraphs on the authorship question, but I’ll cut to the chase and tell what I know about.

Here are brief biographies of the main characters, followed by the gist of the six mysteries:

Margaret Ashley Duncan is called Meg by most people, though her Uncle Hal calls her Maggie-me-love. She is an only child, and her Siamese cat, Thunder, partially makes up for not having a large family.

Her father, Mr. Duncan, has an important government job in Washington DC and is often away. He calls home regularly, and he and Meg have a loving relationship.

Mr. and Mrs. Wilson live with the Duncans. They take care of the house and yard, and attempt to keep mystery-loving Meg out of trouble.

Harold Ashley is the handsome younger brother. of Meg’s deceased mother. Uncle Hal works at a small museum, drives an antique Duesenberg roadster, flies his own plane, has an apartment in Washington DC and a cabin in Maine. (It’s possible the small museum pays fabulous wages, but I suspect the presence of family money.)

Meg’s best friend and sleuthing partner is Kerry Carmod. Kerry and her family live on a farm near the Duncan home. The seven Carmody children call their parents “Ma’am” and “Sir.”

Constable Hosey is the Hidden Springs law officer, and is dedicated to protecting the community. When called, he always arrives quickly, even in the middle of the night.

I list the books in the chronological order of the original copyright dates:

Meg and the Disappearing Diamonds (1967) I consider this to be the weakest mystery, since Meg has to deal with a villain who should have been arrested for criminal stupidity.

Mrs. Partlow invites neighbors to a garden party, which is crashed by a woman with three misbehaving poodles. After Mrs. Partlow’s diamonds are stolen, Meg and Kerry suspect Kerry’s young cousin, who borrows things she wants to play with.

Any self-respecting diamond thief would either sell the gems, or hide them in a safe location, but this villain stashes diamonds in bizarre places, including one that’s easier for Meg to access than the thief. It’s hard for a girl sleuth to be at her best when faced with silly plot developments.

The Secret of the Witch’s Stairway (1967) Meg learns that an ancestor’s colonial silver was hidden, and then lost, during the Civil War, and she hopes to find it in order to help out her elderly cousins. A runaway boy camping out on the cousin’s property has a Civil War era diary with rhyming clues to the location of the valuable silver.

The story is exciting, with nary a witch involved. (The stairway had been named as a joke many years earlier.)

The Treasure Nobody Saw (1970) Meg solves this mystery without the help of her best friend, for Kerry and her family take a long vacation – which caused me to wonder if the folks at Whitman Publishing knew how much farm work must be done during the summer.

Meg has other things to wonder about, for she discovers a family hiding out in the Haywood house while the owners are working out of state. Meg befriends the family, and promises to keep their presence a secret. But why was someone else prowling through the house, when the Haywoods had been told none of their belongings had any value?

The Ghost of Hidden Springs (1970) Long ago, Kathleen Hannigan drowned on the night no one came to her 16th birthday party. The Hannigan mansion has been left to another Kathleen – if she and her mother will live in the mansion for one month, then give a party for the descendants of those invited to the first Kathleen’s party.

Meg solves two mysteries – who wanted the modern Kathleen to believe the mansion was haunted, and why townsfolk shunned the first Kathleen’s party. The answer to the second mystery is especially poignant.

The Mystery of the Black-Magic Cave (1971) Meg and Kerry go to Maine with Uncle Hal to help a friend who had received threatening letters. Meg finds clues to who wanted Emily Hawthorne to leave the area, plus she investigates rumors of a coven of witches.

The unmasking of the so-called witches is amusing; a pleasant contrast to the somber reasons why Emily had been nearly driven from her home.

The Mystery in Williamsburg (1972) Meg and Kerry go to Colonial Williamsburg with Uncle Hal, and work as junior hostesses at an antique toy show. While Uncle Hal is preoccupied with a secret project, Meg looks for two missing dolls.

Others show interest in obtaining the lost dolls, and after they are found Meg learns about the investigation Uncle Hal had been conducting.

I consider this one of the best books in the series. It provides both a compelling mystery and an interesting “tour” of Colonial Williamsburg.

Whitman Books

When I was a child and wanted to buy a book I had two options. During the school year I could ask my teacher to order me a Scholastic Book Services paperback. Or I could wait until my rural family went to town, and then go to the Murphy store’s toy department and pick out a hardcover Whitman book.

I thought Whitman books were wonderful. If I recall correctly, during the 1960s the hardback books sold for only sixty-nine cents, making them an affordable luxury for someone getting a twenty-five cents a week allowance.

New York City has always been the U.S. publishing mecca, so how did Whitman Publishing, in Racine, Wisconsin, become the country’s largest book producer?

It started in 1907 when brothers E. H. and Al Wadewitz purchased Racine’s West Side Printing Company for $2,504. In 1910 the brothers incorporated their expanded business as the Western Printing and Lithographic Company. (Lithography is a method of printing pictures.)

At first Western’s printing orders were limited to work for local businesses, but there were times when no orders came in, so the owners solicited customers for what they called “fill in” work – print jobs to be done between work for Racine companies.

Western began printing children’s books for the Hamming-Whitman Publishing Company of Chicago. In 1916 Hamming-Whitman was unable to pay their printing bill, and Western was stuck with a warehouse full of books. Western was able to sell them at a profit, so the owners bought out their former customer, and started a subsidiary business renamed Whitman Publishing Company.

For the next couple of years Whitman Publishing was considered a rather minor part of the Western Printing and Lithographic Company – book printing was still fill-in work. However (cue the dramatic music) that changed in 1918.

A book order was received from the S. S. Kresge Company, a chain of what was then called five-and-dime stores, for they originally only sold items costing either five or ten cents. (The company is now K-Mart, and they’ve raised their prices.)

The order was for dozens of children’s books, but the printing foreman confused dozens with gross (144 – a dozen dozens) so Whitman Publishing printed twelve times the correct number of books. Wow, how would you like to explain that mistake to your boss?

Fortunately Western Printing had some pretty good salesmen, so Woolworths and other five and dime chains were persuaded to try selling children’s books year round, and not just at Christmas time.

Western was able to palm off all those extra books, they sold well, and the fill-in-work subsidiary, Whitman Publishing, was flooded with massive orders for more inexpensive hardcover children’s books.

Additional printing plants were either purchased or built in different parts of the country. Whitman published classic children’s stories, modern stand-alone novels, as well as series books. The company obtained the exclusive rights to publish books based on Walt Disney characters. Other licensing rights were obtained, and Whitman developed an extensive line of Authorized Editions – books about movie and cartoon characters, as well as fictional adventures about popular singers and actors. Later on there would be Whitman Authorized Editions about radio, and then television, series.

During the Depression year of 1932, when even inexpensive books were too pricey for some families, Whitman came out with Big Little Books – thick books with about 400 small-sized pages. On every other page was a line drawing illustrating the story. Big Little Books sold for ten cents each, and I doubt there were too many U.S. families that didn’t eventually buy stacks of those little gems.

In 1942 Whitman began publishing Little Golden Books, stories with color illustrations, sturdy cardboard covers, and a strip of foil for the binding.

Over the years Whitman published Gold Key comic books, puzzles, children’s games, card games, books about science, and books on coin collecting. Whitman bought out other book publishers and printing companies, and they established an office in New York City. In 1960 they published a 16 volume Golden Book Encyclopedia, and within two years 60 millions sets were sold. They bought a textbook publishing house, plus Skil-Craft Playthings, and seemingly every other business that went on the market …. but let’s get back to those hardcover children’s books sold in discount department stores.

I’m sure much of the country was like my little corner of the world – the closest town or small city had no book store, so you went to the toy department of the discount store and bought Whitman books. I’ve read about other publishers selling children’s books through department stores, but I have no childhood recollection of seeing other hardback books for sale – only the Whitmans sold in the basement of Murphys.

Over the decades Whitman published dozens of juvenile mystery and adventure book series. For most of those series Whitman followed the example of other children’s book publishers. Editors developed the main characters and their background, and then they “invented” a series author by coming up with a pseudonym – a name to be used in place of the actual author’s name.

The editor in charge of the series plotted out the books before assigning a writer to come up with the finished manuscript. I don’t know if the editor came up with just a rough idea of what was to happen, or if the writer was given a fairly detailed outline.

If the first few books in a series didn’t sell well, the series was discontinued. Popular series had additional titles added, and the books were endlessly reprinted. Whitman only listed the original copyright date on their books, so there’s no way to know how many printings an individual book may have gone through.

I haven’t been able to find out just when Whitman stopped publishing their hardback juvenile books, but I’m guessing it was sometime in the mid to late 1970s.

Western Publishing (which was either another subsidiary of Western Printing and Lithographic Company or a company name change) came out with paperback Golden Press books, and at least two of the Whitman series – Trixie Belden and Meg Duncan – were reprinted as paperbacks. Western had a printing plant that published Golden Press books in special reinforced library bindings, and at one time my local library had some paperback-sized Trixie Belden books with reinforced bindings.

As I stated at the beginning, at one time Whitman Publishing was the country’s largest book publisher, so what happened to that dynasty?

In 1979 Western was sold to Mattel, Inc., and a few years later Mattel resold Western to a private investor. The new owner started adding new lines of products, and was making money … for a time.

In the 1990s the owner started closing some of Western’s many holdings. Other subsidiaries were sold, and disappeared within other businesses. When the dust settled, there wasn’t much left of the original Western / Whitman printing and publishing products.

Little Golden Books are now published by Random House, and at least one of the original 1942 titles, The Pokey Little Puppy, continues to poke along, and remains in print.

There is still a Whitman Publishing company that produces books and coin folders for coin collectors.

Though long out of print millions of Whitman juvenile hardback books were sold, so used copies are readily available. Inexpensive books don’t always hold up well after fifty or more years, so they can be found in all sorts of conditions. But battered books can still be read, so if you remember a favorite series – or want to explore one you’ve only heard about – then hunt up some books, and then sit down for an enjoyable read.