To recap, the Gilded Age was a period in the United States that roughly spanned 1870-1900. An era of rising industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, it also saw a rising disparity between the wealthiest Americans and those who were “regular” folks.
Although it was a time of conspicuous consumption, some industrialists sought to moderate their public image by engaging in civic works, such as the building of libraries, hospitals, schools, and other institutions beneficial to the populace. In that era, the wealthy still feared hell – and if they didn’t, at least they were willing to hedge their bets by doing something good for those who had little.
The big wigs (or “big bugs,” as Eli calls them) were living well, but many workers in the Gilded Age routinely got injured or killed on the job and had little in the way of compensation. Is it any wonder that this era also saw the rise of the union movement?
New discoveries in science drove improve patient treatment and housing. A reform movement, led by Dorothea Dix, sought to change mental “hospitals” from dank jails where “patients” were put in chains and lived in their own filth to healthy environments that embraced more humane treatment methods.
I enjoyed putting early whispers of the changing landscape in American society into the fourth book in the Saint Maggie series. In 1864, they are felt in the little town of Blaineton, New Jersey. So, when Maggie and her family return to their hometown, they find not only their own lives changing, but also the life of their town, and these changes are borne out in the following storylines.
The Civil War had a profound psychological impact on our nation and my characters in Seeing the Elephant experience this. Eli, who is suffering from recurrent nightmares and panic attacks, worries about his state of mind and notices that some of the returning soldiers contend with an array of emotional issues. He understands that these men were “casualties of the war every bit as those who returned home missing arms and legs and hands and feet. The difference was their suffering was located in the mind, and not evident to the casual observer. But did being wounded in the mind make them ‘mad’?”
Dr. Stanley, who is the superintendent of the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane, observes that he also has treated women who had not been on or near a battlefield, but seemed to be affected by it nonetheless. Such emotional and psychological issues confound him. He and other nineteenth-century physicians were just beginning to treat something that they variously labeled, “Soldier’s Heart,” “Irritable Heart Syndrome,” “Da Costa’s Syndrome.” Today we know it as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One hundred and sixty-some years later, we know so much more about the disorder but still struggle with developing effective methods of treatment.
Dr. Stanley is a reformer who experiments with the Moral Treatment Method, a new way of treating those with emotional issues. He seeks to re-socialize patients in a supportive environment with the hope of re-integrating them into their families and communities. The belief at the time was that a mentally healthy person was able to take part in the life of family and society. When one was ill, one was out of step with these communal worlds. Therefore, it was best to remove the individual, give that person treatment in the form of talking therapy and possibly “shock” therapies like cold baths, and group activities like plays, lectures, art, and writing for the hospital newspaper. All this, superintendents believed would re-teach the patient how to interact with their communities.
While the generally benevolent Moral Treatment Method was later abandoned in favor of harsher and more invasive practices, it did point toward a significant change in the way the nation approached mental health.
I realize now that one of the big themes in Seeing the Elephant is the treatment of vulnerable people. So, a main storyline is about the insane asylum, but there also is a smaller one about the treatment of laborers. In it, we find that Eli is a very early example of a reform-minded newspaper editor. Journalistic and social concern for workers began growing in earnest in the 1870s, but it must be noted that abuses suffered by laborers had been on-going since the very beginning of the factory system, when young women and children began finding employment in New England mills.
In my story, Eli notices the plight of workers at industrialist Josiah Norton’s mills and factory and investigates the issue, which immediately creates tension between the two men. In this storyline, Josiah is less a reflection of his contemporaries than a harbinger of things to come, those acquisitive and power-hungry power brokers of the later nineteenth-century. Josiah’s businesses and his “empire” are growing, something he likes very much. And he does not conceive that his reach will ever exceed his grasp. To have Eli poking a nose into his business annoys Josiah to no end.
So, the war is still raging in the fourth novel of the Saint Maggie Series, but now we start seeing the issues that eventually will come into full bloom during the Gilded Age. I think this book is rather complex, with its arc about Eli’s PTSD, the story line about the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane, and the encroachment of a style of wealth and privilege heretofore unknown in the sleepy little town of Blaineton. But I like it. It’s a tale about things that are and a hint of things to come.