This past winter, at a detour to Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore, I happened upon a local author, Frances McNamara and her mystery Death at Hull House. I hemmed and hawed, picked it up and put it down, and finally placed it on the counter of the store and bought it. It looked to be an interesting, historical fictional murder mystery surrounding Hull House. I like to support local authors, and I’ve been interested in Jane Addams and Hull House since I was a young girl, as you may have read about yesterday, so, it quickly became mine.
Frances McNamara grew up in Boston and is a librarian at the University of Chicago. Death at Hull House is the second book in her Emily Cabot series. I do wish I had read Death at the Fair first. Many of the characters stem from this first book and some of the events carry over. I think would have added to my reading experience. Death at the Fair is centered around the 1893 Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, which garnished much interest to Chicagoans, my book group, and me after reading The Devil and the White City a few years ago. (You haven’t read it? Oh, you really must. It is non-fiction that will have you turning the pages as if it were a mystery.)
Death at Hull House begins with Emily Cabot being expelled from the University of Chicago for social impropriety. It is 1893, the Columbian Exposition has just ended, and women are not generally welcome at such institutions of higher learning; so starts the novel. A supportive dean arranges for Emily to work and live at Hull House, where Emily becomes immersed in the immigrant culture and the social issues of the times.
On Christmas Day, Emily discovers a man known to be in the employ of a sweatshop Emily and others have been investigating for violating the eight hour workday rule for female workers. Mr. Hanrahan is slumped over, bludgeoned to death, at a desk in the front parlor of Hull House. The last thing known about the man was that he had come to Hull House asking for Emily. Emily’s brother, Alden, was also known to have been in the house looking for Emily that same day. Alden is on the trail of a man he believes to have murdered their father, a prominent judge in Boston. A criminal investigation ensues, which is the mystery part and, while a little confusing at times because I hadn’t read the first book, McNamara takes the reader on a good romp through the streets and alleys and businesses in the area surrounding Hull House, as well as inside the settlement house.
While the investigation continues. through the bleak winter months and in the midst of a depression that settles on the city of Chicago after the grandeur of the world’s fair, a smallpox epidemic rages. This is the part of Murder at Hull House that really drew me in. Graft, corruption, and greed stand in the way of the members of Hull House getting the area immigrants vaccinated and proper controls put in place to stop the spread of the disease.
As I read of the horrors or the conditions the immigrants lived and worked in and irresponsibility of those in power during the smallpox epidemic, I thought of another book I read last summer. Fever 1783 by Laurie Halse Anderson. Fever 1783 is a young adult book and it centers around the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1783. At that time, Philadelphia was the first capitol of the new United States. In 1783, an epidemic of yellow fever claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people in three months; 10% of the population in Philadelphia. The book follows Matilda Cook, a fourteen year old girl, whose widowed mother and grandfather run a coffee house in Philadelphia. It follows her as her friends and family, and even she is overcome by the disease and the devastation it wreaks upon the city and surrounding area.
What strikes me in both historical novels, set almost 100 years apart, both in large cities with struggling populations of poor, is the way epidemics are addressed, or rather not addressed, by those responsible for the welfare of the masses. What strikes me as well is the people who rally, show compassion and care for those who are ill, often risking their own lives in the process. Both books are explicit in their description of each disease; the sores, the fevers, the agony, the stench, the fear. Both hold messages of human kindness and courage that still hold lessons for today.
In Death at Hull House, it is those who live at Hull House that tend to those stricken with smallpox; preparing the dead for burial, comforting the families, attempting to have textile workers vaccinated and the material they handle confiscated, and lobbying powers-that-be to enforce laws already in place to stop the spread of the disease.
In Fever 1783, it is the Free African Society that responds to Dr. Benjamin Rush’s plea to help those afflicted. They are the ones who pull the carts laden with dead and infected citizens, dig the graves, and tend to the sick. There are scenes of afflicted pleading for help, only to be left to die, that are sad and uncomfortable, but, I think written sensitively for young adults.
I think that both books bring history alive for readers, whether young or not so young, and raise interesting questions to ponder. Both left me wanting to know more about the times they portrayed and they people, famous and common, that they are about. I would recommend either, or both, as well worth reading and look forward to reading the first and the newly released third Emily Cabot mystery, which is set in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago.
Hmmm. I may need another detour to Centuries and Sleuths.