The Madness of Mrs. Whittaker, Guest Post by A.B. Michaels

While exploring the remote possibility of contacting her dead husband through a spirit medium, a young widow is pronounced insane and committed to an asylum against her will. As she struggles to escape the nightmare she’s been thrust into, she is stripped of everything she holds dear, including her identity and her reason to live. The fight to reclaim what is rightfully hers will test every aspect of her being, up to and including her sanity. Is she up to the task, or has her grip on reality already slipped away?

Book Six of The Golden City series, The Madness of Mrs. Whittaker explores two major forces of early twentieth century America: the religious movement called Spiritualism and treatment of the mentally ill. Like all of A.B. Michaels’ novels, it is a stand-alone read.

What Inspired Me to Write The Madness of Mrs. Whittaker?

The Madness of Mrs. Whittaker is the sixth book in my historical fiction series “The Golden City.” All of my books are stand-alone reads, but together they paint a portrait of a fascinating period in western, and especially American history.

I’ve been asked why I chose that period, and the cheeky answer is, my calculator did it for me!  My first book, published in 2014, is a novel of contemporary romantic suspense called Sinner’s Grove.  It centers around an artists’ retreat on the northern California coast that has been closed for many years and is being re-opened.  I knew I had to talk about the origins of the retreat, so I used my calculator to figure out how many generations back led to the founders. Given the setting of San Francisco and its surroundings, the late nineteenth century was the most logical time frame, so that is when the first book of “The Golden City” series, The Art of Love, begins.

Boy, did I luck out! As I researched that era (generally called the “Gilded Age” in America and the Edwardian Era in the U.K.) I found it was a pivotal point in our history because traditions were being challenged in virtually all aspects of life, including religion, medicine, industry, a women’s place in society—you name it. For example, as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (published in 1859) became more widely studied, it called into question the biblical teaching that the earth was created in a week. Now there was a secular, scientific explanation for how we got here, and it didn’t set well with the established religions of the day.

One exception to that enmity was the new religious movement called “Spiritualism.” It began around the middle of the nineteenth century with the strange claims of the Fox sisters in Hydesville, New York: they insisted they could communicate with dead people.  Spiritualism developed into quite a “modern” religion, promoting equality of every race and gender, not to mention free love. Its creed proclaimed that the presence of spirits among us was every bit as scientific as Darwin’s claim that we evolved from the ooze.  Followers even invited scientists from the Society of Psychical Research (a pro-Spiritualism group) to “investigate” the work of mediums to make sure they were on the up and up.  Spiritualism was extremely popular in the U.S. and England during the latter half of the nineteenth century because so many people wanted to connect with the loved ones they had lost to the ravages of war.  Mary Todd Lincoln was an ardent Spiritualist, as was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the early twentieth century. Not surprisingly, the movement eventually waned because so many fake mediums were exposed, but I find it fascinating that at one time in our nation’s history, thousands of regular people believed in what is now considered a fringe religious sect.

What else was out there for me to investigate? Like many people, I’m intrigued by insane asylums (they seem so ghoulish!), so I was curious to learn how mental health was treated during the Gilded Age. What a happy coincidence to discover that asylums played a major role during that period! This was especially meaningful because I grew up in northern California, fairly close to a place we kids called the “Napa Nut House.” (Yes, that’s totally un-PC, but tell that to a ten-year-old a generation ago!). When it opened in 1875 as the Napa Lunatic Asylum (still un-PC), it was a Gothic fortress with several towers set on nearly two hundred acres. The huge stone “castle” was torn down after World War II (dang!), but Napa State Hospital (at last – an acceptable name!) is California’s longest continually operated psychiatric hospital. Oh, the stories that must exist about its heyday!

So, when I began to think about my next novel in “The Golden City” series, I knew it needed to take place in 1907 (after the big earthquake and fire of 1906) and I knew I wanted to explore two fascinating movements: Spiritualism and institutional care of the mentally ill. But how to combine them?

That’s when fate stepped in. I was perusing the digital archives of the San Francisco Call, one of the main newspapers back then, just to get a feel for the culture at the time.  Lo and behold, I came across an article about a young mother who was unjustly committed to an asylum in South Dakota for her…wait for it … belief in mediums!  How that young woman dealt with her circumstances inspired me to create my own main character and predicament, which became The Madness of Mrs. Whittaker.  I guarantee you’ll learn a lot about Spiritualism, attend a séance or two, and get a feel for what some psychiatric institutions were like at the turn of the twentieth century. My guess is you’ll be glad you weren’t born back then!

Series Buy Links (In order):

The Art of Love:
The Depth of Beauty:
The Promise:
The Price of Compassion:
Josephine’s Daughter:
The Madness of Mrs Whittaker:

Meet A.B.Michaels

A native of California, A.B. Michaels holds masters’ degrees in history (UCLA) and broadcasting (San Francisco State University). After working for many years as a promotional writer and editor, she turned to writing fiction, which is the hardest thing she’s ever done besides raise two boys. She lives with her husband and two spoiled dogs in Boise, Idaho, where she is often distracted by playing darts and bocce and trying to hit a golf ball more than fifty yards. Reading, quilt-making and travel figure into the mix as well, leading her to hope that sometime soon, someone invents a 25+ hour day.

Connect with A.B. Michaels

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