Monday, June 29, 2020

Mary De Morgan - A Writer of Fairy Tales

Mary De Morgan (1850 – 1907) was the youngest of seven children and 11 years younger than her eldest brother William. There is little known about her childhood but in the De Morgan Archives, held at Senate House, University of London, there is a small leather-bound notebook in which Mary’s mother, who was a keen spiritualist, recorded her six-year-old daughter’s dreams in which she played with her sister Alice in a jewel garden. Elizabeth Alice had died three years earlier in 1853 at the age of fifteen and was acting, according to the mother, as a spirit guide to Mary. It does not seem, however, that Mary became an avid spiritualist herself, and she dismissed any séances she had to attend as being fake. According to A. M. Stirling in William De Morgan and His Wife, Mary was extremely lively and full of fun as a young girl – and also rather precocious. At 13 she asserted to Henry Holiday, who was a painter, stained-glass designer, sculptor and illustrator, that “all artists are fools.”

Mary herself, however, became an artist, albeit a literary one. Her first published book in 1873 was Six by Two: Stories of Old Schoolfellows,” and was co-written with Edith Helen Dixon. Nothing is known of where or how Mary was educated but she surely must have been, given her father was a mathematics professor at University College London, and her mother campaigned for women’s education. Six by Two, however, is not autobiographical and gives no clues as to her education. All that can be confirmed is that Mary is not on the records of Bedford College, the first ladies’ college which her mother helped to found, unlike her sister, Alice, who went there for three terms 1850 – 1851, possibly to get her out of the way when Mary was born.

Mary is best known today, if she is known at all, as a writer of fairytales. Mary published three volumes, On a Pincushion in 1877 (published by Seeley, Jackson & Halliday and illustrated by William De Morgan), The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde in 1880 (published by MacMillan & Co and illustrated by Walter Crane) and The Wind Fairies in 1900 (published by Seeley and Co. and illustrated by Olive Cockerell). In each anthology there are fairytales that challenge the prevalent ideologies by subverting the traditional fairytale conventions and therefore also societal ones. 

One of the themes that Mary addresses in her fairytales is that of the dangers of mass-production, a subject very close to the heart of William Morris. Due to her brother William’s close friendship with Morris, Mary became part of the Arts and Craft circle, albeit on the outskirts. Mary was a regular visitor to the Morris household and she often told her stories to Morris himself, the Morris and Burne-Jones children and to the young Rudyard Kipling. The multi-talented Mary also apparently cured William Morris of his fear of snakes and she was one of those who nursed him during his final illness and was at his bedside when he died in 1896.

Mary’s fairytales were always marketed as being for children and her critiques on social and political issues have only recently been recognised. Mary didn’t just write fairytales, however. She also wrote short stories, some of which were published in English and American magazines such as The Ludgate Illustrated, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Sylvia’s Home Journal and The Home-Maker. Other unpublished short stories - all written on the latest technology, the typewriter - are held in the De Morgan Archive at Senate House.

Mary also tried her hand at a two-volume novel called A Choice of Chance written under the pseudonym of William Dodson, but she never wrote another one due to poor reviews. Mary also edited her mother’s reminiscences, Threescore Years and Ten: Reminiscences of the Late Sophia Elizabeth De Morgan and wrote serious articles on such diverse subjects as “Co-operation in England in 1889,” “The New Trades-Unionism and Socialism in England,” “The Jewish Immigrant in East London,” and “The Education of Englishmen,” published in such journals as The Westminster Review and The Chautauquan.

There is no evidence of Mary having had any romantic relationships. Whatever the reason, whether from choice or otherwise, Mary, like many other women at the tail end of the nineteenth century, remained unmarried, an “Odd Woman,” and because there were no male members of the family with sufficient funds to keep her, she had to earn her own keep. It does not seem likely that she made sufficient money from her writing alone. In 1876, for instance, she received £14 18s 6d (less than £2,000 in today’s money), being a third of the year’s profit from the sale of her first volume of fairytales, On a Pincushion – another third going to the illustrator, her brother William, and the other third to the publishers, Seeley, Jackson and Halliday. She may not have earned enough to live on from her writing alone but she also received dividend payments from stocks she owned. She once told her sister-in-law, Evelyn (nee Pickering, married to William De Morgan and a well-known painter), that “I am so thankful I have only a small income – it is so delightful planning things and deciding what one can afford. It would bore me to death to be rich!” Ironically, when brother William turned to writing novels in later life, he made far more money than she ever did from her writing, and indeed than he had ever done from ceramics.

Mary also followed in her mother’s footsteps and did her social duty by visiting the poor families in the East End of London, running a mothers’ club and for a couple of years she was the secretary of the People’s Concert Society, which brought classical concerts to the East End. She was also a member of the Women’s Franchise League and in 1889 she joined other artistic women to sign the Declaration in Favour of Women’s Suffrage.

By the turn of the nineteenth century Mary was a relatively well-known and respected published writer, albeit not a very well paid one. She does not seem to have written anything after 1900 and at the beginning of the new century she went to live in Egypt, for health reasons, where she became a directress of a girls’ reformatory in Helouan – how this came about has not been established, despite intense research. She died of tuberculosis, what brother William called the “De Morgan curse,” in 1907 at the age of 57 and is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Cairo. Her plot has no stone to mark her last resting place, there having been subsidence many years previously. 


Marilyn Pemberton


Member of the SWWJ, HNS, HWA and SoA
Treasurer for NAWG (National Association of Writers' Groups)


Monday, June 22, 2020

Suffragettes - Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflins

In 1868, spiritualists and sisters, Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Woodhull arrived in New York City and established themselves at 17 Great Jones Street. The excerpt from the Buffalo Daily Courier ( below) was provided by the wonderful website dedicated to Victoria Woodhull (

   “We have seen one of the clairvoyants, and she is beautiful enough to cure anybody. She is young and childish in her manners, with Titian hair, which falls in rich masses about her head, blue eyes which wear an honest steadfast look, asymmetrical figure which is costumed in excellent taste and a pretty hand which sparkles with gems. Now we can’t see why a chronic case of heart disease should be cured at all, with such a healing medium. This lady’s name is Miss Tennessee Claflin, and while we admit that there is some power in this art of healing, we confess that we know nothing, only that hopeless people go there, and after a brief stay of days or weeks, return home cured... Perhaps of all the healing spots of the city, this is the most interesting to the curious speculator in mysterious things and is the prettiest hospital in New York. Their patronage is very extensive, and men and women who would deny their belief in the supernatural go slyly to Miss Tennessee to listen to her weird talk, and to look into her lovely eyes." 

Within months of their arrival, Victoria and Tennessee were soon popping up at suffragist events, hosting dinners with the city's newspaper publishers, and working under the tutelage of Cornelius Vanderbilt  to become  stockbrokers. But to a writer (i.e. me), attempting to make sense of their life, the early records are so outrageous, one is hard-pressed to separate myth from fact. What is known is this: Victoria married and started a family when she was little more than a girl, and Tennessee was supporting the rest of the family when she was only a little girl. They had an additional three sisters (their surviving brother remained in Ohio) who, with their parents, ran all kinds of interference. But Tennessee and Victoria were singularly gifted and driven to make their mark.

By 1870, they had established Woodhull and Claflin and Company, and by the spring of that year, Victoria had announced she would run for President of the United States. To promote Victoria's campaign, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, debuted on May 14th of that year. 

With the exception of a few months during 1872, this weekly paper was part of the scene for the next six years.  It was lively, it was muckraking and it was read until the November 2nd issue of 1872, wherein it exposed the private life of some eminent citizens, and all hell broke loose. Election night for Victoria was spent in jail, together with her sister, Tennessee. The charge was for sending 'pornography' through the mail.  At that point, their story takes another sharp turn where they must contend with no longer being the toast of the town.

The Novel by author Carrie Hayes, Naked Truth or Equality, the Forbidden Fruit, covers the years that they were in New York City until they left for Great Britain in 1877.

Carrie Hayes

Since the age of nine, Carrie Hayes has most frequently been found somewhere lost, in the pages of a good book. A stalwart enthusiast of parts for girls and female characters, historical fiction is her very favorite genre. In addition to her being a passionate reader, Carrie is also a voracious eater, former schoolteacher, ex casting director, office administrator, retired decorator, and failed librarian. Carrie lives with her family in central New Jersey. Naked Truth or Equality the Forbidden Fruit is her first book. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

China Mary - The Woman who ran "The Town Too Tough to Die"

The Old West holds a distinctive place in the annals of American history. It was an optimistic time where the western frontier encapsulated opportunity itself. Of all the legendary settlements that popped up along the western frontier, none were more infamous than Tombstone. Founded in 1877, Tombstone, Arizona was soon dubbed “The Town Too Tough to Die”. More than 140 years later, it still holds that moniker. Tombstone featured over 100 saloons, 14 gambling halls, the first real “red light” district in the American Southwest and a livery stable called the O.K. Corral. The old west will always be remembered as the era of the Cowboy but during its peak years, Tombstone was controlled by a female immigrant. Her name was China Mary and she ran “The Town Too Tough to Die”.
The woman known as China Mary was born nee Sing (aka Ah Chum) in Zhongshan County, China in 1839.  She arrived in Tombstone sometime in late 1879.  At that time the Chinese population in Tombstone was eleven people. Within eighteen months, that had grown to over two-hundred fifty. Mary was drawn to Tombstone because she was an astute businesswoman. She recognized the unprecedented profits waiting in the western “boomtowns”; and Tombstone was one of the most prolific boomtowns in the history of the west.
Due to the unprecedented silver production, the town of Tombstone grew in population from 100 to around 14,000 in less than seven years. By the mid 1880s, it was larger than San Francisco and was the fastest growing city between St. Louis and San Francisco. According to actress Josephine Marcus, “The grimly humorous phrase about our town was that Tombstone had a man for breakfast every morning”. Despite its tough reputation, Tombstone was the most cultivated city west of the Mississippi and China Mary was the most powerful person in it. This is because she held the strings to “Hoptown”.
Hoptown, where all the Chinese lived, took up one square block on one end of town, and was honeycombed with alleys and tunnels.  It was so named because it appeared to the townspeople that the Chinese “hopped” in and “hopped” out. China Mary, who was usually adorned in fine silk robes and brilliant jade jewelry, owned and operated a general store located in the heart of Hoptown. Mary’s store dealt in both American and Chinese merchandise. She quickly gained a reputation as a universal accommodator. Everyone knew that nothing in Hoptown was done without China Mary’s go ahead so she was held in high esteem throughout Tombstone society. She was an organized and shrewd business operator who had the attitude that discourse was bad for business. Her private police force handled any problem that arose within her community and was much feared by the “round-eyes”, as they called the whites.  
Mary enjoyed the highest level of respect. As a result, she could act as a sort of intermediary between the Asian community and other ethnic groups. In addition to dealing in customary goods of the day, Mary also controlled several industries that were commonplace, if not essential, to a town on the frontier. For example, Mary was a prolific money lender where she had her own methods of both approving customers and collecting delinquent debts. She also controlled the laundry business. Mary had a virtual monopoly on hand laundry commerce in the dusty desert town because she was the bridge to the desired Chinese workforce. She brokered the employment for nearly every Chinese worker in Tombstone and personally guaranteed their honesty and quality of work. Her assurance was simple, "Them steal, me pay!" As far as payment was concerned, it was always made to China Mary and never to the employee. Her capacity lay somewhere between a local politician, adjudicator, and translator. However, when Mary saw opportunity, like any good businesswoman, she exploited it.  
The vice trade was big business in Tombstone and China Mary was its biggest purveyor. In addition to running a gambling hall behind her general store, she was also the preeminent broker for opium, laudanum and Chinese prostitutes. Mary did not discriminate. She recognized the benefit of catering to markets of all nationalities. She also ensured that the terms of every business deal or vice arrangement would be performed to her stipulation. Tombstone may have had its share of violent killers, but nobody was as feared as the one who reigned over Hoptown and her team of loyal enforcers. Law and order was at best a blurred line, but not in the kingdom of China Mary.
Mary was a hard woman because she had to be. Her times demanded it. But that is not to suggest that she was without compassion. It was said that in Hoptown, any person in need of medical attention would never be turned away at Mary’s door. Her charity was not limited to the Chinese contingent either. On one particular occasion, a cowboy named Andy Darnell suffered a badly broken leg after falling from his horse. Tombstone did not have a hospital so other arrangements had to be made. Darnell had to heal at a local boarding house operated by a woman named Mary Tack. China Mary insisted on paying for all costs associated with the injured cowboy’s recovery. Mary was notorious for many reasons but among them was the empathy she showed to those in need.
The “Town Too Tough to Die” survived its infancy because the diverse community was able to coexist. It was allowed to thrive due to the collaboration if its citizens. China Mary was the conduit that made that cooperation possible. She provided necessary services to a burgeoning frontier society and supplied the means of vice demanded by many of its inhabitants. She was not only a cunning businesswoman, but a sympathetic humanitarian and a calculating capitalist. Mary’s was a genuine immigrant success story and even as a woman in the old west, she wielded real power.  
Mary died in December, 1906 of heart failure. She was 67 years old.

Over one thousand people attended her funeral. She was buried at Boothill Graveyard in Tombstone, so named because most of the people interred there died with their boots on. Her grave is one of the top tourist attractions in Tombstone to this day.

Although China Mary came from the Far East, she will always be remembered as a great woman of the West. Her popularity continues to gain traction since her death. In 1960, Mary was portrayed by actress Anna May Wong in an episode of the television series, “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp”. Released in 2020, the Vali Benson novel, “Blood and Silver”, is a fictional account of her actual influence. It details Mary’s supremacy in Tombstone as an honorable woman of standing who was feared, admired, and respected.

Vali Benson grew up in the Midwest. She now lives in Tucson with her husband, two sons and grandchildren. After graduating from the University of Illinois, Vali started and sold two successful businesses before she decided to pursue her real passion of writing. She published several articles in a variety of periodicals, including History Magazine before she decided to try her hand at fiction. In April of 2020, Vali published her first novel, “Blood and Silver”. That same month, she was also made a member of the Western Writers of America.

You can visit Vali Benson at: