Dump Diamonds: Gems Leftover From Researching A Mystery Novel

May 25, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Bernadette Pajer

In order to write historical novels with accurate detail I spend a lot of time researching, and I must admit, I love it. In years past, researching required trips to university and museum libraries, hunting through archives and microfiche. Occasionally, I still research that way. In fact, a trip to the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle is in my future so I can explore historical records of the Bon Marché department store (my Professor is being summoned to investigate the death of an electrician in the Christmas display window of the Bon Marche in 1903.) But thanks to the Internet and the magic of scanning and PDF technology, many primary research materials are online at my fingertips, and the majority of my research time is spent in the comfort of home.

Facts which used to take hours or days to unearth can now be found in minutes, rich with detail and historical context. When I turn back to writing, only a fraction of those details find their way into my stories. As much as I enjoy research, I don’t like to find piles of it while reading a novel, and I try to write the sort of books I like to read: fast-paced, minimally detailed, character driven. In other words, I avoid the “information dump.” I mine my piles of research for the gems needed to move my story forward, and the rest of the diamonds remain behind. One such diamond I recently found while researching turn-of-the-century electrotherapeutic medicine (the Professor solved a murder at a sanitarium) was the amazing cure-all, Electrozone.

I came across Electrozone in a 1900s Seattle Times ad, drawn by the illustrated lightning. Two health fads dominated the early twentieth century, patent medicines and electricity, and here was a product boasting of both. “It will cure you,” the ad claimed, of anything from asthma to cancer. But what was it? I had to know. I doubted I could tie the medicine to my plot, but off I happily went on a detour anyway.

Besides numerous advertisements in magazines and testimonials in homeopathic journals, I found Electrozone in the official 1900 “Report of Military Governor of Cuba.” Cuba? An Electrozone manufacturing plant had been set up in “Habana” Cuba by the U.S. military. The report explained that Electrozone was “electrolyzed sea water,” a “clear liquid with the decided odor of chlorine.” It smelled like chlorine because it was a form of chlorine. A very expensive and unstable form that a few folks felt wasted government funds.

Defenders of Electrozone claimed, “Electrozone is put to seven different uses in the city of Habana, viz, sewer disinfection, house disinfection by the sanitary department, disinfection of fresh earth on public and private works, street disinfection by sprinkling, disinfection and deodorizing of the night soil carts rendering them inoffensive, disinfection of stables by private owners, and last but not least in relation to the greatest good to the greatest number, it is used as a medicine by the people both as an antiseptic wash and as an internal drug for various stomach and intestinal diseases.”

So it was an expensive but reliable sanitizer, and although apparently medically useful, certainly the cure-all claims were highly exaggerated. And yet, why did this product sound vaguely familiar? I did a general Google search, no dates specified, for “chlorine cure cancer” and found thousands of hits for Chlorine Dioxide and DMSO.

Now that was interesting. Both are controversial alternative cancer treatments and chemically in the chlorine family. Was this a case of “everything old is new again?” Are we still vulnerable today, in wanting to believe in cure-alls? Or is there some truth to the claims of Electrozone and its modern counterparts? I continued exploring, spending more time than I should have on this detour and being an open-minded skeptic, never did come up with a definitive answer. But I had a lot of fun hunting and pondering, until my newest work-in-progress steered me away to a completely different diamond dump.

Now I’m diving into the history of Christmas tree lights. In 1895, Grover Cleveland was the first to have them in the White House, but it would be decades before the average household could afford them. The miniature bulbs were expensive to purchase and didn’t come strung on wire. If you could afford to buy the bulbs and your house had electric lighting, you then hired a “wireman” to wire miniature sockets and string them. The Edison General Electric Company came out with the first pre-strung lights in 1903. For twelve dollars (slightly less than the average weekly wage in the United States) you could buy a string of twenty-eight miniature lights. That’s a little diamond that just might find its way into the next book!

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Bernadette Pajer is the author of the Professor Bradshaw Mystery series set in the early 20th century Seattle, featuring Benjamin Bradshaw, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington. All three books in the series thus far (A SPARK OF DEATH, FATAL INDUCTION, and CAPACITY FOR MURDER) have passed rigorous peer reviews by the Washington Academy of Sciences and earned their Seal-of-Approval for science. You can learn more on her website.


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