It is October 1879 in San Francisco, in the weeks leading up to Halloween, and Annie Fuller, a young widowed boarding house owner, has been asked by one of her boarders, Miss Pinehurst, to expose Arabella Frampton, a local trance medium, as a fraud. Mrs. Fuller is being aided in this endeavor by Nate Dawson, a local lawyer, and her maid-of-all-work, Kathleen Hennessey, and she will soon find there are as many secrets as there are spirits swirling around the Frampton séance table. Some of those secrets will threaten the future of her relationship with Mr. Dawson, and, in time, they will threaten her very life itself.
Susanne Alleyn: What year is it now, Mrs. Fuller, and where are you located? Why do you live where you do?
Mrs. Annie E. Fuller: It is the fall of 1879, and I live in San Francisco, California, my birthplace. However, I returned to the city only two years ago, when I inherited a lovely old home on O’Farrell Street from my maternal aunt. She and my uncle, along with my parents, moved to San Francisco in 1850, as part of the first Gold Rush migration. The house was a wonderful gift because I had been living off the charity of my in-laws in the four years since my husband’s death. Needing a means of support, I turned the home into a boarding house, and one of my aunt’s former servants, Mrs. Beatrice O’Rourke, is my cook. I also employ one full-time maid, Kathleen Hennessey. Together, these two excellent women serve my nine boarders.
SA: Would you rather live anywhere else?
Mrs. Fuller: No! San Francisco, with its hills and sweeping vistas of the great bay, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Even though the city is just recovering from the effects of the terrible national depression, I believe the economic future of the city is very bright. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad ten years ago, the city’s population has grown to well over 200,000 people, and there is a kind of youthful energy here that you don’t find in the older cities back east. I hope I never have to leave here again.
SA: How did your life before you returned to San Francisco influence you?
Mrs. Fuller: My childhood was rather unusual. I was born May 14, 1853, in San Francisco, however, my parents and I moved south to a cattle ranch outside of the small village of Los Angeles when I six. My mother was in ill health, and my father thought that the warmer, drier climate to the south would be better for her. The ranch was very isolated, and I seldom saw anyone besides the Mexican ranch hands. I realize now that ranch life permitted an extraordinary degree of physical freedom for a girl. But my mother died when I was twelve, and my father and I left California, making the six month long trip around Cape Horn to return to his birthplace, New York City.
The isolation of my childhood, my mother’s death, and this trip cemented the unusually close bonds I had with my father. My father, Edward Stewart, was a well-respected businessman and stockbroker before he took up ranching, and he resumed this profession when we moved back east. While I attended an exclusive female academy, it was the lessons in finances with my father each evening that I loved most. I found I had inherited my father’s business aptitude, and he was so proud of me, letting me make my own investments by the time I was sixteen.
I am sorry to say, my husband, Mr. John Fuller (I married at nineteen), didn’t have the same respect for my expertise, and, after my father died, John made a series of terrible business decisions that wiped out my inheritance. I was left penniless when he died in 1874, which is why I was so grateful when my inheritance from my aunt provided me a home of my own. I have sworn I will never be financially dependent on anyone, ever again.
Unfortunately, I found that the income from the boarding house barely covers the expenses, which is why I decided to supplement my income as Madam Sibyl, a clairvoyant. Oh dear, you will keep your promise not to reveal that I am Madam Sibyl, won’t you? It would never do for the connection between Mrs. Annie Fuller and Madam Sibyl become public knowledge.
SA: Yes, certainly, Mrs. Fuller, but does this mean you are not entirely happy with the constraints put on women by society in 1879?
Mrs. Fuller: Women may have made some gains in the last fifty years; for example, two San Francisco women, Clara Foltz and Laura deForce Gordon, were recently successful in winning the right to take the California bar exam. In other ways, nothing has changed. If I were Edward Stewart’s son, instead of his daughter, I would have been able to get a job with a brokerage firm as soon as I arrived in San Francisco, and I could have dispensed with the fiction that I get my business advice from reading palms or casting horoscopes. A woman’s options in life are still so limited. They can marry and be dependent on the whims of their husband, stay single and remain under the authority of their fathers, or they can get a badly paying job in occupations that provide little beyond a future of hard work and poverty.
SA: Is this why you became a private investigator, as a blow for women’s rights?
Mrs. Fuller: Oh dear, I am afraid you have gotten a mistaken impression. I have no intention of making a living solving crimes. My involvement with crime has been limited to two cases, and I am strictly an amateur. This past summer I helped uncover the truth behind the death of Mr. Matthew Voss, one of Madam Sibyl’s clients. At first the police ruled his death as suicide because of financial reverses. I knew this couldn’t possibly be true. Mr. Voss would never shame his family in that way. Besides, I knew that under Madam Sibyl’s (that is to say, my) guidance he had been making a good deal of money from his financial investments. I only got involved in investigating his death to clear his good name and make sure his family wasn’t left destitute, the way I had been at my husband’s death.
SA: What investigative techniques did you use?
Mrs. Fuller: Well, I suppose I simply use my powers of observation and my knowledge of human behavior. These are two skills that have been central to my success as Madam Sibyl, and they helped me discover the truth about the death of Mr. Voss. I secured a temporary position in Mr. Voss’s household as a domestic servant, which permitted me to search the premises and witness the interactions of the members of the household. This was something that a male police officer or investigator would never have been able to do. I also gained profound appreciation of the difficult life of domestic servants. When I hear a man of my class speak of how women must be protected because of their innate frailty, I want to laugh. Not one of the self-satisfied merchants living in their fine homes atop the San Francisco hills would last a day in the life of one of their young Irish servant girls.
SA: Please tell me about your most recent investigation?
Mrs. Fuller: One of the residents in my boarding house, Miss Pinehurst, asked me to look into the activities of a local trance medium. She was concerned because her sister had been attending séances held by Arabella and Simon Frampton, believing that they had contacted her recently deceased young son, Charlie. Miss Pinehurst believes the Framptons are frauds and that her sister is endangering her health by her obsession with the spirit world. I must say, from my attendance at several of these séances, that I quite agree with Miss Pinehurst’s assessment. I know that Spiritualism is a belief system that has given any number of very intelligent men and women a good deal of comfort, but I find the activities of people like the Framptons quite repugnant. They prey on a person’s grief for monetary gain. At least as Madam Sibyl I know the advice I am giving is based on a solid foundation of fact and that the lives of my clients are improved by that advice.
SA: Do you work alone on your investigations, or have you cooperated with the police?
Mrs. Fuller: I have tried to steer clear of any formal contact with the police because I don’t welcome any sort of notoriety that might tarnish the respectability of my boarding house. That is one of the reasons it is so important to keep the real identity of Madam Sibyl a secret, something that might be very difficult if I actively cooperated with the police. However, I have had help in my investigations from Mr. Nathaniel Dawson, the Voss family lawyer. He was initially quite dismissive of my investigations into his client’s death. He eventually came round and was quite helpful in breaking the case, and he has just offered to help gather information about the Framptons, which I do appreciate. In addition, my servant, Kathleen Hennessey, has been coming with me when I attend the Frampton séances. While I am locked in a dark room listening to strange spirits moan, she has been finding out about the other members of the Frampton household.
SA: Finally, what about the history of your era do you think is most relevant to those of us who live in the early 21st century?
Mrs. Fuller: Mark Twain, one of San Francisco’s most famous former citizens, has called our era “The Gilded Age,” and from what I know of your time, there are numerous parallels. After a decade of unprecedented economic growth after the Civil War, the United States has become a nation of staggering inequality. The millionaires, who made their wealth by paying their workers low wages to work in unsafe conditions and stripping away the nation’s timber and mineral resources without paying a dime in fees, plunged the nation into a terrible depression when their reckless speculation in railroad stocks caused the “Panic of 1873.” Banks failed, businesses went bankrupt, real estate values plummeted, and it is estimated unemployment reached 14%, causing people to actually starve to death. I experienced firsthand the devastation of this economic downturn, as did many of Madam Sibyl’s clients.
My father taught me that America will never see steady economic growth until the working people make enough in wages to afford the manufactured goods their labor produces. Otherwise, we will be dependent on foreign trade and at the mercy of the ups and downs of the stock market and the reckless decisions of greedy bankers. From what I know of your era, not much has changed.
Even more distressing is the way that people turn against each other in economic bad times. Rather than blaming the wealthy capitalists of our nation and the politicians they have corrupted, the poor Irish workers in San Francisco, like Dennis Kearney, vented their anger against the city’s Chinese immigrants, men like themselves who were just trying to make a living. I have had numerous arguments with Mrs. O’Rourke, my friend and cook, over this issue, and I understand that in your era there has been a similar tendency to blame immigrants. Such a shame.
Yes, I fear the crimes against groups like immigrants and poor working women and underpaid miners far outweigh the crimes that I have investigated. But I try to do what I can to right the wrongs that I see, even if it upsets a man like Nate Dawson’s belief in what is appropriate behavior for a gently reared woman.
SA: Thank you, Mrs. Fuller, for your insights!
Leave a comment here at the blog to be entered into a drawing for a paper or e-copy of Maids of Misfortune or Uneasy Spirits!
M. Louisa Locke, a retired U.S history professor, has recently published the first two books in a planned series about Victorian San Francisco, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits, both best-selling historical mysteries on Kindle. Locke blogs frequently on self-publishing, is a featured contributor to Publetariat, and is on the Board of Directors of the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative. She is currently working on the third book in her series, Bloody Lessons.
Historical Sleuth Interviews will appear around the middle and end of each month. Authors, if you’d like your historical sleuth to be interviewed here, please send Susanne a note with a little information about your books.
Susanne Alleyn is the author of the Aristide Ravel French Revolution Mysteries (The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, Palace of Justice, Game of Patience, and A Treasury of Regrets) and of A Far Better Rest, the reimagining of A Tale of Two Cities, all available in paper and eBook via Amazon.com and other major retailers.