5 Books About Historic Women

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium
Woman Reading a Book in Jardin du Luxembourg (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt (University of Idaho Press, $13.63)

In 1896, Helga Estby and her eldest daughter, Clara, took up a $10,000 wager to walk unescorted from Spokane, Wash., to New York City. A Norwegian immigrant with eight children, Helga was desperate to save her family’s property after the 1893 depression. With only $5 each, the mother and daughter braved snowstorms, hunger and wild animals to make the 3,500-mile trek. But when they reached their destination, they were denied the money. Almost as remarkable as Helga’s story is the tale of how the author learned about Helga’s historic walk from a student’s essay about his grandmother’s journey. Tragically, Helga’s family never realized the importance of her expedition and destroyed not only letters, but hundreds of pages of her journal! Bold Spirit serves as a good model for how to document a life when the paper trail no longer exists.

Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell by Elaine Forman Crane (Cornell University Press, $19.95)

In 1673, Rebecca Cornell (ancestor of Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University) was found dead, badly burned near her bedroom fireplace. Although the coroner’s report initially claimed that her death was an accident, the sinister events surrounding her death eventually came to light. This engrossing, well-documented narrative offers a view of Colonial life in Rhode Island, and details some fascinating topics: domestic abuse, witchcraft, ghosts and matricide. The book is fully documented with sources familiar to genealogists.

Murdered by His Wife by Deborah Navas (University of Massachusetts Press, $30.89)

This story revolves around the murder of Joshua Spooner in 1778 Brookfield, Mass. The court convicted Spooner’s wife, Bathsheba, and her three accomplices, one of whom was her 17-year-old lover, Ezra Ross. Her pregnancy by Ross was the driving force behind the murder. All four convicts were hanged, although Bathsheba pleaded to postpone her execution until after her child’s birth. Since the murder, many tales have been written about this case, and Navas had to separate fact from fiction. Providing the full texts of newspaper accounts, trial records and other sources, her narrative is an excellent example of a documented family story.

Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health by Judith Walzer Leavitt (Beacon Press, $25)

Born in County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1869, Mary Mallon came to America in 1883 and supported herself as a cook for wealthy New York families. In 1907, the authorities called her a public health hazard and sent her to a one-room cottage on the grounds of an isolation hospital. Although Mallon was healthy, she carried the bacterium that causes typhoid fever, and had unintentionally infected 22 people through her cakes and puddings. The press nicknamed her “Typhoid Mary,” and she spent most of her days thereafter in isolation. This riveting biography not only gives us a glimpse of the time period in which Mallon lived, but it also reminds us of the way women and the Irish were viewed and treated in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-Century America by Alan Pell Crawford (Simon & Schuster, $20.80)

The Virginia aristocracy comes to life in this well-documented narrative surrounding an illicit relationship and infanticide. Unwise Passions is the story of the beautiful 18-year-old Nancy Randolph, whose newborn child was killed in 1793. The father was rumored to be her sister Judith’s husband, Richard, and both he and Randolph were tried and acquitted for the child’s murder. After being banned from her sister and brother-in-law’s plantation, Randolph moved to New York, where she later married Gouverneur Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Randolph was a headstrong woman, and Crawford offers yet another excellent example of how to write a life story in an engaging and compelling manner.


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