Regarding money and crime (two topics of endless fascination to me in the pursuit of veracity in fiction), George had some interesting comments in his November 16, 1879, letter to his mother:
. . . Last night two-foot-pads held up the hands of a man who had a long Navy self-cocker in one of them and they were both killed. Every-body says "serves them right" and I do not think the man who killed them will be hung as foot-pads are the most dangerous enemies of our people here. I am glad some of them are meeting with their desserts. Most men here carry sums about them varying from $50 up to the hundreds of dollars so that the field is a very lucrative one for the highwaymen. . . .Okay, what treasures we can glean from this little gem? First things first: Money. Today, $50 hardly buys you groceries. First thing I wondered in reading this passage: How much was $50 back in 1879?
Thanks to the very neat-o little website Measuring Worth, which includes a little calculator that computes the relative value of U.S. dollars from 1774 to 2007, I was able to figure this out. So, hold on to your seat for this:
$50 in 1879 had the same "purchase power" as $1072.09 in 2007.
Now, think of those "several hundred dollars." Let's pick, oh say, $300 and see what we get. Back in 1879, that $300 stuffed into pockets or satchels equates to $6432.53.
Yes, I can see where robbery would be a lucrative business in old-time Leadville.
What else can I harvest from this letter? How about terms and slang? "foot-pad," "highwaymen," "serves them right," "just desserts." I can, without qualms, now use these words and terms in my fictional exploits with the knowledge that they are current to the times.
What else? How about the fact that "Navy self-cockers" were being carried and employed, the fact that the criminals were stupid enough to shout "raise your hands high" to someone who was actually carrying a gun in one of them, and that the person shot them and will probably receive no punishment?
And, I could go on.
Not the least question that occurred to me: He wrote this to his mother?? If I were young George's mother and had received this letter, I'd be sending him a ticket on the first stage home! But, back then, a 22-year-old son was considered a man, ready to take up the challenges and rewards, fully capable of making his own way, far from home. An attitude not quite as common today, where many 22-year-olds are viewed and treated as just slightly older teenagers. Authors of historical fiction, myself included, have to be conscious of our own suppositions, expectations, and beliefs, and do a little "mind-travel" when creating our worlds of the past.
So, perhaps this will give you some insight into my thinking and why I value these letters and the folks who so generously shared them with me, so very highly.
What about you? Do you see some other things in this passage that shed light on the past?