What We Know So Far

SH-Letterpress jumbleYou can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Coming Up for Air, will be out later this year.

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This week, Carding’s town blogger, seventeen-year old Will Bennett, shares his research into spiritualist Victoria Quartermain’s life, and why her archives may be a treasure worth fighting for.

By the way, Victoria Quartermain is the lead character in a new series of books that is moving from my back burner to the front. The first novel in the series, tentatively titled Victoria Quartermain and the Dragon’s Embrace, will be published after the next Carding novel and a collection of Carding Chronicles.

There are two previous Carding Chronicles about Victoria Quartermain here and here.


Ever since the Victoria Quartermain archives were discovered in the attic of the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts, there’s been a loud buzzing noise in and around Carding. So I thought it would be a good idea to do some digging into the life of the woman who claimed to be the world’s only true spiritualist.

In spite of the fact that she was one of the most famous and scandalous women in America when she died in 1937, very little is known about Quartermain’s early years. To quote writer Hansen Willis, “It was if she arrived in the world fully hatched, with no past.”

At different points in her life, Quartermain claimed she was born in Boston, in a sod cabin “somewhere in the Midwest,” in New York City, and on a boat sailing from Jamaica to London. In interviews, most of them with Hansen Willis, Quartermain claimed she was born in 1865, 1871, and 1878.

And it looks as though we’re going to have to live with the discrepancies because at least three different birth certificates have been found in her archives.

Here is what we do know:

  1. In the 1880s, Quartermain became one of New York’s most famous actresses. Based on theater reviews clipped from the city’s many newspapers, Victoria made the role of Lady Macbeth her own in a production at Augustin Daly’s self-named theaters in New York and London.
  2. Quartermain was a favorite subject in New York’s infamous scandal sheet, The Tattler. She supposedly had affairs with two of the most notorious robber barons in the Gilded Age, Jay Gould and Russell Sage, an accusation she adamantly denied. “Everyone knows that rich men make the worst lovers,” Quartermain told Hansen Willis in an interview. “And those two were the worst of the lot. I wouldn’t have taken off my hat for either of them, much less my dress.”
  3. In the 1890s, Quartermain took on a new role in life when she reserved an upstairs room in Delmonico’s restaurant for weekly séances. At first the public scoffed but as time went on, securing a seat at her table became the hottest game in town among the rich and insecure.
  4. Quartermain was always outspoken when it came to women’s rights. She testified before the New York legislature in Albany and the city council against “the masculine dominance of property and property rights.”
  5. Because of her reputation and the ease with which she moved in high society, wealthy women began to ask Quartermain for assistance in what were then called “delicate matters” such as blackmail and ending messy love affairs.
  6. Because of her work on behalf of women, Quartermain became a threat to some of New York’s most powerful men. But the more they tried to stop her, the more outspoken she became.

Bowing to pressure from some of the city’s most influential men, city newspapers stopped printing stories that mentioned Quartermain’s name in 1897. But the spiritualist just laughed and went around the obstacle.

One of her favorite tactics was the distribution of pamphlets to spread the information she unearthed about public figures. Using a network of servants and street urchins, the scandal sheets would appear overnight, plastered on walls throughout the city, and impossible to stop.

As you can imagine, this did not always sit well with men in power.

Quartermain’s career reached its apotheosis between 1907 and 1911 when she solved a number of high profile robberies and murders. Concerned for her safety and exhausted by her efforts, she retired to live in the artists colony that was flourishing in Carding, Vermont at the time, building a house next door to her good friends Hansen and Emily Willis.

The remainder of her life was relatively quiet though her summertime salons were famous among the artists, writers and musicians who flocked to our Corvus River Valley.

Quartermain died in 1937 and is buried in Carding’s Commons Cemetery. According to her will, her estate was left to Hansen and Emily Willis, including but not limited to “my journals, diaries, letters, and books-in-progress.”

But none of Quartermain’s writings were found among her effects at the time of her death and their whereabouts remained a mystery until they were found in the Carding Academy’s attic just a few weeks ago.

Now a second Quartermain will has surfaced and the disposition of Quartermain’s artifacts, like her life, is shrouded in question and mystery.

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