Monday, May 7, 2018

People often ask me where I get the ideas for my characters. Usually, when I’m half asleep or walking the dog, they just appear on the periphery of my mind. I see them fully formed, wearing clothes from whatever time period they live. Sometimes they are talking sometimes engaged in some activity.
This time however, the heroine of my newest novel, A Place In Your Heart, was inspired by a woman I came across in my research of the Civil War. Her name was Mary Bickerdyke.

At the beginning of the Civil War, troops at the hospital in Cairo, Illinois were dying from disease and poor treatment in a place where medical supplies were either poor or nonexistent. The doctor in charge of the hospital, Dr. Benjamin Woodard, made a plea for help to the members of the Brick Congregational Church in Galesburg. The congregation decided to send Mary Ann Bickerdyke to help.

Mary Ann was a tall, broad shouldered, plain looking woman who never flinched from any job.

She was born on July 19, 1817 in Knox County, Ohio, to Hiram and Annie Ball. About a year and a half later, Annie died and Mary Ann was sent to live with her mother’s parents in Richland County.

At some point in her life she graduated from a local Cincinnati school which taught botanic medicine.

In 1847, at the age of 30, she married Robert Bickerdyke a widower with small children. Shortly before her husband’s death she became well known in the town as a Botanic Physician. Though she was a kind, honest woman, she was quite outspoken.

Mary Ann arrived at the military hospital in June of 1861. The hospital overflowed with sick. Hundreds of men lay in tents waiting for space inside the hospital.
Only one or two men lay on cots, the rest lay on straw pallets covered with a blanket or an overcoat, so close together there was no room to step between them. The dirt floor was covered with human excrement, and flies swarmed over the sick men. The men lay only in shirts and underwear which were covered with filth, vomit, and stale sweat.

Mrs. Bickerdyke grabbed a bar of lye soap from one of the many boxes she brought. She scoured the insides of barrels and used them as tubs to bathe each man. She directed the volunteers and assistants to shave the beards and cut the hair of the men to rid them of lice. She ordered the patients clothing to be burned along with all the straw. Other volunteers were put to work shoveling out the dirt floors of the tents until they’d dug to an uncontaminated level.
Once the patients were bathed and dressed in clean clothing and back in the tents with fresh sheets, she passed out the food she’d brought. She filled pails with lime and brought them to the tents to be used as latrines.

She wasn’t supposed to go into the wards at all, but that made no difference to her, she went anyway.

Supplies from the Sanitary Commission were sent to her personally and stored at the hospital. It didn’t take long for her to realize the whiskey intended for the patients was going to the doctor’s lounge for the benefit of the chief surgeon and his friends. Other food was being sold by the chief nurse and many of the assistants were eating the fruit sent by the Sanitary Commission for the patients.

Mrs. Bickerdyke went to the chief surgeon and told him the supplies were being stolen. He ordered her out of the hospital. She told him, “Doctor, I’m here to stay as long as the men need me. You put me out one door and I’ll come in another. If you bar the doors, I’ll come in a window. If anybody goes from here it will be you. I’m going straight to Gen. Grant. We’ll see who gets put out of here.”

One day she went into a ward where the ward master, a young lieutenant, was talking to his friends. His uniform blouse was open exposing his shirt. Mrs. Bickerdyke approached him, pulled open his blouse, and turned down the neck of the shirt revealing the inked initials NWSC for the Northwest Sanitary Commission.

A strong woman, Mrs. Bickerdyke threw the young lieutenant to the floor, sat on his stomach and removed the shirt, which she held up to the cheers of the patients. She then checked his trousers and found them to be his own. That wasn’t true of his slippers and socks. Barefoot and shirtless the officer completed his rounds that night, then applied for duty with a regiment headed for the battlefield. He was never seen again.

To stop the assistants from eating the fruit intended for the patients, she stewed a pot of peaches and told the cooks and men hanging around the kitchen not to touch it. When she returned, found the kitchen staff groaning and holding their stomachs.

She told them she’d added a dose of tartar emetic to the peaches and if they didn’t stop eating food meant for the patients, the next time she would add rat poison.

I fell in love with this woman who the men called Mother Bickerdyke, and the idea of Gracie McBride was born.


  1. Fascinating. What a hero Mary was! Thanks for sharing her story, and how she inspired you in creating your character.


    1. Hi Cat,
      Thanks for stopping by. I guess we all find our characters in different ways, and for me this was out of my norm.

  2. Such an incredible inspiration that woman was! And a champion for those men. I can see her throughout the pages of your novel, but you clearly put your own twist on Gracie as well. A fascinating read, Kathy!

    1. Hi Christy,
      Thanks. Mary Ann Bickerdyke never let anyone tell her what to do. Gracie didn't have half her intrepid spirit. If Gracie had mirrored Mother Bickerdyke no one would have found her believable. Have fun at the conference.

  3. What an amazing woman! No wonder she inspired you. Good luck with your novel.

    1. Thank you Anna. Mother Bickerdyke was such an amazing woman, there is unlimited story fodder in her life.

  4. What a fascinating story, Kathy! She was an amazing woman. I enjoyed reading about your inspiration. All the best!

  5. Hi Mary,
    Thanks for your good wishes. I hope my heroine helps show how much the lady nurses went above and beyond to care for the tens of thousands of wounded and sick who came through the hospitals during the war.