Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Blog Tour Guest Post: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Please join me in welcoming bestselling author Karen Abbott to Let Them Read Books! Karen is touring the blogosphere to celebrate the paperback release of her critically acclaimed smash hit, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, and I am thrilled to have her here today with a guest post on one of my favorite subjects: fascinating historical research discoveries!

New York Times bestselling author Karen Abbott tells the spellbinding true story of four women who risked everything during the Civil War.

Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, an avowed rebel with a dangerous temper, shot a Union soldier in her home and became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her considerable charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man to enlist as a Union private named Frank Thompson, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the war and infiltrating enemy lines. The beautiful widow Rose O'Neal Greenhow engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring—even placing a former slave inside the Confederate White House—right under the noses of increasingly suspicious rebel detectives.

With a cast of real-life characters, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, Detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor NapolĂ©on III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy shines a dramatic new light on these daring—and, until now, unsung—heroines.

Favorite Research Discoveries
by Karen Abbott

Research is my favorite part of the writing process, partly because it’s easier (there’s no such struggle as “research block”) but mostly because it lets me time-travel back into my characters’ lives. The women’s intimate histories—published and unpublished diaries, documents, and letters—yield the details and key moments of their stories and give me a peek inside their minds. I become a detective, and each archival box is another potential treasure trove of clues. Below are some of my favorite research discoveries from Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy:

Rose’s scrap of black silk. When I visited the National Archives in Washington, DC, I spent hours sifting through Confederate spy Rose Greenhow’s papers, which were seized by the famous detective Allan Pinkerton. In July 1861, just before First Manassas/Bull Run (the first major land battle of the war), Rose summoned a 16-year-old courier to her Washington home, wrapped an important dispatch in a piece of black silk, and tucked it inside the courier’s hair. When I found this piece of black silk, I felt an incredible, visceral connection to Rose; I was holding her history in the palm of my hand.

Emma’s would-be lover’s diary. As many as 400 women, in both North and South, posed and fought as men. Emma Edmonds, who called herself “Frank Thompson” and enlisted as a private with the Second Michigan Infantry, astonished me with her bravery and resilience. Not only did she participate in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, she also faced a daily threat of her sex being discovered—which meant possible arrest on charges of prostitution and certain expulsion from the army. Despite the risk, Emma found herself falling in love with a fellow Union soldier, a dashing gentleman by the name of Jerome Robbins. I found Jerome’s diary at the University of Michigan, and it contained some very interesting entries about his “friend Frank Thompson”; Jerome had his suspicions about Emma from the very beginning: “I revere as a blessing the society of a friend so pleasant as Frank,” Jerome wrote, “though foolish as it may seem, a mystery appears to be connected with him which it is impossible for me to fathom. Yet these may be false surmises—would that I be free of them for not for worlds would I wrong a friend who so sincerely appreciates confiding friendship.” The evolution of their rich, complicated relationship became one of my favorite storylines in the book.

Elizabeth’s death threats. Union operative Elizabeth Van Lew was perhaps the stealthiest of them all, forming and operating a spy ring in the Confederate capital of Richmond. I was thrilled to connect with the great-grandson of Elizabeth’s niece, who shared information about her incredible spy operation that had never been published before. For example, Elizabeth’s brother, John Van Lew, used the family hardware business in his own espionage efforts; he would take blank order forms and fill them out as if they were genuine, but each number corresponded to certain military terminology: 370 iron hinges meant 3,700 cavalry; 30 anvils meant 30 batteries of artillery; 40 vises meant 4,000 battle-hardened shock troops. But Elizabeth’s greatest coup was placing a former family slave, Mary Jane Bowser, as a spy in the Confederate White House. Mary Jane brilliantly played the part of the illiterate servant, but in reality she was highly educated and gifted with an eidetic memory, capable of memorizing images in a single glance and recalling entire conversations word for word. While she was dusting Jefferson Davis’s desk or cleaning up his children’s nursery, she was also peeking at his confidential papers and eavesdropping on his conversations—and reporting everything back to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s neighbors in Richmond suspected her espionage, and she received death threats on a daily basis. I spent a lot of time sifting through her papers at the New York Public Library, and came across a few of these death threats. One was scrawled in an erratic script: “They are coming at night. Look out! Look out! Look out! Your house is going. FIRE. Old Maid, is your house insured? Please give us some of your blood to write with.”  It was signed “White Caps,” and concluded with a crude rendering of a skull and crossbones.

The note was chilling. I was terrified just holding it in my hands in the library; I can’t imagine how Elizabeth felt receiving this in 1864, knowing her enemies were always watching her.

Belle’s hilariously self-aggrandizing letter. I found Belle Boyd, the teenaged Confederate spy, both fascinating and hilarious. She was all id—a sort of Civil War “Girls Gone Wild”—and had no filter whatsoever, especially when extolling her own virtues. While researching Belle in her hometown of Martinsburg, Virginia (which became Martinsburg, West Virginia in 1863), I came across this letter she wrote to her cousin, lobbying him to find her a husband: “I am tall. I weigh 106 ½ pounds. My form is beautiful. My eyes are of a dark blue and so expressive. My hair of a rich brown and I think I tie it up nicely. My neck and arms are beautiful & my foot is perfect. Only wear [size] two and a half shoes. My teeth the same pearly whiteness, I think perhaps a little whiter. Nose quite as large as ever, neither Grecian nor Roman but beautifully shaped and indeed I am decidedly the most beautiful of all your cousins.”

And woe to anyone who disagreed with her.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is on a blog tour!

About the Author:

Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City, American Rose, and, most recently, Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, which was named one of the best books of 2014 by Library Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Amazon, and Flavorwire, and which was optioned by Sony for a miniseries. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives in New York City, where she's at work on her next book.

Find out more about Karen at her website.


  1. I've read the book and remember all of these things being mentioned, but it is even more interesting to read about them here. I love the process of research!


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