Search This Blog

Tuesday, August 4, 2020


LARGER THAN LIFE - The Real-Life Characters Behind the Characters. Dr. Mary Walker.

By C.A. Asbrey

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Every writer has something which germinates that little kernel of an idea, which grows into a plot, a character, or a scene. If we're lucky, it inspires a whole universe, or fits neatly into one we are already building. Some of us get our inspiration from movies, T.V. shows, even pictures of models. Others are inspired by real people, or have figures who form from imagination who distil from the ethereal energy in the brain into something more tangible on paper. I'm no different to any other writer in that respect. I get my ideas, and run with them like anyone else, and I thought I might share with you some of the real people who inspired some of the characters in The Innocents Mysteries Series.

It's fair to say that some of the most outrageous characters are actually based on reality, and are people I came across while researching. One of my favourites is Dr. Davida (Vida for short) Cadwallader. In the series she is a friend of the protagonist, Abigail MacKay. They met when Abigail joined the Pinkertons, and became friends. Dr. Cadwallader was arrested as a spy during the Civil War, worked as an Army Surgeon, a Pinkerton, and now consults with the Pinkerton Detective Agency while practicing as a doctor and an Alienist. She was a proponent of The Rational Dress movement, and insists on wearing men's clothes.

In the book 'Innocent Minds' she is introduced as follows:

“I think that’s who you’re waitin’ for. Abi said she might be unusual. Any more unusual and she’d be got up in one of them horse suits. What’s she come as?” 

Both men stared over at the stout woman wearing a man’s frock coat, high-collared shirt, cravat, and stove pipe hat, who stared up and down the quay as though searching for someone. 

“At least she’s wearing skirts,” said Nat. “I guess that’s something.” 

“Yeah,” Jake answered. “That was my first thought when I clapped eyes on her. That’s really somethin’.”

Vida has a remarkable past in the books, but no more incredible than the real woman who inspired her, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, (November 26, 1832 – February 21, 1919). She wasn't a Pinkerton, but none the less remarkable for that.

She was born in Oswego, New York. Her parents were both very progressive for the time and reinforced the idea that there was no such thing as roles defined by gender, but only by ability. Her mother often did heavy farm work, while her father attended to domestic duties. Mary's ideas on female clothing came from her mother, who did not like corsets, and encouraged the girl to wear men's clothes to work around the farm. Tight-lacing was said to be unhealthy and unnecessary, and these ideas seem to have stuck with Mary for life. Her parents also insisted that their daughter be as well-educated as their son, and she gained her medical degree in 1855 from Syracuse Medical College.

She married a fellow medical student, Albert Miller, on November 16th, 1855. True to form, for the wedding she wore a short skirt with trousers underneath for her wedding. She also refused to 'obey' in the wedding vows. They set up a joint practice in Rome, New York, but it failed due to suspicions of female doctors at the time. The marriage was also short-lived due to Miller's infidelities. The couple separated and divorced.

Her insistence that long skirts and numerous petticoats spread dirt, as well restricting the movement of the wearer, led her to experiment with various combinations of trousers and skirts. This was not well-received by many, and she was widely ridiculed, and attacked more than once. At one point she was even arrested by a police officer who twisted her arm, demanding to know if she'd ever had sex with a man. She was released after influential friends kicked up a fuss regarding the matter.

When the Civil War broke out she offered her services to the union side as she was a passionate abolitionist, but women were not permitted to be doctors, so she ended up working as a nurse instead. She was known to wear men's clothes when working, insisting it was more practical in the field. Mary served at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), July 21, 1861 and at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington,  D.C. She also acted as a battle surgeon, without pay, at the Battle of Fredericksburg and after the Battle of Chickamauga. In 1862 she was allowed to become the first female surgeon employed by the US Army, but only as a civilian, and treated both combatants and civilians in that role.

It was during these forays across enemy lines she was captured, and treated as a spy. Mary was held for four months until she was released as part of a prisoner exchange. During her captivity she steadfastly refused to wear clothes 'more fitting to her sex.'

She went on to supervise a women's prison in Louisville, and an orphanage in Tennessee for the rest of the war, but suffered muscular atrophy as a result of her imprisonment. For her disability, she was awarded a Civil War pension

Mary spent the rest of her life touring and campaigning on health care, temperance, women's rights, and dress reform. In those speeches she always insisted that she didn't wear men's clothes. "I wear my own."   

She found herself at odds with her own movement when she insisted that women already had the right to vote, as some states had already allowed it. The movement decided to campaign for constitutional amendment instead. Mary's intransigence on the issue led to increasing alienation, and her insistence on dressing unconventionally made her an easy target for mockery.

Medal of Honor

After the war Mary had been awarded the Medal of Honor, even though her civilian status technically made her ineligible. The medal was based on her service, and the lack of an award being a good match to the nature of her service being available at the time. However, many loopholes in the regulations as to who was entitled to a medal, and who was not, led to many people being awarded who were not involved in combat, or who had civilian roles. In an overhaul of the regulations in 1916, over 900 people were stripped of the medal, including Mary and Buffalo Bill Cody.

True to form, Mary refused to return her medal and continued to wear it until her death in 1919 at the age of eight-six, insisting that men were awarded the medal who spent less time on the front lines than she had. They also did not remove the medal from male surgeons under the same kind of civilian contract as she had. She was buried wearing a plain dark suit, a year before women got the right to vote in the USA.       

During World War II, a Liberty ship, the SS Mary Walker was named after her, and a stamp was released in her honour in 1982. Her home town, Oswego, unveiled a statue to her in 2012. There is also a plaque explaining her importance at the Health Center there.  Her Medal of Honor was returned to her in 1977 by President Carter.


“She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.”

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder.

“I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.”

He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager.

Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.”

He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?”

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?”

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not.

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.”

“You’re not robbing the bank?”

Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.”

She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.”

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.”

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”

He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?”

“Please, help! Noooo.”

Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’? That’s useless.”

“I told you. I can’t.”

Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.”


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.” 



  1. Challenging excerpt, C.A! I hope Becky gets Jake back!
    Fascinating history blog. Dr Mary was clearly larger than life. Amazing woman.

    1. Oh yes. She does, Lindsay. Dr. Walker was very remarkable. It takes a lot of courage to be that different.

  2. Upstate New York, represent! I was born in Rome, NY -- my father had a parish nearby at the time. (I enjoy telling people I was born in Rome. Also, the family cemetery is in Valhalla . . . NY.)
    Conversely, Eddie Izzard, when asked why he wears women's dresses, has said, "They're not women's dresses -- they're mine." I wonder if he knows about Dr. Walker.

    1. Ha! That Rome is still exotic over here. I wouldn't be surprised if Eddie Izzard knows about Dr. Walker. He has such a remarkable mind.

  3. I've known about Mary for a long time, but she never inspired a character like the one you developed. Mary truly was amazing.

    I will say, I love this series. So sad to see it closing out. Doris

    1. She truly was remarkable. It think I actually toned the character down a little. Sometimes truth really is starnger than reality.

  4. Your excerpt was so much fun to read, Christine. I've got to make time, soon, and sit down and read the series from the beginning. You picked an amazing woman to inspire a character in your book. It just amazes me how courageous these women like Mary were to tread where angels fear to tread. I'm glad President Carter reinstated her medal of honor and that a beautiful statue was erected in her honor. A trulyamazing woman.

    1. I'm pleased he did too. It was an injustice. It's a shame she never got to see it, but true to form, she didn't make treating her badly an easy option.

  5. Fun excerpt! It's so true how when we are developing characters we only have to look to the lives of real people in history, and it is sad that so many of the early reformers are forgotten.

    1. Isn't it? This woman was amazing, and I had to reflect her somehow. A Pinkerton seemed an appropriate device. I hope I did her justice.

  6. I like Mary. She was quite the individualist--and a forward thinker. I think it admirable that she dressed to suit herself.
    This was such an interesting post, Christine. I had never heard of this amazing woman until you posted this. Fantastic research!

    1. Thank you. If I'd simply invented her, people would have said she couldn't possibly have existed. She was way beyond her time!

  7. What a fascinating woman! I love learning about women of the past who have helped to shape our present.

    1. Thank you. I'd never heard about her until I stumbled on her in research. I was so struck by her I modelled a character on her.