Monumental

In 2017, historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage wrote, “The Confederate monuments in New Orleans; Charlottesville, Virginia; Durham, North Carolina, and elsewhere did not organically pop up like mushrooms. The installation of the 1,000-plus memorials across the US was the result of the orchestrated efforts of white Southerners and a few Northerners with clear political objectives: They tended to be erected at times when the South was fighting to resist political rights for black citizens. The preservation of these monuments has likewise reflected a clear political agenda.”

Brundage continues, “Few if any of the monuments went through any of the approval procedures that we now commonly apply to public art. Typically, groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which claimed to represent local community sentiment (whether they did or did not), funded, erected, and dedicated the monuments. As a consequence, contemporaries, especially African Americans, who objected to the erection of monuments had no realistic opportunity to voice their opposition. Most Confederate monuments were, in short, the result of private groups colonizing public space.”

There are roughly three times as many monuments honoring men of the Confederacy than monuments honoring heroes of the Revolutionary War. As Americans, we all benefit from our victory against the British, some more than others. But who, if anyone, benefits from the Confederacy’s loss to the Union? And why is the Confederacy, a failed attempt to split from the United States, still being celebrated with monuments, memorials, and much-beloved flag?

Below is an historical essay I wrote over five years ago. Before Charlottesville. Before Trump. In it you’ll be introduced to a handful of men who suffered through and survived the worst of the American Revolution and, subsequently, have been completely forgotten by their own country. They were POWs before POWs were ever defined. They suffered mortality rates that exceed the Korean War and Andersonville, both of which have been given memorials that are funded by the federal government. But there is no monument celebrating the Prison Ship Martyrs, those many thousands who lived and died, simply so that we could argue today about whether or not the statue of a Confederate general, an American traitor so intent on preserving the Southern state’s rights to enslave human beings for economic growth, could remain on display in a number of Southern states.

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I used to believe that the Prison Ship Martyrs could never gain enough support from our government because the colonists were, by definition, traitors. They were rebels. They fought back against their own government. And they won. Why would the United States want to fund a monument that celebrates a rebellion against their own government? 

Then it dawned on me: It’s much easier to appease the ones who lost, the Confedate States of America. This isn’t about people. This isn’t about democracy. This is about memorializing the loss. The government doesn’t want to honor the rebels who won.

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In New York City’s East River sits a basin near northwest Brooklyn where human bones have regularly washed ashore for more than two centuries. The basin, referred to as Wallabout Bay, was once home to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, one of the country’s oldest naval installations. The Brooklyn Navy Yard began development in 1801 to support the newly established United States Navy, a military arm created by John Adams during his presidency. Over the years, the waterway’s natural channels were disrupted by construction and the river floor uncovered the horrors of war of which few Americans today are even aware. Even though the bones have been surfacing in cycles since 1795, nearly every new discovery has resulted in more failed attempts to honor the men and women who died in Wallabout Bay.

When construction of the Brooklyn Navy Yard began at the beginning of the nineteenth century, scores of human remains were uncovered by the dredging of the basin’s mud flats. In 1808, locals who knew the story behind the washed up remains again collected the bleached bones and skulls that littered the Brooklyn shoreline and placed them in a crypt to be buried nearby. Yet skeletal pieces continued to come ashore for decades, and personal accounts began to surface telling of the merchant seamen and privateers who had died on these waters. Their deaths were not the results of shipwrecks or maritime accidents, not of drowning or falling overboard. These deaths, estimated to be somewhere between 11,000 to 16,000 men and women, were instead the result of the unsanitary conditions and barbaric treatment inflicted upon prisoners held aboard British prison ships in Wallabout Bay during the American Revolution. 

Between 1776 and 1783, at least sixteen prison ships, including the Jersey, Scorpion, and Good Hope, were moored in Wallabout Bay. The ships were employed by the British throughout the duration of the Revolutionary War. The British stationed prison ships up and down the eastern seaboard, some as far south as Charleston, South Carolina. The prison ships in Wallabout Bay, however, were notoriously brutal. Filth and disease were rampant aboard the vessels as prisoners suffered from diseases like smallpox, typhus, dysentery, and yellow fever. Prisoners’ poor diets often led to malnutrition from starvation or food poisoning, and contaminated water and dehydration were chronic concerns. More people died aboard these prison ships than in all the Revolutionary War battles combined. Held captive on these decaying hulks, the prisoners were mostly colonists, although some were simply unlucky foreign merchants. 

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The most notorious of all the prison ships was the HMS Jersey. Built during peacetime, the Jersey was a decommissioned fifty-four gun warship. The ship was nearly forty years old before she was stationed in Wallabout Bay as a floating prison. More than 1,000 prisoners were crammed together between decks at any given time. Poor ventilation and sanitation, on top of spreading diseases, led to approximately a dozen deaths each night. A familiar call every morning awakened the prisoners below: “Rebels! Bring up your dead!” 

A number of first-person accounts were made public in the decades after the war. Andrew Sherburne’s Memoirs was written in 1828 and Thomas Andros published The Old Jersey Captive in 1833. The best known account, however, is Recollections of Life on the Prison Ship Jersey, written by Captain Thomas Dring. The manuscript was completed in 1824. Dring died in August of the following year, but it is noted that “his faculties were then perfect and unimpaired, and his memory remained clear and unclouded, even in regard to the most minute facts.” Dring, not yet a captain at the time of his unfortunate captures, was taken by the British in 1779 and imprisoned aboard the Good Hope. He managed to escape after a four-month confinement, but was again captured in 1782. He spent the next five months aboard the Jersey where he was “a witness and a partaker of the unspeakable sufferings of that wretched class of American prisoners, who were there taught the utmost extent of human misery.” The Jersey had a widely known reputation for death and wretchedness, and Dring and his comrades feared conditions on the ship before even stepping aboard.

The filthy environment aboard the aging ships promoted death and misery. In the case of the Jersey, its many gun ports were closed up and sealed off entirely. Ventilation and sunlight were nearly non-existent, leading to the areas between decks to carry a stench “so thick and putrid that it seemed to have tangible weight.” According to one prison ship survivor, Robert Sheffield, “The air was so foul at times, that a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which three boys were not missed until they had been dead three days.” Sheffield was captured in the summer of 1778 with nineteen other men. Three of them died within the first week. He referred to his prison ship as “a little epitome of hell.”

Food and water rations were poor, at best. Dring recalled the food allowances in his personal account explaining that one prisoner was responsible for collecting the rations each day for his mess, a designation given to one’s assigned group of fellow prisoners. Each mess received two-thirds that which was provided for those in the British Navy. One day’s rations usually consisted of one pound of biscuit, one pound of pork or two pounds of beef, a pint of oatmeal or peas, and occasionally butter, sweet oil, suet, or flour. The sweet oil was “so rank and putrid that we could not endure even the smell of it.” The bread was crawling with worms. Another survivor, Captain Alexander Coffin Jr., recalled “There were never provisions served out to the prisoners that would have been eatable by men that were not literally in a starving situation.” Coffin also noted having seen prisoners steal bran and slop from the troughs kept on board to feed the crews’ hogs.

The cook on the Jersey used the salty sea water from Wallabout Bay to prepare the prisoners’ meager rations in a giant copper boiler. “The copper became corroded and consequently poisonous,” Dring writes, “the fatal consequences of which must be obvious to everyone.” Coffin reported that the drinking water provided to him during his imprisonment was ordered and delivered by the city, but that “I never, after having followed the sea thirty years, had on board any ship, water so bad.” Another prisoner, Christopher Hawkins, claimed his drinking water came from the side of the ship “where all the filth and refuse were thrown.” Historians dispute this claim, however, as the water would be too salty, but historians agree it is entirely possible that this water, filled with filth and refuse, was probably used to boil and prepare the prisoners’ food. Historian John Ferling writes, “They tried to eat in this environment, too, cooking their food in a large kettle filled with water gathered from alongside the vessel, the very site where the previous day’s excrement was dumped each morning.”

Not surprisingly, disease was rampant. Lice, ticks, and other vermin flourished in the dark, dank bellies of the hulks. Typhus, dysentery, yellow fever, and smallpox were common and caused more than a dozen deaths each night, especially on the HMS Jersey. Many who managed to avoid or survive those diseases often “succumbed to the scurvy, which made their teeth fall out and caused their gums and eyes to bleed incessantly.” It was not uncommon to hear of prisoners who were so hungry or malnourished that they ate their own clothing. Sometimes they ate their own shoes. Rotten food and unclean water caused intestinal illnesses that resulted in tubs overflowing with human waste. Some survivors told of prison ships “whose decks were slippery with excrement.”

Historian Edwin Burrows describes the mortality rate of those held aboard the British prison ships by comparing them to events better known to the general public: The mortality rate among American soldiers who fought in the Korean War was approximately thirty-three percent; the mortality rate among Union soldiers in Andersonville, Georgia, was a bit higher, around thirty-five percent.

Andersonville was the notorious prisoner of war camp run by the Confederates during the American Civil War. Designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, Andersonville recorded a prisoner population of more than 32,000 only six months into operations. Food and water supplies were insufficient; medical care was nonexistent. Those who died had suffered from either disease, exposure, malnutrition, or a deadly combination of each. David Swain calls Andersonville “a humanitarian disaster,” adding that “incarceration in the Andersonville prison camp was probably as miserable but statistically less lethal” than life aboard the prison ship Jersey

However, during the Revolution, when the entire American population hovered around only three million people, the mortality rate among prisoners held aboard the British prison ships was nearly forty percent. Some historians believe it is possible that as many as 16,000 died aboard the prison ships. If that is true, then mortality rates among prisoners could be as high as fifty percent.

Every person held aboard the prison ships was considered a traitor against the British. Since Britain had yet to acknowledge America’s independence, anyone charged with fighting for the colonists or aiding them in any way ran the risk of being imprisoned on board a ship festering with filth and disease in Wallabout Bay. The thousands who died aboard these floating prisons were often given another chance at freedom. By promising to enlist in the royal army or navy, a prisoner could buy his release with his newfound loyalty to the British. Most, however, chose not to, and instead faced certain death by remaining true to the American cause. 

Those who died were buried haphazardly along the Brooklyn shoreline on the banks of the Wallabout. Prisoners looking for a means to leave the ship temporarily volunteered for burial duty. Dring writes, “The prisoners were always very anxious to be engaged in the duty of internment; not so much from a feeling of humanity, or from a wish of paying respect to the remains of the dead (for to these feelings they had almost become strangers), as from the desire of once more placing their feet upon the land, if but for a few minutes.” British guards were present as the prisoners on burial duty dug into the ground and heaved the bodies into a trench with little time to reflect. Dring recalled having been the only man in his detail to have worn shoes at the internment of one Mr. Carver. He removed his shoes at one point just to feel the earth against his feet.

In his memoir, Dring also wrote that he and a small group of other prisoners petitioned General Henry Clinton, then the commander of the British forces in New York, and requested to leave the ship in order to “transmit a memorial to General Washington, describing our deplorable situation, and requesting his interference on our behalf.” The petition was approved. The prisoners included information in written form, however the individual charged with delivering the message was also instructed to verbally inform General Washington of squalid living conditions and treatment being endured by the prisoners. Washington received the messages and shared his interest in working to mitigate their sufferings to the best of his ability. Unfortunately, there was little Washington could do directly.

The Continental Congress was repeatedly unable to improve conditions on board the prison ships, especially as they were unable to offer the exchange of British prisoners being held by the patriots. Even George Washington personally met with British officials in the hopes of keeping the situation from deteriorating, but to no avail. While the cruelty administered by the British encouraged colonists to continue fighting, those incarcerated aboard the ships were never considered prisoners of war. The treatment shown to them was more in line with the British exacting a sort of revenge against the colonists (and those who aided them) as traitors. 

However, it was not until after the Revolutionary War had ended that Congress sent American diplomats Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to negotiate such treaties with foreign powers. These treaties would ensure humane treatment of POWs in the event of future conflicts. The men and women who died aboard the British prison ships moored in Wallabout Bay became known as the Wallabout dead, or even the Jersey dead, regardless of their ship of imprisonment. The Jersey had been known to nearly all prisoners simply as “Hell” and represented the brutality inflicted upon those who lived and died. Later, the Wallabout dead came to be known simply as the Prison Ship Martyrs, a name still used today. 

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As remains continue to wash ashore over the following decades, the idea of a memorial has been proposed numerous times by locals, by influential community members, and by organizations who believe the Prison Ship Martyrs were an integral part of America’s victory in the War of Independence. While there is no denying the role the Prison Ship Martyrs played in the Revolution, there is also no denying that their story has been largely neglected in the pages of history. Yet another more widespread story of neglect continues to exist: There is no federally recognized memorial to the Prison Ship Martyrs.

(The monument pictured above is maintained by the New York City Parks Department and is funded entirely by private donations.)

Redemption

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Between 1721 and the signing of our Declaration of Independence, smallpox inoculations saved some of the men we now call our Founders, that group of revolutionaries considered unmatched in their political, diplomatic, and ideological talents. Although George Washington survived his brush with naturally acquired smallpox, he recognized inoculation was a wartime necessity. Benjamin Franklin’s four-year old son died of the disease soon after Franklin decided against inoculating the young boy. Franklin carried this burden of guilt for the rest of his life. John Adams and his wife, Abigail, chose inoculation, at different times and for different reasons. Thomas Jefferson opted for inoculation, as well, and experienced no lasting effects. Except, perhaps, a newfound belief in the evolution of practical medicine.

Jefferson was a true skeptic of physicians. He believed doctors killed more people than they saved. In fact, it’s been said that whenever Jefferson encountered a group of physicians he would look toward the sky in search of circling vultures. Jefferson was of the belief that the body could mostly heal itself. As physicians treated (and killed) patient after patient with mercury-infused milk and regular bloodletting (a favorite of Washington’s, and the very treatment he requested just before his own death), Jefferson opted to take one for the team and arranged to get himself a smallpox inoculation. He soon became an enthusiastic supporter of inoculations, even insisting his slaves be given the same preventative treatment.

Speaking of slaves, Onesimus, whose name means useful in Latin, and Cotton Mather had quite the slave and master relationship. Mather considered Onesimus to be extremely likable and intelligent, and Onesimus felt secure enough with Mather to purchase his freedom. Onesimus still came back to shovel Mather’s walkway, perform various manual labors, and eventually paid Mather back for a bunch of stuff he’d stolen back in the day. Even though Mather once wrote that Onesimus was becoming pretty lazy and useless, their working relationship was one of respect and, dare I say, affection. After Onesimus introduced Mather to the practice of smallpox inoculation in 1721, which had been performed in parts of West Africa for generations, Mather was smitten, both with the concept and with his former slave. Mather was gracious enough to give credit to Onesimus when he wrote to the Royal Society about Onesimus’s groundbreaking crash course on how to prevent smallpox.

But does the name Cotton Mather sound even vaguely familiar to you? It should, and not because Mather was partly responsible for saving thousands of lives with his support of inoculation. Mather was, in fact, also partly responsible for the deaths of quite a few others back in Salem, Massachusetts.

That’s right! It’s the same guy!

COTTON MATHER: ULTIMATE kind of WITCH HUNTER but also VAX PIONEER! (Mather also had issues with pirates and the evils they embodied, but that’s something I’ll have to delve into another time.)

Mather was one of inoculation’s earliest supporters, decades before the Revolutionary War. And this may have been why his neighbors were initially against the practice. Considering the reputation he’d only recently made for himself in his witch-hunting wake, a lot of people simply believed that Mather just wanted to infect everyone with smallpox and kill them. Can you blame them? Mather’s witch-hunting story can be confusing, though. Historical documents tell us that Mather did and did not believe in spectral evidence. They tell us that Mather did and did not condone the use of spectral evidence in the trials. The only thing I’ve managed to gather from it all is that Mather, one of the most influential Puritan ministers of his day, was a big fan of speedy executions. He believed that the execution of every witch in New England was a miracle from God. And New England’s cup runneth over with God’s miracles.

Some say Mather’s work with the promotion of smallpox inoculations was his redemption, though it took decades for that to even cross people’s minds. Mather, like Adams, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, was a complicated character. Mather lost most of his loved ones to smallpox, leaving him to often feel displaced and alone. He was hated by multiple communities and got into sermon wars with other ministers. He even survived a botched firebombing attempt on his house once. It’s no wonder this guy battled so much internal conflict. It sometimes turned Mather an absolute train wreck.

One Boston newspaper called The New England Courant was extremely critical of smallpox inoculations and made it a point to publish stories about attacks on those who supported the practice. Mather’s assassination attempt made the news, of course. Another early and staunch supporter, Zabdiel Boylston, the town doctor, had been threatened with bodily harm if he even tried to leave his property. These stories all made it into the hands of the newspaper’s sixteen-year old apprentice, Benjamin Franklin.

In his autobiography, Franklin wrote:

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

Historically, even the men and women we revere the most have had to be convinced. Not by science, but by death. By personal loss and the idea that they could have done better, could have done more. Perhaps, like Washington and Jefferson, we can give value to the lives of those who society tells us are undeserving. Like Adams, we can finally adhere to the advice of experts and implore our families to do the same. Like Franklin, we can admit our failures and work to save other people’s children, even if we couldn’t save our own. And, like Cotton Mather, we can again be presented with opportunities to redeem our former selves.

To Colonize

When French explorers landed upon Nova Scotia in 1617, it is believed they brought with them the smallpox virus that nearly obliterated the Indian population of what would later become known as New England. In 1633 another smallpox epidemic raged, this time across the Boston area. It infected colonists and Indians alike. Approximately 1,000 Indians became sick with smallpox and more than 950 died. Native peoples had virtually no natural protection against the disease, leaving them more susceptible. Yet, as unknowing hosts, they gave the virus the very fuel it needed to continue spreading across the North American continent.

This region of New England, better known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, would endure a half dozen more outbreaks, some quite significant, before the end of the seventeenth century. But going into the eighteenth century, Boston was different. The city had a number of quarantine regulations in place. The people who lived there were now better protected than they had ever been. 

Colonists endured, as an unquestionable reality of life, a barrage of infectious diseases. Their children, and their children’s children, were also familiar with sickness and death. Smallpox and yellow fever. Influenza and diphtheria. Cholera and typhoid. Before it was even understood how diseases were spread, quarantine measures were often imposed.

New York City was the first American city to enact a localized quarantine order during a cholera outbreak in 1663. Boston went on lockdown in 1783 to halt the spread of yellow fever. Philadelphia, only ten years later, lost over 10% of its population to a smallpox outbreak. Officials only managed to slow the spread of the disease by imposing isolation orders on those who remained in the city. History shows us that most of the time isolation has worked in our favor. 

Viruses, such as influenza and smallpox, and bacteria, such as cholera and typhoid, are often confused as one and the same. But viruses cannot survive without a host, which gives them their only opportunity to reproduce. Bacteria are much more self-sufficient. Viruses cause disease whereas bacteria can be quite beneficial. One thing they both have in common, though, is the ability to colonize a person’s body, leaving them asymptomatic and completely unaware they are carrying the illness. A colonized body is not an infected body, but it still must become an isolated body so as not to infect others. 

It’s an interesting choice of words, isn’t it? Colonize. Historically, colonizers have been brutal oppressors, intent on violating the social order and recreating cultural norms. The violence inflicted by colonizers upon a body of people is such that the people yield, they submit, and they eventually succumb. It is how our country came to be and it is how our country has endured. It is both an individual surrender and a collective one. American history simply begins a new chapter each time.

Yet here we are again in the very beginning of a new chapter. What is being inflicted by colonizers this time is upon single bodies, and it is not violent. It is in my body, perhaps yours, too, but we feel fine. We walk the aisles of the grocery store because we are bored, or take too many visits to Home Depot because we have time, tired of being stuck in our homes. We do not practice social distancing. We do not stay in the house. Some of us do not even believe such measures are necessary. We are asymptomatic, completely unaware. With each breath, each touch, each close encounter, the virus is spreading because of us. We have unknowingly become colonized.

People must acknowledge that quarantines, whether imposed by law or by self, buy researchers the time they need to understand the disease. Quarantine is not a punishment, just as it is not the cure. There is no cure. Coronavirus, like smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, and AIDS, is the oppressor. It is violating the social order. It is recreating cultural norms. It is making people so sick that they yield, they submit, and they eventually succumb. Over a quarter million Americans are infected. Hundreds of thousands of us could die from this. Most of the sick will recover. But many of us are simply colonized.

Colonists, their children, and their children’s children, endured the grim realities of infectious disease outbreaks. They accepted the brutal deaths that accompanied these epidemics as a part of life. If our bodies are colonized by the virus, then we, too, are victims. But if we continue to break quarantine, we are no longer victims. We have become the colonizers. We have become the brutal oppressors, intent on violating the social order and recreating cultural norms. We bring the virus with us everywhere we go. We ARE the virus.

 

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artwork by David Owens, 2020

 

History and Pop Culture: Billy Joel

For someone who was so willing to plunk down thousands of dollars (and what felt like an equal amount of hours) into researching and writing a master’s thesis, I have done absolutely nothing since I got my degree. I attributed it to burn-out and to starting a full-time job. Then winter in Ohio came and I endured my usual seasonal depression. Then we moved to New England. It’s been eight months since I submitted that sucker, and I can finally admit that I simply believed the same enthusiasm I had for historical disease research would carry over into my non-academic life. It didn’t. Perhaps I was naive. Perhaps I had shelved my self-discipline. Perhaps I was just tired. I believe, in a way, it was all three. No accountability. The work was done. Now what?

I hoped, however, that being literally surrounded by early American history (even the trees in New England have historical significance) would jump-start my interest once again and send me head first into a topic which, considering my location, would have ample sources to investigate. And that happened, temporarily. First, I came across a local controversy involving a Civil War hero and his horse in a nearby cemetery. Then I discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne’s involvement in creating New Hampshire’s tourism industry and the actual field of trauma tourism. Then…nothing. The spark of light that held my attention petered out just as uneventfully as it appeared – that is to say I hadn’t expected it to come or go, but I’m happy it kept me from being too overwhelmed with responsibilities during my first weeks here in New Hampshire.

Recently I started reading Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. When I think of North Korea, I often think of Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” As a kid, I absolutely adored Billy Joel’s music. I still do. I’m pretty sure my parents had a few of his albums, so his musical presence was nothing new whether it was from inside my house, or coming from my parents’ car stereo. I grew up in the 80s, but more importantly I lived on a military base in Northern Italy during the first half of the decade. I was always keenly aware of the Soviet nuclear threat and the fact that international flights were frequent terrorist targets. By the time the video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was released, I had memorized all the words and became ridiculously interested in all of Joel’s historical references. What is a Communist Bloc? Why are children on thalidomide? What IS thalidomide? Where is the Congo? And why are the Belgians there? It would be fair to say that Billy Joel deserves just as much credit as my visit to the Peshtigo Fire Museum and my high school history teacher, Mr. O’Malley, for enrooting in me the near-obsessive compulsion to discovering the who, what, where, when, and, most compellingly, the why in anyone’s story.

Sometimes I have to go back to the beginning to remind myself why I love history so much. It’s not that I forget, necessarily. It’s just that I find myself uninspired sometimes by the negativity of this world, weighed down by the heaviness of our current political climate. Earlier this year I deleted all of my news apps and, coincidentally, Facebook friends (and some family members) who feed the monster that is, in my opinion, besmirching the ideals that a good percentage of Americans from every background had finally started to come around to. Some of you might argue that my past research on biological genocide against native North American tribes or racial and economic disparities regarding Yellow Fever outbreaks is just as negative. I wouldn’t say you’re entirely wrong. But I think the country’s current epidemic of the Orange Fever is dangerous in its own way. Why? Because it’s happening now. Will Trump and anecdotes about his presidency ever make it into a song that also includes the lyrics “Black Lives Matter,” a reference to Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” and the inevitable end of the world? Maybe. And I’d probably love the hell out of it.

For me, there is no reason to study history if I can’t find some way to connect events, from yesterday or past centuries, to the reasons something exists, or doesn’t exist, today. Again, Billy Joel’s song encourages me to do that. He sang about the Ayatollah in Iran and Bernie Goetz, remember? Because of that Ayatollah in Iran, I know what an air raid siren sounds like because I had to respond to them when I was five years old. And because of Bernie Goetz, gun rights enthusiasts and activists can still make a good point in being legally self-armed, decades after Goetz made his.

About that fire, though: Billy Joel wants to know When we are gone, will it still burn on? Probably. Like he said, It was always burning since the world’s been turning. And with that, my fascination with historical trauma events and their affects on the modern world will never be without material. Admittedly, I am a little sad that I haven’t been terribly motivated by anything or anyone in history, as of yet, to start plugging away on the research and the writing. Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps I have shelved my self-discipline. Perhaps I am just tired.

Perhaps I should just write a history book that tackles every single one’s of Joel’s references in the order in which he sings…

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Plymouth’s Most Famous Guest

There is a ridiculous amount of well-marked history in this region of the country. In fact, I’m almost certain that any patch of grass or pavement on which I stand has played a crucial role in something: An historic railroad junction; the deathplace of a notable townsman; a natural disaster with a terrible story that remains only in the buried memories of a bunch of dead people. This place is teeming with it all. Teeming, I tell you!

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at all when I happened upon a small town in the southern foothills of the White Mountains, stopped to have a small bowl of graham cracker ice cream (it exists, and it’s delicious), and unexpectedly discovered, in the tiny town commons, a memorial in honor of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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I will admit I have never read a single novel by Hawthorne. The only thing I actually knew about him, up to that point, was that he wrote The Scarlet Letter (a novel my friend, Katy, absolutely loathes), and that he was so ashamed of his family’s connection to the Salem Witch Trials that he changed the spelling of his last name so he would likely never be associated with them.

But what’s his association with Plymouth, New Hampshire?

It turns out that Hawthorne and President Franklin Pierce, a native New Hampshirite, were BFFs. Like, for a really long time, going back to their college years. Pierce had invited Hawthorne to travel to Plymouth where they both hoped the crisp, mountain air would alleviate Hawthorne’s many ailments. It didn’t, and Hawthorne died in his sleep on May 19, 1864. Pierce discovered his body just hours later. And while this was likely a somewhat traumatizing moment for Pierce, who had endured great loss in his life, it may have been exactly how Hawthorne hoped to die. The New York Herald wrote, ““It is a singular and happy circumstance that friends who have lived so many years upon terms of unrestricted intimacy as Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne should in the final hours of one still be so near to the other as to enable the survivor to hear, as it were, the last whisper of his friend as he entered the portals of eternity.”

And so, the town of Plymouth perhaps endears itself to fans of literary tourism by memorializing Hawthorne’s unexpected passing in a hotel that used to exist just across the street from this park. And I have no problem with that. Hawthorne probably wouldn’t have a problem with it, either. It seems that he, too, was a fan of trauma tourism and, because of his work, he even introduced the concept to those who vacationed to New England in the 19th century.

In 1835, Hawthorne wrote and published a short story called “The Ambitious Guest.” It was based on the freak deaths of seven members of the Willey family and two others who died in an avalanche of rockfall the occurred on August 28, 1826. The area in which the disaster occurred experienced a boom in tourism shortly after the Willey family’s story got around. The Willey family had fled to what they believed was a safe house, which ended up being buried in the rockslide. The Willey house itself sustained no damage at all. Artists of all kinds flocked to Willey Mountain in the area of Crawford Notch. Painters Thomas Cole and John Frederick Kensett, along with Hawthorne, are often credited with either promoting the beauty and history of Willey Mountain, or just flat out exploiting the deaths of an entire family through their chosen art forms.

The title character in “The Ambitious Guest” has no name. He is simply a stranger whose arrival brings to the family a sense of excitement, a newfound desire to live a more meaningful life than the sleepy one they have chosen on the mountainside. They share with each other what they wish to have engraved on their tombstones, to tell others how they lived their lives. The children in the group joyfully announce all that they will accomplish before their deaths, now that they’ve been encouraged by this ambitious guest of theirs. The stranger, who refers to himself as “a nameless youth” declares, “But I cannot die till I have achieved my destiny. Then, let Death come! I shall have built my monument!”

Moments later, he ponders, “I wonder how mariners feel when the ship is sinking, and they, unknown and undistinguished, are to be buried together in the ocean–that wide and nameless sepulchre?” Suddenly, a rumbling from outside begins to sound and the family, with their guest, flees to their safe house. An avalanche of rockfall crushes them all. They are never found. They are buried together in the ocean of rock and debris–that wide and nameless sepulchre.

That kind of anonymity does not apply to Nathaniel Hawthorne obviously. He died in Plymouth, and by god, they’re going to announce it to everyone with this monument. There is a statue of him in Salem, Massachusetts, the place where was born but never felt like he belonged. And his grave site is located in Concord, Massachusetts, where he shares cemetery real estate with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. They were his equals. They were his friends. They were also his pallbearers. But Hawthorne, according to Emerson, suffered from his own loneliness. It is believed by some that his solitude and suffering are what ultimately killed him (it is now known that he died of stomach cancer). In death, Hawthorne is revered and celebrated. But in life, Hawthorne may have endured an existence aboard what his own creation, the nameless youth, called a sinking ship.

“I shall have built my monument!” This is what the stranger wanted, yet, could this really be what Hawthorne wanted? I don’t believe Plymouth is exploiting Hawthorne’s death at all. The monument is merely a desire to be a part of the Hawthorne narrative. Plymouth inspired Hawthorne and welcomed him whenever he came through. The town was clearly one facet of his life that helped keep his ship from sinking even sooner.

Major Savage & Old Tom, Part Two

(Part One can be found here)

George Savage and his trusty horse, Old Tom, returned to Alton, New Hampshire, shortly after they were both wounded in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Old Tom had become a part of George’s family and, in turn, became a part of Alton’s small-town character. Both were Civil War heroes. In fact, George credited Old Tom with saving his life in battle.

So it was with this loyalty to Old Tom that George asked the citizens of Alton to allow his horse to be buried in the town cemetery. The unusual request got a few folks riled up. Residents of Alton were split. On the one hand, Old Tom had performed admirably in battle. On the other hand, however, Old Tom was, to some, just a horse. If this was allowed, who’s to say more people wouldn’t request to save a plot next to theirs for their most beloved pets, no matter the size? The cemetery trustees mulled it over and Alton’s citizens became embroiled in a short-lived controversy. In the end, the trustees just wouldn’t allow it.

Major George Savage died in 1883, but not before a compromise had been reached with town officials: Old Tom could not be buried on the grounds in the cemetery, but the trustees would allow for Old Tom to be buried just outside the cemetery walls. George, according to record, believed this to be a reasonable arrangement.

 

 

When Old Tom died in 1885, town officials honored their agreement with George. Old Tom was buried outside the cemetery, but as near to George as the boundary walls would allow.

 

 

Except, over time, a certain kind of irony has directed the course of Old Tom’s popularity and the endearing story of George Savage’s love for his horse. Alton is a small town, but thousands of people have continued to live here and die here over the 133 years since the death of Old Tom. The town cemetery eventually expanded in ways it probably never planned for back in the 19th century. In fact, driving around the town of Alton, I found two separate entrances into the cemetery, each from a major corridor leading commuters in and out of the region.

The walls have most definitely been moved. Which means Old Tom is now within the walls of the cemetery. But not only is Old Tom inside the cemetery, he is directly in the center. ON A SMALL HILL, no less.

And doesn’t that just make you feel good?

Major George Savage would, undoubtedly, be quite pleased. Although his initial wishes were quashed by local officials and neighbors who felt completely uncomfortable with the idea of sharing burial grounds with a horse, it all worked out over time. George’s family plot and Old Tom’s burial site are both flanked by small, white picket fences. And they are facing each other, open to pedestrian visitors who can easily walk from one site to the other.

Did someone design it that way? I don’t know. And that’s not the only question I find myself without an answer to. I’m also curious to know who stepped up to care for Old Tom when George died. Because that person, whoever it was, probably deserves a little credit. Don’t you imagine he or she saw to it that the agreement between George and the trustees regarding Old Tom was honored? That Old Tom received the burial he was promised?

From George to Old Tom, from the trustees to the mystery caretakers, and, nowadays, from the cemetery groundskeepers to the history-seeking public, there is a whole lot of loyalty to be discovered in this story. One can only wish to have this kind of dedication bestowed upon them upon their death. Yet this here’s a tale about a man and his horse…

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Major Savage & Old Tom, Part One

Recently, while perusing through some books on the region’s history, I came across a brief story about a Civil War officer and his horse. The officer was Major George Savage. His horse was Old Tom. Theirs was a relationship based on loyalty and respect that lasted decades after the war had ended. Both had suffered greatly during battle and returned home to Alton, New Hampshire (my new hometown) to live out the rest of their lives. It was their deaths, however, that caused a local controversy that seemed to be resolved only by more and more deaths.

I must first explain my difficulty in finding much about the region’s local history. Most accounts – whether through books, magazine articles, or newspaper clippings – tend to focus mostly on the southern part of the state. Exeter, near Portsmouth, calls itself New Hampshire’s Revolutionary War capital (something I hope to learn more about this weekend), while Concord’s history goes back to the chartering of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century. Here, north of the coast, there is only a general showcasing of historical events. Most of it is based on archaeological finds or the natural history of the White Mountains and Lake Winnipesaukee. What I’m missing are the personal stories, historical accounts, and the visual markers, here in the Lakes Region, that would normally lead me to seek out the past, right here and right now. Except the only thing I’ve come across so far is a horse whose death nearly divided an entire town.

George Savage (who was actually a Lieutenant Colonel during the war, but everyone called him Major) enlisted in the 12th New Hampshire Infantry Regiment on August 13, 1862. His brother, Moses, followed suit the very next day. The brothers were part of a volunteer regiment that began taking enlistees on August 12th and accepted soldiers’ final papers on the 16th. A formation that took all of four days, and it has been suggested that this formation period was a Union army record. George and Old Tom were part of Company F and Moses was part of Company A, each of whom, along with all of the New Hampshire regiments, saw battle in Fredericksburg. Few men were lost to battle, but Company F was lost completely. As in left behind. Nobody passed on the orders to retreat, so they held their positions.

This seems to be a theme with these three – George, Moses, and Tom. This being left behind business. But there is a happy ending. I promise.

Recovered shortly after the snafu in Fredericksburg, the 12th New Hampshire moved on to smaller battles. In May, they eventually found themselves involved in one of the Confederate Army’s greatest successes: the Battle of Chancellorsville. It was here where Lt. General Stonewall Jackson was injured (which, ultimately, led to his death about a week later) and where General Robert E. Lee claimed his biggest victory.

It was also here, in Chancellorsville, where George took a direct bullet shot to the face. There are reports that Old Tom sustained an injury, as well. Old Tom, it is said, saved George’s life. I can only assume it was during the fighting when the injured Old Tom rushed his injured friend George off the battlefield. Historical accounts say that the 12th New Hampshire was easily overtaken, and a third of the troops had been wounded or killed within the first half-hour of fighting. Sadly, Moses was one of those who had been killed.

Company F was left behind, yet again. The order to retreat had not been made clear, and for those in other companies who had heeded the order, there was little opportunity to find a way out. Lee had broken up his smaller, but better organized Confederate armies. Companies F and G were eventually rescued, but the order to retreat, had it been received, would have meant certain death. The 12th New Hampshire had likely been surrounded by Confederates the entire time.

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I have become quite fond of Major Savage and Old Tom in just a few days time. However, I have to end this here. Mostly because their story continues elsewhere, off the battlefield. Or, perhaps, it’s sufficient to say it continued on another battlefield. The battlefield of public opinion. The battlefield of local government bureaucracy. And I will write about that later…hopefully within a few days.

Throughout my studies of American history, I actively avoided war history. Only once did I take a course that focused on war tactics, political chess moves, battle strategies – that being the American Revolution – and only because I wanted a foundation from which I could study how women lived in those times. I am, and have always been, much more interested in the personal stories, never the strategies that launched an individual or a ideology into the realms of political success. Because somewhere, in all that personal greatness or personal awfulness (I’m looking at you, Andrew Jackson) is a human, that we, as people of the future, can only hope to understand. Whatever threads I can find to connect us to them is so vital. At least, I believe it is.

A man and his horse. We can all relate to this, right? Stay tuned…

My Summer of Disease

This summer I was mostly focused on disease. Not that I had one, nor did anyone else I know. At least, nothing outside of the norm. Allergies came and went, then came back again. A pestilence struck down two members of the family, one of whom was visiting while on vacation (sorry). The last rounds of that stomach virus left the house before anyone else was infected. My hands nearly bled from all the washing; I didn’t eat very well for days. I am emetephobic, yet I spend my free time learning about plagues.

Before we drove to Buffalo and Niagara Falls in July, we visited the James Garfield Monument at Lake View cemetery in Cleveland. He is entombed inside, with his wife, and the cremated remains of his daughter and her husband are next to them. A private organization raised the money needed to build the monument, which speaks volumes to the legacy he left behind after his presidency was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

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That’s not really true, though. Garfield could have, and most likely would have, survived the shooting, had American doctors not probed his bullet wound with their filthy hands. Sterilization and cleanliness of tools and hands – anti-sepsis – were mere suggestions in those days. What actually killed Garfield was the infection that raged through his body for months. Sepsis. His was a miserable, painful, torturous death caused by an imbecile of a doctor (who’s actual first name was Doctor, but was not highly respected by other doctors) who refused to believe in the recent European work on germ theory.

Needless to say, I fell in love with Garfield the moment I heard this story. Not only because of his suffering, but also because he was a president who aimed to ease the suffering of others. He even out-Lincolned Lincoln. If you know anything about him, I think you would agree that his voice in this era of failing leadership is exactly what we could use. He was the anti-sepsis. In a way, he still is.

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Throughout the summer, I focused on my upcoming thesis, my final requirement before I graduate with my Masters in American History early next year. I made myself familiar again with the miseries of smallpox, cholera, and the influenza outbreak of 1918 that killed millions around the world. Eventually, I decided to commit my research to yellow fever. Always a believer in the threads that connect one event to another (history has just as many examples of cause and effect as science), I began to look around me for closer sources.

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Had yellow fever ever struck Cleveland? The answer is no. But Cleveland had suffered an outbreak of smallpox back in 1902. I learned this one morning when I dropped my daughter off at her new high school’s orientation and, with three hours to kill, walked over to the Dittrick Medical History Center inside Case Western Reserve University’s Allen Memorial Medical Library. The museum is small, but ever since I’d heard about it from a friend in Oklahoma City, I knew I had to go. Where else could one spot this gem of a antique plate? “But my friend, this enema is fine for a horse but not for a gentleman.” 

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Fancy some disease reading? Here’s my recommendations:

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (the story of Garfield’s life and death)

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (the Bubonic plague, fictionalized)

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss (essays on disease and vaccinations)

Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs (an investigation into how Reconstruction failed and created America’s greatest biological crisis)

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson (cholera, freakin’ terrifying)

Yellow Fever narratives:

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

An American Plague by Jim Murphy

Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793 by J.M. Powell

Fever Season: The Epidemic of 1878 That Almost Destroyed Memphis, and the People Who Saved It by Jeanette Keith

Smallpox narratives:

The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth Fenn

Road Trip through the Dirty South

Winter in Northeast Ohio had taken its toll on me, as I knew it would. Though this winter was, in hindsight, considered mild, it still left me feeling unmotivated, closed in, and cold. Always cold. Luckily I had the forethought to plan a trip to Florida during spring break.

My daughter and I left early on a Friday morning and didn’t return until two Sundays later. In those nine days I drove through Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. And that was just one way. Coming home, we added Maryland and Pennsylvania to the list. Nine states in nine days. It was as exhausting as it sounds.

What was really great about this trip was that I had never made this particular drive before. I had never been through southern Ohio, and it was my first time in West Virginia. Every highway, every vista, every overlook was new to me, at least until we reached Charlotte, North Carolina. Then, as one would expect, I was home. Still hundreds of miles from my actual home, but home in the sense that I didn’t have to wear a coat in the middle of March, and sweet tea is a restaurant staple. I saw a palm tree. I needed nothing more.

In Charlotte, we visited with one of my best friends and her daughter, to whom I inadvertently spilled the beans that Santa isn’t real. (Shit. Sorry, D.) Another friend and his family stopped by our hotel room for a few hours. I hadn’t seen him in at least six years, and I finally met his wife and children. The little ones played in the hotel pool while we grownups snitched to hotel management on a group of reckless teenagers. (Boy, have the times changed. It feels like not too long ago that group of reckless teenagers used to be us. And then I became hotel management.)

In Jacksonville, we spent time with the entire family, including my parents, my brothers, and the dogs. There are always dogs. Nick flew in from New Hampshire. Brian drove up from Orlando. We met the girlfriend, watched Hell or High Water, reunited with friends from the neighborhood, got sunburned at the zoo, and spent a day at the beach. The water was freezing, but I didn’t mind. I only needed the sun and the sound of the waves.

In Charlottesville, I purposely booked a hotel designed after the German Tudor style. We spent the entire afternoon with one of my oldest friends and his wife touring Monticello and Jefferson’s gardens. (I purchased seed packets from the Monticello garden and, at this very moment, my nasturtium is starting to come through the soil. Minicello may be on hold, but my desire to grow Jefferson-approved flowers will not be quashed.) My intention while in Charlottesville was to visit James Madison’s house, as well, and maybe take a foot tour of University of Virginia, but by this point I was exhausted. That we stayed up sharing stories until well past our bedtimes (ahem…10pm) only made things worse. But, oh…the stories. And my daughter learned so much about me over dinner. Ha!

In Harper’s Ferry, our last stop before heading back to Cleveland, we spent the night with another of my closest friends at her parents’ home in the mountains. Again, I had every intention on visiting downtown, or at least taking in some of the historic sites around Harper’s Ferry, but I could barely muster the energy to stay awake at this point. I even had to insist we stay in to eat dinner because another minute in the car would have been the end of me! I’m so glad I made this stop, though, and I feel like my road trip would have been incomplete without seeing them. And now our kids are the same age we were when we met. What?

How does time fly so quickly? Where did it go? This trip, for me, was more about the people than the places. I know time cannot be reclaimed, but please…let’s not wait too long before we do it all over again. In new cities. In new places. Just like we always do. Just like we did. To see my family and my oldest friends –  sometimes I need nothing more.

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Stayin’ Alive

Did you know that the Bee Gee’s hit song “Stayin’ Alive” is the best song to have stuck in your head while performing CPR? It’s all about the rhythm, or the compressions per minute. And how fitting is that song title? I wonder how many lives the Bee Gees have saved just by writing that catchy little tune.

But prior to CPR (and the Bee Gees), there was the Silvester’s Method. It was occasionally referred to as Sylvester’s Method, as you can see from the illustrations I found in The Soldier’s Handbook published in 1909.

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When I was a little girl I had quite the crush on Andy Gibb. It was probably because of his hair. He had great hair. My early childhood and teenage crushes all had really great hair – Eddie Rabbit, Jon Bon Jovi, Sebastian Bach, etc. But I digress. The reason I bring up Andy Gibb is to point on the irony of his early death. Andy died from complications of myocarditis which causes sudden cardiac arrest and even death – a death that, incidentally, can sometimes be prevented by administering CPR.