Archive for October, 2012

My great-great-grandparents, David and Clara, started out with lives about as ordinary as possible for Vermont as it neared the middle of the 19th century. David’s parents were farmers; Clara’s parents and her uncle and aunt together ran the general store in the small town that the farms surrounded. Clara’s father was the town postmaster, as was typical for merchants in small towns then. It’s very likely that Clara and David knew each other from childhood, though I have no direct evidence to support that theory. However they met, they married at the end of 1860. I often wonder about what their lives were like then. Did they know that war was coming?

A year later they gave birth to their first child, whose birth was registered without a name by the town clerk. The Civil War was raging by then, and Vermont would go on to have what many believe was  the highest per capita casualty rate in the country. But David and Clara were busy raising a family and running a farm. If they had opinions about the war – and I find it a bit hard to believe that any Vermonter, living in the first place to outlaw slavery in what would become the US, didn’t – those were not included in the family papers that were passed down to me.

Two years later, in the middle of the war, they gave birth to their only other known child. If they had further children, these children didn’t even survive long enough for their short lives to be registered at the town hall. Such a small number of children was not typical of American families at this time. But the demographics of the country were changing. With only two children to raise, David and Clara gave their all to ensuring they had good educations. This was a wise move, as Vermont would shortly lose much of its population as young people sized up their chances in an overcrowded small state after the war ended. And so it came to be that the son of two small-town Vermonters – and my would-be great-grandfather – went to law school and moved to one of the largest cities in the United States, Cincinnati, in search of a brighter future than what was available where he had originated.

My great-grandfather as a young man

My great-grandfather in an albumen photo taken shortly after he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.

With most people I research, all I can do for their day-to-day lives is speculate based on available outside records & reading social history. But my great-grandfather is a different story. His family saved many of his papers. He had the active social life typical of a young man then or now upon his move to the big city. One of  several saved invitations follows.

Handwritten invitation to play cards

Invitation for my great-grandfather to play cards. The writer wrote so exuberantly that she wrote off the right edge of the paper. While this is dated only ‘Saturday,’ based on the bundle of papers with it, it was very likely from late 1880’s Cincinnati.

My great-grandfather’s life would change dramatically in the span of one year, as he was appointed Clerk of a US Appellate Court and married my great-grandmother. In his journal, also passed down to me, he calls it the most important year of his life.

My great-grandfather in his office at the courthouse

My great-grandfather in his office at the courthouse, dated very shortly after he was appointed Clerk of a US Appellate Court.

Through the comparably large number of my great-grandfather’s items that the family saved, I have a much better sense than I typically would that I probably would have gotten along very well with him. Telephones were rather new to Cincinnati while he was clerking, and he used the courthouse stationery to express his displeasure at the cutting of trees, perhaps hoping that it would add extra weight to his complaint. It’s the kind of letter that I would write today. His copy of his letter has a notation indicating he received a response, but that is not among the saved items.

My great-grandfather's letter regarding the telephone company cutting trees

My great-grandfather’s 1903 letter regarding the telephone company cutting trees, written on courthouse stationery.

My great-grandfather also kept a scrapbook of items he found interesting in newspapers and other sources. Through this I discovered hints to his opinion on women’s suffrage:

A clipping on the American womens suffrage movement

Looking to have been clipped from a newspaper, this commentary on the American women’s suffrage movement seems to me to be wry. From my great-grandfather’s scrapbook.

My great-grandfather would not live to see American women win the federal right to vote, though from the above clipping I suspect this man who had devoted his adult life to studying, understanding, and writing on American law would have been pleased.

My great-grandfather committed suicide in 1915. I found out through my genealogical research, though after I discovered it I found out that this was one family secret that the family already knew – they just hadn’t told me. The family story I heard in response to my discovery is that he had had cancer for many years and the pain had gotten to be too much for him to bear. I subsequently discovered that another family story is that he had killed himself to spare his family the debt of what he believed to be an incurable disease. His death was carried in numerous newspapers around the country, openly reported as a suicide. Most of the articles said that he had had a long-term illness for many years and had only very recently become despondent over it. I don’t see any reason all three of these stories couldn’t be true.

My great-grandfather’s cemetery card is one of the few at the cemetery where “Disease” has been left blank:

A clip of my great-grandfather's internment record.

My great-grandmother was owner of the lot where he was interred, and likely provided the information on the card.

His death certificate was not so obtuse:

A clip from my great-grandfather's death certificate, showing cause of death

A clip from my great-grandfather’s Ohio death certificate, listing cause of death as:
“hemorrhage resulting from
incised wounds of wrist & throat

I mentioned this to one of his in-laws, who said that the family story had been that he had shot himself and that it had never made any sense as the family had not been known to have any guns in the house since moving to the city. As some of you already know, I am a tremendous proponent of telling relatives the truth; this is probably the only time I ever haven’t done so, as I think they find some comfort in thinking it was a fast, easy death, not the messy one it really was. (His few living blood relatives don’t read this blog.)

My great-grandfather’s entire story deserves to be told, from his birth to his painful and pain-causing death. I’m finishing and posting this draft today because it is World Mental Health Day and this year’s focus is depression. I think it’s easy for people to say “No one is ever given more than they can handle” but that has always annoyed me as if this were true, there would be no such thing as suicide. There should be no shame in telling people that one is depressed or has some other mental health problem, nor in asking for help if one is suicidal, but too often these are feelings and thoughts that people keep to themselves. To me, the best way to raise awareness is to discuss these issues openly, though of course the choice is up to each individual for themselves and each family historian for their family’s history. I doubt I ever would have discovered my great-grandfather had committed suicide if I hadn’t started researching my family’s history, and if that doesn’t speak to the stigma still held by so many regarding suicide, I don’t know what does.

I have no way to know if my great-grandfather told anyone he was despondent beforehand, nor how long he contemplated suicide before he carried out his thoughts. I can’t say whether it was the right choice for him, only that it is still affecting his family nearly a century later, for better and for worse.

“Don’t tell me how they found her
Because I don’t wanna know
Wildflowers all around her
Down in the dirt where they grow
She was all alone in the middle of spring
Don’t tell me there’s a reason for everything
‘Cause every face hides a mind
That gets tired of trying
And every mind hides a heart
That shelters thoughts of dying.”

Lisa Mednick

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I’m one of those historical researchers who reads the entire page of the newspaper when I find an article of interest, who reads the surrounding pages of a census enumeration, the entire county’s tax rolls, the whole parish register book. I find everything interesting! This week I was researching a particular historical story in newspapers and accidentally discovered this article:


Section 1 of an article from p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

Like most Americans (I hope), I know about how widespread lynchings of African-Americans were in America. This headline startled me, though. As if lynchings weren’t bad enough, people were being burned at the stake by mobs, too – and then the events were being reported in what read to me as a rather chipper way (That scoundrel got what he deserved! Everyone helped! We had a grand time burning someone alive!) in newspapers around the country.

As someone who grew up in a Northern area where the Klu Klux Klan was still very active when I was a child, I have spent a fair amount of time as an adult researching white supremacy movements and violence in America in the antebellum, Civil War, and post-Civil-War periods, counterpoints to my interest in North American & British abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. Reading historical summaries of the violence is horrific enough; here is a particularly chilling excerpt from David Grimsted’s excellent book American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998):

In the morning [in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1855], the election went fairly quietly, though there was a knife fight between an Irishman and an American, both of whom eventually died, the Irishman in jail. In midafternoon things grew worse when Germans fired into some American election carriages, killing two men, and Know-Nothings [an anti-immigrant American political party] attacked and burned five or six German homes and a coffeehouse from which the shots apparently came. The Know-Nothing mayor dissuaded them from attacking the Catholic church. In the next few hours, random Germans were attacked, at least three fatally, and other homes and a brewery burned down. Irish in Ward Eight attacked three Americans, killing at least one, and Know-Nothings followed their retreat to a house, burned them out, and killed three. Another American death led to an attack on Quinn’s Row, a block of Irish homes, and some others, twenty in all, which were burnt. Patrick Quinn was shot and his body partly burned, and rioters beat victims fleeing the fire and, rumor declared, drove some Irish trying to escape back to a fiery death. The Know-Nothing police, inactive and maybe helpless in the shootings and burning of private property, protected the hated Louisville Times when a mob later threatened it. (pp. 233-34)

This came to be known as “Bloody Monday.” I’ve read some other accounts that claim that when the mob set buildings on fire, some of the people waited outside to shoot the people who tried to escape the fire; perhaps that is what Grimsted is referencing when he says “burned them out, and killed three.” Another Louisville mob would kill three slaves two years later.

In this climate of mob violence, it’s no wonder that people and events such as the Border Ruffians, the Bushwhackers & Jayhawkers, and the New York Draft Riots followed shortly before and during the American Civil War. And when the federal troops pulled out of the South when US President Rutherford B. Hayes (born 190 years ago yesterday) ended Reconstruction as part of a compromise to resolve the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876, it’s no wonder that mob violence quickly escalated again.

Article, part 2

Section 2 of an article from p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

But reading about the violence as recounted in a book like American Mobbing is completely different than reading about it first-hand in contemporary accounts. The subheadings in the second section (above), “HUNTING THE NEGRO” and “CAPTURED,” remind me starkly of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which turned every American into an accomplice to slavery, and which spurred many bounty hunters of escaped slaves to hunt in free states and some to enter Canada to hunt those that had escaped to full freedom there.

One of the most famous cases was centered on Oberlin, Ohio, the town of my alma mater, Oberlin College, which had attracted a lot of abolitionist teachers and staff who had left Ohio State University because they were unhappy with its slavery stance. Most commonly known today as “the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue,” there is now a lengthy digitized article about it, “When the Slave-Catcher Came to Town,” featuring much background information on tensions at the time. It is well worth a read for anyone even lightly interested in white American/African-American relations and/or the lead-up to the Civil War.

This specific article is noteworthy in part for what it does not say. The reporter writes, “Confronted with this evidence of his guilt, and charged with the crime, the scoundrel admitted that he had attempted . . .” As Grimsted notes in American Mobbing (p. 15), “Southern mobs always offered ‘proof’ of guilt which no one could doubt: victims were ‘whipped until they confessed’ . . .”

article on being burned at the stake, section 3

Section 3 (of 3) from an article on p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

No trial, not even a day’s wait: “Reed’s confession sealed his fate. It was decided that he should die at once. The majority insisted that he should be burned at the stake.” Even if Dick Reed was guilty (and I have no idea whether he was or not, and never will due to the way this proceeded), this is not the way justice should be carried out in an even marginally civilized society.

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Today is the anniversary of my beloved grandmother’s death. When I was a child she delighted me with many stories about the family, as many other relatives did. I have often wished that I had started actively researching our family’s history before her death, so that I could share what I have discovered in my years spent on her lines. But I also wish she were still here just so that we could make homemade doughnuts together again and then sit in the garden sipping coffee, looking through old photographs, and chatting.

My grandmother.

My grandmother in an undated photo.

As one of my friends says, “It’s hard to believe grandmothers were ever little.” I am lucky to have one photo of my grandmother as a little girl, a school photo. My grandmother’s parents were a working-class couple that placed a lot of emphasis on education for their time and place. My grandmother’s father was born shortly after his family moved to Glasgow, and when he was born his oldest sisters were attending the Glasgow school system. When he was 9 years old they left Scotland for a homestead in the Midwestern U.S., where they lived in a fully rural area and there weren’t many educational opportunities.

My grandmother in 4th grade

My grandmother in fourth grade. School photo.

When my great-grandfather first married his parents gave the newlyweds a piece of their homestead to farm, but quite shortly his parents decided to sell the land and move into the nearest large town. My grandmother’s parents moved as well, and her father went to work for one of the major employers in the area, the railway, where he would work until he retired an old man; the 1940 census reported that on the tail end of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, annihilators of the Upper Plains’ economy, my widowed elderly great-grandfather had worked all 52 of the previous year’s weeks. He was lucky to have been in one of the few nearly Depression-proof industries of the Upper Plains; as people sold their livestock as a loss or simply fled the area, they used the railways. I firmly believe that he wanted his children to have more opportunities in life than he believed he had had.

I lost my grandmother when I was 20, but as the youngest child in a large family, my grandmother lost her mother when she was 20. She inherited a photo that we think was probably her mother’s wedding portrait, and displayed it until she died 58 years later. My grandmother’s mother was born into a very migratory family, who crossed the continent in several steps via two countries, and had met and married her husband when her family briefly lived where his had settled from Scotland. When her family moved on to what was then the Western Territory of Canada, she and her husband stayed behind, and my grandmother never knew her mother’s family.

My grandmother's mother

My grandmother’s mother, c1898. We believe this was likely her wedding photo. In the original the decorative flowers are blue. It was cut to fit into a frame sometime between taking & the present.

To this day people often tell me I look the most like my great-grandmother, who died long before I was born.

As a child my grandmother and I made what were regionally called fastnachts together, in honor of what was regionally called Fastnacht Day, the day before the Christian holiday of Lent began. We did it because we loved to bake and I grew up in a heavily ethnically German area, and I was a sponge for whatever traditions were around me, as my family had been when they moved to the Midwestern U.S. in the late 1800’s, adopting the traditions of their neighbors, Scandinavian and Eastern European immigrants. It was not until a long time later that I would discover through my research that the family story that my grandmother’s ex-husband’s/my grandfather’s family was ethnically British was a lie that her ex-husband’s grandfather told his children after they moved from Canada to the States, knowing full well that it was a lie. In reality their paternal line was ethnically German, and my grandmother and I had unknowingly been making one of my grandfather’s paternal line’s traditional pre-Lent treats.

As a child I collected old cookbooks of traditional German recipes that were sold at fairs and shops in my region. Following is a traditional recipe for a treat that has many spellings and alternate names in German, but that we (and the cookbook) called fastnachts.


(Doughnuts–a Shrove Tuesday Tradition)

1 pkg. active dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water (110 F to 115 F)

1 teaspoon sugar

3 cups sifted flour

2 cups milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm

3 eggs, well beaten

1/4 cup melted butter

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3 1/2 to 4 cups sifted flour

Soften yeast in warm water. Let stand 5 to 10 min. Add 1 teaspoon sugar and 3 cups sifted flour to the milk, stirring until smooth. Stir in the yeast. Cover; let rise in a warm place until doubled. Stir in eggs, butter, the remaining sugar, salt, nutmeg, and enough flour so that mixture can no longer be stirred with a spoon (a soft dough). Cover; let rise until doubled. Punch down dough and divide into two portions. On a floured surface, roll out each portion about 1/2 in. thick. Cut dough with a doughnut cutter. Cover dough and let rise in a warm place until doubled. Fry in deep fat heated to 370 F. Fry 3 to 4 min., or until lightly browned; turn doughnuts to brown evenly. Remove from fat; drain.

About 4 doz. doughnuts.

[From Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook: Fine Old Recipes Made Famous by the Early Dutch [sic] Settlers in Pennsylvania, p. 17.]

My grandmother

My grandmother as I knew her, near the end of her life.

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