So there I was, perusing my newly acquired art book from the Metropolitan Museum, when I came across a startling image that seemed totally out of keeping with the book’s general content. But let’s back up for a minute – or several minutes.
The making of portrait miniatures was one area of art in which women were able, as it were, to make their mark early in the world of art history. One of the first was the Venetian painter Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757).
From the essay “The Revealed and the Concealed,” by John Updike:
The painting of miniature portraits, to be kept in lockets and leather cases, had become, in the decades before the daguerreotype n the 1840s, a thriving artistic industry, and one of the few in which women could succeed. The delicacy of the work–laying fine strokes or stipples of transparent watercolor upon small squares or ovals of ivory–was thought especially suited for feminine talents.
And this brings us to Sarah Goodridge. Born in Templeton, Massachusetts in 1788, Goodridge showed artistic ability early and was encouraged by her parents to develop her talent. At that time, however, educational opportunities for women were severely limited. She took instruction where and when she could, and was to a large degree self-taught. Here is some of her work:
Sarah Goodridge painted several likenesses of Daniel Webster. They were friends – possibly more than friends. In 1828, shortly after the death of his wife Grace, Goodridge sent him a miniature that was – well, rather unique, at least for the times and the country in which they were living.
Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s display of American portrait miniatures from the Manney Collection in the winter of 1990-1991 were startled to encounter, amid the staid Victorian visages in their tight bonnets and stocks, these luminous bare breasts. Beautifully palpable and framed by a continuous swathe of gauze, they float ownerless and glow like ghosts, or angels, in some transcendental realm whose dark atmosphere lurks in the corners.
There is a certain confrontations; severity about the precisely frontal presentation. The exquisitely tinted and shaded white skin and lipoid softness have the symmetry of armor. And a suggestion of challenge balances that of invitation. Do we imagine plea, a silent chastisement, emanating from these so vivid but ethereally disembodied breasts?
This daring and unprecedented work of art is called Beauty Revealed.
In his magisterial biography of Daniel Webster, Robert V Remini informs us that “…Daniel Webster was a passionate, romantic man all his life, however much he hid his feelings from public view.”
He needed female society and contact, and in this period of bereavement he appears to have developed a strong emotional bond with Sarah Goodridge….
If Goodridge was cherishing hopes of a marriage proposal, she was doomed to disappointment. No matter how intense their relationship may have been, Webster needed to marry money. Goodridge, living by her wits and her talent, was comfortable but not wealthy. Webster proceeded to wed Catherine LeRoy, a New York merchant’s daughter, in 1829.
As for Sarah Goodridge, she remained single for the rest of her life. Following Webster’s death, Beauty Revealed remained in the possession of his heirs and descendants, along with the artist’s easel and paintbox. (The family maintained that Sarah Goodridge had been Daniel Webster’s fiancée.) The painting was eventually given to Christie’s to be auctioned, purchased by a gallery, and acquired from thence by collectors Gloria and Richard Manney. The Manneys utlimately donated their collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As to Sarah Goodridge’s intent on gifting Daniel Webster with Beauty Revealed, Updike has a pretty good idea of what it was:
Come to us and we will comfort you, the breasts of her self-portrait seem to say. We are yours for the taking, in all our ivory loveliness, with our tenderly stippled nipples.
(And who else could have said it quite this way but the inimitable, not to say irreverent, John Updike?)
“…the glory that was Greece, / And the grandeur that was Rome.” – The Classical World by Nigel Spivey
Freud had followed the excavations at Troy with passionate interest, and eventually came to liken his own methods of psychoanalysis to an archaeological process of ‘peeling away’ layers in quest of some residual ‘truth’ that had become ‘mythical’ over time….the significance of Freud’s reaction to the marble relics of classical Athens lies precisely in the sensation that caused pangs of filial piety. The Acropolis was symbolic not only of Athens at the height of her ancient glory in the mid-fifth century BC, but of civilized values generally. So for Freud, and for many others, it symbolizes a bourn, a destination, for the human spirit, amid the amber glow of columns standing on a rocky mass.**************************
The sources…tell us that Alexander, though well proportioned, was not a physically large man…Yet…by consensus, [he] possessed a commanding presence, radiating from his eyes. These generated much comment, regarding their size, colour and glistening quality, but above all their contribution to a ‘heavenwards gaze.’ Accordingly, many images of Alexander show him as if transfixed by some distant prospect. Admirers took this as a symptom of his ‘divine inspiration’ (enthousiasmos). He appeared superhuman.
The villa of Livia Drusilla, wife of Caesar Augustus
The paintings from this room, relatively well preserved, are among the loveliest pictures from antiquity — at least, in their cumulative effect; they create a vista that seems like an earthly paradise. Only when we peer closer do we notice a strange level of biodiversity here. Flowers that bloom in the spring, such as blue periwinkles, appear with fruit that mature in autumn, such as quince. Birds — quails, thrushes, nightingales — animate the foliage, regardless of their migratory habits. Such is the marvel of the Golden Age created by Augustus.
The commission to compose an epic about Rome’s arch-founder Aeneas was, we are told, reluctantly undertaken by Virgil. He worked upon it for a decade, licking its lines into shape (as he put it) as a mother bear would tend her cubs. He died, in 19 BC, without finishing it to his satisfaction, and asked his friends to burn the manuscript. Fortunately for us, those friends disobeyed the poet’s wishes.The Aeneid survives as proof not only that epic could be written, after Homer, but also that epic could grow, in moral scope, beyond Homer….With Virgil, the epic tradition resonates with concerns of justice and sympathy, earning him the critical accolade of writing ‘civilized poetry’. His capacity ‘to harmonize the sadness of the universe’ – the dictum approved by scholar-poet A.E. Housman as poetry’s purpose – has endeared Virgil to pessimists down the ages; in his time, however, Virgil articulated a vision of Roman identity that made the construction of empire a mission of laborious benevolence.
The Aeneid, Book VI, translated by Seamus Heaney
(excerpt published in the March 7 2016 issue of the New Yorker)
Fatherly and intent, was off in a deep green valley
Surveying and reviewing souls consigned there,
Those due to pass to the light of the upper world.
It so happened he was just then taking note
Of his whole posterity, the destinies and doings,
Traits and qualities of descendants dear to him,
But seeing Aeneas come wading through the grass
Towards him, he reached his two hands out
In eager joy, his eyes filled up with tears
And he gave a cry: “At last! Are you here at last?
I always trusted that your sense of right
Would prevail and keep you going to the end.And am I now allowed to see your face,
My son, and hear you talk, and talk to you myself?
This is what I imagined and looked forward to
As I counted the days; and my trust was not misplaced.
To think of the lands and the outlying seas
You have crossed, my son, to receive this welcome.
And after such dangers! I was afraid that Africa
Might be your undoing.” But Aeneas replied:
“Often and often, father, you would appear to me,
Your sad shade would appear, and that kept me going
To this end. My ships are anchored in the Tuscan sea.
Let me take your hand, my father, O let me, and do not
Hold back from my embrace.” And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck.
Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped
Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.
So: what was it like, spending in excess of four hundred pages in the company of the mighty, world-conquering Caesars? You may judge for yourself….
When people think of imperial Rome, it is the city of the first Caesars that is most likely to come into their minds. There is no other period of ancient history that can compare for sheer unsettling fascination with its gallery of leading characters. Their lurid glamour has resulted in them becoming the very archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts. Monsters such as we find in the pages of Tacitus and Suetonius seem sprung from some fantasy novel or TV box-set: Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools; Caligula, lamenting that the Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through; Agrippina, the mother of Nero, scheming to bring to power the son who would end up having her murdered; Nero himself, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted centre of Rome. For those who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion, the story might well seem to have everything. Murderous matriarchs, incestuous powercouples, downtrodden beta males who nevertheless end up wielding powers of life and death: all these staples of recent dramas are to be found in the sources for the period. The first Caesars, more than any comparable dynasty, remain to this day household names. Their celebrity holds.
Celebrity, admittedly. But notoriety might be closer to the mark.
Here’s the genealogy of the Caesars:
In Holland’s telling, Julius Caesar was indeed as dangerously ambitious as Brutus claimed. He was a genuine threat to the Republic. But perhaps the Republic was doomed anyway. Aside from subduing the Gauls – no small feat – Caesar’s greatest gift to the Roman people was his appointment of his great-nephew Octavius as his heir.
(The names will drive you crazy, if nothing else does first.)
Augustus was a reasonably good ruler and, by our standards anyway, a reasonably decent man. And his wife Livia was one of the more powerful, memorable, and upright female presences in Roman history.
She was the mother of the emperor Tiberius, paternal grandmother of the emperor Claudius, paternal great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and maternal great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero.
from the Wikipedia entry
Alas, from here it was downhill all the way. Tiberius, successor to Augustus, seemed worthy at his reign’s outset, but he became increasingly erratic, finally withdrawing to his estate on the cliffs of the Isle of Capri, high above the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Sorrento. Here he indulged in grotesque orgies far from the prying eyes of Roman citizens. (But of course. tales of what was going on eventually reached the capital, a place where people indulged lavishly in rumor mongering and gossip.)
The following are pictures taken by me in Italy in 2009:
As we circled the island, our guide first told us about Tiberius; then he pointed to some jagged rocks sticking straight up out of the water. There, he said, is where the Sirens lured ships to their doom:
Next comes Caligula, great-grandson of Augustus.
Next up: Claudius:
Ever since his childhood, …Caligula had displayed a taste for dressing up. Capri, that wonderland of stage sets, enabled him to give it free rein. Wigs and costumes of every kind were his to try on, and opportunities to participate in pornographic floor-shows freely granted. Tiberius was happy to indulge his great-nephew. He knew what he was leaving the Roman people in the form of their favourite – and he had ceased to care. ‘I am rearing them a viper.’
Up until now, my knowledge of Claudius derived exclusively from the TV series I Claudius, in which Sir Derek Jacoby so memorably portrayed the seemingly hapless ruler.
Somehow I remember Claudius as being a better man than he seems to be in Tom Holland’s telling. Oh, but he was positively saintly compared to his successor, the incredibly loathsome
Nero had a wife, Poppaea Sabina, whom he adored and whom he had obtained for himself by putting her husband, his closest friend, out of the way. (oh – and Nero himself had also been married, too poor, dull Octavia; she, too, was got rid of.)
As ambitious as she was glamorous, the radiance of Poppaea’s charisma exemplified everything that Nero most admired in a woman. Even the colour of her hair, neither blonde nor brunette, marked her out as eye-catching: praised by Nero as ‘amber-coloured’, it was soon setting the trend for fashion victims across the city.
But the beautiful and vainglorious Poppaea Sabina made a fatal mistake: she nagged the ruler of the known world, thus committing the unforgivable sin of discomfiting him.. Never mind that she was heavily pregnant with their child; Nero kicked and beat her to death. No sooner had he done this than he was filled with remorse. The kingdom was scoured looking for another who was just like her. The closest he could get to achieving that goal was embodied in the person of a young boy whom he called Sporus. Nero joyfully took possession of this prize: “…it was as though his dead wife had been restored to him. So completely did he imagine himself to be gazing on her face again, caressing her cheeks and taking her in his arms, that Poppaea seemed to him redeemed from the grave.” But the youth needed to be kept smooth cheeked and beardless forever. How to prevent the onset of puberty? There was only one way: Sporus was castrated.
Meanwhile, Nero’s mother had moved heaven and earth to make sure he attained Rome’s highest office.
How was she ultimately rewarded?
Nero and Agrippina had spent an harmonious evening at a villa he was then occupying on the Bay of Naples. Then , as a gesture of filial devotion, he presented his mother with the gift of a yacht.
Greatly affectionate, he gave her the place of honour next to himself, and talked with her until the early hours. By now, with night lying velvet over the Bay, it was too dark for her to take a litter back home; and so Nero, informing his mother that her new yacht was docked outside, escorted her down to the marina. There he embraced and kissed her. ‘For you I live,’ he whispered, ‘and it is thanks to you that I rule.’ A long, last look into her eyes – and then he bade her farewell. The yacht slipped its moorings. It glided out into the night. Lights twinkled on the shore, illumining the curve of ‘the loveliest bay in the world’ while stars blazed silver overhead. Oars beat, timbers creaked, voices murmured on the deck. Otherwise, all was calm.
Then abruptly the roof fell in.
By some brilliant luck – read helpful fishermen who happened to be nearby – and her own native strength and resourcefulness, Agrippina was able to attain land and return, bleeding but alive, to her villa. But her good fortune was short lived; Nero was not through with her yet:
A column of armed men came galloping down the road. The crowds outside were roughly dispersed; soldiers surrounded the villa, then forced their way in. They found Caesar’s mother in a dimly lit room, attended by a single slave. Agrippina confronted them boldly, but her insistence that Nero could not possibly have meant them to kill her was silenced when one of the men coshed her on the head. Dazed but still conscious, Agrippina looked up to see a centurion drawing his sword. At this, rather than protest any further, she determined to die as who she was: the daughter of Germanicus and the descendant of a long line of heroes. ‘Strike my belly,’ she commanded, pointing to her womb. Then she fell beneath the hailstorm of her assassins’ swords.
As for the famous fire of 64 AD that Nero supposedly waited out while playing the fiddle, that’s a slightly erroneous legend. He didn’t play the fiddle; he played the lyre. And he played the lyre so he could accompany his singing performances. Nero sang everywhere and anywhere there was a stage – or not – and an audience. He entered innumerable vocal competitions and naturally enough was awarded first prize in every one of them.
Down through history, unconfirmed rumors have held that Nero himself torched the city. The accusation was made during his own lifetime. He in turn blamed the Christians, thus initiating their persecution.
Soon it became clear that Rome had had quite enough of this particular despot:
‘Murderer of mother and wife, a driver of chariots, a performer on the public stage, an arsonist.’ 70 The list of charges was long. Few in the upper echelons of Roman society doubted that Nero, if permitted to live, would add to it. To kill a Caesar was, of course, a fearsome thing; but by early 65, enough were convinced of its necessity to start plotting Nero’s liquidation.
The deed was finally accomplished in 68 AD. Knowing his death at the hands of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard was imminent, Nero took his own life.
‘What an artist perishes with me.’ So Nero, with his customary lack of modesty, had declared as he steeled himself to commit suicide. He had not exaggerated. He had indeed been an artist – he and his predecessors too. Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius: each, in his own way, had succeeded in fashioning out of his rule of the world a legend that would for ever afterwards mark the House of Caesar as something eerie and more than mortal. Painted in blood and gold, its record would never cease to haunt the Roman people as a thing of mingled wonder and horror. If not necessarily divine, then it had at any rate become immortal.
Thank you, Tom Holland, for this book. You are a terrific storyteller, and this was one wild and totally engrossing ride.
A number of fiction titles, some read by me and some not, kept entering my thoughts as I was reading Dynasty. Not all of them were directly related to the specific time frame covered in this book, but they did deal with some aspect of ancient Rome.
These I have not read but have long known of and hope to get to some day:
These were the first two books to appear in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mystery series. I’ve read nearly all of them and recommend them most highly. (Later titles actually go back in time – see the link provided above.)
I read this novel when it first came out in 1988 and loved it. Benita Kane Jaro, who lives in this area, came into the Central Library shortly after I’d finished her novel, and we had a chance to chat. I’ve always meant to go back and read the two subsequent books in her Ancient Rome Trilogy – The Lock and The Door in the Wall. I’m delighted that that Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers are keeping these works in print. (The Key, newly purchased, is currently on my night stand.)
Finally, there is this: once read, never to be forgotten: . Marguerite Yourcenour’s masterpiece, decades in the making, was first published in France in 1951. It is not a fast read; rather, it is slow, majestic, and deeply rewarding.
This passage is quoted in Wikipedia:
Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle our soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body’s ecstasy. …Nailed to the beloved body like a slave to a cross, I have learned some secrets of life which are now dimmed in my memory by the operation of that same law which ordained that the convalescent, once cured, ceases to understand the mysterious truths laid bare by illness, and that the prisoner, set free, forgets his torture, or the conqueror, his triumph passed, forgets his glory.
Tom Holland’s translation of The Histories of Herodotus came out in 2014. It’s a regular doorstop of a tome, so this reader is both grateful and admiring. I’ve long wanted to read Herodotus on the Egyptians, and I believe Holland’s lively prose reworking will facilitate this goal:
After the meal at any party where the hosts are well-to-do, a man carries round the likeness of a corpse in a coffin, carved out of a block of wood and painted to look as lifelike as possible, which in size can be anything between one and two cubits. Showing it to each guest in turn, he says: ‘Look on this carefully as you drink and enjoy yourself, for as it is now, so will you be when you are dead.’ Such is the practice at any drinking-party.
Well, not exactly a laugh a minute, those Egyptians – at least, in this particular setting.
Let’s conclude with The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. If you don’t have the time to hear the entire symphonic poem, then go forward to 15:25 on the drag bar and listen to the final section, “The Pines of the Appian Way.” This is the most heaven-storming music imaginable. If you ever have the chance to hear it performed live – drop everything and go!
The Pines of the Appian Way is a representation of dawn on the great military road leading into Rome. Respighi recalls the past glories of the Roman Republic. The legions approach to the sound of trumpets, where possible in the form of ancient Roman buccine, instruments best imitated by the modern flügelhorn, and the Consul, elected leader of the Republic, advances, as the sun rises, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.
From the Naxos site
The Midnight Assassin was one. The Austin Axe Murderer was another. The Servant Girl Annihilator, a coinage from the pen of William Sydney Porter, was yet another. (Porter, who was living in Austin at the time of the murders, later moved to New York City and eventually gained fame for his “twist at the end” short stories, written under the pseudonym O. Henry.)
The basic facts are these: Between December of 1884 and December of 1885 eight people were brutally murdered with an axe, or axes, in the dead of night, in Austin Texas. Five of the victims were African-American woman who worked as servants in the homes of Austin’s well off denizens. In the course of one of the attacks, a male servant was also slain, most likely because he was in the perpetrator’s way. The final two killings were of white women; these both took place on Christmas Eve of 1885.
There are several striking aspects to these murders. To begin with, they were excessively cruel and brutal. The first thing that happens as you read about each one is that your sympathies are engaged in the extreme for these hapless and totally innocent victims. Then there are additional factors to ponder. After committing each depredation, the killer vanished so quickly that no one ever got a good look at him. No motive was ever clearly discerned, except for possibly a kind of generalized misogyny. He struck erratically and unpredictably and proved virtually impossible to guard against. Police and city officials were helpless in the face of this rampage. The eerie elusiveness, not to mention viciousness, of the killer gave rise to speculation that he was not merely human:
A reporter for the Fort Worth Gazette actually suggested that Austin was being terrorized by a real-life version Frankenstein’s monster, the hideous yellow-eyed creature created by Mary Shelley in her 1823 novel.
Yet in the midst of all this awfulness, life went on, as it must and does. In the 1880s, Austin was a striving city. A new state Capitol building was nearing completion; the newly established University of Texas had opened its doors earlier in the decade. Especially interesting is the picture Hollandsworth paints of the lives of the city’s inhabitants. In the late nineteenth century, Austin was indeed a busy and prosperous place. From the saloons and so-called “houses of assignation” to Millett’s Opera House, there was plenty of entertainment (of various kinds) on offer. And although the races occupied separate social spheres, with the majority of African Americans relegated to the servant class, there was little overt enmity between them. The first six murders were in no way considered to be of lesser import because of the race of the victims. (That said, in Hollandsworth’s telling, certain among Austin’s white citizens held benighted and repugnant beliefs regarding the African American populace of their city – of any city, for that matter.)
According to the New York Times, there were over four hundred arrests of both African American and white men during the course of the investigation into these crimes. Only one conviction resulted – that of Jimmy Phillips, husband of one of the white victims – and that was later vacated. As suddenly as the killings had begun, they stopped. The perpetrator was never found.
Three years later, in London in 1888, the serial murder of prostitutes began. At least five are thought to have been done by the same man. The murders were savage, the killer elusive. Although he too was never found, the sobriquet by which he is known has echoed down though history to the present day: Jack the Ripper.
The case of the Texas Servant Girl Murders was featured on a segment of the PBS series The History Detectives. Among those interviewed by the investigators are Harold Schechter, whose anthology I used as the basis for the true crime class I taught last year, and Steven Saylor. Saylor writes a wonderful series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome. From time to time, though, he takes on a different subject. This he did in his year 2000 novel A Twist at the End, which is partly set in Austin Texas and includes a retrospective examination of the Midnight Assassin and his dark doings by the above mentioned William Sydney Porter. I’ve not yet read it, but the Hollandsworth book (plus my high regard for this author) has made me eager to do so.
We are as fascinated by what we do not know as by what we do know. Indeed, in many ways, the rampage of the Midnight Assassin is the perfect crime story–a rip-roaring whodunit of murder, madness, and scandal, replete with the sorts of twists and shocks that give a page-turner its good name.
Except there is one catch. There is no dramatic last-act revelation, no drum-roll finale. Everything ends up precisely where it started, in a gray limbo of unknowing. The trail of clues just stops, like bewildered bloodhounds baying in the night.
As May turned to June, the Roman people were invited to celebrate a profound mystery: the turning of the centuries and the dawning of a new cycle of time. Entertainments were staged; chariot races held; lavish banquets thrown. First, though, for three days in succession, the gods were given their due of sustenance and blood; and by night, illumined by the torches which had been handed out free to the entire population of the city, the Princeps himself led the celebrations. To the Moerae, the three white-robed Fates who directed the city’s destiny, he offered a sacrifice of lambs and goats; and then, to the goddess of childbirth, a gift of cakes. A golden age was being born – and just in case there was still anyone who had failed to take in the message, a poem composed specially for the occasion by Horace was sung on both the Capitol and the Palatine, with the aim of ramming it home. ‘Grant riches, and progeny, and every kind of glory to the people of Romulus.’ Many who heard this prayer sounding out across the Forum, hymned by a choir of girls and boys of spotless probity, and framed by a skyline edged with gold and gleaming marble, would doubtless have reflected that the gods had already obliged. ‘Truth, and Peace, and Honour, and our venerable tradition of Probity, and Virtus, long neglected, all venture back among us. Blessed Plenty too – why, here she is with her horn of abundance!’
Yes, the times were Golden for the Romans under the benevolent stewardship of the Princeps, otherwise know as Gaius Octavius, otherwise known as Imperator Caesar Augustus. (Names were fluid – and very confusing, at least to me – in ancient Rome.) At any rate, it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun reading about ancient Rome. Historian Tom Holland does a terrific job of bring this remote time and place to vivid and sometimes disconcerting life.
(How disconcerting? Well, I’ve just finished reading a description of the use to which a fabulously wealthy Roman named Hostius Quadra put the mirrored walls of his bedroom:
The mirrors on his walls boasted a particularly distinctive feature: everything reflected in them appeared larger than it actually was. ‘So it was that the freak made a show of his own deviancy.’
The author proceeds to specifics, but this being a family oriented blog, I shall quote no further.)
Holland’s prose is engaging; his view of the past tinged alternately with irony and wonder. It’s a marvelous book, and I highly recommend it.
As it happens, I recently encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal by Joseph Epstein, a writer I esteem highly, in which he extols the virtues of a work by Montesquieu on ancient Rome. It’s entitled Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence. This can be translated as Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of Their Decline. According to Epstein, Considerations is “…a lesser-known work but one deserving the highest acclaim.” Herewith an excerpt:
It was a maxim then among the republics of Italy, that treaties made with one king were not obligatory towards his successor. This was a sort of law of nations among them. Thus every thing which had been submitted to by one king of Rome, they thought themselves disengaged from under another, and wars continually begot wars….
One cause of the prosperity of Rome was, that all her kings were great men. No other history presents us with an uninterrupted succession of such statesmen and such captains.
In the infancy of societies, the leading men in the republic form the constitution; afterwards, the constitution forms the leading men in the republic.
Considerations appears to be replete with such provocative observations. Of course, the fact that it was written in 1734 and that we are reading it in translation makes it rather a challenge to take on. The author’s full name is Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. He was a leading figure of the French Enlightenment.
Finally, I’ve been listening to one of the Great Courses entitled “Famous Romans.” The material is presented by J. Rufus Fears. Professor Fears punctuates his narrative with war whoops; he’s an exhilarating and enthusiastic raconteur. I could not help envying the students who had the good fortune to be in his classes.
I found to my dismay that J. Rufus Fears, Professor of Classics at Oklahoma University, passed away in 2012. He was 67 years old. David L. Boren, current president of the university (and former senator) praised Fears as “one of the greatest teachers in the history of our state.” One of his former students, in a moving tribute, declares that “Dr. Fears taught a class that was basically everything I had hoped college would be.”
I’ve also been enjoying yet another of Taschen’s wonderful art books – that’s Gaius Julius Caesar on the cover. And the Khan Academy’s Smarthistory series offers a rare glimpse inside Livia’s villa:
My reading in nonfiction this year was heavily influenced – indeed, largely determined, at least initially – by the course in the literature of true crime which I taught back in February and March. This proved to be an exhilarating experience on all levels: the interaction with genuine, enthusiastic, and unapologetic intellectuals, the chance to master new classroom technology with the indispensable help of my (ever-patient) husband Ron, and above all, the research, which took me into new and previously unknown (to me) areas of American history that proved utterly fascinating.
I chose for the course’s primary text Harold Schechter’s impressive anthology. I figured if it was good enough to receive the imprimatur of the Library of America, then it would serve the course well. I took the historical/chronological approach to the material, as Schechter does.
Thanks are due once again to my friend Pauline for making this happen (and giving me plenty of help along the way).
In a post I wrote in August entitled “Six nonfiction titles I’ve read and esteemed so far this year,” four were true crime:
The Stranger Beside Me (1980) and Blood and Money (1976) are classics of the genre. I had long wanted to read the Ann Rule title and was glad to finally do so. Her story of the terrifying rampage of serial killer Ted Bundy, a man she actually knew, retains its power to shock and bewilder. For me, these effects were even more immediate in Tommy Thompson’s strange and gripping tale of Texas high rollers and their fateful (and fatal) entanglement.. Blood and Money is one of the greatest exemplars of true crime reportage. I read it when it first came out, and I wondered if it would pack the same punch on rereading. It did – and then some.
This House of Grief by Australian writer Helen Garner is the story of an appalling family tragedy and the accusations that eventually followed, culminating in a trial that was completely riveting. I couldn’t put this book down. In the Wall Street Journal’s Books of the Year feature (Review section, Saturday/Sunday December 12-13, 2015), Kate Atkinson describes This House of Grief as “both scrupulously objective and profoundly personal.” She cites it as one of the best books read by her this year (as does Gillian Anderson, in the same article).
As for Ghettoside, I lack sufficient superlatives in my vocabulary with which to praise journalist Jill Leovy’s achievement in this book. Crime and punishment as played out in South Los Angeles are vividly and disturbingly rendered. What really makes Ghettoside work is the intense focus on individuals caught up in the maelstrom. I was glad to see that this title made onto several lists of best nonfiction of 2015.
The two other titles in the “Six nonfiction” post linked to above are biographies:
Re the Strauss title: I really enjoyed getting the back story to the Shakespeare play, one of my long time favorites. And as for Joan of Arc, what can one say? As a girl, I was fascinated by her story. These days, I find it even more compelling. And Harrison relates the particulars with clarity and grace.
I very much enjoyed David Gessner’s dual biography of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, two towering greats of twentieth century environmentalism. I hope that description doesn’t make them sound stodgy. They were anything but – especially the cheerfully irreverent Abbey, who lived more or less wild and free, marrying multiple times and hurling rhetorical thunderbolts whenever the mood moved him. He’s best remembered for Desert Solitaire (1968), a memoir of his stint as a park ranger in Arches National Monument, now Arches National Park. In addition, he coined the expression “monkey wrench gang” in his 1975 novel of the same name.
All the Wild That Remains also functions as a travelogue, as Gessner retraces the steps of his subjects and when possible, talks to folks who knew them.
Writing about this book is serving to remind me how much I enjoyed it. I might read it again. I was also delighted to be able to give it as a gift to my dear friend Bonnie, who now resides in nature-friendly Oregon. Bonnie’s the librarian who first introduced me to the literary stars of the environmental movement. Together we presented a program on this subject at the library.(Bonnie, don’t you love this shot of Abbey? The man’s unquenchable vitality shines right through.)
This is a delightful romp through the world of used and antique books, with a past master of the art. Michael Dirda is a passionate, compulsive collector and an amazingly knowledgeable person. The only problem with Browsings is that you learn of numerous titles that you’d like to read. And so that list – that fateful (I almost write “fatal”) list – grows by leaps and bounds, while you, poor you, are stuck with your one pair of eyes (which you desperately hope will hold out a bit longer) and one brain (same hope, even more fervent). You can’t read any faster! And nor, really, do you wish to.
Here’s just a small sampling of the titles Dirda mentions in Browsings:
Classics, crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, memoir, swashbuckling adventure – he’s open to all of them. Dirda possesses the most receptive and exuberant mind I’ve ever encountered.
Speaking of recommendations, I’ve gotten plenty of them from Martin Edwards’s delightful history of the Detection Club, which I’ve been absorbing in measured and delicious dollops. Among its other virtues, The Golden Age of Murder is an excellent companion volume to the classic reissues now coming in gratifying numbers from the British Library.
I recently found Witches: Salem, 1692 to be a sobering reminder of where institutionalized rigidity and narrow mindedness can lead. Read it and weep – but also be fascinated by this recounting of one of the darkest chapters in our history.
This book was a revelation! Here is history with a truly local perspective – we’re talking about landmarks a mere ten minutes from my front door. Ron and I went scouting locations in Howard County alone and had excellent luck. Then I found another landmark that’s been relocated to the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Alas, still no access to Doughreagan Manor, not even to gaze upon from a distance.)
Wake also describes in scintillating detail life among Britain’s aristocrats and their newly arrived American counterparts in the early eighteen hundreds. (This was well before the invasion of the so-called “dollar princesses.” later in the same century.)
This is not a book for reading straight through, but one to contemplate with delight. I am in awe of the inventiveness of children’s book illustrators. They are among our greatest artists, and 100 Great Children’s Picture Books is full to bursting with their wondrous works.
I’ve written several posts on this book; or rather, I’ve quoted large chunks from it. Sir John Lister-Kaye’s beautiful descriptions speak for themselves; I could not hope to emulate his eloquence. Here he describes a phenomenon that is nothing short of astonishing:
Sitting at my desk one morning I looked up to see a thin veil of smoke passing the window. Puzzled, I rose and walked across the room to the bay window that looks out over the river fields. Normally I can see right across the glacial valley to the forested hills on the other side, the river glinting in between. That morning I could barely see the far side at all. It couldn’t be smoke, I reasoned, there was too much of it. It must be drifts of low cloud. Then it cleared and handed back the view.
I returned to my desk. A few moments later I noticed it again; another pale shroud passing on a gentle south-westerly breeze, funnelling along the valley. But something wasn’t right. Late summer mists don’t do that, they hang, and anyway, the cloud base was high. Perhaps it was smoke, after all. I got up again and stood in the window just as another cloud closed off my view. I always keep my precious Swarovski binoculars on my windowsill so I took a closer look.
What I saw was a breath-taking spectacle of such overwhelming natural abundance that I was lost for words. I picked up the phone to Ian Sargent, our field officer, who was off duty with his girlfriend Morag Smart, who ran our schools programmes. ‘Come quickly. You must see this.’ As always, when I stumble across some extraordinary natural phenomenon, my first instinct is to share it. But I also wanted witnesses. The world is full of cynics. I knew people wouldn’t believe me if I kept it to myself.
It was neither mist nor smoke. It was silk. Spiders’ web silk. The massed gossamer threads of millions of tiny spiders dispersing by a process known as ‘ballooning’. Every long grass stem, every dried dock head, every tall thistle, every fence post held, at its apex, a tiny spiderling – what we commonly know as a money spider – poised, bottom upturned to the wind in what has been described as the ‘tiptoe position’ and from which single or multiple threads of silk were being spun. Other spiders were queuing beneath, awaiting their turn. As each slowly lengthening thread caught the wind we could watch the spider hanging on, tightening its grip on the stem or the seed head, while the gently rugging threads extended ever longer into the breeze.
For the tiniest spiders lift-off happened when the threads were ten or fifteen feet long, but slightly larger spiders spun for much more – perhaps twice that length. Then they let go. The spiders were airborne, sailing gently up, up and away across the fields, gaining height all the time, quite literally ballooning down the valley with the wind.
Many are the books about nature and natural phenomena that I’ve started with the best of intentions only to leave unfinished. Not only did I finish Gods of the Morning, but I was genuinely sorry to see it end.
And so I come to Murder by Candlelight. Subtitled The Gruesome Slayings Behind Our Romance with the Macabre, this would at first glance seem to be a catalog of the grotesque, best read in broad daylight if at all. It is true that author Michael Knox Beran recounts some terrible crimes; they date from the early nineteenth century and took place in Britain. But this book is about so much more.
Let me quote myself, from an earlier post:
Murder by Candlelight is not only a true crime narrative – or rather, a narrative of multiple true crimes – it is a work of philosophy, psychology, and history. True, some of it is hard to read – repugnant, even gruesome – but other parts are rich with a profound insight into the human condition. The erudition displayed by Michael Knox Beran is nothing short of amazing. For instance, it is not every day that a book sends me scurrying to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer:
Yes, I know, he doesn’t look as though he’d be very scintillating at a dinner party, but he’s actually a deeply fascinating thinker. I have in mind specifically a work entitled The World as Will and Representation. Sound dry as dust? Not the portions quoted in Murder by Candlelight – they’re anything but.
I had not previously heard of Michael Knox Beran, but he will most definitely be getting a fan letter from Yours Truly.
Forthwith, an excerpt:
The killings described in this book took place in the high noon of Romanticism, when the most vital spirits were in revolt against the eighteenth-century lucidity of their fathers and grandfathers, those powdered, periwigged gentlemen who had been bred up in the sunshine of the Enlightenment, and who were as loath to descend to the Gothic crypt as they were to contemplate the Gothic skull beneath the skin. The Romantic Age, by contrast, was more than a little in love with blood and deviltry. It was an age that delighted in the clotted gore of the seventeenth-century dramatists, the bloody poetry of Webster and Tourneur and Middleton. “To move a horror skillfully,” Charles Lamb wrote in his 1808 book Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare, “to touch a soul to the quick, to lay upon fear as much as it can bear, to wean and weary a life till it is ready to drop, and then step in with mortal instruments to take its last forfeit: this only a Webster can do.” Inferior geniuses, Lamb said, may “terrify babes with painted devils,” but they “know not how a soul is to be moved.”
And one more:
The keenest spirits of this epoch in murder history— Sir Walter Scott, Thomas De Quincey, and Thomas Carlyle among them— knew a good deal about the horror that moves the soul. In their contemplations of the most notorious murders of their time, they saw “strange images of death” and discovered dreadfulnesses in the act of homicide that we, in an age in which murder has been antiseptically reduced to a problem of social science on the one hand and skillful detective work on the other, are only too likely to have overlooked.
For the student of history, the murders of a vanished time have this other value. An eminent historian has said that were he limited, in the study of a particular historical period, to one sort of document only, he would choose the records of its murder trials as being the most comprehensively illuminating. A history of the murders of an age will in its own way reveal as much of human nature, caught in the Minotaur-maze of evil circumstance, as your French Revolutions, Vienna Congresses, and German Unifications. What a vision of the past rises up before us in these dark scenes, illumined by wax-lights and tallow-dips: and what an uncanny light do they throw upon our own no less mysterious, no less sinful present.
In the course of my reading of Murder By Candlelight, it began to exercise a greater and greater hold on my imagination. I, who have lately been reading multiple books simultaneously (as well as magazines and newspapers), could only read this one book. And yet I slowed down purposely as the end neared, not wanting to finish. I finally did so in October. I am now rereading it, to try and better understand and recapture the effect it had on me the first time. I’m about one third of the way in, and yes, it’s happening again.
History comes alive – right here, right now! – Sisters of Fortune: America’s Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad, by Jehanne Wake
I’m not sure why, but it’s taken this book to jolt me into full awareness of the rich history that surrounds us here in central Maryland. For one thing, Doughoregan Manor, where the Caton sisters passed much of their childhood, is about ten minutes away from my front door. I actually tried to drive past it yesterday, only to be greeted by a large and unambiguous “No Trespassing” sign. Descendants of the original owners still live there. They have no desire for gawking tourists to be staring in their windows. Oh, but I did so want to gawk….
The Caton sisters – Marianne, Bess, Emily, and Louisa – were the granddaughters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the last to die – at the age of 95 in 1832. Aside from being a fascinating story in an of itself, the unfolding tale of the lives of these four women and their illustrious grandsire sheds a vivid light on late 18th and early 19th century social and political life, not only here in Maryland but also in Great Britain, Ireland, and France.
These four women made their mark on the era in which they lived. Three of them – Marianne, Louisa, and Bess – made their way to England and married into the titled aristocracy. Only Emily remained at home in Maryland, marrying John MacTavish, British consul to the state of Maryland, and inhabiting various estates owned by her large and very wealthy family.
Thus juicy volume is filled with fascinating stories about the Caton and Carroll families. Many other famous individuals of the period put in an appearance. My particular favorite is the Duke of Wellington, who fell in love with Marianne Caton at a time when both were married to others.
Wellington had this portrait painted specially for Marianne. In her turn, she had her portrait done, also by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and gave it as a gift to the Duke. That’s it, above, adorning the cover of the book.
For several weeks now I’ve been researching the dwelling places of the Carroll and Caton families in this area. I’ve already mentioned Doughoregan Manor – the unspellable and unpronounceable ancestral home of the Carroll family. (The name is of Irish Gaelic derivation.):
Then there is the Charles Carroll House in Annapolis. Home to Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), it was built by his father Charles Carroll the Squire (1702-1782). According to Jehanne Wake, all four of the Caton sisters were probably born here. (The first Charles Carroll, called the Settler, lives from 1660 or 1661 to 1720. He it was who originally emigrated to this country from Ireland in 1688. Got all that? I hope so; you never know, there might be a quiz….)
The building of Brooklandwood Plantation was begun in 1793. This dwelling was conceived as an escape from the oppressive heat and humidity of Baltimore. (Good luck with that, say I, as I sit here in air conditioned comfort and stare balefully at the sweltering out of doors. As of this writing, the temperature is 72, degrees, actually a relief from the recent string of ninety-degree plus days. But the humidity stands at 92 per cent. And the time is well before noon.)
Brooklandwood’s current location is Brooklandville, in Baltimore County. It is now part of St. Paul’s School, an independent day school.
“Whe-ew-ew–by George this is a Toaster,” exclaimed an English diplomat, unaccustomed to the temperature. “A pint of American summer would thaw all Europe in ten minutes.”
Sisters of Fortune, p. 19
Completed in 1808, the Homewood Estate was intended by Charles Carroll of Carrollton as a wedding gift for his son Charles Carroll Jr. It is currently the Homewood Museum, located on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Then, there is Folly Quarter Manor and Equestrian Estate:
This magnificent manor house, with its lush grounds and other amenities, was in the news late last year when it came for sale. From the Baltimore Sun’s write-up of Folly Quarter Manor:
Maryland lays claim to an abundant share of American history, much of it preserved in our homes and the very land on which they stand. In few places is that more evident than in Ellicott City’s Folly Quarter Manor and Equestrian Estate, a piece of our nation’s past on the market for $7 million.
The asking price includes a magnificently appointed 8,000-square-foot stone manor house, an 1,800-square-foot guest house, a caretaker’s cottage, a 10-stall horse barn, pool, tennis courts and gardens to rival any English manor.
But there is more. This incomparable equestrian estate, sitting on 47 acres of rolling hills and prime Howard County pastureland with its own pond and trout stream, possesses something even more rare — a pedigree traced from a prominent 18th-century landholder to a Founding Father, a newspaper mogul and an industrialist-turned-racetrack tycoon.
Be sure not to miss the slide show at the head of this article.
As with Doughoregan, Folly Quarter is practically around the corner from where I live. Although the Manor House is private property, I intend to drive by and see if it is visible from the road.
[8/13/2015- Pat has provided the following correction/clarification:
Folly Quarter Manor and Equestrian Estate’ was built in 1936 by the owner of Pimlico, on land once owned by Charles Carroll. It is not the ‘Folly Quarter’ manor built by Emily Caton McTavish in 1832, which is now part of the Shrine of Saint Anthony.
I haven’t mentioned the St. Anthony Shrine, but it also is very local to me, and well worth a visit.]
And speaking of Doughoregan – which I can now spell, praise be! – I was about to give up on finding out anything more about the place’s current status when my research, which has become somewhat obsessive in recent days, yielded an interesting nugget. An active business and farming operation exists on the Manor’s grounds. It’s called Carroll Farm-To-Table. They raise, cattle, pigs, and chickens, and they state on their web site that they adhere to the agricultural practices of their forebears: ‘no hormones, antibiotics or other artificial additives that change the quality and taste. We like to call it “Traditional Taste”.’
Here’s an article about Carroll Farm-To-Table that appeared in Howard Magazine this past May. How I managed to miss this, I don’t know. Or I may have seen it and not read it closely enough to realize that it was Doughoregan Manor that was being written about. (This magazine is delivered gratis to the house.)
A lovely old stone house on the corner of Frederick Road and Manor Lane is currently available for rent. You can just about take it in before being turned away by the No Trespassing sign: . I do not know whether this property is part of the older estate.
An article about Doughoregan on the site Waymarking notes that “…the Carroll family zealously guards their privacy.”
Jehanne Wake, who is British, came by her interest in the Caton sisters while she was researching the subject of the relationship of early nineteenth century women to money and investing. While digging into the archives of ING Barings Bank in 2001, she came across a letter from an ‘E. Caton:’
It was extraordinary. Her voice was so vivid and beguiling, so intelligent and authoritative–on the subject of investments and speculations, no less.
Turns out that among their several virtues and talents, the sisters were dab hands at playing the markets in the early 1800s. Also, keep in mind that they were among the first to travel to the “Old World” and secure husbands of high status. (Having each been widowed and then remarried, Marianne and Louisa actually did this twice.) Bess held on to her unmarried status longer than any of her sisters, finally accepting a proposal from George Baron Stafford in 1836, by which time she was already in her mid forties. Unlike some of the marriages of the “dollar princesses” later in the 19th and early 20th centuries, these unions possessed, at least to some degree, genuine affection on both sides.
This is an extremely complex and many-layered story. I have barely touched on its particulars. I need to apologize for any errors in this post. I welcome additions and/or corrections from those more knowledgeable than myself. Above all, I’d like to express my deep admiration for the prodigious research undertaken by Jehanne Wake in the service of this story. This book is a triumph of history vividly retold and brought to life. We Marylanders especially should be grateful. (And I am especially grateful to Pat of AAUW Readers for suggesting this title for our book discussion group.)
Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play that I came to love. So this book was a joy to me, elucidating as it does the actual events leading up to and following one of history’s most famous assassinations. (That early attraction was probably the result of having had a terrific Latin teacher when I was in the ninth grade. Mrs Gelber – I didn’t know I remembered her name until I began writing this – made the ancient world come alive for her lucky students. All these decades later, I can still recall dressing two dolls in a toga and a tunic respectively, for a class project.)
Even more importantly, I gained a sense of who Julius Caesar actually was and how he fits into the template of Roman history.
This bust of Caesar resides in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. I was there in 2009. It’s a very fabulous place, but I don’t have a specific memory of seeing this sculpture.
The other players in this drama are brought vividly to the fore. Some, like Mark Antony, we already know – or thought we knew…
While he spent the next year in the East, winning allies, raising money, conquering rebels, and wooing a new mistress, Caesar sent Antony back to Rome. There Antony arranged for Caesar to be dictator for the year and for himself to be Master of the Horse (Magister Equitum), as a dictator’s second-in-command was called. This was Caesar’s second dictatorship. It dismayed lovers of liberty. Meanwhile, traditionalists took offense at Antony’s rowdy and degenerate lifestyle, which he resumed with abandon. The sources speak of wild nights, public hangovers, vomiting in the Forum, and chariots pulled by lions. It was hard to miss his affair with an actress and ex-slave with the stage name of Cytheris, “Venus’s Girl,” since she and Antony traveled together in public in a litter.
After his divorce, Antony married Fulvia, a woman who was his match in more ways than one:
Of all the powerful women of the era, Fulvia is in a class of her own. She alone once wore a sword and recruited an army, which earned her the backhanded compliment of having her name inscribed on her enemy’s sling bullets along with rude references to her body parts. But she did most of her fighting with words. A populist through and through, Fulvia married three politicians in turn: the street-fighting demagogue Clodius, Curio— a People’s Tribune who supported Caesar— and finally and most fatefully, Antony. Antony’s enemies claimed that Fulvia controlled him, which is not true. But this strong woman probably stiffened his spine and she almost certainly shared with Antony the political skills learned from her two earlier husbands.
Julius Caesar was an immensely complicated man. Strauss’s succinct enumeration of his qualities make that clear:
Coming under the dictator’s inspection could only have been a daunting prospect, even if at fifty-five Caesar was beginning to show his age. He was subject to dizzy spells, possibly a symptom of the epilepsy that brought him infrequent seizures. He was balding. After nearly fifteen years of war, his face was creased and his cheeks sunken. Yet Caesar still was cunning and dangerous. He personified talent, strategy, memory, literature, prudence, meticulousness, reasoning, and hard work, as a contemporary said.
Strauss returns repeatedly to this kind of categorizing, trying to bring to life a man whose life, triumphs, and death have attained a sort of mythical status:
In earlier years, Caesar had been a reforming consul who fought and beat the Senate; a political broker who considered no one his equal except Rome’s then-greatest general, Pompey, and Rome’s then-richest man, Marcus Licinius Crassus. By 45 B.C. Caesar outstripped them both; became a conqueror on three continents; and wrote military commentaries destined to last as literary classics for two thousand years. Caesar was both genius and demon, excelling at politics, war, and writing— a triple crown that no one has ever worn as well. Caesar lived in a society in which modesty was not a virtue. He was what Aristotle called a great-souled man— one with high-flying ambitions and no small opinion of himself. He believed in his intelligence, versatility, and efficacy. He lacked neither courage nor nerve, and his appetite for self-promotion was limitless. As he saw it, he was a political virtuoso with a common touch. He was the man who did everything in the crisis of battle and saved his army again and again. He was stern, fair, and prudent with the enemy, and infinitely merciful to the people of Rome. He stated approvingly a belief that “the imperator Gaius Caesar deserved well of the republic after all his achievements.”
Strauss provides plenty of background for the run-up to the assassination, but it’s in the moments immediately preceding the killing that his narrative becomes truly gripping. This, and the ghost of Shakespeare hovering over the narrative, had this reader well nigh mesmerized.
There now took place the famous exchange between the dictator and the soothsayer. “The Ides of March have come,” said Caesar. “Aye, they have come but not gone,” replied the soothsayer in one of history’s memorable comebacks.
This is the seminal moment in which the soothsayer speaks truth to power, bluntly informing Caesar in so many words that “it ain’t over til it’s over.” Shakespeare’s version is almost exactly word for word the same; this has always been one of my favorite moments in the play. Fate is hanging heavily over Caesar, who seems curiously oblivious, even cheerful. (Despite having been warned of imminent danger, he set forth on that fateful day sans bodyguards.)
Barry Strauss examined every source he could find on the assassination, but mainly relied on these five:
…Plutarch (c. 46-c. 120 CE), Suetonius (c. 66-c. 122 CE), Appian (c. 95-c. 165 CE), Cassius Dio (c. 155-235 CE) and, last but not least, Nicolaus of Damascus (c. 64 BCE-14 CE).
(This information comes from an interview on the site Ancient History Et Cetera.) Shakespeare relied almost exclusively on Plutarch’s Lives. See Shakespeare’s Romans for more information.)
This book is 362 pages long in hard copy. A great deal of space is at the end is given over to photographs, notes, and information on sources. (I read the e-book and nearly missed the photographs, which are marvelous.) It was over too soon. I loved it.
I knew of Ambrose Bierce from his famous – and famously irreverent – Devil’s Dictionary, and his equally famous and frequently anthologized short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
First: some excerpts from the aforementioned dictionary:
Featured in the True Crime anthology were excerpts from Bierce’s varied journalistic output. All appear under the rubric “Crime News from California.” This first entry effectively conveys Bierce’s satiric flair. For something written – and published – in 1869, it seems to me rather daring, not to mention in some respects ahead of its time:
In the course of looking into Beirce’s background, I discovered a story – a very brief tale – entitled “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” This is the whole of it:
One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the “pike.” Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.
Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: “I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.” Andrew was the overseer.
Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: “I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.”
Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: “Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?”
It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.
Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:
“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son’s manner than by anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: ‘He is gone, he is gone! O God! what an awful thing!’ and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that they related to something more–than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.”
This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term)–the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy James Wren had declared at first that he SAW the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.
As can be seen, the date Bierce assigns to this strange event is 1854. The story appeared originally in 1888 and was included in a collection called Can Such Things Be, published in 1893. Now it seems that in the mid twentieth century, a similar legend was recounted concerning a certain David Lang. The year of these alleged events is given as 1880:
David Lang was said to be a farmer who lived near Gallatin, Tennessee. On September 23, 1880 he supposedly vanished into thin air while walking through a field near his home. His wife, children, and two men who were passing by in a buggy all witnessed his disappearance.
Frank Edwards included the following description of Lang’s disappearance in his book Stranger Than Science (1959):
David Lang had not taken more than half a dozen steps when he disappeared in full view of all those present. Mrs. Lang screamed. The children, too startled to realize what had happened, stood mutely. Instinctively, they all ran toward the spot where Lang had last been seen a few seconds before. Judge Peck and his companion, the Judge’s brother-in-law, scrambled out of their buggy and raced across the field. The five of them arrived on the spot of Lang’s disappearance almost simultaneously. There was not a tree, not a bush, not a hole to mar the surface. And not a single clue to indicate what had happened to David Lang.The grownups searched the field around and around, and found nothing. Mrs. Lang became hysterical and had to be led screaming into the house. Meanwhile, neighbors had been altered by the frantic ringing of a huge bell that stood in the side yard, and they spread the alarm. By nightfall scores of people were on the scene, many of them with lanterns. They searched every foot of the field in which Lang had last been seen a few hours before. They stamped their feet on the dry hard sod in hope of detecting some hole into which he might have fallen — but they found none.David Lang was gone. He had vanished in full view of his wife, his two children, and the two men in the buggy. One second he was there, walking across the sunlit field, the next instant he was gone.
Eventually the grass around where Lang had disappeared turned yellow in a fifteen-foot diameter circle, suggesting that some form of energy had mysteriously transported him away.
Seven months later his children were said to have heard their father’s voice faintly calling out for help as they played near the spot of his disappearance, but eventually the sound of his voice faded away. They never heard his voice again.
This tale is recounted on the site The Museum of Hoaxes. Further information and speculation is therein contained.
At any rate, the question remains: Whose is the original disappearance? Williamson the planter of Alabama or David Lang the farmer from Tennessee? Is either story true?
In the late 1990s, a chamber opera was composed that was based on the story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” It has been performed several times since then, to considerable acclaim.
To add to the general strangeness of this subject, the composer’s name is David Lang.
In 1913, after an extended period of travel, Ambrose Bierce, then age 71, announced his intention to go to Mexico. At the time, that country was embroiled in revolutionary turmoil. His stated aim was to join the army of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juarez as an observer. At the time of Bierce’s last known communication, he was in Chihuahua. After that, he was never heard from again.
In other words, he disappeared.
“This year John Billington the elder (one that came over with the first) was arraigned; and both by grand, and petty jury found guilty of willful murder; by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed. This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them; they used all due means about his trial, and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop, and other the ablest gentlemen in the Bay of Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land be purged from blood. He and some of his, had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them; … His fact was, that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen (about a former quarrel) and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.”
Such poignancy in the line, “This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them…”
For more about John Billington, click here.
The murder of John Newcomen took place in 1630. Another murder in the colonies, not included in the Schechter anthology, occurred in New Hampshire in 1648. In May or June of that year, one Hannah Willix was found floating in the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire. The body was in shocking condition: “…her necke broken, her tounge black and swollen out of her mouth & the bloud settled in her face, the privy partes swolne &c as if she had been muche abused &c.” In the course of her research, blogger Pam Carter, a lifelong Maine resident and self-confessed genealogy addict, discovered that Hannah Willix was her own tenth great grandmother.
Robert Begiebing, now professor of English emeritus at Southern New Hampshire University, first came across this story in a different context: he was looking for fresh subject matter with which to engage creatively.
While in this rather restless frame of mind, Begiebing was reading “Bell’s History of Exeter,” an 1888 book about the Exeter-Newfields region where he lives. Alarms went off in Begiebing’s head when he came across a one-sentence entry in the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop.
That sentence was exactly the same as the one, quoted above, that was found by Pam Carter in the course of her genealogical research. It fired Begiebing’s imagination at once; the result was a fine piece of historical crime fiction, in which Hannah Willix becomes the eponymous – and similarly unfortunate – Mistress Coffin:
Here is the book trailer for this novel: