Ambrose Bierce

April 4, 2015 at 9:27 pm (History, Music, opera, Short stories, True crime)

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Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce

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.” Owlcreek

First: some excerpts from the aforementioned dictionary:

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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:

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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.

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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.

 

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True Crime: in the beginning…

April 2, 2015 at 5:23 pm (books, History, Mystery fiction, True crime)

truecrimea This anthology is arranged chronologically. It begins, quite literally, at the beginning, with an excerpt from William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation (1651):

“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…”

Statue of William Bradford in Plymouth, Mass.

Statue of William Bradford in Plymouth, Mass.

For more about John Billington, click here.
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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:46470

Here is the book trailer for this novel:

 

 

 

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With malice toward none….

March 3, 2015 at 2:18 pm (History)

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Wednesday March 4, tomorrow, is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. My  brother Richard,  holder of a PhD in American history, has called to remind me.

I am fortunate to live near the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. This museum occupies shared premises with the American Art Museum in the Old Patent Office Building, itself a majestic edifice with a fascinating past. (In this slide show, Temple of Invention brings that past to life.)

Located on the first floor of the Portrait Gallery, The American Origins Exhibition is a repository of art and history that is rich with meaning for all of us.

It is even more meaningful, and deeply moving as well,  to walk the length of the Great Hall, site of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball.

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It takes no great feat of imagination to conjure the crowd of well wishers and celebrants, to hear the animated conversation and the music – and to inhale the aromas emanating from the banquet table.

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(Click here for more on the Inaugural Banquet.)

The appearance of the Great Hall today is not exactly the same as it was for the occasion of Lincoln’s Inaugural Ball. In 1877, The Old Patent Office was severely damaged by fire; what we  currently see is the refurbished version of the Great Hall.

In 2000, the entire building was closed for renovation. By 2007, all galleries and other public spaces were reopened.

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Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

March 4, 1865

Fellow-Countrymen:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Source: Library of Congress

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President Lincoln was felled by an assassin’s bullet on April 14, 1865.

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Harking back to our nation’s beginnings, Harold Schechter commences his survey of true crime literature in America

August 9, 2014 at 8:26 pm (books, Crime, History, True crime, True crime narratives)

truecrimea  Let’s just stipulate this  up front: the Library of America could not have chosen a better person to edit their true crime anthology. Harold Schechter‘ s deep knowledge of the literature of true crime and his distinguished contributions to the genre are well known, especially to aficionado’s of the genre. His selections for this volume have the power to disturb and to fascinate.

Not to mention, surprise. True Crime opens with an excerpt from William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation. In that famed document, completed in 1651, Bradford relates the story of one John Billington. Although he was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact, Billington was no earnest Puritan, but rather a ne’er-do-well  who fled London with his creditors in hot pursuit. He seems to have been a thoroughly disreputable character.  As he took up life in the New World, his continued bad behavior seemed to presage worse to come. And so it proved: in 1630, in the heat of a quarrel, he shot and killed a man. For this crime, he was executed. His fellow colonists took no pleasure in carrying out the sentence.

William Bradford writes:

This, as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a mater of great sadnes unto them. They used all due means about his triall, and tooke the advice of Mr. Winthrop and other the ablest gentle-men in the Bay of Massachusets, that were then new-ly come over, who concured with them that he ought to dye, and the land to be purged from blood.

It turns out that numbered among the descendants of John Billington is James A. Garfield, twentieth President of the United States. What an irony that from the line of such a rough character eventually issued a man of great courage and nobility of spirit – in every way a supremely admirable human being. I recommend – very highly – Candace Millard’s biography, Destiny of the Republic.  garfield2

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uewb_07_img0467  Here’s how Harold Schechter describes the next author to appear in the anthology; “Unfairly or not, Cotton Mather (1663-1728) has come to epitomize many of the least attractive traits of the colonial Puritan, from excessive self-righteousness to persecutive zeal.” Well, that about sums it up, except that there is more to Mather than meets the eye (or was presented to us in those long ago interminable high school history classes ). It turns out that he was something of a polymath, and an industrious one at that:

….he published as many as 17 books and pamphlets a year – an estimated 4,444 bound volumes all told – while turning out five sermons a week, conducting countless fasts, devoting himself to causes ranging from penal reform to the education of slaves, and raising 15 children by three wives.

Among the sermons Mather preached was one of  particular type. The so-called execution sermon was preached on that very occasion, to provide a vivid illustration of the wages off sin. Mather’s execution sermons were published under the rubric Pillars of Salt.

Before the sentence was carried out, the malefactor was expected to express remorse and repentance, in his or her own words . These utterances would be incorporated into the sermon, to give it added power.This happened frequently, but not invariably. One who refused to follow the script was Margaret Gaulacher, condemned to hang in the 1715 for the crime of infanticide. The fact that she was bitter rather than penitent demonstrated to Mather that she had not made her peace with God.

Be that as it may, Pillars of Salt stands as a founding document of the literature of true crime in America. Cotton Mather’s signal contribution is commented on in this rather piquantly entitled essay, Cotton Mather…Pulp Writer?

Harold Schechter

Harold Schechter

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There’s more to come, in subsequent posts.

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Four (hurried but sincere) recommendations

January 24, 2013 at 3:36 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, History, Mystery fiction)

My reading has far outstripped my reviewing capacity at this point, and now I’m heading for the airport. But I simply can’t leave without recommending four books: two are historical fiction, one is a classic of psychological suspense, and one is a biography. All were outstanding, and I hope to write about each of them in detail when time permits. Meanwhile, here they are:

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I mentioned The Bedlam Detective in a recent post on new historical mysteries. At that time, I had just begun the novel. Now I’ve finished it and can recommend it without reservation. It’s a vivid evocation of Britain just prior to World War One. Also it’s exceptionally well written.

When the Emperor Was Divine is more than exceptionally well written – it is just beautiful. Beautiful, and almost unbearably sad, this is the story of what happens to one Japanese-American family during World War Two. Events unfold through the eyes of a young boy, who witnesses his family being uprooted and torn asunder. When I finished it, my heart felt so heavy, I could think of nothing else all day.

Of Georges Simenon‘s Act of Passion, John Banville asks, “Has there ever been a more penetrating account of love’s destructive power?” Penetrating, riveting – and profoundly shocking.

When I finished Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, I felt compelled to learn more about just what happened to Ann Boleyn, and why. So I turned to Alison Weir’s biography of that hapless figure in history. The Lady in the Tower was all absorbing and deeply tragic. And some questions are still not answered, and may never be.

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A Story of murder, depravity, and one man’s unshakeable resolve: Midnight in Peking, by Paul French

August 30, 2012 at 12:52 am (Book review, books, Crime, History)

  Pamela Werner lived in the storied Chinese city of Peking, on a street called Armour Factory Alley, with her father E.T. C. Werner, a retired consul and noted expert on Chinese language, history, and culture.  In 1911, Werner had married Gladys Nina Ravenshaw, “a girl of the British Empire.” She was 22; he was 45.

Gladys Nina Ravenshaw and E.T.C. Werner, on their wedding day in Hong Kong

In 1919, they adopted Pamela. Gladys lived a mere three years longer, dying at age 35 and leaving her three-year-old daughter in the care of her husband and various servants of the household.

Gladys Nina Ravenshaw

Paul French sets the stage for a tragedy by describing the strange and exotic world of prewar Peking, a place where men in traditional garb strolled the ancient avenues displaying their song birds in cages, Above the streets there loomed a sinister building known as the Fox Tower, a remnant of the walls that once encircled the city. The Chinese shunned this edifice, believing it to be inhabited by malign spirits. At night, it was populated by bats and wild dogs. It was here, in the early morning hours of January 8, 1937,  in the vicinity of the Tower, that Pamela Werner’s body was first discovered:

When daylight broke on another freezing day, the tower was deserted once more. The colony of bats circled one last time before the creeping sun sent them back to  their eaves. But in the icy wasteland between  the road and the tower, the wild dogs–the huang gou–were prowling curiously, sniffing at something alongside a ditch.

It was the body of a young women, lying at an odd angle and covered by a layer of frost.

The Fox Tower, built as a watch tower in 1439

Paul French describes a murder scene that is acutely horrific. In terms of sheer savagery, it put me in mind of the victims of Jack the Ripper and also of the so-called Black Dahlia murder. I wasn’t prepared for that, and it nearly put me off the book altogether. But as often happens in such situations, there were sufficiently compelling reasons to read on, and so I did.

Pamela Werner in her school uniform, 1936

Studio portrait of Pamela Werner, also taken in 1936

At the age of 19, Pamela Werner was still in school, yet at the same time she was on the brink of womanhood.  A fluent speaker of Mandarin, she came and went from various venues in the city on her bicycle.  She loved to go ice skating with her friends; in fact, this was the activity she was engaged in on the last night of her life. On that  cold, dark evening, as Pamela prepared to cycle back home, one of those friends asked if she was scared to be making the trip all by herself. She responded:

‘I’ve been alone all my life….I am afraid of nothing–nothing! And besides, Peking is the safest city in the world.’

That last statement of course proved to be tragically wrong – at least it was, for Pamela Werner. But what of the first comment, about being alone all her life? At the time of her death, Pamela was just shy of twenty years of age. Her father was in his early seventies. Since the age of three, she’d had no mother.

My initial impression of E.T.C. Werner was that of a fusty old scholar only minimally concerned in the life of his sole offspring. And indeed, he may have enacted that part from time to time. But as Midnight in Peking ultimately reveals, there was a whole other side to the man.  In  the course of the investigation into Pamela’s murder, the seamy underbelly of expatriate life in the Chinese city had been exposed to considerably scrutiny. As a result, several possible suspects were identified,  but there was never sufficient evidence to tie any of  them definitively to the crime. Then, as the tides of history engulfed China, the murder of the young Englishwoman was relegated to the status of one of history’s footnotes. The case went cold. Everyone concerned seemed to give up on it, to be ready to forget about it. Everyone, that is, except her father,  E.T.C. Werner.

ETC Werner at age 60

The Guardian review of Midnight in Peking calls French’s account of the investigation ‘spellbinding.’ I agree completely.  The whole book was spellbinding. Once I started it – and overcame my initial revulsion at  the description of the crime scene – I could scarcely put it down.

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In this video, author Paul French, a resident of Shanghai, talks about how he came to write Midnight in Peking. He also points out some of the locations crucial to the narrative. You may feel that he’s telling you too much, but believe me, he’s only scratching the surface.

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Click here for the full text of Myths & Legends of China, written by E.T.C. Werner and originally published in 1922.

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Ave Atque Vale, James A.Garfield

November 16, 2011 at 2:01 am (Book review, books, History)

  Alas, the time has come for me to return Destiny of the Republic to the library. Fifty-six eager readers await their copies! (Happiness it is, to dwell among fellow book lovers.) An earlier post only hinted at the riches contained in its pages.

My copy of this superb biography is  festooned with post-it flags. They must now be removed. The only remedy is to read it again. This I plan to do, whether via hard copy as I’ve just done, recorded book – or on my soon-to-arrive Kindle Fire. (O brave new world, that has such devices in it!)

I would like to bid farewell to this man – this noble, courageous, compassionate man – by sharing with you Candice Millard’s description of his inauguration, which took place on March 4, 1881:

At precisely noon, a pair of massive bronze doors opened onto the eastern portico of the Capitol, and the presidential party, which had disappeared inside an hour earlier, could be seen filing out. Although nearly a dozen people stepped onto the portico, all eyes were on only three: Frederick Douglass, who led the procession; the president-elect; and his mother, Eliza. It was an extraordinary scene, a testimony to the triumph of intelligence and industry over prejudice and poverty, and it was not lost on those who witnessed it. “James A. Garfield sprung from the people, a reporter marveled. “James A. Garfield, who had known all the hardship of abject poverty, in the presence of a mother who had worked with her own hands to keep him from want – was about to assume the highest civil office this world knows. As the party so stood for a moment, cheer after cheer, loud huzzas which could not be controlled or checked, echoed and reechoed about the Capitol.”

James A. Garfield: November 19, 1831 - September 19, 1881

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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard

October 28, 2011 at 1:57 am (Book review, books, History)

  James A. Garfield, twentieth president of the United States, was inaugurated on March 4, 1881. On July 2 of that same year, while preparing to board a train in Washington DC, he was shot twice by a man who had been stalking him for weeks. That man, Charles J. Guiteau, suffered from paranoid delusions and other symptoms of severe mental illness. He had no difficulty positioning himself directly behind the president so as to carry out his plan.

Those are the bare facts. But there is more to this story – much more….

Candice Millard has given us a riveting narrative of post Civil War America. But what I am most grateful to her for is the depiction of Garfield himself.  Here was a man who wanted only to be able to farm his acreage in his beloved native Ohio, and to dwell there in pleasant amity with his wife Lucretia and their five children. Instead, his fellow Republicans, recognizing his sterling qualities, drafted him into politics, ultimately nominating him to run for president. It was not what he wanted:

‘This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the Presidential fever; not even for a day.’

Nevertheless he was called upon to serve, and he did. His reward was to be shot by maniac and to endure two month of excruciating pain and misery before finally succumbing to septicemia and a host of other ailments brought on by the shooting and subsequent ill-advised medical treatments. The date of his death was September  19, 1881. He had been in office a little more than six months.

This is a rich feast of a book. I want to write more about it in a later post. Just now, though, I want to sing the praises of Destiny of the Republic, and to recommend it as warmly as I possibly can. There were times when this was not an easy book to read. The story of Garfield’s ordeal at the hands of the medical men – Dr. D. Willard Bliss in particular,  whose arrogance was largely responsible for his prolonged agony, was appalling. In an interview with Diane Rehm, Candice Millard says she had difficulty writing about his suffering because she had come to care so much about him. I had difficulty reading those passages for the same reason.

Candice Millard

Garfield was a thoroughly admirable human being, a devoted family man, a dedicated public servant, a man of deep learning and deeper compassion.

Modest to a fault, James Garfield  would have shunned the comparison, but when I finished this book, what came to my mind were the words spoken about Brutus by Marc Antony at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

His life was gentle; and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, This was a man!

James A. Garfield, official White House portrait

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I’ve been talking about this book compulsively for weeks, to anyone who would listen. I’ve been surprised at the number of people who have looked at me with bemused expressions, as if to say, You’re reading a book about James A. Garfield? Why, pray tell? I do hope I’ve answered that question.

I also can’t resist adding cheerfully that my husband has, of late, been reading a book about tomatoes: 

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Stokesay Castle in Shropshire: “…quite simply the finest and best preserved fortified medieval manor house in England.”

June 7, 2011 at 12:44 pm (Anglophilia, History, To Britain and back 2011, Travel)

By the end of the thirteenth century a wool merchant named Laurence of Ludlow had become one of England’s richest men. In the way of the wealthy throughout history, he wished for a material representation that would stand as a  signal to the world of his new found prosperity. This was the result of that quest:

Stokesay Castle, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I could wax philosophical about the passage of time, the persistence of memory, ghosts in ruined castles and abbeys, but others have already done so with far more eloquence than I could ever summon. Instead, I offer our pictures as mute testimony to all of the above:

The north tower

Inreicate carving on the overmantel in the solar

The South Tower

The majestic Hall. Writing in the English Heritage Guidebook, Henry Summerson tells us that "The three great wooden arches over the hall are a rare survival for this period." (The third arch is just out of range of the camera.) Built in 1291, it stands essentially unaltered since that time.

The picturesque gatehouse, added on in 1640-41

Look out beyond the few outbuildings: the countryside, green and undulating, stretches out, seemingly without end.

              If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot

************************************************

Click here for more on the history of Stokesay Castle, and here for more visuals.

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Post the Fifth; in which we travel to Shrewsbury in search of Brother Cadfael and have coffee with Edward Marston

June 4, 2011 at 1:13 am (Anglophilia, books, History, Mystery fiction, Spiritual, To Britain and back 2011)

Ellis Peters with her manager and her Dutch translator Peter Jones, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

Ellis Peters, real name Edith Mary Pargeter, was born in 1913 in Shropshire. An autodidact, she never attended university but manged to produce an impressive  body of historical fiction. She’s probably best known for the Brother Cadfael mysteries. These are set in Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire. Peters envisioned Shrewsbury Abbey as the monastic dwelling of her protagonist, a monk, a healer, and a skillful problem solver, the problem being as often as not  whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom.

Here is Cadfael, memorably played by Sir Derek Jacobi:

The journey from Ross to Shewsbury was a fairly long one, so Pam, our Blue Badge Guide, had plenty of time to fill us in on the history and legend of the region. My notes on her fascinating disquisition are alas, extremely scatter shot. The bus ride was somewhat rough, and one was continually distracted by the incredible beauty of the countryside. (Well, darn it anyway!) One notation informs that the Welsh flag is Europe’s oldest:  . Now let’s see what else… “Celtic Welsh were great guerrilla fighters. They wore only ONE SHOE! I was actually able to verify this bizarre fact, courtesy of a site called Castles of Wales. In a section called Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare, Jeffrey L. Thomas informs us that “Several manuscripts depict Welsh warriors as having only one shoe and their other foot bare – this probably allowed them to keep a balance on hilly or rough terrain.”

When reading the Brother Cadfael novels, one hears a great deal about King Stephen and Empress Maude (unhelpfully also known as Matilda). Pam gave us a quick rundown of the history of the British monarchy, starting with the Conqueror. It is a tale of fiendish complexity; I won’t even attempt to recount it here. (This site explains the cause of the conflict between Stephen and Maude, and its eventual outcome.)

We learned much about place names: the suffix “-caster” or -chester” denotes a Roman settlement. “Stretton” – as in Church Stretton – indicates a Roman road. There’s more, but it is of a fragmentary nature in my notes. So, let’s proceed to the main attraction on this segment of our journey:

This image graces the cover of the guide book.

The Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury was established in 1087 by Roger de Montgomery, newly named as Earl of Shrewsbury. The Abbey flourished up until the Dissolution, after which time it was allowed to fall into disrepair. A full restoration was begun in 1885; the work continues to the present day. Click here for more on the history of the Abbey.

Our guide informed us that the Abbey chooses not to emphasize its association with Brother Cadfael. No specific reason was given for this rather odd seeming policy. There is a Brother Cadfael window – or rather, a section of a window – with the initials E.P. barely discernible therein:  

The Shrewsbury Visitor Information Centre does provide a booklet entitled “In the Steps of Brother Cadfael.” These steps can quite literally be found embedded in the cobbled  streets of the town:

Here are more photos we took of the church’s interior:

In 1137, the remains of Saint Winefride were conveyed from her burial place in Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey. There, they were interred in the west end of the Abbey Church. The Guild of St. Winefride was established in 1487. In 1540, in the time of the Dissolution, the shrine was destroyed and the guild disbanded. In 1987, after a lapse of nearly five centuries, the Guild was restored. Among its other tasks, members are pledged to prayer and to assist in the maintenance and beautification of the Abbey.

Here is the St. Winefride Window:

Ellis Peters took the known facts about the Saint’s removal from Wales by the monks of Shrewsbury and fashioned a cunning mystery entitled A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first entry in the Cadfael series. 

During our visit to the Abbey, greatly to our delight, the organ was being played:

After this intensely pleasurable experience, we proceeded to the Prince Rupert Hotel to have coffee with Edward Marston.

Marston is the prolific author of several historical crime fiction series. Most relevant to our tour was the Domesday series, set in eleventh century Britain and featuring Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret. The title especially germane to our tour was The Dragons of Archenfield. Although the novel is short, I found the plot convoluted and somewhat hard to follow. Marston is a mesmerizing speaker; he put the conflicts of  the era in an understandable context. I would now like to revisit the novels in this series.

  The novel opens with a  memorable sequence  of events in which the image of the red dragon of Wales, pictured on the flag above and on this book cover, is brought to vivid, if terrifying, life.

Edward Marston spoke eloquently of Ellis Peters, with whom he had been acquainted. Her research, he averred, was flawless, to the extent that her books are now used in academic settings where medieval monastic life in England is being studied. Marston alluded with respect and affection to Peters’s “slightly Victorian prose style,” an attribute of her novels that many of us consider a major attraction.

(In 2006, we had the pleasure of meeting Edward Marston in London, at the conclusion of our Smithsonian tour. )

Ellis Peters also wrote detective fiction set in the Shropshire of her own time, featuring Inspector Felse and his enormously appealing son Dominic. I particularly recommend The Piper on the Mountain.

(In 1997, Marston published Murder in Perspective under his real name, Keith Miles. The protagonist is a Welsh architect, Merlin Richards, newly arrived in the U.S. in the 1920’s. The plot centers on Frank Lloyd Wright and a controversy concerning the building of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. The novel was based on actual events; I found it illuminating and enjoyable.)

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