An Afternoon at a Coal Miners’ Cemetery

Did you know there was coal mining in California? I didn’t learn that until recently. This, despite the fact that the Mount Diablo Coalfield, the largest in California, was in Contra Costa, the very county where I was born. From 1850 to 1906, mines in the Mount Diablo Coalfield, many under the operation of the Black Diamond Coal Mining Company, produced 4 million tons of (low grade) coal, the primary source of coal and energy in California over that period. The region was home to five mining towns, the largest and oldest called Nortonville.

In 1885, the Black Diamond company shut down its mines in the region and moved its miners to Black Diamond, Washington, where the mines produced better coal. They dismantled the railways and the towns completely, leaving nothing but some brick foundations in Nortonville, some great piles of dirt where the openings of the mines had been, and the cemetery, now known as Rose Hill Cemetery, which overlooked the town of Somersville.

Here’s Somersville in 1878. You can see the cemetery up on the hill to the right, and the great mounds that mark the openings of the mines.

 

Here’s that region today.

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A view of Rose Hill Cemetery from afar. (Click to enlarge)

 

You can’t see it in this photo, but the mounds over the mine openings remain. Nothing grows on them. The region is now part of the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, just outside the city of Antioch.

We visited the park on a cool, overcast March Sunday. Early spring is the best time to visit that area; there are hills that block the ocean breezes from that part of the county, and in the summer it can be twenty degrees warmer — or more — than it is in San Francisco, only an hour away. It can also be very dry and brown. I was a bit worried, since we haven’t had any rain, but the hills were green and blooming with wildflowers.

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(Click to enlarge)

 

By the time we visited the cemetery, in the early afternoon, the clouds were burning off and the sky was turning blue. Continue reading

Turtles, Pregnant Airplanes, and Iron Fish: Remembering the Native American Code Talkers

Chester Nez, the last of the original WWII Navajo code talkers, just passed away.

Here’s an interview with him, from 2013:

Code talkers, for those not familiar with them, are speakers of rare or obscure languages who are used to transmit sensitive information over possibly unsecured communication lines. The combination of an obscure language and a (usually simple) code are enough to keep the messages secure. The most famous code talkers are the Navajo code talkers of WWII, but there have been code talkers in other Native American languages, as well as in Basque and Welsh.

I got curious about code talkers about a month ago, thanks to Eagle-Eyed Editor’s post on Mr. Nez’s memoir (co-authored by Judith Avila), Code Talker. As I poked around the internet after reading EEE’s post, I found the interview above, and (somewhere) a casual mention of code talking using other Native American languages. I made a note to myself to look that up, someday.

And that day was the day before yesterday, the day before Mr. Nez passed away. One of life’s odd juxtapositions….

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Mana Márgara

This is based on a story told by New Mexico storyteller Paulette Atencio, in the bilingual collection Cuentos From My Childhood: Legends and Folktales of Northern New Mexico. The story of dueling sorcerers reminds me of anecdotes I’ve read about Cebuano sorcery (both benign and malign) in Richard Lieban’s book Cebuano Sorcery, and in other sources as well.


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In the village of El Nido, in northern New Mexico, there lived a woman they called Mana Márgara. She was a lone, surly woman, and her face and body were covered with warts. She wore nothing but black, and people often saw her gathering herbs along remote paths, out in the hills beyond the village. The villagers suspected her of being a witch; they feared and avoided her.

In this same village lived Mano Lencho, with his wife Corina and their beautiful daughter Sonia. I don’t know why Mano Lencho and Mana Márgara disliked each other, but evidently they did. One day, Mana Márgara awoke to discover that her beloved cat was dead. She accused Mano Lencho of having killed her pet. Mano Lencho denied it, but wisely avoided Mana Márgara, and his family did the same.

The next day, Mana Márgara brought Mano Lencho and his family some fresh-baked bread. Mano Lencho didn’t trust Márgara, and fed the bread to his dog. The poor animal fell ill and died the next day. But when Lencho confronted Márgara, she denied the whole thing.

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PSA for The Public Domain Review

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I’ve mentioned them a few times on the blog, and I’ve linked to some of their articles; The Public Domain Review is a fascinating site that showcases a variety of jewels from the treasury of public domain media. If you haven’t checked them out yet, you ought to.

The current front page features an article commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Kinder-und Hausmärchen by the Brothers Grimm. The early 1812/1815 edition features some racier versions of the tales that are quite different from the more genteel versions in the better known 1857 edition. I’d been planning to write about this, and I still may, but now you can read the article yourself, if I don’t get around to it.

You can sign up for their mailing list to get a regular digest of new articles; if you are interested, you can subscribe here. It sounds like they have some interesting stuff planned for 2013. It’s a shame that those of us in the U.S. won’t get to see some of it.

We are really excited about the year to come. We’ve already got a host of fantastic articles lined up on a huge range of topics such as the Victorian obsession with premature burial, the racier dreams of Emmanuel Swedenborg, the Wizard of Oz, and an 18th century medical hoax.

For those countries abiding by the “life plus 70 years” copyright term there is a great new batch of people to welcome to the public domain fold, including Robert Musil, Stefan Zweig, Franz Boas, and Grant Wood.[1] If you haven’t seen it already please do visit our “Class of 2013” post where we give a rundown of our top pick of this year’s new ‘graduates’.

http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/12/11/class-of-2013/


[1] For those in the U.S., due to different copyright laws, sadly there have been no new entrants to the public domain this year. To read more about the situation in the U.S. here is a great article by the Duke Centre for the Study of the Public Domain: http://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday.

Give them a peek!

A Jury of Her Peers

October’s theme at the Short Story Initiative: Crime and Suspense. My first story of the month: Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of her Peers” (1917).

Lasea rd barn 1327883052KJU Photo: James Hawkins

A passing neighbor finds Minnie Wright sitting alone at the kitchen of her farmhouse on a cold March morning. Mrs. Wright tells her neighbor, Mr. Hale, that her husband is upstairs in the bedroom — dead. He had been strangled in his sleep by a rope around his neck. Mrs. Wright claims not to know how it happened.

Naturally, Mr. Hale calls the authorities, and Mrs. Wright is brought into town, to stay at the home of Sheriff Peters. The next morning, the district attorney asks Mr. Hale to come back to the farmhouse to testify to what happened. Sheriff Peters has brought his wife to gather some clothes and sundries for Mrs. Wright. Mrs. Peters asks the neighbor’s wife, Mrs. Hale, to come along and keep her company.

Visiting the Wright farm proves difficult for Mrs. Hale, because she had hardly ever visited before. The Wright farm is remote, lonely, shadowed. And Mr. Wright, though “a good man”: morally upright and apparently a model citizen, was also cold and remote. “Like a raw wind that gets to the bone,” Mrs. Hale describes him. How lonely it must have been, Mrs. Hale thinks, for the former Minnie Foster, a winsome, pretty town girl who liked to sing and wear pretty clothes. If only Mrs. Hale had thought to come visit, offer comfort and companionship to Minnie….

The men are intent on their important investigation; they are dismissive and patronizing to the women and their concerns. One of the things Mrs. Wright asked the sheriff’s wife to check on was whether or not Mrs. Wright’s preserves survived the evening cold snap. Who would be worried about preserves, while being held for murder? But women, the men decide, are always worrying about trifles. Obviously the men never read Conan Doyle, because it’s the little things that make a case. The women, on the other hand, prove to be excellent detectives. They piece together what must have happened, and they take it upon themselves to be Minnie’s judges and jury.

It’s sobering to think of a time when a woman’s quality of life depended entirely on the whims of her husband. Abuse was no excuse; to prove Mr. Wright’s cruelty towards his wife would be to guarantee her murder conviction. “A Jury of Her Peers” is based on the Hossack murder case of 1900. John Hossack, an Iowa farmer was found murdered in his bed; he’d had his brains beaten out by an axe. His wife, Margaret Hossack, had been sleeping in the same bed. She claimed to have heard nothing. Five of her nine children (also sleeping in the same house) stood by her story.

Susan Glaspell covered the case, and Margaret Hossack’s murder trial, as a 24-year-old reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. You can read her coverage here. The case clearly stuck with her; she later wrote a play called Trifles based on the case, and “A Jury of Her Peers” is based on that play.

You can find “A Jury of Her Peers” here. And do also enjoy this excellent 1961 television adaptation of the story, from Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Recommended.


This review is part of the The Short Story Initiative ongoing reading project, and the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P) VII reading event.

Vampires in Rhode Island: The Shunned House

The October issue of Smithsonian magazine has an interesting article on the nineteenth century vampire scares of New England. These scares tended to happen in remote, rural, agricultural regions in or near southern Rhode Island, beginning in the late 1700s and going on as recently as 1892. Much as in Eastern European vampire scares, a recently deceased person would be blamed for the further illnesses of people in the region, and the body would be exhumed to check for evidence of vampirism.

Once a vampire was “discovered,” the New Englander’s way of dealing with it was a bit different from the usual holy water and staking that we are used to from the movies. Instead, the heart would be removed from the exhumed body and burned. Some communities believed that inhaling the smoke from the burning heart was a cure for the still-living victims of the vampire’s life-sucking. Others believed that feeding the ashes from the burning heart to the vampire’s victims would cure them. Often, the “vampire” would also be beheaded.

The real vampire? Tuberculosis. TB is a wasting, draining, disease, characterized by fever and a hacking cough; the victims visibly become paler and more emaciated as the disease progresses. It’s also very contagious. Early outbreaks of TB hit New England in the 1730s and became the leading cause of death in New England by the 1800s. Not surprisingly, vampire scares coincided with TB outbreaks.

The last, and one of the most famous, New England vampire cases was that of Mercy Lena Brown, of Exeter, Rhode Island. Mercy’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1883, followed soon after by the Browns’ oldest daughter. Mercy’s brother Edwin got sick in 1890, and left for Colorado Springs, hoping that the change in climate would improve his health. Lena didn’t get sick until 1891, and died in January of 1892, at the age of nineteen. By that time, her brother had returned to Exeter, extremely ill.

The people of Exeter believed that one of the Brown women must be a vampire who was feeding on the rest of the family (and from them, probably, on to the rest of the community). They forced Lena’s father, George Brown, to have the womens’ bodies exhumed. The evidence seems to be that George didn’t believe in the vampire theory (the bacterium that caused TB had already been discovered, in 1882), but he gave in to his neighbors. The bodies were exhumed. The bodies of Lena’s mother and sister were in advanced states of decomposition — they had been dead for almost a decade — but Lena’s body, which had only been buried for two months, still showed evidence of fresh blood in the heart. She must be the vampire!

The neighbors took out Lena’s heart and liver and burned them. They fed the ashes to Lena’s brother Edwin. It didn’t work; he died two months later.

A reporter from the Providence Journal was present at the exhumation. His story caused an outrage in the more urban parts of New England. It was picked up by an anthropologist named George Stetson, who eventually published his research in the American Anthropologist, and the story spread all the way to Europe.

NewImageIllustration from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House”
Image: Project Gutenberg

Some people believe that Mercy Lena was the inspiration for the character of Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which was published in 1897, the year after Stetson’s article). She is definitely referenced in H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Shunned House,” which he wrote in 1924. It was published posthumously in 1937, in the magazine Weird Tales.

Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill country, for that remote bit of backwoods was then, as now, a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions. As lately as 1892 an Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace…

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Witch Hunts: The Use (and Abuse) of Child Testimony

In a previous post, I talked about the anti-Catholic aspects of the Lancashire Witch Trials. Though I only said it indirectly, the post drew a parallel between the political/religious motivations of witch hunts, and the negative aspects of what Eric Hoffer called the True Believer — issues that still affect us today.

In this post, I’ll talk about the role that the testimony of children played in incriminating accused witches. Why did these children make such ludicrous accusations? And why did adults believe them? The accounts form a sobering account of how easily one can transfer one’s own beliefs to the impressionable. It’s a pattern that continues to manifest, even in modern times.

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Witchcraft at Salem Village, William A. Crafts (1876)
Image: Wikipedia

Much of the key evidence in the [Lancashire] trial of 1612 was given by two children, James and Jennet Device, aged about nine and twelve. Caught up in a terrifying web of charges and arrests they panicked, and their stories, designed to clear themselves, ended up in the deaths of most of their own family members, and indeed of James himself.

— Robert Poole, “The Lancashire Witches: 1612-2012”, Public Domain Review

James and Jennet were the younger siblings of Alizon Device, the first woman accused of witchcraft in this case. The Devices were a poor family living on the edge of the Pendle forest. Alizon’s grandmother was a local healer; apparently her rituals often used Catholic symbology. Given the prevailing anti-Catholic attitudes, this would likely be considered evidence of consorting with the devil. Naturally, the entire family fell suspect, and the investigators found the evidence they wanted in James and Jennet — primarily Jennet.

James Crossley, in his introduction to the 1845 reprint of James Pott’s 1613 The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, is not as charitable towards Jennet Device — “the little precocious prodigy of wickedness” — as Robert Poole is.

A more dangerous tool in the hands of an unscrupulous evidence-compeller, being at once intelligent, cunning and pliant, than the child proved herself, it would not have been easy to have discovered.

I’ll agree with the “unscrupulous evidence-compeller” part. Crossley directly accuses the investigators of instructing Jennet to testify that the wealthy and respectable Alice Nutter had been present at a “great meeting of witches.” Apparently, the magistrate, Robert Nowell, had some sort of property dispute with the widow Nutter — and the fact that she was probably Catholic didn’t help, either.

It’s hard to read Pott’s treatise, which is redundant, in addition to being couched in archaic language and spelling. Still, I do get the impression that Jennet was rewarded for saying what the investigators wanted to hear. They refer to her testimony as “the wonderful work of God,” and there is a scene where she is placed up on a table in the middle of the trial to testify against her mother and grandmother.

James Device (and another child, Grace Sowerbuts, age fourteen) tried to please the court, too. Unfortunately, James wasn’t as good at it as Jennet — or perhaps he was a little too good. Based on Jennet’s testimony (and his own confession), James was convicted of being a witch, and executed. The account mentions that at his own trial, James was so “insensible and weak” that he couldn’t speak or stand, and had to be held up during the proceedings. Perhaps it had finally dawned on the poor boy that he had been too effective a storyteller.

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The Lancashire Witch Trials: Part 1

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Mother Chattox, Alizon, and Dorothy.
From The Lancashire Witches, A Romance of Pendle Forest, by William Harrison Ainsworth (1854)

2012 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the Lancashire Witch trials, the biggest peacetime witch trial ever held in England. The Public Domain Review today features an article by Robert Poole about the trial. Like most witch trial accounts, the story is both fascinating and depressing — not because of the occult aspects, but because of the demonstration these trials provide of how credulous and hateful human beings can be.

Unfortunately, these accounts are still relevant cautionary tales to us, today.

Poole’s article covers the history of the trial quite well. I’m going to focus on two specific aspects of the case. In this post, I’ll talk about the anti-Catholic aspects of witch trials. In my next post, I’ll discuss the reliance on (and abuse of) child testimony.

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Popping It Back to the Top

It’s like in a movie — you aim for the “Save draft” button, and you hit the “Publish” button. 

“Noooooooooo…..”, you cry, but alas, it’s too late. 

Apologies to anyone who email subscribes to my blog for the last false alarm. But I’ve finished the post properly now: it’s retitled “Reinventing History”:

I have been trying to write a post about the Lousiana Manilamen, in particular, Lafcadio Hearn’s 1883 article on Saint Malo. It’s been going nowhere. But — while researching their history I came across a fascinating paper, the one quoted above. It tells the story of how the Grand Island population went from a long history of being markedly multiracial, to a conception of itself as entirely white. The narrative is drawn out from the memories of Grand Island natives with respect to the rumored existence of a indigent cemetery for African-Americans and Asians. One of the researchers has close ties to the island, having grown up there as a native.

Here’s the rest of the article.

Reinventing History

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Grand Isle, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana
Photo: John Messina, Wikipedia

Strangers visiting Grand Isle in the late 1960s would not have met any African Americans in permanent residence. For many years the United Parcel Service (UPS) deliveryman was the only African American anyone was likely to see there on a regular basis. But he lived “up the bayou,” as the islanders say, somewhere between Golden Meadow and Houma. Most week- days he drove southeast to Grand Isle – the dead end of Louisiana Highway 1, the only continuous piece of land on the 35-mile stretch of bayou, marsh, and prairie from Golden Meadow to the Gulf of Mexico. On rare occasions the UPS man could be seen waiting beside his truck on one of the island’s tree-lined lanes for some old islander, who did not want a black man even entering the yard, to saunter out for a package. Some of those old-timers perhaps descended – and not too distantly – from free people of color or slaves.

— From “He Didn’t Have No Cross”: Tombs and Graves as Racial Boundary Tactics on a Louisiana Barrier Island”, Keith M. Yanner and Steven J. Ybarrola, The Oral History Review (Summer – Autumn, 2003)

I have been trying to write a post about the Lousiana Manilamen, in particular, Lafcadio Hearn’s 1883 article on Saint Malo. It’s been going nowhere. But — while researching their history I came across a fascinating paper, the one quoted above. It tells the story of how the Grand Isle population went from a long history of being markedly multiracial, to a conception of itself as entirely white. The narrative is drawn out from the memories of Grand Isle natives with respect to the rumored existence of a indigent cemetery for African-Americans and Asians. One of the researchers has close ties to the island, having grown up there as a native.

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