Archive for the Independence Day Category

Happy Fourth from Jolly Ema

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Fat Women and Men, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Independence Day, Women with tags , , , , on July 4, 2016 by travsd


I could learn nothing about Jolly Ema beyond what it tells on this postcard, and the weight they give (if it does indeed say 620 lbs) is probably a matter of creative interpretation. But this I do know: she was clearly patriotic, and probably filled her paper plate with copious second and third helpings of BBQ at the sideshow picnic (yes, I know they didn’t have paper plates back then, just surf with me). At any rate — a relic from a time when Americans of this girth were people we bought tickets to see as curiosities, and weren’t roaming the shopping malls in huge numbers. In fact, think of Jolly Ema as you celebrate today. Or do as I will — and try to forget her.

In Which I am Related to Half the Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Posted in AMERICANA, Independence Day, ME, My Family History with tags , , , , on July 4, 2016 by travsd

1832.3, 69

Happy Fourth of July! Once again we share the famous Trumbull painting to commemorate the signing of the document that made America’s political separation from Great Britain official. As promised in our earlier post, we revisit the topic to discuss our personal connections to the guys who made the document. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, I am related to 28, or half (undoubtedly more, but these are the connections I know of to date).

Of the Committee of Five, the sub-committee charged with drafting the document, I am related to four members. I am beyond proud to be quite closely related to John Adams, the primary agitator for independence in the Second Continental Congress; the last Adams in my family tree died in 1884 (go here for more on Adams, the President I am most closely related to). And I am nearly as closely related to Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, the only man to sign all four founding documents: the Continental Association, the Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution). My great-great grandmother Louisa Sherman died in 1892; this family was among the founders of Rhode Island. I am also related to New York’s Robert Livingston (who later negotiated the Louisiana Purchase as Minister to France) a bit farther back in Scotland, through an ungodly dense tangle of Livingstons, Flemings, Stewarts (both spellings), Rosses, Hamiltons and Moncrieffs. As we wrote here, I am also related to the Declaration’s drafter Thomas Jefferson through a slender thread of a handful of medieval ancestors. Sadly, I have yet to find a connection to Benjamin Franklin, the Committee’s fifth member.

As a general proposition, I am related to nearly all of the New England delegates (through my mother’s side of the family), and a great many of the Southern delegates (through my father’s side of the family), and far fewer of the mid-Atlantic members (those also through my father’s side).

The Massachusetts delegation is a near total sweep. I am related to the Convention’s President, John Hancock through a 10th great grandmother, Jane Hancock. As well as the above mentioned Adams, his cousin Sam Adams, and Robert Treat Paine. I am also related to Nathaniel Gorham, who was a delegate, but didn’t sign, although he later signed the Constitution. The only Massachusetts member I haven’t found a connection to is Elbridge Gerry, which is disappointing.

Not surprisingly given my background, I am related to the entire delegation from Rhode Island. You may remember Stephen Hopkins as comic relief in the musical 1776 (he’s the alcoholic Quaker). The Hopkins family were among the founders of the state and I have many connections to them. My connection to William Ellery is slightly further back in England. From Connecticut, I am related to the aforementioned Sherman and William Williams, but not the other two members. From New Hampshire, I have a medieval connection to General William Whipple; none to the other two members.

On the southern side, I am related to almost the entire Virginia delegation excepting only George Wythe: this includes the aforementioned Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison (progenitor of presidents), Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton and Thomas Nelson. I am related to two of Georgia’s three delegates, George Walton and Lyman Hall. (Interestingly, my connection to the latter, through the Lyman family, is on my New England side). I am also related to one of North Carolina’s two delegates John Penn, and one of South Carolina’s four delates (Thomas Lynch). (No connection thus far to the well known South Carolinian Edward Rutledge.)

Of the mid-Atlantic states, most of my connections are in New York: the aforementioned Robert Livingston (who didn’t sign but was prominent at the convention), his cousin Philip LivingstonLewis Morris, and William Floyd, leaving only Francis Lewis without a discovered connection. I am related to half the Maryland delegation: Thomas Stone (through our mutual ancestor William Stone) and Charles Carroll. Of Delaware, I am related to Caesar Rodney, but not the other two delegates. So far I have found connections to only two of Pennyslvania’s nine delegates, George Ross and George Taylor, leaving out the distinguished Franklin, James Wilson, Benjamin Rush and Robert Morris, among others. And thus far, none of the New Jersey delegates.

In the immediate wake of the Declaration’s international circulation it was widely influential worldwide through the various Revolutions of 1848, though its constant emphasis on human rights were rarely put into practice, and only imperfectly realized even in the United States. The full potential of its inspiring words first began to be articulated later, as in the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls in 1848, and by Abraham Lincoln in the years before and during the Civil War. Equality and human rights for all! The Declaration of Independence is a hugely important benchmark in a continuing process, and I’m massively proud to be related to individuals who took part in its creation. But we have miles to go before we sleep, Americans!

For a couple of related posts, see “My Revolutionary Relatives” (ancestors and relations who fought in the Revolutionary War) and “The Revolutionary Battle That Happened on My Street”. And what the hey, this one on Magna Carta. 




Tomorrow on TCM: A New Old Patriotic Classic by a Foreigner

Posted in HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Independence Day, MEDIA, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2016 by travsd


Tomorrow on TCM at 1:30pm (EST), a screening of the 1959 film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple. I’ve seen this movie a couple of times now (after having read the play in my youth) and for me it is becoming something like a patriotic classic, a 4th of July equivalent to a Christmas film.

There are a surprisingly few popular films on the topic of the American Revolution. One theory as to why that is, is that through the bulk of the 20th century, we were extremely close allies of Great Britain. The two World Wars and the Cold War would have been extremely undiplomatic times to make screen villains out of the British. Our best Independence Day film 1776 is about the struggle to write the Declaration of Independence — there are no onscreen English villains. Mel Gibson’s and Roland Emmerich’s 2000 The Patriot overdoes it — the villains are as bad or worse than Nazis. I find it unwatchably brutal and unrealistic.  D.W. Griffith’s America (1924) is a good one (note that it came out in that pocket between the World Wars) but it is silent, and sad to say, the audience for such films remains small in 2016. Disney’s Johnny Tremain (1943) is a good one. But you get the point — it’s slim pickings.


Shaw’s 1897 play (his first financial success) is in some ways perfect, in some ways not. Though it’s produced by Burt Lancaster’s production company as a starring vehicle for himself (and co-stars Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier), the real star of the movie (as it is in most Shaw scripts) is Shaw himself. Douglas (as the dashing and heroic titular ne’er-do-well), and Lancaster (as the reverend who too takes up arms against the British) somehow get oddly swallowed up in their own movie. They are doing their usual great jobs in every single way…but somehow, I can’t explain it, they aren’t “there”. The script is not written for them, they are serving the script, a highly unusual spectacle where two such major stars are concerned, and one that reflects positively on them. They’re not there to serve their egos but to serve the script.

Olivier, as General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne comes off best, though his role is smaller, it may be one of his best screen performances. The character is Shaw’s usual stand-in, a droll and wise mouthpiece, and it is through his eyes — in true Shavian perversity — we ironically hear the most patriotic American sentiments expressed. You might call it “Sympathy for the Redcoat”. In fact, it’s so warm and fuzzy that all the publicity photos make it look like the men are all fighting on the same side!

Burt, Kirk, and Larry

The Irish-British Shaw has devised his two American heroes with a true romantic understanding of our national character: Douglas is the hero as rogue and pirate, a true American type (I always think of Bogart in Casablanca, a cynic who claims to care only about making money by selling drinks, who always does the right thing when push comes to shove). And Lancaster — the religious zealot who also steps out of character to join the cause. And both characters risk everything in order to do so. It’s made me weepy both times I’ve seen it.

One other reason to see it — theatre legend Eva La Gallienne is in the cast, as the hilariously named “Mrs. Dudgeon.”

Why isn’t this picture better known? I can’t say, although the title The Devil’s Disciple isn’t the best in terms of marketing this as a story about American patriotism. It’ll of course mean something to Shaw fans but to everyone else I’m sure it sounds like a horror picture. It ain’t.

John Trumbull: Declaration of Independence

Posted in AMERICANA, Independence Day, ME, My Family History, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , on June 6, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the great American heroic painter John Trumbull (1756-1843). I am distantly related to this artist; we both count the Pilgrims John and Priscilla Alden among our ancestors. Trumbull was from Lebanon, Connecticut, not far from where I grew up.

That Trumbull should come to be one of the premier memorializers of the American Revolution is not surprising, given that he and his family played crucial roles in the events. His father Jonathan, Sr. was Governor of Connecticut and a major supporter of Washington. His brother, Jonathan Jr. would also be Governor, and was a secretary to Washington. His other brother Joseph was a delegate to the Continental Congress and served as a major in the Continental Army. A nephew, also named Joseph (son of Jonathan, Jr.) was also Governor of the state.

John Trumbull himself was an officer in the Continental Army and an aide to General Washington. But after a dispute about his rank he resigned in 1780, and — this blows my mind — went to study painting with Benjamin West in London! This was still the height of the Revolutionary War. That such a thing would be possible is quite an eye opener. But, if you think of it, Great Britain did not recognize America’s Declaration of Independence as legitimate. From their point of view, citizens of the colonies were still British subjects, and so such things would be permitted. From our point of view, it seems borderline traitorous…but it seems to me Trumbull redeemed himself with his art many times over. And, at any rate, the British jailed him in the wake of John Andre’s hanging anyway.

After the war, Trumbull returned to study with West, and then went to Paris, where Thomas Jefferson was minister. It was there that he began The Declaration of Independence, which depicts the presentation of the draft of the Declaration by the Committee of Five to the the rest of the Continental Congress . Later, on commission from Congress, he finished the painting. Many of the figures in the portrait were men he already knew and had painted; he researched the others, and spent time in Independence Hall for the architectural elements. (Those whose likenesses Trumbull could not obtain, he left out).. The painting, along with several others by Trumbull depicting events of the Revolution, were hung in the U.S. Capitol, where they remain to this day. It was also used as the image on the back of the short-lived two dollar bill.

Not to trivialize it, by the painting strikes me as the Revolutionary equivalent of the Sgt. Pepper cover — it’s fun to I.D. all the players. As it happens, I am related to many of them as well, and that will be the subject of another post in, oh, just about a month.

The Battle of Brooklyn Redux

Posted in AMERICANA, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Independence Day, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd

As we’ve blogged about previously, many of my ancestors fought in the American Revolution and one of the major battles was fought right in my neighborhood.  Making it virtually mandatory for me to attend yesterday’s memorial event for the Battle of Brooklyn at Green-wood Cemetery.

Herewith a little photo spread on what we saw:


Scotland's in the house!

            Scotland’s in the house!





                 The Parade Begins!



Friend Gyda Arber marches with a DAR contingent

Friend Gyda Arber marches with a DAR contingent


The Revolutionary War Battle That Happened ON MY STREET

Posted in AMERICANA, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Independence Day, Travel/ Tourism with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2015 by travsd

Happy 4th of July!

Since I had a holiday from work yesterday, I thought I would do a little photo essay illustrating a little known fact…not just little known to Americans, but little known to the people who live here where it happened. That is, that some major battles of the American Revolution were fought in New York City. Much of that fighting took place in Brooklyn, and much of it took place in my own neighborhood!

New York tends to get lost in the shuffle. People know about Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and Yorktown. But New York slips through the cracks and my guess as to why is because we lost that battle. The tide of the war turned for the worse here after a bunch of initial victories in Massachusetts. Washington and his troops abandoned the city and left it in the hands of the British for the next seven years. So you can see how that tale doesn’t get emphasized in school (although I imagine New York City kids get it in their classwork. I hope they do! )

The Battle of Long Island was the first major battle of the war to take place after Independence was declared. It took place in late August, 1776


At any rate, I’m always encountering the monuments when I’m kicking around my neighborhood. So I thought I’d share them.


The action began in Gravesend, south Brooklyn, where the British debarked from their ships and began the march north. I photographed this marker at the Old Gravesend Cemetery, which is located behind a small factory near the F train’s elevated line, about a 20 minute ride from my house.

I live in the neighborhood of Park Slope, in the middle of a rise that begins at the Brooklyn waterfront and peaks in a series of hills (the two tallest points are Mount Prospect and Battle Hill). At the bottom of my street is a VFW Hall that is built on the site of the graves of 256 fallen men from a unit that became known as the Maryland 400.


Hard to read, but this is some more text memorializing the fallen Maryland soldiers.


Up the hill a couple of blocks, on 5th Avenue (still Brooklyn, not Manhattan) is the Old Stone House, where some more of the fighting took place.


The current Old Stone House is a replica of the original Dutch farmhouse that stood there. Note the colonial air conditioners.


Up the hill some more, in Prospect Park is another monument to the fallen 400 Marylanders, at the actual battle site. I am heartened to find that though the memorial needs some restoration, there are often flowers and flags around its base left there by caring volunteers.




Elsewhere in the park, north of the Prospect Park Zoo is the site of the pass where a lot of the fighting took place, the continentals defending from the high ground, as the British tried to break through. Here is a monument at the Site of the Dongan Oak. The test reads:

“At the Battle of Long Island, on the hill to the north of this spot, the Americans had a redoubt with two guns, to guard the old Valley Grove Road, called by the early settlers the “Porte”, meaning gate-way through the hills, and which ran in front of this monument. By that road stood a white-oak, mentioned in the patent of Governor Dongan, November 12, 1685, as a marker between Flatbush and Brooklyn. This tree was cut down and thrown across the road. With the dense woods on the south and swamps on the north, it made an important obstruction.

Americans, commanded by General Sullivan, valiantly defended this position against the Hessian General De Heister, until attacked from the rear by British troops, under General Clinton, then they retired in good order, bringing off their artillery.”


More Battle Pass markers:



Also close by my house (about a 15 minute walk) is historic Green-Wood Cemetery where much of the fighting also took place (as the British were approaching from the south — this fighting actually took place before the events depicted above). The land there was not yet a cemetery in 1776. Green-wood often has Revolutionary War re-enactments on the anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn. If they do this year, we’ll let you know!


The statue of Minerva on the Battle Hill Monument faces west, towards New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty, plainly visible from the site.


This plaque on the Trader Joe’s on the corner of Court Street and Atlantic Ave, close to where I work, commemorates the location of the Red Lion Tavern, where Washington made his headquarters and saw the defeat go down:


Next up:  I happen to work right near Ft. Greene Park, and often during my lunch break I’ll go there and scale Ft. Greene Hill, another of Brooklyn’s highest points. Most people don’t know this, but the neighborhood of Ft. Greene was named after an actual Revolutionary War fort that was on top of this hill (with its excellent view of Manhattan), and the fort was named after Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene, a name I’ve known since childhood, since he is from my home state of Rhode Island. I am distantly related to Greene through our common ancestor John Anthony.

At the top of the hill nowadays is the Monument to the Prison Ship Martyrs. During the Revolutionary War , 11,500 American POWS died on British prison ships, 16 vessels moored in New York harbor whose only purpose was to confine American prisoners. It’s not cheerful but then it’s not irrelevant today either. They died for your Independence!


Lastly, if you keep going downhill towards New York harbor, through the area called DUMBO, you eventually hit this spot, roughly across from what is now South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan. It’s called Fulton Landing. It’s where Washington’s troops were secreted onto a bunch of fishing vessels from Salem and Marblehead, and evacuated out of the city to fight another day…for seven more long years. The spot is marked today with these signs:


Tonight on TCM: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Posted in Broadway, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Independence Day, Irish, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on July 4, 2015 by travsd


Today at 8:00 pm (EST) on Turner Classic Movies: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) 

A strong contender for best Hollywood show biz bio-pic all around. James Cagney tears it up as his hero George M. Cohan, so right in so many ways. Cagney tap danced in vaudeville; this film is the best showcase he ever had in Hollywood for displaying those skills. He even masters some of Cohan’s signature moves. Cagney’s famously simple acting style was inherited from Cohan. And it is one Irish-American’s tribute to his Irish-American forebear. Equally touching (and accurate) is Walter Huston’s portrayal of Cohan’s legendary dad Jerry, a gentle and generous pushover. Released just as America was entering World War Two, it struck the right note of patriotism at just the right time. And, amazingly, it cleaves very closely to the true story of Cohan’s life. (The biggest difference being the replacement of Cohan’s real first wife Ethel Levey, with the fictional “Mary”, whom here becomes the inspiration for the Cohan song by the same name.) Eddie Foy Jr. plays his dad again, and for some additional stunt casting Jeanne Cagney (Jimmy’s sister) plays Josie Cohan, George M.’s sister. Irene Manning plays Fay Templeton; singer Frances Langford is Nora Bayes. 

Read more about George M. Cohan and the Four Cohans here.

For more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


%d bloggers like this: