Archive for the My Family History Category

Thoughts on the Selma Anniversary

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, My Family History, Protests with tags , , , on March 7, 2017 by travsd

Today is the anniversary of the attack by police thugs on protesters at the first march in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

The town of Selma was founded by my 6th great uncle. I am related by marriage to the man this bridge was named after, Edmund Pettus,a Confederate General and Grand Dragon in the KKK. Whereas I once suspected I had relatives among the red-faced, crew cutted monsters who beat and sicced dogs on peaceful men, women and children that day: now I know that I do. It feels exactly like those metaphysical chains Jacob Marley is forced to carry around in the afterlife. I’ve spent the last several months (among other things) ruminating about ways to start making work that chips away at this moral debt, in a way that makes sense for me. I’ll be emerging from hibernation over the next several months, with projects that I hope will do more to make the world a better place.  Like so many of my heroes (Voltaire, Charlie Chaplin), I hope to remain entertaining while I do it. But I’ve definitely lost all patience for people who just want to be left alone with their diversions and distractions when the world remains so out of wack. If it bores ya:

Of Folk and White Folk (Forward Back to Babylon)

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, CULTURE & POLITICS, My Family History with tags , , , , on February 24, 2017 by travsd

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I saw this bar graph on social media this morning and found it very telling. It explains a lot.  The chart shows Democrats and Republicans differing wildly in their perceptions of whether the Trump administration is “uniting” or “dividing” the nation. How can that be? They’re looking at the same phenomenon.

The answer, of course, is that the two factions don’t define the concepts the same way. One side acknowledges America’s diversity and asks whether the various components coexist in harmony and mutual respect. And that’s “unity”.  The other approach attempts to impose cultural uniformity by stifling dissent and punishing difference. And that’s their idea of “unity”. The liberal way attempts to achieve unity by rational agreement and consensus. The conservative way is to force compliance to an approved norm. One asks only, “Are you a person?” The other, “Are you a white, male, Christian heterosexual person of property?”

Theoretically, superficially, I am of the traditionally dominant culture. As we’ve blogged ad nauseam over the past couple of years, my American roots go back 400 years. Yet I find myself unutterably opposed to the Trumpian agenda. Not just for emotional reasons (so many of the people I love or have learned from don’t fit into the approved category), but for reasons of science and logic. I want the world to be a better place. You don’t create the conditions for that by limiting exposure to information, including the countless varieties and manifestations of human culture you get in a free and diverse society.

So the irony is, at the very time I’m discovering how “American” my pedigree is, I find myself far, far away from the contemporary American poster boy with similar roots. I’m about the roots themselves, and maintain that I remain truer to those roots than the millions of angry, red-faced people who go around waving flags and demanding conformity to their values. I am forever seeking out the old, the fecund and the folkish. I prefer that quality even over fealty to my own ethnic subculture. I have no use, for example, for most contemporary country music. I’m into TRADITIONAL music, rough hewn antique folk music, bluegrass, and country music from the golden age. I have no use for modern commercial rubbish, whether it comes from Nashville (a town founded by some of my ancestors) or the Bubble Gum Factory.  I likewise adore the stately old poetry of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; I have no liking for modern language translations which boil out all the interesting parts of speech, leaving only the bare information. And if you tell me I’m not a Christian, Fundamentalist, I’ll have to spit in your eye. Then I’ll wipe off the spit and apologize because, ya know, I’m a Christian. 

And the beauty of the love of the traditional is that its qualities of richness are shared in common across cultures, national boundaries and religious divides. In plenty of ways I feel more of a kinship with an old black man in South Carolina, or the Italian peasants who lived across the street from me when I was growing up, than I do with some guy who has my last name and looks just like me, but thinks it’s duty as an American to remain ignorant of anyone or any way else. 

In recent months I’ve felt like I was really beginning to understand the ideological underpinnings of the American folk movement of the mid-twentieth century for the first time, and WHY there was such an uproar and feelings of betrayal when Dylan went electric and “commercial”. I’ve always had misgivings about corporate control of popular culture, especially mainstream Hollywood films since the 1980s (for their violence, materialism, and encouragement of conformism). And also the video experience, which happens alone, dispassionately, less empathetically. The danger becomes more apparent when you see corporate forces so closely allied with government power as they now are. In the age of corporate media, the message is disseminated from the top down. It is controlled and it is designed to condition spectators to conform. Whereas folk culture: rich, ancient and organic, is intrinsically subversive to those aims. It works from the bottom up. It is presented from many perspectives, it sings with many voices. You get the truth from all sides, you get eternal truths. There is precious little support for folk culture in America that operates outside the corporate cookie-cutter. With the promised shut down of the National Endowment for the Arts, there will be even less support (and that is by design). Trump aims at a monolithic autocracy that talks with one voice, the voice of white Christians. But we also know that white males are only 31% of the population, and white male, heterosexual, conservative Christians is some number substantially smaller than that.

But this attempt to force the other two thirds of the country to bend to their will is like trying to tie up a lion in pretty pink ribbon. It might hold for a minute, but no more. Then the lion is going to burst its bonds — and it will be complaining loudly. I’ve been saying this more and more. It’s likely to be a miserable time for artists, but a good time for art. Nothing motivates people to shout loudly like being told to shut up.

Why Ronald Reagan Is Turning In His Grave

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, My Family History with tags , , , on February 6, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004). Reagan has to be one of the most polarizing figures in American history. People tend to either love him or hate him. Personally, as is typically the case when I weigh historical figures, I am a “neither/both”. I’ve written some about this polarizing leader in my all-the-Presidents post, and in this one about the movies of the 1980s. There are some particular reasons to talk about him at this political moment.

I used to say, diplomatically, to my children, “Overall, history will look kindly on Reagan.” This was phrased carefully so as not to imply that I approved of everything he did, but that on balance, the virtues would outweigh the negatives. Today, for reasons I’ll get to, I’m not so sure. That I would ever have ANYTHING positive to say about Reagan I imagine will hurt and outrage plenty of my friends. There are so many black marks against him. His refusal to lift a finger to combat AIDS amounts to a passive gay holocaust; the War on Drugs and racist demonization of the mythical “Welfare Queen”; his Faustian bargain with religious Fundamentalists who, though a minority, have monopolized American domestic policy for close to four decades; and his enormous increases in military spending combined with an unconscionable lowering of taxes that resulted in the metastasizing of the national debt. I believe in small, prudent government. But I also believe in paying what you owe. Reagan changed America into a nation where it was now okay to pursue profit at any cost and in doing so to shirk your duty to the government, your employees, and your fellow man. And he also brought a new bellicosity to the culture; somehow violence became patriotic and sanctioned at the highest levels. In many ways, Reagan gave birth to millions of monsters, the most monstrous of which is our current president. Trump was the absolute embodiment of the soul-sickness of the ’80s. He was (and is) the poster boy for all the Deadly Sins.

"Some day I will turn American into a banana republic!"

“Some day I will turn America into a banana republic!”

So what’s good about Reagan? Even this will be qualified with criticism, but at bottom it’s this: when it comes to leadership, clarity is a virtue. For Reagan, the over-riding American idea was Freedom, and while he applied it too selectively, he made that idea the drumbeat of both his domestic and foreign policies in a manner that everyone understood. Do you know what Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton stood for? Frankly I don’t. While I feel like I do know what JFK and LBJ stood for, Carter and Clinton not so much. I offer them up as contrasts. In foreign policy, Carter and Clinton seemed to be more in the Nixon mode, a slippery ethic of realpolitik. But here’s what we unambiguously know about Reagan: he was anti-socialist and anti-Communist. That may be said about many, but normally with far less clarity. It defined Reagan so much he became a lightning rod for both the left and right. Domestically, while I am in favor of lean government, I am less a fan of his many of his policies. But in terms of foreign policy: his hard line ended the Cold War. And while, like any war it was not unmarred by atrocities, I have come to see the Cold War overall as a moral undertaking in the mold of the War to Free the Slaves and the two World Wars (none of which was perfect either).

In doing my family history posts, I found myself a bit stymied when it came to the 20th century. I had ancestors and relatives who’d fought in the French and Indian war, the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, but none really in the World Wars. But then it occurred to me that so many people close to me served in the Cold War: my brother, my father, every single one of my uncles, some cousins, and even both of my in-laws (my late mother-in-law was one of the first female marines). I am proud of what they did to help check expansionist, totalitarian aggression. (I almost enlisted myself, but caved at the last second, a story for another day)

Read it. Know it. Try not to live it.

Read it. Know it. Try not to live it.

There are things about the Cold War to be decried, yes, and because of that the issue has become murky for some people. Reagan was far too forgiving of right-wing dictators. And as for the early Cold War, I am not a fan of HUAC any more than you are; I can’t think of anything less American. But some people seem awfully confused, creating a false equivalency between America, where some screenwriters were forced to use pseudonyms, and the Soviet Union were tens of millions were killed at the whim of the state. Castro, who jailed and killed political prisoners, homosexuals, and others, dies and “boo hoo hoo!” While I bet — I just know — that trying to get certain people to admit that Ronald Reagan was better for humanity than, say, Gorbachev, would be like pulling teeth. My question for them: “Are ya cuckoo?” You need to look at history from an imaginary height to get any perspective. At this moment, Gorbachev happens to be a huge fan of his current president, Vladimir Putin. What does that tell you?

Which brings us closer to the title of this essay. Reagan is of course turning in his grave because President Trump has sold America to the Russians. He’s pals with Putin, who called the fall of the USSR “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century”. At this very moment, Trump’s taking heat for making a claim for moral equivalency with Russia the wrong way, outright saying that America is no better as a nation than Russia has been! And Trump’s in the pocket of Russian oligarchs, and this is ultimately the largest reason why I say history will no longer smile on Ronald Reagan. The greed of the ’80s ultimately gave us a president who’s a Russian puppet, thus potentially making the Cold War a Pyrrhic Victory, one in which the ultimate winner may turn out to be our former rival. So much for 40 years of staring down Russia. The irony is astounding.

Worst karaoke singer

Worst karaoke singer ever!

Those of you on the left: I think most of you realize that the anti-Trump movement has some allies among the admirers of Ronald Reagan, people like George Will and Bill Kristol and Evan McMullen. If you can’t wrap your head around it, I’ve recently latched onto a useful concept. It’s the idea of having people who are allies in some things. Not rejecting people with whom you partially disagree with in toto. I’m sure this is the only way many members of Congress keep sane. Practically everyone has at least one issue they degree with their own party on. The people in the other party are their ally in that one thing. And really — look at almost any historical figure. Most great figures in history, given the less enlightened attitudes of the past, are our allies in some things. Jefferson wrote “All Men Are Created Equal” but he kept slaves. We deplore the slavery but we admire those words. And right now there are many conservatives who believe in the United States Constitution and hate autocracy, and hate Vladimir Putin plenty. These guys — these Ronald Reagan fans — are my allies in these things.

A Series of Posts for Black History Month

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags , , , on February 1, 2017 by travsd

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February is Black History Month.

This year it arrives at a time of deep sadness. The Black Lives Matter movement was picking up momentum last year, but with the election of X%$FR#@ to the Presidency, as always seems to happen, that movement has been overtaken by a tsunami of “greater priorities”, becoming just one of a seeming thousand fronts people of conscience need to do battle on. Justice for the black community ought to remain a priority even as injustice for all becomes the general law.

I have done close to 450 posts on subjects relating to African Americans, beginning with profiles on scores of black vaudeville performers, jazz and blues musicians, the problematic issue of blackface minstrelsy, numerous black writers and more. Over the last couple of years, I have done an increasing number of pieces on race relations and pieces on African American history, spurred on by revelations by my own family’s past…and present. I have black nieces and nephews; they deserve every opportunity and advantage I’ve had, and frankly more.

The African American Interest section of Travalanche is here.  Also, there is a search function in the right hand section of this blog; enter keywords like names or “black” + “vaudeville” to narrow in on specific subjects. And below are some links to past posts I thought might be of special interest today. We’ll be adding several new pieces as the month goes on:

In Which I Learn My Family is Not Unsullied by America’s Original Sin 

A Post Touching on Indentured Servitude, Slavery & Labor

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Juneteenth Message (on the Stars and Bars) 

Slavery and Racism in the North 

The Civil War Never Ended 

Black Vaudeville

A Bert Williams Feature

More on the Import of the Bert Williams Feature 

Zora Neal Hurston 

Reviving the Genius of Zora Neal Hurston 

Let America Be America Again

A Gallery of Great Blues Artists

The Meaning of Dr. Martin Luther King 

Amiri Baraka

The Black Panthers 

Richard Pryor

Crash Course in August Wilson 

Daughters of the Dust 

A Black Lives Matter Protest

Godspeed, Obama 

Thoughts on MLK Day (On the Eve of Attempted Counter-Revolution)

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags , , , on January 16, 2017 by travsd

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Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The day has added meaning this year. There are only three days left in the administration of our first black President; he is being replaced by a successor who embraces the fact that he is endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, and has nominated several cabinet officers and advisers who openly espouse racism. This holiday should never be about lip service in the best of times, but this year I urgently feel that contemplation and conversation are in order. Clearly large numbers of Americans have got some other notion of what America is about.

I well remember when this holiday was instituted, for I had to hear my father’s loud complaints as it was debated in Congress from 1979 through 1983, which coincided with my time in high school. Rest assured that hatred of African Americans motivated these tirades, but there were other aspects of his animus that come closer to thought than passion and are thus easier to confront and deal with. Since we’ve just learned to our horror that millions of Americans continue to be hamstrung by these ancient prejudices, indeed they seem to be crawling out of the woodwork, and we’re looking at the continued prospect of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and much else (the most recent affront has been the President-elect’s insulting of Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis) it is clear that a civics lesson is in order.

White People, you are not the only people on earth. You are not the only people whose voices matter. You are not the only people who have UNALIENABLE RIGHTS, which the Declaration tells us were “Endowed by our Creator.” This means voting rights and equal treatment under the law are owed to everybody, not because it now says so on a piece of paper but because that is how it is. Humans are all the same, and are all due the same legal and moral and political considerations. This was denied for centuries by some who held all the power, but the injustice of that has been partially redressed in some measure by the law of the land, thanks to leaders like King.

To a good chunk of America, the above paragraph seems painfully obvious, but I can tell you from experience, to another chunk of America it is not. Those people see things a different way. We heard an articulation of it the other day, ironically enough from Dr. Ben Carson as he was he being vetted by a Congressional committee for the position of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. When asked about housing discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community, his reply was “No one gets special rights.” A reply which has added irony given the fact that Dr. Carson is black and the Trumps were found guilty in the 1970s of discriminating against African Americans in property rentals.  “No special rights”. The world has been governed by that convenient logic for ages. If subject to the end result of that logic, Dr. Carson himself could legally have been denied the opportunity to get the education that made him a great doctor, and may well make him a cabinet secretary.

Somehow, in the minds of some people, the rights theoretically enjoyed by all Americans, become “special” when the attempt is made to extend them to those who have been denied them. The only thing that makes this mindset possible is if you are denying humanity to the people you are demonizing. You are only seeing them in the light of the aspect that sets them apart.  And so there’s this attitude on the part of some white people, “What’s this got to do with me? Why do we ALL need to celebrate a holiday honoring this black man, and the granting of civil rights to this one group of people?”

We’ll get to the justice aspect of it shortly, but even before that, there’s a selfish reason to honor the day. What all Americans (actually, all people everywhere) owe to the Civil Rights movement is the fulfillment and validation of the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Without the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Right Act, those documents, which we’ve always claimed to live by, are nothing but meaningless hypocrisy, potentially as blind and deaf to the rights of all Americans as they had historically been to those with dark skin. King and his colleagues and followers forced the nation to recognize the truth of its own gospel and start living it. They did so by exercising their First Amendment rights to pressure political leaders to change laws. And there were powerful people every step along the way (including the highest levels of government and law enforcement) who tried to stop them, using every dirty trick at their disposal. But King succeeded anyway, and in doing so demonstrated to Americans the efficacy of their own system, and unmasked the un-American nature and tactics of those who tried to prevent that. Wiretaps, extortion, police dogs, water hoses, billy clubs, bombings, arson, murder. That’s the stuff of Tyranny, which theoretically America is supposed to be against.

And even if it weren’t about the broader promise. What if it were just about the rights of a single minority, what of it? The ancestors of white Americans kidnapped the ancestors of black Americans, shipped them en mass like cattle to another continent, enslaved them for over two centuries, then grudgingly freed them into a condition of despised second-class citizenship, where they remained for another century or more, and they’re owed nothing for that? Not even an apology? Not even the occasional celebration of their contributions? Not even a jingle in a public service announcement encouraging their children to succeed? I mean, what the hell?

I hate saying “their”; it’s awfully reminiscent of “You People”. But given a situation where some people demonize African Americans into some group enjoying “special rights”, it becomes necessary to point out that in a just world such a group has something — something positive — coming to them.

Legally, that’s a thorny problem, in the sense of reparations. Oprah is a billionaire, and some Italian immigrant who got here two minutes ago never had anything to do with slavery. But those of us whose ancestors kept slaves have a personal responsibility of some sort. If not a legal one, a spiritual one, a moral one. If you believe in inherited gifts and legacies and privileges than you also inherit responsibilities. I’ve come to feel it keenly, like a fire I’ve been standing very close to, or an injury when the anesthesia wears off. It is a dawning. “Holy Christ — what have I been sleeping through?!” On a legal level, something like a Federal holiday is the very least we can do as a nation. It’s about as minor and painless as it gets. But STILL there are millions of people who have a problem with as little as THAT. They don’t just have a problem with it. They seethe with anger, they get red in the face about it. Yell at the TV about it. Something about this symbolic gesture alienates them. It sounds laughably obvious, but the media shies from saying it outright: the only reason people would react this way is if they hate black people and/or they don’t recognize a responsibility.

But if you are white and you live in America, you DO have responsibility. First, because you enjoy privileges you don’t even know about, or won’t acknowledge. Cops and neighborhood patrols tend not to kill you outright for walking in the wrong neighborhood or having a broken tail light. Employers are more likely to consider you for a position. There are statistics on this stuff. It happens to be factual — whether you live in a mansion or a trailer park. You may not be rich, White Person, but you’re still not getting called “nigger” or getting snuffed in your jail cell for mouthing off to a traffic officer.

The second reason you have responsibility is that, as we said above, the odds are extremely good that you have a literal duty. The reason I’ve been harping on this for two years is that I’ve done my family history. I’ve found plenty to be proud of. And plenty NOT to be proud of. As we wrote here, many of my ancestors and relatives owned slaves. Some of my relatives fought for the Confederacy ; some rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest. At the time the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee in the wake the Civil War, my great-great grandparents lived one county over, in Fayetteville, where 100% of the residents had voted for secession.  My relative Alfred Holt Colquitt was a Governor of Georgia who fought against Reconstruction. My (5th) great Uncle William Rufus Devane King, founded Selma, site of the famous 1965 march; The Edmund Pettus Bridge, which freedom marchers walked over, was named after another distant relative, a Confederate General, a Grand Wizard of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. During the time of the Second Klan in the early 20th century, my great-grandfather Virgil Stewart lived in Huntsville, Alabama, where lynchings occurred, as they did throughout the south. The Scottsboro Boys were railroaded 40 minutes from his house.

It’s too much to hope that I don’t have relatives among the red-faced, hate-filled visages you see in old tv clips screaming at Civil Rights marchers. But the odds are very great that it’s too much to hope that YOU don’t have such relatives either. I grew up in New England, where I heard racist talk that would curl your hair. Here in New York City my wife and I heard a cop refer to the visiting President Obama as a “nigger”. See my post here regarding the North’s culpability in slavery and high participation in the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. There are sins in our collective past that have to be atoned for, debts that need to be paid. If you think this doesn’t apply to you, you are so very wrong.

History tells us that there is no limit to the bestial acts people will stoop to when the law gives them permission. We now face the terrifying prospect of leaders who want to make laws granting such permission. They want to single out and penalize entire groups of people based on who they are. My understanding of America, and of justice, and morality, compels me to struggle against that effort however I can. The fact that we’re even in this predicament is the greatest indication there could possibly be that this holiday is extremely necessary indeed.

 

 

 

 

The Battle of New Orleans

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, ME, Music, My Family History with tags , , , , , on January 8, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the start of the 10-day Battle of New Orleans (1815).  Technically, the battle occurred after the Treaty of Ghent had already concluded the War of 1812, so its outcome, a glorious victory for the young America, was tactically meaningless, rather like a sporting event (granted, one in which people died). Still it was a brilliant military achievement. The Americans were badly outnumbered, the forces composed mostly of amateur militia men, fighting against the trained, experienced professional British army, a precision killing machine feared throughout the world. The battle made a hero — and a President — of its commander, Major General Andrew Jackson.

I have written how I am one of the billion ripples of World War II; the war brought my grandfather and his family north from Tennessee to Rhode Island, where the Quonset Naval Base was. Likewise, I believe the War of 1812 had similar repercussions on my dad’s side of the family. Six generations of my ancestors lived in the area around Fayetteville, Tennessee. Fayetteville was a mustering place for several battles in that war, including the Battle of New Orleans, and several Indian fights (several tribes were aligned with the English). I believe at some of my great-great-great-grandfathers initially came to Fayetteville in this way from the earlier settlements in northern and northeastern Tennessee (still need to prove it out; many of them served, and the timing is right).

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The easiest, cheesiest way to learn about the battle is through the popular song “The Battle of New Orleans”, written and recorded by Arkansas school principal Jimmy Driftwood in 1958, set to the traditional American fiddle tune “The 8th of January”. The best known version is of course, Johnny Horton’s, which went all the way to #1 the following year. Here is Horton’s version, totally show biz, on the Ed Sullivan show, complete with drill teams, which I defy you to get out of your head after a single play (though the audio on the clip is pretty terrible). And here is the original Driftwood version, notable for several additional verses (thus better history) and a couple of swear words. Several others, including Johnny Cash, recorded the song as ell.

Me and the Mad Marchioness paid a visit to the battlefield, in Chalmette, Louisiana during our New Orleans trip in 2015. Here are some photos we took:

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Yes, I know this could be any field, but I assure you it is quite authentic.

 

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Me, taking the previous picture

 

Monument to the fallen at Chalmette Battlefield

Monument to the fallen at Chalmette Battlefield

 

I decided to join the battlemyself

I decided to join the battle myself

Vampires, Ghosts and Witches Among My Relations

Posted in Halloween, Horror (Mostly Gothic), ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2016 by travsd

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Happy Halloween!

Today we continue our series of family background posts by relating some relatives with a spooky connection. I’m not really close kin to most of these characters, but I’ll lay death’s heads to door-knockers I’m closer than most. So if I happen to get menaced by actual Halloween monsters this year, I am hoping I can drop the names of these supernatural relations to talk my way out of it. (Although I hasten to point out that in just about every example below, it was a less a case of someone being a monster than an example of ignorant, paranoid relatives, neighbors and strangers terrifying themselves, pointing at someone or something else and screaming “Monster!” — which is essentially the story of mankind.)

VAMPIRES

Actually both of these famous Rhode island vampires I’ll be discussing are closer to “nosferatu” than they are conventional vamps as codified in films, i.e. they were “plague-bringers” as opposed to “blood-suckers” . But just as undead, baby, just as undead! Both of these legendary tales are lain in the town of Exeter, which is about 15 minutes from the house where I grew up. (As it happens, my parents are buried in Exeter, although in different graveyards from the legendary creatures)

Why such an inoffensive little stretch of road as Exeter would be home to the walking undead at first seems mysterious, but scholars have been working on this a while, and I found this 2012 article from Smithsonian to be most illuminating.

It turns out 19th century New England “vampires” (especially Rhode Island vampires) are a thing. The scholar in the article has identified upwards of 80 cases similar to what you’ll find described below. The participants most likely never used the word “vampire” — that terminology was imposed by outsiders and the press in describing the strange goings on. It’s a phenomenon not unlike the witch hysteria of a century and more earlier, although with a different set of contributing factors, which are these:

Consumption. The microbes that cause the horrors of tuberculosis were unknown at the time. People saw their friends and neighbors wasting away, feverish, fatigued, pale, sweating and red-eyed. They drew conclusions about the cause that were within their own belief system, which was steeped in…

Superstition. Naturally rural folk are more more prone to be superstitious, but there was a particular reason for those of Rhode Island to be even more superstitious. An ironic one. Rhode Island had been founded as a refuge for dissenters, with complete religious freedom. In the early years it was no less a religious place than the surrounding colonies, just with far less official oversight about personal belief. Providence became the birthplace of the Baptist church; Portsmouth and Newport were havens for Quakers and Anabaptists. But that also meant that folks were also allowed to worship NOTHING. Unlike most of New England, Rhode Islanders were not required to attend church, let alone a certain church. In time, a situation existed where the vast majority attended NO church. This left room for a vacuum of sorts. While many modern people make a false assumption which equates religion with superstition intrinsically, Protestantism (in the period after the witch trials, at least) was theoretically about reason, regarding superstitious beliefs as false and unenlightened. In Rhode Island, however, all bets were off.

A couple of potential sources for the ritual practices mentioned below exist. One, is (as a newspaper quoted a local man of the time as saying) that the beliefs came from local Indian Tribes. Another (and I find this one especially compelling given the time line) is a “mysterious foreign quack” who appeared in the town of Willington (Northeastern Connecticut) in 1784, and whose ungodly prescriptions were condemned in the pages of the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer.

Thanks to Rory Raven for having first introduced us to these local legends during our walking tour a couple of years ago. These are just two of the most famous cases of the so-called New England vampires. I’m likely to be related to others, but I haven’t looked into their coffins yet.

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SARAH TILLINGHAST

I am one of the thousands descended from Pardon Tillinghast, one of Rhode Island’s earliest settlers and an important minister at the famous Baptist Church of Providence. And so too is the family in question:

In 1799, Rhode Island farmer Stukely Tillinghast had a dream that half the trees in his orchard had failed. Like Joseph in the Old Testament, this dream was taken to be a portent; even more would be read into it later…after he lost half his family. Sometime after the dream, Tillinghast’s 19 year old daughter Sarah contracted consumption and died. Shortly thereafter a son James also came down with the disease. But (undoubtedly in a delirium) he also made the nettlesome claim that the recently deceased Sarah had visited him in the night. And you can see where that might cause trouble. James died. Then four other of the Tillinghast children (of a total of 11) also became ill and died — after claiming that the dead Sarah had also appeared to them. And this happened to some of their neighbors, as well. By the time Tillinghast’s wife Honor came down with consumption and claimed to be seeing her dead children, the farmer decided something must be done. (He was a Yankee farmer — it took him a while to get off his butt).

We don’t know where Stukely got the idea, nor even how true it is, we only know the lore. And according to the story, he exhumed the coffins of his recently dead children and Sarah’s was found to be curiously…well-preserved. In comparison with the remains of the others, there was a troubling lack of decomposition. And (this is the oft quoted detail I find hard to give any credence to) “the heart was full of fresh blood”. Oh, yes — did I mention that Stukely cut the heart out of his own daughter’s corpse?  And then, as someone told him to do, he then burned it, to make Sarah’s spirit go away. And as the story goes, Honor recovered after this measure was taken, and there were no more illnesses or deaths.

The family is buried at Rhode Island Historical Cemetery #14. Stukeley’s headstone has been removed, and the children have stones with no writing on them, but you can find Honor’s, which is marked only with “H.T.” Go to this link and a man will take you right there. 

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MERCY BROWN 

This next story happened in the same town of Exeter almost a century later. Almost everyone who tells these stories has a weird, infuriating tendency to either gloss over or ignore what I take to be a highly significant fact: same thing, happened twice, same town. Naturally these two stories are far more related to one another than people tend to stress. I hardly think it is a coincidence that a second outbreak of the same hysteria occurred in the same tiny town as the initial one. I’d go so far as to speculate that the 1892 incident was inspired by surviving local stories of the 1799 one.

Yes — 1892. One might think that that is very, very late for something of this nature to be happening in the civilized Northeastern United States. But then, yeah…no. Guess what? Where I live (New York City) scarcely a year goes by that one doesn’t read in the paper about some superstition-based murder, often linked to voodoo, or Santeria. I cast no aspersion against those fascinating religions, especially in light of the bloody lapses of those who practice my own faith. (Conversion by the sword, anyone?) I’m just referencing a parallel, similar phenomenon — there are still people around who believe in evil spirits that much.

And as for the “civilized Northeastern United States” — here’s a little known fact. In the late 19th and early 20th century, New England’s population outside the cities had drastically declined. Evidence of that is still with us. Walk through any New England forested area and before long you will run into a stone wall.  (Don’t run too hard!) You also see stone walls surrounding houses and farms, of course, but how mysterious to find them in the middle of the woods. The explanation is that those wooded areas were once farms, which subsequently were abandoned, became overgrown and reverted to nature. Population in the area was lost due to westward migration and the Civil War. And while immigration later increased American population overall, rural New England was not where most of the newcomers settled, at least not for a long time.

It’s gradually dawned on me that an unlikely reporter on this phenomenon is H.P. Lovecraft. For the longest time I would read his stories and not go along for the ride because I couldn’t imagine the New England countryside being as eerily secluded as he describes it. But it seems that in his time it was, after all.  This makes for an interesting parallelism between the European and American Romanticisms. The Europeans had their ruins; and we too, after a fashion, had ours.

So Exeter, Rhode Island, a backwater to begin with, was an even worse one at the time of which I write. Its population in the 1820s had been well over 2,000. By the 1890s it was down to only about 900. This is why I’m pretty comfortable speculating that I’m related to this family of Browns. Brown is a much more common name than Tillinghast, but like the latter family, it is also the name of one of the founding families of Rhode Island (who started Brown University and much else). I am related to these Browns; and I find it likely that so are the Browns of Exeter, a town with so little population influx prior to the late 20th century.

The Keep, where the corpse was kept at the Exeter cemetery prior to Mercy's examination

The Keep, where the corpse was kept at the Exeter cemetery prior to Mercy’s examination

The Brown story is remarkably similar to that of the Tillinghasts. It began with Mary the mother‘s death by consumption in 1883, followed by the death of a daughter, also named Mary, six months later. Then nine years passed. Mercy came down with consumption and passed away in 1892. Her older brother Edwin came down with it a few months later, and that’s when the hysteria broke out this time. In this case, the community demanded an exhumation. Mercy’s father George Brown didn’t believe in the superstition and agreed to it only reluctantly. In an interesting and modern, if somewhat illogical, twist, a physician was called to examine Mercy’s body. He noted that her hair and fingernails had continued to grow after death. (Though that happens to most bodies). Be that as it may, Mercy’s heart was cut out, burned, mixed with medicinal herbs and put into a potion for Edwin to drink to ward off the bad spirits. He died anyway.

1892 is essentially the modern era. The difference between this case and most of the earlier New England vampire cases is that this one was widely reported. Newspaper men from the Providence Journal were on the scene and papers carried the story around the world. Soon the 20th century would dawn: movies, radio, television. Even rural places like Exeter began to have some dim awareness that such things as vampires were not real. And perhaps the wide reporting on the Brown incident was something of an embarrassment. So no similar incidents followed. Because of this, Mercy Brown is often known as the “Last New England Vampire.”

H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Shunned House appears to draw from both the Tillinghast and the Brown incidents, and some of have speculated that news of the Mercy Brown story had also reached Bram Stoker, whose Dracula was first published in 1897, just five years later.  And there are those later tales of New England vampires, Dark Shadows and Salem’s Lot to chew on…

GHOSTS

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THE OLD ARNOLD ESTATE (A.K.A. THE CONJURING HOUSE) 

This house was the real-life basis for the 2013 horror film The Conjuring. I’m going to bore you by sticking closer to the known facts than the film, books about the topic, and lots of what you will find online will tell you; my main source for the factier facts is this investigative web site.  Also, most accounts of the story start with the haunting (1970-1980) and work backwards and keep it vague. I’m going to go chronologically and try to be a little more specific.

What I know is that the Old Arnold Estate was built in Harrisville, Rhode Island in 1736. Harrisville is part of Burrillville, and adjacent to my mother’s hometown of Putnam, Connecticut. Many, many generations of Arnolds lived on the farm. And tragedies happened to at least three members of the family, although not all of it happened on the property. A Susan Arnold hung herself in the house in 1866. 11 year old Prudence Arnold was raped and murdered (throat slit) by farmhand William Knowles in 1848 (this happened across the state line in Massachusetts). And an Edwin Arnold was found frozen to death on the nearby property of Smith Aldrich after a night of carousing at the pub.

Then there is the case of the Arnold’s next door neighbor Bathsheba Sherman (1812-1885). If you squint at the photo above, which was taken on the Arnold estate, some have speculated that the woman in the center foreground is Bathsheba. Bathsheba was the daughter of Ephraim Thayer and Hannah Taft, and the wife of Judson Sherman. She had four children, only one of whom lived past early childhood. About Bathsheba there is much lore, most of it of recent vintage: that she was secretive, evil, mean, a witch, a Satanist, and that she killed a baby by driving a knitting needle into the back of its skull. There doesn’t seem to be evidence for any of this. When she died, she was given the usual Christian burial next to her husband, although it seems as though some puddingheads decided to vandalize her grave marker:

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At any rate in 1970, a nice modern American family named the Perrons acquired the Old Arnold Estate and, by their testimony, things began to happen. Objects, including beds, levitated. Voices and noises were heard. A woman in a grey dress appeared and said “Get out!” People were slapped and pinched by unseen forces. And one of the family was stabbed by an invisible needle which drew blood. Who you gonna call? Why Ed and Lorraine Warren, of course, America’s most famous psychic investigators, and the folks who also cleaned up the cobwebs at the Amityville Horror House. The Perrons and the Warrens seem to have decided many things about whom those spirits may have been and then decided to tell the world. Andrea Perron wrote her three volume account House of Darkness, House of Light. And Hollywood made The Conjuring, which turned into an entire multi-million dollar franchise.

What’s my connection to all this? Well, as I mention above, my mom is from just a few miles away and I am related to all of those families historically connected with the house and the area: the Arnolds, the Shermans, the Thayers, the Tafts, and even the Aldriches. all of them are names in my family tree. All of them, it seems, but the Perrons and the Warrens — and that’s okay by me.

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59 Church Street, Charleston, said to be haunted by Ladd

DR. JOSEPH BROWN LADD

My great-great-great grandmother Almira Kirtland Ladd of New London was one of a hugely prolific clan of New England Ladds. These Ladds were fruitful and multiplied. Many of them were famous (I’ve written about some, and I’ll write about others). And, it turns out, my first crush in high school was also one of them! And, so too was Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd (1764-1786). Ladd was born in Newport, Rhode Island but through a curious set of circumstances he would go on to become one of the most famous ghosts of Charleston, South Carolina.  (Only yesterday I read of another Rhode Island family with a foothold in Charleston, the Hazards, founders of the village of Peace Dale. A likely explanation for a social corridor between the two distant locations is the slave trade, which flourished in both locations in the 18th centuries, though I hasten to point out that the Hazards would come to be prominent slavery opponents in the 19th century. But this is a digression!)

Ladd apprenticed to a local Rhode Island physician at age 15. By 1783 he was a doctor himself, and moved to Charleston with references from Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene, one of the most prominent Rhode Islanders of the time. (The war had ended just a weeks before Ladd made the move) But, when Ladd relocated to Charleston left something behind. He loved a young lady of Newport named “Amanda” (or so he calls her in his writings). He pursued her with all the fervor of youth. The love was not requited (largely through the interposition of Amanda’s unscrupulous guardian), and Ladd’s reputation was besmirched, so moved to Charleston. But he could not forget her. He wrote numerous poetic epistles to her which he called “The Letters of Arouet to Amanda.”

Ladd was well-liked and successful in Charleston. Unfortunately his easy progress got on the nerves of one of the first friends he’d made there, a man named Charles Isaacs who’d saved him from a robbery when he first arrived in town. In the intervening months, Isaacs decided Ladd was getting too big for his britches. It came to head one evening after the two met following a performance of Richard III at a Charleston theatre. The men quarreled over an actress in the play. Isaacs made unkind insinuations and then insulted Ladd publicly. To save his reputation, Ladd was forced to duel. In the exchange his kneecap was shattered, a wound that was painful, possibly crippling but also maybe survivable. But it is said that he refused treatment and died a few days letter in his rooms at 59 Church Street.

Today his spirit is said to haunt both the Church Street address and Philadelphia Alley, also known as Dueler’s Alley, where the fatal contretemps went down. Ladd is known as the “Whistling Ghost” or the “Whistling Doctor” after his lifelong habit of whistling. Because of the sad affair with Amanda, his is thought to be a mournful spirit, forever walking the earth in sadness.

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GHOSTS IN THE TOWER OF LONDON

This is a bit farther back, but the connections are just as real. It’s well known that the former fortification and prison is reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of the unhappy souls who were locked away and executed there by their enlightened monarchs. As a descendant of Royal Stewarts and other nobility I am related to many of the famous ones, including King Henry VI; the “Two Little Princes” killed by Richard III (Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury); Queen Ann Boleyn; Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury; Lady Jane Grey; and Lady Arabella Stuart. It must be crowded there, what with the bunch of them roaming the halls and moaning and sobbing and playing ninepins with their heads or whatever they are said to do. Learn more about the specifics here. 

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THE WHITE LADY

There are too many ghosts nicknamed “The White Lady” in the world to count. This one is said to reside at Highlow Hall in Heathersage, Derbyshire, where my (15th) great grandmother Elizabeth Eyre (1470-1495) is from. Highlow Hall was the ancestral home of the Eyres from 1340 to 1842.

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WITCHES 

Sir Thomas De Ashton (born circa 1403)

Sir Thomas is unique in history for having been licensed to practice sorcery or something like it. In 1446, he was given special dispensation by King Henry VI, to transmute precious metals, i.e. practice alchemy, often considered a dark art in those times. The document states that the King’s subjects are forbidden to molest Ashton for flouting God and the natural order in this way. I imagine he was counting on getting some of that gold for himself.

Alice Young (ca. 1600-1647)

A distant relation, Alice (also rendered as “Alse” or “Achsah”) Young was the first person executed for witchcraft in Colonial America, at least in the written record. Young was born in England, and moved to Windsor, CT sometime prior to her daughter Alice’s birth in 1640. She was hung for witchcraft in Hartford’s Meeting House Square in 1647. This was nearly a half century before the witch hysteria in Salem. Learn a (very) little more about her here. 

Alice Young Beamon (1640-1708)

Accused of witchcraft in Springfield, Massachusetts circa 1677, and acquitted.

Alice Ireod Lake (1616-1651)

My (10th) great grandmother, who claimed to have seen her dead baby come back to haunt her was accused of witchcraft, compounded by the crimes of pre-marital sex and attempted abortion. She was executed at Dorchester; follow the link above for more on her.

Robert Williams (1607-1693)

My (9th) great grandfather twice over (I am descended from two separate lines leading from him, one from each of his daughters, both converging in my maternal grandmother’s line, the Cadys). He was the first accused witch I discovered in the family tree, although very little is known about him. (Though he’s mentioned in many books, including one that used to be on my shelf, Drawing Down the Moon). Williams was accused and acquitted in 1669, but convicted and punished for lying. These events took place 23 years before the Salem trials.

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Susanna North Martin (1621-1692)

I wished I known about this one on our recent trip to Salem, I would have done more fact-finding with respect to her. Oh, well, all the more reason to go back! I hadn’t found her earlier because she’s not a direct relationship…she was the mother-in-law of my (9th) great grandfather James Hadlock (his second wife — after my own 9th great grandmother had died — was Abigail Martin. Still a relation, if by marriage!). This is through my maternal grandfather’s line, the Herindeens.

Susanna had first been accused of witchcraft (and of giving birth to a bastard and an IMP) in 1669. Her husband died in 1686, leaving her poor and unprotected at the time of the witch hysteria. She was 71 years old when she stood in the docks, and was not about to take any shit. Among other things, they accused of her of changing herself into a cat, jumping through a window and strangling a man while he slept. Cats aren’t generally known for their strangling abilities. but sense was not on anybody’s agenda. They also accused her of changing into many other animals, including a black hog. By all accounts she was a tiny woman. I’m sure there were many times when she would have LIKED to have been able to transform herself into a nice large, intimidating hog.

By all accounts, she laughed at her accusers, called their bluff, and never caved in as so many did to the fiction that was going on all around her. Further, she quoted the Bible in her defense. But to no avail. They hanged her in July of 1692. Read more about the brave old gal here. 

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Sarah Good (1653-1692)

Likewise, I only discovered this one recently. Sarah Good was one of the most famous of the Salem “witches” and one of the first three accused. I am related to her by marriage. She was one of the village cranks: homeless, in debt, angry, and just in general an inconvenient person to have around, one of the explanations for her having been one of the first accused. Read more about her at the link above.

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Okay, that about wraps it up! And speaking of which, “Aren’t you related to any mummies?” you may well ask, “I mean, after all, you have vampires, ghosts and witches, surely there’s a line or two that leads back to Imhotep!” Undoubtedly, but it’s four thousand years back. Give me time, give me time!

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