Archive for the My Family History Category

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


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).


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:


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



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


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.)


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.



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. 



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…




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:


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.


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



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. 



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.



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.


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. 


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.


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!

My First Collaborator

Posted in ME, My Family History on October 22, 2016 by travsd


My best friend from the ages of about six to twelve was a ginger-haired, wide eyed chap by the name of Bruce Goodness. The surname is an Anglicized translation; his real last name is LaBonte. He’s of French Canadian stock, and you could see it in his old man, a stocky guy with curly reddish hair and beard. You could just see old Billy wearing one of those wool stocking caps and snowshoes, laying lynx traps and saying things like “Ohoho, mon ami!” (Rhode Island has many inhabitants of Canuck ancestry, if I may use that un-p.c. term).

Me and Brucey were thick as thieves, with an intense, almost exclusive buddyhood born out of the fact we lived almost next door to each other, our yards separated by a wooded lot that became a mutual playground we transformed into great forests and jungles for our imaginative games. We built a lean-to out of saplings there. We re-fought the battles of World War II.

In recent years, it’s dawned on me how seminal an influence he was on my life. I’m not sure what I brought to the table. From my dad I certainly had been cultivated to have an enthusiasm for “Cowboys and Indians” and pioneer role play and the like. Hatchets and claw hammers and pocket knives were definitely elements of our “toy box” in a way that is probably nearly extinct among children today. And so the stuff I shared with him I associate with him and can’t know how much came from him, or if we cooked it up together, or if it was just what all kids were doing then. But it frequently seems to me that his was the driving force for our mutual enthusiasms; I found myself liking the things he already liked, and following his lead. Our games were largely driven by movies and television. We played cops and robbers constantly, but usually filtered through tv shows like Baretta and Starsky and Hutch. These games were enhanced immeasurably by walkie-talkie sets we got for Christmas. The Six Million Dollar Man was an obsession, as was Planet of the Apes. We shared enthusiasms for classic horror, comic books, Mad magazine, Wacky Packages, Evel Knievel, custom cars and motorcycles (largely by way of his dad, who worked on vehicles); and we were both very learned in all the cryptozoological pseudosciences (Big Foot, poltergeists, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, etc).

Things took a turn when we hit our tweens and began to discover music. My brother was a musician; Bruce’s cousin was in the legendary band the Young Adults (which I’ll be blogging about in a few days). My brother and Bruce’s cousin were friends. When we got to be around ten we realized that these associations were cool, and aspired to become musicians ourselves. We used to play his mom’s scratchy old Elvis singles, which seemed ancient to us but were only about 20 years old at the time. We’d play those and my K-tel records over and over trying to figure out the lyrics, and writing them down. From here, I would often write parody versions of the lyrics. Between this, and our own early attempts to draw our comic books and monsters and such, I can spot my first creative stirrings. He really was my first collaborator.

In junior high school and high school we grew apart. We were in literally NO classes together, and then I got interested in theatre and that pretty much became my focus for everything. But in retrospect now, I can see that so much that remains a focus of my work as an adult has been some sort of offshoot of stuff that fired up our imaginations as boys. Granted many of these obsessions are (or were) pretty common interests. But what if my best friend had been, I dunno, a macrame enthusiast instead? (That never would have happened). Bruce went on to marry my high school steady’s cousin, also a close friend of mine in high school. I’m so happy to be back in touch with both of them. It makes me feel anchored, in a time and a place where often one feels one is danger of tumbling off into space like that unfortunate astronaut in 2001. It’s Bruce’s birthday today. Thanks for being in my life, old friend, both then and now.

Halloween Visions of Harrison Cady

Posted in Halloween, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, My Family History, VISUAL ART with tags , , , on October 8, 2016 by travsd

In celebration of the Halloween season, a couple of vintage children’s book illustrations by my first cousin twice removed Harrison Cady:



My Relatives in an H.P. Lovecraft Story!

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Halloween, Horror (Mostly Gothic), ME, My Family History with tags , , , , on October 4, 2016 by travsd


In preparation for the lead up to the Halloween season  (and spurred on by the fact that I have learned I am related to him, and also by recent walking tours I’ve taken with Rory Raven and Jane Rose, a recent play by Nat Cassidy, and annual festivals by RadioTheatre and Dan Bianchi) over the past few weeks I went back and re-read the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft. As always, I did plenty of snorting and eye rolling, but mixed in with it all that was plenty of admiration.

What joy it would give me to be his editor!  Imagination: A+. Originality: A+. Intelligence: undeniable. Command of language: dazzling. Culture: prodigious. And many of the situations in the stories are indeed chilling and nightmarish. But there are times when the author’s vagueness steers me away from fear or horror towards boredom. And times when he lazily substitutes modifiers for the hard writing it would take to achieve a truly vivid effect (i.e., he tells us something is “loathsome” or “horrible” or whatever, rather than painting a concrete portrait that will produce in US that impression). I love the fact that he is erudite and abstract and is in such command of the language. That’s precisely what will always keep me coming back to his writing; it is what sets him sets him above so many others. But ironically, he is at his most effective when he allows himself to be more graphic. By that, I do not mean to imply “more bloody” as the word is typically employed in horror criticism. I merely mean more descriptive of the real world. He is very good on the “unseen”. We need him to work harder on the “seen”.

At any rate, a friend asked me which story was my favorite. And that’s too hard to say. There will always be several. (Easier to say which were my least favorite: normally, the fragments based on transcriptions of dreams he had. No plot, just description of imaginary cities and planets or whatever). However, there is one piece of writing I came across that will now always hold a special attachment: the short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Written in 1927, the novella went unpublished until several years after he died. It’s one of Lovecraft’s stronger stories plotwise, mixing many intriguing elements: doppelgangers, alchemy, the resurrection of the dead, deals with the devil, madness, and a Dorian Gray like cessation of the aging process.

But what gave the story an added power this time around was the amount of reality he put into it. In fact, there’s so much of the “true” in it, that one could almost include it in the American Hoax tradition, along with certain writings by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain. First, there’s an appealing amount of autobiography. It’s one of a small handful of stories in which Lovecraft allows his beloved Providence to be the setting. And more than any other story that I noticed, he paints a portrait of his hometown, which the titular character roams around on extended walks, much as the author himself did. Well known landmarks and streets are folded into the story. It’s not “Arkham” or “Miskatonic University”. It is a very vivid Providence. Beyond his mapping of the town as he knew it, he has carefully researched its history, and filled it with several real characters. In many cases, he depicts actual historical personages. In other cases, he simply creates a fictional character with an actual Rhode Island surname.

And this is what gives the tale an added pull for me, for these are all names in my family tree. I am connected by blood to all these people and places and names: the four Brown Brothers (and institutions connected with them, like Brown University and Moses Brown School), Olney Court, Stampers Hill, Stephen Hopkins, Capt. Abraham Whipple, Capt. James Mathewson, Samuel Winsor, Thurston’s Tavern, the First Baptist Church, and characters with the names Slocum and Tillinghast. I am also related to the Ladd Family, after which Brown’s Ladd Observatory is named. It was a frequent haunt of Lovecraft’s and wound up in many of his writings.

So there’s an added thrill in reading this stuff now. And furthermore, my relatives are the good guys in the story! Well, Charles is good, too. He’s just a little, shall we say, misguided in his quest for “knowledge”.  Judge for yourself! The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is available to read (gratis) here. 

Sarah Tillinghast

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, ME, Movies, My Family History with tags , , , , on October 2, 2016 by travsd

A spooky account of a possible relation of mine who walked among the Undead , according to legend! More, as we draw closer to Halloween ….

Fairweather Lewis

Stukeley Tillinghast, so the story goes, was a prosperous Rhode Island farmer around the time of the Revolutionary War. He and his beloved wife were the parents of fourteen children.

Stukeley had an apple orchard on his farm. One night in 1776 he woke from a horrifying dream. He told his wife, startled awake when he bolted upright, that he had dreamed half the trees in his orchard had died. He was certain the dream meant something, but damned if he could figure what. Comforted by his wife, he went back to sleep, still puzzled.

Not long after Stukeley’s dream, his oldest daughter, Sarah, fell dangerously ill with tuberculosis in its most virulent form, the so-called “galloping consumption.” Characterized by shortness of breath, fever, weight loss, violent cough, and in its late stages by hemorrhages of blood from the lungs, it could kill within weeks.

So it was with Sarah…

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My New York Maritime Connection (A Sea Cap’n in My Past)

Posted in AMERICANA, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , on September 16, 2016 by travsd


It’s taken me a little while to post on this subject because I wanted to nail it down a bit and get my ducks in a row. But I had a revelation the other day that made things click into place for me, and so now we explore it.

Of my eight great grandparents, the lineage of one is particularly anomalous. When I first hit certain details about this family line, I didn’t trust them, for they are rather unlike most of my mom’s side of the family, especially to occur so recently. But it all seems to prove out, and it’s rather interesting.

Before I bury the lede any further, let me put it here: my great-great-great grandfather Morris Jackson (1827-1915) was a sea captain. This gives me unbounded joy. The period when he was active, roughly 1850-1900 was an exciting era in seafaring, and I’ve spent so much time with my nose buried in books by Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Jack London, the early “Sea Plays” of Eugene O’Neill and so forth, that it truly captures my imagination. I’d found numerous seafarers in my family’s distant past, nine or ten generations back, but to have one this recent is cool.


The trajectory that leads up to Capt. Jackson is not the usual one for my New England family. Most of my New England ancestors touched ground in Plymouth, Salem or Boston and either worked their way directly west, or south into Rhode Island and then west, all of them converging eventually in Wyndham County, Connecticut. My (10th) great grandfather Henry Jackson (1606-1686) took a different path. Like the others, he arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s. But by 1639 he headed very far west for that time, becoming one of the founders of Fairfield, Connecticut. This is in the opposite corner of the state, the portion closest to New York City. (When I crowed loudly several months ago about being related to P.T. Barnum, this is how. Barnum’s ancestry was in the same area). Henry appears to have been a substantial man — he had a lot of land, he owned many books (a rare luxury for the time), and arms and armor (also expensive). His descendants remained in Fairfield County (principally the areas that are now the towns of Fairfield, Redding, Bridgeport, and Stratford) for generations, presumably as farmers. I have little information on their lives thus far beyond names, dates, and locations. One of them, my (5th) great grandfather Daniel Jackson (1763-1841) served in the American Revolution under a Lt. Nathan Beers in the 3rd Connecticut Regiment.

A random anonymous tin type. I have no idea what he played or in what setting, but it would be kind of cool if I'd been unconsciously channeling him for the past 20 years.

A random anonymous tin type. I have no idea what Samuel played or in what setting, but it would be kind of cool if I’d been unconsciously channeling him for the past 20 years.


is son But it’s with Daniel’s son Samuel (1786-1867) that things start to get intriguing in a concrete way. In the 1860 census, the earliest one I can find so far with a mention of him, Samuel’s occupation is given, quite clearly, as “musician”. This is such a weird outlier that I’ve gone back and looked at the scan of the original census-taker’s tabulation repeatedly, but it couldn’t be clearer. It says “musician”. What muddies things however, is that Samuel was 74 years old at the time. “Musician” sounds very much like an activity a working man might take up as a second career when he’s too old to perform manual labor. Was he a semi-amateur, picking up a few coppers playing in waterfront taverns for sailors? Or was he a professional man of the theatre, was he even a minstrel performer, the prevailing style of the day? I haven’t been able to ascertain anything about his life prior to 1860. And that’s particularly vexing because it may provide some clue about the transition to his son Morris, the sea captain. But I’ll keep at it.

I arrived at my discovery of Morris coming from the other direction of course, via my grandmother Ruth Cady, to her mother Margaret Jackson (my great-grandmother after whom, I’m assuming, my mother was named), to Margaret’s father Edward Andrew Jackson (1852-1901). What threw me for a loop is that Edward is listed in many records as having been born in NEW YORK. That struck me as so strange and unlikely that I regarded it with skepticism for a long time. To add to my confusion, Edward has a younger sibling who was born in the family stronghold of Bridgeport, and a still younger one who was born in Providence. And the family seems to live in Providence in later years. Edward was a “laborer”, he got married young, and settled in Wyndham County, rejoining the rest of my lineages in a rather roundabout way, geographically.

And, again, some added pieces: when Edward’s father Morris was young his occupation was given as “sailor”, when  he’s older it’s “sea captain” and he seems to finish out his old age at the Aged Seaman’s Home at Sailors Snug Harbor, Staten Island! I’ve actually been there several times!

This plaque may have provided a key to the puzzle

This plaque may have provided a key to the puzzle

But I got the biggest thunderbolt of all the other day when I was walking on the east side waterfront on the way to visit the Liberty Ship John W. Brown. I encountered this historical plaque that talks about a ferry line called the “Daily Line” that operated between Bridgeport and New York and opened in the 1820s. Ferry service connected all the major points up and down the East coast (including Providence), in the days before large bridges and railways. Bridgeport’s harbor was expanded during these years, creating more work in that field than had existed in the town before. I am envisioning a scenario wherein Morris (and possibly his father Samuel) got involved in this thriving new line as it expanded, hauling freight and passengers between the eastern ports. It will take more research to confirm the details, though again those broader facts are there. It looks like Morris began sailing out of Bridgeport, started his family at the New York end of his route, moved the family to Bridgeport, and finally moved them to Providence. And he himself was probably constantly on the water, away from home. Further research than I’ve done will await some future incentive, like a project that will require it, or access to a maritime database, or something like it. At any rate, as I make my occasional maritime ramblings, as I often do, now I will invariably think of Captain Jackson.

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