Retro popularity

I was really surprised and pleased at how popular the August re-posts have been. But then again, BTG has grown significantly since last year, so I guess I didn’t take into account all the new fans discovering these old goodies.

To that end, there’ll be a few more “old” sharings for the newer members to enjoy. I hope those of you who’ve been with me from the beginning will bear with me for a little while longer.

Then again, a second time around reading could be worthwhile, too.

Enjoy!

 

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It’s a long road to Cooperstown

Ok, I admit it. The hot oven-baking weather is really getting to me.

Maria Frances Cooper: b. 1819 – d. 1898 (daughter of James Fenimore Cooper)

 

Every summer, a small village in upstate New York swells to several times its size as thousands of visitors descend upon it, eager to pay respects to their baseball heroes. Located approximately an hour half from the state capitol in Albany or five + driving hours from New York City, most agree that for baseball players and visitors alike, it’s a long road to Cooperstown.

It’s an even longer road in winter but the payoff comes in having the town practically to one’s self. The Hall of Fame, shops, and readily available parking are all there for the leisurely traveler willing to put up with the occasional icy sidewalks and snow drifts.

For the more scholarly-inclined, winter is a great time to visit the Cooper family plot at Christ Church where literary genius and Victorian churchyard cemetery gazing can be had with few interruptions.

Cooper family plot – southern side

 

At this time of year, the Christ Church grounds are well insulated with snow, except for the path from the old-fashioned vicarage through the Cooper family plot and to the church itself.

Footpath to the vicarage

 

Founded by William Cooper in 1786, a mere 10 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Cooperstown was initially only a raw outpost on the colonial western frontier. Dense forests, pioneer struggles and the very real threat of politically aligned Tory/Indian massacres, belie the pleasant village setting seen today. According to church historical records:

William Cooper: died 1809

 

“In 1806, Judge Cooper set aside a tract of land..and construction of the Episcopalian church began in 1807. It was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Benjamin Moore, Bishop of New York on July 8, 1810. On January 1, 1811, the Parish of Christ Church Cooperstown was legally organized, and the Rev. Daniel Nash was installed as its first rector.”

The Cooper plot, northern side

 

However, the village cemetery existed before the actual church.

The first known grave was for 4 year-old Sam Griffin who died in 1792. The cemetery also became a place for those people who couldn’t get into the other sites, namely, the African-American servants. These gravesites are mostly found along the River Street side of Christ Church.

However, the Cooper plot is not part of the regular cemetery even though the church maintains it. The family plot is privately owned and in fact, is still in use today.

18th century death’s head

 

But don’t let this one famous family distract from the other treasures here. Take some time to find the 18th century death heads, double weeping willows or a few of those old-styled carvings using the letter ‘f’ instead of ‘s’, scattered throughout the compact site.

A double weeping willow

 

As Ralph Birdsall tantalizingly explains in his book, Fenimore Cooper’s Grave and Christ Churchyard, there’s even something for the intrepid mystery hunter:

 “On the extreme southern border of the church-yard, about fifty feet from the street, there is a tombstone that seems to shudder away from human sight, shrinking behind the shelter of a tree, and clinging to the ragged skirts of the hedge. Whoever searches out this tomb cannot fail to be obsessed with the feeling that it is connected with some mystery, to which the inscription darkly alludes:

…In memory o’ Abraham Spafard who died at 8 o’clock P.M., 3d. Sep’ 1827 in the 49th year of his age. The trump shall sound and the dead shall be raised…

Why eight o’clock? What is the significance of this concern to perpetuate the memory of the exact hour of death? The truth is that at just eight o’clock in the evening of September the 3rd , in the year of Our Lord 1827, Abraham Spafard was brutally murdered. He was killed by Levi Kelly, a farmer of the town of Otsego, a man noted for his violent temper, from the effects of which Spafard was attempting to shield a boy when Kelly shot him dead. Kelly was executed at a public hanging on a lot not far from the site of the present High School, December 28, 1827.”

Note: We were not aware of this story before our visit, otherwise we would have planned to include a photo of this headstone in the article. Unfortunately, Google and Find-A-Grave searches came up empty. If readers have any other suggestions on how to find a photo of this particular headstone, would you please share them?

Other Resources:

Ralph Birdsall. Fenimore Cooper’s Grave and Christ Churchyard. New York © 1911

New York Times: Echoes of an Earlier Time on a Glimmering Lake

James Fenimore Cooper Society Website: Fenimore Cooper in Cooperstown and The Cooper Genealogy

Haunted History of Cooperstown, NY (includes a section on the Christ Church graveyard)

Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town

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Crown Hill Cemetery, Part II

Disease, fire, and unsolved mysteries… 

 (this is a continuation from Crown Hill Cemetery Part I)

The infant & children’s section

 

Crown Hill denotes more than a risky sawmill legacy.

The community’s early years were also difficult times for infants and children. The cemetery has at least two sections filled with closely placed rows of markers that poignantly testify to childhood disease and infections during those pre-vaccination times. Typhoid, cholera, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and even the 1918 influenza epidemic. All of these left their mark.

Another view of the children’s section

 

Fire also left its mark.

In 1919, a fire broke out in the cemetery office that destroyed just about all of the records. Luckily, copies were at an offsite location, although many were incomplete. This necessitated a re-walk of the grounds in order to confirm the simple plat record information. Today, a library search is recommended for those searching out in-depth family information requests but for those genealogists armed with names and looking for a stone, the caretaker can help with dates and marker locations.

Today

Japanese jizo marker

 

As with most local neighborhood cemeteries, time and real estate transfers make their marks. Walk westward away from the older Scandinavian section and other ethnicities begin to appear. Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and even a few quirky stones catch the eye.   Even the mysterious Mary Anderson, also known as The Cipher in Room 214, has become part of today’s Crown Hill Cemetery community.

And then there’s Lilly’s unsolved murder.

Lounging Lilly

 

Lilly was a 5-year old tabby cat that wandered into the cemetery offices in 1998.  Like most cats, she imperiously  decided this would be her new home and from that day on, all humans either working in, around, or even visiting a family memorial would bow down before her.

And so they did.

Lilly became known for her quiet devotion to the office staff, a friendly approach toward visitors, and her love of picnic table sun-bathing. Tragedy struck after a failed burglary attempt in which she was brutally stabbed to death. Attempts to find the responsible person came to nothing and today, she’s buried with her catnip and her favorite toy not too far from where she used to sun herself.

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Crown Hill Cemetery: Part I

A sawmill heritage 

Crown Hill Cemetery, Seattle WA

 

It takes a little bit of effort to find Crown Hill Cemetery near Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Surrounded by hedgerows and with a sign half-swallowed by rhododendrons, the low profile is so effective, some local residents don’t even realize it’s there. And that’s how the old Scandinavians probably would have liked it.

Acknowledged heritage

 

Ballard was a mill town in Seattle. It was made up of sawmills and ship chandleries and machine shops and fishing docks and dry docks. It was a place of working men, hardworking people, union men with big calloused hands, some of whom died young because they worked too hard. Ballard was not pretty…just a district of honest immigrant Swedes, Norwegians and Finns who sought to make their lives better, who sought dignity and decency without flair or fanfare.” *

Overview

 

Pine, cedar, and fir trees are scattered throughout the site, offering both shade and a reminder of the area’s logging roots. Another surprising aspect is the amount of seemingly open, park-like space in the oldest sections. The unexpected, in-ground headstones can claim this credit. Discreetly receding into the lined distance, the markers are simply inscribed with such old-fashioned names like Hedwig, Torbjorg, Inga, and Lars.

Hedwig Wicks: 1872-1943

 

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Snapshots: Ye old farrier

Rudolph Celinas: World War I horseshoer

 

World War I irrevocably changed the view of warfare in a number of ways. The trench bogs, the introduction of tanks, weapons of mass destruction (mustard gas) and the last-gasp reliance on horses for either hauling artillery or cavalry officers through the endless mud and muck.

Animals were integral to the war effort. According to the RootsWebAncestry.com website, the US Army had six classes of animals to fulfill military hauling requirements. These were:

• For the cavalry: Active horses from 950 to 1,200 pounds

• For hauling light artillery: Strong active horses from 1,150 to 1,300 pounds

• For hauling siege batteries: Powerful horses from 1,400 to 1,700 pounds

• For hauling wheelers above 1,150 pounds or leaders above 1,000 pounds: pack and draft mules

Naturally, these animals required care and the Veterinary Corps stepped in to help out. Below, is some film footage from 1918 showing some of the various steps taken to prepare a horse for the war effort.

While today’s military veterinarians still take care of the ceremonial horses, they also look after sniffer dogs currently helping out troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Sharing Saturday: Protecting the Bones from Thieves

Today’s Sharing Saturday post comes from the Bones Don’t Lie blog, run by Katy Meyers Emery, an Anthropology PhD Candidate who specializes in Mortuary archaeology and bio-archaeology.

Check it out: Grave Guns, Coffin Torpedoes, and Other Methods of Protecting Your Bones From Thieves

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Soapy Smith: Con Artist Extraordinaire

For anyone heading out to Vegas…

Soapy Smith

Photo courtesy of Sabine Ludwig

Soapy Smith is one of the most well-known and amoral criminal masterminds of 19th century America. An accomplished con artist from the age of 19, he eventually rose to command a gang network of criminal activity through a combination of wit, charm, and weapons.

Jefferson Randall Smith II was born November 2, 1860 into a wealthy, educated Southern family. His grandfather was a plantation owner and his father was a lawyer. However, the after-effects of the Civil War broke the family financially, causing them to move to Texas for a fresh start.

At the age of 19, Smith got his own fresh start in Forth Worth when he began his career as a con man known for his soap shell game and the 3-card monte (which is simply another version of the shell game).

Shell games can be traced back to the Middle Ages where it was often played with thimbles. In the 19th century, it was a popular county fair distraction played with either peas and three shells or balls and cups. The object of the game was to bet where the pea had been hidden. If the guess was correct, the person would win double the money initially put down.

However, due to the expert sleight of hand ability of most shell game players, the bet placer would never win.

Note: Keep in mind that sleight of hand ability shouldn’t always be considered bad. In 2006, David Copperfield confused a would-be thief by claiming he had no wallet on him at the time he was being mugged. Sleight of hand allowed Copperfield to hide his wallet elsewhere.

The same scenario plays out with 3-card monte.

Three cards are placed face-down and the person placing the bet is asked to find the winning card after they’ve been shuffled. In the rare event that a bet placer actually chooses correctly, quick sleight of hand allows the dealer to slide another, losing card under the winner by using a “throw” technique or a Mexican turnover trick.

Smith took the shell game a few steps further by wrapping $1 to $100 bills around several bars of soap and placing them alongside of regular soap bars. The customer put down $1 for a chance to guess where the currency- wrapped soap was located. However, Smith kept track of which bars were wrapped and ensured his accompanying gang members always “won” these, thus encouraging more people to play.

Hence the nickname, Soapy Smith.

But while con games kept food on the table, Soapy was always attuned to new opportunities that might make him some quick money. The instability found throughout many 19th century frontier towns certainly assisted him in this goal.

In Denver, Colorado one business venture included a ‘discount’ train ticket sales office. The money would be taken but strangely enough, the ticketmaster was never around to dispense the purchased tickets. Another scam included his acting as sheriff to help ‘close down’ local gambling joints and brothels. Patrons who had lost large sums of money in his businesses were ‘arrested’ and then released if they went quietly home without attempting to reclaim their losses. Unfortunately, this easy way of money didn’t last too long after it was discovered Smith was rigging elections. He was asked to leave town sooner rather than later.

Smith’s final hurrah was in Skagway, Alaska from 1897-1898 .

At this time, the Klondike Gold Rush was in full swing and seeing boundless opportunities for easy money in another frontier town, Smith moved north and began relieving miners of their heavy gold-carrying burdens.

A telegraph office (with wires extending only to the wall) was built. Miners stood in line waiting their turn to send a message home about their earnings while members of Smith’s gang worked their shell games and 3-card monte cons.

When one vigilante crew was finally established with the goal of cleaning up crime (and ideally, getting rid of Soapy), Smith simply formed his own gang to go after the vigilante crew.

During the Spanish-American war, Smith organized his own Skagway Military Company as potential fighters, even obtaining President McKinley’s recognition of his organizational efforts. Never one to leave a potential income stone unturned. Smith turned this presidential recognition to his advantage by using it to shore up his political control over Skagway.

But all good things must come to an end.

On July 8, 1898, the day after Soapy’s crew swindled $2,700 from a Klondike Miner, vigilantes met with him to discuss repayment terms. An argument broke out and led to a gunfight and Smith was shot and killed.

His grave remains a highlight for Skagway tourists

Other Resources:

• YouTube Video: How to perform a Mexican Turnover

• YouTube Video: How to perform a card throw

• HistoryNet.com: Soapy Smith, Con Man’s Empire

• Legends of America: Soapy Smith, Bunko Man of America

Google Timeline of Soapy Smith’s life

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