Category Archives: Commentary

Mount Pleasant memories

Writers and artists have somehow always known cemeteries are a place of inspiration. Seattle-based writer Stacy Carlson, author of Among The Wonderful, shares her particular credo about Mount Pleasant.

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There’s a blue-green house shaped like a barn on West Bothwell Street that’s half a block from a T-intersection.

It’s a T because instead of another block of tidy houses, the Mount Pleasant Cemetery breaks the grid with its amoeba-shaped expanse. I don’t know exactly how big, or how old the cemetery is. I don’t know anybody buried there. But if it weren’t for Mount Pleasant, half a block from the house where I grew up, I never would have started writing fiction.

My friend Shannon and I roller-skated all over our neighborhood. We started out in the alley behind Shannon’s house. We didn’t try to learn how to skate backwards or do any fancy twirls. We went for speed.

Starting at one end of the alley, we simply raced each other to the other end and most of the time, Shannon won. But the pavement in that alley was a rough grade, and we dodged jagged potholes, giant cracks and more than once ripped up our knees, elbows, and faces. After a while we moved to a patch of smooth cement on a quiet street a couple of blocks from my house.

It was a short-lived victory: one night coming home from work my dad spotted us skittering out of the way of his car. We were banished from the streets.

It was then that we zeroed in on the cemetery. Shannon crept through the laurel hedge for a look around and she reported that the cemetery had the smoothest pavement she had seen in her entire life!

Not only was the cemetery road smoother than any road we’d ever skated on, but the cemetery itself was on a slight hill, so we went faster than ever. Plus, if you went out of control, usually you could bail right onto the lawn, only occasionally knocking yourself against a headstone.

So one time, this was in the summer when it stayed light until ten at night, we were skating in the cemetery. We always stayed on the far side, away from the house where the groundskeeper lived. The cemetery officially closed at sundown, but in the summer that could mean anywhere between seven and ten, depending on the weather.

Often, the place closed with us in it.

This normally wouldn’t matter – we had our usual hole in the hedge – but, as we soon found out, Mount Pleasant employed an unusual nighttime security guard in the form of a sleek Doberman Pinscher.

We had just finished a downhill race (Shannon won) when the dog appeared in the distance, galloping towards us, barking hysterically. Of course we took off, back up the hill, doing the best we could on our skates.

We had no chance of outrunning this dog. Even I knew that.

As usual, Shannon skated faster than I did; I was the one who would be attacked and probably killed. So I remember this point, this crucial moment, when I made what seemed like the most important decision of my life: I decided to angle off the smooth road and go overland to try to reach a Maple tree with a low-hanging branch.

I would lose all my speed on the grass, but I figured I could get to the tree in about ten seconds, and in another ten I might be safe in its branches. I almost fell on my face because of the grass under my skates, but I made it. I swung onto the branch and managed to pull myself up in time.

The dog overtook Shannon and immediately bit her on the butt.

Luckily, the groundskeeper had heard the barking and managed to call off the dog before more harm was done. (In fact, due to a petition that soon went around our neighborhood, the dog was euthanized). Even though I felt bad for Shannon, I was proud of my escape and I trusted my instincts after that.

We played softball in Mount Pleasant too, on the one small field with vacant gravesites. Jesse, Ethan, Sam, Michael, my brother Gregory, and me. I guess we’d been playing for years before I noticed there was a name engraved on our home plate. It was mostly covered up with grass: Luella Hurley, 1899-1939.

Luella Hurley, the curliest name I ever heard. Instantly I could see her, in old-fashioned buttoned boots, sitting near us on a gravestone. She had wavy brown hair that swirled up in the wind and she carried a wicker basket with a cream cake inside. I don’t know where I came up with cream cake. I must have read about it somewhere, who knows. But there she was, clear as day in my mind, with some story to tell.

And finally, of course, Halloween: every year after we trick-or-treated we went home and changed out of our costumes. All the kids’ moms would call each other and they would agree that we could go into the cemetery for half an hour. It seems so weird, but they let us do it.

There were always a bunch of kids in there; I mostly remember being one of the younger ones. My brother and Jesse would run off, leaving Sam and me on our own. We’d be fine for the first five minutes, but dark shapes flitted behind every gravestone. We would clutch hands, then, squealing.

There were a few rituals we always had to do but there was one that was worse than the others. There was one crypt in this cemetery.

The Bauer family crypt.

It was a low cement room built into the side of the hill, and on Halloween you had to go up to the door and knock on it. You had to say something too, like “anybody home?” Maybe it doesn’t sound that scary, but when I got up there and found myself about to make contact with the Bauers, it nearly gave me a heart attack.

I must have done it five years in a row and my fear never subsided. But once it was done I ran away screaming in a delectable combination of terror and profound glee to still be among the living.

So I guess somehow the Mount Pleasant Cemetery gave me the three convictions that make fiction possible: 1. Trust your instincts. 2. Know that there are stories floating all around you, even under your feet, engraved in stone; see them, and give them the full range of your imagination. 3. Keep going, no matter how scared you are, until you’ve knocked on mystery’s door.

© 2008 by Stacy Carlson

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For an anticipatory taste of Stacy’s book……:

“…In the autumn of 1840, PT Barnum purchased an outdated museum on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in Manhattan. He was a newcomer to the city and still unknown to the world, but with uncanny confidence and impeccable timing he transformed the dusty natural history collection into a great ark for public imagination. Among the Wonderful is the story of this museum’s short, extraordinary reign as America’s most popular attraction.”

 

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The ghost town of Bodie, California

If you ever find yourself wandering the Eastern Sierras, this is one of the most spectacular places you can visit (besides Mono Lake where Clint Eastwood filmed Pale Rider). I love this area so much, I couldn’t resist re-posting this article.

The lonely road back to civilization

Hundreds of miles from civilization.

Gold is a funny thing.

It will drive a human being to live far out on a desolate, arid plateau baked by summer heat, frozen by zero degree winter temperatures and blown apart from vicious blizzards and 100+ mph winds. Keeping warm means lighting a fire with expensive, imported lumber and, due to the gold’s remote location, probably everything (food, liquor, clothing, wood) has to be brought in over a long, dusty trail, making the camp one of the most expensive and dreariest places to live.

All this for an opportunity to strike, gamble, or steal it rich.

Bodie, California started out pretty much like most mining towns. In 1859, a prospecting group that included former New York State resident, W.S. Bodey, found gold in the desolate California wastelands east of Tioga Pass.

By 1876, 30 miners were living in the Bodie mining camp. Four years later, there were 10,000.

Unfortunately, W.S. Bodey never realized the potential of his little mining site as in 1860, he was caught in a blizzard while getting supplies from Mono City, 26 miles away. However, from 1877 to the late 1880s, the town boomed and predictions of it being the next Comstock Lode ran rampant. Yet where Comstock produced almost $400 million in gold and silver ore, Bodie was only able to produce approximately 8% of that payload, or $34 million. Nonetheless, the town did its best to keep up other appearances where rowdy mining life was concerned.

The red light district, complete with brothels, opium and gambling dens, was found at the north end of town and at one time there were approximately 65 saloons to choose from. With nowhere else to go after a hard day’s work but the saloons and brothels, it’s little wonder at least one killing per day was estimated. As a result, the cemetery quickly became filled up with markers commemorating fatal gun, knife or fistfights.

Unfortunately, few of these wooden markers have survived over the decades and those that remain, are mostly stone memorials. Interestingly enough, while Bodie had its own Chinatown, few Chinese, were buried here. Instead, their remains were shipped back to China as soon as possible to be joined with family ancestors on native soil.

One marker seen near the cemetery is dedicated to Rosa May. Rosa May was a prostitute who allegedly helped nurse the sick miners during an epidemic but her line of work did not allow for a burial inside the cemetery gates.

Rosa May - nurse during an epidemic

Rosa May – nurse during an epidemic

Another sad story concerns Lottie and Eli Johl.

Lottie worked at one of the Bodie brothels and Eli was the town butcher. They fell in love and eventually married, much to proper society’s dismay. As a result, Lottie was never accepted into ‘normal’ social circles and the two lived a comfortable but lonely life without friends on the edge of town. After her death, she was allowed a burial just inside the cemetery gates and Eli built her a magnificent memorial which he decorated in her honor each Memorial Day.

Eventually, as the town slipped further into decline, Eli made the hard decision to move away, leaving his Lottie behind. By 1921, there were 31 people living in Bodie.

By 1940, only 20 remained.

In 1961, the town was designated a National Landmark and in 1962, it became Bodie Historic State Park. During the summer, thousands will make the difficult drive in to visit, making it one of the most well-known ghost towns in the country.

Below is a YouTube video clearly showing Bodie’s desolate environment.

Below is a YouTube video giving an overview of Bodie’s place in history.

 

Other resources:

• Find A Grave: Bodie Cemetery listings

The Bodie Photo Gallery

• Google Books: Bodie’s Gold: Tall Tales and True History from a California Mining Town

• Google Books: Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra, Lottie & Eli Johl

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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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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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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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Illegible headstones? There’s an app for that

For those of you heading out on vacation this month, don’t forget that cellphones aren’t just for taking pictures.

Popular consensus seems to be that cell phones are far too prevalent in daily life. Tweeting, texting, music, surfing, games – the list is endless. Some might even say phones have become more toy than tool.

Aside from basic functions and some photo capabilities, it’s certainly not much help in old graveyards, right? Well, if John Bottorff has anything to do about it, cell phones might become a genealogist’s best friend.

Bottorff, the owner of Objecs, LLC, has developed three, cell-phone readable tablets suitable for both the new and old, illegible gravestones. Called the Personal Rosetta Stone, these tablets store selected personal data via RFID technology and are mounted on the gravestone. By touching the stone with an NFC-RFID enabled cell phone, genealogical information is then uploaded to the viewer screen.

What is RFID technology?

According to Technovelgy.com:

“RFID (or Radio-Frequency Identification) refers to a small electronic device consisting of a micro chip (carrying up to 2,000 bytes of data) and an antenna.

The RFID device serves the same purpose as a bar code or a magnetic strip on the back of a credit card or ATM card; it provides a unique identifier for that object. And, just as a bar code or magnetic strip must be scanned to get the information, the RFID device must be scanned to retrieve the identifying information.”

Earlier this week, I caught up with John to find out more.

RFID in tombstones? How did this get started?

Well, like many new business ideas, it branched off from something else. A Portuguese client thought our object hyperlink products might be useful for identifying the crumbling, 600-year old tombstones on his property. Ultimately, he wanted to share this information via cell phone. This was easy enough to do since European mobile devices are automatically configured to access information via hardlinks.

However, it’s a different story here in the U.S.

Why? Are American cell phones different?

American cell phones are typically locked and providers don’t offer NFC-RFID enabling at this time. At least not yet. Eventually, the technology will be incorporated and there are some who do have it now, but these are the geeks who bought the equipment overseas and brought it home. However, our tablets do work with all Internet enabled phones, but only NFC enabled phones can use our wireless touch technology.

Keep in mind, that the information can also be pulled manually.We know a third-party vendor that developed an app for iPhone users – yes, there’s an app for that. But it’s not ours.

When do you see our phones handling this technology?

I anticipate this happening around 2010.

How does the RFID chip get into the tablet/headstone?

There’s a way to embed the electronics but it’s a trade secret on how the stone mason carves it all in. I can’t elaborate any further.

The tablets have some kind of engraved symbols. Can you explain these?

We designed the Rosetta Stone to be an artifact, meaning the customer can choose symbols that best defined a person’s life. For example, we offer the scales of justice describe a judge, a badge to signify a policeman, or a sailboat to describe someone who liked sailing. At this time, we have a library of about 800 symbols, many of them developed through customer feedback.

What’s the most unique symbol?

The jail cell symbol (Check out #70 on the symbols list).

So, the customer picks a tablet, chooses the symbols, and then what?

The tablet and chip tag are then set into the headstone. Later on, a genealogist with an enabled cell phone camera and internet connection, could take a picture of the barcode (in this case, the tablet). This action triggers a link and redirection of the phone’s web browser to the desired URL target and related database information. (Here’s a more detailed explanation)

Your website mentions three types of tablets. What are they?

The three types are Millennium, Century, and Decade.

The Millennium class is the longest wearing because it’s made out of granite and the Century class is made from travertine stone. While the Century type is specifically designed as an indoor family heirloom, it can be used outdoors. The third is the Decade, a metal, polypropelyne (thermoplastic molding) marker. These were what we originally mailed to our Portuguese client.

What unexpected surprises have you encountered?

Actually, it’s the market. We initially approached this product assuming that our customers were the 55- and older, genealogy-oriented market. We’re now finding out that the age bracket is actually lower, ranging from 40-year olds, down to even 20-somethings.

What’s been the reaction from genealogy societies?

There’s been little to no reaction from genealogy societies. This has been surprising considering the amount of data out there that could be put to wider access. Perhaps there is a lack of knowledge about the product or skepticism about whether the particularly small, local info would even be worthwhile entering in this database? I don’t know.

What message are you hoping to send with this product?

It’s important to identify your place in time, regardless of who you are or your life’s story. Future generations are going to want to learn about the past and this is one way of helping them out. Today’s barber might not think his work is important but three generations from now, another barber might disagree.

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