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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

history lessons

Those Six Degrees of Separation that Connect Us All


About this time last year, I was writing about the beginning of the twentieth century in my first rough draft of the third volume of the Grenville Trilogy. One notable event of the period was the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Naturally I had to stop and do some historical research. 
 
McKinley was in his second term of office. On September 6th,  he attended a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. A young anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, shot him at close range. Czolgosz was an American citizen, a steel worker, and the son of Polish immigrants. The shot was not immediately fatal, but the president died of gangrene eight days later, and was succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.   

 This year, as I read through the final page proofs of Yankee Daughters, I‘ve again been thinking about various current events, and also wondering what my characters, who had also lived through the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, would have thought about another act of violence. But first, I needed to deal with creature comforts. It’s a cold, cloudy, damp morning, and although I know it's November, I'm not ready to turn on the furnace and admit that winter is here. So I decided to switch on the gas fireplace for an hour or two to take the chill off. 

I walked into the living room, as I've done thousands of times in the past twelve years. I glanced at the mirror above the fireplace out of long habit. (Who doesn't sneak a look when they pass a mirror once in a while—not my mother’s daughter, certainly!) Then it hit me. The mirror I was looking at once also reflected the image of William McKinley. How did that happen? The story, once again, goes back to those eight McCaskey sisters. 

The McKinley family was from Canton, Ohio, which you may only know as the location of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But for the McCaskey girls, Canton was a tempting destination. It sits not far across the state border from North Sewickley. It was a booming metropolis founded by a bunch of wealthy steel magnates, while North Sewickley had remained a backwoods settlement. It was where one went in search of fame and fortune, apparently.  One by one, most of the McCaskey girls found a way to move there. 

 Now we fast-forward to the nineteen forties. My mother had managed to marry the boss, and for the first time in her entire life, she had money to spend. She had left many of her friends behind, but there were always family members near by. She was particularly close to her sister Florence's second daughter, Helen, and the two of them enjoyed shopping sprees together.  

Helen had married a man who was related by another marriage to the McKinley family. (Helen’s daughter Sharyn, my own cousin once removed, provided me with the hand-written family documents that detailed the relationship.) Helen’s husband was a second-cousin-twice-removed of ida McKinley, wife of President William McKinley.  Since the McKinleys had only two daughters, neither of whom survived past childhood, Ida's cousins were her only living relatives. And that’s how Helen and my mother managed to wrangle tickets to the auction where the McKinley mansion and its contents were being sold off.

Now my mother was one of the original "material girls." Because she had grown up in great poverty, she valued THINGS. And at that auction, she fell in love with an antique mirror. It's about four feet square and surrounded by a frame of gilded (naturally! this was the Gilded Age) plaster of Paris roses. So she bought it. I have no idea how much she paid for it, or even how she managed to get the thing home. (Knowing my mother, I’d bet she just batted her eyelashes at the nearest fellow with a truck.)

The mirror hung in the living room during my entire childhood. When my mother died, I inherited it,  and I entrusted it to a whole succession of Air Force movers who shuffled us and our belongings back and forth across the country. The plaster of Paris framework is cracked at all its weakest points, but the cracks are clean and almost invisible unless you happen to grasp the mirror at the wrong point -- in which case a rose will come off in your fingers until you tuck it back in. The silvering on the back has held up remarkably well. And here it still hangs, over a century old, providing a link between me and a historical event I knew almost nothing about until last year.

My mother's niece's husband's second cousin (twice removed)’s husband. . .  Six degrees of separation, indeed.
 
 
 
 
 

The Enduring Value of Baseball

Everybody’s talking about the World Series today, and i’m no exception. Despite the fact that I usually don’t watch sports on TV, I was glued to the screen last night from the eighth inning on. And when I finally went to bed, the thought in my mind was: “All is right in the world, at least for this moment.”
 
This morning, as Facebook is overrun with congratulatory  messages and reminders that the Cubs had not won a World Series for 108 years, several people have commented that last night’s win was a “return to the good old days.” My historian’s mindset, however, has been reminding me to think about what the world was really like 108 years ago.
 
Now, as it happens, the book proof I sent off to the publisher this morning deals with exactly that question. My upcoming “Yankee Daughters,” due out in early December, covers the years from 1886 to 1920. And, with an apologetic shrug to the nine real women who inspired the story, it does not paint a pretty picture. Here’s the blurb that appears on the back cover:


 
How do you raise old-fashioned 19-century girls who must face the  challenges of an unstable world:
-- natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes
-- institutional failures that cause economic panic and bank closures
-- the unthinkable disasters of assassination and the sinking of an unsinkable ship
-- worldwide conflict and the horrors of trench warfare
 
And how do you prepare them for the changes they will face in the 20 century:
--from dirt roads and horse-drawn wagons to highways, airplanes, and automobiles
--from political bosses to women’s suffrage and prohibition
--from one-room school houses to state-controlled public education
--from family farms to assembly lines and labor unions
--from geographic isolation to worldwide communications
 
As for the year 1908 itself, here’s what my story has to say about it:
 
"The financial crisis Jamey had been worrying about reared its head early in 1907, and by October and November, there was a massive run on regional banks, as several brokerage firms, including the Knickerbocker Trust, went broke. Jamey now refused to discuss the crisis, but he was distracted, pale, and frightened. In 1908, the local bank foreclosed on the Grenville farm. A sheriff’s deputy nailed the notification to the door early one morning."
 
Of course, the Grenville sisters would not have been following the 1908 World Series. If they had known about it at all, they would probably have been rooting for Detroit. Still, looking back, I can imagine that many baseball fans—then as now—really needed something to make them feel good about themselves for a little while.
 

So, thank you, Chicago Cubs, for once again providing the smiles on our faces.

Tragedy Recognizes No Boundaries of Time or Place

Here's one of the things I've learned from the years I've spent studying history. The twenty-first century does not have a monopoly on horrible events such as wars, mass shootings, epidemic disease, or even the loss of a toddler to a horrible accident. Oh, we may be more aware of these events than people used to be, thanks to technology that speeds up the spread of the news. But horrible events have always happened. You can find them in any period of history.

This morning I read a Facebook post in which someone lamented that she wanted life to go back to being like it was when she was growing up. Did she grow up in a perfect era? Of course not. Was the world safer, saner, healthier when we were kids? No. It's only our own knowledge and awareness that has changed. And does it help to solve the world's problems by wishing for a return to a simpler time? It does not. 

Maybe we cannot always learn from history, but historical events may serve to remind us that much of what we struggle against is part of the human condition. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and then look at our world with a bit of compassion and sympathy. It should be possible to recognize the existence of tragic events without needing to point a finger at any one culprit. And then, perhaps, we can start taking small steps to make the world a better place.

What set me off this morning was the realization that my great-uncle James McCaskey died on this date--June 16--one hundred and fifty-four years ago. He was a Union soldier, killed in a botched battle during the first year of the Civil War. I re-read the letter his parents received, and I noted once again the stains on the paper caused by the tears of my great-grandparents. The letter reminds me that grief and loss are universal experiences.  Here's the letter:

Mr. Jn. McCaskey,
Dear Sir:

   General Benham appointed the morning of the 16th as the time for our forces to move on "Tower Fort" near "Sesesha" Ville, which is in sight of Sumpter, and about 2 miles from the City of Charlestown.
   We left Camp at 1 A.M. and at daylight marched up to the Fort under a galling fire of Grape, Cannister, Shot, and Shell. I was in Command of our Company. Men were falling on every side. Whilst near the Ft. a Shower of Grape came in our ranks, one of which struck your Son, James, and we think tore off one of his legs, near the body. He fell! This is the last we saw of him. The "Liter-bearers" of General Wright's Div. must, I think, have carried him off the Field.
   I have searched and searched for him but in vain. We all feel confident that he is dead. Jacob Leary fell at the same time and is also missing. James was a noble young man and a brave soldier—was beloved by all his associates. He was like a brother to me, and I lament his loss. You have my sympathy and prayers in your deep affliction.
   The loss in our Co. was 4 killed and 71 wounded. We fought with great disadvantages and in consequence lost heavily.
   If it can possibly be done I will send his Knap-Sack and traps home to you, as I have no doubt you would like to possess them. His Watch and what Money he had, were on his person.
   If any further intelligence of his fate can be had, I will inform you in due time.

Yours truly,
Lieut. Philo S. Morton

Note: His body was never found. His family erected a tombstone above an empty grave.


Do You Remember What the Civil War Accomplished?

I’m not usually a big believer in the theory that history repeats itself, but today — hoo, boy! —I’m overwhelmed with a sense of déjà vu.

I have been spending many of my waking hours this week on a line-by-line, word-by-word, comma-by-comma review of the first-pass edit of my WIP, “Yankee Reconstructed.” This is the stage at which my editor often catches the little mistakes that creep in over the months-long process of writing a novel.  Simple errors, like a change of names or eye-color, are easy to correct.  Consistency in capturing attitudes from 150 years ago is more difficult to handle.

My new book covers the 10 to 15 year period immediately after the Civil War, known to historians (and the people living through it) as Reconstruction.  Highlights of that first ten years include the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which established the basis for all of the following civil rights legislation up to the present day. So I’ve been carefully examining what my characters have to say about those amendments — both pro and con — and particularly, the 14th Amendment, which says:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This morning I opened my Yahoo! home page to check my e-mail, and the first sentence to hit my eye declared that Donald Trump says, “The 14th Amendment is unconstitutional.”  

Really?  Has he no understanding of constitutional law and what it takes to make a change in that constitution? Do his followers have no understanding of the struggle for civil rights that has gone on for 150 years? Has there been no moral progress on this issue in the past 150 years?

I do not wish to ignite or engage in a political argument here in my blog, and I will not publish comments on this post. However, I return to my editing with an even stronger conviction that modern readers need to learn more about what went on in this country immediately after the Civil War.

Someone once asked me if I really believed that people should take time to read history-based books about events that took place long ago. Oh, yeah!