Tag Archives: history

Gudrun’s Postcards: A Little Girl’s Life and Death in a Bygone Era

In 1915, my great aunt Gudrun died of type 1 diabetes at the age of ten or eleven. It was one of those family health tidbits to mention to the doctor and little more. Insulin injections weren’t developed until 1922; before that, the disease was a death sentence.

A few weeks ago, I got to see Gudrun’s postcards. They were passed down through the family, but I had never seen them before.

The oldest postcards go back to 1909 or so, when Gudrun would have been 4 or 5. They’re from her sisters, who worked in big city Minneapolis, or her school mates. Many of them are undated and probably delivered by hand, as they have no stamps or postmarks. Many of the dates on the postmarked cards aren’t legible.

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Dear School mate. How are you. I am ok. We all have bad colds. Baby is learning to walk. From [unreadable] Larson.

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“Hello Gudrun–Are you taking good care of Mabel [my grandmother, who was an infant]? Agnes has got a good place assist with house work. The lady Mrs Baxter knows Mrs. Moore so well have been neighbors. Gets $3.00 a week. I was to get $5.00 but if I could do it but I ain’t going to kill myself for money am looking for another place now. Write soon. It’s kind of cold up there and [indecipherable]”-Unsigned, probably a sister in Minneapolis.

The last postcards are postmarked around Christmas 1914. I haven’t been able to find records of when Gudrun died, just that the year was 1915. Many of the postcards ask after Gudrun’s health, even well before she would have been ill. Health comes up in many of the postcards between six and seven year olds. Health was different in that era. One of Gudrun’s sisters would die from pneumonia a few years later as a high schooler. [Correction: the girl who died from pneumonia was my grandfather’s sister. One of Gudrun’s sisters died of an ear infection in the 1930s.] One of her brothers later died from an infected cut.

Postcards seem like they were routinely exchanged between young children. The spelling and handwriting on many of the cards is very young. Mail and trinkets of the greater world were probably a huge thrill in rural Readstown, Wisconsin, a town of 515 in 1910. Gudrun lived on a farm, and probably most of her classmates did too. Because many of the cards are undated, it’s hard to establish a time line. Did her classmates write more to her as she became ill? They sent cards for every holiday. There are birthday cards, Valentine’s cards, Thanksgiving cards, Easter cards, New Years cards, and Halloween cards. Many are un-themed. Sometimes a little friend sent a holiday card at an odd time, apologizing that it was the only card they could find.

We don’t know how long Gudrun was ill before she succumbed. Online resources suggest children lived from a few weeks up to a year. Around the time of Gudrun’s illness, doctors began to advocate a starvation treatment to reduce sugar levels and prolong life. In rural Wisconsin, Gudrun probably didn’t follow such a course of treatment, but maybe the general concept was present. Since ancient times, diabetes had been described for the sugary taste it gave to a victim’s urine, so the connection to sugar was well-known.

There’s a lot we don’t know about Gudrun. We don’t have any of the cards she sent. All of her correspondents and siblings are long dead. I look at her and wonder about her and what her life was like. The postcard designs are an insight into Gudrun’s era as well. Some feature Norwegian; she probably spoke some. The handwriting is exclusively in English. All but two or three feature illustrations rather than photos. Some have metallic foil and embossing. Some have half tone designs. I picked a few of my favorites.

Gudrun died over 70 years before I was born. What a wonderful record of her community and family and friendships this collection of cards is. Her life and death over a hundred years ago feels real through it.

 

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St. Louis: #1 in Civil Rights?

The Missouri History Museum in St. Louis has a new exhibit: #1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis. I grew up in St. Louis and the title sounded ridiculous. #1? Every school in the state of Missouri requires students to learn about Missouri history in 4th grade. We learned about Daniel Boone and the Pony Express and the Dred Scott case. We didn’t learn about protests or sit-ins or bus boycotts. My school district was desegregated with busing in 1983. The events in Ferguson in 2014 don’t exactly suggest a racially-progressive St. Louis.

So how could the History Museum argue that St. Louis was #1 in civil rights?

It’s a quote. For the 1964 bicentennial of St. Louis, Nathan B. Young wrote an article calling St. Louis the #1 city in civil rights. He was the editor of the St. Louis American, a black newspaper. He argued that the civil rights Supreme Court cases that originated from the city and the civil rights actions in the city made St. Louis a prominent city in the movement. The argument is summarized in the 8 minute video from the History Museum below.

The history of civil rights in St. Louis

The exhibit covers all kinds of history I never learned. Missouri was a slave state. But there were protests seeking its admission as a free state in 1819.

St. Louis spawned four major Supreme Court cases.

St. Louis also had sit-ins starting in the 40s, was active in the 1940s March on Washington movement, and had very active NAACP and CORE chapters.

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I feel cheated that we learned so little of this rich history in school. Fortunately, that deficit is being recognized today.

If you have a chance to visit the exhibit, I highly recommend it. There are several actors playing period activists (ACTivists, get it?), and the woman who played Margaret Bush Wilson was amazing. Stylized portraits of the subjects were commissioned for the exhibit, which was really cool, and necessary in the case of some of the 19th century people with limited period imagery.

The exhibit is really upbeat and focuses on the fight for equality in St. Louis. The negative parts of history–the white flight and the reactionary racism–that’s not a part of this exhibit. It’s part of the story too, but they chose to portray a history that the city can rally around. So little of this history was in my curriculum; I hope that this exhibit and the work supporting it improves that deficit.

Book Review: The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration (Thomas Spencer 2000)

Rating: 3.5/5

St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995 details a strange institution in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The Veiled Prophet celebration was St. Louis’ response to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras inverts the social order; the fool is king for a day, and the rich man mingles with the poor man. The Veiled Prophet celebration was created to reinforce the social order, to show the lower classes the differences between them and the leading luminaries. Veiled Prophet details the evolution of this celebration; it began in 1878 in response to a massive labor strike in 1877, and continues to this day, although less overtly political.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Starting in the late 1970s, The Veiled Prophet society organized the Fourth of July celebration in St. Louis. Until 1992, the celebration was called the VP Fair (today it is called Fair St. Louis). When I learned with bafflement that the VP stood for “Veiled Prophet,” I grew curious. The Veiled Prophet society is such an old tradition in St. Louis, but little talked about, due to lack of interest and the elitist threads of the society. But many of the most influential St. Louisans took part in this strange organization; it’s a part of St. Louis history and shapes today’s city. Many of you even know a queen of the Veiled Prophet Ball—Ellie Kemper, perhaps better known as Kimmy Schmidt.

THE GOOD

The Veiled Prophet society, to the extent folks even remember it today, has a reputation for being snobbish and racist. It was unsurprising to learn that the society formed to praise the strong hand of business in the face of labor unrest. (For more about 19th century labor unrest, Death in the Haymarket is a great book; I reviewed it here.)

Initially, the parade anchored the celebration, timed to revive the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair in October. It was an attempt, although too late, to compete with Chicago. The Veiled Prophet was a robed man, his face hidden, that oversaw the parade. The first Veiled Prophet was Police Commissioner John Priest, an active foe of the prior year’s labor riots. After Priest voluntarily unveiled himself in 1878, the Prophet’s identity remained secret, revealed only once by a crazed caper in 1972.

The celebration evolved with time. Some decades the parade would be educational, others more lighthearted. With time, the Veiled Prophet Ball became the more important component; at its peak it was covered in minute detail in the local papers, and even broadcast nationally after World War 2. The Veiled Prophet character evolved too. Originally just a title, they eventually added a mythology of an exotic easterner.

The relationship between the organization and the media changed substantially with time as well. The Republic was owned by members of the society, and thus covered the events in detail. More recent coverage has been more critical.

I also enjoyed reading about the people involved, though there was less of this than I would have liked. David R. Francis, the man who brought the Olympics and the World’s Fair to St. Louis, was an active member. One of the first members, Alonzo Slayback, died after a fight with a newspaperman. The 1927 Veiled Prophet queen was, scandalously, already married at the time she became queen, and, even worse, without her father’s permission! In an interview in 1977, she mused that the society still hadn’t gotten over it.

THE BAD

Although Veiled Prophet is meticulously researched, it is fairly dry. It reads like a list of facts and newspaper archives more than a narrative. The roles of the people involved in the society are only lightly sketched. This meant the book was shorter, but less relatable.

Also absent is any local St. Louis history. The World’s Fair, the tornado of 1896, mayoral elections and politics, various strikes—these events do not appear in the book.

The book stays narrowly focused on the Veiled Prophet society, for good or ill. I would have preferred more context. This book is, for the most part, just the facts, and less interpretation than some other works of history.

OVERALL

This book is a 5/5 for content about the society and quality of sources. The writing quality is fine, but the narrow approach of the topic makes it a dry read. For someone interested in St. Louis history, it is well worthwhile. I found it less enjoyable and informative than I had hoped; I wanted to better understand St. Louis history, the Veiled Prophet context in that history, and how St. Louis differed from other cities in this respect. This book doesn’t offer a lot of interpretation for the reader. Not everybody wants that, but I was hoping for it.

Book Review: Santa Anna of Mexico (Will Fowler 2007)

Rating: 4/5

Will Fowler’s Santa Anna of Mexico is about Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the six-time president of Mexico. Santa Anna partook in most major events in the first 40 years of Mexican independence. Americans might know his as the cruel Mexican general of The Battle of the Alamo in Texas. He was a charismatic and wily man, entwined with and representative of the problems of early Mexico. He is hated today in Mexico, with no roads or statues to his honor; Fowler presents a complex man living through complex times.

WHY THIS BOOK?

  1. Santa Anna pops up in southwestern history. He was the general at the Alamo. He lost a leg in the Pastry War. He conned James Polk during the Mexican-American War. Eventually, I had to read his biography.
  2. Although the United States has only two neighbor countries, I know almost nothing about the history of either.

THE GOOD

Go look at the heads of state of Mexico on Wikipedia. For the first 30 years, only one lasted his whole term. 19th century United States sometimes seems dysfunctional; we’ve got nothing on Mexico. How did Mexico turn out so differently? This book helped me understand that a little.

Santa Anna’s biography is a great way to learn the (ridiculously complex and confusing) early history of Mexico. Santa Anna’s personal history parallels his country’s history. Fowler splits Santa Anna’s career into four stages: Hope (1821-28), Disenchantment (1828-35), Disillusion (1835-47), and Despair (1847-53).

Fowler portrays a complex Santa Anna. Santa Anna is blamed as the man who lost Texas, the man who lost the Mexican-American War (ceding half the country to the US), and the man who signed the humiliating Gadsden Purchase (ceding some more land to the US). He was also the Hero of Tampico, fending off a Spanish invasion, and the hero of the Pastry War, in which he lost a leg. In the Mexican-American War, he returned from exile in Cuba and valiantly fought when all others seemed paralyzed by infighting. The man had more lives than a cat. He was incredibly opportunistic, but he was also brave and believed in Mexico.

Fowler also describes Santa Anna as a caudillo. The caudillo, or strongman, is a political tradition in Latin America tracing to Spain’s colonial policies. The caudillo amassed money, land, and influence regionally; if his region was nationally influential enough, he would be nationally influential. Santa Anna became the caudillo of Veracruz, the large and crucial port of Mexico.

Donald Trump has been called the “Yankee Caudillo” in Latin American press. There are parallels. Santa Anna attacked the political parties as corrupt; he claimed to stand apart from the evils of partisanship and to fight for the people. Santa Anna stayed relevant with his wealth in Veracruz; likewise Trump stayed relevance with his global brand. Both men were constantly near power, but able to claim a mantle of purity. Like Trump, Santa Anna preferred to campaign (this time in the military sense). Santa Anna rarely held power for more than six months because he didn’t care to govern. (This is in contrast to other caudillos who held power for extended periods of time.) My understanding is admittedly superficial, but learning about Mexico’s politics gave me another perspective on American politics.

THE BAD

I struggled with the first few chapters. I was constantly consulting Wikipedia or a map. If you know little Mexican history, this book is absolutely readable, but it’s challenging.

OVERALL

Santa Anna is absurd, but Fowler explains him well. Santa Anna’s antics are so intimately a part of Mexico’s early struggles for democracy.

Santa Anna, like Mexico’s early failure, is so tragic. What could Mexico have accomplished if only they had achieved the stability of the early United States? Were the United States lucky to have achieved stability from the very beginning?

Finally, the caudillo concept provides insights into much of Latin America, and perhaps into the United States.

Book review: A Midwife’s Tale (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich 1990)

Rating: 4/5

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812 tells the tale of midwife Martha Ballard in 18th century frontier Maine. Every day for 35 years, Martha Ballard detailed the weather, her travels, her housework, her community, and her deliveries. If not for her diary, history would only have known Martha’s date of birth, the day she married, the day her children were born, and the day she died. Thanks to her diary, we have insight into her life and into the lives of frontier women in this time period. A Midwife’s Tale discusses rape, family conflict, the role of women in medicine, a family annihilation murder, women’s housework, sexual morays, and frontier life, among other things.

For content, this book is 5/5, it details a unique and wonderful document. For readability, I give A Midwife’s Tale a 3.5/5. Most of the difficulty of the book is inevitable; it has lots of original quotes.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Most history is written by rich older white men. In Martha’s town of Hallowell, Maine, two other diaries of the period survive, written by such men. Although she mentions the authors of these diaries multiple times, she barely appears in theirs. Her diary has roughly even numbers of men and women; theirs barely mention women. The wife of one of these men was a hatmaker; we know that from Martha’s diary, not his.

Martha Ballard’s diary is an ideal historical source. It’s a day to day documentation of her life, without narrative. It wasn’t written to entertain or titillate. It was private. To the extent that one person’s perspective and recording of the days can be honest, her account was.

THE GOOD

A Midwife’s Tale covers a range of topics. That’s part of its difficulty; it’s very broad. We learn about birth, medicine, illness and death, as one might expect from the diary of a midwife. We also learn about economics, debtors’ prison, family, the religious and political conflicts of colonial New England, sexuality, and crime.

Women of Martha’s era were tough. They had babies every other year, and said births typically kept them in bed for a week. They managed their own money, managed gardening and cloth making. Martha continued deliveries until her death at age 77, staying up long hours and traveling through all weather. She didn’t even begin her career until she was 50.

Colonial Maine is full of family squabbles, politics, and trysts. History is less chaste than we imagine when it’s recorded honestly; 38% of firstborns that Martha delivered were conceived out of wedlock. A few women even have multiple children out of wedlock, failing to marry at all. Unlike The Scarlet Letter, they are part of society too, and the fathers of their children are on the hook for support.

Martha moved to Hallowell at the beginning of the American experiment, and her life was full of changes from this. Her landlord had to flee to Canada for being a loyalist. She switches from shillings to dollars in her transactions. The town of Hallowell grew continuously while she lived there; it gave her much of her work. And the economics of her region changed with time. Her nephew was part of the Malta War, caused by economics conflicts of the Plymouth Company owning massive amounts of land and people chafing under this yolk.

THE BAD

This seems to be a recurring complaint for me, but there were too many people to keep track of. Is it too much to ask for a glossary of characters? This was especially bad in A Midwife’s Tale; people were referred to by more than one name or, with Martha’s tenuous grasp on spelling, said name could be spelled half a dozen different ways. Also, Martha had a large family and I totally lost track of who was related to her. A family tree would have been an asset.

A Midwife’s Tale is a slow and challenging read. Because Ulrich has to make (extremely well-researched) inferences, the details are presented with qualifications and caveats. While I appreciated the insight into the process of teasing  out the truth, it impacted the narrative flow substantially. This is less of a “bad thing” and more of a warning–this book makes the reader work.

 

OVERALL

This isn’t a book that tells you the narrative of a single event; it gives perspective on the lives of ordinary people as they traversed the many events of this time period. Life was complicated, but in many ways that are still recognizable today.

If you ever wonder about time travel, this book is probably one of the closest things we have to living a woman’s life in colonial Maine. It’s a unique work on a unique document and seems likely to be as timeless as the source document.

New Mexico History: The Battle of Columbus

Last week was the 100th anniversary of the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram (1/19/1917), in which Germany encouraged Mexico to attack the United States to keep them from participating in WW1. Ironically, the interception contributed to the United States entering the war in April. When we learned about the telegram in school as a child, the idea of Mexico attacking the US sounded laughable. In fact, Pancho Villa had attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico nine months before. At the time of the Zimmermann Telegram, General John Pershing was hunting Villa in northern Mexico in the “Punitive Expedition.”

At the time of the Battle of Columbus, Mexico was several years into the Mexican Revolution. After 35 years, the presidency of Porfirio Díaz collapsed in 1911. A string of leaders followed; Francisco Madero ruled from 1911 until his assassination in 1913. Victoriano Huerto and Venustiano Carranza controlled different parts of Mexico in 1913-1914. In 1914, the United States assaulted the port of Veracruz, with Wilson stating his desire to overthrow Huerta. The United States then supported the presidency of Pancho Villa’s rival, Carranza.

The reasons for the Battle of Columbus aren’t fully clear, but they were probably partially motivated by Villa’s need for munitions and by his irritation that the United States was supporting his rival. Early on March 9, 1916, Villa attacked Columbus with 500 men. The raid didn’t go well for Villa. 90-170 of his men are estimated to have died. President Wilson sent General Pershing into Mexico to hunt for Villa for nearly a year. He evaded capture and entered pop culture fame. At the close of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, he agreed to retire to the country. He was assassinated in 1923 after re-involving himself in politics.

Book review: Forty-Seventh Star: New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood (David V. Holtby 2012)

Rating: 3.5/5

David V. Holtby’s Forty-Seventh Star is about New Mexico’s struggle for statehood. The land of New Mexico (mostly) entered the United States with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. (The southernmost chunk of the state was acquired in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase.) New Mexico petitioned for statehood in 1848 and 1850, but waited until 1912 to be admitted into the union. In the intervening 64 years, 15 states joined the union. By contrast, California, also obtained at the end of the Mexican-American War, became a state in 1850 (gold helped); Colorado became a state in 1876. So why was New Mexico’s wait for statehood among the longest?

After reading about the Mexican-American War, I would have guessed racial issues. Even by the time of statehood, New Mexico was not majority Euro-American. Forty-Seventh Star argues for a variety of causes—petty politics at the national level, bad luck, local corruption, incompetent petitioners, and racial and religious issues all contribute.

Forty-Seventh Star is rife with scoundrels of New Mexico. There’s Thomas B. Catron, member of the powerful and corrupt Santa Fe Ring. Catron, “the largest individual landholder in the history of the United States,” fought for statehood on the theory that it would raise land prices; highly indebted, he needed that land to grow in value. Republican Catron was long suspected in the death of Francisco Chávez, the former sherif of Santa Fe and powerful Democrat. Albert B. Fall is another jerk from New Mexico. Most famously, Fall was Warren Harding’s secretary of the interior responsible for the Teapot Dome Scandal, which concerned the corrupt leasing of federal land for oil extraction. Before Teapot Dome, Fall busied himself with shenanigans in New Mexico; for three months, he was the state attorney general until President Roosevelt insisted upon his removal. He also served as a judge, a state representative, and another stint as attorney general. When New Mexico became a state in 1912, the august persons of Catron and Fall became its first two senators.

President Taft and his Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock deserve the most credit at the federal level for bringing statehood to New Mexico. Taft was willing to cajole and convince senators to see his point of view. Roosevelt, who wished for statehood,  didn’t confront senators who opposed admission for political reasons. Taft is not particularly well-remembered today, but the more I read of him, the more interesting he sounds. Taft went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which was his true passion. His passion for the law shows in his handling of New Mexican statehood.

WHY THIS BOOK?

As a new resident of New Mexico, I want to learn more of the history of my new home. I read Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War about the Mexican-American War and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, about the history of water in the west.

THE GOOD

Holtby is the former editor in chief of the University of New Mexico Press. Forty-Seventh Star is a meticulously researched and well-sourced book, relying on primary documents in both English and Spanish. Holtby takes pains to include the Nuevomexicano perspective on statehood, and addresses the lives of natives, blacks, and asians in the territory as well.

There’s a ton of interesting tidbits in Forty-Seventh Star. As I mentioned, there are plenty of 19th century schemers and scoundrels. The role of various federal figures in the fight is interesting as well; there’s McKinley and Roosevelt, each with New Mexican counties named for them, and Taft, who despite bringing statehood has no namesakes in the state. There are senators like Albert Beveridge of Indiana, who hammered against New Mexican corruption not for ethical reasons but for partisan gain. There’s Nelson Aldrich, grandfather of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, Republican Rhode Island senator who had grown tired of his political power being diluted by the admission of often-Democratic western states.

I particularly enjoyed the section of the book devoted to nuevomexicano and minority interests in the territory. We learn about Chinese workers who are smuggled across the border at El Paso in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. We learn about the ghost town of Blackdom, founded by Francis Boyer, as a town for black people in southeastern New Mexico; it’s so lost to history that it doesn’t even appear on my 2 foot by 3 foot map of New Mexican ghost towns. We learn about nuevomexicano settlements in the Rio Puerco Valley, which fulfill McKinley’s exhortation for more people and more irrigation, but probably not with the people he’d imagined.

We also get a peek into turn-of-the-century partisan squabbling. The more American political history I read, the more I understand its ubiquity. The tools and individuals vary, but the goals and motivations are essentially the same.

THE BAD

There is one tremendous flaw in Forty-Seventh Star—it’s hard to read. The timeline is a veritable zig-zag, following one story for three years, then jumping back two years, then following that for 15 years then jumping back 12 years. If I were more familiar with the players of the story, I might not have minded this so much. But one contentious senator in 1894 is much like a contentious senator in 1905 to me. Keeping track of senators and New Mexicans and newspapers and litigants as the narrative zig-zagged across the decades was frustrating. When it came time to summarize this book, I had to review pretty extensively; I ended up having to make a narrative for myself because the author didn’t provide one, he provided several dozen. Holtby is clearly a knowledgable editor and historian; perhaps this is closer to historical academic writing. As a casual reader, it was not a plus.

Contributing to the first flaw, Holtby’s characterizations of the players in his story could be stronger. Scoundrels like Catron and Fall are memorable because Holtby gives them time on the page. I remember little about the more neutral individuals such as Miguel Otero, Solomon Luna, George Curry, and others. Many of Holtby’s quotes come from local newspapers, but again, I had trouble remembering which was which and what they stood for, and thus they blended together.

OVERALL

Forty-Seventh Star is a worthwhile read if you have an interest in statehood, New Mexican history, or historical politics. For these topics, it’s excellent and meticulously researched. Otherwise, it probably isn’t worth reading. I’m glad to have read it, but I’m very glad to be done; it took me over four weeks. This is not a poorly written book, it just lacks a narrative for the novice reader and it covers a variety of really challenging topics.