Monday, March 31, 2014

Mum Bett - The Elizabeth Freeman Case

Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) - Source
New England, and Massachusetts inparticular, is not  well known for its history of slavery or its slave narratives. No stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin expound upon the horrors experienced by the New England slave. Yet, despite the assumptions that we Yankees have always been more high-minded when it came to involuntary servitude, slavery does have a long history in the northern states. 

Unfortunately there are few New England slave stories which survive the editing of text book writers. Hence, the perception of New England as having escaped that particular historic guilt. However, in reality New England both participated in and profited from the trade of African slaves. Still, in New England the movement to end slavery on a state level began much earlier than it did country wide. In fact, one of the most famous New England slaves was a woman named Elizabeth Freeman who is well known for her fighting spirit and for being one of the first to sue her master for her freedom.

Elizabeth Freeman, more well known by the name Mum Bett, never learned to read or write. Any historic sources about her seemingly come from interviews or whatever as written about her by family and friends. Two of the most used sources appear to be an 1853 article in Bentley’s Miscellany, written by Catherine Maria Sedgwick, and the 1838 Retrospect of Western Travel by Harriet Martineau. 

According to both sources, Mum Bett was a slave of pure African ancestry, who was owned by the Ashley family of Massachusetts. Bett was born sometime around 1742 in New York. As and adult she became the house slave of John Ashley of Sheffield, Ma. Sedgwick writes that the Ashleys also owned Bett’s sister Lizzie, though some sources claim Lizzie was actually Bett’s daughter. 

One of the most repeated stories about Mum Bett concerns a physical altercation she had with her master’s wife, Hannah Ashley. Compared to John Ashley, Hannah did not seem to be very kind or understanding. Neither author writes of her in complimentary way. According to the story, at one time Mistress Ashley attempted to strike Bett’s sister (maybe daughter) with a heated iron shovel. Lizzie had been accused of stealing dough to make a small cake. However, Bett stepped in between the two and it was she who was struck instead. The attack cut and damaged her arm for months, leaving a scar for life. However, Sedgewick quotes Bett as saying:
“Madam never again laid her hand on Lizzy. I had a bad arm all winter, but Madam had the worst of it. I never covered the wound, and when people said to me, before Madam, ’Why Betty, what ails your arm?’ I only answered, ‘Ask misses.’”
Thus Bett seems like she must have been a real fighter who was often at odds with the lady of the house. In fact, Sedgwick describes Hannah Ashley as an untamable shrew and mentions several times that Bett willfully disregarded the commands of Mrs. Ashley. Still, Sedgwick also writes that Bett spoke kindly of John Ashley for the remainder of her life.

According to another story described by Sedgwick, John Ashley acted as the local magistrate in Sheffield during the years leading up to the Revolution. At one time, a teenage girl came to the Ashley home, seeking help from Mr. Ashley. The young girl was illegitimately pregnant and it appeared the father of the child was a close relative who had attacked her. Mrs. Ashley attempted to kick the girl out of the house, calling the child every awful thing she could imagine. Mum Bett shielded the girl and kept her in the house until Mr. Ashley arrived home. John Ashley listened to the girl’s testimony and did his best to save her from her situation.
The John Ashley House - Sheffield, Ma
It is unclear as to when exactly Mum Bett began to consider fighting for her freedom. Perhaps it was something that was always on her mind. Sedgwick quotes Bett as having said, “Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it – just to stand one minute on God’s airth a free woman – I would.” Perhaps, having endured servitude and the ill treatment of her master’s wife, she was just waiting for the right time.

The right time presented itself soon after the end of the Revolutionary war. During the bud up to the Revolution, the Ashley House had been a meeting place for Sheffield colonists to discuss their grievances against Britain and the king. It was at the Ashley House that the colonial documents called the Sheffield Resolves were discussed and written in 1773. These documents outlined complaints against the British government and listed individual rights that all citizens should be granted.

The resolves use language similar to that of the Declaration of Independence, which must also have been a subject of discussion at a home like the Ashley’s. Though the resolves do not mention slavery or slaves, it states in article 1, “RESOLVED, That mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.” It is conceivable that Bett was present during the meetings that resulted in the Sheffield Resolves.

However, Martineau states that Bett had overheard a man reading the newly written constitution of Massachusetts. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts became law in 1780 and uses language similar to both the Resolves and the Declaration. According to Article 1:
“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”
No matter where exactly her inspiration came from, when Bett was later asked by Martineau where she learned of the ideas of freedom expressed in these documents, Bett replied, “By keepin’ still and mindin’ things.”  Though Mum Bett could neither read nor write, she was certainly intelligent, and understood that these words should in theory apply to her. Thus, Bett soon contacted a local lawyer named Theodore Sedgewick (father of Maria Sedgwick). She reasoned with Sedgewick that the words she had overheard suggested that she should be a free person. Apparently, Mr. Sedgewick agreed and soon filed a suit against the Ashley’s to secure Bett’s freedom.

According to Berkshire County Court records, the case was decided in May of 1781 (Yorktown had only occurred in October). At the time, these newly formed United States were being governed under the Articles of Confederation, which left most of the sovereignty to each independent state. In addition, the Articles of Confederation did not recognize slavery at all, and certainly made no attempt at limiting it. Though many people, even in the southern colonies, believed slavery to be evil, there was the legitimate fear that legislating against the culture of slavery would doom the confederation right from the start.

Despite the uncertain future of the United States, the Berkshire court decided that at the time of her purchase Bett was not legally a slave and could not legally become the property of the Ashley family. Though the court record is not exact in its rationale, Bett was theoretically freed due to the language of the state constitution, claiming that all people are born free and equal. In addition, the court awarded Bett 30 shillings for the years she had been in servitude. According to Martineau, Bett first ensured her lawyers were paid well, then saved the rest of her money for when she wanted it.

After winning her freedom Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman. She was asked by Mr. Ashley to return to his service as a wage earner. Bett declined and instead became the employee of her lawyer, Theodore Sedgewick. She served as a kind of governess, helping to raise the Sedgwick children. It was during her time with the Sedewick family, that Bett was nicknamed Mammy, and eventually Mum Bett.

Of course Bett lived at a very chaotic time in New England, and her adventures did not end with the Revolutionary War or the fight for her freedom. As Bett and the Sedgewicks lived in Berkshire County, they became subject to the turmoil of the armed uprising called Shays’ Rebellion.

Following the war and under the inadequate Articles of Confederation, Massachusetts and other states entered into a post-revolution economic depression. War veterans found themselves no better off after having secured independence. Many found themselves in debtor’s prison, unable to repay loans or pay newly levied taxes. The rebellion, named after leader Daniel Shays, lasted from 1786 to 1787. It pitted the more agricultural Western Massachusetts against what was perceived to be the more affluent Eastern coastal regions.
Daniel Shays - Left
Specifically the rebels felt oppressed by the taxes and debt collection policies of the Massachusetts state government in Boston. The Shaysites (as the rebels were called) marched on Massachusetts court houses in an attempt to end the prosecution of debtors. The rebels marched on the Springfield armory, hoping to bring the Massachusetts government to heel by force of arms. However, the Shaysites were defeated in February of 1787, resulting in the arrest of the rebel leaders.

As residents of Stockbridge, Bett and her employers were right in the middle of the conflict. In her writing, Maria Sedgwick is not highly complimentary of the Shaysites. She says, “Instead of exemption from taxation, which the ignorant had expected, a heavy imposition was necessarily laid upon them, and instead of the license they had hoped from liberty, they found themselves in legal restraints.” Of course, as her father was a member of the Massachusetts state legislature, and not one of those placed in debtor’s prison, she had a very specific point of view. However, Sedgwick also mentions that those who were deemed wealthy or “ruffled-shirts” were often victimized, imprisoned, and stolen from by either rebels or people taking advantage of the chaos.

During the rebellion most of the Sedgewick children were relocated to a safer area. However, the servants, including Mum Bett, stayed behind to keep the property of their employers safe. Bett must have felt particularly loyal to her employers, as she is said to have nightly defended her house with a kettle of boiling beer and a pair of loaded pistols. 

Still, those who claimed to be part of the rebellion and some who just took advantage of the chaos did cause some trouble to the Sedgewick household. Rebels successfully stole Mr. Sedgewick’s horse named Jenny Gray. In addition, would-be rebels once invaded the house, led by a local broom maker, attempting to take anything worthwhile, including possible prisoners. Bett had previously secured her most valuable property, as well as that of others, in a locked chest to keep it safe.

The marauders demanded that Bett take them to the basement to find whatever was hidden there. On the way, according to Sedgewick, Bett made sure to point out the poorly made brooms made by the leader of the small rebel party. When the group came to the  locked chest, they demanded access to its treasures. Bett put her foot down, calling them by name, as they were all well known to her. She explained that if they wanted what was inside, they would have to break it themselves. According to Bett, they slunk away like whipped dogs.

In time Bett was able to purchase a house of her own for her and her children. At the end of her life, when visited by local clergymen, she was asked if she was afraid to die. “No sir,” she said, “I have tried to do my duty, and I am not afeared.” Her very matter of fact reply is reminiscent of the way she lived. Upon her death in 1829, at about the age of 85, she was buried in the Sedgewick family plot in Stockbridge. Her tombstone stands as a touching reminder of the connection she made with the family she helped to raise. It reads:
"She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly 30 years. She could neither read nor write; yet in her own sphere she had no superior nor equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a truth, no failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial she was the most efficient helper and tenderest of friend. Good mother, farewell!"
The Freeman case and others like it set the precedent for future suits in New England. Massachusetts did not officially abolish slavery until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. However, after 1781 the practice of slavery declined in Massachusetts, until it was nearly extinguished by about 1790. Therefore, by the end of the Civil War, slavery had been extinct in Massachusetts regardless of written law.

Shamefully, I had not heard of Elizabeth Freeman until I began this research. Once again, her story reminds me that many very important pieces of history have been left out of text books. Though both the Sedgwick and Martineau sources have strange inaccuracies, I think Martineau said it best when she said, “A woman once lived in Massachusetts whose name ought to be preserved in all histories of the state as one of its honours.”  

Certainly, Mum Bett's story is a valuable reminder that Massachusetts has not always been a haven for escaped slaves and freed men and woman. It should also remind us of the price our country paid for putting off the decision over the slavery issue for a future generation. However, it should truly inspire us to observe what this tough as nails woman was able to accomplish by just observing her surroundings and taking a chance. Imagine what we could all accomplish if we, as Bett would say, just kept still and minded things.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Jolly Jane - Part 2

Jachin House and the Davis family
Victims of Jolly Jane

After the successful murder of Mrs. Mattie Davis Jane was invited to stay the rest of the summer at Jachin House to help care for Mattie’s husband Alden, who was obviously grieving. The couple’s two daughters, Genevieve Gordon of Chicago and Minnie Gibbs of Pocasset, also agreed to remain in Cataumet to look after their father. 

On the surface it all seemed to be a perfect plan. The sisters would have a trained nurse to help care for their father, and more, the nurse was already a close family friend. They did not know, however, that Jane was already planning their systematic destruction. 

In the weeks after Mattie’s death, the Jachin House suffered several strange fires. Although they did not cause a great deal of damage, they appeared to come out of no where. In her later confessions, Jane would admit the pleasure she took from sparking the flames, then rushing to help put them out. 

Jane’s first target after Mattie was her daughter Genevieve. Since Genevieve had traveled from Chicago to visit her family on Cape Cod, her husband had remained at home. Jane first began by planting doubts in the minds of Genevieve’s family, as to the stability of their loved one. Toppan insinuated that the younger girl was so isolated from her family in Chicago and was so devastated by her mother’s death that she was contemplating suicide. 

Less than a month after Mattie Davis’ death, her daughter Genevieve retired to bed early  one night with an upset stomach. Jane treated her patient with a dose of mineral water. Jane stayed with Genevieve throughout the night as the rest of the Davis family slept, secure in their knowledge that Genevieve was being cared for. However, on the morning of July 27 1901, Jane woke Minnie to inform her that her sister had died during the night.
The grave of Genevieve Davis - Cataumet Cemetery 2014
 The people of Cataumet were shocked at the losses being suffered by the Davis family. Of Genevieve, the local doctor explained her death as another heart attack. However, Jane whispered among family members that she was sure the woman had killed herself with insecticide from the shed. Jane attended another Davis family funeral, happy as a Cape Cod quahog. 

However, Jane was not done. Her next victim, Alden Davis, the patriarch of the family, fell ill in August of the same summer. Again, Jane treated the illness with a dose of mineral water. By the next morning the confused family found him dead. Unbelievably the same local doctor examined the body, saying that Mr. Davis died of a cerebral hemorrhage. 
The graves of Alden P and Mattie Davis - Cataumet Cemetery 2014
The final member of the Davis family was murdered by Jane only a few days later. Minnie Gibbs returned exhausted from a day trip to Woods Hole. Once again, Jane used her doctored mineral water to treat her patient and poison her victim. Soon after the treatment, Minnie collapsed into a coma. 

In her past, upon murdering her victims, Jane had crawled into bed with them. Cuddling with them as they breathed their last. During the night of August 13, however, Jane brought Minnie’s 10 year old son from his own room into hers while his mother lay dying a floor below. According to Harold Schechter, Jane admitted as much during her own confessions. Whether or not Jane molested the child is unknown. 

Minnie was discovered by family the next morning. Remarkably, she was still alive, though now comatose. The local doctor was called who, after consulting with Jane, diagnosed Minnie with extreme exhaustion. The doctor prescribed complete silence and rest for Minnie, who remained under the care of Toppan. He said he would return later to see if she had improved. However, during the doctor’s absence, Jane administered to Minnie a fatal enema of whiskey, water, and morphine. By the afternoon, she was dead. 
Davis Family Plot - Cataumet Cemetery 2014
Though several people seemed to suspect Jane had a hand in the death of the entire Davis family (who wouldn’t really?), she was able to escape yet again. This time Jane returned to Lowell to the home of the husband of her former foster sister, Oramel Brigham. 

Since murdering her foster sister Elizabeth, Jane had seemingly harbored fantasies about marrying her sister’s husband. Therefore, she must have been annoyed to arrive at Oramel’s home to find him entertaining another woman. Though the woman was his 70 year old sister, Jane apparently felt threatened enough to offer her a dose of mineral water when the elderly woman complained of dizziness. 

For years Oramel’s sister had suffered from heart problems. Therefore, when she slipped into a coma and died under Jane’s constant care one late August evening, the investigating doctor felt comfortable in diagnosing the death as a result of a heart attack. 

After the death of Oramel’s sister, Jane made a last ditch effort to win the affections of her former brother-in-law. Toppan first began by taking it upon herself to manage the household affairs. However, Oramel was adamant that Jane would not be making her stay permanent. Next, she poisoned Oramel himself. Giving him enough poison that she would be required to nurse him back to health. Yet, once on his feet, he expressed his wishes that Jane should leave his home. 

Finally, Toppan poisoned herself, nearly killing herself in the process. Oramel was forced to hire a doctor and a nurse to tend Jane and to make sure she no longer attempted to take her own life. Despite all of her best romantic efforts, when Jane had fully recovered, Oramel demanded that she leave.

Jane fled to a friend’s house in New Hampshire, where she spent the rest of September of 1901. Little did she know it would be her last few weeks as a free woman. The machine of justice had been set in motion months before, when she had been making her perceived clean getaway from her crime spree on Cape Cod. 

It had finally been the father-in-law of Minnie Gibbs whose suspicions had seen through the facade of Jolly Jane to the monster underneath. Since the death of Minnie and her entire family, Captain Paul Gibbs had suspected Jane’s deadly hand in the death of the Davis family. With the help of friends and a Harvard university toxicologist, Captain Gibbs orchestrated the exhumation of the remains of Genevieve Gordon and Minnie Gibbs. 

Therefore, on October 29, law enforcement arrested Jane Toppan at the New Hampshire residence of her friend. She was charged with only one murder, that of Minnie Gibbs. Of course her friends were shocked. What they did not know was that Toppan’s arrest actually saved their lives. Jane later admitted she was planning to kill the acquaintances with whom she was staying. 

Jane was arraigned in the Barnstable County Courthouse, where she pleaded not guilty. As the entire country was swept up in the drama of Jolly Jane’s crimes, she spent her days feeling sorry for herself in the Barnstable jailhouse. The Davis family, she insisted, died of natural causes. 

Though in retrospect her crimes seem a little obvious, the prosecution had one major problem. When the bodies of the Davis women were exhumed, the Harvard toxicologist did find traces of poison. This, of course, led to the arrest of Toppan in New Hampshire. The problem was that he found traces of arsenic, which Jane never used. 

The assumption that Jane had poisoned her victims with arsenic was made based on the cases of previous female serial poisoners in Massachusetts, who had used arsenic. In addition, the poison was very accessible in 1901. It could be purchased from any druggist over the counter.  Yet, despite exhaustive searches in North Falmouth, the prosecution obviously could not find any druggist who sold arsenic to Jane Toppan. 

The prosecution’s case was further damaged when it was revealed that the undertaker, who had handled the bodies of the Davis family, had used arsenic in his embalming fluid. Jane’s lawyer jumped at the chance to claim that the Davises had dies of natural causes and any traces of poisons found had been from the embalming process.

Despite the lack of evidence uncovered by the prosecution, the daily newspaper articles featuring Toppan encouraged dozens of people to come forward with their own Jane Toppan stories. Slowly articles from all over New England began connecting a growing list of odd deaths, house fires, and missing money found in Jane’s past. Although she was only being officially charged with a single murder, the list of her probable victims grew from 4 to 12 over a few months. Even stories of her past as Honora Kelley were divulged to reporters by a woman claiming to be a cousin. 

All the while, as Jane’s murderous past was brought to light for the country, Jane herself was quietly reading newspapers, exchanging mail with friends, and enjoying the home cooked meals of the wife of the Barnstable jailer, Mrs. Judah Cash. Many patients and friends who she actually hadn't murdered wrote, promising their moral and financial support for Toppan, whose innocence they seemed confident of. Whether or not Jane believed she was in serious trouble is a little unclear. Either way, the media of 1901 had thoroughly convicted her in the eyes of the public. 

It was again Captain Gibbs, the father-in-law of Minnie Gibbs, who saved the day for the prosecution. Gibbs had been surprised to learn the prosecution suspected Toppan of arsenic poisoning. He had come to believe she was more devious than to use such an obvious chemical. Rather Gibbs suggested to newspapers that Jane had used doses of morphine and atropine. 
The grave of Captain Paul Gibbs - the hero of this tale - Cataumet Cemetery
Armed with the suspicions of Captain Gibbs, the bodies of the two Davis women were re-examined, and were both found to contain lethal doses of both medications. Furthermore, a druggist in Wareham remembered Jane having ordered a large quantity of morphine, which he had shipped to her by train to Cataumet. 

In addition, the bodies of the remainder of the Davis family were exhumed from Cataumet cemetery in order to be tested for morphine and atropine. Soon after the autopsies Jane was formally indicted for the murders of Alden Davis, Genevieve Gordon, and Minnie Gibbs. According to Mrs. Cash, the wife of the Barnstable jailor, Jane accepted these developments in her case. She retired to her cell, ate her dinner, and slept a restful night. 

However, it was not new evidence which eventually cracked the Toppan case for Barnstable County, instead it was Jane herself. Wishing to evaluate his client’s mental state, her lawyer arranged for Jane to be evaluated by a group of impartial psychiatrists (called alienists at the time). It was during this evaluation in the spring of 1902 where Jane finally began to make her confession. At first admitting to the crimes for which she had been charged, then detailing her other misdeeds including arson and the multiple other murders she had committed throughout her life, at least 31 in total.

Jane explained the details of her crimes calmly and unemotionally. She explained that she felt no remorse for the murders, even those of her friends. In fact, she had murdered so often she struggled to recall the details of each crime. It had become a routine habit of her existence, just another old thing she did. 

One of the psychologists who interviewed Jane, a Massachusetts doctor named Charles Stedman, later published his clinical assessment of her in an article entitled A Case of Moral Insanity With Repeated Homicides And Incendiaries And Late Development of Delusions. In his interview with Jane, Stedman makes several attempts to understand her crimes. Jane is very elusive about her motives, claiming at first to achieve a sort of sexual satisfaction from being with dead bodies. However, at last, even she seems confused about why exactly she felt the need to murder. According to Jane:
“I seem to have a sort of paralysis of thought and reason. Something comes over me, I don’t know what it is. I have an uncontrollable desire to give poison without regard to the consequences. I have no objection against telling my feelings, but don’t know my own mind. I don’t know why I do these things.”
 Perhaps at the end Jane really did not know what caused her behavior. Though her initial claim of sexual excitement seems to be backed up by her own earlier behavior, Dr. Stedman was not convinced. He believed she made the claim only to show that she had no control and could not be held accountable for her actions.

Either way, in the eyes of her assessors, Jane did not need extra reasons to appear insane. Stedman’s final analysis stated clearly, “Therefore, we are of the opinion that she was insane and irresponsible at the time of the homicides with which she is charged.” He even went further, explaining that she would pose a serious threat to public safety if she were ever freed.

With the testimony of the psychologists and Jane’s new confession, all believed her trial would be a rather short one. This turned out to be correct. On the morning of June 23, Jane’s trial finally commenced. For all the build up and drama, it was a very quick affair. Based on the testimony of the three psychiatrists who interviewed Jane, a verdict was reached in less than 7 hours. Jane was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to serve the remainder of her natural life in the Taunton State Hospital.
Taunton State Hospital - 1987
Apparently Jane felt as though she had gotten away with her crimes. All articles at the time describe Jane as smiling as the verdict was read, some even say she laughed. Most even go as far to say that she nearly danced out of the court room in absolute glee. 

Jane spent the evening with her friend Mrs. Cash and was escorted to the Taunton bound train the following day. During the entire trip to Taunton she seemed confident that she had gotten the better of the law, even going as far as explaining to reporters that she would most certainly be freed after only a few years.

In the days after her sentencing several new facts about Jane’s crimes stunned the public. First, Toppan’s attorney divulged that Jane had confessed her crimes to him months ago. In fact, according to him, Jane had eagerly confessed that she had killed at least 31 people over her years as a professional and private nurse. 

Second, Jane’s confession was published in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Though the confession was sensationalized and can not all be attributed to direct quotes from Jane, it did more or less accurately detail her crimes. In addition, it revealed Jane’s plot to fool the court assigned psychiatrists into believing that she was insane. 

In her confession, she explained yet another cause for her behavior. According to Jane, “If I had been a married woman, I probably would not have killed all these people. I would have had my husband, my children, and my home to take up my mind.” Perhaps, in the end, she blamed the young man who had abandoned her after proposing marriage. Though, if he even existed, I think his decision probably saved his life.

Dr. Stedman continued to keep track of Jane during her stay in Taunton. For the first year, by most reports, Jane seemed to manage well. According to Stedman, “During the first year of her life at the hospital she was, as a rule, sociable, quiet, cheerful, amiable, and spasmodically helpful.” In fact she gained weight and wrote of her fondness for the other patients.

However, by 1903, Jane’s condition had deteriorated quite a bit. She began to make accusations against the hospital staff, claiming that they were attempting to poison her. She refused to eat and quickly lost the weight she was well known for. In addition, Stedman reports that her personal hygiene took a steep decline.
Jane Toppan - 1st year at Taunton State
By 1904, Jane had become emaciated by her refusal to eat, having lost half her body weight. The hospital staff began to force feed her through a tube, at which point she ate voluntarily for a time. The whole time, Jane mentally declined as well. She switched between manic laughter and delusional paranoia. Even if Jane was not clinically insane by modern standards at the time of her trial, it appears she may have been after her two year stay at Taunton. 
Jane Toppan - after her 2nd year at Taunton
Despite the deterioration in her mental in physical health, Jane managed to live another 34 years in the Taunton hospital. She died August 17, 1938, at the age of 81. Rather than poison (which might have been appropriate), she died of pneumonia. Toward the end of her life, according to her obituary, Jane became a docile and cooperative patient. 

Jolly Jane’s story illustrates several interesting aspects of New England history. First, the status of the medical profession in the early 1900’s was frighteningly primitive. Jane was able to fool just about every medical professional she came across and was only stopped due to the suspicion of an old Yankee sea captain. 

Second, cases like Jane’s were just beginning to be heard of during her lifetime. Serial killers like H.H. Holmes and even Jack the Ripper were new to the time period. Though these types of crimes might still be appalling to modern people, they are certainly not unimaginable unfortunately. 

Lastly, though events in Jane’s life might have obviously contributed to her behavior as a sociopath and poisoner, her crimes remain frightening and shocking. What is perhaps the most shocking is that her friends and neighbors never even guessed the chubby middle aged nurse everyone loved also habitually killed dozens of people for the simple pleasure of it. 

Certainly this research will now make me think twice when, as I enjoy my sunny Cape Cod summers, and I accept a cool drink from a smiling friend, family member, waiter, or just about anyone really. I might wonder what or who is really behind the smile, where the drink came from, and just what the friendly deliverer might have opted to add. Yup, pretty creepy. 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Jolly Jane - Queen of the Poisoners - Cataumet, Ma

During my research into New England history, I have been to supposedly haunted places, many graveyards after dark, and even to the resting place of a supposed Rhode Island vampire. Honestly, none of these places were too creepy. However, while researching the life and crimes of Jolly Jane Toppan, I can honestly say I felt shivers. These were the actions of a real monster. Yet when retracing the path of Jane from orphan to Cape Cod’s most infamous serial killer, though I was still had the heebie jeebies, I also had a greater understanding of just how she became the thing she did.

For this research, I used a great deal of information from Harold Schechter’s book Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer. Though Schechter details the crimes of several female killers, his information regarding Jane Toppan is particularly in depth and helpful. In addition, I've split this article in two in order to focus on Jane’s early life and her crimes connected to the Cape.

According to Schechter, the monstrosity that would become Jolly Jane began her life as Honora Kelley, the younger daughter of a very unusual Boston Irish couple named Peter and Bridget Kelley. Not much is known about Jane’s early life or her parentage, though there are several tidbits of folklore connected to both.

Apparently, Jane’s mother had died of consumption shortly before 1863, leaving her and her sister Delia with the unstable and most likely abusive, Peter Kelley. According to several newspaper articles published after Jane's trial, Peter Kelley was an alcoholic. He was known around Boston as “Kelley the Crack,” a reference to his erratic and sometimes violent behavior. Later in life, it is said Peter eventually lost his mind and sewed his own eyelids shut while working in a tailor’s shop. Some articles even stated that he had been institutionalized by the time Jane’s actions became public knowledge. Though, these stories may have been an attempt to “prove” that insanity was a trait that ran in Jane’s family.

Of course I cannot verify most of the information about Jane’s origins. Nor could I find a birth record for Honora or Delia. Furthermore, Jane Toppan seems to enter the historical record only after her father abandoned his daughters at the Boston Female Asylum in February of 1863. The asylum, which had been in operation since 1800, accepted orphaned children and children voluntarily surrendered by their parent or guardian. Honora and Delia were voluntary surrenders.

At the Boston Female Asylum, young girls would be instructed in domestic skills until the age of eleven. After eleven, girls could be placed in a home, seemingly under an indentured contract of around 7 years. During this time the indentured girls would act as a live in house-servant. Theoretically, it was a win-win for all parties. Foster families got cheap live in servants and the young girls supposedly received further education and experience. At the age of 18, the girls would be released from servitude with at least $50.
This is actually the New York Foundling Hospital
Perhaps similar to what the Boston Female Asylum was like
According to An Account of the Boston Female Asylum, “The greatest care is always taken in selecting places for those to be bound out.” Some girls surely received the promised benefits and perhaps a new familial support system, yet some probably left after additional years of abuse and the acquisition of new emotional scars at the hands of their foster families. Certainly this seemed to be the case for young Jane Toppan.

When Kelley the Crack left his daughters at the asylum in 1863 Delia was eight and Honora was six. It in not known how Peter Kelley treated his daughters. However, based on Jane Toppan’s later career, one can guess he was not a loving and doting father. By all appearances, little Honora Kelley seemed to receive a second chance at life when she was indentured at the age of only 8 to Mrs. Ann Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts. Being “bound out” so young seems to have been contradictory to the rules of the Asylum. Why this happened no one currently knows.

Regardless, this is where Honora Kelley began her re-birth as Jane Toppan. Though never officially adopted (few girls were), she does appear on the 1870 and 1880 US Census among the Toppan family of Lowell as Jennie Toppan.
Toppan and Foster Family - 1870 Lowell, Ma

Toppan and Foster Sister - 1880 Lowell, Ma
At this time in her life Harold Schechter felt that Jane suffered a different type of abuse than she might have during those early years with her father. According to Schechter: 
“That Jane was made to feel profoundly ashamed of her heritage is clear from her later behavior. As she grew older, she displayed the classic symptoms of ethnic and religious self hatred, lying about her origins to new acquaintances, and voicing anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments more derogatory than the most bigoted remarks bandied in the polite, Protestant circles in which she moved.”  
Though I can’t speak for how Jane felt about her own ethnicity, an examination of her early census entries conveniently leave out any hint of her Irish origin. In addition, they give a clear indication of the people who moved through her life between 1870 and 1880. Most important, other than Ann Toppan, were Ann’s daughter Elisabeth and her husband Oramel Brigham. Both 18 years older than Jane. According to their census and marriage records, Elisabeth was a house keeper and Oramel was a Rail Road employee, who later became a local Deacon. 

A Jane grew into a young woman she was mostly well liked by her friends and family. People seemed to find her amusing and charming for the most part. However, there were darker aspects of her personality and behavior. Though dismissed at an early age, in retrospect they seemed to hint at what she would later become. 

According to Schechter, Jane was a habitual liar. Some of her stories seemed strange yet harmless. For instance she told people that her father was a famous explorer and her brother was a famous Civil War hero. However, Jane was also known as a gossip and rumor monger, who would target students she had a personal grudge against. 

Jane grew into adulthood with the Toppans. At the age of 18 she was released from her indentured contract with the agreed upon $50. According to Massachusetts vital records Ann Toppan died in 1891, unfortunately leaving Jane out of her will. However, Jane continued to live with Oramel Brigham and her foster sister Elizabeth, still acting as a live in house-servant despite being released from her contract. 

As her 20’s passed her by, Jane watched her school friends begin to get married and have children. For whatever reason, Jane never did get married, though there are several newspaper articles telling of a near engagement that did not pan out. One article from the Seattle Daily Times even claims she had been given an engagement ring engraved with the shape of a bird by a young suitor named Charles May. However, Charles soon left for Holyoke and fell helplessly in love with the young daughter of a new employer. The story even states that Jane harbored a particular malice toward birds after this event. Schechter mentions that Jane gained an “unattractive” amount of weight at this time, topping about 170 pounds. Certainly newspaper articles published after her arrest never describe her as attractive. 
Jane as a younger adult
Jane worked for Elizabeth until 1885. The circumstances of her departure are unknown. However, by 1887 Jane had applied to and was accepted at a Cambridge nursing school in the hope that she could make a career change. It was here, due to her charming personality and plump physique, that she earned the nickname “Jolly Jane.” The name would follow her throughout her life and add a certain morbid flair to her later crime spree.

At the Cambridge nursing school Jane was not terribly liked by the other students. As she did when she was younger, she spread terrible rumors about students she didn’t like and took great pleasure when those rumors resulted in her “enemies” being thrown out of school. However, to doctors and her superiors, she seemed very passionate and congenial. This is no doubt due to the fact that Jane was also an enormous brown-noser. As a student she took to her studies with enthusiasm and her patients often brightened to see her when she worked. 

Jane would later admit that it was during her studies at the nursing school, when she began to experiment with medication. Schechter mentions that she conspired to keep patients in the hospital longer if he liked them, sometimes giving enough extra medication to make them ill, or doctoring charts to show fake symptoms. 

Jane first experimented with morphine, injecting patients and watching them either die or recover at her leisure. Later, she added the drug atropine to her experiments. In the late 1800's both drugs were more or less over the counter medications used as common pain killers and to treat diseases like whooping cough. However, Jane discovered that with both chemicals she could vary the symptoms of her patients enough that even the doctors could not tell for certain what had killed them. 

Sometimes Jane simply made her patients more ill with her experiments. Sometimes she outright killed them. However, sometimes she poisoned them only to near death, then took great pleasure in trying to save them. Jane later described this behavior in her confessions. She said:
“When the climax of my mania passed I realized what I had done. I have known that my patients were dying. Then my greatest thought was to resuscitate them. I have then worked over them, trying to bring them back to consciousness. I have sent for doctors and other nurses and tried my best to save them. Sometimes I have been successful, but many times the poison was too much. They were beyond recovery and they died.”
Jane would later describe this feeling of “mania” many more times. Often, because of her later behavior, the mania seemed to border on an almost sexual thrill at seeing her patients die before her eyes. Perhaps working as hard as anyone to bring them back to life gave her an additional feeling of godly control over life and death as well. It would be impossible to tell how many patients she killed during her training years at Cambridge Hospital. Schechter guessed it could have been dozens.

In 1888 Jane was able to transfer to Massachusetts General Hospital. Here, she continued her experiments. It was at Mass General where Jane Toppan ran into a patient named Amelia Phinney, whose later testimony would very clearly illustrate how scary and deranged Jane was becoming. 
Mass General Hospital 1850's
According to a 2011 article from the Lowell Sun, Amelia Phinney had been admitted to Mass General for a uterine ulcer. The procedure to treat the ulcer had been painful, leaving Mrs. Phinney in a great amount of pain in bed. Here she was found by Nurse Toppan, who was temporarily filling the role of Head Nurse. Mrs. Phinney asked Jane for help with the pain. Toppan sat Mrs. Phinney up in bed, prompting her to sip from a cup of bitter tasting liquid. 

Mrs. Phinney reported later that she became groggy and near unconscious, but through the haze she felt someone climb into bed with her. She must have been horrified to discover her unwanted partner was nurse Toppan, who petted her hair and “kissed her all over her face.” Jane even attempted to force Mrs. Phinney to consume more of the potion.

Fortunately the whole process was interrupted. Mrs. Phinney reported that Jane suddenly became distracted by something out of her vision. Apparently someone had walked into the room, disturbing Jane. Amelia woke the next morning with a severe headache, believing the strange experience of the previous night had been a terrible dream. It was not until 14 years later that Amelia Phinney realized she was lucky to be alive. 

Despite this event and her diabolical experiments, Nurse Toppan was finally discharged from Mass General in 1890 for something as simple as leaving the ward without permission. Schechter concludes that Jane had amassed a considerable amount of suspicion during her time at the hospital. Things disappeared under her care, particularly cash and the expensive belongings of rich patients. Though nothing could be definitively proved, hospital administrators took this chance to remove Jane even before she received her nursing license. 

For a time Jane attempted to return to her former school associated with Cambridge Hospital. However, other employees were beginning to suspect that Jane at the very least was irresponsible and dangerous to the patients. So, in 1891 Cambridge Hospital dismissed her as well, leaving Jane with only one real option to exercise her medical skills and her manic desire to kill. Jane became a private nurse for hire. 

Over the next few years Jane became one of the most successful private nurses in the Boston area. Despite the rumors that followed her from job to job, she was highly sought after for her nursing skills and good humor (at least when her employers were around). Despite her success as a healer, bodies piled up in her wake. All murders were explained away by doctors as strokes or as the result of a strangulated hernia. In addition to murder, she had acquired the habit of stealing from her victims as well. Often leaving a grieving family confused about their loved one’s missing belongings. Later she would adamantly deny she was a thief as well as a murderer. She almost seemed insulted by the additional accusation, saying that money didn't matter to her. 

Around this time in her life, Jane made her connection to the sandy shores of the Cape. Apparently, for many years during her adult life Toppan had spent summers in the Cape Cod village of Cataumet in Borne. She regularly stayed in a small cottage near to a larger former hotel called the Jachin House. In August of 1899, Jane contacted her foster sister Elizabeth in back in Lowell, who she had maintained a connection with. Apparently Elizabeth seemed to have been suffering from something like depression. Jane invited her to the Cape. claiming that it would cheer her up. Unfortunately Elizabeth accepted. 
Jachin House and Davis Family - Cataumet, Ma
Elizabeth arrived on August 25 and spent the day with Jane at the beach. By August 28, she had unexpectedly fallen into a coma. Her husband Oramel was contacted via telegraph and arrived to spend a last few hours with his unconscious wife before she died in bed. The local physician explained the death as, again, having been caused by a stroke. 

Not only did Jane seem to have once again avoided suspicion, she also convinced poor Oramel that Elizabeth had wanted her to inherit some of her belongings, which she later pawned. It would only be revealed at Jane’s trial in Barnstable that Oramel had suspected Jane in having a hand in his wife’s death. Unfortunately it would take the lives of several more people before he could be stopped. 

What Oramel Brigham might not have known at the time was that Jane also had plans for him. Following her trial, newspapers widely reported that Jane had killed her foster sister because she wanted to marry Oramel herself. Her future actions would lend credibility to this theory as well. However, Jane’s murder of her foster sister was not her last Cape Cod murder. In fact, Jane’s greatest criminal connection to the Cape, and the crimes which eventually got her caught were all connected to the Davis family of Cataumet. 

The Davises of Cataumet, who owned the once prosperous resort-like property Cataumet called Jachin House knew Jane very well. Since 1896 Jane had been one of their most favorite repeat guests. She was so well known and well liked that her Bourne neighbors often used her as a babysitter and, of course, a medical consultant. The Davises loved her and treated her almost as a member of their family, even giving her a large discount on her rental. 

Yet, despite the generous discount, Jane Toppan owed the Davises several hundred dollars in overdue rent. By 1901 Mrs. Mattie Davis, the matron of the clan, had felt that Jane’s rent was finally due. She made plans to visit Jane at her residence in Cambridge in order to confront her about the money the family was owed. Of course, Mattie Davis did not know the danger he was putting herself in. She could not have known the friendly woman she knew as “Jolly Jane” had already previously murdered her former landlords in Cambridge for becoming “feeble and fussy” or “old and cranky” (Jane particularly did not like the elderly).

However, in 1901 Jane had wormed her way into the favor of her current landlords, the Beedles, by poisoning their housekeeper with morphine. When The Beedles fired their housekeeper for being drunk on the job (in reality she was passed out from Jane's poison), Jane was there to swoop into the new position and a comfortable new home. 

When poor Mattie Davis arrived to confront Jane about the owed rent, it took Jane only a couple hours to decide to poison her into a coma with doctored mineral water. Toppan then contacted Mattie’s daughter and husband, informing them that their loved one had fallen ill. She spent the next few days re-dosing Mrs. Davis, allowing her to mysteriously regain consciousness, then plunging her back down into a coma. The family and even a local doctor could only look on in confusion and horror at the symptoms of Jane's latest victim. 

Toppan finally allowed Mattie to die in early July of 1901. The official cause of death, according to local newspapers, was chronic diabetes. Jane accompanied Mattie’s remains back to Bourne, attended her funeral at Cataumet Cemetery like any other mourner and close family friend. However, in her later confessions, much of which was published in various newspaper articles of 1902, Jane expressed her true thoughts. She later admitted thinking of the mourners, who had traveled from as afar away as Chicago to say their last goodbyes to Mattie Davis, “You had better wait a little while and I will have another funeral for you. If you wait, it will save you going back and forth.” 

Though no one, except perhaps Oramel Brigham, could have guessed, the entire Davis family was now in danger of being wiped out. Little did they know, their close family friend, Jolly Jane, was actually a serial killer who had finally and inevitably lost any control she ever had over her own behavior. Her manic urges and desire to snuff out the lives of her friends and family had now become a danger to everyone around her. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Mystery of Cape Cod's Boundary Stones

I was very busy this spring preparing an article for the June 2013 Summerscape, which is published by the Barnstable Patriot. My article article is now available online. I very much enjoyed participating in Summerscape this year and thank the editors for allowing me to do so. The subject of my research concerned the creation of the original town boundaries on Cape Cod, or at least one of the theories that tries to explain the boundaries. The research was absolutely fascinating and took me to places and sources I had never seen before. Through these sources it became clear to me that there are still so many things we do not know about the history of the Cape, how our town earned their borders is just one of them.

One of the biggest mysteries uncovered in my research has been the lack of information surrounding the various boundary stones one can find sitting on Cape town lines. Although a couple of these markers are registered as important landmarks by the National Register of Historic Places, there is still very little information explaining where they even came from, when they were placed at their current locations, and who placed them there.

In my article for Summerscape, I focused primarily on the stone uncovered by Michael Faber’s Cornerstone Project. This large flat boulder is located just off Rt. 6a, between Barnstable and Yarmouth. It very clearly has the letters "YxB" chiseled into its surface, signifying the boundary between the towns. However, as to who did the chiseling and when it was done . . . no one seems to know. The earliest concrete historical reference to the existence of the stone can be found in a 1907 Atlas. Although its existence in 1907 makes the stone historical at this point in time, there are some who believe it was created as part of the originally boundary between Yarmouth and Barnstable. This would date the inscription to around 1641.

The YxB Stone - Spring 2013
As the Summerscape article focuses heavily on the history of the “YxB” stone and the theories of the Cornerstone Project, I won’t restate huge portions of it here. If you’d like to know more about the stone, do check out the Summerscape link. Instead, I wanted to expand upon some of the other sources I didn’t use previously.

The other set of markers I researched, but did not devote as much space to in the article, were the boundary stones between the towns of Sandwich and Barnstable. One of these, a marker along Race Lane in Sandwich, has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places since about 1987. This marker is a simple stone post a little over 2 feet tall. The letters "B/S" have been carved on its surface, showing the boundary between Barnstable and Sandwich.
Marker on Race Ln - you can just see the B/S at the bottom
According to their information, this marker was erected in 1639 when Myles Standish and John Alden were sent by the Plymouth Court to settle the boundaries of Sandwich. Of course, no one can prove this to be true. Even the records of the Plymouth Court are unclear about when the boundary between these two towns was officially established.

Plymouth Court records indicate that Standish and Alden were tasked as early as 1638 with the establishment of the Sandwich boundaries. However, the same records show that boundary disputes between Sandwich and Barnstable needed reconciling in both 1651 and 1652. However, it was not until June of 1670 that bounds were actually set in writing by the court. Though the Plymouth records make no mention of the creation of a stone marker, this particular boundary stone was referenced in a 1901 report on bounds of Sandwich, which is now housed in the Sandwich archives. Again, no mention of who created it or when it was put there.

Although some may argue that just because no one knows the exact origins of these boundary stones and their carvings, it doesn’t make them really mysterious. Cape Codders pass by them every day and they are as common as spring weeds on the side of our roads. Our forefathers just did not think to record exactly when they were placed, which is a shame because history geeks like me would like to know.

Still, the marker stones are part of a greater Cape Cod unknown. Truthfully, we only have bits and pieces of sources that explain the creation of the boundaries between the modern Cape towns. As I explain in the article, the Cornerstone Project has been trying to prove one theory; that these boundaries were surveyed and marked from a ship in Cape Cod Bay. While it is an interesting theory, I am still left without any rock solid historic facts as proof. Until then, as with other posts on this blog, the mystery persists.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Connecticut - First In Flight?

Whitehead (2nd left) in front of No. 21 "The Condor"
Most students learn in school, as I did, that Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to successfully make a sustained, controlled, powered, heavier-than-air human flight in an aircraft they built. Most also know this flight took place in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. The string of adjectives is important because they were not the first to invent human flight, nor the first to even create controlled human flight. Still, the Wrights are so well known that the North Carolina license plate announces "First in Flight" to anyone taking a look. However, according to the state of Connecticut, this statement is no longer true.

Earlier this month the Connecticut State Senate passed House Bill No. 6671. Essentially, this bill paves the way for an annual holiday celebrating the Connecticut aviation industry. The bill is also designed to celebrate the achievements of a German immigrant named Gustave Whitehead, who some now claim was the true originator of the powered fixed wing aircraft and truly the first in flight. 

Although supporters of Whitehead have claimed for decades that his flight preceded that of the Wright brothers, recently the argument has been rekindled by the evidence and website of an Australian researcher named John Brown. According to Brown, Gustave Whitehead first successfully flew an aircraft, design No. 21, which he called the Condor near Bridgeport, Connecticut in the early morning of August 1901. If correct, he beat the Wright’s Kitty Hawk flight by more than two years.

Brown presents several pieces of evidence to support the case for Whitehead. First, he claims to have uncovered at least 110 newspaper articles between 1901 and 1902 which reported Whitehead’s flying success. One of the most well known of these articles was published in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald. The author, Richard Howell, describes witnessing Whitehead’s first manned flight on the Condor. Further, he lists at least three other witnesses to the event, Andrew Cellie, James Dickie, and a local milkman.

The Herald article did include a photo of Whitehead and a drawing of the Condor in flight, which was supposed to have been based on a photograph taken at the scene. Of this original picture, Brown says it has been lost. Still, he claims to have now uncovered a copy of this visual evidence by examining the background of a separate panorama photo taken in 1906 at the first exhibition of the Aero Club of America. This photo shows a glider hanging from the ceiling in front of a wall containing photographs of what appear to be other aircraft. Several of these photos, according to Brown and other researchers, show aircraft built by Whitehead. One of them, Brown insists, shows the Condor in flight.

Drawing from the Bridgeport Sunday Herald
Though most of these background photos are unrecognizably blurred, Brown sites two articles, one published in a 1906 edition of Scientific American as evidence that he has found the correct picture. The articles describe the same wall of photos shown in the picture. According to the author, one of the wall photos showed “A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air . .constructed by Whitehead in 1901.” The author also goes on to say that this was the only photo of an airplane in flight.

Panorama of the Aero Club Exhibition - Whitehead section enlarged
On his website, Brown compares several of these photos with pictures of aircraft known to have been built by Whitehead. Indeed, he seems to prove that the majority of the pictures are not those referenced in the Scientific American article. However, Brown next examines one of the most blurred images to the drawing created for the Bridgeport Herald in 1901. Ultimately, Brown concluded that there were remarkable similarities between the two images. Enough similarities, in fact, to conclude the blurred image in the panorama photo is the long lost photo taken in Connecticut in 1901.

John Brown's comparison - Do these images show the same event?
Though the image Brown compares to the Bridgeport drawing is very unclear, Brown points out that it does seem to be situated with other Whitehead pictures, it does seems to show an aircraft above the ground, looks vaguely similar to other picture of the Condor, and is located pretty much in the same place as the mystery photo described in Scientific American. Therefore, he deduces that this blurred image must be the picture described in the article. Based on the evidence given, he surmises that Whitehead did fly before the Wright brothers.

Additionally, Brown goes on to explain that Whitehead next built an aircraft he called No. 22, with which he performed even longer flights. Brown sites the affidavits and statements from at least 17 witnesses to support the flights of No. 22. Replicas of this plane have been flown in both Germany and the US in more recent times.

Though there seems to be substantial evidence that Whitehead actually flew in 1901, others disagree. Tom Crouch, at the Smithsonian Magazine site critiques the Whitehead case. According to Crouch, who is the director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, there is not enough evidence to support that the 1901 flight actually took place.

First, Crouch examined the written account published in the Bridgeport Herald. In the article, the author listed at least three witnesses to Whitehead’s flight. However, in 1936 a researcher from Harvard University named John Crane returned to Bridgeport in order to investigate the 1901 event. Crane could only find a single person who claimed to remember Whitehead’s sustained flight as reported in the Herald.

Furthermore, no relation, neighbor, or friend of Whitehead could remember to have even heard of the prolonged flight Whitehead claimed to have made in August of 1901. The one witness who claimed to have seen this flight was deemed less than credible by Crane due to the profit the witness was set to receive upon the publication of a book about Whitehead.

According to Crouch, the 1936 investigators even attempted to interview the witnesses referenced in the Bridgeport Herald. One witness could not be found, nor did anyone remember him. The other witness denied having ever seen Whitehead fly in August of 1901. He even went as far as to suggest that the Herald invented the story.

Crane did seem to attempt investigate the Whitehead’s case fairly. He did find several witnesses in the village who claimed to have seen Whitehead actually fly. What they could not agree upon was the duration and height of the flights they saw. Therefore, Crane concluded that Gustave Whitehead might have actually made several short, un-sustained, manned flights. Based on eye witness accounts these flights ranged from as low as 4 feet to as high as 25 feet and lasted anywhere from several yards to over 60 yards. However, they were not the sustained, controlled, powered flight as described in the original article.

At this point, despite the bill the Connecticut legislature has passed, whether or not Gustave Whitehead flew before the Wright brothers is pretty unclear. There are conflicting witness reports, no real conclusive photographic evidence, and other pieces of historic evidence don’t lend credence to the August 1901 event. For instance, though Whitehead went on to become a designer of airplane engines, no other aircraft designed by Whitehead ever actually flew until recently.

Still others point to the conduct of Orville and Wilbur Wright as evidence of a conspiracy. The brothers were secretive and were embattled in lawsuits against competitors. Critics point out that the Smithsonian currently holds a contract with the estate of Orville Wright. The contract dictates that the Smithsonian would lose custody of the aircraft of the Wright brother’s should they ever declare that another was actually first to fly. I must agree, on the surface that does not give me confidence in the unbiased historic opinion of the Smithsonian Institution on this matter.

However, I personally love this controversy. It demonstrates how history is constructed, de-constructed, and re-constructed. The very essence of this conflict stems from differing interpretations of the same sources, the sense of which I try to impart to my students all the time. Aspects of the arguments used on both sides of the issue are fascinating and at least sound enough to convince the law makers in Connecticut to legislate the recognition of Gustave Whitehead as the father of aviation. Perhaps the missing original photograph taken by the Bridgeport Sunday Herald, key to the entire argument, will eventually turn up. Until then, I am not convinced New England was first in flight. That honor remains with the Wright brothers and with the state of North Carolina.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Happier Than Paul Revere With a Cell Phone

I love this commercial. But I'm guessing it wasn't that easy to warn "every Middlesex village and farm." Still, even the wife thinks this one is funny.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Wampanoag Language Reclamation

Douglas Pocknett - from Boston Globe
It is now graduation season throughout our country. Thousands of our nation’s youth are completing one part of their lives and moving toward the next with pomp and circumstance. For most, graduation is a simple secular ceremony signifying the beginning of adulthood in our culture. It is repeated with minor variation year after year. However, on the Cape, the 2013 graduation at Mashpee High School has made history.

Earlier this month, a Mashpee Wompanoag student named Douglas Pocknett graduated from Mashpee High School wearing the ceremonial dress of the Wampanoag. Although Douglas is only the second Mashpee student to have done this, he is the first to have delivered a traditional Wampanoag prayer to the assembly in his own native language called Wôpanàak.

According to the documentary We Still Live Here, no one can say for sure when the last native speaker of Wôpanàak died. However, certainly the language was near extinction by the mid 1800's. Although Wôpanàak is an Algonquian language, it is distinct and separate from similar languages like Abenaki or Narragansett.

Remnants of the language exists in colonial documents and in Bibles written for Praying Indians. In 1993, the Wôpanàak Language Reclamation Project began under the direction of a linguist named Jesse "little doe" Baird. Baird began earning a Masters Degree in Algonquian linguistics at MIT. Through the cooperation of the various Wampanoag groups of the Cape and Islands, the project reconstructed a nearly lost language and began teaching the language to tribe members. It’s amazing to think that Cape Cod missionaries like Richard Bourne, who helped to translate Christian payers into the Wampanoag language, have now helped reconstruct that language.

Jesse "little doe" Baird
What is even more amazing is that Douglas Pocknett is a student of Jesse Baird. Pocknett was also the first Mashpee student to earn foreign language credits by studying his ancestral language, which is a practice I hope the Mashpee school system continues to expand.

I have been following the Wôpanàak Language Reclamation Project for a few years now. I totally respect the work of Jesse Baird and the Wampanoag groups that took part in the continuing reclamation of the Wampanoag language. I consistently remind any of my Wampanoag students of the project. Like any young student, I find they have varying levels of interest in their own ancestry. I did have one student this year who was interested in attending one of the language immersion summer camps though and another who was totally fascinated when I shared the news about the Mashpee graduation and Douglas Pocknett.

I must admit, I am also totally jealous. There hasn’t been a native speaker of Irish Gaelic in my family in at least three generations. Also, my maternal grandmother and her parents spoke French asa first language, which has now completely died out in my generation. Like I said, jealous. The difference, however, is that those languages continue to exist and are still used in large parts of the world. Certainly, I wish the Wmpanoag luck in the re-establishment of their native language in their native land. One day I would love to walk the lands of Cape Cod and hear the same language our Yankee ancestors did.