“The aspect is much more pleasant…”

In 2003, I worked on a cemetery removal project in my hometown, Rome, NY, for park improvements funded partly by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. This story is based on actual historical and archaeological data from that project.

By the early fall of 1889, when the young laborer got there with a host of other out-of-work men, the cemetery was a mess. Recently exhumed graves smoldered with the charred remains of shattered coffins and discarded headstones, fueled by tree limbs and bramble. Wagons left steaming piles of coal ash on one side of the cemetery to fill in the low spots where the ground was always a little bit soft, even in the heat of summer. And at night, when all the workers went to their boarding houses, contractors cashing in on the recent housing boom carted off dozens of marble headstones to use in new foundations, leaving behind dozens of unmarked graves. Which just made the city’s job all that much harder.

Remembered yesterday, lost tomorrow.

It had been over a decade since the last legal burial in the city’s cemetery, but neighbors often complained that midnight interments still occurred. And it had been nearly a decade of pressure before the common council finally relented to neighbors’ demands and acted to terminate the cemetery. As more houses went up along George Street, those voices got louder. The city answered the call and hoped to transform this miasmic eyesore into a park landscape that Olmstead would at least not sneer at.


For six weeks, the laborer worked in a team, clearing brush, exhuming graves. They had all answered an ad in their local newspapers in Gloversville, West Winfield, Florence, Pulaski. They came to dig through the coarse sand and coarser cobbles to pick whatever they could recognize out of the shattered coffins, but they always left some behind, little strips of ribs, fingers and toes, the little spiky points on backbones. Some people were buried just a decade ago, but most were ground to dust by the weight of glacial till. Whatever was left went into a small pine box, one of hundreds made at the county poor farm and trundled to the cemetery on wagons. From there, they went to the new, rural cemetery, a little further out of town and more park than burial ground, where they would go all together into a big hole in the ground at the back of the city’s new attraction. Another crew—men just a little more refined, more teeth and less scotch in their heads—were part of a reserve unit, accompanying families to gravesides and performing custom exhumations. Those remains went into new caskets, slid into the back of an enclosed carriage, destined for some private plot in the country.

A city clerk stood in the afternoon shade of some new houses that had grown up around the cemetery. He had just one job here in the burying ground. Some families chose to leave their dead in the old burying ground, perhaps because of the cost of removal and reburial, perhaps because of some nostalgic grip on conservative values, an anchor to the land for what had become a very mobile population. The clerk walked through with a list of those names scribbled on a map, stopped to cross-check the map with a headstone, and then bent over awkwardly, and wrote “down” with a grease pencil on the back of the monument in a looping cursive script easy to read at a few paces. These stones would be left in place, knocked over on top of the grave, and buried beneath the new park.

The laborer had been working in a family plot since lunch, where each of the stones was marked “down.” He dug out a few inches in front of the headstone, and then levered the headstone over into the pit, face up, with his shovel. The headstones cracked as they hit the rocky soil with a wet knocking sound, like the sound a pig’s hip makes when you pop it out of joint. He dug out the cobbles used to chink the monument base in place and tossed them into an open, burning grave shaft, sending a spirit of embers up into the dry autumn leaves.


He was distracted. Maybe he had a sick kid at home. Maybe he was wondering—again—if he would ever get paid for this unsettling work. Maybe he was just watching the local women who came by feigning disgust, but peering over the edges of the graves just the same to watch the men work, to see what a real skeleton looked like. Whatever it was, after toppling six headstones in a row, he woke up when a spit of dirt and gravel flew in his face, catapulted off the end of coffin lid as his shovel sent wood, nails, and rocks flying into the air.

The girl was just three. Ann. Little Ann with a lamb on top. The headstone he was working on came just up to his knees. Maybe he thought of his sick kid as he peered into the coffin’s rent lid, slowly opening more and more as the dirt filtered in, made worse by his nervously shifting feet. Thoughts occurred to him all at once…she would have been my age by now…who the hell buried her so shallow? …is this what that looks like? …What do I do?

That last question got him up, looking around, rapidly assessing his options. He could just forget it, cover it up. He looked up again at the headstone, then at the wagon nearby, stacked ten deep with stout wooden boxes, about 18 inches long and a foot wide and deep, made of thick, rough-cut pine. Bags of nails and a couple of hammers hung from the wagon’s sideboards.


He slowly pulled his shovel out of the lid, and caught a glimpse of a cracked bone: wet, crumbly, like the center of the stale piece of bread he floated in his thin soup the night before. He grabbed a box, tucked it under his arm, snagged a bag of nails and a hammer and fell to his knees at the foot of the grave. Pausing just a second, he put aside his shovel and stuck a hand inside the coffin.

He could feel the dry space where the lid met the coffin wall, lifted enough to hear the nail heads pop through the rotten wood, and carefully moved the lid, with an inch of soil on top, to the side. The coffin had that traditional shape, with just a hint of ornamentation left; a row of brass tacks lined the interior top edge of the coffin, the only evidence left of the casket’s silk lining. Each of the little bones went into the smaller box, nervously but in as much anatomical order as he could manage. The skull was broken, though not by his errant shovel. He nailed on the lid, and then accidentally dropped the box, which sent the carefully arranged bones into a pile at one end of the box. After a muttered curse and a quick look around, he placed the box back into the old coffin.

He didn’t let this headstone fall. He lifted it himself and it was heavy and wet, and sharp on the edges. He lifted it and he placed it gently on top of the tiny box.

Ann. Little Ann with a stone on top.

Maybe he thought about his sick kid, maybe he shook off spiraling thoughts about what he would look like, in a coffin, or in a box, stones on top of bones. He thought he might go home today, find a job on the canal on the way, especially if no one showed up again today with an envelope full of cash.

Rome’s old burying ground likely began as a family plot and sheep pasture at the end of the 18th century, but the city eventually outgrew its usefulness, as well as the neighbors’ tolerance for such an eyesore. In the fall of 1889, the city hired laborers to remove what they could, while at night contractors building homes in that part of the city during a construction boom robbed the graveyard of headstones. Many of Rome’s house foundations from this period are made from the cobbles dug out of the house footprint. Masons used the marble slabs to level the cobble foundations at intervals and used larger plot markers and monuments for quoining. We found one of these house, vacant and decaying, just a few days before the city’s codes department tore it down.

Along with the individual stories that human remains tell us, the cemetery held unexpected surprises in the evidence of the transformation from cemetery to park. Public city parks in the Northeast were often converted cemeteries, and moving the dead was much more common than we realize. Although, they never got them all, for various reasons. The archaeological signature of exhumation included scorched grave shafts, filled with powderized marble, fire-cracked cobbles, and charcoal; grease pencil on the back of headstones, all in a single hand; and little side trenches excavated next to the burial shaft to remove a coffin from the ground whole. Later, when the city installed sewer lines or reconstructed park paths, they came across buried headstones and shifted them over or buried them deeper.

The cemetery became a park worthy of a postcard, finally dedicated the next year, and named after the city’s famed Revolutionary War fort, Stanwix.

Frederick Douglass and “the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny”

On July 4, I will be speaking at the annual celebration of Frederick Douglass’s oration for the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region (URHPCR) in Albany, NY. For four years, I co-directed a week-long summer camp operated by Hartgen Archeological Associates, Inc. and hosted by the URHPCR and the Albany County Historical Association. They are hosting their seventh year of the summer camp this July and I am very sad to not be a part of projects like this anymore. Anyway, I wrote about my work with URHPCR here and managed to squeeze a graduate thesis out of the work as well at the University at Albany. You can read about the great work the URHPCR does for the community and history at large here and if you are in the area, go by and see the house.

A broadside from an 1854 meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

The URHPCR owns a handful of properties on Livingston Avenue, including the former residence of Stephen and Harriet Myers, a married pair of black abolitionists and publishers who lived at the house for just a few years in the 1850s. During the late 1840s and 1850s, a cluster of African- American families occupied a half-dozen houses in a neighborhood that was increasingly becoming whiter due to immigration from Ireland and Germany. Their neighbors included people like Thomas Elkins, an African-American dentist and apothecary, and several men and women employed on the Hudson River and Erie Canal as dockworkers and riverboat crewmembers. Historical documentation concretely positions many of the residents of this little enclave in Underground Railroad activities.

In preparation for my speech/lecture/presentation, I read through Douglass’s original oration from July 4, 1852 (which is only appropriate, I suppose, considering the occasion). A few things struck me about Douglass’s speech, not least of which was his “slow burn” style, which builds into a solid condemnation of the institution of enslavement and complacency in the face of oppression. Douglass starts his speech with references to “your nation” and “your holiday,” in effect denying himself and—implicitly—other African Americans any ownership of July 4th and independence. But, then there was this passage from early in the speech:

Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history—the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.

I can imagine him putting special emphasis on the second-person pronouns, jabbing an index finger over the precipice of the lectern at the audience with every “you” and “your.”

But, did you catch that? There is an artifact buried in that passage: “the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.”

If you consider a chain as a thing—an object, an actual artifact—if you found a chain on an archaeological site, your mind might immediately go to thoughts of confinement, incarceration, and restraint. Historic sites and museums depicting and interpreting enslavement invariably have some form of chain or shackle on display as a reminder of the physical evidence of enslavement. Places of unique brutality in the American slave trade, like the Richmond slave market in Virginia, are linked in intimate ways in our national memory to chains.

For enslaved people and enslavers, chains were a physical reality, but for abolitionists, chains became a powerful symbol. Depictions of enslaved people rarely appeared in abolitionist propaganda without some visual form of confinement and the inclusion of chains and shackles clearly marked someone as a slave. The use of chains and shackles in illustrations sent an unambiguous message about the legal status of an individual without the visual awkwardness of applying an actual label to a person with the word “slave” on it.

One of many depictions of the “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” motif in abolitionist literature.

Perhaps the most famous use of this symbology was the “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” or “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister” motif, which was popularized by the Wedgwood pottery company in England after about 1787 and was reproduced, bootlegged, and outright copied onto just about every piece of abolitionist material culture imaginable. Even today, the “Am I Not…” imagery is seen on an album cover by German hip-hop acts,  t-shirts (modeled by white people, nbd), anti-abortion/pro-life propaganda, support for marriage rights opponent Kim Davis, and Mr. T-inspired artwork.  Kendrick Lamar recently used a variant of the “supplicant slave” image on album cover art for his single “King Kunta,” a thematic variation on the cover art for his album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” In order to not confuse the message conveyed by the man or woman and the chains, the original Am I Not design has just one other artifact: a loincloth.

Today, mashups and memes based on this image place other artifacts onto the design to convey new messages.  A t-shirt design by the “Libertarian-minded” apparel company Liberty Maniacs puts a revolver in the hand of the slave and replaces the banner script with “I am not a slave, motherfucker.” In another recent example, an editorial cartoon by Kirk Anderson depicts the man as prisoner held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay. The man wears not just the infamous orange jumpsuit, but also other artifacts associated with controversial “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including sensory deprivation.  Anderson created this “Am I Not…” remix to protest a speech by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as part of a distinguished lecture series on civil rights at the University of Minnesota in 2014.  Cleverly, the image was featured on a  Condy “fact sheet” handed out by protesters inside the lecture hall.  The tone and content of the text accompanying the image conveyed Rice’s more controversial civil rights achievements in a “just-the-facts” style, which highlighted the “Am I Not…” image as a powerful, nearly non-verbal condemnation.  The original “Am I Not…” image’s simplicity allows for a mix-and-match of symbology, creating new messages where only one was intended. But for abolitionists, the image was a one to one equation: whole chains equal enslavement, broken chains equal emancipation.

Am I Not a Man and a Brother
The “Am I Not…” design in Guantanamo Bay prisoner attire. From an illustration and protest literature by Kirk Anderson (2014).

But, historians today know this design as a variation on a commonly used trope known as “the supplicant slave” and are actively engaged in interrogating this symbol and its intended audience.  In the peer-reviewed journal Slavery & Abolition, Zoe Trodd wrote about four general tropes of abolitionist visual sentiment: the “scourged back,” the auction block, the Brookes slave ship, and the supplicant slave.  For Trodd, the supplicant slave consists of the most basic elements: wrists held out and bound coarsely by chains or rope.  Karen Halttunen critiqued the historical use of this suite of imagery as abolitionist pain pornography. According to Trodd, “With some exceptions, this is a visual culture that heroises the abolitionist liberator, minimises slave agency, pornifies violence and indulges in voyeurism,” all wrapped up in an image originally intended to appeal to a white audience. Trodd highlights several modern appropriations of these tropes, which tend to repeat these sins in shocking and racially tone-deaf ways today.  The imagery is often used by organizations aimed at dismantling international slavery, but regardless of the good intentions of the artist, the message is still somehow “off.”

Literature from the Abolish Human Abortion organization. Members of the group liken their pro-life campaign to that of 19th-century abolitionists.

But, back to Douglass’s oration. He takes an artifact inextricably linked in the minds of abolitionists (presumably the majority of his audience) to human confinement and closely associated with the political and personal body of the enslaved person, and subverts it. He turns this powerful symbol on its head and puts it back into the hands of the celebrants by making it into a symbol of foundation, an object mooring white America to political and social stability during what was widely seen as a fraught period (eventually culminating in the Civil War). Perhaps more dangerously, Douglass’s use of the chain metaphor could be read as an attempt to bind all white Americans to the sins of enslavement, so that whatever consequences eventually arose from the continued tolerance of this institution, white Americans would be sure to suffer as well.

Clearly, Douglass was doing something clever with at least the image of the chain, if not the actual chain itself. By this point in time, Douglass was sliding from the moral suasion side of the abolition spectrum popularly associated with William Lloyd Garrison towards an increasing call for political action to ensure immediate emancipation by whatever means necessary. The “Am I Not…” imagery was a great example of moral suasion: flood the market with powerful imagery in an effort to shame people into dropping their political support for slavery. On the other hand, the work of Stephen and Harriet Myers and their neighbors on Livingston Avenue was a great example of the kind of work that could be accomplished when a community coalesces around an issue and decides to do something about it. Think about the difference between posting something on social media with “#blacklivesmatter” versus actually physically being at a protest. But the “Am I Not…” imagery may have also been a depiction that rankled the African-American cadre of the Underground Railroad. By subverting the meaning of the chain and turning it around on his abolitionist crowd, Douglass transcended “preaching to the choir” and used material culture and iconography to level a pretty heavy warning to American society.

Big Thanks to Kirk Anderson, an artist from St. Cloud, MN, and creator of the Guantanamo “Am I Not…” remix. You can check his work out at his website as well as in the Onion, the New York Times, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Recommended reading: My nine-year-old daughter learned a bunch about Frederick Douglass at the end of the school year and became really interested in him. We got Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American out of the library and fell in love with it. Great read and fascinating study of not just Douglass, but also his complicated relationship with photography.


A follow up on a sad story…

Hey y’all. If you haven’t already, read this first, then give this a read. All of the photographs, besides the Shoen family, comes from Juli and Gary Strader. Much thanks for the photos and for the chat!

When I wrote about Stanford Strader’s sad demise last year on this blog, I knew I was taking a risk. Writing about a suicide, no matter how old, can dredge up painful memories, even if they are not first-hand.

Nineteenth-century maps of New York’s North Country have many of the same surnames you see on mailboxes and yearbook photos today. Family roots, once planted, stick around for generations. My father’s family has lived in Franklin County for over a century and we still have extended family just across the river in Quebec and Ontario. Although all of the information I used in my research came from readily accessible (although largely paywalled) resources, I was aware of the sensitivity of writing about a suicide, even thought it was almost a century ago.

When Juli Strader contacted me through WordPress, I was a little apprehensive and feared that I had opened a very old emotional wound. Instead, she was thrilled to learn more about her great-grandfather and shared some family information with me.

HenryStanfordStrader & Bessie nee Kirkwood Strader
Henry Stanford Strader (left) and Bessie Strader nee Kirkwood

Let’s recap a bit: I worked on an archaeological project on Nichols Hill Island on the St. Lawrence River about a decade ago for a project sponsored by the New York Power Authority. Before the Moses-Saunders Power Dam was built in the late 1950s, Nichols Hill Island was just Nichols Hill and was home to a few farms, including the former Samuel Lawrence farm. Henry Stanford Strader moved in 1926 from near Morrisburg, Ontario, just across the river, to Louisville, NY, and eventually ended up renting the Lawrence farm in the summer of 1926. Henry faced an uphill battle before this, seemingly unique to his own experience: no one else in the family appeared to have struggled like he did. His first wife died and his second son ended up at the Montreal Hospital for Infantile Paralysis, a polio hospital later associated with McGill University. He bounced in and out of renting at least two other farms until he ended up at the Samuel Lawrence farm.

On Wednesday, December 12, 1926, Stanford walked away from a conversation with his brother-in-law, 18-year-old Leo Hume, lit a cigarette, and shot himself in the barn behind the house. His family moved his body back to Morrisburg where he was buried in a family plot.

I knew a little bit about what happened to his widow and their two daughters. Beatrice Strader ended up marrying a man named Orlon Shoen, presumably a descendant of an Irish family who previously owned that same farm. A photograph from a public family tree on Ancestry.com shows Orlon and his new wife, Beatrice, sitting with literal handfuls of kids. Orlon holds an infant, presumably a child of the new marriage, on his lap beneath his toothbrush moustache and round specs. The girls, Kathleen and Helen, were just toddlers when their father died, but in the photo, they appear to be just a few years older.

Beatrice and Orlen Shoen
Orlon and Beatrice Shoen’s family, Kathleen and Hanna at center and right

Approaching 50 if not older, the new family must have been a significant culture change for Orlon. In 1925, the New York State census listed Orlon on a farm on the same river road as the Straders, just six houses down the road to the west. About 47 years old at the time, he lived alone with his 87-year old father, tending to the dairy farm. Right next door to father and son Shoen: Leo Hume.

What really burned me as I researched Stanford’s family was how little I knew about Henry’s two sons. I wasn’t even really sure about their names, since most of Ancestry.com’s Canadian records are behind an additional paywall.

Juli was able to fill the gaps and provided information that gave me some new insight into documents I thought I already understood. Henry Stanford Strader and his first wife, Bessie, had two sons before she died: Raymond and Bertram, who family members and friends called “Mac.” Juli’s father, Gary (who also spoke on the phone with me), is Mac’s son. It was Raymond who contracted polio, but this occurred much later than I had thought. A 1921 Canadian census lists Bertram at an aunt and uncle’s house, just a couple years after his mother, Bessie, died in 1919. This family arrangement was not uncommon for the period when a father became widowed, and signals a sad turn of events for Stanford’s life.

Raymond Strader, Henry’s son

Raymond appears in the 1925 census on the New York State side of the border, 9 years old and living with his new half-sisters, Kathleen and Helen. I had previously thought that Stanford came across the river after Raymond went to the Montreal polio hospital, but this suggests that Raymond contracted polio while in the United States. A ride today to Montreal from Louisville, NY, takes about two hours over 100 miles: you do the math to convert that to miles and minutes in 1926.

Bertram “Mac” Strader, Henry’s son

I was happy to learn that Raymond eventually made it out of the polio hospital, married, had kids, drove a taxi. Mac, Juli’s grandfather, went on to become “the top selling Chrysler salesman in Canada three years in a row in the late 60s,” quite a feat for a car salesman living in a town of just about 300 people. According to Juli, Mac Strader, at least, is still well known in that section. About a decade after he died, Juli cruised through Canadian customs just on her grandfather’s name recognition.

There is something about the magic of history and archaeology that is really hard to grasp and even harder to anticipate. For me, that magic doesn’t always come from a sexy artifact or textbook-altering discoveries. It comes from the unexpected emergence of past human experience, small everyday stories, rising to the top of an archaeological investigation or historical research and framing a new understanding of a place. These stories so often end up a footnote in a larger work or a cultural resource management (CRM) report, but they hint at the rare occasion to test the limits of what we believe to be unknowable about the past.

Learning about Stanford’s story was so ridiculously accidental, but it had a profound effect on how I experienced that place nearly a century after the fact. As archaeologists we strive to ask “questions that matter,” questions that seek to address relevant and timely research topics, but also include descendant communities and cultural stakeholders. The bottom line question for a CRM project is often whether or not a site meets the criteria for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Strader_Bertram 'Mac' Strader (father of Gary Strader)2
Mac Strader and one of his Chryslers

But, we can never really expect to know how someone else experienced a place, especially someone in the past. For Beatrice and her daughters—probably for many residents along the river road—the Samuel Lawrence farm was the saddest place in the world. Revisiting the island after I learned about Stanford’s death, it became something like the saddest place in the world for me, too, but it couldn’t match the family’s experience. For me it was haunted, and it became a very private place on my own mental and emotional map of the world. Sharing it with a broader audience was a difficult decision, but I am glad I did, because Juli and Gary Strader answered what became for me the only question that mattered: Who remembered Stanford Strader?

A. Philip Randolph has lost his glasses. Again.

In honor of A. Philip Randolph’s 127th birthday, I wanted to write about this statue of the great civil rights leader at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Enjoy and let’s hope for a better recognition of his accomplishments in the future. For more information on Phil, check out the A. Philip Randolph Institute (http://apri.org/) or the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago (http://www.aphiliprandolphmuseum.com/)

A.(Asa) Philip Randolph (1889–1979) conceivably could have held a door open for Harriet Tubman and then—years later—helped Cornel West move into his freshman dorm, and still had time to change Ta-Nehisi Coates’s diaper. He probably didn’t. But he could have.

Randolph is a rare sort of generational bridge and it is criminally bizarre that more people don’t know about him. His earliest achievements were made with black railroad workers, fighting for unionization and workers’ rights on behalf of his fellow sleeping car porters in the 1920s. He is widely considered to be the crucial organizing force behind the 1963 March on Washington and spoke after Martin Luther King, Jr. (imagine that: MLK as the opening act). He met with three different presidents, probably most importantly FDR, when he threatened to organize a march on D.C. in 1941 if the military industrial workplace weren’t racially integrated. His relative obscurity in American classrooms may be an accident of history, or perhaps just a result of his relatively secular and socialist leaning, characteristics not particularly celebrated during the Cold War. Suffice it to say: Randolph was a rock star and deserves to be remembered.

The American landscape bears a few reminders of Randolph, but not nearly as many as MLK. Streets, parks, schools, and institutions in cities ranging from Jacksonville, Florida (his hometown), to New York City (his adopted hometown), bear his name, not to mention Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. In 1990, the sculptor Ed Dwight added to the Randolph canon with a bronze statue dedicated at the concourse of Union Station in Washington, D.C. and donated by the AFL-CIO. Randolph spoke at major universities, before hundreds of thousands at the 1963 March on Washington, and with presidents, but today, he holds forth just outside of a Starbucks in one of the busiest railroad stations in the country, one hand held out professorially to make a point, and the other holding a pair of glasses. Or, at least what is left of them.

photo1 (2)
Just down the hall from the Starbucks in the Union Station concourse, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the author.

It may seem odd that an archaeologist would take an interest in a 1990s statue of a civil rights deity. Archaeology is popularly understood as a study of past cultures through their material culture, usually including ancient artifacts. Many archaeologists, however, apply the same principles to our modern world, distilling the discipline down to a study of people and their stuff. It’s a great way to observe how our own material culture factors into our daily interactions with others and the creation of our own identity.

But, back to those glasses. Randolph’s glasses exemplify the crazy circle of logic that connects form, function, and meaning. The statue still holds just the right eyepiece and part of the right temple. This suggests that the glasses broke not once, but twice. But, that only accounts for the present pair of glasses. In an email, Mr. Dwight mentioned they were actually the statue’s second pair.

photo1 (1)
Mr. Randolph’s broken glasses. Photo courtesy of the author.

I did a Google image search to see if I could pin down when the glasses were broken. The earliest mention of the Randolph statue I could find came from an article in the George Washington University student paper, The Hatchet, from 2000. The author mentioned the statue by the baggage claim area “holding his glasses in one hand.” While this is not entirely explicit, it does suggest a whole pair of spectacles, since they are barely noticeable when broken. Sometime after 2000, then, the glasses were snapped off. A Flickr post from 2006: broken glasses. A 2012 article in the New Republic: statue present, glasses missing. Another blog post from 2012 highlighting D.C.’s monuments to labor shows the statue: sans lunettes. Finally, a 2013 blog post about a family trip to the “Let Freedom Ring” march in D.C.: no glasses.

Archaeologists try to find the function and meaning behind the physical form of artifacts. That search is sometimes an attempt to understand why a seemingly anachronistic design persists when better technology is available, or why an altruistic behavior persists in a society regardless of its potentially negative effects. I’m not a sculptor, but it seems to me that a pair of bronze specs in a concourse where millions of people traverse each year have all the tensile resilience of a Doozer condo during a Fraggle famine. Maybe you could hang a scarf on them, but definitely not a winter coat.

So, why put a pair of glasses in Randolph’s hand at all? Why not in his coat pocket or on his face? If the purpose of a statue, presumably, is to honor and preserve public memory, then it may mean that the glasses in this case probably have more to do with meaning than function.

I noticed something a little odd while reading about Randolph online. A search of the Digital Public Library of America (dp.la) and the American Memory photograph collection on the Library of Congress found very few photographs of Randolph with glasses. Unfortunately, most of the photos at the Library of Congress are only available in large-scale format at the library, but out of 156 images listed, only one had a pair of glasses in the frame: lying on the desk in front of him during an interview in his office. Another photo found through dp.la and held by the Smithsonian depicted Randolph at Howard University speaking with a group of women in 1960. The women stood around Randolph as he held a document in one hand (maybe signing an autograph on the event program) and a pair of glasses in his other hand.

APR at his office
A press photo of Randolph at his office in 1964, holding his glasses behind the microphone. Photo by Ed Ford, World Telegram & Sun. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division). https://www.loc.gov/item/00649671/
APR at Howard University 1960
Randolph speaking with a group of women at Howard University in 1960, glasses in left hand. “A. Philip Randolph at Howard University Chapel during Citizenship Week, March 1960.” Scurlock Studio, Washington, D.C. Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1964, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. http://collections.si.edu/search/results.htm?q=record_ID%3Asiris_arc_273993&repo=DPLA

Based on what we know up to now about Randolph’s glasses, they may seem like a thoughtless weakness, a design liability. Broken twice, no one has bothered to fix them in at least a decade, so why bother putting them there in the first place? While they may seem like a pointless attempt at prop placement, or a functionless affect, one particular account of Randolph may hold a clue to their meaning.

Just a few years before Randolph’s death in 1979, Jervis Anderson wrote one of only two biographies of the civil rights leader. Anderson’s serialized biography in the New Yorker in 1972 was followed by a book published the following year based on interviews with Randolph and his friends and colleagues. Anderson had intimate access to Randolph and an insight into his mannerisms, personality, and spirit absent from other accounts written years later. Early on in the book, he constructs a character of “formal cordiality,” based on the impressions of Randolph’s contemporaries, which included a stiff dignity and vanity that framed his public intercourse with blacks and whites alike. Just a handful of pages into the book’s prologue, Anderson takes the reader inside Randolph’s office on 125th Street in Harlem:

A visitor’s first impression of Randolph’s office was one of serenity, especially when he was there working quietly, his horn-rimmed glasses in place, and looking—despite his splendid presence—somewhat lonely in the large, slightly darkened room. The first impression of his office would endure, but that glimpse of him was usually fleeting. No sooner did a visitor enter than Randolph laid aside his work, took off his glasses, and left his desk to meet his guest in the middle of the room…This appearance, together with the gracefulness of his movement and the slightly studied fluency of his gestures, suggested some past attachment to matters of fashion and an enduring one to the idea of style. (Anderson 1973, p. 7–emphasis mine)

This passage is a first visual impression of Randolph and places him in a familiar setting. Anderson suggests that the “glasses in place” were part of Randolph’s private persona: necessary for work but removed promptly when the time came for social interactions. The passage gives the impression that the writer is little more than a “fly on the wall” in what is a private space for Randolph. Knock on the door, the glasses come off, and Randolph brings his tall frame out from behind to desk to greet his visitor.

Unlike Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s contemporary and friend, or Malcolm X, whose tortoise-framed glasses were an iconic part of their look, Anderson seems to suggest that the removal of the glasses was more of a part of Randolph’s public persona than their intended function. Malcolm X bought his trademark glasses to replace a prison-issued pair he wore to correct an astigmatism. These became “part of the aesthetic tools that defined him as a man on a spiritual and political mission,” and an artifact symbolizing “the practical and personal meaning of professionalism” for X, as described by Carol Tulloch in her new book, The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora. For Randolph, taking off the glasses was part of the “lithe, smart movement” and “studied fluency of his gestures,” described by Anderson.

Today, when you come out of Starbucks, checking your email as you walk to meet your train, you may not notice Randolph’s statue. If you did, you might be prompted to duck under his outstretched hand. Union Station has moved the statue several times and its current position is a little awkward for its obtrusiveness. Tim Noah wrote about this for the New Republic in 2012, stating that the statue moved from just outside the men’s room (and don’t even get me started on the unfortunate, but probably unintended, racial space implications of this placement) to its current position. But, the 2013 blog post shows the statue in the station’s magnificent, but currently under renovation, main lobby, next to a wreath, probably in commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington. An ambitious recently announced plan spells out even greater changes to the station and perhaps new locations for Randolph’s statue, sort of like an Elf-on-the-Shelf game for bronzed civil rights leaders. (pssst, how ‘bout considering a new name for the joint?).

Based on accounts of Randolph’s persona, the current placement is out of character with Anderson’s “certain version of the gentleman,” and more like a man desperate to get your attention, hand outstretched, “Do you have a second to talk?” The glasses in Randolph’s hand function more as an inside joke or a personal characteristic noticed only by people who knew Randolph well, rather than an actual element of style or a necessary corrective. If they were on his face, would the bronze Randolph be easily confused with Rustin or Malcolm X? Photographic accounts of Randolph don’t support their existence, but the private and personal memory documented by Anderson places this artifact in a context unique to his mannerisms and personality.

The plaque on the statue’s base contains a quote from Randolph, in which he states, “You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold.” Randolph earned those glasses. He may only hold a fragment of them, but he really should keep them. And if he can get a better spot in Union Station’s future, I’m sure he’d take that too.

Whither Labor?: A Search for the Laborers behind Southeastern Archaeology

Thomas Jefferson would have you believe he excavated a trench through a burial mound near his Virginia plantation sometime in the 1780s by himself. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia describes his excavation of an “Indian grave” on the Rivanna River in first-person terms. “I first dug superficially in several parts of it…” “I proceeded then to make a perpendicular cut…”

Jefferson’s work on the mound is largely considered to be a foundational event in American archaeology. His use of stratigraphic principles and excavation of trenches earned him the perhaps hyperbolic title of “Father of American Archaeology.” But, historians also agree that enslaved Africans were likely the ones who “dug superficially” and made the “perpendicular cut” in the mound.

Behind each of America’s early archaeologists stood a phalanx of assistance. This included laborers—the muscle and horsepower behind mound dissection—as well as guides, location scouts, willing landowners, and financial backers. Today, the front lines of field archaeology are populated by a group affectionately and self-derisively referred to as “shovelbums,” a group detailed in Marilyn Johnson’s great book, Lives in Ruins. But, archaeological labor in the past is poorly documented. Much of what we know about our foundational field technicians come from ephemeral evidence: paintings, century-old notebooks, and footnoted afterthoughts.


When I first came to Georgia, I started attending local archaeological conferences to learn what I could about regional history and archaeology. I was listening to one archaeologist discussing past efforts at a particular site when he mentioned—off-hand, it seemed—that during the 1930s, convict labor was used to remove several feet of alluvium from the site before more detailed work could commence. While I picked my jaw off the floor, the lecturer continued on with his story.

Now, I’m hooked. I’ve spoken to archaeologists from GA, AL, and MS, skimmed through some late 19th- and early 20th-century archaeological texts, and opened so many tabs on my browser it looks like the edge of a Cheez-It. Since that conference, I have expanded beyond convict labor to examine other forms of labor in archaeology’s early days. I hesitate to call these people proto-shovelbums, because their experiences are so much different. While the life of a modern field technician is difficult and uncertain, it was not nearly as bad as what some of our industrial predecessors put up with.

A scene from John J. Egan’s Panoramic of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, c. 1850, depicting a group of African-Americans, likely enslaved, excavating a mound. Saint Louis Art Museum collection.

Eventually, I will pull together some kind of focus for a paper at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Athens, GA, this fall, but I wanted to share some of what’s interesting me these days. For me, archaeological labor sits at the center of a Venn diagram, surrounded by items of regional and national historic context. Some of these relationships are pretty uncanny.

If you have experience in Southeastern archaeology, you have probably heard of Clarence Bloomfield (C.B.) Moore. Moore spent the 1890s through the 1910s coursing up and down the navigable rivers and coastlines of the Southeast tunneling into mounds, disturbing/recording hundreds of burials in the process. And, of course, he didn’t do it alone. In addition to hiring a local riverboat captain, a couple of location scouts, and a camp cook, Moore hired at least eight laborers, likely all African-American, to excavate trenches and test units in mounds in order to test a site’s research potential. According to one archaeologist, Moore found many of these men from a little town on the Florida panhandle called Sopchoppy and may have worked with some of them field season after field season.

Moore had a challenge. He had to find a Cinderella zone on the calendar that would provide rivers high enough to float his boat, yet avoid ruining cotton growing up and down the sides of the mounds he was interested in exploring. Most of his work occurred from December to April, between cotton harvest and planting. This served not only to avoid destroying crops, but also provided good visibility. It also assured him a crew of able-bodied, perhaps otherwise idle labor.

Test units excavated on one of Moore’s expeditions to Moundville in Alabama, reexcavated during the 1990s. From The Moundville Expeditions of Clarence Bloomfield Moore, edited by Vernon Knight, p. 5., University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL.

But here’s the catch. Doug Blackmon writes about Moore’s stomping ground in his book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Blackmon spends a couple of chapters in central and eastern Alabama, where the federal government, after years of prodding from activists and local Alabamans, sent Secret Service and DoJ officials to investigate very-real allegations of continued enslavement through abuse and perversion of the peonage, or prison labor, system. Moore was working in Alabama, along the Coosa, Tallapoosa, and other interior rivers at the same time the agricultural peonage system in Alabama was reaching his peak.  His work ended just before a rain of indictments came down starting in 1903, which paused, but did not stop, 20th-century enslavement in the Yellowhammer State.

I don’t know what kind of trouble Moore had retaining his crew, or what kind of trouble befell those men after Moore returned to Philadelphia in the spring. It is safe to assume, though, that if those men didn’t make it back to Sopchoppy, their continued freedom was tenuous at best. An unknown African-American in the interior small towns of Deep South could be a target, as we know from history.

I spoke with a couple of “old-timers” who worked with some of the mid-20th century’s foundational archaeologists in GA, AL, and MS, and one story stood out to me. A number of archaeologists recall working with prison work-release programs or convict labor as late as the 1970s. Others worked with Office of Economic Opportunity programs, a “War on Poverty” initiative established by LBJ in the 1960s and folded into Health and Human Services by Reagan in the 1980s.

One archaeologist pointed to the Denton site in Mississippi, a series of mounds from the Middle Archaic period (c. 6000–2000 BC). While working on that site in 1969, a convict work detail from Parchman Farm was brought in to shovel scrape the top of the mound. The prisoners sang “chain gang songs” while excavating stair steps in the mounds, up one side and down the other.

In 1969, Parchman Farm, officially known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, was going through an uncomfortable period. Just eight years before, the Farm was happy to host a group of Freedom Riders. Several of those activists were sent out on work details after their convictions, marking a smugly satisfied landmark in Mississippi penal history. But by 1972, long after the Freedom Riders left the Farm, a federal district court began hearing a civil rights case alleging constitutional abuses during the period of 1969–1971, overlapping the investigations at the Denton site. Apparently, there are good photographs of the work at the Denton site, which I have yet to track down.


Mark Williams at the University of Georgia has been a great resource so far for this project, putting me in touch with other archaeologists in the Southeast and sharing his memories with me. He mentioned to me, however, that I am probably doing this research about 15 years too late. Many of the archaeologists who have worked with convict labor are deceased, and so little has been officially recorded. Stanley South worked with convicts at the Ninety-Six site in South Carolina, a formative site in historic archaeology. He’s still alive, but that’s about it.

I’ll keep updating with little snippets here and there, especially as I start focusing my research on some region or time period. Once I start winnowing down my attention, I’m sure these little stories will start casting off in different directions like wood shavings.

These people are essential to our archaeological history, and their personal experiences show how the history of our discipline intersects with larger issues of regional and national history. If you’ve ever had to backfill a 1×2-meter unit by yourself, you know how invaluable teamwork is in the field. Now imagine if your unpaid or poorly paid labor brought to light some foundational discovery in archaeology, something that ended up in a book that is cited decades later as a touchstone. And your name never even made on it onto the outside of an artifact bag.


Benjamin Harrison walks into a bar…: An Archaeological Joke about the Treachery of Objects

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to present two papers and co-present a third paper at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference in Washington, D.C. One of those papers was part of a forum for three-minute papers focusing on a particular artifact’s journey. The unorthodox format is a great departure from the sometimes staid and stuffy 15-minute presentation and provides archaeologists an opportunity to work on their storytelling. The best papers in this venue get people laughing, convey archaeological concepts without jargon, and remind everyone of why they became archaeologists in the first place. The following was my effort, although I have added some stuff I couldn’t fit into a three-minute power talk. The paper is based on a Benjamin Harrison tobacco pipe recovered from a late 19th-century saloon privy in Albany, NY, part of a Phase III data recovery for a community housing project sponsored by New York State Homes and Community Renewal. The images come from my presentation. I had a lot of fun and got a bunch of laughs and I hope you do too.


Archaeologists rely on the permanence of objects and their functions, but sometimes, the journey of an artifact, no matter how brief, challenges that durability.

In 1928, the artist Rene Magritte warned that this was not a pipe. To an archaeologist, this statement may sound both threatening and familiar. While Magritte was speaking of the inability of images to be the objects they represent, it also applies to artifacts and the lives and behaviors they embody.


In the spirit of Magritte, then, I argue that this object, recovered from a privy behind a late  19th-century working-class saloon in Sheridan Hollow, an infamous Irish backwater in the city of Albany, NY, is also not a pipe.  The saloon was owned and operated by the Mordant family, a middle-class family of Irish immigrants. Complete examples of these pipes are embossed with the phrase “Protection for American Labor,” and enhanced by the bearded mug of our third-shortest president, Benjamin Harrison. During the 1888 presidential campaign, Harrison promised a continuation of high tariffs to favor American-made goods, an economic policy that directly benefitted nobody but Gilded Age manufacturers. Ironically, however, by the time Harrison found his face on the business end of a tobacco pipe, most of the major German and Dutch kaolin tobacco pipe manufacturers no longer served American customers. American smokers were finding cheaper options with Ohio pipemakers, so maybe the whole tariff thing was working after all.


Harrison had a conflicted relationship with the Irish working-class and tobacco, to say the least. In 1874, while the editor of the Indianapolis Journal, Harrison wrote about the working habits of the Irish and their love of tobacco in terms that would make Chuck Orser blush. A Democratic campaign primer quoted Harrison in an early version of gotcha politics:

…a short time ago I happened to be in a place where, without inconvenience, I could see these fellows working, and it was as good as a circus to see how they went about it…They were all smoking. Almost every fellow had a pipe in his mouth. Now, it is usually inconvenient for a man to work and smoke at the same time; the pipe is in his way if he is in a dead earnest about his work. If you men have to smoke, you do so when you are through work at noon. But these fellows, whom the Democratic council are paying out of taxes, had plenty of time to smoke. One of them would take out his tobacco and roll it in his hands to grind it up fine, and leisurely tuck it in his pipe. Well, after striking a light he would take his shovel and start off toward the gravel pile.

The Democratic primer continued in a similar fashion, suggesting further that Harrison was willing to deny tobacco to the laboring class altogether.


Later, Harrison refereed negotiations following the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, but only after leading a citizens’ militia to break the strike in Indianapolis. Just before leaving the White House in 1892, he clumsily presided over the deadly Homestead riots, although his distraction may be understandable; Harrison’s wife would die after suffering for nearly a year with tuberculosis just three months after the strike and two weeks before the election.

In between these mileposts, Harrison coerced and pandered heavily to Irish Americans and the working class during the 1888 election, as these groups became more influential than ever before. Republican “get-out-the-vote” efforts included campaign tobacco pipes like the one from the saloon privy. The pipe may have been handed out to factory workers, along with their pay envelope and scaremongering leaflets threatening layoffs if the Democrats squashed the tariffs already in place.

So, given Harrison’s troubles relating to the working class, what exactly did this pipe mean to its user and his fellow publicans? Was this a proudly misguided piece of political swag mismatching Harrison and worker solidarity? Or was this just a free pipe, used only when you hoped no one was looking? The saloon context indicates public use and perhaps a very public discard. After they counted the last of the Homestead dead, lighting up this pipe in a Sheridan Hollow saloon may have been like wearing a Yankees cap backwards at a South Boston urinal. And Homestead may have been the last straw that led to a deliberate one-way journey for this particular object to a dark, steamy privy.


Like Magritte’s pipe, the treachery of objects in this case warns us against believing this artifact is just another tobacco pipe. In fact, rather than a static representation of habitual smoking, a little context of this object’s journey demonstrates how a thing can stand for so much more than itself: in this case, class relations, ethnicity and nationalism, political literacy and illiteracy.

So, while it may not be just a pipe, it could be a punchline. An archaeologist, an Irish railroad worker, and Benjamin Harrison walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Is this some kind of joke?”


Rooster’s Mistake: Chapter 1, “At the Train” with the Carters and Nelsons

It’s been a minute, but here is the first earnest installment in Rooster’s Mistake. If you missed the introduction to this found object mystery, check out my original post.

Livingston, Montana, grew with the railroad and the depot on the Northern Pacific (NP) Railway served not only as the gateway to Yellowstone National Park but the architectural center of the city. This was especially true after 1902, when the NP refurbished the station to accommodate greater and more affluent crowds. But, with the crushing waves of the Great Depression, the crowds at the NP depot thinned out and diversified into a mix of affluent travelers, idle citizens, and drifters.

Livingston  Depot
The Livingston depot during the early 1900s. Postcard image from the Railroads of Montana website.

By the summer of 1936, however, as the Traveler completed his outward journey across the country, Montana newspapers reported a welcomed increase in travelers to both Yellowstone National Park in the south and Glacier National Park in the north. Less than three years before, large sections of the NP in Montana were washed away in floods on the St. Regis River, causing major interruptions to rail traffic. In addition, wool prices rose by over a third from the previous year and record amounts of wool sheared from local sheep left the NP freight depot that summer.

“At The Train” from the Traveler’s diary. Note the “18” at the bottom, but count the names. There are actually 19.

The Traveler arrived in Livingston during an unusually optimistic intermission between the Dust Bowl and World War Two. The 19 faces waiting to greet him at the station were mostly from local farm families and they soaked up the lively activity at the depot, a sign of greater things to come and a promise of prosperity. Local reporters regularly visited the depot to catch up on the economic news, word of capital improvements and wrecks on the NP, and the odd theft. Just a couple of weeks after the Traveler’s arrival, another young man, Edward Carl, reported the theft of his suitcase at the NP depot in Butte, containing “extra trousers and suits of underwear,” no small loss during the nation’s record-setting heatwave. Government officials, dignitaries, and celebrities came through the Livingston depot to visit Yellowstone, although automobile traffic continued to gain ground. While they were excited for the arrival of their long-lost relative, the men and women were also distracted by other social engagements—greeting friends back from travel, comparing takes in the latest wool freight, and catching up with the news in general.

1892 birds eye view of Lston
Bird’s-eye view of Livingston, Montana, c.1922. The depot is at the center of the photograph bisected by the fold. Photo from the Library of Congress website.


The list of 18* names entitled “At The Train” is the launch pad not only for figuring out the identity of the Traveler, but also for constructing an immediate and intimate context for him: family. They were, after all, the reason he traveled across the country, likely at great expense and effort. Based on some info-snippets from the diary, like his departure from “T.” and “A.,” probably Troy and Albany, New York, on the Cornelius Vanderbilt, a famed New York state based passenger line in the 1930s, I believe the Traveler came from somewhere in New York State. The best way to start exploring his origins is to examine the web that kept him connected to such a large group of people in Montana.

Since the Traveler neglected to sketch out kinship diagrams with his list (shame!), I hoped to reconstruct relationships and maybe build a better case for his New York origin. To do this, I plugged names into the 1930 and 1940 US Census, starting with the Carter and Nelson women, mostly because they were some of the only people with first and last names. From there, I was able to match up husbands and wives from the list, and some children, and identified four thirty-something couples with little kids, accounting for 13 of the 19 members of the welcoming party, including some mystery people with no clear affiliations at first.

The cast “at the train.” Names in red were my starting point for the census search. Uncle Bill wasn’t at the train, but he reappears later in the diary.

Three of the women—Mildred Nelson, Edna Carter, and Jane Nelson—present at the train station had a New York-born father and a Pennsylvania-born mother, so I operated on the assumption that these women were somehow related. Since they were all born around the turn of the 20th century, I went back to the 1910 census and searched for Mildred, Edna, and Jane when they would have been unmarried sisters. That’s where I came up with the Allen family, the first connection between Montana and New York state some fifty years before the Traveler came to Park County. But, that story will have to wait for another day.

Another illustrious illustration. The Allen girls and their husbands.

Mildred, Edna, and Jane were born in Montana between 1897 and 1905 to Albert W. Allen of New York and Maggie Shorthill of Pennsylvania. Jane and Mildred both married sons of Swedish immigrants, Seaman and Floyd Nelson. Hazel Nelson, another member of the welcoming party, but not one of the sisters, also married another son from the same Swedish family, Nels Edward. Edna married Eugene William Carter, a son of an English father and a Wisconsin-born mother. The Traveler’s list has a “Jean Carter,” but I couldn’t find anyone by that name in the census in Park County. Given the young man’s misspellings, it is possible that Jean is actually “Gene,” as in “Eugene.” The Traveler also wrote “Sam Nelson,” but this could also be Seaman Nelson, Jane’s husband.

By 1936, the families lived in one of three places, each within about six or seven miles of each other. Hazel and Nels lived in Livingston where he worked as a machinist’s assistant on the Northern Pacific Railway. Jane and Seaman Nelson and Edna and Eugene Carter both lived on farms on Suce Creek and Mildred and Floyd Nelson lived a little south of there on Pine Creek. Later that week, the Traveler went fishing with Floyd and Mildred and had supper with them on July 6. The next two days he spent at least part of his evening at Edna Carter’s. He had dinner twice at Hazel Nelson’s house in Livingston, once on the 2nd and again on the 13th of July. Oddly, he referred to her as Hazel Shorthill in one of those entries, suggesting he knew her when she was single, but we’ll get to that family and more of the New York connection later.

Bridge to Pine Creek across the Yellowstone River
An iron truss bridge crossing the Yellowstone River on the way to Pine Creek. The bridge was built in 1910 by a Livingston-based company. Photo from Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress website.

There were four other people at the station that didn’t quite fit the pattern, but I was able to figure out how they settle into place. First, there was Mr. and Mrs. Carter, no first names given. Luckily, I stumbled upon this couple in the 1930 census, listed two houses down from Eugene and Edna Carter. A little more census sleuthing found that T.O. and Eliza Carter were Eugene’s parents.

Right under Mr. and Mrs. Carter on the Traveler’s list was a person named Charline, no last name given. This was pretty easy because “Charlene” appeared on the 1930 and 1940 census as a daughter of Hazel Nelson. Charl(e/i)ne would have been about 15 at the time.

One last straggler was Helen Myers, listed third over all under Edna Carter.  The best I could find was on the 1910 census entry for 10-year old Hazel (Shorthill) Nelson, which listed her cousin, 9-year old Helen Allen, a young girl with a New York-born father and a Pennsylvania-born mother. Helen may have been another sister of the Allen girls, but for some reason she was living apart from her family. Hopefully, I’ll have more about Helen Myers in the future.

So, what does it all mean at this point? I am no closer to solving the identity of the young Traveler, but the Allen family may hold some clues to his suspected New York State origins. His slip-up in referring to Hazel Nelson as Hazel Shorthill also suggests that he knew her before she was married, probably around 1920 or so. The list also has some kids who were there at the train station who may still be alive today, including Charline Nelson (Hazel’s daughter), who would be about 89 or 90, Edwin Nelson (Jane’s son), who would be about 85, and Allen Nelson (Mildred’s son), who would be about 90.


Next time, I’ll play “Pin the Surnames on the Aunts and Uncles,” and explore the connection with the Shorthill family, including the eponymous cemetery where many of the people “at the train” reside currently. In the meantime, I am working on an Esri StoryMap for the Traveler’s time in Montana. I will post once that is up and public.

*The list in the diary is annotated with an “18” at the bottom, because the Traveler liked to count. But, he miscounted Mr. and Mrs. Carter as one, making it actually 19 people waiting at the station. Not the first screw-up in the ol’ Marquette senior diary.

Artifacts of the Great White Way: Illuminating Gerald Champan’s Escape

Lately, I have been researching Gerald Chapman, a.k.a. Count of Gramercy Park, for a magazine article about his time in Athens, Georgia. Chapman was an insanely bold and lucky criminal, educated by the prison system and its denizens, yet he claimed a Yale pedigree. He lived the high life for nearly a year after robbing a mail truck in New York City of about $2.5 million with two associates before federal authorities finally caught up to him. Chapman landed in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, but escaped on March 27, 1923 with a different accomplice. The two fled to Athens, where a local sheriff and posse shot Chapman three times. About a week later, Chapman escaped from Athen’s St. Mary’s Hospital on April 5, 1923, this time fleeing to Muncie, Indiana, and eventually returning to his life of safecracking and strong-arming while hiding in plain sight amidst New York’s elite.

A surprising by-product of this research was the role of electricity in Chapman’s escape from both Georgia prisons, specifically, the relatively new innovation of arc lighting. During his break from the federal prison, Chapman severed the circuit for the lighting system to cover his escape. While inconclusive, the pen was likely lit up with arc lighting. By the 1900s, many prisons were either building their own arc lighting powerhouses and dynamos or contracting with outside companies to provide the energy. Arc lighting provided a wider, brighter light that wouldn’t blow out, perfect for the prison yard. By putting out the lights, Chapman created the chaos and obscurity to allow his escape into Atlanta’s suburbs.

While Chapman waited at the hospital, at least two compatriots scoped the surrounding neighborhood and met for drinks in Athens’s Palm Gardens club. At the same time, the city was preparing something called a White Way celebration. Beginning with the larger, more affluent cities, municipal governments and capitalist boosters funded arc lighting installations to create a safer city, but also to make the downtown commercial corridor more appealing and mod. Named for the “Great White Way” of Broadway in New York City, cities put on a party for the inaugural lighting, featuring beauty queens, galas, and parades. The night of Chapman’s Athens escape, the city planned to celebrate the illumination of a stretch of Clayton Street. The Palm Garden club and Georgian Hotel, both lit by their own arc lighting systems, hosted the after-party. Torrential rains postponed the White Way celebrations until the following day on April 6, but Chapman used the poor weather to cover his trail as he made his escape from the hospital. He and his crew may have originally planned to use the White Way event as a distraction to aid their escape.

The Georgian Hotel on Athens’s Washington Street.

Here is where archaeology comes into play. Archaeologists infrequently find spent carbon rods in urban domestic contexts, sometimes in the bottom of a privy pit, some from batteries and some from arc lighting. Arc lighting was too bright for household use, suggesting these burnt-out rods likely came from streetside lighting. As electricity jumped the gap between the electrode and rod, the rod ends became corroded and charred, eventually failing altogether. One of the main drawbacks of the system was the rods’ failure rate, which prompted the creation of a full-time job to replace them. While it is ultimately unclear how these artifacts end up in domestic privy from streetside lighting fixtures, there is some anecdotal evidence that children used the rods for games and graffiti, perhaps picking them up from the sidewalk or getting them from a friendly utility worker.

carbon rods
Spent carbon rods in the collection of Australia’s Museum Victoria. Item HA 247. Photo from Museum Victoria Collections http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1544694 Accessed 01 November 2015

Regardless of how they got there, they provide a useful way to date an archaeological deposit. Some archaeologists consult “Telling Time for Archaeologists,” an article by George Miller and several contributors in the journal Northeastern Historical Archaeology, or “Telling Time for the Electrified,” a 2010 Society for Historical Archaeology technical brief by Adrian T. Myers. These documents provide artifact date ranges by class, comprising sort of a field guide for historical artifacts. The dates for arc lighting and the carbon filament light bulb are broad however, and based, in part, on the patent date or when a technology really caught on, and any historical archaeologist will tell you that technologies like this lagged for decades between the more affluent cities and the smaller cities. Often, they were adapted first for specialized purposes, only to later trickle down to civilian use. Another way to date the use of arc lighting more specifically is to consult city gazetteers or common council minutes to find out when different parts of the city adapted its use. But, often, these resources are not scanned or searchable and are only available at the repository. These resources may also miss arc lighting projects funded and sponsored by private parties, such as group of hoteliers and restaurateurs who wanted to create a safer space for their evening promenade.

Online newspaper archives are proliferating as the resources—both technological and monetary—become more available. Just about all of these are OCR (optical character recognition) capable, which allows you to search for terms and phrases. Curious about the White Way celebrations mentioned concurrently with Chapman’s escape, I searched for “White Way” in an archive of Athens historical newspapers and received nearly 500 hits. In this particular archive, you can winnow your search by year, or add phrases like “event” or “celebration,” to limit your results to the actual festival. The results revealed clusters of articles reporting on the planning process for both the installation and the event, following the illumination of different parts of the city, including the university campus.

Athens Herald White Way May 21 1914
“Electric White Way Presented University” Athens Daily Herald 21 May 1914.

Additionally, the White Way articles provide a sense of the cultural and social impact of arc lighting that common council minutes and patent dates lack. For the White Way festival in the spring of 1923, the newspaper was filled with advertisements for local stores hoping to cash in on the event, parking deals for out-of-towners, and movie showings geared to fit in with the evening’s schedule. For years after illumination, store advertisements associated their location with the “White Way,” which tied their store to the high-class excitement typically associated with Broadway. The Lighting Journal, a contemporary trade magazine, featured an article in 1914 about the success of White Way celebrations in boosting business by forging ties between local newspapers, businesses, and municipal government. Just the enticement of this new lighting system seems to have been enough to draw a crowd to a downtown business district.

The results of arc lighting went well beyond a carbon rod in a privy. Arc lighting illumination was touted as a civilizing force, bring clean, white light to city streets in an effort to make citizens safer and, by extension, extending store hours. Luckily, today’s growing body of online newspaper archives makes it easier to provide a tighter date for privy deposits and also measure the social impact that arc lighting had on the typical American city.


Check out this list of American cities and White Way celebrations I put together in just a few minutes. The search engine on Newspapers.com (paywalled, sorry) is great because it has an accompanying bar graph that shows the occurrences through time.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 9.26.29 AM
Screen grab from Newspaper.com of “‘white way’ celebration” in American newspapers from 1895 to 1969.

Miami, OK: October 1929

High Point, NC: March 1915

Louisville, KY: December 1911 (just in time for the holiday shopping season!)

Spanish Fork, UT: July 1933

Leavenworth, KS: May 1915

Duluth, MN: December 1918, July 1922

Orangeburg, SC: June 1921

Post-script: As of the writing of this blogpost, one of my favorite archives, NYS Historical Newspapers, has gone dark. This archive has grown rapidly thanks to generous grants from just a half-dozen rural counties along the Canadian border to include newspapers from many of New York’s 62 counties. Hopefully, they’ll be back up and running soon.

Rooster’s Mistake: A Found Object Mystery

By the time the young man sat down to dinner with Hazel and her family on July 13, 1936, hundreds of dead bodies served as doorstops in Chicago morgues, victims of one of the worst, and least understood, heat waves recorded in the country. He passed through that city just a few days before, as the temperatures crept higher, and Depression-era wheat farmers in the Upper Midwest nervously watched their fields. At the end of his trip visiting family in Livingston, Montana, after a cross country trip from somewhere in upstate New York, thousands of people had died in Chicago, Detroit, and other cities and communities in the Upper Great Plains and Great Lakes regions.

But you would never know it from looking at the young man’s diary. Not a single page was wrinkled or creased with a sweat stain.

A few years ago, I picked up a 1936 Marquette Senior Diary, although I can’t remember exactly where or for how much. On the inside, written in pencil, were the details of a trip taken from somewhere in the Northeast through Chicago and St. Paul to Livingston. Every once in a while, I would pick up the little book, thumb through its pages and land on some phrase or entry, but I never read it through, like a story or narrative.

In my spare time, I have been puttering around on the Internet to learn more about the people mentioned in the diary and build a broader context in which to situate this little found object. Besides the details of the trip, there are no other appointments or engagements. He* didn’t even bother filling out the measurements and contact section at the front of the diary. That’s the section where you can either get a new hat or shirt in a strange city without going to a tailor, or perhaps information for the undertaker after they dredge your body from beneath a wharf.

The diary’s first entry takes up an entire page somewhere in May, a list of names, 18 in all, of people that met him “At the Train.” These people show up again and again over the next couple of weeks, taking him fishing, or to the Fourth of July celebration at the park, or to dinner at Stanza’s. The diary entries appear hastily assembled in places, like he was catching up on details from the past few days, packing them into the narrow entry columns. In other sections, he neatly entered the activities for the day in Livingston: Tuesday, July 7, 1936. “Went to town. Went to cemetery. Went to Edna’s.” Friday, July 10, 1936. “Went to U.C. Gold mining.”

A busy week in Livingston and a trip to the optometrist.

Many of the entries are confusing and unclear, but that’s half the fun. There are little ticks and inconsistencies, markers of haste, character, or effort. He wrote funny little “m”s in three individual pieces and liked to count. After a page of scribbles, the very bottom has the only cursive writing, very deliberately written, with a newly sharpened point. He crossed out (not erased) an extra “l” in “Wonderful trip!,” but the line above wrote “Old Faithfull.” He mistranscribed a dirty joke (the title of this series), maybe told to him earlier that day, by a family member, or someone on the train, something to share later as an icebreaker or to bridge a lull in conversation. He noted his itinerary, including stops (T. and A.**, Chicago, St. Paul) and trains (Zephyr***, North Coast Limited, Commodore Vanderbilt). He scrawled in some places, especially while noting little historic facts about Chicago, like he was chasing a tour guide. So many of his posts are posts in the way that we understand them today: 1930s analogs of someone’s Instagram and Facebook record of a trip to visit distant relatives.

Rooster’s Mistake. It should read I. Rhoda Duck, but…whatever; it’s still the kind of joke Aunt Maggie does not appreciate at the dinner table.
Chasing a tour guide in Chicago? Hey, look: Mexico!

With this project, I am trying something a little unorthodox, yet increasingly possible. With the increase in digital history participation, the growing availability of online newspaper archives and demographic information, and wide popularity of podcasts like Criminal and The Memory Palace, found objects like this diary are ripe for a thorough exploration. Like those great podcasts, this project revels in tiny history, history with a lower-case “h.” While it is not quite local history, it is a celebration of how the mundane connections between people and places persist over decades and manifest in these ephemeral…things.

Over the coming months, I will post little snippets of my research into this planner and all of its characters, whether they are people or events: Uncle Charlie, Aunt Blanche, and the gang in Livingston, Montana. The heat wave of July 1936. Dinner at Stanza’s. Where can I get my glasses fixed in 1936 in Livingston if Uncle Bill isn’t around? I’m not afraid to pick up a phone and call some people in Montana if I need to.

My goal with so much of my work is to test just how much is “knowable,” the limits of which seem to expand every day as more information becomes available online. My hope, however optimistic, is that I can figure out how this diarist was and maybe return it to his or her descendants.

Stick around and if this gets wide enough distribution and you think you have helpful information, please add it to a comment or find me on Twitter (@mcquinn_corey) or Facebook (corey.mcquinn). As always, thank you reading!

The diary is started to get a little smudged and worn from so much ogling. As soon as I figure out the best way to do it, I will scan the entire thing and upload it to the blog. 

*I fully acknowledge that I am making a gigantic assumption that the diarist was a man, and my subsequent fact-finding mission will definitely consider any possibilities.

**Troy and Albany, NY? Based on the route of the Commodore Vanderbilt and an entry for breakfast and coffee in Albany, this may be right.

***As quoted from the diary, “Some train!!!”

Watts as an Archaeological Landscape: The Potential Contributions of Conflict Archaeology

For this post, consider a few selections from Watts’s favorite son, Charles Mingus: Fables of Faubus and Moanin’

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots, a week-long struggle between the predominantly African-American residents of Watts and other Los Angeles neighborhoods, a police force made up of thousands of state, local, and county officers, and the California National Guard. The significance of the half-century anniversary is marked the many great retrospective articles appearing in the media. Some reflect on the disappointing similarities with Ferguson, perhaps demonstrating that much remains the same. Others touch on the personal and political legacy of Watts.

What is perhaps lost on many people is that the 50th anniversary means that Watts – or at least its associated built and natural environment – finds itself qualified for the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register is a sanctioned list of historic properties commemorated for their contribution to the nation’s history. Typically, only properties older than 50 years make the cut, unless they have “exceptional significance.” Aside from individual buildings, there are also historic districts on the Register, covering acres or city blocks, a designation likely more appropriate for Watts.*

It is contentious and difficult to define “Watts,” a week of violence in LA ignited during a traffic stop and extinguished by a smothering blanket of National Guardsmen. History remembers Watts for its rioting, looting, and arson, while others, including the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, remember it as “the first major rebellion of Negroes…carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life.” Much of the recent coverage of Watts 50 years later still struggles with this question, just as the country wrestles over the meaning of #BlackLivesMatter and associated acts of resistance.


Miss Watts, crowned during the 1965 Watts Christmas Parade, with city councilman Billy Mills and KGFJ radio host Tommy Hawkins. Photo from the Los Angeles Public Library and California Digital Library.

Archaeology provides a new and unorthodox framework through which to view Watts and its historical legacy, and other events like it. Archaeology is traditionally associated with excavating artifacts from the ancient past and cloistered scholars toiling over thousands of indistinguishable sherds. But really, archaeology in its most distilled form boils down to the study of people and their stuff. The things, or material culture, that make up our everyday lives are artifacts, too—objects made, modified, or manipulated by humans. This includes everything from the buttons on your shirt to the structures and highways of the Los Angeles landscape. Artifacts are the things you select and curate to construct your identity and they are the things that other people, right or wrong, associate with you and those of your class. They provide a social lubricant and common ground and they build the physical and symbolic walls that confine and divide. Archaeologists study material culture within a context, taking into consideration the history, politics, economics, and culture in which these artifacts operate. For a historic moment like Watts, archaeology provides a unique way to understand how history and material culture figured into the construction, culmination, and ripples of the event.

Watts was just one of many confrontations in the 1960s that found a group of citizens facing off against an increasingly militarized police force and the National Guard. Recent critiques of law enforcement in American cities blame the rising use of military tactical strategy and military surplus as a wedge between municipal governments and city residents, exacerbating the already contentious relationship between police and neighbors. This phenomenon is not limited to Watts: National Guardsmen were key players at Selma and Ferguson (with very different outcomes). Before the Civil Rights movement, Pinkertons, state militias, and the National Guard broke the labor strikes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The nature of the conflict between these groups and the material culture featured in the struggle (firearms and improvised incendiaries, strategic gathering points, armored vehicles and gas masks, etc.) is not too different from an actual war.


Renel Pickett and Officer David Nichols at the 1966 Watts Christmas Parade. Photo from the Los Angeles Public Library and California Digital Library.

The National Park Service grants somewhere around a million dollars each year through the American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP), which funds the study and preservation of sites associated with armed conflict in the United States. Specifically, the act enabling the ABPP seeks “to assist…in planning, interpreting, and protecting sites where historic battles were fought on American soil during the armed conflicts that shaped the growth and development of the United States, in order that present and future generations may learn and gain inspiration from the ground where Americans made their ultimate sacrifice (emphasis mine).” Over the years, projects funded through the ABPP have contributed to our understanding of military efforts by colonial and federal governments to relocate and suppress Native Americans. These were events that undoubtedly shaped our country, for better or worse, and Americans—Native, European, and African—all made the ultimate sacrifice over centuries of conflict. The ABPP also encourages public involvement in these projects, which provides an opportunity for the education and inspiration laid out in the program’s mission.

Many ABPP grant projects use a method known as KOCOA military terrain analysis. This acronymic technique is used by military tacticians to assess a battlefield and plan accordingly by identifying Key Terrain, Observation and Fields of Fire, Cover and Concealment, Obstacles, and Avenues of Approach and Retreat. These principles, while codified by modern military thinkers into a tidy acronym, are basic tenets of conflict regardless of the time period. The ABPP also encourages grantees to place the event into historical and geographic context. The geographic context of a conflict landscape includes all those big pieces of material culture—the buildings, the roads and bridges, the constructed and natural landscape features—that influenced the battle. The historic context places a short event at the center of a long timeline, showing how the participants got to this momentous point as well as how the battle shaped events and relations afterwards, including how people remember the conflict and talk about it years later.

While it is not a traditional battlefield, the Watts riots have all the right ingredients for this sort of archaeological analysis. The event is ripe with history leading up to August 1965, stemming from the Second Great Migration, real estate red-lining, and local and state governments reacting to the swiftly evolving demography of Los Angeles. Much of the geographic context of the riots is still in place, despite over a thousand properties burning to the ground, many never rebuilt. Many of the participants, on both side of the baton and riot shield, are still alive, providing a wealth of witnesses to those events. Maps assembled for recent articles compare the curfew limits, destroyed properties, and a timeline of events, all generated using GIS software, a common tool for the modern archaeologist. These maps serve as a foundation for identifying the key features, obstacles, and areas of concealment and cover, the elements of KOCOA. And, in this case, the avenues of approach and retreat, for both the citizens and the police, were actual avenues.


Santa Monica mortician Joe Spaulding riding horseback in the 1966 Watts Christmas Parade. Photo from the Los Angeles Public Library and California Digital Library.

While the Watts rebellion meets the National Register’s criteria, the skirmishes between the police, the National Guard, and Los Angelenos are not eligible for ABPP funding for archaeological research. The ABPP has supported the study and preservation of battlefields associated with many lopsided battles in American history, but sites like Watts, Selma, and Kent State do not make the cut, regardless of the use of militarized force and the applicability of KOCOA analysis. This point is not meant as a critique of the ABPP and the great work the program supports. However, if we allow ourselves to expand the definition of armed conflict in order to support new perspectives on issues like racial and political violence that still effect a supposedly post-racial society, we may find an unexpected public benefit. If the goal of the ABPP is to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, the 34 people who died during a week of fighting in Los Angeles surpasses the number of casualties of some of the battles researched through ABPP grants. The public memorials to the Watts rebellion clearly show that descendants of that community are still learning and gaining inspiration from that fight and see the unassailable historic connections. Archaeology is an evolving discipline, and innovative scholars are pushing at the boundaries of traditional archaeological inquiry to make more meaningful contributions to social issues and community heritage. An archaeological analysis of Watts through this conflict framework may not seem like traditional archaeology, but the historic episode meets the criteria. There is a trove of material culture and history tangled in the events and policies that led up to the riots. Some of those artifacts shaped the culmination of the riots and survived the fires to create their own legacy of Watts.

Earlier in August, another similar incident observed its first anniversary. The 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ensuing conflict between citizens, local law enforcement, and the Missouri National Guard have a long way to go before becoming eligible for National Register status. But, the material culture legacy is already clear. Besides their digital hashtags, #BlackLivesMatter and #HandsUpDontShoot have made a mark on a number of objects in the physical world: from semi-permanent murals in cities across America to ephemeral posters and protest signs. On the other side, the body cameras mandated by many police departments soon after the shooting create a sort of cultural horizon, a dating term used by archaeologists to denote a noticeable proliferation of a style or technology across a broad area. Even on a much smaller scale, examining the direct effects of the shooting and its immediate, more intimate, results, we can see the roadside memorial on Canfield Drive and the milled patch of pavement where Michael Brown’s body lay as potential archaeological features. It is still archaeology, the study of people and their stuff, contributing to our knowledge of how we got to where we are and how we will remember where we were. And we may not need the National Register to accomplish that.


A local Cub Scout troop marching in the 1965 Watts Christmas Parade. Photo from the Los Angeles Public Library and California Digital Library.

*A search for National Register-listed properties in the Watts neighborhood found only two buildings (neither of which was Charles Mingus’s house). One of the listed buildings is the Watts Station, a trolley station built in 1904 and listed in 1974, which survived fires that burned nearly every building on a mile-long stretch of 103rd Street. Just months after Watts, the city’s Cultural Heritage Board recognized the building as a historic cultural monument, seemingly by virtue of being the only thing to persist. Carl Dentzel, vice president of the board, said, “This indication of community interest in the beautification of the area will be an extension of the wonderful work accomplished by Watts in its ‘Operation Tea Cup’ campaign last May. This constructive effort has, unfortunately, been completely unrecognized because of later incidents (emphasis you-know-whose).”