Category Archives: 19th century history

Phantasmic art insights

I love to visit art museums, especially when visitors are allowed to take photos. It’s a wonderful research-gathering tool, especially if you’re looking for glimpses of how people looked and lived before photography came along.

That said, paintings of some eras and peoples are easier to find than others. Lately I’ve discovered that European cultures like France, Italy, England, and Germany are better represented than places like Scotland. On a visit to the Boston Museum of Art earlier this year, I found not one single painting by a Scottish artist. I even inquired at the information desk just to be sure. No, nothing about Scotland or by Scottish artists, I was told.

Therefore, being able to visit the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh was a huge breakthrough. In honor of the October Hallowe’en month, I offer this example of one of my finds there, a painting called “The Spell.”

The brass plate beneath the painting reads:

Sir William Fettes Douglas (1822-1891)
THE SPELL
The superstition was common in many countries that it was possible, by word of power and magic, to force the dead to reveal the secrets of the unseen world. The Rosicrucians and Illuminati of the Middle Ages being especially accused of violating the tombs for this unholy purpose.

Beside the painting is a further explanation of the artwork (I also take photos of those so I can identify the paintings when I get back home):

The magician here is endeavoring to raise the spirit of a dead man. The mood of the painting is enhanced by the number of strange diagrams and mathematical calculations together with the glimpse of moonlit water and ancient standing stones.

It’s awesome to go to museums themselves for this type of elucidation about the art and artist, the time period, and more. The next best thing is exploring art images online. This week, for instance, I happened upon the Scottish artist Thomas Faed. His work is a wonderful glimpse into the life of Scots in the 19th century. Using Google search, type in “Thomas Faed artist” and then select images for a wonderful overview of his paintings.

In the footsteps of every visitor to Amsterdam and beyond

Our first day in Amsterdam, we made a beeline to the Van Gogh Museum, where we came within about 200 yards of the place, at the back of a long line of ticket purchasers.

Van Gogh Museum“Must be because it’s a Sunday,” I muttered after about five minutes of no forward movement. “Maybe we should try again tomorrow.”

The next morning found us no closer. This time, at least we’d purchased tickets for the voucher line.

“This must be the one thing in Amsterdam every tourist does,” Dave said.

The woman in front of us turned around and nodded. One hears many different languages in this city, but just about everyone, it seems, speaks English. In the end, we only waited half an hour. The line to the Anne Frank House is the other must-see, and a wait of 2-3 hours no matter when you go. With only two days here, we had to skip it.

Amsterdam City ArchivesInstead, we opted for a 75-minute canal open-boat tour. The driver took us by the Amsterdam City Archives. (If we had another day, I’d definitely be dragging Dave here.) But you don’t have to physically stop by to appreciate archives treasures–through their website, the digital collection is extensive and impressive.

Self-Portrait at Rijksmuseum, Vincent Van GoghBack to the Van Gogh Museum, and the current exhibit (“When I Give, I Give Myself: Artists and writers respond to letters from Van Gogh”), with displays about the multitude of artists Van Gogh has inspired these last few centuries based on his brief 10-year career as an artist (1880-1890). In one letter, which Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in 1883, I  especially resonated with these words, about the “intense struggle between ‘I’m a painter’ and ‘I’m not a painter.'”:

Sometimes a frightening struggle … If something in you says ‘you aren’t a painter’ — IT’S THEN THAT YOU SHOULD PAINT, old chap … one must take it up with assurance, with a conviction that one is doing something reasonable, like the peasant guiding his plough …

Imagine. What if Van Gogh had listened to his inner critic?

Camera Obscura

“I’ve done some research on Edinburgh,” Dave told me before our trip, “and the Camera Obscura struck me as the most intriguing.”

imageAt the time, I filed his remark away amid an ever-growing list of things to do. Yesterday, amid the throngs of tourists in the streets on their way up to the Edinburgh Castle, my gaze fell on the Camera Obscura “lighthouse.” We hoofed it over.

imageEstablished in 1853, the six floors of displays at the Camera Obscura does not disappoint. (Photo at left is the first of many optical illusions.) We almost missed our 10 a.m. appointment at the top level observatory getting lost in the Bewilderment Room, a maze of mind-bending mirrors. The proprietors keep the place up to date (I enjoyed watching a five-year-old kick a soccer ball on a virtual field) but also true to its 19th century origins.

imageThat is, the top floor camera obscura, still in operation based on its simple principle of mirror-reflected light. After being treated to a 360-degree visual and informative guided tour of the city, we then stepped outside on the parapet to see it all with our own eyes. True to our 21st century reality, a big attraction these days is the view of Heriot’s School, of which it is said J.K. Rowling had a clear view from her window as she wrote about Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft in Harry Potter.

Buffalo surprises

I lived in Buffalo for a few years in the 1980s, so I should know all about it, right? Home of hot spicy chicken wings and Friday fish fries, the Peace Bridge and lake effect snow. The place where President McKinley was shot in 1901 at the Pan American Exhibition, and where Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in when McKinley died? This past weekend when visiting my friend John, my preconceived notion that I “know” Buffalo was seriously challenged.

Take, for instance, the 2015 Boom Days. They’ve only been around since 2002, but the festival, and the location of the festival at Silo City, were marvelous and exciting.

Lake Erie ice April  19We arrived on a gorgeous mid-afternoon when things were just getting started. But not the raising of the boom. Each winter, the ice boom stretches from Buffalo almost to Canada holding back the ice from Niagara River and the Falls to keep ice chunks from damaging property. Apparently the boom has been raised as early as March 1, and as late as May 7 (last year). But at the time of Boom Days 2015, 840 square miles of ice still linger on Lake Erie. I doubt the boom will be raised any time soon.

The venue of Boom Days was as startling as the concept. It took place this year in Silo City. Don’t even get me started on the history of grain elevators, about which a bronze placque stands near the marina.

Silo City, Buffalo, NY“I think of them sort of like the pyramids of Egypt,” John said as we wandered the grounds, me a few steps behind hooting above into the hollow silos, singing a chant to test out the harmonies.

In fact, photography workshops happen there on a regular basis.

Here are just a few of mine.
imageimageimage

First stops in Cleveland, WRHS and Loganberry Books

If you’re ever in Cleveland, don’t miss Loganberry Books. I found a treasure there (as I always do): Ohio Builds a Nation, a 298-page compendium of notable persons, places, and pioneer trivia in Ohio.

Friends John and Harriet took me there, and also to the Western Reserve Historical Museum. Somehow in visits past, I’d missed the original oil paintings on the walls. Here are just a couple.

The Cleveland Grays on Public Square, Northwest Quadrant
1839, by Joseph Parker
image
According to the interpretive sign, this is the earliest surviving oil painting of Public Square. It shows the parade of the volunteer militia the Grays, formed in 1837, as they marched in honor of their 2nd anniversary. The church pictured is the original Old North Presbyterian Church.
and
An Evening at the Ark
1835, by Julius Gollmann
image
The Arkites were an all-male club “of congenial spirits who met to discuss natural science, or play whist or chess, or talk sports.” Apparently their one-story meeting room, in a building where the Federal Building stands today, became so cluttered with specimens of flora and fauna that it resembled Noah’s Ark, hence their name. The painter is a German immigrant who was emulating the German genre of the day, the effort to portray everyday subjects as realistically and candidly as possible.

In Berlin, I found another example of this genre tradition from around the same time period.

Hasenclever’s “The Reading Room” at Berlin’s Bodemuseum

More evidence of the German influence in Cleveland of the mid-1800s. Not that I was looking for it or anything.

Marriage under the Code Napoleon

In our family tree, 19th century ancestor Johann Philipp Harm, the father of Michael Harm, married twice. Johann Philipp’s first marriage in 1827 was to a woman named Elisabetha Harm Bruch, a widow more than ten years older than he was, and his first cousin. This first wife passed away in 1832, childless, when Johann Philipp Harm was just 36 years old.

“We think this first marriage was about property,” Günter told me on my first visit to Freinsheim in 1988. “To keep Elisabetha’s property in the family.”

Code Napoleon

An 1807 edition of the Code Napoleon on display in the Hambacher Schloss museum in Neustadt an der Weinstraße

A hint to a mystery, passed down from generation to generation, which may have its source in Code Napoleon civil laws.

Elisabetha and Johann married in the late 1820s, a time after Napoleon had been driven back from the Pfalz. Nonetheless, a version of the Code Napoleon, a unified set of laws on personal and property rights, had endured, including laws of equal inheritance for male and female alike. So if family lore is correct, Elisabetha Harm may have inherited property from her deceased husband? Or from her parents after they’d died? (Her parents would have been Johann Philipp Harm’s Uncle and Aunt.) If she’d had other siblings (I don’t know), they would have received an equal share.

On the other hand, when it comes to women’s rights, Elisabetha’s marriage to Johann makes little sense. The Code Napoleon was a blow to the revolutionary era’s progress on the equal rights of women.

In post Revolution France, the ideas of female equality received a setback in a series of laws known as the Napoleonic Code. Through it, the legal right of men to control women was affirmed. Although most of the basic revolutionary gains – equality before the law, freedom of religion and the abolition of feudalism – remained, the Code ensured that married women in particular owed their husband obedience, and were forbidden from selling, giving, mortgaging or buying property.
–from ‘The Wife is Obliged

Which begs the question, why on earth would Elisabetha have married Johann Philipp, her cousin not her lover, solely to turn over control of her property to him. So he would work her land for them both? If they did marry to keep the land in the family, what would have happened to the land if Elisabetha had never married? Did the government have right of succession?

Ah, a tangled web of mysteries. Ideas, anyone?

The Five Points slum

When I first learned my German immigrant ancestor Michael Harm arrived in New York on June 30, 1857, I thought I’d have trouble digging up some newsworthy event to write about. Au contraire. Or rather, ganz im Gegenteil!

five pointsIn the 19th century, New York City had a seriously grungy neighborhood, a notorious slum called the “Five Points.” Conditions in the Five Points –so named because five streets met at one intersection–were so overcrowded it became an “international attraction, drawing such notables as  Charles Dickens, a Russian grand duke, Davy Crockett, and Abraham Lincoln. … In its heyday, Five Points was very likely the most thoroughly studied neighborhood in the world. Journalists chronicled its rampant crime, squalid tenements, and raucous politics.” –Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum, New York: The Free Press, 2001.

The opening scene of my novel The Last of the Blacksmiths is set in Manhattan during the weekend of the Five Points Gang and Police Riots of 1857, because, as fate would have it, my great-great-grandfather Michael Harm actually did arrive in New York City that July 4th weekend, just in time to witness those frightening, deadly events.

“Oh, you mean like that movie, ‘Gangs of New York’?” People ask me at book talks.

nyc five points mid-19th centuryWell, yes and no. The Five Points was the scene of 1857 gang and police riots, and also of 1863 Civil War draft riots. From what I can tell, the ‘Gangs of New York’ movie is a make-believe, mixed up jumble of those two historic events.

I won’t go into all the facts, as we know them, since others have already done so, at web sites like Urbanography, and the History Box. Here’s a succinct summation of that time from Gregory Christiano.

The year 1857 in New York City was a memorable one, or rather, a harrowing one.  It was a terrible time for the City and the nation.  A year best forgotten because of its painful consequences.  Not only were the two police forces battling each other, gang warfare broke out in July. Police battled police, police battled gangs, gangs battled gangs, and gangs attacked pedestrians, shopkeepers and residents. It was an incredible scene of mayhem and unrest.

Kings of Kallstadt

On the first weekend of my arrival in Freinsheim this past September, my relatives and I sallied forth to hike the vineyards in celebration of the annual Freinsheim Weinwanderung.

weinwanderung time to go

Ina, Manfred, Matthias and Lenny (the collie) on the first night of the Weinwanderung

Friday evening, as we headed out of town to ascend to a hilltop vantage point and await the opening night fireworks (an occasion that included the sampling of several wines), my relatives encountered friends of theirs, so we stopped to talk.

“Here is our American relative, Claire Gebben,” they said (I think), introducing me. “She’s written a book about her ancestors from Freinsheim, who emigrated from here to America in the 19th century.”

“Oh, like the ‘Kings of Kallstadt!!” All eyes turned to me. “Have you seen the film? It’s really really great.”

freinsheim wine hike group

Sunset on the Weinwanderung in Freinsheim

I had not seen the film. I wasn’t even sure what they were talking about. But as the three-day celebration of hiking and wine sampling wore on, over and over again we encountered friends who, when they were introduced to me and heard my story, warmed eagerly to the subject of the “Kings of Kallstadt.” I couldn’t understand half of what was said, but the delighted laughter and serious conversation that ensued was certainly intriguing.

Vineyards on the outskirts of Kallstadt

Vineyards on the outskirts of Kallstadt

kallstadt

The town of Kallstadt, as seen from Freinsheim’s Musikantenbuckel

I had been to the village of Kallstadt, just 3 kilometers from Freinsheim, on my visit in 2010, where Bärbel, Luzi and I had stood on the outskirts and watched a wine-harvester. It’s a very small place.
We could even see it in the distance from the higher hills of the hike.

A few of the people we met spoke good English, and were kind enough to fill me in. “Kings of Kallstadt is a documentary film. It’s really funny, the dialect the people are speaking is our regional dialect. It’s about people who emigrated from the village of Kallstadt to America, and became really famous. Donald Trump’s family is one of them. And the Heinz family of Heinz ketchup.”

About a week later, a group of us went to see the film. The documentary is in German, but even so, I found it hugely entertaining. Simone Wendel, documentary film-maker, visits with residents of Kallstadt, especially distant relatives of the famed Trump and Heinz families, to sleuth out if there is some unique quality to this village that led two emigres to enjoy such fame and fortune in the U.S. After a humorous investigation of the lifestyles of these rural villagers, the documentary follows a tour of Kallstadt residents to New York City. They meet with Donald Trump and his brother, and also take a tour bus ride to Michigan to visit the Heinz ketchup factory. A short Youtube clip of the film is here. In the end, they don quirky outfits and carry banners and march in New York City’s German American Day parade.

Interestingly, Donald Trump and his brother were willing to be interviewed and appear in the movie, but the Heinz family made no such accommodation. For the Heinz family, perhaps too many generations had passed for them to truly appreciate the connection? Heinz founder Henry John Heinz came over just after the Civil War, whereas the Trump family arrived in the early 20th century.

Kings of Kallstadt

Scene from the documentary film “Kings of Kallstadt”

My last weekend in Freinsheim, after a hike in the Pfalzer Wald, my relatives and I stopped in Kallstadt to enjoy a glass of new wine and slice of onion cake (Neuer Wein und Zwiebelkuchen). Who should join us in the outdoor garden but a celebrity from “Kings of Kallstadt,” a descendant of the Heinz family I believe, who came over to our table and chatted briefly. Small world. Although I’m sorry to say I don’t know her name, she was delightful in person, too.

On my flight home, browsing the Lufthansa magazine, I learned about another King — Elvis Presley.

What is less known about Elvis is that his ancestors came from Germany, their original surname was Pressler. … His surname, Presley, is anglicized from the German name Pressler from Elvis’ ancestor Johann Valentin Pressler who immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1710. Johann Valentin Pressler, a winegrower emigrated to America in 1710. Pressler came from a village in southern Palatinate called Niederhochstadt. Niederhochstadt became Hochstadt sometime during the 250 years after Johann Pressler left it, but there are still many Presslers there, among them a winegrower like Johann Valentin. Johann Valentin first settled in New York and later moved his family to the South.” From Geni.com

Historic Frankfurt

Early last Saturday, when in Frankfurt, Germany, my very kind host Mia asked me what I wanted to see. The Saturday market? The older, historic part of town? It had been a long week, and quite frankly, my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders. It was my last day there. I’d just spent three days and very long hours browsing the huge, international Frankfurt Book Fair. Foremost in my mind now was locating the airport in time for my departure flight the next morning. So I shrugged.

“Anything’s fine, whatever you think.”

Mia hesitated, then suggested we visit the Römer Platz. She said first we’d pass by an old church I might like to see. “Although it might not be open today — there might be a private Book Fair event or something. But Paulskirche is historic. The outside is still like it used to be, but inside it was renovated in the 70s.”

st pauls tourists

As we approached the cathedral, its entrance was blocked by a busload of tourists. Still, something about the place felt oddly familiar. I stopped in my tracks.

“Wait, did you say Paulskirche? The Paulskirche where Germans held their first ever freely elected parliament?”

Before Mia could answer, I’d dashed across the street, backing up against a building until I could go no farther, tipping the camera sideways to capture the very tall steeple. Mia followed, grinning.

“You’ll be able to get a better picture of the whole church over there, across the park,” she said.

“Oh, but I want this angle! I think I have the same image on file at home, showing this very vantage point at the time of the 1848 Parliament.”

st pauls kirche 1848st pauls kirche

st pauls plaque

Oh my goodness, I was delighted to come to this place. I took photos of the outside of the church (it was closed, as Mia had predicted) and also of the historic plaque by the door that gave dates and an explanation of that historic year.

st pauls claire“Give me your camera,” Mia said, holding out her hand. I shook my head, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “C’mon, be a tourist.” How could I say  no?

My whole trip was like this, serendipity, surprise, astonishment and joy.

A new day in history

Once upon a time, before I really started researching 19th century history, I lumped the entire 19th century into the Victorian era, all about propriety and manners, dominated by “prudish, hypocritical, stuffy, [and] narrow-minded” cultural attitudes (Murfin and Ray 496).

While two-thirds of the 19th century did fall within Queen Victoria’s reign in England (1837-1901), I now know the Victorian America preoccupation involved mainly New England and the Deep South. Most American citizens weren’t about establishing high society. They were on the move, focused on settling lands to the West while ridding the continent of native peoples, on inventions and technological break-throughs that would bring the industrial age to stay.

But at the beginning of the 19th century, the wild experiment called a republican government had just begun. With the signing of the U.S. Constitution into law (the 13th colony, Rhode Island, did so in 1790) the United States of America had embarked on something optimistic, risky, and unprecedented  — constitutional rule and a representative government. No sure thing. Many doubted this new republic would succeed. People just couldn’t be trusted to rule themselves.

It seems to me we’ve come to overlook those times, that heady spirit of freedom to make a new day in history. Recently, I came across this sense of freshness and challenge in an ad in the 1837-1838 Directory of Cleveland and Ohio City that renewed my appreciation for those times.

Cleveland Liberalist advertisement in 1837-1838 city directory