Saturday, February 9, 2013

History in the News: The Past in the Present

Within this first week in February of 2013 there have been a few interesting news stories of note pertaining to history, and they seem to be garnering some talk around the water cooler.
For instance, this from CBS

 UM Study: Scarlet Fever Probably Did Not Blind Little House’s Mary Ingalls

ANN ARBOR — In the beloved American stories of the Little House on the Prairie, author Laura Ingalls Wilder writes emotionally about how scarlet fever robs her big sister Mary of her sight. But in a new study published today in the journal Pediatrics, University of Michigan researchers found it is likely scarlet fever had nothing to do with Mary’s blindness.
Senior author Beth A. Tarini, M.D., and her co-authors used evidence from newspaper reports, Laura Ingalls’ memories and school registries to conclude Mary’s blindness was probably caused by viral meningoencephalitis.
Mary Ingalls went blind in 1879 at age 14. Tarini and her co-authors found evidence in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoirs and letters that described Mary’s illness as “spinal sickness” with symptoms suggestive of a stroke. The study quotes a local newspaper item that reports that Miss Mary Ingalls was confined to her bed and “it was feared that hemorrhage of the brain had set in (sic) one side of her face became partially paralyzed.”
“Meningoencephalitis could explain Mary’s symptoms, including the inflammation of the facial nerve that left the side of her face temporarily paralyzed,” Tarini says, “and it could also lead to inflammation of the optic nerve that would result in a slow and progressive loss of sight."  
It’s not surprising that scarlet fever was labeled the culprit in the books instead, Tarini says. Between 1840 and 1883, scarlet fever was one of the most common infectious causes of death among children in the United States.
“Laura’s memoirs were transformed into the Little House novels. Perhaps to make the story more understandable to children, the editors may have revised her writings to identify scarlet fever as Mary’s illness because it was so familiar to people and so many knew how frightening a scarlet fever diagnosis was,” says Sarah S. Allexan, B.A., lead author of the paper and a medical student at the University of Colorado.

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 Here's an interesting piece from The Atlantic written by Megan Garber:

The Oldest Known Photographs of a U.S. President

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A copy of a newspaper citing the purchase of the daguerrotype of Adams

 The first photograph of a sitting United States resident was taken of William Henry Harrison on March 4, 1841. The new executive had just delivered his inaugural speech -- the outdoor address now most remembered (wrongly) for giving him the pneumonia that would kill him -- and he paused, afterward, to pose for a portrait using the new technology of the daguerrotype. 
That photograph, much like its subject, had an unexpectedly short tenure. Harrison's inaugural portrait has since been lost to history -- meaning that the oldest surviving photograph we have of an American president depicts a chief executive after his presidency. There are a couple candidates for "oldest." But they are, regardless, depictions of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, in office from 1825-1829.
One is this, a sixth-plate daguerrotype made of the ex-president at the age of 76:
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 Another is this one, of Adams, taken around the same time:

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 The second image seems to have been captured at Adam's home on Quincy (formerly Baintree), Massachusetts. Beyond that, and the fact that it was taken by Philip Haas, not much is known of its provenance.
More is known about the first image, though. It was captured during a trip the congressman and ex-president made to New York to visit not only Niagara Falls, but also his nephew and his good friend, Ezekiel Bacon. It was an eventful excursion that included, in addition to those personal calls, an itinerary both befitting of and insulting to a former Chief Executive: a trip to a women's school (which was "affecting"), a call on a child "dwarf" (impact unclear), and a run-in with a pebble that became lodged in President Adams's eye ("anguish unutterable").
We know all this because, fortunately, Adams kept a detailed diary. Below is his entry from August 1, 1843, replicated in full -- in part because Adams is a delightful narrator, emotive and acerbic at the same time, and in part because his journal emphasizes how utterly banal he seemed to find the activity of sitting for his history-making photographs. (The photos  themselves, however, he deemed "hideous" and "too true to the original") Sitting for the daguerrotypes, per Adams's telling, was just one more thing he did on his event-filled trip to New York. And a pretty dull one at that, apparently -- an event worth approximately the same number of words as Adams's subsequent visit to an eleven-year-old nicknamed "General Tom Thumb" ... and worth far, far fewer than that pesky eye-pebble.

Here's the entry - emphasis the author's:
My first visit this morning immediately after breakfast was to the Female Seminary where I was introduced to the assembled teachers and pupils and addressed in behalf of the trustees of that institution by Mr. Spencer, in a manner so affecting that it made a child of me. It consisted chiefly of extracts which he read from my mother's published letters of 19th August 1774, to my father, and of June, 1778, to me. I actually sobbed as he read, utterly unable to suppress my emotion. Oh, my mother! Is there anything on earth so affecting to me as thy name so precious as thy instructions to my childhood, so dear as the memory of thy life? I answered I know not what. My thoughts were all upon my mother; my heart was too full for my head to think and my presence of mind was gone. At the close of his address, Mr. Spencer presented to me, at the request of the ladies, twelve numbers of a monthly publication from August, 1842, to July, 1843, called "The Young Ladies' Miscellany," the original productions of the Utica Female Academy.
At ten o clock the reception took place on a stage erected in front of the Bleeker House, where Mr. Bacon addressed and welcomed me in the name of the citizens of Utica. I answered him in a speech of about half an hour, sufficiently cheered for my hopes or wishes, but of mortifying inanity to myself. The shaking of some hundred hands then followed and on my way returning to Mr. Johnson's, I stopped and four daguerreotype likenesses of my head were taken, two of them jointly with the head of Mr. Bacon -- all hideous. Then a visit to the dwarf C.F. Stratton, called General Tom Thumb, eleven years old, twenty-five inches high, weighing fifteen pounds, dressed in military uniform mimicking Napoleon.
At Little Falls I was addressed and welcomed by Arphaxad Loomis, an ex-member of the Twenty Sixth Congress, whom I did not recognize till after I had answered. In the valley of the Mohawk we saw the fortress dwelling-house of Sir William Johnson, and that of the Indian chief Brant, said to be his son. About an hour before we reached Schenectady, the wind raised by the rapid motion of the car lodged on the ball of my left eye, beneath the under lid, a small sharp-angled pebble, of the entrance of which I was not conscious when it happened, but which fretted the eye to torture, produced considerable inflammation, and made it impossible for me to look in the face of those whom I was to address. A sumptuous dinner had been prepared for us at Schenectady. I was in anguish unutterable. I retired to a private chamber and washed the eye in cold water without relief. Dr. Duane, who had observed my suffering, followed me to the chamber, examined the eye, discovered the offensive pebble, wiped it out with the corner of a towel, and I was well.
For us, the story here is the photographs. The first among so many! The trailblazers, the pathfinders! For Adams, however, the story was emphatically not the photos. It was the trip itself -- the memories it evoked, the pain it caused, the joy. We might care about the images of him that emerged from New York, some of the first fully life-like renderings of an American president. We might care that a copy of one of the images turned up in an antique store, where it was bought for 50 cents. We might care that the same copy is now housed in the National Portrait Gallery under the care of the Smithsonian. Adams had different concerns, though -- less historical, more human. He wasn't thinking about new technologies. He was just living them.

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Locally here in the Detroit area, we have a bit of presidential history of our own: Ulysses S. Grant carries the honor of being the only president of the United States to ever live in Detroit.
And the house that Grant lived in while here still stands, believe it or not.
According to local historian Bob Hovansian: "The house was originally located on 253 Fort Street, having been occupied by Grant from 1849-1850. The address after the 1921 Address Renumbering was 1365, I believe and it was located on Fort East between Rivard and Russell, on lot 41 of the former John Mullett Farm."
Image courtesy of the Detroit web site linked above
 It is now located near the intersection of Motor City Avenue and Wolverine Way on the Michigan State Fairgrounds at the northern border of Detroit near the intersection of Woodward and Eight Mile Road

Yes, it's true - U.S. Grant did once live in the City of Detroit:
(The following comes from Detroit: The History and the Future of the Motor City):
Grant strongly opposed President Polk's war against Mexico, but he served in that conflict as a lower level officer. After the defeat of Mexico secured for the United States the southwest quadrant of the current nation, Grant was assigned as a Lieutenant to Fort Wayne in Detroit from 1849 to 1851. He had married the sister of a West Point classmate and began raising his family in the home that you see. Most officers assigned to Fort Wayne lived in a hotel, but since Grant had a wife and a child, he resided in the home you see. Apparently, he was quite well known in Detroit. He maintained his interests in horses and raced his own horses here—a very popular sport at that time. Apparently, he struggled with issues of alcohol consumption here in Detroit and several of his fellow officers convinced him to give up liquor
His commanders did not highly evaluate his skills as an officer. He was assigned, in 1851, to a remote post at Sackets Harbor, New York on Lake Ontario.

Lately this house has been in the news because it will, once again, be relocated. 
According to Bob Hovansion: "It is going to Eastern Market (a local historic commercial district not too far from downtown Detroit), but not the market itself. They would like to put it on and adjacent charter school property that is aside the Dequindre Cut. This option is the only current consideration as I tried very hard to sell the Fort Wayne site but to no avail due to its lack of maintainence and uncertanty of its disposition as well. I've also discussed incorporating the entire Fort Wayne complex into a Military Heritage Area as well, using more static vehicle displays and perhaps relocating other significant militarily significant artifacts to the site to better support the draw. Perhaps with the opening of our Native American Museum there this spring (2013) we can begin to attract more visitors to the Fort to bolster future efforts there. The people that are in charge are trying to do the best that they can with absolutely no funding, so it is incumbent on anyone interested in saving this place to step up and help with whatever is necessary to keep this valuable piece of history intact."

So this is one of the rare times that Detroit is actually saving its history instead of razing it.
One question, however, seemed to be on everyone's mind: why didn't Greenfield Village remove it to their open-air museum? One answer given stated that, "the amount of upkeep it takes to support/preserve a wooden structure, which Greenfield Village has so many already, requires constant work."
And with  the economy the way it is and given the lack of support from the state of Michigan for history, it's understandable why they had to turn it down.
It's great, though, that such a house will be restored to its former glory and will be used to bring to life a part of history not found in books



An Historical Lady said...

Dear Ken,
We just have to tell you again how much we love this photo of you on the top of your blog. It's truly perfect and amazing!
Sending hugs and good wishes from snowy New Hampshire,
Adam and Mary

Historical Ken said...

Thank you Mary.
You are too kind.