History News: Lost Sword of Robert Gould Shaw Located

Anyone who’s watched the Civil War movie “Glory” knows about the courage of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first all-black volunteer units to ever fight in an American war. Anyone who hasn’t seen it really should. After he died with his men during the 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was buried in a mass grave alongside them. For several years, his sword, which bears his initials, was considered lost, but eventually was recovered in South Carolina and given to the Shaw family, only to disappear again in the following decades. In 2017, when sorting through the attic of their Massachusetts home, descendents of Shaw’s sister came across it and donated it, along with family papers, to the Massachusetts Historical Society. Today the sword can be seen by prior request.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Information from Mass. Historical: Regulation Infantry sword made for the American market by Henry Wilkinson, Pall Mall, London. Number 12506 with gilt HW seal; blade proofed May 23,1863. British Pattern 1845/54 Officer’s Sabre. Steel blade, etched decoration on both sides with initials R.G.S. below a displayed US Eagle near hilt on back of blade which is slightly curved and unfullered. Normally, this sword would carry an openwork “Crowned VR” cypher in the oval cartouche of the knuckle guard, but made for a non-British customer this feature is left solid and is textured with matt punching. The chamois bag given with the sword is the remains of a “slip,” a soft bag in which one would keep a sword (and its garniture) when packed away. Grip of sharkskin banded in silver wire with flat metal ribbon sword knot ending in acorn affixed to hilt.

One of the treasures of American history.

Why NYC is Called Gotham

public domain

When many people hear the name “Gotham”, they’re reminded of the Batman comics and movies. When I hear it, I think only of New York City, often wondering how it got that nickname. As it turns out, author and NYC native Washington Irving, of Icabod Crane fame, made the association over 120 years ago. 

Irving published a satirical periodical, Salmagundi, in which he wrote articles that poked fun at and lampooned the city and its more eccentric residents. He learned of a medieval English village called Gotham, meaning “goat town”, whose inhabitants conspired to keep a king from bringing chaos and higher taxes to the home they loved. An ancient folk tale called The Wise Men of Gotham likely served as Irving’s inspiration. While Batman’s Gotham is a dark, dangerous, and brooding place, Irving’s couldn’t have been more different.

The legend relates how, when King John planned to build a hunting lodge in their woods, Gotham’s residents greeted a planning visit from the king’s knights by feigning madness. They took turns doing things like trying to drown an eel in their pond and fencing in a bush to prevent a cuckoo from escaping. A man was seen carrying 2 bushels of grain on his back while leading his horse, telling everyone that the bushels were too heavy for the horse to carry. Madness being considered highly contagious, the knights soon left to advise the king to look elsewhere for a building site.

In 1907, Washington Irving adopted the name Gotham for NYC. New Yorkers embraced it, and it stuck. As for Gotham, which was originally pronounced Goat-um, that town has a Cuckoo Bush inn, Cuckoo Bush Mound, and a weathervane with a Batman figure on it.

It’s a Mystery: A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins

This latest novel from Paula Hawkins truly is a slow burn. A disturbed young man, Daniel  Sutherland,  is found brutally murdered in his decrepit longboat in Regents Canal. The prime suspect is an impoverished young woman, Laura,  who suffers fromTBI and who admits to having had a one night stand with Daniel shortly before his death. The police are finding it difficult to find hard evidence against her, and soon Daniel’s neighbors and  close relatives come into the picture, none of whom appear to have motives. Laura and Daniel himself are the most fully developed characters in this mystery, and throughout most of the book, are the most  sympathetic. 

Reading Slow Fire requires patience, and the ability to keep track of suspects and motives as it progresses is no simple task. I liked this book well enough to finish it, but had to reread certain sections to keep things straight, sometimes more than once. As a study of human emotions, however, it works quite well. Once I was able to pin a specific motive to a specific character, it was not that tricky to figure out which one was the culprit.

Christmas Traditions: Mistletoe

Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids. Washington Irving

Kissing under the mistletoe has long been a part of American Christmas tradition. But just what is mistletoe and how did its association with Christmas evolve?

Mistletoe is a partial parasite (a “hemiparasite”) the grows on the branches of trunk of trees, penetrating the host with its own roots. While it is capable of surviving on its own, it rarely does so. There are two types of mistletoe. The type commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and grows from New Jersey to Florida and into the interior. The other type,Viscum album, is European, and grows on apple or oak trees. Its white berries are toxic. Because mistletoe remains green when the tree itself drops its foliage, the Greeks. Celts, and Germans believed that it had mystical powers as the source of the tree’s life. Through the centuries it was used as a ceremonial plant, becoming associated with many folklore customs. The traditions which began with the European mistletoe were transferred to the similar American plant with the process of immigration and settlement.

The common name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. This belief was related to the then-accepted principle that life could spring spontaneously from dung. It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. “Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung,” and “tan” is the word for “twig”. So, mistletoe means “dung-on-a-twig”. By the sixteenth century, botanists had discovered that the mistletoe plant was spread by seeds which had passed through the digestive tract of birds. One of the earliest written references to this appeared in England, in 1532, in a Herbal published by Turner. Botanists of the time also observed that the sticky berry seeds of the mistletoe tended to cling to the bills of birds. When the birds cleaned their bills by rubbing them against the branches or bark of trees, the the seeds were further scattered.

From ancient times, then, mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. It was considered a bestower of life and fertility, a protectant against poison, and an aphrodisiac.

The mistletoe of the sacred oak was especially sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids. On the sixth night of the moon white-robed Druid priests would cut mistletoe from the sacred with a golden sickle. The cutting ritual came to symbolize the emasculation of the old King by his successor. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions. Mistletoe is still ceremonially plucked on mid-summer eve in some Celtic and Scandinavian countries.

In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits, or were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire. This was associated with an earlier belief that the mistletoe itself could come to the tree during a flash of lightning. In parts of England and Wales farmers would give the Christmas bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calved in the New Year. This was thought to bring good luck to the entire herd.

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia, and later with primitive marriage rites. Mistletoe was believed to have the power of bestowing fertility, and the dung from which the mistletoe was thought to arise was also said to have “life-giving” power. In Scandinavia, it was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up. In some parts of England, the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry.

Mistletoe is the “official floral emblem” of Oklahoma.

And for those who wish to observe the correct etiquette: a man should pluck a berry when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing. But these days, mistletoe is sold without its toxic berries, so that custom must be overlooked. Merry, merry Christmas. Let the kissing begin!

[Adapted from http://www.gardenline.usask.ca/%5D

A Few Unusual Victorian New Year’s Traditions

Happy New Year! In case you can’t make it to Times Square to watch the ball drop, here are a few unique ways to usher in 2022. Most of these practices come from the British Isles. (Excerpted from a Mental Floss article by Keith Johnson).

First Footing: Throw NYE party at you home, but to avoid bad luck, be sure not to allow a woman to be the first to cross your threshhold.

Take in, then take out: Don’t take anything out of the house without first bringing something in. “Take out, then take in/ Bad luck will begin. Take in, then take out/ Good luck comes about.”

Throw bread at the door: People baked a “barmbrack ”, an unusually large loaf of bread, on New Year’s Eve. The man of the house took three bites, then threw the loaf against the door, while those gathered prayed ”that cold, want or hunger might not enter” in the coming year. Hope they didn’t waste that bread.

Attend a “Watch Night” service: In the 1740’s, John Wesley (founder of Methodism) revived the ancient tradition of holding long, contemplative church services, to give coal miners something uplifting to do lieu of drinking the night away in a pub. By the 19th century, this had become a NYE tradition.

“Dipping” : Open a Bible to a random page and, without looking, point to a random passage. The excerpt selected was thought to predict the fortune of the dipper. This custom was widely used at other times to predict things.

Silly Resolutions: This custom sounds like a fun party game. Each player writes a silly resolution on a piece of paper and places it place in a bowl with all the others. Everyone draws a resolution and reads it aloud. Some suggestions from an 1896 games book include “I must stop smoking in my sleep” and ”I must walk with my right foot on my left side.”

Send some New Year Cards:

In case you’re not tired of addressing all those Christmas cards. You’ve gotta wonder about this one, though……

No matter no you choose to celebrate, best wishes for a happy, healthy 2022!

Historical Fiction: All Will Be Well, by Amy C. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All Will Be Well is Amy Martin’s debut novel, inspired by her ancestor John Alden. Speaking generally, I can say that the book is well researched and competently written. Told in the neutral third person, it is in its first half that the story of the Mayflower passengers, in particular John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, really shines. The reader experiences the perils of a late fall Atlantic crossing in realistic detail, perhaps the best fictional description of the harrowing journey since that offered by Anya Seton her 1958 classic, The Winthrop Woman. The struggles to find a suitable location for the new settlement , survive the harsh winter with limited food and widespread illness, and finally , to contend with an appalling death rate makes for captivating reading. What could be a grim reading experience is lightened by the growing attraction between John and Priscilla and by a myriad of other diverting characters, especially Miles Standish. The author’s treatment of prominent Native Americans Squanto, Massasoit, and many others is fair, balanced, and inclusive. For once, their roles are not ignored. Indeed, the second half of the novel covers in detail the growing friction between the Europeans and the tribes.

All Will Be Well is a promising debut by a young writer to watch, and is recommended to readers who enjoy well presented historical fiction

It’s a Mystery: Aspire to Die, by M S Morris

My Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aspire to Die is the first book in the Bridget Hart mystery series, co-authored by husband and wife writing team Margarita and Steve Morris. As of 2021, the series contains seven titles, and Aspire to Die makes for a worthy intro. I worried at first that it might be a cutesy cozy, but it captured my interest very quickly. as DI Hart is assigned to her first major murder case. The body of a beautiful, popular student has been found in her college room at Christ Church College, Oxford, brutally murdered. The newly promoted DI Hart, an alumna of Christ Church, is attending the opening dinner of her class reunion, when she receives the call assigning her to lead her first major case.

What follows is an intricate puzzle of a mystery, made complicated by the college setting itself and the hundreds of alumni celebrating their reunion. Many intriguing suspects are investigated by Bridget’s equally intriguing team. Bridget’s traumatic backstory is gradually revealed, and she turns out to be a talented and formidable DI indeed.

Character development couldn’t have been better, with each major player, police or civilian, having interesting personalities and viewpoints. A plus for me is that many of the key characters are strong, intelligent, and self assured women, whether younger or older. Additionally, the details incorporated about historic Oxford and its prestigious colleges are fascinating. Finally, I appreciate that the presentation of the murder is graphic without being too blood-and-gutsy.

I’m happy to recommend Aspire to Die; now about to start the second book in this series, Killing by Numbers. Will let you know if it is equally compelling.

Mystery & Suspense: Something in the Water, by Catherine Steadman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve never read a novel that opened with the first person account of a woman digging a grave for her husband in the remote English woods, a dramatic, emotionally charged scene that hooked me from the first sentence. Something in the Water then flashes back to the early days of the relationship between Erin and Mark, which, in Erin’s view, is mostly idyllic. Both of them are riding high in their careers and planning a dream honeymoon in Bora Bora. Then Mark loses his job. They pare down their over the top wedding plans to save money, but, since the trip is prepaid, travel to Bora Bora anyway, where newlywed life is also idyllic. Until, that is, Mark finds that something in the water.

This book is filled with dynamic, colorful characters and unreliable narrators, and contains more than enough action to make a great movie or tv series. Some things are exactly as they seem, others, not so much. It is entirely up to Erin to interpret what she sees, and she often reacts impulsively and downright foolishly, especially for a woman who knows that she is pregnant . The surprises keep popping up, right to the final page, and, to call the book a page-turner is an understatement. Great entertainment by a capable, imaginative writer.

Buttolph Williams House and The Witch of Blackbird Pond

One look at the Buttolph-Williams house is enough to transport the imaginative viewer straight back to America’s earliest century. Built in 1711, this first period building is typically medieval-English in style, with its massive posts and beams, its overhangs and finials, and its small leaded paned windows. It represents the most authentic restoration of a 17th century style dwelling in the CT River Valley, and contains a lovely collection of early furniture, kitchenware, and ceramics.

Few people are aware, however, that the Buttolph-Williams House was a source of inspiration, and the partial setting, for the Newbery Medal-winning book The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. This fictional classic is based upon the story of Kit Tyler, an orphaned adolescent girl forced by necessity to live with her uncle’s family in Connecticut, who becomes involved in a case of suspected witchcraft when she befriends Hannah Tupper, a local woman who does not conform to Puritan standards of the day. Author Speare witnessed the restoration of the Buttolph Williams house in the 1950’s, and learned at the same time about the witchcraft trials and executions that took place in Wethersfield in the 1660’s, a full three decades before Salem.

Today the house is operated as a museum, and the rooms have been arranged to reflect various scenes in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. To see enlargements of photos, click on each image.

Kitchen hearth with settle and flax wheel. In this location, Mercy did her spinning, Kit spoiled the hasty pudding, and the Dame School was taught. Mercy, who had difficulty walking, slept by the fireside.

The hall, or best room, where the John and William called upon Kit and Judith. The young people knitted, ate popcorn, and

did some reading while “courting.”

The second floor chamber shared by Kit and Judith.

The Buttolph Williams House is owned by Connecticut Landmarks. To learn more or plan a visit: http://www.ctlandmarks.org/index.php

Links to info about real Connecticut witchcraft trials:

https://yourehistory.wordpress.com/2007/05/15/before-salem-first-to-die/

https://yourehistory.wordpress.com/2007/07/09/before-salem-first-to-confess/

Historical Fiction: The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ of 5

Addie Baum is the latest in a long list of strong heroines created by author Anita Diamant. We are introduced to her as she turns 85, about to begin an oral diary of her life at the request of her granddaughter. Born in Boston to a family of Jewish immigrants, Addie has anything but an idyllic childhood; her family is poor, but worse, her father ignores her and her mother is relentlessly, often cruelly,  critical of her. Addie is a dutiful daughter, and with the protection of a sympathetic older sister, and later, a few good friends, she learns to develop a sort of gutsy, hopeful courage that will serve her well as she navigates the tumultuous changes that occur throughout the 20th century. 

The Boston Girl is richly textured, glowing with warmth, humor, optimism, love, and heartbreak. Diamant knows Boston well, creating a setting that feels lively and genuine. She writes in the plain, straightforward language one would expect from someone like Addie and the many people from all walks of life that she meets. Emotionally resonant and ultimately satisfying, this novel places Addie Baum firmly within Anita Diamant’s company of strong, resilient women, Highly recommended.