We must remember that despite the horror we see in the starving time, that the trials endured produced a stock of Virginians determined not to repeat their miserable mistakes, determined to make the absolute best of their available resources, and to best absolutely their inhibitive obstacles.
This paragraph struck me so strangely that I needed to reread it a couple of times. What miserable mistakes? What inhibitive obstacles? And why such an awkward and vague phrase as “inhibitive obstacles”? Also, why the passive tense, and why the need to carve a bit of uplift out of the Starving Time? After all, what it most directly produced was not a bunch of tough and newly wise Virginians, but a group of half-dead Englishmen and -women who desperately wanted to flee—who did flee until they were forced to turn around by the just-arriving new governor.
Which might help us understand what’s missing from Schwartz’s description of the Starving Time: Virginia Indians. As our entry on the Starving Time makes clear, that terrible winter was preceded by a series of clashes between the English colonists and the Indians of Tsenacomoco. To wit:
In an effort to ease conditions at Jamestown and possibly to distance himself from his critics, [John] Smith sent two parties of men to live off the Indians. One group, under Francis West, traveled to the falls of the James River; another, under George Percy and John Martin, went south and attempted to meet with the Nansemond Indians. Both missions failed badly, with each group losing about half its men in fighting. When Smith sent reinforcements south, they found piles of English corpses, their mouths stuffed with bread “in Contempte and skorne,” according to Percy. The Powhatans understood that without food, the English could not continue in Tsenacomoco, and the Indians controlled the food.
So they did. And as the violence continued, Powhatan made the decision to cut off the English colonists’ access to food outside their fort. This was the proximate cause of the Starving Time, and certainly the largest of any number of “inhibitive obstacles” faced that winter.
This context strikes me as crucial in any attempt at understanding what mistakes the English made, how they might have done better with the resources around them, and how, in the end, they bested those inhibitive obstacles. They were not the only ones occupying that land, and we must not forget it.
On this day in 1607, English colonists, newly arrived to America, situated their camp on a marshy jut of land fifty miles up the James River. They called it Jamestown.
One imagines the local Indians rolling their eyes. After all, this particular patch of ground was located in an ecological zone where the exchange between fresh and salt water is minimal—as poor George Percy soon found out. “Our drinke,” he wrote, “[is] cold water taken out of the River which was at a floud verie salt, at a low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men.”
My kingdom for a bottle of Evian!
In the meantime, it also turns out that the English, whose bad timing was impeccable, showed up at the beginning of a seven-year drought (1606–1612), the driest period in 770 years, and during a period climatologists refer to at the Little Ice Age (an entry on which is forthcoming). El Niño even made an appearance, making the winter of 1607–1608 one of the coldest anyone had ever experienced. The Thames froze completely, and so did the poor folks at Jamestown. “The cold was so intense,” one Englishman wrote, “that one night the river at our fort froze almost all the way across,” freezing the fish in place.
Still, from their perspective, Jamestown was well-suited for defense against both the Indians and the Spanish, the latter being of greater concern. And while the Spanish threat never materialized, and plenty of men died from drinking that “slime and filth,” the historian J. Frederick Fausz nevertheless has argued that the location of Jamestown was (accidentally) brilliant. Because it was not being used and so did not immediately threaten any Indians in the neighborhood, it was “the only site along the James and York rivers where [the English colonists] had any prospect of surviving more than a few days.”
A version of this post was originally published on May 13, 2011.
In November of 1952, the normally reclusive [William] Faulkner allowed a film crew into his secluded world at Oxford to make a short documentary about his life. The film, shown here in five pieces, was funded by the Ford Foundation and broadcast on December 28, 1952 on the CBS television program Omnibus. The scripted film re-enacts events from November 1950, when Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Literature, through the spring of 1951, when he spoke at his daughter Jill’s high school graduation.
On this day 150 years ago, Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson died after being wounded by friendly fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville. After losing his left arm, he was moved to an office building at the Chandler house near Guinea Station (above). At first it seemed the general might recover, but then he died of pneumonia, his passing becoming one of the great set pieces in Confederate mythology. If you can stand it, here’s the scene from Gods and Generals (2003).
A version of this post was originally published on May 10, 2012.
Forgive a bit of self-indulgence here, but last August this blog lost one of its biggest fans when my dad, Tom Wolfe, of Davenport, Iowa, died. You may remember him for his silly notes or for his provocative (and perhaps not entirely defensible) comparisonof Robert E. Lee with Hitler and Stalin. Now I’ve published an essay in The Morning News about him, those silly notes, and our often very complicated relationship. It begins:
The policeman, having just kicked open the back door, missed it. So did the EMTs and the out-of-sorts neighbor lady, her eyes all fear and water. Instead, it took Mom and Sara, with damp washcloths over their mouths, to finally notice it the next day—just sitting there on the table by the recliner in my dad’s house: a standard-sized manila envelope marked in Dad’s sloppy cursive:
Inside the envelope was a typed letter dated almost exactly a year earlier.
“Dear Bridget, Brendan, and Sara,” it begins.
“This is my latest update on my funeral plans should I decide one day to depart this land of milk and honey […] I have prepaid my funeral expenses. Halligan/McCabe’s will handle it all: a mild wake and an even milder funeral or memorial service whenever you want them—all nonreligious. I don’t care what you do in this regard, but try to make those attending show some degree of remorse over my passing, even if you need to pistol whip them. Also, try to make it a festive occasion, although those gathered will probably think that anyway! If I have any money lying around to finance it, make it a party.”
On this day in 1936, Mary Johnston died of Bright’s disease. She is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. A writer of best-selling historical novels, Johnston broke existing publishing records by selling 60,000 advance copies of To Have and to Hold (1900), her second novel, in addition to another 135,000 during its first week of publication. This proved to be the biggest popular success between Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Gone with the Wind, which came out the year Johnston died.
I’ve now read four of Johnston’s novels: in addition to To Have and to Hold, I’ve read her first,Prisoners of Hope (1898); her fifth, Lewis Rand (1908); and her eighteenth, The Slave Ship (1924). Entries on To Have and to Hold and Lewis Rand are forthcoming, but you can already search the encyclopedia and find primary documents associated with those novels, including a New York Times profile remarkable for the fact that Johnston refused to be quoted, an excerpt of To Have and to Hold, and a short essay on the novel’s geography by Thomas Dixon, who would go on to pen a romantic novel about the Ku Klux Klan.
IMAGE: The original dust jacket for The Slave Ship by Mary Johnston (University of Virginia Special Collections)
On this day in 1781, four of six Prince William County oyer and terminer judges convicted the enslaved African American Billy of treason and sentenced him to hang. They placed his value at £27,000 current money. The two dissenting judges immediately appealed to Governor Thomas Jefferson for a reprieve. Billy had been captured aboard a British ship during the American Revolution, but denied fighting for the enemy voluntarily.
Within a week of the verdict the two dissenting judges argued to Jefferson that a slave, being a noncitizen, could not commit treason. They wrote that a slave “not being Admited to the Priviledges of a Citizen owes the State No Allegiance and that the Act declaring what shall be treason cannot be intended by the Legislature to include slaves who have neither lands or other property to forfiet.”
Billy received a gubernatorial reprieve until the end of June, and the legislature pardoned him on June 14, 1781. What happened to him after that is not known.
Here’s avideo discussionof the case, courtesy of our friends at the Library of Virginia.
A version of this post was originally published on May 8, 2012.
RE: THE TITLE: The title of this post can be explained (for what it’s worth) here.
IMAGE: A Revolutionary War painting depicting the Virginia Navy cruiser Capt. Barron taking the British navy brig HMSOxford is displayed at the Navy Art Gallery at the Washington Navy Yard. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth G. Takada/Released)
Last week archaeologists at Jamestown and the Smithsonian announced that they have found evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown during the Starving Time. This caused a huge sensation, but Rachel B. Herrmann, a scholar quoted in our entry, calls for caution:
In addition, why are there no primary sources that cite the cannibalization of this girl? She’s no salted wife, no dead Indian, and no hanged man. I’ve written a bit on how some colonists like John Smith and George Percy sensationalized such stories of cannibalism, and find it a bit odd that they wouldn’t have included the story of the cannibalization of a high-born girl. Wouldn’t that have been much more “lamentable” than the death of a lazy colonist (at least in Percy’s interpretation)? The future of the colony could have rested on Jane as well as other women’s capacity to bear children. There were, as these news stories all assert, myriad accounts of the Starving Time, and I’ve never seen any primary source account that even closely matches a description in keeping with what this anthropological find describes.
None of these speculations negate the severity of the Starving Time—but neither do they convince me that cannibalism took place.
Speaking of all those primary sources, you’ll find them transcribed and linked to from our Starving Time entry. These accounts, some of them first-hand, others second-, are how the stories of cannibalism got started. And it’s a testament to how compelling they are that the stories have persisted.
At the New Yorker, however, Dana Goodyear downplays these tales, comparing the relative popularity of cannibalism tales associated with the Donner Party and the lesser-known fate of the Jamestown settlers:
The difference between the tale of the Jamestown colonists and that of the Donner Party is transmission: in 1847, a noisy newspaper culture reported on every available detail; two hundred and thirty-seven years earlier, there was no domestic press. There was only word of mouth. Deserters from Jamestown, among the first to tell of cannibalism in the colony, set sail for England on a stolen boat christened the Swallow.
There are a couple problems with this. One, I think the Swallow left Jamestown before the real starving—let alone the cannibalism—had begun. Two, word of mouth only prevented widespread publicity of the Starving Time for a short while. And, remarkably, the powers that be did little if anything to cover it up.
As Herrmann has written, and as we have echoed in our entry, these chroniclers may have had their reasons to invent or exaggerate cannibalism at Jamestown. Which is why it is unfortunate—even with this new, albeit not fully conclusive evidence—that some high school history textbooks assume this to be a fact.
As Herrmann says, we should be cautious and take such stories … with a grain of salt!
On this day 150 years ago, the drama at Chancellorsville continued. To bring you up to date, Union general Joseph Hooker snuck across the Rappahannock on May 1, thinking he was going to sneak around Robert E. Lee‘s right flank. Instead, he ran smack into the Army of Northern Virginia, and he did it in the worst possible place—amongst the close and tangled undergrowth of the Wilderness.
Then, at the end of May 2, after a daylong, semi-secret march, Stonewall Jackson‘s men came screaming out of the woods, sending Union troops fleeing. As night fell, however, Jackson was accidentally shot down by his own troops.
Our entry picks it up from there:
The Second Corps transferred to the ranking general in the field, the cavalryman J. E. B. Stuart, who, without any other plan to work from, threw his troops at Hooker the next morning [May 3]. The fighting was as hot and close as any in the war—the vast majority of the battle’s casualties occurred on this day—and Hooker himself suffered a concussion when a wooden beam from the Chancellor family house fell on him. Rumors immediately circulated that he was drunk, and historians have argued for years about the extent to which the stalemate that followed was a symptom of Hooker’s decision not to remove himself from command. (Or was it that he lost his nerve again? A 1910 history of the battle has Hooker telling a subordinate that “I was not hurt by a shell and I was not drunk. For once I lost confidence in Hooker, and that is all there is to it.” The historian [Stephen W.] Sears has thoroughly dismissed this account, however.)
And if all that wasn’t enough, another battle of sorts was beginning to unfold down the road at Fredericksburg. The idea was for Union troops to attack there and pull Confederates out of the fight to the west. And the day’s actions began with the movements of a Union division commanded by a Virginian—John Newton, of Norfolk.
IMAGE: This remarkable photograph has often been wrongly described as Union soldiers outside Petersburg in 1864; in fact, they are waiting to cross the Rappahannock River, near Fredericksburg. They will be part of the fight there on May 3–4.
If you scroll way down to the bottom of one of our entries, you’ll find a feedback box. Tell us what you think; your name and e-mail address are optional. The feedback goes straight to our in-boxes here at Encyclopedia Virginia, and sometimes it points us to mistakes we had missed. For instance, this note left on our Chesty Puller entry:
Sir you have listed at the top of Gen. Puller’s page here 1898–1970 but have him labled as passing away Oct. 11, 1971
We have since made that correction, although you can find a shadow of the original mistake in the entry’s URL, which replicates the error in his death year: http://encyclopediavirginia.org/Puller_Lewis_Burwell_Chesty_1898-1970. (Lest any links become broken, we don’t make a habit of changing URLs.)
Of course, not all feedback is equally helpful. Someone named Kate left this on our Arlington House entry:
Lol lots of words. YAY. im asian
The less said on that the better. On the House of Burgesses entry, another reader was kind but firm:
It wasn’t very helpful about Thomas Jefferson honestly.
i think me and the author have a special connection. call me! 8732903865
Someday I’ll tell you how our date went. In the meantime, this is what we heard about our L. Douglas Wilder entry:
this artical needs to be a lot longer because im 5 years old and need to know more about douglas wilder so when you get this please make it longer i mean it or i will sue you I mean it no joke so do it once you get this it will help people learn about him please thank you!
You’re welcome! A reader named Alexa had this response to our entry on the famous escaped slave Henry Box Brown (1815 or 1816–after February 26, 1889):
IS HENRY BOX BROWN STILL ALIVE?
For the record, no. In response to our Joseph Hooker entry, one reader asks,
CAN YOU KILL ME
Again, for the record, no. Just yesterday, we were told this by a reader of our Colonial Virginia entry:
Did not help
Which is too bad. If only we could hook him or her up with a reader from about two months ago who declared, after reviewing the same entry:
the best information
Today we have received two bits of feedback from the site. The first was left on our entry about Civil War desertion:
This is the BEST source I have found yet! It even has the MLA Citation! I love this source, it is detailed, clear, and concise, and I wish every source was like this!
Thank you! Except that then a reader forwarded this comment after reading about Civil War Widows:
On this day 150 years ago, the Union and Confederate armies continued their fight at Chancellorsville. Last we saw Lee and Jackson, they were sitting on tree stumps hatching a plan: on the morning of May 2, Jackson would march his entire corps twelve miles under the cover of the Wilderness, past an old iron furnace, and around Union general Joseph Hooker‘s vulnerable right flank. There sat Union troops under the command of Union general Oliver Otis Howard.*
Here’s how the historian Stephen W. Sears describes Howard: “Unimaginative, unenterprising, uninspiring, a stifling Christian soldier. Otis Howard was the wrong general in the wrong place with the wrong troops that day. In the face of uncertainty—and May 2 was a day of many uncertainties—his was to close his mind to everything but judgments and orders from his superior.”
So you can pretty much guess what happens. Despite the fact that Jackson’s troops had been spotted by a Union reconnaissance balloon, they managed to make their attack as planned. At about five thirty in the afternoon, they rushed screaming out of the forest and set Howard’s Eleventh Corps—many of them German-speakers—to flight, leaving them forever to be disparaged as the “Flying Dutchmen.”
Jackson, meanwhile, pressed forward. He “embodies relentlessness,” as our entry puts it, “and with his subordinate A. P Hill grumbling behind him, he scouted the front for a possible night attack. That is when friendly fire struck him down, also wounding Hill.”
Oh, and if you want to find the spot on the Chancellorsville battlefield where Jackson was wounded, just look for the big rock (seen in the image above). It was placed there on September 22, 1879, by Jackson’s chaplain, the Reverend B. F. Lacy, of Missouri. That spurred work on a larger memorial that was dedicated in June 1888.
* This, by the way, is the same Howard who founded Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian magazine reports that archaeologists at Jamestown have found portions of the remains of a fourteen-year-old English girl believed to have been cannibalized during the winter of 1609–1610, which has come to be known as the Starving Time.
It appears that her brain, tongue, cheeks and leg muscles were eaten, with the brain likely eaten first, because it decomposes so quickly after death. There’s no evidence of murder, and [Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas] Owsley suspects that this was a case in which hungry colonists simply ate the one remaining food available to them, despite cultural taboos. “I don’t think that they killed her, by any stretch,” he says. “It’s just that they were so desperate, and so hard-pressed, that out of necessity this is what they resorted to.”
To quote one of my colleagues: “I mean, it’s sad and gross—but isn’t it kinda cool how much we are still learning about that period?”
It is! As our entry points out, until now there has been no direct physical evidence of cannibalism during the Starving Time, even though it was reported by people who survived, among them George Percy, who wrote that some people exhume and ate the dead, while others “Licked upp the Bloode w[hi]ch hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.” John Smith (depending upon other people’s recollections) told a cannibalism story in his history, and in 1624, when the Virginia Company was under investigation and a nasty sort of political cannibalism was in process, the General Assembly issued a report that echoed Smith’s.
A human skull had even been found by archaeologists in among remains of snakes, vipers, rats, mice, musk turtles, cats, and dogs—all consumed by the settlers. But absent knife or chop marks, that skull could not be seen as evidence of cannibalism.
This new skull, however:
“The chops to the forehead are very tentative, very incomplete,” says Douglas Owsley, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the bones after they were found by archaeologists from Preservation Virginia. “Then, the body was turned over, and there were four strikes to the back of the head, one of which was the strongest and split the skull in half. A penetrating wound was then made to the left temple, probably by a single-sided knife, which was used to pry open the head and remove the brain.”
You would be forgiven right now for yelling, “Ewwwwwwwww!” But still. To repeat my colleague’s words, isn’t it kinda cool how much we’re still learning? I mean, now we have to update our entry!
PPS: Many American history textbooks have treated cannibalism at Jamestown as if it were a fact. Here, for instance, is the American Pageantpassing along one of the more dubious stories without any caveats: “One hungry man killed, salted, and ate his wife, for which misbehavior he was executed.” We still don’t know whether that’s true. But perhaps if we wait long enough, the archaeologists will verify that, too!
IMAGES: Four shallow chop marks on the top of a girl’s skull, evidence of cannibalism during the Starving Time (Smithsonian Institution / Don Hurlbert); A young girl’s features are reconstructed based on forensic evidence gathered at Jamestown (Studio EIS / Don Hurlbert)
On this day 150 years ago, the Battle of Chancellorsville began. Union general Joseph Hooker, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, had crossed to the southern side of the Rappahannock River in an attempt to sneak around Robert E. Lee‘s flank. But his cavalry was off trying to create a diversion, which meant that Hooker didn’t know well enough exactly where Lee was.
Which created big problems, as our entry points out:
[Hooker's] men, in the words of British historian Brian Holden Reid, “stumbled about like partygoers pushed from a brightly lit anteroom into a deep, pitch-black cellar.” When they stumbled into Stonewall Jackson‘s Second Corps while still surrounded by the nearly impenetrable brambles of the Wilderness—a pitch-black cellar is right—they were startled into falling back. By nightfall on May 1, after a fierce day of fighting, Hooker was back to where he had started at Chancellorsville.
This is like a metaphor for the entire Civil War: lots of fighting, not a lot gained.* And then come the recriminations:
An entire school of historians has called this first day decisive, suggesting that Hooker was too cautious, too much in the tradition of Union general George B. McClellan. To quote Reid, “The ghost of McClellan had materialized.” Bruce Catton was harsher: “Perhaps Joe Hooker had lost his nerve.” Stephen W. Sears, in contrast, has noted that Hooker “was neither disheartened nor had he lost confidence in himself or in his plan.” He had always intended to fight defensively, to avoid those ugly headlong charges. And while Hooker busied Oliver O. Howard and his Eleventh Corps with shoring up the end of the line, Lee and Jackson seated themselves on fallen logs and talked late into the night.
That image of Lee and Jackson on a log: that’s also typical of the Civil War in that it has been storified and romanticized nearly to death. Here’s one of the least romantic of those images, sketched by Confederate veteran William Ludwell Sheppard:
Did they really sit on a log? Or were they sitting in the saddle? Who knows? But as our entry notes, the plan the two generals hatched that night “was nothing short of a desperate gamble.” In fact, it led to one of the most famous attacks of the whole war. Of course, that, too, is part of the story. As Kevin Levin recently wrote in response to some of the sesquicentennial hoopla:
Upcoming editorials will likely wax poetic about Jackson’s flank attack on May 2 and his final hours at Guinea Station and ignore or run rough shod over the fighting that took place the following day, which was significantly more important. We do love our stories.
* At least in strictly military terms. Don’t tell African Americans that not a lot was gained.
IMAGES:The Battle of Chancellorsville by Frederick Chapman, 1865 (National Park Service) (via, with additional thanks to John Hennessy); Lee and Jackson in Council, on the Night of May 1 by William Ludwell Sheppard (Library of Congress)
George Washington took the Presidential oath on a second floor balcony of Federal Hall. Below, an enthusiastic crowd assembled in the streets. The President and members of Congress then retired to the Senate Chamber, where Washington delivered his first inaugural address.
Keenly aware of the momentousness of the occasion, Washington accepted the Presidency and spoke of his determination to make the American experiment a success. He humbly noted the power of the nation’s call for him to serve as President and the shared responsibility of the President and Congress to preserve “the sacred fire of liberty” and a republican form of government. You can read the transcript of this speech.
On this day in 1861, the Virginia Convention, having seceded from the Union, now saw fit to establish a flag that was just perfect for a state on the go. Something in blue, I think.
Be it ordained by the convention of the commonwealth of Virginia That the Flag of this commonwealth shall hereafter be made of bunting, which shall be of deep blue field with a circle of white in the center, upon which shall be painted or embroidered, to show on both sides alike, the Coat of Arms of the State, as described the convention of 1776, for one side of the seal to-wit: ‘Virtus, the genius of the Commonwealth [etc. ...]‘ In the exergon the word Virginia over the head of Virtus and underneath the words “Sic Semper Tyrannis”, This flag shall be known and respected as the flag of Virginia blah blah blah.
According to our entry on the Confederate battle flag, the Virginia state flag was modeled on the so-called Bonnie Blue flag.
Featuring a single white star on a field of blue, the Bonnie Blue Flag had flown over the short-lived Republic of West Florida, whose territory was eventually divided into the Deep South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The flag had flown over Mississippi’s capitol when the state seceded in January 1861, and a song, written in its honor, was soon popular across the South.
What’s not popular these days, at least among a certain segment of the random survey-responding public, is the Virginia flag. And by “these days,” I mean ten years ago, when the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) ranked Virginia’s banner a mere 54th of 72 state and North American flags. At the moment, no Virginians are on record as caring.
PS:Q: What did Virginia’s flag look like before this new one? A: Actually, there was no official flag before this one.
A version of this post was originally published on April 30, 2011.
IMAGE: Virginia regimental flag captured in fighting on April 2, 1865, by Captain William Van Ormer of the 53rd Pennsylvania.
One suspects that even as a young man, McCausland was an old cuss. He had that bald-headed, bug-eyed look about him. He retreated grudgingly, if at all, as his 1927 (!) obituary in the Washington Post suggested: “The veteran of the gray legions whose pride was that he had never surrendered, even after Appomattox, surrendered at last to the encroaching weakness of old age which took toll of his naturally rugged physique. He had not been ill.”
Of course not. And what a life he had lived: In 1859, while at VMI, “Tiger John” served as Stonewall Jackson‘s assistant and marched the cadets north to Charles Town, where they guarded the very scaffolding from which John Brown bravely dangled. Then, in 1864, he led another legion north, this time into Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Seeking revenge for the burning of Lexington and the barracks at VMI, McCausland demanded of the town fathers $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in paper money. “The residents declared they could not produce the sum,” the Post reported. “McCausland said they appeared to be making no effort to meet his demand, and ordered the torch applied.”
John A. McCausland: taskmaster.
Our entry notes what the obituary failed to mention: that the end result was 550 buildings destroyed, 3,000 people left homeless, and $1.6 million in damages. No wonder the old man never surrendered! Had he turned himself in, he would have been forced to face the attorney for Franklin County, Pennsylvania, who had indicted him for arson. Instead, the former math professor hid out in Canada, England, Scotland, France, and finally Mexico.
McCausland spent his last five decades hiding out in the hills of West Virginia. Chambersburg, meanwhile, moved on. According to its website, after McCausland’s raid, “the Borough was rebuilt and has grown.”*
A version of this post was originally published on April 29, 2011.
On this day in 1688, the General Court found Sam, the slave of Richard Metcalfe of Westmoreland County, guilty in James City County of promoting a slave rebellion. His conviction came just six months or so after a suspected plot was discovered in Westmoreland County. His sentence required him to be “severely whipt” multiple times, after which he was to be fitted with
a strong Iron collar affixed about his neck with four spriggs which collar he is never to take or gett off nor to goe off his master or masters plantacon during all the time he shall live, and if he shall goe off his said master or masters plantacon or get off his collar then to be hanged.
A version of this post was originally published on April 26, 2012.
IMAGES:Punishment collar (New York Public Library); detail of illustration from Carlos Juliao, Riscos illuminados de figurinhos de broncos e negros dos uzos do Rio de Janeiro e Serro do Frio (1960) (Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas)
Today’s Google Doodle (seen above) celebrates a Virginian (by birth): Ella Fitzgerald. The great jazz singer was born ninety-six years ago today in Newport News, but soon after her birth her parents separated and her mother moved the family to Yonkers, New York. Virginia’s loss but the world’s gain.
If you’ve never seen it before, this photograph of Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe might seem a little random, but Monroe apparently helped Fitzgerald get booked at the whites-only Macombo Club in Hollywood. In return she promised to take a front table every night. “After that,” Fitzgerald recalled, “I never had to play a small jazz club again. She [Monroe] was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
Fitzgerald, in turn, provided inspiration for Monroe’s own (comparatively anemic) singing. Unlike the actress, Fitzgerald was a virtuoso of the voice in the way that, say, Benny Goodman was a virtuoso on the clarinet. They could do anything and while that can sometimes be thrilling, it is not always everyone’s preference. As I wrote a couple of years ago:
Sometimes virtuosity in jazz gets a bad rap. That’s because the myth of the jazzman is that of the self-taught musician—someone with street savvy, someone who awes you with his feeling, not with the number of notes he can play. That’s true, anyway, with Bix Beiderbecke, who is accused, unfairly but over and over again, with not having been able to read music. He is also celebrated for his mangled fingering and for his reticence when it came to the upper register. He is celebrated, in other words, for his lack of virtuosity.
But there is no art without form, and form, by definition, is limitation. I am reminded of the distinction Benny Green once drew between Billie Holiday and the more virtuosic Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s famous scat singing, although sophisticated, skillful, and dexterous,
finally reduces the art of singing to the decadence of gibberish. Instead of aspiring to establish the voice as a second-class instrumental keyboard, the singer should attempt to raise it to the highest jazz level because of its potential value in expressing specific ideas and emotions rather than the impressionistic gestures of most instrumental jazz. The gibberish vocal makes a mockery of communication instead of exalting it.
Ouch. But Green was calling on singers like Fitzgerald to move beyond mere virtuosity, to live up to the ideals of that old myth—to be someone who awes you with feeling.
This line of thinking has been called crypto-racist. I’ll let you be the judge. I think, in the end, it’s less an aesthetic judgment than a question of taste. Whatever the case, after the jump you can find another great photograph of Ella and Marilyn (at the Macombo, no less), as well as a couple examples of the former’s music.
IMAGES: Google Doodle; Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. Original caption: “11/19/1954—Hollywood, CA: Marilyn meets Ella. Looking fit and well-groomed after her recent hospitalization, actress Marilyn Monroe (right) attends a jazz session at the Tiffany Club in Hollywood. Singer Ella Fitzgerald chats with Marilyn, who was escorted by columnist Sydney Skolsky.”
Symonds’s preaching came in the context of what today we might call a major rebranding effort on behalf of the settlement at Jamestown. Things weren’t going too well there, so the company, with permission from the king, had done a financial overhaul and now were baiting investors under the cover of God’s will. Not a bad plan, actually.
On this day in 1927, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in Buck v. Bell. If you’re not familiar, here are the basic facts:
Emma Buck of Charlottesville was considered by authorities to be a “low grade moron.” When she gave birth out of wedlock to Carrie Buck, she was committed. Later, Carrie was raped by a member of her foster family and became pregnant. To cover their tracks, the family committed her, too. And when Carrie gave birth, her daughter was declared “not quite normal.”
This situation was perfect forlovers of eugenics and advocates of sterilization, who then held sway then in Virginia. They declared that the Bucks’s supposed disabilities were hereditary and the only solution was forced sterilization. Their court case intended to prove the constitutionality of that action, and as it happens, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes agreed, famously declaring, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
If you’ve read this far, you win a prize. Now go wash yourself off.
A version of this post was originally published on April 22, 2011.