Monthly Archives: July, 2015

Murdered Prostitutes Are Just More Interesting Than Live Activists

Last year, a developer submitted a plan for a new museum in London’s East End. The idea was to take a derelict storefront on Cable Street, just a couple blocks from the Tower of London, and turn it into the UK’s first women’s history museum.

The idea was to “recognise and celebrate the women of the East End who have shaped history, telling the story of how they have been instrumental in changing society. It will analyse the social, political and domestic experience from the Victorian period to the present day.”

But as the Tower Hamlets council learned this week when the coverings came off the renovated facade, the project had winnowed down from the full history of the women of the East End to just five women.

Behold the Jack The Ripper Museum.

“We did plan to do a museum about social history of women,” developer Mark Palmer-Edgcumbe told the Evening Standard, “but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.”

Logo of the Jack the Ripper Museum featuring man in shadows walking through pool of blood

Source: Jack The Ripper Museum

When an attraction features a logo of a silhouetted man walking through a large pool of blood, you can pretty much bet that it’s a “museum” in the same way a carnival freak show is an “anthropological exhibit.”

According to their mobile website, once you’ve plunked down your £12 adult admission fee, on the first floor, you’ll see “waxwork figures” of Catherine Eddowes being discovered by Police Constable Watkins under a street light, with a nearby workers’ cart like the type used “to move the bodies of the murdered women to the morgue,” and a “replica” of the original graffiti (presumably the phrase “The Juews are the men that will not be blamed for nothing”) found near the murder site.

Other exhibits include the “Ripper’s Sitting Room” – never mind that we have no idea who the killer was, and thus no clue if he had a sitting room or lived in a squalid rental like his victims. You’ll get to see that, too, in the “Victim’s Bedroom,” featuring a small bed with a straw mattress, a bottle of gin, “rare” photos of the victims, and collection of Victorian era bonnets, which, the site helpfully explains, “would have been worn by women to cover their hair, which would have rarely been washed.”

The really good stuff is in the basement “Mortuary,” and if you’re under 16, sorry, no admittance. The scene is a parish mortuary room, but the centerpiece of the exhibit are the “original autopsy photos of the horrific murders.”  The site asks that visitor “please view these with discretion and respect for the victims” whose naked, plundered bodies they themselves are exploiting for profit.

Mark Palmer-Edgcumbe, former Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Google’s European, Middle East, and African division, responded to criticism: “It is absolutely not celebrating the crime of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place.”

Think about that statement for a moment.

Why and how the women got in that situation in the first place. As blogger Sian Norris writes “[B]ecause that’s how fatal male violence works, right? Women get themselves into these situations where men kill us. The men, well…let’s not give them any agency in this one instance, how about it?”  Of the 39 women murdered in London in 1888, just eight were prostitutes. The remaining 31 were, mostly, housewives. During the Victorian era, eight out of 10 female homicide victims were killed by their husbands or partners. Where’s the “museum” looking at that?

Absolutely not celebrating the crime of Jack the Ripper. No, of course they’re not saying yay! the violent serial murder of prostitutes is great! They’re just saying that it’s, you know, interesting. Fallen women. A mystery to be solved. A much easier story to tell than the seething mass of bomb-throwing suffragettes and Marxist agitators and striking factory girls that constitute the full picture of East End women. And more likely to bring in a profit from some of the two million tourists that flow through the nearby Tower of London.

The world is awash in tacky tourist attractions tarted up as vaguely “educational.” This monstrosity is probably not the tipping point.

But it’s still obscene. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride, Mary Jane Kelly. No matter how many decades pass, they still can’t get free of their killer. He defines them. His bloody work is always on display for the world to see.

Love and Cake: The True(?) Story of the First Tiered Wedding Cake

Anyone who has ever glanced at Pinterest has seen them: wedding cakes, stacked three or four tiers high, layered in fondant and buttercream and marzipan, decked out with flowers and flourishes. Classic or “creative,” it’s the confectionary centerpiece of the modern bride’s special day.

Most wedding books give at least an abbreviated history of the wedding cake, from grim little oat cakes thrown at brides to bestow fertility, to the stacks of small cakes and biscuits heaped on tables to signify marital prosperity, to horrifying concoction of the “bride’s pie,” stuffed with oysters, cockscombs, lambs’ testicles, sweetbreads, and spices.

The story of the tiered wedding cake is usually told like this:

Is this the inspiration for the modern wedding cake? St. Bride's, London, built in 1703

Is this the inspiration for the modern wedding cake? St. Bride’s, London, built in 1703

Sometime in the 18th Century, a baker’s apprentice in London fell in love with his master’s daughter, and in an effort to treat her (and impress his master) he found inspiration for an elaborate tiered cake made in shape of the magnificent stacked spire of nearby St. Bride’s Church. The master approved, the daughter approved, the couple married, and the modern wedding cake was born.

As with most simple stories about love and cake, the real tale involved more steps and probably involved a lot more tears. And a few bottles of brandy.

William Rich – our putative Baker’s Apprentice – was born in Tetbury, Gloucestershire in March 1753, and came to London in 1767 at the age of 14. His father paid £20 to apprentice him to William Stiles “Citizen and Cook of London by Trade a Cook and Pastry Cook and Living on Ludgate Hill” for the normal period of seven years. Stiles was likely related to the Rich family through marriage, but no matter how the arrangement came about, he was an excellent choice. He’d been in the business for a decade and was a rising star in the Worshipful Company of Cooks, the livery company overseeing the trade.

Rich seems to have passed through his apprenticeship without a hitch, and by 1777, the 23-year old was himself a “Citizen and Cook of London by trade,” member of the Worshipful Company of Cooks, and had an apprentice of his own. His establishment was located on Ludgate Hill, close to Fleet Street.

In 1776, he married 21-year old Susannah Prichard. Here, one major detail of the story falls away: Susannah was not his master’s daughter. He had no master by then, and she was the daughter of Davis Prichard, a barber with a shop on nearby Gutter Lane. They married at the Church of Saint Matthew on Friday Street. Like nearby St Paul’s Cathedral and St. Bride’s on Fleet Street, Saint Matthews was designed by the great architect Christopher Wren – but it was the “smallest and cheapest” of his churches, devoid of flourishes.

Did the young groom make a fantasy cake for his bride? Maybe. Their wedding in modest Saint Matthews, however, points to a young couple that might not have had the money for an extravagant wedding feast.

It’s much more likely that Rich made a tiered cake as a special order for a customer at some point after 1776, after he had built a clientele that could afford the statement of a one-of-a-kind cake. His shop on Ludgate Hill was within sight of St. Bride’s, topped by Wren’s soaring 234-foot spire, and it would have made the obvious model. There’s no clear record of the cake, but chances are it was a fruitcake soaked in brandy and covered in frosting made from sugar and egg whites.

William and Susannah were married for 34 years and had 12 children, six of whom lived to adulthood. They spent most of their life there on Ludgate Hill. Susannah died in November of 1810 at age 52; he followed a few weeks later in January of 1811 at age 57. Appropriately, they were buried in the churchyard at St. Bride’s.

The tiered wedding cake didn’t catch on until the Victorian Era, decades after Rich’s death. As with most wedding trivia, the details are murky: some sources say they were popularized by a display at the Crystal Palace Exposition in 1851, others cite the wedding of Victoria’s son, Leopold, in 1882. Like St. Bride’s spire, they’ve been pushing skyward ever since.

St. Bride's from the Thames, 1815

St. Bride’s from the Thames, 1815

Mayor Versus Museum: Harrisburg Battles Over Fate of National Civil War Museum

The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA

As the nation-at-large debates the removal of Confederate flags and monuments across the Deep South, on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line, a Civil War museum finds itself in a very different battle for survival.

This fight is not so much about history as cold, hard cash.

Eric Papenfuse, mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has set his political guns on the city’s National Civil War Museum, which, depending on your perspective, is a either multi-million dollar boondoggle strangling the economic life out of the financially ailing capital city, or a model educational facility that gives voice and form to the experience of the American Civil War.

Stephen Reed, Harrisburg’s mayor from 1984 to 2010, conceived of the museum as a way to to revitalize the city’s moribund tourism base in the mid-1990. The $32 million National Civil War Museum opened its doors in February 2001.

How Reed stocked and financed the museum is just part of the 499-count fraud indictment recently handed down by a grand jury. If convicted on all counts, he could receive a sentence of up to 2,439 years.

Calling the museum a “monument to corruption” that costs the City millions of tax dollars each year while paying just $1 a year in rent, Mayor Papenfuse has used the Reed indictment to demand the museum dissolve and turn the whole kit and caboodle back to the City.

Papenfuse’s insistence that the museum hand over both building and assets seems to be the option least likely to produce a profit for the City of Harrisburg.

This is no roadside shack featuring some mason jars filled with old minié balls and a few dusty dioramas. It’s a modern museum, with legitimate artifacts and up-to-date multimedia displays and a full roster of lectures and public events. It has the imprimatur of the Smithsonian and the more than two dozen Civil War scholars signed on the Advisory Board. It’s brought in 750,000 visitors since it opened in 2001, with an annual record of 42,000 in 2014.

Even if the museum board were willing to commit sacrificial suicide, the costs associated with untangling arcane bond and tax issues, the deaccessioning and appraisal of the collection, and the gutting and rebuilding of the interior for municipal use or sale would almost certainly cost more than the City could hope to recoup. If they fight, which seems inevitable, it could further run up the City’s bill in legal costs.

A more sensible approach would be to negotiate a steady increase in rent, pegged to benchmarks across several fiscal years. Or to build in penalties for failure to meet budget or attendance goals. If closure is indeed the only option, it should take place over a period of time that allows the collection to be deaccessioned and sold off in a responsible way.

A prime argument against the museum boils down to location, location, location. For Papenfuse and his supporters, Harrisburg wasn’t historically significant enough during the Civil War to make it a “destination” like Gettysburg, forty miles to the south. Putting aside fact that most tourism traffic from the Northeast passes through Harrisburg on the way to Gettysburg, making it an easy stop for people coming and going from the battlefield, it comes down to how you frame “significance.”

Gettysburg actually wouldn’t be historically significant were it not for Harrisburg. The capture of Harrisburg was one of Robert E. Lee’s major goals when his army crossed into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania soldiers trained there at Camp Curtin. As a major railroad hub just 80 miles north of the Virginia border, it was a key pipeline for men and materiel into the war zone. The Union’s ability to mobilize their resources was a critical – if less exciting – aspect of their ultimate victory.

The irony is that this could be the National Civil War Museum’s moment to shine. As we strive to move past a public history focused on and in the South rather than a truly national trauma, a museum in the North that focuses equally on the experiences of soldiers and civilians on both sides, on African-Americans both slave and free, is something we should be supporting, not taking apart.

Read More:

Board Chairman: National Civil War Museum Unlikely To Close

Stephen Reed Connection Aside, National Civil War Museum Doesn’t Deserve Blame, Readers Say


New Film Of Royal Family “Nazi Salute” Reinvigorates An Old Debate

On September 9, Queen Elizabeth II will pass another royal milestone: she will become the longest-reigning monarch in British history, surpassing the 63-year, 216-day term of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.

But even an 89-year old monarch can be still embarrassed by old home movies, as she found last week when the tabloid The Sun published a sensational photo and brief film clip seeming to show the then six-year-old Elizabeth and her sister Margaret being encouraged to perform the Nazi salute by her uncle, the future king Edward VIII, and her mother, the future Queen Consort and Queen Mother.

Buckingham Palace is investigating how The Sun obtained the video, although many believe that they inadvertently released it as part of a longer film clip that had already been publically shown without the incendiary footage.

A general point of agreement is that the images do not reflect negatively on the Queen herself, a small child mimicking the adults. Beyond that, little is clear. There’s no context to the film clip, no way to tell if it’s a serious gesture or a mocking one, or just larking about like normal people who can’t see the future.

If the film was shot in the summer of 1933, as many believe, the answer might lay in the daily news. On 13 July 1933, the German government decreed that all public employees must use the salute as their greeting, and all citizens were required to us it during the singing of the national anthem and other public events. Photos and newsreels of Germans saluting en masse were becoming more common but still struck many outsiders as more silly than serious.

There’s also the outside chance the scene has nothing to do with the Nazis. A forensic lip-reader tells the Daily Mail that, after viewing the film clip two dozen times, she’s positive that the family is a greeting a woman approaching from out of frame. While that less likely, it does bring us full circle to the question of context.

The film reinvigorates the long-standing debate over the relationship of the British monarchy to the Nazi Party prior to the Second World War. Many in Europe’s ruling class gravitated to the Nazis in the 1930s as a bulwark against Communism. Some aligned with Nazi ideology; most simply didn’t see the danger until it was too late.

Kinship only made things more complicated. In 1933, the future Queen Mother, then Elizabeth, Duchess of York, and her husband Albert, played host to distant cousin Carl Eduard, the fourth and final Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Charlie, as he was known within the family, mentioned how kind “Bertie and Elizabeth” were during his visit. Twelve years later, Bertie and Elizabeth were King and Queen Consort, and Charlie was starving in a prison with other high-ranking Nazis.

Born in Sussex in 1884, Charlie was a 16-year-old student at Eton when his grandmother, Queen Victoria, decided he should inherit the German duchy. Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was special to her: it was the home of her beloved Prince Albert, and the name she had chosen for her own royal house. Despite Charlie’s youth and inability to speak German, he took the ducal throne in 1900. Fourteen years later, he found himself at battling his own homeland in the First World War.

Germany’s defeat was a disaster for the Duke. In 1917 – the same year his cousin, George V, changed the name of the royal house from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor – Charlie was among those who lost his British peerages and his Knight of the Garter. In 1918, he was deposed from his throne by the Socialists.

Carl Eduard, known to the Royals as Charlie Coburg, in 1933

In the uncertain years that followed, he pinned his hopes for stability on Adolph Hitler. While Hitler privately derided men like Charlie as “degenerate,” he also saw their usefulness to lobby for support in royal circles, and the former Duke became a special pet. He made several trips to England in the 1930s as president of the Anglo-German Friendship Society to build support for a pact between the countries. He cultivated the pro-Nazi leanings of Edward VIII before and during his brief reign in 1936, and he hosted the abdicated king and his bride on their unauthorized tour of Germany in 1937. His once cordial relations with the newly-crowned George VI grew frosty, and ended at the start of the war.

He was arrested by Patton in 1945 and sent to prison to await a denazification trial. His sister, Princess Alice – the only British royal who stood by him throughout his life – flew to Germany in 1946 to try to win his release, and was horrified to find him “scavenging on a rubbish dump to find a tin to eat from.” Alice was beloved by the royals, but in this they were unyielding: Charlie was a traitor.

At trial, he claimed ignorance of Nazi atrocities and prosecutors did not have enough evidence to prove he had committed war crimes. He was fined and stripped of property. He ended up living in a flat behind the stables of one of his former palaces.

His British kin barred him from England; when Elizabeth was crowned in 1953, he watched the coronation of his cousin-twice-removed at a cinema in Coburg. He died the following year, in a bed he had brought with him from his childhood home more than fifty years earlier. “He said it was his little bit of England,” his granddaughter explained in 2011, “as he could never come to England again.”

Historians, long frustrated by their inability to access the post-1918 correspondence of the Royal Family, have used the Sun’s bombshell to renew their calls for transparency. The presumption is that the Royals don’t want the public to know the depth of Nazi complicity within their circle in the years before the war. There’s probably an element of truth in that: like all human beings, the Queen and her family don’t want to open themselves up to unnecessary embarrassment, nor bring embarrassment to the descendants of long-dead relatives.

In reality, access to this material would help royal historians better understand the complexities of these relationships and the family’s evolution toward – and away from – Nazism as the war drew near. The positives would almost certainly outweigh the negatives.

But, for the moment, the files remain locked in the Round Tower at Windsor. Only time will tell how long embarrassment will be allowed to reign.

What’s Going On Here? The Story Behind the Seal of Whitesboro, New York

Every couple of years, the Internet discovers the curious official seal of the Village of Whitesboro, New York. Every time, the question is the same: why is that white dude tackling that Indian dude, and why would you put it on your town seal?

And every time this story is discovered anew, the poor mayor has to explain: no, it’s not what you think.

So what is going on here? Let’s roll back the clock about 230 years.

The white guy on the left is Hugh White: Connecticut farmer, Revolutionary War veteran. Like many Connecticuters in the late 18th Century, White developed a yearning for greener (and cheaper) pastures for himself, his children, and their growing families. In 1784, he joined in the purchase of the Sadaquada Patent, a tract of 28,000 acres in western New York State. His parcel was around 1,500 acres.

The move brought the family into the heart of Oneida Nation. The Oneida, unlike much of the Iroquois Confederacy, had sided with the colonists in the Revolution, and there was no dispute over the land, but White recognized that he was going to have to work to keep the relationship between natives and newcomers relatively frictionless if he hoped to create a thriving frontier community.

One critical encounter occurred around 1788 when White, along with his daughter-in-law Lucy and five-year-old granddaughter Susan, were visiting with Chief Han Yerry Tewahangarahken from the nearby Oneida village of Oriskany.

During the visit, Han Yerry asked if White considered him a friend. Yes, White replied. “Well, if you are my friend, and you believe I am your friend, I will tell you what I want and then I shall know whether you speak true words.”

What he wanted was Susan. His wife, Tyonajanegen, had taken a liking to the little girl. They wanted her to stay in the village overnight and return her in the morning.

At a time when white settlers lived in terror of seeing their women and children taken captive by tribes, this was no minor request, and White rightly saw it for the test it was. To his daughter-in-law’s horror, he gave his consent.

Morning came, and Han Yerry did not. As sunset approached, Lucy White was ready to march on Oriskany to retrieve the child, but White urged her to stay calm. Finally, the chief carried Susan – now dressed in the outfit of an Oneida – up the path to the White’s home. The test had been passed, the friendship established, but through little Susan’s costume change Han Yerry also made it clear who had been in control.

The incident immortalized on the town seal was a similar encounter: not hostile, even somewhat funny in retrospect, but not without a serious subtext.

As the story goes, a group of young Oneida were visiting the White home and fell into a friendly game of wrestling. The strongest warrior beat opponent after opponent. Inevitably, he ended up challenging his host to a match.

Hugh White was in his mid-50s and less svelt than depicted on the town seal. But again, he realized this was a test: if he declined the challenge, the tribe would see him as a coward. He would never live down the ridicule, potentially impacting his ability to negotiate for the use of key resources like fishing rights and access to local pathways.

Since there was no way to avoid the match, he decided to use what he had – mass and momentum – and hope he didn’t too embarrassingly trounced. He reached out to take hold of his opponent and accidentally (or maybe not so accidentally) tripped and fell forwards. He knocked the young warrior flat on his back and landed on him with all 250 pounds. The younger man got up and declared White “a good fellow, too much,” everyone had a chuckle, and White was never again challenged to a wrestling match.

Acts like this won the respect of the tribe, and before long, “with much pomp, circumstance and mystery, he was duly initiated into the Oneida tribe.” These ties of friendship remained until his death in 1812 at the age of 79.

By the mid-19th Century, the wrestling match had become part of village lore as a seminal moment where their founder won the respect of the tribe. The town seal was in place by 1922. A 1977 lawsuit by a local treeworker claiming racial discrimination because of the seal was dismissed. Opportunities over the years to replace or redesign have come to nothing. The Oneida Nation has not challenged the design, and there is no historical dispute over the friendly relationship between settlers and natives in the late 18th Century.

Given the current national mania for scrubbing public properties of offensive historical symbols, it’s understandable that Whitesboro’s seal has come under renewed criticism.

But how far does this effort need to go? The Confederate flag is a ubiquitous and general symbol of racial oppression across the entire South and its 115,000,000 residents. The Whitesboro town seal is a snapshot of local history in a village of 3,700. Without the amplifying effect of the Internet, few people outside the greater Utica area would know it existed. Everyone can have an opinion, but the decisions should be left to those who live there.

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