Category Archives: Historical Memory

Portrait of a Mother: Eliza Clerc Makes Her Deafness Visible, 1822

Clerc Boardman Marriage Announcement

Their wedding in 1819 was perhaps the first of its kind in the United States: the union of deaf man and a deaf woman.

When Laurent Clerc agreed to travel to America in 1817 to help Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet learn sign language and establish a school for the deaf, he made it clear he would be returning to France in 1820. That changed when he met 23-year old Eliza Boardman, one of his first students at the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons in Hartford. By 1818, they were betrothed.

Eliza and Elizabeth Clerc Portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, 1822

Eliza and Elizabeth Clerc, 1822. (From a photo by the author, Wadsworth Atheneum, 2014.)

The news of their engagement was not met with universal joy. Gallaudet himself opposed the match. Conventional wisdom held that the deaf should not intermarry. Eliza nor Laurent were not congenitally deaf, but most people of the era assumed that deaf parents would inevitably produce deaf children. There was also a question of logistics: how could a deaf mother ever tend to the needs of her children?

Quite well, as it turned out. Eliza and Laurent had six children, all born with normal hearing. The two were married for fifty years – just a normal, pleasant couple who happened to communicate through sign language.

In 1822, they both sat for their portraits with the great Charles Wilson Peale. Eliza could have easily chosen to let her deafness be invisible. Instead, she decided to immortalize her role as a deaf mother, her daughter Elizabeth on her lap, her right hand signing their shared initial.

Was Lady Liberty Originally A Muslim?

“The Statue of Liberty was originally conceived as a Muslim peasant woman and was to have stood at the approach to the Suez Canal,” writes Michael Daly in The Daily Beast, “a lantern in her upraised hand serving as both lighthouse and a symbol of progress.”

The idea that our symbol of Liberty started as a Muslim is a powerful rhetorical tool in the fight to allow desperate Syrian refugees come to the United States and the decades-old debate over the so-called “clash of civilizations,” and Daly’s post has gone somewhat viral.

But is it historically accurate? That’s a little more complicated.

French artist and sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi did propose a plan to the Egyptian government in the late 1860s for Egypt (Progress) Carrying Her Light To Asia, a massive lighthouse in the form of an Egyptian peasant woman (fellah) to be placed at the head of the new Suez Canal. Egyptian leader Isma’il Pasha eventually dismissed the plan as too costly – although in reality it was probably more of a political decision –  and Bartholdi abandoned his lobbying efforts. He then began work on plans for Liberty Enlightening the World, which eventually became the Statue of Liberty.

Bartholdi's proposed Egypt (or Progress) Carrying the Light to Asia on the Suez Canal

Bartholdi’s proposed Egypt (or Progress) Carrying the Light to Asia on the Suez Canal

Bartholdi didn’t have a religious intent in either project, so in a sense, describing Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia as a “Muslim” woman is like describing Liberty Enlightening the World as a “Christian” woman – it’s based entirely on location, location, location. In this day and age, an Arab figure in an Arab country is going to be perceived as Muslim; a Western figure in New York Harbor is going to be perceived as Christian. But Bartholdi’s influences were ancient and classical: the Colossus of Rhodes, the Great Lighthouse of  Alexandria, the pyramids at Giza, Nubian and Assyrian statuary, Roman representations of Libertas.

Daly’s depiction of Bartholdi as instantly packing up and sailing to America “with drawings of the Muslim woman transformed to the personification of Liberty,”  is one Bartholdi himself hated. As the fundraising for Liberty dragged on, some commentators at the time noticed how close the projects were in scope and design. “It was this that made an evilly disposed newspapers say, and others repeat, that I had executed a colossal statue for Egypt, which had not been used, and that I had resold it to the Society of the French-American Union in order that from it might be made the Statue of Liberty,” he noted in a fundraising pamphlet he wrote in 1885. He had only produced sketches and models for the Egyptians, and the project had never gotten out of the planning stages. “At that time my Statue of Liberty did not exist, even in my imagination, and the only resemblance between the drawing that I submitted to the Khedive, and the statue now in New York’s beautiful harbor is that both held a light aloft,” he said in a newspaper interview.

It’s been argued over the years that Bartholdi was being less than honest in trying to put daylight between the two projects. Existing sketches of Egypt share many similarities to Liberty, and it’s clear from his archives that he didn’t start working on Liberty until Egypt was rejected.

However, an artist’s creative process is complex, particularly when an idea ebbs and flows over a period of decades. The idea for a colossal statue may have formed as early as 1855, when he first visited Egypt and saw wonders like the Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza. (“These granite beings, in their imperturbable majesty, seem to be still listening to the most remote antiquity,” he once wrote. “Their kindly and impassible glance seems to ignore the present and to be fixed upon an unlimited future.”) The idea for a colossal statue as a gift to the United States seems to have formed at a dinner party in 1865, two years before he began planning for the Suez Canal project. The concept and design process for both projects was deeply intertwined, but Bathroldi clearly thought of them as separate project – sisters, rather than duplicates.

Waiting To Become A Widow: Mary Brown and the Execution of John Brown

On the morning of December 2, 1859, Mary Day Brown and her companions Hector Tyndale and James and Sarah McKim left the Wager House Hotel in Harpers Ferry, Virginia for a walk at the start of what promised to be another long and trying day.

They had barely started out when a gunshot cut the air; Tyndale felt a bullet brush by his head.

Whether this was a serious attack or a prank by some over-excited local was not something worth contemplating. They turned around and returned to the hotel, where they spent the rest of the morning in seclusion, hands clasped “eyes streaming, hearts uplifted in prayer, waiting for the hour to strike.”

John Brown Farm, North Elba, New York.

John Brown Farm, North Elba, New York.

Mary Brown’s ordeal had weeks before when news reached their home in North Elba, New York that her husband’s attempt to seize the Federal armory in Harpers Ferry and spark a slave revolution had gone fatally wrong. Confirmation came in the form of a New York Times dispatch, read aloud by one of her children, after a long and sleepless night in late October.

“There was very little weeping or wailing or loud demonstration on the part of our broken household,” daughter Annie Brown later recalled. “We were most of us struck dumb, horror stricken with a greif too deep and hard to find expression in words or even tears.” Brown had always spoken of the potential that he might fall in service to the antislavery cause, said another daughter “but I did not think failure possible.”

Not only was her husband wounded and sure to face death for his efforts, her sons Watson and Oliver had died by his side. A stepson, Owen, had escaped, his whereabouts unknown. Also dead were William and Dauphin Thompson, the brothers-in-law of two of her surviving children.

Mary had given her husband 13 children since their marriage in 1833. Disease and accident had taken seven of them while young. After October 18, 1859, only four remained.

Within a few days of the news, Mary was convinced to travel south by the Reverend Thomas W. Higginson, a noted abolitionist and one of John Brown’s greatest champions. Along with several other prominent Northern men, Higginson believed Brown might still be rescued from the gallows, and he convinced Mary that her presence might convince the prisoner to fight on. She left North Elba on November 2, her path eased by abolitionist supporters eager to help Brown’s cause.

In Charlestown, Brown panicked. Mary’s health was often fragile, and even with assistance the trip could cost money the family did not have. “Mr Brown says ‘for God’s sake don’t let Mrs. Brown come,” his lawyer wired to Boston, too late to stop her. “If my Wife were to come here just now,” he wrote to Higginson on November 4, “it would only tend to distract her mind, Ten fold; & would only add to my affliction; & cannot possibly do me any good…I beg of her to be calm, & submissive; & not go wild on my account.”

“In regard to your coming here; If you feel sure that you can endure the trials and the shock, which will be unavoidable (if you come), I should be most glad to see you once more; but when I think of your being insulted on the road, and perhaps while here, and of only seeing your wretchedness made complete, I shrink from it. Your composure and fortitude of mind may be quite equal to it all; but I am in dreadful doubt of it,” he wrote her on November 16, as she waited in Philadelphia.

One he knew she was in Virginia, though, he was happy for her presence, saying “if you now feel that you are equal to the undertaking do exactly as you FEEL disposed to do about coming to see me before I suffer. I am entirely willing.”

His fears of her being “insulted,” were well-founded. When she was finally allowed to visit him at his jail in Charles Town the day before the execution, she had to pass through joyous crowds playing martial music in anticipation of the hanging. At the jail, she was strip-searched by the warden’s wife for fear she was carrying weapons or poison.

Husband and wife were allowed several hours together – not alone, but at least together. They talked about the family’s scant finances, about how Mary should raise their three surviving daughters, about the brutal deaths of Watson and Oliver. Watson’s body had been defiled by students from the local medical college and Oliver’s tossed in a mass grave with others killed in the raid. His request they and the Thompson boys be exhumed and cremated so she might take them all home had been denied, but he urged her to keep trying.

In the end, they were resigned. While Mary didn’t play an active role in her husband’s activities, she was no less an abolitionist, and just as sure he that he was about to die for a just cause. “God bless you and the children,” he said as the warden allowed them a final embrace. “God have mercy on you,” she replied. Crying, she was led to a carriage and taken back to Harpers Ferry. She would not be allowed in Charles Town during the hanging. She never saw his face again.

For Further Reading: Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown In Virginia by Louis DeCaro Jr

Could the Lincoln Bedroom Become the Ultimate Airbnb Rental?

Call it the ultimate Airbnb crash pad.

In a recent interview on Bloomberg TV, Brian Chesky, CEO of the online room-letting empire, says he asked President Obama if he could get the Lincoln Bedroom listed for rent.

President Obama told him “I need to check with Michelle,” but said it was probably a long shot.

Chesky allowed that the President was probably just “humoring me.”

That said, it’s a lot more guest-ready than many of Airbnb’s offerings. A big comfy bed, great views of the Washington Monument and other DC landmarks, a modern flat-screen TV media center hidden in a repurposed walnut wardrobe, and (presumably) super-fast wi-fi. The vintage 1950s bathroom features a lovely domed ceiling, pale-green glass tiling, and a big tub etched with the presidential eagle seal. The White House even provides fluffy white towels and complimentary Aveda hair products.

Wait…a vintage 1950s bathroom?

The strange reality of the Lincoln Bedroom is that it isn’t Abraham Lincoln’s bedroom. He never slept there. He never walked those floors.

In the 1860s, the space now called the “Lincoln Bedroom” was a suite used as the president’s office and Cabinet meeting room. It had been since around 1830 and would be until the West Wing was built in 1902. Lincoln’s actual bedroom was down the hall, past a reception room, the family library, and Mary Lincoln’s bedroom.

The Lincoln Bedroom in the 1960s

The Lincoln Bedroom in the 1960s

Between 1949 and 1952, the White House interior was completely gutted and rebuilt. After decades of neglect, the building was in such poor condition that engineers feared it could collapse. The end result was a modernized living and work space, stabilized with new load-bearing steel beams. The trade-off was that the historic interior details were demolished.

The public rooms on the main floor were rebuilt on their old lines, but the upstairs living quarters were modified. The old presidential office suite was rebuilt as a modern bedroom suite, with a bathroom, bedroom and sitting room. President Truman christened it the Lincoln Bedroom as a place to display Lincoln-era furnishings and artifacts.

The Lincoln Bedroom after Bush Administration redecoration.

The Lincoln Bedroom after Bush Administration redecoration.

The room itself has been redecorated multiple times over the last fifty years. During the George W Bush era, the White House Historical Association paid $500,000 to give it a more authentic and vibrant Victorian feel. Many of the furnishing pre-date the Lincoln era, but were likely used by the family during their residence. The great rosewood bed that serves as the room’s centerpiece was purchased by Mary Lincoln in 1861, probably for a guest room. Other presidents slept in it, but Lincoln himself did not.

So it’s a complicated piece of historical memory: a bedroom that is a bedroom but wasn’t a bedroom; a “hallowed space” that was actually an office space; a “haunted” space whose original walls and floors are laying in a Virginia landfill. Abraham Lincoln, brought back from the beyond, would not recognize this space, or even the view from the windows.

At the moment, a decent Airbnb room a few blocks from the White House is renting for $327 a night. No rosewood bed. No reproduction Scalamandré drapes. They do provide shampoo, but it might not be Aveda. A secure building, but not snipers-on-the-roof secure. So – location, location, location – the Lincoln Bedroom could go for an easy $400 a night. That’s a cool $146,000 a year. The next president could support the sharing economy AND reduce the national debt at the same time.

Go on and list it! Lincoln would approve.

And you thought your last home renovation was intense? The view from the Lincoln Bedroom during the Truman-era rebuliding.

And you thought your last home renovation was a nightmare? The view from the Lincoln Bedroom during the Truman-era rebuilding.

48 Names and Mount McKinley Is Just One of Them

Mount McKinley c 1900/Library of Congress

Mount McKinley c 1900/Library of Congress

Let’s get the easy one out of the way first: No, Denali is not “Kenyan” for “black power.”

The dialog surrounding the Obama administration’s directive to the Department of the Interior to rename Alaska’s highest peak has been surprisingly vigorous. It hits that sweet spot between modern political rhetoric and historical memory – or lack of historical memory, as the case may be.

Understanding how Denali came to be called Mount McKinley is something that can only be explained by stepping back into its own time…and even then, not all the details are clear.

One thing that is clear from the record is that prospector William A. Dickey didn’t march into the Alaskan wilderness in the summer of 1896 with the intent of hijacking a sacred Native mountain and naming it after some white dude. He was just looking for gold.

Dickey, like most people who saw the Alaska Range for the first time, was surprised by the beauty of the massif. Thirty years after the Alaska Purchase, this part of the territory was still largely unmapped and unexplored. Artists and photographers had not yet created a visual record. It was still very much a “terra incognita,” he wrote. Despite the clouds of mosquitoes, the cold rains and flooding rivers, the earthquakes and the bears, to him this was a “wonderful wilderness.”

But why “Mount McKinley”?

In his only known published account of his Alaskan adventure, published in the New York Sun in January 1897, he said it was because McKinley’s presidential nomination was the first news he heard as they returned to civilization. Years later, he told mountaineer Belmore Browne the full story. Dickey and his partners “fell in with two prospectors who were rabid champions of free silver,” during their expedition, “and…after listening to their arguments for many weary days, he retaliated by naming the mountain after the champion of the gold standard.”

Like all political jabs, there was a serious subtext. In 1896, the US was struggling to recover from a deep depression sparked by the Panic of 1893. Whether the cash supply should be back by gold or a combination of gold and silver had become the major political argument. Republicans like Dickey believed in the gold standard, a stable base that theoretically kept supply tight and inflation low; Democrats were supporters of bimetallism or “free silver,” believing that cheap silver would bulk up the money supply and make more cash available to all.

Dickey may not have known if the peak had a name. In fact, it had many. There are more than forty variant names in Athabaskan; depending on dialect and location, he might have heard *Denali, Dinadhit, Deenaalee, Denale, Dghelay Ka’a, Doleika, Traleika, Tennali, Tolaghah, Tenada.* Some variants applied only the peak, others to the entire massif. If he had an old Russian map, it would have read Bulshaya Gora. Local prospectors in these years called it Densmore’s Mountain, after a fellow prospector who, like Dickey, had rhapsodized on its distant beauty.

Nor does Dickey seem to have lobbied for “Mount McKinley” to be officially recognized. How it ended up sticking is something of a mystery. The Army and the US Geological Survey sent teams into the area in 1898-99. Keeping the name of their Commander-In-Chief might have seemed like the prudent or polite choice.

In 1900, survey teams announced that the peak stood over 20,400 feet above sea level, making it, as Dickey had theorized, the highest peak in North America. One major wire report said the mountain “now known by the name of McKinley, was formerly known as Mount Allen” and that “inhabitants of the region call it Bertheya, which is the corrupted Russian version of ‘The Big Mountain.'” The real native name for it, they said, “is Tralega,” but “Mr. Dick, a prospector,” named it after President McKinley.

Just over a year later, six months into his second term, William McKinley was assassinated. During his tenure, he had become one of the most popular presidents in US history, and his murder touched off a wave of national mourning not seen since Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.

After McKinley’s death, several states contemplated naming mountains in his honor. (Naming geographic features after famous people was fairly common this period. That the famous person had never been there was beside the point. It was a tribute, and a lot cheaper and easier than building a monument.) That the continent’s *highest* peak was already named for him seemed practically prescient.

Denali gained support as the “true” name for the peak beginning in 1913 with mountaineer Hudson Struck’s The Ascent of Denali (Mount McKinley), which contained ” a plea for the restoration to the greatest mountain in North America of its immemorial native name,” and over time it became the common alternative name. Since 1974, it’s a been a political hot potato between Alaska and Ohio, and President Obama’s directive is probably not going to end the rhetorical war between the states.

Meanwhile, Mount Foraker stands ignored. Right next to Denali and the third highest peak in North America, she was named for Ohio Senator Joseph B. Foraker by an Army lieutenant for unknown reasons in 1899. Foraker never visited Alaska and died in his bed at the age of 71. This peak had once euphonic Native names as well: Sultana, ‘the woman;’ Menlale, ‘Denali’s wife.’ Nobody is agitating to change it.

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