Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Unsung and Unknown Women in American History

***This article appeared in the March, 2011, HSP monthly email publication, "History Hits: Collecting & sharing the stories of Pennsylvania." For a free subscription, simply click here to enter your email address.***

Large portions of our nation's history focus on individuals in positions of prominence, prestige, or power. To a very large degree, literally thousands of men and women who have lived in America are relatively unknown and are not found in college textbooks. However, this in no way negates or diminishes their contributions to our past. Not all history involves "glamour and glitz."  Much of it is rather the account of "grit" in the face of obstacles or insurmountable odds. During Women's History Month, we decided to highlight a few lesser known stories found in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

One such story is that of Nellie Pucell, who at age 9 sailed from Liverpool to Boston with her sister and parents in May of 1856. The family traveled on the ship Horizon. The Mormon family traveled by train to Iowa, then was forced along with hundreds of other Utah-bound pioneers to pull handcarts, since they were too poor to afford a wagon.  By October both Nellie's mother and father were dead from exposure to the cold and hunger. Nellie and her sister Maggie, age 14, made it into the Salt Lake Valley, but with badly frozen limbs.  Nellie's feet were soon amputated without anesthetic, and her legs never healed properly. She later married William Unthank and reared six children. A bronze monument of a girl stands on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City in honor of her sacrifice.
Article from Philadelphia Telegraph

Hester Massey of Buncombe County, North Carolina, is another woman who triumphed over adversity. Her tale is recounted in newspapers including the Germantown, Philadelphia (PA) Telegraph on March 23, 1831 (shown at right).  Hester was born without arms and legs, but she possessed a "sound mind" and "good health."  Remarkably, her physical disabilities failed to discourage her from the love of reading, so much so that it is said she would turn the leaves of a book with her mouth or tongue. She also swept floors by "holding a straw broom between her head and shoulder." 

Another story--this one a tragedy--is that of Caroline Witmer, who lived with her husband Henry and their children at 605 Dauphin Street in Philadelphia during the late 1800s. At this time, the City of Brotherly Love was struck with a plague of scarlet fever, or Scarlatina. According to the Federal 1870 Mortality Schedule, as well as the Philadelphia Public Ledger for the month of February, Caroline Witmer's five young children (four girls and one boy) died of the disease within a few days. One can only imagine the grief this mother endured.

A heartbreaking tale comes to us from September 1869. In that month, a ship load of Irish immigrants from Londonderry arrived here in Philadelphia. On board was Mary Boyle, age 70, who according to the 1870 Mortality Schedule for June 1, 1870, died from "old age, immediately after landing, of fatigue."  She is buried Old Cathedral Cemetery.

There are stories to be told of the common woman, both young and old, that await the scholar and the public.  During Women's History Month, we should reflect not only upon famous women and their contributions, but the millions of little known heroines, from our own mothers to countless others, who on a daily basis continue to sacrifice for the welfare of us all.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Philadelphia's 'Strangling Bug' of 1899 and The American Entomological Society

Philadelphia is of course best known for its seminal role in the creation of the United States of America, as witnessed by the Liberty Bell, Declaration of Independence, and meeting of the Founding Fathers at Independence Hall, during the Constitutional Convention, etc. However,  the 'City of Brotherly Love' is less known for being the birthplace of the science of Entomology, or the study of insects.

The American Entomological Society was founded by fifteen individuals on February 22, 1859 in Philadelphia, and what became the Entomological Society of America was also organized in the city in 1904. As it is now March, I thought it appropriate to commemorate that society's organizing committee report at a meeting held on March 1, 1859, where the name, 'The Entomological Society of Philadelphia' was adopted, being the "oldest continuously operating group in the western hemisphere dedicated to the study of insects..." (see, W. H. Day and G. W. Cowper, "The Early Meeting Sites of the American Entomological Society in Philadelphia, PA, 1859-1876," in, Transactions of the American Entomological Society, Vol. 135, No.4 (2009): 397-406).

Consequently, as can readily be observed, Philadelphia and 'bugs' have a long and honored association with one another. I will relate a few accounts of an invasion of certain mysterious insects plaguing the city during the month of July 1899, when various newspapers carried a number of stories on a 'strangling bug.'  Not only Philadelphia, but a few surrounding counties, as well as within parts of New Jersey were experiencing these 'attacks.'

One of the most detailed accounts concerned a section of the city known as 'Haddington,' a neighborhood located primarily in the 34th Ward of Philadelphia. Here city residents, Robert Taylor, Frederick Shortland, and Edward McAleer, witnessed the 'attack' against Taylor's dog Prince, by a "large brown insect, his claws locked over the dog's throat." Shortland purportedly held a match to the insect, which then "released his canine victim and dashed at the throat of the man," which brought the aid of the other bystanders, who "grasped the insect and tore it away," though its "strong fangs clutched the man's neck," leaving "two livid red spots."

The "strangling bug" was described as being brown in color, "about two and a half inches long," with wings and a "long pair of pointed claws." A short but thick ''sucker" was said to complete "the insect's war-like equipment." (see, The Evening Report, Lebanon, PA, for July 17th, 1899). Accounts also exist of the mysterious insect being "attracted by the electric lights," and "intruding their ugliness...up the pantaloon legs of men, in the hair and down the necks of females and children." (see, Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, July 30th, 1899).

The belief was that the 'strangling bug' was originally from Northern Africa, and had somehow arrived on a cargoe ship. Jail Warden Thomas S. Fields of Media, PA in nearby Delaware County, succeeded in capturing one of the "bloodthirsty" creatures within "a glass jar." A "live mouse" was placed inside, after which it was said the "bug in a minute made a sudden dash upon the neck of the mouse, and stung it in such a way as to cause it to keel over dead, the bug hanging on to it and sucking its blood." This 'vampire-like' insect was also described as being some "two and a half inches long, has a strong pair of wings and is armed with a sharp-pointed 'sucker' or sword and two crab-like claws."

Northwards, at Doylestown in Bucks County, a "plague" of the bugs was reported at the same time, which were being found near the city's lights in swarms, one being captured by John Wesley Newman, at the Fountain House. The insect was described as having, a "heavy body and wings, and pointed bill, with which it sucks the blood of its victim." (see, "A Plague of Offensive Bugs Invade Doylestown Like a Mighty Army and Darken Street Lights," The Evening Report, Lebanon, PA, July 19th, 1899).

In actuality, the 'strangling bug' was nothing more than the giant water bug, or Belostomatidae, of the order Hemiptera, known in folk-terminlogy as 'toe-biters' and in Florida as 'Alligator Ticks.' It is one of the largest insects in the United States, and can inflict a "nasty nip" at times to humans.

The insects can reach up to four inches in length and 'inject' their saliva into their victims by use of a "beak," which dissolves the "body tissues," and sucks out "the liquefied remains," hence their 'vampire-like' attributes. They also love porch or street lights and are often mistaken to be cockroaches or a beetle because of their physical characteristics. Water-bugs are usually not aggressive to large predators and often 'play dead' like an oppossum, but can quickly 'come alive' as many have found who have attempted to pick them up.

Phildelphia survived its invasion of the so-called 'strangling bug,' which was apparently not from Africa, but simply a 'home-grown' grown variety, and since there is an abundance of water in the Philadelphia area (their favorite habitat), it's not surprising they liked it here in 1899!

(By the way, 'giant water bugs,' such as Lethocerus, are said to be quite popular as a treat in the country of Thailand).

If one has an inclination to see and learn more about these 'critters' in detail, see:

'Belostomatidae' at Wikipedia

EduWebs - Giant Water Bug

Friday, March 4, 2011

C-SPAN BookTV appearance: My Brother's Keeper

After it's publication in 2002 and until the present time, I continue to have the opportunity to speak to various groups about one of my books, My Brother's Keeper: Union and Confederate Soldiers' Acts of Mercy During the Civil War. One presentation was filmed by C-SPAN's BookTV in Bowling Green, KY in 2003, and can be viewed in its video archives here.

I mentioned the book in a previous Hidden Histories post that can be found here.

A Forgotten Massacre and Little-Remembered War


***This article appeared in a December, 2009 HSP monthly email publication, "History Hits: Collecting & sharing the stories of Pennsylvania." To subscribe, click here.***
Everyone recalls the Alamo and its heroic but tragic defense in Texas in 1836, and the "Last Stand" of George Armstrong Custer and his forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana in 1876. But very few are aware of the battle that occurred on this day, Monday, December 28, 1835. During the battle, called the Dade Massacre, Major Francis Langhorne Dade and his entire command of more than 100 men were annihilated within the "piney woods" country of Florida in a surprise attack by a combined force of Seminole Indians and runaway slaves.

Only three men survived the battle, and only one--Private Ransom Clarke--lived long enough to write about it. (read his account to the right) Clarke suffered a shattered shoulder and pelvis, broken legs, and wounds to his head and lung. The injured soldier crawled 50 miles from the site of the battle (not far from what is now Bushnell, Florida) to Ft. Brook (near present-day Tampa).

The Dade Massacre was the catalyst for the Second Seminole War, which was fought between 1835 and 1842 and included such famous individuals as Seminole chief Osceola, who was later captured and died of malaria in January of 1838. Army physician Frederick Weedon embalmed and preserved Osceola's head!

Presidents and military authorities fretted over what to do about the "Seminole problem."  Major General Thomas Sidney Jessup, who was in command of the Florida forces, wrote to Colonel Persifor Frazer Smith in April 19, 1838, that since "no part of the Indians can be safely trusted...the only proper course is to seize and send them off...."

Smith (pictured below) was a Philadelphia native, a graduate of Princeton, and a lawyer. He became the colonel of a regiment of volunteers and led them in various campaigns during the Second Seminole War. The correspondence between Jessup and Smith (also below) is found in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's papers of Washington Townsend, a representative from Chester County.

President Martin Van Buren sent General Alexander Macomb, the Commanding General of the United States Army, to negotiate a treaty with the Seminoles in May of 1839. However, the war continued. In 1840, Macomb wrote a lengthy discourse to Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett (whose papers are on deposit at the Historical Society) titled, "A Plan For Subduing the Indians in Florida."

The war would eventually cost the United States more than $20 million and some 1,500 men. The three Seminole Wars would tax the funds and manpower of the federal government from 1817 until 1842. By the end of the war, thousands of Seminoles had been forced westward and only a few hundred remained in Florida.

Like so many other topics, the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are composed of a diverse range of materials, both topically and chronologically for both the scholar and layperson alike. We invite all to visit the society and enjoy.