Best. Sign. Ever.

18 06 2011

Spotted near the Lowell National Historic Park in lovely Lowell, MA:

What do you think? 1955? 1945? Sorry I can’t take a better picture with my Blackberry, but I think you can see that the mule’s legs light up in sequence to show it kicking.





Do you dig graves?

15 06 2011

Neil: Yeah, they’re alright.

I never thought I dug graves until I spent some time in a seventeenth century graveyard in downtown Salem, Massachusetts with my friend Tad Baker. Those graves offer a terrific window into society long past, but I’ve come to realize once again that I have absolutely no interest in ever being buried under one.

Longtime readers (are there any?) will know I’ve already expressed this sentiment before after reading River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit as a result of Flora Muybridge (Edweard Muybridge’s estranged wife) ending up in a mass grave in a scruffy field behind a California multiplex. But what happens to you and your headstone even if you aren’t reburied near a shopping mall? Yes, if you made it to the town cemetery in Salem, people like me will visit your headstone, but what exactly does that headstone look like after all these years?

It might look like this:

Yes, some graves were just markers and we’re supposed to have writing on them but that one in the back is awfully big for that, don’t you think? I figured those markers would look more like this [Notice the dried up leaf there for perspective - Yes, I meant to do that]:

If you and twenty other people are buried under that, what’s the point? Nobody will ever know it’s you down there. To make matters worse, according to Tad, the headstones at this particular graveyard have been moved around several times by nineteenth century people who really liked order.

Suppose you were a rich Puritan, and you got one of those expensive graves. This is the headstone of one of the Salem witchcraft judges:

Less than four hundred years later and someone has to help you out by encasing the thing in cement! Four hundred years is not a lot of time in the great scheme of things, people. You can’t fight erosion; you can only postpone the inevitable. That’s why this grave is the one that cracks me up the most:

That’s the grave of Salem Witchcraft victim George Jacobs, discovered in the 1950s during the construction of a local shopping mall and reburied in the Nurse family graveyard on the Rebecca Nurse (another victim of the hysteria) Homestead maybe ten or fifteen years ago. The funny thing about that twentieth century Puritan headstone is that in a couple of hundred years nobody is going to be able to tell the difference between it and the Puritan original. Unfortunately, the Nurse Homestead is maintained by the Danvers Alarm Company, the shakiest of non-profit groups staffed entirely by volunteers. They’re really nice people and I wish them the best, but I’m afraid that the twenty acres of suburban Boston upon which that graveyard is located will eventually become the sight of another shopping mall.

Hardcore Unitarian that I am, I really don’t know much about the religious reasons for headstones or burial in graveyards at all, but I do know this: All is vanity, people. All is vanity.





Best Presidential Grave?: Chester Arthur.

24 06 2010

This is a picture from my trip to New York last week:

The grave is in a cemetery in Albany and barely marked other than by the flags. Indeed, if you’d like to be buried near Chester Arthur’s final resting place there were signs up saying that there was space available.





Emperor Norton.

22 06 2010

Did I mention that I’m in San Francisco? My new favorite Californian is Emperor Norton. From the Encyclopedia of San Francisco:

To today’s San Franciscan, the name “Emperor Norton” conjures up images of a colorful, but homeless street person, accompanied by a couple of dogs, who ordered bridges to be built and governments dissolved; an insane man revered by the San Franciscans of the late 19th Century. His story is far more complex than most San Franciscans know.

The real Emperor – Joshua Abraham Norton – is one of contradictions and myths. He was rational man who could speak about any intelligently about politics and science, was a great chess player, and was quite inventive, but believed he was the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He issued proclamations, collected taxes, attended sessions of government, rode free on public transit, had free tickets to theater, and sold his own currency; but lived day to day as a pauper in raggedy clothes. He was a successful businessman who lost a fortune as the result of a business deal gone badly and ultimately lived off the kindness of San Franciscans, but owned no dogs and was never homeless.

The number of people who appear to be living on the streets of this city today, by the way, is quite extraordinary.





The Cardiff Giant.

14 06 2010

I saw the Cardiff Giant yesterday in Cooperstown, New York. Here’s the story from the Museum of Hoaxes:

The Cardiff Giant, a gigantic ten-foot tall stone man, emerged out of the ground and into American life on October 16, 1869, when he was discovered by some workers digging a well behind the barn of William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York. Word of his presence quickly spread, and soon thousands of people were making the journey out to Stub Newell’s farm to see the colossus. Even when Newell began charging fifty cents a head to have a look at it, people still kept coming.

Speculation ran rampant over what the giant might be. The central debate was between those who thought it was a petrified man and those who believed it to be an ancient statue. The ‘petrifactionists’ theorized that it was one of the giants mentioned in the Bible, Genesis 6:4, where it says, “There were giants in the earth in those days.” Those who promoted the statue theory followed the lead of Dr. John F. Boynton, who speculated that a Jesuit missionary had carved it sometime during the seventeenth century to impress the local indians.

The truth was somewhat more prosaic. It was actually the creation of an enterprising New York tobacconist named George Hull. The idea of burying a stone giant in the ground occurred to him after he got into an argument with a methodist Reverend about whether the Bible should be taken literally. Hull, an atheist, didn’t think it should. But the Reverend disagreed. The Reverend insisted that even the passage where it says ‘there were giants in the earth in those days’ should be read as a literal fact. According to Hull, after this discussion he immediately “thought of making a stone, and passing it off as a petrified man.” He figured he could not only use the fake giant to poke fun at Biblical literalists, but also make some money.

Read the rest if you don’t know it. The story is awesome.





There’s a Wisconsin Death Trip flickr? I had no idea.

21 10 2008

And they say reading blogs is just a waste of time.  Vance at the Edge of the American West points me too a flickr set up by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin full of pictures from one of my favorite books, Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy.  Vance’s description is accurate, but it makes the book sound dull:

The book consists largely of clippings from the Badger State Banner, of Black River Falls, Jackson County, WI, and images by Charles Van Schaick, a local commercial photographer.

I prefer Griel Marcus’s description from the NYT in 1999:

Mr. Lesy noticed Van Schaick’s many pictures of dead infants and children, dressed in their christening gowns, now placed in tiny coffins. As he looked for the story behind these photos, he found a tale of plagues: of murder, suicide, farm and business failures, madness, addiction, tramp armies, and the ruin of childhood and the desolation of families by epidemics of diptheria, typhoid, smallpox and flu.

Mr. Lesy made a montage, using items from the local paper, contemporaneous regional fiction and poetry, asylum records and the photographs left by Van Schaick, who in Mr. Lesy’s pages emerges as Arbus’s unknown ancestor. In words, the story was almost too much to take in, the accumulation of awful facts nearly mute in their cacophony. But the pictures spoke. From Van Schaick’s archive Mr. Lesy made a tableau of disassociation, terror and insanity passing for everyday life. It was all in the blank eyes, the frozen mouths in family portraits: those were the ghosts James Marsh saw.

Indeed, it’s the juxtaposition of the strange clips and strange photographs that gives the book its power (and likewise explains why the movie is unwatchable – but that’s a subject for a whole different post).

Vance gets caught up arguing with Lesy’s thesis about Black River Falls being a particularly difficult place to live in the 1890s.  I don’t disagree, but to me making that argument is pointless.  It’s like suggesting that Dr. Johnson wasn’t all that different from the typical 18th Century Briton.  When you find a good cache of evidence, you run with it.

To me the book is a symbol of how death pervaded everything and everywhere in nineteenth century America.  I got the same feeling when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and just about everybody close to all the politicians she profiles died before they did.  [The big exception, of course, was Mary Todd Lincoln.  She just lost her mind.]

Now I can show the same impact with pictures.  I’ve never been so happy to learn that I can make other people so sad.





The last gasp of the old Coney Island?

8 09 2008

Gawker reports:

On Friday, lease negotiations broke down between the owner of Astroland, Coney Island’s honky-tonk, 46-year-old amusement park, and its landlord, Thor Equities. It was abruptly announced that the park would shut down forever on Sunday—a month ahead of schedule.

What I can’t tell from that paragraph is whether Astroland is the only amusement park left on Coney Island. When I was last there I was shocked by how dead the place was. Even Nathan’s looked deserted. Therefore, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if this is the last one.

In light of that possibility, it’s worth remembering how things used to be:

If you’re wondering, whoever posted this newsreel says it’s from 1930.

Update: Silly me for not checking the Times on this subject:

Astroland’s closing would not mean the end of rides at Coney Island; the Cyclone wooden roller coaster and the Wonder Wheel, which is part of Deno’s Amusement Park, are both city landmarks and will continue to operate next year. Thor Equities said it would also bring more amusement rides to the Astroland site next year.

Astroland, by the way, only dates from 1962. I should have guessed that from the name.








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