Thursday, November 24, 2011

Problem #11: Writing Style

For our assignment this week, Dr. Petrik asked each of us to select a passage of historical writing we "believe represents the finest writing in your experience...[k]eep in mind that being a good historian does not necessarily mean that the author is a good stylist. What you're interested in is stylistic excellence."

My area of interest is American history, particularly the 19th century; my scope of inquiry tends to be broad rather than deep, but I do prefer to read works which are, at the least, informed by social, cultural, and economic history. I certainly have interest in political, intellectual, and military histories as well, but I am always interested in the texture and feel of life as it was lived in the past.

John Julius Norwich (his actual name is John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich) is a British aristrocrat who resigned a successful career in the British Foreign Service to devote himself to being a writer. Since then, he has focused primarily on the Mediterranean world of late antiquity through the Middle Ages. He writes works of popular narrative history, and he is almost soley concerned with politics, war, and just enough intellectual and (high-) cultural history to know what the ruling classes cared about in between court intrigues and military campaigns. He has the sort of broad, classically-grounded education you would expect of a well-born, upper-class Brit who went to Oxford and inherited a seat in the House of Lords; which is to say, he is fluent in several languages, is well-read, and knows not a thing about modern historigraphical trends. He is, by his own account, a shallow man who "has not discovered a single new historical fact in my life". If I were looking for a role model for my own quest to become a serious historian, it's possible I could not do worse than John Julius Norwich.

But while my main area of interest is the United States, like just about anybody who has chosen History as a field of study, I have a healthy level of curiosity about many different eras and places other than my formal area of study. As a kid, I was always curious about the Byzantine Empire, if only because you heard so little about it. What little European History I was exposed to was obviously mostly concerned with Western Civilization; and if there's one thing Byzantium wasn't, it wasn't "Western."

Quite a few years ago, I finally scratched the itch to read a few works specifically about the Byzantines; first, I read Walter Treadgold's excellent A History of the Byzantine State and Society, which is frankly superior to Norwich's book as a work of history. But I didn't know that; all I knew was that I wanted to read at least one more work on the empire. The library I was using also had Norwich's A Short History of Byzantium, which is a brief and very condensed version of his three-volume history. Believing that abridgements are for wimps, I went out of my way to get all three volumes of the original "Byzantium" trilogy: The Early Centuries, The Apogee, and The Decline and Fall.

1200 pages later, I had learned very little--other than a deluge of names and dates I forgot nearly as soon as I read them--which I didn't already know, but boy did I have a great time rehashing the sometimes epic, often tragicomic, and occasionally quite moving story of this oft-maligned, rarely-mourned theocratic remnant of the classical age. Norwich may be a poor historian, but he's a first-rate storyteller.

And this history is a story; this is "narrative" history with a capital 'N'.
The upper right-hand corner of every odd-numbered page in the trilogy, save the first pages of chapters, has the calendar year being covered on that page. The trilogy is that chronologically straightforward--we begin with Constantine, end with Mehmet II, and it's a temporal straight line between the two.

What makes Norwich's style so effective is that it isn't merely "well-written"; it's perfectly suited to this style of history. Norwich isn't struggling with complex ideas or trying to weave multiple themes together. He is not staking out new or controversial turf. He is not in any discernable dialogue with a larger historigraphical tradition. He is telling a story which he feels is moving and important in its own right. He believes that the narrative flow of events have their own force, and that it is his job to convey details (which, by his own admission, have all been previously unearthed or noted by others) to bring the story to life, and then to get out of its way.

This is all a very long-winded of saying that, out of context, the passage I have selected might not seem very impressive. That is because its power largely comes from the over one-thousand pages preceding it.

Here are the final two paragraphs from the penultimate chapter (not counting the Epilogue) of volume 3 of the trilogy ("The Decline and Fall"), discussing the death and legacy of the second-to-last Emporer of the by-then doomed empire (the year is 1448; Constantinople would fall in five short years to the suprise of no one). There are many scenes and moments from this trilogy I still remember vividly years after reading it, but this passage is as good as any of them:

Eleven days later, on 31 October 1448, John VIII died in Constantinople. Though he was only fifty-six, the disappoinments of the past few years had aged him prematurely and left him a sad and broken man. After Varna and Kosovo there could be no more Crusades; few people anywhere in Europe now believed that the Empire could be saved from the infidel, and there were by now a good many, at least in the Latin world, who seriously doubted whether it was worth saving. Of all the Byzantine Emperors John is best known in appearance, thanks to his portrait in the famous fresco of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli that adorns the chapel of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence. But he hardly merited his posthumous celebrity. Manuel II had remarked on his deathbed that the Empire needed not a great basieus but a good manager; it has been rightly observed that John was neither. He possessed neither the ability of his father nor the charismatic qualities of his brother. Much of his reign was spent, in defiance of Manuel's wise advice, in the pursuance of a policy which could never conceivably have succeeded; as a result he sacrificed his Church's independence, forfeited his own popularity and ultimately brought about only a miserable campaign that did far more harm than good.

Yet we must not be too hard on John VIII. He did his best, and worked diligently for what he believed to be right. Besides, the situation that he inherited was already past all hope; in such circumstances, virtually anything that he had attempted would have been doomed to failure. And perhaps it was just as well. Byzantium, devoured from within, threatened from without, scarcely capable any longer of independent action, reduced now to an almost invisible dot on the map of Europe, needed--more, probably, than any once-great nation has ever needed--the coup de grace. It had been a long time coming. Now, finally, it was at hand.

This is beautiful writing; elegant and sensitive, and attuned to the subject at hand. I hope that this blog post has paid adequate homage to Norwich's prose. I have tried to mimic his approach throughout this post--the use of semicolons, obviously although I must acknowledge that the overuse of that particular punctuation is a vice of mine, independent of this assignment. I have also tried to capture a little of the spirit of Norwich's style, along with the long paragraphs and sentences which avoid jargon and jarring asides. I hope I have succeeded at least a little bit. This is a style based more on "feel" and awareness of what preceeds it and what is behind it, than of any particular stylistic approach to grammar, syntax, or vocabulary. But in the spirit of slavish imitation--and in the spirit of giving due to an old-fashioned style of narrative history that is so clearly inadequate in so many ways, but which still has its own particular, even charming, merits, here it goes:

Yet we must not be too hard on John Julius Norwich. His approach is not that of the trained historian, but it is the work of a man of his time, place, and circumstance. The situation into which he was born was deeply rooted and perhaps all encompassing; in such circumstances, virtually anything he attempted would have been certain to bear the clear marks of his class and his privilege. And perhaps it is just as well. The historical profession, ever more crowded with works of academic rigor, atomized into ever more finely delineated subfields, reduced in the public mind to little more than a Trivial Pursuit category, needs—more, probably, than any still-crucial field of study ever needed—the storyteller’s touch. It has been too long missed. Here, at least, we see it again.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Problem #10 [#9 was waived]: Historical Theory

In the book Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White tells the stirring, epic, heroic saga of spanning and connecting the North American continent by rail; minus the "stirring, epic, heroic" part. In place of the standard narrative, he tells a story in which the primary ingredients are base greed, stunning incompetence, and maybe what's worse of all--the sheer superfluousness of it all. This is the story of something which didn't need doing, being done badly by people who didn't know how to do it.

The larger theme of White's book, that the transcontinentals were simply unnecessary and served no positive economic purpose other than to make a handful of well-connected and unscrupulous businessmen very rich, is served by five distinct theories, which he lays out in the Introduction. Briefly stated, they are:

1) The transcontinental railroads had a strong relationship with the newly powerful and financially lucrative central states of the three large North American polities;
2) The standard historical claim that railroads collapsed time and space is too pat and ignores the reality that it did so unevenly and without rational, equitable, or transparent criteria.
3) The railroad corporations which built the transcontinentals fell far short of living up to the ideal of being rationalizing, standardizing institutions. Laughably short, in many cases.
4) The antimonopolist movements which came to oppose or at least challenge the uncontested power of the transcontinentals weren't well-intentioned but doomed antimodern Luddites, but rather thoroughly modern participants in the market economy who wanted the institutions of capitalist agriculture to work in a fair manner.
5) The men who ran the transcontinentals were neither enlightened entreprenuers who created a beneficial infrastructure for the greater good, nor were the they ruthlessly efficient, "creatively destructive" robber barons who ulimately created an efficient and effective national network even as they crushed unfortunate bystanders in the process; rather, they were bumbling fools who somehow managed to get very rich while wasting enormous resources creating rail networks which were both unnecessary and ultimatey untenable.

White weaves these theories throughout his text deftly, and with a great deal of support from primary documents such as letters, diaries, financial reports (a daunting task, as these were often inscrutible even to the men who created them), news reports, government documents, schedules, and so forth.

For example, he illustrated the close connection between American transcontinentals and the post-Civil War Federal government by tracing the importance of federal legislators in gaining favorable land grants and access to international capital; Leland Stanford was a Senator, for that matter. White points out that many of these men had been involved in the Union war effort; their approach to building the railroads was heavily influenced by their experiences harnassing the power of the federal government for national ends, with industrial and expensive means. Their worldview had been shaped by their war experiences, and their belief in govenment-driven, centrally-directed endeavors was as well.

Furthermore, consider how White uses both train schedules and internal memos, as well as copious economic data, to show how the oft-heralded ability of the railroads to eliminate barriers of time and distance was not a uniform or democratic process in practice; local markets were subject to widely divergent rate schedules, and competing transportation options, such as steamships in the San Fernando Valley, were artificially squeezed out of the market, to the detriment of local producers.

Railroaded is a compelling read; an enjoyably cantankerous refutation of a sepia-toned, myth-encrusted narrative celebrating rugged individualism, enlightened entreprenuerialism, and visionary enterprise. White's contrarian chronicle sets out to tip over some sizable edifices, but he has a strong theoretical foundation to give his endlessly prying documentary evidence plenty of leverage.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Problem #8: Images

For our assignment this week, our professor asked the entire class to each examine a different object or related groups of objects in the 1813 John Lewis Krimmel painting "The Quilting Frolic", seen here. My specific assignment was for the china cabinet (sometimes known as a china closet) for storing--and displaying--chinaware, as well as the china within it. The china/crockery themselves were, of course, for serving and eating food. My task was to determine not only some facts about these objects, but also what knowing more about them could tell the viewer about American history in the early national period.

First, I believe that when you are dealing with a piece of visual art as historical evidence, it is still helpful to first consider it as an artisitic work. While it may be problematic to set aside cultural and historical context, it is important to remember that this painting was intended as an artistic statement and so therefore the aesthetic considerations cannot be ignored.

My first impression of this picture is that it is impressively crowded; there are people and objects filling the entire height and width of the frame, and both pictured surfaces (the walls and the floor--there is just enough ceiling shown to illustrate the height of the room) mostly covered up. The scene is framed in order to intensify this effect, as it is clear that the room extends to the left outside the view. The effect is further amplified by the lateral row of various items pushed towards the front of the picture paralleling the bottom. The obvious narrative reason for this is either to make room for the large number of guests, or for the work of quilting. From an artistic standpoint, having a nearly solid line of 'stuff' along the bottom--where the footlights would be on the stage of a theater, accentuates the 'stage-like' feeling of the scene. Also, nearly all the people in the scene are either turned towards the viewer or partially so; and the two figures who have their backs turned both have their heads turned so that their profiles are plain to see. The effect is a scene which is crowded and full of energy, but also carefully staged.

Clearly, Krimmel intended to convey some information about the state of American society during the War of 1812; there is obviously a great deal of material abundance and comfort on display in this modest middle-class household; there is also a great deal of inter-generational and gender-mixing going on (although the unrealistic way in which he has portrayed the two African-Americans in the picture hint both at standardized racist iconography to come, and at the fissure in Republican society which would become more pronounced, rather than more blurred, over time). But what about the meanings he didn't mean to convey; what about the meanings inherent in the everyday materials and objects he cluttered his canvas with?

Our reading for this week is "Death in the Dining Room & Other Tales of Victorian Culture" by Kenneth L. Ames. Although the book covers the later Victorian period and therefore is not specifically relevent here, this quote from the forward applies to anybody examining the material culture of any period:

"Culture is not necessarily understandable. It surely is not rational. Nor is it coherent. My argument here is that culture is both insistent and muddled. Culture pervades life in the form of things, behaviors, ideas, laws, morals, and opinions. At its most effective, it is stealthy, lurking where we do not expect it. But culture is not monolithic, consistent, or integrated. It is often deeply contradictory and self-subverting." (Ames, p. 1)

These words are not meant to discourage the reader, and certainly not to undermine the usefulness of considering material culture. Rather, Ames wants the reader to be aware that interpreting culture requires the historian must trust her or his interpretive instincts while at the same time being comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and a certain 'unfinished' quality.

As for the china cabinet and the chinaware it stored/displayed; I can make several statements regarding them simply based on my own existing knowledge of the period. The china cabinet itself is a piece of furniture which is still quite common today, although far from universal. The piece became common in the 18th century in the United States, and It's function is ostensibly to store chinaware and crockery, but from a strictly functional view it is hardly practical--it is not the more efficient method of storing dishes (as can be seen in the picture, dishes were spaced out leaning against the back, rather than stacked in utilitarian fashion), nor is it particularly affordable. It is not only larger than necessary, it also has a great deal of glass pane, an expensive and not-yet common good in early 19th century America.

We cannot see the bottom half/two-thirds of this particulary cabinet, but it is clear that it is plain in design, but not ugly. There is balance and symmatry to its design, and the woodwork around the top, while hardly elaborate or ornate, is clearly decorative rather than crudely functional. This is a piece which is meant to be seen, even while it displays middling economic status and plain Republican style.

And it would be seen, because china cabinets are meant for dining rooms and living rooms--places where guests and people from outside the household would be eating and being entertained. There is some practical reason for this--you would want the dishes, glasses, cups, saucers, bowls, and other chinaware/crockery at hand for setting the table. But the use of impractical glass and tall shelves for upright display makes it clear that there is a visual element at play; a declaration or confirmation of social status. Note that the china hutch in this picture is much taller than any adult, and yet children are helping set the table. The dishes are stored in away which is not convenient, as many of them are high up.

This is not merely to give the impression of abundance, however--a china hutch is not 'necessary' (or, perhaps, socially justified) unless one has a suitable amount and variety of chinaware/crockery to display/store. That means having not only a good number of any one type of piece (plate, saucer, teacupt, etc.), but also many different and rather specialized pieces. You can see even in this picture that the family has differnt-sized plates, cups, and glasses, and that even after the table has been set and the servant girl has a full tray of matching cups and at least two similar pots, the visible part of the hutch is still fairly full; and yet the door has been slid open, indicating that at least some of the dishes in front were retrieved from it.

It's worth noting that while the china cabinet itself was almost certainly manufactured domestically, the reason they became popular in the first place was to display imported chinaware from Britain. I suspect that some of the "nicer" dishes in this picture are older pieces, family heirlooms and still prized possessions. But it is the humbler, domestically-produced crockery which is actually being used to serve drinks in the picture. War with Great Britain means that it is time to finally put the last vestiges of our colonial heritage behind us and embrace the Republican present.

Also, it should be noted that the mere fact that this family has a "dining area" to begin with suggests a certain level of material comfort and success, even as the "need" for varied and food-specific dishes hint at a variety and high quanity of foods. This is a family which is used to eating well, and has the leisure to do so in comfort and to some degree of formality. It also suggests that the household either does, or aspires to, host guests and extended family on a fairly regular basis. The casual mix of genders and generations (and even, to a less egalitarian degree, of races) evident in the picture are clearly no suprise, as indicated by the calm, unruffled demeaner of the old man in the center, calmly smoking his pipe (he's not the one trying to hurridly finish a quilt after all!). The home, then, is a center for larger social and familial gatherings, a rather plain space in which cameraderie and sheer abundance are more important than superfluous decoration or adornmant.

This last observation is further justified when you note that while the chinaware is impressive in quantity, from what we can see, these dishes are as plain and simple in style and manufacture as the hutch they are stored in. They are simply colored in plain, monochromatic shades without design, and clearly are heavy, sturdy crockery, rather than delicate china or glass. The plates appear to be rather plain as well, although it is possible that the ones on the table have some simple designs. Still it is telling that the large, not-inexpensive or entirely practical china hutch is seemingly used to store--and display--crockery and china which is largely plain, and quite suitable for frequent use and sharing. The displayed goods are not being kept from guests, merely put up for their admiration and approval. It is probably important, from Krimmel's point of view, that the hutch is slid open--the family expects to share their proudly displayed chinaware with whoever comes in through the door. A true expression of Republican fraternity and egalitarianism.

For further research, an excellent place to start would actually be collector/antique guides; many of these resources have brief but definitive historical information, as the provenance and dating of these pieces is crucial. Furthermore, many of them are illustrated, which is a big plus.

Ames, Kenneth L. Death in the Dining Room & Other Tales of Victorian Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Ketchum Jr., William C. American Pottery & Porcelain. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2000.

Obbard, John W. Early American Furniture. Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 2006.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Problem #7: Maps

Episode Seven: In which our hero learns that sometimes, failure IS an option.

In the April 1881 issue (Vol. XXI. Iss. No. 6., pages 830-836) of Scribner's Magazine, an article entitled "A Georgia Plantation" included two maps of "Barrow's Plantation" in Oglethorpe County, Georgia. The first map, dated 1860, appeared on page 832 and showed how the plantation buildings were organized when it had been a slave-based plantation. The second, dated 1881, appeared on page 833, and illustrated how much more dispersed and decentralized living and work-buildings were after slavery had ended; the institution of sharecropping did allow former masters and whites in general to exercise much more economic and social control over African-American sharecroppers than before, but this control was not total, as the second map clearly shows.

These two maps have been reprinted frequently in American history textbooks frequently--so frequently, in fact, that I have come across casual and knowing references to them in book reviews, without even bothering to specify which textbook pictures the reviewer is referring to.

However, Professor Petrik told us that there was a "major error" in the plantation map. I have not found what I consider a "major error." The original map identified four rivers/streams, three of which appear to have had their names changed--only Syll's Ford is still referred to as such in this list of streams and rivers in the county. That is not an error, however. It is true that the map Dr. Petrik gave us identifies the stream flowing above the "Gin House" as "Wright's Fork" while the original map she reproduced referred to it as "White's Branch", but I don't consider this a "major" error. None of the buildings or other features in the map Dr. Petrik provided us are noticably differnt from the original. Cross-referencing the original text with the original map, I did find a slight discrepancy--the author claimed that the "Gin House" was not moved, but on the map it is moved, slightly to the right, and turned less than a quarter-turn counter-clockwise. Again, I am not sure that this is a "major" error; or even really an 'error' at all if one considers a slight alteration inconsequential.

You'll note that I said Wright's Branch was "above" the Gin House; and that the Gine House moved to "the right." I did not use North or East in my explanation because I did find out from some other sources, including page 91 of "The Cotton Plantation South Since the Civil War" by Charles S. Aiken, that these two maps are not oriented North. What is actually North appears to be, roughly, Southwest-west, on this map. I still don't know if this is actually an 'major' error; given that virtually all maps in our culture are oriented by North by default, it's certainly a standard expectation that any given map is oriented north unless otherwise indicated. But is this a "major" error, in that for the purposes of the original article and argument, the map is essentially self-contained, and in no way needs to be related to other maps.

So, I think I have failed. I have also--in my rather fruitless efforts to work this problem out--allowed myself to run out of time, so that I will not have time to find pictures of the modern-day property. However, thanks to the "Hometown Locater" site above, I was able to get a latitude (33.6942922) and longitude (-82.9970944) for Syl's Creek. With this, it was easy to go to the National Geographic mapsite and get this map; which I believe shows the outline of Syl's Fork and then then-named Branch Creek meeting to form the then-named Little River; the lighter areas show the basic outline. I believe this map shows nearly all the original plantation, except for the far eastern portion.

With a better use of time, and a more carefully planned research strategy, I believe I could have found more information and fleshed out my response to the problem much more adequately.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Problem #6 - Images: Titanic Survivors

For this week's assignment, we were told to select "two or more images...that pose an interesting historical problem or mystery. The images should raise questions about a topic and...contribute something to the answer that cannot be found in textual sources." I believe I have accomplished the former; I am not so sure I have accomplished the latter.

I selected some images from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online site. I chose to peruse the Bain Collection. George Grantham Bain operated one of the first news picture agencies; the bulk of the collection covers the early 20th century.

When I began scanning through the Bain collection, I was looking for something esoteric, odd, obscure, below the radar. Instead, I got stuck on some pictures from...the sinking of the Titanic. So I guess I can kiss any bonus points for going outside the box this week goodbye.

What originally drew me was, actually, the initial lack of any surprises. The sinkig of the Titanic is as well-known disaster as there has ever been; it's been the subject of numerous movies, including the one which forced me to listen to Celine Dion and the general outline of the story is well-known to anybody remotely culturally literate. So imagine my lack-of-surprise as I looked through the pictures covering the entire story, from the construction of the ship in drydock (in turns out that the Titanic was, in fact, really big), to the pictures of lifeboats 'full' of survivors approaching the Carpathian (I'm no sailing man, but those lifeboats didn't exactly look filled to capacity), through to the aftermath, including various fundraisers, and presentations of memorials.

In short, the pictures mostly told the story I already knew. And, really, that should not be surprising; for whatever reason, several generations have tried to either draw deeper levels of meaning out of the bare bones of the story, or to layer allegory and metaphor on top of it. James Cameron's blockbuster movie tried to do the latter, with a very heavy-handed class-conflict theme; oddly enough, the pictures I saw tended to support Cameron's Les Miserables-on-a-ship storyline fairly well. The survivors who got their pictures taken on board the Carpathian looked both well-to-do and rather put-out that their trip was being delayed; and as noted, there was room to spare in every lifeboat pictured. News flash: Rich people don't give a damn about anyone else. This is not surprising.

Less successful than efforts to make the sinking of the Titanic a metaphor or symbol of some moral or ethical truth have been efforts to find actual importance and meaning in the actual historic event. I've never been convinced by the argument that the disaster somehow signaled a loss of absolute faith and certainty among the elites of the Atlantic World; these were, after all, the same geniuses who mobilized Europe for war two years later. I admit that this period isn't my area of expertise, but simple fact remains--sometimes, boats sink. I realize that this was an "unsinkable" boat, but it wasn't the first time confident, charismatic experts were wrong, and it wasn't the last.

And I was scanning through the pictures, I came across three pictures which were so touching, human, and small-scale, that my cynicism and sheer boredom with the whole tired story were suddenly put at bay. I was looking at different pictures of survivors, some of which were taken on board the Carpathian; others were taken at unidentified places on land. Mostly the survivors were well-off adults, some of whom have appearances just odd or off enough to suggest an interesting backstory (why Stuart Collett, who is otherwise nattily-dressed to the nines, is wearing one glove--in two different pictures--is a question I wouldn't mind finding an answer to). And then there's this:

It's worth remembering--particularly if you're as prone to glib cynicism as I am, that even discrete events with no particular historical import or lasting impact still involved real people, and that what may seem a minor footnote to later generations--or even disintersted contemporary bystanders--was quite possibly of vital importance to somebody.

So what do we have here? We have two survivors of the sinking of the Titanic. Their names are Louis and Lola. I think it is safe to presume that the question mark indicates that the photographer did not know--and the kids either weren't asked or didn't know--their last name. But we can't be sure--these are very young children, who had been through a great deal of trauma; it's entirely possible that they weren't being entirely clear even about their first names.

Given that other survivors were identified by full name, and given that there is another picture of an entire family together, I would also assume that Louis and Lola's parents--if they were on the ship--did not survive.

We can also tell that this picture was not, like many others, taken on board the Carpathian. The plants, the brick wall, the wire fencing--this is taken on dry land. I think this picture was being taken for identification; I think that no survivors could identify the children, and White Star Line had so far failed to identify who they were.

Further evidence for this guess comes from the fact that the photographer took another photo; I assume this is the second and the above is the first, but even if I have the order backwards the basic fact that the photographer was taking multiple shots in order to make sure he got at least one good one:

This shot is essentially identical to the first (or second--again, I don't think the order matters much), except that the photographer had either lost the children's attention, or hadn't yet gotten it fully. The fact that these two were being asked to stand still for a picture in an otherwise rather drab backyard suggests a spontaneous, urgent need to create an image to share with...somebody.

What is touching about this picture is that the older child is holding the ball in a way to suggest that she isn't very familiar with it. It's a bit of a novelty to her. I don't think these were toys the kids were playing with at the time, in whatever housing they were being provided with. They were props to keep their attention for the picture shoot. Not to suggest that they were being deprived of play (they seem clean, well-dressed, and well-cared for), but rather that they had been taken somewhere for the picture. And apparently it didn't occur to the photographer that a kid whose parents had most likely drowned in the most famous ship sinking in history maybe shouldn't be given a toy ship to play with.

But, you might say, that's most likely an absent-minded oversight. And it might be. And, you might go on, there were probably no other toys for this child to play with. To which I reply--not so fast:

Somebody, I believe, finally came to their senses and discretely took the toy boat away--or at least out of the picture--and gave the younger child a stuffed animal instead. And we get yet another picture. The children smile dutifully; they seem confused but possibly not fully aware of what is going on.

Of course, "Louis and Lola" were later identified; they were the famous "Titanic Orphans"; they weren't, happily enough, orphans, nor were they named Louis and Lola. "Encyclopedia Titanica" entry. Their names were Michel and Edmund Navratil, and although their father indeed perished, their mother was back home in France and they were eventually reunited with her. Among Titanic aficianados, they are quite famous.

But I'm glad I didn't know that before their pictures caught my eye, because I might never have "seen" them; rather, I would have "seen" some famous images of two well-known names from a famous event. I would have seen artifacts illustrating a narrative I already knew. Do I know any more about this famous shipwreck? Well, yes. Does it matter? As a historian--no, frankly. I stil maintain that it was simply a great human tragedy with no broader reprecussions. But I may have learned one small lesson--be careful when you're looking for what you think you know, because it may keep you from seeing something smaller, more intimate, more individul and peculiar, right in front of you. I knew the broad outlines of this story, but not the trivia; not the "human interest stories." And that lack of prior knowledge most likely enabled me to more clearly see little Michel and Edmund. See them not as figures from a story, but as real people.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Problem #5 Territory vs. Rehberg

For this week, our professor assigned us a criminal suit, from the Territory of Montana, 1885. Our assignment for last week also concerned legal documents from late 19th century Montana, and it also involved a sad family saga. However, the two assignments are quite different. For one thing, this week we are dealing with a criminal suit rather than a civil suit. Secondly, we were given a paucity of documentation rather than the quite extensive variety of documents we were given for the previous assignment. While of course we are graduate students who are perfectly capable of seeking out further documentation ourselves, the questions Dr. Petrik handed out for this problem deal quite specifically with the document; and more to the point, they ask us to make judgments within the context of only having this documentation available.

Unlike the previous assignment, it is not difficult to figure out what happened, although it is quite difficult to read some of this testimony as dispassionately as it was given. Somebody severly abused eleven year-old Clara Rehberg, badly enough that she died from the injuries. But only after suffering for several days, under the ostensible care of medical professionals and legal authorities who tended to treat her as a case study rather than as a young girl no different from the daughters, nieces, or sisters these men must have known in their lives. For whatever reason, her father, Edward Rehberg, was arrested and charged with having beaten her, causing the wounds that she died from. The document we were provided with consists of (some of) the cross-examination of some witnesses by both the prosecutor and the defending attorney. The witnesses are the members of the Rehberg household, as well as several doctors and another official whose exact capacity is not defined. We were not provided with any other documents to provide context; and as noted above, it seemed that the assignment was to interpret this document as well as we could without corraborating documentation.

The first witness we hear from is Emma Rehberg, the nineteen year-old older sister of Clara Rehberg; she states that at the time of Clara's death, she was living on her father's ranch with her father, Edward Rehberg, her stepmother Louisa Rehberg, Clara herself, her sister Bertha and brother, Emil, and a hired hand named Joe Tiebow. This information is never corrected or revised, and the defense does not object to it, so we can assume that it is correct. So we know that the Rehbergs lived on a ranch, and that the children's mother was gone and that their father had remarried.

Emma gives as much of an outline of the days events--the Sunday when Edward brought Clara to a hospital in Helena--as she is allowed to. I say "allowed to" because the defense had evidently managed to constrict the allowed range of inquiry to an extent which seems both arbitrary and contrary to the interests of justice. Most notably, the defense argued that the events of the day before Sunday (when the actual abuse might actually have happened) were off-limits; but most stunning was the successful objection that Emma should not be allowed to identify who beat Clara, or indeed to even discuss the alleged abuse at all.

Given that Emma is only allowed to give a basic chronology of who was doing what when--banal matters such as preparing and eating meals, stacking hay, milking, etc.--the picture soon emerges that her father was outdoors all day stacking hay with Joe Tiebow, while Clara was often alone with Louisa.

Further testimony from younger sister Bertha essentially confirms this, although once again the sister of the victim is not allowed to answer any questions about Saturday.

By this point, two other observations about Clara have come out; that she was not in good health, and that on the day of question she helped prepare dinner but did not eat herself. Indeed, her life seemed to consist of staying in the house to assist her stepmother with household work, even though it seems that all agreed she was in poor health, probably physically disabled to some point. Another thing which is clear is how stark and hard life on the Rehberg ranch was. The sisters were kept busy and saw little or nothing of each other during the day. Clara, an eleven year-old girl with physical disabilities, spent her day in the house doing domestic chores, even on days when she wasn't able to eat.

It is interesting that the defense was able to prevent the prosecution from calling Louisa Rehberg to the stand on the grounds that she was the spouse of the accused, but they allowed both Emma and Bertha to testify, albeit within constrained grounds. Their testimony is much more rigidly structured than that of the male witnesses, including Joe Tiebow, who comes across as not terribly bright although his testimony does seem fairly consistent, despite implications that he had 'discussed' his testimony with the accused ahead of the trial. Tiebow is given a great deal more latitude, and interestingly the prosecutor barely bothers cross-examining him at all. Admittedly, this may due in part to the fact that Joe Tiebow had not lived on the ranch for several months, so there would not have been any grounds to test the defenses willingness to continue challenging extraneous testimony. Yet his memory seems sloppy, and his understanding of questions is at times shaky; surely an able prosecutor might have tried to find a way to trip him up. But this male witness is afforded more deference by the prosecutor than the two sisters of the deceased were by the defense.

Interestingly, when Edward Rehberg is called as a witness, he is not asked--by either side--at length about his movements or actions that day. He simply denies having beat Clara with a hard object (including possibly a wooden shoe--and important detail, as seen below), or having kicked her or "bruised her flesh." Upon cross-examination, he admits to having "whipped" her "somewhat with the hand", but not more than his other kids, none of whom he "whipped hard." This assertion is neither challenged nor elaborated by the prosecution. The admission that he periodically struck his physically disabled preteen daughter was evidently not worth looking into.

The rest of the testimony consists of several doctors. Dr. Van Holzshuher was the physician who received Clara at the hospital in Helena; his medical opinion (that she was severely beaten and burned, and that she most likely died from blood poisoning due to infection) seems sound enough, in that three other physicians go on to essentially validate his diagnosis. What is most striking is that, by his own account, he essentially left her alone for an entire day simply because she wanted to be left alone. He waited an entire day before asking for Dr. Steele, who seemed to have more expertise with burns. The bulk of their testimony, once her condition is established, is a debate over how long prior to her hospitalization the beating probably occured, and how long she would have been able to be mobile after suffering her horrific injuries. This is where we get the best idea on the extent of Clara's disabilities.

I don't know much about 19th century medical practices, but this seems both strange and more than a little inhumane. There does seem to be a class bias at work here, one which comes out even more later when Clara's dying declaration is taken--the men present seem more concerned with her moral character and her understanding of Christian concepts of the afterlife, than with her unambiguous statement that her stepmother whipped her, beat her with a wooden shoe, and poured boiling water on her. This is where the document ends.

What are we to make of this? One thing is clear; for reasons probably best explained by blatant class bias, the powers that be treat the Rehberg family much differently than a respectable, middle-class family would be treated. I cannot imagine a "proper" girl from a properly domesticated household being left overnight to suffer her injuries simply because she told a doctor to leave her alone. The examination of Clara sounds like the work of veterinarians more than compassionate physicians. And there is no explanation why Edward was arrested, when he was the one who brought Clara in, and when no witnesses can explain when he might have committed the abuse. Yet Louisa, who was alone with Clara away from prying eyes, working in the kitchen--presumably the only place in the house where there would have been boiling water--was even spared from testifying, let alone being accused. It seems that the respectable powers that be held a man who put his daughters to work the way Edward Rehberg did was automatically suspect.

As for questions about how this all affected the jury; I did cheat a little bit. I found out that this case was appealed, and the text of the appeal makes it clear that both Edward and Louisa were found guilty; it seems that they were both actually indicted but this is not at all clear from the partial testimony we were provided. This makes the successful objection to having Louisa testify because she was Edward's wife even more confusing, unless there were two distinct proceedings, one for each of them. At any rate, as seen in this successful appeal from the Montana Supreme Court, the handling of the case and the indictment raised some eyebrows.

Notably, they asked to be tried individually for the retrial. It seems that while the testimony we studied made it clear that the stepmother was the more likely culprit, the absence of evidence against Edward did not exonerate him.

Ultimately, Edward either was able to convince a jury that he was not guilty, or his sentence for manslaughter only kept him in prison for a few short years, because in 1895 he was living at his ranch, and he was in trouble again:

Keyser Vs. Rehberg, Supreme Court of Montana, July 22, 1895

The deposition made reference to other hired hands leaving or perhaps being driven away by Edward; the Rehbergs may have been victims of class bias, but there seem to have been sound reason to distrust the heads of the household; all the more reason, then, that Clara should have been treated with more kindness and understanding.

I found Edward in the 1900 census, still living in Lewis and Clark County; the census taker only noted himself and his son living at the address. We can only hope that Emma and Bertha found greener pastures elsewhere.

One last note: Dr. Petrik challenged us to find a connection between this case and contemporary Washington, DC. I believe I have found it: current Montana at-large Congressman, and Senate candidate Denny Rehberg is a a fifth-generation Montana rancher. If I am correct, it should not be any surprise that this is not part of his family history he is particularly eager to dwell on.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Problem #4: Civil Suits

Hershfield vs. Hershfield

For this week, our case study concerned a rather convoluted civil case from 1894, involving Aaron Hershfield and Dell (Hogan) Hershfield. Our professor, Dr. Petrik, provided the documentation and the context. The documentation, compared to previous problems in the class, was rather extensive, but once I managed to work through it and piece together a coherent narrative, what emereged was a remarkably sordid story.

The basic outline of the story is this: Aaron and Dell met at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893; they had a courtship which resulted in pregnancy and then matrimony; Aaron brought Dell back to his home in Helena Montana, but for reasons which are never spelled out, he completely turned his back on his child and his wife, and abandoned both of them. He ended up in North Dakota, leaving Dell and their child at a hotel in Helena, where she was a stranger. So far, this is a sad but not terribly unusual story. But Aaron Hershfield wasn't content to simply abandon his wife. So, while using his temporary residency to create a legal fiction of not having been a resident of Helena, Aaron Hershfield began reaching out to unscrupulous professionals who agreed to help him create an alternate narrative which would not only invalidate his marriage, but also deny the paternity of his child; in fact, which would essentially deny that the child existed.

The details of this plot, and how it unraveled, are more fully evident within these documents than certain other details, notably why Aaron Hershfield wanted to be rid of his family, or why he didn't simply ask for a divorce--he was, after all, a man of some means, and could have afforded the alimony and child support quite handily. Instead, he chose bribery and legal counsel, in an effort to slander his wife, and even some of the witnesses caught in the crossfire.

His plot was elaborately conceived; he evidently used family connections in New York to obtain the services of a certain Hartman, a rather loathsome character who was wililng to do dirty work for a price; Hartman worked to, among other things, create the fictional character of "Max Stein" (who seems to have been played by an associate of Hartman named Louis Michaels), who gave testimony indicting a man he claimed to be friends and associate with, a Bettig, who supposedly introducted him to Dell Hogan prior to her relationship with Hershfield. This was a casual sexual encounter, part of a broader campaign to solicit personal testimony to her allegedly promiscuous nature. Hershfield's lawyers were able to provide several other sworn affidavits and testimonials verifying this characterization.

Amazingly, Hershfield had gone even further than this, claiming that he had been coerced into marrying Hogan by unnamed other parties; and furthermore claiming that she had never been with child.

Also, his brother and sister-in-law testified against Dell Hershfield, and Aaron's lawyers were able to produce testimony to the effect that she had been seen walking around Helena in an active and healthy state--since Aaron claimed that she hadn't given birth, he evidently decided to go one step further and claim that the nurse she had hired was completely unnecessary. As a campaign of intimidation and slander, it was as thorough and comprehensive as it was sinister.

But his plan had a flaw--the assumption that his estranged wife lacked the means and the will to fight back was clearly false. His plot was clumsily constructed, and I am not altogether sure how completely his official legal counsel was aware of all his machinations, making a coordinated--and sensibly modulated--defense less likely. It was a desperate, craven strategy, perhaps best characterized by the cross-examination of Bettig (when he was finally located--it becomes rather clear that, once they realized he couldn't be coereced into lying for them, Aaron Hershfield's legal team deliberately tried to scare him into hiding from the court) by Hershfield's lead attorney, F. B. Morrill. The line of questioning does Hershfield's story no good, and ultimately Morrill openly insinuates that Bettig had slept with Dell Hogan and was refusing to cooperate because he was engaged. It also came out that he had been possibly swindled by "Max Stein"; the impression is that Morrill was hoping against hope that he could somehow find some leverage to intimidate Bettig into lying on the witness stand.

Instead, Dell's capable and shrewd legal team, led by Atty. Walton Ball, were able to demolish his story rather comprehensively. They hired Pinkerton Detectives to follow "Max Stein" and expose him as a fraud; contacts in New York City were quickly able to determine that, more than likely, "Max Stein" didn't exist. The other character witnesses do not do well under Ball's able cross-examination; he is aided once again by careful research and cross-referencing.

In the end, the court dismisses all of Aaron Hershfield's claims, and orders him to meet his obligations to his family. It is never explained what drove him to such dispicable lengths, although the suspicion that his brother and sister-in-laws' collective disapproval was key is hard to avoid. All in all, an interesting case; once which sheds more than a little light into the level of criminal investigative savvy avaiable at the time, both for good and for ill.