Monthly Archives: April 2020

Slowing the Spread

A military encampment at Bowling Green: a challenge to “social distancing”

As we know, accompanying the usual physical sufferings from an outbreak of infectious disease are fear and uncertainty, rumors and half-truths, and a search for scapegoats.  Such was the case when the 119th U.S. Colored Infantry set up camp near Bowling Green, Kentucky in March 1866.  Most of its members were recruited from Lexington, and they comprised one of 23 such volunteer regiments organized in Kentucky between 1863 and 1865.  

Unfortunately, the 119th’s presence coincided with an epidemic of smallpox in the town.  This appears to have prompted a local newspaper to accuse the African-American troops of introducing or spreading the disease among the citizens.  Its editor seemed to have little evidence, however, being satisfied to attribute the contagion only to “careless Negro Soldiery.”

This casual condemnation rankled the detachment commander, Captain William T. Y. Schenck.  “What you mean by ‘careless Negro Soldiery’ I do not know,” he wrote the editor, inviting him “or any other person” to visit the camp and inspect it for order and cleanliness.  Just “a few inquiries,” he pointed out, would have revealed that “this disease had shown itself in town at least two weeks before we had a single case of it here.”  It seemed just as likely that his men had become infected by the local civilians, not the other way around.

Schenck then assured the editor that he had quickly taken steps to “flatten the curve” of infection.  Upon learning of the outbreak, he “had all the men vaccinated” and, with few exceptions, allowed no one to leave the camp, “not in fear of the disease being carried from here, as we had none, but if possible to keep it without the limits of this camp.”  Despite his efforts, about 20 of the men fell ill, but they were being isolated in a “secluded building” and the threat was now “very much on the decrease.”  He concluded with a request to the paper to print his response “in order to do justice before the public to me & my fellow officers.”

A finding aid and typescript for Captain Schenck’s letter can be downloaded here.  To browse Civil War collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, click here or search TopSCHOLAR or KenCat.

Comments Off on Slowing the Spread

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

Of Books and Boondoggles

It was an impressive publication, not just in its ponderous title but in the amount of space it occupied on the shelf of the discriminating doctor, lawyer or businessman.  In 1909, Philip J. Noel, Sr. of Bowling Green, Kentucky purchased The Great Events by Famous Historians, a 20-volume “comprehensive and readable account of the world’s history.” 

Published at $100 (about $2900 today), Great Events represented a significant outlay, but it came with an attractive bonus.  Upon payment in full, the purchaser would also receive, free of charge, title to a 25 X 100-foot building lot in Westhampton Beach, Long Island, “in the centre of the fastest growing and most fashionable suburban district of Greater New York.” 

Though he was a successful insurance executive, throughout his life Noel was attracted to these quirky opportunities to leverage his income.  He bought stock, for example, in a number of short-lived mining and oil companies, all of which responded to his attempts at due diligence with rhapsodic promises of the riches that lay just around the corner.  In the case of Westhampton Beach, the developer, the New York Seaside Land Company, provided a seductive brochure designed to convince small investors that the time to acquire an interest was now.  Close to rapidly growing New York City, the area, with its beautiful beaches, railroad connections, and tennis and golf clubs, was already being bought into and improved by both profit-seeking capitalists and old-money types looking to build their summer “cottages.”  Hmmm. . . it almost seemed as if Great Events by Famous Historians was the freebie that came with the lot purchase, not the other way around; in any event, Noel was enthused enough to procure for himself a reward of two lots.      

As it turned out, other professionals with money to invest were similarly tempted—to their regret.  Just as Noel was taking the bait, a Detroit man considering the same offer was advised by the Rural New-Yorker to steer clear.  “There is land in the section worth from $3 to $5 per acre,” advised the editors, so that the lots “are worth probably 30 cents each.”  In 1912, more of the scheme came to light when a Texas doctor consulted the editors of a medical journal.  He had first been solicited with a card in the mail, to be signed and returned if he was interested in getting some lots “free of charge.”  After being induced to purchase a different set of door-stoppers—the equally weighty, 20-volume Author’s Digest—for $95, he had then wondered if the lots were “above the water” or otherwise had any value.  Imagine that, came the smug reply–“a Texan got caught in a land scheme.”

Needless to say, our Mr. Noel found no opportunity to flip his properties for a quick profit.  After a few years of tax bills, he wrote rather plaintively to the town clerk asking for the current valuation of the lots and the chances of an increase.  Though likely to gain value “in the future,” was the reply, they were then assessed at $10 each.

Philip J. Noel’s dalliance with the New York Seaside Land Company is part of the Noel Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to download a finding aid. Search our collections in TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

Comments Off on Of Books and Boondoggles

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

“Just retribution! but how awful!”

“Horrible!” wrote Sallie Knott on April 15, 1865.  The previous evening in Washington, D.C, President Abraham Lincoln had been shot at Ford’s Theater and Secretary of State William H. Seward stabbed by unknown assailants.  At home in Lebanon, Kentucky, Sallie sat down to record her reactions in her journal.  But it wasn’t easy to sort out her thoughts, for at the outbreak of the Civil War she had made one thing clear to that same journal: “I glory in the name of Rebel.”

As a young schoolteacher in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Sallie had developed a disdain for Northern attacks on her state’s way of life.  Her anti-Yankee sentiments grew after she married her cousin James Proctor Knott in 1858 and moved to Missouri, where he was a lawyer and state legislator.  In 1861 Knott, now Attorney General of Missouri, was stripped of his office for declining to take an oath not to “aid the Southern cause,” and the couple was forced to return to Kentucky. 

Sallie Knott

For the next four years, Sallie remained largely true to her promise to confine her journal entries to personal affairs, but the news from Washington demanded comment.  Sallie could not restrain her sense of triumph.  “Just retribution!  but how awful!” she declared.  Lincoln had proclaimed the previous day “a universal Thanksgiving day,” but “while his partisans were feasting & making merry, by his own order, over the misfortunes of a brave & oppressed people, he & his chief director & adviser in all his fiendish schemes, are dying!  Lord, thou art just & holy; & thy judgements infinitely surpass our desires or comprehension.”

Her thoughts then turned to the identity of the perpetrators.  Of course, fingers pointed to Southerners as “the prime movers in the plot,” but Sallie put her money on General Ulysses S. Grant who, “with the army at his back, is going to try to make himself sovereign & absolute!”  Grant had accepted Lincoln’s invitation to attend the play at Ford’s Theater, she noted, but then backed out and left town.  And like Americans who, after President Kennedy’s assassination, rejected the “lone gunman” theory, she saw conspiracies in the shadows.  “Why,” she asked, “was there no attempt to arrest either assassin by guards, servants, police, nor a theatre full of people?” 

Would “a terrible struggle for absolute power & the rights of the people” now ensue, with the army on the side of despotism”? Sallie wondered. “ Let us be still & see!”  In the meantime, she had to hold her tongue around grieving family and friends and at her church’s memorial for the martryed president.  “No heathen Juggernaut ever received so much devotion as we have been obliged to offer at the shrine of Abe Linkhorn’s dead, ugly old phiz!” she sputtered.  “Bah!  ‘tis perfectly sickening!”

Sallie McElroy’s journal is part of the holdings of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  Search all our collections through TopSCHOLAR or KenCat.

Comments Off on “Just retribution! but how awful!”

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

“The willow behind his wallop”

The first pitch

On April 6, 1942, some 2,500 spectators gathered at the Bowling Green Fairgrounds to watch an exhibition major league baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox.  The contest was part of their three-city swing through Kentucky and, for local fans, most certainly a welcome diversion from the accelerating world war.

Insurance executive Philip J. Noel wrote with delight to his son, a physician in Washington, D.C., about his afternoon at the park.  Not only had Noel secured a seat in the national press box, he had been perfectly positioned behind home plate to capture a photograph of the game’s first pitch from Boston’s Lancelot “Yank” Terry.  “If you look closely,” he boasted, “you will see the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand.”

Noel was entirely satisfied with the day’s tally: 13 hits by each team and a 9-6 victory for the Red Sox.  “These two National teams are some ball players,” he marveled, “and work just like clock ticks.”  But Herb Wallace of the Park City Daily News was less starry-eyed.  In his opinion, the “big-time boys” had disappointed the fans with their “lack of hustle and enthusiasm.”  The inflated hits/runs total was largely attributable to this laid-back attitude, a stiff breeze and a smaller-than-major-league-sized park. 

Reds vs. Red Sox, Bowling Green Fairgrounds

But there was one highlight, all agreed, that made the afternoon worthwhile.  While two of the game’s three home run shots might not have left a big league ballpark, batting champion Ted Williams, said Wallace, “had the willow behind his wallop.”  Williams’s sixth-inning blast cleared the center field scoreboard, bounced onto the track behind, and put the Sox ahead for good. 

Fans packed the stands for the exhibition game

Philip J. Noel’s letter to his son and his photos of the game are part of the Noel Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to download a finding aid. Search our holdings in TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

Comments Off on “The willow behind his wallop”

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives