Monthly Archives: May 2020

Planning in Uncertain Times

The year 1946 marked the beginning of the “baby boom,” a dramatic increase in the U.S. birth rate following the Depression and World War II.  Signs of what was to come, however, had appeared at the outbreak of war, when many couples hastily married and conceived their first child before the husband shipped out for military duty.  Afterward, there was always the opportunity for “furlough babies” to enter the world. 

During the war, the question of pregnancy was challenging and complicated, as shown in two collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  In 1943, Philip J. Noel, Jr. and his wife Mary Katherine of Bowling Green, Kentucky were newly married and living with their baby daughter in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Training to serve as a medical officer with the U.S. Army, Dr. Noel received an invitation from the Pennsylvania Federation for Planned Parenthood to acquaint himself with its mission and services.  The country’s war against the Axis, stated its brochure, included “a war against a way of life in which human freedom is consistently violated.  In America, we believe in the right of children to be wanted and well-born, and in the right of parents to plan their own families.”  With young men overseas, and healthy women needed to work in war industries and support their families at home, “competent medical advice on the spacing of pregnancies” was an “essential part of the war health program.”  Equally important was the “treatment of involuntary sterility” in order to support a mother’s well being and build “the world of the future.”  Only 16 years old, the organization had established 30 “child-spacing centers” for teaching, demonstration and treatment, and boasted a board of sponsors that included citizens, doctors and clergymen.

Family planning was also on the mind of James C. Browning, an Edmonson County, Kentucky teacher who joined the Army in 1941.  A year earlier, “J.C.” had married his wife Lila and they had recently become the parents of a daughter.  Lila, however, had suffered health problems after the birth and was anxious about another pregnancy. In letters from training camp in Arkansas, J.C. was equally anxious to reassure her, for among the many dreams he shared with his much-loved wife—of paying off their debts, buying a small farm and building a life for themselves after the war—was the prospect of “a good time” with her when he made his scheduled return to Fort Knox.  If she didn’t want more children, he assured her, “we will try our best and use the best remedies available.”  She should go to the doctor and arrange to be fitted with a diaphragm, he instructed; then “[m]aybe you won’t be scared all the time.”  Inquiring about her progress in successive letters, he even offered to “get the diaphragm for you if you don’t want to get it.”  He finally advocated a “double preventative”—diaphragm plus condom—as the solution to their problem: then “surely there won’t be anything wrong.”  The young husband trying to avoid “anything wrong,” however, couldn’t plan for the attack on his ship off the coast of North Africa that took his life in 1942.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections. For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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In search of a cure

When her late husband, astronaut John Glenn, became the first American to orbit the earth, Anna Margaret “Annie” Glenn, who lost her life to coronavirus on May 19, was herself rocketed into the public spotlight.  She found her new celebrity mortifying, however, because of her severe stutter.  After a successful program of therapy in 1973, Annie became a champion for people with communication disorders.

In 1846, William Malone of Limestone, Alabama was also hoping to find therapy for his 23-year-old son, Clement.  In a letter to his brother-in-law, John Marion Robertson of Franklin, Kentucky, he reported the results of what appeared to be an extensive search.  “We have heard,” he wrote, “that there is a man in Kentucky some where perhaps at or near Springfield, who can cure persons of stuttering.”  He requested that Robertson find out who the man was, where he lived, and what success he could claim.  Working as an overseer in Mississippi, young Clement planned to come home to Alabama before departing for Kentucky in search of treatment, and his father was eager to have some information for him before he went on his way.

We don’t know if Clement found his cure, but speech impediments have sent others on paths that, like Annie Glenn’s, do not surrender to reclusiveness.  It was some kind of speech disorder, probably a stutter, that caused a young Romanus Emerson (1782-1852) to veer away from a career in the ministry, but the Boston merchant (and cousin of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson) openly abandoned religion in his fifties. Pronouncing himself an “infidel,” he wrote and published pro-atheist tracts. 

Reverend Henry David Carpenter (1859-1927), by contrast, retained his faith as both the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky and the founder of a county school for African-American children.  Widely respected in both the community and the classroom, Carpenter too had a stutter, but his “presence just demanded attention,” according to a colleague in the ministry.  “He’d walk into class and if the students was cutting up they would be quiet because Dr. Carpenter was in.”

Click on the links to learn more about these individuals, found in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  To search our collections further, use TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“A Great House of Mourning”

Cholera devastated “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1833

We’ve blogged in the past about Kentuckians’ varied reactions to epidemics of disease.  In 1833, cholera’s assault on Federal Hill in Bardstown left permanent scars on the surviving members of the Rowan family. During an outbreak in Bowling Green in 1850, by contrast, a young man affected amusement as he witnessed some rather chaotic attempts at social distancing.  Somewhere in the emotional middle was a Scott County native taking public health training in Philadelphia during the influenza epidemic of 1918; struggling with illness himself, he nevertheless viewed the deluge of cases at the city’s hospital as interesting subjects for clinical study – if they didn’t die first. 

At home in Arkansas in 1835, Jane Washington Walker must have been dumbstruck when she read her mother’s letter.  “The cholera has been among us,” wrote Rebecca Smith Washington from Russellville, Kentucky, as the scourge turned her town into “a Great House of Mourning.”

In language reminiscent of those reporting from today’s virus “hot spots,” Rebecca proceeded to recount in grim detail what the disease had wrought.  “It broke out last Friday night three weeks ago with great violence, in twenty four hours there was nine widows left to mourn the sudden death of their husbands.”  What followed was a parade of names—all known to Jane—and all dead: husbands, wives, children, neighbors, acquaintances, enslaved people.  The disease initially “raged more violently among the Negroes than the White people,” her mother reported, and those who had somewhere to escape to had quickly left town.  Rebecca closed her school.  Stores “shut up, their owners either dead or fled to the country.”  Those who remained were fearful of contact with others.  Though she “felt like I was signing the death warrant of a great part of my family,” Rebecca nevertheless agreed to shelter the family of a man helping to nurse the sick.  She praised the other first responders of the day, even though they could do little to alleviate the suffering.  “The young men performed every office male and female,” she observed, from tending the victims to making coffins out of boxes and planks, digging graves and burying the dead. 

The epidemic was subsiding, but Rebecca’s lingering shock was still evident.  As she watched merchants begin to reopen their stores, and townspeople return to their deserted (and in some cases, burglarized) homes, her thoughts were of her loved ones.  She had long contemplated pulling up stakes and moving to Arkansas; now that “life has become so uncertain,” her desire to do so was overwhelming.  “I shall never enjoy life again,” she wrote Jane, “until I join you.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“One entire description of suffering”

With our prospects of travel currently unappealing and not likely to improve soon, we can at least hope that we will not return to past discomforts of wagons, coaches, and explosively coal-fired locomotives and steamboats.  One such 19th-century travel nightmare is here, but here’s another from the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

Missing his family, including a newborn daughter, William Coolidge, Jr. of Baltimore was already in a grouchy mood when his steamer arrived at Maysville, Kentucky enroute to New Orleans in 1822.  A former Bostonian (and a rather snooty one at that), Coolidge was enchanted with the Ohio River but found Maysville “a dirty hole indeed.”  Pushing on to Cincinnati, his coach ride to Lexington was “attended with discomfiture the roads almost impassable.”  He found Lexington “a tolerable flourishing town” of about 6,000 but, worn down by the January weather, he reached Frankfort “cheerless and gloomy. . . my mind diseas’d and much disquieted within me.”  He didn’t mince words about Kentucky’s state capital: “a dull and insipid hole the inhabitants vulgar, gross and mean, offensively impudent and low bred.” 

On the next leg of the journey to Louisville, his coach broke a wheel, sending Coolidge wandering for miles on foot and horseback in search of a blacksmith and wheelwright to repair the damage.  Reaching Louisville after “severest hardships and dangers,” he found no charms awaiting: “I never saw but ‘twas all of a piece, for roads and men, and women and children were all alike abhorrent and loathsome to my better senses.”  Pining for the virtues of “happy New England,” the Yankee put up at yet another undistinguished boarding house. 

The General Pike – not up to traveler Coolidge’s expectations

January wore on, the temperature dropped, the river froze, and Coolidge’s letters home went unanswered.  “My journal is but one entire description of suffering,” he wailed.  Finally, late in February, he sailed with relief from Louisville, only to have the boat run aground on a sandbar.  He switched to another boat, the General Pike —“old and altogether inferior”—and finally reached the Mississippi.  A thousand miles down the river from Louisville, he was still grumbling.  He had looked upon the waters of the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi, but “nothing on each side of these majestic rivers offering comfort or encouragement for either emigrant or Traveller save now and then a miserable log hut . . . chang’d the dismal view.”

Click here for a finding aid for William Coolidge’s journal.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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