Author Archives: Lynn Niedermeier

“Fill My Eye”

Postcard of a young woman

But there are other fish in the sea?

With the upheaval of the Civil War still a year away, Hattie Binford of Hickman, Kentucky was preoccupied with a smaller, more personal and yet equally consuming drama: the man who got away.  Perhaps because her friend Lucy (Parker) Robbins was 10 years older and married, 17-year-old Hattie looked to her for mentorship on matters of the heart.

Hattie had just experienced a sighting of the object of her affection, a certain “Mr. McBride,” she wrote Lucy in May 1860.  Unfortunately, her glimpse of him was as “the Bridegroom of another.  I had to summon all the courage and fortitude I possibly could to keep from showing my feeling,” Hattie mourned, “which was not very pleasant at that time I will assure you.”  But she vowed to rebound.  “There is as good Fish in the sea as ever was caught out so I will have the pleasure of catching another.”  For instance, that gentleman presently staying with Lucy, what was his name?  “Let me know if he is a candidate for matrimony,” Hattie demanded, “he can have my vote.”

Hattie filled her letter with other local news, including a visit from two admirers, but “I think I can do better than to take either of them.”  Her gold standard remained Mr. McBride, and she deputized her friend Lucy to “pick me out a nice Beau.”  He didn’t have to be rich, as long as he didn’t drink whiskey and play cards (to excess, that is).  “I want the jewel to consist of himself,” Hattie wrote dreamily.  “I want him to be handsome intelligent polite good natured,” as well as modest—“no profusion of fob chains Necktie or big words need apply, for they cannot fill my Eye.”

Click here to download a finding aid for Hattie’s letter, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For other letters about courtship and marriage, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Hickman’s War

One of Lucy Ligon's Civil War correspondents

One of Lucy Ligon’s Civil War correspondents

If we have to die had we not better die together?”  That was the question members of the Parker family of Hickman, Kentucky asked each other in spring 1861.  Lucy Robbins, the recently widowed daughter of Josiah and Lucy Parker, was staying with her brother-in-law near Memphis, Tennessee, but her parents were desperate to have her and their young grandson come home.  Letters to Lucy, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, provide a vivid picture of lives upended by the Civil War.

At the outbreak of war, the Mississippi River town of Hickman was still recovering from a fire so destructive that it was seen from Cairo, Illinois, some 40 miles away.  But now Cairo itself posed the threat, with rumors of soldiers massing there to mount an invasion from the North.  Lucy’s father had heard of still more troops gathering at New Madrid, Missouri.  Caught between these two armies, Josiah Parker feared that Kentucky “will again become the dark and bloody ground.”  Lucy’s mother wrote of the anguish of Hickman’s women: watching in fear as their husbands and sons chose sides and enlisted, many had packed up their households and were ready to “go to woods” if the enemy should appear.  “O what shall we do pray to god for our country,” she cried.

Each successive letter from home told Lucy of the war’s shadow over her family.  Her father, a local judge, lost his livelihood when the legislature temporarily suspended the courts.  Her brother Matthew joined the Union Army (and would die in service), even as some of his neighbors cast their lot with the Confederates.  Nevertheless, some of the town’s young women, including Lucy’s sister Lockey, refused to take a furlough from the marriage market and continued to preen in new dresses and bonnets whenever they could get them from places like St. Louis.  Lucy herself returned to Hickman in 1863, where she contemplated remarrying.  When she asked her dead husband’s brother for advice, he was clear: NO secessionists.  Having been financially generous with Lucy as long as she was widowed, Curtis Robbins declared that his continued support would be jeopardized if she allowed a Rebel to raise his brother’s child.

Lucy, however, didn’t listen.  Not only was he a Rebel, but her new husband, George J. Ligon, served under Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and was severely wounded at Harrisburg, Mississippi.  If this condemned Lucy in the eyes of her brother-in-law, another young man who had worked for him and who remained Lucy’s friend was more forgiving.  Writing to her in 1864 during his Union Army service, he expressed regret that Lucy’s husband had been “crippled”; “I guess he is in the Southern army”—but, he shrugged, “you know it is all the same to me.”

A finding aid for family letters to Lucy (Parker) Ligon can be accessed here.  For more Civil War collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The Rohna

HMT Rohna

HMT Rohna

Seventy-five years ago today, on November 26, 1943, one of the greatest and least-known losses of Americans in a single naval incident took place when the troopship HMT Rohna sank in the Mediterranean Sea.

Built in 1926, the Rohna was a converted British cargo ship—“crummy and dirty,” remembered soldier Charles Finch—with an Indian crew and an Australian commander.  Carrying 1,981 American troops, it was part of a convoy headed from North Africa to the China-India-Burma theater.  Late in the afternoon, a German aerial attack sent the vessel to the bottom of a cold, rough sea.  Of the 1,138 resulting deaths, 1,015 were American—only 162 less than the toll aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

The incident was quickly shrouded in secrecy.  Survivors and families of the dead were told little about what had happened.  Only with the passage of time and the declassification of military reports did the story become clearer.  The 8,602-ton Rohna had perished in 30 minutes after a single German aircraft launched a new and terrifying weapon: an early “smart bomb,” propelled by a rocket engine and guided to its quarry by an operator via radio signal.

When WKU history professor Carlton Jackson set out to write a book about the Rohna disaster, he gathered letters, narratives and official testimonials from survivors, witnesses, and families of the victims.  The stories he received were harrowing: of the fiery inferno ignited when the bomb slammed into the engine room, of men trapped below decks, of the ensuing chaos as the Rohna’s civilian crew abandoned their stations, of lifeboats that couldn’t be lowered because of rusted pulleys, of desperate men clambering down ropes to the sea or simply jumping, of rafts crashing down on the heads of men in the water, of German planes strafing overhead, and of the ordeal of injured survivors awaiting rescue for hours, clinging to debris or trying to remain afloat in heavy seas with only small inflatable lifebelts.

On board the nearby HMS Banfora, Abe Kadis remembered the Rohna with a hole blown completely through it, the screams of wounded men, and “heads bobbing in the water.”  Nevertheless, the rest of the convoy was forced to sail on until it was safe for rescue ships to return.  “I felt so alone and completely helpless,” remembered Charles Finch, who had gone over the side by rope.  “There was now nothing in sight except the dead bodies that continued to bump into me from time to time.”  The USS Pioneer eventually picked up Finch and many of the Rohna survivors.  One of them, Private Henry Kuberski, spent weeks in hospital recovering from burns.  “Hank,” read the telegram to his wife, had been only “slightly injured.”

Hank Kuberski recovers from his injuries

Hank Kuberski recovers from his injuries

Carlton Jackson’s research for his book Forgotten Tragedy: The Sinking of HMT Rohna (reissued as Allied Secret: The Sinking of HMT Rohna) is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more World War II collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Protection from Hacking

"Best Cough Recipe in the World"

“Best Cough Recipe in the World”

Well, it’s that time of year when the Hill is alive with the sound of coughing, not to mention the sneezes, aches and runny noses.

For Kentuckians in the past, the cough was often a portent of worse to come.  Frankfort merchant Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson (1813-1845) experienced his cough as a constant reminder of the tuberculosis that would carry him to an early grave.  In 1855, Edward Ground wrote his grandfather in Warren County that the family was all well except for “the [w]hooping cough.”  During the Civil War, Kentucky infantryman John Tuttle found “the spasmodic coughing” of his comrades distressing, and not just as a sign of widespread measles: all that noise actually made it difficult to hear orders given during dress parades.

But sometimes, a cough was what it is today: just a nuisance, the last thing to depart when all other cold symptoms have slunk away.  “This cough grows persistent and troublesome,” complained a young Hopkinsville woman to her friend in 1874, “keeping me awake last night till I feel worn out and out of patience with the world today. . . . This season of the year is rather trying everywhere.”

But nineteenth-century medicine was rife with potions and remedies for the bronchially challenged.  And how fitting that a Kentuckian, John W. Beauchamp (1804-1879), one of Metcalfe County’s first physicians, would possess the “Best Cough Receipt [Recipe] in the World.”  Here it is:

One pint pure Holland gin
One pint white wine vinegar
One pint molasses
One pound clarified honey
One gill [about 4 ounces] of pure olive oil

The ingredients were to be mixed in an earthen jug, tightly corked, shaken well, then imbibed in wineglass-sized doses three times daily.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these materials, and search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat for more collections in WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections relating to medicines and prescriptions.

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A Century Since the Armistice

Bowling Green's Times-Journal announces the Armistice

Bowling Green’s Times-Journal announces the Armistice

GREAT WAR IS BROUGHT TO AN END: Greatest Struggle in World’s History Ceases With Signing of Armistice Terms.

So declared the now century-old news clipping of November 11, 1918 that Bowling Green’s Martha Potter pasted into her scrapbook.  As we have previously blogged, the Armistice was met with worldwide joy and relief.  Finally, an end to “1,567 days of horror,” read the Associated Press story, “during which virtually the whole civilized world has been convulsed.”

Few Bowling Green newspapers from that period survive, but other clippings in Martha’s scrapbook tell us of the local celebrations.  The very afternoon of the Armistice, citizens took turns ringing a “Liberty Bell” in an improvised belfry in front of the Palace Confectionery on Park Row.  Even a bull terrier belonging to Martha’s son Douglass got involved, tugging on the end of the rope to the delight of onlookers.  The Chamber of Commerce summoned everyone to gather that evening in the public square, promising that “bedlam will be turned loose and a last farewell will be given ‘Kaiser Bill.'”  Officials warned, however, that NO drunkenness or celebratory firing of pistols would be tolerated.

A few days later, “one of the largest crowds ever seen in the city” made up a “peace parade” nearly a mile long, beginning at the Mansard Hotel at Main and Center streets and winding its way through town.  Prominent citizens, schoolchildren, Red Cross women, Canteen Girls on horseback, firefighters, police, and WKU’s Student Army Training Corps joined the parade, headed by a band and festooned with flags, banners and a bust of President Woodrow Wilson.  Those absent were not forgotten.  The day after the Armistice, the News-Democrat published the names of Bowling Green and Warren County men, both white and African-American, as well as nurses, serving overseas at the war’s end.  This, too, became part of Martha’s scrapbook, as her son John was currently “over there.”

Red Cross workers parading in Bowling Green during World War I

Red Cross workers parading in Bowling Green during World War I

Search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat for more collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections relating to the Great War, or browse a list here.

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Frankly, She Gave a D-mn

The 1939 movie blockbuster Gone With the Wind is as legendary as the novel of the same name.  Gone With the Wind’s author, Margaret Mitchell, had no desire to participate in the film project, but insisted that producer David O. Selznick employ a technical adviser to keep him honest about its portrayal of Southern accents, customs, wardrobes and etiquette.  Mitchell’s choice for the job was her good friend and fellow Georgian, Susan Myrick.

Raised on her family’s plantation near Milledgeville, Myrick (1893-1978) was a teacher, journalist, civic leader, and arbiter of all things Southern.  Despite long days on the set of Gone With the Wind, she reported regularly and candidly to Mitchell about her quest to keep the movie’s production values authentic (in a 1939 kind of way).

"Hattie," by Carlton Jackson

“Hattie,” by Carlton Jackson

While researching his biography of Hattie McDaniel, who played “Mammy” in the movie, WKU history professor Carlton Jackson discovered how opinionated Myrick could be.  Jackson’s research includes a copy of one of her gossipy letters to Mitchell, written just before filming of Gone With the Wind began.  Myrick was “sick at heart” that “three Britishers”—Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland—had been cast in leading roles (Scarlett O’Hara, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton); but she liked Howard, who she found had “more sense than anybody I’ve seen around here” except for director George Cukor (a “grand person,” though he would soon be replaced).

Myrick was pleased with the exterior set for Tara, the O’Hara plantation, but battled with various technical personnel over other details of the production.  She insisted that Tara have “feather beds” and that a magnolia tree grow outside Scarlett’s window.  She put a stop to the agricultural faux pas of having “cotton chopped while dog woods were blooming,” and “nearly died when they asked me if they couldn’t show cotton right at the front yard!”  She was also determined that “Prissy” and other African-American characters “NOT wear ten or twenty pink bows on their hair” so they would look “pictorial”—a word that made Myrick want “to scream.”

As for 44-year-old Kansas native Hattie McDaniel, the singer/songwriter/actress just signed to play “Mammy,” Myrick grumbled to Mitchell that she “hasn’t the right face” and “lacks dignity, age, nobility and so on.”  Director Cukor admitted that he was still looking for another actress for the role; in fact, he sent Myrick to see the play Run, Little Chillun in order to scout its African-American cast for a replacement.

But the rest, of course, was history.  Not only did she keep her job, Hattie McDaniel owned the role of “Mammy” and received an Oscar for best supporting actress, making her the first African American to win an Academy Award.

Carlton Jackson’s research for his book Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Carlton Jackson Papers Celebrate Archives Month

Dr. Carlton Jackson at a book-signing for "Allied Secret: The Sinking of HMT Rohna"

Dr. Carlton Jackson at a book-signing for “Allied Secret: The Sinking of HMT Rohna”

Heartbreaking memories of the 1918 influenza pandemic.  The FBI dossiers on a husband-and-wife team of socialist labor activists.  Gracious letters from Gone With the Wind star Olivia de Havilland.  The gritty details of a guest’s sudden collapse and death during a television talk show.  Accounts from survivors of one of America’s worst wartime naval disasters.

Where can you find all of these within easy reach of one another?  In the papers of Dr. Carlton L. Jackson, a prolific author and historian who donated a large portion of his research and manuscripts to WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Processing of the 4,336 items in this collection was completed in October, which happens to be American Archives Month.  A finding aid is available here.

Carlton Jackson’s career as a history professor at WKU began in 1961 and continued until his death in 2014.  A high-school dropout, the Alabama native resumed his studies during service in the Air Force, then taught school and worked as a newspaperman before arriving at WKU.  The author of more than 20 books, he also held several Fulbright awards and visiting teaching posts, and in 1996 was appointed WKU’s first Distinguished University Professor.

Jackson’s books included Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel, a biography of the Oscar-winning actress who immortalized the role of “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind; Allied Secret: The Sinking of HMT Rohna, an account of the 1943 guided missile attack on this troopship that killed more than 1,000 American servicemen; J. I. Rodale: Apostle of Nonconformity, a look at the self-described “father of the organic movement” in the United States, whose life ended suddenly while a guest on the Dick Cavett Show; and Child of the Sit-Downs: The Revolutionary Life of Genora Dollinger, a biography of this workers’ rights champion whose career began in earnest during the great 1936-1937 “sit-down” strike at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan.  Other books of Jackson’s have told the story of the iconic World War II song Lili Marlene; related a social history of the Greyhound Bus Company; assessed the career of movie director Martin Ritt; recalled the heroism of Joseph Gavi, a Louisville restaurateur who was once a partisan fighter in the Jewish ghetto of Minsk; and novelized the life of George Al Edwards, a Green County, Kentucky outlaw.  For a 1976 book on the 1918 influenza pandemic, Jackson placed ads in newspapers across the country seeking eyewitness accounts, and received more than 400 replies documenting the flu’s deadly march through 42 states and 9 foreign countries.  The book was never completed, but this unique collection of letters has been preserved.

“Dr. Jackson’s research and writing testified not just to his energy but to his eclectic interests and inveterate curiosity,” says WKU Special Collections department head Jonathan Jeffrey.  Searching for sources in both public archives and private collections, Jackson corresponded with anyone who might provide a lead.  As a former journalist, he never hesitated to seek a telephone or personal interview, making many friends along the way.  As the collection reveals, his efforts generated wins and losses, both big and small.  While researching a biography of Western novelist Zane Grey, Jackson wondered if Grey’s tales of shark fishing had influenced Peter Benchley’s blockbuster novel Jaws, but Benchley politely replied in the negative.  A greater disappointment occurred when, after his initial contacts proved promising, the Greyhound Bus Company withdrew its cooperation for Jackson’s history.  He scored a coup, however, when he located and corresponded (in German) with the pilot of the plane that had attacked the Rohna.

“I’m basically lazy,” Jackson once insisted in a profile published in WKU’s On Campus.  But it never showed.  After he got an idea for a book he would begin work, reading, traveling, knocking on doors and, like a good ex-journalist, digging.  The result, in addition to his publications, was a trove of research, now available to anyone else who wants to keep digging.

The Department of Library Special Collections is located in the Kentucky Building on WKU’s campus.  Hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Search our online catalogs at TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Far sadder than insanity”

Anna Kirkland's letter

Anna Kirkland’s letter

On this World Mental Health Day, we look back to 1872 when, in the absence of systematic treatment or medication, an ordinary woman tried to cope with depression.

On March 13, 55-year-old Anna Mary Kirkland wrote from North Carolina to her niece Eliza “Lizzie” (Edmunds) McNary, who as a girl had moved with her family to Caldwell County, Kentucky.  Anna apologized for the long drought in her correspondence, “but wretchedness such as no language can convey any adequate idea of has still’d my pen for more than two years.”  She had entered the North Carolina Asylum, but knew it wasn’t the right place: “I am considered insane & would to God that was the proper name for my malady, but alas!  I fear the case is a far sadder one than insanity, tho’ that is sad enough.”  Stalked by obsessive thoughts about her “lost” soul and those of her children, Anna bewailed the state of “living death” she could not overcome.

Well-meaning family members had tried act as armchair psychiatrists, but Anna explained that her “periods of darkness” were unresponsive to “human reasoning and eloquence” or to the theory that they were merely “insane delusions.”  She confessed that Lizzie’s news of her husband and children had made little impression: “Were I not so wretched your good accounts of the dear boys would please me so much & I would be so much interested. . . as it is I can’t take an interest in anything.”

Anna managed to convey a few items of her own family’s news, but returned to the notion that a diagnosis of insanity might actually help her come to grips with her paralyzing burden.  In that case, she wrote, she could even believe herself capable of visiting Lizzie, of experimenting with travel and change. . . “but I can’t.”

Anna’s letter is in the Edmunds Family Papers, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Jackpot!

Lottery ticket for John Grimes's property

Lottery ticket for John Grimes’s property

Until 1816, when legislative authorization was required, anyone in Kentucky could conduct a lottery to raise money for public improvements such as a church, school, road or bridge, or just to fund some private scheme: only a year earlier, John A. Grimes of Madison County had parted with his property by holding a lottery and charging $20 per ticket.

Even with the introduction of legislative oversight, the history of lotteries is rife with tales of fraud and corruption.  Former WKU librarian Mary Leiper Moore researched the story of James R. Golladay of Bowling Green, who ran a number of high-rolling lotteries in the 1870s; prizes included $10,000 in cash, a brewery, houses and lots in Louisville and Bowling Green, and various smaller awards of cash, horses, and carriages.  Golladay’s empire collapsed in controversy, however, after the winner of a “handsome residence” in Bowling Green turned out to be. . . his own wife.

The "Great Land Sale" lottery ticket

The “Great Land Sale” lottery ticket

The Manuscripts and Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections include other materials relating to this strike-it-rich pastime.  There’s a ticket for the “Great Land Sale” in Henderson County, held in 1870, where four substantial prizes of good “river bottom land” and cash were awarded.  There’s the scrapbook of Captain Richard Vance, a devotee of the Louisiana State lottery who apparently never threw away his tickets.  And there’s Kentucky’s first state lottery ticket, issued in commemorative form in 1989.

Richard Vance's Louisiana lottery tickets

Richard Vance’s Louisiana lottery tickets

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

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“They either get well or die”

Philadelphia's Liberty Loan parade on Sept. 28, 1918 triggered one of the worst outbreaks of flu in the country.

Philadelphia’s Liberty Loan parade on Sept. 28, 1918 triggered one of the worst outbreaks of flu in the country.

Besides the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, 2018 marks the centennial of one of the deadliest scourges in history, the 1918 influenza pandemic.  Striking in three waves, the outbreak finally subsided in summer 1919, leaving tens of millions dead worldwide and about 675,000 in the United States.

Lacking the means to diagnose flu viruses or any drugs to combat them, the medical community was overwhelmed.  But the scale of the pandemic seemed to do little to dampen the enthusiasm of George Hays, then working for the U.S. Public Health Service.  Writing in February 1919 to his stepmother Georgia (Carley) Hays, a native of Scott County, Kentucky, George gave her an account of his experiences among the sick at Philadelphia General Hospital that was both upbeat and curiously matter-of-fact.

Cash-poor and in debt to his stepmother, George had at first contemplated a two-week paid stint in New York “to help inoculate the Police force with a new pneumonia serum.”  The assignment in Philadelphia, however, with medical tutelage under two renowned instructors, looked to be more beneficial in the long run.  “We have been given a new ward of Men’s Medical and all of Women’s Influenza,” he wrote.  He felt lucky, for with this newly opened ward came fresh new patients, instead of “a number of old bed-ridden uninteresting patients who have been here for years.”  The women’s influenza ward, he observed clinically, “is a good thing also because all cases are new and they either get well or die and leave room for new ones quickly.”  Finally, there was the challenge of weeding out cases “sent to Flu because they give a history of symptoms similar to Flu, when in reality they are not Flu at all.”  And so, decided Hays, here lay a great opportunity to hobnob with some “really big men of the surgical and medical world,” see the sights of Philadelphia, and forget about his own bout with the flu, which had left his heart struggling under “terrific prostrating toxemia.”

George Hays’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For other collections about the influenza pandemic, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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