Bowling Green, Ky.: They found him in September 1902 in “Hobson’s woods,” after a passerby noticed a buzzard in a nearby tree. His head was devoid of flesh (probably courtesy of said buzzard) and his body dismembered. There was a bullet hole behind his right ear. He may have been deposited in a shallow grave, because investigators found a pair of pants “buried with him.” Other personal effects included a hat, “one Phial of poison,” a “large long rubber ear trumpet,” $3.59 in cash, and a Catholic badge.
In the deceased man’s pocket was a letter from one Barney Furey, whose letterhead advertised his prowess as “Light Weight Champion of the West.” In a pencilled scribble, the Cincinnati-based boxer introduced himself to our dead friend who, we learn, was from Chicago and who had acquaintances in common with Furey: Joe Gans, an African American who was one of the nation’s greatest lightweight fighters; another pugilist, Charley “Young” Kenney; and respected match referees Malachy Hogan and George Siler.
But Furey’s letter then moved on to other business. “Now the money I owe don’t be worried,” he
told the dead man, “for I will surely give it to you. I am going to Chicago to fight in a week.”
At the inquest, the coroner’s jury had no difficulty determining
the cause of death, but the backstory, unfortunately, remained untold. Who was the man, and what, if anything, did a
letter from a boxer in his debt have to do with his murder?
On this June 13, National Sewing Machine Day, we remember the 19th-century English, French, German and American inventors who alleviated (or at least revised) the toil of the tailor and seamstress. We also remember the millions of women who saw their employment and domestic lives transformed by the new technology.
Early in 1861, Sallie Knott had much to write about from Missouri to her mother in Bowling Green, including the election of Abraham Lincoln that had ignited talk of secession. Also of note, however, was her friend’s new Grover & Baker sewing machine. “I’ve learned to sew pretty well,” Sallie reported. “It only cost $45 & answers pretty well when there is no stout jeans for servants.” She had run up a calico dress in only one day, and was quickly losing interest in sewing by hand. “It spoils one very soon,” she admitted. “I dislike to take up any needle now to do anything – even to baste.”
Whether at home or in the workplace, women were quick to find that like much new gadgetry, the sewing machine pushed them to perform more labor in the same time rather than the same labor in less time. “Lizzie sews every day,” a correspondent reported to her cousin from Bourbon County in 1870. “She has a Wheeler & Wilson machine, and has all the sewing she can do.” The machines also required a new technical language for parts and maintenance. “Send me No. 26L306 sewing machine Needles one doz. for Improved Singer Head No. 6389759,” wrote Lewis County, Kentucky’s Annie Kinney to Sears, Roebuck in 1918. Her efficient requisition was accompanied by a sample needle and a preference for ones “just a little longer,” if possible.
On its way to becoming synonymous with the sewing machine, Isaac Merritt Singer’s company developed a mass marketing strategy for women who sewed at home. In 1885, Singer wrote from its Cincinnati office to Bowling Green lawyer Clarence McElroy about one of its local agents on whom it relied to sell machines, parts and accessories. J. C. Webb had signed on as a full-time agent in 1880, receiving a salary of $15 per week plus a 3% commission on sales. His contract also stipulated that he was “to furnish one Horse to be used in the business and to pay for its keeping.” Webb, however, had attempted to buy his horse in the company’s name, making Singer responsible for payment. While reluctant to make a scene, the Singer representative was firm in his instructions to McElroy. “We do not question our obligation to pay for a Horse if Mr. Webb had bought it for the use of the company, but we cannot admit that an agent has a right or authority to purchase a Horse for another party and bind the company by a note.” Besides, he pointed out, there was the matter of that clause in the contract – prepared, as it happened, on another newfangled device, the typewriter.
June 6: the 75th
anniversary of D-Day, the best- and worst-kept secret of World War II.
It was 1944, and everyone knew this would be “the year of destiny,” when the Allies would launch a massive cross-channel invasion of Europe to mark the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. But until it happened, no one knew precisely when or where the assault would take place.
Bowling Green’s Bert Borrone was
deeply interested in the question. Stationed
with a signal service company in North Africa, the U.S. Army sergeant was
responsible for radio broadcasts that would keep his military audience informed
about the course of the war. Late in May
1944, he prepared two 15-minute programs for the American Expeditionary Station
News Bureau to ready his listeners for the invasion, “so that when the day does
come. . . and General Eisenhower says ‘Tonight, we strike,’ we shall be able to
follow the hourly news, be it good or bad, with understanding, with
Borrone’s first program painted a vivid picture of the invasion landscape: the English Channel, both a “ready-made highway for assault” and “an itinerary to death”; the minesweepers, those “unsung old ladies of the sea,” spearheading the fleet; the arc of invasion vessels stretching across the horizon; the bombers, fighters and paratroop transports. Beaches were necessary to land troops, and ports to supply them, but “no one knows better than the Nazi what is potential invasion land,” Borrone warned. The enemy would be ready with mines, landing-craft traps, anti-tank obstacles, machine-gun and mortar emplacements, pill-boxes, bunkers, fortified towns and “hundreds of thousands of the Wehrmacht’s finest, dug in for the showdown.”
Then would come the landings, as
“battle-wagons, with their escorts of the sea and air, plunge toward the
pre-assigned beaches,” and all the plans, rehearsals and calculations were put
to the test. Many had performed their
duties in advance: if Nazi fighters or weapons failed to appear, or if the
enemy’s reserves arrived too late, or if his mines failed to detonate, it was because
a production facility had been bombed day and night, or an intelligence operative
had directed just where to place an explosive, or an underground fighter—“a
Hans or a Pierre or an Emil”—had carried out a successful sabotage. Ultimately, however, the invasion would be
“committed into the hands, and wits, and guts, of a few hundred thousand.”
Borrone’s second program was a
tutorial on the tactics of a coastal invasion, the nuts-and-bolts calculations
of everything from enemy firepower and types of forces needed to anticipated
numbers of sea-sickness among the troops.
Tides, terrain, defenses, roads, availability of reserves, and the timing,
makeup and objectives of each “wave” of the invasion—these and other
innumerable considerations, Borrone explained, needed to be weighed “against
the single most important factor in any military action . . . initial, tactical
surprise. Only then,” he declared, “can
the supreme commander point his finger at one definitive spot along all the
vast shore line and commit it irrevocably to the fates who weave human
The family name was appropriate, given what one of its members had set his sights upon. The Miner brothers, Selden and Samuel, had left Wethersfield, Connecticut, Selden to help settle the identically named Wethersfield, Illinois, and Samuel to make a home in Maysville, Kentucky. In spring 1849, the Maysville Miners were planning a visit to the Illinois Miners, a prospect that pleased Selden’s wife Maria. Unfortunately, the news of some shiny nuggets in a California river bed had sent a contagion through town—a delirium—and her husband had caught it. It was gold fever.
Maria had endured two weeks of her fidgety husband, alternately anticipating his brother’s visit from Kentucky and then declaring “To California I am bound”! “I have no opinion at all of his going,” insisted Maria, before making her misgivings crystal clear in a letter to Samuel. One can picture this skeptical spouse, folding her arms and rolling her eyes. “We are now as it were just getting things a little comfortable around us,” she declared, “& I feel as though we had best try & make ourselves contented with our lot.” She was, in fact, “very confident that there are at least ninety nine chances out of a hundred” that Selden’s get-rich-quick scheme “would entirely ruin us for life.”
Now it was Selden’s turn to make his case. Taking up the pen, he dismissed his wife’s “doleful description of this dreadful ‘yallar feaver.’” All of Wethersfield was abuzz, he reported, with companies of 40-50 men apiece preparing wagons, oxen and a year’s worth of provisions to make the journey west to the gold fields. “They all leave Independence [Missouri] in the middle of May,” Selden wrote. “It will take 90 or more days to reach the Sacramento valley.” And, of course, he had already heard rumors of spectacular success: two men who had “left here poor” were now worth some $100,000 each. Yet, Selden concluded, “I seem to lack the full consent of my wife.” Could his brother referee the dispute?
Now it was Maria’s turn again, and she filled the remaining space in the letter with her rejoinder: her husband claimed to have the encouragement of his friends, but in fact none of his real friends supported the enterprise. Not only had Selden given little thought to the care of his farm and stock during his absence, she charged, “this is all nothing – nothing compared to what I fear he will suffer in his own person if he goes.” Now, Maria sighed, her friends must pray “that none of my fears may be realized” and that her husband “may be willing to stay—for if he stays unwillingly you know we can neither of us be either happy or useful.”
It’s National Nurses Week! Here’s a blog highlighting one of our most recent acquisitions documenting the making of a Kentucky nurse. And below are a few more glimpses into our collections that tell of the trials and tribulations of these essential health care professionals.
On her inaugural shift as a nursing student in 1913, Elizabeth (Cherry) McCallum recalled that “I entered, my first day, in pink probationer’s uniform on an empty 25-bed ward which had just been fumigated after an outbreak of diptheria.” She was shown how to make the beds and scrub all the white iron frames with Bon Ami. When she was done, her instructor returned “and without saying a word to me, she tore apart all 25 beds I had made. She showed me again, and this time the lesson sunk in.”
For $5.00 per month plus room, board, laundry and instruction, Elizabeth endured a gruelling and highly unspecialized routine. On any given day, she might leave her morning classes to prepare trays in the kitchen, feed a premature infant with a medicine dropper and warm her with a hot-water bottle, or delouse the head of a Kentucky mountain child brought in for treatment of a hernia, cleft palate, or intestinal parasites. Over her long career, however, which included service in France as a Red Cross nurse during World War I, Elizabeth saw many changes, not only in the quality of medical care but in the enhanced collegiality between doctors and nurses—“how much more skillfully they perform their tasks together.”
Some 20 years after Elizabeth, Eleanor Bowles of Lucas, Kentucky and her friend Mollye were trying to decide what to do with their lives after graduating from high school. Both eyed nursing as a career. “About the occupation, I’ve been looking around. I think the City Hospital at Louisville offers the best opportunities of any,” wrote Mollye. She reported the entry requirements to her friend. Prospective nursing students had to be 18-35 (preferably on the low end of that scale), in the top third of their high school class, and never married—not even widows or divorcees were eligible. The successful applicant received “uniforms, books and cape,” as well as room and board in a building connected to the hospital by a tunnel. And one more thing, advised Mollye: “I forgot to tell you that you have to have your tonsils removed.” So if they could each scrape together the entrance fee of $50 plus another $30 for tonsillectomies, she calculated, they could be on their way. “I’ll be waiting for you,” she told Eleanor “so don’t you go & back out.”
Eleanor didn’t heed the warning, but she didn’t exactly back out. Instead, she got her R.N. at Mt. Sinai Hospital School of Nursing in Baltimore. (We don’t know if her tonsils made it through or not).
A descendant’s recent donation to WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections of the letters and papers of the Weirs, a prominent 19th-century Muhlenberg County, Kentucky family, has provided rich insights into the Civil War history of that county (here and here, for example). Another wonderful item in this collection is the journal of patriarch James Weir (1777-1845), who emigrated to Muhlenberg County from South Carolina. En route in 1798, Weir sojourned in Knoxville, Tennessee and taught school for several months.
Shortly after posting our collection finding aid on TopSCHOLAR, we received an inquiry about the Weir journal from Knoxville librarian Steve Cotham. He had seen excerpts in typescript, but was interested in the original because it was long thought to contain “the first reference to African American banjo music” in that part of Tennessee. Indeed, James Weir’s journal has been cited several times as the source for this interesting tidbit of musical history.
Having only recently processed the collection, however, we knew something was amiss. Arriving in Knoxville on County Court day, the pious Weir had written that he found a rollicking town, “Confus[e]d with a promiscuous throng of every denomination some Talked some sung but mostly all did profainly sware – I stood ag[h]ast,” he declared, “my soul shrunk back to hear the horrid oaths and dreadful Indignities offered to the supream Governer of the universe.” Weir was further mortified to witness “dancing singing & playing of Cards,” and on a Sunday, no less.
It’s a vivid portrait of a frontier community, but nowhere in Weir’s description is there a reference to either African Americans or banjos. So how did this source become part of the body of scholarship on African American banjo music?
Here’s what probably happened:
In 1913, Greenville, Kentucky’s Otto Rothert gained access to the journal when he wrote about the Weir family in his book A History of Muhlenberg County. He quoted accurately from its pages, with only minor edits for spelling and punctuation. But then along came Robert M. Coates with his 1930 book The Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace. Writing of the notorious Harpe brothers and their criminal exploits in Knoxville, Coates used James Weir as a source for his portrait of the city. In what looked deceptively like a paraphrase of a passage from the journal, Coates declared that Weir saw “men jostling, singing, swearing; women yelling from the doorways; half-naked n—–s playing on their ‘banjies’ while the crowd whooped and danced around them.” Mixing quotation and invention, Coates continued: “The town was confused with a promiscuous throng of every denomination”—blanket-clad Indians, leather-shirted woodsmen, gamblers, hard-eyed and vigilant — “My soul shrank back.”
This embellished version of Weir’s journal, including the sudden appearance of “banjies,” took on a life of its own. The reference was picked up in 1939 by the Federal Writers’ Project in Tennessee: A Guide to the State (where the racial epithet was changed to “Negroes”). It appeared again in Cecelia Conway’s African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia (1995) and in George R. Gibson’s 2001 article “Gourd Banjos: From Africa to the Appalachians.” With the original Weir journal in private hands until only recently, it was perhaps impossible for scholars to locate and check the original; in any event, the colorful prose of Coates, who spent most of his career as a novelist and art critic, must have been too good to overlook. The story of the banjies-that-never-were is a lesson for all historical researchers: whenever possible, go straight to the source. And with James Weir’s journal in our collection, now they can.
Click here for a finding aid to the Weir Family Collection. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.
Exams and end-of-year assignments looming? Roommates getting on your nerves? Out of money?
Ready for a change of scenery?
Then pity Sarah Boyd, attending boarding school in
Flemingsburg, Kentucky. For Sarah, it
was a matter of hanging on until the Christmas holiday, when she could escape
home to Bath County. Without telephones,
Facebook, FaceTime and all the modern tools we have to bridge distance, Sarah
was at her wit’s end, despite receiving some unusual care packages from
home. Here are some excerpts from her
letters to her mother in the fall of 1865:
I am very mutch heart (hurt) to think that no one at home cares any thing about me I am hear and can not hear from home I (have) writen t(w)o leters this is thre(e) and have received no answer.
The first thing in the
morning I have my bible class next my arithmetic and then recess and then Ph(y)siology and (w)riting then we have noon and then the first thing is Gramer (grammar) and then . . . science and then young ladies
I am not dissatisfied with Mr. Turner (the schoolmaster) for him and Mrs. Turner is as good to me as they can be but there is some hateful girls at this Boardinghouse.
Mary Bats and Em Franklin quarled at me they are the hateful girls . . . (Em) has been trying to run over me ever since I have been here and I have took as much of her as I am a going to . . . Ma I wish you would make me some bit(t)ers and send me. (G)et me some whisky and put some sasparela (sarsaparilla) in it. . . . Mrs. Turner is very kind to me but we do not have very good victiles (victuals).
Dear Ma I received
your leter and was glad to hear from you . . . I am so glad you sent me that
whisky for I kneed it.
I wish you would send
me some money as I kneed some very bad to get stamps and I want to have my photographs
taken to bring home . . . Ma that whisky has done me a great deal of good and
there is not any of the girls knows I have it.
Ma I want you to have something good to eat
for me . . . I am growing impatient about going home.
Poor Sarah. We can
only hope that this lonesome and stressed 13-year-old (that’s right, 13) found her way back to the bosom of
As we know, there’s a lot more to the pardon process than simple justice. We’ve previously blogged about two Civil War-era pardon requests from Bowling Green and Burkesville, but here’s another 19th-century Kentucky pardon story, plus a new detail about its history found in a letter in WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.
Born in Vermont in 1817, Delia Ann Webster moved to Lexington, Kentucky in 1843 to establish a school for young women. Educated herself in the abolitionist atmosphere of Oberlin College, she become a thorn in the side of local slaveholders, who rightly suspected her of participation in the Underground Railroad. Arrested after helping a family of African Americans escape to freedom in Ohio, Webster was tried and convicted of the crime of assisting fugitive slaves. In December, 1844 she received a two-year prison sentence, the first woman to receive such punishment.
Nevertheless, the trial jury petitioned Governor William
Owsley to pardon Webster because of her sex.
At first, Webster would not accept clemency and demanded a new
trial. By the time she warmed to a
pardon, public opinion had turned against her and she was carted off to prison
in January, 1845.
But on February 24, Webster was suddenly released, the beneficiary
of a “Free and Full” pardon. During the
negotiations, which had continued after she entered prison, one of the stipulations
was that Webster leave Kentucky forever.
But in her later account of her ordeal, she attributed her release to
little more than “a friendly feeling” on the part of Governor Owsley and insisted
that she had refused to accept the condition of permanent exile from the state.
“I could not think of pledging myself never to return,” she wrote.
Or could she? In the papers
of Governor Owsley’s grandson Robert Rodes, a Bowling Green, Kentucky lawyer
and state legislator, we find a handful of his correspondence. Included is a letter dated February 19, 1845,
five days before Webster’s release from prison.
Engrossed with the colorized countenance of Henry Clay, it reads:
Gov. of the State of Ky. His Excellency William Owsley
I am sorry if I gave
you an impression that I was not exceedingly anxious for a pardon. It is entirely erroneous. And if you will send me a Pardon or Respite,
I will pledge you my word to leave your State never to return.
Delia A. Webster
In any event, Webster did not honor her pledge. After a few years at home in Vermont, she bought a farm in Trimble County, Kentucky and resumed her activities with the Underground Railroad until driven off by angry locals.
There’s way more to the story of Delia Webster—for example, the scandalous letters sent to her by the lovesick warden of the prison where she had resided in her own private cottage. “They are quite amorous,” wrote Robert Rodes to his wife after they were published in the newspaper. “You must criticise them and give me some strictures in my communications to my love.” But Delia Webster’s contrite letter to Governor Owsley, part of the Rodes Collection in WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, shows that there may be more to her notorious pardon than previously understood.
Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword. On one side all is correct, definite, orderly; the paths are straight, the trees regular, the sun shaded; . . . she has only to walk demurely from cradle to grave and no one will touch a hair of her head. But on the other side all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course. – Virginia Woolf
How can one not wonder about the history of a woman named Sunshine? And yet the conventions of 19th-century femininity made it hard to know women, even one with a name like that.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky to Bavarian immigrants, Sunshine
Friedman was the baby of her family. In
1878, when Sunshine was six, the Friedmans moved to Paducah, where her older
brother Joseph had convinced his father to join him in his vinegar
As she grew up, Sunshine filled her high school autograph book with the scribbles of affectionate friends and relatives, including this one:
Sunshine Friedman is your name Single is your station Happy will be the man who makes the alteration.
And by any standard, “Sunny” made a good marriage. In 1892, she wed Max B. Nahm of Bowling Green, a Princeton law graduate and clothier who would become a wealthy bank executive and a leader in the movement to establish Mammoth Cave as a national park.
From the commodious Nahm home on College Street, Sunshine
reigned. By one account, she was “an
active volunteer in numerous community organizations, a whiz of a bridge
player, and the epitome of a dignified, Victorian lady.” But those Victorian values were painfully tested
by Sunshine’s only child, Emanie, born in 1893.
For better or worse, it was Emanie (far more open about her personal history than her mother’s generation) who tells us most of what we know about Sunshine. Clever, tomboyish in her youth, unconventional, and given to creative pursuits like writing and art, Emanie complained that her mother tried to suffocate her aspirations, warning her that men don’t like that sort of thing. Her parents took her to the New York theater every year, she remembered, but no other visual arts were on the agenda. The Nahm house was filled with books, but again, no pictures of any consequence. Her mother “wanted to tell me what to do,” Emanie groused, in stream-of-consciousness notes left in her papers. Though intimidated by this maternal presence, Emanie apparently reproduced it in her relationship with her own daughter.
And yet the women seem to have remained on good terms. Emanie left for New York, married, divorced, and enjoyed success as a writer and artist. Sunny traveled and took cruises with Emanie and her granddaughter, but by the 1930s heart disease was threatening to cut her life short. When Sunny died at 63, her friend Martha Potter watched rather uncomfortably as Emanie distributed her mother’s possessions. Martha received “her purple, velvet-jacket evening gown and a black coat suit with fox fur shoulders.” Seven months later, after lunching with Max (who outlived Sunshine by 20 years), Martha could only say, “We do miss Sunny very much.”
Although he had retired in 1892, Civil War veteran and
Warren County, Kentucky native Captain Richard Vance took great interest in all
aspects of his country’s prosecution of the Spanish-American War. Among the topics covered in his personal scrapbooks,
letters and essays was the plight of American soldiers who had volunteered for
the war only to be met with disease, poor camp conditions, and substandard food
and medical treatment.
For African-American soldiers, Vance realized that the
conditions were far worse. He noted
that, in spite of their outstanding gallantry, African-American troops could
not escape the racism of their white counterparts; in particular they “continued
to be despised objects in the estimation of southern volunteers.” Vance cited an example in which “certain
Virginia gentlemen (volunteers) refused to receive their pay because it was
offered to them by a Negro paymaster.”
He had heard stories of “disorders” in some African-American regiments,
but dismissed them as no worse than those in other volunteer
organizations. His own long military
experience had taught him “that the ‘white-washing’ process is invariably used
in such cases.”
Vance included clippings in his scrapbook to illustrate his
points. During the fierce battle around
Santiago, Cuba, read one report, African-American soldiers not only “fought
like devils” but came to the aid of the wounded, and when wounded themselves showed
“more nerve” under the surgeon’s knife “than many of their fellow soldiers of
lighter hue.” When the men returned
home, Louisville, Kentucky offered cheers for the 10th Cavalry—“The
Colored Heroes of San Juan Hill”—but as the troop trains passed through
Richmond, Texas and Meridian, Mississippi, they were targeted with gunfire. When Charles Mason Mitchell, a veteran of
Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, attempted to pay tribute to the bravery of
his African-American comrades during a lecture in Richmond, Virginia, he was
booed off the stage. “Is there a remedy
for these evils?” asked Vance.
“Yes. Unquestionably. Will it ever be applied? That remains to be seen.”