Saturday, September 26, 2009

Memories of Weather

Now that we have survived the Great Flood of 2009, here in Atlanta, Georgia, I am reminded that as we write memoirs and family histories, we need to keep in mind the impact and influence of weather. We have all heard the stories about our parents, as children having to walk to school in the middle of winter, when the thermometer measured below zero temperatures. Our parents were barefoot and walking uphill, both to and from school, and grateful they were able to do it! But what was it really like? What sort of impact did the weather have on our parents and grandparents? These are important questions to answer.

Just recently, I was interviewing a lady who had lived through, and experienced some of the most deadly hurricanes in Miami, Florida. She was just a young girl when the Hurricane of 1926 hit. Her family stayed in their home, on Cocoa Beach, during the storm that killed an estimated 375 people. Just two years later, her family spent the night in the Cocoa Beach jail house (her father was a police officer) when the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane hit. This storm killed more than 2800 people. Then, seven years later she sat through the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane that killed more than 400 people. Her husband was one of the men volunteering to search for survivors and recover bodies from the train wreckage of the Key West railroad extension. The train, fully loaded with evacuees, was blown off the tracks and into the water off of Upper Matecumbe Key.

Yet, this lady has never been terribly disturbed by the threats of hurricanes. As she told me in her interview, “You know when a hurricane is coming. You can prepare for it and survive. I would rather live with hurricanes than tornados. You never know when the tornados might hit.”

Just this small portion of her interview provides some fascinating and dramatic information. So, you see, consider weather as a topic of discussion in oral histories, memoirs, or family histories. Snow storms or tornados; hurricanes or floods; a discussion of weather and its impact on our lives is always worth discussing.

Friday, September 25, 2009

New Guatemalan Archives Sheds New Light

Here is an interesting report out of the Smithsonian about a recently discovered police archives in Guatemala. Here are millions of documents that may shed light on the 30 year Civil War in the country as well as document the outcome of many cases of the "desaparecidos" from the war.

Simply processing, or even becoming familiar with this huge collection may be an overwhelmingly long task. Yet, the information will prove to be a historians dream.

Read more:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Oakland Cemetery: Atlanta’s City of Angels

Exploring the cemeteries of Atlanta provides some interesting insight into the character of the city. Examining the mausoleums of Oakland Cemetery suggests a city of opulence in the midst of the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age was the time between 1870 and 1900 when great industrialists and great wealth emerged. Outward displays of this wealth were evident in every facet of life, including in death. Other cemetery symbols reveal the sorrow of death and the innocence of life, a child’s life, cut short.

At Oakland Cemetery; the city cemetery for Atlanta, Ga., from 1855 until the mid-1900s, a dominant feature seems to be an abundance of angles as grave markers and memorials. Each of these stone figures reveal a number of symbols, hope sand beliefs for the men and women buried in Atlanta’s silent city.

Some angels are the recorders of lives well lived and directional chaperones to a better after life. Angels holding books, with a quill pen, and possibly pointing heavenward, are common in the streets and paths of Oakland Cemetery. These figures could also serve as memorials to great and influential deeds, again going back to the “life well lived.”

Still other angels are angels of kindness or sympathy. These monuments are the memorials, generally to women, that highlight a life of blessed thoughtfulness and devotion; or “true sainthood.” Such is the case of Mary Glover Thurmond, who regularly would visit the sick and deliver flowers from her own garden. Her nephew arranged her monument, a tribute to a true angel and her compassion

Perhaps the most prominent of angels is Gabriel. He is the angel of glory; holding his horn ready to announce the second coming. At Oakland, he is the focal point of several family plots. The Joseph Brown plot is an outstanding example of Gabriel preparing to blow his horn.

There are an abundance of angels in Oakland Cemetery. Each of these angels, as with every symbol, represents something special for the dead and their families. Each of these silent figures gives a brief statement about the hopes and dreams, beliefs and expectations of the residents, and former residents, of Atlanta.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I’m Not Dead Yet!

Cemetery traditions of the nineteenth century include multiple tales of individuals, inadvertently, being buried alive. After all, prior to the invention of the stethoscope, there was no really accurate way of testing for a heartbeat. Best practices included holding a mirror to the mouth of the dead, to see if they were still breathing.

In order to reassure surviving family members that their kin would not be buried alive, coffin builders and morticians provided coffins with bells attached to the lid. A string would run into the coffin and tied to the finger of the dead. If the person stirred in the coffin, their hand would move and the bell would ring. In this way, the deceased could announce to the entire world, “I’m not dead yet!” And in this way save themselves from being buried alive.

Some historians suggest this fear of being buried alive was the original cause for the three day wake. Family members were expected to stay with the body for three days, giving close attention to witness any stirring or movement that might suggest there was still life in the corpse. This fear of being buried alive might also explain why early wakes were in the home. If someone were still living, they would find themselves lying near their own bed, in the comfort of their own home

Many cemeteries throughout the country built “bell rooms” for family members to continue the wake process.

A well known tale from Atlanta about this fear concerns the death of Dr. James Nissen, a physician visiting Atlanta at the time of his death. Nissen spoke to his good friend Dr. Noel D’Alvigny about his fears. He also extracted a promise from his friend that before he was covered in the ground, Dr. D’Alvigny would slice his jugular vein to insure Dr. Nissen was dead. As best as I can determine, the wish was carried out.

So, you see, the caring for the dead is a very tradition-rich process. Not only does it carry a number of associations with Judeo-Christian ethic, but there are many practical applications for the actions connected with preparing someone for burial. Perhaps, most important is the opportunity to announce: “I’m not Dead Yet!”

More Discouraging Economic News

There is more bad news on the economic front. The Free Library of Philadelphia will close its doors! This is perhaps the most tragic of recent events. The closure of an entire library is absolutely devastating news. It is an unspoken truth that needs to be vocalized over, and over, again: this action will hurt more than it will help. We need to rethink our priorities and economic policies when such ignominious actions result.

The official announcement follows:

All Free Library of Philadelphia Customers,

We deeply regret to inform you that without the necessary budgetary legislation by the State Legislature in Harrisburg, the City of Philadelphia will not have the funds to operate our neighborhood branch libraries, regional libraries, or the Parkway Central Library after October 2, 2009.

Specifically, the following will take effect after the close of business, October 2, 2009:

All branch and regional library programs, including programs for children and teens, after school programs, computer classes, and programs for adults, will be cancelled

All Parkway Central Library programs, including children programs, programs to support small businesses and job seekers, computer classes and after school programs, will be cancelled. We are exploring the possibility of relocating the Philadelphia Author Series programs to other non-library facilities.

All library visits to schools, day care centers, senior centers and other community centers will cease.

All community meetings at our branch and regional libraries, and the Parkway Central Library, will be cancelled.

All GED, ABE and ESL programs held at Free Library branches will be discontinued, students should contact their teacher to see if other arrangements are being made.

In addition, all library materials will be due on October 1, 2009. This will result in a diminishing borrowing period for books and other library materials, beginning September 11, 2009. No library materials will be able to be borrowed after September 30, 2009.

Even as we remain hopeful that the State Legislature will act and pass the enabling funding legislation, we wanted to notify all of our customers of this very possible outcome. If you have any questions about impacts to Free Library services, call 215-686-5322, or visit the Free Library of Philadelphia website at If you have questions about changes to City services, or if you want to be kept informed about this situation, we encourage you to contact Philly 311 by calling 3-1-1 between the hours of 8am and 8 pm Monday-Friday, and 9am-5pm Saturdays, e-mail, or visit the City of Philadelphia website at

Finally, recognize Dick Eastman and his diligent work for bringing this news to the broader public audience.