History is Personal

Edwards, Wilson County

Edwards graveyard, Wilson County, Tenn. (photo: author)

A trip to the New York Public Library’s Milstein Division this week with three friends was a chance to catch up on the progress we’re making with our family genealogies. Each of us has made surprising discoveries—a grandfather who, as a baby, was left at the doorstep of a foundling hospital; Tennessee Civil War veterans who lived the agonizing struggle of “brother against brother”; the ancestor who lived next door to the real-life House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, and was a member of the Salem Grand Jury two decades before the witch trials; the family grave markers revealing sons who died within days of each other in the 1918 influenza outbreak. I even know the names and a bit of the history of the ships that brought some of my ancestors to America in 1633 and the early 1900’s (Griffin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Amerika).

All writers can find inspiration in history, says a recent blog on the Writer magazine website by Hillary Casavant. From my own experience, looking at lives reduced to a few lines transcribed from some 180-year-old deed book, or the estate inventory that includes not only “a cowe and hoggs,” but also salt, pepper, and a coffee pot makes you think about what was valuable in a person’s life generations ago. (As a measure of changing living standards, my household has four coffee-pots and three tea-pots. No cowe or hoggs, though.)

These shards of insight prompt the thought, “I’d like to know the story behind that.” Just such an impulse set a writing colleague on a path to research one of her ancestors, born in the late 1800’s—the first woman to serve as a probation officer in the London criminal courts. Information is scattered, and she has the challenge of writing a fictionalized history. Another writer friend is compiling a set of essays on her family’s history that is closer to a conventional memoir, but viewed through a psychological lens—a thoughtful analysis of how a father’s treatment of his sons echoes through the family generations later.

Writers use history in many different ways to “make it real.” From my recent reading, additional examples are Robert Harris’s An Officer and A Spy, a novelization of the infamous Dreyfus case, in which all the players are known, and the mystery The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty, which uses the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland’s HM Prison Maze not only as a backdrop but weaves it into the actions and motivations of the fictional characters. Movies plow this ground endlessly. I really enjoyed The Monuments Men, which, although it prompted inevitable historical quibbles, stayed closer to real experience than the more highly fictionalized The Train, the 1964 Burt Lancaster/Paul Scofield movie on the same theme, which I saw again on TV last night. (Illustrating how far from real life Hollywood must sometimes stray, Wikipedia reports that Lancaster injured his knee playing golf, and to explain his limp, the movie added a scene in which he is shot while crossing a pedestrian bridge. Also, the executions of a couple of characters occurred because the actors had other “contractual obligations.”)

Casavant provides links to websites that can provide historical inspiration, including the

lists of history facts in Mental Floss, a blog of noteworthy letters, and the Library of Congress’s 14.5 million photo and graphic archive. To her suggestions, I’d add that one’s own family history, the unique combinations of external events and internal dynamics that made them who they were, can also be a rich resource. In a sense, it’s a recasting of the much-abused advice to writers to “write what you know.” Or, as George Packer has said (his ancestors lived adjacent to mine on Hurricane Creek in Wilson County, Tennessee, BTW), “History, any history, confers meaning on a life.”


Starting to think seriously about my next vacation—only a few weeks away now—prompted by yet another flight detail change from United. The trip will start in Budapest, then float south along the Danube to Bucharest. On the journey, the boat will slip easily through the Iron Gate, the gorge separating Romania and the Carpathian Mountains on the north from Serbia and the Balkan mountain foothills on the south. Dams constructed over a 20-year period, ending in 1984, have turned what used to be a wild stretch of river into something more like a lake.

But the Iron Gates of my imagination, the ones I hope to see in my mind’s eye, are as they are described in Alan Furst’s thrillers. In his books, set in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the Iron Gates were a perilous passage for desperate people—spies, refugees, terrorists, anyone caught up in the tightening net of loyalties and politics of a looming World War II:

“He would have to cross the Russian lines, would have to go through the white water at the Iron Gate, where the Duna [Danube] came crashing down onto the Wallachian plain to form the border between Romania and Bulgaria.” – Night Soldiers

“Europe was lost behind them—after the Iron Gate they were in a different land, a different time, running along the great plain that reached to the edge of the Black Sea.” – Night Soldiers

A few days in Budapest, an infamous spy town, is another something to look forward to:

“On 10 March 1930, the night train from Budapest pulled into the Gare du Nord a little after four in the morning. . . . In the station at Vienna, a brick had been thrown at the window of a first-class compartment, leaving a frosted star in the glass. And later that day there’d been difficulties at the frontiers for some of the passengers, so in the end the train was late getting into Paris.”—Kingdom of Shadows

“Difficulties at the frontiers”—we can imagine exactly what those difficulties were—“for some of the passengers”—and exactly who those terrified passengers were. Laced with foreboding, those lines open Furst’s thriller Kingdom of Shadows.

Other than a literary interest in things Budapestian, I have a family history interest as well. Legend has it that my grandmother (who died when I was a toddler) was a pastry chef in Budapest before immigrating to the United States. The disappointing kernel of the story is that none of her six daughters learned the art. She came from the generation that wanted to put the Old Country behind it. Truthfully, she had to have been quite young—twenty?—when she came over, so “chef” may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s a pleasant thought and one that will require eating as much pastry as possible in homage.

Another feature of this trip is a three-day add-on excursion into Transylvania—ancestral home of my grandfather, who came from a tiny village annexed to the marginally larger village of Székelykeresztúr (“Holy Cross” in Hungarian) in 1926. Google maps gives the larger town no more than 12 streets. My grandfather’s home was about eight miles from the medieval walled town of Sighisoara, birthplace of Count Dracula. I have Transylvania roots, for sure.

So, of course I enjoyed reading The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, about a woman researching her family’s history who traverses that part of the world and at every step finds connections to Our Vlad.  “Genuinely terrifying,” said the Boston Globe.

Lots to look forward to, and I have my reading for the trip all lined up:

I’ve provided links to amazon.com, in case you want more info about any of these books, but of course would encourage you to make any purchases at your local independent bookstore!

The Real British Princesses

I discovered Jerrold Packard’s book, Queen Victoria’s Daughters, at a library book sale and couldn’t pass it up. Five of Victoria and Albert’s children were girls, and she doted on several of them, particularly her eldest and possibly brightest child, Vicky. By contrast, she never warmed to her oldest son, Bertie, even though he was destined to be King Edward VII. Cozy domestic life is associated with the Victorian era, but the Queen wasn’t a terribly involved or nurturing mother. Later, when her girls were married, she provided bad political advice—to Vicky especially, whom she persuaded to maintain her Englishness after marriage to her Prussian husband, Fritz. This alienated his parents (the emperor and empress), the stifling Prussian court, and, worst, estranged her from her three oldest children, including the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, England’s great enemy in World War I.

Victoria searched for appropriate royal husbands for the girls among the minor and now bygone German royal houses. Compassionate Alice, second oldest, married Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, plain Helena married Christian, Prince of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, and the youngest, Beatrice, married Henry, Prince of Battenberg. All the girls made royal marriages except Louise, the artistic fourth daughter and reportedly the most beautiful, who married John, future 9th Duke of Argyll. Although John’s father headed the Highland clan of Campbells, one of Britain’s oldest and most prominent families, the lack of royal blood created controversy across Europe.

Ironically, the issue of royal blood was no minor matter. Queen Victoria was a carrier of the hemophilia gene. Statistically, half her sons were likely to be afflicted, and any minor injury could bring on a fatal hemorrhage. Son Leopold inherited this damaged gene and died at age 30 after a fall. Of Victoria’s daughters, Louise and Beatrice were carriers. The disease had devastating effects on a number of Victoria’s 40 grandchildren in several royal families.

In addition to Vicky’s marriage to one German emperor and motherhood of another, her daughter Sophie married Constantine, king of Greece; Alice’s daughter Alexandra married Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia, both of them murdered by Bolsheviks in 1918, along with their four daughters and son (a hemophiliac); Beatrice’s daughter Victoria Eugenie became queen of Spain.

English royalty’s multigenerational affiliations with German families—the Hanovers, Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and her children’s marriages—created political problems after the Great War. The wartime king, George V, renamed the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family after the longtime home of the British monarchy, Windsor. Members of the Battenberg family, into which Princess Beatrice married, Anglicized its name to Mountbatten.

Victoria’s reign seems both long ago, in terms of the massive intervening cultural changes, and quite recent historically. Her last daughter, Beatrice, died in 1944, and her last grandchild, the unhappy queen of Spain, in 1969. Meanwhile, Victoria will be the great-great-great-great-great grandmother of William and Kate’s baby (baby-William-Charles-Elizabeth-George VI-George V-Edward VII-Victoria).

I recommend this highly readable and fascinating book for anyone interested in British history, women’s history, or the intricacies and political shenanigans of 19th c. royal households.

Paris: The Early Detectives (Updated)

Paris in the 19th and early 20th century was in creative ferment and in love with modernism—and the scandalous. In areas like Montmarte, “people went to abandon their inhibitions”; low-rent neighborhoods attracted people on the brittle edge of society; guillotinings were held at odd hours in the vain hope of reducing the crowds of spectators; crime stories were insanely popular; and real-life criminals and anarchists were hailed as heroes.

The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection, by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler describes this world and the ongoing war between the criminals and the Sureté detectives intent on stopping them. They anchor their story with the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa and loop backward from there to trace the increasingly scientific methods used to identify malefactors. One of the most successful was a system of measuring and classifying facial and other physical features created by Alphonse Bertillon. By 1900, detectives throughout Europe and the United States used “bertillonage” to identify criminals until the system was replaced by fingerprinting. A reference to Bertillon even appears in The Hound of the Baskervilles, as a rival to Sherlock Holmes.

History, in its tendency to repeat itself, is reviving Bertillon’s concept as biometrics; in today’s incarnation, computers much more accurately measure facial data points. The Mona Lisa was recovered in 1913, and the Hooblers present several plausible “who, how, and why” scenarios, but it’s clear that if the man who possessed it hadn’t turned it over to art experts in Florence, the skills of the detectives of a hundred years ago would never have found it!

Genealogical footnote: When the Mona Lisa went missing, the authorities stopped all ships leaving France and notified destination ports of ships recently departed. When the German liner Kaiser Wilhelm II steamed into New York harbor some days later, U.S. authorities searched the ship and passengers thoroughly. The Kaiser Wilhelm II was the boat on which my grandfather emigrated from Hungary in October 1906. Alfred Stieglitz’s famous photograph below, The Steerage, suggests what his voyage would have been like.


 June 2013 Update: a remarkable show of drawings and prints by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec appears this summer at the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley, and is one of the first museum’s outside Europe to host this large collection. The show includes some recently found print of famous works that have retained their color–looking as fresh now as they were when pulled from the presses 120 years ago!  Lautrec captured the world of Montmartre the Hooblers describe–the singers and dancers, the whores, the denizens of the bars and cafes–to a greater degree than most artists would, because he was as attentive to depicting members of the audience as the was a black-gloved chanteuse. If you can’t visit in person (exhibit available until September 1), you can read about it here.

Loose Ends and Dead Ends

Last spring my cousins Jola and Calva emailed pictures of their pilgrimage to the Edwards family plot at Osage Cemetery, Coryell County, Texas. The Edwardses are my mother’s father’s family, and as a child visiting my grandparents in Lubbock, I felt lost in a forest of legs. Tall men, my many uncles and great-uncles were made taller by their sweat-stained Stetsons.

Seeing the cemetery pictures, I started thinking about these men and their wives, where they came from, and what their lives were like. All much too late to ask my mother, who would eagerly have recounted stories about her family and her own childhood, riding a horse to school and helping as all kids did then to farm the flat, uncongenial land.

In August Jola and I picked up the thread, visiting Wilson County, Tennessee, just east of Nashville, where we knew our great-grandfather had lived before resettling in Central Texas in the late 1860s. Central Tennessee was devastated by the Civil War, and thousands of families picked up and moved, leaving little more than “GTT” painted on their front doors—Gone To Texas. For me to write up our findings and follow the few new leads we uncovered would take a week or two, I thought. The task has consumed me all fall. And I still have a bulging e-file named “loose ends and dead ends.”

One of my first challenges was to disentangle our family from much spurious genealogical information about the “Edwards family fortune.” In the 1700’s, the legend goes, a Welsh sea captain named Robert Edwards leased 77 acres of land in New York to a church, which was to return it to his heirs after 99 years. By the time the lease expired in 1877, much about New York had changed. The church was Trinity Church in lower Manhattan and the acreage included Wall Street and (now) World Trade. A multi-billion dollar trust fund is supposedly attached to the property, with the convincing detail that it is housed in the Chase Manhattan Bank. Periodic efforts to claim this land—the most recent only a dozen years ago—have accomplished little more than bilk money from gullible Edwards family members. The claim has been unsuccessfully brought before the courts numerous times and the families’ documentary “evidence” shown to be forgeries. Yet, misinformation persists, along with fake family trees connecting this or that Edwards branch to the Robert Edwards.

A few years ago, I met a doctor whose last name was Edwards at a social function, and I mentioned my mother was an Edwards. He immediately said, “I’m not one of the rich ones!”  And, if my researchers are correct, we aren’t either.