My ‘Big Idea’

I get a lot of big ideas, some of which I actually follow through with.

For example, I’ve run several ultra-marathons, biked the 184-mile Chesapeake & Ohio canal trail, and about 10 years ago, I wrote, directed, edited and starred in my own short film, “Spook Baby.”

The 28-minute horror/comedy is about the ghost of a dead baby that wreaks havoc at an Appalachian family reunion. You can watch it on Vimeo if you’re interested.

My most recent ambitious project involves the letters of Amherst County, Va., slave owner William Macon Waller. Over the fall and winter of 1847-48, Waller walked 20 or so slaves more than 900 miles from Virginia to Mississippi, where he sold them. Along way, he wrote letters home to friends and family.

Off and on for the past couple of years, I’ve been transcribing Waller’s letters and researching every aspect of them: the route they took, the people they met along the way, the towns they passed through, what happened to each slave, etc. My plan is to write a book, but the research could take years, even decades.

As daunting as this project sounds, I read a book recently that gives me hope, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” by Timothy Egan. It’s a biography of photographer and anthropologist Edward Sheriff Curtis. Curtis is perhaps best known for his photos of Native Americans, many of which are included in his 20-volume book series, “The North American Indian.”

Curtis, a self-taught photographer with a grade-school education, worked on what he called his “Big Idea” for about 30 years, from around 1900 to 1930. Thinking Native American culture, language and even the people themselves would soon disappear, Curtis traveled the continent, taking photographs and documenting the language and culture of North America’s first people.

He worked at a frenetic pace, making 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings. Along the way, he became not only a photographer and anthropologist, but an activist. But it all came at a great personal cost.

Over the years, he sacrificed all of his money and energy, and in the end received no compensation for his seminal work. He was so determined to finish his “Big Idea” that he sold the rights to his books, sold his photos and plates, and took no salary. His marriage ended and other relationships suffered, but on he went.

If nothing else, reading about what Curtis went through gives me hope that my “Big Idea” also can happen.

So, in 2017, I plan to travel to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond and to courthouses in Mississippi and Louisiana. There are university archives to visit in various states, and I won’t be surprised if I end up at the National Archives. I’ve already spent countless hours online, searching genealogy websites and newspaper archives, and I’m sure I will spend countless more.

I also hope to have to have a little luck along the way.

One thing I’m looking for are family papers. There are several family names involved in this project — Waller, Mitchell, Massie, Taliaferro, Davis, Dabney and others. I’ve been able to find some of these papers in university and other archives, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a shoe box crammed full of letters in somebody’s attic.

And hopefully, this shoe box will help solve the mystery of what happened to the enslaved people who made the walk from Virginia to Mississippi with Waller: Sarah and child, Henry, Lucy, Louisa, Sarah Ann, Ellin, India, Foster, Pleasant, Charlotte, Anderson, Susan, McDonald and Emily, and others whose names I don’t yet know.

And hopefully, it’ll lead me to some of their modern-day descendants, who might like to know about the brave, incredible journey their ancestors took almost 170 years ago.

More terrible things discovered by accident

One day, while perusing the Internet when I should have been doing paying work, I happened upon a website that lists people executed in the U.S. from 1607 to 1976.

If you read my blog regularly, you know I’m drawn to morbid subjects. I can’t help it.

A few months ago, I wrote about “The ‘terrible death’ of Conrad Cramer,” a boy who was trampled to death by a mule. More recently, I investigated a church “stampede” that happened in Lynchburg, Va., in 1878. Eight women were killed, one of which leaped from a window to her death.

Seriously, though, what drives me isn’t entirely morbid curiosity but a desire to tell little-known stories from history. Some of them just happen to be gruesome.

The execution website includes slaves as well as free people. While browsing the section on Louisiana — you can search by state and other criteria — I found lots of people put to death for the crime of “slave revolt.”

The preferred method of execution for this crime in Louisiana, between 1730 and 1754 at least, appears to have been something called “break on wheel.” I’d never heard of this, so I did what all good, amateur historians do: I Googled it.

The breaking wheel, as it was called, was a torture device used to execute people. As one might expect, it used a wheel — think wagon wheel — to which the condemned was strapped. Then, the executed person was bludgeoned to death. Bones were broken, sometimes it took days, and sometimes breaking on the wheel was followed up with the person being drawn and quartered.

There were all kinds of variations.

At least one website claimed the French term “coup de grâce” comes from the breaking wheel. Translated as “blows of mercy,” it refers to when an executioner lands a fatal blow to make the execution go quicker and thus, more mercifully.

In short, death by the breaking wheel sounds terrible and you can read more about it here. There also are pictures.

Numerous Central Virginians were on this execution list, too, including six slaves who were hanged in 1863 for murdering their master. Their names were Armstead, George, Seaton, Bet, Jane and Sarah. Their owner was Gen. Terisha Washington Dillard, an Amherst County lawyer and farmer.

H.J. Stephens (1824-1882) lithograph, “Blow for Blow,” dated 1863. Library of Congress.

The U.S. Civil War Soldiers Index on FamilySearch lists a Terisha W. Dillard, who served as a colonel in the 90th Regiment (Amherst County), Virginia Militia during the Civil War. Perhaps one of those ranks, general or colonel, was a 19th-century typo. I guess it’s not all that important, but I get bogged down in stuff like that sometimes.

Dillard and his family lived at Islington, a James River plantation near the Stapleton community in Amherst County.

As reported in the May 13, 1863, edition of The Daily Virginian (the Lynchburg newspaper) the murder took place on May 9, while Dillard was supervising work on an island near his home.

According to the book “More Passages: A New History of Amherst County, Virginia,” by Sherrie S. McLeRoy and William P. McLeRoy, the island was called Buffalo Island. It was located in the James River, across from Islington.

Doug Harvey, director of the Lynchburg Museum System, said some plantation owners had gardens on islands in the James River. The well-known Cabell family, for example, owned several islands for this purpose, he said. The Cabells owned Point of Honor, a grand home in Lynchburg’s Daniel’s Hill neighborhood that overlooks the river.

Dillard’s murder was reported in several newspapers, including The Richmond Sentinel, the Alexandria Gazette and The Abingdon Virginian. Here’s what The Daily Virginian had to say about it:

Brutal Murder — Gen. Terisha W. Dillard, of Amherst Co., was brutally murdered by some of his servants, on Saturday last. We learn that he was superintending some work he was having done on an island in the James River, near his residence, in which six hands were employed — four women and two men — when the fiendish purpose of his murder was executed.

He was caught and held by the men, and the women inflicted the fatal blows. His body, we are informed, was horribly cut and mangled, presenting a shocking spectacle of mutilation. After the diabolic deed had been performed, the remains were covered up in the sand, but soon two of the women made confessions of the crime, and with the two men, were arrested. The others are yet at large.

Gen. Dillard was a gentleman of high standing, and much esteemed. At one time, he was director of one of the banks of this city.

The news of Dillard’s grisly murder even made it to Winchester, Tenn., where the Daily Bulletin reported it this way:

Horrible Murder in Amherst, Va. — The distressing intelligence that General Terisha W. Dillard was brutally murdered by two of his own slaves on Saturday evening last reached us yesterday. No particulars of this foul deed have been received, other than the fact that one of the murderers had been arrested and confessed his crime, and the other had made his escape.

General Dillard was a lawyer of prominence and a gentleman of fine talents and popular manners, and the announcement of his untimely and cruel death will fall with crashing force upon his numerous family connections and a number of friends. — Lynchburg Republican, 12th

As usual, newspaper accounts varied, with some papers reporting two suspects and others six, and the number of male and female suspects differing as well. According to the MeLeRoys, some people even thought Dillard’s wife was involved, too. “One local legend,” they wrote, “says the murder was inspired by Dillard’s cruel nature [and] that even his wife Mary Elizabeth was implicated in the plot.”

When the slaves were hanged a few weeks later, the number also differs at five as opposed to the six listed on the executions website. On June 22, 1863, the Richmond Daily Dispatch reported, “The negroes of General Dillard, five in number, convicted of his murder, were hung at Amherst County Court House, Va.”

As described by the McLeRoys, the slaves were hanged at the aptly named “Gallows Field,” which was located “near the modern Amherst Junior High School.” Though it was rumored that Mrs. Dillard was hanged as well, the McLeRoys found no evidence of that.

Notes: For readability purposes, I corrected some misspellings/punctuation issues in the newspaper articles. And thanks to Doug Harvey and the Lynchburg Museum System and Chuck Bradner with Jones Memorial Library for their help with this article.

DNA Results are Back!

Kiss me, I’m four-percent Irish!

OK, don’t kiss me — unless you’re my husband, and then you can kiss me all you want — but I am four-percent Irish. That’s according to the “ethnicity estimate” on my AncestryDNA test results, which I received via email a few days before Christmas.

A few weeks before that, I blogged about sending off my DNA sample. At the time, I wondered what surprises might be contained in that small vial of saliva. Well, I’m here to tell you the results weren’t earth-shattering, but were definitely interesting.

According to my DNA test, I am composed of the following:

36 percent Western Europe (Germany, France, Switzerland, etc.)
34 percent Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales)
11 percent Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal, northern Morocco and Tunisia)
8 percent Scandinavia
4 percent Ireland
3 percent Italy/Greece
2 percent Finland/Northwest Russia
1 percent Caucasus (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, the “Stans,” etc.)
Less than 1 percent Eastern European

The three surprising things  — I figure the Scandinavians were Vikings who sailed to Britain or somewhere like that — were the 11-percent Iberian Peninsula, the one-percent Caucasus, and the fact that there was not even the tiniest bit of Native American.

The lack of connection to America’s first people blows apart some of the oral history from my mom’s side of the family, particularly that my great-great grandpa, John Wesley Miles, was half Native American. It’s a story I heard a lot, growing up, but according to my DNA test, there’s nothing to support it.

I blogged about John Miles, who was a colorful character to say the least, several months ago and you can read that article here.

john w_0001
Oral history in my mom’s family says John Wesley Miles, my great-great-grandpa, was half Native American.

My great-great-grandma, Josephine Lee Miles, always looked Native American to me, but alas, there’s nothing in my DNA to prove that either. You can see a picture of Josephine, taken with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, here.

As most of the family names I’ve seen in my genealogy are British or German, who these Iberians are is a mystery. It could, however, be related to the “Black Dutch” rumor in my mom’s family. When you Google “Black Dutch,” you do come up with Melungeon, and one of the stories about Melungeons is that they were descendants of Portuguese sailors, or claimed to be.

As for my other family history mysteries — what John Miles was doing in the West for 20 years, for example — maybe I’ll find answers from some of the many cousins I’m now connected to on the AncestryDNA site. It will take a lot of work and luck, but if I unravel anything, I’ll let you know.

The 2016 Book List

In tenth grade, I read “Gone with the Wind” during three weeks of classes. I remember sitting in my economics class — front row to boot — and my teacher saying, “Suzanne, put the book away.”

Looking back, regardless of the hot water I got into for ignoring my teachers for nearly a month, it was totally worth it.

A few years ago, I reread “Gone with the Wind,” revisiting the it’s 1,000-plus pages for the first time in 30 years. While I enjoyed Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era story the second time around, reading the book as an adult was quite a different experience.

To be honest, based on its negative stereotypes of African Americans, I’m pretty amazed “Gone with the Wind” hasn’t been torched in piles.

It was also during high school that my interest in history was piqued, perhaps by “Gone with the Wind,” but most likely by “Gizelle, Save the Children!”

The nonfiction book, which I checked out of the school library, was about a Hungarian Jewish girl named Gizelle whose mother implores her to save her siblings during the Holocaust.

“Gizelle, Save the Children!” was the first of many books I’ve read since then about the Holocaust and World War II. Most of these books have been biographical, centering on the experiences of specific individuals.

One I read this past year was fictional, but no less gripping.

All The Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr, tells two colliding stories — of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Warner, an orphaned German boy who longs to be an engineer. The story is set in France and Germany during World War II. So I don’t spoil the plot, I’ll just say I mourned a little when the last page was turned.

Here are the other 13 books I read during 2016:

A Walk in the Woods” (Bill Bryson)
The funny story of Bill Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. This life-affirming book made me believe that I, too, can attempt anything, even if it doesn’t work out exactly as planned.

“The Road to Wellville” (T. Coraghessan Boyle)
A novel set around the turn of the 20th century at the famous Kellogg sanatorium in Michigan. I blogged about this book a few months ago.

“True Grit” (Charles Portis)
The story of an Arkansas teenager determined to avenge the murder of her father in 1870s Indian Country. I also blogged about this book.

Dead Wake” (Erik Larson, who also wrote “Devil in the White City,” another good book.)
This book tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven” (Mitch Albom)
A novel about a man who learns lessons in the afterlife. I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did.

My Name is Asher Lev” (Chaim Potok)
The fictional story of a Hasidic Jewish boy who just wants to be a painter, and the struggles that result.

And The Dead Shall Rise” (Steve Oney)
About the 1913 Atlanta murder of Mary Phagan and the subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, the man accused of killing her. (While fascinating, this extremely well-researched tome took forever to read and I blame it for not achieving my 19-book goal this year.)

“The Prince of Tides” and “South of Broad” (Pat Conroy)
The former is my all-time favorite book, and as for the latter, I don’t know why I waited so long to read it. In each book, set in the South Carolina Lowcountry, the late-Pat Conroy tells the story of a dysfunctional family with secrets — and he does it in the most beautifully written way.

Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves” (Sana Butler)
In late 1990s through early 2000s, author Sana Butler was on a quest to interview the children of African-American slaves. And, yes, she finds several still alive.

For the Glory” (Duncan Hamilton)
A biography of Eric Liddell, the famous sprinter from the “Chariots of Fire” story.

Fast Girl” (Suzy Favor Hamilton)
Tells the true story of Olympic middle-distance runner turned Las Vegas call girl Suzy Favor Hamilton and her battle with bipolar disorder.

“The Coalwood Way” (Homer Hickam)
A memoir by NASA engineer Homer Hickam about growing up in West Virginia coal country.

Navajo riders in Canyon de Chelly, photographed by Edward S. Curtis (c. 1904). Published in “The North American Indian.” Library of Congress.

Currently, I’m reading, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” Timothy Egan’s biography of Edward S. Curtis. Curtis (1868-1952) is famous for his iconic photographs of Native Americans, such as the one pictured above.

The photographs were published in his 20-volume book series, “The North American Indian.” Curtis worked on the project for three decades. Photos from the series can be viewed on the Library of Congress website.

Also, I was given several books for Christmas — among them “The Boys in the Boat” and Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad” — so 2017 should be a good year for reading.

Happy New Year and happy reading!

My cat, Hector, tucked in beside one of our many bookshelves.