Sergei Troubetzkoy talks symbolism at Presbyterian Cemetery Sunday, Aug. 6

On Sunday, Aug. 6, Lynchburg’s historic Presbyterian Cemetery will host its final “Sunday Stroll” of the year. The hour-long, guided tour will begin at 2 p.m. at the cemetery office. The cost is $5.

The tour will be led by Sergei Troubetzkoy, who will talk about the symbolism used on tombstones and cemetery statuary.

Troubetzkoy has many years of experience in the tourism industry in Lynchburg, Richmond, Staunton and other places around Virginia. He also wrote a book about Staunton, Va., for Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series.

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch. Notable people buried there include Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington), Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist commonly known as “Queena” Stovall) and others.

There also are more than 200 Civil War soldiers buried at Presbyterian Cemetery.

‘The Thing’ (A Fish Story)

One of the families I’ve been researching as part of my big book project is that of Col. Thomas Smith Dabney, a Virginian who moved to Hinds County, Miss., in 1835. He was a plantation owner, slave owner, and father to 16 children with his wife, Sophia.

Col. Dabney lived in a house called Burleigh, which was located about 10 miles from Raymond, Miss. My friend, Paula, and I went to Raymond during our research trip to Mississippi this past spring.

Burleigh was torn down many years ago, and despite our best efforts, we could only get the most approximate idea of where it was located.

Col. Dabney bought Henry, one of William Macon Waller’s slaves. To give you a quick recap, Waller and his slaves traveled through Hinds County in the winter of 1848. They were on the way to Natchez, Miss., where Waller planned to sell about 20 of his slaves to cover some debts.

Along the way in Raymond, Waller sold several slaves, including Henry, to Dabney and his neighbors. That would be the main reason I’m researching the Dabneys: to try to find out what ultimately happened to Henry.

I’ve also been reading, “Memorials of a Southern Planter,” written by Col. Dabney’s daughter, Susan Dabney Smedes. She wrote the book in the 1880s, after her father’s death. Knowing history would not be kind to slave owners and thinking highly of her father, she wanted to tell the story of his life and put him in the best light possible for posterity’s sake.

The other day, my research of the Dabneys took me to the University of Virginia, more specifically, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. There are Dabney family papers there, many related to Richard Heath Dabney, a grandson of Col. Dabney’s and a former professor and dean at U.Va.

In one box of Dabney family papers, I found a journal, written by Virginius Dabney, the colonel’s son and Richard’s father. It told stories of his life at Burleigh and summers at Pass Christian, Miss., where the Dabneys had a vacation home.

This particular story — a fish story — was from Virginius’ childhood, and probably occurred sometime in the early to mid-1840s. He wrote the story down in 1890, when he was in his mid-50s.

While fishing on the Gulf of Mexico with his father and a third, unnamed person, what Virginius describes as a “mysterious object” breaks their fishing line over and over again. It happens every day for a week to 10 days, and eventually earns the creature a nickname: “The Thing.”

I’ll let Virginius take over from here:

We called the mysterious object that robbed us of our hooks daily “The Thing,” and every morning as we rowed out we were filled with intense excitement in the expectation and hope of discovering what it was. My father was in constant hope that this mysterious monster would tackle his man-eater hook, and at last he did so.

He had given me previous instructions [of] exactly what I was to do when he called out “The Thing!” One morning, seizing the line which was slowly gliding beneath him he cried out, “I’ve got him! Untie the boat!” I fell over the thwarts (seats) in my haste to seize the rope, draw up the boat, and untie the rope, but before I could do so my father gave an exclamation of disgust as he found that his line had parted.

This carried our excitement to the highest possible pitch. Next morning we lost all interest in our ordinary fishing and thought only of The Thing, for whose benefit my father had provided a new hook. We continued to lose our small hooks for a week longer, but at last my father gave me the welcome order to untie.

Then began one of the strangest struggles between man and unknown monster that I have ever witnessed.

Whatever it was, he could not break the line, for not only did my father play him but as he moved hither and thither the boat danced lightly over the water and made it impossible for the creature to break the line.

This struggle lasted for perhaps half an hour without our being able to form the least idea of what we had hooked. Backwards and forwards, against the tide and with it, we were dragged on the surface of the water which at last began to grow very muddy. The water where we fished was not more than 12 or 14 feet deep.

Sometimes, the creature would stand perfectly still and with the boat just above him my father would pull steady without moving whatever it was in the least. But at the close of half an hour he said that he thought it was rising, and soon we saw that this was true. Slowly at a half inch at a time the line was pulled in, then stood still, then moved another half inch, the mud meantime boiling up around the boat in torrents.

“Get the harpoon ready” cried my father.

I did so, and stood leaning over the gunwale of the boat with uplifted arm ready to strike. No three fishermen were ever more profoundly excited than we were as we awaited the slow approach of this mysterious denizen of the deep.

At last something shadowy and dark became … visible and shortly after we found that we had caught an immense sting-ray — one of the most terrible fish of those waters. This particular specimen was about five feet in diameter with a tail which resembled in shape a cow-hide several feet in length, armed with that terrible jagged and poisonous dagger which renders them so terrible.

As soon as he came within a foot of the surface I plunged the harpoon through his body. In his rage, he began to ply upon it with his terrific tail which he waved above his back, cutting great plys [sic] out of the hard wood with every stroke.

We could not take him in the boat, but rowed ashore towing him by line and harpoon. It was the most toilsome row that I ever had — so great was the resistance of his disc-shaped body. But we were determined to bring him to the shore to show to my mother and sisters, who had also been wrought up to the highest state of excitement by our accounts of our previous adventures with The Thing.

It will be remembered that Capt. John Smith was near death at the mouth of the James river by being stung by one of these terrible fish.

Thoughts on Yellow Fever

A few days ago, husband John and I were on our way somewhere, probably out to eat, when I noticed, flitting around the car’s dashboard, a mosquito.

Normally, a mosquito wouldn’t cause me great amounts of alarm. After all, it’s July, I live in the South, and it was hot and humid. It’s expected, once in a while, to see and even be bitten by a mosquito.

But instead of my usual annoyance at having a mosquito in the car, I had a moment of abject terror. Why? Because at the time I was reading a book about the yellow fever.

In case you’re not familiar with yellow fever, which arrived in the United States from Africa, thanks to the slave trade, it sounds terrible.

Yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes — the Aedes aegypti variety, to be exact. The symptoms include headache, fever, delirium, vomiting black stuff and literally turning yellow. If death comes, and it often does, it’s swift.

Yellow Jack Monster
This drawing, “Yellow Jack Monster,” by Matthew Somerville Morgan, 1839-1890, depicts “Yellow Jack,” another name for yellow fever, attacking a woman. Library of Congress.

In 1878, a particularly awful yellow fever epidemic hit the Mississippi River valley. According to some reports, it infected about 120,000 people, killing somewhere between 13,000 and 20,000. People were hysterical and everyone was worried about where “Yellow Jack” might strike next.

On this website, you can read more about the 1878 epidemic and look at drawings and other documents related to it.

One of the places yellow fever hit in 1878 was Hinds County, Miss. For those who read this blog regularly, Hinds County is one of the places I’m researching for a book I’m writing about a particular story from the overland slave trade.

Without going into lots of details, a few months ago, I was trying to find one of the “characters” in my book, a man named Beverly Mitchell. And by “find” I mean I was trying to find evidence of him, somewhere in the public record, after 1849. After much searching, I was having no luck.

After reading about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, however, I had a thought: “Maybe I can’t find Beverly Mitchell because he’s dead.” So, I tracked down a list of people who died of the yellow fever in Hinds County in 1878.

Sorry, Beverly, but I sincerely hoped you had died of yellow fever so I could move on to something else, but after scouring the list, I was disappointed — again, sorry, I’m a terrible person — not to find Beverly Mitchell among the dead.

In looking over the section on Dry Grove, one of the communities in Hinds County, I noticed lots of people with the same last names: five members of the Caston family, four Flewellens, five Stewarts and as many Williamses.

The same was true for other areas of the county. I can only imagine how terrified people were.

So, think about that the next time you see a mosquito fluttering around your car! You’re welcome!

Architectural tour at Presbyterian Cemetery July 2

On Sunday, July 2, Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery will host its fourth “Sunday Stroll” of the year. The hour-long, guided tour, which has an architectural theme, will begin at 2 p.m. at the cemetery office. The cost is $5.

lily closeup
A lily of the valley carved into a stone at Presbyterian Cemetery.

The tour, given by Judy Harvey, will highlight architectural elements at the historic cemetery. Participants will learn about tombstone carving techniques and care of stones and symbolism used.

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch. Notable people buried there include Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington), Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist commonly known as “Queena” Stovall) and others.

There also are more than 200 Civil War soldiers buried at Presbyterian Cemetery.

I have written other posts about the “residents” of Presbyterian Cemetery, including five girls who died in a fire at the Presbyterian Orphanage and the Stephens children, who are buried together under four little stone lambs.

Thoughts on a Book: ‘Thirteen Moons’

Thoughts on a Book: ‘Thirteen Moons’

Recently, I finished reading “Thirteen Moons,” a 2006 novel by Charles Frazier. Frazier also wrote the novel “Cold Mountain,” which was made into a 2003 movie starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger.

“Cold Mountain” also has been produced as an opera.

I’ve never read “Cold Mountain” or seen the movie or opera. No real reason why. I just haven’t.

My mother-in-law gave me “Thirteen Moons” as a Christmas gift, along with another novel, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” by Gabrielle Zevin. I read the latter a few months ago and loved it.

Without spoiling much, if anything, it’s the sweet story of a middle-aged bookstore owner and widower, A.J. Fikry, who unexpectedly acquires a child.

“Thirteen Moons” is the story of Will Cooper. Will is an orphan and indentured servant — he calls himself a “bound boy” — sent to the North Carolina mountains, just outside of the Cherokee Indian territory, to run a trading post in the early 1800s.

When he tells his life story, Will is an old man. The story follows Will through the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which he has lots of adventures and misadventures, and one lifelong love.

The book, for which Frazier appears to have done his research, also deals with the Indian Removal Act, a law signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830 with the goal of moving Indians from the southern U.S. to Oklahoma and points west of the Mississippi.

There were two passages in “Thirteen Moons” that struck me, so much so that I took time to write them down on a note card I was using for a bookmark.

In this one, Will is looking back on his life and how he lived it:

But I’d rather think I made my way more like a highwayman, by being willing to pull a pistol — or something metaphorically like it — on the world when I needed to. 

I liked that one a lot. It’s an empowering reminder that sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands and fight for yourself because no one is going to save you but you.

And this one, on how one might spend their last day:

If you knew that tomorrow afternoon the sun would flame up and consume all the world, would you spend the time between now and then praising the beauty of creation or would you sit in a darkened room cursing God with your last breath? 

I’d like to think that if I ever found myself in that situation, literally or metaphorically, I’d make the most of that last day.

It brings to mind times when husband John and I are on vacation, often in New Mexico or somewhere else in the American West. On our last day, we usually take a long drive, trying to make it to some far-off place we haven’t been yet, cramming it all in, like we might never have another chance to do it.

Realistically, morbid as it sounds, we might never have another chance. For the most part, I think life should be lived like that  like at any point, literally or metaphorically, you could be hit by a bus.

In short, though, I enjoyed “Thirteen Moons” very much and recommend it.

The black-and-white featured photo, used above, is of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, taken between 1895 and 1910. Citation: Detroit Publishing Co, P., Jackson, W. H., photographer. [Over the mts. from Mt. Toxaway, Sapphire, N.C]. Blue Ridge Mountains North Carolina Sapphire, None. [Between 1895 and 1910] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/det1994013352/PP/.

‘The mysterious disappearance of Paul Massie’

As many of you know, I’ve been transcribing and researching the letters William Macon Waller wrote home to his family over the fall and winter of 1847 and 1848, while he was walking a coffle of slaves from Amherst County, Va., to Natchez, Miss.

Once in Mississippi, he sold the slaves to settle some debts.

In the letters, Waller writes about lots of things: a family of dwarfs he saw in Southwest Virginia, the fact that sweet potatoes were a big crop in a particular area he was passing through, that he ran into so-and-so and his wife, who is a terrible cook.

Like I said, lots of stuff.

In one of the letters Waller writes home to his wife, Sarah, he mentions someone named Paul Massie. The Massie and Waller families knew each other and lived in the same general area.

Dr. Thomas Massie, Paul’s father, was a prominent physician and slaveholder. At some point, he also married Waller’s sister, Lucy. Here’s what Waller said about Dr. Massie’s son, Paul:

… in another paper [I read about] the mysterious disappearance of Paul Massie. … His fathers [sic] anxiety must be excruciating.

So, of course I wanted to know what happened to Paul Massie. I hit the Internet and it didn’t take long for the story to unfold. On Nov. 30, 1847, under the headline “Missing,” the Richmond Enquirer reported the following:

The New Haven Courier says that Paul Massie, of Virginia, a member of the Freshman Class of Yale College, left that city on Monday, under circumstances that create anxiety; and any information communicated to his brother here, P.C. Massie, or to his father, Dr. Thomas Massie, Tye River Mills, Nelson Co., Va., will be gratefully received by them. He is about five feet eight or nine inches high — stout built — black hair — dark complexion; and had on a brown frock coat, dark green pantaloons, double breasted black vest, and cloth cap.

Upon reading the article, I was even more intrigued. Had Paul been kidnapped? Was he a drunk? Was he crazy? Was he ever heard from again? So I got on FamilySearch, a great (and free) genealogy website, to see what I could find.

In the 1850 U.S. Census, I found out that three years after Paul goes missing, he’s not listed with his family in Nelson County, Va.

I kept poking around on FamilySearch, looking for Paul Massies of the right age, who were born in Virginia, etc., and eventually, I found him. In the 1850 census, he shows up at Mount Hope Hospital — described as “An Asylum for the Insane and Invalids” — in Baltimore:

Paul Massie, 19, student, born in Virginia, insane, entered hospital in 1849.

Sadly, I also found Paul at Mount Hope in the 1870 and 1880 censuses. He died in 1894 — possibly at Mount Hope, because he’d been there so long already — and is buried with his family at Blue Rock, the family home in Nelson County. He was 63 years old.

At the Virginia Historical Society, in its Massie family papers, there are more clues about what led Paul to Mount Hope.

On Nov. 6, 1847, Dr. Massie writes Paul, then at Yale College, a letter. Among other things, he encourages Paul to “study well and take exercise enough to keep your health good and your mind clear” and to try and tolerate the college’s rules, which are “necessary to preserve order among so many different kinds of young men collected from every portion of our wide country.”

In the next letter I read — I admittedly did not read the entire Massie family file — Paul’s brother Patrick, also a student at Yale, writes his dad, saying that Paul has disappeared.

In the letter, dated Nov. 16, 1847, Patrick writes that “Paul has seen proper to leave college, and has not been heard of since yesterday noon.” Later, he explains that Paul has “for some time expressed his dissatisfaction with this kind of life and that he wished some more active kinds.

“He had been melancholy for a few days before his disappearance, and frequently expressed to some of his class mates [sic] his intention of leaving.”

Also, according to this letter, Paul has withdrawn all of his money from his bank account and, as Patrick puts it, “His conversation and conduct for several days past would lead one to conclude that his mind is somewhat affected.”

When Dr. Massie writes back, it’s apparent that Patrick has gone looking for his brother, but is now back at Yale and attending his classes. This pleases his father, who also writes, “It is useless to hunt for Paul as no one can tell what course he took.

“I have [sic] no idea there was any mental derangement in his case. But that the act was deliberate and premeditated, although its excessive folly would lead to the belief that no sane person would do it.”

In the same letter, perhaps more telling, Dr. Massie writes about Paul:

Boys whose heads are cold to natural affections, and who of course have no experience to guide them, are prone to go wildly wrong and the only medicine that can cure them is suffering.

Eventually, Paul is found — where and how I don’t know — and he lands at Mount Hope.

In 1871, more than 20 years after Paul’s disappearance, his brother Patrick gets a letter from the hospital about the bill for Paul’s care. Among other things, the writer, a nun named Sister Catherine, informs Patrick that “I take great pleasure to report that [Paul’s] general health is good.”

More about Mount Hope:
Mount Hope Hospital, also called Mount Hope Retreat, was founded in 1840. When I searched for Mount Hope on Chronicling America, the newspaper archive of the Library of Congress, and also on Newspapers.com, I found interesting stories about other people sent to Mount Hope.

It’s pretty amazing, the gossipy, scandalous things that newspapers used to report.

For example, under the headline, “Insane Through Religion,” an Oct. 25, 1884, story in the Sacramento (Calif.) Daily Record-Union, tells of a 19-year-old Baltimore woman, “Miss Igo,” who was “found in her bedroom Wednesday evening, wholly nude and a raving maniac.”

According to the story, Miss Igo had long wanted to be a nun, but her family disagreed with her plans. So, she “thereupon became somewhat sullen with disappointment. Her troubles weighed on her mind to such an extent that she gradually showed signs of a weakening intellect.

“She went to her bedroom and, taking off her clothes, lay down on the floor and commenced to scream. It has been found necessary to remove her to the insane asylum at Mount Hope. Miss Igo is of attractive appearance and graduated last year at a prominent private school.”

A second article, in the Alexandria (Va.) Gazette, said that Miss Igo was the niece of a Baltimore grocer named Michael Igo.

I’ve done a little online research, in an attempt to determine exactly who Miss Igo was, but I’m not sure if I’ve found the right person. There was a 16-year-old girl, living in the household of grocer Michael Igo and his wife, Mary, in Baltimore in 1880 who might be her.

According to local newspapers, she also graduated from a local Catholic academy, which goes along with the nun story.

I hesitate to assign this bizarre behavior to someone erroneously, though. If nothing else, I’d hate to get nasty emails from her descendants. So, for now, the identity of Miss Igo will remain somewhat shrouded in mystery (unless, of course, you look her up yourself).

In searching Newspapers.com, I found numerous stories, written between the 1880s and early 1900s, about people being sent to Mount Hope Asylum. Like Miss Igo’s case, the stories often included information about the strange behavior that led the person to be committed to the hospital.

Perhaps I will share some of them in a future post.