Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Family historians

Family history is often dismissed by historians in the academy as something less than, but I've been thinking for awhile that the particularized approach that family history takes is a valuable tool, and might provide valuable lessons for historians.  One of the best assignments I've ever had to do was for a course on immigration, in which we were given the name of a person in Chicago from a particular background at a particular time (in my case, from Ireland and living in Chicago in the 1880s) and asked to find out as much about them as possible, and to write about what that person could and couldn't tell us about other immigrants from that background.  You can find out a lot about a person just by tracking where they live, when they married, who their neighbors were, and how those things change over time - and a representative sample of, say, people of Irish ancestry living in Chicago in 1880 can begin to describe the broader population.

Some things, however, are peculiar and particular.
Say, for instance, my own family.  On Sunday I rediscovered a 1937 Parker Vacumatic inscribed  J.W. Shrout.  I could have called my father and asked who J.W. was, but since it was a grey day and I had just finished a draft chapter, I dipped into Ancestry.com to trace the Shrout line back to a J.W.  It turns out that J.W. was my great-grandfather, and that Ancestry.com has digitized his marriage certificate

and his draft card.

I find it very strange that documents so personal to me are out there on the internet for anyone to find, but that's another post.

It also turns out that this Shrout is the great-great-grandson of Johan Peter Shrout, who happened to be executed in Hardy County, VA in 1804 for "the crime of killing his wife, which deed he committed by choking her with a broom stick handle. Shrout was executed at Moorefield according to the method of executing a criminal at that time, which provided the accused should sit upon his coffin, borne by about 6 men to the place of execution, usually a tree with an appropiate limb. The prisoner was allowed to signal when he felt that he was ready to take the step into that bourn from whence no traveler e'er returns. It is said that Shrout , instead of dropping the stick, threw it defiantly into the air." (Christman, Gamble-Montgomery: History and genealogy and connected families, 1979.  p. 251)

I think there is a story here about gender relations on the frontier in early America, about trials and capital punishments, and about how people treat, create and obscure memories of their pasts.

But for now its just family history.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

On red herrings.

Events have been confluencing on me lately.  I am working my way through the oeuvre of Agatha Christie, from The Mysterious Affair at Styles to Postern of Fate (which, for those keeping score, was published before Curtain and Sleeping Murder, but was written after) on ipod, and reading Agatha Christie's autobiography as counterpoint.  (This, by the way, is subway and before-bed-reading activity, some part of the day needs to not be about work) Separately, and perhaps growing out of my love for Blackadder I am keeping track of references made to the "pink" or "red parts of the map" with regards to the British Empire.  Christie uses the phrase on page 84 of the 1993 Harper Collins addition of An Autobiography:
The Boer War, I suppose, was the last of what one might describe as the 'old wars', the wars that did not really affect one's country or life.  They were heroic story-book affairs, fought by brave soldiers and gallant young men.  They were killed, if killed, gloriously in battle.  More often they came home suitably decorated with medals for gallant feats performed on the field.  They were tied up with the outposts of Empire, the poems of Kipling, and with the bits of England that were pink on the map.  It seems strange today to think that people - girls in particular - went around handing out white feathers to young men whom they considered were backward in doing their duty by dying for their country.
This foreshadows Christie's experiences as a nurse during WWI, and also her subsequent disaffection with the army in the person of her first husband, Archie Christie, whom she divorced after discovering his longstanding infidelity.  Christie's famous (famous enough to be featured in Dr. Who) disappearance is speculated to have been a consequence of Archie's betrayal, although Christie herself never explained it.

But as to confluences, Christie's off-the-cuff allusion to "the bits of England that were pink on the map" seems to indicate that the phrase was in common use.  The OED dates the first uses of pink and red in this way to 1898 and 1891 respectively, but as these references are made by the Royal Geographical Society and Self Culture magazine, it seems that by the late 19th century, pinky/red was already the accepted colour for "England" (a la Seely's Expansion of England).

The OED, one of my favourite reference works defines red herring as
A clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading, or is a distraction from the real question.
and this little investigation is certainly a distraction from the real question of international humanitarianism and the Irish famine, but I would still like to know.