Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Millerites and the End of the World

Written on Friday but mistakenly not published until Sunday!

Today is Friday, the 21st of December, 2012. According to some people, the Mayan civilization long ago predicted that today is the day that the world will end, based on a very particular interpretation of the “long count” calendar. It’s now 6:47 PM in Massachusetts, and in some parts of the world it’s already Saturday the 22nd. I would guess that the world will not be ending today, unless it’s waiting until some point later tonight, maybe after everyone’s asleep. Considerate, those Mayans.

A recurring belief about the end of the world is the ability of humanity to calculate when that end will arrive. Theories about coded messages cluing us in to our expiration date have pointed at sources like the ancient Mayan calendars and the Bible, and even lines of computer code (remember the Y2K scare back in 2000?). Often these predictions are prompted by mistaken interpretation of religious doctrine, sometimes they’re the result of pseudo-scientific theories regarding cosmic cataclysms or technological disasters. Underlying them all is a desire to understand humanity’s fate, and a belief in the power of people to do so.

In 1831, a young New York farmer named William Miller began a career as a preacher to the Baptist community in the Adirondack town of Hampton. Developing a keen interest in Scripture and Biblical prophecy, Mr. Miller soon began closely examining certain passages of the Bible, especially in the dream-like Book of Daniel.

As Miller explained later, “Prophetical scripture is very much of it communicated to us by [… ] highly and richly adorned metaphors; figures such as beasts, birds, air […] are used to represent things prophesied of—such as kingdoms, warriors, principles…”

Viewing scripture as coded prophecy, Mr. Miller then began the laborious task of figuring out just what the heck the prophecies were trying to say. Of particular interest was Daniel, Chapter 8, verse 14, which states: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Believing this passage to be a literal warning of future events, Mr. Miller chose for the starting point of his count the year 457 BCE, the year that a Persian King named Artaxerxes issued a call for Jews to rebuild the destroyed city of Jerusalem (supposedly the “sanctuary” referred to in Daniel 8.14).

Mr. Miller than assumed the “two thousand and three hundred days” to refer instead to years. Beginning with Artaxerxes’s decree of 457 BCE and counting forward 2,300 years, he arrived at the prophesied year of… 1843. Further study of the Book of Daniel and related texts led him to the conclusion that 1843, or thereabouts, was the year that the world would witness the second coming of Jesus Christ and the beginning of the end times.

These beliefs had such a profound effect on the normally reserved Miller that he overcame his natural shyness to become an eloquent and forceful preacher. In 1833, the Baptist Church recognized his achievements by making him an ordained minister. In 1838, realizing that if his predictions were correct time was running out to save the souls of his friends and neighbors, the Reverend Miller published a series of lectures on his theories, entitled Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, about the Year 1843.

Evangelism was on the rise in America at this time, and the economy was slowing. Many Baptists and evangelicals in New York and western New England were enticed by the idea of Christ’s return, and thousands began to spread Miller’s teachings, earning for themselves the derisive nickname “Millerites.” Newspapers noting the event often referred to Millerites as “deranged” or “addled,” and the sect itself as “madness.” On September 21, 1844, the New York Weekly Herald expressed the hope that Miller’s day of doom would “hold up until we elect Polk.” of Eager to gain more followers, and perhaps stung by the ridicule, Millerites began to press William Miller to announce an exact date of the end of the world.

Somewhat reluctantly, the Reverend Miller announced that Christ would return to Earth in April, 1843, and that true believers would be called to Heaven on October 23, 1844. When a bright comet appeared in the sky in early 1843, it was believed by the Millerites to be God’s affirmation of their beliefs, and many began to prepare for the end.

In October of 1844, thousands of Millerites gathered in homes, underneath tents, and, in New York state, on the banks of the Hudson River. Without much in the way of food, possessions, or even clothing, they set their earthy affairs in order and, speaking to passersby and writing to the newspapers, urged others to do the same. By the time the 23rd of October had come and gone, one confused group had supposedly inquired as to whether the appointed day should be reckoned in American or Jerusalem time.

Afterwards the 23 of October, 1844 was known as the “Great Disappointment” in Millerite lore, and although the movement didn’t completely die out, it left many sincere believers disappointed and disillusioned. In 1863, the remnants of Reverend Miller’s converts, working with other sects, were formally incorporated into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, still practicing today.

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Do you have a formula for determining the end of the world? Leave your answer in the space below, and be sure to show your work.


Jones, Lindsay, ed. “Seventh-Day Adventism.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 12.2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

Miller, William. Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, about the Year 1843. Boston:  Moses A. Dow, 1841.

“News.” The Weekly Herald. New York, NY: September 21, 1844.

Scharnhorst, Gary. “Images of the Millerites in American Literature.” American Quarterly. Vol. 32. No. 1 (Spring 1980): pp. 19-36.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

GIS, General Lee, and the Future of Historical Cartography

Unless you’re a professional geographer, you’ve probably never heard of a tool called Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. Until recently, unless you were a student or faculty member at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, you may not have heard of Associate Professor of Geography Anne Kelly Knowles. Readers of the December issue of “Smithsonian” magazine know her as one of the recipients of the 2012 American Ingenuity Awards, given to individuals recognized for “brilliant new achievements in science, technology, art and society.”

According to the GIS website, the program allows geographers to take location-related data, integrate it onto a map, globe or chart, and analyze and display relationships and trends over a geographic space. I realize that this doesn’t sound very exciting. But the way that this program is being used takes it out of the functional realm of Cartography and into a variety of different fields, including History.

Using the GIS program, Professor Knowles has made new connections between geography and history, applying historical data to maps and topographical charts. For instance, an elevation map of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, created in 1874. Using a scanned copy of the original, Professor Knowles created a highly detailed birds-eye view of the Civil War battlefield, highlighting strategic features such as buildings, roads, woods, and hills. By using robust GIS technology on an ordinary laptop computer, she was able to get the program to run a very complicated, but very revealing simulation.

Looking at the image, it’s hard to tell what all the fuss is about. You see elevations, some grayed out as if in shadow, some illuminated as if by the sun. You see landmarks infamous in Civil War lore; the Black Horse Tavern, the Union battle line, Little Round Top. The thing that stands out most, though, is a red dot marking the site of the Lutheran Seminary; the vantage point from which Confederate General Robert E. Lee stood to view the battlefield.

The illuminated parts of the landscape mark terrain that was within General Lee’s field of vision. The gray bits mark terrain that was hidden from Lee by Gettysburg’s hilly landscape. The GIS software has provided Professor Knowles (and 150 years of Civil War scholarship) with scientifically generated insight into Lee’s actions at the Battle of Gettysburg; actions that led to the Confederacy’s most iconic defeat.

For military historians, Robert E. Lee’s disastrous attacks on the second and third days of the battle have long been enigmatic. General Lee was one of the most celebrated generals on both sides of the conflict, a masterful commander with military experience dating back to the Mexican-American War. The terrain around Gettysburg should have suggested the danger of a frontal assault on Union lines. And yet, he made this mistake two days in a row.

To explain away Lee’s miscalculation, Civil War scholars have often criticized his subordinate general James Longstreet, the commander of the Confederate right. Longstreet has been accused of everything from incompetence to cowardice for his decision to lead his men on a protected but circuitous march on their way to attack the Union flank. But as Professor Knowles has shown, General Longstreet may have been able to see more of the battlefield and understand more about the tactical situation than General Lee did.

From his position near the Black Horse Tavern, Longstreet would have been able to see Union troops on top of the hill known as Little Round Top, the same hill that Lee had ordered him to attack. This pair of maps reveals that Lee had a very different understanding of the battlefield than did his subordinate, resulting in very different tactical decisions. Longstreet’s protected march may have saved the lives of hundreds of his own men, but it also delayed Lee’s strategic assault, allowing the Union line time to advance and prepare their defense.

Professor Knowles points out that the site where Longstreet’s men engaged the Federal defenders is illuminated, meaning that is was visible from the Lutheran Seminary. General Lee’s vantage point would have given him a good view of the bloody skirmish at the extreme end of the Confederate line, as well as Longstreet’s pained withdrawal. She speculates that the psychological pain of Lee watching his troops being killed may have affected his judgment the next day, when he ordered a costly frontal assault known as Pickett’s Charge.

GIS has also been used to examine Massachusetts history. The Director of the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive in Virginia, Benjamin Ray, has inserted data on the 1692 witchcraft accusations into an interactive map showing the spread and distribution of the disturbances. He notes that the progression of the accusations is similar to that of a disease. You can see the interactive map here.

And the possibilities of GIS go beyond historical cartography, as well. Scientists use the program to study the frequency and pattern of earthquakes. Similar studies are being conducted on the ozone layer and climate change. On an anthropological note, GIS has been used to determine that early hunter-gatherer tribes may have deliberately chosen to settle where they could see the landscape around them, a trait apparently not shared by agricultural societies.

The purpose of Geographic Information Systems is to take a range of data far greater than the scope of a single human being and to put it into a visible, spatial form. In essence, it visualizes human history, far more effectively and reliably than any painting or movie ever could. Perhaps even greater achievements lie ahead.

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You can see Professor Knowles' Middlebury College webpage here. Do you think that you have greater strategic and tactical talents than General Robert E. Lee? If so… are you General James Longstreet? If so… what’s your secret? How in God’s name are you still alive? Answers to all these and more can be left in the space below.


Ahmed, Akbar. “Cartography, Redefined.” Weekend. October 21, 2011.

Horwitz, Tony. “Mapping the Past.” Smithsonian. December 2012.

Symonds, Craig L. A Battlefield Atlas of the Civil War, 3rd ed. Mount Pleasant, SC: the Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company , Inc., 1994.

“What is GIS?” ESRI: Understanding our World. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Winter is Coming: A Seasonal Worker's Tale

I realized the other day that even though Interpretation is just one of several topics I’m covering in this blog, it’s the category that I've focused on almost exclusively for the last few months. This is partly because Historical Interpretation is what I've been doing as a profession for the last three years; it’s my default setting. But also, honestly, I’m just not that interested in writing about these other categories. I started this blog largely as an extension of my job search, when it comes down to it I don’t really want to write about the job search itself!

In the last few weeks, however, my employment status has changed. The day after Thanksgiving, my seasonal appointment came to an end. I’m now working two volunteer positions in two different history museums in order to keep busy and learn new skills.

I've been advised by counsel that these are major professional events that should at least be mentioned in a blog revolving around a profession. Consider this post my resigned sigh.

November 23 was my last day as a seasonal interpretive guide at Boston National Historical Park. I figure that as the Department of the Interior is now a previous employer, I can specifically name them without worrying that I might say something compromising on this website. Since that last day, I've been busy learning the ropes for these two new volunteer positions.

The first one is in Archives. For 2 days a week, I will be processing, cataloging  and maintaining an extensive collection of primary and secondary sources relating to early Massachusetts history. I also get to repair old exhibits, and later in the winter I will have the opportunity to develop some new ones. The stacks are my oyster.

The second position is in grant writing. This will be useful experience; grant writing is of course all about convincing wealthy philanthropists to give poor institutions money to fund programming. Museums, much like people, like to have money. If you’re a person who can get them some, maybe they’ll decide to share some with you.

2 volunteer positions, 4 days a week. That leaves me with 3 days a week to continue job hunting, take care of personal business, and maybe have a weekend. A busy life, but a good one.

It’s been a week so far on this new schedule, and so far I’m enjoying it. I’m learning new skills, I pretty much set my own schedules, and I get to wear suit jackets and other grown-up clothes to work. No pilgrim suits or straw fedoras this winter for this cowboy!

That’s what I’m doing now. That’s what I’ll be doing for several months. I’ll post professional updates as they happen and if I think they’re significant enough to trouble you with, but otherwise you can expect a return to items of historical interest within the next few days.

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Are you a seasonal worker? Would you like to stand together in line at the Unemployment office and play Scrabble? Do you have any suit jackets you'd like to get rid of, size L and wide in the shoulders? Post a time and date in the space below and I'll swing by to pick them up.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sarah Josepha Hale, President Lincoln, and Thanksgiving

A few days late and a few pounds heavier, I emerge from my turkey coma to bring you my Thanksgiving blog.

The American Thanksgiving tradition didn’t actually begin with the first New England settlers in Plymouth. From time to time, these pious souls would announce a “day of Thanksgiving” in response to some stroke of luck or divine providence. These 17th century events were not hearty feasts such as we enjoy today, but days of fasting and prayer. Thanksgivings were called in response to rainfalls which saved crops, the arrival of ships bearing additional supplies and settlers, and other fortunate occurrences, but they were not regular scheduled events. Over the next 200 years, however, the tradition seems to have flourished in New England, despite being little known throughout the rest of the country.

One of the first references to a recognizable American Thanksgiving came in an 1827 novel called Northwood. This fictional account of New England family virtues spends an entire page and a half describing the parlor of New Hampshire’s Romelee family, laid out in anticipation of their Thanksgiving feast. Another two pages are then dedicated to the amount and variety of foodstuffs arranged around the dinner table; the quintessential roasted turkey and “savoury stuffing,” “innumerable bowls of gravy,” “the celebrated pumpkin pie,” “a sirloin of beef,” “a leg of pork and joint of mutton,” “a goose and pair of ducklings,” and “that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie.” There’s also a reference to some sort of vegetable, buried somewhere underneath everything else.

The author of Northwood was a prodigy named Sarah Josepha Hale, who would later go on to make a name for herself as the supposed author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” the editor of the Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book, and the organizer of a massive public bake sale that provided the funds necessary for completion of Boston’s Bunker Hill monument. Born in New Hampshire in 1788, she seems to have been fascinated with New England’s Thanksgiving traditions for most of her adult life, writing a short story entitled “The Thanksgiving of the Heart” in 1835.

As the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Ms. Hale wrote an editorial in 1837 calling for New England’s informal Thanksgiving tradition to become a national, annual holiday, “on the same day in November, say the last Thursday of the month.” Between 1851 and 1871, she would issue a yearly call for a day of National Thanksgiving. As the years passed and no action was taken at the national level, her arguments became more forceful, noting the growing popularity of the custom and the increasing amount of state support. By 1858, perhaps a little exasperated, she was really hammering home her point:

“We are most happy to agree with the large majority of the governors of the different States as shown in their unanimity of action for several past years, and which, we hope, will this year be adopted by all that THE LAST THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER shall be the DAY OF NATIONAL THANKSGIVING for the American people.”

Whether 19th century readers considered her print version of the Twitter shout bad etiquette is not clear.

As the United States edged closer and closer to civil war, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale coyly suggested that “the fine filaments of the affections are stronger than laws are stronger than laws to keep the Union of our States sacred in the hearts of our people… Thanksgiving Day, if fixed and perpetuated, will be a great and sanctifying promoter of this national spirit.”

In September of 1863, in the midst of war, the gloves came off, and a letter was dispatched to no less a personage than President Abraham Lincoln. “Sir,” it begins, “Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book,” to request a few minutes of your precious time.”Over the next 8 paragraphs, she laid out her case point by point, and listed supporters that include state and territorial governors, foreign ministers, missionaries, and even naval commanders. She urged the President to make a proclamation to affirm Federal support for the holiday. At one point, she casually mentioned having enlisted her friend William H. Seward (Lincoln’s Secretary of State) to confer with Lincoln and presumably advance the cause. At the end of her letter, Ms. Hale crisply informed the Commander in Chief that “an immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments.”

Seemingly bowing before the onslaught, Abraham Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863. In it, he acknowledged that even in the midst of a war of “unequaled magnitude and severity,” the United States had been blessed by good harvests, expanding settlements, and increasing population. He emphasized that these blessings had stemmed not from man, but from God, and that the nation should accordingly give thanks where thanks was due.

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

This Thanksgiving season, in addition to many, many other blessings, I am thankful to President Lincoln and even more to the relentless, indomitable Sarah Josepha Buell Hale.

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The author of this blog has absolutely no authority to make official proclamations of any kind regarding existing or theoretical holidays, days of fasting, days of prayer... days of any kind, really. If you have a non-holiday related comment, post incessantly below.


Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell. Northwood: A Tale of New England. New York: H. Long and brother, 1852.

--- “Sarah J. Hale to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, September 28, 1863 (Thanksgiving).” Letter to Abraham Lincoln. 28 Sep. 1863. The Abraham Lincoln Papers. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

---  "Sarah J. Hale to William H. Seward, Sunday, October 09, 1864 (Thanksgiving)." Letter to William H. Seward. 9 Oct. 1864. The Abraham Lincoln Papers. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

Lincoln, Abraham. “Day of National Thanksgiving. By the President of the United States of America: A Proclamation.” 3 Oct. 1863. The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Licolniana. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

Friday, November 16, 2012

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An Interview with William Fowler, Professor of History

Professor William Fowler is a Professor of American Colonial, Maritime and Revolutionary War history at Northeastern University. He is also the author of Under Two Flags: The Navy in the Civil War, Rebels Under Sail: The Navy in the Revolution, and Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan, which came the closest of any book that I've read to explaining the enigma that was Samuel Adams. He was kind enough to sit down with me one cold October night and tell me about his work and his professional life.

AD: I’m speaking with William Fowler on October 5, 2012. Hi Professor Fowler, how are you?

WF: I’m well Aaron, and yourself?

AD: Well, thank you. Just to give us an introduction, would you tell us where you work and what sort of position you hold?

WF: Well, I hold the wonderful title of distinguished professor of history in the History department at Northeastern University.

AD: Can you describe a typical workday in your position?

WF: Sure. I usually arrive in the office usually around 6:15, 6:30 in the morning. I arrive early because that way I can avoid traffic, and I have an opportunity to enjoy a cup of coffee and read the paper. Around 7 or 7:15 other people start to arrive, sometimes students who have made appointments with me. And then I have a class at 8:00, which goes until 9:00. After that I return here to the office. Usually more students come by; I’m also the undergraduate advisor, so I see a number of students. Quite often at this time too graduate students come by, working on a Master’s thesis, directed study, dissertation or some such thing. Sometimes there’ll be some sort of meeting, but I don’t go to too many meetings, thank God! I then try to grab a few minutes to go through my email. On an average day I’m probably getting between 50 and 75 emails. I’m also, at the same time trying to write a book proposal. I need to keep researching and writing. Then there’s lunch. Sometimes lunch is 10, 15 minutes, sometimes lunch is 2 hours. Depends on where I am and who I’m meeting with. And then after lunch, come back to the office and the pattern is pretty much the same. By this time I may in fact be over in the library picking up some books; I do quite a bit of work with inter-library loan. And then I return to the office. I find that because of students’ schedules and the schedules of other people as well, sometimes it’s easier to meet in the late afternoon, after classes. So again I’ll probably be talking to some students. Now in the midst of this, depending on which day it happens to be, I serve on several non-profit boards. And so I go to those board meetings probably 6 or 8 times a month. Most of the non-profits I serve on are here in Boston, so usually it’s just a subway ride or a walk. I’m also a trustee of the Rhode Island Historical Society, so that means once a month I’m down to Providence, and occasionally down to places like Concord. So that’s Monday through Friday. And I work here on Saturdays, which are a little different. I use Saturdays primarily for writing. I arrive a little bit later; traffic’s not so bad. So I’m in the office by about 8 or 8:30 and usually spend as much of that time as I can trying to write, and then I’ll go home by about 3 or 4. Sometimes during the week I have evening obligations, mostly here on campus with various student groups. So I don’t know if that’s an average day, but that’s a day. Yeah.

AD: Sounds like even in your position as a professor you have quite a bit to do with the local non-profits.

WF: Yeah, I get great fun out of that. Great joy. One of the things I really enjoy doing, aside from teaching students, which is probably the most enjoyable, is to be working in the community bringing history out beyond the walls of the university. So yeah, I think that’s valuable. I think that’s very important for professionals like myself. Whatever expertise we have, we share that, and I learn a lot from these boards. I serve with a variety of men and women, and so the board meetings are always interesting, and the perspectives that other people bring to the issues at hand are always quite enlightening.

AD: How did you come to get this job? The position that you’re in right now?

WF: Well, Aaron that’s a long story. It’s a bittersweet story, in an important kind of way. I went to Northeastern as an undergraduate, and I graduated in 1967. People can now do their calculations on age! I went off to graduate school, to the University of Notre Dame, received my PhD there in 1971. At the time, when I received my degree, I had expected one of two things would happen; either I’d be in the army, which I was in the army at the time, I was a commissioned officer. Or I was perhaps going to end up teaching in some small school in some remote place. And then a very sad thing happened. The person who had been my mentor here at the university, Bob Feer, passed away, and Bob’s death left a gap, an opening here at Northeastern for an early American historian. And so they asked if I would come back to take Bob’s place, and I of course immediately said yes. And that return here to Northeastern is how I got to be here. And that was in 1971 that I began teaching here, taught here from 1971 to 1998, and then from 1998 to 2005 I was the director of the Massachusetts Historical Society. And then in 2005 I was fortunate enough to be able to come back here, to resume my career here at the university as a teacher.

AD: What skills would you say make you successful in this job?

WF: Patience. Lots and lots of patience. Patience with myself; that is to say, when you’re a scholar and when you’re a writer, you really want things to get done. You want that book to get done. And you have to remind yourself that it’s a careful kind of business. You don’t want to rush it; you want to do it methodically. Push yourself, but not to the point of carelessness. And secondly, patience with the people with whom you work. You work in an incredible environment, a university environment, in which there is an incredible diversity of opinions, of people, of students, etc. etc. Not all of whom you agree with, and you need to be patient and understanding and listen to others. Particularly with students; they’re here to learn, and sometimes you may think that they’re not learning fast enough, or learning the wrong things, or misbehaving, or whatever judgment you come to. It’s a mistake to act too quickly in that. So you need to be patient with yourself, patient with the students with whom you’re working, patient with your colleagues… and they need to be patient with me, by the way! I’m sure that if you would ask some of my colleagues, they would tell you that sometimes they need to be patient with Fowler as well. So it’s a matter of understanding, it’s a matter of great toleration, and a willingness to learn from one another.

AD: And I imagine that a lot of these skills are transferrable over to your career as the director of the Mass. Historical Society, or serving on the boards of these non-profits?

WF: Yes, I think that’s true, Aaron. I think one of the things that I’ve learned in the business that I’ve been in for some time is that you value the people that you work with for what they know and what they can do. And that means that you need to be able to understand… embrace, perhaps, sometimes idiosyncratic behavior. Not behavior that’s damaging. I’m not talking about that. That cannot be tolerated. But these are people who prize what they know, have spent their career learning it, and so you have to really embrace that approach. They are valuable people, and sometimes by the canons of normal behavior their behavior may seem a little strange. The same with students, too. Students don’t always follow all the norms, you know? But at the same time, you have to be understanding of that, tolerant of that, and understand that what the eventual goal here is to learn. Sometimes there are little digressions, little bumps in the road, but you can’t be distracted by them.

AD: What’s your favorite part of your job?

WF: Oh, teaching. No question about that. Without question, my most comfortable enjoyable moments are in the classroom. There’s nothing else that equals that. If there’s anything that’s number two in that list, it would be writing. Being able to research and to write. But writing is not easy; it’s difficult. The moments of joy in writing are not always as frequent as they are in the classroom. The classroom clearly takes precedence, and then the writing is secondary.

AD: In either teaching in the classroom or writing, has anything changed since you began your career?

WF: Oh God, yes! Oh, are you kidding me? Oh, my God! You know, when I started in this business, essentially in the late 1960s, in terms of books and publications and communications, not much had changed since Gutenberg invented moveable type and Bell invented the telephone. Since then it’s all blown apart, I mean it’s just completely blown up! The digital world, telecommunications… now, when I say come apart, I mean the old world has come apart, and a new one has formed. It’s an extraordinary opportunity. The information I now have access to is incredible I can now find in five minutes what in the 1960s would have taken me weeks to find and maybe even a trip to London.  Now the material which is available at my fingertips is absolutely incredible. Now again, when I started in this business, you had your conference hours, and students rarely came to see you. Now, they think nothing of emailing me and expecting an instantaneous answer. SO the pace of this has increased tremendously. It’s just been an incredible, wonderful, extraordinary revolution.

AD: When you first started in this field, is there anything that you wish you had done differently… anything that you feel would have prepared you better for academia?

WF: Well, that’s a good question. If I think that I have one failing… and only one! I wish that I had pursued a foreign language. I did the requisite stuff, enough to get by. But I think that having proficiency in a second language, as I do not, is an essential tool. You can get by without it; I did. But were I to have that opportunity again, getting proficiency in a foreign language is something that I would do.

AD: If you had obtained that proficiency, do you think that would have changed what your focus was on, or would have changed your interpretation of history, or anything like that?

WF: I don’t think that it would have changed my interpretation, but it certainly would have expanded my horizons. I think that I’m an American historian, so I work in English. I think that had I an expertise in another language, that it would enhance my capacity to understand American history by understanding it through the culture of another nation. If I knew what the Germans were saying, in German, not through a translation. Or Spanish scholars, or French scholars… I think that would open up my vistas to a broader horizon. SO that’s what I would urge young people to do; expand your horizons, in a way that I did not.

AD: And that leads in quite neatly to my last question. DO you have any advice for young people who want to do what you do, who want to be a professor at some accredited university, teaching in the field of history?

WF: Understand the essential nature of this profession. They are parallel worlds, teaching and scholarship. If you wish to be a university professor, you have to understand that at the same time, you need to be both teacher and scholar. You cannot get ahead in this world; you cannot even get into this world, unless you understand that. The sooner you do the better. Don’t wait until you leave graduate school to begin publishing. Publish as soon as you can, whether its book reviews, essays, or whatever it happens to be. The sooner the better. And also, I meet with a lot of young people who see the academic world as a place they want to be, but don’t fully understand the pressure. It is a pressured world. I know people on the outside think that we have a wonderful, relaxing life… we have a wonderful  life, that’s true. But you have to be self-disciplined, because it’s also the world in which you are your own boss. No one’s looking over your shoulder. This isn’t like being an undergraduate; where’s the paper, its due today, we have an exam on Thursday. That isn’t the way this works. You must have an enormous amount of self-discipline to get the job done. If you don’t have that self-discipline, you don’t have that motivation, you don’t have that willingness to work hard at research and writing, you don’t belong in this business. And also, get ready for rejection. I always point out to my students my file cabinet. I always point out to my students, I have a small, thin file labeled “Acceptances, “and a have a big, thick file labeled “Rejections.” So prize the acceptances and get over the rejections. And don’t wait to perfect everything. You need to get out there, you need to have criticisms, and you need to engage. SO that would be my advice, don’t wait, try it now. And by the way, as you’re trying it you may realize that you’re not good at it. You better learn that early on so you don’t waste a lot of time.

AD: Sounds like good advice to me! Professor Fowler, thank you very much for sitting down with me.

WF: Aaron, my pleasure.

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You can see Professor Fowler's Northeastern webpage here. Have you met with Professor William Fowler? Are you the real Professor William Fowler? Is the man I interviewed with a confidence man only in the office to heist books? Do you have proof of this? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, or even if you said "no," you can let me know in the comment section below.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hurricanes of Atlantic City

I’m writing this post on October 29, 2012. As I write, Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on the Mid-Atlantic coast, presumably going to make landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey. Even hundreds of miles away as I am, that radar map is showing angry blotches of orange and red centered over New Jersey but easily extending up to Cape Cod. I’ve never been on the East Coast during a full-fledged hurricane before; those storms that have targeted Massachusetts over the last few years have come when I was visiting my brother in Washington, or attending a cousin’s wedding in Michigan. So as I sit here at my computer, nervously Googling weather updates and “Atlantic City + Hurricane,” I’m coming across a lot of information than I had not expected. It turns out that this is not the first hurricane to seemingly target Atlantic City.

When the storm came ashore, witnesses reported waves of 25 to 30 feet high, and a record high tide level 9 feet above the norm. At about 4:00 PM, portions of the famous miles-long boardwalk were picked up by a 50 foot tall storm surge and flipped backwards, crushing boats that had been pulled up and secured along the shoreline. Steel Pier, once billed as the “showplace of the nation,” was badly damaged, as was the grandiose Young’s Million Dollar Pier. A third pier, owned by the Heinz ketchup company, was completely destroyed.

On September 9th, 1944, a large hurricane was detected near the Leeward Islands, east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. On the evening of the 12th, the storm had reached such epic proportions that warning communications in Miami, Florida had begun to refer to it as the “Great Atlantic Hurricane.” By September 14th the eye of the storm was near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Between September 14th and 15th, this monster moved quickly north, passing approximately 50 miles off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey. By this point it was considered to be a Category 2 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of about 80 knots (approximately 92 miles per hour)

In 1944, the United States was embroiled in World War II. Because of wartime restrictions on radio communications of ships at sea, and the hurricane’s location miles off the coast, it often approached coastal cities with little advance warning. Atlantic City schools opened as usual on the morning of the 14th, and then abruptly closed, sending their students home with a simple storm warning. The term hurricane was never used.

The United States Army had troops stationed in hotels along the Atlantic City boardwalk, and these soldiers assisted in the cleanup and reconstruction of the city. So did German prisoners-of-war brought from a camp in the nearby town of Vineland. Ever mindful of the possibility of U-Boats and saboteurs along the Atlantic coast, the Coast Guard dispatched its staff to patrol the beaches lest the Germans try to land spies in the confusion.
By now, as I’m wrapping up this post, Hurricane Sandy has come and gone. Sandy, of course, caused  considerable damage in Atlantic City before moving on to Manhattan, and as of November 8th, crews are still working to restore power and clean up debris. Since 1944, weather forecasts and early warning systems have improved, communication with affected regions has become faster and easier. But looking at photos of the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, and then the recent photos of Sandy’s aftermath, the damage doesn’t look much different.

Author and ’44 survivor Margaret Buchholz may have put it best when she told Kathleen O’ Brien of the New Jersey Star-Ledger:

“People are always surprised to see the storm photos. Every generation always thinks they’re experiencing everything new for the first time.”

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For more photos of the aftermath of the 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane in Atlantic City, you can browse the archives of the New Jersey State Library.


“Hurricanes in History.” National Hurricane Center. Web. 28 October, 2012. <>

O’Brien, Kathleen. “Hurricane Irene's predecessor: The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.” The Star-Ledger. New Jersey Online LLC. Aug. 28, 2011. Web. Nov. 2, 2012.
PCCTV. “Storm Stories: 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane.” You Tube. Web. 28 October, 2012. <>

Sumner, H. C. “The North Atlantic Hurricane of September 8-16, 1944.” Monthly Weather Review. Print. Weather Bureau, Washington D.C.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mercy Brown: American Vampire

Bad, Bad Mercy Brown

Let’s face it; it’s Halloween. Every website and every blogger has been talking about creepy things for weeks now, and I’m determined to go with the flow. If you make a quick Google search for the phrase “Halloween Massachusetts,” the number one result will be the website “Salem Halloween City,” supposedly the site of the Salem witch trials and the Halloween capital of the world. Everyone knows the story of Salem’s seventeenth century witch trials (or thinks they do!), its standard New England fare. Today I’m interested in talking about a lesser-known chapter of New England’s spooky past.

In 1892, the town of Exeter, Rhode Island was swept by an hysteria not so different from the Salem Witch Trials that had occurred exactly two hundred years before. In the ancient, settled, and supposedly modern region of New England, an outbreak of tuberculosis (known then as “consumption”) led a furtive group of townspeople to believe that a vampire was loose in Rhode Island. To protect themselves against this supernatural parasite, they exhumed the grave of a recent consumption victim, mutilated it, and reinterred the body in the hope that the corpse would stay dead. The target of their macabre wrath was a girl named Mercy Brown, called “Lena” by her family.

Lena’s family had been ravaged by tuberculosis starting in 1882. Her mother, Mary Eliza, succumbed in December of that year. Lena’s sister, Mary Olive, died of the disease in 1883. Within the next few years, brother Edwin would catch a slower-acting form of TB and move to the supposedly more healthful climate of Colorado Springs. Lena probably contracted the disease sometime in late1891 or early 1982; her obituary was printed in January 1892 and her death appears to have come suddenly.

Soon after the poor girl succumbed, a band of skittish townspeople convinced her father to allow the exhumation of his dead family members to make sure that they were all… staying dead. Having most recently passed on, Lena exhibited symptoms of decomposition that the superstitious farmers took as evidence of an unholy life after death. Even examination by the Brown family doctor and the discovery of TB bacterium in the body’s lungs was not enough to change their minds. The party removed Lena’s heart, burned it to ashes, and gave them in a drink to Lena’s sickly brother Edwin in the hope that he would be cured. Edwin himself would be dead in less than two months.

The whole incident is grimly fascinating. Every culture has its stories of vampires and vampire-like undead creatures, but it’s not a piece of folklore that I find generally associated with New England. Thus from a modern perspective, the case of Lena “Mercy” Brown seems to emerge in a region not known for such stories, in a time when many people—certainly most Americans—were beginning to leave these sorts of dark fairy tales behind. Where did these American vampire tales come from? Why did they wait until 1892 to surface?

In re-examining the historical record, however, we find that vampires had been popping up in New England for at least a century before the incident with the Brown family. One case specifically arose in the Brown’s hometown of Exeter, Rhode Island! In the late eighteenth century, the children of Exeter’s Tillinghast family began to die of consumption. Each child in turn complained of being visited by the first of their siblings to die of the disease, sister Sarah Tillinghast. She came “every night and sat upon some portion of their body, causing great pain and misery.” Being a pragmatic sort, Father Tillinghast exhumed the bodies of his six deceased children and cremated their hearts. Upon opening Sarah’s coffin, he supposedly found the body swollen with fresh red blood, the eyes open, and the hair and nails still growing. After dealing with Sarah in the same way as the other children, the family apparently found peace.

Writing in 1896, George R. Stetson refers to the region around Exeter as one in which “agriculture is in a depressed condition and abandoned farms are numerous.” He goes on to state, “naturally in such isolated conditions, the superstitions of a much lower culture have maintained their place […] despite the church, the public school, and the weekly newspaper.”

As pointed out in Smithsonian Magazine’s “The Great New England Vampire Panic,” 19th century New England was a great deal less church-going than popular culture would have us believe. A good portion of the population didn’t even belong to an established church. When disease and catastrophe reared their ugly heads, many people turned to superstition instead of religion; fertile soil for all kinds of long-legged beasties. For more on this, see their excellent article here.

Is it Rhode Island? I’ve been there and I found nothing particularly creepy about the place. Perhaps its Exeter in particular that gives rise to all these stories of the undead. Or maybe the stories are all true. If so, as small as the state is, I’d put money on most of the population being undead by now. Just saying, for those of you thinking about visiting on Halloween night.

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Do you need help in “checking” on your family? If so, count me out; you may have found your way to this site by accident. For all other communications, please use the handy comment box in the space below.


Keyworth, G. David. “Was the Vampire of the Eighteenth Century a Unique Type of Undead-Corpse?” Folklore. 117.3. (December, 2006): pp. 241-260.

Stetson, George R. “The Animistic Vampire in New England.” The American Anthropologist. 9.1. (January 1896): pp. 1-13.

Tucker, Abigail. “The Great New England Vampire Panic.” Smithsonian Magazine. (October 2012). <>

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Medieval Spain and Me

The Origin Story

I was looking through some of my old college papers the other day when I found this: One Nation Under God: Religious Co-Existence in Medieval Spain. Fall 2007
It’s the first scholarly historical essay that I ever wrote, and I wrote it before I had even realized what I wanted to do with my life.

After high school, I enrolled in community college as an Art major, taking courses that specialized in oil painting, watercolors, sketching, and pastels. I thought that I would one day spend my afternoons painting by the seashore, exhibit my work in galleries and museums, and grow a little goatee. I enjoyed community college, and I enjoyed creating art, and I was good at it.

But I wasn’t great. With every class that I signed up for, I met new people and became better acquainted with friends from the previous class. And as I watched them work I realized something; many of my classmates had this innate ability to look at a subject, pick out exactly what they wanted to express, and instantly determine how to do it. Seeing this process unfold was, frankly, amazing. In these capable hands, a vase of flowers on a table became splashes of paint on a canvas, but these splashes contained a life and vitality that I could only envy.

In short, I realized that my classmates all possessed an ability that I lacked; I was good but not great, technically proficient but not inspired. I could make a painting look like the object that was being painted, but I couldn’t make it look like the image I saw in my mind.  That ability to take a subject and shape it however I wanted was lacking in me. Surprisingly, this realization came with a lot less pain and aggravation than I would have expected; I received an Associate’s degree in Art with pleasure and only a mild irritation that I had not had this epiphany before enrolling.

In the Fall of 2004, I began classes at Eastern Michigan University, still not sure exactly what I was interested in. Looking over the course catalogue, I began first to sign up for my General Education requirements, getting them out of the way and buying myself more time to choose a degree.

The fall after that, one of my courses was entitled “History 327: Europe in the Early Middle Ages.” My professor was a Renaissance historian named Ronald Delph, and the main assignment of the semester was to pick a topic relating to Medieval Europe, research it, and answer the historical question that the topic asked.

My topic was the Spanish peninsula during the Muslim occupations of the eighth century and onwards. I read the material, formed a question, and developed my thesis, writing and re-writing arguments and presenting evidence as I did so. And as I worked at all of this, a funny thing happened. I realized that the ability I was missing in my art classes was emerging in the school archives, albeit in a different form. I could take my subject and shape it however I wanted. I could analyze a large number of books and manuscripts—primary and secondary sources—and I could extract information from them to support whatever argument I wanted to make in my writing.

Not only that, but while I was doing this work, I lost track of time. I had always been interested in history museums and reading, but when I started to think seriously about the possibility of doing these things as a career, I found myself getting more and more drawn into my work. I researched Moorish Spain for two months, and after the research was complete it took me a week to write the final draft. If f it hadn’t been the end of the semester, I would have been happy to continue developing and editing for weeks afterwards. As enthralled as I was, and as new to the field, I entertained fanciful notions of writing a book on the subject.

I registered as a History major, and I signed up for more classes. I received my Bachelors degree in 2007, and then went to graduate school and received my Masters. I wrote many papers during these years, and I learned many things, and it’s just as fulfilling now as it was six years ago.

That’s why I entered this field, and it’s why I write this blog. And sometimes it’s nice to think back on the things that I’ve done. It reminds me that there are more things to do.

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Do you have a similar story that you would like to share, so we can compare notes and a bibliography? Did you think that this post would have something about a radioactive spider or solar flares? Comments left below will be posted as submitted, without being formatted for MLA.

Monday, September 24, 2012

German Attack on Cape Cod!

“ORLEANS, MASS., July 21.- An enemy submarine attacked a tow off the easternmost point of Cape Cod today, sank three barges, set a fourth and their tug on fire and dropped four shells on the mainland.”
 [Dallas Morning News, 21 July, 1918]

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When most people think of Cape Cod, they think of sandy (or rocky) beaches, windswept expanses of dune grass, Henry David Thoreau, the Kennedys, and for the summer of 2012, sharks. But on July 21st, 1918, the town of Orleans, on the outer portion of the Cape’s “elbow,” became the site of the only attack on US soil by the German Empire during World War I. This incident was the first time since the War of 1812 that the territorial United States had been directly attacked by a hostile force.

At approximately 11 o’clock in the morning, the German U-Boat SM U-156 surfaced about 2 miles off Nauset Beach, the easternmost point of Cape Cod. It commenced firing at the American tug boat Perth Amboy and the four barges that the tug was towing from Gloucester, Massachusetts to New York City. Upon sighting the vessel , Captain J. H. Tapley of the tug immediately sounded a warning and ordered the four barges abandoned. Under heavy shelling, the Perth Amboy and its barges were set afire. Three of the barges sank, fortunately giving the 41 crew and passengers sufficient time to board lifeboats and escape to shore.

The attack continued for about an hour, during which a crowd of thousands of Cape Cod residents were drawn to the area by the sound of the U-Boat’s guns. According to a news piece on the incident by the Bellingham Herald of Washington State,

"The flashes of the guns and the outline of the U-Boat were plainly seen. Danger was not thought of until a shell whirled over their heads and splashed in a pond a mile inland. Three other shells buried themselves in the sand of the beach.” [The Bellingham Herald, 22 July 1918]

Ten miles to the north, meanwhile, the Chatham aviation station had responded to the attack by deploying two hydroplanes, armed with depth charges. The appearance of these craft caused the U-Boat to briefly break off its attack and submerge, only to resurface when the planes once again flew north towards Chatham. This time, when the planes turned around and began to fly low as if in preparation for an attack, the German vessel disappeared under the waves and was not seen again.

Damage from the raid was estimated to be in the range of $90,000 for the destroyed barges and $100,000 for the Perth Amboy. Torpedoes, shells and other ordinance fired by the U-Boat was estimated to have cost the German Empire the equivalent of $15,000. There was general confusion as to why the submarine would have gone to the trouble of navigating the treacherous shoals of Cape Cod just to waste ammunition on small craft. The opinion of the United States government was that the Germans were attempting to shake American morale by targeting American soil, and that Orleans, in the extreme east of Cape Cod, was just in an exposed position. Others have suggested that SM U-156 had been stalking a larger collier that had passed by on its way to New York just days before, and that the Perth Amboy just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

All accounts seem to agree that the attack could have been much worse than it was. No American warships were around at the time of the raid, leaving the U-Boat free to do as much damage as possible. Despite their free reign, the Germans were unable to sink all of the barges and succeeded only in damaging the tug without managing to completely destroy her. None of the crew were killed, nor were several women and children whom who were aboard, although one sailor had his arm blown off. Although several shells were aimed at the town of Orleans, one landed in a pond and three others buried themselves harmlessly in the sand. Accounts of the attack describe the Germans taking half an hour to hit and sink one of the smaller barges. This was derided by American newspapers as poor shooting but could also suggest outdated or malfunctioning equipment.

Sobered by this close call, the American Navy began to improve the defenses of the First Naval District in New England. Ships began to sweep the waters off of Massachusetts. To shorten shipping routes and protect other coal convoys, the Federal government assumed control of the Cape Cod Canal, providing direct access to Buzzard’s Bay and the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Cod Bay. The busy port of Boston remained open, but merchant ships were warned of the risk before setting course for open waters.

SM U-156 managed to escape undetected, although rumors persisted amongst the residents of the coastal Northeast that pursuing American warships had been heard and even sighted engaging the U-Boat. The submarine is believed to have sunk after striking a mine in the North Atlantic in September of 1918, several months after its assault on Cape Cod.

The children of Orleans, quick to capitalize on the event, set up a table overlooking Nauset Beach. On the table was a cage with a sheet over it, and in the cage was a chicken. For ten cents, gawkers at the beach could lift the sheet and behold the “chicken that survived the sub attack.”

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Have you spotted submarines lurking just around the corner? Do you have a chicken you'd like to show me, or an island to sell? Chickens cannot be placed in the appropriate place below, but comments certainly can.


“Submarine Drops Four Shells on Shore and Sinks Three Barges off Cape Cod.” Dallas Morning News. 22 Jul. 1918: 1. Print.

“U-Boat again is in action off Atlantic Tug and Three Barges Sunk by Submarine off.” The Bellingham Herald. 22 Jul. 1918: 1, 8. Print.

“Taking over the Cape Cod Canal.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 27 Jul. 1918:6. Print.

"1918 U-156 Submarine Attack of Nauset Beach."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Wild West Business Plan

Making my Museum Mission (M) statement                 

In looking back at my post from a few weeks ago, I see now how foolish it was to assume that I would be able to cover the development of my hypothetical Wild West museum in just two posts, no matter how hypothetical it is. The whole point of this exercise is to examine the challenges that museums of this sort face, from their conception to their construction. To sum up these challenges in just two posts would do a disservice to both the industry and to my better understanding of it. So today, instead of bringing my pipe dream to its conclusion, we will just examine the next chapter on the long, long road towards getting the place funded by a philanthropic billionaire.

This chapter is the museum’s mission statement. Every museum has one. It’s one to three sentences explaining why the institution exists, and what it’s trying to accomplish. For history museums, the mission statement usually provides a brief summary of the place and time period that is being represented. It helps you and your fellow visionaries to focus on the subject that you're trying to cover, and clearly explains exactly how you are different from other institutions doing similar things.

To give you a few examples, let’s turn to the two institutions that I’m channeling most closely; Plimoth Plantation, which showcases a replica of the 1627 Pilgrim settlement, and Old Cowtown in Kansas, an existing Wild West museum. The mission of Plimoth Plantation is to create “powerful, personal encounters with history built on thorough research about the Wampanoag People and the Colonial English community in the 1600s.” Old Cowtown Museum states that they are “an open air, living history museum that presents the history of Wichita, Sedgwick County, and life on the southern plains, circa 1865 - 1880.”

Each mission outlines exactly what it is that the museum is trying to accomplish, what makes it unique. The specifics of how the mission is to be carried out are left undefined, allowing for experimentation and evolution.
Working with this format, let’s decide what we want to do with our yet un-named replica frontier town. Here are a few goals that I would like our museum to strive for.

  1. To present a detailed look at life in a western frontier town of the late 1800s.
  2. To examine the people who lived in the town or nearby; who they are, what they do, and why they came to the town.
  3. To present the frontier life from as many different viewpoints as possible, utilizing historically accurate personalities, trades, and diverse ethnicities.

Vague, but it’s a start and we’ll work with it. As with other museums of this sort, our living history museum will also demonstrate period crafts, skills, and folkways. In order to keep all of these interpretations as accurate as possible, research will be carried out pretty much continuously, so as to remain current with recent scholarship. As we don’t have a location yet, or even a name, we can’t pin down these elements, but based on our goals we can craft a working mission statement that looks something like this:

Nameless, faceless Wild West Museum aims to connect the public with the history of time and place, using recent scholarship and advanced interpretation techniques. NFWWM will furthermore explore the myths and realities of the Old West and the different people and groups who occupied it.”

As we continue to develop our vision of the museum, the mission statement can be edited, specified, and changed to more accurately reflect what we want to accomplish. Next time, we'll try to pin down exactly where and when we want our living history to live.

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Are you a philanthropic billionaire, or an easily persuaded one? Do you have a good-for-nothing frontier town lying around that refuses to get a job? All of these comments and more can be left in the comments section below.