History

Marble and Mud: Political Commentary

The President’s remarks after Charlottesville engendered more controversy than usual. Some interpreted his measured denunciation along with the tacit support from many in his party as a GOP transitioning from the party of Lincoln into the party of George Lincoln Rockwell. The further irony of a Republican Commander-in-Chief defending monuments dedicated to “losers” from the Confederacy became muddled by the Chief Executive’s continued missteps. The incident and aftermath reignited the debate over the appropriateness of monuments honoring Civil War enemies. It’s confounding that it took an incident of this magnitude to bring the issue to the national forefront.

The United States may hold the distinction as the first nation in history to immortalize figures for taking up arms against it. It baffles the mind that individuals such as Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest and other rebels would become marble effigies displayed on public properties throughout the union. This stretches the boundaries of Lincoln’s assurance: “malice towards none and charity for all.”

It astonishes that some deem such figures worthy of honor. The West Point alumni who abandoned their blue uniforms for gray forsook their oath to defend the nation from “all enemies foreign and domestic.” The Confederate States instigated a war of choice against their fellow Americans. The states that seceded from the Union did so unnecessarily. The Republican Party opposed the extension of slavery; it didn’t contest its existence.

All the legalese regarding “states’ rights” and “secession” only obfuscated the real issue. No state seethed over matters such as the Federal Government building a post office on prime public land. No local government raged over the unfairness of port duties getting sent to Washington. None invoked the “taxation without representation” epigram in response to state funds stuffing the coffers of a bloated national bureaucracy. Slavery served as the catalyst, cause and core of the conflict.

Myriad contributions to the American experience originated in the South. Authors such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote enhanced our nation’s literary tradition. Statesmen such as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson built our political system. It’s difficult to imagine popular music without the influences of Elvis Presley, the Delta Blues and—America’s original art form– Jazz. Without these inspirations, American culture would not exist. The area south of the Mason-Dixon line gestated numerous boons that made the nation a “shining city on a hill.”

The Civil War is not among them. It seems macabre to “honor” those who waged a four year war of attrition against the United States government. Scholars debate the conflict’s human cost. Depending upon which estimates one uses, the hostilities caused casualties somewhere in the range of 600,000 to 900,000. The War Between the States initiating the deaths of more Americans than any other war is not open to conjecture.

Critics complain that removing Confederate monuments “erases” history. The question: just what history do they believe it erases? The very existence of these statues muddies the past. Even without the presence of the rebel effigies, Americans will still study and seek to understand the most violent war in our country’s history. Understanding why society held these figures in high regard for so long will prove more challenging.

It’s always mystified me that Americans adopted the Roman practice of deifying political figures. Imperial officials made (popular) former emperors into gods. They then chose to construct elaborate monuments honoring their memories. It’s bizarre to witness that practice in my own country. After all, the Founding Fathers crafted a constitution predicated upon a deep mistrust of government.

While appropriate to respect public servants, revering them is a dangerous practice; at times, a strange one. It defies all bounds of reason that a marble likeness of Roger Taney occupied the grounds of the Maryland State House until recently. While Chief Justice, he wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott v Sandford (1857) case. Legal scholars cite it as the worst decision SCOTUS ever handed down. The reckless application of judicial activism made the Civil War inevitable.

Some have suggested that Taney presided over a successful Court. His conduct in Dred Scott represented one mistake in an otherwise distinguished career. I find that comparable to lauding Neville Chamberlain for his contributions to European politics. It would be unfair to judge the whole of his career by his one failure. So what if that lone irresponsible act almost precipitated the end of liberal democracy?

Monuments to political figures reflect more upon the era of their dedication. Seldom are they timeless. History often mires public officials in mud. They have no place in marble.

 

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My Inauguration Story

The quadrennial ritual in which we install another Chief Executive is upon us. It got me thinking about the lavish pageantry of the Inaugural Balls that we see on television. I always thought about how fascinating it must be to attend a Presidential Inauguration in person. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that some of my relatives had the opportunity to do so.

I’d always heard these stories that my maternal grandparents attended John Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball in 1961. I found that interesting, but as an historian, I was skeptical. In my younger days I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, Jack McKeon. Always loquacious, he’d tell me all about his life story. He’d discuss his career working for the railroad. He’d talk about his experiences serving the nation in the Second World War. And he’d share his thoughts on politics. He lived in Riverton, but his heart belonged to the City of Brotherly Love. He avidly followed current events in Philadelphia.

As much as my grandfather discussed the topics of government and politics, I don’t recall him ever mentioning he attended a Presidential Inauguration. When I knew him his political views were solidly conservative. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that he would’ve attended a party commemorating the election of a Democratic President.

My parents were the ones who told me that my grandparents attended John Kennedy’s inauguration. My mom said my grandfather knew Chet Huntley of the Huntley/Brinkley team.  Somehow, my grandfather got the tickets for the ball through him.  I had no reason to disbelieve this, but I wanted to see some solid proof. I remember my grandfather had a bust of John Kennedy in his house, but that wasn’t exactly evidence. I needed something substantial. I wanted some incontrovertible historical evidence that he partied with a president.

Sometime after my mother passed away, I decided to investigate my family history. I figured that she must have had some old photographs from when she grew up. I looked all over the house but couldn’t find any. After a few weeks of searching, one day I was sitting in the living room looking at my grandparents’ wedding photo hanging on the wall across from me. I looked down to see the coffee table. For the first time in twenty years of looking at this particular piece of furniture I noticed there was a door on it. I opened it to reveal some old family albums that I’d never seen before. In one of them I found a series of pictures of my grandparents in formal dress. My grandfather was clad in a tuxedo while my grandmother was wearing a polka dot evening gown complimented by a black shawl. A pair of long white gloves covered her hands and forearms. I’d seen pictures of them out to dinner and dressed-up, but I never saw them wearing anything this elegant. I got to thinking about that rumor they attended President Kennedy’s Inauguration. They were certainly dressed for an event of that magnitude, but I needed to know more.

One day I started cleaning out the attic and found it. Buried under a number of old boxes, I located a stash of papers that belonged to my grandfather. Among them was a small envelope with his address. In the top left hand corner in bas-relief the words The Inaugural Ball stood out. The date January 5, 1961 grabbed my attention. I opened the envelope as carefully as my shaking hands would let me. Inside were four documents. One was a postcard. It read as follows:

NBC News 30 Rockefeller Plaza New York City 20

Dear Mr. McKeon:

I have taken the liberty of sending your request for tickets to the Inaugural Committee in Washington, since they (and only they) have charge of them.

I sent it to the special attention of an acquaintance there, so let us hope it is honored. I am sure the request will be respected if it is humanly possible.

Sincerely,

(Signed)

Chet Huntley

In addition to the postcard, the envelope contained a letter and two tickets to the Inaugural Ball held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Friday January 20, 1961 at 9:00 PM. Blue check marks graced both tickets.

I finally had my proof. My grandparents did, in fact, attend President Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball. I then wondered why? As I mentioned my grandfather was pretty conservative. The more I researched the family history I think I found my answer. Both my grandmother’s parents were Irish Catholic immigrants. My grandfather’s grandparents were as well. I can only imagine what it must have meant to them to see someone from a similar background manage to get elected to the highest political office that our country has to offer.  They must have felt truly inspired. And so should we.

Book Review – The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

But the story of leukemia—the story of cancer—isn’t the story of doctors who struggle and survive, moving from one institution to another. It is the story of patients who struggle and survive, moving from one embankment of illness to another. Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship—qualities often ascribed to great physicians—are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them. If the history of medicine is told through the stories of doctors, it is because their contributions stand in place of the more substantive heroism of their patients. (Page 148)

In the prologue to The Emperor of all Maladies, Dr. Mukherjee wrote:

 In 2010, about six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer. In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetime. A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer. In some nations, cancer will surpass heart disease to become the most common cause of death.

The author quoted journalist Paul Brodeur who observed, “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.” (Page 267)

That statement’s accuracy resonates with me. My mother passed away from cancer. Her brother passed away from cancer at the age of 49. My paternal grandmother survived cancer twice. Myriad acquaintances of mine have battled the disease. Because of this, I felt compelled to read Dr. Mukherjee’s book.

The author is a cancer physician, researcher and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. He’s also a gifted author. I thank him for writing such an accessible work about one of the most complex medical challenges to afflict human kind. While he lost me with some of his bio-chemical explanations and descriptions of how various drugs function, I found the overall work understandable.

Instead of presenting a dry scientific tome, Dr. Mukherjee chose to present his story as a “biography” of cancer. He called this scourge “possibly the oldest disease among humans.” (Page 43) Throughout the story he described the (sometimes quirky) physicians who made breakthrough discoveries. He also detailed the innovative ways researchers sought new means to combat this “emperor of all maladies.”

The most intriguing revelation I found concerned how the Ancient Egyptians may have identified the disease. He included the physician Imhotep’s chilling description of the treatment: “There is none.” (Page 41)

The author began each chapter with quotes. As someone more grounded in the humanities than the sciences, I liked that he chose to include some from literary figures. Here’s a poem from Hilaire Belloc.

Physicians of the Utmost Fame

Were called at once; but whence they came

They answered, as they took their Fees,

“There is no Cure for this Disease.” (Page 11)

The doctor apparently had a good background in verse. He included “The Fall” from Czeslaw Milosz.

The death of a man is like the fall of a mighty nation

That had valiant armies, captains, and prophets,

And wealthy ports and ships all over the seas

But now it will not relieve any besieged city

It will not enter into an alliance. (Page 116)

In one of the sections where he discussed drugs he referenced the Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Wit by Margaret Edson. The play detailed a woman’s battle with cancer; especially, her cancer treatment and the effects of the drugs prescribed to her.

These references helped to round out the narrative. They balanced out the technical sections nicely.

While the author presented a host of concrete scientific details, he did allow his personal views to permeate the text. He made no effort to conceal his disdain for the tobacco industry. Numerous times he described smoking in the same way most others would recount heroin addiction. He included the following statement when explaining a meeting that took place at the National Institute for Health in the 1960’s.

Ashtrays with cigarette butts littered the tables. (The committee was split exactly five to five among nonsmokers and smokers—men whose addiction was so deep that it could not be shaken even when deliberating the carcinogenesis of smoke.) (Page 261)

His comments on the passage of the Federal Cigarette Labelling and Advertising Act of 1965 were much harsher. He wrote:

…it changed the FTC’s warning label (on cigarette packs) to Caution: Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health. The dire, potent language of the original label—most notably the words cancer, cause, and death—was expunged. To ensure uniformity, state laws were also enfolded into the FCLAA—in effect, ensuring that no stronger warning label could exist in any state in America. The result, as journalist Elizabeth Drew noted in the Atlantic Monthly, was “an unabashed act to protect private industry from government regulation.” Politicians were far more protective of the narrow interests of tobacco than of the broad interest in public health. Tobacco makers need not have bothered inventing protective filters, Drew wrote dryly: Congress had turned out to be “the best filter yet.” (Page 265)

Obviously, The Emperor of All Maladies does not have a happy conclusion. Towards the end of the book, the author included an anecdote about a lab sample he worked with.

The cells, technically speaking, are immortal. The woman from whose body they were once taken had been dead for thirty years. (Page 339)

Sadly, even with the vast advancements in the diagnosis and treatment of the disease, the war on cancer may last just as long.

Book Review – Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

If you’re not moved by this book, you’re not human. Ms. Alexievich delivered a powerful narrative of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. As opposed to delivering a dry history of events populated with statistics, she explored the aftermath through the human cost of the tragedy. The author achieved this through personal interviews with those affected.

The hardest task for an historian is to present readers with a realistic portrayal of time and place. Through the book’s structure Ms. Alexievich did. Voices from Chernobyl consisted exclusively of the words of those directly involved. She spoke with former Soviet military personnel who worked on the clean-up as well as former government officials. While that presented an accurate perspective, the most haunting comments came from those who lost loved ones in the tragedy.

I’ve read volumes of history books in my time. None contained the emotional impact of this one. Ford Maddux Ford began his The Good Soldier with the line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” I doubt few people come away from Voices from Chernobyl not saying the same thing. I’m not sure how I managed to finish it and I can’t imagine how Ms. Alexievich persisted through writing it. I really have to applaud her commitment to getting the story of the Belorussian people’s suffering out to the world.

To be sincere, I’m struggling to write this review. The stories Ms. Alexievich included really moved me: and I’m not an emotional person. She began and ended the book with stories of men who responded to the disaster and passed away from radiation poisoning. The author allowed their widows to tell their stories in their own words.

One that will remain with me forever involved a woman’s ordeal at the hospital. She concealed her pregnancy so they would let her in to attend to her husband. One of the nurses told her: “He’s not your husband anymore. He’s a radioactive object.” (Page 16) Her daughter passed shortly after birth: another victim of complications from radiation poisoning.

For those managing to hang in there and continue reading this review, there’s much more graphic information in the story. The man who passed away at the end of the book succumbed to a horrendous form of cancer. The widow recounted a conversation with two hospital orderlies.

“We’ve seen everything,” they told me, “people who’ve been smashed up, cut up, the corpses of children caught in fires. The way Chermobylites die is the most frightening of all.” (Page 231)

There are a lot of very disturbing personal reminiscences like this in the book. Once more, that’s what made it so powerful. Approximately 340,000 members of the Soviet military worked at Chernobyl following the disaster. (Page 140) One of them recalled the following.

Before we went home we were called in to talk to a KGB man. He was very convincing when he said we shouldn’t talk to anyone, anywhere, about what we’d seen. When I made it back from Afghanistan, I knew that I’d live. Here it was the opposite: it’d kill you only after you got home. (Page 41)

One observer described the Soviet Union as a “country of authority, not people.” (Page 209) Government officials weren’t spared the effects of Chernobyl, either. One former First Secretary of the Stavgorod Regional Party Committee indignantly defended his reluctance to evacuate the area after the disaster. His response elucidated the mindset of Soviet officials during the Cold War era.

In the papers—on the radio and television they were yelling Truth! Truth! At all the meetings they demanded Truth! Well, it’s bad. It’s very bad. We’re all going to die! But who needs that kind of truth? When the mob tore into the convent and demanded the execution of Robespierre, were they right? You can’t listen to the mob, you can’t become the mob…If I’m a criminal, why is my granddaughter, my little child, also sick? My daughter had her that spring, she brought her to us in Slavgorod in diapers. In a baby carriage, it was just a few weeks after the explosion at the plant. There were helicopters flying, military vehicles on the roads. My wife said: “They should go to our relatives. They need to get out of here.” I was the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Party. I said absolutely not. “What will people think if I take my daughter with her baby out of here? Their children have to stay.” Those who tried to leave, to save their own skins, I’d call them into the regional committee. “Are you a Communist or not?” It was a test for people. If I’m a criminal, then why was I killing my own grandchild? (Goes on for some time but it is impossible to understand what he’s saying.) (Page 198)

The Swedish Academy honored Svetlana Alexievich with the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. After reading this book, I understand the choice. Some experiences in life deeply affect a person. They shape his view of the world around him in new ways. For me, one of those experiences will have been reading Voices from Chernobyl.

In Support of Freedom

On June 6, 1944 the combined forces of the United States, Great Britain and Canada stormed the Normandy beaches of France. The object of this endeavor wasn’t simply to defeat Nazi Germany, but to defend the very concept of freedom itself. We owe the combined air, sea and land forces of the Allied forces an immense debt of gratitude for what they did for us that day.

American historian Daniel Walker Howe once wrote, “When looking back at the past, things have an air of inevitability about them.” To put it generously, victory on D-Day was uncertain at best. Landing craft faced stormy seas crossing the English Channel. The logistics of coordinating an invasion this complex without the benefit of computers or satellite technology astonishes the modern mind. Upon reaching the European mainland forces then had to contend with Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ defenses. General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, even drafted a statement taking personal responsibility for the Allied defeat.

The fact that I have the freedom to write this and you have the freedom to read it shows that D-Day succeeded.

While drinking my morning coffee I reflected on this pivotal point in human history. I recalled the many afternoons I spent with my grandfather, Jack McKeon. He served in the 79th Infantry Division during the Second World War. Among the liberating forces, his unit was the second of what would become Lieutenant-General George Patton’s Third Army. While the “Cross of Lorraine” division didn’t take part in the initial landings, it did deploy in France on 12 June.

Several years ago on 6 June I told my grandfather’s story to a navy veteran with whom I work. Since my grandfather didn’t enter the fight on D-Day the man joked, “He had it easy!” Mr. McKeon and his two Purple Hearts would’ve disagreed.

While remembering my grandfather’s war stories I thought it sad so few WWII vets remain. I felt how nice it would be to thank one for his/her service on the 71st anniversary of D-Day. Just then an elderly African-American gentleman entered the café. The man wore a baseball cap with the words WWII Veteran embroidered on the front.

I thanked him for his service. He kindly smiled and shook my hand. “If it wasn’t for the support of people like you, we wouldn’t have made it,” he said.

I speak with a lot of veterans. They’re always very appreciative of the recognition, but this man’s comments really surprised me. I recall my grandfather telling me about the racism in the military during the 1940’s. All Americans know the social climate that existed here prior to the Civil Rights movement. It made me contemplate what kind of homecoming this veteran received upon returning from the war.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to thank a World War II veteran today. If you don’t happen to encounter someone who served in that conflict, there are plenty of veterans around. When you see one, please let them know how much you appreciate their service to our country.

Let us never forget: without the support of people like them on 6 June 1944, our freedom wouldn’t have made it.

Book Review – The Great War by Peter Hart

The First World War is a virtually forgotten conflict in the United States. In fact, if there hadn’t been a World War II, I doubt many people would know it even took place. In The Great War, historian Peter Hart rectified this through an outstanding narrative history. He detailed many theaters of war on both land and sea. Utilizing primary sources including journals and letters from combatants on both sides of the conflict he gave readers a first-hand view. He varied his information in that he presented writings from generals in the high command to those of front line soldiers. This variety along with his detailed analyses greatly enhanced my understanding of the war.

This August will mark the 100th anniversary of the war’s advent making the book’s publication rather timely. The title came from the war’s original name. As Mr. Hart showed throughout the book, the First World War led to many military innovations. He described the devastating power of machine guns, tanks, aircraft and poison gas. These new weapons combined with outdated strategies led to casualty figures that still stagger the mind today.

…It is shocking to record that some 27,000 Frenchmen died on 22 August alone. This was an almost unprecendented slaughter in the long history of warfare. (Page 46)

He added the following observation of the same campaign.

French casualties during these failed offensives exceeded 200,000, of which over 75,000 were dead in just a few days of desperate fighting. (Page 48)

Of course, he cited the 57,470 casualties of which 19,240 soldiers the British lost on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. (Page 224)

Joseph Stalin once said that, “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” Hart understood that. He populated his narrative with letters home from common soldiers who didn’t survive the war. He related the following from a soldier to his wife and infant daughter.

I must not allow myself to dwell on the personal – there is no room for it here. Also it is demoralizing. But I do not want to die. Not that I mind for myself. If it be that I am to go, I am ready. But the thought that I may never see you or our darling baby again turns my bowels to water…My one consolation is the happiness that has been ours. (Page 218)

Captain Charles May wrote these words on the day before his death during the Battle of the Somme. “Small scale tragedies litter the history of war: sad reminders that the necessities of war ruin the lives of millions.” (Page 219) As horrible as this and other stories like it were to read, I appreciated the way Hart humanized the horrors of battle.

Hart also took a more modern view of the generals’ conduct during the conflict. The myth of the “chateau generals” has passed into popular folklore.  Hart explained how commanders such as Foch and Haig recognized the changing nature of warfare. They did their best to adapt their tactics to accommodate for it. I thought it very enlightening how the author pointed out that “the nature of coalition warfare” (or politics) forced generals to engage in battles that shouldn’t have been fought. It’s tough to blame the commanders who did the best they could in an impossible situation.

Hart presented commentary from soldiers and officers on both sides of the conflict. I thought his narrative would’ve been bolstered if he’d included sources from civilians. As he wrote, approximately 950,000 civilians died due to military actions during the war. Another 5,893,000 died from war-related famine or disease. (Page 468) I would’ve liked to hear non-combatants’ thoughts on this “war to end all wars.”

My Great-Grandfather Mike Stephany fought for the Americans in the First World War. In fact, I have a photo of him with his company across from my desk as I’m writing this. Since a close relation of mine served in the conflict I’ve always been curious to learn more about it. As Pop Mike passed away fourteen years before my birth, I never had the chance to ask him. Whenever I visit his grave at Beverly Memorial Cemetery I’m in awe of the rows and rows of markers that dot the landscape. Crafters of foreign policy must make many decisions. Whenever I look around the cemetery I’m reminded of the high cost that incurs when they make the wrong ones. I thank Peter Hart’s The Great War for making that point terribly clear.

 

In the Footsteps of Ghosts

In his 1881 classic play Ghosts, playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote about a family haunted by figurative ghosts from its own past. As we prepare for the upcoming Halloween season of ghosts, ghouls, and specters what better place to seek the ghosts of our own history than in graveyards? In past issues of this publication I’ve written about various sources for locating information regarding one’s genealogy. Eerily enough one of the most interesting I’ve found is a cemetery.

            My Great-Grandfather Michael Stephany was a veteran. Appropriately enough he’s buried at a military cemetery. I found a lot of valuable information about him from visiting his grave. His head stone at BeverlyMemorialCemetery listed him as being from Pennsylvania and as serving in the First World War. The crucifix engraved on the headstone indicated that he was a member of the Christian faith. It had his rank listed as Private First Class. He served in the 313th Field Artillery of the 80th Infantry Division. Of course, it had the main pieces of information every genealogical researcher longs for: his dates of birth and death.

            Cemetery records also contain a wealth of information. I found out from my 4X Great-Grandfather Joseph McClay’s death certificate that he worked in the liquor business. This was a great find, because I’ve always been curious as to where I inherited my long standing interest in the liquor industry. (Admittedly, my ancestor worked in the distribution end of the business whereas I’ve been more drawn to the consumption end of it.)

           Curiously enough, he and his wife, Mary, both have the unusual distinction of having moved after they passed away. They were both interred at OddFellowsCemetery in Philadelphia in the 1870s. Their graves were moved in the early 1950s when the land was converted into a housing project. It’s horrifying that even in death one can’t escape the reach of government.   

            The most fascinating thing about visiting graveyards is that you never know what you’re going to find. I learned this when I visited my great-grandmother’s grave. My great-grandmother Violet Bishop Connelly was the family historian. She knew all kinds of things about our ancestry. She said that the city of Coatesville, PA was named after one of our relatives. She told the family that we were related to the famous explorer Zebulon Pike. She even found that we were related to two presidents of the United   States (William Henry and Benjamin Harrison) and a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Benjamin Harrison). In addition, her Great-Great Grandfather Ichabod Bishop played a role in the American Revolution. Her Grandfather, William Henry Harrison Coates, served in the American Civil War. Some of her ancestors immigrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s. When I found out she was buried in a Bishop family plot at OaklandCemetery in Philadelphia, I figured there was going to be this huge monument to the Bishop Family; something rivaling the types of monuments one would find in Washington, D.C.

            I called the cemetery ahead of time and got the section and location of the family plot. My dad also found the deed to my great-grandmother’s plot. I headed over there one Saturday afternoon with my father. In spite of all this information we had we ended up wandering around for at least a half-an-hour looking for it. It took a kindly groundskeeper who went out of his way to go to the front office and get maps and a burial card to take us to the grave. Wouldn’t you know it, the grave was unmarked! There were seven members of the Bishop family buried there. There was a marker that only had two of their names (her brother’s and sister-in-law’s): not my great-grandmother’s or even her parents’! This was one of the biggest disappointments of my adult life.

            The thing that bothered me the most about this experience was that I don’t have any idea why her grave is unmarked. I would have thought that someone so interested in genealogy and history would leave something so that future generations of the family can find where she’s buried. My great-grandmother had three children: two of whom are living. Unfortunately, age and memory don’t permit them to tell me why. I asked two of her grandchildren and they didn’t have any idea why there’s no marker either.

        One clue I did find was that whenever I ask anyone to describe my great-grandmother the first word they always use is humble. I learned from the Ghost Tours presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown that orthodox Quakers didn’t have grave markers because they believed them to be a sign of pride. I know my some of my great-grandmother’s ancestors were Irish Quakers. That’s one possible reason why there’s nothing identifying her grave, but unfortunately I’ll never get a definitive answer as to why.

        While it may sound macabre to some, visiting cemeteries and reviewing cemetery records can provide a wealth of information to genealogical researchers. As I know from my own personal experience, the results can be scary or even unexplained. But aside from the wealth of data we can gain from this, let’s face it: paying our respects to relatives who have gone before us is just the right thing to do. If I may paraphrase the greatest philosopher who ever lived, a man named Yogi Berra, you should visit your relatives’ final resting places. If you don’t they’re never going to visit yours.       

             

Book Review – Promise and Power : The Life and Times of Robert McNamara by Deborah Shapley

Many called Robert McNamara the “greatest management genius” of his era and yet today his name is synonymous with failure, mismanagement, and deceit. In this book, Shapely narrated this “whiz kid’s” meteoric rise to the heights of respect and prominence, through his downfall and disgrace as the architect of “McNamara’s War”: the tragedy that was the Vietnam conflict.

 

Shapely described McNamara’s education as the formative years of his life. He received an undergraduate degree in Economics from Berkley and later received his MBA from Harvard. McNamara was driven to do so by an idealistic belief that management was the key to solving the problems that plagued his society. He was an ardent believer in the capability of business to benefit society.

 

In school, McNamara learned the concepts of statistical controls and “throughput” which were pioneered by Donaldson Brown at du Pont and later adopted by Alfred Sloan at General Motors. These ideas were to shape American industry and make the 20th Century the “American Century.”

 

McNamara rigorously applied these ideas to first the U.S. Army and later to Ford Motor Company. For his efforts, he rapidly rose through the ranks of both organizations: he left the Army as a Lieutenant-Colonel and eventually rose to the Presidency of Ford. The later was a post he held for only a month as he was summoned by newly elected President John F. Kennedy to accept a position of even greater responsibility to society: that of Secretary of Defense. Because of his belief in public service, it was a call he couldn’t refuse.

 

The majority of Shapely’s narrative focused on McNamara’s seven years as head of the Defense Department. It was to be a tumultuous time as McNamara’s unshakable faith in statistical controls was to alienate many members of the military, and later the American public as a whole.

 

Shapely sharply criticized McNamara’s management of the Defense Department. McNamara took the ideas of economies of scale he leaned at Ford and contracted to design a plane that could be used both by the Navy and the Air Force. Both services didn’t like this concept, but it went forward anyway as McNamara believed, “the more important the decision, the fewer people should be involved in making it.” The plane never got off the ground and the project was later scrapped.

 

McNamara’s intractable belief in his brand of management blinded him to larger political considerations. Shapely described the cause of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a “political issue” as opposed to a matter that jeopardized U.S. national security. She also disparaged how McNamara tended to promote people in the military who were “numbers crunchers” instead of individuals with “operational” proficiency. And then there was the Vietnam War…

 

McNamara has been pilloried by many historians and journalists for his conduct of the Vietnam War. Shapely emphasized the duplicitous way in which McNamara was positive about the way the war was going in public and yet expressed grave reservations in private. The biggest criticism of McNamara was his “gradualist” approach to the war; in other words, his belief that the war in Vietnam could be a war fought with limited means for limited ends.

 

This may seem like an inordinate amount of criticism for the “greatest management genius” of his age, but Shapely had more to come. Shapely disparaged McNamara’s presidency of the World Bank. Through his emphasis on “throughput” McNamara made development the Bank’s primary mission. While this was a well intentioned move on McNamara’s part, it led to the developing world becoming overloaded with debt.

 

Shapely painted a very tragic portrait of our longest serving Secretary of Defense, but there’s a larger point that she missed. Robert McNamara was a brilliant man who received the best education this country had to offer. He studied and mastered the conventional management theories of the time and applied them rigorously in every organization he worked. He did exactly what he was trained to do and did so better than anyone else in his time. He applied these lessons in some of the most powerful public and private institutions in the world: and today “the computer with legs” is regarded as the epitome of hubris and failure. That is the tragedy of Robert McNamara.    

Criminal History

Grand expectations consume us whenever we commence genealogical research. Images of discovering we’re related to world figures who changed history dance through our dreams. If not a Churchill or a Washington, at least we want to find some relative who will impress our friends and/or fellow researchers. When I started researching my Great-Grandmother Violet (nee Bishop) Connelly’s family history I had just such aspirations.

“Mom Vi” was the closest my family came to having an official chronicler. She’d regale everyone with all these great tales about our family history. I didn’t have the pleasure of hearing them first hand, as she passed away during my early childhood. When her “students” did relay her stories to me I felt inspired to learn more.

Mom Vi held that our lineage included two Presidents of the United States: William Henry and Benjamin Harrison. Not just Chief Executives, but a great adventurer was among our ancestors as well. She said we were related to the man who discovered Pike’s Peak: the great explorer Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. When I heard all this I couldn’t wait to start digging on my own. I wanted to see what other interesting characters I could find hidden among the roots of my family tree. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of my relatives, in fact Mom Vi’s own grandfather, had a criminal history! Curiously when I mentioned this to some members of the family they were shocked. For some reason Mom Vi neglected to mention this part of the family saga.

With help from friends in the on-line community, I located a snippet from the Philadelphia Inquirer dated March 28, 1870. It read that Edgar Bishop and an accomplice were sentenced to three years in prison. They’d been convicted of counterfeiting five-cent pieces. As stunned as I found this news, the most astonishing part was that the sentencing took place on a Saturday. They must’ve really wanted to shuffle this guy off to prison if the judge came in on a weekend to do it.

Every family has its share of less than savory characters, but I never would’ve thought that person would come from the Bishops. They’ve got a long history in this country going back to the early years of the eighteenth century. In fact, my 5th Great Grandfather Ichabod Bishop even played a role in the American Revolution. According to an application for membership in the National Society for the Sons of the American Revolution, “Ichabod Bishop received from Timothy Elmer, December 20, 1777, 5:0:0 for a blanket during the Revolutionary War.” Apparently, that blanket helped the Colonists in the war effort as it qualified Ichabod Bishop as a genuine patriot. What went wrong with his grandson Edgar, then?

Another interesting thing about Edgar’s story is that Mom Vi’s other grandfather, William Henry Harrison Coates, fought in the Civil War. While Mr. Coates spent the following years recovering from that experience both in mind and body, his counterpart was trying to make a living by stealing from the same government for which he fought. I found this to be an intriguing comparison.

In light of this new revelation about my ancestry, I’m sure people will ask me what I think of having a criminal in my past. The first thought that comes to mind is that the measure of a person’s life is more than the worst thing he/she ever did. In the course of my research I’ve found that Edgar fathered seven children. One of whom, Albert Bishop, went on to father “Mom Vi.”

I discovered that Edgar married a woman named Mary Pike. I’m still researching to discover whether or not she is the “missing link”, so to speak, as to how I’m related to General Pike. If so, I could say that Edgar redeemed himself by “marrying up” and tying our family history with that of the great explorer.
The thing that stands out most in my mind is that Edgar had a number of different jobs throughout his career. I’ve discovered documents showing he worked as a watchman and a mariner. Those are pretty diverse fields of endeavor. I know that in 1850 he didn’t have a source of employment. It’s difficult to support a family large as his under any circumstances. It’s much more challenging when finding one’s self out of work for a time. Not that hardship excuses law breaking, but it’s useful to look at the whole picture before judging someone.

To borrow a line from the great historian Charles Beard when we take up the study of history our “noble dream” should always be the pursuit of truth through objectivity. Just because we’re researching our own history doesn’t give us the right to select facts that happen to appeal to us. We owe ourselves and our family an accurate portrayal of our past “as it actually happened” to paraphrase Leopold von Ranke. To do anything else would be criminal.

When “That Noble Dream” Becomes a Nightmare

I was a graduate student in American History when I first heard Charles Beard’s musing on that so-called “noble dream” of historical objectivity; I never thought I’d be reminded of it while researching my own ancestry. Strangely enough, I recollected Mr. Beard’s idea when I came across some data about my Great-Grandfather, Tom Connelly; or as I call him, “The Irish Immigrant Born in Athlone, Ireland Who Was a Second Generation American from Georgia and Philadelphia.” Who would have thought the life of an accountant could be so intriguing, fascinating, and filled with mystery?

Even though I started doing a genealogical survey of my heritage for my family, as a pseudo-trained want to-be historian, I thought I should be as objective as possible. I aspired to follow in the tradition of the great Nineteenth Century Historian Leopold von Ranke. I was going to use his technique and write about the past “as it actually happened” while documenting all my data as thoroughly and as professionally as I could. Great-Grandpa Tom’s story made this a little tricky. I wrote in a previous article of this publication about issues arising from the “disparity between memory and documentation.” I never thought I’d encounter a situation where various documents conflicted with one another on basic facts.

There’s an old family yarn about how my Great-Grandfather Tom Connelly (my paternal grandmother’s father) came to the United States from Ireland when he was 12 accompanied only by his mother. I thought that would be easy enough to confirm, until I came across the 1920 Census Records. I viewed the primary source itself and it stated clearly that Tom Connelly was born in Georgia as were both his mother and his father. That was certainly interesting. I knew this was my Great-Grandfather because it listed Violet Connelly as his wife and Tom Connelly, Jr. (then one year old) as his son. I did some more sleuthing and I located Mr. Connelly’s draft registration card for World War I (c. 1917). On that one, he very specifically indicated that he was born in Athlone, Ireland in 1892. That was really interesting. I knew that Ireland was part of the United   Kingdom until 1922. Was it briefly part of Georgia, U.S.A. in 1892?

I mentioned earlier that the tradition is that Tom Connelly came to the U. S. from Ireland when he was 12 years old. Both my grandmother and my aunt told me that same story on different occasions and decades apart. On the Draft Registration Card, it states that Tom Connelly (I know it’s him because of the other data on there) was born on June 12, 1892. The 1930 Census Record says he came to the U. S. in 1896, when he would have been four. There was no mention of Georgia this time. On that Census Record it reads that Tom Connelly and both his parents were from Ireland.

I later found a draft registration form my Great-Grandfather filled out in 1942. On that one he indicated his place of birth as Philadelphia. I felt a tint of envy upon reading this. He got around more extensively at the time of his birth than I have my entire life! I’ve got to keep researching to find the name of his travel agency.  

I knew my Great-Grandfather Tom was an interesting guy. He worked as a paymaster, a real estate salesman, and even an IRS Agent. The fact he claimed to be born in both Ireland and Georgia made him a lot more interesting than I ever could have imagined. I was also curious as to why on his draft registration card, the “Date of Registration” line was left blank. He was listed as an “alien” and a citizen of Ireland. He also declared that he was supporting his wife and mother at the time. Could either of those explain why? For that matter is it possible that the people responsible for processing draft cards were as thorough and proficient in their duties as census takers of the day? I was really surprised that my great-grandfather, a person who worked with numbers where precision was a hallmark of his trade, would leave a series of documents with so many open questions. It’s very difficult to draw firm conclusions and details about Great–Grandpa Tom’s life from all this.

Great-Grandpa Tom was a wizard when it came to numbers, but his public relations skills were an area he could have developed better. His legacy has the misfortune of suffering by comparison. In modern day language, he “married up.” My Great-Grandmother Violet nee Bishop (or “Vi” as she was known) was the family historian/genealogist. She was related to the famous explorer and discoverer of Pike’s Peak, Zebulon Pike. The city of Coatesville, Pennsylvania was named after one of her ancestors. By my research she was eighth generation American. As if that wasn’t a formidable enough legacy to compete against, “Mom Vi” is remembered very favorably by all who knew her. When she was in her seventies she worked with handicapped people at the WoodsSchool in Langhorne. She wasn’t just loved, she was revered. Since her passing, her reputation has reflected that.

While Great-Grandpa Tom may not have originally been from the South, in spite of what the 1920 Census taker reported, that’s where he chose to spend his remaining years. Robert Gray wrote in his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” that “all paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Great-Grandpa Tom’s journey ended in Sarasota, Florida in March of 1960.

As lovers of history we all try to present the truth when we write about it. We all strive for that ever elusive goal of complete objectivity. After researching my Great-Grandfather Tom’s life with all the conflicting information, contradictory documents, and his being overshadowed by my great-grandmother’s glowing reputation I wondered if objectivity was even possible. I then realized that there was one thing missing in all this: Tom Connelly’s voice. I remembered a story about Winston Churchill. During the Second World War Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin asked Churchill how history would remember the way they conducted the war. Without hesitation Churchill replied, “History will remember us fondly.” They asked how he could be so sure. Churchill responded, “Because I shall write the history!” It sure would be neat to read Great-Grandpa Tom’s version of events. I don’t know if it would be objective, but I can guarantee this: it would definitely be the most interesting work of history ever written by an accountant born in Ireland, Georgia, and Philadelphia.