New Jersey

Lecture Review – “The Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues” by Dr. Jonathan Mercantini

Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Everyone knows that. What most people these days don’t know is just how remarkable a feat he achieved in doing so. Fortunately, historian Jonathan Mercantini is working to rectify this shortcoming.

According to Kean University’s website, Dr. Mercantini’s primary fields of expertise include Colonial and Revolutionary America, the American South and the state of New Jersey. He currently serves as the Chair of Kean University’s Department of History. When not occupied in that capacity, he’s a busy man. He is editing an on-line edition of the papers of John and Susan Kean. Tangential to that endeavor, he’s also involved with museum exhibits regarding the same family. In addition, he’s preparing an original piece for the New Jersey Historical Commission while co-authoring scripts for the documentary series It Happened Here – New Jersey.

But what has Dr. Mecantini done lately? Well, on May 8th, he delivered a lecture at the Moorestown Library titled “The Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues.” The event concluded this season’s History Speaks Series sponsored by the Historical Society of Moorestown.

Dr. Mercantini opened his remarks by clearing up a popular misconception. Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first African-American to play professional baseball. Moses Fleetwood Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. A few other African-American players followed him. Frank Grant played second base for the Buffalo Bisons of the International League from 1887 until 1888. Rube Foster pitched for the Chicago American Giants. That team played independently until 1920. At that time it joined the Negro National League: an organization Mr. Foster founded.

Segregation, Jim Crow laws and an unwritten agreement among baseball owners forced African-American baseball players out of the major leagues. Many did, however, play in places such as the Caribbean, Mexico and Cuba. From 1898 until 1946 they maintained their own baseball association in the United States.

Mr. Mercantini described the latter as a “precarious business model.” “The Negro Leagues” is a generic expression. It encompasses various organizations that formed and sometimes collapsed during the same season. This may be one reason why historians encounter difficulty when seeking primary sources on the topic.

The Negro Leagues included a number of characteristics that differentiated them from Major League Baseball. They developed their own version of the “Sunday Doubleheader.” Instead of the same teams playing two different games, these events featured two different ball clubs competing in each match up.

Teams engaged in “barnstorming.” This featured ball clubs travelling to different places to play the game. It allowed the fans to see players and teams they normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity to watch.

Dr. Mercantini compared the method of play to jazz. It featured an “aggressive, improvisational style of baseball.” Players such as Satchel Paige viewed the sport as a form of entertainment. On one occasion he instructed his outfielders not to take the field. “I’m going to strike ‘em out, anyway,” he told his team mates.

Jackie Robinson brought an aspect of this type of play to the majors. When he received the Rookie of the Year honor in 1947, he stole 26 bases. The player with the next highest total stole 14. Mr. Robinson also had a penchant for straight steals of home plate.

The East-West All-Star game served as the “showcase event” from 1933 through 1948. They drew better crowds than the ones Major League Baseball sponsored.

The peak era occurred from 1920 until 1950. During that period, baseball dominated American sports. From 1900 until 1947 they comprised the most successful African-American run business in the United States.

A revolutionary baseball innovation occurred in the Negro Leagues. In 1930 the Kansas City Monarchs became the first professional baseball team to play at night. The ball club owned its lighting system and transported it to other venues when they barnstormed.

New Jersey included a number of places where teams played. They were located in Newark, Patterson, Trenton and Atlantic City.

The Garden State also hosted the first integrated professional baseball game in the twentieth century. Prior to joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson played for their minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals. In 1946, he made his debut on April 18, 1946 against the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Stadium.

Dr. Mercantini shared an interesting bit of trivia with the audience. To date, only one woman has been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Effa Manley received that honor for her work as the owner of New Jersey’s Newark Eagles from 1936 through 1948.

Perhaps inspired by the sports themed lecture, the Historical Society’s librarian decided to play the old “try and stump the historian” game. Stephanie Herz showed the speaker two photos of an African-American baseball club called the Moorestown Crescents. Both pictures dated from the nineteen teens.

Dr. Mercantini, himself a Moorestown resident, said that he’d never encountered any information regarding that organization. “I have homework!” He enthusiastically said. Let’s hope he uncovers some information and shares at a future History Speaks lecture.

Dr. Mercantini explained that due to baseball’s prominence in American culture, “Jackie Robinson could challenge white supremacy in a way no one else could.” Since its retirement by the league in 1997, his number 42 is now a fixture around Major League Baseball parks. Because of that it’s easy to forget about the struggle Jackie Robinson endured. Historians such as Dr. Mercantini and the enthusiastic history minded fans who listen to him are a promising sign that won’t occur.

 

Book Review – Protecting New Jersey’s Environment by Thomas Belton

Environmental policy makes for a very clinical topic. History can read like a very dry subject even to those harboring a profound interest in the subject. One wouldn’t expect a combination of the two to make for an entertaining read. Enter Thomas Belton. He drew on his background in classical languages to craft an engaging book accessible to lay people. Utilizing his training as scientist for the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, he crafted a technical analysis of various environmental issues that impacted the state. Applying his skill as a story teller, he crafted a work of history that made for a pleasurable read. He joined these elements together in the form of Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State.

I met Thomas Belton a few weeks ago. I attended an address he delivered based on this book at the Moorestown Library. (See my review of the lecture.) The talk impressed me so much that I purchased a copy of the book that the author signed for me. I informed him that I enjoyed his lecture and looked forward to reading his book. It didn’t disappoint.

Protecting New Jersey’s Environment encompassed a wide array of environmental topics; many of which Mr. Belton had personal involvement with during the course of his career. He reviewed topics ranging from the debate over “cancer clusters”, to the environmental justice movement, to New Jersey’s wildlife and a variety of other subjects.

I found the scope unexpectedly broad for a 230 page book. It also surprised me that the topic of environmental history in just one state could be so wide-ranging. After all, the modern environmental movement didn’t really begin until 1970. At any rate, I do credit the author for bringing together such disparate facets of New Jersey environmental history together in one tome.

As a lifelong South Jersey resident, I enjoyed reading about locations I’m personally familiar with. The author described how “brownfields initiative” provided funds to clean up moderately polluted sites. It allowed for the renovation of the old Victor Records building in Camden, NJ. It also provided the impetus for building of the Salvation Army Ray and Kroc Corps Community Center at Harrison Avenue in the same city.

The best sections of the book contained the author’s personal recollections. Mr. Belton took part in a study that discovered unhealthy quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in several species of fish. In 1982, the New Jersey Department of Health along with the NJDEP issued an advisory regarding their consumption. The author wasn’t lauded for his efforts. He recalled getting “personally” pilloried by the media as “an unprofessional Chicken Little screaming, ‘The sky is falling.’” (Page 47)

I cannot convey how gut wrenching it is to see your professional reputation slandered in the press, to see your competence called into question in the midst of a swirling national debate. However, I did not have the time to worry about it. I had to forget about personal reputation for the moment because the critical issue was that the accuracy of our study was being questioned. And more important from my perspective, the consumption advice we had given the public might be ignored. The advisories were in danger of being drowned out by media sound bites, resulting in a pregnant woman or a nursing mother making an ill-informed choice to eat contaminated fish. (Page 43)

This book contained some extraordinary writing. Mr. Belton expressed many of his ideas poetically. Here’s my favorite passage.

Looking up, I noticed the sunset was a strange reddish-green color, the dim coastline a brown smudge on the horizon. And a weird feeling came over me in my lethargy; a sense that I was hovering high above and looking down at the water’s surface, which had turned to a scrim of crystal glass and the fathoms beneath turned transparent with all the billions of creatures moving about unaware and unconcerned with our passage. And as I dreamed, our boat was flying over this translucent sea, I envisioned the shark and tuna chasing millions of tiny prey fish, which fled in huddled schools, maneuvering to avoid the serrated teeth, and current-borne jellyfish ballooning out in bulging pockets of water to eat phytoplankton, the tiny algae sunning themselves and growing larger with each packet of sunshine that fell into the nurturing water. And all along the bottom, worms slithered and crabs scuttled about, cuttlefish rocketing across the vast sandy spaces, tiny wavelet dunes on the bottom mimicking those ashore, the silent sucking of the planetary currents pulling finless cells into the mouths of filter-feeding sponges and coelenterate anemones who needed them most. (Page 212)

Mr. Belton presented a readable take on the issues effecting New Jersey’s environment. While it covered an array of topics, many of them would be of interest to any resident of the Garden State.

As beautifully as the author expressed his reflections on the sea’s inhabitants in the passage above, the paragraph that followed shifted the mood. Without explicitly doing so, he still summarized the need for books such as Protecting New Jersey’s Environment.  

But I was pulled from this reverie as we entered Barnegat Inlet and drove into the bay beyond, noticing the green and red shroud moving off the land to swallow the sunset was actually photochemical smog—a pea-green soup of particulates, ozone, nitric and sulfuric acid—all the air pollutants refracting the setting sun into its extraordinary color. And this frightened me. Knowing that smog was an airborne killer, a soup of chemicals soon to be deposited on the bay and ocean, absorbed by all the creatures swimming beneath our feet, I was frightened for them, frightened for the people ashore who would eat these poisoned fish, and frightened for the future of the seas as waves of pollutants washed off the continent, mimicking in reverse the ocean waves protecting us ashore. (Page 212)

 

Lecture Review – “The Garden State or Cancer Alley?” by Thomas Belton

Thomas Belton took a pretty eclectic career path on his way to becoming an environmental historian. After receiving a degree in classical languages he ended up working on telephone poles. Following that endeavor, he returned to school with the intent of becoming a doctor. At the time he took an elective class in ornithology. The choice proved rather adventitious as it inspired his interest in the ecology. Once he received his degree in marine biology he made environmental studies his full time pursuit. He landed a job with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection working in their Science and Research division. 2010 marked the time when he could add the task of environmental historian to his resume. At that time Rivergate Books published his tome Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the Garden State. Mr. Belton added lecturer to his list of careers when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown this March 14th. At the Moorestown Library he delivered an address called “The Garden State of Cancer Alley?” based on his book.

Mr. Belton shared a number of vignettes from his career as an environmental scientist. He discussed his participation in a veritable “detective story” that entailed “using science in a Sherlock Holmes sort of way.” He participated in a study to answer why large quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were entering Camden’s water supply. Using tools such as Graphic Information Studies he and his team managed to identify them coming from one location in the city.

The speaker explained the significance of PCBs in non-scientific jargon. These chemicals are a known carcinogen. Even the US government recognized their danger. He noted in his book they became the first chemical ever banned by Congress. (Page 38) Mr. Belton spent a good part of his lecture describing his efforts to identify their presence in bluefish off the New Jersey coast then tracing their source. Following that he participated in issuing Fish Public Health Advisories. From this experience, he learned how to explain scientific concepts to lay people through his work with the department’s public relations office.

Because of the study, within five years a ban was placed on offshore dumping. Prior to that, this sort of “dilution is the solution” mentality justified the common practice of dumping sewage and sludge in the ocean.

The provenance of the book’s subtitle comprised part of his remarks. A study showed a large number of people with cancer along the Route One corridor; a stretch of highway extending roughly from Philadelphia to New York City. The finding gave rise to the term “cancer cluster.” The search for an explanation to this phenomenon led to the speaker’s analysis of PCBs in bluefish.

An unintended consequence resulted from one of one of his research projects. Out of curiosity, he investigated whether air pollution in Philadelphia affected the pinelands. Working with an expert in fungi, he determined that it did result in acid rain that fell in the region. These results led to his being called as an expert witness in a lawsuit against businesses in the Ohio River Valley.

The Historical Society really should have scheduled this speaker closer to Halloween. I found many of his remarks absolutely horrifying. He described chromium waste sites in Jersey City while discussing the Brownfield Regulations. For those unfamiliar with the chemical, an oozing green slime indicates its presence. In his discussion of Superfund sites, he explained that many received “temporary” clean-ups over a decade ago. They still require permanent detoxification. The funds are not forthcoming. The “Arsenic and Old Lakes” conclusion of his lecture centered on a topic not covered in his book. It described the environmental repercussions from a pesticide factory that began operation in South Jersey back in 1949. As of 2015, $100 million had been spent to clean up the site. The work still needs to be completed.

I did take some solace in Mr. Belton’s explanation of New Jersey’s environmental reputation. When Superfund became law, states such as New Jersey, Vermont and California took advantage of the opportunity it presented. They cataloged their hazardous sites. In essence, the Garden State earned an unfair reputation for pollution because it made a serious effort to rectify this problem.

Mr. Belton certainly pursued many careers during his time. In fact, he recently added that of award winning author when the New Jersey Council of Humanities named Protecting New Jersey’s Environment an Honor Book in 2010.While I haven’t observed him in his other capacities, I compliment him for his stellar work as an environmental historian and lecturer. Because of his performance, he can add another job to his repertoire. His remarks piqued my curiosity about our environment so much, that I purchased his book. Mr. Belton makes a pretty good salesman, too.

 

 

Lecture Review – “New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness” by Michael DiCamillo

The preeminent of all American ideological conflicts found a fertile battle ground in the Garden State. The debate over a Hamiltonian approach to big government versus the Jeffersonian preference for more localized administration ended in favor of the latter. It resulted in New Jersey spawning 566 municipalities: even more than California. Just what caused this northern state to adopt the political philosophy of the gentleman planter from Virginia?

Historian Michael DiCamillo set out to elucidate this phenomenon as part of the History Speaks series on January 18, 2017. The Elizabeth Tuttle Fund, the Historical Society of Moorestown and the Moorestown Library sponsored the event which the latter hosted. Professor DiCamillo teaches American History at LaSalle. He’s also on the Historical Society of Moorestown’s board of trustees where currently serves as Vice President.

Mr. DiCamillo utilized the work of former Garden State politician Alan Karcher’s 1989 work New Jersey’s Municipal Madness illustrate this phenomena. The former Assembly Speaker explored the reasons why myriad towns and boroughs incorporated in the state. He discovered five key reasons: street fights, railroad towns, school district boroughs, dry versus wet towns, and exclusive enclaves. Mr. DiCamillo took the audience through each one.

The portion on “street fights” intrigued me the most. With the advent of the automobile road maintenance became a major political issue. Residents of a community elected “road superintendents” to represent their interests at the municipal level. They argued to secure the most funding for their streets. When these officials couldn’t acquire the municipal money they wanted, they’d return to their constituents with an interesting proposition. They’d encourage the “street” to form its own town. Of course, these road superintendents would play prominent roles in the new polis; even serving as their mayors.

I found this outcome rather interesting. A road superintendent would fail in his duties to his constituency. The populace would proceed to elect them to govern the new town; a much more complex challenge than fundraising. In essence, these officials would receive a promotion from the same people they disappointed. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed, “Politics has a logic of its own.”

I also enjoyed Mr. DiCamillo’s discussion of the conflicts leading to dry and wet towns. He described how the “camp meeting movement” inspired people to exit the cities in favor of country life. These new communities would serve as places of worship where residents could avoid the excesses of modern life. A number of these municipalities such as Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach and Avon-by-the-Sea developed along the coast. More locally, the towns of Bellmawr and Delanco began as part of this phenomenon.

The disparity between pro and anti-prohibition forces masked more nefarious motives, as well. One of the rationales for the “camp meeting movement” germinated from a desire to control rowdy youths and immigrants. Latent and, at times, overt racism even led to the development of some municipalities.

While the pursuit of a moral life free of vice caused many communities to form, the rejection of these principles inspired others. Centre Township prohibited playing golf on Sundays. It also rigorously enforced prohibition. Some individuals rejected these mores to such a degree they decided to form their own town. Thus, Tavistock incorporated in 1921.

In a fitting move, Mr. DiCamillo made his discussion of local history hyperlocal. Founded in 1688, Chester Township experienced numerous splits before the name disappeared from South Jersey in 1945. Cinnaminson left in 1860. Delran broke off from the latter in 1885. Riverside separated from Delran in the same year. Riverton left Cinnaminson in 1893 then Palmyra did the same a year later. In 1922 Moorestown parted from Chester Township. The remaining community changed its name to Maple Shade in 1945. Interestingly, with the exceptions of Moorestown and Riverside (which incorporated over street fights) all the others were “railroad towns.”

Mr. DiCamillo focused his talk on the political aspects of the subject; which he delivered exceptionally well. Throughout the lecture he presented balanced analyses of the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian visions. With respect to the latter he explained as one positive: the smaller the community, the easier for citizens to become part of government. While correct, not everyone has an interest in being an active member of the political process. In addition many individuals who live in the same area share the same political views. I’d encourage another historian to follow-up on this lecture with a discussion of the social implications of so many municipalities.

Mr. Camillo presented a solid case that the Jeffersonian vision of government entrenched itself in the Garden State. While no new municipalities have incorporated in New Jersey since 1957, to his knowledge, only Princeton Township and Princeton Boro chose to consolidate over the last two decades.

The monument on Mr. Jefferson’s grave describes him as the author of the Declaration of American Independence, author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia. Had the third President lived long enough, he just may have added: “instrumental inspiration for the municipal system of government in New Jersey” to his legacy.

Lecture Review – Dr. Richard Veit: “Stranger Stop and Cast and Eye: 400 Years of New Jersey Cemetery Evolution and Gravestone Design”

Dr. Richard Veit is an atypical historian. While most would discourage societies from “burying the past”, he wants them to do a lot of it. The professor is an anthropologist with a unique field of expertise. Dr. Veit studies the history of cemetery evolution and gravestone design. He unearthed this topic at the Historical Society of Moorestown on January 28, 2016.

This lecture was part of the Historical Society’s New Jersey History Speaks Speaker Series. While many history talks take place in lecture halls or library conference rooms, this one occurred in the living room of an historic home. I enjoyed the cozy environment at Smith-Cadbury Mansion. As I arrived early the Society’s President, Lenny Wagner, provided guests with a brief history of the home, itself. In a sense, the organization treated me to two informative discussions in one evening. (Full Disclosure: I’ve been a member of the Historical Society of Moorestown since 2006.)

Dr. Veit is currently Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. His knowledge of New Jersey cemeteries and gravestones proved these aren’t ceremonial positions. He entertained the group with an enlightening disquisition on the subject. It may seem strange to use a word such as entertained to describe an historical lecture on a topic so close to death, but that’s the right one. The professor presented material that could have been dry and dreary, in a witty and affable fashion.

The breadth of the lecture impressed me. Aside from elucidating 400 years of history, Dr. Veit’s comments covered the entire state. He explained that different parts of New Jersey had gravestone designs endemic to their areas. Of interest to residents of South Jersey he discussed the “Philadelphia influence” during the Colonial Era. This entailed the importing of marble from Pennsylvania for tombstones. In northern parts of the state, slate imported from New England became vogue.

I knew that grave markers benefited genealogists. My Great-Grandfather Mike Stephany’s showed me which unit he served in during the First World War. Dr. Veit displayed phots of some that contained much more detail that that. He jokingly referred to a few of them as a “resume”. Irish markers tended to describe where the deceased grew up in Ireland, when they arrived in the United States, when they married, how many children they had, etc. That would be a monumental source of information for anyone researching his/ her family history.

I learned something I never would’ve imagined. Tombstones served as early sources of advertising. Carvers would inscribe their names on the markers they chiseled. This may seem disturbing to modern sensibilities, but with the absence of photography and mass marketing, people did what they could to ensue name recognition.

In the midst of all these entertaining facts, the professor slyly snuck in some serious historical lessons. He explained how graveyards are a reflection of their historical times. During the Colonial Era, few markers contained crosses. People living in that time viewed them as a “Catholic” influence. While ubiquitous today, some 250 years ago crosses only appeared on some French graves.

The part of the talk that amused me the most concerned the mausoleums. They became very fashionable resting places for captains of industry around the dawn of the 20th Century; predominantly in urban areas. Dr. Veit displayed pictures of one he visited. He described it as having room for the deceased “and about thirty of his closest friends.” As the professor visited during the Holiday Season, the tomb contained multiple Christmas Trees and wreaths inside. To my eyes the ambiance and marble floors made it appear more like a mall than a burial place.

Dr. Veit began his remarks by calling cemeteries, “great sources of information.” Just how much information one can discover there amazed me. The amount of information the speaker possessed impressed me even more. I enjoyed the professor’s engaging jocularity and erudition. I’d welcome the opportunity to see him again. I just hope that time comes before he’s studying my tombstone.

Burlington County (New Jersey) Murders and Executions 1832 – 1906

A love of violence plagues American society. Our kids watch rough sports like Football and Hockey. Then they play video games that make the Wild West look like something out of a Charlotte Bronte novel. Thinking about this made me long for the idyllic days where we didn’t have these vicious past times. I longed for a time in our recent past when parents and children could pack up a picnic basket. Together they could go on a family outing and watch the county hang somebody. This past mischief night at the Moorestown Library, local historian Marissa Bozarth allowed me to relive this halcyon era. She delivered a lecture on Burlington County (New Jersey) murders and executions that took place between 1832 and 1906.

Who would’ve thought people executed by the county could be so remarkable? On March 23, 1860 Philip Lynch met the hangman’s noose for the murder of George Coulter. Mr. Lynch’s behavior upon hearing the jury’s verdict was, well, not good. Following the pronouncement, he told the judge, prosecutor and sheriff that he would return from the grave to haunt them. (No evidence suggests that he ever did.)

While reassuring that Mr. Lynch believed in life after death, history would recall his reputation better had he followed the example of freed slave Eliza Freeman. In 1832, she earned the ignominious distinction of being the first person executed by Burlington County. When she murdered her husband, she showed no remorse. Her last words, however, displayed a much more respectable demeanor. She warned those who attended her execution against the dangers of alcohol. (Remember that. You’ll be reading about it again.) Then she prayed for her prison caretakers, all of the 3,000 – 5,000 people who attended her hanging as well as for her fellow African-Americans. Incidentally, the number of spectators fell well short of the 10,000 who watched Wesley Warner’s execution on 9/6/1894.

As only first degree murderers faced execution, Mr. Warner argued he committed second degree murder. Why did he murder Lizzie Peak? In essence, he claimed he didn’t kill her: his drunkenness did. The prosecutor convinced the jury that he “got drunk on purpose.” In an unusual occurrence for the 1890s, Warner appealed his sentence six times. They didn’t help. Fortunately, this didn’t drive him to drink.

Without comparison, I found Joel Clough the most intriguing person to meet the hangman’s noose in Burlington County. As difficult as this will be for readers to believe, he attended Ms. Freeman’s execution. Apparently, it impressed him so much that he decided to make the transition from audience member to participant. Following a tumultuous relationship with Mary Hamilton and an even harsher one with the bottle, Clough decided to permanently end his dealings with Ms. Hamilton on April 5, 1833. He returned a dagger she gave him as a gift by plunging it into her chest eight times. Following his arrest, he became the first person to ever escape from Mount Holly Prison. Cough didn’t excel at getting away from things. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide at one point, too.

During his trial, Clough tried to prove “temporary insanity” at the time of the murder. He even brought in experts on mental illness; something very unusual in the 1830s. In addition, he blamed his upbringing for leading him to kill. The jury didn’t agree. The county executed him on 7/26/33. For reasons that mystify me, he personally put on the hood and placed the rope around his neck.

The American spirit of innovation applied to some of these executions. Instead of having a door drop, the county used a 364 pound weight attached to a rope and cross beam on Philip Lynch. In 1907 the State of New Jersey took over the role of executing prisoners. In 1906, the county knew this would be its last time and decided to make it memorable. Deputies tied Rufus Johnson and George Small back-to-back and hanged them for the murder of Moorestown resident Florence Allinson.

In his play, Justice, John Galsworthy had a prison guard utter the prescient observation: “If it wasn’t for women and alcohol, this place would be empty.” The same observation could be made for many of the executions that took place in Burlington County between 1832 and 1906. The fascination with violence stood out more, though. The number of people who attended these executions in person boggles the mind. With that in mind, the voyeuristic violence in our society makes our era seem like the idyllic one.