Friday, July 24, 2015

The Eastland Disaster and the Power of Dreams

WikiCommons/Creative Commons
Photo by Victorgrigas
Today, I spent time with the family in downtown Chicago, visiting my wife's cousin and her husband in town from Paris. We took a water taxi down the Chicago River, stopping at the La Salle Street bridge.

I noticed some news vans parked on the other side of the river and some people gathered along the riverwalk.  And then I realized: it was the 100th year anniversary of the Eastland disaster.

On July 24, 1915, the Eastland was loaded up with 2,500 workers from Western Electric Company and their families, ready for a picnic. After it was loaded, the boat started to list and then flipped onto its side in the river, pinning people under the weight of the vessel in 20 feet of water and trapping hundreds in the hull. In the end, 844 people lost their lives, the majority under the age of 23.

Makeshift morgues were established all over the city, including the building that until recently housed Oprah's Harpo Studios.  The last known survivor of the Eastland disaster, Marion Eichholz, died in 2014 at the age of 102.

It remains the worst maritime disaster in Great Lakes history.

The Eastland on its side in the Chicago River. July 24, 1915.

In Lilac Wine, it was the Eastland disaster that truly revealed to Robert Bishop his unique gift.  You see, Robert Bishop had dreams. Sometimes horribly prophetic dreams:

Some imagery in his dreams was nonsense; probably like most people’s, he reckoned. But here and there he would have terrifyingly real dreams.  Dreams that would hint at a truth yet to come.  Sometimes they were cryptic.  Sometimes urgent and very real.  Two years ago, for example, he woke up in a cold sweat, a cacophony of screams still ringing in his ears.   He had seen water and bodies.  Children trapped in dark spaces, gasping for air that was non existent; hands clawing on walls; bubbles and rushes of dark, brown water; the swirling hair and vacant eyes of a woman floating angelic-like in water, eclipsing the shimmering light from above.
    That was it.  He didn’t know if it was some horrible accident yet to come or another torpedoed luxury liner in the war.   All he knew was that something horrible was going to happen and there was nothing he could do about it.  That was the worst of it---the feeling of helplessness in his gut.  People were going to die, and there was nothing he could do because he never knew when or where.  He always lacked details.
    He had only been working at his uncle’s piano factory for a couple of months in 1915 when the alarms were raised in the city.  The shop was located on Wabash Avenue, just a few blocks south of the river.    His workday was only a half hour old and he was sweeping sawdust on the floor of the sanding and planing room when it happened.  And he knew.  That same feeling he had when he awoke a couple of nights earlier found itself again in the pit of his gut.
    The Eastland was packed with people headed for a company picnic in Indiana when it capsized in the river, still tethered to the dock.  It was top-heavy, loaded with workers and their families.   Close to 850 people died that day and, although he didn’t necessarily know specifics, Robert knew it was going to happen.
    He ran down to the river when he heard someone on the street outside of the shop yell about the capsized boat.  People crowded along the river, trying to get a view of the helpless ship. It lay on its side in the water, survivors standing on its exposed hull while arms and legs flailed in the rivery froth along the edges of the vessel. A few spectators even jumped in to try and pull to safety some of those who were exhausted and struggling to swim, their clothes heavy with the weight of water.  A small, six year old boy was a lone passenger of a lifeboat, floating listlessly among bodies.
    Robert stood, helpless, on a garbage barrel, watching the carnage---watching people braver than himself pull victims from the murky water.                                                                                                                                                     Lilac Wine, Chapter 3

The Eastland disaster proved to Robert that some of his dreams carry a heavy weight.  But it is a reoccurring dream about the Great War that will change his life and all of those he knows.

Lilac Wine is a novel in progress.


For more information about the Eastland disaster, visit The Eastland Disaster Historical Society.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Potosi Beer is Back

The other day I was perusing the beer isle at Binny's, looking for nothing specific but wanting something to enjoy while being pounded by another winter storm that was on its way. Over the last decade or so, the craft beer market has exploded, offering all sorts of choices from every corner of the country and the isle at Binny's stretched the entire wall.

As I gazed upon the colorful labels and creative names, my eyes stopped on something familiar: Potosi beer.  Not that I have ever had Potosi beer before.  This was the brew that Robert and Billy enjoyed on their steamer excursion in the summer of 1917:

It was a dark evening, with only a sliver of moon hanging in the sky.  At times it was difficult to discern where the land and water ended and the sky began.  Lonely lights from isolated farmhouses, almost indistinguishable from the stars in the sky, spotted the landscape.  It was so dark on the river Robert wondered how the captain could even maneuver such a large vessel without running aground or hitting a fallen tree.
     “The beer’s from over there,” Billy said, pointing the tip of his beer bottle into darkness.  “Potosi is about a mile in.  They used to run a ferry to Dubuque, carrying wagons of beer. If you were fishing out on the river, you could order a small keg as the ferry passed, and they would throw it to you. That all stopped when Iowa went dry last year.”
     Robert swallowed the last swig of beer from his bottle and then tossed it overboard.  He listened for the splash, but the music and paddlewheel muffled most sounds from the river.    Lilac Wine, Chapter 15

In the writing of Lilac Wine, I have tried hard to root the narrative in actual history. Pouring over hundreds of issues of the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald in order to get a sense of life in that corner of the country in the summer of 1917, the characters interact with actual businesses and products from the time.  Abelia, for example, orders her music from the Dubuque Music House, which was located 1362 Clay Street.  When traveling to Dubuque, she shops at the largest department store in the city: Roshek Brothers.  The department store was such a staple of the city, the ads, which appeared daily in the Telegraph-Herald, didn't even display the address.  All it stated was "Located in the heart of the city." Billy and Robert take an excursion on the popular steamboat Sidney, which made regular trips in and around the Dubuque area.

And there they ordered some Potosi beer, the "beverage of good health and cheer."

Potosi Brewing Company was founded in the small mining town of Potosi, located in Wisconsin some 15 miles directly north of Dubuque. Although a brewery had existed there since the mid-19th century, it didn't become Potosi Brewing Company until 1906. Soon it was one of the largest breweries in the area, selling its brew in more than five states.

Potosi Brewing Compnay often advertised in the Dubuque paper, particularly in the years prior to the state going dry in 1916.

The Potosi Brewing Company survived national prohibition by making "near beer" and adding a dairy to the operations. They continued thriving until the 1960s, when access and exposure to the larger breweries increased due to the automation in those plants. Smaller breweries, like Potosi, had difficulties competing. Potosi Brewing Company closed its doors in the early 70s and soon the brewery and its buildings fell into disrepair.

The brewery was purchased in 1995 and efforts began to restore it. The National Brewing Museum chose Potosi as its headquarters in 2004. Today, the brewery is owned by the non-profit Potosi Foundation and all profits from the beer are given to charity.

I purchased the Pilsner and brought it home. Now, I have to admit:  I am a beer snob.  Life is too short to waste on crappy beer.  And, let me say, I have had plenty of crappy beer, including ones that I have made myself. As I poured the Potosi, my thoughts turned to Robert and Billy, throwing back a few on the Sidney, the sound of jazz from the deck below filling the air.

Robert Bishop was from Chicago and that night in the summer of 1917 on the steamer Sidney was his first taste of Potosi beer. As I picked up the glass, I felt a twinge of nostalgia. That's the thing about writing a novel. You become so invested in the characters, their experiences and the world you have created that it transforms into something very real. Here I was, drinking a brew that almost 100 years ago was consumed by my characters in the fictional world of Lilac Wine. Until today, I believed that Potosi beer was a relic of the past. A small thing like this becomes a nostalgic experience, allowing you to live for a moment through characters created in the depths of your imagination. It's really hard to explain the feeling.

The beer was a bright golden hue with a faint aroma of grain. It was surprisingly good, crisp on the tongue. Not hoppy like other Pilsners, this was markedly smooth, perfect for those who are not too fond of hops. To be honest, it reminded me of summer--and with the winter we have had so far, it was a welcomed thought.

For more information about the Potosi Brewing Company, check out their website.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Jazz comes to Lily Springs

Abelia loves her music.  The Harvard 1906 model "talking machine" sits during the summer months on the table on her back porch.  She loves sipping wine and listening to music at night, watching the insects swarm around the lamp on her table.

In 1917, a new craze was about to hit America.  The Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded the first ever jazz record.  The record was released on the Victor record label in May and became an instant hit.  Jazz had for the first time pushed into the mainstream.

Victor Records didn't quite know how to describe the music.  In one ad they described it as a "Brass band gone crazy."  And then admit quite frankly that they didn't know what a "jass" band is.

Last summer, I purchased an original copy of this album on Ebay.  So many were sold that they are relatively easy to find.  My copy is okay, considering the album is almost 100 years old.  I cleaned it up and recorded the song "Livery Stable Blues" into the computer, knowing then that this song was going to become a significant part of the narrative in Lilac Wine.

This album helps bring Abelia and Robert together in the novel.  Robert had already had a small taste of jazz while witnessing a performance from Fate Marable aboard the paddle wheeler Sidney with his new friend, Billy Miles.  Fate Marable was an African American bandleader who traveled up and down the Mississippi River on excursion boats.  Due to the mainly white clientele on the excursion boats,  however, he was never fully able in 1917 to perform the true jazz from his hometown, New Orleans.  He was like countless other jazz initiators who were not recorded until much later.

Ironically, the Original Dixieland Jass Band was made up of white musicians.  This, in a large part, was due to the inherent racism in the recording industry at the time.  Plus, jazz musicians from New Orleans were reluctant early on to have their music recorded for fear of imitation. 

Here is the first ever recorded Jazz song:  "Livery Stable Blues," by the Original Dixieland Jass Band:

In the novel, Abelia orders a copy of the album after seeing an ad for it.  Robert, working for the Lily Springs post office delivers it.

Robert walked into the back yard, a square package under his arm, calling out her name. She hurriedly wiped her hands on an old cloth, straightened her skirt and threw open the door to the greenhouse.
     “Oh, there you are,” he said. “It’s going to be a hot one again and I didn’t want to leave this on the porch. Another record, huh?”
     “Yes. Thank you,” she replied, taking the flat, heavy cardboard package from his hand.
     “You must be one of their best customers. Which one is that?”
     Abelia smiled. “I saw an ad for this one. Brand new. It’s like a ‘brass band gone crazy’ it said. Come on.” She turned and headed up the porch steps, untying the rough hemp string from around the package. Robert followed, removing his straw hat on the shade of the porch. Abelia offered him a seat and disappeared into the house. “How about some lemonade?” she called as the door closed behind her. She returned quickly carrying a tray with a pitcher and two tall glasses.
     After pouring the lemonade she started to sit---“Oh, the record,” she remembered. She soon returned, pulling the black disk from the sleeve. The Harvard was at its place on the table with “Ave Maria” still on the platter. “This is a record by the Original Dixieland Jass Band,” she said as she switched the disks, carefully setting Alessandro Moreschi on a stack of records next to the talking machine.
     “Jass band, huh?” Robert said, setting the glass that was already dripping with condensation on the table. “I read about a jass band playing at a cafĂ© on the South Side last year. Never went, but I know they were very popular. Came up from New Orleans.”
     “I don’t know anything about it. This is called ‘Livery Stable Blues.’” Abelia placed the disk on the platter. She then cranked the machine and let go of the brake, the gold Victor label quickly becoming a blur. “Ready?” she said with a smile. “I have to warn you, the ad stated that this music can inject new life into a mummy.”
     Abelia let down the tone arm; static as the needle settled into a groove. Then: a cacophony of sound. Cornet, clarinet and trombone in a burst of noise; shrill and disorganized. Then the trombone took up the beat as the crowing coronet voiced the melody. Soon, the clarinet took up the tune, carrying it above the other instruments. It was ostentatious, full of life and energy. The pattern repeated several times, then a brief pause and the cornet whinnied like a horse, the other instruments following with a “moo” and a “cockle-doodle-doo.” Abelia smiled. Robert was tapping his fingers on the top of the table, his lips in a slight grin. He had short sideburns, but hadn’t shaved that morning. Stumble dotted his chin, but his cheeks were relatively smooth. His hair had been neatly combed, but his hat had left a slight crease along the hairline. He hadn’t used a pomade today and as he bounced his head ever so slightly to the beat of the music, strands of hair fell loose and rested upon the crest of his ear. Sweat beaded his forehead and when he casually wiped it with back of his hand, his eyes moved to hers and he smiled. Abelia quickly averted her gaze, the warmth she could feel in her checks.
     There were several more instances when the instruments took on the sounds of a barn. After each whinny and moo, the tempo picked up pace, the sound became more intense. The music was fun and lively, unlike anything Abelia had in her collection. More than the music, she enjoyed watching Robert. In light of everything that happened in the last week, it was good to see him smiling.
                                                       ---- Lilac Wine, Chapter 25

Sunday, July 7, 2013

"Over There" and the Problem with Anachronisms

One of the cool things about writing an historical novel is the ability to place characters in actual events and places. When I started Lilac Wine, I was determined to make the novel as historically accurate as possible.  Being a history teacher, this was very important.

So, when my characters go on a Mississippi river excursion, for example, it is based on the actual timetables for the actual boats. In this case, the S.S. Sidney.  When they go to a movie theater in Chicago, they go to an actual theater and see what was playing that evening---such as seeing Charlie Chaplin's classic The Cure at the Gem Theater on June 10, 1917.

In Chapter 21, a special guest arrives in Lily Springs for the Fourth of July celebration.  He is there to sell Liberty Loans and, in the process, sings a rendition of the famous George Cohan song, "Over There."

The problem is:  in July of 1917, no one had ever heard of the song. Although it was written in April of 1917, it wasn't recorded until July by Nora Bayes.  That recording wasn't released until October.  The song was premiered live for the first time in the fall of 1917 at a benefit in New York for the Red Cross.

When I first wrote that chapter, I had read that George M. Cohan had written the song the day after war was declared in April of 1917.  I assumed then that the sheet music would have been released shortly after.  None of the examples of the sheet music had a date beyond the year.  So, I just went with it.

Just recently I discovered that I had been mistaken.  Horribly mistaken. Turns out the sheet music wasn't copyrighted until December.

So this brings an historical conundrum.  "Over There" is a song that modern audiences will know; it can give the reader a sense familiarity.  However, it is not historical.  The character could not have sung that song.

So, do I go with history or familiarity?  If I chose history, what could I use in its place?

Thank God for Google.  Although they are no longer adding to their newspaper archive, Google has hundreds of newspapers digitized.  And among those digitized is the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald.  A few years ago, I traveled to Dubuque to view issues of the newspaper on microfilm.  Not anymore.  I can look at every issue from 1917 from the comfort of my own home. Thanks, Google.

So, I began searching for ads and articles related to music of 1917 and found this Victor ad from the June 18, 1917 edition:

Among the standards, such as "Hail Columbia" and "The Star Spangled Banner," the ad lists two popular songs as well.   A quick search in the Victor catalogue reveals that both songs were written before war was declared and even the sound recordings were released just in May of that year.  So these two songs are prime candidates if I chose to replace "Over There" in Chapter 21.

The first song is "America, Here's My Boy."  It was written by Andrew Sterling and Arthur Lange.  It was published on April 20, according to the Copyright office and released on Victor Records in May, 1917.  This version is performed by the Peerless Quartet.

The other song is "Let's All Be Americans Now," written by Irving Berlin.  This recording is by Billy Murray and the American Quartet. It was released in February of 1917.

Both songs have a great feel for a patriotic Liberty Loan rally....but, for most readers, these songs will be very unfamiliar.  Does that matter?  Or is it better to go with a song that many people can hum in their heads?

I think I need to go with the history.  That was the intent at the beginning and I cannot change now.  The question then is:  which song?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

From the Archives: Over the Rhine, My Muse

A couple of years ago, I started to write my first novel, Lilac Wine.  I am still in the process; it is going a little slower than anticipated.  Unfortunately, life sometimes gets in the way.  However, this weekend I am off again to see my favorite band--the band that triggered my initial inspiration for Lilac Wine.  The band is Over the Rhine and I am eternally grateful for their music.  It has filled voids and it has provided creative inspiration and fueled a passion for the characters and the story that I hope to share to very soon. In honor of Over the Rhine and the concert this upcoming weekend, I am republishing an article I posted back in 2010, explaining how this band from Ohio has become the muse behind Lilac Wine.


In Lilac Wine, Robert is tormented by nightmares and has been his entire life.   While on a trip to Chicago with Abelia in the Autumn of 1917, he has a particularly haunting vision---a vision that brings him to Abelia in the middle of the night: 
The knock came early in the morning, jarring Abelia from a sleep that had not come easy. Throwing on a housecoat, she stumbled in the dark toward the door.
     The knock came again, softer this time. Grasping the knob, she cracked open the door and peered into the hallway.
     Robert was there, disheveled and fraught. His cheeks glistened slightly in the low glow of the incandescent lights that lined the hallway.  “Robert?” she said, pulling the door open further, ignoring the immodesty of standing out in the open in a mere housecoat and nightgown. “What’s wrong?”
     Robert looked up from the floor, his eyes red. “Can I come in?”
I often write with music playing softly in the background or I listen to certain songs just prior to a writing session, in order to get my mind into a particular mood.  The crucial scene excerpted above was inspired in part by one of my all-time favorite songs: “Etcetera Whatever” by Over the Rhine.

Don't speak.
Words come out your eyes.
You're wet with this nightmare.
Like thorns you hold these secrets to your breast,
your slender fingers closing into fists.
(Words and Music: Linford Detweiler. Album:  Good Dog, Bad Dog 1996)

So much of Lilac Wine is connected in one way or another to the music of Over the Rhine.  It’s amazing that inspiration is so often wrapped up in the creative impulses of others. Music has that effect on me and Over the Rhine has been my muse.

I first became acquainted with Over the Rhine in 1993 when I heard “I Painted My Name” on a local radio station. I listened for the DJ to give out the name of the song and soon found myself in a local cd store purchasing the album Patience, their second studio album.  Little did I know then that a song from that album would provide the seed of inspiration for my first novel, Lilac Wine.

That song was “Flanders Fields,” a mournful reflection of a love lost.  With obvious connections to the First World War, I had used the song in class when discussing the war and as an introduction to the poetry from the war itself. It is a beautiful, yet mournful song.

In Flanders Fields far away
I lost my love one day.
(Lyrics:  Linford Detweiler.  Music: Ric Hordinski. Album: Patience,  1992)
One day about 15 years ago, I was driving home from work, the album playing on the cassette player in my car. “Flanders Fields” began.  And there it was, suddenly, as if it had been there in my mind the entire time: images of the Great War.  A young man swept up into the conflict. The eccentric, small town of Lily Springs on the upper Mississippi River coping awkwardly with the challenges of modernity. And a woman who had given up on love long ago, retreating into the comfort of her garden.  Lilac Wine had been born.

That was 15 years ago.  I wrote a few chapters and then shelved the story, unable to work out certain plot elements.  But the characters never left me, however.  The town of Lily Springs was always in the back of my mind, waiting patiently for me to pay a visit once again.

In the years since I first started Lilac Wine, Over the Rhine has become an indispensable facet of my musical library. There probably isn't a day that goes by without at least one song of theirs playing sometime during my day.  The core of the band is the husband and wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist. Their music speaks like an old friend, sitting at the kitchen table talking over a cup of coffee.  They have a magical ability to express everyday emotion in heartfelt, bittersweet tones.   Through their melodies and Karin's sultry, sometimes gut-wrenching vocals, the everyday is transcended in an almost cathartic expression of the real.  And that is what Over the Rhine does best: express the various emotions that we all, at one time or another, have felt and they do it in such a way that it feels like it was written just for us.  

Last year, I rediscovered Lily Springs once again.  I was driving home from work, a mix cd playing in the car.  And I began thinking again about Robert Bishop and Abelia Brody.  And all of the problems I had with the plot were suddenly resolved.  I often get my inspiration while driving in the car with music playing.  And one of the songs that helped break the writer's block was Over the Rhine's "I Want You to Be My Love."  It has somewhat become the theme for Abelia and Robert.

I want you to be my love
I want you to be my love
'Neath the moon and the stars above
I want you to be my love

I want you to know me now
I want you to know me now
Break a promise make a vow
I know you want me now

Like I want you
  (Music and Lyrics: Bergquist/Detweiler Album: The Drunkard's Prayer,  2005)

I Want You To Be My Love by Over the Rhine on Grooveshark

For me, music helps set the tone for what I want to write.  I have a particular playlist that I use when trying to get into a "Lilac Wine mood."  The playlist includes artists such as Jeff Buckley, Billie Holiday and Etta James.  Over the Rhine, however, dominates the list.  Although some songs might not have a tangible relationship to the narrative of Lilac Wine, the sentiment and the mood of particular songs provide a means to channel certain feelings into the text.  Songs like "Long Lost Brother,"  "Changes Come,"  "Suitcase," "Desperate for Love" and "Latter Days" have, in one way or another, been the soundtrack to my writing sessions, providing a necessary state of mind. There are other songs that may have helped shape some of the narrative as well.

For example, Robert and Abelia share a bottle of lilac wine early in their relationship.  Abelia has a penchant for concocting some amazing varietals using the fruits from her garden. They get drunk and do something neither of them had ever done at length before: talk.  They discuss dreams, fears and, of all things, Chinese food.

Pour me a glass of wine
Talk deep into the night
Who knows what we'll find? 
("Born" Music and Lyrics: Bergquist/Detweiler Album: The Drunkard's Prayer,  2005)

Over the Rhine is currently on tour.  And next month they will be playing two shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music on December 8.   My wife and I have tickets to the first show.  Plus, my sister and brother-in-law will be coming as well.  In the 19-plus years of listening to Over the Rhine, this will be my third concert.  This has become sort of a tradition.  Needless to say, I am excited.

In the meantime, I will continue writing and listening.  Robert and Abelia's journey will undoubtedly take some twists and turns unforeseen at the moment. And through it all, Over the Rhine will be along for the ride.  Thankfully.

*Note:  The above clips are hosted on Grooveshark.  This service claims to have an agreement with artists and note that artists are paid:  "Grooveshark has an artists/label program to ensure that any owner of content will be compensated fairly for each time their content is played via Grooveshark."  I hope this is true and if not, I will remove the links to the clips.


Update 12/4/2012: For more information about Over the Rhine, please visit their website at   Check out their online record player.  Currently, you can download their Christmas album, Snow Angels for free or a donation at NoiseTrade.  Be sure to check out the latest album, The Long Surrender.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Death in Lily Springs: Turn of the 20th Century Funeral Practices

In today's America, funeral practices and mourning rituals have become a highly sanitized and commercialized process.  Funeral parlors and morticians provide a service that for most people in America is not only indispensable, but an economic powerhouse that generates over $20 billion annually.

That is not how it used to be, however.

In the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, funeral rituals were much more personal and immediate.  Most funerals were held at home, for example.  The front rooms of middle class homes were called "death rooms," and were not used much for day-to day living but reserved for those times in life when one must mourn the dead.  The deceased would be laid out in these rooms, sometimes for days.  Flowers were used to help hide the odor as embalming was not something that most families could afford and was not something that was readily available in rural America until the 20th century when funeral parlors began to replace the in-home tradition of wakes and funerals.

The death of Abraham Lincoln and his subsequent embalming popularized the practice.  Funeral parlor acceptance grew slowly and began appearing mainly in urban areas.  By the turn of the century, most funerals in urban areas were held in funeral parlors.  As a result, Ladies Home Journal in 1910 made the suggestion that the front parlor should no longer be a "death room," but a "living room" instead.  As more and more people moved the process of mourning from the home to a local business, that is exactly what happened in American homes.  The front parlors were now opened up, made bright and airy and became "living" rooms instead.

In my novel, Lilac Wine, a death occurs in the small Iowan town of Lily Springs.  This, of course, necessitated some research into funeral practices of the early 20th century.  One thing that has made the writing of this novel truly enjoyable has been delving into the past and learning just how different things were 100 years ago.  A resident of the 21st century would no doubt be shocked as to what our forebearers did when it came to funerals.

The entire mourning process was guided by strict norms and etiquette.  Not only were wakes and funerals held in the home, photographs of the deceased were commonplace.  In fact, as photography was an expensive endeavor, most people reserved money for a formal photograph of their loved ones when they died.  Post mortem photographers would be called in and a photograph would be taken of the deceased, often with loved ones standing or sitting near the body.

Sometimes, the body was arranged in such a way to be made to "look alive" and, using stands and wires the deceased would be propped up on couches, chairs or even standing in an official looking portrait.

Photographers often went to elaborate lengths to give the appearance of life to the deceased.  Not only would they have the deceased standing in a pose, but eyes were sometimes painted on the closed eyelids to simulate life.

This practice was called Memento Mori (remember the dead) and was common from the invention of photography in the mid-1800s until the early 20th century.  In fact, photographs of the dead were more common than any other photograph from this period of time.

As infant mortality was much higher in the 19th century than today, a majority of photographs from the time period are of deceased children.

In Lilac Wine, there is a death in Lily Springs.  Although the novel takes place in 1917, much of rural America was still very much rooted in the practices of the previous century.  And Lily Springs was no different from most small towns, teetering on the edge of modernity but still clinging to tradition.  Robert was asked to stand next to the casket for a memento mori, which was being provided by the town photographer, John Hickman:
Robert respectfully declined John’s request to stand next to the casket and cast a mournful eye down upon its contents. He didn’t quite understand memento mori. Images of death haunted his dreams at night and he didn’t need such reminders during the day. When Robert was child, Abigail DeWitt, the young girl and occasional playmate who lived next door, died at the tender age of seven, the victim of typhoid fever. Robert watched from an outside window as the family made preparations for her funeral. A post mortem photographer was hired and Abigail’s little body was made to sit on her favorite wooden horse through the use of hidden stands and wires. Watching the man work on young Abigail’s remains reminded Robert of a puppeteer. After she was posed properly on her horse, pupils were painted on her closed eyelids giving her the appearance of life. Her parents then sat next to her in solemnity as the photographer took their picture. 
                                                 ---from Lilac Wine, Chapter 24 

The inspiration for that passage came from a single photograph that broke my heart when I first saw it:

Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic took mourning very seriously and the elaborate rituals surrounding death may seem somewhat macabre today.  However, we must remember that images of loved ones were not often made in life, as the process was so expensive for most families.  So a memory of that person, even taken in death, became a way to cherish the memory of a loved one.  And if that photograph could provide a reminder of how that person was in life, then the grieving process was made easier.  It is all too  easy for us to judge in the present as we are surrounded by imagery and take pictures of nearly everything.  The Victorians weren't so lucky.

By the turn of the century, photography was becoming more affordable and funeral practices soon moved from the home to the funeral parlor.  Memento mori became less of a necessity.  As more and more people bought their own cameras and could afford the development of photographs, the same thing that happened to change front parlors to living rooms happened with photography.  People began collecting photographs of the living and arranging them on walls and in photo albums.*

The memento mori photographs of the 19th century may seem bizarre, but they stand as stark reminders of the fragility of life and the desperate need to cope with loss.  But they also highlight the need that we have as human beings--in any age--to cope with mortality and grief.



Dan Meinwald,  "Memento Mori: Death and Photography in Nineteenth Century America." Terminals:  UCLA, 1999

The Thanatos Archive

"Memento Mori ~Victorian Era Postmortem Photography"

"19th Century Photography"   Paul Frecker London: Post Mortem Collection

Victorian Death and Mourning Photo Set on Flickr

*This is not to say that such practices have completely been left in the Victorian Age.  Grief is a powerful thing in any epoch.  And photography can help people come to terms with losing a life in the digital age as well.

A local photographer and Facebook friend recently became involved in an organization that I, up until this point, had not been familiar.  Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) is an organization of photographers that volunteer time and resources for parents who are struggling with the inevitable loss of a terminally ill child.   NILMDTS was founded in 2005 by Sandy Puc and Cheryl Haggard.  Cheryl's newborn son, Maddux was born with myotubular myopathy.  He couldn't breathe, move or swallow and Cheryl and her husband were faced with the excruciating decision to remove him from life support.   Before doing so, they hired a photographer to document this young life.  And NILMDTS was born.

The services provided by NILMDTS help parents cope with the grief of losing a child that will never leave the hospital and make it home to the nursery that sits quiet and empty.

Recently, NILMDTS received a $50,000 grant to continue its work in this area.

Although we cannot compare the work that NILMDTS does with grieving families to the work of post-mortem photographers of the Victorian Age, the use of imagery to process grief is a common thread.  Some 12,000 professional photographers donate their time and resources to helping parents cope with this loss.


Karen van Vuuren, "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Memories of Sons and Daughters," Natural Transitions (Vol. 2, Issue 2, page 8-10).


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Jugging For Catfish

The glass jugs bobbed gently in the waters of the Mississippi as Billy threw another one out and tethered it to the shore. Beneath each jug dangled a line in the murky waters with a bit of dry, salted pork wrapped around a large hook. Billy called it “jugging” and told Robert that it was an old tradition on the Mississippi for catching catfish. Although that was true and he had been doing it for years, it was his attempt to hook Robert with more river Americana, actually. After all, Huck Finn and Jim caught a catfish in the Mississippi that was the size of a man---six feet two inches long, complete with a brass button in its stomach. 
                                                 ---from Lilac Wine, Chapter 23 

Jugging for catfish is a time-honored tradition on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Easy to do, jugging just involves an airtight container, line, hook and bait. Plus, a lot of patience I imagine. 

I have never been jugging before, but a quick search of YouTube reveals that jugging is still a popular pastime on the Mississippi. However, instead of jugs many people today use foam noodles. 

Jugging is a technique that dates back hundreds of years and descriptions of the process can be found dating to the early 19th century. Some very large catfish have been landed with this method of fishing. According to an article in American Angler from 1885, a 13 foot catfish was caught on the Ohio river using the jugging method. 

A nice description of “jugging” appears In All the Western States and Territories by John W. Barber published in 1888: 

This picture of jugging can be found in What To Do and How To Do It: the American Boy's Handy Book By Daniel Carter Beard (1888): 

Writing a novel that takes place in 1917 involves a great deal of research. Whether its finding information about the War, jugging or funeral customs, I often have to stop writing and conduct research in order to get the facts straight and use the correct historical nomenclature. Google Books Archive has been invaluable in my research for Lilac Wine. Google has thousands of digitized books and newspapers. A couple of years ago, I took a trip to Dubuque to examine the microfilm for the DubuqueTelegraph-Herald for 1917. Now, I can view the needed issues online and never leave the house. 

It is in the vaults of Google where I discovered the joy of jugging.

Writing is an interesting process. When I outlined Lilac Wine many years ago, I never imagined including a chapter on jugging. Recently, however, my two boys have become interested in fishing, which reignited my own joy of the sport. In grad school, I went fishing with a buddy nearly everyday. Now, I am able to do it once again with my two sons. This is what probably drew me to this chapter. I needed a vehicle for getting the characters from point A to Point B. Fishing provided the means to move the story along. And honoring the time-tested Mississippi tradition of jugging proved to be the best way to do this. 

In Lilac Wine, Billy takes Robert “jugging,” consequently removing him from town so that a necessary plot point can occur without his knowledge: 

Billy .... didn’t realize that the jug nearest the fallen tree had disappeared under the water. It popped up again with a splash and began moving toward the rotten trunk. Billy leapt to his feet and grabbed the appropriate line. “I knew it,” he exclaimed, excited not just for the potential catch, but for the distraction from the conversation. He was beginning to think his life was not too unlike those jugs sitting in the water waiting for a fish. 
      The line was taut and Billy wrapped it around his palm a few times to get a better grip. “Give me a hand.” 
      Robert reached down and helped pull. Bubbles broke the surface. A forked tailfin slammed into the jug. “I told you we’d get one there. It’s a big one, too.” The fish struggled against the line, but Billy and Robert gave some slack and then pulled it again. They repeated this several times, tiring the fish out. Robert was amazed at just how strong it was. A slick body twisted at the surface near the shore, swirls of mud bubbled in the water as the catfish’s head broke the water, it’s metallic skin shimmering in the afternoon sun. 
      “Nice one,” exclaimed Billy. “It’s a blue. These fish get really big. That’s probably what they caught in that book of yours. They’re bigger the further downriver you go. Over 100 pounds is not uncommon.” 
      After a few more pulls, they got the fish up on the grass. The fish was a good two feet long. “Probably about 20 or 25 pounds,” said Billy. “You’ll be eatin’ good tonight, my friend."               
                         ---From Lilac Wine, Chapter 23 

I now have the “jugging” bug. I discussed this fishing technique with my boys and they were enthusiastic. Perhaps we’ll take a trip over the to Fox River and give it a try.