Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Toad or Prince?

Surely this is the most exciting news ever to come from a carpark in Leicester.  The bones unearthed back in September are indeed the mortal remains of a long lost--but not much lamented--king.
Shakespeare called Richard III a “poisonous hunchbacked toad,” and the historian Polydore Virgil wrote that he was "little of stature, deformed of body, one shoulder being higher than the other." Now we know he was in fact disfigured by scoliosis.  (We also know that his feet are missing... ironically, Shakespeare wrote that Richard was a breech birth, emerging into the world feet first.)

Richard was killed fighting in the battle of Bosworth over 500 years ago, and even his many detractors recognized his valor.  The Abbey of Croyland wrote, "For while fighting, and not in the act of flight, King Richard was pierced with numerous deadly wounds, and fell in the field like a brave and most valiant prince." Other key points of the historical accounts of his life and death also match up. For example, Richard’s corpse was subjected to post-death blows, the marks of which are clearly visible on the skull and bones now positively identified as his.
One of my readers says this proves yet again that no one does oral tradition like the One True Church… to which I would reply, this is certainly true, because Rome didn’t want its subject to read. (In a roundabout way the events of 1485 set in motion the Church of England. Richard lost his crown--and life--to Henry VII, who begat Henry VIII, who split with Rome, and whose daughter Elizabeth was a Protestant. It was during her reign that the Book of Common Prayer—which, as advertised, put prayer in English and in the hands of the common people--was reintroduced and strengthened.)
A facial reconstruction based on the newly rediscovered king’s skull has also been released. I can’t help but feel that Philadelphia’s own late Frank Bender would have done a better job of it. (And without those Brooke Shields-esque eyebrows.) But the thin lips and slight wince are consistent with Richard’s portraits. 

In Josephine Tey's classic “did he or didn’t he” mystery The Daughter of Time, Inspector Grant points out that these facial characteristics could point to pain and suffering rather than to nephew-killing cruelty. On that point we’ll probably never know the truth. I’m just happy that Richard is no longer lying all scrunched up under a bunch of cars. I do wish, though, that he were going to be interred at Westminster Abbey, close to both the presumed remains of the poor nephews and those of Henry VII.

I imagine they would all have quite a lot to talk about.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Penguin Edition

One of my (paltry few) readers who lives on the Jersey shore corresponded that he had lost most of his books in Hurricane Sandy. I felt most fortunate that my own collection came through unscathed, as did the house. Well, other than the pilot light on the furnace going out. After five worried phone calls—response to which was, “Just light the damned thing, Elizabeth! No, you are not going to blow up. What? Yes, you do have pretty hair, and it would be a shame if it were singed, but THAT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN!”—I got it going all by myself. With some assistance from an informative if badly-lit how-to video on YouTube. (Imagine, it’s not just for watching Taylor Swift videos and figuring out which ex she’s being catty about now!)
Anyway. I had promised back in my last post-- around the turn of the present century--that I would work my way through the books on the shelf of the stacking bookcase.  Tonight I give you the Penguin section. Yes, the books are grouped by publisher, with sub-groupings according to style--the Penguin paperback has evolved from its simple orange and white beginnings to a sleek black version with cover art--rather than author or theme. 
A few highlights:
I picked up one of the newer copies, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in front of a New York brownstone last summer, in a stack of other gently-read and very cultured books left for anyone to take. I have to say I love that tradition slightly more than the one in my neighborhood… where greasy, used pizza plates from the place on the corner are left by others on my front steps instead.

A fragile copy of The Penguin Thelwell, circa 1963, featuring frowning little girls and their grumpy and stubborn ponies.  It's possible some of these cartoons remind me of my childhood.  (Which did not occur in 1963, thank you very much.)

My favorite,Vanity Fair (the Thackeray novel, not the glossy rag).  I reread this about once a year and misplaced my old copy, so picked this one up for $2 at my favorite used bookstore the other day.  Cheaper than the magazine, and Becky Sharp is so much more interesting than current cover girl Kate Moss.

Incidentally, Penguin is merging with Random House.  I am hoping they will call the new entity Penguin House.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The (Book)case for Richard III

The other weekend I went thrifting with a friend and stumbled on a dust-covered shape that vaguely resembled a piece of furniture.  On closer investigation I determined it was a vintage stacking barrister bookcase by Hale.  The top was a bit scratched and the bottom glass panel had a crack covered by masking tape, so I hesitated to snap it up. "For $75, how can you lose?" my wise friend asked. We carted it home and, an hour of furious cleaning and sneezing later, I was thrilled with my diamond in the rough. 

The bookcase is now in the guest bedroom.  I've dubbed this the "London" room since the decor includes an old map of that city.  (Confusingly, I've also added a print of Philadelphia. But never mind that.)  So I decided the bookcase should have only English books in it.  (Yes, there are books about Philadelphia stacked on top. And that's an Eiffel Tower lamp. Thank you for the observations.) Then I thought it would be fun to blog about each book, how I found it, and when I first read it.  I know, what could be more interesting?

The top shelf contains the English history selection. There are a number of books on my favorite English king, Richard III.  Yes, you got it right. The evil hunchbacked uncle who quite possibly killed his two nephews in the Tower of London. I first came to know Richard through Josephine Tey's classic mystery The Daughter of Time, the bible of the Richard III Society, which seeks to redeem the king's reputation.  In the novel, a detective studies the facts around Richard's life and death and determines that he was probably a pretty okay guy.  Certainly no more murderous than his predecessors or his successors. 

Next came my Arden edition of Shakespeare's Richard III.  It's a wonderful play and Richard a terrific villain, slashing and wooing his way to the throne before literally losing his crown in the Battle of Bosworth for want of a horse. (Yep, he's the "My kingdom for a horse!" guy.)  When I was at Oxford for my junior year of college, I saw the Plantaganent cycle, a compilation of several of the history plays, at the Royal Shakespeare in Stratford. (That may be the most pretentious sentence I've ever written. Sorry.)  The actor who played Richard was the star of the show, eclipsing some guy named Ralph Fiennes who played an earlier mad king. After that I read a book by English actor Antony Sher called The Year of the King, about his transformation into Richard for a production in London. Fascinating.  Back stateside, I joined the Richard III society and picked up a few histories. One of those, Paul Murray Kendall's biography, claims that Richard was buried at Greyfriars abbey in Leicester after the battle, but when the abbey was later dissolved, the corpse was thrown into the river Soar.

Now, just as I have finished putting the Richard collection into the place of honor in my new (old) bookcase, comes thrilling news of another sort of treasure hunt: archaeologists exploring the remains of the abbey have found a skeleton that may well be the lost king. (The Greyfriars site is now a car park... poor Richard. Rubbing it in about 'horsepower'?)  Does the suspect have a curved spine that could make him appear to be hunchbacked?  Check.  How about a blow to the head and an arrow indicating death in battle? Check again, and checkmate as far as I'm concerned. There's talk of a state funeral if it can be determined that this is indeed Richard. (What does it say about me that I'm far more excited by that prospect than by last year's royal wedding?  Well, for one, it appears I prefer hunchbacked dead kings to topless future queens.)

Richard's only son died young, and those nephews were done in by somebody along the way, so there are no direct or royal descendents. Apparently the skeleton's DNA will be compared to that of a Canadian man identified as a descendent of Richard's sister. (If you wonder why they don't ask Queen Elizabeth for a strand of hair, then you don't know that her family is essentially German.  Many say Richard was the last true English king.) I supposedly have a genealogical connection to Richard through my Fitz-Randolph ancestors who hailed from the same town of Middleham in Yorkshire.  Just throwing that out there in case anyone urgently needs to fly me to England. 

I certainly would have plenty to read on the plane.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Revenge is a dish best served with Burgoo

My squirrel foe has struck again.  I previously recounted how he heartlessly threw my baby tomatoes to their deaths.  A couple of weeks ago he went further, digging up a now-barren tomato plant and leaving it lying on the ground. When I went out on the deck he was actually watching from a nearby railing, no doubt to enjoy my reaction. So I ignored him, naturally.  Apparently that was the wrong thing to do.  Last week he ripped out some basil.  I defiantly replanted it, only to be greeted by this scene the following day:
But here's what he doesn't know.  I have a friend who is writing a cookbook on the Kentucky stew known as Burgoo.  I've promised to help her with the research.  And what, you may ask, is the main ingredient of said stew? 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Famous criminals we have known

One of my most popular posts was about the James-Younger gang, some members of whom held up my great-grandfather's bank in Huntington, West Virginia.  (It is generally agreed that the four were Frank James, Cole Younger, Jack Keene/Tom Webb and Tom McDaniel.)  My cousin has the pearl-handled revolver that was stolen off our ancestor's desk and used by the bandits, then recovered by an armed posse. 

In that earlier post I talked about the postcards we have of the dead and wounded gang members after the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota raid. Recently I dug out my great-grandfather's photo album and scanned the pages containing actual pictures of the gang. Unfortunately the pages are somewhat torn now and at least one of the photos is missing.  The handwriting is also hard to read. 

The top left photo is labeled "Joel McKean (sic) alias Thos J. Webb, captured at Jamestown Tenn, September 10, 1875."  This must be Jack Keene, also known as Tom Webb.  No one seems to be sure which was his real name, but he served ten years in prison for the robbery before being pardoned.

The top right photo is of Cole Younger, who was captured after the Northfield raid.  The bottom left photo is missing and I believe the inscription says, "suspected of complicity... [Hunting]ton."  It might be of Frank James, and that also may explain why someone took it. The bottom right photo says simply "Kerry." I believe this must be Hobbs Kerry, who is not listed as a suspect in the Huntington robbery, but who participated in other heists.

On the next page (sadly, my scan of the page didn't save correctly) is a photo of a man killed by the posse at Pine Hill, Kentucky.  I can't read the name but it must be Tom McDaniel (or McDaniels).  We believe an unlabeled photo of a somberly-dressed woman on that same page was found in his pocket.

I might add that Cole's brother Frank, who was not part of the foursome involved in the Huntingon robbery, looked to have been something of a hottie, based on his mugshot after the Northfield arrests.  He could even be posted on My Daguerreotype Boyfriend if they ever do a Famous Criminals edition.  Here's the photo (not from my ancestor's album) so you can judge for yourself.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Mayflower Murder Mystery

The first convicted murderer in Plymouth Colony (and hence in America) was Mayflower passenger John Billington, who, for reasons now lost to history, shot a man in the woods.

Nearly four hundred years later comes news out of Seattle of a Mayflower connection to a cold case, the chilling 1991 murder of a 16 year old girl.  A forensic genealogist--who knew there even was such a thing--found that the DNA left behind by the presumed killer links him to two Mayflower passengers named Fuller. The police are quoted as saying they don't know how helpful this might be, but I imagine it could eventually lead to the killer.  Most families know if they have Mayflower ancestry and are deservedly proud of it.  If the murder suspect is in fact named Fuller, or if a family member or friend knows that he is descended from the Fullers, that could be all it takes to find him.

It's long been a sore spot in my family that we have been unable to turn up any Mayflower ancestors.  Instead, we were on the leaky companion ship that didn't make it here, the Speedwell. (Hence the title of my family memoir.) My grandmother used to sniff that the Mayflower passengers were "riffraff" and the better sort came later... conveniently forgetting that we were all supposed to arrive together. 

The murder suspect's DNA shows descent from Robert Fuller, who came over from England later, but whose uncles were on the storied ship. Samuel Fuller was a physician and church deacon.  He was accompanied on the voyage by his brother Edward.  But guess what? Samuel was originally supposed to come over on the Speedwell instead.  (Ah, maybe my grandmother was onto something, after all.)  As a doctor, he would have been considered vital to the journey, and hence was one of those former Speedwell ticket holders who crowded onto the Mayflower instead.

As for forensic genealogy, I'm intrigued.  Instead of just helping people get into fusty old societies such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, genealogists are now potential superheros fighting crime. For the sake of the young Seattle murder victim's family, I very much hope this is the case.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Occupy this space...

I read that the most common blog post was something along the lines of "I haven't posted in a while..."

Well, I haven't posted in a while.  (Obviously.)  I've had my hands full with another writing project, and I'm happy to report that it's going quite well. 

I could also and quite conveniently blame the holidays.  All those family members vying for attention.

Speaking of family, I learned that, in addition to inventing the telegraph, my busy Vail ancestors also created the original bathroom indicator.  Amazing, right?

Hmm.  Maybe we could manufacture an "Occupied" indicator for Wall Street?