Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Unlike Tornado Alley in the nation’s mid-West, New England is fortunate to suffer only rarely from tornados of magnitude.  Every year, funnel clouds are sighted across the region, with little or no destruction reported.  We are not immune to tornados, however, as we fell victim this past May to two or three of these destructive storms that rampaged through our back yards.

The unsettled and unusual weather patterns reported in New England for July 1890, posted in last week’s blog (snow and hail in Calais, ME), spawned a deadly tornado six days later, 121 years ago today, which roared across northeastern Massachusetts, killing eight persons in Lawrence, MA.

First touchdown was in Fiskdale, MA, 63 miles SW of Lawrence a few minutes before 8 am. Traveling about one mile per minute, the storm next came to earth for three minutes in North Billerica, 12 miles SW of Lawrence, unroofing some buildings and breaking trees. Now it bore down on Lawrence.

The storm system crossed the Merrimack River into Lawrence a few minutes after 9 am, accompanied by a 20-minute deluge, which flooded the streets.  It hopped across the river again and ripped into North Andover, passed over Haverhill, and was reported again about 9:30 am in Newburyport, 17 miles NE of Lawrence. Witnesses in Newburyport stated that the funnel cloud descended and rose several times, but did not touch the earth, before it moved out to sea.

The Lawrence damage, along the line of the tornado’s destruction, included an orchard, the Cricket Club (an enclosed playing field), three houses demolished and many damaged on Emmet Street (one turned upside-down on its foundation), and a grove of trees leveled.  Here the path was about an eighth of a mile long and several hundred yards wide.

After Emmet Street, the whirlwind lifted for another eighth of a mile, sparing a heavily settled section, before touching down again.  Here, it threw down the roof and steeple of the Catholic church, demolished a house, and ripped into a railroad bridge, killing two persons.

It raised for a moment, then came down again into a thickly settled area west of Union Park. At full force, it rampaged down Springfield Street, taking out houses on either side, ripped across Union Park and into some houses beyond, leaving behind ruin over half a mile long and three hundred yards wide.  Several residents lost their lives.

Still traveling in a northeasterly direction, the funnel descended again in neighboring North Andover, wrecking houses, uprooting trees, and killing one more person.

The casualties from this storm number 8 persons killed and over 50 injured, half of those severely so.

Eye-witnesses made several detailed descriptions of the tornado to the “Boston Herald,” the “Boston Globe,” and to meteorological agents investigating the damage.  Here are excerpts of six such statements from the “Annals” (see Sources, below):

Mr. Porter of the Glen Paper Co. said, “… a big brindle cloud … came up in the west about 9 o’clock.  … it made a leap aloft, like a giant jumper, and came tearing down from the hills at the rate of 60 or 70 miles an hour. The noise of its approach could be heard for a mile or more … like the noise of artillery in battle. In the center the cloud was jet black, then came a ring of smoky brass color, and outside of all was a fringe of dull gray that spread out and wrapped the whole sky in a fog-like shade …”

“Mr. Peter Holt … said it appeared to him as if two clouds were chasing each other around a circle.”

Timothy O’Connor stated: “It came like a dense cloud and was whirling over and over like billows of the ocean.”

James Henderson, a local merchant making deliveries, stated that he had just cut a piece of meat and was carrying it to the house at 101 Springfield Street when the storm struck: “ … the first thing I knew the wind struck the horse and me … I let go of the horse, and horse and cart were carried clear off the ground. … the horse was dropped near me, and all of the cart except the forewheels carried about a hundred yards away.”

Destruction along Springfield Street
From Joseph Waters, who was at the Lotus family house on Merrimac Street: “… a tenement house … had been picked up bodily from its foundations and dashed to fragments in the street … For a distance of 500 feet Merrimac Street was strewn with wreckage and broken limbs of trees.”

Mrs. Lizzie Holdsworth of Springfield Street reported in the “Boston Herald” that her house exploded. She was cooking in the kitchen when the storm struck. “Suddenly I heard a terrific noise and the breaking of glass behind me. Turning around I saw that the blinds and windows had been blown out. … I heard one crash and that was all. When I came to I was lying in the ruins.” Investigators reported that many of the destroyed homes showed the walls having fallen outward, as opposed to inward, as one might suppose would happen in this kind of wind.

Let’s hope that Mother Nature continues to keep New England on the outer fringes of her tornado target.

“Investigations of the New England Meteorological Society for the Year 1890,” published in the “Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College,” Edward C. Pickering, Director, Vol. XXXI, Part I (Cambridge, MA: William H. Wheeler, Printer, 1892)

Saturday, July 23, 2011


It may cool you off a little, as we wallow in the current swelter, to think about the snow that fell in Calais, Maine, on July 20, 1890.

From the report “Observations of the New England Meteorological Society in the Year 1890,” published in the “Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College,” New England in July had below-average temperatures and precipitation. The report describes a severe drought and extreme ranges in temperature for that month.

“Frosts occurred in all the northern states [Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont] on July 10-12 and 19-23, and at Calais, Me., during the progress of a hailstorm on July 20, snow fell to an appreciable depth.” The report does not specify how appreciable a depth, but the fact that it accumulated enough to have any depth before melting must mean that the region was suffering a cold snap.

This is quintessential New England. If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute: it will change.

The current heat wave may compare (in recent memory) to New England’s summer of 1988. My husband and I were living on the third (top) floor of an old apartment building with no air conditioning in Woburn, MA. Because we were newly enlisted in Civil War reenacting, I spent most evenings after work sewing uniforms for us, jackets and trousers made of heavy wool. Day after day, week after week, temperatures soared into the nineties and above. It was too hot to sleep anyway, so I sewed. Every night (sometimes after midnight), once I heard the radio state that the night’s temperature in Boston had dropped to 80 degrees, it was finally cool enough for me to shower and go to bed, falling asleep before I got too hot again.

That summer was so hot for so long that the Woburn Public Library closed its doors, something that it had never done since it was built in 1881. The building is an old stone affair, built in the traditional style of public buildings of the late 19th Century. The stones do much to regulate heating and cooling in such buildings. That year, the stones absorbed the incessant heat and conducted it into the building, making the environment within unbearable for several weeks.

The children of my brother-in-law planned a 70th birthday party for their father that summer, and it was held one evening on the (also non-air-conditioned) second floor of a local function hall. Huge fans provided only the illusion of relief as they moved the blistering air around the room.  The heat encouraged silliness among the guests (what else could one do? complain?), supplemented of course by a modicum of alcoholic abandon.  We were moved to determine how many helium balloons were needed to lift an empty beer can.

We collected a number of the balloons decorating the room and began tying them to a can.  Three or four might do the trick.  But, no.  We added a few more balloons, to no avail.  Then more.  Finally, a dozen and a half balloons later, the empty can lifted tenuously into the air, and drifted across the hall in the breeze of the fans, to much sodden cheering by the perpetrators.

Snow and hail from Calais would have spoiled all that fun.

Photos courtesy of:
NOAA www.photolib.noaa.gov  (snowflake)

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Mary Lincoln "Peggy" Beckwith
On July 10, 1975, thirty-six years ago this week, Mary Lincoln “Peggy” Beckwith, Abraham Lincoln's only great-granddaughter, died in the hospital at Rutland, VT, age 76. When her younger brother Robert “Bud” Todd Lincoln Beckwith died ten years later, Abraham Lincoln’s direct bloodline came to an end.  Neither Peggy nor Bud had children to continue the line.

Peggy was born on August 22, 1898, to Jessie Harlan Lincoln Beckwith.  Her mother Jessie was the youngest of the three children of Robert Todd and Mary Harlan Lincoln, son and daughter-in-law of President Abraham Lincoln.  Jessie’s older siblings were Mary “Mamie” and Abraham “Jack.”

Mamie grew up and married Charles Isham, and had a son named Abraham Lincoln Isham. Although “Linc” married, he and his wife had no children. He died in 1971.

Jack, 16, died of blood poisoning in 1890, leaving no progeny.

Jessie married three times, first eloping with Warren Wallace Beckwith in Mount Pleasant, IA, where they lived. The marriage lasted ten years and resulted in three pregnancies. Jessie had Peggy in 1898; a still-born child in 1901, and Bud in 1904.  Neither Jessie’s second marriage to Frank Edward Johnson in 1915 nor third marriage to Robert John Randolph in 1926 produced children.

Peggy and Bud (who later preferred “Bob”) spent summers with their mother at Hildene, the estate that their grandfather Robert Todd Lincoln built in 1905 in Manchester, VT. Their father traveled extensively, absent from the household most of the time.  After Warren’s and Jessie’s divorce in 1907, when Peggy was only eight, Peggy never saw her father again. Grandfather Robert provided a father figure to Peggy and Bud, and both grandparents spoiled them lavishly. Peggy learned to play and love golf from her grandfather, and as a young woman participated in several women’s tournaments. Reports have it that she was a good player.

Jessie lived for a while in Washington, DC. While there, she sent Peggy to an esteemed private school there, a futile effort to instill in her daughter some of the social graces. Peggy had inherited her mother’s stubborn independence, however, and refused to submit to these norms. High society interested her not one whit. She was not cut out to be a social butterfly. She found much more stimulation in intellectual pursuits and the fine arts, in outdoors sports which included hiking, canoeing, fishing, and hunting, and, later, in aviation and farming. Although modern scholars have labeled her an eccentric recluse, Vermonters showed more than average tolerance for odd individuals, viewing Peggy as strong-willed and independent, which she indeed was.

(One magazine article states that Peggy spent many years in her late teens and early twenties in Provincetown, RI, where she became interested in painting and photography, but I can find no such place on any map. I don’t know if the author meant Providence, RI, or Provincetown, MA.)

Peggy with one of her airplanes
In the late 1920s, Peggy learned to fly airplanes, swept up in the new aviation craze that Lindberg’s trans-Atlantic flight and the exploits of Amelia Earhart spawned. Peggy had an airstrip built in the meadowlands at Hildene, and also assisted the Equinox Hotel in Manchester to develop a private airstrip for their flying clientele. Her first airplane was a Gypsy Moth, followed by a Fleet Model 1, then a Travelair, each plane successively larger.

Some time in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Peggy quit flying. Local legend has it that Grandmother Mary Harlan, who disapproved of the whole endeavor, bribed Peggy with $10,000 to stop this foolishness. How much truth there is in the legend is not clear. Mary Harlan died in 1937, and Peggy bought her last plane some time in the late 1930s. What is clear is that Peggy’s flying (along with her other unusual interests) defied the standards that the rest of the family held about how a lady should behave, to say nothing of the great-granddaughter of President Abraham Lincoln.

Robert Todd Lincoln’s widow, Grandmother Mary Harlan Lincoln, in preparing her will, left Hildene to her daughter Mamie (Peggy’s aunt), with granddaughter Peggy next in succession. Aunt Mamie died in 1938, only a year and a half after Mary Harlan died; thus Peggy inherited the estate. The will stipulated that if Peggy did not have children, the estate was to be left to the Church of Christ, Scientist, upon Peggy’s death.

Peggy settled quickly into life at Hildene. It had been more home to her than anywhere else. She studied farming and raising cattle, and began oil painting and sculpture. She lived there the rest of her life, amply provided for by her grandfather’s industry and success in the railroad business.

She remains something of an enigma. She never married, prompting some to believe that she was a lesbian. By some accounts, she was a recluse; by other accounts, she was involved in local civic activities. She was decidedly most comfortable surrounded by animals, and adopted many as pets, including native wildlife like raccoons, which had full run of the house. Although she managed Hildene as an active and successful dairy farm, and had more than passing interests in the new fields of ecology and preservation farming, she did little to maintain the house itself, and it was a shambles when she died.

Peggy’s cousin Linc was involved in founding the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, VT. Peggy helped to organize the Center's art shows, in some of which she included her own artwork.

Peggy (center left) at submarine christening
Despite her disdain for high society, Peggy did happily accept an invitation in 1960 to christen the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, NH. She actually dressed up, very nicely and appropriately, in a blue and white polka-dot dress, even donning white gloves, a string of pearls, and a hat. She had experienced enough of the world to know that her signature dungarees would be out of place at such a function.

Upon Peggy’s death, Hildene and all of its effects went to her brother Bud, who recognized certain responsibilities and met a high civic standard in dealing with the vast mess.  He spent much of his remaining decade, despite his advancing years and compromised health, sorting out Hildene, his cousin Linc’s family memorabilia, and his own possessions.  He made significant donations to the Smithsonian Institution, released for publication hitherto hidden papers about the insanity trial of President Lincoln’s wife Mary, and otherwise made thoughtful and responsible decisions to make sure that the collection of Lincoln artifacts accumulated over a century or more were handled and distributed appropriately and with respect to the Lincoln legacy.

The Christian Science Church had no interest in managing real estate, so they put Hildene on the market. Defying the interests of a prominent developer, who wanted to raze Hildene for a subdivision, a group of Peggy’s friends organized The Friends of Hildene to rescue the site.  After two and a half years of negotiations, during which time the church reduced its asking price by 60 percent, an anonymous donor provided the monies in full. Hildene was saved. The Friends of Hildene restored the estate and grounds and maintain it today for visitors interested in this latter chapter of Lincoln lore.

Honoring her will, Peggy’s friends cast her ashes from the lookout near the gardens. Clearly, her spirit still roams her beloved Hildene.
Hildene, in Manchester, VT, 2009
There is not a wealth of information immediately available about Peggy Beckwith, as if she continues to maintain her privacy from beyond the grave. Hildene probably has the most information available about her, artifacts, artwork, papers, photographs, and so forth. One room in the estate is devoted to display her interests, hobbies, and activities.

Hildene, The Friends of Hildene www.hildene.org  If you are in southern Vermont, be sure to visit Hildene for an informal visit into the lives of Lincoln’s descendants. The grounds and gardens are as beautiful as the house itself, which has been restored to its original, unpretentious elegance.

- King, C. J. Four Marys and a Jessie: The Story of the Lincoln Women (Manchester, VT: Friends of Hildene, Inc.) 2005.
- Connie Jo King, "Her Middle Name Was Lincoln: The Life of Mary Lincoln "Peggy" Beckwith," Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 1995.
- Beschloss, Michael “Last of the LincolnsThe New Yorker, February 28, 1994.
- Lachman, Charles The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family, (Union Square Press) 2008.
- Randall, Ruth Painter Lincoln’s Sons (Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company) 1955.
- Neely, Mark E., Jr., and Harold Holzer The Lincoln Family Album (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press) 1990.
- Goff, John S. Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man In His Own Right (Manchester, VT: Friends of Hildene, Inc.) 1969.
- Top photo of Peggy: courtesy of Wikipedia www.Wikipedia.org
- Photo of Peggy with her airplane: courtesy of Hildene www.hildene.org
- Photo of Peggy at submarine christening party: courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions  http://www.cowanauctions.com/auctions/item.aspx?ItemId=99207 .
- Photo of Hildene by
Sharon Wood of Claremont, NH.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Bennington Flag
A number of notable Americans (famous and infamous), American institutions, and American icons have been born or established on the Fourth of July.

1776    The United States of America, with the approval of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress

1802   Official opening of the United States Military Academy at West Point

1804   Nathaniel Hawthorne, author, Salem, MA, born as Nathaniel Hathorne, adding the “w” when he became published to create a professional distance. A few of his best-known works include the novels “The Scarlet Letter” and “The House of the Seven Gables,” and the short-story collection “Twice-Told Tales.”

1819    Edward Robinson Squibb, American pharmaceutical manufacturer, founder of E. R. Squibb and Sons, born in Wilmington, DE

Stephen Foster
1826   Stephen Foster, songwriter and composer, born in Lawrenceville, PA, became known as the “father of American music” with such pieces as “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.”

1847    James Anthony Bailey, born in Detroit, MI, circus impresario and creator of the modern circus. His circus merged with P. T. Barnum’s Circus, and later merged with the Ringling Brothers’ Circus to form what we know today as Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus,

1848   The Washington Monument, the cornerstone of which was laid this day in Washington, DC

1867    Stephen Tyng Mather, born in San Francisco, CA, American industrialist and conservationist, organizer and first director of the National Park Service

Henrietta Swan Leavitt
1868   Henrietta Swan Leavitt, born in Lancaster, MA, American astronomer who started out at the Harvard College Observatory in 1893 as a human ‘computer’ to measure and catalog the brightness of stars. Her subsequent work broke ground for Edwin Hubble’s accomplishments.

1872    John Calvin Coolidge, Jr., 30th President, born in Plymouth, VT, known as “Silent Cal” for his taciturnity, is the only president born on Independence Day.

1878    George M. Cohan, born in Providence, RI, performer, entertainer. Cohan’s baptismal certificate - the only written record of his birth - states his birthday as July 3rd, but his vaudevillian, variety-show touring family always insisted that his birthday was Independence Day, marketing the boy with the patriotism thus engendered.

1880   George Mullin, born in Toledo, OH, history-making baseball pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, known for his fastball, pitched a no-hitter on the Fourth of July in 1912

1880   Patrick “Frisco” Rooney, Jr., born in New York City, vaudevillian dancer and actor in an Irish family of performers, called himself the first “jazz” dancer. He started dancing with his wife, then with his son Pat III, evolving from clog dancing to tap dancing.  W. C. Fields stated that “if you didn’t hear the taps, you would think [Rooney] was floating … “ Mickey Rooney is not related to Pat Rooney: Mickey, born Joseph Yule, took the name because of the fame of the Rooney family in the 1930s.

1881    Tuskegee Normal School (later Tuskegee Institute, today Tuskegee University) opened in Tuskegee, Alabama, the culmination of a dream of Lewis Adams, a former slave, and George W. Campbell, a former slaveholder, both men committed to the education of blacks.

Rube Goldberg cartoon
1883   Rube Goldberg, born in San Francisco, CA, satirical cartoonist who depicted easy tasks as ridiculously complicated as commentary on political issues of the day. A “Rube Goldberg machine” refers to a situation which resembles the contraptions in his cartoons.  Goldberg was also a sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor.

1895   “America the Beautiful” was first published by Katharine Lee Bates of Falmouth, MA, professor of English literature at Wellesley

1898   John “Johnny” Lee, Jr., African American actor who played Calhoun in “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” and is also known as the voice of Brer Rabbit in Disney’s “Song of the South.” Some records state that he was born in Missouri, others state his birthplace as Los Angeles, CA.

1902   Meyer Lansky, Polish immigrant who became the American crime syndicate chief known as “Mob’s Accountant” whose gambling empire stretched from Saratoga, NY, to Miami, FL, and west to Council Bluffs, IA, and Las Vegas, NV, from the 1930s through the 1950s, then lying low - his financial interests having failed - until his death in 1983.

1902   George Murphy, American actor/dancer and politician, born in New Haven, CT, who appeared in many big-budget musicals in the 1930s and 1940s. He was director of entertainment for the presidential inaugurations in 1952, 1956, and 1960. Entering politics in 1953, he became a US Senator in 1964, paving the actor-to-politician road for Reagan and others.

1905   Lionel Mordecai Trilling, American literary critic, author, and teacher, born in Queens, New York City. He taught at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Hunter College, Columbia University, and Harvard University, and was a member of “The New York Intellectuals,” a group of American writers and literary critics based in New York City.

Mitch Miller
1911    Mitchell “Mitch” William Miller, born in Rochester NY, of “Sing along with Mitch” fame, a musician, singer, conductor, record producer, “arts and repertoire” man, and record company executive. Although heavily parodied, he was one of the most influential figures in American popular music during the 1950s and 1960s, and launched the careers of many famous singers. He and his wife were married for 65 years; she died in 2000, and he died last year at age 99.

1918    Abigail Van Buren, the pen name of Pauline Esther (nee Friedman) Phillips, “Dear Abby” columnist, and her identical twin sister Esther Pauline (nee Friedman)Lederer, who used the pen name Ann Landers, also an advice columnist, born in Sioux City, IA

1924   Eva Marie Saint, Newark NJ, actress whose career has spanned seven decades, winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for “On The Waterfront” and starred in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”

1927    Neil Simon, playwright and screenwriter, born in The Bronx, NY, whose work is evergreen on the world’s stages. He has received four Academy Awards, three Tony Awards, two Emmy Awards, and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as numerous other awards for his work.

George Steinbrenner
1930   George Steinbrenner, principal owner and managing partner of the NY Yankees, with entrepreneurial interests in the Great Lakes shipping industry. His 37-year ownership of the New York Yankees was the oldest in the baseball club’s history.

1943   Geraldo Rivera, broadcast journalist as well as an attorney, writer, war correspondent, and talk show host, born in Brooklyn, NY, sometimes associated with sensationalist news reporting. He’s been married five times, and engages in competition sailing.

1959   The 49-star United States flag was first flown over Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA, representing the addition of the State of Alaska, which was formally granted statehood on January 3, 1959. The stars were arranged in 7 even rows of 7 stars each. This model was used for only one year, when the 50-star flag was introduced on July 4, 1960.

1960   The 50-star United States flag was first flown over Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA, representing the addition of the State of Hawaii, which was formally granted statehood on August 21, 1959. Our current flag, it is our 27th flag, and ten presidents have served under it.  Its star pattern shows five rows of six stars each and four rows of five stars each.

Koko and her kitten
1971    Koko, the gorilla, born at the San Francisco Zoo, has learned to use American Sign Language and understands over 1000 words in ASL and over 2000 words in spoken English. Using sign language, Koko asked for a pet cat in 1984. She picked a gray male Manx kitten from an abandoned litter and named it “All Ball.” She signed her grief when the kitten was accidentally killed. The next year, she chose two more Manx kittens and named them “Lipstick” and “Smokey,” and cares for them.

Besides finding the basic facts at multitudinous “this day in history” sites, the information and photos for this post were found at Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org, with the exception of the image of Koko, found at http://www.synthstuff.com/mt/archives/individual/2005/02/interesting_job_description.html