“The body says what words cannot.” –Martha Graham and the Art of Dance

Dance is one of humanity’s oldest art forms. Tomb paintings in India dating from 8000 BCE show pictures of people dancing. Throughout history people have danced to celebrate happy events such as births, marriages, and victories as well as to commemorate deaths and defeats. But dance is an art that has not been easy to record, so we know very little of what ancient dancing was like or how the performances looked. And so, it seems that every generation must reinvent the art of dancing.

Fortunately for us, the twentieth century brought us new ways of recording visual arts and movement. At the same time, many artists were turning to dance as a way to express their feelings and ideas. Martha Graham is remembered as a woman who revolutionized the way dance was taught and performed in America. She was born in 1894, and lived through most of the twentieth century, dying in 1991. During her long life she transformed the art of dance.

Martha Graham

Graham was born in Pennsylvania but moved with her family to Santa Barbara, California when she was 14 years old. It was in California that she first saw professional dance performances and decided to study dance. She enrolled in the Denishawn Dance School in Los Angeles and soon became one of their star dancers. In 1923, she left the school and moved east where she started her own studio and school in New York City in 1926. The school which she started has been an important part of the modern dance world ever since its founding and it is now the oldest active dance school in America.

Most dance performances staged in New York before the twentieth century had been based on the European tradition of ballet dancing. Dancers wore gauzy tutus and ballet shoes that allowed them to dance “en pointe” and move about the stage as if they were floating.  Graham’s approach was very different. She developed the concept of “contraction and release” as the major style of movement. Some fans of the more familiar European style of dance considered Graham’s work a betrayal of the traditional culture of ballet. Graham herself felt that she was expressing the spirt of her time. She wrote: “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that the others are behind the times.”

Graham had strong feelings about social and political issues. In 1936, she refused to dance at the Olympics in Germany saying, “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time” because of Hitler’s persecution of Jews. Many of the dances she created were based on American traditions, or on ancient Greek drama. Through her work she celebrated democracy and freedom. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt invited her to perform in the White House, making her the first dancer to appear in a performance there. Years later, in 1976, President Gerald Ford presented Graham with a Medal of Freedom in a further acknowledgement of her work.

During her long career, Graham created 181 dances. One of the most popular and influential was “Appalachian Spring” which was first staged in 1944 with music by Aaron Copeland. It was welcomed as a major achievement in American dance and music. As her work became more widely acclaimed, and filming techniques improved, Graham gave up he early objections to having her work photographed. A number of films of Graham’s dances have been preserved at the Library of Congress. In recent years, many have also been made available on YouTube.

Graham continued to create dances and to perform in them during the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s. The records aren’t clear on when she gave her last performance, but in her unfinished memoir, she said that she last appeared on stage in 1970.

During the years after her retirement from the stage, Graham had a period of depression that lasted for almost two years. Her health declined and she spent some time in a hospital, but in 1972, she returned to her studio and to choreography. She created new dances and coached young dancers in performing them. Her death in 1991 led to an outpouring of honors to celebrate her contributions to the arts.

Several biographies of Martha Graham have been published, most recently, Neil Baldwin’s Martha Graham: When Dancing Became Modern (Knopf 2022). Baldwin’s bookhas been praised as the most complete account of Graham’s life and work.  It is widely available in bookstores and public libraries.

The Woman Who Rivals Shakespeare in Sales—Agatha Christie

In 1890, when Agatha Miller was born into a middle-class family in Southern England, no one would have predicted that she would still be remembered today. Not only is she remembered, but her books continue to be sold worldwide and movie and tv adaptations of her works continue to be produced. Many of her fans are looking forward to September 2023 when they will be able to see A Haunting in Venice, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Christie’s Halloween Party, a sequel to Death on the Nile. Who was this woman who holds such a grip on audiences from England to Ethiopia and from North America to Southern Asia?

Agatha’s family was prosperous, but not influential. Her father had been born in the United States but lived much of his life in England. He was not particularly interested in being a businessman and was better at squandering the wealth he had inherited rather than adding to it. Her mother believed that girls did not need much education so she did not encourage Agatha to learn to read. Nonetheless, Agatha was curious about books and with the help of her grandmother, she learned to read by the time she was four years old. Like most middle-class girls at that time, Agatha assumed she would not need to earn a living because she would marry and devote her time to her husband and family. But the world was changing and Agatha’s life did not follow the traditional pattern.

As she grew into her teens, Agatha was given a taste of formal education by attending boarding school in France, but her social life was more important to her than education. She began to attend parties, where she met many young people of her class, notably Archie Christie, a handsome young man who pressed her to marry him.

Agatha Christie and her books

The start of World War I in 1914 brought dramatic changes to all of Europe including England. Earlier British wars had been fought mainly in distant countries such as India and Afghanistan. Suddenly battles were being fought close to home and wounded soldiers were being sent home to hospitals in England. Most young men joined the army, including Archie Christie, who was soon sent overseas to fight in France.

Like many other women in those days, Agatha volunteered to work for the Red Cross in British hospitals. It was a full-time volunteer job, and Agatha learned a great deal about nursing and especially about handling drugs, tending the sick, and dealing with death. During one of his home leaves, Archie and Agatha got married.

Settling down to peacetime life was not easy. Neither Archie nor Agatha was wealthy, although they were accustomed to living as if they were. Their only child, Rosalind, was born in 1919. Archie found jobs in business while Agatha was responsible for taking care of the house and of Rosalind. She wrote her first novels during these postwar years, but finding a publisher was difficult. Finally, she tried writing mystery stories, basing her major character, Hercule Poirot, on the Belgium soldiers she had met during her wartime work. The first Hercule Poirot story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles caught the public’s attention and has held it. Played by a series of actors during the years, Poirot is still appearing in movies and television productions more than a hundred years after he was first introduced.

Agatha continued to write mysteries and soon became one of the most popular and well-known British novelists. Unfortunately, her marriage did not fare so well, and in 1926, this led to the most dramatic episode in her life. The year had not gone well for Agatha, starting with her mother’s death in the spring. In December, Archie asked for a divorce because he wanted to marry his assistant. The day after his announcement, after leaving Rosalind with her sister, Agatha disappeared. Her empty car was soon discovered, but Agatha had vanished. Newspapers worldwide seized upon this story and the search was on. There were reports that Agatha had been seen dancing at a health spa, and later at a resort hotel, but it was ten days before she was finally discovered. She was registered under an assumed name at a spa not far from her country house.

Agatha never completely explained what had happened. After she was discovered, she went into seclusion at her sister’s house leaving the public to argue whether her disappearance had been a publicity stunt or the result of genuine mental illness. Gradually she recovered and returned to normal life. But her marriage to Archie was ended. Her divorce was finalized and Agatha continued her writing career. For the most part she led a quiet, successful life. She had a happy second marriage with anthropologist Max Mallowan, raised her daughter, and enjoyed domestic life. But through all of her years she continued to write and publish more stories that entranced thousands of readers.

Several biographies have been written about Agatha Christie and many of them focus on the few days of her mysterious disappearance in 1926. Fans still argue about the causes and effects of that event, but probably the more important mystery is the question of why her career lasted so long and why it was so successful. The statistics are startling. During her lifetime, Christie published 66 mystery books as well as 14 short story collections. Her play, The Mousetrap, set a record as the world’s longest-running play. All of her works were written in English, but they have been translated and published in 44 different languages.

What is the secret of Agatha Christie’s success? That is the biggest mystery of all. She wrote most of her books during between 1920 and 1970. Other authors of that time have published other mysteries that were popular, but none of them approached the perennial appeal of Christie. Some critics have suggested that it is the cleverness of her best-known detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, that keeps readers entranced. Others say that the complexity of Christie’s plots are the secret ingredient that wins her fans. Her mysteries are honest in the sense that the clues are laid out clearly so the clever reader can match wits with the fictional detectives. And year after year the books continue to be reprinted and produced in electronic versions and readers continue to seek them out.

The only way to judge whether or not Agatha Christie’s work deserves the popularity it has achieved is to read the books for yourself or perhaps to view the film adaptations. Then you too can decide whether or not you are one of Christie’s fans and whether you can solve the mystery of her lasting appeal. 

Writing Women Who Started a Trend—Jane and Maria Porter

During the early 1800s, more and more people in England were leaning to read. In 1800, 60% of men and 40% of women were literate, but the numbers were growing every year. Supporters of public education declared that the purpose of reading was to give people access to the Bible. But the secret passion of the new readers was often to read fiction—stories that brought excitement and pleasure into their lives. And the people who wrote the stories that people clamored for were often women.

Two of the women who provided popular fiction for the masses were the sisters Jane and Maria Porter. They were born in the 1780s to an Irish doctor and his wife who were then living in Durham, England. Besides Jane and Maria, there were three sons in the family and their father encouraged them all to read, write and learn as much as they could. Unfortunately, the father died young, shortly after Maria was born, leaving them without a secure income. His widow moved the family to Edinburgh where the two girls attended a charity school. Both of them were attracted to reading and writing and as they grew older, they began publishing short articles. In 1790 the family moved to London.

While the boys in the family tried to earn their livings by joining the army or becoming diplomats, both of the girls turned to writing. Between them, they may have invented the historical novel. Jane Porter’s first novels, Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) and The Scottish Chiefs (1810) were based on well-known figures and were written in a popular style. Both became bestsellers. Many of Jane’s books went through numerous editions and some remained in print for more than 100 years. In fact several editions of The Scottish Chiefs are still available on the Amazon website. But, despite the pleasures of fame, being a bestselling author during the nineteenth century was not easy, especially for a woman.

Maria Porter

At the time when the Porter sisters were writing, women were expected to be dependent on men for economic security. Either their fathers or their husbands were supposed to earn money; women stayed at home. The three Porter brothers should have taken on responsibility for supporting their widowed mother and the two girls, but instead they spent much of their time building up debts of their own. The girls took over, but writing and publishing novels was not an easy way to earn money.

Today, authors expect to earn royalties on the books they write. The more popular a book becomes, the more money the author earns. During the early 1800s, there was no such thing as royalties. Books were sold to the publisher for a flat payment and if they were reprinted and sold widely, the publisher made the money, not the author. The only way the writer could earn more money was to update and change the story and sell it to a publisher as a new book.

The Porter sisters were always short of money, because they supported themselves as well as their mother. The best solution to find security would have been to marry a man with a good income. Both Maria and Jane were attractive women and men clustered around them at social events. Several times they met men who appeared ready to suggest marriage, but somehow, when a wealthier young woman appeared on the scene, each of the Porter’s suitors decided to marry for money rather than to propose to a penniless writer.

Besides not having royalties, the Porter sisters also suffered from the lack of international copyright. Their books sold well in America, but the authors received no money at all from these sales. Late in her life, after Maria died, and while Jane was struggling to keep going, her American publisher wrote to her to say that he believed she deserved some share of the profit he was making from her books. Instead of sending money, however, he sent a gift—a large chair, which turned out to be useless because Jane had no place to keep it.

Both Jane and Maria Porter have been almost forgotten, but fortunately for us, they exchanged numerous letters with one another and the letters have survived. In 2022, their lives were retold in a remarkable book–Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontes  (NY: Bloomsbury 2022) by Devoney Looser. It makes me happy to know that Jane and Maria are being honored at last and I’m sure many readers will join me in celebrating their lives.

 Another Wartime Christmas 2022

In 1917, Joyce Kilmer, one of the most popular American poets of the early twentieth century wrote this poem, which became one of the best-known poems of the period.

Joyce Kilmer

Wartime Christmas

Led by a star, a golden star,
The youngest star, an olden star,
Here the kings and the shepherds are,
Akneeling on the ground.
What did they come to the inn to see?
God in the Highest, and this is He,
A baby asleep on His mother’s knee
And with her kisses crowned.

Now is the earth a dreary place,
A troubled place, a weary place.
Peace has hidden her lovely face
And turned in tears away.
Yet the sun, through the war-cloud, sees
Babies asleep on their mother’s knees.
While there are love and home and these,
There shall be Christmas Day.

Kilmer’s poem became popular during the years when the United States and most of Europe were entangled in the first World War. The poem pointed toward future peaceful Christmas celebrations. But Kilmer himself never saw another peaceful holiday. He was killed on a battlefield in France on July 30, 1918.

Now, more than 100 years after this poem was written, we are facing another wartime holiday season. A new war in Europe has pitted Russia and Ukraine against one another and has threatened the lives of thousands of civilians as well as soldiers. Almost all the countries of Europe have been drawn into the conflict in one way or another and the struggle ahead looks as though will be a long one.

In the United States, the country has entered a permanent state of war. Teenagers carrying weapons designed for war staged more than 600 mass shooting events during 2022. The children of Uvalde will never see another holiday season, neither will the grocery shoppers in Buffalo who were gunned down, nor the visitors to an LGBTQ club in Colorado. There will be very little holiday cheer among their families and friends during the year ahead or in years to come.  

How long can these undeclared wars continue? Just as long as people allow them to go on. As we start a new year, perhaps all of us should demand that our leaders take steps to ban the unprecedented slaughter of innocent people. The greatest gift 2023 could bring us would be a Peacetime Christmas. 

An unknown Kingdom—The most fascinating book I read in 2022

Most nonfiction books add ideas and facts to knowledge the reader already has, but it is rare to read a book that opens up a whole new world. This year when I read “Kingdom of Characters” by Jing Tsu, I was introduced to an entire sphere of knowledge I knew almost nothing about. Even though I had studied American and European history in school and have read biographies for many years, I had almost always seen China through the eyes of Western visitors and writers. Tsu gave me an inside view of some of the ways the country has changed over the past hundred years or so and how it has become part of a worldwide culture. And she does this by telling us the ways in which reading and writing have adapted to the modern global world. It started with the alphabet.

To write their language, Chinese speakers have traditionally used ideograms, in which each word is represented by a tiny picture that represented an individual word. Most other languages used an alphabet in which a small number of symbols could be combined in various ways to represent many different words. This made a tremendous difference in the way Chinese people could communicate in writing.

It took years of patient work for scholars to construct a Mandarin alphabet that was finally presented in 1904. Instead of praise, the scholar who achieved this, Wang Zhao, was imprisoned for attempting to modernize the country. But he had taken the first step that would lead the country into the modern world culture.

Jing Tsu takes us through the skills that were needed to allow Chinese speakers to communicate easily with people who spoke and wrote other languages. One step was developing a way to arrange words in an index. We often forget that it is knowledge of the alphabet that allows us to know immediately where to find the word we are looking for. People who grow up using an alphabetic language, learn the alphabet while they are very young. This gives them a basic tool to organize knowledge. In a list of vegetables, for example, a turnip is always going to come after an onion. We don’t even have to think about it. But in a language without an alphabet, a new way of organizing entries had to be worked out.

With every step toward joining the world community, another adaptation had to be mastered. The Chinese language could not be used on a Western typewriter. Those were designed for languages based on an alphabet rather than a language based on characters, as Chinese was, so a new kind of typewriter had to be invented.

With each new development—the typewriter, the card catalog, the teletype and then the computer—new adjustments had to be made so that the Chinese language could be used on the tools developed throughout the world. Jing Tsu makes the struggle to enter the global world of writing almost as exciting as a tiger hunt. Today China holds its place in the international marketplace and the scientific community on an equal footing with other countries using other languages.

You can find Jing Tsu’s book, Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern (2022) in most public libraries both in hardcover and in Kindle editions. A paperback edition will be published in January 2023.

Read by Millions–Forgotten by All–Elsie Robinson

If you were asked to name the most popular woman author of the early twentieth century, what names would you recall? Perhaps it would be Edna Ferber, author of Showboat and Giant, Pearl Buck, who wrote exotic stories about China, or Betty Smith whose novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn topped the best-seller list for weeks.

But what about Elsie Robinson? Her name is unlikely to spring to mind, yet during the first half of the 1900s, she was the most widely read female author in America. Why has she been forgotten?

Elsie Robinson was born in 1883, in Benicia, California, a town at the outer edge of the San Francisco Bay area. The community had been developed during the last years of the California gold rush and was still filled with the adventurous spirit of the miners who had built it. Elsie was sent to the only public school in town and was an excellent student, but when she graduated, her parents did not have the money to send her on for higher education.

There were few opportunities at that time for an ambitious girl to get education or to find work, so Elsie turned to the traditional option of marrying an educated and prosperous man. Elsie felt that she was lucky when the pastor of her church introduced her to Christie Crowell, a young widower, who had come to California to visit friends and recover after the death of his wife. He was introduced to Elsie by the pastor of her church and soon found they had many interests in common. After months of courtship, Elsie and Christie became engaged, but their path to marriage was not smooth. Crowell’s family refused to sanction the marriage unless Elsie travelled to their home state, Vermont, and attended finishing school. Elsie agreed, so she took the train across the country by herself, to spend a year at the boarding school. After graduation, she and Christie had a quiet wedding at the Crowell family home. Elsie’s own family was not at the wedding because they could not afford the long trip across the country.

Elsie tried to fit herself into a traditional married life, but there was trouble from the start. She did not feel at home with the Crowell family and had difficulty fitting in with their conservative ideas, while her husband accepted their views completely. In those days women were often told that having a baby would ensure a happy marriage, but even that didn’t work for Elsie. Her only son, George, was born in 1904 with severe asthma, which he did not outgrow. Even after he started school, he was frequently confined to his home when he should have been in the classroom. Elsie, of course, was confined with him.

During her long, quiet days at home, Elsie began writing and illustrating stories to entertain her son and soon realized that she was good at the work. She began to search out opportunities for publishing her stories. When she gathered her courage and sent a story to the local newspaper, they published it and asked for more. Finally she found an agent who specialized in publishing articles and stories for children and distributing them by mail. At last she had an outlet for her energy. Before long she was hired to illustrate two books for children and she began to believe she might have found a career for herself.

But still she and her husband continued to drift apart and George continued to suffer from bouts of asthma. Eventually, Elsie made up her mind to take George to California where she believed his health would improve.

Elsie took George to California in 1912 and was able to find several jobs in writing and editing. Her ability to illustrate her own work made her more valuable than most other writers. Unfortunately, she was not able to earn enough money writing books to support herself and her son.

But Elsie would not give up. In 1915, she moved to a mining community and started working as a laborer in the gold mines. Few other women would have attempted such hard, physical labor, but Elsie was determined to survive. It was a difficult life, and she was the only woman working in the mine. As months went by, she was able to succeed and to earn the respect of the other miners. Gold mining, however, was a dying industry in California and the mine closed in 1918.

Elsie moved back to San Francisco, more determined than ever to find a career in writing. She persisted, sending material to newspapers and publishers. She wrote articles for newspapers in both Oakland and San Francisco and her readership grew with each new column. Her most famous column was called Listen World, which soon became known nationwide.

By 1921, she was hired by William Randolph Hearst to write for his string of newspapers. She signed a contract for $20,000 a year, making her the highest paid journalist in the country. After that, Elsie Robinson did not have to worry about being able to earn a living.

A few years after reaching this goal, however, in 1926, Elsie lost her son George. He had never completely overcome his asthma and died of a respiratory illness. Elsie never got over his loss. Her life then became filled with work. Having lived through a scandalous divorce from her first husband, Elsie wrote a memoir that sold well. She had two other husbands, both of whom seemed better at spending her money than in earning their own.

When Elsie died in 1956, she was still writing columns and influencing people. But today most of her work has disappeared from public view. Fortunately, we now have a biography, Listen World: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman by Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert (2022). It is good to see samples of Elsie Robinson’s columns available again.

Women Demanding a Ballot–Susan B. Anthony, Louisa May Alcott and My Grandmother

The idea of women’s right to vote grew slowly during the years after the American constitution was adopted. The idea that ordinary men—farmers, merchants, and other non-royal citizens should vote was radical enough for the founding fathers. When Abigail Adams asked her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” as he and others wrote the document, he laughed and ignored her request.

Years went by and American men expanded voting rights to other men, but they apparently never thought of giving women the same rights. Some women realized they would never be given voting rights unless they took dramatic action. Sending petitions and making speeches was not enough.

The presidential election in 1872 marked a turning point. In Rochester, New York, fourteen women, including the suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, decided they would vote in the presidential election. When Anthony cast her vote, she was arrested, but not jailed. It was not until two months later that her trial began. While she waited, Anthony went on a speaking tour around the area to tell people what she had done and why it was important for women to be allowed to vote.

The judge, however, did not want to hear her arguments. Nor did he give her an opportunity to voice her concerns. He wrote his decision in the case before the trial even started and he directed the jury to find Anthony guilty. They obediently did as they were told. Anthony was fined $100, which she refused to pay. She hoped to make public the reasons for her refusal, but the judge made that impossible. He released her despite her failure to pay and because she was not jailed, she was unable to speak in court and unable to appeal the case to a higher court as she had planned.

Even though she was not able to appeal the court’s decision, Anthony did manage to call attention to the cause of women suffrage. She won many supporters who worked with her during the years it took for women to finally win voting rights. Unfortunately, Anthony died in 1906, long before the 19th amendment gave American women the right to vote, so she was never had a chance to legally cast a ballot in an election.

Susan B. Anthony was not the only American woman who attempted to vote. In 1880, Louisa May Alcott, author of the Little Women and other classic stories, seized the chance to vote. Her opportunity came in Concord, Massachusetts when the town decided women would be allowed to vote in school committee elections.

Alcott led a group of twenty women to the town hall to cast their ballots. They were able to do that, but after their votes were cast, the polls closed so they could not have a voice in any other decision. For several years afterward, Alcott led efforts to have women vote in school committee contests, but she found it difficult to keep them interested. With such a limited voice allowed in city affairs, most women did not think voting was worth their time.

For the rest of her life, Alcott continued to support women’s suffrage, but just like Susan B. Anthony, she was never able to vote in a national election. She died in 1888, more than thirty years before the Women’s Suffrage amendment was passed.

America was not the only country in which politics were tumultuous as the world moved into the twentieth century. Liberal ideas such as women’s suffrage gained support during the late 1800s and during the early 1900s, more and more people believed that radical changes were needed to improve the lives of ordinary people. As usual, the upper classes tried to preserve their privileges and prevent change.

In Southampton, England, a large port city on the southern coast of England, shipping companies found an ingenious way to keep the men who manned the ships from casting their votes and having a voice in elections. Whenever an election was called, the owners made sure that all the ships would leave port before election day. This effectively kept the seamen from voting and allowed the prosperous owners to be sure that only Conservative candidates would be sent to the House of Commons. 

During one bitter election season, however, at least one woman, Ellen Mongan, took a stand. On election day, after the ships had left port and the children were in school, she marched down to the polling place and demanded to be allowed to vote.

“I know how my husband wanted to vote, and I can cast his ballot,” she insisted.

Her demand caused consternation among the voting officials, while some of the bystanders began to cheer her on. Other women had not demanded such a privilege, but the idea made sense to some observers. Such rebellion might cause dramatic changes in the city’s voting pattern.

Eventually the forces of tradition won. Ellen was not allowed to vote. A few years later, in 1910, she and her husband moved to the United States and settled in Brooklyn. Women could not vote there at the time, of course, but at least her husband, Patrick Mongan, could vote as soon as he became a citizen.

In 1920, women at last got the vote in the United States. From that year on, Ellen voted in every election until her death in 1943. Unlike Susan B. Anthony and Louisa May Alcott, she had the satisfaction of being an active, engaged citizen. And in the years since her death, her children and grandchildren, including me, have understood the importance of voting and the value of a ballot.  

None of the women I’ve mentioned had success in their first efforts to vote, but at least they had the satisfaction of knowing they had  taken a stand. And over the years, their courage has made a difference. During this month’s midterm elections, many analysts have acknowledged that the votes of women have been a major force in preserving the values enshrined in Roe v. Wade and ensuring that American women will continue to have the right to control their bodies and their medical decisions.

Words, whether in speeches or writing, may give people new ideas, but it is ballots that give them the power to turn those ideas to action. As Herbert Hoover wrote, A whole people with the ballot in their hands possess the most conclusive and unlimited power ever entrusted to humanity.

Witches–They Weren’t Who You Think They Were

Every year when Halloween comes along, images of black-robed witches suddenly appear in ads and on social media. It is curious that witches still remain a prominent part of our culture even though more than 300 years have passed since witches played an important role in American history. [The witches who were part of the culture of indigenous people in America are not the ones who are remembered at Halloween. The black-robed women who are pictured on candy boxes and Halloween cards come from the European tradition.]

Modern Halloween costume

Witchcraft accusations have a long history in Europe, but at the time when the American colonies were being settled, the fever was dying down in England and most of Europe. As witch trials dwindled in England, they grew in the American colonies which had been settled by people from England. But there were differences. In the New England colonies more women than men were punished for witchcraft. And the victims were not just a random group of cranky old women who annoyed the neighbors, put spells on livestock and in general caused trouble. What was it that made the accused so vulnerable to being described as witches?

In recent years, historians have studied the records of accusations of witchcraft in early New England, especially the Salem witch trials that occurred during 1692 and 1693. It turns out that many things we thought we knew about witches are not accurate. It is true that most of the people accused were women but they were not necessarily the oldest women around or the poorest. What they had in common was that they were past child-bearing age. That was the crucial thing. Also, most of the women were either unmarried or widows. They did not have a husband to support them.

To understand what made some women particularly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft, we have to look at the laws of inheritance that governed the economy of the Massachusetts colony at the time of the trials. Most workers in the colony depended on farmland to support them and their families. When a man died, it was important that his land was passed on to his children so the family fortune could be maintained. The normal pattern of inheritance was designed to keep farmland in the family.

Most men who owned farms and had families, started distributing land when the children got married. The oldest son generally got one-third of the property when he married. Younger sons received a smaller portion of land or money upon marriage. Daughters were given a settlement upon marriage, usually about half as much as the eldest son would receive.

When a man of property died, his wealth was distributed in this way to unmarried children. His widow, however, was entitled to one-third of his property for her use for the rest of her life. This pattern kept widows from being a charge on the community while they lived. They could not, however, sell the property. It was only theirs for their lifetime. Upon their death, whatever was left was distributed to the remaining children.

It is important to remember that married women owned nothing at all. When a woman married, everything she owned became the property of her husband—even her clothes, her jewelry and her wedding ring. She did continue to have whatever dower her father had given her upon marriage. Her children or stepchildren could not take this money or property from her.

New England wife spinning

It is easy to see that this situation provided some motivation for children and stepchildren to hope the women who held the land did not continue to live on it and enjoy it for an unreasonable length of time. If that woman happened to be accused and punished for witchcraft, her hold on the property would disappear.

There is no way of knowing how many accusations against witches were made by people with an interest in her property, but it must have been a continuing temptation for some, especially younger sons who might have to wait for a young stepmother to die before they could receive some of their father’s land.

The history of witchcraft in America is a fascinating study that can help us understand why some of our ancestors acted the way they did. One book I highly recommend is The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol F. Karlson (Norton 1998). You will probably be able to find that in your local library or in bookstores.

Knowing the stories behind the way our ancestors lived helps us to understand the forces that have shaped our country and our attitudes even today. The persecution of witches may seem strange, but the more we know about how people of colonial times lived, the better we can understand the way they acted.

Music, Movies, and Much More–Dolly Parton

Anyone who has been listening to popular music during the past fifty years or so has some impression of Dolly Parton. They may remember her as one of the feisty heroines of the movie Nine to Five and the song inspired by it. Or perhaps they remember her blue grass period or her recent recording “A Holly Dolly Christmas”. Parton’s career has been a long one and her music has won many awards, but her life has consisted of far more than movies and music.

Born in Eastern Tennessee in 1946, the fourth of twelve children, Parton grew up poor in a  rural community in Tennessee. Few people would have predicted that she would have a long, successful career which would have a dramatic impact on all of Eastern Tennessee and on many young children around the world. But that’s exactly what has happened. Not only has Dolly Parton become one of the richest musicians in the world, according to Forbes magazine, but her work has changed lives in America and abroad.

Dolly Parton

Parton and her family lived on a small farm and her parents struggled to support their large family. Like most people in the region, they were active in their church and that is where Dolly started her musical career. She sang in church and soon began performing on local radio stations. She also composed songs, encouraged by her uncle who gave her the first real guitar she ever owned. At thirteen she appeared on Grand Ole Opry and met Johnny Cash, who encouraged her to build her career.

Parton graduated from high school in 1964 and moved to Nashville the next day to start her career. She found success as a songwriter, often working with her uncle, Bill Owens. Her first recordings were of popular songs, but she soon moved to country music, which she preferred. From that time on, she found success writing and singing in several different genres.

Two years after her arrival in Nashville, Dolly Parton married Carl Thomas Dean. In 2016, the couple celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Although her husband remains in the background of her career and seldom appears at public events, the couple remain close and are important figures in the lives of their siblings and other relatives. They do not have children of their own.

The largest business venture that Parton started the Dollywood Company, which operates a theme park and several restaurants. The tourism brought by this venture has stimulated the economy of Eastern Tennessee and provided jobs for many residents.

Despite being such a successful businesswoman, Dolly Parton still retains her image as a glamourous entertainer. Although she is in her mid-70s, she is frank about the amount of time and effort she has spent on maintaining her spectacular appearance. She once told Larry King, “I look at myself like a show dog. I’ve got to keep her clipped and trimmed and in good shape.”

One of Dolly Parton’s most unusual ventures, and perhaps the one which will have the most lasting impact on people around the world is her Imagination Library organized by the Dollywood company. This Library started as a local Tennessee project to send each child enrolled in the program a free book every month from the time of birth until the age of five. It has grown and now includes groups in several countries.  

Parton has said that she decided to provide books for children because her own father was illiterate and she realized what a difference that made in his life. The books sent to children are carefully chosen and include both classic children’s stories and current books in both English and Spanish.

It is impossible to sum up the life and career of Dolly Parton in one short blog post. The Wikipedia article about her provides an overwhelming amount of information. Someday, I am sure, a full biography will appear. Until that happens, we should all recognize, when we see her slim, attractive appearance on the screen, that we are looking at a powerful woman who has had an impact on many areas of American life.

America’s First Female President? Edith Galt Wilson

A century ago, before American women were allowed to vote in presidential elections, one woman took the reins of presidential power and held them firmly for almost two years. Edith Galt Wilson had never been elected president, of course, but because of her position as Woodrow Wilson’s wife, some unfriendly commentators claimed that she had seized an illegitimate amount of power over her husband.  How did this happen? Well, 1919 was a very different world from the one we live in today, and Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was far more of a one-man operation than any recent presidencies have been.

Wilson, unlike most recent presidents, had not been engaged in national politics before he became president. He had started his career as a college teacher, a very popular teacher, who moved up through the ranks to become president of Princeton University and later the governor of New Jersey. When he was elected President in 1914, he moved to Washington, but did not move into the active society of political circles. His first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, was shy and very family oriented. She preferred quiet family life to mixing in Washington society,  and not many people were invited to the White House. Shortly after Wilson’s first election to the presidency, she became seriously ill with Bright’s disease. During her illness, she and the President became even more isolated. When she died in 1914, she left behind a a bereft President and three daughters.

Edith and Woodrow Wilson

Wilson accomplished a great deal during his first term in office. He introduced the graduated income tax, which put government finances on a much firmer basis than it had ever had. Unfortunately, he also segregated government agencies, a destructive move that lessened the status and weakened the financial position of Negroes for generations to come.

Wilson’s personal life was not happy after the death of his first wife. He worked hard but had few friends and became very isolated. Friends tried to introduce him to other women and in 1915 he met and was attracted to Edith Bolling Galt, a young widow from Virginia. She had grown up in an elite family with deep roots in the South. One of her ancestors was Pocahontas, who had married John Rolfe, one of the earliest colonists in Virginia. Edith was one of eleven children and had been given most of her education at home. Her father believed that education money should be spent on sons, but he provided a large library and Edith’s grandmother tutored her and her sisters.

Wilson and Edith were attracted to each other and he persuaded her to become engaged, but they decided not to get married until more time had passed since the death of his first wife. They were married in a small ceremony at home in 1915. 

The major issue that dominated Wilson’s later years in the White House was the war in Europe. During his first term in office, Wilson pledged to keep America out of the European war. He won a narrow election victory in 1916, but the following year Germany’s introduction of submarine warfare led him to request Congress to declare war. In April 1917, Congress voted to support the war. A draft was initiated and thousands of Americans went to fight in the war.

Wilson was a firm opponent of war and his major preoccupation as World War I drew to a close was to ensure that another European war would never occur. In 1919, he and Edith attended the Paris Peace Conference where Wilson worked hard to draft plans for a League of Nations. Unfortunately, he worked mostly alone, with help from other Democrats, but without involving any of the many Republicans who wanted to participate in postwar planning.

After Wilson had completed his draft proposal, he returned to the United States to urge the Senate to sign his plan. That was when disaster struck. In October 1919, Wilson suffered a serious stroke that left him partially paralyzed. It was then that his wife became an active participant in protecting her husband and concealing the extent of his illness. With the support of his doctor, Edith demanded that all communication with the President must be approved by her.

Rejection of League of Nations

For the next year and a half until his presidency ended, Edith Wilson controlled her husband’s life. She examined all letters and other communications addressed to him and decided which he should see. She ruled on who could visit the President and how long they could occupy his time. Even the Vice President, who had never been active in the administration, was not allowed to see him. Wilson was reluctant to have any changes made in the peace plan that he had developed and Republican Senators were unable to see or to influence him. In the end, the Senate did not approve Wilson’s Peace Plan and America did not become a member of the League of Nations.

Ever since this bitter ending to Wilson’s term as President, historians have argued about how influential Edith Galt Wilson was in his life. During Wilson’s last year in office, several opponents accused Edith of trying to seize power and take over his role. Others supported her in her claims to have been only a loving wife trying to protect her husband.

If you want to learn more about the dramatic events of Wilson’s last years, you might want to read Gene Smith’s When the When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson (2016). The details of the struggle are fascinating, although none of us will ever know the full story of what happened during those hectic postwar years. That is why history is so fascinating—very few accounts can tell the true inside story of other people’s lives.