Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Indomitable Rhesa Swinney

One of the treasures of the History Center's collection is the daguerreotype of Rhesa Swinney (1833-1911), daughter of Thomas and Lucy (Taber) Swinney.

A note found behind the image in its case bears the date of December 25, 1851, indicating that it was probably a Christmas gift from the daughter to her parents. The identity of the photographer is not known, but it may well have been Archibald McDonald, Fort Wayne's most prolific daguerreian artist who had arrived from Buffalo the year before. The result of this Christmas sitting is one of the most exquisite portraits of the period.

There is a sense of immediacy about a daguerreotype. As the author Joan Severa observes, "Besides being the truest glimpse of a moment in the past, it is also a peek into the life and personality of a real person living in a time so different from our own. We experience inescapable emotions when viewing these images. A certain vivid face, looking out at you, with its voice just a breath from speaking, can sometimes stop your heart." (Joan L. Severa, My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America [2005], p. xv).

Such it is with the portrait of Rhesa, one of the most beautiful women of her time in Fort Wayne. Her life is a study of both tragedy and resilience, depicted poignantly in this image. As the daughter of a wealthy farmer, Rhesa was petite, well-educated, and enjoyed a home with some of the finest amenities of the time. Engaged to be married to J. McNutt Smith, a telegraph operator, she had her heart broken when Smith decided to elope instead at the last minute with her sister, Margaret (1834-1918), on June 27, 1858. Rhesa was so crazed with grief that she pulled out most of her hair, forcing her to wear a wig for the rest of her life. Margaret and her family were never welcomed back into the Swinney home. Ironically, just prior to the elopement, Rhesa had posed with Smith and her sister Margaret, with Smith's arm tellingly draped around his future wife. The image was later altered and the face of another sister, Caroline, glued over that of Margaret.

Rhesa rebounded after her broken heart. She never married. Instead, showing strength of character, she became the head of her family after her father's death in 1875. She managed the farm, completed construction of a commercial building near the courthouse, and enjoyed playing hostess. On New Year's Day, she presided over large teas with place settings of fine china for more than 100 guests. She was remembered for her "mincing walk, a sort of dancing step with her small feet" as she strode through the city and was unflappable when a gust of wind once blew off her wig. Her father had left the city the grounds that would become Swinney Park, yet it was Rhesa who finalized the agreement with officials in 1893. When she died in 1911, her surviving unmarried sisters said, "The best is none too good for her." She was buried in a casket that cost $1,000, and her funeral was one of the most expensive of the period.

In many ways the daguerreotype captures the spirit of the indomitable Rhesa, beautiful and untouchable, who carved for herself an independent life outside the norms of her time.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Who Signaled Paul Revere?

Who was the "friend" who flashed the lanterns from the Old North Church tower in 1775 and immortalized in Longfellow's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere"?

The popular poem of Longfellow creates a scene of the Revolutionary War patriot making his lonely ride alerting the New England countryside, but misses the historians' view that his mission was not to alert but to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the Brits were coming to Lexington and after those two in particular. Also our man Paul was helped by other local Bostonians making it truly a collective effort.

Aware that the British Regulars would try to stop all communications throughout the area around Boston, Revere earlier had shared his concern with Colonel William Conant when the now-famed silversmith had stopped at Charlestown.

Paul Revere later wrote in correspondence to Jeremy Bleknap ca 1798, "I agreed with Colonel Conant and some other gentlemen, that if the British went out by water, we would shew two lanthorns in the North Church steeple, and if by land, one, as a signal, for we were apprehensive it would be difficult to cross the Charles River, or get over Boston neck."

Old North Church was chosen because in 1775 its steeple was the tallest building in Boston and it was located and visible in Charlestown across the water. One problem plagued the plan. The rector of the church was a vowed Loyalist to the British. However, Paul Revere had a friend by the name of Captain John Pulling who was a vestryman of Christ Church and agreed to help the American cause.

Revere also knew Robert Newman, a bright young man who was not able to find work, but had taken a job he did not like as the church caretaker. Eager to help out, he was known to be a man of few words and right for the job of signaling a secret message eager to help out.

On April 18, Revere contacted both Captain Pulling and Sexton Newman as well as another acquaintance named Thomas Bernard and told them to be ready with lanterns that night. Revere told the men to go to the church and climb up into the steeple and show two lanterns from the window on the north side of the church facing Charleston.

Newman opened the church door with his key before Captain Pulling joined him inside while Thomas Bernard stood guarding the door. It is believed that Pulling and Newman shared in the task of flashing the signal that the British troops were disembarking Boston by boat heading for Cambridge.

Were two men showing the signal lights or one? David Hackett Fischer author of Paul Revere's Ride (1995) states in the endnotes that, all three men Pulling, Newman and Bernard took part. He cites the improbable task of carrying two lanterns up and the unlikelihood of lighting them using flint and steel atop the narrow steeple ladders. Further, there was the danger of igniting a light on the ground floor with British soldiers walking the streets; making certain that the two lanterns were simultaneously displayed out the window; and that Mr. Bernard kept watch while the other two were in the tower.

Fischer says that there are no known sources surviving that explain who did what in the church tower that night. So it appears that three might have been involved and not one as Longfellow seems to imply when writing the words, "He said to his friend, 'If the British march By land or sea from the town to-night, Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch Of the North Church tower as a signal light, - One if by land, and two if by sea, And I on the opposite shore shall be...'"

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Learn About the Dead Guys Our Streets Are Named After, Part 1: Harmar Street

This title is one of my favorites from the "10 Worst Slogans" published below. It's one of those things where, the more you laugh about it, the more you like it. There are so many interesting stories behind our streets. So my first Dead Guy to honor is Josiah Harmar.

Harmar Street is tucked back in the East Central neighborhood. Only 9 blocks long, it ends at the train tracks running along the river. But two centuries ago, a footpath in that area led to a ford across the Maumee, north into the great Miami village of Kekionga, now Lakeside.

Even today the river, flanked by a bike path and quiet tree-lined streets, looks peaceful. But in October of 1790 it was the site of a bloody massacre that became known as Harmar's Defeat.

Josiah Harmar was the U.S. General commissioned by President Washington to pacify the Indians in the wilds north of the Ohio River. In fall of 1790, Harmar's troops came to Kekionga. The village was hastily abandoned, and the troops proceeded to destroy cows, more than 20,000 bushels of corn, and 185 buildings.

Tracks of women and children were discovered leaving the village, so Harmar sent Col. Hardin to "pacify" the Indians once and for all. Hardin's troops were soon ambushed by the great war chief Little Turtle in an attack "planned as neatly as a rat sets a trap"* in the words of one soldier, and many members of the company were massacred. (The historical marker is on Carroll Road near Madden Road.)

Harmar's army began to leave the region in disgrace, but Hardin convinced the general to turn back and fight one more time, in order to salvage his own reputation. They would have done better to leave.

Major John Wyllys drew up a brilliant battle plan as Little Turtle's warriors returned to Kekionga. But a variety of tactical mistakes ensued after a militia member shot at a lone Indian before the order to attack, thus betraying their position. Wyllys, unsupported by neither cavalry nor militia, was then forced into an immediate frontal assault across the Maumee with his regulars. He was one of the first men to die in the river, which was soon choked with the bodies of men and horses.

It was a disaster. The army slunk back to Fort Washington in Cincinnati, looking back fearfully over their shoulders. By the end of the campaign, 183 U.S. troops were dead and 31 were wounded. Little Turtle, LeGris and Bluejacket paraded the American scalps in the streets of Detroit, and the fighting and atrocities in the region escalated until the conquest under General Anthony Wayne.

The photograph above shows Harmar's Ford in the Maumee from the Tecumseh Street Bridge; it is roughly marked by the bare stretch of bank. Fragments of flintlocks and bayonets have been found at this site and others associated with Harmar's Defeat, and are part of the collection of the History Center.

*Griswold, A Pictorial History of Fort Wayne Indiana, 1917.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Hidden History

In a scenario that could have been scripted straight from Geraldo Rivera’s 1986 “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault,” the History Center recently opened a long-hidden safe in the basement of the Old City Hall Building. The Coroner was not on standby to identify any exhumed bodies nor were officials from the IRS on hand to confiscate any uncovered riches. However, an expert safecracker from Koehlinger Security Technology did manage to skillfully penetrate two sets of cast iron doors and methodically open three separate locks to reveal a rare glimpse into the past.

The Old City Hall Building housed the Fort Wayne Police Department from 1893 until 1971, before the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society refurbished the building into the History Center in 1980. The History Center still tells the story of the FWPD through several permanent exhibits and through the carefully preserved old City “lockup,” nine iron barred cells (eight for men and one for women) that housed prisoners for nearly 80 years. Every once in a while, a History Center visitor will share their experiences of being hauled in for an overnight stay in the cells, typically when they were about 18 years of age, with a parent wishing to teach them a lesson.

The accused entered the building via the Barr Street Market alley entrance, with vehicles pulling into a double stall parking garage that was first used by the FWPD’s horse-pulled prisoner wagons. From there an easy slope led prisoners downward through the subterranean processing and booking areas and into the cells.

Along the way, one might have noticed a relatively small, roughly 4’ x 4’ set of heavy, black metal doors. Until recently, when the museum installed a new heating and air conditioning system, these inconspicuous, dusty and rusty double doors appeared to lead to one of the many coal shoots or circulation shafts found throughout the building. But after moving some large shelving that partially hid the safe, it was discovered that these particular doors were sealed with a large combination lock, sparking the curiosity of several staff members.

Hidden safes are nothing new to the History Center, as eight large walk in safes, once used to store everything from early 19th century records to parking tickets to honorary keys to the City are known to be in the building. Several of these are entombed behind walls that were erected during the structure’s 1980 retrofitting into an historical museum. However, the unusual location and borderline abandonment of the newly found safe made it especially tempting.

Conversations with FWPD retirees indicate that this safe was used exclusively by the FWPD’s Vice Department from the early 1900s until the 1970s. What might be inside these doors, which by all accounts have not been opened since at least the 1970s? Had the FWPD unintentionally left behind the relics of some notorious or seedy arrest from yesteryear? Bottles full of “hooch” or someone’s weekend “stash?” Miniature slot machines, numbers sheets, or black books?

Nothing so provocative was found; however, we did find more than Geraldo. An early .22 caliber cartridge (still filled with live gunpowder), three playing cards stuck together (two fours and a deuce, perhaps 60% of a full house), a perfectly good envelope from the Police and Firemen’s Insurance Association of Indianapolis, and a few scraps of paper for reordering stationery were all found nestled in several compartments of the forgotten bankers safe that rested in the innermost layer of nearly two tons of thick metal shell.

Perhaps the most startling discoveries were found on the inside of the doors themselves, adorned as they were with remarkably well preserved, brightly hand painted exotic landscape scenes and floral patterns. Dating from the early 1900s, the safe was made by the Diebold Safe and Lock Company of Canton, Ohio, and harkens back to a time when craftsmanship and artistry took precedence over utilitarianism and stark functionality.

It is hoped that at some later date the opened safe will be added to the interpretive displays of the FWPD permanent exhibitions so that visitors, too, may experience the excitement of literally peeking into the past. The History Center wishes to give its thanks to Koehlinger Security Technology for so kindly lending their expertise to the project completely gratis.

The opening of the evidence safe is certainly not the last piece of “hidden history” that will be found in the Old City Hall Building. Every so often the building gives up more tantalizing clues to the past.

For example, for many years it was assumed, based on a turn of the last century picture of the building, that the many awnings that once lined the perimeter of the first floor exterior were a light, solid color. During the installation of the museum’s new heating and air conditioning system, longtime Curator Walter Font found tucked away in the corner of the building’s “hush-hush,” catwalked fourth floor (which is never opened for public viewing) several small slivers of the original awning. It is likely that the original awnings were stored in the fourth floor during the winter months. To our surprise we found the awning to have originally been a striped pattern of navy blue and dark tan. Upon magnification and closer examination of the grainy, black and white pictures, this pattern was found on the awnings within the original photos of the building.

Soon the History Center wishes to replace the red cloth awnings, which have adorned the building for many years, with replicas of the original pattern. This is just one more example of how history, like the people who live it, is ever evolving and subject for new interpretation.

To see more photographs related to this post, visit the History Center’s Facebook page.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Detective Work on a Historical Photograph

Historical photographs of Fort Wayne people and places, especially from the 1860s, are exciting when they become available, and it is especially fortunate when they have some identifying information. So many photographs with Fort Wayne photographer imprints appear at auctions and estate sales without any identifying information of the subjects, and without it, they are of little use to historians or genealogists.

Occasionally, though rarely, a caption on such a photo can be misleading. Recently, a local collector shared with both the History Center and Genealogy Center a digital scan of an unusual carte-de-visite image he had purchased on EBay. It depicted three men holding several bound newspaper volumes and a handwritten inscription: "Ft. Wayne Sentinel Editors 1860." The find was exciting for me personally, for when he showed it to us, I was at work on an article for the Old Fort News about Stephen Douglas and his campaign appearance in 1860. The editor of the Fort Wayne Sentinel, Thomas Tigar, had played a key role in that event. The picture would have made a wonderful illustration for the article.

Closer examination of the image brought several potential problems to light, which led us to doubt the accuracy of the caption. First and foremost, none of the three men in the photo resembled Tigar, who had a very distinctive face. Second, a close examination of the digital image showed that the spines of the bound volumes did not depict the Sentinel at all, but instead showed Dawson's Fort Wayne Weekly Times. John W. Dawson, editor of the Times, was Tigar's chief competitor and had endorsed Lincoln in 1860. His face is also well known, and none of the three men resembled him, either.

We had to do even more detective work to identify the image. Printed on the back was the photographer's label: "Specialite. J. A. Shoaff's Art Gallery, No 8, Corner Main and Calhoun." Fort Wayne's city directories exist in an almost complete run for most years back to 1858-59. From these sources it was clear that John A. Shoaff, a well-known local photographer, was not in business in 1860. There are no directories of 1862-63 or 1863-64, but the directory for 1864-65 lists the Shoaff Gallery at the above address. By 1866, he had moved his studio to the corner of Calhoun and Columbia. Thus, we could establish that the photograph must date after 1860 and very likely from about 1864 or early 1865.

Further research from John W. Miller's Indiana Newspaper Bibliography (1982) indicated that W. Henry Dills and I. W. Campbell acquired Dawson's newspaper in 1865. Perhaps the photo shows Dills and Campbell, with a third unidentified man, showing off their new purchase by bringing the bound volumes of the Times to the Shoaff Studio. We can't know for sure, but it represents an educated guess.

This case study illustrates the sort of detective work historians, genealogists, and archivists must do when the caption of a photograph seems unreliable. Using other clues from the image itself and from the photographer's label, we can sometimes gain other useful information that differs sometimes from our first impression.