Whiff of the Past in Greenpoint

We’ve all been to museums and festivals where the sights and sounds of history are re-enacted, but … the smells of history?

That is what you’ll get when on October 22, when the Brooklyn Diggers, a collective of artists and historians, throws a 150th birthday party for the Monitor, the Union Army’s ironclad ship built in Greenpoint in 1861.

At “Monitor 1861,” an outdoor installation in McGolrick Park, wooden smell boxes filled with horse manure, tar, spices and coal will enable visitors to drink in the atmosphere of long-ago Greenpoint. Whether they will like it or not is debatable, but in any case there will also be music, food, a walking tour and a 14-foot model of the ship on offer.

More details at the link above or at the Brooklyn Diggers’ blog.


Gone and (Almost) Forgotten

Many family histories, if not most, are frustratingly incomplete. People vanish, leaving behind only cryptic sentences in letters or documents – moved West; left no forwarding address. Sometimes we find them; sometimes we don’t. We can’t always know everything, much as we’d like to.

But in the case of my distant cousin Catherine Haigney, I sure wish I could.

She died in 1946, in some violent way. The death certificate was quite clear (if shocking) on that point.  The death was referred to the medical examiner for further investigation.

So off I went to apply for the coroner’s report, thinking that even if I didn’t like what was in it, at least it would explain Catherine’s death to my satisfaction.

Well, yes and no.

Catherine entered her final hours on September 16, 1946 lying unconscious on the floor of her Brooklyn apartment.  Her landlady found her and called an ambulance. At Kings County Hospital, they found a wound on her head had resulted in a brain hemorrhage. She died two days later, without regaining consciousness.

So where did the head wound come from?

According to the hospital:

“Patient unconscious when admitted. Impression: Subdural hematoma, multiple abrasions. Said to have been beaten up one week ago, was a patient in this hospital and released.”

According to the medical examiner:

“This is a re-currence of injuries received on Sept. 9-1946. Their [sic] is no report of a case on Sept. 9-th, 1946 in the 68th Pct.”

And also from the medical examiner:

“Deceased was brought to the Kings County Hospital on the 16th day of September, in an unconscious state, from her home, she having allegedly received head injury in some unknown manner, about one week prior to admission. Police, however, have no record of any alleged assault and report nothing suspicious.”

There is a lot more in the way of facts and figures. As a set of documents, this coroner’s report is really interesting, and I’ll write about that in another post.

But none of it says anything more about the violent act that ultimately killed Catherine. The medical examiner’s report mentions that a detective from the 68th Precinct was assigned to investigate Catherine’s death. And that’s where the story leaves off.

What happened? One big problem: The incident that fractured Catherine’s skull wasn’t reported to the authorities at the time. (Or, possibly, it was reported, but was not considered worth looking into.) So forget about it turning up as a newspaper police blotter item somewhere around Sept. 9. It seems that  the next step would be finding out what, if anything, was reported by the detective who investigated after her death.

I’ve taken my time about writing this one up, because frankly, it’s just really sad and frustrating. Especially the idea that somebody could be beaten that seriously and nothing would come of it, at least judging from the papers I have so far. Could this have been considered a   “domestic incident” too mundane to make a big deal of? (Tough to reflect upon, but definitely not unheard-of.) Was there something about her lifestyle that put her in the category of people too marginal to worry about? Or was it just something that couldn’t be solved?

Guesses, that’s all I have at the moment. Also, a lot of sadness.


Sentimental Sunday: ‘Anything f’ Thanksgiving?’

For years, I really thought I’d hallucinated this conversation, which took place when I was around ten or eleven.

My mother, frazzled from outfitting the five of us seven kids currently eligible for trick-or-treating, broke off from adjusting someone’s mask to say how sick she was of the whole thing. “And besides — we never trick or treated on Halloween. We did it on Thanksgiving.”

This remark was promptly filed in the Things Your Parents Say Just To Annoy You folder, and forgotten. In college and beyond, I would think of it sometimes when October rolled around — when I wasn’t pondering how to treat Halloween-party aftereffects. (Never mix beer and M&Ms, is what I’m saying.)

But eventually I did realize I wasn’t hallucinating my parents, and in fact, they often said interesting things. So I went looking for a rational  explanation for the” trick-or-treat on Thanksgiving” memory. Nobody (but nobody) west of the Hudson had ever heard of such a custom, and even some of my (South) Brooklyn relatives looked at me funny, so I concluded it had to be specific to Mom’s section of Brooklyn — Greenpoint.

As it turns out, that’s fairly accurate. Also as it turns out, in 1998 a wonderful person named Frank Dmuchowski compiled a whole webpage about this custom on his site, Greenpoint.com! I love the Internet!

Well, on Thanksgiving morning, the children of Greenpoint would get dressed up in costumes and go from house to house yelling, “Anything f’ Thanksgiv’n?”. In return, and if they were lucky, they would be rewarded with coins, or a piece of fruit, or a piece of candy. In New York, this custom appears to go back to the 1920’s and 1930’s and perhaps earlier.  Apparently in those days it was called, “Ragamuffin Day” and was practiced the day before Thanksgiving.

Mr. Dmuchowski’s page includes quote after quote of memories from former Greenpointers who went about on Thanksgiving, dressed in old clothes and asking for treats. The custom even rated a mention in the all-time classic novel of Brooklyn, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In the book, plucky heroine Francie Nolan and her brother Neely brave the November chill to go door-to-door, rewarded by a hot meal of pot roast and noodles when they get back home. (The Nolans live in Williamsburg, next door to Greenpoint, so it’s all good).

Apparently there were other pockets of “ragamuffins” outside of Brooklyn — Mr. Dmuchowski’s correspondents remembered it in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, as well as in parts of the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and even New Jersey. But it was a very localized custom. “Not only was it neighborhood specific, but it was block specific,” as one man recalled. “If you went west of Steinway Street, the residents had you committed to a nuthouse saying, ‘Come back at Halloween, you idiot.’ “

Why Thanksgiving? Why not Valentine’s Day? Some of Mr. Dmuchowski’s correspondents believe the custom is related to the Feast of St. Martin (Nov. 11), which is observed in many eastern and western European countries with parades of costumed children who receive little gifts of cakes and sweets. Perhaps European immigrants held on to this tradition, and smushed it together with their adopted country’s feast of Thanksgiving. It began fading out after World War II, although many kids kept it up well into the 1950s.

I really mean it when I say I love the Internet. Other than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I’ve never seen a mention in print that this custom ever existed. So Frank Dmuchowski and his co-preservationists have saved ‘Anything f’ Thanksgiving’ from oblivion.

Thanks, guys.

Note: Stay safe out there, kids. And drivers, slow DOWN! Mr. Archaeologist, himself a blogger on actuarial matters, notes that Halloween may well be our most dangerous celebration after New Year’s. Let’s all have fun and come home in one piece, OK?


Public Service Announcement

Anyone with a genealogy interest in Brooklyn, N.Y. has likely visited the Brooklyn Information Pages. (And if they haven’t, they should.)

As I once wrote for Follow Friday, this site has been compiling and sharing all things Brooklyn genealogy since 1997. For free. (Remember that concept? People helping each other out for nothing?)

This is the link for the Brooklyn Information Pages (http://www.bklyn-genealogy-info.com/).

Something called “BrooklynGenealogy.com” is NOT the same thing. It is, in fact, one of those really annoying zombie-type pages that are a collection of commercial links. So I’m not going to waste keystrokes putting a link in.

Nancy Lutz, who owns and manages the Brooklyn Information Pages, put the word out on the the NYBROOKLYN Rootsweb mailing list to clarify things. Here’s the killer: The proprietor of the click-trap site told Nancy that he appreciates her site and wouldn’t “mind people finding it through me.”

As my Brooklyn relatives might say, talk about crust.

Here is Nancy’s complete post on this topic to the Brooklyn List.


Wordless Wednesday: Coupla Buddies

My grandfather, John [Johann Georg] Rudroff, is the one on the right. We are not certain about the identity of the buddy on the left. I believe this picture was taken at some point in the 1930s near the Socony (Standard Oil Company of New York) plant in Greenpoint, where my grandfather worked from shortly after his arrival in America from Germany to the time of his retirement. I like this picture because it’s a nice counterbalance to my childhood memories of Grandpa, who was not the playful, humorous sort around little kids. Not mean, just not a laugh riot.

John (Johann Georg) Rudroff and friend, 1930s

After the shift was up, we hope.

P.S. Standard Oil Company of New York was born out of the 1911 breakup of the gigantic Standard Oil monopoly. It later became Mobil, which became Exxon. There’s a little corporate genealogy for you.

P.P.S.: Apparently the Greenpoint Socony plant was the locale of one of the biggest oil spills in U.S. history. Sigh.


Lena Horne (And a Classic American Family)

The iconic American entertainer Lena Horne passed away on Sunday at age 92.

In a way, Horne’s bio was a precis of 20th-century American history. She lives forever in the mind’s eye as the beautiful, sultry  singer of “Stormy Weather,” but she also became a pioneering NAACP member at the age of two, signed up by her redoubtable grandmother Cora Calhoun Horne.  Her family was firmly rooted in an influential circle of well-to-do Brooklyn intellectuals, businesspeople and activists. Family friends included W.E.B. Dubois, Walter White and Paul Robeson. For much of her life, Horne carried the burden (and the torch) of being a standard-bearer in an age of change and turbulence for black Americans.

Lena Horne, described as one of the NAACP's "youngest members," as pictured in a 1919 edition of the Branch Bulletin. From "The Hornes: An American Family."

One of my favorite family history memoirs was written in 1986 by Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. Its title, The Hornes: An American Family, pretty much says it all. Lena’s grandfather, Edwin Horne, was the “son of the only-in-America union of an English adventurer and a Tennessee woodlands Native American,” as Buckley notes. His wife, Cora Calhoun, was born at the dawn of Reconstruction, the daughter of a slave owned by a nephew of John C. Calhoun (Andrew Jackson’s vice president and quintessential defender of slavery).

Edwin was one of those energetic people who seem incapable of not excelling at something — teaching, politics, newspaper publishing, owning a prosperous drugstore, becoming a high-level New York City Fire Department inspector. Cora was an early feminist, a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women as well as an early supporter of the NAACP. In Brooklyn they raised their family in a world of comfortable brownstones, “Smart Set” garden parties and debutante balls, but above all in an atmosphere of high standards and high achievement.

After her parents’ divorce, little Lena Horne was put in the care of grandmother Cora, who laid down the expectations in no uncertain terms: “When I take you to meetings, I want you to listen,” Cora would say. “When you speak, articulate clearly — don’t use slang … Don’t hunch your shoulders. Always look at the person you’re talking to.” Cora Calhoun Horne doesn’t sound like the sort to be overawed at having  a granddaughter in the entertainment business, but it stood to reason that in becoming an entertainer, Lena Horne would become the best. It was in the genes.

Buckley’s book was out of print for a while, then reissued in 2002. It’s well worth a read, not only for admirers of Lena Horne and her artistry, but for anyone interested in the history of a fascinating American family.


Link edition (short version!) 5.03.10

Inquest at the OK Corral: Loved this news item about the long-lost coroner’s inquest of the shootout at the OK Corral. Court clerks came across it while organizing old files at a jail storage room 20 miles away from Tombstone, AZ, site of the legendary gunfight. Apparently the contents of the inquest have long been known, so it is not likely that any surprises will surface — Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday can rest easy, wherever they are. To find the original documents, though — how exciting is that? Talk about a great spring cleaning story.

If you can’t say something nice … : The U.S. edition of Who Do You Think You Are has begun airing in Australia, and this review is generally quite positive. Unfortunately, the writer feels compelled to lead by saying: “There is nothing more boring than being stuck at a dinner party with someone who is researching their family genealogy … ” Well, as a matter of fact, there is: Being stuck at a dinner party with someone who can’t shut up about how boring they think genealogy is.

Blog note: Links are short this week (mini links? cocktail links?) owing to a busy Ancestral weekend. The Archaeologist was spinning her wheels in the annual 5 Boro Bike Tour in New York City. Riding in a pack of 30,000-odd cyclists is certainly An Experience. Three highlights: (1) Getting a cyclist’s-eye view of the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhoods where some of my ancestors lived and worked; (2) Gliding along major expressways and having the run of the joint; (3) The sea breeze adding a welcome jolt of energy as we rode the final stretch over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

Enjoy your week!


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