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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Springfield WitchTrials

Some forty years before the infamous Salem Witch Trials, a husband and wife were put on trial for witchcraft in Springfield, Massachusetts. They were innocent of witchcraft, but one of them was guilty of murder.

It happened in 1651. Hugh Parsons was a bricklayer on lower Main Street, who by his neighbors’ accounts, could be a bit moody at times. A neighbor woman, named Blanche Bedortha, criticized Mr. Parsons in some manner, and he retorted with the threat, “I shall remember you when you little think of it!”

The ruffled Goodwife Bedortha blamed Hugh Parsons for the sudden zing of static electricity she felt on her nightgown, since no one knew what that was or had a scientific explanation for it. She claimed he hexed her.

Then his second child, Joshua, died, and Mrs. Parsons’ went insane. The neighbors accused Mr. Parsons of having murdered the child. Mrs. Parsons did not help much when she, by now hysterical, confessed that she and her husband both were witches. Hugh was her third husband. I don’t know what she thought of her earlier two husbands.

Hugh got it from all sides now, as neighbors blamed everything from a cow’s having no milk, to cuts, nightmares, and minor illnesses on him being a witch.

Hugh was arrested and marched by the constable through the streets, and taken to Boston where the trial was held. The court found him guilty of witchcraft.

Fortunately for Hugh, about this time, Mrs. Parsons pulled herself together and confessed that she killed her son. They sent her to Boston for trial. Hugh was set free in May 1652. Mary was convicted of murder. All charges of witchcraft were dropped, possibly because things had just gotten too complicated and everybody was probably sick of the Parsons by now.

On the morning she was to be hanged, Mary was found to be too ill to be taken from prison. She died in her cell the next day.

Hugh never returned to Springfield, and may have left Massachusetts. He probably couldn’t wait to leave.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Meet Me in Nuthatch - A Novel

This is to announce my book.

"Meet Me in Nuthatch", a novel of humor, warmth, Christmas tree farming, dressing up like it was 1904, and selling your small town to a theme park conglomerate is now issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle, and on Smashwords, available in a variety of formats.

Here’s the blurb:

A publicity stunt to attract tourists to a small dying town (population 63), results in the entire community turning the clock back to 1904. It is local Christmas tree farmer Everett Campbell’s idea, after watching the film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” his young daughter’s new favorite movie. What begins as half practical joke and half desperate ploy initiates the rebirth of Nuthatch, Massachusetts. Tourists do come, along with the media. Everett’s resentful teenaged son rebels at living in the pretend past. His wife, a medical transcriptionist who works at home, a self-employed and self-professed loner, has panic attacks when tourists stop to take her picture. The town’s unofficial historian, a genteel septuagenarian, supports Everett’s scheme, but for personal gain.

To Everett’s dismay, his campaign to save their community results in also attracting representatives of a chain of theme parks who want to buy Nuthatch 1904. Everett now stands to lose his town in a way he never imagined, and the community is divided on which alternate future to choose. On the sidelines but ever encroaching toward the center is a local drug dealer, the longtime enemy of Everett and his best friend Bud, who discovers a new opportunity to threaten them and exploit the town, or its new owner.

The novel is mainly humorous, a bit poignant, a little sad, briefly scary, incidentally educational, and so gosh darn entertaining if you like that sort of thing.

You do not need a Kindle or other e-reader device, as both Kindle and Smashwords versions can be downloaded to your computer. It sells for $2.99.

MEET ME IN NUTHATCH is available here on Amazon, and also available on Smashwords.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Miss James and the James Pharmacy - Old Saybrook, Connecticut

This sign is on the front of the James Pharmacy and Soda Fountain building in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Built in 1790, it originally served as a general store attached to the Humphrey Pratt Tavern. The Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, evidentially found it a convenient place to shop.

This building, and the lives which crossed its path, represent a rich tapestry of local history in this small village that sometimes reflected, and sometimes influenced, a wider world.

In the late 1870s, the building was moved a little farther down Main Street and became a pharmacy. Peter Lane owned the pharmacy later, and it was he who added the soda fountain in the 1890s, where a person could grab a sandwich and coffee in those days before chain fast foot restaurants snagged our attention on and off the interstates.

His sister-in-law, Anna Louise James, worked for him, and took the business over from him when he went off to World War I. Miss James, as she became formally known by all and sundry in the village, was destined to make history in her own quiet way.

Historical significance and riding the crest of changing times was nothing new to her family. Her father had been born a slave in Virginia. When he was 16 years old, he escaped. He made his way, like so many seekers of freedom from southern slavery, to New England. He stopped his journey in Connecticut, and made his home here. His daughter Anna was born in Hartford, but while still a small child, the family moved to the Connecticut shore village of Old Saybrook.

Miss James, in 1908, was the first female African-American to graduate from the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy. She took over the management of her brother-in-law’s business, changing the name to the James Pharmacy, and was the first female African-American pharmacist in the state of Connecticut.

Highly independent, and highly respected, Miss James served that community until 1967 when she retired. She lived in the back of the store until her death in 1977. One story told about Miss James in a documentary currently running down the street at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, notes that teenaged Kate, who frequented the shop (her family maintained a summer home not too far away), plunked herself at the counter and bemoaned that her parents would not allow her to run off to an acting audition in New York City. Miss James, from her exalted position behind the Vermont marble counter, considered the youngster’s plight, and plunked down bus fare for Kate. Miss James, in her capacity as the only grown up present, gave her permission to try to be an actress.

Another young person who was undoubtedly influenced by Miss James, was her own niece, Ann. Ann Lane Petry also became a registered pharmacist and worked at the James Pharmacy, but discovered that her path led away from prescriptions to career as a writer. She wrote several books, including “The Drug Store Cat” based on her childhood memories of her father’s, and later her Aunt Anna’s pharmacy. She is perhaps best known for her passionate and thoughtful novel “The Street”, which tells of an African-American woman’s struggle for survival, and for integrity in World War II-era New York City.

Though by most accounts, the Lane-James families settled quite successfully in the predominantly white population of Old Saybrook, Ms. Petry wrote an interesting passage in “The Street” describing her character Lutie, a New York woman, taking a job as a domestic for a well to do Connecticut family and encountering her first exposure as the only black person in the community. She discovers that the wealthy white women look at her with suspicion because she is young and beautiful, and they assume she will try to flirt and seduce their husbands, because they think that is what black girls do.

“It was, she discovered slowly, a very strange world that she had entered. With an entirely different set of values. It made her feel that she was looking through a hole in a wall at some enchanted garden. She could see, she could hear, she spoke the language of the people in the garden, but she couldn’t get past the wall. The figures on the other side of it loomed up life-size and they could see her, but there was this wall in between which prevented them from mingling on an equal footing. The people on the other side of the wall knew less about her than she knew about them.”

As much a pioneer as her pharmacist aunt, Ann Lane Petry was the first black female author to write about the struggles of African-American women in the city. “The Street” was published in 1946.

She had grown up in Old Saybrook, and when she married writer George Petry, she moved with him to Harlem, publishing many short stories, articles on the Harlem experience, and winning accolades as a unique voice among her generation. But celebrity, with all its trappings, was not for her. She took the money she’d earned from “The Street”, which was a best seller, and headed back home to Old Saybrook, where they did the typical New Englander thing and bought a 200-year-old house. After her daughter, Elisabeth was born, Ann Lane Petry turned her focus to historical novels for children.

She died in 1997, still living only a little ways away from her Aunt Anna’s pharmacy. It was, after all, home.

Today the James Pharmacy still stands, though it has been closed for certain periods and has undergone ownership change a number of times in the past few decades. There is currently still a soda fountain there, where you can, as I did this summer, enjoy an ice cream. The Vermont marble counter is still there, too.

The current owners run an adjoining shop featuring Moroccan imported goods. Have a look here for their website, Tissa’s Moroccan Marketplace. See this website on the history of the James Pharmacy, and look here for more memories about the inimitable Miss James.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Covered Railroad Bridges - Newport, New Hampshire

At first we see what appears to be a covered bridge partly blocked from view by the overgrowth of scrub and trees on the bank of the river it crosses. This end of the bridge meets a dirt road, a recreational trail.

On second glance, there is more to understand. This is a railroad bridge, one of only two covered railroad bridges in the state of New Hampshire. The other is a short way down the road. There are only about eight of them left in all of North America.

These two railway bridges are called the Pier Bridge and Wright’s Bridge across the Sugar River in Newport. I think this one is the Pier Bridge, but I hope someone out there can either confirm that or set me right. We can see it is under renovation. We may assume the portable toilet will not be a permanent part of its restoration design.

The Piers Bridge was built in 1907 by the Boston and Maine Railroad to replace an earlier bridge from the 1870s. It is the longest covered railway bridge in the world. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the citizens of Newport have been working diligently to raise funds to preserve their covered bridges as historic treasures and as examples of their own personal heritage.

That is the emotional pull towards historic treasures we must have to truly value them: a sense of personal pride of heritage when we have them, and a sense of personal loss when we lose them.

Have a look at these two websites for more on the Pier and the Wright’s covered railway bridges.

UPDATE:  Thanks to the correction of one reader who sent me an email on the subject, my remark above that there are only two railroad bridges in New Hampshire is incorrect.  While the Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology  department currently recognizes eight covered railroad bridges in the U.S., among those listed there are indeed more than two in New Hampshire as I had stated.  There appear to be five in their guide.  I'd love to know if there are more that are not on the government's list.  Here is a link to that website:

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