Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Mirror Is Clear Again - With An Example of Why History Is Rarely Simple

As I indicated in my last post on May 19th, I had just arrived to exhibit (as Jonathan Sheppard Books) at the Virginia Genealogical Society’s Spring Conference at the Library of Virginia in Richmond which took place a week ago today. 

We timed our trip so as to guarantee a full day of library/archives research on the Friday before the conference, some Library/Archives time on Saturday during the conference and also two full days of research following the event.

There are many great reasons to like researching at the Library of Virginia.  There’s the friendly and helpful staff.  There are open local history stacks and easy access to microfilmed county level records.  Plus, there’s also free visitor parking, which almost makes up for the 75 cents a page charge to make copies of microfilm images.  (Truth be told, they now have a half-dozen or so of those neat digital reader/printers if you don’t want paper copies.)

We planned our research day arrivals so that we could get to the Library at least 15 minutes early to take advantage of the parking and also to insure being able to get a microfilm reader with left-hand workspace.

Every day, as we waited for the Library to open, we spent our wait-time examining the fascinating Union or Secession: Virginians Decide exhibit in the display cases of the Library’s main floor lobby. 

Kudos to the Library/Archives staff for a job well done!

(By the way, just in case you were wondering, “kudos” is not a countable noun, as in “one kudo, two kudos…” It’s a Greek word - κῦδος -  that means “praise” and it’s singular.  I didn’t spend a year in a classical Greek class at university for nothin’)

Anyway, back to the exhibit…

Maps, broadsides, and a variety of documents from the Library’s collection had been faithfully digitized and put on display.  One part of the display focused on the abolitionist John Brown and his October 1859 raid on the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

Brown’s capture and subsequent trial stirred strong emotions in both north and south alike, resulting in a barrage of letters to the Virginia governor’s office. 

The then-Governor of Virginia, Henry A. Wise, was flooded with correspondence about the fate of John Brown.  One of the letters on display in the Union or Secession exhibit was signed by Maria Brown of Rock Island, Illinois.  The letter was written after the trial and shortly before Brown’s scheduled execution on December 2.

We transcribed the letter on our last day at the Library.  Our transcription of the letter follows:

                                                                        Rock Island
Novr 30th '59
Gov'r Wise
Dear Sir
My two daughters have left with a party of young women who purpose to effect the rescue of John Brown.  They number about sixteen & wear large petticoats filled with powder, having slow matches attached.  If caught they intend to set themselves off & (so effective is the inflammable material about them) the consequence will be awful.  In fact, Virginia will be blown sky high.  My anxiety about my two children aforesaid & my affectionate concern for your welfare induce me to forewarn you of the imminent peril that awaits you.  If you find the girls, send them back before the blow up & send some chivalry along.  There is none of your kind up north.
                                                                                    Truly yrs
                                                                                 Maria Black

[Note: the “slow matches” referred to in the second sentence are synonymous with what we would today call “fuses.”]

While interesting in its own right (especially Mrs. Black’s sarcastic observation about Southern “chivalry” in the last two lines), my first thought upon reading this was not about the events of 1859 leading up to the Civil War, but rather about the events a century later.

In fact, the day after we transcribed Maria Black’s letter was the day the USA Patriot Act was renewed by the United States Congress and autopenned into law by the President. 

Food for thought:  if Mrs. Black had sent her letter to the Virginia governor today, would the sixteen young women from Rock Island whose petticoats were filled with explosives and fuses simply be sent back home by the authorities, as Mrs. Black requested? 

Or would the young women be treated today as domestic terrorists?

That’s the thing about history – nothing is ever quite as simple as it first appears.

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