Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"If They Could Make Bread by Figures"

A family letter arrived last week from Potts Creek, delivered by Google Search.

A mere 139 years old, it dates barely four years after the War Between the States. It is full of family news and comments on Reconstruction-period North Carolina.

Today Potts (or Pott's) Creek meanders through the peaceful countryside of Cleveland County, North Carolina, near Kings Mountain, intersecting with US 74 (the Shelby Road) not too far from the old El Bethel Methodist cemetery burial place of the letter writer.

Nine years earlier in 1861 he had children aged six, four, and two, a pregnant wife, and a job as a mechanic, possibly at a grist or cotton mill, or even at the box manufacturing company owned by his brother. Then "Davy" Whisnant enlisted and became a Corporal in the Confederate "Cleveland Guards." By 1863, he had been wounded both at Chancellorsville (in early May) and at Gettysburg (in early July). Who knows what other action he saw.

Perhaps Gettysburg ended his soldiering days; at any event, he would be home in 1865. Another daughter was born that year, and in this January of 1870, after bragging about his one-year-old son ("the brag baby east of the Rocky Mountains"), he ironically refers to himself as "a disenfranchised rebel in all of its various moods and tenses."

Davy, the younger brother of Phillip Sellers Whisnant (grandfather of Eugene and Edna) was responding to a letter from the Collins sisters of Cherokee County, Georgia. Most likely they were his sisters-in-law, who had moved there from Cleveland County. He imparts the sad news that his oldest, Addy, aged 14,
had died in September 1869 during an epidemic in the county and that typhoid was still around. [Mary Adeline Whisnant is buried near her father at El Bethel.] After listing about a dozen mutual acquaintances who had succumbed, he suggests some common remedies of the time:
"the less physic the better. Keep the bowels open moderately, drink freely of black snake root tea, cold water on the head when the fever is high and use spirits freely when the patient is in collapsed stages is about as good treatment as I can recommend; as a preventive use whiskey, garlic & gum Feotida combined.”
Davy also reports that the two oldest boys are attending school, and he would send their younger sisters, "but it is too far," probably too far to walk for five and seven-year-olds. Wightman is good at arithmetic: " that is proverbial: with the Whisnants if they could make bread by figures, they would never perish." No wonder there are so many engineers in the family!

Of his own circumstances, Davy reports he is building a new mill "as the Old one has nearly give out it may be completed so far as I am interested under the Sheriffs hammer," but he doesn't expect completion before the fall. The previous summer was dry enough that "corn is scarce with us selling at $1.25 cts per bushel, wheat from $1.50 to $2.00 per bushel."

Reporting on the rest of the county, Whisnant says,
"Field hands can be had from $8 to $12 per month. Freedman [the Freedman's Bureau] has played out - no man [or?] account is the universal cry here. They will perish here, for work they won't and steal they dare not do, for fear of the Ku Klux, who have become a terror to evil doers in this country. - Though we are cursed with high Taxes and will be until we can get a new hearing, which will be at the next election in this state. Then the carpet baggers will have to go under."
Davy also mentions emigrants' leaving by railroad for Arkansas because rail travel is so cheap ("$10 or $12 to Memphis") and predicts that the rail will be completed to Shelby that year "but may never be completed to Rutherfordton."

Three years later, David D. Whisnant would die at 47. Whether it was lingering effects of his wounds in the War or another epidemic of typhoid that took him, his self-deprecating and ironic view of life makes it seem almost like yesterday.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Family Genealogy Hunt Connects with Murder-Suicide

The records of the Abernethy and Whisnant clans show hard-working, respectable, religious people. So how did one of these families become connected with a lurid murder-suicide that made the front page of the Washington Post and other newspapers across America, even though it occurred in Savannah, Georgia.

The story and its characters became one of those family skeletons that no one passed down to descendants. That its outlines can be told now shows the power of the Internet and, especially, search engines such as Google in unraveling mysteries.

This much is known.

Eugene Whisnant, older brother of Edna Whisnant Abernethy, graduated from VPI early in the 1900s and found a job as an engineer in Savannah, Georgia. There he met and courted a young woman named Katherine Kittles. During the summer of 1906, he contracted typhoid fever and returned to Charlotte, to his parents' house in the prosperous Fourth Ward. In late July or early August he was deteriorating fast, so he asked the young woman to come to Charlotte. According to newspaper accounts (in 1913), on his deathbed he asked her to marry him so that he could die knowing that she was his wife. He died five days later.

That's a very sad, romantic story with no salacious details or wrong-doing on the part of family members, so why wasn't it told? Read on.

Seven years later (in the summer of 1913) Katherine Kittles Whisnant carefully purchased cartridges for her revolver that she kept in her purse, traveled to her doctor's office with a female companion, asked the doctor to write prescriptions for her, and then shot at him six times while chasing him around the medical offices. She made sure that he was dead, laid her body across his, and shot herself in the head.

The Whisnant family evidently was so embarrassed by the coverage that the story became unmentionable. How was it found? Many years ago Eugene's younger sister, Helen, told me that the family never got over Eugene's death (that was easy to believe) and that he had a girlfriend whom she seemed to remember was Spanish but she didn't know what happened to her. She indicated the family didn't think much of her. Since Helen was old enough to remember both the deathbed marriage and the later tragedy, let's call this an obfuscation.

The story would have ended there except that in July I found Eugene's father's family Bible and flipped to see if any records were in it. Surprise: there was the marriage date of Eugene and Katherine Kittles! After it was a brief notation that Eugene died the same month. It took a Google search of her name linked with his to unearth the deathbed marriage and the 1913 events

Don't you wonder what other stories are out there?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Abernethy One of NC's First Modern Doctors

The North Carolina Medical School (originally the old Presbyterian Hospital) as it appeared in Charlotte near the turn of the twentieth century.
The North Carolina Medical College as it made its first appearance on the campus of Davidson College in Davidson in the 1890s.

After World War I when returning American soldiers suffered the plague of the "Spanish" flu (as it was then called), Dr. Miles Burwell Abernethy of Reidsville, NC, was put on the U.S. Department of Health's list of physicans approved to minister on troop ships in New York harbor and elsewhere. Only doctors trained in modern medical practice were so honored. He was called to duty in New York.

Miles Burwell Abernethy first took premed courses at Davidson College under the tutelage of Dr. J.P Munroe, who advertised those classes as early as 1896, when "Burwell" (as he was called) was a farm boy of 15. Probably Dr. Munroe recruited him as an undergraduate while he was still a promising day student, living on a farm (property now under Lake Norman) in Cornelius.

After the clinical section of the Medical College moved its upper classes to Charlotte in 1902, Dr. Abernethy must have moved with it and been among its first students, as he graduated around 1905. Family descendents know why the move to Charlotte was significant for him: while he was a student in the building on West Trade Street, he met a young woman then studying music at Charlotte Female Seminary (aka Queens College) who was to become his wife in 1907.

The Medical College existed in Charlotte for a scant 11 years, but that was time enough for Dr. Abernethy to see Edna Whisnant not far from her home near the College wheeling Isaac Marshall, her much younger brother (born in 1901 when Edna was 16), in a baby carriage . He enquired after the baby's health, not knowing she wasn't the mother. And then. . .

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Memorial Day in the South: Beaufort

It began as a memorial to the Union dead called Decoration Day, so those from outside the South should not be surprised that only in recent years has Memorial Day been celebrated in South Carolina with any enthusiasm. After all, there still exists Confederate Memorial Day, which in South Carolina comes about 10 days earlier (May 10) and commemorates the death of Stonewall Jackson.

We can point to World War I as the war that brought North and South together on this point. According to one source, "By 1890 [Memorial Day] was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war)."

With some irony I note that my parents are buried in Beaufort National Cemetery, one of the most beautiful of these honored spots. Irony because my mother's ancestors fought for the South, and the cemetery boasts large memorials to the Union fighters. Appropriate because my father fought with the Marines at Iwo Jima and in other Pacific battles, and their grave is located at the edge of rows of Ohio troops from the Civil War.

Not long before the first celebration of Union dead in the North, Henry Timrod of Charleston wrote an "Ode on the Confederate Dead" for a day of decorating the graves of the Confederate soldiers buried in Magnolia Cemetery on the Charleston Neck. One line sticks in my mind: "Sleep sweetly in your humble graves."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Shoot Down a Satellite? Reagan Would Smile

It was the craziest idea proposed by that crazy, right-wing president, Ronald Reagan. Star Wars--its very name suggesting a pie-in-the-sky attitude towards its effectiveness. Surely I'm not the only person who remembers the barrage of mocking, negative comments about this proposal?

Yet here we are in 2008, somehow grateful that we may be able to shoot down a satellite that could cause problems--with just that technology, or I should say, an advanced version of that idea!

Have you heard the mass media mention (or, heaven forbid, thank) Reagan for pushing his vision? Down the memory hole. The fact remains that the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)--whose initials have changed several times in the last 20 years--was proposed by Reagan in March 1983.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

You Don't Have to Be a Tree Hugger

What makes Charleston and its environs more beautiful than practically anywhere else on earth? [Hint: it's not its lovely, painstakingly-restored 19th-century houses, found only in relatively small areas.]

On either side of the entrance to my home just outside of Corpus Christi, Texas, stood two small but healthy trees. There among the mesquite and palms the species looked vaguely familiar, so I had to ask.

Well, yes, they were stunted versions of the gloriously full-size and moss-draped live oaks I knew from the Lowcountry. Corpus reminded me of Charleston in many ways--a Naval Base, beautiful beaches--but it lacked large trees, thanks to its semi-arid climate.

What a difference those trees can make!

So when I hear about hundreds of trees being cut down in "buffer zones," even if it's in Berkeley County, I fear for Charleston's future. As reported Saturday in the Post and Courier [see Felled trees net man 110 tickets] , so do others: "[Berkeley] County officials say clear-cutting has become a widespread problem; developers can cut down 100-year-old live oaks on their property without penalty. The article suggests that "Charleston County, which has a tree removal ordinance, also is grappling with the problem."

Some of us are old enough to remember when the "Savannah Highway" near its intersection with Wappoo Road was lined on both sides with those grand oaks. We can remember the heavy equipment moving in to remove them and the locals who said nothing could be done to stop their removal. We can remember the appalling raw look when they were gone. Many of us have never gotten over it.

Yes, old houses can be beautiful, but even a run-down shack surrounded by gorgeous live oaks partakes a little of heaven. I learned that in Corpus Christi, where a run-down shack was just, well, a run-down shack.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Prell Shampoo and the $19 Conditioner

If you admit to remembering Prell as the leading shampoo along with Breck, you date yourself. You even understand references to John Edwards as the "Breck girl."

Last week I was reminded of Prell for the first time in years as I watched one of those morning talk shows that purported to show how to save money in the New Year. I don't remember how much Prell cost, except that it cost more than the other brands my mother wanted me to use. It did produce better results. Whether they were better than results from today's heavily researched and promoted products, I have no idea.

What stuck in my mind about the program, however, was not the cost of Prell. The two women advised buying a cheaper shampoo and a more expensive conditioner. Needless to say, what they considered cheap was what I considered expensive. Their advice was to purchase shampoo that cost only about $4 per bottle and conditioner that cost only about $19 per bottle (as opposed to those expensive ones!).

I had already discovered the advantage of purchasing the cheaper shampoo and more expensive conditioner, just in a different price range. Yes, my advice, for what it's worth, is to go with the $1 or less bottle of shampoo and the $4 bottle of conditioner. That's $5 as compared to $23 per supply. Of course, with BOGO and coupons, I never pay as much as $5.

Those women need to get out more. Come to think of it, on their salaries it doesn't matter!