Friday, December 8, 2017

Cabarets of Death and Beyond

Let’s be honest, the Victorians were always fascinated with death. They came up with the “Silent Language of the Stones,” proper etiquette for mourning and funerals, superstitions about death, and what mementos a family should keep after a member had departed. (Hair wreath anyone?) But by the turn of the century, Victorian nightclubs were serving up a taste of death and Hell with a final respite.
The Cabaret of Hell
The Cabaret de l’Enfer (The Cabaret of Hell) opened in 1892 in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. Patrons of this hellish nightclub walked through a giant hellmouth to enter. Visitors were then greeted at the door by a devil with a rousing  “Enter and be damned, the Evil One awaits you.”
Red imps served up the drinks while musicians played suspended in a caldron over a fire. The Devil took every opportunity to heckle guests while plaster demons and the damned hung suspended from the walls and ceilings. For added realistic affect, smoke billowed out of the walls, thunder echoed through the rooms, and an odor of sulfur permeated the place. This entertaining inferno-themed cabaret was demolished in 1950 to make way or a supermarket.

The Cabaret of Nothingness
Originally stated in Brussels, the Cabaret de la Mort" (The Cabaret of Death) opened in 1892 in the same Paris neighborhood. This macabre nightclub specialized in death and the illusions of what happened beyond the grave. But this was still the nineteenth century and the public was leery of a place that flaunted death, so it was renamed The Cabaret du Néant" (The Cabaret of Nothingness.) 
Here, guests were seated at coffins and caskets that rested on biers in the Salon of Intoxication. Monks and pallbearers served patrons drinks named after diseases... cholera; cancer and consumption were just a few. Human skulls were suspended from the walls, skeletons were posed in unholy positions, and guillotines were featured as decorations. 
Of the three cabarets, this was always the one most feared by the public due to its death-themed decor and the mysterious illusions of decomposing bodies, and the walking dead. The Cabaret of Nothingness died in the 1950s.

The Cabaret of Heaven
But for all of the fiendishness at these nightclubs, there was respite close at hand. The Cabaret du Ciel ("The Cabaret of Heaven") offered celestial décor complete with candles and golden statues. A group of angels in white robes with wings and halos took heavenly drink orders amidst harp music.

Father Time and Dante visited with patrons while St Peter sprinkled holy water upon those on hand for the evening's reckoning. This cabaret closed its pearly gates during the mid-twentieth century.
Would such themed cabarets or cafes be popular today? I definitely think so. Let’s hope someone decides to succumb to the idea and open one.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Remembering the Tragic Fire at Our Lady of the Angels School

Our Lady of the Angels School
It was Monday, December 1, 1958. The past weekend had been the Thanksgiving holiday and students were counting down the minutes until this school day was over. Just another half an hour and school would be dismissed at 3:00. But those next thirty minutes would take a toll on the 1,600 students at Our Lady of the Angels elementary school in Chicago; 92 would die from smoke inhalation, toxic fumes and burns in one of the worst school fires in U.S. history.

The fire began in a trashcan near the stairway in the basement of the school at around 2:00 p.m. The smoldering blaze went undetected for almost half an hour. At 2:25 pm three eight-grade girls were returning to their class when they encountered smoke on the second floor. They immediately told Sister Mary Helaine O'Neill, a teacher in Room 211. She prepared her class to exit the building in an orderly fashion and then decided it was too dangerous for them to go down the stairs. Since the first floor was actually the basement, the second floor was located at the height of a third floor – far too high for children to jump to safety. O’Neill told her class to sit down and wait to be rescued. (Twenty-four students were found still at their desks after the fire.) But rescue attempts would prove futile. Those located in the north wing of that second floor were already doomed.

School Stairs to Second Floor
Since there was no fire door to the second floor, the fire and smoke raced past the first floor's protective closure and up to the next floor spreading smoke, heat and fire as it burned. 

Smoke and Fire
The school janitor, James Raymond, saw the fire’s glow in a basement window at 2:30pm as he walked past, and immediately ran to the church rectory to get help. The fire department was not called until 2:42pm – 12 minutes after Raymond told office workers to summon help. (Raymond returned to the school where he saved 40 children and one teacher that day.)

Second Floor After Fire
Three hundred ninety two students and five nuns were trapped on the second floor with only one avenue of escape – to jump 25-feet to the concrete below, hoping firemen and by-standers would catch them. 

Roof Collapsed into Classroom
Meanwhile, smoke inhalation was taking a toll, and the temperature in the wing was increasing. At 2:55pm, a flashover occurred and parts of the second floor exploded. Moments later, the school's roof collapsed onto trapped students and teachers in the north wing.

Those Who Died
Of the nearly 400 students involved, only 160 were rescued from the inferno. Many jumped, some were caught, and others made a mad dash down the smoke-filled stairs. As a result of the fire, 92 children – 56 girls and 36 boys died, along with three nuns. The cause of the blaze was never officially determined, although in 1962, a 13 year-old boy claimed to have started the blaze, but later recanted his statement. The boy had a history of starting fires in the neighborhood and when questioned, provided evidence that he knew things about the school fire that had not been released. But, in the end, a judge ruled that there was not sufficient evidence to charge the teen with the crime of setting the murderous blaze in which 95 people lost their lives.

Shell of the School
At the time of the fire, Our Lady of the Angels had one fire escape, no enclosed stairwells, and only the first floor had a protective fire door. The school had only one manually operated fire alarm system. Two fire switches were located in the north wing, a good six feet from the floor, making their use difficult. 

Chicago Firemen Fight the Blaze
The tragedy resulted in new fire regulations for schools nationwide. Within a year, more than 68% of older schools in the U.S. had seen improvements and were being brought up to code. Sprinkler systems were installed, more fire escapes were added, and alarm boxes were located for easier access. And schools began holding regular fire drills to practice safely exiting a burning building.

Our Lady of the Angels Memorial
It has been almost 60 years since that tragic day. Remembrances are held annually, many attended by those who were students at the time of the blaze, and by those who still remember that hellish afternoon when the skies of Chicago turned dark with smoke as Our Lady of the Angels lost 95 souls to the flames.
~ Joy
 *Visit Our Lady of the Angels for personal stories and remembrances.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Mystery Surrounds the Hope Diamond

The Hope Diamond
The Hope Diamond is the most famous diamond in the world. But fame comes at a cost … more than a dozen owners of the diamond lost fortunes, attracted suspicious circumstances, or suffered tragic deaths, all supposedly due to the diamond’s curse.

Jean Baptiste Tavernier
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier
It was originally called the Tavernier Blue Diamond and came from India in 1666. French gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier sold the 112-carat diamond to King Louis XIV in 1668. Legend has it that marauding dogs killed Tavernier as part of the curse. It seems Tavernier acquired the diamond through deception and murder, and in retaliation; a curse was put upon the stone.

King Louis XIV
King Louis XIV and Louis XV
Ten years later, King Louis XIV had the court jeweler recut the stone into a 67-carat diamond that became known as The Blue Diamond of the Crown. In 2009, it was discovered that the gem had been specially cut to create an effect of a sun in its center. The jewel was then displayed on a gold background to heighten the sun effect. Louie gave the stone to his mistress, who he later abandoned - but kept the diamond.

Kind Louis XV
In 1749, Louis XV had the diamond set in an elaborate pendant to be worn as a ceremonial piece for the Order of the Golden Fleece. Louis XVI died of gangrene.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
After Louis XV’s death, his grandson Louis XVI inherited what was now called the French Blue. Rumor has it that Marie Antoinette may have worn the diamond; although historians say the king would have worn the diamond, just as his grandfather had with the Golden Fleece. Regardless of who wore the jewel, it was said that their beheadings in 1793 were a result of the cursed stone.

The Recut Diamond
Daniel Eliason
Stolen in 1792, the diamond was never seen again in its original shape. But in 1812, a blue diamond surfaced in England owned by diamond merchant Daniel Eliason. Although it had been recut, it appeared to be the same stone. Speculation was that King George IV may have owned the stone but at his death in 1830, everything of value was sold to pay off his debts. 

Henry Philip Hope
The Hope Family
London banker, Thomas Hope, purchased the stone from Eliason in the 1830s. It then became known as the “Hope Diamond.” Henry Philip Hope was the next owner, followed by his nephew Henry Thomas Hope, and the gem eventually went to Lord Francis Hope.

May Yohe
Lord Francis Hope and May Yohe
 Lord Hope married actress May Yohe in 1894. Yohe, who performed in musical theatre, divorced Hope eight years later; the same year he sold the stone to pay off his debts.  Yohe also died penniless. Part of the Hope diamond curse?

Selim Habib
Death at Sea
Turkish diamond collector, Selim Habib purchased the diamond in 1908. The next year he sold his collection of gems due to financial trouble. Habib died at sea -  contributing to the diamond’s curse.

Pierre Cartier
Pierre Cartier
Paris jeweler Pierre Cartier was the person who gave the curse some sparkle. When he talked to people about the stone, he always mentioned that it was cursed. When he sold the diamond to the owner of the Washington Post, Cartier included a statement that read, “Should any fatality occur to the family of Edward B. McLean within six months, the said Hope diamond is agreed to be exchanged for jewelry of equal value." The "curse" became famous.

Evalyn Walsh McLean
Edward B McLean and Evalyn Walsh
When McLean purchased the stone in 1911, his wife, Evalyn Walsh had it made into the diamond pendant necklace that exists today. Newspapers carried headlines linking the McLean’s to the “sinister” diamond. Evalyn was fascinated with the story and believed that what brought bad luck to others would bring her only good. Then, in 1919, their nine-year-old son Vinson Walsh McLean was killed by an auto outside the family residence.  Edward left Evalyn for another woman and the couple divorced. But in 1933, Edward was declared legally insane. He died eight years later of a heart attack. Evalyn’s 25-year-old daughter died of a drug overdose, and Evalyn was eventually forced to sell The Washington Post. She continued to own the stone until her death in 1947 when diamond merchant Harry Winston purchased all of her jewels, including the Hope Diamond, to settle her debts.

Harry Winston
Harry Winston
Once Harry Winston had the diamond, it was put on display in the “Court of Jewels” exhibition for over a decade. The diamond was exhibited at charity events throughout the world. Then, in 1958, Winston donated the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution. But he didn't take it to the Smithsonian, instead he sent the diamond through regular mail, insuring it for roughly $150.

James Todd
Rumor has it that the mailman who delivered the package bearing the diamond had his share of cursed luck. James Todd suffered a crushed leg in an accident soon after. He also sustained a head injury in another accident, and his house burned down.

Smithsonian Institution
Embracing Hope
Once the gem arrived at the Smithsonian, the “curse” appeared to end. The Hope Diamond has remained at the institution, leaving the premises only four times in the past sixty years. Today, the diamond has its own room. In 2009, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the diamond’s arrival to the Smithsonian, “a modern design consisting of three ribbons set with baguette-cut diamonds wrap around the Hope Diamond in an exquisite embrace.” Known as "Embracing Hope," the necklace was displayed for more than a year before the stone was returned to its original setting. 

Hope Diamond Today
Once again, the Hope Diamond is surrounded by 16 white diamonds on a necklace chain of another 45 white diamonds. The cut of the diamond is described as “cushion antique brilliant with a faceted girdle and extra facets on the pavilion.” The diamond itself is 45-carats: about the size of a walnut, and worth an estimated $250 million dollars.
~ Joy

Make holiday shopping easy. My new book The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide is now available at bookstores across the country. Click here for book information.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Help Preserve Our Veteran’s Histories

President John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy said, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”
November 11 is Veteran’s Day – a day set aside to honor all American veterans who have served in our wars.  But time is passing and each day we lose more veterans, and their stories. 

US Department of Veterans Affairs
According to US Department of Veterans Affairs, the last WWI veteran died in 2012 at the age of 110. There are only 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II still alive. A million and a half Korean vets remain. Surviving vets of Vietnam total 6.7 million while there are 7.13 million Gulf War veterans alive, and 4.5 million who served during peacetime. These stats are current as of September 2017. But how many veterans have we lost since then?
There are several groups and organizations across the country that take these interviews and preserve them for future generations. Here are just a few:

This popular genealogy site is focusing on saving the stories of WWII veterans before it’s too late.  Millions of records were lost in a fire in the National Personnel Records Center destroying about 80-100 pages per soldier. Information that included battles fought in, medals and honors received, occupations held during the war, diseases and injuries suffered, parental information, affidavits of character, photographs and letters from commanding officers - all of the details that make a service record a story. Ancestry provides a list of questions that can jump-start the conversation. All you have to do is capture your WWII veteran’s reminisces on video (Please edit it down to no longer than 4 minutes.) and upload it to the Ancestry site where it will be included in a free collection for anyone to view. 

It takes only one person to start a movement and that is what 20-year-old Rishi Sharma is doing. After graduating from high school, Sharma decided to try to preserve as many veteran’s stories about WWII as he could. With 372 of those vets dying each day, Sharma has his work cut out for him. Sharma began Heroes of the Second World War, a web site where the videos of these soldiers are available for viewing. He also makes sure the veteran, and his or her family, have copies of the interview. It takes between 4-6 hours to record an interview but Sharma intends to interview at least one WWII vet each day until the last one is gone.

In 2000, Congress created the Veterans History Project to preserve veteran’s personal stories. The VHP maintains not only video stories but materials veterans and their families donate including uniforms and medals. Each veteran has an individual web page that includes his or her service history along with other information provided. Check out the FAQ page before starting. Then visit the Participate page to take part in the project, and print out the VHP field kit forms. Fill them out and submit the entire kit with a video to the VHP for inclusion in the Library of Congress.

Witness to War is a non-profit private preservation organization that records the digital stories from veterans who served in all American wars. The interviews are then professionally edited into 2 to 5 minute war stories and are available on the WTW web site for viewing. The short format makes the interviews more interesting and approachable to today’s media savvy generation. The organization has an extensive collection of combat narratives - close to 1,500 interviews, and counting. To request an interview visit the WTW web page.

If you know a U.S. veteran, set a date, grab your questions and head out with your phone to capture his or her story for posterity. More than 600 WWII vets die each day … there’s no time like the present to get started.
~ Joy

My new book The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide is now available at bookstores across the country. Click here for book information.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Eastern Cemetery – Haunted by the Past

Gateway to Eastern Cemetery
From the moment you arrive, you can feel that things are a bit off kilter. Of course, the look of the place does nothing to dispel this thought.
Welcome to Eastern Cemetery, 28-acres located next to the famous and well-groomed Cave Hill Cemetery where Colonel Sanders and Muhammad Ali are laid to rest. But across the concertina wire, Eastern Cemetery lies in tatters, abused by the elements, and vandals, for over thirty years.

The Wake House
Eastern Cemetery was founded in the 1844 by two Methodist churches. At that time, it was known as The Methodist Cemetery and was one of the earliest burial grounds in the city to allow people of different races and religions to be interred together. The cemetery is home to some of the movers and shakers of early Louisville along with regular citizens. This includes state officials, mayors, soldiers, slaves, and musicians. Charles Clarke and Arthur Lommis designed the original Richardsonian Romanesque wake house in 1891. And Eastern was also the first cemetery in Kentucky to have a crematorium. 

But Eastern Cemetery has a decidedly dark past. Records from as early as the late 1850s indicate that bodies were being buried in graves already occupied. The New York Times did an article on the cemetery back in 1989 describing how the graves were being resold after the remains and headstones had been removed – at least most of the time. There were also indications that bodies were stacked on top of one another – some buried only a foot or so deep – in order to maximize that burial space, and make more money. In a cemetery with room for 16,000 burials, experts estimated close to 50,000 people have been “laid to rest” here.

Records shows that of the four grave maps made of the cemetery, covering the years 1880, 1907, 1962 and 1984 – all are inconsistent in grave placement from time period to time period. Sections have been redivided and renamed, all in keeping with the reburial of bodies.

 About ten years ago, an unlocked building was discovered to contain dozens of cremated remains And state investigators reported that more than 90% of infant burials were done in a foot or less of soil.
Today, the graveyard is a tangle of weeds, downed trees and toppled stones. Vandalism is apparent but not as rampant as might be expected. Maybe the negative vibe of the place is off-putting even to those miscreants. 

When you enter the cemetery, the air is oppressive and you feel watched from every corner. This is not a cemetery that encourages wandering, or even loitering. This is an in-and-out cemetery: in for photos and out as fast as possible. Rumor has it that a nineteenth century lady wanders the cemetery trying to care for the infants graves. Footsteps and voices can be heard, and ghostly figures have been seen in the chapel, and wandering the grounds. But knowing the story, is it any wonder that this City of the Dead is restless?

Today, a non-profit organization made up of a caring group of volunteers are working to take back the cemetery. Friends of Eastern Cemetery do what they can to keep the cemetery grass cut, downed trees cut up, and stones repaired. But it seems to be a never-ending job. If you’d like to volunteer, visit their web page for more information.
~ Joy

My new book The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide is now available at bookstores across the country. Click here for book information.