Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Peralta Stones: Key to the Lost Dutchman’s Mine?

The Superstition Mountains of Arizona, the Legend of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine, and the Peralta Stones are inextricably linked. The entire story supposedly began in 1748 when the Peralta family are said to have started mining silver and gold in the Superstition Mountains. With the Mexican War of 1848, law and order disintegrated in the area and the Apache Indians grew increasingly hostile, attacking the miners almost continuously. It is said, that disaster finally overtook the Peralta family in September 1848 with a general massacre by the Apaches. Following this massacre the Apaches controlled the Superstition Mountains until 1865.  Supposedly after the massacre of 1848 the Indians filled the mine shafts and disguised the remains.

Jacob Waltz, the “Dutchman” enters the picture in 1871 with his partner Jacob Weiser.  The two immigrants supposedly purchased a map drawn by the original Peralta family and located the mine “within an imaginary circle whose diameter is not more than five miles and whose center is marked by the Weaver’s Needle.”  Weiser soon vanished...the victim of either, Indians, desperados, or Waltz, depending on which story you want to believe. The Dutchman continued working the mine, carrying the secret of its location to the grave with him in 1891.

 For over fifty years after the death of the Waltz, treasure hunters followed the ambiguous clues that the Dutchman left behind as to the whereabouts of the mine, such as these helpful clues:

“No miner will find my mine. To find my mine you must pass a cow barn. From my mine you can see the military trail, but from the military trail you cannot see my mine. The rays of the setting sun shine into the entrance of my mine. There is a trick in the trail to my mine. My mine is located in a north-trending canyon. There is a rock face on the trail to my mine.”

Something significant changed in 1949 when the so called Peralta Stones were discovered in the desert. A Mexican bracero (a legal migrant laborer) was digging fence posts near Black Point, in Pinal County, when he came across a large flat stone.  He dug the stone out only to find that it was covered in strange writing.  He recognized a Spanish word, Indian petroglyphs, and some Spanish markings.  In all, the bracero dug up three stones carved with writing and a crude map. The bracero hauled the curious stones into Florence Junction, three miles away, where he washed them, and prepared to sell the curious stones to any willing tourist who might come along.  
Robert G. Tumlinson (or Travis E. Tumlinson depending on who is telling the story) of Portland, Oregon turned out to be that tourist.  The bracero pocketed the equivalent of a week’s wages, and Tumlinson drove off with the stones.  Tumlinson went on to Phoenix, to visit his brother.  The two brothers thoroughly washed the rocks and examined them, determining that what they were looking at was some kind of coded map.

There a number of variations on exactly how, where, and by whom the Stones were discovered, but many “Dutch Hunters” believe that the Stones refer to the location of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine and that they were carved by the Peralta family. The Stones consist of two red sandstone tablets and a heart-shaped rock made of red quartzite. Each red stone block is carved with lines and one long line. When the two blocks are placed side by side and the stone heart is inserted the long line has 18 dots pecked into it. This style of map is known as a Post Road Map and it is a style used in Mexico and Spain during the period of the Mexican-American War. Inscribed on one the stones is the date 1847, and one stone contains a sunken relief of a heart, into which the heart-shaped stone fits perfectly. The back of the stone that the heart-shaped stone fits into has the outline of a cross carved into it.

Apparently, Tumlinson spent a number of years in the Superstition Mountains trying to track down clues from the Stones.  The Stones emerged again in the early 1960s, after Tumlinson’s death.  One Clarence O. Mitchell persuaded Tumlinson’s widow that he could decipher the stone maps.  Mitchell organized the M.O.E.L. Corp. in Nevada and began a stock selling campaign among his friends and close associates to raise capital for the treasure expedition. Mitchell raised more than $70,000 over a two-year period. Eventually Mitchell ran into difficulties with the Securities and Exchange Commission for over selling the number of shares the corporation had issued.  The corporation was forced into bankruptcy.

In 1964, freelance writer Richard B. Stolley sold a story about the stone maps to Life magazine.  The article provided the first public photographs of the Peralta Stones (although certain markings on the maps were covered by black tape).  These photographs inflamed the nation’s imagination.

In 1967, Barry Storm, the “Dean of American Treasure Hunters”, wrote an article for Treasure Hunters in an attempt to decipher the Peralta Stone Maps. This article was followed by a variety of other writers, photographers, film makers, and con men who have since used the Peralta maps as a factual source for treasure hunting in the Superstition Mountains.

So the real question is, “Are the Peralta Stones real or fakes?”  Do they present genuine clues, or phony clues?  For more than seventy years the Peralta Stones have been the subject of heated controversy.  Over this time period those who’ve studied the maps have remained firmly and pretty evenly divided into two separate camps: (1) those who believe, and (2) those who do not believe. It does not appear that this will change anytime soon.

These are the stories of treasures great and small and of those who hunt for them. The book includes the world's most famous treasure cipher, sunken treasure ships, treasure caves, and tales of over fifty of the most famous lost treasures of the globe. For all who dare to go in search of golden opportunities and glittering prizes.

A lively history of the Civil War sprinkled with tales of over 60 buried treasure in sixteen states. History buffs and adventure seekers will enjoy this work.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Battle of Adwa (Italy’s Battle of the Little Bighorn)

The Battle of Adwa (Adowa)

In 1889 Menelik II, having defeated dynastic rivals, declared himself Emperor of Ethiopia.  In exchange for peaceful relations and subsidies, the Ethiopian Emperor ceded part of the province of Tigre to the Italians (forming the Italian colony of Eritrea).  The Italians however were less interested in peaceful relations than the complete subjugation of Ethiopia.  Two versions of the Treaty of Wuchale were prepared for signature, one in Italian and the other in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia.  Article 17 in the Italian version stated that Ethiopia was required to conduct all foreign affairs through Italian authorities (in effect making Ethiopia an Italian protectorate).  In the Amharic version, the Ethiopians were given the option of communicating with foreign powers through the Italians.

In 1893, now secure on his throne, Menelik II repudiated the treaty, and denounced Italian duplicity, calling on the people of Eritrea to expel the evil foreigners.  In December 1894 a revolt in Eritrea was crushed and the Italians decided to punish Menelik for not living up to the terms of the Treaty of Wuchale (as they saw it).  The Italians crossed the Ethiopian border and occupied the towns of Makalle, Adigrat and Adowa.  Returning to Rome briefly to drum up popular enthusiasm for the war, Oreste Baratieri, the Italian commander, told crowds of cheering Romans that he would bring Menelik II “back in a cage.”

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, Menelik II was assembling his army.  Ultimately, Menelik brought some 100,000 men into the field.  Nor was this the type poorly armed native horde that Europeans were used to facing.  During the previous three years, Menelik had used the gold and ivory of the kingdom (along with the subsidies provided by the Italians under the terms of the Treaty of Wuchale) to buy arms, ammunition and artillery from Europe and the United States.  Although the bulk of the Ethiopian forces carried shields and spears, some forty thousand were well armed with modern rifles and were supported by fifty artillery pieces.

Baratieri was woefully ignorant of these facts.  Italian intelligence indicated that Menelik could not field more than thirty thousand men against the Italian army of seventeen thousand (ten thousand Europeans plus seven thousand Eritreans officered by Italians).  It was expected that the Ethiopian forces would be undisciplined and poorly armed.

During most of 1895, Baratieri engaged in a number of small skirmishes with Menelik’s poorly armed vassals, re-enforcing his view of Ethiopian un-preparedness.  On December 7th, however, a force of twelve hundred Italian trained Eritrean auxiliary troops, under the command of Major Pietro Toselli, were caught out on the open plains and totally annihilated by thirty thousand Ethiopian warriors. The Ethiopians next besieged the town of Makalle.

After forty five days of siege Menelik offered the Italian garrison at Makalle safe passage in exchange for possession of the town. The Italian government of Francesco Crispi ignored Menelik's offer regarding it as an insult to the nation’s honor, instead sending more reinforcements to Ethiopia to aid in the war effort.  Menelik now set out to crush the Italians.  Menelik, easily occupying Adowa and the surrounding country, threatened to outflank the main Italian army.   Baratieri abandoned Adigrat and fell back to better defensive positions to await Menelik's advance.  

Baratieri’s plan was to lure what he regarded as the undisciplined horde of Ethiopian savages into a frontal assault against his strong entrenched defensive position where they would be slaughtered by his rifles and artillery (a strategy which British General Herbert Horatio Kitchener was to successfully employ in the Sudan in 1898 at the battle of Omdurman against Sudanese troops).  Menelik, however, did not take the bait and the armies spent the next several months until late February 1896 staring out at each other. 

Stalemate was not acceptable to the government in Rome which needed victory on the battlefield for domestic political reasons.  Baratieri received a cable from Rome which came close to accusing him of cowardice and demanding action.  His ego pricked, Baratieri called his senior officers together.  Baratieri revealed that the army’s supplies would be exhausted in five days.  They must either retreat soon or attack.  Baratieri’s officers counseled an immediate attack.  Vittorio Dabormida, a brigadier general, proclaimed, “Italy would prefer the loss of two or three thousand men to a dishonorable retreat.”  European contempt for native enemies made even a tactical retreat unthinkable. Initially reluctant, Baratieri finally yielded and ordered an attack.

Baratieri’s “attack” was really no more than an attempt to redraw the existing battle lines to force Menelik to launch the type of frontal assault he had thus far avoided.  The entire Italian force advanced under the cover of darkness with the intention of digging in on the high ground overlooking the Ethiopian camp at Adowa.  Menelik would then either have to attack the Italians or retreat.  The plan made little sense except in terms of placating the government in Rome and his own impetuous officers.  Baratieri knew that the Ethiopians too were running out of supplies and were on the verge of retreat.  He also knew that Menelik was unlikely to attack his entrenched positions on high ground since the wily Ethiopian had steadfastly refused to launch a frontal assault for weeks.  Nevertheless, for reasons which may have had more to do with ego than military necessity, Baratieri proceeded with the attack.

The advance began at 2:30 a.m., but it was not long before difficulties arose.  The maps used for these intricate maneuvers were little better than rough sketches and were of little practical use.  The Italians soon found themselves struggling through steep passes, across barren hills and around dangerous ravines, gorges and treacherous crevasses that cut up the country so badly that one Italian officer described it as “a stormy sea moved by the anger of God.”

The various Italian brigades had become separated during the night march and at dawn were spread across several miles of difficult terrain.  Emperor Menelik, who had been praying for divine intervention, could hardly have been luckier.  Menelik had been planning to break camp and retreat the next day (March 2), and now here was the scattered Italian army advancing against his troops who quickly took up positions on the high ground overlooking the Italians.

Baratieri had squandered the advantages that defensive positions and concentrated firepower had given the Italian army, and now received the Ethiopian assault that he had been longing for.  The Ethiopian cavalry swept in and through the ranks of Italians, slashing and stabbing, while wave after wave of foot soldiers rushed forward, and Menelik’s artillery pounded the Italians from the heights.  The battle began at dawn and was over by noon.

The Italians suffered about 7,000 dead and 1,500 wounded, with 3,000 taken prisoner. The Italians lost all of their artillery and 11,000 rifles.  Baratieri’s army had been annihilated as a fighting force.  The Battle of Adwa (Adowa) was the most crushing defeat ever suffered by a colonial European power by native forces in Africa.

Success leaves clues. So does failure. Some of history’s best known commanders are remembered not for their brilliant victories but for their catastrophic blunders.

Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

The Exchange Hotel and Civil War Medical Museum, Gordonsville, Virginia

The Exchange Hotel: Gordonsville, Virginia

Gordonsville Virginia’s Exchange Hotel opened in 1860 and provided an elegant stopping place for passengers on the Virginia Central Railway.  In March, 1862 the Confederate army transformed the hotel into the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital.  Dr. B.M Lebby of South Carolina was the director of the hospital and its operations continued under his leadership until October 1865.

The wounded and dying from nearby battlefields such as Cedar Mountain, Chancellorsville, Brandy Station, and the Wilderness were brought to Gordonsville by the trainloads. Although this was primarily a Confederate facility, the hospital treated the wounded from both sides. By the end of the war, more than 70,000 men had been treated at the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital and over 700 were buried on its surrounding grounds and later interred at Maplewood Cemetery in Gordonsville.

By the end of the Civil War, Virginia had fifty three Receiving Hospitals similar to this one.  All were burned to the ground by the Union army except the Gordonsville Receiving hospital.

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.

A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Could George Armstrong Custer Have Been President?

George Armstrong Custer

William W. Belknap was a Civil War Union Brigadier General, and later served as Secretary of War during the Grant Administration.  By 1875 allegations of bribery surrounded Belknap because of his appointment of post traders who sold merchandise on military installations.  George Armstrong Custer was called to testify before Congress in the matter. Custer accused President Grant's brother and Secretary of War Belknap of corruption. Belknap was impeached and sent to the Senate for trial.  An enraged President Grant stripped Custer of overall command of a column chosen to subdue the Sioux and placed him under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Terry. 

Before Custer became the mythic figure we know today, he was a lieutenant colonel desperate to find a way to salvage his reputation after this run-in with President Grant.  Custer was on the brink of professional and financial ruin, having run up massive gambling debts (which took years for his widow to pay off) and then having alienated the President of the United States.

Only one thing could save Custer, victory on the battlefield.  If Custer could win a smashing victory over Indians in the West, all would be well again. In his most hopeful fantasies Custer imagined a draft Custer for President Movement at the Democratic convention which was to open in St. Louis on June 27, 1876.  Custer had spent part of his trip East jawboning with political “King Makers”.  More realistically he could expect accolades at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and big box office receipts for a lecture tour for which he was already booked.

Instead of being swept into the White House in a wave of martial euphoria, George Armstrong Custer met his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876.  Custer’s death was immediately politicized.  Enemies of the administration …pointed accusing fingers at President Grant, blaming him for Custer’s death, urging voters to settle with Grant and the Republican Party in the fall elections.  Grant’s partisans struck back vilifying Custer.  Grant weighed in personally claiming that Custer overextended himself and his men to deprive fellow officers of their share of victory.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Napoleon's Hat: What Price Glory?


Napoleon’s signature two-cornered hats, known as a “bicorne,” were common among military men of the early 1800s.  Napoleon, however, wore his in a distinctive way.  Napoleon wore his hat sideways to make him stand out and be easily identifiable.  Few historical figures can be identified by a single item.  In the case of Winston Churchill, it was his cigars.  In the case of Napoleon it was the way he wore his hat.

It is estimated that Napoleon wore 120 bicorne hats during his career.  Of these, nineteen survive.  Most of these are housed in museum collections, but one privately owned by the Prince of Monaco was auctioned in 2014 for $2.4 million to a South Korean businessman.  Another of Napoleon’s hats, lost at Waterloo, and rather battered from the experience, sold at auction to a European buyer for $400,000 in 2018.

General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Psychologist Looks at George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer

Dr. Charles Hofling, a psychiatrist actively interested in western Americana, wrote the first full-length psychohistory of George Armstrong Custer in 1981 entitled, Custer and the Little Big Horn: A Psychobiographical Inquiry.

Some of what Hofling says about Custer could be said of virtually anyone in any age, “What kind of man was Custer?  It is the thesis of this book that a fuller understanding of the man can shed further light on the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  When one seeks this understanding objectively, without any interest in making of Custer either a hero or a villain, what emerges is the picture of an interesting and moderately complex personality, with specific strengths and weaknesses, personal conflicts and defenses, reacting to the stresses of life in ways which have a certain inner consistency.” (Hofling, 84)

     We learn that Custer had a narcissistic personality disorder that offended many persons, but was mild enough “to have permitted friendships, camaraderie, and even love….” (Hofling, 86)  Why did he have this sort of personality?  “One of the key features in any personality consists of the psychological maneuvers, particularly the deep-seated ones…by means of which anxiety is warded off and an equilibrium maintained.  In Custer’s case, it is postulated that the principal anxiety came from his tendency to regress to the passive situation of infancy….The principal defense mechanism used to ward off regression and its attendant anxiety seems very clearly to have been reaction-formation….In other words, tendencies toward assuming the passive, help-seeking, nourishment-needing attitude of the first year…were turned into the confident, aggressive attitude typical of an outward-directed older boy.  As is usually the case when a defense mechanism is used unconsciously, there is a tendency toward exaggeration in the resulting attitudes.  Thus independence, confidence, and socially acceptable aggression tend to become flamboyance and belligerence.” Hofling goes on to write, “The exaggerated quality of Custer’s daring, his tendency to bravado and unnecessary heroics, is suggestive of the use of reaction-formation in a rather specific way, producing what is often called a counterphobic reaction.  In such a reaction the subject does not show or even consciously feel the anxiety or fear which would be natural, but instead rushes to meet or even seeks out the dangerous situation.  One cannot, of course, be certain, but some of Custer’s actions seem to fall in this category.  Sometimes a cavalry charge is not the ideal way of handling a military situation….” (Hofling, 91)

     Because of some unknown and unknowable event in his infancy Custer’s life was a self-perpetuating cycle.  “A sense of humiliation and shame led to vigorous efforts at achievement, restoring feelings of well-being; after a time, a sense of guilt led to self-destructive behavior.  The resulting loss of status gave fresh stimulation to the sense of humiliation and shame and the cycle started over.” Hofling goes on to write, “Custer reacted to a sense of humiliation…with a surge of glory-seeking activity designed to wipe out the negative emotions.”(Hofling, 93)  Custer was a prisoner of his psychology, which impacted his judgment and led to his defeat.

Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.

General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Lost Dutchman Mine: A Treasure Map

Treasure Map

Legend tells of a fabulous mine in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. So alluring is the prospect of unlimited wealth that it said that hundreds have died searching for the lost mine. 
The entire story began in 1748 when the Peralta family began mining silver and gold. According to family records this wealthy family operated eighteen silver and gold mines in the Superstition Mountains. With the Mexican War of 1848, law and order disintegrated in the area and the Apache Indians grew increasingly hostile, attacking the miners almost continuously. Disaster finally overtook the Peraltas in September 1848 with a general massacre by the Apaches. Following this massacre the Apaches controlled the Superstition Mountains until 1865.

Jacob Walz (or Waltz), the “Dutchman” enters the picture in 1871 with his partner Jacob Weiser.  The two immigrants purchased a map drawn by the original Peralta family and located the mine “within an imaginary circle whose diameter is not more than five miles and whose center is marked by the Weaver’s Needle.”

Weiser soon vanished...the victim of either, Indians, desperados, or Walz. The Dutchman continued working the mine, carrying the secret of its location to the grave.  It was 1891. Jacob Waltz, the “Dutchman”, was dead. But the clues he left as to the location of his mine remained alive in the dreams of Julia Thomas. Julia had looked after Walz before he died, and was the first of a long line of hunters for the Lost Dutchman’s Mine.  Julia sold all of her worldly possessions to finance a search for the mine. Armed with clues left by Walz on his deathbed, Julia and two friends spent about four weeks searching the canyons and ravines adjacent to Weavers Needle, and the west side of Bluff  Spring Mountain. The weather was so hot they spent the afternoon in the shade, and did their searching in the mornings. After suffering in the heat, and lacking sufficient water for their animals, the disappointed treasure hunters abandoned the search.  Julia then came up with a brilliant idea and began to produce maps illustrating the exact location of the lost Dutchman mine.  Although the maps were complete fabrications, the treasure maps produced a nice income for Julia.  There are more ways than one to find gold.

       Video: Is There Gold in the Superstition Mountains?

A lively history of the Civil War sprinkled with tales of over 60 buried treasure in sixteen states. History buffs and adventure seekers will enjoy this work.

The history of Virginia told through treasure tales about pirates, Indians, Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War raiders. The full text of the famous Beale Treasure cipher is included along with some sixty other legends. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The First African American Cowboy Movie Star

Bill Pickett

William M. “Bill” Pickett was the most famous African American rodeo performer of all time, and the first black cowboy movie star.  In 1905 he joined the Miller Brother’s 101 Range Wild West Show.  Pickett invented “bulldogging”, now called steer wrestling.  Charging in on his horse, Pickett came up alongside a long horn steer and dropped down on the steer’s head, twisting its head toward the sky.

In 1922, Pickett starred in the silent movie The Bulldogger, a western featuring an all African American cast.  Unfortunately, only a few fragments of the original film still exist.

Pickett was inducted into the national Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1972.  In 1993, the United States Post Office issued a stamp in his honor, as one of the “Legends of the West.”

Steer Wrestling

Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer. Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

George Washington and the Problem Child

John Parke "Jacky" Custis

Washington’s step son, John Parke “Jacky” Custis was destined to inherit his late father’s huge fortune.  George Washington wanted to make sure the boy was prepared for the responsibilities that so much wealth entailed.

Jacky’s early education was initially handled by his mother, Martha.  But in 1761, when the boy was about seven, a Scottish tutor named Walter Magowan was brought to live at Mount Vernon to begin Jacky’s formal education.  Unfortunately the boy was lazy, head strong, and had no interest in his studies.

In 1768 Jacky was sent away to a boarding school in order to prepare him for college.  George Washington wrote to the Reverend Jonathan Boucher, an Anglican minister who ran the school for boys noting that Jacky had been introduced to both Greek and Latin by his tutor and described his stepson as a boy “…about 14 yrs. of age, untainted in his morals, and of innocent manners.” He considered him “a promising boy” and expressed “anxiety” that as “the last of his Family,” who would be coming into “a very large Fortune,” he wanted to see the boy made “fit for more useful purposes, than a horse Racer.”

The next five years were frustrating for both George Washington and Reverend Boucher. When Jacky Custis was sixteen, Washington wrote to Boucher that his stepson's mind was wholly centered on “Dogs, Horses, and Guns,” as well as Dress and equipage.”  Boucher was unable to give Washington any reassurances noting that young Jack “…does not much like books”.  Warming to his subject, Boucher reported that Jack was the laziest boy he had ever known and also “so surprisingly voluptuous: one would suppose Nature had intended Him for some Asiatic Prince.”

Jacky was always full of surprises.  In 1773, he announced his engagement to fifteen your old Eleanor Calvert, who came from a prominent Maryland family. Washington was outraged; Martha was delighted. Washington was initially able to convince the young couple to postpone the marriage until after Jack had finished college and could “thereby render himself more deserving of the Lady and useful to Society.”  Jack lasted a few months at King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City before bolting for home.  On February 3, 1774, Jack, now nineteen years old and Eleanor, sixteen, were wed.

Prospects for the young couple were bright.  After all, Jack had inherited an enormous fortune.  But what the father had made, the son could not keep.  Jack bought a plantation called Abingdon in Fairfax County, Virginia.  The seller, one Robert Alexander, took every advantage of the inexperienced and impetuous Jack.  When he learned of the terms of the purchase, George Washington informed Custis that “No Virginia Estate (except a few under the best management) can stand simple Interest how then can they bear compound Interest?”

George Washington wrote in 1778: “I am afraid Jack Custis, in spite of all of the admonition and advice I gave him about selling faster than he bought, is making a ruinous hand of his Estate.” By 1781, the financial strains of the Abingdon purchase had almost bankrupted Jack Custis.

No hand at business, Jack Custis proved himself equally poor at politics.  In 1778 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses as a delegate from Fairfax County.  Taking time out from his duties as a general in the field, commanding the Continental Army, engaged in a desperate war, Washington wrote to the young politician, “I do not suppose that so young a senator as you are, so little versed in political disquisition, can yet have much influence in a popular assembly, composed of various talents and different views, but it is in your power to be punctual in attendance.”  Custis won reelection but missed assignments to important committees because of his habitual late arrival, usually the result of personal matters.

Despite Washington's frequent criticism of Jack, the young man described their relationship fondly. Custis wrote Washington that, “It pleased the Almighty to deprive me at a very early Period of Life of my Father, but I cannot sufficiently adore His Goodness in sending Me so good a Guardian as you Sir.” He went on to assure Washington that, “He best deserves the Name of Father who acts the Part of one. . . .”

As the Revolutionary War came to a close, Custis persuaded Washington to allow him to join the general’s suite at Yorktown as a “civilian aide-de-camp.”  This turned out to be another unfortunate choice.  Soon after the British surrender, Jack was stricken with the contagious fever spreading throughout the crowded army camps. On November 5, 1781, shortly before his twenty seventh birthday, John Parke Custis died.

Neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.  So just how did they live?

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in colonial America and the early republic.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

George Washington: Death of a Child


George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis on January 6, 1759.  He was 26, she was 27.  Washington suddenly found himself responsible for a ready-made family.  Martha Parke “Patsy” Custis aged two, and John Parke “Jackie” Custis aged four.  In addition to the normal duties of a father in terms of providing love, warmth, and sympathy, George Washington was also charged with being the administrator of the children’s business affairs, which were not inconsiderable, considering that their late father, Daniel Parke Custis was perhaps the wealthiest man in Virginia.  Martha Washington, herself, was required to relinquish her rights in the dower share of her late husband’s estate to the management of her new husband (If unmarried, Martha would have received 1/3 of Daniel’s Parke Custis’ estate for her use and maintenance during her lifetime.  As it was the use of this money was left to the decisions of her new husband, George Washington). By all accounts George Washington was not only a loving husband and step father, but a conscientious guardian of the property rights of both his wife and her children. 

The stage was set for familial peace and tranquility, but fate took a hand.  By the time Patsy was eleven, she was plagued with seizures. Patsy was afflicted with epilepsy. The progression of Patsy’s epilepsy can be traced in George Washington’s diaries but only with difficulty.  Washington’s diary entries are sparse, and never betray his inner emotions, which were under tight control.

George and Martha Washington were willing to try almost anything, even improbable folk remedies. The distraught parents relied, mainly, on conventional 18th-century medical treatments for epilepsy.  This was doomed from the start.  In colonial times, most physicians were either self-trained or trained by another physician.  No medical college existed in the colonies before the Revolution.  Lack of knowledge of the causes and cures of most diseases, effective medicines and pain-killers, and instruments such as the thermometer and stethoscope handicapped colonial doctors. The doctor's principal role was to provide comfort and support, set broken bones, and prescribe herbal remedies.  Theories of medicine at the time were based on the notion that disease was caused by an imbalance in bodily "humors," or fluids. The practice of bloodletting for almost any disease was universal.  Doctors also employed emetics, diuretics and leeches.  The cures often killed the patient more quickly than did the disease.

The Washingtons consulted with numerous doctors to no avail.  Patsy's seizures increased. George Washington kept a log of these episodes.  During an eighty-six day period, Patsy had seizures on twenty-six days.

Around four in the afternoon on June 19, 1773, after everyone had finished dinner, Patsy (aged 17) and a girl friend were talking quietly. Patsy went to her room to retrieve a letter. Hearing a strange noise coming from Patsy's room, her friend found Patsy in the throes of a life-threatening seizure.
Martha Washington was frantic.  George Washington knelt beside his beloved step daughter he had raised from infancy with tears running down his cheeks.  She was dead within two minutes.

In a letter to his brother-in-law written the following day, George Washington relayed the news that Patsy, described as his "Sweet Innocent Girl," had been buried earlier in the day and that the situation had “… reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery.”

Neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.  So just how did they live?

A quick look at murder most foul in the Virginia of colonial times and the early Republic. Behind the facade of graceful mansions and quaint cobblestone streets evil lurks.