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“He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny…”

Image from A Christmas Story. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1983.

There are no right answers here, but my choice for the greatest Christmas movie of all-time is A Christmas Story. You can’t convince me otherwise. I love it so much that I bought a leg lamp for our front window. Every year, even before we’ve purchased a tree, the leg lamp makes its appearance—and we have copious amounts of glue, should anything happen.

Beyond nostalgia and tradition, the subtle one-liners are the movie’s greatest strength. Some of my favorites, in no particular order:1

  • “In our world, you were either a bully, a toady, or one of the nameless rabble of victims.”
  • “Adults loved to say things like that, but kids knew better. We knew darn well it was always better not to get caught.”
  • “In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenity, that as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”
  • “Some men are Baptists, others Catholics; my father was an Oldsmobile man.”
  • “Randy lay there like a slug. It was his only defense.”
  • “He looks like a deranged Easter bunny.”

I can’t remember the first time I saw A Christmas Story, but after the fourth or fifth time watching it, the word “deranged” became part of my vocabulary. I didn’t look up the definition, but from context clues I knew it meant “wacky,” “silly,” “insane,” or something to that effect. So, when I started work on a project for the Society of the Cincinnati—the nation’s oldest patriotic organization, founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army who served together in the American Revolution—I was surprised to see the word “deranged” used as a description of one’s military service. Continue reading “He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny…”

Following Irish Migrant Workers

Photo of the Irish countrysideHow did our Irish tenant ancestors earn the money they needed to pay their yearly rent? One possibility: they travelled to Great Britain to work for the summer.

A common occurrence in many parts of Ireland in the 1800s, the Irish harvest migration was a well-established means of earning a living. In the spring an Irish cottier would plant his potatoes, cut his turf, and possibly plant some oats. By late spring, little needed to be done on the farm until the fall harvest, giving the farmer time to take on supplementary work elsewhere. One option was to sail to Great Britain and find agricultural work for the summer. When the harvest was done in Britain, the farmer would return to Ireland for the fall, leaving enough time to bring in his potatoes and harvest any other crops. But most importantly, he would return home with cash to pay the landlord for his lease.

Continue reading Following Irish Migrant Workers

Discovering Caleb Dyer, the Only Shaker Ever Murdered

Caleb Dyer ca. 1863, via Enfield Shaker Museum

Plenty of people own Shaker furniture or have heard of Shaker-style craftsmanship, but it’s less common to find someone with Shaker ancestry. There’s good reason for that: the Shakers, or the United Society of Believers, were a Christian religious sect that believed in gender equality, pacifism, and complete celibacy—no marriage or children. They first arrived in the U.S. from England in 1774 and settled in villages throughout the Northeast and Midwest, where they lived communally, kept separate from “the world” of nonbelievers, and worshipped through song and dance.

Shakers didn’t hold with violence, so I was intrigued to come across the story of Caleb Marshall Dyer, believed to be the only Shaker murder victim in history. A respected leader in his community, he was killed in a dispute with a local man over custody of the man’s daughters, who had been entrusted to the Shakers of Enfield for a period of time. Ironically, I only became aware of Caleb Dyer because of his involvement in an earlier custody dispute—that time not as a community leader, but as one of the children in question. Continue reading Discovering Caleb Dyer, the Only Shaker Ever Murdered

The Search for Hannah Hobart’s Missing Husbands

I recently went searching through newspaper records for information about the family of John Doane of Eastham for the next Early New England Families (ENEF) sketch. Newspaper resources about 17th– and 18th-century families are rare, but do exist for larger cities such as Boston. I happened upon the following abstract from the Boston New-Letter:

Scan of handwritten record which reads: “Doane, Hannah, w[ife]. John, d[aughter] Capt. Joshua Hobart of Hingham, (twice a wid[ow]. when she m. Doane), at Eastham, apoplexy, Sept. 4, 1731.”

“Doane, Hannah, w[ife]. John, d[aughter] Capt. Joshua Hobart of Hingham, (twice a wid[ow]. when she m. Doane), at Eastham, apoplexy, Sept. 4, 1731.”1

Um. I had the marriage of Hannah Hobart to John Doane, all right, but two more husbands? Continue reading The Search for Hannah Hobart’s Missing Husbands

Mr. John Griffin and the Boston Common Treasure

Detail of 1814 map of Boston Common by John Groves Haley.

As anyone who as ever spent time doing genealogical research can tell you, searching through historical records can oftentimes feel like a little bit of a treasure hunt. When I noticed an unusual headline printed in The Boston Statesman on October 4th, 1852, I found myself immersed in a real-life treasure hunt.1 The article read:

Treasure Buried on Boston Common- A Mr. John Griffin petitioned the city government yesterday for permission to dig a hole on Boston Common six feet in diameter for the purpose of obtaining $1000 which he asserts his father, John Griffin, who served in the war of the Revolution, secreted during the “Troubled Times” preceding the war. Griffin says he is poor and wants the money bad. The petition was referred to the Committee on the Common.

Continue reading Mr. John Griffin and the Boston Common Treasure