The Delaware “Cult House” Urban Legend

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lukasz-szmigiel-jFCViYFYcus-unsplash-1024x682.jpg
Just spooky, not correct to the locale discussed.
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

(Originally published on April 29, 2021, at the sunsetted GlitterCollective blog.)

When I was in 3rd grade, I was attending an elementary school in northern Delaware that is no longer extant, and one of my friends told me a story his older brother had told him about a haunted house near our school. I remember that we, as suburban 8-year-olds who didn’t live near the school and who had no means of getting anywhere without our parents, solemnly agreed that we both totally knew where the house was and that we would meet there at midnight. Most of the details escape me now, but I remember that it was a mansion with a gatehouse.

The next time I heard about a haunted mansion, I was in college in the late 1980s. This story had more details: it was a mansion with a gatehouse and a long driveway on one of the back roads of the Brandywine valley of Delaware near the Pennsylvania line. The trees around the house grew away from it as if leaning away from something evil, the windows were made in cross shapes and glowed red sometimes at night, and there were black trucks with tinted glass that would emerge from the lot near the gatehouse and follow you if you drove past the house too many times. Lots of Satanic Panic was involved, saying that there was a Satan worshipping cult and/or the KKK that met there. A decade later, the story I heard shifted a bit so that the trucks became SUVs, and the addition of mutilated animals first cropped up along with the tale of the Skull Tree, which supposedly had something that looked like a human skull embedded in its trunk. Of course, the versions I heard in the 90s were from people who claimed to have seen it, but still somehow couldn’t provide me with an address.

The original story put it somewhere in Greenville, Delaware. The last time I heard it from a person in Delaware (in the early 2000s), the house was identified as a mansion belonging to someone in the Du Pont family. This put it closer to one of the most visible still-occupied Du Pont mansions, Granogue, but it was clearly NOT that estate, since I knew where it was and had driven past it many times, and there were no oddly-grown trees or inverted cross windows. I note that several of the really spectacular Du Pont mansions have been turned into museums like Winterthur and Longwood Gardens, but there are a lot of other fancy residences belonging to Du Pont heirs and cousins (some of which have also been turned into parks or museums, like the Mount Cuba Center), as well as other Extremely Wealthy Colonial Families of northern Delaware (or the nouveau riche families who bought the mansions off them).

The fountains at Longwood Gardens. They get lit up at night with different colored lights, and there is a fantastical light show set to music. One of my favorite memories is of attending a July 4th show there.

In any case, I had never been able to get the name of the road it was on, though on a couple of occasions I drove over many of the roads in that area, sometimes with my wife, looking for the place unsuccessfully. Though we found an awesome feral bamboo forest in the meantime.

A Location? Really?

Today, out of curiosity, I googled “cult house delaware” to see what I got. Lo and behold, people are producing addresses. But how odd! The address provided is on the Pennsylvania side of the border in Chadd’s Ford… where it was never located in the 1970s or 1980s or 1990s.

The stories on the Weird Pennsylvania article appear to include the story my wife originally read on Obiwan’s UFO-free Paranormal Page back in the 1990s (with no address), as well as other stories that identify it as being on Cossart Road. One other site talks about the road’s residents and township’s reactions to teens cruising the road (eg, removing all the road signs, removing the Skull Tree), and so does this Reddit thread. Finally, I found a Youtube “drivethrough” of the road and watched it.

Fascinatingly, the supposed cult house is a) invisible from the road (how did people see the windows? granted some of that growth along the road is relatively young, if you look at it on GoogleMaps) and b) does not have a gatehouse or parking area visible from the road. I accept that the trees along the road are a little odd (but between the electrical lines run over them and the angle of the sun, the tilt makes sense), but they’re not along the house’s driveway or around the house itself, which is in contradiction to the earlier stories.

Development of the Lore

There are new eyerolling details about illegal incestuous marriages, although cousins aren’t actually particularly problematic, and there were and are plenty of extremely wealthy families for the Du Ponts to intermarry with (see also the Du Pont women who married into the English nobility, etc) so that cousin marriages were fairly unusual, as I recall from some of my reading. Also deformed babies killed by eugenic wealthy relatives buried under the Skull Tree. Wow, fascinating add-ons, folks.

There are a few vague mentions on some of these sites of a movie called “The Village” by M. Night Shyamalan from 2004, and I suspect that the filming site of this movie — a village set built in a field in Chadd’s Ford — is the source of this new “identification” of the house. There appears to be a rumor that the village was built near the cult house.

The location may also be tied to a trio of gang murders in 1978 in which the victims were shot and buried along Cossart Road. Those murders would actually date to just after the time I started hearing about the house, which would suggest that any movement toward the house being on Cossart could date from that time.

Also the aspect of being chased by red trucks or black SUVs seems to be dropping out of circulation in the post-identification era. There’s nowhere for them to come from, and this is one of the least convoluted roads in the area anyway, so nowhere for them to turn off to or for pursued drivers to duck off to… just a stretch of road with houses along it.

Well, Let’s Look At History

Me being me, I decided to hare off and see if there are, in fact, any Du Pont families along that road.

Cossart Road is a ~2-mile-long east-west road that runs from Route 100 (which roughly parallels the west bank of the Brandywine Creek) in the east to Route 52 (Kennett Pike) in the west. From a map of Birmingham township (the original township where Chadd’s Ford was located, which was, as you might imagine, a ford across the Brandywine, or the Fiske Kill as it was named by the Dutch colonizers who originally settled the area and shoved the Lenni Lenape out) that included land grants of the early 1700s, the eastern portion of the land that contains Cossart Road was owned by George Harlan, possibly granted somewhere around 1702. Cossart was part of Kennett Township, as parceled up by William Penn et al. The region was parceled off Kennett into Pennsbury Township in the late 1700s.

On a Pennsbury map from 1860, large swathes of the eastern portion of Cossart were owned by J.H.Pyle, with a single exception of a house on the road owned by P.William. The area around the address appears to be a W.Hawke with another singleton house on the road without a legible name. An 1883 map shows Pyle still in possession, splitting the road with a John McC(ann?oane?). In 1880, Job H Pyle is listed as a farmer in Pennsbury, living with wife Jane, son Henry, and a number of laborers and boarders. Other people on the stretch recorded by the census taker included Joseph B Pyle, miller, and his family, and families by the names of Cloud, Washington, Woodward, Dilworth, Sharpless, and Johnston. In 1900, Joseph B Pyle is still there, along with the Woodwards and a couple other familiar names, and the people living along that stretch of road are all still farmers. In 1910, Margaret Pyle, a widow, is still living among the Clouds and Sharplesses, people whose professions were farmers, farm laborers, creamerymen, carpenters, and schoolteachers.

In 1920, we get our first confirmed residents of Cossart Rd:

  • Ralph and Celia Keiser – he was an operator for the telegraph company
  • James and Edna Hart – he was a fireman for the railroad
  • Mark and Myrtle Mackey – he was a dairyman farmer
  • John and Louise Clendening – they were from England and he was a butler!
  • George and Helen Van Horn – he was a farm laborer and they had a large household of children, grandchildren, and boarders (who variously were farmers, stenographers for the powder company, and operators for the telegraph company)
  • John and Flora Nichol – both Scottish, and he was a gardener

Turning the corner off Cossart onto Parkerville Street Road (not sure at all what road this is in present; Parkerville is significantly north, but this continues through to Kennett Pike, which seems to make geographic sense), we also see:

  • Mary Lumb – a laundress in a private home
  • Rose Brittingham and her husband Wilbur – English couple; she was a housekeeper in a private home
  • Annie Boody – a laundress in a private home
  • among many others

So we have our first indication that there is a wealthy house in the neighborhood that supports a butler, housekeeper, and laundresses, as well as possibly a gardener or two.

In 1930, Cossart Road has quite a few people, and now we have more information. For instance, Ellen C Wilson and her nephew Floyd live in a house worth $600 — significantly more than many of her neighbors, whose homes are worth in the $6-$10 range. Still, she doesn’t have an occupation, but Floyd is a coalyard laborer — doesn’t seem likely to be the scion of wealth. Elsewhere on the road we have a George Bary and his wife Mary, a Russian trainer at a dog kennel. We have William Gregg, a farm manager, who has enough money to bring in a woman only known as Latchford, who is a cook in a private family (probably his). There’s Gordon Murray, a Scottish florist who works in greenhouses. Oh, and there’s Ralph and Celia Keiser — Ralph’s an agent for the railroad now, and their house appears to be worth $650. Looking around a little more, on Fairville Road there’s Albert Walker, a general farmer, and the value on his property is an appalling $5000. But then the geography gets muddled and the censustaker apparently goes north for his next census.

In 1940, alas, we do not have any reference to the street names, which makes the various private estates listed mysterious.

It’s fascinating that we have evidence of wealthy homes along these roads, but very few apparent census records of these wealthy homes. Guessing that these houses were gated and had no interest in participating in the census, making these homes even more invisible than they already are. Wealth hath privilege.

While the purported Cult House has no information online, I note that 935 Cossart, an admirable stone farmhouse, was on the market relatively recently and had some photos up. This 7600+ sq ft home was built in 1911, which is when we started to see servants and estate employees, so it makes some sense that the turn of the century is probably when the Money arrived on Cossart. Other houses with real estate listings appear to consist of a range of properties, from ugly recently-built McMansions (including a 12K sq ft monstrosity at 217) to 1950s suburban tract houses that have had some updates.

So, back to the Du Ponts. Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours arrived in the US in 1800 with his sons, one of whom, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, founded the gunpowder company on the banks of the Brandywine in Delaware that would become DuPont Company. Their first mansion was right there, Eleutherian Mills, and has in part been turned into the Hagley Museum (the site of my earliest remembered school field trip). It’s hard to track all the members of the family, because of course the women marry out and take a lot of money with them to join up with their husbands’ money and make more money, in the way of capitalists. There is no guarantee that some Du Pont or other didn’t live at some point on Cossart Road, but I can say that as of 1940, no one named Du Pont appeared on the census records in the area. There were other impressive names on private estates in Pennsbury, like someone with Morgan as a last name, but nothing to directly connect to the Du Ponts.

Conclusion

This is one of those urban legends that has grown in the telling, and it’s fascinating to see the changes that have transpired over 4 decades. I am not convinced that the “cult house” is or has ever been on Cossart Road, nor am I convinced that it ever existed at all. Still, it’s fun to have a “hometown” spooky story that I’ve been able to watch as it changes.

Thinking About Tabletop RPGs

(Originally published on March 19, 2021, at the sunsetted GlitterCollective blog.)

Tabletop RPGs have been a major part of my life for a long time now. 40 years? 40 years. I wasn’t one of the very first D&D gamers, but I started damn early, even making up my own game system before I had access to the D&D books. I ran my first games for my next-door neighbors, and went on to run a homebrewed D&D game (based on a novel my best friend and I wrote together) for 2 different gaming groups, tweaking the rules to allow the elf variants we made up and their special powers.

During my grad school and just-post-grad-school years and the abusive relationship that spanned that time, it was easier to worry about the stories than the mechanics, so boughten game systems were the way to go. D&D, Rolemaster, Villains & Vigilantes, Marvel Superheroes, Champions, Chill, and the White Wolf games were all the rage in my gaming group then. I started running a Vampire: the Masquerade game the first week it came out, and continued running Vampire games for 4-5 years after. Werewolf: the Apocalypse didn’t grab me as much (until later GarouMUSHing happened).

Once upon a time, I really enjoyed painting figs. These are all figs I painted for my own characters in the uncountable D&D games we had in the early to mid-90s. You can tell how much each got played from the wear on the paint. Alas, the female figs had some obvious wear points.

Though I wrote for Mage: the Ascension, I didn’t run a game until I got together with my wife and we pulled a gaming group together. The Mage group was based in Philadelphia until we all up stakes and moved to New England. We ran another Mage game once we got relocated, and then I ran some short campaigns. There was a brief D&D game, I think, and a Big Eyes, Small Mouth game, and a couple of very homebrewed one-shots using a generic version of the White Wolf dice system. Other members of the gaming group ran games too, including a fantasy game using my friend’s SF game system, some Ars Magica, and an instance of testing the SF game system and setting. I also created a setting for a MUSH that took the White Wolf game setting and changed it heavily to get rid of the bits I didn’t like.

Our first New England gaming group broke up as some people absconded to New Zealand and we moved out of the city and into the burbs. Tabletop gaming was a little spotty for a few years as a result. We had a mostly-different group of friends who were willing to truck out to our house once a month, so I ran some nostalgia games: a short run of Vampire, a brief first edition D&D game, and a few homebrewed worlds and game systems.

One of these latter games slowly smoldered toward self-combustion over the course of a year. There were a few sources of ignition under the social lid, and we had a series of small blow-ups and player changes before the final explosion that not only ended the game but shattered the gaming group into flinders. The whole experience left me completely burnt out on tabletop RPGs for a long time.

My Relationship With Tabletop RPGs

My relationship with tabletop RPGs was changed and, in some ways, broken. I was unable to run tabletop games for about 5 years after the debacle. Though I now run games, I no longer consider it my “art form”: it’s a hobby. That change makes me sad — at one point this was something I did that was incredibly fulfilling in and of itself. Now it’s primarily a social thing, and any pride I take in a good GMing performance is the kind of pride I get from finding the perfect gift for one of my loved ones. It’s nice, but not the rush it once was.

The May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St Helens, which feels very apt to my experience of the game explosion, especially the collapse of the north flank of the mountain and devastation of the surrounding countryside.

I think that disaster may have also broken my relationship with games created by game studios. I mean, I was already trending away from them, or modifying them heavily when I did use them. I think the last tabletop RPG I actually bought was Blue Rose. While I was attracted to many (queer! thoughtful!) aspects of it and wanted to support it by buying the books, I still haven’t run a game of it because I ended up bouncing off the mechanics. With other games since then, I find myself cringing when I pull a book off the shelf (even virtually) and see the heteronormativity and whiteness that are rampant throughout them. Once upon a time, I could overlook it, but now? It’s like my relationship with comics and other media; if the queerness isn’t present, I’m just not interested any more.

A lot of my homegrown games are inherently queer the way my favorite fantasy and science fiction novels of the 80s and 90s (and later, of course) often are: the cultures just happen to be queer by default, and I’m much more comfortable running that as a very queer GM for my now-entirely-queer gaming group. My game mechanics are also much more geared toward providing randomization for story purposes than providing “realistic” combat, because I don’t actually much care about combat any more. (Though I’m contemplating creating a dice system that invokes all the things I find fun about dice systems while jettisoning things I don’t enjoy.) My games have become (and perhaps always were) all about the story and the character relationships.

Homebrewed Queer Settings

Victorian Frat Boys

The boys spent so much time intoxicated OR running OR both.

I eventually got a small inspiration and put together a baroque little 5-session game. It took me a year or two to write it and to feel out a small, trusted gaming group for their desire to play it. The game was structured like a theatrical LARP in that I wrote the characters as well as the setting; this was, in part, because most of my players were theatrical LARPers and LARP GMs. I had some fancy name for the campaign but that has been rejected in retellings favor of “Victorian Frat Boys” even though the Victorian frat boys were only one small section of the game. Every session started with the players getting a new version of their characters in a different setting: Victorian horror, D&D, SF psionics, and, uh, angel chestburster apocalypse.

In the final game session, they all woke up to discover that these different worlds were generated as a kind of magical VR experience. They were all actually Royal cousins being tested for which one would be the better member of the Royal Family to inherit the throne, and they had to resolve that situation. My players, being the ridiculous LARPing queers they are, settled on essentially a polyamorous triumvirate. Because of course they did.

Imaginary Realm and Summoning

My wife and I then developed a game loosely based on the Persona videogames, also drawing from the world of the Yami no Matsuei anime. In this version of modern day Earth, mages are people who can transmit their minds consciously into the Imaginary Realm (all humans do that while dreaming, but it takes knowledge and practice to do it while awake). They can make contracts with inhabitants of the Imaginary Realm, which generally allow the mage to summon the imaginary person/concept, either in the Imaginary Realm or the real world, and order them to use their powers. The mage is essentially offering reality in exchange for servitude. The more popular the person/concept, the more infused with “reality” they are and the more power they can provide the mage — and also the more interested they may be in getting more reality.

I liked Persona 2 and Persona 4, but Persona 3 is the one that really grabbed me initially.

In our game, the situation got murky very quickly, because our newbie mage characters could only get contracts with fairly minor characters initially, lacking the power to really trade in reality with the more powerful characters. Being friendly and fannish types, the characters chatted up their summons, developing relationships with them that started to bring the whole “servitude” aspect into sharper focus. Can you have a relationship with a being that is bound to obey you? If they start to develop sentience outside their canon, can you bring yourself to terminate a contract with them since it means that that version of them will eventually cease to exist as the reality giving them that sentience leeches away? Can imaginary beings ever have anything approaching free will, since they’re always in service to something, whether it’s their canon, whatever fanon they inhabit, or the mages they contract with?

Meanwhile, the characters were trying to save the world from people who wanted to mash the real world and Imaginary Realm together to “bring back magic.” It was a fun couple of years of game, and we added another person to the gaming group along the course of the first game (they joined while the characters were temporarily trapped in Equestria, so their first appearance in-game was as a My Little Pony). We engineered a big calamitous final boss battle. (Where the “final boss” was a long series of final bosses, some of which they’d fought before, some of which they hadn’t.) After a bit of a break post-first-campaign, we came back around to the setting and characters, added another person to the gaming group, and are running another campaign in the setting with commensurately higher stakes with their “higher level” characters.

The system we cooked up for this game was very loosey-goosey. The characters have no stats, only skills. They also have Head, Heart, and Theme Tarot cards, though we only ever actually ended up using the Heart cards, which are all Major Arcana. For our randomization, we also use Tarot cards — every player has their own mini-Ryder/Waite/Smith deck and the GMs have an extra-large deck. We use the cards for combat, skill checks, perception, anything really. As the GMs, we sometimes use card draws to inform whatever happens next. In combat, a “higher” card usually wins (with majors, we sometimes look at the number on the card), unless it’s reversed. Sometimes we have to get into creative Tarot interpretation. The games are very cinematic and dramatic at times, and we blame the decks for that.

My games aren’t dark and gritty either. I want hope in my life, even if I have to make it up.

Genderqueer Utopia Versus the World

I also adopted the Tarot system for my other setting, which is high-fantasy where I decided that there weren’t going to be any elves or dwarves, but other human variants created by magical genetic engineering. These variants include materials from other species, and therefore aren’t considered human, so there’s a long history of enslaved peoples in the world. At some point, one individual from one variant started a revolution that ended when that individual fell into a well of liquid magic and transformed into a dragon. After defeating her foes and freeing the enslaved people in that country, she went off to create a mountain-walled country where human variants, particularly people of her variant, could live safely.

The Dragon didn’t quite burn everything down. Just a few things, like that country’s entire navy. Photo by Sean Thomas on Unsplash

In the game I ran, it is 400 years later and characters who were essentially the superheroes of their country were being sent out to run a series of very light espionage training missions in 3 other countries. Light training missions turned into fighting zombies, blowing up mage towers, burning down part of an enemy city, and finding the tomb of their variant’s creator. That was the introductory game in 5 sessions. I have a whole Part 2 planned, but I need my writing brain to come back in order to write the updates to the characters.

I kept the skill list and Heart card concept for this game, but also added a magic system (based loosely on a combination of Ars Magica and World Tree) with skill levels. Given that there’s going to be 3 years between games, I’m letting players rearrange some of their skills and magic to better fit how the characters landed at the end of the first game. Oh, and did I mention that all the members of this variant are a) born in a female shape and b) can shapechange? Genderfluidity and queerness built in. They’re also finding out that the variant designer infused all of them with some inheritable quality taken from fossils of Great Beasts (like Dragons), and this is why their country’s founder transformed into a Dragon.

I’ve also built a version of this world that predates that game by a couple thousand years — before the variants were created, during a time when there were still human families that claimed ancestry from Great Beasts. We haven’t played in it yet, and I’m still poking the worldbuilding. I was thinking of using 1st edition D&D, mostly because I miss playing with dice, but I’m already dissatisfied with that as a magical system. I prefer looser magical systems, because my players are more creative than any of the lists of spells allow them to be. Buuuut if I’m ever going to run the game, doing it in D&D will be the way to get that to happen.

All The Things I Want From Dice

I really like our Tarot system and how narratively helpful it can be for me as a GM. But, being the gamer geek I am, I kind of miss rolling dice. Also, this trend for people to make really fricking spiffy dice is appealing to my sparklegland. Clearly I do not own enough dice yet.

I started thinking about what exactly I enjoy about using dice in games, and came up with a short list:

  • Spectacular successes (natural 20)
  • Spectacular botches (natural 1)
  • Using every type of die I own (including the d12)
  • Rolling character stats
  • Rolling whole handfuls of dice

Oh, but then it occurred to me that there are some non-dice-related things I like about some system mechanics:

  • Filling in bubbles for stats/skills (because I apparently didn’t get enough of this from the SAT/GRE)
  • Virtues and flaws
  • Spending skill points
  • Also maybe skill trees like they have in some videogames (FF10 for instance)?

I might also enjoy randomly generated character background prompts sometimes, but maybe not the books of heteronormative claptrap I remember from the 90s.

So yeah, now I’m trying to figure out how to integrate all these things into a super-lightweight system that I’ve given the working name “Dopamine Dice” (because it’s based on things that give me joy). I had some ideas in the shower a few weeks ago, and promptly forgot to write any of it down! Maybe it will have been brewing in the back of my head all this time and the next time I contemplate it in the shower, it will come out, fully formed as Athena. Sometimes my games do that.

3 Movies I Wanted in 1984 But Didn’t Get Till Middle Age

(Originally published on March 10, 2021, at the sunsetted GlitterCollective blog.)

The 1980s were the heyday of wildly successful woman-led movies, though no one seems to acknowledge it and today’s moviemakers have apparently all forgotten it. This happened with both mainstream movies like 9 to 5 (Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton living a feminist corporate fantasy that’s still applicable 40 years later), The Color Purple, and Steel Magnolias, and iconic genre movies like Terminator 2, Aliens, and Labyrinth.

While I enjoyed T2 (and didn’t see Labyrinth until much later), my choice for Woman-led Genre Pic was Aliens, to such an extent that I cannot count how many times I saw it in the theater (the only movie that I saw in the theater more was Rocky Horror Picture Show). I loved Ripley, had a huge crush on Vasquez, and oddly did not find Newt annoying. (Actually, the actress, Carrie Henn, was bloody brilliant.)

The real power-up moment in Aliens.

Of course, the 1980s also sported a number of iconic and formative genre movies and series: Star Wars, Star Trek, the Indiana Jones movies, Superman, Mad Max, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Bill and Ted’s, Robocop, and The Princess Bride. I enjoyed a lot of them. My first birthday party with friends rather than family was going to see Superman II. I cried like a fool when Spock died at the end of Wrath of Khan and adored the soundtrack for The Voyage Home (still have the vinyl). I had to have friends tell me when it was okay to look again in the scene that punched all my horrible phobia buttons in Temple of Doom. A college friend and I bonded over quotations from The Princess Bride, as was required for all good geeks of the era.

But I wasn’t seeing anything like me in most of these movies. Vasquez was the closest thing to a butch that this baby butch saw in any movie of the time, and I was just starting to edge sideways into my butchness. Every non-woman-led genre movie had one (1) straight femme to exist in the male gaze and act as a love interest for the hero. There might be an accidental nerdy girl or a female villain in mainstream movies, but usually in genre, they kept the budget for hiring women short. (Also, sexual assault was normalized and romanticized, as in Blade Runner, and made things extra creepy.)

“Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”
“No, have you?”

The 2015-2016 movie season suddenly served up 3 movies that punched straight through my middle-aged cynicism to the sad little teenager in the back of my head. It was an incandescent Utena experience all over again, only I was older and crustier and more cynical than I was in 1997. Why didn’t I have these in 1984?

The answer, of course, is Patriarchy.

Who Killed the World?

Speaking of Patriarchy, I wasn’t a huge fan of the Mad Max series. I watched the first 2 movies on VHS with my parents on a giant toploading VCR that Dad borrowed from work. And TBH I don’t remember them at all. They were kind of… brown and full of toxic masculinity and cars and desert? Oh, and that asshole, what’s-his-nuts. The only thing I got out of the third movie was that Tina Turner looked good in chain mail and sang a pretty good song about not needing another hero, though I wanted that movie to be better (and more about her character) than it was. But you know, what’s-his-nuts poisons everything he touches, so it’s not surprising.

I was more than a bit cynical when I heard about Mad Max: Fury Road. It was going to be another wet dream for the man-fans, I was sure. And I prepared to ignore it.

But then media I half-respected started to talk about it, and then my friends started to go see it and rave about it. Despite the enormous inertia I usually have to overcome (in myself mostly) to arrange outings to see movies, I did so.

Butch AND not just there for a joke?
Yes, please.

I spent the entire movie expecting the other shoe to drop. I waited for Max to become the star of the movie, the savior for all the poor li’l womenfolk. I waited for some sickening romantic BS between Max and Furiosa, some feminization of Furiosa. I watched for Nux to turn into the shithead I was sure he was. I anticipated the deaths of all the wives (Angharad’s death was a red herring down this road, but at least she died doing something instead of just getting fridged), or graphic flashbacks for their “origin” stories, or for one of them to betray everyone in order to get back to Joe.

I really wasn’t sure what to do at the end of the movie when… none of those things had happened. I joked that Eve Ensler, the “feminist consultant” on the movie, must have stood over the writer/director with a rolled-up newspaper and thwacked him every time he did something stupid or toxic.

Hit him again, Furiosa.

Additionally, the movie was the most cinematographically beautiful endless car chase I’d ever seen, with human interactions that felt raw and real, and a storyline that was actually heartwrenching. The loss of the Green Place. The Vuvalini so diminished. The devastation of all hope. Who killed the world, indeed. And Max’s best moment of the movie, cutting through the grief with a suicidal plan that might work, but if it didn’t, they’d be just as dead as they would if they tried to traverse the dry ocean.

I will probably never watch this movie again, though I own it, because the unrelenting violence is too much for me in my tender and soft middle age. I wish I didn’t think that it was a wild fluke on the part of the makers, one of those ideas that Pratchett talked about sleeting through the universe until it found the right place and time to get made. I wish I believed that any further movies in the series would be as amazing as this one was. But I don’t. Toxic masculinity ruins the party again and again and again.

Thanks, F-word Murdergirls!
(If you aren’t familiar, My Favorite Murder is a great comedy podcast about true crime and why everyone should be in therapy.)

We’re All Fine Here, How Are You?

I didn’t see the original Star Wars movie until it was rereleased a year after it first came out. I was very out of touch with pop culture as a small child, and it took my cousin getting an array of toys to convince me that I needed to see the movie. The Empire Strikes Back was the last movie my grandmother ever took me to (after that, I was going on my own), and she complained about not being able to nap through it because of the loudness of the shooting. I remember waiting in a line that wrapped around the mall for the opening day of Return of the Jedi. I listened to my double album of the Star Wars soundtrack on repeat throughout my childhood and tween years. I collected a number of the action figures, though my family couldn’t afford the playsets. I made my own Millennium Falcon out of a boot-sized shoebox, roughly laser-cannon-shaped pieces of plastic left over from a model I built, and a lot of scotch tape.

You bet your booties I still have Princess Leia. AND her little plastic cape AND her laser pistol. Because I am a GEEK.

I was skeptical of Princess Leia as a character, and certainly couldn’t be Leia in my imaginative play with my friends. I preferred Han or Chewbacca, letting the “real boys” play Luke. (And therein lies a whole analysis of Han Solo as feminized character or at least as acceptably detoxified Mary Sue Fanfiction Blues bait.) As I got older, I came to a deep appreciation for Leia’s presence and ferocity, as well as Carrie Fisher’s determination to make the character memorable when stuck in a film that should have ignored her. (We can thank George Lucas’ wife Marcia for her script and film editing as well as Fisher for making her performances unforgettable.)

While I enjoyed the callbacks to the Star Wars universe, I was disappointed in the depiction of Luke and Leia’s mother in Phantom Menace, and so I didn’t bother to watch the second or third prequels.

Cue being extremely skeptical about The Force Awakens.

But the advance hype sold me. Another woman, and this one a focus character? A Black character as a focus character? Leia returning? Han and Chewie returning? At the last minute, I convinced the gaming group to go see it on opening night.

The opening credits did their usual goosebumps thing (damn you, John Williams, damn you). But I didn’t expect to cry. I cried at multiple points in the movie, but my first breaking point was Leia’s appearance. Because, whether we knew it or not as kids, Princess Goddamn Leia was the fiercest, most memorable character in SF&F film at the time. And here she was, older and wiser and with far fewer fucks to give: precisely the model I needed in my middle age.

Antiope was the best thing about the Wonder Woman movie. I would’ve watched an entire movie set just in Themyscira, with zero men. But no, they had to ruin Wonder Woman by fridging Antiope and heteronormalizing WW.
At least General Organa didn’t get fridged.

This was the movie I came out of saying, “My inner 16-year-old wants to know why we didn’t get this movie the first time.”

It would have been trivially simple to make the twins both girls. (If Lucas had even had the idea of having Luke and Leia be twins originally, which I disbelieve.) It would have been even easier to give Leia a lightsaber and Force training. But no. It was a boys’ club and Leia was the Smurfette of the universe… until Rey came along. Rey was fantastic. Rey interacting with Leia was downright flooring.

Of course, none of my sniffling during Force Awakens could compare to my ugly sobbing at the end of Last Jedi when the dedication to Carrie Fisher rolled. Losing her was worse than losing Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy was sad. Fisher was heartbreaking.

Here. I can’t say it well enough. Watch this fanvid by Eruthros instead. Have Kleenex in hand.

Who You Gonna Call?

Was the original Ghostbusters amusing? Yes. Was it quotable? Yes. Did I quote it? Of course. Did I watch the heck out of it and its sequel? Yes. Did I mostly watch it for Sigourney Weaver? Yes. Was the humor chock-full of sexist bullshit? Yes. When I tried watching it again 10 years ago, was I able to watch it without spiking my blood pressure? Nope.

Not only was the original movie a pit of seething toxic masculinity “humor” but it was racist af (see all the information about what was done to Ernie Hudson and the character of Winston in case you missed that discussion). I think the movie had pretty decent bones, honestly, or it wouldn’t have been so enduring despite the shitty body it was given. I still feel pretty fond of the concept of the thing.

But.

But but but.

Then the “reboot” (which I read as “alternate universe” or AU) of 2016 happened.

Not only did we get an all-women team of Ghostbusters, but I got one who rang queer, geeky, and butch to boot. The writing and comedy was solid, the characters were engaging, and I enjoyed the hell out of defenestrating Bill Murray’s character.

Yes, please, give me more.

My main issue was with Patty, who they treated at least as badly as Winston had been treated, and I wish to hell they’d fixed that problem. There’s no reason she had to be the “add-on” Ghostbuster. Leslie Jones would’ve rocked the hell out of a role like Abby or Erin. Patty could have been a disaffected PhD who was working for MTA because the benefits were better than in academia. (I’ve written some fic that postulates this too, because that’s one thing fic is for: fixit.) There were literally hundreds of less racist (and misogynist) possibilities other than what they chose.

I can still appreciate the Ghostbusters that Inner 16 wanted so much: the fat, competent scientist; the big, loud woman taking up space; the high-strung, serious scientist; and the geek butch geeking out and flirting madly with the nervy straight-wannabe who is attracted to both the project and the butch.

HOLTZMANN. WHERE WERE YOU WHEN I WAS YOUNG?

I think we saw the movie 3 or 4 times in the theaters and then I preordered the Blu-ray with the extended cut (I enjoyed the new content, particularly between Holtzmann and Gorin, but I think the released film is mostly better). I even started planning Holtzmann cosplay — I don’t do cosplay, you understand.

By the time Ghostbusters appeared onscreen, I hadn’t really spontaneously written fic for anything for something like 15 years. I don’t really count the little dribs and drabs that spooted out here and there (one very short piece for Fury Road, some cranky things about The X-Files and Doctor Who). For me, really being inspired to fic is the kind of thing I did with Utena: a few short pieces, a few longer pieces, maybe a novel-length monster that takes 10 years to finish. Ghostbusters was striking in that I not only had a several pieces appear in relatively short order, but I also wrote some Mature Content, which is very unusual for me.

Ghostbusters 2016 has actually gotten me more harassment than any of my other fandoms combined. I put a bumper sticker on my car that read, “Safety lights are for dudes,” with Holtzmann’s heart-radiation symbol, and I started getting dudes blowing their horns, flashing their headlights, and even following me as I drove through city streets (way too closely with brights on). (This behavior stopped as soon as I took the sticker off. It had never occurred with the pride sticker I had there before.) I have a “We Can Bust It” t-shirt with Holtzmann in the iconic Rosie the Riveter post and at a store in my town, the man (of course) behind the counter pointed at the picture on my chest (his finger halting less than six inches from my actual frontispieces) and opined that the movie wasn’t as good as the original. (I haven’t been back to said store, opting to go to a similar store at the other end of town instead.)

I cannot convey how much I wanted THIS Ghostbusters in 1984 and couldn’t even imagine it to want it.

Conclusion

Representation in media matters, y’all. (I say, preaching to the choir.) Women — and love between women — saving the world means so goddamn much to me. The way Black Panther means so much to so many Black people. The way having actual Native people playing Native characters matters. Inclusion matters. Having us not be goddamn tokens or placeholders to enable some dull interchangeable white dude matters.

What would these movies have done for me in 1984?

They would have given me joy. So much joy that it makes Inner 16 tear up.

And Patriarchy — as embodied in the white cis het men who whine and kick and throw whole screaming tantrums about these movies — is thoroughly invested in keeping that representation away from us. We — the queers, the women, the enbies, the BIPOC folks, anyone who isn’t a rich white cisgendered heterosexual man — are Not Meant to Have Joy in Western heteronormative capitalist neoliberal society.

If we have Joy, we might get Ideas, you know.

Carpe gaudium, my friends. Seize the joy.

Videogames and Pain

Allie Brosh’s more medically useful pain scale.
From Hyperbole and a Half.

(Originally published on March 1, 2021, at the sunsetted GlitterCollective blog.)

I didn’t think very hard about how I used videogames as analgesia for all sorts of pain until I was literally using them for analgesia for a diagnosed acute physical pain issue. Recently, I started thinking about how I’ve used videogames to help handle emotional pain as well, because I have been longing for a videogame I could fall into for the entirety of the pandemic.

Content warnings for: brief discussion of broken bone (with medical illustration), nongraphic mentions of animal deaths (very general), and discussions of grief, workplace bullying, abuse, gaslighting, and mental illness.

The Busted Arm Chronicles

Physical pain first.

One day, about 10 years ago, I left work feeling pretty good. It was a chilly rainy day in early November, but even that didn’t deflate my mood. At the time, I felt I was doing well in a relatively new job and I was heading home for the day. However, as I walked down the stairs into the subway, my boot hit a patch of what was either leaked rainwater or spilled soda, or possibly both, and my feet went out from under me. I managed to catch myself on my elbow, but something popped and was very wrong.

Long story short, I had broken my upper arm in a way that is most frequently seen in equestrians who catch themselves on their elbows when they fall off their horses. Something something lateral shear on a point at which five muscles meet the bone.

Fractures of the greater tuberosity of the humerus. Busted shoulder. Mine was undisplaced. (From shoulderdoc.co.uk)

Despite starting physical therapy early and making sure that I didn’t keep the arm in a sling or otherwise immobilized, by Christmas, my shoulder was “freezing” (ie, locking up due to inflammation, with much reduced range of motion). If you’ve never experienced a frozen shoulder, it can be excruciating, with inflammation and swelling enclosing nerves and giving white-hot electric jolts of pain through the entire arm and hand at any movement.

Frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive synovitis. (From shoulderdoc.co.uk)

I drove to visit family for the holidays with my wife and brought my reusable ice packs. This was… barely enough. I had already spent 2 months sleeping exclusively on my left side. Now I was having trouble doing that, because I had to balance precariously or risk jostling my arm in the wrong way — somehow it was even more painful to move my arm than it had been in the days immediately after the break. Fortunately, in the second house we stayed in, they had game consoles, and the person who owned the game consoles was, contrary to most of their behavior, amenable to my using them.

I was introduced to Halo Wars there, and a few other strategy games I don’t remember as well. I found myself roaming their house in the middle of the night, unable to sleep for the pain. An ice pack, a handful of ibuprofen, and an hour of Halo Wars, however, usually allowed me to go back to bed for a couple hours. When we left to go home, I was loaned the game, and I played it some at home as the pain accelerated.

The game that really saved me at home, though, was Plants Vs. Zombies.

Gardening was never really my thing before.

Through January and February of that year, I developed a ritual: I would take a handful of ibuprofen and go to sleep at the same time as my wife. After about 4 hours of sleep, the ibuprofen would wear off. I would take more ibuprofen, but it would take 30-60 minutes to kick in, so instead of tossing and turning, I would sneak out of the room and go downstairs, where I’d lay on the couch in the dark, ice my shoulder, and play PvZ on the TV until I fell asleep again. My wife would wake me in the morning.

I developed a fondness for the bowling minigames and for watering my plant collection. I maxxed out our gold. I played through the whole game again from scratch.

This was my ritual until I realized how much ibuprofen I was taking and got both some short-term non-NSAID pain meds and a steroid shot in my shoulder. The first time I slept through the night after getting both of those, I cried in the morning at how much better I felt. But I honestly wouldn’t have made it through without PvZ.

Grief Counseling By Dungeoncrawl

Screenshot from Moria videogame (from Mobygames).

My wife and I have been extremely lucky in our cats. When we first got together, we sustained the extended loss of her cat, which was terrible. But then we acquired, over a bit of time, a trio of cats around the same age, and they were quite healthy and happy through our time in our first New England apartment and then moving into our house. Around age 9 or so, though, the youngest cat of the 3 developed diabetes so brittle we never actually got her stable, just kept her comfortable. And after 2 or 3 years of giving twice-daily insulin to a semi-feral cat, she suddenly decompensated in a way that made our decision clear and very fast.

We were left in freefall by the surprising emptiness of our house. Our other two much more human-focused cats were still there, loving on us and grieving in their own ways. Our other, much younger cat who had insisted we take her in from the outdoor life foisted upon her by being dumped by her previous owners was also very comforting. But what would help provide analgesia (or, as we referred to it, “brain-smoothing”) for this particular pain?

Turned out we had Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance for the Playstation 2 on the shelf. Most of our previous gaming together had been sharing a controller for JRPGs, so I went out and got a second controller. And then we curled up on the couch together under heated blankets (we had just experienced Snowtober 2011, and our power had been out for >40 hours), our cats gathered on or around us, and played through it. Not for the look of the game, which, compared to JRPGs, was fugly. Not for the plot, which was absolutely pastede on yay. But just for the working together and pixel-smashing and ridiculous chatter and talking back to the wooden NPCs. We didn’t want something we cared about. We just wanted distraction. We got it in the form of the ranger and the dwarf who periodically hopped around the dungeon waiting for their hit points to regenerate.

Baldur’s Gate 2: Dark Alliance: Browns on browns with some brown grays.
(From Mobygames)

It worked really well. When we finished the game, we were still processing, but we had been able to work our way through the worst of the pain together.

When we lost a second cat, our beautiful little neurotic gayboy, a little more than a year later, I braved the holiday crowds to pick up Champions of Norrath from the bargain bin at Gamestop. This game was even less visually appealing and somehow possessed even less plot, but it fit the holes in our minds and emotions pretty much perfectly. Given the cat involved, in seemed appropriate that we won that game with my cleric chasing the Big Bad around a pole and spanking him with a magic hammer spell until he fell over. (Yes, that cat loved to be spanked. Gently.)

Four years later, we lost the third cat of our first cohort, even more devastating than the previous two. She had been the first cat who was ours and had been with us for 20 years. She was full of personality and intelligence and loved us as fiercely as we loved her. We knew it was coming — the other two had gone much more quickly — and before her last vet appointment, I went to Gamestop and asked for a local co-op dungeon game. The only decent thing on the market right then was Diablo 3, so I bought a used copy and a second controller for our Xbox. After the vet left that day, we walked downtown to have mediocre comfort food at a local restaurant, then came back and booted up the Xbox. The plot was awful, but the graphics were tolerable (if still US-fugly) and the gameplay was exactly what we needed. And it was marginally longer than the other 2 games, which was also needed. I think when we finished we might have even immediately started another game with new characters, though we let that game drop after a few sessions.

Diablo 3: Flatter story, slightly less brown. (from Diablowiki)

Our current Elder Statescat also has a long-term terminal condition, and I honestly don’t know what we’ll do when we lose her. I haven’t heard of any other couch co-op dungeon games coming out recently, and we’re a bit behind on consoles right now (we have an Xbox 360 and a PS3, as well as a PS2). Recommendations are welcome.

Trauma and Association

I have been through a few toxic workplaces in my career, often tied to a singular poisonous bully who contaminates the entire environment. My usual resort has been sheer resigned bullheadedness at work and videogames at home.

The most recent (and, arguably, most intense) round of workplace bullying in 2017 had the fastest onset I’d ever seen — the whole workplace was blighted in under 2 weeks. It was heavily targeted at me and one other person as I was shifted into a new role to replace someone who had been let go. The targeting snowballed from pressure to perform according to the bully’s expectations (rather than my manager’s, who was fine with my performance) to full-on aggressive attempts to get me fired as well as shit-talking me behind my back to pull others to the bully’s side in pure junior high school tactics.

I wasn’t good at dealing with this in junior high. I’m no better at it now. I have a very well-established Inner Doggo who reacts to getting kicked with, “bUt WhY dO? aM gOoD bOi. MuSt Be BeTtEr BoI.” And so I keep working through it and getting more and more anxious and neurotic, getting less and less sleep, because of course abusers constantly move the goalposts. You can bend over backwards and meet their demands, only to have them gaslight you and tell you they never made those demands, they made these demands that you absolutely have not met.

I have a very well-established Inner Doggo who reacts to getting kicked with, bUt WhY dO? aM gOoD bOi. MuSt Be BeTtEr BoI.

While I was undergoing abuse that intensified daily, I coped at night by playing games on my phone to try to quiet both the latest whirlwind of trying to figure out a strategy to survive the next day and the anxious whining Inner Doggo chewing on itself in a corner. I fell into a trio of games:

  • Candy Crush Soda Saga
  • Two Dots
  • Dots & Co

Because of the limited lives, of course, I got to be masterful about rotating through them to catch lives as they refilled. This was a bit of a problem when I was trying to get to sleep, which could take 2-3 hours, but they’d usually refilled by the time I woke up at 4 am in a panic and needed to soothe myself back to sleep in time for a meaningful nap before my 6:30 am alarm. I would also sometimes hide in the bathroom at work for 15-20 minutes, playing quietly and trying to pull myself together after a particularly brutal meeting (because the primary bully was a woman, I made use of bathrooms on different floors of the building outside the office; the basement bathroom was my favorite because no one used it).

It was difficult enough when the job was endless meetings in butt-hating chairs. I didn’t mind it when it was interesting.
But it really didn’t need the bully.
Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash

The nightmare kept on escalating, and I kept spending more and more time sunk into phone games, until one day in August everything exploded and I was free. I had new problems to deal with — ramping up my consulting business fast and hard and then somehow being productive as everything fell to pieces inside, but I had family and friends around me for support.

One thing I discovered quickly was that I no longer needed the phone games nearly as much because wonder of wonders I was sleeping through the night, so all 3 games were semi-retired. (Well, Dots & Co was pretty much permanently retired because I’d maxxed out the levels and the company hasn’t put out any new expansions.) I was swamped with trying to pull my life together and job hunting, so it ended up being months before I tried any of them again.

When I did, I discovered I could no longer play Candy Crush: when I did, I could feel everything rush back: all the fear and dread and anxiety, draped over with black-and-white memories. It was a burning-cold time machine burrowed into the base of my skull. I closed the game mid-level. I haven’t reopened it, and should probably just delete it from my phone, because I’m not inclined to walk back into that time again.

This didn’t happen as intensely with Two Dots or Dots & Co, but both games have a weird sort of emotional flatness for me. I can play them, but there’s no dopamine hits from the levels. Possibly they’re more associated with dissociative states. What I can play are features/game types in Two Dots that weren’t present in 2017. Still, the interface feels oppressive now and I can’t play it for very long.

I love how my brain works most of the time, and I love learning to understand more about how it works. State-dependent memory has been one of the best things I’ve learned about lately, and I think it absolutely applies in this case. It refers to the fact that the state one is in at a given time — whether that’s depressed or anxious or something else — determines which memories are easiest to recall. It’s why when one is depressed, it’s hard to remember times when one wasn’t depressed, but easy to remember other times one was depressed. In this case, games — the colors and actions and sounds and muscle memories — are portals into other times that I played them. Just the same way that I get nostalgic goosebump-raising ecstatic joy from playing old games with happy like Final Fantasy 7, certain phone games are now permanently associated with traumatic times in my life.

I have moved on to other phone games, such as for managing anxiety in the global pandemic. I expect that once we have reached the After Times, I’ll have to reexamine how I feel playing those games. Will I ever get Candy Crush back? I might try, if I cared enough, but there are so many other match-3 games out there with less horrific (or differently-horrific) imagery buried in their backgrounds. Sometimes a tool that one uses really hard will break. It’s fine to get a new one.

The Phelps Mansion Haunting

(Originally published on February 19, 2020, at the sunsetted GlitterCollective blog.)

The Phelps Mansion Haunting in Stratford, Connecticut, is a case of poltergeist activity that has intrigued me for decades, in part because of the bizarreness of the activity. It is remarkable for the extraordinary nature of the haunting: at the heart of it were multiple creepy religious life-sized dioramas built in remarkably little time out of household materials and the family’s clothing.

It’s also been covered by many different ghost sites and books about haunted New England, so I’m going to synthesize what I’ve found and add in a bit of historical research of my own. Let’s start with a discussion of the “hero” of the tale, Reverend Eliakim Phelps.

A Short History of the Reverend Eliakim Phelps 

The Phelps family has been knocking around New England for quite some time. William Phelps, the original immigrant, arrived in 1630 on the Mary and John. He helped found Dorchester, MA, and Windsor, CT. His son, Nathaniel Phelps, was one of the first settlers of Northampton, MA; Nathaniel’s son William and grandson William remained there.

William Jr’s son Eliakim Phelps was born 1709 in Northampton; he moved to Belchertown in 1731 or 1732 (the town was first settled in 1731) and died in 1777. His first wife, Elizabeth Rust of Northampton, died in 1752, age 40, and by her he had 6 children. He then married Elizabeth Davis of Springfield, and had, as his second son, Eliakim (who died in 1824), who had 6 children: Abner, Daniel, William, Eliakim, Asenath, and Diana. (I think Asenath is a cool name!)

Phelps family tree

It is this last Eliakim, son of Eliakim, who stars in our story.

Some highlights from his life:

  • Eliakim was born March 20, 1790, in Belchertown, MA.
  • In 1814, he graduated from Union College in Schenectady, NY. 
  • In 1816, he married Sarah Adams (b. 1791) in Wilbraham, MA.
  • In 1818, he “settled in the ministry in West Brookfield” and was the 5th pastor of the West Brookfield Congregational church. (This is worth noting as most sources identify him as a Presbyterian minister.)
  • In 1826, he resigned his ministry to become (briefly) principal of the Female Classical Seminary (founded in 1825 and no longer in operation by 1853, though I can’t find when it closed exactly) in West Brookfield, MA. 
  • In the aftermath of leaving the Seminary, he “afterwards settled at Geneva, NY, and [was] dismissed from there.” It was apparently a Presbyterian church, indicating that he had engaged in some of the crossover between Congregationalists and Presbyterians. No clue about the dismissal!
  • In 1835, he was elected Secretary of the American Educational Society, and the family moved to Philadelphia.
  • In 1840, he and his family were living in Moyamensing, Pennsylvania (now part of south Philadelphia). 
  • In 1844, he received an honorary degree from Delaware College. 
  • In November 1845, his wife Sarah was carried off by fever, leaving Eliakim a widower with 3 more-or-less adult children (1 of the 4 children died young).
  • In 1846, he remarried to a young widow, Sarah B Kennedy Nicholson (b. 1814, only 6 years older than his oldest surviving child)), and took in her 3 children by her previous husband: Ann, Henry, and Hannah Nicholson.
  • In 1848, he purchased a house in Stratford, CT, and moved his family there.
  • In 1858, his second wife Sarah died in Philadelphia of uterine cancer.
  • In 1860, Eliakim and his young teen son Sidney were living in what appeared to be a boarding house in Woodstock, CT.
  • In 1880, Eliakim was living with his son Henry Martyn Phelps in Weehawken, NJ.
  • Eliakim died on December 29, 1880, age 90, in Weehawken..

Our story also features Eliakim’s second wife Sarah and her 3 children by her first marriage (Anna, Henry/Harry, and Hannah), as well as their toddler son Sidney.

Now that we understand some of the major players, let’s talk about another major piece of this story: the house.

The House

The mansion was built in 1826: a 3-story Greek Revival home at 1738 Elm Street, Stratford, CT. It was built by General Matthias Nicoll (1758-1830) for his daughter Eliza Hopkins Nicoll (1786-1851) and son-in-law Captain George Robert Dowdall (1782-1829). The center hallway of the home was apparently designed by Eliza for George, and was meant to be reminiscent of the main deck of his clipper ship: 12′ wide and 70′ long, with twin staircases leading to the second floor. The house had 4 Doric columns across the front, and the interior was elegantly appointed with chandeliers, carved paneling, and molded plaster work.

Rendering of Phelps Mansion, from Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Vol. XXIV, 1878, p. 34.

Some sources say that Phelps purchased the mansion from Captain Dowdall, while other sources say that he bought it after the deaths of both Dowdalls — Findagrave.com gives different information though: Captain. Dowdall was long dead (died in 1829), and Eliza was clearly in her sunset years (died in 1851), so Phelps likely purchased the house from Eliza, who then moved to Otisville, NY, likely to live with a family member until she died.

The Phelps family owned the house until 1859, when Rev Phelps sold it to Moses Beach, founder of The New York Sun. The home was later inherited by his son Alfred, who was a long-time editor of The Scientific American and ran a private school from the home called the Stratford Institute. In the 1940s, the mansion was covered into a nursing home, the Restmore Convalescent Home, and was bought by Alliance Medical Inns in the 1960s. Financial issues prevented the plans the company had for it, and it boarded up and abandoned the house by 1970. Vandals caused considerable damage to the building, and it was demolished in 1972, by some accounts, and in 1974 by others.

From the house to the greater environment, let’s discuss what was going on in the world at this time.

Historical Context

Many Spiritualists point to 1848, when the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, NY, had their first momentous night of communicating with spirits, as the beginning of Spiritualism. Basically, the home of the Fox family began to be troubled by noises, shaking, and persistent knocking sounds. When the 2 younger girls fled their bedroom one night in apparent terror, they began asking the “spirits” to respond to their counting with knocking, and the spirits accommodated. So began their long and storied careers as mediums, communicating with spirits such as “Mr. Splitfoot” and others. The Fox Sisters moved to Rochester, and newspapers of the time (specifically, the New York Herald and New York Tribune, that I could find) referred to them as the Rochester Ladies as of 1850. Maggie confessed that their work had all been a hoax in 1888. But while the confession destroyed their careers, it did not stop Spiritualism from continuing to grow.

David Chapin, in his book Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity, notes:

Sporadic reporting at this time mentioned rappings that were occurring in a variety of locations outside the [Fox] sisters’ influence. In the home of the Reverend Eliakim Phelps in Stratford, Connecticut, that March, witnesses heard raps and saw objects hurled through the air in the presence of an eleven-year-old boy. These “spirits” seem to have had more malevolent intentions than those at Rochester. Objects often struck witnesses and caused damage, leading the Reverend Phelps to conclude that “wicked spirits” were at work, and that “their communications are wholly worthless” and “devices of Satan.” Other rappings were heard in Newark, New Jersey, while strange, unexplained movement of objects was reported in both Richmond, Virginia, and the West Indies. Clearly the sisters’ hoax was taking on a life of its own.

Eliakim was known to be fascinated by Spiritualism, as well as mesmerism, and this interest carried through much of his family. At least one of his children (Austin) went on to also become Congregationalist clergy, and Austin’s daughter became a prolific feminist writer, producing nearly 60 volumes of prose and poetry in her life, including Biblical romances, antivivisectionist works… and 3 Spiritualist novels. So I think there’s plenty of evidence for the effects of Spiritualism on the Phelps family.

We have the players and the stage — what was the play?

The Haunting

On March 4, 1850, an old friend of Eliakim’s came calling on him at Elm Street, and after dinner and conversation, they apparently decided to try a seance. They apparently heard “intermittent, disorganized rappings” but nothing else. (Citro, 28)

On Sunday, March 10, 1850, the family returned from church to find all the doors standing open and the family’s belongings were strewn across the floor. In one bedroom, chillingly, Mrs. Phelps’ nightgown was laid out on a bed, sleeves crossed over the chest in imitation of a corpse and stockings at the bottom. Nothing appeared to be stolen — his gold watch and the family silver were in view and undisturbed — so they straightened the house and Eliakim sent the family back to church for afternoon services. Meanwhile, he lurked in the upstairs of the house, waiting for the burglars to return. He heard nothing, and then crept downstairs and saw that the dining room was filled with eleven women, some kneeling, some standing, some holding Bibles, and all completely still: all of them seemed focused on a tiny demonic figure suspended by a cord in the center of the room. 

The figures were made by stuffing rags and other materials into the family’s clothing.

According to Joseph A Citro’s book, Passing Strange:

An account of the event published in the New Haven Journal said, “From this time on the rooms were closely watched, and the figures appeared every few days when no human being could have entered the room. They were constructed and arranged, I am convinced, by no visible power. The clothing from the figures were made was somehow gathered from all parts of the house, in spite of a strict watch. In all about 30 figures were constructed during the haunt.”

Other events occurred during the next 6 months, such as objects moving through the air, family members being carried or pinched and slapped by invisible forces, windows breaking (some 71 windows broke, which seems like an appalling amount of money for repairs if it was a hoax), food appearing and being flung at family members, and loud rappings, knockings, and cries. In one incident, an umbrella leaped into the air and flew some 25 feet away, and smaller objects would fly from locations without any visible force to fling them.

At one point shortly after the haunting began, Mrs. Phelps begged her husband to find someone to help, so he enjoined his friend Rev John Mitchell to investigate. Mitchell decided that it must be the children having a prank, so he locked them away in the house. However, the disturbances continued, and he witnessed moving objects, among other activities, such as seeing objects appear and drop out of the air, and this convinced him that it could not be a hoax or prank.

Investigators, spiritualists, and journalists began to turn up at the house to document and attempt to prove/disprove the events. No witnesses or investigators were ever able to determine a human perpetrator of the events. These included Eliakim’s son Austin and Eliakim’s brother Abner, both of whom were sober, well-thought-of professional men in the Boston environs who were none too pleased about the family notoriety and had every reason to debunk the haunting. They heard pounding on the front door that they could not ascertain the source of, despite waiting on either side of it — the pounding occurred on the door between them, with no visible source. One night, the pounding had moved to Anna’s door, and according to Citro:

Again they took their positions on both sides of Anna’s door. The pounding continued. It came, Austin wrote, “… on the door between us. Said I, ‘Doctor, the knocking is outside of the door.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘it is on the inside.’

“The young lady was in bed, covered up and out of reach of the door. We examined the panel and found dents where it had been struck.” (Citro, 26)

Anna, the 17-year-old, was pinched and slapped, generally in view of the family, bruises and welts appearing on her arms and face. Henry, the 12-year-old, got the worst of it, apparently: he was pelted by stones while driving with his stepfather, he was carried across a room by something invisible and dropped on the floor, was thrown into a cistern of water, and several times vanished, once found in a hay mound unconscious, once found outside, tied up and suspended from a tree, and once found stuffed into the shelf of a closet with a rope around his neck.

Eliakim had apparently made attempts to communicate with the spirits perpetrating these events early on, but shut those attempts down because the communications had been so blasphemous and offensive. No transcripts were published, so we only have his word for it, and the word of his friend Mitchell, who also attempted communication. The entities apparently occasionally left Bibles open to significant passages, scrawled symbols on walls, and then, in a dramatic turn, began dropping written messages on the family, generally signed “by Sam Slick, Beelzebub, or H.P. Devil. One that fluttered into existence at Mrs. Phelp’s tea party said, ‘Sir Sambo’s compliments and begs the laddyes to accept as a token of esteem.'” (Citro, 29).

Eventually, however, he was worn down and agreed to another seance. The spirit this time claimed to be a soul in hell, requested pumpkin pie and a glass of gin, and then claimed to have been a law clerk who’d done work for Mrs. Phelps and committed fraud. Eliakim decided that this communication — despite discovering that fraud had been committed via a trip to the Philadelphia law firm in question — was worthless and bad. 

Aftermath

Eliakim moved the family to Philadelphia for the winter of 1850-1851, and returned in the spring of 1851, where they were no longer disturbed. According to some accounts, they stayed in the house until 1859, when Phelps sold it to Moses Beach, though they were clearly in Philadelphia in October 1858 when Mrs. Phelps died — possibly Eliakim had taken her to Philadelphia for treatment.

Apparently, there were no other reports of supernatural occurrences until it was a nursing home, at which time some staff reported strange noises and other odd occurrences,. Inevitably, Ed and Lorraine Warren investigated the house.

Supernatural theories for the Phelps haunting range from spirits raised by Eliakim’s seance to the two eldest stepchildren, Anna and Henry, being conduits for paranormal energies, to there being a ghost involved, either a murdered peddler or a woman murdered for being a witch. The non-supernatural theories tend to focus on Henry as the prankster, or on Anna and Henry as teaming up for the hoax. If the latter, perhaps Anna did not return with the family in 1851 — I have found evidence for possibly multiple marriages for her, and she might’ve decided to get away from the family by getting hitched while in Philadelphia, which would have left Henry without his partner-in-crime. Henry, for his part, went to sea, married, and had 2 children. He died in Philadelphia at age 32 of valvular disease of the heart. Of the third child I can find no trace.

Sidney, the child of Eliakim and Sarah, who notably does not appear to figure in any of the stories, married and had one child, and seems to have also died fairly young, around 46, in Philadelphia.

While many of the newspaper articles of 1850 that I’ve managed to find seem to dismiss the entire event out of hand as at least as much of a hoax as they assumed the Fox Sisters to be perpetrating, there do seem to be considerable numbers of investigators who failed to find human sources for the activities. Was the mansion haunted? If not, how were the remarkable tableaus created and how were objects flown through the air in front of witnesses? That no one who subsequently owned the mansion found secret panels or doors, or other automation of deception buried in the walls suggests that at the very least, Rev Phelps was not himself necessarily involved, and may have been an inadvertent dupe of the entire adventure.

Sources

Arborvitae: A Tree Possibly Pruned by Tuberculosis

Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Johann Peter Albrecht came from a family who had been in Walldorf, Germany, for at least 5 generations. He was born on October 13, 1836, which made him a subject of the Grand Duke of Baden.

The Grand Duchy of Baden. Image from Wikipedia.

He sailed from Le Havre, France, on the ship Helvetia, arriving in New York City on November 28, 1853. It appears that he may have sailed with a cousin or uncle’s family, since he was 17 and listed in his own entry separate from Georg and Catharine Albrecht’s family on the same ship.

There was a revolution in Baden in 1849 and in 1852, the Grand Duke died, leaving his second son ruling by regency in place of his apparently incompetent eldest son. Meanwhile, the Potato Famine of Ireland was also happening in Germany. And Peter’s mother died in 1850. I could see it all combining to make 1853 a good year to bail out for the US.

Barbara Gaebel, was born on July 14, 1839, in Großbockenheim, Bavaria — the larger of 2 small town subcenters, apparently, of a municipality currently known as Bockenheim an der Weinstraße. Her parents were Carl Gaebel and Jacobina Kennel. I found 2 possible courses for Barbara’s early life:

  • her mother remarried in 1841 and went on to have 9 children with that man, with the presumption of the era that Carl Gaebel had died
  • Carl and Jacoba Gabel arrived in New York City with 1-year-old Barbara on July 20, 1840, aboard the ship Elisha Denison, having sailed from LeHavre

I’m opting to consider the latter the canonical version at this point. In the late 1830s, Bavaria became much less friendly toward Catholics; it might not be unreasonable, if the Gabels were Catholic (which later evidence suggests), to think they might have hightailed it out of there with their infant.

Both the Helvetia and the Elisha Denison appear to have been 3-masted square-rigger ships that traversed the Atlantic regularly. The Helvetia was a newer ship, built in 1850, able to make the trip in between 38 and 53 days, apparently. We can probably expect that the Elisha Denison took somewhat longer, though I can’t find any immediate stats on that.

An example of the immigrant ships of the era.

In any case, Peter and Barbara married sometime before 1860 and were settled in Philadelphia by 1860.

Philadelphia 1876. From the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Their first child, Charles, was born on August 3, 1860, in Pennsylvania, and they went on to have at least 11 children:

  • Charles (1861–1897)
  • Catharine (1866–1896)
  • Peter (1867–1867)
  • George (1868–1902)
  • Oliver (1868–1868)
  • Clara (1869–1870)
  • Emma Regina (1871–1946)
  • Elizabeth (1872–1941)
  • Anna Maria (1875–1903)
  • Margaret (1876–1956)
  • John (1880–1928)

You’ll notice a few things in their list of children:

  • There’s a gap between Charles (born 1860) and Catharine (born 1866) which is, in most part, explicable by Peter spending 3.5 years in the Union Army. He was a private in the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, Company A, and was apparently the surgeon’s assistant by dint of his training as a butcher. (Yes, surgery in the Civil War was exactly that horrifying.)
  • 3 of the children didn’t make it out of infancy, which is not unusual at all. Peter Jr and Oliver each died a few hours after birth, Clara died of teething and pneumonia (likely an infection from teething that spread to the lungs).
  • There is an interesting cluster of 4 children dying between 1896 and 1903.

It is this last that I find especially fascinating. Hang on, let’s put the deaths in order, add in Peter and Barbara, and add causes of death.

  • Barbara, 13 April 1896: inanition
  • Catharine, 18 October 1896: acute myelitis
  • Charles, 4 January 1897: pleuropneumonia
  • George, 27 April 1902: pulmonary phthisis
  • Anna Maria, 20 September 1903: tuberculosis
  • Peter Sr, 15 April 1904: cancer of the throat and face, with the contribution of “effusion on the brain”

Parts of Philadelphia in the late 1800s were so densely populated that tuberculosis ran rampant. I also note that all the Albrecht children were still living at home as of 1896 — 8 children and 2 parents living in a corner house either behind or above the butcher shop on South 8th St. That made for pretty crowded conditions.

Barbara’s cause of death, as we know from previous death certificate adventures, is thoroughly unhelpful. She stopped eating. It could have been cancer. It could have been any disease at all. Her obituary is unhelpful too.

ALBRECHT. On the 13th. BARBARA, wife of Peter Albrecht. nee Goebel, aged 56 years. The relatives and friends of the family are respectfully invited to attend the funeral, on Friday morning at 7.30 o’clock, from her husband’s residence, 1401 South Eighth street. High Mass at St. Alphonsus’ Church. Interment at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Here’s our evidence that Barbara’s family may have been Catholic (while Peter’s was not — he was baptized in a Protestant church in Walldorf): St. Alphonsus Church, once located at 4th and Reed Sts in South Philadelphia, 4 blocks from Peter Albrecht’s butcher shop at 8th and Reed. From the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Catharine died 6 months after her mother. This could be terrible luck — she developed acute myelitis — inflammation of the spinal cord as a result of… something? Some infectious disease, most likely. It could have been typhoid (there was a sizable outbreak in 1898-1899), or polio (an up and coming disease), or influenza (there had been a pandemic in 1890, but there’s always the yearly flu). It could also have been tuberculosis. Now, we have no evidence from the documents that TB was knocking about in the Albrechts’ crowded house yet.

But less than 3 months later, Charles died of pleuropneumonia (pneumonia complicated by pleurisy, or inflammation of the tissues around the lungs). This is a really odd cluster of bad luck. I mean, it could be just bad luck. There could’ve been a flu outbreak that took out both brother and sister that winter. Especially because we still don’t have proof of TB. But pleurisy is one of the first symptoms of TB outside the lungs, and the doctor may have been simply literal. I have also seen this diagnosis crop up in another family in a mother whose child subsequently died of TB, suggesting that the mother had had it as well.

But then George died of pulmonary phthisis — the unnecessarily unpronounceable 19th century medical term for pulmonary tuberculosis. Granted, he died 5 years after Charles, but TB can have a long latency period. He might have caught something else that compromised his immune system — another round of flu, perhaps — and that allowed latent TB to become active. Or possibly the previous deaths were not TB at all and he just picked it up at work sometime.

A year and 5 months later, Anna also dies of TB. Did she also have latent TB, or did she avoid it until George got it? It’s impossible to know now.

And lastly went Peter, 7 months after Anna and 8 years almost to the day after Barbara died. Cancer of the throat and face is not necessarily directly linked to TB, though TB does increase chances of it. Apparently, laryngeal TB can masquerade as cancer, forming a sizable mass. But the involvement of the face argues against that misdiagnosis. The era suggests that this could have been tobacco use, of course, or perhaps some horrific chemical exposure that only butchers might experience. But at this distance one can never tell.

Certainly it could be terrible luck. Bad luck continued to dog this family even after this horrific cluster of deaths left only 4 children behind.

  • Emma Regina (1871–1946)
  • Elizabeth (1872–1941)
  • Margaret (1876–1956)
  • John (1880–1928)

It is worth noting that Emma got the heck out of Dodge in 1899 when she got married and moved out, which probably kept her from having to be potentially infected by TB (assuming there wasn’t an earlier outbreak that she survived). Elizabeth married in October 1902, after George died and before Anna. This left Margaret and John in the house when Anna, then Peter died. Margaret went into service, living in a home with a family with a small child in a middling-wealthy part of Philadelphia, while John moved in with Elizabeth a few blocks down South 8th St, in the house next-door to Peter’s first butcher shop.

John died first, in 1928 of gangrene of the right foot due to diabetes. Emma, sometime in the early 1940s, also experienced complications from diabetes that resulted in amputation of one of her legs.

Elizabeth, who was married but never seems to have had children, died next, the evening of October 26, 1941, in Philadelphia, age 69. She’d been struck by “a car that failed to stop” at 17th St and Passyunk Ave, just 3 blocks from her house.

Emma died on January 10, 1946, age 74, having been the only one of her siblings to have children, and having lived to know her 5 grandsons and even met at least one great-grandchild. Margaret died in February 1956 at the age of 79, and was buried near Emma (and Emma’s husband) and John.

I have a photo of this grave somewhere, but this one’s from Findagrave.

I continue to have deep suspicions about the entire death cluster that comprises 8 years around the turn of the century, though I don’t have any proof. It’s sort of like another, smaller cluster in another branch of the family that is extremely suggestive that the family suffered a Helicobacter pylori infection. I’ll never know the answers, but the evidence is tantalizing and I’ll just keep speculating as long as I work on these family trees.

Arborvitae: When Genealogy and Cancer Genetics Collide

Here is a tale of how an inherited health issue becomes clearer the deeper one looks into a family tree. (A lesson from a family tree I have worked on.)

Introduction

It starts with looking at the recent adult generation of a family tree I was working on. I knew from information from the family that 3 amab first cousins of that generation were all diagnosed with cancer and died before age 50:

  • 1 case of acute leukemia in late adolescence
  • 1 case of non-Hodgkins lymphoma before age 25
  • 1 case of colorectal cancer at age 40

There was also possibly an afab first cousin with cancer, but I couldn’t get specifics, and that person might not have been a step-cousin.

That… seems like rather a lot of people with cancer. So I took a look at the next generation back.

Two of the 4 siblings died of cancer — one of breast cancer diagnosed before age 60, and one of lung cancer around age 80. In general, 1 in 3 to 1 in 4 USians will develop cancer at some point in their lives, so 2 of 4 is a bit above average. Certainly noticeable considering the generation after them.

So I looked at the parents of those 4 siblings.

Their mother died at 81 of heart failure. However, their father (let’s call him Pete) died at age 48 due to generalized metastatic cancer — no information on the primary cancer. (He apparently died during a minor surgical procedure, and when they did the autopsy, they found that he had generalized metastasis. The death certificate indicated that his cervical lymph nodes were particularly affected. Lymphoma? Or just metastasis from some other primary cancer?) If we presume that there is a genetic cause of all these cancers, it seems obvious from which parent it might have come!

I was able to uncover death certificates for Pete’s parents. Both of them died fairly young, which was an intriguing start. But one of the problems with death certificates, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is that some doctors are incredibly literal. “John Doe died of pulmonary edema” — what caused John’s pulmonary edema? Was it heart failure? Was it cancer? Was it an infectious disease? Who knows?

Pete’s father Michael died at age 58 of a pulmonary embolism and endocarditis, and had a history of apoplexy (stroke) a year earlier. That seems straightforwardly cardiovascular enough (though cancer can increase the risk of stroke by altering the clotting of the blood). Pete’s mother Mary died at age 42 of a cerebral embolism in the middle of the 1918 flu pandemic (October 14, 1918) and was living near Philadelphia, which was one of the worst-hit cities in the US. Influenza, like many other viruses, can increase the risk of stroke, and a lot of doctors weren’t adding influenza as a cause of death on certificates at the time. So we may have an answer there.

A quick check one generation back provided some more data:

Michael’s father died at 75 of pulmonary edema with a contributing factor of hypertrophy of the prostate. Overgrowth of the prostate in a 75-year-old man in 1923 could have been benign hypertrophy OR it could have been prostate cancer. There’s really no telling, unfortunately.

Michael’s mother died at 64 of “ruptured compensation,” which is either heart failure or decompensated valvular disease of the heart. That’s fairly clearly cardiac. Sadly, his parents were immigrants from a country with no easily-accessible online data, so I can’t hunt more medical history there.

Mary’s father died at 85 of arteriosclerosis. Her mother died at 49 of uremia, which wasn’t all that unusual in 1899 — it was a common cause of death for those with diabetes, for instance, or any of several other conditions that might injure the kidneys. And they too were immigrants, where information stops.

Let’s Check the Siblings

Back down the tree to Pete. He had a bunch of siblings! Some more data:

  • Jim, who died at 61 of metastatic colon cancer
  • Catherine, who died at 2 months of pneumonia
  • Mary, who died at 70 of a sudden heart attack
  • Frank, who died at 4 of “hemorrhages”
  • Claire, who died at 6 months of lobar pneumonia
  • Jean, who died at age 86 of unknown causes
  • Michael, who died at age 1 years of meningitis and pneumonia
  • Joe, who died at age 84 of unknown causes

Let’s take a quick run down Jim’s tree, since he’s the most obvious person who died of cancer in adulthood. He had 3 children:

  • Jean, who died at 74 of unknown causes, though her obituary suggested donations to the “bone marrow unit” of the local hospital, which suggests blood cancer; Jean had 1 child::
    • Sandra, who died at age 59 of leukemia, and had 2 children:
      • Brian, who died at age 21 of leukemia
      • Nan, who is still alive
  • Bob, who died at 83 of melanoma; Bob had 3 children:
    • Bob Jr, who died at age 41 of anaphylactic shock from multiple yellowjacket stings
    • Cathy, who is still alive
    • Cheryl, who is still alive
  • Darcy, who is still alive

Wow, okay, Jean, her daughter, and her grandson certainly seem to factor into the equation here. Bob, at 83 with melanoma, might or might not be a related data point.

That’s a lot of cancer in 2 family branches, happening to relatively young people, especially when one compares to the unaffected family branches, where most people died of cardiovascular disease. Striking, you might call it if you were a genealogist and a geneticist.

Many cancer-predisposing genes are inherited in an autosomal dominant fashion, meaning that only one copy needs to be inherited to manifest. But these genes are also influenced by environmental factors, which is why they generally only increase the risk of developing cancer, rather than making it an absolute future. They also tend to mutate fairly often: for instance, when inherited BRCA1 mutations are found in someone with breast or ovarian cancer, about 40% of the time that person doesn’t have a family history of cancer. There was a decent chance, when all I knew about was Pete and his descendents, that Pete was gene patient zero..

However, given what I found with Pete’s brother Jim and his descendents, we’re probably looking at a gene that was inherited from one of their parents, both of whom died youngish of apparently noncancerous causes. Is there any way to look into that? Siblings again! 

Pete’s mother Mary had a couple of siblings, but the only one I could find a death date on was a woman who died of a stroke just a couple years after Mary. Strokes were really going around in that family! The 1918-1920 period was pretty stressful.

Pete’s father Michael had more traceable siblings:

  • Mary, who died at 74, and of her 7 children, 1 died in infancy, 1 died at age 38 (“after a brief illness”), 1 died at 53 (“following a short illness”), and the rest died between the ages of 76 and 100.
  • Dan, who died at 77, and of his 3 children, 1 died at 32 after “an illness of 10 weeks,” 1 died at 73, and the last died at 97.
  • Tony, who died at 68 of emphysema and bronchitis, and had no children.
  • Lou, who died at 80 after a “brief illness,” and of his 5 children, 1 died at 76 after a “lengthy illness,” 1 died at age 2 of enterocolitis, 1 died at age 68 of unknown causes, 1 died at 69 of a heart attack, and 1 died at 83 of Alzheimer’s.

There is nothing jumping out as a potential run of cancer in this part of the family, with the possible exceptions of the 2 mysterious 30-somethings and 1 50-something dying after brief/short/10-week illnesses. Brief illnesses in 50-somethings are usually cardiac, but in 30-somethings, it’s a big question mark. But none of the 5 siblings appear to have died young or markedly of cancer. If we’re postulating an autosomal dominant gene, then about half of the siblings should have turned up with something. Granted, we don’t know about actual cause of death for 3 of them. 

I must reluctantly come to the conclusion that we don’t have sufficient data to conclude which parent gave Jim and Pete their hypothetical cancer gene. 

More Hypotheses

All right, if we’re going to go down the track of hypothetical cancer genes, what are we looking at?

Our only certain data points are:

  • 1 case of generalized metastatic cancer of unknown origin (amab)
  • 1 case of melanoma (amab)
  • 1 case of breast cancer (afab)
  • 1 case of lung cancer (afab)
  • 2 cases of colorectal cancer (amab)
  • 4 or 5 cases of leukemia or lymphoma (3 amab, 1 or 2 afab)

The melanoma and lung cancer can almost be written off as incidentals: the fellow who died of melanoma happened to have an address in a known beach town, the woman who died of lung cancer was a nearly lifelong smoker, both of them over 80. Which leaves us leukemia/lymphoma predominant, with colorectal and breast cancer in the mix. Not a lot of data to work with. The sex balance is interesting: 6 males, 3 females. Should we be looking at an X-chromosome-linked gene? Or is there some protective quality in action? Or do we just have a random assortment that happens to have an imbalance? Again, not a lot of data. If I could get information on the many unknowns, it might give us more insight.

This is, at this point, not the pattern of either of the BRCA gene mutations. In both BRCA1 and BRCA2, there is an overwhelming majority of breast and ovarian cancers (along with closely related cancers like fallopian tube cancer and primary peritoneal cancer), with an increased chance of pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.  Another cancer syndrome that comes up at the top of literature searches is Li-Fraumeni syndrome (a mutation in the gene TP53), but it has cancer types not seen in this family: sarcoma, brain cancer, and adrenal cancer. It’s also almost completely penetrant in its classic form, meaning that people who inherit the mutation are going to get cancer if they live long enough. 

This is likely a gene mutation that is incompletely penetrant — just in the initial family branch, there are apparent generation skips — but most likely autosomal dominant inheritance, given the way it can show up in every generation. (The family would have to have remarkably crap luck to keep marrying mutation carriers from other families.) There are a lot of familial cancer syndromes out there, and more being found all the time. Just running cancer predisposition searches on Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) can be overwhelming: a search for “leukemia predisposition” brings back 1900 results.

I’m not a cancer geneticist by a long shot, but I can see the outlines of patterns in family history research. This is just one family that I’ve spotted with such an issue — there are others that I’ve run across in other families that show even more definite patterns, ones where I can say, “Oh, I bet there’s a BRCA issue here,” or, “Looks like one of the familial colorectal cancer genes.”

This is just varied enough to be hard to make an untutored call. It looks like a pattern. It feels like a pattern. But I suspect that a cancer geneticist would probably want to do some gene sequencing on the family to spot the source of the issue, and to be able to test the family members who are at risk. And get a paper from it, of course.

Wonder City Storytime

Head on over to this post on the Glitter Collective if you’d like to be read to by me, in an unedited way, from Wonder City Stories

Arborvitae: The Tangled Saga of Bill

By thecameraslinger on Unsplash

At least a decade ago, a long-time friend of mine who was adopted (we’ll call her Elena; note that names of all living people and some dead people are changed for privacy) and I were talking over some wine, and I offered to hook her up with some online adoption registries in case she was interested in finding her bio-parents. She had her bio-mom’s name, name of the lawyer who handled the adoption, her date of birth, and the hospital she was born in. So that was the info I plunked into the internet.

And that was where this story just started to get interesting.

Elena’s adoption was handled by Helen Tanos Hope. In brief: the adoptions handled by Hope are characterized by some writers as “grey market” — a little sketchy, entirely legal. For instance, Elena’s adoptive father spent a week in Juarez, Mexico, to finalize the paperwork for the adoption. Not the usual procedure, really. When Hope died, her records went into the trash — also not usual procedure. Another lawyer managed to salvage a large proportion of the records, but there are whole registries dedicated to people adopted through Hope’s services because of the lack of records.

After that bit of exciting news, though, everything went quiescent. Elena added herself to some other adoption registries; I got one hit on a registry that I poked, but the email address for the birth mother who was listed was no longer functioning.

Then 4 years ago, everything picked up: Elena’s birth mother, Claire, found her on one of the registries and wrote her a birthday card. Elena called me not long after she read the card and gave me both Claire’s name and her bio-father’s name — I’ll call him Bill throughout — asking me to poke at Ancestry and see what turned up.

And then we started a wild ride over the next couple of days.

His full name was surprisingly findable and turned up a lot of hits that were specific for him and his father (Bill was named for his father).

I shook the family tree pretty hard, and a bunch of stuff fell out.

Bill was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1928. I had to doublecheck this date in multiple records, because that made him 10 years older than he’d told Claire he was when he met her in the mid-1960s. But I found multiple sources for the birthdate, and those sources also corresponded with his later move to Florida. I was pretty certain I was looking at the correct Bill.

In 1931, Bill was in a head-on car crash that nearly killed his mother, the driver — another driver had swerved out of the line of cars and hit her car head-on. Apparently the car following theirs also hit them, then sped off without checking on anyone or giving information. Her mother and sister-in-law were also in the car and, like Bill, received severe cuts and bruises. Fortunately, despite the hopeless tone of the newspaper article, Bill’s mother survived (and lived to be 91).

By 1940, his family had moved to Staten Island, New York, where his father worked as a ferry/marine engineer. Bill attended Ralph R. McKee Career & Technical High School in Staten Island, graduating in 1946. In 1953, I found a record of him living in Miami, Florida, with his parents, working as a mechanic for American Airmotive Corporation (which apparently was founded earlier than 1954).

For New Year’s 1954, he traveled to Key West. And then in 1955, the first hint of things to come: a divorce from a woman named Carmella.

Now, Florida’s marriage and divorce records are pretty complete on Ancestry. The fact that I couldn’t find a record for his marriage to Carmella suggests that perhaps that marriage happened elsewhere — Staten Island, perhaps, or New Jersey. Unfortunately, her maiden name was nowhere to be found, so I still haven’t managed to locate her.

But no worries! There’s plenty more where she came from, as evidenced by the 1955 Florida marriage record of Bill and Jan.

Followed by the 1959 Florida divorce from Jan.

And the July 1959 Florida marriage to Phyllis.

And the March 1966 Florida divorce from Phyllis.

And the May 1975 Nevada marriage to Gayle.

And the 1979 divorce from Gayle.

And the July 1979 Nevada marriage to Myrtle.

And the September 1982 California divorce from Myrtle.

And the October 1982 California marriage to Ladonna.

I kept expecting more to turn up, so I kept shaking the tree.

When Bill died in 2007 in Washington state, he was apparently still married to Ladonna, which surprised me. So I went back and started digging into the ex-wives a bit more.

Jan was born on Long Island in 1935. She married Bill in 1955 and divorced him in 1959. In 1961, she married Charlie. She divorced Charlie in 1965. In 1967, she married Les. She appears to still be alive and married to Les.

Phyllis was born in New York in 1930. She married Harry sometime in the early 1950s in New York. She divorced Harry in June 1959 and married Bill in July 1959. She divorced Bill in March 1966 and married Charlie (yes, same Charlie as above) in October 1966. She divorced Charlie in May 1968, and married Greg in February 1969. She divorced Greg in July 1970. When she died in 2013, she was living in California.

We know from Claire ‘s letter and subsequent discussions that the time between 1967 and ~1974 was when Claire was with Bill. She met him in 1967, a charming musician who had recently survived a major car accident. He was working at a local music shop as a music teacher and instrument repairman, and spending a lot of time on his steel-hulled, twin-engine, teak-decked, mahogany-trimmed 36-foot Chriscraft motor boat. Claire had Elena in 1968 — we later found that Phyllis apparently helped arrange the adoption via Helen Hope. Bill and Claire stayed together, and he apparently abandoned his Chriscraft and bought a steam-fired tugboat called the NYC Central #3, which Claire described as “roughly 100 feet of derelict steel which he had the delusion of restoring to its former glory.” They lived there for a couple of years and had a lot of parties. They moved to a house for a year, and then Bill decided on a move to Colorado. They never married, thus no marriage record, or divorce record when she left him.

Gayle was born in Nebraska in 1942. In 1958, she married George in Colorado. She divorced him in February 1970, then married Rick in March 1970. Presumably, there was a divorce, since she married Bill in 1975. She divorced Bill in 1979, and I haven’t found any further marriages. I do note that when she died in 2003, she had retained Rick’s last name, not Bill’s.

Myrtle was born in 1924 in Detroit, Michigan, notably the only one of Bill’s wives to be older than him. She married Gene in 1949 in Detroit. Sometime near and about 1975, she married another guy because that’s when her last name changed again. Then she divorced him and married Bill in Nevada in 1979. She divorced Bill in California in 1982, and then in 1983 married another William. As far as I can tell, she remained married to him until she died in 2001.

Ladonna was born in 1933 in Texas. At some point, perhaps in the early 60s, she married Roy, and then divorced him in 1966 in California. On Hallowe’en 1967, she married Robert. That lasted until March 1971, when she divorced him. At some point after that, she married James, and then divorced him in 1978. In 1982, she married Bill, and stayed married to him until he died in 2007. She died in 2008.

Subsequent searching turned up a Fredrica [Bill’s last name] in Miami, which blew us out of the water, because Claire knew who she was — she was the woman (well, girl, really, because she was 16-17, as Claire had been) Bill had been in a relationship before her. I did some more digging: Fredrica was born in 1948 in California, and I found her actual last name. I found her as a cheerleader in a high school in Louisiana in 1965 or so, found a marriage record to a guy named Lazaro in 1967 in Miami, followed by a divorce in 1973. Then I found that she’d died in Texas in 1993. A local historical society provided me with her obituary — she’d died in a car accident. With the information in the obituary, I managed to connect with her younger brother on Facebook, and he told me the following tale: while their family had been gone for a vacation, Fredrica had gone to New Orleans for a jazz festival, where she met Bill in the French Quarter. After, apparently, a wild weekend, Bill brought her back to the family house, where she packed a bag and left them a note that she’d “split” with Bill to Miami. After some consideration, their father moved the family to Miami to be close to her. She’d changed to attending high school there, and had taken Bill to her prom. Eventually, though, she broke up with Bill, and we know he almost immediately got involved with Claire.

So then I started hunting — were there any other kids? I couldn’t find Carmella, Jan didn’t seem to have any, and neither did Gayle — Myrtle was in her 50s when she married Bill, likewise Ladonna. So then I looked at Phyllis. Her obituary listed 4 children! I started poking them for ages. Three of them were born during her years with Harry, but I couldn’t dig up a birth year immediately on the fourth — April. It took me a lot of hunting, but I narrowed her age down and it seemed very likely that she was born during Phyllis’ first year of marriage to Bill. I started Googling her.

That was when I tripped over the news story about April and her art. In the course of the interview, she mentioned that she was adopted and that she’d tracked down her bio-parents, Phyllis and Bill.

Suddenly, I knew I’d found a half-sister for Elena.

Elena reached out to April, and that contact brought a wealth of information. Like, for instance, that in addition to her and her 3 half-siblings, Phyllis had also had a baby with Bill in high school. Who had, naturally, been put up for adoption. April had been hunting for her for years.

That fall, there was quite a get-together at Elena’s house, with both Claire and April converging, and all of them insisting I come along. It was an exhausting but delightful and thoroughly enlightening weekend. We got a much better feel for how charismatic Bill had been (despite the somewhat appalling prom photo I had acquired from Fredrica’s brother), some more history about Claire’s life with him, and, moreover, from April, an idea of the lifelong passion Phyllis had had for him.

For the most part, the family tree stopped providing a wild ride after that. Bill’s family history was unremarkable except for the odd coincidence that they were from the state that Elena had been taken home to after her adoption. The family consisted of marine engineers who mostly worked on shipping on the local rivers. Bill’s father came from an extremely large family with some German antecedents while his mother descended from an originally Quaker lineage that shared ancestors with Richard Nixon.

April did AncestryDNA in the hope of locating her lost full sister, and finally, in early 2018, she succeeded! Florence lived in the state next to Elena’s, and in the spring, the 3 sisters met at Elena’s house. Happy endings all around!

I’m still frustrated by being unable to track down Bill’s first wife, Carmella — I would bet that there was at least one child involved in that marriage. But neither New York nor New Jersey are very forthcoming with marriage records at this time, so I have to be satisfied with having made some human connections with what I had in hand… as well as having documented at least the legally recorded side of the startling web of relationships twined around Bill.

Arborvitae: Cousin Oscar’s Surprising End

As you know by now, it’s the people who die surprisingly young who most often surprise me on their death certificates or, in states failing to have useful records that Ancestry or FamilySearch have managed to wangle out of them, news stories. And they’re the ones I generally go hunting for in terms of cause of death. In the case of women, it’s usually sadly predictable; for instance, in a tree I’m working on, I recently spotted a woman who’d died in 1944 in her 30s. Then I found that a child of hers was born in 1944. I compared his birthday to her death day and… yeah, she’d died 2 days after he was born. Puerperal fever got a LOT of women before the general availability of really effective antibiotics. Now, I don’t have her death certificate — thanks, Michigan — so it could have been eclampsia, since there were antibiotics at this point that generally put down puerperal fever, and eclampsia is harder to put down; or it could have been a hemorrhage, or any of a handful of other causes of mortality in new mothers.

When men die super-young, it’s either disease or something more interesting than puerperal fever. For instance, I’ve got one guy who died within a month of his wedding of meningitis. That said, it’s often worth hunting for news stories if there’s no death certificate, because small towns and the demise of a promising young man often equal Big News (see also Cousin Frank’s Sudden Death).

As it was in the case of Oscar Beauregarde Russell.

Disclaimer: O B Russell is part of a tree that is not mine, but that I’ve been working on. Permission granted by the person whose tree it is for me to write about interesting things I find in the tree.

Oscar was born on August 31, 1861, in Verona, Mississippi, just a few months after the opening of the Civil War (and he, of course, lived in a place that probably refers to it as the War Between The States, but this is my version of the story, so you get my [accurate] Yankee predilections for terminology). He was the ninth child of George Daniel Russell and Emily Menville Stovall, grandson of George Russell, who was a close friend of Davy Crockett and played by Buddy Ebsen in Disney’s Davy Crockett television series.

Buddy Ebsen as George Russell

On May 18, 1882, in Bell, Texas, Oscar married Leila Eubank, daughter of John Thomas Eubank and Julia Jackson Eubank. As he proceeded into what was apparently a promising career in the dairy business, he and Leila had 7 children.

On March 20, 1897, however, Oscar made a Bad Choice.

BAIRD STAR – FRIDAY Mar 26, 1897, CRUSHED TO DEATH: There was a horrible accident in the railroad yards here last Saturday night in which Mr. O B Russell, brother of our County Attorney, B L Russell, and partner with Mr. H G Parker, dairyman, was instantly killed.
Mr. Russell came up town after supper on some business and returning in company with Arthur Waldrou they went down through the T&P Ry yards on their way to the dairy farm just south of the depot. There were several freight cars standing on the main line and they walked to a point just east of the telegraph office where they found an opening between the cars. Arthur Waldrou crossed the track in safety, but the space between the cars from some cause closed up suddenly and caught Mr. Russell between the draw heads and crushed him to death instantly; a coupling link having passed entirely through his body just above the hips. Mr. Russell had a lamp chimney in his hand when struck and when found the chimney was still in his hand unbroken.
Mr. Russell leaves a wife and seven children to mourn his loss, besides several brothers and sisters and his aged mother who lives at Putnam. Two sisters, Mrs. M E Surles, of Putnam and Mrs. R Day of Abilene, came in Sunday to attend the funeral at Baird Cemetery. Mr Frank Russell of Sipe Springs was telegraphed the sad news at once but did not receive it until too late to be present at the funeral; but came in on Monday.
It was a sad affair and THE STAR extends sincere sympathy to the widow and orphan children so suddenly robbed of husband and father. Mr. Russell was born in 1861 and was therefore about 36 years of age. In the mourning of life, while the shadows still falling towards the west, suddenly and without a moments warning the summons came and he passed over the river.
Mr. Russell we understand carried a small amount of life insurance $1000 in the Royal Union Co. of Des Moines.

Yes, you read that correctly: he walked through a train yard as a short cut. He walked between 2 train cars that his friend had just successfully walked between. One of the cars moved for an unknown reason and he was transfixed by the coupling between the cars, instantly killed, and found still standing with his lamp in his hand.

For more information on how dangerous railyards were at the time, check out this Atlas Obscura article.

The United States was in transition between train couplers at that point. Originally, they used link-and-pin couplers, which required a human to be between moving train cars in order to lock those cars together, and maimed or killed a LOT of railway workers.

By Ben Franske – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6359889

In order to address the safety concerns, the US mandated a transition from these link and pin couplers to automatic knuckle or Janney couplers over the course of about 5 years. So there were transition couplers that could accept either type.

By Huduuthink – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32241707

And then there were just the knuckle couplers.

By ArnoldReihold – En:Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1481469

Because 1897 was squarely in the transition period, we can’t know which type of coupler went entirely through Oscar above the hips, but we can be… pretty glad he apparently died instantly. And very sorry for Mr. Waldrou, who presumably turned back when his friend wasn’t immediately behind him and found some serious nightmare fuel instead.

The obituary notes that his sudden death left his widow and 7 children… but actually it was 8, because Leila gave birth to their last child 6 months later. Those 8 children were:

  • Edith Mae Russell (1884–1974)
  • Oscar Burton Russell (1886–1954)
  • Emily C Russell (1888–1913)
  • John T Russell (1889–1925)
  • William Stovall Russell (1891–1972)
  • Robert Lee Russell (1893–1951)
  • Clarence Tatom Russell (1895–1964)
  • Eunice Vivian Russell (1897–1980)

Leila took the children and presumably the insurance settlement away from Baird, Texas, to Lampasas, Texas, where her father lived. They were living in a house she owned in Lampasas in 1900. However, her father died in late 1900, and perhaps there was a motivation to move closer to her husband’s family again, since she moved the family back to Callahan County by 1910. By 1920, it appears that all her children had moved out to their own lives, and she moved back closer to her roots, to Bertram, Texas, where she lived with one of her nieces. While I can’t find her in 1930, by 1935 she was living with her youngest daughter Vivian and her family in Forth Worth, Texas, and by 1940, they were in Arlington, Texas, (near Austin). Leila lived until 1953, and died in San Luis Obispo, California, age 88, still apparently living with Vivian and her family (since Vivian’s husband died in the same city in 1960).