Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sharing Our Stories

The original Flight of Five locks in Lockport, NY.
I was recently home visiting my family. I haven’t lived in my hometown for almost twenty years now, and the time and distance, combined with my genealogical research, had me looking at everything with different eyes. The Erie Canal, a few blocks away from my childhood home, wasn’t just a man-made wonder of engineering and water. My 3x great-grandfather, Thomas Burke, helped carve it out of the dolomite rock. He was an Irish immigrant, living with the other workers on the north end of town. His blood and sweat went into that creation.
Walking past the garage shop down the street, where my 2x great-grandfather Hiram King Wicker, and his brother, owned a feed store together. Walking past the First Presbyterian church where I attended an interfaith youth group, and all I could think about was the photo we found from a newspaper of my great-grandma Minnie Estelle Wicker, his daughter, standing out front in her dress coat. Is there any place in my hometown my feet have trod that some other person from my extended family tree had not done so before me?
Dorothy, Great-Grandma Hattie (seated), and Grandma Ruth in Olcott.
We went to the shore of Lake Ontario, to Olcott, where I spent a lot of time as a kid. My great-grandma Elsie had a small cottage there, and as my mom drove me around to see it, I knew we were almost upon it, my memories breaking through. She pointed out another house nearby, a small quaint turquoise home, where her grandparents Art used to live. I thought of the pictures I had seen of my Grandpa Eaton’s family at the beach in Olcott, where they also had a family cottage as my mom and I sorted through rocks in the surf.
When my dad wanted to take me to a nearby cemetery, I said yes. I love cemetery walking. My niece and nephew wanted to know why Grandpa was taking me to a cemetery and when we told them someone related to us was buried there, they wanted to come with us. I introduced them to the word ancestor. Our family has lived, over generations, all over Western New York, and my dad often stops at small cemeteries as he stumbles across them.
He didn’t expect to find any familiar names in this particular one, but he knew some of our ancestors had made their homes in Olcott. It was very small, surrounded on two sides by brush and one by a road, the other by homes. One of the first obvious markers had the name Sears on it, which was a large sprawling family, of which we are part of it. They weren’t our direct ancestors, he said, but he thought they were related. So he kept looking.
At the back end of the cemetery, almost obscured, were two headstones, one collapsed from the base. They were for Heman Sears and his wife Clarissa Dubois. She died in 1873, and he died in 1880. The kids were amazed that they were related to us and we spelled out how many greats they had to put in front of grandparents- three for dad, four for me, and five for them.
When my niece asked my dad if he had known them, I started laughing. My dad walked her through the math of how old he’d have to be for that to be true, but it reminded me of the different relationship I had with my dad’s genealogy research when I was her age. And it was a delight to hear my nephew tell my sister that he went to see one of his ancestors at the cemetery. And she smiled, asking him what word he had just used. He repeated it again, and told her what it meant. And that was such a special moment for me. That whole morning of walking the quiet resting place with three generations of my family was a treasure.
Heman Sears and Clarissa Dubois, of Olcott, had a daughter named Sophia Sears, who married Ammi Smith. They had a son, Silas Parker Smith, who married Hattie Eva Dutcher. Hattie Dutcher, my 2x great-grandmother, died in childbirth with her third child, named Hattie Eva also, in 1882. She was 25 years old.
My dad showed me new treasures of our family while I was home. He has two small paintings, done on decorative boards that Hattie Eva Dutcher painted as a young woman. One of the paintings depicts the bluffs in Olcott, including a portion of the old wooden pier, before the concrete ones were poured in 1877. I held them. I touched them. I touched the wood that generations have been touching, passing on.

I think about how far the footsteps of my ancestors spread, with even just the known information we have. I think about the photos we took on our childhood trip to Boldt Castle in the 1000 Islands, and I have photos that Wickers and Rustons took of the same vacation spot at different periods of time. Maybe the point of living is simply to be marveled by the world around us, and to be a part of it. To share our stories, and our histories, so that we can discover the myriad of ways our bloodlines connect us to each other.
Sunset at Olcott Beach, with my mom, July 2013.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

100 Years Later, the Binghamton Clothing Company Factory Fire

Group burial at Spring Forest Cemetery, 1913.
In 1913, the Binghamton Clothing Company manufactured men’s work overalls in a large four-story building which stood downtown, in the main part of the city. The building had previously been occupied by a cigar factory, where it sat at 17 Wall Street. The back of the factory adjoined with the McKallor Drug Company. The north side of the building looked out over Henry Street, near the new Post Office. The Chenango River ran nearby on the far end of Wall Street.
It was July 22, a hot Tuesday at the factory, where all the windows and doors hung open, hoping to catch a breeze. The women were used to working in their underslips and stays when the summer sweltered, 150 women crammed into four floors of machines. On that particular day, there were only 111 women working. The Binghamton Clothing Company had been running frequent fire drills since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911, where 146 workers were killed.
The Binghamton girls could clear the building in 20 seconds, with Nellie Connor clapping a loud and steady walking rhythm upstairs, and foreman Sidney Dimmock doing the same downstairs. When the fire drill gong sounded that afternoon, most of the girls didn’t hurry to leave. Some, because they were paid per piece and it was time taken from their work, and others because they were not dressed fit enough to present themselves upon the street.
The girls upstairs didn’t know that an employee, Mrs. William Whitney, stated that she felt an unusual heat in the building at 1 o’clock. They also didn’t know that she alerted the girls downstairs to the smell of smoke at 2 o’clock, when an investigation ensued. At 2:30, flames were discovered. Reed Freemen, president and owner of the factory, tried to douse the fire with buckets of water, along with one of the cutters, Amber Fuller. When they couldn’t put the fire out, Reed pulled the alarm. Unlike their drills, this time, the alarm gong repeated continuously.
The fire started in the basement, building up and feeding on scraps. The open windows and doorways created a chimney of oxygen. The fire shot upward, venting through every opening it could find, including the elevator shaft. Those working on the first and second floors were alerted by the screams of Mrs. Reed B. Freeman, the wife of the President of the company, and could smell fire themselves.
By the time the smoke was thick enough to be a warning that the fire was serious, the wooden stairwell was in flames. On the fourth floor, fifty women had been working knee to knee on the machines that cut and sewed the patterns for the overalls. One woman who survived admitted that a girl had been reluctant to leave because of her state of dress and they had all settled back to their machines after her comment. The third floor did not fare better. Women leapt out of windows to escape the blaze. Half a dozen women, on fire, ran in their shirt dresses from the burning building straight into the Chenango River.
Thick smoke obscuring the building.
The only means of exit were a single stairwell and two small fire ladders. The fire alarm rang just before 3 o’clock and within eighteen minutes, the factory was a pile of ash and ember. At the time of the alarm, the fire company was already at work halfway across the city. In the twenty-four hours previous to the factory blaze, they had been out on five other calls due to drought. They only lost five minutes in responding but when they arrived, the heat was so intense it singed their wooden ladders and the water pressure was low in their hoses. The heat was so great they couldn’t enter; every window was full of fire.
Men digging in the rubble for bodies.
The whole of the building was charred and collapsed by 4 o’clock in the afternoon and it was all they could do to try to save the buildings around the factory. The walls and roof were caved in. Thirty-one people lost their lives in the fire. Only ten of those bodies were identifiable; the other victims’ names were taken from the employee registry. The firemen, police, and other volunteers digging through the debris were pulling out pieces, not whole bodies. 
The newspaper the next day reported: “Of the 125 girls on payroll, only seventeen have been accounted for as uninjured. Twenty-two are in the hospitals. Eight are being cared for in private homes.” They allowed for a number of them to have made it free of the building and sought swift safety at home. Several of the girls that lived were near insanity from their experience and pain.
The funeral procession of caskets headed for the cemetery.
A public funeral was held at the Stone Opera House on Chenango Street on July 28, for the unidentified women. There were 20,000 people in attendance. Eighteen of the workers were burned beyond recognition and buried in a large circle on a knoll in the center of the Spring Forest Cemetery.
The morning after the fire.
The true cause of the blaze was never discovered. The Binghamton Clothing Company fire was a loss of $100,000, beyond the lives gone, and it never resumed business. The owner of the company, Reed Freeman, heartbroken, spent the rest of his life caring for the families of the deceased.
In 2009, Binghamton dedicated a plaque along the Riverwalk downtown, near where the factory stood, to those who lost their lives in the fire. It holds the names of the 31 people killed in the blaze. On that day, two people, specifically, were honored for their actions and their sacrifice.
The memorial across from where the original factory stood.
Nellie Connor had been employed by the Binghamton Clothing Company for 31 years, and was looked up to by many of the workers. She hurried the other girls out as best she could, clapping a steady rhythm. Her body was identified by her gold pocket watch, fused together from the heat, at the third floor landing, surrounded by the remains of five other women, huddled against her.
Sidney Dimmock, the company foreman who had been with them for 16 years, was in charge of the fire drills. According to survivor reports, he was clapping his hands at a quick pace also, to hurry the girls along as they exited the building. He ran into the fire twice, and carried two women to safety. He ran back in for more. He never returned.
Following the deadly blaze in 1913, George F. Johnson, a local shoe factory owner, fitted his factories with sprinkler systems and other safety precautions. He was also one of the first businessmen in the country to cut his worker’s hours from 9.5 to 8 hours without cutting their pay. Thanks to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the Binghamton Clothing Company fire, worker conditions in the country began to shift.
The victims of the Binghamton Clothing Company Factory Fire
Mary Bianca
Martha D. Burdick
Ruth A. Button
Edith M. Chernoff
Stella M. Clark
Nellie Theresa Connor
Mary Josephine Creegan
Catherine Crowe
Sidney Dimmock
Margaret Dimon
Sarah Doran
Hattie Freeman
Mrs. John (Cassie) Fulmer
Nellie F. Gleason
Ida G. Golden
Louise Hartman
Emma D. Houghtaling
Lena Marie Kennedy
Nellie Kison
Mary Pryor
Bessie Ray
Emma G. Reid
Lizzie Risley
John Schermerhorn
Lou G. Shove
Mary T. Smith
Mary E. Sullivan
Ella M. White

3 unidentified died

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Shadow Animals

Photo by Christian Svane.
Like many spiritual practices, mine involves the use of animal guides for mentorship, metaphor, and personal transformation. But that doesn’t just go for the animals whose spirit I want to emulate or learn from. It also involves the ones that create a moment of true and absolute fear in me. Everyone has something that terrifies them. I am no exception. In order to live fully in myself in this space, in this lifetime, I try to face my fears, albeit one at a time.
My biggest terror is the centipede. My gut response to them is: nothing with that many legs should be allowed to live! It’s primal and irrational. It involves banging on drywall with hammers trying to smash them. I spent my childhood in a home with a dirt-floor basement and we would get centipedes in the house during the summer. I have always been terrified of them. I have woken up with them crawling on my bare flesh and I have almost ruined carpets trying to drown them. Not my finest moments.
And still, that fear is something I usually keep secret because I have always been surrounded by people who think it’s funny to taunt someone with the things that scare them. That is so not the same thing as helping someone face their fears. I once played a practical joke on my suitemates in college with a realistic-looking spider pin I had been given as a gift, because I thought it was so well done. I didn’t know my one friend was as afraid of them as I was of creepy-ninja-swift-crawlers. I have always felt bad about scaring her. She forgave me because I hadn’t known, but I have not played a scary practical joke since… because what if someone thought that was funny to do to me? I force myself to be vulnerable and reveal my cracks, because I am not perfect. That’s the point. I am human and I am a work in progress, and it is often our flaws that are most telling about where those places of fear live within us.
A few years ago, I began to work with what I had dubbed my Shadow Animal. My fear place. What was it about the centipede that elicited such whimpers from me? That drove me onto furniture in a heaving pile of panic? I wanted to know. I didn’t want such a small creature to have so much power over me.
I recommend you look to your places of fear and dive into the darkness. It’s not for everyone, but to stand in that moment, to face the darkness, to step into it... no matter what happens in between that moment and its end, when you emerge you realize that you survived. And maybe it was terrifying. And maybe you really felt that terror. But it passed through you. It didn’t remain. You survived. Which may sound dramatic when we’re talking about centipedes. But we’re not talking specifically about centipedes- we’re talking about fear.
My fear animal became a mirror to me. What is it about the centipede that scares me so? It runs swiftly, like a whisper. You almost can’t see it. They fill me with that swarming sensation, like a tsunami wave coming rapidly and engulfing everything… thousands of tiny legs skittering over flesh in a hot summer. Sweat beads up a little on my skin at the memory of it. But since my youth I have lain beneath a wool blanket in the scorching sun in meditation so deep I did not flinch at the feeling of insects crawling across my skin. I have worked through that fear. So what is it?
They move so fast… The secret beneath the mystery for me lies in the movement, feathers racing across stone. They are just walking, just moving through their world, and I see them, in my irrational brain, lunging and coming straight for me like a predator. They live in a faster world, their lifetime crunched into five years. They breathe at a faster pace than we do, in the same way that our tree friends, who breathe in seasons, breathe slower than we do. To our tree friends, we are constantly in motion and seldom still.
So it’s the pace of the small arthropod that unsettles me and pokes my scary button. It didn’t take me long to hazard a guess as to why. I never dive into anything. I never jump head first without vetting the endeavor. It’s not that I won’t say yes, but I need to weigh it first. Do I have the energy? Do I have the time? Do I have the skills? Do I have the desire? I think my true fear place is a question or situation that involves an immediate and snap decision, and that I will have no answer for, that I will feel frozen in indecision. Cue skittering centipedes.
Knowing that suddenly made the idea of the centipede a little less scary in my head. But in person? Could I face the panic? I didn’t know, but I had the chance to test the theory recently. My friends and I were cleaning out an old woodpile, scraping off the rotting bark and restacking the logs to dry. Beneath the bark were white centipedes with red markings on their heads, skittering madly up the wood when exposed. I totally yelped. I totally dropped the log. I totally asked for someone else to get rid of them. I totally closed my eyes hoping they would disappear while I wasn’t looking.
But I didn’t run away. I didn’t switch jobs. I pulled up my work gloves and took a very deep breath. I prepared myself that there were going to be centipedes. This is where they lived. I was going to see them. I had to accept it. I peeled the bark up with my (covered) fingers and used the tip of a knife to pry the centipedes off, dropping them into the rot litter below. I didn’t go terribly fast, but I didn’t stop. I made some horrified faces, but I kept going. Little by little, the white-numbing fear ebbed away, a little less each time I uncovered more.

Sometimes, the only way out is through, and not being able to push into these fear places are why we feel stuck, like we’re standing still. They are still my shadow animal. I still don’t like them, or want them in my house. But I’d like to think the next time I see one on my wall, I might not jump quite so high.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bindrunes for Transformation

When someone I love dies, I say silent prayers that they be free from pain and the tethers to their physical body. I wish that their spirit and soul- for I have seen all the proof I need to believe they exist as entities of their own- transition into whatever it is that comes next for us, as effortlessly as possible. I wish their souls to be at peace so they do not walk in the waking world. In the moment of loss, I try to be selfless.

How do we grieve? How can we wish our loved ones peace in the wake of their loss? How do we say goodbye in a meaningful manner? I’m the kind of person who needs something tangible. I want to put my hands on the dead body and feel that lack of life. I need to feel that their spirit has moved on. I need that in order to convince my brain there is a reason for the physical emptiness that will come. I like to be hands on. It’s not for everyone.
            In the last three years we have had to put two dying cats to sleep, both of whom were young enough that the moment left us unprepared. We stepped up and did what needed to be done, but afterwards the grief left me wanting for more, for a ritual to help me process through the transformation as well.
I like symbolism and the magical intention of it works for me. I use runes in a lot of my healing work, not for divinatory purposes, but for the magical focus of their linguistic meaning, and the emotional translation. I understand the energetic connection between their forms, how one shapeshifts into another, and their origin stories.

I took that knowledge into the woods. Both cats were cremated, the bodies that had betrayed them burned to ash. To heal and soothe my heart, I did my ritual with water. I used the beorc rune, the symbol of the birch tree, of growth and new beginnings. I mirrored it on itself so it became a bindrune, and I took note of the other runes in the image revealing themselves to me. I drew my bindrune for peaceful passage on a piece of birch bark. I threw the birch bark into the water and I let myself cry for my loss.

On a second piece of bark, I broke the top staves off the bindrune and spread them, like wings unfurling. I drew that onto a piece of sycamore bark. Sycamore sheds it’s bark by growing more wood rings beneath it, stretching and splitting it until it sloughs off. I threw that one into the water and simply quieted my heart while it was swept downstream. I waited until I couldn’t see it anymore.

I drew a third bindrune on another piece of sycamore bark. I broke the bottom staves and spread them, again, like wings unfurling. I thought of all the wonderful and weird memories I had of Luna and Bella, and how they both filled my life, in similar and different ways. I let that joy fill me, and I set the bark adrift in the water.

I drew one last picture on another piece of birch. I drew a more fluid interpretation of the bindrune with the staves broken. I drew a butterfly. I said a prayer of hope for Luna’s transformation, for Bella’s transformation. I knew my grief would remain for a while, yet, I accepted the necessity of both passages as I laid the white bark in the water.

It didn’t make the hurt go away faster. But it was a ritual that was meaningful for me. To open the way for dealing with my sadness, it allowed me to accept that we did what we could for Luna, and for Bella. It helped me accept that, as unfair as it seems, both of their times were meant to be shorter on this earth, and that we gave them both good and full lives while they were with us. It reminded me of the love, and because of how much I loved them, it’s important to share that love and carry it on into the world.

Author’s note: In the photos for this post, all the pictures are on birch bark. I do not take photos while I am doing my rituals and did not have any sycamore bark at home to use.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Death at Gettysburg, 150 Years Later

One-hundred and fifty years ago today, my 2x-Great Uncle George Harrison Whitcher was killed in battle on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, Pa at the age of 21 years. He was born and raised in Lockport, NY, to Bailey Harrison Whitcher and Ordelia DeLozier. Around 1856, George moved to and took up residence in Michigan. My 2x Great-Grandma Emma was 10 years old when he left New York.
George Whitcher enlisted as a volunteer at Port Huron on Aug 6, 1861 at age 19. He again enlisted as a Private in Company A of the Michigan Seventh Volunteer Infantry on August 22, 1861 at Monroe, under the command of Captain Thomas H. Hunt of Port Huron. The Seventh left Michigan on September 5, 1861. George was in Company A with Charles Thompson from Port Huron, also 19 at his enlistment. Charles and Emma, my ancestress, exchanged letters in 1862, inferring that Charles and George were the best of companions. They were best friends. Charles was wounded but survived the war.
The Michigan Seventh saw engagement at Ball’s Bluff, VA on October 21, 1861. In April and May of 1862 they engaged at Yorktown, West Point, and Fair Oaks. In June and July they engaged at Peach Orchard, Savage Station, White Oak Swamp, Glendale, Malvern Hill, and Manasses. The Seventh was commended for its “steadiness under fire and for its gallantry in action and its stubborn resistance when confronting the enemy.” In August and September they engaged at the 2nd Bull Run, South Mountain in Maryland, and Antietam on September 17, the bloodiest day of battle in the Civil War, where the infantry’s numbers were cut in half.
In December they fought at Fredericksburg, Virginia before the winter set in, where they volunteered to cross the Rappahannock River in pontoon boats against enemy fire, to drive Confederate sharpshooters from their hiding places, so that Union engineers could continue laying out the pontoon bridge for crossing. It is said that the Seventh rode so quickly across the water, their boats suffered minimal losses. They acted as provost-guard at Falmouth until the spring, when they saw battle at Chancellorsville and Haymarket, before advancing to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There they joined the Army of the Potomac’s Pennsylvania Campaign. Between June 27 and 29, they marched 73 miles, each soldier carrying a rifle, bayonet, cartridge-box, belts, blanket, haversack, and canteen. Upon their arrival, they were placed in the front of battle at Cemetery Ridge, where they remained for the duration.
The Michigan Seventh took 14 officers and 151 men into battle. In the two days of engagement with the enemy, they lost 21 men and 44 were wounded. My ancestor was among the slain. The hardest of bullets fell around two in the afternoon on July 3, and all guns were silent by 6 o’clock that evening. Between the 75,000 Confederate soldiers and the 83,000 Union soldiers, there were 50,000 casualties, more in three days than all of the eight years of the Revolutionary War.
Bodies of the dead on the battlefield.
Across the battlefield were 7,000 dead men and 3,000 dead horses; approximately 6 million pounds of dead flesh broiling beneath a summer sun. It was left to the population of 2,400 in Gettysburg to dispose of the carnage and care for the wounded. The smell of death cloyed the air for three months, until the first frost set in. And still, when Abraham Lincoln journeyed to Pennsylvania to dedicate the new Soldier’s National Cemetery in November, four and a half months later, stacks of coffins awaiting re-burial in the new cemetery sat nearby.
What must it have been like for the families with no answers? With no dead to bury? For the families whose loved ones blistered in the sun before an identification could be made?
The Seventh Michigan Infantry is honored by an 8’ tall monument at Gettysburg, installed in 1888. The Westerly blue granite monument, with a bronze relief, was sculpted by Joseph Pasetti, and dedicated on June 12, 1889. The marker stands where the Seventh held their position on July 2nd and 3rd in Gettysburg. It stands in the field where my ancestral Uncle fell. It sits east of Hancock Avenue and just south of the copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge.
On the front, it is dedicated to the Seventh Michigan Infantry, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division 2nd Corps. On the back, a part of the monument states: “Regiment held this position during the engagement of July 2nd & 3rd. 1863. On the evening of the 2nd charged front to the left, meeting and aiding in driving back the enemy. On the 3rd assisted in repulsing Pickett’s Charge, changing front to the right and assaulting the advancing force in flank. Present for duty 14 officers, 151 men. Total 165. Casualties, 2 officers, 19 men killed; 3 officers, 41 men wounded. Total 65.”
There is no grave for my ancestor at Gettysburg. According to his dear friend Charles Thompson, he was not listed among the men buried in the Michigan plot there. There is no grave for him in Michigan, where he had settled for 10 years before joining the volunteers. There is no grave for him in Lockport, as there was no body for the family to mourn or bury.
The Whitcher family spent a large amount of time and money in a vain search for his body, or any trace of it, to no avail. I have seen the photos taken of the bodies strewn about the field. I have down the embalming history about how even the families who could afford to reclaim their dead for travel back home had tough luck identifying them on the battlefields. And still, some embalmers were taking unclaimed bodies for the purpose of posting them outside of their tents and stores as evidence of their work- a thing to which the surviving soldiers railed against at the time. But the thought remains that to a family who had the money to search but could find no body, whose friend was on-site to look for him, possibly encumbered by his own wounds… perhaps the earth claimed it faster under the blazing sun. Perhaps he became a prop in an indecent man’s business.
Sadness would follow the family when Orville Bailey Whitcher, George’s brother, died the next summer in battle in Virginia. Their father Bailey Harrison Whitcher died the following summer. George’s mother, Ordelia, died in 1888, just one year before Daniel Raymond Whitcher, her eldest son, received a letter from Charles Thompson, George’s old comrade. Twenty-seven years after the battle at Gettysburg, the late Lt. Col. Charles Thompson returned to the site- something he had perhaps done as an annual pilgrimage. There, he found “a small metallic plate battered and covered with hard earth, in which was stenciled the dead soldier’s name:”
George H. Whitcher
CO A, 7th MICH., V.
It had been buried for nearly 24 years and had been dug up from the field three years earlier. He sent the identifying metal to the family and inquired as to whether or not George’s body had been recovered and buried elsewhere, as his name was not among the list of the dead. So many years later, the story made the local paper, and while no body was ever brought home, it was more closure than many families received.

George was on the ridge above Little Round Top, along the vertical line of blue, where the Union soldiers were stationed.

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