Plague Diary, 1.

And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world. This situation continued [from May] until September. ~ Agnolo di Tura, Siena, 1348 

A medieval Plague Doctor (Wikimedia)

I’ve been thinking a lot about Agnolo di Tura, called The Fat.

I don’t mean to be melodramatic. In fact, I very strongly doubt the world in the grip of the Coronavirus Pandemicwill be anything like the graveyard that was Europe in the wake of the Black Death. Most things will go forward. There may even be opinion pieces written later about how it was all overblown.

One hopes, anyway.

I began with the passage above because this sentence is like a prose earworm in my brain, some days: “And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands.” If you read all of Agnolo’s narrative, you’ll see this is how it begins:

The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing. . . . It seemed that almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship…

You can read the entire piece here.

There are other readings as well, but the image of Agnolo, a fat man struggling in the heat to bury his children under a merciless sun, has never quite left me. The simplicity of his narrative has always struck me as sorrowful in a timeless way. The kind of devastation that has no point in history because whatever the year on the calendar, it would be the same for anyone in similar circumstances. The words of a man writing nearly 700 years ago, and it’s almost as if you can still hear him sigh.

I’m mostly just following the brush with this post, which is being written on the kind of day that has always given me the creeps, because it is so like bad dreams I had as a child.

It is windy and a little chilly outside. Clouds are rushing by, white and gray, and the sun isn’t really out but I can see blue sky as well. The evergreens that rise behind the houses across the street are restless in the wind, which doesn’t moan so much as it murmurs.

I had a lot of wind-filled nightmares when I was a child.

One that I never forgot came shortly after watching the 1964 film version of Richard Matheson’s I Am LegendThe Last Man On Earth, starring Vincent Price. In that nightmare, I woke to a murmuring and constant wind pushing its way through my childhood home, which was in ruins. One of my sisters was just a mummy in a creaking swing on the back porch. I found myself outside then, and I stepped over two mounds in the driveway that I realized were my parents’ graves.

The wind never stopped, and I know I thought that whatever happened to everyone had come with the wind.

The dream ended at my elementary school, with me standing outside my kindergarten classroom, which was in shambles. I heard the distinctive ringing bounce of a red gym ball on the cement behind me, as if someone had just dropped one, and I turned to see a ball bouncing away, but there was no one there who could have dropped it.

And so I come back to this wind outside today, and all the coronavirus news skittering across my Twitter feeds, on my big-screen TV, and the Agnolo di Tura in my mind, hunched and sweating over the dead.

No one wants to know that kind of sorrow. No one wants to know how alone the man must have felt.

So I guess even the worst-case scenario imaginings in my mind regarding coronavirus are enough to shake me a bit, to rattle my cage.

There are probably many lessons to learn from Agnolo di Tura. The one that will not leave my thoughts today is something that first occurred to me after my brother committed suicide 20 years ago. Then again after my sister died from septic shock in 2016.

Sometimes it is a curse to survive.

Of Memories and Plane Crashes

The memory is clear. A wet day, overcast, still more winter than spring in Nashville. We pile in the car–Mom’s orange-red VW Beetle, possibly the white VW microbus, that part isn’t as clear or important–and drive to Donelson Plaza.

Northwest up Murfreesboro Pike, right on Donelson Pike, follow that till it bottoms out, turn left, take the fork, drive up Old Lebanon Road. There was a Woolworth’s Drug Store and Dinette there. And Cain Sloan Department Store… or, if I’m being true to my child’s memory, it could’ve been Castner Knott’s. Four-year-olds don’t always notice things like that.

It is there, in an empty lot by the Plaza, that we see the plane. It’s battered and twisted and there is a temporary fence around it. There is at least one TV crew there, with a huge camera. There is a crowd.

What burns in my mind is the crumpled tin can body of the plane. I think, people died here.

The plane seems huge.

If memories are imprinted on a long reel of film, the frames around this moment are ghosted, too whited out by age and time to see. But I remember this broken plane and the destruction around it.

Or I thought I did. At some point I started telling myself I made it up. I cobbled together news footage and childhood fears and maybe some vivid dreams and came up with this memory.

planecrash72Then today, I found it. I’d remembered a real event, after all.

I discovered the plane had been carrying four men, and it had gone down, according to my father, on Todd’s Knob, a hill by Donelson Plaza. Dad’s memory for such events is striking in general and makes sense, especially here–he worked for the Nashville Airport Authority at the time.

Dad thinks we saw the wreckage well after it happened but before it had been moved by the authorities and that rings true. There were many people there, just gawking–and I remember that, too, because even though I was only 4, I took in all the other people there and something about them scared me.

We were staring at a nightmare, a tomb.

Speaking on the phone with Dad, he segues into his own childhood story of a plane crash he witnessed near the end of World War II. He was 9.

Jackie (my uncle, Dad’s older brother) and I were laying in the yard, watching fighter planes maneuver. Pretend dog fight.

Dad’s family lived near a plant built late in the war to churn out new fighters that would be sent overseas.

They collided, exploded. We ran to the field where they fell.

There were small squares of aluminum hot and burning the grass. Bits of parachute fabric fluttering on blackberry bushes at the fence line. People–kids, locals, farm folks, sharecropper families–were crowding in.

The military hadn’t closed off the area quickly enough. My grandfather, Dad tells me, made it home from work. But when they got in the car to go back out to the grocery, they were turned back. The road was closed.

Dad is stuck on one detail. It is his own moment of nightmare. Of staring at a tomb.

One girl found a finger.

That girl who found a finger, she carried it around for weeks, showed it at school.


Edith Channel’s Long Walk


From the Lawrence, KS Daily Journal-World, 2/4/1915
From the Lawrence, KS Daily Journal-World, 2/4/1915

Lawrence, Kansas is 41 miles west of Kansas City. The weather in Lawrence on February 4, 1915, was “generally fair,” though there was a chance of snow in the “west portion” that night.

Edith Channel was walking west, into that snow.


McPherson KS Daily Republican, 2/24/1915
McPherson KS Daily Republican, 2/24/1915

There are no reliable, current records of a publication titled “Our Country” based in Kansas City in 1915. At least, there aren’t any easily found online.

The Weekly Post in Kansas City was a real paper. It began publishing in 1912 and continued through the 20s.

The Old Santa Fe Trail led travelers to California in 1915. They might pass sites still haunted by the West’s chronic conflicts. “Comanches and Pawnees,” wrote author C.A. Higgins in 1915, had once made “almost every toilsome mile of the slow passage through Kansas dangerous for the wagon trains that wound slowly across the plains…”

Slowly, perhaps near a walking pace. Edith Channel could have kept up with those wagon trains.


From the Great Bend, Kansas Tribune, an article dated March 15, 1915:

Miss Edith Channel, a Kansas City stenographer who is walking from Kansas City to San Francisco, arrived here last night and this morning left for Pawnee Rock. She is making the journey without funds other than what she earns on the way through selling subscriptions to Our Country, the weekly edition of the Kansas City Post. Miss Channel is a pretty young lady, and a Kansas girl, having been born in Topeka. This winter physicians told her she would have to go west and leave Kansas City or she would be liable to contract tuberculosis so she gave up the stenographic job and decided to go to California. […] She started February 24 and spent ten days visiting a brother in Topeka. The longest walk she has made in one day has been about 15 miles and she has hardly got used to the matter of walking yet but is making a little better time. She left about noon for Pawnee Rock.

She carries 14 pounds of luggage and is pretty cheerful over the prospects of the journey. she expects to get to San Francisco in plenty of time to see the fair and was particularly overjoyed here to find out that the roads were much better in the western part of the state than here. She has to make the trip now on the railroad right of way and thinks the trail road will be better to travel on.

The Fair in San Francisco was the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It opened March 2, 1915 and closed on December 4 that year.

The same day the Great Bend Tribune published its blurb about Edith’s journey, the Barton County, Kansas Democrat published an article of its own.

“Miss Channel left Kansas City on the 2nd of February,” wrote the Democrat reporter. “She is making the trip alone… to the San Francisco Fair,” the article continued, “and is writing her experiences for the Kansas City Post.”

Edith Channel was “evidently not traveling for her health,” reported the Democrat, “for she has the appearance of being possessed of her full share of that article, and when she starts off impresses one with a confidence in her ability to reach her goal.”

The Democrat stated that Edith was “rather small, and dresses in a walking suit of khaki, and says that except for the fact that her muscles were a little sore from the effect of her unusual exercise she feels none the worse for her experience.

She thought she might reach San Francisco “some time in June.”


Oregon Daily Journal, 6/5/1915
Oregon Daily Journal, 6/5/1915
Oregon Daily Journal, 6/16/1915
Oregon Daily Journal, 6/16/1915


Olive Louise Woodward, Edith Channel, The Santa Cruz Evening News, 7/21/1915
Olive Louise Woodward, Edith Channel, The Santa Cruz Evening News, 7/21/1915

On July 21, 1915, The Santa Cruz Evening News published a photo of Edith Channel and a traveling companion, Olive Louise Woodward.

“With the three essentially feminine treasures,” wrote the Evening News, “–a curling iron, a small alcohol lamp and a jar of cold cream, reinforced with a wicked-looking revolver and a canteen, Edith Channel walked 2000 miles, alone–from Kansas City to Los Angeles.”

Edith’s journey, said the Evening News, had been made “to regain her lost health.”

A few days later, on July 24, 1915, the Fort Wayne, Indiana Sentinel published the same photo of Edith and her companion. The accompanying article was simply a longer version of the one published in the Santa Cruz paper.

Edith “never wanted for food,” she said. She’d met “many tramps and travelers,” but “they never molested or insulted me.”

“When I got to the Grand Canyon,” said Edith, she “stopped ten days.”

Edith was traveling the 500 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco with Olive Louise Woodward, “a nineteen-year-old girl who has already traveled all the way from Derby, England, to Vancouver, thence to Los Angeles, unaccompanied, though not on foot.”

Olive’s intention was “to gain experience, scare away a natural timidity of nature and eventually win her way into the movies.”

The girls were planning on 15 to 20 miles a day.


Edith Channel, SF Chronicle, 8/1/1915
Edith Channel, SF Chronicle, 8/1/1915

Edith Channel reached San Francisco at the end of July. “Upon arrival,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle, “she went at once to the tuberculosis booth in the Palace of Education at the exposition.”

Edith there explained to the head physician that her father and grandfather had died from the disease.

The physician examined her and “pronounced the young woman in perfect health.”

“A complete cure,” he said, “The exercise and out-of-doors life did it.”


Independence Kansas Daily Reporter, 12/14/1915.
Independence Kansas Daily Reporter, 12/14/1915.
The Wichita, Kansas Beacon, 12/14/1915
The Wichita, Kansas Beacon, 12/14/1915

Edith’s age was given in articles as 23 and 25. The US Federal Census from 1900 listed a 23-year-old Earl Dinsmore living with an Edith and Lester Channel, both 24. A Kansas State Census taken in March 1905 shows a 29-year-old Edith Channel living Lincoln, Kansas with a J.J. Channel and a boy of 12, Carl Hill. The next Federal Census 5 years later finds an Edith aged 34 living in Pennsylvania with a Chester Channel.

It seems likely Edith really was 39 or 40 when she died, rather than the ages she gave to various newspaper reporters along her journey west.

Some articles about her suicide stated she had been employed by the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which closed just before she died.

The lies and secrets Edith kept as she carried her pack across the west in the last year of her life don’t matter now. She was a singer; sure. A writer–okay. A photographer? Whatever.

Finding the first trace of her journey in those old papers, addled, distracted and pressured reporters haphazardly gathering the bits of her story on the way–that long-distance view was too compelling to not trace. Like piloting a time-traveling drone quietly buzzing above her head as she strode the tracks and the roads.

The vast buzzsaw of the Great War was sweeping a continent an ocean away, and soon enough, America would join the fight. Anarchists and spies were setting bombs up and down the East Coast. Inventors and innovators were flourishing.

In Kansas, a woman decided to make a new younger self. She might have just been a liar. But maybe she saw that she still looked young and saw an opportunity to grab something before it faded away. Even if she didn’t have tuberculosis–the white plague–when she arrived at the Exposition, even if that was another fiction, it no longer matters. She packed her curling iron, cold cream, a lamp, and a gun. She  set out on the Santa Fe Trail. She had a purpose, that much is clear.

She must have found something she needed on her walk. It might have been her English friend Olive. It might have been the moments of fame in the papers, always a few pages back from the war reports.

Of course, it didn’t fix whatever was broken within. And Edith seems to have been forgotten outside the microfilm machines scanning papers across the years, the scanners digitizing those images.

Until now.

I don’t truly know why Edith Channel made her journey. But across 100 years I can see her, a ghost in khaki with her soft hat and her pack, under the hard stars and those great skies out west that terrify, and awe.

I know her fate.

I don’t want her to stop walking.

Ernest Hemingway’s justified paranoia

FBI1Writer Ernest Hemingway committed suicide on this day in 1961. He shotgunned himself in his home in Ketchum, Idaho. In 2011, Hemingway’s friend A.E. Hotchner wrote that friends knew Hemingway’s suicide was probably related to his ” suffering from depression and paranoia for the last year of his life.”

Hemingway’s depression was brain chemistry, drinking, and aging. His paranoia was focused on the FBI. As Hotchner admitted in his New York Times op-ed, he believed his friend’s fear of the feds was akin to psychosis.

It was not. Hotchner:

Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the F.B.I. released its Hemingway file. It revealed that beginning in the 1940s J. Edgar Hoover had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba. Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones. The surveillance continued all through his confinement at St. Mary’s Hospital [for electroconvulsive therapy]. It is likely that the phone outside his room was tapped after all.

This is the FBI’s page on Hemingway. It indicates they tracked the writer from 1942 till his death. The final pages include clippings of a column by a flatulently-named John Birch society darling, columnist Westbrook Pegler, in which Pegler drops turds like, “[Hemingway] annoyed me also with profanity and vulgarity and when I pointed out that Ring Lardner had never told a dirty story and had shunned mucky stuff on paper […] Hemingway answered that nevertheless people did speak as his characters spoke.”

The FBI file includes another clipping added in 1974 about a Hemingway documentary, and then is ended.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation hounded Hemingway, perhaps contributing to an already fragile mental state, therefore contributing to his suicide. They essentially end their file on him with a priggish nobody taking a drizzly piss on the author’s grave.

I am not a Hemingway fanboy. I like a good declarative sentence but writers need to find their own styles and aping any single great writer can lead to the death of creativity. There is a bit of a cult around Hemingway’s style, in particular. I understand it to some degree, but not completely. I’ve also sometimes found Hemingway’s work annoying and it can easily lend itself to parody.

And he may have been a posturing, macho egomaniac. He didn’t mind that perception, anyway.

But on the 54th anniversary of his suicide it’s hard to read about his death and not be angry. Angry at suicide, which struck my family. Suicides leave such emotional devastation behind.

Angry for Ernest Hemingway. No one made him pull a trigger. His own spiraling inner chaos did that. Yet the paranoia he felt was merited. He was living in a dystopia and unwanted eyes were watching him, which is crazy enough to consider now that there are still people who venerate that era as some sort of American idyll between wars and periods of severe social upheaval.

The paranoid certainty he was being tailed and watched was in 1961 perhaps more of a danger then to a high-profile world traveler like Hemingway. That the feds of that time targeted any famous person whose associations they found suspicious is pretty well-known today.

Wonder what Hemingway would have made of the world we live in now. He might have started handing out shotguns like party favors.

July 31, 1914: Lightning on the Horizon

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 31, 1914 (3:30 p.m. edition)
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 31, 1914 (3:30 p.m. edition)

While World War I officially began on July 28, 1914, it took American media until July 31st to catch up to what was going on–likely in part because that was the day Imperial Russia announced its vast army was mobilizing in preparation for war.

Also, dispatches from foreign correspondents were still relayed by telegraph in some places, so transcription and copyediting naturally took some time. What’s interesting when surveying lesser-known papers like the Honolulu Star-Bulletin above is how much work they put in to their front pages announcing the beginning of hostilities. If anything, they were much more visually interesting (at least to a modern-day eye) than the staid and text-heavy New York Times or Washington Post (though these papers, in their defense, were often using the words of their own foreign correspondents, not press services).

The Star-Bulletin must have had a pretty hard-working staff, as the right side of the page above looks upon close inspection a lot like a live-blog, using reports aggregated from the “Associated Press Service by Federal Wireless”:

Detail from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 7/31/1914
Detail from the front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 7/31/1914

Another of the many small city papers that used eye-catching graphics to bring home the gravity of developments in Europe was Missoula, Montana’s Daily Missoulian, which published this striking and (to me) oddly modern graphic meant to illustrate the relative sizes of the armies of the initial aggressors:

Graphic from Missoula, MT Daily Missoulian, 7/31/1914
Graphic from Missoula, MT Daily Missoulian, 7/31/1914

Much closer to the action, old line English papers like the Daily Telegraph soldiered on without much obvious drama, though the Telegraph’s coverage was comprehensive. This map published in the July 31st, 1914 Telegraph illustrated known Austrian and Serbian troop movements:

Map from the London (UK) Daily Telegraph, pubbed 7/31/1914
Map from the London (UK) Daily Telegraph, pubbed 7/31/1914

Though the media worldwide had paid close attention to the June 28, 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, it seems like July 31st was the moment everyone realized the size and gravity of what was happening on the Continent. They saw the lightning, and even as far away as Honolulu, Hawaii, they were waiting on the thunder.

June 27, 1914: The Battle in Paris, Johnson vs. Moran

Jack Johnson -
Jack Johnson –
Frank Moran (an early victim of what would be bad photoshopping today) image from the Chicago Daily Tribune, published 6/28/1914
Frank Moran (an early victim of what would be bad photoshopping today) image from the Chicago Daily Tribune, published 6/28/1914

In 1914, world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was in exile. Technically his crime was violation of the Mann Act, which criminalized the transportation of women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” The truth was Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, had married Lucille Cameron, a white woman. Johnson had been convicted by a snow-white jury of the Mann Act violation even after Cameron had refused to cooperate with the case against him. Johnson decided to skip town and the couple had fled the U.S. through Canada. By 1914 they were living in Paris.

A lesser known boxer came to Paris in June of 1914 to challenge Johnson’s crown, and the truth was he was well-positioned to do so. Frank Moran had fought Johnson before and was familiar with the champ’s style, and Moran had developed a rep as a knock-out artist, with a savage right cross he lovingly dubbed “Mary Ann.”

The Chicago Tribune published a detailed account of the match the following day, but the tenor of most of the American coverage of the fight can easily be gleaned from these paragraphs recounting the 14th through 16th rounds:

(Chicago Daily Tribune, 6/28/1914)
(Chicago Daily Tribune, 6/28/1914)

Below is a video made from the film of the fight. Someone has inserted both crowd noises and voiceover/play-by-play, but it still appears to capture the key moments.

In the end, the match wasn’t particularly exciting, and it was decided for Johnson. Most fight observers agreed he wasn’t in his best form and took some cheap shots when he could, but remained the superior fighter. Jack Johnson’s fascinating career trended downward from there, as he was already 37 at the time of the bout. Ken Burns made a documentary about Johnson that you can read more about here: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

Frank Moran became a Zelig-like character, rubbing elbows with some of the 20th century’s most notable people. “The Fighting Dentist,” as he was sometimes called (huh?), had sparred with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt early in the 1900s, and by the late 1920s he was an actor. He appeared, sometimes uncredited, in films with famous names like Bela Lugosi, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

Little noticed in Europe at large, much less other parts of the world, an Austro-Hungarian royal and his wife dined in Sarajevo, 1,111 miles from Paris. They feasted with other dignitaries on fine wine and fresh trout. The following day, June 28, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, planned to review Austro-Hungarian troops and attend a museum dedication.

[The Chicago Sunday Tribune, via]

Paris, 1914: a solstice gathering

The Flammarion Engraving, artist unknown, associated with writings of Camille Flammarion - Wikipedia, public domain image
The Flammarion Engraving, artist unknown, associated with writings of Camille Flammarion – Wikipedia, public domain image

At midnight on June 22, 1914, an august party of dignitaries gathered atop the Eiffel Tower to, according to the following day’s New York Times, “salute sunrise on the occasion of the Summer solstice.”

The gathering was not the first of its kind (it was the eleventh) and perhaps not of historical importance, but the famous names mentioned in the Times article imbued the account with a certain gravity.

A Jean de Paléologue poster for Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère in 1902 (Wikipedia, public domain)
A Jean de Paléologue poster for Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère in 1902 (Wikipedia, public domain)

The Times reported that attendees included astronomer and author Nicolas Camille Flammarion, who addressed the gathering. Also among the 200 or so in attendance were leading French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, Gustave Eiffel himself, and American astronomer Percival Lowell.

The assemblage had a banquet, at some point Flammarion gave his speech and the Times reported everyone enjoyed “an ‘astronomical burlesque.'”

Then, at 3 a.m., American dancer Loïe Fuller took center stage and performed a “sunrise dance.”

Fuller, a true pioneer in dance, had left America many years before to find her fame in Europe. She became a star in Paris, and it remained her home till her death in 1928. She was a true innovator in style and lighting, famed for her “Serpentine Dance.”

Aside from newspaper accounts, there isn’t much of a record of Mme. Fuller’s appearance on the Tower that solstice, nor of how she choreographed her 1914 “sunrise” steps. This silent short from 1902 of her performing the “Serpentine” illustrates her style.

A sense of what those assembled atop the Eiffel Tower that night may have felt watching the performance can be gleaned from a  quote by her contemporary Arsène Alexandre, who described Fuller as a “marvelous dream-creature you see dancing madly in a vision swirling among her dappled veils which change ten thousand times a minute.”

As for the speaker, Camille Flammarion–he was a forerunner of the likes of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, popularizing astronomy the best way he could at the time, through lectures as well as scientific and speculative writing. Some idea of Flammarion’s way with words can be found in the Augusta Rice Stetson translation of his novel Uranie. In Chapter 3, describing the protagonist’s fanciful flight across several other worlds, Flammarion portrayed a moment among human-like creatures with glowing eyes:

On another globe which we crossed during the night […] human eyes are so constructed as to be luminous, and shine as though some phosphorescent emanation radiated from their strange centres. A night meeting comprising a large number of these persons presents an extremely fantastic appearance, because the brilliancy, as well as the color, of the eyes changes with the different passions by which they are swayed.

Imagine that night, with a cool breeze up there above the hustle and clamor of Paris, that “marvelous dream-creature” turning wildly in her shimmering silks before the crowd. The lights of the city below like Flammarion’s fantastic night meeting of glowing eyes, watching the tower and the sky beyond. It was a moment, a pause.

June 28 was less than a week away.

[The New York Times, edition published 6/23/1914, via]