Pages

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

And They All Lived...Happily Ever After?

For this first post on the OLHS Staff Blog, I thought I would share one of the most frustrating things I have encountered whilst doing research for living history programming.  As the Senior Vice President of Interpretation at OLHS, one of the many facets of my job is to research and write biographs for each of the characters we will portray during a program.  This process begins with pin-pointing which of (usually) several families were actually living in the historic site we will be using during the time period we will be portraying.  Historical homes were rarely owned by a single family during their entire existence, so the first challenge is to determine who lived there, and when.  Sometimes this information is previously known and handed to us, other times it can actually require quite a bit of digging to discover.

Once that crucial bit of information is taken care of, the real work begins.  I then begin research on each individual member of the family, creating timelines of their lives.  I normally research backwards about 2 generations for each character (their grandparents), their parents, all their aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, children, etc.  If someone is married, I do the same for their spouse's family.  To show you how extensive and time-consuming this can be I will use the Farnam family as an example:

While researching the Farnams for our recent program "The Spirit of Christmas Past - A Farnam Family Holiday" in Richfield, Ohio, there were only 4 core family members living in the home during December, 1862.  However, due to the large amount of extended family members I had to research, the family tree I created ended up with 441 members on it!  For each of those people, I need to know certain key pieces of information, such as when/where they were born, where they lived and when, if/when they were married and had children, occupation, etc.  To be a good historical interpreter you need to know your character's life as well as you know your own, and this extensive research helps the OLHS interpreters achieve that goal.  When I supply them with their biographs, they can see that they have a sister who lives down the road, but that they also had a brother who died in infancy.  They know that their cousin is currently serving in the war, and that their poor widowed aunt has had to take on work as a domestic servant to make ends meet.  It's all in the details.

However, this is not what frustrates me!  (OK, ask me the next time I am awake at 3 AM fretting over the fact I simply cannot find so-and-so's enlistment record and I may state otherwise), but in general doing all this research is fun and exciting to a historical-enthusiast like me.  What is not fun is when I come across some really interesting bit of information that we simply cannot use because it did not take place until AFTER the time-period we are portraying!  If we are portraying December, 1862 and the event did not happen until January, 1863, I have no choice but to leave it off the character biograph because, to us, it hasn't happened yet.  Sometimes the information is so interesting that I actually get frustrated that it can't be mentioned in the context of our program.

Some examples of this include:

1.  The character I most recently portrayed was committed to an insane asylum by her own daughter around 1900.  There was nothing in the rest of my research to suggest this woman was actually insane; in fact she was very intelligent, but eccentric.  She even referred to herself in a diary entry as an "odd bird" because she was a vegetarian, refused to marry without love, was college educated, and was a physician.  One can only assume her daughter committed her out of desperation of having such an unconventional mother.  Not to worry, in the next federal census she was out of the asylum and living with the same daughter, so I guess they worked out their differences.

2.  In the case of the Farnam family mentioned above, there was a 20 year old domestic servant working for them on the 1860 census.  At that time, she was married with an infant.  When I followed her into the future, I could see that eventually she and her husband parted ways, living in different homes in the same small township.  It makes one wonder what happened- did they fight?  Did he abuse her?  Did they get legally divorced or just go their separate ways?  How did they interact when their paths crossed living in the same town?  What did their neighbors think?  (Remember, this was during a time period where death-do-us-part was the norm, no matter the situation.)  Their separation did not occur until after our time-portrayal, and even if their relationship had already started to go sour by the program cut-off date, it's not exactly information that would have been spoken of around the family dinner table with guests present.

3.  I discovered the husband of a family I was researching ended up committing suicide a few years after our portrayal date.  Not that I wanted to actually portray the suicide, but in this case it made me want to reach out and shake the interpreter who would be portraying this man and shout "Don't do it! Your family needs you!"  It was hard knowing that this nice man would later be so wrought with grief over the death of his son that he would take his own life.

So there are 3 examples of very interesting historical information that essentially went to waste due to program date cut-off restraints.  Tidbits like that are like gold in the living history world- our visitors love to hear all the little details that make our characters more human and less like dusty figures from a history book, and in cases like these, they couldn't be used.  The only solution- come up with more programs set later in time where they can be included!

4 comments:

  1. It's always frustrating when the historical record is silent. In particular, it's baffling to me how ancient historians have cobbled together any kind of picture at all of what happened. But somehow they have.

    On the flip side, it's amazing the things that DO survive. The fact that we know your character, who wasn't a Lincoln or a Napoleon by any means, had spent time in an asylum is pretty remarkable to me. And when you get to "Great Man" history there's an even more impressive amount of information (today we even know Lincoln's morning routine - that's pretty crazy).

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's always frustrating when the historical record is silent. In particular, it's baffling to me how ancient historians have cobbled together any kind of picture at all of what happened. But somehow they have.

    On the flip side, it's amazing the things that DO survive. The fact that we know your character, who wasn't a Lincoln or a Napoleon by any means, had spent time in an asylum is pretty remarkable to me. And when you get to "Great Man" history there's an even more impressive amount of information (today we even know Lincoln's morning routine - that's pretty crazy).

    ReplyDelete
  3. I love genealogy for the very reasons you state. It allows us to see our forebears as real people, with struggles, passions, and obstacles to overcome. I am so proud to be an American. Our ancestors gutted it out for us!

    Because you do your homework, your characters are believable, and your audience will find you more credible. Good job!

    Concerning your character -- the documents from her asylum commitment say she was indeed acting erratically and threatening to her neighbors. Her daughter worked for a physician, who may have diagnosed her and committed her for a short term to help her. Just two years later, the daughter who committed her is writing to her from her journeys along the east coast, calling her "my own dear mother," wishing she was on the trip and always closing the letters with much love. I think in this case our current anti-depressant drugs would have been helpful to restore her to "sanity" or at least take the edge off of some of her outbursts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Anne! I'm so glad you were able to fill in some more information for me concerning her time in "lock-up". The poor dear! I think you are right, it sounds like she was just having a rough patch and in that era, asylums were a common solution.

      For anyone else reading this, Anne is married to a non-direct decedent of the real woman my most recent character was based off of. She provided me a portion of her diary that related to the time period we were portraying for our Farnam Christmas program, which was very helpful!

      Delete