Wednesday, October 19, 2016

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg

Viking, 2016
460 pp

(my copy from the publisher - thank you!)

"If the American dream were real, upward mobility would be far more in evidence." 

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is certainly one of the most informative books American history books I've read this year; quite frankly it was an eye opener.  If someone had told me that Thomas Jefferson referred to the white underclass of his own time as "rubbish" I probably wouldn't have believed it, since he's revered as a founding father of this nation.  But he actually did use that label, and he wasn't the only founding father or American politician to use that sort of term to describe the "wretched and landless poor" that have been part of our history and our culture since this country began.  And that's just for starters.  But that's the point here -- as the dustjacket blurb reveals, the author
"explodes our comforting myths about equality in the land of opportunity, uncovering the crucial legacy of the ever-present poor white trash."
She also, as she says in this interview, hopes that
"readers, pundits and politicians will stop repeating the tired myth of the American Dream and appreciate instead that the dismissal of the poor has been a crucial and consistent part of US history. Until we fully comprehend the past, our country will continue to paper over class division with empty rhetoric. For whether we like to acknowledge it or not, the history of "white trash" lies dangerously close to the heart of our deeply conflicted, long-ignored class politics."  
And quite frankly, if ever a time we see this in action, it is definitely now coming up to this year's presidential election, which makes this book extremely timely. So now for the nutshell summary:

Isenberg poses the following question in her book:
"How does a culture that prizes equality of opportunity explain, or indeed accommodate, its persistently marginalized people?," 
and it is this question, answered through an examination of an incredible array of source material, that is the focus of this study. As the dustjacket blurb notes, "white trash have always been near the center of major debates over the character of the American identity," and here she examines just how this has been the case over the last four hundred years. She does this by careful examination and analysis of several sources in contemporary politics, literature, scientific theory and various policies at different moments of America's history.

 Class is, as the author notes "the most outstanding, if routinely overlooked element in presuppositions about early settlement." It was mainly land ownership that perpetuated class distinctions, since it "was the principal source of wealth." Those on the margins without land "had little chance to escape servitude."  As this study also reveals, "The white poor have been with us in various guises" throughout our country's history.  The United States didn't even exist when some British notables began to classify the idle and "wandering" poor as  "human failure" and proposed exporting them to the New World, even going so far as to refer to the poor as "waste people," encompassing indentured servants, slaves, convicts, and men weighed down by debt. As settlement continued, the definition of "waste people" went on to include the landless poor, causing  a "stigma" that would "leave its mark on white trash" throughout our history.

Revered figures such as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Thomas Paine, John Adams and other founding fathers can take their own share of the blame for perpetuating class divisions. For instance,  Washington thought that the foot soldiers in the Continental army should consist only of "the lower class of people," while Jefferson was more harsh, describing public education as mainly for the benefit of students "raked from the rubbish." Even John Adams felt that it was natural for people to have a "passion for distinction," with his idea that "There must be one, indeed, who is the last and the lowest of the species." Poor whites have also been relegated to the status of their own particular, separate  "breed," as a means to marginalize these people so that the concept of equality and class could be maintained. As the author comments on this issue, she notes that "If whiteness was not an automatic badge of superiority ... then the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were unobtainable."

As she explains the historical circumstances behind all of this, we also learn that referring to these groups of people in terms that reiterate and reinforce the poor as "waste" has continued over four centuries:
"Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters.Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar Hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people." 
She also reveals that somehow their socioeconomic condition has long been thought by those outside of this group as being their own fault. They have been blamed for perpetuating their own bad "breeding," which along with pitting the white underclass against newly-freed slaves, was a factor used by later proponents of eugenics to bolster their positions. But even worse, they have been
"blamed for living on bad land, as though they had other choices. From the beginning they have existed in the minds of rural or urban elites and the middle class as extrusions of the weedy, unproductive soil. They are depicted as slothful, rootless vagrants, physically scarred by their poverty. The worst ate clay and turned yellow, wallowed in mud and muck, and their necks became burned by the hot sun. Their poorly clothed, poorly fed children generated what others believed to be a permanent and defective breed.  Sexual deviance? That comes from cramped quarters in obscure retreats, distant from civilization, where the moral vocabulary that dwells in town has been lost."  (320) 
And finally, another key point in this book, is that "Each era had its own means of distancing its version of white trash from the mainstream ideal," and that
 "the discomfort middle-class Americans feel when forced to acknowledge the existence of poverty highlights the disconnect between image and reality."
 In the same interview noted at the beginning of this post,  Isenberg states that
"It is difficult for Americans to talk about class because it contradicts our myths and rhetoric about the promise of the American Dream. Americans celebrate the abstract notion of equality, but history tells us that we have never embraced genuine equality." 
To me, she's hit the nail on the head with that last statement, and those who would care to argue otherwise are the ones who genuinely need to read this book.

White Trash  was very informative and I found myself going long stretches of time without being able to put the book down. This isn't a pop history for the masses sort of thing, and I would find myself repeatedly going to the back to read her notes, iPad at the ready.

 I also happen to agree with many of the major points she makes here, most especially her statement that
"We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality... Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power."  (316)
This is a dominant theme that carries on throughout her work, and she does prove her point over and over again.

As fascinated as I was with much of what she has to say here, I do have some issues.  My biggest problem here is when she says that "class has its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from intersection with race." I'm not so sure I quite buy that statement as it pertains to class in America.  Second, I didn't find the book to be an actual "400-year" history per se, since a large part of her focus is on the South at the expense of understanding the history of the poor white class in other regions in this country.  It's tough to be fully comprehensive when writing a history spanning so much time, and given how intensely she makes her case for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, aside from a brief discussion dealing with a few modern presidents, a bit on the eugenics movement, and "white trash" in books and on television, there is little depth of discussion regarding the white underclass in the twentieth century.

Despite its flaws though, I would certainly recommend it because it is a valuable study that really does debunk some of the  myths about the idealized conception of white equality in America as well as the reality behind the American dream itself.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, by Patrick Phillips

W.W. Norton, 2016
301 pp


"... the young fellers are growing up sort of with the idea that this is a white man's county."   -- (119)

Between September and October of 1912, all but a very few of the 1,098 African-American citizens (according to the 1910 census)  living in Forsyth County Georgia had been run out of the county.  The idea of "sundown towns," or communities which purposefully excluded African-Americans from living there, is nothing new, but this book, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, reveals that not only were these people driven out of the county, but also that a "deliberate and sustained campaign of terror" on the part of white residents kept African-Americans out until the last few years of the 20th century.

The author, Patrick Phillips, had lived in Forsyth county, having moved there as a child from Alabama. It's not like he wasn't used to racism but when he heard some kids on his school bus making racial slurs, he finally asked a friend "why everyone in the county seemed to hate black people so much, especially since there were none of them around."  It was then that he heard a story that stuck with him and prompted him to start a search for the truth, wondering if perhaps it wasn't "just a racist fantasy."  In 2003 he found something that started him on his journey.  Doing some other research, he decided to check out that old story, got online, typed in "Forsyth" and "1912" into an old newspaper database and found out that yes indeed, the story he'd been told was absolutely true.  More than anything, it was a photograph in the October 4th issue of the Atlanta Constitution that gave him his first glimpses of the "faces of black Forsyth," in a story with the caption "Troops on Guard as Two Rapists Are Convicted: Story of Revolting Assault Arouses Great Indignation in Cumming Court."

courtesy of

The "revolting assault" involving those pictured allegedly occurred in September, 1912, when three young African-Americans were accused of the rape and murder of a white girl.  Just about a week or so earlier, another white woman had woken up screaming because she'd woken to find an African-American man in her bedroom, four young men were arrested, and a black minister was horsewhipped for casting aspersions on the woman's character.  The second crime, however,  unleashed a coordinated campaign to get rid of every black citizen in the county -- involving "night riders," threats,   arson, and worse -- any kind of terror imaginable at the time was utilized here to run these people out of the county completely, including threats against the more upper/middle class white residents who had black household help.  As time went on, white people just sort of laid claim to land previously owned by the former Forsyth residents so that soon any vestiges of what were African-American homes, farms, churches, etc. soon disappeared, and life went on in a now-all white Forsyth County, basically erasing the fact that black people had even lived there. Things were so white that even the once-in-a-while visit by other African-Americans to the county would result in threats, which often included loaded guns pointed at the faces of black chauffeurs of visitors. Scariest yet -- none of this changed at all until determined marchers in 1987 came to Forsyth county to hold demonstrations; even then law enforcement wasn't enough to control the white anger and hatred.  Even then, things were very slow to change.

Stop for a moment and think about what I just said here about African-Americans not even being able to even enter the county until 1987.   You might ask "what about the civil rights movement of the 1960s," and the simple answer would be that it didn't happen for Forsyth. You might also ask why a book about events in 1912 is something you should read in 2016.  The answer for me is this: just this past summer I was in the middle of my morning routine of journal reading, perusing the news and going through my facebook news feed, and came across this photo of a billboard for a congressional candidate  in Tennessee:

To say that I was appalled and actually screamed out loud is putting it mildly, but getting back to Blood at the Root, it's obvious to me that the desire to "make America white again" mirrors Forsyth's "this is a white man's county" and this ugliness hasn't died out at all. 

There's so much going on in this book and obviously I can't possibly say everything I want to say about it here.  It's an incredibly difficult book to read on an emotional level -- seems like we're doing a backslide into this sort of intolerant, ugly and just downright frightening behavior yet again.  Just a few nit-picky things: not keen on the connection between the ouster of the Cherokees and the African-Americans -- this part needed a whole lot more, in-depth comparison to make it work for me. Secondly, even though Phillips did a great job in revealing how the president of the United States at the time reneged on campaign promises he used to gain the black vote  leaving many African-Americans poor, without hope of jobs and often fired from the positions they already held in Washington DC, I wouldn't have exactly labeled that as "racial cleansing" in the same sense he uses it regarding Forsyth County.  But once again, the best part of this well-researched book lies in how he traces the sad history of events to give his readers an insight into "the process by which racial injustice is perpetuated" here in the United States. 

So far, this book is picking up excellent reader reviews; as I said, it's a tough book to get through but it's also a story that needs to come out into the open air. Very well done and highly, highly recommended. 

News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel García Márquez

Vintage, 2008
originally published as Noticia de un secuestro, 1996
191 pp


When a disclaimer pops up at the beginning of every episode of a tv series I'm watching, to me it's like throwing down a challenge. We recently finished watching Narcos on Netflix, the series that over the course of the first two seasons was focused on Pablo Escobar.  At the beginning of each episode there's a blurb saying something along the lines of  some of what you're about to see has been fictionalized although it's based on real events.  Once we finished season two, my biggest questions focused on the truth behind US involvement, based on the portrayal of the creepy CIA agent running things behind the scenes, interfering with what the DEA was doing in the name of future American interests in the country.  Well, of course I did what any true-blue geek would do when it comes to the involvement of the CIA and the American military in a foreign country, and went to the National Security Archives (here) to try to get the real story on what was going on.  Reading each and every document mentioned in this summary, I saw that journalist Mark Bowden was discussed re his research, which led me to read his Killing Pablo,  which details US involvement in the hunt for Pablo Escobar.  That book, in turn, led me to News of a Kidnapping, which despite a number of readers' complaints, is neither "a snoooze" nor "a mediocre effort." Au contraire -- it's a book I read on the proverbial edge of my seat, hanging on every word.

In the acknowledgments section at the beginning, Marquez explains what's behind the writing of this book. In 1993, one of ten kidnapping victims,  Maruja Pachón  came to the author and "suggested" that he write a book about her abduction and her six months in captivity and her husband's "persistent efforts to obtain her release."  Marquez started working on it, but well into the first draft, he realized that
"it was impossible to separate her kidnapping from nine other abductions that occurred at the same time in Colombia."
Why? Well, by his reasoning, and as will be discussed in this book,
"They were not, in fact, ten distinct abductions -- as it had seemed at first -- but a single collective abduction of ten carefully chosen individuals, which had been carried out by the same group and for only one purpose."
 Behind these particular kidnappings, of course, was Pablo Escobar and his "Extraditables," whose motivation was to force the government into backing down on its stance on extradition to the United States.

In a nutshell, the central focus of News of a Kidnapping is the stories of these abductions, the victims' experiences in captivity, and the families' efforts to get these people released, but to tell that story, the author places these kidnappings in the wider context of Colombia's troubled history of politics, narco trafficking and terrorism.  It also follows how Escobar went from being host to "Politicians, industrialists, businesspeople, journalists..." at his Hacienda Nápoles to becoming "the biggest prey in our history. Of Escobar, Marquez writes that "The most unsettling and dangerous aspect of his personality was his total inability to distinguish between good and evil," which is shown here in terms of the wave of violence aimed at presidential candidates and other political officials, cops murdered for the bounty on their heads, and explosions in the streets that killed innocent victims.

 After reading what other readers have said about this book, it seems that many people were looking for Gabriel Garcia Marquez to give this book the magical realism touch he's applied in his novels.  A number of people were disappointed by the fact that this book is a journalistic take on events, rather than a novel.  I've seen it called "a snoooze," "boring," and "flat," and of course, there are those people who also watched Narcos and were expecting something along those lines, one person noting that she preferred the TV series. Hmmm.  Well, as I always say, to each his/her own, but seriously, it kept me on the edge of my chair pretty much the entire time with stomach twisted in knots. Then again, I'm the sort of person who likes to try to ferret out the truth of what's underneath the fiction, and in this case, it's pretty damn harrowing.

Highly, highly recommended.  And when you finish this one, read his Clandestine in Chile -- another excellent book.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, by Kate Summerscale

Penguin, 2016
378 pp


As someone who loves all crimes Victorian, I'd been looking forward to reading this book ever since I discovered it was going to be published.  Kate Summerscale is the author The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, one of my favorite historical true crime studies; that book held me pretty much spellbound right through to the end. She is one hell of a researcher for sure -- her books are steeped in cultural, social, economic and historical context so that the reader has a very good feel for  the bigger picture stemming outward from the crime in question, so that the end result is, as one blurber wrote about her Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, the author "shed(s) light on Victorian morality and sensibilities."  Her research is nothing but meticulous, and both as a reader and as someone who enjoys history, I can tell she puts her heart and her soul into her work.  And it pays off. 

In The Wicked Boy, Ms. Summerscale takes on the story of Robert Coombes, who in July 1895 at the young age of thirteen, killed his mother, closed the bedroom door where the crime was committed, and then along with his younger brother Nattie, calmly went to a cricket match. The crime went undetected for a while, even when the brothers brought an older man, John Fox,  into the house to stay with them, and whenever anyone would ask about mom, they were told that she was out of town. But some ten days later, the milkman noticed a terrible smell, and passed the word around to the neighbors, who turned around and let the boys' aunt know.  When she arrives, she demands to speak with her sister-in-law, but Robert continues with the lie that she's out of the house.  Auntie, though, demands to see their mother, and when the bedroom door was finally opened, she was met with "the smell of rotting flesh" and the "form of a woman, lying on the bed, the face covered by a sheet and a pillow."  When faced with what he'd done,  Robert admits that it was he who had killed his mother because Nattie had "got a hiding for stealing some food, and Ma was going to give me one."

 In examining the whys in the case, Summerscale turns to different factors that may have played a role in the reason Coombes did what he did. Maybe he was heavily influenced by the stories in the penny dreadfuls he read -- after all, as she notes, they had been occasionally linked by inquest juries to suicide and murder; the press had noted that they were "the poison which is threatening to destroy the manhood of democracy," and for some reason they were viewed as representative of a threat from the "lower orders." Or perhaps it was that Robert was afraid of his mother's temper and her threats of violence,  or maybe even as Summerscale notes the illustration above suggests, some sort of hidden psycho-sexual  "irresistible impulse."  It's an intriguing crime that I'd never heard of, and the whys may never be known.  After the author examines the particulars of the case, the law, the trial, etc., she then goes on to argue that perhaps history shouldn't judge Robert Coombes for what he did in July 1895, since he went on to lead an exemplary life.

As I said, it's very obvious that she's researched her story and her people meticulously. I couldn't get enough of the crime itself, trying to figure out why Robert would have done what he did and what Nattie's involvement may have actually been.  However, there comes a time when any researcher worth her or his salt has to know what to keep and what to let go when reporting her findings, and that's one of my issues with this book. There is so much detail that some of it easily could have been left out with no detriment to either the study of the crime at hand or the people involved.  For example, from pp 226 through 233 we get a long section on another Broadmoor inmate who played cricket at Broadmoor while Robert was there. Then, through the end of that chapter on 239, more about another young inmate. Interesting, yes, but germane to Coombes' story? I get that she's discussing other adolescents who ended up there, but still, thirteen pages?  This tends to happen throughout this book and it's frustrating when all I wanted to do was to move along and get on with Coombes' story.   However, despite my misgivings about the overabundance of what I see as unnecessary details woven into this narrative, I would certainly recommend the book to anyone who has an interest in Victorian true crime.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

just brilliant: Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, by Talitha L. LeFlouria

University of North Carolina Press, 2015
257 pp


Just a heads-up: my perspective here is not at all academic. I haven't looked, but I'm sure this book has a number of scholarly reviews that will provide more of an in-depth, academic treatment.

I'm coming from the point of view of someone working to fill in gaps in my own knowledge of the history of African-Americans and of women in this country.  When I read that a major part of the author's purpose in this book was to "give voice to a group of women who had theirs taken away," I knew had to read it. Why?  As the author stated in 2015 in an interview where I first heard about this book, 
"We have to honor black women's voices from below and to honor their struggles, and their working bodies in particular helped to build modern America. We have to look at these prisoners who were bound, unwaged, abused and terrorized, and who also helped shape political struggles to resist the abuses, the trauma and the terror, and the violence that was visited upon them. So although their resistance may have been less organized, less structured and less formal, it was still very potent and worthy of consideration."
The relevance of this story to our own time cannot be understated -- as the author notes at the end of this book,
"Today black women are still afflicted by the social, political and economic vices that predisposed them to arrest, conviction and incarceration in the past...In order to better understand the modern carceral state and the complex relationship black women have with it, we must confront the past and listen even when it seems to be silent."
There are at least four main issues that permeate this book (and which continue to resonate over the course of more than a century later): gender, race, crime, and punishment.   In this study, the author also looks at African-American women in the "carceral state" and how as bound women they were affected by the ongoing assertion of white supremacy and control in the post-emancipation "New South." This book reveals, analyzes and most thoroughly discusses those contemporary "social, political and economic" factors while allowing some of the women's voices to be heard after more than a century of silence. As the author notes, her work  is "chiefly invested in rebuilding the historical viewpoint of the unwaged, bound black female worker."

The story of these unheard women is revealed, in large part, through an in-depth, wide-ranging study of a number of primary sources that include such records as "Corporal Punishment Registers Monthly Reports (Whipping Reports), 1884-89" from the Georgia Department of Corrections, medical reports of prison doctors, court dockets, contemporary newspapers, and most importantly, the personal accounts of women who became part of the convict labor system.  As the author tells us, black convict women were "Georgia's (and the South's) most inconspicuous workforce," but they were also a "fundamental asset  in the development of Georgia's postbellum industries," including railroads,  brick factories, mining, and other industries that were instrumental in establishing  "New South modernity" after the civil war.  However, they had to endure some horrific, demoralizing, and downright dehumanizing conditions during their incarceration.

There is so much to this book that I can't possibly cover the complexities within in any amount of depth, but the chapter headings will offer a clue as to what's here:

  1. The Gendered Anatomy of "Negro Crime " 
  2. Black Women and Convict Leasing in the "Empire State" of the New South
  3. "The Hand that Rocks The Cradle Cuts Cordwood: Prison Camps for Women
  4. Sustaining the "Weak and Feeble: Women Workers and the Georgia State Prison Farm
  5. Broken, Ruined and Wrecked: Women on the Chain Gang.

Don't expect a history for the masses sort of thing here.  Chained in Silence is an academic monograph and a solid work of history in which the author offers her arguments, supports them with personal accounts or other data, and then provides in-depth analysis to make her case.   In some areas her work is hampered by lack of data, but she makes this very clear in the telling.  She also realizes that there is much more work to be done and offers topics for future researchers.  At the same time, she makes this book very approachable for readers like myself who believe that the best history is told from the perspective of those whose voices never quite seem to make it into the historical record. This book, for lack of a better way to say it, is just brilliant and deserves widespread attention.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez: READ THIS BOOK!!

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
431 pp


"If we were to add up all the Indian slaves taken in the New World from the time of Columbus to the end of the nineteenth century, the figure would run somewhere between 2.5 million and 5 million slaves."(5)

Thinking about the subject of slavery in America will, for most people, conjure up horrific images of Africans taken from homeland and families, packed in confined spaces on ships and enduring unimaginable conditions and treatment once they reach their destination. It is a tragic and vile chapter in our history,  and a reminder of the horrors that humans can inflict on other humans in the name of economic power and gain. But, as the author of this book reveals, Africans were not the only victims of the slave trade in America  -- "the other slavery" involved indigenous people. This "other slavery" didn't replace African slavery; on the contrary, it was, as the author notes, "there all along."

This book is not only eye opening, but eye popping as well.  Not only does it offer us a glimpse at this most horrific, long-lasting chapter in history that most people, including myself, knew little about, but in tying it all together the author briefly calls our attention to why this study has potential  relevance in our modern world. For one thing, while slavery is prohibited "practically everywhere in the world,"  today there are "multiple practices of human bondage and trafficking that have some features in common, as well as others that are unique to each market and region of the world."  And, as he notes and in my opinion proves beyond a doubt, there are major similarities between the "unique features of Indian enslavement" and  the various  "forms of bondage practiced today."

 Beginning with  "The Caribbean Debacle," in which
"By the 1550s, a mere sixty years, or two generations, after contact, the Natives so memorably described by Columbus as 'affectionate and without malice' and having 'very straight legs and no bellies' had ceased to exist as a people, and many Caribbean islands became eerie uninhabited paradises." 
the author reveals that what little what we've actually learned about the history of this time doesn't necessarily agree with the reality.   For example, we are all told in our school years that the decimation of  indigenous peoples in this area came about through epidemics that overcame an "immunologically defenseless population." However,  by examining written records of the time, the author carefully makes the case for a combination of "slavery, overwork, and famine" between 1492 and 1550 as the major causes of death, rather than  "smallpox, influenza and malaria" that have been blamed. Of these "human factors," as he goes on to examine in some depth, he finds that "slavery has emerged as a major killer."

From the Caribbean, the rest of the book moves through parts of Central America and on  into North America to reveal that while slavery had already existed between tribes in these areas prior to European contact, it was the arrival of the Europeans that caused a major transformation in the practice itself.  As they spread throughout these areas, "the other slavery" was "never a single institution," but became a "set of kaleidoscopic practices suited to different markets and regions."  As the dustjacket blurb notes, "what started as a European business passed into the hands of indigenous operators and spread like wildfire across vast tracts of the American Southwest."   Human trafficking  moved people outside of their homelands into different places where they were expected to adapt, sometimes under the harshest conditions.    Slavery was  illegal, but the Spanish laws prohibiting Indian slavery , for example, could be gotten around under the banner of  religious justifications or by justifying the need for more labor for resources. Furthermore, they were made by people far removed from the realities of the situation and rarely enforced with any particular kind of vigor.     Even in North America, as he notes, neither the Thirteenth Amendment which clearly states that
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction"
nor the Peonage Act (1867) offered any sort of protection against "the other slavery."  One, there were always justifications for getting around any law if enough money was involved,  and two, labor coercion simply continued in a huge variety of other forms. In fact, as he says, it is this "variability of practices, supremely adapted to each social and legal context and region" that is one of "the defining characteristics" of the other slavery.

There is so much more to this book and it goes into way more depth  that I won't get to here, most especially  in understanding how the transformation of Indian slavery had a huge impact on and helps to explain "the shared history of Mexico and the United States,"  offering for one thing a new slant to historical events of which we are already aware, and making for a serious point to consider in light of today's political climate.   It is not a pretty story, but it is one that definitely needs to be heard.  Highly, highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A veritable tryptich and a double mystery: She Said, She Said, He Said

Floreana Island, Galapagos (from

read in April 2016

One early April night  I was going through one of my periodic bouts of insomnia,  tossing and turning and turning and tossing until I'd had enough. I decided to go downstairs to watch something on TV, figuring I'd bore myself back to sleep watching C-span or something. All that was on were infomercials and some really bad movies, and since by this time I was wide awake,  I moved over to Netflix and started skimming through documentaries (my favorite part of tv), and that's when I stumbled on one called "Satan Came to Eden."  It was based on one of the strangest stories I'd never heard, and so I wanted to know more. The result: a purchase of a veritable tryptich of books, two separate memoirs written by two women who'd been present at the time and an account by a writer in the 1980s who had "set out to follow the clues and solve the mystery."   The action took place back in the 1930s, when a strange woman who called herself the Baroness made her way to this lovely island, and after antagonizing everyone there, mysteriously disappeared off of the face of the earth along with her lover, never to be heard from again.

Starting with the book for which the documentary was named, Satan Came to Eden was written by Dore Strauch, who along with her lover and mentor Dr. Friedrich Ritter, decided to chuck life in German civilization and attempt to live in complete harmony with nature, hoping  to "fight their way to inner freedom."  Ritter, whose philosophy "moved between two poles, with Nietzsche at the one end and the other Laotse," kept a little black book in which he recorded the "remotest archipelagos and single islands."  Ultimately Ritter chose the small island of Floreana (aka Charles Island) in the Galapagos, based on reading William Beebe's 1924 book Galapagos: World's End.  (By the way, I get absolutely nada if anyone clicks through to Amazon so feel free.)  By the end of June, 1929, Ritter had given up his practice, the two of them had said their last farewells, and made their way to Floreana where they set about the business of living.  While Dore's book has a LOT of information about the Baroness, her entourage and her disappearance, much of Satan Came to Eden involves, of course, the hardships they went through in getting started, one of which was the arrival of a second German family on the island.  The new guys, the  Wittmers,  had read some of the newspaper accounts which had filtered back to Germany about the modern Robinson Crusoes, and in need of a healthy environment to raise their young but ill son, had also decided to make Floreana their home.  Margret Wittmer's story  is documented in book two, Floreana: A Woman's Pilgrimage to the Galapagos, which also gives a firsthand view of adjusting to life on a "wild, untamed 

desert island in the heart of the Galapagos archipelago."  The Wittmers arrived in 1932; at the time, Margret was five months pregnant.  Obviously, the story of the Wittmers adjustment to life there is different than that of Dr. Ritter and Dore Strauch, but they overlap with the arrival of another person and her entourage, the Baroness Wagner de Bosquet.  By all accounts, the Baroness (self-styled, of course) was a bizarre woman, coming in tow with her two lovers, Phillippson and Lorenz,  and a hired hand who couldn't wait until his contract was up to get away from her.   The Wittmers and the Ritter/Strauch party got only an inkling of what they would be in for once the Baroness arrived; over time she would proclaim herself the owner of the island, set up a hotel, and involve the other islanders into her sordid affairs including a near-deadly rivalry between the two men who loved her.  The Baroness certainly made life on Floreana difficult for her neighbors -- stealing supplies destined for the others and charging them exorbitant rates to get them back, prowling around, spying, and trying to cause tension between the Wittmers and the Ritter/Strauches.   After some time of having to put up with this whacked-out, crazy woman (who would sometimes meet island guests in her panties) and the strange goings on between her two men, Margret hears the Baroness announce that she'll be leaving Floreana to go to the South Seas, and that was pretty much the last time anyone ever saw her.  She disappeared with Phillippson, leaving a very sick Lorenz behind, but afterwards, she was never heard from again. That was 1934; no one has ever found any traces, including bodies. 

These two women's accounts offer varying takes on what may have happened to the Baroness and Phillippson.  Wittmer notes that the Baroness must have kept with her plan to go off to the South Seas via a visiting yacht;  Dore Strauch, who got the dates of the disappearance completely wrong, was adamant that murder had been done, and offered some clues (screams in the night, gunshots, etc.,) to bolster her claim along with some accusations.  But for me, the most interesting story in these books centers around the death of Friedrich Ritter -- was his death truly an accident, or was there more to it? 

In 1983, John Traherne offered his ideas in his The Galapagos Affair, in which he not only looks at the memoirs of the two women but at outside sources as well. He goes over the story, putting all of the players in place as these strange events occur, leading up to the disappearance of the Baroness and Phillippson; he then posits his opinion as to what may have happened.  Moreover, he examines the conflicting "she said she said" accounts of Ritter's death and comes up with various scenarios and then an entirely plausible solution, which actually accords with what I thought after I'd read the two women's accounts.  I won't say what that was, but I will say that of those two books, one of them is entirely suspicious, since the writer contradicts herself more than just once. It's also very obvious that she has something to prove, but I won't say any more.  I love playing armchair detective, and these books offered a great opportunity to do so. 

If nothing else, check out the documentary -- the bizareness of the whole thing, especially in the case of the Baroness,  leaps out at you while you're watching, and in my case, I couldn't turn away.  I was so fascinated with it all that until my books arrived, I read every single thing I could find on these cases -- that's how deeply these mysteries got under my skin.  The books (all three) and the documentary I recommend for people into historical true crime; if you want to skip the two memoirs and go right to Treherne's book, he does a great job in bringing forth material from both accounts, summarizing them, adding in other, outside accounts,  and then offering his own viewpoint.   I'm left wondering though just  how many of these odd, unsolved mysteries there are that may be worth reading about which,  as was the case with this story, I had no clue even existed.  Now my appetite is whetted -- I'll be looking for them.