Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mrs. Richardson, I presume?

     While my job as a museum curator involves helping to tell the stories of the artifacts in my care, sometimes it seems as if the artifacts try to tell their own stories!  Last year at Halloween I recounted some of the ghost stories from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, where I work.  Our satellite location, the Pry House Field Hospital Museum has some pretty spooky stories as well.  This seems an appropriate time to tell some of these stories!
This photo of the Pry farm was taken in 1880.  Though the fences and some of the trees are now gone, the house and barn appear nearly the same as they did then.
     Most of the Pry House’s ghost stories center on Brigadier General Israel B. Richardson.  He was wounded during the Battle of Antietam and brought to the Pry House to be treated.  Though his wound was serious enough to take him out of the battle, he was expected to recover.  He was settled into a room on the second floor of the Pry House to recuperate.  His wife, Fannie, traveled from Michigan to care for him, and stayed with him at the house.  In October, he was even visited there by President Abraham Lincoln!  Unfortunately, General Richardson developed pneumonia and died in that room in November of 1862.
Portrait of Brigadier General Israel B. Richardson, officer of the Federal Army.  Library of Congress photo.
This unattributed Civil War era drawing is labeled, “Fitz P[...] house McClellan's H.Q. on the morning of the battle, Wensday [sic], Gen. Hooker was brought here wounded.”  Another note on the side reads, "[...]T. Pry's house."  Library of Congress image. 
General Joseph Hooker was also treated at the Pry House after the Battle of Antietam, but unlike General Richardson he survived. 
     After the war the Pry farm passed to a couple of other owners before the National Park Service acquired it in 1974.  In 1976 there was a fire in the house, which is the source of one of the ghost stories.  While battling the blaze, several of the firefighters reported seeing a woman in 19th century clothing standing at one of the second-floor windows to the room where General Richardson died.  After the fire had been extinguished, it was discovered that the floor around those windows had collapsed.  No one could have been standing there.  No bodies were found in the house.

     The local legend is that the house is still “visited” by the spirit of the General’s wife, Mrs. Richardson.  Over the years many people have reported seeing a woman in Civil War period clothing in the house.  Sometimes she is seen walking down the stairs, sometimes she is standing at a window, and other times she is reported to walk across a room and through a wall!

     After the fire the NPS hired contractors to begin the process of restoring the house.  Some of the workers recounted a similar story to the firefighters.  When they arrived at the house, they spotted a woman standing in a second floor window.  Once again it was a window to the room where General Richardson had died, and once again when they went inside to investigate they discovered that there was no floor beneath those windows!    
This is the staircase at the Pry House, which leads to the “Richardson Room”.  People have reported hearing footsteps here and seeing a woman in “old fashioned” clothing. 
     In 2005, the NMCWM partnered with the NPS to open a museum at the Pry House.  That’s when our museum staff started experiencing some strange sights and sounds.  Our Executive Director, George reports that on his first day there he needed to clear out some items from the interior of the house to make room for the exhibits.  It was a nice day, so he opened all the doors to make it easier to carry things outside.  Starting at the front door, each door slammed shut in succession until they were all closed again.  While the wind could have swung the front door shut, it wouldn’t have then caused all the interior doors to slam shut.  He opened them all again, and this time the back door slammed shut first followed by the rest of the doors, in order, to the front. 

     Our Director of the Letterman Institute, April, had an issue with one of the doors as well.  In her words, “While running an overnight program at the Pry house, during a bad thunderstorm my small group bedded down for the night in the Pry House.  After making my rounds and locking up for the night, I fell asleep, downstairs in what is now the store only to be awakened around 1:30 am to the sound of pacing on the front porch and a strange metallic scratching noise.  When I opened my eyes, I realized that the key was turning in the lock.  It was an old skeleton key that was difficult for me to turn as I had locked up hours before.  I’m not sure whether the key was turning to let whoever was outside in, or to keep them out; but either way, I didn’t want to know then.”

     Guest Services staff member, Garrett, recently spent a night in the house and heard some strange noises as well.  He reports, “I was up rather late after work…in the office above the bookstore.  I was on my computer.  All doors were locked, and had been since around 5 pm.  Suddenly, there was a loud banging noise from the front of the house, sounding like it was coming from the front upstairs hallway between the Richardson room and the green room.  Initially, I thought it was just one of the random noises that the house makes, but several more loud thumps and bangs followed the first one. I thought it sounded like someone was pacing back and forth along the hallway. This back-and-forth continued off and on for about an hour.  I never went to go check it out.

     Starting a little bit after the thumping, banging, and stomping, I began to hear what sounded like a couple of indistinct voices having a conversation in the house.  Most of the voices sounded like they were coming from the formal parlor.  I could definitely identify a male voice and at least two separate female voices, but could not discern anything they were saying…. I barricaded myself in the bedroom for the night.  I had a lot of trouble sleeping, and was glad to see the morning when it finally came.”

     Other museum staff members have reported hearing footsteps in the house and out on the porch, having doors slam and lock behind them, hearing voices, finding the house lights turned back on after the house has been locked and alarmed, and seeing lights moving through the house after dark.  The Pry Barn is included as well!  People have seen lights in there too, and have heard voices talking and singing in the barn.

     It certainly makes for some interesting work experiences at times!
The Pry House as it probably looked at the time of the Civil War.  The people in the photo bear an eerie resemblance to some museum staff members!
     To see photos of a “ghost tour” of the Pry House, click here. 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Scenes from the Pry Barn

     Museums and historic buildings aren’t just used for displays and exhibits, sometimes they can be used for outside functions such as meetings, dinners, concerts, parties, or even weddings.  Hosting functions such as these creates issues beyond the normal ones for planning an event.  Not only is visitor safety a concern, but the artifacts and exhibits must be protected as well.  Ideally though, these events take place in areas which do not contain artifacts!
The Pry barn at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum is used for various programs.  Normally there is a display of reproduction medical items inside the barn including stretchers and an ambulance.  This makes it easier to use for events, since there are no artifacts involved. 
Sometimes the barn is used for museum events, such as this Soldiers’ Fair last year.  You can see that the main area of the barn has been cleared out for this event.
The barn has also been used for other events, such as this banjo concert.  Yes, that is the museum’s Director, George, playing the banjo!
      During the Battle of Antietam, the Pry barn was used as a field hospital for the wounded soldiers.  Last week, it was utilized for a much different purpose than the treatment of wounded and dying soldiers.  Tom, the Superintendent out at the Pry House, had his wedding there!
The barn’s large haymow made a good dance floor!

     It was an interesting contrast to attend a wedding ceremony at the barn, while knowing its history.  Though about 400 soldiers were treated there, undoubtedly not all of them were able to be saved.  I rather liked the idea that the barn was now a “witness” to a much happier event.    
Congratulations Tom & Tori!


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Would You Walk Into My Parlor?

     We had another “mystery artifact” donated to us recently.  A large black wool cloth with fringe on the edges was initially brought in for us to identify.  Though the fringe could have indicated that it was a shawl, the cloth was much too big.  At about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide, it was even too large to be a blanket!

When folded like this, the cloth looks like a blanket or tablecloth. The black dye is starting to fade to dark green, and the cloth has a few small moth holes, but overall it is still in good condition. 

     The owner of the cloth said that she’d been told it had something to do with mourning.  Its black color did suggest that it might be associated with funerals or mourning.  That gave us a place to start.  Our Director of Research, Terry Reimer, was the one who finally identified it.   
This ad for a 19th century cooling board, also known as a cooling table, is from the book, “The History of American Funeral Directing.”  Take a close look at that illustration.  The table is covered with a large, dark, fringed cloth!  So, this cloth is a cooling table cover.
        The ad gives a good indication as to the use of a cooling table: “A Practical Undertaker of long experience, submits this cooling board to the profession as combining all the essential qualities to meet every requirement for the proper care of dead bodies.  The simplicity of this Board recommends it over all others in the market, and its price places it within reach of every Undertaker in the land.  It is manufactured of the very finest materials, nickel plated &c.” 
     In addition to the table with the cloth cover in the ad, also notice that there is a second table which is shown folded into a more portable size.  There’s a good reason for these tables to be easily portable.
     Funerals used to be held in people’s homes, with the viewing of the body being in the family’s parlor.  Instead of transporting the body to a funeral home, the undertaker would travel to the family’s home, and he would need to bring his cooling table with him.  The body would be placed on top of the cooling table, and blocks of ice would be placed underneath the table to cool and preserve the body.  These tables often had small holes in the top to allow for better circulation of the cool air around the body.  The cloth cover was draped over a frame which folded out from the table.  Its purpose was to help keep the cooler air near the surface of the table.  Reportedly, this method worked quite well to “refrigerate” and preserve the body.

Here is a photo of an actual cooling table, without the frame for the cloth cover.  Unfortunately, my museum doesn’t own a cooling table, so this image is from the website of the Rogers Historical Museum in Arkansas.
     I’ll leave you with a little bit of related trivia.  The term “parlor” went out of fashion at about the same time that funerals stopped being held in private residences.  It was replaced by the term “living room.”  Evidently, the change occurred because people didn’t want to be reminded of the former use of that particular room! 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

How Would You Measure Up?

     A couple of months ago I posted about making some changes to the museum’s Recruiting gallery.  You can read that post here. 
     This week we added the remaining displays to the gallery.  There were no artifacts involved this time, but we did install two new interactive displays for our visitors.

Before we could install the new displays, we had to take out the mannequins and wooden railings which were part of the old display.  Tom did the demolition!

Uh oh, it appears that when the floors were stained, the railings and the mannequins were already in place.  Now it looks like we have footprints in our gallery!  There always seem to be surprises when doing work like this.  After rummaging around in the museum’s basement, I was able to find the old can of stain and to do a touch-up on the bare spots. 
     One of our new displays is titled, “How Do You Measure Up?”  It allows visitors to measure themselves against silhouettes of Civil War soldiers to see how they compare in height.  Both armies had guidelines concerning a soldier's height.  The Union Army had a set minimum height of 5'3" since they believed smaller men would be unable to stand the rigors of the march, and a preferred maximum height of 6'3" since larger men would be more easily fatigued.  These guidelines were not always followed, since there are records of men who didn’t fall within them.
Here you see our exhibit designer, Dennis, installing the image of the tallest known soldier, Henry Clay Thruston of the 4th Missouri Cavalry, who stood at a whopping 7’2” tall! 
Here are all the images, from tallest to shortest.  Mr. Thruston’s image is next to the image of a 6’3” soldier which represents the tallest recommended height for a soldier.  The Zouave in the middle is 5’8 ½” tall and represents the average Civil War soldier.  The image of the bugler is 5’3” tall and represents the shortest recommended height for a soldier.  At the far end is an image which represents the shortest known Civil War soldier, at 3’8”.
     The other new display is “On the March.” It deals with the items which the soldiers carried with them.  A typical Civil War soldier carried over 50 lbs. of equipment while on the march, and an average days' march was 20 miles.  Items which the soldiers typically carried were a gun & ammunition, a knapsack, a haversack, food rations, a canteen, a few personal items, a blanket, an overcoat or rubber blanket, and a tent or shelter half.
This is a model 1833 box knapsack that was issued throughout the Civil War, especially to state militia units.  When filled, it weighs 35-40 lbs. 
This model 1842 U.S. Springfield musket was a typical weapon issued early in the Civil War.  It weighs about 11 lbs.
     Museum visitors can try lifting the knapsack and musket on display here.  The knapsack is much heavier than it appears!
Here’s a look at the finished displays and floor! 
     So, how would you measure up – would you make the cut as a Civil War soldier? 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

*Note – I just wanted to say thank you to all my readers - this is my 100th post!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Window to the Museum

“Figuratively speaking this city [Frederick] is one vast hospital, and yet hundreds of poor fellows continue to arrive, who have their wounds attended to, and away they go, uncomplaining.” -Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1862
      Even before our museum visitors see the displays in our galleries, they see our big front window display.  This display is our chance to grab people’s attention and to interest them in what they will see if they choose to walk through our front doors.  While our former display certainly served its purpose in presenting an aspect of Civil War medicine, it had been there for several years.  It was time for a change!
Our previous display depicted Mary Ann “Mother” Bickerdyke tending to a wounded soldier on the battlefield at night.  Mother Bickerdyke served as a nurse during the Civil War.  She was known for her dedication to “her boys,” to the point of scouring the battlefields after dark with a lantern, in case any of the wounded men had been overlooked.
     Our new window display still deals with the treatment of the wounded soldiers, but it also highlights our tie to the city where our museum is located, Frederick, Maryland.  Now you may wonder what Frederick has to do with the Civil War.  After all, there was no Battle of Frederick (though we did have the Battle of Monocacy).  Frederick’s biggest contribution, at least to Civil War medicine, was actually due to the Battle of Antietam.   

     After the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of battle in U.S. history, Frederick was transformed into a major medical center for the military.  Twenty-seven of the city’s buildings, including churches, schools, hotels, and meeting halls, were taken over for hospital use by the Union Medical Department.  At one point, the wounded soldiers outnumbered the residents of the town!  Many of these historic buildings are still standing, and some of these are featured in our window display. 
The only drawback to our new window display is that it does not photograph well due to all the reflections in the glass!  Here you can see a portion of it, which shows three of the historic buildings in Frederick that were used as hospitals during the Civil War.  I’ll just have to give a shameless plug for my museum and advise you to come and see the rest of the display in person! 
     The display also features a theme which can be seen throughout our museum, "Civil War Medicine; It’s not what you think!"  It’s not just about the surgical instruments and medical procedures of the time.  It’s about the men and women who cared for the sick and wounded soldiers, and the medical innovations which were developed as a result, innovations which are the basis of some of today’s medical knowledge and procedures. 

     Civil War Surgeon, Henry Stewart Hewit summed up Frederick’s contribution well:   

"The city of Frederick is pleasantly situated in a fertile and beautiful valley with an environment of distant hills.  The town has the combined advantages of a compact well built city in the midst of a rural agricultural district.  It is paved, lighted with gas, and supplied with pure soft water brought in pipes from mountain springs.  It is in those respects admirably adapted for the sudden emergency it was called upon to fulfill in affording accommodation for the hospitals improvised after the great battles of the 14th and 17th of September.  The completeness and efficiency with which the emergency was met, will live in all future history, and will reflect honor upon the inhabitants who ministered with boundless charity to the wants of the wounded, and the Medical officers who knew how to avail themselves of the local advantages.”

     To hear more about why the National Museum of Civil War Medicine is located in Frederick, Maryland, click here.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.