Signs and omens – The Case of Abraham Lincoln

Signs and omens – The Case of Abraham Lincoln

Ancaster (Ont). Photo by @erskinec
Ancaster (Ont). Photo by @erskinec

I hope everyone had a happy Halloween. Here is the third and last story regarding signs and omens. This one comes from a respected journalist and close friend to Abraham Lincoln, Noah Brooks. The President died on April 15, 1865 at 7:22 in the morning.

A few months after Lincoln’s death, Brooks recounted the following story to Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in July 1865. Brooks claims to have retold the story as closely as possible to Lincoln’s own words.

Reporter and friend of Abraham Lincoln, Noah Brooks, re-told the following story in Lincoln’s own words. The story was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in July 1865.

It was just after my election in 1860. . . . I was well tired out, and went home to rest, throwing myself down on a lounge in my chamber. Opposite where I lay was a bureau, with a swinging-glass upon it [and here he got up and placed furniture to illustrate the position] and, looking in that glass, I saw myself reflected, nearly at full length; but my face, I noticed, had two separate and distinct images, the tip of the nose of one being about three inches from the tip of the other.

I was a little bothered, perhaps startled, and got up and looked in the glass, but the illusion vanished. On lying down again I saw it a second time-plainer, if possible, than before; and then I noticed that one of the faces was a little paler, say five shades, than the other. I got up and the thing melted away, and I went off and, in the excitement of the hour, forgot all about it-nearly, but not quite, for the thing would once in a while come up, and give me a little pang, as though something uncomfortable had happened.

When I went home I told my wife about it, and a few days after I tried the experiment again, when [with a laugh], sure enough, the thing came again; but I never succeeded in bringing the ghost back after that, though I once tried very industriously to show it to my wife, who was worried about it somewhat. She thought it was “a sign” that I was to be elected to a second term of office, and that the paleness of one of the faces was an omen that I should not see life through the last term.

Halloween and Scarecrows

Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec
Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec

 

Happy Halloween or all Hollows Eve

Oct 31st – Some people like skeletons, other vampires; but for me the scarecrow is the essential halloween symbol.

The tall and skinny figure with a pumpkin for a head, maybe stuffed with some hay, strikes the right note of spooky and the fall harvest.

Walking past a scarecrow you never know if that looming creature may jump out at you.

And history backs up your unease, because at one time scarecrows were living creatures. Walking pass a farmers field could easily stir a sleeping scarecrow.

In pre-industrial Europe and North America, farmers would often place scarecrows in the middle of their modest fields.

To keep the birds away, farmers would hire either the very young or the very old to sit in the fields.
Children too young for other work could easily sit in the middle of a field and swing a wooden clapper to scare the crows.

Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec
Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec

The work was also ideal for the old. Nolonger to perform maunal labour, the aged worker could walk to the field and still keep an eye on the crops. The small compensation might might the difference between eating or starving the days before a social safety net.

So, walking past a scarecrow could easily provoke a reaction from a sleeping senior citizen or a extremely bored child, particularly at dusk.

Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec
Hamilton Scarecrow. Photo by @erskinec

There are also tales of the trouble these little scarecrows could cause if they dropped by your house asking for food or walk. Refusing to provide some small treat might result in mud being jammed into you key hole or the farm gates suddenly opening in the middle of the night.

The spooky nature of scarecrows should never be under estimated. So, that is why I like scarecrow. They provide the perfect balance of history and scariness

Signs and Omens – The Tale of Strange Lights

Binkley 1803 Cemetery, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec
Binkley 1803 Cemetery, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec

According to some folklore, strange lights can warn of approaching death.

There is a story that tells of a mother and son who were visiting relatives in the countryside. One evening, the mother and son were upstairs and glanced out the window to see two lights moving towards the farm house.

The lights were moving along a country lane and kept getting closer and closer.

Just as the lights appeared to be right outside the house, the light started to move away and then disappeared at a foot of a hill where the family cemetery was located.

The mother immediately went downstairs and the whole family searched house for a possible cause for the strange lights. Everything was moved, but no light or mirror could reproduce the effect.

A few days later, mother and son suddenly became ill.

And just as suddenly, they worsened and died.

Mother and son were buried in the family cemetery, just where the lights had disappeared.

Signs & Omens – The Tale of Sailing Ship Troy

Binkley 1803 Cemetery, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec
Binkley 1803 Cemetery, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec

In earlier times, people often believed that death could be foretold by signs or warnings. I don’t have any local tales, but here is one from New York State that I recently read in a book that was published in 1975.

Lake Champlain is a very stormy body of water, particularly late in the shipping season. There once was a sailing ship called the Troy and it was carrying a cargo of iron ore from Port Henry to Westport.

It was late November 1825, the winds suddenly picked up and the water became very rough. The ore shifted and the ship went under, taking all hands.

Typical for those earlier days, the crew was largely extended family and when the weather turned bad, family friends gathered on the pier hoping for the ship’s safe return.

At home, the mother and sisters sat around the fireplace; waiting with dry clothes and warm food for the boys.

Suddenly, women heard the men arriving home. There were sounds of front door opening and the stomping of the feet.

Everyone rushed to the door but no one was there.

The mother and daughters realized that this was a sign that the boys were not coming home.

A few days later, personal items from the crew began to appear on shore, but no bodies were ever found.

In the cemetery of Westport there is a stone maker that lists the missing crew members:

“Sacred to the Memory of Capt Jacob Halstead AE 25 years and his brother George Halstead AE 13 years Sons of John & Phebe Halstead who were lost together with three others the rest of the crew of the Schooner Troy in a gale of wind off Westport Nov 23, 1825”

The original story was published in the 1906 book entitled: History of Westport, Essex County by Caroline Royce.

As a side note; in 1999 a sonar scan of Lake Champlain located the Schooner Troy in about 300 feet of water. The ship is nearly intact and appears to be well-preserved. It is one of the few surviving examples of a sailing canal ship.

Dying Can Be a Pickle

Binkley Hallow Graveyard, Hamilton (Ont) . Photo by @erskinec
Binkley Hallow 1854 Graveyard, Hamilton (Ont) . Photo by @erskinec

This week the Globe and Mail noted that Oct 21st was the anniversary of the death of Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Before the American Civil War embalming was rarely done and funerals had to be performed very quickly.

In the case of Lord Nelson, he died on a ship far from home and in a warm climate, what to do? There is a folktale that says they packed Lord Nelson and shipped him back to England in a keg of rum.

Unlike Lord Nelson, the challenge for some farm families was what do you do when it is the middle of winter and the ground is frozen solid?

I don’t have any local Hamilton stories, but according to one 19th century tale, when someone died in the winter, the body would be tied to a cooling board and hang in the barn until the spring thaw.

A cooling board is a panel of wood, like a wooden door, that was used to place the dead until the coffin was completed. Given the small size of 19th century homes and communities, sick beds would be needed for visitors staying over for the funeral.

Odds and Ends – The Dead Shaping Our Urban Landscapes

Hermitage Ghost Walk 2014
Hermitage Ghost Walk 2014

Odds and Ends – an artist’s notebook

Oct 19th – The month of the dead is fast approaching; and before that Halloween. So, who says the dead can’t have something to say about urban landscapes. Until end of November, I am going to focus cemetery landscapes.

Halloween has deep roots in Celtic history and lore. The end of October marked the end of the harvest season and the ancient Celts would take stock of supplies and prepare for winter. It was also a time when boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and the deceased would come back to life and sometimes cause troubles by making people sick or damaging crops.

All Soul Day is held on Nov 2nd and marks a time to pray for those who have died with grace but still must atoned for all their sins. There is the belief that if you pray for the dead then their time in purgatory may be shorten. While the day is set aside for prays, essentially the whole month is a time for remembering the dead.

Over the next 6 weeks, I am going to look at how 19th century concerns with death and the dead, shaped one of the major feature of our urban landscape – cemeteries.

Hopefully, everyone will find this journey an enjoyable one.

The Legend of Lover’s Lane (The Hermitage Ruins)

A short film by Chris Erskine about the legend of ghosts and hauntings at the Hermitage Ruins; located in Ancaster, Ontario.  A small community located on the edge of the City of Hamilton, Ontario.

Chris Erskine

chriserskineartist@gmail.com

@erskinec