9780770436209_custom-91ae188bedae87f8b4facaf730d081f9dd842434-s6-c30I remember picking up paperback books when I was a kid that were filled with Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoons. I loved them! Those little snippets of information peaked my interest about the world around me and instilled in me a fascination for the odd and unusual. This summer, one of the stops on my family’s Great Smokey Mountains vacation was to visit the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium. I had hoped that it might spark curiosity in them as well.

So when I saw, A Curious Man by Neal Thompson, my curiosity kicked in. Why hadn’t someone written about Robert Ripley before? I purchased the book and enjoyed it immensely.

It is the story of Robert Ripley’s journey from struggling newspaper cartoonist to cultural icon. He came from a poor family and was teased for his buckteeth and stutter. It is a true rags to riches story because Ripley also had talent, determination, and a strong work ethic.

A Curious Man also paints a picture of a talented man whose passion for travel and oddities gave way to a life of excess and then obsession.

Ripley conquered newspapers, books, radio, television, the speaking circuit and museum circuit. Even with the help of the staff that he eventually had, I am still amazed that he could do as much as he did and still travel for months at a time.

Along the way, readers get a good picture of life during an interesting time of American history—the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, and WWII. They watch the rise and beginning decline of the newspaper industry.

I found the book easy to read and enjoy. I also liked the Ripley-style callouts of interesting factoids throughout the book that Thompson called “Believe It.”

If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that it continued too long for me after Ripley’s death. The battling over the Ripley empire after his death held little interest for me.

A Curious Man made me start looking around for those old paperbacks again so that I could read more about the wonder of the world.

390901440_7fbc9a0343_oSome historians call the War of 1812 the second American Revolution. Less than a generation after America won her independence, she once again found herself battling Great Britain. It was a war that neither side wanted because both countries were still trying to recover from the original American Revolution.

The British fought a defensive war in the early years of the War of 1812 because they were also fighting against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French army and navy in Europe. By 1814, Napoleon had been defeated and the British turned their attention more fully to ending the war with the United States with a victory. Up to this point, most of the fighting had been around the Canadian and U.S. border to the north. In the Mid-Atlantic, the British had started a blockade in 1813.

Preparing for War

In July 1814, President James Madison called on the states to supply militia to defend the young country.  According to William Lowdermilk in A History of Cumberland, Maryland, “Maryland was required to furnish one Major-General, three Brigadier Generals; one Deputy Quartermaster-General, one Assistant Adjutant-General, and six regiments, to consist of 600 artillerists, and 5,400 infantry.”

However, war is a political question as well as a military one, and Maryland was split on the need to go to war. The Federalists called themselves the “Friends of Peace.” Their position was that the U.S. should fight only to defend its borders and not seek to take territory from Canada, which had been happening on the northern front of the war. The Democrats were called “War Hawks” and fully supported not only a defensive war but an offensive one.

In the fall elections of 1814, the Democrats nominated Thomas Cresap, Thomas Greenwell, Benjamin Tomlinson and Upton Bruce to the state legislature. It was the Federalists who swept the election, though. Jesse Tomlinson, William McMahon, William Hilleary and Jacob Lantz were elected and sent to Annapolis to represent the county.

Around that time, the county also moved towards filling its portion of the state’s militia quota and there was “a considerable degree of enthusiasm manifested,” according to Lowdermilk.

While county residents hadn’t been engaged in any military conflicts since the Revolutionary War, volunteer groups had been meeting to drill, shoot targets and discuss fighting techniques. Lowdermilk wrote that some of the volunteers had served in the Revolutionary War as members of the Maryland Line.

Maryland soldiers had distinguished themselves for their bravery and ability during the Revolutionary War. They were so dependable that it is said George Washington called the Maryland regiments his “Old Line,” which is where one of Maryland’s nicknames as “The Old Line State” comes from, according to the Maryland Archives.


Answering the Call

In the fall of 1814, two companies were formed in Allegany County that totaled 227 fighting men. Captain Thomas Blair formed one company primarily with men from Cumberland. Captain William McLaughlin formed his company with men outside of the city.

Lowdermilk noted of Blair’s company, “The Company formed in Cumberland was made up of excellent material, the organization having been effected some months before.”

Once formed, the men marched to Baltimore in August where they became part of the First Regiment of Maryland Militia, under General Samuel Smith and Colonel John Ragan. They spend most of their time at Camp Diehl wondering if they would see any fighting.

Seeing Action

On September 12, a British fleet of more than 30 warships and transports sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and landed 5,000 troops on the North Point peninsula. The American militia of 3,000 men, including the soldiers from Allegany County, met the British troops at Godly Wood, eight miles north of the British landing point.

The two sides exchanged musket and artillery fire for about an hour before the British troops’ superior size forced the Americans back toward Baltimore. However, the Americans inflicted heavy casualties on the British, including mortally wounding the British commander Maj. General Robert Ross.

With the loss of the lionized Major-General Robert Ross to tree-hidden American sharpshooters, the British advance toward the city slowed whilst the powerful fleet lay useless against Fort McHenry because of the tremendous amount of blockage which had been dropped into the channel,” according to the General Society of the War of 1812 web site.

The bombardment of Fort McHenry, which led to Francis Scott Key to write the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” began the following day.


Back in Allegany County, news reached the residents of the American victory on Lake Champlain between New York, Vermont and Quebec and the people celebrated. “Processions paraded the streets, singing and shouting, and the entire population took part in the celebration,” Lowdermilk wrote.

The county’s soldiers were mustered out on October 13, after which they returned to the county and were disbanded in early November.


Moby Dick and Gettysburg

Herman_Melville_1860I was doing some research for my local history column in the Gettysburg Times last week and stumbled on this poem. It had nothing to do with my topic. I wasn’t writing about the Battle of Gettysburg and I’m not a big fan of poetry.

What caught my attention is who wrote the poem. Herman Melville. For those who don’t know he’s the man who wrote Moby Dick. Given Melville’s sea-faring background, I didn’t picture him in relation to the Civil War. Melville didn’t fight in the war, but it influenced him as it must have anyone alive at that time.

The poem is his version of Pickett’s Charge, the Confederate Army’s last-ditch effort to win the Battle of Gettysburg.

So here’s the poem.



O Pride of the days in prime of the months

Now trebled in great renown,

When before the ark of our holy cause

Fell Dagon down-

Dagon foredoomed, who, armed and targed,

Never his impious heart enlarged

Beyond that hour; God walled his power,

And there the last invader charged.


He charged, and in that charge condensed

His all of hate and all of fire;

He sought to blast us in his scorn,

And wither us in his ire.

Before him went the shriek of shells-

Aerial screamings, taunts and yells;

Then the three waves in flashed advance

Surged, but were met, and back they set:

Pride was repelled by sterner pride,

And Right is a strong-hold yet.


Before our lines it seemed a beach

Which wild September gales have strown

With havoc on wreck, and dashed therewith

Pale crews unknown-

Men, arms, and steeds. The evening sun

Died on the face of each lifeless one,

And died along the winding marge of fight

And searching-parties lone.


Sloped on the hill the mounds were green,

Our centre held that place of graves,

And some still hold it in their swoon,

And over these a glory waves.

The warrior-monument, crashed in fight,

Shall soar transfigured in loftier light,

A meaning ampler bear;

Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer

Have laid the stone, and every bone

Shall rest in honor there.


Charlie Chaplin wrote in his autobiography, “Hair is vitally personal to children. They weep vigorously when it is cut for the first time; no matter how it grows, bushy, straight or curly, they feel they are being shorn of a part of their personality.”

It is a feeling that adults must never entirely get over, either. How many of us have scrapbooks that contain a lock of our hair from when we were a baby or when we got our first haircuts? When you look at it does it bring back memories of your childhood? Of a time of youthful energy and innocence?

Ann Hull, director of the Franklin County (Pa.) Historical Society – Kittochtinny, tells a story of how she was doing genealogy research one time and among some family items, she found an envelope with a lock of hair in it. “It wasn’t labeled,” says Hull. “I have no clue who it belonged to. It could have been from my great-grandmother. I could have been from my aunt. I don’t know, but I wish I did to have that part of her.”

“Hair, detached from its original owner, could nevertheless stand in for that individual. Emotional repercussions that would otherwise be the result of the interaction between individuals could be triggered by the hair itself,” Helen Sheumaker wrote in Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America.


Before these scrapbooks with locks of hair, there were hair albums.

“They were before photography became common,” says Hull. “This is how people remembered family and friends…with hair.”

The Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Mo., has six hair albums among its collection of hair art. Each has its own story that Museum Director Leila Cohoon researched. For instance, one book belonged to a woman in New York. Based on where the book is from and the morbid drawings throughout the book, Cohoon deduced the book was kept by an inmate at the women’s prison in the town. Each of the locks of hair in the book is from a person who came to visit her at the prison.

One of the things that characterize hair albums is the way that hair locks are presented. They don’t simply contain locks of hair taped into a scrapbook. These locks have been twisted into small braids and patterns.

“They’re not braided in ways that we know braiding today,” Cohoon said. The braids and weaving are more complex than the braids used nowadays.

Each lock is also identified with the name of the person to whom it belonged and sometimes a date or memory.

“It is a collection of intricate hair that was braided, embroidered, or woven and stitched into an album. Each sample has a tribute, usually in the form of a poem, done in beautiful, but faded calligraphy. It is dated 1865. It has two samples per page and there are over 80 individuals represented in the book. Many have the same last names. The hair of married couples is usually woven together,” wrote a woman on the Victorian Hairwork Society about a hair album that she inherited.

The crafted hair lock might also be identified with a mini portrait or a verse of poetry. However it was identified, it was done so in a way that meant something to the young woman who was creating the hair album. A woman wrote in 1834, as quoted in Love Entwined, that she had “always loved albums, much as they have been ridiculed… and it interests me to see the ardour of a young lady, when opening the gilt leaves, she finds there sentiments dedicated to her alone.”

Family Bibles have also been used as hair albums with locks of hair for each member of the family.

“It’s genealogy done with hair,” Cohoon said.

Most hair albums come from the 19th Century, though other hairwork dates back much further. Cohoon says that young women making hair albums had pretty much ended by the beginning of the 20th Century.

In their book Forgotten Tales of North Carolina, Tom Painter and Roger Kammerer note that hair albums were quite popular in the state in the late 1880’s, though even by then, it had begun to shift away from the more-labor intensive braiding. “The lock of hair would be tied with a blue ribbon and attached in an album. Over it would be written the name, age, eye color, date of receiving the memento and other personal remarks, which might or might not be complimentary, as the album was never to be seen by any other than feminine eyes,” Painter and Kammerer wrote.

As photography became more commonplace, the tradition of keeping hair albums all but died out. It eventually morphed into the keeping of locks of hair and maintaining of hair work or the crafting of jewelry from locks of hair.



Hair albums are part of a larger art form known as hairwork. Hairwork involves using hair to create wreaths, rings, brooches and other items. Learning hairwork involves skill that is learned.

Cohoon teaches classes in making hair wreaths. She has identified 30 techniques used in creating these wreaths. Cohoon knows 25 of them and is working to learn a 26th technique.

She has to figure them out herself because no directions on these skills exist. This has led her to write a book that provides instruction for how to do the various hair braids and weaves.

The benefit of using hair as a craft medium is not only that it provides a personal connection to the piece, but it does not decay.

“Everybody has hair,” Cohoon said. “It’s individual. It’s the one part of the body that does not go back to ‘dust to dust.’”


An article in AntiqueWeek by Susan and Jim Harran noted that hair has been seen as a symbol of life by many cultures over thousands of years. “Egyptian tomb paintings portray scenes showing pharaohs and queens exchanging hair balls as tokens of enduring love. In Mexico, Indian women kept hair combings in a special jar which was buried with their bodies so that the soul would not become tired looking for missing parts, and delay its passage to the other world,” the Harrans wrote.

Cohoon said that she has seen hairwork traced back to the 12th Century. “Some people think of hairwork as something that was done during the Victorian era, but actually it was finishing up by then,” Cohoon said.

As a commercial enterprise, hairwork is said to have begun in Sweden in the early 1800’s. Young girls in Vamhus, Dalarna, Sweden learned creative hair braiding and then traveled far and wide earning money that helped support their village during the winter months.

“Young girls would divide up into teams of three or four and travel to a country in Europe, learn the language and take their art with them,” the Harrans wrote. “The craft of hairwork spread throughout Europe. Beautifully detailed landscapes and floral designs were made by jewelers using human hair.”

For more information:

To find out more about hairwork, its history and its current state, you can visit the Victorian Hairwork Society at www.hairsociety.org or contact Cohoon at hairmuseum@aol.com.









Besides being a veteran, the subject of my new book is an artist and sculptor. This is a panel from his illustrated diary of his time at Guadalcanal.

I am still trying to get my head around an interview I conducted this afternoon. It was the first of what will probably be many as I start working on a biography of a WWII veteran. There’s so much information to take in and digest that it’s overwhelming me at the moment. I need to digest what he told me and start to shape how I want to present his story. I’m looking at a few different directions that don’t seem like they would connect—World War II, Civil War, Art. Yet, they all do connect with this man.

I want to do this man’s story justice. I think it is pretty interesting. This is the first time that I’ve worked on a true biography. Saving Shallmar was sort of a biography about a coal town. This book will be a biography about a living WWII veteran. There’s fewer and fewer of them left, and I want to be able to tell his story so that others will know what he did long after he is gone.

Right now, if I’m honest, I’m a bit intimidated by task I’ve set for myself. I’m at the bottom of a very tall mountain looking up and hoping I can find the trail that gets me to the peak.


Photo: Rex from the UK Telegraph article.

Here’s a weird historical story for Halloween. Earlier this month, the UK Telegraph reported at a “vampire grave” had been found in the ruins of ruins of Perperikon, an ancient Thracian city located in southern Bulgaria.

The evidence that the grave had been believed to be the resting place of a vampire was a metal stake driven through the man’s chest. Professor Nikolai Ovcharov unearthed the body while doing excavations in the city.

Perperikon was discovered 20 years ago and believed to be the site of the Temple of Dionysius, who was the Greek God of wine and fertility. Perperikon is also located near Bulgaria’s border with Greece.

“We have no doubts that once again we’re seeing an anti-vampire ritual being carried out,” Professor Ovcharov is quoted in the newspaper. “Often they were applied to people who had died in unusual circumstances – such as suicide.”

Ovcharov explained that the stake was supposed to stop a bad person from rising from the dead. This particular “bad” person was a male between 40 and 50 years old when he died in the first half of the 13th century. A piece of ploughshare has been hammered through his chest. The lower left leg had also been removed from the body and placed beside it. The newspaper doesn’t note whether this happened before the man died and was, perhaps, the reason he died, or whether it was an extra precaution taken after death.

This is the third vampire grave discovered in Bulgaria in recent years. Two other graves were discovered in 2012 and 2013 in Sozopol, about 200 miles east of Perperikon. The inhabitants of these graves were called “the twin vampires of Sozopol”, according to the Telegraph.

Overall, about 100 vampire graves have been found in Bulgaria, which is the country south of Romania. Dracula was said to be from Transylvania, which is part of Romania.

Also, last year, skeletons were found in Poland with their heads removed and placed on their legs. Archeologists believed that this was done as part of a ritual to keep them from rising from the dead.

“Sometimes they would be decapitated, while another punishment involved hanging from a gibbet until decomposition resulted in the head separating from the body. In both cases the head was then laid on the legs of the victim in the hope that an inability to locate their head would hinder the progress of those intent on rising from the grave,” the Telegraph reported.

These bodies were found on a construction site. Although quite old, archeologists were having trouble dating the bodies because there were no cultural clues found in the graves.

Here is the link to the Bulgarian vampire story: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/bulgaria/11153923/Vampire-grave-found-in-Bulgaria.html


A shot of the Gettysburg WWII POW camp. Courtesy of the Adams County Historical Society.

Though no battles were ever fought in Gettysburg during World War II, German soldiers were sent to the county and other locations around the country. It wasn’t to fight, though. The soldiers were sent here as prisoners of war.

On May 31, 1944, 50 prisoners of war were transferred from Camp Meade in Maryland to Gettysburg. The U. S. War Department set up hundreds of POW camps throughout the country during the war. Similar camps could also be found nearby in Frederick, Md., and Pine Grove Furnace Park.

However, when the prisoners arrived in Gettysburg, there was no camp in which to house them. The POWs were set to work building a 400-foot by 600-foot stockade surrounding the camp along Emmitsburg Road next to the old Home Sweet Home Motel. During this construction phase, the prisoners were housed at the National Guard Armory on Confederate Avenue.

Three days after the first arrival of prisoners, another 100 joined them and then an additional 350 came a week later.

The tent camp was ready for occupancy on June 20, 1944. The POWs moved into the new camp and 425 of them began working at local farms helping with the pea harvest.

Pea farmers weren’t the only ones who could get prison laborers. All a farmer had to do was apply to the employment service in Gettysburg.

“Use of German prisoners of war in Adams county’s canneries and orchards during the last two years allowed the production of thousands of dollars worth of food that otherwise would not have been processed, E. A. Crouse, head of the local USES office, said today in releasing figures on the amount of work performed by the POWS,” the Gettysburg Times reported in 1946.

Prison labor wasn’t used to replace the existing labor force in the county but to supplement it. Civilians were always given first preference at the work, but there wasn’t always enough interest in filling the jobs. Crouse noted in one instance that 5,000 letters had been mailed asking for workers to help cut pulpwood. Only 15 replies were received.

Even with a need for the workers, the Gettysburg Times noted, “Some canners and others refused to have anything to do with the former enemy troops and some employe(e)e who would have had to work beside the Germans refused to do so.”

However, need outweighed distaste and POWs worked alongside civilians. This helped break down some of the prejudice against the prisoners as the civilians realized things they had in common rather than the differences between them.

For their efforts, the prisoners received 80 cents a day. The remaining amount of their daily earnings, which was usually between 50 and 60 cents an hour, was sent to the federal government. According to the National Park Service, the federal government received $138,000 from the Gettysburg POW camp from June 8 through November 1, 1944. On days that a prisoner didn’t work, he received 10 cents a day. The prisoners were paid in coupons, which they could use as cash in the camp exchange.

Besides peas, the prisoners helped with cherry and apple harvests. The Gettysburg POWs were sent with a guard detail to work in canneries, lumber mills and farms in Littlestown, Biglerville, Hanover, Chambersburg, Middletown and Emmitsburg.

As the harvests ended and winter approached, temperatures began to fall. Many of the prisoners were moved to Camp Sharpe (the former Camp Colt). After Camp Colt had closed at the end of World War I, the barracks had been used to house Civilian Conservation Corps workers during the Great Depression era. They had been refurbished and put back into military use as Camp Sharpe.

Though the prisoners were generally docile, there were some problems. One prisoner hanged himself in an Aspers cannery. Two other prisoners escaped but were recaptured eight days later. The prisoners even tried to unsuccessfully strike a couple times.

The camp commander was Capt. Laurence Thomas, a former school superintendent. He also managed the camp at Pine Grove Furnace State Park. He was a good choice because he could speak German and was able to communicate with the prisoners and diffuse a lot of issues before they became problems.

Many times, this simply involved separating the hardcore Nazi and SS soldiers from the common soldiers. Most of the soldiers simply wanted to get through the war and realized that the conditions in the American camps, which followed the Geneva Convention, were not harsh.

Camp Sharpe closed in February 1945, though a skeleton crew of soldiers remained for another year to close down the camp. At its peak in July 1944, the Gettysburg POW camp held 932 prisoners of war, some of whom returned after the war to visit Gettysburg as guests.



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