Pick 5: Excerpts from a Century-Old Seance

In honor of Halloween, here are 5 excerpts from a series of seances performed in 1906 by a Mrs. Smead at the behest of Dr. James Hyslop, an investigator from the American Society for Psychical Research. Dr. Hyslop found Mrs. Smead to be a credible psychic, not only owing to the quality of her performance but also her refusal to accept any “pecuniary reward” for her services. Although the fate of Mrs. Smead is unknown, Dr. Hyslop died in 1920 at the age of 65, and purportedly continued to communicate to his loyal secretary through mediums and spirit writing, most often with the morose complaint, “I find it difficult to assume that I am dead.”

These excerpts are well paired with Shannon Taggart’s photographs of New York’s Lily Dale community, the former center of the Spiritualist movement.

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Tennessee Historical Commission tells Memphis it must keep hated statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported Friday that the Tennessee Historical Commission rejected an application made on behalf of the Memphis City Council to relocate a statute of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to a new site more appropriate to the interpretation of Civil War history, with expressed interest from Shiloh Historical Park cited. The statue currently sits in the Health Sciences Park in the city’s growing medical district. The Memphis City Council has argued that the historic statue – gifted to the city in 1905 – is incongruent with the area’s modern overlay of professional offices and the function of the park as a recreational spot for medical students and downtown residents.

The application is part of a review process set forth by the 2013 Tennessee Heritage Protection Act (revised 2016), which is why it sticks to uncontroversial facts to argue for the relocation of a controversial statue. The THPA prohibits the removal, renaming, relocation, and alteration of memorials, statues, and buildings dedicated to military heritage, including what lawmakers call “the War Between the States.” While the law cites a broad cross-section of historical resources, it’s important to acknowledge that lawmakers created the THPA to “protect,” above all, the public display of markers related to Confederate heritage and, indeed, this very statue. The THPA establishes an exemption process governed by the Tennessee Historical Commission, and the application by the Memphis City Council was its first test. While the Memphis City Council was unsuccessful, it is the Tennessee Historical Commission that failed.

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There is no neutral there: Appalachia as a mythic “Trump Country”

There is no neutral there: Appalachia as a mythic “Trump Country”

Of the 2016 presidential election, New York Times international affairs correspondent Roger Cohen wrote, “The race is tightening once again because Trump’s perceived character – a strong leader with a simple message, never flinching from a fight, cutting through political correctness with a bracing bluntness – resonates in places like Appalachia where courage, country, and cussedness are core values.”

Cohen’s dispatch is one of many now forming a distinct genre of election writing – the “Trump Country” piece, which seeks to illuminate the values of Trump supporters using Appalachia – and most often West Virginia – as a template with little variation in content or approach. “To understand Donald Trump’s success,” their composite argument flows, “you must understand Appalachia.”

My concern is less about unpacking these articles individually – although I confess I’m not exactly sure what “cussedness” is or why it is ascribed as one of my core values – but rather pulling back and examining what the sheer volume of these pieces might tell us. We need to examine why journalists from elite and prestige publications are invested in presenting Appalachians – and particularly West Virginians – as representative of all Trump supporters, to the extent that they write, as John Saward does in Vanity Fair, “I am in West Virginia to understand Donald Trump.” Why aren’t pockets of Trump supporters in Oklahoma, Idaho, Florida, New York, and New Jersey the subject of similar profiles? To be sure, I’m certain that there isn’t a red state in America that hasn’t been described as “Trump Country” by at least one journalist, but the compulsion to hold up Appalachia as representative is unique.

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Teaching Public History with King of the Hill (redux edition)

Teaching Public History with King of the Hill (redux edition)

Peggy: If we don’t learn from the past, what’s the point of even having one?
Vance Gilbert: That’s going in the brochure!

“What is public history?”

Although we exist in different interdisciplinary fields and seek varied vocational attainment, perhaps the one thing that truly unites us as public historians is that we’ve all had to flub our way through precisely that question.

It’s a topic that I devote a lot of space to in my undergraduate public history classroom, because grappling with this question is often the start of an intellectual process that ends with a new appreciation for power and the production of history. And because this process is so important, I start it off with a long look at a fictional museum of prostitution from the cult television show King of the Hill.

Yes, I’ll explain.

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Pick 5: Mothman

He’s the quintessential Appalachian monster. Like so much mountain lore, his origins tell a story about the decline of the natural environment at the hands of exploitative outsiders. According to legend, he rose from the acid-infected ruins of the West Virginia Ordinance Works on a cool night in 1966, but he’s best known for his appearance at the Silver Bridge collapse the following year. Locals interpreted previous sightings of the strange creature as a warning of the tragedy yet to come, which claimed the lives of 46 men, women, and children in 1967. In the years that followed, Mothman became a harbinger of doom, the sign of a bad moon rising.

Point Pleasant, West Virginia, has hosted its annual Mothman festival since 2002, the year John Keel’s Fortean-inspired book The Mothman Prophecies became a major motion picture starring Richard Gere. In post-industrial West Virginia, the festival is now a vital source of revenue for the dying town. Tourists can run in the Mothman 5K, watch the Miss Mothman pageant, take a bus tour of area Mothman haunts, or meet amateur cryptolzoologists. Although he remains thoroughly in the realm of the kitsch, his likeness occasionally appears on anti-fracking literature as a supernatural defender of the mountains.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the first Mothman sighting, and the 15th anniversary of Point Pleasant’s Mothman festival, here are 5 images that celebrate the patron saint of rural poverty line. Hail the misunderstood monster who’s still trying to save his small corner of West Virginia.

White Flight in the Heartland: The (Un)Built Landscape of Cairo, Illinois

White Flight in the Heartland: The (Un)Built Landscape of Cairo, Illinois

To some degree, what compels those who seek to untangle Cairo’s complicated past is the refusal to believe that a town – an entire town – is an artifact of racism.

In May 2011, the governor of Illinois called for the evacuation of Cairo, a sparsely populated and predominately African American town located at the confluence of the flooding Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Years of neglect left the town’s levees in poor repair, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers assessed an imminent breach. The Corp of Engineers made the decision to intervene and perform a controlled breach to divert flood waters several miles upstream in Missouri, instigating a federal lawsuit that placed the interests of productive heartland farmers against socially and economically devastated black families. Although the Supreme Court dismissed the suit, the controversy served as an uncomfortable reminder that past struggles, when detached from collective memory, can quickly resurface in new battles.

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Cairo, 2014. Photograph by Elizabeth Catte

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