A top 19th century female scientist and writer remembered, the history of Aunt Jemima, and Richard Ben Cramer on Joe Biden: newsletter, August 28, 2020

August 30, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism, newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,5xx) on Friday, August 28, 2020.

Sometimes you win the lottery, and then sometimes you get really lucky. Our household is still in a joyous state over the birth of our grandson a couple of weeks ago. It’s a big win, as they say these days. Thanks, again, for all of the good wishes.

Another big win this week was the publication of Maryville 1920: From Pistol Creek to the Palace Theater, which was published on Amazon a few days ago. My friend Brennan LeQuire researched and wrote this exquisite piece of local history, and I had the privilege of editing it, contributing some artwork, and ushering it into publication. More below.

So, glory in the wins, big and small, whatever they are and wherever you find them. Have a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,536 subscribers and had a 28.0 percent open rate; 6 persons unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Mary King Ward and the life she lived

Mary King Ward is remembered because of the way in which she died. She should be remembered for the way in which she and for the accomplishments she achieved as a 19-century female scientist.

Ward died in 1869, thought to be the first automobile traffic fatality. That fact overshadows the many aspects of her life that are astounding and well worth remembering.

Mary King was born in Ireland in 1827 to a family with some resources but not really a part of the era’s aristocracy. Family members were interested in the burgeoning study of science, and so was Mary. By the time she was three years old, she was collecting insects and butterflies. Her father, a minister, encouraged this interest. When she was eight, she found Haley’s Comet with a small telescope, and when she was 15, her father purchased an extremely expensive microscope.

She showed an exceptional interest in the developing technology of the day as well as in the earth’s natural processes. That interest continued and increased throughout her life. But getting the microscope was the key.

The microscope opened a new world for her, and what it showed her was something she wanted to share. Not many people could look down the scope and see what she saw, so she hit upon a way to show them. She started making drawings, exquisite and detailed, of the flowers and bugs she was seeing. As with the microscope itself, the drawings had a limited audience, so she took the next step. She decided to publish them.

Self publishing wasn’t a term of the early 19th century, but that’s what she did. Her first book, Sketches with a Microscope, was written as letters to a friend describing what she was seeing and was richly illustrated with her drawings. She had 250 copies printed and then distributed handbills describing the book’s contents. All 250 copies were sold quickly.

This was in 1857 when she was 30 years old, married (she married in 1854 and became Mary Ward), and the mother of a growing family. Her book was taken over by a London publisher and eventually went through eight editions. Historians give her a lot of credit for popularizing the use of the microscope.

Ward’s cousin, William Parsons who lived a few miles away, had built what was thought to be the world’s largest telescope on his property. Ward helped in the construction and took full advantage of its proximity, spending many hours gazing at the planets and stars and recording what she saw.

Two years after her first book, she published Telescope Teachings, a book of her observations with a telescope and filled with her precise drawings. That book, too, was a top seller and got her into the Royal Astronomical Society. It was displayed at the Crystal Palace international exhibition in 1862.

Meanwhile, Ward was experiencing 11 pregnancies, three of which ended in stillbirth or miscarriages. Six of her eight children survived to adulthood. Ward was the chief caregiver for the children, and because her husband was the second son of a viscount, they had little independent income. The husband wasn’t interested in working, so Ward’s books provided a major source of their income.

Ward did most of her writing and drawing at night after the children had gone to bed. She maintained an active correspondence with a number of scientists of the day, and the physicist David Brewster asked her to illustrate several of his books, including his biography of Sir Isaac Newton.

Ward shared with her cousin Parsons a love of machinery and was always willing to explore many of the wonders of the Industrial Age. Parsons had built a large, steam-powered tricycle with heavy steel wheels and room for at least four passengers. In August 1869, Ward joined with others at his estate for a ride into town. Apparently, the vehicle could not negotiate a bump or turn in the road, and Ward was jolted out onto the ground where she was crushed by one of the wheels. Her neck was broken, and she died instantly. She was 42 years old.

Sadly, instead of being remembered as a trail-blazing, talented female scientist, she is remembered as the world’s first automobile fatality. She deserves a better fate.

Maryville 1920: exceptional local history

Every Sunday in 1920 and for decades previously, Second Presbyterian Church in Maryville, Tennessee, gathered together African-American citizens from businessmen to laborers, housewives to teachers. It was one of two Black congregations in this small East Tennessee community, and its basement housed something commonly known as the city’s “colored library.”

Today there is almost no trace of Second Presbyterian Church. The building is gone, as are most of its records. But my friend Brennan LeQuire has dug deep and come up with information about this long-lost part of the community. What she found — and much more — is in Maryville 1920: From Pistol Creek to the Palace Theater, which was published on Amazon this past weekend.

I helped edit the book and contributed several original pen and ink drawings, including the one above: “Sunday at Second Presbyterian.” Her book is a sterling piece of local history and a model of good research and interesting stories. I urge you to take a look.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”

Richard Ben Cramer on ‘what it took’ for Joe Biden

Richard Ben Cramer, an extraordinary reporter, could pack enough energy into a paragraph to charge a lightning bolt.

To read Cramer is to get caught up in his rhythm, to follow is thinking, and to come to his understanding of the subject he was reporting on. Cramer brought all of his writing and reporting talent to bear on his classic tome What It Takes: The Way to the White House.

In that book, Cramer follows all of the major candidates of the 1988 presidential election campaign, both Democratic and Republican, interviewing them and spending hours at their side while they shook hands, gave speeches, kissed babies, answered questions, and held meetings. His 1,000-plus page book was a remarkable revelation not only of the campaigners but also of the way of presidential politics of the time.

One of the candidates he followed was Joe Biden, now the former vice president and current presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.

Back in 1988, Biden was simply a senator from Delaware trying to make it onto the national stage.

What Cramer wrote about Biden’s early life and his battle with stuttering is still worth reading, no matter what side of the political fence you find yourself on. Fortunately for us, Cramer’s account has been conveniently posted here on a site called Reprints.Longform.org.

Joe did not stutter all the time. At home, he almost never stuttered. With his friends, seldom. But when he moved to Delaware, there were no friends. There were new kids, a new school, and new nuns to make him stand up and read in class: that’s when it always hit—always always always. When he stood up in front of everybody else, and he wanted, so much, to be right, to be smooth, to be smart, to be normal, j-j-ju-ju-ju-ju-jus’th-th-th-th-then!

Of course, they laughed. Why wouldn’t they laugh? He was new, he was small, he was … ridiculous … even to him. There was nothing wrong. That’s what the doctors said.

So why couldn’t he talk right?

Cramer, unfortunately, is no longer with us. He died in January 2013 from complications with lung cancer. He was 62 years old.

Aunt Jemima, the symbol, the person, the history

Was the recently retired “Aunt Jemima” a symbol of racism?

Certainly, to our 21st-century eyes and sensibilities, she is, and the Pepsi Company, which acquired Quaker Oats and the Aunt Jemima brand in 2001, did the right thing in retiring her.

Still, the symbol — and the real person behind that symbol — are worth remembering and considering now with some dispassion. That real person was a. woman named Nancy Green, who was killed in a car accident in Chicago in 1923.

For 30 years before her death, Green had traveled the country at the behest of Quaker Oats, making pancakes “while singing spirituals and other obligatory tunes and waxing rhapsodic about antebellum plantation servitude under benevolent white masters,” according to a recently published “Overlooked No More” obituary in the New York Times.

She had been recruited in 1890 as the original living incarnation of Aunt Jemima and played the part into the first decade of the 20th century, most famously at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892.
Aunt Jemima, the character, would outlast Green for another 97 years on labels and boxes, until last month, when Quaker Oats, which bought the brand in 1926 and which was acquired by PepsiCo in 2001, announced her retirement, acknowledging that she had been “based on a racial stereotype.” Source: Overlooked No More: Nancy Green, the ‘Real Aunt Jemima’ – The New York Times

But the idea of Aunt Jemima predates even Nancy Green. It comes from a song, “Old Aunt Jemima,” which was written in 1875 by Billy Kersands, a Black comedian. The lively tune was appropriated by white minstrel shows of the time, and it was upon seeing one of those shows that the makers of a self-rising pancake flour decided that would be a good name and symbol for their brand.

Aunt Jemima, thus, has had a commercial life of more than five generations and despite the obvious racism in her history, she has fed many a hungry pancake eater. 


Dan C.:  Mentioning the New York Times brought to mind an article while I was a Cadet at West Point in 1977. The article criticized the Academy for its institutional lack of humor. Some Cadets responded with an editorial that in summary said, “How can a newspaper without comics criticize cadets for their lack of humor.”

Anne V.: Very good newsletter for sure! 

Gertrude Weill, the leader of the NC Suffrage movement whom I depict in my latest monologue, was a member of the NAWSA as she worked hard to get the NC members to follow her lead. She was not so fond of Alice Paul’s tactics, but she was also aware it was Alice who kept their cause alive in the midst of WWI when all eyes were focused on Red Cross work, etc. It took them all to press forward, and Alice Paul certainly deserves great credit!
Of course, they all had to work hard against the anti-suffragists!! As I study history I realize human nature never seems to change.
Personally I am looking forward to buying a Joe Biden T shirt that goes on sale tomorrow at the Dem headquarters!! Our VOTES are more important than ever this year!!!!
Here is the link to Anne’s monologue on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk8OksCKNHc

Marcia D.: I am a Dave Robicheaux fan. Have been since Neon Rain.

Beverly L.: I have been a fan of James Lee Burke for over 30 years.  Thanks for sharing this article.  I always enjoy reading your newsletters.

Vince V.: Your watercolor this week, “Highway Gas,” hit the spot with me. I have long wanted to take a cross-country trip in search of old but still operating service stations. I am drawn to them obsessively for a reason I can’t explain. Think how many scenes from movies take place in such environs. True gas stations have a certain odor of gasoline, oil and old rubber that speaks to me of roads to travel and places to go.

Kitty G.: I really appreciate the work of the suffragettes…and take voting seriously, not for granted. I pray and listen and read, then pray more before voting. God has control of ALL things so I always discuss my thoughts and views with Him and pray that He guides me in the direction that I need to go. Stay well and stay blessed. 

Bill C.: I liked your essay on whether ex-presidents should serve in public office. You made a good case for it with the example of John Quincy Adams, especially with what he was able to do in influencing the end of slavery in this country even though he never saw his efforts brought to fruition.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor (with graphite): Cat on watch 

Best quote of the week:

If only I may grow: firmer, simpler, — quieter, warmer. Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the United Nations, Nobel laureate (1905-1961)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall 

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The 19th amendment, James Lee Burke, John Quincy Adams, and NYT’s typos: newsletter, August 21, 2020


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