Sherlock Holmes: A Betrayal in Blood

This weekend I read Mark Latham’s recent Sherlock Holmes novel from Titan Books, A Betrayal in Blood. Set shortly after “The Empty House,” Holmes is tasked by Mycroft to investigate the events described in “The Dracula Papers” (ie., what we know as Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula) and determine what, exactly, it was that happened when a Transylvanian nobleman arrived on England’s shores.

This isn’t the first entangling of Sherlock Holmes with the characters and events of Dracula — I know of at least six, and I’ve read four — but it’s certainly the most unconventional. A Betrayal in Blood is a sequel to Dracula, with Holmes launching an investigation into a group of characters hailed in the press as heroes and whether the late Count Dracula was truly a monster or merely a man. Holmes and Watson cross paths with all of the major surviving characters of Dracula, and their investigation takes them to many of the locations of the book, such as Whitby, Carfax Abbey, and the sanitarium run by Dr. Seward. Dracula‘s characters are positioned as accessories to a murderous conspiracy, even criminal masterminds as Holmes seeks to unravel a very human, very rational conspiracy. Alternate theories about the reason for Dracula’s interest in Lucy Westenra and the identity of the Bloofer Lady, among other events from Stoker’s book, are put on offer.

Latham’s writing doesn’t feel particularly Watsonesque — the writing is too modern at times, and Watson was never so wordy — though his plot, which is rather byzantine, keeps the pages turning. About that plot, A Betrayal in Blood is more of a howdunit or a whydunit than a whodunit; it’s obvious from the first chapter who Holmes believes to be the guilty party in the Dracula affair and, like a Columbo story, A Betrayal in Blood sees Holmes build his case methodically, finding the evidence and testing his theories against his findings. Holmes is characterized well — he’s a man on a mission, in the throes of his pursuit of justice — though Watson is a little bit of dullard.

I feel like I’d have gotten more out of the book if I’d read Dracula more recently than about twenty-five years ago, though nothing in the book struck me as “wrong.” It holds together well, resulting in a revisionist, yet plausible, reading of the events of Dracula. I wouldn’t call A Betrayal in Blood an essential read or a must-read, but it does offer an unconventional and entertaining take on placing Sherlock Holmes into the Dracula story. Though this won’t dethrone Loren D. Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula as my favorite Holmes/Dracula pairing, this is a worthy addition to my Holmesian library.

An Off-Season Project: Colorizing Swampoodle Grounds

Sometime between 1886 and 1889, in either late March or early April, in the late afternoon, a photographer set up a camera and took a picture of the Washington Nationals practicing at Swampoodle Grounds, with the Capitol dome looming over the right field wall (and the McDowell & Sons Steam Elevator building). At work, the photograph has been my desktop wallpaper for about a year and a half, combining as it does history (ie., Washington of the 19th-century), politics (the Capitol dome), and baseball.

For an off-season baseball project, I decided I would learn a new skill and colorize it in GIMP, a free PhotoShop replacement that I use to edit and resize photos. I’ve never colorized a black and white photo before, so I found a tutorial online, printed out the instructions, and worked through them, experimenting as I went. Except for some finickiness with the Paintbrush tool, it’s not that difficult at all. It only requires patience.

Swampoodle was a pretty small park for the era — 325 in right, 375 in center, and 275 in left (because of the DC street grid). Other parks of the era (Brooklyn, Chicago, Pittsburgh) had center fields that approached six hundred feet deep; Swampoodle was tiny by comparison, more like its contemporary the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia than Brooklyn’s Washington Park. There was one major difference between Swampoodle and its National League contemporaries, though. Swampoodle had no grandstand. It was an infield, an outfield wall, and a clubhouse. There’s another photo of Swampoodle Grounds, this one of the infield and left field as well as the B&O rail yard beyond. Some students of baseball history believe that it’s Cornelius McGillicuddy, better known as Connie Mack, behind the plate for the Nationals in that photo, but there’s no Capitol dome here.

There are several things in the photograph I noticed in working with the photo that I hadn’t realized before, despite looking at the photo almost every single day.

First, it’s not a photograph of a game. For a long time I’d assumed that it was a photograph of throwing the runner out at first. But it’s not. It’s a practice. There are a couple of baseballs on the outfield grass near the first baseman. The right fielder has just thrown the ball (and, from his stance, toward the infield). One of the players near second base is actually carrying the bag. What’s happening, then, is players warming up, getting the field ready, and running some infield drills.

Second, the photograph was taken early in the year, possibly March or April. There are trees beyond the outfield wall, barren of leaves. This suggests to me either a pre-season warm-up or an early season game.

Third, the photograph was taken in late afternoon. The angle of the shadows is long and comes from the west. The angle of this photograph is toward the southwest. Swampoodle was near what’s now Union Station, and Union Station is northeast of the Capitol Building. The west-facing sides of the McDowell & Sons building are illuminated.

Conclusion? A late afternoon practice in March or April in the nation’s capital.

Other little details — there are two people looking over the center field fence, and there’s someone in the window at the top of the McDowell & Sons building watching as well.

It’s been an interesting learning process. To get green-ish (and, dare I say it, sickly) looking grass, I’ve had to use a pale yellow mask; even a light green made grass that looked too dark and healthy. (They couldn’t exactly go down to Lowe’s in 1886 and buy Scott’s Turf Builder.) The Capitol dome is tricky to work with (since it fades into the sky), so I’ve had to clone the dome and flip it so I have a complete dome to work with. I’ve taken liberty with the sky; the sky in the original photograph was formless, possibly because it was overcast, so I used a photograph I’d taken of wispy clouds that I’d taken last year as the layer mask for the sky. (I attempted to “age” the cloud layer in the GIMP, but nothing seemed to work.) The Capitol dome itself took some work; it faded into the sky in the original photograph, so I cloned the dome and reversed it to make a complete dome I could build a mask around.

I’m nowhere near done with the colorization, and I’m not planning on working on it intensely. Steadily will suffice, it will take my mind off of the NLDS, and by Opening Day I’ll have a new desktop wallpaper, same as the old, but this time in color. :)

Some Things Go On

It’s hard to say that “Walls (Circus)” is a Tom Petty deep cut — it’s the lead song on an album, it’s in a movie — but it feels like a deep cut. No one seems to know it. You never hear it on the radio. I won’t say it’s my favorite Tom Petty song, I wouldn’t even place it among the top twenty, but it’s certainly a beloved and cherished favorite.

I used to own the CD single to this, and I played it somewhat obsessively in college. No idea whatever happened to that single, hence the “used to own.” Until ten minutes ago, I didn’t know there was a video for it. Looking at it now, I wonder how much of the imagery evoked Petty’s struggle with heroin and his personal demons in the mid-90s

The album it comes from, Songs and Music from “She’s the One,” features Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ music from 1996’s She’s the One, an Ed Burns film, starring Jennifer Aniston, that I’ve never seen. It’s an unjustly overlooked album; I think it’s generally looked at as an album of throwaways, but there are some really fine songs here, and there are guest appearances by Lindsay Buckingham, Ringo Starr, and an uncredited George Harrison and his trademark slide guitar. If there’s a Petty album that deserves a reappraisal, it’s this one.

I put the album in the Beetle this morning for my morning drive. The final verse was apropos:

Some things are over
Some things go on
Part of me you carry
Part of me is gone.

Petty himself is gone now, but we’ll always carry the part of him that is his music and the memories that go with it.

A Vacation Day in the District

Thursday I took a vacation day. I went to Washington, DC for the day.

I hadn’t been in the District since March for Shamrock Fest (though I had been to a baseball game in Bethesda at the beginning of August), and I hadn’t made it to a Nationals game yet this season, and I’d been unable to buy tickets for the National League Division Series between the Nationals and the Cubs (which, all things considered, is fine, as my loyalties are going to be very torn as it is), and it was a good day in my work cycle to go, a day between one set of deadlines just past and another set of deadlines coming up.

Frankly, I couldn’t have asked for a better day. Late September, but very warm and not too hot, like a late June day. The only visual clues that it was September in fact and not June at all were the leaves, some of which were turning, some of which had already fallen, and the shallower angle of the sunlight.

Besides the Nationals game that night, against the Pirates, of whom I’ve long felt a fondness for and, of the demolished classical ballparks, it’s the Pirates’ Forbes Field I’d want to visit the most, I also wanted to visit the Smithsonian — the National Gallery of Art has become quite appealing in my dotage, and I wanted to see the remodeled American History museum — and pay a visit to Congressional Cemetery, quite possibly for the final time, to check a few more family graves and take a few more pictures.

I first visited Congressional Cemetery five years ago. In my genealogical researches, I had discovered that my great-great-grandfather William Gardner was buried there and, after an early Labor Day afternoon Nationals/Cubs game at Nationals Park, I walked from the Navy Yards to the cemetery near RFK Stadium. All I had at the time was a map of the cemetery and the location by the cemetery’s coordinate system and, despite not having any marker, I found the unmarked grave to within about ten feet. I was fairly certain that it was near a tree, but I wasn’t sure. Looking now at the photos I took then, I had it exact, but I didn’t know that then. The following April, another Nationals/Cubs game, this time I was armed with a map I’d drawn myself, marked up with names I’d found in the cemetery’s internment records so I could triangulate a position. William Gardner might not have a headstone, but others did, and I could use the headstones that were there to determine who was where the headstones were not. And so it was that, for the first time in almost certainly decades, a descendant of William Gardner visited his grave and knew that he was there.

Over the years, as my researches advanced, I learned there were others buried there, and I would visit if I had time and reason when I was in DC. William’s sister-in-law (and my great-great-grandmother’s sister) was buried on the other side of the cemetery, near John Philip Sousa. My great-grandfather’s older half-brother, Thomas Hardy, was also buried there, and despite the bitter cold of the day, I stopped to visit his grave (which is also the grave of his wife, daughter, and son-in-law) before Shamrock Fest this year.

Earlier this year, I had a breakthrough. I discovered the married name of William’s oldest daughter Margaret. I knew, from William’s obituary, that he had a daughter living in Washington in 1893, as the funeral was held at her house, but I didn’t know which daughter. There were three possibilities — Margaret, Eleanor (who went by Ella), or Mollie. Ella seemed like the most likely possibility, as I knew that she married and had several children, whereas I had no idea what happened to Margaret and Mollie. For all I knew, Margaret had died sometime after the 1870 Census (the last time she appears as Margaret Gardner) and Mollie after the 1880 Census (the last time she appears as Mollie Gardner).

I looked at William’s obituary one day — I had been talking with my mother and her first cousin after I visited my great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother’s graves at Loudon Park in Baltimore — and something clicked. There was a street address there. It had always been there, it wasn’t a surprise. But I’d never thought to investigate that. I punched it into Google, and suddenly it was as though the world opened up. I had a married name — Margaret Gordon — and I had obituaries with more details. It was all very tenuous at first, but I was soon satisfied that I had found Margaret Gardner. And intriguingly, she was buried very close to her father; only two graves separated them. (Her husband, however, was buried somewhere else.) I had, never knowing it, been at the grave of my great-grandfather’s oldest sister several times.

I decided that, when next I went to Congressional Cemetery, I would visit all the family sites, because there weren’t any more to find. There were some I knew of that I hadn’t looked for, namely Ella and her husband Edward. There were the ones I had learned in the last six months where there. So I downloaded Congressional Cemetery’s list of interments and remade my personal maps (an index card with grids and names). In making those maps, I made another discovery, one tentative at first, and as I researched it, one that became a certainty — I also found Mollie.

I mentioned there were were two graves separating Margaret from her father. One of those sites has a daughter of Ella. Mollie is in the other. In 2013, when I made my first personal map of where William Gardner was buried, I simply didn’t know as much as I know now or how to recognize what I was seeing. Sometimes what seems like insight is really just dumb, blind luck of the pieces falling into place.

My maps made, my plans laid, armed with a cheap selfie stick I could dispose of without guilt, traveling fast and light as though I were hunting Orc, I set out for a day of adventure in the Nation’s Capital. Continue reading “A Vacation Day in the District”

Adventures in Off-Brand LEGO: Olaf’s Biplane

Yesterday evening, after attending the Maryland Renaissance Festival, I found something I knew immediately I had to have — The Peanuts Movie: Olaf's Biplane construction set from Lite Brix.

Lite Brix is a LEGO-compatible building block made by Cra-Z-Art, a New Jersey company.  To tie in with The Peanuts Movie, they produced a number of products, including several LEGO-compatible construction sets.  I don't know what kind of distribution they had, as I never saw them in stores, an all too common state of affairs with off-brand LEGO.

I chanced across Olaf's Biplane (as well as Lemonade Stand) at a clearance store.  I liked The Peanuts Movie a lot, and I wanted to see what the sets were like.  Maybe I need to check out other clearance stores to see if I can get the whole line-up, especially since BanBao, another manufacturer of off-brand LEGO, is releasing their own Peanuts off-brand LEGO construction sets next year.

The box is eye-catching.  Olaf's Biplane is a 90-piece set — 77 bricks, 1 LED battery pack brick, 9 "special shaped parts," and a 3-piece Olaf minifigure.  The set requires 3 AAA batteries, hence the pack of batteries and the Philips-head screwdriver.

Continue reading “Adventures in Off-Brand LEGO: Olaf’s Biplane”

A Night with Roy Orbison

Earlier in the year WITF, during one of their pledge drives, showed Roy Orbison: A Black & White Night, a concert film shot, obviously, in black and white, that was filmed in September 1987. Orbison’s backing band that night consisted of Elvis’ backing band, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen, while his backing singers included Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and k.d. lang. In short, it was an amazing line-up of talent supporting one of rock and roll’s most distinctive voices.

I wasn’t going to re-up my membership with WITF (which I had cancelled because they dropped A Prairie Home Companion) just to get the CD/DVD set. That seemed like an overpay for something I discovered quite quickly was available commercially in a remastered and expanded edition for the 30th-anniversary of the concert.

Week before last I ordered Roy Orbison: A Black & White Night 30, and it arrived on Friday. Frankly, after the week of deadlines and general lunacy that was work, its arrival came just in the nick of time, and last night I sat down and watched the film.

Orbison would’ve been 51 when this was filmed. He’d begun recording the tracks that would appear on Mystery Girl; he performs “The Comedians,” a song that Costello wrote for him for that album. The Traveling Wilburys were still several months in his future, and he would die of a heart attack the following year.

A Black & White Night is pure joy. From the atmosphere of the film to the sheer beauty of Orbison’s voice, it was tremendous.

I even liked Springsteen! (I’m not a member of the Cult of Bruce. I’ve never been a fan.) He has a look of pure happiness on his face, and he plays a dueling guitar solo on Oh, Pretty Woman that is amazing.

Definitely worth tracking down, and I’m glad I did.

Random Links: August 31

A couple of interesting links I’ve read the last two days.

Header image “The National Mall” by Shella Thomson, licensed Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.

A Baseball Mystery Solved

Thanks to a podcast, I found the answer to a random question I had wondered about — what baseball league do the Lake Wobegon Whippets belong to?

I didn’t know, and it occurred to me one day that the Lake Wobegon Whippets could — and perhaps should — play in the Green Grass League against Stumptown and Hillsdale. The Whippets, of course, are the creation of Garrison Keillor and featured occasionally in his “New from Lake Wobegon” monologues on A Prairie Home Companion, while Stumptown featured prominently in the legend of Joe Shlabotnik, Charlie Brown’s favorite baseball player from Peanuts. I even wrote an unconventional (and short) piece of fan fiction about Lake Wobegon and Stumptown, baseball rivals.

But they’re not.

Recently I subscribed to the News from Lake Wobegon podcast, a weekly download of archived “News from Lake Wobegon” segments. Curious if my goofy idea about the Whippets and Stumptown would work, I went through the archives and found a half-dozen podcasts where the Whippets were mentioned.

Stumptown (and, by extension, the Green Grass League) belongs to the affiliated minors; poor Joe Shlabotnik was sent down to Stumptown after batting .004 in the majors.

Lake Wobegon plays in the Old Sod Shanty League against teams in Avon (the Bards) and Freeport (the Flyers) and Holdingford (the Bulls) and Uppsala (the Uftas). The Old Sod Shanty League, as best I can determine, is some sort of amateur adult rec league, “town teams” in the classic baseball sense, with rosters made up of residents of the town.

A team of amateurs in Lake Wobegon will never play the professionals in the low minors in Stumptown.

A dream, dashed! A mystery, solved!

Coldplay: Kaleidoscope

I’m underwhelmed by Coldplay’s new Kaleidoscope EP.

A companion, I suppose, to A Head Full of Dreams, Kaleidoscope comprises five songs that feel like odds and ends the band had around, rather than a proper album.

The opening track, “All I Can Think About Is You,” is pretty good, though it seems to have been built from taking “The Scientist” and “Clocks,” both from A Rush of Blood to the Head, putting them in a blender, and seeing what comes out. In some ways, it reminds me of an Elbow track, but sonically it’s very reminiscent of Third Eye Blind’s “Wounded” from the very underrated Blue.

The second track, “Miracles (Someone Special),” a collaboration with Big Sean (which is… who?), does absolutely nothing for me. I didn’t even realize that was a sound clip of Michael J. Fox from Back to the Future; it’s so distorted I thought it was Oprah.

I want to like “A L I E N S,” the song about the refugee crisis. But the approach of the song is all wrong. The song is too upbeat. Compare the song to Elbow’s “The Blanket of Night” from The Take-Off and Landing of Everything which is utterly devastating.

Next up, a live version of “Something Just Like This,” originally released as a collaboration with The Chainsmokers. I’m biased against putting a live track in the middle of studio cuts, so I’m already skeptical. There are things about the song I really like. The lyrics are generally clever, about a guy who doesn’t feel like he’s worthy of the woman he loves, a topic that Elbow handled quite well with “Starlings.” The performance works, even if it highlights how unfinished the song is. (There are two verses and a couple of reprises of the chorus… and that’s about it.) But I don’t like the overall EDM approach Coldplay took with the song. I’m not biased against Coldplay doing EDM; I happen to love “A Sky Full of Stars.” I’m just not sure it’s the right approach here because it feels, to me, like Coldplay layered the song with Hans Zimmer’s Inception BRAAAP! to cover up how much the song is more a fragment than a finished piece. I think I’d have preferred a studio version of the song, different than The Chainsmokers release, that toned down the EDM elements of the song.

Finally, “Hypnotised” is really good. “Hypnotised” is a kind of throwback to vintage Coldplay piano ballads, reminding me a great deal of Coldplay’s version of “Gravity.” Of course I’m going to like that.

So, that’s two tracks out of the five that I feel like are worth my time.

That would be fine if the tracks cohered into some sort of whole, that made the EP greater than the sum of its parts. But it doesn’t cohere. The live track, for instance, really hurts Kaleidoscope there, making the whole effort feel random. I don’t mind listening to Kaleidoscope, but it doesn’t make me feel anything. It’s trying, I can sense that. It wants me to feel something. But it’s not well enough constructed to do that.

I realize I’m an old Luddite. I listen to albums as albums, and Kaleidoscope might work better in pieces in listener generated playlists. In that case, it doesn’t have to cohere; it simply has to exist so fans can slot the songs in where they work for them.

That’s too much work for me, so Kaleidoscope will always remain a Coldplay misfire in my library.

A Distant Family Tragedy

People wrote differently a century ago than we do today.

I do not mean the mechanics of writing, though yesterday’s manual typewriters and and fountain pens worked differently than today’s word processors and predictive text and text-to-speech. We write faster than our ancestors did because our technology has improved.

What I mean is that the style differed. There’s a precision to the words used a century ago that isn’t as common today.

Take the lede of an article in the Baltimore Sun from July 30, 1902: “Mrs. Susie A. Gardner, 62 years old, and living at 1630 South Charles street, died very suddenly of an attack of heart disease shortly after 6 o’clock last evening at the home of Mr. Coleon White, 1634 South Charles street, where she fled following an attack upon her by Mrs. Laura Meldrumm, a half-sister living with her, who is said to be demented.”

Look how precise that is. Sixty-three words, encompassing the who (Susie Gardner), the what (her death), the where (Baltimore’s Federal Hill), the when (early evening), the why (a heart attack), the how (an attack by her half-mad half-sister). A complete story is told in a single sentence. There are wasted words, but they are few and due almost entirely to conventions of style (such as titling each name); I’d have struck the “very” and the “upon her,” and the final clause feels stiff and awkward. The rest of the article — an additional four paragraphs — elaborates upon the story, but the first paragraph tells the reader everything crucial.

Susan Gardner — Susie — is my great-great-grandmother; I left flowers at her grave, shared with six others, last weekend when I was in Baltimore running errands. Her youngest son, Allyn, was my great-grandfather and the ancestor whose first name I bear.

I found the newspaper article on Tuesday on Ancestry.com. It had been there for years. I simply hadn’t looked at it. Headline: “Death follows blow.” Subhead: “Mrs. Gardner expires suddenly after half-sister strikes her.” I read the article. I read it three times. I formed a conclusion about it quickly. I didn’t know how I felt.

In short, my great-great-grandmother was killed by her sister.

The details are these.

In the early evening of Tuesday, July 29, 1902, Susan came downstairs for dinner in the home she shared with her daughter Isabelle and her second husband, William Krauch. She asked her half-sister Laura, who had been institutionalized at Bellevue in New York City in the “insane pavilion” and now lived with her in Baltimore, about her health. Laura then, angrily and without warning, attacked Susan, striking her in the chest. Isabelle came to her mother’s aid, separated the sisters, and told Susan to go to a neighbor’s house while she calmed the raging Laura. Susan went to the nearby home of Colin White, a pipefitter, and died there of a heart attack when Isabelle came to retrieve her not more than ten minutes later.

(The Sun newspaper article gives the neighbor’s name as “Coleon White.” R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, in both the 1901 and 1903 editions, gives his name as “Colin L. White.” The latter spelling makes more sense to me, which is the spelling I will use going forward, and it’s from those books that I gleaned his occupation as a pipefitter.)

The newspaper account, told mainly in the words of Susan’s daughter Isabelle, left me with the distinct impression that Susan, my great-great-grandmother, was killed by her sister. Laura almost certainly did not intend to kill her sister, yet had she not attacked her that evening Susan would not have suffered the fatal heart attack.

Then my writer mind began to fill in the gaps in the story with information I had gained from a decade of genealogical research.

What time did this happen? The article tells us that Susan was “[coming] downstairs to supper” and she died shortly past 6 o’clock. Laura’s attack on Susan must have come no earlier than 5:30.

Who else was in the house? Isabelle had several young children, including possibly a newborn. (Isabelle give birth to a daughter, Pearl, in 1902.) The only children that I can say definitively were likely to be there (in that I know they survived until at least 1910 per census records) were her son Irving (aged 12) and daughters Mary (aged 7) and Ida (aged 6), but there is the chance, including the possible newborn, that there were six children in the home. Isabelle’s husband, a brakeman for a railroad, doesn’t give a quote in the Sun — the story is largely told in Isabelle’s voice — so we can safely conclude that he was not in the house that evening.

The picture fills in. Isabelle has prepared supper. Her children are gathering for the imminent meal or running around the table and the house on Federal Hill as children are wont to do. Laura is already downstairs. She has not been feeling well. Susan comes down the stairs. A polite word from Susan inquiring after her health provokes Laura into a rage. Laura screams and charges at her sister. All attention turns to the sudden and unexpected excitement. Some of the children witness their great-aunt attack their grandmother and their own mother intercede. Deeply shaken and breathing heavily, Susan leaves the home while their mother calms their aunt down. The younger children are cowering in fear from what they just witnessed. The older children, like Irving, try to corral and comfort the younger ones. Little do they realize they have seen their grandmother alive for the last time, for when Isabelle leaves a few minutes later to fetch her mother from Colin White’s home Susan dies. Half an hour earlier, the family was getting ready for an ordinary evening meal. Now, the evening has turned to tragedy.

Go back far enough in time, and every family has its inexplicable tragedies. The baseball writer Craig Calcaterra recently published an ebook about a tragedy in his own ancestry: his great-great-grandmother murdered his great-great-grandfather with an axe. I read the book; it’s quite brief. I’m not sure how I feel about the events described. But neither does Calcaterra, as he writes in the book. And, as I said, I’m not sure how I feel about these events.

I began researching my family history in 2005 for what I admit is a silly reason — Where, I wondered, did my name come from? My great-grandfather, obviously, but why did he have that name? Where did it come from? How did his parents, whose names I did not know, pick that name? I had been told that his family was German, so why did they give their son a very English name with a very odd spelling? These are all good and interesting questions, but they are also questions that can never be answered. The people who had the answers died a very, very long time ago. And when I started my researches, I didn’t realize quite how long ago.

My grandfather was a late-in-life child; his parents were in their forties when he was born. But my great-grandfather Allyn was also a late-in-life child; his mother Susan was thirty-nine when he was born, while his father William was fifty-four. I would learn in time that Allyn had nieces, daughters of his half-sister Margaret, older than he was. The problem with being the product of two successive generations of late-in-life children is that I was incredibly remote from my ancestors; my great-grandfather was born ninety-four years before I was, my great-great-grandfather almost 150 years. Generational spans such as that, and the family lore is forgotten, the history lost.

The first thing I discovered was the census record for the Gardner family in 1880. It was full of information, names of people I had never heard of. Brothers, sisters, an aunt, possibly even a grandmother, all living in a single house in Washington, DC near the Navy Yards. There were almost certainly cousins out there that I had never met, never even realized were out there. For the first time I knew the names of my great-grandfather’s parents — William and Susan. None of these names sounded the least bit German to me. It was exciting, and I had no idea where to go next or how to find the next pieces of the puzzle.

One of the puzzle pieces from that 1880 Census record was William’s sister-in-law, Laura Fenhagen. I drew some quick conclusions — William’s mother-in-law Anne Atwell could not possibly be Allyn Gardner’s grandmother as she was born in 1800 while William’s sister-in-law Laura was born in 1860, so if Susan and Laura were sisters then Anne had to be the mother of William’s first wife. Allyn was only six months old at the time of the 1880 Census, so Laura must have come to Washington to help her sister with caring for the new infant. A picture was forming.

Eventually, I would be able to build on this Census record and increase my understanding of the family. There were additional children — a daughter for William, two sons for Susan from their previous marriages — that had left the fold by 1880. I would discover some of these people were buried in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery, and in 2012 I went there for the first time and looked for the graves of ancestors and relatives that, only five years earlier, I hadn’t even known existed.

Grave of Laura and William Meldrum, Congressional CemeteryOne of those relatives was Laura. In my researches I had learned that her life appeared to have been a sad one. She married a man named William Meldrum, and they had a son, Howard. She outlived her son. She was also institutionalized at St. Elizabeths (no apostrophe) in Washington, south of the Anacostia, for the last twelve years or more of her life. She lived into the 1930s, and her husband outlived her, into the 1940s. I wondered sometimes how he must have felt, his wife confined to a hospital while he lived alone in his twilight years. They are buried together at Congressional Cemetery, near John Philip Sousa. William’s grave is marked, Laura’s is not. I’m wry enough that it amused me to no end that a distant aunt was buried a hundred feet, give or take, from the writer of the Monty Python theme music.

I pitied Laura. I made the assumption, and not an unreasonable one, that whatever caused her to be institutionalized happened late in her life, in her fifties. When I visited Susan’s grave at Loudon Park for the first time in May, though there was no one there that would have recognized who I was or understood me if they did, I put my hand on the ground, not even sure how the eight people buried there are configured in the plot, and said something to the air like, “I visited your sister in Washington. She had a sad life, and she’s at peace now. I thought you should know.”

I didn’t know that Laura had killed Susan, that Susan knew all too well that her sister had had a sad life. The realization that Laura was responsible, quite directly, for my great-great-grandmother’s death frankly staggered me.

The things I know about the people in this drama of the events of July 29, 1902 are dry facts. Most all of them have passed beyond living memory. (My mother has dim memories of Ida; she was a friend of her father’s, and she remembers having tea in Ida’s kitchen with Ida and my grandmother.) Dry facts — marriages, births, deaths, street addresses — say little about a person. They lack the color of life.

The things about Susan that I knew that added the color to the dry facts were few. Three things. Three.

First, Susan spoke fluent German, because her children spoke fluent German. Susan was born in Baltimore, but her family came from Hamburg in 1817, and the family name von Hagen was anglicized into Fenhagen. (Her father preferred Feenhagen, but that spelling did not stick.) The Fenhagens of St. Mary’s are relatives.

Second, Susan’s favorite child was her son Henry from her first marriage to a man named Henry Hardy.

Third, after the Gardners moved from Washington to Baltimore circa 1886 (for reasons I do not know but for which I have formulated a theory), my great-grandfather Allyn walked across the frozen Baltimore harbor and bought her flowers with the money he earned from his job. This would have happened in 1895, when my great-grandfather was fifteen. From the first volume of Baltimore: Its History and Its People, edited by Clayton Colman Hall: “The ‘February Freeze’ of 1895 recalled the severity of the blizzard of 1888, and nearly equaled that of 1893. On February 7 a furious snowstorm, with extremely low temperature, fell upon the city, and till the 21st navigation was hardly practicable. The harbor of Baltimore was frozen from shore to shore. All the rivers of Maryland were frozen over.” Normally he gave her half the money that he earned at his job. (William, a tinner, died of a brain tumor two years earlier.) He also bought her flowers.

To these I can now add a fourth thing that adds color to my great-great-grandmother’s life. She cared enough about her mentally ill sister to look after her, and that care ultimately took her life. In the words of Susan’s daughter Isabelle, “when my mother came downstairs to supper and addressed a query as to [Laura’s] health, Mrs. Meldrumn made some angry reply and struck her in the breast.” (The Sun newspaper article uses two different spellings for Laura’s married name, neither of which, as far as I know, based on the headstone at Congressional Cemetery, are correct.) A few minutes later, at Colin White’s house, Susan died.

Susan Gardner died 115 years ago. I doubt there are any more stories of the life of my great-great-grandmother to be found, making this story, the story of her death, the last story of Susan as a person I will ever learn.

The aftermath intrigues me, but that’s lost, too, in the mists of time.

I don’t know if Laura was ever charged with a crime in Susan’s death. I only learned Tuesday of the circumstances of Susan’s death and I’ve not had the opportunity to delve further. Considering the mitigating circumstances of Susan’s “delicate health” and Laura’s “fits of insanity,” I doubt a manslaughter charge would have been brought, especially in light of this line from the Sun article’s final paragraph: “The blow dealt Mrs. Gardner is said to have been insignificant in its effect, the death having been caused by excitement due to the attack and the feeble condition of her heart.” Still, I wonder how aware Laura was of what she had done to Susan and how she felt about that. Did she feel remorse? Did she carry guilt with her until the end of her days? And her husband, William Meldrum? How did he feel about Susan’s death and Laura’s role in it?

The witnesses, Isabelle and her children? Did Isabelle feel any guilt for opening her home to Laura, a woman who had recently been in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue? Did she feel any responsibility for focusing on dinner and her children that evening? What memories did the children carry of witnessing their great-aunt assault their grandmother, followed by their grandmother’s death?

What sort of relationship, if any, did Laura have with her Gardner relations after her sister’s death?

Every family has its tragedies. I have orphans and accident victims among my ancestors. I have veterans of the American Revolution and North Carolina slave owners, too. The death of Susan Fenhagen Hardy Gardner is one of my family’s tragedies. I don’t know how to feel about it. I don’t know what to feel. She is remote enough in time as to be a complete stranger, and yet without her I would not be here writing this.

Each of us is shaped by our parents, and our parents by their parents, and their parents by their parents, and so on and so on. I never knew Susan, never could know Susan, but she shaped my great-grandfather, and he shaped my grandfather, and he shaped my mother, and my mother shaped me, and so in some small way, even though I don’t know who Susan was as a person beyond those few small facts, I carry something of her within me every day.

More directly, though, I carry a monument of her — the name, Allyn. For whatever unknown reason, Susan and William bestowed my great-grandfather with the name Allyn, and now I have that name. It meant something to two people in 1879, and while there are no artifacts of Susan and she has been largely forgotten, something that she decided one nearly hundred and forty years ago lives on.

That will have to suffice.