This guest post is by Manuscript Division reference librarian Loretta Deaver.
In the spirit of Halloween next week, we’re highlighting a selection of unusual and haunting items from the collections of the Manuscript Division.
Sketches relating to excavation of graves
Archaeologist and mine operator Johann Georg Ramsauer (1795-1874) led excavations at Hallstatt cemetery in upper Austria in the mid-nineteenth century. Ramsauer produced beautiful and detailed watercolor drawings of the uncovered burial sites. Many depict artifacts such as parts of clothing and jewelry as in the image shown here. The skeletons and artifacts, which date circa 1000 BCE, were extremely well preserved due to the abundance of salt around the cemetery. Nearly a thousand graves were discovered during the excavation, and more still in the years afterwards.
Lock of hair retrieved from the corpse of Colonel James Cameron
Union Army Colonel James Cameron was killed during the first major battle of the American Civil War at Bull Run, near Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861. Cameron’s body was initially placed on an ambulance for transport, but Confederate forces quickly commandeered the wagon. His body was buried at Bull Run in a mass grave, and the Cameron family was not able to recover it until Confederate forces had moved from the area months later. Sergeant John Kane was able to identify James’s body in the grave and apparently returned this lock of hair to his family, now included among the papers of his brother, Secretary of War Simon Cameron.
Letter from Walter Sickert to Joseph Pennell
Has anyone ever accused you of having the “handwriting of a serial killer”? This undated letter from Walter Sickert (1860-1942) to Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) seems simple enough, though the handwriting is quite challenging to read. Sickert was a well-known painter who often chose unusual perspectives and salacious subjects for his art. One such subject was for Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom, painted between 1906 and 1907. Sickert stayed in the room at 6 Mornington Crescent, Camden, London, where the property owner informed him that she suspected the tenant who occupied the room just before him to be the notorious and gruesome serial killer Jack the Ripper, inspiring the painting and its title. Some allege that Sickert is the true identity of Jack the Ripper.
Handwritten note regarding serial killer Jesse Pomeroy
Known as “The Boston Boy Fiend,” serial killer Jesse Pomeroy (1859-1932) was only 16 when he was sentenced to death for killing two children, having already been sentenced to reform school for torturing others. He became the youngest person convicted of first-degree murder in Massachusetts. In 1928, author and suffragist Alice Stone Blackwell (1857-1950) became entangled in a libel suit brought by Pomeroy after writing a letter to a Boston newspaper arguing against his parole, and repeating a rumor that he had skinned a live kitten in his jail cell. Pomeroy won the suit and was awarded damages of $1.
WPA Federal Writers’ Project Folklore project
The Federal Writers’ Project was created in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration (later renamed Work Projects Administration) to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and others during the Great Depression. Among its projects was the documentation of regional folklore from across the United States. WPA folklorists recorded recipes, songs, superstitions, and ghost stories. This tale, collected from Pima County, Arizona, in 1936, describes a haunted place which “contains strange spirits who make such a ghostly din that people could not stand living in them.” It belonged to Bernabe Robles, a cattleman and one of the state’s largest landholders. Just two years earlier, his granddaughter June had been kidnapped, imprisoned in a coffin-like box in the sweltering desert, and held for ransom. The case became a media sensation but, luckily, little June was rescued after nineteen days. Nonetheless, the event may have had some effect on the reputation of the Robles land.
Staff and researchers are continually surprised by unique items in the collections of the Manuscript Division. One never knows what they may encounter when they open a box!
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