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    In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” It is the goal of The Family Curator to inspire, enlighten, and encourage other family curators in their efforts to preserve and share their own family treasures.

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    The Story Resumes -- Act II. Scene 1

    At the close of Act I, James Blackburn was gleefully twirling his black moustache and rubbing his hand together as he plotted the ruin of beautiful young France Lee and her aristocratic southern family.

    Act II, Scene 1 - Colonel Lee's drawing room.
    Jack Worthington announces that he has resigned from his firm so that he will not have to relocate to Paris with his bride, France, thus taking her away from her parents. He plans to live off the profits from his investment in the Silver Bar Mines. Worthington departs as another guest arrives; it is Jerry the Tramp now cleaned up and presenting himself as Robert Graham, the true father of France. His documents convince the Colonel who reveals all to France and Mrs. Lee. In asides to the audience, Jerry admits his moral difficulty with the ruse; Mrs. Lee exclaims, "In spite of your rough manner you have a noble heart." Jack returns and after meeting "Mr. Graham" promptly asks for and receives permission to marry France. The family moves to the dining room for luncheon and a humorous exchange occurs between the maid, Sadie, and Jerry. The happy scene is broken by Blackburn's arrival. When he learns that Jerry has promised France to Worthington he points out that it is illegal for the false Graham to take such action, and insists that Jerry take France away from her home. Jack seizes France and cries, "she remains here! The law alone shall take her from me" as the curtain falls.

    Act II, Scene 2 - Jerry's hut.
    France is now living with her "father" and sending letters to Jack and her parents through cousin Blackburn. She thinks they have all forgotten her, now that her status is reduced, but obviously the letters are never delivered. Instead, Blackburn prevails upon France, now the "daughter of an outcast" to marry him. He threatens to turn Jerry in to the law if France continues to refuse him. Blackburn leaves France to consider his offer and she picks up Jerry's Bible to read. A letter drifts to the floor, "To my dear daughter Lillian" It confirms that her father has gone to prison -- to shield his brother who committed a crime. Their child will be raised by the Lees, who are told that the family name is Graham to "hide our disgrace." Her true name is Weston, like that of Jerry Weston the Tramp. Jerry realizes that France is indeed his daughter and that he has destroyed the happiness of his own child. Blackburn returns to claim France, but before he can take her Jack and a lawman arrive to arrest Jerry Weston. As he is taken away in handcuffs, Jerry begs France to marry the man she loves and rails against Blackburn's vilany.
    to be continued


    The Plot Thickens

    In my quest for the “back story” to “The Noble Outcast” a local drama presented by Arline Kinsel and friends, I have been doing a bit of research on the genre of the melodrama.

    Long before the ladies of Wisteria Lane were spreading dirt in the neighborhood and decades before J.R. Ewing and fiends were riding rough in Dallas, the heroes and villains of 19th century melodrama were thrilling audiences in big and little towns throughout the United States, England, and Canada. The stock plot included mistaken identity, property swindles, and love lost and found.

    The melo-drama (melody and drama) was characterized by music and drama, one playing off the other. Piano accompaniment was standard fare, and the heavy dramatic notes became associated with the genre, even when theatrical productions gave way to films such as The Perils of Pauline. Eventually music became less essential, but the melodrama remained “characterized by sensational incident and violent appeals to the emotions, but with a happy ending”.

    The drama featured a set of stock characters as well – the hero and the heroine, the villain, the old man, an old woman, a comic man, and a comic woman. Three couples and an odd man out. What a great opportunity for tension.

    The 1888 melodrama, “The Noble Outcast” by John A. Fraser “enjoyed a long run in England” and “delighted audiences in New York, Chicago, and, in fact, all the principal cities of this country,” according to the 1888 show notes.

    Curry County, New Mexico Historian Don McAlavy recently sent me a copy of the original script and a typewritten copy prepared by his wife for the 1994 revival of the drama at the Lyceum Theatre in Clovis, New Mexico. The McAlavys became interested in the play after learning that Kathy McAlavy’s grandfather, Levi J. Whiteman, played the villain in a 1906 production in Portales, New Mexico. In a scene where fact follows fiction, Whiteman and the leading lady fell in love and were married in 1909. After considerable sleuthing, McAlavy was able to locate the original script and worked with local actors to produce the drama in 1994.

    The plot of “The Noble Outcast” follows the prescription faithfully. The villain, James Blackburn wants France Lee (leading lady) who has fallen in love with noble Jack Worthington [more on the value of names later]. France is the daughter of the proper Colonel Lee and his frail wife, Mrs. Lee. Comic relief is provided by the maid, Sadie, and Jerry the Tramp. The drama is played out in three acts.

    Act One – In front of Colonel Lee’s southern Mansion

    Jack asks France to marry him; she accepts his proposal after teasing him a bit. Blackburn arrives planning to propose to his cousin [France] and inherit the Colonel’s estate. We learn that he gambles and has recently lost a sizeable sum. Jerry the Tramp comes to the door; Blackburn taunts him, France invites him to have a meal in the kitchen. Jack and the Colonel have a private conversation where the Colonel reveals that France is not his daughter. While traveling on a steam ship, Mrs. Lee gave birth to a stillborn child. The same night, the ship caught fire and another woman was fatally scalded after giving birth to a little girl. The doctor urged Col. Lee to substitute the dead woman’s child for his own and spare his wife further grief. The living child’s father never knew he had a daughter. Jack gladly agrees to keep France’s identity a secret, and reaffirms his desire to marry her. Blackburn overhears the entire conversation and concocts a plan to reveal all. He has recognized Jerry the Tramp as an escaped convict and threatens to turn him in to the police if he does not go along with his plan. Jerry must claim France as his daughter.

    As a literature teacher, I can’t resist a little analysis of the play. First, the characters are perfectly presented. The villain bears a villain’s name – he is BLACKburn. Like the bad guys in westerns, the villain is associated with the darkest color. In contrast, the hero is WORTHington, he will be worthy of Miss Lee. The Colonel and his wife are noble southerners who value family and name. Lee calls to mind the great General Robert E. Lee, heroic confederate soldier and leader. France is more modern than Frances, and is perhaps a nod to the Eiffel Tower under construction at the time. The name “Jerry” was at its peak of popularity in 1888 ranking 162 by the Social Security Administration, to be surpassed in 1896 (#171) and then not until nearly 100 years later in 1992 (#183). Jerry, then, is the common man in the same way that Sadie is the common woman. Both Jerry and Sadie provide a light element of relief when Blackburn’s treachery is most villainous.

    …to be continued


    Harvey, Sir Paul. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932. Quoting the OED.

    "Melodrama." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 31 Jul 2008, 04:13 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 31 Jul 2008 <>.

    “Popular baby names.” Social Security Online. 21 July 2008. Social Security Administration. 31 July 2008 <>.


    A Mystery in Two Acts -- Act One

    This photograph has intrigued me for many years. It shows Arline (front, center) with her sister Mercy (front left) and friends posing as the Cast of Characters from the drama "A Noble Outcast." My students laughed at the tall fellow in the back row. They thought he looked so mock-stern. We all understood the pose better when we realized that his part was "The Villian or James Blackburn." I have often wondered about this play. Was it a mystery? A parlour romance? A farce? Sometimes, mostly in the wee hours of the morning, I search on the internet for references to the drama but I don't seem to get very far.

    The Google gods were smiling recently, however, and I began to locate information about this late 19th century melodrama -- yes it was a melodrama. In fact, the number of references to the play indicate that it was a popular amateur theater production by at least 1907.

    Written in 1888 by John A. Fraser, the play was performed from Strathcona, Canada to Atlantic City to Wellington Township, Wisconsin. The number of references to local productions indicate that the drama was well known and well received throughout small-town America. Alas, it is difficult to find the script itself. Copies seem to be held in the Princeton Library and the New York City Library but it is not widely known today, and those libraries are a bit off my beaten path.

    Fortunately, a local historian in Curry County New Mexico also found an interest in the old-fashioned drama. Don McAlavy read about the play in the memoirs of his wife's grandfather, Levi J. Whiteman, who produced the play with friends in Portales, New Mexico in 1907 when he was 20 years old . Mr. McAlavy seems to enjoy a challenge and he took on the task of finding a copy of the script and then staging a production in 1994 for the Clovis Pioneer Days.

    With this new clue to the whereabouts of a script, I took to the internet for further research. Mr. McAlavy is no longer living in New Mexico, but he still writes a history column for the local newspaper. He responded quickly to my email and told me more about the script he located and used for the 20th century production.

    I have a copy of the original melodrama. That copy of the "A Noble Outcast" was used by others and many of the pages were written on, crossed out, but most of it is readable.

    Mr. McAlavy has very kindly offered to share a copy of the script with me, and I am excited at the prospect of actually reading the 80-page play and discovering the roles played by Arline and Mercy as Frances Lee, Leading Lady and Mrs. Lee, the Colonel's wife.


    Please stay in your seats; I will be back with more after the Intermission.




    An Ironic Epitaph

    Sometimes we celebrate home especially when it is no more. Arline Kinsel’s spidery handwriting leaves a poignant elegy for “Refuge Ranch,” her mother’s homestead property in Beulah, Colorado. Arline and her sister Mercy spent many happy summers at their mother’s ranch relaxing with friends, posing for photographs, and putting on theatrical productions. When Arline and her husband Roy were separated in 1912, Arline retreated to Beulah with their small daughter Lucille to find comfort with her mother and sister. Mercy taught at the Mace School and built a small log house on the property as her own “little house.”

    In December of 1913, Mercy was living at the ranch when she received this photo/postcard from either her mother or from Arline,


    “Oh, you can drop the insurance if you wish for I don’t suppose we will have a fier.”


    Arline’s note on the front of the card made when she was in her 60s are an ironic commentary to the sad end of “Our little Brown home in the West. . . it burned up finally” and was never rebuilt.


    The Family Curator Writes at Shades of the Departed

    I am honored and delighted to be the guest author today at footnoteMaven's historical photography blog, Shades of the Departed, where her articles have won a loyal following of readers enjoying her careful research and keen eye. FootnoteMaven features her own photographic collection in her discussion of a wide range of topics associated with understanding, preserving, and digitizing old photographs. She also hosts a monthly Blog Carnival “I Smile for the Camera.”

    Each week, Shades offers a guest column from other gen-bloggers in the “Friday from the Collectors” series. My article shares our classroom project, “Reading Women’s Lives,” and discuss how photographs enhanced our understanding of a personal correspondence. Students in my classes transcribed nearly 100 letters, but it was the photographs that helped bring the authors to life on the page. I am grateful to footnoteMaven for the opportunity to share our project with others, and do hope that it will inspire similar classroom projects. Please visit Shades to read the article.

    Today marks

    • The First Anniversary of The Family Curator
    • The Birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne (4 July 1804, Salem, Massachusetts)
    • The Date Henry David Thoreau moved into his cabin on Walden Pond
    • And of course, American Independence Day! Happy Birthday America!


    Who is That Man?


    A Sweet Scene



    One of the girls’ favorite photos featured Arline and a handsome young man hugging on the lawn. He is tall and bends over Arline to embrace her in an affectionate bear hug. Both look quite young, probably teenagers. Although Arline carefully identified the people and places in scores of photographs, she missed this one. It wasn’t a very “good” picture, but the surface damage indicated that it might have been one of Arline’s favorites too. The yellowed marks reminded me of stains I found after perfume was spilled on a framed photograph.


    But who is the young man? The couple's faces are in the shadows making it hard to see their features. First guess would be Arline's first husband, and the

    girls assumed that the photograph showed Arline and Roy. The problem is that the young man in the damaged photo seems much taller when compared with Roy in another photograph.



    Arline and Roy with baby Lucile



    Could it be her second husband, Albert Edwards? Again, he doesn't seem tall enough. Albert is nearly Arline's height; he lacks the stature to bend over her like the young man in the hug.

    Albert Edwards and Arline

    Perhaps he was her third husband, Charley H. Parker, a handsome farmer from Kansas? He is tall enough. Charley was a big man and even in this snapshot of the couple both wearing hats it is clear that he was taller than Arline by quite a few inches. They weren’t married until 1921 when Arline was 31. Could they have known each other when they were younger? And does the young man “look” like Charley.

    Arline and Charles H. Parker



    The best conclusion might be that the young man in the first photo was an unidentified admirer, and definitely not Arline's first husband. Wouldn't we like it to be a happier photo story? Sorry, girls. It looks like Arline and Roy might not have had that happy moment on the lawn, after all.



    The Family Curator Meets the Press

    I did not expect to have much readership to this blog, so I was quite surprised when Footnote Maven emailed a few weeks ago regarding the classroom project and asked me to write a guest column for her historic photography blog Shades of the Departed. It seems that my comment on her article about postmortem photography prompted a visit to The Family Curator, and she wants to hear more about our classroom experience with transcribing old letters. My article will appear this week, Friday July 4th. Should be lots of fun.

    I have also learned more about the entire blogging community from attending the SCGS Jamboree in Burbank this weekend. Newsblogs, musing blogs, family history blogs were all featured at the two sessions I attended. It was great fun to "meet the bloggers" and hear new ideas about where the trend is heading. Schelley Dardashti, Dick Eastman, Leland Meitzler, and George G. Morgan represented the news and podcasting blog world; Randy Seaver and Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak were there as general musers, and Stephen Danko commented on writing a family history blog. I was especially interested in Megan's comments about blogging on Facebook and even MySpace because students are active on both sites. Family history and genealogy may be see a growth spurt of interest from young people if those sites build genealogy areas.

    Several members of the audience seemed to be there not as potential bloggers, but as readers; people wanted to know how to "read" a blog. They didn't quite understand how to subscribe and thought that perhaps they had to pay a fee, like most "subscriptions" require. I think there is real potential for educating the blogging audience about the genre itself. Many people have heard of this medium but just aren't too sure about it. I recall then when I wanted to start a classroom blog at my school a few years ago, the administration was absolutely against it. They did not want the students using blogs at all, and did not want the school providing this "suspicious" new medium of communication. Two years ago, I was able to host a class blog but students had to sign in with a password to access the site. I don't know if many other schools have a similar situation, but I think it does remind us that this is a new phenomenon. While many users are comfortable and have no trouble with technology, others are still trying to come to terms with this new media.


    Post Mortem Photography

    One of the photos that most impressed the students was that of a child "sleeping." It was difficult for them to accept that this was a postmortem photograph, a popular and very socially acceptable practice in the last century.

    Yesterday, footnoteMaven continued a discussion from her posting last week on postmortem photography, "I Still Think She's Dead and Here's Why." Her research is extensive and she brings several examples to the table in evaluating the status of the original photograph from "I Think She's Dead!"

    I hope Maven considers publishing her post as a magazine article or as part of a book. It was a useful summation of the genre.


    Genealogy or Family History?

    This project has made it clear that assembling a personal history is going to involve "doing genealogy" as well. The students wanted to know who's who immediately, they wanted to know dates and relationships to help them understand the people they were reading about. We found little gems of information buried in the letters, now I have to pull out those nuggets and add them to the overall family tree.

    One of my favorite comments turned up in a letter from one sister to another, "I told the boys when they woke up that today was their Aunt Minnie's 50th Birthday." Checking the date on the letter and Minnie's death certificate verified that date, but it was so much more personal to read that a little sister still remembered her siblings birthday when they were both grown women with children of their own.

    My mom has been researching her family line in earnest for many years and she is now very pleased to have drawn me into the net. It looks like I will be taking her to the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree later this month. . . or maybe she is taking me!



    Class Breakfast at my home
    (I am wearing orange).

    Today was the last day of class and we celebrated with breakfast at my house. I started hosting the class my first year of teaching 11 years ago, so it seems fitting to bring back the tradition in my last semester. Of course, it's convenient that I live less than a block from the school and everyone can walk down the winding road to pass through the iron school gates and into the wooden gate at my home. Some years we have had tea together, sometimes lunch or brunch depending on the daily schedule.

    The girls were finally able to view the DVD slide show I made of the photos and newsclippings. It came out great, but wouldn't play on the school Mac computers (must be something to do with being compiled and burned on my PC at home). Everyone crowded into the TV room and watched Arline and Mercy come to life on the big screen. I added a soundtrack of rather plaintive music, and caught several sighs and exclamations. They were excited to put the faces to the names on the letters they had read. Over and over I heard them remark on Arline's beauty; of course, they loved her clothes too. I think their favorite photograph is the one where Arline stands against the light on the porch of the ranch house in Beulah, Colorado. She is wearing a long loose dress and what looks like an embroidered dressing gown. Her hair hangs in a long braid. It is a lovely photograph, part of the Beulah series featuring Arline and Lucile in several shots.

    Before the girls returned to school I was able to read them a letter that my mother wrote when she heard about our project. She shared a few memories of Arline and wrote,

    I am so pleased that Denise has shared her Grandmother's letters with you. I believe she wanted women to know what it was like for a young woman in the early 1900's. It is remarkable to think some of you are holding paper and reading words that were written so many years ago. . . Enjoy the letters and look for the messages my mother was hiding in each one. We can be thankful for our rights as women. We can do any job we want to and develop our skills and interests without discrimination.
    None my students wanted to trade places with Arline. Their own lives seemed complicated enough. . . they just shook their heads at the notion of living in the early 20th century.


    Review Time

    Students could be reviewing for exams, but instead want to talk about the project. Although they have really only studied a few of the letters individually, the group shared highlights with one another and then began to offer thoughts on the people involved. I sketched a rough family tree on the whiteboard and answered questions for a while. Some were quick to see the obvious -- four marriages, four daughters. Some focused on the subtext, praising Arline and Mercy for their independent spirits, trying to break out of the confines of their 1910 community.

    Most students had finished a course in U.S. History, many also completed U.S. Women's History; they had a good overview of the battle for voting and property rights. Seen in the light of the larger scale of American history, their story is remarkable because it is "everywoman's" story. They weren't rich, famous, or privileged. They were just very ordinary women.

    The girls who want to continue this summer were especially enthusiastic; some have vowed to write letters home from their adventures this summer rather than rely only on email. The longevity of paper and ink seems to have really impressed them. Who would have thought a few years ago as we were hearing the tech bell to convert to the digital age, that we would learn paper is still preferred for preservation?


    Finishing Up

    Clearly, some students could continue this project for quite a while. Some still needed to finish transcriptions and corrections. Others were ready to talk about the letters and share their thoughts on what they discovered. We put off the discussion until tomorrow; they are anxious for answers, but I am afraid that we will mostly generate more questions.

    I finished up my slide show over the weekend. About 8 minutes of photos arranged chronologically with text and music. I decided to keep the time frame to the period of the letters we have read, birth through 1920 or so.


    Day 4 - The Transcription Project

    Today was our last full day on the project. When I walked into the computer lab, three girls came to me talking all at once about their letters and how much they enjoyed the project. Some wanted to keep transcribing and asked if they could work on it over the summer! It is exciting to see their enthusiasm.

    By the end of the class period each student had completed at least two letters -- transcribed, proofread with a partner, corrections made, and data entry sheet completed. Some girls had finished three or even four letters.

    Our final day of the unit will be to discuss what we learned. I find that they are anxious to share the letters they transcribed and want to hear the stories from other letters in an effort to put together the bigger picture. We will save that for Tuesday!


    History Class Joins the Project

    Students in U.S. Women's History are also helping with the transcriptions. With only a few class sessions to spare, they were able to work collaboratively to transcribe several letters. The instructor tells me that their curiosity is piqued.... they want the full story. We may try this again next year and work it into the regular curriculum as a unit on primary sources.


    Day 3 -- The Transcription Project

    What a difference a little experience can make. When I walked into the library today where our class was meeting, I found every student already occupied at a computer. The letters were open on their computer monitors and the girls were pouring over the archaic handwriting. I could hardly get them to look away for a moment as I held up the original photos and news clippings I brought to show.

    "Who had the letter about Mercy's kidnapping?"
    A hand shot up, "I did. It talked about white slavery too."
    "Here is the news article," I said, showing the girls the original and reading "Thinks Sister Used as Victim of Hypnotist."
    At first a few girls were listening and looking at the photos; soon the entire class was gathered around the large conference table with jaws dropped.
    "She was kidnapped?"
    "Well, the family thought so, but here is her photo with the man . . . "
    "He looks so nice," they repeated. "He looks normal."
    "Yes, he does, and she married him."
    "Were they happy? Did they stay married?"
    "Not really. He did leave her, and her daughter had mental problems."
    "What else?" They wanted to know.
    I could only answer, "I don't know. Read your letters today and see what mysteries you can uncover or solve."
    They actually raced back to their computers to continue reading.

    Students were so quietly intent on their reading that the library felt like. . . a library. After a time, as they finished transcribing their leters, the girls began to read aloud their transcription with a partner to check their work. Now they knew the stories of two letters. Some girls were ready for another and began a second or third transcription. With one day of our library time remaining, it seems likely that nearly everyone will meet the assignment of transcribing two letters.

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