The Tragedy of Dimmock Hollow

On the morning of August 28, 1888 residents of the Dimmock Hollow area woke up knowing that it was going to be a memorable day. They couldn’t have known how right they were.

A political rally had been planned by some local Republicans to support Benjamin Harrison in his presidential campaign against Grover Cleveland. Republicans knew that the race would be close, nowhere more so than here in Cleveland’s home state of New York.

The rally was planned after Democrats raised a liberty pole near the schoolhouse in Dimmock Hollow, a tiny crossroads close to the Ostego-Chenango County border between South New Berlin and Morris. Republicans were determined not to let their rivals have all the fun.

NY State Map
Map of New York State, circa 1876. Dimmock Hollow is in the red circle. Image credit: New York Public Library.

Liberty poles raisings  were important events for local communities; enthusiastic demonstrations of patriotism and unity for like minded neighbors. The very first liberty poles in the United States had been raised during the American Revolution as an act of defiance against the British. Later generations of Americans claimed the symbol for their political parties, making liberty poles a central part of their rallies.

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“Raising the Liberty Pole 1776,” Frederick Chapman, c. 1875. Image source: Library of Congress.

As was the custom of the time, Republicans from Dimmock Hollow and other neighboring towns decided to raise their own, taller, liberty pole nearby (theirs was 124 feet tall). It was also custom for pole raisings (sometimes called “jollifications”) to include a full day’s worth of revelry and celebration. It was a time when carousers could give raucous speeches, share a keg of hard cider, and make a lot of noise.

The Republicans planned, as one attendee later remembered, an “elaborate program” for the day. That’s an understatement if I ever heard one.

A picnic and grand campaign speeches for supporters and curious onlookers alike were planned to accompany the pole raising. But here is where it gets interesting:  some of the more “athletic” Republicans thought the day would be more memorable if they fired a cannon during the proceedings.

The hauled an ancient cannon to Dimmock Hollow, said to have been a relic of the Mexican War. It brought by Addison Hill, the son of a local army veteran. Hill stuck around to oversee the loading and firing of the gun, but the actual work was left some fearless young men.

Powder and dry sand were mixed together in equal parts and loaded into the old cannon. The crowd, eager to hear the cannon’s  roar, gathered around the gun. After the first discharge, one of the axles shattered from the force of the explosion. Undaunted, the men repaired it and the cannon was reloaded. “The old cannon had a vicious recoil and it didn’t take many shots for the brute to kick itself loose from its carriage,” one witness recalled. Unfazed by the shattered carriage and dire warnings from a Civil War veteran in the crowd, Hill and his assistants balanced the muzzle of the cannon on a log and prepared to fire another Republican salute at noon before they paused for lunch. Afterwards they would all return and finally raise their liberty pole.

Vera Cruz
The cannon probably looked like these ones used at the 1846 Battle of Vera Cruz. Currier & Ives, 1847. Image credit: Library of Congress.

As the band began to lead the way to the picnic ground, an extra heavy charge of powder was loaded. Crammed in with paper wadding and tamped down with sand, the charge was packed into the barrel and the fuse lit. It only took a few seconds for the festivities turn into a horrifying disaster.

An old iron gun,
Of course its gonna blow up,
Now three guys are dead.

Several jagged pieces of the cannon were hurled into the crowd of onlookers and claimed the lives of John Dixon, Fred Sage, and his cousin Albert Sargent. They were struck in the head and all died instantly. “The spectators stood as though paralyzed for a moment,” one reporter wrote, “and then the entire throng surged toward the three victims of the explosion.” All three men were local, and had been standing in the nearby crowd with their families. They were all 26 or younger.

Onlookers tried in vain to aid their friends. One jumped on a horse and hurried to find a physician. When he arrived at the doctor’s office, he discovered that his “trousers  from the knee to the bottom were bespattered with brains.”

No one ever figured out why the cannon exploded that day. Some thought the men loaded the cannon with too much powder. Others thought that it was simply too old and shouldn’t have been fired in the first place. Addison Hill was never able to give a satisfactory explanation.

Oddly enough, none of the men firing the cannon were killed or even harmed, though one man did loose part of his hat and several pieces of the barrel crashed through the wall of the nearby cheese factory several yards from the explosion.

Distraught, the men in charge postponed the liberty pole raising and abandoned the picnic lunch and other activities of the day. The next day local papers reported that “the pole still lies prostrate and it is probably that no further attempt will be made to raise it.

How could this have happened? Were presidential politics really this intense and eventful in 19th century American towns? Yes. Yes they definitely were. Though this particular rally at Dimmock Hollow’s ended on a tragic note, the day’s activities were far from uncommon.

A lot of effort and excitement went into 19th century political rallies like this one. For the citizens of Dimmock Hollow, a presidential election was the perfect opportunity to support your candidate and have a good time…at the same time. There were more connections between small town American life, politics, and entertainment back then than you might expect. Continue reading “The Tragedy of Dimmock Hollow”

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“Ask What You Can Do For Your Country:” The History of an Inaugural Sentence

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.”

A short yet iconic line. I bet you just read it in Kennedy’s voice too (I did). On that cold and gloomy January day, the president broke the ice with a message of hope and excitement that inspired millions of Americans and promised a fresh new start for the country. These words are just the tip of the iceberg, and if we dig a little deeper we can use this short sentence to learn a whole lot more about civics, politics, and the changing role of individual Americans in society from the Civil War to today.

Several decades after the inauguration, Bill Moyers reflected on Kennedy’s inspirational rhetoric and personality: “I remember John Kennedy not so much for what he was or what he wasn’t but for what he empowered in me. We all edit history to give some form to the puzzle of our lives, and I cherish the memory of him for awakening me to a different story for myself. He placed my life in a larger narrative than I could ever have written. In his public voice John Kennedy spoke to my generation of service and sharing; he called us to careers of discovery through lives open to others…It was for us not a trumpet but a bell, sounding in countless individual hearts that one clear note that said: “You matter. You can signify. You can make a difference.” Romantic? Yes, there was a romance to it. But we were not then so callous toward romance.” According to Moyers, what Kennedy brought a new perspective on an American’s individual role in improving their society. To the young Kennedy supporter, this message rang much louder and clearer than anything he had ever heard before.

Kennedy Inaug. 2
Kennedy delivered his famous address on January 21, 1961. Image credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

You may be interested to know that although Kennedy’s inaugural call to action sounded new and different from his political contemporaries, it was actually the result many years worth of experience and thinking. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., eminent historian and special assistant to President Kennedy recalled that: “This thought had lain in Kennedy’s mind for a long time. As far back as 1945 he had noted down in a loose leaf notebook a quotation from Rousseau: “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the state, What does it matter to me? the state may be given up as lost.” In his address accepting the democratic nomination in 1960, he said of the New Frontier, “It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” On September 5 at Cadillac Square in Detroit, Kennedy departed from his prepared text to say “The new frontier is not what I promise I am going to do for you. The new frontier is what I ask you to do for our country.” He continued to polish the thought in the back of his mind until he was ready to put it in final form for the inaugural address.” Continue reading ““Ask What You Can Do For Your Country:” The History of an Inaugural Sentence”

So Much Nostalgia!

If you remember my post on Currier & Ives and the Nostalgic Past, you’ll remember that I wrote about the sharp divide between the world depicted by Currier & Ives prints and reality. I also wrote about how these images created a nostalgic vision of the world that didn’t reflect reality accurately, kind of like a funhouse mirror (historian Roland Marchand uses the term ‘Zerrspiegel’ to describe this phenomenon among advertisers and commercial artists).

Four Seasons_color
This was what comfortable country life looked like in 1868, according to Currier and Ives. Image credit: Library of Congress.

If you recall (or even read) my other post, then you might remember that I quoted a passage from historian Jackson Lears about what nostalgia meant to Americans in the 19th century.  I thought it was especially useful in understanding how longings for the past shaped how Americans looked at their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson, Populist Leader and opponent of false agrarian nostalgia. Image credit: C. Vann Woodward’s “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel” (1938).

Turns out that Dr. Lears has written another interesting book, “Rebirth of a Nation.” Its a history of the United States from 1877 (end of Reconstruction) to 1922 (not sure yet what he is using as a bookend here). I’m only a few chapters in, and I came across this interesting passage that made me think about nostalgia, Currier & Ives artwork, and how Americans thought about themselves and their history at the turn of the 20th century. In his chapter on the struggles between city and country Americans, he quotes Tom Watson, a Populist farmer from Georgia who championed poor farmers and agrarian causes. In 1888, Watson was a member of the state legislature and found himself speaking out against “prosy people” who had never worked the tough farm life and were trying to make money by investing in agriculture from their distant city offices:

“It takes these city fellows to draw ideal pictures of Farm life- pictures which are no more true to real life than a Fashion plate is to an actual man or woman…In Grady’s farm life there are no poor cows. They are all fat! Their bells tinkle musically in clover scented meadows & all you’ve got to do is hold a pan under the udder & you catch it full of golden butter. In real life we find the poor old Brindle cow with wolves in her back & “hollow horn” on her head & she always wants to back up where the wind won’t play a tune on her ribs & when you milk her you get the genuine ‘blue milk’…”

Continue reading “So Much Nostalgia!”

“Above all things, avoid a dress suit”

Everywhere you look in the news today, you see stories about politicians and what they’re up to. One common theme in all these stories, it seems to me, is that people in politics are untrustworthy and you can never tell what they’re actually thinking. Everything is rehearsed and carefully phrased so that all the public really sees is smoke and mirrors. This definitely isn’t a universal truth, but it has some merit and I think this is the way that many Americans perceive the political world around them in the 21st century.

tammany-hall
Photo Credit: New York Public Library

I’d like to introduce you to a career politician from a long time ago who I think is a pretty genuine person. You probably won’t agree with his politics, but he is a blunt man who won’t leave you guessing what his actual position is and what his goals are. Continue reading ““Above all things, avoid a dress suit””

Pennsylvania Weighs in on the Smithsonian

Apparently Pennsylvania politicians had mixed opinions on the Smithsonian Institution when it was first opened in the mid 1800s. I was looking at some early documents in Smithsonian history and happened across some coolquotes from two Pennsylvanians, George Dallas and Simon Cameron, both politicians that left their home state to work in Washington D.C. in the middle of the 1800s. In D.C., they both encountered the Smithsonian Institution, a brand new research organization that had been founded in 1847. Their reactions to the young Smithsonian, were totally opposite and pretty interesting! Continue reading “Pennsylvania Weighs in on the Smithsonian”