Thursday, 5 March 2015

Star-Gayzing : A Threesome is Revealed in Chile

It’s not often that a chance meeting between an openly gay astronomer and a physics professor leads to a threesome, but that’s what happened in Chile in 2013.

The threesome in question, however, didn’t actually take place between the two scientists but 25 light years away in the constellations of Piscus Austrinus and Aquarius. All three members of the new threesome are stars known as Fomalhaut A, B, and C.

Fomalhaut deserves to be more well-known in the popular imagination, on a par with the Pole Star, Alpha Centauri or Betelgeuse. It’s one of the most dynamic star systems known, and is the only system where you can actually SEE another planet orbiting another star with the naked eye (you’ll need a VERY big telescope, though).

Let’s look at the Fomalhaut system before we look at the gay astronomer who helped to uncover the threesome. The illustration below shows the stars in the night sky (stars shown larger than actual size) divided into constellations, showing where all three of the Fomalhaut stars are located. All 3 stars are orbiting each other but with so many other stars in between them it seems difficult to visualise. But when you realise that the Fomalhaut stars are nearer to us than the others it becomes easier to visualise.
Ancient astronomers thought all stars were the same distance away – fixed onto a dome’s inside surface. We all know that they aren’t, of course. It’s a pity we can’t see the night sky in true 3D – it’ll be mind-blowing!

How big is this Fomalhaut 3-star system? The sheer size of the Fomalhaut system is itself a rarity. Very few triple stars are so disperse. That’s one reason why it wasn’t until 2013 that Fomalhaut C was recognised as being the third star in this triple system. Which brings me back to that chance meeting in Chile.

Dr. Todd Henry, a member of the Out LGBT Astronomers list, and 1994 Gay Games 5,000 and 10,000 meters champion, is founding Director of RECONS. He is also Distinguished Professor of Astronomy at Georgia State University where RECONS is based.

RECONS is the Research Consortium on Nearby Stars, and Fomalhaut, at 25 light years, is one of the nearest. The RECONS astronomers had detailed data on all of the nearest stars, including one in the constellation Aquarius called LP876-10. One of Todd Henry’s students was working on a thesis with RECONS and had obtained more detailed information about the star’s movement and characteristics.

Todd Henry had the research notes with him when he was staying at a hotel in Chile, and that’s where he met Dr. Eric Mamajek, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester. Dr. Mamajek, knowing Todd’s expert knowledge of near-by stars, got talking about LP876-10, which he noticed a few years earlier when he was studying the motions of all the stars in that part of the sky.

In 2013 Mamajek was hoping to discover if LP876-10 was actually linked to Fomalhaut (already known to be a double star). LP876-10 seemed to be moving in the same direction and at the same speed at Fomalhaut and he needed more detailed information. Hence the chance meeting between Todd Henry and Eric Mamajek led to the discovery that LP876-10 was indeed the third member of the Fomalhaut system, and it was renamed Fomalhaut C.

Again, it was the apparent distance from Fomalhaut A and B that led astronomers to think that LP876-10 wasn’t part of the system – it was so far across the sky, and in a totally different constellation. In fact, against the deceptive, flat-looking night sky you can put 11 full Moons between Fomalhaut A and the new Fomalhaut C.

The whole Fomalhaut system is an amazing place. There are bright dust and debris rings and comet clouds, and each of the 3 stars is different. Fomalhaut A, star known to the ancient Arabs as “fum al-hawt” (“mouth of the fish”), is about twice the size of our Sun but 16 times brighter. One planet was discovered orbiting on the edge of a dust cloud and comet belt. Fomalhaut B is a variable star, fluctuating in brightness due to an orbiting dust cloud. Fomalhaut C is red dwarf star and, like Fomalhaut A, has a dust ring.

Todd Henry’s work at RECONS is helping us to understand our nearest interstellar neighbours. By studying the planet, and others orbiting other stars, he is following on from his earlier research into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). I’ll return to Todd Henry and SETI later in the year.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Extraordinary Lives : Stagecoach Mary


Of the stories about women’s lives in the Wild, Wild West of the 19th century none can be more extraordinary than that of Mary Fields (c.1932-1914), pictured left. She was even a hero to one of the great Wild West movie cowboys.

Mary’s story begins, as does so many black Americans in the 19th century, in slavery. The exact year of her birth has not been ascertained, but it is believed she was born in, or about, 1832. Even the date of her birth is a mystery. In the town of Cascade, Montana, the townspeople held her is such high esteem in her later years that the local schools were closed on her birthday which, she variously claimed, was in March or October. Yes, Cascade accepted that Mary had two birthdays a year, such was their high regard for her!

Following the abolition of slavery many former slaves left their old slave homes for new lives elsewhere. Mary Fields was one who remained in the service of her former owner, Judge Edmund Dunne, and became a valued and trusted employee. When she felt it was time to leave and move on Mary found work as a chambermaid on the legendary steamboat “Robert E. Lee”. Mary was actually on board the “Robert E. Lee” when it won the race up the Mississippi against the steamboat “Natchez” in 1870.

After a few years Mary decided to go back to work for Judge Dunne. When the judge’s wife died in 1883 Mary took the five Dunne children to live with their aunt, the Mother Superior of a convent in Toledo, Ohio. A few months later, however, the aunt was appointed to lead a mission to Cascade, Montana, to establish a Catholic school for local Native American girls.

On receiving news of the Mother Superior’s ill health in Montana some months later Mary Fields left her job as a carpenter at the Toledo convent and sped across to nurse her old friend. From that moment the Catholic mission of St. Peter’s and the town of Cascade became Mary’s home.

Until now Mary’s life was only extraordinary in that she lived pretty much as a man in a world where women had to know their place. Once in Cascade her life became extraordinary even for a man. Many of the details have been elaborated with legend and apocryphal stories, but there’s no smoke without fire, as they say, and there’s no reason to doubt some of the most extraordinary tales told about her.

Mary’s everyday life at the Mission near cascade consisted of acting as a general “handyman” – chopping firewood, building stone walls, digging trenches. She probably built the schoolhouse and chapel single-handedly. She also tended the mission’s chickens and garden.

One story told is of one of her regular trips to Helena township 120 miles away. Travelling alone as usual, her waggon was attacked by wolves on her return journey. The houses bolted and overturned the waggon spilling all the food and provisions onto the ground, and Mary kept the wolves at bay all night, protecting the supplies for the convent with her rifle and revolvers.

Mary was also quite adept with her fists as well as her guns. Reports tell of many unfortunate men who tried to get the better of her. She was a regular drinker, and the Mayor of Cascade gave her permission to drink in any male-only saloon she liked. There was a standing bet in one saloon that she could knock a man flat with one punch. The bet lapsed after 2 men lost their bet. A local newspaper once wrote that Mary had “broken more noses than any other person in Montana”. Even when she was 69 years old she flattened a man who refused to pay her for his laundry cleaning!

It was this feisty temper that lost Mary her job at the mission. Another mission handyman complained that she earned more than he did, so Mary challenged him to a duel. The unfortunate man ended up with one of Mary’s bullets in his backside, and Mary was dismissed for firing a gun on convent property.

Mary tried several jobs after that. She opened a couple of restaurants but was so charitable towards genuinely poor and needy customers by giving them free meals that they went bust.

In 1895 Mary got the job which led to her nickname. By hitching a team of horses quicker than any of the male applicants she got a job with the US Postal Service.

Now in her 60s Mary drove the mail coach single-handedly. Loaded with mail, money and valuables she made the daily trips across the state of Montana, with just her trusty revolver under her apron and a rifle by her side. Day after day, without fail, Mary travelled over the rough roads (when there were any) to ensure the US mail arrived at its destination, no matter what the weather or attack from Sioux tribes. When the mountain snow got too deep for the horses Mary would strap the mail bags over her shoulder and walk miles and miles. Mary’s reliability earned her the nickname “Stagecoach Mary”.

Mary retired from the mail service in 1901 and opened a laundry in Cascade. She also baby-sat for most of the families in town. At this stage of her life Mary was a well-known character. The Hollywood cowboy Gary Cooper met Mary when he was a youngster and he was living in Helena township. He admired Mary greatly and contributed to an article about Stagecoach Mary in “Ebony” magazine in 1977.

In 1912 tragedy struck when Mary’s laundry and home burnt down. The people of Cascade clubbed together and built her a new home. Mary died of liver failure 2 years later at the age of about 82.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Coded Lves : 3 - The Chevalier's Secret

The main task of any code is to disguise the true meaning of things, to keep reality a secret, to keep people guessing. And no-one kept people guessing about his secrets more than the 18th century individual known as the Chevalier d’Éon. But then, it was his job to keep secrets because he was a spy.

The Chevalier’s life is so full of intrigue and action that it easily qualifies for an “Extraordinary Life” article. Indeed, his life is so full of intrigue and action that I intend to write 2 articles on him. This, the first, deals with his life up to 1774, the year his spymaster, King Louis XV of France, died.

Born in 1728 into a family of the Burgundian minor nobility the Chevalier, baptised Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée Éon de Beaumont, managed to gain the patronage of several influential noblemen in Paris. The most powerful of these was the king’s cousin, Prince Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince of Conti.

Europe at that time was almost constantly at war with itself. The Seven Years War began in 1756 and Charles d’Éon was chosen as an agent of the “Secret du Roi” by King Louis. This was a top, top, top secret organisation which even the French government didn’t know about. The agents spied for the king, and the king alone.

The Seven Years War can be regarded as the first “World War”. It pitted Britain against France in Europe, India, Africa and the Americas. The European campaigns relied on alliances between Austria and Prussia. Charles d’Éon was sent to the Russian court just before the start of the war to try to persuade the Empress Elizabeth to become an ally of France. The British had begun to patrol border crossings into Russia and only allowed women and children to cross into the empire. The apocryphal story often told is that Charles, disguised as a woman, managed to enter Russia, live with the Empress’s Maids of Honour and even become one of them. He successfully passed on a secret letter from King Louis to the Empress expressing the desire for a political alliance.

Whatever the facts about this first mission it seems d’Éon was trusted with a bigger mission to Russia the following year. This time he had an official government post as secretary to the French ambassador. In fact both men were working as agents of the Secret du Roi behind the French government’s back.

This time the secret mission was to persuade the Empress to give support to King Louis’s desire to put his cousin, the Prince of Conti, onto the throne of Poland (offered to him by a faction of Polish nobles). However, this mission failed and the Ambassador was recalled back to France.

Charles d’Éon found his power and influence increased when it became clear that the new ambassador, the Marquess de l’Hôpital, was inept and totally useless. Single-handedly d’Éon secured the Empress Elizabeth’s signature on the Treaty of Versailles in 1756, and secured the overthrow of the Russian Chancellor, a known supporter of Prussia. The Empress even offered d’Éon a job but, because he was a secret agent, turned it down.

D’Éon remained in Russia until 1760 when the aging Marquess was replaced by a younger ambassador. D’Éon had hoped to succeed the Marquess himself and decided his usefulness in Russia was over.

D’Éon served as a dragoon officer in several battles in the Seven Years War, and in 1762 was appointed to the delegation in London who negotiated the subsequent peace treaty. King Louis knighted him and from hence forward he was known as the Chevalier d’Éon. King George III even trusted him to carry the treaty to Versailles for King Louis to sign.

King George’s trust was misplaced. Still working as a spy the Chevalier was under orders to gather intelligence that would help King Louis of France invade England. Unfortunately, the king’s mistress, the Madame de Pompadour, discovered some of Louis’s secret files and had alerted the French government, who then tried to uncover the full extent of the Secret du Roi.

The Chevalier was now living in London as an official diplomat of the French court. The French government demanded his return, but King Louis sent secret orders for him to remain. After the French government branded him a traitor the Chevalier decided to publish selected documents and letters from his secret missions. The book caused a huge scandal. Forget Wikileaks, the Chevalier’s disclosures meant that both the French and British governments were wary of doing anything that would force him to reveal more.

King George III was wary of extraditing the Chevalier as the French government requested because of the fear he would reveal British secrets to the French. King Louis didn’t want him back for fear of him revealing French secrets to the British. However, putting on a show of solidarity with his government Louis signed an extradition order against d’Éon whilst secretly alerting him.

The Chevalier had now exposed his secret life as a spy and his diplomatic career was over. He lived in London as an exile for several more years, protected by his undisclosed secrets. Unfortunately, in 1774 his spymaster King Louis XV died, to be succeeded by Louis XVI who wasn’t interested in the Secret du Roi and wound down the organisation. The new king had a secret mission of his own, which was to see the return of the Chevalier d’Éon to France and his continued silence.

And so Charles, le Chevalier d’Éon returned to his homeland in 1777. There were several conditions. In return for a very nice pension the Chevalier had to keep his spy work secret forever, and he was to dress as a woman for the rest of his life.

That ends the tale of the Chevalier d’Éon for now. In November I’ll return with a look at his extraordinary life as a woman and try to uncover the mystery of his gender and sexuality.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : 4 - A Torch

Last Time : German athlete 7) Otto Peltzer competed at the 1928 Olympics at which 8) Renée Sintenis won a bronze medal, and at which games was the grandfather of 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech, winner of 4 gold medals at the Gay Games, founded by 10) Tom Waddell.

10) Tom Waddell (1937-1987) competed at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and acted as team physician to the Saudi Arabian team at the Munich Olympics in 1976. He was a decathlete, and this provides another link to 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech, because Jacques won a decathlon gold medal at the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago. The founding of the Gay Games by Tom Waddell has been covered before on this blog (just click on "Gay Games" in the labels list), so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Tom himself competed at the first Gay Games in 1982.

The Gay Games were originally billed as the Gay Olympics until the US Olympic Committee objected and successfully banned the use of the word “Olympic” from the Gay Games. This setback didn’t stop the games from becoming bigger (in terms of competitors) than the Olympics.

Looking at the years in which the first Gay Games were held (1982 and 1986) it becomes clear that they occurred at the start of the AIDS crisis. The games were a direct result of Tom’s aim to show that gay men and women can be fit and healthy and compete in sport on the same level as straight athletes. The emergence of AIDS made this aim even more important. There was a lot more homophobia in sport in the 1980s than there is now.

Unfortunately, by 1982 and 1986 many gay men had contracted and been diagnosed with HIV. Many talented and promising lgbt athletes (amateur and professional) were lost to the disease, and their absence from later Gay Games was felt deeply, not least of all being the death of Tom Waddell himself in 1987.

Before I continue on the theme of HIV I want to skip back to 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech, who brings our next name into the link - 11) Tim Sullivan (b.1961).

When Jacques was living in the UK he played with the King’s Cross Steelers, the world’s first, purposely-formed, lgbt rugby club. 11) Tim Sullivan has been the Chair of the club since 2009, and during that time they have successfully defended their Union Cup European championship title right up to the present year.

An Olympic connection comes in 2012 when Tim was chosen as one of the torch relay runners. His nomination specifically mentioned his role in championing lgbt inclusion in sport and the community, and to the King’s Cross Steelers in particular. Running through the London suburb of Havering on 22nd July 2012, just 5 days before the London Olympic opening ceremony, Tim became one of over a dozen lgbt torch bearers chosen for their contribution to the lgbt community.

London 2012 was the most inclusive torch relay as far as the lgbt community is concerned but it wasn’t the first to feature openly gay runners. And we go back to South Africa for our next link.

12) Shaun Mellors (b.1965) connects to all the previous 3 names. Like 11) Tim Sullivan he has run with the Olympic flame. Like 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech he is from South Africa and has competed in the Gay Games. And as Gay Games founder 10) Tom Waddell had before him, Shaun has HIV.

Shaun was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. He declared his HIV status openly during a campaign by the South African government, but like many others like him, the stigma associated with the disease led to him losing his job. Since then Shaun has become one of the leading South African AIDS educators and campaigners.

One repercussion of the early AIDS crisis was the imposition of international travel restrictions for people with HIV. This was to effect Shaun most deeply when he travelled to the US to take part in the Gay Games in New York in 1994. He refused to answer the question about having a communicable disease on his visa application. The US government had granted special waivers to HIV+ athletes who attended the games. When the immigration authorities read an interview where Shaun admitted he didn’t declare his HIV status they deported him.

When Shaun applied for another visa a year later to attend an AIDS conference he was turned down because the authorities said he obtained his previous visa fraudulently. Luckily, colleagues in the White House AIDS Program negotiated a special waver for him. The travel ban was repealed in 2008, far too late for many.

In 2004 Shaun Mellors was chosen to run with the Athens Olympic torch through Cape Town on 12th June. Of the 60 relay runners in that city that day Shaun was one of 5 who were nominated specifically for their contribution to HIV/AIDS research or campaigns. One of the others was 13) Prudence Mabele.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Seven Deadly Gay Sins : Seeing Red With Anger

The most popular of my tours of lgbt Nottingham is entitled “The 7 Deadly Gay Sins”. The Medieval world assigned colours to each of the traditional Deadly Sins. Six of these correspond to colours on the Rainbow Pride flag. My tour deals with each sin, one at a time, and I build up the Pride flag as I take my guests around the city and tell them about the sinful gay/lgbt history of Nottingham.

This short series of articles will deal with each sin in the same manner and I’ll look at the way they can be illustrated with lgbt heritage and build up our sinful Pride flag. The best place to start is at the top stripe as we take a look at ANGER and the colour RED with which it is inextricably linked.

Over the centuries the Christian church has included wrath, rage and fury. Impatience, revenge and vigilantism have also been classed as Anger. Indeed, patience is the corresponding opposite of Anger in the Catholic Church’s list of Seven Heavenly Virtues (to be covered next year).

One word which is included less often, however, is hate. It could be said that hate is the route cause of all the emotions under the Anger label. Recent decades have seen governments recognise hate as a crime in itself, specifically if it is directed against minority groups or opposing viewpoints.

Surprisingly, one word has never been (officially) listed under Anger, and that word is “violence”. This is very strange because the Medieval church said that the punishment the sinful angry would receive in Hell was to be torn apart alive violently.

Be that as it may, as far as the lgbt community is concerned it can be said without question that it has been a victim of Anger more than having been a perpetrator. The Medieval church said that the sin of anger can even be directed against yourself. This is why, until the middle of the last century, suicide was considered a crime, and the world still sees with sadness the high levels of lgbt suicides due to bullying or self-doubt.

There are many instances where the Anger of lgbt men and women has led to sinful deeds. Let’s look at a couple of them.

Close to home, quite literally, was the murder of Grenville Carter, a gay man who loved a few doors away from my old home in Nottingham in 1999. I wrote about this murder several years ago, but it’s appropriate to go over it again briefly to see how it fits our Deadly Gay Sins theme.

Grenville Carter was a lonely man who often walked through the cemetery behind our homes, offering rough sleepers the shelter of his home. One rough sleeper was Simon Charles, who had already served a prison sentence for attempted murder. Grenville Carter knew none of this, of course. During the month Charles lived with Grenville he became annoyed at his host’s habits, and his patience ran out and turned to rage and he murdered Grenville with an electric flex. Impatience and rage had turned to the Deadly Gay Sin of Anger.

When it comes to other lgbt murderers the name of several serial killers spring to mind (Denis Nielsen, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy). However, their killing sprees were motivated more by other sins (greed or lust, for example) rather than out of anger.

The lesbian murderer I’ve chosen to illustrate the Anger of impatience led to the death of an unfortunate neighbour.

The body of old Mrs. Chadwick was found in a Manchester street in 1948. Police first thought it was a hit-and-run attack, but a trail of blood led straight to the door of her neighbour Margaret Allen. Even though the victim was well-known as a cantankerous old miser, Margaret Allen’s reputation was worse. Margaret behaved like a man throughout her adulthood. She took on masculine jobs such as loading coal and building, and acted aggressively, and sometimes violently, to people she had little patience for. Unfortunately, this lost her a job as a bus conductor after passengers kept complaining about her pushing, hitting and swearing at them it they didn’t take their seat quickly enough.

After her mother’s death Margaret slipped into a series of mental health problems which could have been treated compassionately today. Bouts of depression and several suicide attempts drove Margaret to drink and smoke heavily. By 1948 she was calling herself “Bill” and claimed to have had some form of transgender operation.

On 28th August 1948 old Mrs. Chadwick called at Margaret Allen’s home for a cup of sugar. She had enough money to buy some but often begged off her neighbours. Margaret refused to let her into her home and lost her patience. Grabbing a coal hammer she smashed poor Mrs. Chadwick’s skull several times and pushed her out of the door into the street.

When arrested a couple of days later all Margaret said was “I was in a funny mood”. Funny or not, her characteristic impatience and quick temper led to murder. Her trial lasted only 5 hours, and the jury took less time than it took me to type this article to find her guilty. She was hanged in January 1949 after a failed attempt by her only friend, Mrs. Cole, who had once spurned Margaret’s amorous advances, compiled a petition. Only 162 people signed it.

So, we can start to build up our Deadly Rainbow Sins flag with our first Deadly Gay Sin.

We sin again in April when we look at the sin associated with the next colour on the Pride flag, orange. The colour gives a clue to which sin we encounter, and we will see if it feeds our soul or our sinful appetites!

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Out of Their Trees : Freedom!

Today’s genealogical quest for US Black History Month looks at the African-American poet Cyrus Cassells. This is also the first of several articles I’ll write throughout this year to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. For several centuries the Magna Carta has been seen as a shining example of the granting or rights and freedoms under law. Cyrus Cassells’ ancestry illustrates several of these freedoms, not least of all the freedom from slavery.

Cyrus Curtis Cassells III was born in Dover, Delaware, in 1957 and was named after his father and grandfather. Much of Cyrus’s poetry gets its inspiration from his family history, though I’m not sure exactly how much he really knows about his remarkable ancestors.

Cyrus’s father, Cyrus Cassells junior, was one of only 6 African-American entrants to West Point academy in 1955, and when they were assigned segregated quarters they refused to enter their rooms. Bravely they stood their ground and were assigned new quarters where they lived among the white cadets. Cyrus junior joined the US Air Force, studied for a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and joined NASA in 1980 as a project engineer. In 1995 he was instrumental in the reversing of the court-martials of “the Tuskagee Airmen”, black pilots of World War II, one of whom was his brother-in-law.

Cyrus junior wasn’t the first in the family to fight for his rights. Back in the early 19th century members of the Cassells family were helping fellow African-Americans to escape slavery. The Cassells were themselves slaves. In about 1814 Thomas James Cassells (Cyrus’s 3xgreat-grandfather) was born into slavery. His mother was a slave called Rachel Hill and his father was her white owner William Cassells of Virginia. Although many slave owners were guilty of legal rape and fathered many illegitimate children it is apparent from surviving documents that William treated Rachel and her children as his family.

The two had 7 children, and William bought Rachel and her children land in Ohio while they were still slaves. Slavery was illegal in Ohio but racism existed. William couldn’t give his family their freedom in Ohio, however, as that would require posting a bond of $500 (a fortune in those days) to the Ohio government for each individual settling there from another state. William may have been wealthy, but not that wealthy. So he ensured that when he died they would be classed as Ohio landowners and entitled to settle on their land without paying a bond.

No doubt fearing legal reprisals back home in Virginia William chose not to free his family, giving the appearance to the outside world that they were slaves. He didn’t give them their freedom, along with his other slaves, until his death in 1824.

Using part of her Ohio property Rachel Hill ordered the building of one of the first schools for children of former slaves (which was named after her) in Berlin Crossroads, Ohio, in 1869. Her whole family seem to have been well educated while they were officially slaves of William Cassells, some of the very few slaves to be given any form of education.

Two of Rachel’s sons entered a dangerous and secret underworld where they risked their lives daily. Thomas James Cassells and his younger brother John were active participants in a network of secret escape routes for slaves called the “Underground Railroad” of which the Ohio network was the most active. I wrote briefly about the Underground Railroad in my “Out of Their Trees” article on Langston Hughes, whose grandfather was a neighbour of the Cassells and a leading member of the movement.

Members of the Underground Railroad would seek out escaped slaves. The Cassells brothers were “agents” at Berlin Crossroads, people who helped the refugees to find somewhere to stay, or obtain money from supporters before journeying by rail to securer freedom further north.

Another of the Cassells’ neighbours were the Woodsons, also freed slaves, who were even more involved in the Underground Railroad. They personally led the refugees from hiding place to the rail station. The danger they faced from their racist neighbours is illustrated by an apocryphal story in which two Woodson brothers were beaten to death when their activities were discovered. Their sister Frances went on to marry Thomas James Cassells and their eldest son, Cyrus Crayton Cassells (1845-1919), is poet Cyrus Cassells’ great-great-grandfather. Their youngest son, Thomas Frank Cassells (c.1847-1903), moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and became the first black Assistant Attorney General of Memphis in 1878. Two years later he was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the most intriguing aspect of Cyrus Cassells’ ancestry. Family tradition says that the Woodsons were grandchildren of President Thomas Jefferson. At first this seems unlikely, until you realise that Frances Woodson, wife of Thomas James Cassells, was said to be the grand-daughter of Sally Hemmings, a slave of President Jefferson.

Gossip about Jefferson fathering several children with Sally was going around in his own lifetime. Debate and controversy has continued into the present century with some historians accepting it as fact. Jefferson’s children was said to have been “fostered out” to a white farm owner called John Woodson from whom they took their name. The whole matter is dealt with comprehensively on this website. The most recent belief, based on DNA tests, is that the Woodson’s have no bloodline links to Jefferson, or any conclusive proof that Sally Hemmings is their ancestor. Family tradition is a strange thing so perhaps the Jefferson connection has some other basis.

Cyrus Cassells’ maternal ancestry also exhibits high achievement among black Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cyrus’s mother, Isabel Williston, was, like his father, of mixed-race heritage. Isabel’s African-American great-grandfather, Frank Williston, obtained an important job with the IRS, and her great-uncle Edward was a respected physician who became Professor of Obstetrics and Howard University.

Isabel’s maternal grandmother was Mary Lena Riddle, a white woman whose ancestor emigrated to the USA from Scotland in the early 18th century. The Riddles are members of the Riddel clan of Roxburghshire in the Scottish Borders. Through them Cyrus Cassells has a hereditary claim to wear the Riddell tartan. So I’ll leave you with the thought of Cyrus Cassells in a kilt and wearing the family badge proudly on his chest.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Coded Lives : 2 - The Kahlo Secret

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is Hispanic America’s most famous female artist. Like so many painters she put her own feelings and emotions into her art, but for many years she kept her most anguished feelings private in an illustrated diary.

The source of Frida’s anguish was not her bisexuality but stemmed from a series of accidents that left her permanently injured, both physically and mentally. Her diary illustrates more than any other of her works why the Mexicans call her “la heroina del color” – the heroine of pain.

At the age of 6 or 7 Frida contracted polio which she disguised from everyone by wearing think woollen socks over her withering leg. This led to her developing a limp and twisted pelvis and unending pain.

Eleven years later Frida and her boyfriend were involved in an accident involving an electric streetcar. Frida was impaled on a metal handrail which smashed her twisted pelvis and lower spine. She broke her collarbone and two ribs, and her already damaged right leg was fractured in eleven places. Her boyfriend, trapped under the streetcar, sustained relatively few injuries.

For the rest of her life Frida’s injuries caused great pain, and she underwent over thirty operations and spent many months in hospital. Despite the injuries to her pelvis Frida became pregnant three times by her husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera. None of the pregnancies reached their full term – one was a miscarriage, and the others wee aborted. Perhaps she realised there would never be a safe birth for her children. This was another cause of anguish for her.

Most of Frida’s art reflected her various feelings and pains in her life, but in her personal diary she wrote and drew her expressions of her deepest emotions.

It seems that she began her diary in 1944. There’s no proper chronological order to the entries. Frida wrote and drew what she felt at the time, frequently going back to past events in her life. There are colourful drawings and collages, just as you’d expect from Frida Kahlo’s work.

At first the diary appears thoughtful and colourful. As Frida’s health deteriorated and she spent more time in hospital the tone turned darker. She drew a childish doll with one disembodied hand and eye falling to the ground. Above it she writes “Yo soy la desintegración” (I am disintegration), as if Frida recognises her body is falling apart.

Later, during her final month, she depicts herself in ideal female form though a bold mauve line dissecting her left leg at the knee representing the amputation of her leg due to gangrene. The final drawing is of a dark angel of death.

A few months later, in July 1954, Frida died. Officially the cause was pulmonary embolism, but it is widely believed that it could have been suicide.

Frida’s diary, although revealing her innermost feelings, has been known for many years. Its actual content was seen by very few and kept secret from much of the art world. When her former home in Coyoacán, Mexico, was turned into the Frida Kahlo Museum in 1958 the diary went on display. The executor of Frida’s estate, Dolores Oluedo, had refused to display the contents to both researchers and the public. It took decades before she was persuaded to have a photocopied version of the diary published. Publishers battled over the right to publish the diary, with Abrams coming out on top with an offer of an undisclosed 6-figure sum. Their version of the facsimile diary was published last year.