Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Human Ostrich Scandal and Other Tales of Travelling Curiosities

by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

People's fascination with "freak shows" has a long and international history.  The first exhibits of people with abnormal abilities or with medical conditions dates to as early as 16th century Europe.  However, it wasn't until the 19th century, due largely to the proliferation of railroad lines, that people were able to bring these entertainments to a larger audience.  Chemung County was visited by many of these "oddities" and these entertainments raise many issues of spectacle, exploitation, and what defines "entertainment."

I will begin by discussing the curious case of the titular "Human Ostrich Scandal."  In the late 19th century, there was a subset of travelling performers known as "human ostriches."  They earned that name not because of the size of their necks, but because of their ability to eat all sorts of non-food materials, like metal or glass (ostriches are known to eat pebbles and other random items to help them digest their food).  One of the most famous human ostriches was Samuel, or Harry, Harrison, a native of Syracuse, NY.  Harrison traveled all over the country with various shows peddling his abnormal trade.  He routinely ate nails, knives, glass, fish hooks, and other dangerous items.  Harrison also claimed to be able to eat 10 grains of any poison and be able to survive.  He visited medical colleges and for a fee of $250 allowed any surgeon to cut him open to examine his innards, an offer which he was taken up on many times.  
Harrison, the Human Ostrich, gives a sultry stare as he sits down to a meal of metal.

Harrison eating a glass lamp chimney.

This human ostrich was also a ladies man (because who doesn't love a man who makes a living swallowing carpet tacks and horseshoe nails...).  In 1899, Harrison the Human Ostrich came to Elmira.  He had previously done a show in Corning, during which a young girl fell in love with him and followed him to Elmira (where he subsequently ditched her).  During his stint at the Chemung County Fair, Harrison attracted the attention of Hattie Miller, a 17 year old farm girl from Pine City.  After watching Harrison's show, Miller found herself drawn to the human ostrich due largely to concern over his safety.  They were inseparable in the hours after the show and they decided that Miller would run away with him.  The pair was eventually tracked down in Oneonta, NY, where Miller's concerned father rushed to retrieve her.      

 The human ostrich scandal provides some humorous insight into one type of sideshow freak.  Harrison was someone who, through his own agency, chose to capitalize on his "skills."  However, other sideshow attractions would be better classified as exploitation.  Many of these people had physical deformities or medical conditions, like John Merrick, the Elephant Man.  Millie and Christine McCoy, better known by their stage name, "The Carolina Twins," were conjoined twins who had been born into slavery in 1851.  As infants they were sold to a showman who exhibited the twins as curiosities.  They were emancipated in 1863, but remained active on the show circuits.  At some point, the Carolina Twins came to Chemung County.  As evidenced by this picture, they were a popular attraction.

Millie and Christine McCoy in Chemung County
Other sideshow curiosities were people from countries or tribes around the world.  People from Africa, South America, or Southeast Asia were often displayed at fairs, museums, or other locations.  These local pictures show a woman in ethnic clothing and the sign in the background identifies her as "Persian."  The fact that the entire audience visible in the picture is male also suggests something about undertones (or overtones) of sexuality which were often imbued in such shows.

A "Persian" performer at a Chemung County fair.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Wells Spicer: A Local Connection to the Wild West

by Erin Doane, Curator

While doing research for our new rotating exhibit that will highlight the towns and villages in Chemung County (the Horseheads exhibit is coming in July!) I came across Wells Spicer.  Wells Spicer was the Justice of the Peace in Tombstone, Arizona when the gunfight at the OK Corral took place.  He presided over the preliminary hearing that would determine if the Earp brothers and Doc Holiday would be held for trail.  Well, that’s interesting and all, you may be thinking, but why is he relevant to Chemung County history? Wells Spicer was born here in Chemung in 1831.  He is a native son of the county and, while he left here at the age of nine, his story is worth sharing.
Wells Spicer, 1875
As a young man, Spicer worked as a clerk in a law firm. He was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1853.  He worked as an attorney and was elected county judge in 1856.  He was also a journalist and publisher and tried his hand at prospecting several times.  In 1869 he moved to the Utah territory where he set up shop as an attorney specializing in mining suits and claims.  In 1875, Spicer was retained as attorney for John D. Lee who was on trial for his role in the Mountain Meadow massacre.  The Mountain Meadow massacre was a series of attacks that culminated in the killing of about 120 men, women and children in southern Utah on September 11, 1857.  John D. Lee led a militia of Mormon settlers who slaughtered nearly everyone in the wagon train of emigrants passing through Utah on the way to California.  Lee went to trial twice for his crimes and both times was defended by Spicer.  The first trial ended in a hung jury and the second with a conviction.  On March 22, 1877, Lee was executed by firing squad.  For his part in the trial, Spicer was lambasted in the press and ostracized by both Mormons and non-Mormons alike.
Execution of John D. Lee, March 22, 1877
Several years after the trial, Spicer relocated to Tombstone, Arizona.  On October 26, 1881 at around 3:00 pm, a gunfight broke out at the OK Corral.  The very brief altercation was between the outlaw Cowboys Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury on one side and town Marshal Virgil Earp, assistant town Marshal Morgan Earp, their brother Wyatt Earp and John Henry “Doc” Holiday on the other.  Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers were killed in the fight.  As Justice of the Peace, it fell upon Wells Spicer to decide if the Earp Brothers and Doc Holiday would have to face trial for murder.  Spicer ultimately decided that the Earps and Holiday were fully justified in their actions as they were done in the discharge of official duty.  While the hearing appeared to be even-handed, several of Spicer’s decisions during the process seemed to favor the defense.  Because of this, Spicer was the target of criticism and several death threats. 

OK Corral, Tombstone, Arizona, 1882
Spicer’s actual death is a thing of mystery.  In 1887 he wandered off into the desert and disappeared.  Before disappearing, he stopped at the home of Bill Haynes.  There he made two attempts at suicide before striking off on his own into the wilderness where he, presumably, died of exposure.  It is thought, however, that maybe Spicer faked suicide to get away from creditors.  His body was never found and there were rumors that he was seen in Mexico after his supposed death.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Check Out Your Library

by Rachel Dworkin. archivist

April 14th marks the start of National Library Week.  Our county is home to the Chemung CountyLibrary District (CCLD), a public library funded by county taxpayers.  The District has 5 branches: Big Flats, Horseheads, Van Etten, West Elmira and the Central Branch in downtown Elmira.  The District was established in 2006, but the history of libraries in our county goes back much farther.
            The earliest area libraries were semi-private collections maintained by various societies, clubs and church groups including the Elmira Mechanics Society and the Park Church.  Books were available to members and their families who generally paid some sort of annual subscription fee for the purchase of new material and the upkeep of existing collections.  May schools also had a small collection of reference work and children’s books and magazines for use by the students. 

            The County’s first free public library was the Steele Memorial Library Association, founded in 1894 by Esther Steele in memory of her late husband.  Her own personal collection of over 5,000 works formed the core of the library’s holdings, but it grew rapidly as funds were raised.  The library’s first home when it opened to the public in 1899 was in the upper 2 floors of the Steele Memorial Building at the corner of Lake and East Market Streets.  The funds for the library came from the rents on the offices on the lower floors. 
1st Steele Memorial Library
1st Steele Memorial Library interior
In 1923, the library opened in its new building at the corner of Lake and Church Streets.  The building was constructed using funds from the Carnegie Library Corporation.  From 1883 to 1929, wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of 1,689 libraries in the United States with hundreds more across the world.  The new Steele Memorial Library building had been in the works in since 1917, but its construction was delayed due to America entering World War I. 
2nd Steele Memorial Library
Beginning in 1925, the Steele began lending to people outside the city for a $.10 borrowing fee.  People in rural communities could pick up books at the central branch or at any one of the 16 deposit stations throughout the county.  By the mid-1960s, these deposit stations had been consolidated into larger branch libraries on the Southside and in Big Flats, West Elmira and the Heights.  All of the branches were newly constructed buildings which offered the branches more space and a unified look.  In 2003, the Southside and Elmira Heights branches were closed due to funding issues. 
            The Steele Memorial Library building suffered extensive damage in the flood of 1972 and was beginning to outgrow the space.  In the fall of 1979, it moved to its third and current location at the corner of Clemens Center Parkway and Church Street.     
3rd Steele Memorial Library

The Chemung County Library District which was formed in 2006 was created by the merger of the Steele Memorial Library and its branches and the Horseheads Free Library.  The Horseheads Free Library was founded in 1944 by members of the Horseheads Women’s Club.  Over the years, it was housed in Brown’s Drug Store (1944-49), the Fire Station Annex (1949-61), the Marine Midland Bank (1961-62) and the Village Hall (1962-67) before moving into its own, specially constructed, building located at 405 South Main Street in Horseheads where it remains today.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Big Changes at the Museum: An Intern's Perspective

By Tori Riley, Curatorial and Education Intern

As you all may know, the CCHS has underwent a massive change in the past couple of months. The Bank Gallery was completely redone. The redesign process began my first week here at the museum and it has provided me with the unique opportunity to watch the changes unfold.
Our first task was preparing the walls to be redesigned. This entailed taking off all of the old text panels and pictures. In order to do that, we had to scrape all of the walls, which was definitely an interesting process. This was actually one of the first tasks I did here at CCHS, and let’s just say I was a bit over dressed the first day.  Nevertheless, I learned the most efficient ways and gathered only a few nicks and bruises. By the end of the tearing down stage, I officially knew the best way to take adhesive off the walls (it is a combination of fabric softener and elbow grease).  I also had some entertaining stories to share with my friends at school about scraping walls.

I also had the opportunity to help with the Exhibit Committee, which is made up of our Curator, Erin Doane, Educator, Kelli Huggins, and Archivist, Rachel Dworkin. This committee works to develop and design the different exhibits that come to CCHS.  They also write labels and approve on the general layout of the space. Additionally, they help to select objects and images that will fill the space. The meetings consist of going over layouts, editing labels and touring the space to visualize the space.  Again, this was an incredible learning experience of Oxford commas and creating the narrative of the county. Half of the exhibit describes the history of Chemung County (which admittedly I knew very little about prior to my internship). The other half highlights Mark Twain’s Elmira (you can learn what a Sanatorium is!).
If you have been to the museum in the past, you will know that there were a lot of cases and walls. The newly redesigned Bank Gallery features a completely new floor plan. To do this, we shifted all of the cases around. Well not necessarily us because a company was hired to do most of the heavy lifting (no pun intended).  The day before the big move, however, we moved many of the smaller cases out of the way and shifted some walls. When I came back that Wednesday the Gallery was completely redone. Erin and I worked to set the cases, risers and some of the smaller objects.

I have also been able to work with Kelli (Education Coordinator here at CCHS) to develop several of the interactive for the exhibit. These will be drawers and stations that you get to touch and experience history. I will not spoil these but I do want to let you know that the Civil War interactive is my personal favorite. Also, make sure you check out the Gilded Age entertainment one too!
One of the coolest things  about the exhibit was the giant printer! This printer is like five feet wide and can print up to 44 inches of paper, this actually was my staff pick a few weeks ago. All of the text panels, images and labels came from this behemoth of a printer. Although, it was a little nerve wracking putting up the text panels, Erin is a professional, so I let her take the lead.

The opening was next on our list. I was gone for a week on our midterm break and when I arrived back at the museum, it was four days before the opening! There was just a few last minute items  to be done, just some clean ups, setting  objects, and of course, testing the interactives. Then, before everyone knew it, it was Thursday and time for the opening. It was a rousing success and I hope everyone enjoyed it.  
It is hard to describe the feeling of accomplishment that I had, as I watched the gallery come together. It was always a little surreal to walk into the gallery and see it dissembled and think, "How are we ever going to finish this?". But we did and it was an excellent experience. One of the nicest things was that my opinions mattered and I have a piece of myself in that exhibit.  I hope to see you at the museum soon.  Remember to grab a selfie with Mark Twain!

Friday, April 4, 2014

An Intern's Experience

by Tyler Ostrander, Elmira College Intern

Over the course of my internship, I have worked on many assignments that will assist me in the future, as I plan to become a curator after finishing graduate school.  I have done research on World War I objects within the museum’s collection, assisted in preparing the museum’s new permanent exhibit, and even created a virtual exhibit on the watercolor paintings of Talitha Botsford.  

My personal favorite, though, was designing the museum’s “New to the Vault” exhibit.  For this exhibit, I had to look in the museum’s database to find objects that were recently added to the collection, choose what I found interesting and what would fit in the space, and arrange these objects inside the vault.  These objects included the shorts and shirt that Carl Proper wore for the 1996 Summer Olympic torch relay, a Japanese belt picked up by an American soldier in Okinawa during World War II, and even a purse made from alligator skin (with the head and feet still attached.)  This was the first time I had the opportunity to design an exhibit, and I found it quite enjoyable.  This internship at the Chemung County Historical Society was a great opportunity for me, as I have not only learned with detail the inner workings of a museum; I have also solidified my interest in seeking a career in the museum field in the near future.  In closing, I would like to thank the staff at the Chemung County Historical Society for making this experience as informative and entertaining as possible.

New to the Vault exhibit designed by Tyler Ostrander