Monday, February 6, 2023

Collecting Objects

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Last year, someone accused us of collecting objects just to squirrel them away into drawers. A thought that if true, might explain the overflowing condition of the museum's storage areas. Drawers, closets, and storage rooms around the building are full of artifacts and documents connected to life in Chemung County. The Historical Society doesn't collect items just to accumulate them, we collect them to tell a more complete story of Chemung County’s history. That story is more fluid than many people think.

Items on display and in the archives come mostly from donations. Before being added to the collection, they are reviewed by a committee made up of members of the public, staff, and board members. Staff at the museum are trained to evaluate an item’s potential and the reasons why things are declined vary. Sometimes it’s because we already have an item, or the item has no connection to Chemung County. Other times, items are in poor condition, or we’re not able to care for them properly. Only when the committee feels an item helps tell a more complete story of the area, is it accepted. Our collection is constantly growing, and currently the number of items we hold is well into the hundreds of thousands. 

No matter what anyone thinks, museums are not neutral spaces, and that might be different if humans weren’t involved. It’s also the reason your grandparents' visit to the Chemung Valley History Museum does not look exactly the same as yours today. For instance, the Barbie lunchbox on display in the Bank Gallery often surprises people.

Barbie Lunch box 1984

The museum's mission-- 

To deepen our understanding of history and to provide an appreciation of our community's place in state and national history

requires us to constantly refresh our understanding of what our community looks like in order to tell the stories.

A great example of this can be seen in our new exhibit, “Faces of Chemung County.” At first glance on display in the Howell Gallery, are nine framed portraits from our permanent collection. The portraits capture a likeness of each person and show off the artists’ skills. But, and here’s where art museums and history museums differ, the images are accompanied by artifacts, carefully chosen to tell more of each person’s story.

Faces of Chemung County exhibit

From the paintings and drawings, we learn about the person by noticing what is and isn’t included. Asking questions -- what are they wearing, are there any objects included in the image, what is their posture, how are they wearing their hair, what hand gestures are they making, or even what color of clothes they have on -- gives us information from the artists' point of view. It is a visual story. The artists have left nothing to chance, no choice is random. Yet, the two-dimensional images tell only part of each person's story. The  artifacts nearby add depth to our understanding. Their physical presence reminds us the people were real.  

The reason each artifact was included varies.  Objects  might have belonged to the person, or might be linked to them in some other way. For example, near the portrait of Colonel Liscom, who fought in the Civil War, there's a saddle and blanket. The saddle is from the time period but he didn't own this one. The saddle blanket was one he owned, but came from a slightly later time period. We've included objects that might be tools of their trade, evidence of their social class, bits from hobbies, or might even reference something about them now missing or unrecorded. And by the way, the object that the donor feared we were squirreling away is currently on display in this exhibit.

"Faces of Chemung County" is not about rewriting history, it’s about using what we know in the 21st century to step back and get a deeper understanding of particular people, events, and stories from our past. Here, we have the advantage of stepping into nine different pairs of shoes to better understand who these people were in society, what choices they made, and the pathways they followed. We can see how their lives might seem similar or different from our own.

Better understanding the past helps us make sense of our current events, society, and culture and can guide our future choices.

The Historical Society is continuing to add to our collection and we are currently searching for objects to include in an upcoming exhibit on Polish culture. This is the first of many ethnic groups planned for future exhibits, and we encourage you to think about donating items to help preserve our county’s history for generations to come.

 Museum hours are 10 am - 5 pm Monday through Saturday.


Monday, January 23, 2023

A Brief History of Abortion in Chemung County

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Earlier this month, the FDA finalized a regulation allowing Americans to obtain a prescription for milepristone-misoprostol, also known as the abortion pill, at a pharmacy. Back during the 1890s, Elmirans could get abortion pills at their pharmacies too. In 1892, the Elmira Advertiser ran a series of ads for Chickester’s English Diamond Brand Pennyroyal Pills, which promised to provide safe and reliable relief for women, but never flat out said what kind of relief. Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is an herb native to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, but is now found across the world. It was first described as an abortifacient and emmenaogue by ancient Greek physicians over 2,000 years ago, but likely was used long before that to both cause miscarriages and promote regular periods. In her 1895 book Talks to My Patients, local physician and women’s health expert Dr. Rachel Gleason recommended against such nostrums and female pills due to the potential dangers. Pennyroyal is, after all, toxic and causes symptoms ranging from vomiting and dizziness to organ failure and death. Modern abortion medication, on the other hand, is safe and over 90% effective when taken in the first 10 weeks. 

Ad for Pennyroyal pills from Elmira Advertiser, December 5, 1892

 Historically speaking, women have always sought abortions to end unwanted or dangerous pregnancies. Surveys conducted of middle class women in several states in during the 1920s found that 10 to 20 percent had had an abortion at one point. A survey conducted by Margret Sanger of 10,000 working-class women at her birth control clinics during the same period found that 20 percent of all pregnancies had been intentionally aborted. By the 1960s, approximately 1 million abortions were being performed annually in the United States.  This is despite the fact that prior to the Roe v Wade ruling in 1973, abortion had been illegal in most states since the 1820s.  

New York State first made abortion a crime in 1829. Under the law, abortions performed after quickening, i.e. when the mother first felt the baby move or about four months after conception, were felonies. This was in keeping with a larger movement within the country beginning with Connecticut in 1821. New York was the first state to amend their abortion laws to include exceptions to save the life of the woman. All of these early laws were targeted at abortion providers, rather than women who had had an abortion. In 1845, New York became one of just fifteen states to criminalize women who had obtained an abortion, prescribing a sentence of three months to a year, but few women were ever actually prosecuted. In 1872, abortion at all stages of pregnancy became illegal, except in cases where the woman’s health was in danger. In 1970, New York passed a law decriminalizing abortion, three years prior to the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade which decriminalizing the procedure nationwide. Despite the repeal of Roe in 2022, abortion remains legal in New York.

Over all, considering the large numbers of people obtaining abortions, few people were ever actually successfully prosecuted for the crime. Most abortions were performed in secret and few women came forward to either admit to their crime or accuse the abortion provider. Most prosecutions occurred only when something had gone seriously wrong. Based on my research of local newspapers, only 6 people in Chemung County were ever successfully convicted of abortion, although several more were charged with it.

During the 1910s, there were two high-profile abortion cases tried in local courts. The first case was against Dr. Daniel G. Carey, who was alleged to have provided Miss Mae Cunningham of Columbia Cross Roads, Pennsylvania, with an abortion in late December 1912. According to the prosecution, Cunningham had come to Elmira Heights to stay with her cousin Mrs. Maude Bennett who took her to Carey. The young woman developed complications from the procedure and died in Arnot-Ogden Hospital on January 5, 1913 after explaining exactly what happened to her attending physician. Dr. Carey was charged with manslaughter and abortion. Although the local papers initially assumed it was a slam-dunk case, it was subsequently thrown out by the judge after Miss Cunningham’s ante-mortem testimony was deemed inadmissible.

The next case occurred in 1916. Sweethearts Lillian Stiles and Earl Stevens were engaged to be married in June and decided to engage in some pre-marital sex. Stiles got pregnant and decided to obtain an abortion rather than move the wedding up. The couple went together to Dr. Frank Flood, respected local physician and former mayor, who allegedly performed an abortion. She was admitted to Arnot-Ogden Hospital on March 30 and subsequently died on April 6, 1916 due to complications. She and Stevens were married on her deathbed, shortly after she named Flood as the abortionist. Both he and her new husband were arrested after her death and charged with manslaughter and abortion. As with Carey, Flood escaped prison, not because the case was thrown out, but because he died of cancer of the jaw before it could go to court. Stevens plead guilty to his role and was sentenced to state prison. 

Dr. Frank Flood, 1916

 In 1945, Dr. Maurice Miller of Elmira was found guilty of abortion and manslaughter after his patient, Mrs. Florence Lee, died of an infection following her abortion. Dr. Miller claimed that he’d provided the abortion on legitimate, therapeutic grounds as Lee had suffered an incomplete miscarriage and had an infection, but the autopsy refuted that. Miller was sentenced to 24 years in prison, but, in November, the verdict in the manslaughter case against him was reversed after Mrs. Lee’s dying declaration was thrown out. In December, Miller plead guilty to abortion and was stripped of his license to practice medicine and sentenced to four years in prison.

In addition to doctors, local women also were known to perform abortions.  In 1932, Mrs. Eva Doud of Elmira Heights was convicted of proving 19-year-old Charlotte Mix with an abortion at her home. Unlike in earlier cases, Mix survived and even testified at the trial. In 1943, a married couple, Fitzhugh and Jennie Miller of the Town of Southport were caught up in a sting operation by the State Police after a former patient accused them of providing her abortion. The couple were both found guilty of both abortion and attempted abortion. In 1946, Mrs. Mary Vickery was charged with providing an abortion to Miss Mercedes Strickland, the first woman in Chemung County to be charged for her own abortion, although neither were ever convicted. Unlike the doctors charged with abortion, all of these people’s patients survived.

Looking at the history of abortion in Chemung County and, indeed, the country as a whole, it is clear that people who do not wish to be pregnant will seek abortions whether or not they are legal. Studies show that the only effective way to reduce abortions is through increased sex education and access to reliable birth control.


Monday, January 9, 2023

The Duck that Laid the Golden Cure

by Monica Groth, Curator

An Illustration Satirizing Medical "Quackery" in the March 1867
edition of The Herald of Health medical journal .

The medical world of the 19th century was chaotic. Physicians were only beginning to understand that bacteria and viruses caused disease, and different doctors had different ideas about what constituted a wonder drug and how much of it was a poisonous dose. As a patient of the 19th century you might be treated with calomel (which contained toxic mercury), cocaine injections (used to treat afflictions from eye ailments to in-grown toenails), or heaping tablespoons of the herb “Indian tobacco” (popularized by Samuel Thomson, who later faced murder charges due to the results it had on his patients). If you were interested in the reform-minded “Eclectic” medical movement, to which Elmira’s Drs. Rachel and Silas Gleason belonged, you might try various botanical and natural cures as well as novel electrotherapy treatments (using electricity to treat the body). The Gleasons primarily promoted clean air, exercise, and water treatments (which chiefly meant putting patients in baths of varying temperatures and salinities) at their Water Cure on Elmira’s East Hill (check out some objects from the Water Cure on display at the Museum now).

The 19th century was also the century of quack remedies – cures hawked by peddlers in get-rich-quick schemes. The popularity of such remedies coincided with a growing resolution among the lower and middle classes to shun the elitist medical establishment and be one’s own doctor in a democratic America. Numerous patent “formulas”, “syrups”, and “tinctures” contained dangerous herbs or metals dissolved in hefty quantities of alcohol or morphine. In 1868, The Herald of Health, a New York medical journal warned, “The quacks are generally a wide awake business set of fellows… If there is one species of dishonesty that is more wicked than any other, it is the attempt to thus play with those who are sick.”

One little-known and interesting treatment patented and publicized after the Civil War was Dr. Keeley’s “Gold Cure”. Dr. Leslie E. Keeley was an Army Surgeon who’d witnessed fellow soldiers become dependent upon alcohol. Against the backdrop of temperance movements across the country, questions swirled around what could be done to effectively “cure the inebriate”. A Herald of Health essay by J.B. Fuller Walker, director of the Cleveland Ohio “inebriate asylum”, attempted the use of Turkish baths and Swedish vibratory treatments, but admitted the difficulty in treating those who suffered from alcoholism and addiction. At the time, people were inclined to consider alcoholism a moral failing – not a treatable disease.  As put by the Elmira-published medical journal The Bistoury in 1877, “The moral aspect of intemperance is abundantly preached, while the medical bearing of the vice is seldom broached.”

Keeley broached the topic, and his treatment was soon to reach The Bistoury’s city. He famously announced that alcoholism could be treated, along with other addictions – by medicinal gold. After early experiments (of dubious success) conducted with temperance lecturer Frederick Hargreaves, Keely marketed his cure and established a “Gold Cure” institution in Dwight, Illinois where patients could come for treatment. While the chemical compound bichloride of gold was reportedly the key to the treatment, it was mixed with “mystery” ingredients to make a tonic, a teaspoon of which was taken by the patient 4 times a day. The “mystery” cure was then a closely guarded secret, but is now believed to have contained the toxic alkaloids strychnine and atropine, along with willow-bark, ammonia, and coca. In 1886, Keeley introduced the injectable version of his cure which, according to scholar April White, “left a reassuring golden stain on the upper arm” [1]. Patients lined up in “the shooting gallery” at the cure to be injected with a custom cocktail of blue, white, and red liquids.

Opinions on whether Keeley’s cure was genius or sheer quackery diverged. Some “graduates” of the cure swore to its efficacy, while others denounced it. Some thought laws should be established making the cure compulsory and government-funded. Keeley’s treatment spread rapidly, eventually leading to the establishment of over 100 affiliated “gold cures” across the country. Gold Cures directly affiliated with Keeley's Dwight Institute were established across New York State in Westfield, Binghamton, Geneseo, Babylon, and White Plains (this last establishment being infiltrated and investigated by the famous journalist Nellie Bly). Many more “imitators” opened their own cures inspired by Keeley’s treatment. Throughout the last decade of the 19th century, the Elmira Star-Gazette announced the opening of independent gold cures in Corning, Seneca Falls, Bemus Point, Wellsville, and in New Athens and Blossburg, Pennsylvania. The administration of a course of the Keeley treatment at the Soldier’s Home in Bath in 1894 was also publicized in the paper. It wasn't long before the gold cure arrived in Chemung County. 

The Elmira city coroner Dr. J. A. Westlake and associate Dr. Frank A. Flood established a branch of the Monroe Improved Gold Cure of “the vogue at Bemus Point, Chautauqua Lake” at Coroner Westlake’s Sanitarium on Lake Street in 1892. There, the gold cure was offered amongst other treatments until it was discontinued a year later “owning to the objections raised by ladies” who appear to have disapproved of the patients attracted to the cure.

But shortly thereafter, in 1894, a new gold cure arrived in Elmira. It was known as the Telfair Sanitarium after its parent institution - established by Dr. William Telfair in Rochester, NY. Dr. Telfair had sent a representative, a Mr. Jackson, to Elmira, and Jackson’s efforts and people’s interest soon led to the opening of Elmira’s own branch of the cure at 52 S. Main Street. Operated by Dr. Nathaniel Love and managed by the aforementioned Jackson, the cure appears to have been a success. One 1894 advert in the Star Gazette announces, “The success of the Telfair Sanitarium in Elmira is phenomenal. Why? Because they are making happy homes by their successful cures of those addicted to liquor.” The patients reportedly left the Sanitarium “changed individuals” and an 1895 article highlighting Dr. Love’s work deemed it “unequalled”.  

Advertisement for The Elmira Sanitarium Gold Cure in the Star-Gazette, Feb. 4, 1896

However, in 1895, Dr. Telfair announced he was breaking with the Elmira branch. As often happened in the world of treatment schemes, disciples became hated “imitators” when they became rivals and quickly lost favor with their early colleagues (just as Telfair had deemed himself superior to Keeley years before). The Telfair Sanitarium of Elmira however, despite losing its connection to Rochester, continued to promote its gold treatments, renaming itself the Elmira Sanitarium Gold Cure and advertising its services through the last years of the 19th century.

The gold cure could be dangerous, and death announcements in the Star-Gazette attest that patients hoping to be cured often perished under treatment. One Elmiran succumbed at a Corning Gold Cure in 1893. Whether this was due to the gold injections, his poor health upon arrival, or both, is impossible to say. At least two other deaths were reported that year to have taken place at the gold cure in Blossburg, Pennsylvania.

Though Keeley’s tonics and injections weren’t medically sound, his institutes left an enduring legacy. Patients at the cures socialized and talked with each other about their habits and resolutions and after completing the cure the so-called “graduates” formed clubs to hold each other accountable and seek sobriety together. An Elmira branch of the Gold Cure Club was founded in 1896 and raised money to send those who wanted to take the cure to the Sanitarium. Many credit these organizations as forerunners of discussion based programs continued by Alcoholics Anonymous today.

[1] White, April. Inside a Nineteenth-Century Quest to End Addiction. JStorDaily 2016. 

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Holiday Memories

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In 2020, when the whole world seemed to pause, the annual Elmira Downtown Holiday parade was canceled. Without a parade, CCHS shared 170 images from our collection for a virtual walk down memory lane. You can still see that album on our Facebook page. Eighteen of the images are from a Corning parade, and two are missing dates because we couldn’t confirm when the pictures were taken. Of the 150 remaining images, we thought you might enjoy seeing the top 5 ‘liked’ photos. In order of popularity, here they are.

1958 (64)1958

This image got the most attention. Since we posted photographs in chronological order, it was also the oldest confirmed photo in the album. It was taken in 1958, and shows a crowd of people surrounding a horse drawn sleigh in front of Iszard’s Department store. Best guess is it was the end of that year’s parade. On the sleigh, Santa is joined by two official-looking men wearing winter coats. Most of the crowd are wearing coats and hats and many women are wearing scarves on their heads. One observer commented he remembered watching Santa get off the train and climb down for the parade. Others remembered shopping on crowded streets. While a few remembered specific food they ate at Iszard’s. Cream cheese and olive sandwiches anyone?

Second in popularity was this crowd scene from 1966. Here the image includes mostly children intently watching something just out of the picture frame. A few children are waving. One observer recognized himself in the crowd. It must have been warmer that year, because fewer people are wearing hats and there are no winter boots in sight.

The third photograph was also taken in 1966. You can see a group of Southside High School baton twirlers high-stepping down the street followed closely by a marching band. Onlookers line the side of the street, and a partial view of the viaduct span can be seen. One observer recognized her mother performing with a baton.

The fourth photograph was also from 1966. It shows two men dressed in Batman and Robin costumes astride motorcycles. They both look off to the side at something out of the photograph’s frame, and have their feet on the ground, indicating they are paused. A crowd of children and adults watch. While no one left any comments on this image, it clearly sparked nostalgia.

The fifth most popular photograph was taken in 1969. The image shows two young women carrying a banner for Southside’s High School Band which follows behind. Behind the banner are two processional flags. Both sides of the street are lined with onlookers. Commenters on this image recognized themselves or other band members.

Winter holidays often inspire us to look back at the past, whether fifty years ago, twenty-five years ago or the year about to pass. We hope you enjoy seeing these again. Whatever traditions you celebrate, we hope you share them with friends and family, and maybe a cream cheese and olive sandwich on the side.

Monday, December 12, 2022

So You Want To Be An Oral Historian

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist


The majority of the human experience will be lost to time.  The most pivotal moments in people’s lives rarely make the newspapers, let alone the history books. Once someone dies, their memories die with them, but you can do your part to preserve them through Oral History and the Holidays are the ideal time to learn how.

At its core, oral history is about capturing, preserving, and sharing the lived experiences of individuals whose stories might otherwise be lost. In the late 1800s, American anthropologists began recording Native American folklore in phonographic cylinders.  The oral history movement began in earnest in the United States in the 1930s with the Federal Writers’ Project under the New Deal. Out-of-work writers were hired by the Federal government to listen to and record the stories of everyday Americans. The Slave Narrative Collection, for example, recorded the recollections of over 2,300 formerly enslaved individuals. Many of those narratives are available online for free via the Library of Congress website and have proved vital to researchers.

The oral history movement picked up steam in the 1960s and ‘70s as recording equipment became cheaper and more portable.  Here at the Chemung County Historical Society, we began collecting oral histories on audio cassette back in the 1980s. Currently, we have over 300 oral histories on a variety of mediums including audio cassettes, VHS, and mp3s. Some of our projects include the Veterans’ Oral History Project, the Black Oral History Project, the Recollections of the 1972 Flood Project, and the COVID Memory Project. Several of these projects are still on-going if you would like to participate. Our Black Oral History Project and COVID Memory Project are available on our YouTube page. All other interviews are indexed on our website and can be listened to at our offices. 


Drawer one of our Oral History collection

Of course, you don’t have to be a professional historian, anthropologists, or folklorist to be an oral historian and capture the stories of your own family and community. These days, in fact, it’s easier than ever to get involved. Here are seven steps for conducting your own oral histories:

STEP 1: Selecting your equipment

Here at CCHS, we currently use a high-end Yeti microphone paired with a computer running Audacity, a free, open-source audio recording software. When I first started here, we were using a mini-DV camcorder. You can use what you have, but the easiest is probably going to be your cellphone. StoryCorps, a non-profit dedicating to preserving and sharing humanity’s stories, has a free app you can download to help you record your oral histories. All stories recorded through their app get saved to their servers. If you and your interviewees would prefer to keep the interview private, simply use the audio recording function on most smartphones. You can also conduct and record interviews on the computer via Zoom. 

Recent interviewee with our Yeti microphone

 STEP 2: Select a theme or topic

Most people have a lot of stories. To keep yourself from being overwhelmed, you’re going to want to pick one topic, theme, or subject to focus on. Some recent topics we’ve explored here at CCHS include: growing up on Elmira’s Eastside, the impact of the COVID pandemic, and the flood of 1972.

STEP 3: Obtain the consent of potential interviewee(s)

Oral history is a collaborative act. You’re going to want to make sure the participants are 100% on board with the project. Tell them exactly what you are doing and why before you start recording. Make sure they know they can stop at any time should they become upset or uncomfortable. Be sure to stop if they ask to.

STEP 4: Press record

STEP 5: The Interview

When beginning an interview, I usually do a quick introduction: my name, the date, the name of the project, and the name of the interviewee. You should do something similar.

You’re going to want to ask a mix of specific and open-ended questions. Specific questions like what high school did you go to? when did you enlist? and how long have you worked for [company]? are vital for providing context for the story the person will tell. Once you’ve established the basics, you can ask the more open-ended questions like what was high school like back then? what do you remember about the army? and what was it like working for [company]?  These more open-ended questions allow the interviewee to really share their story. From there, you can ask additional questions to follow up on or clarify things they brought up.

The last question should always be to ask if there’s anything else they’d like to say related to the topic.

Be sure to thank the interviewee for participating.

STEP 6: Save and label the recording

Back in the day, we’d literally labeled the cassette tape with the name of the interviewee and date of the recording. These days, I save the digital file with the name and date as the tittle. For example, Rachel Dworkin.12.12.2022.mp3. You’re going to want to do the same. Be sure to save it more than one place.

STEP 7: Transcribe?

Here at CCHS, we transcribe all our interviews. This involves listening to the interview and writing down literally ever single word. It is a highly labor-intensive process which we could not manage without our dedicated volunteers. A 30-minute interview can take over 4 hours to transcribe! We do this to help future researchers and people who are hard of hearing. It’s up to you whether you want to do something similar.

Now that you know how, get out there and record some history!