Names on the Wall at Woolsey Hall

by Steve Hartshorne on June 8, 2014

woolsey-hall-names

Names on the wall in Woolsey Hall

 

Reunions are a great opportunity to study history, society, and the stages of human life because the cohorts of graduates are segregated by age and on display in their distinctive plumage.

I remember one day when my daughter Sarah was little and we went to the swimming hole at Deerfield Academy on reunion weekend, and the different classes showed up to swim in chronological order.

First there were the boisterous seniors, jumping and roughhousing, with the boys splashing the girls and throwing them in the water.

Then came the young marrieds, and the boys were less boisterous and DID NOT splash the girls and throw them in the water.

Then the parents with little kids, then the parents with big kids, then the grandparents with little kids, and finally the old ladies and gents who just took off their shoes and waded in the river with a faraway look in their eye.

This year marked a kind of sad transition for my college reunion, because our class (1974) was sceduled for the “old” weekend. We used to reune with the classes that came after us in five-year increments. This year we reuned with the classes who went before.

So instead of looking back over the various stages of life that we had all passed through — young marrieds, parents with kids — we got a look ahead down the corridors of time at the thinning ranks of grey-haired gents in blue blazers, growing ever more frail, five years at a time.

And since our class was only the second to become coeducational, there were no single women.

For our 20th and 25th and 30th and 35th, when the party died down in the Class of 1974 courtyard, we could always move on to the class of ’79 and on to ’84 and ’89, getting ever more raucous as the evening progressed.

This year no one I knew very well showed up and I high-tailed it over to my friend Edward’s in East Haven.

I went back the next day, and it was fun to roam around the city and visit old haunts. I went to the Peabody Museum, which I had never got around to visiting in my undergraduate days.

And I went over to the corner of College and Chapel Steets to pay my respects to Adelbert Hay, who fell to his death there in 1902 from a window in the New Haven House at his second reunion. He was smoking on a windowsill in the wee hours of the morning.

Then Saturday, I found myself in a line at Woolsey Hall in a sea of silver-haired gents waiting to hear an address by the president of the university, followed by a program of a capella singing.

The walls of Woolsey Hall are inscribed with hundreds and hundreds of names of graduates who died in America’s wars, listing the dates and the places where they died.

I looked at the 225 names of those who died in World War I and tried to imagine what it would be like to lose hundreds of your classmates in just two years.

Then there are 514 names from World War II.

“Memory here guards their ennobled names.”

I was about to take me seat, when I heard myself saying to myself, “What the heck am I doing here?” and took off for the Valley to put in my garden.

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The City of Falling Objects

by Steve Hartshorne on May 11, 2014

adelbert-hay

Adelbert Hay

Later this month I’ll be off to my 40th college reunion down in New Haven, Connecticut, which will always be, for me, the City of Falling Objects.

Back in my college days, I was playing bridge with some friends of mine in the basement of a building constructed by Cornelius Vanderbilt to house a chapter of the Delta Psi fraternity, known generally as St. Anthony’s Hall, St. A’s for short.

This was in the 70s, said the crotchety old dude, but it still felt like the 60s. We had liberated the fraternity in the name of the revolution and opened its membership to anyone who cared to join.

Before that, and since, I’m afraid, it was one of those clubs where you had to wait to be ‘tapped,’ a custom which, I suppose, gave its members a feeling that they were part of an elite, as if they weren’t already as students at Yale.

It was a delightful foursome: Kristina Pickering, Geoffrey Walker, Larry Maloney and myself, and we played all night.

We emerged from ‘the crypt,’ as the basement room was known, to get breakfast across the street, and found that in the night a student had been locked out of his room and tried to get in through a fourth-story window.

He had slipped and fallen and landed right on Pickering’s Audi and was lying beside it in the alley. He had no pants on, and his body was blue.

The following week I was studying in a room that overlooked the same side street, and I saw a puppy on the roof. That’s a typical goofy college thing to do, let your puppy out on the roof.

I thought I ought to tell whoever it was to bring it in, but when I looked again, the puppy’s body was lying lifeless in the street.

And then, to make a very long story short, we (the crew at the liberated St. A’s) had a friend who had once been a student at the Yale Divinity School, a giant guy, immensely strong, named Sam the Sham, who spoke in rhyme. He was the Arian from Darien, coast to coast with the Holy Ghost.

Sam the Sham was being “treated” for a mental disorder with a dose of lithium that was thirty (30) times the dose recommended today. He wound up killing himself by jumping off a cliff known as East Rock.

As fans of this blog know, I have been lately immersed in a book called The Five of Hearts by Patricia O’Toole. One of the ‘hearts’ was John Hay, a close friend of Henry Adams.

In 1901, Hay’s son Adelbert was about to take a job, at the White House as secretary to President McKinley, a job his father had held under Abraham Lincoln.

Before assuming his post, he went to his third reunion at Yale and fell to his death from a window at the New Haven House. Apparently he was sitting on the windowsill having a late-night cigarette. More here.

Adelbert Hay was named for his uncle, who drowned at Yale on a geological expedition.

Is it any wonder, then, that New Haven will always be, for me, the City of Falling Objects?

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The Dog Stars

by Steve Hartshorne on May 10, 2014

peter-heller

There’s an excellent book making the rounds of our little poker circle called The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. Heller is a close friend of my cousin Max Hartshorne, who loved the book, and it was also very highly recommended by our buddy Ed Valerio, a combat veteran and military historian.

It took me more than three weeks to read The Dog Stars because I became completely absorbed in the apocalyptic hellscape that Heller has created.

Again and again I would start reading and doze off into fevered dreams about the central character, a guy named Hig, his dog Jasper and his partner, a trigger-happy fellow appropriately named Bangley.

Hig and Bangley have been holding off Mad Max-style invaders from their little airport in Colorado because Hig has an old Cessna with which he patrols the perimeter and Bangley is a gunsmith and marksman and combat tactician.

They live in a world where most intruders are intent on killing you, and even if they aren’t, they’re probably carrying a deadly blood disease, so unless you shoot first and ask questions later, you’re probably dead meat.

That’s about all I’ll say about the specifics, because you really should read this book, and I don’t want to spoil it, but I have to add that besides creating a realistic universe where the characters have to shed their basic humanity to survive, Heller has also done a truly masterful job creating the characters and describing the interplay between and among them.

Hig, for example, is basically a kindhearted soul, but he knows that without Bangley he would have been dead long ago. When he sets out on some adventures of his own, Bangley’s voice becomes part of his own internal dialogue, and it saves his life more than once.

This internal dialogue, which comprises the narrative of the novel, kind of reminds me of Samuel Becket’s story about the guy walking up and down the beach switching rocks from one pocket to another.

It’s a commentary on how the human mind works and, in a larger sense, what makes us behave as we do, and, in an even larger sense, what it is that makes life worth living.

Back in 1974, I read a story called “Game” by Donald Barthelme with a similar internal dialogue:

“Shotwell and I watch the console. Shotwell and I live under the ground and watch the console. If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys.

“Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies.”

This story was the inspiration for my own story, “Aboard the Mothership,” which was published in the Yale Literary magazine.

I sat down and typed it in twenty minutes without a single pause, as if I were taking dictation from some supernatural source.

It had a similar internal dialogue. Instead of Shotwell, I used Weston, a character borrowed from C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra series, which I don’t recommend.

“Weston is getting edgy. He clips and files his nails with a pocket manicure kit.” The narrator and Weston fly in the mothership to the mountain, which opens to receive them.

The last line was: “Smoke comes from the mountain sometimes. I hope it will not be Weston.” I have no idea where that came from.

Shotwell, Weston and Bangley are all kindred spirits in the life of the mind, and I have to hand it to Peter Heller for a ripping good read.

As I said, he creates a universe in which the characters must shed their basic humanity to survive, but then he shows us how they can regain their humanity and create a life worth living.

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The Fable of the Truth-Telling Candidate

by Steve Hartshorne on April 23, 2014

Wednesdays on NBC  (9-10 p.m. ET)

Cousin Max dropped in last night and plugged me into Netflix and we watched a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, which, as everyone else in the world knows, is a very very good series.

Surprise, surprise. Viewers actually like great writing and great acting!

I had only seen a bit of it because it was on HBO, and I have a Yankee aversion to premium channels. This has caused me to miss a lot of great television over the years, but I usually catch up with the shows that sound really good.

I’m the guy at the water cooler talking about the cool show everyone else was talking about five years ago.

Last night I did some serious time traveling and binge-watched a season of The West Wing — what a great show that was!

I caught a few episodes when it originally aired from 1999 to 2006, but I kind of saw it as a vehicle to comment on the political issues of the day and didn’t realize the depth of the characters and the inspirational sweep of the story as a whole.

I watched the episodes where President Josiah Bartlet and his aide Josh Hamilton get shot, and the anxious scenes in the hospital are interspersed with flashbacks to Bartlet’s campaign in New Hampshire.

I worked in state government in New Hampshire for six years back in the 80s, so the show brought back memories of my salad days in the office of Senate President Vesta Roy, who served briefly as governor when Governor Hugh Gallen died.

When the governor was hospitalized, a snowy owl landed on the dome of the State House. The day he died, it flew away.

The West Wing flashbacks showed how each of the characters came to join the Bartlet campaign, and I was swept up in this (sadly apocryphal) tale of the truth-telling candidate, an economics professor of all things, who refuses to posture or equivocate.

At one of the first campaign events, Bartlet tells New Hampshire dairy farmers he didn’t support their dairy compact because it would raise the price of milk for children.

Up in New Hampshire, we used to have a joke — or at least I did — that we had a litmus test for a candidate’s character.

We would ask the candidate whether he or she supported New Hampshire’s right to hold the first national primaries.

If the candidate said yes, we knew he or she had no character whatsoever, because what right does one small, ethnically homogeneous state have to wield that kind of power?

I also loved the West Wing episode where the characters get sick of making deals and decide to fight for what they believe in without counting the political cost.

I wonder if that will happen with the Obama administration? Haven’t seen it yet.

It’s nice to see I’m not the only one caught up in the fable of the truth-telling candidate. The series won 26 Emmy awards, including Outstanding Drama Series four years in a row.

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The Wacky Premise Has Come True

by Steve Hartshorne on April 20, 2014

As I recall, the wacky premise of the famous movie “The Terminator” was that the robots, that is, the mechanical creations of mankind, had assumed a will of their own and were bent on destroying their creators.

That may come to pass in due time, but I doubt it for numerous reasons. In fact, it is the legal creations of humanity — corporations — which have taken on a will of their own with the same evil intent, and they’re succeeding with our docile complicity!

They create a social structure where psychopaths quickly rise to the top, they are beggaring the schools and municipal governments, allowing our infrastructure to deteriorate, and they are poisoning our food supply and turning us into an unhealthy population prone to horrible diseases. Then they’re selling us drugs at ridiculous prices that purport to treat the diseases.

And, on top of that, as everyone knows and placidly acknowledges, they are contaminating the air, water and soil at a rate that will soon make our planet uninhabitable.

These destructive goals they are pursuing with dogged persistency and growing resources, and they have an unlimited queue of fiendishly clever individuals, and many who are not so clever but just numerous, who are always more than happy to do their bidding.

In the War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells envisioned the world after the Martian conquest, as the conquerors arranged a system of ranching human beings as meat for export to the Red Planet.

Wells believed that the Martians would have no difficulty finding humans to serve as ranchers and cowboys to “round ‘em up and head ‘em out.”

I really don’t know what to do about this situation, except to point out that these corporations are our creatures. We made them and we need to control them. If we don’t, we’re toast.

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Historical Friends

by Steve Hartshorne on April 11, 2014

dexter-marsh

Dexter Marsh

I guess anyone who reads makes literary and historical friends: people you like, whose stories are interesting to you and kind of reach out and grab you. Sometimes you get a sense of someone from reading what they wrote or what others wrote about them, so your mind can kind of conjecture what they might say or do in a certain situation.

A lot of people ask, “What would Jesus do?” and try to figure it out. I often ask, “What would Lincoln say?” and kind of leave the question open in the back of my mind and come back in a few days, and generally I find some pretty good answers.

But there’s a fine line here, and if you cross over it, you start thinking that they’re actually talking to you. Ever had that happen?

I liked Dexter Marsh the first time I met him. He was the thirteenth child of a poor family in Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts in the early 1800s, and he never went to school. But he discovered the first traces of dinosaurs in America and belonged to many learned socieities. He used to row up and down the Connecticut River collecting fossilized dinosaur footprints.

mary-phylinda-dole

Mary Phylinda Dole

I remember wondering if he knew John Putnam, the barber, fiddler and conductor on the Underground Railroad. Then one day I saw a letter in Irmarie Jones’ column in the Greenfield Recorder. It was written by Dexter Marsh’s daughter, who described going out into her yard as a little girl and finding a group of black children. Her mother told her it was only a dream. Of course. You don’t ask a little child to keep a secret; it’s too hard for them.

So that answers that question. Dexter Marsh’s house was a station. But the way I learned it really gave me the feeling that my old friend was actually communicating with me from beyond the grave. I got that tingling up and down my spine that I used to get when Charlie Sheerin preached in St. John’s Chapel to a group of awkward preppies. I think of it as a kind of truth tingle.

Mary Phylinda Dole was a physician in Greenfield in the 1890s who grew up on a farm in Ashfield. I found a copy of her autobiography, which was privately published, at a tag sale in Northfield. That got burned up in a house fire. I got another copy from her niece which I gave to my mom, but I couldn’t find it among her effects when she passed away.

Years later, there it was in the Whately Antiquarian Book Center: a beautiful copy in mint condition with –get this! — ephemera! (Papers tucked inside) There was a review of the book and an article from the Mt. Holyoke alumni bulletin. I got so tingly, I may have done a little dance.

 

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The Last House on Tough Street

by Steve Hartshorne on April 6, 2014

helen-hay-whitney

Helen Hay Whitney

All winter I’ve been caught up in The Five of Hearts by Patricia O’Toole, a chronicle of the life and friendship of Henry Adams, Marian “Clover” Adams, John Hay, Clara Hay, and the enigmatic “fifth heart” Clarence King.

Their lives are fascinating, their friendships are inspiring, and their circle of acquaintance is wide and included Mark Twain, W.D. Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, H.H. Richardson, Augustus St. Gaudens, Stanford White, John LaFarge, Cecil “Springy” Spring Rice, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and so many other notables of the time that the book really gives the reader an insider’s view of the Gilded Age.

One of the many fascinating characters is Helen Hay, daughter of John and Clara. She later married millionaire oarsman Payne Whitney and after his death donated the gym at Yale.

When she was a young woman, she visited her friend Constance Lodge at the family summer place in Nahant. Before she left, she had promised no fewer than a dozen boys that she would take a walk with them on the seaside cliffs.

When Constance’s parents Cabot and Nannie Lodge insisted she entertain the boys at the house, the young people gathered on the porch and began singing, which was actually a cover so that Helen could take all the walks she had promised.

“Amused to find himself outmaneuvered,” O’Toole writes, “Cabot contented himself with eavesdropping, and his worries about Helen’s ability to fend for herself must have melted when he heard her explain to an admirer, ‘I am a tough, and I come from a tough place, and I live on a tough street, and the farther you go the tougher it gets, and I live in the last house.’”

Now I find it hard to believe this young lady made this up herself, so I’ve googled it on many different occasions and found it all over the place. Billy Graham heard a young boy saying something like this, so you find that a lot, and lots of American folkloric characters have adapted it for their own use.

One night I found a reference to song that T.S. Eliot like to sing when he was being shaved that went “My name is Tough and I live on Tough Street, etc.” but I’ve tried and tried and have never been able to find  it again.

Since Helen’s father, John Hay, was ambassador to Great Britain, I think it must have been a music hall song she heard in London.

Our last view of Helen in The Five of Hearts is on the eve of her wedding to Payne Whitney, surrounded by magnificent wedding gifts — silver candelabras from the Astors, an enormous silver punch bowl from Andrew Carnegie, a diamond-studded warming pan from the father of the groom, and, according to Henry Adams, “pitchers, pots and plates enough to supply the Walkyrie and Valhalla.”

The occasion, as it turned out, was unutterably tragic as Helen’s brother Adelbert had died in a tragic accident a few months before when he fell out of a window in the New Haven House while attending a Yale reunion. He had been about to assume his duties as secretary to President Theodore Roosevelt, a position his father held under Abraham Lincoln.

Henry was grieved to see his beloved Helen, “simple, foolish, helpless, unstylish, unfashionable, unconventional, blind with headache, and stupendously out of place in all that New York menagerie.”

But Helen easily found her place in New York society. She was a widely-published poet and an author of children’s books, and she founded Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic at New York Presbyterian Hospital, among many other charitable organizations. She was also a very successful horse breeder. Her horses won the American Grand National, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

I would love some help tracking down the reference to the last house on Tough Street. Email me at atnash@gmail.com

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What Objection Could There Be To Such A Plan?

by Steve Hartshorne on March 15, 2014

edward-chair

My friend Edward


Here are some passages from a Chinese play that my friend Edward and I have been laughing about for many years. It’s called ‘Autumn in the Palace of Han’ by Ma Chih-yuan. We found it in an anthology of Chinese literature edited by Cyril Birch.

The funniest character is a guy named Mao Yen-shou, who is remarkably candid. He starts out with a song:

“I have a hawk’s claws and a vulture’s beak.
I deceive the great and oppress the weak.
Thanks to flattery and an avaricious bent,
I’ve built a fortune too huge to be spent.”

Then he tells us about his plans:

“I am no other person than Mao Yen-shou. I serve the Han court as middle counsellor. I have employed a hundred arts of deceit and steady flattery to dupe that old man, the emperor, and I keep him in sufficiently good spirits.

“My words are heeded; my plans are followed. Within and without the court, is there a man who does not respect me, does not fear me?

“I have been studying a new plan: if I can persuade the emperor to devote as little time as possible to his learned ministers, and to give himself instead to fleshly pleasures, my command over the imperial favor will truly be secure.”

Then the emperor comes in and Mao Yen-shou makes his proposal:

“Your majesty, even a country fellow, when he harvests ten more loads of wheat than he had expected, will want to get a new wife. Why should your majesty, whose rank is supreme, and whose riches encompass the nation, not enjoy as much. Would it not be wise to send an official throughout the empire to select maidens for the palace?

“These girls should be chosen without respect to their families’ position, the only condition being that they are between fifteen and twenty years of age, and of pleasing features.

“You should fill the women’s palace with the maidens selected. What objection could there be to such a plan?”

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The Proud Tower

by Steve Hartshorne on March 3, 2014

ituchma001p1I’m having a great time rereading The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman’s book about Europe and America at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. What we used to call the turn of the century.

Two world wars and an industrial revolution have changed the landscape so much that this world of kings and tsars and emperors seems like a faraway fairy-tale world, but it really wasn’t so long ago.

When my grandmother was 17, she visited Tsarist Russia on her grand tour of Europe. Believe it or not, she took a train from Moscow to Paris in July of 1914. Had she waited another month, she might never have returned and our family history would never have been written.

Like every single one of Tuchman’s books, The Proud Tower is brilliant.

The first time through, I thought it bogged down a bit in the first chapter about the English aristocracy, but the second time I relished the rich descriptive text that captures every aspect of that world so aptly — like the 85-year-old Marchioness of Salisbury who still rode in the hunt accompanied by a groom who, whenever she came to a fence, would shout, “Jump, dammit, my lady, jump!”

Or Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister who acted as his own Foreign Secretary, who viewed successful foreign policy as “a series of microscopic advantages; a judicious suggestion here, an opportune civility there, a wise concession at one moment and a farsighted persistence at another; of sleepless tact, immovable calmness and patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunder can shake.”

thomas-czar-reedThen there’s a chapter on the anarchists with a lot of stuff I didn’t know, and the third chapter is about the US, with a focus on Thomas Reed, the Speaker of the House who broke the deadlock caused by the so-called ‘silent quorum.’

The minority party, in this case the Democrats, would prevent the House from doing business by calling for a roll call and then not answering when their names were called.

The Republicans, led by Reed, were trying to pass the Force Bill, to compel the Southern states to allow African Americans to vote, but they didn’t have enough seats for a quorum.

Reed, who knew every member of the House by sight, began counting members present whether they answered or not, causing pandemonium in the House chamber.

As he calmly read through the names of the members, “‘Mr. Lawler, Mr. Lee, Mr. McAdoo, Mr. McCreary…’

“‘I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me as present!’ bellowed McCreary.

“For the first time the Speaker stopped, held the hall in silence for a pause as an actor holds an audience, then blandly spoke:

“‘The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?’”

Reed was a supporter of Theodore Roosevelt, but broke with him over the conquest and subjugation of the Philippines, which many at the time, and subsequently, considered a betrayal of the country’s democratic principles.

“The Great War of 1914-18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours,” Tuchman writes in the Foreword. “This book is an attempt to discover the quality of the world from which the Great War came.”

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The Fires of Jubilee

by Steve Hartshorne on February 6, 2014

nat-turner

 

I’m nearly finished with a fascinating work about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion: The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion by Stephen B. Oates.

I’d like to leave aside the controversy over William Styron’s fictional account of the rebellion, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) which was very popular in the sixties and seventies.

I haven’t read it, nor have I read William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, which came out shortly afterward.

Styron’s book won the Pulitzer Prize, and was praised by eminent African-American authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, but it has been criticized for a lot of glaring inaccuracies, including Turner’s supposed obsession with white women.

Oates, a former professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, doesn’t make stuff up the way Styron did. He does what all good historians do: He sorts through an enormous body of original sources and presents the telling details that illuminate this fascinating story.

While he conveys the deadening, oppressive evils of slavery, he also presents the disgusting brutality of the rebels, who slaughtered more than 60 men, women and children with axes, knives and swords.

At one point they came to a school and decapitated all the children and left their bodies in a heap.

The brutality of the rebels sickened even their fellow slaves, who spread the alarm and even fought against them.

When I started the book, I was all set to regard Turner as a hero because his cause was just, but if you hack women and children to death, you’re not a hero.

Oates also does a great job conveying the deep-seated paranoia of the slave owners throughout the South.

I always thought the brutality of the slave-owners was prompted by greed and cruelty — and it was! — but as Oates observes, another important motivator was fear.

More than 200 slaves and free blacks were murdered and executed after the rebellion, of whom about 50 were actually involved.

There were many inquiries by Virginia authorities into the causes of Turner’s revolt, because the slave owners were anxious to prevent future outbreaks.

One lawyer even published a lengthy interview with Turner himself, who claimed he was commanded by God Almighty, who showed him signs in the heavens.

In fact there was a solar eclipse shortly before the uprising.

John Floyd, the governor of Virginia blamed the rebellion on the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and his Boston-based abolitionist publication The Liberator, although there is no evidence that any of the slaves had ever read it.

That didn’t stop Floyd from offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who would kidnap Garrison and bring him to Virginia. Georgia offered an additional $5,000.

But the real reason for the brutality of the rebels is simple. Nat Turner had been reading an ancient terror manual known as The Bible. Right there in the book of Ezekiel he found his instructions:

“Then the glory of the God of Israel rose up from between the cherubim, and moved to the entrance of the Temple. And the Lord called to the man who was carrying the writer’s case.

“He said to him, ‘Walk through the streets of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of all who weep and sigh because of the detestable sins being committed in their city.’

“Then I heard the Lord say to the other men, ‘Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked.

“Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all—old and young, girls and women and little children. But do not touch anyone with the mark. Begin right here at the Temple.”

Unfortunately the seat of Southampton County was then called Jerusalem, Virginia.

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