Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

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Tillie Pierce: Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg

CW150Pierce[1]Recently a writer asked me how I kept from going off on a tangent when I’m researching a subject. It may sound like an odd question, but it made perfectly good sense to me. I’ve been in that situation many times. It happens when I’m researching for a current project and I run across information about an entirely different, but interesting, subject. If I’m not careful, I’m soon off researching that other topic. It’s certainly not a good use of my time, especially when I’m working on a deadline as I usually am.

The way I avoid going off on a tangent is to put notes about the topic that’s tempting me into an “ideas” file. That way, when I’m ready to start a new project, I have a file of possibilities. Of course, sometimes in spite of my best efforts, I go off on one of those research tangents. Some stories are too hard to resist. That was the case with Tillie Pierce.

I discovered her when I was researching the Civil War, particularly the Battle of Gettysburg. Tillie grew up in Gettysburg. She was 15 years old in 1863 when she became an eyewitness to the famous battle fought there.

For weeks, all the news in town had been about the approach of the Rebels. On June 26, the reports became reality. Tillie was in school when she heard shouting in the street. “The Rebels are coming!” the voices called. She later wrote about the terror of that day. “Rushing to the door, and standing on the front portico we beheld in the direction of the Theological Seminary, a dark, dense mass, moving toward town. Our teacher, Mrs. Eyster, at once said: ‘Children, run home as quickly as you can.’”

The teacher did not need to repeat herself. The whole class scattered, racing for their homes. Tillie had just reached her front door when she turned and saw men on horseback riding down the street. She ran inside and slammed the door behind her. Then she peeked through the shutters in the family’s sitting room to watch as the Rebel soldiers filled the town. “What they would do with us was a fearful question to my young mind,” Tillie recalled.

There was relief among the people of the town when Union soldiers began to arrive on June 30. That was short-lived as the battle between the Rebel and Union soldiers began on July 1. Tillie witnessed the first day’s battle from her home. Before the day was over, Tillie’s parents decided that she should travel with a neighbor to the Jacob Weikert farm about three miles south. The intention was to get Tillie out of danger. As it turned out, she was traveling towards danger and the heart of the next day’s battle.

For a brief time, I thought I would like to write about Tillie. I gave up on that idea because I knew I would never be able to tell her story better than she did. Twenty-five years after the Battle of Gettysburg, Tillie wrote about her experiences in a book titled At Gettysburg or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle. Thanks to the digital library at the University of Pennsylvania, I was able to find a copy of her book. It’s a short book, less than 30 pages, but it’s a fascinating read.

Both the barn and house on the Weikert farm quickly filled with wounded soldiers, and Tillie went to work helping to tend to them. She got a first-hand look at the horrors of war and she describes them in detail in the book. However, that is only part of the story she tells. She also includes anecdotal information about particular soldiers and generals she met. Details about life in Gettysburg before the war and again years after the war when she was writing her book serve as bookends to her story. The book is good reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the Civil War. For me, it was a tangent I was happy to follow.

The Cherry Sisters

Addie, Jessie, and Effie Cherry

Addie, Jessie, and Effie Cherry

I’ve long been fascinated with the story of the Cherry Sisters, a famous vaudeville act from the late 1800s. I’ve collected information about them over the years, but they still remain a mystery to me.

The five sisters – Addie, Effie, Ella, Lizzie, and Jessie – grew up on a farm near Marion, Iowa. After their mother died, they continued to farm with their father and their brother Nathan. Then in 1885, their father died and Nathan headed off to Chicago never to be heard from again. The sisters were left to manage the farm on their own.

Their show business career began in 1893. They put their act together supposedly to raise money to attend the World’s Fair in Chicago and to search for their brother. Their first performance was in their home town where they rented Daniel’s Opera House at $5 for the night. They planned the show and made all the arrangements including crafting hand-painted signs to advertise it. The price of tickets ranged from 10-30 cents.

On January 21, 1893, three of the sisters – Ella, Effie, and Jessie – took the stage with bright gold hair created with left over sign paint. They sang and Jessie played the harmonica performing for about an hour to a polite audience. They made $250 that night and got the closest they would ever get to a good review. A reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette wrote: “The public wanted fun, the public got it; the young ladies wanted money, they got it.”

Their next stop was at Greene’s Opera House in neighboring Cedar Rapids. It was one of the largest theaters between Chicago and Denver and people were used to seeing some top-notch entertainment there. The Cherry Sisters did not fit that bill. This time the Cedar Rapids Gazette published a scathing review which read in part: “If some indefinable instinct of modesty could not have warned them that they were acting the part of monkeys, it does seem like the overshoes thrown at them would have conveyed the idea in a more substantial manner.”

The sisters filed a complaint against the newspaper charging the editor with libel. At the newspaper’s suggestion, a trial was held at the sisters’ next performance. At the trial, the audience greeted the sisters with whistles, horns, and kazoos. It soon got so noisy no one could even hear the performance, but no one appeared to take the proceedings seriously anyway. The judge ruled in favor of the sisters and sentenced the newspaper editor to marry one of them. Both sides agreed not to enforce that ruling.

Newspapers across the country picked up the story of the trial giving the Cherry Sisters free advertising and launching their careers. They began performing at theaters across the state to audiences that hurled cabbages, potatoes, onions, and even tin cans at the stage. In New York City, Oscar Hammerstein heard about the sisters. He was deeply in debt with his Olympia Music Hall on Broadway, and was desperate to find entertainment that would fill the hall. According to reports, he read reviews about the Cherry Sisters and said, “I’ve tried the best – now I’ll try the worst.”

cherry_sisters_drum[1]In 1896, four of the sisters opened at the Olympia Music Hall. Ella stayed home because one sister always had to be there to slop the hogs and milk the cow. They sang music they had written themselves, performed skits, and banged on a large bass drum as they pranced across the stage in their home-made costumes. On opening night, the audience appeared stunned at first. However, it didn’t take them long to find their voices and the jeering began. Still, a reporter for The New York Times described that audience as only “moderately brutal.”

The worst was yet to come as word of the Cherry Sisters and their lack of talent spread. People began coming to the theater to hoot and howl and toss objects at the stage as if they were part of the performance. The sisters sometimes criticized their audiences from the stage. “You don’t know anything,” a sister would say. “You have not been raised well or you would not interrupt a nice, respectable show.” But the rowdiness continued. One newspaper reported that retailers couldn’t keep up with the demand for vegetables that people bought to toss at the stage during the performances.

It seemed that critics were competing to see who could write the nastiest reviews. “Theirs is the worst act ever to make an assault on the musical stage,” one wrote. “They never missed a note, or found one either,” another quipped. But night after night, the Cherry Sisters filled the theater, and Hammerstein, who had booked them for six weeks, was able to pay off his debts.

The Cherry Sisters continued to perform traveling throughout the United States and Canada. Their act came to an end in 1903 when the youngest sister, Jessie, died suddenly while they were on tour in Arkansas.

For a long time, I figured the Cherry Sisters surely realized their performances were a joke, but I pictured them laughing all the way to the bank. Some reports said they made enough money with their act to retire to the farm in luxury. But information I’ve found more recently indicates that they spent much of their earnings on court expenses waging a war against harsh critics, and they eventually lost the farm. That makes me think they never realized how bad their performances were.

So the mystery continues. Were the Cherry Sisters shrewd businesswomen who found a way to make a comfortable living at a time when women did not have many opportunities? Or did they sincerely believe their act was good theater? What do you think?

Writing Advice

“Write what you know” is advice authors often hear, but I’ve been intimidated by it sometimes. It leaves me wondering what I know about that could possibly interest anyone else. So I’ve expanded that idea to: write what you care about. Nancy Furstinger has followed that advice better than anyone I know.

She is a lover of all types of animals and an adoptive mom to both dogs and rabbits. She also specializes in writing about animals. It’s those two loves that have led to her most recent picture books.

5677929[1]The first, Maggie’s Second Chance, is about a pregnant Lab mix who is abandoned in an empty house. The Realtor finds her and takes her to an animal control facility where her puppies are born. They are adopted, but Maggie is not. Jeff, a fourth grader, is upset when he learns from his teacher that if Maggie is not adopted, she will be euthanized. Jeff and his classmates convince the city council to open an animal shelter, and it is through that shelter, that Maggie is given her second chance.The book is based on two true stories. One is about a dog Nancy rescued. She was abandoned in a house after her humans moved. Nancy planned to foster her until a forever home could be found, but as Nancy admits, she flunked Fostering 101. She adopted the dog renaming her Jolly because that best described her personality.

Nancy and Jolly

Nancy and Jolly

The other part of Maggie’s story came together when Nancy read about a fourth grade class in Texas. They were upset when they learned that unwanted dogs in their town were being euthanized. Determined to do something about it, the students and their teacher, Diane Trull, convinced their city council to set up a no-kill shelter. In 2003, the Dalhart Animal Wellness Group and Sanctuary (DAWGS) was founded. Diane and her family work with children ages nine to eighteen to run the shelter. Although their resources are limited, they have rescued more than 7,000 animals.

imageedit_1_8691751036Nancy’s new picture book, to be released April 1, is also based on one of her adopted pets, a large New Zealand white bunny appropriately named Marshmallow. Her first three years were spent in a tiny outdoor cage until Nancy adopted her and she became a house rabbit. It’s something that happens too often when bunnies are given as Easter gifts. Children enjoy them for a short time, but they quickly lose interest and the bunny is soon neglected.

Nancy and Marshmallow

Nancy and Marshmallow

That is the fate of Bella, the bunny narrator of The Forgotten Rabbit. When the children grow tired of their Easter bunny, she is left outside in a cage without enough food or water. Fortunately, another girl, Rosalita, rescues Bella turning her into a house rabbit. Nancy adds fun and tension to the story by having Rosalita set up an obstacle course for Bella and then entering her in a rabbit agility competition.

“Write what you know” is good advice because, as Nancy shows, it works. What do you know? What do you care about? The answers to those questions could lead to some of your best writing so far.

Shaun White: High Flying Snowboarder

With the Winter Olympics set to open this week, I decided to post about one of my favorite Olympians – Shaun White. Most of us know him as a gold medalist in snowboarding and as a champion skateboarder. In 2003, he became the first athlete to win a medal in both the Summer and Winter X Games in two different sports.

But did you know that his dreams of being an athlete were almost derailed after a serious skateboarding accident when he was eleven years old? Or that he had two major heart surgeries before he was a year old?

Shaun who grew up in Carlsbad, California, was born with a heart defect that required those early surgeries. But he was never a frail kid. His family, including his parents and a brother and sister, enjoyed taking weekend trips to the mountains to ski.

Shaun learned to ski when he was four. By the time he turned six, he was swishing down slopes at a speed that worried his mother. She decided he should learn to snowboard. She thought that would slow him down, but Shaun was just as fast on a snowboard.

The family began making more trips to the mountains so Shaun could take part in snowboarding competitions. They traveled and slept in an old camper van with a heater that sometimes gave out in the middle of cold nights.

Shaun had a lot of energy and trips to the mountains were not always possible. So he learned to skateboard and soon began competing in that sport too. When Shaun was eleven, he collided with an older, much bigger boy during a skateboarding exhibition, and was knocked unconscious. He ended up with a fractured skull and broken bones, and told his mom he was done with skateboarding. She understood his fear, but she also knew how much he loved the sport. So she continued to take him to the YMCA for skateboarding lessons. Shaun was upset with her at the time, but later he was happy she made him stick with it.

Shaun turned pro as a snowboarder in 2000 when he was thirteen years old. Two years later, he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team. He missed the cut by 0.3 points, but he did not give up.

In 2006, Shaun tried again. That time he made the Olympic team and traveled to Torino, Italy where the games were held. Shaun got off to a shaky start after a bad landing in his qualifying run for the men’s halfpipe. But he came back and captured the gold. Four years later, he struck gold again at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

Fans are amazed with Shaun’s daring twists and flips on a snowboard, but he is impressed with the bravery of kids who are fighting life threatening illnesses. In partnership with Target, one of his sponsors, he and his brother designed the “Shaun White Great Room.” That recreation room is in the Target House where families can stay while their kids are getting treatment at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Shaun hangs out with the kids as often as he can.

In writing biographies for children and young adults, I’m always looking for good role models. Unfortunately, when you’re writing about the current stars and athletes that kids want to read about, you take a chance. You never know when those celebrities will disappoint. I would have felt bad if I had written a biography about Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber. I know because I did write about Lance Armstrong. So as Shaun White takes the international stage again, I’m hoping he’ll make us proud at the Olympics and long after the games are done.

“Wrong Way” Corrigan

Have you ever seen a football player race to the wrong goal line, or a basketball player score at the opponent’s hoop? It’s an embarrassing moment for an athlete, and when it happens someone is sure to mention the name “Wrong Way” Corrigan.

Who was Corrigan? How did he get the nickname “Wrong Way?” And was he in fact going the wrong direction at all? The answers to the first two questions are easy. The last one is a mystery that may never be solved.

“Wrong Way” Corrigan is Douglas Corrigan, who became famous in 1938 with a flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Crossing the ocean was not new. Others had already managed that feat, beginning with Charles Lindbergh in 1927.  What was unique about Corrigan’s flight was that he had filed a flight plan indicating he was headed for California. More than twenty-eight hours later, he landed in Dublin, Ireland – 6,000 miles off course!  He said the change in direction was the result of a broken compass, but it’s more likely he purposely set out for Ireland.

Corrigan was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1907. His parents divorced when he was twelve. Three years later, his mother died leaving Corrigan to take care of his younger brother and sister. Corrigan supported the family by working at various jobs including driving a truck and washing bottles. He got interested in flying after watching two barnstormers doing loop-de-loops and other in-air tricks at an air show. He talked the pilots into teaching him to fly and paid for the lessons by helping out around the airport.

Corrigan got his pilot’s license when he was seventeen years old. He then went to work at a San Diego airport where he gave flying lessons and worked as a mechanic. He soon decided to go out on his own becoming a barnstormer.

Corrigan was always looking for new challenges. In July 1938, he flew nonstop from California to New York in a small single-engine plane he had rescued from a trash heap. According to reports, he had bought the plane for a little over $300 and rebuilt it himself. When he got to New York, he filed a flight plan for the next leg of his voyage, a trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Airport authorities turned down his request because the plane had no radio and no fuel gauge.

Corrigan then filed a flight plan for a return home trip to California. He took off at dawn surprising onlookers who said he was headed east when he disappeared into the clouds. U.S. airport officials were not amused when he eventually landed in Dublin, Ireland. They suspended his pilot’s license and Corrigan returned to New York by ship. His airplane was on board packed away in a large crate. Others were impressed. Fans gave Corrigan a hero’s welcome when he got to back to New York.

His flight earned him a new nickname, but did Corrigan really fly the wrong way or was he simply ignoring airport authorities? Corrigan said he was lost. “They [airport authorities] told me to get lost,” he once said, “so I did.” Most people did not believe him, but Corrigan stuck to his story. He died in 1995, and as far as I know, he never admitted he had actually set out for Ireland that day. If any of you have information that can shed some light on that mystery, I hope you’ll share it here.

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