Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wikipedia's "Summer of Monuments" (2014)

Mount Moriah Cemetery Gatehouse, Philadelphia, PA

I found out about the Wikipedia program, Summer of Monuments, just last week, so if you’re interested in participating in a photography contest (with cash prizes!), September 30, 2014 is the deadline. The contest is all about uploading your photographs of Nationally Registered Historic Places (in the United States) for the chance of having them published by Wikipedia for use on their webpages.

According to the National Park Service's website, here are the sites we're talking about:

National Register of Historic Places

"The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources."

Photos of cemeteries have been submitted to Wikipedia's Summer of Monuments site, but not individual monuments in those cemeteries. I suppose if a monument is big enough, it might count as a "place," like Grant's Tomb in New York City (for that matter, folks with images on my Presidential Graves Facebook group page might consider uploading some of their images). A Registered Historic Place is just that – a place. Its easy enough to go on to the Wikipedia website and find your part of the country, and what historic places need to be photographed. As I understand it, just because Wiki already has photos of certain places, that doesn’t mean you cannot submit another image – they’ll choose the one they like best.

Civil War reenactors at the grave of General George Meade, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
I’ve reprinted the text directly from the Wikipedia webpage, describing the program, for your convenience:
"Wikipedia Summer of Monuments is a campaign to improve coverage of U.S. historic sites on Wikipedia.

We want to encourage more people and groups to get involved with Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons. There are many different ways you can participate.

Part of "Summer of Monuments" is a contest to see who can take the best picture of a Nationally Registered Historic Place. There are prizes for the best pictures! The best individual photographers will win cash prizes of $500, $300, and $150. Institutions can also donate their photos; the best institutional collection contributed will win a prize of $1,000! The deadline is September 30 at 11:59 PM EDT."

Grave of General George Meade, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
This Wikipedia site requires you to provide copyright information for these works, so that anyone can legally reuse them (with proper credit to the photographer). So if you’ve created fine art images of monuments and historic locations, realize that by submitting them (even if they are not chosen!) you are giving up your right of ownership and copyright – Wikipedia can use your images for any purpose, for as long and as often as they choose! So choose wisely before you submit.

Here is the Wikipedia verbage you must agree to:
"These files are my own work.
I, the copyright holder of these works, irrevocably grant anyone the right to use these works under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license (legal code).

(Anyone may use, share or remix these works, as long as they credit me and share any derivative work under this license.)"
The Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

Personally, I’ve made so many photographs of the three historic landmark cemeteries in Philadelphia – Laurel Hill, Woodlands, and Mount Moriah, that I’m okay with giving up my rights to a few. You get to see your name in the credit line on Wikipedia’s image page, by the way. (For the nitpickers out there, I know it’s just the Mount Moriah Cemetery gatehouse that is the landmark, not the cemetery itself! Here's the Wikipedia link to my upload. If you search on the site for "Mount Moriah Gatehouse," for instance, you will see all the gatehouse images uploaded by others.) The caption beneath my photographs in this article link you directly to each image as they reside in the Wikipedia Commons, "the free media repository."

References and Further Reading:
Visit the website: Wikipedia Summer of Monuments

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Houdini and Victorian Magician Robert Heller

With the popularity of the current television series, Houdini (The History Channel), I thought I would mention one of Harry’s predecessors. Robert Heller was a Victorian-era magician. He also happened to be an idol of Harry Houdini’s. Houdini, who reached his prime after 1900, referred to Heller as the most versatile magician who ever lived.
Robert Heller (1826 – 1878), whose real name was William Henry Palmer, is buried in Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery (on the Yeadon, PA side). I visited his grave last year. Doesn’t sound like much of a feat, given the fact that I only live ten miles away! However, for many years, his headstone was missing. Not the act of a conjurer, but rather ground subsidence, or maybe vandalism. A group of magic historians had been trying to locate it for the past several years, no doubt to pay homage to the person who single-handedly popularized theatrical magic in America.

Houdini at Heller's grave, Mount Moriah (ref.)
Around the time (2011) that the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. (FOMMCI) began restoration efforts at this massive, formerly abandoned cemetery (the largest cemetery in all of Pennsylvania, at 380 acres), interest in Heller’s grave was renewed. The grave had actually been lost and found and lost and found a number of times since Heller’s death in 1878. Harry Houdini himself found it around 1910 (here’s a photo of him standing next to it). After that, it disappeared (fell over and was covered with weeds) until Donna Morelli found it again over a hundred years later, in 2013.

Heller's grave site in 2011 (from "The Magic Detective" blog)
Donna (on Facebook, The Haunt of Mount Moriah) is a board member of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. After running across the photo of Houdini next to Heller's grave on the Internet, she and other volunteers located the plot through burial records and old plot maps (Section 135, Lot 189). The section of the cemetery in which Heller’s grave resides looked like this at the time (see above photo, which I borrowed from Dean Carnegie’s blog, “The Magic Detective”).

In the fall of 2013, Donna and Board Treasurer Ken Smith cut back all the weeds and trees around the grave, and raised Heller’s headstone from the earth. Section 135 is an area of the cemetery that had probably not been maintained by the previous cemetery owners since the 1960s. Now it has been cut back, cleared of weeds and is regularly mowed. (You can see the current state of each section in this landscape plot map; Section 135 is at far right, center.) In fact the FOMMCI, with its thousands of volunteers on regularly-scheduled cleanup days, are only able to keep about 25% of the 380-acre cemetery grounds maintained (this will change soon, as cemetery ownership is expected to be transferred from the defunct original association to a new corporation).

A few weeks after Heller’s headstone was raised and reset, I visited the grave site. Ken Smith had conscientiously cleared a path the width of a car lane back from the main road of the cemetery to the outer reaches of the northernmost end so people could gain access to the site. Which is not to say I did not have some difficulty finding it! A plot map is wonderful (you can see them on the FOMMCI website), but it’s not very easy to get your bearings in an old overgrown cemetery. For one thing, section markers may be missing or hidden by weeds so you cannot even tell where the corner of a section is! Once you’re in a section, you need to count out the plots to get to your destination. That said, if the entire section is overgrown or grave markers are missing, the task becomes exceedingly difficult.

The northern end of Mount Moriah is so overgrown currently that if not for the old roads bordering the sections, it would be impossible to guess where one section began or ended. Turned out that I initially mistook Section 132 for 135 and spent an hour crashing through a dense thicket of small trees and eight-foot tall Japanese knotweed stalks looking for a headstone the shape of the one in the Houdini photo. I didn’t realize at the time that Ken had cleared a path directly to the Heller headstone – you couldn’t actually see Section 135 from 132 through the thicket. Bear in mind that I was there in the fall, when visibility through the foliage is at its best!

After some persistence, however, I located Section 135. In a small cleared area of 135 bordering Section 137, I found the stone in question. It really is like finding buried treasure, when you find a grave marker that no one has seen for decades or more. When I also realized that I was standing in Harry Houdini’s footsteps, I had to set up my camera and take a picture. I must say it gave me an odd feeling, like it was standing in a sacred place. I suppose all graves are, or should be, anyway.

It is interesting to note that Houdini himself was dismayed at the condition of the cemetery, and especially Heller’s grave, when he visited around 1910. At that time Mount Moriah had been in existence for 55 years. Apparently, conditions were bad at that point. By the 1960s, cemetery conditions worsened, and reached a deplorable state in 2011 when the FOMMCI took over and began to organize massive clean ups and restoration events.

So why all the fuss about clearing Heller’s grave? Who ever heard of him, anyway? Isn’t Houdini the superstar? Well, yes, but everything has a history, including magic as popular entertainment. In the blog, The Magic Detective, author Dean Carnegie offers:

Rober Heller (ref.)
“What affect did Heller have on the world? For one, according to drama and theatrical people of the time [1860-1870s], it was Heller that put conjuring in a new light for American audiences. In the way that Robert Houdin modernized magic for his period by changing his costume and bringing magic indoors, Heller did a similar thing in America by adding other elements such as comedy and music. I'm sure his affect was felt all over the globe when he performed.”

Robert Houdin? Who was he and why does that name sound so much like “Houdini?” Harry Houdini was in fact the stage name of one Ehrich Weiss. Like William Henry Palmer, who adopted the stage name “Robert Heller,” Weiss  changed his name to “Harry Houdini.” The name "Houdini" was a nod to the French magician, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, who was famous in the generation prior to Houdini’s. Apparently Robert-Houdin was quite influential, as Robert Heller actually changed professions in 1848 from professional musician to professional magician after seeing Robert-Houdin perform! (In 1874, when Houdini became more experienced and famous, he wrote a book debunking Robert-Houdin, called The Un-masking of Robert-Houdin! Robert Heller, however, was always held in high esteem by Houdini.)

Heller moved from Britain to America in the 1860s, where he began his successful career as a magician. “At first an imitator of his more famous contemporaries,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica,  Heller eventually emerged as an entertaining and witty performer whose most famous act was a second-sight (mind-reading) presentation."

Promotional poster from Robert Heller's theatrical performance (Ref.)

Speaking of “second sight,” when I finally located Heller’s grave, I was a bit taken aback by what appeared to be a crystal ball on the ground nearby. Upon further investigation, however, it was merely a granite decorative sphere from a neighboring plot, which had probably fallen off an old gate post. Heller’s grave site, as well as the area immediately surrounding it, is not pretty. The ornamental grave plot fencing is long gone (seen in the vintage photos of Houdini at the grave). A rusting wreck of an old truck sits nearby – the last one still to be removed from the old cemetery. Trees, vines, and knotweed grow wild outside the cleared area, headstones have fallen. While the FOMMCI and thousands of volunteers routinely perform amazing feats of magic in keeping the flora under control, there is so much more to do!

Houdini at Heller's grave, c. 1910 (Ref.)
If any magic aficionados, historians, or magicians themselves are reading this, come to the next cleanup day at Mount Moriah Cemetery and lend a hand! Help us preserve the history of the person Harry Houdini called (in his Conjurer's Monthly Magazine) "the most versatile magician who ever lived." So while we must thank Friends Donna Morelli and Ken Smith for reintroducing Robert Heller to a new generation, let us not forget that “Had it not been for Houdini, the whereabouts of Heller's grave would likely be lost forever because it was Houdini who had rediscovered the grave." (ref.)

How to Help:
The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Mount Moriah Cemetery by honoring the memory of those interred here through community engagement, education, historic research, and restoration. For a schedule of cleanup days, click here! All are welcome to attend any cleanup event!

References and Further Reading:

Read more about Robert Heller on the FOMMCI website

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Weirdness of Going Public with Your Art

Weirdness abounds – but you didn’t need me to tell you that. This week, I found out that the couple with the little girl down the street are selling their house and moving to … a boat. This is at least as weird as my friend's boss' family being attacked this week by a rabid bobcat in their own backyard.

As I write this, there’s a celebrity funeral going on across the street from the boat couple’s house (at a funeral home) and a hundred people are lined up to get in, dressed in their Sunday best. There’s no parking anywhere around my house. A pseudo-celebrity, I’m sure, or rather a local celebrity. I’ve never been to a viewing or a funeral where you had to wait in line to get in. Many are there just to be seen by their fellow live “mourners,” I suppose.

Twilight viewing at funeral parlor
A few nights ago, my friend Jonn Klein (who photographs abandoned Jewish cemeteries in Europe) told me that the Nazis never destroyed the elaborate Jewish cemeteries in Berlin. I never knew this. He has photos to prove it (click link to see more on his Flickr page). The 1920-era monuments are amazing. The bronze wasn’t even stolen to help the war effort. Weird. All this in the same week! But the weirdest thing that happened involves my StoneAngels business card. The life that a simple business card can take on, oh my. It began with a phone call from a woman.

Jewish cemetery, Berlin, Germany by Jonn Klein (see more here)

Call one:I have one of your business cards. Do you have something to do with Laurel Hill Cemetery [Philadelphia]?” On the reverse side of my card is my “Cemetery Traveler” blog information. She must have read the last blog I had posted, about a night photography workshop at Laurel Hill in which I participated. She then asked, “Was there a man named Neal at the workshop?” I told her she could call Laurel Hill and talk to the people who registered the guests – I did not have any names.

Call two, next day: Same woman says, “I wasn’t able to track down Neal, but I thought I’d explain the situation to you and maybe you can help me out. Some of your business cards were left on my sister’s car, spelling out a message.” I told her that someone could have grabbed a handful of my cards from the DawsonStreet Pub (Manayunk, PA), where I curate art exhibits. I said I would check to see if there is an unusual amount missing when I go there tomorrow to set up a new show. I told her that if she or her sister are genuinely concerned, they should call the police. She indicated that she didn’t think it was a police matter.

Call three, the following day: Same woman called to see what I found at the Dawson Street. I told her that indeed, most of my business cards were gone and that there was a regular patron named Neal. She then told me what was on her sister’s car:  Thirteen of your business cards were arranged around an open book into whose pages had been cut a square compartment. Inside the compartment was one blue and one brown man’s sock. I told her that if she thought her sister was being stalked, they should call the police. I wanted to be very clear about this, partly for her sister’s safety, and partly to convince her that I was not involved – directly, anyway. I said, “Call the police and if they think I can be of any assistance, give them my name and number.” She said, “They already have it.

Dawson Street Pub, Manayunk section of Philadelphia

I never asked her what the message was that was spelled out with my cards, or what her name or her sister’s name was. I wanted to respect their privacy as well as keeping my involvement in this situation at arm’s length.

Call four, two days later: Same woman calls and says, “I wanted to call and thank you for your help and to let you know that the situation has been resolved. Turns out the Dawson Street Pub had a yard sale and a young woman bought the book there. She grabbed your business cards while she was in the bar. She was somewhat disturbed, and had recently run away from her home in New England and ended up here. Her parents drove down yesterday to get her. The fact that she chose my sister’s car on which to leave the message was purely random.

Laughter, tears, curtain.

I still don’t know what the message spelled out with my business cards said or if there was a Neal actually involved. I guess if you go public like I have with my art work and curate exhibits for others, things like this can happen. Then I began to wonder how much of this really did happen? – the cut up book, the business cards on the car, the police. After some asking around, however, I did find out that there indeed was a book with a compartment cut into it for sale at the Dawson Street Pub’s yard sale. But, it never sold….. um, wait ... maybe I was the one being stalked?!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunrise in the Atlantic City Cemetery

What can I say about the Atlantic City Cemetery that I haven’t already said? A lot, probably, since I really don’t know anything about it. I’ve visited a few times, but I’ve never done any actual research. I just like going there when I’m in the area. I was in Ventnor (next to AC) with my family a couple weekends ago (mid August, 2014) so I got up early and drove inland to the cemetery.

I’m in the habit of heading out at sunrise before my wife and daughter are awake. I jumped in the car and drove the approximate five miles to Pleasantville, NJ, the town in which the cemetery actually resides. Not much going on at the shore at that time of day, though it did look a bit like rain. That was the actual prediction, and I was kind of hoping it would. I started the Facebook page “Cemeteries in the Rain” this past year (2014) so I’ve actually been trying to capture some images of, well, that.

Mausoleum glass in Greenwood
The rain threatened all morning, and there was some odd lighting. I photographed a few statues in the cemetery against the partly cloudy, but bright sunrise. I suppose statues and monuments all face one direction for a reason (the Victorian version of feng shui?), but it seems like that is never the direction I want them to be facing! You would also assume that mausoleum stained glass faces east or west, so the glass gets as much sunrise and sunset light as possible. Wrong! Over the course of the two hours I spent here and in the neighboring Greenwood Cemetery, it got headlight-dark a couple times, but then brightened up.

Mausoleum, Atlantic City Cemetery
Actually, my feng shui comment was not really a joke. Feng shui, the Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing things with the surrounding environment has actually been around since 4000 B.C. The practice originated with the ancient Chinese Book of Burial's principles relating the flow of qi (pronounced “chi”), an invisible life force, to the appropriateness of a tomb's location (ref.). So feng shui, the practice of positioning your lawn furniture in a certain way, actually originated with burial practice! According to Wikipedia, “Historically, feng shui was widely used to orient buildings—often spiritually significant structures such as tombs, but also dwellings and other structures—in a manner meant to … bind the universe, earth, and humanity together.

Memorial sculpture in the Atlantic City Cemetery, sunrise

Death certainly binds humanity together, and the western world Victorians were as serious about death as the ancient Chinese and Egyptians. One look at the grand monuments and mausoleums will tell you that. Maybe "serious" is not exactly the right word, perhaps "accepting" is a better choice. And accepting is what I needed to be this morning, when the early rays of the sun were dramatic and golden. I experimented with this angel statue (below) - shooting her frontally into the sunrise (with fill flash) and from the rear illuminated by the sun, her white marble wings temporarily gilded, auriferous.

Mangled grating
You can enter both of these Victorian-era Pleasantville cemeteries any time of day or night as most of the gates are either broken or missing. That said, the grounds and monuments are in surprisingly fine condition. I suppose there is little vandalism here, though I did see some mangled bronze window grating on the largest mausoleum in Greenwood. The grating was there to protect the stained glass window, but it appeared that someone tried to remove the grating, probably to sell it for scrap. But generally, no one seems to venture into either cemetery to cause much mischief. None of the other (albeit less valuable) metal decorative objects have been stolen, the mausoleum stained glass is all intact, the statues are not broken. Even these forlorn and loosely-placed baby blocks (below) remain in their (I assume) original positions.

Child's grave, Atlantic City Cemetery, NJ
If you saw these cemeteries from the air, they would appear as three large rectangles. Atlantic City Cemetery makes up the two left rectangles (separated by an old set of railroad tracks) and the right rectangle, Greenwood, is separated from the AC Cemetery by West Washington Avenue. (Click link for aerial view.) The center portion of the trinity looks like the older original AC Cemetery, which began in 1865. While they may have originally been two distinct cemetery companies, they are now listed on the Internet as the “Atlantic City Cemetery and Greenwood Cemetery Associations.”

I like exploring these places when no one else is awake. Their little mysteries are usually solved in my mind by conjecture. For instance, why is this lone monument shrouded by tall weeds when everything else in the Atlantic City Cemetery is meticulously maintained? How incongruous it seemed to have a freshly-dug grave marked with a simple wooden cross right next to the elaborate mausoleum below. I drove to various parts of the cemeteries when it looked like rain, so as not to be caught in it. Did I want it to rain or didn’t I? I suppose I felt strongly both ways. I was prepared to get some good photographs either way.

It never did rain during my walk through the cemeteries, although it did drizzle later in the day as I lay on the beach. A strange feeling, lying there in the hot sun, waves lapping at your feet, while the cool rain sprinkles down on you. Like dreaming too close to the surface. One thing’s for sure – the dead don’t care whether it rains or shines. They also don't care if their graves are desecrated - but we should.