Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In Search of Pirate Graves!

Yul Brynner in The Buccaneer
Like most people, I’m caught up in the romance of piracy—not the illegal music downloading type, but piracy on the high seas. The Jolly Roger, shiver-me-timbers, and all that. Forget those ridiculous Somali pirates who hijack oil tankers, the real pirates were the eighteenth century swashbucklers, terrors of the Spanish Main! Given that the Victorian Era was the Golden Age of Piracy, these contemporary guys have no cachet—I mean seriously,  based solely on fashion sense, I think we can all agree who the best pirates were. Just compare the two!

Somali Pirate

So when I was in Tampa in 2010, and heard that a pirate was buried downtown in quaint little Oaklawn Cemetery, I made it a point to stop by. The photo below was not taken by me, as I spent an hour and a half looking for the grave marker, but never found it. But then, pirates, as a rule, are not easy to find. 
Photo care of Wikipedia

Initially disappointed, I was kind of surprised when I returned home to Philadelphia only to learn there was an honest-to-god pirate buried in a cemetery less than a mile from my house! And not only that, but his grave is about fifty feet away from the bench on which my future wife and I used to make out!

Lying amidst the American founding fathers and patriots in St. Peter’s Churchyard Cemetery (3rd and Pine streets, est. 1761), is the grave and monument of privateer Gustavus Conyngham. Privateers were essentially pirates who received a “letter of marquee” from a sovereign or government which allowed them to attack and loot ships of enemy nations. Conyngham had originally been an officer in the American Continental Army, but became a pirate as a way to make his fortune (a la ‘The Dread Pirate Roberts’ in The Princess Bride). He found the pirate life to be much more lucrative and as a result of his escapades on the high seas, became a hero and patriot in the American Revolutionary War. Above is a photo of his wolf table monument, with its odd inscription (sort of an acronym in reverse). Unusually efficient, the wolf table—typically made of marble, but often taken for granite (good one, eh?), there was a certain utility in their design. Used in areas of thin soil and/or rocky terrain, they prevented the digging up of graves (either by wolves, people, or, um bears, as you can see in the link at the end of this blog).

In his book Philadelphia Area Cemeteries, author Allan Heller states that “privateers had a severe impact on British shipping, capturing or destroying three times as many English ships as the Continental Navy.” In 1777, privateer Gustavus Conyngham “embarked on an eighteen-month voyage of pillage and plunder, capturing sixty British ships with his fourteen-gun cutter, the Revenge.” (The 'Revenge', by the way, is also the name of the Dread Pirate Roberts’ ship—hey, I don't make this stuff up!). The U.S. Navy named three destroyers after Captain Conyngham during three separate periods of the country’s naval history.

In times of need, it wasn’t above the commanding U.S. military officers to solicit help from the dark side. You never read about such things in whitewashed history books, but when I was shooting cemeteries in New Orleans in 2002, I learned about the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte. During the War of 1812 (America’s ‘second war of independence’ against Britain), Lafitte offered his services to General Andrew Jackson in what came to be known as the Battle of New Orleans, the final battle of the war. Heavily outnumbered by the British, Jackson accepted the assistance of Lafitte and his 1000-man pirate crew in exchange for a federal pardon (Lafitte and his men had been banished to the island of Barataria, off Louisiana’s coast-- essentially imprisoned by the U.S. Government for acts of piracy). In return for the pardon, Lafitte helped Jackson defend New Orleans against the British in 1815. If not for pirates, we might very well be taking tea at three!

Between 1803 and 1812, Lafitte the buccaneer owned and controlled a vast kingdom in the Gulf of Mexico, a pirate kingdom that dominated commerce in and around the mouth of the MississippiNew Orleans.

According to Joseph Geringer in Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate of New Orleans,“The British vowed to burn New Orleans and take back the United States. In December of 1814, fifty British warships and twelve thousand British troops were on the way.” Jackson had hastily recruited 3,800 men and boys armed with nothing but squirrel guns to defend the city. Lafitte had what General Jackson needed—knowledge of the bayou, storehouses full of munitions and armaments of all kinds hidden throughout the swamps. But he also wanted amnesty for himself and his crew in exchange for aiding the United States in its war against the British. Geringer writes:

“To the general he was frank, the way he knew the general wanted to hear it. "You want flints? I have 7,500 flints available at a snap of my fingers. You want powder? I have kegs-full. You want rifles, axes, men? They're yours. I have a thousand fighting men, eighty of which are now rotting in the Cabildo, Jackson," he raised that commanding finger, "I and my followers want to fight for America, but as free men, not as indentured servants. For a pardon for me and my Baratarians, we will help you send the enemy to hell. That is my promise."

And so it happened. Jackson discovered the Baratarians to be excellent fighters and afraid of nothing. The battle culminated in what became known as the Battle New Orleans, when the main body of British General Pakenham's army appeared on the Plains of Chalmette the evening of January 7, 1815. By morning, they were 7,000 strong. After an hour of hell, these Englishmen who had charged so gallantly against Napoleon's forces at Waterloo, surrendered. British casualties were enormous — 2,600 corpses lay on the narrow field. Jackson had lost only thirteen men.

For his heroism, Jackson fulfilled his promise to see that Lafitte and his brigands were exonerated of all criminal charges. Due to Jackson's support, President Madison soon issued a proclamation granting a full pardon to Lafitte and his Baratarians, restoring to them the full rights of citizenship. After some time, however, Lafitte grew bored with the honorable life, left Louisiana and was ultimately driven off by the U.S. Government, whose tolerance of pirates was greatly diminished when there was no obvious benefit to be had. Certainly different treatment than that bestowed upon Gustavus Conyngham. Oh, and Lafitte’s grave? Possibly a watery one, but unknown.

So as not to leave you with too much technical serious stuff, please click on the link below to go to Gideon Defoe’s “Pirates!” books—easily the funniest piratical humor novels in the known galaxy. British humor, i.e., in the style of Monty Python. I've also listed some factual references to fill in any knowledge gaps that historians may find within my narrative. As to my own writing, I'll just quote filmaker/author John Waters and suggest that "Technique is just failed style."

References and Links of Interest

*Wolf table - Device used in areas of thin soil and/or rocky terrain to prevent digging up graves (either by wolves, people, or, um bears, as you can see in this link: Russian bears treat graveyards as 'giant refrigerators').

St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia. PA
Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate Of New Orleans
Gideon Defoe’s “Pirates!” books 

1958 movie The Buccaneer with Yul Brynner (see left) as Jean Lafitte

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Art of Sensual Statues in Cemeteries

Ah, Valentine’s Day, when people’s fancy turns to love and, let’s face it, sex. On walking through just about any Victorian cemetery established after 1850, one is likely to see sensual female figures, carved from a variety of material – granite, marble, bronze. This is especially true in France and England, the birthplaces of the “garden cemetery.” For the uninitiated, garden cemeteries are essentially outdoor sculpture gardens, conceived in Europe in the Victorian era (1837 – 1901) to try and dispel some of the fear and bleakness associated with death and dying. Pere Lachaise in Paris and Highgate in London are examples.

The practice carried across the Pond in 1831 with the founding of Mount Auburn Cemetery (Cambridge, MA) and then Laurel Hill in 1836 (Philadelphia, PA). Statues in these and other Victorian cemeteries hearken back to a time when these unique memorial gardens served the public as an idyllic getaway from the noisy city. Now forgotten by the public and worn by the elements, this rare artwork was enjoyed by our ancestors long before museums, galleries, and parks came into being.

Now, you’d think statues of semi-nude women would have clashed with staunch Victorian sensibilities, wouldn’t you? Especially in a cemetery – a reverent and respectful place frequented by the public! What role do these women play in the grieving process? They are symbolic, of course, but of what (besides affluence)? These typically life-sized sensual figures do give memorial parks a feeling of life, which really was the intent of the architects of early garden cemeteries.

In his book, Death: The Trip of a Lifetime, Greg Palmer offers that in many cultures, “women are the designated grievers.” Ok, but why physically attractive females? David Robinson says in his book Saving Graces, “Their gowns are revealing and they are often topless and sometimes nude.” He goes on to say that these statues were usually individually commissioned and sculpted, often by famous sculptors. In Western artistic tradition, the ability to accurately depict the female figure is what most defines artistic talent. So again, why physically attractive females? While her countenance may effectively express true sorrow and loss, even anguish, there are no ugly angels.

Besides the fact that most professional sculptors were male (we’ll assume at least some of them, like Rodin, were heterosexual) and these commissions afforded them a regular income, sensual statues provided an opportunity for them to bring their artistic fantasies to life for a noble purpose. A female friend of mine once referred to such sensual mourning statuary as “Mourn Porn.”

Whose is Bigger?

So that covers females, but what about the male nude? Why do we see no copies of Michaelangelo’s (anatomically correct) David in cemeteries? Maybe because the results would generate such public outcry, that the penises would be broken off, as was done to the Oscar Wilde monument in Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery! (Afterwards, the cemetery’s director supposedly used it as a paperweight.)

While its true that we see a male angel once in a great while, most male statues in cemeteries depict the actual deceased man, often in a formal or noble pose. The allusion to male sexuality in mourning art is a bit more subtle, usually. Maybe you have to view it from a female perspective, but don’t all those obelisks below seem a bit phallocentric? In fact the tallest funeral monument in the United States was erected (pun intended) in Philadelphia’s Woodlands Cemetery in 1897, an obelisk that stands 150 feet high (below, left)!

Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

Gee, it seems that when male sexuality is involved, the results get pretty dramatic. There was an incident in a Philadelphia suburb in 2003 that blatantly brought to light the competitive nature between two men. Rival businessmen Goodin (1836-1890) and Gallagher (1834-1915) were both buried in the St. Denis Church Cemetery in Havertown, PA. Goodin died at age 54, leaving orders to erect an imposing 20-foot-tall monolith atop a 10-foot-tall granite base. Church history offers this analysis: "He had to call attention to himself even at his own demise." Missing his friend and favorite adversary, Gallagher slyly bought the neighboring grave plot. He would wait 25 years before death let him claim final victory: an even more magnificent monolith of paler granite set atop an ornate base, the whole structure soaring to a pyramidal point about three feet higher than Goodin's highest point. In 2003, a storm toppled both monoliths.

So let's try to put all this Mourn Porn in perspective. If death is portrayed as beautiful, perhaps it will lose its sting. For Romeo and Juliet, as with the Romantic era in general (1825 – 1900), death was the focus of extreme emotion and the ultimate expression of love (Robinson, 1995). This period of time coincides with Victorian era, in which the idea of death in art and popular culture became less associated with horror and fright and more with love and desire. No other era in Western culture has ever exhibited to such an extent the artistic emphasis on death as a visible part of the consciousness of an entire population.

In her book Mourning Art and Jewelry, Maureen DeLorme tells us that the pressures of continually facing death as an intrusion (French Revolution, Napoleanic Wars, high mortality from plagues and disease, etc.) made the need to keep both the presence of the departed near at hand while at the same time bidding farewell. So the idea of sculpted sensual beings in cemeteries became a tangible realization of a new Western psychology. Their purpose? To comfort the living and soften the finality of death. While angels may epitomize the tension between freedom and confinement, the sensuals walk the tightrope between spiritual purity and earthly desire. Undeniably conflicting, yet totally human forces of nature.

Links of Interest:

Death: The Trip of a Lifetime by Greg Palmer
Read about the Woodlands Cemetery, and America's tallest cemetery monument!
Read about the competitive businessmen and their toppled obelisks!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gardens of Memories

Waking up to much more than just the “wintry mix” predicted by the teflon-coated weather monkeys, I figured it was a good time to write this blog. Beside not wanting to go outside, I have a sick headache from too much alcohol and not enough sleep yesterday—I attended both Wing Bowl 19 and the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention. Talk about photo ops....

Something I saw at the Tattoo Convention gave me the idea to write this blog. Ever hear of “suspensions?” (If you don’t know what suspensions are, think Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If that doesn’t click for you, then feel free to hit the informative link at the bottom of this page—but don’t say I didn’t warn you.) The suspensions reminded me of my friend’s arm being pinned together after being shot by a sniper.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This posting is really about cemetery memories. And not good ones either. When you think about it, the real purpose of cemeteries is to act as "memory gardens," places to help us NOT forget. But I’m sure you would agree, there are some things best left forgotten (if only we could). As I haven’t had many close friends or relatives die, I don’t spend much time visiting people I once knew in cemeteries, but I do spend a lot of time photographing in these places. One particular cemetery I’ve visited in Chester, PA, holds strange memories for me. Not so much for my experience in the place itself, as at the hospital next to it.

Back in 2001, a friend of mine was shot while delivering mail. She was hit twice by a maniac firing an automatic assault rifle out his bedroom window. The Chinese-made MAC-90 (copy of the better-known Kalashnikov AK-47) was just one of the many guns in his legal collection of firearms. I went to see her in the hospital after reading about the incident in the paper. She was in a coma.

"The Turning Away"
I went back about a week later, then visited a few more times over the course of a month. Each time, I stopped at the cemetery across the street afterward, to kind of bring me back to reality, or perhaps to distract. I took photographs, the rather grim ones you see here. Disturbingly, the only time I ever had someone cry after looking at my work was when I put this one (at left) in a show years later. The woman who broke down after seeing the photograph told me that it was a combination of the title and the image that evoked her emotional response. Great—my work makes women cry.

I‘d returned to Chester Rural Cemetery a number of times over the years, for the same reasons I return to any cemetery. Seasons change, the statues age—things look different and you get fresh photographic ideas. I generally make photographs of individual statues, attempting to bring out the character of the piece. Not so much to give voice to what the sculptor may have originally tried to say (which may be lost to erosion or vandalism), but to communicate to the viewer new information that this maturing statue may need to express.

Chester Rural Cemetery has never led me to any such fruitfully recurrent photographic experiences. I have mixed feelings about it, which prevent me from even writing objectively about the statuary, the grounds, or the photographic opportunities. It’s a sad place whenever I visit—I’ve only been back a few times--a garden of memories that may as well be filled with deadly nightshade and hemlock, rather than lilies and pine.

As my headache worsens and feels like a freight train dragging Richard Simmons through my skull, I make the bizarre parallel between the “suspensions” I witnessed at the Tattoo Convention and my injured friend’s arm all pinned together in the hospital. This was after she came out of the coma, which she had been in for a week. I asked her what that week was like, and she told me she had recurring dreams that the walls of her room were sweating ants, thousands of them coming out of the wall and crawling up.

She spent the next several months in rehab trying to regain partial use of her arm and to allow her internal injuries to heal. Bones, skin, and tissue recuperate relatively quickly, but psychological trauma lasts a lot longer. Suspension artists may performer night after night, but they still bleed. Even an onlooker can be scarred for life.

Related Links:

Here’s a link to a “Suspension” video on You Tube. It’s fairly tame, but it’ll give you an idea what I’m talking about. If you MUST know more, feel free to search You Tube for “Suspension Performers.” They’re not easy to watch.

Tattoo Arts Links