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Janet Maslin…[Loncraine] does a solid job of connecting dots between Baum's life and his inventions
—The New York Times
Imagining October 9, 1899
A quick, cold wind swept across the vast and rippling waters of Lake Michigan, whose silver, mirrored surface reflected the fast-moving dark clouds above. The wind reached the shore, shouldered into the streets of Chicago, and picked up and whistled around the edge of a big wooden house on the corner of Humboldt Park Boulevard. It crept in through tiny cracks in the walls and through the hair-thin spaces where windowpanes met; it circled Frank Baum as he sat in his leather upholstered chair in his cluttered study. Wisps of his cigar smoke got caught up in the draft and swirled in gray and white spiraling patterns around his head before dispersing throughout the room. They pushed upstairs through the patterned rugs and pine floorboards to where Maud was asleep in her bed. The familiar smell of her husband’s cigars mingled with her breath as she slept, telling her that he was still working.
By the glowing light of the kerosene lamp and the pulsating shadows it cast around the room, Baum tore a fresh piece of paper from his notebook and scribbled, “With This Pencil, I wrote the MS of The Emerald City.” Then he dated it: October 9, 1899, and signed it, underlining “The Emerald City” with a strong, thick line. He knew that this moment, in the middle of his life (he was forty-three), needed to be marked; he had finally brought Dorothy home to Kansas by clicking the heels of her magic shoes together. He captured the moment by sticking what remained of the worn-down stub to the paper. This pencil would write nothing more.
Having signed his name, he returned, fully, to the room, to the golden light and the wind that shook the trees down the boulevard. He crept upstairs to bed, knowing absolutely that he had produced his best work, in his own words, his “most truthful tale.” As he sank into sleep, slipping beneath the surface of the waking lake, he might have reflected on where the idea for this story had come from and where he had come from.
To find the source of Baum’s famous story, which would later be retitled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it’s necessary to travel east from Lake Michigan, 650 miles, crossing the St. Joseph River, moving through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, passing Lake Erie and the gigantic body of falling water at Niagara, and continuing on into the wooded valleys and lakelands of upstate New York, and finally to the shores of Oneida Lake. This was the world into which Baum was born forty-three years earlier, in 1856. This place had imprinted on him powerful memories, indentations, markings, and scars that had resurfaced in adulthood in this new tale, as though in making it up he had retold his own life story, transformed into a tale from a strange elsewhere.
in the palm of the finger lakes
1848 to 1888
Hemlock, Canadice, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Otisco, and Cazenovia. Sounding like a magic spell, these are the names of the Finger Lakes. The long, thin lakes spread out like the digits of an outstretched hand reaching across upstate New York. If the region above these liquid fingers is an open palm, the cities of Rochester and Syracuse are at either end of the lifeline that cuts across it. The Erie Canal, in fact, stretches between Rochester and Syracuse exactly where this imaginary lifeline creases through the geographical palm of the Finger Lakes.
In the spring of 1848, an old wooden farmhouse in the village of Hydesville, on the outskirts of Rochester, began to speak. Its language was a code of rapping, thumping, knocks, and scraping. After several sleepless nights of bravely searching the house by candlelight for the source of the persistent noises, the Fox family was exhausted. The frightened daughters, Kate, eleven, and Maggie, fourteen, were sleeping in their parents’ bedroom. The sounds had become so loud that the children and their mother, Margaret, and father, John, could feel jarring vibrations coming through the floor and furniture to ripple through their bones.
On the night of March 31, the family went to bed early, hoping to catch up on some lost sleep. In the half-light, as they climbed into bed, the noises struck up once again, tapping and rapping sounds filling the house, echoing back and forth between the wooden walls. In a strange and courageous act of imitation, the two girls began to copy the odd sounds by snapping their fingers, as though they too should echo like the noises that surrounded them. Then, turning the tables, Kate suddenly challenged the “noisemaker.” “Do as I do,” she shouted, clapping her hands. The house, or the spirit trapped inside it, immediately responded with the same number of raps. The rest of the family took their lead from Kate and addressed what they now assumed was a ghost. Margaret Fox asked the noisemaker to tap out the ages of her seven children. “Instantly,” she said in the signed affidavit in which the details of the night’s events were recorded, “each one of my children’s ages was given correctly, pausing between them sufficiently long to individualize them.” The youngest Fox child had died at age three, and the invisible presence left a longer pause before thumping out the final three raps. The spirit fell silent after announcing the Fox child who dwelled in the same murky region beyond life; as twilight melted into the darkness that evening, the boundary between the living and the dead became blurred.
John and Margaret Fox gathered their neighbors, and soon the house was filled with jostling bodies. They addressed the spirit, asking it to rap twice if the answer to a question was yes. One neighbor suggested establishing a code with the spirit, whereby someone slowly recited the letters of the alphabet, and the spirit rapped when it heard the letter it required. In this way, they discovered that the restless spirit was that of a thirty-one-year-old peddler who had been murdered in the house five years earlier, his throat cut with a knife and his body buried ten feet below the ground in the cellar. The spirit was also able to spell out his name, Charles B. Rosna.
Word spread that Margaret Fox’s hair suddenly turned white that night, as though all the color had been sucked out of it.
The Fox girls were removed from the house. Kate was taken to their brother David’s house in Auburn, Maggie to their sister Leah’s in Rochester. Immediately the rapping sounds began to be heard in the two houses where the girls were staying. It became clear that this sudden outbreak of spirit activity wasn’t simply the manifestation of a lone spirit trapped in the wooden house in Hydesville; it was the Fox sisters who had unleashed it. The children seemed to be mediums between the living and the dead.
On April Fool’s Day, John Fox and some neighbors began digging up the cellar floor of the farmhouse in Hydesville, looking for some concrete evidence that the spirit was speaking the truth. At five feet down, they reached water and were unable to dig any farther. In the summer of 1848, the Foxes returned to the cellar to dig deeper into the ground. The five-foot hole was dug to ten feet, and there, packed in amongst the mud and grit, human teeth, bone, and hair were discovered. This unearthing didn’t quite confirm the spirit’s story that his whole body was buried there, but it didn’t totally discredit it either. People gathered around Kate and Maggie Fox in a hall in Rochester to discuss the authenticity of the children’s ability to conjure spirits and communicate with them in code. Three groups of citizens investigated the claims and all concluded that the sounds heard in dark rooms and creaking houses in the presence of the Fox sisters weren’t produced by ventriloquism, machinery, or tricks. The Foxes’ careers as the nineteenth century’s first and most infamous spirit mediums had begun.
That summer of 1848, the border between the living and the dead seemed to have thinned in Hydesville, and fifty miles away along the Erie Canal, in a village near Syracuse, other children were edging toward that porous boundary. Cynthia and Benjamin Baum, who would become L. Frank Baum’s mother and father in 1856, had four children at this time: Cynthia-Jane, age five; Oliver, four; Harriet, two; and Mary-Louise, a twomonth- old baby. In early June, Cynthia-Jane came down with a fever. She began coughing and crying and her breathing became hoarse. Cynthia Baum would have frantically tried to balance nursing baby Mary-Louise with the different kind of nursing required for a very sick child. Mucus poured from Cynthia-Jane’s nose, and her pulse raced.
In the mid-nineteenth century, diphtheria wasn’t fully understood. It remained almost untreatable until the early twentieth century when an antitoxin was finally developed. People did know, however, that illness could be transferred between bodies in close proximity. The Baums must have tried to keep Cynthia-Jane away from the other children, but the bacteria that cause diphtheria can be spread in tiny droplets from coughs and sneezes. Sometime toward the end of June, Oliver began to show similar symptoms. The horrible rasping sound of a child with diphtheria struggling for breath was unbearable. Despite all attempts to save her, Cynthia-Jane died on June 27, 1848. The cause of death was given as “putrid throat.” Cynthia-Jane’s little dead body would have been washed and dressed in her best clothes, and her hair was likely washed and combed. It was common practice for corpses, even of children, to be put on display for distressed mourners to see. The small stiff body would probably have been laid out in an open coffin, small bouquets of flowers and herbs placed carefully in the pale hands and around the head.
And Oliver’s condition worsened. It’s almost impossible to imagine the turmoil Cynthia and Benjamin Baum must have felt in the days immediately after the death of their firstborn, as they reeled between grief for their dead daughter and desperate attempts to save Oliver. Thirteen days after Cynthia- Jane died, Oliver followed her.
During this time, diphtheria commonly struck children in ferocious waves across the population. There’s evidence of an epidemic in New York State in 1848, and the Baums weren’t the only family to lose children. The Lammerts, Meads, Fisks, Schoonmakers, Phillips, Taylors, and McGarrows all lost children under the age of five that summer. The distraught Baums buried their children in a small local cemetery, probably by a preacher all too familiar with the sight of grieving parents bent in pain over the graves of their infants.
These two dead children remained very important in the Baum family. Many years later, in 1877, Benjamin Baum bought a family plot in the grand Oakwood Cemetery on a hill overlooking Syracuse. Heavy stone blocks with the children’s names chiseled in bold lettering were placed on the plot as memory markers if the small bodies weren’t disinterred and reburied beneath them. These stone markers were the same size as those of other Baums who lived on into adulthood, whose bodies would eventually be placed beside them. There were plenty of other infant graves amid the clover and moss in the plots of Oakwood Cemetery, but they were rarely given equal status with those of other family members who lived on into old age. Cynthia-Jane and Oliver may have died in 1848, but they clearly lived on in the collective memory of the Baum family, continuing a kind of shadow life alongside their living siblings.
In mid-nineteenth-century America, at times up to forty percent of all deaths were of children under age five. The Baums had, until 1848, been lucky. All of their children had lived, and Cynthia-Jane had been nearly out of the most vulnerable age range when she was taken. Infancy was a time of acute vulnerability; like old age, early childhood was lived in intimate proximity to death.
But for the Baums and other families like them, this was an era in which the acute pain that all parents must feel at losing a child took on a new shading. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most people had held God responsible for the high infant mortality rate. If God had freely given, so people believed, He could just as freely take away. There was nothing parents or anyone could do except bend to the mysterious will of God and seek his comfort in their grief. But by the mid-nineteenth century, advances in medicine had introduced a key element of human agency into the survival of children. Diseases were better understood and cures were being developed. People began to believe that they might be able to protect their infants. But in reality, access to sophisticated medical care still wasn’t widespread enough to save children, and they continued to die.
Nevertheless, beliefs had shifted. Now that infant mortality wasn’t God’s will, it was believed to be the failure of doctors, of parents, and of mothers in particular to care for their children. “No one can for a moment believe,” wrote the author of a popular nineteenth-century home medical guide, “that the excessive and increasing infant mortality among us, is part of the established order of nature, or the systematic arrangement of Divine Providence.” Cynthia Baum clung to her Methodist religion, committing herself to a God who might bear some responsibility for the deaths of her children, or at least forgive her for failing to save them.
Many people also had to contend with old superstitions about infant mortality, brought to America by Europeans who had carried their folklore with them across the Atlantic. In the nineteenth century, many people still believed in fairies, but these creatures weren’t the harmless little winged pixies we have come to think of as “fairies.” They could be ugly and mean and were sometimes indistinguishable from ghosts. Some believed that infants and the unborn were vulnerable to baby-snatching fairies, which were imagined as the bitter and twisted souls of babies who had died or been stillborn, or of women who had died in childbirth.
The strange happenings in 1848 in the Fox house in Hydesville suggested that living children could communicate with the dead. Kate and Maggie Fox had discovered a talent that would shape not only the rest of their lives but the entire culture of the late nineteenth century. The sisters could communicate with the dead, and once their story spread, little girls and supernatural activity would be forever linked in the popular imagination, where ghosts and fairies had existed for generations.
Family Tree x
Introduction: On Telling the Life Story of a Storyteller xiii
Imagining October 9, 1899 1
Part I In the Palm of the Finger Lakes, 1848 to 1888
Chapter 1 5
Chapter 2 10
Chapter 3 18
Chapter 4 27
Chapter 5 38
Chapter 6 47
Chapter 7 58
Chapter 8 70
Part II The Great Plains, 1888 to 1891
Chapter 9 81
Chapter 10 93
Chapter 11 100
Chapter 12 109
Chapter 13 117
Part III Crossing Lake Michigan, 1891 to 1903
Chapter 14 133
Chapter 15 147
Chapter 16 160
Chapter 17 171
Chapter 18 186
Part IV Living Between Landscapes, 1903 to 1910
Chapter 19 203
Chapter 20 215
Chapter 21 223
Chapter 22 229
Part V Hollywood, 1910 to 1919
Chapter 23 243
Chapter 24 256
Chapter 25 266
The Afterlife, 1919 to 1939 279
Notes on Sources 295
A Selected Bibliography of Works by L. Frank Baum 301
Selected Bibliography 307
Posted August 5, 2010
No text was provided for this review.
Posted May 13, 2013
No text was provided for this review.
Posted December 20, 2009
No text was provided for this review.