Anyone out there know Pitman shorthand?

Mary Davies in 1891, aged 19

Mary Davies in 1891, aged 19

When my great-grandmother, Mary Davies, was 20 years old, she took a trip to Wales with her cousin to visit relatives. It was 1892, she was petite and pretty, and the Welsh boys flocked to pay court to two exotic American girls.

Mary kept a diary of her adventures, which consisted mainly of sleeping till 11 a.m. and then writing letters for hours (“We were writing a good part of the day & went in the evening to post the letters.”); visits to neighbors (“One peculiarity we have noticed is, no one has asked us to take off our wraps, & all places we go to we sit with them on.”); and long walks along the country roads with other young people (“Altogether we walked about three miles & a half & felt very proud, even tho’ we were tired, but a good night’s rest fixed us up all right.”)

At thirteen, when I first read the diary, I couldn’t figure out why Mary and her friends were constantly taking walks. I’m now realizing that rural lanes were the ideal setting for flirtation, romance, and perhaps the occasional kiss.

Having promised Mr. Bevan to go walking with him we all started out at seven o’clock up Swansea road & across the marsh to the old Church. It was a beautiful evening & walking along beside the river we would throw sticks & stones in for Mr. Bevan’s dog Nero to swim after. Mr. Matthias caught up with us…The moon came out bright & full & we had a delightful stroll home, with a package of sweets to munch on.

Mary was a proper Victorian girl, so if kissing was involved, she didn’t mention it. However, there are places in the diary where a possible kiss is implied.

In the evening Mr. Matthias & Mr. Bevan came, & we all started for a walk….It turned out to be a beautiful evening & the road selected was a lovely, a true lovers lane, with many little curves & turns. We did not get home until eleven o’clock, & although we had walked at least five miles it did not seem that long.

Following this passage are two tantalizing sentences in shorthand.

mary shorthand scrap3Mary had worked as a stenographer at George W. Crane Publishing in Topeka, Kansas, for several years. In those days, the prevalent system of stenography had been invented by an Englishman, Sir Isaac Pitman. By the mid-20th century, Pitman shorthand was largely replaced in the U.S. by the Gregg system. Thus I have not succeeded in finding anyone who can translate the five brief shorthand passages scattered through Mary’s diary.

I doubt that their contents are especially racy. But if anyone out there knows Pitman shorthand and would like to take a crack at translation, I’m dying to know what Mary wrote. Email me at

Read more about Mary in this older blog post.

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The insane asylum next door

State mental hospital in Columbus, Ohio

State mental hospital on Marion St. in Columbus, Ohio

In a letter to my great-grandmother in about 1941, her sister, Emma Davies Sharp Smith, sketched her memories of their childhood home in Columbus, Ohio, where they lived on Marion Street:

It was a dead end st. at both ends – our side dead end was the State Asylum for Insane – burned down when I was about 3 yrs old – Dad had on his blue Army overcoat that next morn when he took me down to see the ruins. In the years that followed we youngsters use to slip thru the fence & play down in the cellars.

Dad was William Morgan Davies, who had served in the Union army. If Emma was three, the year was 1868. The Asylum Projects website confirms:

On the evening of November 18, 1868, the asylum caught fire and was almost completely destroyed. There were three hundred and fourteen patients in the asylum, and six were suffocated by the smoke before they could be rescued.

The “Lunatic Asylum of Ohio” had been in operation for 30 years. It was replaced by the new Columbus State Hospital in a different part of town. The massive building that opened in 1877 accommodated 852 patients, more than double the capacity of the old asylum. The website description concludes:

The hospital remained in service until the late 1980s, despite falling into severe disrepair. It was demolished in 1997….Four patient cemeteries of the Columbus State Hospital still exist.

I’m fascinated by the way a short paragraph in an old letter can evoke a vivid moment that took place over a century ago and can lead me into a strange little history lesson. I wonder how the Davies family felt about living down the street from an institution for the mentally ill. One might think the houses there would be cheap, but Emma writes:

Washington Ave. cut Marion St. in half. We lived in the East side…The two East & West never mingled. The East side was a bit more classy – Ha-Hem.

She remembers the neighbors as a banker, a contractor, a high school superintendent, a wealthy Irish family.

Then the Shedds – large family w/ boys – father worked in bank – cashier – was sent to prison – stole.

Ironically, when William later beat his wife with a horsewhip, he was judged by the family to be suffering from stress due to his war experience, which included three months in the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville. But those mental health issues were years in the future when he stood in his army coat, holding the hand of his three-year-old in the November chill, gazing at the wreckage of the mental hospital down the street.

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More on Russian immigrants

Jack and Ben Gorelick with their parents

Jack and Ben Gorelick with their parents

Here is the sequel to the previous post about my husband’s White Russian grandparents. We left Avram Gorelick walking on the road from the Ukraine to Hamburg, having deserted the Russian army on the eve of World War I. He was determined to get to New York in pursuit of his beloved, Lena Arenberg.

“His goal was to go 40 miles a day,” said Jack Gorelick, my father-in-law. “He said that in the army, they had a 40-pound pack and were forced to march 40 miles a day.” On the trip to Hamburg, Avram would occasionally hitch a ride on a wagon, but he didn’t try to get on a train. His greatest fear was that he would be sent back to the army, so he took as few chances as possible.

Avram arrived in Hamburg, which had a Jewish Bureau, since the port was a departure point for thousands of Jews. There he retrieved his own identity. His brother Kiveh was already in New York, working in a sweatshop. He had bought a ticket and mailed it to Avram. It was the spring of 1914. If war had broken out sooner, he would have been finished—the Jewish brigades were used for minesweeping.

The Jewish Currents article about Avram and Lena describes Avram’s life in New York, where he tracked down the Arenbergs. When Lena and her brother, Yankel, contracted tuberculosis, the family moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Avram followed, walking from Hoboken to Scranton along the railroad tracks. After Yankel’s death at the age of 18, Avram–now known as Abe–married Lena. Somehow, Abe’s friend Beryl (see previous post) also made it to Scranton and married Perla, Lena’s sister.

Abe and Lena had two sons: Jack and his younger brother, Ben.

“My mother was a beauty,” Jack recalled, “and so skilled as a seamstress. I remember when I was a kid, after the revolution, we would send flour and clothing to the family in Russia—they were starving. We’d stick a five-dollar bill in the middle of a sack of flour so it couldn’t be found by customs. We’d send a men’s coat or jacket and sew money in the shoulder pad. My mother could sew in such a way—my grandmother would come out and feel it–so you wouldn’t be able to tell there was money in there. My mother could sew a seam so that you couldn’t see it. She’d sew little beads on dresses. After a while, she couldn’t thread a needle, so as a kid I would thread needles for her.”

I’m so lucky that Jack Gorelick has reached the age of 95 and still loves to talk about his ancestors.

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Russian Jewish immigrant stories: Gorelicks and Arenbergs

Lena, Ben, Abraham, and Jack Gorelick, circa 1929

Lena, Ben, Abraham, and Jack Gorelick, circa 1929

In the town of Gomel in Byelorus (White Russia), the Torah was read at the synagogue on Mondays and Thursdays. When a boy, such as my father-in-law Jack Gorelick’s father, turned 13, he would go to shul with his father on the Monday or Thursday closest to his birthday. He’d read from the Torah portion, and get a blessing from the rabbi. “That was your bar mitzvah,” says my Jack. “Go home, your mother maybe makes a cookie for you, that’s it.”

This anecdote is one of several stories that didn’t make it into my article on Jack’s family that was published in December 2013 on the Jewish Currents website. His mother’s relatives–metalworkers and master tailors–were affluent, while his father, Avram Gorelick, grew up dirt-poor in the village of Gomel in Byelorus (White Russia). Both families were devoted to their Jewish traditions.

Avram was about 13 when he began delivering bread to Lena Arenberg’s family at their Gomel dacha and fell in love. Each summer, he would admire her standing at the door. But in 1912, the Arenbergs emigrated to the U.S., and 18-year-old Avram joined the army, along with his best friend, Beryl Horowitz, who been apprenticed to Lena’s father, the tailor.

After two years in the army, both of them deserted. They separated, to reduce their chances of being caught, and Avram went to his brother Koppel’s little farm. Koppel didn’t dare take him into the house, so Avram stayed in the shed with the cow. Everyone had an identity card, but Avram couldn’t use his own because the police would be looking for him. Many people got to Ellis Island and were sent back for medical reasons or for mental illness. Back home, they sold their passports, and Koppel bought one for Avram.

Then Koppel drove his brother in a wagon, hidden in the hay, over the border to the Ukraine, bribing the guard with homemade vodka. From there, Avram walked most of the way to Hamburg, a distance of almost 1000 miles. To be continued–

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An Andersonville Anniversary

Reconstructed entrance to the Andersonville stockade

Reconstructed entrance to the Andersonville stockade

It was 150 years ago this month—February 24, 1864, to be exact—that Andersonville Prison first took in captured Union soldiers. Over the next 14 months, 12,699 men died there, close to one-third of the prisoners to pass through its gates. In memory of those who died and those who survived—including my great-great-grandfather, William Davies–I am here reposting one of the entries I wrote last year, after my visit to Andersonville National Historic Site in rural Georgia.

My ancestor’s diary reported on troop movements and letters from home, but he avoided writing down the horrifying details of prison life. Therefore, I turned to other diaries, such as the one written by Connecticut POW Robert Kellogg, who indicates that it was raining the day my great-great-grandfather arrived at the open-air stockade that was Andersonville Prison.

Kellogg had already been there for a month, enduring the Georgia heat of mid- to late May of 1864 in the open-air stockade. His only protection from the weather was a shelter he and ten comrades had constructed:

For the small sum of two dollars in [Federal] greenbacks we purchased eight small saplings…These we bent and made fast in the ground and covering them with our blankets, made a tent with an oval roof, about 13 feet long.

They had to lie on the bare ground, with no other covering, but they felt the shelter from weather was more important.

On June 1, it began to rain and continued for three weeks, according to Kellogg.

As I stood in the holding pen between the outer and inner doors of the prison’s reconstructed North Gate, I tried to imagine how Davies, my ancestor, might have felt as he stood in the rain on June 21, 1864, crushed against other Union soldiers, waiting for his first sight of the inside of the camp.

Had rumors about Andersonville reached him? Did he know what to expect? Certainly he could hear the shouts of arguing men and the moans of the dying. He could smell the reek of the “sinks”, or latrine, which backed up into the swamp that bordered the prison’s only water source at the time, a three-foot-wide stream.

Kellogg described what he saw when the inner doors swung open: men who were “mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin.” One of his friends wondered, “Can this be Hell?”

I walked through the gate and out onto the treeless hillside, covered with brown grass on this February morning. The land sloped gently down to the stream that crossed the camp from west to east, its banks no longer swampy due to extensive drainage ditches. Another hillside rose from the other side of the stream to the white markers that traced the outline of the former stockade.

Several photos were taken of the camp in 1864 by A. J. Riddle, who was documenting prisons for the Confederate government. I tried to superimpose those pictures over the bleak, blank landscape before me. I imagined the land teeming with men, over 1000 inhabitants per acre, some men with shelters and some without.

The shelters reconstructed in a corner of the prison site are disturbing to look at. Most of them are lean-to’s or crude tents, narrow and low to the ground, barely big enough to cover a man lying down with his legs curled up.

I hope Davies did not have to rely on such a structure for shelter. Perhaps, like Kellogg, he pooled resources with a group of friends.

In spring of 1863, Davies’ diary mentioned “the Welsh Squad,” a group from Company A of the 95th Ohio Infantry Regiment, consisting of “T. Humphrey, myself, John Jones, S. Gales and Evan Evans,” all of them Welsh immigrants. Jones died of pneumonia that fall. Davies, Gales, and Evans, along with Ohio native Wakeman Bell, shared a tent at a camp outside of Memphis in the spring of 1864. All four of these men are listed in the database of Andersonville prisoners at the POW museum located near the prison site.

None of the 19 captives from Company A perished in the prison. It helped that they were only imprisoned for three months, unlike men who were transferred to Andersonville from other prisons. But I like to imagine that the comradeship of the Welsh Squad helped them survive.

For the sequel to this entry, see A Survivor of Andersonville and the Sultana.

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Water and Light

A 4-minute video. The ancestors told me to observe the elements of nature and find their energy within myself. I have become a student of water and fire—since fire is the source of light. Perhaps there is a portal at the nexus of water and light.

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The rich legacy of childless women

Bess Keller Shervin and Helen Eleanor Keller

Bess Keller Shervin and Helen Eleanor Keller

Rummaging through my family tree, I always feel a bit sad when I come across childless women. In the context of genealogy, it seems regrettable that they lack descendants to honor them. On the other hand, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, if a woman wanted to do anything other than be a wife and mother, childlessness was probably a blessing.

For instance, my great-grandfather, B.F. Keller, Jr., had three sisters, and none of them had children. Edna and Bess taught school, and Helen worked in a bank. Bess married, but she and her husband separated, and she lived with Helen for most of her life, in their father’s house in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Pictures show Bess as a handsome young woman and, later, a confident older woman. Photos from the period of her marriage are missing. I looked her up on but also found no records from her marriage years. Born in 1877, she was apparently divorced or separated by 1926, when she was listed by her married name, Elizabeth Keller Shervin, on the passenger manifest of a ship arriving in Glasgow. At the age of 49, she was heading to an address in London.

Edna Keller

Edna Keller

One document refers to Bess as not only a teacher but eventually principal of an elementary school. I would bet that few mothers–or even wives–became school principals in the first half of the 20th century.

City directories of the 1940s show Bess and Helen living at the Hagerstown house. Bess’s husband, Wade Shervin, was working at a local bank and living with his sister at a different address.

Edna died in 1901, at the age of 31, from “tuberculosis of the kidneys.” Helen lived into her seventies, until 1955, and Bess died in 1975 at the grand age of 98. I was still in college then, but I never met her.

I am glad to make her acquaintance now. I offer my love and respect to Bess, Helen, and Edna.

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