Some days, the tinting becomes even more interesting than the image itself.
Not every distinguished visitor to Skaneateles is someone you’d like to bump into at breakfast. Admiral Mark Bristol, who visited Roosevelt Hall in August of 1931, was one such notable. At the time, Bristol was chairman of the General Board of the United States Navy, the Navy of which his host, Harry Roosevelt, was the Assistant Secretary.
But between 1919 and 1927, Bristol had served as the United States’ High Commissioner in Turkey, answering for much of the time to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. Editorial writers had dubbed Hughes the Secretary of Oil, citing his legal work for, and ardent defense of, American oil interests. Noted one writer, “It does not matter where in the world the oil is, if it is an oil well, Mr. Hughes has noble principles available which will apply to it.”
Turkey had oil. Hughes wanted it for the U.S.A., and Admiral Bristol wanted it for the ships of the U.S. Navy. Thus Bristol’s role as the highest U.S. official in the region was to groom and accommodate the Turks in every way.
But American public opinion would not be groomed so easily. Turkey, allied with Germany, had been our enemy in World War I. Within its own borders, while the world was distracted with war, Turkish forces had slain more than a million Armenians and “redistributed” their wealth, in a stated effort to expunge all traces of the Armenians from Turkey. The Armenians were Christians, as well, and many had relations in the United States. A recent enemy currently engaged in a genocide against Christians — that was going to be a hard sell.
Bristol’s job was to smooth things over, help the Turks deny that the Armenian genocide happened, say both sides behaved badly during the war, spread the blame around, confuse the issue, and persuade those who wanted to work with the Turks – whether oil men or missionaries – that we had best let bygones be bygones. He was awfully good at it.
As part of his campaign of obfuscation, he avoided passing along inconvenient truths. Instead, Bristol wrote letters to colleagues and superiors that included statements like this one:
“To me it is a calamity to let the Greeks have anything in this part of the world. The Greek is about the worst race in the Near East.”
And this equal-opportunity slur, in a letter to Admiral William Sims in 1920:
“The Armenians are a race like the Jews. They have little or no national spirit and poor moral character.”
In other words, it was the victims’ fault. Bristol, however, was wrongly characterized as a lover of the Turks; in fact, he had disdain for everyone in the region. Referring to the Armenians, Syrians, Jews, Greeks and Turks he wrote in his diary:
“If you shake them up in a bag you wouldn’t know which one will come up first, but the Turk is the best of the lot.”
Of course. The Turks had oil. He was a bigot, but he was their bigot, one whom the genocide-deniers revere and quote to this day. Fortunately for history, whenever Bristol received evidence of the genocide, he carefully filed it with the very letters he wrote denying it, and no one thought to sanitize his papers after his death.
To return to Skaneateles – a village in 1931 with few Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, Jews or Turks – Bristol probably had a nice, quiet weekend at Roosevelt Hall. He died in 1939.
Edmond Reuel Smith of our village wrote verse, not poetry, rather as he put it, “a dish of doggerel.” But he enjoyed it and so did many of his contemporaries. At the last meeting of the Skaneateles Lyceum’s 1853-1854 winter season, he presented a portrait of the village in verse. Such was the response that he was persuaded to have the piece printed, and so it was, by William J. Moses’ publishing house in nearby Auburn, N.Y.
Early on, Smith apparently sought to capture his audience with a vision perhaps more typical of a men’s smoker than a Lyceum lecture. In describing how the village had changed since the time of its Native American occupancy, he summons this sensual image:
No more the dusky forest maid
When early morn the rosy orient streaks,
Some placid pool, her only mirror, seeks
To weave her locks in many a cunning braid
With wild flowers gathered in the dewy glade; –
Nor, on the grassy bank her mantle leaving,
Delights her form voluptuous to lave
In the deep crystal wave,
In playful gambols plunging deep, or cleaving
The flood with rounded arm and bosom gently heaving.
In contrast, the “fairer maidens” of 1854 have flowing curls and eyes as blue as the sky, they do not leave their mantle on the grassy bank, and although their bosoms are unmentioned, we can be sure they neither heave nor cleave.
On a safer subject, Nature’s ascendancy over the works of man, Smith writes:
She fears no foe—and laughs in scorn
At the dread spirit of the age,
As to her listening ears are borne
Those good old fashioned rumblings of the stage,
And pealing echoes of the merry horn.
No lengthened train comes thundering near
Our quiet homes—startling the ear
With many a harsh, discordant sound,
To taint the pure, sweet air around—
With vapors foul defile our spotless skies, —
Or fill with dust and smoke our nostrils, mouths and eyes.
The iron horse would never dare,
Full well we know, these hills to climb,
For we have heard his shriekings of despair
As madly sweeps he past, each time,
The boundaries of our fair domain,
Whose pleasant heights he never can attain.
And so the stage coach is celebrated, but the iron horse denied its entry. In a timeless observation, he cites the god of money as a foe of nature, and the buildings along the lakefront come in for special scorn:
E’en Mammon—Nature’s greatest foe,
Is impotent to conquer here,
For though a long, unsightly row
Beside the lake he dared to rear,
Backed by still more unsightly quays,
The speculation scarcely pays.
‘Tis plain the place was never made
For the dull purposes of trade.
In vain our merchants, all along the block,
Display of satins, silks, de laines and laces
A most inviting stock, —
While gentlemanly clerks, with smiling faces,
Kindly supply our sugar, teas and crockery,
The whole thing seems a mockery!
Full well we know they sell at losing prices,
And give away the contents of their shelves
At most unheard of sacrifices;
You doubt? they tell you so themselves!
The thing is easy to be understood—
They only labor for the public good.
Having needled the merchant class, Smith has kind words for the women of the village. Mary Elizabeth Beauchamp noted in 1897 that Smith’s reference to the “busy hive” was a tribute to the Women’s Circle of Industry, where “Fair hands and needles bright are making money” for the public good. And Smith compares the Lyceum’s fare with that of the women’s fund-raisers:
‘Tis true we have not spread,
As the kind matrons do—a plenteous board
With biscuits, dainty meats and gingerbread,
Pickles, preserves and many a brimming bowl
Of fragrant mocha; that we can’t afford, —
But we have given you instead,
The feast of reason and the flow of soul.
My favorite lines are near the end of the piece, wherein we see that Smith is clever enough to find a rhyme for “Kansas”:
You’ve learned the impropriety of whipping slaves,
And heard, amid these walls, the startling cry
Ring for Nebraska and for Kansas;
With other things which we’ll pass by,
Merely because they do no suit my stanzas.
Thank you, Reuel Smith. I could have used a little more of the playful, voluptuous Indian maiden plunging into the crystal deep, but I guess you did all you could for 1854.
* * *
My thanks to the Skaneateles Historical Society for preserving a copy of “Our Village.” And in case you were wondering, “de laines” is French for woolens.
In 1909, scientists established that infantile paralysis, also known as poliomyelitis, was caused by a virus, but they still had no idea how it traveled from person to person. So when the disease flared up in New York City in June of 1916, on an epidemic scale, people didn’t know what to do.
By August 1st, cases were being diagnosed in Syracuse and before the end of the month the village of Skaneateles had the highest percentage of polio cases in Central New York. In reaction, the Skaneateles Village Board and its health officers met and declared the most drastic quarantine of any upstate community.
To begin, all children under 16 were quarantined in their homes. Twelve houses on State Street were quarantined completely following the death of 7-year-old Nelson Weston. He had played with other children on the street and the quarantine affected every home of every child who came in contact with him.
The Syracuse Journal reported that in Skaneateles, “There will be no services in any of the churches Sunday. The moving picture houses have been closed and all public gatherings forbidden.”
And the Journal continued, “One of the provisions of the ordinance adopted this morning was that all dogs and cats must be kept off the village streets. If they are found wandering on the village thoroughfares, they will be shot.”
On the roads leading into Skaneateles, guards were posted to turn back any cars with children. The feeling was mutual: A Syracuse newspaper reported, “With Skaneateles only eight miles away, the authorities are keeping a constant vigilance on the roads leading to the city from that direction.”
Adult motorists who dared to drive through Skaneateles were seen holding handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths.
Headlines like “Baby Plague Situation More Grave” did nothing to calm the public.
The early fatalities in Skaneateles were children, but on Tuesday, August 29th, Mary Bruce Hewlett, wife of the Rev. George R. Hewlett, rector of St. James’ Church, was taken ill, and the following day was diagnosed with infantile paralysis, the fifth verified case in Skaneateles.
It is the way with polio that the older the victim, the more severe the disease. Mrs. Hewlett was 28. A frantic search was made on Wednesday evening for a blood donor who had survived the disease in childhood. The doctors found Byron Lee, a young farmer living on East Lake Road who had the disease 25 years earlier, at the age of 5; he gave a pint of blood for Mrs. Hewlett.
Mrs. Hewlett rallied briefly on Thursday morning, but then fell worse and died at 6 p.m. That night her body was sealed in a coffin and shipped to Rochester for cremation. Until September 9th, the Rev. Hewlett remained quarantined in his house, before he was allowed to leave for Chicago and be with his family.
Among the children in the village, polio took the life of Harvey Grout, a 10-year-old son of Dr. and Mrs. J.G. Grout. Mrs. Grout had taken her children to her father’s farm near Borodino when the first case of polio was identified in Syracuse. The family said the boy had not left his grandfather’s home for weeks, and they had no idea how he could have contracted the disease. Days later, Harvey’s brother, 8-year-old Leland Grout, was taken ill and died also.
In addition to Nelson Weston and the Grout brothers, others who died were Lester Hoag, 11, and Ernest Newell, 22. Among the survivors were Bertha Frankel, 6, Clara Kingston, 8, and Latrobe Roosevelt, 8 (the son of Henry Latrobe Roosevelt who in 1920 inherited Roosevelt Hall).
As the danger passed, the Skaneateles quarantine was lifted on September 13th.
In a grim paradox, it was improvements in sanitation that worsened the polio epidemic of 1916. In less hygienic times, more babies were exposed to the virus and became naturally immune via early, mild infections. But with greater emphasis on bathing and cleanliness, fewer babies were exposed to the virus. When exposed to polio as older children, they were susceptible to the more severe form of the infection. But no one knew much about polio in 1916, and the unknown nature of the disease caused a panic in Skaneateles that is, fortunately, difficult to imagine today.
Albert De Cost Burnett of Skaneateles was 16 years old when he enlisted in the Union army, and was much heralded as the village’s youngest volunteer. He was mustered in as a Private in Company I of the 101st Infantry, and on March 9, 1862, left New York for Washington, D.C. On June 9, 1862, he joined with the Army of the Potomac, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 3rd Corps.
The young man was fortunate in that the commanding general of the 3rd Corps was Gen. Philip Kearny, a soldier’s general, a man endowed with both bravery and common sense in generous proportions. But Albert Burnett was unfortunate, in equal measure, that the commanding officer of the Army of the Potomac was Gen. George B. McClellan who entered every battle thinking he was vastly outnumbered.
The Army of the Potomac’s goal that spring was to march on Richmond, the Confederate capitol. By the time Albert Burnett arrived, the Army of the Potomac was backing up. Albert Burnett’s “baptism of fire” was to be the Seven Days’ Battles, three engagements, each farther from Richmond.
At Oak Grove, on June 25th, Kearny’s troops fought well, but were ordered to retreat by McClellan who was managing the battle by telegraph from 3 miles away. Upon arriving at the front, he saw that the situation was not so bad and ordered his men to retake the ground they had already fought for and then abandoned. Nightfall ended the attempt.
At Glendale, on June 30th, Kearny’s men counter-attacked to save the Army’s line of retreat. And at Malvern Hill, on July 1st, the Union infantry looked on while the artillery did the work. From formidable defenses, the Union Army inflicted grievous damage on the attacking Confederate forces. So, of course, McClellan called for a retreat, all the way to Harrison’s Landing on the James River. This became known as “The Great Skedaddle.”
Albert Burnett had survived these three battles, but now faced a march of 25 miles through swampland, in Virginia, in the middle of the summer. An Army surgeon, Jonathan Letterman, later wrote, in part:
“The army when it reached Harrison’s Landing was greatly exhausted. The malaria from the borders of the Chickahominy [River] and from the swamps throughout the Peninsula to which it had been so freely exposed now began to manifest its baneful effects… the troops, just previous to their arrival at this point, had been marching and fighting for seven days and nights in a country abounding in pestilential swamps and traversed by streams greatly swollen by the heavy rains, which made that region almost a Sarbonean bog…*
“They were called upon to subsist upon a scanty supply of food, and but little time even to prepare the meager allowance. They had little time for sleep, and even when the chance presented itself it was to lie in the rain and mud, with the expectation of being called to arms at any moment. The marching and fighting in such a country… could not have other than the effect of greatly increasing the numbers of sick in the army after it reached Harrison’s Landing…
“Scurvy had made its appearance before its arrival there, the seeds of which had doubtless been planted some months previously, and was due not merely to the want of vegetables, but also to exposure to cold and wet, working and sleeping in the mud and rain, and to the inexperience of these troops in taking proper care of themselves under difficult circumstances.”
And he added:
“The [medical] supplies had been exhausted almost entirely or had from necessity been abandoned; the hospital tents had been almost universally abandoned or destroyed.”
The troops now arrived at a place wholly unprepared to deal with them. A writer for Harper’s Weekly (July 19, 1862) noted:
“The large Berkeley mansion, and the two smaller houses adjoining, as well as several negro huts in the vicinity, are all occupied as hospitals… our wounded officers and soldiers are now lying closely crowded together. Two of the rooms down stairs are used for amputations, and in this department of surgery the surgeons have been busy all day. For the want of space, the sick and those slightly wounded are made to go outside the house, there being room inside for the severely wounded alone.”
For those falling sick, “camp disease” was the diagnosis given, because often the doctors could not tell what a man might have, or which of his many ailments was actually killing him. The swamps on the Chickahominy River were full of mosquitoes, which spread malaria from infected troops to healthy arrivals. Men with malaria were driven by thirst to drink dirty water in bogs and thence come down with dysentery or typhoid, or dysentery and typhoid. Men who might survive one disease could not cope with two, three or even four at the same time. Diseases such as measles and mumps, which we think of lightly today, were killing weakened young men who had never been exposed to them before. And Albert Burnett was one of those weakened young men, one of thousands.
Dr. Letterman wrote:
“It was impossible to obtain proper reports of the number of the sick in the army when it reached Harrison’s Landing… After about 6,000 had been sent away on the transports, 12,795 remained…
“The rain began to fall heavily early on the morning of the 2d, and continued with little interruption until the evening of the 3d… The absence of tents prevented shelter being provided, and the vast majority, being slightly wounded, were obliged to find protection from the rain as best they could…
“The deadly malaria was now producing its full effects, and, together with the want of proper food and the exposure to the rains which had fallen so continuously, and the fatigues endured, was now being fully manifested in the prevalence of malarial fevers of a typhoid type, diarrheas, and scurvy.”
Among the thousands of sick men, Albert Burnett, 16, was battling typhoid, without shelter, without medicine. He held on until August 4th, when he breathed his last.
A doctor named Thomas Holmes had established an embalming depot in a large barn at Harrison’s Landing, making it possible for the remains of hundreds of young men to be sent home for burial. On August 14th, the Skaneateles Democrat ran two notices:
“As we go to press the bells are tolling out their requiem over all that is mortal of Albert D. Burnett, as he is being conveyed to his last resting place. But a few short months since, he gallantly volunteered in defence of his country, and has surrendered his young life upon the altar of the same for his country’s good. His remains reached this village Tuesday evening – close upon the announcement of his death. Requiescat in pace.”
“Died; At Harrison’s Landing, Va. August 4th, 1862 of camp (typhoid) fever, Albert De Cost Burnett, of Company I, 101st Regiment NYSV, son of Charles J. Burnett, Jr., of this Village. His body was embalmed, and brought to this place on Tuesday 12th, inst., and the funeral took place on the 13th inst.”
* * *
In the regiment Albert Burnett had joined just months before, 13 men had lost their lives to wounds received in action while almost three times that number, 48 men, had died of disease. Over the war, of the 620,000 men killed, fully 414,000 died of accidents and disease.
* * *
* In his letter above, the learned Dr. Jonathan Letterman alludes to the Serbonian Bog, a lake in Egypt where blowing sand created a quagmire that looked like solid land, in which entire armies were said to be swallowed and lost, as in this quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:
A gulf profound, as that Serbonian bog
Betwixt Damiata and mount Casius old,
Where armies whole have sunk.
* * *
In 1864, George McClellan parlayed his incompetence as a General into a run for the Presidency. He lost, again, but with fewer casualties.
* * *
Other Sources: The Union Army: a history of military affairs in the loyal states, 1861-65 (1908); The Story of a Regiment Being a Record of the Military Service of the 57th New York State Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 by Gilbert Frederick; Report of Surgeon Jonathan Letterman, U. S. Army, Medical Director Army of the Potomac, of Operations from July 4 to September 2, 1862; New York in the War of the Rebellion (1912) by Frederick Phisterer.
* * *
My thanks to Laurie Winship, Director of the Creamery Museum of the Skaneateles Historical Society, whose finding and scanning of Pvt. Burnett’s photo sent me on this quest.
* * *
Albert De Cost Burnett is remembered in Skaneateles at St. James’ Episcopal Church by the Burnett window, where the A stands for Albert, and on the Civil War roll of honor.