Category Archives: history

Writing for Rochester Subway

martha matilda harper building 082 resized

One of my goals for 2015 was to pitch a story to RochesterSubway.com, my absolute favorite local website. It’s a great source for local history as well as current affairs.

I pitched it, and the site’s founder Mike Governale liked my idea! So I set off to write about a building next to where I do improv, on East Main St in the city of Rochester. The name “Martha Matilda Harper” is etched over the front door, and I thought it might have been a school. But a quick google search told me there was a much, much more interesting story to be told. You can read more about Martha Matilda Harper here!

And for National Nurses Week, I did a short piece on Ida Jane Anderson, the first registered nurse in New York State. A reader who liked the story sent me a photo from the 1920s of his aunt, who worked at the Park Avenue Hospital; I’m working on a follow up.

You can check out more at RochesterSubway.com. And if you’re in town, check out RocCity Transit Day flash mob!

 

 

Memorial Day at Lake Ontario

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On this Memorial Day weekend, I took an impromptu trip to Charlotte, on Lake Ontario, to walk on the pier.

Actually, I had just picked up my new car the night before and wanted to take it for a nice long ride, since I’m getting 35 mpg instead of 13 mpg. But I digress. Continue reading

Harry Houdini and Rochester

Screenshot of film showing Harry Houdini's jump, handcuffed, from the Weighlock Bridge in Rochester. It was his first manacled stunt. (Click image to be taken to the video.)

Screenshot of film showing Harry Houdini’s jump, handcuffed, from the Weighlock Bridge in Rochester in 1907. It was his first manacled stunt. (Click image to be taken to the video.)

Here’s a fun fact that I couldn’t pass up sharing: On May 7, 1907, Harry Houdini performed his first manacled bridge stunt by jumping off the Weighlock Bridge, near Court Street in downtown Rochester. He was wearing two pair of handcuffs which, as you can see in this film, were secured by Policeman Decker (as identified by the Rochester Union and Advertiser).

According to an article in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, in the 1890s Houdini had actually been offered a job in Rochester, ironically as superintendent of Sargent and Greenleaf, a lockmaking company then located here.

That’s just Rochester, making history again!

UPDATE: Just what is the “Weighlock Bridge”?  Turns out, it was a covered area where boats would come in to be weighed to determine their toll. The weight of the empty boat was subtracted from the weight of the boat full of cargo. According to ErieCanal.org, “it was located on the west bank of the canal, on the east side of the Genesee River, just south of Court Street.”

Weighlocks on Erie Canal, Rochester, N.Y. (214976 -- [Leighton & Valentine Co., N.Y.]) - From: Rochester Public Library Local History Division. -- A postcard view of the weighlock, looking north with the city in the background, approximately 1910.

A postcard view of the weighlock, looking north with the city in the background, approximately 1910.

Title: Erie Canal weigh lock [photograph]. Photographer/Artist: Stone, Albert R., 1866-1934. Date: 1911? Physical Details: 1 photograph : b&w ; 7 x 9 in. Collection: Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, NY Summary: The weighlock (or weigh lock) was built in 1852. It is located on the east side of the Genesee River, just south of Court Street. Canal boats enter the covered area, where the toll is determined by the weight of the loaded boat. Rochester Images image Number: sct11583 http://www.rochester.lib.ny.us/rochimag/rmsc/ scm11/scm11583.jpg

Collection: Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, NY

And the next book is …

Mt. Hope Cemetery, October 2014 (c) Joanne Brokaw

Mt. Hope Cemetery, October 2014 (c) Joanne Brokaw

As regular readers of the blog know, for some time now I’ve been fascinated with Mt. Hope Cemetery – the geography, the peace, the history, walking the dogs there. It’s spurred my own genealogical research but also research into some mysteries and murders, locals ties to national stories, interesting stories about everyday people and just random weirdo stories.

I’ve blogged about my adventures in the cemetery and I’ve always been surprised by the number of people who are as fascinated as I am with the things I uncover.

Well, if that’s you, then you’ll be happy to know that my next book is a go, and it’s going to be about people buried at Mt. Hope! It’ll be published once again by Wordcrafts, whom I adore working with. Continue reading

Caledonia Jane Doe identified, and the next chapter of her story begins

In 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a cornfield in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot in the head and in the back. She remained unidentified for more than 30 years. Today, she was identified as Tammy Jo Alexander.

In 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a cornfield in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot in the head and in the back. She remained unidentified for more than 30 years. Today, she was identified as Tammy Jo Alexander.

In November 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a field in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot and dragged into the field, and then shot again. For more than 30 years, she remained unidentified and her case unsolved.

Until today. Her case is still unsolved, but we now know that the girl is Tammy Jo Alexander, a teenager from Brooksville, Florida who was last seen in 1977.

For three decades, the Livingston County Sheriff Department has followed thousands and thousands and thousands of leads, never giving up in their attempt to identify the young woman and track down her killer.

According to news reports, a girl who went to high school with Tammy Jo contacted Florida authorities to ask if anyone had ever reported her missing. Apparently, no one had. Ever. With that new missing person report, police in New York were able to heat up their investigation and, using DNA from Tammy Jo’s sister, identify their Jane Doe.

With a name, I can search for information. Here’s Tammy Jo Alexander, c. 1977, the year she went missing and two years before her body was found in Caledonia. She was 13 years old when she disappeared from Florida.

Tammy Jo Alexander, c. 1977, the year she went missing and two years before her body was found in Caledonia. She was 13 years old when she disappeared from Florida.

I mused about the case of Caledonia Jane Doe back in 2010 on my blog, when I was reflecting on my own life, my own wasted opportunities, my own sense of going through the motions of life rather than living them. Her story haunted me; Who was she? Where did she come from? Were her parents looking for her? And what would she be doing right now if she hadn’t met with such a tragic end?

My goal, at the time, was to research and then write about her story. I didn’t have any hope of solving a case or even shedding light on it. I just felt like there was  story to tell and I should tell it. Over the almost two decades I’ve spent writing, I’ve done countless feature stories for magazines and newspapers. I’ve interviewed celebrities and regular folks. I tell stories, often stories people can’t tell themselves.

But when I started researching Jane Doe, I quickly realized that I was out of my element. No person to interview. No name to Google. Almost no place to begin and, if I’m being totally honest, no idea where to start. I’d never researched a police case before, and I wasn’t familiar with places to even begin, or what to do with the information once I found it.

So rather than charging full steam ahead – which is what I felt like I should do – I put the folder on the desk and moved on to other things. But I never forgot about her.

Over the last few years, I’ve got more savvy about researching local history and genealogy, developed better techniques for managing mountains of information, newspaper clippings and notes (I love paper, so my filing system involves lots of folders and boxes). I dove headfirst into stories about women in the Rochester area in the 19th century (Emma Moore and Sarah Bardwell being chief), and while I never forgot about her, Caledonia Jane Doe stayed on the desk.

But I confess that as I watched the press conference today in which the Livingston County Sheriff announced that they had identified Caledonia Jane Joe as Tammy Jo Alexander, I felt a twinge of regret that five years ago I didn’t stick with my own research.

The important thing is that the unidentified body found in the cornfield thirty five years ago now has a name. Her headstone will have a name and my folder labeled “Caledonia Jane Doe” will be replaced with a new one labeled “Tammy Jo Alexander”. My curiosity is piqued again. Why did her family not report her disappearance? Where was she in the two years from when she was last seen in Florida to the time she was found in Caledonia? Her story is still waiting to be told.

Loose change and history

1938 penny 002

I look at the dates on all of the coins I get as change, because you just never know what interesting things a cashier will hand you. Today, it was a penny from 1938.

In 1938, my mother wasn’t born yet. My grandparents (her parents) were young marrieds with a baby. My great grandparents were still alive. One great, great grandmother had passed away just a few years before.

When this penny was minted, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President. The year after this penny was minted, war would break out in Europe.  Gone With The Wind, the book, had been published two year earlier and become a bestseller right away. The movie wouldn’t hit theaters for another year.

Random facts, but it’s funny to hold in my hand something that predates Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler on the big screen, was in existence before World War 2, was here before my parents were born. It’s one of the reasons I love studying genealogy, and putting people into a real life timeline.

Finding Emma Moore

The likely spot where Emma Moore's body was found in 1855.

The likely spot where Emma Moore’s body was found in 1855. The circled area is all parking lots and buildings now.

For a couple of years I’ve been doing some research on three women who died in our area in the 1800s. Just everyday women, but their stories really stuck with me. One of them is Emma Moore. Regular readers know that I’ve been taken with the story of the single woman who disappeared in November 1854. Her disappearance sparked a city-wide panic; the mayor refused to investigate, insisting she left town of her own accord. Her family had no reason to believe she was leaving town, and they feared the worst. The citizenry rose to the occasion and formed committees to do their own investigation. Thousands of people assisted. Rumors of screams heard near her home that night sparked committee members to question witnesses all the way to the lake. A line search was conducted from Brown’s Race to Irondequoit Creek.

Her body was found in March 1855, in one of the races that powered the saw mills. She was about six months pregnant, and it’s believed her body may have been there the entire time.

I’ve wanted to find the place where her body was found, but for a long time all I had to go on was “in the race, behind the Thorne Building.” No one seemed to know where that was; the Thorne Building wasn’t on any maps. I tried the library, the landmark society, maps. I just didn’t have enough information to go on.

If I’m being honest, I didn’t really try that hard; I had a lot of news stories to read through, and other women I was also researching. But I always had Emma Moore in the back of my mind.

About six months ago, I started going through the mounds of research I’d amassed over the last year, and found a very detailed description of where her body was found – down to the direction of race, how many rods in distance from the post office, what the walkway over the race was made of. I had details; now I needed to find a map.

This weekend was the annual River Romance along the Genesee River, so I took advantage of the chance to explore the city, from the river to the rooftops of the library. Today, I brought along my new information about where Emma’s body was found. And while on the tour, the guide, Hal, pointed to an area where he thought the mill races used to be – where we were standing, in a parking lot.

Later, he emailed me a map detailing the buildings I’d mentioned, all from the new research I’d just waded through. The map is from 1875, twenty years after Emma’s body was found. I probably didn’t even bother to look at that map when I was researching in the library, thinking too much had changed since 1855. But low and behold, there it is. The spot where Emma Moore’s body was found.

The area I circled is now parking lots and buildings. (For those of you in Rochester, that’s a block of buildings near the corner of Exchange Street and Main Street, just over the Broad Street Bridge.)

There’s still a question about whether she lay there the entire four months, or if her body washed there from farther up the river or race. Or if it might have even been held someplace else and dumped there during the winter. I have stacks of research to still read through.

But for now, I’m happy to find the spot where she was found. I’ll be going back to snoop around.

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Emma Moore, Sarah Bardwell, and Me