Saturday, September 16, 2017



    The past month or so I've been deep in cult land. More specifically I've been researching the Mormons. Other than a few stories that Shewho told me of her Mormon upbringing in Southern California, as a young virgin baptizing the dead, I didn't know much. I'd seen Season 7, episode 12 of South Park, "All About Mormons," which does give you a great synopsis of the Mormon religion creation myth, but that was it. Then, as I followed Osterhouts between NY and Pa.,  across the country in ox trains during the 1850's, Mormonism popped up repeatedly. There's a reason the South Park guys wrote a hit musical devoted to The Book of Mormon. It's really funny and just as unbelievable as any virgin birth or rising from the dead narrative.
    So yesterday I jumped in the car and headed west to the birthplace of Mormonism. No, not Salt Lake City. Ground zero for The Book of Mormon is less than 100 miles from my house in the little town of Harmony, Pa. Nobody but a Mormon or a historical geek like myself would know this. Between Deposit and Binghamton there's the little town of Windsor, NY. It sits where the ancient Indian settlement of Oquago sprawled out on both sides of the Susquehanna for miles north and south. If you take Rt. 79 north you'll travel literally through a tunnel of corn, stretching as far as the eye can see. Old generational dairy farms dot the landscape planted along the rich flood plain. It's spectacular and at the same time grimy, and depressed. Head south and the bottom tightens, the river passing though pine forest and rocky escarpments, canoes and old speedboats tucked in crumbling stone foundations now used as parking spaces.
   Until 1779 this was the breadbasket of the Iroquois Confederacy, the southeastern border of their central and Pa. domain. Our old friend Gen. John Sullivan and his scorched earth expedition took care of the Onondaga and Tuscarora tribes that were the former residents, killing or driving them off.  The rich soil and two major river systems, the Susquehanna and Delaware within a few miles of each other are the reason this strategic spot was so important three hundred years ago. Now it's all but forgotten. The fact that the Natives controlled it was untenable for so-called "civilization." I give this as way of backdrop to the place that birthed Mormonism.
    If you watch the South Park episode it will tell you all you need to know about The Book of Mormon. As I stood in the very spot that Joseph Smith, his wife Emma Hale, and some co-horts "translated" the book from the magical golden plates, I wondered if my guide Abne had seen the episode, or if he held any doubt in his mind as to the truthfulness of the myth. As he went forward with his well rehearsed "love story" of Emma and Joseph, I interjected with a few specific questions of my own. He  looked at me in surprise. "How do you know so much about Mormons?" I explained my scholarly interest and informed him that the Osterhouts were in fact neighbors of the Hales in the 1820's, as the man who he revered and I viewed as little more than a charlatan and con man, founded his world wide cult. There is little doubt Peter Osterhout met Joseph Smith. If I had wished I could've turned the tables on Abne, and worked my magical missionary ways on him. Which would you prefer, a belief system based on fantasy that requires you tithe 10% of your income and believe Jesus lived in upstate NY or one that asks only you burn a couple of dollars per year and believe whatever the hell you want? Plus we have supermodels. But I didn't bring it up. Poor Abne was on his own.
   I drove home to Shewho's who is a little twitchy about my recent interest in a religion she's spent all her adult life trying to forget. I told Sister Shewho she had nothing to fear. I'd come up against Jim Jones' murderous aftermath, attended seminary, started my own church without drinking the kool-aid. So we spent the evening watching a documentary on Scientology, eating pot candies and re-watching the Mormon episode of South Park, laughing our asses off. I had asked Abne if he had experienced any anti-Mormon animosity in Harmony (Oakland), Pa. He just shrugged his shoulders and sighed, admitting that it wasn't always easy being a Mormon. And here's where I really felt for the guy. I have nothing good to say about Jim Jones, Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard, but their followers I sympathize with. They are deluded by theologies that seem to spin out of control, sucking the ungrounded and susceptible into their gravitational pull, and they can't get out. I want to help. The hillbilly signage, just down the road from the Mormon visitor's center in Harmony says it all. "I walk on water because of you." On the reverse side it advertised a Wed. night special at the local bowling alley. Take a Mormon bowling. Maybe that will help.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017




For a white artist to deal with race in his or her work these days can be problematic, to say the least. Dana Shutz and Sam Durant's recent difficulties with exhibiting their work at the Whitney and Walker respectively, points up an uneasiness and at times,  downright unwillingness on the part of institutions to allow for the discussion, other than to capitulate to ultra-PC academic forces. Durant's piece was burned (with his permission) and Shutz's Emmett Till painting came close. So when I started a narrative that would hopefully trace a Dutch/English family's roots going back three hundred and fifty years in America, I knew I was in for some reevaluations, not always pleasant, when it came to race. To not deal with this issue would be inexcusable, if not impossible. How can you write about, scalpings, kidnappings, slavery, hangings, lynchings, assassinations attempts, and the conquest of America, without dealing with racial issues? The one thing I have going for me at this point is I'm not showing in museums and (F)ancestor remains unfinished and unpublished. Obscurity has its perks.
   But what about if it does get published? I hear you- . "Never happen." And maybe you are right, but what if....? Not only have I discovered black Osterhout family branches, but many slaves and "freedmen" and women with the name Jennings. A friend caustically referred to this as the family "property line," as opposed to "bloodline." Cringe worthy as the term is, he's absolutely right. One of the many reasons we are in the shape we are in these days, post first African American President and drowning under the current administration is an unwillingness to face our past with clear eyes. Reading the Indian treaties, published by Benjamin Franklin in the 1750's, every treat was opened with both sides "ridding the path of briars, clearing throats to speak the truth, removing stones from ears, and wiping tears from the eyes...." so what was said could be assimilated, understood, and taken with the best of intentions. Congress should open every session with words to that effect.
    In my writing I've just witnessed John Wilkes Booth leap from the Presidential box at Ford's theater with the words according to court testimony,"I'm sick; send for Maginnis" or Sic temper Tyrannis! W.H. Seward was attacked and almost killed the same night. Reconstruction that had hopefully begun with the passage of the flawed 13th amendment would now be embraced as a three pronged approach, one of the dominant prongs being white supremacy. I'll leave you with a small item from J.P. Osterhout's Bellville Countryman a year later in 1866: ATTEMPTED OUTRAGE BY NEGRO ON A WHITE LADY- " a negro, the former property of Mrs Conyers, attempted to commit an outrage on the person of Miss Giune, a very respectable young lady....Miss Giune was fortunate enough to free herself from the grasp of the beastly ruffian..." This 18 year old former slave, who is never named was then captured and on his way to the jail was "seized by the Mr. Giune (the father) a rope put around his neck and swung from an adjacent tree. The whole thing was done without any excitement or confusion, few citizens being aware of it until the negro was dead." Reconstruction was in full swing. Trump and Charlottesville are that legacy.

Friday, August 25, 2017




"The combination of heavy rain, "life-threatening" storm surges, folding and strong winds could leave wide swaths of South Texas "uninhabitable for weeks or months."- National Weather Service

I don't know whether read and write about history or just watch it unfold and report back. The gulf coast of Texas where John P. Osterhout was stationed with the Confederate army near Galveston, is about to be hit with a hurricane, the likes of which we haven't seen since Katrina almost wiped out New Orleans on the same day in 2005.
    I'm deep in my Osterhout research, reading old copies of the J.P.'s Bellville Countryman, and letters to his wife Junia from the rebel encampment. "I am now leaning against a big tree...on my right my frying pan and sack...on my left my hat....The weather is favorable now....The Sgt. major and a negro went to the beach yesterday and got plenty of oysters...I wish you could be here to enjoy some with us. They say there are enough to load five hundred wagons and leave plenty for seed...Firing constantly in the direction of Galveston...I trust the Lord will be merciful to me and preserve you and my dear children in health and strength...when this miserable, cruel, wicked war is over."
   In the summer of 2016 Galveston Judge Mark Henry declared the Texas oyster industry in a state of disaster. "These oyster farmers endured Hurricane Ike, algae, red tide, drought and now an influx of fresh water from flooding." Although the judge does not mention global climate change as a contributing cause to the oyster crop's demise, the implications are clear. Up to three feet of rain is predicted to accompany Hurricane Harvey, expected to make land fall this afternoon. CNN quoted Corpus Christi mayor as saying "We never had anything like this." I feel for the oysters and people of Texas. In my research going back to the 1600's both the Indians and Moravian missionaries talked of climate change coinciding with the arrival of the European invasion. I hope the Trump Cafe in Bellville, Texas has a second story.

Sunday, August 20, 2017