Sunday, May 31, 2015

Nothing counterfeit about Florida

Cover of Samuel C. Upham's 1881 book, taken from Project Gutenberg,
Samuel C. Upham wrote this in 1881.
Source: Project Gutenberg
Frontiers attract many kinds of people, including the flamboyant. One who fits that category was Samuel C. Upham. I discovered him via his 1881 Notes from Sunland,  his self-published booklet about the climate, soil, and crops of his Florida home near the Manatee River. His wit in his Q&A section still sparkles, so I Googled him to learn more about him.

Surprise! Upham was, among other things, a counterfeiter of Confederate currency during the Civil War. Conspiracy theorists debate whether he was simply an opportunist, or a Union agent trying to make Confederate currency unstable by flooding the market.

To learn more about his wartime endeavors, check his Wikipedia profile and this 2012 New York Times blog post. An engraving of his face can be seen there.

In Florida, Upham used his promotional skills to publicize the Manatee River region. His booklet comprised several pages of text, a section of meteorological tables, and another section of ads.

He noted that, at first, he cheerfully replied to questions he received via letters. But he got tired of people making the same inquiries: "... the novelty has worn off, and the task has become slightly monotonous." So he included a Q&A section to address common concerns.

That didn't stop him from playing with correspondents, particularly those he many not have deemed worthy. One man wrote and said the 1880 U.S. Census recorded no deaths in the Manatee area. Do people ever die there, the correspondent from Utah asked. Upham's reply: "I wrote immediately, 'Hardly ever. We want to start a grave-yard, we kill a man.' " That might be humorous in its ridiculousness. But Upham had an unethical agenda. He wrote that he believed, after reading the answer,  the Mormon correspondent wouldn't consider settling in Florida.

He provides serious answers to most of the questions, which address things such as the number of lightning strikes, prevalence of venomous reptiles, cost of land, cost of labor, health benefits of the climate, etc. On some, he can't help himself:

  • Nearest town of importance: "Have no towns of 'importance' "
  • On whether the summer heat is enervating: "That depends on a man's constitution. If born tired, yes."
  • On whether insects are more troublesome than in the North: "Fleas sometimes make it lively with us."
Like every other Florida promoter, Upham vigorously extolled the region's virtues and, in my opinion, stretched the truth at times. In his Q&A, he claimed he'd never seen a day too hot to work outdoors. We're already deep into Florida summer weather as a I write this, so I cheerfully disagree. 

Pioneer Florida was a land of extremes, in people as well as in climate. Upham was spot on in his answer to a question about the character of people in the area. It was mixed, he replied. He could have been speaking about himself.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fr. Bresnahan, Part II

screen grab of vintage newspaper page
Detail of the Feb. 20, 1908 edition that included an article
about a card received from Fr. Bresnahan
Back in March, I wrote about Father Patrick J. Bresnahan's memoir, which recounts his travels through Catholic mission territory in early 1900s Florida. Just yesterday, I stumbled across two other mentions of Fr. Bresnahan's efforts. They were articles in two newspapers in Madison, a North Florida town cited in the priest's memoir as having more than its share of bigotry and prejudice against Catholics.

The first was in the Feb. 20, 1908 New Enterprise and concerned a card the newspaper received from Fr. Bresnahan. Being a former print journalist, I know that story placement in a newspaper isn't random. So I noticed the editors put the article about Fr. Bresnahan directly below a story that described how "an unknown negro was shot to death by a posse who were chasing him" because he was a habitual thief.

Fr. Bresnahan's article seems to chastise unknown harassers for disliking how people of color were allowed to worship in the Catholic church along with whites. This was during segregation, and I assume the two races sat in separate parts of the church. In keeping with the times, the priest used the word negro in his card.

To the newspaper's credit, it allowed Fr. Bresnahan's voice to be heard. The story appears to recount the priest's card verbatim. He wrote "for the benefit of the individual who penned the anonymous threat found at the door of the Catholic church last week ..."

The unnamed threat wasn't explained, and wasn't carried out. However, Fr. Bresnahan wanted the individual responsible to know that a Catholic priest "is not the hired minion of any social aggregation."  Likewise, a Catholic church was "not a social club meeting house but a temple of God." Everyone was welcome to hear the word of God and have the mysteries of God dispensed to them. "Every human soul has a right to these blessings, no matter what color its habitation may be." You rock, Fr. Bresnahan.

He goes on to write that he wasn't a politician, that all money he received in Madison went toward the local Catholic presence, and that he wasn't trying to make a white man colored or a colored man white. He bore his anonymous "friend" no malice "as life is too short for such nonsense." But he also noted that his mission was to appeal to man's higher nature, and that if the unnamed individual ever visited the Catholic church, he shouldn't be surprised "to see a place reserved for the colored people."

Townsfolk overall seem to have been receptive. Nine months later, Fr Bresnahan's missionary services were drawing crowds, as the Enterprise-Recorder reported Nov. 5, 1908. The beautiful music was cited as one reason. But, overall, the "people of Madison are beginning to know for themselves what the Catholic church really is, and the prejudice is therefore disappearing." It was predicted that by the end of services, everyone would understand that there was "one Truth, one Faith, one Baptism...," that Christ wasn't divided.

It's hard to say how deeply inroads were made. Fr. Bresnahan was preaching in the heart of Bible Belt Protestantism. I admire the priest's initiatives, and think we might consider emulating some of the talks he lined up for the week:

  • Thursday, church rules and Confession; 
  • Friday, the rosary and praying for the dead; 
  • Saturday, devotion to the Blessed Virgin; 
  • Sunday morning, necessity of charity; 
  • Sunday afternoon, the threatening evil of socialism;  
  • Sunday night, the secret of Catholic success. 
Sounds almost modern. It's also a refreshing reminder of the ever-present continuity of our ancient faith.