Randolph in Oakland

Randolph in Oakland

Randolph in Oakland
by Erika Mailman
Who wants to go where a pony goes? Everyone!
Follow Randolph as he trots through Oakland.

This charming full-color children’s paperback features photographs of a toy pony visiting 21 fun places for kids in Oakland, California. Partially funded by a grant from the city of Oakland’s Cultural Funding Department.

Read to each other! Each page has easy, brief, large-print text for the child to read, and slightly more complex text at the bottom of the page for the adult. Enjoy storytime together as you both participate.

This is a print-on-demand book, so be aware it will take several days to print and ship. $17.50 for a 9″ x 7″ perfect bound book of 32 color pages.

Only available online at http://stores.lulu.com/randolphinoakland

The Witch’s Trinity

Güde is in trouble. She is starving, and a viciously-cold winter has descended on her medieval German village, scattering the game and birds so no one will eat. In these desperate times, her daughter-in-law needs a way to feed her children—and a way to vent her helpless anger.

When she accuses Güde of witchcraft, the trouble only deepens… because Güde isn’t sure she’s innocent.

This novel follows Güde’s struggle for truth, to figure out the reality of her soul’s status, and to hang on to life until good times return to the village.

*The Witch’s Trinity was a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of 2007,
and a Bram Stoker Award finalist.*

Praise for The Witch’s Trinity:

“A well-constructed novel and a gripping, well-told story of faith and truth.”
—Khaled Hosseini, international bestselling author of The Kite Runner

“A linguistic enchantress has arrived among us, gifted in transmogrifying the mundanities of historical fiction into tableaux of indelible terror and abiding beauty.”
–James Morrow, author of The Last Witchfinder

“Evocative and engrossing…a frightening tale of both the weakness and strength of the human soul. I was gripped immediately by the story; it reminded me of Year of Wonders and I read it in nearly one sitting.”
-Robert Alexander, national bestselling author of The Kitchen Boy and Rasputin’s Daughter

“Powerful and thought-provoking, The Witch’s Trinity questions the nature of truth while bringing to vivid life the power men’s fear has over women’s lives. Haunting and unforgettable.”
-India Edghill, author of Wisdom’s Daughter

“Surprising and engrossing, The Witch’s Trinity draws you in and then keeps you gripped till the very last page.”
-Martin Davies, author of The Conjurer’s Bird

“The Witch’s Trinity is one of those mind-bending histories that make you wonder how many women in the 16th century hid in fear of being condemned for their healing powers. Erika Mailman superbly re-creates the terror of the women who lost, and the hope of those who managed to survive, the most egregious war of the sexes.”
-Holly Payne, author of The Virgin’s Knot and The Sound of Blue

“A Gothic horror story-starvation, superstition and persecution, if you believe in witches-this is a disturbing and compelling read.”
-Tobsha Learner, author of The Witch of Cologne

WRITING THE NOVEL:

I wrote The Witch’s Trinity after spending a lifetime thinking about the men and women accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages. For some reason, I had been fascinated by witchcraft ever since I was a child.

Once I sat down to write, something astonishing happened: my mother told me we were related to an accused witch, Mary Bliss Parsons. This news came by email, no less, and I’ve mulled quite a bit over the oddity of such old news (my ancestor was first accused in 1656) coming to me via such new technology. My mom sent a link to the UMass website on Mary Bliss Parsons, which is well worth clicking over to (but then return, please!)

This site contains all the extant testimony from Mary’s first case, and the indictment from the second. Yes… she faced trial twice. The most amazing thing is looking at the scanned-in handwritten documents prepared by the court clerk—that old-timey writing where S’s look like F’s, and they use very strange abbreviations, like “yt” standing for “that.”

Luckily, my ancestor was acquitted both times and died of old age. The Witch’s Trinity has an Afterword about her story.

But the novel is about a fictional woman Güde. I first thought of her as I listened to a history professor’s lectures about the statistical phenomenon of daughters-in-law accusing their husband’s mothers of witchcraft…because they were starving, and wanted to rid the family of an older, useless member. As I so often do when I hear stories of atrocity, I think not of numbers, but of one solitary, specific person.

The witch craze in Europe qualifies as a holocaust. Women (and men) were executed during a 400-year period. Can you imagine, four hundred years of such incredible ignorance and downright foolishness? The United States celebrated its bicentennial when I was a child, so if we applied Europe’s madness to our history, we would still be killing witches until the year 2176.

I crafted Güde from thin air to demonstrate the Everywoman of these horrible times. Like most real accused witches, she is older, she is somewhat unstable mentally, and she is a burden to her family.

One of the saddest parts of my witchcraft research has been learning that we haven’t left this fear behind in the dungeons-now-museums of Europe and New England. Today witchcraft persecutions continue in modern-day African countries such as Congo, Congo Republic, Angola and Zimbabwe, to name a few where I have heard specific accounts emanating from. At my blog, I write about these witchcraft reports in the hope that increased awareness can make a difference.

If you have already read The Witch’s Trinity, you know about the Malleus Maleficarum, the famous witch hunting Bible from medieval Germany. It is no authorly fabrication, sadly. The book exists, and was responsible for fanning the frenzied flames of witchcraft fears. I also blog excerpts from it.

Q&A with Erika Mailman

Q: What inspired you to write The Witch’s Trinity?

I was driving my car, listening to an audiotaped lecture series called “The Terror of History” by UCLA history professor Teo Ruiz. Ruiz said something that just blew my mind: that sometimes family members accused other members of witchcraft because they were so hungry.

I thought, “What kind of hell does your life have to be, that you will offer up a family member so that there is one less plate upon the table?” I was appalled and shaken at this very different interpretation of the word “family.” (But then again, medieval people felt very differently about all kinds of relationships; infanticide was commonplace.)

I kept mulling this horrifying idea over. And then I hit on a plot element that I thought could help me write a novel: what if a woman were accused of witchcraft, but suffered from senile dementia and therefore didn’t know whether she was a witch?

I hunkered down with many books, including Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, to do as much research as I could. I was more writer than historian, I fear. However, much of what is included is truthful, but I have taken some liberties – for example, I found reference to a pebble test like Künne undergoes, but altered it from one pebble to three, to draw the comparison to the holy trinity.

Q: The scenes of dancing at the festivals showed how happy this fictional village once was. What made you include that?

I was for a brief, wonderful time a member of the Schulplattler group, a German folk dance group in Oakland, California. Many of our dances date to medieval times, such as the Maypole Dance and the Miller’s Dance. Learning how to move my body in these ancient rhythms and patterns, aided by flying sweat and exuberance, felt like putting the needle down into the groove of an LP. It was a way to learn, to feel in the gut the simple earthy pleasures of Güde’s life.

Q: On the other side of the coin, this book unflintingly shows the horrors faced by those who were accused. What was it like to research such horrid history?

When I wrote scenes where women were harmed, I felt a sickness in the pit of my stomach. As much as I was reveling in the maniacal bloodthirsty way writers do when they actually manage to put their characters in trouble, I couldn’t escape the little voice in the back of my head that was saying: This isn’t fiction. This was the story of many women’s lives.

Several years ago, I visited Amnesty International’s touring Torture exhibit in San Francisco. I was humbled by the true, real, sordid pain that humans inflict on each other. Too often, I’d wince when bending down to read a placard, to learn that the medieval device I’d just been looking at was still in use today.

Q: Your ancestor was accused of witchcraft–what’s the story behind that?

My 11-greats grandmother Mary Bliss Parsons was accused in 1656 Massachusetts, and again 18 years later. Both times, the courts set her free. She was accused of oddities like being able to step into the brook and come out dry . . . and huge crimes like the deaths of others. I learned about her while I was writing my novel . . . by an email from my mother! Such uncanny timing, to find this out while I was in the midst of writing about witchcraft. And also strangely dissonant to discover events that happened 250 years ago, via technology so comparatively new.

My mother sent me to a website on Mary–there are many, but click here for the one that includes a thoughtful analysis of her circumstances versus those of her main accuser. The website also has scanned-in transcripts: it was chilling to read the quill pen text a clerk scratched as my ancestor fought for her life.

I wrote an extensive Afterword on Mary Bliss Parsons that appears at the end of the novel. I also dedicated the book to her . . . I felt closer to her after exploring, by writing in the first person, the terrors she must have gone through.

Q: Why did you set the novel in Germany? Your ancestor was accused in New England.

The decision to set this novel in Germany just felt instinctual. I am of German heritage and, growing up in Vermont, I knew how much atmosphere mere snow can convey simply by being there. I wanted to create a world that was insular, bitingly cold and remote, wanted to offer the frightening thought that snow can effectively hide things.When I pictured Güde’s village, I saw the bleak slumped huts of Brueghel’s The Hunters in the Snow (yes, it portrays Holland but near enough to Germany to be meaningful).

Q: What is the Malleus Maleficarum?

The Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch’s Hammer) is a witch hunting bible written by two German friars in the late 1400s. They traveled the countryside ferreting out witches, under the aegis of Pope Innocent VIII. Later, they collected their “wisdom” in a volume that was printed and distributed in huge numbers, a bestseller of its day that went into repeated editions. In fact, you can still buy it today.

Yes, this horrible book is still in print.

In my novel, the friar that comes to Tierkinddorf is armed with the Malleus, and it guides his attack upon Güde. Each chapter begins with a quotation from the Malleus.

Q: Where can I learn more about witchcraft?

Since my book is a novel, it’s not intended to be a resource for anyone researching European witchcraft. It may offer a useful amalgam of information for those who are unaware that women perished in a 400-year cycle of suspicion and hatred. My hope is that it might inspire readers to do their own searching. Here are some of the books or other sources I relied on while researching.

Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Witchcraft in the Middle Ages

John Putnam Demos’ Entertaining Satan

Teofilo Ruiz’s Terror of History audiotaped lectures

The Malleus Maleficarum

 

Read the San Francisco Chronicle review here.
Read Erika’s Chicago Tribune op-ed on witchcraft here.

Reading Group Questions for The Witch’s Trinity
Please be aware that these questions may constitute plot spoilers!

  1. Do you think Irmeltrud truly believed her mother-in-law was a witch, or was Güde correct that she wanted fewer mouths at the table?
  2. The Christian faith reveres the Holy Trinity. What does the title The Witch’s Trinity refer to? Does the concept of trinity appear more than once?
  3. The Malleus Maleficarum is an actual book written by two Dominican friars in the 1480s. Discuss how it figures in this book. How do the quotes that begin each chapter relate to the specific content of that chapter?
  4. This novel pits Paganism against Christianity, yet both faiths lead the village to violence. What might’ve happened if the friar never visited Tierkinddorf?
  5. Describe Jost’s behavior. Does he adequately protect his mother, and the old family friend Künne?
  6. If you were Güde, imprisoned with Irmeltrud, would you share the Pillen with her?
  7. Güde makes the decision to confess to witchcraft, and even fingers Herr Kueper. Why does she do this? If you were she, would you ever confess, knowing that torture awaits those who refuse to do so?
  8. Güde achieves an uneasy civility with the villagers of Tierkinddorf, yet there are certain places she won’t visit. What are those places, and why? Was the stained glass window enough to purge the village’s guilt and heal the rift? What does the window mean to Güde?
  9. Why does Alke choose to live with Güde, and why does Matern stay with his parents?
  10. Like The Turn of the Screw, this novel balances seemingly supernatural events with a narrator who questions her sanity regarding those occurrences. In the end, what do you think truly happened? Did the witches give Güde meat in the forest? Did she fly to visit her son? Was the cat a supernatural being? What conclusion does Güde herself reach?
  11. Do you think the friar truly misogynistic, or simply blindly adherent to his faith? Did he deserve his fate?
  12. The western world abandoned witchcraft trials thanks to the rise of the Enlightenment and other factors, but witchcraft persecutions continue in certain parts of the world today. Why do you think the belief persists?

 

BOOK JACKETS GALORE

Do you love thinking about cover art as much as I do? I spend a lot of time in bookstores thinking about what I like, what compells me. There were several designs used (and not used) for The Witch’s Trinity, and I’ll share them below. I’d like to hear what you think!

This was intended to be the hardcover book jacket. I adored it, but it was scrapped:

This is what was used for the hardcover instead:

This is what might’ve been the paperback cover, but was not selected. I just saw this a few months ago (2017–the book went into paperback in 2008, so basically a decade later!) and blogged about the experience here.

And this is the image that was used for the paperback:

Here’s the lovely hardcover used in England:

U.K. cover: Hodder and Stoughton

And England’s paperback (slightly different: no woman!) and I like the way the page now looked aged and less glowing.

There was also an audiobook produced in England by Isis but I can’t track down the cover image. I wish this book would sell in more territories so I can see more beautiful jacket art! I’m absolutely fascinated by it.

One last image: the endpapers for the hardcover were taken from the original Malleus Maleficarum. I loved that detail:

The Malleus Maleficarum cover. A “ghosting” of this was used for the end papers for the hardcover version of The Witch’s Trinity.

Oh, who am I kidding? Here’s one more image.

From De Lamiis, a witch embraces the devil with his frightening chicken feet.

Woman of Ill Fame

Woman of Ill Fame is a historical romp about Gold Rush prostitute Nora Simms.

“I loved Woman of Ill Fame! Nora Simms is hilarious, heartbreaking, tough, perceptive… and one of the most engaging characters I’ve ever met between the pages of a book. Wonderful story, great setting and really good writing made this one of the best books I’ve read in a long time!”

-Diana Gabaldon, internationally-bestselling author of the Outlander series

Watch a video of Erika reading a scene from the book, introduced by Diana Gabaldon at the infamous “sex scenes readings” always held at the Historical Novels Society conference. The readings were the idea of Diana Gabaldon when she was trying to talk about how to write sex scenes; she came up with the notion of just having people read theirs to learn by example. I chose to read to read a funny scene–this is not suitable for work, though! The video is from the 2013 conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. It would’ve been nice if the camera was actually attended, and the extraneous mic removed from the shot, but it’s still a fun video.

At the end of the video, Diana wonders aloud if the book is available for Kindle so she can read it on her way home. At the time it wasn’t…but thanks to her voiced request, I looked at my old contract, realized I owned the subsidiary rights to the novel (it was traditionally published by a wonderful, venerable Berkeley publisher, Heyday Books), and created an ebook with a brand-new cover blurb from…you guessed it…Diana. She is such a generous author to other writers.

The new, fresh e-book with a wonderful, generous blurb from Diana Gabaldon.

Woman of Ill Fame received a kind review in the San Francisco Guardian:

Ill Fame, Worse Luck: A young prostitute seeks her fortune as the corpses pile up  in Erika Mailman’s tale of old Rush San Francisco

By Kemble Scott

These days, if you were to hear the exprression “ill fame,” you might conjure up the Us Weekly mug shot of some wannabe celebrity. But in the San Francisco of 150 years ago, terms like “ill fame” and “frail” were slurs branding a woman as a prostitute–and, as such, crop up with colorful frequency in Oakland author Erika Mailman’s seductive debut novel, Woman of Ill Fame.

Mailman deftly transports us back to a crazy boomtown San Francisco flooded with fortune seekers who indulge in the city’s notorious sex scene and wince at the outrageous cost of housing. That might call to mind the dot-com silliness of the late ’90s, but it’s also a fair depiction of the city during the Gold Rush of 1849.

Woman of Ill Fame‘s narrator is 18-year-old Nora Simms, who sails into town from Boston to mine the miners of their paychecks by selling them a few minutes with her body. Don’t expect any angst or apologies for this, though. Nora is no hooker with a heart of gold, and Mailman doesn’t try to apply the mainsteam, modern-day view of prostitution to a time and place whose inhabitants lacked our compassion–and our squeamishness. Instead, we’re rooting for Nora as she starts at the bottom of the local sex trade in the disease-infested row of working-girl stalls nicknamed “the cowyard,” daydreaming of the time when she’ll ascend to an upscale parlor house where the women wear ornate gowns and adopt bogus French accents.

Nora’s ambitions hit a snag, however, after the trunk containing all her worldly possession is stolen. Worse still, the bodies of butchered prostitutes begin turning up around town, and each of the victims is found wearing an item of clothing from Nora’s vanished trunk.

The whodunit element makes Woman of Ill Fame a page-turner, and Mailman manages to keep the reader guessing. Yet it’s the depiction of early San Francisco that propels this thriller above its genre, in the manner of historical fiction such as Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. While the serial killer plot fuels the ride, the rich historical details take command of our senses, transporting us backward in time to step in the muddy streets and smell the stench of a city newly born.

As the author of two local-history books, Mailman has done the homework necessary to paint this vivid portrait. And as a fixture of the local writing scene, she has quietly and doggedly been honing her craft for more than a decade in places such as the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop. Now all that hard work is beginning to  pay off, with Mailman emerging as a San Francisco author to watch. A second historical novel, The Witch’s Trinity¸ is scheduled to come out in time for Halloween from Random House. Going from obscurity to two published novels in nine months is quite a feat–and virtually unheard of. Clearly, Mailman’s publishers are betting they’ve discovered new gold in San Francisco.

This appeared in the San Francisco Guardian in 2007. Kemble Scott is the editor of the ezine SoMa Literary Review (www.somalit.com) and the author of the novel Soma (Kensington Books)

For aspiring novelists

Trying to get published can be an ordeal.

There are so many people writing nowadays that agents are up to their elbows. The pile of work to be read? They have charmingly dubbed it the “slushpile.”

In an effort to curb the increasing volume of unwanted paper, agents now ask writers to prepare a query letter. This letter basically gives the book’s hook and tells a little about yourself. Based on this, the agent decides whether they’re interested. They may reject the query, they may request a partial (50 pages or so), or they may request the full manuscript.

Crafting the query carefully is important. After all, you may have written a spectacular novel, but if the query doesn’t demonstrate that, who will ask to read it? I know of two resources for writers drafting queries. One is agentquery.com, which has great information on writing a query (and also an incredible database of agents, what they represent and how best to contact them). I found my agent through AQ. She didn’t appear in any of my other agent books, so without that website I never would have connected with her. I can’t say enough good things about that site, which is why my testimonial appears there and in fact why I’m posting my query letter. AQ came up with the idea and I’ll do anything they say.

The other resource is the agents forum on writer.net, where you can actually post your query and have others weigh in with advice to tweak it.

(And now and then Miss Snark runs her crapometer…)

I don’t know all that much about queries, I have to confess. I know that they are more like the little description on the back of a published book than a synopsis. In other words, you don’t have to tell everything that happens, just an overall view of why your story is interesting. You should also immediately identify the title and genre, include a bio paragraph, tell why your book is important/relevant NOW, and end with a polite request to send pages. Putting your book’s title in all caps is a good idea so it’s clear and visible as the agent wades through miles of letters.

Now, as AQ suggested, I’m going to post my query and then comment on it below.

Dear [specific agent’s name]:

My novel HEXE (German for “witch”) is historical women’s fiction.

In a holocaust that lasted four hundred years, thousands of women in Europe were burned alive at the stake as witches. In THE DA VINCI CODE, Dan Brown caused great controversy when he put the number at five million, describing it as a relentless effort by the Roman Catholic Church to subjugate women. HEXE takes readers on a journey into these terrifying times…

It’s 1487 and women like Güde are in trouble. The Cardinal has come to her small German town on a mission to eradicate witchcraft. Güde’s best friend, the town midwife and healer, has already been burned at the stake—and now Güde is on trial. Making matters worse is the fact that her accuser is her own daughter-in-law, and Güde begins to suspect she did it simply to have one less mouth to feed in these starving times. Güde is a Christian, but like the others of her village, her centuries-old pagan traditions are just under the surface. Through her trial Güde is forced to examine her beliefs. And in the end, the people of Tierkinddorf must choose between the old ways and the ways of the Church—between life and death for Güde.

And while this book is ostensibly about medieval witchcraft, it is also about how paranoia and fear turn the world upside down – about what the terrorism scare is doing to us.

My first novel A WOMAN OF ILL FAME will appear from Heyday Books next year. My nonfiction book THE OAKLAND HILLS was released in November. I write a biweekly history column for the Montclarion newspaper, teach English as a community college instructor, and hold an MFA in poetry. You can learn a little more at erikamailman.com.

I was inspired to write this because a Massachusetts relative of mine stood trial for witchcraft. May I send you the first fifty pages?

All best,

Erika Mailman

[INCLUDE YOUR TELEPHONE NUMBER HERE IN CASE THE AGENT WANTS TO CALL YOU.]

Comments:

1. Well, in retrospect I wouldn’t throw around the name The DaVinci Code. At least I didn’t COMPARE my book to Dan Brown’s book—I simply pointed out that he raised an issue that might’ve piqued people’s interest—because I’ve subsequently learned that agents really dislike writers comparing themselves to bestselling authors like Brown or J.K. Rowling. Also, my query was written back in 2005 before all the movie hype; my only intent was to build on interest in medieval Europe that Brown awakened.

2. Things have changed. The Cardinal is now a friar, the story is set a decade later, and I’m not teaching community college anymore. The title is now The Witch’s Trinity, not Hexe. And Crown/Random House bought the book (it’ll be out September 2007)!

3. If you’re a writer, I wish all the best in negotiating these waters. There is no waiting as exquisitely frantic as waiting to hear an agent’s response to a) the query, b) the partial, c) the full, d) when the ms will go out, e) when will editors read it… etc.

My first novel, A Woman of Ill Fame, was represented for a year by an agent (not my current agent) who was unable to sell it. Literally every morning for a year, I’d wake up thinking, “Maybe today’s the day!”

EVERY MORNING.

FOR A YEAR.

I’m sure I shortened my life somehow by that kind of concentrated craving. But telling a writer not to think/hope/wish about publishing is like telling yourself not to breathe. You just can’t stop it.

Short of trepanation, the best thing you can do is to send out those queries… and then start on a new project. Begin a new novel. I’m serious. You’ll get caught up in the joy of creation and then those long periods of waiting will instead be fruitful.

Again, I wish you the best of luck. Good luck! GOOD LUCK! It’s a cool business we’re in.

Hearts replaced by sawdust

Big game hunting and the Snow Museum

This originally appeared in the Montclarion Dec. 7, 1999. Images courtesy of the Oakland History Room.

Today, Snow Park is a wonderful triangle of green space that provides respite to weary office workers, those hoping to improve their putting skills and anyone who enjoys the smell of cut grass after the industrial mowers do their job. Not too long ago, however, safari animals left the veldt with bullets in their hides and were resurrected here with sawdust innards in the Snow Museum.

The Snow Museum began in 1922, when big game hunter Henry Snow donated his massive collection of animal pelts and 50,000 bird eggs to the city, with the proviso that the city construct a fireproof museum to house them. Instead, the city turned over a 30-room mansion located on 19th Street between Harrison and Alice.

At first, no one came. Mayor Davies had to have a sign painted to let people know that a taxidermist’s dream was inside. Unfortunately, not all of the collection, valued at $2 million, could be displayed: the ceilings were not tall enough, for example, for the mounted giraffes. While two tons of materials were on display, 25 tons were in boxed storage.

Snow considered the three white rhinos the greatest treasure of the collection, since there was only one small band of white rhinos still roaming the planet. Apparently he missed the point that killing three of them made still less! The largest weighed 5,000 pounds with a 22-inch horn and was never exhibited because it was too large for the mansion’s rooms.

Mansion at 19th & Alice that became the Snow MuseumSnow’s exploits, one has to reluctantly admit, were very exciting.In 1923, he traveled to the Arctic and was charged by a Kodiak bear, which he dispatched with a bullet to the eye. Scrambling over an ice floe threatening to upend itself, he recovered the body of a felled walrus. He met Amundsen, discoverer of the South Pole, and found mastodon bones with 11-foot tusks. As if this trip wasn’t adventurous enough, his boat was almost crushed by ice.

Snow’s son Sidney carried on the pith helmet tradition. In 1924, he also hit the Arctic and discovered the bodies of four frozen Canadian scientists who had been caught in a blizzard. Sidney Snow attempted to harpoon whales who (you’ll like this) fought back, nearly tipping over his vessel. An 1,800-pound polar bear captured by Sidney lost 300 pounds on the voyage down from the Arctic, which sounds hopefully like this bear was a live exhibit. Sidney also brought back two Eskimos who expressed great amazement at the size of San Francisco.

The fireproof facility promised by the city never came. In a huff, Snow threatened to donate the collection to San Francisco instead, although he preferred to keep the animals in Oakland. “I am for Oakland first, last and all the time,” he said.

(Civic pride was a beautiful thing in those days. Snow and his son had made motion picture films of their sojourns in Africa, and at a screening at the Hotel Oakland in 1922, crowds cheered the sight of the word “Oakland” imprinted on the side of a safari vehicle.)

In 1924, Snow and a corporation of businessmen raised $1 million and offered to lend it to the city to build the museum. The city attorney deemed such action illegal, although today it wouldn’t be—we might have had the Oakland Museum 50 years earlier! Architect Maury Diggs, who built the fabulous Fox Theater on Telegraph Avenue, went so far as to draw up plans for the proposed but never-built museum.

Snow had a lot of grand schemes. He wanted the city to dig a 40-foot-deep cave on the Lakeshore edge of Lake Merritt, which he would supply with lions, rhinos, hippos and “a giraffe or two.” The kicker was that there would be no bars to cage the animals: they would be curbed only by a water-filled moat that would be too wide for them to jump and too deep to negotiate. Needless to say, the idea didn’t get off the ground.

As part of the white rhinos’ revenge, Snow died in 1927 of Blackwater Fever, apparently contracted during his African expedition. The museum carried on under the curatorship of Snow’s daughter, Nydine Latham. Latham once said of the taxidermy collection, “I don’t feel as if (the animals) are dead because they have been so well preserved and can remain that way for ages if properly cared for.”

In 1961, the parcel had a close call. The Sheraton Hotel wanted to demolish the Snow Museum and build a 10-story, $7 million hotel. Back in 1922 when the museum was established, City Council had voted $140,000 to purchase the three adjoining lots so that a park would surround the museum. Luckily, the decision-makers in 1961 remembered the commitment to green space and the proposal died.

In 1967, the Snow Museum finally closed. By that time, stuffed animals had fallen into disfavor, and the collection was viewed as very dusty and dismal. Most of the creatures were auctioned off; perhaps your grandmother has a dik-dik in her garage. A few pieces were retained by the new Oakland Museum, which merged three museums: the first Oakland Museum at the Camron-Stanford House, the art gallery housed in the Oakland Auditorium, and the Snow Museum.

So the next time you sit in the lushness of Snow Park to eat your bag lunch, remember the beasts with bared fangs that soundlessly prowled their artificial habitats.

May I Enshrine You?

This first appeared in the Montclarion in November 1999.

 

There is a delightful book in the Oakland History Room called Social Etiquette, or Manners and Customs of Polite Society.

Written in 1896 by Maud C. Cooke, the book was put out by an Oakland publisher, Occidental Publishing Co. The book provides everything from placement of finger bowls to how to properly court a lover.

In a section entitled, “Errors of Lovemaking,” Cooke discloses that a woman who has captured a man’s heart “can get out of him, and do with him, anything possible she pleases. The charming and fascinating power of serpents over birds is as nothing compared with that a woman can wield over a man.” Not that I’ve ever seen snakes hypnotizing birds, but it’s an effective metaphor.

Cooke even provides sample text for a marriage proposal: “I crave to make you my wife; to live with and for you, and proffer you my whole being, with honest, assiduous toil, fidelity to business, what talents I possess, and all I can do to contribute to your creature comforts. May I enshrine you as the queen of my life?” it reads in part.

How could any woman resist this mammoth, eight-paragraph flowery proposal? She’d have to marry the man in pure admiration of his ability to memorize such lengthy text.

Of course, Cooke provides a template acceptance speech, four paragraphs long, containing the newly affianced woman’s amusing observation, “Thank Heaven that the matter is settled.”

At the turn of the century, grapes were eaten in a very delicate manner. The pulp was squeezed into the mouth and the skin of the grape laid on one side of the plate. Another alimentary oddity was a party called a “Chocolataire,” in which every food and beverage contained chocolate.

As the bicycle was relatively new at the time of the book’s writing, there is an entire chapter devoted to bicycle etiquette. A man was expected to assist a woman in mounting her bike, by holding her wheel. As she began to cycle away on the “machine,” she would do so very slowly, to give him time to mount his and catch up.

He was also to help her dismount, although in the meantime she was to “assist herself as much as possible.” To “furnish” a bike, it was de rigueur to have a clock and a bell, a luggage carrier and cyclometer.

Know anything about calling cards? This very mysterious process still remains veiled in shadows for me after reading about their use.

When a visitor went to see someone and that person was not at home, the visitor would leave a card with his name on it, to show that he had been there.

However, sometimes cards came by mail, apparently simply to announce one’s presence. In fact, if a person had come physically to the house, he would fold a corner of the card to denote that fact. The card was folded down the middle if the entire family had accompanied the person named on the card. Further, separate cards would be left for the man and the woman of the house. Inexplicably, the man of the house received two cards, as if he would need one for each eyeball.

Of course, correspondence in this pre-telephone era was a matter of extreme importance. Woman are granted the privilege of using “very faintly perfumed paper,” and Cooke suggests they always use the same fragrance, so “correspondents could tell her missives with closed eyes.”

Diagrams are given of correct and incorrect ways to hold the pen, as well as how to sit while writing. Interestingly, Cooke advises burning all letters after answering them, but simultaneously warns to date all correspondence, as “events and proof of the greatest importance have hung upon the date of a single letter,” which would suppose that the letter was kept.

One last snippet of information: hangnails used to be called “agnails,” and cuticles were called “scarf-skin.”

Note: When I went back to the Oakland History Room to look for this book I wrote about back in 1999, it had subsequently disappeared from the shelves. These images were found on canadiana.org, a website that has scanned every page of the book. It’s a good thing the book exists electronically since its paper and glue counterpart has gone missing.

Writing News

The Witch’s Trinity launches September 25, 2007. This historical novel is about a medieval German woman accused of witchcraft–by her own daughter-in-law. Güde fights for her life and her sanity. Originally titled Hexe. Represented by Marly Rusoff

The novel Woman of Ill Fame is a historical romp tracking prostitute Nora Simms as she arrives in San Francisco at the very beginning of the Gold Rush. Nora’s determined to get rich . . . but she has to be very, very careful–there’s a Jack the Ripper type character attacking her kind.

And the nonfiction Oakland history books are:

The Oakland Hills is an historic, photographic book about how this California city’s hills transformed from meadows into neighborhoods.

Oakland’s Neighborhoods provides a look into this California city’s varied neighborhoods. Brief histories of each neighborhood, including historic photographs, are teamed with creative writing by Oaklanders about their neighborhoods. Funded by a grant from the city’s Department of Cultural Funding.

Haunted

Your first and last chance to be scared
This first appeared in the Montclarion Sept. 9, 2001. Images courtesy of the Oakland History Room.

Courtesy, Oakland History RoomNot only was Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon Jack London’s favorite haunt in life, it possibly still is now that he’s occupying a barstool on the Other Side.

This 1880 structure, so tiny that it once served as a bunkhouse for oyster men (and even then one imagines a snorer could be hit awake by simply stretching an arm from one bunk to the other), was reportedly built from the timbers of a whaling ship.

History is visceral here: When walking in, one immediately notes the sharp slant of the floor, caused by the 1906 earthquake. A clock which stopped at the time of the quake still displays the time as 5:18. Gas lamps (for which proprietor Carol Brookman is having more and more difficulty procuring chimneys and wicks) imbue the saloon with the soft glow of another century.

But that’s not all that remains.

“There is a spirit here,” says Brookman. “Who or what I don’t know. But it’s exciting and we like it.”

Brookman says she and a former employee once saw a “fleeting shadow” shaped like a man in a back area of the bar, although there is no window in that area to cast a shadow.

And twice she has heard footsteps in the bar, while she was alone and had locked herself in — footsteps so definitive and loud that she got out of her chair in the office to go look. “I’m not kidding you,” she says. “The footsteps didn’t sound like an old man’s footsteps, more like a younger person with a little more spring in their step.”  She adds that the steps sounded like those from a man’s old-fashioned leather boots.

Manager Joe Ferrazzano has been plagued by a ghost who tends to drop things. He has heard what sounds like an entire case of beer being dropped when he was alone in the saloon, and a bottle cap mysteriously plummeting to the middle of a just-sweeped floor (Not very eerie to report, it was a Bud Lite cap.)

More significantly, the hat of Johnny Heinold (who first opened shop in 1883) came off the wall and was laying on the floor. “There’s no way it would fall off,” says Ferrazzano. “There was no breeze; the front doors were closed.”

And Ferrazzano and his son Vinnie were astonished one night, after closing and cleaning, to see that the two refrigerators, embedded in the original iceboxes, had their doors splayed wide open. “That was the freakiest, because there’s no way in hell those doors would have opened,” said Ferrazzano.

“We’re very strict about keeping those closed,” adds Brookman.

Ferrazzano believes he can identify the culprit: “It was Heinold. I’m pretty sure.” His reasoning: the fact that the ghost seems to be a beer lover.

Brookman seems to think the spirit might be one of the many patrons who passed through the bar throughout the years. She mentions that the back door once opened directly onto the water, and men were “shanghai’d” out that door. Shanghai’ing was the practice of kidnapping someone to serve as a sailor. Often, drunk men would wake up to find themselves on a vessel already underway on a two or three year voyage.

“If you misbehaved in here, there were always sea captains and people looking for men,” says Brookman. She added that the waterfront was once a very dangerous place where women never ventured, until about the 1920s or so.

Illustrious patrons who may have left some ectoplasm on site include Jack London, of course, President William Taft, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joaquin Miller, Ambrose Bierce and a name one may not recognize: Alexander McLean, who was the model for Wolf Larsen in Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf.”

Besides ghosts, the bar can boast that everything in it is original except the chairs. The tables came from a whaling ship. The copper beer traps, still extant, which once caught the runoff from the taps were regularly emptied and the contents given to delivery horses in troughs outside.

“It’s wonderful to have this in an urban area,” says Brookman. “You can’t even find something like this in Gold Country.”

The intriguing name comes from the fact that the bar is situated on the waterfront— naturally, the first and last chance to lift a jar on terra firma.

The saloon has some exciting news: As of Sept. 1, 2000 it was listed with the National Register of Historic Places.

So if one’s in search of a place to have a Halloween drink in an historic setting, head down to the waterfront. But keep an eye on your beverage: As Ferrazzano set down a drink in front of me a few weeks ago, he quipped “You better drink it fast — Heinold might drink it for you!”

Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon is at 56 Jack London Square, 510-839-6761. The saloon’s Web site is www.firstandlastchance.com and the national register Web site is www.cr.nsp.gov/nr.

Galvin Street Gang

This first appeared in the Montclarion May 7, 2004. Images courtesy of Bud Veirs.

The hills neighborhood of Glenview may seem like a fairly pleasant little area, but once violence here was so severe it made Gangs of New York look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. That’s right, gang warfare once rocked these placid streets.

Our story starts on Galvin Street, a one-block street situated west of Park Boulevard. Here, in the seemingly peaceful bungalows, trouble brewed. The youths of Galvin Street were hardboiled toughs, and in the mid-1920s the tension overflowed. The Galvin Street Gang launched all-out warfare against the other crew in the neighborhood, the kids on Elbert Street.

My informant is Bud Veirs, a former Galvin Street gangster now living in Placerville. He is 87, and recently spent a day with me giving me all the dope about Glenview. He grew up in the house at 1025 Galvin St., the second house to be built on the block. He and his siblings would play in the vacant lot next door. They "borrowed" lumber from the piles for new construction and constructed treehouses in the high eucalyptus trees behind their house. They also dug out caves in the lot to enrich their imagination-filled play, and roasted potatoes with a stovepipe stove they manufactured. But behind such innocence, trouble was stirring, just as surely as new houses were being built.

Soon, Galvin Street was a real neighborhood, with houses tucked closely together. And in each house was a kid or two: a perfect recipe for calamity.

On just this short street, a dozen kids of roughly the same age now lived. And they stretched their necks to look across the canyon that divided their street from Elbert Street, and saw that there were other youngsters over there. Those kids looked back at them, malevolently.

Bud Veirs. Veirs with the mumps, years later. He is so under the weather that he has lost one slipper."They’d come over and raid us," Veirs told me. "I was the littlest one of the group and I’d climb into the crow’s nest (one of the treehouses he’d built) and they’d throw rocks at it."

The Galvin Street Gang fought back. "We’d heave clay over to the Elbert Street gang on sticks," he said.

We should all be grateful there is anything at all left of Glenview today!

Veirs was able to case the joint, by delivering broadsides around the neighborhood. He complained to me that he had to bring the paper all the way up to each person’s porch, and that the steep nature of San Sebastian Avenue made it the "toughest."

Veirs attended Oakland High School, and walked there via a footpath that began in his neighborhood. He and his friends played football up on Everett Street, but "old man Hirsch," who lived just around the corner would always call the police on the loud players. Veirs got him back once by having a friend ring the doorbell. When Hirsch opened the door, Veirs was standing across the street with an egg, which he hurled directly into the man’s house. Then, as was requisite, he ran like crazy.

As we drove around the area, Veirs told me that where Radio Shack is used to be a meat market. This market had live chickens and would pay kids to sit outside and "pick" them. The Blackberry Bistro used to be a drugstore. The Savemore Market was owned by a Santa Clara football star. The Cutting Place has always been a hair salon, but back then the haircuts were 50 cents. He pointed out the neighborhood residence of the junkman, who used to go door to door to pick up people’s used goods, a trade that no longer exists today.

We drove down Trestle Glen, and he showed me the approximate location of the horsebarns that once nestled there. "Nobody knows about the horsebarns?" Veirs was amazed I hadn’t heard of them. About a hundred feet from Trestle Glen, near where it begins to rise up to Park Boulevard, there was a barn of 40 horses, all employed to grade the road so Trestle Glen could be built. Veirs remembers when it was a narrow dirt street with no houses. He also remembers that the train to catch the ferry to San Francisco could be caught there. From Elbert Street, commuters would climb down the street hill for their ride.

There’s so much more Veirs told me, and so much more he has yet to tell, but I’ll have to end here. I had a great day hearing the neighborhood’s history from someone who knew it so well. Veirs wonders if there are any folks around who lived in the area in the 1920s – he’d love to be in contact with them. Write or email me and I’ll forward your information to him.

And if you find your way to Galvin Street, carry a big stick.

Montclarion Columns

My column Looking Back, written about Oakland history, has appeared in the Montclarion newspaper since July of 1999. The Montclarion is part of the Contra Costa Times, and you can click here to see the most recent column online—click on the Montclarion masthead once you arrive, and then scroll down until you see my byline. Unfortunately, you will need to register (it’s free), and the historical photographs that appear in the print version don’t appear online.

I must thank the Oakland History Room of the Oakland Public Library, 125 14th Street, for maintaining the collection that permits me to do this research. I also use the Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey materials from time to time as a valuable resource.

Here are a few columns to peruse. At the Contra Costa Times website, some but not all of the columns have been archived. Oakland’s a city with an incredibly rich history—enjoy!

Haunted. A look at the history of Heinold’s First and Last Chance saloon, a haunted bar on Oakland’s waterfront where you can still go to lift a jar.

Etiquette. This one has a pretty weak Oakland angle (the book on Victorian etiquette was published by an Oakland printer), and I remember the editor at the time pointing that out. Wince. But it’s still pretty dang interesting.

Stuffed Rhinos. Nothing says early Oakland like a bunch of taxidermied safari beasts, right? Here’s the tale of how big game hunters brought their spoils home.

Galvin Street Gang. Bad boys throw mudballs in Oakland’s Glenview District.