Monday, June 20, 2011

The Porters

Last week I spent most of my time in the Porter Family Papers in the Special Collections of the Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester. Much like the Garrison Family Papers at the Sophia Smith Collection, when the title is "Family Papers" they do mean "family," as in "no matter what else the family was involved in, all you are going to get out of these papers is family news." They tell you when babies are born, when babies died, who got married, who visits who, who wants who to visit, what the travel plans for visiting are, who is sick and all of the specific symptoms (there is a particularly grisly description of an operation on Samuel D. Porter's arm in one letter), putting up preserves and pickles, and the details of how various people died. Great stuff for everything but my purposes. You would never guess that this was a family at the center of anti-slavery activity in Rochester or that two of the women were officers in the Rochester Ladies' Anti-slavery Society. That is, perhaps, telling unto itself.

After spending all of my week crawling through their private lives, I thought I should honor them by paying my respects to their bones in Mount Hope Cemetery. Saturday was a lovely day for traipsing about amongst dead people; and since my sojourn in the Rochester Public Library had reached a crossroads, and the crossroads indicated that I would have to delve into the type of research that would lead to a whole other project, and since the hour was late in the afternoon,  and since I was cold and hungry, I decided to take the research into the field (or graveyard). Often, you can find interesting information in the graveyard...or so I told myself in order to not feel quite so guilty for leaving the library before it closed.

The Porter mausoleum lies not too far from the Douglass family plot, where Frederick, Anna,  and Helen are all buried. I've got some interesting information on Anna's burial, but that will have to wait for another post since this one is on the Porters. Meanwhile, this is the Porter mausoleum:

It resembles the sort of mausoleum that you find in Louisiana along the lower Mississippi in places like New Orleans. I, in fact, have ancestors and relatives buried in such structures. This type here differs in a few respects. The Louisiana sort resembles a beehive with each body sliding into a discrete compartment. When you inter a person, you open only the space for that person's coffin and slide it in. The design of the structure acts like a giant oven, especially in the Louisiana heat, and speeds decomposition. After a period of time -- a year and a day, at one point in history -- you can reuse the space by opening it up, pushing the remains of the previous occupant to the back, and sliding in another body. Modern mortuary practices and coffin construction have interfered with this process, and have created a much messier process of reusing a space, especially in the decomposition of the bodies and disposal of the coffin.

The sort of crypt like the Porters' is an open room. When a person dies, you open the door, bring in the deceased, and lay the body on a shelf, a bit like in Romeo and Juliet, but nastier and probably smellier to our modern sensibilities. You continue to do that, moving older remains to make room for newer ones. At one point in history, bodies were not placed in coffins, by lain down in shrouds, unembalmed as if the person were asleep.

Douglass,  incidentally, would have been embalmed since his body travelled from D.C. to Rochester and was present at funerals in both places. What the Porters did I do not know.

I do know that you don't see this on many mausoleums in Louisiana:

Windows. Given that there is no visible evidence of hinges to suggest a hatch or door, I'm going to guess that this was a window, probably stained glass. Whatever was there, however, has since disappeared and left an opening that the groundskeepers have covered with plywood. Any kid who has build a clubhouse out of plywood in their back yard knows what happens to plywood when exposed to the elements of sun, rain, and, in some climates, snow. It buckles:

Yes, you see cracks about the edges of the wood. What you don't see are the big, fat, buzzing flies swarming about those cracks; and the combination of the cracks and flies made me curious as to what was inside. "I wonder if I could peep in around the cracks and see anything," I thought. Then, I thought, "Of course, I don't wonder enough to actually go try to peep around the cracks and see anything." The second I had that last thought, I actually did wonder enough to go try to peep around the cracks, but I stopped myself. I stopped myself not because the wood might pop off and I would be accused of desecrating a grave, nor because the groundskeeper was nearby, nor because of any health or legal or even ethical hazard. No, I stopped myself because, if I did see something, I could never ever un-see it. I wasn't prepared to not un-see something.

You may well wonder who the Porters were and whose remains lie within that crypt? The Porters, intermarried with the Farleys and along with the Posts, were at the center of abolitionism in Rochester and supported Douglass as he broke away from the abolitionist circle in Boston. Samuel D. Porter was a businessman, a Liberty Party man, and aided fugitive slaves (I'm investigating just how, since the Douglass biographies seem to attempt to marry myth with the actual evidence). His wife, Susan Farley Porter, was the president of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society; and his sister,  Maria G. Porter was the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society treasurer. Their activities in the society included rasing funds that they used to help fugitives, as well. I have to go to the Clements Library in Michigan to read those papers (a certain historian mis-cited them as being in Rochester, thus I must alter my summer plans, which will also allow me to drop into Oberlin en route to see what I can learn about Rosetta Douglass's time there).
Little Annie Douglass,  who died at the age of ten while her father was in England, was also interred in the Porter mausoleum. When she died at her home only a few blocks from the cemetery, the Douglasses had not yet purchased their own burial plot, so she was placed here in the Porters'. As far as the research staff at Mount Hope knows, she was never moved, although the Douglass family monument includes her name and dates.

But, I did not begin this post in order to indulge my ghoulish tendencies. I intended to write about the dry well of my research and what that means. Since this is only a blog, and blog posts by nature should be short, I shall save that for another post. Suffice to say for the moment is that many historians and Douglass biographers have cited the Porter Family Papers, and a single digit number of letters in particular, as containing a wealth of information about their involvement in aiding fugitive slaves. I'm not saying that the Porters did not aid fugitives. That is clearly there in the evidence. I am saying that the generalizations extrapolated from that single digit number of letters do not necessarily reflect the actual evidence in those letters, or at least represent only a cursory reading of those letters.

I think those questionable -- not wrong, just questionable -- generalizations have something to do with the way that people attempt to make "common knowledge" and evidence fit together, or to use scraps of evidence to support that "common knowledge" without questioning the creation of that "common knowledge." I'm referring specifically to such things as aid to fugitives or the Underground Railroad myths, but it can extend to a whole host of information about social history, women's history, Native American history, and African American history. In fact,  I've discovered that the most important question I ask myself is, "how do we know what we think we know?" In research, that may be the only real question, or the one that guides all others.


  1. A very intriguing post, Leigh. I had not know that little Annie Douglass was interred with the Porters. It must have been frustrating not to find the relevant information at the UofR library, and I hope you have since discovered the sources you wanted.

    I wrote a screenplay about Douglass and am still doing research more than 10 years after starting the project. It might be interesting to talk sometime.

  2. The Porters are not in the mausoleum you described. They are in Section g of the cem. I've given tours at Mt Hope for over a decade, including one on UGRR and Douglass. Thanks.

  3. Hi Sally, yes, I figured that out some time after I posted this -- and never posted the story of figuring it out! They are up the hill, aren't they? I'm hoping to take one of your tours when I'm out that way at the proper time. Thank you!