Friday, December 30, 2011

Buffalo Bill Cody

Visited December 2011.  Denver Colorado

This is my most recent grave venture, but I just had to move it to the front of the line.

The legend of Buffalo Bill was created by the man himself. But the facts of his life are legendary enough.

Young Bill Cody
William Frederick Cody was born February 1846 in LeClaire, Iowa Territory. He was raised mostly on the Kansas prairie as the clouds of Civil War began to darken. His father was staunchly anti-slavery – eventually dying from the effect of a knife wound he received when he was attacked while giving an abolition speech. In order to help support his family after his father’s death ‘Willy’ Cody took a job as a scout with the army. Adventure got into his bloodstream early – he set out for the California Gold Rush at age 14, but never made it past Colorado. He mined for gold, drove a stagecoach and claimed to have ridden for the Pony Express, but this has been disputed. He was a Kansas Jayhawker during the ‘Bleeding Kansas’ border wars of the mid 1850’s. During the Civil war he served as a teamster with the Union Army. His post war adventures included being a professional scout, working for the US Army, Indian Tribes and even a Russian Duke on a highly publicized royal hunt. In 1872 Cody won the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry in action as a civilian scout in Nebraska.

Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull

Cody acquired the name ‘Buffalo Bill’ for the thousands of buffalo he hunted and killed over the years. But his fame came through his shrewd capitalization on western folklore through the creation of his ‘Buffalo Bill Wild West’ show. This extravaganza of all things western – horses, guns, Indians, outlaws - proved phenomenally successful over decades of performances. Among the major attractions to the show were sharpshooter Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull. In 1887 the show began a triumphant tour of Europe, playing in several major cities. The show overwhelmed the Paris Exhibition of 1889 (playing in the shadow of the brand new Eiffel Tower). While in Europe Buffalo Bill had audiences with Queen Victoria and Pope Leo. The show also drew millions of visitors when it played New York in 1886-87. Many historians hold that, at the turn of the 20th Century, Buffalo Bill was the most recognizable celebrity in the world.


This picture speaks for itself

Later in life Buffalo Bill retired from the show and turned his attention to taming the west through land development and irrigation. He became a successful rancher and businessman, founding the town of Cody, Wyoming. While visiting his sister in Denver, Cody passed away from kidney failure at the age of 71 in January 1917. According to his wife Louisa’s wishes (they had married in 1865) Cody was buried at the top of Lookout Mountain, in the Front Range of the Rockies just west of Denver. It is a tribute to Bill Cody’s life and legend that his death generally marks the end of what is understood as ‘the Old West’. In reporting his death one newspaper editor declared, "He has been more than picturesque; he has been worthwhile.”

Burial of Buffalo Bill in 1917

A number of films have been made about Buffalo Bill over the years.  One of the odder entries is Robert Altman's anti-western "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson" starring Paul Newman in the title role.  Check out the trailer here.

My kids in front of amazingly lifelike Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley
at the Bison Ranch Buffalo Museum in Arizona - Spring of 2004. 

My excursion to Buffalo Bill’s grave was entirely unexpected. In early December 2011 I had the opportunity to preach at Sovereign Grace Church in the Aurora area just southeast of Denver. I spent the evening talking with the Senior Pastor, Mark Alderton, and we got on the topic of things we like to do. I told him about this odd hobby and the blog that follows with it, and he mentioned that Buffalo Bill is the one famous person he knows is buried in the Denver area. I had to catch a plane back to Philly around 4:00 on Sunday. At around 1:30 after the service Mark grabbed me and said ‘I think we can make Buffalo Bill. We jumped in his car and we hightailed it 40 miles up into the front range – careening up the winding road to the top of Lookout Mountain. From the parking lot we dashed up to the top of the mountain to the grave site overlooking a beautiful view of Denver on the plain below. Back in the car we careened down the mountain and drove the fifty miles to the airport. I got through security and made my gate just in time to board the last flight out of Denver to Philadelphia. I think that’s just how Buffalo Bill would have done it himself.

Your Blogger and the intrepid Pastor Mark Alderton at
Buffalo Bill's final resting place.  His Medal of Honor marker is
visible through the fence. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Galileo Galilei

Florence Italy – July 2010

Galileo Galilei embodies the wrenching philosophical and theological collision that occurred as a result of the Renaissance. He’s called by Albert Einstein ‘the father of modern science’, yet his life and ideas were shaped profoundly by his experience with the medieval Catholic Church. I had the chance to see Galileo’s tomb at Santa Croce during a trip to Florence, Italy with my brother and daughter Kelsey and her friend Sarah a couple of years ago. There will be more entries from this amazing historic site in the future.

Galileo's telescope

Galileo was born in Pisa, Italy in 1564, the day of Michelangelo’s death, in the same year as William Shakespeare's birth. Early in his life Galileo considered entering the priesthood, but eventually chose to study mathematics at the University of Pisa. Upon completion of his degree the gifted young scholar took a position at the Accademia in Florence, where his family had moved when he was a youth. But it was as a professor at the University of Padua where Galileo’s greatest scientific theories and the controversies surrounding them emerged.

Galileo distinguished himself in a number of fields, particularly making significant advances in the development of the telescope. But it was his embrace of Copernican astronomy that brought him both fame and clerical opposition. Copernicus’ (1473-1543) theory that the earth was not the center of the universe had been condemned by the church. Through his own scientific inquiry Galileo came to adopt heliocentrism – the position that the sun was the center of the universe.

Galileo's recantation

In 1615 his advocacy of this position brought rebuke from the Roman Inquisition. Responding to this rebuke Galileo agreed to no longer teach on the view. But in 1632 Galileo published his “Dialogue Between Two World Systems” where he sought to present the worldview controversy as a reasoned discussion (which ultimately favored heliocentrism). The Vatican was not impressed, and subsequently convicted Galileo of heresy, banning the publication of any of his works extant or to be written in the future. He was also sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Galileo lived another ten years after this controversy, dying at the relatively advanced age of 77 in 1642.  In 1992 Pope John Paul II rescinded the condemnation of Galileo by the church.

For a contemporary take on Galileo check out this video of Irish singer Declan O'Rourke doing his song "Galileo - Someone Like You".  

Painting of Galileo's Inquisition

Galileo is buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, immediately across the main sanctuary area from Michelangelo

My daughter Kelsey - the Vanna White of Santa Croce - in front of
of Galileo's tomb - Galileo's image is carved looking to the stars

What I find interesting about Galileo is that he is not the anti-religious rationalist of the Scientific Revolution that he is so often characterized to be. While he was a man with moral shortcomings (bearing two illegitimate daughters with a mistress), he was a scholar who approached the scientific endeavor with a deeply theological bent. Galileo did not see himself as a man caught between scripture and science but between the church and science. His views were actually not inconsistent with those of the Reformer John Calvin. He had a high view of the inerrancy and authority of scripture, and considered the erroneous doctrine of an earth-centered universe as an issue of poor interpretation and reading into texts by the church. Galileo believed that scripture, as rightly understood, would not contradict valid scientific evidence. The words Galileo desired to be carved as his epitaph at the end of his life speaks to his deeply God-centered view of his life and scientific pursuits.

“To the Lord; whom I worship and thank;

That governs the heavens with His eyelid

To Him I return tired, but full of living.”


Statue of Galileo at the Uffizi Plaza
in Florence

Other blog subjects buried at Santa Croce:


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jackie Robinson

Brooklyn, NY. Visited April 2011

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born Jan. 13, 1919 in Cairo, GA. His early life was in many ways quintessentially reflective of racial inequality and segregation in the early 20th century. He was born into a family of sharecroppers in the rural south, but his family moved to the city for a better life, settling in an impoverished part of Pasadena, California.

Jackie excelled in multiple scholastic sports, encouraged by his brother Mack, who won a silver medal in track and field in the 1936 Olympic Games. His own prodigious talents came fully into view as a collegiate athlete at UCLA, where he became the first athlete at the school to letter in four sports. His greatest achievement as a collegiate athlete was winning the 1940 NCAA championship in the long jump. At this time Robinson also met his future wife Rachel who was a nursing student at UCLA.

Jackie Robinson - running back for the
UCLA Bruins

While succeeding on the athletic field as a black man in a white world, Robinson had a strong internal sense of justice which would not let him take racial prejudice lightly. During his college years Jackie interceded for a black friend who was being arrested by white police officers. He too was arrested and received a two year suspended sentence for his involvement in the altercation.

After college Robinson played semi-pro football until being drafted into the army in 1942. Assigned to a segregated tank battalion he passed officer training school but never saw combat due to another racial confrontation. Riding a non-segregated military bus, Robinson refused the bus driver’s demand that he move to the back, and was subsequently arrested and underwent court martial for the action. By the time Jackie was acquitted of all charges related to the incident the war was effectively over and he was honorably discharged.

Stealing home.  Love this picture!
Following his discharge, Robinson signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. Jackie didn’t realize that at the same time Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey was on a personal crusade to integrate Major League Baseball. Rickey, a devout Christian, had come to the conviction that to deny black ballplayers the opportunity to compete at a major league level was unjust. His logic: "Ethnic prejudice has no place in sports, and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game." Rickey was looking for a player whom he believed had both the talent and the character to withstand the extraordinary scrutiny and inevitable racial abuse he would take as a black man in a ‘white man’s world’. In Jackie Robinson he found that man.

Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers prior to the 1946 season. He spent his first year in the minor leagues, where he was well received in his home park in Montreal but regularly experienced racial derision on the road. Jackie was able to both withstand the withering discrimination of the minor leagues and succeed in the field, winning the league MVP award. He entered the Major Leagues in 1947 as the first black player in league history at the age of 28. Jackie Robinson was Rookie of the Year for 1947, hitting .297 and leading the league in stolen bases.

Statue of Jackie and his friend Pee Wee
Reese erected at Coney Island

As the man who broke the baseball color barrier, Jackie Robinson lived every game as the center of attention. To black America he was a symbol of hope in a society where race was a definer and limiter of opportunity. To many white players in the league (and some on his team), despite his proven skills, he had no place in the game. To a country still struggling to live out the ideals of its Constitution Jackie Robinson was a universal symbol of change – a cultural revolution that would never turn back. And Robinson willingly embraced the daunting role he was called to play. He played the game with singular excellence over a ten year career – was named an all star six times and league MVP in 1949. He led the Brooklyn Dodgers to a World Series championship in 1954 and finished his ten year career in 1956 with a .311 lifetime batting average. It is a testimony to Robinson’s national impact in crossing racial lines that in 1947 he was voted second most popular American, behind only Bing Crosby. In 1950, at the height of his career Jackie Robinson played himself in a full length Hollywood bio-picture.  You can check out the original trailer for The Jackie Robinson Story.

Jackie Robinson’s impact as a ballplayer proved to the baseball establishment that bringing black players into the league made competitive sense. This resulted in the most dramatic change in the history of the game. But it was his dignity, intelligent resolve and character in the almost impossible task of representing an entire race that elevated Jackie Robinson to symbol of racial change in this country.

Jackie Robinson at his induction to the Hall of Fame
with Branch Rickey and his wife Rachel

Robinson retired at the end of the 1956 season, having already made a deal to become vice president of Chock Full o Nuts coffee - the first black executive in a major American company. Within a year he was diagnosed with diabetes, an illness that would have a deteriorating impact on his post baseball life. Nevertheless these were extremely productive years for Robinson. Jackie became more than just a symbol of racial change, he used his stature as a sports legend to continue to break barriers. He became the first black ballplayer elected to the baseball Hall of Fame on his first year of eligibility in 1962 and the first black sports commentator on a major network in 1965. Robinson was active in the civil rights movement in the Sixties, participating in the March on Washington with Martin Luther King in 1963 and serving on the board of the NAACP for most of the decade. Independent regarding party affiliation, committed to racial equality but conservative in many of his ideals, Robinson was one of the few national figures in that era whose voice mattered across racial lines.

The diabetes and heart disease that increasingly sapped his vitality finally took his life and Jackie Robinson died October 24, 1972. He was only 53 years old. Robinson was buried in Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn. This sprawling cemetery is an appropriate final resting place for Jackie Robinson not only because it is just a few miles east of the site of old Ebbets Field, but it holds many prominent New York civil rights figures from the past two centuries.

Jackie and Martin Luther King.  Click here for a short
excerpt from a documentary on Jackie Robinson the player and the man

Jackie is buried at a high point in the cemetery. I visited there when I was in Brooklyn with my friend David Sacks.  His grave is surrounded by hedges. As the accompanying picture below shows, his tombstone is covered by stones. I think I have found out why. In his eulogy of Robinson, the Reverend Jesse Jackson said the following,

"When Jackie took the field, something within us reminded us of our birthright to be free. And somebody without reminded us that it could be attained. There was strength and pride and power when the big rock hit the water, and concentric circles came forth and ripples of new possibility spread throughout the nation."

If you ever go there, bring a rock with you. We are a better country because of the ripples
of new possibility that came through the life impact of Jackie Robinson.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Woodrow Wilson

Washington, DC. Visited July 1998

To me, Woodrow Wilson has always been a boring president. This isn’t based on any research or personal awareness of the man, mostly just looking at photographs.  He seems like a college professor (which he was) more than a politician or statesman.  Although he did sport the top hat with class.  But, the truth is, he was in his time a remarkable president – passing sweeping legislation that still has significant impact on our nation today. Wilson was at the helm when the Age of Empires ended with World War I and the United States ascended to the forefront of international power. And he is at the center of one of the great mysteries of the American presidency.

Woodrow Wilson was born December 1856 in Staunton, VA – the son of a Presbyterian minister. Though originally from Ohio, Wilson’s father was a slave-owning southern-minded man who stood staunchly with the Confederate cause during the Civil War. For those interested in Presbyterian history, Joseph Wilson was one of the founders of the Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States.

Woodrow spent most of his childhood in Augusta, GA. He was prone to illness and apparently suffered from dyslexia and did not learn how to read until his teenage years. But he doggedly pursued education, eventually graduating from Princeton University in Political Science. Maturing intellectually, he was able to pass the Georgia Bar and practice law, but eventually returned to academics and received his PhD in political science from John’s Hopkins University. He taught at Bryn Mawr College and other schools before landing on the Princeton faculty, where he ascended to the office of President of the College in 1902.

Wilson statue on the University of Texas Campus.  Woodrow
Wilson is regularly ranked among the top ten U.S.
presidents in scholarly polls

Wilson’s formal political career began in an unusual way, moving straight from academics to politics – his first elected office was as governor of New Jersey in 1910. After just two years of increasing national prominence, Wilson ran for and won the presidential election, defeating incumbent William Howard Taft to become the 28th President of the United States.

Woodrow Wilson’s first term included a number of significant legislative triumphs that continue to shape our national economy, notably the creation of the graduated national income tax, the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission. Sadly, Wilson was a man of his times, a staunch supporter of segregation both in word and deed. His first term also brought the tragedy of the unexpected death of his wife from a stroke in 1914. About 18 months later he remarried, and this marriage to Edith Galt was to have significant implications for Wilson’s second term in office.
Wilson started a several presidential customs, including
press conferences and throwing out the first
pitch at baseball games
Here is some odd archival footage – almost like an early photo-op. Wilson signing things, talking on one of those new fangled telephones and watching sheep on the White House lawn.

Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 primarily on the basis of his efforts to keep the US out of the war in Europe. But early in his second term he became convinced that the US could not remain neutral after it was discovered that Germany was seeking to persuade Mexico to attack the United States. The war dominated Wilson’s second term, and the influx of US military might at this crucial time effectively guaranteed an Allied defeat of Germany.

21,000 troops form a portrait of Woodrow
Wilson at Camp Sherman Ohio in 1918
President Wilson brought to the end of the war a grand vision for international peace that centered around the creation of a global League of Nations. His efforts at peace won him the Nobel Prize. While this idea had international popularity, it was being significantly opposed at home. Wilson embarked on a national tour to garner support from the people. It was on this tour that Wilson suffered a massive stroke, leading to one of the most unusual and controversial situations in the history of the American Presidency. The stroke left him immediately debilitated, but this fact was fully known only to his wife and his doctor. For the remainder of his presidency Edith Wilson effectively served, according to Wilson historian John Milton Cooper, as presidential ‘regent’, shaping the national agenda through what she filtered through to her enfeebled husband. Cooper further states,

"This is the worst instance of presidential disability we've ever had," said John Milton Cooper, a Wilson scholar at the University of Wisconsin. "We stumbled along . . . without a fully functioning president" for a year and a half.” (Washington Post, 2.3.07)

On the 'Wilson Family Presidency' a historian notes that, "They were flying
by the seat of their pants, doing damage control.  It's fun to watch."

At the end of his second term Wilson retired from public office, and lived largely out of the public eye at his Washington townhouse until his death three years later, on February 3, 1924. He was buried in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The Episcopal rector of the new cathedral had envisioned it as an American Westminster Abbey, but Wilson and Helen Keller are the only people buried there who seem to rise to true national historic stature.

Something really funky at the Natl. Cathedral.  In a contest to select gargoyles,
school kids selected Darth Vader's head as a fitting sculpture for the Cathedral. 
I kid you not.

When we visited the Cathedral on a home school trip in 1998 I had no idea Woodrow Wilson was buried there. I was walking along one side of the sanctuary and passed by this simple stone box with his name on the top. When we later visited the impressive JFK gravesite at Arlington that day I was struck by how different the two presidents were memorialized. It is an interesting study in history.

On a homeschool trip stumbling across WW with my daughter Melissa
and nephew Craig cica 1998.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Victor Hugo

 Paris, France – Visited June 2009

Victor Hugo is known to most people as the author of two great novels of the Romantic era – Les Miserable’s and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But over 83 years of life he came to embody all of France in his passions and impact. Eliminating all people named Napoleon he was probably the greatest celebrity in 19th Century France.

Victor Hugo was born in 1802 in Eastern France. He was literally born into controversy – his father was an atheist officer in Napoleon’s army, his mother a devout Catholic royalist. What it got for Victor was a lot of travel and an ultimate settling in Paris with his mother. It was in Paris that Victor Hugo would remain for much of his life.

Statue of Victor Hugo in Guernsey
England where he spent his
From early in life Victor Hugo showed himself to be an unusually gifted writer, publishing his first collection of poems at age 20, a collection that would receive royal accolades. In his mid-twenties he began to write fiction. His first full length novel was The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published when he was 29. The book was an immediate international hit and led to the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral, which had fallen into great disrepair.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame also established Hugo as a spokesman for the underclass, a precursor of Charles Dickens in Victorian England.  It has been made into movies of all shapes and sizes.  Check out the trailers for the 1939 Charles Laughton classic and the 1996 Disney animated version to see how Hollywood has employed Hugo's tragedy for profit.  

Cosette from original illustration for Les Miserable's
Check out this two part '20/20' feature on the
original Broadway Opening of Les Miz,
Part One and Part Two
Following the completion of this work Victor Hugo turned his attention to what he felt would be a magnum opus. It took him seventeen years, but in 1862 Les Miserable’s, a sweeping story of social injustice and redemption, was published and immediately became an international sensation. To underscore how sweeping the effect of Les Miserable’s was, within a year it had been translated into English and Robert E. Lee had the novel given to all his senior officers in his army as an inspiration for the Confederate cause. Les Miserable’s has been universally recognized as a literary classic and has been translated into movies, plays and the world-renowned Broadway musical. Hugo published other novels throughout his life, as well as poetry, plays and other works. He also dabbled in visual art, with sufficient gifting that the great romantic painter Delacroix said that had he devoted himself to painting he could have been one of the greats of the century.

Victor Hugo’s public life was as extraordinary as his literary life. Though initially espousing the royalist Catholic sympathies of his mother, he gradually moved toward full embrace of Republicanism in post Napoleonic France and toward the atheistic rationalism (with a strain of spiritism) that swept through France in the 19th Century. A figure of enduring national prominence, Victor Hugo factored into all of the great political events in France in the century. Napoleon III’s imposition of the Third Empire in 1851 was publically denounced by Hugo, which led to his exile from France to England for nineteen years. With the fall of Napoleon III and the rebirth of the Republic, Victor Hugo returned to Paris a national hero and was elected to the National Assembly, where he played a short but largely symbolic role. He remained in Paris during the siege of 1870, rallying the desperate people in the beleaguered city by his sacrificial example.

A drawing by Victor Hugo

It probably speaks to Victor Hugo’s skepticism about the various political systems that swept through France in the turbulent years of his life when he commented,

Victor Hugo's funeral procession in Paris

I don't mind what Congress does, as long as they don't do it in the streets and frighten the horses.

Victor Hugo spent his latter years in the role of statesman and national celebrity. He died in May 1885 at the age of 83. His last recorded words were ominous, considering his atheistic perspective: This is the fight of day and night. I see black light.

His funeral procession drew two million mourners to the streets of Paris. He was buried in the Pantheon, France’s version of Westminster Abbey. He is in a room with future two future blogees on this site, Emile Zola and Alexandre Dumas.

Victor Hugo's simple tomb in the Pantheon

The catacombs underneath the Pantheon in Paris

I visited the Pantheon when my wife Jill and I were in Paris for our 25th Anniversary. I actually didn’t know what it was, just this big building at the end of the street. We walked up to check it out. Jill wanted to take a rest so I walked in, and found out that there were all these famous French people buried in the basement. It took a while to find a way down, but when I got there it turns out there were all these catacombs (actually pretty nicely preserved) with caskets, statues and plaques throughout. I don’t have a picture of myself in front of any of them because you couldn’t actually get into the rooms. But it was pretty surreal down there, definitely worth wandering around.

Other notables who are that I've blogged on include Alexandre Dumas and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Your blogger on the steps of the Pantheon

Other blog subjects buried at the Pantheon:



Monday, July 4, 2011

Betsy Ross

Philadelphia, PA –  Visited April 2011

In honor of Independence Day this is a blog on one of the great legends of the beginning of our country. In this case however the true story is actually more interesting than the legend.

First, here’s the legend. In June 1776 a committee of George Washington and two others from the Continental Congress was sent to the home of a well known seamstress named Betsy Ross. Washington asked Betsy Ross to create a flag with six point stars. But Betsy showed him that a five point star could be cut much easier, therefore allowing flags to be sown much quicker. With the committee’s approval, Betsy Ross created the flag that was eventually adopted by the new United States as the national flag. Though the first flag story has long been part of our national lore, historians have been unable to substantiate the claims of Betsy Ross’s primary role in the creation of Old Glory. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t a true patriot.

Betsy Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom to a Quaker family in New Jersey who eventually settled in a home at 4th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia. She was one of seventeen children. Her father was one of the carpenters who helped build the bell tower at Independence Hall. Betsy apprenticed as a seamstress, where she met and fell in love with John Ross - the son of an Anglican minister of Christ Church in Philadelphia.  John's father George Ross (Betsy's father-in-law) was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Her marriage to Ross led to her being expelled from the Society of Friends and the loss of relationship with her Quaker family. Just two years after their marriage the Revolutionary War broke out and John Ross joined the local militia. Tragically, John was killed in an explosion as he was guarding a munitions supply in the city. Betsy, now a widow at 24 with no family, continued to run the upholstery business she had started with her husband and aided in the war effort by sewing uniforms and other materials for the Continental Army.

"Birth of Our Nation's Flag" painted by Charles Weisgerber, who lived in
the Ross house around 1900 and became one of the principal
figures in its preservation and ultimate restoration

In 1777 Betsy married a seaman, Joseph Ashburn, who was likewise a patriot. They had a baby and Betsy was pregnant with her second child when Ashburn’s ship was captured by the British on a supply run for the Continental cause. He was taken to prison in England where he died of illness in jail, never seeing his wife again, or the child who was born while he was away. In addition to having two husbands sacrifice their lives for the cause, Betsy also had to endure the forced occupation of her home when the British captured Philadelphia during the war.

Betsy Ross house circa 1900...

In 1782 a man named John Claypoole, who became friends with Joseph Ashburn in the English jail, came to Philadelphia to pay his respects to Betsy. They fell in love and, at 30 years old, the twice widowed Betsy became Betsy Claypoole. She and her third husband enjoyed a 34 year marriage. Marriage to John Claypoole allowed Betsy to return to her Quaker heritage but, having been ardent supporters of the Revolution, they made their connection with a non-pacifist branch of the Society.

... and now

Betsy spent her later years caring for her husband, whose war wounds gradually incapacitated him and led to his death in 1817. He thus became the third husband of Elizabeth Griscom to die as a result of serving his country in the Revolutionary War. She continued to sew and care for family until going blind toward the end of her life. Betsy Ross died in 1836 at the age of 84 years old.

Betsy Ross is buried next to her house in the Old City section of Philadelphia; just a few blocks from Independence Hall. She was actually buried two other places before she came to her final resting place there.

The Betsy Ross House is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Philadelphia.  I visited there as we toured Old City Philadelphia with family from out of town in the Spring of 2011.

A father who built Independence Hall. Daugther in law of a Founding Father of our country.  A working class woman whose sacrifice included the loss of three husbands in the defense of freedom. An example of industry and patriotism in the forming of a new nation. Even if she never met George Washington and showed him the five point star, Betsy Griscom-Ross-Ashburn-Claypoole deserves honor as an America hero.  

If you want to be inspired with appreciation of what our flag stands for watch
this famous video of LA Dodger  Rick Monday stopping a flag burning

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Brooklyn, New York. Visited April 2011

This post focuses on mercurial 1980's artist Jean-Michel Basquiat  - a tragic story of remarkable gifts and a life struggling to live with them. I asked my friend, artist Jay Walker to talk about Basquiat’s life and art.

When I list the artists that influence my work, Jean-Michel Basquiat is always the one that is curious to people.

"Unquiet Mind"
Basquiat rose to notoriety at the young age of 20, coming out of the New York graffiti movement under the tag name “Samo”, in which he would spray paint Dadaistic truisms. After being reviewed in Artforum by Rene Ricard, who dubbed him the “Radiant Child”, and then being discovered by the booming 80s New York art scene, Basquiat was the youngest artist in recent history to take the art world by storm. Eventually being exhibited internationally, making more money than he knew what to do with, being featured on MTV, dating many starlets (Madonna included), and developing a close relationship with Andy Warhol (whom many thought was exploiting the young artist), the pressures of fame came crushing down on Basquiat. This led to a lagging career, increased drug use, and the eventual overdose at the age of 27 in August 1988

Basquiat’s work is classified as Neo-Expressionism and he is often compared to Van Gogh, due to his similar lack of formal training, troubled life, and out of the norm expressive work. Some make the case that the adulation of the art world for Basquiat was penance for its oversight of Van Gogh.

"Fallen Angel"
His work is a dichotomy of tribalism and refinement. Basquiat would point out that it was Europe meets Africa, a form of Creole, like being Haitian, which his father was (his mother was institutionalized most of his life). He avoided being a black mascot for the art world, but he did embrace his heritage of jazz and identified with fellow African-Americans who had risen above social barriers.

Why is Basquiat important to me? His style of work is not similar to mine, though I hope a more direct influence will happen. He made the work he wanted to, he tapped into something deep inside, was unafraid of what people thought of what he created, and reached the level that few are able to attain in a lifetime, all while being very young. He is also a cautionary tale. What happens when fame and the market play to heavily into an artist’s life? What happens with a meteoric rise? What happens when art is all that matters?

If you want to know more about him, watch my favorite movie – "Basquiat"  a film by the painter Julian Schnabel, which is a loose biography from Schnabel’s first hand account of Basquiat’s life.

"Self Portrait"

Personally speaking, as I’ve looked at Basquiat’s work, I’m not sure I can say I ‘like’ it. But I can’t seem to stop looking at it.  You can take a look at his paintings at a number of sites online.  Basquiat is also featured in alot of short video.  The one I found most interesting is "Painting Live - Downtown (1981)"

David and Zac on the hunt

The main reason I wanted to include Basquiat in this blog right now has to do the experience of finding his grave. I visited  Green-Wood Cemetery, a beautiful historic cemetery on one of the highest hills in Brooklyn overlooking downtown Manhattan, just a couple of months ago. I was there with my friends, photographer David Sacks and Zac Martin, pastor of Sovereign Grace City Church. While the cemetery office gave us a map showing the approximate location of Basquiat’s headstone, when we got to the section where he’s buried we couldn’t find it. After about fifteen minutes of wandering around among the graves we saw a small elderly gentleman approaching us. He said, ‘you looking for that artist? I’ll show you where he is. He’s buried behind my daughter.’

He walked us down a row of low symmetrical headstones, literally back to back with each other. ‘Here’s my daughter. He’s on the other side.’ He graciously allowed us to take the picture I’ve included here. And then he set to the sad dignity of clearing away leaves and weeds from his daughter's stone. We stood there for a few minutes, silent; looking down at the grave of a gifted man whose life was cut short in its prime. A few feet away a grieving father faithfully tended to the final resting place of a young woman whose gifts and story are unknown to the world.

As we turned to leave I wondered if this wasn’t an opportunity to offer him hope. So as I thanked him for helping us I said, ‘Sir what you’re doing speaks deeply to me – thank you…’ But before I could finish, he gently held up his hand; the tears in his eyes told me there was a line of interaction he didn’t want to cross. And he said, ‘You never want to do what I’m having to do’.

As the Bible says, death is a curse. It leaves gaping holes of grief in families. It silences the beauty of God-given creativity. But death has its own enemy. And someday it will be defeated – swallowed up in the victory of Christ (1 Cor. 15:34). As I pray for that faithful old man I pray that when that victory comes, he will be part of it.

Come Lord Jesus.