History is full of intersections. The “story” of…well, everything…really is like this giant tapestry woven out of the lives and choices of people (all people), the occurrence of events, the development and course of ideas, and the circumstances of place, time, and situation. Some of the intersections of all these things can be fairly obvious, expected, or downright sequitur. And sometimes they’re not.
And sometimes, you are working in the Archives, minding your own business, churning out the day’s work—some of which, on this particular day, is rather unusual, versus what you normally do at your job on a daily basis—and you suddenly run across an intersection among two things you would have expected to be completely unrelated, and it gives you the goosebumps…
I had one of those days on Tuesday, September 17. Let me explain. (Bear with me on the “job duties” part.)
One of my primary job duties as Archivist for Digital Initiatives & Outreach at the Wright State University Special Collections & Archives is to manage and coordinate the use of social media for sharing the Archives and our collections with the world. Among the social media channels that we use for this are a couple of blogs (Out of the Box and Dayton Daily News Archive) and Facebook and Twitter (the latter two being recent additions – if you haven’t yet, you should go check them out and like/follow them! *notevensubtlehinthint*).
Part of what I do with these social media channels is plan their content. We post all kinds of things, but many times, I like to try to coordinate the social media content with a particular time period, date, or event in history. I love “today in history” posts—if we can think of them—and if they pertain to our “stuff” or our collecting areas (aviation, local history, WSU history).
So, that all being said…let’s get back to my freaky experience on September 17, which, let’s face it, is why you clicked on this post in the first place.
September 17, 1908, is widely recognized as the date of the first fatality from a powered airplane crash. (OK, maybe “widely recognized” isn’t exactly true, but everyone who works in aviation history knows this story! Or they should…) Orville Wright was demonstrating his airplane to the military at Ft. Myer, Va., when the plane crashed, injuring Orville and killing his passenger, 26-year-old Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge.
I had this on the calendar to mention on September 17 for a while, and so I did so in the above tweet. (Later in the day, we also posted a great blog post written by my supervisor Dawne about the crash and about Orville’s sister Katharine. You should check it out; plus, it has more pictures!)
OK, so…that all being done, I turned to some other tasks on my plate. One of those tasks was to either locate, or otherwise procure, transcripts of a few Civil War letters from our Wallace Collection (MS-92). Long story short, when transcripts of the Civil War correspondence of William McKinney were made, somehow a couple of letters were apparently missed. This was noticed during the migration of digital versions of the letters (and transcripts) from one system to another, and we really wanted to have ALL the transcripts ready (better for access purposes because transcripts are keyword searchable, handwritten letters are not) before the formal launch of the new system.
SO, not being able to locate any existing transcripts for these two particular letters, I located the original letters, took a look, decided that the handwriting was pretty legible and that they shouldn’t take too long to transcribe, and sat down to transcribe those few items myself, so I could get them over to the Digital folks ASAP.
One of the letters I transcribed was this letter from William McKinney to his cousin Martha McKinney, circa 1862. (You can see the original handwritten letter as well as my now-completed-and-posted transcription if you click that link. Or you can take my word for things. Aren’t original documents grand? You don’t have to take my word for it; you can see the original evidence. But I digress…)
I had a bit of trouble with a particular line on the last page of the letter where the paper had been creased right through a line of text, so it was particularly worn and faded. William had been describing some of the sights during a recent stroll through Nashville, and he mentioned coming across one of the (Union) iron-clad ships, the…Carro…Cairo…what does that say? I wondered.
“Cairo” made more sense, but I wanted to be sure, so I Googled it to make sure. And the first thing that seemed promising was a National Park Service web site for the U.S.S. Cairo Gunboat and Museum in Vicksburg, MS. From this site I learned the thing I needed to know—that the word on the page was in fact “Cairo.”
I also learned that the U.S.S. Cairo was sunk in the Yazoo River in December 1862. I learned that it was raised again (in pieces) in the 1960s and eventually turned into a museum.
But, mostly fascinatingly…and strangely…I learned that the skipper in command of the U.S.S. Cairo was one Lt. Cmdr. Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr.
Yes, I “encountered” two historical figures named Thomas Selfridge on the same day—one of which being rather expected as I knew about that anniversary, the other being a complete surprise.
And if that wasn’t strange enough…then I was curious. Though I don’t have the stats to back this up, I’d wager that Selfridge isn’t a terribly common name. Well, it’s certainly not like if I had run across two “John Smith”s or something, anyway! I wondered if they were related…the Thomas Selfridge who commanded an iron-clad for the Union in 1862 and the Thomas Selfridge who died in a plane crash in 1908.
I didn’t have far to look to find that, indeed, they were. All it took was a quick trip by Wikipedia. Thankfully, the site is rife with pages about military men, whether they were super-duper important like Robert E. Lee or more of a blip on history’s screen (or a footnote on the page, if you’re a little more old-school).
Thomas Ethelon Selfridge (now I want to know where that middle name came from!), 1882-1908, the casualty in Orville’s plane crash at Ft. Myer, was the son of the Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Oliver Selfridge, Jr., 1836-1924. Another weird point of coincidence? Both men were 26 at the time of the history intersects described in this little story (the plane crash and the U.S.S. Cairo sinking).
And here’s the thing that makes me really wonder: How on Earth did I just happen across these two things on the same day? I mean, what the hell, Universe? It’s so bizarre.
On any other day of the year, I wouldn’t even spend too much time thinking about Thomas E. Selfridge (sorry, mate), but on September 17, it’s the obvious choice for a “today in history” about aviation.
And I don’t normally do manuscript transcription…ever. Heck, there are plenty of days (even whole weeks) where I don’t even so much as handle an actual manuscript, because the primary functions of my position don’t always require it. But on this particular day, I not only got to work with an original manuscript—a handwritten 19th century letter, no less, which is some of my favorite “stuff”—but I got to read it…really read it…as a legitimate work activity, because somebody had to do that transcript ASAP, and it might as well be me!
And none of it had (seemingly) anything to do with each other. The tasks were unrelated. The collections were unrelated. Even the reason we HAVE those two particular collections was completely unrelated. The Archives has items pertaining to the Selfridge crash fatality because of our focus on aviation history and the Wright Brothers. The Wallace Family Papers (MS-92), where William McKinney’s Civil War letter came from, is part of our collection because of its local history significance (the family lived in Clark County, which is one of the counties about which we collect local history).
You know I could go on and on. I have gone on and on. (If you read this far, I should bake you cookies. Er, no, biscotti: they’re the only cookies I can consistently make well because they’re meant to be hard.)
I should stop wondering, stop being surprised when I find bits of history that are related, even if they initially seemed so…completely unrelated. My husband is one of those people who likes to say “everything happens for a reason.”
Maybe sometimes the Universe just wants to remind us that all of history is woven together in one big story, driving the point home by showing you the relationship between two things you never would have guessed had any ties to each other.
Whatever it was, what an interesting day!