Tag Archives: Pennsylvania Department

Going Backstage with Our American Cousin

I select all of my husband’s reading material.

He’s perfectly capable of choosing a book by himself, of course. It’s just that I happen to work at the Library. And after being together for 25 years, I’ve gotten incredibly good at knowing what his preferences are … um … between the covers.

In the bookish sense, that is.


Backstage at the Lincoln AssassinationOne of the books that I brought home recently for the husband’s consideration was Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre, by Thomas A. Bogar.  Which prompted my beloved to ask me – in the course of his reading and during what passes for two-plus-decades old marital conversation fodder these days  – about some ancestors who are buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, a well-known Philadelphia resting place steeped in history.

“Your Hess relatives are there,” I answered, mentally dusting off some genealogical research I’d conducted years ago.

“Huh. Well. You won’t believe this and I’m not 100% sure, but I think two of them might have been at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot.”

“Please don’t tell me we’re related to John Wilkes Booth, for God’s sake,” I said. “We have enough problems.”

Now, everyone knows all about the main characters who had a starring role in the first-ever presidential assassination, which occurred exactly 150 years ago. We know about the President and Mary Todd Lincoln and the infamous John Wilkes Booth. We’ve heard of Ford’s Theatre, and some of us might even know that the play being performed that fateful night was Our American Cousin.

But there haven’t been many accolades for the people who were actually onstage and those assisting with the production itself.

Until now.

In Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, theater historian and author Thomas A. Bogar tells his reader about the 46 actors, managers and stagehands who found themselves in the spotlight during one of history’s defining moments.

And among them? Courtland V. Hess, a 25-year-old singer and actor from Philadelphia who was not feeling well on that ill-fated evening and who was scheduled to play the role of Lieutenant Vernon in Our American Cousin.  Also at the play was William Heiss, who was at the performance to see his brother Courtland (who had, apparently, thought it prudent to drop the pesky family “i” on his quest for fame and glory). William Heiss was somewhat of a Big Deal with the telegraph service; it seems that he was involved with the decision to shut down the commercial telegraphs immediately following Lincoln being shot.

(My husband, who earned a masters degree in American history, is physically cringing that I am writing this post from his memory and without double-checking the actual source for myself. I get that, but … well, I’m on deadline for this column and Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination is, as of this writing, currently checked out. To keep a modicum of nerdy peace in the family, my husband is making me promise you, dear Eleventh Stack reader, and especially Mr. Bogar, that I’ll go back and make sure I know what the hell I’m talking about.)

Regardless, this intriguing tidbit of information – along with my putzing around on the Internet and my previous findings while climbing our family tree – is more than enough to pique my curiosity about our family’s potential connection to the Lincoln assassination.

And what do you know?  Fortunately, there happens to be a place where I can find out whether Courtland Hess and William Heiss are, in fact, our very own American cousins 150 years removed.

Are you curious to learn if one of your relatives had a front-row seat to history? If so, the Pennsylvania Department of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh offers a wealth of genealogical materials, databases and classes for beginner and advanced researchers alike. Contact or visit the Pennsylvania Department at the Main Library of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to find out more.

~ Melissa F.


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“Make People Smile and Think While They’re Smiling”

Cyrus “Cy” Hungerford was the longest-serving editorial cartoonist in Pittsburgh history. He was hired by The Pittsburgh Sun in 1912 and and moved to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette fifteen years later, where he served until his retirement in 1977. Hungerford’s cartoons satirically illustrated local, national, and international events. Every aspect of life was a target of his clever, gentle humor: politics, sports and entertainment, business and labor, and the various Pittsburgh cultural scenes. His caricatures of politicians from William Harding to David Lawrence to Richard Nixon; personalities from the Duchess of Windsor to Joe Stalin; and world events from WWI to the Cold War and Vietnam were pointed, and brought a smile to readers’ lips over their morning coffee. Hungerford also cleverly inserted cartooning symbols popularized by Thomas Nast in the late 1800s–like the political party emblems of the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant–with inventions of his own that reflected the social scene. One of these was “Pa Pitt,” a chubby, bespectacled, colonial fellow respresentative not only of Pittsburgh and its history, but also the public interest.

Pa Pitt

From the collections of the Pennsylvania Department, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. All rights reserved.

As we enter the current political season. we thought it might be interesting to look back on some of Hungerford’s past election cartoons and see how times have changed (or not). Hungerford presented hundreds of his original cartoons to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in April, 1975. Copies of an array of election cartoons will be hanging in the First Floor Gallery at Main, and some original Hungerfords can be viewed in display cases by the silver elevator on the second floor for a limited time.

As a bonus, we are happy to present speakers Rob Rogers and Tim Menees as they talk about Following in the Footsteps of Hungerford. These accomplished local editorial cartoonists will discuss Hungerford’s impact and how cartoons continue to take on local and national politics with humor and style. You can hear them on Sunday September 30th 2012 from 2:00-4:30 p.m. in the Quiet Reading Room on the First Floor at Main Library. Please join us!


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Laboring On

A few weeks ago I read an article about Thomas Geoghegan, and decided to see if the library had a copy of his book Which Side Are You On: Trying To Be For Labor When It’s Flat On Its Back. (Geoghegan, if you aren’t familiar with him, is one of the contenders for the Illinois congressional seat that Rahm Emmanuel left open when he became Obama’s Chief of Staff.)  He is also a labor lawyer, and chronicles some of his experiences in Which Side Are You On.  My interest in labor history is fairly recent, and I really know very little about it other than what I’ve seen in a few documentaries, and this book was perfect for filling in some of the holes in my knowledge.  Geoghegan worked for some of the biggest and most powerful unions around– the United Mine Workers (UMW) and The United Steelworkers of America (USWA).  This isn’t a straight history of labor, but more like a collection of anecdotes, peppered liberally with historic facts.  In other words, exactly the kind of labor history that I was looking to read. Of course, the fact that this book was published in 1991 means that some of the big events in more recent labor history– the collapse of Bethlehem Steel in 2003, for example– haven’t happened yet, but some of his stories of recession and layoffs and big business seem to foreshadow the current economic crisis.

I can’t read about labor history, particularly when so much of it focuses on the steel industry, without thinking of Pittsburgh’s own labor history.  I’m still a relative newbie to the area, but so far I’ve found the steel-town history of Pittsburgh to be omnipresent.  Beer, football, and my favorite Pittsburgh movie all nod at the city’s industrial past. And I love how little traces of the city’s industrial past are all over the place — like that corner of the library that was left black during the building’s cleaning several years ago.  I tend to be something of a visual learner, so I’ve also been loving the image search feature of the Historic Pittsburgh database. A search for “steel” brings up nearly 2,000 historic photographs!

After being in a bit of a reading funk lately, I’m happy to have finally found a subject as interesting as this to keep me occupied for a while.  I have a feeling that I’m only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning about Pittsburgh’s labor history, so you’ll probably see me lurking in the library’s Pennsylvania Department, looking at photographs or checking out some of their books on the city’s past.  And of course, I’m always open to suggestions — leave a comment if you’ve read any particularly fantastic books about Pittsburgh’s industrial history!

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