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il·le·git·i·ma·cy /ˈˌi(l)ləˈjidəməsē/

noun

1.the state of not being in accordance with accepted standards or rules; lack of authorization by the law.

2.the state of being born to parents not lawfully married to each other.

Bastardy, the state or condition of children borne out of wedlock, is a 19th century concept with little use or meaning in the 21st. Marriage itself has far more meaning as a legal concept—the legitimacy of children for the orderly passing of real property to the next generation—than it does in religion. Among the Puritans of New England, marriage was considered a civil procedure for precisely that reason. In my view, it is one of the better arguments in support of same-gender marriage. To more fully understand the consequences of bastardy, read Dickens.

Here and there in these pages have been hints regarding a kind of “Illegitimate Underground” in late 19th and early 20th century Agincourt. This entry may serve to flesh that story out, fill some gaps, correct any conflicts, which seems high time. The chief characters were Mrs Casius Hyde Miller (better known as Belle), Circe Beddowes, Maud Adams, Martha Tennant, and the redoubtable Dr Rudyard Fahnstock, MD. This quintumvirate formed in spite of itself to address the very real problems of illegitimacy in their community. Each played a distinct role in its operation.

Belle Miller: Circumstances—why is it we habitually fall back on circumstances?—made Mrs Miller a widow far sooner than she might. With half a business and twice the responsibility in an age when retirement and death were nearly synonymous, a younger brother, a man of the world, set her up in business as a madam; in the film she’ll be played by Amanda Blake. But her employees, as might be expected, had the occasional conceptual issue which required medical attention.

Circe Beddowes: Enter Mrs Beddowes (a.k.a., She-listens-to-the-moon), a Sac & Fox medicine woman, skilled in the herbal arts. Caught early enough, Mrs Beddowes could induce miscarriage with a potion of leaves, roots, bark, and berries. But if things were too far advanced…

Maud Adams: Maud Adams found room in the dormitory where he restaurant staff lived en famille, where they could carry their pregnancy to term with a house mother and surrogate sisters. In several of those situations, the girls often changed careers and performed a different kind of service. When the time came…

Martha Tennant: Martha Tennant served as midwife in the room where her son Anson would dream of becoming an architect—a stable, because there was no room at the metaphorical inn. It was Mrs Tennant who bankrolled the entire organization, though her husband Jim knew full well what was going on but deferred to his wife’s better instincts. [You should know, too, that when she herself was widowed, she joined a religious order and converted the house to a hospice.] Mrs Tennant was also on exceptionally good terms with her two clerical neighbors: Rev. Grimaldi and then his successor Fr. Chilton Fanning Dowd at St. Joe’s, and Rev. Frances Manning across the street at St Ahab’s. Legitimacy can be helped along with an imprimatur.

Rudyard Fahnstock: Doc Fahnstock took his hippocratic oath seriously—today he wouldn’t ask your sexual orientation before deciding to provide medical services—and would not perform abortions, except in the case of the mother’s health. He did render assistance when required at the birthing, but his larger contribution was the preparation of birth certificates to deal with the very issue that began this post: legitimacy. And he and Mrs Tennant also found homes for the infants with far less paper trail than might otherwise be dictated by state law.

Collectively, the five of them ran an underground orphanage avoiding the stain which bastardy would leave and all might see. Sissy Beddowes was the first to die; she was the group’s eldest by far, followed closely by Belle Miller. Doctor Fahnstock practiced medicine until his own end, when his practice was carried on by Henk Cuijpers. Maud Adams left us in 1943 and then, five years later to the day, it was Martha Tennant’s time. By then, the secret society they had formed was common knowledge, indeed, it may always have been.

Martha Tennant (known to only a few as Mother Martha Mary, SSM) enjoyed a funeral like few others in Agincourt history. Her competitors for that honor would be all the others in their group. Someone—still unidentified and likely to remain that way—knew most of the story and was able to fill the blanks with discreet inquiry. The beneficiaries of their work, the young women, their newborns who grew married and had families of their own, who were complicit numbered in the dozens, if not hundreds. It was agreed that all in those categories who attended the funeral (with requiem masses at both St Joe and St Ahab) and walk behind the wagon that bore her to The Shades would each wear red socks.

There can’t have been that many pairs of red hosiery in all of northwestern Iowa, so I’m guessing several die pots were called into service, because the blaze of crimson, scarlet, vermillion, cerise, cardinal, and carmine along the way set the pavement aflame.

Richard Hovey [1864-1900]

Poetry was hardly a significant part of my public school education, and by the time I got to college, it was too late. My relationship with poetry would always be stiff, artificial, ex post facto.

I did write one long poem while at university, a longish, self-consciousness plod celebrating a turning point for me—not so much a coming-of-age piece as a coming-to-grips. Perhaps they’re one in the same. It’s title—“Norman, summer of 1970”; I hadn’t yet read James Baldwin—didn’t even hint at the shallow profundities awaiting the hapless reader. With great good fortune, I misplaced the only typescript years ago. So you have been spared. You’re welcome.

Writing about Wright many posts ago, I wondered about the 19th century poet Richard Hovey, just three years Wright’s senior and dead at thirty-six, just as Wright was coming into his own and developing the Prairie Style of his first period. It was through him that I learned of the Dartmouth poet: Hovey had written something titled “Taliesin”, a reference to the Welsh bard that Wright would be hard pressed to ignore. So I dutifully found a collection of Hovey’s work, but found it unreadable: my eyes slid over the words but afforded me no traction, despite his best intent. A single line, just a fragment in fact, lodged with me: “…to fashion worlds in little.” That should be enough, and has been, for it emboldens me even today to keep the Agincourt Project alive.

That being said, I revisited Mr Hovey today and found cause to give him another try:

WHEN we are dead I firmly do believe
We shall slip back into the primal sea
Of the universal life, that there shall be
No such false joys as on this earth deceive
—Nay, nor no truer ones—nor cause to grieve
Nor terror nor despite nor mockery
Nor love, life’s strongest bitterest mystery
And while we still are struggling in the strife
Surely it is a gracious boon though small
That one brief sweet real joy at least there is,
To be about to die and know that all
The anguish and the agony of life
Will not last longer than a lover’s kiss.

Whatever school of poetics has been assigned him, Hovey is, at heart, a Gnostic, and for that glimmer I am glad, as I look toward “that one brief sweet real joy.”

Mental Mapping

An Excursus

[look it up; I had to]

“It is not down in any map; true places never are.” — Herman Melville

Dr Bob believed the creation of Agincourt was good therapy. He said I “lit up” each time I relate some new facet of the concoction—or do I mean concatenation? In hindsight, perhaps this was not the best use of my limited time with him. But he also warned me to call as soon as I began packing and and made arrangements with United Van Lines for the move.

There are occasions when my digressions into one tangled thread or another of Agincourt history, or of its current events, induces a look of concern on my friend’s faces. Do they wonder, I wonder, if I’ve finally started to lose it; whether Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells” have begun their inevitable transubstantiation to cottage cheese. For the time being, I seem to have reasonable command of my faculties, so put your mind at rest. [I will admit, however, that “executive function” continues to be my weak suit.]

The digression du jour is a component of the project that I’ve put off too long: crafting a map of Fennimore County. Iowa already has ninety-nine, so one more shouldn’t upset anyone; they’ll scarcely notice if I’m careful about it.

There are a surprising number of articles but especially books about imaginary places; it gives aid and comfort to someone preoccupied with doing precisely that. But I don’t need any such reassurance; the creative process itself provides all the confirmation I require.

Ninety-nine

Whether accident or design, Iowa eventually accumulated ninety-nine counties. And with them, there came to be ninety-nine county seats, each in nineteenth century terminology known as a “county capitol”: the nation has a capitol, as does the state, and so in nested, nineteenth century logic does the next level of governance, the county. Ah, but because Agincourt required a status which might provide assured economic prosperity, it had to become a county seat. Hence, the creation of Fennimore county, Iowa’s 100th.

Shoehorning a new county—each averaging about thirty-two miles square—into an existing matrix has been no easy exercise in cartographic distortion. My first thought to dissect a highway map was folly, either to fit Fennimore entirely or to repurpose portions of four adjacent counties. A wholesale violation of space-time was required, and so it has evolved into something approaching origami and likely to be my entry in the Rourke Art Museum’s 60th “Midwestern Invitational”.

“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”James Joyce, Ulysses

[Technically this is post #1237.]

Frances Faig (1885–1955)

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

FAIG, Frances Wiley [1885–1955]

Ohio Landscape

ca1915

oil on canvas / 6 inches by 8 inches

“A noted woman artist from Cincinnati, Ohio, Mrs. Faig studied with Frank Duveneck and also with Charles Hawthorne.  She was a member of the McDowell Society, The Cincinnati Women’s Art Club and the Southern States Art League.  She was married to John T. Faig, professor of mechanical engineering and president from 1918-1951 of the Ohio Mechanics Institute, now the College of Applied Science.

“In addition to the Engineering Library murals at the University of Cincinnati, Mrs. Faig painted murals of the Miami and Erie canals in Hartwell High School and of the Cincinnati hills in the Woman’s City Club.  In 1932 she painted murals in Western Hills High School.”

Les fauves (‘the wild beasts’) was coined by art critic Louis Vauxcelles when he saw the work of Henri Matisse and André Derain in a Paris exhibition of 1905. But unlike the French Impressionist movement, the Fauvists “emphasized painterly qualities and strong color over representational or realist values” retained by the Impressionists.

This small but powerful work comes to the collection from the family of Agincourt businessman Holborn Messenger, a 1914 graduate of the University of Cincinnati, where he may have known the Faigs.

J. Sterling Morton and all that

“When it rains, it pours.”

J. Sterling Morton is hardly a household name. I recognize it because there is a suburban Chicago high school named for him; we played against them and customarily lost. There is also the Morton Wing of the Chicago Art Institute. But a much better clue to his identity is a little farther west: the Morton Arboretum in DuPage County (which I must confess is toward the bottom of my bucket list but things change). My guess is you’ve used one of his products, perhaps even today, when you picked up a salt shaker, because Morton’s millions were made from the production of common table salt.

Why the Morton family are connected with Arbor Day I don’t know, but I somehow knew even as a grade school kid that they were.

Growing up in Bedford Park I came to appreciate trees. Not just West 65th Place, but the entire suburb of Bedford Park profited from the very phenomenon J. Sterling believed in—the planting of trees. For my village was a textbook example of modest residential streets ennobled by mature rows of stately elms and maples, cathedrals of green, American allées worthy of a Vaux-le-Vicomte at their end. This was the age before Dutch Elm denuded middle America, so my memories of sultry summer nights playing “Kick the Can” or catching fireflies in mayonnaise jars are among the happiest of what was for me an unhappy time.

Besides lightening bugs, which have practically disappeared, there were also the cycles of cicadas, an odd-numbered rhythm of years when the woke from their slumber long enough to mate and leave larvae for an equal length of time. But for that brief encounter, a matter of just a few days, they made a holy racket as soon as the sun had set. If you’ve missed one of those unofficial festivals of life, I can’t quite do it justice. But recollection encourages me to recreate that setting, sacred to me, in Agincourt.

It’s surprising how many real-photo postcards there are of those very streets of my youth. Even in their black-and-whiteness I can be transported to the late 1950s, the happier age of Dwight Eisenhower, when the future looked so hopeful to a twelve-year-old anxious to watch it unfold. RPPCs (“real-photo postcards”) are often far more expensive than their lithographed cousins. Why? Because there could very well be just the one in your hand or on your computer screen. RPPCs weren’t necessarily mass produced; they depended on nothing more than you, your camera, and a darkroom to print that image which had momentarily seemed so worthy of being recorded. If I’d been an amateur photographer, I might have created some myself.

Looking at one of these, my reaction is always the same: I hear Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music” in my mind’s ear, and I recall the text of James Agee’s prose poem “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”, which was itself also partially set to music by Barber. Let yourself be transported to a simpler time by this fragment:

“The noise of the locust is dry, and it seems not to be rasped or vibrated but urged from him as if through a small orifice by a breath that can never give out. Also there is never one locust but an illusion of at least a thousand. The noise of each locust is pitched in some classic locust range out of which none of them varies more than two full tones: and yet you seem to hear each locust discrete from all the rest, and there is a long, slow, pulse in their noise, like the scarcely defined arch of a long and high set bridge. They are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell of heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums, the boldest of all the sounds of night. And yet it is habitual to summer nights, and is of the great order of noises, like the noises of the sea and of the blood of her precocious grandchild, which you realize you are hearing only when you catch yourself listening.”

Amen.

 

Honorary Citizenship

It may not mean much, but Agincourt is about to bestow honorary citizenship on several people who’ve been instrumental carrying the project forward. But not until we’ve crafted a suitable certificate. What will it get me, you ask. Well, beyond that rosy glow of satisfaction, how about free pie and covfefe at Adams’ Restaurant?

Van Jones [dates unknown]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

JONES, Van (dates unknown)

Portrait of William Bendix

ca1945-1950

oil on board / 23 inches by 19.2 inches

It is surprising when portraits leave a family’s possession and find their way to strangers through estate auctions or garage sales. An anonymous donor noticed this fine portrait at an antique dealer in Omaha and recognized the subject as former Agincourt resident William Bendix (1905-1984), developer of Riverside Addition and builder of what is arguably Agincourt’s first mid-century modern home. Bendix owned the Chevrolet dealership, which may be where the portrait hung and also account for it going astray.

William and Maureen Bendix had one child, a daughter Estelle. About the artist Van Jones we know little, except he was British, active post-1927, and produced both fine and graphic art — a distinction we are loathe to make..