Category Archives: Research

Japanese POW Treatment and Eliza Scidmore’s Last Book

My husband and I recently watched a powerful film called “The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It was interesting in light of my work on a biography of Eliza Scidmore.

Her last book was As the Hague Ordains, a novel about POW conditions in Japan in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. “The Railway Man” is based on a true story of Japanese treatment of a British Army officer captured in Singapore during World War II. Together, they present a sharp contrast. Continue reading

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‘On the Hunt’ for Cherry Blossoms With a Japanese Film Crew

On the weekend of February 4, I spent several hours with a film crew from Japan, explaining the origin of Washington’s cherry blossoms and Eliza Scidmore’s role in helping to bring them to America. They’re producing a documentary for the TBS network, to air March 18, 2017, as part of its “Mystery Hunter” series.

From left, reporter Nakada Asumi, assistant director Hoshuyama Aki, me, production coordinator Keiji Jinn Nishimura (in glasses, center), director Suzuki Yohei, audio man Sakuma Toshimi and camera man Fukumoto Noriyuki.

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‘She Persisted.’ A Century Ago.

From website of “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” by Andrea Zimmerman (Pelican, 2011)

Thanks, Andrea Zimmerman, for adding Eliza Scidmire to the Internet meme of “women who persisted.”

On the floor of Congress this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren opposed Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination as U.S. attorney by attempting to read a letter written by the late widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell cut off Warren, saying:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

“She persisted” quickly became a bumper-sticker slogan on social media, prompting references to trailblazing women of the past. Women like Eliza Scidmore.

Andrea Zimmerman, in Washington for a book reading

In a Facebook posting, Andrea Zimmerman, author of the children’s book “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” added Scidmore to the list of history’s defiantly successful women. As Andrea noted, it took Eliza 24 years to win support for her idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in the Potomac Park.

Eliza Scidmore was a young woman with a crazy idea, and the male park supervisors she approached with her suggestion brushed her off. Several times.

But she persisted. Eventually, she got her way by securing as an ally another gutsy woman of her day: First Lady Helen Taft. The cherry blossoms we enjoy every spring in Washington show how things turned out.

 

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My ‘Pen Pal’ Research Partner in Japan

Ichiro Fudai at home in Hanamaki, Japan

This is Ichiro Fudai. We’ve never met. But Ichiro has become a research partner after he learned about my book project on Eliza Scidmore through a TV program that aired during my research trip to Japan in 2013. Ichiro contacted me about a connection in his hometown of Hanamaki.

Ichiro, who has visited the United States and has excellent command of English, lives in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture. A close friend of Eliza Scidmore late in life, Dr. Inazo Nitobe, hailed from there.

Trained as an agronomist, Dr. Nitobe became a statesman and, like Scidmore, an advocate for international peace. Late in life he worked for the League of Nations in Geneva, where Eliza spent her final years. She socialized often with Dr. Nitobe and his American-born wife, Mary.

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Robert Caro and a Sense of Place in Biography

caro

Robert Caro at 2011 BIO conference in Washington

I’m grateful to Steve Weinberg, a journalist and biographer (and one of my former journalism school profs at the U. of Missouri), for flagging this article in The Daily Beast. It describes the evolution of legendary biographer Robert Caro’s first book: ‘The Power Broker’ Turns 40: How Robert Caro Wrote a Masterpiece.

The book is huge—1,200 pages. Intimidating. But based on this article, I’m inspired to track it down and study Caro’s style.

Caro’s keynote speech on the craft of biography impressed me three years ago at a Biographers International Organization conference in Washington. He talked about the importance of place and setting.

[I]f the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character  …

The message resonated with me because I’ve focused a lot on conveying a sense of place in the first two draft chapters of my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

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In Boston, Biographers and a Lost Letter by Eliza Scidmore

Whether novice or experienced, biographers have a great resource in Biographers International Organization. It was founded five years ago by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris and others to provide collegiality and support.

I’ve attended three of BIO’s annual conferences. This year’s, held in Boston in May, was the best yet. Three colleagues from my book-writing group were also there. And on a research jaunt to the Boston Public Library I found — buried in an archive — a very important letter by Eliza Scidmore.

Happy campers at the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, all of us members of a book-writing group in Washington. From left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

At the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, with Washington book-writing colleagues, from left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

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At America’s First World’s Fair, Eliza Scidmore and … Irish Oatmeal!

When you’re working on a book involving U.S. history, you see connections everywhere.

The latest for me is steel-cut oats, which I love for their chewy nuttiness. Oatmeal really fuels you to start the day, without the hunger pangs I usually get around 11:00 when I have my other standard breakfast: Greek yogurt with berries and meusli. The only drawback is that old-fashioned oatmeal takes 30 minutes to cook.

While waiting for the pot to boil a few days ago, I noticed an intriguing link to a chapter I’m working on for my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

The steel-cut oats I bought are imported from Ireland under the company name “John McCann.” The arty label — if it’s not just a fake marketing ploy — features a “Certificate of Award” for the product from the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia. That was America’s first World’s Fair, held for the 100th anniversary of U.S. independence.

The exposition is where Eliza Scidmore made her reporting debut, at the age of 19, writing for a Washington newspaper.

http://www.lcpimages.org/centennial/img/Am1876UniStaCen-52009-O-6.jpg

Official Catalogue from 1876 International Exhibition

Many people know about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (technically the World Colombian Exhibition), thanks to books like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. Eliza was at that event too. But the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 was the first big event of its kind in the United States, and most Americans had never seen anything like it. During the six-month run, from May to November 1876, it drew about 9 million visitors. The admission fee was 50 cents.  Continue reading

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Shut Out From the Library of Congress

My study desk in the Adams Building of the Library of Congress

Bruce and I are now a 100-percent furloughed household. He’s in a “non-essential” federal job and thus on unofficial R&R. And here’s what the government shutdown looks like from my little spot in the universe. It’s my tiny “study desk” room at the Library of Congress, on the fifth floor of the Adams Building.

I’ve spent tons of hours there, often working late into the evening doing research for my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

And now the library is shuttered. The books I’ve had on reserve are off limits for the time being. No online advance ordering of any more books, either, since the library’s website has also gone dark.

A lot of people today think you can do all the research you need to online. But I’ve found the resources of the Library of Congress  indispensable to my project. Continue reading

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Filed under Alaska, Biography, Eliza Scidmore, Historical Travel, Library of Congress, Research

Eliza Scidmore Slept Here …

In the course of research I’ve been finding addresses of various places where Eliza Scidmore lived or stayed over the years. Since she was such a vagabond, there were many! Here’s a photographic chronology of a few of them.

David Atwood House, Madison, Wisconsin.
David Atwood, editor and publisher of “The State Journal,” married the sister of Eliza’s mother. As a young woman Eliza was close to her cousin Mary Atwood. Eliza stayed here with the Atwoods during visits back to Madison, where she spent her early childhood years. (Source: Wisconsin State Historical Society)

 

Georgetown Visitation.
Eliza attended this Catholic boarding school in Washington from 1862-63, when she was around 6 to 7 years old. It opened in 1799 and is still operating today. (Source: Library of Congress)

 

“Idaho,” Juneau, 1887.
Eliza slept in a cabin aboard this steamer in the summer of 1883 when she made her first trip to Alaska via the Inside Passage. The wharf shown here was named for the ship’s captain, James Carroll, who became an early promoter of Alaska tourism. (Source: Alaska State Library)

 

Club Hotel, Yokohama.
Eliza and her mother stayed here on their first trip to Japan in the summer of 1885. The hotel, next to a popular men’s club, overlooked the harbor on an avenue known as the Bund. Later, Eliza and her mother lived next door, at No. 6 Bund, while Eliza’s brother George was a consular official in Japan. Today the site is occupied by the Hotel Monterrey. (Source: MeijiShowa)

 

Brunswick Hotel, Boston.
A lot of Washington residents fled the muggy city in the summer for fashionable spas or cooler places in New England. Eliza and her mother stayed at times at this popular hotel in Boston. (Source: Library of Congress)

 

Shoreham Hotel, Washington.
Built in 1887, this apartment hotel at H and 15th Streets, N.W., became a popular residence for members of Congress. Eliza was staying here in the fall of 1895 when she wrote to John Muir describing her recent “circumnavigation” of the Far East. It included a trip to Java she wrote about in one of her books. The hotel was razed in 1974 for an office building. (Source: unknown)

 

1837 M St., N.W., Washington.
Eliza resided in this house in the Dupont Circle neighborhood from around 1910 to 1912 [view is seen from around the corner, on 19th Street]. So she was probably living here when she attended the planting of the first Japanese cherry trees in Potomac Park on March 27, 1912, as a guest of First Lady Helen Taft. The American writer John Dos Passos later lived here for a time. (Source: Library of Congress)

Stoneleigh Courts, Washington.
By 1920 Eliza lived in No. 510 at this luxury apartment building that had as its major investors the former Secretary of State John Hay. Located at Connecticut Avenue and L Street, a block north of Farragut Square [correction made], it was built in an innovative horseshoe layout, with a central courtyard that allowed light to interior apartments. Eliza’s neighbors included many eminent people. (Source: Library of Congress)

31 Quai du Mont Blanc, Geneva, Switzerland.
This shows the site of the apartment building facing Lake Geneva where Eliza was living in at the time of her death in 1928. She had moved permanently to Geneva in part to follow developments at the League of Nations. She found the weather dreary much of the year, so she vacationed regularly with family and friends in southern Europe. (Photo: Jacques Lasserre)

 

Foreign General Cemetery, Yokohama.
Eliza’s final place of sleep is in a cemetery in Yokohama, where her ashes were laid with those of her mother and brother. Her inscription on the gravestone is beneath the cross. The overhanging cherry tree in bloom  was planted by Japanese who pay tribute to her every spring. It was propagated from one of the trees Japan gave to Washington in 1912. (Photo: Diana Parsell)

 

 

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New York’s Sakura Park, and a Hop Over to Brooklyn

In New York recently for the annual Biographers International Organization conference, I followed some research leads for my biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore.

One morning I went to the Brooklyn Museum with a writing colleague to track down an important document. Another day I took a very long walk — 80 blocks, in fact — from my hotel to W. 122nd Street. My destination was Sakura Park, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Sakura Park in New York (Photo: Diana Parsell)

We hear a lot about the cherry trees Japan donated to Washington in 1912. But few people know a similar shipment of trees was planted in New York around the same time. It was the project of a group that called themselves the Committee of Japanese Residents of New York. They arranged to donate a couple thousand cherry trees for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, marking the centennial of Robert Fulton’s demonstration of a steam-powered boat on the Hudson River and the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river.

The committee of Japanese residents included Jokichi Takamine. He was one of the founders of the Japan Society in New York, which Eliza Scidmore joined. His elegant Beaux-Arts townhouse at 334 Riverside Dr. garnered attention for its splendid Japanese-style interior. An acquaintance of Eliza Scidmore, Dr. Takamine played a critical role in bringing cherry trees to Washington.

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The Eliza Scidmore Society

When I started this blog a year ago, my first post was a photo of Eliza Scidmore’s grave site in Yokohama, sent to me by a Japanese friend. I knew at the time I would have to travel to Japan to do research for my book on Eliza, and to see her grave site.

Today I joined members of the Eliza Scidmore Cherry Blossom Society (Sakura-no-Kai) at an annual memorial service at her grave.

Kaoru Onji places flowers at Eliza Scidmore’s grave in Yokohama. “Eliza Catherine Scidmore” on the tombstone is the name of her mother, first buried at the site. (Photo: Diana Parsell)

Kaoru Onji, a retired professor of organic chemistry, coordinates the activities of the Eliza Scidmore Society. Assisting her is Mina Ozawa, director of the Yamate Museum. This year about three dozen members of the Society and other guests gathered amid fierce winds for the brief ceremony, then enjoyed a buffet luncheon.

The society grew from a group of people who shared an interest in Eliza Scidmore‘s story after her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan was translated into Japanese. In 1987 they visited her grave during cherry-blossom season to pay tribute. The ritual has continued. Today the group has about 50 members. Continue reading

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Yokohama Nursery Company

Trademark coat (Photo: D. Parsell)

That coat. I knew it at first glance.

In Yokohama to do research for my book on Eliza Scidmore, I took a bus across town Friday morning to attend a ceremonial planting of dogwood trees at Honmoku Sanchou Park. They were part of a consignment of 3,000 dogwood trees that America gave to Japan last year in exchange for Japan’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to Washington 100 years ago.

The mayor of Yokohama and the U.S. ambassador to Japan were on hand for the event. But what caught my eye was the back of the Japanese gentleman who took the seat in front of me. He was wearing an indigo-blue cotton coat emblazoned with the words “The Yokohama Nursery Co.” Turns out he was the company’s executive vice president, Kazua Ariyoshi.

Gardener at Yokohama Nursery, 1901 (Photo: David Fairchild, “The World Was My Garden”)

I remembered seeing  a photo of that coat — or one very much like it — in David Fairchild’s memoir The World Was My Garden.

Fairchild was a botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who traveled the world seeking different kinds of edible and ornamental plants to import to the United States. During a plant-prospecting trip to Japan in 1902 he learned about the country’s flowering cherry trees and their beautiful blooms. Fairchild imported several varieties in 1906, a few years before they were planted in West Potomac Park, to test their growing qualities in an experimental garden he established at his country home just outside Washington, D.C.

Fairchild described visiting the Yokohama Nursery Co. and the friendship he developed with one of the owners, Uhei Suzuki.

Color plate from seed and bulb catalog of the Yokohama Nursery Company, 1909-10

The nursery, founded by a coalition of gardeners in 1893, did a booming business shipping plants to buyers in the West. It had branch offices in New York and London. The company’s most popular export was lily bulbs, but it also provided many other plants, including shrubs, ferns and trees.

Eliza Scidmore visited the nursery during her frequent travels to Japan. She wrote a lot about the Japanese passion for flowers and gardens — a trait I’ve seen in the past two weeks during my trip here. Scidmore described the Japanese as “necromancers” who coaxed something magical from plants.

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Off to Japan, in Eliza Scidmore’s Footsteps

By the Tidal Basin in Washington with reporter Miki Ebara, in front of the first two cherry trees from Japan planted on March 27, 1912, and a 300-year-old lantern from Japan (Source: NHK TV)

A busy Saturday. I just spent five hours with a film crew from the New York bureau of Japan’s NHK television, talking about my research on Eliza Scidmore.

Miki Ebara, the chief correspondent in New York,  first contacted me a year ago not long after I launched this blog. She covers disasters as part of her duties and was familiar with Eliza Scidmore’s reporting on the great tsunami on the northeast coast of Japan in 1896.

Miki and I reconnected several weeks ago when I started thinking about making a trip to Japan for some necessary research. Cherry blossom season seemed the best time to go, so things have moved along very quickly. I’m off early next week. First trip to Japan.

Because she shares my fascination with Eliza, Miki decided to do a news feature on the cherry trees in Washington with a segment on my research and what I’ve learned about Eliza’s life. The show is scheduled to air on March 30, when the trees in Japan should be at peak bloom.

Eliza has become increasingly well known in Japan because of her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan and her role in bringing cherry trees to Washington, so there’s much curiosity about her. There’s even an information sign about her posted outside one of Yokohama’s metro stations, near the cemetery where she’s buried. Continue reading

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Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Media & Outreach, Research, Women's History

Eliza Scidmore, the Fairchilds and Their Great Idea

Researchers, authors, students and history buffs gathered here last weekend for the annual D.C. Historical Studies Conference. I was there as a presenter on Friday, in a joint appearance with author Ann McClellan.

This year’s conference, the 39th one, featured among its topics local anniversaries of the sesquicentennial of President Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves in D.C. and the centennial of the cherry trees in Potomac Park. I told the story of Eliza Scidmore, emphasizing some D.C. connections that have come to light in my research. Ann, the author of two books on the Cherry Blossom Festival, described the efforts of a local couple, Marian (“Daisy”) and David Fairchild, whose interest in cherry trees overlapped with Eliza’s.

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The Civil War, Eliza Scidmore’s Brother and a Hometown Connection

How seductive historical research can be. You start out looking for one thing and end up down a rabbit hole that takes you along a path to some other delightfully unexpected connection.

Rufus Dawes

I’ve just encountered that while researching the Civil War record of Eliza Scidmore’s older half-brother, Edward P. Brooks. Soon after the shelling of Fort Sumter and President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 Union volunteers in April 1861, Edward Brooks joined the Wisconsin 6th Volunteer Infantry. It left Madison in July and spent the first six months on guard duty in Washington. They camped for a while at Arlington Heights, on the grounds that today make up Arlington Cemetery.

The 6th Wisconsin regiment became part of the famed Iron Brigade, distinguished for their bravery in battle. (And for their unusual black hats, different from the blue kepis that were part of the regular Union Army uniform.) The regiment was commanded in a string of important battles by Rufus Dawes. Edward Brooks was his adjutant. During a furlough late in the war Dawes went to Marietta, Ohio, to marry his sweetheart.

Marietta is my hometown.

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Washington’s New “It” Girl: Eliza Scidmore

Japanese girl in kimono, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

Ah, the pain of hindsight. If only I’d stumbled upon Eliza Scidmore’s story sooner I might have a book coming off the presses in time for the 100th anniversary of the planting of the first cherry trees in Washington next spring, on March 27. Talk about the perfect book-signing opportunity!

When I began research on Eliza Scidmore it just didn’t hit me at first that the centennial was imminent. A lot had already been written about the cherry trees, and I was focused mainly on Eliza. Once I realized the significance of the date I sent queries late last year to several publications (Smithsonian, The Washington Post Magazine, The Washingtonian) proposing an article on Eliza and the cherry trees, targeted to the anniversary. There were no takers.

Now, with the centennial just a few months away and a huge festival planned, Eliza — after being largely overlooked for a century — is emerging as the new “it” girl in town. Continue reading

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Meet Eliza Scidmore’s Cousin

Dan Sidmore (Photo: Diana Parsell)

The day I received a package in the mail from Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois, is when I finally knew that writing a book on Eliza Scidmore might be possible. I tracked it down in 2009, when I was enrolled in a graduate class on research techniques at George Mason University. The package contained a master’s thesis I’d requested through an interlibrary loan, “Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore: More Than  Footnote in History” (2000). The author is Dan Sidmore, Eliza Scidmore’s distant relative. Continue reading

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Writing Women’s History

Detail from Great Hall at Library of Congress (Photo: Diana Parsell)

Today is the first Thursday of the month. That calls for packing my lunch so I can join the Women’s History Discussion Group at the Library of Congress.

We all crowd into a small conference room and sit around sharing ideas about research avenues for the various projects we’re working on. The moderators — Barbara Natanson (Prints and Photographs Division), Janice Ruth (Manuscript Division) and Kristi Conkle (Humanities and Social Sciences Division) — offer the kind of tips that could take outsiders years to figure out on their own. Continue reading

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Some Great Teachers–and Writers

Writing is never easy, and the long-haul process of writing a book — especially if it’s your first — can feel overwhelming at times. When I started thinking about a book on Eliza Scidmore, I decided to do what I’ve always done when there’s something I’m not sure I can easily figure out on my own: take a class. I feel fortunate to live in Washington with access to so many great literary resources.

Here’s my shout-out to a few people I’m especially grateful to for their help as I try my wings in a new genre. Continue reading

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Filed under Books, Eliza Scidmore, Library of Congress, Research, Writing: Craft & Community

On Serendipity in Research

Serendipity is like the crack cocaine of research. It gives you a wonderful high.

I remember well the first time I came to understand the term. It was in the 1980s, and I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. For my science writing class, I interviewed several researchers on campus who were studying different aspects of cystic fibrosis. It’s an insidious disease in which a faulty gene and its protein product cause the body to produce a thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and impedes proper digestion. A pediatrician was working to improve clinical observations; a pair of biochemists hoped to develop a reliable diagnostic test for the disease; another researcher was studying glandular secretions in a rat model.  Continue reading

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