Thursday, October 20, 2016

The White Lady of Wopsy

Finding the Historical Roots of a Pennsylvania Ghost Tale

Painting by Joe Servello.
As Halloween approaches, tales of ghostly occurrences and mysterious happenings invariably drift into our popular consciousness. With its rich history spanning multiple centuries, Blair County, Pennsylvania certainly does not lack legendary stories of the supernatural. One of the most persistent of all tales revolves around the so-called “White Lady of Wopsy.”

The celebrated story first appeared in a Halloween 1973 issue of the Altoona Mirror, which stated, “The White Lady of Wopsy [the nickname for Wopsononock Mountain] wanders the misty wooded lookout area atop Wopsononock Mountain, seeking revenge. Neither man nor woman is safe as the ghost floats on the dark, mysterious mountain breezes, venting her wrath on unsuspecting individuals.” The “legend claims that she was the victim of an auto crash and fire after being left waiting at the altar on her wedding day. She avenges herself on all who see her three times by causing horrible death. Some couples vow they have heard her scratch on the car roof.”

The traits of the tall tale vary depending upon the storyteller. In some renditions, the apparition committed suicide because of the death of her newborn. In other instances, the bride hurled her carriage off the road (with her husband onboard) after she learned of his infidelities on their honeymoon at the Wopsononock Resort (destroyed by fire in 1903). One question remains, however: From where did this story originate? I am certainly no believer in paranormal activities yet the legend has long intrigued me, as it has many others from my region. Granted, many tragic accidents have occurred on the perilous curves of the Buckhorn Road descending from Wopsy. Yet, one particular incident from 1926 stands suspect above all others.

Shortly after midnight on October 11 of that year, Margaret Gray and Chester Troutman (a WWI veteran) were presumably returning to Altoona when their large touring car skidded on the meandering highway. In September 2016, Gray’s great-grandson, Greg Sheets, noted that according to family legend, “she was supposedly running moonshine from Cambria County” with Troutman. Such activity on the remote mountain roads of Central Pennsylvania was not uncommon. 

Six years prior, the Volstead Act forbade the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating beverages. Pious and law-abiding citizens fully supported the measure amid the tumultuous era known as Prohibition. Preacher Charles Bame said in an impassioned sermon at Juniata’s Park Church of the Brethren the same year as the Gray-Troutman accident, “We have too many older folks who make their bodies a swill-pail for rot-gut booze, robbing their families and society of the help they ought to give.” Meanwhile, some blue collar workers desired nothing more than a frothy glass of beer after a day in Altoona’s railroad shops or mills.  Others were opportunists who saw a chance for illegal profiteering or daring entertainment. Gray and Troutman likely fell within that latter category.

Near the aptly-named “Devil’s Elbow,” where the “White Lady” presumably roams, their vehicle rolled down the ominous embankment on that night of October 11. Gray suffered a compound depressed fracture of the skull, among other injuries. Admitted to critical care at the Altoona Hospital at two in the morning, her injuries were beyond repair. She succumbed to her wounds at 11:10 that morning.

The Gray-Troutman accident is steeped in mystery. First and foremost, the female passenger was married to another man, John Gray. He was apparently not aware of her late night cruising with Troutman. According to newspaper reports, “the family was under the impression that she had gone to Gallitzin to meet a [visiting] woman relative.” Troutman, who suffered only minor abrasions and dizziness in the accident, later claimed to be returning Gray home that night.

Additionally, the circumstances of the wreck itself were unusual. For these reasons, Troutman was brought up on manslaughter charges a week later. According to court testimony, Troutman contended that he and Gray stopped and switched seats multiple times coming down the Buckhorn and that she was the one who lost control of the vehicle. He said this despite the fact that in his initial hospital interview he claimed he was passing another car at the time of the accident. Regardless of this conflicting testimony, Troutman was acquitted of any wrongdoing by the jury. Troutman married Olive Pearl Jones in 1937 and likely tried to move on to the next chapter of his life. He was highly involved in local veterans’ organizations and lived until 1965. Naturally, these were luxuries Gray could not enjoy. Accordingly, this unfortunate anecdote of lost love, death, and a possible miscarriage of justice represents all the ingredients of a classic ghost story.

Does Gray’s spirit roam the woods in which she was mortally injured? This article cannot claim to answer or promote that. However, one can carefully speculate that she did have important tasks remaining in her incomplete life. She left behind five children.

Margaret Gray pictured at left. In 1962, local WWI vets held a reunion at Altoona's Penn Alto Hotel. Chester Troutman is the last man on the right--seen thirty-six years after his fateful Wopsy accident. The Gray photo is courtesy of Greg Sheets, Gray's great-grandson. The WWI veteran photo is courtesy of David Seidel.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

For the People: Visualizing Gettysburg

Sunset at the Angle by Buddy Secor.
What new can be said about Gettysburg? One of the most studied military confrontations in human history, the three day struggle and subsequent address by Abraham Lincoln have come to represent epochal transitions of the national ideal. But the story does not end in 1863. This is the story my new book, Images of Modern America: Gettysburg National Military Park, seeks to delve into. Through this visual record, I hope to convey the ongoing history of the battlefield where this momentous clash of the Civil War took place. The book devotes particular attention to the profound role of the National Park Service and its stewardship of the landmark since the 1950s. With this book’s release coinciding with the centennial of the National Park Service, now is a timely moment to reflect upon the people, strategies, and dramatic changes that continue to mold our perceptions of a turning point in history.

My good friend and former boss, Christopher Gwinn, the Supervisory Park Ranger at the battlefield, was good enough to pen an insightful and humbling introduction to my book--which I share below:

"On July 5, 1863, a team of photographers arrived on the still-smoldering battlefield at Gettysburg. They brought with them the innovative tools of their trade—transported in a mobile dark room for the development of fragile glass plate negatives. The three men, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and James F. Gibson, began the laborious and time consuming process of capturing what they saw—images eventually to be reproduced, distributed, and sold. Altogether they recorded over fifty unique negatives that conveyed the most immediate and visceral testimony pertaining to the Battle of Gettysburg.

By the time Gardner and company arrived, two days had passed since the battle’s conclusion. The once-thriving town and surrounding countryside were scarred by the unmistakable signs of slaughter, chaos, and destruction. Formerly peaceful households were riddled with shot and shell while previously bucolic farms were ruined by the hard hand of war. The wounded and mangled spewed forth from every church, shack, and barn as burial parties embarked upon the task of digging shallow graves. As Gettysburg resident J. Howard Wert recalled, “No pen can paint the awful picture of desolation, devastation, and death that was presented here to the shuddering beholders….It was a hideous and revolting sight.”

Over the ensuing years, Gettysburg struggled to overcome the carnage and devastation inflicted in 1863. In many respects the community never recovered. The photographic record of the enterprising artists of the time permits us to partly comprehend the challenges of soldiers and civilians. These photographs, and others taken over the following 150 years, allow us to describe the indescribable and decipher the indecipherable. The images are simultaneously a bi-product of creative expression and invaluable tools of historical understanding.

Casting light on events and lives of the past, photos allow us to walk in the theoretical footsteps of our predecessors. Photographs capture moments beautiful and transcendent as well as episodes dark and painful. Visual records spare these episodes from the inevitable evaporation that befalls so many historical events through the passing of time.

Much of the 1863 battlefield is today preserved within the nearly 7,000 acres of Gettysburg National Military Park. Contemporary visitors will find little outward vestige of the true horrors inflicted by the armies during the American Civil War. Rather, they encounter a well-maintained park, a quaint downtown, and a hauntingly serene pastoral landscape. Above all else, the battlefield remains a place of pilgrimage and remembrance for millions of individuals from every corner of the world.

Stoic monuments and markers dot the landscape where armed combatants once waged a desperate struggle for the future of a nation. Temporary, muddy graves have been replaced by granite stones in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery to denote the sacrifices. Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln’s venerated words of consecration have been transmuted into bronze. The landscape continues to beckon and inspire modern Americans in dramatic ways. In this sense, photographs from the 20th and 21st centuries serve as significant forms of historical reflection. Gettysburg’s vibrant heritage is a never-ending tale of how we seek to connect with those who have gone before us.

Historian Jared Frederick, himself intimately connected to the Gettysburg Battlefield as a former park ranger, has scoured the park archives and other collections for images of the famous and not-so-famous moments that have defined the present-day battlefield. His efforts have yielded a fascinating collection of photographs and commentary that chronicle the broad scope of the park’s evolution since the bustling tourism days of the 1950s. Analyzing the Baby Boomer era through the battle’s 2013 sesquicentennial, readers will be treated to a visual chronology of Gettysburg National Military Park’s continual transformations. Most importantly, the images on the following pages highlight the ways in which the National Park has been commemorated, celebrated, defined, and redefined throughout the ages.

Chapter one explores various episodes of park history from the 1950s through the 1990s, when battlefield visitation skyrocketed. The second chapter examines snapshots of the visitor experience in more recent years. The book’s subsequent section studies the dramatic changes brought forth through Landscape Restoration while the final chapter marks the 150th anniversary of the battle.

Denoting the contributions and observances of staff and visitors from all walks of life, the visuals presented in these chapters are a mosaic of America’s most-visited battlefield. Much like Alexander Gardner’s 1863 negatives, the photos here elicit the alluring power of Gettysburg and its centrality to our national story. As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, these images serve as a timely reminder of the many meanings and emotions Gettysburg evokes.

My book is now available on Amazon and various stores in Gettysburg itself. For personalized copies, feel free to email me. While hundreds of books have been written on this iconic landmark, I guarantee that this book has some new perspectives to offer.

 Pickett's Charge: 150 years later.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Educating at the National WWII Museum

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jeremy Collins, the Director of Travel & Conference Services at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. In this interview, he discusses his career path as well as the programs offered by the museum. Also revealing are his rewards of working at this phenomenal museum.

How did you end up at the National WWII Museum?  What does your position entail?

Like many History Majors, I found myself facing my last semester at the University of Missouri in Columbia without a clear idea of what I wanted to do or could do with a History Degree.  Fortunately, during Thanksgiving 2000, my family went to New Orleans to visit my brother.  He had just moved down there and created an itinerary for us for that weekend.  One of the stops was at the newly opened National D-Day Museum, which opened on June 6, 2000.

As I walked through the exhibits and felt history come to life, I looked around and could tell that all of the other visitors that day had the same feeling.  I thought “Well this could be a cool thing to do when I graduate!”

The following months saw me communicating with the Curator of the Museum discussing a possible summer internship.  I was able to work for the summer as the Museum prepared to open its “D-Days in the Pacific” Gallery, which was set to open in December 2001.  As the summer ended, I offered to extend my internship through the completion and opening of the Pacific Gallery.  They agreed and told me that they would even hold my position after graduation.  I accepted!

The museum has a number of dynamic speakers lined up in the forthcoming weeks.  What topics have visitors been greeted to and what is up next?

We have a very full and enriching line up of programming throughout the year.  In July, Jonathan Jordan spoke on his latest book “American Warlords,” about FDR and his war cabinet that led the country to victory.  This was followed by Alex Kershaw’s official book launch for his latest “Avenue of Spies” on August 4th.  It is about an American doctor who was Paris during the war. On September 1st we hosted Dr. Elizabeth Norman, who spoke of the nurses of Bataan.  Her book, “We Band of Angles,” discusses how these women helped the men during the battle, and then their subsequent captivity in the Japanese camps.

On September 17th we were honored to have the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner Dr. David Kertzer, whose book, “The Pope and Mussolini,” traces the dual paths that Il Duce and Pope Pius XI went on in the years leading up to WWII.

Today, we are partnering with the 100th Bomb Group Reunion Association to host a public program on Operation CHOWHOUND, an American operation, combined with the British Operation MANNA, which helped feed the starving people of Holland in April/May 1945, following the starvation winter of 1944/45.

On September 30th we are hosting a young historian, Jessica Greenburg, who will speak on her grandfather’s personal experience at the end of the war in Europe as he helped reopen the very first synagogue in post-war Berlin.

See a full listing of the museum's events here

Rick Atkinson unveils his newest book in May of 2013 at the museum.

How do you think guest lecturers benefit museums?

These lectures, like previous ones, receive extremely wide exposure, especially with the Museum’s 100,000+ members around the country.  We promote heavily to all of our members and supporters, particularly since we began to live stream them. These are all people who will: 1) buy a copy of the book the speaker is talking about or: 2) get more involved with the Museum’s mission and plans for the future.

As America’s National WWII Museum, we have found that our speakers see a tremendous value in being associated with our wonderful institution.

For those who cannot attend your museum events in person, how can they still take advantage of these opportunities?

All of these programs are filmed and streamed live on the Museum’s Livestream account.  The direct links are created 2-4 weeks in advance of the program.

What overseas adventures does the museum offer to adults and students alike?

The Museum has been leading adult travel programs overseas for over a decade now.  While most of our adult tours run to Normandy, we have expanded upon our offerings over the years.  This has included the Pacific, Mediterranean, England, the Ardennes, Germany and Russia.  Over the coming 12 months we will be running a Pearl Harbor tour, a Band of Brothers tour, Battle of the Bulge, and a number of Normandy tours.  We will also be touring eastern Germany and Poland as well!

Three years ago we started our Normandy Academy, which brings students to New Orleans for a few days of preparatory work and then over to Normandy for a full week.  These students are not just passengers on a trip, but rather part of the program, as they study and then lecture on specific sites of D-Day and even debate one another as to the decisions made by the commanders on both sides.

We also offer a full week program that brings students down to New Orleans for a more in-depth experience at the Museum, but also takes them to other historic sites that our city has to offer, including the Chalmette Battlefield where Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans.

Next summer we will begin a longer program out at Pearl Harbor where students will have a mix of classroom instruction and battlefield touring.

What do you enjoy most about your job?  What has been your most memorable moment?

Having just passed my 14 year mark there are certainly a dozen moments each year that I could recount, but I will name a few.

Having the opportunity to have meet some of the leading scholars and authors in the field and working with them on our various programs.  These includes Rick Atkinson, Don Miller, Richard Frank, Sir Max Hastings, Antony Beevor, Alex Kershaw, Lynne Olson…the list goes on and on, and I feel bad for leaving so many great people off this list, but I figured this list would be very familiar with your readers.

Traveling to various points of the world with history buffs who are eager to learn about this epic event has opened my eyes immensely.  There is hardly a better way to learn than to walk the ground and see the sites that the war was fought.  From Omaha Beach, to the hill that Audrey Murphy took in Southern France for his DSC; the Castle that overlooks the hill which Vernon Baker attacked, receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions 50 years after the fact; looking out over the open rice field that the 6th Rangers crawled through to reach the gates of Cabanatuan.

Again, this list could go on and on as well.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the opportunity that I have had to meet veterans.  As I type this I am watching the 1952 film “Above and Beyond” with Robert Taylor portraying Paul Tibbets.  I had the honor of escorting Gen. Tibbets when he was at the Museum for our 2001 Pacific Grand Opening weekend.  I was honored to have developed a brief, and long-distance friendship with Medal of Honor recipient Walt Ehlers of the 1st Infantry Division.  Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot has been a frequent visitor and speaker at the Museum too.  He just turned 100 years old!

These veterans are all famous, and wonderful individuals, but I would have to say that the veterans who volunteer at the Museum, those that I have really grown close to over the last 14 years, are the ones I have learned the most from and really cherish the memories I have, especially as there are fewer and fewer over the years.

Jeremy Collins at Middleside Barracks in Corregidor.