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Notebook of Poetry Penned by Bonnie and Clyde Set to Go on Auction

Smithsonian Magazine

Bonnie Parker’s poetry has long provided a portal into the fleeting lives of Depression-era America’s most notorious pair of outlaws. But as Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, a newly revealed notebook once owned by the couple suggests Parker wasn’t the only one to try her hand at creative writing. The volume, set to go on auction this April alongside a trove of photographs, includes a poem ostensibly written in Clyde Barrow’s spelling error-filled scrawl.

According to Atlas Obscura’s Matthew Taub, the notebook itself is a “Year Book,” or day planner, dating to 1933. It’s unclear exactly how the diary ended up in Parker and Barrow’s possession—Heritage Auctions writes that it was “apparently discarded”—but penciled-in entries point toward the original owner’s occupation as a dedicated, perhaps even professional, golf player. Whatever the planner’s provenance, Taub notes that the duo soon converted it into a poetry workbook.

A complete draft of Parker’s best-known poem, a 16-stanza work alternately titled “The Trail’s End” or “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde,” was originally written in the notebook, but it was later ripped out and stored in an envelope labeled “Bonnie & Clyde. Written by Bonnie.” Still, miscellaneous verses from the poem remain scattered throughout the volume.

Interestingly, the Guardian’s Flood explains, a 13-stanza poem penned by Barrow appears to serve as a direct response to Parker’s work, opening with the lines: “Bonnie s Just Written a poem / the Story of Bonnie & Clyde. So / I will try my hand at Poetry / With her riding by my side.” (This language is taken directly from Heritage Auction’s listing, which further states that the lines attributed to Barrow are filled with “gangster-ese” jargon and reflective of his minimal education.)

Much like Parker’s poetry, Barrow’s writing attempts to refute the media’s depiction of the pair as ruthless, cold-blooded killers. Whereas Parker observes that “If they try to act like citizens / and rent them a nice little flat. / About the third night; / they’re invited to fight, / by a sub-gun’s rat-tat-tat,” Barrow argues, “We donte want to hurt anney one / but we have to Steal to eat. / and if it’s a shoot out to / to live that’s the way it / will have to bee.”

Image by Courtesy of Heritage Auctions. This 13-stanza poem penned by Barrow appears to serve as a direct response to Parker’s work. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Heritage Auctions. The poem is signed "Clyde Barrow." (original image)

At the same time, Atlas Obscura’s Taub writes, the two were quick to acknowledge the probable denouement of their decidedly law-unabiding lifestyle. In his untitled work, Barrow notes, “We are going home tomorrow / to look in on the folks. We will / meet then out near Grape Vine / if the Laws donte get there / first.” He finishes the poem with a plaintive plea: “But please God Just one / moore visit before we are / Put on the spot.”

Parker describes the pair’s likely fate in more artful terms, concluding “The Trail’s End” with a prescient prediction: “Some day they’ll go down together / they’ll bury them side by side. / To few it’ll be grief, / to the law a relief / but it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.”

Soon after Parker wrote these lines, she and Barrow were ambushed by police, who, according to a contemporary New York Times account, “riddled them and their car with a deadly hail of bullets.” Parker’s grief-stricken mother refused to allow the couple to be buried together, preventing at least one aspect of the poem from coming to fruition.

The couple's writings reveal an acute awareness of their likely violent fate, with Parker noting, "Some day they’ll go down together / they’ll bury them side by side. / To few it’ll be grief, / to the law a relief / but it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.” (Courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

Still, Heritage Auctions points out, the elder Parker didn’t completely ignore her daughter’s unusual legacy. Working with Barrow’s sister Nell, she produced a history of the couple titled Fugitives: The Story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Rather than celebrating the pair’s exploits, however, the biography strove to reveal the harsh realities of life on the run. As the co-authors wrote in the book’s foreword, “We feel that their life story, as set down here, is the greatest indictment known to modern times against a life of crime.”

They continued, “The two years which Bonnie and Clyde spent as fugitives, hunted by officers from all over the Southwest, were the most horrible years ever spent by two young people.”

After Nell’s death, the poetry workbook she’d inherited following her brother’s death was passed down to her son—Barrow’s nephew. He eventually decided to consign the journal, as well as an archive filled with rare photographs of the outlaw couple, to auction.

Speaking to the Mirror’s Christopher Bucktin, auctioneer Don Ackerman concludes, “The poems are a window on the mindset of criminals hunted down, not knowing which day would be their last. They knew they were doomed.”

Skeletons Found Under a Florida Wine Shop May Be Some of America’s First Colonists

Smithsonian Magazine

In the last few weeks, archaeologists digging under the floor of a wine shop in St. Augustine, Florida, have discovered the skeletal remains of seven people, including three children, believed to be some of the earliest colonists in North America, report Jessica Clark and Melissa Guz at FirstCoast News.

According to FirstCoast, last October hurricane Matthew damaged a wine shop on St. Augustine’s plaza. After the hurricane, building owner David White decided to renovate the space. According to a press release from the city, the floor of the building was built on a joist system constructed in 1888, which left the soil below relatively intact. White offered the city archeologist Carl Hibert a chance to take a peek under the floor before the repairs began.

Hibert accepted the offer, but did not have high hopes of finding anything. He was wrong—after just a few shovelfuls of dirt, he found human remains.

During the first week of digging in February, archeologists first discovered an intact adult skeleton and an adult skull nearby. According to Susan Parker at The St. Augustine Register, the bodies have been preliminarily identified as a relatively young white European woman and a man of African ancestry. Outside of the wine shop, they found a leg bone and another skull from two other graves. Last week, they discovered the remains of the children.

Though the remains have not been fully analyzed, a bioarcheologist believes the children were all under 7 years old. All of the human remains were found in a 6-by-12-foot area, reports Clark.

Pottery fragments found with the skeletons date the burials between 1572 and 1586, a few years after St. Augustine, known as America’s oldest city, was founded.

There are indications that there may be other remains in the same area.

The History Blog reports that Hibert believes the burials may come from the floor of the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Remedios, the parish church built in St. Augustine soon after the colony was established by conquistador Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565, 42 years before the Jamestown Colony was established by the English and 55 years before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts.

The church was burned down in a raid by British privateer Sir Francis Drake in 1586. The rebuilt church burned again during a hurricane in 1599 and was destroyed for good when the British torched the structure in 1702.

The exact location of the church, however, was not discovered until 2010, reports Marcia Lane at St. Augustine.com. During construction on Aviles Street in the city’s historic downtown, Halbirt discovered a trench and a wall that marked the rear of the church. The digging also uncovered some human bones that the researcher believes may have been the bodies of priests.

It’s believed that the footprint of the church extended all the way to the present day wine shop, and the bodies were likely buried under the church floor, a standard practice for Catholics at the time. “The mission churches across Florida buried everybody in the church floor,” Ellsbeth “Buff” Gordon, an architectural historian, tells Clark and Guz. “It was consecrated ground, of course.”

“What you’re dealing with is people who made St. Augustine what it is,” Halbirt tells Clark and Guz. “You’re in total awe. You want to treat everything with respect and we are.”

The skeletons found inside the wine shop will remain where they are, though the bones collected from outside the shop will be removed to a nearby Catholic cemetery to make way for a city water line.

The Civil War's final surrender

National Museum of American History

On June 23, 1865, 150 years ago, the last Confederate general surrendered his arms at Doaksville, Oklahoma, near Fort Towson. Confederate Brigadier General Chief Stand Watie (his Cherokee name was De-ga-ta-ga) was a Cherokee. He commanded the First Indian Brigade of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi Confederate cavalry, a regiment consisting of Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw men, and he was one of only two American Indian men to achieve that rank in the whole Civil War. The other, Seneca Brigadier General Ely S. Parker (his given name was Hasanoanda) of New York, had a very different surrender story: Parker, an aid to General Ulysses S. Grant, drafted the formal terms of surrender for General Robert E. Lee to sign at Appomattox.

Postage stamp (32 cents) with man on horseback illustration

Before the war, Stand Watie had led a contentious life. He was born in Georgia in 1806 and lived among the Indian nations that became known as the "Five Civilized Tribes"—the Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson declared his support for the white Southerners who had begun pressuring these communities to move west, out of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, to a home in what was called Indian Territory—modern Oklahoma. Unlike many of his fellows, Watie actually believed that moving would benefit the tribes by securing new land for their communities, and as a Cherokee leader he and three other American Indian leaders signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, a document that provided for the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes to Indian Territory.

The resulting trek of 40,000 American Indians across the South to Indian Territory became known as the Trail of Tears. Disease, exhaustion, and hunger were rampant on the road, and 4,000 American Indians died en route. In the aftermath of the trek, three of the four Cherokee leaders who signed the Treaty of New Echota were assassinated; Watie was the only one to survive.

For portraits of man seated in chair, wearing jacket and bowtie

Prior to the Civil War, Watie was a slave-holder with actively Southern sympathies. When the southern states began to secede from the Union in 1860 and 1861, the majority of the Cherokee Nation voted to support the Confederacy, hoping that a new Southern government would be more apt to respect their territorial claims and keep the terms of any treaty agreements. To this end, Watie raised a force of 300 Cherokee to fight for the Confederacy. His First Indian Brigade won a number of notable victories, including capturing a Union steamboat on the Arkansas River and a Union supply train at the Battle of Cabin Creek. But Watie was once again a leader of a divided Cherokee people. Those who declared loyalty to the Confederacy backed Watie, while Unionist Cherokee split off to follow a man named John Ross (his Cherokee name was Koo-wi-s-gu-wi). As the war dragged on, Ross's cause gained followers and support. (You can learn a little more about Ross from the Library of Congress.)

Revolver on black background

.54 caliber rifle

Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital city, fell to Union forces on April 3, 1865. Less than a week later, Brig. Gen. Parker wrote up the terms of surrender for General Robert E. Lee. On June 15, 1865, the Grand Council of Confederate Indian chiefs convened to declare that it was time for Confederate Indians, too, to lay down their arms. Lt. Gen. E. Kirby Smith had surrendered the Army of Trans-Mississippi on May 26, but Brig. Gen. Watie refused to admit defeat. As weeks passed, the Confederate Army dwindled to one lone general and his men. On June 23, Watie finally accepted that the fight was over. He surrendered to Lt. Col. Asa C. Matthews at Doaksville.

Watie only lived another few years. He died at his home near Honey Creek in Indian Territory on September 9, 1871.

Tory Altman has also blogged about Jewish American historical objects and What it Means to be American. Learn more about the last surrenders of the Civil War in this Prologue Magazine article from the National Archives.

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Understanding the Gospel of Nat Turner

Smithsonian Magazine

On August 27, 1831, the Richmond Compiler asked: “Who is this Nat Turner?” At the time, Turner was hiding in Southampton, Virginia, not far from the site where he launched the most important slave revolt in American history. Nat Turner’s Revolt, which had taken place just five days earlier, had left more than 50 whites dead; by the time the trials finished, a similar number of suspected rebels were either killed extra legally or condemned and executed.

Even when Nat Turner was captured, on October 30, 1831, the Compiler’s question had remained unanswered. As a result, a white lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, arranged to go to the jail where Turner was held awaiting his trial and take down what Turner described as “a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late insurrection.”  Over the last decade, scholars working with other sources and doing close textual analysis of The Confessions of Nat Turner have become increasingly confident that Gray transcribed Turner’s confession, with, as Gray claimed, “little or no variation.” 

While The Confessions of Nat Turner remains the ur-text for anyone who wants to understand Nat Turner, this 5,000-word account creates as many questions as it answers. As a result, the document has become a springboard for artists who want to imagine the life of the most famous American to rebel against slavery.  In 1967, the novelist William Styron published a novel based upon Turner’s Confessions.  The novel both won immediate acclaim including a Pulitzer Prize and caused an uproar, as black scholars including John Henrik Clarke took issue with the way that Styron imagined that the rebel leader was inspired in part by his frustrated sexual longings for a white woman.    

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The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt

~ Patrick H. Breen (author) More about this product
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This week, a new re-imagining of Nat Turner’s story hits the big screen as Birth of a Nation opens in theaters nationwide.  Filmmaker and actor Nate Parker portrays Southampton’s most famous son as a “warm, encouraging preacher,” in the words of the New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham.  Nate Parker portrayal highlights the religiosity of the slave rebel leader whose personal Bible has been put on display for the first time at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.   But what do we really know about Turner’s religion? 

Fortunately, Turner’s Confessions, recorded by Thomas R. Gray, provides important clues to Turner’s central religious beliefs.

Most slaves could not read.  Some of them owned Bibles anyway, which could then serve as tangible reminders of the “Good News” contained within. Turner, on the other hand, learned how to read as a child, and his Bible was the book that he knew intimately.  When captured after the revolt, Turner readily placed his revolt in a biblical context, comparing himself at some times to the Old Testament prophets, at another point to Jesus Christ. In his Confessions, Turner quoted the Gospel of Luke twice, and scholars have found many other passages in which his language echoed the language of the Bible including passages from Ezekiel, Joshua, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, and Revelation. Like many 19th-century American Protestants, Turner drew his inspiration and much of his vocabulary from the Bible.

While Turner valued the Bible, he rejected the corollary that scripture alone was the only reliable source of guidance on matters religious and moral.  Turner believed that God continued to communicate with the world.  Turner describes two other ways that God communicated with him. First, God communicated directly to him: at one point, “the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth.” At another point, “the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me.” On May 12, 1828, “the Spirit instantly appeared to me.” When asked by Gray what Turner meant by the Spirit, Turner responded “The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days.” Turner saw himself as a modern prophet.

Turner believed that God also communicated to him through the natural world. His neighbors saw stars in the sky, not realizing that according to Turner, they were really “the lights of the Saviour's hands, stretched forth from east to west.”  More often Turner looked at prodigies—or unusual natural phenomena—as indirect messages from God.  In a field one day, he found “drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven.”  When he saw “leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters, and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood,” he was reminded of “figures I had seen in the heavens.” 

The most consequential signs appeared in the months prior to the revolt. In February, Southampton, located in southern Virginia, experienced a solar eclipse, which Turner interpreted as a providential signal to start recruiting potential rebels. With the eclipse, “the seal was removed from my lips, and I communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence,” the first conspirators to join his plot. In August, a sun with a greenish hue appeared across the eastern seaboard. Turner immediately understood this peculiar event as a signal from God that the time to begin the revolt had arrived. 

Turner’s views on private revelation were not unlike those of his contemporaries Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and William Miller, the father of the Adventist movement. Turner’s views were clearly unacceptable to the whites who controlled Southampton’s interracial churches.  Throughout the region, Protestant churches run by whites ministered to both whites and blacks.  Often these churches’ black members met separately from its white members, but on communion day the entire church black and white came together to commemorate Jesus’s last supper.  When Turner tried to join one of these churches, the church refused to baptize the religious slave who saw himself as a prophet.

Although it is not surprising that whites rejected Turner’s religious views, they were also suspect in the black community. In part, this was because at one point his vision seemed too close to the proslavery religion that most slaves rejected.  While he was in his 20s, Turner ran away from his owner.  When he was in the woods, the Holy Spirit appeared to Turner and ordered him to “return to the service of my earthly master—‘For he who knoweth his Master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes, and thus, have I chastened you.’”  When the slaves heard Turner quote the slaveholders’ favorite passage from Luke, the slaves themselves rejected Turner’s claims to prophesy.  “The negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world.” 

This was not the only time that the religious Turner found himself at odds with the men who would join his revolt.  In the spring of 1831, when Turner and his co-conspirators were deciding the day for the revolt, the rebels selected Independence Day with its obvious political resonances.  Turner, who saw the revolt in Biblical terms, never reconciled himself to this date. As July 4th approached, he worried himself “sick” and postponed the revolt.  Likewise, on August 21, 1831, Turner met for the first time rebels whom he had not personally recruited.  He asked Will—who would become the most enthusiastic of the rebels—why he joined the revolt. Will responded “his life was worth no more than others, and his liberty as dear to him.” Will professed no loyalty to Turner and gave no hint that he believed in Turner’s religion.  Perhaps for similar reasons, when blacks referred Turner at the trials, they called him Captain Nat or General Nat, instead of alluding to his religious position as a preacher or a prophet.

Perhaps Turner’s religious separation from the black community can help make sense of perhaps the most surprising thing about Turner’s religion: the only disciple that Turner named in his Confessions was Etheldred T. Brantley, a white man.  While there was a tradition of white anti-slavery in the region—only five years before the revolt, Jonathan Lankford was kicked out of Black Creek Baptist church for refusing to give communion to slaveholders—it seems unlikely that Brantley, who was not involved in the revolt, was converted by Turner’s antislavery.  Instead it seems more likely that Brantley was drawn by Turner’s millennialism, Turner’s ability to convert Brantley’s heart, and Turner’s success in stopping the outbreak of a disease where blood oozed from Brantley’s pores.

Turner always understood his revolt in religious terms.  When Turner was locked in prison, facing a certain date with Southampton’s executioner, Gray asked, “Do you not find yourself mistaken now?” Turner responded, “Was not Christ crucified[?]”  For Turner, but not necessarily for everyone who joined his revolt, the Southampton Revolt was part of an unfolding modern biblical drama.

Patrick H. Breen teaches at Providence College.  His book, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015.