VISIT OAKWOOD

Grounds: Open everyday
of the year Dawn to Dusk 

Office: 9am-12pm  1pm-4pm
Monday - Friday 

Oakwood Cemetery 

763 Portage Road
Niagara Falls, NY 14301 

Office/Fax: 716.284.5131 

  

Search
Thursday
Apr122012

Zozan; One Woman’s Story

By Michelle Ann Kratts

It was strange how we first met, for it isn’t everyday that a story walks into a library and then leaves for Arizona.  Ironically, it was only moments before that I had typed Pete, my colleague, an email:  We need an Armenian.  We are forever working on our Oakwood Lives, stories of the residents of Oakwood…and, then, as if we had rubbed a genie’s lamp, an Armenian had appeared.   Kathy, my coworker at the Lewiston Public Library, first noticed her.  She had been helping her make some copies and when it was revealed that the copies were of an old family history interview—she came to me thinking that I may be interested.  And so I was introduced to Nancy Gamboian—who certainly had many wonderful memories of her grandmother, Zozan.  She told me some of Zozan’s story, briefly.  Said she would only be in the area for a short time, visiting, gathering together some things that had belonged to her grandmother and then leaving again.  I told her about our book and how we had been looking for a very special Armenian story.  I asked if her grandmother happened to be buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls.  She held onto her papers, her treasures, and all of the world’s energy converged on the place where we stood.  I could feel doors opening and lights clicking on.  She smiled.  Yes, she is.  It had never been so easy to find a story…even in the library.  As if it knew it was meant to be printed and stamped and stacked within this sacred forest, made real and permanent by ink and a million reading eyes.  Unfortunately, as is usually the case, things really don’t come so easy and the doors that had been opened flew shut and the lights went off.  It seemed there was a problem.   The story of Nancy’s grandmother was a secret and many family members wished to keep it tucked away with the cobwebs and the dust…in the land where the unpleasant things live on in oblivion. 

Nancy apologized.  As much as she disagreed and felt that it was wrong to hide the past, that there are some stories that should be told in honor of those who have lived—there were those who loved her grandmother most deeply and it was still too soon and too much.  They were not ready to give a part of Zozan away.  So we did all that we could.  We exchanged email addresses.  She and Zozan were on a plane to Arizona and I was heartbroken.  But as Pete and I were set on our Armenian story, we headed back to Oakwood, the place where Zozan sleeps, for inspiration. 

 I think my earliest memories of Oakwood are of the Armenians.  They are the soldiers of Oakwood and their tombstones stand like sentinels to the passing cars.  Husanian, Stepanian, Kartalian, Aloian, Sarkissian, Ghougasian, Kazarian….They greet you in the front, they cover the flanks, they hide under the trees and inside the bushes in guerilla fashion.  They are tattooed with strange scripts and they tell you of places and wars that seem to have occurred somewhere over the edge of our history books.  But even those who have little time for history can’t help but wonder…who were these Armenians? 

Niagara Falls Gazette, April 12, 1959According to the Oakwood record books there are over 400 burials containing traditional Armenian names on the grounds.  Most certainly, the number should be higher as many of the women married men of different nationalities and although they were of Armenian ancestry, their Armenian name does not appear in the cemetery records. In fact, my research has proven that there are many, many more full-blooded Armenians masked behind non-Armenian names.  Who would ever know that Alyce Wilkinson was actually Alyce Der Arestakessian?  She married Donald Wilkinson in Hamilton, Ontario, on October 4, 1947.  Her own parents, Arshag and Eghees (Shamalian) had fled the Turks years before.   And, perhaps, even more interesting is the story of Alyce’s daughter’s husband’s family.  The Zelinsky’s who are also buried in Oakwood, had a secret of their own as their name wasn’t actually Zelinsky at all.  Somewhere in Russia, following the forced migrations, their Armenian name was exchanged for a safer sounding Russian name and they moved that name across the ocean.

But if a cemetery could tell a story—the Armenian story would begin in Oakwood’s back pocket where the crudest and earliest stones lie, toward the back right corner of the Town Ground.   Here lie the Bedrasseans, Avakians, Gorpians, Hovievians, Kekorians.   Here, also, lie heroes and heroines.  The Hagopian tombstone tells a fantastic tale of a famous battle that gave Armenia its independence.  Movses Hagopian is forever memorialized on his tombstone for fighting the Turks at Sardarabad.  He actually left his new home in the United States to return to Armenia and fight for his homeland.  Luckily, he made it back here, alive.   But as glorious as his life had been, his wife’s epitaph is even more intriguing for she is memorialized as an “unusual mother, philanthropist, business woman, civic leader who taught the love of family, ethnic pride, generosity, arts and fellow man…”  As we pass by and move onto others, the Hagopians don’t hesitate to add one more commentary and it sums up the story of so many of their lives…War is the failure of civilization and a reversion to hate which is our cruelest base emotion…

The Sun Room was in the city’s quarantine hospital Niagara Falls Gazette, May 14, 1915 Although there are great triumphs here there are also great tragedies.  Alikison Kekorian—who may be the very first Armenian buried in Oakwood, back in January of 1913—had been on his way to work when he was killed by a Le High Valley passenger train in Niagara Falls.  He was killed instantly.  His head cut off.  Armenag Ohanesian was only twenty-four when he found himself awaiting death in the sun room of the city quarantine hospital.  He had been turned out of an Armenian boarding house on the corner of Erie and Buffalo Avenue with only the very few items he called his own and an old mattress.  Finally after a friend alerted a nurse, Miss Josephine Eddy, and the city health officer, Dr. E. E.  Gillick, it was revealed that he was in the end stages of tuberculosis and he was taken to the quarantine hospital where he was “excellently fed and cared for by keeper Walton and his wife…”

 

Niagara Falls Gazette, January 14, 1916 The Mooradian family was one of the earliest and most prominent Armenian families in Niagara Falls.  A rug company still bears the family name.   It is believed that John and Altoon Mooradian came to Niagara Falls around 1906. The original Mooradians operated a restaurant on 1oth Street and young Alice became the youngest graduate of Niagara Falls High School and a great leader in the community until her death on November 23, 1992.  In fact, just recently I found Pete lingering around Alice’s grave—pretty much in the middle of the cemetery-- with a pair of hedge clippers.  This fabulous woman, now lost to time, had disappeared behind the arms of a giant and overgrown bush.  But not for long, as Pete spent the afternoon gallantly rectifying the situation. 

 

Then there were the Sarkissians.  Satenig Sarkissian was born into a noble lineage in Caesaria, Turkey, in 1883—the Matosian Der Stepanian family--that could boast historical, political and religious leadership in Caesaria for over three centuries.  Her family came to Niagara Falls around 1916 and was active in Armenian causes.   Her rug weaving had been on display at the New York World’s Fair.   The Jamgochians were also an important family in the history of the Armenians in Niagara Falls.  Arosloog came to Niagara Falls around 1920 and was a teacher of the Armenian language for children.   In 1935 she had a graduating class of 55 pupils. 

The Armenians began pouring into Niagara Falls during the late 1890’s and early 1900’s.  Mostly refugees from unspeakable horrors, they worked in the chemical factories and lived on the East Side, residents of what was known as Tunnel Town.  Some, like Sahag Aboian, operated businesses such as the aptly named, Liberty Restaurant, on the corner of Erie Avenue and Tenth Street.   Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Streets contained the greatest Armenian populations.  They came as a result of the policies of Abdul Hamid II, leader of the Ottoman Empire.  Abdul Hamid believed the woes of his empire stemmed from the endless persecutions of the Christian world.  The Ottoman Armenians, who happened to be Christians, represented a sort of extension of western hostility and they lived in the very heart of their empire.  So to prevent persecution and misery, he decided the wisest move would be to engage in a national policy of persecution and misery.  True numbers will never be known, however experts estimate that between 80-300,000 Armenians were systematically killed between the years of 1894-1896 and about 50,000 children were orphaned.   Again in 1909, the Adana Massacre resulted in more anti-Armenian pogroms and the death of close to 30,000 Armenian men, women and children. 

Lady Anne Azgapetian, the widow of General Azgapetian, spoke at the Hotel Niagara in 1929 for the Near East Relief. Courtesy Library of Congress The greatest tragedy to befall the Armenian people was yet to come, though, and brought about the mass migrations to the United States and a movement, very active in Niagara Falls, called the Near East Relief.  The Near East Relief, originally known as the American Committee for Syrian and Armenian Relief, was founded in 1915 in response to the massive humanitarian crisis that resulted from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire--for the period from 1915-1917 utterly devastated the Armenian population.   Americans active with the Near East Relief felt that they “bore a special burden to rescue the Armenians” as they were Christians from the Holy Land.  Huge advertisements filled the American newspapers and told a romanticized tale of the horrific conditions faced by the Armenian people.   Through public rallies, church collections, and charitable donations, millions of dollars were raised and delivered to the American embassy in Constantinople where missionaries would go deep into the ravaged country and distribute any aid.  Perhaps my own interest in the Armenian story can be linked to this singular and particularly brave woman, Ms. Mary Margaret Wright, who had left her comfortable home in sleepy Lewiston, New York, to administer aid in Turkey.  On January 25, 1919, the Department of State, Washington, D.C., received a letter from the American Committee for Syrian and Armenian Relief, which stated that they would be “sending a relief commission to Turkey to assist in carrying on relief work among the war sufferers in that country…Miss Mary Margaret Wright…Lewiston, NY, is one of this group and in view of the work in which she is to be engaged, the Committee earnestly requests that every possibly facility be afforded her in securing the necessary passport for the journey…the party plans to go direct from NY to Turkey on a transport furnished by the United States government…”Ms. Wright just happens to be, in a way, my own progenitor, for, as well as a writer,  she was the very first librarian at the Lewiston Public Library and how  strange that circumstances would come full circle, just around 100 years later, and a librarian from the Lewiston Public Library would find herself entangled in the story of the Armenians, yet again…

I must admit that my encounter with Zozan, with the Armenians, started with a lie.  As a genealogist, obituaries are usually the key for my research, but Zozan’s taught me that they can be carefully constructed to hide the truth.  Her obituary states that she had been born on January 30, 1910, the daughter of Ohannas and Sarah Sahagian.  In reality, she was not sure when she was born and that kind couple called the Sahagians were not her parents, at all.  I spoke with her daughter in law and I told her that I would even be willing to tell Zozan’s story without any names, if that would make it easier.    Perhaps their reluctance to give us the details of her name could impart the harsh reality of the situation more than anything I could ever write.  It was very obvious that this story, the story of Zozan’s life, was not over yet. 

And then it happened.  After many, many months, Nancy was in Lewiston again and this time she said yes.  The time was right.  She told me about the Armenian Genocide Museum of American—located just two blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C., slated to open sometime soon.  She had passed her grandmother’s story and photos onto the Museum and she was finally ready to share it with us and the people of the city that gave Zozan a home, Niagara Falls.  Nancy promised to email the file to me as soon as she made it back to Arizona. 

Unfortunately, a crazed gunman from Tucson held things up even more.  Nancy had returned to Tucson just hours before over 20 people would be shot at a Safeway Grocery Store—including a United States Congresswoman.  The nation paused and the residents of Tucson had their lives disrupted for a bit.  It seems that some things never change and violence continues to put a hold on things where Zozan is concerned. 

And so when the story finally came, it was during a snow storm and I was very, very sick.  I opened it on my phone and so much of it filled my head with nightmares.  I couldn’t believe what I had gotten myself into.  It was horrifying.  What could I do with this?  How can words alone bring peace to this family?  I had to put it down and a day later, as I was sitting in a room at Immediate Care, burning with a fever and bronchitis, so still the light sensor believed it was alone and clicked off…it all came to me.   A man and a woman chattered outside my door about a wedding and somewhere in the waiting room the complimentary water cooler bubbled and burped.  Little by little this world of mine slipped away and it was here, in this doctor’s office, with my eyes shut, that young Zozan made her appearance to me.  More bird than woman, she simply walked off the train—a certain rhythm of flight in her steps.  She said goodbye to the nurse who had stayed with her through the journey and the train left.  She had nothing but the dress she wore, a black fur collared coat, and the shoes on her feet.  She had thrown her suitcase into the water a long time before.  Its contents had become rotten. 

In this half-delirious state, somewhere between things of this world and things of another, I was ready to listen and to see.  And I saw, first, that in the beginning, there was a crime.  A crime willingly committed many years ago had precipitated all of the events leading up to that final moment when a young girl walked off a train and into a city on the other side of the world.  In the beginning, a man called Markar Atamian simply would not leave his land.  Every measure had been taken to warn him that he could not have this land anymore and yet this man stood straighter and taller and his eyes grew deeper and fierce.  It was his land and he loved his land.  Perhaps it wasn’t so much a matter of the fields and the mountains that unfurled like a flag behind his house.  Or the wheat and the beans, the peaches, plums, apples, the pear trees, the soil so rich and beautiful because of the cows, the bread that baked in the deep pit dug into the floor of the house, the tonir.  It was all a magical formula and Markar Atamian knew that his ancestors had worked on it for centuries to make it perfect.  And it was paradise.  For Erorin (Eroretzis)—a Herehan village east of Lake Van at the eastern border of Armenia--was no ordinary parcel of land.  Armenia lies in the highlands surrounding the biblical mountains of Ararat—upon which Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest.  This area is sacred to many world religions—a beginning point.  In fact, one incredible questions remains to this day:  was this the location of the Garden of Eden?

A view from Lake Van (now Turkey) Courtesy Cornell University

But it was more than the land—the physical boundaries, the parcels, hectares and miles, the buildings stacked together by men.  It was the molecules of oxygen that entered their airways, the way the mountains took in their breath and sent it back out.  It was the bread that four women kneaded and baked.  It was the mule that brought a bride to her husband.  Everything was a perfect puzzle piece that fit just right.  There was a deep pride in knowing you belonged in one place and one place alone.  The land provided the clay that fashioned its children.  The land was the mother and the father.  The grandparents and the children.  The past, the present and the future. 

So…when taken into context, it is not so hard to understand why Markar Atamian had great difficulty handing over the land of his fathers, even as he knew that by decree issued on April 24, 1915…

The men shall be taken first….

The men had plans.  They had heard what was happening in other parts.  They took the men first so the women and children would have no one to protect them.  So they made their plans.  They hid guns, prepared hideaways within the depths of the caves that dotted the mountainside.  Their armor was their land and she held them and protected them as long as she could. 

And it happened that one day came as any other.  The sun rose in the sky but the men knew it was time to go to the caves.  There was hardly any time at all to bring any food or water, but they still went.  Word had come that the Turks were on their way to cleanse the village of men. So they went and they waited.

But it wasn’t an ordinary day at all.  Little Zozan, Markar’s sweet daughter, was playing outside when they came.  There was much shouting and banging.  Her grandfather, whom she lived with, had known some of the angry men for they had drunk wine together.  But that did not stop their dismal business.  They came into the house with their horses and they beat her grandfather and her grandmother to a pulp and then put their lifeless bodies into the bread oven, the tonir. 

When night fell and soft crying could be heard throughout Hereran village, when the great killings had subsided for the moment, the men came down from the mountains and beheld the most horrific sight.  The angry ones knew the men would come back, that they would not be able to stay away for long and the Turks followed them back into the hills.  They found 25-30 men and beat and killed them, as well.  Zozan overheard this from a woman who was dressed as a Turk. 

There was a time of grieving.  Then some quiet and the little girl came out to play, again—as a little girl must.  But the men returned with their horses, and they broke down the doors.  It was on this day that they killed the children.  Two of her uncle Armenag’s children.  Gone.  The men had been away in the caves.  Waiting.  It was the end of all things she had ever known to be true.  Her mother, Iskoui,  had buried a trunk full of all of their family treasures within the dirt floor—but they were found by the Turks when they jammed their sticks and guns into every single space.  There was nothing left. 

The women and the children were taken and herded into the place set aside for darkness; a nearby home with four corners and a roof over human darkness.  The beautiful ones were chosen and sent off to keep pleasure for the Turks.  They would never be seen again.  Here, the walls and the ceilings and the floors buckled and cried out with a chorus of voices when the blood of a mother and her child fell to the ground.  They had slit open her stomach, twirled the new child on the end of a sword.  How can I forget?  How can I forget?  How can I forget?  a little girl asked herself.  She knew that she would never forget.  This was a piece of luggage—heavy and burdensome, rotten—that she would carry for many miles. 

Ankeen, who spoke Turkish, helped them to escape and they found temporary peace when they hid in the side of a mountain.  But there were other Evils who went by the names of Hunger and Thirst and they followed the children into the mountain.  The little ones cried for water most of all and their sadness travelled until it reached the place where the men had waited.  One man became mad from the crying and left the cave to fetch water for the babies and some of the women also left for water.  But they were all fooled and they were taken out of hiding one by one.  All of the men were killed and the women who were not killed were brought to another house.  This time the survivors were given one half of a fish and a small piece of bread.  It was here that they were told that it was time for them to leave for the Armenian District, an area set aside by the Turkish government for the displaced Armenians.  On September 13, 1915, the Ottoman parliament had passed the Tehcir Law, or the Temporary Law of Expropriation and Confiscation.  The Death Marches began and Zozan took one last look at this place her ancestors had made their home for an eternity.  She would never see this place again, and her childhood—beaten and lifeless—fell somewhere into a crack between a cooking pot and the glistening edge of a sword. 

And so they walked and they walked and they walked.  They were beaten when they stopped.  Little by little their numbers were diminishing.  The babies died because they had no food and no water.  Her cousin carried her dead baby for many days.  For what does one do with a dead baby when there is all this walking?  You bury them in the air. 

Courtesy Library of Congress

There was much craziness, too. This new world was a strange horror.   Boys were dressed like girls or hidden under their mother’s skirts.  If the Turks saw a boy they slit his throat. 

I remember a beautiful boy, about fifteen years old, with blue eyes…they cut off his head…he teetered headless and then fell…we screamed…we screamed… I will never forget….

Enter.  A cold dark church.  Imagine it to be the closing scene for the mothers and the children. The light is soft and breaking through an opened window.  Iskoui  huddles her little daughters into her body, giving them whatever softness and motherwarmth she has left.   Zozan and little Siranoush listen as the world closes away.  Only words and prayers to fill the empty dark spaces.  And terrible Hunger.  But as Iskoui sees the curtain coming down upon her life a certain sense of fearlessness covers her and fills her.  She flashes her eyes at the Hunger and tells the little girls that it would be better to die than to take any bread from a Turk….

The next day the curtain did come down on Iskoui.  She knew when the sun came up that each breath was a countdown.  Each step was closer to gravesend.  Even as the women and the children cried and screamed to no avail—they marched on.  Starving, still so thirsty.  At the Turkish village they stopped and some women who were browning wheat gave them each a half a cup.  It was much like heresah—but little or no water.  Precious water.  Their thoughts were drowning in rivers of water.  Maybe their walk would end at the sea.   Cool, blue…endless.  A mirror like the sky.  They walked until they could hardly feel their legs.  And they carried their babies, sticky and wet, screaming, as far as they were told.  And still at every stop, the most beautiful ones were separated and taken into slavery.

They came to a field where Turkish women were busy threshing wheat.  But it was all a ruse.  The women disappeared and shooting began from somewhere in the mountains.  Between thirty and forty women and children were massacred here.  In this field of wheat.  The women, who had been threshing the wheat, returned with clubs and they beat any who were not yet dead.  Even the babies.  Then they searched the bodies for valuables. 

Zozan watched as her mother fell.  Just a little girl, she did as a little girl must, and she clung to her mother’s dead body. She held on and felt as the last of her warmth moved into the earth.  It was safe below the earth and far away from the madness that carried on above with the grass and the trees and the living.  She laid there with the piles of bodies and then even Saranoush was murdered and thrown upon the pile.   

Her bloody hair covered my body…

She stayed there for a time.  In the wheat field.  A strange stillness fell upon the landscape.  In this scene the paint was not dry yet and it dripped from little Saranoush’s mortal wounds and covered everything she ever was. 

Finally, some Armenians came and gathered those few who happened to be alive and took them to a small home near a grape vineyard, where the men would often hide.  Here Zozan came upon her father…who ran around like a mad fool when he saw his daughter covered in dried blood.  He threw a blanket over her as there was no water to clean her.  It was far too dangerous to go out to the well.  The blood dried into a second skin.  And then Markar—and the men-- had to leave again.  Back into the mountains.  The women and the children were told to stay and wait.  Again.  This would be the last time, Markar and Zozan, the father and his daughter, would ever lay eyes upon the other…except in the land of their dreams. 

The marching soon continued though all the women and the children were so tired and so broken.  They could not help but envy the birds with their wings.  How lucky to be able to lift away from the men who would hit you on the head with their rifles and leave you to die in a river!  To rise in flight, in curls of smoke.  They dreamed of escape. 

Zozan said it had to have been April or May because she remembered the green grass and how they tried to eat the green grass.  They were so hungry.  They imagined the rain soaking into the blades, filling little healthful thimbles of water.  But the Turks even cast them away from the grass.  They never allowed them to stop long enough.  And those who did stop for too long were killed and their bodies left along the way.  All they were given to eat was a few handfuls of fried grain.  Enough to keep them alive and to keep their legs walking.  But never enough for anything else.

Zozan was completely alone now.  Except for the kindness of a cousin, she had no one to watch out for her.  No mother left to give away her strength.  She had only the picture in her mind of a mother, now gone.  It was a picture she liked to keep framed in a sort of warm halo of light and peace.  An image from a long time ago before the men and their horses broke into their house.  But she also loved the Iskoui who held onto her and Saranoush so fiercely in the old church.

Eventually the small group—there were only twenty five left—came to a bridge.  They were so far from home.  They were told that this was the end, that they must walk across this bridge and on the other side there would be Armenians who would take them in.  But they were so afraid.  What would really be at the other side of the bridge? There had been so many tricks along the way.  The survivors did as they were told, they were too weak to do otherwise, and it turned out that there were Armenians who took them to a house and gave them little cans of meat and raisins.  Zozan’s cousin, Nano, warned her not to eat too much, though, as her stomach would not take such heavy food so soon. 

For a time this group of homeless people lived in an open field.  There was a wall that separated them from a field of potatoes and cabbage and sometimes in the night they would steal whatever they could and cook over a fire. A miserable rain came down for three days straight.  Their only shelter was one tree and it opened up its arms and took in everyone that could fit. 

Finally the sun came out and dried everything….

An Armenian man came one day and asked if he could take Zozan to live with him and his daughter.  He had probably lost much of his family, as well.  Nano encouraged her to go with this family and she did.  For a few months she pretended she was someone else.  That she had never been Zozan Atamian.  She had never seen the house in Erorin.  Nor the people.  When they filled the landscape of her dreams she imagined they were just faces and places she had somehow come across one time or another.  She played with the daughter and watched as they made piles of thin bread, called lavash.  But the shouting and the shooting and the fighting picked up once again and the Turks were back.  The family who had taken her in told her that they would be leaving and that she must find her way herself.  She cried and she didn’t know what to do.  She followed behind the family for awhile and tried to keep up with them—though they tried just as hard to lose her in the crowds.  She was lost.  She found herself in a field where a man picked up this lost and miserable little thing, no longer a little girl.    He gave her food and most importantly she met up with Nano once again.  Then the man who had found her took her to an Armenian orphanage.  Before she left, Nano’s wife made her a dress out of potato sacks. 

The orphanage was in Leninakan, Russia, and it was not immune to random and brutal attacks by the Turks, for at night they would break through the doors and steal the beautiful girls.  The Armenian woman in charge could only stand back and watch as they took what they wanted.  It was here where cots lined the cold spaces.  Where the children who broke the rules were beaten, almost to death.  Zozan recalled the menu, even years later…

Breakfast, we ate bread dipped in syrup

For lunch, a piece of bread

At night, some cabbage soup, if available

Luckily, the dreaded Leninaken was not a permanent residence.  Strangely, a young man on the other side of the world, Zozan’s uncle, who had made it to America, to Niagara Falls,  had heard of her plight and sent his sister money and orders to retrieve Zozan from the orphanage.    His goal became to find a way to get Zozan to America.  It took a very long time as there were rules and laws involved with immigration.  No matter how he looked at it, only immediate family members were allowed to immigrate.  The fact became apparent:  according to the law, Zozan would never be able to come.  It took Harry Atamian close to five years, but in that time he conceived of an ingenious  illegal operation that would bring a young girl out of an inexplicable nightmare and into a new world of freedom.  He offered his friend, Ohannes Sahagian, $200 to be a part of the scheme.  He would make believe Zozan was his own daughter, Aghavni, who had actually died in Armenia.  In the end it worked.  Zozan buried herself deep inside those quiet spaces and with a miracle brought another girl back to life. 

Zozan Gamboian and Harry Atamian. Courtesy Nancy Gamboian On August 23, 1929, a letter was posted to Mr. Ohannes Sahagian, of 126 12th Street, Niagara Falls, New York, from General Agent, Staley F. LaVey.  

Dear Sir:  We have just been advised by our Moscow office that Miss Zozan Sahagian will probably receive her Russian passport at the beginning of next month.  As soon as she is in possession of same, she will be sent to Riga.  Further information from abroad will be transmitted to you without delay.  Yours very truly…. 

Before Zozan left, her aunt bought her a heavy black coat.  A neighbor made her a dress, for she hadn’t even had one.  She stayed at a hotel for one week where she waited with strangers for the ship to take all of them to America.  And then she boarded the ship.  She was given a small room on the second floor.  She had the top bunk and an old woman slept on the bottom.  The boat left and she felt herself drift helplessly into the emptiness that lived between two worlds.   Seasickness enveloped every inch of her body.  She refused to eat anything at all. She thought her life was over and that she was near death.   Finally four people held her down and forced her to swallow some pills.  Sweating and kicking and crying, she fought them with all of her might.  In the end, out of sea water and endless sky, with her feet scratching against the wood of the tossing ship, a new girl was born. And the first thing she did was rid herself of her luggage.  There were things she didn’t want to carry anymore.  The stinking things.

There was a smell from my suitcase so I threw my suitcase and the food, cheese, garlic, and bread into the sea….

Throughout the journey she hadn’t spoken to anyone at all, nor eaten anything but a few black grapes.  Now an Armenian woman brought her tea and crackers and she ate and she spoke.  Soon she was in the new world.  New York. 

I saw the beautiful Statue of Liberty.

She was surprised to find a bit of home here at Ellis Island, in this new world.  There were kind Armenian faces, voices, all around her.  An Armenian man looked over her papers.  Through the crowded room she saw there were nurses taking care of the sick and elderly while paperwork was being furiously processed.  Zozan was so ill that a nurse stayed on the train with her all the way to Niagara Falls.  On the trip her eye had been swollen with infection and then subsided just in time for the train to pull into the station at 3rd and Falls St.  She moved down the steps.  Weak, frightened.  Incredulous.  She said goodbye to the nurse and the nurse left on the train.  She was here.  Finally here at this new chapter of her life.  This place, where the trains disembarked thousands of people to a new chapter, new life, is long gone.  There are only ghosts now who greet you at the corner of 3rd and Falls St. Many, many ghosts. 

Zozan hugged and kissed her uncle.  It was really him!  But, Mr. Sahagian, her “father,” she shook his hand. 

She lived with the Sahagian family on lower 12th Street for six weeks.  Food was plentiful.  Uncle Harry spoiled her.  He would give Mr. Sahagian money for her keep.  And Mr. Sahagian would make eggs with tomatoes.  It was not paradise, though.  There was always loneliness and emptiness. 

It was 1930.  I was twenty years old when I came to this country. I couldn’t work.  I did not know the language.  I had no one.   

When the six weeks were up, on May 18, 1930, Zozan was married to Arshag Gamboian.   Arshag was much older than her.  He had come from her old village in Armenia and had lost his wife and children to the Turks.  He was the sole survivor of a large family.  He had taken part in the battles of Erorin and Lim where, along with the combined forces of Ovan, they were able to liberate 12,000 people.  Arshag was very jealous.  She had no choice but to marry him.   Her bridal attire was a hodge podge of borrowed articles…the dress, from Alice Hatchigian…the veil, which desperately needed to be cut down, from Mamie, an Italian woman.   After a beautiful wedding at St. Peter’s Church a reception was held in a big and long room upstairs at the Old Veteran’s Hall on East Falls and 12th Street.  There was a lot of food—Arshag insisted—even things such as oranges from Mr. Toorigian’s grocery store—though Michael Aloian insisted oranges were not suitable for a wedding. 

Zozan and Arshag Gamboian, circa 1930. Courtesy Nancy Gamboian The Gamboians lived on the East Side all of their life.   Arshag worked for the Aluminum Company of America and the city water department.   Zozan gave birth to six children:  Varantat (David), Lolizar/Lalazar (Lollie), Durtat/Drtad (Samuel, Smile), Mary, Anaheet/Anahid (Margie), and Michael. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Mary Gamboian died as a result of her burns. Courtesy Nancy Gamboian In November of 1938, tragedy fell upon Zozan once again when her beloved little girl, Mary, just four years old, fell into a bonfire near Buffalo Avenue and 12th Street.  She had been playing near the fire, roasting potatoes on a stick when her dress caught fire.  An unidentified youth tried to save her but it was too late.  A neighbor had just come home with a huge barrel of cooking oil and he pierced it and smothered her in the oil---hoping to save her, as well.  Instead, it prevented her body from cooling.  She was burned from her ankles to the top of her head.  After being rushed to the hospital Dr. John V. Hogan worked over her for hours but he could not save her.  Little Mary Gamboian is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, toward the front of the Town Ground area.  Pete and I like to stop by her sad little grave.  I imagine Zozan spent much time at this corner of earth and stone. 

 Zozan lived in Niagara Falls most of her life.  She missed the orchards back in Armenia most of all and she transferred her love for her homeland to her own garden.  A special garden of Eden  fashioned by the work of her hands, fresh water, new earth.  But the same sun.    Many of the immigrants to Niagara found much pleasure in their special gardens.  My great grandfather, Francesco Fortuna, was said to have smuggled special seeds in the rim of his hat when he entered the United States.   My lingering memories of him carry me back to his gardens, as well.  And, most of the back yards downtown have the remnants of grapevines, little skeletons, crawling up a paint-chipped trellis.  Little bridges to other worlds…


The Gamboian Family 1945

Zozan’s granddaughter, Nancy, was always curious about her grandmother’s other world.  She would ask about Armenia and Zozan would hush her.

Oh, Nancy, it’s too sad.  I can’t….

But there were some stories and memories that inevitably fell from her lips.  And on December 8, 1988, Nancy’s mother, Shirley Markarian Gamboian, found her in a story-telling mood.   For some reason, she talked and she talked.  Shirley pulled out a tape recorder.  In her native tongue, Zozan lost herself and Shirley went on a trip back in time.  She kept the tape, cherished the tape, and translated the words into English.  In 2011, these words, this story, were reborn once again.  An international lawyer, who flies between the US and Yerevan, packed them in her suitcase and hand delivered them to the Genocide Museum in Yerevan, Armenia. It was an emotional moment for the family. 

A piece of her is finally back home!

Arshag died on December 18, 1961.  Zozan died on April 1, 1999.  April Fool’s Day had always been her favorite holiday and her family likes to think she had the last laugh.  It was believed that she was about ninety years old.  Did she even know, herself? 

Zozan and Arshag Gamboian

I don’t know if Zozan’s story will ever come to an end.   There will always be mysteries surrounding her life.  I tried to discover the true meaning of her interesting and unique name, Zozan.  It does not appear in Shirak’s Dictionary of Armenian names.  Nancy remarked that her friend, the international lawyer, believes that it is derived from “Susan.”  Susan, or Shoshan, is an ancient and sacred name in Hebrew scripture meaning lily or rose.  The verdict is not out as to which flower it may be, but I believe that in Zozan’s case, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.   

 

 


 

   

 

Flowers for Zozan

Tuesday
Apr032012

The Poetry of Peter A. Porter

by Michelle Ann Kratts

April 2012

Photograph of a portrait of Peter A. Porter, courtesy Peter B. CoffinThere is something else about Niagara…beyond the great cascade of water and the daredevils and the lovers that inevitably come to celebrate at her altar.  Something that overcomes us and swallows us whole.  Something that makes us attempt the unthinkable.  We stand at the edge and in those frantic skips of our heart we know what it is:  poetry.

Poetry is a lot of things.  Maybe it’s a rhyme for you.  Maybe it’s something caught beneath your breath and then it’s gone forever.  It may be a smudge from a little hand on a window.   Or the last time you saw your father.  It could be a mirror.  Or something endless and beautiful like water.

One of Niagara’s first native poets was Peter A. Porter.  He is most well known as “the colonel”—as opposed to his father, who was “the general”.  He died a hero on a battlefield in Cold Harbor, Virginia, on June 3, 1864.  Five men crawled upon their bellies in the stench and heat of that southern battlefield to retrieve his body.  It rained on them and they said that the rain brought on a vaporous steam that made it all the more unbearable.  They tied a cord to his sword belt and dragged him over the damp and bloody clay until they reached Union lines.    Peter’s sister, Elizabeth, who was serving as a nurse in Baltimore, brought her brother’s body back to Niagara Falls—for services at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (of which their father was the founding member) and on to Oakwood Cemetery (where Peter was a trustee) for burial. 

Often sandwiched in between his father and his son, Colonel Peter A. Porter, is usually mentioned merely as a footnote to their more “interesting” and “longer” lives…until now.   Little by little I have been accumulating bits and pieces of a man who was much more than a father and a son and a soldier.   And interestingly enough it has come to me through his poetry. 

Apparently, Peter (whom we won’t refer to as “colonel” anymore for the purposes of this sketch) never wanted to be a military man. Born in Black Rock (Buffalo) on July 14, 1827, he came to Niagara Falls with his father and his sister. His mother, Letitia, had died when he was only four years old.  He studied at Harvard and then at the universities of Heidelberg, Berlin and Breslau.  He returned to Niagara in 1852 but probably not without bringing some of that revolutionary fervor that had swept through Europe while he was abroad back home with him.  In fact, it was said that his home (razed in the 1930’s) --which had been quite unusually built with German plans-- was the equivalent of a European style salon—complete with interesting guests and lively conversation.   It was the heart of all culture in Niagara Falls.  He brought his new wife, the love of his life, Kentucky-born, Mary Breckinridge, and their newborn son, Peter, to live in this magnificent house on Buffalo Avenue.  It was located between the area that is now the ghost yards of the Shredded Wheat plant and the Niagara River.  Sadly, Mary died a young woman in just two years during the terrible cholera epidemic that swept through the country.  Peter, despondent and out of his mind with grief,  buried her in Oakwood Cemetery and then ran off once again to Europe in order to heal his fledgling soul.  He returned a few years later, refreshed, and married another southerner, Josephine Morris—who would outlive him and raise his son, Peter, as her own.  

From “A Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812,” by Benson J. Lossing, 1868 He credits this drawing to Peter A. Porter. It was during this time that it is possible that Peter and his sister, Elizabeth, may have spent much of their time working at their “secret charities.”  Today the evidence increasingly points to the possibility that they were in fact the mysterious leaders of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls.  We are not sure about the details as he was an uncommonly modest and humble man.  Quiet and resigned he was constantly avoiding any acknowledgement of his deeds.  We do know that it was not uncommon for him to act selflessly.  In fact, when the War of the Rebellion first broke, he consistently turned down offers to lead a regiment—preferring instead to sign up as a private.  He held glamorous parties at his home and allowed every manner of man from his regiment to join in the fun.   Finally as the war raged, it was inevitable…and he took on the 8th New York Artillery.  Even then, while he was off serving with his regiment in Baltimore, he was offered the chance to leave the military life and serve as Secretary of State of New York.  Perhaps it was that moment—when that split second decision was made—that sealed his fate and won the men in his regiment over.

“I left home in command of a regiment mainly composed of the sons of friends and neighbors committed to my care.  I can hardly ask for my discharge while theirs cannot be granted; and I have a strong desire, if alive, to carry back those whom the chances of time and war shall permit to be present, and to account in person for all…” 

It was the uncanny beauty and humanitarianism of his words that gave Peter such an esteemed place in our history.  We can infer much about the man by his actions, but we can get inside his soul because of the poetry of his words.  Not one of his men forgot these words.  They memorized them and recalled them in their moments of weakness and in the end they carried him back to Niagara Falls. 

But what of his words, his poetry?  He never purposely published his poetry so it has been extremely difficult to find his work.   Some pieces were discovered in some of the most prominent literary journals of his day (Harpers Monthly, Putnam’s Journal and the Crayon)—published anonymously.   There are five poems that we are aware of at this point and I keep them in a binder in our Robert F. Barthel and Loraine L. Baxter Niagara Poetry Collection at the Lewiston Public Library.   You are more than welcome to read his poetry along with the poetry of other Niagara area poets located in our Local History Room—just ask to have the cabinets opened and you will be surprised at what you find. 

The first, the mysterious, “Come Nearer to me, Sister,” is my favorite.    Apparently written around February of 1845, it was published posthumously in the Commercial Advertiser, Buffalo, on November 19, 1864.  The kind historians at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society found the original and Larry Steele, the administrator at Oakwood Cemetery,  made a copy and picked it up for me one day last year. I could hardly contain my excitement when he made that special delivery.   What makes this poem so unusual is that it was actually mentioned in the Memoir of Elizabeth T. Read—a young girl who died on January 20, 1847, at the Institution of the Messrs. Abbott, in New York City.  The young girl was “particularly interested in all pieces of poetry which had reference to death, and to scenes of the future world.”  It was said that a few weeks before her death she wrote to her sister that she “had met with a beautiful piece of poetry, which she copied for her sister’s perusal.”  It is unknown how Miss Read came in contact with this beautiful and tragic poem almost twenty years before it was published, however, it is possible that she had been an associate of Peter’s sister, Elizabeth, who also went to school in New York City (at Madame Conda’s).  Perhaps this touching testament to Elizabeth (Peter’s sister) was shared amongst the school girls.  I imagine Elizabeth was utterly moved by the genuine romanticism of the death imagery and by the prominent place he held for her in this tragic moment.   Here he is, just a teenager, with thoughts of death still raw (their father had died the previous year) imagining his own death—his sister at his side.  Ironically, it was as if he saw into the future, for it was Elizabeth who would bring his body back to Niagara Falls.  It’s possible that Elizabeth may have been instrumental in publishing this in the Commercial Advertiser back in November of 1864.  He was so newly gone, and her heart must have been aching for him.  They were very close throughout their lives and maybe even more soul mates than kin.  The poem is sad and fleeting and full of memories of youth and promises after death.  He even mentions their cousin, Mary, his future wife, and how although they were not married yet their “wedlock’s golden thread will run through eternity.”  He writes how he hopes she will find someone kindly but “in the world above” he would “claim her as” his “own…”  “Come Nearer to me, Sister,” is definitely the most romantic of the poetry we have found. 

Another poem, the dreamy, “Arcadia, A Medley,” was published in Putnam’s Journal in May of 1857.  Peter’s friends from New York’s famous Century Club insisted upon publishing it after he had presented it at their monthly meeting. I can’t help but wonder about this one.  Knowing now of the possibilities of Peter’s work on the Underground Railroad, it’s difficult not to read this as something more than what it seems.  On the exterior, it’s about an auctioneer selling off a painting of a mythical land known as Arcadia.  “Going…going…gone!”  Of course, the image of the auctioneer (when viewed from this perspective) could reveal the “slave auctioneer.”  And the whole idea of “Arcadia, A Medley,”  a journey to the Promised Land “that weary souls have sighed for…this the land heroic hearts have died for…,” could also lead the reader to think of the journey of the runaway slave.    He uses literary devices to map out the trip to Arcadia and even states that “here surveyors trace the way of heavenly railroads, that will pay Ethereal dividends…”   Maybe I have a little too much of the “conspiracy theorist” about me, but I invite you to have a look and tell me what you think this “Arcadia, A Medley,” is all about.  Maybe it is a secret code to one of the most amazing networks in American history.  Or perhaps it is just a poem…

A more humorous piece was published in The Crayon in February of 1859—again by Peter’s friends from the Century Club.  Thanks to the archivist at New York’s Century Club, we have some notes from the special occasion in which, “The Centurion’s Dream,” appeared.  Because of the fact that “so many hearers” during the Twelfth Night Festival at the Century Club were “delighted with the sprightly humor, the playful turn of the rhyme and the fanciful allusions” and had requested their own copy it became necessary to have “The Centurion’s Dream,” in print.  I love how the editor of The Crayon couldn’t help but compare “the modest author” to Niagara, itself, when he insists that “the iridescent hues of the poem were not caught from the spray of Niagara, but from the soberer colors of a well stocked library… and Mr. Peter A. Porter.”  This one is a dream and contains numerous allusions to literary masterpieces.  It is put together as a sort of literary potpourri (which he calls “an ollapodrida).   It’s quite fun to read aloud.    

Two other poems are frequently attributed to Peter A. Porter: “Lines in a Young Ladies Album” and “On the Early Death of Mr. George S. Emerson.”   “Lines in a Young Ladies Album” was written to accompany drawings Peter scribbled into a young relative’s album.  The drawings included a likeness of the Falls with Father Hennepin, LaSalle and an Indian Chief in the foreground…”the chief, the soldier of the sword, the  soldier of the cross…one died in battle, one in bed and one by secret foe…but let the waters fall as once they fell two hundred years ago.”  “Lines in a Young Ladies Album” is particularly beautiful and moving to those of us who know Niagara most intimately.  On July 31, 2011, Niagara Falls historian, Paul Gromosiak and Niagara Falls Public Library director, Michelle Petrazzoulo, took turns reading the lines of this poem at the opening reception of the Robert F. Barthel and Loraine L. Baxter Niagara Poetry Collection at the Lewiston Public Library. 

“On the Early Death of Mr. George S. Emerson” was often used as an accompaniment to Peter’s own obituary, however, he wrote it, himself, many years before upon hearing of the death of a young friend.  This poignant elegy reveals, once again, Peter’s preoccupation with premature death and that glorious meeting in heaven.  “Perchance we meet on heaven’s eternal shore…”

During the month of April we celebrate poetry and inevitably that leads me to think of one of my favorite Niagara poets, Peter A. Porter.  Hopefully, with time, other poems will reveal themselves and ultimately allow us a more complete picture of one of Niagara’s most fascinating men.  

Thursday
Mar152012

The Cementation of the Dead; the story of Theodore Graves Hulett’s most curious work in Oakwood Cemetery

By Michelle Ann Kratts 

This article appeared in NiagaraHub.com

Judge Theodore Graves Hulett

He spent his boyhood by the light of tallow candles, pouring over whatever books he could get his hands on.  He was mechanical by nature.  Never satisfied.  Always seeking more knowledge and that light in the darkness.   Born into meager circumstances on June 13, 1811, in Williamsburgh, Massachusetts, Theodore Graves Hulett left home at twelve years old to apprentice with a carriage manufacturer in Pittsfield.  He taught himself law on the side and eventually made his way to Niagara Falls by 1834.  An important man, he was superintendent of the first Suspension Bridge and constructed the famous iron basket which, at one time, was the only means of transportation between the United States and Canada at this point until the bridge was created. It was suspended on a cable that ran along the American and Canadian shores.  He was so confident in its durability that he sent his own daughter across on its maiden voyage—never imagining for a moment the possibility that it could tumble down into the gorge taking little Elvira to a most violent death.    In 1849, Hulett was elected Justice of the Peace of the town of Niagara.  He was extremely active in most public matters in Niagara Falls and was one of our most prominent and respected residents.  During the Civil War he took care of the soldiers and their families.   But there was one more thing about Judge Hulett.  It was probably one of the most unusual contributions anyone ever made to Niagara Falls.  He originated the idea of and practiced (in Oakwood Cemetery) the cementation of the dead. 

 

We’re not sure exactly how many graves and individuals were cemented as records are sparse during this time period.  We do know that the “cementation of the dead” was pretty common practice after 1886—but only in Oakwood Cemetery.  It was the only cemetery in the world to carry out such an unusual manner concerning the disposal of the dead.  According to a Niagara Gazette article on August 31, 1886, “this mode of burial has become the rule in Oakwood Cemetery.”  It cost the families an additional fee of $15 “to cement a casket in a stone casing of eight inches in thickness and without a royalty as it was under a scientist’s patent.”  Apparently, “on account of the moisture in the ground…” Oakwood Cemetery was the perfect location for the cementation of the dead. 

 

It was on June 4, 1874, that Judge Hulett first obtained some frogs, prepared a cement mixture and cemented the frogs into stone blocks.  He did the same with a pear.  Five years later he sawed them open and found the most amazing thing had occurred!  The watery portions of the once living material had been absorbed by the stone, leaving the tissues intact and a perfect cast of the original. Even much of the original colors remained.   He kept these specimens on exhibition in his office for many years.  It was in 1874 that he wrote out his last will and testament in which he gave specific orders for the cementation of his own body. 

 

 

In 1886, before the Sanitary Board in Buffalo, Judge Hulett declared that “he had decided to cement all his family.”  His two daughters feeling the cementation of their bodies would be “pretty close quarters” requested that only their coffins be encased in cement to the thickness of a foot.   Each box weighed two tons.  Others would have three inches of cement placed in their coffin and allowed to harden.  At this point the embalmed nude body would be laid upon the foundation and the coffin filled with cement until the body was  three inches below the surface.  The graves dug for the cementation process would be much deeper in order to receive the casket.  More cement would be poured over the lowered casket and fine sulphur and powdered charcoal with alcohol would then be placed between the outer case and the casket and then set on fire.  The lid would then be screwed on.  This process would ensure that all liquids in the body be absorbed and the gases from the dead body neutralized.  It was believed that the cementation of the dead would secure the body from the attacks of grave robbers.  Or perhaps from something more sinister than grave robbers…

 

The first cementation of a body in Oakwood Cemetery occurred in January of 1887.  David Hulett Thomas, a relative of Judge Hulett, after having been mysteriously killed in the railroad yards, was the first to be buried by the unique process.  Representatives from the IOOF (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) and the fire companies of Niagara Falls, New York,  and Niagara Falls, Ontario, of which the deceased was a member, attended in great numbers--so did representatives of the Health Department, various scientific organizations from around the state and the general public.  Following the burial of David Thomas, many of Niagara’s dead were buried in the same fashion in Oakwood Cemetery. 

 

The cementation of the dead in Oakwood Cemetery was Judge Hulett’s one last obsession in his twilight years.  He was the founder and president of the American Cementation Society, which was established in Buffalo, and the editor of “the Cemetarian,” a monthly newsletter concerning topics relating to the “cementation of the dead.”  Upon his death, on April 13, 1907, Hulett left explicit instructions for the disposal of his own body.  He greatly preferred “Portland Cement” over all others “as long as it can be obtained at a reasonable price.”  A Unitarian, he requested that a Universalist minister be present for the service but if that was not available “any clergyman or layman” may do as long as he leads in a favorite hymn by Cowper.  Perhaps the strangest part of his Hulett’s request was the simplest.  He asked that the only “representative” of his body at the funeral be his “easy chair, empty,” his “cane and boots lying in the chair” and his “grand and great grand children standing (or sitting) around the chair and other friends standing or sitting around in an outer circle…”

 

You can visit Theodore Graves Hulett’s final resting place at Oakwood Cemetery.  I go there often and attempt to understand his obsession with making sure the dead would not rise again.  My mind reaches back into those dark Victorian times in Niagara Falls and wonders if it had to do with a strange event that occurred in July of 1866 in the yards of the Central Railroad, near the Suspension Bridge.  The event caused much excitement and certainly piqued the wild imagination of Niagara’s residents.  Newspapers across the nation became interested in the reports that 60-70 sheep had been found killed, in most unusual circumstances over a few days’ time near Niagara Falls.  Even as these animals commonly roamed freely throughout the village an occurrence such as this was most startling for the fact that “the sheep were merely bitten in the neck and the blood sucked from the carcass.” No other damage had been done to their bodies.  A posse was formed and men with torches were sent out to search for the guilty varmints.  Outwardly, it was supposed that a wolf had been the culprit, although it had been believed that the last remnants of wolves had been eradicated years before.  The culprit was never discovered although it seems possible that the villagers felt a supernatural presence had made itself known.  The general public, at the time, was well aware of vampires and their proclivities.  Even as Bram Stoker’s, Dracula, had yet to be written, the short story, “The Vampyre”, conceived by John Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician, in 1819, was popular literature throughout  the United States.  People will always be fearful of the unknown—and is it possible that this was the case in Niagara Falls?  Hulett spent the rest of his life ensuring that the dead of Niagara Falls would rest in peace.  Perhaps he knew what had happened to those sheep…perhaps he saw himself as a sort of pioneer “vampire hunter.”  Whatever the answer, we will never know for certain; he has surely taken it to his cemented grave at Oakwood Cemetery.  

Saturday
Dec172011

Lovely Place in Winter

Michelle Ann Kratts

There were three men who came with the carriage. Their pockets filled with stones. And there was no such thing as Time since if you really think of it—Time is a completely made up notion—just a measurement contrived by humans to organize the vast mystical nothingness of the universe. The horses knew about the nothingness of the universe. They had made their way swiftly through the falling snow and in through the black iron gate. They stopped when the driver commanded them to stop and they whinnied and lifted their hooves and scratched and shook their tails of the feathery whitestuff until they were used to the calm of the scene. Yes, of course, they had been here before. They would wait, unfastened, until the men were finished.

William Pool (1825-1912), the first editor of the Niagara Falls Gazette, was a pioneer in Niagara County journalism. He was active in the Whig and Republican parties and staunch in his anti-slavery views. He is the author of Landmarks of Niagara County. William Pool is buried in Oakwood. One by one the men stepped down from the carriage to begin their task. The driver lit a cigarette, walked around a bit. Stared at the moon. It was midnight, Christmas Eve, and there was a little crack in the organization of the universe. Church bells were sounding nearby while things like snow and men and carriages with horses were seeping in through the open spaces. Mr. Childs, closest to the door, his body bent forward, a silken hat brushing against the doorframe, was the first to exit. He was followed by the newspaperman, Mr. Pool, and the gentle Mr. Clark, Practical Embalmer and Undertaker (and cabinet maker) who knew all about death and dying. They stood in silence for a moment until Pool finally broke open the icy solitude.

 --Lovely, lovely place in winter. Isn’t it so?

 --Yes…Childs whispered.

 You might think he was the quiet one (because of the whispering). But, no, you’re wrong. He was the one with the busy mind that screamed and kicked wildly behind flickering candle-eyes.

Clark knew this place well. Didn’t need to say a single word about the loveliness. Could see the underthings. The worms and the slugs that moved about unhindered in the warm spaces beneath the snow and the grass and the dirt. Little bits of unbroken life swimming among a sea of coffins. The men. The women. The children. All of them with their dusty bodies falling apart bit by bit until one with the wood and the velvet cushions. He imagined seeing so many of their sweet faces for the last time as he closed the lid on their humanity. There they were! One day picking up a book in the library. The next day… gone. So many library books never finished. Sad husbands and wives returning them in their place. Almost looking guilty about the whole affair. Strange thing death is. Hmm…yes...

William H. Childs (1807-1885), an early merchant and insurance man in Niagara Falls, was a “zealous anti-slavery man” and possibly an agent of the Underground Railroad. His son, Joel, lost his life at the Battle of Shiloh. W.H. Childs is buried in Oakwood. He let a smile unfold. A secret little smile. One that crept along the side of his frozen lip. Only he could understand. Yes, indeed, it was magnificent to close that lid. Inherently delicious to be the last one to see the curvature of a face. He coughed once into a leather glove as if to say, "Yes, fellows...I know about these things....let me lead you along."

So they moved along in their fine array of overcoats (one being marked down from $10 to a glorious $5.90 at M. Brown’s Clothier and Hatter at 106 Falls Street) through the wide expanse of cemetery on this night of nights knowing, one and all, without any sort of announcement, where they were headed and for what business. Very elegant—the three of them dashing through the snow.

--Did you see in the papers? That deer caught in Steuben County? My God…Pure white…imagine that. Wish I’d been there. Didn’t say if it was a buck. Probably…would-ah…if it was. Pool lit a cigarette and blew a few smoky rings between his night darkened lips.

Childs was suddenly thrown into the mess of it and perturbed at the thought of the white deer.

--But why capture such a thing? Just let it be, I say. Should-ah let him go. Poor thing. Must-ah been lovely, just lovely. White fur and white snow. Lovely. (He a-hemed..)

He curled his hands into fists in his pockets. Felt the cold edges of the stones cut into skin. He imagined some nimrod in Steuben County had already killed the poor deer and probably had it hanging on his fiery mantle beside the Christmas tree for all to come at gawk at. Twinkling Christmas lights. Probably Christmas carols being sung…Once Again...Father Lead MeTours Te Deum…surely not as lovely as that sung on Christmas Eve at the First Presbyterian…but nonetheless... family gathered. Blood stains on white.  Dripping onto carpets. 

No one said any more about the deer. But still Childs could not push it out of that corner it had taken up in his mind.

They continued near the front of Oakwood, ever mindful of their work. Now below the beautiful angel. The sullen angel. Arms crossed in supplication. Head bowed. Carefully carved stone folds of holy robe. All pinned together by a stone mason. Maybe an Italian with loving hands. Here they placed their first piles of stones. Utter silence and the structure of the stones and the angel glaring down at them reminded Pool of art so it was then that he mentioned Cameron’s painting, Niagara Falls in Winter.

--Bought by some HH Warner of Rochester…purchasing price $30,000! Imagine that….

--No, couldn’t be.

Clark shook his head and imagined 30,000 pieces of anything at all. Slugs crawling (earth sticking to their bellies), squirrels, twigs, dead leaves, specks of dirt, flakes of snow. Just couldn’t be possible.

--But it’s true!

--And they say it’s regarded as the finest landscape ever painted in America, said Childs with pride.

They all had seen it. Had even seen Peter Caledon Cameron. A colossal work, it was, this Niagara Falls in Winter. Like the falls, perhaps. Well, not quite…But it was one of the ones that let you hear the thunder and feel the spray on your face when you stood before it.

--Good perspective he had…ha! Pool added. His heavy boots crunching along. More smoke rings from his mouth to the sky.

Then they spoke of how Mr. Cameron had painted his studies of Niagara Falls from a point in mid-air. Had lowered himself down the precipice with a tackle.

--A lot of guts these artists have…one standing for hours on end until the icicles formed on his beard…

--Pure mania, said Clark.

Indeed, they all knew the maniacs Niagara had summoned year after year.

--Yes, quite so, said Childs, concurring with both the “guts” statement as well as the “mania” statement.

--There are some things that bring you to your knees, he thought to himself. Some things.

Their voices went on as their thoughts became more unbearable and heavy to carry. They filled the horrid blackness of the night with half laughs, coughs, with the clearing of throats. Of course, the moving on made it inevitable that they would soon pass over their wives’ graves, their chidren’s graves, their own graves. Probably the reason for all the small talk and nervousness. But how strange to be on this side of the whole thing! There was a cold pause upon coming nearer to these tender spots of earth filled with salty tears and their loved ones bodies. Childs passed beside the little one…”We’ll miss him when there is noble work to do…” Son, Joel. Reduced to an etching on some stone. 45thRegiment Illinois Volunteers. Died Battle of Shiloh. That’s it, though. There was nothing more. All comes to this.

They came. They saw. They placed the stones--for they were the most diligent of men. Never give up the ship, these ones. Even some stones for the dreary Woolson graves—that strange set from Pool’s own family. A family of horrible circumstances. Tragic ends. Flashes of newsprint. Poison. Blood. Murder. Suicide. May they rest in peace. Requiescat in pace.

Then onto Strangers Rest (for they need the stones the most). Those forgotten travelers and the lost. A little pile of stones mean the most to those left behind. Keeps them going. The tragic ones who had no names or whose names had faded from every ledger. Those too young to hold a pencil. Those without a hand. Come back from the War, pieces missing. Those with only hands. Found in the River. Just a limb with a tattoo. Annie. Stones for all of them. Little calling cards.

Almost time to go. Things are closing up. The three men have emptied their pockets. The horses know about the nothingness of the universe. About the nothingness of Time. They whinny, scratch, shake their manes of snowflakes. Almost. Time. To. Go. So short these visits. But there are other things to do. They make their way back to the carriage. The driver never says a single word. In they go. Pool puts out his cigarette, the light is gone. He is the first to lower his head, climb in. He is followed by Clark and Childs. Solemn work. Not so bad but, indeed, solemn work. Just the remembering that there is an end is the toughest part. There are always other beginnings. But there is always an end.

The driver shuts the door, steps into his seat, calls to the horses. Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? One more stop for this night of all nights. The store of Louis Ehrig is always open if you believe Time is a made up notion. It is crowded with people. Frontier Mart. Falls Street. The attraction? A great Christmas tree trimmed in the most beautiful manner. Lighted wax candles on every branch. Mr. Ehrig proclaimed this evening that this IS the headquarters of Santa Claus. It’s December 24, 1855. It always is December 24, 1855, and the store is full to capacity. A carriage is on its way. Pockets full of money for gifts. Three men exit the carriage for Santa’s headquarters. Their children can hardly wait. Tomorrow is Christmas morning. 

Friday
Nov112011

“Il Signore vi spira una via…”

The Lord will open a way,” the angel said to the very discouraged Experienced Social Settlement Worker who had come all the way from Boston to Niagara Falls after being assigned an especially difficult task by the War Council of the Y.W.C.A.  Though “wholesome, cultured, generous and noble,” it had become undeniable:  our Miss Elizabeth Howe was on the verge of defeat before she even began.  She had traveled the world over, had worked in many unique situations, but this job in Niagara Falls was seemingly impossible.   It was early fall, 1919, when she admitted to Angelo, the Italian janitor at the local Y.W.C.A., that she may never find suitable quarters for the home she was instructed to create for her project. Every place that seemed a satisfactory location had been denied after she explained its ultimate purpose:  to serve as a sort of service bureau for the foreign born.   But Angelo was right.    Two days following her heart-to-heart with the angel, another Italian opened the door to a small three-roomed flat in the heart of Tunnel Town, a tenement house, an ex-macaroni factory.  It was here, amid the buzz of the construction workers, the dust and the plaster, that Miss Howe was finally ready to exclaim:  This is it!  And it was it….

1116 East Falls Street, though an empty lot today, was the setting for immeasurable miracles.  It’s one of those places in Niagara Falls that should be enshrined for its glorious past.  It should especially draw you in if you descend from any of the massive amounts of immigrants that flooded into this city after the First World War--the Italians, the Armenians, the Polish, the Syrians, the Lithuanians, the Russians, the Spanish--to name a few--and even more so if you are a woman.  It was on this spot of earth that a sisterhood of female workers, led by the indomitable Elizabeth Howe, made Americans of thousands upon thousands of women and paved the way for a new world for their granddaughters. 

The International Institute was formed out of necessity in Niagara Falls on October 13, 1920.  Dr. Bill Feder, in his landmark work, "The Evolution of an Ethnic Neighborhood That Became United In Diversity: The East Side, Niagara Falls, New York 1880-1930," states the incredible fact that statistically, Niagara Falls, New York, in the period following WWI, contained the second largest percentage of immigrants in New York State, only overshadowed by New York City.  The thousands of pilgrims from foreign lands found themselves in need of many services.  Especially the women.  Most importantly they needed to learn English.      The International Institute in Niagara Falls was established to assimilate and Americanize the local foreign born women.  In Miss Howe’s own words, “…the main purpose in establishing this institution is to make the foreigner feel at home in this country and particularly in this city.  Our idea is to also make it easier for them to live here, to understand our ways and to understand us…”

Initially, it was quite difficult for Miss Howe to entice the women to the benefits of her establishment—for many of the men were quite opposed to the idea of it and the women were frightened of disobeying.    Her notes reveal the great battles she fought with the local priests, especially.   It was apparent that they felt that the immigrant women didn’t need to venture out of their homes and into the secular world for assistance.  She felt otherwise!  And she won them over in the end with the generosity of her works.  She made it so easy for them.   Once the first few came (out of curiosity) many thousands more followed.  When they said they could not make it because their children needed them, she opened a nursery and welcomed the children, too.  She hired a staff of brilliant female teachers and each of them were fluent in various languages:  Italian, Armenian, Polish, Syrian. Miss Howe, herself, was fluent in numerous languages.   As well as teaching the English language, there were classes on American principles, customs and methods of living, civics, cooking classes and sewing classes. The women were taught how to file birth records, how to fill in their naturalization papers.    There were children’s story times and book clubs for the mothers. Miss Howe and her workers also assisted the women in every sort of social problem and dilemma you could imagine.  One of the last acts of her life was the procuring of a double stroller for an impoverished mother of twins.  During the month of February, 1921, 735 calls for help were recorded and fulfilled at the International Institute.  It is hard to believe such incredible work went on in this empty lot on East Falls Street.   Miss Howe was so proud of what was unfolding before her very eyes.  She mentioned to a Niagara Gazette reporter, one day in January of 1920, “…is it not wonderful and a great country, too?” 

My favorite Miss Howe story occurred in November of 1920.  I really can’t read it without shedding a few tears. Imagine Mrs. S….an Italian woman in Miss Howe’s conversational English class.  An otherwise enthusiastic pupil, she was terrified of the snow (after breaking her leg a few years before) and had announced to the class that she probably would not venture out if the snow was bad.  Perfect attendance was something all of the women aspired to and something Miss Howe promoted for she knew all too well how easy it would be for the women to fall out of school.  Class began this one particular blustery day—without Mrs. S.   The women shook their heads at Mrs. S’s absence.  But then, there she was!  She had come after all.   Her classmates clapped their hands with joy when she appeared and when the excitement subsided she told the class of the “miracle” that had occurred.  Even as hard as it had snowed, and she had decided to stay home, she looked out of her window and saw a perfect path had been shoveled from her door to that of the International Institute.  “Il Signore vi spira una via…”  One can only imagine who had produced this “miracle.”  I’m sure the women knew straight November 15, 1922away, but Miss Howe does not elaborate.  The best part of the story is the end, though.  Miss Howe scribbles one last thing: “Mrs. S. is the wife of an American citizen and when Mr. S voted, Mrs. S. voted, too….”  When I read this over, I realized that this was not just “one last thing…”  It was the first election that American women could lawfully vote in due to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution and Mrs. S. had voted!    As moving as this may have been, Miss Howe added one more little footnote….”I’m sorry to add to the story that Mrs. S. voted according to the advice of her husband….”    Miss Howe knew we still had a ways to go…but it was a start. 

I think it’s inevitable that this time of year, my colleague (Pete Ames) and I think of Miss Howe.  He introduced me to her a few years ago.  She is his favorite stop in Oakwood.  Quite appropriately, she lies in Strangers Rest, among the stunters and the great challengers of the Falls—for in the end, she, too, fought bravely against the odds.  She was only here for a few years however her great legacy of love remains.  Even the newspapers of her day remarked about her work of love. Pete and I have planned to stand over her grave on November 15th, the anniversary of her death, and tell her how she isn’t forgotten, how we love her.  I plan on saying it in Italian, the language of my ancestors, and he plans on saying it in Armenian, the language of so many of her students.    

After learning of her story, perhaps you will think of Miss Howe, too, in November.  It was the month of her birth, the month of her death.  Strangely, it is the month we choose to elect the leaders of our nation—that right so sought after by our great grandmothers.    It’s that time of year when the leaves fall and the trees are left empty and naked, their jagged bones scratching against a gray sky—wondering whatever happened to the beautiful blue heavens?  It was Miss Howe who let everyone in out of the cold and into that little promised land that she called the International Institute. 

Clementina Ventresca FortunaIt just so happens that in November I also think of my great grandmother, Clementina Ventresca Fortuna--who has a birthday this month, too.   I doubt my great grandmother and Miss Howe ever met, but their stories do, indeed, meet in this city at the edge of the world.  My great grandmother came to Niagara Falls, an Italian immigrant, just a few months before Miss Howe’s death.  A young woman, fleeing a forced marriage, she found herself in this new and frightening place, longing to make it her home.  My great grandmother learned enough English to get by and she and my great grandfather saw their dreams come true when they opened Fortuna’s restaurant in 1945.   Her daughter, my grandmother, Gina Fortuna, born in 1924, would have given Miss Howe such pride.  The child of Italian immigrants, my grandmother was determined from childhood to make her mark in the world. She hardly slept a wink during WWII, lying about her age to get herself a job at Bell Aircraft.  Although her father gave her the option (and strongly favored it) to quit school in order to work the long night hours, continuing her education became her battle cry.  While a mother of two, she went to college and obtained a Bachelors and a Masters degree.  She even served as a county legislator in Niagara Falls.   Somehow, she translated Miss Howe’s message into her own life and passed it onto all of the girls in the family:  success is possible with confidence and knowledge.

Miss Howe was only fifty three when she died of pneumonia on November 15, 1922.  The incredible burden of her work proved to be too much, even for a woman of her stamina, and it seems that she literally had worked herself to death.  Women of twenty five nations were brought together because of the hard work and deep devotion of one woman.  Day or night she was there for those in dire need and thousands of acts of social service were rendered.  The notes she kept are priceless.  Sharon Henry, my colleague at the Lewiston Public Library, and I have transcribed what was left of the poorly microfilmed records from the International Institute.  Her story has touched our lives and hopefully will reach into our daughters’ lives.  Once upon a time there was a little fireball of a woman in Niagara Falls who paved the way so the rest of us may live in a world of opportunity and unlimited freedom. 

You are welcome to read the Reports of Miss Elizabeth Howe, International Institute, at the Lewiston Public Library.