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Book Reviews

Book Review: Gunpowder Girls

By Jim Wudarczyk

Tanya Anderson’s Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of  Three Civil War Tragedies (Kansas City, Missouri: Quindaro Press, 2016) was written to introduce young readers to the sadly neglected historical incidents at three Civil War arsenals that claimed a large number of pre-teen and teenage girls. The book, which is amply illustrated, gives a fairly concise account of the dangers of working with black gunpowder at both federal and Confederate ammunition production centers. The common denominators for each horrific incident were (1) most victims were young females, (2) many were Irish immigrants, and (3) the disasters took place while paper cartridges were being loaded.

Most readers of our newsletter are familiar with the September 17, 1862, Allegheny Arsenal explosion that killed 78 persons. Anderson does not shed any new light on this subject, and the author accepts the common theory that the explosion was caused by a spark from a horse’s hoof. While she alludes to the military inquest that followed the coroner’s investigation, Anderson does not delve very deeply into this important source document.

A second civilian disaster took place at the Confederate States Laboratory or the Richmond Arsenal on March 13, 1863, where 300 girls worked. The author indicates that the Confederate States Laboratory did not exist before 1861. Originally, the arsenal was located at the end of Seventh Street, near the James River, but was later moved to Brown’s Island.

Anderson captures the desperation of the period. “In Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate government, the times were desperate, too. A lack of food and other essentials had driven prices way up. Families could not afford to keep their children fed, and the number of working-class poor residents was growing.” She notes that Irish immigrants fled famine in their native country, only to encounter destitution in America. Anderson points out that malnutrition helped spread smallpox, and an epidemic swept through Richmond early in 1863.

Prior to 1863, there were two explosions at the Richmond Arsenal. No one was hurt in the incident of September 26, 1861; while two men died shortly after an explosion on January 27, 1862. The 1863 tragedy claimed the lives of 45 persons and left many more injured. According to Anderson, the explosion took place after an 18-year-old worker tried to loosen friction primers used in cannons by slamming the trays that had been sealed with wax and sprayed with varnish. Some of the victims were as young as ten and twelve years of age.

At the Washington Arsenal in Washington, D.C., twenty-one persons were killed on June 17, 1864, after pans of red and white stars or flares for a Fourth of July celebration exploded in the sweltering summer heat.

Tanya Anderson’s Gunpowder Girls is a fitting tribute to the forgotten women heroes of American history.


Book Review: Allegheny Cemetery

By Jim Wudarczyk

In December 2016, Images of America: Allegheny Cemetery by Lisa Speranza and Nancy Foley made its debut. This volume is a very valuable addition of historical materials relating to Lawrenceville’s most important historical institution.

Although Allegheny Cemetery is the largest and most scenic landmark in Lawrenceville, it rarely receives the recognition that it deserves. In the past, there were a few historical works that explored the rich heritage of the facility. James Van Trump’s essay, “A Pittsburgh Pantheon: Allegheny Cemetery,” published in The Charette in 1959, was the pioneer piece. Another important work on the subject was Walter Kidney’s 1990 Allegheny Cemetery: A Romantic Landscape In Pittsburgh, published by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Allegheny Cemetery is so vast and so full of history that it is impossible to capture its complete story in a single volume. To the credit of Lisa Speranza and Nancy Foley, the authors tackled the herculean task and developed a book that recognizes Allegheny Cemetery as a place of rich architectural diversity, scenic beauty, and a great repository of Pittsburgh history.

Foley, the assistant to the president of the cemetery, and Speranza, a volunteer for the Allegheny Cemetery Historical Association, demonstrate their great love for the subject of this incredible Lawrenceville landmark by pooling their talents and incorporating an array of interesting stories.

While Arcadia Press is to be hailed for their more than 7,600 titles that explore old photographs from numerous cities, neighborhoods, and institutions that would otherwise have been lost, the publishing house is very stringent on the number of pages and photographs, as well as the amount of narrative. To their credit, Speranza and Foley work very well within these limitations and successfully share an incredible number of synopses of people and events without compromising the integrity of the stories. Undoubtedly, they could have incorporated many more biographies had the format allowed. Yet one must commend their initiative for tackling this mammoth project, and praise their ability for weaving such a rich photographic tapestry that incredibly captures the essence of Allegheny Cemetery.

This is a book that does not disappoint and will always be regarded as a valuable reference source. The authors resurrect a large number of photographs of prominent people buried within the hallowed grounds, identify unique mausoleums and tombs, incorporate pictures of places and events associated with regional history that are linked with Allegheny Cemetery, and even capture pictures of its wildlife.

No matter how many times a person visits Allegheny Cemetery, there is always something new to see and learn. In their book, the authors give a nice summary of the history of the two gatehouses, conservatory, lakes, maintenance complex, fountain, receiving vaults, columbarium, and Temple of Memories. There is also ample discussion of an array of interesting pieces of cemetery architecture: the Oliver Sarcophagus, which is a spectacular work in bronze depicting angels, virtues, and boughs of plenty; the Wilkins family tree, which is carved in stone; the graceful gothic Moorhead Mausoleum; the Egyptian-style tomb of the Lockhart family; the Wainwright Pyramid with its open family bible; and, of course, the elaborate Winter memorial that is fit for a pharaoh.

The reader is reminded that the graves are reminders of prominent people who shaped our history and heritage. Rather than simply taking a picture of existing tombs, Speranza and Foley do an excellent job of exploring various sources to find pictures of the deceased. Noted persons include Thomas Marshall Howe, the once prominent Congressman who served as Adjunct General to Governor Curtin during the Civil War; bankers Thomas Mellon and Nathaniel Holmes; retailer Joseph Horne; humorist and satirist William J. Kountz, Jr.; lumber magnate David Lindsay Gillespie; Civil War heroes General Alexander Hays, Colonel James Harvey Childs, Archibald Rowand, Jr. and Captain Robert Hampton; as well as World War I aviators Colonel William Thaw and Lieutenant Alexander Blair Thaw. Literally, there is no shortage of stories about patriots, abolitionists, writers, and industrialists.

The 128-page book gives a concise history of the cemetery, addresses maintaining its rural character, discusses art and architecture, includes pictures and stories of the titans of industry, patriots and civic leaders, remembers artists and entertainers, looks at female contributors to history, and even includes the largely forgotten. In short, the book has something for everyone.

Through their writing efforts and carefully selected photographs, Lisa Speranza and Nancy Foley remind us that Allegheny Cemetery is not just a place that links Penn Avenue and Butler Street, nor is it a place for a nice summer jog; Allegheny Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 130,000 persons interred there. It is part of our heritage, with a storied past that is begging to be told.

This is one of those “must have” books for serious historians, casual readers, and those who travel the winding trails of the cemetery but never knew much about this important institution.