Finding the story

September 2, 2011 at 7:46 pm (biography research and writing) (, , , , , , , , , )

While you may be fascinated by the subject of your research, unless you can find a story – with a hook – you are not going to get published.

Of course, this may not be your aim. You may be reconstructing a family history for your own pleasure or your family’s information. All equally valid.

But if you want to be read – even by a tolerant and cooperative family – you need to tell your story.

Lists of dates and facts – while interesting to you, and representing the result of hours, days, months of dedicated and creative research – are not that interesting to read. The excitement you felt when you tracked down some hard-to-find little gem of research does not usually translate to excitement in the reader. You have to assume that your average reader is not as obsessed with your subject as you are. They need to be wooed.

Is your story going to be chronological? Or are you going to start with the most dramatic part and then go back in time to show how the subject got to that point? Is there a dramatic part? Too many flashbacks can be confusing unless really well handled.

The best advice I ever received (from Frances Osborne, author if Lilla’s Feast and The Bolter, both about her ancestresses. She said “write with passion”.

It took me a while to work out what that meant to me. My natural writing style has been subjugated over the years into something the cross between a university essay and a government report. Excellent for presenting dry facts and a logical argument but not great for writing a biography.

Write with passion didn’t mean overly flowery detail, emotive words, embroidered prose. It meant entering into the spirit of the subject, the spirit of the times and telling the story from her perspective, even if it was written in third person, not first.

I’m still working on it.

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The winds of change….

July 15, 2011 at 12:30 pm (Alice's Childhood, Chicago, Faurot Family, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When Armour Felt Works, which used the fur from the animals, collapsed following a catastrophic fire, Henry Faurot, carefully trained by his mentor PD Armour to recognise an opportunity, saw a gap in the market: a number of skilled workers with industry experience but no work. Armour and Co also had nowhere else to off-load the fur that they had used to make felt. An honourable man, Faurot sought PD Armour’s permission before he took advantage of the situation. His previous experiences in business with his wife Catherine’s brothers had been profitable and so in 1899 he approached his brother in law William Silverthorne to finance a new venture. The Western Felt Works was born, a change in industry for the Silverthornes and another profitable one. Later the same year another brother, George Morrill Silverthorne joined them.

Western Felt Works initially took over where the Armour Felt Works had left off. Its product range was identical, felt pads and horse blankets, and suited the market demand for the time. However as motorcars replaced the horse and carriage, the company needed to reposition itself to survive. Staying with transportation, they changed their products to suit the burgeoning automotive industry and produced seat padding. Considering Chicago’s future as a centre of car manufacture in the United States, this proved a prescient and fruitful decision.

Alice’s father William E Silverthorne was also an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word, backing a number of new inventions. He had a particular interest in the development of pour-outs for bottles and methods for treating paper containers for holding liquid products, precursors to milk and juice cartons commonly in use today. His interests extended to mining. He organised and financed the Alice Loraine Company, which held mining leases and properties in the Cobalt Section of Canada.

In 1899, the same year his daughter Alice was born, William E Silverthorne, by now managing operations in Buffalo New York, was appointed the first president of the Western Felt Works. This was the apex of his career and influence. He was married into the influential Armour family, whose tentacles of influence reached far outside the mid-west into the White House, was president of his family firm, receiving income from the felt-works and several lumbar mills, and his beautiful wife had presented him with a remarkably pretty baby girl, another heir for the Armour fortune. The future looked golden for the Silverthornes.

Within ten years it would be unravelling, and within fifteen years it would all be gone, leaving him disgraced, an outcast and broke, forever estranged from his daughter.

The Armours, Silverthornes and Faurots were social lions in turn of the century Chicago, a city undergoing enormous change, caught in the grind between the past and the future. The industrial revolution had brought wealth and privilege to a few, and grinding, soul-destroying production-line manual labour and poverty for many. Silverthorne’s mills, Armour’s meat-packing plant, Faurot’s felt works and associated industries had provided great wealth and power for their families but the tension between the wealthy and the poor had spawned a new class – the criminal class. With the introduction of prohibition, speakeasies sprang up, flaunting the restrictions on alcohol, attracting the working class and the elite alike to a dangerous glamorous flirtation with organised crime. Mob bosses became household names, garnering inches of newspaper space as they seized control of the illegal alcohol trade and sought new vices as opportunities for income. City life stepped up a notch.

The tension of this social change would shape Alice’s life. The passions and restlessness it inspired in her would catapult her from the conservative Chicago debutante scene to new horizons in lands far away. While she was in some ways an independent woman ahead of her time, in other ways she was very much a product of the times, a woman who did not accept the social boundaries and mores of her elders and instead explored the world and all it had to offer. And for beautiful passionate Alice, a lot was on offer.

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American Empire: Armour Meatpacking

July 14, 2011 at 12:59 pm (Alice's Childhood, Chapin Family, Chicago, Faurot Family, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , )

The civil war had also been pivotal in the meteoric success of Alice’s maternal family, the Armours. Armour Felt Works was part of the Armour Company empire, a series of industries based around the Armour Meatpacking Company. The company had been founded by brothers Herman Ossian Armour and Phillip Danforth Armour, who had profited – and profiteered – during the American Civil War. Hungry Union Armies drove up the price of meat and PD Armour sold short pork futures in the New York Market, gambling on the end of the Civil War to drop prices. He was right. He made nearly $2 million in 90 days. The brothers were multi-millionaires by their early 30’s and Chicago replaced Cincinnati as the leading meat processing city in the US.

In 1915 poet Carl Sandburg was inspired to write a poem on the dual nature of the boom-town, with big industrial enterprises spawning a boom in desperate, crippling poverty for many and feeding a secondary boom in criminal activity. He identified the cut-throat business practices of the meat-packing barons as largely to blame when he called Chicago “Hog Butcher for the World”.

CHICAGO
HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;
(excerpt) Carl Sandburg

The Armour brothers’ drive and ambition in pursuing the American Dream wrought social change in the lives of ordinary Americans. Their talent was to put together quite disparate resources and see the opportunity to change a production and delivery system, an opportunity that nobody else could see. The result was meat as a staple on every dinner-plate in America.

After the war, the Armours turned their attention to expanding their meat empire using the rail network to deliver meat far and wide. Previously meat had been a luxury enjoyed only by the wealthy due to the costs involved in small-scale slaughterhouse and delivery operations. Livestock tended to lose weight being herded cross-country to market restricting the markets livestock producers could access, and the animals that slaughterhouses could purchase. Preservation methods were limited to smoking and salting and meant that the meat could not be kept for long or transported far after the kill. By using the railways to buy cattle in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, then bringing them in by rail to central points for slaughter without the loss incurred in driving the cattle on foot, the Armours could buy cheap and minimise their slaughterhouse costs. Again using the railways, the Armour Company could establish a large market share for cheap almost-fresh meat wherever the railroad tracks went. In 1872 they installed the world’s largest cool room and began using natural ice as their preserving method, expanding the territory into which they could sell their meat. The American householder developed a taste for the luxury of meat.

Very much in keeping with the times, the Armours turned butchery from a small scale process into a production line. PD Armour’s great great grandson Jeff Armour Nelson describes the process thus: ” Hogs and steers were herded off trains and into pens, and from there into narrow chutes which led to the slaughterhouses. They were stunned by a hammer-blow to the head and quickly slung up by the hind legs to an overhead moving belt. Then they moved past long lines of men working at top speed – cutting their throats, removing their vital organs, peeling off hides and bristles, and sawing the carcases into chops, steaks and hams.” They could slaughter and process a thousand animals a day. A promotional postcard of the time shows workers standing on a floor awash with blood surrounded by carcases suspended from a conveyer belt.

The Armour empire expanded further. Refrigerated ships expanded their reach across the oceans and soon they established frozen meat works in Buenos Aires , taking advantage of the excellent fatted cattle and cheap local labour.

Armour and Company were also ruthless in selling their products, flooding new markets with below-cost products until the “mom and pop” competitors were put out of business. Then they could raise the prices to make a handsome profit.

Production line techniques had cut costs and delivered a product to many whom previously could not afford the luxury of meat. These same production line techniques later inspired Henry Ford and engineer Clarence Avery to streamline car production so that in 1913 a car could be built in 1.5 hours, reversing the process of stripping a carcase so that the car was built from the chasse up.

Armour’s other secret also revolutionised the meat-packing industry. PD Armour once wrote “waste is criminal” and he applied this principle to his meatpacking empire. He hired chemists to make sure no part of the animal went to waste, no product required another manufacturer, no profits went elsewhere. Armour and Company produced a huge range of goods ranging from prime steaks through to leather-products, glycerin, gelatine and Neat’s-foot oil made from the hooves and horns, fertiliser from the blood, felt from the fur, soap, candles and tallow from the fats, glue from the sinews and bones. PD was quoted saying “We use every part of the pig except the squeal.” No doubt if he could have found out how to harness that, he would have sold it at a profit as well.

The Armour meat-packing empire was a huge industry in Chicago and northern US, and as a large-scale employer wrought significant social and financial influence. PD Armour died in 1900, leaving what was then a massive fortune of $15 million* with rumours that he had given away $25 million. By 1918 PD Armour’s son J Ogden Armour featured in the Forbes first rich list, listed in the $125 million category. The company had a turnover listed at $600 million in 1918 and profit at $20 million per annum. At its peak its annual turnover was $961 million, and the family holdings also included bank and railroad stocks . (Armour Meats is now part of the Dial company.)

There were some problems with the Armour system. The relentless focus on profits overlooked important ethical principals such as worker safety. There was huge turn-over of staff in the slaughterhouse as workers could not cope with the screaming of the animals. Workers were constantly covered in blood and pressured to kill faster and faster. Staff turn-over was not a problem to Armour; in the poverty of Chicago’s immigrant ghettos there were always more workers to take their place in this lowest of occupations.

Even more catastrophically, food hygiene standards were ignored. The importance of food safety and hygiene was perhaps not as scientifically established as it is now but the public was aware that spoiled food could be fatal. Sawdust, rats, faeces and animals parts not usually considered for human consumption made their way into the Armour meat supply. When soldiers in the Spanish-American War died after eating the meat Armours had supplied to the War Department, the public outcry finally reached the American Congress and food safety was discussed at a legislative level. Armour finally acted to clean up the industry. By WWII Armour and Co had a Government contract to supply meat to the army again.

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The woman who shot her lover then married him

June 3, 2011 at 10:31 am (Chicago, Happy Valley, introduction, Kenya, Paris, PD Armour and Family, Silverthorne Family, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In 1984, when I should have been studying for my senior school exams, I was reading a book called White Mischief about the unsolved murder of the adulterous Earl of Erroll in Kenya at the height of World War II.

One chapter entitled “The fastest gun in the Gare du Nord” caught my attention.  This was the story of Alice Silverthorne de Janze de Trafford, a Jazz Age American heiress with a troubled story, who along with her husband, a French Comte, was friends with Erroll and his wife Idina (nee Sackville, daughter of Earl de la Warr).  Alice was also, with Idina’s knowledge, Erroll’s mistress for over two decades.

Alice was best known at the time however, as the woman who shot her lover Raymond de Trafford, in the Gare du Nord in Paris, then five years later married him, and it was this part of the story that stayed with me. What sort of woman can shoot a man and still convince him to marry her?

Fast forward to 1999 and I was on bed rest with a high-risk pregnancy, and bored, bored, bored. Surfing the net was one of the few things I could safely do.  After exhausting the multiple birth sites and scaring myself with the possibilities of what could go wrong, I turned instead to the genealogy websites, and, having exhausted my own family, started researching Alice. 

At first this was quite difficult but as more and more resources started being available on the net, a fascinating story emerged of a complex woman struggling with her psychological inheritance in a world where there were few rules that could not be broken.

This led to a journey of over a decade and brought me into contact with some interesting people whose lives were intimately or tangentially affected by Alice and her story.

This is the story of that journey, of the people who helped along the way, the clues that led to understanding, or sometimes led to more puzzles, the tangents too obscure to include in a biography, but ultimately as fascinating as Alice’s story itself, her friends and family whose lives were as interesting and complex as Alice’s. 

For Alice, was a product of her times, of her family and her friends and of the lands that her adventurous spirit took her to.  The tragedy that befell her was both of her own making and also predestined by her personality, upbringing and the tragedies that befell her.

And I fell in love with Alice’s story.

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