Roadside America: St. Joseph, Michigan

Growing up in Boston and later Tucson, I grew up going on beach vacations in New England and California. It wasn’t until I started dating my husband a decade ago that I discovered America’s “Third Coast” (the Great Lakes, for our purposes, though some call the Gulf states the Third Coast) in the Midwest. Visiting my in-laws in St. Joseph, Michigan, I was amazed to see that you don’t need to go to the edges of the country to experience sand between your toes, eat an ice cream on the boardwalk, and swim out further than your parents can see you. The Lake Michigan town of St. Joseph is a resort town from way back in the midst of a comeback, striking the rare balance between charming and twee.

Each year that I’ve visited St. Joseph, the town has evolved and improved into a destination worth visiting beyond a quick side trip from Chicago. The waterfront parks have been revitalized in recent years, and the beaches are so wide and sandy, you could forget you aren’t on an ocean. St. Joe and its sister city Benton Harbor are under two hours from Chicago, as well as an easy drive from other Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit, in what has been called the “Riviera of the Midwest.”Just across Lake Michigan from Chicago, residents recently had hoped to revive the old Chicago-St. Joseph ferry that carried thousands to the beach in the 1920s heyday, but the venture proved too costly. Land remains the only approach, although there is a trans-Lake Michigan ferry between Milwaukee and Muskegon in the summer season, about 90 miles north of St. Joe. Amtrak makes the trip an hour and forty minutes from Chicago daily if you’d prefer not to get caught in traffic.

This area of Michigan is also famed for its produce, owing to the “lake effect” on the climate, helping to produce what is arguably the world’s best fruit. From June to November, you can taste many varieties at the Benton Harbor Fruit Market, one of the oldest and largest seller-to-buyer produce markets in America. Excellent fruit means excellent wine as well, and you can visit over a dozen wineries within a dozen miles of St. Joseph. You can also sample Michigan flavors at the annual Harvest Festival and regular farmers markets in the summer season.

In addition to the cute shops and a good selection of restaurants, St. Joseph has a budding arts scene anchored by the Krasl Art Center, which holds a major art fair each summer. The new pride of St. Joe is the Silver Beach area just below downtown. The historic Silver Beach Carousel was first opened in 1910 and re-opened 100 years later after the park had deteriorated and closed in the early ’70s. You can ride the carousel year-round, but go in the summer for the optimum effect, when you can finish out a day at the beach with one of Michigan’s famed sunsets and think about how soon you can return.

[flickr image via Molechaser]

Museum Month: Madness And Badness At Psychiatric And Crime Museums

michael myersIt’s no secret amongst my friends (and I suspect, most of my readers) that I’m obsessed with the more sordid aspects of humanity. Why? Hell if I know. As with most things, I blame my dad, the veterinarian. I’m pretty sure a childhood spent playing necropsy assistant has something to do with it.

My love of forensics is only the tip of the iceberg: psychiatry, taxidermy, eating weird shit and serial killers also make my list of fun things to read about or watch documentaries on when it’s time to relax. I know – I’m a total freak.

Obviously, I’m not alone (do a quick Google search of “forensic television shows” and you’ll see what I mean). There are also scads of museums and the like devoted to the seamier side of life, all across the U.S. My picks, after the jump.

P.S. If you find this reprehensible yet you’ve read this far, well, that makes you a bit of a voyeur, as well. Embrace it, and click away.nurse ratchedGlore Psychiatric Museum
A part of the St. Joseph Museum located in St. Joseph, Missouri, the Glore was once housed in “State Lunatic Asylum No. 2.” Founded by George Glore in 1903, the museum is essentially a history of the treatment of mental illness (including keepsakes from patients that include “items ingested” and contemporary artwork). There are also interactive exhibits, replicas and documents. Expect to see everything from lobotomy instruments to treatments for patients “possessed” by witchcraft or demons.

Glore worked for the Missouri Department of Mental Health for nearly 41 years, and despite the thematic content, his museum contains what’s considered the largest and most well curated exhibition of mental health care in the U.S. According to its website, Glore’s goal was to “reduce the stigma associated with psychiatric treatment for patients, their families and their communities.”

The Glore Psychiatric Museum is located at 3408 Frederick Avenue, and is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. – closed on major holidays.
CSI
The National Museum of Crime and Punishment
Washington, D.C.‘s “Crime Museum” opened in the Penn Quarter neighborhood in 2008, and boasts 28,000 square feet packed with artifacts, interactive exhibits, including an FBI shooting range and high-speed police chase simulator, and forensic techniques ranging from ballistics analysis to facial reconstruction. There are also historical exhibits focused on colonial crime, pirates, the Wild West, the Mafia and serial killers, and law enforcement uniforms, firearms and other equipment.

Other educational offerings include public forensic workshops, CSI summer camps for teens (it’s never too early to become the next Marg Helgenberger, kids) and rotating exhibits. Don’t forget your night vision goggles.

The Crime Museum is located at 575 7th Street NW, Washington D.C, and is open seven days a week. Hours vary by season. Click here for details. If you’re traveling by Metro, take the Green, Yellow or Red lines, and get off at the Gallery Place/Chinatown station.

[Photo credits: Michael Myers, Flickr user Chepe Leña; Crime Museum, Wikipedia Commons]

Christmas with Jesse James

Jesse James, jesse jamesChristmas can be a stressful time. In fact, statistics show that you’re more likely to have a heart attack on Christmas than any other day of the year. Hanging out with family too much can be hazardous to your health.

Some families, of course, are more hazardous than others. Most people don’t have the emotional baggage that Jesse James, Jr., did. He was the son of the famous outlaw but didn’t even know it until his dad was assassinated. He thought his name was Charlie Howard and his father was named Thomas.

Despite living under aliases, the James family couldn’t give Jesse Jr. or his sister Mary a normal upbringing. Junior’s earliest memory was of a gangmember shooting through the front door at a suspected prowler. They also moved a lot and were discouraged from playing with neighborhood children.

Junior was accustomed to his father going around heavily armed at all times. One Christmas while living in his father’s final home, which is now the Jesse James House Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, Jesse decided to dress up like Santa Claus to surprise his children.

The outlaw came into the house dressed in a costume he had borrowed (not stolen) from a local church. Giving a cheery “ho ho ho” and bearing gifts and candy, he delighted his son and daughter. He asked if they had been good and Junior and Mary said they had. Santa then opened up the bag of goodies and the kids rummaged around inside. Junior felt a gun under the cloth and exclaimed that this wasn’t the real Saint Nick, but his father dressed up as Santa! Their mother then explained that Santa was very busy that year and Dad was helping him out.

So next time a family member embarrasses you at Christmas, at least be grateful they’re not packing heat.

For more stories of Jesse’s hijinks, check out my series: On the Trail of Jesse James.

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]

The assassination of Jesse James

Jesse James, Robert Ford, wild west, old west
After 1876, life wasn’t the same for Jesse James.

That year he and his gang got badly shot up while trying to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The Northfield Raid left three gangmembers dead and three more in jail. Only Frank and Jesse James got away. Frank left for the East, swearing he’d go straight, and left Jesse very much alone. Most of his friends from his Civil War days were dead or disappeared, and as he gathered a new gang he had to pick men of lesser caliber: two-bit horse thieves and petty crooks who dreamed of making the big time. Among them were brothers Charles and Robert Ford.

Jesse’s only comfort in his later years was his family. He had married his first cousin, Zerelda. She had been named after his mother, so Jesse called her “Zee” to differentiate between the two Zereldas. Their uncle presided at their wedding. Jesse also had a young son, Jesse James, Jr., and a daughter named Mary. Neither child knew their real names. They thought their last name was Howard and that their father was some sort of businessman. Zee knew the truth, of course, and she also knew that she didn’t trust the Ford brothers.

Charlie may have helped Jesse rob a train at Blue Cut in 1881, but Robert was as yet untested. Some biographers say the brothers had been avid horse thieves before meeting Jesse, but despite these credentials Jesse never seemed to trust the Fords. He kept a close eye on the two as they shared a house with him in St. Joseph, Missouri.

He was right to mistrust them. Robert Ford had secretly met with Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden and agreed to kill Jesse in exchange for a pardon and the $10,000 reward on Jesse’s head. This was a huge sum at a time when a decent horse went for $100 and a good farm sold for a few thousand. The Fords kept quiet and waited their chance. Days stretched into weeks as they stayed under the watchful eye of the famous outlaw. They knew they were no match for him in a face-to-face fight, yet they got no chance to surprise him.

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Jesse was planning a bank job with the Fords when on April 3, 1882, the news came that Dick Liddel, a former gangmember, had been arrested and given a full confession. Jesse’s suspicions of the Fords grew as he wondered why the Fords hadn’t told him the news before he read it in the newspaper. As Robert Ford later recounted, he knew he had to kill Jesse now or never. Jesse had killed gangmembers before, and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

Then the Fords witnessed a miracle. It was a hot day, and Jesse removed his coat. This revealed the revolvers strapped to his belt. Not wanting to arouse the suspicions of his neighbors, he did something the Fords had never seen him do before: remove his weapons. Even better, he got up on a chair to dust a picture.

With Jesse’s back turned, the Fords had their chance. Both drew their weapons. Robert was faster and shot Jesse in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Leaving Jesse’s family to mourn his death, they hurried to a telegraph office and sent a message to Crittenden saying the job was done. Much to their chagrin they were arrested, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to hang. The governor quickly pardoned them, but they never received their full share of the reward money.

Public reaction was mixed. While Jesse James’ popularity had dropped, most people thought the Fords were cowardly for shooting him in the back. A popular song called Robert Ford a “dirty little coward”. In all fairness, the Fords could have never taken Jesse in a fair fight, and Jesse had killed his share of unarmed men.

Jesse became even more of a legend after his death, while the Fords went down in history as traitors. Jesse James books and photographs sold like mad. The one above is a stereoscopic image of Jesse in his coffin. Stereoscopic photos could be put in a special viewer and appeared as 3D images. Many families had one in their living rooms with images of foreign lands and natural wonders. Now people could buy images of the dead outlaw for a bit of grisly after-dinner entertainment.

The Fords went on tour re-enacting the scene of Jesse’s assassination, but sometimes they were booed. Charles later killed himself and Robert moved to Creede, Colorado, a mining town where he opened a saloon. There on June 8, 1892 Edward O’Kelley, a local criminal who had had a couple of fights with Ford, walked into his saloon with a shotgun and killed him. He served several years in jail but was eventually pardoned. O’Kelley himself was killed in Oklahoma City in 1904 with police officer Joe Burnett. The policeman died a peaceful death, thus ending a cycle of killing stretching back more than twenty years.

The Jesse James home is now a museum displaying memorabilia from his life. There’s also a bullet hole high up on the wall that was supposedly made by Robert Ford’s gun. This is yet another bit of myth-making that’s grown up around Jesse James. The coroner’s inquest clearly stated that the bullet lodged just above his eye. Still, it’s a fascinating museum for any fan of the Old West.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: The unquiet grave of Jesse James

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]