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Frederick Starr: Anthropologist Lost from the History Books

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You probably haven’t heard of Frederick Starr. Like his contemporary Franz Boas, Starr was an anthropologist coming to fame while the discipline of anthropology was still being formed. Throughout his career, Starr studied people and cultures on three different continents, and still found time to make a name for himself as a lecturer at the University of Chicago. But unlike Boas—who is considered the father of American Anthropology—you won’t find Starr’s name in many textbooks. The tale of how Frederick Starr was nearly forgotten is one full of controversy and ideology.

Starr’s Early Life and Career

Frederick Starr was born in 1858 in Auburn, New York, to the Reverend Frederick Starr Jr. and Helen Mills Starr. As a child, Starr was a strong student and an avid collector of fossils and minerals. He explored that interest further at the University of Rochester, where he studied geology; two years later, he transferred to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and graduated in 1882. He received a doctorate in geology from Lafayette College in 1885.

In the late 1800s, anthropology was still a new and growing discipline, so Starr didn't study it formally. It wasn’t until after his schooling, while teaching at Coe College, that Starr discovered his interest in the subject. He conducted both ethnographic and archaeological fieldwork among the local Sauk and Fox Indian tribes and reputedly taught the first anthropology course in Iowa while at Coe. It's not clear who or what specifically spurred Starr’s interest in anthropology, but he pursued it avidly, leaving his studies of geology behind. Following his work at Coe College, Starr held several short-term positions, including working with the ethnological collection at the American Museum of Natural History, before finally accepting a long-term faculty position at the University of Chicago in 1892.

During his time at the University of Chicago, Starr became a very influential public speaker, frequently giving lectures on anthropological subjects that were open to the public through the University’s extension program. After attending an extension course about prehistoric and primitive art, W.R. French, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago at the time, wrote that Starr’s lectures were “both authoritative and agreeable,” and that “Professor Starr has eminently the art of making scientific truth interesting to intelligent but unprofessional academics.”

An Anthropologist is Born

According to Donald McVicker, author of Frederick Starr: Popularizer of Anthropology, Public Intellectual, and Genuine Eccentric, Starr engaged in an incredibly varied anthropological career at the turn of the 20th century. He conducted notable research in Mexico, among many Native American tribes in the United States, with the Ainu people of Japan, and in several regions of Africa.

The World’s Fairs that took place in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries seemed to provide Starr with the perfect opportunities to put his work on display. Much to his dismay, however, Starr was not allowed an influential position at the famous World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He was excluded by better known anthropologists like Boas and Frederic Ward Putnam, director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Starr was commissioned to collect data about and artifacts from the Eastern Cherokee people in North Carolina for Putnam and Boas, but contributed little else to this fair.

At the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, however, Starr’s work made a much bigger splash. The anthropologist brought nine Ainu people and a translator back with him from Japan to be part of an exhibit at the fair. These Ainu, members of a Japanese indigenous group from Hokkaido in the northern part of the country, were to be displayed as part of a literal representation of the evolutionary stages of humanity towards civilization; along with several other indigenous groups assembled by other anthropologists, they were on display as “barbarous and semi-barbarous peoples.” While this is unquestionably offensive to today's sensibilities, the visitor response to the exhibit at the time was overwhelmingly positive, as most people had never before heard of the Ainu and were intrigued by their appearance and practices. In a 1993 article about the Ainu exhibit, anthropologist James W. Vanstone reports the reactions from writers and visitors to the exhibit:

One enthusiastic writer referred to the Ainu as "mysterious little Japanese primitives" and noted that visitors were impressed by their cleanliness and polite manners, but somewhat disappointed that they were no "man-eaters, dog-eaters or wild men."

In addition to contributing to these World’s Fairs, Starr produced several publications in conjunction with his fieldwork. These publications included many scholarly and other articles, as well as books like The Truth about the Congo, about his studies in that region; Indians of Southern Mexico: An Ethnographic Album; and In Indian Mexico: A Narrative of Travel and Labor, about the performance and findings of his extensive work with Indian tribes in Mexico.

Starr’s Methods and Misconduct in Mexico

His appearance in St. Louis with the Ainu may have been Starr’s most publicly recognized work, but if he is remembered at all today, it's for his fieldwork in Mexico. Starr recalls his purpose there in In Indian Mexico:

The work I planned to do among these indian towns was threefold: 1. The measurement of one hundred men and twenty-five women in each population, fourteen measurements being taken upon each subject; 2. The making of pictures,—portraits, dress, occupations, customs, buildings, and landscapes; 3. The making of plaster busts of five individuals in each tribe.

The primary goals in making such recordings were to observe the differences between various Mexican tribes and to establish the placement of such people, and their race and culture, on the same scale that he had placed the Ainu, from barbarous to civilized. It was assumed at the time that there were physical characteristics, such as cranial shape and size, that could mark such distinctions between races (a theory that has long since been disproved).

In his book, Starr refers to the Mexican people he is studying as “ignorant, timid, and suspicious.” He also makes regular references to them being too drunk to allow their measurements to be taken. All of these characteristics assigned to these Mexican Indians by Starr explained, in his point of view, the difficulty he often had in securing subjects for measurement, and justified the forceful methods he felt compelled to use. Starr took advantage of the fact that prisoners could not refuse his requests to measure them, and regularly photographed and measured imprisoned subjects for his work. What’s more, if there were individuals he wished to measure who did not acquiesce, he would threaten them with arrest and jail time so that they could no longer refuse. The authorities did not object to these methods, instead providing support for Starr by collecting subjects and keeping order. Starr even recounts a specific incident where policemen stopped a bullfight in progress in order to obtain a young man taking part in the fight for Starr’s research.

Starr Fading from View

Over time, Starr’s brutish, unethical methods and offensive ideas became questionable in the eyes of the anthropological community. The theories of his contemporary Boas, however, began to amass a great deal of support from other anthropologists and academics.

Boas, born and educated in Germany, moved to the United States in 1887 and proceeded to make substantial contributions to the methodology of American anthropology. By incorporating the methods of natural science into the discipline of anthropology, Boas emphasized the importance of conducting research before developing theories, as well as approaching studies in the most ethical and unbiased ways possible. What’s more, he developed the modern interpretation of culture, viewing it as learned behavior and a product of a people's history, rather than a hierarchical measurement of civilization that would place the western world on top.

While most anthropologists, inspired by Boas, began to recognize the people they studied as part of the larger, equal human race, Starr continued to regard them as primitive and inferior, demonstrated by his attitude towards his subjects in Mexico. Soon, Starr’s methods of fieldwork were widely considered unethical and his ideas about culture outdated.

Starr’s charisma and ability as a speaker managed to keep him relevant in public education spheres toward the end of his career. In this capacity, Starr overshadowed Boas, who preferred not to address the general themes of anthropology necessary in public lecturing and was nervous about his skill in speaking English, which was not his first language. The academic discipline of anthropology, though, became dominated by Boas’ methods and, over the years, Frederick Starr and his methods were phased out. Today, his work is rarely read, or even mentioned, in discussions or classes on anthropological history.

After 31 years at the University of Chicago, Starr retired from his post in 1923. True to form, he continued to travel the globe and engage in public speaking events until his death; he died unexpectedly of pneumonia while in Japan in 1933.

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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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5 Cemetery Road Trips for the Ultimate Taphophile
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Autumn is the best time of year for a road trip. The weather is cooling down, the leaves are turning, and fewer people are on the roads. With Halloween on the horizon, cemeteries are natural destinations. These five journeys are a great way to explore America’s rich and varied history as recorded on its tombstones—and truly dedicated taphophiles (from the Greek for tomb) can combine them into one itinerary covering 22 states and more than 10,000 miles. Tombstone tourists, rejoice.

1. NORTHEAST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Northeast cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Hope Cemetery
201 Maple Avenue, Barre, Vermont
44.2107° N, 72.4994° W

Barre’s Hope Cemetery is a jaw-dropping open-air sculpture garden, featuring locally quarried granite carved into everything from angels to sports cars to life-sized portraits. The cemetery is especially gorgeous when the leaves turn in autumn.

B. Mount Auburn Cemetery
580 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts
42.3752° N, 71.1450° W

Designed by Dr. Jacob Bigelow, the foremost botanist of his day, this breathtaking place may be the most important cemetery in America. Its opening in 1831 signaled a shift from austere churchyards to park-like cemeteries full of trees and flowers. One of the most striking grave monuments remembers Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science.

C. Touro Jewish Cemetery
Touro Street, Newport, Rhode Island
41.48793° N, 71.30936° W

Open only one day a year, the Touro Cemetery is the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in the U.S. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a beautiful poem about the place. Nearby Touro Synagogue offers a brochure to explain the significance of the cemetery to visitors who come to gaze through its gates.

D. Green-Wood Cemetery
500 25th Street, Brooklyn, New York
40.6590° N, 73.9956° W

Lovely Green-Wood Cemetery is the forefather of city parks in America. Full of famous names and one-of-a-kind monuments, the cemetery rewards repeat visits. Among those buried here are Jean-Michel Basquiat, FAO Schwarz, and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

E. Soldiers’ National Cemetery
Gettysburg National Military Park
1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
39.82177° N, 77.23256° W

A Gettysburg postcard from pre-1930
Author's collection

President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address announced the system of national cemeteries for casualties of federal battles. In Soldiers’ National Cemetery, granite stones marked with the tally of unknown soldiers provide a sobering reminder of the costs of war.

F. Congressional Cemetery
1801 E. Street SE, Washington, D.C.
38.8811° N, 76.9780° W

Originally designed as a graveyard for congressmen who died in office, the Congressional Cemetery became the final resting place for a wide assortment of public servants. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, and march king John Philip Sousa—as well as pioneers in the fights for Native American rights, women’s rights, and gay rights—are all buried here.

2. SOUTH

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Southern cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change
449 Auburn Avenue NE, Atlanta, Georgia
33.7563° N, 84.3734° W

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rests on the grounds of the Center for Nonviolent Social Change, founded in his name by his widow Coretta Scott King in 1968. After her death in 2006, Mrs. King joined him in a matching sarcophagus. The King Center is undergoing renovation in advance of the 50th anniversary of his assassination, so call before you visit.

B. Bonaventure Cemetery
330 Bonaventure Road, Savannah, Georgia
32.0444° N, 81.0467° W

Oaks draped with Spanish moss surround museum-worthy statuary in Bonaventure Cemetery. When John Muir camped there in September 1867, he wrote that the cemetery was "so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead” [PDF]. More than a century later, the cemetery still makes all the lists of most beautiful graveyards.

C. Tolomato Cemetery
14 Cordova Street, Saint Augustine, Florida
29.8970° N, 81.3151° W

American citizens of Saint Augustine started using this acre of land as a cemetery in 1777, although the Spanish used it as a graveyard even earlier. As such, it may be the oldest European-founded cemetery in the U.S. Although Hurricane Irma did significant damage in September, Tolomato Cemetery remains open to visitors one day a month as its Preservation Society repairs it.

D. St. Louis Cemetery #1
425 Basin Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
29.9608° N, 90.0754° W

A vintage postcard of St. Louis No. 1
Author's collection

New Orleans’s tropical heat and humidity gave rise to the so-called oven tomb, which can reduce a corpse to bones in less than a year. In the back of each of these tombs stands a receptacle called a caveau, which contains the bones of all its occupants mixed together through the generations.

The most famous tomb in the oldest surviving cemetery in New Orleans may belong to Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. The death date on the tomb is closer to her daughter Marie’s, but since the bones of all the tomb’s occupants lie jumbled together in its central caveau, it’s believed the original Marie rests there as well. After vandalism of the tomb spiraled out of control, the cemetery now opens only to tour groups. Luckily, there are many tours from which to choose.

3. WEST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Western cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Texas State Cemetery
909 Navasota Street, Austin, Texas
30.15994° N, 97.43553° W

Conceived as a pantheon to the famous sons of Texas, the Texas State Cemetery is the final home of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, as well as Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who helped impeach Richard Nixon. Also buried here are Governor Ann Richards, Chris Kyle (author of American Sniper), and Stephen Austin himself, all of whom lie beneath remarkable statuary.

B. Apache Prisoners-of-War Cemetery
The East Ridge at Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
34.6960° N, 98.3710° W

After his capture by the U.S. Cavalry, Apache chief Geronimo remained a prisoner of war at Fort Sill until his death in 1909. His grave remained unmarked for many years, but early in World War II, the 501st Airborne took his name as their motto. With the permission of Geronimo’s descendants, paratroopers built the pyramid of stones that now marks Geronimo’s grave. Around him lie men proud to be remembered as his warriors.

C. Riverside Cemetery
5201 Brighton Boulevard, Denver, Colorado
39.4739° N, 104.5733° W

Dating to 1876, the year Colorado attained statehood, Riverside Cemetery embraced African-American pioneers, the first native New Mexican elected to Congress, and the first doctor to theorize that cholera was contagious. The cemetery has struggled since it was closed to new burials, but the Friends of Historic Riverside Cemetery are working to rescue it.

D. Fort Yellowstone Army Cemetery
Grand Loop Road, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
44.9646° N, 110.7002° W

Before the formation of the National Park Service, the U.S. Army guarded Yellowstone from poachers and souvenir hunters. Their sober little cemetery underlines the dangers lurking in one of the most stunning places in America. As reported in Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone, causes of death in this cemetery included drowning, avalanche, being struck by lightning, runaway horses, and grizzly bear attack.

E. Custer National Cemetery
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, Montana
45.5714° N, 107.4332° W

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the federal government demanded access across land it had set aside for the Lakota Sioux. As many as 10,000 Native Americans refused to renegotiate the treaty. In June 1876, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry to attack, only to be wiped out by the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. It took more than a century for the Native warriors to be commemorated here.

4. WEST COAST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a West Coast cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Lake View Cemetery
1554 15th Avenue E, Seattle, Washington
47.6341° N, 122.3153° W

High on a hill overlooking the city, Lake View's most famous residents are Bruce Lee and his son Brandon. Also buried here are Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth (who gave his name to Seattle), as well as madams, lumber barons, and politicians—a who’s who of Seattle’s historical figures.

B. Lone Fir Cemetery
SE 26th Avenue, Portland, Oregon
45.5173° N, 122.6446° W

Portland’s pioneer cemetery is glorious in springtime, when its rhododendrons bloom. Full of pioneers, prostitutes, shanghai captains, mayors, and governors, the cemetery also features some unusual modern grave monuments. Vandalism and the weather have been hard on Lone Fir, but its Friends group offers tours to raise money for repair.

C. Fort Ross State Historic Park
19005 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, California
38.5143° N, 123.2485° W

A vintage postcard from Fort Ross cemetery
Author's collection

In 1812, Russia invaded Northern California. Russian pioneers built a fort, married local women, and hunted sea otters along the coast. By 1839, they no longer needed to provision Russian settlements in Alaska, so the fort was abandoned, leaving behind a little graveyard. The California Historical Landmarks Committee took control of it in 1906.

D. Hollywood Forever
6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, California
34.0904° N, 118.3206° W

Once the swankest cemetery in Old Hollywood, Hollywood Forever is now the final resting place of Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, Mel Blanc, Darren McGavin, Rozz Williams, John Huston, Cecil B. DeMille, and many more. Judy Garland joined them earlier this year.

E. Manzanar Cemetery
Manzanar National Historic Site, Inyo County, California
36.7255° N, 118.1626° W

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was the first American concentration camp to open during World War II. At its height, Manzanar imprisoned 10,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens. Although the bulk of the camp was demolished, the cemetery’s Soul Consoling Tower continues to mark the graves of people who died while interned there.

F. Silver Terrace Cemeteries
381 Cemetery Road, Virginia City, Nevada
39.3165° N, 119.6451° W

A vintage postcard from the Silver Terrace cemetery in Virginia City
Author's collection

After the 1859 discovery of one of the richest lodes of gold in history, Virginia City became the largest town between Denver and San Francisco. Of course, this necessitated the largest cemetery district as well. The 22 adjacent graveyards making up Virginia City’s Silver Terrace Cemeteries are now part of one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the country.

5. MIDWEST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Midwest cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Lakewood Cemetery
3600 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota
44.5659° N, 93.1734° W

Modeled on Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Lakewood’s Mortuary Chapel is a spectacular example of Byzantine Revival architecture. Mosaic tiles, some as small as a fingernail, adorn its interior. At Lakewood, politicians with modernist monuments are buried beside names familiar from the grocery store: Charles Pillsbury and Franklin Mars, who founded the candy company that bears his name.

B. Oakland Cemetery
1000 Brown Street, Iowa City, Iowa
41.6697° N, 91.5222° W

Urban legends surround the Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery: if you kiss the statue, you’ll be struck dead; if a pregnant woman crosses its shadow, she will miscarry; if ever a virgin is kissed in front of the statue, it will resume its normal bronze color and the curse will be broken. Strangely enough, this is not the only black angel in Iowa—and the other has legends swirling around it as well. Daniel Chester French’s monument to spiritualist Ruth Ann Dodge stands in the Fairview Cemetery in Council Bluffs.

C. Graceland Cemetery
4001 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois
41.9548° N, 87.6619° W

Known as the Cemetery of the Architects, Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery holds the Carrie Eliza Getty mausoleum, considered one of the first examples of modern architecture. Graceland Cemetery also contains a wealth of magnificent statuary, including Lorado Taft’s Eternal Silence and Daniel Chester French’s Memory.

D. Elmwood Cemetery
1200 Elmwood Avenue, Detroit, Michigan
42.3466° N, 83.0179° W

A vintage postcard from Elmwood cemetery
Author's collection

Practically in the shadow of Detroit’s Renaissance Center, this dramatic garden cemetery stands on ground fought over during the French and Indian War. Elmwood Cemetery is the final resting place of Canadian Club whiskey founder Hiram Walker, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, and Detroit’s legendary mayor Coleman Young, who was a Tuskegee Airman.

Cemeteries are lenses, revealing what their local communities choose to celebrate alongside things that must not be forgotten. This list merely skims the surface—go see what you can discover.

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