Sunday, January 1, 2012

History in my hands

I've posted a number of times about my maternal family's connections to Puerto Rico, including my best reconstruction of my grandfather's life and death there, my mother's late middle-aged return for the best years of her life, and what little I know about Eliette Adonicam, who was the cook in my grandparents' home in San Juan. This good long New Year holiday weekend I was playing around on Flickr, enjoying looking at others' photos of that colorful Caribbean island, when I came across a couple of disparate groups (where members post their photos on specific themes) devoted to historical images of Puerto Rico. Most of them don't have a lot of members, and they don't have a lot of images, but what they do have made something click in my mind. Over the last couple of years I have scanned in only the most telling photographic portraits of my grandparents, my mother as a child and young woman, and her little sister Louise, who died at the age of 6 in those pre-antibiotic days. But in the fat envelopes I found among my mother's things when she died are easily dozens more fading photos of the countryside, the cities (which were so undeveloped they were almost rural in the first third of the 20th century), poverty and riches, lifestyles, and a couple of lesser or greater historical figures who were my grandparents' friends, all taken between 1908 and January of 1948. I've been busy scanning them all day today, and I'm not half finished.  Here, for example, are some very interesting shots of a handsome, dignified woman identified on the back of the undated photos, in my granny's handwriting, as Dr. Martha Caul, posing in front of what looks to be a once-grand, now-decrepit, country house: 
I guessed, since there are a total of four formal portraits of her, that she must have been an éminence grise and a good friend. How did we ever answer questions before there was Google? Several gems turned up, and this one, from the Poughkeepsie NY-Eagle, December 9, 1936, shows Dr. Caul deserves not to be forgotten by Puerto Rico. This is from the :
NEW YORK. Dec. 8 - Dr. Martha F. Caul, Brooklyn Physician died last night at the age of 68. 
Dr. Caul lived for many years in Puerto Rico and in the hurricane of 1928 [?] headed a Red Cross delegation in relief work. She also led a $2,000,000 relief fund drive for victims of the disaster. 
She attended public schools in Buffalo and was graduated from the Buffalo Medical college. Funeral services will be at her home tomorrow and burial will be at Brant Center [?], N.Y. her birthplace

She also turns up in, where the image of a 1916 passport application reveals that she was born on May 2, 1869, and her profession is listed as farmer. She's there in the 1920 census as well, where, as a widow, her role in the family is head-of-household, and the industry in which she works is a finca de toronjes - she had a grapefruit farm! Here's another extraordinary tidbit about her life from the Emporia (Kansas) Daily Gazette of May 5, 1933:
Dr. Martha F. Caul, of Brooklyn, one of the best known women physicians (she witnessed the operation on McKinley when surgeons tried to save him from the assassin's lead) is said to have been the first women to own and drive a motor car in New York State. Barney Oldfield taught her.

McKinley was assassinated, in 1901, in Buffalo New York, so that excitement took place before she came to Puerto Rico.
My grandparents kept wonderful company: Dr. Martha F. Caul must have been an intrepid woman indeed, start-to-premature-finish.


  1. Just catching up after some health issues. Your right Googling is a wonderful way to research the obsure and interesting. Traveling though is even better. I love you series on Churchill and Winnepeg was an annual summer visit for decades in the summer. Camping and wildlife venues as well as a wonderful natural history museum. Of course, summer also brought the famous "folk fest" where dozens of groups celebrated their ethnic heritage and we roamed church basements and legion halls for the wonderful foods of each group.....

  2. What DID we do before google?! Terrific info for your photos. I'm sure the shots are worth more than money can buy.

  3. Thanks to you both, I'm glad you enjoy my blogging. TB, hope you're feeling better, being off your feed is no great way to spend the holidays!