In the film Back to the Future Part II (1989), the characters of Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to the future year of 2015. Not to go too far into the plot (which many of you may already know), while in the future Marty gets the idea to buy a sports almanac to bring back from the future and make money betting on sports. But before they leave 2015 (October 21st to be exact) Doc discovers the almanac and gives the reasoning behind the building of his time machine. Doc say to Marty: “I didn’t invent the time machine for financial gain. The intent here is to gain a clear perspective on humanity. Where we have been. Where we are going. The pitfalls and the possibilities. The perils and the promise of perhaps an answer to that universal question – why?”
The year 2015 is now history. But this past summer I lived in my hometown of Tuckerton, New Jersey for over three months. During this time I discovered The Price Sisters’ Diaries (along with admittedly watching the Back to the Future trilogy). The book contains the diaries of three women who lived or spent time in Tuckerton, but the most detailed and the one I was drawn to the most was that of Eleanor Price (1893-1977).
Reading her diary brought the times she lived through come to life: World War I, the Suffragette movement, and the controversy and government takeover of a wireless tower that offered one of the few ways the United States could communicate directly with Germany during the war years. But other people came to life as well: the German scientist Rudolf Goldschmidt, the Mayer family who came from Germany to live in Tuckerton (the father Emil Mayer worked as the manager of the wireless station), and a German immigrant who was lynched in Illinois in 1918 named Robert Prager.
Albert Einstein once wrote after the death of a friend that “the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.” This is of course a physicist’s perspective; one no less from the person who proved that time was relative. Einstein showed that time was not absolute as Isaac Newton had proposed, and though two objects do age and experience time differently the closer to the speed of light they approach, no one then or now has been able to solve the riddle of how to travel through time itself.
The idea of time travel though has captured the imagination of many, and is the basis for countless books and movies. One of the best known is the science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895) written by H.G. Wells, who first created the concept of a vehicle as a means for traveling through time. But in the story by Wells the plot takes the characters into the future (to the year 802,701 AD to be exact), but for those of us who are historians or that love the subject, we look for our own vehicles to transport us into the past, which usually take the form of archives or artifacts (we do not as of yet have the option of a DeLorean time machine).
Another seemingly simple way the past can be transmitted into the present is in the form of a personal diary. A descriptive diary can take us beyond the journalistic facts of the what, when, and where – as it creates a small personalized window into another world. It adds the depth that facts and figures cannot provide. Simply, it brings history to life. That is at present as close as we can get to time travel.
Tuckerton, Sun. Aug 1, 1915
A year ago the war started – and it seems only a short time ago! I wonder how much longer it will last – two years probably! A scorcher today until a shower came up this afternoon. Picked out crab meat and worked in the morning. I read to Florence for awhile in John Adams Diary which is very interesting and just as different from this one of mine as his fame and honors in the world are from mine. Still I am well content about the later – I only want a life with few sadnesses and too-heavy burdens in it – and I’ll not ask for any great happiness or experiences. Except that I would love a trip to Europe – even if it’s only once.
This is an excerpt from the diary of Eleanor Price, who I doubt could have imagined it would be read a 100 years in the future. It has been just over 15 years since the Tuckerton Historical Society published The Price Sisters’ Diaries (1999), taken down from the attic by Granville Price Jr. and edited by Steve Dobson. In which, the reader will find that Eleanor Price kept a diary intermittently from 1915 to 1935. The most detailed sections of the diary are from the beginning July 20, 1915 to November 10, 1918 – one day before the end of the Great War that would occupy much of her thoughts and subsequent writings in her journal (Armistice Day marks the end of the war at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918).
Though the diary of Eleanor Price does not rival that of John Adams on many levels, as she modestly states, I think it would come as a pleasant surprise to her to find that in other ways it surpasses it. If we treat her journal as a form of microhistory (a field that developed in the 1970’s and deals as its name suggests on the small scale, most commonly in the study of a small town or a nonpublic individual), we have an opportunity through the thoughts and concerns of a young woman, living in the shore town of Tuckerton, to explore and perhaps gain a far better understanding of the currents driving the larger historical events of her time.
Especially when we talk about World War I, we are then talking about trench warfare and casualty statistics that are so overwhelming they leave the reader numb with the enormity of the suffering they represent (Battle of the Somme – over one million causalities). But through a single person we can feel a sense of the weight of those perilous times – when the world as a whole first went to war.
As the editor of the diary states in the introduction the world that Eleanor Price lived in was an era that was becoming more modern with the rise of movie theaters, automobiles, telephones, and cameras. As well, her journal details activities of everyday life that are often relatable to any of us today that visit or live in some shore town anywhere in the world: including going to the beach, fishing, boating, playing card and board games, going to the movies, and summer reading.
Her involvement in the Suffrage movement speaks to her beliefs as well as to the cultural shifts of her day. The same holds true for her reading choices, which Eleanor Price loved to read. In fact, the Tuckerton library is the oldest in the area incorporated in 1875 by “the Price Women,” these being Eleanor Price’s mother and relatives (Eleanor herself went on to become the town librarian for fifty years). Many of the books mentioned in her diary (and there are many) can be read today for free on sites like Project Gutenberg. This is also true of the silent films mentioned in the diary like “Cinderella” with Mary Pickford that can be found on YouTube or at archives.org. In essence, one could spend a summer reading the same books and watching the same movies as Eleanor Price did as a young woman on the Jersey shore a century ago.
But the advances of the age in technology were not only used for peaceful purposes, the breakthroughs were also applied to the modernization of the militaries of various European powers with imperial ambitions. Most astonishingly, against perhaps some preconceived notions of even this writer, the diary of a young woman in Tuckerton allows for a greater understanding of information warfare during WWI, especially the new form of wireless communications that now dominates our world today.
Wed. Aug 4, 1915
Tues. afternoon Mildred and I did woman Suffrage canvassing. At night Annie, Clara and Mr. Ballou came in and we played “hearts” and danced a bit. Last night a terrible northeaster came up and it rained and blew like Hades. Am reading “Angela’s Business” but only in snatchy moments – so to speak – therefore am afraid I won’t enjoy it to the full. It seems that Warsaw hasn’t been evacuated quite yet as far as the papers know – altho’ they all seem to vary in their news. One day it is reported taken and the next that it is still holding out. It has to go soon anyway – and all that is left to hope is that the army be not surrounded.
It has been said that the local is the point of departure for all life. By focusing on a small area the forces shaping the larger landscape can be seen more clearly. Similar to how polls of a few hundred people can often accurately reflect the opinion of millions. But one should be wary of fully embracing this view when considering a personal journal as Heraclitus wrote, “The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of their own.” Meaning, there has always been a distinction and divide between our public and private lives, and though a community can experience something together each individual will also experience it in their own way.
A diary occupies a middle ground in this division of public and private. Perhaps not meant to be read by others, once a thought is expressed in a form of writing it is possible to become public, though maybe the writer’s intentions might have been to keep it private. This is more of a possibility in our age of social media, where the lines between public and private have become even more blurred. It is hard to tell what Eleanor Price would have thought of all this. She did enjoy reading the diary of John Adams and perhaps knew there was the possibility that someone might read her own in the future.
But who was Eleanor Price? We know she was born August 10, 1893 to Theophilus Pharo Price (1855-1938) and Emma Leach Price (1857-1941). She grew up and lived most of her life in a 17-room house, what rightly could be called a mansion, on Route 9 or East Main Street in Tuckerton. Eleanor Price came into this world a year after what must have been a devastating time for the Price family, her brothers Frank and Walter aged 4 and 5, both passed way the previous summer of Scarlet fever only a few days apart. Her brother Granville Price (1890-1962) and sister Florence (1885-1944) are mentioned often in the diary (Florence’s journal for the year 1905 makes up another part of The Price Sisters’ Diaries, as well as that of Sarah Thompson who visited Tuckerton in 1809).
The Price family was from originally from Cape May. Eleanor Price’s grandfather was Dr. Theophilus Price (1828 –1908). Dr. Price was well known in his youth as a bit of a poet, writing the lyrics to the popular song “Ode to Cape May” in 1848. Though he wrote – “And plenty pours her teeming horn into thy lap, Cape May” and “For many ties there are that bind my heart to thee, Cape May,” he moved to Tuckerton in 1853 and married Eliza Pharo (1819 –1894).
If Eleanor Price needed any local credentials, she needed to look no further than her grandmother Eliza Pharo. Leah Blackman relates in her History of Little Egg Harbor (1880) how the family of James Pharo arrived in New Jersey aboard the Shield in 1678. They were among the first 200 Quakers to settle in the colony even before William Penn (coincidentally the writer of this articles seventh great-grandfather) received his charter for neighboring Pennsylvania in 1681.
The first mention of the Pharos in what would be become the town of Tuckerton is from the records of a Friends’ Meeting in 1715. It would have been unimaginable to those early settlers that 200 years in the future one of the tallest structures in the world (second only to the Eiffel Tower) would be built on nearby Hickory Island that is now part of the Mystic Islands section of Little Egg Harbor. And that communication with Europe, which could take months in their time, would then be capable of happening almost in real time as it did between President Woodrow Wilson and Kaiser Wilhelm II, separated by 4,000 miles on January 27, 1914.
Thurs. Aug. 5, 1915
Tonight’s paper announced that “by wireless to Tuckerton” word had come of the evacuation of Warsaw. Gran says that Mr. Ballou and Mr. Caulfield, two navy operators here, got word of it from the German operator in Eilvese an hour before the official report came over from Germany. Therefore they were the first two men to hear of it in America. They have morning chats with the operator over there quite often.
The Tuckerton Wireless was built in 1912 and awed many observers, including the young Eleanor Price (more information on tower can be found on the Tuckerton Historical Society website). The inventor of the wireless technology used at the tower was the German scientist Rudolf Goldschmidt (1876-1950). Goldschmidt was an eminent electrical engineer and professor in his day (if we cannot have a DeLorean at least we have an experimenting scientist like Doc Brown). He worked with fellow famous scientific pioneers like Nicholas Tesla and Albert Einstein. The German firm that built the radio tower in Tuckerton used wireless patents from Tesla, and he received payments of around 1000 dollars per month until the station was taken over by the United States government when it entered the war in 1917 (Tesla would again begin to receive royalties payments after the war).
Goldschmidt and Einstein corresponded often and worked together patenting a hearing aid in 1934. Many of these letters between the two will eventually be available through The Digital Einstein Papers, an open-access site put together by the Princeton University Press. Though only the writings of Einstein up to1923 are as yet available, we are lucky in that this time frame includes one of the first letters between the two dated from March 7, 1921. Goldschmidt wrote to Einstein, “Dear Professor, I would like to thank you once again for having permitted me to consult you regarding my inventions.” Here Goldschmidt had asked Einstein’s opinion on several inventions, including one for an electrical or rivet hammer. Einstein was paid well for his advice to Goldschmidt, some 18,000 marks (equal to about half of his salary as a professor that year).
The year 1934 was also when both chose to emigrate from Nazi Germany (both being Jewish and already facing discrimination from the Nazi government), Einstein to America and Goldschmidt to England. Goldschmidt’s wife, the journalist Hella Gimpel (1883-1933) passed the year before, though he was able to leave with their four children across the Channel. Goldschmidt’s house in England was destroyed during a Nazi air aid during World War II, though no one in the family was injured. He would live in his adopted homeland until his death in 1950 at the age of 74.
What Goldschmidt was most famous for was the inventing of a radio transmitter that was used in the Tuckerton Wireless, dubbed the Goldschmidt alternator. The range of which was literally halfway around the globe, as the USS Ventura picked up a signal from Tuckerton at over 9,000 miles off the coast of Sydney Australia in May of 1916, a world record for the time (the ancient Greek word for diametrically opposite is antipode, and the opposite side of the world for so New Jersey is off the south west coast of Australia near Perth).
During WWI the Goldschmidt system had a range far superior than any other, making it an incredibly valuable instrument during the war, more so in that the war was fought not only in Europe but around the globe at the height of imperialism in Africa and Asia. Germany knew it could not compete with the British Navy and that its underwater communication cables would be severed by the British as soon as they entered into the war. The innovation and investment in both submarine and wireless technologies was in direct response to British naval dominance and its ability to cut off Germany from the rest of its imperial empire, as well as the rest of the outside world.
Fri. Aug. 20, 1915
Florence gave an evening sailing party. We took our supper out and ate it on the boat while we were sailing. It was a lovely night altho’ the moon was very hazy. Afterwards we came up home and danced a bit. The Germans have sunk the “Arabic” that was bound for America, and therefore no ammunition on board. Two Americans are reported lost. It seems funny to be on friendly terms with the Mayers (they were on our sailing party) now and perhaps in a few weeks have them for National enemies.
The Mayers were from Germany and moved to Tuckerton along with the parts for the wireless station in 1912. All the materials for the tower came from Germany as it was first assembled and then tested near its sister station in Eilvese near Hanover, which was the tallest structure in Germany at this time. The tower was then broken down into sections and went by rail from New York to Tuckerton. It was then trucked down what is now called Radio Road, though it was unpaved with only a few sections of corduroy or log road through the low-lying marsh areas (a similar process occurred in the construction of the Sayville Wireless Tower in New York around this time).
Emil E. Mayer was not just a German national and manager of the wireless station, but also a member of the German Army Reserves, as were several other of his employees. The location of the tower did occupy a strategic position allowing it to “listen in” on shipping from New York to Washington D.C. I have not been able to find much information on Emil Mayer or the Mayer family in general and what happened to them after the war. There is a paper recorded in the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineer Volume 2 published March of 1914 titled “The Goldschmidt System of Radio Telegraphy” by Emil E. Mayer. The essay outlines in detail the principles of the Goldschmidt Alternator and how the wireless tower worked, showing that Mr. Mayer was definitely an expert in this field. Though I have not been able to find much on the Mayer’s historical record they do come alive in the diary of Eleanor Price.
The Price family was close with the Mayers and often would go on excursions together, whether sailing or taking a drive to spend the day in Atlantic City or Long Beach Island. The diary entries mention mostly Mrs. Mayer and are mixed as were both their feelings on the war. On one side Eleanor Price agreed with the US position of neutrality but found the German practice of submarine warfare upsetting as did many, especially when victims included American civilians.
Eleanor Price fully supported the US entry into the war in 1917, writing on April 3 of that year: “Yesterday was a great day in the Nation’s history. Last night at about nine o’clock Wilson made a speech in the Senate that will most likely go down in history – calling on Congress to declare that a state of war exists between Germany and America.” The entry of the US into WWI became official a few days later on April 6, 1917. Here the importance of the wireless station would grow larger as did the anti-German hysteria the war produced, often in the guise of patriotism.
Sat. Apr. 7, 1917
A result of the war that came near home occurred this morning when The Government “desired the presence” of all the Germans here at the “wireless” in Newark. We are wondering if they are to be interned – poor Mrs. Mayer! We offered her a room here if she wished while Mr. Mayer was away.
Sun. Apr. 8, 1917
Florence went over to see Mrs. Mayer last night and is there now. Mrs. Mayer admitted that Germany was in the wrong in the Zimmerman note – the Mexican plot – and said it “certainly was a nasty thing to do.” Some concession from a German! Poor Soul! She is so worried over Mr. Mayer and isn’t well herself. The rumor about town is that Mr. Mayer was conducting a secret wireless station at Manahawkin, one that could be taken down in the daytime. We don’t know how true it is. When the Secret Service men came for Mr. Mayer he asked if he could go upstairs and pack; they said “yes” but asked if the house had a back stair. He smiled and replied “Yes, but you needn’t fear that I’ll try to escape.”
Eleanor Price mentions the Zimmerman letter; a proposed military alliance with Mexico offered by the Germans if the US entered the war. It was intercepted and pushed public opinion further towards war. But ultimately it was the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare that drew the Americans into the conflict, as seven US merchant vessels were sunk early in 1917. The last mention of the Mayers in her diary is on June 21, 1918, and whatever has happened to Mr. Mayer is unknown but his wife is still living in Tuckerton. The diary reads, “Had a short but interesting chat with Mrs. Mayer this morning about the war. We were both very amicable and there was no tension or ‘hard feeling’ at all.”
In all likelihood Emil Mayer was treated well as a prisoner of war since he was an officer. There were as many as 6,000 German-Americans and Germans held in internment camps during WWI. And on some levels it protected them against anti-German sentiment, rather than protecting the US from anything they could do to effect the war effort. There were many acts of violence and discrimination against Americans of German descendant during the war; many in the Mennonite community were harassed and arrested, with some dying of malnourishment in solitary confinement.
Also acts of mob violence were not uncommon, as with the lynching of German immigrant Robert Prager (1888-1918) in Collinsville, Illinois. This was a coal mining town and Prager worked in the mines. Originally from Dresden, he immigrated to the US in 1905 and had gone through the naturalization process of becoming an American citizen. By all accounts Prager was patriotic and supportive of his adopted country when war broke out with Germany. He tried to enlist in the US Navy, but being blind in one eye could not pass the medical requirements.
Prager seemed an outspoken person and perhaps this led to the confrontation with a group of miners, most likely due to his German background. Arguments and accusations escalated to the point that later that night a mob came to his home. But the sheriff and mayor of the town intervened and Prager was put in jail for his own safety. But later that night the mob was able to break into the jail and took Prager. He was then stripped naked in front of an estimated 300 people. They bound his hands behind his back with an American flag made of cloth. As Prager’s body dropped and began to twitch, roughly around 12:30am, the crowd roared with excitement and approval.
Prager’s death was condemned in the press and a show trial was held where all charged were acquitted. It brings home a famous quote by the German philosopher Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process they do not become a monster themselves.”
There is no entry from Eleanor Price on this date and no evidence that Mrs. Mayer or any of the other Germans in Tuckerton were treated poorly because of the war. The line between patriotism and prejudice is a fine one, and once crossed can often lead to harassment or violence. Eleanor Price’s diary is an example of how one can think with reason and compassion, even though a war is being fought between different states.
History is at heart a quest for understanding. As “time traveling” or exploring the past is primarily a vehicle for a journey into a world we would find almost completely alien. It is not an easy road to travel (even with a DeLorean), as Gore Vidal once wrote “The past is another country, and to bring it to life takes a capacity for which there is no English word.” At its best history writing should humble us, not drive us towards anger or admiration. It should be approached above all with empathy. We know now the outcome of events, those in the past did not.
Many current popular histories will lead the reader towards a certain opinion, point of view, or reflect the politics of the author. These works seem to quickly fade away as quickly as they sell to their targeted audience. This is history at its worst, which is history packaged for profit or propaganda. One of the propagandist’s main purposes is to make one group of people forget that another group of people are just as human. Individuals. What we all are. And nothing is more individualistic than a personal diary. The relationship between the Price and Mayer family during a time of war shows how one can be patriotic without accepting the wave of propaganda that often accompanies war.
Sun. April 29, 1917
Mrs. Mayer still declares she doesn’t care who wins and I think she said that a German interned with Mr. Mayer says the same thing. I haven’t reached that stage yet but it looks to me as tho’ God were going to allow the humans to fight it out in all its horror to the bitterest end – just to show them what a terrible and atrocious thing warfare is. I think the world has more suffering ahead of it than has ever been witnessed before and there are likely to be some horrible memories for the person who is lucky (or unlucky) enough to live thro’ it all.
These are just a fraction of the historical rambles one could take through the journal of Eleanor Price. They are numerous and wide ranging, and this from a young woman writing down events of her life and world that at times may have seemed mundane to her. Others, like a world gone to war, she knew were momentous. A hundred years later the shore town of Tuckerton has changed in many ways. In others it has stayed the same.
An old Roman proverb goes “Historia est vitae magistra (History is life’s teacher).” And nothing would be more amazing to the study of history as the invention of some kind of time machine. To be able hear the ancient poets and philosophers of Greece or see the greatness of Rome at its peak of empire. To meet people like George Washington or Napoleon. The endless amount of artists and authors and intellectuals. To see the real Joan of Arc, to fly with Amelia Earhart, or to shake the hands of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. To see the Beatles in concert! But to also bear witness to the dark side of humanity: the bloody battles, the atrocity of slavery, the riots and pogroms, the assassinations, and the acts of senseless violence as with what happened to Robert Prager. To try to answer the same questions that inspired Doc Brown to build his time machine. For me, an afternoon with Eleanor Price would suit me just fine.
Photo below: Eleanor Price during World War One.