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Author Interview: Jennifer L. Green

Jennifer L. Green is a historian and popular presenter with degrees in anthropology, history, and American History from the University of Delaware and West Chester University. She’s worked at historical sites throughout Pennsylvania’s Chester and Delaware counties, and her research has appeared on websites such as ExplorePAHistory.com and the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Her debut book, DARK HISTORY OF PENN’S WOODS is available now. She’s been gracious enough to take a few minutes to answer questions.

Jennifer L. Green

MB: Your book, DARK HISTORY OF PENN’S WOODS tackles the darker side of history from the greater Philadelphia region, including tales of murder, witchcraft, cannibalism, and tragic accidents, some dating back to the earliest days of the settlers. What is it about these stories from history that attracts you?


JLG: I think there are two reasons why I’m attracted to these stories. First, almost all of these stories are very individual. I think we see so many books about big events and famous people, but these are the stories of the hardship and tragedies that befell normal, everyday people, and how they and their families coped with them. The second reason is sort of tied to the first, in that I think people today have this idea that the past was somehow a simpler time, and in some ways it was. We are so exposed to the violence and tragedy of the modern world that we tend to think we live in a much more violent time, but doing research like mine proves that that’s not true at all. At one point in the 1700s, southeastern Pennsylvania had more murders per capita than London. Human nature doesn’t change, and people still experienced disasters and tragedies in the past, and still struggled with the emotional and physical fallout of those events.


MB: Some of the tales and topics you discuss in your book are not the sort of thing you’d normally hear in a typical history lecture. How do you discover these bizarre and obscure historical nuggets?


JLG: I come across these stories in a lot of different ways. With the digital access to Newspapers.com, I can find a lot of information there, but often that’s not helpful on a local level. A lot of local newspapers haven’t been digitized, so that means I have to visit the historical society and literally go page by page on a microfilm machine. Another source is, again, at the local level—county archives often have the coroner’s reports, which can be a useful source. If you build a good relationship with your local historical society, that helps a lot, since I sometimes get emails from their librarians with little tidbits or stories they’ve found. Basically what I’m saying is to support your local historical society, because they’re doing great work!


MB: I can imagine that finding the details about some of these stories can be challenging, particularly some of the more macabre topics such as “medicinal cannibalism.” Can you talk for a moment about what goes into researching stories like these for your book?

DARK HISTORY OF PENN'S WOODS by Jennifer L. Green

JLG: Luckily for medicinal cannibalism, there is a historian named Owen Davies who has done a ton of research into the subject, so I relied on his work for the broad strokes of the subject. Then I was able to fit in the local history as much as possible into the work he’d already done. It was similar for the chapter on spontaneous combustion, in that there was already wonderful existing research by Larry Arnold, who wrote a book called Ablaze. He was also kind enough to proofread my chapter and make sure I had all of the details right.


MB: Of all the different stories you’ve researched, which one did you find the most surprising, and why?


JLG: I don’t know if “surprising” was exactly the right word, but I was really emotionally struck by the story of Elizabeth Wilson, and what it meant in the legal system to be an unmarried woman bearing children out of wedlock. I was pleasantly surprised by how on point the child support system was in Philadelphia, but then completely heartbroken with the challenges women faced with the legal system in general in the late 1700s. It’s one thing to know that women were treated as inferior citizens, but it’s another to learn the personal stories of women actually going through it.


MB: Without giving too much detail, was there one story that you felt was either too bizarre, macabre, or dark to include in your book?


JLG: Actually the next-to-last chapter, “The Saddest Song Ever Written,” almost didn’t make it into the book. I do walking tours of downtown West Chester, Pennsylvania, and that’s a story that I will never bring myself to tell live. It deals with so much trauma, including mental illness and harm to children, but ultimately I felt it was a story that needed to be told, because women still suffer emotionally and psychologically, and still struggle to get the help they need.


MB: Let’s take a step away from the macabre for a moment. As a historian, what one historical figure would you most like to share a meal with, and what would you talk about?


JLG: That’s a great question, and my answer will change from year to year as I discover new and interesting historical figures. Since I focus on southeastern Pennsylvania, I think right now I’d love to have lunch with Louise Homer, who was America’s greatest operatic contralto in the first quarter of the 1900s. Maybe I’d have dinner with G. Raymond Rettew, a West Chester mushroom scientist who ended up solving the problem of the mass production of penicillin during World War II. Maybe I’d meet up with Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, for dessert or a late-night snack. As you can tell, I’m not big on breakfast!


MB: Finally, what can we expect from you in the future? Are you working on any new projects?


JLG: I recently signed a contract for a sequel to DARK HISTORY OF PENN'S WOODS, so that’s what I’ll be focused on this year. My hope is that by Halloween 2023 there will be eight more little-known stories about Pennsylvania history out there in the world for people to discover. I perpetually think about starting a podcast, so possibly that might be in the future too—but I’m stuck on the written word for now!


Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. Good luck with DARK HISTORY OF PENN’S WOODS.


To learn more about Jennifer and her book, you can visit her website at darkhistorypa.com. You can also follow Jennifer on Facebook at facebook.com/DarkHistoryPA.


You can purchase DARK HISTORY OF PENN’S WOODS at these retailers.


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