Friday, November 7, 2014

Sprit* + Spirit* (for Spirit* or Sprit*)

I recently attended a tour of Albany's Cherry Hill Mansion that included the reenactment of an infamous 1827 murder. John Whipple had been shot while sitting at his desk in the house on the Hudson where he lived with his wife, Elsie, and other members of the Van Rensselaer family. The assailant was a man named Jesse Strang (aka Joseph Orton), the newly hired hand and his wife's secret lover. Elsie was the niece by marriage of Philip P. Van Rensselaer and the granddaughter of Abraham A. Lansing. (The Lansings and Van Rensselaers, along with the Schuylers and Knickerbackers, were Albany royalty and often intermarried, mixing business with pleasure.) A spirited, attractive, and apparently amoral young woman (anxious for an inheritence to which she wasn't legally entitled while her husband was still alive), Elsie is widely considered the impetuous impetus and criminal mastermind behind the murder. She was ultimately acquitted of conspiracy, however, while her paramour, who had earlier confessed, paid the ultimate price. Strang was hanged on what is now the Empire State Plaza; the glamorously grisly event drew close to 40,000 onlookers. As a result of this unprecedented spectacle, it would be the last public execution ever to be held in the city. Elsie Whipple, who at the age of 24 had already been married for ten years, was equally restless and reckless. Upon meeting her one night in a local tavern, Jesse described her as "sprightly, playful, and giddy," advising his companion: "I would not mind passing a night in her chamber." The rest, as they say, is history. The day after taking the tour of Cherry Hill (along with whatever spirits still haunt it), I happened to catch an episode of Andy of Mayberry, which concluded, according to the closed captioning, with a bout of "sprightly whistling." I have also been thinking lately about planting some daffodils, which were once called "sprightly" by William Wordsworth in the poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud." ("Ten thousand saw I at a glance, tossing their heads in sprightly dance...") The adjective sprightly comes from the word sprite, a sort of fairy-like creature. (The rather odd word fey has a similarly spiritual, although distinctly more sinister, connotation.) Spritual* was blogged about in 2010, but because it's such a high-probability typo, and because I couldn't think of a better one just now, we're resurrecting it in slightly different form today. There were 105 cases of this folie à deux in OhioLINK, and 1311 in WorldCat. But watch out: there may be a few sprites among them.

(Tossing Their Heads in Sprightly Dance; 18th March 2007 was a very blustery day in Colchester Cemetery. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

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