SPARTA, NJ – The eighth grade students at Sparta Middle School sat in silent attention as visiting author Dinah Williams shared stories from her book Terrible but True Awful Events in American History. Throughout the day, the history classes met in the school’s media center to get a different kind of history lesson.
Some of the stories Williams told gave more detail and substance to well-known tales. She spoke about George Washington’s teeth, dispelling the wooden teeth tale explaining the General’s dentures were actually fashioned from his own teeth.
“He was so strong and so lucky.” William’s continued about Washington. “He survived many illnesses and bullets. In one battle he had two horses shot out from under him. Yet he actually died from a simple throat infection.”
Williams explained what surprised her about history was often related to medicine. She told students about the victims of tuberculosis having been thought to be vampires. She said early doctors did not have bodies to autopsy to learn from, leading many to steal corpses from cemeteries, as she explained about the New York Doctor’s riots.
William’s stories cover history from 1775 through 1936, running through the Revolutionary War through “the Great War,’ western expansion, reconstruction and the Jazz Age. Knowing she was writing for older teens, Williams said there were many stories she had to leave out because they were not appropriate.
She shared stories about Abraham Lincoln’s tour after his death, the Chicago fire, the plague of Rocky Mountain Locusts and Teddy Roosevelt's life saving speech.
“Disasters in history always sound insane compared to today’s standards,” Williams said as she discussed swarms of the now extinct Passenger Pigeons.
Her shocking and sometimes gross stories made history interesting to the students in the room, especially as she related stories about the hazards of the mining industry in the past. She detailed the deadly jobs given to children as young as six.
“Why am I telling you these stories?” Williams asked. “Because I want you to learn more about history.”
Answering a question posed by a student, Williams explained she was inspired to write the book when she was researching for a book about creepy islands. She came across the little known story of the General Slocum disaster. It was the story of a sidewheeled passenger ship that went out for a day trip up the East River, containing mostly women and children from the St Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. The ship caught fire. Most people could not swim, were dragged under by the heavy layers of clothing of the day and the boat had no safety equipment. More than 1,000 people died, making it the largest death toll until 9/11, yet most do not know the story.
“It happened right near Manhattan where I commuted to and from work every day and I never knew the story,” Williams said. “I wondered what else I didn’t know.” She talked with the students about using primary source documents, just as they are taught to do in school because “newspaper and firsthand accounts of the times are so much more exciting.”
Williams told another student it took about 18 months to write the book. She explained it was challenge to make a story appropriate for the teen audience. “There were so many violent stories that I had to leave out.”
She is planning a follow up book about strange but true people.
“I really liked it,” commented several students as they left the media center. “Yea, it was cool.”
Williams has written other nonfiction books for children including "Abandoned Amusement Parks," "Secrets of Walt Disney World: Weird and Wonderful Facts about the Most Magical Place on Earth," "Haunted Prisons," "Monstrous Morgues of the Past" and "Spooky Cemeteries," and many others.
William’s parents reside in Lake Mohawk.