The Washington Post uses a rating system for statements made by politicians – the more Pinocchios earned, the less truthful the statement. That kind of analysis might be used in genealogy, to rate the accuracy of old family lore passed down through the generations. Is the old story completely wrong – willfully deceptive, wishful thinking, or just completely off? Are some details right but others wrong, through a process like telephone tag over time? Or is it oral tradition that’s spot on?
My maternal grandmother’s family tree, as far back as I’ve been able to go, is 100% German. Her mother was Jenny Cecile Geyer (1868 – 1938), and one of her grandmothers was Eva Catherine Gross (circa 1803 – 1869), who married Christian Geyer in Saxony, Germany. Family notes about Eva Catherine describe her tumultuous childhood, orphaned at age 3 and put into the care of her aunt and uncle:
“At the age of 10 there was a famine. The season was so wet, the potatoes rotted. People dried them to keep from starving. Barley bread cost a crown dollar a loaf. Her uncle gave her money to buy bread to help her through the hard times. She often said that she hoped her children would never endure what she did; they never did.”
As it happens, there was a devastating famine in Germany that peaked during the years 1816 and 1817. 1816 was referred to as the “year without a summer” due to unusually cold temperatures. The severe weather patterns and the famine that followed were the results of a massive volcanic eruption that occurred halfway around the world, from Mount Tambora in Indonesia. More powerful than Mt. Vesuvius in ancient Pompeii, the initial eruption was heard a thousand miles away, and the huge amounts of volcanic ash and gases sent into the atmosphere changed weather patterns, food supplies, and disease globally for several years. It is thought to have been a once in a millennium event.
As deadly as the initial eruption was, its effects spread quickly. Within a month, particles had spread worldwide. In England, it colored the skies in glowing red and yellow hues, influencing the works of artist William Turner. The fallout created a layer in the earth’s upper atmosphere that prevented sunlight from penetrating to the surface, causing climate change, in some cases in the form of drought, but often as increased storms, rain and flooding. This led to a rise in water-borne Cholera and massive crop failures. Across the world, famine and hunger resulted.
Western Europe was particularly hard hit. Unusually low temperatures brought frosts and snow in June. Potatoes rotted in the field, and grain crops like wheat and oats failed. It’s estimated that crop production decreased by 75% in the years 1816 and 1817. The shortages led to greatly inflated food prices, which resulted in social unrest and rioting. In Germany, starvation was rampant; the people were forced to slaughter their horses for meat, and attempt to dry their spoiled potatoes to grind into a flour substitute. Straw and sawdust was even mixed into bread in desperation. Inflation was particularly bad in Germany – in 1817, food prices quadrupled over the previous year. The death rate increased that year by over 20% in parts of southern Germany.
After effects of the devastation of the famine and disease lasted for many years. Some were positive – governments began to think more about the social welfare of their citizens, and gradually developed some programs to organize support for the poor. Some of the outcomes are relatively minor blips in history; for instance, the loss of horses in Germany led to the invention of the bicycle as a new mode of transportation, and the dreary, stormy weather of 1816 in Switzerland inspired Mary Shelley to write her Frankenstein novel.
Back to my 3rd great grandmother’s story about her childhood – I’ll give her zero Pinocchios, because her story is supported by historic accounts (give or take a year or two on the timeline). And I’m happy to report that her son Edward Geyer (my 2nd great grandfather) didn’t have to live through a famine. He became quite a comfortable farmer in their adopted hometown of Sherman, Ohio, owning a profitable 400 acre farm, complete with a beautiful 22 room brick house that still stands proudly today.
- Christopher Roosen, Adventures in a Designed World: In 1815 Mount Tambora Showed How Easy It Is To Underestimate Impacts In Complex Systems, 2019
- Nautilus, The Volcano That Shrouded The Earth and Gave Birth To A Monster, 2015
- CNN, Why a Volcanic Eruption caused a ‘Year Without Summer’ in 1816, 2019
- The Journal of Nutrition, Emergency Relief During Europe’s Famine of 1817 Anticipated Crisis-Response Mechanisms of Today, Vol 132 Issue 7, July 2002