Garifallia and the burden of tradition

Garifallia and the burden of tradition

What’s in a name, you might ask. While the case of Romeo and Juliet was a bit extreme, names do make a difference in the way one is perceived and can truly be a burden, especially when they are out of tune with the times. This is especially the case with the so-called “traditional” names, though some more than others. I ought to know. I have been lumbered with one my entire life. You see, my baptismal name is Garifallia, and being loath to pretension, for much of my life I misguidedly chose to use it in its entirety rather than opt for one of its diminutives.

To begin with, the name literally translates to a “carnation plant.” It is like being called a “rose bush.” Greek people can tell you all about it. In American terms, you could say that my “traditional” name spans the gamut of, let’s say, Betty Sue to Ricky Bob. And, with all due respect to my yiayia and to tradition, it has been a pain. 

I often wondered whether it is all a matter of timing. Certainly, there must have been a time or era when this name was popular, possibly even chic. But, as my friends will tell you, I am not good with timing; I am always running late. And, as it turns out, such is the case with my name. There indeed was a time and place where my name was not only chic, but inspirational. Of course, I never expected it to be early 19th century America. 

It all began when I came upon a first edition of Walt Whitman’s “Drum-Taps,” a book of 43 poems in free verse about the American Civil War, considered the best war poetry written by an American. To my surprise, there was a handwritten inscription inside the book dated July 1865 by the great poet himself to a friend by the name of Garaphelia B. Howard. Additional research showed that Garaphelia or Garifallia, as the proper spelling goes, was born nowhere near Greece, but in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1835. She became friends with Whitman sometime during the Civil War in Washington, DC, while both worked there.

The incongruity of the inscription left me stunned. How in the world would the quintessential American poet know anyone of that name, given there was barely a handful of Greeks in America at the time? To confuse matters further, Miss Howard was not even of Greek descent.

Obsessed with the history of Greeks in America, let alone my name, this was an enigma I could not let go. How does a woman from Massachusetts, born in 1835 to non-Greek parents, come to have such a traditional Greek name, rare even in Greece itself? While I considered it a long shot, even an impossibility, I decided to check genealogy archives to find others of the same name, and was dumbstruck when hundreds showed up on my screen, albeit with some spelling variations; women with such typical American surnames as Smith, Chase, Cook, Allen, Bowman, Holton, Graves, Davis, Wilder, Douglas and more, born throughout New England and in such unlikely states as Kentucky, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana and others.  

Further research revealed that this American trend was set in motion in the late 1820s by a young Greek girl by the name of Garifallia (Garaphelia) Mohalby, whose brief and tragic life touched the American people like few others. Born in 1817 to a prominent family on the Greek island of Psara, Garaphelia Mohalby died in Boston on March 17, 1830, at the age of 13, most likely of tuberculosis. 

Her story inspired a whole generation of parents, elites and intellectuals, throughout New England and even in southern states to name their children after her. Her name became so popular that even little girls named their dolls after her. 

According to her obituary, Garaphelia’s parents were killed in the 1824 Psara Massacre during which most of the island’s population was slaughtered by the Ottoman Army. Legend has it that an Ottoman soldier was so taken by the little girl’s beauty that he spared her life. Sold into slavery, she was taken to Smyrna, where she was ransomed by Joseph Langdon, American consul and merchant, whose knees she clung to for protection in the slave market. Langdon sent Garaphelia to his family in Boston to be taken care of and educated. The young girl arrived there in 1827 on the brig Suffolk and was accepted into the family as one of their own. 

Whether true or idealized, she is described as an exceedingly polite child, beautiful, intelligent and amiable, winning the affections not only of the family but of everyone who met her. Her dramatic story and her untimely death captured the imagination of 19th century America. She came to symbolize Greece, the Greek people, and the horrors they suffered in their quest for liberation. She generated support for Greece. She inspired poetry and art. 

Her image was painted by Anne Hall, America’s most noted 19th century miniaturist, and appeared on the cover of “The Youth’s Keepsake: A Christmas and New Year’s Gift for Young People,” published in Boston in 1831. The publication also included a poem by Lydia Howard Sigourney inspired by the young girl’s death, which was announced in major newspapers and mourned by thousands throughout the country. 

Garifallia not only served the cause of Greece; she also became a symbol of the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements in America. This young Greek girl sensitized Americans, forcing them to look at themselves and see the hypocrisy of their own slave owning. She is also said to have inspired the famous 1844 statue “The Greek Slave,” one of America’s most celebrated works of art, created to bring attention to the inhumanity of slavery. It was sculpted by Hiram Powers, the first internationally known American sculptor. 

According to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which has the original of five copies, “The Greek Slave” was the first publicly exhibited life-size American sculpture of a fully nude female figure, and possibly the most famous American sculpture ever. 

Displayed throughout the country, “The Greek Slave” provoked intense controversy. Depicting a nude woman somewhat in the likeness of Venus and in the shackles of slavery, it resonated with the American people and brought together all the volatile issues of the day, slavery and women’s rights, with American abolitionists comparing slavery in the US with that in the Ottoman Empire. Even 20 years after the end of the Greek War of Independence, the Greek cause, which had unified Americans in a quest to help the Greek people in their time of need, continued to be a mobilizing force, this time for regarding the shortcomings of America itself. 

While this part of history does not make my name any more popular today, it certainly proves the point that there is always much behind a name, even if it is a matter of timing.

Connie Mourtoupalas is an exhibitions curator and former president of the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.

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