O choose me for your Valentine!

Who sent the first Valentine in North America? The truth might surprise you, as the sender is associated very closely with early Canada.

By Serena Ypelaar

On February 14, 1779, British Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe, who would later become the founder of York (Toronto) and the first governor of Upper Canada, sent an impassioned valentine – to a Patriot’s daughter.

John Graves Simcoe’s signature. Photo: Wikimedia

Historically, Simcoe is an interestingly dual figure. You may have seen him in TURN: Washington’s Spies (the AMC series I can talk about for days if allowed) or at Fort York National Historic Site if you’re familiar with Toronto’s history.

Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, painted c. 1881.

In TURN, he’s wholeheartedly vilified based on his true-to-life role in oppressing American colonists and carrying out attacks such as the Massacre at Hancock’s Bridge (1778). But in southern Ontario, he’s venerated as the founder of York, earliest administrator of Upper Canada, and a staunch abolitionist. Simcoe passed the first Act Against Slavery in 1793 (only a year or so after accepting the post of Lieutenant Governor) and ensured that there were no slaves in Upper Canada by 1810 – 24 years before the rest of the British Empire finally abolished slavery in 1834.

The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.

John Graves Simcoe to the Legislative Assembly

Before governing Upper Canada, Simcoe was stationed in Oyster Bay, New York during the American Revolution. He and another officer stayed at the home of notable Patriot Samuel Townsend and his family.

Simcoe, then almost 27, took a liking to Samuel’s 18-year-old daughter Sarah “Sally” Townsend, and it’s said that on Valentine’s Day 1779, he gave her a valentine letter consisting of a 52-line poem.

Fairest Maid, where all is fair
Beauty’s pride and Nature’s care;
To you my heart I must resign
O choose me for your Valentine!

Love, Mighty God! Thou know’st full well
Where all thy Mother’s graces dwell,
Where they inhabit and combine
To fix thy power with spells divine;

Thou know’st what powerful magick lies
Within the round of Sarah’s eyes,
Or darted thence like lightning fires
And Heaven’s own joys around inspires;

Thou know’st my heart will always prove
The shrine of pure unchanging love!
Say; awful God! Since to thy throne
Two ways that lead are only known-

Excerpt from Simcoe’s valentine poem to Sarah Townsend

Thematically, the poem addresses the implications of loving an enemy – apparently such poetic romances truly aren’t just a thing of fiction.

Sarah is known to have had a brief flirtation with Simcoe during his time in Oyster Bay. Declaring his love for her, he asked her to choose him as her valentine, but their relationship was not to be. Simcoe ended up in Upper Canada after the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and Sarah remained in Oyster Bay. She never married; the valentine was discovered among her possessions after her death in 1842.

It’s unknown whether Sarah returned Simcoe’s feelings.  The nature of their relationship is further complicated by the fact that Sarah is thought to have spied on Simcoe. Sarah’s older brother Robert was a key operative of the Culper Spy Ring, George Washington and Benjamin Tallmadge’s intelligence network (and the core focus in TURN). Under the codename Samuel Culper Jr., Robert Townsend fed secrets to the Ring to advance the Patriot cause.

Legend claims that Sarah overheard Simcoe speaking to Major John André about their plans to take West Point using leaked intelligence from notorious turncoat General Benedict Arnold. Robert’s subsequent tip to the Ring would result in André’s capture and hanging as a spy. Given that the Townsends were working against the British, the relationship between Sarah and Simcoe has a decidedly Romeo-and-Juliet air – the only question is whether Sarah loved him back.

Raynham Hall, the Townsend family home. Photo: Wikimedia

We don’t have any physical written evidence to reveal Sarah’s feelings, but a colonial-era windowpane of the Townsends’ home survives today. This windowpane contains a message scratched into the glass by a British officer to “the adorable Sally Sarah Townsend”. Was it Simcoe who scratched the message? It’s possible, given that he was living there, but not proven.

Where’s the valentine now? It’s preserved in the place where it was first given – Raynham Hall Museum, Oyster Bay. The Townsends’ home is now a historic museum focusing on Robert Townsend’s role as a Patriot spy, as well as the family’s history from the time Raynham Hall was built in 1740.

Amidst the hearts and chocolate, we don’t often stop to consider historic valentines. Valentine-giving is an age-old tradition that tells us a lot about love and the conventions of the time (and the weight and respect that love poetry once commanded!).

As far as Simcoe and Sarah’s story goes, the evidence of this particular love is one-sided; but was the romance one-sided too? We’ll likely never know.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile: Portraying a Killer

Zac Efron is playing Ted Bundy in a film. Some think the casting glamorizes the notorious serial killer, despite Bundy’s factual reputation as a deadly yet charismatic deceiver. In this unique case, is it unethical to be accurate?

Warning: contains mention of violent crime and may be disturbing for some readers.

By Serena Ypelaar

“Can we please not glamorize a killer?”

That was the online response from many after seeing the teaser trailer in which Zac Efron plays infamous serial killer Ted Bundy in the upcoming film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

I agree – we don’t want to promote or celebrate murderers. But is accurately depicting a killer the same as “glamorizing” them?

Though the film follows the perspective of Bundy’s long-term girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins), audiences are unsurprisingly fixated on Efron’s portrayal of Bundy.

Joe Berlinger, who also put together the four-part Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019), directed the film. The true crime docuseries features audio of interviews with Bundy while he was on death row.

Zac Efron as notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Photo: Daily Express

Bundy was active throughout the United States between 1974 and 1978, murdering and raping upward of 30 women in seven states. He escaped from prison twice but was eventually convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed thirty years ago, on 24 January 1989 at Florida State Prison.

I understand where our concerns are coming from. Somehow, there’s a real threat of people becoming infatuated with murderers. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a great idea to cast a charming, good-looking actor as a depraved killer. What does that impression promote?

The truth is, Bundy was handsome. He was charming. And he used his personality to make people trust him, from his victims – whom he persuaded to accompany him to his car under the guise of disability, usually using a sling or crutches – to people who knew him. Friends, partners (Kloepfer, and later Bundy’s wife Carole Ann Boone, whom he married at one of his trials), and his mother all thought there was no way he could’ve committed such grisly crimes. Kloepfer eventually contacted the police with some vague suspicions, but Bundy still got away with a lot under her nose. He was a skilled and charismatic manipulator. He wanted people to believe he was normal, and he maintained the lie of his innocence until just before his execution.   

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, compared alongside Ted Bundy himself.

So couldn’t it be that Zac Efron is actually the perfect choice for the role? I was skeptical at first, but after watching Conversations with a Killer, I changed my mind. Efron and Bundy even look alike; Efron claims they even have some of the same mannerisms.

I believe that in order to show him exactly the way he was, it’s not really glorifying him. I think hopefully it will make women … be more aware of their surroundings and be cautious. He had different tactics that he used for people to help him get in cars or do things, and in your gut, if you just feel that something doesn’t feel right, just say no.

Kathy Kleiner Rubin, one of Bundy’s survivors, doesn’t have a problem with the film

It’s important for us to try to understand, or at least recognize, how serial killers like Ted Bundy operate. The uncanny ability to convince people around him (as well as those avidly following his case in the 1980s) that he was wrongfully accused is troubling. Bundy himself said in Conversations with a Killer that “people don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin.” They have a chameleon-like talent for blending in (“The Bundy Effect”). If the film depicts this trait in Bundy without sensationalizing details, it won’t be glamorous; it’ll be truthful.

Understanding how serial killers deceive, and people who do evil deceive, really is kind of the theme of the film.

Director Joe Berlinger

We are in control of our own opinions. As long as we, the viewers, are conscientious and aware of context, we can watch films without falling prey to misinformation. It all comes down to critical thinking, which is our responsibility. In a pre-internet era, I can see how a film that seemingly glamorizes Bundy (or shows him accurately as the charismatic liar he was) could run the risk of misleading people. But we live in an age where a quick Google search can set the facts straight, if the movie doesn’t do that to begin with. We just have to make sure we commit to learning ethically and questioning sources.

Photo: Google News

As always, I’ll reserve final judgement on the film until it gets released. I hope it doesn’t simplify Bundy’s disconcertingly complex personality. I kind of think our deep-seated concerns may end up being less about “glamorizing” the killer and more about how the killer was able to glamorize himself. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile thus has a huge opportunity to be very telling about sinister individuals and their ability to elude detection.

I Hope It’s a Funny Depression

As the stigma around mental illness lessens, more and more comedies have begun to tackle the subject. We take a look at how humour can be a powerful way to express the inexpressible darkness of depression.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Why are funny people so sad? Sounds like the setup to a joke, but it’s a serious question.  Some studies have shown a link between stand-up comedy and depression, with one study suggesting comedians are more likely to have “psychotic traits” associated with schizophrenia and manic depression. There have certainly been a number of high-profile comedians who have struggled with mental illness or succumbed to it. Even putting those cases aside, many comedians find humour in really dark or serious material, pushing the boundary of what’s funny. Is it that naturally funny people are somehow more susceptible to mental illness? Or is there something about dark subject matter that lends itself to comedy?

I can’t speak to the accuracy of those studies and I’m definitely not suggesting that mental illness is a prerequisite to being funny or being an artist. But I can speak to my own experience. I was anxious and depressed for a long time, including most of high school. But if you took a look through my yearbook, you’d see that almost everyone, friend and acquaintance alike, echoed the same thing: I was really funny. That was, apparently, the lasting impression I left on people during one of the darkest periods of my life. So how do we reconcile laughter with loneliness and self-loathing?

There’s a theory of humour which states that humour comes from incongruity. That is, things are funny when they upend our expectations. And what could be more incongruous than a sad clown? A funny person who’s really broken inside?

Maybe it’s that unexpectedness that has led more and more comedies to depict mental illness. One of the best representations of depression I’ve ever seen, in fact, comes from a sitcom. You’re the Worst is about Jimmy and Gretchen, two self-destructive and, by all standards, awful people who fall in love and attempt to navigate a relationship. In its second season, though, You’re the Worst did something few comedies have tried, let alone in such a nuanced way. Gretchen, we find out, is clinically depressed. Rather than shy away from it, the show explored the reality of depression and of loving someone who can’t be “fixed,” and it did so in a way that was real and heartfelt without sacrificing its humour. That’s an extremely delicate balancing act.

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Gretchen (Aya Cash) day drinks, lashes out, and eventually opens up about being depressed in You’re the Worst. Photo: IMDb

You’re the Worst isn’t the only show to walk that tightrope in recent years. Bojack Horseman, an animated comedy series about a once-celebrated but now-disgraced TV star (who is also horse-man), gets similarly real about mental illness. As does the brilliant musical-comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which mines its protagonist’s mental illness as as source of comedy without ever reducing her to a punchline because of it. Even a blog like Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, published as a book in 2013, used humour and crude MS paint drawings to explore depression. Maybe that’s not enough to qualify as a trend, but I think there’s something potent about the combination of humour and darkness. There’s power in laughing at the things that haunt us.

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Mental illness is nuanced and requires equally nuanced representation (from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Photo: Giphy

So why is comedy such an apt vehicle through which to express sadness? I don’t really have an answer. But art is often about connecting with the experiences of others in ways that are transcendent and ineffable. Maybe encountering this particular experience through comedy can help us understand it better or just lessen the burden. Maybe it’s simply about finding light in something unbearably dark.