MAY 28, 1539: I KNOW A DARK SECLUDED PLACE

Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto landed in Florida  in 1539 to begin the first European expedition deep into the territory of the modern-day United States. A formidable undertaking, de Soto’s expedition took him throughout the southeastern florida_mapUnited States searching for gold, silver and the ever-elusive passage to China. Although he was not the first explorer to visit Florida, he was the first to reach and cross the Mississippi River (and the only Spanish explorer to have a large-finned automobile named after him).

 

De Soto got his start in the conquistador business under the tutelage of that explorer and great statesman, Francisco Pizarro, traveling with Pizarro and his Spanish ambassadors as they befriended the native Incas.  Along the way, he became a wealthy man, returning as such to Spain. But an explorer is an explorer, and de Soto was not one to sit around on his Incan gold. He returned to the New World as the Governor of Cuba. From there, de Soto was expected to colonize the North American continent for Spain within four years, for which his family would be given a sizable piece of land (Georgia maybe).

 

De Soto selected 620 eager Spanish and Portuguese volunteers for the governing of Cuba and conquest of North America. They embarked from Havana on seven ships and two caravels, with tons of heavy armor and equipment, more than 500 livestock, including 237 horses and 200 pigs. Their planned four-year foray took them through Florida to Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.

Unfortunately, de Soto was unable to complete the trip; he died in 1542 on the banks of the Mississippi River in Arkansas or Louisiana. This was a bit of an embarrassment since de Soto had passed himself off as an immortal sun god to the local natives, although some of the them had become skeptical of his deity claims (“Him no God, kemo sabe, him Spanish.”) His men concealed his death and hid his body somewhere along or in the Mississippi. And to this day the actual location of his burial remains a mystery, known only as Hernando’s Hideaway.  Olé!

 

Suddenly It’s Summer

And once again Wretched Richard’s Almanac will be social distancing itself from the Internet, but not before one last plug for my summer reading program. Have a happy, fully vaccinated summer.

MAY 27, 1936: PROUD MARY KEEP ON BURNIN’

Although, out of superstition, women were banned from the workplace during the construction of the ocean liner Queen Mary, she was christened by a woman in September 1934.  By a queen actually — Queen Mary herself, the wife of George V who had died earlier that year and queen mother to Kings Edward VIII and George VI.

On May 27, 1936, throngs of cheering spectators looked on as the 80,000-ton liner, “the most beautiful ship afloat,” departed Southhampton on her maiden transatlantic crossing.. She carried 2,100 passengers who were pampered by a crew of 1,100. The passengers were as stylish as the ship’s Art Deco interior as they strutted through ballrooms, promenaded on deck, frolicked in the swimming pool, and occasionally visited their children in the nursery or their dogs in the kennel. Along with an amazing amount of food (50,000 pounds of meat), the Queen Mary carried over 14,000 bottles of wine and 25,000 cigarette packs.

The Queen Mary pretty much ruled the Atlantic for the rest of the decade until elegance gave way to utility as she was refitted as a troop ship during World War II. After the war the Queen Mary was returned to passenger service and along with her sister ship the Queen Elizabeth dominated transatlantic travel until 1967 when she left Southhampton on her last voyage arriving in Long Beach, California, where she was permanently moored.

Converted to a hotel, the Queen Mary has the dubious distinction of giving tourists a taste of transatlantic travel without ever leaving dry land. Yippee!

Don’t Stop the Carnival

Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk was born in 1915. His books include The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, andMarjorie Morningstar.   Don’t Stop the Carnival, a must-read for anyone interested in the Caribbean, was written in 1965. In the following excerpt, Norman and Henny Paperman have embarked on a new Caribbean enterprise and, at a party, they tell their friends about it:

During this evening, nearly every person there told Norman or Henny, usually in a private moment, that they were doing a marvelous, enviable thing. The Russians at the time were firing off new awesome bombs in Siberia, and the mood in New York was jittery, but there was more than that behind the wistfulness of their friends. All these people were at an age when their lives were defined, their hopes circumscribed. Nothing was in prospect but plodding the old tracks until heart disease, cancer, or one of the less predictable trap-doors opened under their feet. To them, the Papermans had broken out of Death Row into green April fields, and in one way or another they all said so.

Wouk died in 2019.

MAY 26, 1755: READ HIS FRENCH LIPS

Louis Mandrin was to France what Robin Hood was to England and Rob Roy to Scotland. Having served in the war of 1740 in a light brigade noted for undertaking dangerous missions to surprise the enemy, he was left idle and without income by peace, which made a remarkable appearance in 1748. He had no way of supporting his life other than by continually risking it. Thus he came up with the idea of assembling a corps of men like himself with himself as their leader and waging war against the fermiers, collectors of royal revenues from taxes  levied on salt, tobacco, and farming. The fermiers paid an agreed upon amount to the king, but could exact unspecified sums themselves. They naturally became fat and rich in the process – and hated.

Mandrin became the master of a portion of central France, pillaging public treasuries to pay his troops, whom he also put to work forcing the wealthy to buy his stolen merchandise. He successfully warded off the many detachments of government troops sent against him, instilling fear among their numbers and in the government itself. Eventually the people came to consider him their protector against the oppression of government revenue officers.

Finally, a regiment did attack and destroy his corps, but Mandrin himself escaped into the Duchy of Savoy. From there, he continued to make forays across the border and a terrible nuisance of himself. The French government was not not happy. The fermiers entered the Duchy illegally, disguising 500 men as peasants. Mandrin was betrayed by two of his men, seized, and whisked across the border. When the King of Savoy, learned of the French intrusion into his territory, he immediately wrote to the French King, demanding that the prisoner be turned over to him. But before the message arrived, Mandrin was hurriedly tried, condemned to be broken at the wheel, and executed on May 26, 1755.

 

MAY 25, 2006: GEEK NIRVANA

2006 marked the very first celebration of Día del orgullo friki in Spain, local at first but now celebrated in such far-ranging places as Halifax, Nova Scotia; Timisoara, Romania; and San Diego, California; making it a truly international, sort of, event. The date commemorates the release of the first Star Wars film on May 25, 1977. (This was the second such commemoration for the movie; the first, Star Wars Day,  held on May 4 so celebrants could say “May the fourth be with you.”). The latest fest was the brainchild of a Spanish blogger known as Senor Buebo.

In 2008, the “holiday”was officially celebrated for the first time in the U.S., sporting its English translation, Geek Pride Day, its goal having become the promotion of geek culture. Today it has a manifesto and everything. Imagine if you will 300 proud geeks coming together to form a human pacman or, better still, a prime-number float in a Fifth Avenue parade.

As if this celebration wasn’t heady enough all by itself, Geek Pride Day shares the same date as two other similar fan “holidays”: Towel Day, for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on which true believers carry about a favorite towel, and the Glorious 25th of May for fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Dinner Leaps This Way

An English gentleman who identified himself only as a friend to the Poor wrote a letter to the Public Advertiser on May 25, 1772, describing a novel idea. The idea had occurred to him after reading a passage in a guidebook about a town in France: “There are three small rivers that run through the town, one of which is much frequented by frogs, though one would imagine that in time they would be destroyed, as they commonly compose a dish or two at each meal at the tables of both rich and poor; the latter mostly living on them.”

Your entree

The letter went on to suggest that the poor of England could avoid the high cost of most kinds of food by procuring frogs as food for themselves, since the ponds and ditches of England were full of them. Although the letter writer had never personally tasted a frog, he had been assured that when fried in butter and parsley one could not distinguish it from fricassee of chicken. To those that worried that the ignorant might mistakenly eat a toad, he pointed out that the frog is light brown whereas the toad is almost black, that frogs leap, toads creep.

The gentlemen closed by saying let those that can afford it have roast beef every day, but to those poor wretches who cannot he offers this hint for their benefit.

MAY 24, 1626: FOR TWO GUILDERS MORE, WE’LL THROW IN QUEENS

In what is often called the greatest real estate deal ever, Peter Minuit bought Manhattan from native Americans on May 24, 1626, for goods valued at 60 guilders. Popular history identifies these goods as baubles, bangles and bright shiny beads (celebrated in song by Alexander Borodin in his String Quartet in D, routinely hummed on special Dutch occasions, since the words were not written until 1953 for the musical Kismet which in Dutch means “we could have bought the Brooklyn Bridge for a wedge of cheese had it been built.”)

 

The actual figure of 60 guilders was determined in the seventeenth century using a Dutch version of Generally Recognized Accounting Practices (GRAP) – known back then as Chicanery (C). In 1846, a New York historian converted this figure to dollars and came up with an amount of $24. Since then, people have regularly tried to update the $24 amount to today’s dollars. But as Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace pointed out in their history of New York,”[A] variable-rate myth being a contradiction in terms, the purchase price remains forever frozen at twenty-four dollars.” Nevertheless people continue to point out what those baubles were worth in today’s dollars, euros or guilders. All the results are rather boring.

 

The transaction is often viewed as one-sided and beneficial to the Dutch, although some evidence suggests that Minuit actually purchased the island from a traveling beaver hide salesman who happened to be passing through and who had never heard of, let alone owned, Manhattan. At about the same time, Minuit was involved in another land purchase, that of Staten Island, for much more mundane goods such as kettles and cloth and garden tools (hence the phrase “we’ll buy Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too.”)

Strangely enough, the aforementioned Brooklyn Bridge (remember that?) was opened to traffic on this very day in 1883.  And a Dutch tourist bought it for 100 guilders from a New York cabbie who claimed to be a full-blooded Manhattan Indian.

 

 

 

 

MAY 23, 1701: HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KIDD

William “Captain” Kidd was a Scottish sailor who was tried and executed for piracy on May 23, 1701. Some modern historians consider his reputation unjust, suggesting that Kidd acted only as a privateer, not a pirate. A pirate plundered ships; a privateer, under government authorization,  plundered ships belonging to another government. (See the difference?) Pirate or privateer, Kidd was among the most famous of his lot and one of the handful that people today can name – unusual because he was not the most successful nor the most bloodthirsty. Perhaps it’s because he did bury treasure, an important undertaking for any pirate worth his sea salt.

Several English nobles engaged Kidd to attack pirates or French vessels, sharing his earnings for their investment. He had substantial real estate holdings in New York, a wife and children, a membership in an exclusive club.   In short, he was respectable. But, foolish man, he decided to engage in one more privateering mission. Kidd set sail for Madagascar and the Indian Ocean, then a hotbed of pirate activity, but found very few pirate or French vessels to take. About a third of his crew died of diseases, and the rest were getting out of sorts for the lack of plunder. In 1697, he attacked a convoy of Indian treasure ships, an act of piracy not in his charter. Also, about this time, Kidd killed a mutinous gunner named William Moore by hitting him in the head with a heavy wooden bucket, also a no-no.

In 1698, he and his men took an Armenian ship loaded with satins, muslins, gold, and silver. When this news reached England, it confirmed Kidd’s reputation as a pirate, and naval commanders were ordered to “pursue and seize the said Kidd and his accomplices” for acts of piracy.

Pursued, seized, and hanged he was.   After his death, the belief that Kidd had left a large buried treasure contributed considerably to the growth of his legend. This belief made its contributions to literature in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug”, Washington Irving’s The Devil and Tom Walker, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It also gave rise to never-ending treasure hunts in Nova Scotia, Long Island in New York, and islands off Connecticut and in the Bay of Fundy.

MAY 22, 1856: SENATORS WILL BE SENATORS

It all started in the Senate chamber in 1856 when Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Republican, addressed the Senate on the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. Three days later on May 22 the “world’s greatest deliberative body” became a donnybrook fair.

In his speech entitled “Crime Against Kansas,” Sumner identified two Democratic senators as the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. In a little bit of overkill, Sumner called Douglas to his face a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator.”  Andrew Butler, who was not present at the time, received an even more elaborate characterization.  Mocking the South Carolina senator’s image as a chivalrous Southerner, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean,” added Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.”

Representative Preston Brooks was a fellow South Carolinian to Butler. He read a certain amount of ridicule into the remarks, and he took great umbrage on Butler’s behalf.  In one of the Senate’s most dramatic moments ever, Brooks stormed into the chamber shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, where he found Sumner busily attaching his postal frank to copies of his “Crime Against Kansas” speech.

Brooks claimed that if he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel.  Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs. Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head.   As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and staggered helplessly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself.  After a very long minute, it ended with Sumner lying unconscious. As Sumner was carried away, Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers.  Overnight, both men became heroes in their home states.

Surviving a House censure resolution, Brooks resigned, was immediately reelected, and promptly died at age 37.  Sumner recovered slowly and returned to the Senate, where he remained for another 18 years. But the incident symbolized the breakdown of civility and reason in the capital and serves as a reminder to current legislators to always play nice with one another.

MAY 21, 1819: DON’T TAKE ANY WOODEN BICYCLES

     In 1819, the first bicycle in the U.S. appeared in New York City.  And it started a craze that was to overtake the city for the rest of the summer. Actually it was a sort of a bicycle. It didn’t have any pedals. And you didn’t sit on it. It did have two wheels, but no one called it a bicycle. People variably called it a “velocipede” (Latin for fast foot), “swift walker,” “hobby horse” or its most popular name “dandy horse,” referring to the dandy who usually rode it.

     The dandy horse and the craze that it caused had been imported from London, although the contraption was actually invented in Germany. It was propelled by the rider pushing along the ground with the feet as in regular walking or running. The front wheel and handlebar assembly were hinged to allow steering. One major drawback of the dandy horse was that it had to be made to measure, manufactured to conform with the height and the stride of its rider. And it had wooden wheels which were okay for the smooth pavement of the city but any other surface made for an extremely uncomfortable ride.

     The dandy horse fad was short-lived. Perhaps it was the constant ridicule or the rocks thrown by ruffians. And with riders preferring the smooth sidewalks to the rough roads, many pedestrians began to feel threatened by the machines. As a result, laws were quickly enacted prohibiting their use on sidewalks.

     It was another 40 years before velocipedes came back into fashion – equipped this time around with pedals – when a French company began to mass-produce them. The French design was sometimes called the boneshaker, since it was also made entirely of wood and was still a very uncomfortable ride.

MAY 20, 1899: LEADFOOTED IN THE BIG APPLE

     Jacob German, a New York City taxi driver, earned the dubious distinction of being the first person to be cited for speeding in the United States when he was pulled over for barreling down Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The scofflaw was “clocked” at a speed of 12 miles per hour by a police officer who, with persistent pedaling of his bicycle, managed to overtake him. German was imprisoned in the East 22nd Street station house. He did not have to surrender his registration and license because there were no such things in 19th century New York.

     The speed limit was claimed to be (although it was not posted) 8 mph on straights and 4 mph through turns. German was driving an electric vehicle. Records don’t indicate whether or not he was on duty or carrying a fare.

     A fair number of drivers have been issued speeding tickets since. The US Census Bureau tells us that 100,000 people per day are cited for speeding in the United States. At an average fine of $150 per ticket, that’s $15 million daily, a nice source of income for various municipalities – particularly in Ohio where the most tickets are issued (followed by Pennsylvania and New York). And certainly an award must go to tiny Summersville, WV. The town, with a population of 3,200, gave out 18,000 to 19,000 speeding tickets annually.

Texas claims the ticket for the fastest speed – 242 mph in a 75 mph zone. That driver was not pulled over by a police officer on a bicycle.

MAY 19, 1910: A COMET BY THE TAIL

It was a rough day for planet Earth back in 1910. People were nervous – no, downright scared, on the verge of panic – as if the Mayan calendar had foretold the end of world – only worse. Halley’s Comet (or Toscanelli’s Comet, if you prefer) was coming to town. The returning comet first became visible back in August of 1909, when it was a good 480 million miles away from Earth.

The chance to see a comet should be a cause for celebration, and for astronomers, it was a great opportunity. With more powerful telescopes and more advanced techniques, they were able to learn more than had ever been revealed about comets before. That was the good news. The potentially bad news was that this particular pass of the comet was going to be a close one, a frighteningly close one. As a matter of fact, the Earth would pass through the tail of the comet.

This was not particularly welcome news to a lot of folks. And even worse, scientists had discovered that a gas known as cyanogen, a deadly poison, was present in the composition of the tail, and while they assured the public that the gas would be much too diffuse to have any effect during Earth’s pass through the tail, many people still panicked and assumed the worst. It didn’t help at all when The New York Times reported that the French astronomer and author Camille Flammarion believed that the cyanogen “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

In a somewhat misguided attempt to allay fears, noted astronomer Sir John Herschel said that the whole comet could be squeezed into a suitcase. The New York Times stated that he was clearly talking nonsense because he had failed to state who would do the packing. “Experience teaches that mighty little can be packed in a suitcase by any man. It takes a woman to pack one properly.” The flippant article suggested that it would be better to leave the comet where it is in order for everyone to feel safer.

They didn’t. Doomsayers said that the comet would cause massive tides across the Americas as the Pacific emptied itself into the Atlantic. Charlatans sold comet pills that would supposedly protect against the effects of the poison. Churches held all night prayer vigils.

Finally, on May 19, with the world holding its collective breath, the Earth passed through the comet tail uneventfully.  And it is comforting, in hindsight, to know that the world did not come to an end in 1910.