June 19, 1885: Beware the French Bearing Gifts

In 1885, the French ship Isere sailed into New York Harbor carrying 214 crates filled with 350 libertypieces of a 305-foot high jigsaw that had been crafted in France and would, over the next four months, be re-assembled on an awaiting pedestal on Bedloe Island (now called Liberty Island) – there to stand for the next 132 years (so far).

Once constructed, this would, of course, be the Statue of Liberty or “Liberty Enlightening the World,” to those not on a first-name basis. It was a gift from France to the United States back during the two countries’ honeymoon days.   Actually it was something of a joint enterprise, the French providing the statue and the U.S. the pedestal on which it would stand.

French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi began designing the statue in 1876, working with Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower. Richard Morris Hunt, designer of New York City’s first apartment building, designed the pedestal. Given his background, one might have expected his pedestal to house several luxury apartments, a missed funding opportunity: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to rent 3BR LUX APT, LWR FLR, UNF, HRBR VIEW.”

As it was, funding of the statue was a bit of an issue. Both countries faced challenges in getting money for the project. The French charged public fees, held fundraising events, and used money from a lottery to finance the statue. One notable fundraising method in the U.S. was a traveling arm. The statue’s torch-bearing arm was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in 1876.  After the exhibition closed, it was transported to New York, where it remained on display in Madison Square Park for several years before being returned to France to be reunited with its torso. The French, in a bit of Gallic oneupsmanship, exhibited the head at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair.

The plan to display Lady Liberty’s breasts in Boston was banned before it got off the drawing board, and a nationwide tour of her feet failed to muster sufficient enthusiasm.

The Statue of Liberty is no longer saying, ‘Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.’ She’s got a baseball bat and yelling, ‘You want a piece of me?’ Robin Williams

June 12, 1349: If You Outlaw Bows and Arrows . . .

In a letter dated June 12, 1349, England’s King Edward III wrote how the people of his realm, archboth rich and poor, had in previous times exercised their skill at shooting arrows and how that practice had brought honor and profit to the kingdom. But, he continued, that skill had been laid aside in favor of other pursuits. Therefore he commanded sheriffs throughout the realm to proclaim that every able citizen in their leisure time use their bows and arrows, and learn and exercise the art of archery.   And furthermore, they should not in “any manner apply themselves to the throwing of stones, wood, or iron, handball, football, bandyball, cambuck, or cockfighting”  or any other such trivial pursuits (that includes golf).

A hundred years later, Edward IV continued the tradition, decreeing that all Englishmen, other than clergymen or judges, should own  bows their own height, keeping them always ready for use and providing practice for  sons age seven or older. Fines were levied for failing to shoot every Sunday.

Sir Wayne of LaPierre complained that the law did not go far enough, that it lacked a provision that citizens should carry concealed bows and arrows and quivers with more than a ten-arrow capacity.  And a ban on background checks for potential archers, of course.

– – –

I got to dress up in funny clothes and run around New Zealand with a bow and arrow for 18 months, how bad could that be? Orlando Bloom on Lord of the Rings

June 10, 2000: All Together Now, Step to the Right

An air of excitement certainly gripped London on June 10, 2000, as 90,000 people queued up to cross the first new bridge to span the Thames River in over a hundred years, a bridge for pedestrians only, stretching from the Globe Theatre to St. Paul’s Cathedral, aptly named the London Millennium Footbridge. It didn’t take long for the bridge to become more known by its nickname, the Wobbly Bridge.
     Seems the designers had not given enough attention to a phenomenon with the catchy title, synchronous lateral excitation. Even if you’ve never heard of it, it doesn’t sound like anything you’d want to be on a bridge with.
     People, according to engineers, sway when they walk. People walking and swaying cause sideways oscillations in lightweight bridges. These, in turn, cause the people (some two thousand on the bridge at any given time) to sway even more to keep from falling over. And they all sway at the same time. It’s as if two thousand Londoners were doing the tango above the Thames. Result? Wobbly.
     Access to the bridge was limited later in the day, and on June 12 the bridge closed for modifications It reopened in 2002 (with tango forbidden). It was again closed in 2007 because of strong winds and a worry that pedestrians foolish enough to cross might be blown off the bridge.
     The footbridge was not the only British millennial faux pas: a little number called the Millennium Dome elicited this derision from MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: “At worst it is a millennial metaphor for the twentieth century. An age in which all things, like the Dome itself, became disposable. A century in which forest and cities, marriages, animal species, races, religions and even the Earth itself, became ephemeral. What more cynical monument can there be for this totalitarian cocksure fragile age than a vast temporary plastic bowl, erected from the aggregate contribution of the poor through the National Lottery. Despite the spin, it remains a massive pantheon to the human ego . . .”

 

 

 

June 5, 1850, 1878, 1895: Thrice Upon a Time in the West

When the sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, resigned in 1880, the county appointed Pat Garrett, a former bartender known as something of a gunman to replace him.  Garrett was immediately given the task of apprehending a friend from his saloon keeping days, jail escapee Henry McCarty, aka Henry Antrim, aka William Harrison Bonney, but more widely known as Billy the Kid.

The Kid had supposedly killed 21 men, one for every year of his life, but no one could actually name more than nine.

Later that year, Garrett captured the Kid and his companions at the posh New Mexico spa, Stinking Springs, but the Kid escaped from the Lincoln County Jail, killing his two guards. Garrett learned that the Kid was hiding out at the house of a mutual friend, Pete Maxwell. Late one night, Garrett went to Maxwell’s house while the Kid was sleeping.  Accounts differ as to what happened next. Either the Kid woke up and entered Maxwell’s bedroom, where Garrett, standing in the shadows, shot him as he asked “Who is it?” (“It is I” or even “It’s me,” being the more gentlemanly response). Or Garrett went into Maxwell’s wife’s room and tied her up, and when the Kid walked into her room (for what purpose, we can only guess), Garrett blasted him with a single rifle shot. Either account pretty much tarnished Garrett’s reputation as a straight shooter.

Conspiracy theorists maintain that Billy the Kid was not killed at all and that Garrett staged it all so the Kid could escape. They also insist that Garrett was born (on June 5, 1850) in Kenya.

At about the same time (1878, to be exact) Pancho Villa was born on this same day a bit farther south in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. During the early 20th century, he pretty much ran the state.  He and his supporters played Robin Hood, seizing haciendas and land for distribution to peasants and soldiers. They robbed and commandeered trains, and printed their own money to pay for the 1910-20 revolution.

After Villa’s rather infamous incursion into New Mexico in 1916, U.S. Army General John J. Pershing pursued Villa for nine months unsuccessfully (probably because he refused to ambush him in a lady’s bedroom) before turning his attention to World War I. Villa retired in 1920 on a large estate where he could have spent a gracious hero’s retirement, sipping Margaritas in comfort, had he not decided to get back into politics, whereupon he was assassinated.

A few years later, back in the US, William Boyd (born June 5, 1895), was making a name for himself as a straight shooting, white-hatted good guy, that name being Hopalong Cassidy.  Hoppy, as his friends called him, eschewed the role of  a hard-drinking, rough-living wrangler, opting instead to be the very model of a cowboy hero, one who did not smoke, drink or swear and who always let the bad guy strike the first blow (and never ever ambushed a bad guy in a lady’s bedroom).

Conspiracy theorists maintain that Boyd was not a real cowboy, that Hoppy was a fictional character. They point to the 66 Hopalong Cassidy films and the memorabilia such as watches, comic books, dishes, Topps trading cards, and cowboy outfits as proof.  Next they’ll say he was born in Kenya.

“There’s always a man faster on the draw than you are, and the more you use a gun, the sooner you’re gonna run into that man.” — Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

June 1, 1869: Tom Swift and His Electric Thingumajig

With over a thousand inventions, many of which have touched the lives of nearly everyone in the world, Thomas Alva Edison is considered by many to be the greatest inventor of the modern era. But it wasn’t always thus. Al, as he was known, was a lousy student whoserube mother finally decided to home-school him. Edison’s first job was operating a newsstand on a train that ran from Port Huron to Detroit. To make the trips more interesting, he put together a chemistry lab in a boxcar (On the Atchison, Topeka and the Kaboom!). Then working as a telegraph operator, he continued to do scientific experiments in his free time. In 1869, he decided to devote himself full time to inventing.

     His first invention was patented that same year on June 1, a voting machine for use by legislative bodies such as Congress. Having heard that both the Washington, D.C., City Council and the New York State legislature were planning to install electric vote recorders, he stepped up to the plate. Edison’s somewhat Rube-Golbergish system, started with a switch that each legislator could move to either a yes or a no position. The vote would then be transmitted by a signal to a central recorder that listed the names of the legislators in two columns of metal type headed “Yes” and “No.” A recording clerk would then place a sheet of magic paper over the columns of type and move a metallic roller over the paper and type. As an electric current passed through the paper, chemicals in the paper decomposed, leaving the imprint of the name in a manner similar to that of chemical recording automatic telegraphs. Dials on the machine recorded the total number of yeas and nays.

     A fellow telegrapher bought a stake in the invention for $100 and took it to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate it before a Congressional committee. The chairman of the committee, less than enthusiastically, told him that “if there is any invention on earth that we don’t want down here, that is it.” It seemed legislators liked the slow pace of voting which allowed them to lobby or trade votes or do those other fun legislative things. Edison’s vote recorder was never used.

     Edison persevered, resolving never again to invent something that would not sell. His next invention, an improved stock market tickertape machine, earned him a tidy $40,000. And he went on to invent such other clever devices as the electric light bulb.

And today in 1880, another inventor’s bright idea gone awry, the first pay telephone was made available to the public in the New Haven office of the Connecticut Telephone Company. No “deposit ten cents for another ten minutes” here. A proud attendant stood next to the phone collecting those dimes.

May 26, 1755: Read His French Lips

MandrinLouis 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 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 oppressions 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.

 

I prefer dead writers because you don’t run into them at parties. ― Fran Lebowitz

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.

No Kidding:  Terry and the Pirate, a novel of romance, adventure and plenty of gratuitous swashbuckling is available for armchair pirating everywhere. Check it out, please.

I never did very well in math – I could never seem to persuade the teacher that I hadn’t meant my answers literally. ~ Calvin Trillin

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 caneas 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.

 

It had only one fault. It was kind of lousy. – James Thurber

May 15, 1482: Toscanelli’s Comet

Paolo Toscanelli, born in 1397, was your typical Italian Renaissance Man, dabbling in everything from astronomy to mathematics to philosophy to cartography. He rubbed elbows (and influenced) the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Christopher Columbus. In fact, that fickle finger of fate could have just as easily pointed at Paolo instead of Columbus.

As we all know, Christopher Columbus as a boy used to sit on the docks in Genoa watching ships slowly disappear over the horizon. While all the other boys sitting on the docks attributed this phenomenon to the ships falling off the edge of the world, Christopher determined that ships were gradually disappearing because the world was actually round. A fairy tale, of course. Columbus knew the world was round because Paolo Toscanelli told him it was round. Toscanelli even gave Columbus a map (a flat map admittedly) that showed Asia to the left on the other side of the Atlantic. Neither of them had reckoned on that other continent lying in-between. Yet Columbus got an October holiday and a city in Ohio while Toscanelli got squat.

Another near miss for Paolo was his observation of a comet in 1456. Although Paolo was the first to identify it, it remained known only as the Comet of 1456 until 300 years later when English astronomer Edmond Halley predicted its 1759 return and got naming rights.

Paolo died on May 15, 1482, ten years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue and some 350 years before “Halley’s” Comet did an encore.

May 15, 1856: Over the Rainbow

She threw her arms around the Lion’s neck and kissed him, patting his big head tenderly. Then she kissed the Tin Woodman, who was weeping in a way most dangerous to his joints. But she hugged the soft, stuffed body of the Scarecrow in her arms instead of kissing his painted face, and found she was crying herself at this sorrowful parting from her loving comrades.

Glinda the Good stepped down from her ruby throne to give the little girl a good-bye kiss, and Dorothy thanked her for all the kindness she had shown to her friends and herself.

Dorothy now took Toto up solemnly in her arms, and having said one last good-bye she clapped the heels of her shoes together three times saying, “Take me home to Aunt Em!

Lyman Frank Baum, born in Chittenango, New York, in 1856 (died 1919), was best known for writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although he wrote a total of 55 novels, 83 short stories, over 200 poems, and made many attempts to bring his works to the stage and screen.

In 1897, after several abortive early careers, Baum wrote and published Mother Goose in Prose, a collection of Mother Goose rhymes written as prose stories, and illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. The book was a moderate success, allowing Baum to quit his door-to-door sales job and devote time to his writing. In 1899, Baum partnered with illustrator W. W. Denslow, to publish Father Goose, His Book, a collection of nonsense poetry. The book was a success, becoming the best-selling children’s book of the year. Then in 1900, the duo published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to critical acclaim and financial success.   The book was the best-selling children’s book for two years after its initial publication.

Oz was a popular destination long before the famous 1939 screen version of the book.  A  musical  based closely upon the book,  the first to use the shortened title “The Wizard of Oz”, opened in Chicago in 1902, then ran on Broadway for 293 performances.   Baum went on to write another 13 Oz novels.

Baum’s intention with the Oz books, and other fairy tales, was to tell American tales in much the same manner as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen , modernizing them and removing the excess violence.  He is often credited with the beginning of the sanitization of children’s stories, although his stories do include eye removals, maimings of all kinds and an occasional decapitation.

Most of the books outside the Oz series were written under pseudonyms. Baum was variously known as Edith Van Dyne, Laura Bancroft, Floyd Akers, Suzanne Metcalf, Schuyler Staunton, John Estes Cooke, and Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald.

Baum wrote two newspaper editorials about Native Americans that have tarnished his legacy because of his assertion that the safety of white settlers depended on the wholesale genocide of American Indians. Some scholars take them at face value, others suggest they were satire. Decide for yourself.

The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.