MAY 15, 1482: TOSCANELLI’S COMET

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.

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, on May 15, 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.

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MAY 13, 1619: WALK A MILE IN HIS WOODEN SHOES

WALK A MILE IN HIS WOODEN SHOES

Johan van Olden Barneveldt was a statesman who played an important role in the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain. His name is also associated – at least, according to British accounts – with a nation’s lack of gratitude for those who devote their lives to its service.  (The English have frequently displayed an antipathy toward the Dutch which has manifested itself in the language. A Dutch uncle is the opposite of a kindly relative; Dutch courage is a synonym for drunkenness; a Dutch treat is a demonstration of stinginess.)

 

As Land’s Advocate for the States of Holland, an office he held for 32 years, Olden Barneveldt was the chief civil officer with tremendous influence in a republic without any central executive authority. And it was Olden Barneveldt who obtained for his country a footing among the powers of Europe, gaining peace and prosperity, freeing it from debt. He restored Dutch integrity by gaining back towns which had been surrendered to England as collateral for a loan and gained recognition of Dutch independence from Spain.

 

The country owed nearly everything to this capable and upright administrator. Yet he had enemies. One Prince Maurice of Orange, head of the military forces, along with other military and naval leaders and the Calvinist clergy, were opposed to the peace with Spain, contending that the Spanish king was merely seeking time to recuperate his strength for a renewed attack against Dutch independence.

 

This coalition against Olden Barneveldt proved to be overwhelming as well as nefarious. In 1619, he was arraigned before a special court of 24 members, only half of whom were Hollanders, and nearly all of whom were his personal enemies. In a mockery of justice, this kangaroo court ( a phrase showing English antipathy toward Australians?) condemned him to death, a sentence which was promptly carried out the following day, May 13, 1619, when the 72-year-old statesman was executed at the Hague.

Dutch Bad, Americans Good?

Fred Turner believed that people are basically  good.  In May of 1992 he set out from Beaufort, South Carolina, on a walk across America to underscore that belief.  A week into his walk, on May 13, Turner was crossing the Tuckaseking Bridge in Georgia when he met several men.  They asked him if he was the one whose walk they had read about in the paper.  When he told them he was they said: “Good, then give me your wallet.”  And when he complied, they beat him up and shoved him off the bridge.  He floated to a nearby island where he spent the night nursing two black eyes and a lot of bruises.  And perhaps reassessing his opinion of mankind.

MAY 9, 1671: STALKING THE CROWN JEWELS

STALKING THE CROWN JEWELS

In the movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty is out to steal the crown jewels. His  battle of wits with Holmes over England’s great treasure lasts about an hour.  Earlier, an Irishman, Colonel Thomas Blood, attempted the same feat with a much more elaborate plan.

Colonel Blood set the plan in motion in April with a visit to the Tower of London. Dressed as a parson and accompanied by a woman pretending to be his wife, Blood made the acquaintance of Talbot Edwards, an aged but trustworthy keeper of the jewels. During this time, the jewels could be viewed by the payment of a fee. After viewing the regalia, Blood’s “wife” pretended to be taken ill, upon which they were conducted to Edward’s lodgings where he gave her a cordial and treated her with great kindness. Blood and his accomplice thanked the Edwardses and left.

Blood returned a few days later with a half dozen gloves as a present to Mrs. Edwards as a gesture of thanks. As Blood became ingratiated with the family, he made an offer for a fictitious nephew of his to marry the Edwardses’ daughter, whom he alleged would be eligible upon their marriage to an income of several hundred pounds. It was agreed that Blood would bring his nephew to meet the young lady on May 9, 1671.  At the appointed time, Blood arrived with his supposed nephew, and two of his friends, and while they waited for the young lady’s appearance, they requested to view the jewels. Edwards accommodated the men but as he was doing so, they threw a cloak over him and struck him with a mallet, knocking him to the floor and rendering him senseless.

Blood and his men went to work. Using the mallet, Blood flattened out the crown so that he could hide it beneath his clerical coat. Another filed the sceptre in two to fit in a bag, while the third stuffed the sovereign’s orb down his trousers.

The three ruffians would probably have succeeded in their theft but for the opportune arrival of Edwards’ son and a companion, Captain Beckman. The elder Edwards regained his senses and raised the alarm shouting, “Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!” His son and Beckman gave pursuit.

As Blood and his gang fled to their horses waiting at St. Catherine’s Gate, they dropped the sceptre and fired on the guards who attempted to stop them. As they ran along the Tower wharf, they were chased down by Captain Beckman. Although Blood shot at him, he missed and was captured before reaching the Iron Gate.  The crown, having fallen from his cloak, was found while Blood struggled with his captors, declaring, “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful, for it was for a crown!” — a rather eloquent comeuppance speech which today would be something more along the lines of “Oh fuck!”

MAY 2, 1843: THE TOWN THAT CRIED WOLF

THE TOWN THAT CRIED WOLF

Chances are you’ve never heard of Champoeg — unless maybe you’re from Oregon which is where it is, or was. Champoeg had the historical significance of being the first American government on the West Coast, having been established by representatives of Willamette Valley settlers on May 2, 1843, by a vote of 52-50. These representatives had held a series of meetings starting back in February to entertain measures to deal with the threat of wolves. During these so-called “Wolf Meetings,” the conferees established a series of civil codes (although its doubtful the wolves paid much attention to them).
When the Oregon Territory was created in 1848, Champoeg was cold-shouldered as upstart Oregon City became its capital. This despite the fact that Champoeg had become rather a bustling little metropolis with a steamboat landing, a ferry across the Willamette River, a stagecoach office, a granary and a warehouse. Ten streets ran north to south, crossed by six east-west thoroughfares.
Champoeg chugged along through the years as Oregon grew and gained statehood. Then in 1861, the Willamette River reared its ugly head, rising 55 feet above its normal stage, flooding the town and destroying every structure in it with the exception of two saloons (there’s a lesson here somewhere). Champoeg was never rebuilt after the flood; all that remains is a small monument describing it place in history and a stake marking a street corner (probably the one where a saloon stood).

“Well!”

Although he was first heard on radio as a guest of Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny debuted his own radio show for NBC on May 2, 1932. After six months he moved to CBS and then in 1933 back to NBC. Although he continued to jump back and forth on networks, his radio program lasted until 1955, some five years after his television program appeared.

Benny was a fixture on radio and TV for three decades, and is still considered one of the best. He was a master of comic timing, creating laughter with pregnant pauses or a single expression, such as his signature “Well!

Appearing with him over the years were Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingston, Phil Harris, Mel Blanc and Sheldon Leonard. Leonard helped Benny produce what was said to be the longest laugh in radio history. Leonard as a holdup man approached Benny and demanded “your money or your life.” Benny remained silent. Finally, Leonard said “Well!?” and Benny answered “I’m thinking it over!”

MAY 1, 1931: TALL BUILDING WITH APE

TALL BUILDING WITH APE

US President Herbert Hoover pushed a button in Washingtonempire D .C. turning on the lights of a building in New York City. On May 1, 1931, the world’s tallest building (102 stories with a total height of 1,454 feet), one of the seven wonders of the modern world, and soon to become an American icon, the Empire State Building, was open for business.

Commanding the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street, the Art Deco masterpiece had taken just over a year to complete. It remained the tallest building in the world for 40 years, and is still a celebrated symbol of American culture. It has been a featured star in over 250 movies and many other forms of entertainment for its entire existence – An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle, Elf and, probably the most famous, the one with that giant ape clinging to its spire, battling modern technology.

Although jumping (or attempting to) from the Empire State Building is a much depicted form kingkong-oldof suicide, just 30 people have pulled it off. The most noted is the 1947 death of a young woman who landed on a United Nations limousine parked at the curb. A photo taken minutes after her death was featured in Life magazine as “The Most Beautiful Suicide” and was later used by Andy Warhol in his print Suicide (Fallen Body).

Notable failures included a woman who jumped from the 86th floor observation deck, only to be blown back onto the 85th floor by a gust of wind and left with a broken hip, and a man who jumped or fell from the 86th floor but landed alive on an 85th floor ledge from which he was rescued suffering only minor injuries.

 

 

APRIL 30, 1803: AND FOR ONE TULIP MORE, GALVESTON

AND FOR ONE TULIP MORE, GALVESTON

The United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, more than doubling the size of the nation. In addition to the city of New Orleans and western Louisiana, the purchase included Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska; most of North and South Dakota; parts of Minnesota, New Mexico Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado (portions of Texas were included for ordering before 1804).

The price paid was 50 million francs (55 million without Texas). With the Dutch purchase of Manhattan in mind, President Jefferson had hoped to pay for the acquisition using beads. The frontierspeople would have none of it (“We may die without our boots on, but we won’t wear no sissy beads.”) and the people of New Orleans already had so many beads they held a party each year to give them away.

The purchase was pricey compared to the Dutch purchase of Manhattan ($15 million versus $24 in American currency; but since there was no American currency when the Dutch bought Manhattan, the comparison is like comparing guilders and tulips – and guilders and tulips went a lot farther back in 1626).  In another comparison, the United States paid 223 million rubles for Alaska. That’s 7.2 million dollars, 32 million francs, 18 million guilders, or 41 million tulips.

The only other comparable land purchase was a parcel along the Mexican border for a few pesos. The remaining portions of the United States were liberated from various other sources, usually native American or Spanish.

 

 

APRIL 17, 1610: SOMEWHERE A RIVER BEARS YOUR NAME

SOMEWHERE A RIVER BEARS YOUR NAME

Back at the dawn of the 17th century, the holy grail among explorers was the Northwest halfPassage, that elusive sea route that Europeans had been seeking ever since they discovered that North America stood right in the middle of their way to China. (For some reason, they longed to go west to China even though it was a lot closer going east.)

On April 17, 1610, intrepid British explorer Henry Hudson. already famous for having discovered and explored a river that just happened to share his last name, set sail on his latest attempt to find the passage that would at last allow Europeans to take (as the popular song tells us) a slow boat to China.

It was his fourth expedition, financed by adventurers from England. Sailing across the Atlantic, slipping between Greenland and Labrador, he entered the Hudson Strait (another remarkable coincidence) and soon reached (you’re not going to believe this) Hudson Bay. Unfortunately after all this seeming good luck, the expedition took a nasty turn.  After three months dawdling around the bay, Hudson was surprised by the onset of winter. Why winter north of Labrador in November would be a surprise is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, Hudson and his crew were forced to set up a winter camp. The next few months were not pleasant, and many of the crew members were not amused. They grumbled and held their tongues throughout the winter until June. But once they were sailing again, they up and mutinied, setting Hudson, his son and seven friends adrift.  Although Hudson was never seen again, England laid claim to everything that shared his name — river, strait, bay and even a funny looking vehicle that seemed to have no useful purpose.

 

APRIL 13, 1360: HAIL, HAIL, THE GANG’S ALL HERE

HAIL, HAIL, THE GANG’S ALL HERE

It was the 14th century and once again England was out to conquer France. The hostilities had been going on for nearly 20 years, when England’s King Edward III sailed across the Channel with a huge army — a cast of thousands.  The dead of winter set in, and the inconsiderate French refused to face the English invaders in direct combat. Instead they huddled in their warm and cozy castles, drinking cafe au lait while the English plundered the countryside and got frostbite. Come April of 1360, having lasted through the winter, Edward and his men fought and torched their way through the Paris suburbs, and readied themselves to have at Chartres.

Then, on April 13, a sudden violent storm came up. Lightning killed several soldiers, and then the heavens opened up and hailstones the size of pommes de terre began hammering the hapless army, killing a thousand men. Naturally, they took this as a sign that God was annoyed. Edward declared the invasion “my bad” and negotiated a peace with the French. The English renounced all claims to the throne of France, and the French gave them croissants.

But wouldn’t you know it, a few years later, the King of France declared war on England ( this was, after all, the Hundred Years’ War, scheduled to last another 75 years or so.)

Historians assure us that this was not the origin of the phrase “Hail to the Chief.”

 

 

APRIL12, 1788: WHAT’S IN A NAME

WHAT’S IN A NAME

Cape Disappointment is a headland at the mouth of the Columbia River at the southwesternmost tip of Washington State. Its main claim to fame is its fog. At 106 foggy days a year, Cape Disappointment is the foggiest spot in the United States. And then there’s the name, one that surely must put the Cape Disappointment Chamber of Commerce through its paces. Where did it get that name, you query? Good of you to ask. It just happens to have been named on April 12, 1788.

John Meares was an explorer, navigator, fur trader and a bit of a scoundrel. His first expedition to the north Pacific ended in failure. Sailing with false papers claiming Portuguese registry to avoid licensing and duties and with inadequate provisions, he was forced to winter in Prince William Sound. All but ten of his men died. Meares and these men were saved by the arrival of a British trader. To show his gratitude, Meares sued the trader, claiming he had been overcharged for the supplies that saved their lives.

In 1788, he was back in the north Pacific collecting sea otter furs to sell in China. Sailing southwards along the Washington coast, he ran into nasty weather at that unnamed headland at the mouth of the Columbia River. Forced to turn back, he called the place X#!##X!&!! which was later cleaned up to Cape Disappointment.

A few years later, Meares would bring Britain and Spain to the brink of war, but that’s a story for another day.

Magic Kingdoms Here and There

It was a Big Apple Fantasyland. Finishing touches were still being put in place on New York City’s Hippodrome just hours before its April 12, 1905, opening. Seating 5300 people, it dwarfed the Metropolitan Opera with its 3000 seats. A marvel of theatrical architecture, its stage was 12 times larger than any existing Broadway house and was capable of holding a thousand performers at a time or, perhaps, a full-sized circus complete with clowns and horses and acrobats and a flying elephant or two.

Speaking of Flying Elephants (a Clever Segue to 1992)

Could Mickey Souris really cut it among continental consumers? Would the rodent empire have the necessary je ne sais quoi to win those jaded Gallic hearts and minds? No more guessing or advance planning or idle speculation after D-Day (as in Disney) — April 12, 1992, the day Euro Disney opened its gates in Marne-La-Vallee on the outskirts of Paris. Gladstone Gander or Goofy?
The lucky duck prevailed. The royaume magique became one of Europe’s leading tourist destinations with some 15 million annual visitors. Disney had created another Fantasyland.

 

 

APRIL 8, 1832: TAKE MY WIFE . . . PLEASE

TAKE MY WIFE . . . PLEASE

Earlier centuries saw a great many practices that were commonplace then but which would be considered inappropriate in our more enlightened wife-at-auctionage. Nowhere was this truer than in (merry old) England — purchasing a plump Irish child for special dinner occasions in the 18th century, for instance, or in the 19th century, selling a spouse one had grown weary of.  One such sale took place on April 8, 1832, an account of which was recorded for the amusement of generations that followed.  Joseph Thompson, a farmer, had been married for three unhappy years when he and his wife decided to call it quits.  As was customary, Thompson took his wife to town and set her up for public auction.  At noon, the sale commenced with Thompson delivering a short speech:

“Gentlemen, I have to offer to your notice my wife, Mary Ann Thomson . . . whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder.  Gentlemen, it is her wish as well as mine to part for ever.  She has been to me only a born serpent.  I took her for my comfort, and the good of my home; but she became my tormentor, a domestic curse, a night invasion, and a daily devil.  Gentlemen, I speak truth from my heart when I say — may God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome women!  Avoid them as you would a mad dog, a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential thing in nature.”

What a sales pitch!  This guy could sell anything. The asking price for Mary Ann was 50 shillings. Eventually, the price was knocked down and a deal was made — 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog.

Everyone satisfied, they parted company, Mary Ann and a gentleman named Henry Mears in one direction, Joseph and the dog in the other.

Don’t Hurry Worry Me, Part 3:  Blue Denim Ahoy

hurry“Does anyone here need some pants?” Ismelde asked the three sailors sitting on the dock, amusing themselves with beer and cigars.  They eyed Ismelde with suspicion at first, then stared intently, their seafaring eyes inspecting her from stem to stern.

“I’d be needing some pants,” said the largest and swarthiest of the three.

“Oh dear,” said Ismelde,  “I don’t think they’ll fit you, sir.”

The youngest of the three spoke up.  “I reckon they’d fit me.”  Ismelde studied him.  He was of much the same build as Randall.

“Why don’t you try them on?” suggested the other sailor with a big, toothless grin.

The young sailor stood and grinned back at his mates.  “Let’s do that.  Couldn’t take them if they didn’t fit.  Come on.”  He pulled a reluctant Ismelde aboard their sloop, leaving the other two sailors chuckling and speculating.  A few moments later, a very red-faced Ismelde emerged from the sloop and hurried away.  Just behind her the young sailor zipping his newly acquired, tight-fitting blue denims swaggered ashore, boasting to the others:  “I guess she’s never put pants on a sailor before.”

Randall couldn’t have told you this part of the story, someone would complain.  Chicken Avery just shrugged them off.  Now don’t you hurry me, he’d say.  Don’t worry me.  Someone told me this, someone else told me that.  I just put it all together.

Three hours later, the young sailor was still swaggering, promenading the length of the deck, as the sloop plied the choppy waters off the windward side of the island.  And perhaps it was that swaggering that rendered his sea legs useless against the lurching of the sloop, that threw him off balance and allowed him to be tossed off the starboard side, blue denims and all.

Elton Sinclair’s hours of sobriety were few.  And he spent those few hours combing the beach for clues to the buried treasure that would lift him out of the drudgery of island life and whisk him away to the upper strata of European society, where he would drink cognac instead of rum.  The corpse in the blue denim trousers lying in a heap on Pigeon Beach presented Elton with a bit of a moral dilemma.  Should he report the body to the authorities and subject himself to all their suspicious interrogation or just let someone else discover the body and deal with the fuss.  He realized that, if everyone who happened onto the body were to save themselves the fuss, the body would never be officially discovered even though everyone on the island must know about it.    On the other hand, he was a busy man; there were others with more time to waste on fuss.

Having faced the first moral dilemma and making a sound decision, Elton face a second moral dilemma.  Would the authorities, once the body had been discovered by someone other than Elton, care whether the corpse was attired in a pair of handsome blue denims or in a pair of shabby brown pants much like those that Elton wore?  Of course not.  Elton knelt down next to the sailor and peeled the pants from his lifeless body.  He was about to remove his own pants and put them on the body when it struck him that the poor wretch lying there was free of all care and certainly any care about whether or not he wore pants at all.  So Elton saluted the naked corpse, slung the blue denims over one arm and headed down the beach, keeping watch for any telltale signs of treasure.

continued

This story originally appeared in American Way, the inflight magazine of American Airlines.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.