January 4, 1903 Electrocuting an Elephant

In the six years I’ve been writing “Today in History”, I’ve written about 700 of these stories. A father isn’t supposed to have favorites among his “children”, but I have to confess. I do. This is not one of those. This story, I detest.

Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb.  The first platinum filament bulb arrived some forty years earlier. What he did was to make the thing commercially viable, earlier versions being too expensive, and too quick to burn out. Edison went through thousands of materials before discovering the right filament, finally landing on carbonized bamboo leading to his famous quip, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

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Topsy

Half a world away from Edison’s workshop, an elephant was born in the jungles of Southeast Asia, captured by elephant traders and smuggled into the United States.

Adam John Forepaugh, owner of the Forepaugh Circus, bought the animal and named her “Topsy”, after a slave girl from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Circuses of the era were known for sleazy business practices. Adam Forepaugh was at home in this environment. The Forepaugh circus claimed Topsy was the first elephant born in America, a hoax publicly exposed when the elephant trader who sold the animal, tipped off arch-rival circus operator, P.T. Barnum.

Edison opened his first electrical power plant in 1882, in New York city. Two years later, a young Serbian immigrated to America, and went to work for Edison. His name was Nikola Tesla. Tesla was himself a brilliant inventor and helped his boss improve his Direct-Current generators, while simultaneously developing a different method of electrical distribution: Alternating Current.

Tesla tried to convince Edison the future belonged to AC, but the “Wizard of Menlo Park” was adamant. AC had no future he claimed, Edison would not budge. Tesla quit his job in 1885 and applied for several patents for his work in AC technology. In 1888, he sold his patents to industrialist George Westinghouse, and the Westinghouse Electric Company. The “War of the Currents” had begun.

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Edison’s first bulb

Topsy grew to be 10-feet tall and twenty-feet long, and worked for the circus for 27 years.  She gained a reputation for being a “bad” elephant, but it’s hard to separate circus hype, from reality.  Newspapers of course, were happy to play along.   These were the days of Yellow Journalism, and circulation wars were red hot.  Newsies hawked lurid headlines, on the streets. Anything to sell papers – extra extra, read all about it.

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Topsy was supposed to have killed twelve men by 1900.  More common accounts claim she had killed two Forepaugh & Sells Brothers’ Circus workers: one in Paris, Texas and one in Waco.  Journalist Michael Daly wrote in 2013 there is no record of anyone killed by an elephant in Waco.  The handler attacked in Paris received injuries, but there is no record of his being killed.

No matter, the story sold papers.  It was great for attendance too.  People crowded into the circus to see the “man-killing elephant”.

Topsy and the other elephants were being unloaded from a train in June 1902, when one Louis Dodero thought he’d”tickle” her, behind the ear. Topsy seized him around the waist and lifted him high, before hurling him to the ground. It could have been worse but a handler stepped in and savaged her, with a fork.

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An illustration of Topsy from the St. Paul Globe on June 16, 1902. H/T Smithsonian.com

Meanwhile, Edison felt threatened by the rise of AC, which could be distributed over long distances far more cheaply, that DC.  Edison launched a propaganda campaign, publicly executing several dogs and even a horse, to demonstrate the dangers of AC.

When New York came looking for a more humane way to execute the condemned, the one-time opponent of capital punishment recommended an electric chair. In 1890, convicted murder William Kimmler was the first person to die in an electric chair, the apparatus powered by a Westinghouse AC generator designed by a salesman secretly on Edison’s payroll.

Despite such propaganda, Tesla’s low-cost alternative won out. Westinghouse won the contract to power the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and the all-important generators, at Niagara Falls. The War of the Currents was over by 1896. AC has remained dominant in the power industry, to this day.

the current war

In March 1902, one James Fielding Blount entered the elephant’s tent, possibly drunk.  Accounts vary as to what happened next.  The common story is that Blount began teasing the animals each in turn, offering the elephants a bottle of whiskey. He reportedly threw sand in Topsy’s face and then burned the tip of her trunk with a cigar.  Topsy hurled the fool to the ground and crushed the life out of him

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Being led to the place of execution

Forepaugh sold their “bad” elephant in June, when she was added to the animal menagerie at Coney Island’s Sea Lion Park. William “Whitey” Alt, Topsy’s handler, came along.

A bad summer season and heavy competition convinced owner Paul Boynton to get out of the business. New owners Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy decided to expand the park, and Topsy was put to work moving timbers and heavy equipment.

Newspapers and publicity shots characterized the work as “penance” for Topsy’s rampaging ways.

Meanwhile Alt, an habitual drunk and the only person who could handle her (albeit brutally), stabbed Topsy with a pitchfork and then set her loose to run free in the streets. The episode led to Alt’s arrest as did another, in which the drunk handler rode the elephant through the streets of Coney Island and into a local police station, causing the officers to dive for the cells for protection.

Alt was fired after that episode, and the owners claimed they had no way of handling the park’s elephant.  Thompson and Dundy tried to give her away without success, before hitting on an idea.  They would execute their problem elephant by hanging, and charge admission to witness the spectacle.

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President of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals John Peter Haines got wind of the plan, and objected to the “needlessly cruel” means of execution. Weeks of negotiations ensued, in which the owners offered to give Topsy to the SPCA, before settling on an “all of the above” means of execution including poison, strangulation by means of ropes tied to a steam powered winch, and electrocution.

The execution was carried out on August 4, 1903 and recorded by an Edison film crew, one of many “actuality” films produced by the Edison Mfg. Co. from 1897, on.  The short film “Executing an Elephant” runs for 74 seconds. You can find it on Youtube if you are so inclined. I don’t want to see it again.

In the following years, Thomas Edison was blamed for staging the spectacle, to discredit his rival. The story is repeated from that day to this, but it’s a myth.

Edison lost his battle to supply the world’s electricity, years before. There’s no evidence he was even there on the date of execution, and his written correspondence contains no mention of it.  This then, is the story of an innocent animal, caught between ignorance and a changing business climate.  I do not think I could hate this story, more.

 

 

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January 3, 2000 Peanuts

Over fifty years, Schulz drew nearly 18,000 strips, taking vacation only once in 1997, to celebrate his 75th birthday.  In all that time, that five-week stretch was the only time the papers ever had Peanuts reruns.

Schutz-LetterCharles Monroe Schulz was one of the brighter kids at Central High School in Saint Paul, Minnesota, but that didn’t help his social life. He was already a shy boy and skipped two half-grades, graduating as the youngest student in the class of 1940.

The boy loved to draw. He was good at it, too. The family once owned a hunting dog called “Spike”, with the cringe-worthy habit of eating sharp objects. It didn’t seem to bother him much, and the boy sent a drawing to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! who ran it, complete with a description of Spikes unusual predilections.

The drawing was signed, “Sparky”.  Even with Schulz later celebrity, you could always Charles_Schulz_HS_Yearbookweed out those who merely claimed to know him, if they called him “Charles”, or “Chuck”.  Schulz’ uncle called him “Sparky” as a boy, after the horse Spark Plug in Billy DeBeck’s comic strip, Barney Google.  He always signed the strip “Schulz”, but friends and family knew him as Sparky, until the day he died.

Schulz was drafted into the Army in 1943, a Staff Sergeant with the 20th Armored Division in Europe and squad leader on a .50-caliber machine gun team.

He never got a chance to fire his weapon, though he did come face-to-face with a Wehrmacht soldier, once.  His blood must’ve turned cold in his veins when he realized he’d forgotten to load, but the man he faced was no Nazi fanatic.  This was just a guy, who wanted to go home. The German surrendered, happily.  I hope he did get to go home.

Schulz returned to Minneapolis after the war where he did lettering for a Catholic comic magazine, Timeless Topix. He took a job in 1946 at Art Instruction, Inc., reviewing and grading lessons submitted by students, a job he held for several years while developing his talents as comic creator.

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Charlie Brown, that little boy who was always close but never quite succeeded, first appeared in a series of single-panel jokes called “Li’l Folks“, along with a dog who looked something like Snoopy. It was published in the local papers from June 1947 to January ’50, and later syndicated.  The first strip was published in seven newspapers on October 2, 1950, but United Features thought the name was too close to two strips already in syndication, Li’l Abner, and “Little Folks“.

They called it “Peanuts” after the peanut gallery of the old Vaudeville days, the cheapest and rowdiest seats in the theater. Schulz didn’t like the name, saying it “made it sound too insignificant,” but the name, stuck.

Peanuts

Schulz took pride in his service during the war, and his strip paid tribute to Rosie the Riveter and Ernie Pyle.  More than any other, he’d honor “Willy & Joe”, those two GIs from the imagination of war correspondent and cartoonist Bill Mauldin, a man to whom Schulz always referred as “My Hero”.  Over the years, Snoopy visited with Willie & Joe no fewer than 17 times. Always on Veterans Day.

A Charlie Brown Christmas has been a staple of the Christmas season since 1965, but Linus almost didn’t get to tell his famous story of the baby Jesus. ABC executives thought Linus’ recitation of the birth of Christ too overtly religious.  They wanted a laugh track too, but Schulz refused. “If we don’t do it, who will?” So it was that the scene remained, perhaps the most memorable moment in cartoon history. The laugh track version was produced, but never aired.

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Charlie Brown’s love interest in some of the TV specials, the “Little Red-Haired Girl”, was based on an accountant from that old job at Art Instruction, Donna Mae Johnson.  The two had an office romance, but she turned him down when he proposed they marry.

She wasn’t the only character based on a real person.  Linus and Shermy were patterned after Schulz’ close friends Linus Maurer and Sherman Plepler.  Peppermint Patty was inspired by a cousin on his mother’s side, Patricia Swanson.  Snoopy himself resembles that old family dog Spike, though he was a Pointer, not a Beagle.

American opinion polls showed a sharp drop in support for the war in Vietnam over 1967.  1968 was a wretched year in American politics, beginning with the Tet Offensive in January.   Media reporting turned the American military victory over the Vietnamese New Year, into a thing of despair.  President Johnson withdrew from the Presidential election, that March.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April and riots swept through cities across the country.  Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated that June, after winning the critical California primary.  The Democratic National Convention that August more closely resembled a riot, than a political convention.

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Franklin Armstrong

Race relations were particularly vile, when Los Angeles schoolteacher Harriet Glickman wrote to the cartoonist, asking if he could add a black character.  Glickman never expected a response from the now-famous Charles M. Schulz, but respond he did.  He said he liked the idea, but expressed a concern about seeming “condescending”, to black families.  With Schulz’ permission, Glickman asked friends of African ancestry, how to make such a character “more relatable”.

Franklin Armstrong made his first appearance on July 31, 1968.  What was remarkable for the time, was how unremarkable, he was.  Just another little boy, at first confused about the strange stuff in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood.  Particularly Linus’ obsession with the ‘Great Pumpkin’.  Franklin first met Charlie Brown on a beach.  He said his father was a soldier, off fighting in Vietnam.  “My dad’s a barber,” said Charlie Brown.  “He was in a war too, but I don’t know which one.”

One newspaper editor wrote saying he didn’t mind a “negro” character, but please don’t show them in school together.  Schulz didn’t bother to respond.

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I wonder if Donna Mae Johnson ever regretted turning down that marriage proposal.  Peanuts went on to become a pop culture phenomenon, with countless animated specials combining with merchandise sales to produce revenues in the Billions.  At it’s peak, Peanuts ran in 2,600 papers in 75 countries and 21 languages.  Schulz himself is estimated to have earned $30 to $40 million, a year.

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The command module for the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon was named Charlie Brown and the lunar module, Snoopy.  President Ronald Reagan was a fan, and once wrote to Schulz that he identified with Charlie Brown.

Imitation of Charles Schulz cartoon, mad

Over fifty years, Schulz drew nearly 18,000 strips, taking vacation only once in 1997, to celebrate his 75th birthday.  In all that time, that one five-week stretch was the only time the papers ever had Peanuts reruns.

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Stephen Shea, H/T Huffington Post

Fun fact: Former child actor Stephen Shea inherited the speaking role for Linus van Pelt when his older brother Chris’ voice changed, and went on to perform in eight animated specials. Chris went to summer camp with a boy who happened to be President of The Doors fan club. It turns out that Jim Morrison was a big Peanuts fan, and invited Chris and his father to be his special guests, at a concert.

Schulz’ health began to deteriorate in the late 1990s, his once-firm hand, now developing a tremor. He never really recovered from the stroke that hit him in November 1999 and announced his intention to retire, on December 14.  The last original Peanuts strip was published on January 3, 2000. This son of a barber and a housewife, just like Charlie Brown himself, passed away just over a month later, a victim of colon cancer.

There will never be another.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

 

 

January 2, 1492 La Reconquista

A Christian military force under Pelagius,(aka “Pelayo”), the future first King of Asturias, met the invaders at “Covadonga”, meaning “Cavern of the Lady”.  The Arabic name for the place is “Sakhrat Bilāy” “the Rock of the Affliction”.  The two names tell the tale about the outcome, of the battle.

The manner by which Roderic ascended to the throne of the Visigothic Empire is unclear. His history as any other, was written by the victors.  Unbiased contemporary sources do not appear to exist. What Is known is that someone in the early 8th century Iberian Peninsula, thought Roderic an illegitimate King.

al-andalusThat someone appears to have gone to Mecca looking for help from the BanūʾUmayya, the “Sons of Umayya”, the second such center of Islamic power since the time of Muhammad and known to history as the Umayyad Caliphate.

In 711AD, a force of some 1,700 Arab and North African horsemen, the Berbers, landed on the Iberian Peninsula led by Tariq Ibn Ziyad.  384 years before the first Christian Crusade, the Umayyad conquest of Hispania was on.  Within ten years, most of what we now know as Portugal and Spain had become “al-Andalus”; five administrative districts under Muslim rule, save for the fringes of the Pyrenean mountains, and the highlands along the northwest coastline.

The first significant Christian victory and what may constitute the beginning of reconquest, “La Reconquista”, took place along that northern fringe. That sliver of Christianity was the Kingdom of Asturias. The refusal to pay the Jizya, the Muslim tax on “unbelievers”, brought them into conflict with an Umayyad force in the summer of 722.

A Christian military force under Pelagius, (aka “Pelayo”), the future first King of Asturias, met the invaders at a place called “Covadonga”, meaning “Cavern of the Lady”.  The Arabic name for the place is “Sakhrat Bilāy” “the Rock of the Affliction”.  The two names tell a tale about the outcome, of the battle.

covadonga
Covadonga

The Arab chronicles record Covadonga as a small skirmish while the Spanish record a great victory, but two things are near certain. In 770 years, no Muslims force ever returned to Asturias.  Without Pelagius’ victory at Covadonga, we’d almost certainly never have heard of Ferdinand and Isabella, let alone a certain Italian explorer whom the pair sent off in 1492, in search of a sea route to China.

It was close to 400 years before the crusading knights of Europe came to the aid of the Iberian Kings. With help from the Knights Templar and Hospitaller. Alfonso VI captured Toledo in 1085, beginning a long period of gradual Muslim decline.

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The Portuguese nation was a mere county in the early 12th century, dependent on the Crown of León and Castile, one Alfonso VII. His cousin, three year old Alfonso Henriques, followed his father as the Count of Portugal in 1122.

At the age of 14, the age of majority in the 12th century, the boy proclaimed himself a knight and raised an army against his cousin. The county’s people, church and nobles were demanding independence when, his cousin vanquished, Alfonso Henriques declared himself Prince of Portugal. Following ten years of near-constant fighting against Moors and rival Christian Kingdoms alike, Alfonso was unanimously proclaimed the King of an Independent Portugal on July 25, 1139.

Portugal would be annexed to Spain in 1580, regaining its independence sixty years later and leading many to believe that Portugal is the younger between the two countries. It isn’t so. Portugal was an independent, self-governing nation, more that 350 years before her Spanish neighbor.

Following the Christian re-conquest of Córdoba in 1236, the Emirate of Granada was all that was left of al-Andalus. Granada became a tributary state to the Kingdom of Castile two years later.  Finally, on this day in 1492, Emir Muhammad XII surrendered the Emirate of Granada to Queen Isabella I of Castile, and her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

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Ferdinand & Isabella. March 31, 1492 Edict of Expulsion

For the six years I’ve written “Today in History”, the first thing I do is search on a date, and select an interesting topic from the list.  To date, I’ve written about seven hundred. 

As I review these lists, I am perpetually surprised and not a little horrified, at the never ending recurrence of barbarity against the Jews of the world. It’s not the pogroms and the massacres which surprise me, but rather their appalling frequency, over 2,000 years.

The paroxysm of cruelty and paranoia now known as the Spanish Inquisition begun in 1478, was not a standalone event. In part, this passion for religious unity was the result of 700+ years of Muslim domination of the Iberian Peninsula. One of the early results of this manic drive for ideological purity was the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, resulting in the forced conversion of some quarter-million Spanish Jews, the “conversos“, and the expulsion of as many as 100,000 more.

Untold numbers lived lives of “marranos” (from the Hebrew marit ayin: “the appearance of the eye”), secretly practicing Jews forced on pain of death, to adopt the outward signs of Christianity.

Maimon-Marrans

This date, originally selected to signify Ferdinand and Isabella’s final defeat of the Islamic conquest of Spain, has yet another significance. It is only within living memory that descendants of Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, have returned in any significant numbers to their homeland. The first native Jewish child born in Spain since Christopher Columbus discovered America, was born on this day, January 2, 1966.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 1, 45 BC Happy New Year

A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

From the 7th century BC, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method frequently fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. They were known to add days to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way the Egyptians handled their calendar. Caesar hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, which more accurately tracked the solar, and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said, the new “Julian” calendar going into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1. The first new year of the new calendar was January 1, 45BC.

Caesar synchronized his calendar with the sun by adding a day to every February, and changed the name of the seventh month from Quintilis to Julius, to honor himself. Rank hath its privileges.

Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor changed the 8th month from Sextilis to Augustus. As we embark on the third millennium, we still have July and August.

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Roman Calendar

Sosigenes was close with his 365¼ day long year, but not quite there. The correct value of a solar year is 365.242199 days. By the year 1000, that 11 minute error had added seven days. To fix the problem, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with yet another calendar. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582, omitting ten days and adding a day on every fourth February.

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since then, we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

The NY Times Newspaper moved into “Longacre Square” just after the turn of the 20th century. For years, New Years’ eve celebrations had been held at Trinity Church. Times owner Adolph Ochs held his first fireworks celebration on December 31, 1903, with almost 200,000 people attending the event. Four years later, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw attention to the newly renamed Times Square. He asked the newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Painer for an idea. Painer suggested a time ball.

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A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

The Artkraft Strauss sign company designed a 5′ wide, 700lb ball covered with incandescent bulbs. The ball was hoist up the flagpole by five men on December 31, 1907. Once it hit the roof of the building, the ball completed an electric circuit, lighting up a sign and touching off a fireworks display.

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The newspaper no longer occupies the building at 1 Times Square, but the tradition continues. The ball used the last few years is 12′ wide, weighing 11,875lbs; a great sphere of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LED bulbs and producing more than 16 million colors. It used to be that the ball only came out for New Year. The last few years, you can see the thing, any time you like.

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In most English speaking countries, the traditional New Year’s celebration ends with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody. The original verse, phonetically spelled as a Scots speaker would pronounce it, sounds something like this:

“Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an nivir brocht ti mynd?
Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an ald lang syn?
CHORUS
“Fir ald lang syn, ma jo, fir ald lang syn,
wil tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn.
An sheerly yil bee yur pynt-staup! an sheerly al bee myn!
An will tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn”.
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes, an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet, sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“We twa hay pedilt in the burn, fray mornin sun til dyn;
But seas between us bred hay roard sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“An thers a han, my trustee feer! an gees a han o thyn!
And we’ll tak a richt gude-willie-waucht, fir ald lang syn”.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.  Happy New Year