August 24, 1855 An Ungainly Old Chimney

193 engraved stones arrived from around the world but none met with half the fuss of that brought forth from the ancient Roman temple of Concordia and engraved with the words, ROME TO AMERICA. The gift of Pope Pius IX. The Catholic haters were aghast.

With a second Catholic president in the White House, it may surprise some to learn. This nation once harbored considerable anti-Catholic bias. Candidate John F. Kennedy tackled the issue head-on, addressing a Houston meeting of 300 Protestant ministers in an effort to separate the “honestly fearful”, from genuine bigots.

The strategy worked. Today, Catholic-issues voters have more in common with evangelical voters, than what separates them. Americans have come a long way but it wasn’t always, thus.

The Popes of the early middle ages were heavily involved in secular affairs. Chosen by predecessors, popular acclaim, family connection or simony (the purchase of ecclesiastical office), many were less than pious men. At one time the papacy itself was as political, as any public office..

The Protestant Reformation began with a series of events in the 16th century, aimed at correcting what were seen as errors and excesses of the Catholic Church.

Proponents of the Reformation strongly opposed the clerical hierarchy and particularly, the papacy. The Church of England broke with Catholicism under Henry VIII but, even then, groups such as Puritans and Congregationalists saw much to dislike in Church of England doctrine, based as it was on Catholic teachings.

So it was some of the earliest emigrants to the New World, harbored deep anti-Catholic bias.

George Washington was a passionate believer in religious tolerance and the importance of Christian virtue, in civil society. As General, Washington banned anti-Catholic celebrations such as Guy Fawkes day. Sensible of the indispensable contributions to independence made by Catholic France and Spain, many abandoned such prejudice for a deep and personal dislike, for British King George III.

Even so, some ideas die hard.

The Native American political party founded in 1844 had nothing to do with first nations. Originally begun as a secret society, the party was anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-immigration, xenophobic and populist. The party held many views considered “progressive” in modern parlance, including opposition to slavery, support for an expansion of the rights of women, regulation of industry and a need for increased government spending. An early forerunner in the American temperance movement, the group’s strong anti-Catholic stance would later form the basis of the American Protective Association, and the Ku Klux Klan.

“The Subtle Conspirator,” a 1926 anti-Catholic political cartoon by former Ku Klux Klan preacher Branford Clarke in the newsletter “Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty.” (Public Domain)

Immigration soared during the first half of the 1850s, to levels five times more than the previous decade. Most were poor Catholic peasants and laborers from Ireland and Germany, spawning conspiracy theories that the Pope was personally selecting these people, in order to exert influence.

Adherents to the self-described “American” party would claim ignorance when asked for specifics, by outsiders. Opponents derided them as “Know Nothings”.

Pierre L’Enfant was a French engineer who served with the Continental army, during the Revolution. In 1791, President George Washington appointed L’Enfant to design a home for the federal government, on the banks of the Potomac. George Washington personally laid the cornerstone, of the new Capitol building.

L’Enfant envisioned a large equestrian statue of the President, but Congress did nothing about it. Private enterprise stepped up to do the job in 1833 with the formation of the Washington National Monument Society founded by Chief Justice John Marshall, Librarian of Congress George Watterston and former President, James Madison.

Fundraising began in 1835 with donations limited to $1 per person, per year.

Architect Robert Mills’ plan was approved in 1845 for a 200-foot flat-topped obelisk, crowned with a statue of Washington in a chariot and surrounded by the 12-foot diameter columns of a “National Parthenon”, dedicated to heroes of the Revolution and signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The original vision of the Washington Monument looks quite different, from what we have today.

On July 4, 1848, the 24,500 pound cornerstone was laid for the now-familiar Washington Monument in the nation’s capital. Inside a carved niche was placed a zinc capsule containing mementoes of the day including copies of the founding documents, currency, newspaper clippings and a long list of donated items.

Know-Nothings briefly emerged around this time, as a major political party. Future President Abraham Lincoln denounced the lot of them on August 24, 1855 in a letter to his close friend, Joshua Speed:

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy”.

A. Lincoln

Peak year for the Know-Nothings came in 1856 with candidates elected to local office, and to the United States Congress. Meanwhile, fundraising continued for President Washington’s monument. It wasn’t just money, either. Engraved tablets came in from around the world, from individuals, Sunday school classes and Indian tribes. Organizations from the Masons to the Sons of Temperance, military units and the Odd Fellows all sent stones. At the 220-foot landing there’s a tablet from a group of Chinese Christians, all the way from Ningo, Chekiang Province, China.

193 engraved stones arrived from around the world but none met with half the fuss of that brought forth from the ancient Roman temple of Concordia and engraved with the words, ROME TO AMERICA. The gift of Pope Pius IX was announced on February 7, 1852 in the Daily National Intelligencer of Washington, D.C., page 4.

The Catholic haters were aghast.

Speeches were made and petitions went around. “This gift of a despot“, read one New Jersey petition, “if placed within those walls, can never be looked upon by true Americans but with feelings of mortification and disgust.

The Pope’s stone arrived in early 1854: 3-feet in length, 18-inches in height and 10-inches thick. It was placed in a shed on monument grounds called a lapidarium, there joining several other gift stones awaiting installation.

In a stunt familiar to anyone ever “fact checked’ on Facebook, Know-Nothings now changed tactics, demanding a “protest stone” be installed directly above the Pope’s tablet, and inscribed with some suitable refutation.

Then came the night of March 5-6. The heist. With night watchman George Hilton inside his guard shack, a group of men tied ropes around the hut, trapping Hilton inside. Newspapers were posted to cover the windows nearest the obelisk as the pope’s stone was wrestled, onto a hand cart.

The Potomac river was much closer in those days, before the land reclamation of the 1870s and ’80s. The stone was rowed out to the middle and splashed, to the muddy bottom.

The Monument Society put up a reward of $500, equivalent to ten times that amount today, but the bad guys were never caught. Hilton was suspected to be in cahoots with the thieves and fired, as he couldn’t explain why he couldn’t have opened the window or why that double barreled shotgun, remained by his side.

Know-Nothings not only destroyed the pope’s stone but now, members insinuated themselves into the Monument Society, itself. Contributions all but dried up particularly from Catholic donors and work ground to a halt, in 1858. For twenty years the thing sat. Incomplete. Mark Twain called the 153-foot stump of Washington’s monument, “An Ungainly Old chimney”.

Work resumed in 1878 but now stone was cut, from a different quarry. If you look closely you can see to this day the slight variation, in color.

It’s tough to get anything out of a bunch of guys, called Know-Nothings. Not until 1883 when an anonymous saloon keeper, probably one of the thieves, talked to the Washington Post. “If the dredges at work in the Potomac strike the right spot, they will fish up something that will create a sensation.” That’s just what happened in 1892 when a diver found a beautifully polished slab of pink marble on the muddy bottom engraved with the words, “Rome to America”. A few souvenir chunks were crudely chopped, out of the side.

Inscribed on the aluminum cap placed at the apex of the largest obelisk in the world are inscribed the words “Laus Deo”. Latin for “Praise be to God.”

Only two days later the stone was stolen once again, from a construction shack.

Nearly 100 years later a priest from the Other Washington – Washington state, commissioned a second stone.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II sent a white marble tablet bearing the Latin inscription, “A ROMA AMERICAE” – “Rome to America.”

That first stone, was never found. The second was installed at the 340-foot level where it remains, to this day.

August 23, 1784 The Lost State of Franklin

The Free Republic of Franklin went on for four years despite them all with it’s own Indian treaties, its own constitution and its own system of barter, taking the place of currency.

The American Revolution came to an end with the Treaty of Paris of September 3, 1783. Thirteen former colonies were now independent states, an experiment in self-government encompassing a relative sliver along the eastern shore of a nation one day destined to measure some 2,680 miles across and 1,582 miles from north, to south.

By no means was it foreordained that the United States, would have a Pacific coastline.

In the 18th century, factions developed between established coastal cities and farms and the western pioneers eking out a living, along the frontier. Many so-called eastern “elites” considered these to be outside of the fledgling nation and, for them, that was alright. Frontier communities had a choice between forming jurisdictions within existing states, creating new states or going off on their own to build entirely new countries.

Most of us are well aware that Texas was once such an independent Republic. Many know the same of the Republic of West Florida, the Original Lone Star Republic. (Sorry, Texas). But who knew the modern US contains no fewer than Ten formerly independent states: The Republic of Vermont (1777-1791), Kingdom of Hawaii (1795-1898), Republic of West Florida (1810), Republic of Texas (1836-1846), Republic of Rio Grande (1840), Provisional Government of Oregon (1843-1849), Republic of California (1846), State of Deseret (1849-1850), Republic of Sonora (1853-1854) and the Republic of Baja California (1853-1854).

Republic of West Florida

The war had yet to be formally ended when the state of North Carolina ceded the four western counties between the Alleghenies, and the Mississippi River. Representatives from Washington, Sullivan, Spencer (modern-day Hawkins) and Greene counties declared independence from North Carolina on August 23, 1784.

Congress had yet to act on the matter and North Carolina rescinded its cession nearly a year later and began to organize an administration, within the counties. That the federal government was considering selling the region to France or Spain at this time to settle war debt had nothing to do with any of it, I’m sure.

The following May, the counties petitioned for statehood. They called it “Frankland” at first but that was changed to Franklin, to gain the support of Benjamin Franklin and his allies.

The Republic won over a majority of the congress but never did achieve the 2/3rds required to make statehood, a reality.

The Free Republic of Franklin went on for four years despite them all with it’s own Indian treaties, its own constitution and its own system of barter, taking the place of currency.

North Carolina ran a parallel government the whole time, within the state of Franklin. This did little to strengthen an already weak economy when Governor John Sevier petitioned the Spanish, for foreign aid. Horrified at the idea of a Spanish client state at its border North Carolina, arrested the Governor.

Cherokee, Chickamauga and Chickasaw war bands piled on attacking settlements, within the borders of Franklin. It was all over by 1788 as Franklin rejoined North Carolina to gain the protection, of the state militia.

Today, the formerly Free Republic of Franklin makes up the easternmost 12 counties of Tennessee admitted as the 16th state on June 1, 1796.

Of the ten independent Republics listed above plus four others who tried and failed, Franklin remains unique in that the state resulted from both a cession, and secession.

Tennessee went on to earn the nickname “The Volunteer State” during the War of 1812 and cement the label during the Mexican-American war when the secretary of War requested 2,800 volunteers and got, 30,000. Tennessee was the last of the southern states to secede from the union and the first to rejoin, having provided more Confederate soldiers of any state save Virginia and more units of soldiers for the Union army, than any of the Confederate states.

Fun Fact: William Strickland, the engineer and architect who built the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, died in 1854 before the building’s completion. At Strickland’s request he was entombed within the walls of the structure and remains there, still.

George Washington, the only politically Independent President in our nation’s history warned against factions dividing Americans into “distinct peoples”. He had seen how parties had driven England to civil war with the Jacobite uprising, of 1745-’46. He well understood the murderous tendencies unleashed by the politics, of the French Revolution. He detested the endless sniping of factions within his own government and the “infamous scribblers” of the newspapers, of his day.

Washington warned us all against political parties in his farewell address, parties already well formed and tearing, at the nation’s fabric:

“…They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction…”

George Washington, farewell address

I wonder what the Father of the Country would say about our politics, today.

August 22, 1992 Ruby Ridge

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. – Ronald Reagan

Randall Claude “Randy” Weaver came into the world in 1948, one of four children born to Claude and Wilma Weaver, a farming couple from Villisca, Iowa. Deeply religious people, the Weavers moved among several Evangelical, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches, in search of a spiritual ‘home’ to fit with their faith.

Weaver dropped out of community college at age 20 and enlisted in the Army, stationed at Fort Bragg and serving three years before earning an honorable discharge.

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A month after leaving the Army, Weaver married Victoria Jordison and soon enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa to study criminal justice. At the time, Weaver wanted to become an FBI agent, but the high cost of tuition put an end to that. Randy found work at a local John Deere factory while “Vicki” became first a secretary and later a homemaker, as the Weaver family grew.

Over time, the couple came to hold increasingly fundamentalist views, all the while becoming more and more distrustful of the government. Vicki came to believe that the Apocalypse, was imminent.  The answer to the family’s survival lay in moving ‘off the grid’ and away from ‘corrupt civilization’.

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In the early 1980s, the couple paid $5,000 cash plus a moving truck for a piece of property, and built a cabin on the remote Ruby Ridge in the north of Idaho.

In 1984, Randy Weaver had a falling out with neighboring Terry Kinnison, over a $3,000 land deal. Kinnison lost the ensuing lawsuit and was ordered to pay Weaver an additional $2,100 in court costs and damages. Kinnison took his vengeance in letters written to the FBI, Secret Service, and county sheriff, claiming that Weaver had threatened to kill Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, and Idaho governor John Evans.

Randy and Vicki Weaver were interviewed by FBI as well as Secret Service agents, and the County sheriff. Investigators were told that Weaver was a member of the white supremacist Aryan Nation and that he had a large gun collection in his cabin. Weaver denied the allegations, and no charges were filed.

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Sarah and Samuel on family property

There was no small amount of paranoia and mutual mistrust, in what came next. The Weavers filed an affidavit in 1985, claiming their enemies were plotting to provoke the FBI into killing them. The couple wrote a letter to President Reagan, claiming a threatening letter may have been sent to him, over a forged signature. No such letter ever materialized but, seven years later, prosecutors would cite the 1985 note as evidence of a Weaver family conspiracy against the government.

White supremacist Frank Kumnick was a member of the Aryan Nations, and target of an investigation by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Weaver attended his first meeting of the World Aryan Congress in 1986 where he met a confidential ATF informant, posing as a firearms dealer. In 1989, Weaver invited the informant to his home, to discuss forming a group to fight the “ZOG”, the “Zionist Occupation Government” of anti-Semitic and paranoid conspiracy theory.

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ATF charged Weaver that same year, with selling its informant two sawed-off shotguns. The government offered to drop the charges in exchange for Weaver’s becoming an informant. Weaver declined, and ATF filed illegal weapons indictments, claiming the subject was a bank robber, with an extensive criminal record. Subsequent United States Senate investigation revealed that Weaver had no such criminal convictions, but Weaver was ensnared, by a  government bureaucracy as unreasoningly suspicious, as himself.

Trial was set for February 20, 1991 and subsequently moved to February 21, due to a federal holiday. Weaver’s parole officer sent him a letter, erroneously stating that the new date was March 20. A bench warrant was issued when Weaver failed to show in court, for the February date.

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Randy Weaver was now a “Fugitive from Justice”.

The U.S. Marshals Service agreed to put off execution of the warrant until after the March 20 date, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office called a grand jury, a week earlier. It’s been said that a grand jury could indict a ham sandwich and the adage proved true, particularly when the prosecution failed to reveal parole officer Richins’ letter, with the March 20 date.

The episode fed into the worst preconceptions, of both sides. Marshalls developed a “Threat Profile” on the Weaver family and an operational plan: “Operation Northern Exposure”. Weaver, more distrustful than ever, was convinced that if he lost at trial, the government would seize his land and take his four children leaving Vicki, homeless.

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Surveillance photos of Weavers with guns, on their own property

Marshalls attempted to negotiate over the following months, but Weaver refused to come out. Several people used as go-betweens, proved to be even more radical than the Weavers themselves. In a rare show of reason under the circumstances, Deputy Marshal Dave Hunt asked Bill Grider: “Why shouldn’t I just go up there … and talk to him?” Grider replied, “Let me put it to you this way. If I was sitting on my property and somebody with a gun comes to do me harm, then I’ll probably shoot him.”

On April 18, 1992, a helicopter carrying media figure Geraldo Rivera for the Now It Can Be Told television program was allegedly fired on, from the Weaver residence. Surveillance cameras then being installed by US Marshalls showed no such shots fired and Pilot Richard Weiss, denied the story.  Even so, a lie gets around the world, before the truth can get its pants on. (Hat tip, Winston Churchill, for that bit of wisdom). The ‘shots fired narrative’ now became a media feeding frenzy. The federal government drew up ‘rules of engagement’.

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US Marshall Recon Team photo of Vicki Weaver, taken August 21, 1992

On August 21, a six-man armed Recon team arrived to scout the property, for a suitable spot to ambush and arrest Randy Weaver. Deputy Art Roderick threw rocks at the cabin to see how the dogs would react. The cabin was at this time out of meat and, thinking the dog’s reaction may have been provoked by a game animal, Randy, a friend named Kevin Harris and Weaver’s 14-year-old son Samuel came out with rifles, to investigate. Vicki, Rachel, Sarah and baby Elisheba, remained in the cabin.

Marshalls retreated to a place out of sight of the cabin, while “Sammy” and Harris followed the dog ‘Striker’ into the woods. Later accounts disagree on who fired first but a firefight erupted, between Sammy, Harris, and the Marshall’s team. When it was over, the boy, the dog and Deputy US Marshall William “Billy” Degan, lay dead.

The standoff now spun out of control, with National Guard Armored personnel carriers, SWAT, State Police and FBI Hostage Rescue Teams, complete with snipers.

On August 22, Harris, Weaver and sixteen-year old daughter Sarah were entering a shed to visit the body of Weaver’s dead son, when FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi fired from a position some 200 yards distant. The bullet tore into Weaver’s back and out his armpit. The three raced back to the cabin. Horiuchi’s second round entered the door as Harris dove for the opening, injuring him in the chest before striking Vicki in the face as she held baby Elisheba, in her arms.

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Protesters were quick to form at the base of Ruby Ridge

Two days later, FBI Deputy Assistant Director Danny Coulson wrote the following memorandum, unaware that Vicki Weaver lay dead:

Something to Consider
1. Charge against Weaver is Bull Shit.
2. No one saw Weaver do any shooting.
3. Vicki has no charges against her.
4. Weaver’s defense. He ran down the hill to see what dog was barking at. Some guys in camys shot his dog. Started shooting at him. Killed his son. Harris did the shooting [of Degan]. He [Weaver] is in pretty strong legal position.”

The siege of Ruby Ridge dragged on for ten days. Kevin Harris was brought out on a stretcher on August 30, along with Vicki’s body. Randy Weaver emerged the following day. Subsequent trials acquitted Harris of all wrongdoing and Weaver of all but his failure to appear in court, for which he received four months and a $10,000 fine.

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Randy Weaver, mugshot

Questions persist about the government’s ham-fisted approach at Ruby Ridge, and intensified after the Branch Davidian conflagration six months later in Waco Texas, involving many of the same agencies and federal officials.

In 1995, two reprobates carried out their own act of “revenge” on the government, blowing up a federal office building in Oklahoma City and killing 168 innocent people, injuring 680 others.  Nineteen of the dead, were children.

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Subsequent Senate hearings criticized Ruby Ridge “rules of engagement” as unconstitutional, the use of deadly force unwarranted, under the circumstances.  Kevin Harris was awarded $380,000 damages for pain and suffering.  Weaver was awarded $100,000 and his three daughters, $1 million each.

FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi was indicted for manslaughter in 1997, charges later dismissed on grounds of sovereign immunity.

Deadly force procedures were brought about, intending to bring the government into line with Supreme Court precedent resulting in a kinder, gentler federal law enforcement apparatus.  That was the idea. 

You might want to ask Elian Gonzalez, how that worked out.

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August 21, 1911 That Smile

Artistic types are fond of talking about the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, the “Gioconda smile”, and what it may mean. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the sad smile of a mother who lost a daughter in 1499 before giving birth to a son, in 1502.

Something like 7.8 billion people lived on this planet in 2020, roughly 7 percent of all those, who have ever lived. In all that humanity precious few have ever been known in all times and all places, by a single name. Napoleon. Michelangelo. Ghandi. Leonardo.

Funny how many of them, are Italian Renaissance guys.

The Italian polymath Leonardo, the illegitimate son of a teenage orphan named Caterina, painted his most famous work (Italian Monna Lisa) in stages, between 1503, and 1506. Evidence suggests he was adding finishing touches, as late as 1517.

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. (Credit: DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images)

Mona Lisa was painted in oil on a panel of poplar wood, measuring thirty inches by twenty-one. It’s a very small object to hold the Guinness World Record for highest insurance valuation: US $100 million in 1962, equivalent to $870 million, in 2021.

The model is believed to be Lisa Gherardini, an Italian noblewoman otherwise little known, to history. She was married in her teens to Francesco del Giocondo, a much older merchant of cloth and silk who lived an ordinary middle-class life in which she bore him, five children.

Artistic types are fond of talking about that “enigmatic smile” of the Mona Lisa, the “Gioconda smile”, and what it may mean. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the sad smile of a mother who lost a daughter in 1499 before giving birth to a son, in 1502.

Leonardo could stare at a portrait for hours on end before adding a single brush stroke, and walking away. It may explain why Mona Lisa remains “Non-Finito”. Not finished. This in turn may explain why the artist never gave the portrait to the Giocondo family. He was never paid.

In the last years of his life Leonardo suffered some sort of paralysis, on his right side. While that didn’t impede the left-handed artist’s sketching, to stand for long periods and hold a painter’s palette, proved increasingly difficult.

It is believed Leonardo willed the portrait to his favorite apprentice Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, better known as Salaì, but the artist died, in France. So it is the most famous painting in the world, “La Jaconde”, remains in French hands from that day, to this.

Sort of.

When the French Revolution abolished the Royal Family, Mona Lisa made her way to the Louvre. She lived for a time in Napoleon’s bedroom in the Tuileries Palace. During the Franco Prussian war of 1879-’81 she was moved to the arsenal at Brest, for safekeeping.

On August 21, 1911, Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre.

Sunday August 20 was a big social night, in Paris. Come Monday morning half the city, was hung over. Three Italian handymen were not hung over though they may have been, tired. The three hid out when the museum closed and spent the night, in an art supply closet.

ITALY – CIRCA 2002: Theft of the Mona Lisa. Illustrator Achille Beltrame (1871-1945), from La Domenica del Corriere, 3rd-10th September 1911. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

With the Louvre still closed the trio lifted 200 pounds of painting, frame and protective glass from the wall. Then it was off to the Quai d’Orsay station to catch the 7:47 train, out of town.

Dorothy and Tom Hoobler wrote about the heist in a book, called The Crimes of Paris. According to these two it was 28 hours before anyone noticed, those four bare hooks.

The man who noticed was himself an artist, painting a portrait of the gallery itself. Even then there was no cause for alarm. The museum had a project at that time, to photograph every painting in the gallery. The cameras of the day didn’t photograph well indoors, so it was that each work was brought to the roof, to be photographed.

A fussy little man, the artist “just couldn’t work”, without that portrait in place. He persuaded a guard to find out when Mona Lisa was coming back down, from the roof.

Oops.

Masterpiece of Renaissance Italian art though she might be the Mona Lisa was barely known, outside of art circles. Now that all changed. The New York Times’ headline all but screamed from the front page, “60 Detectives Seek Stolen ‘Mona Lisa,’ French Public Indignant.”

Literally overnight, Mona Lisa became the most famous painting, on the planet.

The French art world was convinced at this time that evil American millionaires, were buying up French art. Never mind Mona Lisa was an Italian piece, but I digress…

American tycoon and art collector John Pierpont Morgan was suspected in the theft as was the Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso. The international tinderbox which brought a world to war in 1914 awaited only the right matchstick, in 1911. Maybe the Kaiser did it.

Meanwhile the three Italians who really DID steal Mona Lisa, two brothers, Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti and the ringleader, Vincenzo Perugia (who just happened to be the guy who built that protective glass case in the first place), didn’t know what to do.

They thought they could sell the thing, maybe even repatriate the portrait, to Italy. Now Mona Lisa was too hot, to hawk.

Twenty-eight months came and went with Mona Lisa, in a trunk. Finally, Perugia approached an art dealer, in Florence.

They said they’d get back to him but it wasn’t a half hour, before the police were at his door. Perugia claimed to be an Italian Patriot, just trying to bring Mona Lisa home. Where she belonged.

He was sentenced to eight months, for the theft.

Somewhere around this time, an Archduke was assassinated, in Sarajevo. World War 1 began just a few days, after Perugia‘s trial.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole. As if they had never happened. Like the early Monday morning in 1911 when that most famous of smiles, just disappeared.

August 20, 1938 A Class Act

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C., after the diagnosis. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”


The Lane Tech High school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920. 10,000 spectators assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field. New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park. No 17-year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. The nation was about to know the name, of Lou Gehrig.

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Gehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Columbia would lose the game but Gehrig struck out seventeen batters that day, to set a team record.

The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who’d been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful, left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several Eastern campuses, including a 450-foot home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed at 116th Street & Broadway.

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Lou Gehrig played Fullback for Columbia during the 1922 season

New York Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. He played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for a New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the New York Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season, in 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”; the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.

He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, with a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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“Gehrig with his parents, Christina and Heinrich, in 1938. The three lived together in the house until Gehrig got married in 1933”. Hat tip, New York Daily News

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr.

Gehrig hit his 23rd major league grand slam on August 20 1938, a record which would stand until fellow “Bronx Bomber” Alex Rodriquez tied it, in 2012.

This was the last one.

Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, and went into an abrupt decline early in the season. Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

lou-gehrigThe Yankees were in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”. McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2 but that was it. The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

ny_50yankess_02Gehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19. It was his 36th birthday. It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking and a life expectancy, of fewer than three years.

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939, his once mighty body now so weakened, as to barely be able to stand upright.  Only two months earlier, manager Joe McCarthy had asked Babe Dahlgren to take the Iron Horse’s position.  Now he asked the 1st baseman to look out for his dying teammate.  “If Lou starts to fall, catch him.”

Gehrig was awarded a series of trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers. He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them.

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As the event drew to a close, Master of Ceremonies Sid Mercer asked for a few words.  Overwhelmed and struggling for control, Gehrig waved him off.  The New York Times later wrote, “He gulped and fought to keep back the tears as he kept his eyes fastened to the ground”.  62,000 fans would have none of it.  The chant went up.  “We want Lou!” We want Lou!”

Eleanor Gehrig, a “tower of strength” throughout her husband’s ordeal, watched from a box seat.  New York Daily News reporter Rosaleen Doherty wrote that she did not cry, “although all around us, women and quite a few men, were openly sobbing.”

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At last, Lou Gehrig shuffled to the microphone, and began to speak. “For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break.”  As if the neurodegenerative disease destroying his body, was merely a “bad break.” He looked down and paused, as if trying to remember what to say.  And then he delivered the most memorable line, of his life.

“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.  He was 37.

I drove by Yankee Stadium a while back, and I thought of Lou Gehrig. It was right after the Boston Marathon bombing, in 2013. The sign out front said “United we Stand” and beside it, a giant Red Sox logo. That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a staple of Red Sox home games, since 1997.

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I’ve always been a Boston guy myself. I think I’m required by Massachusetts law to hate the Yankees. But seriously.  What a class act…

August 19, 1906 The Damn Thing Works!

A baby was born this day in 1906 in a small log cabin near Beaver, Utah. His name was Philo, the first born child of Louis Farnsworth and Serena Bastian. He would grow to be the most famous man, you probably never heard of.

Inventor Thomas Edison was once asked about his seeming inability, to invent artificial light. “I have not failed”, he explained “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

A baby was born this day in 1906 in a small log cabin near Beaver, Utah. His name was Philo, the first born child of Louis Farnsworth and Serena Bastian. He would grow to be the most famous man, you probably never heard of.

Birthplace of Philo Taylor Farnsorth

Philo was constantly tinkering. He was the kind who could look at an object and understand how it worked and why this particular one, didn’t. The family moved when he was 12 to a relative’s ranch near Rigby, Idaho. Philo was delighted to learn the place had electricity. 

He found a burnt out electric motor thrown out by a previous tenant and rewound the armature, converting his mothers hand-cranked  washing machine, to electric. 

It must’ve seemed like Christmas morning when he found all those old technology magazines, in the attic. He even won a $25 prize one time in a magazine contest, for inventing a magnetized car lock.

Farnsworth was fascinated with the behavior of molecules and excelled in chemistry and physics, at Rigby high school. Harrowing a field one day behind a team of two horses, his mind got to working. What if I could “train“ electrons to work in lines like I’m doing here, with these horses? Electrons are so fast the human eye would never pick up, the individual lines. Couldn’t I use them to “paint“ an electronic picture?

Image dissector

Philo sketched his idea of an “image dissector” for his science teacher Mr. Tolman, who encouraged him to keep working on his idea. Justin Tolman kept the sketch though neither could know at that time.  Farnsworth’s 1922 drawing would prove decisive one day in a court of law, over who invented all-electronic television.

From Japan to Russia, Germany and America more than fifty inventors were working in the 1920s, to invent television. History remembers the Scottish engineer John Logie Baird as the man who built and demonstrated the world’s first electromechanical television. Amazingly, it was he who invented the first color TV tube, as well.

Scotsman John Logie Baird invented the first (electromechanical0 TV

It was all well and good but Baird’s spinning electromechanical disk was as a glacier, compared with the speed of the electron. Clearly, the future of television, lay in the field of electronics.

The Russian engineer Vladimir K. Zworykin applied for US patent on an electron scanning tube in 1923, while working for RCA. He wouldn’t get the thing to work though, until 1934. Meanwhile, Philo Taylor Farnsworth successfully demonstrated the first television signal transmission on September 7, 1927. The excited telegram Farnsworth sent to one of his backers exclaimed, “The damn thing works!”

Farnsworth’s successful patent application in 1930 resulted in additional funding to support his work and a visit, from Vladimir Zworykin. RCA offered Farnsworth $100,000 for his invention and, when he declined their offer, took him to court over his patent.

“If it weren’t for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we’d still be eating frozen radio dinners”.

Johnny Carson

What followed was a bruising, ten year legal battle, a David vs. Goliath contest Farnsworth would win in the end, but at enormous cost both financial, and physical.

In another version of this story, the one that never happened, Philo Farnsworth went on to great fame and fortune to enjoy the fruits of his talents, and all his hard work. Instead World War 2 happened. Farnsworth’s hard fought patent rights quietly expired while the world, was busy with something else.

Ever the tinkerer, Farnsworth went on to invent a rudimentary form of radar, black light for night vision and an infrared telescope. Despite all that his company never did run in the “black”. He sold the company in 1949, to ITT.

From the 1950s on, the man’s primary interest, was in nuclear fusion. In 1965 he patented an array of tubes he called “fusors” in which he actually started a 30-second fusion reaction.

Farnsworth never did enjoy good health. The inventor of all-electronic television died of pneumonia on March 11, 1971 with well over 300 patents, to his name. Had you bought a television that day you would have owned a device with no fewer than 100 inventions, by this one man.

Ever the idealist Farnsworth believed television would bring about ever greater heights in human learning and achievement, foster a shared experience bringing about international peace and understanding. Much the same as some once believed of the internet where the sum total of human knowledge was now available for a few keystrokes, and social media fosters new worlds of harmonious relations where cheerful users discussed the collected works of Shakespeare, the Codes of Hammurabi and the vicissitudes, of life.

Right.

Farnsworth was dismayed by the dreck brought about, by his creation. “There’s nothing on it worthwhile” he would say“, and we’re not going to watch it in this household. I don’t want it in your intellectual diet…Television is a gift of God, and God will hold those who utilize his divine instrument accountable to him“. – Philo Taylor Farnsworth

That all changed if only a bit, on July 20, 1969. American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was probably a misspeak. Most likely he intended to say “one small step for A man” but, be that as it may. The world saw it happen thanks to a miniaturized version of a device, invented by Philo Farnsworth.

Farnsworth himself was watching just like everyone else alive, that day. Years later Farnsworth’s wife Emma, he called her “Pem”, would recall in an interview, with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences: “We were watching it, and, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Phil turned to me and said, “Pem, this has made it all worthwhile.” Before then, he wasn’t too sure”.

August 18, 1587 The Lost Colony

Those 115 children, women and men, pioneers all, may have died of disease or starvation.  They may have been killed by hostile natives or perished at sea in small boats. Perhaps they went to live with Chief Manteo’s people, after all.

The 16th century was drawing to a close when Queen Elizabeth set out to establish a permanent English settlement in the New World. The charter went to Walter Raleigh, who sent explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to scout out locations for a settlement.

The pair landed on Roanoke Island on July 4, 1584, establishing friendly relations with local natives, the Secotans and Croatans. They returned a year later with glowing reports of what is now the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Two Native Croatans, Manteo and Wanchese, accompanied the pair back to England. All of London was abuzz with the wonders of the New World.

Queen Elizabeth was so pleased that she knighted Raleigh. The new land was called “Virginia” in honor of the Virgin Queen.

Raleigh sent a party of 100 soldiers, miners and scientists to Roanoke Island, under the leadership of Captain Ralph Lane. The attempt was doomed from the start. They arrived too late in the season for planting, and Lane alienated a neighboring indigenous tribe when a misunderstanding led to the murder of Chief Wingina. That’ll do it.

By 1586 they had had enough, and left the island on a ship captained by Sir Francis Drake. Ironically, their supply ship arrived about a week later. Finding the island deserted, that ship left 15 men behind to “hold the fort” before they too, departed.

The now knighted “Sir” Walter Raleigh was not deterred. Raleigh recruited 90 men, 17 women and 9 children for a more permanent “Cittie of Raleigh”, appointing expedition artist John White, governor. Among this first colonial expedition were White’s pregnant daughter, Eleanor and her husband Ananias Dare, and the Croatans Wanchese and Manteo.

0813Raleigh believed that the Chesapeake afforded better opportunities for his new settlement, but Portuguese pilot Simon Fernandes, had other ideas. The caravan stopped at Roanoke Island in July, 1587, to check on the 15 men left behind a year earlier. Fernandes was a Privateer, impatient to resume his hunt for Spanish shipping.  He ordered the colonists ashore on Roanoke Island.

It could not have lifted the spirits of the small group to learn that the 15 left earlier, had disappeared.

Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter on August 18, 1587 and named her Virginia, the first English child born, in the new world. Fernandez departed for England ten days later taking with him an anxious John White, who wanted to return to England for supplies. It was the last time Governor White would see his family.

dare

White found himself trapped in England by the invasion of the Spanish Armada, and the Anglo-Spanish war. Three years would come and go before White was able to return, and the Hopewell anchored off Roanoke. John White and a party of sailors waded ashore on August 18, 1590, three years to the day from the birth of his granddaughter, Virginia.  There they found – nothing – save for footprints, and the letters “CRO”, carved into a nearby tree.

It was a prearranged signal.  In case the colonists had to leave the island, they were to carve their destination into a tree or fence post.  A cross would have been the sign that they left under duress, but there was no cross.

Reaching the abandoned settlement, the party found the word CROATOAN, carved into a post.  Again there was no cross, but the post was part of a defensive palisade, a defense against hostile attack which hadn’t been there when White left for England.

The word CROATOAN signified both the home of Chief Manteo’s people, the barrier island to the south, (modern-day Hatteras Island), and the indigenous people themselves.

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White had hopes of finding his family but a hurricane came up, before he was able to explore any further.  Ships and supplies were damaged requiring return to England.  By this time, Raleigh was busy with a new venture in Ireland, and unwilling to support White’s return to the New World.  Without deep pockets of his own, John White was never able to raise the resources to return.

Two decades later, English colonists put down roots in a place called Jamestown and years later, in Plymouth.  These roots would take hold and grow and yet, what happened to that first such outpost, remains a mystery.  Those 115 children, women and men, pioneers all, may have died of disease or starvation.  They may have been killed by hostile natives or perished at sea in small boats. Perhaps they went to live with Chief Manteo’s people, after all.

One of the wilder legends has Virginia Dare, now a beautiful young maiden and example to European and Indian peoples alike, transformed into a snow white doe by a spurned and would-be suitor, the evil medicine man Chico.

The fate of the first English child born on American soil may never be known.

“An Indian girl shows off an English doll in one of many scenes painted by John White, the Lost Colony’s artist governor. White’s realistic portraits of Native American life—including ritual dances (shown here)—became one of the earliest lenses through which Europeans saw the New World”. H/T National Geographic

A personal anecdote involves a conversation I had with a woman in High Point, North Carolina, a few years back. She described herself as having Croatoan ancestry, her family going back generations on the outer banks of North Carolina. She described her Great Grandmother, a full blooded Croatoan. The woman looked like it, too, except for her crystal blue eyes. She used to smile at the idea of the lost colony of Roanoke. “They’re not lost“, she would say. “They are us“.

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Afterward

Four hundred and twenty-eight years ago, the English colony at Roanoke Island vanished, along with the 115 men, women and children who lived there. Since that time, efforts to solve the mystery have concentrated on the island itself, with precious little to show for it.

About fifty “Dare Stones” have been discovered containing carved inscriptions, purporting to describe what happened to the lost colonists.  Almost all have been debunked as hoaxes, yet research continues on at least, one.lost-colony-dare-stone.adapt.1900.1Photo credit to Mark Theissen with permission of Brenau University

In 1993, a hurricane exposed large quantities of pottery and other remnants of a native American village, mixed with seemingly European artifacts. In the 1580s, Hatteras Island would have been an ideal spot, blessed with fertile soil for growing corn, beans and squash, and a bountiful coastline filled with scallops, oysters and fish.

Since then, two independent teams have found archaeological evidence, suggesting that the lost colonists may have split up and made their homes with first nations. There are a number of European artifacts unlikely to be objects of trade including a sword hilt, broken English bowls and the fragment of a writing slate, with one letter still visible. In 1998, Archaeologists discovered a 10-carat gold signet ring, a well worn Elizabethan-era object, almost certainly owned by an English nobleman.

Fifty miles to the northwest, the second team believes they have unearthed pottery used by the lost colonists on Albemarle Sound near Edenton, North Carolina.

NC-VA.adapt.1900.1Research concluded at “Site X” in 2017, the cloak & dagger moniker given to deter thieves and looters.  The mystery of the lost Colony of Roanoke, remains unsolved.  “We don’t know exactly what we’ve got here,” admitted one archaeologist. “It remains a bit of an enigma.”

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Hat Tip to NationalGeographic.com, for this image

August 17, 1661 Party Like it’s 1661

Back when newspapers printed the news, Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) was surely looking at New York corruption when he labeled politics “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.

Having once been rolled by two officers of the “law” in a certain neighbor to our south (it was a very polite mugging), government graft is near and dear to my heart. History is replete with official avarice on levels great and small, far more than a couple meagerly compensated cops, looking for a “gratuity”.

New York’s own Boss Tweed elevated graft to heights previously unknown in American politics, to where construction of a single courthouse cost taxpayers more than the entire Alaska purchase. Nearly twice as much.

Tammany Hall’s kickbacks were so lavish a single carpenter billed the city $360,751, for a month’s work. One plasterer billed $133,187 for two days’ work.

Back when newspapers printed the news, Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) was surely looking at New York corruption when he labeled politics “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.

Rodrigo de Borja served as Pope Alexander VI, at a time when the job of Bishop of Rome was not always that of a pious man. Rodrigo bribed his way to the top and used the papacy to benefit family and friends making the name Borja synonymous, with licentiousness and greed. A man utterly devoid of morals the man sold his beautiful and fair-haired daughter Lucrezia no fewer than three times, to cement alliances. He openly fathered seven children by two married mistresses appointing one of their brothers Cardinal, who then went on to be known as “Cardinal of the Skirts”. Alexander’s October 30, 1501 “Banquet of Chestnuts” was an all-night feast and orgy featuring no fewer than fifty prostitutes Italian officialdom remains happy to sweep under the rug, to this day.

When the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola chided Alexander for his behavior the Pope is said to have laughed, out loud.

And yet, these are all as amateurs compared with French finance minister Nicolas Fouquet, a man who made King Louis XIV, the “Sun King” himself, blush.

Europe’s longest reigning monarch once commented “l’état, c’est moi”. I Am the state. Such arrogance is hard to understand for the political descendants of the generation, who threw King George’s tea over the side. It wasn’t at all difficult for the hoi polloi of Louis’ France who were expected to pay up, and shut up. Such was the world of Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île, vicomte de Melun et Vaux and Louis’ minister, of finance.

In 1651 Fouquet married his not inconsiderable wealth to that of Marie de Castille, herself the daughter of a wealthy Spanish family. The interminable wars of the age and the greed of courtiers frequently caused the new minister to borrow, against his own credit. Public and private accounts soon became so intertwined as to become indistinguishable from one another. Fouqet came to wield even greater wealth than his own chief benefactor Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister to Kings Louis XIII and XIV.

The minister completed construction in 1661 of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, his own personal palace of Versailles before there was, a palace of Versailles. That’s him and his modest little three room bungalow, at the top of this page. The man even used three of the same artists for the Château’s lavish appointments, as Louis himself would later use for that most famous, of royal shanties.

Worried that he might have gone a little too far, Fouquet bought himself and fortified a place off the west coast of France, a modest little island some 5 by 15 miles across called Belle-Île-en-Mer. You know, just in case of…disgrace.

But none of it stopped the party of parties, a celebration for the ages held on August 17, 1661, at Fouquet’s petit Château .

There were 6,ooo guests including the Sun King himself. Gifts were given to party goers, a diamond brooch for the ladies and a thoroughbred horse, for the gents. A performance was presented specifically written for the occasion by none other than the playwright, Molière.

A spectacular fireworks display lit the skies above lavish gardens and splendid paths. Fouquet’s little soirée was supposed to impress the King but instead turned him into, a party pooper. Apparently, such “unashamed and audacious luxury,” is what it takes to embarrass, a Sun King. Louis ordered his finance minister, arrested.

The trial stretched on for three years. The judges found the defendant guilty and ordered banishment but, Louis would have none of that. For the first and last time in French history a King overruled the verdict and ordered, imprisonment for life. The Mrs. was exiled and Fouquet’s crib snatched up, by the state.

EVENING OF AUGUST 17, 1661, ARRIVAL OF LOUIS XIV ACCOMPANIED BY THE COURT, hat tip Daniel Druet, sculptor

Fouquet spent the rest of his life in prison and died in his cell at Pignerol on March 23, 1680. His remains weren’t removed for another year. Just in case…I guess.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson stated, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” Since that time the American taxpayer has plunked down $22 Trillion on Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Even with Social Security and Medicare excluded that’s still three times the cost of every military war from the Revolution to the unfolding collapse of Afghanistan, combined.

Rates of poverty as measured by the United States Census Bureau remain basically, unchanged.

So hey, never you mind a conga line of public “servants” leaving offices of trust wealthier, than when they went in. You don’t need to worry about who’s paying the kid $500,000 for those finger paintings either, or government debt your grandbabies’ grandbabies will never pay back. Just pull out the credit card & have a party. Like it’s 1661.

August 16, 1936 Testing Betty

Imagine turning this story, into a movie. Cast it with any actress you like and then, throw it all out. No one would believe such an outlandish story.

Mr. Price took his seat on the L train and waited for the ride home after school. He was a biology teacher in the Riverdale Illinois school system but, for now, he was just glad to be inside. Where it was warm. The train rumbled to life as he wiped the fog away from the glass.

The train was beginning to move now when he spotted one of his students. Betty Robinson. “Smiling Betty”. Such a good natured kid.

Betty had a good 200 yards to go plus a set of stairs, but she was going for it. Running as fast as her legs could carry her, it was too far. She’ll never make this train but there will always be another.

Minutes later a biology textbook plopped into the seat beside him. He looked up in amazement to see Betty Robinson. Smiling. She wasn’t even winded.

Betty knew she was fast, but she never knew how fast. She’d never been been tested but this biology teacher, just happened to be the assistant track coach.

The last bell rang the following day and there stood Mr. Price with a stopwatch. A chalk line was drawn across the tiled floor. Fifty yards up the hallway, Betty Robinson assumed an awkward crouch at her own line, and then came the whistle. Betty was all pumping legs and flailing arms. Her form was ridiculous, but, yeah. She was fast. She crossed the finish line 6.2 seconds after the whistle. 1/10th of a second faster than the women’s indoor world record, for that time.

He asked her if she’d run in an amateur race, just a few weeks out. Betty never knew there were women’s races, but, yes. He didn’t bother to tell her. Helen Filkey would be running too. The woman who held the record.

Coach Price and a senior from the boy’s team taught the sophomore everything they could over the next few weeks. How to bring those arms in. How to anticipate the whistle and how races were won or lost in those first few seconds. Then came race day at Soldier Field. “Smiling Betty” crouched at the blocks, only feet away from the fastest woman in the world. Betty came in second. She was only sixteen.

She joined the Illinois women’s Track & Field club and there she encountered…something new. Today we take women’s athletics for granted, but the 1920s, were a different story. Women were expected to do certain things. Athletics, was not one of them. Even the Olympics, were a man’s world. For the first time Betty met other women, pushing the limits of athletic performance.

The 1928 Summer games in Amsterdam were the first Olympics, to host women’s track and field. Betty came in second in the qualifying round but her times more than qualified her, to go.

There she was, 16 years old and taking the train to New York, to catch the ship to Europe. Training on deck, Betty developed a schoolgirl crush on Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimmer and future star of the Tarzan films. She thought he was the finest specimen of manhood, she had ever seen.

American athletes saw so many disappointments at the 1928 Olympics, but not Betty Robinson. She walked away with gold in the women’s 100 meter sprint, with a new world record, of 12 seconds flat. From a standing start. And silver in the 800 meter relay, didn’t hurt.

Every Olympics has the “it” girl. Simone Biles. Nancy Kerrigan. Nadia Comăneci. Elizabeth Robinson was all that and more in 1928. The first female 100-meter gold medalist in history and, in 1928, a “new kind of girl”.

Betty was a celebrity. There were gifts of diamonds and pearls, Douglas MacArthur gave her a gold bracelet. The International Olympic Committee allowed such things, back then.

Betty returned to Riverdale. She had her first boyfriend. She enrolled in Northwestern but never let up on her training. The 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles were getting closer, every day.

Betty’s cousin Will had a biplane in those days. The two loved to go up in that thing, especially on those hot summer days. She even had a leather helmet, with goggles. Just like Amelia Earhart.

Then came the crash. The man who removed her broken body brought her to Oak Lawn infirmary, because he knew the coroner.

Betty’s arm was broken, her legs destroyed. Her once smiling face badly cut up. The coma lasted, for weeks. She woke up with pins in her legs, now shorter than they used to be. They weren’t even the same length. “I’m sorry” the doctors said, “you may never walk again”.

Betty’s favorite brother-in-law Jim served in the Great War, in France. The gas had taken his health back in 1918. Twenty years later it would take his life, but Jim always had time, for Betty. He would carry the fastest woman in the world in his arms, sometimes waiting for traffic to cross the street and sit on the park bench.

On bad days Betty couldn’t straighten her legs. On good days he would help her stand up. First with an arm held tightly around her shoulder and then a hand, on the small of her back. One day she needed no help at all.

The 1932 Olympics came and went. Betty Robinson watched another woman win the 100 meter sprint.

Stop if you will and run this as a movie, in your mind. Cast the actress of your choice in the role and imagine her coming back from that plane crash, to win Gold in 1936. Now toss it all out because it’s such an outlandish idea, but that’s what happened.

From standing to taking a step and then two, and then walking, and then beginning to jog her broken body began to learn what her old one, already knew. She could never bend down again so she set her sights on the only event, where she didn’t have to. The relay.

The 1936 Olympic games opened in Munich, under the watchful gaze of Reichsführer Adolf Hitler. The growing threat of Nazi Germany hung like dark and threatening clouds, over Europe.

The 1936 Olympics. Where the American track & field athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals, smashing the Nazi myth of the “Aryan Superman”. Where Wehrmacht Hauptmann (Captain) Wolfgang Fürstner designed and built the Olympic village only to be replaced, two weeks before the games. The Nuremberg laws against racial “impurity” had judged Fürstner to be, half Jewish.

Then came the day of the women’s 400 meter relay. Hitler had to be watching as was Owens, himself. Robinson took the baton at a dead run, neck and neck with a German woman chosen, to leave her in the dust. Betty ran her broken body for all it was worth. 100 meters later she was only behind, by a few steps.

This video is glorious even if it is, in German.

The last American runner took the hand-off. She was closing on the German when her opponent, dropped the baton. It was over. Betty Robinson had been tested and judged, satisfactory. The American team had won Olympic gold.

The XI Olympiad closed on August 16, 1936. Three days later Wolfgang Fürstner, the German patriot whose nation no longer had need of his services ended his life, with a pistol.

Today, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt holds the 100 meter record with a time, of 9.58 seconds. Florence Griffith-Joyner is the fastest woman with a time, of 10.49. With all the advantages of the day, the personalized training & nutrition and scientifically designed running gear that’s a scant 1.51 seconds faster than Betty Robinson and her old shoes, and the flapping, loose-fitting clothing required to preserve the feminine modesty, of 1928.

August 15, 1057 The Real Macbeth

History collides with legend when you peer a thousand years into the past, but one thing is certain. Shakespeare’s Macbeth bears little resemblance to the man, for whom the story is named.

Them that strut and fret their hours upon the stage are a superstitious lot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Apologies to the Bard for that bit of word butchery).

In the world of theater it is high praise to present the performer with flowers, in token of appreciation for a fine performance. Be warned though, never give a performer flowers, before the play. That would bring bad luck. Never bringing a mirror on stage may be more practical than superstitious as you can never account for the reflection of set lighting, but then there’s the tradition, of the graveyard bouquet. Yeah. When a production closes, it is considered good luck to steal flowers from a graveyard and present them, to the director. Go figure. And whatever you do you are never to utter the name, Macbeth. Trust me. It’s “ the Scottish play”.

Act I. General Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, chances upon three witches who prophecy that he, Macbeth, is to be Thane of Cawdor and even more, King of Scotland.

Spurred on by his wife the ruthless and ambitious Lady Macbeth, he slips into the bedchamber of the good King Duncan and plunges the dagger, then frames the King’s bodyguards, for his murder. Now himself King in fulfillment of the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth and his Lady descend into a world of guilt and madness, duplicity and murder in the fruitless attempt to cover for his crime.

So sayeth William Shakespeare but what of the real Mac Bethad mac Findlaích?

11th century Alba

History collides with legend when you peer a thousand years into the past, but some things are certain. 11th century Scotland was not the nation we know today, but a collection of warring kingdoms. Máel Coluim mac Cináeda (Malcolm II) came to power after defeating and killing his cousin King Kenneth III in 1005 at the battle of Monzievaird, near Crieff.

Malcolm was a fearsome ruler who immediately set about eliminating (read…killing), potential claimants to the throne. Information is scant but Malcolm appears to have fathered, three daughters. All three married well giving rise to yet more rivals but it was Duncan, Malcolm‘s grandson who would rise to power after his grandfather was killed in battle, in 1034.

Macbeth’s cousin murdered his father Findlaích and took for himself the title of Mormaer (Earl), when the boy was barely in his teens. Macbeth had his revenge in 1045 when found his cousin in a hall, with fifty of his warriors. Macbeth burnt the place to the ground, took the title for himself and, astonishingly, married his cousin’s widow, Gruoch.

The first Scottish Queen whose name we actually know, the real Lady Macbeth turns out to be hardly the avaricious harpy of the Bard’s portrayal but a saintly woman, best known for funding the production of illustrated manuscripts by the monks of a tiny friary, in Loch Leven.

Now himself Mormaer of Moray Macbeth proved a powerful fighter against the Vikings coming down from the north and a key ally, of King Duncan.

Duncan I ruled for five years and was indeed killed by Macbeth, but there the similarity ends. Duncan’s peaceful accession to the crown was the exception to the rule in 11th century Scotland. His death in battle was not, the killing blow delivered on August 14, 1040 at the battle of Pitgaveny, at the hands of Macbeth’s forces if not Macbeth, himself.

Victorious, Macbeth had a strong claim to the crown. According to modern descendants of clan Duncan stronger than Duncan, himself. The real lady Macbeth was the granddaughter, of Kenneth III. Macbeth was a direct relation to Malcolm himself, through his mother’s line. So it is the powerful Mormaer of Moray himself became King, ruling over Scotland, for the next seventeen years.

Scottish coronations were different at this time, than you might think. There was no physical crown, that wouldn’t come about, for another 200 years. Macbeth would have sat upon the 236-pound “Stone of Destiny” as the list of Scottish Kings, was read aloud. He was then given a sword with which to defend his kingdom and proclaimed King, by the assembled nobles.

While Shakespeare’s Macbeth was steeped in blood and treachery, the real King Macbeth seems to have been, well liked. There was blood, yes, Macbeth lived in a time of savagery when scores were settled with edged weapons but, much of his reign, was enjoyed in peace. Like the Bard’s Macbeth whose past would come back to haunt him, Duncan I’s father, Crinán, abbot of Dunkeld challenged the peace, in 1045. This was a brief but bloody struggle much smaller than the epoch-changing battle of Hastings, ten years after the death of Macbeth. When it was over Crinán lay dead along with 180 of his followers.

Macbeth was the first of the Scottish Kings to take a pilgrimage to Rome, to meet with Pope Leo IX. This demonstrates not only a sense of security against usurpers at home but the wealth, to scatter “money like seed to the poor”. For the first time a United Scotland, stood before the world.

Macbeth was the first to bring Normans into his service in 1052 indicating a new openness, to international trade.

Trouble came from the south in the form of Siward, the powerful Earl of Northumbria, a Danish chieftain who rose to power under the Viking King of England , Cnut the Great. The year was 1054, the battle taking place north of the Firth of Forth near a place called Dunsinane. When it was over 3,000 of Macbeth’s forces were dead. Siward lost 1,500 and his own son, Osbjorn.

Early 19th-century depiction by John Martin of Mac Bethad (centre-right) watching Siward’s Northumbrian army approaching (right)

His Norman mercenaries now eliminated Macbeth was forced to give up, much of his southern Kingdom. Macbeth retained his kingship for now his reign came to an end a year later near Lumphanan, in Aberdeenshire. The son of the man Macbeth had killed some seventeen years earlier came for his father’s killer on August 15, 1057.

Macbeth, King of Alba, was dead. Malcolm III Canmore would rule through the Norman Conquests until he himself was ambushed and killed, in 1093.