October 17, 1814 The Great London Beer Flood, of 1814

Nine people lost their lives altogether, including one man who died of alcohol poisoning, apparently leading a heroic one-man effort to drink the entire flood.

On April 1, 1785, the Times of London reported: “There is a cask now building at Messrs. Meux & Co.’s brewery…the size of which exceeds all credibility, being designed to hold 20,000 barrels of porter; the whole expense attending the same will be upwards of £10,000”.

013-giant-beer-barrel-q75-1364x1616The Meux’s Brewery Co Ltd, established in 1764, was a London brewery owned by Sir Henry Meux. What the Times article was describing was a 22′ high monstrosity, held together by 29 iron hoops.

When completed, this would be one of several such vats, each designed to hold 3,500 barrels of brown porter ale.

Ministry_of_Information_First_World_War_Official_Collection_Q28331The brewery was located in the crowded slum of St. Giles, where many homes contained several people to the room.

On October 17, 1814, storehouse clerk George Crick noticed one of those 700-pound iron hoops had slipped off a cask. This happened two or three times a year, and Crick thought little of it, writing a note to another employee, to fix the problem.

It was a bad decision.

The explosive release of all that hot, fermenting liquid could be heard five miles away, causing a chain reaction as the other vats went down like exploding dominoes.

323,000 imperial gallons of beer, equivalent to two-thirds of an Olympic swimming pool, smashed through the brewery’s 25-foot high brick walls and gushed into the streets, homes and businesses of St. Giles. The torrent smashed two houses and the nearby Tavistock Arms pub on Great Russell Street, where 14-year-old barmaid Eleanor Cooper was buried under the rubble.

the_manor_house_of_toten_hall_1813.gif.CROP.cq5dam_web_1280_1280_gifOne brewery worker was able to save his brother from drowning in the flood, but others weren’t so lucky.

Mary Mulvey and her 3-year-old son Thomas were drowned, while Hannah Banfield and Sarah Bates, ages 4 and 3, were swept away in the flood. Both died of their injuries. Nine people lost their lives altogether, including one man who died of alcohol poisoning, apparently leading a heroic one-man effort to drink the entire flood.

As the torrent subsided, hundreds of people came outside carrying pots, pans, and kettles – whatever they had on hand to scoop up some of it. Some just bent low and lapped at it like dogs, as all that dirty, warm beer washed through the streets. Meanwhile, several injured were taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital, where a near-riot broke out as other patients demanded to know why they weren’t getting some of it, too.

london-beer-floodIn the days that followed, the crushing poverty of the slum led some to exhibit the corpses of their family members, charging a fee for anyone who wanted to come in and see. In one house, too many people crowded in and the floor collapsed, plunging them all into a cellar full of beer.

The stink lasted for months, as the Meux Brewery Company was taken to court over the accident. Judge and jury ruled the flood to be an ‘Act of God’.  The deaths were just a ‘casualty’, leaving no one responsible. Meux & Co. survived, though the financial loss was made worse by the fact that they had already paid tax on the beer. The company successfully applied to Parliament for a refund, and continued to brew beer on the same site.

The brewery was closed in 1921 and demolished the following year. Since 2012, a London tavern called the “Holborn Whippet” (www.holbornwhippet.com) marks the event with its own vat of porter, specially brewed for this day. Cheers.

 

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Holborn Whippet Pub Sicilian Ave, London
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.
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October 16, 1987 Everybody’s Baby

Television cameras were quick to arrive and covered the ordeal, live.  Those of us of a certain age remember it well. The rescue was carried from the Netherlands to Brazil,  from Germany to Hong Kong and mainland China.  Well wishers called in to local television stations, from the Soviet Union.  It seemed the whole world, stopped to watch.

Jessica McClure Morales is a West Texas Mother of two school-age children. Her life is normal in every way.  She’s a teacher’s aide.  Her husband Danny, works for a piping supply outfit.  Just a normal Texas Mom, with two kids and a puppy, playing in the yard.

hqdefault (6)On this day in 1987, Jessica McClure’s life was anything but normal.  Frightened and alone, “Baby Jessica” was stuck twenty-two feet down, at the bottom of a well.

Everything seemed so normal that Wednesday, October 14, just an eighteen-month-old baby girl, playing in the back yard of an Aunt. That old well pipe shouldn’t have been left open, but what harm could it do. The thing was only eight inches wide.

And then the baby disappeared.  Down the well.

The language does not contain a word adequate to describe the horror that young mother must have felt, looking down that pipe.

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Midland Fire and Police Departments devised the plan.  A second shaft would be dug, parallel to the well.  Then to bore a tunnel, until rescuers reached the baby.  The operation would be over, by dinnertime.

The rescue proved far more difficult than first imagined.  The first tools brought on-scene, were inadequate to get through the hard rock surrounding the well.  What should have taken minutes, was turning to hours.

Television cameras were quick to arrive and covered the ordeal, live.  Those of us of a certain age remember it well. The rescue was carried from the Netherlands to Brazil,  from Germany to Hong Kong and mainland China.  Well wishers called in to local television stations, from the Soviet Union.  It seemed the whole world, stopped to watch.

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Watching the evening news, it’s sometimes easy to believe that the world is going to hell.  It’s not.  What we saw for those fifty-eight hours was the True heroism and fundamental decency of every-day guys:  fathers, sons and brothers, doing what they needed to do.   We’d see it again in a New York Minute, should circumstances require.

You could watch it happen, around the clock.  Many of us did.  I remember it, each would dig until he’d drop, and then another man would take his place.  There were out-of-work oil field workers and everyday guys.   Mining engineers and paramedics.  The work was frenetic and distraught, and at the same time, agonizingly slow.

Anyone who’s used a jackhammer, knows it’s not a tool designed to be used, sideways.  Even so, they tried. A waterjet became a vital part of the rescue, a new and unproven technology, in 1987.

hqdefault (8)The sun went down that Wednesday and rose the following day and then it set, and still, the nightmare dragged on.

A microphone was lowered down, so doctors could hear her breathe.  She would cry, and sometimes she would sing.   A small voice drifting up from that hole in the ground, the words of “Winnie the Pooh”.

Both were good signs.  A baby could neither sing nor cry, if she could not breathe.

The final tunneling phase of the operation could only be described, as a claustrophobic nightmare.  An unimaginable ordeal.  Midland Fire Department paramedic Robert O’Donnell  was chosen, because of his small, wiry frame.  Slathered all over with K-Y jelly and jammed into a space so tight it was difficult to breathe, O’Donnell  inched his way through that black hole that Thursday night and into the small hours of Friday morning, until finally, he touched her leg.

The agony of those minutes that dragged on to hours can only be imagined.  What he was trying to do, could not be done.  In the end, O’Donnell was forced to back out of the hole, defeated. Empty handed.  As they went back to work enlarging the tunnel, the paramedic sat on a curb, and wept.

On the second attempt, O’Donnell was able wrestle the baby out of that tiny space, handing her to fellow paramedic Steve Forbes, who carried her to safety.

Baby Jessica came out of that well with her face deeply scarred, and toes turned to gangrene, for lack of blood flow.  She would require fifteen surgeries before it was over but, she was alive.

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Media saturation coverage led then-President Ronald Reagan to quip, that “everybody in America became godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on.” Baby Jessica appeared with her teenage parents on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, to talk about the incident. Scott Shaw of the Odessa American won the Pulitzer prize for the photograph, and ABC made a television movie: Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure. USA Today ranked her 22nd on a list of “25 lives of indelible impact.” Everyone in the story became famous. Until they weren’t.

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In time, the scars healed for Jessica McClure.  Today she has no recollection of those fifty-eight hours.  Not so much the hero from the bottom of that hole, Robert O’Donnell. Whatever personal hell the man went through that night, alone in that blackest of places, never left his mind.  And then there was the fame.  And the adulation. And then, nothing.

Even now, we struggle to understand Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD), a condition which ends the lives of twenty-two of the best among us every day, and has killed more Vietnam combat veterans, than the war itself.  It was only 1987, when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders dropped the requirement, that stressors be outside the range of normal human experience.

Robert O’Donnel took his own life on April 24, 1995.  The media declined to notice.  The stone above his grave bears the images of a cowboy hat and boots, and those of a fire hat, and the six-pointed Star of Life, symbol for emergency medical services, in nations the world over.  A “Loving Father,” who has earned the right to be remembered.

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October 13, 1914 Signalman Jack

One day, a train passenger looked down and realized with horror, that a monkey was switching the tracks.

In the early days of the Great War, the formerly separate British colonies of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange River were united in the Union of South Africa, in support of the Allied war effort.

Public opinion was by no means, unanimous.  “Afrikaners” were bitterly opposed to alliance with the British.  The Jameson Raid and two Boer Wars were hard pills to swallow, and life-long friendships were cast asunder.  As former Generals of the second Boer War, Prime Minister Louis Botha and Defense Minister Jan Smuts had once fought the British.  Now, that was in the past.  Like many, the two men dreamed of a unified South Africa.

Anti-British rebellion broke out on this day in 1914, but was quickly put down by loyalist South Africans.  Before the war was over, some 136,000 of their countrymen would serve in the African, Middle East and Western Fronts of the Great War.

The story of World War 1 is intertwined with the history of rail.  The mobilization of millions in a matter of weeks, would have been impossible without the railroads which moved them.   WW1 could not  have happened the way it did, without rail.

(c) Piet Conradie Klipplaat 25-08-2009 e - SAR Class 15AR (R indicates reboilered) engine no 1840

South African recruits traveled rails begun in 1859, when early construction worked its way inland from deep-water ports and harbors. James Edwin Wide came to work for the South African railroad, about twenty years later.

Co-workers on the Cape Town–Port Elizabeth Railway service called him “Jumper” for his fondness of jumping between railway cars.  It was a regrettable habit, which would one day, cost him his legs.

After the accident, Wide’s railroad days seemed to be over.  Then a signalman’s job opened up. Wide would work the Uitenhage train station twenty-three miles outside of Port Elizabeth, switching the tracks for oncoming trains.

Trains would toot their whistle a specified number of times, telling the signalman which tracks to change.  The job suited him, pulling the levers is easy enough for a man with no legs.  Not so much, the half-mile walk to work.

jack-the-signalman3One day at an open-air market, the peg-legged signalman saw something that changed all that. It was a monkey, a Chacma baboon.

One of the largest of the “Old World” monkeys, a Chacma or “Cape” baboon is an intelligent animal. “Corporal Jackie” proved as much, during the “War to end all Wars”. This one was exceptionally so. This one was driving an oxcart.

Wide bought the animal and called him”Jack”, and taught him to pull his small trolley, up and down the line.  Jack was a help around the house, sweeping the floors and taking out the trash. He figured out the train signal and the switch thing too.  Soon, Jack was pulling on the levers, himself.

William Luff writes in The Railway Signal, that Wide “trained the baboon to such perfection that he was able to sit in his cabin stuffing birds, etc., while the animal, which was chained up outside, pulled all the levers and points.

One day, a train passenger looked down and realized with horror, that a monkey was switching the tracks. (It must have been fun to be in the complaint department, when That one came in).  Railroad managers were furious and could have fired signalman Wide, but decided to test his baboon, instead.

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Railway superintendent George Howe came away, astounded. “Jack knows the signal whistle as well as I do, also every one of the levers…It was very touching to see his fondness for his master. As I drew near they were both sitting on the trolley. The baboon’s arms round his master’s neck, the other stroking Wide’s face.”

Jack passed with flying colors.  Managers were so impressed they gave him the job, for real. “Signalman Jack” now had an employee number, and a salary of twenty cents per day, plus a half-bottle of beer, each week.  It isn’t clear what a baboon did with the money, though one suspects it may have purchased more than a few peanuts.

Signalman Jack worked the rail until the day he died of tuberculosis, in 1890.  A keyword search for railroad accidents between 1880 and ’89, the time-frame for this story, reveals a list of sixty-one serious incidents. In the nine years in which he was on the job, Signalman Jack made not one single mistake.

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October 8, 1981 Nub City

“To sit in your car on a sweltering summer evening on the main street of Nub City, watching anywhere from eight to a dozen cripples walking along the street, gives the place a ghoulish, eerie atmosphere.”

Midway between the Red Hills of Alabama and the Emerald Coast of Florida, the pioneer town of Vernon was once home to a major Indian settlement.   Named for the Virginia home of the “Father of our Country”, the small town is located at the center of Washington County in the Florida panhandle.

Now a destination for canoe and kayak enthusiasts, nearby Holmes Creek was once a shipping route to Bonifay and other neighboring towns.  The town was reasonably prosperous once, but then the steamboats stopped running, and the sawmill closed.  The young ones went to college and never came back, or just up  & moved away.

Forty years ago, documentary filmmaker Erroll Morris went to Vernon to make a picture, about insurance fraud in the Florida panhandle.

The film was released on this day in 1981, entitled “Vernon Florida”.   Insurance companies called the place “Nub City”.  That was supposed to be the name of the film.  Except, folks who blow their own limbs off for insurance money, don’t appreciate being asked about it.  Particularly not on camera.

nub-city-farmerUmm. What?!

Morris described the problem, in a later interview:

“I knocked on the door of a double-amputee, who was missing an arm and a leg on opposite sides of the body—the preferred technique, so that you could use a crutch. His buff son-in-law, a Marine, beat me up. I decided whatever I was doing was really, really stupid and dangerous”.

Turns out that, in the late fifties and early sixties, two-thirds of all loss-of-limb accident claims to the American insurance industry, came from the Florida panhandle.  At the center of all that, was a little town of 700.  Vernon, Florida.

The founding member of the “nub club” may have joined by accident.  Or maybe he looked at his hand at a time of faltering small-town economics, and wondered.  How much will that thing earn, compared with an insurance policy.  By the mid-sixties, no fewer than fifty Vernon residents had lost a hand or foot or both, in hunting or farming “accidents”.

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Some would saw or hack off body parts, but most preferred the simplicity, of a shotgun blast.  Insurance policies were often taken out in the days or even hours, before dismemberment.

You don’t know whether to laugh or cry, for people who would do such a thing. One guy maimed his foot while trying to protect his chickens. Another tried to shoot a hawk and took off his own hand. I’m still trying to figure out how that worked.  One farmer “mistook” his own foot for a squirrel and, you guessed it. Some “accidents” involved both firearms and motor vehicles. One mishap involved a tractor and a loaded rifle. That one took off two body parts.

Many took out multiple policies.  One guy bought so many that the premiums came to more than his income.  Thomas Lake of the St. Petersburg Times, tells the story:

“There was another man who took out insurance with 28 or 38 companies,” said Murray Armstrong, an insurance official for Liberty National. “He was a farmer and ordinarily drove around the farm in his stick shift pickup. This day – the day of the accident – he drove his wife’s automatic transmission car and he lost his left foot. If he’d been driving his pickup, he’d have had to use that foot for the clutch. He also had a tourniquet in his pocket. We asked why he had it and he said, ‘Snakes. In case of snake bite.’ He’d taken out so much insurance he was paying premiums that cost more than his income. He wasn’t poor, either. Middle class. He collected more than $1 million from all the companies. It was hard to make a jury believe a man would shoot off his foot.”

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Insurance companies were quick to get wise and took several claimants, to court. Juries refused to believe that anyone would do such a thing.  Not one member of the nub club was ever convicted, of fraud. Insurance companies sent an investigator named John Healy to Vernon, to look around. The report he sent back came as a surprise, to precisely no one: “To sit in your car on a sweltering summer evening on the main street of Nub City,” he wrote, “watching anywhere from eight to a dozen cripples walking along the street, gives the place a ghoulish, eerie atmosphere.

Skyrocketing premiums failed to put an end to the practice of self-mutilation.  Eventually, companies just stopped writing such policies in the panhandle, and the decade-long string of “misfortunes”, came to an end.

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Twenty years later, a blurb in the New Yorker sent film maker Errol Morris south to Vernon, to shoot a film about insurance fraud.  What he ended up with, was a disjointed narrative tale, of small town eccentrics.  Apparently, death threats did a lot to effect the film maker’s change in direction.

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.

October 6, 1945 The Curse of the Billy Goat

Red Sox fans are well aware of the famous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the line “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson? They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”. What my fellow Sox fans may not be aware of, is that the former Cub was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt. For “luck”.

For a Red Sox fan, there was nothing sweeter than the 2004 World Series victory ending the curse of the Bambino.  Babies grew up and had babies of their own during that time. There were grandchildren and great grandchildren, and sometimes even great-greats, and still the drought wore on. It was 86 years, the third-longest World Series championship drought in Major League Baseball history.

Long suffering fans of the Chicago White Sox endured the second-longest such championship dearth, following the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919.  For 88 years, that mournful cry came down through the ages:  “Say it ain’t so, Joe”.

curse-of-the-billy-goatYet, the suffering inflicted by the curse of the Black Sox and that of the Bambino, pales in comparison with the 108-year drought afflicting the Chicago Cubs since back-to-back championships in 1907/1908.  And they say it’s the fault of a Billy goat.

It was game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, October 6, 1945, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field. Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.  Really.

Now, goats don’t smell any sweeter than most other livestock, save for the male in rut.  This part of the animals fertility cycle happens in the fall for many breeds and, while it’s pure speculation, the oft-repeated expression “smells like a goat”, comes to mind.  There are different versions of the story, but they all end with the pair being ejected, and Billy casting a curse. “Them Cubs“, he said, “they ain’t gonna win no more“.

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Sianis’ family claims that he sent a telegram to team owner Philip Wrigley reading, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”
Billy Sianis was right. The Cubs were up two games to one at the time, but they went on to lose the series. They’ve been losing ever since.

Sam-and-Bill-Sianis-owners-of-Chicago-s-Billy-Goat-Tavern-2015Billy Sianis himself is gone now, but they brought his nephew Sam onto the field with a goat in 1984, to help break the curse.  They did it again in 1989, 1994 and 1998, and always the same result.

The Florida Marlins taunted the Cubs in August of 2009, parading a goat in front of the Cub’s dugout between the second and third innings. Chicago manager Lou Piniella was not amused, though the Cubs squeaked by with that one, 9-8.

In 2003, the year of the goat on the Chinese calendar, a group of Cubs fans brought a goat named Virgil Homer to Houston, during the division championship series. They couldn’t get him into Minute Maid Park, so they unfurled a scroll outside and proclaimed the End of the Curse.

Ol’ Virgil got them through that series, but the curse came roaring back in game 6 of the NL championship. It was Cubbies 3, Florida Marlins 0 in the 8th inning of game 6. Chicago was ahead in the series, when lifelong Cubbies fan Steve Bartman reached down and deflected a ball that should have easily been caught by Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou. The Marlins came back with 8 unanswered runs in the inning, while Bartman required a police escort to get out of the field alive.

cubsFor fourteen years, Chicago mothers frightened wayward children into behaving, with the name of Steve Bartman.

In 2008, a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water around the Cubs dugout. Goat carcasses and parts have appeared at Wrigley Field on multiple occasions, usually draped across the statue of Harry Caray.

Five fans set out on foot with a goat from the Cubs’ Spring Training facility in 2012.  “Crack the Curse” was supposed to do it.  These guys walked 1,764 miles from Mesa, Arizona to Wrigley Field. The effort raised a lot of money for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, but the curse of the Billy goat remained serene, and unbreakable.

Red Sox fans are well aware of the famous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the line “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson? They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”. What my fellow Sox fans may not be aware of, is that the former Cub was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt. For “luck”.

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2015 was the Year of the Goat on the Chinese zodiac. In September, five “competitive eaters” consumed a 40-pound goat in 13 minutes and 22 seconds at Chicago’s “Taco in A Bag”. The goat was gone. Surely that would work. The Cubs made it all the way to the National League Championships, only to be broomed by the New York Mets.

Mets 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy was the NLCS MVP that year, setting a postseason record for consecutive games with a home run. Mets fans joked that, Murphy may be the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), but he wasn’t the first.

1913MilwaukeeBrewers_goatThe cookies pictured above were baked in 2016, and that might’ve finally done it.  That’s right.  The Mother of all Droughts came to a halt in extra innings of game seven, following a 17-minute rain delay.  At long last, Steve Bartman could emerge from Chicago’s most unforgiving doghouse, his way now lit by his own World Series ring. The ghost of Billy Sianis’ goat, may finally rest in peace.

In reading up for this story, I discovered that the 1913/1914 Milwaukee Brewers roster included a nanny goat, called Fatima. Honest.  I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

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.

October 1, 1876 Piano Man

To his detractors, Lick was a disagreeable miser. Eccentric, selfish, reclusive.  Even “touched in the head,” but absolutely honest and an astute businessman.  At the end of his life, he confounded them all, using his considerable fortune to benefit his adopted state of California.

If you’ve never explored your own genealogy, I highly recommend it. One of the more enjoyable aspects of shaking the family tree, is getting to know the people who fall out of it. I have the family genealogist, the man for I am namesake, to thank for this one.  Lieutenant Colonel United States Army (retired), Richard B. “Rick” Long, Sr., 2/25/37 – 3/31/18.  Rest in Peace, Dad.  You left us too soon.

James Lick was born in Stumpstown, Pennsylvania, now Fredericksburg, in the late days of the Washington administration. Lick’s grandfather William served in the Revolution and his son John went on to serve in the Civil War.  James himself was a carpenter’s son, who learned the trade of fine cabinet making, from his earliest days.

As a young man, Lick fell in love with Barbara Snavely, the daughter of a local miller.  When she became pregnant with his child he asked for her hand in marriage, only to be rudely rebuffed by her father.  When Lick owned a plant as large and opulent as his own, then and only then could James have his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Humiliated, Lick moved to Baltimore at age 21, where he learned to make pianos. He became quite skilled at the craft and moved to New York to set up his own piano shop.

On learning that his pianos were being exported to South America, Lick moved to Argentina to pursue the business.  Despite his poor Spanish his piano business thrived, though unstable Argentinian politics sometimes made things difficult.

James_LickIn 1825, Lick left Buenos Aires, for a year-long tour of Europe. This was the time of the Brazilian War for Independence, and Portuguese authorities captured his ship on its return.

Passengers and crew were incarcerated in a POW camp in Montevideo, though Lick himself would later escape and returned on foot, to Buenos Aires.

Having made his first fortune, Lick briefly returned to Stumpstown, to claim his bride and now-fourteen year old son, only to learn that she had married another.   James Lick returned to Buenos Aires, later moving his business to Valparaíso, Chile and finally to Lima, Peru.  He would never marry.

Anticipating the Mexican American War and the annexation of California, Lick moved to San Francisco in 1846 with his tools, $30,000 in gold, and 600lbs of chocolate.

Lick had a backlog of piano orders at the time which he was forced to build himself, when his workers returned home to join the Mexican army. The chocolate sold so quickly, that Lick convinced his friend and confectioner, an Italian émigré to Peru, to come set up shop in California. The man’s name is recognizable to chocolate lovers, the world over. He was Domingo Ghirardelli

GS_oldstore_History_0Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, shortly after Lick’s arrival. He caught a little of the gold fever himself, but soon learned that he could make more money buying and selling land, rather than digging holes in it.

San Francisco was a small village in 1848. By 1850 the population had reached 20,000. Lick bought up land around San Jose and planted orchards of apricots, plums and pears.  It was here in Santa Clara county that Lick took his revenge on the long-dead Pennsylvania miller, spending the unheard-of sum of $200,000 and building the largest flour mill, then in the state.

In 1855, the now-37 year old John Lick came to live with the father he never knew.  The elder man had requested he do so, but the son didn’t get along with his cantankerous father, and soon returned “back east”.

Lick began construction of a Grand Hotel in 1861, with a 400 seat dining room straight out of the Palace at Versailles.  Many considered the “Lick House” to be the finest hotel west of the Mississippi River.

Lick House

“The opulent dining room of The Lick House hotel on Montgomery at Sutter seated 400 and boasted walls and floors of exotic woods and three crystal chandeliers imported from Venice”, H/T sfcityguides.com

James Lick suffered a massive stroke in 1874. At the time, this carpenter’s son was the wealthiest man in California, his estates including much of San Francisco and Santa Clara County, all of Catalina Island and large holdings outside of Lake Tahoe.

To his detractors, Lick was a disagreeable miser. Eccentric, selfish, reclusive.  Even “touched in the head,” but absolutely honest and an astute businessman.  At the end of his life, he confounded them all, using his considerable fortune to benefit his adopted state of California.

For years, Lick had harbored an interest in astronomy.  President of the California Academy of Sciences George Davidson persuaded him to leave the majority of his fortune, to building the most powerful telescope then in existence.

Lick placed $2,930,654 into the hands of seven trustees, equivalent to $64 million today, with specific instructions for how the funds were to be used:

“$700,000 to the University of California for the construction of an observatory and the placing therein of a telescope to be more powerful than any other in existence. $150,000 for the building and maintenance of free public James Lick Baths in San Francisco. $540,000 to found and endow an institution of San Francisco to be known as the California School of Mechanic Arts. $535,000 for the son he never knew.  $100,000 for the erection of three appropriate groups of bronze statuary to represent three periods in Californian history and to be placed before the city hall of San Francisco. $60,000 to erect in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, a memorial to Francis Scott Key, author of The Star-Spangled Banner”.

In 1875, Thomas Fraser recommended a site for the telescope on the 4,209′ summit of Mount Hamilton, near San Jose. Lick approved the location, provided that Santa Clara County build a “first class” road to the site. The county agreed and the road was completed in the fall of 1876.

On this day in 1876, James Lick died in his room at the Lick House.  His life’s great project was completed eleven years later. With a 36” lens, the “Great Lick Refractor” was, for its time, the largest refracting telescope in the world.

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Lick Observatory as it looked, in 1900

Today, the University of California’s “Lick Observatory” operates a 120-inch (3.0-meter) reflecting telescope, polished and ground on-site from a 10,000-pound Corning Labs glass test blank.  At the time of its commissioning in 1959, it was the second-largest telescope anywhere and remains to this day, the 3rd largest refracting telescope in the world.

According to his last wishes, the body of James Lick lies entombed, beneath the floor of the observing room.

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September 28, 48BC Mad Honey

Tales come down from the Civil War, of Union troops getting into hives of mountain honey and becoming sick and disoriented, much like Roman troops some two thousand years earlier.

From sniffing glue to licking toads and huffing gasoline, people have thought of crazy and often dangerously stupid ways, of catching a buzz. Three years ago, CNN reported on a child ingesting a few squirts of hand sanitizer, resulting in slurred speech and an inability to walk straight. What do a dozen broke college kids do on a Saturday night? Buy a bottle of gin, and snort it. In some parts of the world, bees pollinate great fields of rhododendron flowers, resulting in a neurotoxic delicacy known as “Mad Honey”.

The Rhododendron genus contains some 1,024 distinct species ranging from Europe to North America, Japan, Nepal and Turkey and grown at altitudes from sea level to nearly three miles. Many Rhododendron species contain grayanotoxins though, in most regions, concentrations are diluted to trace levels. Some species contain significant levels.

rhododendron ferrugineum

Occasionally, a cold snap in the Appalachian Mountains of the Eastern United States will kill off other flowers while leaving Rhododendrons unaffected, resulting in mad honey. Such circumstances are rare. Mad honey is the most expensive in the world, normally selling for around $166 per pound.

When ingested in small doses, grayanotoxins produce feelings of euphoria and mild hallucinations.   Larger doses have toxic effects,  ranging from nausea and vomiting to dizziness, severe muscular weakness and slow or irregular heartbeat and plummeting blood pressure. Symptoms generally last for three hours or so, but may persist for 24 hours or longer. Ingesting large amounts of the stuff, may result in death.

Today, the toxic effects of over ingesting mad honey are primarily found among middle-age males in Turkey and Nepal, where the stuff is thought to have restorative qualities for a number of sexual dysfunctions.

honey-hunters-andrew-newey-13-740x493

Tales come down from the Civil War, of Union troops getting into hives of mountain honey and becoming sick and disoriented, much like Roman troops some two thousand years earlier.

The Greek historian, soldier and mercenary Xenophon of Athens wrote in 401BC of a Greek army passing through Trebizond in northeastern Turkey, on the way back home. While returning along the shores of the Black Sea, this crew had themselves a feast of honey, stolen from local beehives. For hours afterward, troops suffered from diarrhea and disorientation, no longer able to march or even to stand.

Fortunately, the effects had passed by the following day, before their defeated Persian adversary could learn of their sorry state.  Nearly four hundred years later, Roman troops would not be so lucky.

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus lived from September 29, 106BC through September 28, 48BC, and usually remembered in English as Pompey the Great.

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC, Alexander’s generals and advisers fell to squabbling over an empire, too big to hold. The period marked the beginning of Hellenistic colonization throughout the Mediterranean and Near East to the Indus River Valley.

Within two hundred years, the Mithradatic Kingdom of Pontus encompassing modern-day Armenia and Turkey, was becoming a threat to Roman hegemony in the east. King Mithradates VI is remembered as one of the most formidable adversaries faced by the Roman Republic, engaging three of the most successful generals of the late Republic in the Mithradatic Wars of the first century.

1_Mad-honey-deadly-hallucinogen

In 67BC, a Roman army led by Pompey the Great was chasing King Mithridates and his Persian army through that same region along the Black Sea. The retreating Persians laid a trap, gathering honey and putting the stuff out in pots, by the side of the road.

Had any on the Roman side brushed up on their Xenophon, the outcome may have become different.  As it was, Roman troops pigged out and could scarcely defend themselves, against the returning Persians.  A thousand or more Romans were slaughtered, with few losses to the other side.  And all of it, for a little taste of honey.

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