December 27, 1865 Confederados

The numbers are hazy, but port records indicate that somewhere between ten and twenty thousand former Confederates moved to Brazil during the twenty years following the Civil War.  A great uncle of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, was one of them.

Most of us were taught that 600,000+ died during the American Civil War.  618,222 to be precise, more than the combined totals of every conflict in which the United States was ever involved, from the Revolution to the War on Terror.  Recently, sophisticated data analysis techniques have been applied to newly digitized 19th century census figures, indicating that the real figure may be considerably higher.

The actual number may lie somewhere between 650,000 and 850,000. dead.

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The cataclysm of the Civil War would leave in its wake animosities which would take generations to heal.  “Reconstruction” would be 12 years in the making but some never did reconcile themselves to the war’s outcome. Vicksburg, Mississippi fell after a long siege on July 4, 1863. The city would not celebrate another Independence Day for 70 years.

In 1865, Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil wanted to encourage domestic cultivation of cotton.  Men like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee advised southerners against emigration, but the Brazilian Emperor offered transportation subsidies, cheap land and tax breaks to those who would move.

Descendants of American Southerners wearing Confederate-era uniforms pose for a photograph during a party to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War in Santa Barbara D'Oeste, Brazil
Descendants of American Southerners wearing Confederate-era uniforms pose for a photograph during a party to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War in Santa Barbara D’Oeste, Brazil,

Colonel William Hutchinson Norris, veteran of the Mexican American War and former member of the Alabama House of Representatives and later State Senator, was the first to make the move.  Together with his son Robert and 30 families of the former Confederacy, Norris arrived in Rio de Janeiro on December 27, 1865, aboard the ship “South America”.

The numbers are hazy, but port records indicate that somewhere between ten and twenty thousand former Confederates moved to Brazil during the twenty years following the Civil War.  A great uncle of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, was one of them.

Confederate flag rally at Stone Mountain Park

Some of these “Confederados” settled in the urban areas of São Paulo. Most made their homes in the northern Amazon region around present-day Santa Bárbara d’Oeste and a place the locals called “Vila dos Americanos”, and the inhabitants called “Americana”.  Some would return to the newly re-united states.  Most would never return. Their descendants, Portuguese speaking Brazilians one and all, remain there to this day.

‘I don’t speak English and the only place I’ve been to in the U.S. is Disneyworld, but I feel the heritage,’ said 77-year-old Alcina Tanner Coltre, whose great-great-grandparents migrated from Mississippi along with their 15-year-old son. ‘My great-grandfather married a Brazilian woman, so he integrated into Brazilian culture pretty quickly, but it’s really important to me to come out every year to remember where we come from.’

UK Daily Mail
Descendants of American Southerners Philip Logan and his wife Eloiza Logan, pose for pictures during a party to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War in Santa Barbara d’Oeste, Brazil, Sunday, April 26, 2015. Thousands turn out every year, including many of those who trace their ancestry back to the dozens of families who, enticed by the Brazilian government’s offers of land grants, settled here from 1865 to around 1875, as well as country music enthusiasts, history buffs and locals with a hankering for buttermilk biscuits. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Confederados earned a reputation for honesty and hard work. Dom Pedro’s program was judged a success by immigrant and government alike.  The settlers brought modern cultivation techniques and new food crops, all of which were quickly adopted by native Brazilian farmers.

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Small wonder.  Mark Twain once wrote “The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart, and not to be mentioned with common things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took; we know it because she repented”.

That first generation kept to itself for the most part, building themselves Baptist churches and town squares, while traditional southern dishes like barbecue, buttermilk biscuits, vinegar pie and southern fried chicken did their own sort of culinary diplomacy with native populations.

Slavery remained legal in Brazil until 1888, but this nation of 51% African or mixed-race ancestry (according to the 2010 census), seems more interested in understanding and celebrating their past, than tearing their culture apart because of it.

Today, descendants of those original Confederados preserve their cultural heritage through the Associação Descendência Americana (American Descendants Association), with an annual festival called the Festa Confederada.  There you’ll find hoop skirts and uniforms in gray and butternut, along with the food, the music and the dances of the antebellum South.

Brazil Confederates

There you will also find the Confederate battle flag.  It seems that Brazilians have thus far resisted that peculiar urge afflicting the American left, to hide from its own history.

‘“This is a joyful event,” said Carlos Copriva, 52, a security guard who described his ancestry as a mix of Hungarian and Italian. He was wearing a Confederate kepi cap that he had bought online as he and his wife, Raquel Copriva, who is Afro-Brazilian, strolled through the bougainvillea-shaded cemetery.  Smiling at her husband, Ms. Copriva, 43, who works as a maid, gazed at the graves around them. “We know there was slavery in both the United States and Brazil, but look at us now, white and black, together in this place,” she said while pointing to the tombstones. “Maybe we’re the future and they’re the past.”’

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“A woman in a traditional hoop skirt walked past graves adorned with Confederate battle flags in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste, Brazil. An annual celebration of the area’s many Confederate settlers was held in the cemetery last month”. Hat tip to Mario Tama/Getty Images, New York times, for this image

December 23, 1884 Lake Bacon

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, waxed rhapsodic: “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation. Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

Only hours from now, families will gather from far and near, around the Christmas table.  There will be moist and savory stuffing, and green bean casserole.  Creamy mashed potatoes and orange cranberry sauce.  And there, the centerpiece of the feast.  Slow-roasted and steaming in that silver tray the golden brown, delicious, roast hippopotamus.

Wait…Uhh…What?

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Water Hyacinth

The World Cotton Centennial and World’s Fair of 1884 began its second week on December 23. Located in New Orleans, Louisiana that year, among its many wonders was the never-before seen Eichornia crassipes, a gift from the Japanese delegation.  The Water Hyacinth.

Visitors marveled at this beautiful aquatic herb, with yellow spots accentuating the petals of delicate purple and blue flowers floating across tranquil ponds on a mat of thick, green leaves.

The seeds of Eichornia crassipes are spread by wind, flood, birds and humans and remain viable, for 30 years.  Beautiful as it is to look at, the Water Hyacinth is an “alpha plant”, an aquatic equivalent to the Japanese invasive perennial Kudzu, the “vine that ate the south”.  Impenetrable floating mats choke out native habitats and species while thick roots impede the passage of vessels, large and small.  The stuff is toxic if ingested by humans and most animals and costs a fortune, to remove.

This plant native from the Amazon basin quickly broke the bounds of the 1884 World’s Fair, spreading across the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, and beyond.

Eichhornia_crassipes_field_at_Langkawi

During the first decade of the 20th century, an exploding American population could barely keep up with its own need for food. Especially, meat.  The problem reached crisis proportions in 1910, with over grazing and a severe cattle shortage.  Americans were seriously discussing the idea of eating dogs.

Enter Louisiana member of the House of Representatives, New Iberia’s own Robert Foligny Broussard, with a solution to both problems.  Lake Bacon.

The attorney from Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional district proposed H.R. 23621 in 1910, otherwise known as the “American Hippo” bill. Broussard’s proposed legislation enjoyed enthusiastic support from Theodore Roosevelt and the New York Times, alike.   One Agricultural official estimated that a free-range hippo herd could produce up to a million tons of meat, every year.

Lippincott’s monthly magazine waxed rhapsodic:  “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation.  Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

Hippo Steak

With a name deriving from the Greek term “River Horse”, the common hippopotamus is the third largest land animal living today.  Despite a physical resemblance to hogs and other even-toed ungulates, Hippopotamidae’s closest living relatives are cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

All well and good.  The problem is, those things are dangerous.

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The adult bull hippopotamus is skittish, extremely aggressive, unpredictable and highly territorial.  Heaven help anyone caught between a cow and her young.  Hippos can gallop at short sprints of 19 mph, only a little less than the top speed of Jamaican Sprinter Usain Bolt, and he’s “the fastest man who ever lived”.

To keyword search the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa” is to be rewarded with the knowledge that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities than any other large animal in Africa.

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Be that at it as it may, the animal is a voracious herbivore, spending daylight hours at the bottom of rivers & lakes, happily munching on vegetation.

Back to Broussard’s bill, what could be better than taking care of two problems at once?  Otherwise unproductive swamps and bayous from Florida to East Texas would become home to great hordes of free-range hippos.  The meat crisis would be averted.  America would become a nation of hippo ranchers.

As Broussard’s bill wended its way through Congress, the measure picked up steam with the enthusiastic support of two men, mortal enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush trying to kill each other. No, really.

Frederick Russell Burnham

Frederick Russell Burnham argued for four years for the introduction of African wildlife into the American food stream.  A freelance scout and American adventurer, Burnham was known for his service to the British South Africa company, and to the British army in colonial Africa. The “King of Scouts’, commanding officers described Burnham as “half jackrabbit and half wolf”.  A “man totally without fear.”  One writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements”, another “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator”.  He was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character and for the Boy Scouts.  Forget the Dos Equis guy. Frederick Burnham really was the real-life “most interesting man in the world“.

Fritz Duquesne? Well that’s another story. Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa.  A smooth talking guerrilla fighter, the self-styled “Black Panther” once described himself as every bit the wild African animal, as any creature of the veld.  An incandescent tower of hate for all things British, Duquesne was a liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases who once spent seven months feigning paralysis, just so he could fool his jailers long enough to cut through his prison bars.

Destined to become a German spy it is he who lends his name to the infamous Duquesne Spy Ring, of World War 2. 

Frederick Burnham described Duquesne, his mortal adversary:  “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met. He had something of a genius of the Apache for avoiding a combat except in his own terms; yet he would be the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives“.

During the 2nd Boer war, these two men had sworn to kill each other.  Now in 1910 the pair became partners in a mission to bring hippopotamus, to the American dinner table.

Biologically, there is little reason to believe that Hippo ranching wouldn’t work along the Gulf coast.  Decades ago, Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar introduced four hippos to the Columbian interior. Today, officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Back to the American Hippo bill. Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by a single vote, but never entirely went away.  Always the political calculator, Representative and later-Senator Broussard died with the bill on his legislative agenda, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce the thing.

Over time, the solution to the meat question became a matter of doubling down on what was already taking shape. Factory farms and confinement operations came to replace free ranges while the massive use of antibiotics replaced even the notion of balanced biological systems.

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We may or may not have “traded up”.  Today we contend with all manner of antibiotic-resistant “Superbugs”. The Louisiana department of wildlife and fisheries maintains no fewer than 85 separate aquatic vegetation control plans, aimed at the water hyacinth.

The effluent from factory farms from Montana to Pennsylvania works its way into the nation’s rivers and streams, washing out to the Mississippi Delta to a biological dead zone, the size of New Jersey.

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Gulf of Mexico dead zone, image credit NOAA

As for that once golden future, Lippincott’s hippo herds roam only in the meadows and bayous of the imagination.  Who knows, it may be for the best.  I don’t know if we could’ve seen each other across the table, anyway.  Not when that hippo came out of the oven.

December 6, 1768 A Madman’s Dictionary

Over seventy years in compilation, only a single individual is credited with more entries in the greatest reference work in the history of the English language than this one murderer, working from a cell in a mental institution.

Over seventy years in compilation, only a single individual is credited with more entries in the greatest reference work in the history of the English language than this one murderer, working from a cell in a mental institution.

For the great reference works of the English language, the beginnings were often surprisingly modest. The outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishment known as the Scottish Enlightenment produced among other works the Encyclopedia Britannica, first published on December 6, 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Webster’s dictionary began with a single infantrymen of the American Revolution, who went on to codify what would become the standardized system of spelling for “American English“.  In Noah Webster’s dictionary, ‘colour’ became ‘color’, and programme’ became ‘program’. It was a novel concept at a time when the very thought of a “correct“ way of spelling, was new and unfamiliar.

Among the entire catalog of works there is no tale so strange as the Oxford English dictionary, and the convicted murderer who helped bring it to life. 

No, really. From an insane asylum, no less.

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Oxford English Dictionary

Dissatisfied with what were at that time a spare four reference works including Webster’s dictionary, the Philological society of London first discussed what was to become the standard reference work of the English language, in 1857.

The work was expected to take 10 years in compilation and cover some 64,000 pages.  The editors were off, by about sixty years.  Five years into the project the team had made it all the way up, to “ant“.

William Chester Minor was a physician around this time, serving with the Union army during the American Civil War.   

The role of this experience in the man’s later psychosis, is impossible to know.  Minor was in all likelihood a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition poorly understood in his day.

As a combat surgeon, Minor saw things no man was ever meant to see.  Terrible mutilation was inflicted on both sides at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness.  Hundreds were wounded and unable to get out of the way of the brush fire, burning alive before the horrified eyes of comrade and foe alike, the poor unfortunate sufferers too broken to move.  One soldier would later write:  It was as though “hell itself had usurped the place of earth“.

William Chester Minor

At one point, Dr. Minor was ordered to brand the forehead of an Irish deserter with the letter “D”.  The episode scarred the soldier, and left the doctor with paranoid delusions. The Irish were coming to ‘get him’. He Knew they were.

In his paranoid delusions, the faceless form of man would slither out of the attic at night and watch Minor as he slept, in his hands a tray of metal biscuits, slathered in poison. The Fenian Brotherhood was out to Get him. He could almost hear their dark whispered conversations, on gaslit streets.

As a child born to New England missionaries working in Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka), Minor was comfortable with the idea of foreign travel as a means of dealing with difficulty. He took a military pension and moved to London in 1871, to escape the demons who were by that time, closing in.

Minor’s tormentors followed. He would lie in his bed at night frozen with fear and each night, his tormenter would return. Regular visits to Scotland Yard would result in little more than polite thanks, and a few useless notes scribbled on paper. Dr. Minor would have to deal with this himself. He took to sleeping with a loaded Colt .38, beneath his pillow.

On February 17, 1862, Minor woke to find the shadow of a man, standing over him. The apparition dove for the window and Minor followed him, into the street.

It was 2:00 in the morning and hardly anyone was out, save for one man. George Merrett was a father of 6 with a pregnant wife, who worked at the Red Lion Brewery, as a coal stoker. He was walking to work. 

Broadmoor-outside
Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane

Minor’s nighttime apparitions were nothing but the paranoid delusions, of a broken mind. The three or four bullets he fired at a man walking to work, were very real. George Merrett was dead before the police got there.

Minor was tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity, and remanded “until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known” to the Broadmoor institution for the criminally insane. Victorian England was by no means ‘enlightened’ by modern standards, and inmates were always referred to as ‘criminals’ and ‘lunatics’. Never as ‘patients’. Yet Broadmoor, located on 290 acres in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire was England’s newest such asylum, and a long way from previous such institutions.

Minor was housed in block 2, the “Swell Block”, where his military pension and family wealth afforded him two rooms instead of the usual one.

Minor would acquire books, so many over time that one room was converted to a library. 

Surprisingly, it was Merritt’s widow Eliza, who delivered many of his books.  The pair became friends and Minor used a portion of his wealth to “pay” for his crime, and to help the widow raise her six kids.

Dr. James Murray assumed editorship of the “Big Dictionary” of English in 1879, and issued an appeal in magazines and newspapers, for outside contributions. Whether this seemed a shot at redemption to William Minor or merely something to do with his time is anyone’s guess, but Minor had nothing but time. And books.

William Minor collected his first quotation in 1880 and continued to do so for twenty years, always signing his submissions: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

The scope of the man’s work was prodigious, he himself an enigma, assumed to be some country gentlemen.  Perhaps one of the overseers, at the asylum.

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Dr. “Murray at work in his scriptorium, a dedicated room filled with books, at Oxford University (date unknown)”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

In 1897, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” failed to attend the Great Dictionary dinner.  Dr. Murray decided to meet his mysterious contributor in person and finally did so, in 1901.  In his cell.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when this Oxford don was ushered into the office of Broadmoor’s director, only to learn the man he was searching for, was an inmate.

Dr. Minor would carefully index and document each entry, which editors compared with the earliest such word use submitted by other lexicographers. In this manner over 10,000 of his submissions made it into the finished work including the words ‘colander’, ‘countenance’ and ‘ulcerated’.

By 1902, Minor’s paranoid delusions had crowded out what remained, of his mind.    He believed he was being kidnapped and spirited away to Istanbul where he was sexually abused and forced to commit such abuse, himself.  His submissions came to an end. Home Secretary Winston Churchill ordered Minor deported back to the United States, following a 1910 episode in which the man emasculated himself, with a knife.

The madman lived out the last ten years of his life in various institutions for the criminally insane. William Chester Minor died in 1920 and went to his rest in a small and inauspicious grave, in Connecticut.

Over seventy years in compilation, only a single individual is credited with more entries in the greatest reference work in the history of the English language than this one murderer, working from a cell in a mental institution.

October 28, 1945 Last Bastion of the Confederacy. (It’s Not what you Think).

In New York city and state alike, economic ties with the south ran deep. 40¢ of every dollar paid for southern cotton stayed in New York in the form of insurance, shipping, warehouse fees and profits.

By the early 1830s, cotton exceeded the value of all other American exports, combined. As secession loomed over the nation, one Chicago Daily Times editorial warned that if the South departed “in one single blow, our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than one half of what it is now”.

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Fun Fact: South Carolina seceded in December 1860, and the world waited to see who’d follow.  New York City became the next to call for secession on January 6, when Mayor Fernando Wood addressed that city’s governing body.  “When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact”, he cried, “why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master…and destroyed the Confederacy of which she was the proud Empire City?”

In New York city and state alike, economic ties with the south ran deep.  40¢ of every dollar paid for southern cotton stayed in New York in the form of insurance, shipping, warehouse fees and profits.

30 minutes’ east of Buffalo, the village of Lancaster contemplated staying with the Union.  500 miles from the nearest Confederate state, George Huber remembered the time.  “When war was declared, Lancaster seethed with the news, and many were the nights we stayed up as late as 12 o’clock to talk things out.  I was twelve years old at the time, but I remember the stern faces of the elders and the storm of passionate and angry discussion. Soon the town split into two factions, it was a very tense situation…Often the excitement ran so high that if a man in either group had made the slightest sign, neighbors would have been at each other’s throats and fists would have taken the place of words.”

town line courthouse
The old blacksmith shop

“Town Line”, a hamlet on the village’s eastern boundary, put the matter to a vote.  In the fall of 1861, residents gathered in the old schoolhouse-turned blacksmith’s shop.  By a vote of 85 to 40, Town Line voted to secede from the Union.

As casualty reports came back from the front there was angry talk of arresting “Copperheads” for sedition.  “Seceders” grew quiet, afraid to meet in public places amidst angry talk of lynching.  A half-dozen or so of the more ardent secessionists actually went south to fight for the Confederacy.  Others quietly moved north, to Canada.   Outside of Lancaster, no one seemed to notice.  Taxes continued to be paid. No federal force ever arrived to enforce the loyalty of the small village.

A rumor went around in 1864, that a large Confederate army was building in Canada, poised to invade from the north.  Town Line became a dangerous place for the few southern sympathizers left.  Most of those remaining moved to Canada and, once again, Lancaster became the quiet little village in upstate New York, that nobody ever heard of.

Impatient to get on with it, Dade County Georgia “symbolically” seceded both from the state as well as the Union, back in 1860.  Officially, Dade County seceded with Georgia in 1861, and rejoined with the rest of the state in 1870, but the deal was sealed on July 4, 1945 when a telegram from President Harry S. Truman was read at a celebration marking Dade County’s “rejoining” the Union.

The “Confederate Gibraltar”, Vicksburg Mississippi, fell on July 4, 1863.  The city wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day for 80 years.

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In 2011, the residents of Town Line, New York dressed up to mark the town’s sesquicentennial of secession from the Union

By October 1945 there legally remained only one part of the former Confederate States of America. The little hamlet of Town Line, New York.

Even Georgians couldn’t help themselves, from commenting. 97-year-old Confederate General T.W. Dowling opined: “We been rather pleased with the results since we rejoined the Union. Town Line ought to give the United States another try“. Judge A.L. Townsend of Trenton Georgia commented “Town Line ought to give the United States a good second chance“.

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On October 7, 1945 there arrived a note by courier express.  “There are few controversies that are not susceptible to a peace time resolution” read the note, “if examined in an atmosphere of tranquility and calm rather than strife and turmoil. I would suggest the possibility of roast veal as a vehicle of peace.  Why don’t you run down the fattest calf in Erie County, barbecue it and serve it with fixin’s in the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started? Who can tell? The dissidents might decide to resume citizenship.”  The note was signed “Very Sincerely Yours, Harry Truman”.

Fireman’s Hall became the site of the barbecue, as “the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started” was too small for the assembled crowd.  On October 28, 1945 residents adopted a resolution suspending the 1861 ordinance of secession by a vote of 90-23. The Stars and Bars of the Confederate States of America was lowered for the last time, outside the old blacksmith shop.

Alabama member of the United States House of Representatives John Jackson Sparkman, may have had the last word:  “As one reconstructed rebel to another, let me say that I find much comfort in the fact that you good people so far up in Yankee land have held out during the years. However, I suppose we grow soft as we grow older.”

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September 14, 1752 Double Dating

Confusion reigned as legal contracts, civic calendars and the payment of rents and taxes were all complicated by having two calendars. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion, over dates.


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

When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way the Egyptians handled the calendar. The Roman statesman hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated a proper year to be 365¼ days, more accurately tracking the solar and not the lunar year.

“Walk like an Egyptian” he may have said.

The new “Julian” calendar went into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1.

Rank hath its privileges.

This “Julian” calendar miscalculated the solar year by 11 minutes every year, resulting in a built-in error of 1 day for every 128 years.   By the late 16th century, the seasonal equinoxes were ten days out of sync, causing a problem with the holiest days of the Roman church.

October 1582 missing days

In 1579, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christopher Clavius, to devise a new calendar to correct this “drift”.  The “Gregorian” calendar was adopted on this day in 1582, omitting ten days that October and changing the manner in which “leap” years were calculated.

The Catholic countries of Europe were quick to adopt the Gregorian calendar, Portugal, Spain, pontifical states, but England and her overseas colonies continued to use the Julian calendar. Confusion reigned well into the 18th century.  Legal contracts, civic calendars, and the payment of rents and taxes were all complicated by the two calendar system. Military campaigns were won or lost, due to confusion over dates. Sound familiar?

Between 1582 and 1752, many English and colonial records included both the “Old Style” and “New Style” year.  The system known as “double dating” resulted in date notations such as March 19, 1602/3.  Others merely changed dates. Keyword search on “George Washington’s birthday” for instance, and you’ll be informed that the father of our country was born on February 22, 1732.  The man was actually born on February 11, 1731 but, no matter.  Washington himself recognized the date of his birth to be February 22, 1732, following adoption of the Gregorian Calendar.

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Virginia almanack of 1752

Tragically, the exploding heads of historians and genealogists alike, are lost to history.

The “Calendar Act of 1750” set out a two-step process for adoption of the Gregorian calendar.  Since the Roman calendar began on March 25, the year 1751 was to have only 282 days so that January 1 could be synchronized with that date.  That left 11 days to deal with.

So it was decreed that Wednesday, September 2, 1782, would be followed by Thursday, September 14.

You can read about “calendar riots” around this time, though such stories may be little more than urban myth.

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was a prime sponsor of the calendar measure.  His use of the word “Mobs” was probably a description of the bill’s opponents in Parliament.   Even so, some believed their lives were being shortened by those 11 days, while others considered the new calendar to be a “Popish Plot”.  The subject was very real campaign issue between Tories and Whigs in the elections of 1754.

There’s a story of one William Willett, who lived in Endon. Willett bet that he could dance non-stop for 12 days and 12 nights, starting his jig about town the evening of September 2, 1752. He stopped the next morning, and went out to collect his bets.

I am unable to determine how many actually paid up.

Ever mindful of priorities, the British tax year was officially changed in 1753, so as not to “lose” those 11 days of tax revenue.  Revolution was still 23 years away in the American colonies, but the reaction “across the pond” could not have been one of unbridled joy.

The last nation to adopt the Gregorian calendar was Turkey, formally doing so in 1927.

ben franklin

Back in the American colonies, Ben Franklin seems to have liked the idea of those “lost days”. “It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on September 2″ he wrote, “and not have to get up until September 14.”

Much to the chagrin of Mr. Clavius, the Gregorian calendar still gets out of whack with the solar cycle by about 26 seconds, every year.  Clever methods have been devised to deal with the discrepancy and several hours have already been added, but we’ll be a full day ahead by the year 4909.

I wonder how Mr. Franklin would feel to wake up and find out…it’s still yesterday.

September 6, (est) 1673 A Locker Room Joke

On or about this day in 1673, Father Marquette asked the Chief of the Peoria about another tribe living down the river.

Marquette_Joliet

On May 17, 1673, Father Jacques Marquette set out with the 27-year old fur trader Louis Joliet to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi River.

The voyage established the possibility of water travel from Lake Huron to the Gulf of Mexico, helping to initiate the first white settlements in the North American interior and bestowing French names on places from La Crosse to New Orleans.

Relations with natives were mostly peaceful at this time, as several tribes jockeyed for advantage in the lucrative French fur trade.

Marquette Joliet Route

On or about this day in 1673, Father Marquette asked the Chief of the Peoria about another tribe living down the river.

Having no desire to share such a privileged position, the chief indicated that those people down the river…they didn’t amount to much. Don’t even bother. The chief called the group “Moingoana”, a name later transliterated into French as “Des Moines”.

Marquette was expert by this time, in several native dialects. Even so, the chief may have indulged himself in a little gag at the expense of the priest. The Miami-Illinois language is extinct today, but linguists suggest that Moingoana may derive from “mooyiinkweena”, translating if I may be polite, as, “those excrement-faces.”

Marquette and Joliet didn’t discover the Mississippi River, Native Americans had been there, for thousands of years. The Spanish explorer Hernan DeSoto had crossed the “Father of Waters” 100 years before. What they did was to establish the feasibility of travel from the Great Lakes, to the Gulf of Mexico. Armed with this information French officials led by the explorer LaSalle would erect a 4000-mile system of trading posts nearly exterminating every fur-bearing mammal in the upper Midwest and permanently altering indigenous cultures, along the way.

As for Des Moines there are alternate explanations of where the name comes from. They are much to be preferred I’m sure, by residents of the Hawkeye state. Even so it’s just possible Father Marquette had one put over on him that day, in 1673. That perhaps the Capital City of Iowa bears the name, of a 350-year-old locker room joke.

September 5, 1698 Death and Taxes

In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh levied a tax on cooking oil. It was illegal to re-use the stuff, but no worries. There was a state-run monopoly on cooking oil, coincidentally run by Pharaoh.  Imagine that.

It’s been said there are only two sure things in life. None of us get out of here alive, and the government thinks it’s entitled to what you earn. Or something like that.

There have always been taxes, but over the years some governments have come up with truly imaginative ways to fleece their citizens.

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H/T Wikipedia

Twenty-eight countries around the world have a “Telly Tax” paid in the form of a broadcast receiving license.  There’s good news though, the British government will waive half of it, if you can prove you’re legally blind.

This is in addition to the council tax, income tax, fuel tax, road tax, value added tax, pasty tax, national insurance, business rates, stamp duty, and about a thousand other taxes. But hey, the health care is free.

Tennessee passed a “Crack Tax” on illegal drugs in 2005, which drug dealers were expected to pay anonymously in exchange for a tax stamp (don’t ask). The measure was found unconstitutional in 2009, on grounds that it violated the drug dealer’s fifth amendment right to protection from self-incrimination.

Milwaukee attorney Robert Henak became a collector of state drug tax stamps, not long after helping to overturn Wisconsin’s crack tax on similar grounds.

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Undeterred, then-Governor Elliott Spitzer proposed a tax on illegal drugs as part of the Empire State’s 2008-’09 budget, making New York the 30th state to pass such a measure. “Mr. Clean” stepped down in a hooker scandal, amid threats of impeachment by state lawmakers. The state Senate passed a budget resolution the following day, specifically rejecting the crack tax.

Massachusetts will charge you a “meals tax” on five donuts, but not 6. Good to know, next time you want to plow into a box of donuts in one sitting.

Illinois taxes candy at a higher rate than food. Any item containing flour or requiring refrigeration is taxed at the lower rate, because it’s not candy. So, yogurt covered raisins are candy, but yogurt covered pretzels are food. Baby Ruth bars are candy, but Twix bars are food. Get it? Neither do I.

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New Zealand proposed a tax on bovine flatulence in 2003, to curb “Global Warming”. The fuss raised by New Zealand farmers over a tax on cow farts, was near-measurable on the Richter scale.  Red-faced politicians quietly dropped the proposal.

President Obama levied a 10% tax on indoor tanning in 2010, leading to 10,000 of the nation’s 18,000 tanning salons closing, with a loss of 100,000 jobs. The measure may actually have had a net negative effect on treasury proceeds.

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In 1662, King Charles II levied a tax on fireplaces.  Britons hurried to brick up fireplaces to avoid the hearth tax, preferring to shiver rather than pay up.  The village baker in Churchill in Oxfordshire knocked out the wall from her oven to avoid the tax and, unsurprisingly, burned the whole village down.

The idea worked so swell that England introduced a property tax in 1696, based on the number of windows in your home. Homeowners bricked up windows to avoid the tax, leaving them ready to be re-bricked and glazed, should such an opportunity ever arise.

The English government repealed a window tax in 1851 and France in 1926, but you can still find homes with bricked up windows. Perhaps they’re getting ready for window tax version 2.0. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne proposed just that, as recently as 2012.

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In 2004, the Maryland Legislature passed a monthly fee on sewer bills, ostensibly to protect the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic tributaries. You pee, you poo, you pay. The fee doubled in 2012, the year in which Governor Martin O’Malley signed a tax – on rain.

At one point, Holland levied a tax on the width of homes. Not surprisingly, the skinniest house in the world can be found at Singel 7, in Amsterdam. It’s a meter across, barely wider than its own door.

By all means tat yourself up if you like. Just don’t do it in Arkansas where tattoos, body piercings and electrolysis is subjected to a 6% sales tax.

On September 5, 1698, Czar Peter I was just returned from a trip to Europe, hot to “modernize” the Russian empire. All those European guys were clean shaven, so Peter introduced a tax on beards.

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When you paid your beard tax of 100 Rubles, (peasants and clergy were exempt), you had to carry a “beard token”. Two phrases were inscribed on the coin: “The beard tax has been taken” and “The beard is a superfluous burden”. Failure to shave or pay the tax might lead to your beard being forcibly cut off your face. Some unfortunates had theirs pulled out by the roots, by Peter himself.

An anti-religious man and a Big fan of Voltaire and the secular humanist philosophers, ol’ Pete passed a tax on souls in 1718, joining the Russian levy on beehives, horse collars, hats, boots, basements, chimneys, food, clothing, all males, birth, death and marriage.

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When Henry I reigned over England (1100 – 1135), people who avoided military service were charged a “Cowardice Tax”, called a ”Scutage”. The levy was modest at first, but Richard Lionheart’s little brother John raised it by 300% when he became King, charging even his own knights during years when there were no wars. It’s no small part of what led to the Magna Carta.

Often, taxes are used to shape social policy.

In 1862, the California legislature passed a tax on Chinese residents, entitled “An Act to Protect Free White Labor against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese into the State of California.

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The new law levied a tax of $2.50 per month on every ethnically Chinese individual residing within the state, and followed a gold rush era measure levying a tax of $3.00 a month on all Chinese miners. This at a time when the average gold miner made $6 per month.

In 1795, British prime minister William Pitt (the Younger) levied a tax on wig powder.  By 1820, powdered wigs were out of style.

In New Jersey you can buy a pumpkin free of tax, until it been painted, varnished or cut up, for decoration. Then you’ll be charged a sales tax.

Pious politicians can’t resist “sin taxes”, “nudging” citizens away from the likes of evil weed and John Barleycorn, all the while making the self-righteous and the virtue-signaling feel good about themselves.

New Mexico likes competitive sports just fine but, games of chance like bingo or raffles? That’ll cost you another half-point.

I wonder. If cigarette taxes are supposed to encourage smoking cessation and taxes on Chinese were supposed to decrease competition from coolie labor, what are income taxes are supposed to do?

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Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton introduced the first tobacco tax in 1794, and they’ve been with us ever since.

Federal and state governments both get their vig on a pack of butts, ranging from 30 cents a pack in Virginia, to $4.35 in New York. Throw in the taxes levied by counties, municipalities, local subdivisions and Boy Scout Councils (kidding), and people really do change behavior. Just, not always in the intended direction. There is a tiny Indian reservation on Long Island, home to a few hundred and measuring about a square mile. Their cigarette taxes are near zero and, until recently, tribal authorities sold about a hundred million packs a year.

European governments levied a tax on soap in the middle ages, leading to memorable moments in personal hygiene, I’m sure.

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In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh levied a tax on cooking oil. It was illegal to re-use the stuff, but no worries. There was a state-run monopoly on cooking oil, coincidentally run by Pharaoh.  Imagine that.

In the first century AD, Roman Emperors Nero and Vespasian levied a tax on pee. Honest. In those days, the lower classes pissed into pots which were emptied into cesspools.

Urine was collected for a number of chemical processes such as tanning, and it did a swell job whitening those woolen togas. When Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the tax his father showed him a gold coin, saying “Pecunia non olet”. “Money does not stink”.

Vespasiano e vespasiani.

To this day, Italian public urinals are called vespasiani.  In France they’re vespasiennes. And if you need to pee in Romania, you could visit the vespasiene.

My personal favorite might be the long distance tax that used to appear on American phone bills. This one began as a “Tax the Rich” scheme, first implemented to pay for the Spanish-American war, in 1898. Nobody ever made long distance phone calls but rich guys, right? It took a lawsuit to end the damned thing which was finally discontinued, in 2005.  We can’t be too hasty about these things.

June 8, 1959 Rocket Mail

1,200 letters were packed into a rocket fuselage in July 1934 and fired between Harris Island in the Hebrides and Scarp island in Scotland, a distance of some 1,600 meters (1 mile). The first rocket blew up so they gathered all the letters they could find, and packed them into a second. That one also exploded.

To talk about Rocket Mail sounds like we’re speaking of the early free webmail services, something like Hotmail or a few others.  Not that we ever delivered the mail on real rockets.

Yes we did. Well, sort of.

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In the early 19th century, expanding western settlement meant that a letter sent to California could one of several routes. Earlier stagecoach passages were replaced by steamship routes traveling around South America, or by overland transfer across the Isthmus of Panama or the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Mexico. By mid-century the rapid dissemination of information was becoming ever more important, even as the simmering tensions which would bring the nation to Civil War proved such a system, inadequate.

The Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, better known as the Pony Express, was the short-lived effort to speed up the process. Between April 1860 and October ’61, continuous horse-and-rider relays carried letters the 2,000-mile distance from St. Joseph Missouri to Sacramento, California.

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Individual riders covered 75 – 100 miles at a time, on somewhere between five and ten horses.  The Pony Express compressed the standard 24-day schedule for overland delivery to ten days, but the system was a financial disaster.  Little more than an expensive stopgap before the first transcontinental telegraph system.

Throughout post-war reconstruction and on toward the turn of the century, individuals living in more remote precincts had to pick up the mail at sometimes-distant post offices. Either that or they had to pay private carriers.

The Post Office began experiments with Rural Free Delivery (RFD) as early as 1890, but the system was slow to catch on. Georgia Congressman Thomas Watson pushed RFD legislation through the Congress in 1893, making the practice mandatory. Implementation was slow and RFD wouldn’t be fully adopted until 1902, but elected officials were quick to implement this new way to reach out to voters.

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The first mail carried through the air arrived by hot air balloon on January 7, 1785, a letter written by Loyalist William Franklin to his son William Temple Franklin, at that time serving a diplomatic role in Paris with his grandfather, the United States’ one-time and first postmaster, Benjamin Franklin.

The first (unofficial) mail delivery by aircraft took place on February 17, 1911, when Fred Wiseman flew three letters between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, California. Comprehensive airmail rules were adopted by the Universal Postal Union in 1929. Since then, airmail was often marked “Par avion”: “By airplane”.

Section 92 of the 1873 Postal Laws and Regulations book states that carriers would deliver “as frequently as the public convenience may require.” What exactly constitutes “Public Convenience” was open to interpretation but, in some cities, business districts received between three and five daily deliveries and twice a day to residential areas.

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In 1950, the Postmaster General ordered residential deliveries reduced to once a day and, by the early 1990s, businesses had learned to live with the same.  There was little to be improved upon in this happy state of affairs.  Unless of course you’re receiving your mail, by rocket.

The concept is older than you might think.  German novelist Heinrich von Kleist (1777 – 1811) was the first to bring up the idea in 1810, calculating that a network of batteries could relay a letter from Berlin to Breslau, a distance of 180 miles, in half a day. Such a system was attempted using Congreve rockets in 19th century Tonga, but proved unreliable. By 1929, American ambassador to Germany Jacob Gould Schurman was discussing the finer points of transatlantic rocket mail delivery, with a German reporter.

A 1936 experiment with rocket-powered mail delivery between New York and New Jersey ended with 50-pounds of mail, stranded on the ice of frozen Greenwood Lake.

From India to the United Kingdom, the 1930s were a time for experimentation with rocket-propelled mail delivery. 1,200 letters were packed into a rocket fuselage in July 1934 and fired between Harris Island in the Hebrides and Scarp island in Scotland, a distance of some 1,600 meters (1 mile). The first rocket blew up so they gathered all the letters they could find, and packed them into a second. That one also exploded.

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As a piece of technology, the rockets’ origins are both simple and ancient. A rocket quite simply is a vessel, powered by stored propellant such as gunpowder, kerosene, or liquid hydrogen & oxygen. A missile is a vehicle propelled by rockets whose purpose it is, to deliver a payload.

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Regulus Cruise Missile

In 1959, the diesel-electric submarine USS Barbero officially became a branch location of the United States Post Office, for purposes of “delivering” mail to Naval Station Mayport, in Jacksonville, Florida. The nuclear warhead was removed from a Regulus Cruise missile and two Post Office-approved containers installed.  3,000 letters and postcards were inserted, addressed to President Eisenhower, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield and other dignitaries.

On June 8, the 13,685-pound, 32-foot cruise missile launched from the decks of USS Barbero, two Aerojet-General 33,000 lb solid-propellant boosters giving way to the turbojet engine which would guide the missile onto its target.   Twenty-two minutes later the missile struck, the Regulus opened and the mail forwarded to the Jacksonville post office for sorting and routing.

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Postmaster Summerfield was effusive, proclaiming the “historic significance to the peoples of the entire world”.  “Before man reaches the moon”, he exclaimed, “mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

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Arthur Summerfield’s golden future of missile mail was never meant to be.  Despite the postmaster’s enthusiasm, the system was Way too expensive.  The Defense Department saw the first and only mail delivery by intercontinental ballistic missile in history as more of a demonstration of the weapon system’s capabilities.  In any case, aircraft were  delivering airmail by this time, in less than a day.

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The Regulus was superseded by the Polaris missile in 1964, the year in which Barbero ended her nuclear strategic deterrent patrols. She was struck from the Naval Registry that July, and suffered the humiliating fate of becoming target vessel, sunk by the nuclear submarine USS Swordfish off the coast of Pearl Harbor on October 7.

USS Barbero is gone but that US mail container lives on, at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton Connecticut. Launched from a Balao-class sub June 8, 1959, sixty-three years ago today.

A Trivial Matter: The first post office established in colonial America began in a bar and the home of one Richard Fairbanks, whose tavern was known for the sale of “stronge waters”. At one time the Postmaster General was in line of succession for the Presidency. Today Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is the third-highest paid employee in the federal government earning $303,260, ahead of Vice President Kamala Harris with a base salary of $261,400 and behind President Joe Biden with a presidential salary of $400,000. Dr. Anthony Fauci was the highest paid employee in the federal government in 2019 at $417,608, more than six times the average American household income for the same year.

February 19, 1914 Baby Mail

With new postal regulations now in effect, people tested the limits. Bricks were mailed as were snakes and any number of small animals, as long as they didn’t require food or water on the trip. The first parcel mailed from St. Louis Missouri to Edwardsville Illinois contained six eggs. Seven hours later the eggs came back to St. Louis, baked in a cake.

At one time, nations paired up to negotiate postal treaties providing for the direct exchange of mail. The US signed such a treaty with Prussia, in 1853. Germany wasn’t a country in those days in the sense that it is today, more of a collection of independent city-states. Some states in southern Germany sent US-bound mail through France but, there being no Franco-American treaty, mail was forced to travel on British or Belgian cargo vessels. France and the United States wrangled over a postal treaty from 1852 until July 1874 leading the exasperated Minister to France Elihu Washburne to groan: “There is no nation in the world more difficult to make treaties with than France.”

The German Empire was formed in 1871 following victory, in the Franco-Prussian War. The German Reichspost was now free to enact uniform postal regulations within the new nation. Even so, US-bound letters required differing amounts of postage, depending on which ship the letter traveled on. Something had to change.

German Postmaster-General Heinrich von Stephan called for an International Postal Congress in 1874. The Treaty of Bern signed on October 9 resulted in a uniform system of postage between nations. That, and a very nice statue in granite and bronze in memory of the new, Universal Postal Union.

All was well between nations but here in the US, the postal service was barely out of diapers. The mail didn’t even go to the “country”. Rural residents were forced to travel days to distant post offices or hire private express companies, to deliver the mail. For years, the National Grange and other farmers’ welfare organizations lobbied Congress for inclusion in the national mail service. The Rural Free Delivery (RFD) act of 1896 opened new worlds to farmers who soon clamored for exotic foodstuffs and tobacco unavailable in rural districts.

Unsurprisingly, rural merchants and express delivery companies fought the measure tooth and nail but they were destined to fail. Parcel post service began on January 1, 1913.

Overnight, parcel limits increased from 4 pounds to fifty. During the first five days alone 1,594 post offices handled over 4 million packages.

People tested the limits. Bricks were mailed as were snakes and any number of small animals, as long as they didn’t require food or water on the trip. The first parcel mailed from St. Louis Missouri to Edwardsville Illinois contained six eggs. Seven hours later the eggs came back to St. Louis, baked in a cake.

You know where this is going, right?

In 1913, Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Beauge of Glen Este, Ohio mailed their baby boy. Seriously. The couple mailed their ten-pound son off to his grandmother’s house a mile away at a cost, of 15¢ postage. History fails to record whether the kid was left in the mailbox or stuffed through a slot in the door, but these people were no cheapskates. The pair popped for 50 bucks’ insurance, “just in case“.

5-year-old May Pierstorff came in just under the weight limit at 48½ pounds. On February 19, 1914, little May was mailed to visit her grandmother in Lewiston Idaho with 53¢ postage, pinned to her coat. She rode the whole way in the postage compartment but hey, postage was cheaper than train fare. Leonard Mochel, the mail clerk on duty delivered the kid to her grandmother’s house, personally.

Six-year old Edna Neff was mailed 720 miles away from Pensacola, Florida to Christiansberg, Virginia, to visit her father.

.If you have read thus far with horror permit me to assure you that mailing babies might not be as bad as it sounds. In the rural America of this period the mail carrier was no stranger but a well known and trusted member of a close-knit community. In the case of little May Pierstorff the postal worker who took her by rail, was a relative. No one ever put a child wearing diapers in a mailbox. The photographs above were staged, the sepia-toned faces grinning back over the years at those of us, they have punked.

Be that as it may, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson heard of the Pierstorff incident and put his foot down. The practice of mailing humans was officially prohibited. The golden age of baby mail had come to an end. Sort of.

In August 1915 three-year old Maud Smith was mailed forty miles across Kentucky by her grandparents, to visit her sick mother. Hers may be the last human journey by US mail and the postmaster in Caney Kentucky, had some explaining to do.

In June 1920 1st Assistant Postmaster General John C. Coons rejected two applications to mail live children stating they could no longer be classified, as ‘harmless live animals”.

February 13, 1945 Of Battles and Beignets

So what does Joan of Arc have in common with pancakes, pigs and potatoes? Why, I’m glad you asked.

We fancy ourselves a land of sand and fun here on Sunny Cape Cod™, not the kind of place for an epoch changing clash of arms. Truth be told the place really IS “Mayberry by the Sea” but even we, have had our moments.

On April 3, 1779, local militia sallied forth to the beaches of Falmouth, to oppose a landing by some 220 of the King’s Regulars. The invaders were indeed repulsed but not before little Falmouth sustained a cannonade of ball and grape lasting from eleven in the morning, until well after dark.

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During the War of 1812, locals once again took up squirrel guns along the beaches and fired, on British warships. HMS Nimrod fired back holing no fewer than thirty buildings, with cannon shot. Until recently, three of those buildings yet stood, holes and all. Sadly, the Nimrod Restaurant is no more. Today there are but two cannonball holes but you can still see them still, one at the Elm Arch Inn and the other, at the former home of Captain Silas Bourne.

And who can forget that battle for the ages remembered far and wide, as the “Herring War”. “The Cape” has always been a sport fisherman’s paradise (and still is) but the earliest settlers were more focused on more important things. Like eating. The earliest mill was built in 1700. Others came into service over the next 100 years, mostly grist and woolen mills.

Before the age of internal combustion such enterprises harnessed the power of running water, and there came the rub. There were those who plied the waterways in search of a migratory and tasty little silver fish, called a Herring.

Long simmering animus between the two groups came to blows in 1800 when new mill construction threatened to block a herring run, in East Falmouth. Locals took to a cannon on the town green to express their ire. Packing the barrel with powder and herring they though to touch the thing off but, if some is good then more just has to be better. Right?

A herring left strictly to nature is an unlikely object to put in a cannon, but these guys figured it out. By the time they were done there must have been fish tails, hanging from the muzzle. Match was touched to to powder and the fuse was lit BOOM! The barrel exploded killing the gunner and raining down fish guts, for half a mile.

Thus ends another chapter of the never ending Herring Wars. And yet, this wasn’t the first conflict coming down to us with a funny sounding name. This wasn’t even the first Battle of the Herrings.

Today, the Siege of Orléans during the Hundred Years’ War marks the first appearance of Joan of Arc, at the head of a French Army. On February 12, 1459, Joan was making her final plea for support and safe conduct to enter the battle. The future saint prophesied that very day the King’s forces would suffer a dreadful defeat as indeed they did in an action remembered, as the Battle of the Herrings.

The city of Orléans was under siege for five months when an English supply train of 300 carts and wagons set out to provision the besieging force. Set upon by a vastly superior force of French and Scottish allies the English took refuge behind walls bristling with sharpened wooden stakes and wagons laden with – you guessed it – herring, in barrels. The tactic served them well at Agincourt and again, on February 12. Three to four thousand French forces attacked with gunpowder artillery, a new and poorly understood weapon, at that time. The Scots deplored such unmanly tactics and went to the attack, only to be cut down by a torrent of English arrows. The French cavalry then charged to the rescue while English longbowmen finished the job. The battle ended in a rout resulting in the loss of 500-600 French and Scots allies at the cost of a negligible number of English.

Word of the disaster reached the Dauphin, days later. Plunged into despair the young King-in-waiting and his ministers decided it couldn’t hurt to let this illiterate peasant girl take part. Thus we remember the Battle of the Herrings and the legend, of the Maid of Orléans.

In many Christian nations, Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of lent and the last day (for now) to gorge on pancakes, beignets and other sweet treats. Also known as “Fat Tuesday”, “Mardi Gras” and “Pancake Tuesday”, Christians across the nation turn to pantries and supermarket shelves in the quest for some sweet confection. Many of those will see the face of Aunt Jemima smiling back. At least they once did, but then there was 2020.

Sigh.

Speaking of Aunt Jemima, Shrove Tuesday fell on February 13 in 1945, a day marking the continuing effort to evict the Japanese occupier from pre-communist China. In the US, OSS operatives, precursor to the modern CIA, devised an explosive compound with a color and consistency very much like, pancake flour. You could even cook with the stuff and eat it though it wasn’t recommended and probably not very tasty. As it was explosives were easily smuggled into occupied China in Aunt Jemima packages for the use of Chinese patriots, in the war against Imperial Japan.

Today Nancy Green, the original (and very real) Aunt Jemima is once again relegated, to anonymity. Her descendants don’t understand and neither does anyone else, why her likeness was removed from grocery store shelves and replaced by the impersonal, “Pearl Milling Company Original”. But hey, who are we to stand in the way of the conspicuous display of meaningless virtue?

Today the United States and the United Kingdom enjoy a “Special Relationship” and may it ever be thus, but it wasn’t always that way. Three epoch changing clashes of arms were to unfold before we got to this place: the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Pig and Potato War.

Wait…What?

Yeah. The Oregon treaty of 1846 failed to make clear who governed the tiny but strategically important San Juan Island in the Gulf of Georgia, near Vancouver. Despite the diplomatic limbo British and American settlers alike lived in the place and got along perfectly well. Until June 15, 1859. A pig belonging to an Irishman named Charles Griffin was helping himself to potatoes belonging to the American farmer, Lyman Cutlar. Cutlar shot the pig. Scorning the farmer’s £10 peace offering Griffin insisted the farmer be arrested as indeed, he was. Anger boiled over on both sides and before long, a 461-man force of pissed off Americans armed with with 14 cannon faced over 2,000 British soldiers and five warships.

Very little ends well that begins with armed and angry men but sometimes, cooler heads prevail. British Admiral Robert Baynes had no intention of fighting with Americans over a dead pig. US President James Buchanan felt the same way and, before long, ruffled feathers were soothed. The island was handed over to US administration in 1872 following thirteen years, of mediation.

Now, wouldn’t I just love to talk about the Battle of the Cheeses, and how Mad Honey laid low the legions of Pompey the great? Yes I would, this is too much fun but, sadly, work awaits. That must remain a tale, for another day.

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