January 7, 1927 Harlem Globetrotter

No less a figure than Wilt Chamberlain said “Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen. People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon”.

In 1926, 24 year old Abraham Saperstein organized a basketball team.  He called it the “Savoy Big Five,” after Chicago’s famous Savoy Ballroom.  At least that’s what the official team history says, except the Savoy didn’t open until 1927, so we may have to just go with it.

January 7, 1927 Harlem Globetrotters

Saperstein renamed them the “Harlem Globetrotters”, even though they were from Chicago, the team arriving in a Model “T” Ford for their debut game on January 7, 1927.   For two years it had been exhibition games before dances.  Now, the big game in Hinckley, Illinois would be played in front of 300 fans, with a total game payout of $75.

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Harlem Globetrotters, 1927

They toured Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, playing almost every night against any and all challengers. Saperstein himself sometimes suited up to fill in for an injured player.  The Globetrotters played their 1000th game in Iron Mountain, Michigan in 1934.

In 1941, Negro League 1st baseman Reece “Goose” Tatum caught Saperstein’s eye.  A goose-tatummulti-sport athlete and teammate of Satchel Paige, Tatum would entertain the crowd with comedic routines whenever he put a runner out.  He was 6’4″ with an 84″ wingspan, able to touch his knees without bending. He’s credited with inventing the hook shot, an early version of the “skyhook” that would make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar famous, 30 years later.

Tatum was the original “Clown Prince” of the Globetrotters, though that title more often goes Meadowlark Lemon and his confetti-in-the-water-bucket routine.  Tatum combined natural athletic ability with a comedic timing that would change the whole direction of the club.  He passed away in 1967 at the age of 45, when sports reporter Lawrence Casey of the Chicago Daily Defender wrote, “Like Joe Louis in boxing, Babe Ruth in baseball, Bobby Jones in golf, Goose Tatum was king of his chosen sport.”

When Goose was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1942, the Globetrotters signed their bob-karstensthird Caucasian, the first-ever white player to be offered a contract, Bob Karstens.  Karstens was the newest showman on the team, creating the signature pregame “Magic Circle,” the behind-the-back backhand shot, the “yo-yo” basketball and the “goofball,” a basketball filled with weights to give it a crazy bounce.  It was the early 1940s and the Harlem Globetrotters were the most famous, and the most profitable, professional basketball franchise in the world.

A near-fatal car accident cost Boid Buie his left arm when he was 13.  Never a great athlete before the crash, he worked so hard on his goals that Buie became the “One Armed Firecracker”.  He signed with the Globetrotters in 1946, playing 9 seasons as a starter and averaging 14 points per game.  Ever since the 2011 Elite Showcase Basketball Classic, the MVP Award is presented in the name of Boid Buie.buie

The Globetrotters were a serious basketball team throughout the early years, winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament as late as 1940.  They gradually worked more comic routines into their game in the late 40s and 50s as the newly founded NBA gained popularity until finally, they were better known for entertainment than for sport.

“Playing the bones” has a musical history going back to ancient China, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  Part of 19th century minstrel shows and traditional to musical genres ranging from Irish, to Bluegrass, to Zydeco. Freeman Davis’ “Brother Bones” recording of the 1925 jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” became the Globetrotters’ theme song in 1952.

Former point guard with the NBA Baltimore Bullets, Louis “Red” Klotz, formed an exhibition team in 1952 to play against the Globetrotters.  In a nod to future President Dwight Eisenhower, he called them the Washington Generals.  The Generals played serious basketball while their opponents juggled balls, spun them on fingertips, and made trick shots.  The two teams played 13,000 games between 1953 and 1995, of which the Generals actually won 6.

Those of us who came of age in the 70s remember Curley Neal and Meadowlark Lemon,

who joined the club in 1954.  Who remembers that Wilt “the stilt” Chamberlain joined theteam four years later?  Chamberlain would be the first Globetrotter to have his jersey retired.

Chamberlain and the Globetrotters did their part to warm the Cold War, with a nine game series in Moscow, in 1959.  The Generals stayed at home, this time they brought the “Chinese Basketeers”.  An audience of 14,000 sat in stupefied silence, finally warming when they realized that this was more show than sport.  The team was paid the equivalent of $4,000 per game which could only be spent in Moscow, prompting the American press to observe that the Soviets were becoming capitalists.

abe-sapersteinAbe Saperstein passed away in 1966, aged 63.  The owner and founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, he was also founder and first Commissioner of the American Basketball League, and inventor of the three point shot.   Elected to the Basketball of Fame in 1971.  Here’s a great trivia question for you.  At 5’3″, Saperstein is the shortest male member in the place.  In 2005, he was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Meadowlark Lemon “defends” Betty Ford

Saperstein’s creation went on, signing Olympic Gold Medalist Lynette Woodard their first ever female player in 1985.  Pope John Paul II became an honorary Globetrotter in 1986, in a ceremony in front of 50,000 in Saint Peter’s Square.

The list of official honorary Globetrotters includes Henry Kissinger, Bob Hope, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Whoopi Goldberg, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Jesse Jackson.  Jesse Owens, the track star who stuffed Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin olympics, accompanied the Globetrotters to Berlin in 1951.  Bill Cosby and Magic Johnson are both signed to $1 a year lifetime contracts, though Cosby’s contract was increased to $1.05 in 1986.

Ninety years after their founding, the Harlem Globetrotters show no signs of slowing down.  In 2015, the team drafted 6’6″ 2015 college slam dunk champion LaQuavius Cotton from Mississippi’s Delta State University, and trick shot expert “Dude Perfect” of Mickinney, Texas.  How do you not root for a team with two guys named LaQuavius Cotton and Dude Perfect?

pope-francis“Flight Time Lang” teaches Pope Francis to spin the ball

Shortly before he passed in 1999, Wilt Chamberlain was asked about the greatest basketball player of all time.  “Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen.  People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”  Meadowlark Lemon played over 16,000 games with the Harlem Globetrotters before retirement, and passed away on December 27, 2015 in Scottsdale, Arizona, aged 83.  Rest in Peace, sir.  You brought a lot of smiles to the little boy in me.

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January 4, 1903 Electrocuting an Elephant

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

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

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Topsy

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

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

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

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

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

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Edison’s first bulb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the current war

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

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Being led to the place of execution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

January 1, 45 BC Happy New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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Roman Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 28, 1981 Food Fight

In Spanish speaking countries, newspapers and television stations do gag stories on December 28.  A few years ago, headlines read that Kate Middleton was leaving Prince William for Mexican soccer star Chicharito.

In 1983, Boston University history professor Joseph Boskin explained the custom of ‘April Fools Day’ goes back to the Roman Emperor Constantine.  A group of jesters and fools informed the Emperor, that they could do his job, better.  Amused, Constantine appointed a jester named Kugel, ‘King for a Day’.

Professor Boskin went on to explain. “In a way,” he said, “it was a very serious day. In those times fools were really wise men. It was the role of jesters to put things in perspective with humor.”  The Associated Press picked up the story, and newspapers ran it, across the country.

It took AP a couple weeks to realize, the professor had made the whole thing up.  April fools.

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In one translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “March 32” in the year 1392 is the day the vain cock Chauntecleer was tricked by a fox. The fox appealed to the rooster’s vanity by insisting he would love to hear Chauntecleer crow, just as his amazing father did.  Standing on tiptoe with neck outstretched and eyes closed. The rooster obliged, with unfortunate, if not unpredictable results.

In most of the west, March 32 is that minor holiday on which we love to play pranks.  In Scotland, April Fools’ Day is called Hunt-the-Gowk Day. Although the term has fallen into disuse, a “gowk” is a cuckoo or a foolish person. The prank consists of asking someone to deliver a sealed message requesting some sort of help. The message reads “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile”. On reading the message, the recipient will explain that to help, he’ll first need to contact another person, sending the victim to another person with the same message.

On April 1, 1698, citizens were invited to the Tower of London to witness the “Washing of the Lions” in the tower moat. Quite a few were sucked in.  The April 2 edition of Dawks’ News-Letter reported that “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.” The “annual ceremony of washing the lions,” lasted throughout the 18th & 19th centuries, always held on April 1st.

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There is no “White Gate”, at the tower of London

In 1957, (you can guess the date), the BBC reported the delightful news that mild winter weather had virtually eradicated the dread spaghetti weevil of Switzerland, and that Swiss farmers were now happily anticipating a bumper crop of spaghetti.  Footage showed smiling Swiss peasants, pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees.  Apparently, an embarrassingly large number of viewers were fooled.  Many called BBC offices, asking how to grow their own spaghetti tree. “Place a piece of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce”, callers were told, “and hope for the best.”

spagtreeIn Mexico as well as Spain and most Latin countries, pranksters practice their craft not on April 1 but on December 28.  The custom goes back to the biblical story of King Herod, who is said to have killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem, to rid himself of the future ‘King of the Jews.  The “Massacre of the Innocents” is a sad story but the ‘joke’ was on Herod.  Mary and Joseph had taken the baby Jesus away, to Egypt.

So it is that el Día de los Santos Inocentes (Day of the Holy Innocents) is observed in Spanish speaking countries, on December 28.  In a sort of gallows humor, the butt of the joke is the “¡Inocente!” or “Innocent one”.

Newspapers and television stations run gag stories on December 28.  A few years ago, headlines read that Kate Middleton was leaving Prince William for Mexican soccer star Chicharito.

PrankedFor two-hundred years now, the citizens of Ibi, Alicante on the Spanish Mediterranean coast have celebrated December 28, with a giant food fight.  The practice was suspended for a time following the Spanish Civil War but revived, in 1981.  Now, it’s a big tourist attraction, and the event makes a ton of money, for charity.

Who needs to run with bulls when you have la fiesta de Los Enharinados.  “The Fiesta of the Flour-Covered Ones.”

Food fight
Participants are covered with flour at the fiesta of Los Enharinados in Ibi, Spain. Fotógrafo Ibi/Creative Commons ASA 4.0 International.

Feature image, top of page:  Food fight participants are at the fiesta of Los Enharinados in Ibi, Spain. 

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.

December 27, 1913 The Devil’s Dictionary

“In our civilization, and under our republican form of government, intelligence is so highly honored that it is rewarded by exemption from the cares of office”.
Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce first appeared in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, the 10th of 13 children born to Marcus Aurelius and Laura Sherwood Bierce, all with names beginning with the letter “A”.

Ambrose-Bierce-fun-quotesMarcus and Laura never had much money, but were both inveterate readers who instilled a lifelong love of books in their young son, Ambrose. At 15, Bierce left home to become a “printer’s devil”, fetching type and mixing ink, following in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and his own contemporary, Mark Twain.

Bierce enlisted with the 9th Indiana Regiment at the outbreak of the Civil War, where he developed map making skills. Bierce would frequently find himself in the hottest part of the front lines, while he drew out and mapped some complicated terrain feature. He would later say of the experience that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”.

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For Ambrose Bierce, the Civil War ended at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, when a severe head wound took him out of the war, for good. He later headed west, making the first usable maps of the Black Hills, before winding up in San Francisco.

Long hours spent in a boring job at the San Francisco mint gave my favorite “curmudgeon” plenty of time to read up on the classics, and brush up on his writing skills. He soon found himself in the newspaper business, one of the top columnists in San Francisco.

Today, any writer who wants to be the least bit controversial had better keep his lawyer’s number on speed dial. In Bierce’s day, he’d better carry a gun. Ambrose Bierce didn’t shy away from politics, he jumped right in, often employing a mock dictionary definition to lampoon his targets. One example and my personal favorite: “Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”.

7-ExcellentQuotations.com-Ambrose-BierceBierce worked for the Hearst Newspaper San Francisco Examiner in 1896, when he was sent to Washington to cover a railroad bill at that time, working its way through Congress.

The Union and Pacific Railroad received $130 million taxpayer dollars (about $3 billion in today’s money) laundered through the Federal Government and lent to the railroad on extremely favorable terms. One of the Union & Pacific’s builders, Collis P. Huntington, had persuaded a malleable congressman to forgive the loan altogether, if only they could keep the measure quiet.

Bierce lampooned crony capitalist and politician alike. The offending bill was anything but quiet when an infuriated Huntington confronted Bierce on the Capital steps. When asked his “price”, Bierce answered “My price is $130 million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States”. The bill went on to defeat.

We can only wonder how things would be today, if such a man were to replace the partisan lapdogs passing themselves off as a national press corps.

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Bierce’s biting satire would often get Hearst and his newspaper in trouble. Nothing was off limits. Politics was a favorite target: “CONSERVATIVE, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others”, or “POLITICIAN, n. An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive”.

1160915463-ambrose-bierce-journalist-cabbage-a-familiar-kitchen-garden-vegetableBierce’s mocking definitions became so numerous that they were compiled and published in 1906 as “The Cynic’s Word Book”. It is still in print today as the “Devil’s Dictionary”.

The topics are seemingly endless. On Motherhood: SWEATER, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly”. On the Arts: “PAINTING, n.: The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather, and exposing them to the critic”.  Or “MARRIAGE, n: the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two”. And then there’s education, “ACADEME, n.: An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught. Academy, n.: A modern school where football is taught”.

Bierce left San Francisco in October 1913 at the age of 71, to revisit his old Civil War battlefields. He then headed south into Mexico, which was at that time a whirlpool of revolution. He joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer in Ciudad Juárez, arriving in Chihuahua some time that December. Bierce’ last letter was written to a close friend, Blanche Partington, on December 26, 1913. He closed the note by saying, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”

And then, he vanished.

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If you visit Sierra Mojada, in Coahuila, Mexico, they’ll tell you that Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was executed by firing squad in the town cemetery.  It’s as good DSD488000an ending to this story as any, as one hundred and five years ago today is as good a day as any on which to end it. The fact is that in that 105 years, there’s never been a trace of what became of him, and probably never will be.

My favorite curmudgeon would have had a good laugh, on reading the monument erected in Meigs County Ohio, in his honor.

So many words to commemorate a life, when the Master’s own words would have done so well:  “MONUMENT, n: A structure intended to commemorate something which either needs no commemoration or cannot be commemorated.”

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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December 24, 1822 A Right Jolly old Elf

Santa Claus may be the most powerful cultural idea, ever conceived.  This year, Christmas sales are expected to exceed one Trillion dollars.  Not bad for a 2,000-year old saint, best remembered for gift giving with no expectation of anything in return.

The historical life of St. Nicholas is shrouded in legend.  Born in modern-day Turkey on March 15, AD270, Nicholas was the only child of rich parents who died in a plague, leaving the boy a wealthy orphan.

St. Nicholas going to school
1689 fresco depicts St. Nicholas, giving to a school

Nicholas was raised in the Christian faith and became an early bishop in the Greek church. One of many stories concerning the bishop’s generosity involves a destitute father, unable to raise a dowry sufficient to marry off his three daughters. On two consecutive nights, Nicholas crept up to the man’s window, and dropped a small sack of gold coins. On the third night, the man stayed up to learn the identity of his secret benefactor, only to be asked to keep the name, secret. 

St. Nicholas saving the Three Maidens
St. Nicholas saving the Three Maidens, Decani monastery, Kosovo

Saint Nicholas passed on December 6 in the year 343. He’s entombed in a marble cathedral dedicated to his name, in Myra.

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The “Sinterklass” of the Netherlands, rides a white horse

Nicholas is remembered as the patron saint of whole nations and cities such as Amsterdam and Moscow, revered among the early Christian saints and remembered for a legendary habit of secret gift-giving.

Some ideas take hold in the popular imagination, while others fade into obscurity.  The “Three Daughters” episode made it into nearly every artistic medium available at that time, from frescoes to carvings and windows, even theatrical performances.

The Patron Saint not only of sailors, but of ships and their cargoes, the seas were the internet of the day, and the story of St. Nick spread from the Balkans to Holland, from England to Crete.

Krampus-340x540The Feast of St. Nicholas took hold around the 6th of December.  Children and other marginal groups such as old women and slaves could receive gifts, but only by demanding them.  The secret giving of gifts appeared sometime around the year 1200.

On the continent, legends of St. Nicholas combined with Pagan traditions and developed in quirky directions, including an evil doppelgänger who accompanies St. Nick on his rounds.  As early as the 11th century, the Krampus may be expected to snatch bad little tykes away from parts of Germany, Austria and the Alpine villages of northern Italy, never to be seen again.

In eastern Europe, the witch Frau Perchta “The Disemboweller” was said to place pieces of silver in the shoes of children and servants who’d been good over the year, and replace the organs of the bad ones, with garbage. Yikes.

In French-speaking regions, Père Fouettard (Father Whipper) accompanies Père Noël on gift-giving rounds, dispensing beatings and/or lumps of coal to naughty boys & girls. In some German speaking regions, the malevolent Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus, with a twig broom to spank wicked children.

Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

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Samichlaus and the Schmutzli

The “Little Ice Age” of the 13th century, led to a proliferation of chimneys.  Windows and doors were the things of thieves and vagabonds, while the chimney led directly to the warm heart of the home.  St. Nick made his first gift-giving appearance via the chimney in a three daughters fresco, painted sometime in 1392, in Serbia.

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The Ghost of Christmas present as illustrated by John Leech, in Charles Dickens’ classic, a Christmas Carol

St. Nicholas was beginning to be seen as part of the family outside of the Church, which is probably why he survived what came next.  Saints reigned in the Christian world until the 16th century, when the Protestant reformation rejected such “idolatry” as a corruption of Christianity.

Whatever you called him:  Sinterklaos, Saint-Nikloi or Zinniklos, St. Nick went away entirely in England and Scotland during the time of Henry VIII, giving way to the spirit of Christmas cheer in the person of one Father Christmas.  England would no longer keep the feast of the Saint on December 6.  The celebration moved to December 25, to coincide with Christmas.

Protestants adopted as gift bringer the Baby Jesus or Christkindl, later morphing into Kris Kringle.

Puritan arrivals to New England rejected Christmas and everything with it, as “un-Christian”.  In 1644, Massachusetts levied a fine of five shillings, on anyone observing the holiday.

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Santa Claus 1863, by Thomas Nast

Sinterklaas survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation in places like Holland, transferring to the 17th century settlement of New Amsterdam:  what we now know as the new world port city of New York.

Sinterklass blended with Father Christmas, to create a distinctly American Santeclaus, which began to take hold in the 19th century.

The Christmas “celebrations” of the period, looked more like Mardi Gras than what we know today.  Drunk and rowdy gangs wandered the streets of New York, Philadelphia and the cities of the northeast, something between a noisy mob and a marching band.  Men fired guns into the air and banged or blew on anything that would make noise.  Mobs would beat up the unfortunate, and break into the homes of the “upper classes”, demanding food and liquor.

New York philanthropist John Pintard, the man responsible for the holidays celebrating the fourth of July and George Washington’s birthday, popularized an image first set forth by Washington Irving, in his satirical story A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, depicting St. Nicholas bringing gifts to good little boys and girls, and switches with which to tan the hides of bad kids.

220px-MerryOldSantaThe unknown genius who published and illustrated A Children’s Friend in 1821, first depicted “Santa Claus” not as a Catholic bishop, but as a non-sectarian adult in a fur lined robe, complete with a sleigh inexplicably powered by a single reindeer, coming in through the chimney not on December 6, but on Christmas eve.

An anonymous poem believed to have been written on December 24, 1822 and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, began with the words: “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house“…

A Visit From St. Nicholas“, better known by its first line, gave us the first description of the modern Santa Claus and a tool for domesticating the occasion, agreeable to law enforcement for calming the rowdy streets, to manufacturers and retailers for selling goods, to the church to make way for a family friendly day of worship and to parents, to control unruly children.

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Goody Santa Claus 1889

The “Right Jolly old Elf” took his modern form thanks to the pen of illustrator and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant and scourge of the Tammany Hall political machine which had swindled New York city, out of millions.

The idea of a Mrs. Claus seems to come from a poem by Katharine Lee Bates of the Cape Cod Curmudgeon’s own town of Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Today, the author is best known for her 1895  poem “Pikes Peak”, later set to music and widely known as “America the Beautiful”.

Tonight, NASA may be expected to track Santa and his sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, though none are any longer, all that tiny.  Santa Claus will appear around the planet. Regional variations include Santa’s arriving on a surfboard in Hawaii.  In Australia, he’s pulled by six white kangaroos.  In Cajun country, Papa Noël arrives in a pirogue, drawn by eight alligators.

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Santa Claus may be the most powerful cultural idea, ever conceived.  This year, Christmas sales are expected to exceed one Trillion dollars.  Not bad for a 2,000-year old saint, best remembered for gift giving with no expectation of anything in return.

Fun fact:  Today, the port city of Bari on the Adriatic coast of Italy is remembered for the WW2-era mustard gas accident, which spawned the discovery of modern chemotherapy drugs. A thousand years earlier, city fathers feared growing Muslim influence over the tomb of Saint Nicholas, and went to retrieve his remains.  Find him, they did.  Saint Nicholas’ large bones were removed and brought back as holy relics to Bari, where they remain, to this day.  Smaller fragments were removed during the 1st Crusade and brought back to Venice, or enshrined in basilica from Moscow to Normandy.  According to one local antiquarian, the “Tomb of Saint Nicholas” in Ireland, is probably that of a local priest.

Feature image, top of page:  Hat tip GP Cox.  I don’t know where you got it, but I Love this image.  Merry Christmas and all the best for a healthy and prosperous New Year to you and yours, from Mr. & Mrs. Cape Cod Curmudgeon.

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