February 17, 1895 Yellow Journalism

Circulation wars were white hot in those days, competing papers using anything possible to get an edge. Real-life street urchins hawked lurid headlines, heavy on scandal-mongering and light on verifiable fact. Whatever it took, to increase circulation.

YellowKidMickey Dugan was “born” on February 17, 1895, a wise-cracking street urchin from the wrong side of the tracks.  “Generous to a fault” with a “sunny disposition” Mickey was the kind of street kid you’d find in New York’s turn-of-the-century slums, maybe hawking newspapers. “Extra, Extra, read all about it!”

With his head shaved as if recently ridden of lice, Mickey was one of thousands of homeless urchins roaming the back lots and tenements of the city, not so much an individual as an archetype. Mickey Dugan was a cartoon character, the child of artist and “Buster Brown” creator, Richard Outcault.

Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” strip, one of the first regular Sunday newspaper cartoons in the country, became colorized by May of 1895. For the first time Mickey Dugan’s oversize, hand-me-down nightshirt was depicted in yellow.  Readers soon forgot his name.  He was simply “the Yellow kid”.

000789.1LOutcault worked for Joseph Pulitzer in those days, owner of the New York World Newspaper. Arch rival William Randolph Hearst hired the cartoonist away to work for Pulitzer’s cross-town competitor Journal American, but the pair soon learned that there was no copyright protection on the Yellow Kid. Soon the character was simultaneously appearing in both competing newspaper strips, where he would remain for over a year.

Circulation wars were white hot in those days, competing papers using anything possible to get an edge.  Real-life street urchins hawked lurid headlines, heavy on scandal-mongering and light on verifiable fact. Whatever it took, to increase circulation.

The Yellow Kid ceased to be of interest by 1898, but he lived on in a way, in the style of newspaper reporting which came to be known as “yellow journalism”.

PulitzerHearstWarYellowKids.jpg

After two wars for independence from Spain, the Caribbean island of Cuba found its economy increasingly intertwined with that of the United States. From the Spanish perspective, Cuba was more of a province than a colony, they were not about to relinquish a foot of territory. When the Cuban Rebellion of 1895 broke out, don Valeriano Weyler’s brutal repressions killed hundreds of thousands in Cuban concentration camps.

In America, some saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, in their own revolution of a hundred-odd years earlier. Fearing the economic repercussions of a drawn out conflict, shipping and other business interests put pressure on President McKinley to intervene. Meanwhile, the yellow papers kept the issue front page, whipping up popular fury with tales of the noble Cuban revolutionary and the barbaric Spaniard. There were even tales of American women being publicly strip searched by Spanish authorities.

USS_Maine01
USS Maine

The armored cruiser USS Maine left Key West headed for Cuba in January 1898, to protect US interests and to emphasize the need for a quick resolution to the conflict. Anchored in Havana Harbor on February 15, a massive explosion of unknown origin rocked the Maine, sinking the cruiser within minutes and killing 266 of the 355 Americans on board.

The McKinley administration urged calm. Conditions in Cuba were bad enough, but front page headlines like “Spanish Murderers” and “Remember the Maine” accompanied sensationalized accounts of Spanish brutality. War became all but inevitable when US Navy findings were released that March, stating that an external explosion had doomed the Maine.

MaineThe Spanish-American War began the following month, directly resulting in the Philippine-American war.

There is a story, that illustrator Frederic Remington said there was no war brewing in Cuba. Hearst is supposed to have replied. “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” The story may be apocryphal. The media can’t tell us what to think, but they can certainly control what we think ABOUT. Hearst and Pulitzer had clamored for two years for war with Spain, and they were happy to take credit when it came. Besides, it was good for circulation. A week after the Spanish-American War began in April, Hearst’s American Journal ran the headline “How do you like the Journal’s war?” Front page, above the fold.

spanish-american
War Propaganda

It’s been said that you should never pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. I disagree. I have broken that dictum myself and recommend the practice to anyone so inclined. For all the Wizard of Oz antics of the print and electronic media, there remains only the one man behind the curtain. President Reagan once said of the Soviet Union, “doveryai no proveryai” (trust, but verify). He might have said the same of an information industry whose business model it is, to rent an audience to a sponsor.

In 1976, a team of American naval investigators concluded that the Maine explosion was likely caused by a fire which ignited its ammunition stocks, not by Spanish mine or act of sabotage.

Small consolation it was to 3,289 Americans and an estimated 90,000 Spaniards, killed in “the Journal’s war”. Nor to the loved ones, they left behind.

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.
Advertisements

January 30, 1752 Founding Philanderer

Not that he could’ve have done anything about it, even if the husband did find out.  Morris walked with a peg, his left leg severed below the knee in a carriage accident, lost while running from an angry husband.

nyc-pdf-manhattan-street-map-printable-street-guide-4
Midtown Street Grid

To drive the streets of Manhattan is to realize that someone had a plan for this place. You might not be able to get there for the congestion, but you can figure out how to do it. Not like the rabbit warren that is her sister city of Boston, that all but unnavigable melange of neighborhoods, grown together as the city expanded into former marshlands and harbor.

In grade school, we all learned the preamble to the Constitution. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” It’s considerably snappier than the original version:

We the people of the states of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare and establish the following constitution for the government of ourselves and our posterity.”

us-constitution

That West 53rd leads to East 53rd and runs next to 54th may be attributed to a committee of three, who fought (and won) the battle against the wide circles and grand plazas, once envisioned for “The City”. That we may be spared that stultifying recitation of our founding document may be laid at the feet of one member of that committee.

Today, his life is all but lost to history, among the familiar constellation of founding fathers.  If he’s remembered at all it’s for that funny name.  Gouverneur Morris.  And what a life it was.

morris_g
Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris was born this day in 1752, the son of Lewis Morris, Jr. and his second wife Sarah (Gouverneur) Morris. Abigail Adams informs us the name was pronounced “Governeer”.

Born to a wealthy New York land owning family, Morris was destined to a place among the founders. His half-brother Lewis signed the Declaration of Independence.  Nephew Lewis Richard served in the Vermont legislature and the US Congress.

As a member of the Continental Congress, Morris helped General George Washington secure funding, to keep the Continental Army in the field. A staunch ally of the Commander-in-Chief, Morris defended Washington against the “Conway Cabal“, the only serious effort to have the General unseated, as commander-in-chief.

gouverneur_morris_1789
Gouverneur Morris 1789

A staunch opponent of slavery, Morris derided the “peculiar institution” as “the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.”  Morris mocked the “3/5ths compromise”, that cynical effort to increase congressional representation based on “property”, who had no right to vote.

Upon what principle”, Morris asked, “is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included?”

And did I mention, Gouverneur Morris was a first-class Rake?

“Rake” is such a great word, short for “Rakehell” or Hellraiser’.  It’s a shame it’s fallen out of usage.  This isn’t the tool shed variety.  An 18th century Rake is a man habituated to dissolute conduct, a chronic libertine devoted to wine, women and song.  Emphasis on the Women and, no problem if they just happened to be married.

At a time when sexual attitudes were “buttoned up” to say the least, Gouverneur Morris was all but addicted to sex in public, given over to the excitement, of the risk at being caught.

As Minister Plenipotentiary to France in the wake of the American Revolution, Morris writes of one such dalliance in the hallway at the Louvre, then a Royal Residence.

wooden-leg-of-gouverneur-morris-new-york-historical-society-photo-by-the_adverse_possessors-cc-by-sa-2-5-426x640
Gouverneur Morris’ wooden leg

“Go to the Louvre… we take the Chance of Interruption and celebrate in the Passage while Mademoiselle (the woman’s daughter) is at the Harpsichord in the Drawing Room. The husband is below. Visitors are hourly expected. The Doors are all open.”

“Celebrate” was Morris’ code word for…well…you know.

Not that he could’ve done anything about it, even if the husband did find out.  Morris walked with a peg, his left leg severed below the knee in a carriage accident, lost while running from an angry husband.

That wooden leg actually helped him one time, as the French Revolution spiraled downward toward the homicidal madness  known as the “Reign of Terror“. While riding in a carriage, a sign of the aristocracy, a horde of sans coulotte attempted to seize the vehicle.  It may have cost Morris, his head.  Gouverneur Morris leaned out the window and shook the leg at them, momentarily shocking the mob into stunned silence. Whether the mob thought him a war veteran or just plain crazy is unknown, but the driver had just enough time, to get away.

800px-william_hogarth_027
18th century painting “A Rake’s Progress”, by English artist William Hogarth

Morris tried to raise enough to bribe the guards, to release King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  When that didn’t work out he bought the Queen’s furniture, and brought it home as a keepsake.

Morris finally “settled down” at age 57, but even that was a scandal.  That Anne Gary (“Nancy”) Randolph was twenty-two years younger than he was not so unusual, but marrying his housekeeper, was.  Worse still, the blushing bride had become pregnant by her own brother-in-law at age seventeen, and was tried for killing the baby.  On a plantation named “Bizarre’, no less.

Anne was acquitted of the charge of infanticide, but the scandal followed her, all her days.  Morris announced his marriage to her at his Christmas party.  In his diary, Gouverneur writes “I marry this day Anne Gary Randolph. No small surprise to my guests.”

1_bvbmve3hyozqr_ety3gckw
Whalebone

Toward the end of his life, Gouverneur Morris experienced problems with his urinary tract, probably the result of prostate cancer.  Believing there to be some blockage in his pipes, Morris tried the “Do-it-Yourself” approach to fixing the problem, with a piece of whalebone.

Unsurprisingly, the method caused himself considerable damage and massive infection.  The man who brought the Erie Canal to upstate New York died on November 6, 1813.  Six days later, the Columbian Centinal newspaper of Boston reported his death following “a short but distressing illness.”

I should say so.

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

 

 

January 22, 1968 Operation Chrome Dome

“Always remember, the flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, no matter where you may be”.  

To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible period.  Many of us who lived through it, feel the same way.

The communist world emerging from the “Great War” comprised the former Czarist state of Russia alone, the 1924 constitution promising a “federation of peoples equal in rights”. Instead, the Soviet system delivered a murderous, top-down authoritarian ideology, best exemplified by the deliberate murder by starvation of millions of its own citizens in Ukraine, the Holodomor, under the guise of agricultural “collectivization”. Here, the Party controlled the state, the military, the press and the economy.

At their best, the western democracies of the “First World” operated on the basis of classical liberalism with two or more distinct political parties, a free press and rule of law.

hydrogen_nuclear_bomb

In the wake of WW2, the two governing ideologies were irreconcilable, splitting the alliance which had once defeated Nazi Germany. The most destructive war in history had barely come to a close in 1946, when the Soviet state set itself to gobbling up the formerly non-communist states of eastern Europe. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered the most famous oration of the era on March 5, declaring “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The leaders of non-communist parties were discredited and intimidated, subjected to show trials and even execution. Albania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, East Germany: all were taken, often forcibly, into the Soviet embrace.

As the “Cold War” descended across the land, United States and allied nations of the “Western Bloc” sought to “contain” Soviet expansionism, extending military and financial aid to the western democracies and creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO alliance). With the Soviet Berlin Blockade of 1948 – ’49, the US Air Force together with the RAF and Royal Australian Air Force delivered 2,333,478 tons of freight in nearly a third of a million sorties. Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered the better part of the distance from the Earth, to the Sun.

The United States’ monopoly on the most destructive weapon system in history came to an end on August 29, 1949, with the ‘RDS-1’ explosion at the Semipalatinsk test site in modern-day Kazakhstan. The Soviet Union had the atomic bomb.

b-52chromedome

Today, the anti-communist tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy are reviled as excessive, as indeed some of them were. Yet, the Top Secret cable decryption program known as Venona and declassified only in 1995, revealed extensive Soviet espionage activities at Los Alamos National Laboratories, the State Department, Treasury, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and even the White House.

The 1950s were a time of escalating tensions and sometimes calamity:  the war in Korea, the “Space Race”, the beginning of American intervention in Vietnam.  The Cuban Revolution of 1959.  The exodus from Soviet-controlled East Germany to the west resulted in a “brain drain” of some 20% of the population, culminating in the “Berlin Crisis” of 1961.  First it was barbed wire and then a wall, complete with guard towers and mine fields.  Nobody else was getting out.

In 1957 – ’58, both American and Soviet authorities planned in a show of force, to Nuke the Moon.

United States Air Force General and Strategic Air Command (SAC) commander General Thomas Sarsfield Power introduced Operation Chrome Dome, placing thermonuclear weapons on permanent air patrol to provide a rapid “first strike” or retaliatory “second strike” in the event of nuclear war.

chromedome1964b52mission
1964 Operation Chrome Dome Map from Sheppard Air Force Base, TX – H/T Wikipedia

Missions initially departed Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas and flew across the United States and over New England, refueling over the Atlantic before heading north toward Soviet air space. Three separate missions were being flown by 1966, one East over the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, another north to Baffin Bay, and the third over Alaska.  12 missions per day, 365 days a year.

heres_every_interesting_detail_you_should_know_about_the_cold_war_640_25

The Department of Defense has a term for accidents involving nuclear weapons, warheads or components, which do not involve the immediate risk of nuclear war. They’re called “Broken Arrows“.

Broken Arrows include accidental or unexplained nuclear or non-nuclear detonation of an atomic weapon, the loss of such a weapon and the release of nuclear radiation resulting in public hazard, actual or potential. There have been 32 Broken Arrow incidents since 1950. As of this date, six nuclear weapons have been lost and never recovered.

Major “Kong” rides the bomb in the dark, 1964 comedy by Stanle Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”

Five such incidents are associated with Operation Chrome Dome:

• On January 24, 1961, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 nuclear weapons broke up in mid-air, dropping its payload in the area of Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five men bailed out and landed safely. One bailed out but did not survive the landing. Two more died in the crash.
• Two months later, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two nuclear weapons departed Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento before experiencing uncontrolled decompression. Forced to fly at a lower altitude and unable to meet its refueling aircraft, the bomber ran out of gas and crashed outside of Yuba City, California. The air crew safely bailed out, but a fireman was killed and several injured in an accident, while en-route to the scene.
• In 1964, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 53s was returning from Massachusetts to Georgia in heavy winter weather. Severe turbulence tore off a vertical stabilizer and the bomber crashed on the Stonewell Green farm, Near Meyersdale, Pennsylvania. Radar Bombardier Major Robert Townley was unable to bail out, and died in the crash. Navigator Major Robert Lee and tail gunner TSgt Melvin Wooten succumbed to injuries and hypothermia, on the ground. Only pilot Major Thomas McCormick and co-pilot Captain Parker Peedin, survived.
• On January 17, 1966, a B-52G bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refueling at 31,000-feet, over the Mediterranean. The tanker ignited, killing all four crew members. The bomber broke apart, killing three of seven.
• On January 21, 1968, a B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs over Baffin Bay developed an uncontrolled cabin fire, forcing seven crew to bail out. Six ejected safely. Co-pilot Leonard Svitenko gave up his ejection seat when the third pilot took over, and sustained fatal head injuries while bailing out from a lower hatch. The bomber crashed on sea ice over 770-feet of water in North Star Bay in Greenland, a territory under Danish jurisdiction. Conventional explosives detonated in the crash, dispersing radioactive material, for miles.

For days, the only way to the crash site, was by dog sled. With average daytime temperatures of -25° and 80-MPH winds, “Project Crested Ice” was better known by those who were there as “Dr. Freezelove”.  The cleanup involved 562 American and Danish personnel, removing twenty-seven 25,000-gallon containers of contaminated snow and ice.

800px-crested_ice_tank_loading

The Thule Air Base accident became an international incident, resulting in termination of Operation Chrome Dome on January 22, 1968.  From that day to this, the next thermonuclear war will have to start from the ground.

At the height of the Cold war, civil defense film character Bert the Turtle advised  school children to “Duck and Cover”.  Kids across the nation were shown this film, I was one of them.  “Always remember“, says the narrator.,”the flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, no matter where you may be“.

Probably explains a lot, about my generation.

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

January 18, 1943 Chickenfeed

The United States Supreme Court, apparently afraid of President Roosevelt and his aggressive and illegal “court packing” scheme, ruled against the farmer. Ever since, what you don’t do can be argued in a court of law to impact interstate conditions, putting what you didn’t do under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Get it? Neither do I, but I digress.

The first bread slicer was invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, in 1912. The idea was unpopular among bakers, who feared that pre-sliced bread would go stale faster, leading to spoiled inventory and dissatisfied customers.

The project almost ended in a fire in 1917, when a fire destroyed the prototype along with the blueprints. Rohwedder soldiered on.  By 1927, he had scraped up enough financing to rebuild his bread slicer.

sliced-breadFrank Bench, a personal friend of the inventor, was the first to install the machine.  The first pre-sliced loaf was sold in July of the following year. Customers loved the convenience and Bench’s bread sales shot through the roof.

Sliced bread became a national hit when the Continental Baking Company, then-owner of the “Wonder Bread” brand, began using a modified version of Rowhedder’s machine in 1930.  Sliced bread was here to stay. Sort of.

These were the early days of the Great Depression.  Nine million savings accounts were wiped out in the first three years.  Federal agricultural officials conceived the hare brained idea that artificially introduced scarcity would raise prices and therefore wages, in the agricultural sector.  No fewer than six million hogs were destroyed in 1933, alone. Not harvested, just destroyed and thrown away at a time when a 22.9% unemployment led the way to widespread malnutrition and hunger.

470,000 cattle were shot in Nebraska alone. Vast quantities of milk were poured down sewers, and whole cotton fields, plowed under.

755px-us_employment_graph_-_1920_to_1940.svg
US unemployment, 1920-’40

Whether because of or despite government policies, unemployment dropped from 25% to 9% during Roosevelt’s first time (1933 – ’37), then more than doubled to 19%, in 1938.

250px-claude_r._wickard_2
Claude R. Wickard

The “Second New Deal” saw a blizzard of social welfare programs, all but crowding out the productive bits of the economy.  The Great Depression not so much as ended but paused, with the onset of WW2.

US entry into WW2 was in its second year in 1943 when Claude Wickard, head of the War Foods Administration and Secretary of Agriculture, had the hare brained idea of banning sliced bread.

Mr. Wickard was no stranger to hare brained ideas; it is he who lends his name to the landmark Supreme Court case Wickard v. Filburn.

Speaking of hare brained ideas.  The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 limited the area that farmers could devote to wheat production, in an effort to stabilize the price of wheat. Ohio farmer Roscoe Filburn was producing more than his allotment, and the federal government ordered him to destroy the surplus and pay a fine, even though his “surplus” was being consumed on the farm by the Filburn family, and their chickens.

commerceclauseArticle 1, Section 8 of the Constitution includes the “Commerce Clause”,  permitting the Congress “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”. That’s it.

The Federal District Court sided with the farmer, but the Federal government appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that, by withholding his surplus from the interstate wheat market, Filburn was effecting prices and therefore fell under federal government jurisdiction under the commerce clause.

slicedbreadban-january18.1943The United States Supreme Court, apparently afraid of President Roosevelt and his aggressive and illegal “court packing” scheme, ruled against the farmer. Ever since, what you don’t do can be argued in a court of law to impact interstate conditions, putting what you didn’t do under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Get it? Neither do I, but I digress.

Back to Mr. Wickard, who enacted his ban against sliced bread and put it into effect on January 18, 1943. The push-back, as you might guess, was immediate and vehement. One woman took up her pen, and wrote to the New York Times: “I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household. My husband and four children are all in a rush during and after breakfast. Without ready-sliced bread I must do the slicing for toast—two pieces for each one—that’s ten. For their lunches I must cut by hand at least twenty slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!”

big-governmentThe stated reasons for the ban never did make sense. At various times, Wickard claimed that it was to conserve wax paper, wheat or steel, but one reason was goofier than the one before. According to the War Production Board, most bakeries had plenty of wax paper supplies on hand, even if they didn’t buy any.  Furthermore, the federal government had a billion bushels of wheat stockpiled at the time, about two years’ supply, and the amount of steel saved by not making bread slicers has got to be marginal, at best.

The ban was rescinded on March 8, 1943, and pre-sliced bread was once again available to the federal government and its subjects. There’s no telling who first used the expression “the greatest thing since sliced bread”, but a reasonable guess may be made as to why.

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

January 10, 1927 Poison Hooch

It’s a crazy, mixed up world full of nut job conspiracy theories. This is not one of those.

prohibition3The Eighteenth Amendment establishing the national prohibition of “intoxicating liquors” was passed out of Congress on December 17, 1917 and sent to the states, for ratification. The National Prohibition or “Volstead” act, so named for Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Andrew Volstead, was enacted to carry out its intent.

At last ratified in January 1919, “Prohibition” went into effect at midnight, January 16, 1920. For thirteen years, it was illegal to import, export, transport or sell liquor, wine or beer in the United States.

“Industrial alcohol” such as solvents, polishes and fuels were “denatured” and rendered unpalatable by the addition of dyes and chemicals.  The problem was, it wasn’t long before bootleggers figured out how to “renature” the stuff. The Treasury Department, in charge of enforcement at that time, estimated that over 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were stolen during Prohibition.

war-propaganda
War-propaganda

Not to be defied, the government upped the ante. By the end of 1926, denaturing processes were reformulated with the introduction of known poisons such as kerosene, gasoline, iodine, zinc, nicotine, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, quinine and acetone. Better still, Treasury officials required no less than 10% by volume of methanol, a virulent toxin used in anti-freeze.

You can renature all you want. that stuff isn’t coming out.

On Christmas eve 1926, sixty people wound up at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, desperately ill from contaminated alcohol. Eight of them died. Two days later the death toll was thirty-one. By New Year’s Day the number had soared to 400, with no end in sight.

copper-still
A copper still and bucket, like those used in the creation and renaturing of alcohol at home. H’T allthatsinteresting.com, and Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Many who didn’t die, may have wished it. Drinkers experienced hallucinations, uncontrollable vomiting, even blindness.

In its January 10, 1927 issue, TIME Magazine reported  a doubling in toxicity levels, from the new method:  “The new formula included “4 parts methanol (wood alcohol), 2.25 parts pyridine bases, 0.5 parts benzene to 100 parts ethyl alcohol” and, as TIME noted, “Three ordinary drinks of this may cause blindness. (In case you didn’t guess, “blind drink” isn’t just a figure of speech.)”

New York medical examiner Charles Norris was quick to understand the problem, and organized a press conference to warn of the danger. “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol,” he said. “Yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”

Norris pointed out that the poorest people of the city, were most likely to be victims: “Those who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low-grade stuff”.

The towering sanctimony of the other side, is hard to believe.  Teetotalers argued that the dead had “brought it on themselves”. Long-time leader of the anti-saloon league Wayne B. Wheeler claimed “The Government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide.”

prohibition_2

In the thirteen years of its existence, Prohibition was an unmitigated disaster.  Portable stills went on sale within a week of enactment, and organized smuggling was quick to follow. California grape growers increased acreage by over 700% over the first five years, selling dry blocks of grapes as “bricks of rhine” or “blocks of port”. The mayor of New York City sent instructions to his constituents, on how to make wine.

Smuggling operations became widespread, as cars were souped up to outrun “the law”. This would lead to competitive car racing, beginning first on the streets and back roads and later moving to dedicated race tracks. It’s why we have NASCAR, today.

alcohol_poison_passed

Organized crime became vastly more powerful due to the influx of enormous sums of cash. The corruption of public officials was a national scandal.

Gaining convictions for breaking a law that everyone hated became increasingly difficult. The first 4,000 prohibition-related arrests resulted in only six convictions, and not one jail sentence.

It’s hard to compare alcohol consumption rates before and during prohibition but, if death by cirrhosis of the liver is any indication, alcohol consumption wasn’t reduced by any more than 10 to 20 per cent.

In the end, even John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong teetotaler who contributed $350,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, had to announce his support for repeal.

On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth and voiding the Volstead Act, returning control over alcohol policy to the states.

Federal officials continued to poison industrial alcohol until the very end, resulting in the death of some 10,000 citizens.   They didn’t even pretend not to know, what was happening.  Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Seymour Lowman may have had the last word, among those who would say “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”.  Lowman opined that, if deliberately poisoned alcohol resulted in a more sober nation, then “a good job will have been done.”

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

January 8, 1835 When the Dollar Dies

You’ve worked all your life. You’ve supported your family, paid your taxes, and met your every obligation. You even managed to put a few bucks aside, in hopes of a long and happy retirement. What happens to that retirement “nest egg”, when the cost of the coffee in your hand doubles in the time it takes to drink it?

You’ve worked all your life. You’ve supported your family, paid your taxes, and met your every obligation. You’ve even managed to put a few bucks aside, in hopes of a long and happy retirement.

The subject of currency devaluation is normally left to eggheads and academics, the very term sufficient to make most of us tip over and hit our heads on the floor, from boredom. But, what happens to that “nest egg”, when the cost of the coffee in your hand doubles in the time it takes to drink it?

History records 58 such instances of hyperinflation. The economic train wreck socialism has wrought on Venezuela, constitutes #59. This in a country with the largest proven oil reserves on the planet.

In antiquity, Roman law required a high silver content in the coinage of the realm. Precious metal made the coins themselves objects of value. The Roman economy remained relatively stable for 500 years. Republic morphed into Empire over the 1st century BC, leading to a conga line of Emperors minting mountains of coins in their own likeness. Slaves were worked to death in Spanish silver mines. Birds fell from the sky over vast smelting fires, yet there was never enough to go around. Silver content was inexorably reduced until the currency itself collapsed in the 3rd century reign of Diocletian.

An Empire and its citizens were left to barter as best they could, in a world where money had no value.

The assistance of French King Louis XIV was invaluable to Revolution-era Americans, at a time when colonial inflation rates approached 50% per month. Even so, French state income was only about 357 million livres at that time, with expenses exceeding one-half Billion.

France descended into a Revolution of its own, in the wake of the American conflict. The government printed “assignat”, notes purportedly backed by 4 billion livres in property expropriated form the church. 912 million livres were in circulation in 1791, rising to nearly 46 billion in 1796.

One historian described the economic policy of the leftist radicals behind the Reign of Terror: “The attitude of the Jacobins about finances can be quite simply stated as an utter exhaustion of the present at the expense of the future”.

Somehow, that sounds familiar.

Paper money crashed in the post-Revolutionary Articles of Confederation period as well, when you could buy a live sheep for two silver dollars, or 150 “Continental” (paper) dollars.

Roles reversed and creditors hid from debtors, not wanting to be repaid in worthless scrip. Generations after our founding, a thing could be described as worthless as “Not worth a Continental”.

Germany was a prosperous country in 1914, with a gold-backed currency and thriving industries in optics, chemicals and machinery. The Deutsche Mark had approximately equal value with the British shilling, the French Franc and the Italian Lira, with an exchange rate of four or five to the dollar.

That was then.

While the French third Republic levied an income tax to pay for the “Great War”, the Kaiser suspended the gold standard and fought the war on credit, believing he’d get it back from conquered territories.

Except, Germany lost. The “Carthaginian peace” described by British economist John Maynard Keynes saddled an economy already massively burdened by war debt, with reparations. Children built ‘forts’ with bundles of hyperinflated, worthless marks. Women fed banknotes into wood stoves, while men papered walls with them. By November 1923, one US dollar bought 4,210,500,000,000 German marks.

The despair of the ‘Weimar Republic’ period resulted in massive political instability, providing rich soil for the growth of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, of Adolf Hitler.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was also on the losing side, and broken up after the war. Lacking the governmental structures of more established states, a newly independent Hungary began to experience inflation. Before the war, one US Dollar bought you 5 Kronen. In 1924, it was 70,000. Hungary replaced the Kronen with the Pengö in 1926, pegged to a rate of 12,500/1.

Hungary became a battleground in the latter stages of WW2, between the military forces of Nazi Germany and those of the USSR. 90% of Hungarian industrial capacity was damaged, half destroyed altogether. Transportation became difficult with most of the nation’s rail capacity, damaged or destroyed. What remained was either carted off to Germany, or seized by the Russians as reparations.

The loss of all that productive capacity resulted in scarcity of goods, and prices began to rise. The government responded by printing money. Total currency in circulation in July 1945 stood at 25 Billion Pengö. Money supply rose to 1.65 Trillion by January, 65 Quadrillion that Spring and 47 Septillion, in July. That’s a Trillion Trillion. Twenty-four zeroes.

Banks received low rate loans, so that money could be loaned to companies to rebuild. The government hired workers directly, giving out loans to others and in many cases, outright grants. The country was flooded with money, the stuff virtually grew on trees, but there was nothing to back it up.

Inflation approached escape velocity. The item that cost you 379 Pengö in September 1945, cost 1,872,910 by March, 35,790,276 in April, and 862 Billion in June. Inflation neared 150,000% per day, making the currency all but worthless. Massive printing of money accomplished the cube root of zero. The worst hyperinflation in history peaked in 1946, when the item that cost you 379 Pengö last September, now cost 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

The government responded by changing the name, and the color, of the currency. The Pengö was replaced by the Milpengö (1,000,000 Pengö), which was replaced by the Bilpengö (1,000,000,000,000), and finally by the (supposedly) inflation-indexed Adopengö. This spiral resulted in the largest denominated note in history, the Milliard Bilpengö. A Billion Trillion Pengö.

The thing was worth twelve cents.

One more replacement and all that Keynesian largesse would finally stabilize the currency, but at what price? Real wages were reduced by 80% and creditors wiped out. The fate of the nation was sealed when communists seized power in 1949. Hungarians could now share in that old Soviet joke. “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.

The ten worst hyperinflations in history occurred during the 20th century, including Zimbabwe in 2008, Yugoslavia 1994, Germany 1923, Greece 1944, Poland 1921, Mexico 1982, Brazil 1994, Argentina 1981, and Taiwan 1949. The common denominator in all ten were massive government debt and a currency with no inherent value, excepting what a willing buyer and a willing seller agreed it was worth.

In 2015, Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff testified before the Senate Budget Committee. “The first point I want to get across” he said, “is that our nation is broke. Our nation’s broke, and it’s not broke in 75 years or 50 years or 25 years or 10 years. It’s broke today”. Kotlikoff went on to describe a “fiscal gap”, the difference between US’ projected revenue, and the obligations our government has saddled us with. “We have a $210 trillion fiscal gap at this point”. Nearly twelve times GDP – the sum total of all goods and services produced in the United States.

American public debt hit zero for the first and only time in history on this day in 1835. The number now approaches twenty-two Trillion, more than the combined GDP of the bottom 174 nations, on earth. All that, in a currency unmoored from anything of objective value. What could go wrong?

December 20, 1871 Honey, I Sold the Jail

It’s hard to know who first used the term, ‘insensate obstinacy’.  Churchill once described Stalin thus. Seems like the description could be applied to certain characters in this tale, as well.

The tracks reached Harvard Nebraska on December 20, 1871, the next town after Grafton and one of a series named in alphabetical order, connected by the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad.

There’s a lot of history in Harvard Nebraska. Nine months after the American entry into WW2, the town became home to a satellite Army Airfield, just outside of town. Twenty-six bombardment squadrons trained up at Harvard AAF, complete with five hangars performing air frame and engine repairs for B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers. There were 6,000 officers and men there, at it’s peak.

In August 1943, the town was scene to a tragic midair collision between three B-17 bombers, killing fourteen and raining debris across Nebraska farms.

220px-Victory-gardenOn a lighter note, town government sold the jail once. To a sixteen-year-old kid. For a buck and a half and he sold it to a dummy, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.

“War gardens” or “food gardens for defense” were a staple part of the home front for combatants on both sides, of two world wars. Fruits and vegetables were planted on private properties and public parks as a way to boost civic morale, while supplementing wartime ration cards and taking pressure off public food supplies. George Washington Carver called them “Victory Gardens”.

In 1943, Robert Pinckney was the sixteen-year-old son of a local physician. The boy was looking for lots he could use for victory gardens, when he noticed that someone at Town Hall, had goofed. The two-cell jail was listed among properties for sale. They laughed at him at the office, when he showed them their mistake.   So he bought it.  For $1.50.

It’s hard to know who first used the term, ‘insensate obstinacy’.  Winston Churchill once described Stalin thus. Seems like the description could be applied to certain characters in this tale, as well.

Edgar_Bergen_Charlie_McCarthy_1947
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, 1947

Even after Pinckney received the deed, town officials continued to house their criminals, in his jail house. The boy retained an attorney and attempted to sue for rent owed, only to be met with petty and vindictive measures by town employees who even now, refused to admit their mistake. He could get rent, but he had to pull up the sidewalk, first. Pinckney offered to sell the property back to the town but he couldn’t enter into a contract, because he was too young.  He couldn’t deed the place over, until he turned 21.

Town government tried to keep the embarrassment under wraps, until Time magazine got hold of it and the story became national news.

A wounded sailor recovering in Los Angeles, suggested the boy put the property up for a war bonds auction. That he did, and Charlie McCarthy, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s famous wooden dummy, bought the jail for $10,000, in war bonds.

After a while, the publicity died down.  Bergen’s dummy quietly deeded the jail back, to the town.  You can still find it there, at 151-185 West Oak Street, Harvard, Clay County, Nebraska.  It’s a small place.  Just take the main road, you can’t miss it.  A glittering monument to teenage enterprise.  And the insensate obstinacy, of government.

Feature image, top of page:  Harvard Nebraska jailhouse, once sold for $1.50, to a sixteen year old kid.

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.