Friday, June 29

Eugene and Barb - A Very Lucky Pair

"Lucky" Fluckey
By Grant Davies

On this day (-1) in 2007, an American hero, Rear Admiral Eugene Bennett Fluckey, passed away at the age of ninety-three. He was a Medal of Honor winner and this entire article could be about his remarkable life and times. But instead, this story will be about one of the most incredible adventures of the Second World War. As you might have guessed, the main character in this account was none other than Fluckey himself. 

The date was July 23rd, 1945 and the war was winding down. Of course, no one knew that at the time. It was thought that an invasion of Japan would be needed to end the war. A horrific loss of human life on both sides was expected. Up til that time, there had been no ground combat operation on Japanese homeland soil. And as it turns out, the one in our story is the only one that would ever occur.

So it's a tad ironic that when it happened it would be sailors, not soldiers, who accomplished the successful feat. More ironic still, the vessel was a US submarine, and Eugene "Lucky" Fluckey was her skipper. The sub was the USS Barb, and she had had much success in sinking enemy ships during her service thus far. So much success that it only seemed fitting that she set her sights a little higher, perhaps even higher than a surface vessel. Maybe something up on dry land, perhaps a train or something. 

USS Barb
You got it, "Lucky Fluckey" decided to bag a train, and the USS Barb remains the only sub ever to "sink" one. 

It was Fluckey's last cruise and he wanted someone other than himself to go out with a bang. So on July 18th, in the early morning hours as he perused the map of  "Patience Bay", where they were sent to harass the enemy and generally fight the war, he spotted the rail line running right along the coast. So close you could almost smell the smokestack soot. He immediately knew that blowing up the rails was smack dab in the middle of his job description. What he didn't know was that his crew had an even better idea.

Since the trains were carrying supplies to fuel the Japanese war machine, perhaps even ammunition, blowing up the train itself became the topic of discussion. Fluckey knew that planting an explosive beneath the rails under the cover of darkness and setting it off remotely was one thing, but blowing up the train itself would require sailors to be up close and personal, and he decided that putting his men in that kind of danger was quite another thing.

Now Gene's luck really kicked in, in the person of crewman Billy Hatfield. Hatfield remembered that as a kid back home, he used to put walnuts between the rail and the tie, and let the weight of the passing train crack them open. He reasoned that an electrical pressure switch could be activated in the same manner, and when he told the Captain, work began on fabricating such a device out of things to be found aboard.

The rest of the details were worked out, digging tools were manufactured, training for the mission was completed and all that was left was to get the proper cloud cover so the operation could proceed undetected. 

When the time came, the raiding party went ashore, and they were very lucky again. One man, John Markuson, was assigned to check out a nearby water tower. But when he began to climb it he realized that it was occupied by an enemy sentry. Luckily the guy was asleep. Markuson slowly climbed back down, alerted the others and the digging began in a slower, quieter manner.

The squad wasn't even back to the sub, which was sitting in just six feet of water, when a train appeared. They were paddling their craft back to her like men possessed when the train blew sky high. Fluckey had brought his boat incredibly close to shore with the men's safety in mind and was now able to pilot the sub slowly back to deeper water where she could submerge and escape.

Anything could have gone wrong at any time, but Fluckey was lucky. And so was his country. To have such  skill and bravery at the right place and time is lucky. But then again, considering all the other stories we've never heard about our guys during wartime, it may be more than luck.

The idea and information for this story was submitted by regular reader Captain Kevin McCann USMC (Ret). This is the second time that the Captain has won our "15 Seconds of Fame" award for bringing a story to our attention that later becomes a published post. Congratulations "Cappy." Keep 'em coming!

Thursday, June 28

His Will Be Done

By Grant Davies

On this day in 1829, an Englishman named James Lewis Macie passed away in Italy after a long illness. Actually, he was a Frenchman (kind of), and his name wasn't actually Macie, but we'll get to all that later. 

We can be pretty sure his children would have greatly mourned his passing, but as it turns out, he never had any children, or even a wife for that matter. His only relative was a nephew, who we might speculate, may have been less sad than some since he stood to inherit a rather sizable estate after old Uncle Jim cashed in his chips.

History doesn't tell us exactly what their personal relationship was, but for reasons that only Macie knew he didn't leave his rather substantial estate to him, per se. Rather, his will stipulated that his fortune be bequeathed to his nephew's children, if he ever had any. But of course, he didn't. (Resist the temptation to click on some other website for a moment, there actually is a point to all this.)

James' family situation was always rather tricky. He was born in secrecy in Paris, the bastard son of the first Duke of Northumberland, a dude named Hugh Smithson. His mother was Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a rather rich widow, who in addition to being the Duke's mistress, was also the Duke's wife's cousin. See? I told you it was tricky.

Anyway, when his mother died, Macie got pretty wealthy from his share of the inheritance. He changed his name to Smithson, and became a naturalized British citizen. He went to college, learned a lot about mineralogy, discovered some important stuff, and published a raft of scientific papers on everything from a better way to make a blow-pipe to a better way to make coffee. He started kicking back with a bunch of the most important scientists of the day and was generally acknowledged to be one of them himself.

Umm, where was I? Oh yeah, James Smithson died. And his nephew died a few years later with no heirs of his own. So, per the provisions of his will, he gave all his money to the United States government. Huh?

That's right, he gave over $500,000 (which was a whole bunch of dough before the FED started protecting its value) "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men."

So a guy who had never been to the US while living, but now resides here under one of the museums that bears his name, started the most popular attraction in Washington DC for reasons no one will ever really know. Somehow I'm pretty confident that if you or I willed our money to the US government it wouldn't turn out quite the same way.

Tuesday, June 26

Finding the Funds

By Art Cashin

On this day in 1635 (give or take a decade or two), the British merchant fleet learned yet one more thing from their Dutch antecedents. 

As you will recall from fourth grade (yes, Sister, I promise I'm listening, put down dat ruler please!), at about this time, the Brits, French and Spanish were busy fussing about things like primogeniture and feudal  estates or 30 year wars (give or take a decade or two).  Meanwhile, the Dutch were trading the astrolabes off everybody. While most nations were taxing, taking, shooting and sinking other folks, the Dutch were building ships for merchandise not munitions.  In addition to promoting free trade, free ports and building ships designed to minimize labor and increase cargo, the wooden shoe crew knew they needed accountability…..and that meant accounting. 

Each ship sailed with enough of an allowance to provide for the needs of the ship, the officers and the crew during the voyage as well as for the purchase of the goods to be brought back.  Unless you are an MBA, you may have already realized that having the most money available for purchase of goods for cargo might make you a very wealthy captain when and if you got home safely and when and if the ship's owners whacked the profit up with you.

Now even if you are an MBA, you may already realize that this might lead captains not to be too free with money, fresh fruit and grog with the crew.  In fact, the crew had little control over anything except what they; rather how much they ate of what was served.  (Don't get tired we're almost to the point.) 

Anyway, the English sailors introduced an entrepreneurial and democratic spin on the rules laid down by the accountants.  Since their main compensation was not set till the end of each voyage and then only by the random price for cargo in the port when they arrived, the sailors tried to find a way to match their efforts to their ship’s success. 

Their provisions were mostly beans and salt pork.  If you didn't eat all the salt pork on your plate, the cook could rend the scraps down to a kind of tallow which on board ship was called slosh or slush.  The slush was used to make candles to fuel lanterns, or to grease capstans, masts or blocks.  But sailors found that some ports into which they sailed lacked animals and thus those folks had little tallow or slush to make their own candles, they would pay a premium for the slush.  The money that was gained from the sale was used by the crew for needed repairs that the bean counters either didn't envision or wouldn't pay for.  

And thus, on this day (give or take a decade or two), the special account from the slush or the "slush fund" was established. 

Monday, June 25

The Great Stink of 1858

By Grant Davies

On this day in 1858, things were starting to warm up in London. In fact, before the hot and dry spell was over people could be overheard complaining, "Blimey guvneh! this place really stinks!"

But it wasn't the weather that was so stinky; it was the whole city. The Thames had pretty much stopped moving, and if it wasn't apparent to the less observant before then, it was odoriferously clear now that the whole river was nothing more than a gigantic stopped-up toilet.

The drop in the water level had caused the human waste (and almost every other horrible thing one can imagine that had been poured into the river for eons) to begin to accumulate on the banks and the resulting stench was so bad that no one could escape it. 

Oddly enough, it was a side effect of one of the best inventions of all time, the flush toilet, that set the horrific chain of events in motion, or lack thereof, as the case may be. And it's more than a little ironic that one of the main purposes of the invention was to make the unpleasant odors of the necessary act less smelly, not more.

In 1858, an already totally inadequate and literally sickening system for removing human poo was overwhelmed by the relatively sudden popularity of the new flushing device, and when the heat wave hit it finally became apparent to the dimwits in Parliament that there was a problem. That same august body had previously rejected the testimony of a doctor named John Snow, who had shown them scientific evidence that untold numbers of people were dying of Cholera because of the bad water, not the smells that emanated from it. Basically, people were, in effect, drinking from the cesspit. (Snow is now one of the most celebrated scientists of that century, but he was unheralded at the time. More about him in the future.)

Unfortunately, the stink was so bad that Parliament was unable to meet to discuss it even though they tried blocking the windows with curtains soaked in chloride of lime, which didn't help at all.

Actually, nothing anyone tried helped. Except the rains, and when they finally came and washed the immediate problem away, a silver lining emerged from the green cloud. Someone wised up and hired a guy named Joseph  Bazalgette, an engineer, to implement a plan that was conceived of ten years earlier to completely redo the sewer system. Better late than never.

So remember, if you have to hold your nose to vote for people to represent you in government, you're likely to get a crappy outcome when it comes to sniffing out problems.

Thursday, June 21

Yeah, That's It.. The Dead Guys Did It

By Art Cashin

On this day (+1) in 1611, an explorer whose name appears on some of the most important properties in North America disappeared.  But he didn't fall off the end of the earth nor did he evaporate into some strange jungle.  Rather he just fell out of sight of his ship. 

His name was Henry Hudson and he was a  free-lance explorer (a declining job classification just behind urban shepherd).   He had been working for British, Dutch and again British interests to find a northwest passage to the Indies.  In doing so he had found New York Harbor, the Hudson River, the Hudson Straits and Hudson's Bay. In his last voyage, an early winter laid ice around his vessel on Hudson's Bay.  The 
crew, who did not share his sense of adventure, demanded they winter in.  Hudson was a pussycat so he agreed. 

Over the winter, Hudson changed officers  to enforce his plan.  Those who were replaced incited the crew claiming that Hudson was giving food to favorites and kept an unfair share for himself.  Whether it was true or not we'll never know. We only know that the ice melted in early June and the ship was re-floated.  Hudson wanted to continue exploring.  The crew mutinied and set Hudson adrift in a longboat with his son and the sick.  He managed to trail the ship for a day until the winds picked up and the ship pulled away.  No one knows what became of Hudson (some suspect he died on an island near the straits).  

Of the crew however, much  is  known. Relieved of Hank's leadership, they put in to land to hunt provisions.  They managed to insult some Indians and half of them were killed.  The rest straggled back to Europe.  There, the Admiralty Court asked them who were the mutineers so they might hang them. The survivors testimony was - "You're not gonna believe this, Your Lordship, but the mutineers were the very lads killed by the Indians."  The Court thanked them for their honesty and sent them home. 

To celebrate stop by the location of the late lamented Hudson Burlesque in Union City then lift a stein at the Half Moon Inn.  Ask the bartender if he's got the obits so you can tell the boss whose fault it was for that problem at the office. 

Many thanks to Mr. Cashin and UBS Financial Services who graciously allow his historical musings to be republished on this site. To enjoy more of Art's posts simply click on "Cashin's Comments" in the label section on the sidebar.

Wednesday, June 20

And the Meek Shall Inherit..Oregon

By Grant Davies

On this day in 1875, a farmer in Oregon passed away at sixty-five years of age. It sounds like a pretty mundane event, but the man who died that day had lived anything but a mundane life.

Joe Meek was a big man who seemed determined to make himself even bigger. In his younger days he told stories about his experiences as a mountain man that were significantly taller then his six foot, two inch body. 

Wrestling a grizzly bear barehanded before dispatching it with a hatchet was a favorite, both for the teller and the listener. The Vegas line on him becoming a politician was better than even money, but since the only interested parties were a tad removed from the betting parlors, there wasn't much action.

Joe started out life in 1810 in Virginia and not much unusual happened until he got the wanderlust at seventeen and moved west to join his brothers in Missouri. From there he headed for the hills and things began to get interesting. He alternately made friends with, or fought against, native American people while trapping beaver and other critters in what later became Yellowstone Park. And since dating prospects were rather limited due to a lack of singles bars in the area, he decided to marry a Nez Perce girl whose father happened to be the chief. It was probably a good preventative measure against premature hair loss. The Blackfeet tribe however wasn't impressed. They considered him a trespasser and they spent some of their time trying to kill Joe. With the exception of one close call, they obviously had no success.

He went on to marry a few more Indian girls just for good measure. But it didn't work in the long run because in 1847 a band of  Cayuse and Umatilla Indians decided to kill a bunch of folks, fourteen in total, in a misunderstanding  that came to be known as The Whitman Massacre. Meek's daughter, Helen, a ten year old, was one of them and it irritated Joe enough to send him back east to have a chat with the President of the US, a guy named James Polk, whose wife just happened to be Joe's cousin.

Meeks arrived in Washington and promptly declared himself to be "envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary from the Republic of Oregon to the Court of the United States." He asked that Oregon be made a territory and the government send troops to defend the folks there against attacks by the locals. Everyone thought Joe was a cool guy and told great stories so Congress granted his request, made Oregon an official territory and the President named Meek a U.S. marshal. 

So Joe went back west and became an important politician. It all proves that in order to be in a position of power you only need a good story and to be meek, or Meek, as the case may be.

Monday, June 18

Saved by the Mud

By Art Cashin

On this day in 1815, one of history's most fateful and certainly most studied battles occurred.  Napoleon Bonaparte, who had escaped from exile on Elba only a touch more than 100 days before, now stood at the head of a huge army seemingly about to overrun an equally huge force of allies from five nations. 

If he succeeded all of Europe would fall under his control.  And, if there had been a Vegas, surely the Vegas line would have been take the little corporal and give the points. In fact Nappy's boys had routed the large Prussian force and then nearly panicked Wellington's forces just 36 hours before. 

But just as his cavalry was about to turn Wellington's retreat into a massacre, a sudden thunderstorm deluged the roads and the plains. Wellington's men limped to entrenchments and Nappy's boys, under Marshall Ney regrouped. On the 18th, as the sun rose, brutally fierce testing of battle-lines began.  The carnage was so great that one British officer noted in his diary that he had never heard of a battle in which everyone (on both sides) died but this might be a first. 

In mid-afternoon Nappy's boys began a new offensive and seemed to have the upper hand.  Suddenly the skies darkened again causing the French to pause.  At the same time the Scots Greys rode brazenly around their own lines and halted the offensive. Shortly before 7 p.m. the French tried one more time but suddenly the skies cleared, exposing the charging French to skirmish shooters in Wellington's forces. 

The Battle of Waterloo was lost and Napoleon resigned in four days, heading for St. Helena and pension plan - version II. 

Many thanks to Mr. Cashin and UBS Financial Services who graciously allow his historical musings to be republished on this site. To enjoy more of Art's posts simply click on "Cashin's Comments" in the label section on the sidebar.

Friday, June 15

The General and the Captain

Firefighters working to extinguish the General Slocum
By Grant Davies

On this day in 1904, an unlikely series of events led to one of the most horrific maritime tragedies in American history. Unlike some tragic events where it just seems everything goes wrong by chance, this one was brought on by the most astounding string of incompetent decisions the mind can contemplate. And the consequences were deadly.

The "General" in the title was the General Slocum, a fourteen year old riverboat steamer which had operated as an excursion boat around New York City since it was launched in 1891. The "Captain" was Captain William Van Schaik, the inept skipper of the craft.

As to the ship, its historical rap sheet looked like the plot for a novella titled "Jinxed." In the years leading up to the calamity the steamship had run aground four times, collided with other ships twice, and survived a riot on board by a group of anarchists. To top it all off, in a way, it was a ship that actually sank twice. After the initial trip to the bottom on the day of the final incident, the remains of her hull were dredged up and re-manufactured into a barge, which sank in a storm in 1911.

As to the Captain, his multiple blunders led to the deaths of 1,021 of the 1,342  passengers aboard her when she went up in flames, collapsed into herself, and sank to the shallow bottom of the East River, just off the Bronx shore. The vast majority of the victims were women and children from a Lutheran Church picnic outing. His irresponsibility had been festering for a long time and it came to a head when he left the dock in Manhattan badly overloaded with passengers. The earlier mistakes of omission he made were about to make the errors of commission all the more fatal.

You see, the ship might have been better named the "USS Deathtrap" because of all the safety equipment that didn't function. Some of that equipment, like the life preservers, was worse than merely useless, it actually caused deaths. The filling  inside them was mostly made of non-buoyant material which was used to meet minimum weight requirements. They had been manufactured in 1891 and had been left hanging outside exposed to the elements for thirteen years, so it's not known if they would have helped in any case. On many, the canvas that held them together just disintegrated with handling. Of the ones that held together; the children who were put into them sunk to the bottom and drowned immediately.

The tragedy unfolded as the ship made its way down the river. Somewhere between 90th Street and 83rd Street, a twelve year old boy tried to warn the captain and crew that there was a fire burning in a storeroom. Depending upon the account, either he was told by the captain to "shut up and mind his own business", or the crew merely ignored him. Either way, by the time they figured out he was right, the fire was out of control and the boat was doomed.

The fire hoses had never been checked or tested and they were rotted out. When the crew attempted to use them they just fell apart. The ship blazed on. The hapless captain decided not to dock at the nearest pier, and  instead made course for a small island in the river. That decision was the worst of the lot. He sailed into headwinds which fanned the flames. The lifeboats were tied so tightly to the ship they couldn't be moved and launched. (Some survivors later reported they were wired and painted into place.)

The Captain later explained his decision by saying he wanted to make sure the fire didn't spread if he docked at a pier. Umm.. I don't think so. No one at the time believed him either.

So, the General went to a watery grave and took over a thousand people with her, Captain Van Schaik went to Sing Sing for a few years, and this blog gets to tell the story of one of the most tragic and preventable calamities in New York history. (Just for the record, this blog would rather tell stories about cool inventions and interesting people.)

There are many more gruesome details to be told, but I'll spare you. That way at least someone can say they were spared some of the stupidity of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company.

Source material - 

Thursday, June 14

Tippecanoe and the Tyler Two

Harrison Tyler and his Presidential granddad
By Grant Davies

On this day in 1790, the tenth President of the US, John Tyler, was born. (Actually, it wasn't on this day at all;  the real date was March 29th, but I needed a segue into the story, so I made that part up.)

But this story has very little to do with Tyler anyway, and everything to do with how quickly time passes. It's about how events that happened so very long ago are really more recent than we perceive.

Time flies when you're having kids, and John knew quite a bit about how to make that happen. He had fifteen of them. And he was living proof that "the little blue pill" isn't necessary for everyone who desires to procreate at an age when lots of people in modern times are renewing their AARP cards.

John didn't need pills or cards; all he needed was a wife thirty years younger than him and the inclination to keep up with her. His first marriage lasted twenty-nine years and only ended when his wife, Letitia, passed away after suffering her second stroke. They had eight children, so the stroke isn't a total shock. It could just as well have been exhaustion.

Pretty soon John got lonely, and after about a year and a half, he married again. The second marriage was to a girl in her twenties, Julia Gardiner, who didn't waste too much time before she began turning out little Tylers apace. Her efforts almost tied the first Mrs. Tyler's record, but she came up one short at only seven. It may have saved her life. (That eighth one is a killer.)

Anyway, to cut to the chase, one of her last children was Lyon Gardiner Tyler, and he must have inherited the old man's lust (and endurance), because he fathered a few kids himself at an advanced age. Lyon was born in 1853, fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and then Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928. By my calculations, that makes him 75 years old when he last had a reproductive evening.

Those last two guys are still alive, and by all recent reports they have all the marbles they started with. They are active, fairly non-political, and give a pretty decent interview. And Harrison - presumably named after the President who died and left his granddad to be the first VP ever to ascend to the top - even retains his sense of humor about the proclivities of his family.

In 2004, statues of his great-grandfather (a Governor of Virginia who used to kick back with a buddy named Tom Jefferson), his grandfather (the 10th President of the US), and his father (the President of the College of William and Mary) were dedicated in a new garden on the campus of William and Mary. After the dedication ceremony he decided to take a stroll in the garden which had just been named to honor his family.

During his walk he came across two students near the statues who seemed to be having a "feel" for history. Pointing to the busts, he told them, "That's my father, that's my grandfather, and that's my great-grandfather, and they could not be any happier about what you all are using this for."

So the next time you hear someone at your local watering hole saying, "I know a guy who knew a guy, who blah, blah, blah", you might remember these two guys, who might actually say in all truthfulness, "my granddad was born in 1790. Whadda ya mean you don't believe me? Well try this, he was the President of the United States too!"

Wednesday, June 13

Danny Was a Late Bloomer

By Art Cashin

On this day (-1) in 1703, a crowd jeered as the London Constabulary led a rather motley fellow to the pillory (what we in America called the public stocks - "put your hands and head in the hole in the board please").

We said the guy was motley because of his description in the police report.  In modern English and modern police work it ran something like this - "medium height; bent frame, about 40 years old; swarthy complexion; a crooked nose and a large mole near his mouth."

And, it wasn't just his physical makeup that made him uninspiring.  Even his mom would be hard-pressed to boost his merit.   He failed at selling beer.  He failed at selling wine.  He even failed at selling tobacco, garments, cloth, even oysters.  Sensing he was not a salesman he tried manufacture - bricks: he failed - tile: he failed again - but you get the picture.

So....motley, friendless, and failed (and also in debt), he was locked in the pillory.  The crowd picked up rocks, mud and er...let's just say other odorous preparation of flinging at said felon.  As they moved closer (to get a better shot), the prisoner shouted that he would recite "A Hymn to the Pillory."  He then proceeded to make up a poem - line by line - and the crowd loved it.  He was an instant hero.

Released, he sensed writing could be his destiny. He tried a couple of topics but was happy with none of them.  For nearly twenty years, he remained happy with none of them.  Then he heard about a castaway sailor named Selkirk being rescued from an isolated island after being marooned for years.  That's the stuff, he thought - so Daniel DeFoe wrote something called "Robinson Crusoe" - then "Moll Flanders"; then - oh you get the point....

To mark the day, remember to note to the authorities that sometimes the pen is mightier than da pen....or even the pillory.  (Oh yeah!  Try to convince someone that you too are a late bloomer.)

Many thanks to Mr. Cashin and UBS Financial Services who graciously allow his historical musings to be republished on this site. To enjoy more of Art's posts simply click on "Cashin's Comments" in the label section on the sidebar.

Tuesday, June 12

The Forgotten Victims

By Grant Davies

On this day in 1994, two people were brutally murdered in an upscale suburb of Los Angeles called Brentwood. One was a lady named Nicole Brown Simpson and the other was her friend, Ronald Goldman. They were slashed to death (Nicole was nearly beheaded).

Despite the fact that virtually everyone familiar with the case knows who did it, no one has ever been convicted of the crime.

There is a mountain of evidence of every kind, including irrefutable forensic evidence, to show that  her ex-husband, former football player and movie personality, OJ Simpson, was the perpetrator.

His blood was found at the crime scene, an article of his clothing was left behind, the blood and  hair of the deceased, and fibers from their clothing, were found in his car and in his home. His car was seen leaving the scene (although that evidence was never introduced at trial) and footprints in the blood of the butchered pair matched his shoes.

He had a documented history of physical spousal abuse of the victim. After the murders he tried to escape. Initially flying to Chicago, and later as he was about to be arrested, fleeing in his car. A long car chase  ensued which was watched on live TV by half the country. He had a disguise, his passport, and many thousands of dollars of cash on him as he tried to get away. Wonderful entertainment.

His trial was the top entertainment event of the year, perhaps the decade. Many, many people and companies got wealthy off the tragic spectacle. Twelve people on the jury decided to let him off scot-free. It has been speculated that it was because of past judicial injustices based on racial prejudice. It's almost certain that the prosecution's case was lost during jury selection. No one in history (before or since), has ever been acquitted with as much evidence against them.

Simpson himself was shocked  to have gotten away with it. The rest of the country, including his lawyers, were equally shocked. The picture above captured the exact moment when the verdict was announced. The look on the faces of his attorneys tells it all.

Some people, for reasons of their own, or because they belong to some political  or racial clan, pretend that they believe he was innocent. But no one, in their heart of hearts, actually thinks he didn't do it. Some however, believe that justice was done, even if a hideous murderer went free.

It's terribly wrongheaded, even if intellectually understandable. It remains one of the darkest stains on the national conscience. Setting a guilty person free to atone for convicting an innocent one is a preposterous notion.

Just about everyone reading this already knew everything printed above. But just in case a younger reader has not been told, I felt compelled to restate the sad tale. Sorry, no punch line or attempt at a clever ending to today's history. Just bewilderment with the human condition.

Monday, June 11

A Catchy Story

By Grant Davies

Somewhere around this time in 1897, an Englishman named James Henry Atkinson - an iron worker by trade - decided to fiddle with a few things commonly found in any modern garage. But what he ended up with after a little trial and error proved to be more than just a little piddling fiddling. The resulting contraption became one of the least improved upon and most enduring inventions of all time.

Its purpose was to dispatch any Mus musculus who happened to entertain ideas of becoming a guest diner in your house, sans invitation. You guessed it; James did it.  He built a better mousetrap.

It's thought that James' lethal gadget was inspired by one designed by a guy named William C. Hooker of Abingdon, Illinois, who received a US patent for his design in 1894. His was the first spring-loaded vermin exterminator, but apparently it had a painfully common problem; it tended to snap closed on the fingers of the trapper as often as on the neck of the furry trapee.

So James tinkered a tad with Hooker's idea and came up with the design that endures to this very day. It still fools the little fools, even those who are smart enough to compete with Algernon. It just doesn't seem to occur to them that a little peanut butter dabbed on that tiny metal platter isn't dessert, but an invitation to dine at the "Afterlife Cafe."

Although his invention is deadly efficient, one need not worry too much about this species being added to the endangered rodent list. You see, although they are a tad gullible when it comes to peanut butter, they are smart enough to screw their way out of the larger problem. The math is simple, and although it probably never happens, two of these little humpers can produce a million descendants a year. We have a lot of peanut butter in the world, but not enough, so Mickey and his friends are safe as a group, if not as individuals.

James' product was called the "Little Nipper" and it sold like, well, like a better mousetrap. It's not known if there was a path worn to Atkinson's door, but he sold the patent rights for about £1000 and moved on anyway.

Friday, June 8

This Story Really Stinks

By Art Cashin

On this day in 1783, weeks of rumbling beneath Mt. Skaptar, a volcano in southern Iceland, ended with a roar.  And what a roar it was.

 Across a line of over 10 miles, the earth split as in an earthquake in a movie.  But instead of leaving a small canyon or valley, the rift in the earth poured forth massive amounts of molten lava and hazy blue gases. Over the next two months, it spewed out enough molten stuff to cover the entire island of Manhattan with a lava cover a mile high.  Looking for a place to go, the lava filled up riverbeds, harbors, seabeds and it melted centuries-old glaciers.  Thousands of people were either burned to death by the lava or drowned in the floods it caused.  The lava alone would have caused this to be rated one of history's great calamities.

But then there was the haze. The heavy, blue, sulphur-smelling haze spewed forth from the fissure and hung like a low cloud that grew and grew until it spread from Iceland southward to Gibraltar.  And it hung there.  And as it did, there  were reports of cattle dying in the field because their flesh had begun to eat them alive.  (Now where did I hear that before?)  Some humans had a similar experience.  Many more developed sudden open sores, sudden loss of hair and bleeding gums, finally dying in the streets.

Then things started to get bad.  Leaves fell off the trees and plants.  Birds, rabbits and other wildlife began to die, often rotting as they fell.  Then the fish began to die, rising to the surface, often partially decomposed.  (I hope you're not reading this at breakfast.)  Now there was no food and those remaining people and animals began to starve. Thankfully, the winds began to shift, the volcano began to still and the dying began to stop....finally!

To mark the day, sympathize with someone from the "Save the Endangered Left-handed Snail Darter Club" and hoist a spring water and something natural, while you note the latest study implies it must be man that upsets nature's gentle balance.

Many thanks to Mr. Cashin and UBS Financial Services who graciously allow his historical musings to be republished on this site. To enjoy more of Art's posts simply click on "Cashin's Comments" in the label section on the sidebar.

Wednesday, June 6

Summer Snow

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By Grant Davies

On this day in 1816, children in New England must have been gleeful when they looked out their windows to see that it had snowed.. a lot. Ten inches of the white stuff collected on the ground before it stopped. But as much fun as the prospect of sledding in June may have seemed to the kids, it wasn't with the same sense of wonderment that their parents beheld the atmospheric anomaly.

No, this was no random event in the "Year without a summer." In fact it was more of a culmination of bad weather news, not only in the northeastern US, but all over the northern hemisphere. The disturbance even reached as far as China. Rumor has it that growing food in such conditions is a slight problem.

In fact, much of the crop had already been wiped out by numerous frosts and this most recent blast of "winter in summer" polished off almost all of whatever was left. With the harvest prospects heading south, the price of food of all types went straight north. Food riots occurred in many places in Europe and people died in alarming numbers from the famine.

The climate problem had been brewing for some time. Between 1812 and 1814 there were four major volcanic eruptions in different parts of the earth. The upper atmosphere was heavy with the ash and particulate matter they produced. The sun was having trouble getting through because of it. But as it turns out Old Sol was in a lazy mood anyway. Sunspot production was down and solar flares were fizzling.

The final insult came in April of 1815. That's when Mount Tambora in Indonesia decided to join the fun. It was the most powerful eruption in recorded history. It was classified as a VEI-7 event. (In scientific terms that means "really big.") With that last straw, the crops turned to straw.

But in 1816, who knew what caused it? People in many European cities needed to blame someone, so they started demonstrating in front of grain markets and bakeries. Soon they began rioting, burning stuff, and stealing whatever they thought they could get away with. (Just click on the "Occupy" link on the Ancestry Dot Com site to see if there is a direct connection between these folks and anyone you know.)

Thankfully, human beings are a lot smarter now. When the weather changes today they don't blame their local baker, they just blame it on other human beings driving SUVs. It's more fun than demonstrating in front of volcanoes.

Tuesday, June 5

A Goodnight for a Drive

By Art Cashin

On this day (+1) in 1866, two men imbued with those building blocks of Americana ingenuity and avarice - took a new route to fame and fortune.

The two men were Charlie Goodnight and Oliver Loving.  And what they invented was the "cattle drive." "Wait!" you say.  "There were plenty of  cattle drives in 1866!"  Yes, you little historian you, and that's why this is different.

Each year hundreds of herds were driven north from the Texas grazing land to the stockyards at the rail-heads in Abilene and Dodge City.  That was the trouble.  They all went the same way to the same place at the same time of year.  So it was always tough to get a good price.

So, Goodnight and Loving decided to drive a herd west to Colorado where there were hundreds of hungry silver miners who would pay anything for a good steak. Thus, on this day (+1), Goodnight outfitted a Conestoga wagon with strong iron axles, a chuck box and a barrel of sourdough starter.  This became the prototype of the "chuck wagon."

Then with 2000 longhorns and 18 cowhands, the next 30 days looked like Abbott and Costello go to the cattle drive - stampedes, alkali holes, 80 miles of near desert, etc.  By the time they reached Fort Sumner, they had lost 30% of the herd.  But the army paid so well for part of the herd that Goodnight went back to Texas for another herd while Loving took the balance to Colorado.  On each successive drive they used the things they learned and never lost a single head again.

Many thanks to Mr. Cashin and UBS Financial Services who graciously allow his historical musings to be republished on this site. To enjoy more of Art's posts simply click on "Cashin's Comments" in the label section on the sidebar.

Monday, June 4

A Smashing Idea

By Grant Davies

On this day in 1896, a man had a problem..and a solution. The solution was to take an ax and smash the brick wall of his garage to pieces so he could make a hole big enough to get his car out.

Well actually, it wasn't a garage because cars hadn't been invented yet. And come to think of it, it wasn't a car either, for the same reason. So as you can see, it was a rather unique problem.

The building in question was a shed, the vehicle was a "Quadricycle", and the guy with the problem was none other than Henry Ford, who some of you may have heard of.  Most of the time an ax isn't the tool engineers use to fix mistakes in simple math equations. But this time they simply forgot to measure the door to see if it was big enough for their invention to pass through, so they did what engineers do; they solved the problem.

They wanted to test drive the contraption, and after all the setbacks and solutions they already had endured in the previous months, taking the thing apart didn't seem to be a palatable option. After a smashing idea, and the problem solved, Henry sent his assistant, James Bishop, ahead to clear the path of little old ladies, easily frightened children, and skittish horses.

The Quadricyle had a metal frame, four bicycle wheels and a four-horsepower gasoline engine. It had a top speed of about twenty MPH and with the exception of one small glitch with a faulty spring, it went speeding along Detroit's Grand River Avenue in fine style.

Ford didn't invent the automobile - he saw others that inspired him to make a better one - but his was a dandy and it led to better things. He sold quite a few of them I'm told. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that Henry was the first guy to beat the doors down to get one.

Friday, June 1

It's a Beautiful Wife

Image courtesy of
David Castor
By Grant Davies

On some day in June (maybe even this one) in 1797, a homely forty seven year old man named John Nash moved into a new home in London. About six months later he married a beautiful girl twenty years younger than himself and his career took off like a rocket.

A beautiful wife can do that for your fortunes, particularly if she happens to be inclined to have frequent exercise sessions with the Prince of Wales. Nash had a ton of talent, but not an ounce of sponsorship, so if one of his friends needed a workout buddy now and again, why not help out with a little tolerance? Who knows, maybe that friend can do a favor or two for you sometime.

John may have been a tad unappealing physically, but he wasn't one to let his past problems with females stand in the way of his path to success. His first wife liked to spend money he didn't have, and engage in "energetic frolics" (as one historian words it) with lots of other men, so he was familiar with infidelity. He might have been more forgiving of her hobbies if she hadn't presented him with two children, neither of which were sired by him. But she did, so he divorced her, moved away, and went about his business of designing government buildings and the like with only a middling amount of success.

Despite his looks - he was described by a less than diplomatic contemporary as having "a face like a monkey" and even in his own words he was "a thick, squat, dwarf figure, with round head, snub nose, and little eyes" - he was as bright as could be and had an uncanny ability to bounce back from misfortune.

Anyway, when his buddy the Prince of Wales became the current King George IV, his convenient friendship changed his luck forever. Even though the scandal didn't go unnoticed - there was a political cartoon published showing a half dressed King embracing Nash's wife - both Nash and the King escaped with minimal damage.

He designed more than a few buildings for the King, and went on to become one of the most famous architects in history. You might have heard of some of his works, which include: Buckingham Palace, Regent's Park, Regent Street, and Piccadilly Circus. He designed Trafalgar Square even though his death left others to build it.

When the King died, Nash's career died with him. The moral (or immoral, if you prefer) of the story is this: Behind every successful man lies a good wife, particularly if he doesn't mind who she's lying with.

Source material: At Home - A Short History of Private Life - by Bill Bryson

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