Wednesday, February 27

Sam Colt's Invention


By Art Cashin

On this day (-2) in 1836, the government of the United States granted a patent on a device that would become the prototypical American weapon. And, by accident, its development would become a prototypical story of American invention.

The patent, of course, was awarded to Samuel Colt for his "single barrel pistol with a six chamber revolving breech." You and I (as well as Hoppy, Roy and Gene) knew it as a "six shooter." Colt's idea was not entirely unique. Several patents for revolvers had been granted earlier (one of the earliest was for a "12 shooter" but it, like the others, didn't work well). But Colt, who was 22 when he got the patent, showed his gun was practical (and at the was the only way a man on horseback could get several shots off successfully).

Therefore, it seemed like a good idea and Colt found backers who helped him open "The Patent Arms Company" in Paterson, N.J. But despite rave notices for the weapon, sales were slow and the factory closed in 1842. Colt slipped closer to bankruptcy. Then in 1846, fate took another weird turn.

The U.S. was going to war with Mexico. And the Texans they were fighting for, suggested to the American Secretary of War that many of them were very happy with Mr. Colt's six shooter. So the Secretary of War ordered lots of them. That left Mr. Colt with several problems. 1) He had no factory. 2) He didn't have a six-shooter left to his name. He attacked the second one first. He advertised for samples of his own gun. Gun owners thought the ads meant the revolver was now a collector's item… they refused to sell. Colt was reduced to hiring a gunsmith to work from Colt's own original diagrams (with suggestions from the famous Texas Ranger - Sam Walker).

Finally.....when they had developed a prototype…..Colt needed to hurry things up. So he hired…..who else.....the son of Eli Whitney to implement the concepts of mass production and interchangeable parts. Within a decade the Colt .44 was the gun that was winning the West.

To celebrate go to some place with a swinging door and order six shots of red eye. And tell the surly looking guy with a facial tic and a mustache (down at the end of the bar), the immortal words of Hopalong Cassidy. "No matter how loud or how fierce the guy behind a rock sounds, if you count the bullets, when he's out of ammunition he's out of luck." Thanks Hoppy!

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, February 22

Washington's Birthday, It's All Clear Now

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By Grant Davies

On this day, February 22, (minus one year and eleven days) in 1732, George Washington was born in Virginia. Well..maybe.

Let's start over again. On February 11, 1731, George Washington was born in Virginia.

And that's why we celebrate his birthday on the third Monday in February, which mathematically cannot occur any later than the 21st. So, as shocking as it may be to observers of  government efficiency, it's a certainty that the country will never celebrate on his actual birthday. Or even his alternate birthday.

And if you are wondering about the year difference, don't blame me, call your congressman. I got the info from an official government site, so it can't be wrong. (I'm a little confused about that.)

Don't panic if you're confused too, we're going to sort this all out for you so you can celebrate it properly on "Presidents Day", which of course doesn't actually exist. Not officially anyway. And as long as we're on the subject, Washington's birthday doesn't count as an official national holiday.

Heck, I'm still confused and I'm the one writing this clarification. So just to be clear, or less un-clear, let's get this all down in bullet points. Just don't use the bullets on me.

  • Washington was actually born on February 11th, 1731. The calender being used some places (like here) at that time was the Julian calendar which was named after the same guy they named the salad for. And if you think this birthday stuff is confusing, just try to figure out the whole change-over thing. The guy who figured it out originally was a few minutes short of a year, if you know what I mean.
  • In 1752, (not sure which day) the Gregorian calendar was adopted, which was named after the same guy they named the chant for. So someone had to tell poor George that he was actually born on February 22, 1732. History doesn't record whether George was surprised, pleased, or chagrined. (Or whether he grinned, for that matter.)
  • Washington's Birthday is not a national holiday, it's a federal holiday. It only applies to federal government employees and the District of Columbia. 
  • "Presidents Day" doesn't actually exist at all, except maybe for certain individual states. It's never been proclaimed by the federal government. In 1968, Congress passed the "Monday Holiday Law", so people, particularly federal employees, could have more three day weekends because everyone was working too hard.
To celebrate this clarification, visit Fraunces Tavern in NYC, where Geo said bye-bye to his troops, and have a toast to clarity. But be sure to stop drinking before things start to get blurry again.

Congratulations to Bob and Sara Aldworth! The 15 Seconds of Fame award for the idea behind this story has gained them a place in history! At least in Cheeky History.  This is the first time this year the award has been given. We hope you will send us great ideas like this too. If we don't keep getting ideas for new posts, we might be history ourselves.

Please don't blame them for the dreadful writing or any inaccuracies we may have committed. It was only their idea, anything awful is my fault.

Mardi Gras Quake

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By Art Cashin

On this day (+1) in 1887, throughout large sections of the world, Christians prepared for 40 days of Lenten repentance by doing lots of repentable things.

In some countries, the carrying-on was called "Fasching" or "Shrovetide" or "Carnevale." But in France it was called "Mardi Gras" and was a national running, sinning start on Lent.

Anyway, on this particular day, along the French Riviera, the partying was grinding to a reluctant halt. In the pre-dawn hours, in costumes and in an alcoholic fog revelers began heading toward their villages. Suddenly, in village after village the church bells began to ring.

Clearly it was too early for morning Mass, be it Ash Wednesday or not. Then came the second realization - the bells were ringing because the earth had begun to tremble. Freshly laden with sin and lacking the expected luxury of 40 days of atonement, nervous villagers hastened for church and the chance of absolution.

Unfortunately, further shocks toppled steeples onto the would-be penitents. Then whole villages began to collapse or slide away. And the aftermath was particularly macabre as so many bodies in Harlequin and Jester costumes lay, peering out with lifeless eyes beneath the rubble.

Before it ended, thousands died in what became known as the Mardi Gras Quake. Back then folks thought natural calamity was brought on by sin. We, of course, know that this theory must be false since, thank goodness, we would have slid into a banking crisis by now.

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, February 19

In the Line of Fire - A Short Story

On this day (-4) in 1933, a man set out to change history. Now, I know it is hard for you to believe but this guy almost succeeded. Even harder for you to believe this guy was a…..well…..what they used to call a psychopathic malcontent. Now, living in the calm and peace of America in these times you probably wonder what a psychopathic malcontent might be.

Well, in this case, he was altitudinally challenged (4' 10"), authoritatively alienated (his father hit him once), stress raged (his stomach hurt and he threw up occasionally). Not having the opportunity to appear on a talk show he decided the only chance he had to resolve his problems was to kill somebody important.

So, in his late teens, in his native Italy, he decided to kill the King (Victor Emmanuell II). When he discovered the King lived too far away to commute on a donkey, he changed plans.

Eventually, he came to the U.S. Upon arriving in the U.S., he decided to kill the sitting President Calvin Coolidge. But ...lacking a donkey to reach the Prez…..he gave up on the idea. He spent several years pacing about in smoldering hostility. ( TV talk show outlets.) Then he resolved to kill President Hoover…..until he heard it was cold and snowy in Washington D.C.

Then it all came together. He learned that the President-elect (FDR) was to speak in Miami (rather close to home). So, on this day, he bought a gun and went out to become famous. Much to his surprise he discovered many people had come out to see the President-elect. Now if you are 4' 10", it is not only difficult to shoot the President in a crowd of thousands…'s difficult even to see him. So, the would-be assassin pushed his way through the human sequoias, jumped up on a chair and started firing. He missed FDR completely but fatally wounded the Mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak who was travelling with FDR.

The tiny terrorist, Guiseppe Zangara, was arrested on the spot. Within 33 days, he was arraigned, indicted, convicted and electrocuted. (Of course that was before the Patriot Act.)

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, February 13

Fatty Got a Bum Rappe
By Grant Davies

On this day (-10) in 1922, a murder trial of a big Hollywood star was concluded. One of them anyway. In the final one, the jury found the defendant not guilty. In fact, they found him innocent. Some of you who watch "Court TV" know what a rare thing that is. The jury actually sent a statement along with the verdict. It read in part, "Acquittal is not enough.  We feel that a great injustice has been done to him . . . there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.” 

When I describe the accused as a big star, I mean it literally. As in very, very big. His name was Roscoe, but you can just call him "Fatty", that's what everyone else called him. Roscoe was obese and had been since he was born. He weighed in at an unlucky 13 pounds. Unlucky for him, and definitely unlucky for his mother, (I can almost see you readers wincing right now) who only lived another dozen years. Some say she never quite recovered from the strain of delivery.

Roscoe's middle name was Conkling. Odd, you might think, to name your son after a pompous, philandering fool of a politician named Roscoe Conkling. (Thankfully we don't have any of those types now-a-days.) But his father had his reasons. You see, he was a skinny fellow and his wife was a small girl, so when he saw the size of the baby he immediately assumed she had been sleeping (okay, not actually sleeping) with someone other than him. To display his suspicions to the rest of the world he decided to name the child after a womanizer. And that is how Roscoe Conkling "Fatty" Arbuckle got his name.

Anyway, Fatty was charged with raping and murdering an actress named Virginia Rappe. The problem for the prosecution was simple in retrospect. The victim was never raped and she wasn't murdered. She died  from a ruptured bladder and secondary peritonitis. But that didn't keep them from saying that Fatty caused the rupture when he sat on her while he was raping her at a cocktail party in his hotel.

It took three trials before they got it all sorted out. The witnesses for the prosecution were all discredited in the end and the truth seems to be that this poor girl, who was a tad troubled by alcoholism, venereal diseases, and "sleepwitheveryoneitis", probably died as a result of an abortion gone bad. (One of many she had in her life, two by the time she was 16 years of age according to some reports.) To this day there is plenty of controversy about the facts of the case.

The newspapers all got rich covering the whole sordid affair while Fatty got poor defending himself. Even though proclaimed innocent, he was blackballed out of show business and his career was destroyed by the media. He took to the bottle and died of a heart attack in his sleep at the ripe old age of 46.

To sum it all up, it looks like Roscoe got screwed alright, but it was by the DA and the media, not Virginia. Thank goodness that kind of sensationalism finally faded away. Today's news media is much more interested in reporting the news than hyping juicy celebrity scandals for money.

Editor's disclaimer.. The "facts" of this story are disputed by many. There seems to be a cottage industry built on speculation about it and several books have been written on the subject.

Tuesday, February 12

The Shortest Distance to Power is Not a Straight Line

By Art Cashin

On this day (-1) in 1812, Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts was asked to arbitrate an important matter in the new nation.

Who better could you want? Gerry had signed the Declaration of Independence, been part of the Constitutional Convention and served as a member of Congress, before becoming Governor of Massachusetts.

As a father of our country, Gerry was asked to determine the lines of reapportionment for the State's senatorial delegation. He proceeded to draw a group of crooked lines that made a random walk look like a moonshot.

Amazingly, these squiggles happened to coincide with the strong points of Gerry's party. And a new word entered the language - Gerrymander - meaning to abuse your power in order to enhance the election chances of your friends and yourself. In the American tradition of justice, Gerry was punished by being elected the Vice President of the United States under James Madison one-year later.

Luckily for the nation no person known to do anything crooked or even to show favoritism to his friends was ever sent to the White House 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.

Friday, February 8

Don't Worry, the Dollar is as Good as Gold

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By Art Cashin

On this day (-3) in 1895, America was in a funny financial spot. Well, it was a bit over a hundred and seventeen years ago today - so - I guess you deserve an explanation. Let me see....if I remember what Sister Herman Joseph taught me - that different America of a century ago looked something like this:

The economy appeared to be struggling. There was a Democrat in the White House. Congress was divided and squabbling, hostilely and uncivilly. Some thought the debates were so coarse and rude they spoke of forming a new political party.

Technology was the new mantra even after a bumpy start and telecommunications were exploding (in use if not profitability). Much of the country was in the grip of unusual and extreme weather. And...oh yeah....I almost forgot....suddenly folks had begun talking about gold....can you imagine "gold!"

Anyway, despite what pundits of the day thought, gold had begun to rise. Now, in 1895, the old U.S. was on the old "gold exchange standard." That meant, whether citizen or foreigner, if you thought public policy was not to your liking, you could hand in your green pictures of dead presidents and get gold - real, glistening, bite into it to check it, gold.

As hard as it is for us to believe today, a goodly number of those citizens distrusted what they saw in Washington. Gold rose and soon began to bubble and the dollar began to slide. The rush to exchange dollars might deplete the gold of the U.S. Treasury and cause a default. Imagine - a time when the government wrestled with the question of default.

So - to avoid chaos - the President sought the help of the one man who could control the banks, who could calm Wall Street, who - in short - could find a way to halt the run on the dollar and government reserves. (No Virginia, it was not Ben Bernanke - there was no Federal Reserve.)

Thus, on this day in 1895, the President of the U.S. sat down with a certain J.P. Morgan seeking the latter's help in saving the country. Morgan allowed as how he might just happen to know one fellow who could put the government into default that very afternoon. (The President never asked if it was Morgan, himself.) Morgan conveniently recalled some obscure Civil War legislation that allowed the President to issue bonds to buy gold. The same law said the bonds could be sold secretly (without bidding). But who would buy them? Well, Morgan allowed as how it was probably his civic duty (along with that of his syndicate) to not only buy the new secret bonds but to buy up some gold and recycle it to the Treasury for the dollars he paid for the bonds. And all this for just a small commission.

To mark this anniversary recall the words of Warren Buffett - "There's always a silver lining" - or was that Jimmy Buffett?

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, February 5

Richard III, for the Second Time

By Grant Davies

On this day in 2013, this blog is posting about King Richard III for the second time. It was just about six months ago that the first story was published. You can read that one here if you missed it the first time around.

Since then not much has changed, at least not for the King. He's still dead. But they have been poking around his bones ever since they dug him up from beneath a car park. (That's a parking lot for those of us who speak English, er, American.) And what they discovered was that the bones actually belonged to the King. A little DNA detective work confirmed what they already suspected; he was related to Michael Ibsen, a Canadian cabinetmaker.

Ibsen himself was a little taken aback by the news since he didn't think they could prove he was related to Richard and therefore couldn't be held responsible for funeral costs. I think Mike is off the hook, but you never know nowadays. Money is tight right now and he would have to make a lot of cabinets to raise the dough to pay for raising his dead relative.

So the proof is positive, and they learned a lot about the old King. At least about how he died anyway. Just as reported back then, someone on the battleground at Bosworth Field in 1485 gave Richard a mind expanding experience and he couldn't endure the strain. (All of this is explained, and there is some really cool, gory pictures at the link above if you are as ghoulish as I am.)

As for me, I gained a lot of respect for Richie. Anyone who will still go into battle himself instead of sending a drone, has some set of...bones. As you can see from the picture above, he had some significant spinal  problems that might have kept him out of the military draft if there had been one. 4-F for sure at my draft board.

So here's a great video that explains the whole thing in a way that you might find interesting. The King is dead, long live the King's bones.

Hat tip to Jim Franzen for finding the video.

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