Monday, August 26

Own a Judge

Image = US

By Grant Davies

No, this is not a story about the justice system in Chicago. It's the story of a remarkable young lady from a different time. Her name was Ona Judge.

It was May 24th, 1796, when the chance meeting of our subject and an acquaintance took place on a Portsmouth, New Hampshire street.  A twenty year old girl named Oney (Ona) Judge was hailed down by Elizabeth (Bets) Langdon,  just a teenager herself, who recognized her. Bets knew Oney because her father was a Senator and Oney worked for a friend of his. Oney had run away from home, Bets knew about it, and couldn't understand why. Reportedly, the conversation went like this;

"Why Oney, where in the world did you come from?"
"Run away missis."
"Run away! You had a room to yourself, and only light, nice work to do, and every indulgence..."
"Yes..I know..but I wanted to be free, missis."*

Now, I know you're thinking to yourself, "What's so interesting about this story? Kids run away from their homes all the time so they can have their freedom. Big deal!" Well...Oney wasn't running away from her parents. She was a slave running away from her master and her mistress.

And the person who owned Ona wasn't just any slave owner. The person just happened to be Martha Dandridge Custis. Anyway, that was her name before she remarried following the death of her husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Her name changed to Martha Dandridge Custis Washington when she remarried a guy named George Washington. You may have heard about him when reading some of our earlier stories. (We've written about or mentioned him in no less than a dozen previous stories.) But enough about her owners; they are well known enough.

This story is about Ona and what she did with her life after she became one of the first people to use the Underground Railroad. In her case, the railroad was actually a ship, the "Nancy" by name. She boarded it the same day she casually walked away from the President's house in Philadelphia, right in the middle of the family's supper. The soup must have been pretty tasty; they never looked up long enough to notice her leaving with her suitcase.

The ship was sailing north and she disembarked in Portsmouth where the chance encounter with the Senator's daughter took place some time later. She spent the rest of her life trying to bargain with the President for her freedom and dodging the agents he sent to retrieve her. She even offered to return if he would agree to free her in his will. Apparently he wasn't interested in negotiating with a slave, particularly one who he considered part of the family. The Washingtons were quite fond of her, having raised her since she was ten when she became Martha's attendant. It's said that Martha was heartbroken.

Oddly, she was once hidden and protected by the same Senator (John Langdon) whose daughter had accidentally spilled the beans concerning her whereabouts. Later she married a free man, had three children, became a widow, and lived most of her life in circumstances far below that which she could have had by staying with the first "First Family." Escaping into poverty and hardship from privilege and comfort says everything that can be said about the value of liberty in 1796.

I hate to point out the irony, but the populace of the country today seems to have chosen the exact opposite.

To celebrate the life of this freedom loving girl, stop down at Nancy's Underground Railroad for some supper and a drink. But don't leave right in the middle of dinner unless you want the owner to send people looking for you.

 * text taken from the excellent book Here is Where, by Andrew Carroll

Thursday, August 22

Existi Interuptus

By Art Cashin

On this day (+2) in 79 A.D.(which would be August 24th if you are an accountant), the Donaldus Trumpati and other Roman "don't-cha-knows" were hanging about, enjoying the summer rays at the 1st Century's version of Martha's Vineyard. (No, not that Martha). It was "the" summer in- place. It was on the Bay of Naples and it was called Herculaneum. A little further along "the shore" was another posh spot called Pompeii (10% discount to senior Roman citizens).

Anyway, on this particular date, those with the trendy togas looked up to see the sky darken. Like tourists for centuries, they probably thought - "Rats! (Mousus Gigantus!) Why did I pick the week of the 23rd? (XXIII)?"

Then they probably took a better look at the cloud. Instead of containing rain it contained the top 1/3 of Mount Vesuvius (Proximus Dormantus Volcanus). Shortly, the fine dust and pumice began raining back down on the posh resorts. (Seventeen centuries later measurements would indicate that it fell at a rate of over six inches per hour.) Soon, overburdened roofs collapsed and people were unable to move or breathe. The coverage was so quick and complete that when excavation began in the late 1700's, people were found at their tables or on their stoops (Porchus Stepi) covered by 19 feet of ash.

But don't let that memory cloud your day, however. If you can, sit by the pool (or even on your stoop) and sip something cool, but if your glass begins to get dusty, head offshore.

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, August 20

The Anatomy of a Murderer

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By Grant Davies

It was January 28, 1829 and a man was appearing before a standing room only crowd at the Edinburgh Medical College in Scotland. Quite an honor you might think. But for a man named William Burke, it wasn't the way he wanted to have these folks see him. After all, he had been hanging around all morning and wasn't looking his best.

The story all began back in November 1827. That was when Burke teamed up with his fellow Irish immigrant William Hare to figure out how to recoup the rent that was owed to Hare's wife for the room she was providing to a boarder at her lodging house.

The poor devil ran up his bill and then died of natural causes in his room. Naturally this was a financial problem for the Hares since the newly departed didn't look like he would be squaring up anytime soon. So the two men talked it over and came up with a plan. Selling the boarder's belongings didn't seem like it would cover all the overdue rent, so they decided to sell him instead.

Luckily for them, an acquaintance, Dr. Robert Knox by name, was in the market for fresh human remains. You see, Dr. Knox had been buying bodies for a while so he could dissect them and learn more about human anatomy. Cold hard cash for cold hard bodies was the only way to get such "study materials" back in the day. Hare and Burke were able to raise the money by raising the dead, so to speak. Add a little extra for the vigorish and everyone was happy. Even the dead guy didn't seem to mind. He never made a peep.

But decent business ideas like that sometimes lead to improper future development. The next guy was only really, really they decided to help him along a bit. It just got easier after that. By November of 1828 another thirteen unfortunates who didn't even feel ill had become dissection exhibits.

Finally the local authorities figured out the connection between the disappearing citizens and the way too fresh cadavers which were being used for carving practice by the good doctor and his medical students. But they had a least one more dissection to perform and they didn't have to pay anyone for the corpus delicti. Hare flipped on Burke in return for immunity. (And you thought plea bargaining was a recent phenomenon?)

Burke himself became the main attraction for the above described standing room only presentation after he was hanged in January 1829. The public was invited to witness both events. Everyone had fun except Burke. But he must not have minded too much, he never made a peep.

Information for this story was taken from the excellent book Here is Where, by Andrew Carroll.

Wednesday, August 14

Boxer Short Story

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By Art Cashin

On this day in the year 1900, American and European forces broke through Chinese lines around the Imperial City of Peking (now Beijing). They freed hundred of terrified non-Chinese hostages and thus broke the back of the "Boxer Rebellion".

History books will tell you that the original anti-foreign rebellion in China was sanctioned by the Dowager Empress and driven by the secret "Society of the Harmonious Fists" (Boxers - get it!). While those facts are true, the real facts are more ironic.

What is not widely known is that The Boxer Rebellion may have started somewhat by accident in America. According to some reports, about a year or more earlier, a bunch of hard drinking reporters were sitting around exchanging their frustrations that the "event du jour" had failed to appear. How could they meet their deadlines?

Being good journalists, who needed the meager paycheck, they agreed to do the obvious thing - - make up a story. But it had to be a good story. And it also had to be a lulu. But these guys were pros.

So they invented a story that wealthy Americans and Europeans were planning to buy, dismantle and transport the Great Wall of China. What the hay -- it was fun -- it met the deadline -- it sold papers.

But somehow the story, short-lived in America, reached China. There, Nationals were inflamed. Word of mouth spread the story that foreigners wish to rape our heritage and national treasures. Hostility turned to aggression and then became the Boxer Rebellion.

To celebrate stop by the "Front Page" and have a few extras. And try to keep a straight face when one of the regulars tells you that reporters only report the news they don't shape it.

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.

Thursday, August 8

The Country Needs a Little Rebellion Every Once in a While

By Art Cashin

On this day (-1) 219 years ago (that would be August 7, 1794 if you happen to be saddled with a graduate degree in accounting but have no batteries for your calculator), the President of the United States was told by his aides that he had to get focused. They warned him that his popularity was slipping...that many of the people worried that he was trying to expand the government's authority and size...and that much of his problem related to three areas: taxes, exports and access to medication. Finally, they told him most of his trouble may have been stimulated by his political opponents....the Republicans.

In this case, the President was George Washington...the "Republicans" were what they called Jefferson's supporters at the time (they later changed their name to Democrats)...the tax was an excise tax engineered by Alexander Hamilton...the export question dealt with the shipments down the Ohio and Mississippi...and the medication in question was, of course, in this case whiskey. (Now wait...don't scoff...there was no anesthesia yet and the only other means of sterilization was fire..."Sarge, we've got to get that arrow out or Bob will die!" "Okay, pour some whiskey on this knife and give Bob a gulp for the pain.") We understand there also may be non-medicinal uses of whiskey and hope to hear of them someday.

Anyway, back to the story. At this time, from Pittsburgh, PA to Marietta, Ohio, Frontier folk were growing more corn and grain than they, or anyone, could eat. So they decided to sell it. Since there were no roads at the time, they loaded a couple of barges with corn and sent them toward New Orleans. By the time it got there, the small amount that hadn't rotted and was thus sale-able brought almost no value.

Next they tried feeding the corn to hogs and sending the resultant pork in barges to New Orleans. Given the state of refrigeration at the time, the results were about the same. In fact, the only way the barge crews raised enough money to head back north was by selling a few jugs of whiskey to the medicine hungry folks of New Orleans.

Well, at the time the settlers of this region of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio were mostly of Scottish and Irish descent. In those politically incorrect days, Scots/Irish were assumed to be good at farming (corn/rye/an occasional buh-day-duh), pharmacology (above mentioned miracle drug) and finance (Adam Smith, etc.). Applying their finance skills, they realized a ton of corn took up a lot of space and barge-wise yielded no profit. Hogs raised on said ton of corn took up less space but still yielded no profit. But...a ton of corn or rye made several barrels of medicine which did yield a profit. And since a barge could hold 5 times more condensed corn (whiskey) than dry corn (corn), the leverage was enormous.

Then along came Hamilton's excise tax. He assumed the product was so valuable that producers could easily pass a tax increase along to consumers. (Maybe genius can be crimped by government service.) The initial reaction was so hostile that Hamilton had to develop a formula. The formula forgave small volume producers and punished high volume producers. Since the East Coast was also making money in tobacco and cotton, that left the Ohio Valley crowd to pay the bulk of the tax.

Although the Scots/Irish of the area were good at farming, pharmacology and finance; their political skills were rudimentary at best.  So they began "tarring and feathering" tax collectors. They even burned tax offices and had bonfires of tax forms. (Where are these people when we really need them?)

Sensing that he was slipping in the polls, Washington followed his aides' advice and sent the army to quell this "Whiskey Rebellion." But...Washington (and the U.S.) had no army so he had to beg for help from the militia of four states. When the "army" hit Pittsburgh, they found most of the rebels were over-medicated so to speak.

The two results of the Whiskey Rebellion were: a) the Federal Government could collect taxes; and b) we needed a standing army (to avoid begging).

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, August 7

The Back of the Bus

Image = Wikipedia
By Grant Davies

On this day (-23), - that's July 16th for you math wizards - in 1944, an African American lady was riding a bus. A white couple boarded along the way and found no seat available. The friendly bus driver offered the black lady's seat to the white people. However the black lady, who was seated in the "colored" section near the back of the bus refused to move. She explained, "this is my seat, why should I?" The rest is, as we say, history.

As to the bus driver, this was a problem he hadn't encountered before. Not knowing what else to do, and sizing up the lady's attitude (which was decidedly uncooperative), he pulled over when he reached the town and called the sheriff.

The sheriff boarded the bus and issued the lady a warrant, which she immediately tore up and threw out the window. So he made a painful decision, he grabbed her. Naturally, she did what anyone would do. She kicked him in the Brussels sprouts.

That act can get you locked up in Saluda, Virginia, and that's precisely what happened to Irene Morgan on that day.

Irene Morgan? Saluda, Virginia? Wait..we're not talking about Rosa Parks? Umm, no we are not. History had to wait eleven more years for Rosa to do the same thing (minus the kick in the sprouts) in Montgomery, Alabama.

There were others who did substantially the same thing before Irene. Exactly ninety years to the day, July 16, 1854, a black schoolteacher was assaulted by a carriage driver in Manhattan for trying to ride to church in his conveyance. But she had a good lawyer, a guy named Chester A. Arthur (who later went on to ruin his career by becoming President of the USA) who got a judge to rule that "Colored persons if sober, well behaved, and free from disease" had the same rights as other people to ride. Just in New York, though. Because as it turns out he was a state judge, not a federal judge. Oh well, ya take what ya can get sometimes.

There were others too, but smart lawyers wait for the right case to take to the Supreme Court and Rosa Parks was that case. So she went down in the history most people know.

But readers of this blog know better, or at least more. And there is a lot more to know, too. Irene's case made history by winning a judgement based on the "commerce clause" of the Constitution. That victory set the stage for many more afterward.

And in a different time she might well have become one of the great kickers in NFL history, too. After all, how many people have that kind of foot/eye coordination when being rushed by some big goons?

The inspiration, and virtually all of the information found in this story was gleaned from the excellent book, "Here is Where", by Andrew Carroll. 
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