Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Something's Rotten in the State of Calfornia

Okay, today I'm going to broach another taboo subject - politics.  My students watch a lot of TV and right now, the political ads are in full swing again, so naturally my students like to talk about things on TV and things that interest them.

Here in California we have a statewide election coming up November 2.  Way back in the Progressive Era, California added all three of the big reforms to our political system:  the initiative, referendum, and recall.  The initiative is particularly interesting.  This year, the students are interested in Proposition 19, which aims to legalize marijuana.

As this discussion wasn't going anywhere good quickly, I tried to steer the conversation towards loftier subjects, namely Propositions 20 and 27 which deal with legislative district redistricting.

I live in 23rd California Congressional District, probably one of the worst gerrymandered districts in our country.  It snakes down the coast of California (like a tapeworm), cutting a narrow ribbon across three counties.  It bulges out where there are more Democrats and narrows to as little as 6 inches in some places (I kid you not).

Our representative, Lois Capps, was first put in office in 1998 during a special election to fill the seat of her then recently deceased husband who had been the former representative.  Many people felt that she won because she signed a term-limit pledge, promising to serve a maximum of six years.  Her opponent refused to sign the pledge saying he wouldn't make that promise.  At the time it was easy for a Democrat to make a six-year pledge as the district was mostly Republican and no Democrat had won more a single two-year term for more than 50 years.

However, after the 2000 Census, the California legislature performed one of the worst redistricting acts in the history of politics and both parties were to blame.  The Democrats and Republicans redrew the entire state to ensure that there would be no unsafe seats for any incumbent anywhere in the state.  So predictable results occurred, in the 2002 election, EVERY incumbent won, by an average of 69% of the vote and in 2004, not one of the 173 contested seats changed parties!  To make our area safe for Capps (who did politically align with the ideology of her constituents), a crazy district had to be drawn in an attempt to lump together as many liberally minded voters as possible.  And people wonder why young people today are not politically minded?

To quote Mark Twain, "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."

Oh, I almost forgot, after redistricting and everything got really safe for incumbents, Capps had a change of heart about her term limit promise (of course).  She's now serving in her 13th year as our representative.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Boston Corbett

Congratulations to Charity Grimes, winner of yesterday's contest!

(note the Bible in his left pocket)

Charity correctly identified Boston Corbett as the Person-of-Mystery!

Just for the faint of heart, I should warn you, Boston's life is not for those with a week constitution.  Read at your own risk.

To me, Boston is one of the craziest people in the footnoted pages of American history.  He was born in England in 1832 as Thomas Corbett, but at age seven, his family came to America and settled in Troy, New York.  As a youngster he took up the occupational profession of a hatter and worked in various locations.  He married, but his wife died during delivery of their stillborn daughter.  Thomas soon took to drinking and wandered from town to town.  While in Boston, Thomas was converted to Christianity by a street preacher and started using the name "Boston" in honor of the town where he found religion.

From the start, Boston wasn't normal about his religion.  To start with, he decided to imitate Jesus by wearing his red hair very long and growing a beard.  He joined a Methodist Episcopal church, but often disturbed the congregants by yelling, "Glory to God!" at loud and inappropriate times.  He also had the funny habit of adding "-er" to the end of most words when praying (e.g, "O, Lord-er, hear-er our prayer-er!").

On July 16, 1858, he saw two prostitutes walking down the street.  Feeling guilty at his lust for them, he returned home and castrated himself by removing his testes with a pair of scissors.  He then attended a prayer meeting, took a walk and had dinner before he went to see a doctor about his then badly swollen, blackened, and bloody scrotal sack.  Interestingly enough, we know so much because his medical records survive to this day.

Boston then took up preaching along the Boston dockyards and criticizing workers particularly for their use of profanity and getting into fights with them over his sermonizing.  At this time, he had trouble holding down a job as he wouldn't work for any employer he didn't consider godly enough or at a workplace where anyone swore for any reason.  When he would hear any cursing or talk of alcohol, he would stop working and fall on his knees and long and loudly petition God for the offender's soul.

When the Civil War started, Boston lost no time enlisting as a Private in Company I, of the 12th New York Volunteer Militia.  Corbett preached a sermon the night before he left where he scared the women in the congregation and told them he would have no mercy on any Southerner and would shoot them all on sight.  The Army must have been looking for few good men (indefinite article intentionally omitted) as they took Boston, where he immediately started causing trouble for them too.  During a drill of his company in Franklin Square, New York, Colonel Butterfield started cursing his troops over the inexperience of the new recruits.  Boston left the formation and walked over to the colonel and said, "Colonel, don't you know you are breaking God's law?" and refused to return to ranks until his officer apologized.  When he was taken to the guardhouse for insubordination, Boston began to shout hymns and continued to sing louder anytime he was asked to quit.  Colonel Butterfield offered to release him if he'd apologize, but Corbett would not and demanded Butterfield beg God's forgiveness.  Eventually Corbett was released without apology on either side as the army needed to move out.

Three months later, Boston was on picket duty, when he returned to camp shortly after midnight without his rifle.  He announced that his enlistment was for three months and that it had ended at midnight, so he was going home.  He was arrested and condemned to death by the firing squad, but eventually his sentence was commuted to discharge from the army.

Corbett reenlisted in September 1863 as a Private with Company L of the 16th New York Cavalry.  It is interesting to note, that his army buddies from the 16th later wrote of him that every time Boston would shoot a Confederate soldier, he would holler, "Amen!  Glory to God!"  While pursuing Confederate John S. Mosby's men near Culpepper, Boston and a few others were cut off from the rest of his unit.  Mosby's men had captured or killed most of the Yanks, but Boston would not give up.  It is said that he held 26 of the Confederates at bay until his ammunition ran out and then started swinging clubs.  Mosby was amused by Corbett's tenacity and instead of having him hung, Corbett was sent as a prisoner to the famous Andersonville Prison.  While at Andersonville, he escaped for a short time, but was recaptured by bloodhounds and eventually exchanged for Yankee prisoners (after the war, Corbett would be a witness for the prosecution of Andersonville Captain Henry Wirz).

Promoted to Sergeant after his exchange, Boston again found himself in the center of history in the days after President Lincoln was shot.  The day after the assassination, Corbett it should be noted was at a prayer meeting loudly beseeching the Almighty that he should be allowed to become God's instrument of wrath in avenging the president's assassination.  Selected as one of the 26 cavalrymen from his regiment sent to pursue Booth, they caught up with him at the Virginia farm of Richard Garrett.

At the farm, Booth and coconspirator David Herold hid in the barn when the cavalry surrounded them.  Herold gave up, but Booth stayed in the barn.  After some time, Boston asked his commander if he might enter the barn alone to kill Booth, but his request was refused.  The military wanted to take Booth alive.  As more time passed and people became nervous, detective Everton Conger set fire to the barn in an attempt to ferret Booth out.  In the commotion that followed, Boston Corbett found a large crack in the barn and shot Booth with a Colt revolver from no more than 12 feet.  When asked why he killed Booth, Corbett explained, "God Almighty directed me."

Corbett was arrested for disobeying orders, but charges were dropped by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  Corbett received his share of the reward money, which came to $1,653.85, and he became a temporary celebrity.  People paid money with the intent to hear Boston talk about that night, but Boston in typical fashion would harangue the audience with talk about God instead.  Quickly people soon lost interest in Corbett.

Corbett returned to making hats and preaching and moved between Boston, Connecticut, and New Jersey.  For a time, he even served as head pastor of a church in Camden, New Jersey.  However, during this time, Boston became increasingly paranoid, displayed a quick temper, and believed that people were out to get him and do him harm and he started threatening people who asked him for his autograph.  Corbett slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow and was said to be afeared of Booth's ghost.

Then in 1875, while attending a GAR event in Caldwell, Ohio, Boston overheard some guys saying that they didn't believe that Corbett had even killed Booth.  Enraged, Boston pulled his pistol on the men and threatened the men with their lives.  This event somewhat soured the public on Corbett.

Seeking isolation, Boston applied for a claim on 80 acres about seven miles outside Concordia, Kansas, where he moved and lived a private existence under his own name.  The town folk invited him to give a talk on Andersonville and Booth and Corbett accepted.  Although when the town people came to the lecture, Boston in characteristic fashion gave a fire and brimstone sermon on the need for repentance.  Although living under his own name, he became reclusive and never built a home, instead digging himself a hole in the ground where he lived.  He had little contact with others and primarily came out at night.  One neighbor recalled paying Corbett a social visit and it ended soon after having him show her a grave he had dug for himself and the blanket in which he wished to be buried (he was only in his 40s at the time).

(Corbett Dugout Site Today)

Not too long thereafter, Boston was driving his buckboard and reading scripture one morning when he spied some boys playing baseball.  Corbett leaped from his wagon and ran at the boys, pistol drawn.  He screamed at them to stop the profane game on the Sabbath and yelled, "It's wicked to play baseball on the Lord's Day!"  The next day, Corbett was summoned to appear before Concordia's court to stand trial for endangering the boys.  Many in the town turned out for the entertainment.  Boston at first appeared calm, but as the witnesses came forward, he again became agitated and stared yelling denials and pointed his pistol at witnesses.  Panic ensued as people scrambled for the exits.  Eventually Corbett was calmed and released the trial dismissed for fear of more violence.

After the baseball incident, a resident of Concordia who felt sympathy for the deranged Corbett, set him up with a job as a doorkeeper at the Kansas State Legislature in Topeka.  However, a month into his new job, on February 15, 1887, Corbett overheard some legislative pages making what he thought were irreverent remarks at the Capitol.  He again pulled his pistol and chased them through the hallways raving and sending the state lawmakers scrambling.  He was finally subdued by guards and after examination, pronounced insane and sent to the Kansas State Asylum.

Corbett was said to be getting worse, having hallucinations and fears that assassins were hiding seeking to take his life.  One month in, he stole a knife and assaulted a worker in a failed escape attempt.  Finally, on May 26, 1888, he spotted an unattended horse and was able to make this escape good.  A short man hunt ensued, but he was only tracked to Neodesha, Kansas, where the now fugitive Corbett hid for a few days in an old friend's barn.  There he was given a new horse, money and a blanket and told to never return.  Boston agreed and told his friend he intended to go to Mexico.

June 1, 1888, was the last the world heard from Boston Corbett.  Some say he made it to Mexico, others say he became a traveling salesman in Oklahoma and Texas, still others say he moved to Hinckley, Minnesota (where he may have perished in the fire of 1894).  The jury is still out on this one (which is probably good, since I'm sure Boston would again pull his pistol and threaten everyone in the room).  Can I get an Amen-er!

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Who could I be?  That's the mystery!

Go ahead take a guess and then go enjoy your day.  Check back tomorrow and I'll reveal the answer.  The first correct post will be declared the winner.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Remnants of New France

Thanks to El for checking in from 55.92340728 miles north of Montreal!  And thanks also for the laugh.  I'm glad the trick worked in French.

As an aside for those who have been following the blog, perhaps you have tried the math magic trick.  Virgil has offered a good and easy solution for my zero/nine issue.  He suggested that you just tell the your audience to pick any number but zero as it has no value.  Therefore, if your addition comes to a multiple of nine (and if your audience hasn't picked zero), the number chosen has to be nine.  Thanks for the tip!

Hearing from El and thinking about funny geography (New Mexico/South Dakota overlap) got me thinking of yet another odd geographical anomaly.

(New France at its greatest extent)

At one time the Kingdom of France claimed a sizable chunk of North America.  Of course, the French and Indian War (or Seven Years War) ruined the dream of a greater New France.  The 1763 Treaty of Paris resulted in a massive territorial swap with Great Britain being the obvious winner.  Pretty much England got back everything that was taken (the Island of Minorca in the Mediterranean and trading posts in Sumatra).  But in addition to getting those back, England also kept much of what it conquered and some other lands.

Here's a list of what England got:

Almost all of French Canada and the islands of: Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Tobago, and all of French Louisiana east of the Mississippi River.  It also picked up Florida from Spain (a French ally).

(North America after the Treaty of Paris)

You may have noticed that I said England got "almost all" of French Canada.  In the Treaty, France was allowed to keep two tiny North American islands:  St. Pierre and Miquelon (actually eight islands if you include the really tiny ones around these two), for the purpose of drying fishing nets.

This reduced the geographic area of New France from half a continent to 93.4 square miles!

Over the next few years, the islands traded hands a few more times eventually landing back in French control.

Fast forward to World War II.  When France fell to Germany, St. Pierre and Miquelon fell under Vichy rule.  Since the Vichy French were allied with Nazi Germany, Canada considered an invasion of the islands.  However, before the plan could be undertaken (and without the knowledge of Canada or the US), de Gaulle dispatched a Free French flotilla (led by the submarine cruiser "Surcouf") to capture the territory (those interested in naval history should definitely read up on the Surcouf).

(Stamp commemorating the 20th anniversary of the invasion)

And before someone can say that I've lost my head talking about geographic anomalies, I should add that the only time the guillotine was used in North America was on the island of St. Pierre in 1889 to execute a murderer!

(Now safe in a museum)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Being a history teacher, I'm often thinking of geography.  In our parking lot at school today, there was a rather noisy Harley idling for quite a while and I started thinking about Sturgis, South Dakota.

For those that don't know, Sturgis is the site of one of the world's largest annual motorcycle rallies.  Just curious, I read up on Sturgis and this funny bit of geographical trivia kind of jumped off the page:

Did you know that the town of Clovis, New Mexico, is further east than Sturgis, South Dakota?

When I first read this, I actually had to take a quick look at a map.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Anthony Fokker

Congratulations to Roger, winner of yesterday's contest!

Yesterday's Person-of-Mystery was Anthony Fokker, the Dutch aviation pioneer.

I picked Fokker as a tip of the hat to Rob from Amersfoort, another Dutchman, fellow regular in the OPOD contest, and the author of his own blog, Robs Webstek.

Anthony Fokker is an interesting person.  He was born in the Dutch East Indies and moved with his parents to Holland as a youth.  He took an interest in flying as a teen and became the first person to fly an airplane in the Netherlands.

A year after his historic flight, Fokker started his first aircraft company in Berlin.  When World War I began, the German government took control of his factory, but Fokker remained the company director.

(Anthony Fokker in the same model flown in his 1911 flight)

An able pilot in his own right, he became well acquainted with many of the German aces.  During the war, Fokker would be known not only for his famous planes, but also for his interrupter gear allowing forward mounted machine guns to fire through propellers.

(Fokker (right) seated with Manfred von Richthoven (left) on a downed Allied plane)

After the war, Fokker was able to return Holland and continue to build successful commercial aircraft until 1922 when he moved to the United States, opened a subsidiary of his Dutch aircraft company (Atlantic Aircraft Corporation), and became an American citizen.  Fokker died in 1939 of an infection due to meningitis.

One of the things that fascinates me about Fokker's life is is engagement with the German military.  Before World War I, the German General Staff planned for an invasion of France with their famous Schlieffen Plan, which originally called for the invasion of not only Belgium, but also Holland.  While I don't think that Germany was solely culpable for World War I, there's no denying that Dutch neutrality was not a great consideration of the German military.

(Fokker testing his interrupter gear)

During World War I, Fokker worked closely with the German air corps, greatly advanced German aviation technology, and was good friends with many of the same pilots and commanders who would later attack Holland in World War II.  I wonder what he would have thought had he lived another year for the 1940 air attacks on Rotterdam.  Hermann Goering, who had known Fokker during the war and even worked for him after the war, was during World War II, the head of the German Luftwaffe that threatened to completely flatten the Netherlands.

(Bruno Loerzer, Anthony Fokker, and Hermann Goering)

World War I air combat is interesting to me.  If you get a chance, check out the 2008 movie titled "The Red Baron."  Anthony Fokker is a minor character in the film.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Who could I be?  That's the mystery!

Go ahead and take a guess, but then go enjoy your day.  Check back tomorrow and I'll reveal the answer.  The first correct post will be declared the winner.

Friday, September 17, 2010

William R. Benton

Nearly everyone has old family photos, so I figured I'd head to the attic and share a few of mine from time-to-time.

Today I'll feature an ambrotype of my great-great-grandfather, William R. Benton.  William was born in Livonia, New York, in 1836.  As a young man, he left for the west became a school teacher in Illinois.  When the Civil War broke out, he volunteered for the infantry and was with the army at the siege of Vicksburg.  He was taken prisoner at Holly Springs, Mississippi, but eventually paroled and rejoined the army and participated in the capture of Little Rock.  The imprisonment was hard on him and he suffered medical problems for the rest of his life.

After the war, he married his sweetheart, Adella Fowler, and worked for his brother, Hiram, for a short time at his drug store in Andover, New York.  A few years later, he packed up again and became homesteader in Blaine, Kansas.  While in Blaine he farmed and resumed school teaching.  In 1875, he was elected to the Kansas Legislature and eventually reelected before his health became an issue.  In 1891, he retired to Oakland, Kansas (a suburb of Topeka) where he eventually died in 1894.  He and his wife had six children, but only three lived until later adulthood.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Glimpe of World Poverty

I was attending my morning Bible Study and the guys and I were talking about what we could do to try and help the homeless in our town.  In many ways, poverty seems like an insurmountable problem and a complex situation with few easy solutions.

And as I teach at a school for students who tend to have lots of problems, it's interesting to me to hear how many of them approach the world from the perspective that they're poor and worse off than others.  In our area, the poor have it harder than others, but not really given a more global perspective.

Not too long ago, I stumbled across a website called "The Places We Live."  It's a photographic work by Jonas Bendiksen, who took some pretty amazing pictures in the urban slums of Venezuela, Kenya, India, and Indonesia between 2005 and 2007.  On the website you can hear and see various stories told by the people that live in the slums.

Sometimes I wish more of my students would acquire a more global view of their personal situation.

Check it out:  The Places We Live

Tell me what you think.  I'd love to hear other perspectives.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bubble Art

Yesterday I was checking out some computer art programs, when I stumbled upon a new iPhone app called Percolator.  It takes your pictures and turns them into bubble art.  Pretty cool!  It reminds me of the funky late-1960s art that my mom dabbled in when I was a kid.

What do you make of it?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Math Magic

By an overwhelming margin, the last poll revealed that you folks like Autumn over the other seasons.  I'm supposing that for many of you it's the weather - not to hot, not too cold.  I'm fairly certain that most of those who chose Fall as their favorite time were neither teachers nor students.

I've always tried to make my classes as fun as possible.  It's a strange paradox, but I've found that often a quick joke or a card trick or something like that (even totally unrelated to the learning) can grab my students' attention and make the lesson learning that follows more productive.

I think teaching is a lot like stage magic, sure there's knowledge involved, but it's the showmanship that makes a teacher great.

Today I'm going to teach you a fun math trick that's baffled my students, but is a pretty easy one to pull off!

So here's the trick:

1)  Tell the audience (or class) you've been working on your math skills and you've gotten pretty good at solving complex mathematical algorithms in your head (or some kind of silly story like that).

2)  Find someone with a calculator (or give one to them) and instruct them to multiply a bunch of random single digit numbers (you may need to explain to students what single digits are) to come up with a random number somewhere between a million and a billion.

3)  Tell them to select one of the digits in that number, but not to tell you what it is.  Tell them to keep thinking that number in their head, but not to say what it is.  Then tell them that if they give you all the other digits, you can tell them which one is missing.  You can even tell them that if they like, they can give you the digits in random order - just leave out their hidden number.

4)  After some quick mental math - ta da!  You reveal the missing number to a stunned audience who somehow think you're a budding Einstein.

Here's how it's done:

1)  When they read you the digits, add them up in your head (this may be hard for those of you who are not math experts, but it's perfectly okay to have them read the numbers slowly or even to use a piece of paper and pencil).

2)  When you have the total, count up to the next higher multiple of nine (e.g., 9, 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63...) from your number.  The difference between the two is probably a number between 1 and 8.  This number is their missing digit!

How does it work:

It's really based on the rule of nines.  In mathematics, if you multiply any number by nine, the digits of the number add up to a multiple of nine.  By doing single digit multiplication to get a number so large, they're probably going to use nine at some point (or using a random combination of numbers that will work just as well - for example 6 x 3 is 18 which is a multiple of nine).  If you want to be really sure, start them off with a multiple of nine - as in "Here let me show you, 6 x 3 x 2..." then hand them the calculator and then tell them to keep going until they get a number between a million and a billion.

One problem:

Sometimes after doing addition you get a number that is a multiple of nine!  When this is the case, their digit can either be 0 or 9.  What do you do now!?!

Here's where that stage presence comes in.  You tell the audience that you're not really doing math at all, but that you're reading their facial expressions and body language.  Have them concentrate and keep repeating the number in their head.  After a short pause, be dramatic and say, "I'm getting NOTHING from you, a big ZERO!"  If they smile, it's probably zero.  If they look stoic or uninterested, go ahead and guess nine.

If you're wrong, no big deal, tell them that you're getting really good at reading expressions, but aren't perfect yet - let's try again with you.  If you guess correctly, you've amazed them even more and probably scared them into never lying to you.

I've gotten so good at this, many of my students think I've got some kind of extra sensory power!  I often overhear things like "Don't try to pull anything on Mr. Maas, that guy can read your mind!  Seriously!!"

Now it's your turn!  You've got to try it out sometime and tell me how it goes!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Harry Blackstone, Sr.

Congratulations to Astrocrabpuff, winner of yesterday's contest!

Yes, the Person-of-Mystery was Harry Blackstone, Sr., otherwise known as "The Great Blackstone!"

I was certain that someone would get him based on the shadow, but it apparently the white tie was the giveaway!  Jules was quick on the shadow and every guess was good (although DAG, regarding famous pianists that look like Blackstone, I would have gone with Jan Paderewski).  Astrocrabpuff didn't even know how close she was with her first comment as I had originally considered the photo below:

Magicians in many old posters were depicted with little devils and goatees (a la Joan's Mephistopheles comment), often whispering their secrets to the magicians.  I'm sure the photo was posed (and maybe even slightly altered) to project this image.

Blackstone is often considered the last of great golden-age magicians, a man who bridged the transition from the age of stage to the age of television.  He performed contemporaneously with such greats as Thurston and Houdini although he was a little younger than both.  Blackstone was born Harry Boughton of Chicago, Illinois.  As a child he watched Harry Kellar perform a rope escape and determined to pursue the profession.  In 1904, he began his stage career, performing on the vaudeville circuit with his brother.

He soon made a name for himself in his own right and was billed as "Frederick the Great."  When anti-German sentiment arose during World War I, he recast himself as "Blackstone the Great" at the suggestion of his agent as they were standing in front of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago.

Blackstone was a master of both the slight of hand and prop magic although his skill lay with illusion.  He was famous for many acts.  Some of his most famous were the "Floating Light Bulb," "Sawing a Woman in Half," "Vanishing Birdcage," "Garden of Flowers," and the "Dancing Handkerchief."  He often used rabbits in his tricks (many pulled from hats) and would give them away to children during his performances.  By his own account, he estimated that he gave away at least 80,000 of the animals during his lifetime.

Blackstone was very successful at bridging the era from stage to screen.  He had a radio show, "Blackstone: Magic Detective" and a even his own comic book.  Many of the magician stereotypes come from Blackstone's act (think man in tuxedo with a wand pulling a rabbit out of hat and you pretty much have Blackstone).  During World War II, he performed at 165 different military bases and by the 1950s he was even doing television.

During the 1920s, he performed for at the White House and during the act took President Coolidge's fountain pen from his coat, pulled a rabbit from the pocket of the Secretary of the Treasury, and lifted the wallet of the Secretary of State.  At the end of the performance, he made a pistol disappear from the holster of the guard on duty!

Blackstone was known for his magnificent stage presence and polished performance.  In 1942, he was performing a show in Decatur, Illinois, when he informed the audience that his next trick was so spectacular that everyone would have to file out of the theater and and view it from the street.  He then proceeded to orderly dismiss the audience row by row.  When they reached the street, they discovered what Blackstone had known - that the theater was on fire!  His quick thinking was credited for saving the lives of many that night.

In the late 1950s, Blackstone eventually retired to Hollywood, but continued to wow fellow magicians and up and coming performers at the Magic Castle.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Who could I be?  That's the mystery!

Go ahead and take a guess, but then go enjoy your day.  Check back tomorrow and I'll reveal the answer.  The first correct post will be declared the winner.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

What’s Up In Old Kantuck

I have a confession to make.  Not only do I like old photos, I am also fascinated with old maps (and historical family feuds, nineteenth century humorists, natural disasters, and the Civil War – all of which will come up in this article).  As a child, one year I asked for a giant map of the world for Christmas.  Many evenings I would fall asleep while staring at distant places and unusual names.  I became quite curious why some borders had been created in certain places and what history had caused the lines to be drawn how they were.

One of the things that fascinates me no end are geographical anomalies.  Europe is great for these – having so many historic principalities, so many wars, and so many changes over the years.  It doesn’t take long to notice odd little enclaves or unusual lines.  America is not exempt from our own anomalies.

One of my favorite geographic curiosities is the Kentucky Bend.  A little 17.5 square mile bulb of Kentucky that is completely cut off from the parent state and entirely surrounded by Missouri and Tennessee.  It was created when the original surveyors wrongly estimated where the Tennessee/Kentucky boundary line would reach the Mississippi River.  Missouri was given all the land on the trans-Mississippi side and the surveyors didn’t figure on encountering a large oxbow loop on the cis-Mississippi side.  They didn’t realize there would be a giant looping bend and wrote that the boundary for Kentucky should lie at the westernmost point that the line touched the Mississippi River.

So how did these guys miss the loop?  Back in 1811/12, there was a series of earthquakes collectively called the New Madrid Earthquake that originated right near the Bend.  Modern sizemologists estimate the largest of these was perhaps an 8.0!  The quake was felt in New York and Connecticut and was so powerful that it changed the course the Mississippi and even caused the river to flow backwards for a few days.  At the time of the surveying, people hadn’t ventured all the way to that particular part of the river to see the bend for themselves and the enclave was created by an accident of nature.

In 1862, the Battle of Island Number Ten took place on an island in middle of the Mississippi River just east of the Bend.  The Yankees were trying to move ironclads down the river and the Southerners had placed defenses at this strategic choke point.  Confederate forces had chosen a wonderfully defensible position, nearly impervious to shelling and ground assault, the only drawback being that the Confederate garrison could only be supplied via a solitary road back to Tennessee.  When the Federal forces captured this road, the defenders were completely cut off from resupply.

To this day, this part of Kentucky can only be reached via Tennessee State Route 22 and postal mail is addressed to Tiptonville, Tennessee.  Tennessee originally contested giving the bend to Kentucky, but had relented by 1848.  The odd nature of this area didn’t escape Mark Twain’s notice either as he gave fleeting mention to the Bend in his book, “Life on the Mississippi,” in which he describes a 60 year-old feud between two Bend area families, the Watsons and the Darnells, and their church at a landing called Compromise built half in Kentucky and half in Tennessee.

What a wacky little piece of property!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Familiar Scream

(Pvt. Wilhelm getting shot by an arrow)

Have you ever had the feeling like you've seen or heard something before and chalked it up to déjà vu?  A couple years ago, a friend of mine cued me into the Wilhelm Scream.

It's this quirky little scream that was first used in an obscure 1951 movie, "Distant Drums."  The sound was used a few times until Ben Burtt, a sound effects guy, used it when doing the audio for the original "Star Wars" film.  He kind of adopted it as his personal signature sound and continued placing it films he worked on.  Eventually others picked up on it and used it in their films too.  It's now been used in over 200 movies.  This last week, I heard it in an animated film my kids were watching.  If you're aware of it, I'm sure you'll hear it in some films too.

Are you sure you haven't heard this cry before?  Examples HERE

Monday, September 06, 2010


You probably know that I like looking at old photos.  I enjoy the detective work, as I'm sure so many of you do too, but another aspect that I really enjoy is that it feels like you have a little window into the past.  I remember first seeing the Margaret Eaton photo in a collection at the Library of Congress and immediately wondered why she was there.  There are certainly fewer photos from this time period of older women, so it took me quite by surprise when I noticed the photo was titled, "Margaret O'Neill Eaton."  I recognized the name from the Jacksonian Era, but it was interesting to see that she was still alive as an older lady.

Another thing that captivated me was that this was the lady who so captivated Washington people were falling all over themselves.  I don't know if you clicked on the image to get a closeup look, but for someone known for her beauty and quick charm, the skin seemed pretty wrinkled and the stare was rather vacant.

Now I'm not trying to sound agist and sexist here, but for all I read about the Petticoat Affair, there was something a little sad about how people got so worked up over something so temporary like beauty.  Then again as I was looking at her large glassy eyes, they certainly seemed like they could have been pretty, and the curly hair looked pretty even in her old age.  From all I've read, Margaret must have been quite a interesting person to have been around - and not just for her beauty, but since there are no videos from this era, her personality is lost to us.  I almost wish someone would do one of those Photoshop style age regressions on the photo to give me a better feel for what she would have looked like earlier in life.

A couple years ago, I remember seeing a Photoshop contest where the goal was to age progress celebrities.  The winner had aged the singer Gwen Stefani.  I wonder what my students would think if I showed them these pictures.  Perhaps I'll check next week.

I guess my final thought is that it's really too bad that so much value is placed on beauty in women at the exclusion of other attributes.  Although I also think that much of this is focus originates with women themselves.

Anyone else have thoughts on the matter?

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Margaret "Peggy" O'Neill Eaton

Congratulations to Rob who solved the Person-of-Mystery!  Good sleuthing!

(Margaret "Peg" Eaton from a cigar label)

Yesterday's person was the famous Peggy Eaton, who during Andrew Jackson's presidency was the central figure of the Petticoat Affair.  She is probably best remembered by this name, but she preferred the name Margaret, so I'll refer to her that way in the rest of this post - and as there are multiple men named John in this whole event, Johns will be mostly called by their surnames.

For those who may not have heard of this whole brouhaha, here's how it happened.  Margaret O'Neill (last name also spelled in various places as O'Neal, O'Neil, O'Neale), was the daughter of a Washington tavern owner.  Her father's inn/tavern, Franklin House, being frequented by political figures in the early history of the Capital.  Around 1816, she married John Timberlake, a purser serving on the USS Constitution, and the couple had three children together.  In 1818, John Timberlake befriended John Eaton, a new Senator from Tennessee and a widower (a side note here - Senator Eaton is still the youngest Senator ever elected at age 28).  The three became very close friends and spent a good deal of time together.

(John Eaton)

In 1823, Tennessee elected a new junior Senator, Andrew Jackson.  Eaton and Jackson became good friends in the Senate as Eaton familiarized Jackson with Washington life, recommended Jackson stay at the Franklin House upon his arrival and introduced Jackson to Margaret.  Jackson and his wife became good friends with the Timberlakes and Eaton and Mrs. Jackson became fond of Margaret and particularly enjoyed her musical skill.

(Andrew Jackson)

Timberlake however was often in need of money and volunteering for long voyages at sea.  For his part, Eaton even unsuccessfully petitioned Congress to assist his friend financially.  While Timberlake was away, Eaton would often accompany Margaret to events around Washington.  In 1828, Timberlake officially died of "pulmonary disease" while the USS Constitution was in the Mediterranean.  However, rumors soon circulated about this sudden change of events.

Here is a quick summary of the most prevalent whispered rumors (all the following being only gossip):

1)  As a teenager at the tavern, Margaret had been courted by several suitors.  With one such she refused his affections and he took poison and died.
2)  It was rumored that she had been romantically linked to the son of the Secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson.
3)  She had supposedly attempted elopement with an aide to Gen. Winfield Scott and while climbing from a bedroom window she knocked over a flower pot.  Her father, thus awakened, pulled her back inside window and promptly ended the affair.
4)  Margaret and Senator Eaton had been carrying on an affair, perhaps as far back as 1818.  Proof of which was a quiet January 1st marriage, less than a year after Timberlake's death.
5)  While on one of Timberlake's extended voyages, Margaret had a miscarriage that could only have resulted from an adulterous liaison.
6)  Timberlake had been made aware of the affair between Margaret and Eaton and committed suicide aboard ship in a fit of despondency.
7)  Later wild exaggerations even accused Eaton of fathering a child with colored woman.

Owing to their long-standing friendship, rumors began to get nasty about Eaton and Margaret.  Eaton for his part adored Margaret and sought to silence the rumors.  President-elect Jackson encouraged Eaton to ignore the press and marry her to end the unfounded gossip.  A quiet ceremony was performed on January 1 in the year following Timberlake's death.

Rather than silence critics, the wedding was considered all to soon and the rumors only increased.  People like Louis McLane, a Maryland politician, proclaimed that Eaton had, "just married his mistress – and the mistress of eleven dozen others!"  The Eatons soon became the topic of all manner of awful talk.

Andrew Jackson largely ignored (or wasn't aware of the social disapproval perhaps due to the loss of his own wife) the gossip around Washington and soon appointed his long-time friend Eaton as Secretary of War.  However, most of the cabinet wives (whose ringleader was Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun) openly snubbed and isolated Margaret.  For her part, Margaret's personality did little to dispel the rumors.  She was outspoken, flirtatious, young and pretty, and seemed to care little about convention.  Nevertheless, quickly the clear distain the cabinet wives showed toward Margaret began to rattle her.

(Floride Calhoun)

For his part, President Jackson would have none of this.  His own wife Rachel, had been the subject of vicious gossip before his election and Jackson always blamed the vitriolic press for her failing health and ultimate death months before taking office.  Jackson made multiple attempts to show favor to Margaret, clear her reputation, and stop the rumors, but the situation continued to grow worse.  At one point, Jackson brought together his entire cabinet (minus Eaton and Calhoun) along with two ministers who had publicly denounced Margaret.  He brought affidavits attesting to Margaret's innocence and attempted to clear the Eaton's on wrongdoing.  Jackson believed the meeting successful, but was mistaken.  Secretary of State Martin Van Buren was one of the only cabinet members to side with Jackson and the Eatons, but Van Buren had neither a wife or daughters at the time.

(John Calhoun)

In 1831, Jackson pressured all his cabinet members, including Eaton, to resign.  He then recomposed an entirely new cabinet for the remainder of his term.  Largely due to his support of Margaret, Jackson elevated Van Buren to the Vice Presidential ticket when Jackson ran for reelection.  Both Van Buren and Calhoun credited the "Petticoat Affair" with later lunching Van Buren into the presidency.

(Martin Van Buren)

After his reelection, Jackson began to realize that there was no easy solution to the problem and moved Eaton out of Washington by appointing him Governor of Florida Territory and later Minister to Spain.  Curiously, despite Jackson's unwavering support of Margaret, in 1840 Eaton turned on Jackson politically and the two did not reconcile until just before Jackson's death.

Eaton died in 1856 and left a small fortune to Margaret and for a short period her wealth and time had tempered society's memory allowing her to achieve a quiet respect in Washington.  Margaret's two daughters from Timberlake married into well-connected and prominent families and things seemed to be going along pretty well.

At this point, one might have a great degree of sympathy for Margaret.  However, she thrust herself back into the center of Washington gossip again in 1859 when at age 59, she married her granddaughter's 19 year-old Italian dance instructor, Antonio Buchignani.  Again a social pariah, Margaret retained a small fortune, until seven years into the marriage Buchignani ran off to Europe with the now 17 year-old granddaughter, Emily, along with most of their money.

Margaret was able to obtain a divorce, but not the money and she died rather poor in Washington in 1879.  The photo from yesterday was taken towards the end of her life.

(Political Cartoon, not of Margaret, lampooning the centrality of women's affairs in the Jackson administration)