Politics

Day 992: The John Wilkes Booth World Tour

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When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.

Or was he?

Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?

As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:

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One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.

Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered. Read more…

Day 981: The Double-Agent of Staffordshire

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Every so often while sifting through the corrugated rubble of history, one lands upon a figure who is a trifle harder to figure out than the rest. Whatever may have spirited his soul this way or that gets lost in the grey ink of facts and dates, leaving (for those of us who care) a certain freedom for speculation.

Was Gilbert Gifford an English hero? Was he a traitor? A coward? His actions directly led to one of British history’s most infamous executions, but the footsteps that led him there may have been driven by precisely the opposite intent. Such is the riddle that four centuries of dust and distortion have thrown across his legacy.

I’d like to paint Gilbert with passionate swirls – not moved by an allegiance to politic or royal hullabaloo, but by the colors of his faith. Not his faith in Catholic dogma, though undoubtedly that old rhythm spent a considerable amount of time tip-tapping upon the inside of his skull. I’m talking about his faith in flesh, in love, and in the non-negotiable immediate.

In short, Gilbert danced to his own boogie.

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The 16th century was a sketchy time to be religious in Europe. If you were Catholic, you kept your mouth shut around Protestants and vice-versa. Gilbert Gifford was born to a recusant Catholic landowner in Staffordshire. This label of ‘recusancy’ was given to those who continued to wear their Catholic jerseys long past the time when the Church of England (Anglicanism as we know it today) was chosen to be the home team. It took a certain amount of guts on the part of John Gifford, and to some extent that chutzpah was carried on by his son. Read more…

Day 975: All Hail Norton I, Emperor Of These United States Of America

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For all her achievements and triumphs, America just hasn’t been the same since the good ol’ days when the Emperor ran the show.

It was a brief sliver of eccentric history (or ‘eccentristory’ – I’m copyrighting that title) that should never be forgotten. And for some who live in San Francisco, where Emperor Norton breathed the free air of his glorious domain, it’s a cause worth championing. If nothing else, he was a testament to the spirit of the San Franciscan penchant for enfolding the quirky and unrepentantly goofy into the city’s lore. This wouldn’t have happened in Omaha.

Consider this an education on the potential of the politic of passion, a reimagining of a man’s place in the society that – to his mind – has clipped the wings of his security and left him abandoned in the ether. One cannot be defeated if one is the champion of one’s own self-proclaimed might. Kudos to Emperor Norton for making up his own rules, and Super-Kudos to San Francisco for buying in.

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No one knows for certain the details of his origin story, but we do know that Joshua Abraham Norton came to us from somewhere in England via South Africa in 1849 after receiving a hefty bequest of $40,000 from his late father’s estate. He parlayed that money into a successful dance around the real estate market, building his fortune up to a cool quarter-million within a few short years. But Mr. Norton was always on the lookout for the next big opportunity. In this case, it drifted beneath his nose in the form of a news release from China. Read more…

Day 974: Punishing The Politicos – Worst Politicians Part 2

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Every few years – or sometimes sooner than that – those of us in democratic countries who feel compelled to do so will cast our vote in hopes that it might help to steer our nation from the cesspool in which it is presently mired toward a newer, less feces-laden cesspool. Sometimes we succeed. Also, there are times when we watch the news and wonder how anyone with an IQ greater than a puddle of artificial creamer might have voted for the current putz.

A few months ago I compiled a list of what experts have deemed to be the most egregious smudges upon the office of the Presidency of the United States. I met with no dissent in the comments section, perhaps because everyone agreed with the options presented, or maybe because those crappy presidents have also often evolved to become the most obscure and forgotten presidents.

Despite the fact that much of my reading audience is in America, I’m nevertheless going to present a deeper exploration of the obscure today. There have been garbage leaders all over the western world. Just for fun, let’s see who splatters the bottom of the list in some of the Commonwealth nations.

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Sir William “Squinty” McMahon took over the top seat in Australia in 1971, an ugly win which oozed from a period of party infighting and disgruntled squabbling. Right away, McMahon’s opponent on the Labor Side was a well-spoken war hero named Gough Whitlam. Every time the two of them traded barbs it was McMahon who skulked away, shamefully coming up short on wit and rhetoric. Read more…

Day 973: Richard III’s Weird Goodbye

University Of Leicester Makes Announcement Following Discovery Of Human Remains Which Are Possibly King Richard III

A depressingly small amount of great historical tales end up in a parking lot. In the case of Richard III, King of England and the final monarch of the Plantagenet dynasty, that’s exactly where the conclusion was written. A public parking lot – probably the kind of place where young lovers searched for a way across home plate, where despondent laid-off businessmen wept in their Saabs before going home to their families, and where illicit exchanges of cash for drugs no doubt peppered the veil of darkness.

It’s an unlikely closing chapter for a king who spent his final day in a gruesome battle for control of the throne in what would be the blood-splattered climax of the War of the Roses. But deceased winners get sent to the unknown in a flourish of pageantry; the dead on the other side get swept beneath the planetary carpet and forgotten about. And the guy who was in charge of the losing side? It’s fair game for that poor schlub.

The fate of Richard III endured the typical kaleidoscope of historical record, branching out in luminous tales of colorful desecration and mesmerizing hyperbole. But the truth? The real truth? Grab a shovel, move that Miata out of the way and let’s do some digging.

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Back in the days before leaders conscripted the poor to fight their battles, Richard III wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. The War of the Roses had been raging for four decades, with the House of Lancaster yearning to snag the crown away from the House of York. Richard was new to the throne, having acted as Lord Protector for his 12-year-old nephew, Edward V until 1483 when it was decided that Edward was just not up to kinging. There was skepticism about Richard: why did Edward and his younger brother disappear suddenly? Why did Richard’s wife die under mysterious circumstances? Was Richard involved? Read more…

Day 972: Missed It By That Much…

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“If you’re going to do something, do it right.”

So sayeth the big book of unspoken laws – the same book that also condemns hack writers who open articles with unattributed clichés, tagged with stupid quotation marks that indicate that the words have been spoken, though in this case only within the writer’s mind. Hey, sometimes I’m lazy. But at least I’m honest about it.

Sometimes – and this pops up most frequently when an occasion forces me to try dancing without a sufficient dosage of alcohol to abuse my bloodstream – I’m downright incompetent. That’s not a crime; we all take a stumbling stroll through the courtyard of fuckuptitude now and then. The key is not to be incompetent when it really counts. Like when you’re meeting your in-laws. Or performing a recital. Or trying to kill somebody.

That’s a big one. Screw up an assassination attempt and you’ll be plopped into history’s laughing bin , filed under ‘G’ for Gut-Bustingly Idiotic. These five would-be snuffers of life weren’t out for notoriety, and the failure of their mission, though it opened them up for mockery galore, did little to sway whatever kooky inspiration had fuelled them past the checkpoint of legality into the realm of the fiercely wicked. But at that point, who cared?

Get your pointing finger ready and cue up your next laugh. These folks have earned it.

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When a white man fatally shot the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, it stuck a searing needle into race relations. But King had been targeted before – in this instance by a black woman in September of 1958 – and the end result was actually more encouraging than divisive. Izola Curry’s beef with the Reverend was not so much issues-based as it was wacko-nutjob-based. She met Dr. King at a Harlem book signing, and proceeded to jab a steel letter opener into his chest. Read more…

Day 970: How One Woman’s Bad Advice Helped To Crumble An Empire

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A modicum of historical investigation, along with a smidge of fact-manipulation in order to build a semi-credible opening sentence has revealed a morsel of data heretofore unknown to me: the Roman Empire – the most mighty and triumphant political juggernaut of the early A.D.’s – was tipped over to a partial crumble, all because some guy listened to his mother.

That may seem like an exaggeration. A slight inflation of documented truth or the set-up for a bit of shtick. But history will back me up on this. By 476, the Roman Empire in the west had been sneezed into debris. It kept up appearances out east for another millennium, but the west had shuffled on to the Middle Ages, where the nightlife was more vibrant, despite the clothes being far less stylish.

History recalls the events of 235 AD as the start of the Crisis of the Third Century. Rome became a land with no leader, and with no one able to pick up a phone and coordinate their collective shit, the Europe-spanning Empire fell into troubled confusion. And the wheels were all set into motion by one guy’s mother, who passed on what could be viewed as some of the crappiest historic advice ever given.

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The story begins with Mark Antony, that kook from all those wacky Shakespeare movies. When he was smited by Octavian in 31 BC, the table was set for what’s known as the Pax Romana – a 200 year period of unprecedented peace. The Roman Empire inflated to the Atlantic, deep into the Middle East, and south into Africa, all with relatively little military flexing. Then along came Emperor Alexander Severus. Read more…

Day 968: The Wayward Wanderings Of Thomas Culpeper’s Foolish Dink

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When one is granted access to the inner circle of England’s royal family, allowed to mingle with the most upper of crusts and graced with the juiciest insider knowledge of the most important goings-on in the British Empire, rule number one would have to be: DON’T BANG THE QUEEN. You can miss a bow, accidentally utter a commoner’s curse-word or even blast a foul note on your five-foot-long horn whilst heralding the king’s grand entrance, but seriously… DON’T BANG THE QUEEN.

This sage piece of what should be unspoken advice never slithered past the cranium of Thomas Culpeper. Here was a man with more political power than practically anyone else in the nation, yet he couldn’t keep it in his pantaloons in the presence of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard.

What could possess a man to lay his life on the line in this way? He could have conceivably scored with any single woman in court – hell, even the other married women would have been less of a personal gamble – but it was Catherine who turned his proverbial crank. Perhaps it was a glinty-eyed lust for women in power (a fetish that would have been tricky to satisfy in those backward days). Maybe he was a masochist. Or it could be that Catherine was just that beautiful.

Myself, I like a woman with weird, complicated headgear.

Myself, I like a woman with weird, complicated headgear.

Thomas Culpeper was the second son of three. His older brother was also named Thomas, so clearly their parents suffered from a horrific drought of imagination. Thomas (and also, presumably, Thomas) never had to scrape his way into high society; the family was of noble stock and the boys were quick to land jobs as advisors (or courtiers) of various noble-folk around the country. He got along famously with Henry VIII, and wormed his way into the royal inner circle in his early 20’s. Read more…

Day 951: King Joffrey Was A Pussy

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I just got through reading a Wikipedia article so poorly written and peppered with so many near-identical names my brain sneezed in agony. But at its heart was a narrative so foul and villainous, I feel it deserves a translation into mostly-coherent English.

Seriously, most of the names in this tale are bewilderingly similar. I’ll do my best to simplify the tale, to differentiate between the Liu Ziluan, Liu Ziye and Liu Zixun mess and deliver something digestible, as the story of the fiendish Emperor Qianfei of China needs to be preserved. This is teenage royalty gone wrong, in a way that would make George R.R. Martin cringe with disbelief. In fact, Game of Thrones fans may skim through this and wonder why their beloved show is so docile and civilized.

After all, what did King Joffrey really do? He had a few people killed, engaged in some weird crossbow-fetish sex-play, and acted like an ass to most everyone around him. Who cares? Pure evil resides not in the hearts and minds of fictitious fiends, but in the madness of truth. And the madness of Emperor Qianfei reaches far deeper than any sick twists undertaken by that blond pansy from Westeros.

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Emperor Qianfei was born in 449 AD as Liu Ziye, but in the interest of bogging this story down with Liu Z– names from the outset, let’s just call the little prick by his emperor name: Qianfei. Qianfei was tossed in prison at age five when his uncle made a power play for the throne. Qianfei’s dad showed up and heroically slaughtered the uncle, and christened his kid as the crown prince. He was wed at age 10 and a widower at 12. In 464, Qianfei’s dad died and Qianfei stepped up as the new emperor, age 15. Read more…

Day 950: Washington’s One-Off Moment Of Calm

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The 1810’s were a weird time in American history. The capital city burned to the ground, the country was poised to split in half (an east-west rift, not the north-south one that would roll in a half-century later), and it all culminated in a segment of time so groovy it was actually named the Era of Good Feelings. Political divisiveness faded away, a renewed sense of warm, cuddly patriotism tickled everybody’s squishy bits, and for just the briefest of pages in that grand ol’ tome of history, the States truly felt United.

We are currently dredging our political boots through a period of ludicrously sticky partisanship. Reading through a newspaper, through the finger-wagging of the left and the manic hypocrisy of the right, has launched me into several grey periods of willful ignorance over the last few years, in which I find myself skimming through the pages, pausing only at the movie and television news, and any articles involving puppies.

But while we gaze briefly and longingly at this mystical nugget of political respite, we’d bestn’t pine for the nation’s lost idealism. The so-called Era of Good Feelings was little more than the deceptive breath of a cool breeze on a day so hot it could boil the paint off the Capitol dome. When it fell apart, so began the nation’s journey toward the scissor-snip of the Civil War.

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The story begins with the Hartford Convention of 1814, which probably did not take place in the Hartford Convention Center, pictured above. This was a gathering of curmudgeonly white guys representing the Federalist Party. These men had more gripes with the administration running the country than would a modern-day gaggle of hemorrhoidal Fox-News bobbleheads. Here’s why they were pissed:

–       The War of 1812 was not going well. The cocky British, fresh off their victory over Napoleon, had careened into Washington DC back in August and burnt much of it – including the Capitol and the White House – into ashes. This did not bode well.

–       The war was also wrinkling the smooth flow of overseas trade. You don’t mess with old New England money. Read more…