Tag: Chicago

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 985: The Greatest Show In The Wild Old West

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It was the kind of sun-whipped summer day that tended to cook the old west like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Central Pacific Railroad had just rolled into town, and a tall man with a face like sawed oak and fiery red hair leaned casually against a corral fence, watching the passengers disembark. Their faces scanned the local buildings for a place to eat. Few of them noticed the smarmy gentleman in the suit who was crossing the street. But the redhead saw him. He stepped away from the fence and shattered the dusty air.

“There ya are, ya low-down polecat!” he bellowed. The passers-by paused in their tracks. “Ah’m gonna kill ya b’cause of what ya did ta mah sister!” He paused, trying to collect himself. “Mah pore, pore little sister.”

The shorter man was frozen in panic. He didn’t react when the redhead pulled out his gun, cocked it, and fired. The shorter man fell to the street, writhed in pain for a moment, then died. The railway passengers sprinted back onto the train, some women fainted and had to be carried to safety as townsfolk wrestled the gun away from the redhead and dragged him off to jail. The dead man was unceremoniously dragged into the nearest saloon while the terrified passengers remained flat against the train’s floor, afraid to move. Thankfully, the train started rolling once again westward.

After the fervor had passed, the townsfolk relaxed with a hearty laugh. In one swift act of amateur theatre, they had just created the legendary old west.

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The town of Palisade, Nevada was founded by a man named Willy East, who was looking for a comfy place in which to settle freed slaves. He had been talking with San Francisco resident-of-note Joshua Norton (who had recently declared himself to be Emperor of the United States), who had directed him toward the vast expanse of available Nevada land. The convenient placement of the railroad, as well as the town’s functional toilet – a feature not yet found aboard rail travel – cranked up the local population of the young town to around 300 in the 1870’s.

It was a picturesque little burg, home to a trio of saloons and a well-placed café beside the railway tracks to provide sustenance to the travelers who were pursuing the American Dream out west. Scoundrels and scammers poked and prodded at passenger wallets, selling them useless salt mines and spinning adventurous (and bogus) tales. But where was the “wild west” they had heard so much about? Read more…

Day 978: Doc Brinkley’s Magical Goat Balls

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It makes perfect sense. If a man is having a hard time encouraging his noble groin-soldier onto the battlefield, perhaps his problem is a lack of testicular fortitude. If only he could harness the power of nature’s potential through his impetuous manhood. If only he could possess the unflinching might of goat balls.

That’s right: goat balls. These testicular orbs of revered bleat-meat might cure all your ills, male or female in nature. Such was the reasoning behind Dr. John R. Brinkley’s infamous medical gifts, and such was the foundation of his fortune. If you skim past the wrongful death suits, the federal investigations and the sheer audacity of his backhanded disregard for ethics and common sense, Dr. Brinkley could be seen as the medical luminary of his day.

But we aren’t going to skip those parts. For his lifelong devotion to greed, fraud, and the scrotal strength of the capra aegagrus hircus, we’re going to tell the whole of Dr. Brinkley’s story.

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Shortly after the birth of his daughter in 1907, John Brinkley enrolled at Bennett Medical College in Chicago, a school of questionable repute due to its focus on ‘Eclectic medicine’, which is somewhat like modern herbal / homeopathic medicine, except with less Far Eastern wisdom and a lot more guesswork. He never finished, and he failed to pay his back tuition, which prevented him from transferring to another school. Eventually he did what any enterprising young would-be healer would do: he bought a diploma from a diploma mill in Kansas City. Read more…

Day 959: Day Two Of Peace & Music

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Said I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm, going to join in a rock & roll band.

Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.

 

Somewhere amid the cultural symbolism and the anthemic declarations of a generation’s identity lies the actual music performed at the Woodstock festival. Contrasting that weekend with the tighter and more disciplined Monterey Pop Festival from two years earlier reveals an evolution in rock culture: the glittering aftermath of psychedelia, the re-blossoming of foundational blues and folk through rock-tinted lenses, and the collective embrace of instrumental mastery.

The Who sent jaws dropping to the dusty floor in ’67 when Pete Townsend assaulted his guitar into pieces; at Woodstock they were neck-deep in exploring the possibility of rock-opera. The Jefferson Airplane soared on the strength of their early hits at Monterey; two years later their music was more introspective and demure. Soul music, which had tickled the Monterey crowd to the tune of Otis Redding, Lou Rawls and Booker T. & The MG’s, had rocketed into the realm of cosmic funk by 1969, with Sly & The Family Stone representing. And Janis… well she was just Janis. No higher compliment could be given.

Some of the Woodstock performances were iconic. Others were merely adequate. Then there was Sha Na Na, which fit into the vibe of the festival like a can of tuna fits onto a dessert cart. But the music is unquestionably the skeleton that gives the experience its historic form and structure.

Just imagine what could have been.

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A number of acts were either rumored or invited, but never made the bill. Bob Dylan, the poet-rebel of the Newport Folk Festival four years earlier, was the most logical invitee. He lived near Bethel in the actual town of Woodstock, but he’d already committed to the Isle of Wight Festival at the end of the month. Shiny new superstars Led Zeppelin were selected, but promoter Frank Barsalona didn’t want his band to be just another name on the bill. The Doors figured it would be a second-rate Monterey Pop so they turned it down, an act that guitarist Robby Krieger claimed they later regretted. Read more…

Day 930: The Other Foo Fighters

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I admit it, I frequently dip into the tart, opaque candy bowl of skepticism, filled with lemon drops of doubt and sour-chews of crotchety fact-checking. That said, I like my sour sweets to end with an upbeat aftertaste, a smidgen of optimism that my aforementioned leeriness will be heartily disproven. Deep down, I don’t believe in the hibber-jabber of ghosts, of karmic energy tallies or Earth-snooping alien life, but even deeper down, I kind of hope I’m wrong.

If this miasma of rambling self-reflection seems like a hopelessly clunky introduction to a kilograph on one of the greatest rock bands of the past two decades… well, it would be. But while the caliber of Dave Grohl’s rocktastic ass-kickery certainly merits a lengthy diatribe of praise (hell, I could do a thousand words on nothing more than the rib-clenching, cerebrospinal-throttling bridge of “Monkey Wrench”), that’s not what today is about.

Today we look at the original foo fighters: no foot-swiveling grooves, no cinematic videos and no capital ‘F’s. These foo fighters transport us back in time, into the goose-feather fury of the second World War, then up into a nebulous sky filled with illusionary aberrations – gravelly bumps in the smooth road of logic and comprehensible reason.

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The word ‘foo’ was a popular nonsense word of the 1930’s, much like any of Doctor Seuss’s whimsical wordage or much of what you’ll hear on Fox News today (hey! A topical joke! Three points for me!). It grew from the work of popular Chicagoan cartoonist Bill Holman and his Chicago Tribune strip known as Smokey Stover. Foo was an anarchic dalliance into the lexicon of imagination. It functioned as a noun, an adjective, and a G-rated exclamation of disbelief. Did it morph into the 1940’s-era military term FUBAR? Perhaps. But it certainly held ground in the American military landscape at that time. Read more…

Day 909: The Real Grand-Daddy Of Motion Pictures – Louis Le Prince

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As an aspiring young (using the most broad and generous definition of “young”) film studies major, I was fascinated by the pre-Edison attempts at capturing moving pictures for subsequent viewing. Eadweard Muybridge used a long row of still cameras to capture a galloping horse’s stride, only to spurt the images in semi-full-motion through his zoopraxiscope. Coleman Sellers invented the kinematoscope, using a hand-cranked paddle machine to bring pictures to life. Then there’s Henry Renno Heyl’s phasmotrope, which demonstrated that every early cinematic invention had a cool name.

But we can’t forget ol’ Louis Le Prince, the Frenchman who patented his own camera that created a sequence of photos on treated paper. Like Muybridge, Sellers and Heyl, Le Prince’s work is seen as part of the multi-textured groundwork that gave birth to Thomas Edison’s magical moving-picture camera – the real genesis of the movie biz. Or so they say.

Except that Louis Le Prince’s story goes a little deeper than that. His is a tale, not only of innovation and genius, but of a curious – some might say suspicious – disappearance, and a very smarmy lawsuit against the man who would eventually get the credit for being the brains behind movie technology.

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Louis was a brilliant photographic technician, which was the 19th-century way of saying he was a brilliant photographer. There wasn’t much one could artistically accomplish with cameras back then, but Louis was renowned for his skills at fixing color photographs onto metal and pottery surfaces, which earned him the privilege of creating portraits of Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone. He moved from Leeds (where he had been situated since his mid-20’s) to New York in 1881, a pioneer in his field. Read more…

Day 887: Disco Inferno In The Heart of Chicago

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Unite a crowd of people under the frumpy awning of hate and it’s not hard for things to shimmy out of control. Provide those same people with a river of cheap beer and a charismatic leader to stoke their ire and you’d best check that you’re insured against a savage pandemonium. When the promotions team for the unimpressive 1979 Chicago White Sox were looking for ways to beef up fan attendance and amuse their loyal ticket-buyers with something that could counterbalance the Sox’s pitifully mediocre season, they’d have been wise to heed this advice.

Mike Veeck, the promotions director and son of team owner Bill Veeck (hooray for nepotism!), was determined to bring some fun into the stadium, maybe by catering to local music fans; Disco Night back in 1977 had been a huge hit. When Veeck heard that local loudmouth DJ Steve Dahl was thinking of blowing up a huge stack of disco records at a local shopping mall, the gimmick seemed somehow perfect to entertain the kids in the cheap seats at Comiskey Park.

And so was born Disco Demolition Night, a convoluted cocktail of bad ideas and pitiful execution. Anyone who brought a disco record to be blasted at the park was admitted to the July 12 doubleheader for 98 cents (Steve Dahl’s radio station broadcast on the 97.9 frequency, so this made sense). In between games, the batch of disco records would be hauled out to centerfield and blown apart in a ceremonious hurrah. Then, everyone could have a good laugh and settle back into their seats for the second game.

Yeah, right.

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Chicago disc jockey Steve Dahl had been fired from WDAI on Christmas Eve, 1978, when the station abandoned rock for the hugely successful disco format. He had a reason to hate the genre. Hired right away by rival station WLUP, which was still very committed to the thumping thrusts of top-notch rock music, Dahl proceeded to become Chicago’s preeminent anti-disco crusader. He rallied his fans into a mock-army known as the Insane Coho Lips, “dedicated to the eradication of the dread musical disease known as DISCO.” Read more…

Day 883: The Starlet Of The Sports Pages

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“It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.”

So said sportswriter Joe Williams of the New York Herald-Tribune. He was writing a critical (and overtly misogynistic) piece about Babe Didrikson-Zaharias. Babe’s name is anything but household today, though at the time she was the most important woman in the world of sports.

To claim that Babe was the single greatest female athlete of the 20th century would not be an unmerited hyperbole; she played a myriad of sports and excelled at every one of them. Babe was tough, she was brilliant, and she wasn’t afraid to be an “athlete” instead of a “woman who plays sports”. She hammered out her own identity and handled all her own PR. How her life story remains unknown to so much of the general populace today, I have no idea; we all know Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Arnold Palmer, Red Grange… and those schmucks only mastered one sport apiece.

Babe Didrikson-Zaharias conquered most of the sports section, game by game.

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Mildred Didriksen (she’d later change the ‘-en’ to ‘-on’) was born to Norwegian parents in Port Arthur, Texas – also the birthplace of Janis Joplin. She took the nickname ‘Babe’ from her mother’s childhood pet name for her, though she’d later claim she was given the nickname in honor of Babe Ruth after she’d hit five home runs in a childhood baseball game. Her version of the nickname origin was an exaggeration, though I suspect the baseball story is true. Read more…

Day 861: The Lawn Chair Pilot Takes Off

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For those with unlimited imagination and an unfiltered sense of audacity, our gravitational tether to the ground ceases to be a limitation. Those who are terrified of heights may hug their earth-bound security with nary a blink toward the clouds, but for those of us who would happily dance a loopy jitterbug upon the glass floor at the top of the Willis Tower in Chicago, or leap into a rickety balloon basket and drift with the wind, we’ll savor the taste of danger.

Controlled danger, of course. There’s a thick and distinct line between taking part in a Better-Business-Bureau-approved hot-air flight of fancy off the ground and truly pioneering a bold and inventive voyage into the air. There is a coveted room in history for the fearless exploits of people like Ferdinand von Zeppelin or Kevin Helicopter, who tossed away the shackles of gravity and poured their souls into something exquisite.

That room in history is packed with other names too. The Wright Brothers have the sweet spot near the bathroom (but not so close that they can smell the urinal pucks), and the Montgolfier Brothers (who built the first manned hot air balloon) have a seat by the window. And you’d better believe there’s a cushy, velvet-lined deck chair reserved for Larry Walters.

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You’d never know it from his piercing gaze, but Larry didn’t have great eyesight. He’d always dreamed of being a pilot, but the Air Force wouldn’t sign off due to his poor vision. That was it, his dream was snuffed into an ashy heap of fuzzy eye charts and unfortunate genetics. A more rational and unimaginative person might have surrendered at that point, relegated themselves to being an airline passenger or a recreational skydiver. But not Larry. Read more…

Day 825: Meet The New You

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This might sound stupid – and I realize now as I plot out the journey of the remainder of this sentence that it does indeed sound fundamentally stupid down to the core of its clanging consonants – but I’ve always perceived a palpable thrill attached to the concept of the witness protection program. Forget the fact that you might always be looking over your shoulder, or that nine out of ten times you’re probably a criminal testifying against a more important criminal before you get to join the program – it’s a slate-wiping, sin-scratching, skin-shedding fresh start. Who wouldn’t want that?

Okay, I’m glamorizing a societal necessity, supported by a culture of violence and murder. TV and movies have taught me that witness protection serves either as a plot point to disguise a character’s shady past or as the eventual salvation for the antihero we’ve been cheering for. This is the problem with being raised by TV – its stories tend to omit a number of details and all of the paperwork.

Not every country has a witness relocation program in place. For many it’s a matter of protection as a case warrants it, with the police usually clearing out once the testimony is complete. But sometimes a relocation, a new identity and a new life become the end-result of a witness’s gutsy testimony. That’s where the real story begins.

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The first instance of witness protection popped up as part of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. During the post-Civil War period, when many southerners were aghast at the unconscionable decree by “the man” that no longer allowed them the God-given right to own people, the KKK was particularly active. Part of the Act included government protection for anyone who was willing to testify against Klan members, who had a habit of being a tetch on the violent side when it came to their enemies. Read more…