Tag: Civil War

Day 994: The Game Of Milton Bradley’s Life

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I confess: I am but one week away from commemorating my 40th year on this planet, and I have yet to ever play The Game of Life. This is not due to some ethical or existential objection to simulating the course of one’s existence upon a square slab of cardboard, but rather due to my friends and I having spent our youthful recreation time with Star Wars toys and kindly ol’ Super Mario. I never got around to playing Candyland either.

As beloved as this board game may be, with its plastic minivans, its cruel cash-drains and generous paydays, buried deep within its roots is a transformative story. The original version of the game, concocted by Mr. Milton Bradley himself, elevated the concept of gaming from prescriptive quests for moral elevation to a more practical and modernized measure of success. More importantly, it came packaged with choice.

The Game of Life as we know it (well, as you probably know it, since I’ve never played the thing) features one early decision: go to school or get a job. After that, each soul is subjected to the whim of the spiteful spinner, suggesting that life is but a cavalcade of random collisions, and that we are always at the mercy of the fickle flick of fate. Mr. Bradley’s outlook on destiny was far more empowering.

Milton Bradley, 1860s

Tracing the Bradley lineage would suggest that a rather dreary definition of “life” could have taken center-stage in his outlook. The family tree was planted in America in 1635, and since then its bark shows the hatchet-marks of murder, Indian attack, kidnapping, and at one point hot embers being poured into an infant’s mouth. When Milton finally squeezed his way onto the planet in 1836, the Bradleys were a little less prone to being butchered, but far from being economic titans. 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 962: Moriarty, Unmasked

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What can be said of a criminal mastermind? I’d always been deterred from a life of misdeeds by my utter conviction that I’d be lousy at it, and that the inevitable consequences of such a career are either prison, demise by the hand of the swarthy hero, or if one is lucky, a paranoid, skittish retirement. With my luck, I’d be foiled by some cartoonish gaggle of meddling kids and their talking stoner-dog.

Some of history’s most capable crooks have piqued my interest throughout this project, more out of my fascination at the tenacious longevity and the sometimes-cinematic flair with which they’d plied their trade. While I don’t aspire to join their ranks, I do envy how they have crafted their own good fortune.

The key here is that the criminals about whom I’ve written are famous – or at minimum, famous enough to warrant at least a brief Wikipedia page. But shouldn’t the truly successful master-crooks still be anonymous to us, even after the final curtain of death has ushered them off the mortal stage? Perhaps. But I believe a case can be made for the exquisite professionalism and enduring evil genius of those bad guys whose names nonetheless appear in print – even those who have risen to become legends. Take, for instance, the near-perfect vocational aptitude of the 19th-century criminal genius, Adam Worth.

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Adam turned to a life of crime as soon as he’d been kicked off the grid. Raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Adam ran away from home at ten, then at seventeen he lied about his age so he could join the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. After getting wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Adam learned he’d been listed as Killed In Action by accident. He took advantage of his premature death and disappeared.

He found easy work as a bounty jumper; he’d be paid off by citizens to sign up for the army in their name, then after he’d collected his army paycheck he’d flit back to the shadows. Adam pulled this off several times, never getting caught, though he did attract some attention. Local law enforcement was in no position to help out the armed forces, but a new type of heroic protagonist had emerged on the scene in the form of Allan Pinkerton and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton’s was the first private investigation firm in American history, and they were happy to chase after Adam Worth and the other bounty jumping scum who were profiting from military desertion.

Curiously, Pinkerton PI went for the exact opposite of Magnum PI's swarthy mustache.

Curiously, Pinkerton PI went for the exact opposite of Magnum PI’s swarthy mustache.

The war ended, and Adam settled into the pickpocket business in New York. He was an entrepreneur, however, soon acquiring his own gang of pickpockets, and working his way up to little robberies and heists. Well-known criminal fence Marm Mandelbaum took Adam under her wing, helping him plan more elaborate capers. At Mendelbaum’s request, Adam helped to tunnel under the soil outside the White Plains jail in order to liberate safecracker Charley Bullard. Charley and Adam became close friends and partners in their nefarious deeds. 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…

Day 942: The Hounds Of Golden Gate City

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Clambering through the sticky alluvium of a daily paper can be a chore. Death, hate, disaster, and the ricochets of the eternal accusatory politic create the illusion of an incurably cacophonic world. I understand – the precipice of doom is a great slab of real estate if you want to attract gawkers, in particular gawkers with a couple of bucks in hand, who are ready to hear the worst and won’t settle for less. But it wasn’t always this way.

Between the stuffy drama of closed-door Washington and the few international events that would pepper the pages of a typical 19th century American daily, readers sought stories with a narrative bent. In particular when the bloody Civil War splattered so much of a paper’s square footage, a Disneyfied, anthropomorphizing puppy story had the power to pluck readers’ eyes away from the carnage into a happier place. I admire that.

Unearthing such a story in 1860’s San Francisco was not a tricky feat; the city was impervious to the anguish and torment on the nation’s eastern frontier. On the contrary, it was awash in lively characters, literary wits and the quivering afterglow of a glorious gold rush. It was from these streets, dusty with optimism and aglow with lucky geography that we find the legend of Bummer and Lazarus, two lively pooches who charmed everyone in the Bay Area.

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Nowadays, a dog wandering the streets of a major city is usually a sign that someone’s beloved pet had slipped through a gate or a door and bungled its way free from complacent domesticity. But in 1840’s Los Angeles, free-roaming dogs outnumbered people two-to-one. San Francisco wasn’t quite as deeply mired in canine vagrants, but the situation was still extreme. Dogs were poisoned, trapped and killed like feral raccoons or subway rats. But those few skilled pups who displayed some functional skills and/or a winning personality might stand a chance of survival. Read more…

Day 912: Alferd Packer – He Ate People!

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Like many who don’t seek to occupy their thoughts with world-shifting brilliance or cunning inventorism, I spend an inordinate amount of time in day-dreamy contemplation. I’ve written about a host of historic criminals, and sometimes it strikes me that the prose we are left with, which documents their foulest of deeds and paints the page red with the nefarious blood-spritz of their infamous acts, is somewhat lacking. These men were not evil masterminds who plotted their wickedness from the dimly-lit murk of a dastardly lair.

Well, maybe that was the case for someone like William “Boss” Tweed, but for the most part I think history’s monsters could be better understood – I say ‘understood’, not ‘forgiven’ – with a tiny relevé in perspective. Sometimes their heinous horrors were simply the path of least resistance to a sought-after goal.

Like survival. In the dazzling pantheon of American cannibalism stories, there’s a sparkling room reserved for Alferd Packer, the man who ascended into Colorado legend for having feasted upon an intrepid troupe of gold-hungry explorers one winter eve in 1874. What tipped him into infamy was little more than desperation, panic, and a sprinkling of unmanaged greed. Would any of us have done things differently?

Okay, probably. Almost definitely. What the hell, I guess I had to ask.

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Alferd Packer – and his name was transcribed as both ‘Alfred’ and ‘Alferd’, though he preferred Alferd, allegedly because of a misspelled tattoo on his arm – served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was discharged for epilepsy then drifted west, earning a scant income as a small-time con man. Whether he was legitimately on the hunt for gold or whether he’d simply duped a team of money-hungry would-be prospectors into trusting his abilities as a gold-sniffing mountain man, we’ll never know. Read more…

Day 870: The Cruel Capture & Cunning Calculation Of Fanny Kelly

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Classic tales of the old west are filled with men who are forced by circumstance to be MEN. By the code of the west, a guy’s holster must be overflowing with the gooey, musky froth of machismo. Whether it’s Marshal Will Kane awaiting a fleet of vengeful gunmen at high noon or Ethan Edwards roaming the desert for years in search of a niece, a man’s got to do what societal norms dictate that a man’s got to do.

But what about the women? Sure, there were a few gun-toting types like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, but for the most part women were relegated to the supporting roles, both in history and in cinema. They were the wives, the mothers, the schoolmarms and the whores. When placed out of context, in a position of survival, their best course of action is to stay put and await the manly arms of rescue.

This is where the movies diverge from reality. Apart from a few notable exceptions, cinematic women of the old west might have had some spunk and chutzpah, but they were rarely enabled with the gifts to get stuff done. In reality, the women who hoofed it across the frontier had the potential for every bit the badassery of their male counterparts. As an example I present the typical 1850’s housewife – a lady by the name of Fanny Kelly.

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Fanny married Josiah S. Kelly, a guy whose health problems were not well suited to the arid Kansas climate. It was 1864 and the bulk of Americans on the move were headed north and west, far away from the meat-splatter of the Civil War and into the last untamed swath of the continent. They set their sights toward the area we now call Idaho and/or Montana, bringing along Mary Hurley, Fanny’s seven-year-old niece whom the couple had adopted. The trio were joined by Franklin and Andy, two “colored servants”, and a Methodist clergyman named Mr. Sharp.

Shortly afterwards, William and Sarah Larimer hooked up with the convoy, towing their eight-year-old son Frank. Two more men, Gardner Wakefield and Noah Taylor rode with them. They were a party of nine adults and two kids. Enough bodies to ward off lone bandits, with enough provisions to get across the country in relative comfort. Of course the real threat along the trail wasn’t so much pesky robbers or indulgent eating binges. Read more…

Day 851: Eviscerating The Elected – Worst Politicians Part 1

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If a politician’s legacy was determined solely by how many bad things are said about them in public, then all of history’s worst politicians are either presently in office or they have served their terms since the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. This isn’t true of course – to truly dig through history’s nuances and rank our politicians’ situational responses would be an impossible task, and a magnificently arbitrary effort in academic wankery.

So naturally it has been done, several times over in fact.

I can see ranking our leaders as an interesting exercise, if performed by historians and political experts who can employ their breadth of knowledge of tariffs and policies and the various global goings-on that were impacted by each one. But expecting the general public to provide any insight on whether James Polk or Martin Van Buren had a more positive impact on America is going to produce a somewhat questionable result.

Nevertheless, we’ll dig through the filthy, obfuscated muck of public opinion as well as the academically-approved muck from the professionals. It’ll be nice to take a break from picking on history’s worst movies, TV shows and music and having a dig at actual people who – for reasons either selfless, corrupt, or a sprinkling of both – decided they wanted the chance to be in charge.

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Abe Lincoln, FDR and George Washington tend to top the U.S. Presidential rankings, with an honorable mention to Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and JFK. I’m looking at a collection of seventeen surveys conducted between 1948 and 2011, from sources like the Wall Street Journal and Sienna College. A few curious trends are immediately evident. First, in the half-century between James K. Polk’s term ended in 1849 and Teddy Roosevelt’s began in 1901, the only president considered to be even remotely above mediocre is Lincoln. In fact, three of the bottom four-ranked presidents served just before and just after Abe. Read more…

Day 838: More Strangeness From The Road

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Despite my wife’s overwhelming disinterest, one of my dream vacations involves combing the secondary highways of North America and tracking down the most boisterously benign roadside attractions the western world has to offer. I think it’s fantastic when a small town builds a UFO landing site, a massive ball of twine or the world’s largest collection of business convention name tags. It’s like the town can say, “Here – we offer the world this. Nothing else but this.”

I imagine there’s an inherent pride in curating one of these roadside spectacles. You might print out the tiny two-paragraph page on some obscure website like Weird-Iowa.net, then boast to passers-by about the dozens of hits your page has received, proving that the world is truly ready to embrace the magic of the two-headed squirrel corpse you found beside the highway and subsequently placed behind glass in an accurate Civil War-era Confederate uniform replica.

Some towns have pushed a little harder for their morsel of fame – never quite achieving the cosmopolitan status of a two-theatre town but still achieving enough notoriety to merit a two-minute segment on some show on the Travel Channel. For some, this is the pinnacle of their fifteen flickering minutes, and that suits them just fine.

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I’ll start with a town I couldn’t possibly visit because it only existed for a very short time, and only for the purposes of one explosion. William George Crush, a passenger agent for the Missouri-Kentucky-Texas Railroad (also known as the Katy to you blues fans), thought it would be a great idea to stage a head-on train collision. Just for fun. Read more…