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:
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…
When I was asked to serve on a jury back in 2006, my innards were polarized in their response. On the one hand, it would mean experiencing the justice system from the inside out, hearing evidence, steering the waves of someone’s fate, and perhaps getting to reenact the dramatic speech made by Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men. On the flip-side, I’d heard too many stories of people desperately seeking an escape from jury duty not to be suspicious of the supposed visceral experience of it all. What the hell, I figured. I had a dull job (though my current job makes computer tech support look like Indiana Jones-level archaeology by comparison), why not serve the system?
It was a three-day trial, resulting in me being sequestered in a hotel for three days, cut off from family, phone, newspapers, internet and television, lest I stumble across an episode of Law & Order that might taint my objectivity. I remember almost nothing else about the trial, except that Henry Fonda’s words failed to fall from my lips, and I missed three nights of The Daily Show. But I did my duty.
Little did I know the potential power of a jury to scrote-kick the law and even change it. Jury nullification is a quirky little corner of legal lore that has quietly but profoundly been a factor in how the judicial system works. Or fails to work, as the case may be.
The Magna Carta, one of those ancient leafs of yellowing paper that you’ll find behind glass so that generations of school kids can wander by and nod disinterestedly at it, established juries as a staple ingredient in the silty justice stew England was trying to put together in the 13th century. Back then, juries tended to side with the crown. This wasn’t a case of not wanting to piss off the king (though on occasion it might have been), but more a question of jury manipulation. Read more…
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.
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…
We live in the age of the celebrated antihero. A villainous protagonist like Tony Soprano or Walter White may vanquish our moral resistance, but those are fictional lawbreakers; in reality we want our deviants either behind bars or tucked snugly into the niche of the Robin Hood villain, should such a notion actually exist. Perhaps our Edward Snowdens and Julian Assanges are the closest we’ll get to a genuine, for-the-folks criminal.
Often a criminal’s edification as a philanthropic scofflaw arises through a population’s selective posthumous memory of the crook, or an outright misinterpretation of the truth. In the case of Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, both factors appear to have been in play.
Soapy Smith was a con man, a swindler, and the closest thing to a mob boss as could be found in the post-Civil War frontier lands of the mountainous west. He didn’t so much terrorize Denver (among other places) as he came to possess them. And like any titan of the underworld, he started small.
He started with soap.
The scam was downright elegant. Smith would set up a display on a busy street corner, visibly wrapping numerous bars of soap in dollar bills, ranging from one dollar to $100. Each bar was then wrapped in plain paper and tossed into a pile with some soap without a prize. Smith then sold the soap bars lottery-style to eager passers-by for $1 apiece. Of course Soapy knew where the money-laced bars were, and with deft sleight-of-hand, he sold only the prizeless bars to the slack-jawed masses. His shills, fellow gang members dressed as ordinary citizens, would end up “buying” the prize bars, and would react with an appropriate jubilance. Read more…
When we last left our heroes (our heroes being those plucky little cannabis plants that were allegedly tugging at the tablecloth upon which the fine china of our fragile society was laid), things weren’t looking good. It was 1937, and the American government had come up with a complicated taxation-punishment strategy that didn’t technically make marijuana illegal, but came close enough.
Where once the plant had been offered up by the medical world for various therapeutic uses, now it was contraband, the stuff of pure evil. It lured young people into a Satanic spiral, driving them to unprovoked violent acts, inspiring unrestrained jazz-orgies and turning upstanding citizens into paranoid, sex-crazed rape-o-trons.
..with great pointy hair.
Along with the demonized wicked weed, the legitimate hemp industry was also kicked in the legislative nads by the Marihuana Tax Act. Back then, no one knew about THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes jam bands sound better than they actually are. All we knew was that cannabis was a drug, and since hemp and cannabis share the same fingerprints, it was all deemed to be bad.
People like to shoo away conspiracy theories, but there was no question that William Randolph Hearst was pumping as much bogus fear-mongering as he could fit into his empire of news-rags. Whether it was because he feared the newly-invented decorticator would make hemp-based paper cheap to manufacture and thus threaten his massive timber investments (which it totally would have), or whether he was truly afraid of the drug’s effects on society, that’s up to you to decide. Read more…
Greetings, fellow passengers aboard this swirling turntable among the stars, as we swivel along at a brisk and oft-terrifying 45rpm, propelling our lives up the charts of human history for a brief fireworks splash before plopping back into obscurity, into the 49-cent discount bin of faded immortality. It’s time to get real, my adoring thous-manauts. These kilographs can’t always dance among the platinum sunshine and giggling gardenias of topics like murder hotels and tax-funded mass graves.
I need to get serious about an affliction that could strike any of us at any time and without warning, provided we are gainfully employed in the string section of a major philharmonic orchestra.
Yes, I’m talking today about Cello Scrotum.
Known in the music business as ‘Yo-Yo-M-AAAUUUGGHHH!!!’
Perhaps you’re more familiar with Surfer’s Ear, Golfer’s Elbow, Jogger’s Nipple or Nintendo Thumb. Apart from the surfing condition, these are repetitive-strain injuries that can afflict those who delve obsessively into their preferred pursuit. Much like Jogger’s Nipple, Cello Scrotum is a form of contact dermatitis that, according to a 1974 article in the British Medical Journal, can afflict the non-detachable tote-bags of males who devote their lives to the glorious timbre of the cello. Read more…
Oh but for the crack of a wicked breeze, to damn the olfactory to the fleeting abyss of that which was wrought through the machinations of yesterday’s cabbagey broth. I fail to suppress this rumbling squeak and for that my fellow rail patrons afford me a banquet of scowls and derision.
Yet I question their condemnation. For this? Is this a trespass so egregious, so horrifically in opposition to our modernized civility that it warrants ostracization? Must I quell my internal commotion with flatus-flaying charcoal or bismuth? Does not my active participation in the betterment of our culture, our collective totemic documentation of societal touchstones allow me the leniency to unleash only the most irrepressible and urgent flutterings of gaseous… oh wait. Never mind. That one was just awful – wow, I’m sorry everyone. Anyone carrying any air freshener? Lysol? Whew! Crack that window!
However high we may perceive our own brow, the unavoidable fact is that everybody farts.
Isn’t that the title of Weird Al Yankovic’s version of “Everybody Hurts” by REM? If not, it should be.
Fermentation is a wonky matter. In a vat burgeoning with yeast, malt, hops, water, and the hopelessly magical interminglings of these ingredients, fermentation produces the holiest of nectars: beer. In the shadowy alleyways of the colon, that process spits out comedy, crudeness or embarrassment, depending on the situation. Over 99% of our aft output consists of gases which are harmless to one’s olfactory nerve, innocuous clouds of nitrogen, oxygen, CO2, methane and hydrogen. To force a topical western societal parallel, it’s the 1% that run the show. And it’s the 1% that mess everything up. Read more…
Maybe it’s simply the distorted perspective of having a daughter who believes the original Teen Wolf film is ‘old’, the Woodstock concert is ‘ancient’ and Elvis Presley is ‘ancestor-esque’, but I think our culture is in danger of losing its sense of history. This is why we curators of trivia are necessary. Someone needs to remind the younger generation that phones and cameras used to be mutually exclusive, that paying for music and movies wasn’t always an optional thing, and that getting together with friends used to mean someone invariably had to leave their house.
So in the interest of trivia, I’m going to plant an easy landmark and turn the calendar back by a century, commemorating some of the creations that entered the world back in 1913.
This was the year L. Frank Baum introduced Betsy Bobbin to the Land of Oz, the year Fu Manchu first graced a novel with his chick-magnet facial hair, and the year Colorado began issuing license plates for vehicles. But I’m more interested in the inventions that changed little corners of our world, those which turn 100 this year.
Elias Howe, who by inventing the sewing machine had already ensured his seat was taped off and reserved at the Table Of Awesome, came up with an ‘automatic continuous clothing closure’ back in 1851. It was more of an elaborate draw-string than anything else, but it got other inventors thinking. People like Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American engineer who found himself working at the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company in Meadville, Pennsylvania decades later. Read more…