Tag: Death

Day 997: Hollywood’s Original A-List, Part II

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Last year I penned a heartfelt tribute to Lilian Gish and that first generation of cinematic ladies who made male hearts swoon, back when it was still gentlemanly to swoon in mixed company. Alas, the big bold number at the top of this article threatens an accusation of sexism if I don’t supply that article’s flip-side in short order. So here you go: five sploosh-worthy gents who first glued eyes to screens.

It’s important to note that the qualifications for being a sex symbol in the 1910’s were somewhat different than today. Washboard abs were barely an asset; Fatty Arbuckle was a lady’s man and he had the body shape of a Barbapapa. Acting back then was all in the eyes, and it was to the eyes that our attention was drawn. I suspect that in 1914, Channing Tatum’s beady greens wouldn’t have made the cut.

The style of acting required for silent film is truly unique; no one knew (or cared) whether these men could sing, or if their voices sounded like a sack of wet noodles being dragged through a frog’s trachea. We say that Hollywood is superficially mired in its obsession with physical looks today (seriously, why has every on-screen cop since Andy Sipowicz been traditionally attractive?), but back then looks was all they had. Looks, and the ability to brood on cue. Gotta have that brooding glare.

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Those eyes will look into your soul, rearrange the contents therein and leave you a changed person. This is Sessue Hayakawa, and he was causing hearts to throb before literally any other Hollywood star. In his time – which began about a hundred years ago – he was as popular and beloved to audiences as Charlie Chaplin. Born in Tokyo, Sessue broke down racial barriers before the paint had even dried on their walls. He refused any role that perpetuated schlocky Asian stereotypes, and was thusly thrust into the spotlight when Cecil B. DeMille cast him as the romantic lead in 1915’s The Cheat. Read more…

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 984: Love For Freedom – The Biddle Boys Break Out

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Forever conjoined in the tomato sneer of fate, love and sacrifice provide the familiar minor-key chime beneath so many tragic tales. Our past is riddled with them, bleeding their florid twists onto the otherwise sterile emotional landscape of a history which is otherwise defined by dates and wars and steel-grey timelines. The great forgotten love stories are the smack of mustard upon the otherwise bland wiener of historical record.

The story of the notorious Biddle Brothers had reached its final chapter, and was stretching its leg toward its terminus when love intervened and produced an eleventh-hour twist. Two men were given a second chance at freedom. One woman sacrificed everything. Another man met his grisly end.

These are the stories that paint pink acrylic swirls upon the serifs of the font that transcribes our past. After nearly 1000 paths of investigative prose (with the occasional dab of poetry), these are the stories that still ignite my imagination and wonder.

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Jack Biddle, along with his little brother Ed and their friend Frank Dorman, became known around Pittsburgh as The Chloroform Gang. Their modus operandi was to assist their victims into slumber by using chloroform-soaked rags, then to rob them thoroughly. One morning, it all went wrong.

They were hoping to pilfer as much as they could from the residence of grocer Thomas Kahney. Someone – possibly Kahney’s wife, or perhaps one of the intruders – made some noise, and Kahney found himself face to face with the would-be thieves. One of them (and the brothers would pin it on Dorman) shot and killed the man. When the police came snooping for suspects at a nearby home where the gang was hiding out, another blast was fired, killing Detective Patrick Fitzgerald. Read more…

Day 983: Pistols At Dawn On Bloody Island

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Allow us a moment to reflect upon our broken culture and praise the glorious days of yore – the days of righteous morality, of a productive and contributory collective ethos, and of… duelling. Stupid friggin’ duelling.

Of all the ridiculous traditions that we hauled on our societal backs from the grubby landscape of the Middle Ages, duelling has to be among the most laughable. Honor and respect marked the blinding colors of the duelling flag, and men chose to end one another’s lives rather than take the more accepted modern approach of simply living in a perpetual state of passive-aggressive loathing.

When gloves would slap faces in 19th century St. Louis, the moment of stone-chinned confrontation would usually take place on a small divot of land in the middle of the Mississippi River called Bloody Island. This sandbar had crept above the water’s surface in 1798, and throughout that renegade century, Bloody Island was a lawless haven for antiquated honor defense.

Authorities agreed to look the other way when duels were to be fought on this crunchy piece of turf midway between Missouri and Illinois. Firing at pistols at one another in either state was illegal, but on Bloody Island nobody cared. It was all about nobility, about virtue, about manhood… and whatever.

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Thomas Hart Benton (also called “Old Bullion”, probably because he was a big fan of chicken soup cubes) was a Missouri Senator who pushed strongly for western expansion of the United States. He also pushed a little too hard upon the feelings of one Charles Lucas while they were battling over a land deal in court, back when Benton was an attorney. The two exchanged rather public words, which culminated when Benton had the audacity to call Lucas a “puppy.”

A puppy. More vile words were never spoken. 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 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 971: Forget The Superheroes – This Man Literally Saved The World

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Look deep into his eyes. Ignore the fact that he might at any moment pitch forward from the weight of all those medals; he deserves your reverent gaze. Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov is very possibly the reason you are alive right now. Depending on how deeply you’re willing to reach into the pocket of his story – and it’s a story of such divine magnificence I’m personally ready to ink it in the history books with the crimson blood of unquestioned truth – Vasili’s stoic glare was once all that stood between us and the apocalypse.

The story of how Vasili derailed a potential nuke-storm is only part of his exceptional life, one that could not possibly fit between the frames of a biopic unless Peter Jackson was around to puff up the length beyond three hours. Part of his life actually did find its way into a Harrison Ford flick (though Ford himself played some other scowling Soviet), but not the part that earned him a spot in today’s kilograph.

Had Vasili not found himself stationed in precisely the correct submarine on that fateful day in 1963, while the Cuban Missile Crisis was doling out the likely ineffective instructions of “duck and cover” to the Western world, the physical landscape of our little planet might be significantly more pock-marked and desolate. But let’s start in the preamble, somewhere around the second act of Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker.

"Get off my sub!" was never uttered in this film. What a wasted opportunity.

“Get off my sub!” was never uttered in this film. What a wasted opportunity.

The summer of 1961 was a rough one for Vasili. While serving aboard the K-19, scooting around the North Atlantic and performing some just-in-case exercises, the sub developed a nasty leak in its reactor coolant system. The radio had also failed (I could make a joke about why the USSR lost the Cold War here, but that would be too obvious), so that meant the sub was drifting alone with a reactor that was heating up faster than Lewis Black opining about the current state of Fox News. 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 958: Day One Of Peace & Music

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“I have come to lose the smog

And I feel to be a cog in something turning.”

I have been trying to reconcile my relationship with the Woodstock festival for more than 20 years. “These are your grandparents,” I told my daughter as the movie played in our living room this week. But Woodstock reached further than its generation, even beyond the magnificence of its music. It was the temporary realization of pure Utopia – or at least that’s how its legend trickled down to me, some schmuck born 2400 miles away, five years after the last gnarly raindrop had voiced its opinion that the festival ground should be mud.

Perhaps the images of a groovy, grubby, smoky paradise are merely the false concoctions of media (in this case, the documentary film Woodstock) and reputation, but this is the image that tickles my imagination and tilts my longing toward that sensation of community, of parity, and of that shared experience of being billion-year-old carbon in the same cosmic stew with a few hundred thousand friends.

2014 not only boasts the 45th anniversary of the decade-defining event, it also features an aligned calendar, allowing for the three days of the original festival (August 15, 16 and 17) to land once again on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Today I’ll be exploring what built Woodstock from the sloppy ground up; tomorrow I’ll delve into the music and on Sunday the potent culture – real or imagined.

To begin among the festival’s roots, one simply must start with the sitcom.

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In 1967, lawyer Joel Rosenman (pictured above) and his friend John Roberts decided they wanted to write a sitcom about two entrepreneurs who fall into wacky weekly hijinks as they try to bring their business plans to fruition. For research they plopped an ad into The Wall Street Journal, claiming to be “young men with unlimited capital” looking for investment opportunities. Two of the men who responded, concert promoter Michael Lang and “Dead Man’s Curve” co-author Artie Kornfeld, intrigued the would-be comedy writers so much they abandoned their plans for television stardom and became the very entrepreneurs they’d planned to depict. Read more…

Day 952: Death & Money

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One might assume upon skimming this month’s selection of articles that the author has developed an unnatural preoccupation with death. The author would courteously disagree, and would remind you that no preoccupation with death is unnatural, unless it escalates to unreasonably eccentric behavior, like keeping makeup instructions for the undertaker in one’s pocket, just in case.

But it’s true, I have been seasoning this project with a salty array of morbid subject matter lately, and today will be no exception. But fear not – these are still quirky and jaw-slacking narratives of death-related weirdness, not ghoulish kilographs of doom and misery. I’m saving those for my next project, beginning in January: 1000 Words, 1000 Reasons Life Is Meaningless And We Should All Give Up And Embrace our Inevitable Demise. It’ll be a riot.

Our two protagonists today are the guy who wouldn’t die, and the other guy who didn’t actually live his entire documented life. For the former, we find a conspiracy to condemn a man to an early grave. The latter tale tells of a man kept alive on paper for decades after his innards stopped doing their thing. The common threads? Those two nefarious nasties: death and money. It’s always about death and money.

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Michael Malloy was a man who knew how to drink. Sure, he was Irish, and that can certainly explain a smidgen of Michael’s alcoholic fortitude, but by the amber ruler of whiskey, this dude was Super-Irish. The year was 1933; Malloy was living in New York City, homeless, jobless and perpetually so deep inside a bottle one could probably have gotten drunk by simply sniffing his hair. Naturally, he was the perfect guy to murder and make it look like an accident. And that’s precisely what five of his “buddies” tried to do. Read more…