Tag: Great Depression

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 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.

MichaelMalloy-1

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…

Day 778: The Doctor Of Doom

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Once a half-century has elapsed since the final sonorous thump of a trial-ending gavel, one would expect that the truth had found the time to leak out. But the case of John Bodkin Adams remains as cloaked in murk and interpretation as it ever was. Even when the facts are sprawled upon the proverbial table, stripped of the political interference and the scandalous habber-jabber that had mired them in an elusive fog all those years ago, we are left wondering.

Was Adams a greedy mass-murderer? An undiagnosed serial killer? A pre-Kevorkian dispenser of discreet compassion? To muse on these conclusions is a purely trivial endeavor now, as the case and all of its participants are long-buried beneath the gravel of history.

But the facts remain, and speculation can twirl a hundred dance steps in a hundred different directions, landing exhausted in a heap of maybes. For the families of the deceased, those maybes have been perpetual ghosts in the flue for so long, they have become permanently intertwined with the cobwebs of their families’ history.

YoungJohn

John’s medical practice began in 1922, based out of Eastbourne, Sussex. He had not been a stellar student at med school but his charm and adept schmoozery helped him establish a solid practice as a general practitioner. On the cusp of the Great Depression, John borrowed £2000 from a patient (that’s over a hundred grand in today’s poundage) to buy an 18-room house in which he’d reside for the remainder of his days. A little weird? Maybe, but let’s not spend all our brow-furrows in one place. Read more…

Day 770: The Summerless Summer

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This year the news has been splattered by alarming weather reports like a silent film soundstage wall after take thirteen of an epic pie fight. Much of the western world has been grappling with weather that we in Edmonton call ‘regular winter’. I’m not trying to minimize the unusual meteorological hip-check nature has bestowed upon my more southernly friends – after all, up here we’re well stocked with snow tires, city plows and vehicle block heaters. The folks in Texas, not so much.

Perhaps the most common and least valuable platitude here is “it could be worse.” The bone-scraping cold and soul-squishing wind are brutal, but at least they’re unleashing their fury during the vacuum of the winter months. When the silver light of spring shows up, nature’s insipid polar fart will be nothing more than a series of old photos, buried deep in the tomb of distant newsfeeds.

In 1816, there was no such relief. The winter was winter, but spring and summer were slaughtered like calves en route to becoming veal marsala, cut down in the prime of youth. Historically they call it the Year Without A Summer. Its effects were cruel but the wonky residue may have given birth to the Old West, the Model T, the Book of Mormon and the Depression-era fad of spooky horror flicks. That’s a hell of a weather pattern.

MountTambora

It all began with the massive eruption of Mount Tambora, located on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. This was one of only two VEI-7 eruptions in the past millennium – and that scale only goes up to 8. This occurred on April 15, 1815, and while the 100 cubic kilometers of solid earth the volcano blasted into neighboring communities caused a virtual apocalypse for locals, the ash and toxins pumped into the atmosphere would sneak up and bitch-slap the rest of the planet several months later. Read more…

Day 752: Mother Of Mercy, Is This The End Of Rico?

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Back before Luca Brasi slept with the fishes, before Tommy DeVito shot Spider in the foot while trying to make him dance, and long before Frank Costello tossed Oliver Queenan off a rooftop, the Hollywood gangster splattered onto screens at the birth of the genre, walking the floss-thin tightrope between dream fulfillment and cautionary tale. These stories came from a time when one would need to interact with criminals just to get a cold beer. Prohibition gave organized crime its steadiest market while the prevailing societal conservatism helped only to romanticize those who would don pin-stripe suits, wide-brimmed hats and grab a tommy-gun on their way out the door to work.

I have written before on the Hays Code, the army of noble moralists who spent the decades prior to the current rating system protecting us from soul-snuffing words, kid-corrupting violence and the dreaded scourge of exposed boobies. The Code was adopted as an unenforceable finger-wag in 1929, but by 1934 it had become Hollywood law.

Fortunately, the gangster genre had just enough time to be created before that.

Underworld

Retroactively declared to be the first gangster film, Underworld slipped into theaters in 1927 at the end of the silent era. The movie set the template for the entire genre: a tough, grizzly antihero, a rise to criminal success amid shadowy streets and ominous lighting, a violent climax battle with the police, and a distinctive outcry by community leaders who feared that young folks would use the film as a teaching tool and turn from sparkly-headed citizens into unkempt thugs. Read more…

Day 743: Make Way For Madman Muntz!

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While the world heaps its historical praise upon the Thomas Edisons, the Henry Fords, and the Giordi Lobzhanidzes (he invented the modern garlic press), we forget that for each titan of invention who helped to shape our twisted, wicked world, there are many who remain practically anonymous. I’m not talking about the utterly unsung individuals whose names are forever scrubbed from their legacy and lost to the ages. No, these are names that get heralded on some small scale in their time, but are likely to vanish into the fog of obscurity only one generation later.

I’d wager a flask of Ovaltine and my old Donald Fagen 8-track that no one from my generation is going to pipe up and claim that they remember Earl William “Madman” Muntz.

Blank and unimpressed as your face may presently be upon reading this, the topic of today’s probing kilograph, I would argue that, strange as it may seem, Muntz’s life’s work did have some sort of effect on the world around you. Perhaps it’s a tiny ripple, but isn’t that enough? Wouldn’t we all be tickled to know that the fabric of time continues to quiver from our impact some 24 years after we’ve scooted into oblivion?

MadmanMuntz

Earl Muntz spent most of his life one or two steps ahead of his time. He spent his youth disassembling electronics and learning how they work. He might have followed this passion down an academic freeway, but the Great Depression booted him to the curb and forced him to quit school to work in his parents’ hardware store in Elgin, Illinois. A few short years later, a 20-year-old Muntz was ready to open his first business: a car dealership. He relocated to California once observing that used cars sold there for much more than they’d fetch in Elgin. Then Muntz single-handedly changed the industry. Read more…

Day 694: The Grizzly End Of Pretty Boy Floyd

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Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd was fortunate to have chosen the life of a bank robber back when media-hyped crooks still had the ability to turn into folk heroes. He earned his nickname not from hubris but from a colorful post-robbery description to the police by the victim. And he hated it. He didn’t hate the job – in fact he was quite good at it. And while I’m sure he appreciated the adulation that was shoveled his way by his somewhat misguided but adoring fans, he knew that his career choice was not one that promised a lengthy and comfortable retirement. Something would have to give.

Floyd was known as the Robin Hood of the Cocksoon Hills in Oklahoma. He had a habit of burning mortgage papers when he robbed banks, absolving people of their debt while he disappeared with his loot.

One might have wondered if it would be over-confidence or a poor calculation of risk that would lead to Pretty Boy Floyd’s inevitable downfall. As it turns out, it was neither. Depending on whose story you believe, it was self-defense, misidentification, or possibly an excessively trigger-happy FBI that did him in.

PrettyBoyFloyd

Charles Floyd was not destined to end his story inside a prison cell. He had been pinched for a payroll robbery in St. Louis in 1925, serving three and a half grueling years behind bars. After that, he swore he’d never see the inside of a jail cell again; it would be a clean getaway or a hail of bullets for Floyd. While his vow wasn’t quite met – he did some time for vagrancy and suspicion of highway robbery, though nothing that doled out too much time – it helped to define the criminally brash approach he brought to his day job. Read more…

Day 689: Let Him Dangle

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To be honest, the foundation upon which Rainey Bethea’s adult life was built was never particularly sturdy. Orphaned at 17 and sent off to live the life of an impoverished black man in Depression-era Kentucky is not a good start. Not that this excuses his extensive dalliances on the dark side of the law any more than it explains his obvious lack of skill in the criminal arts, at least judging by his arrest record. It simply makes for little shock value that Rainey would meet his destiny at the looped end of a hangman’s rope.

What makes Rainey Bethea’s case worthy of closer examination is the specific circumstance of that final curtain, and how those circumstances put the official seal of finality on public executions in the United States. At least for now; who knows what madness may unfold throughout future generations of justice and punishment?

But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s go back to 1935, to when things all started to go wrong for Rainey. The story begins with a $20 fine for breaching the peace.

BreachOfThePeace

Breach of the Peace is a fairly vague statute which covers everything from failing to disperse when a policeman instructs you to do so, to an egregiously cruel elevator fart. The record of what specifically Rainey Bethea did to warrant such a charge in early 1935 is lost in the back of some far-off filing cabinet. Then in April of that year, he was nabbed for stealing two purses from a store. The purses were valued above $25 so this meant a felony charge of grand larceny and a year in the can. Read more…

Day 660: Generational Labels – A Primer For The Young’uns

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Good morning children. I know what you’re thinking – you’d rather be outside, frolicking in the gumdrop sunshine, knocking a hoop down the street with a stick or catching a picture show at the local nickelodeon, but this will only take a minute. You see, you don’t yet realize that before long your cultural choices will come to define an era. Your era. That’s right, your tastes will set the font and lighting for the legacy your generation will hoist upon the world.

And that’s a big responsibility.

Before the 20th century – so here we’re going back beyond your great-grandparents’ time – nobody kept track of generational labels. People were born, they worked in the mines or the factories or the fields, then they died of scurvy and the world moved on. ‘Cultural milestones’ were almost unheard of. But the more we became connected to one another, the more we sought to define ourselves in grand, sweeping terms. Generalizations that could redact our forefathers and eventually us and our children with the economical swipe of a single brush.

So listen up. Your future – or more importantly the way your time on earth will be judged by the rest of us – is on its way. It would serve you well to learn a little something about the crowds that swarmed these streets before you.

LostGeneration

The Lost Generation includes everyone who kicked off from the starter’s block in the late 1800s and came of age around the time of the first World War. I don’t want to depress you kids, but every generation seems to have a war or two to pin on its chest, so you’d best start watching the news now so you’ll know who to hate when the time comes. Gertrude Stein allegedly passed the term ‘Lost Generation’ on to Ernest Hemingway – it came from an outburst by a garage owner yelling at a young mechanic who had failed to properly repair Stein’s car. It was an early exclamation of “these kids today”, something you’ll probably hear your parents grumble when they discover what fluff-pop crap you’ll listen to as a teenager. Read more…

Day 658: The Sumptuous Buttery World Of Popcorn

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The esteemed American poet James Joseph Brown Jr. once wrote, “But when I get funky, I do the sap. And when I want lovin’, mother, she got to have. Say, you got to have a mother for me. Yeah, popcorn.”

And so it was.

Popcorn is one of the most universally beloved snacks by folks who don’t wear braces. It can exude so many personalities, from the puckish kiss of sweet caramel to the warm seductive sploosh of melted butter to that weird pink stuff in the box with the elephant on the front. That’s the popcorn the other popcorns don’t talk to at parties. There’s something not right about that guy.

But for the most part popcorn is a friendly snack, sharing our greatest movie experiences with us and even reminding us about the importance of flossing when one of its stubborn husks decides to take refuge behind a molar. And popcorn is a big business. Americans snarf down more than sixteen billion quarts of popcorn a year, which works out to about 51 quarts per person. That’s a lot of popcorn.

Having been raised with the metric system, I can only assume that 51 quarts looks something like this.

Having been raised with the metric system, I can only assume that 51 quarts looks something like this.

There’s an old legend about the Native Americans giving popcorn to the newly-landed Europeans, but a fair amount of archeological poking around the US has uncovered absolutely no evidence to support it. Corn was, however, a major crop down South America way, around where Peru sits today, and there’s evidence of popcorn having been consumed there close to seven thousand years ago. To be clear, they found corncobs that date from around 4700 B.C. – how they extrapolated that the corn was devoured in pop form, I have no clue. But the Smithsonian Museum said it happened, so who am I to argue? Read more…