Tag: Massachusetts

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 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 853: Flipping The Bird At Your Neighbors And Calling It Home

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There are many reasons why one would construct a house. You might be tearing down an old dilapidated monstrosity, or maybe you’re breaking fresh ground that was once farmland – doing your part to fly the banner of urban sprawl. Perhaps you’re on estate land that has been re-zoned and you’re claiming their little chunk of suburban paradise. Then again, sometimes a home can be built purely on spite.

Yes, spite. That frazzle-haired, conch-kneed crone, wagging her accusatory walking stick with a crotchety shimmy at her mortal foes. This wicked spinster has inspired dozens of domiciles over the past 300 years – fully inhabitable and architecturally-sound testaments to the power of passive-aggression. A spite house might block a view or access to sunlight. It could barricade a quick passage or spoil an idyllic street. One thing it always does is send a message.

A spite house is more effective than a sign and more enduring than a malicious prank. It delivers far more essence of fuck-you than a punch to the jawline, and without the threat of incarceration. Have a beef with your neighbor? Check your local building codes and see if you can get away with something like this.

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No one knows why Thomas Wood built this strange house configuration on Orne Street in Marblehead, Massachusetts. It could be that he hated the plot of land he had been allotted, nudged right against a fork in the road. Some say he hated his brother and the two lived side by side without speaking to one another. This strange residence – now 298 years old – still stands and is still occupied, presumably by people who don’t possess such a loathing of their neighbors. It’s now a tourist attraction known as the Marblehead Spite House. Read more…

Day 782: The Mother Of Civil Rights

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History – even that special brand of history that today seems unflinchingly common-sense and righteous – is more deeply mired with confused and distorted perspective than a grease-trap full of one-eyed ants. We reflect on our civil rights champions with quiet applause and a brow-full of scorn for “those other assholes”: the white oppressors, the Nazi scum, the patriarchal dicks, the anti-lefty scissor-making industry, and so on.

But while Dr. King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks were at the forefront of a dramatic national movement, a moment should be spared for those who came earlier. Those who predated a movement or created one on their own.

When Mary Ellen Pleasant pushed for civil rights reforms – even before the country’s highest office had determined that black people amounted to more than a commodity – she was hailed as a hero. Then, naturally, she was skewered, squeezed and crucified. It ended well for Mary, but only if you consider ‘ending well’ to mean she was eventually honored for what she did, more than a century after her death.

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Mary Ellen Pleasant was born with a first name only, the illegitimate daughter of John H. Pleasants (the son of the Georgia governor) and a black voodoo priestess. Mary was known for dispersing a heap of contradictory information about her past, so it’s hard to say for certain if she worked as a child in a New Orleans convent or was freed from slavery by a sympathetic planter. We do know it was the early 1800’s and Mary had enough African-American blood in her veins to have knitted her a few rifts with the society around her. Read more…

Day 708: Beware The Deadly Hypotenuse

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As a life-long cynic and devoted doubter of lore and mystery, I find myself always checking the sleeves of an unexplained tale, searching for my card anywhere but inside the deck. I don’t poke under my bed for ghouls, nor do I hold my breath as I drive past a cemetery for fear of angering the dead. I don’t even try to restore my family’s good mojo by saying “bless you” when they sneeze. I find the whole thing a little weird.

The photos of the Loch Ness Monster are grainy and doctored, and that film footage of Bigfoot is nothing more than a guy in a cheap Wookiee costume. David Copperfield used perspective and mirrors to send the Statue of Liberty into a temporary void, and rapping one’s knuckles on a wooden table will do nothing to summon a fortuitous sway of luck.

Nevertheless, when a mystery pops up with no easy solution, I find my heart doing a little flap, brush and shuffle, and my interest simmers to a healthy shade of piqued. I marveled at the recent David Blaine TV special, not because I believe the man possesses otherworldly powers (though if ever a case could be made for someone, it’d be him), but because I still embrace the visceral squoosh of the unknown.

So despite my doubt-encrusted heart, I still find my pulse tip-tapping a little quicker when I read about mysteries like the Michigan Triangle.

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Dangling like a limp and uninterested phallus off the side of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan is known for being cold, huge and deep. One wouldn’t think there were many connections between Bermuda and frigid Green Bay, but their common bond is a three-sided cloud of mystery and disappearance. Actually, the Michigan Triangle begins in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, just south of Green Bay, and connects with Ludington and Benton Harbor on the Michigan side. Read more…

Day 621: Back To The Playground

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I am no stranger to nostalgia, which I define as the patently false illusion that there was ever a time in one’s life before everything was mucked up beyond recognition. I lived in the same house for my entire childhood, and I’ll admit to feeling somewhat flattened by the bombardment of memories whenever I coast down that street. I fondly recall the spot where we built the kick-ass 3-room snow-fort. That spot down the alley where I had my first kiss? Sure. And I know every square inch of the street down which I sprinted in a Ferris Bueller-esque attempt to beat my parents home after curfew as my dad’s Cadillac lumbered down the alley.

But you know what I don’t miss? The playground.

To be clear, I experienced no playground trauma, no broken limbs, no shady-looking guy in a Megadeath ball cap and soot-grey trenchcoat. I simply grew up a half-block away from an ugly, uninspired playground. The city has since re-worked the equipment and layout twice in order to appease the more affluent yuppie crowd that has since taken over the neighborhood, but back in the 80’s it was terrible.

So in an effort to search for any scrap of nostalgia about that place, I’m going to look a little at some of the bland equipment that the city felt should have been sufficient to amuse us.

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For starters, we had this slide. It wasn’t so much a slide at the height of summer – it was more an angled griddle, ready to deliver first-degree burns to the legs of any shorts-clad child who thought they could have a little fun with gravity. This was back before every sizeable slide needed to be fused with relatively safe platform equipment. No, we clambered up a ladder to get to our fun, and if some kid lost his footing and fell the fifteen feet to unquestionable doom, well, that was evolution. Read more…

Day 617: Immaculate Conceptions, Part 1

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One of the topics I almost never sprinkle my words upon is cars. Sure, I’ll admit to an ethereal arousal at the curves of a ’65 Corvette, and I melted into my seat a little the first time I experienced a back-up camera. But I’m not a car guy. When a guy opens up his baby’s hood and invites a small congregation of cross-armed frowners to nod knowingly at the stuff inside, my eyes tend to gloss over and I find myself daydreaming about my luggage being first off the plane or a really great pastrami sandwich.

But as unimpressed as I may be if your car has harnessed the power of 60 more horses than mine, I am still drawn to the concept car. These are the fresh-plucked berries of imagination, the fertile soil of fantasy in that pristine moment before the tire-treads of practicality and profit margins grind it into dust.

Those behemoth car companies who eagerly swallow tens of thousands of our dollars with every purchase use the spotlight on the concept car stage to show off to one another, and occasionally drop an idea that will be made into an assembly-line reality.

These are not those ideas. These are the ones that push the funky meter a little further to the right.

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In 1955, Lincoln debuted the Futura, a snazzy and pointy two-seater with a glass canopy. It was a huge hit, and Ford hauled it out for a number of auto shows without ever mass-manufacturing the thing. That may be due to the slightly high price tag – $250,000 from its Italian manufacturer, which works out to about $2.1 million in today’s money. Read more…

Day 580: Science, With A Dash Of Evil

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If you’re looking for a sobering way to spend an hour (and I can see no reason why you’d want to do so on International Beer Day), have a look at the Wikipedia article about unethical human experimentation in American history. It might make you think twice about heading to the doctor to have him look at that thing on your neck which is probably nothing but it’s grown since Christmas, you’re sure of it, so even though you are positive it’s nothing you should probably get it checked anyway.

Look, sometimes a medical maybe turns into someone’s eureka moment. But to get there, we have to throw a lot of medical maybes at that mystical basket of YES before one makes it in. Sometimes those maybes are going to bounce off some skulls first. A sacrifice for science is a sacrifice for humankind.

But some of these are just messed up.

LorettaBender

This is Dr. Loretta Bender. Loretta was a pioneer – a woman who graduated from Iowa State University’s medical school and began working at Belleville Hospital in New York in 1930. Loretta broke new ground for women, developing the Bender-Gestalt Test for identifying possible brain damage, a test that was used worldwide. She was someone a little girl could look up to as an example of someone they might want to be.

That is, unless the little girl in question happened to be hooked up to electrodes, about to be zapped to the tonsils with a gigawatt or two. Read more…

Day 507: Saving The Souls Of All Bostonians

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I’ve never been one to target the masses with swift aplomb and savvy scribing. Possibly because I still use expressions like ‘swift aplomb’ – the masses aren’t really into that. But had fate plunked me down in a simpler, less outspoken, less internet-y time, I would have known the secret to placing my words at the iris-end of eyeballs all over the country, even the world.

The trick, as any writer from the seventeenth through twentieth centuries would tell you, is to get your stuff banned in Boston.

This might also net you a snazzy t-shirt.

This might also net you a snazzy t-shirt.

Why Boston? Why is there no Wikipedia page devoted to things that were banned in Pittsburgh? Or Richmond? Or <insert city name that you, the reader, despise>? Everyone knows those schlubs don’t know from quality literature.

Boston was founded way back at the dawn of what would become America by a bunch of uppity Puritans who had no time for such blasphemous notions like profanity, mature content, adult themes, or independent thought. Actually, I think a lot of early American cities were founded by Puritans, it’s just that Boston took a little longer to shimmy free from the shackles of repression – a word I’ve decided is a portmanteau of ‘religious oppression’. Boston was a theocracy, pure and simple. And despite whatever yammer-jammer may have been scribbled in the First Amendment later on, city officials still held on to the right to save its citizens from objectionable material that had the potential to book their souls on a one-way ticket to an unfathomable HELL. Read more…