Tag: Reputation

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

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“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

HerbertEugeneBolton-1

Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 985: The Greatest Show In The Wild Old West

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It was the kind of sun-whipped summer day that tended to cook the old west like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Central Pacific Railroad had just rolled into town, and a tall man with a face like sawed oak and fiery red hair leaned casually against a corral fence, watching the passengers disembark. Their faces scanned the local buildings for a place to eat. Few of them noticed the smarmy gentleman in the suit who was crossing the street. But the redhead saw him. He stepped away from the fence and shattered the dusty air.

“There ya are, ya low-down polecat!” he bellowed. The passers-by paused in their tracks. “Ah’m gonna kill ya b’cause of what ya did ta mah sister!” He paused, trying to collect himself. “Mah pore, pore little sister.”

The shorter man was frozen in panic. He didn’t react when the redhead pulled out his gun, cocked it, and fired. The shorter man fell to the street, writhed in pain for a moment, then died. The railway passengers sprinted back onto the train, some women fainted and had to be carried to safety as townsfolk wrestled the gun away from the redhead and dragged him off to jail. The dead man was unceremoniously dragged into the nearest saloon while the terrified passengers remained flat against the train’s floor, afraid to move. Thankfully, the train started rolling once again westward.

After the fervor had passed, the townsfolk relaxed with a hearty laugh. In one swift act of amateur theatre, they had just created the legendary old west.

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The town of Palisade, Nevada was founded by a man named Willy East, who was looking for a comfy place in which to settle freed slaves. He had been talking with San Francisco resident-of-note Joshua Norton (who had recently declared himself to be Emperor of the United States), who had directed him toward the vast expanse of available Nevada land. The convenient placement of the railroad, as well as the town’s functional toilet – a feature not yet found aboard rail travel – cranked up the local population of the young town to around 300 in the 1870’s.

It was a picturesque little burg, home to a trio of saloons and a well-placed café beside the railway tracks to provide sustenance to the travelers who were pursuing the American Dream out west. Scoundrels and scammers poked and prodded at passenger wallets, selling them useless salt mines and spinning adventurous (and bogus) tales. But where was the “wild west” they had heard so much about? Read more…

Day 760: The Classic Kings Of Edmonton

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Having spent all but three weird months of my life in Edmonton, a portion of my available fascination is perpetually woven into the snug threads of the city’s storied history. Admittedly, when the frigid fingernails of a late November cold spell are scraping bone through skin I will occasionally entertain a baffled speculation as to the reasoning behind Edmonton’s founders choosing this spot in which to settle. But they did, we’re here, and some magnificently cosmic clattering of fate’s dice landed me at birth within these city limits.

A tremendous Facebook page, operated by a former resident who finds the constant fluctuation of our city’s urban visage to be a matter of fascination and deeply in need of public documentation, is an inescapable vice for me. It was nothing short of a revelation to me that before our cold, brutalist courthouse we had a splenderiffic edifice, complete with Roman pillars and a classic aesthetic. I’m still amazed that we had an incline railway that once covered the same ground as the parkade where I occasionally stash my Toyota during the workday.

My workplace view overlooks our pointy, modernist City Hall and the Chicago-inspired McLeod Building, and I take a moment to soak in a fresh smidgen of our landscape every day. But beneath that landscape is a brief but hurried urban history, one which propelled us from a frontier trading post to a 21st century metropolis with astounding speed. I’d like to learn more, to dig my feet a little deeper into local lore. And where better to start than with the decadent facial hairstylings of our first mayors?

MatthewMcCauley

One hundred years before I was legally entitled to fling a ballot into the steampunk apparatus of civic democracy, Matthew McCauley was elected our town’s first mayor. I poked around his legacy for a smattering of dirt, but all I could uncover was an unending procession of awesomeness. Our school system, our first hospital, our Chamber of Commerce… they all are smeared with Mayor Matt’s fingerprints. He was the quintessential first mayor every town needs. Read more…

Day 753: Rampart’s Black & Blue Glare

Los Angeles Police Department Badge

In 1973, long before the rise of crack cocaine and the ensuing (and ongoing) gangsta-chic branch of popular culture, the Los Angeles Police Department threw together a group they called TRASH: Total Resources Against Street Hoodlums. The nickname suggested a smidgen of inherent bias, so the unit was renamed CRASH, with the ‘C’ standing for ‘Community’. The group would have a mountainous workload over the following decades.

In addition to the work, the CRASH squad would also be faced with a lot of temptation by the gangs they had sworn to take down. And in the unit’s 29-year tenure over the city’s most gore-flecked streets, they would tie the Los Angeles Police Department’s reputation to a large rock and kick it off a cliff.

This is the scandal that revealed the wicked allure of a blood-red do-rag, as well as the way that the Thin Blue Line of so-called righteousness can be lured to blur when frail hearts plunk their tinny drum behind a police shield. The CRASH team’s reach extended to the limits of L.A. and throughout its miniature sub-cities, but it was the Rampart Division that patrolled the area just west and northwest of Downtown that caused the system’s collapse. This was where, for a moment in time anyway, the gangs won.

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The story begins with Kevin Gaines, pictured on the left. He had raised some eyebrows in the summer of 1996 when he’d placed a call from the home of Sharitha Knight (estranged wife of Death Row Records honcho Suge Knight) and proceeded to engage in a scuffle with police. This suspicious behavior might have resulted in his removal from the force, but Deputy Chief Bernard Parks dropped the investigation. Watch for him – Parks’ name is going to come up again later. Read more…

Day 595: Of Milgrams And Monsters

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A couple weeks ago I wrote a piece about unethical human experimentation in the United States. Due to the overwhelming response (which consisted mainly of my bulldog-in-chief, Rufus, wagging his tail when I’d talk to him about it), I thought I’d delve into the subject a little deeper. I’ve found two specific experiments which are infamous enough to warrant a deeper look. Both are dripping with ethical questions, none of which do I plan on resolving here.

Hey, it’s a thousand words in a day. I can only offer so many grand solutions to the universe’s ethereal catechisms with this kind of deadline.

In one case, strangers were invited to torture one another. In the other, researchers tortured children. But all in the name of science, of course. How beneficial these cases were is up for debate, which really adds an extra air of stink to the whole affair. At least if these experiments had led to a cure for something, the psychological sacrifice wouldn’t leave such a rancid taste.

MilgramExperiment

Just a few months after the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann began in Jerusalem, Stanley Milgram at Yale University wanted to test whether Eichmann should be considered an accomplice, or whether he was simply following orders. Here’s what he had people doing.

Two volunteers were chosen, one assigned to be the ‘teacher’, the other the ‘learner’. The teacher would be able to verbally communicate with the learner, but they were in separate rooms. The teacher would read off a list of word pairs to the learner, then quiz the learner on the pairs. For every incorrect answer, the teacher was instructed to press a button to give out an electric shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing every time. Read more…

Day 567: The Serialest Of Serial Killers

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Things aren’t looking great for serial killers. Don’t get me wrong, this is probably a good thing, I’m just saying that, like photomat operators or carpeted lamp salesmen, it’s a career path in jeopardy of falling right off the market. Back in the olden days, there was no DNA testing. Investigations into missing persons were often resolved with arbitrary, often grudge-based finger-pointing or simply blaming it on the local witch.

It was an easier gig to get away with back then. Not only that, but a serial killer’s reputation tended to grow with age, absorbing the hyperbolic flair of folklore, expanding sometimes to the point of legend. This means any tale of pre-modern-era mass murderers has to be taken with the long savvy pause of knowing the numbers – and indeed the stories themselves – have probably been fudged a little, just for effect.

It’s a forgivable crime of literary license. Enough time has passed that no family name need be sullied by these ancient human monsters, and we can all sink our teeth a little deeper into a good historical gorefest.

Which brings me to Peter Niers.

No photo available of course, so here's a creepy shot of Peter Lorre, who played a serial killer in a movie once.

No photo available of course, so here’s a creepy shot of Peter Lorre, who played a serial killer in a movie once.

Back in 1581, a nomadic bandit in the Holy Roman Empire had a pretty good chance of eluding authorities, particularly one who possessed supernatural abilities. Remember how I mentioned some of these stories were exaggerated? Well, this one skips the last exit to Weirdsville and motors right along to East Whatthefucksburg. Peter Niers was part of a band of roaming robbers in the countryside near Alsace, France and in parts of what is now Germany. But Niers did a lot more than just rob. Read more…

Day 487: The Ghost Clause Of New York State

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Shopping for a new home is often about as pleasant as prying one’s fingernails back with a pair of pliers, whilst listening to a man who smells of… is that boiling cabbage and hippo farts?… try to sell you an insurance policy in the back row of a Kanye West concert. At least in my experience – perhaps you’ve been luckier than I, or maybe you actually don’t mind listening to the autotuned warblings of Kanye West.

I just don't have the constitution for this much douchery.

I just don’t have the constitution for this much douchery.

In choosing the perfect new home, you have to look beyond the square footage, location, adjoining bus routes, neighborhood schools and appliance upgrades. You’ve got to sift through those little things – you know, the items that might appear to be insignificant minutiae, but will actually shape the most important moments of your life inside this abode.

That spot where you’d put your TV – are you going to get a glare off the evening sun? Will it be practical to build a secret bookcase-door in front of the room you want to use as a man-cave? What about the possibility of adding a twirly-slide from the second floor to the basement? If any of these might come up, then they should be deal-breakers for you right from the start.

And what if the house is haunted? Let’s assume we’re not talking about Casper, or the resilient spirit of a slain supermodel who yearns for one more coital dalliance before she departs to the Great Beyond. Does the previous owner of the home have a legal obligation to disclose any paranormal infestation that may or may not be dwelling within (or even actually in) your new walls?

Actually, if you live in the state of New York, that answer is a solid yes. Read more…

Day 405: Mary Toft, The Woman Who Pulled A Rabbit Out Of… Well, It Wasn’t Her Hat

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If you ever have doubts about the incredible growth of the medical profession over the last 300 years, remember the story of Mary Toft.

Mary was a British peasant woman from Godalming, Surrey. She had three kids, a journeyman clothier husband named Joshua, and not a lot of money. When she found herself knocked up again in 1726, she had to keep working in the fields. August rolled around, and with it came a miscarriage. It was painful and unpleasant, as was most everything medical back then. But somehow Mary was still pregnant, and on September 27, she went into labor.

This is where the story starts to get weird.

She gave birth, not to a baby but to… animal parts. Ann and her mother sent them to John Howard, a man-midwife from Guildford. John was intrigued, or at the very least, freaked the hell out.

No photo of John Howard. I assume he was a skinny guy.

No photo of John Howard. I assume he was a skinny guy.

John showed up and checked out the animal parts. He didn’t buy it. He was called back a couple days later when Mary went into labor again. More parts. This time, John himself delivered “three legs of a Cat of Tabby Colour, and one leg of a Rabbet.” He assumed – as I’m sure we all would, having watched countless seasons of ER and St. Elsewhere – that she gave birth to most of a cat because she had a pet cat who slept on her bed at night. Her brain, focusing on little Whiskers, created the cat-baby. Read more…