Tag: St. Louis

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 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 980: The Man In The Zoo

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Within the margins of human behavior, how is it possible for our hunger for self-awareness to coexist with our penchant for abandoning empathy and basic compassion? History’s most exquisite brains have combed the mines of knowledge and speculation in order to pilfer as much truth about ourselves as can be swallowed by mortal minds, yet in doing so they have occasionally stomped upon our collective dignity by treating the subjects of their study as though they belonged to an unrelated sub-species.

Ota Benga was just a dude. Had the trajectory of his existence not been marred by western interference, he might have lived a blasé life of hunting, storytelling and raising a family. Instead he was plucked from the lush, equatorial forests of his youth and made a slave, a sideshow wonder, and a zoological exhibit for slack-jawed tourists.

Most of the injustices thrust upon Ota’s arc were done with the false pretense of anthropological education, cloaked in evolutionary flim-flammery and racist eugenics. But what did we learn, apart from humankind’s tragically vast tolerance for our own assholishness?

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A member of the Mbuti tribe in what was then called the Belgian Congo, Ota Benga’s life was first derailed by Belgium’s King Leopold II around the turn of the 20th century. Leopold had dispatched the Force Publique, a heavily-armed militia aimed at reminding the Congolese natives that they’d best remain devoted to producing rubber for Belgium’s financial gain. Ota was out on a hunt when the armed men showed up and murdered his wife and two children. When he returned to his village, he was captured as a slave. Read more…

Day 932: Tornadoing It Right

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As the summer weeks amble past that first premature sploosh of sun, sweat and network television’s filler programming (the latest season of Fox’s 24 notwithstanding), we are reaching the time when the season becomes entrenched in whichever little cubbyhole we wish to place it. For some, it’s the season of swimming in a sun-soaked pool. For teachers and their flock, it’s the season of delectable freedom and a furlough from responsibility. For those of us who live with both a teacher and a student, it’s the season for drinking heavily to compensate for the globby paste of envy we feel at watching everyone else in the household sleep as we leave for work.

But for a number of geographically-encumbered folks, the sub-surface pillow-down of summer brings with it more grave and ungroovy consequences. Hurricanes and tropical storms are gearing up to spank the Gulf of Mexico with a debris-wreaking fist. Droughts will speckle farmland country, crapping its dusty fury upon a smattering of unlucky agriculturalists. And inevitably the funnel clouds will open up their peppery maws at the vengeful sky, bullying rural settlements and trailer parks alike on the ground.

Edmonton has seen but one tornado in our 100+ years as a city, and it left its mark on everyone who lived through it – even for those of us who saw nothing worse than the dog-spittle of rain against our windows. But in the interest of public safety – and as part of my court-ordered restitution for ‘liberating’ those pet store frogs into the IKEA ball-pit – here are some safety tips.

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Remember that viral video in which a Kansas TV crew near El Dorado fled from a nearby tornado and took refuge beneath an overpass? Yeah, don’t do this. If you happen to be caught on an empty two-lane highway with a tornado sneering at the hairs on the back of your neck, you might be tempted to tuck yourself under a concrete canopy, but you’ll really only be worsening your chances of survival. That TV crew happened to pick a rather odd overpass – there was a hollow crawlspace at the top of the embankment where they could grab hold of the exposed girders to stay stable. Read more…

Day 817: Adios, Amigos!

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You know what’s wrong with the world today?

The children.

I’m not talking about their slimy little running noses, their unmitigated X-box apathy or the horrific Beiberfication of what was once a proud, noble, Huey-Lewis-worthy pop culture. No, it’s their very existence that’s dragging us down, the fact that two people bumped groin-toys and spurted yet another savage, eco-thrashing soul upon our poor beleaguered planet.

Such is the philosophy of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, also known as VHEMT (the ‘T’ at the end only exists so they can call themselves ‘vehement’, which apparently they are). Where other environmentalist organizations seek to reduce pollution, VHEMT aims to reduce polluters. Where Greenpeace strives to protect endangered species, VHEMT wants us to become endangered. Voluntarily.

Don’t confuse these folks with those pansy-ass moderates who merely seek to lower the planet’s population through families having fewer kids or some other half-measure. Humans are the scourge of the earth, and this group feels that our best bet is to wipe ourselves out completely. Not through war or disease or a collective sprint off the crusty cliffs of the Grand Canyon, but rather via a (sort of) natural extinction.

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This is Les U. Knight. Les was a part of the environmentalist movement a couple decades before it was trendy and corporate-sponsored. After watching the relative disinterest in planet-saving throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Les launched VHEMT in 1991, deciding a more completist solution was necessary. He’s not asking for a massive genocide or for government-mandated sterilization. Les simply hopes we can all agree to sheath our testicular might and stop having babies. Read more…

Day 716: Football With A Future – The 1920 Teams

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As football fans, we can all feel the hot breath of impending playoffs breathing upon our collective neck, as tonight two more teams – the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens – struggle to overcome their mid-season screw-ups for the opportunity to suit up in January. I’ll spare everyone my predictions of the outcome, or my analysis of who I feel has the most favorable outlook for a Super Bowl run, and instead do what I do best: have a look at some history.

The National Football League will be turning 100 at the end of this decade, an event that will no doubt be heralded with throwback uniforms, extensive retrospectives, and yet another season of the Cleveland Browns finishing in the basement.

Mostly, the league will be taking stock of where it has been, and how it has evolved over its first century. I’m going to beat them by seven years.

There were fifteen teams in the 1920 American Professional Football Association (APFA), which was renamed the NFL two years later. Here’s a look at where they all went.

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The Muncie Flyers finished at the bottom of the league with an impressive 0-1 record. After being thrashed 45-0 by the Rock Island Independents, they couldn’t get another league game scheduled. After an 0-2 record the following year, the club scooted off to the minor leagues.

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The Columbus Panhandles played in the league’s first game, falling to the Dayton Triangles 14-0. The team went 2-6-2 in 1920, and after three unimpressive years they changed their name to the Columbus Tigers. The best they ever finished was eighth, and after unleashing a formidable stink with their sub-par play, the team gave up after the 1926 season. 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.

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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 691: The Downstairs Park

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On a day such as this, when the mercury has given up its climb and packed its full breadth of ooze down below -10 degrees, I feel I should find something to appreciate in this woefully frigid city.

For the few months of the year that allow it, we are privileged to enjoy a serene swath of river valley, as well as a smattering of beautifully-landscaped parks. This means that in over a century of urban development, there have been some scraps of real estate that our councillors have opted not to fill with strip malls and cul-de-sacs. Other cities have been forced to act more creatively, to extract its green space from the bones of its history.

Rail trails are a popular solution – snatching up miles of abandoned track and converting them into miles of cycling, jogging, and someday (hopefully) hoverboarding fun. New York and Paris have vaulted the rail trail concept to include abandoned elevated tracks. Now New York is ready to take things in the next logical direction: straight down.

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The story of the next phase of the city’s “outdoor” recreation begins here, on a strip of 10th Avenue once known as Death Avenue. The railroads had hired men on horseback – the ‘West Side Cowboys,’ which sounds like the name of a male strip club – to ride in front of the street-level trains to warn people to get the hell out of the way. Still, it was a mess. To clean things up, from 1929 through 1934 New York built a 13-mile elevated railway. It was designed to cut through the middle of city blocks, even running through taller buildings when necessary. Read more…

Day 643: Forget The Romance, Just Give Me The Sugar

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So as the alleged flu in my gullet has evolved to a full-blown infection in the neighborhood of my poor tired uvula, I find myself still bed-bound and bored. Luckily I have reserved the opportunity to spend a few hours every day this week in the company of candy. Not actual candy – regrettably my bad fortune has not swiveled quite so drastically – but with candy as a research topic. Where my physical tongue knows only the grotesquely sweet bite of ineffective lozenges, my mind’s tongue is free to journey to my youth, and to the days when a dollar could net you a Snickers and a Fanta to wash it down.

Only today I’m steering this candy-powered word-beast away from the chocolate highway, taking the off-ramp to something a little more rooted in the days of yore, back when we were just in it for the sugar, and ten cents (even a nickel) could get us our fix.

I had the misfortune of liking almost everything on the shelf below the candy bars, from Tootsie Pops to Fizzies to SweeTarts. Were my palette of a more discriminating nature, I might have abandoned my sweet tooth after my stoner days and graduated to more sophisticated treats. But no, I loved them all. Even when the treat was disguised as nothing more than sugar in a tube.

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Pixy Stix have no pretense. They don’t boast about a recipe or try to be anything more than pure flavored sugar in a tube. In the 1930s it was being sold by Sunline Inc. in St. Louis as a drink powder. But much like the way every kid has stuck a slimy finger into a tin of Kool-Aid, Sunline executive John Fish Smith watched kids foregoing the addition of water and shooting back the powder au naturel. Read more…

Day 622: The Perfect Food

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In the sprawling kitchen of international cuisine, your teeth will never know a greater pleasure than when they sink into the perfect pizza. The specifics of that perfection are purely subjective; pizza can be a health food or a grease-laden fat-trap. You may prefer a dripping slab of foldable New York pie or the hearty fork-bending stew of genuine Chicago deep-dish. An unleavened square-slice from St. Louis or a scissor-cut crispy rectangle, Lazio-style. It doesn’t matter – your perfect pizza is your perfect food.

I can’t say with any degree of certainty what my perfect pizza would be. I know I have to skip the opening credits when I watch an episode of Louie because that shot of New York pizza will set my taste buds into meltdown. But the first time I learned that real Chicago deep-dish was nothing like the dough-heavy flaccidity they call ‘deep-dish’ in this part of the world, it was an epiphany.

It’s like choosing between Beatles albums. Or children. Ultimately, there’s more than enough pizza-love to spread around.

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First off, let’s get the pronunciation right. The Italian pronunciation is ‘pittsa’, though unless you’re talking to an actual Italian pronouncing it that way will seem a little douchey. No one knows pizza’s origin story, though it likely grew from the topping-adorned focaccia bread from Roman Empire times. Actually you could go back further to Ancient Greece, where they topped their ‘plakous’ (flatbread) with herbs, onion and garlic. Naples gets dibs on the title of modern pizza’s birthplace. It was a galette flatbread, and it was known as the foodstuff of the poor folk. Read more…