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:
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…
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?
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…
When I rolled this project over and booted it out of bed more than two and a half years ago, I had to decide where to place that bar of ethics beneath which my words would never limbo. I have never sold out to become a corporate shill (yes, my bubbly praise over Big Rock Brewery did set into motion a timeline that would have me trading prose for pay, though given how much I love the product I don’t consider that selling out).
I have never cheated in my writing duties, despite having a stash of practice articles tucked into a corner of my hard drive. I have never scribbled my daily kilograph after midnight because “it’s technically tomorrow.” Screw that – I have lived my life by the scrolls of TV Guide, which begins each new day promptly at 5:00am.
Also, apart from a few dalliances into more blue subject matter (the kids love that stuff), I have maintained a relatively smooth PG-13 flow (my article about ‘Fuck’ notwithstanding). Today will be no exception, despite the fact that my topic of choice today is Fucking.
With a population of 104 at last count, the village of Fucking, Austria probably sees more tourists per capita than any other place in Europe. The town was named after a 6th-century Bavarian nobleman named Focko. As the language of the region evolved, the spelling of the town varied: it was Vucchingen in 1070, Fukching in 1303, Fugkhing in 1532, and by the 1700’s it acquired its current spelling. The –ing suffix is an old Germanic denotation, meaning “belonging to” the root-word. So Fucking is “the place of Focko’s people.” Read more…
If I were to brainstorm everything I know about the Statue of Liberty it would look like this:
– The French donated it as a gift to mark the United States’ centennial (and probably as a thank-you for having whomped their perpetual enemy, the British, in the Revolutionary War).
– It blows up in every disaster movie.
Not much history there. I almost visited Liberty Island once, but I opted to stay on the ferry back to New Jersey. I’d left my phone at the station, probably when I put it down to clap along with the chorus of John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” (a temptation I can never resist), which was playing on the speakers at the station. Our time was tight that day, and we’d have only had enough time to walk around the island and try to look up Lady Liberty’s dress until the next ferry, but I still consider it a lost opportunity.
That significant little slab of land has a history to it – one that stretches long beyond the 1886 unveiling of the grand statue. One that also features a phenomenal explosion. Like any amateur historian, I’ll pull at any thread that might result in an exciting kaboom.
That appetizing slab of muck is actually an oyster bed. The tidal flats in Upper New York Bay used to be filled with these tasty little creatures, and they washed up en masse on the shores of the three islands that would later be known as Ellis, Black Tom and Liberty Islands. The trio were known as the Oyster Islands by the settlers of New Amsterdam, and they’d continue to supply non-Kosher goodness to folks in the region for centuries before landfilling expanded the islands’ footprints and messed with the natural coastlines. Read more…
For those who dance the steps of atheism, agnosticism, Jediism and so on, this world has always been a precarious place. It seems odd that one person’s lack of belief in an established monotheistic principle – even if that person is an otherwise caring, giving, deep-down good dude – can lead to such harsh hatred and judgment by the alleged “moral” majority.
It’s not a big deal these days to forsake the Biblical tenets held dear by so many of this country’s founders. We have lived through the 60’s, through new-age mysticism, through wacky spiritual hoodoo and comet-worshipping cults. To most everyone, a stranger’s religion is not a big deal anymore. But leap back in time to just over a century ago and you’ll find that the best a non-Christian could hope for in this part of the world was tolerance. Not acceptance, not a back-slapping welcome into the community, just tolerance.
One man decided to fight back. He created his own community, a land where atheism was to be the norm and where people could pontificate amid boundless intellectualism. John Lennon said, “Imagine no religion.” 91 years earlier, George Walser made it happen, cranking up the volume on atheism until it achieved the same intolerant, finger-pointing cacophony he had spent his entire life rallying against.
Welcome to Liberal, Missouri.
George Walser was a successful lawyer, a devoted agnostic, and by 1880 he had developed into a staunch anti-religionist. To George, it was offensive for those who do not follow the Christian faith to be branded as amoral, societally detrimental and the cause of all the world’s ills. He yearned for a utopian escape, a place where like-minded folk could go on about their lives without being persecuted by Christians. His solution? Persecute the Christians. Read more…
Back in the Middle Ages, when skinning your knee or being coughed on by your neighbor could kill you, there was neither the time nor the inclination for subtlety. This was true particularly when it came to town topography. Streets were often named for the economic activity that took place upon it: you’d get your silver smithed on Smith Street, pick up your spring meat-scarf on Meat-Scarf Boulevard and if a few pints had encouraged your nether-bits to a bit of a tingle, you might take a stroll down Gropecunt Lane.
I know – it’s rude, it’s crude, it’s highly inappropriate for a website that has cultivated a comfortable seat in the clubhouse of down-home family fare. But I didn’t make this up. This was once a common name in England before common-sense and decorum snapped the lid on such truth in advertising.
Bestowing this name upon some stretch of road was not an attempt at some clever wordplay, nor was it an antiquated convolution due to the discreet evolution of language; rather than opt for a more sophisticated allusion to the prostitution that would be readily available on Gropecunt Lane, these olde-timey townes chose to be forthright and liberal. You want an escort for the evening? Perhaps someone with whom you can share a bubble bath and discuss how great it will be when someone invents the Renaissance? Head somewhere else. If you’re just looking to get all medieval with some sticky sweat-time, cruise on down to Gropecunt Lane.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there was an English street calling itself Gropecuntlane as far back as 1230. The term ‘grope’ dates back to the same era (though back then it was grāp), and ‘cunt’ must have been hovering around the local lexicon as well, though its first recorded evidence in English is in the aforementioned street name. It likely evolved from the old Norse term ‘kunta’. Read more…
Without question, Times Square is the center of the urban-tourist universe, and all other city cores are distant suburbs. The splashy lights and night-defying non-stop glow are mesmerizing, intoxicating… until you realize that most of the magic around you are advertisements. Even then, all those pleas for the pennies in your pockets blend together into a euphonic crescendo, a blast of visual tympani that will leave your rods and cones shimmying a jitterbug for months.
The neighborhood is also one of America’s safest – apart from the occasional terrorist threat, of course. It may be the pinnacle achievement of urban Disneyfication, but it is unparalleled as a tourist mecca. There’s nothing to do in Times Square, and therein lies its brilliance. Sure, you can shop at a couple stores, snarf back a McBurger or slurp up a margarita at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. But those options pop up around any major attraction, don’t they?
In Times Square you are there to look. Not at a specific building, just at the air around you, tickled to life by neon and the hot blue breath of LED signscapes. You may be one of thousands of pedestrians (or millions if it’s New Year’s Eve), but your feet are planted at the nexus of America, where corporate cash, glitzy braggadocio and our collective self-importance collide in a glamorous display. It’s hard to believe that not long ago, the area was astoundingly natural.
Don’t let the frilly collar fool you; John Morin Scott was a certified bad-ass, one of George Washington’s generals and ballsy enough to keep his heels firmly into the mud as British forces kicked Revolutionary ass in the Battle of Brooklyn. He was the last of Washington’s top men to argue against surrendering the island of Manhattan to the British in 1776. Was it his unflinching spirit? His weep-worthy patriotism? Or (more likely) the vast amounts of land he owned in what would someday be called Midtown? Read more…
Last week, while another icy winter blast was gossiping through our beloved city streets, I heard a familiar question discreetly uttered in my office tower elevator. It’s a question that inevitably falls from the cliffs of quivering lips every year when the onset of March is mocked by November-esque climate.
“Why did anyone decide to settle a town in this spot?”
It’s true that, while our swirling stripe of river valley parkland is an emerald jewel among modern urban nature triumphs, and while we perpetually possess a bountiful bevy of artistic talent that vastly supersedes expectations, our winters also display a wicked longevity. And the earliest Edmontonians had half a country of gorgeous parkland to sift through, none of which had an established arts scene. So why here? Why plant one’s flag amid such an unforgiving tundra?
Money, baby. A businessman goes where the customers are, and in 1795 there were scads of Blackfoot and Cree folks in the region, not to mention a raucous cavalcade of settlers headed west. No one knew there was a generous cauldron of bubblin’ crude below our terrestrial waistline (that surprise was 150 years away); back then our town was all about hocking pelts to the locals.
Today, Edmonton’s premier tourist attraction is inevitably our monstrous Mall, which sucks more than 30 million shoppers and gawkers inside its yellow brick shell each year. Ironically, a mall is exactly how Edmonton started out. The North West Company picked out the spot where the North Saskatchewan River shook watery hands with the Sturgeon River (near modern-day Fort Saskatchewan) and opened up a trading post in 1795. The Hudson Bay Company joined them shortly thereafter, giving us two anchor stores. For all your pelt and survivalist needs. Read more…
There are days when I sit at my desk, look at what I do (my tedious day job, not this particular knuckle-scrunchingly thrilling task) and the weight of my uninspiring career seems to drag down my insides like a kidney stone the size of a tennis shoe. I considered myself to be wildly innovative the day I rubber-banded two pens together so I could reach a third pen that had fallen on the floor, meaning I wouldn’t have to scoot over to pick it up. I even had a little paperclip on the end so it would lift up a bit and I wouldn’t have to touch the carpet where I regularly spill root beer and pastrami grease.
I felt like frigging MacGyver.
Thankfully, some people are afforded the opportunity to think bigger, and devise clever solutions for problems that get measured in tonnage. When the southern tip of South America proved to be too much of a detour, they figured out how to blast a shortcut through Panama. When too many hardworking souls lost their teeth from trying to open a beer bottle in the manliest way they could think of, they invented the twist-off so we wouldn’t have to. And when a pair of waterways were no longer functioning as conduits for commerce and shipping, they came up with the Falkirk Wheel.
Before our planet was blanketed in a lattice of asphalt and concrete, we relied on waterways to get our stuff (and ourselves) to its destination. Where the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal meet in Scotland, a bit of ingenuity – even greater than that of my Pen Reachenator (patent pending) – was required. The Union Canal, which was completed in 1822, is located on land that sits about 110 feet above the surface of the Forth and Clyde. Engineers back then were already on top of their game; they devised a series of eleven locks to connect the two. Read more…
Apart from a couple of quick overnighters in nearby Calgary and a 4-day excursion to my in-laws’ place in Kamloops last summer, I have not left the confines of my city since beginning this project. But while the burden of fiscal asphyxiation may have formed a tether around my proverbial ankle, I nevertheless spiral into the occasional exploratory fantasy, weaving through the streets of Paris on Google’s Street-View or drooling at the contoured geometry of New York skyscrapers.
I also find myself drawn to the world’s lesser-boasted attractions, from the world’s first UFO landing pad in the nearby bustling burg of St. Paul, Alberta to the largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas. I want to see more of what the world has to offer – hell, our city’s most exquisite attraction is a large shopping mall. There have to be adventures out there more deserving of my exploring eye.
Then I stumbled onto Midgetville.
Don’t be offended – that’s what Wikipedia calls it, though the more appropriate term might be ‘Tiny Town’. And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a metropolis of little people. And there are several to be found on the map, although most of them probably never existed. Historically, people have cruelly infused some strange mythos with the plight of little people. I can’t imagine their targets enjoyed the bizarre legends, but since when has the fear of offending others been the affliction of the majority? Read more…