Tag: Union Army

Day 992: The John Wilkes Booth World Tour

Header

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:

Body-1

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 962: Moriarty, Unmasked

Header

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.

YoungAdam-1

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 912: Alferd Packer – He Ate People!

Header

Like many who don’t seek to occupy their thoughts with world-shifting brilliance or cunning inventorism, I spend an inordinate amount of time in day-dreamy contemplation. I’ve written about a host of historic criminals, and sometimes it strikes me that the prose we are left with, which documents their foulest of deeds and paints the page red with the nefarious blood-spritz of their infamous acts, is somewhat lacking. These men were not evil masterminds who plotted their wickedness from the dimly-lit murk of a dastardly lair.

Well, maybe that was the case for someone like William “Boss” Tweed, but for the most part I think history’s monsters could be better understood – I say ‘understood’, not ‘forgiven’ – with a tiny relevé in perspective. Sometimes their heinous horrors were simply the path of least resistance to a sought-after goal.

Like survival. In the dazzling pantheon of American cannibalism stories, there’s a sparkling room reserved for Alferd Packer, the man who ascended into Colorado legend for having feasted upon an intrepid troupe of gold-hungry explorers one winter eve in 1874. What tipped him into infamy was little more than desperation, panic, and a sprinkling of unmanaged greed. Would any of us have done things differently?

Okay, probably. Almost definitely. What the hell, I guess I had to ask.

AlferdPacker-1

Alferd Packer – and his name was transcribed as both ‘Alfred’ and ‘Alferd’, though he preferred Alferd, allegedly because of a misspelled tattoo on his arm – served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was discharged for epilepsy then drifted west, earning a scant income as a small-time con man. Whether he was legitimately on the hunt for gold or whether he’d simply duped a team of money-hungry would-be prospectors into trusting his abilities as a gold-sniffing mountain man, we’ll never know. Read more…

Day 870: The Cruel Capture & Cunning Calculation Of Fanny Kelly

Header

Classic tales of the old west are filled with men who are forced by circumstance to be MEN. By the code of the west, a guy’s holster must be overflowing with the gooey, musky froth of machismo. Whether it’s Marshal Will Kane awaiting a fleet of vengeful gunmen at high noon or Ethan Edwards roaming the desert for years in search of a niece, a man’s got to do what societal norms dictate that a man’s got to do.

But what about the women? Sure, there were a few gun-toting types like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, but for the most part women were relegated to the supporting roles, both in history and in cinema. They were the wives, the mothers, the schoolmarms and the whores. When placed out of context, in a position of survival, their best course of action is to stay put and await the manly arms of rescue.

This is where the movies diverge from reality. Apart from a few notable exceptions, cinematic women of the old west might have had some spunk and chutzpah, but they were rarely enabled with the gifts to get stuff done. In reality, the women who hoofed it across the frontier had the potential for every bit the badassery of their male counterparts. As an example I present the typical 1850’s housewife – a lady by the name of Fanny Kelly.

FannyKelly-1

Fanny married Josiah S. Kelly, a guy whose health problems were not well suited to the arid Kansas climate. It was 1864 and the bulk of Americans on the move were headed north and west, far away from the meat-splatter of the Civil War and into the last untamed swath of the continent. They set their sights toward the area we now call Idaho and/or Montana, bringing along Mary Hurley, Fanny’s seven-year-old niece whom the couple had adopted. The trio were joined by Franklin and Andy, two “colored servants”, and a Methodist clergyman named Mr. Sharp.

Shortly afterwards, William and Sarah Larimer hooked up with the convoy, towing their eight-year-old son Frank. Two more men, Gardner Wakefield and Noah Taylor rode with them. They were a party of nine adults and two kids. Enough bodies to ward off lone bandits, with enough provisions to get across the country in relative comfort. Of course the real threat along the trail wasn’t so much pesky robbers or indulgent eating binges. Read more…

Day 681: Six Heroes

Header-CharlesDavisLucas

You’ve probably never heard of Charles Davis Lucas.

Like most recipients of the Victoria Cross, the highest honor awardable to members of the British and Commonwealth military forces, his name is far from household. But that’s what today is about: slapping a virtual high-five with the ghosts of wars gone by, and lending a little praise and attention to the brave folks who stared potential death and/or dismemberment in the face and said, “Fuck it. I’m going after the bad guys.”

Charles Davis Lucas fought in the Crimean War, which was yet another conflict over religion and the Holy Land and all that. This time it was the Brits, French and Ottomans battling it out with the Russians back in 1853-56. Charles was aboard the Hecla, a ship in the Baltic Sea, where they were taking fire from a Finnish fort called Bumarsund. A shell landed on the ship’s deck with the fuse still hissing, and whomever was in charge ordered all hands to lay flat and prepare for the blast.

Not Charles. Charles ran up, grabbed the shell, and heaved it overboard where it exploded before it even hit the water. No one was killed, no one was injured, and it was all thanks to Charles disobeying orders and doing something that, by most objective standards was completely insane. His was the first act of bravery to earn the Victoria’s Cross.

StanleyHenryParryBoughey

Twenty-one years old. Another Brit, this time up against the Ottoman Army in the muck of World War I. The enemy was breathing down the neck of his gang of Royal Scots Fusiliers on a December day in 1917, when Stanley Henry Parry Boughey decided he’d had enough. He grabbed an armful of tossable bombs and ran at the bad guys, heaving blasts all over the place and somehow managing to not get knocked off his feet by a bullet. Read more…

Day 345: Eponymation, Part I

The great thing about eponyms is that some of them are a complete surprise. An eponym can work its way into our collective vocabulary so smoothly, we forget that the thing in question was named after somebody. And while it’s not a long drive from common knowledge to the fact that Calvinism was named after 16th century theologian John Calvin, or that the Franklin Stove was named after Ben Franklin, some of these other nuggets of eponymity may surprise you.

According to Greek mythology, Europa was a hottie from Phoenicia. She caught the eye of Zeus, who – not being one for smooth talk and flattery – turned into a bull and abducted her to Crete, where she became queen. Zeus appreciated her willingness to buy in and stick around, so as a gift he recreated the bull image among the stars. This is the Taurus constellation we have today.

Maybe it was because Europa was a such a good sport, or simply that the Greeks were the first ones to start naming things on a grand scale. But her name stuck around and eventually came to designate the an entire continent. Read more…