Tag: Violence

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 984: Love For Freedom – The Biddle Boys Break Out

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Forever conjoined in the tomato sneer of fate, love and sacrifice provide the familiar minor-key chime beneath so many tragic tales. Our past is riddled with them, bleeding their florid twists onto the otherwise sterile emotional landscape of a history which is otherwise defined by dates and wars and steel-grey timelines. The great forgotten love stories are the smack of mustard upon the otherwise bland wiener of historical record.

The story of the notorious Biddle Brothers had reached its final chapter, and was stretching its leg toward its terminus when love intervened and produced an eleventh-hour twist. Two men were given a second chance at freedom. One woman sacrificed everything. Another man met his grisly end.

These are the stories that paint pink acrylic swirls upon the serifs of the font that transcribes our past. After nearly 1000 paths of investigative prose (with the occasional dab of poetry), these are the stories that still ignite my imagination and wonder.

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Jack Biddle, along with his little brother Ed and their friend Frank Dorman, became known around Pittsburgh as The Chloroform Gang. Their modus operandi was to assist their victims into slumber by using chloroform-soaked rags, then to rob them thoroughly. One morning, it all went wrong.

They were hoping to pilfer as much as they could from the residence of grocer Thomas Kahney. Someone – possibly Kahney’s wife, or perhaps one of the intruders – made some noise, and Kahney found himself face to face with the would-be thieves. One of them (and the brothers would pin it on Dorman) shot and killed the man. When the police came snooping for suspects at a nearby home where the gang was hiding out, another blast was fired, killing Detective Patrick Fitzgerald. 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 975: All Hail Norton I, Emperor Of These United States Of America

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For all her achievements and triumphs, America just hasn’t been the same since the good ol’ days when the Emperor ran the show.

It was a brief sliver of eccentric history (or ‘eccentristory’ – I’m copyrighting that title) that should never be forgotten. And for some who live in San Francisco, where Emperor Norton breathed the free air of his glorious domain, it’s a cause worth championing. If nothing else, he was a testament to the spirit of the San Franciscan penchant for enfolding the quirky and unrepentantly goofy into the city’s lore. This wouldn’t have happened in Omaha.

Consider this an education on the potential of the politic of passion, a reimagining of a man’s place in the society that – to his mind – has clipped the wings of his security and left him abandoned in the ether. One cannot be defeated if one is the champion of one’s own self-proclaimed might. Kudos to Emperor Norton for making up his own rules, and Super-Kudos to San Francisco for buying in.

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No one knows for certain the details of his origin story, but we do know that Joshua Abraham Norton came to us from somewhere in England via South Africa in 1849 after receiving a hefty bequest of $40,000 from his late father’s estate. He parlayed that money into a successful dance around the real estate market, building his fortune up to a cool quarter-million within a few short years. But Mr. Norton was always on the lookout for the next big opportunity. In this case, it drifted beneath his nose in the form of a news release from China. Read more…

Day 960: Day Three of Peace & Music

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“And maybe it’s the time of year, yes, and maybe it’s the time of man.

And I don’t know who I am but life is for learning.”

 

As the bone-soaked and weary revelers packed together their tin-foil hash pipes, their mud-crusty jean-shorts and their near-sentient hangovers to leave the festival, one wonders if the historic weight of their experience could be fathomed among any of them. Leaving a grisly wake of discarded garments, blankets so infused with dirt and sweat they could never be clean again, and a weekend’s worth of rubble from the small city that rose and fell upon Max Yasgur’s farm over four days, they likely had other things on their minds.

Would their parents be worried? Those whose jobs necessitated a Monday appearance had likely been trapped in Bethel, New York until the crowd was ready to disperse – would they still have employment upon their return? No doubt a handful were wondering how they’d describe the wondrous soul-swoosh of the previous weekend to their friends and family serving overseas in Vietnam, or if they’d ever get the chance.

Judging by the overwhelming jubilance witnessed in the Woodstock documentary film, some may have tasted the optimistic truth that such massive accumulations of good vibes are possible, and that a few more parties like this might end the war and straighten up humankind’s preternatural bent toward self-destruction. Could any of them have foreseen the generation’s collective retreat from idealism and decay into boring ol’ adulthood?

And how were they going to clean this mess without the use of flame-throwers?

And how were they going to clean this mess without the use of flame-throwers?

For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Love Generation, when Free Love meant death from AIDS, when the only war we could protest was the UN’s righteous removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and when drugs were not – as we were told – a liberating force, but rather the egg goop that would sizzle upon the frying pans of our brains, Woodstock became an ideal. We watched the movie, we found the music more engaging than M.C. Hammer’s instructions of what we can and cannot touch, and we subsequently glorified the festival and its citizens. Where was our Woodstock? Read more…

Day 922: Riding That Train, High On Cocaine & Pretty Much Everything Else

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Within a span of about five months, the notion of the Grand Hippie Music Festival had deteriorated from a three-day swoon of good vibes, great drugs and phenomenal tuneage at Woodstock into an angry and disorganized mess at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. I’ve written about the latter already, and I’ll have plenty to say about the former in an upcoming piece, but the question left unanswered by Altamont can only be: “what happens next?”

The digestible myth is that the disastrous Altamont concert nudged the nail in the sixties’ coffin, not only landing near the decade’s calendar terminus but also smushing into ash any hopes that the peace ‘n love generation could haul their good vibes into adulthood. But beyond Altamont you’ll still find the stellar 1970 Isle of Wight festival and the poorly-managed (but heartily rock-tastic) Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. The dream wasn’t dead, it just took a nasty little hit in late ’69.

One of the first post-Altamont gathering of groups took place in Canada in the triumphant early days of 1970’s summer. Where festivals like Woodstock and Monterey Pop had previously lured fans from neighboring time zones and beyond to the event, the Festival Express was set to cruse across the country, bringing the idea of a super-conglomeration of super-groups to a myriad of cities. It was a concert game-changer, and solid proof that the perpetual party of the previous decade had not yet reached last call.

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Originally known as the Transcontinental Pop Festival, Ken Walker (above) along with his partners Thor and George Eaton aimed for four cities: Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. They secured a 14-car Canadian National Railways train for the artists, and booked a documentary crew to film the entire event. Walker and his associates booked passage for themselves on the train also, as no self-respecting businessman of that era was foolish enough to throw a party like that without attending it. Read more…

Day 921: The Luddites Rage Against The Machines

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You don’t often hear the term ‘Luddite’ in conversation anymore. The word has come to represent one who is resistant to new technologies or despises them altogether. There simply aren’t as many of those people around anymore. While I was spending my youth hunched in front of a luminously green screen, fighting off orcs in Ultima IV or inputting some three-page BASIC program from a magazine, it made sense for my parents’ generation to scoff at such frivolity. Now we’re all getting soaked on the technological flume ride.

Being a Luddite today takes a lot of work. One would have to give up most modern means of communication, sacrifice access to history’s greatest research tool (this website, of course) and deny oneself the most extensive collection of free pornography ever known to humankind. Also, one may need to look up what the hell a Luddite actually is.

Fortunately, due to my commitment to making this site the nexus of all human knowledge (at least on 1000 various topics… well, 999 if you don’t count my final column, in which I’ll be ranting at length about all the people I know who piss me off), I’m here to help. The story of the Luddites combines my two favorite morsels of history: angry, violent people and a grotesque over-reaction by the government.

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The Luddites showed up in England in the early 19th century, right around the time Napoleon was collecting the chunks of Europe that his army hadn’t yet destroyed. But their origin story (which may or may not be a piece of fiction) dates back to 1779 when a weaver from Anstey (near Leicester) named Ned Ludd unleashed his rage on a pair of stocking frames, used for industrial knitting. The story goes that he was either being whipped for idleness – a common motivational technique prior to the advent of posters involving group parachuting formations – or else he was being taunted by local youths. Read more…

Day 897: Zoot Suit Violence

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One seldom looks very deeply into the lyrics of a modern swing-dance revival song. When Colin James and his Little Big Band sang about a Cadillac Baby, he was singing about a woman, one who enjoyed a particular Cadillac automobile. When Lou Bega prattled off his laundry list of desirable women in “Mambo #5”, he was simply expressing his identity as a man-slut. But beneath the boppy jump-blues veneer of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot” is something surprisingly dark and sinister.

The ‘riot’ in question is not merely an alternate wording for a party featuring a bunch of guys in outdated jazz-wear. The song refers to an actual string of riots in the early 1940’s, which began in the embers of the era’s prevalent racism, before rising into an inferno of violence. This is an ugly chapter in American history, from an age before Civil Rights was on the tip of anyone’s brains, and when patriotism could drive people to do heinously ugly things.

It all begins with the zoot suit: high-waisted, tight-cuffed pegged pants and a long jacket with boisterous shoulders and splashy lapels. The outfits were fun and jazzy, originating in inter-war black culture and eventually becoming a staple of the southern Californian Latino community. Then the style became illegal – that’s where the ugliness begins.

You have to be way funkier than this guy to pull off this much zoot.

You have to be way funkier than this guy to pull off this much zoot.

The 1930s was a time of heavy anti-Mexicanism in the southwestern United States. Despite the deportation of 12,000 Mexicans (many of whom turned out to be American citizens) from the Los Angeles area in the early part of the decade, there were still roughly three million Mexicans in the country, many without legal status. L.A. was the hub of immigrants from the Land of the Hot Sun, and by the end of the decade the tension between whites and Latinos was beginning to boil over. Read more…

Day 893: The Weird Cocoon-Like Prison Of The Gibbons Twins

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Growing up as an only child, whose only companions were the top-notch offerings of prime-time network television, I always wanted a sibling. But beyond that, I was downright fascinated with twins. That unspoken connection – some even say psychic communication – poked at the crusty, ashen embers of my imagination with a tempting stick. I always wanted that intrinsic bond, and I just wasn’t finding it with Mr. Belvedere.

Researchers have found that as many as one in eight pregnancies starts off as a twin pregnancy. One in eight. Sometimes one of the little zygotes dies so early in the pregnancy it isn’t detected, other times they might fuse together and form a single embryo. That’s a creepy thought, that there’s a real possibility that I might be made up of two pre-people.

But I’m interested in actual twins, those who split the rent on their womb with a view. And there’s a particular set of twins that has piqued my interest today, a pair of Barbados-born, Welsh-raised girls named June and Jennifer Gibbons. Their story grabs hold of the symbiotic closeness of twin lore and twists into something remarkably strange.

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Language development in twins has always been of interest to those who like to poke and prod at young’uns. There is a higher rate of delay among twins in grabbing hold of language, and not because of any hiccup in their cerebral wiring. Twins often exhibit something called idioglossia, which is a made-up language (okay, I suppose all languages are ‘made-up’ if you want to be picky about it) spoken by only a few people, sometimes only one. Read more…

Day 878: A Dingo Took Your Baby?

EDITORS NOTE: IMAGE WAS CLEANED AT SOURC

I generally avoid topics that have been made into major motion pictures starring Sam Neill and Meryl Streep, since I figure the story is already out there, and told in a much more thorough and entertaining way than I could tell it here. But some stories are too strange to ignore. And in this case, the 1988 film A Cry In The Dark was something of a box office bust, so I’ll assume there’s a ripe audience for this twisted tale.

The story takes place in Australia, a land where every living creature wants to kill you, and most have the ability to do so with ease. Nevertheless, Aussies are a resilient people, and they are often willing to go camping in the frothing throes of this ludicrously blood-lusty ecosystem. Michael and Lindy Chamberlain were two such Aussies.

They took a trip to Uluru, which was then known as Ayers Rock. Along with them were their two sons, Aidan and Reagan, and their 9-week-old daughter, Azaria. It was on the second night of their trip, August 17, 1980, when things went horribly wrong.

Uluru: The great nipple of the Australian Outback.

Uluru: The great nipple of the Australian Outback.

According to Lindy Chamberlain, her young daughter Azaria was taken from the family tent by a dingo. Though their name might suggest a fun-loving, cuddly cartoon creature, the dingo is actually a vicious predator and a major pain in the collective ass for Australian livestock farmers. They’re like wolves, but without the charm. There had been no reported incidents of a dingo scooping a small child from a tent, but it was possible – in fact, Derek Roff, the chief ranger at Ayers Rock, had been warning the government about the increasingly aggressive dingoes in his neighborhood for two years. Read more…