August 7, 2007

UFO Sighted in Basel Switzerland

At dawn on August 7th, 1566, UFO's were sighted over Basel, Switzerland.

A contemporary report by Samuel Coccius, in the city's gazette, read:

  • At the time when the sun rose, one saw many large black balls which moved at high speed in the air towards the sun, then made half-turns, banging one against the others as if they were fighting a battle out a combat, a great number of them became red and igneous, thereafter they were consumed and died out.

Illustration: a 16th century woodcut illustrating the event, public domain.

August 5, 2007

The First Electric Traffic Light

The first electric traffic light was installed in Cleveland Ohio, at the intersection of Euclid and East 105th Street on August 5th, 1914. It employed red and green lights and "stop" and "move" directives. It was manually controlled, and the design was patented by James Hoge.

Was it the first traffic light? Well, that depends on what aspects you're considering. As early as 1868, a "traffic semaphore" was installed in London to control horse-drawn traffic and protect pedestrians near the British House of Commons. This device was manually operated and featured red and green lights (a gas lamp with red and green lenses) and signs directing the traffic.

The first automated street control device was patented by Earnest Sirrine of Chicago which used the non-illuminated words "stop" and "go".

A device using red and green electric lights was invented by Lester Wire of Salt Lake City in 1910, but he did not apply for a patent.

The red-amber-green pattern that is so familiar to us today was adopted from the color system used by the railroads, and made its appearance in Detroit in 1920. William Potts, a Detroit policeman, was the inventor of the (unpatented) device, which he constructed from a $37 sign flasher. After his retirement from the police force, Potts became an analyst for the Automobile Club of Michigan.

Photo Credit: Davide Guglielmo,

August 4, 2007

Dom Perignon Invents Champagne

"Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!"

Dom Perignon is credited with having exclaimed this in 1693, when he discovered the effervescent beverage we now know as champagne. It's a nice story, but almost certainly untrue.

Wines from the Champagne region of France had been well-known since early medieval times, but there is no evidence that the area was the first to develop sparkling wines. There were more likely developed in either England or Russia.

England would seem to have a particularly strong claim for the honor, due to two important advantages in technology. First, England had developed a stronger bottle, which could bear up to the pressures created by the second fermentation of the wine inside the bottle. The reason English glass was stronger was due to the use of coal fires by English glassmakers, instead of the charcoal fires of the French artisans. (The English King James I had prohibited the use of charcoal burning in order to preserve the nation's forests for shipbuilding.) Secondly, English vintners rediscovered the use of corks -- they had been used by the ancient Romans, but the practice had fallen out of use -- about 130 years before the French did. French winemakers were still using wooden bungs wrapped in hemp, which could not hold up anywhere near as well to the internal pressure of the fermenting wine.

Dom Perignon was a real person, however. He was a Benedictine monk who served as the cellar master for the Abbey of Hautvillers near the town of Epernay, France. He had actually been given the charge of reducing the refermentation within the wine bottles (which gives champagne its characteristic effervescence) -- exploding bottles were both a physical and economic danger, and could destroy as much as 90% of a wine cellar's stock if not checked.

Perignon introduced important reforms to the Abbey's winemaking process, many of which are still part of the standard of champagne making today, including the blend of grapes, pruning and harvesting standards, and a curtailing of the use of any foreign substances. His efforts must have been appreciated -- he was buried in a section of the Abbey that was normally reserved only for abbots.

Photo Credit: M. MacKenzie,

August 3, 2007

First Known Use of a Letter Closed With Sealing Wax

On this date in 1554, Gerrard Herman, in England, wrote a letter to Philip Francis von Daun of Germany. What is unusual about this letter is that it contains the earliest known use of sealing wax to close a letter.

Sealing wax had been around for a long time. Prior to the 16th century, however, it had been used as a means to prove the authenticity of a document -- a signature, in a manner of speaking. The inclusion of a government seal on a document, for example, was proof that the document was sanctioned by the reigning monarch, for who else would have access to the Great Seal? On a more personal level, a personal seal or signet ring could prove that a letter did indeed come from the person who was purported to have written it. Privacy was not the issue.

Sealing wax goes back at least as far as the Old Testament, where Jezabel is said to have stolen Ahab's seal in order to counterfeit documents. Edward the Confessor of England ordered the creation of the first Great Seal of England. State seals were often handed down from monarch to monarch, to emphasize the legitimacy of the reign, but individual's seals were commonly destroyed when the owner died (which is why so few of the truly old ones exist today.)

What was sealing wax made of? Well, only the very earliest medieval sealing waxes actually contained wax -- bee's wax, to be specific, along with "Venice turpentine", a resin extracted from the European larch tree. The very earliest were uncolored, although later they were sometimes colored with vermilion, a reddish-orange pigment otherwise known as cinnabar or mercuric sulfide. By the 16th century, trade with the Indies had led to a better class of ingredients -- normally shellac, turpentine, resin, chalk or plaster, and a coloring agent. The color was usually red (vermilion or red lead), but later black was used also (usually lamp black).

By at least 1554, when Herr von Daun received his letter from England, sealing wax was also being used to protect the confidentiality of the letter. Was this the earliest such use? Almost certainly not, although we can never be certain just when it was first use. The opening of the letter normally destroys the seal; after all, that was the whole point.

Photo Credit: Friman, Wikimedia Commons, released by creator into the Public Domain

June 7, 2007

Port Royal Destroyed by Earthquake & Tsunami

On this day in 1692, Port Royal was hit by earthquakes.

It was the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. Some 6500 to 7000 inhabitants lived in Port Royal's 200 buildings, tightly packed into a 51-acre area. The town was so rich that the preferred medium of exchange was actually coin -- not barter, as was true nearly everywhere else. And it was the pirate capital of the world.

Port Royal had been built on the spit of land that protects the Kingstown Harbor, and had become the most economically important English port in the New World. Its proximity to the trade routes and the large harbor had proved attractive to pirates, and it was in an ideal location for launching raids on the Spanish settlements. The English did not have sufficient troops to prevent the French or the Spanish from seizing Port Royal, and so it had been under pirate protection for some time.

Port Royal was known as a center of debauchery and general wickedness. The town was filled with goldsmiths, prostitutes, and had, at the height of its popularity, one tavern for every ten residents. The buildings were of brick, and some were four stories high.

Port Royal had experienced minor earthquakes from time to time, but nothing like what hit it shortly before noon on June 7, 1692. (It is believed the first quake struck sometime between 11:15 and noon -- a watch has been found that stopped at 11:43.) Three major quakes struck rapidly, immediately swallowing over thirty acres of the town (over 66%). The quakes were followed by a tsunami. An estimated 3,000 people were killed immediately. To make matters worse, it was discovered that foundation of the town was not bedrock, but loose-packed soil which dissolved during the flooding. After the initial disaster, almost every building in Port Royal was completely uninhabitable, including two forts. Nearly all of the remaining residents were killed by disease and injury in the next few months. Looting from the mainland began almost immediately.

Following the disaster, the government and the major commerce moved to Kingston. Today Port Royal is a quiet fishing village with a population of about 1800 people.

Illustration: Artist's rendition of Old Port Royal, from Project Gutenberg text of On the Spanish Main, by John Masefield. Public Domain.

June 6, 2007

Andrew Jackson Rides the Iron Horse

On June 6, 1833, Andrew Jackson took a ride on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This was the first time a United States President had ridden in a railway car. He rode from Ellicott's Mill, MD to Baltimore (about 12 miles), and was reported pretty excited about the event.

Jackson had a number of other "firsts" as President:

  1. He was the first President to survive a known assassination attempt. (Richard Lawrence accosted him at a funeral, and shot at him at point-blank range. The would-be assassin's guns misfired, and Jackson beat him with his cane until his aides could pull him away.)

  2. He was the first (and only) President to have served as a prisoner-of-war.

  3. He was the first (and only) President to have been born in a log cabin.

  4. During his administration, the United States was, for the first and last time, debt-free.

  5. His is the first known case of a President being handed a baby to kiss. (He declined the honor, and passed the baby to Secretary of War John H. Eaton.)

Photograph: 19th century locomotive. Public Domain

June 5, 2007

George Carmack, the Man Who Started the Klondike Gold Rush, Dies

On June 5, 1922, George W. Carmack, the man who started the Klondike Gold Rush, died.

It is unknown whether Carmack was actually the first person to discover significant gold in the Yukon, or only the person who got the credit. A party made up of Carmack, his Tagish wife, and three Tagish companions were exploring Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River, when the gold was discovered. (The Tagish were a small tribe of Native Americans from the southern Yukon area.) It is believed by some that either Carmack's wife, Kate, or the Tagish scout Skookum Jim Mason made the actual discovery in the summer of 1896. The claim was registered in the name of George Carmack, however, probably due to the fear that a claim registered by Native Americans might not be honored.

News spread quickly throughout the Yukon, and reached the United States by the following summer, setting off the Gold Rush stampede. It is estimated that the population in the Yukon reached 40,000 by 1898, threatening to cause a famine. In an attempt to limit disaster, Canadian Mounted Police intercepted would-be prospectors and made them prove that they were carrying a year's worth of provisions before allowing them to enter the country.

By the time George Carmack returned to civilization in 1898, he was worth over a million dollars. He left the United States and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and married the daughter of a successful miner. There is no record of what happened to his first wife -- he may have simply abandoned her in the Yukon. Carmack was 61 when he died.

Photograph: Miners registering claims during the Klondike Gold Rush, Public Domain.

June 4, 2007

Mozart Holds Funeral for his Sparrow

On June 4, 1787, Mozart held a funeral for his beloved sparrow, Vogel Star. He persuaded his friends to attend, hymns were sung, new music was composed (since lost), and Mozart recited a poem he had composed in the bird's honor:

    Here rests a bird called Starling,
    A foolish little Darling.
    He was still in his prime
    When he ran out of time,
    And my sweet little friend
    Came to a bitter end,
    Creating a terrible smart
    Deep in my heart.
    Gentle reader! Shed a tear,
    For he was dear,
    Sometimes a bit too jolly
    And, at times, quite folly,
    But nevermore
    A bore.
    I bet he is now up on high
    Praising my friendship to the sky,
    Which I render
    Without tender;
    For when he took his sudden leave,
    Which brought to me such grief,
    He was not thinking of the man
    Who writes and rhymes as no one can.

Mozart had purchased Vogel Star a little over three years earlier, and it appears that he was sincerely attached to it. The bird had been with him through a number of events: the birth of Mozart's second son, the birth and death of his third son, Mozart's bout with a serious kidney infection, and the composition of some of the best of Mozart's work.

Mozart's father had died just seven days before Vogel Star's demise, and it has been suggested that part of Mozart's grief for the bird's passing may have been due to unexamined feelings over his own complex relationship with his father.

Whatever the reason, Mozart's next completed composition after the bird's death is generally considered to have been composed in Vogel Star's honor. Called "A Musical Joke", it replicates many qualities of a starling's song, including the ability to intertwine two melodies, and Vogel Star's tendency to sing off-key.

Mozart was not alone among the great composers in his attachment to our feathered friends. Among the better known works inspired by birds are:

  • Vivaldi's flute concerto "Il Gardellino" ("The Goldfinch").
  • Beethoven's Sixth Symphony - which includes songs of the yellowhammer, the quail, and the cuckoo.
  • Bartok's Third Piano Concerto - inspired by various birds in the area where Bartok was living at the time.

Shortly after Vogel Star's death, Mozart bought another starling, which he kept in his room until a few hours before his own death.

Illustration: The "Bologna Mozart", painted in 1777 in Salzburg, artist unknown. Public Domain
Mozart's father said, "It has little value as a piece of art, but as to the issue of resemblance, I can assure you that it is perfect.”

June 3, 2007

John Adams Moves to Washington D.C.

On this date in 1800, John Adams became the first President to take up residence in the new capital of Washington D.C.

Prior to this, the Nation's business had been conducted out of Philadelphia. It was felt that a new capital should be established in what was then the center of the new country. Maryland and Virginia both ceded land to form the new District of Columbia, and Washington signed an Act of Congress in December, 1790, stating that the government would reside in an area not greater than 10 miles square on the banks of the Potomac.

George Washington, along with the French architect Charles L'Enfant, established the site for the President's residence. A contest was held to determine the architect of the home, and was won by Irish-born James Hoban. (There were only 9 entries, and Washington quickly chose Hoban's, although he was not entirely satisfied with it. Apparently, many of the other entries were entirely amateurish and unappealing.)

Work began on what would later be known as the White House in 1792, and continued for the next 8 years. When Adams moved to Washington in June of 1800, the residence was still not finished, and he took lodgings at the Union Tavern, a popular and fashionable inn. (George Washington's birthday ball had been held there the previous year.)

John Adams was finally able to move into the White House on November 1, 1800, although the work was still incomplete. Only 6 of the 36 rooms were habitable. The rooms were cold and drafty -- unbearable without a constant fire -- and Adams would be required to purchase firewood out of his own pocket.

Adams apparently decided that in telling his wife about their new residence, discretion was the better part of valor. His letter to Abigail on November 2nd said only, "I shall not attempt a description of it. You will form the best Idea of it from Inspection."

Illustration: James Hoban's White House Design, Public Domain

June 2, 2007

First Tour by P. T. Barnum & Co.

On this day in 1835, P. T. Barnum and his company began their first tour of the United States.

There are so many excellent stories about Barnum's chicanery, that it's difficult to pick just one. Still, I think the story of the Cardiff giant is worth telling. The story doesn't start with Barnum, although he ultimately plays a significant part.

The story starts with paleontologist George Hull of Birmingham, New York, who decided to pull an elaborate hoax in 1868. There was an evangelist in the area who had been preaching about "giants in the earth" for some time and Hull had just about had enough of him. He recalled a gypsum quarry he had seen two years earlier in Fort Dodge, Iowa, that contained an unusual granite containing dark blue lines that resembled the veins in a human body. Hull traveled back to Iowa, and hired some quarry workers to cut him a slab that measured approximately 12 feet by 4 feet by 2 feet.

Hull had the granite slab shipped to Chicago, where he hired a stone cutter, Edward Burghardt, and his assistants to carve a giant, looking as though he had died in great pain. The result was fantastic -- the giant was twisted in apparent agony, clutching his stomach. The sculpture was done in considerable detail, even including "pores" to the giant's skin, formed with a needlepoint mallet. When finished, sulfuric acid and ink were rubbed over the figure to "age" it.

Hull then shipped the figure to Cardiff, New York, to the farm of William Newell, one of Hull's cousins. Newell and his son buried the giant in complete secrecy, and left him there for the time being.

About six months later, a major fossil find was discovered on a farm near Newell's. The area received publicity in papers all over the country.

About six months after that, Hull sent word to the Newell's that it was time to "discover" the giant. Newell hired two workers to dig a new well for him and showed them where he wanted it. Surprise! What should they find but a giant, turned to stone!

The publicity was astounding. Newell erected a tent around the giant and charged people 25 cents to come in and view it. Later he changed the price to 50 cents. Controversy was hot: some claimed it was really the fossilized remains of a giant, and others believed it was only an ancient statue. Nobody thought it was a hoax.

Newell sold a two-thirds interest in the giant to a Syracuse syndicate, headed by a man named David Hannum. The syndicate rented an exhibition hall and raised the admission charge to $1 a head. At this point, Barnum sent a representative to view the giant.

Barnum wanted that giant badly. He offered Hannum $50,000 for it. Hannum refused.

Still, Barnum didn't waste time haggling with Hannum. He built his own giant. Then he added it to his exhibit, and announced that Hannum had sold him the Cardiff giant, and that the giant that Hannum was currently exhibiting was a fake.

Hannum was furious. He brought a suit against Barnum, charging him with slandering him for calling the "real" giant a fake.

When the trial came to court, George Hull came forward and told the true story of the Cardiff Giant. The judge ruled that Barnum could not be judged guilty of slander, since Hannum's giant was a fake.

Incidentally, it was David Hannum, not Barnum, who uttered the famous quote, "There's a sucker born every minute." He was applying it to all those poor fools who were going to see Barnum's fake giant. Somehow Barnum ended up getting credit for the quote, but he never denied making it. It seems it thought he could use all the publicity he could get.

Photo: P. T. Barnum, Daguerreotype by Matthew Brady Studio, Public Domain

June 1, 2007

Earliest Written Record of Scotch Whisky

On June 1, 1494, a Tironensian monk, Friar John Cor, paid duty on "eight bols of malt wherewith to make Aqua Vitae for King James IV." This was the first recorded evidence relating to the making of Scotch Whisky.

Aqua Vitae, literally "water of life", was a term for the distilled spirits of an area. In Gaelic the word is translated usquebaugh, which later became uskey, and then whisky. The eight bols, I am told, is about 1,120 pounds, and is enough to make about 1,400 bottles of whisky. King James would have been staying at his Falkand palace, a hunting lodge near Lindores Abbey, when he placed his order. James reportedly enthusiastically enjoyed the "ardent spirits", so it is not surprising that he would commission the order.

Why would monks be making whisky? At the time, whisky was valued primarily for its medical properties. Remembering what the hygienic standards of the time were, it may have been safer to drink than water.

Photo: © Rodolfo Clix

May 31, 2007

Walt Whitman's Birthday

American poet Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819.

Only four years after his death, Walt Whitman was hailed by foreign critics as "the greatest of all American poets," but during his own lifetime, and in his own country, his works were often met with criticism and scorn.

The son of a Quaker carpenter of somewhat liberal and "free-thinking" views, Walt Whitman only received 6 years of education in the Brooklyn public schools. In his early life, he worked as a teacher, a journalist, and an editor. He wrote and published numerous political pieces.

Leaves of Grass, his most famous work, was initially self-published. The first (1855) edition consisted of 12 untitled poems and a preface. He sent a copy of it to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who praised it highly. The second edition, which he published a year later, contained 33 poems, a letter from Emerson, and his response to Emerson's letter.

The work was poorly received, except in select literary circles. In general, it was considered too graphic in its depiction of the body. At one point, Whitman was discharged from his government position in the Indian Affairs Department on the charge that he had written a "dirty book."

Outside of the United States, however, the book was an immediate hit. Over the years, it gained support in the U.S., especially from the younger poets. It has been said that all poetry since Leaves of Grass has been influenced by it -- either in an attempt by the poet to be like Whitman, or an attempt to not be like him.

Whitman continued to revise and refine his greatest work throughout his life.

Illustration: Walt Whitman, by photographer George C. Cox, 1887.
This was Whitman's favorite photograph out the session, and the one which he chose to send to poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.

May 30, 2007

Andrew Jackson Wins Duel

Andrew Jackson killed Charles Dickinson in a duel on May 30, 1806.

The duel was one of many that Jackson fought, ostensibly to defend the honor of his wife, Rachel. The Jacksons had lived together as man and wife for 3 years before they discovered that Rachel's divorce from her previous husband had not been finalized and never completely escaped the damage to their reputations.

It appears that there were other causes at work however -- there had been a prior quarrel over a horse racing incident involving Jackson, Dickinson, and Dickinson's father-in-law, a Mr. Erwin. The quarrel had been pretty much put to rest (there had been some blows exchanged) when Jackson's enemies managed to reinvigorate it -- Dickinson was known as the best shot in Tennessee, and it looked like a pretty fool-proof way of getting Jackson out of the picture.

Dickinson fired first, his bullet entering Jackson's body and lodging about an inch above his heart, breaking two ribs in the process. Jackson put his hand to his chest, but showed no immediate signs of distress -- bystanders did not even realize that he'd been hit. Since Jackson had not fired yet, it was now his turn to take aim at Dickinson. Dickinson reportedly panicked and ran, but was ordered back by the seconds, and forced to stand still, only 24 feet away from Jackson. Jackson took slow and deliberate aim, fired, and hit Dickinson in the groin. Dickinson died a slow and painful death.

Although the duel was legal -- the principals had crossed the border from Tennessee into Kentucky, where dueling was still legal -- and conducted within the code of dueling, the incident still did considerable damage to Jackson's reputation, at least in the short term. It was looked on as a cold-blooded killing.

Jackson's wound never healed properly, and gave him some trouble over the remainder of his life. The bullet, being too close to his heart, could never be removed and abscesses repeatedly formed around it.

Another of Andrew's Jackson duels had a more humorous outcome. John Sevier, governor of Tennessee, crossed Jackson's path when Jackson was serving as a circuit judge for Tennessee's Superior Court. Sevier had once referred to Jackson as a "poor pitiful pettifogging lawyer", and Jackson had later investigated Sevier for land fraud and bribery. When the two men met in Knoxville in 1803, words were exchanged. Jackson defended his service record, and Seville replied, "I know of no service you have rendered the country, except taking a trip to Natchez with another man's wife!"

Needless to say, Jackson did not take kindly to those words. He attacked Sevier with his walking stick, and the following day challenged him to a duel. When the two men met, with their seconds, on the field of honor, Jackson started threatening to cane him again, waving his stick around in the air. This spooked Sevier's horses, who ran away with Sevier's pistols. At this point, the unarmed Sevier hid behind a tree, but Sevier's second, his son James, took aim at Jackson. Jackson's second aimed his pistol at James. The horse kept carefully out of range.

The four men finally agreed not to kill each other, but Jackson and Seville were never completely reconciled.

Illustration: Andrew Jackson, engraving by James Barton Longacre, created sometime between 1815 and 1845. Public Domain

May 29, 2007

Completion of the Hoover Dam

On May 29, 1935, construction on the Hoover Dam was completed.

There are many stories connected with the building of the Hoover Dam. One of the most interesting, in my estimation, is the story of the building of Boulder City.

Six Companies, Inc. was the construction company awarded the contract for building Hoover Dam, and they had also been contracted to build a town for the construction workers, to be named Boulder City. However, due to the widespread unemployment created by the Great Depression, Six Companies was under considerable pressure to get the main project going, and, as a result, Boulder City was not ready when the first workers arrived in 1931. Temporary camps, such as Ragtown, were set up for the workers and their wives, but the conditions were bad. Workers quickly became discontented, both with their housing facilities and with dangerous working conditions on the dam site, and they went on strike.

Six Companies sent in strike-breakers who settled the strike quickly, although violently (the "guns and clubs" method of negotiation), and the strikers were soon back to work. However, Six Companies decided they'd better do something about the housing situation, and Boulder City was soon completed.

Not wanting any more trouble, the national Bureau of Reclamation banned alcohol, gambling, and union membership in Boulder City. Even today, gambling is illegal in Boulder City -- one of only two towns in Nevada where that is true. (The other is Panaca, which was originally founded as a Mormon settlement.) Alcohol sales were not permitted there until 1969.

Photo: Hydroelectric generators at Hoover Dam, photo by Jon Sullivan, Public Domain

May 28, 2007

Anniversary of Noah Webster's Death

Today marks the anniversary of Noah Webster, best known for creating the first American dictionary.

Webster may be best known for his dictionary, but it was not the first book Webster wrote, and certainly not the most successful in his own lifetime.

Webster was a teacher, a journalist, and a political writer, but it was as a teacher that he had his greatest impact. Thoroughly disgusted with the English textbooks he was forced to teach from, he authored a 3 volume set of textbooks: a speller, a grammar, and a reader.

Webster believed that a democratic society such as ours must have a democratic language. He rejected the notion that "proper" English usage should be determined by the aristocracy, as it was in England, but rather that it should be determined by general usage. On the other hand, he strongly believed that America required a uniformity of language, spelling, and pronunciation, so that Americans would be able to understand each other. His set of textbooks was an important first step to that goal.

Webster's The Elementary Spelling Book was by far the best-selling American book of its time, selling over a million copies a year. Even at royalties of less than one cent a book, this was enough to provide Webster with a modest income throughout his life. Webster's "Americanization" of the English language is the main reason we spell so many words differently than the English such as center instead of centre and honor instead of honour. He also changed the pronunciation of tion from the European
"she un" to "shun".

An American Dictionary of the English Language, when it was finally finished after 27 years of work, continued the Americanization of the English language. In addition to the reforms of his Speller and Grammar books, he added uniquely American words such as "squash", "hickory", and "chowder". The final product contained 70,000 words -- 12,000 of which had never appeared in any dictionary.

Today, his dictionary has sold more copies than any book in the English language except the Bible.

Why wasn't it more popular during Webster's lifetime? The steep $20 price tag might have had something to do with it.

Illustration: Noah Webster, from a 1911 print, artist unknown, public domain

May 27, 2007

Peter the Great Founds St. Petersburg

On May 27, 1703, Peter the Great founded the city of St. Petersburg.

Peter reconquered the area from Sweden, and named it after his patron saint, the apostle Saint Peter. He envisioned St. Petersburg as a modern city, which would allow Russia to take its place among the European powers. St. Petersburg was built on the location of a former Swedish fortress, in the marshland area where the Neva River drains into the Gulf of Finland.

Building was difficult in such an area, but Peter was determined to create his "window to Europe". Forced labor was drafted from all over the country, at a rate of about 40,000 individuals a year (or about one conscriptee for every 9 to 16 households, depending on the population of the area). Laborers were expected to provide their own tools and food for the journey, and were marched long distances on foot, under guard and often in shackles. The mortality rate was tremendous -- only about 50% ever reached St. Petersburg.

Peter modeled his city after such cities as Venice and Amsterdam, and intended a city in which the principle means of transport was by boat. In fact, the first permanent bridge in St. Petersburg was not built until 1850, over a hundred years after Peter's death. German engineers were imported to design St. Petersburg. The first building was a fortress, and the city radiated outwards from it. Peter forbade the construction of any stone buildings outside of St. Petersburg, so that all Russian stonemasons would be forced to come there to work.

St. Petersburg remained the capital of Russia for over 200 years, until 1917 when the capital was moved to Moscow following the Russian Revolution of 1917. The name of the city was changed to Petrograd in 1914, and later became Leningrad in 1924. In 1991 the name was changed back to St. Petersburg.

Today St. Petersburg is the second-largest city in Russia, and Russia's most important port on the Baltic. It has a population of over 4 and half million people, and a geographic area of 1439 square kilometers, making it the second largest European city, in terms of geographic area, with a population of over a million people.

Illustration: Bronze Horseman, by Vasily Ivanovich Surikov, 1870.
Public Domain

May 26, 2007

Alse Young Hanged for Witchcraft in 1647

Alse Young is believed to be the first person executed for witchcraft in the American colonies. The records of her trial are exceedingly sketchy, consisting of two separate entries in two journals. John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts, made an entry in his journal that day, "One [blank] of Windsor arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch." He left a blank for the name; presumably either he didn't know or couldn't remember it. The other entry was by the second town clerk of Windsor, Matthew Grant, "May 26, 47. Alse Young was hanged."

There is no other record of the execution, and, until the two entries were put together some 200 years later, the identity of the hanged "witch" was not known. We don't know why she was accused. There seems to have been some kind of outbreak of disease early in 1647, and that may have been a factor. It has also been suggested that Alse's real "crime" was that she hadn't produced a male heir, making her eligible to inherit her husband's property -- a failure she shared with Mary Johnson, Margaret Jones, Joan Carrington, and Mary Parsons, all of whom were executed for witchcraft in the late 1640's and early 1650's.

Whatever the reason, Alse was hung in Hartford, Connecticut in 1647, 45 years before the Salem Witch Trials took place. Shortly thereafter, Alse's husband and daughter unsurprisingly moved out of the area.

It is interesting to note that Alse's daughter, Alice Young Beaumon, was also accused of witchcraft in Springfield, Massachusetts, some 30 years later. Alice Beaumon, however, escaped her mother's ultimate fate.

Illustration: Pioneers in the Settlement of America, by William A. Crafts, 1876. Public Domain

May 25, 2007

The Model A Begins Production

Well, sort of. Actually, the Model T ceased production at about this time, so that the factory could be changed over to begin making the Model A. (Various sources quote the date as May 25, 26 or 27.)

This was actually the second vehicle that Ford made that was called the Model A. An earlier model, released in 1903, bore the same name. The Model T had been in production for 19 years, and Ford had sold over 15 million of them during that period.

The new Model A was the first vehicle to have its driver controls placed in what we would consider a normal position. The brake, throttle, and gear selector were in the approximate location that they are today. The Model A also featured safety glass (an industry first), an optional rumble seat, and could reach speeds of up to 65 miles per hour -- a 20 mph improvement over the Model T! It was available in 4 colors, and a variety of models. The fuel tank was located behind the engine, and was elevated above the carburetor, so that no fuel pump was required. Model A's occasionally had to be driven in reverse in order to get up hills. Prices ranged from around $400 for a roadster to a whopping $580 for a top-of-the-line Fordor.

The arrival of the Model A was awaited eagerly, and when it was finally released, an estimated 10 million people came to see it in the first 36 hours it was available. It cost $250 million to develop the Model A, and it remained in production until 1931, with a total production run of over 4 million vehicles. In 1931, it was replaced by the new Model B, which featured a V-8 engine.

The Model A was said to be Henry Ford's favorite car. He drove his own model -- which was equipped with tinted glass, special upholstery, and experimental brake drums -- well into the early 1940's.

Photo : A 1930 Model A © Ronnie Bergeron

May 24, 2007

Cocoanuts Opened

On this day in 1929, the first full-length Marx Brothers film, Cocoanuts, opened. (A silent short, Humor Risk, had been made prior to 1929, but had not been released.) Cocoanuts starred the four Marx Brothers, Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, and Margaret Dumont. It had been a fairly successful stage musical, and was one of the first stage musicals to be reproduced for film.

The Marx Brothers were born in New York City, the sons of Jewish immigrants from Germany. They were a musical family, starting out in their Uncle Al's vaudeville troupe, and soon progressing to form their own troupe. Originally, they were a musical act, until a runaway mule outside the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas provoked a few annoyed ad libs from Groucho. When the audience responded enthusiastically, the troupe realized they had potential as a comedy act.

They were one of the country's most popular theatrical acts during the 1920's. They had transitioned successfully from vaudeville to the Broadway stage. It was really no surprise when they decided to try their hand at making a "talkie".

They were not particularly pleased with the results, however. When they saw the final cut of Cocoanuts, they disliked it so much that they attempted to buy back the rights, in order to prevent its release.

Photo: The 4 Marx Brothers. From top: Leonard, Arthur, Julius, and Herbert. (You may know them better as Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo.)
Photograph by Ralph F. Stitt, Public Domain

The other Marx Brother was Gummo (Milton), who left the group to join the army during World War I. "Anything is better than being an actor!"

May 23, 2007

World Turtle Day

May 23 is World Turtle Day.

World Turtle Day was established in 2000 by American Tortoise Rescue, as a day to appreciate turtles and tortoises all over the globe. It is also observed by the Humane Society of the United States, who carries out surveys and observations to help determine the condition of turtles throughout the world.

Here are some things you can do to help turtles:

  • Support pro-turtle legislation such as laws establishing fair and reasonable quotas on turtle exports, chemical pollution, and conditions of live animal markets in the U.S.
  • Report violations of existing laws.
  • Don't litter. Plastic bags and balloons, for example, can strangle or suffocate a turtle, or cause blockage to its digestive tract.
  • Don't buy turtles. Small turtles (less than 4 inches across) have been illegal to export or sell since 1975, but some retailers attempt to get around it by giving them away "free" with purchase of a tank, or other supplies. Turtles being captured for sale are often thrown into a wheelbarrow or bag carelessly, on top of one another, and many are hurt in the process. Buying turtles encourages the turtle trade.
  • In addition, turtles do not make good pets. Bear in mind that in the wild, turtles do not constantly come into contact with their own feces, or with uneaten and spoiled food (as they do in a tank). Absence of natural light can cause deformities in their shells. Qualified veterinarian care for turtles is hard to come by. And, most importantly for your family, turtles are a carrier of salmonella (which doesn't harm them, but can be deadly for your family, especially children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems).
  • Turtles have a long life lifespan. Some species do not reach sexual maturity for 10 years. Some species lay only a few eggs (or even 1) a year. Taking a turtle out of the breeding pool endangers the entire species. In addition, please remember that having a long lifespan means that that turtle could be around a long, long time -- long after you (or your child) tires of it.
  • If you do have a turtle, and you want to get rid of it, don't just release it to the wild. Released turtles are vulnerable to dogs, predators, traffic, and starvation.
  • Don't disturb turtles in the wild. If you live near the ocean, be wary of disturbing turtle breeding grounds by visiting them at night, or by keeping the beach lighted. Taking a wild turtle home and attempting to keep him in your yard is a bad idea, too. It may be hurt by neighborhood dogs or children, or it may get injured in attempting to return to its home.
  • If you meet a turtle in the road.... him across!

    That is, assuming you can do it safely. Traffic is obviously extremely dangerous to turtles, so if you are able to safely stop your car and help it across, do so. Be sure to scrub your hands, (and anything you've touched) thoroughly afterwards.

And now, just in case you've always wondered about the differnece between turtles, tortoises, and terrapins:

In North America, tortoises live on land, turtles live in water, and terrapins live in brackish water. (There are exceptions, such as the land-living box turtle.) In Europe, the definitions are reversed: turtles live on land, and tortoises in the sea.

Photo: Sea Turtle, Public Domain

May 22, 2007

Arthur Conan Doyle's Birthday

May 22 is the birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, born in 1859. Of course, Doyle is best known for creating the most famous sleuth in the world, Sherlock Holmes. Here are a few things you may not know about him:

1. Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies. Or, at least he believed in the Cottingley fairy photographs, a famous hoax perpetrated in 1917. Doyle reproduced the photographs in his book, The Coming of the Fairies, published in 1921. The book also discussed the nature and existence of fairies and other spirits.

2. He was interested in a variety of other occult and spiritual subjects, and he believed that Harry Houdini possessed supernatural powers. Houdini, who spent a great deal of time and energy attempted to debunk Spiritualists, was disgusted when he could not convince Doyle that his feats were simply magic tricks. The men had been friends at one time, but the friendship did not withstand their pronounced differences of opinion on the subject.

3. The character of Sherlock Holmes was modeled after a real person, a former university professor of Doyle's named Joseph Bell. Bell's powers of observation were so well reproduced in Doyle's depiction of Holmes that Rudyard Kipling recognized him at once, asking Doyle, "Is this my old friend, Dr. Joe?"

4. Arthur Conan Doyle got pretty sick of Sherlock Holmes before he was done with him. He wrote to his mother in 1891, "I think of slaying Holmes... and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things." His mother told him the public would never accept it. Mom was right -- when he "killed" Holmes in "The Final Problem", public outcry was so great that he was forced to bring him back with a convoluted explanation in "The Adventure of the Empty House." In all, Holmes appears in a total of 54 short stories, and 4 novels.

5. The "better things" he wanted to concentrate on were probably his other writings -- historical novels, science fiction, plays, poetry, and considerable non-fiction.

6. It was a good thing Doyle was successful with his writing; he was pretty much a failure as a medical doctor. Still, he didn't seem to particularly mind not having many patients -- it gave him more time to write.

7. Perhaps as a result of his unspectacular medical career, Arthur Conan Doyle also undertook specialized studies in the eye, and set up an ophthalmology practice in London. Not a single patient ever crossed his door.

8. He was knighted, not for his popular work in fiction, but for his work on propaganda regarding the Boer War. (Although it's likely that the popular esteem for his work didn't hurt, either.)

9. Doyle ran for Parliament, twice, and lost both times. He received a fairly respectable vote both times, however.

10. Arthur Conan Doyle was involved in two real-life mysteries, and his work resulted in the freeing of two men who had been wrongly convicted in unrelated cases, George Edalji and Oscar Slater. Edalji had been convicted of mutilating animals and sending threatening messages. Doyle proved that the killings and the messages had continued while Edalji had been in jail, that Edalji was physically incapable of committing the crimes, and that the evidence that had been used against him was faulty. Oscar Slater, on the other hand, had been convicted of bludgeoning a woman to death. Doyle quickly proved that the practically all the evidence used against him was faulty and that he had a valid alibi for the time of the murder. Unfortunately, there was no legal process for giving Slater a new trial, and the man served 18 and a half years in prison before he was finally released.

Illustration: Portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Sidney Paget, the illustrator of the original "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" in The Strand magazine. 1897. Public Domain

May 21, 2007

Henry Rousseau's Birthday

Henri Rousseau was born May 21, 1844.

He never visited a jungle or traveled anywhere outside of France. He served time twice for petty theft and fraud. He was so poor that he purchased school grade art supplies, and resold his canvases for recycling. His artistic merits were ridiculed by his contemporaries, and his pauper's funeral was attended by only 7 people. Yet Henri Rousseau's jungle paintings are among the best known works of European art, and Rousseau was one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.

Henri Rousseau was born in the Loire Valley in France in 1844, the son of a tinsmith. He was relatively well-educated, and studied law and became a law clerk early in life. However, an arrest and conviction for petty theft soon put an end to that career, and, after a month in prison, he joined the army.

After his father's death four years later, he was released from the army in order to support his mother. He did this by taking a job as a civil servant, serving as a clerk in the Customs Office for most of his life. At this time he was painting primarily as a hobby, and never took any formal training in the field.

When Rousseau was 49, he retired from his government job in order to paint full-time. His work -- which today is considered imaginative and masterful -- was at the time laughed at by nearly everyone. His style was what we would today call "primitive" or "naive"; at the time it was just a little too different from everyone else's.

Rousseau's personality no doubt was also the cause of some of his public ridicule. He cared deeply what the public thought of his work, even keeping a scrapbook of reviews, but it appears that he was not always able to correctly judge the meaning of his reviews. It was said that he often took sarcastic remarks literally, and interpreted ridicule as praise.

In a time when most artists confined themselves to a few select subjects, Henri Rousseau painted nearly everything: still lifes, genre paintings, portraiture, historical scenes, farm animals, and of course his famous jungle paintings. He claimed to have invented a new genre, the portrait landscape -- a portrait of an individual or group painted in front of an extremely detailed background depicting a favorite city scene. He generally painted in layers, applying one color at a time, and used an astonishing number of hues. Some of his jungle paintings contain over 50 varieties of green.

Although Rousseau at one time claimed to have visited Mexico during his years in the army, the truth is that he never left France. His jungle scenes were inspired by his frequent visits to the Jardin des Plantes, a Paris botanical garden, animals seen in the Paris zoo or as represented in the works of taxidermists, illustrated books, and the accounts of soldiers who had served in Mexico. He once said to a friend of the Jardin des Plantes, "When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream."

Pablo Picasso was deeply impressed by the style of Henri Rousseau, and sought him out after accidentally stumbling across one of Rousseau's works, which was being sold on the street as a "recyclable" canvas to be painted over. At one time Picasso even held a banquet in Rousseau's honor. It appears that the banquet was only half-serious, but nevertheless, Rousseau was touched by the tribute.

Rousseau's later years were not financially successful ones. He made almost no money from his painting. He received a small pension from his years of government work, and supplemented this with occasional part-time jobs and as a street violinist. Now widowed, he had developed an attachment for a woman named Leonie who apparently cared little for him, but was glad to accept expensive presents. His painting supplies had been largely obtained on credit.

A final humiliation occurred in 1907, when a man named Sauvagent tricked Rousseau into opening a bank account under a false name and taking out large amounts of money on credit. When Rousseau was caught, he served a month in prison, then was tried and convicted. He appeared a pathetic creature at his trial. His scrapbooks were read in evidence, and the ridicule in the reviews only added to his humiliation. Rousseau was fined 100 francs and given a two year suspended sentence.

Henri Rousseau died of gangrene of the leg, brought on by sores and neglect, on September 2, 1910. He had a pauper's funeral, attended by 7 people, and was buried in a mass grave.

Illustration: The Snake Charmer, Henri Rousseau, 1907
Public Domain

May 20, 2007

The First Speeding Ticket

The first speeding ticket issued in the United States was issued to a New York City cab driver, Jacob German, on May 20th, 1899. Mr. German was driving his electric vehicle at the "breakneck" pace of 12 mph on Lexington Avenue, Manhattan.

Photo Credit: Thomas Edison with his 1914 Detroit Electric Model 47, from Smithsonian Institution archives, Public Domain.
Jacob German's vehicle was probably not too dissimilar.

May 19, 2007

The Dark Day of 1780

On this day in 1780, an extraordinary event took place in New England. The sky became unusually overcast, and by noon it was as dark as night. Birds, cattle, and all the natural world behaved as if it were night. The darkness continued throughout the afternoon. Areas were affected as far north as Portland, Maine, and as far south as New York City .

Many people believed that Judgment Day had come. In the Connecticut Legislature, lawmakers moved to adjourn, but were rebutted by Colonel Abraham Davenport, who said "The day is judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment: if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought."

In Salem, it was noted that "persons in the streets became melancholy and fear seized all." Well, perhaps not quite all. It was said that the sailors "went hallooing and frolicking through the streets," calling out to the ladies they met to join them.

It is believed today that the phenomenon was probably due to a combination of smoke from forest fires and a thick fog.

Illustration: "Midday at Sea" from Our Day in the Light of Prophesy, W. A. Spicer, pub. 1917, Public Domain

May 18, 2007

The Khodynka Tragedy

May 18, 1896 was the date of the Khodynka Tragedy, which resulted in the deaths of 1,389 people.

As part of the coronation ceremonies for Nicholas II of Russia, a banquet for the common people was scheduled to be held in one area of Moscow, called Khodynka Field. There were rumors of rich gifts to be offered from the new tsar, and there was a great deal of excited anticipation among the populace.

On the morning of the coronation, thousands of people were already at Khodynka Field when a rumor spread that there would not be enough gifts for everyone. In the stampede that followed, 1,389 people were crushed to death, and another 1,300 were seriously injured.

Nicholas and Alexandra spent the day visiting the wounded, but the coronation ball that was scheduled for that evening went ahead as planned -- a move that did not do much to bolster the couple's already weakening popularity.

The "rich gifts" which everyone was to receive at the banquet? It turned out the planned gifts consisted of a bread roll, a piece of sausage, gingerbread, and a mug.

Photographs of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, from Illustrierte Zeitung, 1901. Photographer A. Bajetti, Public Domain.

May 17, 2007

The Story of Black Bart the Pirate

"A merry life and a short one shall be my motto." -- Bartholomew Roberts

Black Bart was born John Roberts, on May 17th, 1682, in the village of Casnewydd-Bach, in Wales. At some point he changed his name to Bartholomew, but he was never called Black Bart during his lifetime. He went to sea at the age of 13, and apparently served as an honest seaman until 1719. The ship he was serving on, The Princess of London, was captured at that time by pirates led by Howell Davis. Roberts was forced to join the pirate crew, and did so reluctantly.

Just six weeks later, when Davis was ambushed and killed, the pirates elected Roberts as their new captain. This was a remarkable honor, considering that he had only been with the crew for six weeks, and had been reluctant about joining to start with. Roberts considered the offer, and agreed, saying that "since he had dipp'd his Hands in Muddy Watre, and must be a Pyrate, it was better being a Commander than a Common Man."

Roberts maintained the respect of his crew. He was a skilled navigator, and he respected the wishes of his crew. He was said to be confident and outspoken, and was a handsome man who cut a dashing figure. Before a battle, he would dress in his finest clothes -- a scarlet damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather for his cap, a diamond cross on a gold chain hanging from his neck, and equipped with two pairs of pistols and a sword.

Robert's ship was run as relatively a democratic enterprise. A list of articles was sworn to by Roberts and his men, including the following tenets:

  • Each man got one vote on any enterprise concerning the general welfare.
  • Any attempt to defraud the ship's company would get the offender marooned.
  • Any attempt to rob a shipmate would result in a slit nose and ears.
  • All candles and lights were to be out by 8 p.m. If the men wished to drink beyond that time, they could do so in the dark.
  • No gambling with dice or cards was allowed on ship.
  • Pistols, saber, and cutlass were to be kept clean and ready for use at all times.
  • There was to be no fighting between the crew on ship -- differences were to be settled by duel, on dry land.
  • Desertion during battle would be punished by death or marooning.
  • Anyone crippled by loss of a limb would be paid a pension of 80% of a share. Lesser losses would be paid proportionately.
  • Musicians were not required to work on the Sabbath. (On all other days, they were required to perform at the request of any member of the crew.)

Black Bart was killed by cannon grapeshot while battling the HMS Swallow. His men buried him at sea before his body could be seized by the enemy. Only 3 pirates, including Roberts, died in battle that day, but 272 were taken captive. Roughly a third were acquitted and released -- the rest were either sold into slavery, sentenced to death, or sent to London for further trial. It was the largest trial of pirates in history, and pretty much the end of the golden age of piracy.

Illustration: Bartholomew Roberts, Artist Unknown, Public Domain

May 16, 2007

Hires Root Beer Day!

On this date in 1866, Charles E. Hires invented root beer.

Well, sort of.

Something like root beer had been around for a long time. "Small beer", they called it, when the colonists made a root-flavored drink, partially fermented, but with little or no alcohol content. George Washington brewed it, and Benjamin Franklin extolled its merits. Besides tasting good, it had the added benefit of making water safe to drink -- the water had to be boiled as part of the preparation process.

What Charles Hires did do was to effectively merchandise a commercial product. He considered naming it "root tea" but decided that "root beer" might find more favor among the working class. He presented his still-relatively-unknown product at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, billing it as "The Temperance Drink" and "the greatest health giving beverage in the world." Hires believed in advertising; he once said that "doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing, but nobody else does."

The root beer was first marketed as a mix. You had to combine the ingredients with water, sugar, and yeast. Still, it was easier than hunting for the 16 roots, berries, and barks yourself.

Hires Root Beer was purchased in 1989 by Cadbury-Schweppes, the owner of the Dr. Pepper/Seven Up products. The manufacturer claims that it is the longest continuously made soft drink in the United States.

I, for one, am thankful I don't have to make it from roots and berries.

May 15, 2007

Happy Birthday, L. Frank Baum

Happy Birthday, L. Frank Baum!

Today is the 151st anniversary of L. Frank Baum's birth. Coincidentally, it is also the 107th anniversary of the publication of his best-loved book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Baum had a number of careers in his life, but writing seems to be the only thing at which he was successful. He raised chickens, owned a store, edited a variety of publications on subjects ranging from stamp collecting to poultry management to window display merchandizing, and was involved in a number of dubious theatrical endeavors. But the one thing Baum is best remembered for is his classic children's book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the 13 other Oz books that followed it. Several times during his life he determined to stop writing the Oz books, but popular acclaim, and especially the fan letters from children, drew him back to his most popular series.

Other books by Baum include Mother Goose in Prose, Father Goose, His Book (which was the best-selling children's book of 1899), The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, the Aunt Jane's Nieces series, and Queen Zixi of Ix. He also published under such pseudonyms as Edith Van Dyne, Laura Bancroft, Suzanne Metcalf, Floyd Akers, Schuyler Staunton, and John Estes Cooke.

After Baum's death, the series was continued by other authors, including: Ruth Plumly Thompson, John R. Neill, Jack Snow, Rachel Cosgrove, and Eloise Javris McGraw and Lauren Lynn McGraw.

The original 14 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum are:

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published 1900
  • The Marvelous Land of Oz, published 1904
  • Ozma of Oz, published 1907
  • Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, published 1908
  • The Road to Oz, published 1909
  • The Emerald City of Oz, published 1910
  • The Patchwork Girl of Oz, published 1913.
  • Tik-Tok of Oz, published 1914
  • The Scarecrow of Oz, published 1915
  • Rinkitink in Oz, published 1916
  • The Lost Princess of Oz, published 1917
  • The Tin Woodman of Oz, published 1918.
  • The Magic of Oz, published 1919
  • Glinda of Oz, published 1920

Illustration: Promotional poster for Baum's "Popular Books for Children", 1901. Public Domain

May 14, 2007

Lewis and Clark leave St. Louis for the West

On May 14, 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition set off from St. Louis. They didn't leave until 4:00 p.m. and they only traveled 4 ½ miles the first day, but it was the start of the first United States exploration of the lands between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. The group was headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

On the first leg of the journey -- between St. Louis and Kansas City, the party averaged 15 to 20 miles per day. The territory was not altogether unknown here -- Lewis and Clark had read the available accounts of French, Spanish, and Canadian fur traders, and knew the general course of the Missouri River. They passed at least eight parties of fur traders who were making their way back to St. Louis. There were 45 men in their party, and they had been charged with studying and cataloging the animal and plant life in the new territory, reporting on the Indians and the French and Canadian hunters and trappers in the area, and mapping the terrain. The land had only been acquired by the United States the previous year, when Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, adding approximately 530 million acres to our territory.

By the winter of 1804-1805, the group found themselves at what is now Washburn, North Dakota, and constructed a shelter, Fort Mandan, where they planned to stay until spring. The winter was spent by the group cataloging and studying their animal and vegetable specimens, and working on producing detailed maps and journals. They also encountered a violent rainstorm, which stranded them in their fort without food, until they were rescued by a Shoshone woman, Sacajawea, and her husband, a French Canadian named Toussaint Charbonneau, who brought them a supply of fish. The men were not used to eating fish and many of them became violently ill. Sacajawea and her husband later became guides for the group, smoothing the way with the Indian tribes.

By April, the group had traveled up the Missouri River as far as the mouth of the Yellowstone, and by August they had crossed the Great Divide. At this point, they were captured by the Shoshones, but, as it turned out, the chief was the brother of Sacajawea, and the meeting was a friendly one.

They then traveled up the Snake River, reached the Cascade Mountains and then the Columbia River, and in November they laid eyes for the first time on the Pacific Ocean.

They sheltered that winter at Fort Clatsop, another temporary fort, and in March headed back home again. The party broke into two sections, so that Lewis could explore the Marais River while Clark explored the Yellowstone. It was September 23, 1806 when the explorers returned to St. Louis.

These are some of the more interesting details I unearthed while reading about Lewis and Clark:

  • In all, they observed and wrote descriptions of 178 plants and 122 species or subspecies of animals. Packets of specimens and reports were sent back to Jefferson from time to time, including a prairie dog in a box (which arrived alive).
  • Sacajawea, besides her service to the group as an interpreter, was useful in other ways. Indians meeting them for the first time concluded that they could not possibly be a war party, since no war party would travel with a woman and child. (She had given birth to a son in February, 1805.)
  • The expedition did not make a particularly favorable impression on at least some of the Indian tribes. The first tribe of Sioux they met was less than pleased with the presents they gave them -- a collection of 5 medals. Things got serious with a tribe of Blackfeet Indians that Lewis's group encountered on the way back. The Blackfeet tried to steal their weapons in the night, and in the ensuing struggle, two Indians were killed. Lewis's group managed to cover over 100 miles in one day as they fled from the tribe.
  • Clark's slave, York, was a member of the party. During the trip, he was accorded full privileges, even getting a vote in matters that were decided by the party as a whole. (So did Sacajawea.)

    He was a great curiosity to the Indians, most of whom had seen white men before, but never black ones. York apparently hammed it up a bit, telling them that before Clark had captured him, he had been wild, and a cannibal, and that children made particularly good eating. (York had been raised from birth by the Clark family.)

    When the group returned, Clark settled in St. Louis, keeping York with him. York wanted to return to the Louisville area, where he had a wife and child, and repeatedly asked Clark to grant him his freedom, which Clark refused, citing financial difficulties. Clark became increasingly irritated by York's requests, and once was said to have given him a "severe trouncing." Eventually Clark did give him his freedom, and set him up in a drayage business.
  • There was only one death among the members of the expedition: Charles Floyd, who apparently died of peritonitis as a result of a burst appendix.
  • Meriwether Lewis was shot in the thigh at one point by one of his own men, who mistook him for game.
  • Discipline was swift and strict. There are a number of court-martials, mutinies, and disciplinary actions recorded in the accounts of the trip. Among the offenders were John Collins and Hugh Hall, found guilty of stealing whiskey they were supposed to guard, Thomas Howard, of showing Indians how to scale the walls at Ford Mandan, and Alexander Willard, of sleeping while on sentry duty.
  • A Newfoundland dog named Seaman was purchased for $20 by Lewis specifically for the trip. Seaman once was severely injured by a beaver, which had cut several arteries in his hind leg, but was saved through surgery performed by two leaders. The dog was a good hunter and protector, and highly valued by the company. At one point he was stolen by Indians, and Lewis threatened to burn down the village if the dog was not returned.
  • The final tally of expenses to the government was nearly $39,000. The cost had been estimated by Jefferson (and allocated by Congress) at $2,500.

Some things never change, I guess.

Illustration: Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by Charles Marion Russell, Public Domain

May 13, 2007

Ole Worm and the Origins of Scientific Thought

Today is the birthday of Ole Worm, born May 13, 1588.

Ole Worm -- it's pronounced "Ola Vorm", by the way -- was a 16th century Danish physician and scientist. He was the son of the mayor of Aarhus, and was remarkably well-educated for his day. After studying in Germany, he was recalled to Copenhagen, where he taught classes in Greek, Latin, medicine, and science. He became the royal physician to King Christian IV, but he also treated the poor, even remaining in the city during several outbreaks of the Black Death.

Worm was quite a student of early Scandinavian literature, and published several definitive treatises on runic texts.

What Worm is primarily remembered for, however, is his investigations into the physical sciences. He believed knowledge was advanced by systematic investigation and detailed observation of the natural world. He assembled a startling collection of curiosities, which was purchased after his death by Frederick III, and entered into the Royal Kunstkammer.

Among the most important of Ole Worm's empirical discoveries:

  • Lemmings were not created spontaneously from the air, as was generally believed at the time, but were mammals born in the usual manner.
  • Unicorns did not exist, but if they did, their horns would be an antidote for poisons. (He based his research on the "poison-reversing" properties of the narwhale horn.)
  • The Bird of Paradise did, in fact, have feet. (Stuffed specimens brought back to Europe up to this point had had their feet removed, which led to the belief that the birds spent their entire lives in the air.)

Ole Worm died in 1654, the victim of a bladder disease.

Illustration: Ole Worm, artist unknown, public domain.
(He looks a little like Orson Welles, don't you think?)

May 12, 2007

The Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Today is the birthday of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Rossetti was born May 12, 1828, in London, the son of an Italian exile. His family was devoted to liberal politics and the arts. His sisters were poet Christina Rossetti and author Maria Francesca Rossetti, and his brother was critic and publisher William Michael Rossetti.

He was interested in both literature and art, and often wrote poems to illustrate his paintings. He was particularly interested in medieval and renaissance subjects, and was often inspired by the works of Shakespeare, Coleridge, Goethe, and particularly Dante.

Rossetti, along with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an art group that aspired to art for art's sake, and concentrated on "serious" subjects, usually religious or romantic, and combined an elaborate use of symbolism and allegory with a realistic painting style. Later members of the Pre-Raphaelites included John Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris.

The painter-poet was apparently quite a ladies' man. He was married to, and apparently very much in love with, Lizzie Siddal, a milliner's assistant who served as a model for several of the Pre-Raphaelites. Lizzie was a poet and painter in her own right, but apparently suffered from depression, and may have been anorexic. After two years of marriage, Lizzie gave birth to a stillborn daughter, and her depression grew worse. Shortly afterwards she died of a laudanum overdose. Rossetti was distraught. He buried his unpublished poetry with her, in a small journal that he slid into her hair. (Later, he regretted that action, and his friends disinterred her body to recover the poems.)

Rossetti's next love was Fannie Cornworth, a somewhat more extroverted individual who became first Rossetti's model, then his lover, and later his housekeeper. Rossetti tended to paint her in more sensual roles than he had Lizzie.

He was also enamoured of Jane Burden Morris, the wife of poet/author/designer William Morris. Rossetti tended to paint Jane in dignified, goddess-like poses.

Rossetti was fascinated by all kinds of animals, and kept owls, raccoons, lizards, wallabies, peacocks, parrots, and rabbits, but was particularly fond of wombats. One of his pet wombats was permitted to sleep in the centerpiece of the dining tables during meals, and is believed to have been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's dormouse in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Sadly, Rossetti spent much of his life in depression, brought on partially by unfavorable response to his publications. His depression was certainly amplified by his use of morphine, laudanum, and choral, often washed down with whisky, claret, or brandy. His final years were spent as a recluse, and he died in 1882.

Illustration: Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Public Domain
The model was Jane Burden Morris, wife of William Morris, and Rossetti's lover.

May 11, 2007

The Case of Marie Besnard

On May 11, 1949, the body of Leon Besnard was exhumed.

Leon's wife, Marie, has been called the Queen of Poisoners. She was accused of having poisoned 13 people in Loudun, France, and was tried 3 times, but was ultimately acquitted on all counts.

Marie was born Marie Davaillaud in 1896, and was remembered by classmates as being "vicious and immoral" and "wild with boys." She was 23 when she married her cousin, Auguste Antigny, a frail man known to suffer from tuberculosis. Marie was 27 when he died, apparently of pleurisy, and two years later she married Leon Besnard.

Leon and Marie lived modestly, but hoped for better things. When two wealthy aunts of Leon's died, and left the bulk of their estates to Leon's parents, the couple invited the parents to move in with them. Soon thereafter, Leon's father died, apparently from eating poisoned mushrooms. Leon's mother followed three months later, a victim of pneumonia. The parents' estate was left to Leon and his sister, Lucie, who committed suicide a few months later.

Meanwhile, Marie's father had succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage.

The Besnards then took in a wealthy couple, the Rivets, as boarders. The Rivets were childless, and soon became attached to the Besnards. Monsieur Rivet died of pneumonia, and Madame Rivet soon followed, stricken with nausea and convulsions, which her doctor attributed to "the chest sickness". The Rivets had named Marie Besnard as their sole beneficiary.

Two elderly cousins were the next to go, Pauline and Virginie Lalleron. Pauline died after mistaking a bowl of lye for her dessert one night, and, amazingly, Virginie made the identical mistake a week later.

The Besnards by this time had amassed six houses, an inn, a cafe, and several stud farms. Leon had taken a mistress, Louise Pintou, who was the Loudun Postmistress, and had invited her to move into the Besnard home. Marie had also taken a lover, a handsome German ex-prisoner of war. Leon died at home, apparently of uremia, but not before he had told friends that he believed he was being poisoned, and asked them to demand an autopsy if he died.

Marie's aged mother had also died the same year.

Naturally, by this time rumors were flying. Death threats were sent through the mails to some of the local gossips. Madame Pintou, who had openly accused Marie, had her home broken into, where the burglar proceded to selectively destroy every gift Madame Pintou had ever received from Leon. Another pair of accusers was forced to flee Loudon after arsonists burned their home.

One acquaintance remembered that Marie had once recommended arsenic as an alternative to divorce.

Finally, on May 11th, the body of Leon Besnard was exhumed, and investigators found approximately twice the arsenic levels in his remains that would have been necessary to kill him. Twelve other bodies were then exhumed: both sets of parents, Marie's first husband, the Rivets, Marie's sister-in-law, the elderly cousins, a grandmother-in-law, and a great aunt. (The autopsy on Marie's first husband was possible only because the undertaker had accidentally left Auguste's shoes on, and his toenails were preserved enough to be tested for arsenic.) Of the 13, 12 bodies were found with significant traces of arsenic. One death had exceeded the French statute of limitations, so Marie was charged with 11 deaths.

At Marie's first trial, her lawyers attacked the testimony of the toxicologist, Dr. Georges Beroud, in particular his assertion that he could tell the difference between arsenic and antimony with the naked eye. The lawyers demanded a new trial, and Marie was sent to jail in "preventative detention" while a new panel of experts was assembled.

While Marie was incarcerated, 3 informers reported to the police that Marie had attempted to hire them to "rub out" some of the neighborhood gossips.

The new panel of four experts took 2 years to examine the forensic evidence. They were forced to eliminate 5 of the charges - there was simply not enough of the physical evidence left to test for arsenic. In the meantime, Marie's lawyers had learned of a new theory that arsenic could enter a body from the ground through the actions of anaerobic bacteria.

The second trial was also ended up being ruled a mistrial. The experts could not agree, and one of them became so upset he left the witness stand, sat down and folded his arms, and refused to testify.

A third trial was held seven years later. (Marie was free on bond during this period.) There was very little physical evidence left to test, and the experts admitted that their techniques were not up to date and that "too many factors escape us." In addition, the defense attorneys had learned that the Loudun cemetery concierge had grown potatoes near the burial sites and had sprinkled his garden with fertilizers containing arsenic.

On December 12, 1961, Marie Besnard was acquitted. The jury had taken only 3 hours and 25 minutes to deliberate.

Photo Credit: © Steve Knight

May 10, 2007

The Origin of the British National Gallery

On May 10th, 1824, the British National Gallery first opened its doors.

What was unusual about the British National Gallery, compared to other European art museums, was that it was essentially started "from scratch", rather than by building upon a royal collection. Such museums as the Uffizi in Florence and the Prado in Madrid were built on royal art collections that had been nationalized, but the British royal collection remained the property of the monarch.

Britain was also a relatively late starter. Ideas of starting a public art museum had been kicked around for some time, but nothing had ever come to fruition. In the late 1700's the collection of the late Sir Robert Walpole was offered for sale, and some government officials thought that this would be a prime opportunity to start a national gallery, but the government ultimately let the opportunity pass. (The Walpole Collection was later purchased by Catherine the Great and is now part of the Hermitage Museum.) Another collection, this one belonging to Sir Francis Bourgeois, was bequeathed to Dulwich College in 1811.

It wasn't until 1824, when Britain unexpectedly received payment of a war debt from Austria that funds were allocated to start a national art gallery. The first purchase was of 38 paintings from the collection of John Julius Angerstein, a Russian emigre banker who had died in 1823. The purchase included works by Raphael and Hogarth. Further paintings were acquired in 1826, from the collection of George Beaumont (who had offered them earlier, but only on the condition that a suitable building was found to display them) and in 1828 by a bequest from the Reverend William Howell Carr.

The collection was originally housed in Angerstein's former townhouse at 100 Pall Mall. Later, the collection briefly resided at 105 Pall Mall, before being moved to its current location in Trafalgar Square. The Trafalgar Square location was chosen because it was deemed to be equally accessible to all social classes in London.

During World War II, the art works were removed from the museum, and stored in a slate quarry in North Wales, where it was believed that they would be safe from the bombings. (Murals remained at the gallery, but were hidden under white paint and reinforced with marble.) The museum director had originally hoped to ship them to Canada, but Churchill had told him to "bury them in caves or in cellars, but not a picture shall leave these islands." Eventually, a "Picture of the Month" project was developed, in which one painting each month would be removed from the quarry, and put on public display in the National Gallery.

The British National Gallery remains truly a public institution. Admission is free (with the exception of certain special exhibits) and the museum is committed to making the exhibit accessible to all areas of Britain through its Touring Exhibitions.

Illustration: 100 Pall Mall, the first site of the British National Gallery.
From a lithograph by Charles Hullmandel, Public Domain.

May 9, 2007

Thomas Blood and the Crown Jewel Caper

It was 336 years ago today that Thomas Blood attempted to steal the Crown Jewels of England.

Thomas Blood was evidently quite a character. He was born in Ireland in 1618, but when he reached adulthood he went to England to serve Charles I in the English Civil War. Apparently not liking his prospects, he soon changed sides and began fighting for Cromwell. When Cromwell won, Blood received land grants in Ireland for his service.

However, Charles II soon wrested the throne back from Cromwell, and Blood's land grants were rescinded. He took part in an attempt to kidnap the Duke of Ormond -- not once, but twice, and both times unsuccessfully. Blood was forced to flee to Holland, where he remained for some time.

Eventually Blood came back to England, living under various assumed names and guises. In 1671 came the caper for which he is best remembered: the attempted theft of the Crown Jewels.

England's Crown Jewels were, at the time, in the custody of a 77-year-old retired servant named Talbot Edwards, and housed in the basement of the Tower of London. Thomas Blood went, disguised as a parson, to visit Edwards and view the Crown Jewels. The two men became friendly, and the "parson" returned for a second trip, this time accompanied by his "wife." The wife became violently ill, and was forced to retired to the private compartments of Edwards and his wife, until she felt well enough to travel. A few days later the "parson" returned with a gift of four pairs of gloves for Mrs. Edwards, in thanks for her kindness to his wife.

Now the two couples were friendly, and the "parson" was hopeful of making a match between a daughter of Edwards and his wealthy "nephew", a suggestion which met with the avid approval of Edwards. A visit was arranged, to give the daughter and the nephew a chance to meet.

Blood returned to the Tower, this time with his "nephew" and two other men. While the nephew got acquainted with Mrs. Edwards and the daughter, Edwards took Blood and his two accomplices to see the jewels. No sooner were the four men alone when Blood and his accomplices attacked Edwards, hitting him with a mallet, stabbing him, and binding and gagging him. Blood then used the mallet to flatten the Crown of St. Edwards so that he could hide it under his cape, while one accomplice attempted to file Royal Sceptre in two, and the other stuffed the Sovereign's Orb down his trousers.

The Jewels were saved by an incredible coincidence. Edwards' son, who had been away serving in the military for several years, unexpectedly returned home and paid a visit to his father. When he discovered what was going on, he immediately raised the alarm, and the thieves were foiled.

Blood and his accomplices were imprisoned in the Tower, but Blood refused to speak to anyone except the King. Charles II had the reputation of a man who liked scoundrels. Perhaps that worked in Blood's favor, or perhaps the rumors that Blood was a double agent were true. At any rate, Blood was not only pardoned, but his Irish lands were restored to him, and he received a pension from the King of 500 pounds per year.

Thomas Blood died at home in 1680. His reputation for trickery was so great that authorities were required to later exhume his body and verify his death -- there had been rumors that he had faked his own death in order to avoid paying damages in a lawsuit.

The illustration of The Tower of London is from Francis Grose's The Antiquities of England and Wales (Vol III, published in 1783. It is provided courtest of Liam Quin's website The illustration is in the Public Domain.

May 8, 2007

The First Westminster Kennel Club Show

May 8, 1877 was the date of the first Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

The Westminster Dog Show is the second-longest continuously held sporting event in the United States -- only the Kentucky Derby is older. It originated in 1877 when a group of hunters who met regularly at the Westminster Hotel in New York City decided to organize a kennel club specifically for the purpose of holding a dog show. The group rented an old railroad depot at Gilmore Gardens, a location which later became the first Madison Square Garden, and is now the site of the New York Life Building. The location was booked for 3 days, but the event was so popular -- it drew over 1200 dogs -- that the facility had to be rented for a fourth day.

Needless to say, the early shows were all about hunting dogs, primarily setters and pointers. The prize for the first shows included items like pearl-handled pistols. Most of the dogs in those times had simple names like Rex and Rover.

When the American Kennel Club was formed in 1884, the Westminster Kennel Club was the first club to be admitted. Today the Westminster Show is judged by American Kennel Club judges and is considered America's most prestigious dog show. Since 1884, all contestants in the Westminster Show are required to be members of the AKC.

Since 1941, the Westminster Show has been limited to a two-day event. Television coverage has been provided since 1948 -- currently, the highlights of the show are condensed into a two-hour event.

Since 1907, when the category "Best of Show" was created, the prize has been won by a dog of the Terrier Group 44 times. This is a remarkable statistic, considering that only 17% of the AKC's recognized breeds are terriers. Only one dog has ever won Best of Show 3 times: a fox terrier named Ch. Warren Remedy, in 1907, 1908, and 1909. Six dogs have won twice: 3 fox terriers, a cocker spaniel, a doberman pinscher, and an English springer spaniel.

The most challenged rule of the Westminister Show? Dogs competing may not have names longer than 7 words.

Photo Credit: Andrew ("Prskavka ") Wikimedia; Public Domain

May 7, 2007

The First Inauguration

May 7, 1789 was the date of the first inaugural ball.

The ball took place in the New York City Assembly Rooms and was sponsored by some of his supporters. Washington had been sworn into office a week earlier, on April 30, at Federal Hall on Wall Street. (He had actually arrived in the city on April 23rd, but the House and the Senate had not come to an agreement on how the inauguration should be conducted.) An earlier, more "official" ball had been planned to immediately follow his taking of the oath, but had been cancelled when it was discovered that Martha had not accompanied him to New York, remaining at Mount Vernon to tie up some business matters. The ball was attended by Washington, Vice President Adams, and various members of the new Congress.

The President danced two cotillions and a minuet. He was said to have been a very good dancer.

Illustration: George Washington dances the minuet with Mrs. Maxwell.
From Harper's Bazaar, May 11, 1889. Public Domain