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