March 31, 2015

It Happened on March 31st

Census Bureau Gets Its First Computer, 1951

This is just the control station.
It was called the UNIVAC I, it was built by Remington Rand, and it weighed 29,000 pounds. It was the first computer that was built specifically for business needs, as opposed to scientific applications. Its chief competition at the time was punch-card systems built by IBM, but surprisingly, the UNIVAC didn't have the capacity to read punch-cards -- converters had to be designed and sold separately.

The Census Bureau's machine was the first UNIVAC, and, although the formal transfer took place on March 31, the Bureau didn't actually get its hands on the computer until December -- it was the only one Remington had, and they needed it for demo purposes.

In all, Remington built 46 of these machines. They started out priced at $5,000 but eventually the price got as high as $50,000. The next five UNIVACS went to (in order): the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army Map Service, New York University for the Atomic Energy Commission, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the U.S. Navy. Remington kept the seventh UNIVAC for their sales office.


Eiffel Tower Inauguration, 1889

It was supposed to be a temporary structure.
The Eiffel Tower was supposed to be temporary. It was built for the Exposition Universelle, the World's Fair held in Paris to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution.

Gustave Eiffel, who designed and built the tower, had a 20-year permit; it was supposed to be demolished in 1909. By the time 1909 rolled around, however, it had proved so useful for scientific experiments and telegraphic transmissions that it was allowed to stand.

When the Eiffel Tower was first built, it was not an unmitigated success. Many Parisians considered it an eyesore. Guy de Maupassant claimed that he ate lunch every day at the Tower restaurant every day -- because it was the only spot in Paris from which he could not see the Tower.

Alhambra Decree, 1492

When I hear the names "Ferdinand and Isabella" the first thing I think of is "Christopher Columbus." The second thing that comes to mind is the Spanish Inquisition. I guess the third thing would be the Expulsion of the Jews.

Busy little bees, the Royal Couple, weren't they?

To give a little background, the area that is now Spain and Portugal had been under Muslim rule since about the 8th century. Jews had also been living in this area since the days of the Roman Empire, and they had a pretty good situation under Muslim rule -- certainly better than they would under the Visigoths. So they tended to support the Muslims.

All this changed with the Reconquista. Over a period of about 700 years, the Christian kingdoms of Europe began reconquering the Iberian Peninsula. The last holdout was the Emirate of Granada, which was finally taken over by Isabella of Castille and her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1492.

Isabella and Ferdinand were known as the "Catholic monarchs" and they did all they could to widen the influence of Christendom. One of their methods was the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity.

The climate of the region was pretty much one of severe anti-Semitism. The Jews were seen as collaborating with the Muslims -- with some justification. Jews who converted to Christianity were called conversos, and they were suspected of converting merely to save their businesses and their social position, while secretly practicing Judaism. Things were getting pretty dicey in Granada.

Ferdinand and Isabella decided that they could solve the whole problem by kicking the Jews out of Spain. Only three months after the recapturing of Granada, they issued the Alhambra Decree, which gave the Jews four months to either convert to Christianity or get out of the country. They were promised safe passage for the three months before the deadline, and were allowed to take their belongings with them -- as long as their belongings weren't gold or silver money. Jews disobeying the edict would be put to death. Christians helping them could lose all their belongings and any hereditary titles they might have.

It is unknown how many Jews left Spain at this time -- somewhere between 130,000 and 800,000 is the best guess. Another 50,000 to 70,000 are estimated to have converted to Christianity, but that wouldn't be enough to save them once the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing. Most of those leaving went to Portugal, where they had a few peaceful years before the Portuguese Inquisition took over.

"The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain" by Solomon Alexander Hart, 19th century oil

March 30, 2015

It Happened on March 30th

Pencil with Eraser Patented, 1858

Lipman's patent didn't hold up in court.
Graphite pencils had been around since the 16th century, but it was only in 1858 that the first pencil/eraser combination tool was patented. The inventor was Hyman Lipman, who later sold his patent to Joseph Reckendorfer for $100,000.

In 1875 Reckendorfer sued the manufacturer Faber for violation of this patent. The Supreme Court ruled that since pencils had already existed, and erasers had already existed, Lipman's invention was not sufficiently unique to warrant a patent. Reckendorfer lost.

Lipman's invention might be a little different than you're picturing it. The eraser was actually enclosed in the wood, at the other end of the pencil. When you needed more eraser, you just sharpened that end.

Anesthetic First Used in Surgery, 1842

Crawford Long
I think that most of us today would agree that anesthetic during surgery is a good thing, but public opinion wasn't quite so unequivocal in the mid-19th century. Some people believed that pain during surgery was God's way of cleansing us. Others believed that relief from pain during such procedures wasn't possible. Still others accused the practitioners of witchcraft.

The first known use of anesthetic was by Crawford Long, when he used sulferic ether during a operation to remove a cyst on the neck of patient James M. Venable. Venable was unconscious during the operation, claimed to have suffered no pain afterwards, and paid Long $2 for the operation.

Long had participated in "ether frolics" during his college days -- parties at which the participants inhaled nitrous oxide of sulfuric ether for recreational purposes. Apparently, this gave him the idea that the gases could be used during surgery.

He kept his experiment quiet for awhile, not publishing his results or claiming credit for his discover. In December of 1946 a Boston dentist announced that he had used ether as an anesthetic, and Long decided it was time to publicize his findings. He wrote up his account of the operation, and obtained affidavits from his patients to establish his claim.

Crawford Long had two other claims to fame, as well. In college he had shared a room with Alexander Stephens, who would later become Vice President of the Confederate States of America. Also, Long was a cousin of John Henry ("Doc") Holliday.

And this was just for dental work, folks! Re-enactment (a few days later) of first public demonstration of anesthesia.

March 29, 2015

It Happened on March 29th

First Batch of Coca-Cola, 1886

19th Century Coca-Cola Advertisement
Yesterday we celebrated the birthdays of Frederick Pabst and Gussie Busch, so I guess it's only fair that today we celebrate the invention of my favorite beverage, Coca-Cola. Of course, the formula was a little different when John Stith Pemberton cooked up the first batch in his backyard on March 29, 1886.

John Pemberton was a pharmacist and a Civil War veteran, and during the war he had become addicted to morphine. He was not alone: it was a commonly used analgesic during the war, and many, many soldiers came home with an addiction. He may have been searching for a cure to the addiction when he started experimenting with coca concoctions. He was almost certainly searching for a product to compete with Vin Mariani, a French product made from Bordeaux wine combined with coca leaves.
John Pemberton

Pemberton's first product was Pemberton's French Wine Coca. Like Vin Mariani, the effective ingredients were alcohol and cocaine. When Fulton County, Georgia, where Pemberton lived and operated his business, passed temperance laws, Pemberton began searching for a non-alcoholic version of the substance. He finally settled on a preparation that involved a base syrup that could be combined with soda water.

The name "Coca-Cola" and the distinctive trademark script were contributed by Pemberton's bookkeeper and secretary, Frank Mason Robinson. Originally, Coca-Cola was sold only in drugstores for five cents a glass. It was considered a patent medicine and Pemberton claimed that it cured many ailments, including morphine addiction, headache, dyspepsia, and impotence.

This coupon for a free glass of Coca-Cola was distributed in 1888.

John Tyler's Birthday, 1790

John Tyler
John Tyler was the 10th President of the United States, and the first one to become President due to the death of his predecessor, William Henry Harrison.

Harrison had only served 30 days in office before dying of complications of a cold he had caught, some thought during the inauguration itself. His death on April 4, 1841 caused quite a bit of confusion at the time. The Constitution stated that "In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President." It wasn't quite clear whether it was the Office that was devolving, or merely the Powers and Duties.

Tyler was determined that he was now President. The opposition was equally determined that he was only Acting President -- serving a function somewhat like a regent. Daniel Webster, who was then serving as Secretary of State, even privately asked Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney for his opinion, but Taney declined, not wishing to violate the separation of powers. Finally, on June 4, 1841 Congress passed a resolution naming him President. The ambiguous language in the Constitution would not be rectified until the 25th Amendment was passed in 1967.

Niagara Falls Runs Dry, 1848 

It took quite a logjam to stop this. "Distant View of Niagara" by Thomas Cole, 1830.


The first one to notice was a farmer named Jed Porter. Out for a stroll a little before midnight on March 29th, he noticed a peculiar silence. Taking a better look, he noticed that the normally thundering falls had turned into a mere trickle.

The dry spell continued for nearly 40 hours, and it caused quite a commotion. No one knew what had caused it, and some feared the end of the world. Eventually, news reached Niagara from Buffalo -- a strong wind had caused a huge ice jam at the northeastern part of Lake Erie, preventing the water from moving into the Niagara River.

For a full day, people marveled at the sight of the dry falls. Many ventured out onto the river bed and collected souvenirs, an extremely dangerous action considering that no one knew when the water might return. The owner of the Maid of the Mist took the opportunity to have some dangerous rocks at the foot of the falls dynamited out of the way.

That was the last time the falls were silent until 1969, when the Army Corps of Engineers built cofferdams to allow work on the American Falls. They were hoping to remove some of the rocks that had piled up at the foot of the falls, and might eventually turn the falls into a rapids. Upon getting a better (dryer) view, they decided the process was likely to do more harm than good, so they turned the falls back on.

March 28, 2015

It Happened on March 28th

Paris Sacked by Ragnar Lodbrok, 845

Charles the Bald paid off the Vikings.
Ragnar Lodbrok is one of those semi-mythological figures that figure prominently in history, so it's difficult to know exactly where history ends and myth begins. It does appear that Paris was captured by Norsemen in 845, and that 7,000 pounds of silver was paid by Charles the Bald (Charlemagne's grandson) in order for the Vikings to go away without burning the city. In folklore, the Viking leader was Ragnar Lodbrok. (The Vikings then went on to attack other parts of France.)

Ragnar Lodbrok had several wives over his lifetime, two of them famous shieldmaidens. The first was Lathgertha, one of a number of Norse women who joined Lodbrok's army in order to prevent being placed in brothels by another conqueror. Ragnar was impressed by her fighting skills, and sought to marry her. When he approached, Lathgerta tested him by having him attacked, first by a bear and then by a large dog. He bested them both and won the hand of Lathgerta.
Ragnar's 1st wife was quite the warrior.

Apparently he never quite forgave or forgot the tests, for he divorced Lathgerta after a while, and married another shieldmaiden, Aslaug. Aslaug was the daughter of the famous hero Sigurd and the valkyrie Brynhilde, and had spent a large part of her childhood hidden in a harp. (Her foster grandfather disguised himself as a harpist, and traveled the countryside playing on Aslaug's hiding place.)
Ragnar's 2nd wife knew how to dress for her man.

Aslaug was discovered bathing by Ragnar's men, who were baking bread at the time, and were so struck by her beauty that they allowed the bread to burn. When Ragnar inquired about the burnt bread, they told him about the girl, and he desired to meet her. Possibly having learned his lesson from his previous wife, this time Ragnar set tests for Aslaug to perform. He commanded her to come to him neither dressed nor undressed, neither hungry nor having eaten, and neither alone nor in company. Aslaug arrived dressed in net, biting into an onion, and with a dog at her side.

Frederick Pabst's Birthday, 1836

Frederick Pabst
Today is the birthday of Frederick Pabst, the founder of the Pabst Brewing Company. His early life included stints as a waiter and busboy, and as a cabin boy on the Great Lakes. Eventually he earned his pilot's license and became a captain of a Great Lakes steamer. He also made the acquaintance of a brewer named Phillip Best and married his daughter.

Pabst became a partner with Phillip Best, and when Best retired Pabst became president of the company and took the annual production from 5,000 barrels to 100,000. By 1874 the Phillip Best Brewing Company was the largest brewery in the country. It became the Pabst Brewing Company in 1889 and became the largest brewing company in the world.

Pabst products won many awards: first, at local fairs and expositions, and later at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and the 1878 Paris World's Fair. By 1882, bottles of Pabst could be found with blue ribbons tied around their necks to distinguish them from inferior beers. After winning the blue ribbon at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, "Pabst Blue Ribbon" became the official name of the beer.

August "Gussie" Anheuser Busch, Jr.'s Birthday, 1899

I'm more of a Bud woman myself, so it bears noting that today is also the birthday of Gussie Anheuser Busch, the man who turned the Anheuser-Busch companies into the world's largest brewery during his tenure as chairman. He was also responsible for the company's adoption of the famous Clydesdales as a corporate symbol, and the purchase of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Budweiser Clydesdales at work.

March 27, 2015

It Happened on March 27th

Patty Smith Hill's Birthday, 1868

You may have never heard of Patty Smith Hill, but I can guarantee that you've sung her song. Patty and her sister Mildred wrote the lyrics and music to the most frequently sung song in the English language. Mildred wrote the music -- a simple 6 note melody -- and Patty wrote the lyrics, which were originally "Good morning to you, Good morning to you, Good morning, dear children, Good morning to you." A bit later the lyrics got adapted to the more familiar "Happy birthday to you."

Patty and Mildred Hill were kindergarten teachers who published a book called Song Stories for the Kindergarten in 1893. The first song in the book was "Good Morning to You."

The song is copyrighted, and will remain so until 2030. You can still sing the song at private occasions without getting into trouble, but every time it's used in a movie or public performance, royalties must be paid. The copyright is currently owned by Summy-Birchard Music, part of the AOL Time Warner conglomerate, and brings in about $2 million annually.

Thorne Smith's Birthday, 1892

Thorne Smith
One of the first television programs I can remember watching was a situation comedy called Topper. The show ran from 1953 to 1955, so I must have seen it in reruns, because I recall vaguely being able to understand it. The show concerned a crotchety old banker named Cosmo Topper who was haunted by the ghosts of a young couple (and their St. Bernard) who had previously owned the house Topper lived in. Of course, no one except Topper could see the ghosts, which got Topper into all kinds of predicaments.

The series (and its movie predecessor, starring Cary Grant) was based on a novel by Thorne Smith, an author who was successful in his time, but now is practically unknown. I know I had never heard of him until ran across a mention of him recently, along with the comment that Smith was "the master of the pointless conversation."

Well, that was enough for me! I immediately started trying to track down a copy of something he'd written at my local library. They had to borrow it from another library, and that library had to take it out of storage -- so you see how popular Thorne Smith is today. I was a little disappointed by the "pointless conversation," but all-in-all, Smith is an amusing writer, and I'll have to see what else I can find by him.

In addition to Topper, Smith is also the author of The Passionate Witch, which was made into the movie I Married a Witch, which in turn was one of the inspirations for the TV series Bewitched.

Singin' in the Rain Premieres, 1952

Debbie Reynolds in 1953
It's one of the most beloved musicals of all time, but it would have been quite a different movie if it had been filmed as originally planned. Can you image Singin' in the Rain with cowboys?

The songs for this film were written first, and the plot was just invented to hold them together. (In fact, most of the songs had been used in earlier movies: the title song in five of them.) One of the earlier incarnations of the plot was for a lead character with a cowboy background, and Howard Keel was considered for the role. When they changed the cowboy to a song-and-dance vaudeville performer, they decided to go with Gene Kelly.

Early choices for the Kathy Selden role (played by Debbie Reynolds) were Judy Garland, June Allyson, and Ann Miller. The original choice for the role of Cosmo Brown was Oscar Levant, before it finally went to Donald O'Connor. The role of Lina Lemont (the silent actress with the screechy voice) was written with Judy Holliday in mind, but when Holliday didn't take the role it went to Jean Hagen, Holliday's understudy in Born Yesterday. Hagen was nominated for an Oscar for the supporting role.

You may remember the scene in the movie where Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) was dubbing the on-screen voice of actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). In reality, Jean Hagen dubbed for Debbie Reynolds in this scene, a nice bit of symmetry. Debbie was only 19 when this movie was made, and was not really a dancer. In fact, Gene Kelly's criticism of her dancing had her in tears at one point. Fred Astaire discovered her crying and gave her a little help. Gene Kelly still had to dub Debbie's tap sounds, however, in the "Good Morning" number. On the other hand, Carol Haney and Gwen Verdon dubbed Kelly's taps for "Singin' in the Rain."

March 26, 2015

It Happened on March 26th

Ludwig van Beethoven

Death of Ludwig van Beethoven, 1827

Ludwig van Beethoven died on March 26th, 1827. It was a Monday, and there was a thunderstorm, and one of his friends claimed that a peal of thunder sounded at the moment of his death. He had been ill for several months, and had had many visitors during that time.

An autopsy was performed, which revealed serious liver damage. We don't know exactly why: it may have been alcohol-related, or it may have been lead poisoning from some of the medical treatments he received. Other causes that have been suggested are hepatitis, syphilis, sarcoidosis, and Whipple's disease.

Beethoven was well-known and appreciated during his lifetime, and 20,000 people turned up to honor him at his funeral.

Walt Whitman photograph by Mathew Brady

Death of Walt Whitman, 1892

Walt Whitman's funeral was also well attended, with over a thousand people visiting his body within a three hour period. His casket was scarcely visible for the flowers and wreaths heaped upon it. A public ceremony was held at his graveside.

Whitman had not been in good health since a stroke in 1873. In his final years he was bed-ridden, and attended to first by neighbors, and then by Mary Oakes Davis, a neighbor who moved in to care for him in exchange for free room and board. She brought her cat, dog, birds, and other assorted pets.

Whitman spend the last part of his life revising Leaves of Grass, and preparing what is now sometimes referred to as the "Deathbed Edition." A few days before his death he wrote the comment, "I suffer all the time: I have no relief, no escape: it is monotony -- monotony -- monotony -- and pain."

Death of Raymond Chandler, 1959

Raymond Chandler explored several careers before settling down to writing. He was a British civil servant, a journalist, a tennis racket stringer, a fruit picker, and a bookkeeper. He also served in the military in World War I, in both the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the RAF.

Chandler is one of the foremost mystery writers of all time. His character, Philip Marlowe, is an icon, both in the detective novel genre and in film noir. He said that he had taught himself the craft by deconstructing Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason stories. He was also known as a screenwriter, and worked with such greats as Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock.

Chandler had a problem with depression and alcoholism throughout most of his life. After his wife, Cissy, died in 1954, both afflictions intensified. He never got around to having Cissy buried after her death, and her remains were found in a storage locker, and finally buried with her husband in 2010. He attempted suicide at least once, but died of natural causes in 1959.

March 25, 2015

It Happened on March 25th

Pecan Day
Jefferson gave them to Washington.
March 25th is one of the days we celebrate pecans. (Another Pecan Day is April 14th.) Pecans are the only major nut native to North America. The word pecan comes from an Algonquin word meaning "a nut that can only be cracked with a stone." It's believed that Native Americans cultivated the Pecan tree. Besides serving as a food source, the nuts could also be fermented to make a drink called "Powcohicora." 

In the 16th century, Spaniards brought the pecan to Europe, as well as to Asia and Africa. In the late 1600's Spaniards are also known to have cultivated pecans in northern Mexico. Colonists in (what is now) the United States didn't cultivate them until about the mid-1600's. 

Thomas Jefferson was known to have planted pecans in his garden, and he even gave some to George Washington to plant in his. Washington referred to them as "Illinois nuts" in his journal. 

Richard I Wounded by a Crossbow, 1199
Richard the Lionheart
This is Richard the Lionheart, the King Richard of Robin Hood myth, and of tales of the Crusades. There are so many tales of the Couer de Lion, and the story of his death is one of them. 

In March of 1199, Richard was laying siege to the castle of Chalus-Chambrol in France. He was walking around the castle without his chainmail, viewing the situation. An archer on the castle wall amused Richard by taking aim at him with his cross-bow, while simultaneously holding a pot to try to shield himself from incoming arrows. While Richard was being amused, another archer shot him in the shoulder. The arrow struck his left shoulder, and, although the arrow was removed, gangrene set in. 

Before Richard's death, the castle was overtaken, and the archer was brought before the king. He turned out to be a boy, and he said that Richard had killed his father and two of his brothers, and that he had killed Richard in revenge. Richard told the boy, "Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day." He ordered his men to free him, and to give him 100 shillings. 

Richard died on April 6th, in the arms of his mother. His heart was taken to Rouen for burial there, his entrails were buried at Chalus-Chambrol, and his body was buried near his father at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. According to a 13th century Bishop, Richard spent 33 years in Purgatory for his sins, and then ascended to Heaven in March 1232. 

As for the archer, things didn't work out for him as well as Richard had planned. As soon as Richard died, he was flayed alive and then hanged. 

Feast of St. Dismas
St. Dismas statue in Breznice, Czech Republic
You may recall from your Sunday School lessons that Jesus was crucified between two thieves. In the Gospel of St. Luke, one of the thieves is described as being penitent, and Jesus told him that "today you will be with me in Paradise." 

Out of the four gospels, Luke's is the only one who describes one of the thieves as being penitent. Luke doesn't name the thief, actually. That comes from the Gospel of Nicodemus. (The other thief is called Gestas.) In the Arabic tradition, the good thief is called Titus, and in the Russian Orthodox he is called Rach.

March 24, 2015

It Happened on March 24th

Harry Houdini's Birthday, 1974
Harry Houdini publicity photo
Houdini was one of the most sensational performers of all time. Even today, no one has matched his performances, and his name is synonymous with escapism. 

Among Harry Houdini's death-defying stunts were such items as the Chinese Water Torture Cell (where he was suspended in stocks in a tank filled with water), escape from a straightjacket while suspended from a tall building, and escape from his manacles and a crate in New York's East River. He nearly died once when he was attempting to escape from being buried under six feet of dirt without a casket. (He panicked, and lost consciousness just as his hand broke the surface.)

Ironically, what killed him was a unexpected punch from a college student. 

Houdini in 1918
Houdini had publically announced that he could withstand any punch to his stomach. Shortly after a performance in Montreal, Houdini was resting on a couch while being sketched by an art student, when J. Gordon Whitehead, a local student, came in and asked him if the claims were true. Houdini, who wasn't really paying much attention, said that they were, and Whitehead punched him quickly three times in the abdomen before Houdini had a chance to tighten his muscles. 

Houdini had apparently been suffering some symptoms of appendicitis previous to this, and had refused medical treatment, so it's likely that he would have died of a burst appendix anyway. After the punches, he was apparently in pain, but still refused medical attention and continued with his tour. By the time he arrived in Detroit for his next appearance, he had a temperature of 104. He nonetheless performed, although it was said that he passed out for a while during the performance. Immediately after the curtain, he was taken to the hospital. He died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix on Halloween day in Grace Hospital. 

Houdini with his "two sweethearts." He was very devoted to both his wife and his mother.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle Birthday, 1887
Fatty Arbuckle
He was a talented actor, comedian, director, and screenwriter. He was Charlie Chaplin's mentor, and is said to have discovered Bob Hope and Buster Keaton. He was one of the most popular actors of the silent screen, and also one of the best-paid, signing a one-million dollar contract in 1918. He was such a good singer that Enrico Caruso urged him to give up his comedic career and become "the second greatest singer in the world." Sadly, what he's best remembered for is an assault that probably never happened. 

In September 1921, Arbuckle and two friends rented rooms at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, and invited several women to a party in their suite. One of the guests was an actress named Virginia Rappe, who suffered from chronic cystitis, a condition which was aggravated when she drank. She had a reputation for drinking heavily at parties, and then apparently suffering significant pain. She had gone through several abortions in the past few years, which had also affected her health. 

During the party, Rapp became seriously ill and was examined by the hotel doctor. He believed that her problems were primarily caused by her drinking, and gave her morphine to calm her. Two days later she was hospitalized. One day after that she died of peritonitis from a ruptured bladder. 

One of Rapp's companions claimed that Arbuckle had raped her friend. The doctor found no evidence, but Arbuckle was charged. Soon the incident turned into a media frenzy, mostly due to the newspaper chain owned by William Randolph Hearst, who later claimed that the scandal had sold more newspapers than the sinking of the Lusitania
It took the jury just 6 minutes. They spent 5 of them drafting an apology.
It appears that a great deal of the "evidence" against Arbuckle was either manufactured or coerced by the prosecutor, Matthew Brady, a man who planned to run for governor. Arbuckle was tried three times -- the first two resulted in hung juries, and in the third he was acquitted. The jury in the third trial took six minutes to reach their verdict, and five of those minutes were spent composing a statement of apology to Roscoe Arbuckle. 

Since alcohol had been served at the party, Arbuckle was guilty of having violated the Prohibition Act, and was fined $500. Arbuckle had spent seven months and $700,000 defending himself from the charges, and had lost his home and cars in the process. 

Six days after Arbuckle's acquittal, Will H. Hayes, president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America, banned Arbuckle from ever working in American movies again. All showings of Arbuckle's previously produced movies were also banned. Later that year, Hayes lifted the ban, but Arbuckle's career was pretty well finished. He directed a few films under a pseudonym, and succumbed to alcoholism. 

In 1932, Arbuckle was signed with Warner Brothers to star in a series of two-reel comedies under his own name. After he finished them, Warner Brothers signed him for a feature-length film. He said that the day he signed that contract was "the best day of [his] life." He died of a heart attack later that night.

March 23, 2015

It Happened on March 23rd

Patrick Henry's Liberty Speech, 1775
"I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
These were the stirring words that concluded Patrick Henry's speech to the Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775. Approximately. 

Wait. What was that again?
The most interesting aspect of Patrick Henry's speech is that no one knows exactly what he said. The text with which we are familiar comes from The Life and Character of Patrick Henry, a book by William Wirt that was published 17 years after Henry's death. Wirt corresponded with men who had been there, and reconstructed the speech as best he could. It's probably largely correct, as he got approximately the same story from everyone who had heard it, and there was a pretty solid agreement about how it ended. But no one had actually taken any notes. 

This seems to have been a common occurrence when Henry spoke. Many ear-witnesses to Henry's speeches were often compelling, but that afterwards they had difficulty remembering exactly what he had said. Thomas Jefferson said that he was often extremely moved by Henry's oration, even when he was speaking in opposition to Jefferson's own position, and yet could never remember afterward "what the devil has he said?" 

First Otis Elevator Installed in New York City, 1857
Elisha Otis
The site of this elevator first was the Cooper Union building at 488 Broadway. The elevator shaft had actually been installed four years before the elevator got there: Peter Cooper had had one included in the plans for his building because he was sure that a safe elevator would be coming along any day now. The elevator shaft had a cylindrical design because Cooper believed that was the wave of the future. When the elevator actually got there, it had to be specially built to fit the shaft. 

Elisha Otis was the inventor of the Otis Elevator. It differed from earlier elevators because it included a safety feature: a locking mechanism that would prevent the car from falling if the cable broke. 

Otis first came up with the idea and began building them in 1852, but was initially unsuccessful with sales. His big break came at the 1854 New York World's Fair, when he was able to give a dramatic demonstration before a crowd at the New York Crystal Palace. Standing on a platform, he ordered the cable cut. The platform fell only a few inches before coming to a stop. After that, the orders flooded in. 
The Crystal Palace. Great place for a demo.

 Besides the safety elevator, Otis also invented several different types of elevator engines, a rotary oven, a steam plow, and the oscillating steam engine. Today the Otis elevator is the most-used mode of transportation in the world. A number of people equivalent to the world's population ride on an Otis elevator, escalator, or walkway every three days. 

The Word "O.K." First Appears in Print, 1839
The word had been in usage since at least 1790, and could be found in correspondence, diaries, and court documents, but this was the first known instance of it appearing in print. The publication was the Boston Morning Post, in an item about a trip made by the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, and the meaning of the term, "all correct," was explained in the article. 

There are a number of explanations for the derivation of the term itself, ranging from the Choctaw word okeh or hoke, to the initials of Old Kinderhook, a nickname for President Martin Van Buren. In the case of this print item, however, it appears clear that the abbreviation is intended as a comical misspelling of the term "oll korrect" for "all correct." Comical abbreviations were all the rage at the time. 

Near Miss by 4581 Asclepius, 1989
4581 Asclepius was an asteroid that came within 400,000 miles of earth on March 23, 1989. This was considered a very near miss as asteroids go. It passed through the exact position that Earth had occupied only six hours earlier. 

If the asteroid had impacted Earth, it would have caused an explosion comparable to a 600 megaton atomic bomb. (The most powerful atomic weapon ever detonated, the Tsar Bomba, had a yield of 50 megatons.)

March 22, 2015

It Happened on March 22nd

Chico Marx's Birthday, 1887
Chico Marx
He was born Leonard Marx, and he was the oldest of the famous Marx brothers. His persona was that of a somewhat dim-witted Italian in a Tyrolean hat. 

He wasn't Italian, of course. His parents were Jewish immigrants from France and Germany. He was a talented piano player, and often played the piano in his films, utilizing the unique straight-fingered keyboard technique for which he was famous. 

All the Marx Brothers looked a lot alike, but Chico and Harpo resembled each other remarkably. In their younger days, Chico would sometimes get himself a job playing the piano, and after he'd been playing there for awhile Harpo would step in for him while Chico worked another job. The deception didn't always work out too well -- Harpo only knew two songs on the piano, so he frequently got both brothers fired. 

On one occasion, Chico appeared in Harpo's wig and costume on the TV show I've Got a Secret. His secret was that he wasn't really Harpo. He fooled the panel -- including his own brother, Groucho. 

The Marx Brothers in later life. Left to right: Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, Groucho and Gummo.

Marcel Marceau's Birthday, 1923
Marcel Marceau as Bip
When you think of mimes, you undoubtedly think of Marcel Marceau. (Either that or you think about the scary anonymous ones who accost you in the park.) Marceau decided on his life's work when he was five years old and his mother took him to see a Charlie Chaplin movie. 

Marceau's real name was Marcel Mangel. He was brought up in Strasbourg and Lille, France. His father was a kosher butcher who died at Auschwitz, and Marcel and his brother took on the name Marceau to disguise their Jewish roots. Both brothers were active in the French Underground, where they helped children escape to Switzerland. Marcel found his mime talents useful in keeping the children quiet as they escaped. 

After the war, Marceau enrolled in the Charles Dullin School of Dramatic Art, and then joined the Barrault company. He was a huge hit in France, and then toured the United States to acclaim here, as well. His first television appearance won him an Emmy. 

Death of Karl Wallenda, 1905
The Flying Wallendas, circa 1965
Karl Wallenda was the founder of the famous high-wire act, The Flying Wallendas.
The Wallenda family had been a similar line of work since the 1780's. In the Austro-Hungarian empire they had been a traveling circus act that performed as acrobats, jugglers, and animal trainers. Karl developed a complicated high-wire act, and took it on a world-wide tour. John Ringling saw the act in Cuba, and signed them to perform with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. When they performed their first show at Madison Square Garden, they found that their net had been lost in shipping, so they performed without it. Thereafter they would become famous for performing without a net. 
Tragedy struck the Wallenda family in 1962. They were performing their 7-person chair pyramid at the Shrine Circus in Detroit when the pyramid collapsed. Two men were killed, another was paralyzed from the waist down, and a girl suffered a concussion. Karl himself suffered a cracked rib and a double hernia. The act has been repeated twice since then: once in 1963, to prove that life goes on; and again in 1977 by Karl's grandchildren for a movie. 

After the 1962 tragedy Karl chiefly worked solo or with smaller groups. In 1978, Karl Wallenda fell to his death while attempting to walk between two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was 73 years old. 

McMartin Preschool Employees Charged with Child Abuse, 1984
When it was all over in 1990, it would prove to be the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history. There were no convictions. 

It all started in 1983, when Judy Johnson reported to the police that her son had been molested by a teacher at McMartin Preschool in California, and an investigation began. As it turned out, Johnson was alcoholic and a paranoid schizophrenic, but this didn't seem to have been known at the time. You would have thought that there would have been some eyebrows raised at some of Johnson's other allegations. She also claimed that the teacher could fly through the air, and that the daycare staff had "drilled [children] under the arms."
The police investigated the claim by sending a "confidential" memo to 200 parents, stating the allegations, and asking parents to question their children about similar incidents. There were plenty of suggestions of examples of sexual abuse to question them about. 

Next, a local abuse therapy clinic interviewed several hundred children. Their questions were extremely leading, and the children were invited to pretend or speculate about events. One of the children interviewed said (later, as an adult) that whenever he gave an answer that was not to their liking, they asked again, until they got an answer that suited them. Among the things that the children claimed took place at the preschool were: witches flying, travel in hot-air balloons, underground tunnels, orgies at car washes, and children being flushed down toilets, abused, and then cleaned up and returned to their parents. One child also identified a photograph of Chuck Norris as someone who had been present. 

On March 22, 1984, when the case came to trial, there were 115 counts of child abuse charged against seven teachers. It was later expanded to 321 counts. Eventually, charges were dropped against all but two individuals: school administrator Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Ray Buckey. Peggy McMartin Buckey was acquitted in 1990. Her son was cleared on 52 out of 65 counts, the remaining 13 counts resulting in a hung jury. He was retried on 6 of the 13 counts, resulting in another hung jury. At that point the prosecution opted to not pursue the case further. 

In all, the trial lasted seven years and cost $15 million. Ray Buckey spent five years in jail for a crime for which he was never convicted.

March 21, 2015

It Happened on March 21st

Forrest Mars Birthday, 1904
Forrest Mars, Sr. was the founder of the Mars Company. If we didn't have anything else to thank him for, it's enough that he invented M & M's. He got the idea during the Spanish Civil War, when he saw soldiers eating chocolate candies with a hard chocolate shell. By 1941 he had patented a process to make similar candies, and he opened a factory in New Jersey. His partner was Bruce Murrie, the son of the then-president of Hershey's Chocolate, although Murrie had only 20% ownership of the company. The "M & M" stood for Mars and Murrie. 

During World War II, M & M's were manufactured exclusively for the military, and were packaged in a cardboard tube. They came in five colors: red, yellow, brown, green, and violet. 

Over the years a number of changes were made. Mars bought out Murrie in 1948, and began selling the candies in a black cellophane bag. In 1950, Mars started printing the signature "m" on each candy. In 1954, Peanut M & M's were created. And, of course, the colors changed over the years. 

Those of you who are old enough to remember (I certainly am) will recall 1976: the year they stopped making red M & M's. This was done in response to concern over Red Dye #2, which was suspected of being a carcinogen. Actually, M & M's didn't even contain Red Dye #2, but the change was made to reassure a worried public. Today, red M & M's are colored with Alura Red AC in the United States. In Europe, however, use of that dye is discouraged for children due to hyperactivity concerns. European M & M's contain Cochineal, a dye which has raised some concerns in the United States because it can cause severe allergic reactions and even anaphylactic shock in some individuals. 

Forrest Mars died in 1999 at the age of 95. He was ranked by Forbes magazine as the 30th richest American. His two sons were the 29th and 31st richest. 

Henry Morton Stanley Sets Out to Find Dr. Livingston, 1871
Henry Stanley
One thing you can say about Henry Stanley: he sure led an adventurous life. 

Stanley was the illegitimate child of a 19-year-old girl and an alcoholic father. His birth mother's name was Perry, but he took the name of his father, Rowland. He was raised by his grandfather until he was five, but when the man died Stanley was shuffled off to a workhouse for the poor. 

At the age of 18, he set off to make a new life in America. He took the last name of a wealthy trader, Henry Hope Stanley, although it is not clear that the two ever met each other. 

Stanley served in the Civil War, and had the distinction of having deserted from both sides. He started out with the Confederate Army, but was captured at the Battle of Shiloh. He deserted and joined the Union Army, and then deserted from that to join the Navy. He deserted from the Navy as well. 

Stanley found his true calling in journalism, or at least in talking newspapers into financing expensive expeditions for him. In 1869 he was sent by the New York Herald to find Stanley Livingston, a Scottish missionary explorer who had not been heard from for about six years. 

He started out on his trek to find Livingston by swinging by Egypt to report on the opening of the Suez Canal, and then making stops in Palestine, Turkey, and India. When he finally arrived on the African coast, he was dressed in white flannels and riding a thoroughbred stallion. The horse soon died, natives deserted (taking supplies with them), and the expedition was pursued by warring natives and cannibals. 

Dr. Livingstone, I presume?
After 236 days and 700 miles of this, Stanley finally reached Livingston. They did a little exploring together, but Livingston was ill and died in 1873. 

Discovering Livingston made Stanley somewhat of a hero, but other actions of his were not regarded in so favorable a light. He did further African exploration in his lifetime, primarily in the hire of King Leopold II of Belgium, who used his explorations as a basis for establishing claims over large areas of Africa. 

Stanley had a reputation for extreme cruelty and brutish behavior toward the natives, especially those who were employed in his party. The expedition, which included a large number of baggage carriers, is also considered responsible for the spread of trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) throughout central Africa. 

Finally, one of the most shocking stories of Stanley's expeditions was concerned, not with Stanley himself, but with one of the members of his party, James Jameson of the Jameson Whiskey family. Jameson was said to have purchased an 11-year-old girl and then given her as a gift to a tribe of cannibals to see how she would be prepared and eaten. He recorded details of the event in his notebook. Stanley didn't find out about this until after Jameson had died of fever, and was horrified by the event.

Still, Stanley's reputation must not have been too tarnished: he served as a member of Parliament from 1895 to 1900, and was knighted in 1899. He died in 1904 and is buried in St. Michael's Church, Pirbright, Surrey, England.