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Max Ventilla is a great believer in using technology and data to zero in on what attracts and motivates people, and in identifying their comfort zones.
That, after all, was the essence of his previous job as a Google executive in charge of personalization. His group developed user profiles based on a person’s behavior on different Google properties, from Gmail to YouTube, and used that to customize search results.
So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that when he and his wife were looking at pre-schools for their daughter, he started to think in a similar way about how kids learn.
“The world in which my daughter is growing up is really different from the world I grew up in. And it seems like schools should be different, since their purpose is to prepare kids for the future, not the past,” he says.
Why, he wondered, do schools continue to treat students as if they all liked the same thing and learned the same way?
Little learning labs
It was a simple, yet confounding question, one that ultimately led to the launch of AltSchool, a business that has, since 2013, opened eight private schools in California and New York. All are small operations—the largest, which opened in San Francisco last month, has about 75 students. There are no formal grade levels; instead students are divided into three broadly-defined groups—foundational elementary, upper elementary and middle school. So far, none of the 450 kids attending the schools has been older than 14.
But in response to Ventilla’s concern about what he saw as a cookie cutter approach to education, AltSchool classrooms are designed as little learning labs. Each student works with a highly individualized “playlist,” a personalized lesson plan based not just on his or her interests, but also how and under what conditions he or she is most motivated to learn. Does working in a group bring out their best, for example? Or, maybe they’re more productive when they engage with just one partner, or work alone?
And, true to Ventilla’s Silicon Valley roots, the AltSchool experience is built on a heavy base of technology. Not technology as defined by kids looking at screens, but rather as a way to gather meaningful data about how kids learn, and to help teachers track students’ progress more quantitatively, and on a daily basis. Everything that happens in an AltSchool classroom, for instance, is recorded by custom-built cameras and microphones, with the purpose of allowing teachers to go back and try to identify when and why a student made strides in a particular subject. This innovative take on education is featured in a NOVA special, “School of the Future,” about some of the science and solutions that could redesign American education, airing on PBS at 9 p.m. ET tonight. Viewers can stream the full, two-hour special starting tomorrow.
Ventilla talks about educators becoming “data-driven detectives,” and the collaboration of AltSchool teachers with the company’s engineers epitomizes that shifting role—the company has almost as many of the latter as the former. The goal is to develop a feedback loop that fosters constant tweaking. On one hand, the developers are charged with coming up with tech methods that simplify or reduce teacher tasks that don’t have much to do with teaching. On the other, they’re tapping into the teachers’ experience in evaluating student performance and identifying progress, and using that knowledge to create the kind of metrics that can be passed on. That, says Ventilla, is how knowledge gained from an AltSchool classroom could be used to help a similar type of student in a similar situation, but in a different school.
Building a network
The goal of sharing what it learns about learning with outside schools is very much a focus of AltSchool right now. While it plans to open two more of its own schools next fall—another one in Manhattan and the first in Chicago—more of the emphasis will shift to developing a network of partner schools.
Last spring, at the SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas, AltSchool kicked off what it calls Phase 2 of its business plan when Ventilla announced the launch of AltSchool Open. The first step was to solicit potential partners—other private schools that were interested in adopting the AltSchool model and licensing its software.
Almost 200 schools responded, according to AltSchool Chief Operating Officer Coddy Johnson, and over the past six months, that list has been winnowed down to a handful. A final selection of its first partners is expected in the next few weeks.
Most likely, they will be other small private schools that place high priority on empowering students through more personalized learning. To start with, says Johnson, it might be just one partner school.
“We’re taking a long view,” Johnson explains. “We believe this is a decade-long process to get right. And the thing we worry about early on is that if we prioritize scale over quality and learning, we will have to go back and fix a bunch of things.”Each student works with a highly individualized “playlist,” a personalized lesson plan based not just on his or her interests, but also how and under what conditions he or she is most motivated to learn. (AltSchool)
AltSchool partners, he says, will gain access to the company’s proprietary software enabling them to develop a “portrait” of each student as a learner, both academically and emotionally, and also create “playlists” for every kid, based on his or her portrait. This would include curriculum, activities and projects that, based on data analysis, would likely help that particular student learn better and grow.
AltSchool would also provide training to teachers at partner schools, ensuring that they use the software tools effectively and working with them to personalize the learning process. Plus, it would share reports on its own best practices on everything from truly effective study projects to the logistics of student pickups and drop-offs.
“We don’t want them to feel like they’re standing alone in tackling problems,” says Johnson. “We know they’re dealing with the same challenges we’ve faced in personalizing education, but they haven’t had the benefit of a bunch of venture capital to build the program right.”
Planning for the future
Johnson is referring to the hefty dose of funding—an estimated $133 million in venture capital and venture debt—that AltSchool has received from some of Silicon Valley’s big name investors, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
That’s based on the company’s long-term strategy of one day being able to license its software and data analysis of individualized learning to public school systems. That’s still a ways off, at least five to seven years, estimates Johnson. The idea is to first build out a network slowly. “We’ll start with schools that look like ours,” he says, “but want to expand the frontier each year, from more progressive charter schools to more progressive public schools to more traditional schools.”
Initially, the focus will be on refining the AltSchool model so that it zeroes in how to make personalized education most effective for all kinds of students. But eventually, as the partner network grows, the data gathered from outside schools—anonymized to protect the identities of students—will be added to the mix. And that, suggests Johnson, would continue to increase the quality and breadth of what’s known about learning.
“We hope that approach can be increasingly embraced by school systems and by doing that, you advance education to a place where every student you add makes the system better,” he says.
For his part, Ventilla, the company’s founder and CEO, believes AltSchool’s emphasis on “social and emotional learning” is better suited for the workplace of the future, one in which both collaboration and being entrepreneurial will likely be much valued. And, he says, it’s important for children to be educated in a dynamic environment, where change is a constant.
“We’re creating an environment that accustoms kids to what it’s like to operate with a lifelong growth mindset. And what it’s like to be around people working in a 21st century manner,” Ventilla says. “When you're talking about kids under the age of 10, they learn primarily through osmosis. They don’t learn by being told. They learn by seeing what’s around them.”
Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a suit!
And not just any suit! It's the signature blue, red, and yellow suit mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent wore as Superman, and it's flying in from the Smithsonian for a special appearance. See it at the Ohio History Center, the headquarters of Ohio History Connection, in Columbus starting Saturday, October 10, 2015.
It'll join more items of 1950s pop culture newly added to the exhibit 1950s: Building the American Dream, where you can see it from October 10, 2015, through January 3, 2016.
On special loan from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., the super suit was worn by actor George Reeves, who portrayed mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent and his heroic alter ego, Superman, in the TV series the Adventures of Superman, which aired nationally from 1952–1958.
To learn more about Superman.s signature suit, we interviewed Dwight Blocker Bowers, a graduate of Ohio's Hiram College who's now Curator of Entertainment History for the National Museum of American History.
How did the Smithsonian come to have the Superman suit?
The suit came to the Smithsonian from D.C. Comics, which owns the rights to Superman. In 1987, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History did an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of Superman, and D.C. Comics donated the suit along with many other Superman items, including watches, games, a cookie jar and a poster for the 1966 Broadway musical It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman.
Who made the suit?
We don't know exactly. It isn't credited, although we do know that a designer named Izzy Berne did costumes for the Adventures of Superman from 1952–1954.
What's it made of?
It's wool jersey and was worn with a muscle suit made of cotton muslin underneath, which would have made it very hot under TV lights. It's quite durable—even after all this time, it still has no snags.
Who wore the Superman suit?
It was made to be worn by George Reeves. He went from playing Brent Tarleton, one of the Tarleton twins who appear in the first scene of Gone With the Wind, to "B" films in the 1940s. I think TV saved his career—Superman made him a star, something he hadn't attained in film.
What's the coolest thing about it?
The big red "S" on the chest.
Was there more than one suit?
It was probably one of several. There were usually backups.
Are there stories or legends about it?
There's nothing about the suit itself. D.C. Comics claimed the suit after the Adventures of Superman ended, and it stayed in D.C.'s vaults until it came to the Smithsonian.
Is it normally on display at the Smithsonian?
It was on exhibit in the museum's Popular Culture Hall until 2006, when the museum closed for renovation. The museum has since reopened and the Superman suit will go back on display in a future exhibition exploring American culture from the colonial era to the present.
Have you acquired any Superpowers through your association with it?
No—it doesn't seem to transmit its powers.
What's this about a grey-and-black suit?
There was a grey-and-black version with a brown belt, made for filming the show in black-and-white. In black-and-white, it looked the same as the blue, red, and yellow one does. We'd love to know where it is.
Are there issues you face in preserving the Superman suit?
We exhibit it on a custom-made mannequin so it doesn't get distorted in any way, and we keep it out of light when it's not on display—light is the biggest enemy of fabric.
Why is it important for the Smithsonian to preserve items like this?
Superman's motto is "truth, justice and the American way." He's an icon of American culture.
Why do you think that Superman has remained so popular for so many years?
We're always looking for a hero. Superman has stayed rooted in American culture, and his exploits weren't so fantastic that we couldn't understand them. He's durable—every generation remakes or recasts him. For example, to many Americans of the 1930s, when Superman first came into being, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose programs and efforts helped save the day by pulling the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, seemed a real-life counterpart of the fictional superhero.
It's also the media—Superman has been represented in every form of media, from print and films to Broadway. The 1966 Broadway musical It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman at the Alvin Theatre in New York wasn't a big hit—it ran for 129 performances—but it was well-reviewed and had a good score—as good, I think, as Bye Bye Birdie by the same composer-lyricist team. It got amazingly good reviews for a show that ran for a very short period. There was also a version of the musical done for TV in 1975. It was campy and didn't even make prime time—it appeared as a late night movie. You can still see it on YouTube.
Does the Smithsonian have the costumes of other superheroes?
Yes—among others, we have Wolverine from X-Men: Days of Future Past, the cowl George Clooney wore as Batman in the movie Batman & Robin, Spider-Man from the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and Xena from the movie Xena—Warrior Princess.
How did you come to be at the Smithsonian?
I came here in 1981 to produce record albums, then gravitated toward entertainment history and, as the heroine of Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes said, "fate just keeps happening to me."
What's the best thing about your job?
Going into the collections room and having the opportunity to interact with stuff I never thought I would, especially the puppets—we have Charlie McCarthy, Howdy Doody and Kermit the Frog. One of my favorite objects is two pieces of wood hinged together that make a slapping sound—a literal slapstick from the early days of American comedy. Also, having the opportunity to meet some of the people who've created America's entertainment legacy—for example, Carol Burnett. (The museum has the famous green drapery-rod dress she wore in her 1976 parody of Gone With the Wind.) You pinch yourself and say "I can't believe this is happening to me."
Are there sources you can suggest for learning more about Superman?
Yes—the book Superman: Serial to Cereal by Gary H. Grossman. I refer to it a lot.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Echoes, newsletter of the Ohio History Connection.
There’s a magical ascendency to Patrick Dougherty’s work. The world-renowned sculptor, who twists switches and saplings into towering whimsical structures, holds a kind of sovereignty over the simple stick.
You wouldn’t immediately recognize his supremacy upon meeting the mild-mannered craftsman from North Carolina, but he has created more than 250 site-specific sculptures on four continents over the past three decades using hundreds of truckloads of sticks.
“A stick is an imaginative object,” says Dougherty, while taking a break recently from the installation of his new work Shindig at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
A parade of playful tent-like structures lean against the gallery walls or appear to be roaming about the 2,400 square-foot room. Soaring 16-and a-half-feet-high, the tips of their switches tease at the ceiling lights of the newly renovated museum. They look, in fact, like individuals possessing a hint of a mischief, as if when the lights go down at night they might take off in a whirl of dance.
But by day, they evoke that primordial need for shelter, and visitors will likely want to hide inside of them.
“I think we have a kind of shadow life of our hunting and gathering past, especially in our childhood play. Because a stick—a piece of wood—is an object that has an incredible amount of vibration for us,” says Dougherty. In a child’s hands, a stick becomes a marching baton, a flute, a sword or even just a simple tool to poke at, or flick something away.
“Sticks really give me a lot of energy,” he says. “I’m very keen to the material and I feel like I sense the potential of a sapling.”
Indeed, since his first visit to the Smithsonian Institution in 2000 when he built Whatchamacallit at the National Museum of Natural History, Dougherty has become known as the "Stickman." And like a capstone to a full and engaging career, he returns now to welcome the Renwick Gallery back to life as it reopens on November 13 after a two-year, $30 million renovation, and as one of nine contemporary artists in the museum’s inaugural exhibition entitled “Wonder,” named for the awe and splendor that these works bring to the museum’s galleries.
Image by Zan Maddox. Ain't Misbehavin' 2010,Winthrop University, Rock Hill, South Carolina (original image)
Image by Duncan Price. Call of the Wild, 2002, Museum of Glass, Tacoma, Washington (original image)
Image by Fin Macrae. Close Ties, 2006, Scottish Basketmakers Circle, Dingwall, Scotland (original image)
Image by Chandler Curlee. Double or Nothing, 2011, Washington University, st. Louis, Missouri (original image)
Image by Sapristi-Emmanuell Tran-le. Fit for a Queen, 2014, Ville de Nantes, France (original image)
Image by Doyle Dean. Just Around the Corner, 2003, New Harmony Gallery, New Harmony, Indiana (original image)
Image by Paul Kodama. Na Hale 'Eo Waiawi, 2003, Contemporary Art Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii (original image)
Image by Charles Crie. Sortie de Cave, 2008 Jardin des Arts, Chateaubourg, france (original image)
Image by Solku Choi. Traveling Companions, 2013, Deokpyeong Ecoland, Seoul, Korea (original image)
Image by Rob Cardillo. Summer Palace, 2009, Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (original image)
To Dougherty, the stick is a tapered line of a drawing. He thinks of his works as illustration and the sticks as the lines of his drawing. But the ease with which he does his work is illusory. There's a lot more to it then it seems. Only after years of painstaking craftsmanship, can he build them as if by magic.
First there is the gathering of the material. Volunteers clamor to help. “There are a lot of closet stick gatherers out there, it turns out,” he says with a chuckle.
And then later, the volunteers join him to build the structure. Dougherty starts the process, crafting out the base of the structure, marking it with paint or rope and then weaving it all together stick after stick before finally finishing it, loosening, clipping and correcting, with his only tool—a pair of pruning clippers. Sometimes his volunteers are a little too good at weaving, he says, a little too tight sometimes. "I'll go around and loosen it up and give the surface a sense of the flyaway."
And the weaving is nothing like that of a basket. “Don’t go horizontal or vertical,” he tells his helpers. “It’s not geometric. We want it to be more loose and friendly.”
Dougherty found his artistry only after a first career as a hospital administrator, But in the early 1970s, after leaving his job to care for his two children while his first wife worked, he bought property and built a home by hand, using as guidance the how-to Foxfire books, popular with the back-to-the-land movement of the time.
Finding in that creation his passion, he went back to school and sought training as an artist. His first sculpture—a funerary piece, evocative of a cocoon—he built out of maple saplings at his backyard picnic table.
“One could imagine a kind of personage in there for its final resting place,” he recalls. The work entitled Maple Body Wrap was included in the North Carolina Biennial exhibition. And Dougherty’s career took off from there.
His influence was the artist Robert Smithson, known for his provocative large scale earthworks. “I was kind of bent on making really big things. Smithson’s work freed up my mind. I didn’t have to follow the normal rules. Smithson stepped out of line, but for me that was the beginning,” he laughs.
The busy artist has been traveling the world making one monumental sculpture after another from Scotland to Korea to Australia and across the United States, one every three weeks after which he takes a week off—as many as ten a year. He’s booked solid through 2017. Here in Washington, D.C., the sculpture he’s crafted is one he thinks of as “natural beings, windswept, or energized and activating the space.”
An energy perhaps that is channeled from their creator, who beneath his thoughtful and patient demeanor seems never to rest. (He didn’t own a sofa until his second wife, Linda Johnson Dougherty, the chief curator of contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, made him buy one—because he never sat down.)
The challenge of his schedule and the constant travel is underscored by the simple way he gathers his materials, patiently teaching, instructing and showing his volunteers as if he is mentoring hundreds of future stick sculptors. He explains the best wood—maple saplings are his preference but sweetgum will do. No, he doesn’t like poplar—cutting and bundling, and then bringing them to the next location.
At the Smithsonian, the sticks had to be custom prepped. Leaves were removed and then the wood was frozen first to kill pests and then treated with a fire retardant.
Each site where he is invited to work is a blank page or canvas, says the artist who rarely comes with a design in mind.
“I don’t do research. I try to remember how I feel about a place and I make word associations with each location so that I can try to get something going,” he says. It might be something someone says. Or the way the trees line up on the horizon or the way a rooftop of a nearby building fits into the landscape. And soon the creative process begins. “I start imagining that I could make something provocative in that space.”
Dougherty, dressed in jeans and greeting a reporter with a solid workman's handshake, explains his art in a refreshingly uncomplicated manner.
How long do they last? "One year and one pretty good year." Why do they lean? "For fun." Why are they so inviting? “Everyone, even adults, responds to the idea of simple shelter. There’s a call to just go in there and sit.”
And why call this work Shindig? “They are having a hell of a good time.”
Patrick Dougherty is one of nine contemporary artists featured in the exhibition “Wonder,” on view November 13, 2015 through July 10, 2016, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
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January 17, 1920, was an important day in American history. Why? Because on that day the grand social experiment called Prohibition was first enforced. The Volstead Act, the law that put enforcement teeth into the Eighteenth Amendment, banning intoxicating beverages, went into effect. The transformation of the nation from an alcoholic republic to a dry state created a surprising list of winners and losers.Real photo postcard, 1907
From frontier saloons to prohibition era speakeasies, drinking has held a romantic place in the American imagination.
Let’s start with the obvious people who lost out: drinkers, especially working-class immigrants. Temperance advocates worried about immigrant men who gathered—and drank—in saloons. “Alien illiterates rule our cities today; the saloon is their palace,” proclaimed prominent Prohibitionist Frances Willard. Of course many temperance advocates had a double standard; a drink for themselves with dinner was good manners, but booze for others (especially working-class people) was dangerous.
The increasing number of immigrants, and their bars, was a source of race- and class-based fear for many white middle- and upper-class people born in the United States. By 1900, there were 300,000 saloons across the nation (one for every three hundred citizens), and they were heavily concentrated in urban areas. The neighborhood drinking establishment was where working-class men aired grievances, organized politically, and found jobs. The patrons, speaking their native languages (such as German, Croatian, and Italian, among others), worried Temperance advocates who feared the saloon customers were socialists or communists and perhaps fomenting political upheaval. To save America, the saloon must go.Before Prohibition, breweries were largely local, serving distinct ethnic communities. By 1895, the Bauernschmidt brewery was the largest brewery in Baltimore, producing 60,000 barrels per year for the city’s heavily German population.
While Prohibition may have killed saloon culture, it didn’t end the consumption of alcohol. Working-class men moved their drinking from saloons into their homes, private halls, “athletic clubs,” and illicit bars. Affluent Americans also continued to drink. Famed Chicago mob boss Al Capone was reported to have said “When I sell liquor, it is bootlegging. . . . When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it is hospitality.”The cocktail hour was born as Americans, responding to Prohibition, increasingly began drinking at home.
One unexpected downside of Prohibition was its impact on the health of the nation. While alcohol consumption initially decreased after implementation of the Volstead Act, working-class consumers soon turned to alternative forms of alcohol, not all of which were safe. Patent medicine and over-the-counter goods with a high percentage of alcohol (even hair tonic) were consumed for off-label purposes.Desperate drinkers used products like Ed. Pinaud hair tonic (68% alcohol), masking them with flavoring and consuming them as beverages.
Tainted alcohol was an even bigger problem—especially for poor people. Alcohol is an important industrial chemical, and large quantities are produced for use as solvents in paint, antifreeze, and other non-potable substances. Industrial alcohol is not taxed like drinking alcohol and is denatured (purposely adulterated) to make it unattractive for human consumption. During Prohibition, denatured ethyl alcohol and deadly methyl alcohol found their way into the U.S. beverage stream. Many people got sick and some died from unregulated and tainted alcohol.
Retailers and producers of alcohol also lost out during Prohibition. Closing saloons was not only a blow for men who frequented the drinking establishments, but meant a significant loss of business in immigrant communities. Of all licensed saloons, 80% were owned by first-generation Americans.Joseph Schlitz Beverage Company produced the non-intoxicating beer-like beverage FAMO during Prohibition.
Some beer producers turned to legal nonalcoholic beverages, but with only limited success. Others made ice cream, cheese, ceramics, and even homebrewing supplies. Vintners and distillers had different options. Since the United States has a large religious population, the Volstead Act allowed for the production and shipment of sacramental wine. Sales went up with Prohibition, essentially making some priests and rabbis bootleggers. A 1925 report by the Department of Research and Education of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ angrily reported that “there is no way of knowing what the legitimate consumption of fermented sacramental wine is, but it is clear that the legitimate demand does not increase 800,000 gallons in two years.”This bottle of Prohibition-era whiskey tells the story of another loophole.
Most distillers closed their operations during Prohibition, but another loophole in the Volstead Act allowed for the sale of medical whiskey. While medicinal whiskey had been sold by pharmacies for years, sales skyrocketed during Prohibition. Affluent customers could afford the three-dollar physician visit to get a prescription for legally purchasing their whiskey. In general, however, alcohol producers and retailers took a financial loss during Prohibition.Throughout the 1920s, doctors could use their medical liquor prescription pads to write 100 authorizations for booze a month. Patients could get a refill for one pint every 10 days.
But, not all sellers of alcohol took a loss. The amount of money to be made in bootlegging was astronomical. Booze is big business. According to United States Attorney Emory Buckner, bootleg liquor sales in 1926 amounted to $3.6 billion. That was about the same as the U.S. federal budget at the time. Bootlegging was an opportunity for entrepreneurial criminals to become fast millionaires. But smuggling, transporting, and distributing large amounts of alcohol was complicated. Criminals organized national operations to manage and conduct their business. Where crime had once been local, the Volstead Act inadvertently promoted the development of organized crime. And competition between rival operations soon became violent.Thompson sub-machine gun, 1921.
Rivalry between criminals for control of the lucrative bootlegging trade led to hyper-competition and violence. Public panic over brutal crime that spilled into the streets was a significant factor in driving the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.
Despite Prohibition, many Americans chose to flout the law and continue consuming alcohol at home or in illicit bars. Making matters worse, the poorly paid Prohibition officers hired to enforce the Volstead Act often found lucrative opportunities in criminal sales of alcohol. The resulting rise in government graft and corruption led to a lack of respect for authority that continued after Prohibition was repealed.Motivated in part by the violence of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, a bloody conflict between rival bootlegging gangs, the temperance organization The Crusaders formed to argue for the repeal of Prohibition.
Who were the winners during Prohibition? One was quick meals. As saloons closed during the first decade of Prohibition, the number of restaurants in the country tripled, and eating patterns changed with the rise of quick meals. Luncheonettes, cafeterias, and soda fountains sprang up in largely urban neighborhoods catering to middle-class and lower-middle-class workers.The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was the largest women’s organization in 1890.
Women helped win the argument for Prohibition. White protestant women were the principle advocates for Prohibition. Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League made a moral argument, claiming that men squandered money on drunkenness, putting their wives and children at risk. Women’s and family rights were recognized and protected to a degree by Prohibition. More importantly, these activist groups not only won their argument when Prohibition became law, they developed skills and expectations that applied to another cause: woman suffrage. In general, the 1920s was an era of increased rights for women (although to different degrees).Campaign booklet, 1932
The ultimate loser in the tale of Prohibition was the Eighteenth Amendment itself. Andrew Volstead, author of the Prohibition enforcement act, was defeated in 1922 in his bid for an 11th term in Congress. Widespread unemployment and the economic chaos of the Great Depression fueled political upheaval. The 1932 elections swept many “wets” (politicians opposed to Prohibition) into office. Widely considered unenforceable and a failure, the Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment were repealed by passage and ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933. The effort for a government-led common good (Prohibition) was replaced by a public desire for a good time. Americans could legally drink again.A mug of beer takes prominence in this banner celebrating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932
presidential victory and the end of Prohibition.
Peter Liebhold is a co-curator of the American Enterprise exhibition in the Mars Hall of American Business.
Earnest Pletch was mad on planes and mad on flying. In itself, that was scarcely uncommon in the America of the 1930s, a dozen years after Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic turned the United States into the epicentre of everything exciting in the aviation world. Yet Pletch was a pretty unusual case. He came from a well-off family, but had dropped out of school to find work in a travelling show. He was a serial husband and adulterer who was already, at the age of 29, planning to abandon his third wife. And he had actually been taking flying lessons.
Now – late on the afternoon of October 27, 1939 – Pletch was looking forward to going solo. He was not going to take the controls in the usual way, however. He was going to do so after shooting his pilot in the back of the head.
He may be long forgotten now, but Pletch came briefly to America’s attention that autumn after chartering a flight in Missouri with a pilot by the name of Carl Bivens. Midway through the third of these sessions, while airborne at 5,000 feet and sitting in the rear seat of a tandem training plane equipped with dual controls, he pulled a revolver from a trouser pocket and, without giving any warning, sent two .32 caliber bullets through Bivens’s skull. Pletch then managed to land the plane, dumped the instructor’s body in a thicket, and took off again, heading north to his home state to…well, what he intended to do was never really clear.
Pletch (who was known to his family as Larry) came from an apparently good home. His father, Guy, was a wealthy farmer and a county legislator from Frankfort, Indiana, and the young Earnest seems to have grown up wanting for little. Like many young men in the interwar period, he was a decent mechanic and a self-proclaimed inventor, and, while he was still at school, he began begging his father to buy him an aircraft. It was at this point that Pletch first revealed the self-centeredness that characterizes his life story. Told that he would have to graduate from high school first, he instead left school in disgust around 1926 and impulsively married the first of his at least four wives.
It seems likely that Pletch more or less lost contact with his family at about this time. Later, he would tell the authorities that he had stolen Bivens’s plane so that he could fly it into the side of his father’s barn – which would certainly have made some sort of statement. In the end, he never went through with that plan. But the peripatetic life that the young Pletch led between 1926 and 1939 was scarcely something that his father would have approved of, and perhaps that was the point.Earnest Pletch, ‘The Flying Lochinvar': pioneer highjacker and committer of a spectacularly pointless murder
How Pletch supported himself for most of those dozen years is largely unknown. One newspaper of the period described him as a “farm hand,” but it seems more likely that he made a living as a mechanic, since he “preferred repairing cars and tractors to working on the family farm.” According to his own account, he began to study flying seriously in 1935, working solely from books. He doesn’t seem to have laid his hands on an actual aircraft until 1938, when – according to his obituary – he took a job at a traveling fair that offered brief airplane rides to thrill-seeking locals.
This was no ordinary job, and Pletch was working with no ordinary fair. His employer was the Royal American Shows, an enormous traveling funfair that toured through the United States and Canada for nine months each year, billing itself both as “the most beautiful show on earth” and as the proud possessor of “the world’s largest midway.” The attractions that Pletch would have worked alongside included girlie shows that featured the likes of Gypsy Rose Lee. When the fair traveled, it did so using its own special train, which at its peak consisted of almost 100 carriages.
In June 1938, now 28 years old and feeling that he had learned all that he could from reading books and watching the pilots of the Royal American, Pletch returned home to Frankfort. While there, he stole an aircraft in the middle of the night and – incredibly – managed not only to take off, but also to return safely to ground in it. “It was the first time I had ever been at the controls,” he later bragged. “The boys said it couldn’t be done. I took off in that plane at three o’clock in the morning and flew it to Danville, Illinois [about 75 miles due west], and landed it in a seven-acre field.”
Presuming that the missing plane would be reported, Pletch kept moving. From Danville, he flew to Vernon, Illinois, where he set up as a freelance pilot offering thrill rides to paying customers. It’s hard to say how long he might have contrived to keep this business going before anyone caught up with him, because he managed, in short order, to get himself entangled in yet another problem. One of the customers who paid for a ride in his plane was a 17-year-old Vernon girl by the name of Goldie Gehrken. Pletch (who was calling himself Larry Thompson and claiming to be 24, five years younger than his real age) quickly fell for her, and the pair embarked on a five day aerial romance, flying from place to place around the state while Pletch repeatedly begged Gehrken to marry him. When she refused, Pletch abandoned her, leaving her sitting under a tree in a field while he flew off.
The girl’s parents, who had been frantically searching for her for the best part of a week, professed themselves reluctant to press charges – because, the mother said, “the young man took such good care of our daughter.” But the police proved less accommodating. Pletch was tracked down and arrested, charged with theft and then freed on bond to await a trial and likely a spell of imprisonment. That trial was scheduled to begin the week after he murdered Carl Bivens and made off with his plane.
The precise circumstances of the Bivens murder are rendered hazy by the endless lies that Pletch spun after the shooting. It seems, though, that he had rejoined the Royal American Shows and that it was the carnival that took him to Missouri – where, in September 1939, he married Francis Bales, of Palmyra. She may have met him at the fair, and she was, apparently, his third wife. Whatever the truth, the marriage didn’t last. Bales left Pletch after only a few days – one source says that he robbed her – and not much more than a month later, after borrowing a car in which he searched unsuccessfully for his missing wife, he did something just as impulsive, but with vastly more serious consequences. He pitched up in the little town of Brookfield, Missouri, and asked Carl Bivens to teach him to fly.Carl Bivens’s fatal encounter with Earnest Pletch over Missouri left a wife without a husband, and two sons without a father.
Pletch took two lessons on the cool autumn afternoon of October 28, and they went well enough for him to request a third flight in the little yellow Taylor Club monoplane that Bivens had borrowed from a friend. It was 40 minutes into that third session, while “zipping along” at about 5,000 feet, that the instructor was murdered.
Pletch’s motive for killing Bivens was never really clear. He gave several different versions of events, saying at one point that he had plotted to steal the plane in order to use it to test his inventions – which supposedly included a new sort of high-performance aviation fuel – and at another, in an account that was rather plainly intended to reduce the charge he faced from first to second degree murder, that he and the instructor had agreed to abscond together in the plane and head for Mexico.
In this version of events, Bivens had tried to back out of the deal while in mid-air above Missouri. Pletch’s story was that the two men had argued – “I told him that he was not going to double-cross me” – and that Bivens had reached back and attempted to grapple with him, losing control of the plane in the process. It was only because he feared that they were about to crash, Pletch said, that he drew his gun and fired. The best evidence that this was simply a lie can be found in the killer’s own account; having claimed that he acted in a panic to save his own life, Pletch went on to concede that the emergency only really began after he had shot the pilot: “The ship began to pitch and then to dive,” he claimed. “I remembered reading about a dying man ‘stiffening at the controls,’ and then I fired another shot… I reached forward and pulled his body away from the controls, and after a few seconds I got the plane straightened out.”
Given the seating arrangement in the plane (Bivens was seated directly in front of Pletch, and also had to fly the aircraft, meaning that he was scarcely in a position to seriously threaten his student), this last story rings spectacularly false. It seems much more likely that the murder was nothing more than a means to an end, and that Pletch was simply doing what he had already done once before – stealing a plane and fleeing his responsibilities, albeit in a startlingly strange and brutal manner. He seems to have hinted as much in what was probably the closest that he ever came to telling the truth, a statement made to prosecutors in Missouri:
Carl was telling me that I had a natural ability, and I should follow that line [a career in aviation]. I had a revolver in my pocket and without saying a word to him, I took it out of my overalls and I fired a bullet into the back of his head. He never knew what struck him.
Having landed briefly in order to dispose of Bivens’s body – which he did, after relieving the dead man of his wrist watch and several hundred dollars in cash, by dumping it in a cow pasture near Cherry Box, Missouri – Pletch flew north. He landed in another field as it grew dark, spending the night in a barn and moving on first thing in the morning. He was heading, apparently, for his parents home, and even circled over it – but, having decided against the suicidal plan of crashing into his father’s barn, he landed instead in a field in Clear Creek, just outside the central Indiana town of Bloomington. It was dusk by then, and just over a day since the murder: plenty of time for Bivens’s body to be discovered and for word of the stolen plane to spread through the Midwest.
The first people in Clear Creek to notice the plane’s approach were two young children, Bobby Joe and Jimmy Logsdon. The brothers had been doing chores when they heard the sound of an engine overhead. Bobby Joe, who was “crazy about aviation,” just like Pletch, had never seen or heard a plane at such close quarters, but his father would not allow him to run out to touch the aircraft as he wanted to. Plenty of others did hurry to the site, however – nothing quite so exciting had happened in the little farming community for years – and when Pletch climbed down from the cockpit and asked if there was anywhere nearby to eat, they pointed him in the direction of the Williams & Wampler General Store, which had a lunch counter that served hamburgers and coffee.
There was still enough light for several of the locals crowding around the plane to notice something suspicious about the pilot: there was blood on the front of his blue overalls. Pletch explained the stains away by saying that it came from “a nosebleed that he got from the altitude,” but word of his arrival quickly reached Clear Creek’s telephone operator, Bertha Manner, and she had been listening to her radio when it reported a sighting of Pletch’s stolen yellow aeroplane as it circled over Frankfort. Manner, who prided herself on her “vivid imagination and a nose for news,” lost no time in calling the Bloomington police.
Interviewed by a local reporter 70 years after the events of that exciting evening, Bobby Joe Logsdon recalled that the phone soon rang in the general store:
Bill Wampler answered it. The deputy instructed Bill to say only ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in response to his questions. He asked if the pilot was there, then if Bill could stall him, but not to do anything foolish because the man was dangerous. Bill was frying the hamburgers for the pilot. He was a nervous, jittery kind of a guy, but he just scooted the burgers over to the cool part of the grill so they wouldn’t cook so fast.
Thanks to Wampler’s quick thinking, Pletch was still in the middle of his meal when the state and local police arrived and surrounded the building. He gave up without a fight, turned over his pistol, and was led away from the store in handcuffs. Interviewed in Monroe County Jail, he made much of his love for aircraft. “I would rather fly than eat,” he said.
The case threatened to establish some interesting legal precedents. It was, to begin with, the first case of highjacking, or “air piracy”, in the United States – the Chicago Tribune termed it “one of the most spectacular crimes of the 20th century, and what is believed to be the first airplane kidnap murder on record.” Since Pletch could not really navigate (and had every incentive, in any case, to fudge the issue), it was also not at all clear exactly where the murder had occurred, and hence where the case ought to be tried. In the course of their lesson, Bivens and Pletch had flown over three Missouri counties, each of which was a separate jurisdiction. That was confusing enough, but – as James L. Robinson, a law professor and director of the Indiana University Institute of Criminal Law pointed out – the statutes in force at the time had not been drafted to take account of killings that took place in mid-air.
“Suppose a murder is committed in an airplane out of sight of land,” Robinson hypothesized, “making it impossible to prove the county over which the offense occurred. Could the murder be prosecuted, and, if so, where?”Etta Bivens and her son Russell shortly after hearing news of Carl Bivens’s murder. Etta asked for mercy for the killer, but did not intend what happened next.
Unfortunately for Earnest Pletch, the prosecutors in Missouri took a much less abstract approach when he was handed over to them next day. There was some potential for a tussle – Fred Bollow, who was the prosecutor for Shelby County, where Bivens’s body had been found, lost little time in filing murder charges. But the plane had spent most of its time in the air over neighboring Macon County, and Bollow’s colleague there, Vincent Moody – “holding Pletch’s confession authentic as to the murder location” – successfully claimed jurisdiction.
Moody wasted no time in bringing Pletch to court – feelings were running so high in the district that there were fears that he might be lynched if there was any delay – and the killer himself speeded things along by waiving his right to a preliminary hearing. When he was brought into the sparsely attended court on 1 November, he pleaded guilty.
There seems little doubt that this was a legal maneuver designed to give Pletch the best possible chance of avoiding the death penalty, but it was Etta Bivens who did more than anyone to save her husband’s killer from an appointment with the gas chamber. She told the presiding judge, Harry J. Libby, that she did not wish to seek the death penalty. Instead, Libby sentenced Pletch to life – having first extracted a promise that he would never apply for either pardon or parole.
What happened next remained something of a mystery for many years. Pletch certainly lived on, and on, finally dying at the age of 91 in June 2001. That ought to have meant that he served a sentence of almost 62 years in Missouri State Prison, long enough to win him an unwelcome place on the list of the ten longest sentences ever served in American jails. When Pamela Keech, an Indiana journalist who interviewed the surviving witnesses to his plane’s landing for Bloom magazine in 2009 wrote up her story, she assumed that Pletch had died in jail.
My own research shows that that was not the case. The U.S. Social Security Death Index lists Pletch, but gives the place of his death as Eldridge, Missouri – an isolated spot nowhere near any of the state’s prisons. And a careful search of local newspapers revealed that Pletch’s name cropped up twice among the small ads published by the Kansas City Star years earlier, in 1964 and 1965 – on the first occasion selling a “new ranch type house” together with an associated lot on the Lake of the Ozarks, and on the second auctioning a service station, together with “several items of personal property including boats, motors, café equipment, and some antiques.” Not only that – a man by the name of Earnest Pletch had found employment as a pilot with a firm called Cox Aviation and married a woman named Mary Leap on the day after Christmas 1973. There must have been other wives as well; when this Pletch died, he left 16 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.
It took some correspondence with the Missouri State Archives to resolve the problem – and reveal an outcome that the merciful Etta Bivens surely never intended when she interceded to save Pletch’s life in 1939. The killer, it turned out, had served less than 20 years for the murder of her husband. Pletch had kept his promise not to apply for a pardon or parole, but then he hardly needed to – his life sentence had been commuted to one of 25 years on January 9, 1953, then further commuted on March 1, 1957, the day of his release.
“We looked at the commutation records,” an archivist wrote, “and they do not give any information as to why his sentence was commuted twice… Commutations for convicted murderers or people with life sentences were fairly common. Overcrowding was an endemic problem at the [Missouri State Prison], so prisoners with good behavior were often let out early.”
There does not seem to be any evidence that Earnest Pletch committed any further crimes after his early release. Perhaps he realized he was lucky. Lucky to have landed the Taylor Club successfully that Friday afternoon with a dead man at the dual controls. Lucky not to have been executed when he was sent back to Missouri. Lucky, again, to have served his time in a grossly overcrowded jail such that commutation was his way to freedom. But fortunate above all to have been offered mercy by a woman to whose husband he had shown no mercy at all.
Contemporary newspapers: Capital Times [Madison, WI], 8 Jul 1938; Miami News [FLA], 8 Jul 1939; Daily Republican [Monogahela, PA] 12 Jul 1939; Vidette-Messenger [Valparaiso, IN], 12 Jul 1939; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, 30 Oct 1939; Sweetwater Reporter, 30 Oct 1939; San Jose Evening News, 30 Oct 1939; Evening Courier (Prescott, AZ), 30 Oct 1939; Montreal Gazette, 30 Oct 1939; Spartenburg Herald, 1 Nov 1939; Joplin Globe, 1 Nov 1939; Ottawa Journal, 2 Nov 1939; and Kansas City Star, 27 Sep 1964 and 13 Jun 1965. Other sources: Private correspondence with Missouri State Archives, July 2014, author’s files; Pamela Keech. “The killer who fell from the sky: a true-life B-town crime story,” Bloom [Bloomington, IN], Oct-Nov 2009; Missouri Obituary and Death Notice Archive; United States Social Security Death Index.
This story was originally published on Dash's "All Kinds of History" blog. Stay tuned for more amazing stories from Mike in the months to come.
José Feliciano will remain forever celebrated for his perennial Christmas classic "Feliz Navidad," one of his many hit recordings that have resulted in 45 Gold and Platinum records and eight Grammy awards. His launch to stardom began 50 years ago, with his hit 1968 recording of "Light My Fire," but it was not until his appearance at a baseball game later that fall that he truly became a household name.In 1967 this guitar was custom built for José Feliciano. On it, he recorded his first hit in 1968, "Light My Fire," and performed before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series.In 2018, Jose Feliciano welcomed new citizens into the United States during a naturalization ceremony hosted by the National Museum of American History.
Indeed, his early life in Lares, Puerto Rico, and then in New York City, where his family moved when he was five, conjured for him spectacular visions of the brilliant traditions of American music, song, and . . . baseball. So when he was asked to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series at Detroit's Tiger Stadium, he crafted the most beautiful, and meaningful, rendition that he could imagine. He was only 23 at the time, and his interpretation of the anthem was unexpected, new, different, and vital. It was soulful and searching. Steeped in blues and folk music traditions and seasoned with the percolation of his fingers across a guitar built in the Sunset Boulevard shop of an immigrant family from Torreon, Mexico, his rendition demonstrated the complexity of the American experience as none had before.
The live national broadcast of his youthful and pleading, yet unorthodox, performance reverberated throughout a country embroiled in the Vietnam War, reeling over the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and recovering from the previous summer's civil uprisings in cities throughout the country, including Detroit.
Some were offended by the way he made the song his own. They believed that performances of the anthem should be delivered with the solemn pomp and circumstance of marshal music, rather than incorporate the instruments, vocal inflections, and musical styles found in the more popular genres of the day. They considered Feliciano's version not as heartfelt and sincere, but as an attack on authority and tradition. The day after the game, the Los Angeles Times reported that NBC had "received a rash of calls from irate viewers." One spectator at the game called it "a disgrace, an insult. I’m going to write my senator about it." Another, also quoted in the Los Angeles Times, called it "non-patriotic." Feliciano heard boos from many in the crowd, and stood his ground while interviewed during the event: "I just do my thing—what I feel. . . . I love this country very much. I'm for everything this country stands for."
Others supported him and, through their embrace, Feliciano sent "The Star-Spangled Banner" into the pop charts for the first time ever. As Bill Freehan of the Detroit Tigers put it after the game, Feliciano made Marvin Gaye, who sang the anthem in a conventional manner before Game 4, "sound like a square." The attention that he drew from the performance launched a revolution through the present day for popular artists, from Jimi Hendrix to Whitney Houston to Lady Gaga, to personalize and seek new ways to find meaning in the anthem.
We continue to place great weight in the ritual singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at sporting events—both as an opportunity to express thanks for the sacrifices of those before us, and, through solemn protest, to challenge the country to do better, to continue our march toward a more perfect union. It was Feliciano's 1968 performance, however, that led the way for us all to search and explore together how and why "The Star-Spangled Banner" matters.
Following his keynote address, delivered just a few feet from the flag from Fort McHenry that inspired the anthem, Feliciano performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" on his 1967 Candelas guitar, just as he performed it during the 1968 World Series. You can also find this video on YouTube.
José Feliciano has donated a set of objects to the National Museum of American History that each speak to different facets of his life and career. The objects include the braillewriter that he has used since the 1960s to write lyrics, notes to fans, and love letters to his wife, Susan, who joined us at the donation ceremony on Flag Day. Feliciano has been blind since birth, and his braillewriter was a critical songwriting tool that also contributes magnificently to the museum's growing collection of objects that convey the stories of Americans who are blind.Feliciano's Perkins BraillerThis letter was embroidered and mailed to Feliciano in the early 1970s by a member of Japan's José Feliciano Fan Club.
Feliciano talks about the guitar he donated to our collections. This video is also available on YouTube.
Three objects now in our collection represent the extent of his global reach: a pair of his iconic sunglasses, the likes of which have featured on millions of album covers and concert posters throughout both hemispheres; a long-used performance stool that has journeyed with him to concert halls and recording studios all over the world; and a cherished letter from the early 1970s that had hung in his home studio for years—a piece of fan mail embroidered with a message in English from a member of Japan's José Feliciano Fan Club that demonstrates not only the breadth of his global appeal, but also the intense dedication of his fans. Finally, he donated his beloved 1967 Candelas guitar—the guitar that was built specifically for him by famed Mexican American instrument-maker Candelario Delgado. With this guitar, Feliciano recorded his first hit, "Light My Fire." And with this guitar he provided the world that historic 1968 performance of the national anthem.During a naturalization ceremony in Flag Hall, Feliciano performed "The Star Spangled Banner" on this 1967 Concerto Candelas guitar before donating it to the National Museum of American History.
John Troutman is Curator of American Music in the Division of Culture and the Arts. He has also blogged about the legacies of James Cotton and Chuck Berry.
Walking through the doors of The Way We Wore in Hollywood, California, is like taking a step back in time. Racks and racks of dresses, blouses, pants and shoes from every decade of the 20th century line the walls. In a separate, appointment-only room, over 1 million swatches of inspirational, vintage material pile high. Founded by Doris Raymond in 1981, The Way We Wore has grown from a fledgling boutique in San Francisco to an internationally renowned vintage clothing shop in the heart of Los Angeles. The store attracts all manner of customers, from brides-to-be to influential clothing and costume designers to celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Adele.
Tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET, the second season of "L.A. Frock Stars" premieres on Smithsonian Channel. The six-episode docu-reality series will follow Doris and her team as they travel across the country in search of timeless garments. I spoke with Doris about her vintage journey and what we can look forward to this season.
You mention in the first episode of this season that you’ve been going to auctions since you were eight. What was your path to vintage buying and selling? How did you get into this?
When I was eight, my mother purchased the estate of an apartment—a very old woman had passed away. Her heirs came and took what they wanted and then basically told my mom she could have whatever she wanted for ‘X’ number of dollars as long as she cleared out the apartment. In that apartment was a treasure trove of curio cabinets, jade snuff bottles, paintings, and what happened was my sister and I began the journey of researching like signatures on paintings in our encyclopedias. This was obviously long before the Internet. The thrill of discovering that something that you have is important; that was the seed.
What influences your inventory?
We always have a selection of pretty much the entire 20th century up to the 1990s. Even though fashion can be trend-driven, I tend to buy whatever strikes my aesthetic chord. I look at it more from the universal river of accepted aesthetics. I make exceptions with things that are super kitschy or so wild and ugly that they’re wonderful, but for the most part, I try to keep it in acquiring pieces that have a “wow” factor—something that makes it a little bit more special than what you find anywhere else.
What percentage of your inventory falls into: Someone will like this, I know who will like this, and we should just have this because?
Well I would say the stuff that I buy, I buy thinking that someone will love it, but as far as buying for specific clients that is not even 10 percent. We have certain clients that we know, for example, buy classic size 2 or 4. Or we have one special client who’s requested caftan. We’re always looking for special things, for example, for Adele, and we’ve been working with a gentleman who is the stylist for Lenny Kravitz—so half of them are ephemeral requests and the other half are permanent requests.
Which auctions do you look forward to the most and why? What have you learned in your years of auction going?
Time is of the essence, so I don’t really invest any time in the smaller auction houses because it’s not worth it for me to fly out to preview just for a few pieces. I am a firm believer in seeing the piece in person, and that’s pretty much 90 percent of the time for me.
If I can touch it, feel it and really inspect it, I’ll see things that nobody else sees, and if they’re small, reparable problems, I don’t have an issue with it. I’ve been stuck with so many problems, like labels that have been sewn on so a piece is not what they claim it to be, or perspiration stains. Those are just small examples.
I would say that the auctions that I’m most excited about are the ones in the United States, so that would be Augusta Auction, which was shown in the first season; Whitaker Auction, which is in the second season and is actually the most stuff I’ve ever bought in any auction—it wasn’t because the cameras were rolling—and Hindman in Chicago.
How do you go about confirming that a dress is of a certain designer or a certain period? How much of that comes from previous knowledge and how much of that do you have to look up?
Well looking up is an arduous process, because you either have to go to Paris and go through the archives or you have to go through fashion magazines from around that time period and hope that there’s an image illustrated. To be honest with you, there aren’t that many pieces that I would do that investigation on. It would really be for the haute couture and for the pieces that command higher prices because, you know, your reputation is attached to the authenticity even though you aren’t responsible for changing a label.
You speak of the importance of developing young talent. What’s the store’s relationship with young stylists?
Young stylists or young costume designers or young anything—for me that’s one of the things that I get great joy of, working with the next generation, because it’s I think our duty to feed the fire. I really believe that if you tap into something that you’re passionate about, you’ve got a great chance for success.
What have been some of your most fun buys or styling sessions so far?
This season the cameras were really lucky to be available for me to experience the trip to Chicago that we all took—a lead happened to call in…an ex-model had passed away. It was, in my 34 years in the business, the second best stash of things that I’ve acquired, so I would say that that’s definitely a highlight. That is in episode four, premieres April 9.
Other things that have been highlights: Acquiring a hat and a scarf about 20 years ago and having a hunch that it was an importance piece of art, doing the research and having it confirmed that it was in fact an ensemble that was made by the great Sonia Delaunay, which puts it in the stratosphere of being worth in excess of $100,000.
How many items do you hold onto for a rainy day?
I have acid-free boxes that are stashed in various places in the store, and a good portion of them are '20s and '30s [pieces] without labels. Because of the way that they’re constructed with the couture finish and the elaborate detail—just, they’re beautiful pieces—I’m not selling them. I want to research them.
There’s a museum of fashion next to the Louvre, and they have the most incredible archives that you can make appointments to look through. I actually purchased seven or eight Madeline Vionnet gowns from the 30s and none of them had label. I was 100 percent sure that they were Vionnet, and maybe 15 years ago, I went to research and confirmed all of them through images and photographs. What’s exciting about that is that when you can confirm it, it is no longer an attribution. Attributions are you can ask a little bit more for an attribution, but you certainly can’t ask what it would be if it’s an authentic piece.
Do you have a favorite decade?
I would say Madeline Vionnet’s period—the late '20s to the mid '30s are my favorite, because the garments are so beautifully constructed on an architectural [level].
What can we look forward to this season?
I am giving access to a lot of trade secrets, the auction houses for example, what I buy things for and sell things for. Beyond that, I’m honored to be on Smithsonian Channel because they’ve taken and created this show that is a genuine reality show. It’s not scripted; it’s not fabricated. If there’s any drama, it’s genuine.
Tune in to Smithsonian Channel tonight at 9:00 PM ET to catch the first episode of the new season of L.A. Frock Stars and read about all six episodes here.
This month the University of Missouri Press is publishing A Love Affair with Life & Smithsonian by Edward K. Thompson, the founding editor of this magazine. The match is fitting, since the university is the home of a distinguished journalism school, and the author is a legendary figure in the history of American magazines.
What follows is hardly an objective review of Thompson's professional autobiography, since I worked under him briefly at the old weekly Life — like most young reporters, regarding him with a combination of admiration and sheer terror. Later he would hire me at Smithsonian. Bias aside, it seems appropriate to offer some comment here for readers who are interested in how this magazine was born, for young people who aspire to careers in journalism and, indeed, for anyone who would like to view some key events of the past seven decades through a perceptive and uniquely positioned lens.
Born in 1907 in St. Thomas, North Dakota (pop. 500), Thompson grew up listening to the howls of wolves outside of town and sometimes walking to school in weather that could hit 52 below zero. At the age of 13, after a trip through Yellowstone Park, he sold his first piece of professional work, a picture of a bear eating garbage, to Boy's Life for the handsome sum of $1 — and never looked back. After editing the student newspaper at the University of North Dakota, where he locked horns with the local Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan, he held a succession of newspaper jobs at a time when practitioners of that trade were more raffish, more freewheeling and maybe more fun, than in the years since.
At the weekly Foster County Independent he honed his skills by editing articles on such events as a "birthday lunch for someone's mother, a lawn party for the American Legionnaire children, a regular meeting of a women's lodge and an auction." Somehow he remained in management's good graces even after having a dustup with the county judge (when Thompson printed what the judge actually said about the state's legal red tape, the judge exploded: "You put dat in da paper?") and wrecking the boss' car by running into a cow.
At the daily Fargo Forum, Thompson's news sources were hotel clerks, cops, waitresses, night nurses and undertakers. There he learned to equivocate when the top editor would call in from a late, wet party to propose a story that he'd be appalled to see in print the morning after.
At age 21, Thompson moved on to the big time — the Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal. There his colleagues were news editor "Scoop" Arnold, "Stuffy" Walters (whose copy desk was a "dangerous place") and "Cap" Manly, a star reporter who sang Gilbert and Sullivan and slugged cops when he got drunk. The fiction editor (newspapers published short stories in those days) and the political cartoonist hated each other so much that they "drew each other's faces on villains and dogs." The photographers had burn scars on their arms from the flash powder they used. When the Depression hit, the pay envelope was apt to be filled with nickels, dimes and quarters collected by the Journal's newsboys. Even so, after sleeping in a nearby flophouse when he had to stay handy to the paper, Thompson was admonished by the news editor: "You work for the Milwaukee Journal . . . no matter what you pay, never again claim less than $5 a night."
Thompson recognized that the 35mm camera and candid photography were changing the face of journalism, and soon won a reputation for his picture layouts at the Journal. In 1937 he was hired by Henry Luce's new picture magazine, Life. With his instinct for the telling photograph and a common touch perhaps nurtured by his North Dakota upbringing (to say nothing of an admittedly large ego and a feeling for how to play corporate politics both competitively and honorably), he prospered there. In 1946, when someone else beat him in a contest to be Life's top editor, he told Luce: "You have the wrong man." He became the right man a few years later, and the Life that many of us remember is to a great degree the Life that Thompson made-the Life of great news photographs, of the light-hearted "Speaking of Pictures," of such series as "The World We Live In" and "The World's Great Religions," of the picture essays like W. Eugene Smith's "Country Doctor."
As managing editor he was notorious for mumbling so incomprehensibly that after layout sessions his editors would caucus to try to figure out what he had said. (It was widely believed that he mumbled on purpose-although I would later discover that he did not mind in the least being asked to repeat himself.) And his attempts to play the role of curmudgeon were usually derailed by his basic humanity.
At Life, in those days when television was not yet a force, anything was possible. Whether it was the McCarthy hearings or the Hiss trials or the launching of the first Americans into space, Life, and Thompson, were there. To cover major events like political conventions, Thompson deployed photographers by the dozen to shoot pictures by the thousands. To beat the competition, he sent reporters waving hundred-dollar bills to buy photographs from the survivors of an airplane crash in the Pacific. What he liked best was tearing up an issue at the last minute and starting again from scratch. A colleague wrote: "Thompson would brighten perceptibly when there was any prospect of a late-breaking story turning a long day's work into a longer night's."
It was customary for Life to publish the memoirs of important figures, and it fell to Thompson to do the requisite celebrity hand-holding. He recounts his experiences briskly but with relish. The Duke of Windsor seemed to believe that he had composed his ghost-written memoirs himself, although when he wrote captions for the illustrations in the article, he "performed almost competently." Winston Churchill, who could take justifiable pride in his prose, responded amiably to being edited, although his table manners when eating caviar left something to be desired.
No athlete, Thompson found himself puffing along with Harry Truman on one of his brisk morning walks and was told that if he kept up the regimen he'd live to be 100. (He's working on it-Thompson is 88 today.)
Thompson worked closely with Douglas MacArthur on his memoirs, and writes: "If you have genuine MacArthur prose, you find that purple becomes the color of choice." Yet Thompson seems to have had a real affection for the general, who by then was frail and trembling with palsy. When they parted for the last time, MacArthur walked him to the door and said: "I've looked that old devil, Death, in the eye a hundred times. But this time I think he's got me."
In 1952 Life published The Old Man and the Sea, thus beginning a not entirely comfortable relationship with Ernest Hemingway. When Alfred Eisenstaedt went to Cuba to photograph him, Hemingway wanted to pose in swimming trunks. "My body," he said. "Women love my body." On a subsequent assignment to write a 4,000-word piece on bullfighting, Hemingway turned in monstrous expense accounts — his custom was to walk into a bar and buy drinks for the house. When he finally delivered his manuscript, it came in at a staggering 108,746 words (Hemingway counted them himself). Trying to turn it into something manageable, Life's editors had to cope with the author as prima donna. Thompson observes: "He was fiercer in defense of doubtful material than when he knew they were dealing with his best."
The most revealing portrait in the book is of Thompson's inscrutable, stubborn, often brilliant boss, Henry Luce. He possessed "an almost painful integrity and pride in his work," Thompson writes. "And when he did have bad ideas, one soon learned — by trial and error — which ones he could be talked out of and which could be quietly ignored and left to collapse of their own weight."
Luce lived in a world of his own. In Rome while his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, was Ambassador to Italy, he had his own office in a building where there was a charge for using the elevator. Since Luce never thought to carry change, "Time Inc. furnished the elevator operator with lira and several portraits of Harry from different angles so that the fees would be paid on his behalf." When his flight was delayed on a trip to Europe, an exasperated Luce ordered an assistant to "call Juan Trippe [who then ran Pan Am] and tell him to get his goddamned plane off the ground." Irritated by the fact that his executives had to pay such high taxes, Luce came up with a cockamamy scheme for providing them such perks as household servants or vacations aboard a corporate yacht. "Those in the highest salary brackets would get two full-time servants . . . and so on down to one cleaning woman once or twice a week." The idea collapsed when Luce learned that perks were taxable too.
Nevertheless, Thompson admired Luce for his seriousness of purpose, his business acumen, and his willingness to gamble on his own ideas and those of his editors. When he was offered the top job at Life, Thompson was asked by colleagues how he could abide the thought of working for someone who wasn't a regular guy. He concluded: "He was enough of a regular guy for me."
In 1970, having retired from Time Inc., Thompson became the founding editor and publisher of Smithsonian. He says he "invented" it. In fact, he did. S. Dillon Ripley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, wanted a popular magazine that would extend the Institution's reach, and he left it to Thompson to carry out the mission. In the book, his stories about the early days of Smithsonian — the shaky finances, the uncertain backing of the Board of Regents, the surprising (although not to him) early success — may be familiar to our regular readers. A monthly magazine, with its stately pace, is less productive of last-minute crises and high drama than a newsweekly. But the fact is that Thompson ran this magazine for the first decade of its life, and although there have been changes — he probably does not approve of all of them — it bears his stamp today.
If there's a message in Ed Thompson's book, it comes not at the end but in the very first sentence. "To those all-out converts to computerized journalism who declaim that 'print is dead,' I say, 'Not so fast.'"
By Don Moser
The Director of the African-American History and Culture Museum on What Makes “12 Years a Slave” a Powerful Film
As I sat in the theater crowded with nervous patrons, unsure of what to expect from a movie about slavery, I was startled by the audience’s visceral reaction to a scene depicting the violence that was so much a part of what 19th century America called the “peculiar institution.” And then I found myself beginning to smile, not at the violence but with the realization that this movie, this brilliant movie, just might help to illuminate one of the darkest corners of American history. In many ways, American slavery is one of the last great unmentionables in public discourse. Few places, outside of history classes in universities, help Americans wrestle with an institution that dominated American life for more than two centuries. The imprint of slavery was once omnipresent, from the economy to foreign policy, from the pulpit to the halls of Congress, from westward expansion to the educational system. I smiled because if 12 Years a Slave garnered a viewership, it just might help America overcome its inability to understand the centrality of slavery and its continuing impact on our society.
12 Years a Slave, imaginatively directed by Steve McQueen with an Oscar worthy performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American living in New York who is kidnapped, “sold south” and brutally enslaved. Northup’s struggle to refuse to let his enslavement strip him of his humanity and his dignity and his 12-year fight to reclaim his freedom and his family are the dramatic heart of this amazing movie. Part of what makes this film experience so powerful is that it is based on the true story of Northup, a musician and man of family and community who had known only freedom until his kidnapping transplanted him into the violent world of Southern slavery.
The film’s depiction of slavery is raw and real. From the moment of his capture, Northup experiences the violence, the confinement, the sense of loss and the uncertainty that came with being enslaved. It is interesting that some of the criticism heaped on this film revolves around its use of violence. The scenes where Northup is beaten into submission or where the brutal plantation owner, Edwin Epps (played with nuance and depth by Michael Fassbender) whips Patsy, an enslaved woman who could not avoid the owner’s sexual abuse and rape have been called excessive. In actuality, these scenes force us to confront the reality that the use of violence was a key element used to maintain the institution of slavery. It is interesting that movie audiences accept and revel in the violence that dominates films from Westerns to horror flicks to the recently lauded Django Unchained, and yet, have a difficult time accepting the notion that some Americans used violence to attempt to control other Americans. This is a result of the fact that the violence in this movie makes it problematic for Americans not to see our historical culpability, something unusual for a nation that traditionally views itself as on the side of the right and the righteous.
12 Years a Slave is such an important movie because it entertains and educates in a manner that is ripe with nuance, historical accuracy and dramatic tension. It reveals stories about the African-American experience that are rarely seen or rarely as well depicted. Northup’s life as a free person of color is revelatory because it hints at the existence of the more than 500,000 African-Americans who experienced freedom while living in the north in the years just prior to the Civil War. Northup’s life of middling class respectability and community acceptance was not the norm; most free blacks lived on the margins with lives and communities limited by laws and customs that sought to enforce notions of racial inequality. Yet Northup’s very presence belied many of the racial beliefs of the period. There is a scene in the movie where Northup and his well-dressed family are walking down the street about to enter into a shop and they are being observed by an enslaved man whose southern owner has brought him north to serve the owner while he is on holiday in Saratoga. The enslaved man is amazed at the sight of a black family strolling freely and being greeted with respect by the shopkeeper. The owner quickly calls the man away as if to ensure that he not be infected by the freedom exhibited by the Northup family.
The importance of family is also a key element in the film. While Northup’s desire to be reunited with his wife and children is part of what motivates him to survive his time of bondage, the power of kinship is revealed in the scenes where a mother struggles to keep her family together. Like Northup, a young boy is kidnapped and held in a slave pen in Washington, D.C. (ironically, I am writing this piece within 30 yards of where the slave pen where Northup was first enslaved stood). When the mother learns where her son has been detained she enters the pen with her daughter hoping to reclaim her child. She is devastated when she and her daughter are also captured and readied to be sold into slavery. As the family is offered at auction, the pain the mother feels is almost unbearable as she begs, ultimately in vain, for someone to buy them all and to not destroy her family. During the months that follow the sale, the woman is inconsolable. On the plantation where she and Northup now live, she cries almost non-stop, whether serving the owner’s family or attending church service. Eventually she is sold to another owner because the mistress of the plantation does not understand why she cannot just get over the loss of her children. These scenes make clear that time could not heal all the wounds inflicted by slavery. In the years immediately following emancipation, thousands of the enslaved searched for any hint that would help them reunite with their family. Letters were sent to the Freedman Bureau seeking assistance and well into the 1880s, the formerly enslaved placed ads in newspapers searching for love ones cruelly separated by slavery. Rarely did these hoped for reunions occur.
While 12 Years a Slave rightfully and appropriately privileges Solomon Northup’s resiliency and resolve, it also reminds us that men and women of good will crossed the color line, stood against the popular sentiments of the period and risked much to help abolish slavery. Northup’s encounter with a Canadian sympathetic to the cause of abolition played by Brad Pitt revealed much about Northup’s ingenuity and the need to enlist the help of sympathetic whites. After hearing Pitt’s character engage in a debate with the plantation owner, Epps, over the morality of slavery, Northup cautiously convinces the Canadian to send a letter to the shopkeeper who knew him in New York and could prove that Northup was a free man. This begins a process that eventually returns Northup to his family in upstate New York. While Solomon Northup reunited with his family, most who were kidnapped never escaped the brutality of enslavement.
12 Years a Slave is a marvel. It works as a film and it works as a story that helps us to remember a part of the American past that is too often forgotten. We have all been made better by this film if we remember the shadow that slavery cast and if we draw strength and inspiration from those who refused to let their enslavement define them and those who, by refusing, helped make real the American ideals of freedom and equality.
There's a lot of buzz around wearable electronics these days—Google, for instance, is expanding into the eyewear business, while other companies are scrambling for their share of the market with high-tech clips and watches that track what you eat and how you move.
But none of them are remotely like what John Rogers, the 2013 Smithsonian American Ingenuity award winner in physical sciences, is developing. His device, you see, is engineered not only to fit like a glove, but also perhaps someday save the wearer's life.
The materials scientist, along with his team of students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have successfully tested what's best described as a sock for the heart. The device, fitted over the entire surface area of the heart, is comprised of a series of sensors to monitor, with uncanny precision, the inner workings of this most vital organ. If it detects a troubling abnormality, it can relay data to medical professionals; in an emergency, such as during a heart attack, it could even intervene by administering an electrode-induced pulse.
Normally, the heart pumps in a manner that's so efficient we hardly notice it working. But for those with heart rhythm conditions, out-of-sync heart contractions can be debilitating—causing lightheadedness, weakness, vomiting and chest pain, for those with arrhythmia—or, in some cases, deadly. Over time, rhythmic irregularities can cause blood clots (which sometimes lead to strokes) and, in extreme cases, cardiac arrest.
Doctors can usually prescribe medication to correct these sorts of issues. But in some instances, patients must turn to surgical interventions such as pacemakers or defibrillator implants. And while those devices work sufficiently enough, the mechanism they use to regulate a person's heartbeat is actually quite crude. With defibrillator implants, a pair of electrodes is positioned inside the heart chamber. Whenever a life-threatening arrhythmia is detected, the defibrillator sends an electric shock that stuns the heart back into a normal rhythm. The problem with that approach, Rogers says, is that activity from another region of the heart can, by mistake, trigger a painful jolt when there isn't really a need for it.
encloses the heart in a much more sophisticated sensory system that can pinpoint exactly where a rhythmic irregularity occurs. In a sense, it functions like the nerve endings on a secondary skin.
“What we wanted was to harness the full power of circuit technology," Rogers says of the device, which is two and a half years in the making. "With a lot of electrodes, the device can pace and stimulate in a more targeted fashion. Delivering heat or pulses to specific locations, and doing it in measurable doses that are just sufficient enough, is important because applying more than necessary is not only painful but can damage the heart."This step-by-step diagram illustrates how the heart device was created. (University of Illinois and Washington University)
Besides its potential as an emergency cardiac implant, the heart sock's elasticity allows for an array of other electronic and non-electronic sensors that can monitor calcium, potassium and sodium levels—considered key indicators of heart health. The membrane can also be programmed to track changes in mechanical pressure, temperature and pH levels (acidity), all of which could help signal an impending heart attack.
To fabricate the prototype sheath, the researchers first scanned and 3D printed a plastic model of a rabbit's heart. They then arranged a web of 68 tiny electronic sensors over the mold, coating it with a layer of FDA-approved silicone rubber material. After the rubber set, Rogers' lab assistants peeled off the custom-prepared polymer.
To test the membrane, researchers wrapped it around a real rabbit heart, hooked up to a mechanical pump. The team engineered the device to be a tad bit smaller than the actual organ to give it a gentle, glove-like fit.
"The tricky thing here," Rogers says, "is that the membrane needs to be sized in a way that it can create just enough pressure to keep the electrodes in sufficient contact with the surface. Pressing too hard will cause the heart to respond in a negative way."
"It needs to fit just right," he adds.
As Michael McAlpine, a mechanical engineer at Princeton University who was not involved in the research, told The Scientist: "What’s new and impressive here is that they’ve integrated a number of different functionalities into a membrane that covers the entire surface of the heart. That spread of sensors provides a high level of spatial resolution for cardiac monitoring and offers more control when it comes to stimulation."
So what will it take for this breakthrough to go from lab to patient? Rogers estimates at least another decade of development before something could be ready for the medical market. In the meantime, he plans to continue collaborating with Washington University biomedical engineer Igor Efimov to refine the proof-of-concept into a practical, safe and reliable technology.
One major obstacle is figuring out how to power the membrane without conventional batteries. Currently, Rogers and his team are exploring a few alternatives, such as ultrasound charging, a method in which power is transmitted wirelessly through skin, as well as using piezoelectric materials that capture energy from the surrounding environment. For the latter, there's some precedent for success. Two years ago, engineers at the University of Michigan harnessed such materials to develop a pacemaker powered solely by its user's heartbeat.
"Since we're trying to incorporate a lot more sensors, as well as deliver electrical impulses and heat, it's going to take more energy than the amount generated for conventional pacemakers," Rogers says. "In the future, we're hoping we can improve the efficiency."
Another crucial element is homing in on a way to send data to an external gadget so patients and specialists can access it. Right now, the sensors record things like changes in temperature and PH, among other patterns, but scientists have yet to figure out a way to deliver that data wirelessly.
"Bluetooth communication is low-powered, so we're looking at that," Efimov says. “Basically, the device will require more components and we'll need experts in other fields like electronics, telemetry and software. So ultimately, we're going to have to raise venture capital and start a company."
Right now, the focus is making the sleeve work as a practical device; there's no telling how much it will cost to produce, or, how much it will cost consumers when it comes to market.
The big question, though, is ultimately whether the heart sock will function safely and effectively in vivo, or in actual living test subjects. Pacemakers can typically last 10 years. So, to be practical, Rogers' invention would also have to demonstrate it can stay operational for at least that long. The team is preparing to take that next step with a pilot that will test the membrane inside a living rabbit, a test they hope to complete with funding from the National Institutes of Health, along with other grants they're working to secure. If everything goes well, the next test of whether the gadget is up to snuff will be on humans.
This week, astronauts and beatboxers, magicians and climate scientists, and filmmakers and activists are mingling in Vancouver, where TED is hosting its annual conference. As speakers and the event’s 1,200 attendees muse about the landmark innovations of the past three decades and those that lie ahead, let’s hope they look up.
High above the plaza, a billowing sculpture spans the 745 feet between the 24-story Fairmont Waterfront Hotel and Vancouver Convention Center. The 3,500-pound net—a complex matrix of hand and machine-made knots—is “like a custom-knitted sweater for the city,” its artist has said, and the Daily Mail likened it to a nebula. To me, it looks like a giant web spun by Spider-Man. But whatever you call it, it is a feat of engineering for sure.
Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks is the largest aerial sculpture that Janet Echelman has ever made. The Boston-based artist has collaborated with architects, engineers and lighting designers in the past 16 years to construct, as she puts it, “living, breathing sculpture environments that respond to the forces of nature” in cities around the world. TED invited her to make this site-specific piece in Vancouver to mark the nonprofit’s 30th anniversary.
Echelman discovered her medium—fishing nets—while in India on a Fulbright lectureship in 1997. She had planned to teach painting and exhibit her work in the country, but when the set of paints she had shipped from home never made it to the fishing village of Mahabalipuram, where she was staying, she took up sculpture. From local fishermen, Echelman learned ancient techniques for knotting fishing nets, and, together, they fashioned nets in shapes that she sketched, hanging them like wind socks.
“There is this resiliency and adaptability of the netted structure that is brilliant. If one part of the net fails, the other nodes take the forces, and it is immediately redistributed by the entire system,” says Echelman. “Learning to work with it and how to make volumetric form with it is still an unfolding process for me.”Echelman's sculpture, 1.26, premiered at the Denver Art Museum in the summer of 2010. (Studio Echelman)
In many ways, science informs the artist’s work. Echelman based the shape of an aerial sculpture called 1.26, first displayed in Denver in 2010 and later in Sydney and Amsterdam, on a simulation the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made of a tsunami formed by the Chilean earthquake that year. The name, 1.26, is in reference to the 1.26 microseconds that the earthquake sliced off the length of the Earth’s day by shifting its mass.
But what is a shorter day, Echelman muses, when there are longer ones to come? “I’ve been thinking a lot about time and the day, and the fact that the Earth’s rotation is slowing so that my experience of a day is splitting off from atomic measurement of a day,” she says.
For Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, Echelman collected data sets of her own subjective experience of the day based on looking up at the sky. She took photographs of the sky every five seconds for a 24-hour period. Then, she calculated the hue and brightness of the sky and graphed those figures radially to come up with the sculpture’s form.
“I don’t see any separation between art and science. Some people like to experience my work in a purely visual manner, without any additional content, just the pure kinesthetic color and form experience. And others are interested to understand these references to science and data sets,” says Echelman. “For me, as an artist, I invite people to enter the work in whichever way draws them in.”
But the sculptures aren't just depictions of science and art—they're also marvels of engineering. Before mounting them for display, Echelman must overcome the monumental logistics involved in creating something that, as it seems to hover in the air, must be able to withstand up to 90-mile-per-hour winds.
With the help of software engineers from Autodesk, a company that makes 3D design software, Echelman’s studio has worked to develop a special tool for her to use to test the viability and structural integrity of her sculptures before they are hoisted into the air. The artist uses Honeywell Spectra fiber that is 15 times stronger than steel. But, with the software, she can input a sculpture’s specifications and watch, in a simulation, as she exerts the forces of gravity and wind, all the while adjusting the aesthetics of her design to accommodate the environmental conditions.
What Echelman finds exciting, as an artist, is infusing a traditional craft with modern technology. “Fishermen have been splicing ropes for their traps for centuries if not millennia,” she says, “but we are using those techniques in new ways with new materials to create a new kind of urban art.”Visitors can use their smartphones or tablets to interact with the Vancouver sculpture's lighting, thanks to a collaboration with Google. (Studio Echelman)
Echelman collaborated with Aaron Koblin, creative director of Google’s Creative Lab, to install interactive lighting on the Vancouver sculpture. At night, five high-definition projectors cast a giant canvas—literally, a massive Chrome window—onto Skies Painted. Visitors with smartphones or tablets can interact with the sculpture through an app; a swipe or swirl of a finger on their touchscreen produces, in real time, a colorful ripple or pattern on the netting.
“Each person becomes a participant and actually completes the art for me,” says Echelman. “I don’t know how it will unfold.”
Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks will be on display at the Vancouver Convention Center until tomorrow, March 22. Echelman hopes for it to travel to other venues in the future.
During World War II, amid a gasoline shortage, many European commuters had to improvise, often resorting to installing clunky power generators that converted wood into fuel for their engines. (Check out this rig!) But once fossil fuels were readily available again, these briefly popular machines were, for the most part, tossed into the dustbin of history.
Today, in a renovated former artists’ space in Berkeley, an alternative energy startup, has slowly begun resurrecting this more than century-old technology known as gasification. Over the course of five years, All Power Labs has sold over 500 made-to-order versions of their signature invention, a $27,000 refrigerator-sized biomass-converting device called the “Power Pallet.” Customers, most of whom reside in poorer countries like Ecuador, Haiti, Thailand and Nicaragua, obviously are drawn to the fact that the contraptions can generate clean burning fuel for about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, about one-sixth of what power companies typically charge. But that’s not the only perk.
Syngas, the synthetic fuel that’s produced from gasification, is created by putting biomass such as corn husks or wood chip through a decomposition process known as “pyrolysis,” where the combination of a low oxygen environment and heat removes impurities while leaving behind a byproduct known as biochar. A nutrient rich charcoal, biochar can be used as fertilizer to help grow trees, crops and many other kinds of plants that scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Technically speaking, the Power Pallet system may be the only carbon-negative energy technology on the market, meaning the entire gasification process removes more carbon dioxide than it generates.
“When you think about it, nature’s most tried and tested tool to take carbon out of the air is plants,” says Tom Price, the company’s sales director. “If you can grow a tree, you can capture a big chunk of what’s causing global warming.”
The company, made up of artists who occupied what was an artist space known as “The Shipyard,” can credit the city of Berkeley for inadvertently kickstarting their enterprise. A series of code violations left officials no choice but to shut down the facility’s electricity, thus forcing the residents to experiment with alternatives like solar, which didn’t work out so well due to higher costs. Gasification came about as an accidental discovery that began the day the company’s CEO Jim Mason found an old instruction manual and decided to piece one together using old plumbing parts. Since then, Price says the standard art has gone away and the new art has been about looking at ways to hack the global energy problem.
Since we’re talking about resurrecting old technology, many of the kinks that made gasification an unappealing option back then still exist. For instance, gasification machines require a large amount of water filtration, which leaves behind what Price calls a “toxic mess.”
“Solid fuel is very difficult to use compared to gas. You basically have to charcoalize biomass to create a vapor rich in hydrogen to run an engine, which isn’t as easy as piping it out of the ground and refining it,” Price explains. “So liquid fuels, in most cases, are preferable in all respects except one; they are killing the planet.”
Undeterred, the team tapped into the unwavering “maker spirit” that Silicon Valley’s tech scene has become renowned for and started testing out ways to apply the latest automation innovations, such as sensors and process computerization, to regulate parts of the reaction chain. The idea was that if they could control crucial aspects like the smoldering temperature and cracking of the tar with precision, they could eliminate the need for water filtration. Ultimately, what they did was give the old gasifier a high-tech makeover.
Over the phone, Price mentions that he recently sold a Power Pallet to a family living in a rural part of Iowa. Yet, he doesn’t think gasification would make sense for filling the need for energy in the developed world—not now at least. Pumping out hydrogen gas to the degree that it’s practical involves bringing in truckloads of wood and whatever usable forms of biomass are available. And in urban settings, like New York City, for instance, infrastructure is already built so that centralized power plants can supply electricity in a manner that’s convenient for everyone. Even so, Price finds this approach to be not only environmentally unfriendly, but also very inefficient, considering that communities have to rely on sources like coal and constantly-maintenanced power lines to keep buildings and streetlights running. The most fertile ground for developing and implementing a new, less centralized power grid system, he argues, are undeveloped regions of the world that have remained largely agricultural.
“We don’t have the automation to where you can push a button and it goes. This is machinery that requires a trained operator,” Price says.”But when you’re in a place in which the alternatives are either nothing or something very expensive, the effort becomes worth it.”
An example of a situation in which the company’s technology has enabled locals to operate a fully self-sustainable business can be found in Kampala, Uganda, where product engineer Richard Scott helped another local energy startup named Pamoja Cleantech to develop gasifiers that use leftover corn cobs as an energy source for corn flour mills. Instead of being left out to spoil, growers not only can turn the crops into cash, they can also turn the discarded bits back into fuel to run the mills.
With business booming, the All Power Labs team has shifted some of its focus toward developing new reactors that can run longer, with less maintenance, and use a wider variety of biomass, like rice husks, found in abundance in large swaths of farmland in Asia. He hopes that in five years these machines can make fuel from any form of biomass.
“No one’s trying to pass this off as a new idea. Heck, there’s even open source blueprints on our website that you can download and use to build your own,” he adds. “But sometimes, the best ideas are the ones we already had.”
Thompson’s restaurant once served up fast, cheap meals—everything from smoked boiled tongue to cold salmon sandwiches. Today, there’s nothing in downtown D.C. to show that the then-popular restaurant chain even had a location at 725 14th Street Northwest in the 1950s. The space is now filled by a CVS drug store. Across the street, there’s an upscale barbershop, and on the corner at the intersection of 14th and New York Avenue, a Starbucks is currently under construction.
Just as the establishment quietly faded into history, so did the little-remembered Supreme Court case that began there. The case, 63 years ago this week, forced an end to lunch counter segregation in Washington, one year before Plessy v. Ferguson was repealed.
On February 28, 1950, 86-year-old Mary Church Terrell invited her friends Reverend Arthur F. Elmes, Essie Thompson and David Scull to lunch with her at Thompson’s. Only Scull was white, and when the four entered the establishment, took their trays and proceeded down the counter line, the manager told the group that Thompson’s policy forbid him from serving African Americans. The group asked again and again why they could not have lunch in the cafeteria, and the manager responded that it was not his personal policy, but Thompson Co.’s, and refused to serve them.
Terrell and her friends knew what they were doing. As chairwoman of the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws, she was setting up a test case to force the courts to rule on two “lost laws” that demanded all restaurants and public eating places in Washington serve any well-mannered citizen regardless of their skin color. A legal battle followed, and over three drawn out years, it would take Terrell’s case all the way to America’s highest court.(Mary Church Terrell oil on vanvas painting by J. Richard Thompson; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mrs. Phyllis Langston)
Known as the female Booker T. Washington, Terrell had made her mark on history long before she turned her attention toward discriminatory dining practices. She was born in 1863, the year President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The towering figure in social and educational reform was one of the first African-American women to graduate from college, and the Oberlin College alumna not only gave a speech titled “The Progress and Problems of Colored Women” at the 1898 Annual Convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association, but also served as a delegate at the International Council of Women in Berlin in 1904. Her fight to end race and gender discrimination led her to become the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), as well as a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), decades before she took a tray and stood in line to pay at Thompson’s.
Terrell first moved to Washington, D.C. in 1889 to become a high school teacher. By 1895, she had become the first African-American woman to be appointed to the D.C. Board of Education. She married a lawyer named Robert Heberton Terrell in 1891, and as was the custom of the time, she stopped working soon after they wed. But she didn’t close her eyes to the injustices happening around her. Instead, she threw herself into the activist world, particularly after a close friend from her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, was lynched in 1892.
The district’s discriminative practices never were far from her mind. She delivered a speech in 1906 at the United Women’s Club of Washington, D.C., where she addressed the way African Americans were treated in the capital, citing the example of being denied the ability to buy lunch:
“As a colored woman I may walk from the Capitol to the White House, ravenously hungry and abundantly supplied with money with which to purchase a meal, without finding a single restaurant in which I would be permitted to take a morsel of food, if it was patronized by white people, unless I were willing to sit behind a screen.”
But that hadn’t always been the case in the district. During Reconstruction, the D.C. Legislative Assembly—a mix of popularly elected officials and President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration appointees who governed the city—passed two nearly identical laws, in 1872 and 1873, that prohibited restaurants, hotels, barbershops, bathing houses and soda fountains from refusing to sell or serve any “well-behaved” customer, regardless of race or color. The short-lived assembly was abolished in 1874, and with the start of Jim Crow segregation laws three years later, the rules were disregarded, and then left out of D.C. Code laws. However, they were never repealed.
These so-called “lost laws,” as the 1872 and 1873 laws would become known as, remained mostly forgotten about until after World War II, when President Harry Truman’s committee issued a 1948 report titled Segregation in Washington, highlighting the extent of injustices that African Americans faced in the nation’s capital. According to Marvin Harold Caplan’s first-hand account of the time, Farther Along: A Civil Rights Memoir, the report made a reference to the lost laws:
“Some people say that the time is not ripe for colored people to have equal rights as citizens in the Nation’s Capital and that white people are ‘not ready’ to give them such rights. But in 1872...the popularly elected Assembly of the District passed a law giving Negroes equal rights in restaurants, hotels, barber shops and other places of public accommodation. Stiff penalties were provided for violation. As late as 1904 this civil rights law was familiar to a correspondent of the New York Times.”
Annie Stein, the chairwoman of the Anti-Discrimination Committee of her local chapter of the Progressive Party, noticed that passage and devoted herself to learn more about this 1872 law. She enlisted the help of her friend, Joseph Forer, a lawyer and chairman of the District Affairs Committee of the D.C. Lawyers Guild, who began researching the law and its validity. Realizing she also needed public support to rally around the cause, she created the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws in 1949. Stein reached out to Terrell to see if she would become the chairwoman of the committee, and Terrell accepted.
The timing was auspicious. Terrell had recently completed one of her life goals, publishing her book, A Colored Woman In A White World. Stein’s offer came just after Terrell had been denied water at a pharmacy that had served her in the past, explained Joan Quigley, the author of a new book on Terrell, Just Another Southern Town, in a conversation about the life of the civil rights activist on C-SPAN in March. As Quigley put it, Terrell “noticed a hardening of racial attitudes in department stores.”
Even more significantly, the year before, in 1948, a District of Columbia judge upheld the right for the local branch of the American Association of University Women, a club of college-educated women, to reject her application for reinstatement based on her skin color. The judge’s decision, which gave the local branch the authority to deny membership to African American women, when the national organization’s only requirement for membership was a college degree, lit a fire under Terrell, Quigley said in her talk. “She basically embraced the tradition of agitation going back to Frederick Douglass,” the author said. “She said, it’s my duty to send a message to the country, to the world that we are no longer patient with being pushed around.” In 1949, the national convention of the AAUW used Terrell’s case as a rallying point to vote 2,168 to 65 to reaffirm that all university graduates, regardless of “race, color or creed,” had the right to join the club.
Terrell turned her attention toward the coordinating committee, which soon attracted over 1,000 supporters who “rallied behind the spirited leadership of Mrs. Terrell,” as Al Sweeney, a journalist for the Washington Afro-American wrote in a tribute for her 88th birthday, found in Oberlin College’s archives.
The committee led a multiracial effort picketing and boycotting dime store establishments throughout D.C. One of the leaflets they distributed, which asked citizens to “stay out of Hecht’s”, a department store with a basement lunch counter, featured a photograph of Terrell and a quote from the then 88-year-old committee chairwoman: “I have visited the capitals of many countries, but only in the capital of my own country have I been subjected to this indignity.”
Some stores desegregated on their own when faced with pressure from the petitioners, (including Hecht's, which changed its policy in January 1952, after a nine-month boycott and six-month picket line), but legal action was necessary to force the rest to come around. Thompson’s would be the key to the Supreme Court case.
Of all the restaurants that refused to serve African Americans, the committee targeted Thompson’s cafeteria, because it was right next to the offices of the lawyers who would be taking the case to court, as a 1985 Washington Post article notes. They took the case to court only to have the municipal court judge dismiss it, reasoning that the lost laws were “repealed by implication.” Due to technical reasons, the group could not repeal the decision, and instead needed to create a new case. So once again, Terrell picked up a tray in Thompson’s in late July, joined by Elmes and, this time, a woman named Jean Joan Williams. The group was again denied service based on Terrell and Elmes’ skin color, but as the municipal judge on this case didn’t hold another full trial, this allowed the corporation council of the District of Columbia representing Terrell and company to appeal the decision. The case moved to the Municipal Court of Appeals, which declared the lost laws valid, then to the Federal District Court, where the judges ruled the lost laws invalid again in a 5-4 decision, before the case found its way to the United States Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court had yet to overturn the “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy, and Terrell’s case, formally titled District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc., relied only on jurisdiction in the district, which meant it did not touch Plessy. The narrow scope of the ruling allowed the court to issue an unanimous 8-0 decision in 1953 to end segregation in all Washington, D.C. establishments.
In an interview with Ethel Payne for the New York Age, Terrell said that after the verdict she called up the other defendants and invited them to lunch once more at Thompson’s. “We went and we had a glorious time. I took a tray and got in line and received my food. When I got to the end of the line, a gentleman walked up to me, took my tray and escorted me to a table and asked me, ‘Mrs. Terrell, is there anything else I can do for you?' And who do you think that man was? Why, it was the manager of the Thompson restaurants!”
Never one to stop her advocacy work, Terrell spent her 90th birthday that year testing Washington, D.C.’s segregated theater policy. She and her three guests were all admitted to see The Actress at the Capitol Theater without any trouble. Washington’s movie theater managers, unwilling to have their own Supreme Court case, had gotten the message. As Dennis and Judith Fradin wrote in Fight On!: Mary Church Terrell’s Battle for Integration, within the next few weeks “virtually all of Washington’s movie houses had opened their doors for everyone.”
Terrell would live to see the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954, that ended racial segregation in public schools. She died just a couple months later on July 24, 1954.
Today, though 725 14th Street NW bears no physical trace of Thompson’s history or the work of the coordinating committee, the site is found on D.C.’s African American Heritage Trail, which gives a deserving nod to its importance in breaking down discrimination by breaking bread.
They are some of the most iconic photos in environmental journalism: young African men, often shirtless, standing over small fires fueled by digital detritus imported from richer countries. The toxic smoke swirls around them and over Agbogbloshie, the roughly 20-acre scrap yard in the heart of Accra, Ghana, where these men live and work.
During the last decade, some of the world’s most respected media organizations have transformed Agbogbloshie into a symbol of what’s believed to be a growing crisis: the export—or dumping—of electronic waste from rich, developed countries into Africa. It’s a concise narrative that resonates strongly in a technology-obsessed world. There’s just one problem: The story is not that simple.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 85 percent of the e-waste dumped in Ghana and other parts of West Africa is produced in Ghana and West Africa. In other words, ending the export of used electronics from the wealthy developed world won’t end the burning in Agbogbloshie. The solution must come from West Africa itself and the people who depend upon e-waste to make a living.At Agbogbloshie, the fastest, cheapest, and favored way to recycle copper from insulated wire is to burn it. (©Jon Spaull/SciDev.Net)
Agbogbloshie is not a pleasant place to work. Most of the site is threaded by muddy lanes that cross in front of dozens of small sheds holding recycling businesses. Inside, owners, their families and employees manually dismantle everything from automobiles to microwave ovens. E-waste, defined as old consumer electronics, is actually a very small part of the overall waste stream in these lanes, filled with the clanking of hammers on metal. And phones, laptops and old TVs aren’t the only things that can be dangerous when recycled improperly.
At Agbogbloshie, burning takes place at the edge of the site, and most of what’s burned is automobile tires, which are lined up for hundreds of feet and left to smolder, producing dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and other hazardous substances. Later, workers will gather up the steel left behind.
Elsewhere, around 40 men, most in their teens and early 20s, tend five- and ten-pound bundles of burning insulated copper wire. They contain everything from harness wires used in automobiles to USB cables. In Ghana and across the world, insulated wire is highly sought by recyclers big and small, who covet the metal but not the insulation. The task of the recycler is to separate the two substances as quickly and economically as possible.
In the course of a day, perhaps a few hundred pounds of wire are burned, with the remains sold for recycling to local metal dealers and Nigerian traders who frequent the area. Depending on when the insulation was made, the smoke emitted can contain dioxin, heavy metals and other pollutants that pose a strong threat to human health.
Over the last half century, technologies have been developed to do that separation in an environmentally sound manner. But even the lowest-cost solutions tend to be too expensive for Ghana’s capital-poor recyclers. And if they were affordable, green methods would still be too slow compared to setting the wire on fire and burning off the insulation.
The site poses an undeniable risk to air quality and human health. But solving the problem is about more than stopping Western exports of old electronics.
“The problem is that reporters come here thinking this is the destination for old laptops exported from the United States,” explains Robin Ingenthron, CEO of Good Point Recycling in Burlington, Vermont. His firm exports used, working laptops to Ghana. “But this isn’t the destination at all. The computer shops are.”Vendors outside of Ghana's Port of Tema sell imported, working goods from around the world, including the United States. Some are repaired and refurbished in Ghana. Most are working when imported. (Adam Minter)
To understand what he means it’s necessary to leave Agbogbloshie and take a ten-minute taxi ride to Bugi Computers, a small, independently owned electronics repair and refurbishment business in a residential neighborhood. Inside, Steve Edison, a self-taught computer repairman, is busy fixing a laptop that a customer brought in. The shop is compact, perhaps the size of a small bedroom, and it’s packed with used laptops, accessories and monitors purchased from Ghanaian importers who, in turn, purchase them from people like Ingenthron.
“If something breaks, I keep the parts to use for repair or a new computer,” Edison says as he leans over the laptop, carefully soldering a circuit board. It certainly looks that way. Cables hang from hooks in the walls, spare hard drives are stacked on his work desk and memory chips are kept in display cases. He sells around ten newly refurbished computers per day, assembled from machines and parts that people in wealthier countries didn’t want.
Edison’s business isn’t unique. There are thousands of similar repair and refurbishment businesses across Ghana and West Africa, catering to consumers who can’t afford, or don’t want, new machines. It’s an important business that plays a key role in bridging the so-called digital divide between wealthy consumers in developed countries and those in places like Ghana.
The most detailed study of the used electronics issue was performed in 2009 by the UN Environment Programme, which found that Ghana imported 215,000 metric tons of “electric and electronic equipment” that year. Thirty percent of that total was new equipment. Of the 70 percent that constituted used goods, 20 percent needed repairs and 15 percent—or roughly 22,575 tons—was unsellable and bound for the dump.
That’s a lot of unusable electronics (many of which are damaged in transit to Ghana). But it’s less than one percent of the 2.37 million tons of e-waste generated by the United States in 2009, and a nearly imperceptible fraction of the 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste generated globally in 2015. In other words, Agbogbloshie is not a global dumping ground. Like most places on Earth, it’s struggling to deal with what it generates on its own.
Edison gives a concise accounting of how it works: “If something can’t be fixed anymore, I then sell it to the carts,” he says. The carts are four-wheeled, heavy-duty wheelbarrows operated by men who spend their days walking Accra, looking for used goods—electronics to furniture—that can be bought and sold for recycling. If the objects contain metal, they’re bound for Agbogbloshie, where they’re sold to (or pre-ordered from) the dozens of small businesspeople who own stalls at the site.
Not everything is recycled at Agbogbloshie. Much of it is recovered and re-used instead. “People in the West forget that if they send something to Ghana, it’s used a lot longer than it is back home,” Ingenthron points out. “Where I come from, that’s considered good for the environment.”Workers salvage metal from broken tools. (Jon Spaull/SciDev.Net</A>)
It’s by no means a simple picture, and it eludes simple solutions. “At first you think these guys are doing something really bad and they should become plumbers,” says D.K. Osseo-Asare, a Ghanaian-American architect who is co-lead on the Accra-based Agbogbloshie Makerspace Project, or QAMP, an effort to change perceptions and the economy of the site. “But then we said, let’s arm them with information so that they can do things better.”
QAMP set up a shed among the established recycling businesses and spent months getting to know the site, the people who work there and what they need. Most of the workers are migrants, oftentimes with little education and few connections in the big city, Osseo-Asare tells me. “They’re here to make money, quickly. If we want people to do this work in a safe and environmentally sound way, [making a living] has to be part of [it].”
With that in mind, QAMP is developing a digital platform that can be loaded onto the smartphones used by scrap workers, which will begin beta-testing in January. In addition to offering a Twitter-like scrap marketplace that will allow scrappers to find and buy metal throughout Ghana, the digital platform includes health and safety information.
“If we beat people over the head with safe e-waste recycling, it will never work," says Osseo-Asare. "But if you help them find business, and you give them some interesting pieces of info regarding safety, they might look at it.” Meanwhile, QAMP is working with the Agbogbloshie community to develop new products out of the junk sold at the site, rather than sending it for direct recycling.
Plastics, which generally have a low value in the recycling chain, are a natural target. Recognizing this, QAMP has worked on simple equipment that can help transform the plastics generated at Agbogbloshie into recycling bins. “The idea, again, is to help them make money,” Osseo-Asare explains.
Meanwhile, Robin Ingenthron is working with his Ghanaian importers to establish a model in which every ton of electronics that he exports must be offset by a ton of electronics that’s collected and recycled properly in Ghana. If Ghanaian importers want access to his used electronics in Vermont, they’ll have to comply. Ingenthron believes it will work, in large part because he ran a similar “fair trade” recycling business with Malaysian importers for nine years.
Agbogbloshie won’t be solved quickly. It plays a key economic and environmental role in Accra, and shutting it down would just shift what happens there to another location. “You have to change how people perceive the place,” Osseo-Asare explains. “Once they see the potential, they understand that the solution comes from Agbogbloshie and not from outside.” Patience, as well as hope, should take care of the rest.
In an interview in January 2010, President Obama told Diane Sawyer of ABC News, “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.”
The comment didn’t really jibe well with Robert W. Merry, an acclaimed biographer of James Polk, who served as president from 1845 to 1849. Polk is ranked as a “near great” president in polls by scholars, but he is an exception. “History has not smiled upon one-term presidents,” wrote Merry in an editorial in the New York Times. “The typical one-term president generally falls into the ‘average’ category, occasionally the ‘above average.’ ”
In his new book, Where They Stand, Merry opens up the rating game beyond historians, to include what voters and contemporaries said in their own times. The editor of the National Interest, a foreign policy publication, argues that while historians’ views are important, presidential greatness is best seen through the eyes of voters of the president’s time. The greatest of the “greats,” in other words, have the election records to show it. They earned the trust of Americans in their first terms, won second terms and, in some cases, paved the way for their party to maintain control of the White House for the next four years.
Historians and others take joy in ranking the presidents, and debating these ranks. To you, what’s the fun in this?
It is the same fun that we have in trying to determine who is the greatest first baseman of all time. Most people would say Lou Gehrig, but there is plenty of room for debate. Who is the greatest American singer of the postwar period? But the presidents really have the national destiny in their hands. It is a much more significant pursuit than these others, which are more in the realm of trivia. Who was great? Who wasn’t so great? And, why were they great? Ranking presidents is a way we bring order to our thinking about our history.
What factors, do you think, need to be considered when assessing presidential greatness?
Greatness is as greatness does. It is really a question of what a president has accomplished with the country. Reagan’s question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is very apt. Put another way, is the country better off? How is the country different? Are those differences good or are they not so good?
The great presidents all did something that changed the political landscape of America and set the country on a new course. That’s not easy to do. That is really the key to presidential greatness.
In your book, your big claim is that we should listen to the electorate at the time of the president’s term, and not just historians. Why do you put such emphasis on the voters?
Presidential politics is like retailing. The customer is always right. In our system, we put faith in the voters, because that is at the bedrock of how we think we should order our affairs politically. If you don’t believe that, then it is kind of hard to believe very strongly in American democracy.
The whole idea is that the voters emerge with a collective judgment, maybe even occasionally a collective wisdom. I happen to buy that. Therefore, I felt that the polls of historians were significant. I didn’t debunk them or toss them aside. But I thought they were incomplete, because they didn’t always take into account what the voters were saying, thinking or doing with regard to their presidents contemporaneously. I wanted to sort of crank that into the discussion.
There are six presidents that you refer to as “Leaders of Destiny.” What makes a president deserving of this title?
The six, in order, are Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. I happen to believe that Reagan will get into that circle, but right now, the polls of historians don’t quite have him there, although his standing is rising rather dramatically.
The six leaders of destiny pass a three-part test. They are consistently hailed among the greats or near greats by the historians. They are two-term presidents succeeded by their own party, meaning that the voters liked them both times that they served. And then, as I described earlier, they transformed the political landscape of the country and set it on a new course.
What were the major traits that these presidents shared? They all understood the nature of their time, what was really going on in the country, what the country needed, what the voters collectively were hungry for. There are a lot of presidents who don’t understand their time; they think they do, but they don’t. You have to have a vision. All of these leaders of destiny were elected at a time when the country needed tremendous leadership, and these presidents are the ones who stepped up and gave it. Then, they have political adroitness, the ability to get their hands on the levers of power in America and manipulate those levers in a way that gets the country moving affectively in the direction of that vision.
In your opinion, FDR and Ronald Reagan are the two greatest presidents of the 20th century.
The voters hailed them both at the time. What is interesting, in my view, is that Roosevelt was probably the most liberal president of the 20th century, and Reagan was probably the most conservative president of the 20th century. It indicates that the country is not particularly ideological. It is looking for the right solutions to the problems of the moment. The country is willing to turn left or to turn right.
What is the difference between good and great?
We have had a lot of good presidents. I’ll give you a good example of a good president, Bill Clinton. Clinton was elected because the country wasn’t quite satisfied with George H.W. Bush. They didn’t think he was a terrible president, but he didn’t quite lead the country in a way that made him eligible for rehire. The country gets Bill Clinton, and he tries to govern in his first two years as if his aim is to repeal Reaganism. The result was that the American people basically slapped him down very, very decisively in the midterm elections of 1994, at which point Bill Clinton did an about-face and said, “The era of big government is over.” He crafted a center left mode of governing that was very effective. He had significant economic growth. He wiped out the deficit. We didn’t have major problems overseas. There was no agitation in the streets that led to violence or anything of that nature. He gets credit for being a good president.
Once he righted his mode of government and moved the country solidly forward, he was beginning to build up some significant political capital, and he never really felt the need or desire to invest that capital into anything very bold. So, he governed effectively as a status quo president and ended eight years as a very good steward of American polity, but not a great president. To be a great president, you have to take risks and make changes.
Just as we can learn from the successes, there are lessons to be learned from the failures. What can you say about character traits that do not bode well for a successful presidency?
Scandal harms you tremendously. But I would say that the real failures are people like James Buchanan who faced a huge crisis—the debate over slavery that was descending upon America—and just simply didn’t want to deal with. He wasn’t willing to put himself out in any kind of politically risky way in order to address it. The result was it just got worse. It festered and got worse.
Occasionally, a president will make a comeback in historians’ minds. What would you say is the most reputation-altering presidential biography?
Grover Cleveland is the only president we have who actually is a two-time, one-term president. He is the only president who served two nonconsecutive terms. Each time he served four years, the voters said, “I’ve had enough. I’m going to turn away to either another person in the party or another candidate.”
Meanwhile, however, the first poll by Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in 1948 had Grover Cleveland at Number 8. That ranking came a few years after the great historian Allan Evans wrote a two volume biography of Grover Cleveland, in which he hailed him as a man of destiny and a man of character. I am sure that biography had a significant impact.
So, you describe a manner of assessing the greatest of past presidents. But, it is an election year. How do you suggest we evaluate current presidential candidates?
I don’t think the American people need a lot of instruction from me or anyone else in terms of how to make an assessment on the presidents when they come up for reelection. Presidential elections are largely referendums on the incumbent. The American people don’t pay a lot of attention to the challenger. They basically make their judgment collectively, based on the performance of the incumbent or the incumbent party. They pretty much screen out the trivia and the nonsense—a lot of the stuff that we in the political journalistic fraternity (and I’ve been a part of it for a long, long time) tend to take very seriously—and make their assessment based on sound judgments on how the president has fared, how well he has led the country and whether the country is in better shape than it was before. I am pretty confident that the American people know what they are doing.
Do you have any comment, then, on what qualities we might look for in a candidate, so that we maximize our chances of electing a leader of destiny?
One thing that we know from history is that the great presidents are never predicted as being great. They are elected in a political crucible. While supporters are convinced he is going to be great—or she; someday we will have a woman—his detractors and opponents will be absolutely convinced that he is going to be a total and utter disaster. Even after he is succeeding, they are going to say he is a disaster.
You can never really predict what a president is going to do or how effective he is going to be. Lincoln was considered a total country bumpkin from out there in rural Illinois. Oliver Wendell Holmes famously judged Franklin Roosevelt as having a first-rate temperament and a second-rate intellect. Ronald Reagan was viewed as a failed movie actor who just read his lines from 3-by-5 cards. And all three were great presidents.
What idea are you turning to next?
I wrote a history of the James Polk presidency [A Country of Vast Designs] and how the country moved west and gained all of that western and southwestern territory, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and then California to Texas. I am fascinated now by the subsequent time in our history when we busted out of our continental confines and went out into the world in the Spanish-American War. I am looking at the presidency of William McKinley and the frothy optimism of the country at that time when we decided to become something of an imperial power.
This interview series focuses on big thinkers. Without knowing whom I will interview next, only that he or she will be a big thinker in their field, what question do you have for my next interview subject?
I guess a big question I would have in terms of the state of the country is, why is the country in such a deadlock? And how in the world are we going to get out of the crisis that is a result of that deadlock?
From my last interviewee, Frank Partnoy, a University of San Diego professor and author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay: How do you know what you know? What is it about your research and experience and background that leads you to a degree of certainty about your views? With what degree of confidence do you hold that idea?
I am not a young man. I have been around a long time. I had certainty when I was young, but I have had a lot of my certitudes shaken over the years. But, if you have enough of that, you tend to accumulate at least a few observations about the world that seem pretty solid and grounded. So, you go with them.
You have to take it on faith that you have seen enough and you know enough and you have certain principal perceptions of how things work and how events unfold and how the thesis-antithesis leads to synthesis in politics or government or history. And, so you pull it together as best you can. Ultimately, the critics will determine how successful you were.
Contains vocabularies and other linguistic notes on a variety of American Indian languages. Mainly transcripts by Gatschet from other sources; includes some material recorded by Gatschet, and a few original manuscripts sent to him by others.
Contents: Alaska: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 49-52. Petroff, Ivan. "Aliaskan Names, Ivan Petroff." 2 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. List of Alaskan place and tribal names with notes on each. Apalachee: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 103-104. [Gatschet, A. S.] Apalachee [vocabulary], with Pl[easant] Porter [Creek inft.]." 2 pages, in Gatschet's handwriting. Comparison of Apalachee words with Creek. Gatschet indicates: "(Copied in Apal. book, July 1889)." Beothuk: Ms. Vocabulary 1449, pages 27-41. [Gatschet, A. S.] Beothuk vocabularies, notes, and bibliographic references. 14 1/2 pages, mostly in Gatschet's handwriting. (pages 27-28 and 35-36 are in R. G. Latham's hand.) Working notes for Gatschet's published article on Beothuk -- comment by M. R. Haas, 11/58. California (Yuman ?): Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 122-123; 124 (?) Brown, J. Ross Extract from "J. Ross Brown. Sketch of the exploration of lower Cal. San Franc[isco ?], 1869. H. H. Bancroft & Co., 177 pp." 2 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Miscellaneous notes on lower California tribes and languages, with list of some of the tribes in the area and their approximate locations. California: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 148. [Gatschet, A. S.] Bibliographic references relating to California. 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Furman, McDonald Ms Vocabulary 1449 file: Catawba. Page 159 "An Indian's Petition." No date. Newsclipping. 1 slip. Ms Vocabulary 1449 Woccon and Catawba comparative vocabulary No date. Autograph document. 6 pages. Pages 87-89 and 93-94. Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 186a and ff. Eells, M. Comparison of numerals in Chemakum, Quileute, and Hoh, 1 page and accompanying letter to A. S. Gatschet, August 24, 1883, from M. Eells, Skokomish, Mason Co., Wash., 2 pages, handwritten. Ms Vocabulary pages 108-110. [Gatschet, A. S.] "Mtn. Cherokee's names (topographical). Nimrod Tom Smith [inft ?], 1/2 breed, in Swain Co., North Car., P. O. Quallatown...April 18, '82." 3 pages, in Gatschet's handwriting. List of Cherokee place names and locations. Chippewa: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 178-80. [Gatschet, A. S.] "Odjibwe - Local and tribal names. Ign. Tomazin [inft.], Jan. 31, '83." 3 pages, in Gatschet's handwriting. Also (page 180) short extract from Dorman, Primitive Superstitions, page 148, on Ojibwa cannibalism, in Gatschet's handwriting.
Chitimacha: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 85 (top). [Gatschet, A. S.] "Shetimasha" vocabulary of 8 words, translated into French. 1/2 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Eskimo: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 45. Hoffman, Dr W. J. "Eskimo text obtained by Dr W. J. Hoffman, at San Francisco, Cal., from Naumoff, an Eskimo from Kadiak..." No date. 1 page in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Includes text and inter-linear translation, plus translation of same story from sign language. Note by Gatschet indicates that text is not in Kodiak dialect. Eskimo (Chugach) Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 53-66. Petroff, Ivan "Vocabulary of Tchugatch-Inuit. Taken by Ivan Petroff, in June, 1881, at various places, chiefly at Nu'tchik or Port Etches, abt. 60 1/2 N. Lat. From full bloods. 14 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Also contains comparison with "Tchiglit" (Kopagmiut), in Gatschet's handwriting. "Partly entered in Mscr. vocab. Vol. 3." Eskimo (Kuskwogmiut): Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 76-84; 85-86; 95-96. [Petroff, Ivan ?] "Kuskokvog-miut (Inuit) [vocabulary], from Nicolai Kamilkoishin [?] native of the tribe educated at the Russian Mission, Yukon R., at Ikomiut." 13 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Partly entered in Mscr. vocabulary, Volume IIId (note in Gatschet's handwriting.) Eskimo: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 249. W--, H. D. "A curious race. The Mutes of northern Alaska. Their manner of living. Peculiar family relations - superstitions and queer customs." From the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday November 14, 1886. 1 page, newsclipping. Hitchiti: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 203 (bottom), 204 (bottom), 205. Robertson, Mrs A. E. "Acts. VIV, ii in Hitchiti" (page 203); "Hitchiti words from Mrs Robertson" (204); "Hitchiti verbs, by Mrs Robertson" (205). 3 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Kiowa: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 26. Gatschet, A. S. "Phonetics of the Kayowe Language, by Albert S. Gatschet. Read before the A.A.A.S., Cincinnati, 1881." 1 page, clipping from published article. Note in margin in Gatschet's handwriting reads: "Science of Sept. 17, 1881. By John Michels, New York."
Klamath: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 133-136; 143-147. [Gatschet, A. S.] Queries relating to the Klamath language by Gatschet, with answers written in by various Indians from the Klamath Agency, Oregon (cf. letter of J. G. Dennison, page 142 of this manuscript). 9 pages, partially in Gatschet's handwriting. Klamath: Ms 1449, pages 137-142. Denison, James D. "Story of the birth of Aisis," a Klamath legend, and accompanying letter from J. G. Dennison to A. S. Gatschet, August 29, 1880, Klamath Agency, Oregon. 6 pages, handwritten. Klamath: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 149-152. McCain, Frank Letter to A. S. Gatschet, January 30, 1880, from Frank McCain, Klamath Indian Agency, Lake Co., Oregon, containing 22 word Klamath vocabulary. 4 pages, handwritten. Koasati: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 102; 204. Robertson, Mrs A. E. [and A. S. Gatschet] "Koassadi. Supplement to words by Mrs A. E. Robertson, copied in Vocab. No. 2, obtained from [---illeg.]"; short vocabulary of verbs "from vocab. Vol 2, Koassati of Mrs Robertson"; and passage from "Actorum XIV, 11, in Koasata." 2 pages, in A S. Gatschet's handwriting. Page 102 contains a short list of Koasati words (probably from Mrs Robertson) with corresponding Choctaw equivalents (supplied by Gatschet [?] from the "Ch. grammar"; passage from Acts XIV, ii in Koasati with inter-linear translation, presumably by Gatschet; and list of Koasati verbs, no source mentioned. Page 204 contains the same bible passage in Koasati, with slightly different English translation, and list of same verbs, identified as being from "vocab. Vol 2...of Mrs Robertson." Pamunkey: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 46. Dalrymple, Rev Mr 17 word Pamunkey vocabulary collected by Rev Dalrymple in 1844 at King William County, Virginia. (Hist Mag., N. Y. II, page 182) and short note from J. G. Shea. 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. See National Anthropological Archives Manuscript 4069, referring to the original of the Dalrymple Manuscript in Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.
Seminole: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 182. [Buckingham-Smith, etc. ?] "Seminole Local Names. Buck. Smith, Beach, p. 125 (with Stidham)." 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. South America (Mojo): Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 187. Marban, M. P. P. Pedro "Moxo 6 Mojo. M.P.P. Pedro Marban, de la Compania de Jesus, Superior [ ]. Arte de la Lengua Moxa, con su vacabulario y cathecismo. Colegio de San Pablo (Lima), 1701. pages 664, etc." 1 page, in Gatschet's handwriting. Notes on Mojo language. South America (Miscellaneous): Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 128. Rohde, [ ] "Rohde on Sudamerika"...(1883-84)." 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Miscellaneous extracts relating to South American Indian tribes. South America (Miscellaneous): Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 97-101. Miscellaneous notes on South America copied by Gatschet from various published sources. 5 pages, in Gatschet's handwriting. South America Peru: (Quechua): Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 239. Bruhl, -- "Inquiries by Bruhl on Kechua. Oct. 1885." 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. 9 word Quechua vocabulary. Yokuts (Cholovone): Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 231-236. Pinart, Alph. L. "Yatchikumne [Cholovone, in Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 30], near Stockton, Cal. Alp. L. Pinart, 1880." 6 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Notes (written in French) on the various Cholovone dialects, and vocabulary with some words translated into English and some into Spanish. Yuchi and Natchez: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 106 Pike, Gen Albert "Elements of Inflection [of the verb to have]. Yuchi (Pike, p.--) & Naktche." 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Yuchi and Natchez: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 107 Pike, Gen. Albert "Albert Pike's Vocabularies, 18.... Yuchi & Naktche." 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Comparison of 33 words in Yuchi and Natchez. Yuchi: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 201-203. Robertson, Mrs A. E. "Yutchi [vocabulary] transliterated from mscr. of Mrs. Robertson, 1873 ?." 3 pages, in Gatschet's handwriting. Also contains passage from bible (Acts XIV, ii) apparently in Yuchi, with interlinear translation.
The idea of arguing over real estate on the moon may seem silly—like a con man trying to sell a tourist the Brooklyn Bridge. But in a new paper, co-author Martin Elvis, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, makes the case for society to start thinking carefully about lunar real estate before a crisis is thrust on us.
Most of the surface of the moon doesn't seem worth fighting over. One piece of lunar land looks as good as any other right now. But there are some exceptions—the peaks of eternal light. It is in these locations that Elvis suggests that scientific research could potentially be seen, or even used, as a land grab.
“The peaks of eternal light are highland regions near the lunar poles that receive sunlight virtually all of the time,” wrote Elvis (the lead author) and his co-authors, philosopher Tony Milligan and political scientist Alanna Krolikowski. Combined, the peaks comprise only about a single square kilometer of the lunar surface. These narrow crater rims are especially valuable for two purposes.
First, they offer a constant source of solar electricity. This would allow any lunar facility, manned or unmanned, to reduce weight and launch expenses. Without a source of constant sunlight, “you've got to have huge amounts of batteries and thermal insulation,” Elvis says. “That's a lot of mass to take into space. It's a real enabler to allow expeditions to start making use of the water down there [in the dark corners of craters nearby]. The industrial revolution started because there was iron next to coal... So when you have a power source next to a resource is where you start to develop some industry. If that's going to happen on the moon, its going to happen there.”In an image taken by the Selene space probe in 2014, four points on the moon's southern pole are identified which receive lighting more than 80 percent of the year. The Malapert Mountain peaks can be seen from Earth. (Wikimedia Commons)
The second use for the peaks of eternal light would be as sites for radio telescopes. A radio observatory in such a location would allow the sun to be studied without interruption, improving the ability to analyze solar data. A long wire would be stretched out along the crater rim, running at least 100 meters. This could be done on an unmanned mission. “If you have a rover, all you have to do is un-spool a copper wire as you move along,” says Elvis. “It doesn't have to be perfectly straight. I don't see any technological barrier to this happening in the next few years.”
In fact, there are several players planning lunar missions in the next few years who could make a play for the peaks of light. China successfully landed its Chang'e 3 spacecraft on the surface of the moon in 2013 and plans to land Chang'e 5 in 2017. China has an aggressive and successful lunar program that is capable of putting a radio observatory on a peak of light within the next few years (currently none of their mission profiles include this goal).
A host of competitors for the Google Lunar X Prize also may be capable of getting to one of the peaks first. SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit, has already paid its deposit for a 2017 launch date on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceIL has not publicly announced its intended landing site.
So what happens when someone lands on a peak? Can they make a claim to ownership? This is where things get tricky.
The history of space law begins with The Outer Space Treaty, which was negotiated primarily between the United States and the Soviet Union and ratified in 1967—104 countries are now parties to the treaty.
Article Two of the Treaty states: “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” This means that there isn't supposed to be any planting of a flag and claiming a land for any king or country. NASA can't call a peak of light part of the United States. China, also bound by the treaty, shares the same limitation as they explore the moon.
If a country can't claim lunar land as sovereign per se, can they still reap any defacto benefits of sovereignty? Elvis proposes a loophole in the treaty that could be enabled by the peaks of eternal light.
Article Twelve appears to take away the possibility of exclusion of others from a piece of lunar property: “All stations, installations, equipment and space vehicles on the moon and other celestial bodies shall be open to representatives of other States Parties to the Treaty on a basis of reciprocity. Such representatives shall give reasonable advance notice of a projected visit, in order that appropriate consultations may be held and that maximum precautions may be taken to assure safety and to avoid interference with normal operations in the facility to be visited.” In other words, this article declares that you have to let other nations visit your moon base.
So, if you can't make other people stay off of your real estate, is it really yours? Setting up a radio telescope on a peak of light, says Elvis, might provide the legal loophole that would allow governments to cheat on Article Twelve.
Approaching the antenna of a radio telescope would cause electrical interference that disrupts the “normal operations” mentioned in the Treaty. If the observatory is making uninterrupted observations of the sun, then there is no down-time during which a visitation could occur.
“Effectively a single wire could co-opt one of the most valuable pieces of territory on the Moon into something approaching real-estate, giving the occupant a good deal of leverage even if their primary objective was not scientific inquiry,” wrote the paper's authors.
Setting up a token radio observatory could establish a claim that allows a country to put the property on hold until they are ready to set up a solar power station which could power a mining operation in search of water or helium 3.
The Outer Space Treaty was negotiated and promoted as a nuclear non-proliferation treaty. During every conversation mentioning the treaty that was recorded by then-President Lyndon Johnson, it was discussed in those terms without ever mentioning commerce or real estate. “We believe it would have a benefit throughout the world and contribute to an easing of tension,” Johnson said to his aides at a time when the potential for nuclear war was at the top of everyone's concerns.
On December 9th, 1966, the New York Times wrote that “Mr. Johnson, in a statement from his ranch issued through the White House office here, described the agreement at the United Nations as 'the most important arms control development' since the 1963 treaty on a limited test ban.”
Therefore, the visitation requirements established in Article Twelve are probably best understood as an inspection scheme intended to prevent nuclear launch systems or other weapons from being constructed in space and in violation of the Treaty. This invites a closer look at whom this treaty really applies to.
Governments that signed on to the treaty are certainly bound by it, but what about SpaceX, SpaceIL or any other private individual, corporation or non-profit?
Article Six of the Treaty states in part: “States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities. . .” This makes it clear that the Treaty differentiates between state actors and non-state actors. When the treaty means states, it says states. While it says that a state cannot claim sovereignty over territory in space, it does not say that non-governmental entities are prohibited from establishing non-sovereign ownership of real estate. (Dr. Elvis respectfully disagreed with this interpretation of the Treaty, but said that he had not considered it previously.)
What NASA or the European Space Administration cannot do, a corporation might.
The literature on property law in space is scarce. Real cases regarding involving land beyond Earth have yet to occur, so there is no case law to examine. But in 1969, Stephen Gorove argued in the Fordham Law Review that under the Outer Space Treaty, private property beyond Earth is legally possible.
Gorove wrote: “...The Treaty in its present form appears to contain no prohibition regarding individual appropriation or acquisition by a private association or an international organization, even if other than the United Nations. Thus, at present, an individual acting on his own behalf or on behalf of another individual or a private association or an international organization could lawfully appropriate any part of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies.”
“It is important to keep in mind that, with certain exceptions, international law permits what it does not prohibit,” says Robert Turner, associate director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia.
“Which is to say that States do not need to show that a treaty authorizes what they wish to do with respect to the external world, but rather States can do as they wish unless they have agreed by treaty or through longstanding customary practice accepted as law (opinio juris) not to do what they now wish to do—or has established a duty to behave in a certain manner.”
In other words, anything that isn't specifically banned by custom or treaty is generally allowed in international law.
If states have not explicitly agreed to deny their citizens the right to claim exclusive mining resources or peaks of eternal light for commercial purposes, perhaps that right still exists (Turner did not endorse any specific opinion on private ownership of land in space).
Turner suggested that any ambiguity in the Outer Space Treaty could inhibit commercial exploitation of space. “In some settings, ownership rights must be settled before commercial enterprises are likely to invest in the technology to exploit resources,” Turner says. “For example, as long as Canada and the U.S. failed to agree on the dividing line between the two countries in the Gulf of Maine, an American energy company that sought to extract oil from the continental shelf in the disputed area ran a risk not only of later learning they were extracting Canadian oil and had to tear down their machinery—but also of owing Canada for the value of any oil extracted during past years. So both countries turned to the World Court to establish a boundary line.”
Elvis avoids coming to any definitive conclusions about the future of real estate on moons and asteroids. He just wants us to think about it and start making decisions before they are made for us. “What I'm trying to do is make a discussion and make it more real, based on the non-uniformity of the resources,” says Elvis. “I hope there will be either a revised treaty or a revised version of this treaty that makes space worthwhile.”
Every space-faring nation is now a party to the Outer Space Treaty, with the exception of Iran. The Iranian Space Agency has their own launch system which has successfully launched Iranian-built satellites into orbit. Iran does not have boosters capable of reaching the moon and currently has no plans to do so. Other countries can pull out of the Treaty by simply giving 12 months' advance notice.
Elvis worries that trying to get out ahead of a rival within the Treaty could eventually backfire on us. “Suppose we say 'we can't let the Chinese do it first, let's do it ourselves!' Then we've set a precedent that a state can use scientific research as a pretext for grabbing property on the moon… we may not want to set off that kind of scramble. . . .If we set a poor precedent, thinking we can grab it, that could rebound against us.”
For transgender women, the quest for the “right” voice used to begin with a trip to the music store.
“You would go to music stores to get a guitar tuner so you could do your homework and figure out and adjust the pitch you were speaking at,” says Lauren, a transgender woman in Washington, D.C. who requests we not use her full name.
After mobile apps became commonplace, people switched to using electronic tuners, she says, but these only provide an absolute indicator of pitch with no voice-specific feedback.
For transgender women, seeking therapy to modulate to a higher, more feminine voice is about more than identity. “There are tangible safety benefits to being able to pass as cis when you need to,” says Natalie Weizenbaum, a transgender woman and software engineer in Seattle. “Beyond that, I want to be the one in control of how people understand me, and, well, I was just getting really fed up with the sound of my own voice.”
Weizenbaum has taken private voice lessons from a speech pathologist, but at $1,000 for 11 sessions, those can be prohibitively expensive. Now, researchers are developing voice-training apps specifically for the transgender population in hopes of making these lessons more accessible.
Speech-language pathologist Kathe Perez launched the first such voice-training app in 2013. Perez was running her private practice in 2000 when she received a call from a transgender woman who wanted help training her voice to sound more feminine. She started receiving so many similar requests that she put together an audio program that sold in 55 countries. The app—called EVA, or the “Exceptional Voice App”—is based on the audio program and charges $4.99 a lesson.
In two years, some 10,000 users—a respectable but not staggering number—have downloaded the app. Though she created versions for both transgender men and women, far more of her customers are women, Perez says, because feminizing a voice tends to be more difficult than training it to sound more masculine. When cisgender males hit puberty, the extra testosterone thickens the vocal chords to produce a lower pitch. For transgender men, taking testosterone creates much of the same effect, so they require fewer lessons to get to their targets.
For transgender women, though, estrogen treatment doesn’t “thin out” the vocal chords and raise a voice’s pitch, making it more necessary to take lessons or, in extreme cases, have vocal surgery. And some of the issue is cultural, adds Perez: “As a society, we are more apt to overlook a soft-sounding man than we are apt to overlook a very large, masculine-sounding woman.”
These cultural expectations around women and gender have featured prominently in debates over transgender issues. Last year, feminist writer bell hooks criticized transgender actress and "Orange is the New Black" star Laverne Cox for conforming to “stereotypical” ideals of female beauty. Femme coaches who work with transgender clients readily admit that their expertise involves conforming to gender stereotypes. Two years after EVA’s launch, these questions are no less salient when it comes to whether voice training teaches transgender women to speak in a specific, stereotypical manner.
Tools like EVA have specific voice targets with which women can practice. On EVA’s pitch lessons, for example, the app plays a note and the user tries to match the note when singing it into the phone. She then receives a score based on her accuracy.
EVA’s strength is the specific, quantifiable feedback it gives, but this doesn’t mean it’s training everyone to achieve the same female voice, according to Perez. “The human voice has been very well-studied, so we do have parameters and general guidelines of what the characteristics of a female voice are,” she says.
We know, for instance, that the pitch of most female voices hovers about 200 hertz, a measurement of sound wave frequency, though there is natural variation given women’s height and age. Perez built the app to be pitched around 220 hertz, with some wiggle room on each end. If someone’s pitch hits anywhere between 196 hertz and 246 hertz—two semitones above and below 220—she will receive a perfect score. A 22-year-old woman who is 5’6”and a 50-year-old woman who is 5’10” are limited in which notes they can hit by both age and physicality, but as long as they are both within the range, they will both receive 100 percent accuracy. The app averages the results from three different tries, with any score above 80 percent as passing.
EVA provides guidelines, Perez says, but it simply cannot give everyone identical voices even if everyone breathes the same and hits the target range. “A person’s voice is so individual and not just about these numbers—do we uptalk, do we have a darker sound because we’re larger, a bit of a downswing because we’re older?” she says. “All of that ends up coming through.”
The app currently provides lessons in fundamentals, such as breathing style, and pitch, all based on existing language research. The next set of courses, which Perez is still developing, will be about resonance, or the vocal quality that makes a voice sound brighter or darker. This is one of the more difficult aspects for clients to master, says Perez.
Christie Block, a speech-language pathologist who runs the New York Speech and Voice Lab and has coached transgender clients, says the primary tools in her own sessions are unavailable in app form. She uses computer software to monitor her clients’ progress, because it gives visual feedback for continuous speech, whereas most mobile apps can only give feedback for one sustained note. Block praised EVA for making voice training accessible to far more people, but notes that much of voice training involves teaching speech patterns, which an app cannot cover.
“It’s a myth to think that voice training for trans people is just perpetuating stereotypes, but we are definitely dealing with cultural norms like word choice and intonation,” says Block, who refers to “masculine” and “feminine” voices instead of “male” and “female,” because she also works with genderqueer clients. “It’s about helping people understand what the norms are and how to work around them and find the right combination of patterns that make it congruent with their identity and within the biological constraints that they have.”
Soon, EVA won’t be the only one in this field. Alex Ahmed, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University recently won a National Science Foundation grant to create a voice-training app that “doesn’t conform to a gender binary.”
Ahmed is currently awaiting institutional approval from Northeastern to conduct interviews with trans women to develop her own app as part of her doctoral research. “Personally, as a trans person I know that having a very gendered and very binary interface turns me off, because it presents this idea that there is just masculine and feminine,” she says. “My idea is that people should be able to use my app to further their own goals, which may push them toward different locations on the masculine-feminine spectrum.”
It’s still early in the process—Ahmed says her app wouldn’t be out for another year at least—but she has some ideas for how a more genderqueer voice-training app could work. For instance, there could be customizable voices built in that demonstrate how changing any one factor, such as pitch or inflection, while keeping the other ones constant would affect the sound. This could help people play around with voice training without telling them how close they are to a “female” or “male” voice, Ahmed adds.
She’s also thinking about whether to include more controversial “cultural” features in the app, such as uptalk—the much-criticized (for women, at least) tendency to pitch a voice higher at the end of a sentence. “It’s a very gendered criticism, but I do think that there is value in having as many options as possible, and that’s something that has been observed in the literature,” she says. “I’m not ruling anything out at this point.”
Weizenbaum, the software developer who took private lessons, used tuning apps like DaTuner Pro and Voice Analyst, but describes her learning process as “20 percent biological,” or about pitch and the way her mouth moved, and “80 percent cultural,” meaning it was learning about different speech patterns and how quickly to speak or how to move her voice around. She says, “There was a while when I was paying super-close attention to how people spoke to learn how to sound more emotive, and I became hyper-sensitized to voices in this particular aspect so that every time I heard men talk, I was just stunned at how little pitch variation there was.”
Though she has friends who have had great results with EVA and online training videos, she decided to pay for live feedback during private lessons. “I learn better that way in things I am not confident in, and I was very much not confident about my voice,” she says. She now reports that when talking on the phone strangers identify her as female and use female pronouns 100 percent of the time.
Lauren, the D.C. woman, once took private lessons and now uses EVA about four times a week to keep up with exercises and maintain her voice.
“This is a very long process, but I’m looking forward to all the rest of the modules on EVA, and I’m excited,” she says. “There’s more to learn, and so many more people will be able to learn too.”
Science can be glorious; it can bring clarity to a chaotic world. But big scientific discoveries are by nature counterintuitive and sometimes shocking. Here are ten of the biggest threats to our peace of mind.
1. The Earth is not the center of the universe.
We’ve had more than 400 years to get used to the idea, but it’s still a little unsettling. Anyone can plainly see that the Sun and stars rise in the east, sweep across the sky and set in the west; the Earth feels stable and stationary. When Copernicus proposed that the Earth and other planets instead orbit the Sun,
… his contemporaries found his massive logical leap “patently absurd,” says Owen Gingerich of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It would take several generations to sink in. Very few scholars saw it as a real description of the universe.”
Galileo got more grief for the idea than Copernicus did. He used a telescope to provide evidence for the heliocentric theory, and some of his contemporaries were so disturbed by what the new invention revealed—craters on a supposedly perfectly spherical moon, other moons circling Jupiter—that they refused to look through the device. More dangerous than defying common sense, though, was Galileo’s defiance of the Catholic Church. Scripture said that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and the Holy Office of the Inquisition found Galileo guilty of heresy for saying otherwise.
2. The microbes are gaining on us.
Antibiotics and vaccines have saved millions of lives; without these wonders of modern medicine, many of us would have died in childhood of polio, mumps or smallpox. But some microbes are evolving faster than we can find ways to fight them.
The influenza virus mutates so quickly that last year’s vaccination is usually ineffective against this year’s bug. Hospitals are infested with antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus bacteria that can turn a small cut into a limb- or life-threatening infection. And new diseases keep jumping from animals to humans—ebola from apes, SARS from masked palm civets, hantavirus from rodents, bird flu from birds, swine flu from swine. Even tuberculosis, the disease that killed Frederic Chopin and Henry David Thoreau, is making a comeback, in part because some strains of the bacterium have developed multi-drug resistance. Even in the 21st century, it’s quite possible to die of consumption.
3. There have been mass extinctions in the past, and we’re probably in one now.
Paleontologists have identified five points in Earth’s history when, for whatever reason (asteroid impact, volcanic eruptions and atmospheric changes are the main suspects), mass extinctions eliminated many or most species.
The concept of extinction took a while to sink in. Thomas Jefferson saw mastodon bones from Kentucky, for example, and concluded that the giant animals must still be living somewhere in the interior of the continent. He asked Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for them.
Today, according to many biologists, we’re in the midst of a sixth great extinction. Mastodons may have been some of the earliest victims. As humans moved from continent to continent, large animals that had thrived for millions of years began to disappear—mastodons in North America, giant kangaroos in Australia, dwarf elephants in Europe. Whatever the cause of this early wave of extinctions, humans are driving modern extinctions by hunting, destroying habitat, introducing invasive species and inadvertently spreading diseases.
4. Things that taste good are bad for you.
In 1948, the Framingham Heart Study enrolled more than 5,000 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, to participate in a long-term study of risk factors for heart disease. (Very long term—the study is now enrolling the grandchildren of the original volunteers.) It and subsequent ambitious and painstaking epidemiological studies have shown that one’s risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain kinds of cancer and other health problems increases in a dose-dependent manner upon exposure to delicious food. Steak, salty French fries, eggs Benedict, triple-fudge brownies with whipped cream—turns out they’re killers. Sure, some tasty things are healthy—blueberries, snow peas, nuts and maybe even (oh, please) red wine. But on balance, human taste preferences evolved during times of scarcity, when it made sense for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to gorge on as much salt and fat and sugar as possible. In the age of Hostess pies and sedentary lifestyles, those cravings aren’t so adaptive.
Einstein’s famous equation is certainly one of the most brilliant and beautiful scientific discoveries—but it’s also one of the most disturbing. The power explained by the equation really rests in the c², or the speed of light (186,282 miles per second) times itself, which equals 34,700,983,524. When that’s your multiplier, you don’t need much mass—a smidgen of plutonium is plenty—to create enough energy to destroy a city.
Image by North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy. The Aztecs slaughtered tens of thousands of people to inaugurate the Great Pyramid of Tenochititlan. Recent archaeological findings suggest that is was common for people around the world to ritually kill—and sometimes eat—other people. (original image)
Image by AlaskaStock / Corbis. The consequences of burning fossil fuels are already apparent. We have just begun to see the effects of human-induced climate change. (original image)
Image by INTERFOTO / Alamy. Copernicus' contemporaries found his proposal that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun "patently absurd." (original image)
Image by The Natural History Museum / Alamy. For the past 151 years, since On the Origin of Species was published, people have been arguing over evolution. (original image)
Image by Mark Peterson / Corbis. In 1948, the Framingham Heart Study enrolled more than 5,000 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, to participate in a long-term study of risk factors for heart disease. The study is currently enrolling the grandchildren of the original volunteers. (original image)
6. Your mind is not your own.
Freud might have been wrong in the details, but one of his main ideas—that a lot of our behaviors and beliefs and emotions are driven by factors we are unaware of—turns out to be correct. If you’re in a happy, optimistic, ambitious mood, check the weather. Sunny days make people happier and more helpful. In a taste test, you’re likely to have a strong preference for the first sample you taste—even if all of the samples are identical. The more often you see a person or an object, the more you’ll like it. Mating decisions are based partly on smell. Our cognitive failings are legion: we take a few anecdotes and make incorrect generalizations, we misinterpret information to support our preconceptions, and we’re easily distracted or swayed by irrelevant details. And what we think of as memories are merely stories we tell ourselves anew each time we recall an event. That’s true even for flashbulb memories, the ones that feel as though they’ve been burned into the brain:
Like millions of people, [neuroscientist Karim] Nader has vivid and emotional memories of the September 11, 2001, attacks and their aftermath. But as an expert on memory, and, in particular, on the malleability of memory, he knows better than to fully trust his recollections… As clear and detailed as these memories feel, psychologists find they are surprisingly inaccurate.
7. We’re all apes.
It’s kind of deflating, isn’t it? Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection can be inspiring: perhaps you’re awed by the vastness of geologic time or marvel at the variety of Earth’s creatures. The ability to appreciate and understand nature is just the sort of thing that is supposed to make us special, but instead it allowed us to realize that we’re merely a recent variation on the primate body plan. We may have a greater capacity for abstract thought than chimps do, but we’re weaker than gorillas, less agile in the treetops than orangutans and more ill-tempered than bonobos.
Charles Darwin started life as a creationist and only gradually came to realize the significance of the variation he observed in his travels aboard the Beagle. For the past 151 years, since On the Origin of Species was published, people have been arguing over evolution. Our ape ancestry conflicts with every culture’s creation myth and isn’t particularly intuitive, but everything we’ve learned since then—in biology, geology, genetics, paleontology, even chemistry and physics—supports his great insight.
8. Cultures throughout history and around the world have engaged in ritual human sacrifice.
Say you’re about to die and are packing some supplies for the afterlife. What to take? A couple of coins for the ferryman? Some flowers, maybe, or mementos of your loved ones? If you were an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, you’d have your servants slaughtered and buried adjacent to your tomb. Concubines were sacrificed in China to be eternal companions; certain Indian sects required human sacrifices. The Aztecs slaughtered tens of thousands of people to inaugurate the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan; after sacred Mayan ballgames, the losing team was sometimes sacrificed.
It’s hard to tell fact from fiction when it comes to this particularly gruesome custom. Ritual sacrifice is described in the Bible, Greek mythology and the Norse sagas, and the Romans accused many of the people they conquered of engaging in ritual sacrifice, but the evidence was thin. A recent accumulation of archaeological findings from around the world shows that it was surprisingly common for people to ritually kill—and sometimes eat—other people.
9. We’ve already changed the climate for the rest of this century.
The mechanics of climate change aren’t that complex: we burn fossil fuels; a byproduct of that burning is carbon dioxide; it enters the atmosphere and traps heat, warming the surface of the planet. The consequences are already apparent: glaciers are melting faster than ever, flowers are blooming earlier (just ask Henry David Thoreau), and plants and animals are moving to more extreme latitudes and altitudes to keep cool.
Even more disturbing is the fact that carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. We have just begun to see the effects of human-induced climate change, and the predictions for what’s to come range from dire to catastrophic.
10. The universe is made of stuff we can barely begin to imagine.
Everything you probably think of when you think of the universe—planets, stars, galaxies, black holes, dust—makes up just 4 percent of whatever is out there. The rest comes in two flavors of “dark,” or unknown stuff: dark matter, at 23 percent of the universe, and dark energy, at a whopping 73 percent:
Scientists have some ideas about what dark matter might be—exotic and still hypothetical particles—but they have hardly a clue about dark energy. … University of Chicago cosmologist Michael S. Turner ranks dark energy as “the most profound mystery in all of science.”
The effort to solve it has mobilized a generation of astronomers in a rethinking of physics and cosmology to rival and perhaps surpass the revolution Galileo inaugurated on an autumn evening in Padua. … [Dark energy] has inspired us to ask, as if for the first time: What is this cosmos we call home?
But astronomers do know that, thanks to these dark parts, the universe is expanding. And not only expanding, but expanding faster and faster. Ultimately, everything in the universe will drift farther and farther apart until the universe is uniformly cold and desolate. The world will end in a whimper.
Almost everything we know about the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is based on a few lines from a letter.
"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
–Edward Winslow, December, 1621
Not surprisingly, the sparse details of the harvest festival Winslow describes bears little resemblance to the turkey-and-pigskin-imbued holiday most Americans celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November.
But more interesting than the letter’s content is its author, a figure largely missing from the Thanksgiving story.
Edward Winslow—diplomat, printer, author, trader and politician (some might even call him a social scientist and a public relations practitioner)—was one of the most important, and today, perhaps least remembered, leaders of the group of separatists called Pilgrims. Without Winslow, Plymouth—and indeed, the New England colonies—might not have survived.
“He was hugely significant,” says Rebecca Fraser, a British historian whose book about the Winslow family will be published next year. “He was one of those people who have so much energy. He needed to be striding around doing lots of things."
The prominent Boston theologian and writer Cotton Mather, writing in 1702, referred to Winslow as a “Hercules” for his strength and fortitude in dealing with multiple challenges facing the Plymouth settlement and later, New England as a whole. Winslow faced down Native American tribes hostile to the colonists and their allies and confronted warring political and economic factions on the other side of the Atlantic. In those latter battles, the ones fought in the corridors of power and the court of public opinion back in England, Winslow was the equivalent of a modern-day lobbyist.
"Winslow was the designated defender of New England's reputation," says Donna Curtin, executive director of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. "It wasn't in the political interest of Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay to be viewed as fractious or repressive by authorities back in England,.”
Winslow's unique background more than qualified him for the job. Most of the Pilgrims were yeoman farmers, with little formal education. Not Winslow. Born in 1595, he was educated in an Anglican cathedral school where the students spoke Greek and Latin, and he may have attended university in Cambridge. He then became an apprentice printer in London, although he left before he had completed his training. “I suppose he was inspired by the last book he worked on,” says Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in the Netherlands. That book, he says, was what we might now call a travel memoir by an Englishman who had spent time in Europe.
Possibly influenced by Puritan literature, Winslow ended up in Holland, a refuge for many English separatist groups, including the congregation that formed a new community in the Dutch university town of Leiden.
“As far as we know, he wasn’t involved with a separatist church until he got to Leiden,” says Bangs, who also authored a biography of Winslow.
In Leiden, young Winslow worked with William Brewster, a printer and prominent member of the group. He immersed himself in the theology and goals of the Pilgrims who decided, after a decade in Holland, that their best hope for creating the kind of religious community they aspired to could be found in the New World. Winslow was one of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower. Later, he wrote a stirring account of the ship's arrival on distant shores after a fearful Atlantic passage:
Falling in with Cape Cod, which is in New England, and standing to the southward for the place we intended, we met with many dangers and mariners put back into the harbor of the Cape, which was the 11th of November, 1620: Where considering winter was come, the seas dangerous, the season cold, the winds high and being well-furnished for a plantation, we entered upon discovery and settled at Plymouth: Where God please to preserve and enable us.
That preservation was made possible by the local Wampanoag people, whom the Pilgrims befriended. Here, Winslow played a critical role. He was a natural diplomat, a keen observer and inherently curious. “He really is interested in learning more about the Wampanoag people and their beliefs and customs,” says Curtin “Not only does he observe their life ways, but he records them.”
“You’ll find out more about the Indians from Winslow than almost anyone else,” agrees Bangs. Notably, he was also willing to re-assess his attitudes based on what he learned from the indigenous people he met. “In the first year, he thought they had no concept of religion at all,” says Bangs. “In the next year or two, though, he had a more elaborate idea of what they thought in philosophic and religious terms and he corrected what he said.”
In his best-selling 2006 book Mayflower, historian Nathaniel Philbrick praises a detailed, first-person description of wigwams co-written by Winslow and William Bradford; “a modern anthropologist would have a hard time outdoing the report,” he writes.
When the Wampanoag sachem, or leader, Massasoit—himself a skilled diplomat—first visited the hardscrabble Plymouth settlement, Winslow was chosen from among the English settlers to walk out and greet him personally. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship; one that would prove critical to the stability of the colony. “[Winslow] had a terrific relationship with Massasoit,” says Fraser. The friendship was forged in a dramatic way. When the chief was seriously ill, Winslow—who had no medical training—walked to his village and reportedly nursed him back to health using a time-honored remedy: chicken soup. “There’s a wonderful relation by Winslow about going to Massasoit’s home and making chicken broth for him,” Fraser says. “It’s very tender.”
Like most Pilgrims, Winslow suffered personal loss in the early years of the settlement. His first wife Elizabeth died in March, 1621. Barely six weeks later, Winslow married Susanna White, whose husband had died as well. It was the first marriage in the new colony and produced five children.
In terms of his career, Winslow went further and higher than anyone else from the Plymouth settlement. He was the man selected first by Plymouth, and later by the emerging new Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north, to be the colonists’ liaison with London. In 1624, he returned to England to represent the interests of his fellow Pilgrims.
Though the Pilgrims were far from their native shores, the Plymouth colony was still affected by the mother country. Fish and furs needed to be sent back to help pay off their debts to those who had helped underwrite the cost of the journey. Many fellow separatists had remained in England and Holland—what would become of them? Would they join the new religious community founded by their friends in the new world? If so, how…and who would pay for it?
The colonists had other far-off struggles, too. There were conflicts with a rival colony in Maine, formed soon after the founding of Plymouth. There were denominational issues about church membership that needed to be addressed by Puritan authorities back home. And most important of all was the looming tussle between Parliament and the sovereignty, held by James I, whose attitudes towards the Pilgrims and their ilk had inspired them to leave England in the first place. The dispute between the Pilgrims and the crown finally exploded into the English Civil War two decades after the Pilgrims first landed.
Edward Winslow found himself in the midst of this roiling, complex political drama. His first mission was to sort out a boundary dispute in the wilds of Maine. "A settler named John Hocking had been killed by the Plymouth settlers because he went onto a part of the Kennebec River which belonged to the colony." Fraser explains. "Winslow had to apologize to Lord Saye, who was one of the founders of the Piscataqua settlement."
He had other business, too. Winslow published a number of pamphlets defending and promoting the New England colonies. After the English Civil War, when at first Parliament and later, in 1653, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protectorate, Winslow’s entreaties on behalf of the colonists were more warmly received than before. Cromwell recognized Winslow’s talents and appointed him to number of important committees, including one overseeing the confiscation of property from royalty. Soon, Winslow found himself doing everything from inventorying palaces to hearing the grievances of aristocrats who felt they had been unfairly treated.
Winslow’s 17th-century equivalent of jet-setting diplomacy didn’t always sit well with his friends back in Plymouth. In 1646 as Winslow headed for England yet again, William Bradford, Plymouth's governor and Winslow's close friend, grumbled that he had done so without permission. And Winslow's open-mindedness had limits. In 1645, Curtin notes, "he opposed a remarkable proposal to establish full religious freedom for all faiths in Plymouth despite his own experience of religious toleration as an exile in Holland."
Winslow’s star appeared to be reaching its zenith when, in 1655, he was sent by Cromwell to the West Indies as part of a military expedition aimed at establishing English settlements there. He had been designated by Cromwell to be the new governor of Jamaica. “That was an enormously powerful position,” Bangs says.
But he never made it to the new colony. During the voyage, Winslow took ill and died at sea.
While Edward Winslow did indeed travel more widely and in higher circles than the rest of his original group of settlers from Plymouth, he seems to have remained at heart, a god-fearing Pilgrim, and never lost his pride in what he and his fellow dissenters had accomplished with their small settlement on the edge of a vast new continent. Plymouth was a community, he wrote, “not laid upon schism, division or separation, but upon love, peace and holiness; yea, such love and mutual care of the Church of Leyden for the spreading of the Gospel, the welfare of each other and their posterities to succeeding generations, is seldom found on earth.”
About 10 years ago, while passing a hot afternoon on the deck of a tourist lodge in Belize, a friend on his way out to go bird-watching asked why on earth I had my nose buried in a book. “Here we are in the jungle of Belize,” he said. “There are jaguars in the woods, and crocodiles in the swamp, and grackles in the trees—and you’re reading a book?” I explained that reading while traveling—if done right—can serve as a sensory supplement to one’s surrounding environment, not necessarily a distraction, as he believed. I explained that many years from now, any mention of Dove—a sailing memoir by Robin Graham—would sweep me right back to these Belizean tropical forests where I read the book, and the coral reefs off the coast, and the croc-filled lagoons, and the villages, sulking in the boggy Caribbean heat and odors of fermenting cashew apples and mangoes. And I was right. When I think of Dove, I go right back to Belize. Because reading a book charges up the mind with information and memories. These become entangled with the scents and flavors of reality, and rather than detract from an experience, a good book can enrich it. Never in the past 15 years have I left home for a week or more without a piece or two of literature, and below I list some of my favorite reads—and where best to read them.
Montana, Night of the Grizzlies. On August 13, 1967, two different grizzly bears in two different parts of Glacier National Park attacked and killed two unrelated young women in one of the most bizarre stories of modern wilderness tragedy. Night of the Grizzlies, by Jack Olsen, recounts the events that led to the attacks. He describes the tourist lodges and the bear-viewing balconies above the garbage dumps, where grizzlies regularly gather—growing accustomed all the while to humans. When the victims—both 19, for another coincidence—go on their respective overnight trips into the backcountry, butterflies begin fluttering in the reader’s stomach. Night falls, the campers go to sleep and their fates are sealed; the worst nightmare of the human psyche is about to become reality. The deadly maulings were the first bear attacks in Glacier National Park, and Olsen’s book acknowledges the inexplicable nature of the coincidences of that night, then delves into the uncertain future of bears, people and wilderness. NOTE: You might lose sleep in the backcountry after reading this one—but that snapping tree branch outside was probably just the wind. Probably.
Paris, Down and Out in Paris and London. Ernest Hemingway may have spent his days in Paris thoughtfully fingering his beard at sidewalk cafes and drinking the house wine, but George Orwell voluntarily dived into a life of grim poverty as he made a journalistic effort to understand the plight of Europe’s working classes. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell describes short-term jobs in the Parisian restaurant circuit, weeks of unemployment, living in a pay-by-the-week hotel and selling his clothes to scrape up the rent. He lives franc to franc, describing the logistics of saving coins and managing free meals and dodging the landlady. In one especially dismal spell, Orwell and a friend named Boris, living together at the time, go three days without food. Following false rumors of job openings, they drag their feet throughout the city, growing weaker every hour. Orwell even goes fishing in the Seine in the hopes of landing something to fry in a pan. When the pair finally acquires a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, they devour what must be among the most satisfying dinners ever eaten in Paris. Orwell eventually lands steady work, but not before learning how strangely liberating it is to hit rock-bottom, to own nothing in the world but the clothes you’re wearing and have no worries but finding a bite to eat. T. S. Eliot, an editor at Faber & Faber at the time, would later decline the manuscript offered by the young writer: “We did find of very great interest,” Eliot wrote, “but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture.”
Texas, Lonesome Dove. Author Larry McMurtry creates a lovable cast of characters in the cowboy era of Texas in this Pulitzer Prize winner of 1985. The year is 1876, and Gus and Call, a pair of retired Texas Rangers, now operate a cattle ranch by the Rio Grande and spend their days tracking rustlers and warring with bands of Comanche Indians. Just as the reader grows cozy with life on the farm, the prospect of joining a cross-continental cattle drive pulls Gus and Call from their idyllic home and on an adventure to Montana. Through dangerous encounters one after another, the men convince readers they’re invincible, but a tragedy ends the party, only one of the pair returns alive to Texas, and we remember that the American frontier is as brutal as it may be alluring.
Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East, The Innocents Abroad. In 1867, Mark Twain joined a group of wealthy Americans on a cruise ship bound for the Mediterranean—-and in one of his best-selling books he boldly makes a mockery of the most cherished sites and attractions of the Old World. No museum, ruin, impoverished village or biblical site is off-limits to Twain’s criticism. He ridicules, especially, the patriotic Italian guides who lead the group to famed statues and artifacts—such as a particularly dazzling sculpture of Christopher Columbus. “Well, what did he do?” they ask the tour guide (I’m paraphrasing), who had thought the Americans would be flabbergasted. “The great Christopher Colombo!” the guide stammers, incredulous. “He discover America!” “What? We’ve just come from there and we haven’t heard anything about him.” The Italian almost faints. And another hired guide shows them an Egyptian mummy, 3,000 years old. Twain and the boys stare in silence, stifling giggles for ten minutes, before one of them finally asks, “Is he, uh, dead?” Onward, in Greece, Twain sneaks into the Acropolis at night; in Turkey, he describes the “illustrious” stray dogs of Constantinople; in the Bible country, Twain mocks almost every artifact and scrap of cloth advertised as once belonging to Jesus—and only in the presence of the Egyptian sphinx is his teasing manner at last humbled. As he stares at one of the oldest creations of humankind, he likens the sight to how it must feel to finally encounter “the awful presence of God.”
Somewhere on the tropical ocean, Men Against the Sea. The sequel to Mutiny on the Bounty, this novella describes the voyage of the 19 men set adrift by the Bounty’s mutineers. The sailors locate themselves via celestial tracking, set themselves on a course for East Timor, and row more than 3,000 miles across the open ocean with only one man lost—killed by the hostile natives of Tofua. Hunger weakens the men nearly to starvation, but a few mahi mahi, flying fish and fruits harvested from island trees barely keep the men alive. The reader feels their hunger pains and likewise grows queasy each time they must make a landing to find water, surfing their boat over tremendous breakers onto unfriendly shores, often astir with threatening people. The men observe strange hopping animals as big as a man in the vicinity of Australia, and beneath their boat the shapes of monsters appear as fleeting shadows—probably the fearsome estuarine crocodiles so infamous in Australian swamps today. NOTE: If you’re reading aboard a boat at sea or under a palm on a tropical atoll, the aforementioned Dove can stand in ably.
Central America, The Mosquito Coast. In Paul Theroux’s novel about a brilliant but wayward man who transplants his family to the upstream wilderness of Nicaragua, protagonist Allie Fox builds a self-sufficient paradise—but in the metaphor of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the protagonist loses his mind, and the dream goes up in flames.
California, My Name Is Aram. From William Saroyan, this 1940 novel hashes out the comedy and drama of life in the farm country of the San Joaquin Valley, where the Saroyan family, from Armenia and still embracing customs of the home country, have set new roots.
Baja California, Log from the Sea of Cortez. John Steinbeck’s travelogue from the scientific collecting voyage he joined in 1940, aboard the Western Flyer, describes the rich Sea of Cortez and the shoreline of the Baja Peninsula. In 2004, several Stanford marine biologists re-enacted the voyage on a vessel almost identical to the original. En route, the scientists compared Steinbeck’s descriptions of a bountiful sea with the dwindling fish and invertebrate populations of the present.
Southeast Asia, Catfish and Mandala. In this travel memoir, Andrew Pham tells of his pilgrimage by bicycle from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area to the land of his roots, Vietnam. Here, Pham seeks out old friends and familiar places, but haven’t we all been warned never to go home again? Indeed, much of the world that Pham hopes to see again has vanished or transformed.
Finally, the brand-new guidebook Oregon Cycling Sojourner, by Ellee Thalheimer, provides local insight and tips helpful for anyone considering riding a bicycle through Oregon—and camping, dining out, drinking beer and even doing yoga along the way. The glossy paperback details eight routes through all regions of the state, covering 1,826 miles of highway, 12 breweries and 14 mountain passes. Those not wishing to have a tour route described down to the turns in the very road might read the book for pointers, take a few notes, then leave it behind and wend their own way.
Have any more book suggestions? Add any ideas to the comment box below, as this list continues next week.
We had now reached the summit of the loftiest crag. For some minutes the old man seemed too much exhausted to speak.
"Not long ago," said he at length, "and I could have guided you on this route as well as the youngest of my sons; but, about three years past, there happened to me an event such as never happened before to mortal man—or at least such as no man ever survived to tell of—and the six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have broken me up body and soul. You suppose me a very old man—but I am not. It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves, so that I tremble at the least exertion, and am frightened at a shadow. Do you know I can scarcely look over this little cliff without getting giddy?"
The "little cliff," upon whose edge he had so carelessly thrown himself down to rest that the weightier portion of his body hung over it, while he was only kept from falling by the tenure of his elbow on its extreme and slippery edge—this "little cliff" arose, a sheer unobstructed precipice of black shining rock, some fifteen or sixteen hundred feet from the world of crags beneath us. Nothing would have tempted me to within half a dozen yards of its brink. In truth so deeply was I excited by the perilous position of my companion, that I fell at full length upon the ground, clung to the shrubs around me, and dared not even glance upward at the sky—while I struggled in vain to divest myself of the idea that the very foundations of the mountain were in danger from the fury of the winds. It was long before I could reason myself into sufficient courage to sit up and look out into the distance.
"You must get over these fancies," said the guide, "for I have brought you here that you might have the best possible view of the scene of that event I mentioned—and to tell you the whole story with the spot just under your eye."
"We are now," he continued, in that particularizing manner which distinguished him–"we are now close upon the Norwegian coast—in the sixty-eighth degree of latitude—in the great province of Nordland—and in the dreary district of Lofoden. The mountain upon whose top we sit is Helseggen, the Cloudy. Now raise yourself up a little higher—hold on to the grass if you feel giddy—so—and look out, beyond the belt of vapor beneath us, into the sea."
I looked dizzily, and beheld a wide expanse of ocean, whose waters wore so inky a hue as to bring at once to my mind the Nubian geographer's account of the Mare Tenebrarum. A panorama more deplorably desolate no human imagination can conceive. To the right and left, as far as the eye could reach, there lay outstretched, like ramparts of the world, lines of horridly black and beetling cliff, whose character of gloom was but the more forcibly illustrated by the surf which reared high up against it its white and ghastly crest, howling and shrieking for ever. Just opposite the promontory upon whose apex we were placed, and at a distance of some five or six miles out at sea, there was visible a small, bleak-looking island; or, more properly, its position was discernible through the wilderness of surge in which it was enveloped. About two miles nearer the land, arose another of smaller size, hideously craggy and barren, and encompassed at various intervals by a cluster of dark rocks.
The appearance of the ocean, in the space between the more distant island and the shore, had something very unusual about it. Although, at the time, so strong a gale was blowing landward that a brig in the remote offing lay to under a double-reefed trysail, and constantly plunged her whole hull out of sight, still there was here nothing like a regular swell, but only a short, quick, angry cross dashing of water in every direction—as well in the teeth of the wind as otherwise. Of foam there was little except in the immediate vicinity of the rocks.
"The island in the distance," resumed the old man, "is called by the Norwegians Vurrgh. The one midway is Moskoe. That a mile to the northward is Ambaaren. Yonder are Iflesen, Hoeyholm, Kieldholm, Suarven, and Buckholm. Farther off—between Moskoe and Vurrgh—are Otterholm, Flimen, Sandflesen, and Skarholm. These are the true names of the places—but why it has been thought necessary to name them at all, is more than either you or I can understand. Do you hear any thing? Do you see any change in the water?"
We had now been about ten minutes upon the top of Helseggen, to which we had ascended from the interior of Lofoden, so that we had caught no glimpse of the sea until it had burst upon us from the summit. As the old man spoke, I became aware of a loud and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived that what seamen term the chopping character of the ocean beneath us, was rapidly changing into a current which set to the eastward. Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity. Each moment added to its speed—to its headlong impetuosity. In five minutes the whole sea, as far as Vurrgh, was lashed into ungovernable fury; but it was between Moskoe and the coast that the main uproar held its sway. Here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion—heaving, boiling, hissing—gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes except in precipitous descents.
In a few minutes more, there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into combination, took unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. Suddenly—very suddenly—this assumed a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than half a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.
The mountain trembled to its very base, and the rock rocked. I threw myself upon my face, and clung to the scant herbage in an excess of nervous agitation.
"This," said I at length, to the old man–"this can be nothing else than the great whirlpool of the Maelström."
"So it is sometimes termed," said he. "We Norwegians call it the Moskoe-ström, from the island of Moskoe in the midway."
The ordinary accounts of this vortex had by no means prepared me for what I saw. That of Jonas Ramus, which is perhaps the most circumstantial of any, cannot impart the faintest conception either of the magnificence, or of the horror of the scene—or of the wild bewildering sense of the novel which confounds the beholder. I am not sure from what point of view the writer in question surveyed it, nor at what time; but it could neither have been from the summit of Helseggen, nor during a storm. There are some passages of his description, nevertheless, which may be quoted for their details, although their effect is exceedingly feeble in conveying an impression of the spectacle.
"Between Lofoden and Moskoe," he says, "the depth of the water is between thirty-six and forty fathoms; but on the other side, toward Ver (Vurrgh) this depth decreases so as not to afford a convenient passage for a vessel, without the risk of splitting on the rocks, which happens even in the calmest weather. When it is flood, the stream runs up the country between Lofoden and Moskoe with a boisterous rapidity; but the roar of its impetuous ebb to the sea is scarce equalled by the loudest and most dreadful cataracts; the noise being heard several leagues off, and the vortices or pits are of such an extent and depth, that if a ship comes within its attraction, it is inevitably absorbed and carried down to the bottom, and there beat to pieces against the rocks; and when the water relaxes, the fragments thereof are thrown up again. But these intervals of tranquillity are only at the turn of the ebb and flood, and in calm weather, and last but a quarter of an hour, its violence gradually returning. When the stream is most boisterous, and its fury heightened by a storm, it is dangerous to come within a Norway mile of it. Boats, yachts, and ships have been carried away by not guarding against it before they were within its reach. It likewise happens frequently, that whales come too near the stream, and are overpowered by its violence; and then it is impossible to describe their howlings and bellowings in their fruitless struggles to disengage themselves. A bear once, attempting to swim from Lofoden to Moskoe, was caught by the stream and borne down, while he roared terribly, so as to be heard on shore. Large stocks of firs and pine trees, after being absorbed by the current, rise again broken and torn to such a degree as if bristles grew upon them. This plainly shows the bottom to consist of craggy rocks, among which they are whirled to and fro. This stream is regulated by the flux and reflux of the sea—it being constantly high and low water every six hours. In the year 1645, early in the morning of Sexagesima Sunday, it raged with such noise and impetuosity that the very stones of the houses on the coast fell to the ground."
In regard to the depth of the water, I could not see how this could have been ascertained at all in the immediate vicinity of the vortex. The "forty fathoms" must have reference only to portions of the channel close upon the shore either of Moskoe or Lofoden. The depth in the centre of the Moskoe-ström must be immeasurably greater; and no better proof of this fact is necessary than can be obtained from even the sidelong glance into the abyss of the whirl which may be had from the highest crag of Helseggen. Looking down from this pinnacle upon the howling Phlegethon below, I could not help smiling at the simplicity with which the honest Jonas Ramus records, as a matter difficult of belief, the anecdotes of the whales and the bears; for it appeared to me, in fact, a self-evident thing, that the largest ships of the line in existence, coming within the influence of that deadly attraction, could resist it as little as a feather the hurricane, and must disappear bodily and at once.
The attempts to account for the phenomenon—some of which, I remember, seemed to me sufficiently plausible in perusal—now wore a very different and unsatisfactory aspect. The idea generally received is that this, as well as three smaller vortices among the Feroe islands, "have no other cause than the collision of waves rising and falling, at flux and reflux, against a ridge of rocks and shelves, which confines the water so that it precipitates itself like a cataract; and thus the higher the flood rises, the deeper must the fall be, and the natural result of all is a whirlpool or vortex, the prodigious suction of which is sufficiently known by lesser experiments."—These are the words of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Kircher and others imagine that in the centre of the channel of the Maelström is an abyss penetrating the globe, and issuing in some very remote part—the Gulf of Bothnia being somewhat decidedly named in one instance. This opinion, idle in itself, was the one to which, as I gazed, my imagination most readily assented; and, mentioning it to the guide, I was rather surprised to hear him say that, although it was the view almost universally entertained of the subject by the Norwegians, it nevertheless was not his own. As to the former notion he confessed his inability to comprehend it; and here I agreed with him—for, however conclusive on paper, it becomes altogether unintelligible, and even absurd, amid the thunder of the abyss.
"You have had a good look at the whirl now," said the old man, "and if you will creep round this crag, so as to get in its lee, and deaden the roar of the water, I will tell you a story that will convince you I ought to know something of the Moskoe-ström."
I placed myself as desired, and he proceeded.
"Myself and my two brothers once owned a schooner-rigged smack of about seventy tons burthen, with which we were in the habit of fishing among the islands beyond Moskoe, nearly to Vurrgh. In all violent eddies at sea there is good fishing, at proper opportunities, if one has only the courage to attempt it; but among the whole of the Lofoden coastmen, we three were the only ones who made a regular business of going out to the islands, as I tell you. The usual grounds are a great way lower down to the southward. There fish can be got at all hours, without much risk, and therefore these places are preferred. The choice spots over here among the rocks, however, not only yield the finest variety, but in far greater abundance; so that we often got in a single day, what the more timid of the craft could not scrape together in a week. In fact, we made it a matter of desperate speculation—the risk of life standing instead of labor, and courage answering for capital.
"We kept the smack in a cove about five miles higher up the coast than this; and it was our practice, in fine weather, to take advantage of the fifteen minutes' slack to push across the main channel of the Moskoe-ström, far above the pool, and then drop down upon anchorage somewhere near Otterholm, or Sandflesen, where the eddies are not so violent as elsewhere. Here we used to remain until nearly time for slack-water again, when we weighed and made for home. We never set out upon this expedition without a steady side wind for going and coming—one that we felt sure would not fail us before our return—and we seldom made a miscalculation upon this point. Twice, during six years, we were forced to stay all night at anchor on account of a dead calm, which is a rare thing indeed just about here; and once we had to remain on the grounds nearly a week, starving to death, owing to a gale which blew up shortly after our arrival, and made the channel too boisterous to be thought of. Upon this occasion we should have been driven out to sea in spite of everything, (for the whirlpools threw us round and round so violently, that, at length, we fouled our anchor and dragged it) if it had not been that we drifted into one of the innumerable cross currents—here to-day and gone to-morrow—which drove us under the lee of Flimen, where, by good luck, we brought up.
"I could not tell you the twentieth part of the difficulties we encountered 'on the ground'—it is a bad spot to be in, even in good weather—but we made shift always to run the gauntlet of the Moskoe-ström itself without accident; although at times my heart has been in my mouth when we happened to be a minute or so behind or before the slack. The wind sometimes was not as strong as we thought it at starting, and then we made rather less way than we could wish, while the current rendered the smack unmanageable. My eldest brother had a son eighteen years old, and I had two stout boys of my own. These would have been of great assistance at such times, in using the sweeps, as well as afterward in fishing—but, somehow, although we ran the risk ourselves, we had not the heart to let the young ones get into the danger—for, after all said and done, it was a horrible danger, and that is the truth.
"It is now within a few days of three years since what I am going to tell you occurred. It was on the tenth of July, 18—, a day which the people of this part of the world will never forget—for it was one in which blew the most terrible hurricane that ever came out of the heavens. And yet all the morning, and indeed until late in the afternoon, there was a gentle and steady breeze from the south-west, while the sun shone brightly, so that the oldest seaman among us could not have foreseen what was to follow.
"The three of us—my two brothers and myself—had crossed over to the islands about two o'clock P.M., and soon nearly loaded the smack with fine fish, which, we all remarked, were more plenty that day than we had ever known them. It was just seven, by my watch, when we weighed and started for home, so as to make the worst of the Ström at slack water, which we knew would be at eight.
"We set out with a fresh wind on our starboard quarter, and for some time spanked along at a great rate, never dreaming of danger, for indeed we saw not the slightest reason to apprehend it. All at once we were taken aback by a breeze from over Helseggen. This was most unusual—something that had never happened to us before—and I began to feel a little uneasy, without exactly knowing why. We put the boat on the wind, but could make no headway at all for the eddies, and I was upon the point of proposing to return to the anchorage, when, looking astern, we saw the whole horizon covered with a singular copper-colored cloud that rose with the most amazing velocity.
"In the meantime the breeze that had headed us off fell away, and we were dead becalmed, drifting about in every direction. This state of things, however, did not last long enough to give us time to think about it. In less than a minute the storm was upon us—in less than two the sky was entirely overcast—and what with this and the driving spray, it became suddenly so dark that we could not see each other in the smack.
"Such a hurricane as then blew it is folly to attempt describing. The oldest seaman in Norway never experienced any thing like it. We had let our sails go by the run before it cleverly took us; but, at the first puff, both our masts went by the board as if they had been sawed off—the mainmast taking with it my youngest brother, who had lashed himself to it for safety.
"Our boat was the lightest feather of a thing that ever sat upon water. It had a complete flush deck, with only a small hatch near the bow, and this hatch it had always been our custom to batten down when about to cross the Ström, by way of precaution against the chopping seas. But for this circumstance we should have foundered at once—for we lay entirely buried for some moments. How my elder brother escaped destruction I cannot say, for I never had an opportunity of ascertaining. For my part, as soon as I had let the foresail run, I threw myself flat on deck, with my feet against the narrow gunwale of the bow, and with my hands grasping a ring-bolt near the foot of the foremast. It was mere instinct that prompted me to do this—which was undoubtedly the very best thing I could have done—for I was too much flurried to think.
"For some moments we were completely deluged, as I say, and all this time I held my breath, and clung to the bolt. When I could stand it no longer I raised myself upon my knees, still keeping hold with my hands, and thus got my head clear. Presently our little boat gave herself a shake, just as a dog does in coming out of the water, and thus rid herself, in some measure, of the seas. I was now trying to get the better of the stupor that had come over me, and to collect my senses so as to see what was to be done, when I felt somebody grasp my arm. It was my elder brother, and my heart leaped for joy, for I had made sure that he was overboard—but the next moment all this joy was turned into horror—for he put his mouth close to my ear, and screamed out the word 'Moskoe-ström!'
"No one ever will know what my feelings were at that moment. I shook from head to foot as if I had had the most violent fit of the ague. I knew what he meant by that one word well enough—I knew what he wished to make me understand. With the wind that now drove us on, we were bound for the whirl of the Ström, and nothing could save us!
"You perceive that in crossing the Ström channel, we always went a long way up above the whirl, even in the calmest weather, and then had to wait and watch carefully for the slack—but now we were driving right upon the pool itself, and in such a hurricane as this! ‘To be sure,' I thought, ‘we shall get there just about the slack—there is some little hope in that'—but in the next moment I cursed myself for being so great a fool as to dream of hope at all. I knew very well that we were doomed, had we been ten times a ninety-gun ship.
"By this time the first fury of the tempest had spent itself, or perhaps we did not feel it so much, as we scudded before it, but at all events the seas, which at first had been kept down by the wind, and lay flat and frothing, now got up into absolute mountains. A singular change, too, had come over the heavens. Around in every direction it was still as black as pitch, but nearly overhead there burst out, all at once, a circular rift of clear sky—as clear as I ever saw—and of a deep bright blue—and through it there blazed forth the full moon with a lustre that I never before knew her to wear. She lit up every thing about us with the greatest distinctness—but, oh God, what a scene it was to light up!
"I now made one or two attempts to speak to my brother—but in some manner which I could not understand, the din had so increased that I could not make him hear a single word, although I screamed at the top of my voice in his ear. Presently he shook his head, looking as pale as death, and held up one of his fingers, as if to say 'listen!'
"At first I could not make out what he meant—but soon a hideous thought flashed upon me. I dragged my watch from its fob. It was not going. I glanced at its face by the moonlight, and then burst into tears as I flung it far away into the ocean. It had run down at seven o'clock! We were behind the time of the slack, and the whirl of the Ström was in full fury!
"When a boat is well built, properly trimmed, and not deep laden, the waves in a strong gale, when she is going large, seem always to slip from beneath her—which appears very strange to a landsman—and this is what is called riding, in sea phrase.
"Well, so far we had ridden the swells very cleverly; but presently a gigantic sea happened to take us right under the counter, and bore us with it as it rose—up—up—as if into the sky. I would not have believed that any wave could rise so high. And then down we came with a sweep, a slide, and a plunge, that made me feel sick and dizzy, as if I was falling from some lofty mountain-top in a dream. But while we were up I had thrown a quick glance around—and that one glance was all sufficient. I saw our exact position in an instant. The Moskoe-ström whirlpool was about a quarter of a mile dead ahead—but no more like the every-day Moskoe-ström, than the whirl as you now see it, is like a mill-race. If I had not known where we were, and what we had to expect, I should not have recognised the place at all. As it was, I involuntarily closed my eyes in horror. The lids clenched themselves together as if in a spasm.
"It could not have been more than two minutes afterwards until we suddenly felt the waves subside, and were enveloped in foam. The boat made a sharp half turn to larboard, and then shot off in its new direction like a thunderbolt. At the same moment the roaring noise of the water was completely drowned in a kind of shrill shriek—such a sound as you might imagine given out by the water-pipes of many thousand steam-vessels, letting off their steam all together. We were now in the belt of surf that always surrounds the whirl; and I thought, of course, that another moment would plunge us into the abyss—down which we could only see indistinctly on account of the amazing velocity with which we were borne along. The boat did not seem to sink into the water at all, but to skim like an air-bubble upon the surface of the surge. Her starboard side was next the whirl, and on the larboard arose the world of ocean we had left. It stood like a huge writhing wall between us and the horizon.
"It may appear strange, but now, when we were in the very jaws of the gulf, I felt more composed than when we were only approaching it. Having made up my mind to hope no more, I got rid of a great deal of that terror which unmanned me at first. I suppose it was despair that strung my nerves.
"It may look like boasting—but what I tell you is truth—I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God's power. I do believe that I blushed with shame when this idea crossed my mind. After a little while I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was going to make; and my principal grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see. These, no doubt, were singular fancies to occupy a man's mind in such extremity—and I have often thought since, that the revolutions of the boat around the pool might have rendered me a little light-headed.
"There was another circumstance which tended to restore my self-possession; and this was the cessation of the wind, which could not reach us in our present situation—for, as you saw yourself, the belt of surf is considerably lower than the general bed of the ocean, and this latter now towered above us, a high, black, mountainous ridge. If you have never been at sea in a heavy gale, you can form no idea of the confusion of mind occasioned by the wind and spray together. They blind, deafen and strangle you, and take away all power of action or reflection. But we were now, in a great measure, rid of these annoyances—just as death-condemned felons in prison are allowed petty indulgences, forbidden them while their doom is yet uncertain.
"How often we made the circuit of the belt it is impossible to say. We careered round and round for perhaps an hour, flying rather than floating, getting gradually more and more into the middle of the surge, and then nearer and nearer to its horrible inner edge. All this time I had never let go of the ring-bolt. My brother was at the stern, holding on to a large empty water-cask which had been securely lashed under the coop of the counter, and was the only thing on deck that had not been swept overboard when the gale first took us. As we approached the brink of the pit he let go his hold upon this, and made for the ring, from which, in the agony of his terror, he endeavored to force my hands, as it was not large enough to afford us both a secure grasp. I never felt deeper grief than when I saw him attempt this act—although I knew he was a madman when he did it—a raving maniac through sheer fright. I did not care, however, to contest the point with him. I thought it could make no difference whether either of us held on at all; so I let him have the bolt, and went astern to the cask. This there was no great difficulty in doing; for the smack flew round steadily enough, and upon an even keel—only swaying to and fro, with the immense sweeps and swelters of the whirl. Scarcely had I secured myself in my new position, when we gave a wild lurch to starboard, and rushed headlong into the abyss. I muttered a hurried prayer to God, and thought all was over.
"As I felt the sickening sweep of the descent, I had instinctively tightened my hold upon the barrel, and closed my eyes. For some seconds I dared not open them—while I expected instant destruction, and wondered that I was not already in my death-struggles with the water. But moment after moment elapsed. I still lived. The sense of falling had ceased; and the motion of the vessel seemed much as it had been before while in the belt of foam, with the exception that she now lay more along. I took courage and looked once again upon the scene.
"Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds which I have already described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.
"At first I was too much confused to observe anything accurately. The general burst of terrific grandeur was all that I beheld. When I recovered myself a little, however, my gaze fell instinctively downward. In this direction I was able to obtain an unobstructed view, from the manner in which the smack hung on the inclined surface of the pool. She was quite upon an even keel—that is to say, her deck lay in a plane parallel with that of the water—but this latter sloped at an angle of more than forty-five degrees, so that we seemed to be lying upon our beam-ends. I could not help observing, nevertheless, that I had scarcely more difficulty in maintaining my hold and footing in this situation, than if we had been upon a dead level; and this, I suppose, was owing to the speed at which we revolved.
"The rays of the moon seemed to search the very bottom of the profound gulf; but still I could make out nothing distinctly, on account of a thick mist in which everything there was enveloped, and over which there hung a magnificent rainbow, like that narrow and tottering bridge which Mussulmen say is the only pathway between Time and Eternity. This mist, or spray, was no doubt occasioned by the clashing of the great walls of the funnel, as they all met together at the bottom—but the yell that went up to the Heavens from out of that mist, I dare not attempt to describe.
"Our first slide into the abyss itself, from the belt of foam above, had carried us to a great distance down the slope; but our farther descent was by no means proportionate. Round and round we swept—not with any uniform movement—but in dizzying swings and jerks, that sent us sometimes only a few hundred feet—sometimes nearly the complete circuit of the whirl. Our progress downward, at each revolution, was slow, but very perceptible.
"Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious—for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. ‘This fir tree,' I found myself at one time saying, ‘will certainly be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears,'—and then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship overtook it and went down before. At length, after making several guesses of this nature, and being deceived in all—this fact—the fact of my invariable miscalculation, set me upon a train of reflection that made my limbs again tremble, and my heart beat heavily once more.
"It was not a new terror that thus affected me, but the dawn of a more exciting hope. This hope arose partly from memory, and partly from present observation. I called to mind the great variety of buoyant matter that strewed the coast of Lofoden, having been absorbed and then thrown forth by the Moskoe-ström. By far the greater number of the articles were shattered in the most extraordinary way—so chafed and roughened as to have the appearance of being stuck full of splinters—but then I distinctly recollected that there were some of them which were not disfigured at all. Now I could not account for this difference except by supposing that the roughened fragments were the only ones which had been completely absorbed—that the others had entered the whirl at so late a period of the tide, or, from some reason, had descended so slowly after entering, that they did not reach the bottom before the turn of the flood came, or of the ebb, as the case might be. I conceived it possible, in either instance, that they might thus be whirled up again to the level of the ocean, without undergoing the fate of those which had been drawn in more early or absorbed more rapidly. I made, also, three important observations. The first was, that as a general rule, the larger the bodies were, the more rapid their descent;—the second, that, between two masses of equal extent, the one spherical, and the other of any other shape, the superiority in speed of descent was with the sphere;—the third, that, between two masses of equal size, the one cylindrical, and the other of any other shape, the cylinder was absorbed the more slowly.
Since my escape, I have had several conversations on this subject with an old school-master of the district; and it was from him that I learned the use of the words ‘cylinder' and ‘sphere.' He explained to me—although I have forgotten the explanation—how what I observed was, in fact, the natural consequence of the forms of the floating fragments—and showed me how it happened that a cylinder, swimming in a vortex, offered more resistance to its suction, and was drawn in with greater difficulty than an equally bulky body, of any form whatever.
"There was one startling circumstance which went a great way in enforcing these observations, and rendering me anxious to turn them to account, and this was that, at every revolution, we passed something like a barrel, or else the broken yard or the mast of a vessel, while many of these things, which had been on our level when I first opened my eyes upon the wonders of the whirlpool, were now high up above us, and seemed to have moved but little from their original station.
"I no longer hesitated what to do. I resolved to lash myself securely to the water cask upon which I now held, to cut it loose from the counter, and to throw myself with it into the water. I attracted my brother's attention by signs, pointed to the floating barrels that came near us, and did everything in my power to make him understand what I was about to do. I thought at length that he comprehended my design—but, whether this was the case or not, he shook his head despairingly, and refused to move from his station by the ring-bolt. It was impossible to force him; the emergency admitted no delay; and so, with a bitter struggle, I resigned him to his fate, fastened myself to the cask by means of the lashings which secured it to the counter, and precipitated myself with it into the sea, without another moment's hesitation.
"The result was precisely what I had hoped it might be. As it is myself who now tell you this tale—as you see that I did escape—and as you are already in possession of the mode in which this escape was effected, and must therefore anticipate all that I have farther to say—I will bring my story quickly to conclusion. It might have been an hour, or thereabout, after my quitting the smack, when, having descended to a vast distance beneath me, it made three or four wild gyrations in rapid succession, and, bearing my loved brother with it, plunged headlong, at once and forever, into the chaos of foam below. The barrel to which I was attached sunk very little farther than half the distance between the bottom of the gulf and the spot at which I leaped overboard, before a great change took place in the character of the whirlpool. The slope of the sides of the vast funnel became momently less and less steep. The gyrations of the whirl grew, gradually, less and less violent. By degrees, the froth and the rainbow disappeared, and the bottom of the gulf seemed slowly to uprise. The sky was clear, the winds had gone down, and the full moon was setting radiantly in the west, when I found myself on the surface of the ocean, in full view of the shores of Lofoden, and above the spot where the pool of the Moskoe-ström had been. It was the hour of the slack—but the sea still heaved in mountainous waves from the effects of the hurricane. I was borne violently into the channel of the Ström, and in a few minutes, was hurried down the coast into the 'grounds' of the fishermen. A boat picked me up— exhausted from fatigue—and (now that the danger was removed) speechless from the memory of its horror. Those who drew me on board were my old mates and daily companions—but they knew me no more than they would have known a traveller from the spirit-land. My hair, which had been raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say too that the whole expression of my countenance had changed. I told them my story—they did not believe it. I now tell it to you—and I can scarcely expect you to put more faith in it than did the merry fishermen of Lofoden.
The cannon salvo that thundered over Springfield, Illinois, at sunrise on November 6, 1860, signaled not the start of a battle, but the end of the bitter, raucous six-month-long campaign for president of the United States. Election Day was finally dawning. Lincoln probably awoke, like his neighbors, at the first cannon blast, if, that is, he had slept at all. Just a few days before, warning that "the existence of slavery is at stake," South Carolina's Charleston Mercury had called for a prompt secession convention in "each and all of the Southern states" should the "Abolitionist white man" capture the White House. That same day, a prominent New York Democrat prophesied that if Lincoln were elected, "at least Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina would secede."
Yet the danger that a Lincoln victory could prove cataclysmic did little to deflate the city's celebratory mood. By the time the polls opened at 8 a.m., a journalist reported, "tranquility forsook Springfield" altogether, and "the out-door tumult" awoke "whatever sluggish spirits there might be among the populace."
Less than three weeks earlier, Lincoln had confided to a caller that he would have preferred a full term in the Senate, "where there was more chance to make reputation and less danger of losing it—than four years in the presidency." It was a startling admission. But having lost two senatorial races over the past five years, most recently to Stephen A. Douglas—one of the two Democrats he now opposed in his run for the White House—Lincoln's conflicted thoughts were understandable.
Looking at his electoral prospects coolly he had reason to expect he would prevail. In a pivotal state election two months earlier, widely seen as a harbinger of the presidential contest, Maine had elected a Republican governor with a healthy majority. Republicans had earned similarly impressive majorities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Lincoln finally allowed himself to believe that the "splendid victories... seem to fore-shadow the certain success of the Republican cause in November."
Complicating matters was the fact that four candidates were competing for the presidency. Earlier in the year, the sectionally riven Democratic Party had split into Northern and Southern factions, promising a dilution of its usual strength, and a new Constitutional Union Party had nominated Tennessee politician John Bell for president. Though Lincoln remained convinced that no "ticket can be elected by the People, unless it be ours," no one could be absolutely certain that any candidate would amass enough electoral votes to win the presidency outright. If none secured an absolute majority of electors, the contest would go to the House of Representatives. Anything might yet happen.
Stephen A. Douglas, the presidential standard-bearer of Northern Democrats, took care to deny that he harbored hopes for such an outcome, but privately dreamed of it. Outgoing President James Buchanan's endorsed choice, Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, had improbably emerged as the Democratic favorite in the president's home state of Pennsylvania, where "Old Buck" still enjoyed popularity. In New York, opposition to Lincoln coalesced around Douglas. Horace Greeley, editor of the pro-Lincoln New York Tribune, exhorted the Republican faithful to allow no "call of business or pleasure, any visitation of calamity, bereavement, or moderate illness, to keep you from the polls."
Despite the lingering uncertainty, Lincoln had done next to nothing publicly, and precious little privately, to advance his own cause. Prevailing political tradition called for silence from presidential candidates. In earlier elections, nominees who had defied custom appeared desperate and invariably lost. Besides, when it came to the smoldering issue of slavery, the choice seemed clear enough. Douglas championed the idea that settlers in new Western territories were entitled to vote slavery up or down for themselves, while Breckinridge argued that slave owners could take their human property anywhere they chose. Against both stood Lincoln.
Such profound disagreement might have provided fodder for serious debate. But no such opportunities existed within the reigning political culture of mid-19th-century America, not even when the canvass involved proven debaters like Lincoln and Douglas, who had famously battled each other face to face in seven senatorial debates two years earlier. Worried that Lincoln might be tempted to resume politicking, William Cullen Bryant, editor of the pro-Republican New York Evening Post, bluntly reminded him that "the vast majority of your friends...want you to make no speeches, write no letters as a candidate, enter into no pledges, make no promises, nor even give any of those kind words which men are apt to interpret into promises." Lincoln had obliged.
He was already on record as viewing slavery as "a moral, political and social wrong" that "ought to be treated as a wrong...with the fixed idea that it must and will come to the end." These sentiments alone had proven enough to alarm Southerners. But Lincoln had never embraced immediate abolition, knowing that such a position would have isolated him from mainstream American voters and rendered him unelectable. Unalterably opposed to the extension of slavery, Lincoln remained willing to "tolerate" its survival where it already existed, believing that containment would place it "in the course of ultimate extinction." That much voters already knew.
When a worried visitor from New England nonetheless urged him, the day before the election, to "reassure the men honestly alarmed" over the prospect of his victory, Lincoln flew into a rare fury, and, as his personal secretary John George Nicolay observed, branded such men "liars and knaves." As Lincoln hotly explained: "This is the same old trick by which the South breaks down every Northern victory. Even if I were personally willing to barter away the moral principle involved in this contest, for the commercial gain of a new submission to the South, I would go to Washington without the countenance of the men who supported me and were my friends before the election; I would be as powerless as a block of buckeye wood."
In the last letter of his noncampaign, composed a week before Election Day, one can hear the candidate refusing to be drawn into further debate: "For the good men of the South—and I regard the majority of them as such—I have no objection to repeat seventy and seven times. But I have bad men also to deal with, both North and South—men who are eager for something new upon which to base new misrepresentations—men who would like to frighten me, or, at least, to fix upon me the character of timidity and cowardice. They would seize upon almost any letter I could write, as being an 'awful coming down.' I intend keeping my eye upon these gentlemen, and to not unnecessarily put any weapons in their hands."
So Lincoln's "campaign" for president ended as it began: in adamant silence, and in the same Illinois city to which he had so tenaciously clung since the national convention. Like the solar eclipse that had obscured the Illinois sun in July, Lincoln remained in Springfield, hidden in full view.
Inside what one visiting reporter described as the "plain, neat looking, two story" corner house where he had lived with his family for 16 years, Lincoln prepared to accept the people's verdict. In his second-floor bedroom, he no doubt dressed in his usual formal black suit, pulling his long arms into a frock coat worn over a stiff white shirt and collar and a black waistcoat. As always, he wound a black tie carelessly round his sinewy neck and pulled tight-fitting boots—how could they be otherwise?—over his gargantuan feet. He likely greeted Mary and their two younger sons, 9-year-old Willie and 7-year-old Tad, at the dining table. (The eldest, Robert, had recently begun his freshman year at Harvard.)
Lincoln probably took his usual spare breakfast with the family—an egg and toast washed down with coffee. Eventually he donned the signature stovepipe hat he kept on an iron hook in the front hall. Then, as always—unaccompanied by retinues of security men or political aides—he stepped outside, turned toward the Illinois State Capitol some five blocks to the northwest and marched on toward his headquarters.
The bracing air that greeted Lincoln may have surprised—even worried—him. The unseasonable chill could dampen voter turnout. As the morning warmed, however, reports of sun-drenched, cloudless skies from one end of the state to the other stirred Republican hearts, clement weather being crucial to the task of enticing widely scattered rural voters, predominantly Republican, to distant polling places.
Once notorious for its muddy streets and freely roaming pigs, Springfield now boasted outdoor, gas-fed lighting; a large and growing population of lawyers, doctors and merchants; and clusters of two- and three-story brick structures surmounting wood-plank sidewalks.
Looming with almost incongruous grandeur over the city was the imposing State House, its red-painted copper cupola rising twice as tall as any other structure in town. Here, since his nomination in May, Lincoln had maintained his official headquarters—and his official silence—in a second-floor corner suite customarily reserved for the state's governor. For six months, Lincoln had here welcomed visitors, told "amusing stories," posed for painters, accumulated souvenirs, worked on selected correspondence and scoured the newspapers. Now he was headed there to pass his final hours as a candidate for president.
Lincoln entered the limestone State House from the south through its oversized pine doors. He ambled past its Supreme Court chamber, where he had argued many cases during his 24-year legal career, and past the adjacent libraries where he had researched the sensational speech he had delivered at Cooper Union nine months earlier in New York City. Then he climbed the interior staircase, at the top of which stood the ornate Assembly chamber where, in 1858, he had accepted the Republican Senate nomination with his rousing "House Divided" address.
Keeping his thoughts to himself as usual, Lincoln headed to a 15-foot-by-25-foot carpeted reception room and smaller adjacent office, simply furnished with both upholstered and plain wooden chairs, a desk and a table—ceded to him these many months by the new governor, John Wood.
Here the journalists who arrived to cover Lincoln's movements this Election Day encountered the candidate, "surrounded by an abattis [sic] of disheveled newspapers and in comfortable occupancy of two chairs, one supporting his body, the other his heels." Entering the crowded room to a hearty "come in, sir," a New York newspaperman was struck by the candidate's "easy, old fashioned, off-handed manner," and was surprised to find "none of that hard, crusty, chilly look about him" that "dominated most campaign portraits." Doing his best to display his "winning manner" and "affability," Lincoln spent the early part of the day "receiving and entertaining such visitors as called upon him," respectfully rising each time a new delegation arrived. "These were both numerous and various—representing, perhaps as many tempers and as many nationalities as could easily be brought together at the West."
When, for example, "some rough-jacketed constituents" burst in, who, "having voted for him...expressed a wish to look at their man," Lincoln received them "kindly" until they "went away, thoroughly satisfied in every manner." To a delegation of New Yorkers, Lincoln feigned displeasure, chiding them that he would have felt better had they stayed home to vote. Similarly, when a New York reporter arrived to shadow him, he raised an eyebrow and scolded: "a vote is a vote; every vote counts."
But when a visitor asked whether he worried that Southern states would secede if he won, Lincoln turned serious. "They might make a little stir about it before," he said. "But if they waited until after the inauguration and for some overt act, they would wait all their lives." Unappreciated in the excitement of the hour was this hint at a policy of nonaggression.
On this tense day, Lincoln offered the hopeful view that "elections in this country were like 'big boils'—they caused a great deal of pain before they came to a head, but after the trouble was over the body was in better health than before." Eager as he was for the campaign to "come to a head," Lincoln delayed casting his own vote. As the clock ticked away, he remained secluded in the Governor's suite, "surrounded by friends...apparently as unconcerned as the most obscure man in the nation," occasionally glancing out the window to the crowded polling place across Capitol Square.
As Lincoln dawdled, more than four million white males began registering their choices for the presidency. In must-win New York, patrician lawyer George Templeton Strong, an ardent Lincoln supporter, sensed history in the making. "A memorable day," he wrote in his diary. "We do not know yet for what. Perhaps for the disintegration of the country, perhaps for another proof that the North is timid and mercenary, perhaps for demonstration that Southern bluster is worthless. We cannot tell yet what historical lesson the event of November 6, 1860, will teach, but the lesson cannot fail to be weighty."
The Virginia extremist Edmund Ruffin also wanted Lincoln to win—though for a different reason. Like many fellow secessionists, Ruffin hoped a Lincoln victory would embolden the South to quit the Union. Earlier that year, the agricultural theorist and political agitator had published a piece of speculative fiction entitled Anticipations of the Future, in which he flatly predicted that "the obscure and coarse Lincoln" would be "elected by the sectional Abolition Party of the North," which in turn would justify Southern resistance to "oppression and impending subjugation"—namely, a fight for "independence."
Several hundred miles to the north, in the abolitionist hotbed of Quincy, Massachusetts, Charles Francis Adams—Republican Congressional candidate, son of one American president, grandson of another and proud heir to a long family tradition of antislavery—proudly "voted the entire ticket of the Republicans," exulting: "It is a remarkable idea to reflect that all over this broad land at this moment the process of changing the rulers is peacefully going on and what a change in all probability." Even so, Adams had hoped for a different Republican—William Seward—to win the nomination.
Closer to Springfield—and perhaps truer to the divided spirit of America—a veteran of the Mexican War evinced conflicted emotions about the choices his Galena, Illinois, neighbors faced. "By no means a 'Lincoln man,' " Ulysses S. Grant nonetheless seemed resigned to the Republican's success. "The fact is I think the Democratic party want a little purifying and nothing will do it so effectually as a defeat," asserted the retired soldier, now starting life anew in the family's leather-tanning business. "The only thing is, I don't like to see a Republican beat the party."
In Stephen A. Douglas' hometown of Chicago, meanwhile, voters braved two-hour waits in lines four blocks long. But Douglas was not there to cast a vote of his own. On the southern leg of a multi-city tour, he found himself in Mobile, Alabama, where he may have taken solace that Lincoln's name did not even appear on that state's ballots—or, for that matter, on any of the nine additional Deep South states. The man who had beaten Lincoln for the Senate only two years earlier now stood to lose his home state—and with it, the biggest prize in American politics—to the very same man.
As of Election Day, Lincoln had successfully avoided not only his three opponents, but also his own running mate, Hannibal Hamlin. Republicans had nominated the Maine senator for vice president without Lincoln's knowledge or consent—true to another prevailing political custom that left such choices exclusively to the delegates—in an attempt to balance the ticket. After asking a mutual acquaintance to convey his "respects" to Hamlin a week after the convention, Lincoln waited a full two months before initiating direct communication. Even then, pointing out that both of them had served in the 30th Congress from 1847 to 1849—Lincoln as a congressman and Hamlin as a senator—Lincoln admitted, "I have no recollection that we were introduced." Almost grudgingly did he add: "It appears to me that you and I ought to be acquainted."
Now, on Election Day, the Republican Party's running mates would be voting much as they had "run": separately and silently.
Frederick Douglass was skeptical. Like Lincoln, the former slave turned passionate civil rights pioneer was self-educated, a brilliant writer and a captivating orator. And while both men rejected the idea that the Constitution gave Americans the right to own slaves, Douglass did not agree that the Constitution protected slavery in states where it had existed before the founding of the Republic or in Southern states that had joined the Union since. And while Douglass decried "threats of violence" against Republicans in Kentucky and other states "and the threats of dissolution of the Union in case of the election of Lincoln," he could not bring himself to praise Lincoln directly. Their warm personal acquaintance would not begin for several more years.
Springfield's actual polling place, set up in a courtroom two flights upstairs at the oblong-shaped Sangamon County Court House at Sixth and Washington streets, consisted of two partially enclosed "voting windows close beside each other," one for Democrats, one for Republicans. It was "a peculiar arrangement" in the view of the correspondent from St. Louis, but one that had been "practiced in Springfield for several years." A voter had only to pick up the preprinted ballot of his choice outside, and then ascend the stairs to announce his own name to an election clerk and deposit the ballot in a clear glass bowl. This was secret in name only: voters openly clutching their distinctly tinted, ornately designed forms while waiting in line signaled precisely how they intended to vote. The system all but guaranteed bickering and ill feelings.
In this roiling atmosphere, it was hardly surprising that Lincoln had replied almost defensively to a neighbor about how he planned to vote. "For Yates," he said—Richard Yates, the Republican candidate for governor of Illinois. But "How vote" on "the presidential question?" the bystander persisted. To which Lincoln replied: "Well...by ballot," leaving onlookers "all laughing." Until Election Day afternoon, Lincoln's law partner William Herndon was convinced that Lincoln would bow to the "feeling that the candidate for a Presidential office ought not to vote for his own electors" and cast no ballot whatsoever.
But around 3:30 p.m., he peered out the window toward the crowd surrounding the courthouse, slipped out of the Governor's Room, headed downstairs and "walked leisurely over to deposit his vote," accompanied by a small group of friends and protectors to "see him safely through the mass of men at the voting place."
As Lincoln reached the courthouse to cheers and shouts from surprised Republicans, "friends almost lifted him off the ground and would have carried him to the polls [but] for interference." The "dense crowd," Lincoln's future assistant secretary John M. Hay recalled, "began to shout with...wild abandon" even as they "respectfully opened a passage for him from the street to the polls." People shouted out "Old Abe!" "Uncle Abe!" "Honest Abe!" and "The Giant Killer!" Even Democratic supporters, Herndon marveled, "acted politely—civilly & respectfully, raising their hats to him as he passed on through them."
A New York Tribune reporter on the scene confirmed that "all party feelings seemed to be forgotten, and even the distributors of opposition tickets joined in the overwhelming demonstrations of greeting." Every Republican agent in the street fought for "the privilege of handing Lincoln his ballot." A throng followed him inside, John Nicolay reported, pursuing him "in dense numbers along the hall and up the stairs into the court room which was also crowded." The cheering that greeted him there was even more deafening than in the street, and once again came from both sides of the political spectrum.
After he "urged his way" to the voting table, Lincoln followed ritual by formally identifying himself in a subdued tone: "Abraham Lincoln." Then he "deposited the straight Republican ticket" after first cutting his own name, and those of the electors pledged to him, from the top of his preprinted ballot so he could vote for other Republicans without immodestly voting for himself.
Making his way back to the door, the candidate smiled broadly at well-wishers, doffing the black top hat that made him appear, in the words of a popular campaign song, "in h[e]ight somewhat less than a steeple," and bowed with as much grace as he could summon. Though the "crush was too great for comfortable conversation," a number of excited neighbors grabbed Lincoln by the hand or tried offering a word or two as he inched forward.
Somehow, he eventually made his way through this gantlet and back downstairs, where he encountered yet another throng of frenzied well-wishers. Now they shed all remaining inhibitions, "seizing his hands, and throwing their arms around his neck, body or legs and grasping his coat or anything they could lay hands on, and yelling and acting like madmen." Lincoln made his way back to the Capitol. By 4 p.m. he was safely back inside "his more quiet quarters," where he again "turned to the entertainment of his visitors as unconcernedly as if he had not just received a demonstration which anybody might well take a little time to think of and be proud over."
Even with the people's decision only hours away, Lincoln still managed to look relaxed as he exchanged stories with his intimates, perhaps keeping busy in order to remain calm himself. Samuel Weed thought it remarkable that "Mr. Lincoln had a lively interest in the election, but...scarcely ever alluded to himself." To hear him, noted Weed, "one would have concluded that the District Attorneyship of a county in Illinois was of far more importance than the Presidency itself." Lincoln's "good nature never deserted him, and yet underneath I saw an air of seriousness, which in reality dominated the man."
After four o'clock, telegrams bearing scattered early returns began trickling in, uniformly predicting Republican successes across the North. When one cantankerous dispatch expressed the hope that the Republican would triumph so his state, South Carolina, "would soon be free," Lincoln scoffed, recalling that he had received several such letters in recent weeks, some signed, others anonymous. Then his expression darkened and he handed the telegram to Ozias Hatch with the remark that its author, a former congressman, "would bear watching." Indirect as it was, this was the candidate's first expression that he expected soon to be president-elect, with responsibilities that included isolating potential troublemakers. Shortly thereafter, around 5 p.m. Lincoln walked home, presumably to take dinner. There he remained with his family for more than two hours.
When Lincoln returned to the state house around 7 to resume reading dispatches, he still displayed "a most marvelous equanimity." Down the corridor, inside the cavernous, gas-lit Representative Hall, nearly 500 Republican faithful massed for a "lively time." The chamber "was filled nearly all night," Nicolay recalled, by a crowd "shouting, yelling, singing, dancing, and indulging in all sorts [of] demonstrations of happiness as the news came in."
Weed distinctly remembered the candidate's silent but evocative reaction when the first real returns finally arrived. "Mr. Lincoln was calm and collected as ever in his life, but there was a nervous twitch on his countenance when the messenger from the telegraph office entered, that indicated an anxiety within that no coolness from without could repress." It turned out to be a wire from Decatur "announcing a handsome Republican gain" over the presidential vote four years earlier. The room erupted with shouts at the news, and supporters bore the telegram into the hallway "as a trophy of victory to be read to the crowd."
Further numbers proved agonizingly slow in coming.
The day before, the town's principal telegraph operator had invited Lincoln to await the returns at the nearby Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company headquarters, in whose second-floor office, the man had promised, "you can receive the good news without delay," and without "a noisy crowd inside." By nine o'clock, Lincoln could resist no longer. Accompanied by Hatch, Nicolay and Jesse K. Dubois, Lincoln strode across the square, ascended the stairs of the telegraph building and installed himself on a sofa "comfortably near the instruments."
For a time, the growing knot of onlookers notwithstanding, the small room remained eerily quiet, the only sounds coming from "the rapid clicking of the rival instruments, and the restless movements of the few most anxious among the party of men who hovered" around the wood-and-brass contraptions whose worn ivory keys pulsated magically.
At first the "throbbing messages from near and far" arrived in "fragmentary driblets," Nicolay remembered, then in a "rising and swelling stream of cheering news." Each time a telegraph operator transcribed the latest coded messages onto a mustard-colored paper form, the three-by-five-inch sheet was quickly "lifted from the table...clutched by some of the most ardent news-seekers, and sometimes, in the hurry and scramble, would be read by almost every person present before it reached him for whom it was intended."
For a while, the telegraph company's resident superintendent, John J. S. Wilson, grandly announced every result aloud. But eventually the telegraph operators began handing Lincoln each successive message, which, with slow-motion care, "he laid on his knee while he adjusted his spectacles, and then read and reread several times with deliberation." Despite the uproar provoked by each, the candidate received every piece of news "with an almost immovable tranquility." It was not that he attempted to conceal "the keen interest he felt in every new development," an onlooker believed, only that his "intelligence moved him to less energetic display of gratification" than his supporters. "It would have been impossible," another witness agreed, "for a bystander to tell that that tall, lean, wiry, good-natured, easy-going gentleman, so anxiously inquiring about the success of the local candidates, was the choice of the people to fill the most important office in the nation."
Lincoln had won Chicago by 2,500 votes, and all of Cook County by 4,000. Handing over the crucial dispatch, Lincoln said, "Send it to the boys," and supporters whisked it across the square to the State House. Moments later, cheering could be heard all the way to the telegraph office. The ovation lasted a full 30 seconds. Indiana reported a majority of "over twenty thousand for honest old Abe," followed by similarly good news from Wisconsin and Iowa. Pittsburgh declared: "Returns already recd indicate a maj for Lincoln in the city by Ten Thousand[.]" From the City of Brotherly Love came news that "Philadelphia will give you maj about 5 & plurality of 15" thousand. Connecticut reported a "10,000 Rep. Maj."
Even negative news from Southern states like Virginia, Delaware and Maryland left the nominee "very much pleased" because the numbers from these solidly Democratic strongholds might have been far worse. Notwithstanding this growing arsenal of good news, the group remained nervously impatient for returns from the swing state of New York, whose mother lode of 35 electoral votes might determine whether the election would be decided this very night or later in the uncertain House of Representatives. Then came a momentous report from the Empire State and its impulsive Republican chairman, Simeon Draper: "The city of New York will more than meet your expectations." Between the lines, the wire signaled that the overwhelmingly Democratic metropolis had failed to produce the majorities Douglas needed to offset the Republican tide upstate.
Amid the euphoria that greeted this news, Lincoln remained the "coolest man in that company." When the report of a probable 50,000-vote victory quickly followed from Massachusetts, Lincoln merely commented in mock triumph that it was "a clear case of the Dutch taking Holland." Meanwhile, with only a few intimates able to fit inside the modest telegraph office, crowds built in the square outside, where, the New York Tribune reported, rumors "of the most gigantic and imposing dimensions" began wildly circulating: Southerners in Washington had set fire to the capital. Jeff Davis had proclaimed rebellion in Mississippi and Stephen Douglas had been seized as a hostage in Alabama. Blood was running in the streets of New York. Anyone emerging from the telegraph station to deny these and kindred rumors was set down as having his own reasons for concealing the dreadful truth.
Shortly after midnight, Lincoln and his party walked to the nearby "ice cream saloon" operated by William W. Watson & Son on the opposite side of Capitol Square. Here a contingent of Republican ladies had set up "a table spread with coffee, sandwiches, cake, oysters and other refreshments for their husbands and friends." At Watson's, the Missouri Democrat reported, Lincoln "came as near to being killed by kindness as a man can conveniently be without serious results."
Mary Lincoln attended the collation, too, as "an honored guest." For a time, she sat near her husband in what was described as "a snug Republican seat in the corner," surrounded by friends and "enjoying her share of the triumph." A fervent political partisan in her own right who had viewed the October state results in both Indiana and Pennsylvania as extremely hopeful signs, Mary had become more anxious than her husband in the final days of the campaign. "I scarcely know, how I would bear up, under defeat," she had confided to her friend Hannah Shearer.
"Instead of toasts and sentiment," eyewitness Newton Bateman remembered, "we had the reading of telegrams from every quarter of the country." Each time the designated reader mounted a chair to announce the latest results, the numbers—depending on which candidate it favored—elicited either "anxious glances" or "shouts that made the very building shake." According to Bateman, the candidate himself read one newly arrived telegram from Philadelphia. "All eyes were fixed upon his tall form and slightly trembling lips, as he read in a clear and distinct voice: 'The city and state for Lincoln by a decisive majority,' and immediately added in slow, emphatic terms, and with a significant gesture of the forefinger: 'I think that settles it.' "
If the matter remained in doubt, the long-awaited dispatch from New York soon arrived with a tally that all but confirmed that Lincoln would indeed win the biggest electoral prize of the evening—and with it, the presidency. The celebrants instantly crowded around him, "overwhelming him with congratulations." Describing the reaction—in which "men fell into each other's arms shouting and crying, yelling like mad, jumping up and down"—one of the celebrants compared the experience to "bedlam let loose." Hats flew into the air, "men danced who had never danced before," and "huzzahs rolled out upon the night."
In the State House, "men pushed each other—threw up their hats—hurrahed—cheered for Lincoln...cheered for New York—cheered for everybody—and some actually laid down on the carpeted floor and rolled over and over." One eyewitness reported a "perfectly wild" scene, with Republicans "singing, yelling! Shouting!! The boys (not children) dancing. Old men, young, middle aged, clergymen, and all...wild with excitement and glory."
As church bells began pealing, Lincoln eased past the dense throng of Watson's well-wishers, "slipped out quietly looking grave and anxious," and headed back toward the telegraph office to receive the final reports.
He appeared to steel himself. One observer saw him pacing up and down the sidewalk before re-entering the Illinois & Mississippi building. Another glimpsed his silhouette, his head bowed to stare at the latest dispatch while "standing under the gas jets" that lit the streets. Back inside, wires from Buffalo sealed the state—and the White House—for the Republicans. The final telegram from New York ended with the words: "We tender you our congratulations upon this magnificent victory."
Though the crowd inside the telegraph office greeted this climactic news with lusty cheering, Lincoln merely stood to read the pivotal telegram "with evident marks of pleasure," then silently sank back into his seat. Jesse K. Dubois tried to break the tension by asking his old friend: "Well, Uncle Abe, are you satisfied now?" All Lincoln allowed himself to say was: "Well, the agony is most over, and you will soon be able to go to bed."
But the revelers had no intention of retiring for the night. Instead they emptied into the streets and massed outside the telegraph office, shouting "New York 50,000 majority for Lincoln—whoop, whoop hurrah!" The entire city "went off like one immense cannon report, with shouting from houses, shouting from stores, shouting from house tops, and shouting everywhere." Others reacted more solemnly. One of the final telegrams Lincoln received that night came from an anonymous admirer who signed himself only as "one of those who am glad today." It read: "God has honored you this day, in the sight of all the people. Will you honor Him in the White House?"
Abraham Lincoln won election as the 16th president of the United States by carrying every Northern state save New Jersey. No candidate had ever before taken the presidency with such an exclusively regional vote. In the end, Lincoln would amass 180 electoral votes in all—comfortably more than the 152 required for an absolute majority. Lincoln could also take comfort from the fact that the rapidly growing nation awarded him more popular votes than any man who had ever run for president—1,866,452 in all, 28,000 more votes than Democrat James Buchanan had earned in winning the presidency four years earlier. But Lincoln's votes amounted to a shade under 40 percent of the total cast, second only to John Quincy Adams as the smallest share ever collected by a victor. And the national tally alone did not tell the full story.
Testifying alarmingly to the deep rift cleaving North from South, and presaging the challenges soon to face his administration, was the anemic support Lincoln garnered in the few Southern states where his name was allowed to appear on the ballot. In Virginia, Lincoln received just 1,929 votes out of 167,223 cast—barely 1 percent. The result was even worse in his native Kentucky: 1,364 out of 146,216 votes cast.
Analyzed geographically, the total result gave Lincoln a decisive 54 percent in the North and West, but only 2 percent in the South—the most lopsided vote in American history. Moreover, most of the 26,000 votes Lincoln earned in all five slaveholding states where he was allowed to compete came from a single state—Missouri, whose biggest city, St. Louis, included many German-born Republicans.
Forced to "the lamentable conclusion that Abraham Lincoln has been elected President," the anti-Republican Washington Constitution forecast "gloom and storm and much to chill the heart of every patriot in the land....We can understand the effect that will be produced in every Southern mind when he reads the news this morning—that he is now called on to decide for himself, his children, and his children's children whether he will submit tamely to the rule of one elected on account of his hostility to him and his, or whether he will make a struggle to defend his rights, his inheritance, and his honor."
According to a visiting journalist, Springfield remained "alive and animated throughout the night." Rallies continued until dawn, growing so "uncontrollable" by 4 a.m. that revelers toted back the cannon with which they had inaugurated Election Day and now made it again "thunder rejoicings for the crowd." John Nicolay tried going to bed at 4:30 but "couldn't sleep for the shouting and firing guns." By most accounts, the celebrations ended only with daybreak.
No one is entirely sure when Lincoln himself finally retired. According to one eyewitness, he left the telegraph office for his house at 1:30 a.m.; according to another, shortly after 2. Not until 4:45 a.m. did the New York Tribune receive a final bulletin from its Springfield correspondent confirming that "Mr. Lincoln has just bid good-night to the telegraph office and gone home."
Moments before his departure, whenever it came, Lincoln at last received the final returns from his hometown—a matter about which he admitted he "did not feel quite easy," national victory notwithstanding. But Lincoln could take heart. Though he lost Sangamon County to Douglas by a whisker—3,556 to 3,598—he won the hotly contested city of Springfield by all of 22 votes. At this latest news, "for the first and only time" that night, Lincoln "departed from his composure, and manifested his pleasure by a sudden exuberant utterance—neither a cheer nor a crow, but something partaking of the nature of each"—after which he "contentedly" laughed out loud.
The president-elect thanked the telegraph operators for their hard work and hospitality, and stuffed the final dispatch from New York into his pocket as a souvenir. It was about time, he announced to one and all, that he "went home and told the news to a tired woman who was sitting up for him."
To several observers, Lincoln suddenly seemed graver—his thoughts far away. Nicolay could see the "pleasure and pride at the completeness of his success" melt into melancholy. The "momentary glow" of triumph yielded to "the appalling shadow of his mighty task and responsibility. It seemed as if he suddenly bore the whole world upon his shoulders, and could not shake it off." Even as the outer man continued absentmindedly studying final election returns, the "inner man took up the crushing burden of his country's troubles, and traced out the laborious path of future duties." Only later did Lincoln tell Gideon Welles of Connecticut that from the moment he allowed himself to believe he had won the election, he indeed felt "oppressed with the overwhelming responsibility that was upon him."
From "boyhood up," Lincoln had confided to his old friend Ward Hill Lamon, "my ambition was to be President." Now reality clouded the fulfillment of that lifelong dream. Amid "10,000 crazy people" outside, the president-elect of the United States slowly descended the stairs of the Illinois & Mississippi telegraphic office and disappeared down the street, "without a sign of anything unusual."
A contemporary later heard that Lincoln arrived home to find his wife not waiting up for him, but fast asleep. He "gently touched her shoulder" and whispered her name, to which "she made no answer." Then, as Lincoln recounted: "I spoke again, a little louder, saying 'Mary, Mary! we are elected!' " Minutes before, the final words his friends heard him utter that night were: "God help me, God help me."
From Lincoln President-Elect by Harold Holzer. Copyright © 2008 by Harold Holzer. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.
Image by Library of Congress. Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas. (original image)
Image by Bettmann / Corbis. During the campaign, Lincoln confided he would have preferred a full term in the Senate "where there was more chance to make a reputation and less danger of losing it." (original image)
Image by Library of Congress. John Bell represented the newly formed Constitutional Union Party. (original image)
Image by Library of Congress. Southern Democrat John Breckinridge. (original image)
Image by National Park Service. Lincoln woke up on Election Day in the two-story corner house where he had lived with his family in Springfield for 16 years. (original image)
Image by Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. As election results began trickling in, nearly 500 Republican faithful massed for a "lively time" in the fas-lit, cavernous Representative Hall at the Illinois State House. (original image)
Image by Library of Congress. Campaign banner consisting of an American flag pattern, with thirty-one stars and "Lincoln and Hamlin" overprinted in black. (original image)
In an electoral season where the presumptive Republican nominee has proposed erecting a wall on the border of the United States and Mexico, not to mention banning those of Muslim faith from immigrating to the United States, it can be easy to forget that Donald Trump is married to an immigrant.
But while those running for the highest political office in the United States must be able to meet just three simple requirements—one of which is being a natural born citizen—there is no such burden imposed on a prospective first spouse.
Melania Trump was born Melanija Knavs in a village in Yugoslavia, now part of modern-day Slovenia, in 1970. A former model, Melania left Slovenia by choice for a bigger European market, living in places like Milan and Paris before a talent agent arranged to get her a visa and an American modeling contract, allowing the 26-year-old to move to New York in 1996.
Melania is not the first candidate's spouse to be from a foreign country; even in recent history, Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the 2004 failed candidate and current Secretary of State John Kerry, boasted of her immigrant heritage. Almost 200 years ago, Louisa Catherine Adams became the first and only foreign-born first lady to claim the title when her husband John Quincy Adams took office in 1825.
In a strange historic parallel, Louisa also first came to live in the United States when she was 26, only she did so in 1801. She was a new mother and anxious about her place in the Adams’ family, considering the influence that her mother-in-law, Abigail Adams—who already made it clear that she disproved of Louisa and Quincy’s marriage—wielded. Unlike Melania, who has so far been notably quiet in her husband’s campaign for the nomination, Louisa very much wanted to play a role in John Quincy’s election, and indeed, her weekly tea parties helped swing the election in his favor.
Louisa was born in London, England, in 1775. Her mother was, like her, British-born but her father was born in the colonies, and the family was staunchly supportive of the young republic, staying in France for the duration of the Revolutionary War, which officially began only weeks after Louisa's birth.
While her parents were sympathetic to the fledgling nation’s cause, Louisa was raised the way that “young, pretty, wealthy English girls were raised,” as Louisa Thomas writes in her lushly detailed, authoritative book on the former first lady, Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, which came out this spring.
Her upbringing would initially provoke the ire of the Adams clan, direct descendants of the settlers who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and looked down on those who valued worldly possessions. Indeed, just that Louisa was born in London bothered Abigail, who early on referred to her as a “half-blood.” But her almost aristocratic air—honed by following John Quincy on his diplomatic tours in Europe after their marriage—was key for his presidential campaign. While many in the United States also considered her to be a foreigner, they saw her experience as a diplomat’s wife as a novelty, and Louisa used her accomplishments to her advantage.
“She wasn’t an intellectual but she was very intelligent,” Thomas tells Smithsonian.com. Though Louisa was taken out of school at the age of 14 to prepare for the marriage “circuit”, she showed a natural interest in learning.
Like Abigail and John Adams, Louisa and John Quincy engaged in an extensive correspondence throughout their relationship. At first, Louisa was unsure what to write, and self-conscious about her words, but she grew into her voice. Throughout her life, she wrote memoirs and autobiographies, in addition to her many letters, leaving behind a vibrant portrait of her opinions.
Louisa lived during a time when women were not supposed to express an interest in politics, but the scene fascinated her. “She writes these lengthy letters about political gossip, where she spends three pages gossiping about the treasury, way beyond mainstream news of the day, and then denies her interest,” Thomas says.
After the Adamses had an early social faux pas in Washington, though, Louisa began to understand how women could sway politics. Following John Quincy’s appointment as James Monroe’s Secretary of State, both John Quincy and Louisa ignored a custom that demanded that newcomers in Washington make the first social call to all notable persons in Congress. Louisa then experienced a social freeze-out by the women of Washington, and both Louisa and John Quincy initially suffered for the slight. At the time, Louisa wrote, “Indeed I could hardly have imagined that a man’s interests could be so dependent on his wife’s manners,” as Thomas records.
Louisa went about working her way into the Washington social scene, and through the parties she hosted, she became the capital’s “primary hostess,” as Thomas puts it. Her presence seemingly helped compensate for John Quincy’s belief, passed down from his father, that candidates shouldn't actively campaign or in any way express their ambitions publicly.
“He believed that merit alone, not party or political campaign rhetoric, should determine the choice of the American people,” as Harlow G. Unger wrote in John Quincy Adams: A Life. It was a view that made more sense at the time, considering that until 1824, the year of John Quincy’s presidential campaign, the popular vote wasn't even recorded.
That election showed how the balance of power in Washington had started to shift. When the United States of America was first founded, the Constitution and Bill of Rights dictated that citizens should have the right to vote and that the country would have a free press. Except at the time, that meant almost universally that only white men could vote, and, among them, only those that held land. And though newspapers were free to print uncensored content, they were limited in reach and readership.
Come 1824, however, the United States’ franchise had expanded into Native American territory, creating new states and opening up the opportunity for more to vote. Meanwhile, media production boomed, and by 1823, there were 598 newspapers in the nation, allowing citizens to be better informed and more engaged with the politics of the day.
Though John Quincy Adams, the son of a president with a long history of public service, might have once seemed to be the heir apparent to the executive office, the growing populist movement—fed by a growing frustration with banks and business, which was accelerated by the Panic of 1819—made for close competition in the multi-candidate field for the election.
Adams was up against Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. Though those in Washington did not initially take Jackson seriously as a politician, his charisma and victory at the Battle of New Orleans caused the public to rally for the war hero.
Meanwhile, Adams, who cared little for putting on a show, preferring to focus on the politics at hand, did little to curry favor with the greater population. Considering that Democratic-Republicans distrusted him for his ties to Federalism, and most Southerners refused to vote for him because he morally opposed to slavery, his chances for election were looking increasingly bleak.
Louisa became the face of his election. Starting in 1819, she held her “tea parties” every Tuesday night, in addition to hosting balls and other social events. The women in Washington who had once refused to visit her because off her early misstep now became regulars at her raved-about parties. When her brother’s chronic health problems (and her own) forced her to withdraw to Philadelphia, she set up a salon in her hotel parlor there, where important figures in the area would visit to exchange news and discuss the election.
In her letters to John Quincy, she continued to urge him to engage with the public more; she saw the path to victory relied in having Jackson-like charisma, and tried to push her husband toward presenting himself in such a way. “She probably wouldn’t admit it, but she was electioneering,” Thomas notes.
When the votes were tallied, Jackson won the popular vote and a plurality of electoral votes, but as a majority of electoral votes are needed to take the presidency, the House of Representatives was tasked to pick the next chief executive.
Louisa held her last tea party on the evening of Tuesday, February 8, 1825, the night before the House voted. As Thomas writes, based off of John Quincy’s diary, 67 members of the House came to her party, as well as “400 citizens and strangers.”
The next day, the House—led by Clay, the failed candidate and Speaker of the House—voted John Quincy Adams as the next president.
Much has been made over the “corrupt bargain” that Jackson accused Adams and Clay of, for when Adams became president, he made Clay the new Secretary of State. But Louisa’s role has been obscured by history. Without Louisa’s support and social influence, who knows how many electoral votes her husband would have initially curried, causing Clay to rally the vote around him.
The senior Adams famously relied on Abigail’s perspective on issues of the day, but Louisa arguably was more integral to her husband’s election, as she helmed the unofficial campaign. As Thomas puts it in Louisa, “She was not content to be an adviser. She sought a public presence that Abigail avoided, and she chafed when she ran up against its limits."
But whereas his father trusted his wife almost implicitly and Abigail often referred to their property as “ours,” Louisa and John Quincy did not share the same respect. Louisa always felt beholden to John Quincy for lifting her out of the poverty her family had come into before she married him. While she tried to reconcile her own desire for equality with her institutionalized sense of a woman’s place, she struggled.
“She was of two minds about what a women’s role was,” Thomas says. “On one hand, she’s retiring demure, innocent and on the other hand, she’s self taught and has this vibrant intellectual life.”
Louisa grew up in a world where she was groomed to marry and told that women were supposed to stay in their realm. Even with her tea parties, she would not and could not admit what she was actually doing.
Louisa’s time in the White House would be marked by misery. Jackson’s victorious campaign for president in 1828 would begin barely after John Quincy stepped into the White House. The “corrupt bargain” lost him public support, and he had no reliable allies in Congress. Meanwhile, Louisa felt abandoned and neglected in the White House.
The years following for Louisa were colored by personal tragedy, including her son’s suicide in 1829. While her husband found a second political career as a member of the House of Representatives, and led a crusade for the right to petition against slavery, she did not play a role, rather though she considered slavery a moral sin, she had to contend with her own deep-seated racism.
When she turned 65, Louisa began what Thomas calls her “most ambitious project,” a 70-page memoir titled, The Adventures of a Nobody, which chronicled her history since she first wed John Quincy, preserving her life and efforts for historians to come.
Today, in a time where everything seems to be written down, little is known about the newest foreign-born contender for the First Lady of the United States. As the election heats up though, history will record the role that Melania chooses to play in her husband’s campaign, and what, if any, historic parallels she shares with the woman in her position 200 years earlier.