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The Unlikely Medical History of Chocolate Syrup

Smithsonian Magazine

At first glance, nothing seems particularly odd about the December 1896 edition of The Druggists Circular and Chemical Gazette, a catalog of products that any self-respecting pharmacy ought to carry. But look closer: Hiding among medical necessities like McElroy's glass syringes and Hirsh Frank & Co's lab coats, you’ll find some more curious finds—including Hershey's cocoa powder.

"Perfectly soluble,” boasts the ad in bold, capital lettering. “Warranted absolutely pure.” It reads as if it was peddling medicine—and in fact, it sort of was.

Druggists of the day often used the dark powder to whip up a syrup sweet enough to mask the flavor of objectionable remedies, explains Stella Parks, a pastry chef with the food and cooking website Serious Eats. Parks happened upon these vintage advertisements while she was researching her new book, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, which features lesser-known histories of our favorite sweet treats.

The Hershey's ad intrigued her. "What in the world are these guys doing advertising to druggists?" she recalls wondering at the time. By digging into the history and tracking down more pharmaceutical circulars and magazines, she discover the rich history of chocolate syrup, which began not with ice cream and flavored milk—but with medicine.

(The Druggists' Circular and Chemical Gazette, Volume 40, 1896)

Our love of chocolate goes back over 3,000 years, with traces of cacao appearing as early as 1500 B.C. in the pots of the Olmecs of Mexico. Yet for most of its early history, it was consumed as a drink made from fermented, roasted, and ground beans. This drink was a far cry from the sweetened, milky stuff we call hot chocolate today: It was rarely sweetened, and likely very bitter.

Still, the roughly football-sized pods that cradled the beans were held in high esteem; the Aztecs even traded cacao as currency. Chocolate didn’t become popular overseas, however, until Europeans ventured into the Americas at the end of the 15th century. By the 1700s, the ground beans were avidly consumed throughout Europe and the American colonies as a sweetened, hot drink that was vaguely reminiscent to today’s hot cocoa.

At the time, chocolate was touted for its medicinal properties and prescribed as treatment for a range of diseases, says Deanna Pucciarelli, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at Ball State University who researches the medicinal history of chocolate. It was often prescribed for people suffering from wasting disease: The extra calories assisted in weight gain, and the caffeine-like compounds helped perk patients up. "It didn't treat the actual illness, but it treated the symptoms," she explains.

Yet for pharmacists, it wasn’t only the supposed health benefits but also the rich, velvety flavor that held such appeal. "One thing about medicines, even going way back, is that they are really bitter," says Diane Wendt, associate curator of the division of medicine and science at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Many medications were originally derived from plants and fall in a class of compounds known as alkaloids, which has an acrid, mouth-puckering flavor. The first of these alkaloids, isolated by a German chemist in the early 1800s, was none other than morphine.

Chocolate, it turns out, effectively covered the toe-curling taste of these foul flavors. "Few substances are so eagerly taken by children or invalids, and fewer still are better than [chocolate] for masking the taste of bitter or nauseous medicinal substances," according to the 1899 text, The Pharmaceutical Era.

It's unclear exactly when pharmacists first combined cocoa powder and sugar to brew the sticky syrup. But its popularity was likely helped along by the invention of cocoa powder. In 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad J. Van Houten patented a press that successfully removed some of chocolate's natural fats, reducing its bitter flavor and making it easier to dissolve with water. Still, the result wasn’t exactly the "same kind of smooth mellow chocolate we have now," says Parks; to make it palatable, pharmacists would mix cocoa powder with at least eight times more sugar than chocolate.

The popularity of chocolate syrup exploded in the second half of the 19th century, coinciding with the golden age so-called patent medicines. These are named after the "letters of patent" the English crown awarded to inventors of supposedly curative formulas. The first English medicine patent was awarded in the late 1600s, but the name later came to refer to any over-the-counter drugs. American “patent medicines” went by the same name, but were not typically patented under this system.

Patent medicines emerged at a time when public need for treatments and cures outpaced medical knowledge. Many of these "cures" did more harm than good. Often marketed as cure-alls, the concoctions could contain anything from pulverized fruits and veggies to alcohol and opioids. At the time, the common use of these addictive substances in remedies was legal; regulation didn't come about until the 1914 passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act.

One popular remedy featuring tincture of opium as its active ingredient was Stickney and Poor's Paregoric. This syrup was marketed as a treatment for many ills, and given to cholicky infants as young as five days old. “Remedies” like this weren’t completely ineffective. The inclusion of narcotics and alcohol in the cures did indeed give customers temporary relief from illness—and, more sinisterly, their addictive nature kept them coming back for more.

Vintage Hershey's ad showing chocolate syrup as a "stepping stone to health." (Hershey's Company)

The boom of factory mass production in the 1900s brought with it the rise of easy-to-swallow medical pills. But before that, "pill making by hand is pretty labor intensive," says Wendt. "To actually make a pill of a certain dose—to mix it up and cut the pills, and roll the pills, and dry the pills, and coat the pills—that's a pretty lengthy process." That’s why, during this time, medications were mostly served up in liquid or powder form, says Wendt.

Druggists would mix each liquid remedy with a base of sugary flavored syrups, like chocolate, and take it either by the spoonful or mixed into a beverage, says Wendt. Alternatively, powders could be directly poured into your refreshment of choice. The base for these medicinal drinks could be anything from plain water to tea to a couple fingers of whiskey. But over the course of the 1800s, one particular drink was gaining popularity as a medicine masker: carbonated water.

Not unlike chocolate, soda water was initially considered a health drink in its own right. The carbonated beverage mimicked the mineral-rich waters bubbling up in natural springs that had become known for its curative and healing powers. Soda became a truly widespread phenomenon in America around the turn of the century thanks to the pharmacist Jacob Baur, who invented the process necessary to sell tanks of pressurized carbon dioxide.

Part health drink, part delicious treat, sweetened carbonated water began spreading like wildfire in the form of soda fountains, Darcy O'Neil writes in his book Fix the Pumps.

Syrups became ever more popular to keep pace with the soda craze. Many of these flavors are still common today: vanilla, ginger, lemon and, of course, chocolate. By the late 1800s hardly a pharmacist publication went without some mention of chocolate syrup, Parks writes in Bravetart. And hardly a drug store went without a soda shop: Soda fountains served as a lucrative side business for druggists and pharmacists who commonly struggled to make ends meet, says Parks.

At the time, carbonated concoctions were largely still seen as cures. "Soda is an excellent medium for taking many medicines," according to the 1897 book, The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages. "For example, the best method of administering castor oil is to draw a glass of sarsaparilla soda in the usual manner and pour in the requisite amount of oil." (Sarsaparilla, a flavor derived from the root of a tropical vine, is still used today in some root beer variants.)

One example still very much available today is Coca Cola: Originally mixed up with cocaine, the fizzy drink was touted it as a healthful stimulant to revive the brain and body.

At the turn of the century, however, chocolate syrup began to shift from treatment to treat. "It just seemed to naturally segue into all the ice cream [desserts] that pharmacists had to keep on hand just to stay afloat," says Parks.

A fortuitous mix of events helped elevate the state of chocolate to commercial confection. First, in the early 20th century, concerns over false health claims and downright dangerous cures helped lead to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which required druggists to disclose the remedy ingredients with clear and accurate labels. Similarly, a clamp down on American patent medicines may have further driven the chocolatey transition.

At the same time, other forms of chocolate were gaining traction as confections in their own right. As the industrial revolution ushered in machinery that took over the time-intensive process of turning cacao to cocoa, prices began to fall, explains Pucciarelli. "It all comes together," she says. "The price of manufacturing drops, the price of sugar drops, and then you have [chocolate] bars."

In 1926, Hershey's began marketing pre-mixed chocolate syrup in both single and double strength varieties for commercial businesses. The cans were shelf stable, meaning druggists (and soda jerks) didn't need to continually mix up new batches. By 1930, both Hershey's and other chocolate companies like Bosco's had begun marketing chocolate syrup for home use.

The rest is sweet, sweet history. These days, despite many modern claims of health benefits—some founded and some unfounded—chocolate is considered more confection than cure. Chocolate accounts for the "vast majority" of the $35 billion confection market in the United States, according to the National Confectioners association.

Yet the use of a sweet cover for medications remains isn’t completely dead. You can find sweetness masking medicine in many forms, from cherry cough syrup to bubblegum-flavored amoxicillin. It seems Mary Poppins was right: A spoonful of sugar—or in this case, chocolate—really does help the medicine go down.

Motown Turns 50

Smithsonian Magazine

Editor’s note: It’s been 50 years since Berry Gordy founded Motown, a record company that launched scores of careers, created a signature sound in popular music and even helped bridge the racial divide. This article first appeared in the October 1994 issue of Smithsonian; it has been edited and updated in honor of the anniversary.

It was nearly 3 A.M. but Berry Gordy couldn’t sleep. That recording kept echoing in his head, and every time he heard it he winced. The tempo dragged, the vocals weren’t perky enough, it just didn’t have the edge. Finally, he got out of bed and went downstairs to the homemade studio of his struggling record company. He grabbed the phone and rang his protégé Smokey Robinson, who had written the lyrics and sang lead with a little-known group called the Miracles: “Look, man, we’ve got to do this song again . . . now . . . tonight!” Robinson protested, reminding Gordy that the record had been distributed to stores and was being played on the radio. Gordy persisted, and soon he had rounded up the singers and the band, all except the pianist. Determined to go ahead with the session, he played the piano himself.

Under Gordy’s direction, the musicians picked up the tempo, and Robinson pepped up his delivery of the lyrics, which recounted a mother’s advice to her son on finding a loving bride: “Try to get yourself a bargain son, don’t be sold on the very first one . . . . ” The improved version of “Shop Around” was what Gordy wanted—bouncy and irresistibly danceable. Released in December 1960, it soared to No. 2 on Billboard’s pop chart and sold more than a million copies to become the company’s first gold record. “Shop Around” was the opening salvo in a barrage of smash hits in the 1960s that turned Gordy’s humble studio into a multimillion-dollar corporation and added a dynamic new word to the lexicon of American music: “Motown.”

Gordy, a Detroit native, started the company in 1959, deriving its name from the familiar moniker “Motor City.” Motown combined elements of blues, gospel, swing, and pop with a thumping backbeat for a new dance music that was instantly recognizable. Competing for teen attention primarily against records by the Beatles, who were at the height of their popularity, Motown radically altered the public’s perception of black music, which for years had been kept out of the mainstream.

White youths as well as black were captivated by the rhythmic new sound, though the musicians who produced it were black and many of the performers were teenagers from Detroit’s housing projects and rundown neighborhoods. Prodding and grooming those raw talents, Gordy transformed them into a roster of dazzling artists who stunned the pop music world. The Supremes, Mary Wells, the Temptations, the Miracles, the Contours, Stevie Wonder, the Marvelettes, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Michael Jackson—those were just some of the performers who had people singing and dancing all over the world.

In 1963, when I was in junior high school and completely infatuated with Motown music, I persuaded my dad to drive me past Hitsville U.S.A., which is what Gordy called the little house where he did his recording. We had just moved to Detroit from the East Coast, and the possibility of seeing some of the music makers was the only thing that soothed the pain of relocation. I was disappointed to find not one star lolling about the yard, as was rumored to happen, but a few months later my dream came true at the Motown Christmas show in downtown Detroit. A girlfriend and I queued up at the Fox Theater for an hour one chilly morning and paid $2.50 to see the revue. We rocked our shoulders, snapped our fingers, danced in our seats and sang along as act after act lit up the stage. I grew hoarse from screaming for the fancy footwork of the Temptations and the romantic crooning of Smokey Robinson. Today I still burst into song whenever I hear a Motown tune.

No longer star-struck but still awed by the company’s unparalleled success, I recently visited Gordy at his hilltop mansion in Bel-Air, an opulent enclave of Los Angles. We settled into a stately sitting room furnished with a plump damask sofa and large armchairs. An array of black-and-white photographs of family, Motown celebrities and other stars adorned the walls. Gordy was dressed casually in an olive-green sweatsuit. His 1950s processed pompadour has given way to a graying, thinning close-cut, but he remains exuberant and passionate about his music.

Twice during our conversation he steered me to the photographs, once to point out a youthful Berry with singer Billie Holiday at a Detroit nightclub, and again to show himself with Doris Day. Brash and irrepressible, he had sent Day a copy of the very first song he had written, almost 50 years ago, certain she would record it. She did not, but Gordy still remembers the lyrics, and, without any prodding from me, rendered the ballad in his trilling tenor voice. His bearded face erupted into an impish grin as he finished. “With me you might get anything,” he chuckled. “You never know.”

He talked about his life and the music and the people of Motown, his reminiscences burbling forth—stories animated with humor, snatches of songs and imitations of instruments. He told how he shirked piano practice as a child, preferring instead to compose boogie-woogie riffs by ear, and consequently never learned to read music. He recalled how 18-year-old Mary Wells badgered him at a nightclub one evening about a song she had written. After hearing her husky voice, Gordy persuaded her to record it herself, launching Wells on a course that made her Motown’s first female star.

A music lover since his tender years, Gordy didn’t set out to build a record company. He dropped out of high school when he was a junior and spent a decade finding his niche. Born in 1929, the seventh of eight children, he inherited an entrepreneurial instinct from his father. Gordy senior ran a plastering and carpentry business and owned the Booker T. Washington Grocery Store. The family lived above the store, and as soon as the kids could see over the counter, they went to work serving customers. Young Berry hawked watermelons from his father’s truck in the summer and shined shoes on downtown streets after school. On Christmas Eve, he and his brothers would huddle around an oil-can fire selling trees until late in the evening.

After quitting school, Gordy stepped into the boxing ring, hoping to pummel his way to fame and fortune like Detroit’s Joe Louis, every black boy’s hero in the 1940s. Short and scrappy, Gordy put in a tenacious but ultimately unrewarding few years before being drafted. When he returned from the Army, where he earned his high school equivalency diploma, he opened a record store specializing in jazz. Set on attracting an urbane audience, he eschewed the earthy, foot-stomping music of singers like John Lee Hooker and Fats Domino. Ironically, it was just what his customers wanted, but Gordy was slow to catch on, and his store failed.

He found work on the Ford Motor Company assembly line, earning about $85 a week attaching chrome strips to Lincolns and Mercurys. To relieve the tedium of the job, he made up songs and melodies as the cars rolled by. In the late ’50s Gordy frequented Detroit’s black nightclubs, establishing his presence, peddling his songs and mentoring other songwriters. His big break came when he met Jackie Wilson, a flamboyant singer with matinee-idol looks who had just launched a solo career. Gordy wrote several hit songs for Wilson, including “Reet Petite,” “Lonely Teardrops” and “That is Why.” It was during this time that he also met William (Smokey) Robinson, a handsome, green-eyed teenager with a mellow falsetto voice and a notebook full of songs.

Gordy helped Robinson’s group, the Miracles, and other local wannabes find gigs and studios to cut records, which they sold or leased to big companies for distribution. There wasn’t much money in it, however, because the industry regularly exploited struggling musicians and songwriters. It was Robinson who persuaded Gordy to set up his own company.

Such a venture was a major step. Ever since the dawn of the recording industry at the turn of the century, small companies, and especially black-owned companies, had found it almost impossible to compete in a business dominated by a few giants who could afford better promotion and distribution. Another frustration was the industry’s policy of designating everything recorded by blacks as “race” music and marketing it only to black communities.

By the mid-50s the phrase “rhythm and blues” was being used to refer to black music, and “covers” of R&B music began flooding the mainstream. Essentially a remake of an original recording, the cover version was sung, in this instance, by a white performer. Marketed to a large white audience as popular, or “pop,” music, the cover often outsold the original, which had been distributed only to blacks. Elvis Presley rose to prominence on such covers as “Hound Dog” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll;” Pat Boone “covered” several R&B artists, including Fats Domino. Covers and skewed marketing for R&B music posed formidable challenges for black recording artists. To make big money, Gordy’s records would have to attract white buyers; he had to break out of the R&B market and cross over to the more lucrative pop charts.

Gordy founded Motown with $800 that he borrowed from his family’s savings club. He bought a two-story house on West Grand Boulevard, then an integrated street of middle-class residences and a sprinkling of small businesses. He lived upstairs and worked downstairs, moving in some used recording equipment and giving the house a new coat of white paint. Remembering his days on the assembly line, he envisioned a “hit factory.” “I wanted an artist to go in one door as an unknown and come out another a star,” he told me. He christened the house “Hitsville U.S.A,” spelled out in large blue letters across the front.

Gordy didn’t start out with a magic formula for hit records, but early on a distinct sound did evolve. Influenced by many types of African-American music—jazz, gospel, blues, R&B, doo-wop harmonies—Motown musicians cultivated a pounding backbeat, an infectious rhythm that kept teenagers gyrating on the dance floor. To pianist Joe Hunter, the music had “a beat you could feel and could hum in the shower. You couldn’t hum Charlie Parker, but you could hum Berry Gordy.”

Hunter was one of many Detroit jazzmen Gordy lured to Motown. Typically, the untrained Gordy would play a few chords on the piano to give the musicians a hint of what was in his head; then they would flesh it out. Eventually, a group of those jazz players became Motown’s in-house band, the Funk Brothers. It was their innovative fingerwork on bass, piano, drums and saxophone, backed up by handclaps and the steady jangling of tambourines that became the core of the “Motown Sound.”

Image by Michael Ochs Archives / Corbis. Famous for Motown hits like “My Girl” and “Get Ready,” the Temptations spin and glide through their polished choreography at the Apollo Theater in New York City in 1964. (original image)

Image by Associated Press. With his gift for identifying, nurturing and marketing talented musicians, Berry Gordy, a former auto assembly-line worker, turned an $800 loan into a multimillion-dollar company. (original image)

Image by Bettmann / Corbis. Though early recordings lingered at the bottom of the charts, the Supremes produced a breakout number-one hit in 1964 called “Where Did Our Love Go,” a danceable song full of foot stomps and handclaps. (original image)

Image by Apis / Sygma / Corbis. Blind from birth, singer Stevie Wonder (performing in 1963 at age 13) played drums, piano and harmonica, which featured prominently on his first hit “Fingertips (Part 2).” A winner of more than 20 Grammy awards, he still records on the Motown label. (original image)

Image by Michael Ochs Archives / Corbis. In 1960 Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded “Shop Around,” one of the early Motown songs that would rise to the top of record charts and help launch the young company. (original image)

Image by Bettmann / Motown. Entrants in a rural Michigan high school talent show in 1961, the Marvelettes within months had delivered Motown its first number one single, “Please Mr. Postman,” in 1961. (original image)

Adding words to the mix fell to the company’s stable of producers and writers, who were adroit at penning squeaky-clean lyrics about young love—yearning for it, celebrating it, losing it, getting it back. Smokey Robinson and the team of Lamont Dozier and brothers Eddie and Brian Holland, known as HDH, were especially prolific, churning out hit after hit chock-full of rhyme and hyperbole. The Temptations sang about “sunshine on a cloudy day” and a girl’s “smile so bright” she “could’ve been a candle.” The Supremes would watch a lover “walk down the street, knowing another love you’d meet.”

Spontaneity and creative wackiness were standard at Motown. The Hitsville house, open round the clock, became a hangout. If one group needed more backup voices or more tambourines during a recording session, someone was always available. Before the Supremes ever scored a hit, they were often summoned to provide the insistent handclapping heard on many Motown records. No gimmick was off limits. The loud thumping at the beginning of the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go” is literally the footwork of Motown extras stomping on wooden planks. The tinkling lead notes on one Temptations record came from a toy piano. Little bells, heavy chains, maracas and just about anything that would shake or rattle were employed to boost the rhythm.

An echo chamber was rigged up in an upstairs room, but occasionally the microphone picked up an unintended sound effect: noisy plumbing from the adjacent bathroom. In her memoirs, Diana Ross recalls “singing my heart out beside the toilet bowl” when her microphone was put in it to achieve an echo effect. “It looked like chaos, but the music came out wonderful,” Motown saxophonist Thomas (Beans) Bowles mused recently.

Integrating symphonic strings with the rhythm band was another technique that helped Motown cross over from R&B to pop. When Gordy first hired string players, members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, they balked at requests to play odd or dissonant arrangements. “This is wrong, this is never done,” they’d say. “But that’s what I like, I want to hear that,” Gordy insisted. “I don’t care about the rules because I don’t know what they are.” Some musicians stalked out. “But when we started getting hits with strings, they loved it.”

The people who built Motown recall Hitsville in the early years as a “home away from home,” in the words of the Supremes’ Mary Wilson. It was “more like being adopted by a big loving family than being hired by a company,” the Temptations’ Otis Williams wrote. Gordy, a decade or so older than many of the performers, was the patriarch of the whole rambunctious bunch. When the music makers weren’t working they loafed on the front porch or played Ping-Pong, poker or a game of catch. They cooked lunch at the house—chili or spaghetti or anything that could be stretched. Meetings ended with a rousing chorus of the company song, written by Smokey Robinson: “Oh, we have a very swinging company / working hard from day to day / nowhere will you find more unity / than at Hitsville U.S.A.”

Motown was not just a recording studio; it was a music publisher, a talent agency, a record manufacturer and even a finishing school. Some performers dubbed it “Motown U.” While one group recorded in the studio, another might be working with the voice coach; while a choreographer led the Temptations through some flashy steps for a drop-dead stage routine, writers and arrangers might be banging out a melody on the baby grand. When not refining their acts, the performers attended the etiquette-and-grooming class taught by Mrs. Maxine Powell, an exacting charm school mistress. A chagrined tour manager had insisted the singers polish up their show-biz manners after witnessing one of the Marvelettes chomping a wad of gum while onstage.

Most of the performers took Mrs. Powell’s class seriously; they knew it was a necessary rung on the ladder to success. They learned everything from how to sit in and rise gracefully from a chair, to what to say during an interview, to how to behave at a formal dinner. Grimacing onstage, chewing gum, slouching and wearing brassy makeup were forbidden; at one time, gloves were mandatory for the young women. Even 30 years later, Mrs. Powell’s graduates still praise her. “I was a little rough,” Martha Reeves told me recently, “a little loud and a little undone. She taught us class and how to walk with the grace and charm of queens.”

When it came time to striving for perfection, no one was tougher on the Motown crew than Gordy. He cajoled, pressured and harangued. He held contests to challenge the writers to come up with hit songs. It was nothing for him to require two dozen takes during a single recording session. He would insist on last-minute changes in stage routines; during shows, he took notes on a legal pad and went backstage with a list of complaints. Diana Ross called him “my surrogate father . . . Controller and slave driver.” He was like a tough high school teacher, Mary Wilson says today. “But you learned more from that teacher, you respected that teacher, in fact you liked that teacher.”

Gordy instituted the quality-control concept at Motown, again borrowing an idea from the auto assembly line. Once a week, new records were played, discussed and voted on by sales people, writers and producers. During the week, tension and long hours mounted as everyone hustled to create a product for the meeting. Usually, the winning tune was released, but occasionally Gordy, trusting his intuition, vetoed the staff’s choice. Sometimes when he and Robinson disagreed over a selection, they invited teenagers in to break the impasse.

In 1962, thirty-five eager music makers squeezed into a noisy old bus for Motown’s first road tour, a grueling itinerary of some 30 one-nighters up and down the East Coast. Several shows were in the South, where many of the young people had their first encounters with segregation, often being denied service at restaurants or directed to back doors. As they were boarding the bus late one night after a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, shots rang out. No one was hurt, but the bus was peppered with bullet holes. At another stop, in Florida, the group disembarked and headed for the motel pool. “When we started jumping in, everyone else started jumping out,” Mary Wilson recalls, now laughing. After discovering that the intruders were Motown singers, some of the other guests drifted back to ask for autographs. Occasionally, or when, in the frenzy of a show, black and white teenagers danced together in the aisles, the music helped bridge the racial divide.

Though Motown was a black-owned company, a few whites recorded there and several held key executive positions. Barney Ales, the white manager of Motown’s record sales and marketing, was dogged in his efforts to move the music into the mainstream—this at a time when some stores in the country would not even stock an album with African-Americans on the cover. Instead of a photograph of the Marvelettes, a rural mailbox adorns their “Please Mr. Postman” album. In 1961, the single became Motown’s first song to occupy the number-one spot on the Billboard Hot 100.

Notwithstanding Ales’ success, it was three black teenage girls from a Detroit housing project who made Motown a crossover phenomenon. Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard auditioned for Gordy in 1960, but he showed them the door because they were still in school. The girls then began dropping by the studio, honoring all requests to sing background and clap on recordings. Several months later they signed a contract and started calling themselves “the Supremes.”

Over the next few years, they recorded several songs, but most withered at the bottom of the charts. Then HDH merged plaintive singsong lyrics with a chorus of “baby, baby” and a driving beat, and called it “Where Did Our Love Go.” The record catapulted the Supremes to No. 1 on the pop charts and set off a chain reaction of five No. 1 hits in 1964 and ’65, all HDH compositions.

The young women continued to live in the projects for nearly a year, but otherwise their whole world changed. A summer tour with Dick Clark and an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show were followed by other TV spots, nightclub performances, international tours, magazine and newspaper articles, even product endorsements. They soon traded their homemade stage dresses for glamorous sequined gowns, the dusty tour bus for a stretch limousine.

With the Supremes’ slicked-up sound leading the way, Motown proceeded to blaze a trail to the top of the pop charts, keeping pace with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. Never mind that some fans complained that the Supremes’ music was too commercial and lacked soul. Motown sold more 45 rpm records in the mid-’60s than any other company in the nation.

Capitalizing on that momentum, Gordy pushed to broaden his market, getting Motown acts into upscale supper clubs, such as New York’s Copacabana, and glitzy Las Vegas hotels. The artists learned to sing “Put on A Happy Face” and “Somewhere,” and to strut and sashay with straw hats and canes. At first they were not entirely comfortable doing the material. Ross was crushed when a Manchester, England, audience started fidgeting while the Supremes sang “You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Loves You.” Smokey Robinson called the middle-of-the-road standards “cornball.” Others were on unfamiliar territory, as well. Ed Sullivan once introduced Smokey and the Miracles thusly: “Let’s have a warm welcome for… Smokey and the Little Smokeys!”

By 1968 Motown had exceeded all expectations and was still growing. That was the year the company set up headquarters in a ten-story building on the edge of downtown Detroit. Four years later Motown’s first movie, Lady Sings the Blues, debuted. The story of Billie Holiday, played by Diana Ross, the film received five Academy Award nominations. Intent on further expansion into the film industry, Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles. Robinson had tried to dissuade him with a stack of books about the San Andreas Fault, to no avail. Gordy hungered to work his magic in Hollywood.

But the move to Los Angeles was the beginning of the end of Motown music’s golden era. “It became just another big company instead of the little company that thought it could,” Janie Bradford said recently. She started as a Motown receptionist, stayed with the company 22 years and even helped Gordy write one of his early hits, “Money (That’s What I Want).” After relocating, Gordy found little time for creating music or screening records. So much was changing. Lead singers left their groups for solo careers. Some wanted more creative and financial control. Gone were the house band and the cadre of young producers. Many of the performers, now famous, were being wooed away by other recording companies; some were disgruntled about old contracts and earnings, and complained that Motown had cheated them. Lawsuits ensued. Gossip and rumor would pursue Gordy for decades as the once most successful black-owned company in the country began a downward spiral.


In 1988 Gordy sold Motown’s record division to MCA records for $61 million. A few years later it was sold again to Polygram Records. Eventually Motown merged with Universal Records and today is known as Universal Motown. Among the company’s recording artists are Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu and Stevie Wonder.

The old Hitsville USA house in Detroit is now a museum and popular tourist destination.

Why We Need To Start Listening To Insects

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s a warm summer afternoon in the Tanzanian village of Lupiro, and Mikkel Brydegaard is crouching in a brick hut, trying to fix a broken laser. Next to him, on a tall tripod, three telescopes point through a window at a tree in the distance. A laptop rests on an upturned box, waiting to receive a signal.

With a working laser, this system is known as lidar – like radar, Brydegaard tells me, but using a laser instead of radio waves. The setup is supposed to gather precise data about the movement of malaria mosquitoes. But as the sun starts to set outside, Brydegaard is getting nervous. He and his colleagues have spent a week in Tanzania, and their device still hasn’t started collecting data. They’re almost out of time.

Tomorrow, a solar eclipse will blot out the sun over Tanzania – an event that occurs only once every few decades here, and that Brydegaard and his team from Lund University in Sweden have travelled thousands of miles to see. Their immediate aim is to see if the eclipse affects the behaviour of disease-carrying insects. Their larger mission, however, is to demonstrate that lasers can revolutionise how insects are studied.

Lidar involves shooting a laser beam between two points – in this case, between the hut and the tree. When insects fly through the beam, they’ll scatter and reflect light back to the telescopes, generating data from which the scientists hope to identify different species. At a time when pests destroy enough food to sustain entire countries – and when insect-borne diseases kill hundreds of thousands of people every year – this arrangement of beams and lenses could, just maybe, improve millions of lives.

But without a working laser, the trip to Tanzania will count for nothing.

Already, the team have come close to giving up. A few days ago, their two high-powered lasers failed to work. “My first thought was, OK – pack everything, we head back,” Brydegaard tells me. “There’s nowhere in Tanzania we can find a spare part.” He thought bitterly about the tens of thousands of dollars they had spent on equipment and travel. But then he walked into town with Samuel Jansson, his graduate student, and over bottles of beer they scrolled through the contacts on their phones. Perhaps, they started to think, it was possible to salvage the trip after all.


Lasers may be a cutting-edge tool for identifying insects, but at the heart of the lidar method is an elegant and centuries-old principle of entomology. Almost every species of flying insect, from moth to midge to mosquito, has a unique wingbeat frequency. A female Culex stigmatosoma mosquito, for instance, might beat its wings at a frequency of 350 hertz, while a male Culex tarsalis might at 550 hertz. Because of these differences, an insect’s wingbeat is like a fingerprint. And in recent years, the study of wingbeat has undergone a renaissance, especially in the field of human health.

Long before lasers or computers, wingbeat was thought of in auditory – even musical – terms. A careful listener could match the buzz of a fly to a key on the piano. That is exactly what Robert Hooke, a natural philosopher, did in the 17th century: “He is able to tell how many strokes a fly makes with her wings (those flies that hum in their flying) by the note that it answers to in musique during their flying,” wrote Samuel Pepys, a British civil servant and friend of Hooke’s.

But the fact that Hooke relied on his ears must have made his findings difficult to communicate. Knowledge was traditionally shared through scientific papers, letters and specimen drawings, and so entomologists tended to rely on vision rather than hearing. “The field has had a very, very narrow focus for a long time,” says Laura Harrington, an entomologist and epidemiologist based at Cornell University, New York State.

In the 20th century, however, researchers began to break the mould. The main wingbeat detection method was visual: the chronophotographic method, which involved taking photographs in rapid succession. This had its limitations, and a few keen-eared researchers felt there was an advantage to Robert Hooke’s auditory approach – especially Olavi Sotavalta, an entomologist from Finland who had the rare gift of absolute pitch. Just as a composer with absolute pitch might transcribe a musical passage by ear, Sotavalta could identify the precise tone of a mosquito’s wings without the aid of a piano.

(© Matthew the Horse)

“The acoustic method makes it possible to observe insects in free flight,” Sotavalta wrote in a 1952 paper in Nature. In other words, because he had absolute pitch, Sotavalta was able to make wingbeat observations not only with cameras in the laboratory, but also in nature, with his ears. Scientists are informed and constrained by the senses they choose to use.

Sotavalta’s peculiar approach to research suggests that certain scientific insights emerge when separate disciplines collide: he used his canny ear not only to identify species during his research, but also for music. “He had a beautiful singing voice,” says Petter Portin, an emeritus professor of genetics who was once a student of Sotavalta’s. Portin remembers him as a tall, slender man who always wore a blue laboratory coat.

Sotavalta’s papers in the National Library of Finland are a curious combination of letters, monographs on insect behaviour, and stacks of sheet music. Some of his compositions are named after birds and insects.

One of the strangest of Sotavalta’s papers, published in the Annals of the Finnish Zoological Society, documents in astonishing detail the songs of two particular nightingales. Sotavalta heard them during successive summers while staying at his summer house in Lempäälä. The paper itself seems dry, until it becomes clear that he’s trying to apply music theory to birdsong.

“The song of the two Sprosser nightingales (Luscinia luscinia L.) occurring in two successive years was recorded acoustically and presented with conventional stave notation,” he wrote.

Following on from this are nearly 30 pages of notes, graphs and analysis of the rhythm and tonality of the birds. After highlighting the similarity between the two songs, he declares: “Because of the short distance between the places where they were singing, it was concluded that they were perhaps father and son.” It is as though his work is a search for some kind of pattern, some musical idea, shared by members of the same species.

However, his paper in Nature was rather more consequential. There, Sotavalta describes the uses of his “acoustic method” of identifying insects using his absolute pitch, and theorises about the subtleties of insect wingbeat: how much energy it consumes, and how it varies according to air pressure and body size. Even so, only decades later did scientists such as Brydegaard reaffirm the relevance of wingbeat in the study of insects – for example, malaria-carrying mosquitoes.


In Tanzania, Brydegaard, Jansson and engineer Flemming Rasmussen do not have absolute pitch – and, even if they did, it wouldn’t help much. There are millions of insects in and around the village, and they drone on in a symphony that never ends.

What these scientists have, in place of a keen ear, is a high-tech gadget and two broken lasers. And their phones.

When the lasers failed, it took a few false starts to find a solution. A researcher in Côte d’Ivoire had a working laser, but he was away in the USA. Brydegaard considered sending for a replacement by mail, but knew that – thanks to customs and the day-long drive from the airport in Dar es Salaam – it probably wouldn’t arrive in time for the eclipse.

Finally, they sent a text message to Frederik Taarnhøj, CEO of FaunaPhotonics, their commercial partner, and asked if he would consider sending a scientist from Sweden with some spare lasers. Taarnhøj said yes.

So the trio made a few frantic calls and ultimately convinced another graduate student, Elin Malmqvist, to board a plane the very next day. When she did, she was carrying three small metal boxes in her suitcase.

The saga was not over yet, however. Even after the huge expense of the last-minute flight, the first replacement failed: Brydegaard, in his hurry, confused the anode with the cathode, which short-circuited the laser diode. The second laser yielded a beam, but, inexplicably, it was so faint as to be unusable.

It’s the last laser that Brydegaard now unpacks, hoping that at least this one will work as expected. By the time he screws it onto the tripod, it is almost sunset, and his agitation is palpable. Within the hour, it will be too dark to calibrate even a working laser. Everything rides on this piece of equipment.


Laura Harrington’s laboratory at Cornell looks a little like a restaurant kitchen. What resembles the door to a walk-in freezer actually leads to an incubation room. It’s humid and lit by fluorescent lights. The shelves are covered in carefully labelled boxes. Harrington shows me mosquito eggs inside the kinds of disposable containers you’d carry soup in. Over the top of the containers, to prevent mosquitoes from escaping, there’s some kind of net – bridal veil, she tells me. The method is not quite foolproof. A few mosquitoes have escaped, and they buzz around our ears and ankles while we chat.

When we talk about Sotavalta’s approach, Harrington says that he was “definitely ahead of his time”. Even in recent years, researchers who thought to listen to mosquitoes didn’t realise how many insects are capable of listening, too. “For a long time, scientists thought that female mosquitoes were deaf – that they didn’t pay attention to sound at all,” Harrington says.

But in 2009, Harrington put that long-standing assumption to the test. In an unusual and intricate experiment, she and her colleagues tethered a female Aedes aegypti mosquito to a hair, installed a microphone nearby, and placed both inside an upside-down fish tank. Then they released male mosquitoes inside the tank and recorded the results.

The team’s findings astonished Harrington, and led to a breakthrough in the study of sound and entomology. Aedes aegypti conducted a sort of mid-air mating dance that had everything to do with sound. Not only did female mosquitoes respond to the sounds of males, they also seemed to communicate with sounds of their own. “We discovered that males and females actually sing to each other,” Harrington says. “They harmonise just prior to mating.”

This ‘mating song’ isn’t produced by vocal cords. It is produced by flapping wings. During normal flight, male and female mosquitoes have slightly different wingbeats. But Harrington found that during the mating process, males aligned their wingbeat frequency with that of females.

“We think the female is testing the male,” Harrington explains. “How quickly he can converge harmonically.” If so, mosquito songs may function like auditory peacock features. They seem to help females identify the fittest mates.

(© Matthew the Horse)

With these results in mind, and with a recent grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Harrington’s lab has begun development of a novel mosquito trap for field research. Similar projects have been undertaken by teams at James Cook University in Australia and Columbia University in New York City, among others.

For a researcher, there are drawbacks to the mosquito traps that currently exist. Chemical traps have to be refilled, while electric traps tend to kill mosquitoes; Harrington wants her new trap to harness the power of sound to capture living specimens for monitoring and study. It would combine established methods for attracting mosquitoes, like chemicals and blood, with recorded mosquito sounds to mimic the mating song. Importantly, it could be used to capture mosquitoes of either sex.

Historically, scientists have focused on catching female mosquitoes, which twice each day go hunting for mammals to bite – and which may carry the malaria parasite (males do not). But scientists have recently started to consider male mosquitoes an important part of malaria control too. For instance, one current proposal for curbing the disease involves releasing genetically modified males that produce infertile offspring, to reduce the population of disease-carrying mosquitoes in a given area.

Harrington’s hope is that an acoustic trap – using the mating song that attracts males – would help make new strategies such as this possible. “What we’re trying to do is really think outside the box, and identify new and novel ways to control these mosquitoes,” she says.


With the last laser finally in place, Brydegaard flips a switch. Suddenly, on the laptop screen next to the tripod, a small white dot appears. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief: the laser works.

The team – made up of Brydegaard, Jansson, Malmqvist and Rasmussen – spend the last 15 minutes of daylight bringing the beam into focus. Other than a few local children, who shout “mzungu” – Swahili for light-skinned foreigner – no one seems especially bothered by the Europeans tinkering with telescopes.

Sunset throws a beautiful, soft light across the marshy landscape around Lupiro, but it also marks the start of malaria transmission. As darkness starts to fall on the hut where the lidar system is set up, villagers walk in from the fields; pillars of smoke rise from cooking fires. Locals here rely on rice for their livelihood: the staple is served with two meals a day, and along the dusty main road, rice chaff piles up like leaves in autumn. But rice fields require standing water, and standing water fosters malaria mosquitoes. Insects have already begun to buzz around our legs.

Now that evening has settled around us, the lidar system has finally begun to record a torrent of data. The team sit around the hut in the dark; a gasoline generator hums outside, powering the laser and computer. On the laptop screen, a jagged red line shows peaks and valleys. Each one, Brydegaard tells me, represents an echo from the beam. Around dusk, dozens or hundreds of insects may cross the beam each minute. We are watching the period that entomologists refer to as “rush hour” – the wave of activity that begins when female mosquitoes swarm into the village and start their search for food.

Nicodemus Govella, a medical entomologist at Tanzania’s prestigious Ifakara Health Institute – a local partner of FaunaPhotonics – has seen the evening mosquito rush hundreds, even thousands of times. He knows how it feels to shiver and vomit as the malaria parasite takes hold; he has experienced the symptoms time and again. “During my childhood, I can’t count how many times,” he tells me.

If Tanzanian epidemiologists are waging a war on malaria, the Ifakara Health Institute works like a ministry of intelligence – it tracks the density, distribution and timing of bites by malaria mosquitoes. Traditionally, Govella says, the “gold standard” of mosquito surveillance was a method called human-landing catch. It’s low-tech but reliable: a volunteer is given medication to prevent malaria transmission and then sits outside with legs bare, letting mosquitoes land and bite.

The problem is that protection against malaria is no longer enough. Too many other diseases, from dengue fever to Zika, are also spread by mosquitoes. As a result, human-landing catch is now widely considered unethical. “It gives you information, but it is very risky,” Govella says. “Other countries have already banned it.” As health officials retire old strategies for malaria surveillance and control, the work on experimental techniques takes on new urgency – which is where the lasers will come in.

In parts of Tanzania, thanks in part to bednets and pesticides, malaria has “gone down tremendously,” Govella tells me. But eradication of the disease has proved elusive. Some mosquitoes have developed resistance to pesticides. Likewise, bednets helped bring night-time transmission under control – but mosquitoes have adapted their behaviour, starting to bite at dusk and dawn, when people aren’t protected.

In 2008, Govella’s daughter contracted malaria. Thinking back, Govella’s manner changes; his precise medical language gives way to a quiet passion. “I don’t even want to remember,” he says. “When I get to that memory, it really brings a lot of pain to me.”

In its early stages, malaria may look like a common cold – which is why it’s so important that scientists have the tools to track the spread of the parasite and the mosquitoes that carry it: to avoid misdiagnosis. In his daughter’s case, the lack of information proved tragic. “Because it was not detected soon, it proceeded up to the level of convulsions,” Govella says. His daughter ultimately died from complications of malaria. Almost every day since then, he has thought about eradication.

“I hate this disease,” Govella says.


The persistence of malaria has frustrated generations of scientists. More than a century after the discovery of the parasite, it still afflicts hundreds of millions of people each year, of whom half a million die. Harrington has her own memories of the havoc wreaked by the disease: in 1998, she travelled to Thailand for a series of experiments and contracted malaria herself. “I was the only foreigner for miles and miles around,” she says. As the fever set in, Harrington started to understand the real burden of the disease she studied.

“I could imagine myself as a Thai villager with those illnesses,” she tells me. She was far from the nearest hospital and felt alone. “I felt like, if I died, maybe people wouldn’t find out.” Eventually, someone found her and put her in the back of a pickup truck. She remembers sinking into delirium, staring up at a fan that spun endlessly on the ceiling. “I saw a nurse with a syringe full of purple liquid,” she recalls. It reminded her of when she worked, years before, in a veterinary clinic that used purple injections to euthanise sick animals. “I thought that was the end.”

Finally, the fever broke, and Harrington knew that she was going to survive. “I felt incredibly grateful for my life,” she says. The experience made her even more committed to her research. “I felt that I had the ability to try and dedicate my career to something that could eventually help other people.”

Malaria provides a vivid example of how insects threaten human health – but there are many other ways that they can cause harm. Insects also spread other microbial diseases. Then there’s the effect they have on agriculture. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, insect pests destroy one-fifth of global crop yields. In other words, if the world’s farmers had better ways to control species like locusts and beetles, they could feed millions more people.

Pesticides reduce the damage that insects cause, but when used indiscriminately, they can also harm people or kill the insects that we rely on. We remain deeply dependent on pollinators like bees, moths and butterflies, but a 2016 report showed that 40 per cent of invertebrate pollinator species are under threat of extinction. It’s because of this love–hate relationship with insects that we urgently need better ways of tracking different species – better ways to differentiate between the bugs that help us and the bugs that hurt us.

(© Matthew the Horse)


On the day of the eclipse, at just before noon, in the blue skies above Lupiro the black disc of the moon passes in front of the sun. A group of children have gathered round; they hold in their hands small plates of welding glass that the Scandinavian scientists brought with them. By peering through the green-tinted glass, the children can see the narrowing crescent of the sun.

The village around us has gone dim; our shadows have grown less distinct. Judging by the light, it feels as if a sudden storm has set in, or someone has turned a dimmer that has made the sun go faint. The scientists from Sweden, along with their partners at the Ifakara Health Institute and FaunaPhotonics, want to know if in the dim light of an eclipse insects become more active, just as they do at dusk.

On the screen, we watch the red peaks, which have picked up again – not as many as we saw at sunset and sunrise, but more than usual. There’s a simple reason this data matters: if the mosquitoes are more active during an eclipse, that suggests that they use light as a cue, knowing when to swarm each morning and evening by the dimness of the rising and setting sun.

As the data pours in, the scientists talk me through what we’re looking at. Lidar was originally developed to study much larger-scale phenomena, like changes in atmospheric chemistry. This system has been simplified to a bare minimum.

Each of the three telescopes on the tripod has a separate function. The first directs the outgoing laser at a tree about half a kilometre away. Nailed to the tree trunk is a black board, where the beam terminates. (To clear a path for the laser, Jansson, the PhD student, had to cut a path through the underbrush with a machete.)

When insects fly through the laser beam, reflections bounce back at the device from their beating wings, and they’re picked up by the second telescope. The third telescope allows the team to aim and calibrate the system; the whole apparatus is connected to a laptop computer that aggregates the data. The red peaks dancing across the screen represent insects crossing the laser beam.

To record the reflections, which Brydegaard calls the “atmospheric echo”, the lidar system captures 4,000 snapshots per second. Later, the team will use an algorithm to comb through the snapshots for wingbeat frequency – the fingerprint of each species.

This device, in other words, achieves with optics what Olavi Sotavalta achieved with his ears, and what Harrington has achieved with the help of a microphone.

But there are some details in the lidar data that the human ear could never discern. For example, an insect’s wingbeat frequency is accompanied by higher-pitched harmonics. (Harmonics are what lend richness to the sound of a violin; they’re responsible for the resonant ring produced by a muted guitar string.) The lidar system can capture harmonic frequencies that are too high for the human ear to hear. In addition, laser beams are polarised, and when they reflect off different surfaces, their polarisation changes. The amount of change can tell Brydegaard and his colleagues whether an insect’s wing is glossy or matte, which is also useful when trying to distinguish different species.

As the dark disc of the sun starts to brighten again, the scientists snap pictures and try, without much success, to explain how the lasers work to local children. Now that the data is flowing, the tension that accompanied the set-up of the lidar system has simply melted away.

It finally seems clear that the high price tag of the experiment won’t be in vain. The team spent about $12,000 on the lidar system, not including the equally hefty costs of transport and labour. “That sounds like a lot, standing in an African village,” Brydegaard admits. On the other hand, older forms of lidar, used to study the atmosphere, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The burden of malaria, meanwhile, would be calculated in the billions of dollars – if it could be calculated at all.

Within a couple of hours, the bright round circle of the sun is again burning brightly. A couple of hours after that, it has started to set.

We re-apply bug spray to ward off the mosquitoes that, once again, will come flying in from the marshy fields around Lupiro. Then we walk into town for dinner, which, as usual, includes rice.


Three months after the experiment, I called FaunaPhotonics to learn how their analysis was progressing. After so many lasers had failed, I wanted to know whether the final one had given them the results they needed.

The data was messy, they said. “Around cooking time, there’s lots of smoke and dust in the air,” said Jord Prangsma, an engineer responsible for analysing the data that the team brought back. He added that the data did seem to show distinct wingbeats. But it’s one thing to spot those beats on a graph. “To tell a computer, ‘Please find me the correct frequency,’ is another thing,” he said. Unlike Sotavalta, who had studied individuals, the team in Tanzania had gathered data from many thousands of insects. They were trying to analyse all of those beating wings at once.

But the obstacles were not insurmountable. “We see a higher activity just around noon,” said Samuel Jansson, speaking about the data from the eclipse. This suggests that mosquitoes were, indeed, using light as a cue to begin searching for food during rush hour. Prangsma added that an algorithm he had developed was starting to separate out the crucial data. “From a scientific point of view, this is a very rich dataset,” he said.

Over the months that followed, FaunaPhotonics continued to make progress. “Despite initial laser problems,” Brydegaard wrote in a recent email, “the systems performed to the satisfaction of all our expectations.”

Each day that the system was in operation, he said, they had recorded a staggering 100,000 insect observations. “Indications are that we can discriminate several species and gender classes of insects,” Brydegaard went on.

Along with his Lund University colleagues, Brydegaard will publish the results; FaunaPhotonics, as his commercial partner, will offer their lidar device, along with their analytic expertise, to companies and research organisations looking to track insects in the field. “If we have a customer that’s interested in a certain species, then we’ll tailor the algorithm a bit to target the species,” Prangsma explained. “Each dataset is unique, and has to be tackled in its own way.” Recently, FaunaPhotonics began a three-year collaboration with Bayer to continue developing its technology.

The study of wingbeat has come an incredibly long way since Olavi Sotavalta used his absolute pitch to identify insects – and yet in some ways, the Scandinavian scientists’ work differs very little from the Finnish entomologist’s. Just like Sotavalta, they are bringing separate disciplines together – in this case physics and biology, lidar and entomology – to uncover patterns in nature. But they have plenty of work left to do. FaunaPhotonics and its partners will start, in a forthcoming paper, by trying to connect the dots between light, lasers and mosquitoes. Then they’ll try to demonstrate that the study of wingbeat frequency could help humans control diseases other than malaria, as well as insects that destroy crops.

“This is a journey that is not a few months,” said Rasmussen, the engineer. “This is a journey that will go for years ahead.”

This article was first published by Wellcome on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and the Election of 1800

Smithsonian Magazine

On the afternoon of September 23, 1800, Vice President Thomas Jefferson, from his Monticello home, wrote a letter to Benjamin Rush, the noted Philadelphia physician. One matter dominated Jefferson’s thoughts: that year’s presidential contest. Indeed, December 3, Election Day—the date on which the Electoral College would meet to vote—was only 71 days away.

Jefferson was one of four presidential candidates. As he composed his letter to Rush, Jefferson paused from time to time to gather his thoughts, all the while gazing absently through an adjacent window at the shimmering heat and the foliage, now a lusterless pale green after a long, dry summer. Though he hated leaving his hilltop plantation and believed, as he told Rush, that gaining the presidency would make him “a constant butt for every shaft of calumny which malice & falsehood could form,” he nevertheless sought the office “with sincere zeal.”

He had been troubled by much that had occurred in incumbent John Adams’ presidency and was convinced that radicals within Adams’ Federalist Party were waging war against what he called the “spirit of 1776”—goals the American people had hoped to attain through the Revolution. He had earlier characterized Federalist rule as a “reign of witches,” insisting that the party was “adverse to liberty” and “calculated to undermine and demolish the republic.” If the Federalists prevailed, he believed, they would destroy the states and create a national government every bit as oppressive as that which Great Britain had tried to impose on the colonists before 1776.

The “revolution...of 1776,” Jefferson would later say, had determined the “form” of America’s government; he believed the election of 1800 would decide its “principles.” “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of Man,” he wrote.

Jefferson was not alone in believing that the election of 1800 was crucial. On the other side, Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who had been George Washington’s secretary of treasury, believed that it was a contest to save the new nation from “the fangs of Jefferson.” Hamilton agreed with a Federalist newspaper essay that argued defeat meant “happiness, constitution and laws [faced] endless and irretrievable ruin.” Federalists and Republicans appeared to agree on one thing only: that the victor in 1800 would set America’s course for generations to come, perhaps forever.

Only a quarter of a century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the first election of the new 19th century was carried out in an era of intensely emotional partisanship among a people deeply divided over the scope of the government’s authority. But it was the French Revolution that had imposed a truly hyperbolic quality upon the partisan strife.

That revolution, which had begun in 1789 and did not run its course until 1815, deeply divided Americans. Conservatives, horrified by its violence and social leveling, applauded Great Britain’s efforts to stop it. The most conservative Americans, largely Federalists, appeared bent on an alliance with London that would restore the ties between America and Britain that had been severed in 1776. Jeffersonian Republicans, on the other hand, insisted that these radical conservatives wanted to turn back the clock to reinstitute much of the British colonial template. (Today’s Republican Party traces its origins not to Jefferson and his allies but to the party formed in 1854-1855, which carried Lincoln to the presidency in 1860.)

A few weeks before Adams’ inauguration in 1796, France, engaged in an all-consuming struggle with England for world domination, had decreed that it would not permit America to trade with Great Britain. The French Navy soon swept American ships from the seas, idling port-city workers and plunging the economy toward depression. When Adams sought to negotiate a settlement, Paris spurned his envoys.

Adams, in fact, hoped to avoid war, but found himself riding a whirlwind. The most extreme Federalists, known as Ultras, capitalized on the passions unleashed in this crisis and scored great victories in the off-year elections of 1798, taking charge of both the party and Congress. They created a provisional army and pressured Adams into putting Hamilton in charge. They passed heavy taxes to pay for the army and, with Federalist sympathizers in the press braying that “traitors must be silent,” enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which provided jail terms and exorbitant fines for anyone who uttered or published “any false, scandalous, and malicious” statement against the United States government or its officials. While Federalists defended the Sedition Act as a necessity in the midst of a grave national crisis, Jefferson and his followers saw it as a means of silencing Republicans—and a violation of the Bill of Rights. The Sedition Act, Jefferson contended, proved there was no step, “however atrocious,” the Ultras would not take.

All along, Jefferson had felt that Federalist extremists might overreach. By early 1799, Adams himself had arrived at the same conclusion. He, too, came to suspect that Hamilton and the Ultras wanted to precipitate a crisis with France. Their motivation perhaps had been to get Adams to secure an alliance with Great Britain and accept the Ultras’ program in Congress. But avowing that there “is no more prospect of seeing a French Army here, than there is in Heaven,” Adams refused to go along with the scheme and sent peace envoys to Paris. (Indeed, a treaty would be signed at the end of September 1800.)

It was in this bitterly partisan atmosphere that the election of 1800 was conducted. In those days, the Constitution stipulated that each of the 138 members of the Electoral College cast two votes for president, which allowed electors to cast one vote for a favorite son and a second for a candidate who actually stood a chance of winning. The Constitution also stipulated that if the candidates tied, or none received a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives “shall chuse by Ballot one of them for President.” Unlike today, each party nominated two candidates for the presidency.

Federalist congressmen had caucused that spring and, without indicating a preference, designated Adams and South Carolina’s Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as the party’s choices. Adams desperately wanted to be re-elected. He was eager to see the French crisis through to a satisfactory resolution and, at age 65, believed that a defeat would mean he would be sent home to Quincy, Massachusetts, to die in obscurity. Pinckney, born into Southern aristocracy and raised in England, had been the last of the four nominees to come around in favor of American independence. Once committed, however, he served valiantly, seeing action at Brandywine, Germantown and Charleston. Following the war, he sat in the Constitutional Convention; both Washington and Adams had sent him to France on diplomatic missions.

In addition to Jefferson, Republicans chose Aaron Burr as their candidate, but designated Jefferson as the party’s first choice. Jefferson had held public office intermittently since 1767, serving Virginia in its legislature and as a wartime governor, sitting in Congress, crossing to Paris in 1784 for a five-year stint that included a posting as the American minister to France, and acting as secretary of state under Washington. His second place finish in the election of 1796 had made him vice president, as was the custom until 1804. Burr, at age 44 the youngest of the candidates, had abandoned his legal studies in 1775 to enlist in the Continental Army; he had experienced the horrors of America’s failed invasion of Canada and the miseries of Valley Forge. After the war he practiced law and represented New York in the U.S. Senate. In 1800, he was serving as a member of the New York legislature.

In those days, the Constitution left the manner of selecting presidential electors to the states. In 11 of the 16 states, state legislatures picked the electors; therefore, the party that controlled the state assembly garnered all that state’s electoral votes. In the other five states, electors were chosen by “qualified” voters (white, male property owners in some states, white male taxpayers in others). Some states used a winner-take-all system: voters cast their ballots for the entire slate of Federalist electors or for the Republican slate. Other states split electors among districts.

Watch this video in the original article

Presidential candidates did not kiss babies, ride in parades or shake hands. Nor did they even make stump speeches. The candidates tried to remain above the fray, leaving campaigning to surrogates, particularly elected officials from within their parties. Adams and Jefferson each returned home when Congress adjourned in May, and neither left their home states until they returned to the new capital of Washington in November.

But for all its differences, much about the campaign of 1800 was recognizably modern. Politicians carefully weighed which procedures were most likely to advance their party’s interests. Virginia, for instance, had permitted electors to be elected from districts in three previous presidential contests, but after Federalists carried 8 of 19 congressional districts in the elections of 1798, Republicans, who controlled the state assembly, switched to the winner-take-all format, virtually guaranteeing they would get every one of Virginia’s 21 electoral votes in 1800. The ploy was perfectly legal, and Federalists in Massachusetts, fearing an upsurge in Republican strength, scuttled district elections—which the state had used previously—to select electors by the legislature, which they controlled.

Though the contest was played out largely in the print media, the unsparing personal attacks on the character and temperament of the nominees resembled the studied incivility to which today’s candidates are accustomed on television. Adams was portrayed as a monarchist who had turned his back on republicanism; he was called senile, a poor judge of character, vain, jealous and driven by an “ungovernable temper.” Pinckney was labeled a mediocrity, a man of “limited talents” who was “illy suited to the exalted station” of the presidency. Jefferson was accused of cowardice. Not only, said his critics, had he lived in luxury at Monticello while others sacrificed during the War of Independence, but he had fled like a jack rabbit when British soldiers raided Charlottesville in 1781. And he had failed egregiously as Virginia’s governor, demonstrating that his “nerves are too weak to bear anxiety and difficulties.” Federalists further insisted Jefferson had been transformed into a dangerous radical during his residence in France and was a “howling atheist.” For his part, Burr was depicted as without principles, a man who would do anything to get his hands on power.

Also like today, the election of 1800 seemed to last forever. “Electioneering is already begun,” the first lady, Abigail Adams, noted 13 months before the Electoral College was to meet. What made it such a protracted affair was that state legislatures were elected throughout the year; as these assemblies more often than not chose presidential electors, the state contests to determine them became part of the national campaign. In 1800 the greatest surprise among these contests occurred in New York, a large, crucial state that had given all 12 of its electoral votes to Adams in 1796, allowing him to eke out a three-vote victory over Jefferson.

The battle for supremacy in the New York legislature had hinged on the outcome in New York City. Thanks largely to lopsided wins in two working-class wards where many voters owned no property, the Republicans secured all 24 of New York’s electoral votes for Jefferson and Burr. For Abigail Adams, that was enough to seal Adams’ fate. John Dawson, a Republican congressman from Virginia, declared: “The Republic is safe....The [Federalist] party are in rage & despair.”

But Adams himself refused to give up hope. After all, New England, which accounted for nearly half the electoral votes needed for a majority, was solidly in his camp, and he felt certain he would win some votes elsewhere. Adams believed that if he could get South Carolina’s eight votes, he would be virtually certain to garner the same number of electoral votes that had put him over the top four years earlier. And, at first, both parties were thought to have a shot at carrying the state.

When South Carolina’s legislature was elected in mid-October, the final tally revealed that the assembly was about evenly divided between Federalists and Republicans—though unaffiliated representatives, all pro-Jefferson, would determine the outcome. Now Adams’ hopes were fading fast. Upon hearing the news that Jefferson was assured of South Carolina’s eight votes, Abigail Adams remarked to her son Thomas that the “consequence to us personally is that we retire from public life.” All that remained to be determined was whether the assembly would instruct the electors to cast their second vote for Burr or Pinckney.

The various presidential electors met in their respective state capitals to vote on December 3. By law, their ballots were not to be opened and counted until February 11, but the outcome could hardly be kept secret for ten weeks. Sure enough, just nine days after the vote, Washington, D.C.’s National Intelligencer newspaper broke the news that neither Adams nor Pinckney had received a single South Carolina vote and, in the voting at large, Jefferson and Burr had each received 73 electoral votes. Adams had gotten 65, Pinckney 64. The House of Representatives would have to make the final decision between the two Republicans.

Adams thus became the first presidential candidate to fall victim to the notorious clause in the Constitution that counted each slave as three-fifths of one individual in calculating population used to allocate both House seats and electoral votes. Had slaves, who had no vote, not been so counted, Adams would have edged Jefferson by a vote of 63 to 61. In addition, the Federalists fell victim to the public’s perception that the Republicans stood for democracy and egalitarianism, while the Federalists were seen as imperious and authoritarian.

In the House, each state would cast a single vote. If each of the 16 states voted—that is, if none abstained—9 states would elect the president. Republicans controlled eight delegations—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee. The Federalists held six: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware and South Carolina. And two delegations—Maryland and Vermont—were deadlocked.

Though Jefferson and Burr had tied in the Electoral College, public opinion appeared to side with Jefferson. Not only had he been the choice of his party’s nominating caucus, but he had served longer at the national level than Burr, and in a more exalted capacity. But if neither man was selected by noon on March 4, when Adams’ term ended, the country would be without a chief executive until the newly elected Congress convened in December, nine months later. In the interim, the current, Federalist-dominated Congress would be in control.

Faced with such a prospect, Jefferson wrote to Burr in December. His missive was cryptic, but in it he appeared to suggest that if Burr accepted the vice presidency, he would be given greater responsibilities than previous vice presidents. Burr’s response to Jefferson was reassuring. He pledged to “disclaim all competition” and spoke of “your administration.”

Meanwhile, the Federalists caucused to discuss their options. Some favored tying up the proceedings in order to hold on to power for several more months. Some wanted to try to invalidate, on technical grounds, enough electoral votes to make Adams the winner. Some urged the party to throw its support to Burr, believing that, as a native of mercantile New York City, he would be more friendly than Jefferson to the Federalist economic program. Not a few insisted that the party should support Jefferson, as he was clearly the popular choice. Others, including Hamilton, who had long opposed Burr in the rough and tumble of New York City politics, thought Jefferson more trustworthy than Burr. Hamilton argued that Burr was “without Scruple,” an “unprincipled...voluptuary” who would plunder the country. But Hamilton also urged the party to stall, in the hope of inducing Jefferson to make a deal. Hamilton proposed that in return for the Federalist votes that would make him president, Jefferson should promise to preserve the Federalist fiscal system (a properly funded national debt and the Bank), American neutrality and a strong navy, and to agree to “keeping in office all our Foederal Friends” below the cabinet level. Even Adams joined the fray, telling Jefferson that the presidency would be his “in an instant” should he accept Hamilton’s terms. Jefferson declined, insisting that he “should never go into the office of President...with my hands tied by any conditions which should hinder me from pursuing the measures” he thought best.

In the end, the Federalists decided to back Burr. Hearing of their decision, Jefferson told Adams that any attempt “to defeat the Presidential election” would “produce resistance by force, and incalculable consequences.”

Burr, who had seemed to disavow a fight for the highest office, now let it be known that he would accept the presidency if elected by the House. In Philadelphia, he met with several Republican congressmen, allegedly telling them that he intended to fight for it.

Burr had to know that he was playing a dangerous game and risking political suicide by challenging Jefferson, his party’s reigning power. The safest course would have been to acquiesce to the vice presidency. He was yet a young man, and given Jefferson’s penchant for retiring to Monticello—he had done so in 1776, 1781 and 1793—there was a good chance that Burr would be his party’s standard-bearer as early as 1804. But Burr also knew there was no guarantee he would live to see future elections. His mother and father had died at ages 27 and 42, respectively.

Burr’s was not the only intrigue. Given the high stakes, every conceivable pressure was applied to change votes. Those in the deadlocked delegations were courted daily, but no one was lobbied more aggressively than James Bayard, Delaware’s lone congressman, who held in his hands the sole determination of how his state would vote. Thirty-two years old in 1800, Bayard had practiced law in Wilmington before winning election to the House as a Federalist four years earlier. Bayard despised Virginia’s Republican planters, including Jefferson, whom he saw as hypocrites who owned hundreds of slaves and lived “like feudal barons” as they played the role of “high priests of liberty.” He announced he was supporting Burr.

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The city of Washington awoke to a crippling snowstorm Wednesday, February 11, the day the House was to begin voting. Nevertheless, only one of the 105 House members did not make it in to Congress, and his absence would not change his delegation’s tally. Voting began the moment the House was gaveled into session. When the roll call was complete, Jefferson had carried eight states, Burr six, and two deadlocked states had cast uncommitted ballots; Jefferson still needed one more vote for a majority. A second vote was held, with a similar tally, then a third. When at 3 a.m. the exhausted congressmen finally called it a day, 19 roll calls had been taken, all with the same inconclusive result.

By Saturday evening, three days later, the House had cast 33 ballots. The deadlock seemed unbreakable.

For weeks, warnings had circulated of drastic consequences if Republicans were denied the presidency. Now that danger seemed palpable. A shaken President Adams was certain the two sides had come to the “precipice” of disaster and that “a civil war was expected.” There was talk that Virginia would secede if Jefferson were not elected. Some Republicans declared they would convene another constitutional convention to restructure the federal government so that it reflected the “democratical spirit of America.” It was rumored that a mob had stormed the arsenal in Philadelphia and was preparing to march on Washington to drive the defeated Federalists from power. Jefferson said he could not restrain those of his supporters who threatened “a dissolution” of the Union. He told Adams that many Republicans were prepared to use force to prevent the Federalists’ “legislative usurpation” of the executive branch.

In all likelihood, it was these threats that ultimately broke the deadlock. The shift occurred sometime after Saturday’s final ballot; it was Delaware’s Bayard who blinked. That night, he sought out a Republican close to Jefferson, almost certainly John Nicholas, a member of Virginia’s House delegation. Were Delaware to abstain, Bayard pointed out, only 15 states would ballot. With eight states already in his column, Jefferson would have a majority and the elusive victory at last. But in return, Bayard asked, would Jefferson accept the terms that the Federalists had earlier proffered? Nicholas responded, according to Bayard’s later recollections, that these conditions were “very reasonable” and that he could vouch for Jefferson’s acceptance.

The Federalists caucused behind doors on Sunday afternoon, February 15. When Bayard’s decision to abstain was announced, it touched off a firestorm. Cries of “Traitor! Traitor!” rang down on him. Bayard himself later wrote that the “clamor was prodigious, the reproaches vehement,” and that many old colleagues were “furious” with him. Two matters in particular roiled his comrades. Some were angry that Bayard had broken ranks before it was known what kind of deal, if any, Burr might have been willing to cut. Others were upset that nothing had been heard from Jefferson himself. During a second Federalist caucus that afternoon, Bayard agreed to take no action until Burr’s answer was known. In addition, the caucus directed Bayard to seek absolute assurances that Jefferson would go along with the deal.

Early the next morning, Monday, February 16, according to Bayard’s later testimony, Jefferson made it known through a third party that the terms demanded by the Federalists “corresponded with his views and intentions, and that we might confide in him accordingly.” The bargain was struck, at least to Bayard’s satisfaction. Unless Burr offered even better terms, Jefferson would be the third president of the United States.

At some point that Monday afternoon, Burr’s letters arrived. What exactly he said or did not say in them—they likely were destroyed soon after they reached Washington and their contents remain a mystery—disappointed his Federalist proponents. Bayard, in a letter written that Monday, told a friend that “Burr has acted a miserable paultry part. The election was in his power.” But Burr, at least according to Bayard’s interpretation, and for reasons that remain unknown to history, had refused to reach an accommodation with the Federalists. That same Monday evening a dejected Theodore Sedgwick, Speaker of the House and a passionate Jefferson hater, notified friends at home: “the gigg is up.”

The following day, February 17, the House gathered at noon to cast its 36th, and, as it turned out, final, vote. Bayard was true to his word: Delaware abstained, ending seven days of contention and the long electoral battle.

Bayard ultimately offered many reasons for his change of heart. On one occasion he claimed that he and the five other Federalists who had held the power to determine the election in their hands—four from Maryland and one from Vermont—had agreed to “give our votes to Mr. Jefferson” if it became clear that Burr could not win. Bayard also later insisted that he had acted from what he called “imperious necessity” to prevent a civil war or disunion. Still later he claimed to have been swayed by the public’s preference for Jefferson.

Had Jefferson in fact cut a deal to secure the presidency? Ever afterward, he insisted that such allegations were “absolutely false.” The historical evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Not only did many political insiders assert that Jefferson had indeed agreed to a bargain, but Bayard, in a letter dated February 17, the very day of the climactic House vote—as well as five years later, while testifying under oath in a libel suit—insisted that Jefferson had most certainly agreed to accept the Federalists’ terms. In another letter written at the time, Bayard assured a Federalist officeholder, who feared losing his position in a Republican administration: “I have taken good care of you....You are safe.”

Even Jefferson’s actions as president lend credence to the allegations. Despite having fought against the Hamiltonian economic system for nearly a decade, he acquiesced to it once in office, leaving the Bank of the United States in place and tolerating continued borrowing by the federal government. Nor did he remove most Federalist officeholders.

The mystery is not why Jefferson would deny making such an accord, but why he changed his mind after vowing never to bend. He must have concluded that he had no choice if he wished to become president by peaceful means. To permit the balloting to continue was to hazard seeing the presidency slip from his hands. Jefferson not only must have doubted the constancy of some of his supporters, but he knew that a majority of the Federalists favored Burr and were making the New Yorker the same offer they were dangling before him.

Burr’s behavior is more enigmatic. He had decided to make a play for the presidency, only apparently to refuse the very terms that would have guaranteed it to him. The reasons for his action have been lost in a confounding tangle of furtive transactions and deliberately destroyed evidence. It may have been that the Federalists demanded more of him than they did of Jefferson. Or Burr may have found it unpalatable to strike a bargain with ancient enemies, including the man he would kill in a duel three years later. Burr may also have been unwilling to embrace Federalist principles that he had opposed throughout his political career.

The final mystery of the election of 1800 is whether Jefferson and his backers would have sanctioned violence had he been denied the presidency. Soon after taking office, Jefferson claimed that “there was no idea of [using] force.” His remark proves little, yet during the ongoing battle in the House, he alternately spoke of acceding to the Federalists’ misconduct in the hope that their behavior would ruin them, or of calling a second Constitutional Convention. He probably would have chosen one, or both, of these courses before risking bloodshed and the end of the Union.

In the days that followed the House battle, Jefferson wrote letters to several surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence to explain what he believed his election had meant. It guaranteed the triumph of the American Revolution, he said, ensuring the realization of the new “chapter in the history of man” that had been promised by Thomas Paine in 1776. In the years that followed, his thoughts often returned to the election’s significance. In 1819, at age 76, he would characterize it as the “revolution of 1800,” and he rejoiced to a friend in Virginia, Spencer Roane, that it had been effected peacefully “by the rational and peaceful instruments of reform, the suffrage of the people.”

A Brief History of Sending a Letter to Santa

Smithsonian Magazine

“My pals say there is no Santa but I just have to believe in him,” writes 12-year-old Wilson Castile Jr., writing to the jolly fellow in 1939. Twelve might seem a bit old to believe in the portly resident of the North Pole. But Wilson, writing from his home in Annapolis, Missouri, seems worthy of extra sympathy. His explains in the letter that his father, a deputy sheriff, was shot and killed by gangsters and his new stepdad “is so mean he never buys me anything.”

Such sad or funny stories are not unusual when reading through Santa letters, going back to the 19th century. Notes sent to Santa are an unlikely lens through which to understand the past, offering a peek into the worries, desires and quirks of the times in which they were written. But as interesting as the children’s notes themselves are the changing ways adults have sought to answer them and their motivations for doing so.

Three new books shine a spotlight on mail addressed for Mr. Claus this season, telling the history of Santa letters from different angles: Letters to Santa , a selection of notes from 1930 to the present, selected from the thousands sent to the Santa Claus Museum in Santa Claus, Indiana (the city where Wilson Castile sent his letter); Dear Santa, which gathers earlier letters dated from 1870–1920; and The Santa Claus Man, my own book, which tells a true-crime tale of a Jazz Age huckster who abused a Santa letter–answering scheme to fill his own stockings with cash.


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Together, the books illustrate how children’s requests and perceptions of Santa Claus changed over more than a century and a half. But they also reflect the durability and timelessness of the ritual, and how even when so much else about the world changes, children’s imaginations (and desire for toys) remain a constant.

This might seem surprising considering how the practice of Santa letters began. Early versions of Santa Claus tended to depict him as a disciplinarian. The first image of St. Nicholas in the United States, commissioned by the New-York Historical Society in 1810, showed him in ecclesiastical garb with a switch in hand next to a crying child, while the earliest known Santa picture-book shows him leaving a birch rod in a naughty child’s stocking, which he “Directs a Parent’s hand to use / When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”

The earliest Santa letters are similarly didactic, usually coming from St. Nicholas, rather than written to him. The minister Theodore Ledyard Cuyler recalled receiving “an autograph letter from Santa Claus, full of good counsels” during his childhood in 1820s western New York. In the 1850s, Fanny Longfellow (wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth) wrote her three children letters each Christmas that commented on their behavior over the previous year and how they could improve it.

“[Y]ou have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit,” Santa explained in an 1853 letter. “Try to stop to think before you use any, and remember if no one else hears you God is always near.” In an era before childhood was celebrated as a distinct period of a person’s life, gratifying kids’ imaginations was less important than teaching them manners that would speed them toward adulthood.

Longfellow’s letter bore a return address of “Chimney Corner,” likely because she left it on the family hearth. During these early decades of Santa’s evolution in the U.S., not only did the saint travel in and out of homes via the chimney, so did his mail. Parents left their notes to children by the fireplace, or in one of the nearby stockings, and soon children put their replies to him there.

As postal workers began hand-delivering mail to urban centers during the Civil War, Americans began to view the mail as a pleasant surprise arriving at one’s door, rather than a burdensome errand. The Chicago Tribune captured this shift in the experience of receiving mail in an 1864 story, commenting that the addition of 35 deliverymen had changed the city’s whole understanding of postage. Instead of “the annoyance of having to carry letters to the office,” now, as each postman brought mail directly to residents’ doors, it transformed the mail carrier into “a genuine Santa Claus [visiting] households on his beat.” As the postal system became more formalized and efficient, partly in response to the explosion of mail during the Civil War, the cost of postage began dropping in the mid-1860s. Parents grew more comfortable with paying for stamps, and children began to view the postman as an actual conduit to the Christmas figure.

Pictures, poems, and illustrations of St. Nick— particularly Thomas Nast’s 1871 depiction in the widely read Harper’s Weekly magazine —sorting letters from “Good Children’s Parents” and “Naughty Children’s Parents”— helped spread the idea of sending Santa mail. Nast is also credited with popularizing the idea that Santa lived and worked in the North Pole — for example, with an 1866 illustration that named “Santaclausville, N.P.” as his address — giving kids a destination to send Santa’s mail. The use of the post office to contact St. Nick began as a particularly American phenomenon. Scottish children would shout their wishes up the chimney, while Europeans simply left out stockings or shoes for the gift bringer. 

Soon newspapers across the country were reporting the arrival of Santa letters to local postal departments, and then to their own offices (recognizing the emotional power of the letters, many papers published the children’s scrawls and even offered prizes for the “best” letters). “The little folks are getting interested about Christmas,” wrote a reporter for Columbia, South Carolina’s Daily Phoenix in December 1873. A correspondent for the Stark County Democrat, in Canton, Ohio, noted the following year: “One day last week two bright little children entered the Democrat office and wanted us to print letters to Santa Claus, from them.”

The gifts that kids requested in this period tended to be simple and practical. Dear Santa includes letters written during the 1870s that ask for gifts such as writing desks, prayer books, and “a stick of pomade” for “papa.” As society changed, the children started to ask for more fun items, such as candy, dolls, and roller skates.

But as the letters piled up, so did tensions about who should answer them. While some newspapers published letters sent to them and invited readers to respond, most missives sent to the post office ended up in the Dead Letter Office where they were destroyed, along with other mail sent to unreachable addresses. By the turn of the 20th century, the public and press began complaining that children’s wishes were treated with such neglect. Institutions ranging from charitable societies to the New York Times asked if an alternative could not be found.

After a few stopgap attempts, the Post Office Department (as the United States Postal Service was known until 1971), saw little other option but to permanently change the policy in 1913, allowing local charity groups to answer the letters, as long as they got the approval of the local postmaster. In Winchester, Kentucky, an organization began delivering Christmas goodies like nuts, fruits, candy—as well as firecrackers and roman candles—to letter writers. In the city of Santa Claus, Indiana, the city’s postmaster, James Martin, started answering the city’s large pile of Santa letters himself, then tapped local volunteers as the city’s name brought in ever-more mail for the man in the red suit.

But New York City had the most prominent letter-answering program. In 1913, customs broker John Gluck launched the Santa Claus Association, which coordinated the answering of tens of thousands of letters each year, matching children’s requests with individual New Yorkers who often hand-delivered the gifts to the letter writers. The effort earned accolades from the press, public and celebrities including John Barrymore and Mary Pickford. But each year, the group requested funds to cover ever-more gifts and postage costs, and even $300,000 to pay for a vast Santa Claus Building in Midtown Manhattan. Fifteen years after its initial launch, it was found that much of the money was unaccounted for and — as The Santa Claus Man tells in greater detail — Gluck was exposed as having pocketed much of the money (as much as several hundred thousand dollars in donations) for himself.

As a result, the Post Office Department revoked the Association’s right to receive Santa’s mail, and changed its policy nationally, restricting which groups could receive the letters. This led to the department’s establishment of Operation Santa Claus, at first an informal group of postal employees who pooled their own donations to send gifts in response to children’s pleas. The program evolved after being spotlighted in the climactic courtroom scene in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947, then enjoyed a significant boost when Johnny Carson made a practice of reading several letters each December on “The Tonight Show,” urging viewers to take part in the program.

“The range is incredible, from the very basic where they can’t afford to buy anything but a token, to the opposite end where they will invest in a school and redo a playground,” says Pete Fontana, the “Chief Elf Officer” in New York City, who has overseen the Operation Santa Program the past 17 years (though he will be retiring after this season). This program avoids fundraising by simply facilitating donations of willing donors. Individuals can volunteer to answer a Santa letter (or several), then it is up to that donor to buy the requested gift and bring it to the post office to send to the child. While the postal employees shuttle the gifts to children, it is the donors who pay for them. “It’s amazing how it can vary from almost nothing to the extreme,” says Fontana.

While post offices throughout the country managed most of these answering campaigns, the city of Santa Claus has taken its own approach. In 1976, a number of the local volunteers established Santa’s Elves, Inc., separate from the post office. In 2006, the Santa Claus Museum & Village opened, merging with the Elves. It is this organization that is behind the book Letters to Santa Claus, drawing on its archives of missives going back to the 1930s.

“It goes from very simple letters to far more expensive wish lists—you watch the progression from ‘I’d like some blocks’ to ‘I’d like a VCR’ and ‘I’d like an iPad,’” says Emily Weisner Thompson, the executive director of the museum who compiled Letters to Santa.

The letters reflect the changing wants of children, from spurs and a cowboy hat so the writer can “play Roy Rogers” to an Xbox with Assassins Creed 3, from a Shirley Temple doll to an American Girl doll. There are also some more unusual requests, such as a child in 1913 who asks Santa for a glass eye. One letter in Letters to Santa comes from an adult woman asking Santa to bring her a “tall, stately, well-bred…man of wealth with a steady income,” while in another, a boy negotiates with Santa to “trade you my sister when she comes from the stork for an elf.” A number of poorer children writing at the start of the 20th century even ask for coal—seeking warmth rather than viewing it as a punishment for naughtiness.

The letters tell a larger history as well. From World War I (a mother wrote to Gluck’s Santa Claus Association “We had to break up our home last winter, for my husband who is a longshoreman could not get work since the war began”) to the Great Depression; from 9/11 to Superstorm Sandy (a child writing in 2012 promises to “ask for much less this year so you can focus on the kids that are less fortunate than me”).

“I love the idea that we can see history through these letters,” says Thompson.

In more recent years, the process of answering Santa’s letters has been more regulated. In 2006, the Postmaster General formalized Operation Santa Claus nationally, putting in place a set of guidelines for all post offices taking part in the program. These include requiring donors to present a photo ID when they pick up Santa letters, and redacting the children’s full names and addresses—assigning each letter a number and storing the delivery info in a database that only the postal employees who actually deliver the gifts can access.

“It was different in every place it was done—some only had a letter-response campaign where they would send form letters out to the kids, there was no gift giving,” says Fontana. “In New York, we send only the gifts.”

It’s a much more modern approach to playing Santa than Fanny Longfellow or John Gluck could have imagined. Fontana hopes to see the program evolve further, scanning the letters and uploading them where people can fulfill children’s wishes from their laptop or smartphone. Programs such as and are already giving Santa the powerful tool of the Internet to help him accomplish his annual duties.

But what seems unlikely to change is kids’ continued eagerness to correspond with the jolly fellow, and adults’ continued enjoyment in playing him.

Alex Palmer will be discussing the history of Santa letters and signing copies of The Santa Claus Man at the National Postal Museum, on Saturday, December 12, from 3–5 p.m., as part of the annual holiday card workshop.

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1950s (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1930s (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1970s. (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1980s (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from 2008 (original image)


Dear Santa: Children's Christmas Letters and Wish Lists, 1870 - 1920

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Is Paris Still a Haven for Black Americans?

Smithsonian Magazine

My father, a bookish black man old enough to be my grandfather, grew up in Texas while it was still a segregated state. As soon as he could, he got himself far enough away from there to cover the walls of his study with photographs of his travels to destinations as exotic as Poland and Mali. As far back as I can remember, he was insistent that the one place in the world truly worth going was Paris. Being a child, I accepted the assertion at face value—mostly because of the way his eyes lit up when he spoke of this city that was nothing but two syllables for me—I assumed he must have lived there once or been very close to someone who had. But it turned out this wasn’t the case. Later, when I was older, and when he was finished teaching for the day, he would often throw on a loose gray Université de Paris Sorbonne sweatshirt with dark blue lettering, a gift from his dearest student, who had studied abroad there. From my father, then, I grew up with the sense that the capital of France was less a physical place than an invigorating idea that stood for many things, not least of which were wonder, sophistication, and even freedom. “Son, you have to go to Paris,” he used to tell me, out of nowhere, a smile rising at the thought of it, and I would roll my eyes because I had aspirations of my own then, which seldom ventured beyond our small New Jersey town. “You’ll see,” he’d say, and chuckle.

And he was right. My wife, a second generation Parisian from Montparnasse, and I moved from Brooklyn to a gently sloping neighborhood in the 9th arrondissement, just below the neon glare of Pigalle, in 2011. It was my second time living in France, and by then I was fully aware of the pull this city had exercised throughout the years, not just on my father but also on the hearts and minds of so many black Americans. One of the first things I noticed in our apartment was that, from the eastfacing living room, if I threw open the windows and stared out over the Place Gustave Toudouze, I could see 3 Rue Clauzel, where Chez Haynes, a soul food institution and until recently the oldest American restaurant in Paris, served New Orleans shrimp gumbo, fatback, and collard greens to six decades of luminous visitors, black expats, and curious locals. It fills me with pangs of nostalgia to imagine that not so long ago, if I’d squinted hard enough, I would have spotted Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, or even a young James Baldwin—perhaps with the manuscript for Another Country under his arm—slipping through Haynes’s odd log cabin exterior to fortify themselves with familiar chatter and the larded taste of home.

In many ways, the trajectory of Chez Haynes, which finally shuttered in 2009, mirrors the bestknown narrative of the black expat tradition in Paris. It begins in World War II, when Leroy “Roughhouse” Haynes, a strapping Morehouse man and ex-football player, like so many African Americans initially stationed in Germany, made his way to the City of Lights once fighting had concluded. Here he found the freedom to love whomever he wanted, and married a Frenchwoman named Gabrielle Lecarbonnier. In 1949, the two opened Gabby and Haynes on the Rue Manuel. Though later he would tell journalists that “chitterlings and soul food” were a tough sell for the French, the restaurant immediately thrived on the business of fellow black GIs banging around the bars and clubs of Montmartre and Pigalle—early adopters whose presence lured the writers, jazzmen, and hangers-on. After splitting with Gabrielle, the thrice-wed Haynes spent another stint in Germany before returning to Paris and opening his eponymous solo venture, just across the Rue des Martyrs, at the site of a former brothel. The centrality of this new establishment to the era’s black demimonde can be summed up in a single, vivid image: an original Beauford Delaney portrait of James Baldwin that Haynes hung casually above the kitchen doorway.

By the time Leroy Haynes died in 1986, the legendary postwar black culture his restaurant had for decades come to epitomize and concentrate— like the relevance of jazz music itself in black life—had largely dissipated. Most of the GIs had long since gone home, where civil rights legislation had been in place for nearly a generation. And it was no longer clear to what extent even artists still looked to Europe in the manner of the author of Native Son, Richard Wright, who famously told interviewers in 1946 that he’d “felt more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States of America.” Though Haynes’s Portuguese widow, Maria dos Santos, kept the restaurant running—for some 23 more years by infusing the menu with Brazilian spice—it functioned more like a mausoleum than like any vital part of the contemporary city. What I remind myself now as I push my daughter’s stroller past the hollowed-out shell at 3 Rue Clauzel, offering up a silent salut to the ghosts of a previous generation, is that even if I’d arrived here sooner, the magic had long since disappeared.

Or had it? A few years ago, at the home of a young French trader I’d known in New York who’d moved back to Paris and developed the habit of throwing large, polyglot dinners with guests from all over, I met the esteemed black Renaissance man Saul Williams, a poet, singer, and actor of considerable talents. As we got to talking over red wine and Billie Holiday’s voice warbling in the background, it occurred to me that Williams—who was at the time living with his daughter in a spacious apartment near the Gare du Nord, recording new music and acting in French cinema—was in fact the genuine article, a modern-day Josephine Baker or Langston Hughes. The thought struck me too that, at least on that evening, I was his witness and therefore a part of some still-extant tradition. It was the first time I had seen my own life in Paris in such terms.

A while after that, Saul moved back to New York, and I continued to toil away on a novel I’d brought with me from Brooklyn—solitary work that doesn’t provide much occasion to mingle—but the thought stuck. Was Paris in any meaningful way still a capital of the black American imagination? It’s a question I recently set out to try to answer. After all, though there was a singular explosion of blacks here during and after the two World Wars, the African-American romance with Paris dates back even further. It begins in antebellum Louisiana, where members of the mulatto elite—often wealthy land and even slave owners who were discriminated against by Southern custom—began sending their free, French-speaking sons to France to finish their schooling and live on a socially equal footing. Bizarre as it seems, that pattern continues right up to this day with the semi-expatriation of the superstar rapper Kanye West, who has planted something more than mere international-rich-person roots here, flourished creatively, and made serious headway in the local music and fashion industries. (It is to West’s not unrequited love of all things Gallic that we may credit the surreal vision of presidential candidate François Hollande’s youth-inspired campaign commercial set to “Niggas in Paris,” West and Jay Z’s exuberantly ribald anthem.)

Certainly, such a durable, centuries-old tradition must still manifest itself in any number of quotidian ways that I simply hadn’t been noticing. In fact, I knew this to be true when several months earlier I had become friendly with Mike Ladd, a 44-year-old hip-hop artist from Boston by way of the Bronx, who turned out also to be my neighbor. Like me, Ladd is of mixed-race heritage but selfdefines as black; he’s also married to a Parisian, and is often incorrectly perceived in France, his striking blue eyes leading people to mistake him for a Berber. Talking with Mike and then with my friend Joel Dreyfuss, the Haitian-American former editor of The Root who splits time between New York and an apartment in the 17th arrondissement, I explained that I was searching for today’s black scene, whatever that might be. Both men immediately pointed me in the direction of the novelist and playwright Jake Lamar, a Harvard graduate who has been living here since 1992.

Over pints of Leffe at the Hotel Amour, a hive of fashionable social activity just one block uphill from the old Chez Haynes (and also reputedly in the space of a former brothel), Jake, who is bespectacled and disarmingly friendly, explains that he first came to Paris as a young writer on a Lyndhurst Fellowship (a precursor to the MacArthur “Genius” grant) and stayed, like almost everyone you encounter from abroad in this town, for love. He and his wife, Dorli, a Swiss stage actor, have made their adopted home together on the far side of Montmartre. Though his coming to Paris was not explicitly a choice against the United States, as Wright’s and Baldwin’s had been, “I was happy to get out of America,” he concedes. “I was angry about Rodney King and also about the little things: It’s a relief to get in an elevator and no one’s clutching her purse!”

Is there still a bona fide black community in Paris? I ask him. “The ’90s were a moment of community,” he explains, “but a lot of the old generation has passed away.” There is no longer, for example, anyone quite like Tannie Stovall, the prosperous physicist whose “first Friday” dinners for “brothers”—inspired by the spirit of the Million Man March—became a rite of passage for scores of African Americans passing through or moving to Paris. But Jake’s generation of black expats—men now mostly in their 50s and 60s, many of whom first made each other’s acquaintance at Stovall’s apartment years ago—continue the tradition as best they can.

A week after meeting him, I tag along with Jake to the group’s next improvised gathering, a dinner held in a large-by-Paris-standards rezde- chaussée loft on the Rue du Faubourg Saint- Denis. The host, a native Chicagoan named Norman Powell with an authentic twang, sent out an email invitation that seems to affirm Jake’s assessment: “Hey my brothers … Our Friday meetings have become a thing of the past. Certainly it’s not possible for anyone to host them like Tannie did, but I’m for trying to get together a couple of times a year.” When I arrive, I’m welcomed cordially and told I’ve just missed the author and Cal Berkeley professor Tyler Stovall (no relation to Tannie), as well as Randy Garrett, a man whose name seems to bring a smile to everyone’s face when it’s mentioned. Garrett, I quickly gather, is the jokesterraconteur of the group. Originally from Seattle, he once, I’m told, owned and operated a sensational rib joint on the Left Bank, just off the Rue Mouffetard, and now gets by as a bricoleur (handyman) and on his wits. Still drinking wine in the living room are a young singer recently arrived in Europe whose name I do not catch, a longtime expat named Zach Miller from Akron, Ohio, who is married to a Frenchwoman and runs his own media production company, and Richard Allen, an elegant Harlemite of nearly 70 with immaculately brushed silver hair. Allen, who confesses that his love affair with French began as a personal rebellion against the Spanish he’d heard all his life Uptown, has a small point-and-shoot camera with him and occasionally snaps pictures of the group. He has been in Paris since 1972, having, among many other things, worked as a fashion photographer for Kenzo, Givenchy, and Dior.

Superstar rapper Kanye West, seen here at a Givenchy fashion show, has planted something more than mere international-rich-person roots in Paris. (KCS Presse/Splash News/Corbis)

Before long, we all have relocated into the kitchen, where, even though it is well past dinnertime, Norm graciously serves us latecomers generous portions of chili and rice, doused in hot sauce and sprinkled with Comté instead of cheddar. The conversation shifts from introductions to the protests that are raging across America in the wake of Ferguson and Staten Island, and in no time, we are boisterously debating the interminable deluge of allegations ravaging Bill Cosby’s legacy. Then, on a tangent, Norm brings up the fact that he recently discovered and describes the preposterous website to this room full of expats. “Now the thing is to make a viral video of yourself just acting a fool,” he explains. “You just have to shout ‘WorldStar!’ into the camera.” Most of the guys have been out of the States so long, they don’t know what he’s talking about. I describe an infamous video I recently encountered of Houston teens queuing at a mall for the latest Air Jordan reissue, and suddenly realize that I am crying tears of laughter—laughing in such a way, it occurs to me then, I have not quite experienced in Paris before.

Tannie Stovall is gone, but if there is a centripetal black Parisian today, that distinction must go to Lamar, a modern-day, well-adjusted Chester Himes. Like Himes, Jake is adept in multiple literary forms, from memoir to literary fiction to, most recently, a crime novel entitled Postérité, which like Himes’s own policiers, was published first in French. But unlike Himes—whose stint in France alongside Baldwin and Wright Lamar has recently dramatized for the stage in a trenchant play called Brothers in Exile—Lamar speaks the language fluently. “In that regard, I’m more integrated into French life than he was,” he clarifies over email. And it’s true: Jake is a part of this city’s fabric. He knows everyone, it seems. It is at his suggestion that I find myself one Métro stop into the suburb of Bagnolet. I’m here to meet Camille Rich, a former Next agency model and Brown alumna who lives in a handsome, black-painted house with her three children by the African-American fashion designer Earl Pickens. I have the feeling that I’ve been transported inside an adaptation of The Royal Tenenbaums. Camille’s kids, Cassius, 12, Cain, 17, and Calyn, 21, immediately reveal themselves to be unusually gifted, eccentric, and self-directed. While Calyn lays out a brunch of tarte aux courgettes, soup and scrambled eggs, I learn that Cassius, a self-taught ventriloquist, in addition to being his school’s class president and bilingual in French and English, is picking up German and Arabic for fun. Meanwhile, Cain, whose ambition is to be an animator at Pixar, is in his bedroom painting an intricate canvas. He smiles warmly at me, apologizing for being so distracted, and then continues working. Calyn, for her part, along with being a solid cook and a hobbyist computer programmer, is a highly skilled and already published illustrator with a wry and nuanced sense of humor.

After lunch, I join Camille by the fireplace and watch Rocksand, the family’s 14-year-old West African tortoise, inch his prehistoric carapace across the floor. She lights a cigarette and puts on Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Bottle,” explaining that Paris has always held a significant place in the family’s mythology. Her father—a Temple University mathematician— and uncle came as GIs and stayed on playing jazz and carousing in Pigalle. Camille, tall and beautiful with glasses and an Afro, grew up in Philadelphia, where alongside her more standard black roots, she traces her ancestry to the Melungeon Creoles of Appalachia. “I’ve always been so busy with the kids,” she explains when I ask about the community here, “that I never really had time for anything else.” But to her knowledge, there are no other fully African-American families like hers with native-born children still living in Paris. It’s been an experience of freedom that she feels her kids could not have had in the United States. “There’s no way a child in today’s America can grow without the idea of race as core to their identity,” she says, whereas in Paris it often seems as if they have been spared that straitjacket.

The subtext of this conversation, of course, of which we must both be aware, is also one of the great ironies of living in France as a black American: This traditional extension of human dignity to black expatriates is not the function of some magical fairness and lack of racism inherent in the French people. Rather, it stems in large part from the interrelated facts of general French anti-Americanism, which often plays out as a contrarian reflex to thumb the nose at crude white-American norms, along with the tendency to encounter American blacks—as opposed to their African and Caribbean counterparts—first and foremost as Americans and not as blacks. This of course can present its own problems for the psyche (as the shattering essays of James Baldwin attest), putting the African American in Paris in the odd new position of witnessing— and escaping—the systemic mistreatment of other lower castes in the city.

Beyond that, it also never hurts that the black Americans found in Paris over the years have tended to be creative types, natural allies of the sophisticated, art-loving French. Jake Lamar put it to me best: “”There are lots of reasons why,” he said, “but a big one is the respect the French have for artists in general and writers in particular. In America, people only really care about rich and famous writers, whereas in France, it doesn’t matter if you’re a best-selling author or not. The vocation of writing in and of itself is respected.” And so it is this default reverence—in turn extended to the GIs and others who hung around, dabbling in jazz or cooking soul food—that has done a lot to insulate American blacks from the harsher sociopolitical realities most immigrant groups must face. But none of this is what I say to Camille and her wonderful kids that evening. What I say to them, before leaving, is the truth: They inspire me to want to have more children and to raise them here in France.

Right before Christmas, I meet up with Mike Ladd, the hip-hop artist who lives down the street from me. We’re going to see the acclaimed American rap outfit Run The Jewels perform at La REcyclerie, a disused train station cum performance space in the predominantly working- class African and Arab outskirts of the 18th arrondissement. Mike is old friends with El-P, the white half of Run The Jewels, and we go backstage to find the duo eating paprika-flavored Pringles and drinking Grey Goose and sodas before the show. I immediately fall into conversation with El-P’s partner, Killer Mike, a physically gargantuan man and militantly conscious lyricist from Atlanta who once attended a book reading of mine at the Decatur Public Library (and vigorously debated me from the audience) but who may or may not remember having done this. In any event, we can’t avoid talking about Eric Garner, the Staten Island man choked to death on camera by an NYPD officer who has just been cleared of all wrongdoing. “Our lives aren’t worth very much in America,” Killer Mike remarks at one point, with a sadness in his voice that surprises me.

The performance that night is suffused with a mood of righteous protest. The Parisian crowd swells and seems ready to march and swim all the way to Ferguson, Missouri, by the end of it. Mike Ladd and I linger and are joined at the bar by some other black expats, including Maurice “Sayyid” Greene, a buoyantly good-natured rapper formerly of the group Antipop Consortium. I ask Ladd if he finds Paris to be a black man’s haven. “I feel France, and the rest of continental Europe even more so, is behind the curve in understanding diversity,” he answers sincerely. “They were very good at celebrating difference in small quantities—a handful of black American expats, a smattering of colonials— but as is widely seen now, France is having a difficult time understanding how to integrate other cultures within their own.”

For Sayyid, a six-foot-four-inch, dark-skinned man of 44 who spends 17 and a half hours a week taking intensive French lessons provided by the government, the supposed preferential treatment reserved for American blacks has sometimes proved elusive. “I had just had my little boy,” he tells me about the time a group of French cops swarmed and accused him of trying to break into his own car. “He was three days old, and I was in the hospital with my wife. I parked my car and ended up locking the keys inside. I was with my mother-inlaw, who’s actually white French, and was trying to get them out. Time went by, a white guy from the neighborhood came and helped me, and it started to get dark. The guy left, and I was still out there. A cop rolled up, and suddenly there were six more cops all around on motorcycles. They didn’t believe that my mother-in-law was who I said she was. She tried to talk to them. Finally, they accepted my ID and passed on, but my mother-in-law was like, ‘Whoa!’ Her first reaction had been to just comply, but then her second reaction was like, ‘Wait a minute, why is this happening?’”

Is Paris a haven for African Americans, or is it not? Has it truly ever been? “The Paris of our generation is not Paris; it’s Mumbai, it’s Lagos, it’s São Paulo,” says Ladd. Which is part of the reason he keeps a recording studio in Saint-Denis, the banlieue to the north whose popular diversity, in contrast to central Paris, reminds him why in his New York days he preferred the Bronx to Manhattan. What made Paris so compelling to artists of all types in the early and mid-20th century, he maintains, was the collision of old traditions with what was truly avant-garde thinking. “That electrifying discord happens in other cities now,” he stresses. This is something I have also suspected during my travels, though I am no longer so certain it’s true. I am not sure that the electrifying discord we have grown up hearing about is gone from Paris or if it only feels this way now because everywhere is increasingly the same. The Internet, cheap flights, the very globalization of American black culture through television, sports, and hip-hop that has Paris-born Africans and Arabs dressing like mall rats from New Jersey—wherever one happens to be, the truth is there are very few secrets left for any of us. When I put the same question to Sayyid, he turns philosophical: “You can only really be in one place at a time,” he says. “If I do 20 push-ups in New York or 20 push-ups here, it’s the same 20 push-ups.”

A week after the Charlie Hebdo massacre that decimated this city’s false sense of serenity and ethnic coexistence, Jake Lamar has organized a brothers’ outing. The acclaimed African-American writer and Francophile Ta-Nehisi Coates is giving a talk about “The Case for Reparations,” his highly influential Atlantic magazine cover story, at the American Library. Richard Allen, the sharp expat with the camera, and I arrive late after a drink at a nearby café. We pull up chairs in the back and find Coates in mid-lecture to a full, predominantly white house. In the Q&A, an elderly white man asks if in Paris Coates has encountered any racism. Coates hesitates before conceding that, yes, in fact a white woman once approached him shouting, “Quelle horreur, un nègre!” before throwing a dirty napkin at him. No one in the audience, least of all the man who posed the question, seems to know what to say to that, and Coates helpfully chalks up the encounter to this particular lady’s evident madness and not to the workings of the entire French society.

(Later over email, I ask him whether he sees himself as part of the black tradition here. He tells me that although he has consciously sought to avoid being lumped with other black writers in Paris, “I’m not really sure why I even feel that way. I love Baldwin. ADORE Baldwin … [but] it feels claustrophobic, like there’s no room for you to be yourself … All of that said, it does strike me as too much to write off the black expatriate experience here as a mere coincidence.”)

As Richard and I gather with the other brothers and their wives who are now preparing to leave, Jake invites Coates to have a drink with us, but he politely rain checks. We make our way out of the library and into the damp Rue du Général Camou, eventually crossing back to the Right Bank via the Pont de l’Alma, the Eiffel Tower glowing orange over our heads, the Seine flowing fast beneath our feet. The city feels strangely back to normal, except for the occasional presence of submachine gun-wielding cops and military personnel, and black-and-white “Je Suis Charlie” placards affixed to the windows of all the cafés. Our group is made up of Jake and Dorli; Joel Dreyfuss and his wife, Veronica, a striking cocoacomplexioned woman with blue eyes, from St. Louis; Randy Garrett, the raconteur-bricoleur; the filmmaker Zach Miller; Richard Allen; and a dapper English professor from Columbia named Bob O’Meally. We slide into a large table at a café on the Avenue George V and order a round of drinks. I immediately grasp what makes Randy so much fun when in no time he’s bought Dorli and Veronica loose roses from the Bangladeshi man peddling flowers table to table.

Everyone seems in very good spirits, and I feel for a moment as if I am actually in another era. Our drinks arrive. We toast, and I ask Richard if in fact there is still really such a thing as black Paris. “It’s off and on,” he shrugs, taking a sip of wine. “It all depends on who is here and when.” Right now, Bob O’Meally is here, and the table feels fuller for it. He has organized an exhibition of Romare Bearden’s paintings and collages at Reid Hall, Columbia University’s outpost near Montparnasse. I tell him I’m excited to see it, and maybe because these older men remind me so much of him, my thoughts turn back around to my father.

One of the great enigmas of my childhood was that when he did finally get his chance to come here in the early ’90s, after a fortnight of beating the pavement and seeing all that he could, my father returned home as though nothing at all had happened. I waited and waited for him to fill me with stories about this magical city but was met only with silence. In fact, I don’t think he ever spoke euphorically about Paris again. I have always suspected it had something to do with the reason that, in the scariest movies, the audience should never be allowed to look directly at the monster. In either circumstance, the reality, however great, can only dissolve before the richness of our own imagination—and before the lore we carry inside us.

In Bolivia's High-Altitude Capital, Indigenous Traditions Thrive Once Again

Smithsonian Magazine

For most of the seven years I lived in La Paz, my home was a small stucco cottage pressed into a hillside. The cement floors were cold, and the second-story roof was corrugated metal, which made rain and hail such a racket that storms often sent me downstairs. But the views more than compensated for the hassles. When I moved in, I painted the bedroom walls heron-egg blue and put the mattress so close to the window I could press my nose against the glass. At night I fell asleep watching the city lights knit up into the stars, and in the morning I woke to a panoramic view of Illimani, the 21,000-foot peak that sits on its haunches keeping watch over Bolivia’s capital. It was like living in the sky.

Once you get used to all that altitude, La Paz is best explored on foot. Walking allows you to revel in the staggering vistas while dialing into an intimate world of ritual and ceremony, whether inhaling the sweet green aroma of burning herbs along a well-worn path or coming upon a procession celebrating the saints who safeguard each neighborhood. One of my closest friends, Oscar Vega, lived a ten-minute walk from my house. Oscar is a sociologist and writer with dense gray hair, freckled cheeks, and thick eyeglasses. Every few days we had a long, late lunch or coffee, and I liked nothing better than going to meet him, hustling along steep cobblestone streets that cascade down into the main avenue known as the Prado, hoping to imitate the elegant shuffle-jog used by many paceños as they negotiate the pitched terrain. Men in leather jackets and pleated trousers, women in full skirts or 1980s-style pantsuits, or teenagers in Converse sneakers; they all seemed to understand this common way of moving. In La Paz, life happens on a vertical plane. Negotiating the city is always spoken of in terms of up and down because it’s not just surrounded by mountains: It is mountains.

The most important things to consider in La Paz are the geography and the fact that its identity is closely tied to indigenous Aymara culture. “The mountains are everywhere,” said Oscar. “But it’s not just that they’re there; it’s also the way we’re influenced by the indigenous notion that these mountains have spirits—apus—and that those spirits watch over everything that lives nearby.”

Oscar is also passionate about seeing the city on foot. Ten years ago, when we became friends, he told me about Jaime Sáenz, the poet-flaneur of La Paz, and Sáenz’s book, Imágenes Paceñas. It’s a strange, unapologetic love letter to the city, a catalog of streets and landmarks and working-class people, punctuated by blurred photos with captions that resemble Zen koans. The very first
entry is a silhouette of Illimani—the mountain—and after it, a page with a few sentences:

Illimani is simply there—it is not something that is seen… / The mountain is a presence.

Those lines ring especially true during the winter solstice, when Illimani virtually presides over the many celebrations. In the Southern Hemisphere, the day usually falls on June 21, which also marks the New Year in the tradition of the Aymara people, for whom the New Year is a deeply felt holiday. The celebration hinges on welcoming the first rays of the sun—and while you can do so anywhere the sun shines, the belief is that the bigger the view of the mountains and sky, the more meaningful the welcome.

Most years I joined friends to celebrate in Tupac Katari Plaza, a tiny square up in El Alto that looks down into La Paz, with an unobstructed view of all the biggest peaks: sentry-like Illimani and many others. Every year, about a dozen people showed up early, staying warm by sipping coffee and tea and Singani, Bolivia’s potent national spirit, while whispering and pacing in the dark. And every year, I would be sure that the turnout would be equally understated, only to watch as, just before sunrise, sudden and overwhelming crowds gathered in the plaza. Each person’s elbows seemed to be quietly pressing into someone else’s ribs, everyone charged with anticipation that something sacred was about to happen. As the sun lifted over the Andes, we all raised our hands to receive its first rays, heads ever so slightly bowed. As if the sun—and the mountains—were something to be felt rather than seen.


When I told Oscar I wanted to learn more about the rituals I’d seen around La Paz, he sent me to talk to Milton Eyzaguirre, the head of the education department of Bolivia’s ethnographic museum—known as MUSEF. The first thing Milton did was to remind me that it wasn’t always so easy to practice indigenous traditions in public.

“When I was growing up, all of our rituals were prohibited. People treated you terribly if you did anything that could be perceived as indigenous,” Milton said. Milton has sharp, bright eyes and a neatly trimmed goatee. His office is tucked away inside the museum, just a few blocks away from the Plaza Murillo, where the congress building and presidential palace are located.

“We were losing our roots. We lived in the city, and we had very little relationship to rural life or the rituals that had come out of it. We were all being taught not to look to the Andes but to the West. If you still identified with the mountains, or with Andean culture in general, you faced serious discrimination.”

Image by © David Mercado/Reuters/Corbis. Aymara people greet sunrise during a winter solstice ceremony in Tiwanaku, 43.5 miles from La Paz. (original image)

Image by Jenny Matthews/Corbis. Two groups perform winter solstice ceremonies atop La Cumbre Pass, near La Paz, at 15,260 feet. (original image)

Image by © Jenny Matthews/In Pictures/Corbis. The Aymara celebrate winter solstice. At first sign of the sun, people hold up their hands to greet the light. (original image)

Image by © Jenny Matthews/In Pictures/Corbis. The winter solstice signifies the time for planting and new growth. (original image)

Image by © DAVID MERCADO/Reuters/Corbis. An Aymara witchdoctor makes an offering at sunrise during a winter solstice ceremony in Tiwanaku. (original image)

Image by © JOSE LUIS QUINTANA/X01640/Reuters/Corbis. (original image)

Image by © DAVID MERCADO/Reuters/Corbis. An Aymara woman holds an offering consisting of a llama fetus during new year celebrations in La Paz. (original image)

Image by © John Coletti/JAI/Corbis. An Aymaran woman visits Tiahuanaco, the site of a pre-Incan settlement near modern La Paz. (original image)

Image by © Alessandro Della Bella/Keystone/Corbis. In the shadow of Mururata and three-peaked Illimani, La Paz and its neighboring city of El Alto reach up the hillsides to creat unusually vertiginous streetscapes. (original image)

Image by © Pablo Corral Vega/CORBIS. Nevado Illimani and La Paz by night (original image)

Image by © Florian Kopp/imageBROKER/Corbis. Two llamas navigate the highlands of La Paz. (original image)

Milton told me that even though his parents are Aymara and Quechua, by the time he was born, they’d already stopped celebrating most of their traditions. When he explored Andean culture as a teenager—and eventually decided to become an anthropologist—it all stemmed from a desire to question the latent repression he saw happening to his own family, and to indigenous Bolivians in general.

I immediately thought of Bolivia’s current president, Evo Morales, an Aymara coca farmer first elected in 2005. Over the years, I’ve interviewed Morales a handful of times—but I most remember the first interview, a few weeks after he’d been sworn in. At a question about what it was like to be from an indigenous family, he thought long and hard, then told a story about being ridiculed as a kid when he moved to the city from the countryside. Since Morales spent most of his early childhood speaking Aymara, his Spanish was thickly accented, and he said both his classmates and his teachers made fun of that accent; that they berated him for being indigenous—even though many of them were indigenous themselves. The experience left such an impression that he mostly stopped speaking Aymara. Now, he said, he had trouble holding a conversation in his first language. Morales paused again, then gestured outside the window to the Plaza Murillo, his face briefly tight and fragile. Fifty years earlier, he said, his mother hadn’t been allowed to walk across that plaza because she was indigenous. The simple act of walking across a public space was prohibited for the country’s majority.

The last time I spoke with Morales was at an event several years later, and it was just a standard hello and handshake. The event, however, was quite remarkable. It was a llama sacrifice at a smelter owned by the Bolivian state. Several indigenous priests known as yatiris had just overseen an elaborate ceremony meant to offer thanks to the Earth—in the Andes, a spirit known as Pachamama—and to bring good fortune to the workers, most of whom were also indigenous. In Bolivia, there are many different types of yatiris; depending on the specialty, a yatiri might preside over blessings, read the future in coca leaves, help cure illnesses according to Andean remedies, or even cast powerful spells. Whatever you thought of Morales’s politics, it was clear that a huge cultural shift was taking place.

“Everything Andean has a new value,” said Eyzaguirre, referring to the years since Morales has been in office. “Now we’re all proud to look to the Andes again. Even a lot of people that aren’t indigenous.”


Geraldine O’Brien Sáenz is an artist and a distant relative of Jaime Sáenz. Though she spent a brief stint in Colorado as a teenager and has an American father, she’s spent most of her life in La Paz and is a keen observer of the place—and of the small rituals that have gradually been folded into popular culture.

“Like when you pachamamear,” she said, referring to the way that most residents of La Paz spill out the first sip of alcohol onto the ground when drinking with friends, as a show of gratitude to the Earth. “It’s not mandatory, of course, but it’s common. Especially if you’re out drinking in the street, which is a ritual of its own.”

She also participates in Alasitas, the festival in January when people collect dollhouse-size miniatures of everything they hope to have in the coming year, from cars and houses to diplomas, plane tickets, sewing machines and construction equipment. All items must be properly blessed by noon on the holiday, which causes midday traffic jams every year as people rush to make the deadline.  

Geraldine admitted that she observes Alasitas mostly because of her younger sister, Michelle, who has a penchant for it. For the blessing to really work, said Geraldine, you can’t buy anything for yourself; instead, you must receive the miniatures as gifts. So Michelle and Geraldine go out, buy each other objects representing their wishes and pay to have an on-site yatiri bless everything while dousing it in smoke, flower petals and alcohol. The blessing is known as a ch’alla.

“So now I have like 25 years’ worth of Alasitas stuff sitting in my house,” said Geraldine. “They’re actually rotting because of the ch’alla, all that wine and flower petals sitting in a plastic bag. But there’s no way I’d throw it out. That’s bad luck.”

This fear of repercussions underpins many rituals. Miners make offerings to a character known as El Tío, who is the god of the mine, because they want to strike it rich—and because they want to keep El Tío from getting angry and causing a tunnel to cave in on them or a misplaced stick of dynamite to take off someone’s hand. Anyone doing construction makes an offering to Pachamama, first when breaking ground and again when pouring the foundation, to ensure that the building turns out well—and also to keep people from getting hurt or killed in the process of putting it up.

All those I spoke to, whether they follow indigenous traditions or not, had a cautionary tale about something bad happening after someone failed to respect rituals. Oscar talked about having to call in a yatiri for a blessing at his office, to protect some colleagues frightened by a co-worker who’d started studying black magic. Geraldine told me about an apartment building that collapsed—perhaps because a llama fetus hadn’t been buried as it should have been in the foundation. She recalled the Bolivian film Elephant Cemetery, which references an urban legend that some buildings actually require a human sacrifice. And Milton Eyzaguirre related how during one phase of construction of the museum where he works, four workers died on the job. He directly attributes it to the lack of a proper offering made before the start of construction.

“In instances where there’s not a proper ch’alla, people get hurt. I mean, you’re opening up the Earth. I think it’s prudent to ask permission. Because if you don’t, the spirits in the house or in the spot where you’re building—they may get jealous. Which will make things go very, very badly.”

Image by © Peter Langer/Design Pics/Corbis. An Aymara woman and her dog await customers at the Witches' Market on Calle Linares in La Paz. (original image)

Image by © Anders Ryman/Corbis. Items for sale at the Witches' Market include statuettes and amulets. (original image)

Image by © Anders Ryman/Corbis. The Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches' Market, in La Paz sells every manner of potion, dried animal and medicinal plant for rituals and health. This tray's contents, which include incense and a dried llama fetus, will be burned as an offering for good luck. (original image)

Image by © DAVID MERCADO/Reuters/Corbis. Miniature dollar notes are displayed during the traditional Alasitas fair in La Paz. During Alasitas, Bolivians buy objects in miniature with the hopes of acquiring them in real life during the year. (original image)

Image by © Natalie Fernandez/Demotix/Corbis. A small boy, dressed as the god of abundance, attends the Alasitas fair in La Paz. (original image)

Image by © RICKEY ROGERS/Reuters/Corbis. Bolivian President Evo Morales wears wreaths of bread, coca leaves and miniature dollar bills during the Alasitas fair in 2006. (original image)

“They couldn’t kill off the mountains, so building on them was the next best thing,” said Milton as he described the arrival of the Spanish. He told me that once the Spanish realized they couldn’t eliminate the Andean gods—they were the Earth and mountains, after all—they decided to erect churches on top of the spots that were most important to Andean religion.

He added that urban life itself also changed the way people practice rituals of rural origin. For instance, in the countryside people traditionally danced in circles and up into the mountains as an offering to their community and to the Earth. But in La Paz, he said, most people now dance downward in typical parade formation, orienting themselves along the main avenues that lead down
toward the city center.

Still, compared with most other capital cities in the Americas, La Paz retains a distinctly rural identity, and the way people interact with the city on foot is part of that. “Sure, people are starting to take taxis or buses more and more, but we all still go out on foot, even if it’s just strolling down the Prado or going to the corner for bread,” said Oscar. Like many paceños, he goes out early each morning to buy fresh marraquetas. The rustic, dense rolls are usually sold on the street in enormous baskets. They’re best nibbled plain, warm—ideally, while walking around on a damp morning.

One afternoon in late winter, when Oscar said he was feeling restless, we decided we’d walk up into the mountains the following day. In the morning we met at sunrise, picked up coffee and marraquetas, and scaled Calle Mexico to the Club Andino, a local mountaineering organization. The Club Andino sometimes offers a cheap shuttle from downtown La Paz to Chacaltaya, a mountain peak atop a former glacier deep in the Andes, about an hour and a half from the city center.

We folded ourselves into a back corner of a large van with three or four rows of seats, the same kind of van that runs up and down the Prado with someone hanging from the window calling out routes. Oscar and I looked out the windows at the high-altitude plains. He mentioned how his former partner—a Colombian woman named Olga with whom he has two daughters and whom he still considers a close friend—couldn’t stand the geography of La Paz.

“I think this landscape is just too much for some people.” He said it pleasantly, as if the idea were puzzling to him; as if the landscape in question were not immense scrubby plains flanked by barren, even more immense mountains, all of it under a flat and penetratingly bright sky. I fully empathize with Olga’s feelings about the intensity of the high Andes, yet I’ve come to love this geography. After almost a decade spent living there, I still get weepy each time I fly in and out of La Paz. The environment is stark, and harsh—but also stunning, the sort of landscape that puts you in your place, in the very best way possible.

Once at Chacaltaya, we struck out into the mountains on our own. While I could pick out the well-known peaks I saw from my bedroom window or while wandering in the city, now there was a sea of dramatic topography I did not recognize. Luckily, all I had to do was follow Oscar, who has walked up these mountains since he was a teenager. No trail, no map, no compass. Only the orientation of the mountains.

Within a few hours, we were approaching a high pass near an abandoned mine, the sort that a few men might haphazardly dig and dynamite in a bid to earn a little money. A smell like paint fumes came out of the mouth of the mine, and we speculated about what kind of god might live inside. After pulling ourselves up a three-sided shaft for moving tools and materials along the almost vertical incline, we reached the summit of that particular mountain and stood on a ledge looking out over other mountains stretching to the horizon. I realized I might faint, and said so. Oscar just laughed and said he wasn’t surprised. We’d reached about 15,000 feet. He motioned to sit, our feet dangling over the ledge into nothing, then handed me pieces of chocolate meant to help  with lightheadedness, while he smoked a cigarette. We continued, descending several hundred feet in altitude, enough for me to spend breath on conversation again. For Oscar, however, oxygen never seemed to be an issue. He had been blithely smoking since we got out of the van at the dying glacier.

At the end of the day, we returned to a lagoon where earlier that morning we’d noticed two Aymara families preparing chuño: freeze-dried potatoes made by exposing the tubers to the cold night air, then soaking them in a pool of frigid water, stomping the water out, and letting them dry in the sun. Now the family was packing up. We said hello and talked for a moment about the chuño, then hiked to the road, where we waited till a truck pulled over. There were already two families of farmers in the open-roofed cargo space. We exchanged greetings, then all sat on our heels in silence, listening to the roar of the wind and watching lichen-covered cliffs zoom overhead as we descended back into La Paz.

Eventually the cliffs were replaced by cement-and-glass buildings, and soon after, the truck stopped. We could make out the sound of brass bands. Chuquiaguillo, one of the neighborhoods on the northern slopes of the city, was celebrating its patron saint, with a distinctly La Paz mix of Roman Catholic iconography and indigenous ceremony. Oscar and I climbed out of the truck and jogged through the crowd. We made our way through packs of dancers in sequins and ribbons, musicians in slick tailored suits, women peddling skewers of beef heart and men hawking beer and fireworks. When we reached a stage blocking the street, we crawled under it, careful not to disconnect any cables. Night was falling, and the sky darkened to a brooding shade of gray. A storm lit up the vast earthen bowl that the city sits in, clouds rolling toward us.

When the raindrops started to pelt our shoulders, we hailed a collective van headed down into the center, and piled in with some of the revelers. One couple looked so inebriated that when we reached their stop, the driver’s assistant went out in the rain to help them to their door. None of the other passengers said a word. No jokes or criticisms, no complaints about the seven or eight minutes spent waiting. Everyone seemed to understand that tolerance was just one piece of the larger ritual of community, and that being part of such rituals, large and small, was the only way to ever really inhabit La Paz.

The Amazing (If True) Story of the Submarine Mechanic Who Blew Himself Up Then Surfaced as a Secret Agent for Queen Victoria

Smithsonian Magazine

At 8:45 on the evening of February 17, 1864, Officer of the Deck John Crosby glanced over the side of the Federal sloop-of-war Housatonic and across the glassy waters of a calm Atlantic. His ship was blockading the rebel port of Charleston from an anchorage five miles off the coast, and there was always the risk of a surprise attack by some Confederate small craft. But what Crosby saw that night, by the dim light of a wintry moon, was so strange that he couldn’t be certain what it was. “Something on the water," he recalled to a court of inquiry a week later, "which at first looked to me like a porpoise, coming to the surface to blow.”

Crosby alerted the Housatonic’s quartermaster, but the object had already disappeared—and when he saw it again, a moment later, it was too close to the sloop for any hope of escape. As the Housatonic’s crew scrambled to their battle stations, there was a huge explosion on the starboard side. Their ship sank in minutes, taking five crewmen with her.

A sketch by artist William Waud entitled, "Destruction of Housatonic by a rebel torpedo," dated February 17, 1864, Charleston (William Waud/Library of Congress)

It was not clear until some time later that the Housatonic had been the first victim of a new weapon of war. The ship—all 1,240 tons of her—had been sunk by the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley: 40 feet of hammered iron, hand-cranked by a suicidally brave crew of eight men, and armed with a 90-pound gunpowder charge mounted on a spar that jutted, as things turned out, not nearly far enough from her knife-slim bow.

The story of the Housatonic and the Hunley, and of the Hunley’s own sinking soon after her brief moment of glory, of her rediscovery in 1995 and her eventual salvage in 2000, has been told many times. We know a good deal now about Horace Hunley, the Louisiana planter who assembled the syndicate that paid for the submarine. We know about the design defects and the human errors that drowned two earlier Hunley crews, 13 men in all. We even know a little of James McClintock and Baxter Watson, the two mechanics who built the Hunley—not least that McClintock was the man who actually designed her, and so is probably the most important person in the story.

What has not been known, at least until now, is exactly what became of James McClintock. The Hunley’s hundreds of historians sketch his story in a sentence or two. They take their information from McClintock’s grandson, Henry Loughmiller, who—writing to the researcher Eustace Williams—explained that his ancestor was “killed [in 1879] at the age of 50 in Boston Harbor when he was experimenting with his newly invented submarine mine.”

It seems to be a fitting ending, but the Loughmiller account has been repeated endlessly for more than half a century without being checked. Yet fresh research suggests that each part of the story is dubious. Those who met James McClintock in 1879 thought him much closer to 60 years old than 50; the explosion that supposedly claimed his life took place outside Boston Harbor, and the evidence that it killed him is remarkably flimsy. Many people heard the explosion, but not a single person witnessed it. There was no body. There was no inquest. Not so much as a shred of mangled flesh was ever recovered from the water. And 16 months later, in November 1880, a man who said his name was James McClintock walked into the British consulate in Philadelphia to tell a most outlandish tale—and offer his services to Queen Victoria as a secret agent.

James McClintock spent his boyhood navigating not eastern harbors, but the great rivers of the American interior. Census records confirm that the inventor was born in Ohio, and family tradition suggests that he grew up in Cincinnati and left home at an early age to join the crew of a Mississippi riverboat, acquiring sufficient skill to become “the youngest steamboat captain on the river” in the years before the Civil War. At some point, McClintock also began to show talent as an engineer and inventor. Caught in New Orleans by the war, he and Baxter Watson drew up plans for a new machine for making Minié balls, the rifled-musket bullets used by both sides throughout the conflict.

James R. McClintock, the inventor of the H.L. Hunley, shortly before journeying to Boston in February 1879. (Image: Naval Historical Center)

According to the New Orleans Bee, the two men boasted that their invention would cost only $2,000 or $3,000 to make, and “with it two men can turn out a thousand balls per hour, or with steam power it makes eight or ten thousand per hour. This one machine, worked night and day, could turn out 1,200,000 balls every week, more than enough to supply the Confederate armies in the most desperate and extended war possible.”

The Minié ball machine was never made, most likely because its usefulness had been thoroughly exaggerated. But it served as a calling card, and must have helped to persuade Horace Hunley to assemble a consortium that invested somewhere north of $30,000 in McClintock’s submarines. Reading between the lines of Civil War accounts, it seems likely that it was the desire to recover this investment, as much as patriotic fervor, that persuaded the boats’ owners to persevere in the face of repeated disaster: at least three sinkings, reported stiflings and near-stiflings, and even the death of Hunley himself, who, having fatally dived to the bottom during trials at Charleston in October 1863, was recovered with his crew when the submarine was salvaged three weeks later—“a spectacle,” one contemporary report related, “indescribably ghastly; the unfortunate men were contorted into all kinds of horrible attitudes, some clutching candles, evidently attempting to force open the manholes; others lying in the bottom, tightly grappled together, and the blackened faces of all presented the expression of their despair and agony.”

Of all the men known to have boarded the Hunley, indeed, only about half a dozen escaped death in her belly. But McClintock himself survived the war, and when, in the fall of 1872, he traveled to Canada in an attempt to sell his submarine designs to the Royal Navy, the officers who interviewed him proclaimed themselves “strongly impressed with the intelligence of Mr. McClintock, and with his knowledge on all points, chemical and mechanical, connected with torpedoes and submarine vessels.”

What led McClintock to Boston is only hazily known. By 1879 he was living in New Albany, on the Ohio River at the southern tip of Indiana, where his occupation was recorded as “salesman.” This suggests that his fortunes had reversed since 1872, when he had been the moderately prosperous owner-operator of a dredge boat on Mobile Bay. He was also married and the father of three daughters, and the evidence suggests that he had plenty of motivation to leverage his expertise in building secret weapons in the hope of snagging a fortune in the shady private armaments market.

A view of New Albany, Indiana, as painted by George Morrison in 1849. The township stood on the north bank of the Ohio river, which during the Civil War marked the border between Union and Confederate territory. (George Morrison/New Albany-Floyd County Public Library)

By 1877, certainly, McClintock had established contact with two other men who shared these views—George Holgate, a Philadelphian just setting out on what would become an infamous career as a free-lance bomb-maker, and a mysterious New Orleans river pilot by the name of J.C. Wingard, who had been with him in Mobile during the war. Both of these men were extraordinary characters.

Holgate, who seems to have been born in lowland Scotland, was the prolific inventor of an alarming collection of elaborate explosive devices that he hawked to all comers—Irish freedom fighters, Cuban patriots and Russian nihilists. “I no more ask a man,” he informed one newspaper reporter, “whether he proposes to blow up a Czar or set fire to a palace...than a gunsmith asks his customers whether they are about to commit a murder.” He claimed to be the former proprietor of a London paint shop that had been a front for a bomb-making business, though there is no trace of any such activities in a British press that became obsessed with bombers when the Irish Republican Brotherhood—a precursor to the IRA—began deploying them in London in 1867.

By the early 1870s, Holgate was living in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he purchased a gun shop and touted a highly dubious invention that, he boasted, used injections of ozone to keep fruit, vegetables and even beef fresh for weeks. He was, the local Northwestern newspaper would recall, a “blatherskite” and “ of those wild erratic individuals who now-a-days are gaining such cheap notoriety by cheap means.” But he was also—potentially, at least—a very dangerous man. The wares that he touted, Ann Larabee records, included a good deal more than conventional explosives:

a cheap hand grenade, a bomb concealed in a satchel that had a fuse running through its keyhole, and a hat bomb comprised of dynamite pressed between two sheets of brass sewn into the crown with a fuse running around the rim. His “Little Exterminator” operated through a delicate watch mechanism that moved a tiny saw, releasing a chemical that smelled like cayenne pepper, killing anyone within one hundred feet.

Wingard was even more remarkable. When the Civil War disrupted an early sideline as a prominent medium, he too turned to invention, re-emerging in New Orleans in 1876 as the proprietor of a death ray that he claimed was powerful enough to annihilate enemy ships across several miles of open water. Although a self-styled river “captain,” Wingard was almost entirely uneducated—“a plain, simple, straightforward man,” Emma Hardinge wrote in 1870. But he exhibited extraordinary talents as a medium.

Amid the great spiritualism craze, which had burst on the United States late in the 1840s, Wingard became renowned as early as 1853 as a faith healer and for the “spirit drawings” he produced in darkened séance rooms “on paper which had previously been examined and found not to contain any marks.” His most remarkable performances, however, involved the production of automatic writing, messages that were supposedly produced by spirits that had taken control of a medium’s body. According to Thomas Low Nichols, the revivalist preacher Jesse Babcock Ferguson swore that he had seen Wingard “write with both hands at the same time, holding a pen in each hand, sentences in different languages, of which he was entirely ignorant. He saw him, as did many other persons of undoubted credibility, write sentences in French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic.”

The Civil War found Wingard in New Orleans. Just as the crisis had turned James McClintock’s interests toward bullets, it focused Wingard’s thoughts on an early sort of machine gun. This device was never built, but like the Minié ball machine it was extravagantly promoted. Wingard claimed that weapons made to his design would be capable of discharging 192 bullets a minute “at a range as great as any gun then in use.”

Wingard’s interest in mechanical death-dealers persisted after the war, and early in 1876 he reappeared in New Orleans, calling himself “Professor” Wingard and claiming to have invented an astonishing new weapon capable of annihilating enemy warships at distances up to five miles. The manner in which this destruction was to be effected was left vague, though Wingard mentioned electricity—which, in the 1870s, was a new, powerful and poorly understood form of energy—and a separate Nameless Force, which in some mysterious way transmitted electrical power across water and focused it upon its target. This Nameless Force, he promised, would become “a factor controlling the destinies of a nation.”

Wingard’s “Nameless Force” makes the press. An advertisement placed by the inventor in the New Orleans Times-Picayune of May 7, 1876. (New Orleans Times-Picayune)

The tremendous public interest in Wingard’s invention survived two unsuccessful efforts to put the Nameless Force to work on Lake Pontchartrain. Chastened by his double failure, Wingard decided not to invite the New Orleans public to a third demonstration on June 1, 1876, but a “committee of gentlemen” was present when, at 2:35 p.m., the Professor—a small figure just visible across a mile or more of water—fired the weapon from a skiff. It was aimed at the Augusta, an old wooden schooner that had been anchored about two miles away, off a popular amusement park on the southern shore known as the Spanish Fort.

This time, it seemed, the Nameless Force took effect, and the Augusta “suddenly blew up” about 90 seconds after Wingard’s invention was discharged. When the witnesses reached what remained of the vessel, they found her “shattered in small fragments,” and it seemed all the more impressive that Wingard “could not receive the congratulations of his friends” as he had somehow sustained severe burns to one hand in the course of the operation.

Pictured here circa 1880-1920, the Spanish Fort amusement park on Lake Pontchartrain was the spot chosen by “Professor” Wingard for a public demonstration of his Nameless Force. (Photo: George François Mugnier/Louisiana State Museum)

From our perspective, though, the most important aspect of the demonstration was not Wingard’s brief lionization in New Orleans, but a deflating coda reported by the Galveston Daily News a few days later. According to that paper, “a delegation of newsboys, who happened to be in the vicinity, with a spirit of scientific research...visited the schooner despite repeated warnings to keep away, and reported that they found a large gas pipe filled with powder, and a wire leading towards [the skiff] that was anchored some distance away.” The entire demonstration, thus, had been a fraud; the only force involved, the News concluded, was a quantity of gunpowder concealed beneath the Augusta’s decks, and a long wire, “tightened by means of a windlass on the skiff,” that triggered the explosive. This discovery dented Wingard’s reputation, and he seems not to have been heard from again until he appeared in Boston late in 1879.

What happened to McClintock, Holgate and Wingard in Massachusetts can be established from local newspaper reports. The men appeared in Boston in the first days of October and chartered first the steamboat Edith and then, on October 13, a sailboat, the Ianthe, with a rowboat as tender and a Nantucket man named Edward Swain as crew.

On the afternoon of the 13th, Swain sailed the Ianthe to a spot off Point Shirley, to the east of Boston Harbor. It is at this point that accounts become confused, but the most considered and most detailed state that Wingard had taken command of the Edith and was towing an old hulk that was to be used as a target. Holgate, who had been due to join Swain in the tender, complained of seasickness and retreated into the Ianthe’s deckhouse to lie down, so McClintock took his place, carrying with him a “torpedo”—mine—packed with 35 pounds of dynamite, which (the Boston Daily Advertiser reported) he had boasted was powerful enough to “blow up any fleet in the world.” He and Swain rowed off.

Shortly thereafter, with the tender about a mile from the Ianthe and two miles from the Edith, there was an ear-shattering explosion. Wingard told the Advertiser that he had been “looking the other way” at the fatal moment but turned in time to see a column of spray and debris rising high into the air. Holgate, who said he had been lying in his bunk, likewise missed the explosion, but when the Ianthe and the Edith converged on the spot there was no trace of McClintock or Swain; all they could see floating on the surface was a mass of splinters.

Neither Holgate nor Wingard seems to have been eager to make comments to the press, and both men quickly fled Boston—Holgate after securing McClintock’s possessions from his hotel room and without reporting the incident to the police. “He had a horror of recounting the event,” the Philadelphia Times explained after interviewing the old bomb-maker two decades later, “and so he said: ‘There can’t be an inquest unless there is a body to hold it upon, and there is not even a scrap left of my unfortunate companions.’ ” Indeed, the local authorities took remarkably little interest in what had happened. There seems to be no trace of any real investigation, nor even much curiosity as to why a trio of civilians were experimenting with unregulated explosives.

Thus far, the accounts in contemporary newspapers contain nothing to contradict Henry Loughmiller’s belief that his grandfather died that day in Boston. But they offer odd pieces of testimony that do not mesh with the tales that Holgate and Wingard told. The Daily Globe, for instance, reported that Holgate’s involvement in the catastrophe had been greater than he was willing to admit; the “torpedo” was electric, the Globe explained, and the explosion had occurred when Holgate somehow set the charge off remotely. Strangest of all was a note in the same paper stating that a reliable witness—a hunter out shooting at Ocean Spray—had seen McClintock’s rowboat still afloat after the explosion, “so that the men, he thinks, could not have been blown to pieces.”

Nothing came of any of this at the time. Holgate hastened to New York, and then home to Philadelphia, wiring McClintock’s family—so he said—to tell them of the awful accident. Wingard vanished. Boston’s harbor police dropped the halfhearted enquiries they had made, and nothing more was heard from any of the participants for more than a year.

A good deal happened in the interim, however. Perhaps the most significant of these developments took place in New York, where an ambitious splinter group from an Irish secret society known as the Clan na Gael began to plan a large-scale terrorist campaign on the British mainland. Led by Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, an Irish journalist who had been elected “Head Centre” of the Fenian movement in the United States, it began raising funds and looking for ways to manufacture bombs and smuggle them across the Atlantic.

O’Donovan Rossa and his associates were nothing if not ambitious—they raised $43,000 (just over $1 million today) with the aim of spreading “terror, conflagration and irretrievable destruction” the length and breadth of England, and established a “Dynamite School” in Brooklyn to teach recruits how to make, conceal and use their bombs. But Rossa was also enduringly indiscreet about their plans, and by the fall of 1880—a year after the explosion in Boston, but months before their terror campaign was due to begin—British diplomats in the United States were in a state of high alert, and desperately seeking information about how Rossa planned to spend his money.

It was against this background that Robert Clipperton, the British consul at Philadelphia, received an unexpected visitor in October 1880. This man introduced himself as James McClintock, explained that he had a background in submarine and mine warfare—and revealed that he had been hired by Rossa’s Skirmishing Fund to build 15 examples of a new sort of torpedo so powerful that a single weapon filled with 35 pounds of explosives “could sink an ironclad if exploded under her bottom, and could be carried in a great-coat pocket.”

This McClintock’s purpose in calling on Clipperton was to offer his services as a double agent. In exchange for payments of $200 ($4,650 today) each month, he was willing to betray his employers, slow down the work, hand over samples of the weapons and guarantee not to supply working models to Rossa’s terrorists.

Clipperton was impressed by his visitor, and so were the consul’s masters at the British embassy at Washington. The British naval attaché, Captain William Arthur, arrived posthaste in Philadelphia, where on November 5 he met with McClintock and recommended his recruitment as a spy. The weapons, Arthur wrote, seemed viable, and the informant’s plans were workable—the doubt was his loyalty, not his truthfulness. As a result of this report, the man calling himself McClintock was paid $1,000, and Clipperton and his assistant, George Crump, continued to meet with him well into 1881. That March, the consul was handed samples of three different sorts of bomb—one disguised as a lump of coal and intended to be slipped into the bunkers of a transatlantic steamship, to explode with catastrophic consequences when it was shoveled into a furnace while the ship was out at sea.

But who was the man whose appearance in Philadelphia caused Clipperton’s diplomats so much concern? Nothing in the official correspondence—lodged today in Britain’s National Archives—contains a physical description of the informant. But we can say he was just as traitorous as he appeared to be. By the time the official record petered out, in July 1881, he had extracted a four-figure sum from both Rossa’s Irish freedom fighters and Queen Victoria’s secret service fund. Moreover, he had betrayed both of his employers. Rossa never received his final consignment of torpedoes, and the samples that McClintock supplied to the British were fakes—“the contents of his cases are not dynamite,” a worried official reported from London when the test results came in, “but a powder made to resemble it of a very slightly explosive quality.”

This James McClintock slipped away before either the British or the Fenians could lay hands on him. It seems that he was never heard from again.

So who was the Philadelphia McClintock? There are certainly problems with the idea that he was the same man who was supposed to have died in Boston in 1879. That McClintock never returned to his family. He was listed as dead—killed in Boston—in the mortality schedule for 1880 that was compiled in his hometown in Indiana, and his grandson knew of nothing to suggest this was not true. And Holgate was vividly retelling the story of McClintock’s atomization as late as 1896.

One possibility is that Clipperton’s informant was Holgate, posing as his old partner. A few details suggest that this might be the case. One is that “McClintock” chose to reappear in Philadelphia—which was, by 1880, Holgate’s home. The other is that the man who turned up at the British consulate explained that his device contained 35 pounds of explosives. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was precisely the size of the device that Holgate told the Boston press had blown up James McClintock.

But would Holgate really have had much to gain by posing as his former partner? True, Holgate was no expert in underwater warfare, while McClintock was. But McClintock’s name would have carried no weight with any British diplomat in 1880. His role as the designer of the Hunley had never been disclosed. His visit to Canada had remained a state secret. And it would not be until well into the next century that his role in the destruction of the Housatonic would be celebrated.

The only other plausible alternative is that the Philadelphia man was exactly who he claimed to be. Of course, for McClintock to have survived the explosion in Boston, he would have had to fake his death—and probably to become a murderer as well, for the unfortunate Edward Swain was never seen again. He would surely have needed a good reason to take these drastic steps, and it is possible to speculate that he had one—by the time he got to Boston, he was definitely short of money, and a spectacular apparent death might have seemed a good way to escape his creditors, or perhaps an angry backer calling in a loan.

In the final analysis, however, we cannot be certain that McClintock was desperate, and there are really only two ways to determine whether Clipperton’s informant was the man he said he was. One is to ask whether the events of 1879 make any sense viewed as a fraud. The other is to search the British archives for scraps of information that could have been provided only by the real McClintock.

Certainly it strains credulity to suppose that McClintock rigged an explosion and then made a clean getaway without assistance from Wingard or Holgate. It would have been all but impossible for him to have escaped the scene without being noticed by one of them. And that the two men might have helped McClintock fake his death is not implausible; neither was a paragon of decency. But it is hard to imagine what their motive might have been, unless McClintock was their boss and paying them.

Holgate’s accounts do suggest that his partner was the man in charge. But a clue buried in the Boston Daily Advertiser suggests that this was not the case. According to the Advertiser’s files, Wingard lodged at the United States Hotel, McClintock and Holgate at the Adams House. Since the United States was Boston’s second-best hotel, while the Adams House was a theater district dive, the implication is that it was Wingard who had hired the other two. This certainly ties in with a note that appeared weeks later in the Chicago Daily Tribune, which reported that Wingard had traveled to Boston to stage another fraudulent trial of his Nameless Force for the benefit of fresh investors, and that he spent the first half of October assembling a joint stock company willing to plough $1,500 into his venture. The explosion put an end to that (the Tribune wrote), and a shaken Wingard confessed to his investors that the blast had taken place while two of his men were on their way to install hidden charges on the hulk selected for his demonstration.

“Professor” Wingard put himself up in Boston’s sumptuous United States Hotel, pictured here, in 1883. McClintock and Holgate stayed at the less ostentatious Adams House. (Boston Public Library)

But if Wingate had no motive to assist McClintock, the same may not have been true of George Holgate. In this scenario, McClintock simply stayed on board the Ianthe with his partner and sent Swain off to die in the rowboat. The fact that the explosive charge was designed to be detonated remotely by wire, just as it had been in New Orleans, adds some weight to this theory, for if Swain rowed off trailing cable, as he must have done, the charge could have been detonated at any point—and, as the Boston Globe alleged, the explosion could have been triggered by Holgate. All McClintock needed to do at that point was to stay below while the Ianthe and the Edith converged upon the fatal spot. Wingard would have been none the wiser, McClintock would have escaped his creditors, and Holgate would have been owed favors by a man with extensive experience of explosives and underwater warfare.

Bearing all this in mind, perhaps the salient point is this: the Philadelphia McClintock was able to convince the British naval attaché, Captain Arthur, that he knew all about mines and submarines. This would not have been an easy trick to pull, for Arthur was also an expert; his last posting before coming to America was as Captain of HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy’s chief research establishment for underwater warfare. So maybe, just maybe, the triple agent who tricked British officials and Irish terrorists in Philadelphia, and got away with $2,000 and his life, was precisely who he said he was: James R. McClintock, inventor of the H.L. Hunley, betrayer of countries, causes, friends and his own family, and the faker of his own strange death.


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