Saturday, May 30, 2015

Bonnie and Clyde, redux






Clyde Chestnut Barrow (1909-1934)










Bonnie Elizabeth Parker (1910-1934)












Bonnie and Clyde died 81 years ago on a rural stretch of Louisiana State Highway 154. Crowds soon gathered at the ambush scene, and many stole souvenirs like locks of Bonnie’s bloody hair and pieces of their clothing. The coroner claimed he saw one man trying to cut off Clyde’s left ear. Fabulous. Revolting.

It was the Depression time. The news media (this was before television, just imagine what the talking heads could do with this today!) went crazy reporting on the rambling banditry of the two lovers. The media did wrong, giving them celebrity coverage and gilding their story.

The 1967 movie with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway cemented the reputation of the duo as down-and-outers who earned the sympathy vote.

In fact, Bonnie and Clyde were small-time robbers and killers who gunned down nine police officers and several civilians. Bonnie basically was along for the ride—a gang member said later he never saw her pull a trigger. She didn’t smoke cigars, either.


Bonnie and Clyde were smalltown kids who grew up in distressing circumstances, had a fling in the center ring and went out in a pyrotechnical bushwhacking bloodbath on May 23, 1934. Texas and Louisiana cops fired about 150 rounds at their stolen Ford V8 car as it sped through the ambush zone. The coroner reported that Barrow had 17 bullet wounds, and Parker had 26.

As it turned out, it was a famous way to die.

No one remembers the names of the people that Bonnie and Clyde killed.








Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

First woman to run for president? Think 1872….


The first woman to run for president? Think 1872....

It’s not like you need the fingers of more than one hand to count the women who have run for president of the United States.

In fact, Hillary makes two.

Almost 145 years ago, the Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria California Claflin Woodhull to run for president against incumbent Republican President Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley, the nominee of both the Democratic and Liberal Republican parties.

Woodhull didn’t get any Electoral College votes, and there is no authenticated count of the number of votes she received.

In any event, she hadn’t reached her 35th birthday, and was legally ineligible to be elected.

Woodhull, a suffragette, had a somewhat notorious career as a stockbroker, newspaper editor and a high-profile advocate of women’s rights, including the right to vote.

The weird thing is, of course, she couldn’t vote for herself. American women got the right to vote nationwide only in August 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Direct to California, c. 1869


You need to get from New York to San Francisco in a hurry. By train, it will take 7 days and cost $2,500. Do you go for it?

In 1870, you did. The transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869, and it revolutionized travel to the West Coast. A first class ticket cost $136 (about $2,500 today) for a berth in a Pullman sleeping car—for $65 you could get space on a bench in the third class coach. I know, don’t even think about it.

Before the railroad was completed, the best a traveler in a hurry could do was take the Butterfield Express (later Wells Fargo) overland stagecoach. First, you had to get to St. Louis, MO, and then the stagecoach offered a spectacularly uncomfortable ride across the western plains in about three weeks, and sometimes the stage didn’t make it through. Traveling by boat from the East Coast to the West Coast took about a month.


Political shenanigans about the preferred route of the transcontinental line delayed the construction project until the Civil War began. With southern legislators (who advocated a “southern” route) out of the picture, the reps from northern states approved a route from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. In the mid-1860s, the national government handed out obscenely large cash grants and generous land grants to the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad. There was a lot of corruption, and a lot of worker exploitation, and a lot of folks got rich as the two companies laid tracks, starting at the endpoints and ultimately meeting at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

You know the story about the golden spike and all the hoorah celebrating the completion of the rail link across America.

It was a really big deal that spread a lot of benefits around, although the Native Americans on the plains and the buffalo herds got the other end of the stick, you know the story.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

First telephone in White House


President Rutherford B. Hayes may not be famous for a lot of things, but he should get credit for being an early adopter. Of telephone technology, that is.

The telephone was invented by Bell, who famously said “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” on March 10, 1876 (for the moment, we’ll ignore Elisha Gray’s famous challenge about the patent). 


Little more than a year later, President Hayes had a telephone instrument installed in the White House telegraph room. Almost 140 years later, President Herbert Hoover installed the first telephone in the Oval Office in March 1929.

Telegraph was the dominant communication technology in 1877 and would remain so for another 30-40 years, until the early 20th century. In fact, in 1877, the U.S. Treasury Department had the only direct connection by telephone to the White House, so Hayes wasn’t getting too many calls in those early years.

By the way, the White House telephone number was “1” in 1877. It’s a rather quaint historical footnote.








Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Kent State thing


Tip: If the guy has a loaded gun, don’t throw stones at him.

The average American living today hadn’t been born when Ohio State National Guard troops killed four student protesters and wounded eight on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
Campus rallies against the Vietnam War had been banned by the college, but about 2,000 students defied the ban and turned out to throw rocks and shout insults at the fully-armed Guardsmen, who had arrived on campus the previous day and had already used tear gas to disperse protesters.

Around noon, the National Guard again ordered students to disperse, fired tear gas and advanced with fixed bayonets. With. Fixed. Bayonets. Within minutes, the young Guardsmen fired more than 60 rounds into the student crowds. Four years later, a federal court threw out all charges against the shooters.


As it happened, I was in Vietnam at the time, serving our country. When I heard the grisly Kent State news, in US Army headquarters in Danang, my first reaction was: why would angry young men and angry young women provocatively throw stones at scared young men in uniform who are holding loaded guns with fixed bayonets? I also remember wondering where they got the stones—next time you go to a college campus, count the number of stones you see lying on the ground. I didn’t actually feel sympathetic toward the student protesters.

Today, I feel somewhat more sympathetic. I’m real sure that no student in that mob at Kent State was seriously afraid that the guys with helmets and guns would shoot at them. Kent State is part of America, right!?

Today, I feel sad that on May 4, 1970, some Americans who thought they were doing the right thing decided to piss off other Americans who were carrying loaded guns, and some Americans who thought they were doing the right thing aimed their rifles at other Americans and pulled the triggers.

Today, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how hard it is for all of us, separately and together,  to figure out what is “the right thing.”










Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sleep tight


It’s been more than 150 years since “Sleep tight” was not a euphemistic expression of good will.



Through the 1840s in America, it was quite common to sleep in a rope bed, that is, a bed frame with stretched ropes supporting the mattress or bedding. Use of metal supports or springs started to come into fashion before the mid-19th century.

Such a rope bed required regular adjustment/tightening with a “bed key” to avoid a sag in the middle of the bed. “Sleep tight” was a friendly admonition to enjoy a night on a bed with snugged-up ropes giving firm support. The Sealy Posture-Pedic mattress hadn’t been invented, so you can imagine that “firm support” wasn’t really the norm.

Sometimes it’s not easy to get a familiar frame of reference for an historical time period like “the 1840s.”

Here are some hints about that decade, roughly 170 years ago:

U. S. presidents in that era were William Henry Harrison, John Tyler (of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” fame), James Polk and Zachary Taylor.

Florida, Texas, Iowa and Wisconsin were admitted as new states in the federal union.

The California Gold Rush started in 1849.




p.s. here’s the bed key used by Ulysses Grant’s vice-president, Henry Wilson, who was a resident of Natick, MA. The Natick Historical Society has the bed key in its museum, see here











Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A good thing in 1854


In April 1854 the Pennsylvania legislature did a good thing: it chartered the first black college in America.

Ashmun College was established in Chester County, then mostly farmlands west of Philadelphia. In 1866 the college was renamed Lincoln University.

The college website says it was "the first institution found anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent." Among its alumni are Langston Hughes ‘29 and Thurgood Marshall ‘30.


Today LU is co-ed, is actually if not substantially racially and ethnically diverse, and has about 2,000 students who are working on bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Resident tuition/room/board adds up to just over $20,000. In the current environment of soaring college costs, that’s a strikingly affordable pricetag for a college degree.

I say the Pennsylvania legislature did a good thing in 1854 because in 1854 it was a good thing to establish a college for black men. No governmental entity, and probably no private venture, would do the same thing today. Our public sensibilities and mores forbid it.

It’s too bad there isn’t a compensating public impulse to offer accessibly-priced college education to all the young men and women who aren’t white with upper-socio-economic parents.
  







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.