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“No one has ever gone broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” wrote H.L. Mencken, who was a truly miserable bastard even when he was completely correct.

Some among us have profited wildly from the downmarket: P.T. Barnum, Robert L. Ripley, Chuck Barris, Howard Stern, wrestling promoters, Reality TV producers, and let us not forget, our current Commander-in-Chief, who pulled a con to make the Cardiff Giant scam seem puny by comparison. 

Exactly 150 years ago, Barnum made a play for a major political perch, though none nearly as bigly as the Presidency. The showman took a respite from peddling anomalies, curiosities and menageries to run for Congress in Connecticut. He already held a seat in the state legislature and would later serve as Mayor of Bridgeport, displaying in both posts a relatively progressive record on race and an abiding disdain for contraception. He was defeated, however, in the congressional contest by William Henry Barnum, who is often referred to as “no relation” but I believe was a distant cousin.

An article in the October, 1867 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which reported on Barnum’s failed bid to trade one sideshow for another, remarked on his less-than-honorable reaction to defeat, which included “trumped-up charges.”

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All manner of largef-than-life 19th-century Americans struggled financially in that century despite their great celebrity. P.T. Barnum lost everything. Edgar Allen Poe never had anything. Mathew Brady was turned away from easy street despite having in his possession the photographic history of the Civil War.

Thomas Nast suffered a similar fate. As Poe was to the short story, Nast was to the political cartoon: The father, more or less, of the U.S. version of an enduring genre that has survived numerous technological and media shifts. He was wildly influential into the 1880s, credited in the previous decade with helping to bring down the corrupt Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cohorts, as well as responsible for creating the Republican elephant symbol and the popular visual concept of Santa Claus. Nast was ahead of his time as an abolitionist and integrationist, though he wasn’t perfect in regards to race and ethnicity, repeatedly displaying in his drawings a fervent anti-Irish strain, for whatever reason.

Despite wide renown and handsome paydays, Tweed went broke in 1884 after investing his wealth in a brokerage firm operated by a swindler. He never really recovered. By the time of his death in 1902, the artist was referred to as “once famous” and, having been forced to push his pencil aside, was employed as Consul General to Ecuador, essentially a gift position from President Roosevelt, a longtime fan of his work.

The cartoonist’s death from yellow fever was reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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Was reading the New York Times and noticed an obituary for “Mother Divine,” the name bestowed upon Edna Rose Ritchings when, in 1946, she became the second wife of Father Divine, a diminutive, charismatic African-American cult leader five decades her senior, who believed she was reincarnation of his first wife who’d died three years earlier. Many watchers of his International Peace Mission, which was known for promoting racial equality, performing charitable works and the leader’s insistence that he was God, believed the marriage by the preacher to a young white woman in that era would be the ruination of the Northeastern community, but the potentate promised the union would be a platonic one, which it probably was since one of the group’s beliefs was chastity, so the dust settled quickly. “God” died, however, in 1965, and it was up to his spouse to keep the faith. Her most notable moment as leader was probably the six-year gamesmanship she successfully waged against the Reverend Jim Jones, who tried unsuccessfully to steal her followers.

From the NYT obit by William Grimes:

Mother Divine was a mysterious figure. Little is known about her early life. She was born Edna Rose Ritchings on April 4, 1925, in Vancouver, where her father, Charles, ran the Strathcona Floral Company, a nursery and flower shop. Her mother was the former Mabel Farr.

At 15, she became fascinated by Father Divine and his religion, which preached a gospel of self-help, abstinence, economic independence and social equality. By providing cheap meals and social services during the Depression, he attracted a large following in Harlem, where he maintained his headquarters, and through his many missions, known as heavens, elsewhere in the United States.

The revelation came to her, she wrote in Ebony magazine in 1950, “that Father Divine is God Almighty personified in a beautiful, holy body.”

According to Sara Harris, the author of Father Divine: Holy Husband (1953), Edna Rose left home for Montreal, where she moved in with a family of Father Divine’s disciples, took the name Sweet Angel and found work as a stenographer at a costume jewelry business. She then made her way to Philadelphia to meet Father Divine and was hired as his personal stenographer. The marriage quickly followed.

Unknown to the faithful who had assembled on Aug. 7, the marriage had taken place on April 29 in Washington, at the house of the Rev. Albert L. Shadd, a recent convert.

For months, the news remained secret. “We could not have released it,” Sister Mary, a member of Father Divine’s inner circle, told Ms. Harris. “If we had, there would have been no telling what might have happened. The marriage was such a world-shaking event, it might have made followers vibrate strongly enough to destroy themselves.”•

An article in the 1946 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the newlyweds.

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At least Eva Braun never tied the knot. 

Nadezhda Alliluyeva Stalin was not so fortunate. The second wife of the Soviet Union’s murderous leader, one of history’s greatest villains, was said to have died from appendicitis after thirteen years of marriage, but she actually shot herself to escape her tyrannical husband’s browbeating and humiliations.

Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, recently wrote a Quartz article arguing that Melania Trump is an ideal autocrat’s wife. In the piece, she recalled Nadezhda’s demise:

In an autocracy, institutions such as the FLOTUS position—not fully formal, yet relevant—are the easiest to undermine. In Russia—first a monarchy and then a communist dictatorship—where “unsharable” power of the leader has been personalized and centralized to an extreme, there was barely ever a true “first lady,” her very fate providing a symbolic commentary on the regime.

Joseph Stalin’s Gulags—mass incarceration and prosecution of everyone suspected of opposing his personal power—were foreshadowed by the death of his wife, Nadezhda. Lacking a role to perform in the Kremlin’s politics, she committed suicide in 1932. According to a 1988 report in the New York Times, a Stalin biographer wrote that she killed herself ” after she spoke her mind about Communist Party purges and the famine and was met by a flood of vulgar abuse from Stalin.”•

As you can imagine, the mother of the communist country committing suicide was not a topic open for discussion in the Soviet Union of that era. A November 20, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article reported on the shocking-though-shrouded turn of events. 

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Autocracy instills fear and fuels paranoia not only in the people but in the autocrat as well. The walls are always moving in for a better look.

The sickening, silent video-surveillance footage that captured the Malaysian airport assassination of Kim Jong-nam, a possible weapon of mass destruction pressed against his face with a piece of cloth, isn’t even likely the most recent example of the madness of tyranny at work, not with the mounting, suspicious body count of Russian diplomats of the past few months. Regardless of what our current President may say, Americans don’t dispatch of their political enemies like murderous despots.

Long before Kim Jong-un terrorized North Korea, Joseph Stalin did the same to the Soviet Union, and Leon Trotsky was the “brother” who most concerned him, even though he had been exiled long ago and far away in Mexico.

The end came in 1940 for the Marxist theorist. What machine guns failed to do in May, a romantic interlude and an ice ax accomplished before summer’s end. A Brooklyn woman who’d become part of Trotsky’s inner circle unwittingly had an affair with Russian operative Ramón Mercader, which allowed him access to his prey. A single blow, though somewhat botched, proved decisive.

Three articles on the topic from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle follow.


From May 24, 1940:

From August 21, 1940:

From August 22, 1940:

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From the April 10, 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Karl Marx wrote that “history repeats … first as tragedy, then as farce,” but when it comes to the threat of Fascism in America over the last century, the order, it would seem, has been reversed.

William Dudley Pelley was a white supremacist and Hitler wannabe with a missionary’s zeal when he ran for President in 1936, his risible campaign ultimately receiving a grand total of 1,600 votes. He spent most of the next decade in prison having been tried for and convicted of conspiring with the enemy during World War II.

Things didn’t start out so haywire for Pelley. An autodidact, he became a successful writer of fiction and nonfiction, even penning scenarios for silent films for Lon Chaney. In 1928, however, he claimed to have had an “out-of-body experience” in which God and Christ, performing in a duet, instructed the scribe to bring about a spiritual transformation in America, one which was to occur at the expense of Jewish and non-white people. He formed a militia of “Silver Shirts” and commenced to work which never, thankfully, proved successful.

Eighty years later, an aspiring autocrat and bigot received nearly 63 million votes, winning the Presidency by hook and by crook. Many scholars advise that Trump, for all his bad qualities, is not actually what would historically be called a Fascist. In December 2015, during the ugly-as-sin campaign, UK historian Matthew Feldman commented on the “F” word in an interview with Mic:

“There are some [Fascist-sounding] things about Trump when seen in a particular light, such as his slogan, ‘Make America Great Again.’ But what I really want to stress is that’s not the same thing as overthrowing liberal democratic regimes, which is really the hallmark of classic fascist movements.”

After all that’s transpired since the inauguration, including Trump and Steve Bannon’s words at this week’s CPAC Conference, it’s fair to fear the Administration intends to implode our liberal democratic regime from the inside. The President continued his all-out warfare on the free press, which has been one of his main targets along with the Judiciary and the Intelligence Community, while Bannon explicitly acknowledged heads of cabinets have been selected based on their ability to destroy them, to “deconstruct the administrative state.”

Even if the new boss doesn’t meet the precise specifications of traditional Fascism, elements of that system can be mixed with the new abnormal to bring about the same end. The risk of American autocracy is not a punchline now, but a series of punches. One way or another, it seems like it will all end in tragedy. It already has, really.

The following are a series of articles about Pelley from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.


From April 5, 1938:

From April 5, 1942:

From August 16, 1942:

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In this strange moment of global unrest, the common denominator among questionable political decisions in various countries on different continents seems to be that each state wants someone to force a spirit back into the bottle. Often, the citizens can’t even precisely name the demons they want under cork.

In America, the Trump campaign ran against soaring murder rates (which don’t exist) and the extreme criminality of immigrants (not a reality), among other fictions. Globalization and income inequality played a key role in his narrow election, allowing the dangerous demagogue to appeal to dormant racist feelings, blaming (non-white) others for the plight of his base. You could say the same of the UK and the Brexit vote.

There’s no doubt the Philippines, currently led by the remorseless murderer and popular president, Rodrigo Duterte, had a genuine and severe narcotics and crime epidemic, but the people made an extreme choice when they knowingly elected a vicious, shoot-first madman who has unloosed murder squads on suspected drug dealers and whomever else he deems their accomplices. He is also, ironically, perhaps a pillbilly.

Even in this beleaguered island country, though, some of the dissatisfaction driving the nation into a potential Duterte dictatorship stems from issues that sound strikingly Western: wealth inequality, lack of opportunity, distrust of the government.

As Ernest Bower, an expert on the region told Time a year ago: “They wanted to take a wrecking ball to what they see as an establishment that has not given them a fair hand over the last five decades…It’s a big risk, but they were willing to take it.” In that same piece, Professor Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem asserted: “They like the personality of Duterte — because he’s the most authentic. With him, what you see is what you get.” Seem familiar?

In “Duterte’s Last Hurrah: On the Road to Martial Law,” the second part of James Fenton’s excellent New York Review of Books reportage, the author writes that an increasingly chaotic situation may result in an authoritarian regime for the Southeast Asian country.

An excerpt:

Today by contrast the pretense of due process is impossible, because the man at the top simply blows it away. One of Duterte’s chief selling points as a leader is that he doesn’t give a shit. So, when he gets in front of any crowd, he will say whatever he thinks will make an impact at that very moment, and it is striking that most of the most shocking things we have learned about Duterte have come from his own mouth. For instance, it was Duterte who compared himself to Hitler:

Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there is three million, what is it, three million drug addicts [in the Philippines] there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know my victims. I would like them to be all criminals, to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.

It was Duterte who revealed that he had been abusing fentanyl, the synthetic opioid—the drug involved in the deaths of both Michael Jackson and Prince, which is supposed to be a hundred times more powerful than morphine. He needs painkillers to combat both his daily migraines and the pain from a motorcycle accident, which damaged his spine. However, when he saw the reaction to this revelation, he thought again. “Fools,” he said, “I just made up that story and you believed it.”

Addicted or not, he has, on his own admission, four concurrent illnesses: acute bronchitis, regular migraines, Barrett’s esophagus, and Buerger’s disease. But as he is careful to point out, not cancer. His mortality, however, does seem to weigh upon him and he often alludes to it. Speaking to members of the Filipino community in Cambodia in December, he said: “This is my last hurrah. After this, 77. I am not sure if I will still be around by the end of my term.”

So far, Duterte’s war has been largely against the softest of targets—drug users and small-time pushers, pedicab drivers and the like, whose families are too poor to hit back in any way. None of them can afford to sue the police, or to mount any kind of campaign on behalf of the victims. It is out of the question.

Of course a campaign that is largely a war on the poor is going to be short on credibility, so Duterte has recently been raising his sights a little, and increasing his attacks on the mayors who are said to be involved in the “shabu,” or crystal meth, trade. In January this year he was quoted as saying: “As long as I’m president, these big ‘shabu’ dealers will die and the next batch would really be these mayors. I will call them and lock them up.” He has a thick dossier that he regularly displays during such speeches. “I will talk to them,” he said. “With the thick document I showed you, I will tell them, ‘Look for your name there, you son of a bitch. If your name is there, you have a problem. I will really kill you.’”•

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Like many of us, William Hope “Coin” Harvey worried about money. His concerns, however, stretched beyond his own bank account.

A lawyer, popular writer on financial theory and a political populist who championed monetary bimetallism in the last decades of the 19th century when such things were a hot topic of conversation, he supported William Jennings Bryan, a free silverite, to a painful defeat in the 1896 Presidential Election. The waterloo curbed Harvey’s appetite for elections for a long spell, though he did run as a third-party candidate for the U.S. Presidency as standard bearer of the Liberty Party in 1932.

While Harvey’s monetary policy and political doings are largely lost to history, another aspect of his legacy can still be encountered in the pages of Henry Miller’s 1945 American odyssey, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. In 1900, Harvey used some of his publishing windfall to purchase a few acres in Northwest Arkansas where he built a gorgeous resort he called Monta Ne.

What most interested Miller about his subject was Harvey’s belief that American civilization was in steep decline thanks to wealth inequality and poor education and would soon be gone. To prevent all traces of our culture from disappearing, he planned to build at Monte Na something he called “The Pyramid” (actually a 130-foot-tall obelisk), that would contain multiple volumes of books he was writing that explained who we were to future peoples to prevent them from making our mistakes.

Alas, it was never built, as the market crash of 1929 and Harvey’s failing health prevented its construction. If America did not fall to the doom the money man feared, Monte Na itself was not long for the world. Beaver Lake, a man-made body completed in 1966, caused rising waters to mostly bury the resort.

An article in the February 19, 1927 Brooklyn Daily Eagle recall the Pyramid scheme before it crumbled.

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From the May 1, 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI halftime performance was dubbed “apolitical” by many news outlets, though that’s an odd way to describe a singer interrupting Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” for a blast of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” the latter being an angry retort to the former. From Murray Kempton in 1981:

Woody Guthrie had composed “This Land Is Your Land” as a bitter parody of “God Bless America.” It had originally closed with the stanza:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief office I saw my people
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.•

• • •

The Dustbowl was central to the songwriter’s sardonic bite, but Guthrie had some dalliances with the un-Oklahoma of New York City beginning in 1940, which resulted in the two articles below published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The first looks at Guthrie’s involvement in It’s All Yours, an anti-Fascist, anti-Hitler musical drama performed in 1942 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was co-directed by singer-songwriter Earl Robinson as the piece says, but what goes unmentioned is that the other director was Nicholas Ray, who would begin his big-time Hollywood career a half-dozen years later. In the second article, Guthrie brings his dirty boots to the home of etiquette expert (and erstwhile Staten Island Advance reporter) Amy Vanderbilt to celebrate the publication of Bound For Glory. As Charles B. Driscoll writes in the second piece: “Woody isn’t Phi Beta Kappa, but he knows a lot that they don’t teach in schools.”

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From October 5, 1942:

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From April 5, 1943:

From the July 11, 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Steve Bannon has been deemed by some “Trump’s Rasputin,” but it’s not nice to besmirch Rasputin that way.

The inscrutable Siberian spiritualist was so wrapped in the cloth of mysticism that it’s impossible to know exactly how much influence he wielded in the palace of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna during the last days of disco for the Russian Empire. His sway may have actually registered somewhere between Bannon’s puppet-master position and Joan Quigley’s Reagan Era stargazing.

Regardless, the “mad monk” of St. Petersburg society made the people uneasy and the perception of him as “Chief Strategist” became a liability to the throne, so much so that his 1916 assassination was thought necessary by some royals if the Tsardom was to be salvaged. No dice, as the messy murder did not come close to halting the sweep of history.

A report from the March 1, 1914 Brooklyn Daily Eagle about the unlikely rise to power of the “crude impostor.”

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Like many who’ve read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the novel during this terrible time of a demagogue reaching the White House. The writer imagined an alternative history in which the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, an actual spokesperson for the America First Committee and admitted white supremacist, was able to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the Presidency, changing the course of history for much the worse. It seems to have unfortunate parallels with our own bleak moment.

Roth doesn’t exactly see it that way, however. In an email exchange with Judith Thurman of the New Yorker, he explained the key difference:

“It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist.”

Yes, that’s true, Trump is merely a Simon Cowell-ish strongman, not a real-life superhero whose daring made the world smaller when foreign acres of the Earth still felt as distant as the dark side of the moon. But the book’s sense of foreboding, the feeling that we’ve drifted far and disastrously from our ideals, definitely resonates.

An article in the April 28, 1941 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on Lindbergh’s abrupt resignation from his Army post in response to Roosevelt’s criticism of the flier’s speeches, in which he urged American isolationism, a belief which was fortified by his appreciation for Aryan superiority and feelings of anti-Semitism.

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From the November 20, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

For J. Robert Oppenheimer, science was a series of trials.

The father of the atomic bomb, the theoretical physicist was never to be sainted like Albert Einstein. It’s possible (likely, even) the weapon actually saved lives during World War II, abbreviating the fighting by forcing Japan to surrender, but the unholy power released brought to mind the content of the first piece of Morse code ever sent: “What hath God wrought.”

Publishing a post about Richard Feynman the other day reminded me about his mentor’s literal trial during the McCarthy era, when Oppenheimer was accused of being a Communist sympathizer willing to secret nuclear knowledge to the Soviets. The scientist had been under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI since the 1940s, with his phones tapped and office bugged, and in the following decade his security clearance was surprisingly revoked.

Oppenheimer certainly worked with and knew members of the Communist Party (his wife was one), but that wasn’t unusual in those days. The governmental action seems to have had less to do with fears of espionage than with witch-hunt hysteria and a power struggle among politicians and competing scientists, particularly his erstwhile friend Edward Teller. Oppenheimer fought his loss of credentials to no avail in a four-week trial, emerging with a reputation permanently reduced.

Two articles about the matter from the April 13, 1954 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the first about the suspension of clearance and the second a piece in which Einstein voiced support for Oppenheimer.


Edward R. Murrow interviews an understandably shaky Oppenheimer in the year after his trial. Under his direction, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton wasn’t only home to some of the finest young physicists in the world but also served as a salon of sorts to broaden the students’ thinking. T.S. Eliot, George Kennan and Jean Piaget were among the visitors who stayed for a spell. The university considered removing Oppenheimer from his post after the Communist controversy, but he ultimately retained his position until his death by cancer in 1967.

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As the Obama Presidency comes to a close, let’s remember for a moment one example of the ridiculous double standard he often faced, a criticism lodged in 2014 by Bill O’Reilly, who recently had sexual harassment allegations against him settled by Fox.

When the President went on Zach Galifianakis’ faux talk show “Between Two Ferns” to promote enrollment in Obamacare, legislation that has improved the lives of millions of Americans and created many well-paying jobs, O’Reilly accused Obama of besmirching the honor of the White House, declaring that “Abe Lincoln would not have done it.” 

But the fake-news host was happy during this election to throw his support behind a Reality TV buffoon and sexual predator who made fun of disabled people and our POWs. Imagine what he would have said about Obama if he’d fit any of those descriptions.

Additionally, O’Reilly’s claim about Lincoln couldn’t have been more inaccurate based on history. Honest Abe was a wonderful Commander-in-Chief who happened to have some deeply gross habits.

Excerpts about some of those peculiar behaviors from Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years:

Judged cockfights:

The Clary’s Grove boys called on [Lincoln] sometimes to judge their horse races and cockfights, umpire their matches and settle disputes. One story ran that Lincoln was on hand one day when an old man had agreed, for a gallon jug of whisky, to be rolled down a hill in a barrel. And Lincoln talked and laughed them out of doing it. He wasn’t there on the day, as D.W Burner told it, when the gang took an old man with a wooden leg, built a fire around the wooden leg, and held the man down until the wooden leg was burned off.

Wrestled for the entertainment of knife-wielding gamblers:

Offut talked big about Lincoln as a wrestler, and Bill Clary, who ran a saloon thirty steps north of the Offut store, bet Offut that Lincoln couldn’t throw Jack Armstrong, the Clary’s Grove champion. Sports from miles around came to a level square next to Offut’s store to see the match; bets of money, knives, trinkets, tobacco, drinks were put up, Armstrong, short and powerful, aimed from the first to get in close to his man and use his thick muscular strength. Lincoln held him off with long arms, wore down his strength, got him out of breath, surprised and “rattled.” They pawed and clutched in many holds and twists till Lincoln threw Armstrong and had both shoulders to the grass.

Drank whiskey from bungholes:

When a small gambler tricked Bill Greene, Lincoln’s helper at the store, Lincoln told Bill to bet him the best fur hat in the store that he [Lincoln] could lift a barrel of whisky from the floor and hold it while he took a drink from the bunghole. Bill hunted up the gambler and made the bet. Lincoln sat squatting on the floor, lifted the barrel, rolled it on his knees till the bunghole reached his mouth, took a mouthful, let the barrel down–and stood up and spat out the whisky.

Pressed barefoot boys’ muddy soles to the ceiling:

He put barefoot boys to wading in a mud puddle near the home trough, pulled them up one by one, carried them to the house upside down, and walked their muddy feet across the ceiling. The stepmother came in, laughed at their foot tracks, told Abe he ought to be spanked–and he cleaned the ceiling so that it looked new.•

From the December 18, 1926 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Jean-Martin Charcot believed there was an underlying problem. In the big picture, he was right.

The 19th-century physician, considered the “father neurology,” was pivotal in the understanding of ALS, Parkinson’s and other physical ailments, but it was his focus on neuroses that probably had the greatest impact on the world, through his own efforts and by those of his students.

In James Strachey’s introduction to a 1989 edition of Civilization and Its Discontents, he wrote:

Before his marriage, from October 1885 to February 1886, Freud worked in Paris with the celebrated neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who impressed Freud with his bold advocacy of hypnosis as an instrument for healing medical disorders, and no less bold championship of the thesis (then quite unfashionable) that hysteria is an ailment to which men are susceptible no less than women. Charcot, an unrivaled observer, stimulated Freud’s growing interest in the theoretical and therapeutic aspects of mental healing. Nervous ailments became Freud’s specialty, and in the 1890s, as he told a friend, psychology became his tyrant. During these years he founded the psychoanalytic theory of mind.

It’s easy to look askance at Charcot’s dubious reliance on hypnosis (even he eventually though he overdid it) or Freud’s promotion of cocaine, but they were at that point essentially working in darkness, in possession of a few clues and searching for methods.

Charcot’s death was recorded in a September 10, 1893 article by Emma Bullet, Paris Correspondent of the Brooklyn Eagle. It includes a piece from an odd interview in which the doctor was asked if bicycling (which had only recently boomed in popularity) was healthy or injurious.

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From the October 21, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle

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Evan Meeker, 1921.

Showing his wagon train to President Theodore Roosevelt, 1908.

Showing his wagon to President Theodore Roosevelt, 1908.

With President Calvin Coolidge,

Meeting President Calvin Coolidge, 1924.

The Meeker store in Tacoma.

Meeker in Iowa in 1908 retracing the Great Migration.

Evan Meeker, Detroit, 1828, last photo.

Evan Meeker, Detroit, 1928, last photo.

 

When Ezra Meeker passed away just over 88 years ago, he took with him a lot of institutional memory–and the institution was America.

A pioneer who traveled the Oregon trail in his youth in 1852 just before ferries and steamships thinned the herd moving west by cart and covered wagon, Meeker spent much of his dotage trying to ensure history would remember those who endured such treacherous crossings to open up the country. He wasn’t exactly a reenactor even if he always retained the raggedness of a pioneer and retraced the trip numerous times by ox-driven cart in the first decades of the twentieth century. Meeker was more a sort of traveling salesman, peddling a fascinating period of our history to Presidents and the public alike, not for personal gain but for posterity, urging the establishment of monuments to this epoch.

It’s important to note that in the big picture Manifest Destiny was a tragedy for Native peoples, though Meeker himself enjoyed a particularly good relationship with Indians, as they were then called, collaborating and trading rather than fighting. If only we’d followed that example.

An article announced the passing of Meeker’s own monumental presence in the December 3, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

From the March 19, 1939 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Much of Sven Hedin’s life was lived in public, but the truth about him is somewhat buried nonetheless, strange for a Swedish explorer who spent his life unearthing the hidden. His expeditions to Central Asia just before and after beginning of the twentieth century introduced the world to invaluable art and artifacts and folkways and cities that had been lost to time.

Hedin was admired for these efforts in all corners of the world, including the one occupied by Adolf Hitler. The geographer perplexingly returned the Führer’s admiration, believing in the Nazi leader’s nationalistic and traditionalist tendencies, which was obviously a catastrophic misjudgement. He was highly critical, however, of the Party’s anti-Semitism. 

These protests brought trouble. Hitler seems to have blackmailed the famed explorer into publishing pro-Nazi tracts by imperiling some of Hedin’s Jewish friends still inside Germany. But it’s difficult to accept that Hedin encouraged Sweden to ally with Germany during WWII to save a few friends or even that he truly believed he could somehow compartmentalize various aspects of the uniformly deviant Third Reich. He just apparently didn’t want to recognize the evil. A disease of the eye caused Hedin to become partially blind in 1940, an apt metaphor for this period of his life.

Long before his political descent, Hedin penned an article for Harper’s about an unusual Tibetan custom in which monks passed their lives in subterranean isolation, a piece reprinted in the September 17, 1908 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Charles “Chuck” Connors was full of life, and other stuff.

The so-called “Mayor of Chinatown” was an Irishman dubbed “Insect” by his neighbors until his penchant for cooking chuck steaks over open fires in the streets earned him a new nickname. An inveterate self-promoter, he was a tour guide, vaudevillian, boxer, bouncer and raconteur. Some of his stories were even true.

One that wasn’t: For a fee, he showed tourists “authentic” Chinatown opium dens, which were often merely apartments he rented and filled with “extras” paid to pretend to be dragon chasers. The crafty man realized that narratives about urban blight, told just so, could be commodified.

Although he initially wasn’t so appreciated by his Chinese neighbors, Connors eventually earned their esteem and his blarney was sadly missed when it was permanently silenced. An article in the May 10, 1913 Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced his death.

Famed attorney Clarence Darrow was an extremist when it came to criminality, believing in circumstance but not culpability. He saw law breakers the way the writer of a naturalist novel views characters, as prisoners of nature and nurture, incapable of circumventing either. Based on the remarks he made as reported in an article in the April 4, 1931 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Darrow would have treated all misdeeds as maladies, the perpetrators receiving treatment in hospitals rather than stretches in prison.

In a way, his contention has returned to vogue today thanks mainly not to philosophy but to science, with some neuroresearchers believing our brains, a conductor of algorithms of sorts, governing us rather than the other way around. From Yuval Noah Harari’s Home Deus:

Yet humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of “free will” is under threat. Scientific insights into the way our brains and bodies work suggest that our feelings are not some uniquely human spiritual quality. Rather, they are biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to make decisions by quickly calculating probabilities of survival and reproduction.

Like most people I think the hardware that enables my consciousness allows me a range within which I can make decisions, but maybe my brain is just telling me that?

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