From the December 11, 1946 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
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Tags: Damon Runyon
Was looking at Public Domain Review and came across the famous photo above of early nature photographer Richard Kearton carrying a taxidermy ox which had been hollowed out to allow him or his brother, Cherry, to hide inside with a camera to achieve just the right image of one bird or another. (The lens protruded through a hole in the ox’s head.)
The proto-Attenborough siblings, whose brilliant careers began in the late 19th century, were the first, in 1892, to secure a shot of a bird’s nest with eggs. Their cumbersome, inconvenient tools necessitated that they be athletes, daredevils and magicians, Houdinis not interested in breaking free but in a kind of capture.
In 1931, George Currie of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reviewed a just-published book by Cherry, The Island of Penguins, about the months he and his second wife, opera soprano Ada Forrest, spent among the strange and beautiful black-footed birds.
Canada’s 1948 plan of sending an atomic rocket ship to the moon a dozen years later obviously never came to fruition, but if the project had proceeded in a timely manner it would have blasted off just prior to the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which forbid such space exploration. In addition to investigating the sphere, the country had in mind to use the moon as a launch pad to reach other planets and a base from which to rain missiles over regions of Earth in times of war. Yikes.
A report on the proposed mission appeared in the August 29, 1948 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Speaking of technologies that were amazing but slow to slay the market, the phonograph was initially disappointing commercially, even if Thomas Edison was something of a smash when he (remotely) demonstrated his “talking machine” in England in 1888. It was a forerunner for later jaw-dropping demos by Edwin H. Land, Douglas Engelbart and Steve Jobs. An article in the August 15 New York Times of that year reported that “Edison” awed London society.
Thomas A. Edison was given a very handsome reception this afternoon by Col. Gourand at his beautiful villa, Little Menlo, at Upper Norwood, in Surrey. A large number of ladies and gentlemen gathered there to meet the distinguished inventor of America. The reception included a dinner, lasting from 3 o’clock to 8 o’clock. Under the inspiring influence of popular appreciation Mr. Edison made a speech, in which he dwelt first upon his first visit to England, 18 years ago, and then devoted himself to a humorous criticism of English politics and climate. He then proceeded to amaze the company by reciting ‘Bingen on the Rhine,’ and winding up with a most extraordinary whistling spasm. Then he sang a funeral march, and without waiting for an encore gave ‘Mary had a little lamb.’ He told funny stories, and, in fact, conducted quite a variety entertainment all by himself. Mr. Edison was not entirely present, but he was not entirely absent, and the perplexity of the company over the human voice and its absent owner, 3,000 miles away, was very great.
Mrs. Alice Shaw, who has quite conquered London, whistled for the perfected phonograph, and it whistled back quite as brilliantly as she did. A large number of the guests were presented to Mr. Edison via the phonograph, each making a short speech to him suitable to the occasion. When the company was breaking up three rousing cheers were given for Edison, with a tiger and long clapping of hands. The effect, when the cheers and applause were repeated a moment later, was funny in the extreme. All the introductions, whistling solos, British cheers, &c., dryly recorded on the wax cylinders, will be taken to America by Mr. W. H. Crane of ‘The Henrietta.’ When they arrive Mr Edison will find that he has a lot of acquaintances who know him very well by voice but not by sight. The reception was an exceedingly novel one, and the new machines, with their perfect articulation, excited wonder, reaching in many cases to amazement.•
One enterprising nineteenth-century Brooklyn undertaker, however, found a novel use for the new contraption during the funeral of young freak-show performer, Augusta “Fat Baby” Burr. An article in the August 18, 1895 Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the unconventional ceremony.
John D. Rockefeller was America’s first billionaire, his fortune at its apex worth well over $300 billion in our terms. The son of a con man and a deeply devout mother, he was, quite appropriately, both very awful and very good, a merciless monopolist and a generous philanthropist. He donated hundreds of millions toward medical research and education, among other charities, and was known to hand out dimes–“Rockefeller dimes,” as they came to be called–to adults and children alike. The administering of those shiny ten-cent pieces–which were worth in 1928 roughly $1.40 by 2017 standards–was done both for propaganda purposes and because it amused the titan.
From the February 18, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Tags: John D. Rockefeller
J. Edgar Hoover, flanked in the middle photo by Walter Winchell and Joe DiMaggio, was seriously considered for the post of Major League Baseball Commissioner twice, in 1945 and 1951, a career change that would have probably been better for American governance if not for the sport.
From the February 7, 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Tags: J. Edgar Hoover
This sentence is torn from the headlines about Deadwood, South Dakota, during its most ornery days: “On August 2, 1876, the same day on which Wild Bill was murdered, a Mexican came galloping up Main Street, with the head of an Indian from which blood was still dripping, hanging on the horn of his saddle…they made up a purse of sixty dollars and presented it to the Mexican for his heroic deed.”
The slain man–not the beheaded one, but the other one–was, of course, “Wild Bill” Hickok, famously gunned down by Jack McCall during a saloon poker game. His widow, French-born Agnes Thatcher Lake, has been described by Wyoming historian Phil Roberts as “world renowned in the second half of the 19th century as a tightrope walker, lion tamer and equestrian.”
Two articles from 1877 follow, the first a general piece about the raffish nature of Western town, and the second specifically about the aggrieved widow, who had at that point lost two husbands to gunfire.
From the August 13, 1877 New York Times:
Deadwood is as lively as ever. It is a queer place. The man who ventured the remark that a fool and his money are soon parted must have had in his mind’s eye some such place as this. It is the sharpers’ paradise. The “tenderfoot” is here brought face to face with the ingenious bummer, the slick confidence man, the claim jumper, the land shark and the desperado, and he is a man of more than usual alertness who does not get “taken in” somehow or other before he has been 24 hours in this sinful city. There is no such place anywhere. It shows up in its worst forms the “fast and flash” American trait. A little over a year ago the site of this swarming camp was a part of the howling wilderness. To-day there are along the streets and up and down in the gulches, within a mile, over 10,000 people. Here is a city of 4,000 inhabitants, with a floating population of 2,000 more. About 1,500 houses and huts, and hundreds of tents up the hill-sides, an academy, church, two daily newspapers, four banks; 20 lawyers, physicians, dentists, artists; club-houses, theatres in full blast every night, the streets thronged with speculators, tramps, and bummers: gambling-hells open all day long, and “cappers” on every corner watching for the next “victim”–such is a hasty glance at Deadwood. It is a place in which the few prey upon the many. You cannot buy anything for less than a quarter; your living costs you double what it would at Denver or Salt Lake City. You can’t step in any direction without facing some device for getting rid of your money. They have even got a “corner” on postage stamps and you must pay from a dime to a quarter for a three-cent stamp. It is no wonder that the thousands who come here with a few dollars in their pockets soon find themselves “dead broke” and dependent upon the charity of the better class of people. It cannot be urged too strongly that poor men or men of small competence should stay away from Black Hills. It may not be out of the way for capitalists to come and look around; but let the poor man stay away. One of the business men here, seeing the condition of the hundreds who lay idle and penniless about the street, has the honesty to write to the Deadwood Times, for the benefit of “pilgrims,” in which he says that the truth ought to be told. and the “tenderfeet” be advised to stay at home. I quote from his communication:
“There are thousands of men in the Hills who would be glad to work for their bread, or enough money to pay their way back home; but there is no employment for them. The placer claims are all taken up by the first comers, and the quartz leads are not yet sufficiently developed to require many laborers. I never saw so many sick-looking men in my life as I have seen in Deadwood. They come here without a cent in their pockets, expecting to gobble up gold by the bucketful, and they soon go away without a “flea in the ear.” Now these pilgrims are not only fools in this “vain delusive world.” They come here full of greedy expectation, but in 24 hours their gorgeous air castles have blown away into bubbles.”•
From the July 6, 1877 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Tags: Agnes Thatcher Lake
Inconvenient it is for any state when an erstwhile national hero turns into an embarrassment. In America, for instance, we have Bobby Fischer, whose mind proved a buggy machine, and earlier, Charles Lindbergh, who crashed and burned after soaring to unprecedented heights.
Norway knew its own shocking albatross in 1940 when Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize-winning author, embraced Adolf Hitler as a liberator, even arranging a meeting with the German madman. It’s been some years since I read Hunger, with its nameless Raskolnikovian protagonist, a down-and-out intellectual, though I feel pretty confident saying that it was better than a Canetti but not as good as a Dostoyevsky.
From the May 5, 1940 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Tags: Knut Hamsun
From the August 11, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Dunninger exposing “spirit swindlers”:
Billy Sunday had a name better suited for preacher than a baseball player, and his talents were likewise more useful in the pulpit than on the diamond.
The erstwhile Chicago White Stockings outfielder began barnstorming America as an evangelist in 1891, a time before radio when large-scale revivals (and other sports) were often presented in temporary wooden structures built especially for the event. He was a fire-and-brimstone speaker, theatrical as a vaudevillian, throwing chairs and striking baseball poses to punctuate his points. A nostalgia salesman like many in the industry, he sought to convince each new flock that things used to be better, that we had collectively been expelled from paradise, a concept I believe he stole from a book.
Sunday’s biggest issue was probably temperance, but he held opinions, some noble and others ghastly, on all manner of topics. There didn’t seem to be much consistency to his views except his deep need to express them. He loved his celebrity with a shamelessness that would have played very well in our time.
Tossing furniture and wild gesticulations didn’t translate very well, however, to the radio days, so Sunday’s summit in popularity during the nineteen-tens ended abruptly, and he continued the rest of his mortal life sermonizing to smaller and smaller crowds. He was never completely forgotten, but in an essential way he was gone, disrupted by technology.
Sunday’s death was announced in the November 7, 1935 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
From 1929: “America needs a tidal wave of the old-time religion.”
Tags: Billy Sunday
From the November 6, 1950 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
One of the least-true popular sayings ever is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s saw that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Unfortunately for Maxwell Bodenheim, he was the rare case where the line rang true.
A successful Jazz Age poet and novelist whose erotically charged works positioned him as a scandalous if fashionable figure, Bodenheim became something of a pre-Beat character in later decades, before eventually slipping from Greenwich Village prominence into skid row obscurity, undone by alcoholism, mental illness and other symptoms of the human condition.
The end was even worse than the decline: In 1954, the writer and his third wife, Ruth Fagin, a sometimes prostitute, were murdered by a dishwasher in a Bowery flophouse. It was a scene only Weegee could have truly appreciated, and it’s no shock that the above photograph of Fagin’s body being loaded into an ambulance was taken by the world’s most celebrated tabloid photographer.
Bodenheim was known in his decline phase for trading poems for drinks, getting tossed from saloons where he’d once held court, and panhandling for money on the street while pretending to be blind. It’s understandable if he didn’t want to see what had become of him.
Two articles about the double murder ran in the February 8, 1954 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Tags: Maxwell Bodenheim
It’s hard to know what to make of Bob Woodward, the less talented half of the twentieth-century’s most famous American reporting duo, in the new millennium.
Like a lot of educated boneheads, he’s been an apologist for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, trusting the deeply dishonest Bush Administrations’ claim of Weapons of Mass Destruction, despite a real paucity of evidence. In 2013, he claimed the Obama Adminsitration had “threatened” him, though this seemed to be more fanciful than fact.
In addition to these two ass-backwards moments, during his 2008 appearance on 60 Minutes to promote his book The War Within, the journalist hinted at knowing about a mysterious new weapon developed by the U.S. military, one that was able to melt buses filled with terrorists from great distances. An excerpt:
“This is very sensitive and very top secret, but there are secret operational capabilities that have been developed by the military to locate, target and kill leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq, insurgent leaders, renegade militia leaders. That is one of the true breakthroughs,” Woodward told Pelley.
“But what are we talking about here? It’s some kind of surveillance? Some kind of targeted way of taking out just the people that you’re looking for?” Pelley asked.
“I’d love to go through the details, but I’m not going to,” Woodward replied…. “If you were an al-Qaida leader … and you knew about what they were able to do, you’d get your ass outta town.”
It sounded to viewers like America had developed some sort of death ray, though it was probably something less dramatic. Who’s to say at this point with Woodward?
· · ·
In the early 1920s, an erstwhile serious British inventor named Harry Grindell-Matthews made a Tesla-ish claim, saying he’d created a death ray that had been perfected at the expense of rats. He was squirrely about demos, however, traveling to France and then America to keep one step ahead of the skeptics. For some reason, journalists of the era decided to support him against military and scientific establishments that were unconvinced by his assertions–and rightly so.
An article in the July 20, 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the sensational claims.
From 1924: “The Grindell-Matthews Death Ray, in the future, may control the destiny of the world.”
Tags: Harry Grindell Matthews
It wasn’t the Jazz Singer, but Benito Mussolini agreed to star in a talkie when asked by Fox Movietone News to stand before the company’s motion-picture cameras and address the citizens of the United States. In the 80-second running time, Il Duce used the phrase “make America great.”
This type of content helped the then-struggling Fox establish, in 1929, a newsreel theater in Times Square, which served as a forerunner to today’s cable outlets.
The Fascist leader, who understood the power of communications like few in his era, would endeavor within a decade of making this short to build his very own Hollywood. Today he would merely need to open his own Twitter account. Progress.
An article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the first foreign leader to have a speaking role on film.
In the early 1930s, a shadowy figure named Howard Scott suddenly became a sensation in media and political circles when he announced American society was to collapse within 18 months. He wasn’t a theologian but a technocrat, and he warned that machine labor was poised to bring about universal unemployment. In the dark and desperate early days of the Great Depression, his secular sermon, colored by totalitarian overtones, was widely received.
While Scott’s credentials as a master engineer were more than greatly exaggerated, he didn’t allow a lack of paperwork to restrain his ambitions, arguing that he and a team of technocrats should run a new North American superstate, using facts and figures and numbers and math to do the job that politicians had traditionally handled. The result, it was promised, would be a radical abundance. In California alone, the movement soon boasted over a million members who wore gray suits, drove gray cars and “replaced their names with numbers, such as ‘1x1809x56.'”
America somehow crept from the Dust Bowl in one piece and Scott was more or less defrocked, but his ideas, an odd mixture of populism and anti-government impulses, still resound today, from the campaign trail to Silicon Valley, for better or worse.
An article in the January 1, 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle endeavored to unmask Scott.
Tags: Howard Scott
“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.”
Tags: P.T. Barnum
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.
Tags: Thomas Nast
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.
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.
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: