Thursday, May 31, 2007

Little Girl on a Dark Street. Bhaktapur, Nepal, 1997.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What Cheer, Iowa. 1987.


Friday, May 25, 2007

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night ...

"He never wrote an invitation to dinner without an eye on posterity." -- Benjamin Disraeli.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a prolific novelist with a reputation for ornate wretchedness (Pelham, 1828; The Last Days of Pompeii, 1834; Eugene Aram, 1832), and a Liberal-turned-Tory member of Parliament, was born on this day in 1803 in London.

Although the gods of literature might have been content to leave Bulwer-Lytton to obscurity, Charles Schulz brought him into the 20th century pop culture fold, appropriating the first lines of Bulwer-Lytton's ponderous novel Paul Clifford (1830) ("It was a dark and stormy night . . .") for the beagle Snoopy's various attempts at novel-writing. The English Department of San Jose State University sponsors an annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad opening lines, and Tim Burton chose Bulwer-Lytton's estate at Knebworth as the setting for "stately Wayne manor" in Batman. Whatever you may aspire to in your own writing, just hope they don't remember you better for your house than for your written works.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Fastest Game

Recently I’ve had the chance to see some old major league pitchers at work. And by old, I mean guys who are just about my age. On a visit to Fenway two weekends ago, I saw Bosoxer Curt Schilling pitch 5 and a third innings against the Orioles. He gave up 4 runs and left a tie game, but looked pretty good for a 39-year-old throwing 95 pitches. Last weekend, I also caught the Mets’ Tom Glavine, on TV and on XM, facing the Yankees and hurling his 295th victory at age 41; and I went to PNC Park on Sunday to see Randy Johnson, age 43, throw 10 strikeouts in 5.2 innings to beat the Pirates 5-2.

It’s a cliché that advanced age is associated with slowness – old preachers give slow sermons, old film directors make slow movies, old grannies drive slowly down the right lane of the parkway -- but watching these pitchers work belies this. Glavine kept the game moving along quickly, pitching 101 pitches before the late-inning rain started to slow the game down; after some sloppy relief pitching, the game finally finished up in about 3-1/2 hours. The Big Unit was even faster in dispatching the Bucs in a game that wound up lasting only 2-1/2 hours. Even Schilling worked pretty quickly; it was only after he left the mound that the 7th and 8th innings of the Red Sox-Orioles game seemed almost like the second independent half of a double header all by themselves.

Johnson’s victory occurred in a game that was faster than the average major league game, but back in 1916, a few fans in Asheville, North Carolina were on hand to see what is now considered to be the fastest game in the history of professional baseball.

The Asheville Tourists played in the inaugural season of the Class D North Carolina State League as the Asheville Mountaineers in 1913. After suffering a last place finish in 1914, the club changed its name to the Tourists for the 1915 season and battled their way to first place under the helm of a popular slick-fielding infielder-manager, John P. “Jack” Corbett, finishing 5-1/2 games ahead of the Durham Bulls. That year, a 15-year-old future novelist named Thomas Wolfe caught Tourist fever, and spent the season serving as Corbett’s bat boy, shagging pre-game pop flies and disappearing into the bleachers once the game would begin.

Recalling his days at Asheville’s Oates Park (pictured above), Wolfe later wrote to baseball writer Arthur Mann: “… [I]n the memory of almost every one of us, is there anything that can evoke spring – the first fine days of April – better than the sound of the ball smacking into the pocket of the big mitt, the sound of the bat as it hits the horse hide; for me, at any rate, and I am being literal and not rhetorical – almost everything I know about spring is in it – the first leaf, the jonquil, the maple tree, the smell of grass upon your hands and knees, the coming into flower of April. And is there anything that can tell can tell more about an American summer than, say, the wooden bleachers in a small-town baseball park, that resinous, sultry and exciting smell of old dry wood.”

But Wolfe well understood the inherent bittersweetness of minor league baseball. Nebraska Crane, a character in Wolfe’s The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again, was apparently based on Corbett, an Ohio-born minor league journeyman who never ultimately made it to the bigs. Wolfe wrote about Corbett more directly in Look Homeward, Angel: “Pearl juggled carefully the proposals of several young men during this period. She had the warmest affection for a ball player, the second baseman and manager of the Altamont [i.e. Asheville] team. He was a tough, handsome young animal, forever hurling his glove down in despair during the course of the game, and rushing belligerently at the umpire. She liked his hard assurance, his rapid twang, his tanned, lean body …”

The Tourists won the first half of the 1916 season, and looked poised to repeat their 1915 triumph; but the elation of Thomas Wolfe's boyhood hero Jack Corbett turned to resignation as the club pulled into August. Despite leftfielder Jim Hickman’s league-leading .350 batting average, the Tourists were in 4th place, hovering just above .500 ball on August 30, the last day of the season. The Winston-Salem Twins were in town for the final game, but the Charlotte Hornets had already clinched the league title, so the Twins were definitively in second place for the year.

The game was scheduled for 2 p.m., but apparently the Twins were anxious to call it quits for the season; they wanted to catch a 3 p.m. train back to Winston-Salem. So Corbett and Twins skipper Charlie Jones apparently entered into a gentlemen’s agreement to start the game a half hour early and to keep it as short as possible. After all, they reasoned, it was a meaningless game as far as the standings were concerned. Other teams playing meaningless games at the end of the season in those days were wont to run onto the field wearing clown suits or ladies’ bloomers, so the idea of a fast game was a pretty tame shenanigan by comparison.

Two hundred fans showed up at Oates Park for the game – not many for a ballpark that could hold 1,200, but then again, most of the town’s baseball fans probably hadn’t gotten the message that the game was going to start early. According to Sporting News writer Bob Terrell, Thomas Wolfe was allegedly among those present.

The Asheville Citizen summed up the ensuing game as a “farcical contest.” The paper described the manner of play: “Nobody let a baseball get past. Everyone hit the first ball pitched … Nobody was left on the bases. If a man hit and didn’t come home, he contrived to get tagged out by overrunning the bag. Before the last man in an inning had been called out the players were on the run changing sides in the field. Along about one of the innings, some Twin player rushed to bat and [Tourists’ pitcher Doc] Lowe pitched the ball with no one in to catch. It was hit to center field, a fair single, but Nesser [one of the Twins’ outfielders] grabbed it on the bounce on the way into the bench and threw his team mate out at second.”

Lowe gave up two runs in the first inning; umpire Red Rowe showed up to officiate the game in the 4th inning. In the 7th, the Tourists managed to score one off the Twins’ ace, Whitey Glazner; and after 2 more innings, the two sides mercifully put the game out of its misery. Glazner (who later pitched adequately for 5 seasons, 3-1/2 with Pittsburgh and 1-1/2 with the Phillies) got the win, helping him to attain a league-leading .750 winning percentage for the season. The game was finished in a mere 31 minutes – two minutes before it was actually scheduled to start.

Perhaps the operative base running phrase of the day, with all due deference to Mr. Wolfe, was “You can go home again, but we’d prefer that you don’t, ‘cause we’re trying to wrap this up early.” Imagine your dismay, though, if you showed up at the ballpark looking forward to the last game of the season, only to find the players heading to the showers.

No one was particularly pleased about the day’s display, and Tourists president L.L. Jenkins jumped to his feet after the game and shouted a valedictory, promising that every paying customer would be refunded his or her money. The Citizen noted that women, in particular, were almost unanimous in calling the entire spectacle “perfectly horrid.”

Jack Corbett left Asheville after the 1916 season, and it turned out to be none too soon. While Corbett was busy managing the Columbia Comers to the South Atlantic League pennant in 1917, the Asheville club folded on May 17, 1917. The North Carolina State League itself shuttered two weeks later, a domestic casualty of World War I. Baseball would not return to Asheville for another seven years.

Although Corbett never made it to the big leagues, his name lives on in baseball. As early as 1939, Major League Baseball adopted Corbett’s patented design for the bases used on the field; now all 30 major league teams use “Jack Corbett Hollywood Base Sets,” with a tapered lip on the bottom of each base to grip the infield dirt, and a six-inch stanchion to anchor it. Corbett passed away in Van Nuys, California in 1973, at the age of 85.

Bill James says that baseball games have gotten too long, observing that “the wasted time inside baseball games dissipates tension, and thus makes the game less interesting, less exciting, and less fun to watch.” In an age in which everyone wants everything yesterday, baseball’s slowness is one of the things I appreciate most about the game. Certainly the fans present at Oates Park on August 30, 1916 were not treated to baseball that was interesting, exciting or particularly fun to watch. I do enjoy watching the studied efficiency of a veteran pitcher like Schilling, Glavine or Johnson, but give me a wild rookie pitcher and some guys who can foul off almost every strike, and that will suit me fine. My enjoyment of baseball is not measured by how exciting any particular game is; it is measured by being within the milieu of those sounds, sights and smells that Thomas Wolfe celebrated – to sit back, without any concern for the clock, and to take a break and enjoy an American rite of spring.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Never, Never Believe It

"If you are lucky enough to be a success, by all means enjoy the applause and the adulation of the public. But never, never believe it." -- Robert Montgomery.

Robert Montgomery was born Henry Montgomery, Jr. on this day in 1904 in Fishkill Landing, New York, the son of a rubber company executive.

Montgomery is remembered today, if at all, as the father of Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery, but his film and TV career is notable in its own right, for his contributions both on and off the screen.

After a few years acting on Broadway, Montgomery arrived in Hollywood for the beginning of the Sound Era, and as a prep-school educated boy with patrician good looks, he fell easily into the role of the devil-may-care, tuxedo-wearing playboy. He managed to rise above the bluntness of his typecasting in a few films here and there, including The Big House (1930), Private Lives (1931), Hitchcock's comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and They Were Expendable (1945), and was nominated for best actor Oscars for his performances as a psychotic murderer in Night Must Fall (1937) and as the boxer in a playboy's body in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) --the inspiration for Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait (1978).

He served four terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, beginning in 1935, during a time when Hollywood producers weren't interested in letting actors unionize under any circumstances. The fate of the fledgling organization was uncertain, but under Montgomery's leadership, the Screen Actors Guild boycotted the 1936 Academy Awards and voted to strike on May 10, 1937, causing the major studios to sign the first SAG minimum wage contract, one that applied equally to stunt men and extras under Montgomery's insistence.

Montgomery also managed to stare down a threat from the Capone mob. Capone had his hooks into the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which had managed to extract tribute money from Hollywood producers around the time that SAG was being born. Seeing SAG as a threat to his neat little arrangement, Capone tried to intimidate Montgomery by sending thugs around to slash his tires. Montgomery stood firm, however, invited the FBI into the mix, and ultimately cooperated with the Feds to get Capone's lieutenant Willie Bioff sent to prison.

The same sense of public duty that inspired him in his role with SAG was aroused by the conflict in Europe, and in 1940, Montgomery secretly went to France for several weeks to drive an ambulance. Shortly after he returned, he and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and Montgomery was placed in the Intelligence Section in London. Later, he served as an operations officer on a destroyer during the D-Day invasion, saw action at Guadalcanal, and commanded a PT boat in the South Pacific. He retired from the Navy with the rank of commander in 1944.

While continuing to act, he made his mark as an actor-director in Lady in the Lake (1947), the first Hollywood film to employ the subjective camera point of view of its protagonist for an entire feature. Montgomery starred as detective Philip Marlowe, but was seen on screen only at the odd moment when he might catch his own reflection in a mirror. "YOU do get into the story and see things pretty much the way the protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, does, but YOU don't have to suffer the bruises he does," noted the New York Times. "Of course, YOU don't get a chance to put your arms around Audrey Totter either. After all, the movie makers, for all their ingenuity, can go just so far in the quest for realism." Overall, the film was received as a curiosity, an interesting failure as a Hollywood film, but one that certainly confirmed Montgomery's willingness to take an artistic risk.

In the 1950s, Montgomery became the first effective political media consultant of the television age as an adviser to President Eisenhower, helping the ex-general to harness the new medium. In a particularly spectacular coup during the run-up to the 1956 election, Montgomery managed to convince CBS to air a birthday tribute to the president's wife Mamie in March 1956 -- never mind that the first lady's birthday was actually in November. Seeing Nixon's disastrous performance in the 1960 presidential debates against John Kennedy, Eisenhower is reported to have remarked that "Montgomery would never have let him look like he did in that first television debate."

Montgomery died on September 27, 1981 in New York City.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

James Stewart

One of several Hollywood actors of the 1930s to emerge as "common man heroes" (Fonda, Cooper and Wayne were among the others), Jimmy Stewart always seemed to be a few shades closer to "common man" than "hero." Tall and gangly, shy, with a rural drawl and a nervous stutter, Stewart's persona was essentially that of a nice guy -- an earnest, well-meaning, perhaps easily distracted young man who was typically thrust into extraordinary circumstances, but who could tear his way through such circumstances with guts and an unshakeable sense of right.

Stewart, who was born on this day in 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania, was a small-town boy who studied architecture at Princeton. His appearance in a Princeton revue led classmate Josh Logan to convince Stewart to join the University Players in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where he met Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan. Stewart and roommate Fonda earned their keep on Broadway for a few years, and went to Hollywood in 1935.

Fonda's success was slightly earlier, as Stewart floundered through boy-ingénue roles, but Frank Capra snagged Stewart in 1938 for You Can't Take it With You, which turned out to be a mere tryout for Stewart's first tour-de-force, Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, with Jean Arthur), the story of a boy scout leader tapped to be a U.S. senator, only to be framed on corruption charges. After winning an Oscar for performing slightly against type as a wise-cracking writer in The Philadelphia Story (1941, with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant), Stewart became the first Hollywood star to enlist in the military for what would become World War II -- before the attack on Pearl Harbor -- rising to the rank of Air Force colonel, flying over 1,000 combat missions and winning the Distinguished Flying Cross (he would ultimately earn the rank of brigadier general in the Air Force Reserves).

America had grown up after the war, and with it, so did Stewart's persona. His first film after the war, the classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946, again by Capra), the story of a common man driven to the mortal brink of desperation only to brought back through a spiritual epiphany, a whimsical but ultimately terrifying encounter with an angel, was like a diary of the transformation of Stewart's film identity; with rare exception after the war (notably Harvey, 1950), the quirky, bumbling Stewart gave way to Stewart the tough guy -- still a small town guy with small town values, clever and charming at times, but a man of action, not above being ruthless.

Hitchcock played upon the contrast between the young Stewart and the prickly Stewart of middle-age in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958); but films such as Anatomy of a Murder (1959, his fourth Oscar nomination), the Westerns Winchester '73 (1950), Broken Arrow (1950) and John Ford's Two Rode Together (1961) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), showed an almost irretrievably hard-bitten side of his persona, a side that knew through personal experience that war is hell.

Among the first stars to negotiate a portion of the profits from his productions, he eased slowly into retirement with a couple of TV series (The Jimmy Stewart Show, 1971-2; Hawkins, 1973-4) and occasional talk show appearances, having attained the status of one of the best loved actors from the golden age of Hollywood. He died July 2, 1997 in Los Angeles, California.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Cigars, Munich, 1977


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Seward and His Folly

William Seward was born on this day in 1801 in Florida, New York.

A skilled criminal lawyer, Seward became active in New York state politics by supporting the Anti-Masonic Party, and later entered the state senate in 1830 as an anti-slavery Whig. Beginning in 1838, he served two terms as governor of New York, returned briefly to his lucrative law practice, and was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York in 1849.

Serving in his second term in the Senate as one of the more eloquent anti-slavery partisans, as the 1860 presidential election approached Seward was also one of the more high-profile members of the new Republican Party, and with New York's delegation representing about 1/3 of the votes needed for the Republican nomination, Seward seemed to be the likely nominee of the Party. However, at the convention in Chicago, Abe Lincoln's backyard, Seward and his campaign manager Thurlow Weed found themselves stymied by the momentum forming around the rough-hewn railsplitter from Illinois, and on the third ballot, Lincoln carried the nomination.

Seward, while not confident of Lincoln's abilities, campaigned energetically for him and was rewarded by being appointed Secretary of State. Seward believed his personality and experience would come to dominate Lincoln's cabinet (and he surely was an able leader during the Civil War, shrewdly negotiating with Great Britain, through U.S. minister Charles Francis Adams, to keep the British from recognizing the Confederacy); but Lincoln ignored Seward's naive strategy to unite the South behind a Monroe Doctrine-inspired, manufactured war with France and Spain, later causing Seward to admit that Lincoln was the better man for taking the fight directly to the South.

As the Civil War drew to a close in April 1865, John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators planned the assassinations of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Seward in order to throw the country into electoral chaos; and on the night that Booth fatally shot Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, Booth's compatriot Lewis Payne pistol-whipped Seward's son Frederick and stabbed Seward in his right cheek as he lay in his home recuperating from a recent carriage accident.

Although the stabbing permanently disfigured him, Seward recovered and continued to serve most loyally as Secretary of State to President Johnson, and was the nation's most respected supporter of Johnson's lenient Reconstruction policies. Seward negotiated the annexation of the Midway Islands, as well as the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million (known for many years before the discovery of valuable mineral reserves there as "Seward's Folly"), and retired from politics at the end of Johnson's term in 1869. He died on October 10, 1872 in Auburn, New York.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

The Lone Wolf and his Instrument

"Bechet was an individualist, a lone wolf, the sharp who blows into town, cleans out the locals, and disappears again." -- J.L. Collier.

One of the great traditional New Orleans jazz artists, Bechet's style was nevertheless wholly his own, as singular in some ways as his nomadic, solitary career. Born on this day in 1897 to African-American Creole parents (although his mother was light-skinned enough to occasionally passeblanc), Bechet learned to play clarinet by practicing on his older brother's instrument when no one was looking. At 13, he was already playing professionally, and the following year, he began his life of wandering.

In 1918 he was in Chicago, then in New York, and in 1919 he was in Paris with Will Marion Cook's band, where he caught the attention of conductor Ernest Ansermet, who gushed: "There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet . . . I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius, as for myself, I shall never forget it -- it is Sidney Bechet . . . who is glad one likes what he does, but who can say nothing of his art save that he follows 'his own way' . . . perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow."

Ansermet proved perceptive at least about Bechet's personality: he was a loner who went his own way, symbolized neatly by his 1941 overdubbed novelty recording of "The Sheik of Araby" in which he played all of the instruments by himself, including bass, drums and piano. Bechet became the most important jazz artist in Europe, playing with astonishing inventiveness, verve and his signature shimmering vibrato style in various groups in Paris and London, where he also took up the soprano saxophone, still a novelty in 1920. He was the first saxophonist of any consequence in the history of jazz.

At the same time, he was demanding and hot-headed, making him difficult to work with, and he occasionally ran afoul of the law: he was deported from London following a fight with a prostitute and imprisoned in France for 11 months following a gunfight with another musician outside a Paris cabaret. Back in the U.S., Bechet began his recording career, soloing with Clarence Williams Blue Five and the Red Onion Jazz Babies (featuring Louis Armstrong). Despite Armstrong's own virtuosity, Bechet dominated their recording of "Cake Walkin' Babies" (1924), showing a mature command of the still-developing rhythmic "swing" of jazz.

After spending the early 1920s back in the U.S. (where he also worked stints with Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson, had a brief affair with Bessie Smith and launched the career of Johnny Hodges), Bechet sneaked back into Paris with La Revue Negre (with Josephine Baker) in 1925. He promptly left the show, however, to tour Russia and Germany, and slowly slipped into obscurity, buried in Noble Sissle's orchestra.

During the late 1930s, as small-band jazz was in collapse, Bechet enjoyed a comeback with a hit recording of Gershwin's "Summertime" (1938), followed by "Wild Man Blues" (1940), a traditional New Orleans piece which he elevated with his own timeless invention; a transcendent masterpiece of slow jazz variations, "Blue Horizon" (1944); and "Les Oignons" (1949), a million-seller in Europe. Bechet had by this time returned to Paris (with some trepidation, given his history there), but he was welcomed as a hero, and lived there until his death, on this same day in 1959. He posthumously published a frank autobiography, Treat it Gentle, in 1960.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Success at Plymouth

William Bradford, Governor of the Plymouth Colony, died on this day in 1657 in Plymouth, Massachusetts at the age of about 67.

William Bradford's record of building a permanent settlement out of the virgin lands of the Massachusetts coast almost makes Walter Raleigh, John White and John Smith look like Moe, Larry and Curly. Raleigh and White misplaced a couple of groups of colonists at Roanoke between 1588 and 1590; Smith's Jamestown colony was an unmitigated disaster of Indian wars, internal mistrust and starvation which limped along until James I took it over from the brink of bankrupcty after 17 years; but within 6 short years, Bradford led the Plymouth colony in the repayment of all of its debts and the successful buy-out of its original investors amid relative peace and prosperity.

The difference may have been in their aims: while Moe, Larry and Curly came to North America in search of a quick score of gold nuggets lying on the shore, Bradford came to honor God. When he was 12 he became a member of the Separatist Church in Yorkshire, an offshoot of the Puritans, and at 19 he moved to Holland with a group of like-minded "nonconformists" in search of religious freedom. Not finding it there, he helped to organize the Mayflower voyage in which about 100 "pilgrims" sailed to the New World in 1620.

Upon arriving, he was one of the framers of the "Mayflower Compact," an agreement for voluntary civic cooperation, and as governor during almost every year from 1621 to 1656, he maintained peace treaties with Massasoit and the Wampanoag Indians; initiated such democratic institutions as town meetings and elections; helped to avoid starvation by directing the cultivation of corn; and maintained an environment of toleration for all nonconformists. He also left behind a valuable, well-written account of the colony, History of Plymouth Plantation (1620-47).

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Revolutionary Priest

Miguel Hidalgo y Castilla was born on this day in 1753 in Corralejo, New Spain (Mexico).

An ethnic Spaniard, the son of a hacienda manager in Guanajuato, Hidalgo entered the Jesuit College of San Francisco Javier in Valladolid, but barely received two years of schooling when King Charles III of Spain banished the Jesuits from New Spain and confiscated all of their property. Switching to the diocesan College of San Nicolas Obispo in Valladolid, Hidalgo studied rhetoric, Latin and theology as well as Indian languages, and was finally ordained as a priest in 1778. He stayed to teach at the College, becoming its rector, but he earned a reputation for freethinking and unorthodoxy, and was brought before the Holy Office of the Inquisition in 1800 on charges that he read banned books and kept a mistress. The charges were never proven.

In 1803, Hidalgo left Valladolid to accept the small parish of Dolores, where he began to busy himself with improving economic conditions among his parishioners, introducing new industries (tile making, tanning, beekeeping) and debating local ethnic Spaniards about questions of social philosophy, largely influenced by the writings of Francisco Suarez. His debating activities grew into the formation of the Queretaro Literary Society, among whose members were Ignacio Allende, a 35 year-old cavalry captain; Juan de Aldama Gonzalez, another soldier; Miguel Dominguez, a former government official; and Miguel's wife Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez.

Together the Literary Club, bristling at Spanish rule under Joseph Bonaparte, hatched a plot for separating New Spain from Spanish rule, to be executed on December 8, 1810 with a stow of arms and ammunition they horded at the house of Epigmenio Gonzalez. The plot was leaked to the authorities in Mexico City, and on September 13 the arms were seized, and warrants were put out for the arrest of Hidalgo, Allende and Aldama. Hidalgo rang the church bells to bring his parishioners to mass early on September 16, and when they assembled at the church in Dolores, Hidalgo sermonized on revolution, urging them to join him in armed struggle against Spain.

With an enthusiastic but rag-tag band of poorly armed mestizos and Indians, Hidalgo traveled to San Miguel, picking up recruits along the way. At Atotonilco, Hidalgo seized the banner of the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadelupe and adopted it as the emblem of his crusade, and it became an important recruiting tool as he combed the countryside. Hidalgo's army seized a number of towns without much effort, but Hidalgo's inability to control his army meant that every battle was followed in victory by Hidalgo's Indians violently pillaging the houses of the local ethnic Spaniards.

Within a month they had captured Guanajuato, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Valladolid, and planned a march on Mexico City. Outside of Mexico City, Hidalgo won a decisive victory over the smaller army of government soldiers at Monte de las Cruces, and Mexico City seemed to be ready for the taking. Hidalgo worried, however, that his uncontrollable army would destroy the City, and ordered a retreat over the objections of Allende. Many of his rebels, sensing that the opportunity had been lost, deserted; and while Hidalgo traveled North, the government regrouped and defeated Hidalgo's forces at Puente de Calderon.

Fleeing to Texas, Hidalgo and Allende were captured by the Spanish in March 1811. Allende was immediately executed, but Hidalgo was returned to the Inquisition, which found him guilty of treason and heresy, defrocked him and turned him over to the government for execution by firing squad on July 31, 1811. His corpse was decapitated and Hidalgo's head was stuck on a pole and displayed as a warning to the Indians.

Although Hidalgo's rebellion was unsuccessful in turning out the Spanish, he did manage to undo 300 years of stability and complacency among the Spanish in Mexico in 120 days. He failed due to bad military judgment, but he is nonetheless worshipped as the patron saint of the birth of the Mexican nation, something which was not to come until 11 years after his death. No one else played as much of a role in inspiring people with the credibility of Mexican independence. The day Hidalgo rang the church bells, September 16, is now celebrated as Independence Day in Mexico.


Sunday, May 06, 2007


Maximillian de Robespierre was born on this day in 1758 in Arras, France.

A lawyer known for his advocacy on behalf of the poor, Robespierre entered politics with his election to the States General in 1789, and shortly thereafter he became a leader of the Jacobins on the Left. He called for the trial of Louis XVI after Louis revealed his disapproval of the subordination of Catholic administration to the civil government and attempted to flee France by way of Varennes in July 1791, and Robespierre advocated the outright overthrow of the monarchy a year later.

After the king was deposed in August 1792, Robespierre was among the most bitter enemies of compromise, encouraging the mobs to attack the moderate Girondins and calling for Louis' execution; as the tide turned toward the radicals, he became a member of the ruling Committee of Public Safety (CPS) in July 1793.

There he showed himself to be a ruthless tactician, less for the benefit of his own position than for his guiding principles -- stamping out excessive wealth and advocating state provision of resources for the citizens. When his rivals (such as Hebert and Danton) threatened to compromise these principles or his methods of achieving them, he skillfully maneuvered them to the guillotine in the belief that humane policies encouraged revived conspiracies, asserting that "Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe and inflexible [and] it is therefore an emanation of virtue."

His Law of Prairial (June 1794) dispensed with even the appearance of fair trials, leading to the execution of 1,376 people in just 47 days. Feeling indestructible, Robespierre publicly lashed out against the more moderate members of the CPS the following month; they responded by having him arrested. He was quickly released by his supporters, and although a popular uprising from among the local Parisian government came to Robespierre's aid, at the eleventh hour of the military standoff against the National Guard, Robespierre lost his nerve, admitting that he did not have any confidence that he would succeed. He submitted to arrest again, and was summarily guillotined on July 28, 1794, along with 21 of his supporters. With Robespierre out of the way, the worst excesses of the Great Terror soon subsided.


Friday, May 04, 2007


Etienne Bottineau (born on this day in 1738 in Champtoceaux, France) was a career-seaman -- first in the merchant marine, then briefly in the service of Louis XV's Royal Navy. Passing his time shipboard by making observations of navigation techniques, he began to develop a question which became the catalyst for his mysterious life's work: shouldn't a vessel approaching land produce a visible effect on the atmosphere which could be seen by the practiced eye and used to predict the arrival of a ship before it would be visible on the horizon?

His shipmates all thought the question itself was far-fetched and that Bottineau was nuts, but he left the Navy to stay in Mauritius (then I'le de France) and to work on his crazy hypothesis. With a clear sky and few vessels coming to visit (making for fewer possibilities for error), in 6 months Bottineau succeeded in developing a technique for "seeing beyond the horizon" -- watching the atmosphere on the horizon and predicting the arrival of ships three days before they could become visible on the horizon.

At first, he used his new technique, which he called nauscopy, to win bets around the docks. Between 1778 and 1782 he correctly predicted the arrival of 575 ships to Mauritius, many as much as 4 days before they could be sighted, and the local government took notice. In 1782, the governor of Mauritius began to record Bottineau's predictions, and at the end of 2 years, Bottineau had such an outlandish record of accuracy (from land and at sea) that the local French government offered Bottineau a lump sum of 10,000 livres and an annual pension of 1,200 livres if he would reveal his secret to the government. He declined the offer; he was convinced that he had made an important scientific discovery, and instead he wanted to go to France to bestow this gift on the nation of his birth and be the great teacher of the new science of nauscopy.

In Paris, however, Bottineau's offers met with indifference in the royal bureaucracy of Louis XVI, and opinion-leader Abbe Fontenay, the editor of the Mercure de France, sneered at Bottineau's offer without studying it. Humiliated and disgusted, Bottineau disappeared without revealing his secret technique. A Scottish journal reported his death in Pondicherry, India just before the French Revolution (1789), and Jean-Paul Marat, the occasional scientist himself, considered Bottineau notable enough to mention his death in a letter to a friend.

Several people later claimed to have mastered nauscopy, but Bottineau's technique has never been documented. The invention of practical radar by Robert Watson-Watt in 1935 no doubt rendered Bottineau's science of nauscopy a mysterious irreproducible result of the quaint and distant nautical past, or perhaps a good seacoast sun-parlor trick.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Fight Like Hell for the Living

"Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living." -- Mother Jones.

Mother Jones, the labor agitator known as the "Miners' Angel," is thought to have been born Mary Harris on this day in 1830 in Cork, Ireland (although some recent research suggests she may have been born on August 1, 1837).

Mary Harris emigrated from Ireland to Toronto with her mother and siblings as a youngster, joining her father there, who had allegedly fled prosecution in Ireland for his revolutionary activities. Following her own grammar school education, she taught for awhile in public and convent schools before settling in Chicago as a seamstress. Before the Civil War she moved to Memphis, where she met and married George Jones, an iron molder and union member. They enjoyed a happy marriage and had 4 children together, until a plague of yellow fever swept through Memphis' Irish-American "Pinch" ghetto; within a week, 38-year old Mary had lost her husband and all 4 children to the disease. She returned to Chicago to resume dressmaking, but there fell victim to the great Chicago fire of 1871, in which her home and all of her possessions were destroyed.

Wandering through victim's shelters after the fire, she stumbled upon an underground meeting of the Knights of Labor. She was befriended by Terence Powderly, and thereafter she decided to devote her life to the labor movement. From the 1870s to the turn of the century, she became a somewhat unlikely "Forrest Gump" of the blossoming union cause. With her deceptively fragile and demure looks, trademark bonnet and long lace-trimmed dresses, she criss-crossed the country, appearing (by her own account) at nearly every major happening -- from the violent 1877 railroad strike in Pittsburgh, to the 1886 Haymarket riot in Chicago, to the 1884 march of Coxey's Army on Washington, to the 1899 establishment of Eugene Debs' Social Democratic Party -- gathering intelligence and working behind the scenes.

By the 1890s, she was known as "Mother Jones" to the initiated, but was nothing like the stereotype of motherly meekness and mildness; her embodiment of motherhood was as a tireless, fighting mother who stood up straight-backed to thuggery and brutal authority on behalf of her working "sons" and "daughters." Her experiences in Alabama textile mills in the late 1890s, where 30% of textile workers were underage, led her to take on child labor as a cause, writing articles for Socialist rags, giving speeches and, in 1903, leading a "Children's Crusade" from a textile mill in Pennsylvania to Theodore Roosevelt's home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, to demand a federal child labor law.

In 1899, she gave aid to anthracite miners in Pennsylvania by organizing their wives into a broom and mop militia against strikebreakers -- "raising hell up in the mountains with a bunch of wild women," as one reporter put it. She was unabashed about the aura of violent resistance she inspired: "I'm not a humanitarian," she would say, "I'm a hellraiser." For the next two decades, sometimes as an agent of the United Mine Workers (with whom she often disagreed on policy matters), she concentrated much of her efforts in the coalfields of West Virginia and Colorado. In West Virginia she participated in 5 major strikes, and in 1912, faced with martial law, Mother Jones was arrested during a march on Charleston to see Gov. Glasscock (on the rumor that she had planned to assassinate him). A military court convicted her of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced her to 20 years in prison, but a state commission settled the strike and the new governor, Henry Hatfield, commuted her sentence. Meanwhile, by the end of World War I, about half of West Virginia's miners would become union members.

Arriving in Colorado in 1913, she recommended a strike against John D. Rockefeller's Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. The authorities physically escorted Jones out of the state 3 times; when she re-entered, she was subjected to a bogus smallpox quarantine on one occasion and locked for a month in the rat-infested basement of the Walsenburg courthouse on another. Pancho Villa, who had benefited from her call for an inquiry into the treatment of Mexican revolutionaries jailed in the U.S., wrote to President Wilson to appeal for her release. In April 1914, the Colorado authorities overplayed their hand, massacring 20 women and children during a raid on a union camp at Ludlow. Ludlow became Mother Jones' touchstone as she testified before Congress, and by December, federal mediators descended on Colorado and exacted an uneasy peace. The following month, Rockefeller invited Jones to his office in New York, and they apparently enjoyed some version of a meeting of the minds: Rockefeller permitted a company union to be formed and dropped some criminal charges against the strikers, and Jones publicly announced (to the outrage of fellow travelers such as Upton Sinclair) that she didn't "hold the boy [Rockefeller] responsible."

Ideologically, she has been accused of being inconsistent: she chided the United Mine Workers for selling out to cooperation with management, but, even as a founder of the IWW in 1905, she broke with the Wobblies, seeing them as too radical for her taste. Often without an official home for her activities, she frequently freelanced, joining William Z. Foster in a post-World War I steel walkout, and traveling as a delegate to the 1921 Pan-American Labor Congress in Mexico, where her train was stopped by striking jewelry workers and she was showered with carnations and violets.

She died a few months after a grand 100th birthday party, on November 30, 1930 in Silver Spring, Maryland, and was buried with the victims of the Virden mine massacre at Mt. Olive, Illinois. Her power as an icon of the movement, representing the native strength of the archetypically weak, dissipated somewhat as the union movement settled into respectability in the years after her death, but in the 1960s her image was resurrected as her name became the title of a leftist magazine, and she has become something of a patron saint of radicalism.

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