I’m a big fan of the Pan-American Exposition. Oh, sure, there are other more popular World’s Fairs—that Columbian Exposition in Chicago with its fancy White City, Midway, Ferris Wheel and Cracker Jacks. The 1939 World’s Fair in New York with its TV, Unisphere, Belgian Waffles, and portents of war. And all those Paris World’s Fairs, with their…Paris.
But give me Buffalo, 1901, the site of the Pan-American. Now that was a time. The Rainbow City, made up of bright-colored buildings. Power from new, hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls (in “the cave of the winds” visitors could pick up a phone-like device and listen to the roar of the Falls that powered the Fair). Electricity was everywhere, most spectacularly in strings of lights across the buildings and along the grounds and pathways. Every night, as the sun set, the people would stop and stare at the best free show of the exposition, the slow illumination of the thousands of lights, the colors of the buildings mixing with the glow of the sun and clouds. It was a daily magic show, a sight that one visitor called, “more than wonderful—indescribable.”
Oh, and then there was the assassination.
On September 6, 1901, while working his way through a greeting line in the Exposition’s Temple of Music, President McKinley reached out for the hand o Leon Czolgosz. Instead, Czolgosz pulled out a gun and shot McKinley. Czolgosz was tackled and taken away by the police. McKinley was rushed to the fair’s emergency hospital. Surgery was performed and he was brought to the house of John Milburn, the president of the Exposition. McKinley lingered until the 14th, when he finally died from gangrene, the result of a bullet that the surgeons could not find and remove (the x-ray was actually part of an exhibit at the fair, u the doctors decided not to try to use it). Theodore Roosevelt was rushed to Buffalo from a vacation spot in the Adirondacks. He was sworn in as President at the home of Andrew Wilcox, a Buffalo attorney, and with those words, the troublesome Roosevelt swept into office, pulling the United States along with him into the 20th century.
Or at least that’s how Eric Rauchway, in his book, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America, sees it. The assassination brought together Progressive issues, fears about immigrants and anarchists, and the struggle to understand the human mind. Czolgosz said he murdered McKinley because it was his duty; he was an anarchist. Or did he commit this act because he was insane? Was the very idea of perceiving the president as a threat so great that he had to be destroyed (the anarchist pov) evidence of insanity? Or was Czolgosz a madman who chose anarchy because the crushing disappointments of life as a poor immigrant, with no future hopes, had driven him insane?
The expert witnesses (still a new concept) brought in to examine Czolgosz before the trial had their own struggles with the concept of insanity. Dr. Carlos McDonald, one of the examiners, was troubled by the current legal idea of sanity as being able to recognize right from wrong—he wanted to expand the definition to being able to choose right, not just know it.
No matter these questions, Czolgosz just didn’t exhibit any of the symptoms associated with madness. He stuck to his anarchist story, and the examiners pronounced him sane. His defense attorneys (reluctant Buffalo lawyers, brought in to make sure that Czolgosz had some kind of counsel) argued that anyone who would commit such an unwarranted act of violence had to be insane. It didn’t matter; the jury convicted him after thirty minutes of deliberation on September 26 and Czolgosz was hung on October 29. The autopsy was minimal and the results not recorded. The body was buried in a pauper’s grave; chemicals were poured onto it and the body destroyed, supposedly to foil ghouls or angry mobs who might want to exact further punishment on Czolgosz.
The dead Czolgosz, according to Rauchway, provided a valuable platform for Roosevelt’s ideas. On one hand, Roosevelt could condemn the threat of anarchy and put out a warning that he would come down hard on anarchists and other dangerous political organizations that were a threat to the American way; on the other hand, he could promote the idea that reforms were necessary to make life better for the working-class and poor. And these poor were largely immigrants, who had come to the US to find a better life, but instead found themselves living in squalor and struggling with uncertain and hard employment. The miserable conditions of the poor, Roosevelt believed, made radical views such as anarchy attractive to the desperate laborers and factory workers. When Roosevelt suffered his own assassination attempt during the 1912 presidential campaign, he was angered that his would-be assassin was found insane for no reason other than mentioning he had had a dream where the ghost of McKinley had told him that Roosevelt was his real assassin; in all other interviews, the man, a poor immigrant named John Schrank, had clearly and calmly stated that he wanted to kill Roosevelt because he was seeking a third term and no man should be in power that long, a seemingly anarchical sentiment that played directly into Roosevelt’s theories, again offering him ammunition for his reforms. The anarchists were a danger; the anarchists provided a reason to act for change. Roosevelt was no working-class hero (he didn’t seem to have a real affection or understanding for the masses, except when it was politically expedient), but it’s unlikely that the cautious, pro-business, political machine controlled McKinley would have taken any progressive steps if he had lived out his term.
Although it was convenient for Roosevelt to find Czolgosz sane (and perhaps the tool of like-minded conspiricists; a number of anarchists and political rabble-rousers were arrested in Chicago, in hopes of finding that they, particularly the notorious Emma Goldman, had put Czolgosz up to the murder), not everyone was so sure. Two Boston doctors, “alienists” who studied the mind, set off to find out what had really led Czolgosz to take his fateful action.
Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs traveled to the Auburn State Prison where Czolgosz spent his last days (and, incidentally, one of the prisons Alexis de Tocqueville studied during his visit to the US) and found out not only about the hushed and hurried autopsy, but also about how Czolgosz had been a quiet, untroubled prisoner, obviously very intelligent—a real problem, the warden believed, for someone born to a working-class existence (and an idea many agreed with).
Briggs went to Czolgosz’s hometown, Cleveland, and interviewed his family. He found out that Czolgosz had been the best-educated of his family, a talented mechanic who even in the dull world of a nail factory quickly rose to more skilled positions. However, the jobs came and went with the unsteady economy. Family members knew Leon was dabbling in radical politics but he was not a regular attendee of meetings or a leader or even stalwart follower in the political community. He increasingly isolated himself, avoiding contact with all others, eating by himself and particularly avoiding women. He was taking medication, but no one knew why. Eventually he moved out of the city to a small farm owned by the family, and then asked family members to buy out his share in the farm so he could use the money to move west. Instead he went to Buffalo and shot McKinley.
Briggs and his mentor, Dr. Walter Channing presented their conclusions about Czolgosz to a Boston audience in January, 1902. Both concluded Czolgosz was insane, but for different reasons. Channing simply theorized, as did many others, that anyone who believed that the president could pose a threat and therefore needed to be killed was inherently insane; anyone who was of sound mind would not take such actions. Briggs, however, based his diagnosis on a more scientific method, that is constructing a portrait of Czolgosz’s life and background. He stated that the environment in which Czolgosz lived, a world of despair and hopelessness, had led him to lose touch with reality and deluded, commit the terrible act.
The two theories are representative of two different worlds of science as it changed from the 19th to the 20th century, as the study of the brain and psychology developed. Channing chose to study and define insanity in terms of how Czolgosz’s behavior just didn’t make sense. He acted in a way that a normal person wouldn’t act and therefore was just mad. Briggs on the other hand, looked for a why—what made him act in this abnormal way, with the implication that others could similarly be driven insane. Channing's theory was based on observation and comparison to what was considered "sane." Briggs idea was the result of fact-finding and educated guesses (am I making sense? this is explained much better in the book. Speaking of...).
Rauchway offers his own theory—Czolgosz was in despair because he was poor, he had no hope of a brighter future, he didn’t seem to fit in with any of the political groups he tried to join, and he believed he was sick. The medication he was taking would have been prescribed for someone with syphilis. The doctors who examined him at the prison didn’t find any evidence that Czolgosz was syphilitic, but that didn’t mean that a quack doctor in Cleveland might not have led Czolgosz to believe he had the disease. This dovetails nicely with Czolgosz’s isolating himself from his family, and would have made him feel he had nothing to lose. If he murdered McKinley, surely he would be executed, but if he believed he didn’t have much time left anyway, than he had nothing to fear anyway. He was going down and might as well strike a grand blow in the process.
This is a very slight book (so far I think I’ve matched about half its length), but Rauchway covers a lot of ground. In addition to his grander themes of Roosevelt and his use of the assassination for his political agenda and turn of the century discussions of insanity, he covers the lives of immigrants, robber baron economy, racism, anarchist groups, the Haymarket riots, Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, and probably a bunch of other stuff I’m forgetting. It’s an interesting little book; Theodore Roosevelt is always charismatic and worth reading about and the time period is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating in this nation’s history, a time when science was bringing so many changes to the way people lived, in ways good and bad. If I have a complaint, it might well just be that I wish Rauchway had chosen to set the scene in Buffalo, 1901, a little more, to give more of a sense of the fair, the time, and the place. Otherwise it’s an enjoyable, quick read.
On Saturday, May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States went on strike in an attempt to force employers to institute an eight hour workday. The action that day was peaceful—there were parades in big cities such as New York, Detroit, and Milwaukee. In Chicago, bands of girls from the sewing factories gathered together and danced and sang in the streets.
The strikes continued into the week. On Monday, May 3rd, workers gathered outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago. Everything was relatively quiet until the whistle blew for the end of the day. As strikebreakers were escorted from the factory, a scuffle broke out between them and the crowd of locked out workers. Shots were fired and four strikers died.
As news of this outrage spread, an assembly was planned for the next day. It was to be located at the Haymarket.
The turnout on the evening of May 4th was somewhat disappointing turnout, hundreds where thousands had been hoped for. Speeches were given. Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison stopped by, just to keep an eye on things. He thought it was “tame,” and told the police chief at the nearby station that it looked like nothing would happen, and that the reserves of police who had been called to duty could go home.
Nevertheless, a column of police officers, with revolvers drawn, had gathered near the assembly. The police demanded that the assembly disperse. One man pointed out that they were acting peaceably, but the police repeated their demand. Past ten o’ clock, with a light drizzle beginning, the crowd began to break up anyway.
Then suddenly, there was a flash of light and an explosion. Shots rang out and everyone began to run. One police officer died at the scene. Within the next few days, six more died of their wounds. Three civilians died, and an unknown number of police and civilians were wounded. And the labor movement of the 19th century, in which people, mostly foreign and poor, fought for the right to decent working conditions, had once again been stained with blood.
James Green’s Death in the Haymarket tells not only about what happened on that fateful May Day, but about the conditions that led up to it and how the fears and class warfare of the time led to the, at best, flawed, at worst, downright illegal convictions and executions of four men purported to have been involved in the riot. All of the men were known to have radical political views. Two had spoken at the assembly. But there was not one bit of evidence showing that any of them had thrown the bomb or had conspired with anyone to throw the bomb.
It can be hard in this day and age—unless you’re living in a Third World country—to remember how important an issue the eight hour work day was. It’s one thing to be an associate at a law firm or a trader at an investment bank who’s putting in 12 hour days. There’s a reward at the end of the rainbow for people now who put in that kind of face time. But in the 19th century, it meant standing in front of a machine all day and the reward was another day that was exactly the same. With the low wages, and the amount of time (and we’re talking about six days a week, not five) spent at these jobs, it’s not like anyone could save money, take time to learn something else or go to school. That was it. That was your life. There was very little chance (short of an inheritance or a marriage to someone whose family owned a good business) of advancing in life. This was one of the very reasons why the workers were agitating for the eight hour day—it wasn’t just the exhaustion of the work. They believed that if they only worked eight hours, they could have time at night to “improve themselves” and then possibly move up in the world. An eight hour day meant gave a chance for the poor and the new immigrants to join the society—to even become consumers.
To say the employers didn’t see it that way is an understatement. The first attempts by workers’ groups to mandate the eight hour day began in 1867. They failed, but for the next two decades different groups rose up and agitated: strikes, riots, the inevitable clash that led to one or two deaths, the recalcitrant large companies that although competitors in the marketplace, were willing to band together to crush the labor movements. Socialist groups formed and tried to change laws by putting their candidates into city and state governments. When these failed, some became more radical—anarchists, calling for an end to government, but not (in most cases) violence.
The eight men put on trial for the Haymarket deaths should never even have been indicted. Their lawyers pointed out to the grand jury that they couldn’t be charged with murder as there was no evidence any of them had thrown the bomb. They couldn’t be charged as accomplices when there was no one charged for committing the crime. They couldn’t be charged for conspiring to cause the deaths because there was no proof a conspiracy had been planned. The assembly had been quiet and even the mayor had said the speeches were not inflammatory. One of the men charged, Albert Parsons, pointed out that he had brought his wife and children to the assembly—would he have done that if he had planned to throw a bomb there? Essentially, they were being tried for being anarchists, not for having done any specific action at Haymarket that night other than show up with known “dangerous” political views.
The trial was a mess. The judge treated it, like a party, with high-society ladies invited to come sit on the bench to watch the proceedings. The prosecution’s witnesses had so little credibility that it was laughable. And again, they weren’t being charged for any legitimate crime. Nevertheless, seven were condemned to death. One who had not even been there, but ran an anarchist newspaper, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
When the trial began, and even after the sentencing took place, the public had been widely against the men. They had killed police officers; they were anarchists; most of them were foreign. But as more information came out about the trial and as reporters came to know them, and write sympathetic accounts about them, the tide began to turn. As their lawyers started a long appeals process, they were aided by a stream of people, both famous and infamous, who were willing to write to Illinois governor Richard Oglesby and beg for clemency. Some who even believed the men guilty, or at least dangerous, who had called for their deaths reversed their positions—they feared that if the men were executed, they’d become martyrs to the anarchists’ cause, and raise the masses to take even more dangerous actions.
In the end, two of the men who had written to Oglesby had their sentences commuted to life in prison. One man committed suicide before the execution. The others, including Albert Parsons, a charismatic speaker and leader, were hung on November 11, 1887.
Their deaths set off an outcry and they did become martyrs, more so in Europe than in the US, though. However their deaths and unfair trials acted as the matches that lit the fires in such famous agitators and leaders of the time as Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and Bill Haywood.
The sentences of the surviving men were commuted by the next governor of Illinois, John Altgeld, and they went off to live and die quietly. Lucy Parsons, herself a figure of controversy when Albert was alive (she was said to be African-American, though she claimed to be Native American and Mexican) became a symbol of labor’s struggles, living until well into the next century.
Green does a fine job of telling this story, tracing the evolution of the many different labor groups and political organizations that formed amongst the poor of Chicago. He does a particularly good job of setting the scene in Chicago, a busy prosperous city in some places, but in others, a mix of slums and factories, with the poor living in a world where they never saw the sun, because the buildings were too close and too high and the smog too thick, and where the air was filled with the smell of burning coal, of blood and meat from the many slaughterhouses, of iron and wood. Quite a change for those of the poor who had come to Chicago from the farms and countryside, hoping for a better life.
Despite this, and even with the presence of such intriguing characters as the Parsons, the story never quite leaps to life. It’s very interesting—I read it very quickly—and all the facts are laid out very clearly, but I never was quite captivated or swept away by it. It’s still worth reading, especially because this was such an important moment in history, and one that probably does not get its due, but again (I know, I know) I did not fall in love, and wish I could have. But that's unlikely now, isn't it?
I stumble into Campaign '08 coverage. Come see my article about Wikipedia here .
The good news: it's not a long, rambling book review.
The bad news: it's still kind of long.
But take a look anyway. That would be very nice of you.
I wish I was a better person. Really I do. But I’m just not. Because if given the chance to travel back to anyplace in time for one day, I’m worried that I wouldn’t take the chance to witness some historic moment or risk messing up a chain of future events by trying to right an egregious wrong. I might even pass on the opportunity to meet someone lost to me. I’m afraid that the temptation to spend a day amongst the swells of the Gilded Age might be too much to resist.
Oh, those parties of such excess, where Marie Antoinette would have felt like a sparrow amongst peacocks. The hothouse flowers in winter, the constellations of jewels, the gowns, the contrived dances and tableaus. How could I resist? Of course, I’d probably have to be there as a maid; I’d be a failure as a debutante. But no matter where you sit, the view would be something, wouldn’t it? I feel painfully shallow.
Patricia Beard’s tale of turn-of-the-century, corporate malfeasance, After the Ball, is centered around one of these parties, an event held on January 31, 1905. The host was James Hazen Hyde, a rich young man who had recently inherited a high position in the Equitable Life Assurance Society, the company his father had found and built into the most successful insurer in the nation. James wasn’t ready for the job; his father, penitent and worried after the loss of an older son, smothered James with all the fine things in life, but didn’t prepare him to take over the company. In 1905, that moment was still a few years off; a trusted associate, James W. Alexander was holding down the fort until James reached his 30th birthday.
Of course James didn’t have a whole heck of a lot of time to spend at the office learning the business, as he was pretty busy being one of the prime swells around town. In an era when the smart parties regularly began on Monday nights at 11 pm (after the opera) and continued on to breakfast, it was hard to then head downtown to sit at a desk all day. James was also a serious Francophile, who had majored in French at Harvard, and managed to spend a great deal of time in Paris (though he could actually claim he was there to cultivate business—Equitable had a big stake in France but was under fire as the French government was considering changing laws involving foreign insurers).
When he wasn’t in Paris, or at the family’s country house on Long Island, or running races around town in his four-in-hand coach (yes, that’s right—race coach), James did keep his hand in the family business a little. He made the mistake, though, of choosing as a friend and mentor one of the Gilded Age’s great schemers, E.H. Harriman.
Harriman is important to the story, not because he was a guest at James’ big party, but because he, along with Morgan, Frick, James Hill, and other powerful financiers of the day, all used Equitable in one way or another as the battle for control of the company erupted after the party. Alexander, angry at the way James had kept Alexander’s son off the Equitable board, decided he’d had enough and began to plot and scheme James’s removal from the company. Egged on by the Equitable’s most successful salesman and second vice-president, Gage Tarbell (a name from an Edith Wharton novel, I’m sure), who was bitter about the nepotism that placed James above him and prevented him from ever rising further, Alexander gathered up all the reasons he could dig up to reduce James’ power and force him out. One of those reasons included an allusion to the idea that James had used company money for his lifestyle of excess, including the lavish January 31 party.
And that’s the problem with Beard’s book: Alexander does make the accusation about the party, but he makes it well after the corporate infighting scandal had been splashed across the front page. It never gained much traction, though. Other parties had been much more scandalous or seen as symbols of excess. James’s party had been covered in a generally positive light. Plus the financial manipulations revealed in the fight—syndicates created to buy and sell assets back and forth within a company, conflicts of interest, sloppy bookkeeping, advances and loans not accounted for--were more attention-grabbing. The battle for a company this big and powerful was already enough news.
As Beard explains quite well, life insurance was something people took very, very seriously in the 19th-early 20th century. For most people now, I think it’s just another benefit they get at work that they don’t think about much (that’s at least my perception as an uninsured outsider). In the 19th century, though, life insurance was vital; a working man who died in an accident in a factory or construction site had to have some kind of policy or else his family, likely already scraping along, would be destitute. Even in upper-middle class or the “average rich” a life insurance policy might be the only things preventing disaster, for in those families, the widow would not be able to work or take in boarders or any of the other options, that as difficult as they were, at least were possibilities for lower-class survivors. People of a certain class were not prepared to or expected to work and a widow, fearing for her children’s social and marital prospects, would not dare cross this line. So in this context, life insurance could be the difference between genteel poverty and hanging on to a carefully won social status.
But if the party was nothing more than the last big New York event of James’ life, then the book seems mostly like a tale of financial wrongdoing, with all the info about the party and James’s raucous life as nothing more than candy flowers on a loaf of bread. As stories of high finance and low scandal go, the Equitable’s is no worse than the rest, especially from that time period of epic backroom machinations and behind the scenes skullduggery. In the end, James was pushed out, but so were Alexander and Tarbell. No one went to prison. Harriman didn’t get the Equitable shares he had been after at the time (thus his betrayal of James during the protracted wrangling), but did quietly buy them a few years later. No earthshaking legislation came out of this story; it did not really change the lives of the rich, the poor, or the middle-class in any real way. The Equitable survived and prospered (full disclosure: I did temp for several years at Equitable Real Estate Investment Management and while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I did appreciate their putting up with me) until it was recently bought by the French giant AXA (James would have been quite happy).
Beard ends the book with the story of the rest of James’s life, spent mostly in Paris, where he married and divorced several times and generally did nothing. He had a son, Henry, who became a lawyer and worked for the OSS during WW II. This is all mildly interesting, but in reality, it feels tacked onto the main story. In the end, James Hazen Hyde, as badly treated as he was by some of the people at his father’s company and the other robber barons involved, is not someone readers can really care about, let alone pity.
After the Ball is partly about a moment of Gilded Age excess and partly about an example of turn-of-the-20th-century financial deviousness, but the two don’t really depend on each other enough to warrant weaving them together. And neither are grand enough representatives of those genres to stand alone. Beard writes well enough and the descriptions of the parties and times are fine. Her explanations of the corporate chicanery are clear enough even for non-Wall Street types. It’s a good enough addition for collectors of these little stories of the period, but not gripping enough for those interested in the bigger picture or truly gripping tales of the gaudy and bad Gilded Age.
Now excuse me, I have to figure out that time travel thing and get ready for the party.
Bank robberies. Kidnappings. Stolen cars. Criminals hiding out in safe houses. A corrupt police force. 1933. St. Paul, Minnesota.
What? I know—when you think of crime hubs in the 1930s, you probably first think of Chicago, New York, Kansas City, maybe. But St. Paul, one of the mild-mannered, cheery Twin Cities, a hotbed of criminal activity? You bet the submachine gun in the backseat of your 1933 Packard it was.
At the depths (or height) of the Depression, with the Dust Bowl causing additional misery, a crime wave struck the middle of the United States. Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI,1933-34 tells the story of the most prominent gangs of the period. The parallel story is that of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation that, Burrough theorizes (more about that word later), during this time grew from a loose assembly of bumbling neophytes to a tight crime-fighting unit that eventually won J. Edgar Hoover’s war on crime. By the end of the book, all the major players, and many minor associates, are dead or in prison.
And the major names are familiar ones—Machine Gun Kelly, the Barkers (with their lesser-known but much more competent cohort Alvin Karpis), Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, and most importantly, John Dillinger. Working with them were a number of down and out types who brought along a variety of skills: good drivers and even better shots, quick mechanics, bar and hotel owners who could offer hideouts, and a seemingly endless parade of sleazy doctors who could clean up bullet wounds and perform gory plastic surgery. And of course they were all accompanied by hard-luck women for whom a bad man was better than no man
Most of their stories were the same—a petty crime at a young age, a meeting in prison with more hardened types who easily became mentors, promises to help each other when they got out (and sometimes help in getting out). And again, it was the Depression. It’s so hard now for us to put ourselves in the shoes of people living in that time period, when the poverty was like nothing we see now and the despair and sense of hopelessness was even worse. In 1933, no end was in sight. Why not turn to crime? It didn’t seem like there was any legal way to survive anymore, let alone get rich. The high risk of getting caught was worth it compared to the potential payoff. With a little experience, a good plan, and the right group of accomplices, a life of crime seemed worth the gamble.
Then there was the excitement. Life was pretty bleak if you couldn’t scrape up the money for a night at the movies and it didn’t seem like it was going to get much better. Stealing cars and holding up banks could not only make you rich—it also gave you a sense of power and a rush of adrenaline. Once you got used to that life it was hard to give it up. Many a bank robber talked about one last score, followed by retirement to Florida, Cuba, Europe, Mexico, Australia. But they were easily brought back, to help out a friend, to add just a little bit more to the nest egg. For many, though, it was just a thrill (and for their associates, too—one criminal was tracked down when the FBI intercepted a letter from his giddy new wife telling her friend how much fun she was having and why don’t you join us?).
And if there was any kind of worry about right and wrong, robbing banks made it easy to justify a crime: they were taking money from greedy, undeserving banks, not from ordinary, struggling folks.
Burrough centers his book around a massacre in Kansas City’s Union Station in June, 1933. The shoot-out resulted in the deaths not only of Frank Nash, a criminal who was being transported by federal agents, but also several of the agents. The FBI, at that time known simply as the Bureau of Investigation, had an unclear mission; there weren’t solid rules about when and where they were allowed to step in. Local police forces didn’t want them interfering. Worst of all, Hoover had constructed a force of bright, quick, clean-cut young college graduates, all admirable in their own way, but without a lick of crime-fighting experience. Still, Hoover seized upon the murder of the agents (killing a federal agent wouldn’t become a crime until about a year later) as an opportunity to declare a war on crime.
As the Bureau begins to feel its way through the investigation of the Union Station massacre, Burrough introduces the various gangs that were striking their way across the Midwest and to some degree, the South. Machine Gun Kelley and his wife Kathryn, who picked up a Dust Bowl escapee family, including their young daughter, while on the lam and drove around with them for a while, using the family members to run errands and deliver messages (yes, this did eventually get them in trouble). This type of thing seemed to happen throughout the crime wave, unsuspecting people getting sucked into the lives of America’s Public Enemies. Lost gang members showed up on random doorsteps looking for food, a place to sleep, directions. Relatives of friends of friends of relatives of gang members suddenly found themselves operating a virtual safe house, with feds showing up, always a beat late, but with plenty of questions. A criminal needed a car, grabbed the car and the person inside and for a while the driver would lead a life of adventure, lucky if all that happened was the loss of a car and a long walk home from the middle of nowhere.
The action cuts back and forth between the Kellys, the Barkers, Pretty Boy Floyd, and documents the rise of Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger, particularly Dillinger’s rise from small-time accomplice to folk hero. Bonnie and Clyde worked more in the south and remained mostly a regional story, barely gaining any notice until their deaths in a bloody shootout. It’s no secret by now that the 1967 movie vastly overdramatized their lives and their impact; they weren’t even trailed by the Bureau agents, but rather by Frank Hamer, a retired Texas Ranger who was hired by the head of the state prison system specifically to track down the Barrows (Bonnie barely registered until she was recast as Faye Dunaway). Clyde Barrow was so desperate for attention that he even tried copying Dillinger. Dillinger had developed a sort of “I’m for the little guy,” Robin Hood kind of rep after telling bank customers during a robbery, “We want the bank’s money, not yours,” and allegedly handing back money that a customer had had on the counter in front of a teller. Barrow tried the same thing, but with much less effect. Chicago was a bigger market than Dallas.
As the various gangs pull off bank robberies and kidnappings (very much en vogue, post-Lindbergh), Burrough tracks the Bureau’s efforts to hunt them down. Debacle would be too soft a word for many attempts. Law enforcement 101 was apparently not in session: known associates were questioned and released, but not tailed; family members (and seemingly all criminals checked in with family at some time) weren’t put under surveillance; hangouts that were known to harbor criminals on the run weren’t put under watch. In the worst disaster, an inn in Wisconsin where Dillinger and Nelson were staying was raided by a number of agents, and the result was all gang members escaping (except for a few wives and girlfriends who were typically released and then not followed), but several bystanders and agents were killed. The agents arrived in the area without a plan. Really. No plan. They just surrounded the inn and waited and began shooting aimlessly at the first sign of movement. No one alerted the local police. No one set up a roadblock or put out any kind of watch. It was a huge embarrassment for the Bureau (luckily for the FBI’s place in history, the CIA was on the horizon…).
They were eventually bailed out by the Chicago shootout that resulted in the death of Dillinger, who by then had become such a folk hero that newsreel footage of him was cheered by movie audiences. The Dillinger take down, though, did not happen because of excellent detective work; rather, it was largely the result of a number of sources coming together at the right time, including the probable involvement of a corrupt Chicago cop and an immigrant madame who was on the verge of deportation and anxious to win points that might help her stay in the country (no luck—she eventually was shipped back to Romania).
Once Dillinger fell, though, the others began to come down too, often dying hard deaths. A Dillinger associate who vowed that he wouldn’t be killed in a shootout in a filthy alley did indeed meet exactly that end. Others, such as the trigger-happy, dangerous Nelson, spent their last hours bleeding to death in the backs of car seats. Floyd was shot running through a cornfield. The Barkers were killed in a bloody shootout in a house in Florida (Ma Barker, a not-too-bright, nonentity who wasn’t involved in her sons’ crimes, was demonized by Hoover as the mastermind of the gang in order to deflect criticism about her death). Some, such as Kelly, one of the Barkers, and Karpis, spent decades in jail. Girlfriends, doctors, drivers, and relatives served sentences of differing lengths.
I liked the structure of this book. It can occasionally be a little confusing to keep track of all the different places and events on the timeline, but I never got hopelessly lost (I did also benefit, though, from being able to read this in large consecutive chunks). You can lose track of minor associates and girlfriends who pop in and out but that doesn’t really matter. Weaving back and forth this way allows you to see how the main players and places were to some degree connected and part of a larger landscape.
The book also benefits from the thousands of pages of FBI reports that Burrough used for research. The conversations and descriptions are from the actual players, not made up or guessed or supposed. As you would expect from the time and situation the dialogue seems to have stepped out of a 1930s movie (in reality, the movies followed the turn of the tide from early films that lionized gangsters and robbers to those that glorified the newly nicknamed “G-Men).
At the end of the book, Burrough brings up the question of whether there really was a crime wave of such proportion that the Bureau had to organize a “war on crime.” In recent years, some have made the case that the situation was overblown, an attempt by Hoover to create a need for a Bureau that had been looked down on. Burrough comes down on the side that the war on crime was necessary, as it put a break on a general sense of lawlessness that was growing at the time. It’s hard to make a judgment call on this, though, because Burrough doesn’t spend a lot of time giving a general portrait of life around the crime wave, and of the reaction to it. He mentions some things about newspaper coverage, such as how it took Dillinger to make the bank robberies into a national story, not just a Midwestern one. But though there is plenty of words and testimony from the criminals and FBI agents throughout the book, there is little reaction from any bystanders or outsiders. After a while, it’s easy to feel like everyone from Chicago to Florida was involved with crime or criminals. This may be out of necessity—there probably aren’t a lot of witnesses left and they may not have left much of a record behind. Burrough may also have wanted to keep the narrative clean and focus solely on the criminals. But as I said, this just makes it difficult to judge how much impact the crime wave had outside the immediate victims.
The other problem I had was that the arc of the book was supposed to show the evolution of the Bureau of Investigation from beginners to experienced crime fighters. Obviously by the end of the story, 1934, they had success—all the major players were dead or in jail and certainly the latter raids didn’t have nearly the ineptitude of the early ones. But they also did involve a fair amount of lucky timing (not to mention the inability of some of the criminals to quit while ahead), and outside involvement. Remember, Bonnie and Clyde were taken down by a complete outsider. The trail to Karpis was led by postal inspectors. Chicago and New York mob syndicates, angered by all the attention the bank robbers were bringing to their towns, murdered some of the bank robbers. So while the bureau improved, I don’t know if they necessarily executed a complete turnaround. Sometimes things just run out of time and come to an end anyway.
And of course, that’s what I should do. My criticisms are minor. All in all a fun, fast-paced read that I rather enjoyed. Bad guys often make the best stories, don’t they?
Geography is destiny. Indeed. Yes. Sigh.
In his much acclaimed book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond answers the question of why, given the same biological attributes, different groups of the people who spread out across the world trod such different paths. Why did some develop writing and the technology that allowed them to conquer other people? Why did some groups, sometimes less than a thousand miles apart build empires while the others remained rootless hunter-gatherers?
As previously noted, a lot of this had to do with where you landed. Lucky groups founds themselves in a place where some wheat plants developed a mutation that allowed them to grow in stalks that produced edible wheat berries rather than the normal wild plants, whose husks shattered quickly in order to spread their seeds. Other fortunates found themselves in areas where there were large animals that could be domesticated for food and work. If a group was able to produce food, it became a better gamble to stay in one place and try to farm than to continue the hit and miss hunting and gathering. Once a group was involved in food production, a food surplus followed. A food surplus allowed a group to grow in number, which meant they needed leaders, were able to support craftworkers who made other goods. Once there were goods to track, methods of recording became necessary, thus, writing, etc., etc.
It all makes a lot of sense, if you think about it (or if you have worked on a decent high school/jr high social studies textbook). Diamond’s point seems to be that it was nothing to do with biological inferiority that led to New Guineans still working with stone age tools in the 19th century, but rather the resources available to them, combined with a remoteness that prevented the spreading of technology. The idea of biological inferiority seems very Victorian anyway and not something one should think much about nowadays (I mean, didn’t the genome reveal that humans are only a few steps away from fruit bats anway?), but just in case you were unclear, Diamond makes it plain.
That’s the best part of this book. It’s very calm, logical, with all the facts and ideas laid out in an easily understandable way. I think it’s used as a textbook in colleges, probably Anthropology 101; the copy I had was heavily highlighted and underlined and asterisked. Kid, I hope your paper turned out okay.
But while I appreciated the information and lucid manner of this book, I wasn’t exactly captivated (and we know I like books that captivate and enthrall me. I am one step away from turning into the heroine of a creaky melodrama). I had several problems. One is that while the book is indeed uncluttered and clear, I wonder if there could have been more of a narrative. I mean, if instead of just mentioning cave paintings, the segment is introduced with the discovery of the cave paintings, or if the findings of clay tablets in one area is used to help paint a portrait of what we know, from other found artifacts, life was like in that area. Could the mention of missionaries arriving in an area, instead of being general, have been made specific through the story of a certain missionary trying to establish ground in that place? Maybe I am childish in a way for wanting something more like a story. I’m sure that was not the mission of this book and there is nothing wrong with the way it is. But I guess I just wished it was something else.
Another issue was that it didn’t answer the questions I wanted answered. While Diamond goes into great detail about how certain plants were domesticated and how groups might have discovered this, which led to their transformation from nomads to food producers, he skips a big step: how did they get from wheat berries growing on a stalk to say, bread? I mean, how long did people sit around grinding their teeth on hard wheat berries and barley pearls before someone got the idea to do something else with them? Did a pile of wheat get left out in the rain, and when it was found softened, someone decided that was a better way to eat it from now on? When did people begin to grind wheat? What made them discover yeast? Most importantly, when did people begin to cook with fire? How did someone get the idea to throw that piece of meat in the fire (“Jim, are you mad? Why did you throw a perfectly good chunk of mastodon into the fire? I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you.”)? What did it take to get from the presumed paste of wheat to bread baked on stones (I guess)? In the index of the book, surprisingly (well, at least to me), fire only gets two mentions. I find that odd because the realization of the uses of fire seems to me to be a pretty big step forward.
How about clothes? When did someone decide that they could not only eat the animal they killed, but also wear its hide? When did they notice that skins dried after a while became a different kind of material? Diamond talks about people raising flax and hemp for weaving, but how did people get the idea for weaving cloth out of flax plants? What made someone look at a ball of cotton and twist it into a string, or thread? I don’t know if there are answers to these questions, or about the cooking type questions. But if there are, I would have liked to see them here.
My other problem was just a tendency for Diamond to constantly tell you what the book is about, what each chapter is about, when something will be discussed. I mean in the intro, he goes blow by blow through what will be talked about in each segment of the book. In each chapter he tells you what the chapter will be about. He mentions something and refers to it as, “what we talked about in Chapter 4,” or “as we shall see in Chapter 12.” Maybe this is a very academic thing, as in the old joke about a paper structured as “this is what my paper is going to be about, here is what it is about, this is what I told you it was about.” Maybe this kind of reviewing is helpful for students, but I just found it really, really, irritating. Honestly, the book’s a quick read, but you could probably knock about a hundred pages out if you cut all the “in this section we will see…” stuff (okay, a hundred pages might be an exaggeration, but you get my point).
(Also, I should mention that Diamond drops in the phrase, "guns, germs, and steel," at every opportunity. Hey, that's a nice one for a title! But it wears out a little.)
But these are just my problems. As I said, this book is very informative; even if you’re familiar with these ideas and facts, it’s nonetheless valuable to see them again in a clear, lucid format. You won’t hurt yourself by reading this book, and in fact will probably come out feeling like you’ve learned a lot. You won’t have a bad time reading it. But I didn’t have a great time either.
One day last year I was thinking about the first transoceanic telegraph. Too lazy to look up info, I called my dad and asked him what material was used to waterproof and coat the cable. Without even pausing, he said, “Gutta percha, a rubber-like substance that comes from a tree found in Malaysia.” At that point, I realized that I will never, ever think of a question, no matter how weird, inconsequential, or stupid, that Stan cannot answer. I give up. He is the king of useful and useless knowledge.
But I was still curious about the telegraphs that closed the distances between the oceans, mostly because I had been reading a lot about the Raj and thought what a huge difference it must have made when news from India could reach Britain in minutes instead of months. It’s so easy to communicate now—cell phones, email, instant messaging, text messages—that the telegraph seems pokey and dull. In its day, though, it was transforming, perhaps even more so than its follow-up, the telephone, if for no other reason than that it was first.
Once the edges of the continents were connected via telegraph lines, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to bridge the oceans. It only took a person or group who had the money and will to be able to withstand the failures that such an unwieldy enterprise involved.
As John Steele Gordon tells it in his book, A Thread Across the Ocean, Cyrus Field was the man for the job. A successful businessman, honest, well-liked, and with a reputation for honesty, Field could raise money from his wealthy, connected friends, lose the money when things went wrong, and get the same people to invest again for another try.
And oh, did things ever go wrong. The cable was immensely heavy; loading it onto ships was in itself a mighty task. Finding ships that could haul that size a cargo wasn’t easy (the greatest success for this turned out to be Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Eastern, an overly ambitious failure as a steamship for passengers, but a success at laying cable; the story of the Great Eastern is told in greater detail in Stephen Fox's Transatlantic, which I wrote about in Turbinia). The cable had to be unreeled at just the right speed. If anything happened to the cable, it had to be reeled back in with equal care. And oh, storms could always pop up and really wreak havoc.
The first attempt in 1857 was an immediate success…and then an abject failure. The cable was laid, despite a tremendous storm striking mid-voyage. Much celebration ensued when the heroes of the telegraph landed in Newfoundland. The first message on the new line was from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan. It was joyously received, although it was uneasily noted by Field and company that it took 16 and a half hours to send the brief message. It was a sign of bad things to come—soon the signal from the cable weakened and finally disappeared. The line had failed, and Field and his group quickly went from heroes to goats; they were widely mocked in newspapers and songs (this was an era when people did things like write satirical verses about the failures of inventions. Movies couldn’t come along quickly enough). It would take almost twelve years and several more attempts before the optimistic, patient and unyielding Field found success for his Atlantic telegraph. And once that happened, other lines began to fall into place. By 1902, the world was virtually connected by a web of land and oceanic telegraph lines.
Gordon’s fine little book (and I mean little—I think this post is going to be longer) tells this story clearly and easily. I want to say that the history of communications is a topic of immense importance and one that should appeal to everyone, but in reality, it probably is a bit of a niche interest. But if you do want to know another story of technological triumph from the Industrial Age, one that hasn’t been done to death, this is certainly a good one.
Except for one thing.
Or person, that is. Samuel Finley Breese Morse, considered by some the father of the telegraph, believed by others to be an overbearing fraud. I am of the latter camp.
I won’t go into too much detail, but this is one of those stories where one man gets all the credit while his quieter half did all the work. Alfred Vail, one of the sons of Stephen Vail of Morristown, NJ, who had grown wealthy from his iron works, walked into a room at New York University one day and saw Morse trying to demonstrate a crude telegraph (an idea, by the way that others such as Charles Wheatstone, were already working on in other parts of the world). Vail vaguely knew Morse, and was intrigued by the invention. He offered not only to get his family to invest in the idea, but to allow Morse to work on it at their iron works.
The Vails did invest in the idea, and the telegraph was made at Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown but Morse was hardly part of it. Letters clearly show that Morse was in New York most of the time while Vail and an assistant from the iron works, William Baxter, worked on the machine at the iron works. The only time Morse made an extended appearance was when the Vails, trying to give the impoverished Morse money without outright handing it to him, commissioned a series of family portraits (Morse was an artist by trade).
So there’s the evidence of the first place, that Morse was rarely there while the telegraph was being built. The next piece of evidence is just one of logic. As noted, Morse was an artist. Vail, on the other hand, came from a family of machinists and had grown up around tools, machines, and manufacturing. Who do you think would be more likely to create a working machine? Even though Vail didn’t formally study electricity or engineering, he just intuitively had a better grasp of how to build a practical instrument. Morse had spent his whole life painting and was the son of a minister. Unless he was some kind of electricity savant, it just doesn’t make sense that Morse would even be able to figure out how to make the machine work in the same way that Vail and Baxter could.
(By the way, Gordon actually backs this up in his book. When Field began his transatlantic telegraph project, he brought in as consultants scientists and telegraph experts, which of course included Morse. One of the scientists was Edward Whitehouse, whose ineptitude throughout the whole project eventually got him fired before the cable was even completely laid. On almost every decision, Morse sided with Whitehouse, rather than another scientist, William Thomson—later better known as Lord Kelvin. After the fact it became clear that Whitehouse was almost consistently wrong and Thomson right. Morse, who probably had no real feel for electricity and the workings of the telegraph, had of course picked the wrong scientist. This is just another strike against the viability of Morse as the designer of the telegraph.)
Another sign of Morse’s impractical understanding of the telegraph is evident in his plan for the “code.” Morse actually spent years compiling a dictionary where he assigned numbers (with no real rhyme or reason) to different words. This is as if the inventor of the typewriter had decided to build a machine with a key for every single word in English rather than one key per letter. This is the kind of idea that only someone who didn’t really work with or operate machines could think would work. Morse had thought that a an ink pen would drag a line along a sheet of paper, with the electrical pulses causing the pen to bump up waves in the line. One wave would equal the number one, two waves for two, etc. With a dictionary numbering in the thousands, the code for a word could unreel slowly in a long string of waves. Meanwhile, Vail had devised a mechanism that was much faster and more efficient; it used a lever to move a pen up and down, making quick marks on the paper (he later would eliminate the pen and ink part and replaced it with a sharp point that made indentations in paper, thus ridding telegraph operators of the need to keep track of ink in the pen). According to the account of William Baxter, this is when Vail realized that it would be easier and clearer to work with a code of different length dots and dashes than long series of numbers (some stories say that he went down to the printer of the Morristown newspaper and studied the type layout on the press to figure out which letters, according to frequency of use, should get the easiest and fastest codes). Eventually Morse abandoned his numbered dictionary and went with the dot and dash code. From what I’ve read, Morse gives little explanation himself of why he dropped the dictionary project, on which he had worked for years, and how he developed the dot-dash code instead (Morse’s sons later passed around the story that Morse had gotten the idea from observing a printing press while giving an early demonstration of the telegraph in Philadelphia, but this is patently false; at the time of the Philadelphia trip, the dot-dash code had already been plainly in use). It should be noted that Morse and Vail performed several demonstrations and tests using the dot-dash code before suddenly, when showing the telegraph to President Van Buren and cabinet members, Morse went back to the numeric code. There is no explanation for this, but it seems suspiciously like Morse, at an important moment in the life of the invention, felt that “his” system was the reliable one, not something someone else had devised. If Morse had developed the dot-dash code, and had been using it successfully, why wouldn’t he use it at this big moment? I think this looks bad.
So why would Vail let Morse do all this? It seems like it was just a problem of personality. Vail was apparently a diffident, retiring, while Morse was a relentless self-promoter. Morse was much older than Vail and had briefly taught Morse at NYU. Vail must have felt that deferring to Morse was the respectful thing to do. The contract between the two was worded in a way that at first seemed like Morse would get credit for the idea but they would share credit for all subsequent improvements to it. This meant that all of Vail’s improvements got lost in the shuffle. Vail just didn’t feel he had the legal right to make any claims or take out any patents on parts of the telegraph.
And so there are statues of Samuel Morse, and people casually toss around the phrase “Morse code” and Morse is in the history textbooks. And in Morristown, NJ, there is a grammar school on Speedwell Avenue named the Alfred Vail School. If you went into that school, I doubt any of the kids, and probably most of the teachers and administrators would not be able to answer the question: “Who is Alfred Vail?”
(If you want further reading on this topic—if I haven’t already bored you to death, you can start with this article from the Historic Speedwell website. Of course you would be right to feel that the keepers of the Vail property might not be the most unbiased writers, although their sources are impressive. Going further back, this 1888 Century Illustrated Magazine account by Franklin Pope relies heavily on information from William Baxter, Vail’s assistant and the one living eyewitness at that point to the development of the telegraph. That article is great, but long, so here’s a summary of it by Neal McEwen at The Telegraph Office, a telegraph history website. For the other side of the argument, there are numerous biographies of Morse available, but it should be no surprise that few even mention Vail.)
When you walk around Manhattan at night, it is hard not to notice the low, shadowy figures scuttling greedily around the garbage pails outside of buildings or black trash bags left on the curb near restaurants. You grit your teeth, hope none come near you, and try not to think of the fact that where you have seen one rat, it is likely that there are hundreds nearby. If not thousands.
San Francisco in 1899 was a glittering city on the rise. The railroad connected the West to the East. The port brought in ships from all over the Pacific. The ships brought business. They also brought rats, who brought the fleas that carried the bubonic plague germ.
What? Plague? In the United States, just 100 years ago? Isn’t bubonic plague something from medieval Europe? Doctors with funny masks to keep away the germs, the Decameron’s wealthy storytellers who fled the plague-filled city, bring out your dead and all that? That plague, here?
Yes, it did happen here. In The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco, Marilyn Chase tells the story of the battle against the disease in turn of the century Northern California. The problem this time was not a belief that the disease was caused by witches, an angry god, or any other supernatural force. The enemy, instead, was political cravenness and distrust and fear brought on by racial prejudice.
When Joseph Kinyoun, the public health officer assigned to San Francisco, began to suspect plague, he was greeted with denial. The city politicians and businessmen worried that plague would scare off business and tourism. Meanwhile, the residents of Chinatown, where the first cases were diagnosed, saw this as just another attempt to get rid of them; they’d already been blamed for taking American jobs, immigration laws were getting tougher, and now they were being called plague carriers and told they were going to be quarantined. They had no reason to trust the white doctors who roped off their streets, homes, and businesses, while skirting the white business owners in the area.
Chinese business groups fought against the quarantine. They kept plague deaths secret, sometimes spiriting the bodies out of town or dumping them in the bay. San Francisco politicians complained also, while wealthy people and hotel owners argued against the inconvenient blockade that kept their cooks, waiters, and gardeners from coming to their homes. The whole affair culminated in a number of charges against Kinyoun, including that he had poisoned animals with plague in order to make his case and make him famous; he had spilled plague germs while experimenting and now invented an epidemic in order to avert blame; he shot a man near his lab. All charges were eventually dismissed, but the antipathy towards Kinyoun and his difficulty in getting anywhere were not necessarily undeserved; Kinyoun may have been a brilliant bacteriologist, but he had no feel for how to deal with people.
His replacement, a doctor wielding the name of an ‘80s rock star, Rupert Blue, was quite the opposite. Blue persuaded and explained where Kinyoun bludgeoned. That’s not to say that everything went smoothly once Blue arrived on the scene; it still took a long time to win the Chinese residents’ trust and the city leaders continued to be more interested in a cover up than a solution. But he made some progress.
Blue was transferred out of San Francisco after a while but was brought back after the earthquake. Now you’d think the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires might be a blessing in disguise, one of those moments when nature cleans out a problem. Quite the opposite—when Blue arrived back in San Francisco, he surveyed the refugee camps with thousands of people living in unsanitary conditions, garbage everywhere. He knew it was rat paradise. (Just to scare you, Chase explains how fast a rat population can grow: a female rat can begin to have babies at about four months and usually has 15-16 at a time. Within a year, one rat family can grow to 800 members. Yeah. Don’t think too much about it, trust me.)
Blue went to work by employing rat catchers, tearing down structures that provided homes for rats, autopsying and charting the movements of different types of rats, tracing the roots of every human death (the deaths of both parents and illness of one son in a family were tracked back to the actions of two of the other boys, who found a dead rat ,gave it a funeral, then brought home the lethal fleas who were undoubtedly overjoyed at so easily finding new hosts). It was not work for the squeamish and it took a toll on the scientist who toiled in the makeshift lab run by Blue.
Several things helped out the pied pipers of San Francisco. First off, they happened to be working at a time when scientists were understanding more about how disease in general, and plague in particular, spread. Unlike earlier plague fighters, they understood it was from the fleas that attacked the rats (they didn’t know it at the time, but as Chase explains, the Californians got lucky in that they happened to have an invasion of the type of fleas that produced less plague germs than another more lethal variety. This is probably what kept deaths in San Francisco in the hundreds rather than the thousands).
The reluctant San Francisco leaders finally had to give in and clean up when Roosevelt sent the Pacific Coast fleet to San Francisco. Blue forced home the point that if the fleet arrived and there was a suspicion of plague, they would move on to Seattle, taking all their business with them. That kicked them into action.
Finally, in an era when women were often the leaders of reform, Blue appealed to the mothers, wives, and sisters of San Francisco to take charge of turning San Francisco into a paragon of hygiene. Colby Rucker, one of Blue’s assistants, was a particularly adept public speaker, who inspired women to poison, trap, and starve the rats out, to only shop at stores that were clean, to “think of him when they looked in their garbage pails.” Their efforts, particularly as businesses were forced to clean up for the shoppers of the family, made a difference.
The plague dissipated after 1907, but Blue still found trouble. His fears were realized when they found that the plague fleas were jumping from rats to North American squirrels. The squirrels carried the plague east, past the Sierra Nevadas, and it is still there in the deserts of the southwest, buried in the fur of squirrels, prairie dogs, and opossums. Plague cases still pop up, though they are treatable if understood and caught early.
But I’m doing you a disservice by trying to tell this story when Chase does it so much better. A medical science and health reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Chase writes fluidly and swiftly (this is a short book that reads even quicker than its length, if you know what I mean. I’m sure you do), and easily explains the ins and outs of fleas, rats, and the plague. She describes the conditions and progress of disease in graphic detail; I’ve been sick and reading this book did not make me feel any better. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, that is as much as I’m going to enjoy reading about oozing buboes and ravenous rats. Fits of dizziness aside, I certainly admired this book and do recommend it, not just for its overall readability but because it brings to light an event in this nation’s history that has largely been forgotten and should not.
Two for one today.
I spent a lot of time last December writing about earthquakes and volcanoes (and indeed, my life was unexpectedly hit last December by a series of earthquakes and volcanoes and I still have not recovered). I did just enough research to get by explaining the hows and whys to fifth graders but didn’t feel like I knew a lot about these topics. I was reminded of this one day when watching the 1936 movie San Francisco on Turner Classics (and what a fine job they did in the special effects department for the quake in that movie; really it’s quite impressive for those pre-CGI times. Watch it if you have a chance, or at least the last half hour or so) and thought, well, the 1906 event is as good an entry place as any for a rather big subject. So off I went to the library and found Simon Winchester’s 2005 book, A Crack in the Edge of the Word: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.
What a frustrating and irritating book this was, or at least it was to me. I am going to complain about something which would seem admirable, but I found annoying, that is that this book is barely about the San Francisco earthquake. It’s about lots of other things—it’s a treatise on plate tectonics, it’s a history of North American earthquakes (sort of), it’s (somewhat vaguely and messily) the story of California, it’s a travel memoir. The last thing it is about is the San Francisco earthquake. Oh sure, the event shows up tantalizingly and tangentially from time to time, but it is buried in everything else.
Now about that everything else. A large part of this story is told through the cross-country journey of Winchester on his way from Massachusetts to Northern California and his return trip back via Alaska and Yosemite. Now that sounds like a pretty good idea, doesn’t it? I like reading about people’s travels. I like learning about different places. I have no problem with the idea of an author injecting him/herself in the story. But here’s the problem with that approach—it depends heavily on how much the reader likes the author (and oh, how much have I liked some authors), and in this case, well, I just didn’t like him that much. I don’t mean I actively disliked Winchester or think he’s a bad person; obviously I don’t know enough about him for that. But I just didn’t find him a particularly enjoyable person to spend a lot of time with, which is odd. He certainly is enthusiastic. But he is also verbally tiresome and when he muses about just about anything, with his penchant for purple prose and chunky words, I often had the urge to say, “Oh, just shut up and get on with it, will you?” (indeed, a familiar feeling, I am sure, to anyone who has read anything I have written)
We get lectures on the origins of plate tectonics; we get Winchester’s thoughts while camping on a California mountainside. We get a little bit about the economics of mid-19th century San Francisco; we get the story of Winchester’s 1965 trip to Iceland. We get information about the epicenter of the 1906 earthquake and what constitutes an epicenter; we get Winchester’s feelings about various Midwestern towns and their charm or lack thereof. Really, there is an awful lot of useful information in here in regards to earthquakes, the formation of the earth and the different plates, what you can learn from various rocks, and so on. The problem, though, is that it is all just so scattered that it’s hard to maintain interest in any topic. The book just feels like it has no flow. When it does finally get to the 1906 earthquake (aside from a tease in chapter one), somewhere around page 200, the smattering of stories and personal accounts leave you wanting more, but instead, unfortunately, it is off to Alaska with Mr. Winchester. If you want to really learn about life during and after the earthquake, you’ll have to go to other places, I suppose.
Two other notes about this book: again, I will say it—if a footnote is so long that it either takes up more than one third of a page or extends onto another page, then it belongs in the text. And other choices about what belongs in the text of the book are equally puzzling. At one point, Winchester mentions the intensity of a quake, then puts in parentheses that intensity is different than magnitude and that it was too big a topic to explain here so we would have to read about it, and the Richter scale, in Appendix A. Okay. Winchester managed to spend about six pages pondering the name of the Ohio town of Wapakoneta (the birthplace of John Glenn, we learn…no, don’t ask what this has to do with anything). Is it too much to ask, in a book about earthquakes, to have an explanation of the difference between magnitude and intensity explained in the main body of the book? I read the appendix and there was nothing in the material that would have seemed out of place with the other earthquake information. The actual intensity scale and Richter scale could have been in an appendix, but there was no reason to bury this otherwise useful material.
My other complaint is just that this book has an appalling amount of typos in it, especially for a book by a high-profile, established author. I’m only an average copy editor, but I found numerous mistakes: two prepositions in a row, as if a change was only half-made, no spaces between words, it’s instead of its, and an instance where the year 1866 is referred to in a section about an earthquake in 1886. Did anyone proofread it? Other than the bored intern who just wants to get back to his/her online poker game, that is? You just don’t expect to see this many careless errors in a book like this.
Now after all that, you would think a person would say, “Well, that was quite disappointing. I’m never going to read another book by Simon Winchester!” But not me. I am either an idiot, a masochist, or just somewhat peculiar (d. all of the above), because I immediately went to the library and got one of the prolific Winchester’s earlier books, Krakatoa. Part of this was because I always feel somewhat guilty when I don’t like an author’s work, and want to give another try just to make sure; part was the topic, the huge eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, which in light of my earlier writing on volcanoes (I had to pretend to be a volcanologist. Don’t ask.), seemed too much to resist.
This book is actually better than A Crack in the Edge of the World, if for no other reason than that we are spared a round-the-world trip to Jakarta with Winchester (though, alas, he does drag us along at the end on his pilgrimage to the site of the defunct volcano). Again, we are treated to more about plate tectonics—more specifically how the theory evolved and came to be accepted. Is there anyone in the world more willing to write about plate tectonics than Winchester? I doubt it. You could give him an assignment to write about the Westminster Dog Show and he’d probably run off to dog sled across Greenland under the pretext of studying the origins of Spitz dogs but would then instead write numerous stories about his university days as a geology student, taking rock samples in the North Atlantic while searching for the line between the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate. Indeed, Winchester’s formative years were heady times for early plate tectonic fans and we never forget this.
But the book does include other stuff I found interesting. I liked reading about Alfred Russell Wallace, the scientist who came up with his own understanding of how evolution worked that were so similar to Darwin’s that when he wrote to Darwin explaining them, they probably finally kicked the notoriously slow-paced Darwin into action to make sure that he got credit for them. The result is that Darwin is remembered by many, and Wallace remembered by few. But Wallace, who spent most of his life on the islands that are now known collectively as Indonesia, made another hugely important contribution. Parts of the islands had flora and fauna that were peculiar to Australia, all those marsupials, eucalyptus trees, and the like. But then there was an almost clear dividing line were the plants, trees, birds, and mammals turned back to those found in the rest of the world. In one place, you could find kangaroos, wombats, and platypuses; right next door, though, the animal population consisted of otters, bears, deer, and wolves. The line where two very different plates collided brought these distinct habitats, which had evolved separately while drifting far away from each other, close together. The imaginary line that separates them became known as the Wallace Line, so there is some remembrance of the poor fellow after all.
The other enjoyable part of the book is, of course, the personal accounts and descriptions of the day of the Krakatoa explosion. Trust me, you don’t want to experience a large-scale volcanic eruption. The effects of the volcano’s force was felt in numerous ways around the world. Amateur scientists around the world noticed air pressure disturbances that showed that vibrations from the event essentially circled the world seven times. Temperatures dropped noticeably during the next year, as clouds of ash blocked and dulled the sun’s warmth. The ash itself caused beautiful sunsets that led artists to stake out twilights and produce a frenzy of minutely shaded rose and gold landscapes.
As I said, this book was more tolerable than the other, but it still could have been improved. Again, it jumps around a lot and covers some topics in depth while only touching on others seemingly randomly ( a long discourse on the pepper, but not even a mention of the effect of the salt water from the tsunami waves on the soil of the islands). I’m not saying that I need everything in a book to be completely, rigidly linear, but I do think Winchester misses opportunities to build suspense and drama. Instead it tends to feel meandering and scattershot.
This book also suffered from the same inexplicably long footnotes and poor copyediting as the other, which is just completely incomprehensible. And on a personal note, while I am glad that Winchester took the time to discuss the importance of the telegraph to this event, I look forward to the day when we will no longer have to see the name of that charlatan Morse attached to the word telegraph or its code.
In the end, I didn’t find what I was looking for in these books. But this is just me—the style that I disliked might work well for others. I never want to discourage anyone from reading anything so you won’t do yourself harm by reading these—they’re both really short, too, so it doesn’t even require a big time investment. But if you do read either one or both and find yourself annoyed, irritated, and occasionally bored, well, realize you are not alone. Welcome to our own little club.