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Posts Tagged ‘American history

“Clients often ask, jokingly, whether we learn our trade in prison”*…

 

safecracker

I spent more than six months shadowing [Charlie] Santore because I wanted to know what the city looks like through the eyes of a safecracker, a person for whom no vault is an actual barrier and no safe is truly secure. There are a lot of safecrackers, I learned, but the good ones, like Santore, live in a state of magical realism, suspended somewhere between technology and superstition. The safecracker sees what everyone else has been hiding—the stashed cash and jewels, the embarrassing photographs. He is a kind of human X-ray revealing the true, naked secrets of a city…

A fascinating profile of L.A.’s preeminent (lock) picker: “Meet the Safecracker of Last Resort.”

* Master safecracker Ken Doyle in a McSweeney’s interview well-worth a read

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As we twist the tumbler, we might recall that it was on this date in 1773 that a group of colonists known as the Sons of Liberty, disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded three British tea ships and dumped 342 chests of tea (worth 18,000– over half a million dollars in today’s currency) into Boston harbor.  The provocation was the Tea Act of May 10, 1773, which allowed the British East India company to sell tea from China in American colonies without paying taxes apart from those imposed by the Townshend Acts— which American Patriots strongly opposed as a violation of their rights. Colonists objected to the Tea Act because they believed that it violated their rights as Englishmen to “no taxation without representation.”

The Boston Tea Party was a significant event in the gestation of the American Revolution. Parliament responded in 1774 with the Intolerable Acts, which, among other provisions, ended local self-government in Massachusetts and closed Boston’s commerce.  Colonists up and down the Thirteen Colonies in turn responded to the Intolerable Acts with additional acts of protest, and by convening the First Continental Congress, which petitioned the British monarch for repeal of the acts– and probably more impactfully, coordinated colonial resistance to them.  The crisis escalated, and the American Revolutionary War began near Boston in 1775.

by-nathaniel-currier

The Boston Tea Party, as rendered by Nathaniel Currier

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Written by LW

December 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Museums are places of worship for those whose faith dwells in human stories”*…

 

museums

This map displays almost 26,000 museums, historical societies, and historic preservation associations in the United States

 

There are twenty-four history museums and historical societies in the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Even within the confines of downtown, a visitor could peruse the stately home of a nineteenth-century shipping merchant or the much more modest home of an eighteenth-century furniture maker. There are museums dedicated to the history of Charleston, of South Carolina, and of dentistry. And in 2020, the city that once imported and sold more enslaved people than any other city in the United States will be the site of the International African American Museum.

Across the country, museums explore the histories of all kinds of things—stateslocal communitiesreligious sectsmusicsteam enginesthe Tuskegee Airmen.

The proliferation of museums of all sizes means that in the United States, one is never very far from history: the average distance between two history museums is only 2.6 miles. Because there tend to be more museums in cities than in rural areas, the “history museum density” of the country is one museum for every 147 square miles (an area about the size of Fayetteville, North Carolina)…

Read more and explore the interactive map at: “Public History.

* anonymous

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As we ruminate on roots, we might recall that it was on this date in 1775 that, at the request fo the Second Continental Congress, the U. S. Marine Corps was founded, as the first two battalions of Marines were requested at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia.  (Tun Tavern was quite the convening spot in that period: among other “foundings,” Benjamin Franklin raised the Pennsylvania militia there and it is regarded as the “birthplace of Masonic teachings in America.”)

Commemorating this event, the National Museum of the Marine Corps was opened in Triangle, Virginia (near the Quantico Marine Base) on this same date in 2006.

240px-Sketch_of_Tun_Tavern_in_the_Revolutionary_War

Sketch of the original Tun Tavern

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“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life”*…

 

‘Tis the season: best-of lists, and some leisure time in which to put them to use…

Here’s NPR’s Best Books of 2015— 260 volumes that one can filter by type or interest.

* Mark Twain

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As we settle in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1865 that U.S. Secretary of State William Seward issued a statement verifying the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The amendment abolished slavery with the declaration: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Thomas Nast’s engraving, “Emancipation,” 1865

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Written by LW

December 18, 2015 at 1:01 am

“His whole life has been one continued insult to good manners and to decency”*…

 

A man whose wit was matched only by the looseness of his tongue, the combative John Adams quickly acquired a hefty reputation for articulate jabs and razor-sharp put-downs at the expense of his allies and (numerous) rivals alike, including some of the most celebrated figures in American history (Bob Dole once described him as “an eighteenth-century Don Rickles”)…

American history comes alive: “7 of John Adams’ Greatest Insults.”

* John Adams, on Benjamin Franklin

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As we hail the heckler, we might recall, in fairness to the heckled, that it was on this date in 1752 that Benjamin Franklin and his son tested the relationship between electricity and lightning by flying a kite in a thunder storm.  Franklin was attempting a (safer) variation on a set of French investigations about which he’d read.  The French had connected lightning rods to a Leyden jar; one one their experiments electrocuted the investigator.  Franklin– who may have been a wastrel, but was no fool– used used a kite; the increased height/distance from the strike reduces the risk of electrocution. (But it doesn’t eliminate it: Franklin’s experiment is now illegal in many states.)

In fact, the French experiments had successfully demonstrated the electrical properties of lightning a month before; but word had not yet reached Philadelphia.

The Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing created this vignette (c. 1860), which was used on the $10 National Bank Note from the 1860s to 1890s

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Written by LW

June 15, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Who questions much, shall learn much”*…

 

From the practical and concrete (“How does WiFi work?”) to the philosophical (“How am I able to ask this question?”), explanations for humans…  For example,

“What does math not explain?” 

Math doesn’t explain why math works. And it never, ever will.

In the late 1800s, mathematicians were doing some soul-searching. They’d been solving problems and proving theorems since forever, but none of them really knew why these methods worked. And this was getting kind of awkward.

See, math is just a bunch of rules for turning true statements into other true statements. Assume some stuff, follow the rules, prove other stuff. And the crazy thing is: the stuff you prove is always, always true. Or at least, it’s never once been wrong.

Why?

Proving that the rules of math work was, for a while, one of the biggest unsolved questions in math. In 1900, David Hilbert made a list of the problems he wanted everyone to focus on for the next century. He had 23 problems, and this was one…

Read more of this answer, and others– “complicated stuff explained at a 12 year-old level”– at Romy Asks.

* Francis Bacon

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As we satisfy our curiosity, we might send gleeful birthday greetings to Joseph Lee; he was born on this date in 1862.  The scion of a wealthy Boston family, Lee introduced the first contemporary neighborhood playground in the U.S., then supported the spread of the playground movement across the country.  He is, thus, known as the “Father of the American playground movement.”

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Written by LW

March 7, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The counterfeit and counterpart of Nature is reproduced in art”*…

 

Uncut sheets of partially finished phony bills. Photo courtesy of Frank Bourassa

Years of running drugs and boosting cars left Frank Bourassa thinking: There’s got to be an easier way to earn a dishonest living. That’s when he nerved up the idea to make his fortune. (Literally.) Which is how Frank became the most prolific counterfeiter in American history—a guy with more than $200 million in nearly flawless fake twenties stuffed in a garage. How he got away with it all, well, that’s even crazier…

Read the extraordinary ballad of the banknotes at “The Paper Caper: the World’s Greatest Counterfeiter.”

* Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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As we hold our bills up to the light, we might recall that it was on this date in 1876 that a gang of counterfeiters attempted (and failed) to steal Lincoln’s body from his tomb.

When the tomb was completed in 1874, Lincoln’s coffin was placed in a white marble sarcophagus in a burial room behind only a steel gate locked with a padlock, where he remained undisturbed for two years. In November 1876, Irish crime boss James “Big Jim” Kennally, who ran a counterfeiting ring in Chicago, decided on a plan for the release of their engraver, Benjamin Boyd, who’d been arrested and sentenced to ten years at the Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet. The plan was to steal Lincoln’s body from its tomb, bury it in the Indiana Dunes along Lake Michigan to cover their tracks, and hold it for ransom, in exchange for a full pardon for Boyd and $200,000 ($4,255,319 in 2012 dollars) in cash.

To that end, Kennally recruited two members of his gang, Terrence Mullen and Jack Hughes, to carry out the plot. As they discussed their plans at “the Hub”, a saloon on Madison Street in Chicago, they realized that neither had any experience with bodysnatching, and so they recruited a third man, Lewis Swegles, to assist them; Swegles brought in a man named Billy Brown as the getaway driver. Their plan was to journey to Springfield on the overnight train on November 6, scout out the tomb on the day of November 7, and take the body that evening, while the people’s attention was on the presidential elections. None of them had any experience with lock-picking, so they had to cut through the padlock with a file. They then opened up the sarcophagus, but were unable to move the 500-pound, lead-lined cedar coffin more than a few inches. Mullen and Hughes sent Swegles to retrieve the wagon, but instead Swegles tipped off the waiting law enforcement officials in the vestibule of the tomb; Swegles and Brown were in fact paid informants of the United States Secret Service (at the time intended to stop counterfeiting, not protect the President). Swegles had gone to Patrick D. Tyrrell, the Secret Service chief in Chicago, when he received word of the plot. As the lawmen moved in, one of the Pinkerton detectives present accidentally discharged his pistol, causing Mullen and Hughes to flee back to the Hub in Chicago. They were arrested by Tyrrell and his agents the following evening.

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Lincoln’s Tomb, Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois

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Written by LW

November 7, 2014 at 1:01 am

“A dull, decent people, cherishing and fortifying their dullness behind a quarter of a million bayonets”*…

 

BritEmpGlobe

On the heels of the Scottish Referendum, a meditation on the scope of the U.K…

Mitch Fraas, curator at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections, recently sent me this image and GIF of a moveable toy distributed by the Children’s Encyclopedia in Britain in the early twentieth century. The toy, which doubles as an ad for the encyclopedia, takes the old saying “The sun never sets on the British empire” and represents it physically, through the medium of a spinning wheel.

The Children’s Encyclopedia, one of the first such projects directed exclusively at young people, was first sold in Britain as a serial in 1908. The illustrated Encyclopedia addressed a grab-bag of subjects, structured not alphabetically but thematically, with each volume holding information on nineteen different topics (animals, history, literature, geography, the Bible). Like the text on this movable map, the overwhelming tone of the Encyclopedia was optimistic and patriotic, with the United Kingdom’s achievements in science, literature, and war always emphasized.

The Encyclopedia was republished in the United States as The Book of Knowledge,where (its publisher claimed) it sold three and half million sets between 1910 and 1945. Here’s a poem by Howard Nemerov about his childhood experience reading the project’s American edition, which he describes as “The vast pudding of knowledge,/With poetry rare as raisins scattered through/The twelve gold-lettered volumes black and green”…

 

More at the invaluable Rebecca Onion’s “‘The Sun Never Sets Upon the British Empire,’ Explained in GIF by an Old Children’s Toy.”

* George Orwell’s harsh judgement of British imperialism, in Burmese Days

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As we break for a cup of tea, we might recall that it was on this date in 1779 that John Paul Jones, a Scottish sailor who’d immigrated to America and was fighting for the Colonies in the Revolutionary War, became the first American naval hero when he won a hard-fought engagement against the British ships-of-war Serapis and Countess of Scarborough off the east coast of England.  Though Jones went on to serve in the Imperial Russian Navy, he is often called the “Father of the United States Navy” (an honorific he shares with John Barry).

A 1781 painting of John Paul Jones by Charles Willson Peale.

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