Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

10 June 2021

Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Speculator, Spy...Murderer?


Edward Bancroft
[The natives of the South American mainland prepare poisons] which, given in the smallest quantities, produce a very slow, but inevitable death, particularly a composition which resembles wheat-flour, which they sometimes use to revenge past injuries, that have been long neglected, and are thought forgotten. On these occasions they always feign an insensibility of the injury which they intend to revenge, and even repay it with services and acts of friendship, until they have destroyed all distrust and apprehension of danger in the victim of the vengeance. When this is effected, they meet at some festival, and engage him to drink with them, drinking first themselves to obviate suspicion, and afterwards secretly dropping the poison, ready concealed under their nails, which are usually long, into the drink.


—Edward Bancroft, An Essay on the Natural History of Guiana in South America

Two weeks ago I discussed the strange circumstances surrounding the career and sudden death of American diplomat and merchant Silas Deane. This time around I delve into the backstory of the man who may well have murdered him.

As I mentioned previously, Connecticut-born Edward Bancroft was briefly a student of Deane's a number of years before the American Revolution. Apprenticed by his step-father to a doctor, Bancroft rebelled by running away to sea. He wound up in Surinam (known at the time as "Dutch Guiana."), where he worked as a surgeon on the plantation of a British subject named Paul Wentworth (more on him later).


Bancroft quickly established himself as an expert on the local flora and fauna, and after a brief return to Connecticut to square things with his family, moved on to London where, at the age of twenty-five he published the above referenced book-length "essay," which dealt, among other things, with South American curiosities such as a completely new method of dyeing wool/cloth, and poisons such as curare, and in which he offered proof that the shock generated by a local variety of eel really was a result of a type of bioelectricity they generated.

Benjamin Franklin in London
This work quickly established Bancroft as a man of letters, and with his background studying electric eels, he soon made the acquaintance of, and became friends with, another American-born intellectual who was conducting experiments with electricity: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had been living in London for nearly twenty years, ostensibly serving as the colonial agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly. It was Franklin who eventually recommended Bancroft to Deane as a possibly useful personal secretary when the Continental Congress sent Deane to France to negotiate a treaty of alliance with the French crown.

To Franklin Bancroft was the ideal choice: still living in London, he would be able to come and go between England and France without attracting the attention someone like the firebrand Thomas Paine (who was English-born) would. And he could likely be enticed to pass on what he could learn of British war plans to his employer, Silas Deane.

So that's what Deane did, asking Bancroft, whom he knew, but not especially well (not having seen him since 1758, the year Bancroft ran away to sea), to cross the Channel and meet him in the French port of Calais, ostensibly to reminisce over old times. When Bancroft returned to England, he had agreed to work for Deane, and, in turn, to spy for the Americans.

And once back in London, Bancroft then wasted no time getting in touch with his old friend and mentor Paul Wentworth, who had returned to England from South America, and was now working in some capacity for Britain's intelligence apparatus. And Wentworth, in turn, introduced Bancroft a couple of government department secretaries, who quickly struck a deal with Bancroft.

Bancroft would spy on Deane and the American delegation in Paris, and in return he would received an annual pension of £200 per year.

For life.

Bancroft and Lord Stormont, the British ambassador in Paris, quickly worked out a system whereby he would pass information about the American negotiations with the French over the question of a potential French entry into the war with Britain on the American side. Every Tuesday morning Bancroft would take a walk in Paris's famed Tuileries Gardens, and place a bottle containing information about the aforementioned negotiations in the hollow of a tree. One of the ambassador's aides would retrieve the bottle, while in turn passing along useless information that Bancroft could in turn pass along to the Americans.

And this went on for over a year. Although there were those among the American delegation who suspected Bancroft of being less than honest (and they included John Adams, who once wrote of Bancroft that he was, among a host of other sins, "a meddler in stocks as well as reviews, and frequently went into the alley, and into the deepest and darkest retirements and recesses of the brokers and jobbers...and found amusement as well, perhaps, as profit, by listening to all the news and anecdotes, true or false, that were then whispered or more boldly pronounced."), none of them apparently suspected him of selling them out to the British.

Silas Deane when he still just a wealthy merchant
As I mentioned in our previous installment on Deane's death, Bancroft had a profound interest in this relationship with the British intelligence services not being found out, especially after the war, around the time that Deane intended sailing to America to rehabilitate his own reputation. Bancroft was still receiving his secret pension (which had subsequently been raised to £1,000 per year), and had applied for a potenially lucrative patent for dyeing wool and cloth using the techniques he'd learned in Surinam.

But, as laid out by historians James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle in their 1992 book After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, Bancroft and Deane also shared some unsavory secrets about Bancroft's time in Deane's employ:

It turned out Deane's arrangement worked well—perhaps a little too well. Legally, Deane was permitted to collect a commission on all the supplies he purchased for Congress, but he went beyond that. He and Bancroft used their official connections in France to conduct a highly profitable private trade of their own. Deane, for instance, sometimes sent ships from France without declaring whether they were loaded with private or public goods. This if the ships arrived safely, he would declare that the cargo was private, his own. But if the English navy captured the goods on the high seas, he labeled it government merchandise and the public absorbed the loss.

Deane used Bancroft to take advantage of his official position in other ways. Both men speculated in the London insurance markets, which were the eighteenth-century equivalent of gambling parlors. Anyone who wished could take out "insurance" against a particular event which might happen in the future. An insurer, for example, might quote odds on the chances of France going to war with England within the year. The insured would pay whatever premium he wished, say £1,000, and if France did go to war, and the odds had been five to one against it, the insured would receive £5,000. Wagers were made on almost any public event: which armies would win which battles, which politicians would fall from power, and even on whether a particular lord would die before the year was out.

Obviously, someone who had access to inside information—someone who knew in advance, for instance, that France was going to war with England could win a fortune. That was exactly what Bancroft and Deane decided to do. Deane was in charge of concluding the French alliance, and he knew that if he succeeded Britain would be forced to declare war on France. Bancroft hurried across to London as soon as the treaty had been concluded and took out the proper insurance before the news went public. The profits shared by the two men from this and other similar ventures amounted to approximately £10,000. Like most gamblers, however, Deane also lost wagers. In the end he netted little for his troubles.

So Bancroft, angling for a patent that could well be the foundation of a fortune, had to be worried that his speculation on "sure things" alongside Deane would come to light at precisely the right time to sink his patent application. Such behavior was ungentlemanly, and Bancroft, as Adams had said, carried the stench of someone who hung out with unsavory back-alley money men.

On top of this, Bancroft had already been forced to flee to France once before to escape hanging in the years since he'd worked for Deane. Many in the British government did not trust him, with his having publicly worked for one of the Americans negotiating with France, and this included King George III himself. 

So while Bancroft was outwardly prosperous and seemingly headed for more wealth and fame at the time of Deane's return to London en route to America in September of 1789, he had plenty to lose, should Deane open his mouth about their adventures in insider trading in the run-up to the Franco-American alliance of 1777. 

And Bancroft knew how to use curare.

While we'll never know for sure whether Bancroft had a hand in Deane's sudden death, there is plenty to consider in the case that can be made against him.

See you in two weeks!

27 May 2021

The Strange Death of American Diplomat Silas Deane


Silas Deane
Silas Deane

Silas Deane's career began with one of those rags-to-riches stories so much appreciated in American folklore. In fact, Deane might have made a lasting place for himself in the history texts, except that his career ended with an equally dramatic riches-to-rags story.

— James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle


You know his ambition… his desire of making a Fortune… You also know his Art and Enterprise. Such Characters are often useful, altho always to be carefully watched and contracted, specially in such a government as ours.

— John Adams writing of Silas Deane


The over-achieving son of an ambitious Connecticut blacksmith, Silas Deane was by turns a graduate of Yale, a teacher/law student, merchant, politician, and the first "minister plenipotentiary" from the rebelling British colonies of North America to the Kingdom of France. By the time he died in 1789, aged fifty-one, he had long since experienced a complete reversal of his fortunes: for the final decade of his life Deane remained a discredited pauper, hounded by scandal, plagued by declining health, and eventually forgotten by history. A puzzling turn of events for a man who racked up success after success during the early years of his life.

And yet nothing about Silas Deane is more puzzling than the manner of his death.

After graduating from Yale in 1758, Deane supported himself by teaching school while simultaneously studying law. One of his pupils from this period, a tavern-keeper's son named Edward Bancroft, figures prominently in the final years of his life, first as Deane's secretary during his negotiations with the French over the question of a possible alliance with the rebellious colonies against the British, and later as his benefactor: one of the few people who would advance the penniless Deane money. 

Bancroft was Deane's pupil for only a brief amount of time (he ran away to sea), but the two remained friends, and when Deane needed a private secretary to assist in negotiations with the French, he contacted Bancroft, now a physician and scientist of some note, then living in London, and invited him to come work for the American delegation which by then consisted of three men: Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and the dour William Lee.

But more on Bancroft and the American diplomatic mission to France in a bit.

After being admitted to the bar in 1761, Deane briefly practiced law in Hartford, Connecticut, before eventually moving to the town of Wethersfield, where he married Mehitable Webb, the wealthy widow of a merchant, took over the family business, and built a big new house next door to the one where his wife and her children had lived with her first husband. His wife gave him a son, Jesse, in 1764, and died herself not long afterward, in 1767.

On the left is Deane House, the house Silas Deane had built for his new family. On the right is Webb House, the one his widow had lived in with her children during her marriage to her first husband.

Deane remarried, this time to the wealthy and politically-connected granddaughter of a former governor of Connecticut, and decided to go into politics. When the first Continental Congress was convened, Deane found himself a member of the delegation appointed by the Connecticut legislature to attend. 

However, Deane was not without his enemies, especially those who envied him his wealth and the swift rise in his political fortunes, and he was not selected to return to Congress the following year. Instead, members of Congress approached Deane about acting as minister to France, and securing badly needed military supplies for the Revolutionary cause.

Deane agreed, departed immediately for Paris, and began throwing quite a bit of his own money around trying to raise more money, and secure a treaty of alliance with France. By the time he called on Bancroft to join him from London, Deane had spent a considerable sum of his own private fortune on this mission for which he drew no salary. 

And at this point things began to go south.

Franklin shortly after arriving in France in 1777
While Benjamin Franklin remained a friend to Deane for years, Arthur Lee, the other member of the American delegation in France, seemed far too disagreeable to have much in the way of friends. A member of the wealthy and powerful Lee family, one of his elder brothers—Richard Henry Lee—later served as president of the Continental Congress and senator from Virginia, another brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. Along with being accomplished, the Lee brothers had in common the fact that neither of them much cared for their irascible, ill-tempered younger brother Arthur.

Not surprisingly, Arthur Lee took a distinct dislike to ever-on-the-make Deane, who, in addition to working on an alliance with the French, was also attempting to line up investors in a possible canal linking Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River, and a scheme to secure steam engines of the type he had seen being used in England a use them in American grist mills.

To complicate matters, negotiations with the French slowed down, likely due in no small part to the fact that Bancroft, whom Deane trusted implicitly, was in fact a British spy. Every Sunday for well over a year Bancroft would drop a parcel containing his weekly reports of the progress of Franco-American relations into a hollow tree in the Tuileries Gardens, whence it was retrieved by another British agent and posted to London.

The Disagreeable Arthur Lee
It wasn't long before Arthur Lee denounced Deane to Congress, claiming he had used his position in Paristo enrich himself to the tune of £50,000. This charge resulted in a heated debate, which in turn resulted in Deane being recalled from France.

When Deane returned to America he had not been apprised of the nature of the recall. He had come back from France on a French warship, accompanied by the first French ambassador to the United States—treaty secured. As a result he had left his account books in Paris, and was left to defend himself without the documentation of his considerable expenses.

Things went downhill from there. After a long, public and ugly back-and-forth, both in congressional session and in the press, Congress rebuffed Deane's requests for reimbursement, and he returned to France a much poorer man than he had been, thoroughly embittered by the experience. 

Shortly before Cornwallis' hugely consequential surrender  to Washington's Continental/French forces at Yorktown in 1781, letters written by Deane to friends back in America—in which he denounced the Congress and suggested the best course of action for Americans might be to patch things up with Britain—fell into the hands of Sir Henry Clinton, the commander of British forces in New York City. Within days they had been published by a Tory newspaper in that city.

Now unwelcome in America, and with France getting too hot for him, Deane moved to Ghent, in Belgium and spent his time drinking and importuning old friends and acquaintances for money. This continued until 1789, when Deane decided enough time had passed that he might be able to restore both his reputation and his fortune at home.

He went to London, where he visited Bancroft (who continued to supply him with money) and the American painter John Trumbull. From there Deane booked passage to America on the Boston Packet in September. The ship departed London, but soon ran into fierce winds and laid to in order to make necessary repairs.

During a stroll around the deck with the ship's captain, Deane suddenly became violently ill. The captain put him to bed, where he soon died.

As recently as 1787 Deane had been bedridden by a protracted bout of ill health, so not much was made of his death by the British authorities who investigated it. He was buried in Kent, and for them that was the end of the matter.

In American circles the rumor ran riot that Deane might have been a suicide, what with his poor fortunes and shattered reputation. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine both referenced the event and the possibility of suicide in their correspondence.

Deane's fortunes were eventually posthumously restored. in 1841 Congress paid $37,000 to Deane's granddaughter as compensation for his expenses, along with admitting that the process by which his claims had been initially denied was rushed, shoddy and unprofessional.

As for Deane's death: natural causes? Suicide? Absent an exhumation and an autopsy, who can say what really happened here.

However, in 1959 historian Julian Boyd advanced a theory that Deane was, in fact, murdered. The most likely suspect? Deane's old pupil and secretary, Edward Bancroft.

Edward Bancroft
The Duplicitous Edward Bancroft

Because when Bancroft ran away to sea, he washed up in Barbados. While there he took a position as a surgeon for one of the sugar plantations on the island.

During his sojourn there Bancroft learned quite a bit about the science surrounding textile dyes. It was how he would make his name later. The plantation owner took a liking to Bancroft and sent him all over the Caribbean as his representative. During that time Bancroft became an expert in the making of dyes, and set about perfecting the process.

He also became an expert on poisons. While in Surinam he came in contact with native peoples who tipped their arrows with all manner of nasty concoctions. And Bancroft took notes. More than that, he touched on the subject in a book he wrote about his travels in the Caribbean.

As Boyd's theory went, Deane managed to work out the fact that Bancroft was a spy. Bancroft, by now drawing a hefty pension from the British government in exchange for his efforts in its behalf during the Revolution, also hoped to be awarded a lucrative patent for his dyeing process. 

Said patent might not be forthcoming in the event of Bancroft being unmasked as a spy. And Bancroft saw Deane on his final day in London. Oh, and the initial source of all of those rumors about Deane committing suicide? You guessed it. Edward Bancroft. Apparently he spread the word far and wide.

So...natural causes? Suicide? Murder? History is mute on the subject.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

See you in two weeks!

15 April 2021

Historical Bastards Revisited: Aristagoras-Tyrant of Miletus


[Today's entry is the latest in my on-going, on-again-off-again miniseries cataloging infamous bastards throughout history. For previous entries, click here, here, here, and here.]

While the cities were thus being taken, Aristagoras the Milesian, being, as he proved in this instance, not of very distinguished courage, since after having disturbed Ionia and made preparation of great matters he counseled running away when he saw these things (moreover it had become clear to him that it was impossible to overcome King Darius)...                                                                                                                        

                                                                            — Herodotus, The History

How’s this for cynical: yesterday’s tyrants becoming today’s liberty-loving embracers of democracy?  We’ve seen a lot of this during the modern era; Boris Yeltsin in Russia for example, rejecting communism out of convenience rather than out of conviction, and being catapulted to power as a result.

But it’s hardly a new story.

Take Aristagoras, Persian-appointed tyrant of the semi-independent Ionian Greek city-state of Miletus, the guy whose push for home-grown democracy touched off the so-called “Ionian Revolt” of the Greek city-states along the coast of western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in 499 B.C.; a conflict that led to the loss of thousands of lives, and served as the precipitating event in a wider conflict between the Greeks and the Persians over the two centuries that followed.


Bastard-in-Law

Aristagoras owed his position as tyrant to his father-in-law, Histiaeus.  Histiaeus had been tyrant before him, and had done his job so well that the Persian great king Darius appointed him to his own governing council.  When Histiaeus went east to the royal court at Persepolis, he recommended Aristagoras succeeded him.  Later, when Aristagoras was attempting to foment revolt among the Greek cities of Asia, Histiaeus secretly helped him, hoping that a rebellion led  by his son-in-law would lead to his own being appointed to re-take the city and re-establish himself as Miletus’ tyrant.

The modern-day ruins of the ancient Ionian Greek city of Miletus

Hardly a born-and-bred defender of personal liberty, Aristagoras’ opportunism was born of the most instinctive of human impulses; self-preservation.  Here’s how it happened.

Naxos, with the ruins of the temple of Athena in the foreground
The Proposal & The Vig

Shortly after he’d become tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras had been tapped to help the empire pick up some new real estate in the form of the Greek island of Naxos, a strategically placed island in the middle of the Aegean Sea.  In exchange for helping with this, Aristagoras was to receive a large portion of the anticipated loot to be taken when the island fell.

In anticipation of this, Aristagoras took out a large cash loan from the local Persian satrap (governor) in western Asia, in the city of Sardis.  With this money he hired mercenary soldiers and ships to help with the conquest.

The Crash

The only problem was that Aristagoras got into a major personal feud with the Persian admiral set to lead the expedition which became so ugly that the guy scotched the whole deal by secretly warning the Naxians of an invasion on the way.  Not surprisingly, the whole venture failed.

But, in a set-up that 20th century mafia bosses would admire, Aristagoras was still on the hook to the Persians for the money he’d borrowed, regardless of the success or failure of the invasion.  Desperate to save his own skin, Aristagoras set about quietly stirring a rebellion in Miletus and the neighboring cities, inviting such mainland Greek cities as Sparta and Athens to help their cousins across the Aegean Sea.

The Results

The Spartans not surprisingly refused (it was too far from home for these xenophobes).  But the Persian king had just succeeded in really pissing off the Athenians by baldly interfering in their internal politics and insisting that they take back the tyrant (Hippias) they had given the boot (with Spartan help) a decade previously.  So they agreed to send a fleet of ships to help.

And with that the Ionian Revolt was born.  The immediate result?  Sardis, the western-most provincial capital in the Persian Empire (and home-base of the satrap who had strong-armed Aristagoras in the first place) was sacked and burned by the Greek rebels.  The Athenians, horrified by the wanton destruction of the ancient city (and the Persians' western capital), withdrew their forces and went home.

The longer-term results: After a five-year-long campaign and the investment of much, time, effort, blood and money, the Persians crushed the Ionian rebels at the battle of Lade. Then they spent the next year picking off the Ionian cities one by one. By 494 BC, all of the Greek cities of the Ionian coast were back under the Persian yoke.

And then the Persians turned their attention toward the interlopers from across the western (Aegean) sea. As it turned out, just because the Athenians were finished supporting the Ionians, that didn't mean the Persians were finished with the Athenians.


The resulting conflict would rock the ancient world. All of the Greek cities on the Greek mainland, on the islands, and even along the Ionian coast, were drawn in. On both sides of the Greco-Persian struggle. And by the time it was over, in 479 BC, the unthinkable had happened: Persia had lost, thousands of her soldiers slaughtered, hundreds of ships sunk or captured, millions in treasure spent. All to upstart barbarians clinging to the western edge of the known world.

And Aristagoras?  Still fearing for his own skin, he relocated to Thrace, where he tried to establish a colony from which to continue the war against Persia, and was killed trying to strong-arm the locals (see how this sort of thing just keeps running downhill?).



11 April 2021

Anti-Asian hate crimes


If I told you that there’s a crime spree going on and you can stop it, would you? 

The rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in Canada - yes, Canada, the land of the multiculturally smug – are crimes we can all stop. The first step is always understanding it.

Many have blamed the former U.S. President Trump for the rise of anti-Asian racism because of his racist rhetoric, but he was simply repeating a long historic tradition of targeting Asians. Kim Yi Dionne, a professor of political science at the University of California-Riverside, explained that “America has a long history of immigrant exclusion on the basis of disease.”

Trump was feeding into the biases that some people already had and doing it to restrict immigration certainly, but also to deflect blame for any illness or death of Americans. As those deaths increased, so did his rhetoric.

Canada also has a long history of restricting Asian immigration and using anti-Asian rhetoric to do it.

In 1885, Canada imposed a head tax on Chinese migrants before admission into Canada, the purpose of which was to discourage more Chinese coming to Canada. The anti-Asian sentiment was in full force in the 1902 Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration that stated that the Asians were "unfit for full citizenship … obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state.”

Despite the drop in Chinese and other Asians entering Canada, there were many violent anti-Asian riots on several occasions to protest Asians in Canada.

During the 1918 pandemic, Asian Canadians were once again targeted as disease ridden and were even excluded from treatment at “white” hospitals.

During World War II, the federal government put Japanese Canadians in internment camps and sold all their property.

It was only in the 1960s that Canadian immigration legislation and regulations were changed to allow Asians to immigrate to Canada on equal footing with whites.

This history explains why anti-Asian racism has risen so rapidly: the narratives and attitudes fed into prejudices some people already had and, although Canadian politicians have largely avoided xenophobic blaming of Asian Canadians, we are not immune to these narratives. The pandemic has given rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories and the internet knows no borders. Canadians so inclined have been drinking in anti-Asian rhetoric and spewing it out against Asian Canadians.

Of the 1,150 instances of anti-Asian racism reported between March 10, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021, it was, “found that elderly people, young people and those in low-income jobs or who did not speak English were more vulnerable to attacks. According to the data, most incidents occurred in public spaces such as parks, streets or sidewalks. Restaurants, grocery stores and other food-sector locations were the site of nearly one-fifth of the incidents. Nearly ten per cent of the reported cases took place on public transit.”

This is crucial: these incidents occur in public spaces. In plain sight.

The worst message we can send is that verbal or physical harassment of Asian Canadians is OK. This is why the Government of Canada “offers bystander intervention training on their website, with safe and positive options to prevent harm when there is a risk of violence.

The goal of this training is to send a message that hate, including racism and xenophobia, is unacceptable in all of its forms.”


Since this problem started with the Government of Canada and the citizens of Canada condoning and augmenting anti-Asian rhetoric, it is fitting that together we end it.

It is also fitting that the internet – used to promote anti-Asian rhetoric – can also be used to fight it. The same principle applies, don’t let Asians be harassed. If this happens, report the account and say something too.

Ultimately, like hate against any group, the only way to stop it is to learn about the history, understand what to do if we see it and support organizations that are helping.

Canada should not be a country in which Asian Canadians feel unsafe and unwelcome. Multiculturalism requires the actions of each generation to protect it.

10 April 2021

How It Happened In Tennessee: The 19th Amendment


This one has it all: feuds, sudden victories, shock defeats, smoke-filled rooms, betrayal, transcriptionists. And we open to 1920 and a young Jewish woman scouring the East Tennessee mountains.

Anita Pollitzer was a Charleston-born photographer and force of nature with a drawl. In her twenty-five years, Pollitzer had already turned the New York art world onto her pal Georgia O’Keefe. Pollitzer's second famous act was unfolding over a country tour rounding up legislator assurance for women's suffrage. She'd had leapt through the National Woman’s Party ranks as a crack organizer, and winning the vote anytime soon had come down to the Tennessee Legislature. Yes, Tennessee. The Woman’s Party, forever cash-strapped, sent Pollitzer to secure the eastern delegation. All of them.

Niota, Tennessee sits in the ridgelines between Knoxville and Chattanooga. In 1920, Niota was the home of Representative Harry Burn, a rising Republican star and relationship banker. Try as she might, Pollitzer couldn't be everywhere. A stop in remote Niota ate through precious time and scarce funds. Fair enough. Pollitzer cornered Burn on the telephone, and when Pollitzer had someone cornered, they knew it. Burn pledged his vote for the Suffs. Pollitzer moved to corner the next guy.

Cut to Nashville and one Edward Bushrod Stahlman, an ex-L&N Railroad exec turned newspaper publisher. Stahlman had forged the afternoon Nashville Banner into a regional conservative powerhouse. In non-unrelated business, he remained the railroads’ go-to lobbyist around these parts. As prickly personalities and successful businessmen will do, he’d made enemies.

Such as Luke Lea, publisher of the rival Tennessean. In 1913, Lea had gone from U.S. Senator to ex-U.S. Senator thanks to Stahlman backing an ouster. Lea had gotten it in his head to investigate the railroads' political influence and possible local corruption. Lea seemed to loathe Stahlman so much that many a morning The Tennessean portrayed Stahlman as a disloyal German, Lea being just back from distinguished service in WWI. Lea held such a grudge against things German that he’d tried– actually tried– and failed a caper to kidnap the exiled Kaiser. Lea ran The Tennessean as a progressive voice that strongly backed– wait for it--popular election of U.S. senators. Also Prohibition and now women’s suffrage. Pretty much whatever Lea was for, Stahlman and The Banner were inclined to be against.

Edward Stahlman
(Nashville Library Special Collection)

Mind you, Stahlman had backed Tennessee's 1919 partial suffrage bill passed while Lea was off chasing the Kaiser. And Stahlman professed support even for making suffrage universal--until he was against it. A states rights guy, what bothered Stahlman wasn’t women voting per se but Washington mandating that women could vote. It was the principle of thing, see?

Also, there was money to be made. Big Railroad wanted their, ahem, investment in the Legislature protected. Big Liquor feared pro-temperance Suffs who’d already slapped Prohibition on everyone. Big Manufacturing thought women voters would push through dangerous and radical ideas like child labor laws. Well-funded lobbyists organized a fierce--and whiskey-soaked--persuasion campaign, with The Banner as their afternoon voice.

Though not always the loudest voice. The Anti's logic went that, if you’re going to convince women not to push for voting rights, you have to make it appear like most women don’t want voting rights. Enter Josephine Pearson of Monteagle, an Anti writer of scathing editorials and a former college dean installed as President of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Well-regarded and accomplished, she was the sort of successful career woman her speeches warned America about.

Here came the broadsides. The rough-and-tumble of politics would corrupt womanly virtue. Politics would overtax the female brain and thus shrink the womb. Thus, suffrage doomed motherhood itself and by implication America, hot dogs, apple pie.

The Hermitage Hotel, 100 years on
Both sides threw everything they had into the War of the Roses. Suffs pinned yellow roses to pledge lapels. The Anti pinned (paper) red ones on their supporters. The swank Hermitage Hotel, a mere plaza away from the Capitol, became ground zero for charm offensives, pay-offs, sex traps, fist fights, death threats, fake telegrams about dying children, and Big Liquor's 24/7 Jack Daniels speakeasy on the eighth floor. It became impossible to find a legislator sober enough to lobby.

The Anti strategy was working, despite a quick loss in the Senate. The doomed womb and states rights arguments provided cover for House members worried that women voting also included black women. Bribes didn’t hurt, either. Suff support collapsed in the House, and Rep. Burn of Niota was among the defectors.

They thought they had it won, Pearson and old Stahlman. By a narrow margin, sure, but they didn't need a blowout. Stahlman himself delivered a seal-the-deal address on the House floor condemning undue influences meddling in Tennessee's business. The Antis had underestimated a few things, though.

One was Anita Pollitzer.

Pollitzer took no for an answer poorly, especially after she’d been promised a yes. Pollitzer and the Anti leaders stalked Capitol Hill and the Hermitage Hotel and anywhere a legislator might try to hide. Lost pledges were blistered with appeals to better natures and epic guilt trips. Rep. Burn got a full dose of Pollitzer's drawled fire and was left stammering in her wake.

Febb Burn
Here, famously, motherhood actually did step in. A conflicted Burn was on the House floor during the make-or-break session when he received the most mom-like letter ever written from his mother Febb back in Niota. Febb, a diehard Suff, softened her boy up for a few paragraphs and then sank the maternal dagger over his Anti pledge. In dramatic style, Burn re-switched sides on the spot. Boom, Suffs cheered from the gallery, Antis shouted for blood or at least recounts.

Well, Burn had to beat it quick out a Capitol window. Later that night, the Antis tracked Burn down at the Hermitage Hotel. Top Anti strategists had mapped out a double-secret plan to torpedo the Amendment by legislative maneuvering. There would be the usual rallies and propaganda and intimidation, but the showpiece of the brainstorm went like this: Blackmail the snot out of Burn. Once he re-re-switched his vote, the Antis would yet win the day.

And the Antis had proof. Proof!

Witness affidavits claimed that shortly before the dastardly vote switch, Burn had been hauled off into a cloakroom and given ten grand to go Suff. Recant, the Antis warned Burn, or tomorrow afternoon Stahlman and The Banner run this nugget and end that promising career. Never mind that Burn hadn't been hauled anywhere. He’d been in full view agonizing over Febb's letter. That wasn't the Anti's biggest problem.

No, they'd picked the wrong affidavit stenographer.

Pollitzer and Burn shaking hands,
1920 (top center)

The stenographer knew dirty pool when she heard it. She recorded not only their statements but also how operatives coached the sort-of-witnesses into framing Burn. And the stenographer turned the whole thing over to Luke Lea at The Tennessean. Stahlman would’ve been prepping for his crushing afternoon edition when someone drew the short straw and slid over The Tennessean’s morning scoop blowing up the blackmail scheme.

That, friends, was how Tennessee came around to seal the Nineteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Like I said, this one had it all, including– in the end– a win for justice.

01 April 2021

Drake's Plate: Happy April Fools Day!


The so-called "Drake Plate"
In 1936 a sales clerk named Beryle Shinn blew a tire while driving in the north end of San Francisco Bay, not far from the prison at San Quentin. Shinn, a decidedly "free spirit," decided not to waste a sunny afternoon changing a flat. So instead, he hiked to the top of a nearby hill, and stumbled across a most unusual cast-off: a square brass plate with a hole punched in the lower right hand quarter, and covered in peculiar writing.

Thinking he might find a use for it, Shinn took the plate home with him, where it languished in his garage for several months until he decided the writing on it might mean it was valuable. So in February of 1937 he took it down the road to the University of California, in Berkeley, on the advice of a friend who had been a student there.

Professor Herbert E. Bolton
Shinn wound up in the office of Herbert E. Bolton; director of Berkeley's Bancroft Library, who also held the Sather Chair in American history, and was a leading expert on the history of early California. Bolton deciphered the writing on the plate, and became visibly excited.

Bolton offered to purchase the plate from the bemused Shinn on behalf of the university. When Shinn agreed, Bolton informed Shinn that he had brought him an artifact of singular historical value, and insisted on settling on him the princely sum of $2,000 (Nearly $38,000 in inflation-adjusted 2021 dollars). The university board of regents approved the purchase based on Bolton's expert recommendation. (Interviewed decades later Shinn spoke of how grateful he was to Bolton. The two grand he got for the plate allowed him to buy a house and propose to his sweetheart.).

And just like that, the University of California acquired the legendary Drake's Plate.

Statue of Sir Francis Drake in Plymouth
In 1579 English privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to captain a ship into the Pacific Ocean. In his ship The Golden Hind, he navigated the treacherous southern passage through the Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, ostensibly on a voyage of exploration, on orders from Queen Elizabeth of England herself.

Of course the voyage was a thinly-disguised excuse to prey upon Spanish shipping, and Drake captured and looted a number of Spanish vessels while working his way up the western coasts of first South American and then North America. It is widely believed that one of his final landfalls before heading west across the Pacific toward Asia was at the bay which still bears his name, just north of San Francisco Bay.

Upon making landfall at Drake's Bay, Drake claimed the land in his monarch's name, and dubbed it "New Albion." To commemorate the event, so the story went, Drake had made a solid brass plate, with an English sixpence embedded in it as proof that the plate's creators were English. Then he had the plate mounted somewhere along the coastline of Drake's Bay, and sailed off, eventually circumnavigating the globe and returning to England fabulously wealthy (and with a hefty share for the queen herself, as well, of course.).

A modern replica of Drake's ship The Golden Hind
Bolton, a scrupulously honest, hard-working and prolific historian, was intimately familiar with the legend of Drake's Plate. The long lost artifact was a well-known obsession of his. For decades he had admonished undergraduates with weekend or vacation plans including trips to the region of Drake's Bay to keep their eyes peeled for Drake's Plate. (It is possible that one of Shinn's neighbors, a former student of Bolton's was the one who eventually steered him in Bolton's direction).


Upon deciphering the writing on the heavily weathered plate Bolton became more certain that it was authentic.It was at this point he began negotiating with Shinn to purchase it on the university's behalf. Electroplating testing conducted on the plate helped convince Bolton that it was the genuine article.

The inscription reads:

BEE IT KNOWNE VNTO ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS.
IVNE.17.1579
BY THE GRACE OF GOD AND IN THE NAME OF HERR
MAIESTY QVEEN ELIZABETH OF ENGLAND AND HERR
SVCCESSORS FOREVER, I TAKE POSSESSION OF THIS
KINGDOME WHOSE KING AND PEOPLE FREELY RESIGNE
THEIR RIGHT AND TITLE IN THE WHOLE LAND VNTO HERR
MAIESTIEES KEEPEING. NOW NAMED BY ME AN TO BEE
KNOWNE V(N) TO ALL MEN AS NOVA ALBION.
G. FRANCIS DRAKE

But if Drake had left the plate somewhere along the bay near Pt. Reyes, how had it made its way nearly thirty miles to the east to that hill overlooking San Quentin? That remained a mystery during Bolton's lifetime.

It has since come to light that the plate was originally discovered near Drake's Bay by a chauffeur named William Caldeira. Caldeira later discarded somewhere along the road near San Raphael, and somehow it made its way from there another ten or so miles to the hilltop near San Quentin.

Which brings us to the question: "Is the Drake Plate genuine?"

Of course not.

The plate is the product of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by several members of "E. Clampus Vitus," a “historical drinking society or a drinking historical society,” of which Bolton himself was a member. Light-heartedly dedicating themselves to "the erection of historical plaques, the protection of widows and orphans, especially the widows, and having a grand time while accomplishing these purposes," the "Clampers," as they dubbed themselves, included many prominent California residents, and were infamous for the practical jokes their members played upon each other.

George Ezra Dane- The Mastermind
Keenly aware of Bolton's obsession with the Drake Plate, Several of his fellow "Clampers," including such prominent historians as George Ezra Dane, Carl Irving Wheat and George H. Barron, former curator of American history at San Francisco's famous De Young Museum, decided in 1933 to play a joke on Bolton. 

The hoax was originally Dane's idea, and he quickly recruited several of his fellow Clampers to assist with the prank. With the possible exception of Barron (who, it was later reported, secretly nursed a grudge against Bolton for supposedly being instrumental in Barron's eventual dismissal from his position at the De Young), the intent of the Clampers involved in the hoax seems to have been to have a bit of innocent fun pranking a friend. Either way, things got out of hand.

They bought a piece of brass at a San Francisco shipyard, and one of them tapped the words of the inscription into the plate with a cold chisel. But they also left hints that the plate was a fraud: the group's initials, "E.C.V." painted on the back in paint that would only be visible under ultraviolet light. George Clark," the "chisler" of the inscription, even added his initials to it. Bolton took the "G.C." to stand for "Captain General," a rank which did not exist in Elizabethan England.

Carl Irving Wheat- Fun Guy
Then the Clampers planted the plate out near Drake's Bay and waited for it to be found. When it turned up in Bolton's office nearly four years later, with Bolton believing it to be the genuine article, the members of the group realized the joke had gone too far.

But rather than come forward and potentially publicly embarrass their friend Bolton, the Clampers anonymously joined the ranks of those who challenged the plate's authenticity. They even "satirically" wrote an article hypothesizing how the plate could have been faked in precisely the manner in which it actually was. They faked another plate, this one clearly a forgery, with a satirical verse, poking fun at the authenticity of the original, inscribed instead of a supposed proclamation by Drake.

Nothing worked. Bolton was undeterred by any of the criticism of his analysis, and died in 1953 still believing the plate Shinn brought him was genuine. And apparently none of the Clampers who were in on the joke had either the nerve or the heart to come forward blow the whole thing up. They all also eventually took the secret of their prank gone horribly wrong to their respective graves (Dane, the mastermind of the entire prank, wound up dead of a gunshot wound in Golden Gate Park, just a few years later, in 1940, aged just 36).

The plate itself resided on public display in the Bancroft Library for decades, even as the doubts as to its authenticity lingered in academic circles. Eventually, with the 400th anniversary of Drake's voyage looming, the plate was tested again, using new technology, and was proven to have been rolled- a modern process, rather than hammered, as would have been the case had it been forged in the 16th century.

UC Berkeley's famous Bancroft Library

It was not until 2002 that the secret notes of one of the members of E. Clampus Vitus kept about the perpetration of the hoax were discovered (in, where else? The Bancroft Library!), that the Clampers's connection to the whole affair actually came to light. A group of historians published their findings based on researching the notes in California History in 2003. They announced those findings at a press conference in a room at the Bancroft, where the fake Drake Plate was still on display, under glass.

And yet many historians still believe in the existence of the genuine plate, and that Drake left in the bay which bears his name. And it continues to be the subject of intense speculation in academic circles to this very day.

As one of the co-authors of the 2003 article, marine historian Edward P. Von der Porten, noted at the time: "There is still a plate of brass out there."

And on that note: Happy April Fools Day!

See you in two weeks!



22 April 2020

The Unreliable Narrative


Preface
My apologies. This is unavoidably political, in the larger sense, but not a polemic. It's about grief.

***

Something is happening in this country, with regard to the coronavirus. If it were fiction, we could call it multiple POV, a chorus of voices competing for our attention.

The unreliable narrator is a longtime convention, in mysteries particularly, a famous example being The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or more recently, Gone Girl. All the same, in fiction as (we hope) in life, our suspension of disbelief depends on accepting certain ground rules, and at the least an agreed-upon reality, a common yardstick.

So the question is, how do we engage, how do we maintain a sense of balance, or of structure, if the narrative keeps contradicting itself? In other words, how do we manage doubt? To return to the fictional model, mystery stories are inherently conservative, in that the crime, usually murder, violates the social contract, and resolution restores it. Even in noir, retribution is orthodox and rigid, a setting-right, with something almost Greek in its penalties, the appetites of the Furies satisfied. But if no weight is put on the scales, and no balance is required, nothing is restored. Order is relative, not absolute.

We have, in this strange political theater, not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable narrative, a story taken out of context. Exit, pursued by a bear. And this isn't simply one or the other, my way or the highway. It's a hall of mirrors, reflecting many alternatives.

In fiction, again, in fairy tales or fantasy, dystopian or post-Apocalyptic, mysteries, thrillers, cozies or Gothic or paranormal, the most outrageous or outlandish conceits can be convincing, if they're internally consistent. This is the most basic rule. You can bend time, or the laws of physics, you can disregard every convention except the one: that similar acts have similar consequences. 

We each and all, of course, believe we see reality. We might very well believe we see the only reality. This is certainly delusional, but it's comforting nonetheless. We have very little tolerance of ambiguity. Quite probably our belief systems are grounded in self-image, or our sense of self is reinforced by belief, two things integrated. I suspect we choose a reality out of necessity, and yours can conflict with mine, because they're mutually exclusive.

Darwin may sort this out for us, survival of the fittest being adaptive, not necessarily predatory. Then again, you might not believe in natural selection, you might prefer a different model, that we are Chosen. Either way, the rough numbers come out about the same.

The astonishing thing, to me, is that unlike a fiction, life is essentially messy, and has no shape or storyline, other than what we impose. To imagine that reality - as an absolute, not a construct - pays any attention to us is no more than vanity. And to pretend that we can pick and choose which reality we inhabit is foolhardy, although that seems to be the human experience, if history's any judge. More astonishing is the lesson fiction teaches us, in that we use stories to impose order, that narrative, or history, is necessary. Like sunlight, physically and psychologically.

All the crazier, then, that what we're seeing in our body politic, and the breakdown of our national conversation, is that chaos is self-inflicted. We've agreed to it.

***

Postscript
This, from The Atlantic, may be paywalled. I recommend it.
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/

04 August 2019

Sorry, Sorry Night


by Leigh Lundin

Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait with bandaged ear
Vincent van Gogh
self-portrait, bandaged ear
Everyone knows the story of Vincent van Gogh. In desolation and desperation, he sliced off his ear and gave it to a love interest, a local prostitute.

Much of that tale is problematic, even outright false. I have a simpler theory:

He missed.

Wait, wait… I’ll explain.

First, let’s correct one fact right off. Not every one who works in a church is a priest, pastor, or parson. Likewise, not every one who works in a whorehouse is a prostitute. Van Gogh presented the ear to young Gabrielle Berlatier who worked not as une fille de joie, but as a maid, serving, sewing, sudsing the laundry.

Women were the least of Vincent’s problems. His trip to the south of France hadn’t worked out, his paintings weren’t selling, and he was dependent upon his younger brother Theo for a small monthly stipend. Naturally, when a person pays money to another, they feel entitled to offer advice.
Sunflowers
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
“Vinnie, Vinnie. What am I going to do with you? Sunflowers? Who cares about sunflowers. In my dreams, I hear a voice chanting, ’Take a leaf from O’Keeffe.’ Don’t know what the dream means, but there you go.”

“But Theo…”

“And that weird thing, Drunken Fireworks on Bastille Day, title it Starry Night. Listen, I’m an art dealer. I know these things. You with me, bro?”

“But Theo…”

“Look, a healthy guy ought to paint nekked women. Look at Manet, look at Georgione, Gérôme, and hey, your buddy Gauguin. Naked people, now that sells; flowers not so much. Try to be more, well, like Toulouse.”

“Too loose for what?”

“Vinnie, Vinnie. Check out other artists, man, keep your ear to the ground. You so got that Dutch yardstick-up-your-klootzak thing. That peasant who models for you, what’s his name?”

“Er, something with Zach, maybe Balzac, Shadrach, Mezach, Prozach, I dunno.”

“That’s enough to depress anyone. Gotta go, bro. That argument with Paul, get over it. Gauguin’s a good guy. Tell him to send me some work. See ya, Vin.”
Van Gogh was one down-and-out dude. No luck selling his works, no luck with women, no job, no money, no friends– Van Gogh found himself beset with problems, especially depression.

On the 23rd of December 1888, he underwent a nasty row with his roommate, Paul Gauguin. Hours before Christmas, Van Gogh found himself abandoned, alone except for a bottle, actually a case of bottles.

He drank. He drank a lot. He followed Gauguin and waggled a straight razor at him. Gauguin sensibly fled to a hotel.

Vincent, truly alone, a man and his bottle… and a device commonly called a cutthroat razor.

The very drunk, very depressed artist decided to take his own life. He unfolded the blade. Intending to deliver a huge, decisive stroke, he raised the razor high above his shoulder, above his head. He hesitated, then whipped the blade down in a dramatic slash toward his quivering throat and…

Gaugin - Fatata te Miti (By the Sea)
Paul Gauguin - Fatata te Miti
Missed.

Gashed his ear, slicing it nearly off. Momentum lost, the blade glanced off his neck.

The inebriated artist botched his suicide.

The shock of blood and pain brought Van Gogh partially back to his senses. Woozy, he wrapped the ear and staggered to the brothel. There he unsuccessfully begged the teenage seamstress to sew it back on for him, a job too much for the girl.

Vincent van Gogh hadn’t deliberately cut off his ear. He’d intended to cut his throat and bungled his suicide.

So says my hypothesis. What’s your take?

22 May 2019

War & Remembrance


The Caine Mutiny put Herman Wouk on the literary map, among the war writers Norman Mailer, James Jones, Gore Vidal, John Horne Burns, and Irwin Shaw. Wouk and Shaw were the most commercially successful, by far, which drew a certain amount of snobbish condescension. I'm a big fan of Irwin Shaw's, as it happens, but today it's Herman Wouk, who died just this week past. 


The Winds of War was published in 1971, War and Remembrance came out in '78, and somewhere in there I remember my dad and a friend talking about Wouk's authenticity. Both of these guys were Navy vets, WWII, and while they admitted it was a little convenient that Victor Henry or somebody in his family circle managed to be present at so many historical turning points - Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and a host of lesser lights, all had cameos - they were impressed by the fluency and momentum of the novels, the gathering darkness, the furious consequence. They thought Wouk had gotten it right, that the books were absolutely convincing. (My dad thought Catch-22 was pretty accurate, too, if for different reasons.)


For me, that was a strong recommendation, and when I got around to reading The Winds of War not long afterwards, the fact that it was so resolutely old-fashioned worked very much in its favor, and I read War and Remembrance because I wanted to see how the story came out. My dad used to joke that he and his crew must have seen Part V of Frank Capra's Why We Fight a dozen times, but he never found out how it ended. We know now that they Allies beat Hitler and the Japanese, but Wouk is skillful enough that we want to know whether Natalie and her uncle Aaron survive the Nazis. You could do worse as a writer.


Wouk's model is of course Tolstoy; his title gives it away. It might be worth pointing out that Tolstoy's title in his native Russian is Vojna i Mir, and the second word, mir, means both 'peace' and 'world.' You could almost translate it as Repair, or chaos made whole again. There's a lot of this in Wouk. The narrative and moral arc of War and Remembrance is return. We're delivered from an unnatural order, entropy or chaos, its power over us denied, the balance restored. You could almost call it biblical unity, if not for being reminded how little comfort history is.


The best obit was the Hollywood Reporter, and there was an extraordinarily clear-eyed piece by Anna Waldman in the New York Times. Wouk was a guy who deserves consideration.