By Ken Zurski
In the 1930’s, the Llewellyn setter known as “Jim the Wonder Dog” correctly picked the winner of seven Kentucky Derby’s in a row. An improbable feat even for the most adapt handicapper, but Jim’s owner Sam Van Arsdale insisted there was nothing deceitful about his dog’s apparent ability to predict the outcome of the prestigious race year after year.
Here’s how it worked: Van Arsdale would set down sealed envelopes each containing the name of a horse in the race. Jim would walk up to one and put his paw on it. The envelope was then stored in a locked safe. After the race, the envelope was reopened revealing the winning horse each time. The soft spoken Van Arsdale never wanted to profit off his prized pooch so he turned down all offers to reveal the contents of the envelopes before the race.
Jim is also credited with accurately guessing the gender of unborn children and in 1936 correctly picked the New York Yankees to win the World Series.
Skeptics and doubters were aplenty, but Van Arsdale insisted it was no trick
Jim died in 1937 at the age of 12.
Author Ken Zurski (Peoria Stories & The Wreck of the Columbia) answers questions about his new book “UNREMEMBERED: Tales of the Nearly Famous and the Not Quite Forgotten:”
Unremembered is an interesting word. Why did you choose it?
I really liked it for one. It’s not used very often, but I saw it once and immediately knew it fit what I was trying to do.
And that would be a blog of forgotten history stories?
Well, yea, sort of. I was thinking a book first and thought it would make a terrific title. I had stories but wasn’t sure of the direction. I had a list of people and events I’d read about and wanted to write so I started the blog first and now here we are two years later and finally a book.
The book is different from the blog in that it tells multiple stories but within the context of a flowing or entwined narrative. Was that planned?
Mostly, yes. I didn’t want to do a bathroom book with just a bunch of articles. The stories on the blog are short so there would have to be a hundred or more in the book. I began thinking of stories intertwining and that sparked my interest in telling stories of people and events and their connections to each other, something I did in an abbreviated way with my book Peoria Stories. Some of the connections are more obvious than others and there are four parts to Unremembered so there are different themes, but with a thread that connects them all.
Some people seem to pop up and leave and others reemerge. Is this because of their connections?
Oh, Yes. There are probably 70 people featured in the book all under the same guise of being nearly famous or not quite forgotten. Some appear briefly others more prominently.
George Francis Train is one character that seems to have his hand in everything. Did you know that going in?
Oh, of course. Train was probably the person that best exemplifies what I was trying to convey in Unremembered. He was a resourceful figure and had some pretty amazing accomplishments in his lifetime, but he tried too hard to be important. Eventually his antics led many to believe he was insane. Others greatly admired him. In the end though, hardly anyone remembers him.
So he fits under the category of “nearly famous”?
Yes, I suppose, in how time treated his story. Today, he’s certainly not famous when compared to others, but in the later half of the 19th century he was a very famous figure, prominently in the news and influential and controversial too.
And Nellie Bly, the journalist, where does she fit in?
She is sort of like Train but never seemed to push herself into the spotlight like Train did. Certainly traveling around the world is a heady stuff for a woman at the time, but she did it to further her status as a journalist, not become a celebrity. That she became famous was a bonus.
So she is not quite forgotten?
Exactly her name comes up in books about the early history of journalism. But most people don’t know all of her amazing story.
Train and Bly seems to be main characters but don’t enter the book until the third part, especially Bly. Was this by design?
Sort of. Train has a connection to a man we meet in the first part Cornelius Vanderbilt, who has a connection to a steamboat disaster in New York whose tragic events has a connection to a young printer, it just follows along. Train is actually in every part in some way.
Niagara Falls is an interesting subject? How did you choose that to continue the narrative in Part Two?
Beyond the nature part of the beast, there’s a human story to the Falls which really interested me. Why did people risk there life to challenge it? So many stories emerged I had to tell it.
And yet, somehow it ties into balloon travel which ties into the birth of transportation
Yes, Part Three is about reaching new limits and new heights in transportation both by water and air. Some interesting and forgotten stories can be found here beyond the more familiar names like the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and even the Titanic.
So there is an “unremembered” ship?
There is. Again famous for it’s time, but mostly forgotten now.
And then we’re back to a tragedy in Part Four?
Yes, the Great Chicago Fire.
And a familiar face emerges?
Yes, Train has a history there as well.
It’s all very fascinating stuff and the book covers a lot of ground. Were you ever surprised by the connections?
Most everything in the book is included because of the connections, but there were a few that were unexpected and came about while during research.
They call that writer’s luck, right?
“Unremembered: Tales of the Nearly Famous and the Not Quite Forgotten” is scheduled for release in August 2018 by Amika Press, Chicago.
By Ken Zurski
Breece D’J Pancake never had a book published in his lifetime. He died at the official age of 26, just shy of his 27th birthday. But four years after his death, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake was released to critical acclaim. In fact, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
“A young writer of such extraordinary gifts that one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway,” praised author Joyce Carol Oates.
Born in 1952, the name Pancake is a surname of German origin. The odd apostrophe in D’J was a printer’s error, which stuck.
Pancake wrote about hardships of rural life in the Appalachian Territories where he grew up and rarely strayed. Most of his stories fly by in time, examining just hours of a character’s life, but packed with personal and social struggles both past and present. His stories for the Atlantic were submitted only after he composed four long-hand drafts and ten on the typewriter.
Ultimately, he struggled with alcoholism, but his untimely death by self-inflicted gunshot in 1979 may have been a tragic accident, some believe due to sleepwalking.
It all adds to his lore.
One book, however, remains.
By Ken Zurski
In 1858, Herbert Coleridge took on the daunting task of compiling and completing a new English dictionary. It was not an easy undertaking. Wordbooks as they were known had dated back to the early 17th century, and by the 19th century, an American lexicographer named Noah Webster made dictionaries that were based mostly on personal assessments of the English language, which in Webster’s opinion was too closely identified with the British. Coleridge’s dictionary would be different and involve hundred of volunteers who would find unlisted words in books and write them down on note cards along with the word’s source.
The note idea was not Coleridge’s but rather that of Richard Chenevix Trench, a British professor and lexicographer, who proposed using everyday readers to participate in the dictionary’s creation. “It would be necessary to recruit a team moreover, a huge one comprising hundreds of unpaid amateurs,” Trench proposed.
Trench’s vision took hold and Coleridge, a philologist, was called upon to make it happen.
Coleridge went to work designing a system of collecting the reader’s notes and organizing them. He also grossly underestimated that it would take only two years to complete the work. In reality, near the two year mark, the dictionary was far from finished, and Coleridge, unfortunately, was dead.
Officially Coleridge died of consumption, or a bout of tuberculosis, which makes sense. However, biographers paint a more fanciful ending. While walking to a lecture hall in London’s St. James Square, Coleridge got caught in a downpour and sat soaking wet in an unheated upstairs room for several hours listening to the speaker. His chills turned to a debilitating fever and eventual death.
Despite his untimely demise, the dictionary idea did not go with him. Several enthusiastic wordsmith’s picked up the slack. Soon they learned what a formidable task Coleridge faced. In just a few years of work, Coleridge had only gotten halfway through the first letter. Undeterred the vision carried on and in 1878, nearly a quarter century after Coleridge began. A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles was released. Today, the book is cited as the basis for the inaugural Oxford English Dictionary which was released in 1895.
Coleridge is often listed as its first editor.
By Ken Zurski
In the iconic painting “The Death of Caesar (1867),” artist Jean-Léon Gérôme’s portrayal of the famous assassination on the Ides of March, 44 B.C., the unfortunate victim, Julius Caesar, is seen crumpled in the foreground while his murderers celebrate by raising their weapons in victory.
The only man holding a weapon at his side is Brutus, who is seen with his back turned, walking toward the other celebrants. Perhaps, as history suggests, Brutus dealt the final blow. He also carries a sword. This would seem appropriate for the time, since swords were used by Roman soldiers. But the weapon of choice to kill Caesar was not a sword, but a dagger.
Brutus all but confirms it in a coin he commissioned after Caesar’s death. On the coin are two daggers with different shaped hilts. Presumably, the first dagger belongs to Brutus. The second likely belongs to another assassin.
The shorter daggers make more sense in the killing of Caesar.
They daggers were as martial arts experts explain today, “streamlined and remarkably light.” They were also very effective, especially at close range. Plus, a dagger could easily be hidden in a toga and retrieved quickly. The only advantage a sword would have over a dagger is the distance between the striker and the intended target.
But that was in combat and against another armed assailant. Caesar was ambushed and received blow after excruciating blow. A brutal and sickening mess, historians explain, and not an easy task. Instead of celebrating with weapons held high, as Gérôme’s painting suggests, more realistically, the band of conspirators would be hunched over from exhaustion and nausea. Their hands and white garments covered in blood.
As The Death of Caesar author Barry Strauss suggests about the gruesome aftermath of using military daggers to kill: “Few felt comfortable talking about it and fewer still doing it.”
Et tu, Brute.
By Ken Zurski
On June 25, 1954, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Washington D.C. to talk policy with then U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the time, the 79-year-old Churchill was showing his age and associates were urging him to retire. “His head was bent and his eyes, with their pale lashes were downcast, lest he stumble,” one biographer wrote of his appearance that day.
Despite Churchill’s weary appearance, Eisenhower greeted the Prime Minister warmly and the two got down to business.
History records a significant meeting which resulted in Churchill’s insistence that Eisenhower attend the tri-lateral talks with the Soviet Union. But history buffs, especially those who love literature, celebrate the trip for another reason.
During the visit, Churchill was presented with a gift from the Library of Congress and the U.S Copyright Office. The “handsomely bound, gold lettered” 35-page bibliography was the result of a massive undertaking to catalog all copyrighted works pertaining to Churchill, including books, periodicals, and his own writing. In the end, they found 565 contributions about or attributed to Churchill between the years of 1898 and 1953.
In a letter, the Library of Congress Reference Division Chief Richard MacCarteney wrote: “The bibliography was not the result of any special request. … It grew out of a realization of the tremendous effect Sir Winston Churchill’s utterances have had upon world history and thus our obligation to develop as nearly complete a copyright record of them as possible. ”
Churchill was obviously pleased, but explained that one book was still missing. “A modest work,” he implied.
Two years later, A History of the English Speaking People’s, an 800,000 word, 1,760 page four volume set, was released. Churchill had finally appeased his wife and close advisers by resigning from office and finishing the book. “It opens like an angel’s wings,” Churchill gushed about its stately design.
Shortly it was published, a spokesman for the U.S. Copyright Office, who had made a promise to Churchill during his visit, “eagerly anticipated” the book and subsequently added it to the bibliography list.
By Ken Zurski
In 1925, when Judy Garland was only three-years-old, a movie version of “The Wizard of Oz” was released that was loosely based on a stage play of the same name which in itself was loosely based on L. Frank Baum’s famous book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
There was no singing of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in this film version. In fact, there was no singing at all. “Talkies” as they were known in the movie business, hadn’t been perfected yet. This was a silent movie and compared to the musical film that was released fifteen years later in 1939, this version, as were other early adaptations of Baum’s book, remains somewhat of an enigma.
Here’s why: Baum’s book came out in 1900 and became an instant best seller. Two years later, under Baum’s direction a play based on the book was set to music and opened in Chicago. The title was shortened and the story was altered slightly. The main difference between the book and the stage adaptation, however, was an obvious one. Baum wrote the book specifically for children, while the play was geared for adults. Due to the popularity of the stage version, a 13-minute live action short was released that mostly confused viewers familiar with the book. The first full-length movie version then in 1924 was also based on the play and differed quite a bit from Baum’s original story
In the film, Dorothy and three farmhands arrive in Oz after a tornado sweeps them away. The Wizard proclaims Dorothy the long lost Princess of Oz, but the Prime Minister, named Kruel, wants nothing to do with her. The prince, however, named Kynd, welcomes the princess’s return and accuses the farmhands of kidnapping her.
To thwart the Prince’s soldiers, the farmhands, who are madly in love with Dorothy, dress up in disguise: one as a scarecrow and one in sheets of tin. The two men are eventually caught but the third farmhand who dons a lion’s costume, scares the guards, and helps the others escape. The Tin Man eventually sides with Kruel and the whole tangled mess leads to a showdown in a tower between the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, both of whom lose Dorothy’s affections to the handsome prince. The movie ends as the 1939 version does, when Dorothy wakes up from a dream.
“‘The Wizard of Oz’ goes way beyond even our wildest expectations,” proclaimed I.E. Chadwick, president of Chadwick pictures, upon its release. “A thing of great beauty and fantasy. Marvelously entertaining. A knockout!”
The movie’s top billing went to a popular comedian named Larry Semon, who played the scarecrow and directed the film. Dorothy Dwan, Semon’s real life wife, played Dorothy. The movie was advertised as a comedy and it did well at first. ‘It’s a Whiz!” was one excited description. But it didn’t last. By the time the Garland version appeared, the silent film had long since been forgotten.
Yet, the movie may best be remembered for the introduction of the larger-than-life figure who played The Tin Man. “Large” in this instance, referring to his outwardly size. The relative newcomer’s portliness would eventually become his trademark, but for this role, it was more a liability. Even a fellow actor questioned why a man of his girth would – or even could – wear a suit made of tin. “What are you going to do about the costume?” he asked. Oliver Hardy as it turned out would go on to have greater success as the bigger half, literally, of the comedic duo, Laurel and Hardy.
But the most glaring difference of the early film may be the absence of many of Baum’s most enduring characters, including two that featured prominently in Garland’s version: the Wicked Witch and Dorothy’s little dog, Toto.
In fact, in the stage version, Toto was replaced by a cow named Imogene.