As Many as 15 Supreme Court Justices? That Was the Plan

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By Ken Zurski

zzz2.jpgOn February 5, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced his intention to expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 justices. The plan was clearly political.  Roosevelt was trying to “pack” the court, Republicans argued, and in turn make the nation’s highest court a completely liberal entity.

Roosevelt embraced the criticism and mostly ignored it. Although politically it was still a hot button issue, his New Deal policies had earned public acceptance, even praise. As president, he reached for the stars.

Here’s why it mattered to Roosevelt. The high court had previously struck down several key pieces of his New Deal legislation on the grounds that the laws delegated an unconstitutional amount of authority in government, specifically the executive branch, but especially the office of the president.

Roosevelt won the 1936 election in a landslide and was feeling a bit emboldened. If he could pack the court, he could win a majority every time. The president proposed legislation which in essence asked current Supreme Court justices to retire at age 70 with full pay or be appointed an “assistant” with full voting rights, effectively adding a new justice each time.

Charles E. Hughes

This initiative would directly affect the 75-year-old Chief Justice, Charles Evan Hughes, a Republican from New York and a former nominee for president in 1916 who narrowly lost to incumbent Woodrow Wilson. Hughes resigned his post as a Supreme Court Justice to run for president, then served as Secretary of State under the Harding administration. In 1930, he was nominated by Herbert Hoover to return to the high court as Chief Justice. Hughes had sworn in Roosevelt twice. Now he was being asked by the president to give up his post.

In May of 1937, however, Roosevelt realized his “court packing” idea was wholly unnecessary. Two justices, including Hughes, jumped over to the liberal side of the argument and by a narrow majority upheld as constitutional the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act, two of the administration’s coveted policies. Roosevelt never brought up the issue of the court size again.

But his power move didn’t sit well with the press.

Newspaper editorials criticized him for it and the public’s favor he had enjoyed after two big electoral victories was waning. He was a lame duck president finishing out his second term. Then Germany invaded Poland. Roosevelt’s steady leadership was lauded in a world at war. In 1940, he ran for an unprecedented third term and won easily.

The following year, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.


Truth Be Told: The Landmark Libel Case That Nearly Stopped the Press

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By Ken Zurski

On November 17, 1734, a German immigrant and printer named John Peter Zenger, known for his influential newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, was thrown in jail for seditious libel.

Zenger was accused of printing unflattering and damaging stories about William S. Cosby, the 24th colonel governor of the Province of New York.  Among other things, the Journal claimed Cosby rigged elections, stole collected taxes, misappropriated Indian lands, and allowed enemy ships, like the French, to dock in New York harbor. This was tantamount to treason, the article implied.

William S. Cosby

The article provoked an already dubious reputation. As a public servant, Cosby was known as a notoriously giving man, but only for the benefit of his fellow Royalists.  He tried and often failed to secure higher salaries for his friends and officers. The Journal finally unleashed an onslaught of charges against him.

Cosby fired back, ordering his men to burn up the remaining editions of the Journal, claiming libel laws, and demanding justice.  In the early 18th century, under British rule, any information published that was opposed to the monarchy was considered a violation of the law. The truth, as it was understood, was irrelevant. Cosby had a case.

But who to blame?

Zenger was the printer of the article and claimed not to have written it. But when asked to reveal the name of the writer – or writers – listed as anonymous in the paper, he refused. Zenger was arrested, incarcerated and left to await trail. Nearly a year later, in August of 1735, when the jury was finally seated, the Chief Justice in the case, James DeLancey, thought the proceedings would end quickly.

He was right, to a point.

A lawyer from Philadelphia named Andrew Hamilton was called upon to serve as Zenger’s counsel . The Scotland born Hamilton practiced law in Maryland and Pennsylvania and oftentimes traveled between the two provinces to accept cases and appointments. He mostly avoided New York. But when Zenger’s lawyers, a couple of locals, were stricken from the case because they had objected to DeLancey’s commission, Hamilton, a friend and an outsider, stepped in.

Andrew Hamilton

Hamilton went to work. He demanded the prosecution prove the allegations were false or the jury must free Zenger immediately. “It is not the cause of one poor printer,” Hamilton insisted, “but the cause of liberty.”

Hamilton’s words were prophetic and Zenger’s case would begin a contentious debate that would last until 1791 when under a new constitution of laws, the expression known as “Freedom of Press,” was included in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.

But that precedent would be set only if Hamilton was persuasive enough to exonerate Zenger. Libel only exists when falsehoods are perpetrated, not the truth, he argued.

It took the jury less than ten minutes to come back with a verdict.

“Not guilty” was their response.


Dying for King, Country and Spices and Spices and Spices and Spices

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By Ken Zurski

coug6In 1517, King Charles I of Spain, who had just assumed the throne at the tender age of eighteen, was approached by a Portuguese explorer named Ferdinand Magellan.

Rejected by his own country, Magellan made the young King an offer: Let him sail around the world and find a direct route to Indonesia, once successfully navigated by Christopher Columbus.

Columbus’s four voyages for Spain, among other revelations, claimed new lands, including one which was named after another Italian explorer Amerigo Vesspucci.

Charles found Magellan’s plan intriguing. After all, great riches awaited any King who could bring back the precious spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves which grew in abundance on the elusive islands.

If Magellan could find a way to get the spices back to Charles, Spain would reap the rewards and rule the spice trade. Charles wholeheartedly approved the voyage and ordered five ships and a crew of nearly 300 men.

In 1519, Magellan set sail from Seville.

Four years later, limping back to port, only one ship named Victoria returned. Every other ship was lost including most of the men. Even Magellan was gone, hacked to death in a fierce battle with a native tribe.

Despite this, the King was pleased.

pekin2The tragic news of the lost ships and crew was irrelevant. The Victoria had returned with a cargo of 381 sacks of cloves, the most coveted of all spices.“No cloves are grown in the world except the five mountains of those five islands,” explained the ships diarist.

Charles questioned the returning men on mutiny claims and other charges of debauchery, but it didn’t matter.

He paid the royal stipends to survivors, basked in his clove treasure, and set in motion plans to put another crew back in route to the islands.


The First Multi-Book Reader Dates Back to the 16th Century

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By Ken Zurski

zzz4Agostino Ramelli was a military engineer which meant he wore an armored suit and carried a sword like the rest of his fellow combatants, but used his brain rather than brawn on the battlefield.

This came in handy during the 16th century French Wars of Religion when the Italian born Ramelli went to France, took up arms with the Catholic League, and was captured by the Protestants (Huguenots).

While incarcerated, Ramelli not only found a way to break out, but in as well.  After he escaped – or was exchanged – Ramelli returned and breached the fortification by mining under a bastion. From that point on, he called himself “Capitano” and dedicated his life to, well, figuring things out.

In 1588, he released a book titled, Various and Ingenious Machines of Capitano Ramelli. The expertly illustrated book was a compilation of 195 machines that made laborious tasks more practical. Many of the machines lifted things in crafty ways, like water, or solid objects, like doors off their hinges. One machine milled flour using rollers rather than stones.

Then there was the Book Wheel.

jukebox“This is a beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient,” Ramelli bragged about the large contraption which allowed a person to sit and read several different books without actually picking them up.

By convenient, he meant for those suffering from gout, a painful joint disease which made walking or standing difficult. A noble gesture, for sure, but the wheel itself, while complex, was also bulky and cumbersome. So it is doubtful Ramelli designed it strictly for its practicality.

Nevertheless, its usefulness is left up to the user to decide. The operator remains seated while the books, eight in all, each come to the front by turning the wheel.

Ramelli was especially proud of the gearing system that kept the books constantly level to the ground. He built an intricate gear for each slot and prominently featured a diagram in his book to explain the complicated design. The impressive technology was similar to that used in an astronomical clock.

It was also wholly unnecessary.

A simple swivel pivot and gravity could do the trick just as engineer George Ferris would prove many centuries later in a similar design that carried people rather than books.

Speculation is Ramelli knew this application applied to his Book Wheel, but as a mathematician, and a bit of a swank, he couldn’t help himself.


The English Boxing Champion Who Gets His Bell Rung Everyday

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By Ken Zurski

Benjamin Caunt

On July 21, 1835  Benjamin Caunt and William Thompson, two of England’s best known boxers and biggest rivals, faced off in a test of strength, will and endurance, typical of a boxing match at the time.

Thompson, considerably lighter and shorter than the 6-foot, 2-inch, 250-pound Caunt, was known as much for his relentless taunting as he was for his fighting. During the bout, Thompson would chant clever but insulting sing-song rhymes directed at his opponent’s wife or mother. Usually the submissive jeers worked to Thompson’s advantage, but Caunt was different – or was he?

For twenty-two rounds, Caunt endured Thompson’s verbal assaults until he finally had enough. During a short break, Caunt walked over to the opposing corner and blindsided Thompson in the head while he sat, ending the fight on a foul and sending the unsuspecting winner slumping to the ground in a heap.

A rematch would take place three years later.

William Thompson

In that contest, Caunt had the advantage early on, but in the 13th round lost his cool again. He began to strangle his opponent with both hands until Thompson nearly passed out. Thompson’s corner crew stormed the ring to help the struggling boxer and subdue Caunt. In defense, Caunt pulled a rope spike out of the ground and began waving it in front of him. Caunt eventually backed off and Thompson was revived with a few sips of brandy. The bout continued until the 75th round when Thompson finally hit the ground from exhaustion. Caunt was declared the winner and returned to his hometown of Nottingham City where he was treated to a hero’s welcome and crowned the new heavyweight champion of England.

The two rivals third and final match in 1845 was mostly Thompson’s to lose. Caunt was hit so hard and bleeding so profusely near the eye that in the 93rd round he retired to his corner to sit. The referee, however, never called for the break and Caunt was ordered to continue. He didn’t. Thompson won by a deliberate foul. Following the embarrassing defeat, Caunt went into a semi-retirement, but his legacy did not.

Despite his even record of wins and loses, Caunt was a giant of a figure in England. Not only due to his a physical attributes, tall and solidly built, but his affectionately playful manner and “booming” laugh too. “A huge, slow-witted, beef-raised pugilist of tremendous powers,” a newspaper recounted in 1910, “who gained prominence through sheer muscle and pluck.” Caunt earned the nicknames “Tokard Giant” referring to his English birthplace, “the bare-knuckled boxer” (there were no gloves used), and the moniker that seemed to stick more than others: “Big Ben.”

“Big Ben” was lured back into the ring one more time in 1857 at the age of 42 to settle a dispute involving the two combatants wives. After 60 rounds both men were too exhausted to continue and declared it a draw.

Four years later, Caunt died from pneumonia.

But his story doesn’t end there. In fact, it goes back 20 years to 1834, when a  fire ripped through Westminster Palace. Ten years later, the rebuilding committee decided to add a massive clock tower to the new design, including a tolling bell. In May of 1859, after several construction delays and a few broken casts, the bell rang out for the first time.

Shortly after its unveiling, a Parliamentary committee was formed to come up with a name for the bell, similar to York Minister’s “Great Peter” named for the saint, of course, and the church which bears it’s name.

Sir Benjamin Hall

One man on the committee towered above the rest, not only in size but in stature as well. His name was Sir Benjamin Hall. He was the Chief Lord of Woods and Forrests and he stood a whopping 6-foot-4 inches tall.

Hall would typically send the room into a frenzy with his confrontational debates and fiery speeches. During one raucous session dominated by Hall, an exasperated colleague stood up and said: “Why not call him ‘Big Ben’ and be done with it.” No one knows for sure if the acknowledgement was in reference to Hall’s larger-than-life demeanor or the bell. The nickname stuck and Hall apparently sold the idea that the bell was named after him. He died in 1867. The story, however, comes with a mix of skepticism and doubt. Not a word of it was documented. It’s hearsay and most of it was Hall’s doing, not much more.

The more plausible explanation, and the one supported today, is that the bell in London’s iconic Elizabethan Tower is named after the boxer, Benjamin Caunt. That’s because Caunt, like his size, was associated with heavy things, often the heaviest or biggest of things, or in this case, the nearly 14-ton bell. It must be a “Big Ben,” like the famous boxer, many surmised.

But being bigger was not always better.

In October 1859, several months after the great bell was installed, it cracked. The striking hammer was to blame. Either it was too strong or the bell was hung too rigidly, no one was quite sure. Whatever the reason, it was ridiculed in the press for being a mammoth failure, at least initially. “There is no more melancholy looking object than a large public clock which wont go.” the London Times sarcastically reported.  Criticism of the time and expense it took to put up the bell was replaced by even harsher objections to how much more time and expense it would take to fix it. “An old adage tells us the fate of the best broth with too many cooks to prepare it,” the Times reported, openly blaming poor management and craftsmanship for the bell’s initial failure.

“In the name of common prudence,” the Times continued, “let the contract for the next bell be given to some of our eminent bell founders who have passed their lives and realized fortunes in the manufacture of bells of all kinds.”

Whether Caunt knew the bell was named after him is not known. Perhaps based on its ineffectiveness at first, he wanted nothing to do with it. When “Big Ben” tolled for the first time, Caunt, who was likely in Nottingham City – a distance of 175 kilometers to London – would have never heard it.

By the time the recasted bell rang again, nearly two years later, he was dead.





One POW’s Depiction of a Civil War Prison Camp Was Fun at the Old Ballpark.

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By Ken Zurski

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the start of the Civil War in 1861 slowed down the progress of a game like baseball, a sport that was gaining popularity in the years before the conflict began. And that was true, to a point. Inevitably as men heeded the call to serve, there just weren’t as many players to take the field. But there were reserves to take their place, especially in the well populated state like New York, which holds the distinction of introducing the world to baseball.

While bat-and-ball type games were popping up throughout the country, in New York, an actual team called the Knickerbockers emerged in the 1840’s. While not trailblazers in creating the game, they can be considered pioneers when it comes to the sport. The Knickerbockers actually made and followed rules.

Other teams formed and crowds grew.


Then came the war.

Although pick-up games continued, the sport shifted to the battlefront instead. “Each regiment had its share of disease and desertion; each had it’s ball-players turned soldiers,” remembered George T Stevens, of the 77th Regiment, New York Volunteers.

Union soldiers would play a good “game of nines” to help pass the time.

Otto Boetticher was a Union prisoner at Salisbury, North Carolina. In 1861, at the age of 45, he enlisted in the 68th New York Volunteers and left his job as a commercial artist. The following year he was captured and ended up in Salisbury before a prisoner swap set him free a few months later. Before leaving, Boetticher did a drawing of a prisoner game of baseball.

Boetticher’s drawing, released in 1864, was hardly representative of prison camp descriptions at the time. “Despite the bleak realities of imprisonment,there is a sense of ease and contentment in the image, conveyed in part by pleasures of the game, the glowing sky and sunlight, and the well-ordered composition,” one assessment of the drawing goes.


Boettchler’s lighthearted look at prisoner life wasn’t his fault. The harsh reality of the POW camps would come later with the woeful Libby and Andersonville among others where the prisoner population grew by thousands and unsanitary and overcrowded conditions led to widespread starvation and sickness. Early on, however, the captured soldiers waited for their name to be called. Why not play a spirited game of baseball?

Boetticher’s print may have been from a July 4th game, when prisoners were allowed to celebrate the nation’s holiday, as one prisoner described, with “music, sack and foot races and baseball.” But if weather permitted and “for those who like it and are able,” baseball was played everyday.

Otto Boetticher

Two months after leaving Salisbury, Boetticher mustered back into the Northern Army as a captain and in 1865 became a Lieutenant Colonel.

Not much of his life after the war was documented.

The print remains his legacy.

Some might think his depiction of prison life is more of a deception.  But prisoner recollections support the claim that despite the animosity between them, a game of baseball was good fun for both sides.

“I have never seen more smiles today on their oblong faces,” William Crosley a Union sergeant in Company C wrote describing Confederate captors watching a match at Salisbury. “For they have been the most doleful looking set of men I ever saw.”

Play ball!







Sibling Scribes, the War Journal, and History’s Most Famous Editorial

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By Ken Zurski

William Church

As brothers growing up in Rochester, New York, William and Francis Church were raised in a strict but loving household. Their father, Pharcellus Church, was a newspaper publisher and Baptist minister. He demanded nothing but the best from his boys, who in return, each earned a college degree and joined their father in the newspaper business.

In 1862, however, at the onset of the Civil War, the two brothers followed separate paths. William resigned his post at the New York Times to become a full-time soldier while Francis continued on as a civilian war correspondent.

William earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, but left after a year. His superior at the time, General Silas Casey, suggested he start up a newspaper and devote it strictly to the war. William liked the idea so he mustered out and asked his brother to join him. Together they published The Army and Navy Journal and Gazette of the Regular and Volunteer Forces, a weekly filled with articles on everyday applications of the war, soldier’s viewpoints, and criticism too.  “There is not a shadow of a doubt that Fort Sumter lies a heap of ruins,” the first sentence of the first volume read on August 29, 1863.

Francis Church

While the two brothers continued to edit the Journal, and eventually collaborated on a monthly literary magazine, The Galaxy, their legacies are vastly different.

William would go on to become the founder and first president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), while Francis became posthumously known for an editorial he wrote in response to a little girl’s inquisitive letter.

The editorial appeared without a byline and was buried deep in New York’s The Sun on September 21, 1897.

Only after Francis’ death in 1906 was it revealed the former war correspondent penned the famous line: “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”