History

When Roosevelt Told Opposing Supreme Court Justices to Get Lost

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By Ken Zurski

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

Roosevelt didn’t car what his opponents thought. He 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. The high court, however, was another matter. They had previously struck down several key pieces of his 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. So 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.

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Charles E. Hughes

This initiative would directly affect 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 and in effect – take a hike.

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In May of 1937, however, Roosevelt realized his “court packing” idea was wholly unnecessary. In an unexpected role of reversal, 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 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.

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The Man Who Gave ‘Google’ Its Name

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By Ken Zurski

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Edward Kasner

In the early half of the 20th century, shortly after World War I ended, mathematician Edward Kasner, a professor at Columbia University, devised the concept of showing the common features of whole numbers, no matter how large. As an example, he came up with the number one followed by a hundred zeros.

Writing out such a large number was ridiculous of course, and at the time formal names didn’t exist for numbers larger than a trillion.

But he needed a name.

So he asked his nine-year-old nephew Milton to intervene. During a causal stroll in New Jersey’s Palisades Woods, Edward wondered if Milton could come up with one. “Googol” was the boy’s answer. So Milton’s silly sounding recommendation became “Googolplex,” or one followed by a googol zeros. Kasner began using the name in his classes.

Flash forward more than 70 years in 1995 when two Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin began collaborating on a search engine they originally called BackRub. The project began to attract investors and bandwidth grew.  But they needed a new name, something catchier, something they could easily register online.

Google was chosen as the common spelling of Googol which, thanks to Kasner, was as close to an infinite number as possible.

“We picked the name “Google” because our goal is to make huge quantities of information available to everyone,” Page later recalled.

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When they presented the name however, math traditionalists balked. “You idiots, you spelled it [Googol] wrong!” one chastised. But Google.com was available and Googol.com was not. Besides, Page said, “It sounds cool and [still] has only six letters.”

According to an official statement Google’s corporate website (yes, there is one): “The name “Google” reflects Larry and Sergey’s mission to organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web.”

Simple enough. But what about young Milton?  How did the word “Googol” pop into his head? Speculation runs rampant here.  A great niece of Dr. Kasner, Denise Sirotta, claims her father Edwin, Milton’s younger brother, should get some credit since he claimed the siblings came up with the name together. “He was asked for a word with a  sound that had lots of O’s in it,” she said.

Another observation seems to make more sense especially in the imaginative mind of a toddler. Caroline Birenbaum, another great-niece of Dr. Kasner’s, speculates the word was inspired by a comic-strip character named Barney Google, who debuted in 1919. She says Dr. Kasner, liked cartoons.

“He may have tweaked the spelling to avoid any trademark issues,” she claims.

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Barney Google was an American comic strip created by Billy DeBeck, that originally appeared on the sports pages. Google had big “banjo” eyes, a mustache, a large bulbous nose, and wore a tuxedo-type suit. He was an “avid sportsman and N’er do well” involved with some of the more contentious contests like poker, prize fights and horse racing. Google’s bow-legged horse “Spark Plug” was introduced in 1922, and nicknamed “Sparky.” The horse was a nag who rarely raced, but when he did it became a big media event. Millions of readers bought in.

A popular song was introduced, a foxtrot, titled “Barney Google and Spark Plug”

Barney Google—with the goo, goo, googly eyes,

Barney Google—bet his horse would win the prize;

When the horses ran that day,

Spark Plug ran the other way!

Barney Google—with the goo-goo-googly eyes!

In 1934, another character named Snuffy Smith joined the fray and Barney Google and Spark Plug were phased out.

So Google, the word itself, was in the public consciousnesses long before the giant search engine came along. Still, Kasner had no idea that it would become so popular in the next century.

So where did his inspiration for the seemingly infinite number come from?

Kasner, who never married, cited a description of unrequited love. In a divorce case, he explained, a woman called the commitment she had for her husband as “a million billion billion times and eight times around the world.” Kaisner was struck by the expansive description. “It was the largest number ever conceived of,” he said. So he set out to immortalize it.

And his little nephew inspired a name.

Googolplex!

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The ‘If I Live…’ Promise: A Lusitania Survivor Story

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By Ken Zurski

In May of 1915, New York wine importer George A. Kessler was on the deck of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania watching the crew go through its daily lifeboat drills when he had an idea.

Known as “The Champagne King,” Kessler was sailing to the United Kingdom from New York on business and despite the threat of a German submarine attack in open waters, had no reservations about traveling.

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George A. Kessler

After witnessing the crew drills, however, Kessler went to the captain and asked if there should be drills for the passengers as well. Perhaps, Kessler suggested, each person be assigned a lifeboat, just in case.

The captain graciously said he was not authorized to do such a thing.

Later, hosting a party in his stateroom, Kessler’s concerns were met with indifference. “That is the captain’s decision,” others told him.

Two days later, on May 7, the Lusitania was at the bottom of the sea, befallen by a German torpedo. More than thousand people perished.

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Kessler was not one. He survived by reaching a lifeboat first then rescued in the water. “We tried bailing and balancing, “Kessler recalled, “but the boat would tilt and turn and finally capsized again.”

Kessler made a promise to himself, vowing that if he lived through the ordeal he would help others injured in war.

Later in the hospital, Kessler met a disabled British newspaperman who opened a center for soldiers with eye injuries. Inspired, Kessler sought out a person he knew could help.

Her name was Helen Keller.

Together they founded the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund, an organization which still exists today.

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Helen Keller

(Sources: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larsen; Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston; various internet sites)

P.T. Barnum’s Home Was Everything You Might Imagine It To Be

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By Ken Zurski

Even though the redesign of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England in the early 19th century was the vision of its benefactor, Prince Regent, the future King George IV, the finished product,  a mixture of many styles and influences, was the work of architect John Nash.

Nash’s design suited the future King, but hardly anyone else.  “A masterpiece of bad taste” was one icy reception, while another described it as a “mad house.” Even Queen Victoria, wife of King William  IV, King George’s successor,  was unmoved calling it “odd” then demeaning its purpose. “Most of the rooms are low and I can see a morsel of the sea from one of my sitting windows,” she bemoaned, refusing to spend much time there.

Born in London in 1752, Nash earned a reputation for designing houses, castles really, for the wealthy. Eventually, his work caught the eye of the prince and in 1806 Nash became his personal architect. The re-imagining of the Royal Pavilion, originally called the Carlton House, was their partnership.  Between 1815 and 1822, Nash added flourishing touches like the special dome features and another elaborate wing. The biting condemnations quickly followed.

But attitudes toward the Royal Pavilion would change.

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The Royal Pavilion

In 1841, a rail line made it more accessible. Now more people could come and roam the grounds and enjoy the scenic location for themselves. And to the British commoner it was a work of art.  Unfortunately the man who endured the constant jabs about his work from his peers, never lived long enough to see it appreciated.  In 1835, shortly before the Pavilion became a popular tourist attraction, Nash died at the age of 83.

Nearly a decade after his death, Nash would be vindicated again when the Royal Pavilion was paid the ultimate compliment by an American and a visionary in his own right who not only admired the uniqueness of the building, he sought to copy it too.

In 1848 a mansion went up in the scenic countryside of Connecticut that looked oddly out of place for its location. Not only was it very large, occupying 17 acres of land, but the building itself with its exotic Indian influenced architecture looked like something you might spot in far off Mumbai or New Dehli, not Fairfield, near Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city.

All this was the creation of one man who commissioned the building of the mansion as a “permanent residence” for his family. His name was Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P.T. Barnum.

Barnum called his new home the Iranistan.

 

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The Iranistan

Barnum’s inspiration for Iranistan was Nash’s Royal Pavilion, a place he visited while doing a tour of England with his star attraction at the time, the 25-inch tall man known as Tom Thumb. Unlike others, Barnum was greatly pleased by what he saw. “It was the only specimen of oriental architecture in England,and had not been introduced into America,” he wrote.

Barnum hired a New York architect named Leopold Eidlitz to design it with the stipulation that he hold nothing back in terms of style and decorative elements. “The whole was finally completed to my satisfaction,” Barnum expressed, and on November 14, 1848, he held a house warming party for “a thousand guests.”

The invitees found a casual but garish palace to explore.  Outside there was a circular carriage way , a fountain, urns and a decorative facade that was filled with symmetrically placed arched openings and numerous decks and porches. Topping the building were onion-shaped domes and minarets.

Inside, there was a circular divan under the dome, a large library adorned in Asian landscapes on its walls and elaborate stained glass windows that filled the rooms with colorful light. The grand ballroom sported a shiny wood floor with an inscription, “Love God and be Merry,” words Barnum used often.

“Elegant and appropriate furniture was made expressly for every room in the house,” Barnum would later write. “The stables, conservatories  and out-buildings were perfect in their kind. There was a profusion of trees set out on the grounds. The whole was built and established literally ‘regardless of expense,’ for I had no desire even to ascertain the entire cost.”

In addition to the design, Barnum filled his home with animals of all kinds, as he did at his popular American Museum in New York City. Roaming the grounds of Iranistan were mandarin ducks, silver peasants, a cow named Bessie, and a pig named Prince Albert. The biggest attraction was Iranistan’s largest resident, an unnamed bull elephant.  This, of course, was all by design. Barnum felt the addition of the animals, especially the elephant was good promotion for the museum. “When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant,” Barnum would later explain.  It all started at his home.

But it wouldn’t last. Late on December 17, 1857, only nine years after it was built, the Iranistan was gone. Barnum, who was refurnishing the mansion at the time got the news the next morning by telegram while staying at the Astor House in New York. The building caught fire, he was told.  It was a total loss.

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P.T. Barnum

The papers were consoling, but skeptical. Barnum’s good fortunes had recently taken a turn for the worse. It all started when Barnum sought to create a “perfect”town in Connecticut that he would call East Bridgeport. He convinced a large business, the Jerome Clock Company, to move their factory there in the hopes of bringing more people and jobs. The clock company agreed to relocate but first needed help to pay down a debt of $100,000 . Barnum loaned them the money, but was tricked into signing more cash notes. Soon he was responsible for a half million dollars of the companies debt and creditors were demanding money. Barnum was forced to go into bankruptcy and lost a fortune.

Many of his friends supported his plight with sympathy, loans and gifts, but others reveled in his misfortune. To his detractors, Barnum’s latest predicament – more like a humiliation – was subject to ridicule. “Here is a terrible illustration of where the practice of humbug will lead,” proclaimed the New York Herald.

The Chicago Tribune’s headline was even more biting. “The deceiver is duped,” it read.

In the midst of all this turmoil, Barnum lost his beloved Iranistan.

Initially, no cause of the fire was given. “It is supposed to have been set on fire,” was one newspaper dispatch, not mincing words, but refusing to elaborate. Later, it was suspected a construction worker dropped a lighted pipe. Barnum had recently moved some of the more expense furniture out of the Iransitan during the renovation and claimed he would soon return. His insurance money was far less then the initial cost of $150,000. “My beautiful Iranistan is gone,” Barnum would write in his autobiography

Barnum recovered financially after going on another successful tour of England with Tom Thumb. Upon his return he set out to build another home, again in Fairfield, called Lindencroft, that in its design was spacious, but far less extravagant than the Iranistan. “All the taste that money can could do was fairly lavished upon Lindencroft so that when all was finished it was not only a complete house in all respects, but a perfect home.” Barnum wrote his memoirs.

The biggest disappointment, however, was for the riders on a train line that would pass by the Iranistan grounds everyday. Not only was the impressive building gone, but they missed seeing the elephant, roaming the yard, helping plow the fields, and giving them all a thrill by raising its trunk and bobbing its head in a friendly gesture.

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(Sources” The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming; P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man by A.H. Saxon; various internet sites)

Dying For King, Country and Cloves

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By Ken Zurski

In 1517, King Charles I of Spain, who had just assumed the throne at the tender age of eighteen, was approached by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who came to the young King after being rejected by his own country.  Magellan made Charles an offer. Let him sail around the world and in the process find a direct route to Indonesia and the Spice Islands, once successfully navigated by Christopher Columbus.

Charles found Magellan’s plan intriguing.

Columbus’s four voyages for Spain, among other revelations, claimed new lands and 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.

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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 on April 27, 1521 after a fierce battle with a native tribe.

Despite this, the King was pleased.

The tragic news of the lost ships and crew was irrelevant. The Victoria came back 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 ship’s diarist.

Charles questioned the returning men on claims of a mutiny 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 en route to the islands.

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His Drawing of Prison Camp Baseball Endures

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Otto Boetticher

By Ken Zurski

In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, Otto Boetticher left his job as a commercial artist to join the 68th New York Volunteers. Shortly after enlisting, Boetticher, who was born in Germany and came to the U.S around 1850, was captured and sent to a prison camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. He wasn’t there very long. Thanks to a prisoner swap and after only a few months in captivity, he was set free.

Before leaving, however, Boetticher, did a drawing of a prisoner game of baseball.

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Yes, baseball.

The game itself was not new, in fact bat-and-ball type games were popping up throughout the country in the early part of the 19th century, especially in New York, said to be the birthplace of baseball.  Then came the war. The game of baseball 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, Stevens remembers,  would play a good “game of nines” to help pass the time.

Boetticher’s drawing, released in 1864, was hardly the perception of prison camps at the time. In it, the players look healthy, even happy. The spectators are just as engaged. Lively conversations are taking place around the makeshift diamond. There are no guards, no guns, no torture, no death.

“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.

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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. That’s when prisoner population grew by thousands and unsanitary and overcrowded conditions led to widespread starvation and sickness. Early on, however, the captured soldier would bide time and wait for his 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.

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!

 

 

 

The Doctor Who Told the President He Was Dying

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By Ken Zurski

In the months leading up to the 1944 presidential election, the American people heard rumors and speculation about the health of the incumbent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was vying for an unprecedented fourth term in office.

Roosevelt suffered from polio which limited his mobility, but in 1944 his appearance seemed to worsen. He looked feeble and weak; his eyes were often red and swollen; and his movements were slow and calculated.

In March 1944, the White House announced a report by Roosevelt’s personal physician at the time, the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy, Dr. Ross McIntire, that claimed the 62-year-old Roosevelt was looking “tired and haggard” due to the stress and strain of the war years and nothing more.

“In my opinion,” McIntire added, “Roosevelt is in excellent condition for a man of his age.”

He was either astonishingly wrong or lying.

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Behind the scenes, there were concerns. Dr. Frank Howard Lahey, a respected surgeon known for opening a multi-specialty group practice in Boston, was brought in for a consultation. Lahey’s connection with the Navy’s consulting board led him to the White House request.

After a careful examination, Lahey informed Roosevelt that he was in advanced stages of cardiac failure and should not seek a fourth term. Even went so far as to warn Roosevelt that if he did win reelection, he would likely die in office. Roosevelt listened but did not follow Lahey’s advice. He felt it was his duty to continue.

Although a handful of past presidents had tried, none had served more than two terms, a limitation the nation’s first president George Washington had advised others to follow. But at the time, there were no restrictions. FDR broke new ground when he won a third term. A fourth term he felt during a time of war was just as important.

The voting public agreed. Roosevelt, a Democrat, beat Republican challenger Thomas Dewey in what can be considered even by today’s standard as an overwhelming victory.

The voters, however, had no idea – at least not officially – that they had elected back into office a man who was living on borrowed time.

In April of 1945, less than three months after being sworn in for the fourth time, Roosevelt died.

The president’s death took most Americans by surprise. That’s because shortly after being reelected, McIntire went public again and helped quell fears by proclaiming FDR was fine.

“Roosevelt Dies. Death Unexpected,” headlines blared echoing McIntire’s comments.

 

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Dr. Ross McIntire

As soon as Vice President Harry Truman was sworn in, questions were asked: Why didn’t the voting public know the truth about Roosevelt’s health?

In hindsight, Lahey’s report seemed to be the most truthful and forewarning. But information between a doctor and client is private. The White House only asked Lehay to consult the president. Whether the details were released was up to Roosevelt and his staff. Lehay himself could have spoke up, but chose to remain silent and honor the patient-doctor confidentiality agreement.

The report was concealed and only came to light six decades later.

 

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Dr. Frank Lahey