Cornelius Vanderbilt

UNREMEMBERED Preview: New Book Explores History’s Connections and Coincidences

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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?

Exactly

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Ken Zurski

3/2/18

“Unremembered: Tales of the Nearly Famous and the Not Quite Forgotten” is scheduled for release in August 2018 by Amika Press, Chicago.

The Nimrod Effect: How a Cartoon Bunny Changed The Meaning of a Word Forever

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By Ken Zurski

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Earnest Shackleton

In 1909,  British explorer and Antarctic specialist Earnest Shackleton became the first person to come as close to the South Pole as any human had possibly done. The goal of course was to reach the elusive Pole, but turning back shy by only 100 miles was an accomplishment worthy of another try at least. The fact that no one died in the expedition was even better.

Shackleton had christened the ship he chose and the journey that followed by a term that reflected the mission’s quest for great resolve and discovery.

He named it Nimrod.

Wait. What?

Yes, the Nimrod Expedition, despite its insinuation, was not a mission for dummies. That’s because the word “nimrod” at the time represented something very different than it does today. Back then, strength and courage was at the word’s bent. A nimrod was held in high regard. The name demanded respect, not jeers.

Shackleton’s hand picked ship, Nimrod, lived up to its moniker too, a reference to Nimrod, the biblical figure and “mighty hunter before the Lord” from the Book of Genesis. Nimrod was an older boat and needed work, but Shackleton had little recourse with limited funds. He would eventually praise the small schooner as “sturdy” and “reliable.”

Even before Shackleton’s journey, the term Nimrod was being used to promote other noteworthy ventures. Financier and cutthroat ship builder Cornelius Vanderbilt named a steamboat Nimrod to compete with other commuter boats on New York’s Hudson River. It had to be built stronger and faster than others, Vanderbilt instructed. No doubt the naming of the ship reflected this too.

In 1899, composer Edward Elgar wrote a symphonic piece that had 14 variations each written for or about a personal acquaintance. The ninth variation was titled Nimrod. “An amusing piece,” Elgar said referring to his friend and subject, August Johannes Jagear, a music publisher and accomplished violinist. Rather than a slight, however, it was a compliment. Jäger in German meant “hunter.”

bugsIn 1940, however, everything about the word changed.  During a cartoon short titled “A Wild Hare,” a wise-cracking rabbit named Bugs Bunny called his nemesis Elmer Fudd a “poor little nimrod,” a sarcastic reference to Fudd’s skills as a hunter. Bugs was mocking Fudd’s foolhardy abilities which kept the rabbit, Fudd’s prey, out of his cross hairs, so to speak. Most children didn’t get the reference to Nimrod in biblical terms and the sarcasm went way over their heads. So the word became synonymous with a bumbling fool, like Fudd’s character .

At least that’s the story.

Today, as we examine the word’s usage more closely, a nimrod may have been the implication, but certainly not the description of Shackleton and his Antarctic crew. Those who wished to board the Nimrod, some might say, were playing a fools game. After all who was crazy enough to go?

Shackleton didn’t hide the discomforts and dangers of the mission when he advertised for a team of men and warned of a “hazardous journey” with “low, wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness.” If they made it back, which was “doubtful,” Shackleton expressed, “honor and recognition” would await them upon return.

Basically, only Nimrod-types need apply, he suggested.

Good thing Bugs Bunny wasn’t around to discourage it.

Earnest Shackleton and the Nimrod Factor

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Sir Earnest Shackleton

By Ken Zurski

The Nimrod Expedition despite its name was not a mission for dummies. Led by British explorer and Antarctic specialist Earnest Shackleton , the mission set off in January of 1909 with the objective of becoming the first team to reach the South Pole. That didn’t happen, but they did get closer to the pole than anyone else, just under 100 miles.

Basically they were all “nimrods,” but not in the way you think.

At the time, the word “nimrod” represented something different than it does today. Strength and courage was its bent. A nimrod basically was held in high regard. The name demanded respect, not jeers.

The polar expedition itself is named for Shackleton’s hand picked ship, the Nimrod, a reference to Nimrod, the biblical figure and “mighty hunter before the Lord” from the Book of Genesis. Nimrod was an older boat and needed work, but Shackleton had little recourse with limited funds. He would eventually praise the small schooner as “sturdy” and “reliable.”

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Shacketon’s Nimrod

Nimrod was not an uncommon moniker. In the mid 19th century, financier Cornelius Vanderbilt named a steamboat Nimrod to compete with other commuter boats on New York’s Hudson River. It had to be built stronger and faster than others, Vanderbilt instructed. No doubt the naming of the ship reflected this too. And in 1899, composer Edward Elgar wrote a symphonic piece that had 14 variations each written for or about a personal acquaintance.  The ninth variation was titled Nimrod. “An amusing piece,” Elgar said referring to his friend and subject, August Johannes Jagear, a music publisher and accomplished violinist. Rather than a slight, however, Elgar’s piece was a compliment.  Jäger in German meant “hunter.”

What’s Up, Doc

In 1940, the cartoon character Bugs Bunny is credited with changing the meaning of the  word.  During a short titled “A Wild Hare,” Bugs called his nemesis Elmer Fudd a “poor little nimrod,” a sarcastic reference to Fudd’s lack of skills as a hunter. Bugs was the one being hunted. Most children didn’t get it and Nimrod became synonymous with a bumbling fool, like Fudd’s character.

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That may have been the implication, but certainly not the description, of Shackleton and his crew. But those who wished to board the Nimrod, some might say, were playing a fools game.

Shackleton didn’t hide the discomforts and dangers of the mission when he advertised for a team of men . “A hazardous journey,” he warned, with “low, wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. If they made it back, which was “doubtful,” Shackleton implied, “honor and recognition” would await them upon return.

Basically, only Nimrod-types need apply, he implored.

Good thing Bugs Bunny wasn’t around to dissuade them.

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