By Ken Zurski
In Jill Lepore’s bold new 900-plus page tome titled “These Truths: A History of the United States,” the essayist and historian begins the incredible journey in the obvious year of 1492 and the discovery of a new land by a man named Christopher Columbus, an Italian-born Portuguese sailor, who was sent by the Spanish king and queen to sail across the Atlantic and spread Christianity, along with more financially rewarding reasons as well.
The name of this new land, Lepore points out was actually given by a German cartographer whose map of the world in four parts included a word, made up, to describe the fourth and newest part: America. But like most historians, Columbus gets credit for finding this new world, soon to be dubbed New Spain, a place where a place was not supposed to be.
Columbus found this new territory well inhabited by natives and resourceful to cultivating. Upon his return back to the homeland, he told the Spanish born Pope who in turn used only his divine powers to grant the land to Spain as if “he were the god of Genesis,” Lepore explains.
Not everyone agreed, but it didn’t matter. Columbus was already planning another trip to conquer and domesticate this New Spain. So in 1493 he led an armada of seventeen ships and 1200 men went back to America. This time on board the ships were an abundance of livestock and seeds, enough to start a small farm. It would not be long before the cattle, pigs, sheep and goats multiplied. There was an abundant food supply on this fertile land and no natural predators. “They reproduced in numbers unfathomable in Europe,” Leprore writes. “Cattle population doubled every fifteen months.”
Even more productive, the pigs who were notorious foragers and reproducers quickly outnumbered the cattle. “Within a few years,” Lepore expounds, ” the eight pigs he [Columbus] brought with him had descendants numbering in the thousands.”
Columbus also brought with him seeds of “wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, greens, grapevines, and sugar cane.” He also brought diseases, which the European people were mostly immune, but carried unseen. This would wipe out most of the native population who had never been exposed to and therefore had no defense against malaria, influenza, small pox , whopping cough and yellow fever, among others. They died by the “tens of millions,” Lepore pointed out, and those left were usually rounded up and sold as slaves.
And while this conquer, pillage and plunder method by the Spaniards is fiercely debated, and is often roundly criticized, the legacy of Columbus and his men can also be found in many of the plants which dot the country’s landscape. For aboard the transport ships, hidden among the folds of “animal skins, blankets and clods of mud” came a seed, which Lepore points out were “the seeds of plants Europeans considered to be weeds.”
These wild plant seeds were inadvertently distributed in the soil and thanks to the constant moving of dirt by cattle, horses, and human digging and tilling, they spread across the ground like diseases did between the natives.
Bluegrass, daises, and ferns were among them. Thistles and nettles also stayed and thrived.
And one – the mighty dandelion – just never seems to go away.
By Ken Zurski
In 1891, Charles Colville, secretary for the Lord Frederick Stanley, the British appointed General Governor of Canada, was ordered to sail back to England and return with a handpicked ornament.
Stanley had something particular in mind and Colville knew just where to look.
On Regent Street near Piccadilly Circus, he stepped into the shop of George Richmond and Collis Co. and spotted a “silver bowl lined with a gold gilt interior.” Colville bought the bowl for 10 guineas, the equivalent of about 10-thousand U.S. dollars today.
Stanley was ambivalent at first. “It looks like any other trophy,” he remarked, but overall pleased.
In 1893, the first Stanley Cup, as it was called, was awarded to Montreal, the champions of the Ontario Hockey Association. Stanley, a big hockey supporter, offered the trophy as a gift. His team, however, was Ottawa and the animosity between the two teams was apparent.
When Montreal was awarded the inaugural cup bearing Stanley’s name, only a few players were on hand and no Montreal team officials bothered to show up.
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
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.
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 is what led him to the White House.
After a careful examination, Lahey informed Roosevelt that he was in advanced stages of cardiac failure and should not seek a fourth term. He 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 Roosevelt was reelected, McIntire went public again and helped quell the public fears by proclaiming FDR was fine. Anything worse, he implied, would be unexpected.
“Roosevelt Dies. Death Unexpected,” the headlines blared, echoing McIntire’s sentiments.
But an inquiring press wanted to know. As soon as Vice President Harry Truman was sworn in, questions were asked: How sick was the president? And if so, 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.
By Ken Zurski
For a man whose mission it was to relinquish his entire fortune before his death, Andrew Carnegie still had plenty of money left when he passed in 1919 at the age of 83. That’s no indictment of a man who built a massively successful business, became the richest man in America, and devoted his later years to giving it all back. It was a noble thing to do. But Carnegie had made so much capital that even he found it difficult to allocate the funds sufficiently.
So he asked for help.
Carnegie grew up poor in Scotland, came to America, and amassed millions in the steel industry. Along the way, he made just as many enemies as dollars. Like many so-called tycoons of his time, Carnegie was accused of cutthroat practices which sacrificed workers’ rights for the bottom line. In protest, workers revolted.
The Homestead Strike of 1892 was due to a dispute between steel workers at Carnegie’s Homestead, Pennsylvania plant and management which refused to raise workers’ pay despite a windfall in profits. The riot that followed is still one of the bloodiest labor confrontations in history. Ten men were killed in the melee and Carnegie who continued production with nonunion workers, was blamed for the uprising.
Carnegie viewed it differently than the workers. He believed that reducing production costs meant lower prices to consumers. Therefore, he theorized, the community as a whole profited, not the unions. It was a slippery slope. But, many asked, was it worth men dying for?
Carnegie, of course, thought of himself as a benefactor and did not apologize for becoming a wealthy man. When he retired, however, he made it clear that being rich was only relative: “Man must have no idol and the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry! No idol is more debasing than the worship of money! Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately; therefore should I be careful to choose that life which will be the most elevating in its character.”
Carnegie didn’t hand out money haphazardly. He spent it on things and places that moved him. Among other worthy causes, the most prominent were funds for more schools – especially in low income communities – and the building or expansion of public libraries. In each case, he released the money only after specific demands were met, each one designed to make sure none of it went to waste. Carnegie had final approval.
In 1908, at the age of 72, with millions more left to give, Carnegie wrote a letter to people he admired. It was in effect an offer disguised as a question: “If you had say five or ten million dollars (close to 5-billion today) to put to the best possible use, what would you do with it?” Many of the correspondence were business leaders and some were presidents of institutions already bearing the Carnegie name. Most responded in kind that the money should be used to continue fellowships.
The letters were an indication that the burden of giving away a fortune was weighing heavy on Carnegie’s mind.
“The fact is that after spending about $50-million on libraries, the great cities are generally supplied and I am groping for the next field to cultivate,” Carnegie wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt, looking for inspiration. “You have a hard task as present but the distribution of money judiciously is not without its difficulties also and involves harder work than ever acquisition of wealth did.” Carnegie wrapped up the letter by pointing out the absurdity of that last line. “I could play with that and laugh,” he noted.
In the end, of course, Carnegie left enough money behind to take care of his wife and daughter. His loyal servants and caretakers were awarded pensions and his closest friends received substantial annuities.
Carnegie gave away an estimated $350 million dollars, but for the rest, he had one final request. After the will segments were dived up, nearly $20-million remained in stocks and bonds.
He bequeathed that amount to the Carnegie Corporation organization he proudly founded, and which still exists today.
By Ken Zurski
In the mid to late 19th century as railroad lines expanded and towns literally grew on land where the trains ran, depot buildings were built to accommodate riders on the various stops. Today, grainy pictures show the old depots with long stretched decks and indicator signs welcoming passengers to “Ponca City” as the photo below illustrates, among many others. But look closely and you’ll see large barrels on the rooftops, maybe one maybe more. In some instances, if the depot is long and thin, a line of barrels covers the roof’s top, strategically positioned in between the buildings brick chimney’s.
Much debate has been made about these barrels, but there purpose was apparent: save the depot from burning to the ground. Basically, it was a fire suppression method, an early and primitive sprinkler system, if you will.
Here’s how it worked:
The barrels were solid and thick, made of hardwood (usually oak, walnut, hickory or whatever was available) and bound by heavy iron or steel hoops. This sturdiness was to keep the liquid, in this instance water, from leaking out. In many remote locations where water was scarce, there was no water tower, and the air was dry. So he threat of fire from a passing or stopped train was increased. The trains pulling into the station were especially threatening to the depot. Cinder sparks from the wood and coal engines would land on the roof and ignite. If caught in time, someone from the station, usually a ticket agent or even a passenger would go to the roof and open the barrels. In most cases, a permanent ladder was placed atop the slanted roof and another along the narrow crest to make it easier, in theory, to reach the barrels before the building went up in flames. Water-filled Barrels were also placed near chimneys since a stoked fire from a pot belly stove could easily create a spark which ignited the roof.
In 1869, a large roundhouse in Truckee, California caught fire and burnt to the ground. Nearly a dozen engines were parked inside. Luckily, a nearby mill worker spotted the blaze and alerted the night watchman. The building with its oil soaked boards went up quickly, but most of the engines were saved. The trains carried lumber freight along the Central Pacific line from Truckee to nearby Sacramento, so a large supply of timber was stacked inside and along the back wall. Since there was no proper supply of water nearby, saving the roundhouse, more like a tinderbox in this case, was hopeless. Thankfully, no one was killed.
When the Truckee roundhouse was rebuilt a new characteristic was added: the rooftop water barrels. After that, it was reported, several more fires flared up, but were quickly put out.
History cannot record all the near misses, but the Truckee roundhouse fire is a good example that the makeshift safety feature worked in principle at least that while the threat of a fire could not be eliminated, perhaps the resulting inferno could. Not a fully reassuring notion, for sure, but what other choice did they have?
If anything, it helped calm nerves each time the train whistle blew and the sparks flew.