For Roosevelt’s ‘Rough Riders,’ Nothing Beats a Good Smoke

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski

Col. Teddy Roosevelt

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt didn’t care much for smoking tobacco which is unusual since almost all the men under his command swore allegiance to it. Pipes, cigars, cigarettes or chewing tobacco, didn’t matter as long as they had it. And if they didn’t have it, well now that was a problem too.

The men in reference here are the “Rough Riders,” and thanks to a new book by American West historian Mark Lee Gardner titled Rough Riders:  Teddy Roosevelt , His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill, a broader picture emerges of these men who in the summer of 1898 famously followed their fearless, toothy-grinned, bespectacled leader to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War.

One thing that stands out, besides the lack of war experience at first, was their love of a good smoke.

Gardner cites the writings of war correspondent Richard Harding Davis of the New York Herald. Davis had turned down a commissioned offer to serve, a privilege, since Roosevelt’s diverse group included career men, Ivy League graduates, and experienced horse riders, or the so-called “cowboys” from the west. Most men volunteered but it was more like a contest than an enlistment; not everyone who signed up got to go. Davis had the chance to fight, but chose to write about the war instead. This however tormented him so that during the engagements he carried a sidearm “just in case.” And when the situation presented itself, Gardner relates, “[Davis] borrowed a Krag (revolver) and joined in the final charge.”

Richard Harding Davis

Davis’ most important job, however, was to tell the story and Roosevelt gave journalists, especially his friends, full access. Later detailing every aspect of battlefield life from a soldier’s perspective, Davis described one thing that seemed to be the biggest morale booster of all: tobacco. “With a pipe the soldier can kill hunger, he can forget that he is wet and exhausted and sick with the heat, he can steady his nerves against the roof of bullets when they pass continually overhead,” Davis wrote.

Gardner points out that there were four agonizing days when no tobacco was in the camp. Likely replacement supplies hadn’t arrived yet from the Cuban port city Siboney where American forces came ashore and supply ships were docked. By this point, the men were hopelessly addicted and each day without tobacco was another day of torture. “They got headaches, became nervous, and couldn’t sleep.” Gardner writes.


Tobacco, however, was not a ration. The men had to pay for the privilege. When a shipment arrived there was “as much excitement in the ranks as when they had charged the San Juan trenches,” Gardner notes. When it seemed like some men would have to do without, one of the Ivy Leaguer’s would step in and offer to pay for the lot, about 85 dollars total, to keep others from suffering.

Smoking helped relieve tension too. When Captain Buckey O’Neill, an experienced frontier lawman from Arizona, noticed some uneasiness in the troops, he calmly walked in front of the crouching men smoking a cigarette.  Despite their admiration for such courage, O’Neill, who was hoping to settle the men’s fears by example, was tempting his own fate. “Captain, a bullet is going to hit you” the men shouted from the trenches. O’Neill took a long draw of smoke. “The Spanish bullet isn’t made that will kill me,” he boldly proclaimed. Shortly after, a sharp crack was heard. “Like the snapping of a twig,” Gardner described. It was O’Neill’s teeth breaking. A bullet had entered his mouth and traveled through his head, killing him instantly.

“He never even moaned,” a trooper noted.

Most soldiers though had the good sense to wait until the battle was over before lighting up. It was during this downtime – the time in between the bloody skirmishes – that the cravings hit the hardest.

Even Davis in a letter to his father admitted that smoking was an important diversion and one he personally endorsed.  “I have to confess that I never knew how well off I was until I got to smoking Durham tobacco,” he wrote.“And I’ve only got a half bag left.”

Some soldiers were so desperate, Davis noted, that they made their own tobacco out of “grass, roots, tea and dried horse droppings.”

Davis graciously doesn’t expound on how that might have tasted.










Betsy Ross? For a Long Time No One Knew. Then Her Grandson Told a Story

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski

Image result for betsy ross old age
Betsy Ross

In 1752, in Philadelphia on New Year’s Day, Elizabeth Griscom was born to a strict Quaker family who emigrated to the United States from England in the late 17th century. A free spirit in her twenties, Elizabeth ran off and met John Ross an upholsterer’s apprentice and an Episcopalian. Her parents forbade the union outside the Quaker faith, but Elizabeth didn’t care. She married John in a ceremony that took place in a tavern and formally became Elizabeth Ross or “Betsy,” for short.

Today, Betsy Ross is certainly name we recognize.

So much so that in contemporary surveys, many people acknowledge the name Betsy Ross more than interminable historical stalwarts like Benjamin Franklin or Christopher Columbus.  However, until her name became synonymous with America’s symbol of freedom, Betsy Ross was a sister, a mother, a widow (three times over), a seamstress, and by the time the rest of the country got to know her – dead for nearly 50 years.

If there was something special about her life, a slice of American folklore, perhaps, she told her family and no one else.

In 1870, however, that would change.

That year, Ross’s last surviving grandson William Canby went before the Historical Society in Philadelphia and told an amazing story about General George Washington, his grandmother and the birth of the American Flag.

According to Canby, Washington had visited Ross’s upholstery shop in Philadelphia with a sketch idea for a unified flag and asked if Betsy could recreate it. “With her usual modesty and self-reliance,” Canby related, “she did not know, but said she could try.”

Canby says among other revisions, Betsy suggested that the stars be five-pointed rather than six as Washington had proposed (Washington thought the six-pointed star would be easier to replicate). The story was as revealing as it was skeptical. No one had heard of Betsy Ross and previous stories of the first flag was apocryphal at best. There were many nonbelievers and even today historians have doubts. There are no records to support Canby’s claim, they insist, even though Canby had signed affidavits to back up his story.

At the time of Washington’s proposed visit in 1777, Ross would have been in her 20’s. Her life was typical for a young women at the time. She endured two marriages that ended tragically (her first and second husband’s death were both attributed to war.) A third marriage produced five children. She passed away in 1836 at the age of 84.  There is no documentation that she publicly promoted her own role in making of the flag – or was even asked. Apparently only her family knew.

Nearly a century later, however, in the midst of the Reconstruction period, a changing nation embraced Canby’s story of his grandmother and Ross became the face of America’s first flag. The early flag became affectionately known as “The Betsy Ross Flag,” and trinkets of the thirteen stars and stripes were a big seller.

Even hardened critics, who claim many seamstresses may have played a role in the flag’s creation are willing to concede, for history’s sake at least, that one name gets credit for the five-pointed stars.

Betsy Ross.




The Constitutional Convention, the Blue Bottle Fly, and the Inspiration for the Bill of Rights

Posted on Updated on

Elbridge Gerry

By Ken Zurski

Massachusetts statesman Elbridge Gerry was of the cantankerous and crafty sort. He typically came late to engagements and was usually the first to tell the host that he had finally arrived. This is the mark he made on the Constitutional Convention in May of 1787 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia during the drafting of the nation’s first constitution.

Actually he made no physical mark on the Constitution, refusing to sign the document and disagreeing with most of the other 40-plus delegates on how much power to give the government in relation to its people. Gerry had signed the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, but the Constitution was different. There were too many variables and not enough unity, he argued. “If we do not come to some agreement among ourselves. “Gerry maintained, “some foreign sword will probably do it for us.”

In September, after the final draft of the Constitution was reached, Gerry along with two others, Edmund Randolph and George Mason, all agreed the document needed to protect the rights of people of whom whose basic freedoms should be added. Freedoms similar to the one Mason, the governor of Virginia, had drafted in his home state.

Therefore, they argued, it was incomplete.

George Mason

Mason urged the framers, now drafters, to stay on as long as needed to finish the task. Gerry seconded the motion. The answer from all the other delegates, however, was a resounding, “No.”

Whether or not any of the other participants agreed such rights were necessary wasn’t the point.  Most had been away from their wives and families for months and were ready to leave. In addition, they were weakened by the heat and humidity and disgusted by the cramped sleeping quarters of two to four men per room which during a severe infestation of the blue bottle fly kept the windows shut and the smells in.


Frankly, they were just plain sick of each other.

Many nearly walked out a month before in August, but trudged on to complete the task. But staying longer? That was not an option for those who actually signed the document. They went home.

Several years later,  James Madison’s proposal of twelve amendments was approved by Congress.

It was appropriately titled the Bill of Rights.


Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla and the “Irregular” Solution

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski

Nikola Tesla

Around the same time Nikola Tesla was making waves in America for inventing an alternating current (AC) electrical power source and engaging in a “War of Currents” with his former employer and now adversary Thomas Edison, one of the Serbian-born scientist and engineer’s lesser known laboratory experiments took an unexpected and unusual turn.

It was in the 1890’s and Tesla had perfected what he called the Oscillator, or an AC generator that introduced a reciprocating piston rather than the standard rotating coils to generate power. Tesla used steam to drive the piston back and forth and a shaft connected to the piston moved the coils through the magnetic field. The result was higher frequencies and more current than conventional generators.

He patented this machine and unveiled it to great curiosity at the Chicago World’s Fair. “Mr. Tesla has taken what may be called the core of a steam engine and the core of an electrical dynamo, given them a harmonious mechanical adjustment, and has produced a machine which has in it the potentiality of reducing to the rank of old metal half the machinery at present moving on the face of the globe,” the New York Times raved.


Proving the “mad scientist” was never satisfied with his own work and always tried to improve what he had already achieved, when Tesla returned to his New York lab he attempted to use compressed air instead of steam. He built this on a platform that vibrated at a high rate, driving the piston when the column of air was compressed and then released. Even though it didn’t generate enough electricity to power a lighting system, Telsa was amused nonetheless, especially when he stood on the platform. “The sensation experienced was as strange as agreeable,” he wrote, “and I asked my assistants to try. They did so and were mystified and pleased like myself.”

Only one problem. Each time Tesla or one of his assistants stepped off the platform, they had to run to the toilet room. The reason was obvious, especially to Tesla.  “A stupendous truth dawned upon me. Some of us, who had stayed longer on the platform, felt an unspeakable and pressing becessity which had promptly been satisfied.”

Basically, they had a sudden urge to empty their bowels.

Intrigued, Tesla kept experimenting and ordering his assistants to “eat meals quickly” and “rush back to the lab.” Tesla may have failed in an attempt to upgrade his own machine, he thought, but succeeded in the prospect at least of using electricity to cure a number of digestive issues.

But to be sure, he unsuspectingly enlisted the help of a friend.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain and Tesla were seemingly unlikely acquaintances. In addition to his writing, Twain was a failed inventor, or at least a failed backer of inventions, like the automatic typesetting machine which he poured thousands of dollars into and even more into finding a workable electric motor to power it. Unsuccessful, Twain read about Tesla’s AC steam-powered motor generator and gushed at its simplicity and ingenuity. “It is the most valuable patent since the telephone,” Twain wrote without a hint of his usual sarcasm.

Tesla had sold his invention to lamp maker George Westinghouse’s company which also impressed Twain who lost a sizable portion of his own fortune on the typesetter machine. So at some point the two men met and Twain visited Tesla’s lab. The result is a famous photograph of Twain in the foreground acting as a human conductor of electricity as Tesla or an assistant looms mysteriously in the background. But Tesla fondly remembers helping his friend too. “[Twain] came to the lab in the worst shape,” Tesla recalls, “suffering from a variety of depressing and dangerous elements.”


As the story goes, Twain stepped on the vibrating platform as Tesla had suggested. After a few minutes, Tesla begged him to come down. “Not by a jugfull,” insisted Twain, apparently enjoying himself. When Tesla finally turned the machine off, Twain lurched forward looked at Tesla and pleadingly yelled: “Where is it?”

He was, of course, asking for direction to the toilet room. “Right over there,” Tesla responded chuckling. But Tesla knew he had done Twain a favor. “In less than two months, he regained his old vigor and ability of enjoying life to the fullest extent.”

Of course, Tesla never did patent or market a machine for such a specific purpose and Twain didn’t talk about it, so it’s mostly lost to time, unlike the photograph.  Both men now have an important place in history and numerous books are written about them.  Twain’s recollections are mostly in his own hand. But the story of Twain’s visit to Tesla’s lab and Twain’s resulting step on the oscillating platform is found in Tesla’s versions, not Twain’s.

Perhaps, as one Tesla biographer suggests, it was all a big practical joke, which certainly – and quite remarkably – turns the tables on both men’s reputations considering Twain was the humorist and Tesla the brain.

Despite this, and knowing the outcome, even if it was only intended for a laugh, both men were likely pleased with the results.

But for completely different reasons.

Morton 4








How An Insane Asylum May Have Inspired the Iconic Twin Spires of Churchill Downs

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski

In 1794 a man named Isaac Hite, a Virginia Militia Officer, came to the Kentucky frontier with other surveyors to stake claim on scenic tracts of land given to them for fighting in the French and Indian War. They founded the properties as promised, but also encountered more Indians. And so in his newly adopted home now known as Anchorage, just outside of Louisville, Hite was killed by the hostile natives.

Or was he?


The introduction of a book containing Hite’s personal journal disputes claims he was struck down, but rather died from “natural causes,” at the age of 41. His companions, the book asserts, “had died years before, and violently, while taking Kentucky and holding it against the Indians.” One theory is that Hite was injured by Indians and later died from his wounds. But how he died isn’t as important as what he left behind. A parcel of land where he settled, started a family, and ran a mill and tannery.

Through the years, and for many generations, Hite’s descendants tended the land known as Fountain Bleu and an estate they dubbed Cave Springs Plantation. Then in 1869, the family sold the parcel to the State of Kentucky. The reason the state wanted it was explicit: open a new government institution for troubled youths near its largest city.

The rural, secluded site of Hite’s Cave Springs was the perfect setting for such a facility. Originally known as the  “Home for Delinquents at Lakeland,” it was named after the path that led to it’s front gate, Lakeland Drive. It was converted – or just transformed – into a mental hospital in 1900 and renamed to reflect the often misunderstood and misdiagnosed residents who inhabited its 192 beds. “The Central Kentucky Lunatic Asylum,” as it was now called, became the state’s fourth facility for such a purpose.

As with any institution for the mentally challenged, in the early 20th century, the day-to-day operations were marred by allegations of abuse, malfeasance and deaths. Massive overcrowding was reported in the mid 1900’s and in 1943 the state grand jury found the asylum was committing people that were neither insane nor psychotic. One man was reportedly admitted for simply spitting in a courtroom. While the scientific merits of electric shock therapy and lobotomies were morally judged, the reports of fires, murders, and multiple escapes at the facility consistently filled the newspapers. It was a horror show.

Since many died on the grounds, many were buried there too. So stories of ghosts and haunted spirits are attributed to the site. “Have the mournful souls that died at Central State remained at the only home most of them ever knew?” a local ghost hunter asked.

The grounds, however, are also tied to the storied history of the Louisville underground.  Literally, a series of caves and tunnels used before prohibition to move shipments – perhaps contraband during the Civil War – from the river docks to downtown buildings. Since a small cave existed before a tunnel was added, Hite was probably the first to discover the hole through the rock on his newly claimed property.  Later after the state took over, the cave was reinforced with brick walls and pillars and used as cold storage mostly for perishable items like large cans of sauerkraut. The inside was reportedly lined with so many sauerkraut cans it was given a name by the locals: Sauerkraut Cave.

In the back of the cave a tunnel was built which has its own back door, so there was a natural entryway and a man made exit. Many morose stories about the lunatic asylum involve Sauerkraut Cave, including tales of residents who may have used it as an escape route or more graphic reports of pregnant patients who went there to give birth and abandon their babies. Those who visit the site today say without lights the cave would have been too dark and too flooded to navigate. Still, desperate patients may have drowned or froze to death trying.

Regardless of how many people perished on site or off, the general scientific worth of the experiments, and the ghastly stories that followed, the building itself was considered a architectural wonder at the time it was built.

Morton 2

Looking like a medieval castle in the front, the three story structure with wing additions on each side was made of solid red brick with stone trim. The small pane windows in the main building had segmental arches with brick molding and the facade was highlighted by a columned porch and railing. On the side of the main building is two identical towers, shooting high into the air and inspired by the Tudor revival style used in its original design. It quickly became one of the Louisville area’s most distinctive and important buildings when it opened its doors in 1869. By the time it came down, in the late 20th century, it had represented something else entirely.

But it’s legacy may be more lasting than you think.

Enter Joseph Dominic Baldez.

Baldez  wasn’t even born yet when the asylum building was built, but eventually worked for the firm that created it. D.X Murphy & Bros was an offshoot of another firm established by Harry Whitestone.  In the 1850’s. Whitestone, an Irish immigrant, designed some of the city’s elaborate homes, hotels and hospitals, including the Home for Delinquents on Lakeland Drive. When Whitestone retired in 1881, his top assistant Dennis Xavier (D.X.) Murphy took over the business. Baldez began working for Murphy at the age 20.

In 1894, Baldez, a native of Louisville and a a self-effacing, self-taught draftsman, started work on a project at the area’s racetrack known as Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, the prestigious race for three-year-old thoroughbreds held every year at the beginning of May.

For 20 years since the track was built, the seating had been on the backstretch, facing west, a mistake, since the late afternoon sun would be directly in spectators eyes. So a new larger structure was planned on the other side, facing east, or directly near the one-eighth pole on the stretch. The D.X. Murphy firm was hired and the young Baldez, at 24, was commissioned to design the new stands. He went to work constructing a 250-foot long slanted seating area of vitrified brick, steel and stone with a back entrance wall lobby which on its own was not only fancy and stylish, but efficient too. It was graciously received: “The new grandstand is simply a thing of beauty,” raved the Louisville Commercial. The new grandstand included a “separate ladies section” and “toilet rooms,” the paper noted.

The Courier-Journal also chimed in: “With its monogram, keystone and other ornate architecture, it will compare favorably with any of the most pretentious office buildings or business structures on the prominent thoroughfares.”

Then there are the candles on the birthday cake, so to speak.

The Twin Spires.

Whether Baldez was asked to include it, or came up with the idea on his own is unclear. His diagrams clearly show what he intended to do: put one large spire on either side of the grandstand for ornamental decoration. Each spire would be 12 feet wide, 55 feet tall, and sit 134 feet apart from center to center. The base shape was octagonal for strength and surrounded by eight rounded windows which were designed to stay open (although later were glassed over to keep birds out). Above the windows was a decorative Feur-de-lis, or a “flower lily” shape, flanked by two roses which were decorative rather than symbolic since the race didn’t become the “Run for the Roses” until the late 20th Century.

Although others, like the track president at the time Col. Matt J. Winn,  greatly admired the spires, Baldez was indifferent about his work. “They aren’t any architectural triumph,” he argued. “But are nicely proportioned.”


Although no one can be absolutely certain, and little about Baldez is known other than his designs, the building which housed the mental patients on Lakeland Drive on the former property of one of its first residents may have sparked the idea for the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs. The comparisons are justifiable. Both have large steeples, two in fact, and the tops of each are similar in design.  Plus, Baldez knew the asylum building well by working at the firm that built it.

Perhaps as some suggest, the name Churchill Downs was also an inspiration for Baldez’s “steeples.” Churchill, however, was not a religious connotation, but the surname of the original owners John and Henry Churchill who leased the land to their cousin Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark who subsequently built the track on the property.

Unfortunately, only pictures can tell the story now. The original asylum building was torn down in 1996 to make way for expansion. The Sauerkraut Cave is still there , but only as a curiosity. It’s entrance is marred by graffiti and only the brave – or crazy – dare enter it today. Other than the cemetery, the cave is the last vestige of the old grounds.

Baldez never told anyone what drew his interest in adding the adornment to the roof of Churchill Downs, but he gets credit for a lasting legacy, not only to horseracing, but to American culture in general.

Col. Winn knew it. “Joe, when you die, there’s one monument that will never be taken down,” he reportedly told Baldez.

He was talking about those famous Twin Spires.



Why The Legacy Of The Buffalo Is Recounted In Vastly Different Ways

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski


In Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell’s brilliant but unconventional retelling of the life and death of  George Armstrong Custer, a part of the author’s captivating account is the detailed descriptions of what it would have been like to live, explore and fight in the vast and mostly uncharted territory of the Western Plains.

A land that Custer among others were seeing for the first time.

Custer’s life, of course, ends in Montana at Little Bighorn. But in the context of his story, and examined in Connell’s book, is the role of the country’s most populated mammal at the time: the buffalo.

The human inhabitants had vastly differing opinions on the buffalo, both revered and reviled, but Connell wisely avoids a scurrilous debate. Instead, he gives a fascinating glimpse, based on good research and eyewitness accounts, on what it was like to see the massive herds up close and why they were ultimately decimated. The reasons were just as divided as cultures.

At first the descriptions were formidable. “Far and near the prairie was alive with Buffalo,” Francis Parkman, a writer, recalled after seeing the herds in 1846, “….the memory of which can quicken the pulse and stir the blood.”

Indeed Parkman was right about the prairie being “alive” with buffalo, but unfortunately there is no exact number of how many were in existence before the Calvary arrived. That’s because there was no way to survey the population at the time. Connell doesn’t speculate either, but based on recollections like Parkman’s, others have estimated from 30 million to perhaps as much as 75 million buffalo may have roamed the plains at some point, maybe even more.

“Like black spots dotting the distant swell,” Parkman continued, “now trampling by in ponderous columns filing in long lines, morning, noon, and night, to drink at the river – wading, plunging, and snorting in the water – climbing the muddy shores and staring with wild eyes at the passing canoes.”

The description of herd sizes is nearly incomprehensible. Col. Richard Irving Dodge reported that during a spring migration, buffalo would move north in a single column perhaps fifty miles wide. Dodge claims he was forced to climb Pawnee Rock (Kansas) to escape the migrating animals. When he looked across, the  prairie was “covered with buffalo for ten miles in each direction.”

In 1806, Lewis and Clark, one of the earliest explorers to encounter the massive herds gave an ominous warning. “The moving multitude darkened the whole plains,” Clark relayed.

The sound of the migrating herd was just as impressive as the numbers. The bulky animals each weighed close to a ton each, so when they all galloped, the ground shook. “They made a roar like thunder,” wrote a first settler along the Arkansas River.

The large groupings, however, made it easier to strike them down. And when the killing started, it didn’t stop. In 1874, when Dodge returned to the prairie, he saw more hunters than buffalo. “Every approach of the herd to water was met with gunfire,” he recalled


Killing buffalo became a sport, even for foreigners. Connell reports that The London Times ran ad for a trip to Fort Collins and a chance to kill a buffalo for 50 guineas. Many gleefully went for the adventure, not the challenge. As Connell explains, English lords and ladies came to sit in covered wagons or railway carriages and fire at will. You couldn’t miss.

“Enterprising Yankees turned a profit collecting bones,” Connell wrote, explaining that it was the hide and bones and not the meat they were interested in. “Porous bones were shipped east to be ground as fertilizer; solid bones could be whittled into decorative trinkets – buttons, letter openers, pendants.”

Many settlers not knowing what else to do with a wayward buffalo grazing on their land, just shot it and left it for the wolves to feed. “The high plains stank with rotten meat” Dodge wrote.

“In just three years after the gun-toting Yankees arrived,” Connell soberly relates, “eight million buffalo were shot.”

By the beginning of the 20th century, they were nearly all gone.

The Native Americans killed buffalo too, but it was for survival, not sport. Nearly every part of the animal was used for food, medicine, clothing or tools. Even the tail made a good fly swatter.  According to the Indians, the buffalo was the wisest and most powerful creature, in the physical sense, to walk the earth.  Yet the Indians still played a part in the animal’s near extinction. Large fires were set by tribes in part to fell cottonwood trees and feed the bark to their horses. The massive infernos, some set one hundred miles wide, were necessary to clear land for new grass. Although no one is quite sure, thousands of buffalo and other animals surely perished in the process.

In contrast, Connell includes claims by early pioneers that the Indians were just as wasteful as the “white man” in killing the buffalo, leaving the dead carcasses where they lay, and extracting only the tongues to exchange for whiskey. These reports contradict that of agents stationed at reservations after government agreements were reached. James McLaughlin who was at Standing Rock in South Dakota helped organize mass buffalo killings, but only to stave off starvation, he claims.

Regardless, the difference in attitudes is what may have inflamed tensions between the “palefaces” and the natives.

Col. Richard Irving Dodge

Dodge claims the buffalo were shot because they were “the dullest creature of which I have any knowledge.” Dull meaning stupid in this sense. They would not run, Dodge purports. “Many would graze complacently while the rest of the herd was gunned down.” Dodge says his men would have  to shout and wave their hats to drive the rest of the herd off.

So according to Dodge – and Connell’s book supports this – the buffalo were removed for meager profits and to get them out of the way of railways and advancing troops. This incensed the Indians, especially the Lakota, who in spite of their reliance on the buffalo, had more respect for the embattled “tatanka,” in a spiritual sense.

After all, in comparisons, they named their revered leaders and holy men after the beasts.

Custer knew one.

His name was Sitting Bull.






The Stinking Truth About The Phantom’s Opera House

Posted on Updated on


By Ken Zurski

(Note: This story was inspired by a 1986 playbill for The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theater in London).

In Paris, around the mid 1800’s, a man named Eugene Belgrand was hired to overhaul a system of underground sewer tunnels that were built nearly five centuries before and while still in use, was in desperate need of repair.

The plan was to make the tunnels more functional in the era of modernized sanitation, which at the time, wasn’t very sanitized at all. That’s because in 19th century Paris, as in other large European cities, waste was still being tossed onto the street, washed away by the rain, and ending up in filthy rivers, like the Seine, where even the shamelessly rich and privileged who strolled the fancy stone walkways of its shore, were appalled.

The old tunnels could still be used, officials determined, but needed reinforcements and additions to be more effective. The French engineer’s task was simple: make it better.

That of course was the practical reason for the upgrade. The more emotional plea came from Parisons who were just plain sick of the consistently putrid smell and squalor conditions. Women especially complained that they were forced to carry parasols all the time for fear of being dumped on from windows above. So Belgrand reshaped the tunnel routes, put in more drains, built more aqueducts, and started treatment plants. Eventually, 2,100 km (1300  miles) of new pipes were installed and the Paris sewer system became the largest of its kind in the world.

But not necessarily the most reliable.

Many of the early tunnels were built tall and wide, but not designed for uniformity. The chutes weren’t long enough or sufficiently sloped enough to keep the flow moving. Victor Hugo in his 1862  novel Les Misérables called the Paris sewers a “colossal subterranean sponge.”  Even improved, the waste would still back up and somebody – or something – had to unclog it. Workers would do their best to dislodge the muck first by hand – usually with a rake. When it was too deep, or wouldn’t budge, dredging boats were used with some success. But when a boat didn’t work, by far the most effective method was using the wooden ball.

Yes, a wooden ball.

The ball was around 5-feet in diameter and resembled a wrecking ball in size, but not nearly as heavy. Constructed out of wood and hollow inside the outside was reinforced with metal for more solidity.


Some mislabeled it an “iron ball,” assuming it was solid throughout, which if true would have been far too cumbersome to move. Several men with ropes could easily lift the wooden ball or pull it into position. With a push the ball was sent careening into a tunnel. (Think of a bowling ball rolling down an alley gutter – only on a much larger scale.)

A London society newsletter in 1887, praised its dependability: “As soon as it comes to a point where there is much solid matter in the sewer it is driven against the upper surface of the pipe and comes to a standstill. Meanwhile the current gathering strength behind it rushes with tremendous force below the ball carrying away all sediment or solid matter and leaving the course clear.” The ball worked well for a time, but eventually its effectiveness wasn’t enough. By the early 20th century, a more streamlined method was deployed that harnessed and released rain water. The increase in the current’s velocity would flush the obstruction away. “The rain which sullied the sewer before, now washes it,” Hugo declared.

The Paris tunnels are still in use today and tourists to the city can visit a museum dedicated to the centuries old system.  Guided tours lead patrons through narrow stairwells and dank rooms as the sound of waste water is heard rushing through the tunnels below. Even the wooden balls are on display.

Paris Opera House

But the Paris tunnels have more history than just collecting and deporting sewerage

When the famous Paris Opera House was built in the 1870’s, architect Charles Garnier’s construction team ran into a problem.  While digging the foundation wall, they hit an arm of the Seine, likely an extension of the tunnel system that led to the river. They tried to pump the water out but it kept coming back. So Garnier designed a way to collect the water in cisterns thereby creating an artificial lake nearly five stories beneath the stage.

It is in this “hidden lagoon” that author Gaston Leroux had an idea for a book that he claims was based on real events. In the story titled Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, a troubled soul named “Erik,” who is grossly disfigured, escapes to the catacombs and the lake below the Opera House. By banishing himself from society, “Erik” became a “ghostlike” figure until a sweet soprano’s voice lures him back to the theater’s upper works.

In the popular musical version that came out many years later, the “Phantom of the Opera” takes his unsuspecting love interest Christine on a gondola ride through the underground lake.

A scenario that if true, would be far less romantic than portrayed in the famous theatrical production.

Whether or not the lake was connected to the tunnels or ran directly from the Seine River, didn’t matter. The result would still be the same. Instead of being mesmerized by the experience as if in a fantasy world, in reality, the lovely Christine would likely be holding her nose, gagging, or worse.

Cue the music.





A Salute to the Long Play (LP) Microgroove Vinyl Record

Posted on Updated on

T1By Ken Zurski

In 1948, the LP (Long Play) microgroove vinyl record was introduced by Columbia Records for the sole purpose of playing more music on a phonograph or analog sound medium. Circular in shape like its predecessors, the LP was larger in diameter at 16-inches and turned at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, much slower than previous versions.


The LP itself was designed to replace the 12-inch records being manufactured for RCA Victor player’s in the 1930’s. The smaller plates had tighter grooves and less background noise, but unpredictable sound clarity overall.

The larger LP’s were slow to catch on at first, representing only a slight percentage of sales for consumers who were accustomed to the smaller size, faster speeds (78 rpm) and shorter play time. But as home stereo systems improved, LP’s were streamlined back to 12-inches and quickly became the preferred choice of buyers.

Related image

In the 1960’s and continuing into the 70’s, music artists such as the Beatles and Pink Floyd found a niche by exploiting the availability of time per LP side. They began experimenting with varying layered pieces of music, thereby making, marketing and selling albums with longer songs and conceptual themes. In some instances, two LP’s were included.

Then in the 1980’s, thanks to MTV and the demand to buy popular music, chain record stores opened in malls across America and record sales – included the smaller 45 rpm singles – continued to rise.

Music Land Front View - Music Land (Closed Down) Photos, Saket, Delhi - Music Shops

But it wouldn’t last.

Introduced in the mid 80’s, the new compact disc format (CD) was cheaper and less expensive to produce. The CD’s were about the same price as a vinyl album, but a CD  player was costly. Eventually demand drove down the price and by the 1990’s, the age of the LP mostly disappeared. Mainstream record stores transitioned to stocking and selling only CD’s on their shelves.

Recently however, with no physical attributes attached to digital music, there’s been a surge in demand for vinyl.  Newly pressed vinyl records of repackaged older and some newer music has become popular as turntables sales have increased as well. In fact according to the Recording Industry Association of America‘s midyear report for 2019, vinyl album sales may soon overtake sales of CD’s for the first time since 1986. This trend has prompted many new artists who have only produced music for the CD and digital markets to promote vinyl packaged versions of their albums as special editions.

Image result for taylor swift vinyl


According to c/net: “Just because vinyl may soon outpace CDs doesn’t mean music lovers are trading in their iTunes accounts for turntables. Streaming remains the most popular way to consume music, accounting for 80% of industry revenues, and growing 26%, to $4.3 billion, for the first half of 2019.”

Bu the LP just wont die. Today, original LP’s from the early 40’s to the mid 80’s are considered nostalgic and collectible. Many privately owned record shops, or independents as they are called, continue to thrive by specializing in rare or out of print editions. And online markets, swap meets and thrift stores are filled with opportunities to sell or purchase used albums.

Related image




‘Giant’ Tuba Players Were a Hallmark of John Philip Sousa’s Band

Posted on Updated on

John Philip Sousa

By Ken Zurski

John Philip Sousa, known affectionately as the “March King,” not only composed stirring music for marching bands, he helped define it as well. Disappointed by the sound of the standard B-flat bass tuba – the one with the circular bell opening in front – Sousa sought to make it better. “It was all right enough for street-parade work,” Sousa wrote about the front-facing tuba, “but its tone was apt to shoot ahead too prominently and explosively to suit me for concert performances.”

Sousa had an idea. Why not point the bell of the instrument up rather than forward and let the sound resonate over the top of the band instead. So in 1893, a tuba was modified and manufactured to Sousa’s specifications and the Sousaphone, as it was called, was born.

The original Sousaphone was a huge piece of brass. Weighing in at upwards of 30-plus pounds, it’s circular base wrapped around the player’s shoulder at the top and just below the waist at the bottom. The bell would reach skyward some two feet above the player’s head.

Sousa was pleased. He used the Sousaphone exclusively in concerts. At first, trying just one mixed in with the standard tubas, but eventually replaced them all with Sousaphones.

The new tuba was given an appropriate nickname: raincatcher.

Thanks to Sousa’s ingenious design, the new tuba’s stood out in sound and size. And as it turned out, the men who played the “raincatcher” did too.

Herman Conrad and the first Sousaphone

Whether it was genius ploy by Sousa or just coincidence, at least one Sousaphone player in the band was tall.

In fact, for its time, they were considered very tall.

Herman Conrad was the first to play the Sousaphone. According to sources he stood a whopping “6-foot-6,” although it was more likely 6-foot-4. One ad proclaimed Conrad was a “six foot eight giant!”

When Conrad left the band, John W. Richardson took his place. He was perhaps more accurately listed at “6-foot-6.” Another tubist named William Bell was also reported to be “6-foot-6.”

No one could explain this phenomenon except that Sousa must have had a a little P.T. Barnum-like showmanship in him. Certainly not out of character for a man who loved to entertain the masses outside of music too, specifically baseball, something he enjoyed just as much as conducting.

While on the road and in-between concerts, Sousa would make his band members don uniforms and take the field so he could play exhibition games against local teams. The tall tuba players apparently weren’t so nimble on the ball diamond. During one game, Richardson reached down to grab a grounder and split the back of his trousers. Sousa, who was usually the pitcher on the team, let out a hearty laugh.

Even if it was all in good fun, the tuba player’s height, whether accurate or not, was good marketing for the band. Each had their likeness featured prominently in advertisements, usually standing or holding the Sousaphone. In one rather effective ad, Richardson is seen next to a woman listed as the harpist who is only five-feet tall.  Richardson is holding the Sousaphone upside down. The bell is directly over the woman’s head appearing as though it might swallow her whole. Richardson, by comparison, looks like a giant.


Despite the fanciful publicity, Sousa’s patriotic marches were the biggest draw. “He is the master band leader of them all,” Richardson raved.

In 1911, the string of very tall tubists was broken when Arthur Griswold joined the group. By this time, the towering Sousaphones were a staple in Sousa concerts.

Griswold was listed at 6-foot-2.

Even though he was taller then most of the band members, he was still considered small in size compared to the tuba players who preceded him.

So, in jest, they called him “shorty.”


(Sources: The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa by Paul E. Bierley; various internet sites)

A Salute to the Hand Salute – How Far Back Does it Go?

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski

In 1833, an Irish-born English artist named William Collins exhibited an oil on wood painting he appropriately titled, Rustic Civility. In the colorful image, three children are seen near a wooden gate that blocks the path of a dirt road. Collins shows the gate has been opened, presumably by the children.  A boy is propped up against the open gate securing it’s place. Another smaller child cowers by the boy’s side. Yet another looks straight ahead from behind the gate.

But why and for whom did the children open the gate?

Well, that’s just a part of the painting’s mystique or as one art connoisseur wisely describes, “its puzzle.”

Upon closer inspection, however, the “puzzle” appears to be solved.

Most obvious is the shadow near the children’s feet. It is a partial outline of a horse and upon its back a rider in a brimmed hat.  The children have opened the gate to make it easier for the rider, probably a stranger to them, to pass.

“People are amused at having to find out what is coming through the gate, which few do, till the shadow on the ground is pointed out to them,” the sixth Duke of Devonshire noted after buying the curious painting for his collection.


The work in some circles has been wrongly classified as a children’s picture. True, Collins would specialize in putting children in his paintings, but they were not specifically made for children. “Rustic” was part of his repertoire and a theme for several paintings including Rustic Hospitality, where friendly villagers welcome a wayward traveler who has stopped to rest near their cottage.

Today, most of Collins works are in London museums. His representations of English countryside charm in the early 19th century were very popular. Rustic Civility, however, seems to be remembered for a more significant and historical reasons. The young boy in the painting is holding his hand to his head in a gesture that closely resembles what we know today as a military salute.

A gesture not yet so easily defined at the time.

According to various sources, the origins of the hand salute goes back to medieval times when knights would salute one another by tipping their hats. Since their heads were covered with heavy and cumbersome armor, oftentimes they would just raise the visor in recognition.

In the Revolutionary War, British soldiers would remove or raise their hats in the presence of a ranking officer, an easy task since head gear at the time was used as decoration only and made of lighter material.


In subsequent wars, when soldier’s helmets became more protective the act of actually removing the head gear was too risky. A simple hand raise to the brow would suffice.

By the 20th century and during the two World Wars, saluting became more streamlined and distinctive, with the hands either palm out (the European version) or palm flat and down, the American preference.

Regardless of its history, Collins  is credited at least with featuring a salute, albeit slyly, in his painting Rustic Civility. The boy appears to be “tugging his forelock,” an old-worldly expression of high regard and a gesture that suggests an early incarnation of the modern day hand to forehead signal.

This inclination of course is a matter of opinion. Perhaps, as others might suggest, the boy is just shading his eyes. After all, the location of the shadowed horse and rider puts the perspective of the sun’s light directly in the boy’s path.  However, in close up, it does appear as though the boy is grabbing a lock of hair.

This clearly supports the salute theory.


Unfortunately, by the time any serious debate was raised, Collins, the artist, was dead.

So in historical context, let’s give the painter his due: To open a wooden gate while on horseback is a difficult thing to do. The children helped the man by opening the gate. The boy then saluted in deference – or civility as the title suggests. 

A sign of a respect for an elder in need, Collins likely implied.

And respect is what the “salute” stands for today.