Unrememebered History

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.



The Stinking Truth About The Phantom’s Opera House

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By Ken Zurski

(Note: This story was inspired by a 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

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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.

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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.

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

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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?

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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.


As Christmas Crooners Go, Perry Como Was As ‘Pure As The Driven Snow’

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By Ken Zurski

Perry Como may be the most popular Christmas performer of all time. Thanks to his long-standing annual holiday television specials and beloved Christmas album released in 1968, Como’s face and voice became synonymous with the sounds of the season.

Today, however, in a more crowded market for Christmas music and numerous more versions of favorite holiday classics (and new ones too) from more contemporary artists in all genres, Como’s versions might get lost in the mix.

But it’s still in there.

That said, as a performer, he may have been misunderstood as well.

Como was considered one of the “good guys” whose relaxed and laid-back demeanor came across as “lazy” to some, a misguided assessment, since Como was known to be a consummate professional who practiced and rehearsed incessantly.

“No performer in our memory rehearses his music with more careful dedication than Como.” a music critic once enthused.

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Como also made sure each concert met his own personal and strict moral standards.

In November 1970, Como hosted a concert in Las Vegas, a comeback of sorts for the Christmas crooner, who hadn’t played a Vegas night club for over three decades.  For his grand return, Como was paid a whopping $125-thousand a week, admittedly a large sum for a Vegas act at the time.  Even Perry was surprised. “It’s more money than my father ever made in a lifetime,” he remarked.

But since it was Vegas and befitting the desert town’s reputation of gambling and prostituition,  Como’s reputation as a straight-laced performer was questioned.

Como quelled any concerns, however, when he chose a safe, clean and relatively unknown English comic named Billy Baxter to warm up the audience before the show. Advisers suggested he pick an act more familiar to Vegas audiences, but Como said no.

A typical “Vegas comedian,” as he put it, was simply too dirty.

Keeping up the family friendly atmosphere accentuated in his TV specials, Como would lovingly introduced his wife Roselle during the “live” shows. Roselle, who was usually backstage and acknowledged the appreciative crowds, was just as adamant as her husband that his clean-cut image went untarnished. After one performance, Roselle received a fan’s note that pleased her immensely. “Not one smutty part, not even a hint,” the note read describing Como’s act in Vegas. “You should be very proud.”

Como’s cool temperament and sleepy manner was such a recognizable and enduring characteristic that many had to ask if it was real or just an act. Does he ever get upset? was one curious inquiry. “Perry has a temper,” his orchestra leader Mitchell Ayers answered. “He loses his temper at normal things. When were’ driving, for instance, and somebody cuts him off he really lets the offender have it.” However, Ayers added, “Como is the most charming gentleman I’ve ever met.”

Como’s popular Christmas television specials ran for three decades ending in 1994, seven years before his death from symptoms of Alzheimer’s in 2001. He was 88.


(Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal Nov 21 1970)

The ‘American Girl’ is Missing

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By Ken Zurski

In the fall of 1927, Ruth Elder, a dental assistant from Lakeland, Florida, attempted to become the first woman to complete a transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. “When [Charles] Lindbergh reached Paris (in May),” the 23-year-old Elder said announcing her intentions, “I made up my mind that I would be the first woman to make the trip.”

But unlike Lindy, who was an experienced pilot, Elder admitted having little acquaintance with airplanes.  She was however an aspiring model and actress and if the flight helped her career, she exclaimed, so be it.

As expected, Elder’s daring-do was met with skepticism, even ridicule. “Men in the summer should strive to equal Lindbergh. Women should stay at home,” The Irish News snidely advised. Even Lindbergh, himself, without naming names, warned against dangerous missions without purpose.

Despite this, Elder had no reservations.  “I was determined to go as a co-pilot, not a passenger,” she vowed. In Florida, she took lessons from an instructor named George Haldeman. Then on Tuesday, October 11, 1927, Elder and Haldeman took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field in a specially built Stinson ‘Detroiter’ monoplane named American Girl.

Unlike Lindbergh, who became internationally famous after his successful flight, Elder’s popularity began the moment she announced her plan. Pretty with an infectious smile and a personality to match , Elder’s story and picture plastered the papers. Brightly colored scarfs she wore in her hair were mimicked by young girls who called them “Ruth Ribbons.”

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To a hungry press she was also a willing participant.  The instant hero Lindbergh was a challenge: shy, a bit aloof, and often irritated by all the attention. Elder relished it. She just hadn’t accomplished anything yet.  On that October day at Roosevelt Field, the press was there to watch her give it a go.

“Well here goes nothing, that may turn up something,” Elder thought to herself as the “American Girl’s” wheels lifted from the ground.



Thirty six hours later, with over 2,000 miles logged and just a few hours short of Paris, the flight was over.

Caught in a sleet storm and taking on ice, the two pilots ditched the reserve fuel to lighten the load. But when an oil pipe busted, there was no other choice. The ocean would be their landing strip.

Around the same time, in Paris, at the Le Bouget airport, a smattering of press and a few well-wishers gathered for the welcoming party. Elder’s plane was late and her fate, sent by dispatches around the world, was unknown. “Last seen 500 out at sea,” the stories read.

The American Girl was missing.

In the Atlantic, however, Captain Goos of the Dutch tanker Barendrecht noticed a plane in distress: “She came rapidly up to us and flying over the ship threw down two messages.” One ended up on the deck.  “How far are we from land and which way?” was the inscription. It was signed: Ruth Elder.

Several minutes later, the plane landed in the water next to the ship.

Soon enough the press got a telegram:  “We are safe,” it read. mort1