Sep 21

Open wider

This was the view on my morning walk. My morning walk … it sounds so casual. So routine. Perhaps it seems even a bit philosophical. But I don’t usually afford myself a morning walk. Perhaps I should. Instead I opt for more sleep. There’s never enough sleep.

But a morning walk does sound like a fine luxury, particularly as the weather turns a bit milder, if only for a short while. But this was no morning walk. It was a trip with purposes. I walked to the dentist, who has his office just down the street from our house. And if you think that doesn’t stick in your head each time you go by you’re fooling yourself. Every car trip, every bike ride, every run: did you brush enough before you came this way?

He has a new promotion. Follow him on Instagram, and you can win an iPad. Why not. The dental hygienist that works with me is a lovely woman. Her son is a freshman in college this year. And she and I usually discuss TV shows we’re watching. I assume she keeps notes on her clients. I’d mentioned, earlier this year, a great place to go whitewater rafting and she asked if I’d been anywhere this year. I expected more TV talk, or SCUBA diving talk or of the other things we’ve all mentioned in the past.

This is my third regular visit since the pandemic began.

It’s still weird to consider. Please lean over me and poke around my mouth with your pointy instruments which you have, no doubt, left in the nuclear autoclave out back for weeks between patients. You feel most … vulnerable.

This time last year they took my temperature at the door. Today they didn’t even point to a sign that asked if you’ve been having sickly symptoms.

Anyway, all went well with the appointment. And I hope I win that iPad. You can never have enough glowing electronics, no?

Saw this colorful little branch on the walk back.

After which we drove to campus. The Yankee to teach and me to sit in the office and do office things. It’s a carpool experience while her car is in the shop. She should get it back in the next day or two. Tomorrow she’s stealing mine altogether. So her car can’t get back to us quickly enough, you see.

I walked under this American sweetgum tree on campus. The breeze was blowing at the time.

The prickly little fruits of a sweetgum always take me right back to the gravel roads of childhood and running across such a tree is always a treat. Today, in the breeze, it looked like the leaves were waving.

Studio last night, as you might recall. One of the shows they produced has found its way online. First sports show of the season. From here, I’m sure, they’ll start to flesh things out as they go and grow.

And there will be another show to see soon. It’s a talk show and they discussed fantasy football at some length. You can find all those tips here tomorrow.

Aug 21

Back to the year 1921

Let us once again go back in time, to see if anything interesting was in the paper 100 years ago today. And there’s … not a lot … that captures our eye these years hence. Sometimes a slow news day here is matched by a slow news day then. It isn’t exactly the planets aligning, but it could seem close enough if you wanted to think that way. The better read is that probably no one feels like doing more than necessary in the middle of an August heat wave.

So to quickly gloss over the day’s lead story from the August 26, 1921 edition of The Birmingham News

That’s the West Virginia Mine Wars, a series of strikes, skirmishes, kerfuffles and outright battles that ranged through the 1910s and early 1920s. At the first of August a police chief and his deputy were killed by hired gun thugs when they were going to trial for a violent shootout earlier in the year. That was a tipping point. For weeks miners started arming themselves, and moved to just outside the state capitol. The firing was just starting again when they put this paper together. Thousands of union miners and another few thousand police offers, militia and others were clashing. President Harding was tinkering with the idea of martial law. National Guard were standing ready to be shipped in. Today they call it the Battle of Blair Mountain, which ended on September 2nd, and it claimed about 130 lives. It wound up being a defeat for the miners, and union membership plummeted. Ultimately, the mine owners success helped lead to a larger, stronger movement in many other industries. This was nearing the end of the West Virginia violence. Within the next decade, though, the unrest and violence spilled over into eastern Kentucky.

Anyway, inside the paper … a very vague ad on page three.

This makes sense if you are of the time. Lots of ads, across the country. You’re meant to see it as a seal of approval.

Text of another ad, from elsewhere at about that same time reads, “Like all thoroughbreds the Pup is inclined to be exclusive. He will talk for only one clothing store in each city. And that’s got to be a good one. He symbolizes the live successful merchant — and he is always on the job.”

That we don’t have more in this ad is likely a teaser. Maybe the Pup was just coming into the market.

Knowing, as we do, what was to come in just a generation, this was probably a good idea.

That was page four. She was launched on the first of September. The next month a new treaty went into effect, so the battleship was never actually completed. The Washington was sunk in late 1924 as gunnery practice. It took several days to sink her, and the analysts decided the armor was inadequate.

This standalone photograph is on page 10.

You won’t be surprised to learn that there are people who track presidential pets.

This advertisement really strikes a tone, doesn’t it?


This is an interesting ad during Prohibition.

These days that address is a parking lot.

I’m not saying these jokes are funny, but on a full page of comics, these are perhaps the best two for modern eyes.

This was a great downtown store. A.B. Loveman’s Dry Goods Emporium was founded in 1887 and soon became the Loveman, Joseph & Loeb when Moses Joseph and Emil Loeb came on board.

When you saw this ad in your 1921 paper, you were reading about the largest, most magnificent department store south of the Ohio River. Most of the store destroyed by fire in 1934, but they rebuilt on the same location. They expanded across town and the state, until they went bankrupt in 1979 and closed the next year.

Today, the beautiful old store is still for kids, even those bursting through the roof. The Loveman’s building is home to the state-of-the-art McWane Center.

It is a terrific museum.

And that’s it for today, and a century ago. Come back tomorrow, for more tomorrow, and probably some history that’s a bit more recent.

Aug 21

The big inhale before the school year

The light caught the trees outside of the parking deck just right this morning. Or, to be more accurately honor optics and the study of celestial mechanics: I timed it just right.

This will be one of the last days the parking deck will be empty this time of morning. People are filing back in and it’s just so fun to hear about all of these people being back to the office now.

I’ve been here since July*. Of 2020.

Not sure where they’ve all been.

But today there were enough people around that we all played that “I think I recognize you, but it’s been a while and, you know, the masks … ” game. We’ll do that for a few more days, I’m sure. Then we’ll all have a good sense of the different sorts of masks that we each favor.

Classes start next Monday. Welcome week events have taken place all this week. So much prep work has been done to start a, hopefully, successful and safe school year. The campus has sprung suddenly back to life, a jarring change from the last 16 months. There’s a lot of energy in everyone’s step, which is exciting to see.

At the end of the day I was ready for our weekly reading date in the back yard. Pull up a chair and enjoy the quiet and the shade and the … rain?

It sprinkled on us, for 23 minutes, under this sky.

I walked down the path because I could see the cloud above us was small. Something about being in a place where it’s raining one step to the left and not one step to the right seemed interesting. But the cloud was going that direction, too. And so, for a few moments, I felt a bit like Joe Btfsplk. I only know Al Capp’s work through reprints after he died, but there’s no getting around the legacy of a hugely popular 43-year run.






*I just went into the archives to confirm the date. It’s funny how many things we supposed in July of last year did and did not come to pass, like how much we’d be working from home, and that people would eventually figure out masks should cover the mouth and the nose. Joe Btfsplk, indeed.

Aug 21

Deadline reporting, 100 years ago today

I saw a note that yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the wedding of Ruth Stephenson and Pedro Gussman, and the murder of Father James Coyle in Birmingham. If those names don’t jump out at you, well, it’s been 100 years, so let’s take a look.

Ruth Stephenson was 18-year-old when she married Pedro Gussman. He was 24 years her senior and, perhaps most importantly, Catholic. The young woman had converted to Catholicism that spring and that bit of running family tension aside, things seemed better on this warm August Thursday. There were clouds in the sky, and a chance of rain for the coming weekend, but the storm had already arrived. At about 6 p.m., Ruth and Pedro were wed. An hour later the priest who married them was dead. Father James Coyle, an Irish priest who’d been in Birmingham for the better part of 17 years as a broadly respected pillar of the community by then, conducted the ceremony.

Soon after, at around 7 p.m., the bride’s father, Edwin Stephenson, a barber and itinerant Methodist Episcopal preacher, walked into the priest’s rectory and shot him.

People all over town knew that much, or some amount of it, before the paper showed up the next day, I’d bet. This was the front page they read 100 years ago today.

I don’t know, Mister Coroner, but the secret was out. My friends and historically generational counterparts at the News made sure of that. This is what they knew by the time they put that paper to bed.

Two witnesses separately said Edwin Stephenson walked into the rectory and, with hardly any time passing to allow for conversation, they heard gunshots. Another witness saw Stephenson beforehand and said he’d looked pale and nervous. Two police officers on patrol nearby heard the gunshots and ran toward the sound. They caught Stephenson a block away. He was trying to get into the nearby courthouse to turn himself in. He handed over his weapon — different stories in this edition disagree on the caliber of the gun. The sheriff had already testified. The suspect’s wife, and bride’s mother, was summoned. Distraught, she saw her husband. She blamed all of this on the Catholic church. There was plenty of quotes and efforts made to knock down this statement. Her husband, the shooter, was allowed to comfort her.

The bride and groom found out the father of the bride killed their priest during their bridal dinner, at a home 1.2 miles away, with the Badgers. Gussman and Mr. Badger were close friends. He’d lived with them for a time. Mrs. Badger picks up the story about their unexpected guests.

“We had already had our supper, but we prepared one for them, and we had a very jolly meal together, chaffing with the couple about the secrecy of the marriage. They were in high spirits.”

“Then after supper we all walked down to the store and bought some drinks. We came back to the house and sat down on the porch.”

A police detective walked into that same store and called in to the police department. A store clerk overheard that side of the conversation and told the cop that the young woman was just two doors down the street. So the officer went over and broke the news: your dad killed the priest who married you.

“I just can’t believe it. I don’t believe my father could have done such a thing,” was what her dinner hosts, the Badgers, recall her saying. The bride is now crying hysterically. They left by cab 10 minutes later, destination unknown.

The paper, meanwhile, has gotten reaction from civic leaders and faith leaders, both Catholic and Protestant. The archbishop was due in later that night, coming up by train from Mobile, 260 miles away. Reporters sought out people who could say that they’d ever heard the priest mention the reverend, or vice versa. No one could.

They had a reporter at Stephenson’s first interrogation. He complains of a head and back injury. He tells the officers that Coyle hit him and that it was self defense. Said he had lawyers in mind. Also in the paper are vivid descriptions of Coyle’s fatal wounds. He made it to the hospital in six minutes, we learn on the front page. On page two we learn he died on the operating table.

The News also immediately started working on the backstory. The subhead was “Trouble Long Standing” and it delves into the young woman’s early interest in Catholicism, that time she’d disappeared to Chattanooga, how her mother had once taken her to Texas for a long trip in the hopes of breaking up what they thought were “wrong influences.” They note that the father had spent all of the afternoon before, looking for her, trying to get the police to help him search the convent and so on. This was a running drama.

It’s just incredible, incredible deadline reporting from The Birmingham News. I see one glaring typo and one logistical inconsistency. Everything else looks solid.

How long the romance had brewed between bride and groom we don’t know here. Some time after the fact you learn that they’d known each other for about five years. Mr. Stephenson had hired Gussman for some housework.

He had a preliminary hearing two weeks later. Ruth testified that he had often made threats against her new husband’s life.

Edwin Stephenson, was a member of the Klan. So was his judge. Four of his five lawyers were in the Klan. A young Hugo Black, an eventual U.S. Senator and Supreme Court justice and future Klan member himself, was on the defense counsel. The Klan — which by then was playing the part of being a fraternity of “patriots” intent on protecting themselves and one another against threats from others — immigrants, Blacks, Jews, Catholics — paid for the defense.

The trial began October 17th and ended on Friday, October 22nd. The daughter appeared in court at the end, said to be the first time she’d seen her parents since the shooting. She kissed her father. In his closing argument, Hugo Black said the jury should return a fair verdict without regard to any fear that Birmingham might receive a black eye.

He was acquitted by one vote.

The next day, 60 miles away, Emmett O’Neal, a former governor, a progressive, told an audience:

“So it would seem that, after reading the verdict in the Stephenson case, a jury in Jefferson County has made an open season in Alabama for the killing of Catholics. Ladies and gentlemen, our wealth and resources will be but dross in the balance, if human life can be taken without cause or provocation on account of religious belief. It is said that our criminal laws and administration have broken down. I can not subscribe to that opinion. Our criminal laws are sufficient but the defect is in their administration. The time has come in Alabama when we should select as judges of our criminal courts men who are able, courageous and learned lawyers, and not merely self-seeking politicians. The chief cause of the conditions that now confront us is largely due to a spirit of religious intolerance and bigotry which seems so widespread in this county … Let no man fear that the eternal principle of civil and religious liberty upon where our free institutions are founded can ever be successfully attacked by zealots or misguided fanatics.”

Wikipedia notes:

The outcome of the murder trial for Father Coyle’s assassin had a chilling impact on Catholics, who found themselves the target of Klan violence for many years to come. Nevertheless, by 1941 a Catholic writer in Birmingham would write that “the death of Father Coyle was the climax of the anti-Catholic feeling in Alabama. After the trial there followed such revulsion of feeling among the right-minded who before had been bogged down in blindness and indifference that slowly and almost unnoticeably the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk began to lose favor among the people.”

Oh, and the Stephenson-Gussman marriage ended even before the trial began. Whatever else might have been going on between them is likely lost to history, but surely the stress of the trial played into it. By the first week of September, she’d left him.

Ruth Stephenson ultimately moved to Chicago and remarried. She died of tuberculosis in 1931, at 28. Her ex-husband, Pedro Gussman, survived her by three years, and died in 1934 at 56. Her father, Edwin Stephenson, died at 86, in 1956. Ruth and her mother are buried in the same Birmingham cemetery. Father Coyle was laid to rest there as well. Ten miles away, at another cemetery Edwin Stephenson and Pedro Gussman are interred near one another.

It’s a sad tale that echoed through several decades, as trauma and notoriety often do. In 2012, the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church held a service of reconciliation and forgiveness. The story has been retold in a few books, at least one poem and, someone is writing fan fiction online, apparently. Also, this very year, Coyle’s grand-niece, Sheila Killian published her debut novel which deals with some of this family history.

Here’s your kicker. On page 19 of that paper, from 100 years ago today, you’ll find this brief.

W.F. Winters, now there’s a story …

Aug 21

Faster than Olympians

I’d like to tell you about a great adventure on the day, but the truth of it is that there was the office, and then there was enjoying the evening in the backyard, and then enjoying the Olympics into the night.

Two weeks of Olympics following three weeks of Tour de France, mean a lot of televised sports. And the Vuelta a España starts next week. And then you’re into football season. Honestly, being in a safety-first, approach to going to as few places as possible has done wonders for my sports viewing this year.

I’m getting bored with it.

I did update my 404 page today. I noticed, to my great chagrin, that there was a broken link in my missing page. That’s mortifying. Better that I found it myself, rather than someone pointing it out. The error had been there for an embarrassingly long time. I can only assume that means that people don’t run across the 404 page that often.

But isn’t that exciting? I tested links! I moved tables! I saved and refreshed and changed some language!

That is a full on Thursday!

I wanted to share this amazing track event we discovered this evening. It is, in fact, from a few nights ago. Perhaps we missed it, or maybe NBC, burdened by time zone problems covering the Olympics half a world away, couldn’t figure out where to show what’s being called “the greatest race ever” many hours later. I wanted to share it, but NBC has limited where their programming can be shared, and where their pre-rolls can run. It’s a business model, I guess.

Here’s a video you can see on my humble little site. I did the math, we’re going faster than the world record hurdlers. We had better gearing, and fewer hurdles.

It was to be a 90-minute ride. Before we’d gotten through the second neighborhood on the route The Yankee had a problem with her aerobars. She got that resolved, and it allowed her to go faster. So, before we’d gotten through the third neighborhood on the route she dropped me.

Just as I caught back up to her, some 15 miles later, we called it just a bit early, right about the time I shot that video. Sometimes, catching back on feels like the greatest race ever.