Alabama


5
Sep 22

Happy Labor Day

We had a short bike ride on Saturday morning, dodging raindrops until I couldn’t. I wanted to get in a quick 20 miles to reach the next round number for the year. (All of the records are falling this year!) And in the early going we went by this familiar corn field, which almost made it to Labor Day before turning.

And then, up the street and up a few hills, The Yankee was creating some big distance. See the little red dot on the side? I had to cover all of this ground to get her wheel again.

Eventually I did, and then we rode together for a while. She turned for the house and I added on a few more miles to get to that goal, and then found myself in the rain. It was foreshadowing.

We got in the car, pointed south and drove through every storm cloud that a third of this great nation can provide. My car hasn’t been this clean, nor my shoulders this tense in the car, in some time. This is just the beginning.

You know how, sometimes, you people stop under an overpass? When my wipers were going full blast and I was slowing down to about 35 on the freeway to let them keep up, it seemed like a good idea.

I always liked overpasses in the rain. That constant rattle on the roof interrupted, however briefly, by a bit of human engineering. It can be a sudden and stunning change, and then just as quickly, the rain returns, because the overpasses are only a few lanes wide. Sometimes you want more overpasses, I guess, if only to park under them.

We did not wait out the weather, but pushed on carefully through. And one of our rewards was this site.

You can almost see it there, but in the heartbeat before I took this photo, and those trees in the foreground crept in the way, you could actually see the place where the rainbow was hitting the ground. It wasn’t off in the distance, or beyond a hill. It was right there. I did not see the pots of gold, however. It is a busy interstate, maybe someone beat me to it.

We made it to my mom’s for a nice little vacation. We had dinner there Saturday night, and a quiet Sunday. Today my grandfather and a great-aunt and great-uncle came over for dinner. This was the first time I’ve seen my aunt and uncle since before the pandemic began. They were, and are, a hoot.

I could tell you stories, but it is a light week here, and you’d need to know them and hear them, anyway. But I will jot this down, just so I can remember it. Someone was telling a bit of a family story and my great-uncle didn’t hear who was the subject of the story. He said, “Who?” He heard the name. There’s a half beat where the name sinks in and you can see the gears readjusting to the new information. And then the man, who is in his 80s, giggled. It was him and them and perfect.


18
May 22

The year was 1961; do not enter business with Willie’s wife

We haven’t read any old newspapers recently. Let’s go back 61 years, to northwest Alabama. This is The Florence Herald, which we have examined here from time-to-time in the past. Some of my family would have read this paper. Indeed, there’s a brief mention of my great-great grandfather here in a legal notice. And some of the family names appear in some of the local correspondence. But let’s look at the really fun stuff from the weekly, which was published on Thursday, May 18, 1961.

There’s a fair amount to get through over your second coffee. Let’s dive in. This is the lead local story, in a paper that was helping its community celebrate the centennial of the Civil War.

The Reynolds Metals Company, founded in Kentucky in 1919, was a big, big deal. They originally supplied the wrappers for cigarette and candy companies and in the 1920s took over Eskimo Pies because of the foil. They were growing quickly, and in a few more years a few more acquisitions the original U.S. Foil Company became Reynolds. They moved HQ to New York, and then to Richmond. Soon they were mining bauxite, and they opened the plant mentioned here in 1941.

Just before the United States entered the war, R.S. Reynolds ramped up production. He was in aluminum, after all, and he saw a need. Now the second largest producer of basic aluminum in the U.S., Reynolds was key in aircraft production, among other things. A lot of that was rolled out right there. They kept growing after the war, indeed they snatched up six government defense plants that were up for disposal. Reynolds later expanded into non aluminum products such as plastics and precious metals, introducing Reynolds Plastic Wrap in 1982. Odds are you’ve got some of their product in your kitchen cabinets.

The company took out a full page ad in this same issue of The Florence Herald thanking their employees and the community. “Surely the only thing which can surpass our first 20 years at Listerhill will be our next 20 years,” was the last line over R.S. Reynolds’ name. Indeed, they put 37 more years into the area.

When they sold to Wise Metals in 1998-99, there were 1,600 people working at the plant. A global concern picked up Wise in 2015, it was an eight-figure deal. The company is still in operation there, still employing more than 1,200. They recycle and make aluminum cans.

I don’t know if you noticed that story about “Viet Nam” that was set just below the Reynolds piece, and the English standalone photo It’s 1961, and there’s so much patriotic optimism in that story.

Below the fold on the front page …

So it is an interesting time in local and national politics. I shared with you one of the bullet points from Harold S. May’s front page column.

Dude.

May wrote in this same format every week. I looked ahead. “What has Mr. Average Citizen done to deserve it? All of us will suffer alike,” wrote the columnist in the next issue. The columnist — who had served on the Florence Housing Authority and was the chairman of the local board of education — made another, terrible convoluted mention two weeks out, until, finally, he moved back to his local observations and recycled bon mots.

“The wife with plenty of hose sense never becomes a nag,” was one of the lines just above the condemnation above.

It’s a fascinating column in its own way, if you can overlook the regrettable parts.

Finally, according to the search function, he ran this same ad the next three weeks. And then, apparently, never again. There’s a story behind this.

Sadly, we’ll never know it.


6
Sep 21

Happy Labor Day

Welcome back to you and me. Nothing happened here last week because … well … you didn’t miss much around here. It was the second week of classes, and, as ever, the first few weeks of classes are hyper-charged. If anything, the post-lockdown might make that period run even longer. Typically it’s a two week rush to find a semester’s cruising speed. Looking at the upcoming calendar, the ops tempo isn’t evening out for another week or two, though.

Meaning things might feel like they’re running at a normal speed … as we approach October.

The most fun things last week, perhaps, were an interview I conducted about two interesting new studies and some television stuff. We had a practice shoot for the sports crew and a big call out meeting Thursday night.

Late that same evening we climbed out of the car after a long drive for a weekend visit with my family.

This was our second visit since the pandemic. And just my third trip, total, since all of this began. We act conservatively and try to stay as safe as possible so we can have visits like that. It makes sense if you’re being risk adverse.

And the trip was nice. We picked up barbecue in Louisville and had a lot more great food all weekend. We sat poolside with my mom, saw my grandfather and finally won a game of dominoes from him, got to hug my uncle. And we watched the hummingbirds dance.

We came back today. If it feels like a full day’s drive that’s because it is. But work calls again tomorrow, and there are cats that need attention. And, since I didn’t give you anything last week, there are extra kitty pictures this time around.

Phoebe is (almost always) a good girl. Except for when she’s on this ledge.

It’s a weird thing, really. “You’re cute, but you’re not supposed to be there. Get down. Wait, let me take a picture first.”

She likes afternoons on the stairs, which gives her some nice indirect sunlight warmth. There’s also a change of temperature near that spot on warm days. Maybe she prefers a half-and-half temperature.

Poseidon prefers tasty snacks.

Again, “Stop buying that! But not before I take a picture!”

He managed to get one out of the box. We think he just likes the crinkly foil. Or likes dropping them on the floor, since we did that a few times.

Phoebe also likes sitting on that box. As we’ve discussed here before, we’re dealing with two cat lawyers. ‘On the box isn’t on the counter,’ is, I’m sure, what’s behind those eyes.

And, also, ‘As you can see, I’m not getting into the treats like he is.’

Poseidon is caught.

And he is notably chagrined.


26
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?

MOTHER!

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.


12
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 …