history


7
Sep 21

No cohesion, but a lot of interesting Tuesday tidbits

Back to work again this morning. And most of the morning spent catching up from a day off and a long weekend out of town. But I only woke up twice this morning wondering where I was.

Stands to reason you could spend the rest of your Tuesday wondering where you are after a morning of that sort.

It’s never quite the same as when it happens in the early morning hours, though, is it? You open a blurry eye and wonder where you are based on whatever light is creeping in from whichever direction. By whatever level of chance is involved, my last two bedrooms have enjoyed the same layout. Even some of the same colors. Once in a great while I wake up truly confused, because the only real clue is in the ceiling, and I can’t focus on that with one blurry eye, it seems.

But this never happens in the rest of the day. You don’t turn from your typing, or move your eyes from that memo, or rouse yourself from a reverie and wonder where you are. It must have something to do with the eyes, or the fluorescent lights.

It’s amazing how many pieces like this are floating around out there. It almost seems odd that there could be a new experience at such a ubiquitous thing. But, it’s true.

Weird how those experiences get turned into published articles while trying to treat a quick steak and a yeasty roll as an ethnography.

I put our name in at the hostess stand and was told it would be about a 10-minute wait.

I didn’t mind the wait. I used the time to take in the ambiance, which was unlike that of any restaurant I’d been to before.

I appreciate the need to get to atmosphere in your photo essay, but you’re asking people to believe you’ve never been to a restaurant which has a theme of neon or kitsch or both.

The author found herself overwhelmed by the “massive” menu and the restaurant which felt “even bigger than it looks from the outside.” That’s called perspective, by the way. The author says she doesn’t like steak. She ordered the chicken.

All of which is to say she buried the actual important story here.

Same-store sales are up over 80% over 2020, which was of course low because of COVID-19, but they’re also up 21.3% over 2019 levels.

This despite reduced hours in many places, like the one she visited in Rochester. (There are two in that town.) The one nearest us, for what it’s worth, always seems busy these days.

I wonder how sales in other restaurants trading in “folksy charm” are faring.

I still can’t imagine eating in a restaurant at the moment. And one day, when that feels comfortable again, I’m sure the menus will overwhelm me.

Speaking of which, don’t forget, we’re flying a drone around on another planet.

Have you noticed how every rover we’ve put on Mars, or every probe we’re sending into space, seems to be outliving the design specs? No planned obsolescence there. Maybe these NASA and JPL people know what they’re doing.

Or maybe …

I never had the honor of meeting the late George Taliaferro. I wish that I did.

If you know the story, you know that he, and his wife who was a trailblazer herself, are larger-than-life personas around here.

While I did not get the opportunity to meet him, I have watched a lot of footage of Taliaferro speaking to classes and doing interviews. He was a passionate, fascinating, caring man. People talk about that first-to-be-drafted tidbit and in that clip above they mention his many skills on the football field. I’m here to tell you that football was the least of it. A former Media School student put together this little mini-doc that seems to capture Taliaferro very well.

He worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Baltimore, counseled prisoners returning to their regular lives and was a leader with the Children’s Organ Transplant Association. He taught at the University of Maryland, was dean of students at Morgan State and returned to Indiana to teach. His wife, Judge Viola Taliaferro, the first African American to serve as a magistrate and then judge in the Circuit Court of Monroe County, remains a powerful voice even today.

Finally, a nice little musical number …

Roy Orbison released that song in 1961 at the age of 25. I wonder what kind of star he’d be if he were 25 today.


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.


23
Aug 21

A day of hope

I, like billions of other people, don’t use Facebook that much anymore. It’s too crowded. And there’s only so much time in the day for noise, anyway.

But this year I have been trying to go every day and peruse the memories. It’s worth it to clean those up sometime. And these last few days have offered some doozies, all from just a year ago. It’s interesting to see how much has changed, and how little.

When was it, that the old life slipped away, and wise men and women worried that it was never to return again? Was it all at once or, did it come to mind gradually over that hot summer last year?

Someone instinctively felt it, but the signs were there for all of us to read. Henry White was a turn-of-the-century diplomat, and a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles. He noticed the same thing, as his biographer said, when Europe marched itself into the Great War. “He instinctively felt that his world — the world of constant travel, cosmopolitan intercourse, secure comfort and culture — would never be the same again.”

There may be great gains, yet, but when they are counted, what will we they be, and how will we measure them against what has been lost? It is at a moment like this where we search for the spirit of an era. This one having not been filled to overflowing with optimism and confidence, might cause a person to continue the search. A searching mood such as that could feel like a spark, a great light of promise by which we set the world to right, rather than being rolled under the world in the darkness.

It’s a cycle, and in our study of history we know it is anything but unique. Heroes shape the world, victims struggle through it. People have been warmed by that spark and felt that exuberance before. They will do so again. Hope never dies as long as we can move and feel. Sometimes it smolders low, at other times it will not be ignored.

We are, perhaps, at the start of such a moment. I pray that we are, and that others take up that feeling, as well. It’s too beautiful and full of possibilities to wrap it up and set it down in a box, all but forgotten for some later time.

This is a day full of hope.

And cats. It is Monday, after all. Even in the middle of a heat wave, Phoebe needs her blanket naps.

She does that all by herself. Usually Kitty Me Time means going all the way under the blankets, but maybe it was a little too warm that day for a completely immersive experience.

And I guess they’ve decided to have a cute contest this week. Look at Poseidon’s handsome face.

What’s not to love about a look like that?


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 …


10
Aug 21

Not everything here is from the last century

I’m reading through this book right now. It’s the 1960 version of a long-winded, well written Wikipedia series. Each chapter covers one particular moment, almost all of which can and do have several tomes you can dig up. This book is the city bus tour of the historical period. It’s a great read to get an overview, an easy way to discover a new interest.

The San Francisco earthquake and fire gets 24 pages. And, for me, for that, it was plenty.

I’ve read three of the definitive biographies on Teddy Roosevelt, and two on the Wright Brothers, you see, it’s the subject, not the period. Some things are just more interesting than others. There’s one chapter here about a particular insurance man and his social life. Didn’t do much for me. There’s another on how J.P. Morgan forced the American banking system into avoiding a an economic collapse by force of will. It was intriguing, but you got the gist. Right now I’m reading about Peary’s sixth Arctic expedition. I’d probably enjoy a bit more of that. Here’s a bit from the chapter on the Great White Fleet, and a full telling of this story would probably be worth trying. Roosevelt sent the vessels around the world as a projection of American naval power — 16 battleships, 14,000 sailors on board them and their escort with ports of call on six continents — it was one of the first signals of the American century.

I’ve looked a fair amount. Several accounts refer to these cheers, but no one seems to know where they are from. I Assume some Chilean naval officer went to Cornell and brought all of that back. And when the Americans arrived in January of 1908, that was just part of the fanfare. A surrealistic bit of home for the American sailors who’d been on this mission for a month, making just their third port of call.

I wonder how many of the Americans recognized them. Cornell was a big player in early 20th century athletics, but still there wasn’t a lot of opportunities to Google this sort of thing in 1908.

This is from the same chapter. Walter Lord diverged a bit, which is rare in this book, but his point was what the returning sailors came home to after their historic circumnavigation. It was one of those moments where things were changing quickly in the culture.

If you’ve read about Europe in this period, or the American experience just before entering the Great War, you can see an entire world-shaking bit of foreshadowing going on there. It’s a good book. Written in 1960, when some of these things were frozen in memory, rather than frozen in amber. And while new perspectives and information have no doubt come along in the intervening years — Lord was much closer to his subject than we are to him here — the book holds up. Click on the cover, above, and pick up a copy for yourself.

And if you’re not interested in that …

Here’s a bit of Poseidon, god of water, bathtub mortal.

Achilles had his heel, Poseidon has his back paws, I guess.

I like to think he’s not fascinated by the water, but by the physics of the water’s retention and movement.