Tag Archive: History


The Dustbin of History

Lord Cornbury (Edward Hyde), colonial governor of New York from 1702 to 1708

Hyde, a cousin of Queen Anne, was appointed governor of New York in 1702.  When colonists went to welcome him, they found him rocking on his porch, knitting a doily and wearing one of his wife’s dresses.

things got weirder when he threw his first dress ball.  Not only was he decked out in a formal gown, he also charged an admission fee and insisted that his guests all feel his wife’s ears. . .which he had described in a long poem as “conch shells.”

For many years, he was the talk of New York, especially when it turned out he had taken the governorship to escape creditors in England.  Then, in 1708, he was caught embezzling public funds.

Cornbury was confined to debtor’s prison until his father died, when he inherited a title and returned to England.  No monuments to his rule were built, but he did leave his family name on land along the Hudson:  Hyde Park.

Lucy Page Gaston, 1860-1924, American anti-tobacco reformer

After legendary prohibitionist Carrie Nation, she was the most famous American female reformer of her time.  In 1899 she founded the Chicago Anti-Cigarette League, which became the National Anti-Cigarette League two years later.  For a while the movement she inspired was a real threat to the tobacco industry, as cigarette sales dipped by 25 percent.

By 1920 she was so well-known that she became a candidate in the republican presidential race, vowing to “emancipate” the country from smoking.  But she won few votes, and Warren Harding, a smoker, was nominated.

By June 1924, Gaston was hit by a trolley while crossing the street.   She was taken to a hospital, but did not respond well to treatment.  That’s when doctors discovered she was terminally ill.  She died two months later – of throat cancer.

Louis Rainer, a film star of the ‘30s

She was the first person ever to win two consecutive Academy Awards – for Best Actress in 1936, for the Great Ziegfield; and in 1937, for The Good Earth.

In 1936, nominations were still carefully controlled by movie studios.  Rainer’s first nomination was engineered by MGM to help develop her career.  It was only her second film, and it was a relatively small part.  No one thought she would actually win the Oscar.  That’s why everyone voted for her.

The following year, voting was opened up for the first time to thousands of actors, writers, etc.  Rainer, who was well-liked for not acting like a “star,” beat out Greta Garbo and Barbara Stanwyck.

For some reason, MGM forced Rainer into a quick series of throwaway roles; two years and five insignificant pictures later, she was a has-been.  Her downfall led gossip columnist Louella Parsons to coin the term “Oscar jinx.”

Smedley Butler, America’s most famous soldier, a U.S. Marine and two-time Medal of Honor winner, nicknamed “Old Gimlet Eye”

Once called “the finest fighting man in the armed forces” by Teddy Roosevelt, Butler ws renowned for personal bravery, tactical brilliance, and the ability to inspire his fellow soldiers.  He joined a Marine force in China during the Boxer rebellion and helped carry a wounded comrade 17 miles through enemy fire back to their camp.  He was promoted to Captain, at age 18.  He later served in Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, and Haiti.

Butler served in France during World War I, not at the front, but as a commander of a troop depot, Camp Pontanezen.  Ironically, his greatest fame came from this post.  The camp was practically buried in mud; and the troops were short of food and blankets.  But somehow, Butler scrounged a huge supply of slats used for trench floors and created walkways and tent floors to keep the troops out of the mud.

The grateful soldiers never forgot him.  As one said, “I’d cross hell on a slat if Butler gave the word.”  After the war, Butler was regarded as presidential material (he didn’t run).  He was also a popular figure on the lecture series.

In the early ‘30s, he was approached by men claiming to be associated with the American Legion.  They wanted him to organize a fighting force to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt, and said there was 4300 million available to fund the insurrection.  Butler played along and eventually learned he was being courted buy the American Fascist Movement.  He divulged the plot before the Un-American Activities Committee in 1934, but nothing much came of it; the story was hushed up because several prominent figures were involved.

Butler retired from the Corps in 1931, but continued to speak out on military and foreign-policy issues.  He died in 1940.

William Walker, American journalist, physician, lawyer, and soldier of fortune

Walker is the only native-born American ever to become president of a foreign nation.  From July 1856 to May 1857, he was self-appointed dictator of Nicaragua, a nation he took over with a hand-picked force of mercenaries who called themselves “The Immortals.”

Walker’s success made him a hero throughout the U.S., where the notion of “manifest destiny” was gaining wide acceptance.  Crowds cheered his exploits, newspapers hailed his triumphs.  But a coalition of Central American nations, financed in part by Cornelius Vanderbilt, overthrew Walker.  On May 1, 1857, he and his troops fled back to the United States.

Walker made three more attempts to win control in Central America.  Finally, in the fall of 1859, he and his men attacked Honduras and were captured by British and Honduran troops.

Walker surrendered to the British, expecting he would again be returned to the States.  But he was turned over to the Hondurans instead, and was executed by a firing squad on September 12, 1860.  He was so hated by Nicaraguans that he became a symbol of “Yankee Imperialism.”  He is still remembered there.

Myth America 1

Manhattan Island

In 1626, Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Canarsee Indians for $24 worth of beads and other trinkets.

Minuit did give 60 guilders (roughly $24) worth of beads, knives, axes, clothes, and rum to Chief Seyseys of the Canarsee tribe “to let us live amongst them” on Manhattan Island – but the Canarsee actually got the better part of the deal because they didn’t own the island in the first place.  They lived on the other side of the East River in Brooklyn, and only visited the southern tip of Manhattan to fish and hunt.  The Weckquaesgeeks tribe, which lived on the upper three-fourths of the island, had a much stronger claim to it and were furious when they learned they’d been left out of the deal.  They fought with the Dutch settlers for years until the Dutch finally paid them, too.

The Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell has always been  precious symbol of our nation’s heritage.

The bell, installed in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia in 1753, was almost bartered off as scrap metal in 1828 when the building was being refurbished.  According to one account, “The Philadelphia city fathers. . .contracted John Wilbank, a bell maker from Germantown, Pennsylvania, to cast a replacement for the Liberty Bell.  He agreed to knock off $400 off his bill in exchange for the 2,000-pound relic.  When Wilbank went to collect it, however, he decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.  ‘Drayage costs more than the bell’s worth,’ he said.”  The city of Philadelphia actually sued to force him to take it.  But Wilbank just gave it back to them as a gift, “unaware that he’d just bartered away what would become the most venerated symbol of American independence.

The Liberty Bell was rung on July 4, 1776, to commemorate the colonists’ declaration of independence.

This tale was invented by writer George Lippard in 1847 book, Legends of the American Revolution.

The Liberty Bell was installed in Philadelphia in 1753, 23  years before the colonists rebelled, and it has nothing whatever to do with the Revolution.  Its nickname, “Liberty Bell,” was coined by abolitionists in 1839.  They were referring to the end of slavery in America, not freedom from England.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

About 15 years before Bell uttered the famous words, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you,” German scientist Johann Philipp Reis had developed a crude working telephone.  And about five years before Bell’s historic race to the patent office, an Italian scientist named Antonio Meucci offered the patent office a rough description of a telephone’s structure and principles.  But nothing ever came of it.

Bell wasn’t the first to develop the device, but he was the first to patent it. . .barely.  Many scientists were working on a telephone at the same time; one of them, Elisha Gray, arrived at the U.S. Patent Office with a model telephone just two hours after Bell.  In fact, some say Gray’s telephone was better than Bell’s and more like the one we use today.  By the time Bell received his patent, so many people had claimed the telephone as their own invention that Bell had to defend his patent in court.  In fact, the case went to the U.S. Supreme court.  The verdict:  The high court was divided in his favor, allowing him the rights to the telephone.

Fulton’s Folly

Robert Fulton invented the steamboat.

Twenty years before Fulton built his first steamboat, Fulton’s Folly, in 1807, James Rumsey had a steamboat chugging up the Potomac and John Fitch had one traveling the Delaware.  In some states, Fitch even secured exclusive rights to run passenger and freight steamboat trips.  So why does Fulton get the credit for the invention 20 years later?  Rumsey and Fitch died broke, while Fulton had a knack for promotion and fund-raising.  But Fulton did fail to make one key sale, to Napoleon Bonaparte, who thought the idea of steamships impractical.  Some historians say the little conqueror’s bad decision might have saved the English.

Reputation on the Line

Henry Ford invented the auto assembly line.

No, chalk this one up to Ransom E. Olds, creator of the Oldsmobile.  Olds introduced the moving assembly line in the early 1900s and boosted car production by 500%.  The previous year, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company and turned out 425 cars.  The year after, they made more than 2,500 of them.  Ford improved Olds’s system by introducing the conveyor belt, which moved both the cars and needed parts along the production line.  the belt cut ford’s production time for a day to about two hours.  A significant contribution, but not the original.

Tory, Tory, Tory

The vast majority of American colonists supported the rebellion during the Revolutionary War.

According to President John Adams, at the beginning of the war only about a third of the people were on the side of the revolution.  Another third were on the side of the British, and the rest didn’t care either way.  After a while, the ratio changed as British supporters were terrorized, publicly humiliated, and finally attacked.  Many fled to Canada.

In the Groove

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph to bring music to the masses.

When Edison first played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on his crude recording device, he knew he was onto something commercially significant.  But he didn’t have a clue as to what it was.

He was actually trying to create the first telephone answering machine.  The problem he saw with the telephone was that, unlike the telegraph, you couldn’t leave messages for people.  Edison came up with an idea and, to his shock, it worked the first time he tried it.  Still, it became clear that his machine wasn’t suited for telephones.  So Edison began marketing the phonograph to businesses, believing that it was suitable only as a dictating machine.  It took 15 years and the successes of other manufacturers for him to be convinced that people would buy phonographs to play music at home.

John Banvard

One of America’s most famous 19th century painters.

In the 1830s, Banvard traveled down the Mississippi River on a raft.  Then, using sketches he’d made along the way, he created the largest painting in history, a 12-foot-high, 3-mile-long depiction of more than 1,200 miles of the Mississippi’s shoreline.  In 1845, he took the painting on the road, charging 25 cents to view the entire work, which took more than two hours as his two assistants rolled it off of one spindle and onto another.

The Painting called, “Panorama,” was considered one of the wonders of the day.  Throngs of viewers flocked to see it where ever it was displayed, including President Polk and England’s Queen Victoria, both of whom sat through the entire viewing.  Banvard made more than $200,000 from it.

Not long after Banvard died in 1891, “Panorama” was cut up into hundreds of smaller paintings, most of which were quickly discarded or lost.  None survive today.

Lord Cornbury (Edward Hyde), colonial governor of New York from 1702 to 1708.

Hyde, a cousin of Queen Anne, was appointed governor of New York in 1702.  When colonists went to welcome him, they found him rocking on his porch, knitting a doily and wearing one of his wife’s dresses.

Things got weirder when he threw his first dress ball.  Not only was he decked out in a formal gown, he also charged an admission fee and insisted that his quests all feel his wife’s ears. . .which he had described in a long poem as “conch shells.”

For many years, he was the talk of New York, especially when it turned out he had taken the governorship to escape creditors in England.  Then in 1708, he was caught embezzling public funds.

Cornbury was confined to debtor’s prison until his father died, when he inherited a title and returned to England.  No monuments ot his rule were built, but he did leave his family name on land along the Hudson:  Hyde Park.

Lucy Page Gaston, 1860-1924, American anti-tobacco reformer.

After legendary prohibitionist Carrie Nation, she was the most famous American female reformer of her time.  In 1899 she founded the Chicago Anti-Cigarette League, which became the National Anti-Cigarette League two years later.  For a while the movement she inspired was a real threat to the tobacco industry, as cigarette sales dipped by 25 percent.

By 1920 she was so well-known that she became a candidate in the Republican presidential race, vowing to “emancipate” the country from smoking.  But she won few votes, and Warren Harding, a smoker, was nominated.

In June 1924, Gaston was hit by a trolley while crossing the street.  She was taken to a hospital, but did not respond well to treatment.  That’s when doctors discovered she was terminally ill.  She died two months later – of throat cancer.

Charge!

Teddy Roosevelt commanded his hardy band of Rough Riders on their charge up Cuba’s San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.

Contrary to the popular image of the courageous cavalry charge on horseback, the cavalry unit was on foot; their horses had accidently been left in Florida.  And Roosevelt wasn’t even on San Juan Hill.  He did take part in the charge on nearby Kettle Hill, but only watched from there as Colonel C. Wood led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill.

Remember the Alamo

The defenders of the Alamo fought for justice, political freedom, and independence.

It was as much an issue of slavery as it was independence.  In the 1820s, Texas was part of Mexico, and much of its land was being settled by slave-owning farmers and ranchers from the South.  But in 1830, the Mexican government passed a law outlawing slavery.  Soon after, American settlers revolted, and the Alamo was defended – at least in part because American settlers wanted to keep their slaves.

Asleep at the Wheel

John F. Kennedy was a hero in World War II; when his tiny PT-109 patrol boat was rammed and sunk by a destroyer, he singlehandedly saved three members of his crew.

In his (ghostwritten) book PT-109, Kennedy presented this version of the events that night.  Yet, while he apparently showed great endurance and courage after his boat sank, there’s some question as to whether the incident might have been avoidable in the first place.

At least one Kennedy biographer argues that Kennedy’s own negligence may have doomed his boat.  According to a number of the ship’s crew members, Kennedy and most of the crew were asleep when PT-109 was rammed – not attacking the destroyer as Kennedy later claimed.  Naval experts point out that it is unlikely for a ship as small and quick as PT-109 to be outmaneuvered by a ship as large as a destroyer, unless the crew was caught off guard.

Solo

Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean.

He was the 67th person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic.  The first nonstop flight was made by William Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919, eight years before Lindbergh’s flight.  Lindbergh was famous because he did it alone.

The Father of Our Country

George Washington was the first president of the U.S.

Washington was the first to serve as America’s president under the Constitution of 1789, but the United States was a sovereign nation 13 years before the Constitution was written.  In 1777, the Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, which were ratified by the states in 1781.  Later in 1781, this new legislative body convened and elected John Hanson as “President of the United States in Congress assembled.”  Hanson had been a member of the Maryland assembly and the Continental Congress, where he played a key role in convincing Maryland, the only state against the Articles of Confederation, to ratify them.  Washington himself sent Hanson a letter of congratulations on his “appointment to fill the most important seat in the United States.”  However, Hanson and the seven other presidents who served before George Washington have been forgotten.

Grover Cleveland (1885-89; 1893-97) First president to have hanged a man.  From 1871 to 1873, Cleveland was sheriff of Erie County, New York.  When two men were sentenced to death, he put the hoods over their heads, tightened the noose, and sprung the trap door himself.  He explained later that he couldn’t ask his deputies to do it just because he didn’t want to.  The experience affected him so deeply that he didn’t run for reelection.

James Garfield (1881) First president who could write in two languages at once.  Garfield was ambidextrous; he could write in Greek with one hand while writing in Latin with the other.

William Howard Taft (1909-1913) First president entrapped by a White House plumbing fixture.  Taft weighed in at between 300 and 350 pounds while he was president.  He was so big that one morning he got stuck in the White House tub, and had to call his aides to help him get out.  Taft subsequently ordered a tub large enough to hold four average-sized men.  He never got stuck again.

First president to throw out the first pitch of the baseball season.  Taft was our fattest president.  His handlers feared his girth might make him seem weak when he ran for office again.  So, in 1910, one of them suggested to the president that he begin playing a sport to prove that he still had his youthful vigor.  When Taft vetoed the idea, his aide suggested that he at least make a ceremonial appearance at a sporting event, say, to throw out the first ball of the baseball season.  Taft agreed, and on April 14, 1910, he waddled out to the pitcher’s mound at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., and pitched a ball to home plate. (It went wild)

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Continuing the tradition started by Taft, subsequent presidents’ pitches were just as wild.  By 1929, rather than actually pitch the ball, most presidents just threw it onto the field from their seat in the stands.

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James Madison (1809-1817) First president to weigh less than his IQ.  Madison, the unofficial “Father of the U.S. Constitution,” was only five feet, four inches tall and never weighed more than 98 pounds as president.  One historian has called him “a dried-up, wizened little man”—and observed that when he went walking with his friend Thomas Jefferson, the two looked “as if they were on their way to a father-and-son banquet.”

First commander in chief to actually command a military unit while in office.  When the British attacked Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812, President Madison personally took charge of an artillery battery.  But that didn’t last long; when the Americans started to lose, Madison fled the city.

John Tyler (1841-1845) First president to elope while in office.  On June 26, 1844, the 54-year-old Tyler sneaked off to New York City with 24-year-old Julia Gardiner to tie the knot.  They decided on a secret wedding because supporters were worried about the public’s reaction to their 30-year age difference.  It didn’t matter, the press found out about it almost at once.  Ironically, Julia turned out to be just about the most popular part of Tyler’s presidency.  (They had seven kids – the last one when Tyler was 70.)

Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) First president to have an asteroid named after him.  No, it’s not an honor of his presidency.  In 1920, Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa discovered an asteroid and named it Hooveria, to honor Hoover’s humanitarian work as chairman of the Interallied Food Council, which was helping to feed starving people in post-WWI Europe.  Said Palisa:  “It is a pity we have only a middle-magnitude asteroid to give to this great man.  He is worthy of at least a planet.”

Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) First president to see a UFO.  One evening in 1969, Carter and a few companions saw a “bluish. . .then reddish” saucer-shaped object moving across the sky.  “It seemed to move toward us from a distance,” Carter later told UFO researchers, “then it stopped and moved partially away.  It returned and departed.  It came close. . .maybe three hundred to one thousand yards away. . .moved away, came close, and then moved away.”  He added:  “I don’t laugh at people anymore when they say they’ve seen UFOs.

Harry S. Truman First president to buzz the White House in an airplane.  On May 19, 1946, President Truman climbed aboard his presidential aircraft, the Sacred Cow, for a flight to Independence, Missouri.  Shortly after takeoff, he asked his pilot to fly the plane into restricted airspace above the White House, where First Lady Bess Truman, daughter Margaret, and several other guests were waiting on the roof.

As the Sacred Cow approached the executive mansion, Truman asked Myers to dive bomb the White House.  “I’ve always wanted to try something like that,” the president explained.  The pilot sent the Sacred Cow into a dive, taking it from 3,000 feet to 500 feet in a matter of seconds.  “At 500 feet, I had the Cow leveled and we roared over the White House roof.  Everyone there was frozen with fear.  We climbed to 3,000 feet again, swooped, circled, and fell into another dive.  But this time Margaret and her mother were jumping and waving.  We shot past them, at a little over 500 feet and roared back upstairs once more.”  From there the plane proceeded directly to Independence, where the president visited his mother.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison The only presidents to be arrested together.  One afternoon in the spring of 1791, future presidents Jefferson and Madison were riding a carriage through the Virginia countryside when a rural sheriff pulled them over and arrested them on the spot.  Their crime:  riding in a carriage on Sunday.

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)  First and last (that we know of) president to wear another president’s body part during his inauguration.  The night before he was sworn into office in 1901, was given an unusual gift – a ring containing strands of hair that had been cut from President Abraham Lincoln’s head the night he was assassinated.  Roosevelt wore the ring to his inauguration the next day.

First president to coin an advertising slogan.  While he was visiting Andrew Jackson’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, roosevelt was offered a cup of the coffee sold at the nearby Maxwell House hotel.  When someone asked if he’d like another cup, Roosevelt replied:  “Will I have another cup?  Delighted!  It’s good to the last drop!”  His words were eventually used by Maxwell House in thier ad campaigns.

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Teddy was also the first president to be blinded while in office.  He liked to box, and during one White House bout was hit so hard he became permanently blind in one eye.

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Warren G. Harding First president to bet (and lose) White House china in poker games.  Harding was an enthusiastic poker player; unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at it and was often short of cash.  End result:  when he was low on cash during poker games with his buddies, he used individual pieces of fine White House china for poker chips.  it is not know how many pieces of the china were lost in this way.

First president to pardon a dog.  One morning Harding read a newspaper article about a Pennsylvania dog that had been ordered destroyed because it had been brought into the country illegally.  Harding, who loved animals, wrote a letter to the governor of Pennsylvania.  The governor saw to it that the dog’s life was spared.

Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) First president with a fear of electricity.  President Harrison knew two things about electricity:  The White House had just been wired for it, and it could kill people (the electric chair was becoming a common form of execution).  That was all he needed to know.  He didn’t want anything more to do with it.  Throughout his entire term, he and his wife refused to turn the lights on and off themselves.  they either had the servants do it or left the lights off or on at night.

Andrew Jackson (1828-1837) First president to be born in more than one place.  The following places claim themselves as Andrew Jackson’s birthplace:  Union County, North Carolina; Berkeley County, West Virginia; Augusta County, West Virginia; York County, Pennsylvania; as well as England, Ireland, and the Atlantic Ocean (he may have been born at sea).  His “official” birthplace:  Waxhaw, South Carolina.

John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) First president interviewed in the nude.  President Adams loved to skinny-dip.  In hot weather he’d sneak out for a swim in the Potomac.  One morning Anne Royall – a reporter who had been trying to interview him for months – sneaked up while he was swimming, sat on his clothes, and refused to leave until he granted her an interview.  He did.

Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) First president to forget about his wife.  In his autobiography, Van Buren did not mention his wife, Hannah, once.

David Rice Atchison (1849-1849) First president to serve for one day.  Zachary Taylor was so religious that he refused to take the oath of office on Sunday.  So Atchison, President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, stood in for him until he could be sworn in the next day.