Monday, October 29, 2012

Suffer From Triskaidekaphobia? You Might Not Want to Read This.

The Halloween season is upon us. It's time for costume parties, trick or treaters, bobbing for apples, ghost stories and a superstitious grip that seems to take over people. However, not everyone is susceptible to these superstitions. No black cat, spilled salt, broken mirror or any other symbol of bad luck seemed to even bother certain men at the end of the 19th century. The Thirteen Club seemed to laugh in the face of superstition and bad luck and why? Well because they were awesome. But not only were they awesome, they were also one of the United States best kept secret society.

Before we jump into the inner workings of the Thirteen Club, why are people so afraid of the number 13? Well there are a few theories behind why. First, one of the earliest stories comes from Norse mythology. At the Valhalla Banquet, 12 gods were seated and Loki joined the party making 13. This is only bad because as Loki entered he killed Balder, a god much loved by the Norse people. The second origin follows the same suit. The story of the Last Super from Christian beliefs plays a major role in the spread of the fear of the number 13. At the Last Super, Jesus and his 12 disciples were seated at a table, 13 in total. As most know this was were Judas had betrayed Jesus, ultimately leading to his crucifixion. It is from here that the idea of 13 people sitting at a table would invite death to someone within that year. Here we see two similar stories, both with the same result, 13 guests and one person killed. But these are not the only theories, throughout ancient civilizations the number 13 was feared, Babylonians, Romans, Greeks and Persians all had reasons to fear that dark number of 13. But what about here in the good ol' U-S of A?

The name William Fowler my be new to you, but he was one of the most unsupuerstitious people in perhaps the world. Fowler had a unique relationship to the number 13 throughout his life. He was born in New York City and attended P.S. 13 and graduated at the age of 13. He later worked for a construction company which built 13 buildings in New York City. On April 13, 1861 he reported to Washington D.C. to report for service in the Union Army. There Captain Fowler, fought in 13 different battles. He would serve for two years and again ironically retire from duty of August 13, 1863. After the war he purchased a popular tavern in New York, The Knickerbocker Cottage. It was there that Captain Fowler were go on the offensive to prove that the number 13 was merely just a number and not the dark, spooky and terrifying number it was made out to be. 

 Those of us who are about to die salute you!

Fowler would establish the Thirteen Club in his Knickerbocker Cottage. The 19th century Zagat Guide would describe the Cottage as a "popular, quiet resort for merchants and sporting fellows." And like any good local watering hole the ideas of the day were freely shared amongst its patrons. It was here that Fowler would establish his Thirteen Club. It was an unsuspecting Friday in January of 1882, and if you've seen the pattern develop so far you know it was the 13th. The meeting started at 8:13pm and was hosted by Fowler who planned on entertaining 12 guests. Who were those 12 guests? Well they were patrons of the Knickerbocker Cottage, which Fowler hand picked over the prior year. Upon entering the guests passed under an open ladder which was under the above banner reading, "Morituri te Salutams" or in English "Those of us who are about to die salute you!" When reaching the round table, 13 chairs awaited them. In front of them 13 candles which provided the light and ambiance. The men dinned and conversed over 13 courses. Also while dinning if salt was spilled, it was forbidden that no salt was to be tossed over their right shoulders. Now this is really tempting fate, and to add more insult to the dark side, the candles held a greater meaning. It was claimed that the first candle to go out, that member would not be returning the following year if you get my drift.

The dinner was a success and all the members from the original meeting returned again the following year. This report sums up the first year of the Thirteen Club:

 "Out of the entire roll of membership … whether they have participated or not at the banquet table, NOT A SINGLE MEMBER IS DEAD, or has even had a serious illness. On the contrary, so far as can be learned, the members during the past twelve months have been exceptionally healthy and fortunate."

Fowler would live out the rest of his life without any repercussions from his activities. He would die in Jersey City, New Jersey and was described to be in a picture of health. The Club would continue for some time and even include several Presidents. That's right, Presidents, as in Presidents of the United States of America. Presidents Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison and T. Roosevelt were all members of the group. The Club also consisted of governors, mayors, and many more influential types of the 19th and early 20th century. However, as superstitious beliefs began to loss grip on society and with the on coming of World War I the Club ceased  to exist, or just perhaps went deeper underground. But that's the story of the Thirteen Club, brave men who laughed at superstitious ideas, and set out to disprove the fear that gripped people in the late 19th century. So this week go out, celebrate Halloween and don't be afraid of those dark shadows and bumps in the night. Go out to dinner with a group of 13 in honor of the Club, push for buildings to have  a 13th floor, but more importantly don't let those silly superstitions stop you from living.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

¡Viva la Revolución!

October is National Hispanic Heritage Month, so why not write about la Revolución! But before you think I've turned into a pinko commie, hold on a second. Hispanic people have played an intricate part of American History since, well since its own Revolution. Most people know about famous Hispanics like David Farragut, Ceaser Chavez, Sonia Sotomayor, Roberto Clemente etc. But many do not know about those that helped in the creation of the United States of America.
Many Spaniards aided in the American quest for Independence. Such brave men like, Jorge Farragut,  Bernardo de Gálvez & Juan de Miralles to name a few. But what about Latin Americans? One of the most unknown heroes of both American and Latin American History is Francisco de Miranda. Miranda played a major role in fighting the British in the Spanish campaigns in Florida.But first a short biography on Miranda. He was born in Caracas, Venezula in 1750. He received the finest education but he and his family were kept out of the higher ranks of society because of their Canarian roots (People of the Canary Islands). He was an educated young man of the late 18th century, yet was treated as second class so it would it was natural for de Miranda to take an interest in the Glorious Cause of Independence.

Miranda made his way into the Spanish Army by 1771 and his interest for the American Revolution was being stoked. He was stationed in Spanish Louisiana in 1781 when he saw his first action in the war. The Spanish entered the war in 1779 and made short work of the British in the Southwestern part of the Colonies. In 1781, Miranda would take part in the Siege of Pensacola. There the Spanish not only took British West Florida but captured large quantities of British war materials and even a sloop of war. The battle secured the inner Gulf coast from further British Naval advances. After this, Miranda was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel under General l Juan Manuel de Cajigal y Monserrat. After their success at Pensacola, the Spanish pushed on. They went on to capture the British fort at the Bahamas (1782). The British commander John Maxwell high tailed it out of their when he saw the size of the invading Spanish forces. The jubilant Miranda carried the good news back his commanding officer Bernardo de Gálvez. Gálvez was enraged that he was not included in the invasion or even asked for the "okay", and had both Miranda and Cajigal jailed. He was released and would visit the newly forming United States in 1783. There he met key figures behind the Revolution: Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson & most importantly Thomas Paine. But why is Miranda not celebrated in American History or even in Latin American History? The answer lies in several colliding reasons.

Miranda learned a lot from his time in the Spanish Army, fighting in the Revolution, and from his meeting with Americans. The these three reasons are why Miranda is not a household historical name here in the States. After his release from prison the ideas of Independence stuck with him. He then traveled through Europe where the ideas of the Founding Fathers also continued to ring in his head. Miranda partook in the French Revolution where Thomas Paine's ideas of universal human rights would continue to push Miranda towards his destiny. The idea that all men are created equal stayed in his heart and he turned to help his own people in South America. He wanted to free them from the oppression of Spanish rule. He spread the ideas of Independence through out his travels in South America and would return to his native Venezuela to fight in the fight for Venezuelan Independence. However, Miranda would be turned over to the Spanish during the war and would die in a military prison in Cadiz. Nonetheless, his ideas struck a cord in Latin American History. He shared his ideas with the great Simon Bolivar and is still held in the highest of regards in Venezuela. In the States he has been immortalized on the streets of Philadelphia with a monument in Center City. The legacy of Francisco de Miranda is the following: he was an idealist, with the idea of spreading the Independence born in America throughout South America, he was a war hero and martyr for the Cause, within fourteen years of his death in 1816 almost all of South America was independent from it's European colonizers. The man was best immortalized in the words of Simon Bolivar,

"Miranda was a man of the eighteenth century whose genius lay in raising the consciousness and confidence of his fellow Americans. Although he prided himself on being a soldier, his greatest battles were fought with his pen."

It is for these reason that Miranda is an excellent example of not only the spirit of American Independence, but that of the spirit of the Latin American people in their never ending quest for freedom, liberty, equality and universal justice.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

What!? Slavery Should Have Ended When!?!?

We are all taught that slavery in America ends with the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln delivers the Emancipation Proclamation and by 1865 freedom is given to all those in bondage. This is semi true as slavery did end but other restrictive laws were than imposed on the African American population for the next 100 or so years. But what if I told you slavery could have ended earlier than 1865 and the words "all men are created equal" would have rang true throughout our history. The story of Elizabeth Freeman is a story of triumph for equality and freedom, but why didn't it change the course of American History?

A short 10 cent biography of Elizabeth Freeman would read something like this, born into slavery in 1742 in Claverack, NY, married around 1778ish, widowed by 1781 and freed in 1783. Freed? From Slavery? Yes, in 1783 that Bett would change History. By the time of the Revolution, Bett was a house servant to Colonel John Ashley of Ashley Falls, Mass. Ashley wasn't a bad guy, he was known for treating his slaves better then other slave owners, educating them and giving them proper housing, clothing, food, etc. But the ideas of freedom, independence & equality were sweeping the colonies and was topic number one amongst the colonists. The ideas reached everyone from the wealthiest families of Virginia and Massachusetts to the poorest of the poor and even to the every growing population of slaves. Bett would hear these words and ideas frequently spoke of amongst Col. Ashley and his guests, and they took root in her as they did in so many others. Bett heard the talk of "the inalienable rights of men" & "All men are born and created equal." The words could not escape her thoughts and Bett would approach Col. Ashley to ask if those words applied to her, in which Ashley would explain that it did not. But that did not deter Bett, and she wouldn't take no for an answer. She then backed her bags and set out on what should have changed the course of American History.

Bett set out on a four mile hike to visit one Theodore Sedgwick, a local lawyer and friend of Col. Ashley. Sedgwick originally wishing not to offend his friend the Ashley, he sent Bett back home. However, her words stuck with him and he began to see that the words that the new nation would be based on did apply to all those in America. These words came flowing from the newly written Massachusetts State Constitution and the more Sedgwick read it the more Bett's request made sense but more importantly that the ideas in the document were a legally binding. That said Sedqwick built a case for Bett and filed a lawsuit against his old friend Ashley in the Court of Common Please in Great Barrington, Mass. The trial began in August of 1781 and was in short a big deal inside the state of Massachusetts. Ashley hired himself the best lawyers in the state to defend him against Sedgwick's arguments. The case was argued by both sides, the jury heard each side and weighed the evidence. The verdict? Well in the case of Brom & Bett vs. Ashley the jury found Bett a free woman under the contexts of the State Constitution. Ashley had no legal rights to hold Bett in servitude for life. The decision also called for Ashley to compensate Bett with thirty shillings in silver for damages and five pounds, fourteen shillings & four pence for costs. But with the case setting a precedent how did slavery continue to exist?

You have to first look at the date to see why slavery continued to exist, 1781. At the time the newly forming nation was united under the Articles of Confederation which was just a loose tying agreement between the states. It is that reason that slavery did not become abolished nationally as the U.S. Constitution would not be ratified until 1788. However, in Massachusetts the institution of slavery did become outlawed in the wake of the decision, 1783. In the following years the Northern states followed the example, Connecticut, then Rhode Island and so on. As for Bett, she would work for wage in the Sedgwick home as a care giver for the Sedgwick children. After the children had grown, Bett bought her own home in Stockbridge and lived out the rest of her life until her death in 1829. The story of Bett is an intricate part of the History of Slavery in America. The case set a standard for the words Liberty, Freedom and Equality. Yes, after the case of Bett many slaves were freed from bondage in the Northern states but it would still take almost another 50 years until the institution of slavery was completely eradicated from the United States. Bett should be held as a pioneer in so many aspects of our History and deserves to be remembered, along with the work of Theodore Sedgwick, as being the candle in the dark room, pushing the ideas of abolitionism into the forming of State governments and eventually onto the national stage in ending the institution all together. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Columbus Shumbus

"In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue." That is a fact but the truth is Columbus comes in a distant second in the scope of History. It is no secret that there is evidence that disproves Columbus was the first European to step foot in the New World, let alone North America. No that title belongs to Leif Erikson. Erikson discovered the New World before it was cool, some 500 years before Christopher "Mr. Tardy" Columbus would accidentally stumble across it. But why does Lief get no credit? Is it because of his Viking heritage? Most likely not but here we will examine both why he gets not credit for his discovery and how Erikson came about discovering the New World.

 Leif Erikson comes from a long line of bad asses. He was the son of Erik the Red & grandson of Thorvald Asvaldsson, which for those who know there Norse History were two dudes you did not want to mess with. But the true greatness of Leif Erikson comes from his quest in the year 999 AD. In that year Leif returned to his ancestral home of Norway, converted to Christianity and was given the mission of spreading the beliefs to Greenland. Yet fate had a different plan for Erikson. While en route to Greenland, a storm forced Leif and his crew of thirty five men off course and land them in Newfoundland. Yes you read that right, Newfoundland. However, this area would be known to history as Vinland. Leif and his merry men sailed the coast making stops in several areas Helluland (Baffin Island), Markland (Labrador) and Vinland as a whole. It was there in Newfoundland that Leif and the boys set up small settlement to wait out the winter. In late spring Leif returned with 11th century souvenirs such as: grapes, figs, timber & animal furs. But the settlement was not just a temporary one, no the Norse would return again.

After his first trip Leif returned to the New World again. It is somewhere around this time that the present archeological site of L'Anse aux Meadows was established, making the first European settlement in the New World by Erikson and not Columbus. Also through out several Norse Sagas, there are stories retelling the trips of men and attempts of establishing permanent settlements in the New World. In 1004 Thorvald Erikson, Leif's brother, would venture to Newfoundland, he was followed by the other Erikson son, Thorstein in 1005. Later in 1009, Thorfinn Karlsefni set sail with the intention of establishing a colony but failed. In the end however, the story seems the same for Norse, internal issues within their own community and poor relations with the Native populations, both of which would ultimately force the idea of a colony to be abandoned but to only use Vinland as a source of resources. However, archaeological research has given evidence that the Norse may have reached the New England area and even as far west as the Great Lakes. The evidence comes from items found in ancestral Native American sites, such as coins, crafted tools and other Norse supplies, all which could have switched hands at a trading post or through Norse excursions. But now, why does Columbus get the credit? But more importantly does he deserve it?

Erikson gets snubbed from his rightful place in History for a few reasons. First, when Columbus arrived, 500 years later, Europe was much more technologically advanced especially in seafaring. Second, after Columbus "found" the New World he opened the flood gates to everyone else in Europe; governments, businesses, adventurers, etc. Third, the Age of Discovery was in full swing, everyone wanted a piece of the world and every government sent men to find as much of it as they could and claim it for an individual country. Fourth, the Norse never really established an official colony but several outpost which were used just as stopping points. But fifth, and what I think is most important is the discovery of the Norse settlements. Yes, the sagas were always there but they were just legends, stories with no hard proof, until 1960 that is. It was then in 1960 that L'Anse aux Meadows was found by Helge Ingstad, a Norse Historian. But it was too late for Ingstad and Erikson. For the previous 468 years children around the world were taught that it was Chris Columbus that discovered the New World first. It is pretty hard to undo almost 500 years of teaching in just 52 years. But all hope is not lost fro Leif and the brave Norse people who ventured to the New World before it was the New World.

Leif's legend lives on today in many parts of America, Canada, Iceland and Norway. In fact the above photo was taken near the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. The Nordic American communities have always held Leif above Columbus as the true discoverer of the New World. There are monuments to him throughout America, for example the cities of Boston, Chicago, St. Paul & Duluth are all home to statues honoring his achievements. Even at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the Viking, which was a recreation of a ship similar to that of Erikson's, arrived in Chicago to exemplify how Erikson would have sailed to Vinland. President "Cool" Calvin Coolidge would even proclaim that Erikson was the first European to discover America. But where are we today? Statues are great and recognition once in a while is also nice but what about something more lasting, something like a holiday. Every year we celebrate Columbus Day, or Second Place Day as it should be called. But what about Erikson Day? Well in 1964 Congress and President Johnson authorized October 9th as "Leif Erikson Day." It is a Federal Holiday but it is mainly celebrated in areas of Nordic ancestry. Ironically the man who discovered the New World first now has to wait a day after the man who discovered the New World second. Yet I have faith that one day Leif Erikson's discovery will trump that of Columbus, as Columbus himself had admitted to hearing the stories of Erikson's discovery, which in turn may have given him the confidence in undertaking his own endeavor in 1492.