Archive for the ‘Late nineteenth century (1865-1900)’ Category

In the last couple of years, the Republican Party seems to have fractured a bit.  Of course, there have always been “wings” to the party…a more conservative wing and and one with a more liberal bent.  The same holds true for the Democratic Party.  And I suppose there are more subgroups than just the liberals and conservatives.  I happen to be in the subgroup that prefers to lick postage stamps rather than peel-and-stick…I’m just nostalgic that way.

Anyways, now there’s this Tea Party, which I think is a Republican Party off-shoot…I think.  I don’t know for sure, and I don’t really care all that much, either.  We’re here for history…aren’t we?

I mention that because it provides something of a lead-in to Today’s History Lesson.  During the late 19th century, there were factions within the Republician Party.  There were Stalwarts, who either were men “marked by outstanding strength and vigor of body, mind, or spirit“, or they were more conservative Republicans who really liked President Grant and wanted him in office for a third term.

On the other side were the more moderate Republicans, called Half-Breeds (they called themselves that?!?), who liked more moderate guys, like President Rutherford B. Hayes (whose middle initial is, for some reason, extremely important).  For the 1880 elections, the Half-breeds wanted to nominate James Blaine, who apparently was more in the mold of Hayes.

Neither side liked the other’s candidate, so a compromise was reached with the selection of the “middle man”…Half-Breed James Garfield (no middle initial required).  The Vice Presidential candidate was Chester Arthur, a Stalwart.  Got that?  There’s probably more to it, but I’m certainly not an expert on the subject (I’m still working to plow through James Madison’s biography).

Garfield won the election, took office in 1881, and was promptly shot by an angry Charles Guiteau, who gave himself the title of “Stalwart of Stalwarts” (rather ironic, given the cowardly nature of his deeds).  President Garfield lived the better part of 3 months before dying on September 19th.

The next day, September 20, 1881, would see Chester Arthur (shown above) sworn in as the 21st President of the United States.


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I took today off from work, simply because as we move into a holiday weekend, about 75% of our company’s workforce will be doing the same.  And while there’s plenty to do, the prospect of a 4-day weekend was too tantalizing to pass up.  But still I ended up riding my bike to work and back home (as I’ve been doing often since April) just for the exercise.  I got a haircut, then walked out of the Great Clips to a flat tire on the car.  The valve stem had failed (it failed on one of the other tires last year).  I started changing it, but the bolts were rusted in place and I had no WD-40 (or any penetrating liquid) in the car.  And I’d left my cell phone at home…it was just a haircut after all.

So my wife’s boss very generously drove some spray to my car and (because he’s stronger than me) helped me break the bolts free.  After he left I still had to wrestle them off…any idea how hot bolts get just from the friction of removal?  I got the spare on (one of those hideous little donut tires), then made my way to Costco (where I’d bought the tires)…only to find out there was a 3-hour wait in the tire department.  I’ll go back on Monday.  I got back home at 3:30 in the afternoon (my haircut was at 11:30), thinking that a day in the office may not have been so bad.

Such are the vicissitudes of days off…anyways, I better say something historical on the anniversary of our Founding Fathers’ vote for independence.

Sometimes, in our weaker moments, we’ll think things that we shouldn’t.  When I’m driving and someone in another car acts foolishly (which I never do), I wish I was a passenger in his (or her) car so it would be easier to hang up their cell phone and hit them with my shoe.  Or maybe a co-worker oversteps his (or her) bounds of authority at your expense, and you begin plotting retribution.

Thoughts are powerful things, particularly when they don’t just stay thoughts.  I can’t name all of the famed “Seven Deadly Sins”, but at least some (lust, greed, pride, envy) definitely start out as merely thoughts.  And as long as we kill them while they remain in our brains, we’re alright.  It’s when the “translation to action” happens that the real trouble begins.  Years ago, comedian Jake Johannson had the idea of “safety rhymes”.  When talking about drive-by shootings, he joked that maybe a rhyme would prevent people from pulling the trigger.  He humorously suggested, “I’m going to shoot that guy…let’s have some pie!”

Clearly a safety rhyme may have done some good for Charles Guiteau, who had nasty thoughts running around in his head.  He had repeatedly been denied a job working in the U.S. consul in Paris, and it made him angry.  The new U.S. President, James Garfield, had been in office less than 4 months, and was putting the final touches on his Administration…and it didn’t include Guiteau.  But rather than seek gainful employment elsewhere, Guiteau let his thoughts get away from him.

On July 2, 1881, an angry Guiteau took a gun and used it to shoot President Garfield as he walked through the Washington, D.C. railroad station.  The Commander-in-Chief was hit twice, in the arm and the back.  But it was the bullet in the back that did the most damage, and ultimately took the President’s life nearly three months later.

We’ll never know what Guiteau’s life would have been like had he disposed of his evil thoughts properly.  But we know for sure that his actions cost the life of the President, and ended his own the following year on the hangman’s noose.

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I know I need to go, but I never look forward to it.  In fact, the only thing that gets me there is scheduling the next trip at the end of the current visit.  Twice a year, every year, I make the trip downtown.  I usually go first thing in the morning, and I try to get there 15 or 20 minutes early, just in case I can get started ahead of time.  Know what I’m referring to?

Of course you do…you probably hate it like I do.  A visit to the dentist’s office.

Actually, my dentist is a super-nice guy…which, now that I think about it, probably isn’t a huge compliment.  I think they have to be nice guys, because attitude and demeanor may be the only things most people like about the dentist.  You lay in a chair with your mouth wide open while an assistant (usually named Nurse Ratchet) vents her anger at her husband and children on your gumline.  There are sharp instruments and drills and something called a Water Cavitron (I might have gotten that wrong because Ms. Ratchet’s voice was overwhelmed by the screams from the next room).  Supposedly, it uses water to remove tarter deposits, but it’s real job is to cause mind-numbing pain.

And if you ever have a cavity?!?  There’s another whole plate of torture tools that get used.  A giant needle of novocaine that looks way too large for my mouth.  Then there are more drills.  Some kind of cement-type stuff…ok, it’s enough.  Fortunately, I’ve only had to experience these “special” implements on a couple of occasions.

Let’s be honest, we get checkups at the dentist for one reason only.  The alternative (not going at all) is that much worse.

Imagine if you were visiting the dentist around the turn of the century.  Not the 21st century…the 20th century.  Back when dental technology was in the relative Stone Age.  Novocaine?…probably a double-shot of alcohol or a rock to the head.  Instruments were probably more like chisels.  That’s what President Grover Cleveland faced on June 13, 1893.  It was on this day that the President noticed that the roof of his mouth was sore.  Like you and I, the first six-letter word he thought of was “cavity.”  So he visited the White House doctor, probably dreading an upcoming visit to Nurse Ratchet followed by “the implements”.

What they would end up finding was another six-letter word…a much more sobering word…”cancer.”  Grover Cleveland would eventually be diagosed with a form of carcinoma and, in less than three weeks, would have part of his jaw removed and replaced with an implant.

And the details surrounding the President’s surgery are probably worthy of investigation, so maybe we’ll pry into that in a couple weeks.

Recommended Reading: Presidents – All You Need to Know

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In the wake of the Children’s Blizzard that ravaged the upper Midwest in Janauary of 1888, something of a war of words broke out in the newspapers.  First, there were arguments among the midwestern papers over how many fatalities the massive storm had actually caused, along with accusations of a coverup to purposely reduce the number of those killed.

Then publications out east picked up the stories, adding their own commentary to the mix.  In his book The Children’s Blizzard, David Laskin writes the following:  “What was at issue here was not just the accuracy of the death toll figures, but the truth about the climate of the prairie.  A region that could slay a thousand innocent American citizens in the course of an afternoon did not look like a fit place for human habitation – quite the contrary – whereas if the figure stood at a mere couple of hundred, that could be written off as an unfortunate sacrifice on the path to progress.  In essence it was an argument over image and reputation:  prairie public relations.”

This back-and-forth, our-lifestyle-is-better-than-yours banter went on for about six weeks…until March 12, 1888.  It was then, exactly two months after the blizzard that ripped through the Midwest, that the “citified” folk experienced first-hand the trauma of horrific weather.

Just after midnight on the 12th, heavy rain changed to heavy snow over New York City and temperatures dropped drastically.  For the next 36 hours, much of the eastern seaboard was pounded by unrelenting snow and 50-mile-per-hour winds.

This winter (the 2009-2010 season) has seen some pretty impressive snow totals, both here in the center of the United States and also out east, but the fallout from the 1888 storm was staggering.  Saratoga Springs: 58″.  Albany: 48″. New Haven, Connecticut: 45″.  Wind gusts of 80mph (just like in the Children’s Blizzard) blew the snow into drifts 50 feet tall.

As most electrical, power, and communication lines were run above ground, all of these services were completely lost, and downed lines became serious hazards for those struggling to make their way around.  Elevated trains stopped where they were, and New York City largely went dark.

Bitterly cold single-digit temperatures added to the misery.  Four hundred people perished in what became known as the Great White Hurricane.  The New York Times would write, “For the first time in their lives [New Yorkers] knew what a western blizzard was.”  Writers for the New York Tribune added, “The city was left to run itself.  Chaos reigned, and the proud, boastful metropolis was reduced to the condition of a primitive settlement.”

It would be easy for cynics to say that New Yorkers got a “good old-fashioned spanking” for talking down those on the western prairies, because that’s how it appears.  But the truth is that both storms, the Children’s Blizzard and the Great Blizzard of 1888, were devastating for the regions they affected.  Playing the “gotcha” card was the wrong tactic, though some surely laid that card down.

As we have seen, the winter of 1888 was an especially volatile, and 19th-century technology wasn’t enough to prevent wholesale loss of life, whether one was “living securely” out east, or making a go of it out west.  But as we have also experienced with our most recent weather, even 21st-century technology isn’t always enough.

Recommended Reading: The Children’s Blizzard

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Samuel Glenn was a Sergeant in the Signal Corps.  His job was to, three times a day, take weather measurements and then send them up the chain to the weather guys.  The weather guys would then plot those readings on maps, which would give them a picture of what the weather was doing.

These days, computers and sophisticated electronic sensors handle most of these measurements (and many more besides) almost instantaneously, but in the 1880’s, that was how it was done…and Glenn was dedicated to his task.

At 11:42am on January 12, 1888, Glenn had slowly (he was fighting a stomach illness) made his way to the roof of the station in Huron, South Dakota.  His readings earlier in the morning showed temperatures that were more than 20 degrees warmer than the previous day.  The reason?  That surge of warm, moist air that we talked about the day before yesterday.

All throughout the Midwest, it was one of those “throw-open-the-doors-and-raise-the-windows” kind of days.  Temperatures that had been well below zero for some time were now, in places, 30 above zero…it was like spring.  Hundreds of children, kept home because of the cold, not only went to school, but did so without their heavy coats…some without coats at all.

Glenn’s position on the roof gave him a perfect view of what happened in that minute between 11:42 and 11:43, and it’s recounted in David Laskin’s brilliant book The Children’s Blizzard“‘The air, for about one (1) minute, was perfectly calm, and voices and noises on the street below appeared as though emanating from great depths.  A peculiar ‘hush’ prevailed over everything.  In the next minute the sky was completely overcast by a heavy black cloud, which had in a few minutes previously hung suspended along the western and northwestern horizon, and the wind veered to the west (by the southwest quadrant) with such violence as to render the observer’s position very unsafe.  The air was immediately filled with snow as fine as sifted flour.  The wind veered to the northeast, then back to the northwest, in a gale which in three minutes attained a velocity of forty (40) miles per hour.  In five minutes after the wind changed the outlines of objects fifteen (15) feet away were not discernable.'”

Within two hours, Glenn would be experiencing wind gusts of nearly 80 miles per hour.  That massive storm that two colossal fronts had created was now smashing into the Midwest with the coverage of a hurricane and the power of a tornado (many witnesses reported the tornado-esque sound of a freight train).  Along with the gale force winds came snow, some comprised of water droplets blasted by the wind into needles that made it impossible to see, others crushed to a dust-like consistency that made it nearly impossible to breathe.

As the massive blizzard blasted through each succeeding town, it largely caught everyone by complete surprise.  The weather changed in the matter of a minute or two.  Today, we have computerized weather models that allow forecasters to make at least general predictions far in advance.  What’s more, we actually have a communication system in place that doesn’t require oats to run or fingers to tap.  But in 1888, those systems didn’t exist.  Even if storm warnings were given promptly, their transmission was still largely by word-of-mouth or a paper pinned up at the post office.

Some school teachers immediately released their students to race home, but it was already too late.  Others kept them in the school houses to ride out the storm, but the blizzard was so violent that the buildings couldn’t keep out the cold and the wind.

Many that tried to make it home either became lost in the almost complete blindness, or succumbed to the brutal windchills.  The temperatures?…some stations reported drops of 18 degrees in just three minutes.

It was a story that was played out over and over as the storm blew east and south.  In its wake it left the real killer…brutal, brutal cold.  Behind the storm came high pressure and Arctic air.  In many midwestern locations (including the Iowa town in which I live), the historical record lows for January 12th, 13th, and 14th are still dated 1888.  And the frigid blast continued south, dropping temps in Dallas into the 20’s and to near freezing as far south as Mexico.

Hundreds of children and not a few adults, disoriented by the blinding snow and exhausted by efforts to reach safety, now faced temperatures of -40°F.  They simply couldn’t do it, and so they died…by the hundreds.  Sadly, some of these may have been saved by 20th-century medical practices, but they, like the weather and communications systems, didn’t exist in the 19th century.

The Children’s Blizzard (so named due to the number of children lost) claimed as many as 500 lives.  One historian would write, “A scene became quite familiar in many localities, the arrival of a party in quest of a doctor and bearing either on their arms or in some sort of conveyance, the half frozen body of a neighbor or two who have been exposed to the storm…”.

In the 1880’s, the Midwest was still pretty much the “wild west”, and people choosing to settle there – many amid promises of land and a bright future – quickly discovered a very harsh and unforgiving region.  But nothing could really prepare these men and women for the brutality of the Children’s Blizzard.

Back east, people in the relative safety and warmth of their cities took comfort in (and sometimes boasted of) their “advanced” protection.  But 1888 was just beginning, winter wasn’t nearly over, and the east would soon feel it’s wrath as well.

Recommended Reading: It’s a double dose today. Of course, The Children’s Blizzard. But in addition, read the Weather Doctor’s account.

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Sulfur dioxide is one of the by-products of volcanic eruptions…all eruptions send it into the atmosphere.  Small eruptions release a little, big eruptions a lot.  Sulfur dioxide acts like a “radiation mirror”, reflecting the sun’s energy back into space.  Really big volcanic eruptions can cause enough solar power to be reflected to actually cool the earth and alter weather patterns.  Mt. Krakatoa’s eruption in August of 1883 did just that, and it affected the weather for several years.

And as we already know, weather is unstable enough.  David Laskin writes, “Constantly and futilely, the earth’s atmosphere seeks to achieve equilibrium.  Weather is the turbulent means to this perfect, hopeless end.  Contrasting temperatures try to balance out to one uniform temperature, pressure differences strive for resolution, winds blow in a vain attempt to finally calm down global tensions.  All of this is enormously complicated by the ceaseless rotation of the planet.  Weather is the steam the atmosphere lets off as it heaves itself again and again into a more comfortable position.  Weather keeps happening because the equilibrium of the atmosphere keeps getting messed up.”

As Christmas of 1887 gave way to the New Year, a large pocket of super-cooled air formed over Alberta, Canada, caused by a combination of factors.  Winters in northern Canada feature only a couple hours of sunlight, and much of that can’t be absorbed by the snow-covered surface.  Add in high pressure, very light winds, and the possibility that Krakatoa’s residue was still in play, and a region that averaged temperatures of -15°F in January was now a polar-esque -35°F.

At first, it’s hard to see how this is really news-worthy.  After all, it’s Canada, it’s winter, it’s cold.  You kind of expect it.  If the weather turns especially cold from time to time, well, that’s what happens.  Our recent weather south of the border hasn’t been, for the last 2 weeks, all that much warmer.  But things changed on January 10, 1888.

It was then that the jet stream dove down from the Yukon and ran into the Canadian Rockies.  The currents slid down the mountains, warming as they did, and collided with the super cold air mass that had stagnated there.  The drop in air pressure created a powerful low that, propelled by high pressure behind it, began sliding to the south.

In the meantime, many hundreds of miles to the south, a wave of warm, moist air was surging northward from Oklahoma, which would dramatically warm the upper Midwest, and provide welcome relief from the unseasonably cold weather.

Both air masses, the cold from the north and the warm from the south, were impressively powerful on their own.  But when the warm air collided with the cold, it would create a storm of awesome power.  Stay tuned

Recommended Reading:  The Children’s Blizzard – A “glue” book.  Once it’s in your hands, it gets stuck until the last page is finished.  A huge kudos to a co-worker for lending me his copy.  I now have one of my own.

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On June 2, 1886, 49-year-old Stephen Cleveland got married.  It’s not a big surprise, because lots of people get married at some point in their lives and, as you all know, June is the month when most weddings take place.  So why waste Today’s History Lesson on a such a “common little miracle”?

Well, Stephen Cleveland didn’t actually use his first name, but his middle name…Grover.  And when Grover Cleveland tied the knot on this day way back then, he just happened to be the President of the United States.  And he’s the only President (so far) to have been married in the actual White House.  And his wife, Frances Folsom, became (and still is) the youngest First Lady in our nation’s history, taking her position at just 21 years old.

And I think those things make it worthy of at least a little press…so there!

Recommended Reading: Presidents – All You Need to Know

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