JUNE 2018

JUNE 2018
FOX NEWS during the 1890's


Saturday, March 07, 2009


I doubt that you have ever heard of George Soper, but he is the perfect example of the ways that new technology and new ways of thinking provide an opportunity for an individual to achieve wealth and fame. George was born in 1870 in New York City, just as the population was exploding, and people were noticing that it was not a very healthy place to live. While each year one out of every 36 people in New York City died of disease or accident, in Boston and Philadelphia the rate was one out of every 44. The rate for London and Paris was one out of every 40. The natural question was why the death rate varied at all. No one had ever asked that before.George A. Soper graduated from Columbia University in 1899 with a doctorate in the new field of “civil” engineering. He was described as a man of “average build, high wide forehead and hooded eyes that seem foreboding,” which I suppose came from staring down disaster day after day.
On September 8th, 1900 when a category 4 Hurricane leveled Galveston Island, Texas and killed one third of the island’s population, one of the unsung heroes was 30 year old Dr. George Soper. He saved thousands of lives in Galveston by quickly redesigning the municipal water system and preventing the predicted typhoid epidemic which normally followed natural disasters. In 1903 he helped stop a typhoid epidemic in Ithaca that had killed 82 in just two months, and then stopped another typhoid outbreak in Watertown, New York. In 1904 he turned his attention to New York City.George was hired by the city Department of Health, and tasked with answering a basic question; what happens to all that human waste dumped into the Hudson and East Rivers? Conventional wisdom was that it all floated out the bay. But by releasing floats into the rivers and tracking their journeys over three years, George came to the stunning realization that because of the tides, neither river actually flows very much. The floats meandered back and forth for weeks before eventually escaping into the bay. Since the river did not flush itself, it was not a very good toilet. As George explained to the New York Times, “…immense quantities of poisonous sewage floats for days in the river and bays close to public baths, bathing beaches and the oyster beds of Jamaica Bay, from which 1 million bushels are brought to New York markets every year.” (p. 20, NYT March 14, 1911 Sports) George was obviously preparing the public for the expense of building a new sewage system.George knew there would be resistance to the idea - “No new taxes!” is not a new battle cry – and he knew opponents to the expense would be nit-picking every word he said. And if you listened carefully you could hear Dr. Soper soften his absolutes, even in that same interview with the Times. He continued, “Only recently there was an outbreak of typhoid at the Rockaway Peninsula…In one case we traced the oysters to a dealer who was to have put them into fresh water before selling them. We could not assertion whether or not he kept his promise…” In other words, George knew the sewage was killing people but he did not yet have the individual case histories or the laboratory work that would establish it to a scientific certainty. And that was why, when landlord George Thompson asked Dr. Soper to investigate a house he was renting in Oyster Bay, Long Island, Dr. Soper jumped at the chance.Banker Charles Warren and his family had rented the Thompson guest house for the summer. On August 27 one of the Warren daughters had suddenly developed a fever of 105 degrees F, a headache, diarrhea, nausea and a heavy cough. When she also developed a skin rash the doctor diagnosed her with typhoid fever. Quickly Mrs. Warren, a second daughter, two maids and the gardener also came down with the fever. A Board of Health investigator quickly ascribed the source to a contaminated water supply, but the Thompson family drank from the same supply and they were all fine. Mr. Thompson was convinced the cause could not be the water, in part because, if it was, he would have a very hard time renting that house again.Dr. Soper agreed with Mr. Thompson, and began his own investigation, but this time in New York City where he interviewed the Warren family intensively. George had noted that there were eleven people in the Warren household that summer, but only six had developed typhoid. What was different about those six people? What had they done that the five other occupants had not done? Eventually, after hours of interviews, the family remembered a special treat they had eaten for desert one night; peaches. George realized now he had to locate the cook, who everyone was certain, had not developed typhoid.All the family knew about her was that she was middle aged, had dark hair, and was named Mary. She had been provided by an employment agency, which had checked her letters of reference but had not kept them. So George found himself tracking “Mary” the cook through other servants used by the same agency. He ran into suspicion and secrecy, and had to travel to Boston, but eventually he discovered that her name was Mary Mallon, and she had cooked for seven families over the last seven years. In those families 22 people had developed typhoid fever, and one young girl had died. Soper was now certain he had found a carrier for typhoid, something that been only a theory up to now; Which explains why Dr. Soper was so excited when he found Mary, working as a cook for Walter Bowen and his family, on Park Avenue.Soper appeared before Mary in the Bowen kitchen and, “I was as diplomatic as possible, but I had to say I suspected her of making people sick and I wanted specimens of her urine, feces and blood.” Mary would later claim that Soper also told her he was going to write a book about her and offered to split the royalties with her. But whether such a deal was offered or not, Mary’s reaction was swift and definitive. According to Soper, “She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction.” Soper says he ran from the house, feeling lucky to have escaped.And to be honest, I do not blame Ms. Malone. A strange man has approached her and asked for a sample of her bodily fluids. And worse, she was accused of being a typhoid Mary; in fact, the original Typhoid Mary.

- 30 –


Tuesday, March 03, 2009


I think Gaius Caligula was the stupidest Roman Emperor of them all. According to Tacitus, who was never wrong, after having been stabbed by his own bodyguards in 41 A.D., the lunatic’s last words were, “I am still alive!” Playing opossum never seems to have occurred to him. Neither did offering money to his assassins. Listen, if you are already falling to your death, what could be the harm in trying to fly? Last words such as those are self defining; you are dead because you deliver them. Consider Billy the Kid’s last words, delivered into a darkened room, which allowed Sheriff Pat Garritt, who was waiting in the room armed with a shotgun, to identify the shadow figure. Said Billy,“Who’s there?”
There is a school of thought that last words reveal some insight into character. I’m not referring to suicide notes or pompous words meant for posterity, but the spontaneous utterances of those who know they are facing an imminent death; as in 1790 when Thomas de Mahay, the Marquis de Favras, was handed his death warrant as he climbed the steps of his scaffold. Thomas actually spent his last moments on earth reading the document, as if looking for a loophole, and his last words were addressed to the clerk, to whom he pointed out, “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.” That was not a helpful remark if he was hoping for a delay the proceedings, but it did tell us a great deal about Thomas. Or consider the final words of Lady Nancy Whitcher Langhorne Astor, the first female member the English Parliament, who awoke on her own deathbed to discover her family was gathered around her. She asked, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?” Unfortunately, the family’s response was not recorded, and I am the kind of person who wonders what they replied to that question. I have also wondered about the last words of Margaretha Geertfuida Zella, the little Dutch girl better known by her stage name, Mata Hari. She was a dancer who became a stripper because, as she admitted, “I could never dance very well.” During the First World War she became a famous spy because she was so bad at it. It is not clear even today who she was spying for, if anybody.
But at 5:00 A.M. on October 15, 1917, as she stood in front of the French firing squad, Margaretha was asked if she had any last words. Her reply was, “It is unbelievable.” And then the idiots shot her without asking what she meant by that. What was unbelievable, unbelievable to whom? I would like to know.There is a story told about the last words of Pietro Arentino, the father of modern pornography, and thus one of my heroes. Pietro was a good friend of the painter Titian. And it was helping out his friend that got Pietro killed. In 1556 Guidobaldo Il della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, hired Titian to paint a portrait of his wife, Giulia da Varno. Titian needed the money, as usual, but the problem was that Giulia was not only middle aged but she was also “vain and ugly” and rich; a dangerous combination. If the portrait didn’t look like her she would be offended. If it looked too much like her, she would be offended. Luckily for Titian, Pietro came up with the solution.At Pietro’s suggestion, Titian hired his favorite prostitute from a local brothel, and had her pose for the painting of the body. But in place of the prostitute’s head he painted a glamorized portrait of Giulia, based on paintings done of her as a young woman. It sounds like a bad joke but in the hands of a genius like Titian such absurdity can become great art, i.e. the Venus Urbino.
Giulia was thrilled with the finished product. But when the Duke saw the painting for the first time he was even more deeply affected. He later confided, wistfully, to both Titian and Pietro, “If I could have had that girl’s body, even with my wife’s head, I would have been a happier man.” Pietro laughed so hard he had a stroke.They carried him to a room out of the way and when it became clear that he was not likely to recover the Duke called for a priest to administer extreme unction. First the priest prayed for Pietro, and then offered to hear his last confession. But since Pietro was still unconscious, the priest continued, anointing Pietro with holy oil on his eyelids, ears, nostrils, lips, hands and feet, each time repeating the chant, “By this holy unction and his own most gracious mercy, may the Lord pardon you whatever sin you have committed.” As the priest finished the prayer, Pietro’s eyes opened and he clearly said, “Now that I’m oiled. Keep me from the rats.” And then he died. There was no doubt about what he meant, and that in effect he died laughing.And then there are last words for which no explanation is required because the act of dying is the explanation; such as when the great amateur botanist Luther Burbank delivered his last words on earth; “I don’t feel so good”, or the poet Hart Crane who delivered his last words, “Good-bye, everybody”, from a ship’s railing just before he jumped into the sea. What more explanation could you require from such people?But I retain my deepest affection for the actor, poet, playwright and historian, Ergon Friedell, whose last words revealed a sweet and gentle heart, to go with the quick and facile mind he had exhibited his entire life. On the night of March 16, 1939 two Nazi thugs arrived to arrest Egron. While his housekeeper delayed them at the front door, Ergon climbed onto his bedroom window ledge and before he jumped to his death warned those beneath him, “Watch out, please.”God bless him.
- 30 -

Sunday, March 01, 2009


I lived in Manhattan for six years and remained only vaguely aware that the East River is not a river. It is a tidal race, the southern arm of the Sound that defines Long Island. And I was completely oblivious that where I drank my Sunday morning coffee, in Carl Schurz Park (at 86th street & East End Avenue), overlooks the birthplace of the United States Army Corp of Engineers. Without their skill and brains (and the largest man made planned explosion of the 19th century) New York would have remained a second class harbor… and a thousand women and children might have been spared a terrifying and painful death.
A few minutes after 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday June 15, 1904 “The General Slocum”, a 235 foot long, 37 foot wide side paddlewheel steamship built for passenger excursions around New York, left the dock at East Third Street carrying 1,300 German Lutheran emegrants (mostly women and children) to a picnic on Long Island.
The “Slocum’s” three decks were barely half full, and the children waved to the people on shore as 68 year old Captain William Van Schaick guided her from atop the pilot house up the East River at 16 knots toward the Hells Gate.Every high tide that pours into the bay of New York swirls around Manhattan and produces a titanic struggle in a rock garden between Astoria Queens, on the Long Island shore, and Wards Island. Eighteenth century New York City resident Washington Irving described the Hells Gate this way; “…as the tide rises it begins to fret; at halftide it roars with might and main, like a bull bellowing for more drink; but when the tide is full, it relapses into quiet, and for a time sleeps as soundly as an alderman after dinner. In fact, it may be compared to a quarrelsome toper, who is a peaceable fellow enough when he has no liquor at all, or when he has a skinful…plays the very devil.” And, because of the delay in the tide coming down Long Island Sound, there are four high tides a day, each pair separated by two hours, keeping the Hells Gate in perpetual motion. That made the glacier scared bottom of the East River a deadly obstacle course.
“Three channels existed…the main ship channel to the north-west of the Heel Tap and Mill Rocks; the middle channel between Mill Rocks and Middle Reef; and the east channel between the Middle Reef and Astoria, from which Halletstts Reef projected; and vessels having traversed one…had to avoid Hogs Back and several smaller reefs…(and avoid) Heel Tap Rock…Rylanders Reef, Gridiron Rock of the Middle Reef .” (p.264. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Leveson Francis Yernok-Hartcourt 1888) By the late 1840’s a thousand ships a year were running aground in the Gate, ten percent of the ships which entered.
In 1850 Monsieur Benjamin Maillefert was paid $15,000 to remove Pot Rock - “rising like a rhinoceros horn from a depth of thirty feet to within eight feet of the surface...right next to a shipping lane” near the Queens shore. Maillefert lowered a canister of black powder on a rope and the resulting explosion managed to chip four feet off the horn. Two hundred and eighty-three explosions later and Pot Rock was safely 18 feet below the surface. Similar attacks on the Frying Pan and Ways Reef dismantled the great whirlpool which had spun south of Mills Rock for five thousand years. But the start of the American Civil War in April of 1861 gave the merchants of New York more pressing and profitable places to invest their money. Hells Gate remained closed to all but the bravest and most foolish captains.1904: Just before ten o’clock a boy told deck hand John Coakley he had seen smoke in a forward stairwell. Coakley, who had worked on the General Slocum for all of 17 days, found the source of the smoke to be a storage room. He then made two crucial mistakes. He opened the door, which fed air to the smoldering fire. And when he ran for help, he left the door wide open behind him. Crewmembers rushed to pull down a fire hose, but none of the hoses onboard had been inspected since the Slocum had been built, twelve years before. At the first surge of water pressure the fire hose split apart. The crewmen then ran for another but they had to search, since they had never had a fire drill. Meanwhile the fire was drawn through the open door and sucked up the chimney of the three-decker stairwell.Captain Van Schaick was informed of the fire seven minutes after crewman Coakley had discovered it. Van Schaick had never lost a passenger and he decided now to steam into the Gate, heading, he said later, for North Brother Island, three miles ahead. There was a hospital there and a gentle shoreline where the passengers could safely wade ashore. However, as he rang up for more power from the engine room, Van Schaick could not see he was fanning the hungry flames behind him, trapping the terrified passengers at the stern. When they reached for life jackets, visible in racks all over the boat, passengers found them tied down with wires to prevent theft. Those who managed to break the wires and free the preservers found they crumbled in their hands. “The hard blocks of cork inside them were reduced to find dust with the buoyancy of dirt. Most people jumped (over board) without them, but some people actually put them on, plunged over the side and went straight to the bottom.” Some of those who managed to stay afloat were mauled by the paddle wheels, still driving the General Slocum through the Hells Gate.1871: This year General John Newton of the United States Army Corps of Engineers took over the work of rendering Hells Gate a safe passage. His first target was Hallet’s Point Reef, “, a three-hundred-foot rocky promontory that reached out from Astoria…” And this time General Newton intended to perform the entire task by a process he described as “subaqueous tunneling”. A cofferdam was constructed extending the Astoria shore, and digging with pick and axe and shovel from this extension the reef was under-mined with four miles of tunnels.
It took seven years. Then, 30,000 lbs of nitroglycerine – the most powerful explosive available at the time – were set off on September 24, 1876. The explosion threw up a 123 foot plume of water. And the reef was gone.1904: A witness at 138th street told the “Brooklyn Eagle” the General Slocum appeared in a cloud of smoke and fire, its whistles screaming, trailed by tugs, launches and even rowboats, all trying to help. “The stern seemed black with people…some were climbing over the railings…the shrieks of the dying and panic stricken reached us in an awful chorus…One by one, it seemed to me, they dropped into the water. As the Slocum preceded, a blazing mass, I lost sight of her around the bend, at the head of North Brother Island”1877: Next General Newton built a sea wall around Flood Rock and another 70 foot deep shaft was dug, followed by the now standard shafts and gallerys. At the same time a similar process was underway at Mill Rock. It took nine years to undermine these obsticles, and on October 10, 1885 General Newton’s daughter, Mary, pressed a key that simultaneously set off both sets of the charges. It was, “The greatest single explosion ever produced by man (intentionally)”. Nine acres of East River bottom were pulverized. Columns of water rose 150 feet into the air. In that instant the Hells Gate became a safe passage for all ships, even excursion boats.1904: Captain Van Schaick failed in his attempt to run the General Slocum onshore on North Brother Island, instead grounding on a rock in eight to ten feet of water. To people who did not know how to swim, and who were wearing layers of heavy wool clothing, anything over six feet of water was a near certain death sentence. The fire still raged, the upper decks collapsing into the hull, but eventually the semi-circle of boats that had followed the Slocum upstream realized the cries for help from the water had gone still.
Only the crackle of flames and the lapping of bodies against the shore of North Brother Island could be heard. New York City would run out of coffins for all the dead. In the final insult to the dead and dying, the Captain jumped to a tugboat as soon as his ship grounded. He did not even get wet.Seven people were indicted by a Federal Grand Jury. Officers of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company were indicted but never charged and the company paid a small fine for falsifying inspection records. Shortly there after the owner sold off his ships and walked away very wealthy. Trials for the inspectors who had failed at their jobs resulted in mistrials. Only Captain Van Schaick was convicted, two years after the disaster, of criminal negligence. He was sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing prison, but was paroled under President Howard Taft in December of 1911, and he died in 1927, at the age of 91.The burned out hulk of the General Slocum was converted into a coal barge and renamed the "Maryland". She sank in a squall south of Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1911. In 1997, ninety years after the Slocum disaster, 104 year old Catherine Connelly told a reporter, “If I close my eyes, I can still see the whole thing.”“Yes, sir. Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible! A thousand casualities. And most heart rending scenes…Not a single life boat would float and the fire hose all burst…Graft, my dear sir. ..Where there’s money going there’s always someone to pick it up.” James Joyce, “Ulysses”.

- 30 -

Blog Archive