AUGUST   2020


Friday, July 22, 2011


I am surprised that nobody in Nebraska got shot during the winter of 1890-91. In fact, a few people may have; probably it just never made the papers. The problem was politics. On Tuesday November 4, 1890, the Republicans and Democrats spilt seven seats in the state senate and forty-six seats in the house. But every other seat, eighteen in the senate and fifty-four in the house, went to a third party, the so called “hogs in the parlor”, the People’s Independent Party. And the presence of that third party set the entire state on fire.
This alliance of destitute farmers was the political response to decades of corruption and corporate influence peddling, and a drought not equaled until the dust bowl of the 1930's. According to one Republican observer the "hayseeds" envisioned the world as a combination of a Victor Hugo plot and a Baptist revival meeting. And indeed, when the Nebraska legislature convened in joint session in January of 1891 things went from the melodramatic to the down right absurd.
To begin with, the new speaker of the House, farmer Sam Elder, decided he was going to bypass the acting President of the Senate, Republican George Meiklejohn, who was also the lieutenant-governor, and preside over both houses of the legislature all by himself. His plans for a grand investigation of election fraud and a remaking of state government were derailed when Meiklejohn grabbed the gavel off the podium and refused to return it. There was a shoving, grasping cat fight for the precious totem, which Meiklejohn eventually won. From this point the business of government in Nebraska got very noisy and ground to a halt, all over the issue of the certification of the new governor.
As these things were normally counted, the clear loser had been the Republican candidate L.D. Richards, who received just 68,878 votes. The Democrat, James Boyd, received 71,331 votes, and was, according to county election officials state wide, the winner. But Speaker Elder was certain the actually winner had been John Powers, of  his People’s Independent Party. Officially Powers had received 70,187 votes, making him second by a mere 1,144 votes. But Elder believed with good reason there had been 2,000 fraudulent votes cast for Boyd in Douglas County, centered on Omaha, and Elder was pushing for an immediate investigation.
Neither side dared to adjourn. Elder presided from the podium, calling on speakers and announcing votes, while Meiklejohn sat at the clerk’s desk, doing the same, but for other people. Nobody got anything done because nobody could hear anybody else. Sometime after midnight, Elder ordered the doors locked and told the sergeant-at-arms to admit no one without a written pass - from him. Meanwhile, the presumed victor, Boyd, requested an immediate hearing before the state supreme court to require Speaker Elder to immediately certify his election as governor.
Boyd (above) asked for a writ of mandamus (“…a court order that requires another court, government official, public body, corporation or individual to perform a certain act”). His attorney argued his case before three judges of the Nebraska state Supreme Court, and a hearing room crowded with armed angry spectators. After the hearing it was expected that the judges would retire to consider the arguments.
Instead the justices held an immediate huddle and Chief Justice Cobb announced that the weighty issues of freedom and public order and good government were irrelevant. The court had decided that certifying election results was simply a clerical duty and not a matter of choice. Cobb signed the writ of mandamus on the spot. The spectators were so stunned they were frozen. And that was probably the only reason why none of freshly disenfranchised voters in the room started shooting.
The sheriff of Lincoln County, surrounded by deputies, smashed down the locked doors of the state legislature, charged to the front of the chamber and forcefully handed the writ to Speaker Elder. And to everyone’s surprise, Speaker Elder did as the law required. John Boyd was officially declared the official governor of the state of Nebraska. “Thus”, said Judge Bayard Paine forty-five years later, “tragedy was averted in Nebraska statecraft.” Instead, tragedy was converted into low comedy.
The outgoing governor, Republican John Thayer (above), was the most hated man in Nebraska, the man whose behavior over the past year had been most responsible for the defeat of the Republican Party in the past election. And he now refused to surrender his office, saying he would “hold on to the chair, the seat, and the office of Governor until the cows come home.” While the legislature bickered downstairs, Thayer barricaded himself in the governor’s offices. He called up a company of State militia and local police to stand guard. Having finally taken the oath, Boyd moved into other offices in the state house and dispatched the Lincoln County sheriff (again) to take procession of the executive suites. But this time the sheriff ran up against a militia and the local cops, who refused to surrender. Fist fights broke out.
 On January 10th it finally occurred to Captain Rhody, in command of Thayer’s little army of 25 men, that he was out on a limb on by himself. Rhody announced to Thayer that “I saluted you for the last time.” He did, and then marched his little army back to their barracks. Abandoned, Thayer surrendered the offices, and Boyd moved in. But Thayer was far from ready to give up.
He hired his own attorney and on January 13th 1891, appealed to the state Supreme Court. His argument was inventive; John Boyd was not qualified to be governor because he was not an American citizen because he had not been born in America. And that made John Thayer the original “birther”.
Indeed Boyd had been born in Ireland in 1834. His family had emigrated to America when he was 14. His father had begun the naturalization paperwork in 1849 but events, both personal and political, had intervened. In 1856 the Boyd family had moved to Nebraska territory and had become involved in business and local politics. And then the Civil War and broken out.
The Boyd family were still residents in 1867 when Nebraska was admitted to the union. But Boyd’s father had never completed the naturalization paperwork. Ergo, argued ex-Governor Thayer, John Boyd was not qualified to be governor of Nebraska. And on May 5th, 1891 the State Supreme Court agreed with him. Boyd was out and ex-governor Thayer was Governor again. The Nebraska governor's office was beginning to resemble a game of musical chairs.
What Thayer had done was a desperate power grab and doomed to failure, if for no other reason than it assured that any Irish Republicans in Nebraska were not likely to vote Republican again in the near future.
More immediatly, Boyd appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their decision was announced by Chief Justice Fuller: “Manifestly the nationality of the inhabitants of territory acquired by conquest or cession becomes that of the government under whose dominion they pass…The judgment of the supreme court of Nebraska is reversed…” It was that troublesome old 14th Amendment again, this time upheld in an 8 to one decision, issued on January 2nd, 1892. Boyd resumed his office on February 3rd of 1892.
But, since the Governor of Nebraska served just a two year term, the antics of Governor Thayer and his political allies had cut Boyd’s term in half. And that is the kind of political victory that only makes sense when figured by the quarterly profit and loss statements of a corporation, like the big railroads in the 19th century, or the big banks in the 21st century. And that kind of corporate influence left the citizens of Nebraska up the creek without a paddle for yet another generation.
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Wednesday, July 20, 2011


I hate to tell you this, but, contrary to common knowledge, we are the ones living in a “simpler time”, not our parents or their ancestors. We have E-mail, and I-phones and twitter and face-book and every other pseudonymous instantaneous electronic communication device which, with apologies to Socrates, proves that a life under punctuated is a life not worth being self-obsessed about. Sharing every naval-infatuated idea has become de rigueur for the Obama generation. There is no longer room for confusion or miss-interpretation, only for over-interpretation. And that makes the world much simpler.
For the first two million years of human evolution the limit to language was the sum of the speed of sound divided by the speed of walking, divided by the number, width and depth of rivers and oceans, and the height of mountains and width of deserts separating you from the persons you wished to speak to. Those kinds of obstacles and those kinds of delays made the world a very complicated place. When the Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815, the War of 1812 had been over since the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December, 24, 1814. That was three years you needed to refer to while talking about just one battle, because of the delays in communications. How much more complicated can you get than that?
Mail was the first invention in long distance communications. Cyrus the Great of Persia invented pony express riders to carry “words” to bind his empire together. According to Herodotus these civil service riders were so dedicated that “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”; which is not the official motto of the U.S. Postal Service. The U.S. Postal service has no official motto.
The next major technical advance in communication didn’t come along until 1792, when Claude Chappe invented a ‘semaphone’ network in France. In his sales brochures he called it a “telegraph” (Greek for “far writing”). It required a series of towers spaced 20 miles apart, upon each of which were erected two moveable arms connected by a longer moveable arm. A Chappe telegraph operator repeated the 174 different combinations of arm positions to relay up to two words a minute. Although this was such a dependable system that the Swedes kept theirs running until 1880, Chappe never saw it turn a profit, for two reasons. First he threw himself down a well in 1805. And second, it never turned a profit. Worse yet, for Chappe’s family, he copyrighted every thing about his brilliant invention except the name.
In 1837 a failed Calvinist minister, a proslavery Federalist, a pedantic anti-catholic and anti-Semitic conspiracy freak named Samuel Fineley Breese Morse, co-opted the name for his “electronic telegraph” which he copyrighted from top to bottom, including the name. The first recorded “Mores Code” telegraphed was “A patient waiter is no loser”, in 1838; it was the dot and dash equivalent of “The quick bown fox”, etcetera. The more famous message, “What hath God Wrought”, was telegraphed as a publicty stunt in 1844 and was suggested by Anne Ellsworth from my home town of Lafayette, Indiana. She was married at the time to Mr. Roswell, who gave his name to the New Mexico town where, in 1947, space aliens attempted to communicate with humans. Their message appears to have been the alien equivalent of “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” But, so far nobody has answered that message.
The perfect expression of this more complicated communication is the traditional or “snail” mail service. The complexities involved stagger the imagination. You write a letter, usually by hand. You take the letter to a collection point, a post office or mail box. A representative of the United States Postal Service (your stand in) then physically carries the actual letter to your friend’s home. There, your friend reads your words from the very paper you once held. It sounds fraught with opportunity for delays and errors, and it is. And yet it has worked in America for two centuries. And what is most amazing is that we expect it to work, and complain when it doesn’t.
As of 2009 the 656,000 employees of the USPS (as it likes to refer to itself) processed 667 million pieces of mail every day (7,700 every second). They generated $75 billion in fees and charges, which left them with a $2.8 billion loss. Still nobody (well, a few libertarian lunatics) are suggesting that snail mail delivery should cease. What a bunch of "Big Government" people these pro-mail people are.
The ultimate complication of this ultimate complication of expression was Parcel Post, in which individuals were encouraged to send not only words from one end of the nation to another, but goods as well. The service was started in 1912 as an attempt to encourage economic development in rural America.
The first flaw in the plan became visible when Postal authorities deemed it permissible to mail live chicks (in special containers) for 53 cents apiece. Now, farmers could order chicks from breeders and they would be delivered, cheaply and reliably, right to the farmer's front door. It was a great boon to the egg industry nationwide. But problems arose when some of the little cheepers in ever shipment died in their boxes en route, and the customers sought reimbursement from the Post Office. The rules denied the customer’s appeals, but they appealed anyway. What was not noticed at the time, was the fatal flaw in the logic of “live” parcel post.
The path to Parcel Post ad nauseam was first made visible on the morning of February 19, 1914, when Mrs. John E. Pierstroff of Grangeville, Idaho, loaded her four year old daughter, May Pierstroff (above), into the mail car of a train bound for Lewiston, Idaho, 55 miles away. A few moments later Harry Morris, the conductor, stumbled upon the little girl sitting quietly atop a pile of mail bags. Morris checked the 56 cents postage on the tag tied to May’s coat, and since the mother was no where to be seen, allowed the girl to ride in the mail car to Lewiston. There, mail clerk Leonard Mochel delivered May to her destination, the home of Mrs. Vennigerholz, the girl’s grandmother.
It was the beginning of a disturbing trend. Later that same year postal workers in Stillwell, Indiana accepted a parcel post box marked, “live infant”. They delivered the box to South Bend where the “package” was accepted and opened by the infant’s divorced father. Cost for the trip was 17 cents. The infant arrived safely. The next year a Pensacola, Florida probation officer shipped six year old Edna Neff to her father in Christiansburg, Virginia. The postage was 15 cents.
The public was unsettled by this mailing of children, since the percentage of child molesters amongst the population in 1914 was about the same as it is today. The negative publicity probably prevented another child mailing until 1919, when it appears a press agent for the Aluminum Company of America arraigned for the mailing of five year old Marmi Hood and four year old Evan Hedge to their respective fathers, who were locked down inside in the company’s plant in Alco, Tennessee, surrounded by union picket lines. After a two hour tearful visit, heavily documented by the company publicity department, the children were “mailed Special Delivery” back to the Alco, Tennessee Post Office, where their mothers were anxiously waiting for them. Postage for the stunt both ways was $2.26 cents.
On June 13, 1920 The US Post Office Department issued new rules, announcing that children would no longer be accepted as a parcel post. The coda to this regulation, and perhaps a comment on the continued poverty in rural America even during the “Roaring Twenties”, was the C.O.D. package mailed to an undertaker in Albany, New York. It arrived on November 20, 1922, and carried no “return address”. In the box was the body of a child who seemed to have had died of natural causes. She was buried “...through the kindness of individuals” under the name of “Parcella Post.” How could you call such a world as that, "simpler" than ours?
As you would expect from people living in such complicated times, the denizens of that ancient confusion were able to predict the problems and solutions faced by our current, “simpler", electronic age. It turns out the philosophical antithesis to twitter was written in 1854, not long after the Mores telegraph hinted at the self obsessed simplicity which was to follow.
It was written by that old foggey, Henry David Thoreau. “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys”, wrote Henry David, “which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” And, what with the current Texas Governor advocating the re-secession of Texas from the union of states, it would appear that our modern politicians are leading the way by getting simpler and simpler all the time.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011


I suppose the simplest way to describe Henry Janin (above - not him) would be to call him a “hale fellow, well met.” His fellow mining engineers described him as “Cool as a cucumber...self-reliant, determined, and confident”. However the same publication hastened to point out, “He is not a stayer...his brilliant work, genial temperament and brilliant wit made him the “spoiled child” of many a social circle...with his extraordinary talents and accomplishments he might have been great; but at least he always remained dear.”.
Said another publication, “He accommodates himself gracefully to a given situation; lives well...drinks only the best of wines, and smokes only the best of cigars. Aristocratic in his tastes, gentlemanly in demeanor, and careless of the opinions of those he does not esteem, Mr. Janin (above - still not him) enjoys the confidence of those who appreciate merit and worth “ Still, somehow, amongst all that praise, it is difficult to find either profile as positive toward his talents in his life's work. That ambivalence seems to stem at least in part from his work at Diamond Mountain. He was, all things considered, the worst possible man for this job.
Henry Jannin took William Ralston's (above) job offer at his standard salary, ($2,500), and an option to buy 1,000 shares in the venture at a greatly reduced fee. As soon as half of the final sale price ($660,000) had been deposited in an eschrow account, Philip Arnold and John Slack agreed to lead Jannin to the claim, along with Asbury Harpending, General Dodge, one of the builders of the transcontinental Railroad, and...
...for some reason, a gadabout Englishman named Alfred Rubery (above), whose only claim to fame up to this time was having been convicted of outfitting a raider for the Confederacy in a San Francisco, having been  sentenced to ten years in prison for this,  but then having been pardoned by President Lincoln and expelled from America. He had come back after the Civil War, and now claimed to be "on vacation". But if this were another time and place, I would suspect "Ruby" was a secret agent of the British government.
August 20, 1872, found Arnold and Slack once again on a train bound for their Diamond Mountain, this time leading the party of investors and Henry Jannin. At Rawlings Springs station they left the railroad, hired horses and pack mules, and headed out across “ a mass of clay or sand and alkali--a horrible and irreclaimable desert”. According to Harpending (above) their four day journey was hindered, because “At times our leaders seemed to be perplexed, to have lost their way. At times they climbed high peaks, apparently in search of landmarks....The party became cross and quarrelsome. At last, on the fourth day, early in the morning, Arnold set out alone, to get his bearings, as he said. He returned about noon, said everything was all right, and we set out again with high hopes. By four o'clock we pitched camp on the famous diamond fields.”
It was, said Asbury Harpending, “...a small mesa...littered here and there with rocks comprising about thirty or forty acres (above), through which a small stream of water ran. It was located in one of the most unfrequented parts of the United States....once...on a very still day, I thought I heard something in the far distance that sounded like the ghost of a whistle. When I mentioned this to Arnold, he merely smiled. The railroad was at least a hundred miles away, he said.”
The party could barely contain their greed, and wasted little time making camp before they began their search for jewels. “We all went to work with our primitive mining implements- picks, shovels and pans. Everyone wanted to find the first diamond. After a few minutes Rubery gave a yell. He held up something glittering in his hand. It was a diamond, fast enough. Any fool could see that much. Then we began to have all kinds of luck. For more than an hour, diamonds were being found in profusion, together with occasional rubies, emeralds and sapphires.”
There wasn't the usual row over who should cook supper, who should wash the dishes, who should care for the stock, which little incidents of camp life had brought us to the verge of bloodshed during the three previous days. On the contrary, good will and benevolence were slopping over...Mr. Janin was exultant that his name should be associated with the most momentous discovery of the age, to say nothing of the increased value of his 1,000 shares; while General Dodge, Rubery and myself experienced the intoxication that comes with sudden accession of boundless wealth.”
Everywhere we found precious stones - principally diamonds - although a few sparklers of other kinds were interspersed. It was quite wonderful how generally the gems were scattered over a territory about a quarter of a mile square and of course we were only doing surface examination. No one could tell what depth might produce...Two days' work satisfied Janin...The important thing (he said) was to determine how much similar land was in the neighborhood...this new field would certainly control the gem market of the world and (it was)...all-essential...for one great corporation to have absolute control. So we started on a widely extended prospecting trip. We staked off in a rough way an enormous stretch of the country, set up notices of claims....”
Unnoticed by the civilians, Henry Jannin managed to stake a private claim to one of the few water ways which bisected the incredible diamond Mountain, a feat which, if upheld in a court of law, might have given the engineer a strangle hold over the entire operation. He was probably not alone, but with his favorable report, the second half of the $660,000 was paid to Slack and Allen, and the first half held in eschrow was released. Jannin's report, made public on September 3, 1872, in the Engineering and Mining Journal. The respected endgineer claimed to have washed a ton and a-half of gravel off the platau, which produced 1,648 carats of diamonds, and 7,200 carats of ruby. “"I do not doubt that further prospecting will result in finding diamonds over a greater area...and that I consider any investment at the rate of $4,000,000 for the whole property a safe and attractive one".
What Jannin neglected to mention was that he had no practical experience at panning, either for diamonds, sapphires or gold. So he had left that back breaking, tedious work to the only practical miners in the group - Philip Arnold and John Slack.
In retrospect it seemed the investors were so busy trying to cheat each other, they made it easy for the professionals.
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