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Friday, October 28, 2011


I would label William Justus Gobel (above) as the all time American politician most likely to be gunned down. On the plus side he was one of the smartest men ever to run for public office in Kentucky, far smarter than his Republican opponents – but also smarter than his own Democratic allies. He was too smart for his own good, as they say. He was cold, arrogant, and rude, and he had one of those sneering faces that just begged to be slapped. He was even described by a journalist who knew him as “reptialian”. He disliked shaking hands, and I can't picture any mother handing over her baby to be kissed by him for fear he would just swallow it head first.  Worse, the better you knew William Gobel the more a mere slap across his face left you wanting more. At least two people hated him enough to actually take a shot at him. And only one missed.
The first man to hate “William the Conqueror” enough to pull the trigger was banker John Sanford, whom Gobel had recently referred to in a local newspaper article as “Gonorrhea John”. On April 11, 1895 Sanford intercepted Gobel on the front steps of a bank in their home town of Covington, Kentucky. Sanford asked Gobel, “I understand that you assume authorship of that article?” “Boss Bill” confidently answered, "I do." Whereupon both men simultaneously drew pistols and took their best shots. Sanford's bullet ripped through Gobel's coat and trousers. Gobel's bullet ploughed right through the center of Sanford's forehead. The old Republican died five hours later. Gobel pleaded self defense and walked free.
Four years later “King” Gobel (above) found himself a distant third in a three way race for his party's nomination for Governor. It was clear that General P. Watt Hardin was within a few votes of securing the nomination. So “Czar” Gobel promised the third man, Col. W.J. Stone, that if he first dropped out in favor of Gobel,  he would then nominate Stone. It worked like a charm. After several fruitless ballots, Hardin was persuaded to step aside in the name of party unity, whereupon, per their deal,  Stone expected Gobel to resign as well. Instead,  Gobel had accepted the nomination. It was a brilliant move, and, of course, it also ticked off a lot of Democrats.
The donkey split should have ensured an easy Republican victory in the 1899 Kentucky election, but the elephants were also split, and it became a contest to see who was the least popular candidate, Senator Gobel or Attorney General William “Hog-Jawed” Taylor (above). By all accounts it was a dirty underhanded smear-fest of a campaign, with both sides calling up “private militias” to intimidate voters. But it seems that somehow, Taylor squeezed out a victory. A three judge elections board, all Gobel appointees, even said so, by a 2 to 1 vote. And in December “Hog-Jawed” was sworn in as Governor. But that was when Gobel charged voter fraud (which had been rampant on both sides) and moved things into the Democratic dominated state legislature, where it seemed certain that after a short “investigation” “King” Gobel would be declared the winner.
And that is where things stood at a quarter after eleven on the frigid Tuesday morning of January 30th, 1900, as Senator Gobel and two body guards walked across the courtyard in front of the state house. Just as “King” Gobel stepped around the fountain in front of the state house, five shots rang out. His security guards carried the badly wounded Senator into a nearby hotel.
Within hours of the shooting the investigating committee issued their report claiming that the election had indeed been stolen. An hour later Governor “Hog-Jawed” Taylor declared Kentucky to be in a state of insurrection, and put a pad lock on the capital building. What a mess. The Republican legislators met 100 miles to the south, in London, Kentucky. But they lacked enough members by themselves to form a quorum. On January 31st the Democrats, who had a quorum, met secretly in a Franklin hotel room, and voted Gobel as the new Governor.
On February 1st, “King” Gobel was sworn in and immediately signed an order ordering the state militia to go home, and the pad lock to be taken off the capital building. These were to be “William the Conqueror's” only official acts as Governor. He was tended by 18 doctors, and medicine by committee is never a good thing. His last meal was that Friday evening, and his last words were “"Doc, that was a damned bad oyster."  The next afternoon, Saturday, February 3, 1900, William Gobel died. He remains to this day the only American Governor to ever to be assassinated while in office...if he was ever legally in office.
The Democrats offered “Hog-Jawed” immunity from prosecution for his part (if any) in the assassination of Gobel, if he would just turn over the Governorship without a fight. Taylor's advisers urged him to say yes, but in the end he said no. And that was a mistake. Both sides agreed to accept the decision of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. And on March 10th that court voted in favor of the Democrats by 6 to 1. Ignoring his own previous promise, Tayor immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme court. Waiting for their decision, Taylor told a reporter, “I don't see how the courts can decide against me. If they do, I will stay here and fight. I will not run away.”. Immediately after this interview, “Hog-Jawed” slipped out the backdoor of the courthouse, crossed the Ohio River bridge into Indiana and never returned to Kentucky in his lifetime. And, F.Y.I., the Supreme Court refused to even consider Taylor's appeal.
Sixteen men were indited for William Gobel's murder – all of them Republicans. “Hog-Jawed” Taylor was one, but Indiana Governor James Mount refused to extradite him, saying, ““I do not believe a fair and impartial trial can or will be given Mr. Taylor.” And he was probably right. But then he was also a Republican. Of the remaining fifteen indicted co-conspirators, seven were never charged, three turned state's evidence and two were out-right acquitted. Only three  men were eventually convicted, but it took seven trials over eight years to get even that far. The Republican Secretary of State John Powers was convicted of masterminding the murder. Henry Youtsey was convicted of aiding and abetting, despite an insanity plea and many theatrics at his trial. And James Howard was actually sentenced to death for being the actual trigger man.
But in 1908 newly elected Republican Governor Augustus Wilson pardoned both Howard and Powers, and even the Hoosier convert, Taylor. Meanwhile, poor Youtsey, who had turned state's evidence after his conviction, was left to rot in jail. Finally, in 1919, the Democrats returned to the Governor's office in Frankfort, and the turncoat Youstey at last  received his pardon. Twenty years after William Gobel's murder, all of his accused and convicted murderers, were free again. Maybe if he had been more likable, they might have stayed in jail longer.
Eight years later, William “Hog-Jawed” Taylor died in his adopted Indianapolis. And I have to tell you, that although I do not approve of murder, if it hadn't been “Hog-Jawed” (and his allies) who had finally shot William Gobel, it would have been somebody else. That's just the sort of guy William Gobel was. Nobody deserves to be murdered. But some people just seem to insist upon it. 

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I wonder how many of the six million people who gaze upon her face every year know she was a 24 year old mother of two when her sat for her portrait? Her weathy husband had been widowed twice before, and he must not have paid for the painting because he never took delivery. Instead, the artist kept it in his saddle bags, traveled with it for fifteen years, dabbing at it off and on, seeking a perfection he never found. He said, “Art is never finished. It is only abandoned.” After he died, the painting on a poplar wood panel was inherited by his long time lover, Gian Giacomo Caprotti. His heirs sold it to the King of France. Four hundred years later it was merely inventory number 779, just another renaissance masterpiece amongst six thousand other masterpieces...until August of 1911, when it was stolen.
“She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times and learned the secrets of the grave.”
Walter Pafer. 1873
She was last seen on the wall between Correggio's “Mystical Marriage” and Titian's “Allegory of Alfonso d'Avalos”, just after just after seven am on Monday August 1, 1911. As soon as the museum opened Tuesday morning Louis Béroud, intent on lampooning the mastepiece brought his easel and paints into the gallery but found only four metal support pegs where the painting should have been. After hours of increasingly frantic searching, the police were called and 60 investigatores decended upon the Louve. They found the frame and protective class in a stairwell. The Mona Lisa had been stolen.
“"Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife...."
Giorgio Vasari 1550
The panel was sawn from a poplar tree trunk, cut radially in quarters, like fire wood, and then sliced vertically. Each 30” high by 21” wide slice of yellowish wood was dryed, sanded and then “sized” - primed on both sides with up to fifteen layers of resin until its finished surface was as hard and smooth as ivory . Finally a linen cloth was stretched across the panel. This entire process might take weeks, and the panels were sold, mass produced, in speciality artists' shops. Eventually, Leonardo Da Vinci picked up one of the panels at random, quickly gauged its quality, and chose it for immortality.
“She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own....Sometimes she seems to mock at us, and then again we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile.”
E.H. Gombrich, 1950
The robbery made headlines worldwide. They closed the Louve for a week. The museum director was forced to resign. One leading Paris magazine, “L'Illustration” pondered, ““What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?” And when the Louve reopened, the San Antonio Express noted “...more people gather to stare at the vacant space on the wall...than ever before had gathered there to see the picture.” Some in the heartbroken crowds left flower bouquets in memorial. The prefect of the Paris police admitted, “The thieves -- I am inclined to think there were more than one -- got away with it, all right.” The reward offered for her return went as high as fifty thousand francs, but for two years there were no legitimate takers. She was simply, suddenly, gone..
Mona Lisa...was the epitome of beauty for so many 19th-century writers...Yet to me she is anything but, with her chipmunk cheeks, close-set eyes and depilated face.”
Laura Cummings. 2011
First he painted the background, an odd mixture of indistinct mountain peaks, a winding road, rivers and a bridge. It is tauntingly familiar and yet specifcally no place on earth, masked by “Leonardo's smoke”, or sfumato. It was not his invention, but the Mona Lisa is its highest achievment. Nothing is clearly seen, nothing has definitive edges. Only after the backdrop was as nearly perfect as he could make it, did Leonardo placed La Mona center stage. My Lady Lisa dominates the frame, sitting in a chair, its left arm supporting her's and seperating us from her. Her right arm is laid across her stomach, its hand rests on her left wrist. She wears no jewelry, no makeup, no lipstick. She is dressed as befitted a wealthy Florentine lady. Her eyes look at you directly, seem to follow you about the room, and project...calm self assurance...a challange...or inquiring. Her suggestion of a smile fades at the corners, her lips blending softly into the flesh; sfumato..
“You should make your portrait at the hour of the fall of the evening when it is cloudy or misty, for the light then is perfect.”
Leonardo Di Vinci
The myth of a wealthy eccentric paying millions for a stolen masterpiece to keep it hidden in his mountain top mansion is far older than the Mona Lisa. But no confirmed examples have ever come to light. Another myth is that the art may be used as currency in an illegal trade. But eventually such ersatz wealth has to be converted to cash, and, again, no such examples have ever surfaced. Most stolen paintings not recovered by police are sold back to the museums from which they are taken. And those that are not returned have probably been destroyed when the frustrated thieves came to the alarming realization that art is about illusion, and either buying or stealing art is all about being fooled.
...she does not appear to be painted, but truly of flesh and blood. On looking closely at the pit of her throat, one could swear that the pulses were beating.”
Geggio Vasari
The “audacious" crimminal mastermind walked into a Florence, Italy commercial art gallery two years later, on Wednesday, November 10, 1913. His name was Vincenzo Perugia (above) and he calmly told the owner that he had the Mona Lisa back in his hotel room. He was offering it for a half million lire. The quick thinking dealer agreed to the price, but said he first had to have the painting examined by an expert.
The next morning the dealer and the expert watched in amazement as Vincenzo pulled a battered trunk out from under his bed in the Hotel Tripoli-Italia (above). Vincenzo opened the trunk and removed some underwear, plastering tools, a pair of pliers, a smock, paint brushes, old shoes and a mandolin. And just as the art dealer was about to angerly storm out, Vincenzo lifted up a false bottom and revealed, wrapped in red silk, the Mona Lisa. Scrawled on the back of the panel was the magic inventory number, “779”.
“Do you smile to tempt a lover Mona Lisa, Or is it your way to hide a broken heart? Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep. They just lie there and they die there. Are you warm, are you real Mona Lisa. Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?”
Ray Evens, Jay Livingston 1950
Art is an impersonation. Pigments suspended in oils give the impression of color, and by the clever combination of colors a represntation of three dimensional reality can be offered. But it is obviously not reality. You can only be fooled if you wish to be fooled, An artist is a tactician in fraud, and technique is the methodology of his lies. Thus, fraud has been art's handmaiden from the instant of creation. And art shares this characteristic with politics and economics and history – you can fooled only if you are willing to be fooled.
“I have offended God and mankind because my work didn't reach the quality it should have.”
Leonardo Da Vinci
Her real name was Lisa Gherardini. At 16 she married Francesco del Giocondo. Leonardo and his lover Giacomo Caprotti refered to the painting as La Gioconda, the femine version of the husband's last name and the lady's disposition – in French, La Jocunde – jovial. Francesco died of the plague in 1538. Lisa followed her husband in death on July 15, 1542, at the age of 63. She was buried in the convent of St. Ursula in Florence. On May 19, 2011, acheologists reopened what they believe is Lisa's grave, unearthing “a female-sized skull”. Once DNA confirms My Lady's identify, we will be able to gaze again on the face that Leonardo di Vinci looked upon when he was inspired to create the single most famous and iconic piece of art in history, a painting that was always a masterpiece, but which became iconic because it was stolen.
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Sunday, October 23, 2011


I would have once said that cows were not smart enough to commit suicide, but Charles and Linda Everson have shaken my preconceptions. The Everson’s were celebrating their first wedding anniversary with a vacation in lovely Washington State, on the west slope of the Cascades, driving Highway 150 just outside the tiny community of Lake Chelan, when, without warning,  and out of a clear blue sky,  a 600 pound self-destructive rump roast plummeted from a cliff 200 feet above them and smashed onto their minivan.
The bovine aerialist left no note, but it must have been a suicide because even cows know that cows can’t fly. But would an act of suicide be a sign of intelligence? I wonder this because the only other creature besides cows who kill themselves, are humans, and humans are so smart we get to decide how smart all the other animals are. So even humans who kill themselves must be smarter than every other animal on the earth. So,  QED, a suicidal cow must be a cow genius. Because if they are not… then the whole relationship between intelligence and suicide will have to be reconsidered, particularly if your suicide should land you in the middle of somebody else’ life.
Los Angeles has its Colorado Boulevard bridge over Arroyo Secco, (over 100 suicides)...
 and Seattle has its Aurora Bridge (a jumper on average of one every three weeks), but the most famous portal to oblivion is the portal by the bay.
On average another human being chooses Phil Donohue’s “permanent solution to a temporary problem” by plummeting off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge every two weeks. Cows are not allowed to cross the bridge on hoof, thus saving untold bovine lives. And the human suicides almost always land in the water, thus injuring no other humans, except for anybody and everybody who ever loved them. But what about the 26 human survivors who climbed over the aesthetically pleasing 4 foot high railing only to fail at something hundreds of losers have already succeeded at? It turns out they are the winners, but with a lifelong memento of their stupidity. Hitting the water at  75 miles an hour they suffer internal injuries and fractured legs, hips, spines, ribs, feet, arms, hands and necks, “lifelong” debilitating injuries. One police sergeant, familiar with the clean up from the bridges’ successes, suggested the authorities forgo the call boxes connected to suicide hot lines and instead install a diving board. It’s a cruel idea, but echoed in the comment most often shared by survivors. According to them, universally, their first thought after jumping off the bridge was; “Why did I do that?”
When, in December of 2004, a 32 year old Czechoslovakian man let go of the rope suspending him by the neck from a tree, he was also instantly certain he had made a mistake. In his case it was because the branch he was hanging from immediately snapped and he fell - shattering both his legs. But being resourceful and determined to prove to his wife that suicide would display how much he loved their daughter, this moron decided to cut his throat. Unfortunately for this Slovakian Sylvia Plath he chose a method which can only be described as “overkill”.  He decided to use a chainsaw. This was certainly dramatic,  but it also missed the point about loving his daughter. It also somehow missed his jugular and embedded in his spine. In other words, he lived. He might have echoed the immortal words of Terry Kath, late member of “Chicago” and Darwin Award Winner, who famously said, “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.”  Or, more likely, our Serbian suicide want-a-be thought to himself, "Now, why did I think of that?" 
But choose to become one of the 35 humans who have used the Empire State Building in Manhattan to get a “leg up” on their self destructive stupidity and you have a good shot at injuring an innocent bystander as well as yourself, at least emotionally, as did Moishe Kanovsky, who on Friday 13th of April 2007 was interviewing a client in a 69th floor law office.
I don’t know what they were discussing but Moishe suddenly had an overwhelming urge to leave the building, via a window. He only made it down to the 30th floor abutment, but he had picked up enough velocity by then so that the impact dismembered him, and one of his legs made it all the way to the ground, landing on West 33rd street, right in front of the Café Europa and a Greyline tour bus filled with out-of-towners, ruining everybody’s lunch. But it ruined a lot more than lunch for his friends and family. And how would you feel about somebody whose last act on earth was to cause you pain?
The most famous suicide at the building on Madison between 34th and 33rd streets must have been Evelyn McHale, a 23 year old beauty who had been dumped  by her fiancé. On May 12th, 1947 she left a note before leaving the 86th floor observatory (“…I wouldn’t make a good wife for anybody”…), and managed to miss all the jutting abutments before landing intact on the roof of an empty limo. A photography student heard her impact and snapped the most romantic suicide photograph in history. Published by Life Magazine, what you see is her left hand coyly caressing her necklace, her stockings in almost suggestive disarray with her ankles demurely crossed. What you don’t see is that Evelyn probably fell apart when they picked her up, because every single bone in her body, from spine to pubis to her little toe, was shattered. And you don’t hear her thoughts in the 2 or 3 seconds between the leap and the impact, which all the evidence suggests, was probably, “Why did I do that?”
If you aren’t lucky enough to live within jumping distance of the Empire State, almost any tall building can be pressed into service. A resourceful young woman in Tokyo recently used the 11 stories of the Ikebukuro Parco department store to validate her depression, She also managed to involve an innocent 47 year old man on the crowded street below, when she landed on him, fracturing his skull. Also in Tokyo during the same year, a 55 year old woman chose to pull a Humpty Dumpty off the 10th floor of a college laboratory building and landed on a 20 year old student, fracturing her skull as well.
This type of collision is to be expected in a nation with no religious prohibitions against suicide. On average, a Japanese commits suicide every 15 minutes, (32,000 a year in a country of only 127 million). In Japan you are five times more likely to murder your self as you are to be killed a car accident, and a lot more likely to get squished by a falling Kamikaze accountant. I don’t believe in an after-life, but if there is one I don’t think you want to begin it by having to say, “I’m sorry. Did I do that to you?” Because, karmatically speaking, that’s just suicidal.
The Japanese are literally dropping like flies drunk on sake and bent on seppuku, or, more correctly, like a crowd of oriental Peggy Entwistles - she being the blond who in 1932 took a header off the “H” in the Hollywood sign above Hollywood. But Tokyo doesn’t have such a suicide sign or even a suicide bridge like the Golden Gate. But they do have a suicide apartment building - the Takashima-Diara Complex.
It’s huge; 14 stories tall and with 10,000 residents. And in 1977 alone 150 people jumped from its roof, windows, balconies and ventilation shafts. And not one of them was a resident of the building.
They traveled from all over trendy Japan after a family of three took the leap-of- lack-of-faith and made the evening news. In 1978, in response to the mounting morbidity littering the court yard, stairwells and ventelation shafts,  the building was turned into a high rise gulag, surrounded by the kinds of barriers normally seen in zoos to keep the animals from escaping.
There is not an unrestricted panorama to be viewed from inside the structure, with netting and grating below windows and balconies and jamming the air shafts, all to prevent anyone from falling more than a dozen feet at a time.
The roof ledges are blockaded with spiked and curved fencing, as if to ward off an invasion of giant pigeons, all installed to discourage any humans from expressing their urge to fly. And still the humans are jumping from Takashima-Diara, just in smaller numbers.
But the idea that someone stupid enough can be stopped, that anything could be made truly "fool-proof", was disproved by an English genius who, in 2006, seemed to have found a reason to live by devising a complicated method of killing himself. First he purchased a 25 foot length of PVC drainpipe. Then he tied the handle of a heavy butcher knife to a rope, and dangled the knife over the opened top of the drainpipe. Then he lashed the PVC to a power pole. The PVC was light enough to transport easily while the power pole provided stiffening and strength and a roughly 90 degree angle to the earth.
He then placed his head beneath the open bottom of the pipe and let go of the rope. The knife fell down the narrow pipe (which kept the pointy end pointed down) until it penetrated the skull and imbedded in the inventor’s brain, which killed him...eventually.
Police described it as “…one of the most elaborate and bizarre suicides…” they had ever investigated. But, added the spokesman who witnessed the scene, “It must have been an incredibly painful death.” As Hamlet put it, “Aye, there’s the rub”, or more accurately, there’s the pointy end of the dagger. Most people chose suicide to end an emotional pain, as if unaware that their actions will very likely replace it with an extraordinary amount of physical pain. And nothing can put your petty personal problems into perspective like five or six minutes of a trip to the dentist. Of course, in that condition it almost seems reduntant to ask, "Why did I do that?"
Which brings us to the very precise and extremely close Demeester family of Coulogne, France; Rene and his wife Marie-Christine, both 55, and their children, Oliver, age 29, and daughter Angelique, age 27. On a September evening they gathered in their modest home for a meal. The stew pot was on the stove, but the table had not yet been set out. Instead there was a note on the table which read, “We messed up too much. Sorry”, followed by instructions for the care of the family poodle. And hanging above the note in a neat row, like beef in a butcher's freezer, was the family itself.  By all accounts the family was not in dire financial straights, but had suffered a few setbacks. And somehow, to them, this seemed like a logical choice. Said one cop, “It looked like a scene of an execution”, except of course, in an execution, the deceased is dropped so their neck is cleanly broken, and death is nearly instantaneous, while in this case the four of them must have bounced around for one or two minutes, dancing desperately, gagging away their last moments of life while watching each other gag to death. And if they could speak from beyond the grave I bet they would each say; “Why did we do that?"
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