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The Billionaires Playground - 1890 - The Last Time the National Wealth was this Unbalanced

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Friday, March 01, 2013

THE FIRST DISSENTER


I suppose someone had to be first, and John Billington was as  likely a choice as any other man. Rumor has it that John left England in 1620 to escape his creditors. That would not have been unusual in a time when debt was a crime. Still, if he was a Catholic, as others rumors indicate, that would have been enough to drive John Billington to abandon the world he knew for the dangers of a distant, unsettled shore, looking for what was to be a basic American trait, religious freedom. He did not find it. What we know as fact, is that of all the voyagers who sailed on board the Mayflower, only forty could have been called "Puritans", or "Pilgrim Fathers". The majority, sixty-one men, women and children, were Anglicans or Catholics, who seem to have been despised by their despised shipmates.
John Billington was also middle aged, about 40 years old, rather ancient for an adventurer. He brought with him a wife, Eleanor, and their two young sons, John Jr. and Francis. And together their family was beginning a great adventure they were not welcomed upon. 
The voyage had been organized by a group who called (and saw) themselves as “The Saints”. And they were not pleased to find the financial investors in their dream, interested only in profit,  had betrayed them, leaving "The Saints" in a minority to “The Strangers”, as they immediately began calling their new shipmates. 
"The Saints" found themselves stuffed aboard a leaky ship, just 90 feet long by barely 24 feet wide, giving them 2,160 square feet of living space (a moderate sized two bedroom house) for 102 passengers and a twenty man crew. Instead of escaping the horrors of a multi-faith nation, "The Saints" found themselves imprisoned with one, dragging it along with them. And they found the burden oppressive. 
After two and a half months of living hell on storm tossed seas the Mayflower anchored at the edge of the New World, sheltered by a sandy spit of land. And it was here that "The Saints" faced with what they called a “mutiny”. Through the myopia of history, we choose to describe it as 'the birth of democracy'." It was unwelcome. You see, "The Strangers" were not being landed where they had been promised, in the established colony of Virginia, but on unexplored and unprepared ground far to the north. And "The Strangers" were suspicious that this had been the intention of "The Saints" all along. And indeed that seems to have been the truth. Just to get "The Strangers" to disembark and to agree to work together in this unknown land "The Saints" were forced to compromise their faith, right on the edge of their religious paradise, and to sign the Mayflower Compact with "The Strangers", pledging to “…combine ourselves into a civil Body Politic…”
"The Saints" had thus been forced to create a civil government in this new land, and not the religious domain they had intended to establish. And one of the signatures bought by that accursed compromise had been that of John Billington. 
As if in punishment for this compromise of their religious purity, only fifty-three souls survived that first winter. Amazingly, in spite of their sinful Godlessness, John Billington’s family of "Strangers" survived intact – including Eleanor, who was one of only five adult women in the entire colony who lived to see the spring. Both of John's sons also survived, another insult to the devotion of "The Saints", many of whom had buried children and wives over the bitter winter.  The Billington clan had become a daily reminder that God’s Chosen were not always chosen. More evidence was to follow. 
In the spring of 1623, the second full year the colonists had been ashore, pressure from the "Strangers" forced the Governor, William Bradford (a "Saint", of course) to divide all property equally amongst the survivors, one acre per family member, no matter what their religious affiliation. And thus the Billington clan received four acres of the best land, “…on the South side of the brook to the Bay wards”. It was yet another reminder of the success of "The Strangers", while so many of "The Saints" had not prospered and had even died. These insults to the faith of "The Saints" would not be forgotten. 
Meanwhile, "The Saints" back in England had begun spreading rumors about the failure of the Plymouth Bay Colony, to drive down the value of the stock,  making it easier for "Saints" to buy a controlling interest in the company. And with each year they sent more "Saints" across the Atlantic, meaning to overwhelm "The Strangers" in Massachusetts Bay.  By 1624, the colony had grown to over 180 people. But two of the new arrivals, meant to build a Saint's majority, had in fact fed the growing tensions.
The Reverend John Lyford and Mr. John Oldham were both nominally "Saints". In fact Lyford had been sent out as the official priest for "The Saints" in the colony. 
But Lyford's willingness to conduct an Anglican baptism for the new child of "Stranger" William Hilton offended "The Saints". These chosen by God saw no reason to tolerate religious tolerance for anyone but themselves. And Governor Bradford became convinced that Lyford and Oldham were both secretly corresponding with the stockholders back in England, contradicting the false rumors the English Saints had been spreading. 
Bradford was able to intercept some of those letters, and confront the traitorous "Saints", catching them unprepared at a public hearing. Both Lyford and Oldman were banished from the colony that very night. At the same meeting there was an attempt to also charge John Billington with being a member of the same "conspiracy", but there was little evidence against Billington, and since he was popular, (although it seems unclear how he could have been so, given the negative descriptions of him that survive) "The Saints" were forced to retreat and bide their time, yet again. 
The following year, 1626, James I of England died, and Charles I, a militantly devout Catholic, took the throne. The trickle of "Saints", escaping now from real religious oppression in England, became a steady flow.  John Billington still had allies in Plymouth, such as John Cannon and William Tench, but the pressures brought on by the constant arrival of new "Saints" drove both those men to leave the colony by 1627.
And in 1629 John Billington's eldest son died of illness. With his death, some of the flame went out of the old man. He was fifty years old now, and weary of the constant political fighting for his families' rightful place in the colony. By January of 1630 there were almost 300 citizens in Plymouth colony, the vast majority of whom were now, finally, "Saints". John Billington had become isolated. 
In the late summer of 1630 a man’s body was found in the woods near John Billington’s property. The body was identified in Governor Bradford’s correspondence only as "John New-come-er”. No rational for Billington to have murdered this mysterious man was ever offered on the record. Instead surviving documents allege that the motive was the result of “an old argument between the two men”. But this would seem to have been unlikely, given that the dead man was, by every account, a literal “New-come-er”". 
Despite this glaring omission of motive, a Grand Jury was quickly convened and John Billington was charged with shooting the man in the shoulder with a blunderbuss, thus causing his death. Since a blunderbuss was generally loaded with whatever material was handy, rocks or metal, and was used as a short range (and still highly inaccurate) shotgun, using it as a weapon for an assignation would have have been doubtful in the extreme. 
But by this time there was little patience left in the colony for reason where the Billingtons were concerned. A trial jury wasted little time in finding John guilty of murder. And yet despite the singularity of this crime and possible punishment - Billington was the first Englishman in the colony charged with murder, and would be the first colonist to be sentenced to death - there is no record of any defense arguments offered on his behalf. "The Saints" had won their war against John Billington, and they would write his history. And yet because there was a lack of any apparent motivation for the crime, Governor Bradford sought the approval for the execution of this "Stranger" from his own fellow "Saints" in the younger, larger and more purely Saintly Massachusetts Bay Colony, centered on Boston. Such approval was instantly supplied. 
On September 30, 1630, fifty year old John Billington was hanged according to the methods of the day. He climbed a ladder. The rope was placed around his neck and the noose pulled tight. The ladder was kicked away. And slowly the life was strangled out of him as he danced at the end of the rope. The drop that quickly broke the neck would not become standard in hanging for another two hundred years. Plymouth Colony was thus finally rid of its most troublesome "Stranger" in a congregation of "Saints". The only even mildly generous epitaph written for John Billington came from the poison pen of Thomas Morton, another man who irritated "The Saints" who surrounded him. Morton wrote, “John Billington, that was chocked at Plymouth after he had played the unhappy marksman...was loved by many.” And that is a piece of information not even hinted at in the history written by "The Saints" - that John had been loved by many. 
Sixty years later the "Saints" would have to clean house again, this time in the village of Salem, and this time against their fellow "Saints" who were not saintly enough. Fourteen women and five men were hanged this time. Five others died in prison. All had been charged with being witches. What this re-occurrence of justice from "The Saints"  showed, was that even before there was religious freedom in America, there was religious hypocrisy.
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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

WRITING STORIES

I doubt you could have missed the pair, seated in the Swan tavern on Fleet Street in London, that 28 March , 1716.  Last to arrive was the infamous publisher, pornographer and plagiarist Edmund Curll, a scarecrow of a man, very tall and thin, splayfooted, and with gray goggle eyes that threatened to burst from his pale face like a cartoon character. Waiting for him like a spider on his web was one the greatest poets in history, the oft quoted and revered deformed genius Alexander Pope, with a Roman nose and a spine so twisted he stood barely four feet six inches tall from his stylish shoes to the top of the hump on his back. Curll thought he had been invited to settle their disagreements. Pope was about to poison his guest's beer. Later Pope joyfully wrote a mocking obituary of his victim, “A Full and True Account of a Horrid and Barbarous Revenge by Poison on the Body of Mr. Edmund Curll, bookseller...To be published weekly”. Curll was not dead, but he did projectile vomit until he wished his was. It was like a scene from Animal House. Ah, good times among the 18th century London literati.
Publishing was in its youth, as young as the internet is today, and just as chaotic, dishonest, unregulated, and unencumbered with a functional business model. In 1688 there were only 68 printing presses in London, all controlled by members of the Stationer's Company. But in 1695 Parliament refused to renew the company's monopoly, setting off a decade of pure anarchy. Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame, noted, “One man studies seven year(s), to bring a finished piece into the world, and a pirate printer....sells it for a quarter of the price ... these things call for an Act of Parliament". So in 1710 Parliament obliged with The Statue of Anne - she was queen at the time - which created a 14 year copyright for authors. Still, six years later one author felt required to strike at a pirate printer – by making him vomit for 24 straight hours, and then attacking him again in print.
“Next o'er his books his eyes begin to roll,
In pleasing memory of all he stole;
How here he sipp'd, how there he plunder'd snug,
And suck'd all o'er like an industrious bug.”
Alexander Pope (above)  The Dunciad (1728)
Pope's justification for the poisoning was revenge for embarrassing the smart and lovely Lady Mary Montagu. The morally pompous poet, so famous for his version of Shakespeare and translations of Homer that he was nicknamed “the Bard”, was smitten with the lady. They even maintained a correspondence. Pope privately published one of her poems. Copies were discretely passed about the English court, but Curll was, of course, soon selling copies on the streets. Cultured nobility were not supposed to engage in publication – it smacked of stooping to actually earning a living. So Pope saw himself as a knight protecting Lady Montagu's honor when he poisoned Curll and attacked him (among others) in his poem, “Dunciad”. Curll responded by pirating the poem, even publishing an annotated version, also called a “key”. Mocked Curll, “How easily two wits agree, one writes the poem, one writes the key”.
Edmund Curll was not quite the “shameless Curll” Pope portrayed – not quite. He was infamous for keeping a revolving stable of struggling quill drivers “three in a bed” in the “low-rent flophouses, brothels, and coffeehouses” jammed into Grub Street (above). Originally “grub” referred to the roots and insect larval uncovered when the street was originally scrapped out. Eventually it was adopted as a badge of honor by the poverty stricken occupants, like the eventual great biographer Samuel Johnson, or Ned Ward, who considered his profession as “scandalous...as whoring....”. These grubs were hack writers, named after the ubiquitous horse drawn Hackney cabs that plied London's streets, going where ever their paying passengers demanded. The occasional advance paid to a hungry writer was a “grub stake”, and the pitiful meals they could afford were “grub”. Jonathan Swift, eventual creator of “Gulliver's Travels”, grandiosely referred to this literary sub-culture as “the Republica Grubstreetaria”, but like Johnson, Swift was clever enough and lucky enough to eventually escape the life of a mere grub.
In fact, Curll employed no more Grub Street warriors than any other Fleet Street baron. But he was particularly adept at supplying what the public wanted - licentious sex, and manufactured controversy. Curll paid grubs to engage in a “pamphlet war” - much like the Fox News war on Christmas - over the 1712 trial of Jane Wehham for witchcraft. (She was convicted). Curll also printed cheap pirated books that sold for a mere shilling, thus undercutting the actual author's authorized editions. His growing empire made Edmund Curll one of the most successful barons on Fleet Street. Acknowledged one critic, “He had no scruples either in business or private life, but he published and sold many good books.”
With Pope's urging, Curll was convicted of obscenity in 1716, and twice more in 1725. In 1726, Curll struck back by befriending the mistress of a Pope confident. She passed him several letters in which the arrogantly moral Pope admitting to lusting after the Blount Sisters, Terresa and Martha. “How gladly would I give all that I am worth,” Pope wrote in one purloined missive, “for one of their maidenheads.” Embarrassed, Pope helped engineer yet another Curll conviction in February of 1727. This time an exasperated court fined Curll and ordered him pilloried for an hour. At the mercy of the mob, Curll was spared the usual assault of rotted food and manure when a pamphlet was read to the well armed crowd, claiming Curll was being punished for defending the departed Queen Anne. Thus misinformed, the mob carried him home on their shoulders. Pope was infuriated and determined to even the score.
One of Edmund Curll's most profitable ventures was what came to be called “Curlicisms”. When a well known figure died, Curll would advertise a forthcoming biography, and ask the public for any anecdotes about or letters from the deceased. Then, without validating the submissions Curll would hire a Grub street hack to string them together into an instant and usually inaccurate biography, creating what one potential subject described as “one of the new terrors of death.” Curll had done this when the Duke of Buckingham died in 1721. But Buckingham was a peer, a member of the House of Lords, and that body summoned Curll for interrogation. Curll was unrepentant, since it was not a crime to publish writings of a peer without their permission. So the Lords made it illegal, and in this Pope saw his opportunity.
In 1731 Curll announced a upcoming “Curlicism” of Alexander Pope; “Nothing shall be wanting,” Curll assured his potential readers, “but his (universally desired) death.” Again Curll called for submissions and a mysterious figured identified only as “P.T.” offered letters written by Pope to the Lord of Oxford. In 1734 Curll published the letters in a vicious biography of Pope. The next year Pope published his own “Literary Correspondence for Thirty Years”, including the same letters to Oxford. But the details in Pope's version did not match those published by Curll, as Pope pointed out when he alleged Curll had violated the privilege of a member of the House of Lords and worse, slandered the Lord while doing it. The trap was sprung.
The only problem was, Curll again refused to repent. Called again before the Lords, Curll quipped, "Pope has a knack of versifying, but in prose I think myself a match for him.” And in fact as well. The Duke of Oxford still had the original letters in his files. So, asked Curll, where had P.T.'s inaccurate versions come from? Curll produced P.T.'s letters so the Lords could judge for themselves who was implicated by the handwriting. For a few days, the city of London, or that section that cared about such things, held its breath. And then an ad appeared in a small newspaper offering 20 guineas if P.T. would come forward to admit he had “acted by the direction of any other person.” P.T., of course did not appear. And the ploy fooled no one – Pope had written the originals and the fakes and even the ad, and everybody knew it. The House found a political solution; since the published letters were fakes, the law had not been broken. Case closed, except Pope now had even more egg on his face.
Wrote Curll, “Crying came our bard into the world, but lying, it is to be feared, he will go out of it.”.
And so he did. Pope died on 30 May, 1744, and Edmund Curll followed him in December of 1747.
Thus, Curll earned the last word. He described his relationship with Pope this way, “A fitter couple was never hatched, Some married are, indeed, but we are matched”.
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Sunday, February 24, 2013

QUEEN OF DENILE - Part Three


I would like to have met Thutmose, the sculptor. Without him we would never have known of Nefertiti, nor known what a beautiful woman she really was. His real genius would not be realized for 4,000 years, but like Michelangelo, even during his own lifetime he was recognized as a great artist, entrusted with the public image of the two most important politicians in his world, the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his Great Royal Wife. But more than that, like Leonardo da Vinci he was also an intimate witness to a major revolution in technology that literally built the world we live in.
With few hardwood trees, what humans in the Nile Delta first used to build shelters with was mud, malleable mud, sometimes formed into bricks, dried solid by the sun. But each adobe brick swelled and contracted separately with the daily temperature swings, and thus larger structures tended to separate and crack. Stone, the other building material available in Egypt, would last forever, but was hard to work with and if the joints where one stone met another were not a perfect fit, the entire structure was unstable. And the fit was never perfect. The solution was a combination of the two materials; a malleable stone. In the building trade this is called mortar.
In the Old Kingdom, a thousand years before the birth of Nefertiti, mortar was not used to bind stones together, but merely provided a level surface for their meeting. The fingerprints of ancient Egyptians were recorded as they pushed mud into nooks and crannies, leveling the joints between the great sandstone blocks of the Pyramids of Giza. But over the next centuries mortar became the subject of a great deal of study, which is when the ancient Egyptians discovered Gypsum.
It was lying about all over Egypt. Its what you get when you dry up an ocean, and other then the bleaching skeletons of ancient whales, large deposits of gypsum are the strongest evidence that the Sahara desert was once an ocean basin. To a modern chemist it is calcium sulfate, and is the primary ingredient in dry wall. Deposits of gypsum so aided the creation of the city of Paris, that the formula used there gave rise to the ubiquitous phrase “Plaster of Paris”, and it can even be used as a fertilizer.
The ancient Egyptians were unaware of any of this, but they did know the material was soft, gritty and eager to dissolve in water. And when blended with limestone or chalk (calcium carbonate) in water it produced the sought after malleable stone. During the middle of the 18th dynasty (1400 – 1300 B.C.E.) the use of gypsum mortars became standard throughout Egypt. Now houses and smaller temples could be built of standardized mud blocks, joined by and coated with a binding agent of similar properties, so the entire structure expanded and contracted as one. It made the construction of Aketaten much quicker and cheaper. And with a few modifications to the formula, it made Thutmose a better artist.
Perhaps someday a new generation of Egyptoligist will open a tomb and find the name Thutmose on a painted mural, with his mummy resting securely beneath. But I doubt it. I fear it far more likely that we will only know him by the few examples of his works that survived in his workshop on the southeast corner of a slum lined street in the southern section of Aketaten. What if the only evidence we had of Leonardo Di Vinci was the Mona Lisa and his crumbling masterpiece, “The Last Supper”? What would we think of him if we did not have his notebooks on anatomy, or his drawings of a flying machine? That is where we are in our appreciation of the world's first identifiable great artistic genius.
He must have begun with a plaster mask, poured directly on the subject's face. This is an indignity suffered by Hollywood actors today, and was possible here only because the Pharaoh Akhenaten (above) had endorsed Thutmose's “naturalistic” artistic revolution. Once the plaster cast had been created, it was used as a guide for carving limestone busts. Nefertiti's bust was 19 inches tall and weighed 44 pounds, or probably almost half of what the Queen weighed in life. Several busts of members of the court have survived, and provide an opportunity for living humans to look half way back to the invention of agriculture, directly into the real face of our ancestors. What returns your gaze is a human, very much like people you know.
The limestone busts were a major technical achievement, but it was now that Thutmose the artist stepped up, as he “worked from life”, applying plaster to the bust, to perfectly match the person sitting before him. In the case of Queen Nefertiti, Thutmose captured “laugh lines” around the corners of her mouth and cheeks, a bump on her nose, bags under her eyes and wrinkles beginning on her neck. He even flattened her cheek bones a little, indicating perhaps a slight change in weight between the casting, and the carving of the stone. This was a great beauty in her middle age, the mother of six girls, with gravity taking its toll, as it does to all of us. And when the plaster additions satisfied the artist, Thutmose then added yet another layer of stucco, smoothing the lines, straightening the nose, perhaps to please his model. She was, after all, the Queen, and vanity is a very human trait.
And then he painted the face to life, using black quartz held in place with beeswax for the iris of her eyes. For the blue of her jewels he used ground glass with copper oxide. For the yellow bands in her crown he used arsenic sulfide (the mineral orpiment), and for the green crown of Egypt, powdered glass and cooper and iron oxide. The black eyeliner was coal and beeswax, with red chalk for the lips. Her rich skin tone was recreated by adding red chalk to lime spar, AKA our old friend mortar.
The assumption is that the bust which survives today in a Berlin museum, was created as a guide for apprentice artists to produce the many copies that would have sat in the offices of bureaucrats and in temples from the Nile Delta to the southern reaches of Kush, beyond the cataracts of the Nile. This was not the image of a queen on a coin, but the real face of a real woman, who you would recognize if you saw her on the street or sat she sat next to you in a restaurant. And this is the first time in human history that such a face was created and survived for 4,300 years, half way back to the birth of agriculture.
Gaze into her face. This was the woman whom the Pharaoh declared to be his co-ruler in the 12th year of his reign, equal in power with himself. No King had ever named his wife as co-ruler. Now her word was law, just as his was. A hundred years previously the widow Hatsheput had successfully ruled for 22 years as Pharaoh, establishing the wealth that ensured the survival of the 18th dynasty. But she had first been regent for her young nephew, before taking power herself.  Nefertiti had no such justification. Why would Akhenaten promote her to power? He must have trusted her with his life, and more, with his revolution.
By 1338 B.C.E, it must have been clear to Akhentaten that his revolution had failed. The new faith had not spread beyond his new capital. Worse, his orders were being ignored, within and without the empire. His border with the Hittite empire, centered in modern day Turkey, was crumbling. What could have cause him to let go of his power at such a crucial moment? There are hints and rumors that the King, beloved of Aten, the Sun God, had gone blind.
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