AUGUST   2020


Friday, January 03, 2014


I know two versions as to how James “Farmer Jim” Ferguson became a lawyer back in 1897. In the first story, the chairman of bar exam committee was an old family friend, or he bought the man who actually administered the test a bottle of whiskey. One or both had to be true, since Ferguson was expelled from college without a degree. Two years after becoming a lawyer, the 28 year old married Miriam Wallace. Considering the couple's subsequent behavior, the New Year's Eve nuptials were obviously timed for tax purposes.
How he became Governor of Texas in 1914 is another interesting tale. In what I call the “Virgin Mary” version, “Farmer Jim” (above) rejected nomination by the anti-prohibition party, but all the other candidates withdrew, thrusting greatness upon him. The only problem is that Ferguson had been a political manager for ten years, and had even directed the election campaign of the previous Governor. All things considered, I don't think he was entitled to wear white to this wedding.
In his day job he was a successful banker, even though it was the farmers who elected him. “Farmer Jim” had “considerable native ability and...a captivating personality. As a political speaker he had few equals.” And his election, well funded by the liquor industry, was just part of the 1914 anti-prohibition wave in Texas. The laws he introduced to limit farm land rents were declared unconstitutional, but in politics its usually the thought that counts. Not unexpectedly, he did not achieve much in his first two year term. Being Governor of Texas is a little like being a “fluffer” in a porn movie. There were charges Ferguson had used state funds to buy groceries, but voters still awarded him with a second term in 1916. However, shortly thereafter, “Farmer Jim”, ran into real trouble.
Deciding that college professors were easy targets, Ferguson wanted to fire the “lazy and corrupt” University of Texas history professor Eugene C. Barker. When UT President Robert Vinson asked for evidence, “Farmer Jim” feigned outrage. “I don't have to give any reasons, I am governor of the State of Texas!” He then vetoed UT's next budget. At the same time Farmer Jim announced a five member search committee, which he chaired, had chosen to build a new campus for the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical college in Abilene. Speaker of the Texas House, F.O. Fuller, who was also a committee member, signed an affidavit that he had not voted for Abilene. And when Lt. Governor William Hobby submitted a similar affidavit, Fuller charged “Farmer Jim” had fixed the vote in exchange for a bribe. Ferguson then submitted his own affidavit insisting he had not voted for Abilene either - meaning that Abilene had won the new campus despite no one who was willing to admit having voted for it. On July, 23rd, of 1917, Speaker Fuller called for a special session of the Texas legislature, to consider impeaching the Governor.
Now, only the Governor could call a special session, and Fuller's move would have come to nothing had not Governor Ferguson been indicted shortly thereafter by a Travis County grand jury for embezzlement of pubic funds. “Farmer Jim” had no trouble making the $13,000 bail, but he was now desperate to change the subject. First he announced his re-election campaign for a third term, and then he called for a special session of the state legislature to reconsider a budget for the University of Texas. The legislature did meet that August, but they spent all their time removing “Farmer Jim” from office.
Ferguson went down insisting his impeachment by this “kangaroo Court” was unconstitutional because he had not called the legislature for that purpose. Nobody seemed to care. Seeking to avoid the worst, “Farmer Jim” resigned from office the day before the final vote. Again, nobody seemed to care. The State Senate voted 25 to 3 to toss him out of office, and added the proviso that James Ferguson was henceforth bared from holding any elective office in the state of Texas. In 1918 he tried again for the governorship, but was defeated in the primary by Acting Governor Hobby. And in 1922, when the state Supreme Court affirmed the lifetime bans, it seemed his criminal career had been cut short.
But “Farmer Jim” (above)  followed a motto from a 1922 newspaper poem. “Never say “die”—say “damn.” It isn’t classic, It may be profane. But we mortals have need of it, time and again; And you’ll find you’ll recover from fate’s hardest slam, If you never say “die”—say “damn.” Anybody who thought that James Ferguson was finished, did not truly know James “Farmer Jim” Ferguson. Or Miriam
On the 1924 campaign trail she became “Ma”, and she hated that name. But it worked so well as in the slogan - “Me for Ma, and I Ain't Got a Durned Thing Against Pa” - that it stuck. She began every stump speech by assuring voters that with her they would get “two governors for the price of one”, and then she would introduce her husband, James “Pa” Ferguson. Ma and Pa won the election with 57% of the vote. When they pulled up in front of the Governor's mansion in Austin, Miriam crowed, “We departed in disgrace; we now return in glory.”
The one thing Miriam did not say, during her tenure was “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.” Although it is often attributed to Miriam, the quote goes back to at least 1881. But in her January 1925 state-of-the-state address to the legislature, “Ma” Ferguson did point out Texas' prisons were so overcrowded, she had to decided to “adopt a most liberal policy in the matter of pardons.” She then proceeded to hand out, on average, 100 pardons a month. Some were granted even before the convicted prisoner had reached the prison. The joke around Austin was that a visitor met Governor Ferguson at the Capital's front door. As he stepped aside to let the lady enter first, he said, “Pardon me.” To which Miriam replied, “Sure. Come on in. It'll only take a minute or two to do the paperwork.”
But it wasn't only the number that bothered people, it was the methodology. Most of “Ma's”  (above center) pardons were granted on the sole recommendation of “Pa” (above, to her right). In one interview, it was alleged, a father, begging for a pardon for his son, was exasperated the ex-governor kept trying to sell him a horse for $5,000. Finally the father demanded, “What on earth would I want with a $5,000 horse.” “Farmer Jim” replied, “Well, I figure your son might ride him home from the penitentiary if you bought him.” Said an insider, “Jim's the governor; Ma signs the papers."
In 1926, Attorney General Dan Moody (above right) decided to run against the corrupt “Ferguson-ism”, and Miriam and James (above left) lost by 150,00 votes in the Democratic primary, which was tantamount to general defeat in the one-party state of Texas. In 1928, for the first time in 12 years, there were no Ferguson on the ballot in Texas. In 1930, the couple tried again, but again failed in the primary. Then, in 1932, with the depression ravaging the nation, Texans were desperate enough to give Ferguson-ism another try, and Ma was elected to a another two year term. This time there were rumors of kickbacks in the highway department, but nothing could be proven, and in any case, even Texas was not big enough to overcome the world-wide depression. Miriam lost her re-election bid in 1934, and a year later, just to be sure, the voters passed an amendment to the state Constitution which took the power to pardon out of the governor's hands..
James and Miriam (above, center) tried one more time in 1940, for old time's sake. But “Farmer Jim” was getting frail, forgetful as to who he was angry with. His stump speeches were few and not as powerful as they once were. And “Ma” had never been that interested in politics. The dynamic duo went down to ignominious defeat. In September of 1944, “One of the most colorful and divisive...figures ever in Texas politics”, James “Farmer Jim” “Pa” Ferguson died of a stroke. Miriam, the second woman governor in United States history, lived for another 17 years, and never said another political thing in her life. She died of heart failure, at the age of 86, in 1961.
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Wednesday, January 01, 2014


I hate to tell you this, but America's midsection has a big tummy ache. It's probably not keeping you up nights, but maybe it should - because to put it in the vernacular of my youth, “We can't believe we ate the whole thing” - ( ). The testimonials of our last intestinal uprising are striking. “The roar I thought would leave us deaf...It was the worst thing that I have ever witnessed.” It was an historic case of indigestion. And that was what you would expect, considering what we swallowed.
About a billion years ago the earth had cooled enough for surface rocks to be strong enough to support the first great mountain range. The worn down nubs of these ancient Himalayas (above, across the center of the landmass)  still stretch across Quebec and Northern New York State, now called the Laurentide mountains and giving their name to this particular toddler continent. But in the formation of Laurentia the bedrock of igneous granite and quartz was broken and cracked, then buried under a few billion tons of sedimentary sandstone and limestone washed down from the Laurentide mountains.
For most of the next three quarters of a billion years, Laurentia slowly drifted, her west flank adding new terrains in more collisions, until she reached adulthood as the North American tectonic plate. And then, like a Mexican omelet that brings up last night's sweet and sour pork, about a million years ago a lump of ice brought back up that lump of broken rock in our belly.
It was the glacier melt that realigned North America's rivers from north to south. The Mississippi now carried the weight of the Rocky Mountains to America's abdomen, depositing billions of tons silt at low water right on top of the undigested meal. The piling weight caused the broken bedrock to occasionally shift. We know it shifted 2,500 years ago, again 1,800 years ago, and again 600 years ago. And then, one more time, 200 years ago. That last time, it happened to people who wrote the experience down
In 1777, on the outer bank of a great westward bend of the half mile wide river (above), 175 river miles south of St. Louis (and 70 air miles south of the mouth of the Ohio River) , the Spanish established a fort they named after their capital - New Madrid. One year later Azor Rees, a farmer from Pennsylvania arrived with his wife and 3 year old daughter Eliza. The Rees willing swore allegiance to the Charles III of Spain, and adopted Roman Catholicism. They were successful in the community, even after Azor died in 1796. Then in 1803, with the Louisiana Purchase, they became Americans again.
Seven years later, the town of New "MAD-rid" had 400 residents, including the now 31 year old Eliza Rees Bryan – married to a United States Army surgeon. Having a government job, Dr. Bryan received a regular paycheck, and Eliza's mother also operated a boarding house, making them a very important family in this small frontier town. So it was natural that Eliza, in a time and a place where an educated woman was still a rarity, would be asked by a visiting evangelist to record what she had experienced. This is what Eliza wrote.
“On the 16th of December, 1811, about two o'clock, A.M., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating...The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro....the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species - the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi - the current of which was retrogade for a few minutes....formed a scene truly horrible.” The town's graveyard even disappeared into the river.
Fifteen miles to the south, and closer to the epicenter, stood the 27 houses of the river town of Little Prairie. Here 16 year old Ben Chartier and his mother were standing in the cabin doorway overlooking their orchards though the crisp 40 degree air. Abruptly, "The ground burst wide open and peach and apple trees were knocked down and then blowed up.” The leading citizen of Little Prairie was George Roddell. As swamps next to his property “rose up and became dry land”, he watched his home and grain mill swallowed by the collapsing earth. Within fifteen minutes the residents were waist deep in the cold roiling Mississippi. Stumbling in the dark water, without lights, Roddell led his 100 neighbors in search of dry land. They did not find any until the village of Hayti, eight miles to the northwest.
As the riverbed below the New Madrid Bend rose up, the river was sent rushing backward, swamping 30 flatboats tied up for the night. Their crews were heard calling in terror as the darkness and the mad river swallowed them. On one of those boats that survived, Scotchman John Bradbury was awakened by “a most tremendous noise. All nature seemed running into chaos, as wild fowl fled, trees snapped and river banks tumbled into the water.”
Below the Bend another earthen block was thrown up, creating a waterfall that continued for days. Eliza observed that small shocks continued , “...until about sunrise...(when) one still more violent than the first took place... The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country...In one person, a female, the alarm was so great that she fainted, and could not be recovered. In all four died in New Madrid.
In St. Louis, two hundred miles north of the epicenter, a reporter for the Louisiana Gazette noted he had been “roused from sleep by the clamor of windows, doors and furniture in tremulous motion, with a distant rumbling noise, resembling a number of carriages passing over pavement – in a few seconds the motion and subterranean thunder increased....The agitation...lasted about one and three fourth minutes....At forty seven minutes past two, another shock was felt...much less violent than the first...At thirty four minutes past three, a third shock...(lasted) about fifty seconds...About 8 o'clock, a fifth shock was felt; this was almost as violent as the first, accompanied with the usual noise, it lasted about half a minute...”.
In South Carolina wells went dry and people were awakened from their sleep. In Washington, D.C., chairs slid about wooden floors and chandeliers were sent vibrating. Church bells rang in Philadelphia and as far north as Boston. Two hundred thirty miles from the epicenter, at the falls of the Ohio River, in Louisville, Kentucky, Zachary Taylor recorded, “The sight was truly awful: houses cracking, chimneys falling, men, women and children running in all directions in their shirts for safety, and a friend of mine was so much alarmed as to jump off a window and was very much hurt.”

By current scientific figuring it was at least a seven on the Mercalli scale, and maybe an eight. If the later, that meant at least two aftershocks in the seven range, four above six and at least eight above five. But superimposed over this pattern, On January 13, 1812, in St Louis, the Governor of Louisiana Territory, sent an urgent request to Washington, arguing “provisions ought to be made by law for or cashiered to the said inhabitants relief, either out of the public fund or in some other way”. But “the Supreme Being of the Universe” as Governor Clark called him, was not yet finished with the residents of New Madrid.
On January 23, 1812, there was a second major quake measuring between a seven and an eight, this time centered even closer to New Madrid. Artist James Audubon, on a boat trip to paint the new country, wrote in his journal, “ I heard what I imagined to be the distant rumbling of a violent tornado…at that instant all the shrubs and trees began to move...The ground rose and fell in successive furrows like the ruffled waters of a lake.” Godfrey Lessieur saw the ground, “rolling in waves of a few feet in height... These swells burst, throwing up large volumes of water (and) sand...(Leaving) large, wide and long fissures...I have seen some four or five miles in length, four and one-half feet deep on an average about ten feet wide.” George Crist, a farmer in Kentucky, confided to his diary, “We lost our Amandy Jane in this one – a log fell on her...A lot of people thinks that the devil has come here. Some thinks that this is the beginning of the world coming to an end.”
Then, as Eliza Rees Bryan noted, on the 7th of February, “..about 4 o'clock A.M., a concussion took place so much more violent...At first the Mississippi seemed to recede...leaving for the moment many boats, ...on bare sand...It then rising fifteen to twenty feet....the banks were overflowed with the retrogade current, rapid as a torrent - the boats....were now torn from their moorings, and suddenly driven up a little creek...nearly a quarter of a mile. The river falling immediately...with such violence, that...whole groves of young cotton-wood trees...were broken off....A great many fish were left on the banks...The river was literally covered with the wrecks of boats, and 'tis said that one was wrecked in which there was a lady and six children, all of whom were lost.” There was now not a house undamaged nor a chimney standing within 250 miles of New Madrid.
At the headwaters of the Tennessee River, in the village of Knoxville, “the river rose several feet, the trees on the shore shook...hundreds of old trees that had lain perhaps half a century at the bottom of the river, appeared...” Six hundred miles from the epicenter, in Charleston, South Carolina there was, “Another severe shock....Books and other articles were thrown from shelves, and chairs and other furniture standing against walls, made a rattling noise...”.
Back in New Madrid, membership in the Methodist Church went from 17 in 1811 to 165 in 1812. Eliza Rees Bryan noted, “The site of this town...(has) settled down at least fifteen feet, and not more than a half a mile below the town...numerous large ponds or lakes....are elevated...fifteen to twenty feet....And lately it has been discovered that a lake was formed on the opposite side of the Mississippi (above)...upwards of one hundred miles in length, and from one to six miles in width,.” This came to be called Reelfoot Lake, and it is now a Tennessee Recreation Area
Responding with typical government efficiency, in 1815 congress voted to offer the December 1811 survivors of New Madrid, 640 free acres each, anywhere else in Missouri they wanted. Land speculators beat the government communications to the riverfront town, and bought up most of the claims for $40 to $60 each. Like earthquakes, mountains and continents, human greed is a repetitive story.
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Sunday, December 29, 2013


I have two favorite Christmas chorals; the haunting Carol of the Bells, composed in 1904 by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, and the seemingly nonsensical Twelve Days of Christmas, which is old enough that we have no idea who composed it. In fact, the Twelve Days of Christmas might even predate Christianity in France, where it originated. And that makes this English carol more interesting - to me, anyway – because it speaks to the evolution of the holiday. Remember, it wasn't until 137 years after the death of Jesus, give or take a couple of years, that the Bishop of Rome ordered a “Christesmaesse” - Christ's Mass, to celebrate Jesus' birth. You see, the twelve disciples did not celebrate Christmas, partly because they were Jewish, but mostly because until fairly recently anything from 60 to 80% of infants died within hours of their birth. Nobody celebrated their birth day, not even Pope Julius I, who around 345 A.D. picked December 25th for Christmas. For all humans, even for the Messiah, life did not officially begin until their epiphany, (meaning, according to -the announcement, the display, the exhibition or the showing of the child), which was not held until you were pretty sure the child was going to live. And Jesus' epiphany is traditionally celebrated on January 6th – 12 days after Christmas.
This English Christmas Carol began as a medieval midwinter festival “memories and forfeits game”, a sort of musical chairs in a world without very many chairs. We know the game began in France because
the Red-legged (or French) partridge, widespread in medieval Europe, commonly perches in trees, unlike the the English (or grey) partridges which, while common today, were not introduced to England until the 18th century, and prefer ledges or cliffs. And in all three medieval French versions of the song that we know of, and all surviving English versions, “a partridge in a pear tree” is the first and final present always received by the lead singer.
In the game the leader sings a verse, and each participant repeats what they have just heard, and everybody then takes a drink of wine or mead. Then the leader sings another verse, adding an item, the players repeat, and then everybody drinks again. The rounds we have inherited begin “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gives to me, a partridge in a pear tree.  On on second day of Christmas, my true love gives to me, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.”
The game continues (with variations) to three French Hens, four colly birds, five gold rings, six geese a-laying, seven swans a-swimming, eight maids a-milking, nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers pipping, and twelve drummers drumming. A player who forgets an item is eliminated and forced to offer a kiss to the leader, or eat a less than appealing food item. The game would continue until all 12 verses were done, or all the players but one had been eliminated. Sound familiar?
And yes, the line is “four colly birds”, as in a colliery, meaning a coal pit or a mine. The birds referred to were as black as coal – the common European black bird. When this song was translated into English, crows and ravens were only referred to as fowl. But the 4 ½ ounce Turdus merula (the black thrush), was small enough to be called a bird . In the winter black birds were easy to attract with seed and easy to catch with a net, and they were a common part of the diet. Peasants sang about “four and twenty black birds baked in a pie”. It is a reminder that there are huge chunks of our culture based on now forgotten starvation repeatedly suffered in each life time. And “break fasts,” like the midwinter festival, were fond memories, which Christianity had to adopt and adapt.
In fact, birds play a major role in this song, as if the leader was scanning the banquet table for the next noun to use in the next verse. The partridge is followed by turtle doves, french hens, the Colly birds, geese and swans. The five gold rings seem out of place unless they refer to the ring-necked pheasant, the male of which (above) has a golden brown plumage and a white ring around his neck. There would have been pheasants on any well stocked midwinter festival table, along with the other bird protein
There would also have been cheese (made from milk), and about the room, men and women dancing - but not in pairs, that would not become common until the 10th century. And of course there would be musicians accompanying the song-game with the world's oldest instruments, a flute (or a pipe) and a drum. Music was as vital a part of pagan religious and social celebrations, as they are of Christian services. And that brings up the recent myth that this game was used to preserve Catholicism in a hostile Protestant England. That might be true, except there is not even of hint of it until 1979. However, the success of this myth across the Internet since, does offer an insight into the methodology Christianity used to snatch Christmas from the happy pagans getting drunk at their winter solstice break fast. I am not suggesting a conspiracy, but rather a well meaning application of religiously influenced logic .That is also probably how Mithra over came Apollo, and how Jupiter conquered Zeus. It would be wise for all born again Christian evangelicals to remember that religions practices never really die, they just become adopted and adapted.
The same can be said about a certain odd mathematical aspect of the carol. If you add up all the gifts – 1 partridge, 2 turtle doves and 1 partridge, 3 french hens, 2 turtle doves and 1 partridge, etc., etc. – they add up to 364 gifts in total. It seems there ought to be some connection between the gifts and the length of the year. The only problem is a year is 365 ¼ days long, not 364, and that length has been well known since, well, since forever. And while it seems the number of gifts, like some sort of Christmas carol kabbalah, ought to mean something, it really doesn't. And that seems to me to be the difference between religion and science. In religion the possibility of meaning is the meaning, while in science the possibility is theory and subject to testing. Religion gave us the pyramids and Michelangelo's "David". Science gave us a modern infant mortality rate in industrial nations of less then 1%.
Which brings us to the Christmas Price Index, created in 1984 by the chief economist for PNC Financial Services Group, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as “a humorous commodity price index to measure the changing cost of goods over time” using the gifts in The Twelve Days of Christmas. Each year in late November, PNC analysts consult with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and the National Aviary in Philadelphia to price most of the birds in the song. However, for some reason, rather than a European black bird, PNC uses the price of a canary at Petco. Gordon Jewelers, a division of Zale Corporation out of Irving, Texas, prices five gold rings for the Index, even tho, as I said earlier, the gift probably refereed to was five ring-necked pheasants. The maids-a-milking are assumed to be earning federal minimum wage, and the Philadelphia Dance Company and their Ballet Company provide the cost of leaping and dancing ladies and lords. The Pennsylvania Musicians Union provides the cost of the drummers and pipers, and the fruit tree has always been priced by Waterloo Gardens, an upscale Philadelphia plant nursery catering to the local 1%.
In 2012 the partridge and the pear tree together cost $189.99, the turtle doves $125 for the pair, the French Hens $165, the 4 Colling birds (actually Petco canaries) $519.96, the five gold rings $750, the 7 swans $7,000, and the 8 maids the same as last year at a mere $58 (which says something depressing about the minimum wage). The nine ladies and ten lords also cost  the same as last year, at  $6,294 and  $4,766, respectively. The musicians were  $2,562 for the wind instruments and $2,776 for the percussionists. In 2011 for the first time the cost for the Twelve Days of Christmas topped $100,000, up 4% over the year before. And in 2012 the total was $107,300. Surprisingly, the cost of buying the 12 days shopping on-line was 16% higher than buying the same gifts at a mortar and brick store. But then, PNC does not endorse their index as a valid gauge of the economy.
PNC admits they use the index to “engage clients”, which means they are trying to entertain bankers, a profession not known for their humor or humility. But, PNC also admits this annual nonsense economic measure has become “one of PNC’s most popular and anticipated economic reports.” I suspect that is in large part because it is “filler” used by media types to add a Christmas hint to their newscasts. However, this year, the results may have a slightly more telling comment on a changing America. In June of 2012, after 70 years in business, the “nationally renowned Waterloo Gardens” went bankrupt. It seems even the 1% are tightening their belts, which means their gardeners are beginning to starve.
Have a Merry, merry, Capitalist Christmas.
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