Friday, February 19, 2016


I think it a profound insight that all telescopes involve mirrors. In 1846 this idea was stumbled upon by the obsessive-compulsive painter Alvan G. Clark, when he realized there was more money to be made in selling  telescopes to rich people than in just painting portraits of rich people. And since both involved selling positive self-images, Alvan dropped his brush and took up the polishing rag. It was said this self taught optician could feel imperfections in the glass lenses through his thumb while polishing them. For over a half a century Alvin and his sons ground magnificent telescopes for rich clients who saw funding observatories as grand monuments to their own intellectual beneficence. Five times Alvin Clark and Sons produced lenses for the largest refraction telescopes in the world. But it is another sad truth that making optical telescopes is an ephemeral art form, since glass over time all lenses tell lies. Even a Clark
One of Alvan Clark's most enthusiastic customers was Mr. Percival Lowell, whose mommy gave him a 2 1/4 inch Clark on his fifteenth birthday. Astronomy was the kind of hobby mother and son could share atop their Brookline mansion. At his father's insistence Percival went into business in Japan (above - the tall one without the hat). But he always returned to his first love; astronomy. And as  the end of the 19th century approached, Percy was attracted by the approach of Mars. 
The more people looked at the red planet, the more it looked like earth. Kepler was the first to realize that Mars was a neighbor of ours. But it was the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens, who drew the first detailed maps of the planet's surface. Then in September of 1877, as the orbits of Earth and Mars converged, Giovanni Schiaparelli used a new telescope and saw what looked like mountain ranges and plains and long mysterious grooves which criss-crossed the planet. He described the grooves in Italian as “canalii”,  a word meaning a channel, or path.  It is sad to point out here, that although Percival Lowell spoke fluent Japanese, he did not speak Italian. 
In 1896, Percival retired from the business world and built his own world class observatory in the mountains, 7,180 feet above Flagstaff, Arizona, atop a peak he named Mars Hill.  Here, for $20,000 (half a million today) Percival installed a 24 inch Clark refracting telescope. Every summer night for the next 23 years, Percival Lowell (above) sat at the bottom of his telescope, observing Mars. During the days he slept in the 24 room mansion he also built on Mars Hill. Being born rich has its advantages, and Percival would have been a fool if he had not taken advantage of his advantages.
And what he saw through the eyepiece of his expensive magical tube was amazing. He saw canals - real canals - more than 180 of them, some of them 4,000 miles long. And he wondered what sort of creatures had constructed such a massive, intricate irrigation system. “Quite possibly, “ he wrote, “such Martian folk are possessed of inventions of which we have not dreamed...Certainly what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the journey of life.” 
Percival wrote three books, “Mars”, “Mars and its Canals”, and “Mars as the Abode of :Life”. Each and every book became a best seller. He inspired H.G. Wells to write “War of the Worlds”, as well as inspiring Edgar Rice Burrows, who besides the “Tarzan” series, wrote 13 adventure books centering on Mars. By the year his third book was published, in 1907, Percival Lowell was recognized as the world's expert on the planet Mars. And then, almost over night, Percival's magical red world was deflated by his doppelganger, Mr. George Hale.
George Hale also came from a rich Boston family. But where Percival's father had insisted he attend business school, George's father had sent him to MIT to become a professional astronomer. And in 1908 George opened the lens cap on his new 60” reflector telescope in his new observatory atop California's 5,700 foot high Mount Wilson. And almost the first thing George peered at was Mars, where he found...no canals. Not a one. No matter how hard he looked. It is alleged that George saw an elf in his bedroom, but he saw no canals on Mars.
The photographic proof was conclusive. What Percival had seen as canals proved, when seen through a  newer, bigger, telescope,  proved to be just an optical illusion, or maybe the blood vessels in the back of Percival's own eye.  Percival had a nervous breakdown. And when he recovered he sought to re-establish his reputation. He took up the search for the the last great mystery in the night sky, the powerful conundrum of Planet X.
According to Percival's own mathematics, there was something very odd about the planets Neptune and Uranus. They were too big, their orbits were odd, Neptune was spinning on its side and they both wobbled. It looked to Percival as as if there had to be another planet further out from the sun, tugging at Uranus and Neptune. He called his suspect Planet X. Percival even calculated Planet X's mass, and he knew exactly where it had to be in the sky, 40 times further out from the sun than the earth.
For ten years Percival and his assistants – okay, mostly his assistants – scoured photographs of the night sky, searching for the tell-tale movement in the star field that would herald the discovery of Planet X. Twice the camera on Percival's 12” Clark took pictures of the moving X.  But the humans who had to examine each one of the thousands of photographs, failed to notice the one dot that had moved slightly. And then,  in 1916, at the age of sixty-one, Percival Lowell suffered a stroke and died. He was buried next to his beloved 12” Clark atop Mars Hill.  But thanks to Percival's fortune, the search for Planet X continued.
In 1930 Clyde Tombaugh found Planet X. And since he was being paid by Percival's endowment, and still using Percival's 12” Clark, Planet X was named using Percival Lowell's initials – PLuto. And isn't it amazing that Planet X became the official IX planet in the solar system? You don't often get to use Roman Numerals in a joke.
Ah, but things were about to get even more amazing. With the refinement of observations of the outer planets a number of new great mysteries appeared in the night sky, as they always do. The more you know the less you know, you know.  You know?
The first thing astronomers realized they did not know was why  two of those three cold blobs of rock and ice circling far out from the Sun– Neptune and Uranus - were so darn massive, too massive to have been formed so far out at the edge of the spinning disc that eventually became the solar system. In 2005 the mystery was solved (we think) at the University of Nice, France.  Neptune and Uranus, said the French astronomers, had actually formed in the inner solar system, and out of rock, like the Earth, Venus and Mars.
Four billion years ago the newly formed gas giants Jupiter and Saturn had turned the inner solar system into pool table on the break -  with the still molten planets and asteroids slamming and careening into and off of each other. This gravitational pin ball game had pulled the moon into a collision with the Earth, and allowed its capture. It had ground up the rocks trying to form a planet into the asteroid belt. And it had flung Uranus and Neptune out of their formation orbits and into their current orbits, leaving behind a lot of oddities as they swerved out into the edge of our solar system.
And that left Pluto. The more people looked at the guardian of the outer realms the odder it looked. Better telescopes, including one in earth orbit, showed it to have less than two tenths of 1% of the mass of the Earth, and to be only about half the size of our moon. That was too small to have perturbed the orbits of Neptune or Uranus. In fact it was even too small to be classified as a planet.
On August 24, 2006 the International Astronomical Union struck Pluto from the list of planets and gave it the new title of "134340 Pluto, dwarf planet".  It seems that for all of Percival Lowell's careful calculations, and for all of Clyde Tombaugh's perseverance, and for all the power of Alvan Clark's thumb,  finding Planet X right where it was supposed to be was...just a coincidence.  It was the human mind which mistook blind luck for a deep cosmological insight,  just as the swelling in the blood vessels behind Percival Lowell's eye had built the canals of Mars.
It makes me wonder how we can ever really be certain we are certain of anything. And it seems that no matter how big our telescopes become, we will always looking into a mirror.
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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

BLOODY JACK Chapter Four

I suspect that even in Whitechapel, Mary Ann Connolly stood out. She was a large woman, "Her face reddened and sodded by drink",  who went by the street monikers of "Moggg" and  “Pearly Poll”. And in the morning of Thursday, 9 August, 1888, she walked into the Commerce Street station house for the Metropolitan Police in Whitechapel, and in a loud, deep raspy voice, this fifty year old broad shouldered, almost six foot tall red faced alcoholic prostitute announced she knew the name of the woman murdered in George Yard on Tuesday morning. They were good friends and had even been drinking together on Monday night. Detective Edmund Reid went down to interview the woman.
According to Pearly Poll, she was currently living at Crossingham's Lodging House, aka The Round House, a private “dosshouse” at 35 Dorset Street. She had known Emma Turner for four or five months, and the two had become “drinking partners”. The evening of the Bank Holiday, Monday, 6 August, they made the rounds of several pubs, until about 10:00 p.m. when they met two soldiers, a Guardsman and a corporal in the Two Brewers pub on Brick Lane (above). 
Pub hopping for the next ninety minutes, their last stop was The White Hart pub (above), next to the entrance of George Yard (above, right) on Whitechapel High Street. Just before midnight, the four split up. The last Poll had seen of Emma Turner, she was disappearing into the shadows of George Yard with the guardsman.
Poll had taken the corporal up the block to Angel Alley (above, right), an even narrower, darker 3 food wide passage between Whitechapel and Wentworth. 
There Poll performed her service up against the wall (above, to the left of the shop window), a "tup penny upright",  or a "thru penny knee trembler".
Thirty minutes later, having earned enough for her bed in the doss house, Poll left the corporal standing at the corner of Wentworth and George Yard (above, center), waiting for his friend to reappear.
Detective Reid thought the story had problems. Poll's claim that she left a corporal at the corner of Wentworth and George Yard at 12:15 am, was similar to Constable Barrett's story of speaking to a soldier at the same spot about 2:00 am. Could Pearly Poll have been mistaken by 2 hours? Looking into the woman's gin soaked eyes Reid thought more than possible. He did not share his concerns, nor did he tell her that he now had two names for the murdered woman found in George Yard. 
Instead he paid Poll a few shillings, and promised her more if she returned tomorrow for a trip to the Tower of London, to review the soldiers stationed there. And then he hurried her out the door. He had an appointment that afternoon at The Working Lads' Institute.
According to lawyer, merchant and devout Methodist, Henry Hill, in 1875 one of his employees spied a messenger, sent to pick up some new quill pens, returning to the company offices. The boy had the quills jutting out of the top of his hat, thus freeing his arms to hold open a “penny dreadful” adventure story, which he was devotedly reading as other pedestrians swerved to avoid colliding with him. The employee thought him such a laughable creature, he told their boss. But Mr. Hill was not amused. He summoned the messenger to his office and found, “The boy went to neither night school nor Sunday school, and read no other literature than the sensational stories...”  This boy,  lamented Mr Hill, “...is as much a heathen as any inhabitant of India or China.” And he decided to fix that.
Two years later the socially minded Mr. Hill, founded The Working Lads Institute, a subsidized private club where working class young men could relax, socialize and “network” in an atmosphere of sobriety and thriftiness. 
And in 1885 the Working Lads' Institute built new quarters at 285 Whitechapel Road (above), next door to the Whitechapel Underground station (above, left) and just across the street from the London Hospital. 
The Institute boasted a dormitory, a library, a gymnasium and a “Swimming Bath.” (above) It also offered educational classes for those seeking to better their lot in life. To defray costs, the institute rented its classrooms for various functions, including corner's inquests, like the one held to investigate the murder of the unidentified woman murdered in George Yard.
Coroners (above, center bg) usually lacked medical training, and the inquests they held, were not trials. The coroner could issue subpoenas and questioned witnesses (above, left)  in front of a jury (above, right), drawn from the rolls of “freeholders”, who owned enough property to have the right to vote. The jury would then pass judgement whether the death was accidental, careless or criminal. But they could not charge anyone with a crime. 
Still, in the words of a modern author, such inquests added two valuable extralegal elements to the judicial process. “First it invited armature and expert perspectives at the same time,...Second...it had narrative...” In other words, without the restrictions of chain of custody, or against hearsay testimony, and because they were often well attended by the press, an inquest provided a, (often salacious) story of why and how an individual died, usually within 48 hours of the event. The police and prosecutors could then follow up the corner's evidence, if they deemed it advisable.
Deputy Coroner George Collier (above) called this jury to order at 2:00 p.m., on Thursday 9 August, 1888, just 56 hours after the woman found in George Yard had been declared dead. In attendance, beside the jury – the foreman was Mr. Greary – was Collier's assistant Mr. Banks. There was also Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, dressed in his usual impeccable manner, with Metropolitan Police Sargent Green beside him, taking notes. It was Reid who informed Collier that they now had two identities for the dead woman, Emma Turner and/or Martha Turner. Collier decided not to release either name until one could be confirmed. Then he began to call witnesses.
Elizabeth Mahoney testified that she and her husband John had returned home to George Yard at 1:40 a.m., and she had almost immediately gone back out and returned “no more than five minutes later”. She had seen no one in the stairwell on either trip. Cabbie Alfred Crow testified he had seen someone lying on the stairs at about 3:30 a.m.  And John Reeves testified to finding the body just before 5:00 am. Constable Barrett testified he had examined the body and sent for Dr. Timothy Kileen.
Doctor Killeen had declared the victim dead at 5:30 a.m. He estimated the woman's age as about 36 years old and 5 feet, 3 inches tall.. He now said there were 36 stab wounds to the body, many of which could not have been self inflicted - 7 to the lungs, 1 to the heart, 5 to the liver, 2 to the spleen and six to the stomach. 
He now said that most of the wounds were inflicted by a knife, but one wound, which penetrated the breastbone, might have made by a bayonet. He felt certain all had been inflicted while the victim was pre-mortem - while she was still alive. And he gave the time of death as about 2:30 a.m., Tuesday, 7 August, 1888. He found blood between the scalp and skull, and added that the woman's brain appeared pale but healthy. There was food in the digestive tract. When pressed by Mr. Collier he admitted some of the wounds might have been inflicted by a left handed man.
Coroner Collier called this “one of the most terrible cases that one can imagine. The man must have been a perfect savage to have attacked a woman in this way.” He then ordered the inquest be continued in  2 weeks time, so the woman's identity could be confirmed. This was important because most murder victims knew their killers. But it was just another indication of how little the authorities were ready for the hell that was about to descend upon Whitechapel, London.  
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Sunday, February 14, 2016

THE FIRST DAY Chapter Three

I know the few men of Company A, 6th Virginia cavalry, were shocked when,  at about 4:30 that Tuesday morning, 9 June, 1863, Federal cavalry appeared without warning out of a pea soup fog In the shrouded anonymity there was no mercy except that provided by sheer chance. 
Some of the rebel pickets were paralyzed with fear when the madmen in blue came bursting toward their dugouts in the tree line, sabers slashing. Others panicked and went scampering to the rear on foot. Behind the blue attackers Federal cavalry formations galloped through the muddy water of Bevery's Ford  (above), crossing the Rappahannock, the infamous “Dare You Yankees to Attack Line”,  intending to clear a path 10 miles south to Culpeper, where they expected to find J.E.B. Stuart's 7,000 man rebel cavalry corps gathered for a raid. But Stuart was far closer than that. And soon it would the Yankees turn to be surprised.
The Federals at Beverly's Ford - named for early landowner Robert Beverly – were the 5,000 man division under 37 year old General John Buford (above), a West Pointer, who had been superseded as over all commander of the Army of the Potomac cavalry corps.  

But Buford was a cautious commander before a battle.  He had scouted the approaches to river days earlier, and the enemy picket positions. According to General Pleasanton's plan, Buford's troopers were right on time and expected to reach Culpeper by 9:00 a.m. that morning.
What the plan had not allowed for was the determination of Captain Bruce Gibson's company, camped in the wooded hillocks above the river (above).  Despite having left their horses loose to graze overnight, about 100 of Gibson's men managed to get mounted – a few bareback – and delay the 2 regiments of federal cavalry under Colonel Benjamin “Grimes” Davis. And as the Beverly's Ford Road gained altitude above the Rappahannock,  the fog thinned along with Confederate confusion.
Within half an hour, the entire 6th Virginia regiment was throwing itself against the Union troopers, and dozens of fierce battles involving half a dozen men at a time sparked along both sides of the road. It was, to borrow the title of a favored Army of the Potomac march, “Hell Along the Rappahannock”. 
But when the Federal cavalry broke out of the woods, they found themselves facing a low hill,  atop which was line of cannons around Saint Jame's Church (above). As was his nature, Colonel Davis immediately lead a charge straight up the slope against the rebel cannon. The grapeshot cut down horses and men of the 6th Pennsylvania and 6th regular cavalry, as well as Colonel Davis. But the guns were overrun.
However, without a commander, the Federals could not organize a defense, and a new rebel cavalry regiment charged to retake the guns and drive the Federals back. By now Buford had joined his spearhead, and rather then launch another frontal assault, he moved his troopers around the rebel left at Yew ridge, only to find dismounted rebel cavalry behind a stone wall. Removing them would take some time.
Meanwhile, 4 miles to the southeast, General David Gregg (above) was 90 minutes late crossing the Rappahannock at the little 19th century industrial park called Kellysville. 
Two regiments of Federal cavalry and a brigade of infantry crossed Kelly's Ford (above), also looking to reach Culpeper by 9:00 a.m..  But they found their chosen road already blocked by alerted rebel cavalry. Rather than fighting his way through, General Gregg decided to look for another route.
By the time Buford's men finally carried the stone wall – well after 9:00 a.m. - and pried the rebels out of their position around St. James Church, he had realized Stuart's cavalry corps was not 8 miles to the south, but right in front of him, and gathering. Buford was smart enough to still wonder about the location of the rebel infantry. He knew A.P. Hill's corps of 21,000 rebels were still 35 miles to the east at Fredricks Crossing. But that left 2/3rds of the rebel army missing - where were Longstreet and “Old Baldy” Ewell's 42,000 men?  About 11:00 a.m. Buford decided to push 2 regiments ahead, hoping to uncover rebel infantry. 
Waiting across the field, General J.E.B.  Stuart (above) was prepared to crush the charging Federals between his 6th and 12th Virginia regiments, and White's 35th Virginian cavalry battalion.
Buford’s men were spared this fate because General Gregg had finally reached the rear of the rebel line at Brandy Station -  on the Orange and Alexandria railroad line -   and then turned west to the northern foot of Fleetwood Hill (above).  The view from this low ridge was so dominate that just days before General Stuart had used it as a viewing stand for a grand review of his entire cavalry corps. Had Gregg gained the crest of that hill, J.E.B. Stuart's entire command would have been crushed between the Federal wings. Stuart was saved that fate because of one odd little Confederate cannon.
Almost all of the guns lined up to defend St. James Church were standard cannons that fired 12 pound shot. 
But there was also at least one 1841 howitzer that fired a 6 pound shell (above). It's bronze barrel was less than 5 feet long,  the top of it's large wheels stood no more than 3 feet high and it weighed less than 800 pounds and could be pulled by a single mule. But it required a crew of 6, like a standard 12 pound Napoleon. The Federals had only 6, and the rebels only 23. This particular little gun was under the charge of Lieutenant John Carter. When his irregular ammunition had run low, Carter had been forced to withdraw his little howitzer and its crew to the rear. He wrote later, "As we came near Fleetwood Hill...the whole plateau east of the hill and beyond...was covered with Federal cavalry.”
There were no rebel troops on the hill except Major George Brinton McClellan – first cousin to the hesitant Federal General, and his staff. McClellan had already dispatched one warning to Stuart of the federal division a mile and a half in his rear. But Stuart had not responded. So McClellan now ordered Lieutenant Carter to drag his howitzer up the hill, and open fire. Without explaining that he had only one round of high explosive left, Carter's 6 man gun crew did just that.
And that one shot caused the advancing Federals to pause. They suspected there must be more rebel howitzers on the reverse slope, ready to lob explosives into their crowded ranks. So they waited while their own artillery could be brought forward. And that was just enough time for a second warning from McClellan to reach Stuart, punctuated by Carter's desperate single shot.
Without pausing a moment, Stuart wheeled around the force he had intended to crush Buford, and sent them galloping back to Fleetwood Hill to stop Gregg. The weary rebel troopers reached the summit just as the Federal troopers did. 
In the clash of colliding regiments rebel numbers drove the union cavalry back down the slope. But they quickly returned. In the words of one of the rebel gunners, over the next 4 hours, “The two forces met with a crash that could have been heard miles away...Back and forth they swayed across the slope of Fleetwood Hill."   It was a form of warfare that had more in common with WWII era fighter plane dog fights than Napoleonic cavalry charges. The battle devolved into individual combats, in which casualties were surprisingly low, and unit cohesion difficult to maintain.  About 5:00 p.m., General Pleasanton decided to pull his men back north of the Rappahannock, and the battle faded into the twilight and the river..
Some 17,000 troopers had fought over 70 square miles of Virginia countryside, in the largest single cavalry engagement on north American soil. The Federals had suffered causalities of just under 900, while Stuart reported under 600 dead, wounded and captured. General Stuart held the field of battle, a traditional talisman of victory. But as one of his subordinates said, “Brandy Station made the Federal Cavalry.” The Yankee professionalism and skills could no longer be doubted.  But the ultimate measure of the success in this particular battle went to Stuart. The Federal cavalry had detected no rebel infantry, anywhere.
The next morning Wednesday 10 June, 1863 the lead regiments of Richard “Baldy” Ewell's Corps began marching toward Chester Gap, gateway to the Shenandoah Valley. They were unimpeded, and Army of the Potomac commander, General Hooker was totally unaware they were on the march..  Five days later “Old Pete” Longstreet's Corp would cross the upstream fords of the Rappahannock, screened by Stuart's cavalrymen. The first day of the battle of Gettysburg was now less than 3 weeks away.
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