JUNE 2020

JUNE   2020
He Has Dragged Us Back Forty Years.


Saturday, August 04, 2018


I want to retell a story you've heard since childhood, a romance of brave heroes and young love crushed by cruel fate. It is the legend of the shining city of Troy, Helen and Achilles and the wooden horse. But this time I mean to wring as much of the myth out of the tale as I can. My version begins with the capricious, hot, dry Etesian winds, which for five months every summer for the last five thousand years have periodically roared without warning down the winding narrow straights of the Hellespont – the land gates to the Sea of Helen - for days at a time. Faced with such a fickle and relentless foe, crews of the square rigged ships, sailing from the Aegean Sea to the Bosporus and the Pontos Axinos (the Dark or Black Sea) beyond, risked their lives and their cargoes if caught in the straits by an Etesian wind.
A safe harbor close to the southern entrance of the dangerous straits, where a ship could safely wait for favorable winds, would surely prosper. For some 1,500 years there was just such a wealthy port on a broad bay at the mouth of the Scamander River, within ten miles of the Dardinelles, the   Hellespont. And to modern ears the cities' name sounds almost ethereal, as if whispered by the Etesian winds themselves – Wilusa.
Wilusa began as a fishing village, atop a 100 foot high limestone outcrop that jutted into the bay like a ship's prow. Over a thousand years the village became a royal palace and keep, five city blocks wide, with 25 foot high sloping walls. Eventually, as the town prospered, two ditches were dug, eleven feet wide and six feet deep, encircling the land side of the citadel. The earth from the ditches produced a 12 foot high wall,  encircling a city, eventually, of 6,000 people. A tunnel dug through the bed rock fed Wilusa with fresh water. And outside the walls, dotted with farms, was “The Troad”, the sea of grasses that made Wilusa famous for horse breeding.
The great crises for the city that would come to be called Troy began about the year 1275 B.C.E., when the guarantor of Wilusan royalty, The Hittite King Mursili III, was challenged by the resurgent Egyptians along his southern border in Syria.  Seeking to secure his opposite flank, Mursili III picked a dull but stable, younger son,  Piya Walmu, for the kingship of Wilusa. His name meant "gift from Wilusa". And for the Hittites he was a gift, supplying horses and chariots for the Hittite Army under Mursili's uncle, Prince Hattusili. It was the logical decision, but it short changed the older son, Piya Aaradu.  His name meant "gift of the faithful”. And his gift was a dangerous ego maniacal ambition.
The Battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C.E. began when Hattusli's chariots caught a third of the Egyptian army by surprise, and came very close to sweeping it off the field and killing the Pharaoh. But Ramses kept his nerve and held his force together until reinforcements arrived. Nearly 4,000 chariots on both sides, the battle tanks of their day, swept back and forth across the Syrian plain, until the Hittites were forced to take refuge behind the walls of Kadesh.  Hattusli was saved only because Ramses' army was too weakened to put the city under siege.  Both sides' propaganda claimed a bloody victory, and both Ramses and Hattusli were labeled as heroes. But afterward both Hittite and Egyptian empires retreated to lick their wounds.
At the first word of Hittite troubles, Piya Aaradu murdered his bother and declared himself the new King of Wilusa. But Mursili knew he would not remain King for long if he was thought to be weak. And he felt his uncle Hattusli, the “hero” of Kadesh, looming behind his throne. So Mursili commanded Manapa-Tarhunda, the governor of the Seha River region , just south of Wilusa, to punish the usurper.  In about 1273 B.C.E., the Seha army marched on Wilusa.  But on the plains of The Troad,  Piya Aaradu ambushed the punitive force, and Manapa-Tarhunda was defeated, possibly killed. Now, suddenly, the Hittite western border was looking vulnerable, as well.
Mursili had no choice. In 1272 B.C.E. he dispatched a larger, fully Hittite force under a general known to history only as Gassus. Using a horsehide covered battering ram suspended from a rolling frame (above), the Hittites quickly breached the city walls of Wilusa.  Gassus allowed his warriors to sack the city, but prevented them from burning the entire place to the ground.  Afterward, Wilusa was no longer trusted enough to have its own king, but a local was named the new governor - Alaksandu. The only mistake Gassus  made, and perhaps the reason we do not know his full name, was that he allowed Piya Aaradu to escape.
The pouting prince sailed 300 miles down the coast of Asia Minor to the port of Millawanda, or Miletus in language of its Archean founders, whose ruler was the king of Mycenea,  100 miles west across the Aegean Sea, in what is today Greece.   Here, Piya Aaradu was sympathetically greeted by Governor Atpa, who was also his son-in-law, and the brother of Akagamunas, the king of Mycenae. 
With this familiar support, Piya Aaradu led a mercenary raid against Hittite merchants on the island of Lesbos. The joint Achean and Wilusian raid captured 700 skilled artisans, who were then sold into slavery.  It seems likely Piya Aaradu split the profits with Atpa, and that Akagamunas also “got a taste”, to borrow a Mafia term from the 20th century A.D.  The “had been” and “would be” King of Wilusa, Piya Aaradu was now a pirate, with money to finance future raids, and a safe base to operate from.
Unfortunately for Piya Aaradu, his military alliance with the Mycenae was the final straw for the Hittites. About 1269 B.C.E. Mursili III was sent into exile by, his uncle, Hatusili.   The new king gathered an army and about 1267 B.C.E, marched on Miletus. 
Piya Aaradu tried talking his way out of the mess. He offered to swear allegiance to Hatusili if he was returned to power in Wilusa.  Hattusli responded by marching his army right up to the border with Miletus. Teetering on the brink of all out war between Mycenea and the Hittites, Hattusili demanded Akagamunas hand over Piya Aaradu for punishment.
Akagamunas was not eager to start a war. Pulling Hittite beards was fun, and Piya Aaradu's raids had even shown a small profit. But big wars have a tendency to wipe out small profits very quickly. So, as a show of respect, the Governor of Melitus, Atpa, invited Hatusili to visit Melitus , assuring him he would hand Piya Aaradu over to him. But once Hatusili was inside the city walls, Atpa informed the Hittite King that, oops,  Piya Aaradu had skipped town, some how.
Hattusili was not happy.  But he did not want a war, either. So after stomping around Mellitus for a few days, he headed home. And given the time and distance to think during his journey, and perhaps listen to his advisers, Hattusila decided on a new approach. The following year he offered to give Piya Aaradu everything he wanted, including the crown of Wiliusa. Swear fidelity to Hattusili and all would be forgiven.
Now, no one in their right mind would have believed such an offer. But was Piya Aaradu in his right mind? Or - more importantly - was Akagamunas?  And there were logical reasons for the King of Mycenea to be suspicious of the pirate prince.  It was one thing to finance Piya Aaradu when the Achaens had plausible denial  It would another if Piya Aaradu began to trumpet Mycenaean duplicity from the topless towers of Ilium. No matter how unlikely the offer from Hattusili was, the king of Mycenea could not risk the pirate prince taking the offer. It was a death sentence for Piya Aaradu.
It made little difference if the ego maniac was strangled in his bed, or stabbed by a trusted friend while leading another raid. His dead body may have even been handed over to Hattusili as a sign of good will. But as long as there was the possibility of Piya Aaradu switching sides again, he had to die.
In fact Hattusili followed a similar strategy later when his nephew Mursili escaped his exile and arrived in Egypt. First the Hittite King demanded his return. And then offered to welcome him back into the family. Both Mursili and Piya Aaradu simply, suddenly. disappeared from history. And they were far from the only ones who disappeared.
"Within a period of 40 to 50 years",  beginning abound 1206 B.C.E., according to historian Robert Drews, “...almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again”  One of the first to be burned for the last time around 1200 B.C.E., was Wilusa. Almost the last to go was the Hittite capital of Hattusa, which was burned to the ground one night in 1180 B.C.E.  By then, every major city, from Greece to the Egyptian frontier, was violently destroyed, and often left unoccupied for generations.
Maybe the villeins were  invaders, or diseases, or volcanoes or climate change or perhaps even the replacement with bronze by iron tools and weapons. But whoever or whatever the cause, to a child growing up in Greece 3,000 years ago,  the past was a time of greatness and plenty, unlike the hunger and poverty of their today.  And leaders like Piya Aaradu (aka Priam), Akagamunas (or Agamemnon), Alaksandu (Alexander, aka Paris) had been so famous for so long, they became myths. And Helen herself, the most beautiful woman in history, the face that launched a thousand ships and toppled the topless towers of Ilium (Troy) was Greece herself, and the new Hellenistic culture she would export to the entire world.
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Friday, August 03, 2018


I have absolutely no sympathy for Anthony Comstock (above),  a man described by a biographer as having  “no conspicuous talents and...boundless energy”.   His brother's death from wounds suffered in the three days of slaughter at Gettysburg, compelled Anthony to join the Union Army. But chance sent the Connecticut farm boy far from the crucial battles around Richmond, and he spent a year of isolation and boredom guarding the backwaters of St. Augustine, Florida. Most of his fellow soldiers considered him a bible thumping prig, who instead of simply refusing it, pompously poured his daily whiskey ration out on the ground. And the great lesson this “religio-monomaniac” took from the war that ended slavery, was that his fellow soldiers were addicted to pornography.
By 1861 there were almost 3,000 photographers in Paris, and 200 schools teaching the skill in London. And from day one, a significant percentage of these technicians found taking “dirty pictures” very profitable. Shortly after Gettysburg, another smug priss, General Marsena Patrick, had boasted in his diary of “burning up a large quantity of obscene books, taken from the mails.” And it wasn't just pocket editions of “Fanny Hill”, and the “Libertine Enchantress” that he burned. There were also the “barrack favorites”, the “carte de visite” french postcards – nude photos of women, which went for twelve cents each, and “London and Paris Volupuarties” engaged in actual sex, for $3 a dozen ($9 for stereoscopic views). Comstock found himself drawn to these “deadly poisons” - as he called them - “cast into the fountain of moral purity.”
By 1868 the muscular Comstock was a menial worker in New York City, making $12 a week as a porter for a dry goods store. He was a man "devoid of humor, lustful after publicity, and vastly ignorant “ who, by his own admission, spent many lonely evenings fearing “for the souls of the young men” who roomed with him. He joined the Young Men's Christian Association, and became convinced he faced “some of the most insidious and deadly forces of evil” in America. A nation racked by continued violence inspired by four bloody years of war saw pornography as a low priority. But Comstock did not share that opinion.
He quickly attracted the attention of the President of the WMCA, Morris K. Jessup, who had made his fortune as a banker for railroad tycoons. Jessup interviewed Comstock in his Madison Avenue mansion and liked what he saw. They made an unlikely pair. Jessup stood over six feet tall, and was a philanthropist to many causes. Comstock was short and brutally single minded. But for forty years Jessup was supportive of Comstock, with money and political influence, even creating the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice for the Christian warrior, when others in the WMCA questioned his tactics. (It is interesting to note that of all the social reform movements of the late 19th century, the Comstock's “Society” was the only one with no women in positions of authority.) Comstock would admit in his diary, “ Only one man thinks as I do and that is Mr. Jessup.”
With Jessup's support Comstock successfully lobbied congress for the Comstock Law, the last act of a lame duck congress on 3 March, 1873,  which made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material through the mail. The act also created a job of Special Postal Inspector for Comstock, allowing him define as pornographic anything mentioning birth control or preventing venereal disease. In Comstock's view, “God has set certain natural barriers. If you turn loose the passions and break down the fear (of unwanted pregnancies or disease) you bring . . . disaster.” His first year the new Special Inspector, always dressed in his black frock, traveled 23, 000 miles on a free rail pass, looking for sin in America. And luckily, since his job depended on it, he found it everywhere, and 24 states passed their own versions of "his" law, collectively called the Little Comstock Laws.
In 1872 Comstock won national attention when he went after Victoria Woodhull (above). She was no common pornographer, but a feminist who had run her own Wall Street brokerage firm and her “Weekly” newspaper -  in which Victoria argued,”When woman rises... into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, and man is obliged to respect this freedom...then will woman be raised” To highlight the hypocrisy of men making decisions about birth control, the “Weekly” published details of an extramarital affair by one of her critics, popular Brooklyn minister Henry Ward Breecher. The same day the article appeared, Victoria, her husband and her sister were all arrested. Reporting the affair, said Comstock, was spreading obscenity. Comstock's belligerent theatrics in the court room so offended some members of the jury, they hung. Still, the trial only increased the popularity of both Comstock and Breecher.
Comstock claimed he convicted 3,500 people of distribution of pornography and destroyed 15 tons of obscene books, including medical text books that displayed female anatomy charts or mentioned abortion. To Comstock, woman’s health was far less important than their moral purity. He also burned novels written by D.H. Lawrence and Theodore Dreiser. Comstock even tried to close down a play by George Bernard Shaw, whom he called an “Irish smut dealer”. Of the first twelve people convicted of violating the Federal Comstock law, 5 were pardoned by President Ulysses Grant, who had signed the law. And of the 105 people arrested for violating Comstock's campaign against birth control,  all but 16 were found not guilty. In state courts Comstock fared much better.
He saw himself as “the weeder in God's garden”, but his critics saw him as “a first class Torquemada” and chief of America's “moral eunuchs.” In 1877 Comstock went after Massachusetts social activist Ezra Heywood for publishing a pamphlet about marriage called “Cupid’s Yokes”. The judge told the jury the pamphlet was too offensive to allow them to read it, and they sentenced Heywood to two years at hard labor in the Dedham jail. Six months later President Rutherford B. Hayes pardoned Heywood, but Comstock saw that as a challenge. He now persecuted Heywood, having him arrested four more times, once for reprinting two poems by Walt Whitman, and again for discussing a contraceptive device called the “Comstock syringe” . By the fourth arrest the sixty year old Heywood was broke and emotionally exhausted, and was convicted and sentenced to another two years of hard labor. This time there was no pardon. A year after he was released in 1892, Heywood died of tuberculosis he had contracted in jail. Comstock had won again.
Comstock boasted he had driven 15 people to suicide. His most famous victim was Ida Craddock, a free spirit and writer of fact based guides like “The Marriage Night” and “Right Marital Living”. After pleading guilty and receiving a suspended sentence in 1889, for to violating Illinois' Little Comstock Law, she was arrested under New York's version in 1892 and suffered three months in a workhouse. As she left that jail Comstock had her arrested again on Federal charges for the same offense. This time she was sentenced to five years at hard labor. And Comstock let her know, that as soon as she served that term, he intended on arresting her again.
The night before she was to enter prison, Ida Craddock put her head in the oven, turned on the gas jets, and then slit her wrists. In her public suicide note, Ida blamed her death on “This man, Anthony Comstock,...(who is) unctuous with hypocrisy...if the reading of impure books and the gazing upon impure pictures does debauch and corrupt and pervert the mind...(and) Anthony Comstock has himself read perhaps more obscene books, and has gazed upon perhaps more lewd pictures than has any other one man in the United States, what are we to think of the probable state of Mr. Comstock's imagination? ...The man is a sex pervert; he is what physicians term a Sadist...for nine long years I have faced social ostracism, poverty, and the dangers of persecution by Anthony Comstock..I beg of you, for your own sakes, and for the future happiness of the young people who are dear to you, to protect my little book...” Comstock insisted that her death was one of his proudest moments.
It was not Comstock's bullying, but his lack of self awareness that gradually weakened his grip on public morals. The final breaking point came in 1913 when Harry Reichenbach besieged Comstock with complaints about the Braun and Company gallery on west 46th street in Manhattan. The prig-in-chief found the sidewalk in front of the art gallery crowded with young men snickering and praising the beauty of a painting of a nude woman in the front window. Comstock stormed into the gallery and ordered the painting removed. The clerk, James Kelly, stammered, “But that is the famous “September Morn” by Paul Chabas”(above).  The work was famous, having won a medal of honor from the French Academy of Painting just the year before. Undaunted, Comstock replied, “There is too little morning and too much maid”, and threatened to arrest the gallery owner, Philippe Ortiz,  if the painting was not removed.
Defiantly, Mr. Ortiz kept the painting in his gallery's front window for another two weeks, removing it only after the crowds jamming his studio had bought out every print of it.  Twenty years later in his memoir, “Phantom Fame”, Reichenbach admitted he had staged the entire thing, including hiring the young men to ogle the painting, as a publicity stunt for the gallery. Comstock, who was not in on the joke, had behaved as boorishly and brutally as expected.
Comstock died suddenly on the evening of 21 September, 1915. His monument was that during World War One the United States was the only nation not to supply its soldiers with prophylactics.. Instead, under Comstock's insistence, the Army and Navy  lectured its soldiers on abstinence.  As a result the American Army and Navy discharged 10,000 men who had become infected with sexually transmitted diseases, the largest single cause of American causalities during the war. It would be another 18 years before birth control could be openly purchased in the United States. Shadows of Anthony Comstock's warped vision have distorted American education well into the 21st century, in states that refuse to offer high school students sex education, opting instead for preaching abstinence - which has proved no more effective today than it had in the 19th century.  It seems that every prig,  Anthony Comstock was convinced he was the savior of civilization. And yet no prig ever saves anything,  because they trade human lives for a tattered myth of morality.
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Thursday, August 02, 2018


I don't think 1828 was even close to being the dirtiest political campaign in American history. It was filled with lies and insults and half truths and smears, and things which written or said in any other context would have produced a number of libel suits. it did produce a number of duels.  But then politics has always produced despicable public behavior. The 1828 election was, however, significant for other reasons. It was the first presidential election when the majority of American voters actually had a voice in the outcome.   And it was the first time the Democrats boasted of having a jackass as the symbol of their party.  The first "million dollar" campaign.  The first time an American political party cut a deal to sell its soul for victory.  The first time the voters had a choice between investing in themselves or protecting the wealthy.  And, last but not least, it was one of the longest -   if not the,  longest -  campaign in American history. You see, it started four years earlier with the infamous “Corrupt Bargain” which was, in fact, just politics as it was supposed to be practiced.
See, in 1824 Henry Clay (above) of Kentucky,  wanted to be President. He was already Speaker of the House, and he had considerable political support along the frontier, which then constituted the Ohio and upper Mississippi River Valleys.  But Henry knew that was not enough support, for two reasons.
In the first place the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams (above) of Massachusetts, also wanted to be President, and he had the support of the two previous Presidents, James Madison and James Monroe, both of whom had been Secretary of State like Adams, before becoming President themselves.  That is what you call a Presidential precedent. And secondly, Clay shared his regional power base with Senator, war hero and political superstar Andrew Jackson, from Tennessee. Still, Clay wanted to be President.
Senator Andrew Jackson (above) did win the most popular votes in 1824 - 151,000. Now, out of a population of about 10 million that should not have been enough to be President,  but from an electorate limited to the largest property owners in America (about 366,000 actual voters), it gave Jackson almost half of all votes cast. Almost. However the hero of the Battle of New Orleans won only 99 electoral votes, thirty-two short of the number required.  Adams was next, with 88 electoral votes. Clay had won only 37 electors, putting him behind even Judge William H. Crawford of Georgia, who had suffered a debilitating stroke during the campaign, but who still won 41 electoral votes.  For the second time in the nation's history, the election would be decided in the House of Representatives. And did I mention that Henry Clay was the Speaker of the House?
Now, the Constitution allowed the House to consider only the three candidates receiving the most votes - in the electoral college. You might think that rule left fourth place Henry Clay out of luck, but politics is not about the rules – its about making the rules work for you. And it was obvious to everybody that a political deal was going to be required to settle this. That was the point of having an inconclusive election decided by the professional politicians. Clay saw to it that in January the Kentucky legislature ordered their 12 congressmen, originally required to vote for him for President, (above, sewing Jackson's mouth shut), but to instead vote for Adams for President. And once he became President in February of 1825, Adams named Henry Clay his Secretary of State - and thus presumably next in line to be President. That's not corrupt, children, that's politics.
On receiving the news of Adam's victory however, Jackson bellowed, “Was there ever a witness of such a bare faced corruption in any country before?!” The logical answer was, yes, of course, millions of times. And I repeat, it was not corrupt – it was just politics. But Jackson was thin skinned and convinced that any contest which he did not win must be corrupt - sort of like Donald Trump. Jackson had been christened “Old Hickory” by the militia who served under him in 1814 because of his harsh discipline (above)  and because once he made a decision he stubbornly refused to reconsider it, even after he learned it had been a mistake. And he was now convinced he had been cheated. He was confirmed in this opinion by Martin Van Buren, leader of the “Albany Regency” - the elite who ran New York State politics.
“Old Kinderhook” (he was from that upstate village) had tried to deliver his state to Crawford in 1824.  But Van Buren (above) failed for various reasons – his overconfidence being the biggest one, but there was also Crawford's stroke, and a political “paltroon” named Stephen van Rensslaer who switched his vote to Adams at the last second.  But now Van Buren could blame the infamous “corrupt bargain”, which luckily would also justify Van Buren now switching his allegiance to Jackson. 
He was joined by the editor of the Frankfort, Kentucky newspaper “The Argus of Western America”, Amos Kendall (above). This scarecrow with a brain had been a long time supporter of Henry Clay. But in April of 1825 a barbecue was held to honor the four Kentucky congressmen who defied party orders and insisted on voting for Jackson. T hey had not stopped Adams from taking the oath, but the soiree to celebrate their defiance was so well attended and enthusiastic, it convinced Kendall that Jackson was going to be the next President. The editorial slant of the Argus immediately switched sides to support Jackson.
That spring of 1826, Van Buren would make a tour through the Carolinas and Georgia to organize support for Jackson. Again, the response was so positive that even Judge Crawford, still recovering from his stroke, endorsed the hero of New Orleans for the election over three years away. At every stop, Van Buren created “Huzza Boys”, who would plant stands of Hickory trees, and hand out sticks of Hickory wood at pro-Jackson rallies. The trees did not grow well in New England's rocky soil, but its wood was popular for use as wheel spokes and ax handles, because it would break before it bent. As one biographer has noted, the public thought of Jackson as disciplined, brave, uneducated but clever, which closely matched the self image of most Americans living on the frontier.
But myth, public and personal,  was always part of Jackson's persona. In truth Jackson, although born in poverty,  had clawed his way to wealth. He was largely self educated, but was now the polished owner of a 1,000 acre plantation worked by 90 human slaves. He was a very rich man.  He built his political career attacking the Bank of the United States – forerunner to the Federal Reserve System – but he also owned stock in its Nashville branch of the Bank of the United States.  Still, the personality which drove him to attain his station in life, did not seem best suited for a successful career in politics. A longtime friend once warned the General's new personal secretary, “to make it a point not to mingle or associate with anyone who the General believed, was either personally or politically unfriendly to him, although he may have unfounded jealousies against individuals on that subject.”  In other words, never question Jackson's reason for hating anyone.. 
Still, despite the 13 duels he fought, Jackson engaged in none which did not benefit his reputation. The only man he is known to have actually killed in a duel, Charles Dickenson, had to call Jackson a coward, a poltroon and a worthless scoundrel in the pages of a New Orleans newspaper, before Jackson responded to the challenge. In fairness, once the shooting started, Jackson's attitude was always, “I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain.” In fact Dickenson shot Jackson in the chest. Old Hickory would suffer from that bullet for the rest of his life, but at the time he ignored the wound, and a misfire, and methodically reloaded and then shot Dickenson dead.
And Jackson now had another unexpected ally, the political wild card John Caldwell Calhoun (above), who had plotted his own strange path trying to get into the White House. Once the rock jawed gambler realized his own state of South Carolina was not going to support his run for the top job, he became the only man in 1824 to have actively campaigned for the office of Vice President. It proved to be a smart move, for while the top job was mired in political machinations, Calhoun was easily elected. But his goal from the day he took the oath for that secondary office was to knock down Henry Clay, to make room for himself at the top. Calhoun called the “corrupt bargain” made by his one time friend Clay, “the most dangerous stab, which the liberty of this country has ever received.” It was an interesting observation, overlooking the Alien and Sedition Acts of a decade earlier, and signed by John Quincy’s father. But then most successful politicians have short memories.
To the supporters of John Quincy Adams this was all outrageous. Their man had not even taken the oath of office before his enemies were moving to ensure he would be, as other politicians  200 years later would insist, “a one term President”.   It was vulgar, unpatriotic, and beneath contempt. And politics as usual. You can almost share their frustration though, even when they began to refer to Jackson as “Andrew Jackass”, and an Adams newspaper published the cartoon (above)  "The Modern Balaan and his Ass", showing Jackson on a stubborn donkey and Van Buren dutifully following behind, saying, "I shall follow in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessor". 
But the reality was that it wasn't personal, except to Old Hickory of course. A number of powerful politicians simply saw greater advantage in working against John Quincy, than in working with him. And if the bargain to assemble a governing coalition for Adams was not corrupt, neither was the rebellion raised to overthrow him. The founding fathers were no strangers to the murky, disgusting side to politics. And having experienced the evils of royalty and elitism, they were willing to embrace even the dark side of public elections.

Lucky us.
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Wednesday, August 01, 2018


I lived in Manhattan for a decade. And as I drank my morning coffee and read my Sunday New York Times in Carl Schurz Park above 86th Street and East End Avenue, I was completely oblivious that the East River was not a river.
It is a tidal race, the southern arm of the sound that defines Long Island.  And just to the north of my semi-private sanctuary, was the birthplace of the United States Army Corp of Engineers. Without their skill and brains (and the largest man made planned explosion of the 19th century) New York City would have remained a second class harbor… and a thousand men, women and children might have been spared a terrifying and painful death.
A few minutes after 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday 15 June, 1904 “The General Slocum” -  a 235 foot long, 37 foot wide side paddle wheel steamship built for passenger excursions around New York - , left the  East Third Street dock, carrying 1,300 German Lutheran immigrants (mostly women and children) to a picnic on Long Island.
The “Slocum’s” three decks were barely half full, and the children waved to the people on shore as 68 year old Captain William Van Schaick guided her from atop the pilot house up the East River at 16 knots toward the Hells Gate.
Every high tide that pours into the East River from New York Harbor in the south and Long Island Sound to the north,  swirls between Manhattan  the Bronx and Queens on Long Island where it slams into the delayed tide approaching from the opposite direction. For thousands of years, this titanic struggle occurred unseen by human eyes in a rock garden between Astoria Queens, on the Long Island shore, and Wards Island in mid current,  
Long before, and a hundred years after,  the Royal Navy frigate HMS Hussar was driven onto the rocks near North Brother Island in 1780, fortunes and lives have been smashed on infamous outcrops bearing colorful and deadly names such as  "Frying Pan Rock" and "Bald Headed Billy".
 Eighteenth century New York City resident Washington Irving described the Hells Gate this way; “…as the tide rises it begins to fret; at half tide it roars with might and main, like a bull bellowing for more drink; but when the tide is full, it relapses into quiet, and for a time sleeps as soundly as an alderman after dinner. 
"In fact, it may be compared to a quarrelsome toper, who is a peaceable fellow enough when he has no liquor at all, or when he has a skinful…plays the very devil.” 
But the real danger was the combination of the current and  the rocks which randomly thrust up from the bottom muck, like knives and daggers,  Wrote Irving, "Being at the best of times a very violent and impetuous current, it takes these impediments in mighty dudgeon; boiling in whirlpools; brawling and fretting in ripples; raging and roaring in rapids and breakers; and, in short, indulging in all kinds of wrong-headed paroxysms....woe to any unlucky vessel that ventures within its clutches.” 
And, because of the delay in the tide coming down Long Island Sound, there are four high tides a day at Hells Gate , each pair separated by two hours, keeping the Hells Gate in perpetual motion. That made the glacier scared bottom of the East River a deadly obstacle course.
“Three channels existed…the main ship channel to the north-west of the Heel Tap and Mill Rocks; the middle channel between Mill Rocks and Middle Reef; and the east channel between the Middle Reef and Astoria, from which Halletstts Reef projected; and vessels having traversed one…had to avoid Hogs Back and several smaller reefs…(and avoid) Heel Tap Rock…Rylanders Reef, Gridiron Rock of the Middle Reef .” (p.264. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Leveson Francis Yernok-Hartcourt 1888) By the late 1840’s a thousand ships a year were running aground in the Gate, ten percent of all the ships which entered.
In 1850 Monsieur Benjamin Maillefert was paid $15,000 to remove Pot Rock (above) - “rising like a rhinoceros horn from a depth of thirty feet to within eight feet of the surface...right next to a shipping lane” near the Queens shore. Maillefert lowered a canister of black powder on a rope and the resulting explosion managed to chip four feet off the horn. 
Two hundred and eighty-three similar explosions later and Pot Rock was safely 18 feet below the surface. Similar attacks on the Frying Pan and Ways Reef dismantled the great whirlpool which had spun south of Mills Rock for five thousand years. But the start of the American Civil War in April of 1861 gave the merchants of New York more pressing and profitable places to invest their money. Hells Gate remained closed to all but the bravest and most foolish captains.
On that warm and lovely Wednesday morning, 15 June, 1904, the General Sherman (above), plowed her way northward, her 31 foot great paddle wheel pushing the river  behind her . She glided past the tenements of the lower East Side, her single coal powered boiler trailing brown smoke behind. Few of the 3 1/2 million residents of New York bothered to take notice of the commonplace passage she made that day, as he had for the last 13 years.  
At 14 knots she was soon approaching the Hell's Gate, at the southern tip of Ward's Island. Here the Harlem River branched off to the right, while the East Channel of the East River turned east, and headed for Long Island Sound.
 In 1871  General John Newton of the United States Army Corps of Engineers took over the work of finally rendering Hells Gate a safe passage. 
His first target was Hallet’s Point Reef, “, a three-hundred-foot rocky promontory that reached out from Astoria…” And this time General Newton intended to perform the entire task by a process he described as “subaqueous tunneling”.  A cofferdam was constructed extending the Astoria shore, and digging with pick and axe and shovel from this extension the reef was under-mined with four miles of tunnels.
It took seven years. Then, 30,000 lbs of nitroglycerine – the most powerful explosive available at the time – was set off on 24 September, 1876. The explosion threw up a 123 foot plume of water. And the reef was gone.
In 1877,  General Newton built a another sea wall around Flood Rock and sunk another 70 foot deep shaft. was dug.
What followed was the now standard shafts and galleries reaching out below the East River bed. At the same time a similar process was underway at Mill Rock (above). 
It took nine years to undermine these obstacles, but on 10 October, 1885 General Newton’s daughter, Mary, pressed a key that simultaneously set off both sets of the charges. It was, “The greatest single explosion ever produced by man (intentionally)”. 
Nine acres of East River bottom were pulverized. Columns of water rose 150 feet into the air. In that instant the Hells Gate became a safe passage for commercial  ships -  even excursion boats for children's picnics.
Just before ten o'clock , on 15 June of 1904., a boy told deck hand John Coakley, that he had seen smoke in a forward stairwell. Coakley, who had worked on the General Slocum for all of 17 days, found the source of the smoke to be a storage room. He then made two crucial mistakes. He opened the door, which fed air to the smoldering fire. And when he ran for help, he left the door wide open behind him.
 The fifteen crew members rushed to pull down a fire hose, but none of the hoses on board had been inspected since the Slocum had been built, 13 years before. At the first surge of  pressure the fire hose split apart. The crewmen then ran for a second hose ,  but they had to search, since they had never had a fire drill. Meanwhile the fire was drawn through the open door and sucked up the chimney of the three-deck stairwell.
Captain Van Schaick (above) was informed of the fire seven minutes after crewman Coakley had discovered it.
Van Schaick had never lost a passenger and he now decided now to add steam and head for North Brother Island, three miles ahead. There was a hospital on the island, and a gentle shoreline where the passengers could safely wade ashore. 
However, as he rang up for more power from the engine room, Van Schaick could not see he was fanning the hungry flames behind him, trapping the terrified passengers at the stern. 
When they reached for life jackets (above), visible in racks all over the boat, passengers found them tied down with wires to prevent theft. Those who managed to break the wires and free the preservers found they crumbled in their hands.  They had not been inspected for a decade. “The hard blocks of cork inside them were reduced to find dust with the buoyancy of dirt. 
...Most people jumped (over board) without them, but some people actually put them on, (and) plunged over the side and went straight to the bottom.” Some of those who managed to stay afloat were mauled by the paddle wheel, still driving the General Slocum through the Hells Gate at 16 to 18 knots - full power.
A witness at 138th street told the “Brooklyn Eagle” the General Slocum appeared in a cloud of smoke and fire, its whistles screaming, trailed by tugs, launches and even rowboats, all trying to help. “The stern seemed black with people…some were climbing over the railings…the shrieks of the dying and panic stricken reached us in an awful chorus…One by one, it seemed to me, they dropped into the water. As the Slocum preceded, a blazing mass, I lost sight of her around the bend, at the head of North Brother Island”
Captain Van Schaick failed in his attempt to run the General Slocum onshore on North Brother Island, instead grounding on a rock in eight to ten feet of water. 
To people who did not know how to swim, and who were wearing layers of heavy Victorian wool clothing, anything over six feet of water was a near certain death sentence. 
The fire still raged, the upper decks collapsing into the hull, as police and firemen fought to save those who could be saved. ,
But eventually the circle of boats which had followed as the Slocum ran upstream, got smaller and smaller, as the would be rescuers came to realize the cries for help from the water had gone still.
Only the crackle of flames and the lapping of bodies against the shore of North Brother Island could be heard. New York City would run out of coffins for the 1,021 dead, mostly women and children.
In the final insult to the 321 survivors, the Captain jumped to a tugboat as soon as his ship grounded. He did not even get wet.
Seven people were indicted by a Federal Grand Jury. Officers of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company were indicted but never charged. The company paid a small fine for falsifying inspection records. Shortly there after the owner sold off his ships and walked away very wealthy. 
Trials for the inspectors who had failed at their jobs, all resulted in mistrials. 
Only Captain Van Schaick was convicted of criminal negligence. Two years after the disaster - in 1906 -  he was sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing prison. But he was paroled by President Howard Taft in December of 1911. Captain Van Schaick died in 1927, at the age of 91.
The burned out hulk of the General Slocum was converted into a coal barge and renamed the "Maryland".  She sank in a squall south of Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1911. 
In 1997, ninety years after the Slocum disaster, 104 year old survivor Catherine Connelly told a reporter, “If I close my eyes, I can still see the whole thing.”
“Yes, sir. Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible! A thousand causalities. And most heart rending scenes…Not a single life boat would float and the fire hose all burst…Graft, my dear sir. ..Where there’s money going there’s always someone to pick it up.” James Joyce, “Ulysses”.
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