Drinks With Dead People

Raise a glass to history.

Category: 20th Century (page 2 of 3)

Halloween Mischief

Have a drink with: Halloween hooligans
Trick or treat, smell my feet…

Ask them about: Mayhem, outhouses, peanut scramble.

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It was 1933, and Charles J. Dalthorp had had it. Writing in the Journal of Education in 1937, the superintendent of schools in Aberdeen, South Dakota, bemoaned the Halloween holiday and its attendant juvenile warfare. Describing the aftermath of the day he calls “Hell-o-e’en” (get it?), he writes that the police in Aberdeen are, plainly: “out-generaled, out-manoeuvred, and finally view the results of battle in large property losses, a complaining citizenry, and a smug but triumphant army of boys who have outguessed the law enforcement agencies.”

Surely he’s overreacting, right? This must be the sort of pearl-clutching exaggeration one expects from days gone by. What adorable mischief did the little scamps get up to?

[I]n 1932, the grand and glorious Hallowe’en brought general property damage in excess of five thousand dollars, and left the streets and avenues in the city strewn with 135 truckloads of junk and refuse.

Um.

All of this occurred in a town with a population of less than 18,000 people.

Suffice it to say helicopter parenting was not a thing in the 1930’s.
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The Republican Congressional Cook Book

Have a drink with: Your Friendly Postwar Congressional Republicans
Reducing sauces AND the national debt…

Ask them about: Recipes for your Labor Day cookout

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In 1962, then-Congressman Gerald Ford lent his name to The Republican Congressional Cook Book, a collection of recipes and peppy political axe-grinding given to constituents.

“It is our hope that as you read this Cookbook and use its recipes,” the book begins, “you will enjoy cooking, which is one of the few things not yet regulated by the Federal government.” Ha!

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William Randolph Hearst

Have a drink with: William Randolph Hearst
“…an especially dangerous specimen of the class.”

Ask him: How’d you like Citizen Kane?

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Kentucky’s William Goebel, who has the unfortunate distinction of being America’s only governor to be assassinated in office, was shot by an unknown gunman in January 1900 during the recount of his own contested election. The author and satirist Ambrose Bierce tactlessly commented in the New York Evening Journal:

The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.

Bierce was at the time a columnist for William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner, and neither was his employer was any fan of President McKinley’s; one of the Hearst papers famously ran an anonymous column in 1901 urging that “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.”

Suffice it to say that when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in September 1901, folks remembered what they’d read in the paper.

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Abercrombie & Fitch

Have a drink with: Abercrombie and Fitch
Do’s: Rifles, tweeds, pickaxes. Don’ts: flip-flops.

Ask them about: How to build a fish pond on a Manhattan rooftop

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The words “Abercrombie & Fitch” might suggest any number of things to you: overpriced t-shirts for cool kids, shady employment practices, shirtless models, or maybe the soothing feeling of being locked inside a 150-decibel cologne diffuser.

But one of today’s most vilified brands was, once upon a time, America’s most successful gear shop. Hiram Bingham used A&F as outfitters for the Yale Peruvian expeditions that revealed Machu Picchu to Western culture, and customers like Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt were known to shop there for their rugged manly provisions of choice (not to exclude the ladies, either: Amelia Earhart liked their suede jackets).

And in the brand’s 1970’s twilight, a salty old doctor from Cleveland, Ohio found out just what Ezra Fitch meant when he offered a lifetime guarantee.

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Ian Fleming

Have a drink with: Ian Fleming
Shaken, not stirred.

Ask him: hey, can we bring drinks into the library?

In 1963 a major exhibition of rare books and printed treasures called Printing and the Mind of Man went up at the Eleventh International Printing Machinery and Allied Trades Exhibition (IPEX) in London, displaying some four hundred historic books borrowed from dozens of libraries and private individuals and billing itself as “the most impressive collection of books ever gathered under one roof.” Among other treasures, visitors could see a broadsheet copy of the Declaration of Independence and a one-of-a-kind leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. The King’s College library at Cambridge was the leading exhibitor, with fifty-one items.

In second place, with forty-four: Ian Fleming.

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The Thanksgiving Turkey

Have a drink with: The Thanksgiving Turkey
Our dinner, who art in oven…

Ask it about: Patriotism, Christology, stuffing.

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On October 28, 1909, the Boston-based Journal of Education – the nation’s oldest continuously published educational journal – prepared its readers for Thanksgiving by printing a suggested script for a holiday-themed school play.

This seems harmless enough – festive, even! – until you realize the whole exercise kicks off with a creepy read-aloud poem entitled “The Martyrdom of St. Turkey,” which no doubt traumatized any of the students so unlucky as to be assigned to read it.

Let’s begin.

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Spirit Photographers

Have a drink with: Spirit Photographers
Ray? When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes.

Ask them about: Selfies with your dead relatives

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In 1848, two sisters from Hydesville, New York spread word that they heard mysterious rapping noises on the walls and furniture of their home, and could speak with spirits through tapped code. An enthralled public declared the girls spirit mediums, and over the years household seances, lectures, even Spiritualist “churches” formed a movement – one that survived and grew even after one of the Fox sisters admitted that their spiritual “conversations” were total fluff, the noises no more than dropped apples and cracking their toes under the table.

Just in time for Halloween I’ve been reading David Jaher’s new book The Witch of Lime Street, a detailed romp through the spiritualist revival of the 1920’s, starring Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini and a real-life parade of mediums, journalists and hucksters. Jaher talks about the movement’s surge in the post-WWI years, due in no small part to the inescapable impact of war and influenza on the populations of the Western world. With so many suddenly dead from violence or virus, the grieving were understandably receptive to the idea that they might contact their friends and family in the hereafter. Would the spirits speak to you? Could they?

That’s all well and good, but Jaher ignores a more pressing question: would they hold still for a selfie?

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The Gideons

Have a drink with: The Gideons
Rocky Raccoon checked into his room, only to find…

Ask them about: Getting into your hotel room

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Now Rocky Raccoon, he fell back in his room,
Only to find Gideon’s Bible.
Gideon checked out, and he left it, no doubt,
To help with good Rocky’s revival.
– The Beatles

The Bible and the hotel room seem the unlikeliest of bedfellows at first glance; the former is the core of spiritual life for Christian communities, and the latter a place of abject neutrality for secular America. Yet in millions of hotel rooms worldwide, the Bible is as natural an amenity as little bars of soap thanks to the efforts of the Gideons International, a Tennessee-based Christian association. Paul McCartney included the Gideon Bible in his lyrics to “Rocky Raccoon,” the odd story of a jilted lover written on the roof of a building in Rishikesh, India; and Hunter Thompson in his hotel-room musings was known to thank the Gideons for providing him easy access to Revelation imagery.

So how did the Bibles get there? Wisconsin. (Last place you look, right?)

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Peanuts In Space

Have a drink with: Astronauts Charlie Brown & Snoopy
Just don’t ask about kicking a football in zero-G.

Ask them about: getting America in the mood to fly again

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I’ve got space on the brain.  There’s New Horizons doing its Pluto drive-by, and my toddler running around with a plastic pail on her head insisting she’s going into orbit, and a Discovery documentary on TV that convinces me of nothing so much as the plain audacity of the early space program: basically a handful of men trusting to fate whilst strapping themselves to a giant directional bomb.

I am perpetually amazed with spaceflight but also terrified, since I like many others of my age group watched Challenger explode on live television in my elementary-school classroom. In the Challenger accident, NASA lost astronauts for the first time since the Apollo 1 fire of the late 1960’s, in which three astronauts were killed in a launchpad test of their vehicle. In coping with the deep personal, social and institutional trauma of both accidents, NASA went through a very similar process of examination and rebuilding, but that isn’t where the similarities end.  In preparing for the return to manned spaceflight, NASA had some trusty allies: a boy and his beagle.

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Dr. Seuss

Have a drink with: Dr. Seuss
Would you, could you, fight the war?

Ask him about: why Yertle the Turtle just might be Hitler.

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We know Theodore Seuss Geisel as a children’s author, a playful champion of absurdity and literacy who gave us green eggs, cats in hats and an absolute lock on what to buy for the high-school graduate in your life.

Because the world seems to love nothing more than the seemingly illicit thrill of getting “secret” material from beloved authors (Harper Lee, what?), there’s been a lot of attention recently to the “new” Seuss book What Pet Should I Get?, produced from a completed manuscript and uncolored artwork found in Seuss’ personal papers.

And this is pretty exciting, particularly since the “inspired by” or “in the style of” children’s literature trend usually serves mostly to illustrate the achievement gap between authors and their posthumous copycats (Seuss and Curious George come to mind).  So the thrill of new work from a master is legitimate.

But it isn’t what I love most about Dr. Seuss.  That’d be the Hitler cartoons.

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