Have a drink with: Tom Petty
Into the great wide open…
Ask him about: Not backing down.
Tom Petty recently achieved the feat, as far as the press was concerned, of dying twice in a single day.
On Monday, October 2, news outlets began reporting in the afternoon that Petty had died following a cardiac incident at his California home, following a CBS News breaking news item declaring the singer dead. Only a few hours later, amidst a social media explosion of remorse and YouTube videos, did the news squeak out that announcements of Petty’s death may, in fact, have been premature. The Los Angeles Police Department, which had been CBS’ source in breaking the news, shortly clarified that it could not in fact confirm Mr. Petty’s death, noting on Twitter: “The LAPD has no investigative role in this matter. We apologize for any inconvenience in this reporting.”
It isn’t the first time death has seemed less than final in the realm of celebrity.
Modern media culture is full of conspiracy-laden, media friendly death theories: Babe Ruth and Frank Sinatra died on the same day in 1945! Why do you think Paul McCartney’s barefoot on the Abbey Road cover? Elvis faked his death and is living under witness protection! Abe Vigoda didn’t just miss a wrap party during the 1980s, he opted out ENTIRELY. (Sorry, that’s during the 90s.) (Oughts?) (Check the website.)
Are celebrity death hoaxes an unpleasant, if inevitable, modern consequence of the Internet’s viral credibility problem?
Nope. The gleeful anticipation of celebrity deaths as mass mourning events is a particularly tawdry offshoot of modern mass media culture. But the phenomenon isn’t new. Since the 1800s, death hoaxes and premature obituaries have punctuated American history (and yes, American – we seem to specialize in both death obsession and gullibility).
Have a drink with: General & Mrs. Tom Thumb
Tiny wedding of the century!
Ask them about: Will there be ice cream?
I’m over at Atlas Obscura today writing about the Tom Thumb wedding, an American dramatic tradition in which kids put on elaborate, supremely awkward mock weddings for paying audiences. These plays began in the 19th century as a wink and a nod to the “Fairy Wedding” of celebrity little people Charles Stratton (aka “General Tom Thumb”) and Lavinia Warren, and have been undertaken through history as a fundraiser, a crash course in etiquette and promises, or presumably simply so adults could enjoy their children’s embarrassment over cocktails. Click over to Atlas Obscura for more.
Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
The Greatest Showman on Earth
Ask him about: elephant agriculture
Barnum month continues! With the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus performing its last shows yesterday in New York, and first-look pictures of Hugh Jackman’s Barnum musical The Greatest Showman breaking this week, it’s a good day to tip the top hat to Phineas T.
Here are ten things you may not have known about Barnum:
1. He never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum never spoke his most famous words. In the late 1860’s, workers near Syracuse, New York dug up a ten-foot stone colossus, claiming it was archaeological evidence of Biblical giants having lived in the northeast United States. Really the “Cardiff Giant” was a hoax planted by skeptic George Hull, and as it drew thousands of people to see it, the statue made its owners money hand over fist. When the statue’s owners refused to sell to Barnum, the showman simply created his own “Giant,” and claimed the other guys were showing a fake. One version of the tale has angry owner David Hannum spitting out the famous phrase in the resulting legal dispute.
Have a drink with: Henry Bergh
The Great Meddler, mustache aficionado, friend to animals
Ask him about: Aquatic rhinoceros*
Today I’m over at The Atlantic writing about Henry Bergh, America’s first animal rights activist and a relentless crusader for the early animal rights movement. Through an unlikely and yet genuine friendship with entertainment icon P.T. Barnum, the two men advanced their mutual goal to make the world a better place – Bergh through service to animals, Barnum through the joy of spectacle.
Have a drink with: The American Voter
On Tuesdays we wear white.
Ask her about: Her “citizen’s right, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens.”*
In case you need some historical comfort for your Election Day habits:
Compulsively clicking “refresh” on FiveThirtyEight? We get it. P.T. Barnum got it, too, which is why he offered a daily “Presidential Test Vote” at his American Museum (open to women as well as men!) and fed results to the daily papers:
“Women as well as Men vote at BARNUM’S MUSEUM All this week. Now is the time, Ladies, to show your preference. The vote will be taken, and the curiosities and entertainments of the museum increased in proportion.”
(While at the Museum, you could conveniently escape your polling anxiety with “Two LIVING ANACONDAS, a LIVING SKELETON, the DWARF LADY, a MODEL of the MALAKOFF, &c.”)
Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
Ask him to bring Jumbo. That elephant could drink.
Ask him about: Picking your Powerball numbers
Last week I gave in to the siren song of Powerball and joined millions of other people in the giddy exercise of mentally spending the billion-plus dollars of my inevitable destiny (what would it cost for the local museum to let me ride the Brontosaurus skeleton, anyway?).
The unprecedented size of the recent jackpot may have created a real and novel sense of reward, but it doesn’t change the most fundamental truth about the lottery, which has remained unchanged over centuries: the real money isn’t in winning the lottery so much as it is in running it.
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
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?