Have a drink with: William Randolph Hearst
“…an especially dangerous specimen of the class.”
Ask him: How’d you like Citizen Kane?
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.
Have a drink with: The Twelfth Amendment
Ask it about: Can it get us tickets to Hamilton?
Last week former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote a public letter explaining his considered refusal to declare candidacy in the presidential election. Bloomberg described the election thus far as “doubling down on dysfunction,” and you can’t exactly blame him for that since the delegate situation is a mess, conservatives are allegedly calling for a convention brawl, the Simpsons predicted President Trump back in 2000, and third-party candidacy is suddenly a hot topic).
Bloomberg, though, tucked a little something else in there:
“In a three-way race, it’s unlikely any candidate would win a majority of electoral votes, and then the power to choose the president would be taken out of the hands of the American people and thrown to Congress.”
This is not made up. It’s the Twelfth Amendment, and I can explain it to you. With musicals!
Have a drink at: The White House Egg Roll
Mr. President, can we play in your yard?
Ask Rutherford B. Hayes about: Inviting 600 kids over for Easter
It was 1876. Congress was debating expenditures, and they were in a pickle over the Capitol grounds – every year at Easter, the place was swamped with kids and families rolling dyed eggs down the hills. This in and of itself was ok, but the overall ruckus made a mess of the lawn, and Congress’ landscaping budget was totally dry for the year. Plus, this was an age where cattle still routinely grazed in downtown D.C. and people were totally freaking out the cows.
So Congress, in its characteristic fun-loving spirit, proposed a solution in the form of “An act to protect the public property, turf and grass of the Capitol grounds from injury,” reading:
It shall be the duty of the Capitol police on and after April 29, 1876, to prevent any portion of the Capitol Grounds and terraces from being used as playgrounds or otherwise, so far as may be necessary to protect the public property, turf and grass from destruction or injury.
The President was on board, and the Capitol Building Turf Protection Act was enacted on April 21, 1876. You may now in your mind picture Ulysses S. Grant shaking his fist and shouting, “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!”
Have a drink with: The All Writs Act
Ain’t no party like a statutory party, because a statutory party
is subject to judicial review.
Don’t give it: your iPhone passcode
Beginning with the iOS8 version of its operating system, Apple has used encryption that makes it impossible for anyone but the user to access the passcode-protected information on their iPhone. Yesterday, a California district court issued an order asking Apple to create a bypass by which the FBI could access information on a recovered iPhone linked to the December shootings in San Bernardino, citing the All Writs Act – a piece of legislation derived from the Judiciary Act of 1789 – as legal basis.
In an open letter Apple has opposed the order, citing the integrity of its customer relationships and the sanctity of customer information.
This is fascinating, and on the bleeding edge of technology, privacy, law and communication as they intersect in the 21st century. But in the meantime, wait: did that say 1789? Are we really going after an iPhone with a muzzle-loader?
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.
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?
Have a drink with: your friendly ancient Egyptian donkey rental clerk
Wheeler-dealer, manure shoveler, debt collector
Ask him about: whether you want that rental insurance after all
Deir el-Medina was a village on the west bank of the Nile in Thebes, populated largely by the work crews who built the famous royal tombs and monuments. The great monuments tell us about the theology and government of Egypt, the foundation and iteration of pharaonic society. Deir el-Medina is more modest, but no less interesting: the site is a village of 120 some-odd houses intended for workers and their families (in that regard, not dissimilar to the “model villages” of Victorian England, or Eli Whitney’s Whitneyville development). We know some of the residents by name thanks to written records, we can tell that some if not many of the villagers were literate, and can piece together their participation in a robust everyday construction economy.
In Deir el-Medina as elsewhere in the region, donkeys were what author Brian Fagan calls “the pickup trucks of history,” carrying merchant loads, provisions, caravan cargo and more. They carried water and wood, drew plow equipment, carried food or goods for sale. Donkeys were ideal: unfussy, strong, good over tough terrain and long distances.
In short, if you needed to carry something, you got a donkey. But what if you didn’t own one?
Have a drink with: Maria Altmann and Elizabeth Taylor
Art lovers, ladies of style, legal pit-fighters.
Ask them about: goddamn Nazis.
Behavioral advertising is like unexpectedly running into an ex: it seems to know an awful lot about you in ways you forgot you made possible, but for the most part just makes you feel awkward and vaguely regretful.
Thank Facebook for this epiphany, after it pushed the trailer for Helen Mirren’s latest movie on me at least seventeen times in a twenty-four hour period. I’d be pissed at Zuckerberg and crew, too, except that for once technology read me like a cheap novel. (You can lay off with the juice cleanses, though, Mark.)
“Woman in Gold” is the made-for-cinema story of Maria Altmann, her aunt Adele, and one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century. If you’re into history, law, art and Nazis (and who isn’t?), it’s a kicker.
Have a drink with: Captain William Kidd
Privateer, man of song and legend, unwitting pirate?
Ask him about: the tabloid trial of the (18th) century!
William Kidd, a merchant captain and commissioned privateer, was tried and executed in 1701 for throwing away the king’s commission to turn pirate in the Indian Ocean. Not 25 years later, Captain Kidd was renowned in England as the man “whose publick Tryal and Execution here, rendered him the Subject of all Conversation, so that his Actions have been chanted about in Ballads.”*
To the end Kidd denied he’d been a pirate, and lamented a perfect storm of mutiny, betrayal and scapegoating.
So: birth of a pirate king, or a complete bus-chuck?