Sunday, August 2, 2015

AUGUST 2 = "Wild Bill" Hickok is Killed

"He was a Plainsman in every sense of the word, yet unlike any other of his class. In person he was about six feet one in height, straight as the straightest of the warriors whose implacable foe he was; broad shoulders, well-formed chest and limbs, and a face strikingly handsome; a sharp, clear, blue eye, which stared you straight in the face when in conversation; a finely-shaped nose, inclined to be aquiline; a well-turned mouth, with lips only partially concealed by a handsome moustache. His hair and complexion were those of the perfect blond. The former was worn in uncut ringlets falling carelessly over his powerfully formed shoulders. Add to this figure a costume blending the immaculate neatness of the dandy with the extravagant taste and style of the frontiersman, and you have Wild Bill, then as now the most famous scout on the Plains. Whether on foot or on horseback, he was one of the most perfect types of physical manhood I ever saw."

This was the way that George Armstrong Custer described the appearance of James Butler Hickok, more famously known as "Wild Bill Hickok",  one of the most celebrated gunfighters of America's Old West.  Hickok was one of the most colorful figures in a tapestry which came to be filled with such characters. With the passage of time and the contributions of the popular dime novels, Hickok's exploits were considerably embellished, sometimes by Hickok himself. But he was killed on today's date, August 2 in 1876, while playing poker. The hand he was holding at the time has ever after become known as the "Dead Man's Hand".

William Hickok's Early Life

Born in Troy Grove, Illinois on May 27, 1837 to William Alonzo Hickok and Polly Butler Hickok, his correct name was James Butler Hickok.  His parents were God-fearing Baptists who operated a "station" on the "Underground Railroad", smuggling escaped slaves into freedom. It was when his father was being pursued with escaped slaves that Bill first experienced hostile gunfire. After this the young man became fascinated with guns and gunfire, and began practicing on small animals around his parent's farm.  He developed into an excellent marksman.  His father was killed because of his abolitionist views when Bill was 14.  At 17, Bill went away to work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Eventually he wound up as a stagecoach driver. Bill developed a reputation for belligerence in putting his marksmanship to work fighting off bandits who were always trying to rob the stagecoach. This was burnished by a deadly encounter with a bear with Bill killing the bear with his six-inch knife. Such a man was obviously not to be messed with! 

"Wild Bill" Gets Into Gunfights

In July of 1861 while working for the Pony Express station in Nebraska 
he got into a fight with David McCanles, who was always teasing Bill about his girlish appearance. Bill might have dallied with a girl that McCanles fancied. Whatever the case, when McCanles and two of his fellow gunmen came to the station to collect a debt, profanities were exchanged, and gunfire erupted. Hickok who was initially behind a curtain opened fire and killed McCanles, and fatally wounded the  
other two men. No charges were filed and Bill got off on self-defense. Later this would become told again and embellished as the "McCanles Massacre" in which Bill quickly and easily knocked off a dozen outlaws.  Bill went on to serve during the Civil War as a scout. By some accounts it was during this period that he acquired his nick-name.  In  Independence, Missouri, Bill ran into a mob which was bent on (above, Hickok, circa 1860's) hanging a bartender who had shot a man during a brawl. Hickok put a stop to this by firing two shots over their heads. He then stared down the rest of the mob until it broke up.  A woman onlooker who was grateful shouted from the side "Good for you Wild Bill!" She may have mistaken Hickok for another man, but the moniker caught on, and stuck ever after.

The Tutt Gunfight

By this time of post-Civil War America, Bill was becoming well known as a gunfighter and a gambler.  Bill soon found himself in a dispute where he was tested as both. In early 1865, Bill met and befriended Davis Tutt, a former soldier in the Confederate Army.  But the two men had a falling out, and by July of that year they were playing in a poker game. Hickok was on a winning streak when Tutt demanded payment
on a debt from a previous game.Bill didn't have the cash on hand. Tutt then saw Bill's pocket watch on the table and snapped it up as collateral for the "loan". Bill angrily warned Tutt that if he wore the watch he would kill him.  But Tutt appeared in the town square the next day, July 21, proudly sporting the watch. Bill warned him not to approach while wearing the watch.  Tutt began to move toward Bill, and the two men faced each other and fired simultaneously, in true dueling style (above). Tutt's shot missed, but Bill's did not piercing Tutt's heart.  Bill was arrested for murder, but acquitted - a very unpopular result at the time. But this was the first of what became known as the classic western gunfight; an important part of Old West folklore.

Bill Falls on Hard Times

Bill for the next several years held several different jobs, including scouting for George Armstrong Custer.  He also held several jobs as town marshal in places throughout the west.  And he became known as an expert gambler.  By 1871, he was the town marshal in Abilene, Kansas. Samuel Henry who knew Bill described his gambling posture: "His whole bearing was like that of a hunted tiger---restless eyes, which nervously looked about him in all directions closely scrutinizing every stranger. When he played cards, which he did most of the time in the saloons, he sat in the corner of the room to prevent an enemy from stealing up behind him"  In October of 1871 a bunch of rowdies led by Phil Coe started shooting up the town. Coe shot at a wild dog which had tried to bite him. Bill came out of the Alamo Saloon and tried to disarm Coe.  Shots were fired and Bill manged to wound Coe. But a few minutes later, Bill heard someone's footsteps approaching him, and he turned and fired, assuming it to be one of Coe's friends. But it was actually Hickok's Deputy Marshal, Mike Williams, who was
killed.  Coe died three days later. Hickok was dismissed as town Marshal. and William's death haunted Bill for the rest of his life.  Over the next few years, Bill lived off of his reputation as the subject of countless dime novels, and even took part in Buffalo Bill Cody's play "Scouts of the Prairies", a forerunner to Cody's "Wild West Show" (above). But he was slowing down; his eyesight began to suffer and he began wearing glasses. And he continued to brood over his accidental killing of his Deputy in Abilene.

Hickok Meets His End in Deadwood

In the summer of 1876, Bill joined Charlie Utter's wagon train to South Dakota, seeking his fortune in the goldfields.  Along the way, his train picked up "Calamity Jane" (below), another of those amazingly
colorful characters of the Old West - a tough woman and an excellent shot - and she immediately became fast friends with Bill who shared with her a love of drinking and telling tall tales. Jane later claimed that she and Bill were "a couple", but that part of the story remains in doubt. The wagon train arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota in July of 1876.  Bill attempted to live a quiet respectable life, but he fell into drinking too much.  And he tried to live off of his reputation as a gambler, but he no longer had the skills for that - his eyesight was getting worse, and his drinking was taking a toll on his health overall. His winnings dwindled, and he was several times arrested for vagrancy.

On August 1, 1876 Bill was playing poker with several men, one of whom was one Jack McCall (below) who lost badly.  McCall ran out of
money, so Bill gave him enough money to get something to eat, but told him not to play again until he had the money to cover his losses. The following day Hickok came to Nuttall & Mann's Saloon. There he was invited to join in a poker game, but someone was sitting in his preferred seat, facing the door. He hesitated but went ahead and took a seat with his back to the door, and the rest of the saloon.  This would prove to be a fatal misstep.  Jack McCall who had been drinking heavily saw Bill enter the saloon.  He slowly moved over to the corner where Hickok's game was being played, until he was within a few feet of him. He then pulled a double action .45 pistol from under his coat, shouted "Damn you! Take that!" and fired into the back of Hickok's head, killing him instantly. McCall's motive has never been firmly established.  But he likely resented what he saw as Bill's condescending attitude towards him the day before. At the time of his death, the hand that Bill was holding consisted of a pair of black aces, and black eights.  This has since come down through legend as the "Dead Man's Hand".

"Wild Bill" in Death

McCall was charged with murder, but an ad-hoc miner's jury in Deadwood which was still a lawless place acquitted him.  He shortly fled to Colorado wherein he was arrested. The verdict of Deadwood was not legally binding in the eyes of the authorities of Colorado.  So he went before a properly constituted court in the Colorado Territorial
capitol of Yankton. This time he was convicted and hung on March 2, 1877.  As to "Wild Bill" Hickok, he was to become one of the iconic figures of America's storybook - "The Old West".  In death he was already afforded legendary status in the following very reverent account of his appearance in his casket, by St. Louis reporter J.W. Buell:

"His long chestnut hair, evenly parted over his marble brow, hung in waving ringlets over the broad shoulders ; his face was cleanly 
shaved excepting the drooping moustache, which shaded a mouth that in death almost seemed to smile, but in life was unusually grave ; the arms were folded over the stilled breast, which enclosed a heart that had beat with regular pulsation the most startling scenes of blood and violence. The corpse was clad in complete dress-suit of 'black broadcloth, new underclothing and white linen shirt ; beside him in the coffin lay his trusty rifle, which the deceased prized above all other things, and which was to be buried with him in compliance with an often expressed desire."

Sources =

"The Great West"  Edited by Charles Neider, Bonanza Books, New York, 1958

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

JUNE 17 = The Statue of Liberty Arrives in New York

 "If a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I should think it only natural if it were built by united effort—a common work of both our nations."

French President Edouard de Laboulaye

These were the words of the French President on thee idea of a monument to American Liberty in 1865 while the American Civil War was still going on.  But the inspiration lasted and eventually came to life in that very symbol of American freedom, the Statue of Liberty which arrived in her eventual home in New York harbor in some 350 individual pieces packed in 200 cases on today's date in 1885.

A Celebration of Franco-American Friendship

Lady Liberty was designed by the French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi.  In fact Bartholdi used his own mother as a model for his design (the Patent is pictured below). With help from Gustave Eiffel (who would later achieve fame with his Eiffel Tower), the great statue was originally intended to be completed in time for America's
Centennial in 1876. But the raising of funds to pay for the project got to be a difficult matter on both sides of the Atlantic. In France there were Lotteries and various entertainment events held.  In the U.S. wherein the pedestal on which the Statue would stand was being designed, there were boxing matches, as well as theatrical events and art exhibitions. Also, a drive was announced by the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer to raise $100,000 (2.3 million in today's dollars) for the statue.  Pulitzer pledged that he was going to print the name of every single contributor, no matter how small their contribution. This really caught on in our country.  At one point point Pulitzer started publishing little notes that came with the donations, including one from "A young girl alone in the world" donating "60 cents, the result of self denial." The Statue wound up costing France $250,000 (5.5 million in today's dollars).

Lady Liberty Arrives

On this date - June 17, 1885 - the French steamer Isère, docked in New Harbor to an enthusiastic welcome from the residents of NYC, some 200,000 of whom lined the docks in welcome along with hundreds of small boats who formed a very public welcoming committee. As said above Lady Liberty arrived here in some 200 crates (pictured below is the face).  The pedestal on Bedloe's Island was not completed until
April of 1886.  The construction, or the re-assembly of the 350 pieces took until October. Gustave Eiffel's iron frame was anchored to steel I-beams which were set in the concrete pedestal, and the statue was assembled. The sections of skin were attached by workers dangling from ropes, but in spite of this danger nobody was killed during the construction phase. Lady Liberty stands 151 feet tall from her base to her out-stretched torch.  From the ground, she stands 350 feet. At that point in time, she was the tallest structure ever constructed in New York City.

Lady Liberty is Dedicated

The 450,000-pound statue was officially dedicated in a ceremony before thousands of spectators on October 28, 1886. President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, said on that day: “We will not forget that Liberty has here made her home; nor shall her chosen altar be neglected.” Perhaps the most famous words associated with the Statue of Liberty are the stirring words of a sonnet written by the American poet, Emma Lazarus for the fund drive in 1883. Entitled "The Colossus of Liberty" the sonnet was inscribed on a plaque which was mounted on an interior wall of the Statue's base in 1903. The full sonnet rings with a welcome to immigrants (such as my grandfather) which is still inspiring today, no matter what controversies may rage today over immigration policies:

"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
'Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she
With silent lips. 'Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'"

Sources =

Thursday, June 11, 2015

JUNE 11 = Escape From Alcatraz?

"I'll never believe they're dead; I don't believe they're dead. I was listening to the radio when (they) told about it... I cut my iron off and I run to my neighbors house and said, 'Did you hear what was on the radio? My brothers escaped from Alcatraz.' " 

- Marie Widner, younger sister of Clarence and John Anglin

Inmate Frank Morris along with fellow inmates, brothers Clarence and John Anglin left Alcatraz Island in a makeshift raft with makeshift life preservers late on the evening of today's date, June 11 in 1962.  It was the final leg of their planned escape from the allegedly escape-proof prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay (above).  None of the men has been seen since, and their bodies have never been found.

Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers

Frank Morris (right) was born on September 1, 1926,  By the time he arrived at Alcatraz on Jan. 18, 1960, he had spent most of his life being moved from one set of foster parents to another, and had as a result spent most of his life as a career criminal.  His offenses ran the gamut from narcotics possession to armed robbery.  So he was placed in Alcatraz because he was always attempting to escape.  Such was also the case with John and Clarence Anglin, who along with their brother Alfred were serving time for bank robbery.  They had met Morris at the Atlanta State Penitentiary in Georgia.  Like Morris, the Anglins had made repeated attempts to escape over the years. The three men were not violent offenders - they had never injured anyone in the commission of their crimes; but their repeated escape attempts had landed them in Alcatraz.  The prison's position - on a rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay, surrounded by fast running currents and cold water - had indeed gotten it the moniker of "escape - proof".  Many had tried but had either been recaptured, killed or drowned. Inmate Allen West was also brought in on the escape plan. Although Morris, a very intelligent man was the one who actually masterminded the plan, West would later take credit for its conception.

The Alcatraz Escape and it's Tools

The scheme began being planned in December of 1961, when West collected several old saw blades from a utility corridor he had been cleaning. Every inmate at Alcatraz had his own cell, and the idea was to dig through their cell's six by nine inch vent holes, get on top of the cell block, break through a vent, move outside to the prison roof, and from there down to the ground, into the Bay, and using their makeshift life raft to paddle to nearby Angel Island, and from there to freedom.  Guards paced the cell blocks of Alcatraz regularly checking on every cell, so during the interval wherein they would be away from their cells,
they would make it appear as though they were there sleeping by placing life-like paper mache dummy heads (left) at the head of their beds.  These were fashioned using plaster and cement left over from their digging in the vent holes, and water.  Hair was taken from the barbershop by one of the men who worked there, and paint was used from a paint set that one of the inmates had ordered. Crude tools for digging had been made from utensils pilfered from the cafeteria. The men's cells were next to each other; Morris with West, and the Anglin brothers.  They would start at 5:30 and work until lights out at 9:00.  While one would work the other would keep lookout for the guards.

 By May of 1962, Morris and the Anglins had made it to the top of the cell block, and were working on breaking through that. They needed to loosen the grate over the vent shaft which would lead them to the roof of the prison.  West was able to acquire the motor from a vacuum cleaner and drill bits in order to make a crude power tool for this.  It was noisy and not very effective but they kept working at it. Using rain coats, some of which were stolen and some of which were donated by
other inmates, and contact cement, West had made life preservers, and John Anglin had pieced together a six by fourteen foot raft.  Morris had fashioned a device to inflate the raft using an accordion-like musical instrument called a Concertina. (Above, Clarence Anglin's cell) But West had fallen behind on clearing away the vent in his cell.  So when the other three had loosened the top ventilator grate and were ready to go on the evening of June 11, West was unable to get out of his cell, so the others had to leave him behind.  At 9:30, the three men climbed the cell house plumbing to the roof, and pushing aside the grating at the top got onto the roof, dodged spotlights in moving 100 feet, and stealthily moved down fifty feet of outdoor pipes down to the ground near the entrance to the shower area.  None of them was ever seen again.

Did Morris and the Anglin's Make It... Alive?

So that leads us to the big question: did Frank Morris, and John and Clarence Anglin really escape from Alcatraz... alive? Certainly the sister of the Anglin brothers hopes so, as quoted at the top of this posting.  But the consensus of informed opinion is no, they did not.  The waters around Alcatraz were 54 degrees that night.  not cold enough to kill the men immediately, but soon after they would have hit the water.  And
the currents in the Bay were certainly strong enough to pull them way off their course. (Above - John Anglin) But the fact remains that while no trace of them was found, other than some personal photos that one of the Anglins had brought with them, no bodies were ever found. And no confirmed contact with anyone on the outside was ever made. It would not be at all unusual for a body to be carried out of the Bay into the ocean, and not be found.  And a Norwegian vessel saw a body dressed as one of the inmates would have been, not long after this date.  But the body was not recovered.  So even though the FBI has closed this case, we'll never really know for sure if Morris and the Anglins - - who would be in their eighties and nineties by now - actually made it off the rock of Alcatraz. (Below - one of the knives used to dig out of the vents in the cells.)

Sources =

"Escape From Alcatraz"  1979, Directed by Don Siegel; based on the book by J. Campbell Bruce, screenplay by Richard Tuggle.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

MAY 31 = The Johnstown Flood of 1889

"The morning was delightful, the city was in its gayest mood with flags, banners and flowers everywhere... we could see almost everything of interest from our porch.  The streets were crowded with more people than we had ever seen before."  - Reverend H.L. Chapman on Memorial Day

As the city of Johnstown celebrated Memorial Day that year, everything seemed to be looking up. The city was prospering on a wave of economic production brought about by the iron works and the steel mills of the nearby plants at Cambria and Pittsburgh.  Life was good, but little did they know that their entire world would soon come crashing down around them. On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam high above them in the mountains burst open under unusually heavy rainfall.  The waters of beautiful, serene Lake Conemaugh (above), playground  the rich, then came rushing down the Conemaugh Valley and wrecked everything in its path, killing 2,209 people, leaving thousands more injured, and wiping out every town in its path, particularly the city of Johnstown 14 miles downstream. It was a weekend of death that none would ever forget.

The Lake, the Dam and the Club

The Southfork Dam had been constructed between 1838 and 1853 to
service the Erie canal. But soon  the railroads came through the area, putting the canal out of business.  So the whole dam was sold in 1879 to the Pennsylvania Railroad which was represented by Henry Clay Frick (below) and Benjamin Ruff, businessmen who sought to turn the whole reservoir and the dam into a weekend retreat for the rich men of the Pittsburgh steel industry.  It was called the Southfork Hunting and Fishing Club, and a very exclusive club
it was, with members such as Andrew Carnegie and Andrew W. Melon. But the dam which held all of this opulence in place was not a very secure one. The dam was 722 feet high and 931 feet long.  It was an earthenware dam which frequently sprung leaks which were poorly patched. Worst of all, there had been three cast iron discharge pipes at the bottom-center of the dam which had been sold for scrap in previous years.  So when the rain came with such vigor that May 31, there had long since ceased to be any way to lower the water level in the lake.  The spillways had been fitted with iron gratings to keep game fish from escaping, so they became clogged with debris. So frantic efforts by the resident engineer, John G. Parke to raise the top of the dam were not good enough in the huge thunderstorm, and at 3:10 the dam gave way, dumping the 20 million cubic tons of the lake down the valley.

Lake Conemaugh Destroys Everything in Its Path

John C. Parke mounted a horse and road ahead to the town of South Fork just ahead of the collapse to warn people there and to send telegraph messages to Conemaugh, and to Johnstown.  But the messages didn't get to Johnstown due to telegraph line which had gone down in the rain storm, and those that got to Conemaugh were not believed... the idea of the dam bursting just seemed too wild to be true. On its way down the Valley, the raging torrent smashed whole towns and picked up a huge amount of debris as it rushed on with a flow rate that temporarily equaled that of the Mississippi River. The raging torrent wiped out the town of Mineral Point before hitting Conemaugh. Just before it got there, an alert engineer named John Hess who was
out repair- ing damaged tracks heard the tidal wave coming, and swung into action:
"It was like a hurri- cane through a wooded country. It was a roar and a crash and a smash... the first thing I heard was a terrible roar in the hollow and the next thing was a crash something like a big building going to pieces... I couldn't see it, but there was people told me afterwards that that house crushed together just about the time we left. We saw no flood; we saw a drift of large logs in the river, but the river was no higher than it was twenty minutes before that. I pulled the whistle wide open, and went into Conemaugh that way.." Hess said "The lake's broke!" and putting on his whistle - continuously -  took his train flying into East Conemaugh just ahead of the killer wave and thus gave that town tell-tale warning that something was terribly wrong. This was just enough time to warn some of the residents to flee to higher ground, which Hess and his crew did as soon as they could go nor further (click on the map above for an enlarged view of the flood's path). Hess, who would become legendary because of his warning whistle, said later: "I didn't know what else to do.  I couldn't see what else I could do."

Johnstown is Hit Without Warning

Unfortunately, for the people in Johnstown there was no warning whistle. They had flood waters before but nobody truly believed that the Dam would ever burst.  So the torrent that came smashing into their town was a deadly surprise to everyone; most residents never even saw the water. They heard the sound of the debris tumbling towards them... a kind of low steady sound that grew until it became overpowering,  It hit the town at around 4:07.  George Heiser whose
store on Washing- ton St. was getting flooded sent his son Victor to the barn to look after the horses. When (above is a depiction of the flood in Harper's Weekly) Victor stepped outside the barn he was frozen in his steps by the loud sound coming towards him. He then looked over to his house and saw his father motioning for him to go to the roof of the barn. When he did he saw no water, just a huge wall of debris, dark and pulsing with rooftops, boards, and trees uprooted. He then looked over and saw his own family home crushed like a wooden crate and swept away. The barn roof then tore away and took Victor on a wild ride on the flood water wherein he saw people he knew drowning, and in which he was nearly crushed by floating railroad freight cars until he came to rest in the nearby town of Kernville.

The Methodist preacher who was quoted at the top of this posting, H.L. Chapman had gone to the front door of his strongly-built stone parsonage in his bedroom slippers at about 4:00 just in time to see a boxcar thrown by in front of his house.  He quickly gathered up his family and they ran to the attic of their home where they and whomever the storm threw their way were trapped for hours by the flood waters. But unlike so many other buildings, the parsonage held in place.  When Chapman looked out at the scene around him through a
window, he was dumb- founded:

"…I went to the window and looked out on a scene of utter desolation. The water, from eighteen to thirty feet deep, had spread like a lake all over the better part of town in the direction of the railroad bridge. Only one dwelling house, that of Dr. Lowman, on the corner of the park remained. On the left several large buildings, which stood on Main Street, had escaped being protected by our large stone church, which had resisted the force of the flood...  But in the direct course of the flood, the large market house, the Episcopal Church, the large brick residence of Dr. L. T. Beam, and hundreds of others, showed no signs of ever having existed. The very trees in the park had been swept away, and an indescribable scene of desolation spread in every direction.... the mass of debris, accumulated at the railroad bridge, had caught fire, and cast a lurid light over the devastated city, otherwise shrouded in gloom…."

The Fire At the Bridge

A particularly horrific event was the flaming pile of debris which was caught at the railroad bridge. Nobody knows for sure what caused the fire, it may have been oil from a railroad tank car dumped into the pile
which was then set off by burning coal from one of the countless homes that had been thrown onto the mass.  But whatever it was it made the carnage even worse.  The railroad bridge had been shielded from the full force of the wave by the mountain, so it stood.  But all of the accumulated debris, from railroad cars to barbed wire from the Cambria iron works plant which had been wiped out, to people swept up in the current were trapped up in a tall, tight pile at the bridge which burnt all night, slowly incinerating those people who had been caught there, perhaps eighty in all. According to one account, it burned "...with all the fury of hell that you read about -- cremation alive in your own home." Once the flood had receded the pile was measured to 70 feet high.

The Aftermath

The total death toll in the Johnstown Flood of 1889 came to 2,209 people, many of whom were never identified.  This made it one of the worst losses of civilian life in U.S. history up until the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the World Trade Center Terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  A huge amount of food and supplies came from all over the country to help and donations from all over the world totaled $3,742,818.18.  Clara Barton showed up with her National Red Cross
organization on its first emergency, and performed wonderfully.  But 99 entire families had been wiped out, and 396 children had been killed.  1600 homes had been destroyed, with 17 million dollars in property damage. And what of the Southfork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose poorly constructed and badly maintained dam had released all of this carnage on the communities below?  They were successfully defended in court by Philander Knox (above), and James Hay Reed who were both club members.  Although legal definitions of responsibility would change if future years, the dam break was ruled to have come about as a result of the rainstorm - an act of God - and the courts granted the survivors no legal compensation at all.

Sources =

"The Johnstown Flood" by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1968

"Darkest Hours" by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1977

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

MAY 13 = Robert Smalls Takes a Ship to Freedom

"I am delivering this war materiel including these cannons, and I think Uncle Abraham Lincoln can put them to good use."

With these words, said to have been spoken to an astonished Union Naval Officer, Robert Smalls (left), then 23 years old delivered the C.S.S. Planter and her slave crew and their families to freedom on this day, May 13, 1862.  Smalls thus completed on of the most daring escapes - right under the nose of the enemy guns - in all the history of warfare, and struck a powerful blow for the freedom of his people.

Robert Smalls: Born But Not Destined to Be a Slave

Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina on April 5, 1839
in a house behind his Master's house.  His mother, who was taken from him when he was nine, was concerned that the favor shown to Robert over the other slave children would lead her son to a soft view of slavery. So she arranged for him to do field work, and to witness the whippings of his fellow slaves first hand. He learned the lesson well, developing a defiant streak that would frequently land him in trouble. By age 19, Smalls had been rented out to work in Charleston and had learned various jobs including how to pilot a boat around the shallows of Charleston harbor.  He was allowed to marry his wife Hannah with whom he would have two children.  But he was keenly aware that his slave status granted nothing permanent to his marriage. So he always kept his eyes open for a way out.

Robert Smalls and the C.S.S. Planter

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Smalls with his know- ledge of Charleston harbor was assigned to serve as the pilot aboard the C.S.S. Planter (above). A sidewheel steamer built in 1860 to service the southern cotton trade, the Planter had been armed with a pair of cannons, one of which had been taken from Fort Sumter. That fort in Charleston harbor of course had been the scene of the start of the war when South Carolina had seceded from the Union in 1861. Planter had since the war begun been used by the Confederates as an armed dispatch boat and transport; part of the engineer department at Charleston, under General Ripley. For nearly a year Smalls had closely observed the movements of the ship and of her officers, lead by Captain C.J. Rylea as well as the other two white officers under whose orders he and the eight member slave crew of the Planter served.  He had made plans to take the ship at the right moment, travel to another point to pick up his and the crew's families and then make a dash for the Union ships which were blockading Charleston harbor.  On the evening of May 12, when Captain Rylea and the officers elected to spend that night ashore, Smalls put his plan into action.

Smalls Takes the Planter on May 13

At about 3:00 in the morning Smalls and the eight other slave crewmen weighed anchor and carefully eased the Planter out of her moorings. They then took her a short distance to pick up Smalls' and the rest of their families and then traveled back down the inlet into Charleston harbor for an extremely hazardous journey out to the Union blockade. Their route would take them past three armed confederate batteries to start with.  As Planter was flying the Confederate flag, this was accomplished without incident.  But then she had to go right by Fort Sumter, a huge fort bristling with guns.  A single shot from one of these guns could have easily destroyed the Planter.  When she got near Sumter, Smalls ignored advice to take a wide berth around it, as this would cause suspicion.  Instead, Smalls donned a straw hat just like Captain Rylea wore, and cooly pacing the Planter's deck using the Captain's gait he took the Planter right under Sumter's guns.  He passed any visual inspection as he gave the correct signal to pass.  The signal was accepted and Planter was allowed to pass. There remained now the approach to the Union blockade in an armed Confederate-flagged ship without them opening fire to be accomplished. So the Southern banner was removed, and replaced with a white sheet as a flag of surrender.

The C.S.S. Planter Arrives 

The following eyewitness account comes from a man aboard one of the Union ships, the U.S.S. Onward, after they saw the white flag:

"As she neared us, we looked in vain for the face of a white man. When they discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping; and others stood looking towards Fort Sumter, and muttering all sorts of maledictions against it, and ‘de heart of de Souf,’ generally. As the steamer came near, and under the stern of the Onward, one of the Colored men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, ‘Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!’ ”

In addition to her crew of newly freed men and their families, Smalls had also delivered the guns aboard the Planter as well as quite a large amount of ammunition.  In 1863, Smalls was given command of the newly re-christened U.S.S. Planter, which he held until 1866.  He was present at the RE-raising of the U.S flag over Fort Sumter after the end of the war, and went on to serve three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (above). He died on February 22, 1915 at the same house behind which he had been born in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Sources =

Sunday, May 10, 2015

MAY 10 = Bass Reeves is Sworn In

"Among the numerous deputy marshals that have ridden for the ....Indian Territory courts none have met with more hairbreadth escapes or have effected more hazardous arrests than Bass Reeves, of Muskogee.  Bass is a stalwart negro, fifty years of age, weighs one hundred and eighty pounds, stands six feet two inches in his stockings, and fears nothing that moves and breathes.  His long muscular arms have attached to them a pair of hands that would do credit to a giant and they handle a revolver with the ease and grace acquired after only years of practice.  Several 'bad' men have gone to their long homes for refusing to halt when commanded by Bass....." 

This is the way which in 1901, the historian D.C. Gideon described Bass Reeves, who was sworn in as a Deputy U.S. Marshal on today's date in 1875. Reeves is one of the toughest, yet least known figures in the "Old West" histories, mainly because he was black; one of the first black deputy marshals ever sworn in west of Fort Smith, Arkansas,   But happily some of that long overdue recognition is coming to this remarkable and very brave man, and I will attempt here in these few paragraphs to tell you a little about him.  He deserves credit in our history of the West!!

Bass Reeves  - Born a Slave

Records of slave births were sketchy at best, so there is a good deal about the early years of this man's life on which we're not clear.  But he was born as a slave probably in 1838 at a cotton plantation near Paris, in Lamar County, Texas.  His mother was named Pearlalee, and an older sister was named Jane. Bass was an energetic youth, always working hard, but a little too restless to suit his mother, who tried to pass along the teachings of Jesus (which she had secretly learned), to her son in hope that these would calm his restless spirit.  In time, young Bass became very good with the horses and other animals.  He became the
black- smith's helper and eventually the "com- panion" to his master. This was a prestigious position for Bass, but it also put him in very close contact with his master, one George Reeves. This contact got a bit too close with Reeves because the two men had an argument one night over a game of cards, and Bass apparently knocked the man out and fled to the Indian Territory (above, now the state of Oklahoma). Bass may have been with Reeves during a portion of the Civil War, but the available information is unclear on this point,  What is clear in that Bass spent a good number of years in this Indian Territory, and got to know these Indigenous Americans very well, becoming friends with many of the tribes, even becoming fluent in several of their languages.

Judge Parker, Bass Reeves, and the Indian Territory

This Indian Territory was so called because that is where the U.S. government forced the various Indian tribes to relocate after they were forced off of their native lands.  The end of the Civil War made Bass Reeves a free man.  But in it's upheaval and its end it made an evil mess of the legal situation in the Indian Territory. This was because it attracted every sort of desperado imaginable as it was a huge chunk of land with little law and order at all. As historian Glenn Shirley has said: "The Civil War wrecked the peace of the Five Tribes. Its aftermath was a maelstrom of racial hatred, and unbridled vice. Rape, robbery, and 
pillage became common offenses.  Killers traveled in gangs." Into this mess, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed in March, 1875 a very tough, no-nonsense Federal Judge, Issac C. Parker (left) to bring law and order to this territory.  Parker soon became known as the "Hanging Judge", from whose jurisdiction there was no appeal, save to President Grant himself. One of Parker's first orders of business was to appoint men to be Deputy U.S. Marshals to administer his decrees and serve his warrants.  Bass Reeves was one such man who was sworn in on this date. Reeves was an excellent choice for this sort of work, as he was an extremely good shot, and was known to be on good terms with the Indians who lived there, and could deal with the freed blacks in the territory with ease. But his main qualification was that he was known to be incorruptible, as tough as the trails he rode, and very reliable.  

Reeves Reputation for Getting His Man - Alive

Bass Reeves was a giant of a man, described by one as "... a very big man, told jokes, was boastful and lusty, full of life and wore a large black hat." Art T. Burton has said based on descriptions by those who knew him, "He had a deep and resonant voice that could be very authoritative when it had to be but assuring just the same." But he quickly developed a reputation as a man who whenever he served a warrant, followed the letter of the law, bringing his men in alive most of
the time. As he had been born a slave, he could neither read nor write, so he would memorize the names and text of a warrant before serving it so he could always deliver it properly.  He would always travel with a cook, and a man to serve on his posse, and would ride the huge distances he needed in order to bring his men in, sometimes bringing in six to thirteen men at a time, all chained to his wagon to their judgement in Judge Parker's Fort Smith (above, circa 1867). He would then collect the reward, spend time with his wife (Jennie) and children (he had ten) before going out to search for criminals again.

Bass Reeves Guns Down Jim Webb

There are just too many stories about this man to tell even a small portion of them in my limited space here. But here is one which sums up the man well as any:

Bass had pursued Jim Webb for murder and had brought him in. But after a year in jail, the man got out on bail, which Webb skipped. Reeves pursued him again, tracing him to Jim Bywater's store in the Chickasaw nation.  Webb saw Bass coming and crashed through the window of Bywater's store, and tuned and fired at Reeves who pursued on his horse.  He shot with his first bullet grazing the horn of Reeve's saddle, the second cutting a button off of his coat, and the third
severing the reins of his horse. Webb hit the ground, and rolled to his feet firing and grazing the brim of Reeve's hat. But Bass was so quick and accurate in his response that he hit Webb three times.  Webb went down and with his dying words said to Reeves: "Give my your hand, Bass," said Webb, as he extended his own with an effort to grasp it. "You are a brave man. I want you to accept my revolver and scabbard as a present and you must accept them. Take it, for with it I have killed eleven men, four of them in Indian Territory, and I expected you to make the twelfth." Bass accepted the revolver, helped bury Webb, and then presented his gun belt and boots as proof that he had gotten his man.

Bass Reeve's Obituary... Another Story of His Devotion to Duty

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass joined the Muskogee Police Department (below, far left), but only served there for two years before his health began to fail.  In 1909 he retired, and he died on January 12, 1910 of the effects of Bright's Disease, an inflammation of the kidneys.  In an obituary for him published in the Muskogee Phoenix the next day came another story which was typical of the man:

"Undoubtedly the act which best typifies the man and which at least shows his devotion to duty, was the arrest of his son. A warrant for the arrest of the younger Reeves, who was charged with murder of his wife, had been issued. Marshal Bennett said that perhaps another deputy had better be sent to arrest him. The old negro was in the room at the time, and with a devotion of duty equaling that of the old Roman, Brutus, whose greatest claim on fame has been that the love for his son could not sway him from justice, he said, "Give me the writ," and went out and arrested his son, brought him into court and upon trial and conviction he was sentenced to imprisonment and is still serving his sentence."

Reeve's son later was released after serving his time, and lived an exemplary life ever after.  Bass Reeves deserves to be mentioned in the front ranks of the lawmen of America's Old West.  He was the equal of Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hicock, and Wyatt Earp.  And like Wyatt Earp, he was never once, in his long career wounded.

Sources =

"A Certain Blindness; A Black Family's Quest for the Promise of America"
by Paul L. Brady, ALP Publishing, Atlanta, 1990

"Black Gun Silver Star - the Life and Legend of Marshal Bass Reeves"
by Art T. Burton, Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2006

"Law West of Fort Smith" by Glenn Shirley, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1957

"Indian Territory" by D.C. Gideon, New York, Lewis Pub. Co., 1901, found online at:;view=1up;seq=141

Friday, May 8, 2015

MAY 8 = V.E. Day

I was originally going to let this go and get it next year... I was working on something else.  But this is afterall the 70th Anniversary of V.E. Day (that's Victory in Europe Day to those of you who are new to this Blog), and I just couldn't let it go.  So here is a compilation of records of how this truly momentous day went from a couple of different vantage points:

In Washington D.C., President Harry Truman..

"...broke the news in his office to reporters in his office at 8:30 (a.m.).  At 9:00 from the Diplomatic Reception Room where Roosevelt had so often broadcast to the country, he spoke to the largest radio audience yet recorded: 'This is a solemn but glorious hour.  I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day... We must work to finish the war.  Our victory is but half-won..." 1.

In New York, the Times published General Eisenhower's Victory Order of the Day to his troops :

"May 8, 1945

The crusade on which we embarked in the early summer of 1944 has reached its glorious conclusion. It is my especial privilege, in the name of all nations represented in this theatre of war, to commend each of you for the valiant performance of duty.

Though these words are feeble, they come from the bottom of a heart overflowing with pride in your loyal service and admiration for you as warriors. Your accomplishments at sea, in the air, on the ground and in the field of supply have astonished the world.

As we celebrate victory in Europe let us remind ourselves that our common problems of the immediate and distant future can be best solved in the same conceptions of cooperation and devotion to the cause of human freedom as have made this Expeditionary Force such a mighty engine of righteous destruction. Let us have no part in the profitless quarrels in which other men will inevitably engage as to what country and what service won the European war." 2.

In London:

"When the day finally came, it was like no other day that anyone can remember. It had a flavor of its own, an extemporaneousness which gave it something of the quality of a vast, happy village fete as people wandered about, sat, sang, and slept against a slimmer background of trees, grass, flowers, and water...Apparently the desire to assist in London's celebration combusted spontaneously in the bosom of every member of every family, from the smallest babies, with their hair done up in red-white-and-blue ribbons, to beaming elderly couples who, utterly without self-consciousness, strolled up and down the streets arm in arm in red-white-and-blue paper hats."  - Mollie Panter-Downes

In Moscow:

"The announce- ment came long before dawn, and thousands of people poured into the streets wearing everything from pajamas to fur coats. The crowd stayed on and on and grew ever larger.  There had been no such demonstration in Moscow since the Revolution's earliest wild days.  Hordes gathered in front of the British and American embassies, and whenever a foreigner was spotted, he was gently plucked up by hundreds of hands and passed along with cheers.  George Kennan, U.S. charge d'affaires, made a speech from the embassy balcony where the Red banner hung beside the Stars and Stripes.  Roars went up: 'Long live Truman!' 'Long live Roosevelt's memory!' 'Long live the great Americans!'" 4.

In Ulm, Germany:

"When the war ended, I was in Germany, in a town called Ulm. Out of the clear blue sky over the loud- speaker they say, 'The war has ended! The war has ended!' Here I am in a foxhole talking to one of my buddies. 'What did they say?'

'Pat! The war has ended!' You'd see there were some of them out there going crazy. Guys were shooting each other by mistake! GIs, yes, they were shooting themselves, from the excitement. They tried to tell everybody, 'Calm down! Be careful!'

And I was in a foxhole down there. 'The war is over! The war is over!' I was crying in the foxhole from joy, I couldn't believe it. The following morning they called formation outside, they said, 'The following names, please step forward.' Finally, 'Pfc. Patsy Giacchi!' I step forward.

'Okay,' the captain says, 'you guys are all going home.' Boom. One guy passes out from the excitement. I couldn't believe it. I think I was 21 years old then." 5.

- Patsy Giacchi of New Jersey, 94th Quartermaster Co.

Notes =

1. - "Truman" by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1992

2. -

3. -

4. - "The American Heritage Picture History of World War II" by C.L. Sulzberger, American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc., New York, 1966

5. -