Saturday, July 28, 2012

Uh-oh ... Roosevelt didn't ride in the Capone car

Uh-oh. Ever heard the story about President Franklin Roosevelt using former crime boss Al Capone's armored car, which reportedly had been seized by the Internal Revenue Service upon Capone's conviction, to move around Washington when security concerns became a big issue as World War II began? The History Insider noted this supposedly well-documented item in a December 2011 entry, but new research suggests that the story is only that -- a story. In other words, it's bogus. False. Myth.

The car in question -- a 1928 Cadillac town car -- is being sold this weekend through RM Auctions. And research noted by RM suggests that the U.S. government never possessed the car, and might not have known that it existed. Instead, it appears that one of Capone's associates sold it in 1932 to a couple who worked for a traveling carnival. Their plan to make money by showing the car to through the carnival never paid off, and they sold it about a year later to someone else, who took it to England, where it was displayed. The car was sold and resold privately several times, and ended up back in the the mid-1960s, where it's been since.

Think you might want to bid on it this weekend? That'll set you back an estimated $300,000 to $500,000, according to the auction house's announcement.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The troubled history of the Washington Monument

Stone of a slightly different shade
completes the upper two-thirds
of the Washington Monument.
   A close look at the Washington Monument in our nation’s capital shows a subtle – but very discernible – difference in color, or shade, of the stone beginning nearly one-third of the way up this memorial to the nation’s first president. That’s a testament to the troubled history of this structure.

   Congress authorized a monument to George Washington soon after his death in 1799, but nothing came of it until 1832, when a group of private citizens established the Washington National Monument Society. They raised funds for the project and held a design competition for it in 1836. The winner was well-known and highly recognized architect Robert Mills. His design included an obelisk (a tall, four-sided column) with a nearly flat top, surrounded with columns at its base, enclosing statues of 30 other Revolutionary War heroes. Although the $1 million cost was well beyond what the Society had collected, work was begun on the obelisk, in hopes that its construction would spur more people to donate money to the project.
Design of the national Washington Monument
Only some elements of the
Washington Monument's original design
were ultimately put in place.
   As part of its fundraising efforts, the Society also solicited the donation of large commemorative stones to be used for the construction of the interior of the monument. Many stones arrived at the site, but some were inscribed with controversial statements, often without any reference to Washington.  And one stone, donated by Pope Pius IX, appears to have be stolen and destroyed by members of a secretive political organization called the Know-Nothings (based on their “know nothing” response to questions about the organization’s anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic beliefs, which were based on concerns that rising numbers of German and Irish immigrants threatened native-born Protestants in the U.S.).
   Construction began in 1848 and continued until 1854, when private funding became exhausted, leaving the obelisk somewhat less than one-third completed. Congress appropriated $200,000 to the effort in 1855, but quickly rescinded the money after members of the Know-Nothing organization engineered a takeover of the Monument Society at about the same time. Ultimately, the Know Nothing-led Monument Society funded only a bit of more work, which was of such low quality that it was later replaced. By 1858, leadership of the Society returned to people without the divisive beliefs of the Know-Nothings, but interest in completing the monument fell victim to the political and other pressures that led to the outbreak of the Civil War only a few years later.
5.  Photocopy of photograph (from collection of the Smithsonian Institution) sometime between 1855 and 1880 UNFINISHED SHAFT OF MONUMENT - Washington Monument, High ground West of Fifteenth Street, Northwest, between Independence & Constitution Avenues, Washington, District of Columbia, DC
The Washington Monument
remained an unattractive, unfinished
stub of stone for about 25 years.
   The unfinished, neglected monument stood as an eyesore before, during, and after the war. Mark Twain, writing just after the war, noted that it “has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off…you can see cow-sheds about its base, and the contented sheep nibbling pebbles in the desert solitudes that surround it, and the tired pigs dozing in the holy calm of its protecting shadow.”
   After the Civil War, interest in the monument renewed, but it wasn’t until 1876 that Congress again appropriated money – again, $200,000 – for the effort. Before work began, questions arose about design of the monument. Some people wanted to proceed with the original Mills plan from 1836, but others sought or submitted new plans. While these new designs were under consideration, Congress in 1879 ordered work to continue on the obelisk, and ultimately no additional structures were added. The final two-thirds or more of the obelisk, taking it to a height of just over 555 feet, were completed in December 1884 – but with stones from a different quarry than when the lower part of the structure was put in place some 25 years earlier. At first, the newer stones appeared to match the color of the original stones. But over time, they have weathered differently, producing the different shade we see today.

   Since it was completed, the Washington Monument has been closed to the public several times for routine maintenance or restoration. A 2011 earthquake caused significant damage, and the monument was closed again in July 2012 for repairs. Reopening is expected in 2014.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ben Franklin's son ... a Royal Governor and British loyalist

American patriot Ben Franklin did his best to ensure the success of his son in colonial America, but regretted it when the son became too successful and dedicated to meeting his professional responsibilities … leading to an estrangement that never reconciled between the father and son.

William Franklin

Born illegitimately to a mother who is unknown to history, William Franklin grew up with his father and a stepmother, Ben Franklin’s common-law wife Deborah. The stepmother/stepson relationship tended to be strained.

As William became a young adult, his father arranged for him to study law under a respected Philadelphia attorney. And after Ben was appointed deputy postmaster for pre-revolutionary America in 1751, he appointed William as postmaster of Philadelphia, a post that the elder Franklin held previously. Father and son appeared to be very close during this stage of their lives, not only in the professional world, but personally as well, with William serving as Ben’s only assistant for his famous kite experiment. Both men jointly speculated in acquiring western lands, too, believing strongly in their growing value as the colonies expanded.

William joined his dad on a trip to England in 1757. Ben had been appointed by the Pennsylvania Assembly to approach the British government with concerns about the Penn family’s control of the colony as its “proprietors.” At the time, the Assembly could pass its own laws, but the Penn family, which technically owned the colony based on the original land charter given to it by the British king more than 75 years earlier, had final say on any such action by the Assembly. That governance structure produced a considerable amount of conflict in the rapidly growing colony. During his visit to England, Ben was unsuccessful in his efforts to loosen the proprietors’ control.

But Ben – and William – did enjoy another success that surprised almost everyone.  Thanks to the elder Franklin’s connections with the British prime minister, Britain’s newly crowned George III appointed William to be the Royal Governor of New Jersey. William took the position seriously and never wavered in performing his responsibilities. He remained a dutiful British loyalist even as his father and others moved toward revolution during the late 1760s and early 1770s. William and Ben grew further and further apart during those years.

“Away from his father, [William] had grown into a man of his own, as convinced of the correctness of his principles as his father was of his principles, and as stubborn in defending them,” wrote H. W. Brands in his 2000 book The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. “The apple had fallen close to the tree in regard of character, if not of politics.”

As hostilities between the colonists and British broke out and continued for years, colonial militiamen put William Franklin under house arrest in 1776. A few months later, he was seized and taken to Connecticut, where he remained under control of Governor Jonathan Trumbull. In contrast to William, Trumbull supported the American cause despite his appointment to his position by the British crown.

Released as part of a prisoner exchange in 1778, William lived among other loyalists in New York. He then went to England about 1782, never to return to America. In 1784, William wrote to his father, who was nearing the end of a stint as the American ambassador to France, that he wished to “revive that affectionate intercourse and connexion which till the commencement of the last troubles had been the pride and happiness of my life.”

On his way back to America, Ben agreed to meet with William when he passed through England. Ultimately, it became a business meeting to tie up legal and financial issues involving land William owned in America and debts that he owed to his father. A complicating issue was the presence of Temple Franklin, William’s own illegitimate son (fathered prior to his marriage, also with a mother unknown to history), who Ben had taken in and raised, although William later acknowledged Temple as his own.

“The meeting of the three generations occurred under inauspicious circumstances,” wrote Brands in his Ben Franklin biography. “[Ben] Franklin’s guests were coming and going … the three had scarce time and less privacy for the sort of soul-searching a genuine reunion required. Doubtless Franklin preferred it this way. Scars had formed over wounds he felt at what he considered his son’s betrayal; better not to reopen them.”

“William found the encounter acutely distressing,” added Brands. “His hopes for reconciliation were dashed, his ties to his homeland severed.”

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The fascinating fate of the Bounty's mutineers ...

The story of the mutiny on the British ship Bounty in 1789 doesn’t end with the near-miraculous voyage to safety of Lieutenant William Bligh and the men loyal to him after mutineers set them adrift in a small boat. The fates of the mutineers are fascinating too.

After the mutiny, 27 men remained on the Bounty. A small number of them had been loyal to Bligh, but were either kept on the larger ship because their skills were needed or there was no room to put them into the smaller craft with the captain. Still others still on the Bounty hadn’t been aligned with the mutineers, but took no action to help Bligh. So the crew manning the troubled ship wasn’t a tremendously harmonious group.

Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutineers, first took the Bounty to the island of Tubuai, about 350 miles south of Tahiti. But within a week, the Bounty sailed to Tahiti, remembered fondly by the crew as a paradise, for food. They returned to Tubuai with some Tahitian women and men, and spent three months trying to establish a settlement there. But arguments, especially over women, and other differences doomed that endeavor. The Bounty and its crew and the Tahitians returned to Tahiti once again. There, the crew split, with some taking up life on the island while Christian and the eight sailors most closely aligned with him left for the high seas on the Bounty.  With them were nine Tahitian women, six Tahitian men, and one Tahitian child.

Upon finding lonely and small Pitcairn Island at a different place than indicated on sea charts, the mutineers decided to settle there – and ensured it by running the Bounty aground, salvaging supplies and equipment from her, and burning the ship.

No one in the rest of the world knew what became of the Bounty and the mutineers who sailed with her on that final voyage until 1808, when an American ship named the Topaz stumbled across Pitcairn’s Island and noticed signs of habitation. Further exploration by the Americans revealed a settlement led by one Alexander Smith (whose real name was John Adams), the sole surviving mutineer, who told the visitors of the others’ fate.

“The colony … prospered, although two of the mutineers died in the first two years, one of ‘sickness,’ one by jumping off the towering rocks in a fit of insanity,” wrote Caroline Alexander, author of the 2003 book The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, in summarizing Smith’s account. “Four or five years later, six of the seven remaining mutineers, including Fletcher Christian, were killed in the night by their ‘Otaheite [Tahitian] servants,’ who had risen against them. Only [mutineer] Alexander Smith had been left alive, although badly wounded. The [Tahitian] widows of the mutineers then in turn killed their Tahitian kinsmen in revenge, and so Smith had been left with all the women, and their various offspring.” Of course, there’s no good way to verify Smith’s account, but no good reason to doubt the gist of it either – although he reportedly offered conflicting details in later retellings of his story.

The captain of the Topaz reported his find to British authorities, but Britain didn’t pursue it. And a when couple of British ships happened up the Pitcairn Island colony in 1814, they had no clue that it had been discovered years earlier.  This re-discovery brought much attention, however, and John Adams [aka Alexander Smith] was granted amnesty in 1825. Pitcairn and surrounding islands were made part of the British Empire in 1838.

But many of the mutineers who remained on Tahiti when the Bounty took its last voyage to Pitcairn weren’t as fortunate as Adams/Smith. After Bligh returned to England and reported the mutiny, British authorities sent another ship – the Pandora – to hunt down them down.  Fourteen former Bounty crewmen were found on Tahiti, arrested, and placed in a cage on the Pandora’s deck. A search for the other mutineers on neighboring islands proved fruitless, so the Pandora set sail back to England. Tragedy struck when the ship ran aground and sank with the loss of 31 crewmen and four of the prisoners.

When the ten surviving prisoners finally arrived back in England, they were court martialed. Three were found guilty and hanged, three were found guilty but pardoned, and four were acquitted.