Saturday, October 27, 2012

George Washington ... "Cards & other Play"

As a general, George Washington forbade gambling among his men, calling it “the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity and the father of mischief.” But in his private life, before being appointed head of the Continental Army, he enjoyed betting on “Cards & other Play” – the title he gave to a page of the extensive records he kept, in his own handwriting, of all types of financial transactions he made during his life.  Those entries in his so-called Ledger B note how much he won, how much he lost, and where he played from 1772 to early 1775.

During those years, he recorded playing 64 times, coming out ahead – financially speaking – 28 times and behind 36 times.  His biggest one-day (or perhaps one-night) losses were 6.5 pounds on two dates, March 28, 1772 and April 6, 1772, when he played at Williamsburg, Virginia. The most he earned came on October 7, when he played at Annapolis, Virginia and earned a whopping 13.7 pounds.

During this period, before the American Revolution, Washington was a well-known Virginia planter and landowner, apparently enjoying the good life. He represented Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Burgesses, which met in Williamsburg. As the Burgesses took steps toward criticizing the British Crown, Virginia’s Royal Governor dissolved the organization in 1774. In response to this and other grievances, American patriots held their First Continental Congress, which met in September and October of 1774. Washington was one of the representatives from Virginia, and recorded “Cards & other Play” items in his ledger only twice after that point, and never after he was appointed commander of the patriots’ Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress in 1775. But it's hard to believe that he gave it up for good!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

President Truman ... backing his daughter's singing abilities

Margaret Truman
(undated photo)
Margaret Truman, an aspiring singer and daughter of President Harry S. Truman, was 26 when she performed at Washington’s Constitution Hall before 3,500 people in December 1950. But her efforts were panned by Washington Post critic Paul Hume, who wrote that she had “a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality … cannot sing very well … is flat a good deal of the time … has not improved in the years that we have heard her … [and] still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.”

Hume’s review incensed President Truman, and he let Hume know about his anger in a letter written the same day. In part, it said that  “I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert … It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man [Hume was 34] who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock … it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and a least four of your ulcers are at work. Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below! Pegler [Westbrook Pegler was a columnist disliked by President Truman], a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope that you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.”

The letter itself was sold by Hume in 1951, and has remained in private hands since, according to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.  Today, the letter is reportedly among the collections of the private Harlan Crow Library in Dallas.

Margaret Truman, while finding little success as a singer, became an accomplished radio and television host. She also authored an acclaimed biography of her father, a personal biography of her mother, and nonfiction works about previous presidents and families who lived in the White House. She also wrote numerous works of fiction, primarily murder mysteries set in the Washington area, remaining active into her 80s.

Margaret married Clifton Daniel, a New York Times reporter and later managing editor of that paper, in 1956. They had four children – all boys.  Margaret was 83 when she died in 2008.  


Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Lewis & Clark air gun ... and a dangerous demonstration

As Meriwether Lewis prepared for his early 19th century trip with William Clark to explore what is today is the American Northwest, he bought an air gun – a rifle that used compressed air, stored in its stock, to shoot a large, .46 caliber lead ball about as well as any other gun of the day. Each air gun held about 22 of these balls in a magazine attached to the gun, which could be much more rapidly fired (the entire magazine in about a minute) than any muzzle-loader. The downside is that it took about 1,500 strokes of a small air pump, similar to today’s bicycle pump, to fully pressurize the gun at 600 to 800 pounds per square inch. Also, the effectiveness of the gun dropped as pressure was lost with each shot.

The Girandoni air gun.
(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

Lewis enjoyed demonstrating the gun, and one of the first entries in his account of the expedition mentions an incident that could have been an ominous beginning for the trip. After Lewis demonstrated the gun to some “gentlemen” on August 30, 1830, he allowed them to inspect it. It discharged, with the ball from it striking a woman bystander, as told in Lewis’ own words (and with his own punctuation and spelling):

“Left Pittsburgh this day at 11ock with a party of 11 hands 7 of which are soldiers, a pilot and three young men on trial they having proposed to go with me throughout the voyage.  Arrived at Bruno's Island 3 miles below halted a few minutes.   went on shore and being invited on by some of the gentlemen present to try my airgun which I had purchased brought it on shore charged it and fired myself seven times fifty five yards with pretty good success; after which a Mr. Blaze Cenas being unacquainted with the management of the gun suffered her [referring to the gun] to discharge herself [again, referring to the gun] accedentaly  the ball passed through the hat of a woman about 40 yards distanc cuting her temple about the fourth of the diameter of the ball; shee fell instantly and the blood gusing from her temple  we were all in the greatest consternation  supposed she was dead by [but] in a minute she revived to our enespressable satisfaction, and by examination we found the wound by no means mortal or even dangerous; …”  

During the rest of the expedition to the West Coast, when Lewis and Clark encountered new groups of Indians, they reported demonstrating the rapid fire of the air gun. Many people who have studied the Lewis and Clark expedition believe that these demonstrations of firepower suggested that the expedition was more formidable that it was, helping ensure its continued well-being as it traveled through lands occupied only by Indians.

Based on a written description of the gun by a “gentleman” who saw it demonstrated by Lewis a few days after the unfortunate shooting of the bystander described by Lewis above, it was almost certainly a design developed earlier by G.C. Girandoni in Europe, and adopted for use in the Austrian army from the late 1700s until the early 1800s.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

An escaped German P.O.W. ... finding a new life in America

Relatively few of the hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war held in the U.S. during World War II escaped from their prison camps. Most of them were easily captured when they couldn’t blend into American society very well. By the end of the war, when those prisoners were sent back to Germany, only 12 remained at large. And by the 1960s, all but one – a man named Georg Gaertner – hadn’t been accounted for.

Georg Gaertner, also known
as Dennis Whiles, in 2009

As the war neared its end, Gaertner learned that his home town in Germany had been taken by the Russian army. Russian revenge against the German population in such towns was brutal, and most are now part of Poland. To avoid being sent back there and face Russian wrath, Gaertner decided to try to remain in America. On September 21, 1945, he escaped from a prison camp in New Mexico and hopped onto a freight train that took him to California.

Gaertner could speak English and had served as a prison translator, and that skill would serve him well. He took a series of odd jobs, working as a dishwasher and farm laborer and keeping a low profile as he moved from town to town to avoid attention. As he improved his English-language skills, he also learned how to fit into American life. He carried a Social Security card under the name of Dennis Whiles, married an American woman with two kids in the 1960s, and took on higher-paying jobs in construction and sales, and even as a ski instructor and tennis instructor. In the early 1980s, Gaertner’s wife – whom knew nothing of his past – became suspicious when he refused good job opportunities that would have required background checks. When she threatened to leave him, he told her the truth and decided to come clean.

Gaertner knew that he had been mentioned in a book titled Nazi Prisoners of War in America, so in November 1983 he called the author – Texas A&M University professor Arnold Krammer.

"The caller identified himself as Dennis Whiles and commented that he had enjoyed reading my book," Krammer was quoted in a 1985 Houston Chronicle article. "He also said that it was very accurate, admitting that he had once been a German prisoner of war." The men spoke for a long time, and eventually Gaertner told Krammer who he really is.
Krammer and Gaertner collaborated to write another book, titled Hitler's Last Soldier in America, published in 1985. Gaertner reportedly obtained U.S. citizenship in 1989 and lives today in Colorado.