Book Review Thursday: Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour

So much has been written about Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain.  One might assume there couldn’t possibly be one more book written about one of America’s most beloved characters.  Author Richard Zacks, however, has managed to do just that in his latest book. Zacks brought the story to life through Twain’s never published notebooks and correspondence, bringing a unique perspective to a somewhat “dark period” in the author’s life.  Mark Twain was a highly successful humorist and author, but as a businessman he failed in 1894 after investing in an ill-conceived invention which never quite lived up to its potential. As a result his publishing company went under; buried in debt, he declared bankruptcy.  His wife Olivia (Livy), a coal heiress, was heartsick at the possibility of their good name being sullied.  Twain promised Livy he would pay back every penny despite the fact there was no legal responsibility to do so once he filed for bankruptcy.  But, how to do that? Twain, at this point in his life, really hated the idea of performing, yet it seemed the only way to make headway against the mountains of debt.  He was fifty-nine years of age but set out to make good on his word by embarking on an around-the-world comedy tour.  After traveling throughout the American West he and Livy and daughter Clara set sail for places like Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa where he entertained sold-out audiences. The book tells the story of their travels and adventures (and let’s face it with Mark Twain, some misadventures), including a wild ride down a Himalayan mountain, while interspersing...

Far-Out Friday: The Curiosities of Julia, the Misnomered Bear Woman (it was a Victorian thing)

Let’s face it – the Victorians had an insatiable curiosity for all things freakish.  Such was the case of a woman who was variously referred to as  “Bear Woman”, “Ape Woman”, “Baboon Lady” or more perhaps aptly and succinctly, but nonetheless cruelly, the “world’s ugliest woman”.  After she died following childbirth in 1860, her body was mummified (at the request of her entpreneurially-minded husband, Theodore Lent) and put on display as the “The Embalmed Nondescript”. Julia Pastrana was an indigenous Mexican believed to have been born in the early l830’s in the state of Sinoloa.  Born with two genetic conditions, hypertrichosis and gingival hyperplasia (the former a condition exhibiting abnormal amounts of body hair and the latter a condition marked by an exaggerated and overgrown jaw resulting from excessive fibrous connective tissue), she was purported to have been discovered by a woman who had lost her way after she and her friends hiked up into the mountains to bathe in 1829. As explained in a newspaper account in 1855 (which may or may not have been factually accurate, given that era and its penchant for sensationalism): In 1829 several women went up from Copala (a little town just at the edge of the mountains) to a small pond above, on the side of the mountain, to bathe, after their custom; on their returning home they missed Mrs. Espinosa, one of their companions; all endeavors to find her proved fruitless, and it was believed that she was drowned, until six years afterwards a Ranchero, who was hunting for his cattle on this mountain, heard a voice in a cave, which...

Book Review Thursday: Two World War II Spy Stories

I’ve been lax of late in writing here at Digging History as I’ve undertaken some ancestry and book research projects.  I’ve also been inundated with trying to keep up with library books I’ve had on hold all coming my way at the same time it seems.  In the last two weeks I’ve read two somewhat-related books about World War II spies – one about a woman who to many in the world of MI6 and OSS during the war was known only as “Cynthia” and the other about an American family living in Paris who joined the Resistance and paid a dear price. The Last Goodnight I am a fan of Howard Blum.  I eagerly wait for his new books to be released and make sure I’m in line to check it out as soon as I can from the library.  After seeing initial reviews of his latest book, I wasn’t so sure I’d like it or not. Truth be told I had mixed feelings about the book – it was hard to decide if Betty Pack (a.k.a. “Cynthia”) was a true patriot or perhaps just a nymphomaniac whom the British and Americans exploited.  One reviewer suggested she may have been possessed of narcissistic personality disorder.  I’m not sure about that, but Ms. Pack seemed to have little or no compunction about “putting herself out there” as a temptress. As a young woman she married an older man, a British diplomat, and almost immediately began cheating on him and did so throughout their marriage.  She seemed to fall in and out of love with men other than her husband...

Book Review Thursday: The Secrets of the Notebook: A Woman’s Quest to Uncover Her Royal Family Secret

Even after the author’s family fled Nazi Germany to take refuge in London, they still faced danger as Hitler’s blitzkrieg pounded England.  On the day Eve Haas (nee Jaretzki) turned sixteen her father showed her a piece of family history, a notebook, which contained secrets about her family’s history.  Years later after both of her parents had passed away Eve finally came into possession of the notebook.  Although her family had warned against researching the secrets lodged in the notebook, Eve decided to pursue it nonetheless.  The notebook’s opening inscription alone was intriguing enough to propel her forward, ignoring her family’s warnings. By this time she had a family of her own, having been raised as a non-orthodox, secular Jew.  Her grandmother had been left behind and more than likely suffered death at the hands of the brutal Nazi regime.  The details which began to unfold revealed one startling revelation after another, but in order to get the complete story Eve and her husband had to find a way to access records which at this time were stored in Communist East Germany. The process of discovering her family’s secret history took years of patience and research and Ms. Haas gives a thorough account of  both triumphs and disappointments.  At the heart of what she discovered was a touching love story and the identities of her great-great grandparents, one of which was Prussian royalty (and a distant relative of England’s Queen Victoria).  Due to the treachery of his own family and attempts on his young wife Emilie’s life, Prince August was forced to take extraordinary measures to protect their only...

Felonious Females: Kate “Ma” Barker and Her Wayward Children

She was born Arizona Donnie Clark on October 8, 1873 to parents John and Emaline (Parker) Clark in Greene County, Missouri.  Arizona, or Arrie (and later Kate) as her family called her, grew up on a Missouri farm, and raised as a good Christian went to church and Sunday school. In 1892 she married George Elias Barker, a farm laborer, and together they had four sons: Herman, Lloyd, Arthur and Fred, or Freddie as she liked to call her favorite son.  Kate remained faithful, taking her family to church and singing hymns “with the same lustiness as the rest of the congregation”  George, described as a “mild, inoffensive, quite man who seemed somewhat bewildered by his dominating wife”, was dragged along with the family to church.1 As the saying goes, boys will be boys, but the Barker boys seemed to get in more than their share of trouble in Webb City – petty at first, but eventually escalating into more serious crimes which brought their names into the headlines.  In 1909 sixteen-year-old Herman had been sent to jail for ninety days for receiving stolen property. George purchased a farm in Stone County, Missouri, but Herman left home and went back to Webb City where he got into trouble and landed in jail.  In late June the judge granted clemency for Herman and told him to go home to his family and behave himself.  That didn’t happen, however, after he and Lloyd formed a gang.  By 1910 every one of the sons had been accused of breaking some state law – even little Freddie. In 1915 the family moved to...

Time Capsule Thursday: Depression Era Kidnapping Epidemic and the Rise of Public Enemy No. 1

America’s first official kidnapping accompanied by a demand for ransom occurred in 1874 when four year-old Charles Brewster Ross, son of Philadelphia merchant Christian Ross.  The kidnapper demanded ten thousand dollars via an anonymous communication.  Mr. Ross notified the criminal he was willing to negotiate but had offered only three hundred dollars to obtain the release of his son. Charles was never found although his father later offered five thousand dollars in late 1874 for the safe return of his son.  He was satisfied the abductors had been killed on Long Island on December 14 and was begging for information as to Charles’ whereabouts.  Despite the mayor of Philadelphia’s proclamation the following year urging the state legislature to enact a law granting immunity to the person or persons holding Charles, nothing had turned up.   By the end of March all hope would be gone of ever finding him. Until the 1930’s hundreds of kidnap-ransom crimes would be committed, although most were handled as local crimes.  Federal agents only stepped in when a kidnapping had occurred on federal lands such as a national park or Indian reservation.1  That all changed following enactment of the so-called Lindbergh Law in 1932. On January 1, 1934 William Hamm, Jr., 1933 kidnapping victim of the Barker-Karpis gang, was finally getting on with his life, marrying his fiancé Mrs. Mary Hersey Carroll of St. Paul.  (NOTE: In case you missed yesterday’s “Wayback Wednesday” article on the Depression Era Kidnapping Epidemic you can read it here).  The trial of his alleged kidnappers, the Roger Touhy gang, was over, resulting in their acquittal.2  In reality it had...

Wayback Wednesday: Depression Era Kidnapping Epidemic

In 1934 it seemed to have indeed reached epidemic proportions.  Thousands of times that year readers would find the word “kidnap” headlined in their local newspaper, sometimes more than once in one issue.  Just two years previous the nation had been riveted with news of the kidnapping of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s son, Charles, Jr. On March 1, 1932 Charles Lindbergh’s son had been abducted from the family home and later found dead near their home on May 12.  Richard Hauptman was finally arrested in 1934, tried in 1935, found guilty and executed on April 3, 1936 for the crime of first degree murder.  In 1932 Congress passed a law making it illegal to transport kidnap victims across state lines, the so-called Lindbergh Law.  If a person was not returned within twenty-four hours, the FBI could become involved in the case. The law was amended in May of 1934 in the midst of what many were calling a kidnapping epidemic.  The amendment, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on May 24, 1935, provided for the execution of anyone guilty of interstate kidnapping who had harmed the victim(s).  The term “harm” was left wide-open to interpretation, having not been specifically defined by the amendment. Following passage of the original law and increased FBI involvement in these type of cases, kidnapping crimes were up, however.  It would take more than a year to get the epidemic under control.  By 1936 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was telling reporters that “kidnaping is well in hand in America”.1  Indeed, every one of the sixty-two kidnappings perpetrated since the Lindbergh law was...

Ghost Town Wednesday: Shafter, The Silver Capital of Texas

This area of Texas is home to just a handful of residents these days, but once boasted a population of four thousand.  The town was named for Colonel (later General) William R. Shafter, commander at Fort Davis, and located about eighteen miles north of Presidio.  It became a mining town after rancher John W. Spencer found silver ore there in September 1880. Shafter had the sample assayed and found it contained enough silver to make it profitable to mine – profitable enough for Shafter himself to invest.  Spencer had thought it prudent to share his secret with Shafter since the area was prone to periodic Indian attacks.  Protection would be needed to carry out successful mining operations. Shafter called upon two of his military associates, Lieutenants John L. Bullis and Louis Wilhelmi to join his venture (and clear the area of unfriendlies).  The following month Shafter and his partners asked the state of Texas to sell them nine sections of school land in the Chinati Mountains.  Eventually only four sections were purchased, but lacking capital the partners leased part of their acreage to a California mining group.  Shafter later obtained financial backing in San Francisco and the Presidio Mining Company was organized in the summer of 1883. The company contracted with Shafter, Wilhelmi and Spencer individually to purchase their interests, each receiving five thousand shares of stock and $1,600 cash.  Bullis had purchased two sections in his wife’s name, but when the company’s manager William Noyes found deposits on the Bullis acreage (valued at $45 per ton), a dispute arose.  Bullis claimed the two sections had been purchased outright...

Monday Musings: Spring Cleaning (and a few odds and ends)

Have you started spring cleaning yet?  I’m not sure if you’d call it spring cleaning, but of late I’ve been trying to organize my life a little better.  I spent a few hours recently cleaning and re-organizing my storage unit and found some long-forgotten stuff (and some stuff I should have forgotten and thrown away a long time ago, truth be told!). Of course, that got me to thinking about the history of spring cleaning.  Whenever or however it all began, it appears to have first been practiced for religious reasons.  For instance, the Jewish season of Passover is preceded by Unleavened Days of Bread – seven days when not a crumb of leavened bread is to remain in the house.  Orthodox Jews would clean their home thoroughly to eliminate the possibility of violating this sacred observance. Traditionally in Eastern Orthodox faiths the home is thoroughly cleaned during the week of Great Lent – the first day being “Clean Monday” or “Pure Monday”.  For the faithful, the week represents a time of spiritual cleansing as well. Excavations to uncover the ancient city of Pompeii began in 1738 following earlier discoveries in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, marking the beginning of the modern science of archaeology.  In 1871 American newspapers were reporting an intriguing discovery, titling the article “Seventeen Hundred Years in the Oven”. One home had been found in a state of repair at the time of the volcano eruption.  The family may have been absent, but evidence of “painters’ pots and brushes and workmen’s tools were scattered about.  Tell-tale spots of white-wash stained wall and floor.”1...

Far-Out Friday: Death By Pimple

I ran across this intriguing subject while researching an early Surname Saturday article about the Pimple surname.  I found several references to so-called “death by pimple” and researched further.  Clearly, the problem was due to lack of an effective way to treat infection prior to the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. That’s not to say doctors didn’t try to treat infections.  There were advertisements galore during the nineteenth century hailing various “miracle cures” for all sorts of maladies, pimples included.  The first instance found in a search of “pimple” at Newspapers.com yielded an article about a suspect in the disappearance of a surgeon who “hath been set upon by some ill people.”  The suspect was described as a “short square man, with an oval Face, red and full of pimples, and is about 60 years of age.”1  Early on, it appears to have been used as a means to identify someone – pimples were a distinct feature. Two months later, in the same publication, an advertisement appeared hailing the efficacy of The Royal Cosmetick, chemically prepared in private practice and formulated to “infallibly free the Face of Worms in the Skin, Pimples, Pustules, Heat, Redness, Yellowness, Sunburnings, Tawnings, Morphew, and such like Defilements.  Being indeed, the greatest, certaintest, the safest restorer, preserver and Improver of a good Complection or Natural Beauty yet known.”2  Pimples have been a problem for ages it seems. According to Receipts and Remedies, published in 1908, the following was recommended.  If pimples weren’t bad a daily morning washing with very hot water and ichthyol soap would be beneficial.  If, however, the condition was persistent an...