If you’re into history or genealogy, or just get a kick out of rummaging through government documents, Monday was an exciting day. That’s because the U.S. National Archives released complete records
from the 1940 U.S. Census and made the entire set, for the first time in history, accessible online and free of charge.
The data dump is a blessing for the caretakers of family trees, who can now mine that census for personal information about family members who passed on before their progeny could jot down key biographical facts. It’s also a long time coming; while aggregate statistics for cities or counties are published without restrictions as soon as they are available, specific records pertaining to individual citizens are sealed from the public, by law, for 72 years.
If that seems like a random amount of time to keep the decennial findings hidden, it kind of is. Sixty years ago, in an attempt to mollify both civil libertarians and statisticians who thought the value of the census was dependent upon confidentiality, Census Bureau Director Roy Peel and U.S. Archivist Wayne Grover wrote an informal rule
(later codified by Congress) that forced the government to keep particulars under lock and key for seven decades. In 1952, female life expectancy in the States was 71.6 years
. According to their logic, very few people would still be living who had participated in the census 72 years earlier, so any harm caused by the disclosure would be minimal. As it turns out, female life expectancy is now 79.5 years, and 21 million Americans alive in 1940 are still kicking today, a full 16 percent of those counted that year. Luckily, few have complained about a breach of privacy. Most, like 100-year-old Verla Morris
, seem to enjoy the novelty of reading their name in America’s history book.
Back in the late-1800s, it took years to tabulate the census results at all. Bureaucrats didn’t put to bed the 1880 census until 1887, and they knew finishing the 1890 census by 1900, when Congress was constitutionally required to reapportion district boundaries, would be even tougher. Not only was the nation’s population expanding by about 25 percent each decade, but the Census Office added a series of new questions to the document, including queries about home ownership, war service, and race. Counting the data by hand, as they had done for a full century, wasn’t going to cut it.Herman Hollerith
knew just how inefficient the process was. Born to German immigrants in Buffalo, the eccentric Hollerith graduated in 1879 with an engineering degree from the Columbia University School of Mines and followed one of his professors into the Census Office, where he watched in horror as his new colleagues slogged through an endless pile of paper forms, one by one. Hollerith wanted desperately for the government to organize its records mechanically, thereby saving time and reducing errors. He just needed to figure out how best to do it.
Inspiration struck, as it so often does, on the train. As Hollerith recalls
, he was taking a ride out from Washington when he watched a conductor use a punch card to certify a passenger’s ticket. That got him thinking: what if the government could transfer census questionnaires onto a punch card, with each hole representing a different data point (location, gender, occupation), and then feed the cards into an electrical machine that tallied the results? After five years of trial and error, the engineer finally figured out a design
that worked. Using the same principles as a Jacquard loom
, his prototype featured a series of tiny cups, all filled with mercury and connected to a wire nail. Each cup corresponded with a different hole on the punch card. When the card was inserted and the machine was set into motion, any punched hole would provide empty space in which the nail and mercury could interact like a circuit, thereby setting of an electrical charge. Those charges were sent to the machine’s dashboard, which contained a series of clock-like dials. All the census worker had to do was plug in a card, mark down which dials moved, take it out, and grab the next one.
Hollerith filed his first patent in 1884 and tested the gadget
in Baltimore three years later. His old colleagues were impressed with the results and offered him a contract when they reopened for business in 1890. It was a profitable decision. Using the electrical invention, the Census Office was able to analyze more information in a shorter amount of time (five years) and at a discount to taxpayers (an estimated $5 million). “This apparatus works unerringly as the mills of the gods,” The Electrical Engineer
wrote in November 1891, “but beats them hollow as to speed.”
Government officials may have been impressed with their new machine, but they were awfully cavalier with the documents it eventually tabulated. At the turn of the century, it was the job of individual agencies to maintain their own records, and some were more careful than others. Short on space in their vaults, archivists in the Commerce Department opted to stack the voluminous 1890 census neatly on pine shelves in their building’s basement. Few questioned the decision until January 10, 1921, when building fireman James Foster noticed smoke spewing through openings around some pipes that ran from the boiler room into the file room. Minutes later, another watchman upstairs smelled something burning in the men’s bathroom. Both made their way downstairs, where they ran right into an inferno. The pair pulled the house alarm, evacuated the office, and then watched as “five alarms quickly brought every piece of apparatus in downtown Washington to the scene” (New York Times
, January 11, 1921). It took 20 hoses and two-and-a-half hours to extinguish the unfortunate blaze.
It was impossible to determine how long the fire had burned before anyone noticed, nor was it clear what set it off in the first place. (An errant cigarette is one potential culprit.) But the damage it caused was obvious. Kellee Blake, who wrote a big piece
on the incident for Prologue
, called it ”an archivist's nightmare.” One-quarter of the 1890 census burned instantly. Another 50 percent suffered heavy smoke and water damage. Census Bureau Clerk T. J. Fitzgerald told reporters the morning after that Hollerith’s data was "certain to be absolutely ruined” (Washington Post
, January 11, 1921). And without modern preservation technology, the salvageable remains further deteriorated in the temporary storage space to which they were relocated. Today, only about 6,000 names
from the almost 63 million census returns exist, a fact that frustrates genealogists to this day.
If there’s a silver lining to the story, it’s that the fire helped convince enough people in the capital that it would be useful to store important documents in a centralized and safe location. In 1926, Congress appropriated $1 million for an archival building, and eight years later, President Roosevelt signed a law
establishing the National Archives as an independent agency. Hollerith, meanwhile, took the proceeds from his government contract and formed the Tabulating Machine Company, which would eventually change its name to the International Business Machines Corporation. He never became a rich man—the engineer did not get along with the company’s top salesman, Thomas Watson
, and stepped aside from day-to-day operations in 1921—but his work revolutionized the field of information processing.
For more on that original contraption, be sure to read this article
Hollerith wrote in 1890 describing its mechanics. The illustrations are particularly charming.
It’s up to Thomas Perez to bring Trayvon Martin’s killer to justice.
Perez runs the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights division, which is leading an inquiry
(in concert with the FBI) into the tragic shooting of the black teen from Miami. If the state attorney's office in Florida declines to file charges
against the gun-wielding George Zimmerman—the beneficiary of questionable police work and broad firearm and self-defense
regulations—Perez and his colleagues in Washington could step in and file any number of charges, including police misconduct or even a hate crime.
It should come as a relief to Martin’s family that Perez is on the case; there are few lawyers in the nation better suited
to manage an investigation of this nature. Since taking over the politicized and demoralized
Civil Rights division in 2009, Perez has reinvigorated what Eric Holder once called the “the conscience of the Justice Department,” enforcing loads of civil rights laws intentionally ignored by the Bush administration. And as a young prosecutor working in the department he now leads, the Buffalo native racked up several high-profile convictions in cases targeting shady cops and white supremacists, including the arrest in 1994 of three Lubbock men
who attempted to launch a “race war” by luring African-American locals to their car and firing a shotgun at them from a short distance, killing one and injuring two others.
Martin’s murder isn’t the only racially-motivated shooting Perez is currently investigating, either. Less than 30 days ago, his staff issued a fresh series of indictments
in a notorious 13-year-old cold case, a double-murder described by a Las Vegas homicide detective at the time as "one of the more heinous crimes” his wicked city had ever experienced (Las Vegas Review-Journal
, January 11, 2001). It’s a heart-wrenching story about skinheads, anti-racist activism, and two charismatic young men taken well before their time. Tabling the obvious fact that the states’ suspects are presumed innocent until proven otherwise, let’s revisit this fascinating and newly-relevant massacre.
To understand the context in which the crime was committed, it helps to detour briefly into the history of skinheads
, a complex and misunderstood British subculture that arose in the late 1960s. A multiracial appendage of the mod scene, the original skinheads were not outwardly racist; in fact, they patterned their style off of Jamaican ska and reggae singers, which many had grown familiar with while working next to Caribbean immigrants on London’s docks. The look was distinctive: shaved heads, piercings, workers' boots (often Doc Martens), suspenders, tight jeans. Unwavering working-class pride, along with a modest disdain for “feminine” hippies, was the only major requirement for joining in.
That all changed in the mid-1970s, when England’s economy stumbled at the same time as immigration from its former colonies intensified. The meager job prospects of young white bulldogs proved a handy recruiting tool for white supremacists, who added a swastika armband to the unofficial skinhead uniform and set about expanding their ranks. "They take our jobs and our homes," one representative neo-Nazi told People
in 1981. "If they went back where they came from, look at the opportunities there would be for us."
Suddenly, skinheads were divided into rival camps — anti-racist and racist, SHARPs
and “boneheads.” When the movement migrated to the United States 30 years ago, the split remained intact. To be sure, only a tiny portion of the population identified with either strand; by 1998, an expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center pegged the total number of racist skinheads in the States at 4,000. (Don Terry, reporting
for the New York Times
in 1998, joked that “there are probably more Elvis impersonators [in Las Vegas] than skinheads.”*) Even fewer took up the anti-racist mantle. Yet the animosity between the two groups was real, and violence —vandalism, bullying, street fights—erupted with troubling frequency. In Las Vegas, young Nazis often congregated outside of Durango High School, where they reportedly beat black and Mexican classmates with bats and screamed "race traitor" at white pupils who didn’t share a similar sensibility about fashion or politics.
In 1998, the city’s most popular skinheads were Daniel Shersty and Lin Newborn, best friends and co-founders of the Las Vegas chapter of Anti-Racist Action
. Neither had a bigoted bone in his body. Shersty was an “All-American” boy; before enlisting in the Air Force to earn money for college, the handsome Floridian played trumpet in the school band and started on the varsity lacrosse team. His true passion, though, was acting, and he broadcast his love of the theater by tattooing on his left shoulder the masks of comedy and tragedy, one black and the other white. Newborn, called “Spit” by just about everyone, was a few years older than Daniel and the father of a two-year-old son. He was also one of the only black skinheads in the country, a man steeped in the history of the movement’s inclusive origins. An employee at a body-piercing shop, he maintained a reputation as a responsible and thoughtful guy. One police officer who patrolled the neighborhood where Newborn worked called Spit “a super-nice kid,'' who was “looked up to by the kids in the area.” That included Shersty, who met Newborn after arriving for duty at the nearby Nellis Air Force Base.
The twosome bonded immediately over music and their attraction to pretty girls with nose rings, and they organized the nascent ARA chapter by appealing to working-class kids in search of a like-minded community of peers. “We pay our bills, and we don't do drugs. We drink, but we don't drink and drive,” one member told the Review-Journal
on July 7, 1998. “We look out for each other." An old friend of Shersty told the Orlando Weekly’s Lynda Edwards
that his activism “filled an intellectual thirst in him, and much more.” It also left the pair vulnerable to abuse. In 1996, Newborn’s house was shot at by unknown assailants after he delivered a speech at a gathering of SHARPs. In June 1998, Shersty’s car windows were smashed and a stack of ARA brochures left inside were “methodically torn to confetti” (Orlando Weekly
). Both received harassing telephone calls. The message was clear: they were being watched.
Neither were too concerned with their personal safety when two blond women walked into Newborn’s parlor on July 3, 1998 and asked for navel piercings. Shersty was coincidentally visiting his friend that day, and the foursome joked and flirted while Newborn completed his work. The ladies, as it turned out, were on their way to a Fourth of July party in the desert and wanted to see if their new friends would accompany them later that night. Newborn and Shersty enthusiastically agreed. Because the route to the gathering was confusing, one of the girls told Newborn to meet them at a highway exit just outside of Las Vegas so they could follow them for the rest of the drive. Mark Isquith, the parlor’s owner, watched as the boys celebrated their good fortune by high-fiving on the sidewalk outside of his shop. A store receipt shows that they purchased six-packs of Newcastle and Beck's shortly after 12:30 a.m. before pulling onto Centennial Parkway
Prepped to party, they drove right into an ambush. Prosecutors and police agreed that Newborn was the primary target. Footprints suggested the black skinhead was grabbed first and dragged from the car. Shersty likely dove after the attacker in an effort to free his friend. He was shot dead on the spot with a shotgun. One of the assailants then lugged Newborn 150 yards away and executed him, too. Neither victim was robbed, nor did either carry a criminal record. Newborn was 24, Shersty was 20.
Three men driving ATVs in the desert the next morning stumbled upon a curious sight. Not only did they find Shersty’s body lying next to a Chevy Cavalier, but they saw two men and a woman emerge from a nearby patch of land—where Newborn’s body was ultimately discovered—and drive away quickly. The ATVers jotted down the license plate of the fleeing car, which police traced back to the parents of Melissa Hack, a girl who happened to be dating John Butler, the leader of a small, local neo-Nazi group called the Independent Nazi Skins. Ten days later, police spotted Butler, carrying a handgun, and took him into custody.
During Butler’s trial, which took 18 months to get underway, his attorneys tried to convince the jury that their client was not present at the time of the murder and only offered to help friends cover up the killing hours after it occurred. "He is guilty of being stupid," his lawyer said during the opening statement, according to the Review-Journal
(December 8, 2000). "But he is not guilty of murder." Joseph Justin, the other man spotted at the crime scene, provided a much different account during his testimony. He contended that on their way to collect stray evidence early that morning, Butler spoke freely of his involvement in the slayings, identifying Melissa’s brother Ross Hack as the mystery co-conspirator. It didn’t help Butler’s case when prosecutors pointed out that Nazi websites commonly promoted Independence Day as an ideal time to kill “race traitors.” After more than three days of deliberation, the jury sentenced the skinhead to two counts of murder. He was initially sent to death row, but his sentence was later reduced to life-without-parole thanks to a technicality during the penalty phase of the trial.
Though pleased with the outcome, it always irked local authorities that Butler was the only person for which there was sufficient evidence to prosecute. It seemed obvious to them that Butler had help pulling off the complex plot. "We have one bird in hand and are watching several in the bushes,” U.S. District Attorney Christopher Laurent told the Orlando Weekly
at the time. “We're collecting the evidence. They're gonna fall."
It took 13 years, but Perez’ Justice Department is finally getting closer
. On February 29, the feds charged both Hacks, as well as a man named Leland Jones, with murder and firearms offenses. According to a statement, “prosecutors expect to introduce evidence at trial that all three defendants were associated with racist neo-Nazi skinhead groups at the time of the slayings.” The Hacks are eligible for the death penalty, so the trial should garner significant headlines. Like the investigation into Martin’s killing, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the proceedings.
*This is certainly true; between 1995 and 1999, the city’s gang unit documented just 132 racist skinheads, according to the Review-Journal.
I hope you spend a few minutes reading my new feature
for The Classical
on the House of David and its famous barnstorming baseball team of the 1920s and 1930s. The piece was a ton of fun to report and I’m thrilled my friendly editor
decided to publish it relatively early in his site’s run, which has gotten off to a great start already. Y’all should definitely reward the crew over there with pageviews and follows
While digging into the history of the program, it was striking to see how often members of this tiny Michigan commune played with or against genuine baseball legends. One HoD ringer whose name did not make it into the piece was pioneering female pitcher Jackie Mitchell
, and I thought I’d use the space here to flesh out her fascinating biography. Let’s call it the HoD director’s cut.
Mitchell was not the first professional female player, a designation that belongs to Lizzie Arlington
, but she’s certainly one of the most decorated. Born sometime between 1912 and 1914 in Massachusetts, Mitchell was raised by a supportive and athletically-minded father, an optician who encouraged her to swim and play sports at an early age. She also had the good fortune of living next door to Dazzy Vance
, a Dodgers great who won the NL MVP award in 1924 and struck out over 2,000 hitters in his 16-year career
. During the 12 months they shared adjoining apartments, Vance took a liking to his little neighbor and taught her how to throw a drop ball, otherwise known as a sinker, among many other tricks. Jackie absorbed it all. By 1930, she had earned a spot on a womens team in Chattanooga run by the chief scout of the Washington Senators, Joe Engel. According to her father’s own scouting report
at the time, Mitchell “has one of the most deceptive pitching deliveries, hits fair, and fields way above the average that a boy of her age can field.” The local Middletown Times Herald
added these relevant details: “Interviews have found her distinctly feminine – she cooks and plays a piano.”
On top of running the Engelettes, Engel
oversaw baseball operations for the Chattanooga Lookouts, one of the Senators’ farm clubs. During the Depression, the "Barnum of Baseball” tried just about every promotion
he could dream up to attract fans, from raffling off a house to staging a (papier-mâché) elephant hunt on the field. And in the spring of 1931, he got the bright idea to call up Mitchell for an exhibition game against the mighty New York Yankees, who were traveling through Tennessee en route to the Big Apple following spring training.
The novelty of watching a small teenage woman with an odd sidearm delivery toe the rubber against the greatest hitters in the world drew 4,000 fans to the ballpark. Mitchell did not disappoint. After Chattanooga’s starter gave up two hits to kick off the contest, the manager immediately brought in Mitchell to face the meat of the Yankees' order: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzari. Ruth took two huge cuts on the first two deliveries, whiffing on both. Frustrated, the Sultan of Swat asked the ump to check the ball. It turned up clean. After a pitch outside, Mitchell painted the corner with another sinker, catching Ruth off balance for the third strike. Disgusted, the slugger “flung his bat away in high disdain and trudged to the bench” (New York Times
, April 3, 1931). Gehrig fared no better, swinging through the first three pitches he saw for the second out of the inning. Lazzari earned a four-pitch walk before the skipper turned back to the bullpen, ending Mitchell’s day. The Yankees went on to win 14-4, but it was Jackie’s incredible inning that dominated headlines the next morning (and for weeks after). The New York Daily News’
characterization was typical: “A swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick.”**
If you think the story sounds a bit fishy, you’re not the only one. To this day, nobody has been able to determine conclusively whether or not the Bambino and the Buster -- unbeknown to Mitchell -- took a dive in exchange for an under-the-table settlement. If I had to wager, I’d say the evidence points toward some type of deal. The previous season, Ruth and Gehrig posted OPS’ of 1.225
respectively, both of which still rank among the top 25 single-season offensive performances in Major League Baseball history. Combined, they only struck out in 9 percent of their at-bats, and those came against top-tier pitchers, not 130-pound amateurs who, as the Washington Post
reported at the time,
had “been laid up with a sore arm.” Not to mention the contest was originally scheduled
for April Fool’s Day, but had to be pushed back 24 hours because of rain.
On the other hand, Lazzari claims he went to the plate looking to hack. And MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis sure didn’t think Mitchell’s performance was a hoax; embarrassed by the spectacle of a lady taking down his superstars, he voided her contract
with Chattanooga within days, calling baseball “too strenuous for women.”*** Maybe her stuff on that April afternoon was just that damn good?
Once booted from the Scenic City, Mitchell played briefly in the Piedmont League and toured with Babe Didrikson before signing a contract with the House of David in 1933. Here she is, in the left corner, courtesy of the HoD museum in Addison, Michigan:
The commune paid the “typically boyish” hurler $1,000 per month (NYT
, July 15, 1933) and allowed her parents to travel with the team. (Not that there was much in the way of carousing on road trips with Christian Millennialists.) She laced up her spikes for the Jesus Boys until 1937, when she quit baseball and took an office job with her father's company. Officials from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which debuted in 1943, couldn’t even pull Mitchell out of retirement. I guess when you’ve struck out Babe Ruth and played several seasons with the most popular barnstormers in the sport's history, pitching for the Fort Wayne Daisies or Muskegon Lassies doesn’t sound all that appealing.
There are some neat photos of Mitchell here
, including one in which Dazzy Vance’s protege is introduced to Ruth and Gehrig. And if you still haven’t read my House of David piece, you can find it here
. I hope you like it.
*It was also hilarious to look at hairy photos.
**The Atlanta Constitution
added another dollop of sexism in its coverage of Mitchell on June 27, 1931: “If you’ve never seen her pitch, you probably think of her as one of these stuck-up, temperamental woman athletes possessed with a sense of her own importance and hard to get along with, don’t you? You should change your mind. Jackie Mitchell … is a shy little girl, who blushed under her sunburned face when asked her full name.”
***The MLB formally banned the signing of women to contracts on June 21, 1952.
In 1895, the famed architect Jarvis Hunt
and two fellow cycling enthusiasts opened the Chicago Saddle and Cycle Club.
The men “felt the necessity,” as the Chicago Tribune
would later report (May 14, 1899), “of having some place where they and their friends might be able to rest after a spin without being obliged to patronize the public gardens.” They choose for their clubhouse a small patch of beachfront land near Foster Avenue on the city’s North Side, where it was “no libel to call a club there built on the lake a country club” (June 3, 1945). Four years after opening for business, Hunt designed a beautiful veranda-festooned building, which overlooked a pool, horse stables, a boat house, and a three-hole golf course. The city’s financiers and socialites who could afford memberships joined the exclusive club in droves; like many of the city’s turn-of-the-century athletic associations
, it provided the 1 percent with a relaxed atmosphere for networking and seclusion from the rapidly developing city. (“Tall skyscrapers are so near,” the Tribune
reporter noted in 1945, “that in the future of helicopters, it could probably not even be a landing field.”)
Louis Straub was the Saddle Club’s nighttime bartender. For 12 years, beginning in 1923, Straub would come to work after collecting delinquent bills for Commonwealth Edison during the day and sling drinks to Chicago’s rich and famous. And in the early morning hours of February 3, 1935, having closed up the Saddle Club after another night of revelry, Straub was shot seven times with a .38 caliber pistol and left for dead “crumbled in a basement closet” (UP). He was 46 years old.
Straub’s slaying, “as baffling as a modern detective thriller” (AP, February 3), was never solved. Having read through the Tribune
archives, which included several lengthy front-page stories detailing the crime and subsequent investigation*, here’s what I can piece together about the night in question.
It began routinely enough. Straub left his home, at 901 W. Argyle, at roughly 6:30 p.m. He carried in his wallet $54 dollars. His 34-year-old wife Helen, a former showgirl, went to play bridge at a friend’s house. The Saddle Club’s manager, who happened to be Straub’s brother, left the premises after the departure of Luke Williams, a former college tennis star, around 9 p.m. The other employees followed, entrusting Straub to serve the only remaining party, made up of six Gold Coast residents “well known in the younger social set.” During the course of his shift, Helen called Louis three times to find out when he might finish and if he would like a ride home, a favor she offered two or three times per week. “The last time I called him,” she told police, “he said he would be ready in a few minutes as a party of young people were just leaving.”
After playing bridge and consuming somewhere between three and six bottles of beer, Helen Straub left her card game at 1:30 a.m. and dropped off two friends at their homes. (Ellen Billie Edlin, one of those two women, told police she got home around 2 a.m.) Next, Helen swung by her own apartment to pick up her “white spitz dog” and drove to the club, which was quiet and dark when she arrived. Worried that Louis’ high blood pressure might have caused him trouble, she roused the night watchman on duty, Gus Schwartz, and began searching the campus, a spot “well isolated from the eyes of the curious” by “tall trees, dense shrubbery, and a high wire fence.” At Straub’s suggestion, the pair eventually opened a first-floor door on the north end of the building, one that Schwartz was confident had been locked on his last inspection three hours prior. It wasn’t. At the end of a 25-foot hallway was a lavatory, where Helen discovered her husband's “bullet-torn body” (AP). Said Schwartz: “I felt for Straub’s pulse, but could detect none. Mrs. Straub did not touch the body. She merely looked in the doorway. Then I took her outside.” The watchman called Straub’s brother and then a doctor, who pronounced the bartender dead at the scene. At 3:15 a.m., the quartet finally alerted the police, who held Straub and Edlin in custody as material witnesses.
The cops came to several firm conclusions within the first 24 hours of their investigation. Given his attire, Straub was waiting outside (and probably smoking a cigar) as the assailant approached. Somehow, he was coaxed back into the building’s basement, where he was “sprayed with a withering fire” (February 4). Because of club rules, Straub would not have let a man into the building that late at night, particularly one he didn’t know. And it wasn’t a botched robbery; though his wallet was emptied, the club’s safe and Straub’s watch were not touched. More likely, the murder was committed by a woman who was familiar with the interior of the club and thus knew Straub personally. In other words, it was a crime of passion, or perhaps vengeance.
Helen Straub proclaimed deep love for her slain beau. “Louis was the best husband in the world,” she told police on February 5, as reported by the Atlanta Constitution
. “I knew of no other women in his life. We were very happy.” But detectives unearthed several “clews”** that complicated the picture of their relationship. For starters, Schwartz testified that Straub frequently entertained ladies at the bar “during the midnight hours.” Police corroborated this fact, telling reporters on February 6 that “it was easy to discern that as a husband he may have left something to be desired.” Helen Straub, it seems, found solace among her female friends, especially Mrs. Edlin, to whom she had given a $150 watch for Christmas two months earlier. “It had been no secret among this group [of bridge players],” the state’s attorney’s office learned, “that Straub and his wife had been on the verge of a break since last summer over Mrs. Straub’s affection for Mrs. Edlin.” The Tribune
added its (quaint and homophobic) two cents, writing that “this strange tangle of lives and loves … probably deserves the attention of a neurologist as well as a policeman.” Curiously, the Straubs also lived in a lavish apartment that no bartender could afford even on income from two jobs. And the pair had taken out a $10,000 insurance policy on Louis’ life that contained an indemnity clause doubling Helen’s payout in case of violent death. Obviously, seven slugs to the chest qualified.
The authorities thought, for a fleeting moment, that they had cracked the case wide open on February 7, when a taxi driver named Kenneth Colling came forward and admitted that he picked up a woman closely resembling Edlin and drove her to the Saddle Club about the time of the murder. As Colling described the sequence, he waited outside for 15 minutes as the meter ran before his fare burst out of the building, sprinted into his cab, ordered him to “get the hell out of here,” and asked to be dropped off at a bar somewhere along Argyle Street. He did what he was told. Witnesses at the watering hole Colling chose remember seeing someone purchase a pint of whisky before quickly exiting. Edlin, not-so-coincidentally, went missing the day after she was released from custody. Upon searching her apartment, investigators stumbled upon a dresser drawer that contained “a pair of women’s suede gloves, stained with some dark liquid.” This was suspicious, to say the least. Yet that promising lead, teased out before DNA testing
was available, hit a dead end: when pressed, employees of the liquor store expressed confidence that Edlin was not
the woman who bought their booze, and she was dismissed as a possible suspect.
Stray clues emerged over the next week. The most intriguing was a lidless brown casserole dish, filled with turkey and spaghetti, that was found in the Straubs’ apartment. The club’s chef said he had prepared the concoction so Louis could enjoy a late-night meal, but the coworker could not explain how the dish got back to Louis’ house while the bartender was still on duty. (This fascinated the city’s crime reporters, who peppered their copy with questions about the mysterious casserole, even after one of the partygoers admitted “he could not be positive that the bartender was in the club all of the time during the preceding five hours.”) During a second round of questioning, Helen Straub also divulged that she had bought a .38 caliber pistol from her father several months prior to the murder and sold it for profit to Peter Breckie, a 51-year-old electrician with whom she had carried on a decade-long extramarital relationship. She further contended that Breckie “once threatened to kill Louis so that he and I could be together.” Her suitor admitted “improprieties” but firmly denied that he had purchased any weapon, that he had it in for Louis Straub, or that he was anywhere near the Saddle Club on February 3. Brickie’s wife substantiated his alibi.
The state’s attorney didn’t know where else to look. The last Tribune
story filed about the high-profile saga, datelined February 18, described how “police met blank walls at every turn in the investigation of the mysterious murder.” They couldn’t figure out who hopped into Colling’s cab, what substance was splattered on Edlin’s glove, why Straub might have allowed a woman to enter the building late at night, or how the victim maintained such an expensive home in the first place. And just like that, two weeks after the grisly crime was perpetrated, the Saddle and Cycle Club murder went cold.
There is a brief coda to the story. In September of 1936, Helen Straub and Louis’ brother Ernest entered into a civil proceeding to determine who should receive the $20,410 life insurance payout for Louis’ violent death. Attorneys representing the bartenders’ sibling set out to prove that Helen herself was the killer, calling 50 witnesses to testify. They included a neighbor who remembered seeing Helen cut Louis with a butcher knife and strike him in the head with a vase at different points in their marriage as well as a night clerk at the hotel Louis lived in as a bachelor, who said Straub told him he had survived another
late-night shooting attempt at the Saddle and Cycle Club sometime in 1926. Helen even took the stand; 20 pounds heavier than when Louis died, a court reporter described her as “nervous,” adding that she “became more petulant during cross examination.” Still, in a lengthy ruling, the presiding judge freed the widow of any blame and awarded her the cash. Then, three years later, taxi driver Kenneth Colling was arrested as a co-conspirator in a robbery, having arranged the hold-up of an auditor for the Sievert Electric Company. His connection to the Straub case was never fully explored, which to these untrained eyes seems like a giant missed opportunity.
The Saddle and Cycle Club, 77 years after its veteran bartender was shot, continues to operate along Lake Michigan. In 1996, the Tribune called it
“the city's last true upscale country club.” If you’ve got the money, join at your own risk.
*Every citation in this piece comes from the Chicago Tribune
, between February 3 and February 18, unless otherwise noted.
**How the Tribune spelled “clues,” hilariously, in the mid-1930s.
The original pinball wizard wasn’t deaf, dumb, or blind, but he was lucky.
On a gloomy Chicago day in 1937, Steven Kordek
—who passed away last month at the age of 100—was wandering down Ashland Avenue without an umbrella when the skies opened up. To stay dry, he jumped into the lobby of the nearest building, then occupied by the Genco Pinball Company. The snap decision was serendipitous; Kordek needed work after stints with Idaho’s Forestry Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the gaming firm was in the market for a solderer. Within minutes, a woman on site offered him a job in the factory for 45 cents-an-hour, which he promptly accepted.
Genco made a wise investment. Over the next decade, Kordek was promoted from the production line into the engineering department. In 1947, his bosses assigned him an important solo project: build a game that improves upon the standard design of the day, in which a player would release a ball and then shake the table manually until it landed in a hole. Borrowing an idea from a rival company, Kordek placed two electrified flippers near the drain at the bottom of the board, giving the pinballer more control and the power to shoot the ball up the playing surface rapidly. “Triple Action” was an instant hit, debuting to wide praise at a 1948 trade show. Once manufactured in mass, teens fell in love with Kordek’s innovation, flocking to pizza parlors and arcades with quarters in tow. “It really was revolutionary,” says David Silverman
, executive director of the National Pinball Museum in Baltimore, “and pretty much everyone else followed suit.”
I’d like to say I shot my first pinball game at the Lincoln Mall
arcade, flanked by my Dad and brother on one of our periodic (and beloved) “Men’s Club” nights. Like many Americans born after 1976, it’s more likely I pulled back my first plunger at the adjacent Chuck E. Cheese’s
, a peculiar American institution with a fascinating corporate history.
Chuck E. Cheese’s (originally called Pizza Time Theater) was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell,
well known in tech circles for inventing Pong and founding Atari. The concept, developed over a two-and-a-half-year period in the mid-1970s, was strongly informed by Bushnell’s job experience and personal taste. While in high school and college, Bushnell—an admirer of Walt Disney—worked at an amusement park in Utah, where he took a particular interest in the skill-based midway games set up in between rides. Later in his career, the video game entrepreneur realized that few establishments catered to children who craved the lights and competition of an arcade but were too young to visit one on their own. If designed properly, he figured that a family pizza joint stacked with games could square this circle, allowing young kids to play in a controlled environment while their dinner baked in the oven. In 1976, at the tender age of 33, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications for $28 million. The next year, his new company opened
its first Pizza Time Theater in San Jose.
The Californians who walked into Bushnell’s restaurant encountered a bewildering sight. Mounted on the wall of the dining room, at “center stage,” sat Chuck, a robot rat with a patterned vest and a thick 'New Joisey'' accent. (The character, voiced by John Widelock, was randomly based
on “Muggs McGinnis,” a pugnacious yet lovable thug who turned up in the 1940s movie series The East Side Kids
.) Chuck, who acted as master of ceremonies, was joined by 15 other pneumatically operated characters, a diverse assortment of personalities who wisecracked and sang two-minute “original” songs from various stages around the perimeter.* There was Pasqually, an Italian chef; Sally Sachet, a disco skunk; Dolli Dimples, a piano-playing hippopotamus; The Beagles, a rock-and-roll quartet; and Helen Henny, a folk-singing chicken. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal
hilariously described the spectacle as “dinner theater for the preteen set.” (March 31, 1994)
Games occupied the rest of the room. Kindergartners jumped onto kiddie rides or into a ball pit. Those with more gaming experience tried their luck at pinball, skeeball, or Atari games like Asteroids. Teens weren’t welcome at all
; as the marketing director told the New York Times
in September 1981, ''if another teenager never sets foot in our stores, that'll be just fine with us.” The only troublemaker these “neighborhood Disneylands” accommodated was the giant rat with the toothy grin on the sign outside.
Shortly after cutting the ribbon at his first restaurant, Bushnell had a falling out with Atari’s new parent company, so he repurchased his San Jose outlet along with the rights to his idea for $500,000. This proved to be a profitable decision. Over the next half-decade, Chuck E. Cheese’s became the hottest restaurant chain in the country, one that Fortune
felt comfortable anointing
(PDF) the “future for the family restaurant business” in its July 1982 issue. Targeting “middle-class suburban areas where there are enough young couples with children willing to spend as much as $20 at each visit for pizza, ice cream, or sandwiches,” (NYT
, September 1981), Bushnell opened up an average of one shop every five days. Visiting Chuck E. Cheese's was less expensive than a trip to an amusement park and more exciting than a comparably priced trip to the cineplex. And by instituting
a token system for his games, kids spent their distracted parents’ money quickly. In 1980, a hotel mogul from Kansas City launched Showbiz Pizza Place,
an enterprise patently modeled after Chuck’s brand. Two years later, amid a national recession, Bushnell’s company registered a 453 percent increase in profit from the same quarter in 1981. Its stock price eclipsed $30 per share. “It's a very high revenue business," one analyst told the Baltimore Sun
in August 1982, "much higher than the average fast food chain.”
Building a sustainable business, however, required Chuck and his friends to convince families to make repeat visits. And Bushnell’s champions on Wall Street failed to make two simple observations about the early Chuck E. Cheese’s: the pizza wasn’t tasty, described by various reporters at the time as “less-than-superior” or “unexceptional,” and a trip to the noisy, rat infested parlor was a horrible nightmare for parents. Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly
(December 20, 1982) describes a typical scene, which is both manic and depressing:"Enter to bedlam: On the right, the "cabaret." A wildlife movie in progress, a half-dozen families consuming pizza in a darkened, cafeteria atmosphere. A tot of two weeps hopelessly on his father's shoulder as Chuck E. Cheese himself, larger than life and possibly twice as threatening to some youngsters, vainly tries to comfort the child. To the left, the "lounge." Again the cafeteria motif but the far corner features canned Beatles music piped through a quartet of dog robots—The Beagles—jerking to some nameless rhythm dictated by their gear and sprocket innards. Childish cries of joy and sorry grow louder at the video game arcade."
To make matters worse, the company built so many restaurants so quickly that the individual franchises were forced to compete with each other directly, making it difficult to recoup the hefty fixed costs—$1 million per store—it took to open up in the first place. In the end, a stressed family might outsource birthday party planning duties to Chuck once every 12 months, but few made the pizza joint a regular dinning destination. It was just too insufferable. “Within two years,” the Wall Street Journal
reported in March 1983, “the entire concept was in trouble.” After patronage dipped** and Wall Street investors dumped 500,000 stock shares in one day, Pizza Time Theater was forced into bankruptcy in 1984. Many of its franchises followed.
But the big rat didn’t go down without a fight. Brock Hotel Group, which owned the derivative Showbiz Pizza chain, bought out Pizza Time Theater shortly after it went under and immediately started rehabbing its image. Right off the bat, McBiz brought in new prizes, expanded its menu, reworked its pizza recipe, and beefed up its beer and wine list. A few years later, the chain ploughed $120 million into a massive remodeling project, giving face-lifts to almost 250 outlets. Most importantly, the firm realized that a sarcastic, creepy rat was probably not the most appealing spokesperson for a themed restaurant. With the help of the Zambrelli LLC advertising agency, the owners traded in Chuck’s trademark tuxedo for “skater-chic baggy shorts” and knee pads. "We need to ratchet up the coolness factor," an executive who worked on the project told Nation's Restaurant News
in 1997. As corny as that strategy sounds, it worked; by 1998, Chuck E.'s parent company was operating more than 300 stores in 44 states and routinely posted record quarterly earnings. There are over 500
today, with more on the way
Bushnell, who spends his time hawking memory games
, is probably happy to see his brand still kicking after 35 years in the game. Sure, it's a stressful place to visit. But parents now have fewer legitimate reasons to deny their kids the pleasure of eating in front of Chuck from Jersey.
*The software program synchronizes voices, body, and facial movements to songs and dialogue offered in original presentations.
**Deep in denial, executives at Pizza Time Theater first blamed their poor performance on the popularity of “E.T.” and then “unusually rainy weather."
For a brief moment on Saturday night, Charles Bradley channeled his inner-James Brown. It was subtle, yet unmistakable; with his band’s horn section blasting in the background and the capacity crowd at Chicago’s Metro Theater grooving, Bradley stepped away from the mic, shimmied three steps to his right, and dropped into the familiar half-splits
. It was an authentic imitation, full of enthusiasm and reverence, completed by a man who has spent more time on stage impersonating the Godfather of Soul than he’d care to remember.
Before Bradley released his critically-acclaimed debut album last year, the 63-year-old Brooklynite performed exclusively as Black Velvet, a James Brown tribute act. He got his start in the mid-1960s while employed as a chef with the federal vocational training program Job Corps. In Maine, where he was dispatched, a coworker mentioned to Bradley that he resembled Brown and wondered if the teenager ever sang. It took some goading, but the sheepish kid eventually jumped on stage and found he could hit the notes in Brown’s lofty register. Within days, he built a stage show mimicking the soul legend, backed by a “bad band’ and chock full of costume changes. It was an act he would reprise for decades in little California clubs and Brooklyn bars, always happy to have work yet frustrated by the creative limitations his imitative performance inevitably created. After scuffling by for years, Daptone Records
founder Gabriel Roth caught one of Bradley’s sets and suggested they collaborate on some original music. Finally given the chance to perform his own stuff, Bradley put out a messy
, emotional, and joyful LP, sung in a voice
that “sounds as if it’s breaking free of a straitjacket.” He hasn’t hit it rich yet, but he’s comfortable and making excellent records. “Bradley has been an entertainer since the '60s,” Bethlehem Shoals wrote
in a recent profile. “But now, just in the past few years, he has been transformed into an artist.”
While most celebrity impersonators would prefer to see their own name up in lights, the irony of the thankless job is that it takes a boatload of skill to do well. Sociologist Kerry Ferris, who studies fame at Northern Illinois University, just published an article
in The Journal of Popular Culture
in which she interviewed over a dozen successful impersonators. In describing how they prepare for their roles, all used the language and ideas of Method acting
; one Neil Diamond impersonator explained that “you need to understand your tribute from the inside out and find subtleties, layers, and textures to keep it real and spontaneous.” Background research is also critical. Sure, it’s cheesy, but it’s a highly-specialized craft, even its own art form if ones wants to be generous. And in this celebrity-obsessed country, there have been ample opportunities for those masters of transformation to cash in modestly on their unique talents.
A man named Ron Smith made sure of it. A Los Angeles native “with more than a hint of hustle in his demeanor” (Chicago Tribune
, June 1981), Smith owned and operated “Ron Smith’s Celebrity Look-Alikes” (RSCL), the most influential agency in the idiosyncratic impersonation industry. He got his start in 1976 when, as an agent with International Famous Management, he was asked to promote a Halloween extravaganza at the Hollywood Palladium
. It was days before the presidential election, so he figured the crowd would enjoy a look-alike contest pitting fake Jimmy Carters against fake Gerald Fords. “We chose the winners and I thought that was the end of that,” he later remembered. “Then the phone started ringing.”
Over the next few days, Smith fielded dozens of calls from local entrepreneurs who wanted to book the political pair for appearances. Area entertainers cold-called him too, alleging they resembled other famous faces: Woody Allen, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds. Unintentionally, Smith had tapped into a unorganized market in need of an ambitious middle-man. He opened up RSCL almost immediately, hoping to fill the void.
Building a roster of talent took plenty of effort. Throughout the late 1970s, Smith held twice-weekly auditions in Los Angeles and toured the country in search of actors with the right appearance. He followed a simple, albeit dubious mantra: “I am a true believer in the fact that everyone on this earth has a double.” By the mid-1980s, Smith had signed 10,000 different look-alikes to contracts, and he booked the dead ringers to appear or perform at parties, in advertisements, on television, or in movies. No escorting and nudity were allowed, only good-natured fun. “Look-alikes have been around since before I was born,'' the image entrepreneur told the Washington Post
in September 1986. “I've just taken something and organized it, made a business of it, and put some order to it.''
A poser’s pay was contingent on a variety of factors, including travel expenses and the skill of the individual performer. Most crucial was the real celebrity's popularity at the time; after the release of “Thriller,” for example, Smith endured a stretch in which three-fourths of the requests his office fielded were for the King of Pop (Los Angeles Times
, June 1984). If you could moonwalk 27 years ago, there was money to be made. The rest expected to bring home anywhere between $100 and $300 per appearance, depending on the job. The price increased for more elaborate stunts. In its heyday, RSCL clients appeared on the covers of Fortune
and New York
. One California real estate company hired Henry Kissinger to tout homes in a commercial for a new development it operated. (“When I say it’s the best value, it’s the best value … After all, I’ve been everywhere.”) Bob Hope once ordered a faux-Jimmy Carter for a special. Smith even staged a fake inaugural ball in Washington featuring Ronald and Nancy Reagan doppelgangers and an imitation wedding between "Princess Diana" and "Prince Charles." His company boomed. “When I started, I felt like I was Orville Wright trying to fly an airplane,'' he said, in one of many national profiles written at the time. “Now I feel like I'm on a ship to another planet.''
Occasionally, Smith encountered turbulence in the form of legal disputes. In 1984, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis won an injunction prohibiting Christian Dior from running a print advertisement without a disclosure that showcased a look-alike named Barbara Reynolds. (A New York State Supreme Court judge called Smith’s contractee a ''commercial hitchhiker seeking to travel on the fame of another.'') Woody Allen filed suit once, as well. But RSCL kept on retainer lawyers who knew their way around California’s right of publicity
laws, and the core business was never threatened. By 1991, 30,000
look-alikes were under his employ. “[The fad] won’t peak,” Smith predicted in a September 1985 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
. “As long as there are stars, there will be people who look like them.”
Yet the “King of the Clones” (Tribune
, 1981) has fallen off the map, as far as I can tell. A Canadian television station ran a brief feature on RSCL in 1994, noting the company earned “$10 million dollars in bookings worldwide” the year prior. Four years later, Smith made a few headlines
in the Beltway after hosting a casting call for “Zippergate," a parody movie of the Lewinsky scandal, which Netflix does not offer and I'm not sure was ever made. (Inundated with Monicas, Smith was hoping to lock down Kenneth Starr, Vernon Jordan, and Sam Donaldson look-alikes, specifically.) That’s about all I could dig up. I did get an automated message at the number listed on the company’s barren Yelp page
—they don’t have their own proper website—so it seems Smith is still nominally active. If any enterprising reader wants to sleuth, I'd be curious what I'm missing.
My best guest about Smith's current whereabouts? He’s taking in the sights at the 12th annual Celebrity Impersonators Convention
in Las Vegas, which concludes today
. If any of the performers there were half as entertaining as Charles Bradley, I’m sure it was a terrific show.
Jeremy Lin’s emergence as New York’s basketball savior is thrilling for its novelty: an Asian-American Harvard grad goes undrafted and bounces around the Developmental League before sliding into the Knicks rotation, where he puts up staggering statistics instantly (despite sleeping on couches) and leads an injured team on an inspired seven-game win streak. It’s as if the script was ripped from a mawkish Disney sports movie. And I imagine there are plenty of NBA executives who are losing sleep watching it unfold, wondering how they missed the chance to sign a point guard who could turn out to be a very special player
How did this happen? How did the guard from Palo Alto slip through the cracks? Science writer Jonah Lehrer draws one lesson
from Lin’s surprising run: on the whole, professional sports franchises are terrible at identifying talent. Lehrer uses research on the NFL Combine
to back up his claim; a recent analysis performed by the economists Frank Kuzmits and Arthur Adams found that there was “no consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance.” Lin, likewise, worked out in front of eight teams during pre-draft tryouts but always in games and drills with fewer than 10 players, a set-up that probably highlights an individual’s physical attributes effectively but is not the most natural way to judge a player’s overall feel for the game. “There is talent everywhere,” writes Lehrer. “We just don’t know how to find it.”
Lehrer is a smart cookie, but I think he overstates his case slightly. Past performance, while no guarantor of future success, is still a straightforward and relatively accurate indicator of one’s athletic potential. Take this article
in the journal Human Performance
that was published last April. The authors, studying NFL prospects once again, determined that "collegiate performance engendered a stronger relationship with future NFL performance than a variety of physical ability tests administered during the NFL Combine." If you're good in college, in other words, there's a pretty decent shot you'll be good at the next level.
Tuesday night, after watching Lin beat the Raptors at the buzzer and reading these silly and self-serving
quotes from a former Cornell player who guarded Lin a few years back, I reviewed the Harvard grad’s advanced stats from his senior year (2009-2010). As an avid college hoops fan who was personally invested
in the career of Crimson coach Tommy Amamker, I was familiar with Lin at the time
, but I had forgotten just how dominant he really was.
Via Ken Pomeroy’s
site ($ required), Lin was on the floor for 79 percent of Harvard's available minutes and used almost 27 percent of the team’s offensive possessions. Even carrying this heavy load, Lin registered a blistering 62 percent true shooting percentage (46th nationally) and a 30.5 percent assist rate (66th nationally). He got to the free line a ton
, too. If he had a fault, it was that he turned it over too much—21 percent, definitely below average for elite point guards—but he balanced out those takeaways by recording one steal for every 20 of Harvard’s defensive possessions, the 16th highest rate in the country. Yes, Lin posted these numbers against weaker competition than guards at major conference schools: the Crimson's strength of schedule was 239th out of 345 Division 1 teams in 2010. But Lin didn't fool around.
We can take it one step further by comparing Lin to a few other combo guards that excelled for big programs that season:
Jeremy Lin: 79% min, 27% usage, 62% true shooting, 30% assist rate, 21% TO rate, 68% FT rate
Evan Turner: 74% min, 34% usage, 58% true shooting, 37% assist rate, 21% TO rate, 39% FT rate
John Wall: 83% min, 27% usage, 56% true shooting, 34% assist rate, 24% TO rate, 53% FT rate
Landry Fields: 90% min, 31% usage, 56% true shooting, 19% assist rate, 13% TO, 50% FT rate
Jon Scheyer: 91% min, 23% usage, 57% true shooting, 25% assist, 11% TO rate, 41% FT rate
I didn't include rebounding numbers, as the bigger Turner laps the rest of the field. And that makes sense: he was probably the most prolific player in America that year. (Sorry, Harangody
.) But Lin still stacks up, and was a decidedly more efficient player than Wall (the top pick in the NBA draft) even given a comparable usage rate. Plus, he came to play in big games, notching 25 on 10 shots against nearby Boston College and 30 points, nine rebounds, and two big dunks in a six-point loss to then-14th ranked Connecticut.
I’m not blaming NBA general managers for their early skepticism. Chris Dudley
was the last Ivy Leaguer to play an NBA game, way back in 2003, and Lin’s stint in Golden State
last year—in which he shot just 39 percent from the floor—proved he needed time to adjust to the tempo of the pro game. What’s clear, as unofficial Lin biographer Pablo Torre wrote this week
, is that “evaluators of basketball talent, in particular, failed to see the whole picture.” It’s hard to say whether or not race played a factor. But the evidence of Lin’s playmaking ability was staring NBA execs in the face, if they cared to look.
We’re not put off by the pungent odors. The pricey admission fees and awful concession options don’t scare us away, either. Each year, 150 million Americans visit the zoo, a simulacrum of nature writer Diane Ackerman describes
as “an oasis in the crowded, noisy, stressful, morally ambiguous world where humans tend to congregate.”
I find zoos largely depressing, but I seem to be in the minority. A 2009 study demonstrated that zoo visitors in Japan, after peering at animals for the day, reported significantly lower blood pressure and reduced stress. There’s something soothing about interacting with our brothers and sisters from the Animal Kingdom, even in a highly-regulated environment. And when those creatures are abused in any serious way, we tend to freak out. “It’s the ultimate massacre of the innocents,” according to Ackerman, who wrote a book on the bombing of the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. “The animals are silent victims, supposedly beyond our ideas of good and evil.”
This empathetic impulse helps explain why two major magazines
were simultaneously drawn to the story of the 2011 Zanesville “zoo” escape, the dramatic account of a troubled Ohio man
who released several dozen exotic animals on his 73-acre ranch before committing suicide and the law enforcement agents who were forced to hunt down those stray beasts before they ventured off the property. Similarly, our deep connection with vulnerable zoo animals informed the writing of Yukio Tsuchiya, who penned one of the most famous children’s stories in the history of Japanese literature, “The Pitiful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People, and War
Most kids in the Land of the Rising Sun have read Tsuchiya’s short picture book
; since its initial release in 1951, the tale has been printed 163 different times and translated into English and French. For the last 44 years, on August 15, the critic and journalist Chieko Akiyama has even recited
the story on the radio to commemorate solemnly Japan’s exit from World War II. It’s basically a national text, though not for the delicate of heart.
The story is told from the perspective of a zookeeper at the renowned Ueno Zoo
in Tokyo, right before his country’s formal entrance into the war. As Tsuchiya writes, air raids were growing in frequency, which spooked the higher-ups in the Japanese Army. From the text: “The war had become more and more severe. Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day and night, like falling rain. What would happen if bombs hit the zoo? If the cages were broken and dangerous animals escaped to run wild through the city, it would be terrible!”
Facing this frightening possibility, the generals ordered the zookepers to poison all of the large animals in their collection. Ueno’s staff encountered no major obstacles until they approached their three performing elephants—John, Tonky, and Wanly. The elephants, it turns out, were too smart to eat tampered food. Shooting the mammals with a gun would be loud and barbaric. Their skin was too thick for lethal injections, too. The only option left was to starve the beasts to death, an act the tortured zookeepers could barely stand to perform. In one of the most arresting passages of the book, with enemy planes flying over the elephants’ dying bodies, one zookeeper who had tried to sneak food to the hungry animals wags his fist toward the sky and implores his nation’s enemies to “stop the war!” A New York Times
review of the English translation (March 12, 1989) called
“The Pitiful Elephants” a “powerful story of the byproducts of war.” That was the intention
of Tsuchiya, who paired gorgeous watercolor illustrations with his straightforward language "to let children know about the grief, fear, and sadness war produces.” “I hoped this book would implant some anti-war ideas into children's minds,” he added, “while I was praying for everyone to make his own effort for world peace."
A noble cause, indeed. Yet there’s one problem with “The Pitiful Elephants”: it’s not historically accurate. At all.
Ushio Hasegawa, in a 1981 article for a children’s literary quarterly, first called into question “the actual events upon which the story is based.” Other scholars of literature
(PDF) and East Asian history
, after reviewing primary and secondary documents from the time period, have backed up his criticisms. The book is a myth, relying on distorted interpretations of real-life events to fit his weighty, theatrical narrative.
This much is true: 24 animals from the zoo were put down in September 1943 at the behest of the Japanese military. Three of them were elephants, who starved to death. But Tokyo natives were not concerned with a bombing-induced escape; over 3 million paying customers visited the zoo in 1943, almost eclipsing the park’s attendance record, and no bombs were dropped on the city between the Doolittle Raid
in April 1942 and the first B-29 runs in November 1944. Rather, it was the governor of Tokyo, Ōdachi Shigeo, who worried that his constituents were not mentally prepared for the onslaught of war he knew was quickly approaching.
On August 16, 1943, the zoo’s acting director Fakuda Saburo was called into a meeting with his boss from the parks department, who reported to Ōdachi. According to Fakuda’s diary, the governor requested that the staff “kill the elephants and wild beasts by poison.” “When he returned to the motherland to become governor of Tokyo and saw the attitude of the people,” Ueno’s former director, Koga Tadamichi, wrote in his memoir, “[Ōdachi] seems to have felt keenly that he had to open the people’s eyes to the fact that this was not the way to go, that war was not such an easy affair.” In other words, by killing their own, the government (and the army by proxy) could emphasize both the urgency of the war and the ruthlessness of the Allied Forces. A win-win deception.
In late August, the conflicted zookeepers committed elephanticide, starving their herd. Several days later, on September 4, the metropolitan government held a memorial service at the zoo that was attended by several high-ranking Tokyo officials and hundreds of school children, who had been specifically targeted as an audience. In an interview with the local newspaper that day, Fakuda lied to a reporter on hand, describing the animals’ deaths as “an unavoidable measure that must naturally be taken.” And in the ensuing days, the zoo was flooded with letters from kids expressing outrage at the foreign soldiers that ostensibly forced the Japanese to protect their citizens in such an extreme fashion. The plan worked like a charm.
Tsuchiya eventually admitted that he’d modified some historical facts to make the story more appealing for young readers. The Japanese Broadcasting Corporation published its own picture book in 1982 that told the story more authentically, but it didn’t attract a wide audience. You can flip through a preview of the original here
When the Indianapolis Health Department shut down Charles Mulligan's, Ron Swanson was devastated. His reaction was understandable; if the fictional director of Pawnee’s Parks Department can’t dine at the “best damn steakhouse in the damn state
,” where else could he scarf down delicious food on mandatory trips to the state capital?
Many sportswriters and football fanatics descending on Indy for the Super Bowl this week share Swanson’s frustration. The largest landlocked city in America is not especially cosmopolitan, a reputation Jon Bois lampooned
in his Super Bowl culinary preview.* What the Crossroads of America lacks in charm, though, its downtown makes up for in accessibility, a trait Will Leitch advises
his colleagues not to overlook. For a fun football weekend, all fans need is a stadium they can reach without hassle, a few drinks, and unbridled enthusiasm.
In 1948, a merry band of cowboys from Alberta, Canada proved that point when they visited Toronto to cheer on the Calgary Stampeders in the Grey Cup,
the title game of the Canadian Football League. It was a charmed season for the franchise, which had rejoined the CFL (with a new team name) just three years prior. First-year head coach Les Lear—a tough bastard who played in four Grey Cups as a player for Winnipeg and was the first Canadian to star in the NFL—transformed Calgary’s roster, bringing on four “gnarly old pros
” from the States who would make key contributions all year. Among the American imports was 34-year-old Woody Strode, a half-Native American, half-black defensive end from California who played with Jackie Robinson at UCLA before integrating the NFL in 1946. Strode was named an all-pro for anchoring Lear’s 4-3 defensive scheme, a formation that was used sparingly north of the border and routinely confused opposing coaches.
On the other side of the ball, the Stampeders relied on the rocket arm of Keith Spaith, the first NFL-style quarterback to join a CFL team. It was easy to convince Spaith to sign with the club; the year before, he and several other teammates on the Hawaiian Warriors were banned indefinitely from the Pacific Coast League for betting a combined $6,700 on their own team
in the league championship tilt. (They didn't cover a 14-point spread and then were caught and penalized by league officials, which just seems cruel.) With Spaith under center, Lear employed an aerial attack the likes of which Canadian defenses had not seen. On the year, QB1 threw for 1,246 yards, almost 1,100 more
than the Stamps’ previous passing leader. Regina and Winnipeg, the two other squads in the Western Division, could not match Calgary’s athleticism or creativity, and the Stamps rolled off 12-straight victories
, the first (and only) team in CFL history to finish the regular season undefeated. “We were outlaws,” Strode later said
. “We were the misfits, but we’d gone into a foreign country and become the kings over football.”
With a Grey Cup matchup against the Ottawa Rough Riders looming, football fever swept through Alberta, a province of homesteading farmers and ranchers in the midst of its first oil boom. Not content to listen to the game on the radio, several town members met at the Petroleum Club to make arrangements for a championship trip. The idea was to give Toronto a taste of Calgary: on a 13-car train, they packed horses, a chuckwagon
, a western band, Sarcee tribe members dressed in full native regalia, 250 fans in western attire, and an enormous supply of beer donated by Calgary Breweries. For three days, the party didn’t stop. As the train pulled into tiny towns along the route, the celebration would spill out onto the platform
, giving passengers the chance to “bribe the conductor to hold the train for a little while longer so they could send somebody to the liquor store to replenish the rapidly dwindling stock.” And when they arrived in Toronto 72 hours later, morning commuters were confused to see “cowboys, Indians, square dancers, and horses pouring off the train from the West.”
The game lived up to the Calgarians’ lofty expectations. In front of 20,013 fans, the Stamps—written off as “young, lightweight, and inexperienced” by the Eastern press corp—relied on trickery to secure its first lead. Driving deep into Ottawa territory in the second quarter, Spaith completed a pass to Strode on one side of the field. Receiver Norm Hill, standing yards away from the play on the other side of the field, immediately dropped to the ground near the new line of scrimmage. The Rough Riders, scrambling to reset its defense, lost track of him. Before they could find the 11th Stamp, Spaith called for the ball and floated a fluttery pass toward the hidden Hill, who slipped on his way into the endzone but caught the pigskin from the seat of his pants. In the biggest game of their lives, Lear’s boys had executed a controversial “sleeper play
,” and their boldness was rewarded with a 6-1 advantage.
The Stamps’ winning score was preceded by a play almost as bizarre as the “sit-down touchdown.” Deep into the fourth quarter, hanging onto a thin lead, Ottawa’s quarterback tossed a screen pass that landed wide of its target. The Rough Riders assumed the pass was incomplete, but the ball actually fell to the ground behind the line of scrimmage. Strode alertly grabbed the football, looked around to make sure the referee had not whistled the play dead, and rumbled all the way down to the Ottawa 11-yard line, the beneficiary of a botched lateral. Rookie halfback Pete Thodos busted into the endzone on the next play to secure a 12-7 victory.
The fans who had made the boozy cross-country journey to cheer on their Stampeders took the inevitable celebration seriously
. Globe and Mail
reporter Jim Coleman watched on
(November 29, 1948) as fans tore down the goalposts and walked them into the lobby of the swanky Royal York Hotel, where several party members had rented rooms. Men on horseback soon followed. The Winnipeg Free Press
(November 16, 2006) later described the carnival as a “collision between highbrow hotel manners and rodeo-style rabble-rousing.” “The gaudily caparisoned Calgary supporters were boisterous and noisy,” Coleman added, “but well-behaved and courteously declined to ride their horses into the elevators.”
A Stamps' surprise win and the ensuing exploits of their wild Albertan fans made the Grey Cup relevant
. These days, it’s Canada's largest annual sports event, attracting millions of television viewers and drawing tens of thousands
of diehards to the host city each year in search of a “Mardi Gras-like atmosphere.” Hill, who caught the “sit-down” score, is convinced his team’s triumph put the growing city of Calgary on the map, too. "It was the beginning of Calgary, in a sense," he told the Calgary Herald
years later (November 18, 2008). “There was a sense of progress in the city that whole year. Of purpose. The belief that anything was possible. "You could actually feel the adventurous western spirit beginning to build, to take shape.”
*To make “Shish-Ke-Bobby Knights,” mash ground beef into tiny balls, boil the meat until it takes on a “wonderful grey hue,” and skewer the spheres onto dowel rods.
Fifty-two years ago today, in a tiny Appalachian gym, a scrawny 17-year old set a national record that brought him a lot of pride and a little bit of shame.
The boy was Danny Heater
, then a senior at Burnsville High School in central West Virginia. Like many coal country kids, Heater came from nothing. His dad, a miner, was furloughed repeatedly by different bosses at the local mines. One day during his junior year, the family’s apartment (and the poorly-constructed department store on which it sat) burned to the ground, incinerating everything they owned except the clothes on their backs. The Heaters could barely afford food, much less put money into a college fund.
By most appearances, their son didn’t look like university material anyway. Weighing just 153 pounds and sporting a cropped haircut and toothy grin, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
later described Danny as “a shy, clumsy kid who ... once broke his wrists running into a wall at the gym.” But “Shotgun,” as his classmates called him, was the best athlete at a school (enrollment 175) with an unassumingly talented basketball team. His senior year, the squad rattled off wins in 17 of its first 18 games, scoring 99.5 points per contest. An inside-outside threat who could knock down shots from the perimeter and dunk when slashing to the hoop, Heater was the primary offensive weapon. Head coach Jack Stalnaker was convinced that his shooting guard could secure a Division 1 scholarship, and get out of Burnsville, if a big-time college scout would ever swing through their isolated town to watch him play.*
On January 26, Stalnaker devised a controversial gameplan to raise the profile of his unheralded star. His club was scheduled to host Widen, a school that taught just 25 boys in the entire top four grades and that Burnsville had torched by 50 earlier in the season. Burnsville, in other words, could score at will. And Stalnaker saw no reason why Danny shouldn’t take every one of his team’s shots, all night long, until he broke the state’s single-game scoring record of 74 points, an achievement the newspapers in nearby Morgantown and Charleston would have
Heater’s teammates loved the idea, but the tactic made the humble star anxious. On the first several possessions, he didn’t look for his shot once, riffling passes across the court whenever the ball landed in his hands. Stalnaker called a timeout
to reiterate his strategy: his boys were to force turnovers by running a full-court press and feed Heater the basketball whenever they could. After some additional cajoling, plus individual promises from each Burnsville player that he would not be bothered by the selfish display, their star finally bought in.
In front of a standing-room crowd of 200** and on a floor 20 feet shorter than regulation size, Heater started hoisting up shots. And he didn’t stop. Because his side was applying so much defensive pressure, he got plenty of easy buckets around the rim. By halftime, Heater had tallied 53 points, and a neighbor ran to his house
to alert his family, who had stayed at home, confident their son would play just one quarter against hapless Widen. His sister raced to the gym in time to watch Danny blow past the state record early in the second half, a feat that drew booming cheers from the Burnsville faithful. Stalnaker called timeout to take Heater out of the game, but his own team sensed the national record of 120 points, set eight years before in Ohio, was within reach. They convinced their coach to stay the course. Over the final 10 minutes, Heater dropped in another 55 points, though the hometown scorekeeper -- who needed help from the timer because of the ridiculous tempo -- counted two extra baskets. ("I feel sure our guys were right,” Stalnaker later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
(January 5, 1997). “They had about 40 years' experience.”) Widen’s head coach Robert Stover, meanwhile, complained
two days later to the Charleston Daily Mail
that the clock “ran about three minutes extra." Minor discrepancies aside, it was beyond doubt that Heater had recorded one of the most ludicrous lines in basketball history: 32 minutes, 135 points on 53 of 70 field goals and 29 of 41 free throws, 32 rebounds, and seven assists. His squad won 173-43. “It didn't feel like high school history,” Paul Hendrickson wrote in his classic 1991 retrospective for the Washington Post
, “it felt like raw, open slaughter.”
Stover, not surprisingly, was pissed about the outcome. "If I hadn't been a young coach and afraid of getting suspended, I would have taken my kids off the floor at halftime," he admitted to the Post-Gazette
. "It was a farce." Even in the face of criticism from local reporters, Stalnaker defended his decision. “I don't believe in running up scores,” he said
in his post-game interview. “But we decided in advance that we had to do something to get him [Heater] some publicity.” Heater, on the other hand, dealt with conflicting emotions. "I was happy and sad at the same time,” he told another reporter from the Post-Gazette
(January 23, 2000). “I was embarrassed. I wasn't raised that way to embarrass people."
As silly as it was, Stalnaker’s plan worked. Once news spread about the scoring outburst, a scout from powerhouse West Virginia University -- which had made it all the way to the NCAA title game the previous season, thanks to the play of superstar Jerry West -- scheduled an appointment to watch Danny play the following week. But the following night, Heater came down awkwardly from a jump ball and twisted his ankle. By week’s end, the pain had not subsided. And when the Mountaineer scout visited Burnsville, Heater could barely jump and had trouble moving laterally. He poured in 27 points on his gimp leg, but it wasn’t enough to secure a roster spot at his state’s best program. The final words handed down from Morgantown? “Boy was slow.”
There is an interesting coda to Danny’s story. While his chance to suit up for the in-state power vanished, a retired state senator from Virginia with a keen eye for out-of-state talent offered to pay Heater’s tuition and housing costs if he came to play for the University of Richmond. A local plumbing company kicked in $26 so Danny could buy two shirts and two pairs of jeans, and in the winter of 1961, Heater packed up what few belongings he owned and traveled to the old Confederate capital. It was the hooper’s first time away from Burnsville, and it did not go well. Because he arrived at the start of the second semester, the only uniform the team had left was three sizes too big. That was an apt metaphor for Heater’s entire experience in the mid-size city, a place where he never felt comfortable. "I didn't know basic things like Room 201 means a classroom on the second floor,” he joked to Hendrickson years later. “I wasn't stupid, I was just naive." He played in five games, never more than 10 minutes, "and was so homesick I couldn't stand it." After six weeks, he moved back to Appalachia and eventually found a job loading bags and taking tickets for Pan Am Airlines, where he worked for 39 years before retiring in 2005.
Since that cold night in West Virginia, roughly 26 million young men
at the high school level have stepped onto the hardwood. Only 10 of them
have posted over 100 points in one contest, and nobody has scored more than 110. It’s possible, even likely, that Heater’s record will never be broken. Yet it was Stalnaker, the mastermind behind the outrageous performance, who later came to regret the experiment entirely. “It was a real stupid thing to do," he said in his 1997 interview with the Post-Gazette
. "I'm sure it hurt the kids we played, and it went against everything we try to teach kids - not to humiliate an opponent, not to run up the score. I still feel badly about it."
*If only they could make a mixtape
*“The crowd,” according to the Washington Post
story, “was ganged four and five deep in the stairwells; was pressed against the sweating concrete walls; was leaning down from the balcony, which really wasn't a balcony at all, just an open hallway leading to classrooms.”