History

The Taft Diet

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William Howard Taft weighed as much as 340 pounds during his presidency, but after leaving office he lost 70 pounds and kept it off for the remainder of his life. He shared his diet on the front page of the New York Times:

I have dropped potatoes entirely from my bill of fare, and also bread in all forms. Pork is also tabooed, as well as other meats in which there is a large percentage of fat. All vegetables except potatoes are permitted, and of meats, that of all fowls is permitted. In the fish line I abstain from salmon and bluefish, which are the fat members of the fish family. I am also careful not to drink more than two glasses of water at each meal. I abstain from wines and liquors of all kinds, as well as tobacco in every form.

“I can truthfully say that I never felt any younger in all my life,” he said. “Too much flesh is bad for any man.”

Western Union

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In 1864, as Abraham Lincoln fought for re-election during the Civil War, he was eager to admit Nevada to the Union because of its pro-Unionist and largely Republican sympathies. James Nye, governor of the territory, sent certified copies of the Nevada constitution overland to Washington, but on Oct. 24 they still hadn’t arrived. So he sent the entire constitution by telegram.

Telegrapher James H. Guild worked for seven hours to transmit the document in Morse code. Because there was no direct link from Carson City to Washington, he had to send it to Salt Lake City, from which it bounced to Chicago, then Philadelphia, and finally the War Department’s telegraph office at the capital. Above is the final page of the 175-page transcription, showing the word count (16,543) and the cost ($4,303.27, about $60,000 today).

Three days later, just eight days before the election, Nevada was admitted to the Union, and Lincoln was re-elected president.

Oops

PARISEAU, N. De, born in 1753; a celebrated victim of the ‘mistakes’ of the guillotine. Pariseau was director of the opera ballets at Paris, and ardently espoused the cause of the revolution in ‘La Feuille du Jour.’ He was arrested by the Revolutionary Tribunal in 1793, and beheaded by mistake, instead of Parisot, a captain of the king’s guard.

The Biographical Treasury, 1847

The Skeleton in the Bale

The Atlanta Constitution of Oct. 2, 1892, contains this lurid tale from the Civil War. Discharged after losing a leg in battle, Confederate colonel Clay Clayton had returned to Sans Souci, his Alabama plantation, when a portion of the Union army established camp nearby and the Yankee officers made Clayton’s mansion their headquarters. During the occupation, Frederick Jasper, a disreputable captain from a Massachusetts regiment, pursued Clayton’s beautiful daughter, Virginia, who rejected his proposal of marriage. Virginia’s two brothers and lover learned of this during a visit to the plantation immediately after the Union troops left.

When the war ended, Clayton’s sons returned to Sans Souci and Virginia married her lover and settled on an adjoining plantation. Cotton had risen to a high price, and Clayton had two bales in his ginhouse, but he vowed not to sell them for less than $1 a pound, and they lay there unregarded for years.

In 1866 a Boston lawyer appeared looking for any trace of Jasper. The captain had separated from the Union troops after they had departed the plantation, taking with him a sergeant and promising to return in half an hour. He was never seen again, and now the lawyer sought to establish his fate in order to settle his estate. Clayton could tell him nothing, and he returned to Boston.

Twenty years later Clayton died, and the brothers and Virginia’s husband finally sold the ginhouse bales, which were stamped with the plantation’s mark and sent to Russia.

When it came to the turn of these two bales from old Colonel Clay Clayton’s Alabama plantation they were opened and the cotton dumped out on the floor of the factory. One was shaken up, there was a flash of blue and something bright, and a rattle of something on the floor. What was it? It was a skeleton in the uniform of a captain of the army of the United States of America. Sword, watch, money, buttons, some rotten cloth and bones. That was all. On the watch were the words, ‘Frederick Jasper, Boston.’

The sergeant’s body was found in the other bale. When the Boston lawyer returned to Alabama to investigate, Virginia’s husband told him everything: He and the Claytons had discovered Jasper assaulting Virginia on the plantation and carried him and the sergeant to the ginhouse.

The cotton was lying ready to be baled. We started the press and filled it. Into the middle of the bale of cotton went the wretch Jasper, begging like a hound to be killed first. But no. He went into the bale alive and was pressed with it. The other man, seeing the fate in store for him, shot himself, while we were at the press and he was lying wounded on the ground. Then he went in the other bale.

The Claytons then retained the bales with the excuse that they were waiting for a high price. But they were unrepentant: They had killed a Union soldier on Southern territory during wartime, and one who had behaved “vilely” despite their hospitality. “I cannot blame you at all,” said the lawyer, who returned to Boston and delivered Jasper’s fortune to his heirs.

The whole thing is so melodramatic that I think it must be fiction, but the Constitution ran it as a news story with the notice “Every particular of this incident can be verified by legal papers on file in Boston courts and by the testimony of witnesses yet living.” Make your own judgment.

A Sky Duel

On March 31, 1943, Army Air Corps second lieutenant Owen Baggett’s B-24 was hit by Japanese fighters while en route to destroy a railroad bridge in Burma. Baggett and four others bailed out before the bomber exploded, and the fighters began strafing them as they descended. Two of the parachutists were killed, and Baggett’s arm was grazed. He drew his .45 and sagged in his harness, hoping the Japanese would think him dead.

Presently a Zero approached him at near stall speeds and the pilot opened his canopy to get a better look. Baggett fired four rounds into the cockpit and the fighter dropped out of sight.

Had he downed a fighter with a pistol? It’s impossible to know for certain. Baggett was captured by the Burmese and spent two years in a Japanese prison camp and eventually retired from the Air Force as a colonel. When journalist John L. Frisbee contacted him in 1996, he was reluctant to talk about the incident — he believed he had hit the pilot but acknowledged that the evidence for this was indirect and circumstantial. Frisbee wrote that a few months after Baggett’s imprisonment, “Col. Harry Melton, commander of the 311th Fighter Group who had been shot down, passed through the POW camp and told Baggett that a Japanese colonel said the pilot Owen Baggett had fired at had been thrown clear of his plane when it crashed and burned. He was found dead of a single bullet in his head. Colonel Melton intended to make an official report of the incident but lost his life when the ship on which he was being taken to Japan was sunk.” Make your own judgment.

A Thankful Village

The township of Thierville, in Normandy, has not lost any service personnel in France’s last five wars — the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, either world war, the First Indochina War, or the Algerian War.

It was the only community in France in which no war memorial was erected between 1919 and 1925 — the only one with no dead to mourn.

Light Exercise

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William Howard Taft sometimes tipped the scales at 350 pounds. While serving as governor of the Philippines, he made a trip into the mountains for his health. He cabled Secretary of War Elihu Root:

STOOD TRIP WELL. RODE HORSEBACK 25 MILES TO 5,000 FEET ELEVATION.

Root wrote back:

REFERRING TO YOUR TELEGRAM … HOW IS THE HORSE?

High Drama

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When Theodore Roosevelt was reelected president in 1904, his friend Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, sent him a congratulatory telegram:

RICHARD THIRD ACT ONE SCENE ONE LINES ONE AND TWO

The lines read “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

Roosevelt spent the next four years fighting a recalcitrant Senate and House. As he was leaving office he received another wire from Wister:

ROMEO AND JULIET ACT THREE SCENE ONE LINE THREE PRECEDING MERCUTIO’S EXIT

The line is “A plague o’ both your houses!”

War Games

In 1916 British movie houses thrilled to The Battle of the Somme, which depicted actual fighting in the trenches of France as it unfolded that summer. At the visual climax of the film (30:33 in the video above), the British Army goes “over the top,” climbing over the parapet and losing a number of soldiers as it advances on the German position.

“Oh God, they’re dead!” cried a woman in the audience. The Dean of Durham entered “a protest against an entertainment which wounds the heart and violates the very sanctity of bereavement.” And H. Rider Haggard wrote, “[I]t does give a wonderful idea of the fighting … The most impressive [picture] to my mind is that of a regiment scrambling out of a trench to charge and of the one man who slides back shot dead. There is something appalling about the instantaneous change from fierce activity to supine death … War has always been dreadful, but never, I suppose, more dreadful than today.”

Unfortunately, six years later a panel of experts pronounced the sequence a fake. The troops are not carrying heavy equipment, the grass is lush, and the trenches are open to sniper fire and unprotected against artillery, and, most telling, the camera positions would have been dangerously exposed to enemy fire if this footage were authentic. It appears that cameraman Geoffrey Malins had staged certain crucial scenes for the sake of the drama.

Malins had profited from the film’s notoriety with a book called How I Filmed the War in 1920. This came back to bite him: Another cameraman later described meeting a soldier who had “died” for Malins in a trench well behind the lines.

(Roger Smither, “‘A Wonderful Idea of the Fighting’: The Question of Fakes in ‘The Battle of the Somme’,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, 13:2 [June 1993], 149)

Off Duty

A striking story is going the rounds concerning an officer who, being refused leave to go with the Chitral expedition, obtained five days’ leave to go ‘shooting.’ He entrained to a point as near the operations as the railway would carry him, and then, being unable to obtain a horse, set out to march. Equipped with a bottle of gin and a huge sausage as his only rations, he plodded the weary miles over rough ground cheerfully. He reached the head of the column just as the charge was about to be made on the Malakand Pass. He was in time to join the head of the storming column, and was in the first three on the summit. When the battle was over he had to eschew the camp and the rest that awaited the fighting line, and had to make his way back as best he might to a point where the railway would take him up. The London correspondent of the Birmingham Gazette says he heard General Sir Evelyn Wood say that this officer is a full colonel. He went into action as a common soldier, tearing the straps off his Kharka uniform that his rank might not be discovered. For, as Sir Evelyn remarked with a twinkle in his eye, if he had been discovered he would have been put under arrest.

Hawke’s Bay Herald, New Zealand, June 28, 1895

(Thanks, Donald.)