Podcast Episode 171: The Emperor of the United States

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In the 1860s, San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction was not a place but a person: Joshua Norton, an eccentric resident who had declared himself emperor of the United States. Rather than shun him, the city took him to its heart, affectionately indulging his foibles for 21 years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the reign of Norton I and the meaning of madness.

We’ll also keep time with the Romans and puzzle over some rising temperatures.

See full show notes …

A Soaring Heart

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From an advice column in Home Companion, March 4, 1899:

‘Sweet Briar’ (Swansea) writes in great trouble because her lover will persist in his intention to go up in a balloon. She urges him not to imperil his life in this foolhardy manner, but he only laughs at her fears.

I am sorry, ‘Sweet Briar’, that your lover occasions you anxiety in this manner, and I can only hope that he will ultimately see the wisdom of yielding to your wishes. What a pity it is that we have not a law like that which exists in Vienna! There no married man is allowed to go up in a balloon without the formal consent of his wife and children.

One solution: Go up with him, and marry him there.

The Victim

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It goes against masculine pride to have a wife helping support the household, and once a man’s pride is shattered, anything can happen to him. …

There was a couple I once knew in Chicago. At the time of their marriage the husband was earning $5,000 a year. Two years after marriage the wife went to work, and presently was making more than her husband. His home became a desolate place, for his wife’s job required her to travel to other cities. Driven to seek companionship to escape from the loneliness of home the man became addicted to drink. Today they are divorced. The woman is a notable business woman, and the man is a drunken drifter.

But, the women will comment, the husband drank. What of it? No husband drinks to excess unless there’s a reason for it. If the truth were known there are many men who began drinking because their wives took to work.

— William Johnston, These Women, 1925

Wit and Sense

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There is an association in men’s minds between dullness and wisdom, amusement and folly, which has a very powerful influence in decision upon character, and is not overcome without considerable difficulty. The reason is that the outward signs of a dull man and a wise man are the same, and so are the outward signs of a frivolous man and a witty man; and we are not to expect that the majority will be disposed to look to much more than the outward sign. I believe the fact to be that wit is very seldom the only eminent quality in the mind of any man; it is commonly accompanied by many other talents of every description, and ought to be considered as a strong evidence of a fertile and superior understanding.

— Sydney Smith, quoted in The Ladies’ Repository, September 1858

The Green Book

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During the Jim Crow era, it was difficult and dangerous for African-Americans to travel — they were routinely refused even basic amenities such as food and lodging. Civil rights leader (and now Georgia congressman) John Lewis remembered a family trip in 1951:

There would be no restaurant for us to stop at until we were well out of the South, so we took our restaurant right in the car with us. … Stopping for gas and to use the bathroom took careful planning. Uncle Otis had made this trip before, and he knew which places along the way offered ‘colored’ bathrooms and which were better just to pass on by. Our map was marked and our route was planned that way, by the distances between service stations where it would be safe for us to stop.

Accordingly New York mail carrier Victor H. Green began to publish The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.” Green paid his readers to contribute reports of road conditions, sites of interest, and information about their travel experiences. Julian Bond later recalled:

You think about the things that most travelers take for granted, or most people today take for granted. If I go to New York City and want a hair cut, it’s pretty easy for me to find a place where that can happen, but it wasn’t easy then. White barbers would not cut black peoples’ hair. White beauty parlors would not take black women as customers — hotels and so on, down the line. You needed the Green Book to tell you where you can go without having doors slammed in your face.

The book was published annually nationwide from 1937 to 1964. The New York Public Library has the full collection.

08/25/2017 UPDATE: Using structured data extracted from the books’ listings, NYPL Labs’ Brian Foo created Navigating the Green Book, an interface that lets you map a trip between two points based on either the 1947 or the 1956 edition. The program looks for a restaurant every 250 miles and lodging every 750 miles. (Thanks, Sara.)

Marital Duels

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In the Middle Ages, husbands and wives would sometimes settle their differences with physical combat. To compensate for the man’s greater strength, his wife was given certain advantages:

The woman must be so prepared that a sleeve of her chemise extend a small ell beyond her hand like a little sack. There indeed is put a stone weighing three pounds; and she has nothing else but her chemise, and that is bound together between the legs with a lace. Then the man makes himself ready in the pit over against his wife. He is buried therein up to the girdle, and one hand is bound at the elbow to the side.

In other drawings the man sits in a tub; in one the two fight with drawn swords. “Judicial duels were common enough in the medieval and early modern period to merit etiquette books,” writes scholar Allison Coudert, “but, as far as I know, nowhere except in the Holy Roman Empire were judicial duels ever considered fitting means to settle marital disputes, and no record of such a duel has been found after 1200, at which time a couple is reported to have fought with the sanction of the civic authorities at Bâle.” The drawings that have survived come from historical treatises of the 15th and 16th centuries.

(Allison Coudert, “Judicial Duels Between Husbands and Wives,” Notes in the History of Art 4:4 [Summer 1985], 27-30.)

Podcast Episode 165: A Case of Mistaken Identity

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In 1896, Adolf Beck found himself caught up in a senseless legal nightmare: Twelve women from around London insisted that he’d deceived them and stolen their cash and jewelry. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Beck’s incredible ordeal, which ignited a scandal and inspired historic reforms in the English justice system.

We’ll also covet some noble socks and puzzle over a numerical sacking.

See full show notes …

His and Hers

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When Triberg, Germany, unveiled a new parking garage in 2012, it included 12 parking spaces designated for women’s use, as has been required by German law since the 1990s. The spaces are somewhat larger than normal and located near the mall entrance, to reduce the possibility of sexual assault.

Due to the Triberg mall’s shape, it also has one space on each level that requires a complex parking maneuver. Mayor Gallus Strobel decided to designate these for men … which brought on a backlash from people who felt that it insults women’s parking skills.

“It’s a joke,” Strobel told ABC. “Everyone in Triberg thinks it is a joke. We looked at the two parking spaces and we said, ‘They could be dangerous for your car,’ so at the same time, we decided to make them for men, and then give 12 others for women.”

Is this sexist? Considerate? Unnecessary? Germany isn’t the only nation that uses women’s parking spaces — they’ve also been introduced in Austria, Switzerland, and China, where the spokesman for one northern mall told AFP, “The fact that our women’s parking spaces are wider is simply due to practical reasons and shouldn’t imply that women are worse at driving than men.”

For his part, Strobel seems to have his eye on the bottom line — after Triberg controversy made the news, the town’s tourist traffic increased from 250,000 to 400,000. “Women can come here and prove me wrong,” he told the Times of India, “and while they’re at it, they can see the town’s attractions.”

Freedom

In Under the Mask, his 1972 anthology about prejudice in America, Karel Weiss records a scene aboard the slave ship Young Hero in 1788, recounted by ship’s surgeon Ecroide Claxton before the House of Commons:

Some of the slaves on board the same ship, says Mr. Claxton, had such an aversion to leaving their native places, that they threw themselves overboard, with an idea that they should get back to their own country. The captain, in order to obviate this idea, thought of an expedient, viz. to cut off the heads of those who died, intimating to them, that if determined to go, they must return without their heads. The slaves were accordingly brought up to witness the operation. One of them seeing, when on deck, the carpenter standing with his hatchet up ready to strike off the head of a dead slave, with a violent exertion got loose, and flying to the place where the nettings had been unloosed, in order to empty the tubs, he darted overboard. The ship brought to, and a man was placed in the main chains to catch him, which he perceiving, dived under water, and rising again at a distance from the ship, made signs, which words cannot describe, expressive of his happiness in escaping. He then went down, and was seen no more.

Weiss says the idea of escaping into death was particularly prevalent among the Ibo of eastern Nigeria. Related:

In the West Indies, according to the Spanish historian Girolamo Benzoni, four thousand men and countless women and children died by jumping from cliffs or by killing each other. He adds that, out of the two million original inhabitants of Haiti, fewer than 150 survived as a result of the suicides and slaughter. In the end the Spaniards, faced with an embarrassing labor shortage, put a stop to the epidemic of suicides by persuading the Indians that they, too, would kill themselves in order to pursue them in the next world with even harsher cruelties.

— Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 1971

A Grim Climate

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Though Republicans won a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930, fully 14 House members died during the ensuing 72nd Congress, including Speaker Nicholas Longworth. As a result, Democrats were able to elect one of their own as speaker.

Things weren’t much better in the Senate. Sen. Hiram Bingham (R-Ct.) said in 1931, “It is a very striking fact and one which cannot be too often called to the attention of Senators that there is no other body of this size in the world which has as high a death rate as this body. Out of the 96 Senators, during the past 7 or 8 years at least three have died each year, and if there is anything that can be done to cause members of this body to enjoy greater health and to prolong their lives, it seems to me that no one should object to it.”

In 1996 George Washington University political scientist Forrest Maltzman and his colleagues found evidence that the Capitol’s ventilation system might have been a significant factor. As early as 1859, one senator had called his chamber “the most unhealthful, uncomfortable, ill-contrived place I was ever in my life; and my health is suffering daily from the atmosphere.” A ban on smoking didn’t seem to help, but a new ventilation system, complete with air conditioning, was installed in 1932, and Maltzman found a significant decrease in mortality beyond this point, sparing an estimated three members per Congress.

“Accordingly, we think there is at least a ghost of a chance that [political scientist Nelson] Polsby is correct when he argues that the advent of air-conditioning in the 1930s and 1940s may have had no less momentous an impact on political life (and death) in the nation’s capital than the massive changes the city underwent during the 1960s and 1970s — racial desegregation, home rule, and rapid population growth.”

(Forrest Maltzman, Lee Sigelman, and Sarah Binder, “Leaving Office Feet First: Death in Congress,” PS: Political Science & Politics 29:4 [December 1996], 665-671.)