Podcast Episode 259: The Astor Place Riot

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The second-bloodiest riot in the history of New York was touched off by a dispute between two Shakespearean actors. Their supporters started a brawl that killed as many as 30 people and changed the institution of theater in American society. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Astor Place riot, “one of the strangest episodes in dramatic history.”

We’ll also fertilize a forest and puzzle over some left-handed light bulbs.

See full show notes …

Also-Rans

Japanese racehorse Haru Urara became “the shining star of losers everywhere” when she racked up a record of 0 wins and 113 losses in the early 2000s. In the face of a national recession, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said, “The horse is a good example of not giving up in the face of defeat.” For the horse’s 106th race, Japan’s premier jockey, Yutaka Take, was brought in to ride her. She placed 10th out of 11.

British Thoroughbred Quixall Crossett ran to 103 consecutive defeats in the 1990s. Assistant trainer Geoff Sanderson said, “He got the most tremendous cheer you’ve ever heard on a race course. … The horse doesn’t know he gets beat because he gets a bigger cheer than the winner.”

American Thoroughbred Zippy Chippy retired in 2010 with a lifetime record of 0 wins in 100 starts, though he did once outrun a minor league baseball player. Racing historian Tom Gilcoyne said the horse “hasn’t done anything to harm the sport. But it’s a little bit like looking at the recorded performances of all horse races through the wrong end of the telescope.”

In Common

In his 1991 book Human Universals, American anthropologist Donald Brown listed “features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exception”:

  • fear of death
  • tickling
  • baby talk
  • territoriality
  • rites of passage
  • hairstyles
  • belief in supernatural
  • dance
  • containers
  • jokes
  • shame
  • turn-taking
  • weapons
  • myths
  • musical variation

The whole list is here. “We can look forward to the time when a great many cultural features are traced beyond the time and place of their invention to the specific features of human nature that gave rise to them,” he wrote. “The study of human universals will be an important component of that task.”

(Donald E. Brown, “Human Universals, Human Nature & Human Culture,” Daedalus 133:4 [Fall 2004], 47-54.)

The Pizza Effect

Modern pizza toppings are commonly thought to have originated in Italy, but in fact they were developed by Italian immigrants in the United States and then exported back to Italy. Syracuse University anthropologist Agehananda Bharati calls this the “pizza effect” — the elements of a nation’s culture are sometimes developed elsewhere and then reimported. Further examples:

  • Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade was invented for the James Bond film Spectre and then adopted by the city.
  • American blues music influenced English musicians in the 1960s, who then exported blues-rock to the United States.
  • Adapted from India’s chicken tikka, chicken tikka masala became one of the most popular dishes in Britain before being re-exported to India.
  • Yoga became popular in India after its adoption in the West.
  • Salsa music originated largely among Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants to New York in the 1920s and then spread throughout the Americas.
  • Teppanyaki, the Japanese style of cooking on an iron griddle, grew to prominence in America in “Japanese steakhouses.”

The pizza example continues to “echo” between the Italian and American cultures: American tourists sought out “authentic” (non-American) pizza in Italy, and the Italians met the demand by creating brick-oven pizzerias. The Americans then carried these back to their own country. Stephen Jenkins of Humboldt State University writes, “Hence, Americans met their own reflection in the other and were delighted.”

Regards

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“Love is like a dream that’s too good to be true.” — Langston Hughes

“Love is like butter, it goes well with bread.” — Yiddish proverb

“Love is like linen, the more often chang’d, the sweeter.” — Phineas Fletcher

“Love is like those shabby hotels in which all the luxury is in the lobby.” — Paul-Jean Toulet

“Love is like a cigar, the longer it burns the less it becomes.” — Punch, 1855

“Love is like fire … wounds of fire are hard to bear; harder still are those of love.” — Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen

“Love is like the devil; whom it has in its clutches it surrounds with flames.” — Honoré de Balzac

“Love is like the measles; we all have to go through it.” — Jerome K. Jerome

Shelter Morality

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At a 1962 meeting on civil defense, one local resident of Hartford, Conn., warned the rest that his fallout shelter contained only enough food and water for his immediate family, and so during a nuclear attack he’d be forced to shoot any who tried to join them. His neighbor appealed to him:

‘John,’ she said, ‘you and your family have been our closest friends for ten years. Do you mean to say that if this city was bombed and my baby and I were caught in the open, and we were hurt, and came to your shelter you would turn us away?’

John nodded in the affirmative. His neighbor pressed the point.

‘But suppose we wouldn’t turn away and begged to get in?’

‘It would be too bad,’ John said. ‘You should have built a shelter of your own. I’ve got to look out for my own family.’

‘But suppose we had built a shelter of our own, yet were caught by surprise, being out in the open at the time of an attack, and we discovered that the entrance to our shelter was covered with rubble and we had no place to turn except to you. Would you still turn us back?’

The answer was still yes.

‘But suppose I wouldn’t go away and kept trying to get in. Would you shoot us?’

John said that if the only way he could keep his friend out would be by shooting her and her baby, he would have to do it.

These questions raised disagreements even among clergymen during the Cold War. In an article titled “Ethics at the Shelter Doorway,” Father L.C. McHugh urged his readers to “think twice before you rashly give your family shelter space to friends and neighbors or to the passing stranger.” The nondenominational Christian Century opposed this sentiment. “Men and women who manage to survive a nuclear attack by locking doors on imperiled neighbors or shooting them down to save themselves might conceivably survive,” the editors wrote. “But who would want to live in the kind of social order such people would create out of the shambles?”

(From Kenneth D. Rose, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture, 2001.)

Wisdom

Proverbs of the 11th century, from Egbert of Liège’s The Well-Laden Ship:

  • Not every cloud you see threatens rain.
  • A boy is consumed by envy, an old man by anger.
  • A reasonable sufficiency is more righteous than dishonorable riches.
  • One does well to distrust a stream, even one that is calm.
  • Sometimes an old dog growls the truth.
  • It is a hard cheese that the greedy man does not give to his dogs.
  • He who cannot conceal, ought not to become a thief.
  • Whose bread I eat, his songs I sing.
  • All the gold that a king has does not equal this rain.
  • No thief will be hanged, if he himself is the judge.
  • What earned this one praise gets that one a beating.
  • Smoky things appear by day, and fiery things by night.
  • The living husband is incensed by praise of the dead one.
  • A stupid person who is corrected, immediately hates his admonisher.
  • It is not the lowliest of virtues to have placed a limit on your wealth.
  • No mother-in-law is pleasing to her daughter-in-law unless she is dead.
  • A frog on a throne quickly gives up the honor.
  • When you trade one fish for another, one of them stinks.
  • Whoever hates his work, surely hated himself first.
  • To a man hanging, any delay seems too long.

And “One way or another, brothers, we will all pass from here.”

The Spirit Battery

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When the electric telegraph was making its appearance in the 1840s, it was strangely easy to confuse it with spiritualism: Both were uncanny means of talking with absent people through systems of symbols. In a bid for legitimacy, spiritualists appealed to the principles of “electrical science.” In his 1853 book The Present Age and Inner Life, Andrew Jackson Davis proposed a “spirit battery” by which a medium could improve her contact with the spirit world by asking her guests to hold a magnetic rope whose ends were dipped in water-filled buckets made of copper and zinc:

The males and females (the positive and negative principles) are placed alternately; as so many zinc and copper plates in the construction of magnetic batteries. The medium or media have places assigned them on either side of the junction whereat the rope is crossed, the ends terminating each in a pail or jar of cold water. … But these new things should be added. The copper wire should terminate in, or be clasped to, a zinc plate; the steel wire should, in the same manner, be attached to a copper plate. These plates should be dodecahedral, or cut with twelve angles or sides, because, by means of the points, the volume of terrestrial electricity is greatly augmented, and its accumulation is also, by the same means, accelerated, which the circle requires for a rudimental aura (or atmosphere) through which spirits can approach and act upon material bodies.

“We are negative to our guardian spirits; they are positive to us,” Davis wrote. “The whole mystery is illustrated by the workings of the common magnetic telegraph. The principles involved are identical.”

Alarming bonus factoid: When Samuel Morse appeared before Congress in 1838 to seek funding for an experimental telegraph line, some congressmen introduced amendments that would provide funds for research on mesmerism as well. The committee chair wrote, “It would require a scientific analysis to determine how far the magnetism of mesmerism was analogous to the magnetism to be employed in telegraphs.” When the bill came to a vote, 70 congressmen left their seats; many hoped “to avoid spending the public money for a machine they could not understand.”

(From Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, 2000.)

Better People

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Horace Walpole on the preferability of animals’ companionship to that of humans:

“Sense and fidelity are wonderful recommendations; and when one meets with them, and can be confident that one is not imposed upon, I cannot think that the two additional legs are any drawback. At least I know that I have had friends who would never have vexed or betrayed me, if they had walked on all fours.”

(From a letter to the Earl of Strafford, Oct. 11, 1783.)