Thursday, June 26, 2008

Brief Vacation Interruption

Things have been slower around here than usual... I've been entertaining family and trying to get Real Work accomplished. I'll be leaving on vacation for a few weeks tomorrow but will return in mid-July with some new entries....

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

June 17

On this date in 1939, the German-born serial killer Eugen Weidmann lost his mind – and the head that encased it – to the guillotine outside the French prison at Versailles.

Weidmann had committed a number of petty crimes over the years and had completed a short prison term in March 1936 before meandering to France to avoid serving in Hitler’s armed forces. It appears that Weidmann viewed himself to be something of a criminal genius, and he organized a gang comprised of fellows he’d met while in a Franfurt prison to carry out a series of abductions that mainly targeted wealthy visitors from the United States and Great Britain. When their first effort went badly and their victim managed to escape, Weidman and his companions evidently decided to take no more chances. Beginning with the abduction and murder of the American dancer Jean de Koven – whom he admitted to strangling while she was drinking tea -- Weidman and his accomplices tallied a half dozen victims between July and September 1937. Most of them had been shot in the back of the head and robbed; one of their female victims was buried in a garden, the other stuffed into a cave. Detectives located and arrested the conspirators in December, and their trial – which did not take place for another 15 months – resulted in the completely predictable verdict of death for Weidman. His accomplices earned life sentences.

At 4:00 a.m. on June 17, 1939, prison officials roused Weidmann from bed, shaved the back of his neck, offered him a shot of rum and a smoke, then escorted him the Place de Greve, a public plaza just outside the prison walls. More than two hundred audience permits had been issued to view the killing, and so an eager crowd awaited the condemned man as he emerged from Versailles. Most of them had been merry-making since the previous evening in anticipation of the execution, and Weidman’s arrival rejuvenated their fatigued spirits, sending them into what the press described as a “hysterical” frenzy. When Henri Desfourneaux, France’s executioner, released the blade, Weidman’s head tumbled to the pavement while numerous women in the crowd surged forward to dip their handkerchiefs and scarves in the accumulating lake of blood.

Embarrassed by the display, prison authorities consigned future executions to the interior of the prison, where they ere carried out until 1977, when the last guillotining took place. France, joining much of the rest of the world in its evolving standards of decency, formally abolished capital punishment in September 1981.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

June 12

The day after Gov. George C. Wallace sought to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama, a fertilizer salesman and Klan member named Byron De La Beckwith gunned down Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi home. Just before 2:00 a.m. on 12 June 1963, Medgar Evers -- a 37-year-old father of three -- died at a local hospital.

Evers had few illusions about his life’s work. Several years before his death, Evers recalled his childhood in Decatur, Mississippi:
When I was eleven or twelve a close friend of the family got lynched. I guess he was about forty years old, married, and we used to play with his kids. I remember the Saturday night a bunch of white men beat him to death at the Decatur fairgrounds because he sassed back a white woman. They just left him dead on the ground. Everyone in town knew it but never [said] a word in public. I went down and saw his bloody clothes. They left those clothes on a fence for about a year. Every Negro in town was supposed to get the message from those clothes and I can see those clothes now in my mind's eye . . . . But nothing was said in public. No sermons in church. No news. No protest. It was as though this man just dissolved except for the bloody clothes . . . . Just before I went into the Army I began wondering how long I could stand it. I used to watch the Saturday night sport of white men trying to run down a Negro with their car, or white gangs coming through town to beat up a Negro.
A veteran of the segregated armed forces who fought in Normandy during World War II, Evers returned to the United States with a determination -- shared by millions of black soldiers and their compatriots -- to enjoy and exercise their full citizenship. He graduated from Alcorn State and sold insurance for a living, but he grew increasingly involved in the emerging civil rights movement, which was a deadly commitment in one of the most unreconstructed racist havens of the old South. Evers became involved in the investigation of Emmett Till’s murder in 1955, and he organized economic boycotts, prayer vigils and nonviolent marches, all of which earned him the respect of national civil rights leaders and the enmity of segregation’s defenders. Evers, who was his state’s first NAACP field officer, had been targeted by white supremacists for nearly a decade before his death. His home was firebombed, he received teleophe threats on a daily basis, and he was chased by racist drivers who more than once tried to run him over.

In his final speech, delivered less than a month before his death, Medgar Evers expressed optimism that
the years of change are upon us. In the racial picture things will never be as they once were. History has reached a turning point, here and over the world. Here in Jackson we can recognize the situation and make an honest effort to bring fresh ideas and new methods to bear, or we can have what Mayor Thompson called “turbulent times.” If we choose this latter course, the turbulence will come, not because of so-called agitators or the presence or absence of the NAACP, but because the time has come for a change and certain citizens refuse to accept the inevitable.
Byron De La Beckwith, refusing to “accept the inevitable,” shot Evers in the back and escaped justice for more than 30 years. At last convicted of the murder in 1994, De La Beckwith died of heart problems on 21 January 2001, the day after George W. Bush took the oath of office.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

June 11

On this date in 1963, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc drove from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue to Saigon, parked his car in a busy intersection, doused himself in gasoline and diesel fuel, and -- with a string of Buddhist mala (prayer beads) clutched in his hand-- calmly immolated himself. David Halberstam, then a reporter for the New York Times, recalled the event in 1965:
Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think . . . . As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.
His act -- captured most famously by Associated Press photographer Malcolm Browne -- stunned the world and hastened the demise of Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt South Vietnamese president who was then engaged in a nationwide crackdown against Buddhists and political dissidents. In a letter written just before his death, Thich Quang Duc explained that his sacrifice was intended as a call for Diem “to be kind and tolerant toward his people and [to] enforce a policy of religious toleration.”

Diem’s regime was somewhat less than sympathetic to these pleas. Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu -- Diem’s sister-in-law and the “First Lady of South Vietnam” -- dismissed the act as irrelevant and ineffectual. “They only thing they have done,” she observed with a wave of her hand, “they have barbecued one of their monks.” She added that Duc’s death was not even “self-sufficient” because he had to use “imported gasoline.” Madame Nhu was also quoted as urging the monks to continue their protests. “Let them burn,” she said, “and we shall clap our hands.” Less than four months later, Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu were killed in a coup, and Madame Nhu -- the “Dragon Lady” -- was driven into exile.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

June 4

Today is the 34th anniversary of one of the most staggering promotional failures in American sports history. On 4 June 1974, fans who showed up to watch the Cleveland Indians host the Texas Rangers were treated to a remarkably ill-conceived event known as “Ten Cent Beer Night.” Throughout the game, vendors dispensed tens of thousands of cups of Stroh’s beer to the 25,000 irascible fans who filled the soul-less, bug-infested cavern otherwise known as Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The result, quite predictably, was ugly.

The 1960s and 1970s were an awful time for northern Ohio, as the departure of heavy industry and the frenzied flight of white residents to the suburbs helped cut the city’s population nearly in half from its post-World War II high of 900,000. By 1974, Cleveland was five years past the infamous Cuyahoga River chemical fire and four years from declaring bankruptcy. For those who were able to struggle out of bed on June 4, the opportunity to drown in cheap alcohol must have seemed like an instance of divine intervention.

As fate would have it, a similar cheap beer promotion grew out of hand the previous week, when the Rangers and Indians met in Arlington, Texas. Midway through that game, the teams brawled, and Rangers fans responded by tossing cups of beer onto the field. Nothing that night, however, rivaled the lunacy that ensued in Cleveland when the Rangers arrived for a three-game series on June 4; averaging a mere 8000 fans per game that season, Cleveland Indians officials hoped that alcohol might create a buzz that their team's players themselves could not.

During the first few innings, tipsy fans tossed smoke bombs and firecrackers at each other. By the second inning, a topless woman had leaped onto the field and chased down one of the umpires for an unwanted kiss; another streaker joined the Rangers’ Tom Grieve as he circled the bases following his second home run of the night; a father and son team ran into the outfield and dropped their pants. Meantime, golf balls, rocks and batteries rained down on Texas’ players throughout the game. At one point, someone heaved an empty gallon of Thunderbird wine at Rangers’s first baseman Mike Hargove. As the game neared its conclusion, the evening descended into total chaos. During the ninth inning, the Indians managed to tie the score and placed the winning run on third base. At that point, a fan ran into the outfield to steal Jeff Burroughs’ glove. When Burroughs began chasing the fan, Rangers’ manager Billy Martin, along with several of Burroughs’ teammates, rushed to help out -- several of them, including Martin, carried bats.

Not caring that their team was about to win a rare victory, the most intoxicated people in Cleveland began throwing hot dogs, beer cups, broken seats and glass bottles at their guests from Texas. Thousands of fans stormed the field, some of them brandishing chains and knives and metal chairs.

Within minutes, the umpires’ crew chief Nestor Chylak had invoked Rule 3.18 and forfeited the game to Texas. Chylak later described the fans as “uncontrollable beasts,” adding that he had never seen anything quite like it, “except in a zoo.” American League president Lee MacPhail concluded that beer "played a great role" in the affair.



Monday, June 02, 2008

June 2

Today is the anniversary of the 1855 Rum Riots that shook Portland, Maine, on June 2, 1855. The uprisings were inspired by rumors that the city’s prohibitionist Mayor Neal S. Dow -- the so-called “Napoleon of Temperance” – had permitted enormous stores of liquor to enter the city in apparent violation of the law. By the night’s end, one man was dead and a handful of others wounded, shot by the state militia by order of the mayor, whose political career was irreparably harmed as a result.

Dow had been an advocate of temperance since the 1830s, and he had devoted years to the project of urging his home state to criminalize the sale and consumption of wicked spirits. Where temperance reformers had traditionally relied on techniques of persuasion and conversion, Dow represented a newer wing of the movement that insisted on total prohibition as the only means sufficient to thwart civilizational collapse. And so in 1851, the Maine legislature passed a landmark bill to accomplish precisely those ends; the “Maine Law” provided that alcohol could only be used legally for “medicinal, mechanical or manufacturing” purposes.

Predictably, the traffic in rum descended underground, as smugglers devised ingenious ways of delivering the desired nectar to whomever was willing to pay for the pleasure and accept the risk. For those who could afford neither the cost nor the risk of violating it, the Maine Law was immensely unpopular – even more so among the state’s Irish immigrants, who correctly understood that public supporters of prohibition often drank as well from the nativist cup. Maine’s protestant majority despised the Irish workers whose numbers had grown in recent decades, regarding them as sotted, Gaelic brutes who would do the nation well by leaving it as quickly as they’d come. Meantime, however, the prohibition law was partly intended to arrest their bad behavior or – it was widely hoped – persuade them to leave the state for more permissive surroundings. Other laws placed new burdens on foreign-born voters, restricting them from the polls at a crucial

When Dow won the mayor’s election in 1855 – benefiting from the efforts to restrict “Irish cattle” from voting – he authorized the city to create an agency to regulate the sale of liquor to those few whe entitled to receive it. He initiated the purchase of $1600 worth of booze in his own name and arranged to pass it along to the new agency once it arrived. Unfortunately for Dow, this qualified as an illegal transfer under the state’s prohibition law, and his opponents pounced. They successfully petitioned a judge to issue a search warrant for city hall, where the contraband was supposed to be residing, and on June 2 a furious crowd descended upon City Hall.

After three hours of taunting and jeering the mayor, throwing rocks and other missiles at the police, the crowd – which had by this point swelled to well over a thousand – charged the building and were repelled by a volley of gunfire. John Robbins, a sailor from Boston, died in the attack. Mayor Dow was allegedly disappointed to learn that Robbins was not Irish.

In the aftermath of the Rum Riot, Dow himself was brought up on charges of violating the liquor law. Though he was acquitted, the incident destroyed his political career and soiled the reputation of the new Republican Party during the next election cycle. Democrats – looking for an issue to draw attention away from the nation’s mounting crisis over slavery – found the temperance controversy to be well suited to the purpose. Rallying voters against “Dowism,” they swept into power in 1856 and quickly repealed the nation’s first prohibition law.

By this point, several other states had followed Maine's lead. Among temperance advocates, the 1855 Rum Riots provided further confirmation that prohibition was a reasonable solution to the problem of alcohol.