Oct 09 2022233 The Golden Fortress with Bill Lascher

During the Dust Bowl city officials in Los Angeles, fueled by anti-communist paranoia and xenophobia, were determined to keep migrants out of California. To that end, they dispatched the LAPD to remote border crossing points far outside the city in order to keep out anyone who looked like they were fleeing blight or didn’t have work. Author Bill Lascher spoke with us about his new book The Golden Fortress, which outlines how in 1936 LA law enforcement went to the far reaches of the Golden State to keep California closed.

Mar 16 2021225 Los San Patricios

The Mexican-American War was not fought for good reasons. The war was one of imperial and expansionist ambition and territorial expansion, and even in the 1840s many Americans at the time knew they were on the wrong side of history. Among the Americans who knew that the U.S. probably shouldn’t wage a war of aggression on its neighbor were a battalion of mostly Irish immigrants who became known as Saint Patrick’s Battalion. They defected from the American to Mexican side of the conflict, battled against the American invaders, and are now remembered as heroes in both Mexico and Ireland.

Jan 24 2021224 Carlton F.W. Larson on Treason in the U.S.

Treason is the only crime specifically defined in the U.S. Constitution, and talk of treason has been in the air for the last four years. Carlton F.W. Larson is a professor of constitutional law at University of California at Davis, and the author of On Treason: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law. He joined us to discuss how treason is defined in the U.S., why it’s defined in that particular way, and the U.S.’s checkered past when it comes to actually prosecuting (or not prosecuting) people for treason.

Jun 19 2020218 Juneteenth

Slavery in the United States did not end all at once. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, the last enslaved persons in the United States didn’t know they were legally free until June 19th, 1865 when the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas. That day, which became known as “Juneteenth,” has been recognized as a holiday by numerous African-American communities throughout the U.S. since 1865. While it’s still not an official federal holiday, it is recognized as a state holiday by over forty U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Mar 21 2020217 The War of 1812 Part Two: Other Causes

British impressment of American sailors and restrictions on maritime trade are only part of the story in the run-up to the War of 1812. Another major factor was American expansionism. The British, at the time, were supplying munitions to Native American populations in the Old Northwest who were violently resisting American expansion, and a war with Britain could, potentially, cut off that support. Also, lots of Americans wanted to take over Canada.

Mar 01 2020216 The War of 1812, Part One: Surface Causes

America doesn’t talk much about the War of 1812. In the historical narrative that the U.S. likes to construct for itself, its first official, declared war might as well not exist. The war’s been ignored for a variety of reasons (we’ll get to why later) but in this episode we’re going to examine surface causes for the war. Conventional narratives about the war of 1812 point the finger at British impressment of American sailors in the early 1800s, and policies like the Orders in Council that restricted American trade with France. High-profile naval conflicts like the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair and the Little Belt Affair, in which American and British ships exchanged fire over the Royal Navy’s right to conscript sailors, inflamed American political passions against Britain. However, these were only surface causes. Next episode, we’ll dive into deep reasons for America’s conflict with Britain in 1812.

Feb 16 2020215 Vortex One: An Excerpt From Storied and Scandalous Portland, Oregon

In 1970 Oregon governor Tom McCall had a problem: An American Legion convention was descending on Portland in August of that year, with a potential visit by then-president Richard Nixon. A group called the People’s Army Jamboree promised to protest the convention and Nixon, and McCall wanted to avoid the possibility of urban warfare in his state’s largest city. His solution: Vortex One, a week-long state-sponsored music festival where attendees could enjoy sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll free from law enforcement interference. This, McCall thought, would lure potential protesters away from Portland.

This episode is an excerpt from Storied and Scandalous Portland, Oregon, my upcoming book about vice, transgression, and weirdness in the Rose City. If you’re in the Portland area, be sure to join me at Powell’s Books on Sunday, March 22nd at 7:30 for a live reading and book signing.

Aug 25 2019203 Iran-Contra Part, Four: Fallout

The Iran-Contra affair was a failure. It didn’t topple the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, nor did it improve U.S. relations with Iran. And yet, the subsequent cover-up and damage-control by the Reagan administration was a success. Almost no one talks about the scandal now. Despite damning evidence against the administration being out in the open, the scandal did not impact Reagan’s legacy in the way Watergate did Nixon’s, or Clinton’s scandals did his. It was also, oddly enough, probably the best thing to ever happen to Oliver North’s career.

Jul 02 2019201 Duncan Ryuken Williams on American Sutra

Duncan Ryuken Williams’s new book, American Sutra, explores Japanese Internment with a focus on Buddhism. Most Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were Buddhists, and before and during internment these members of the Japanese-American community were treated very differently than those who’d converted to Christianity. Buddhists in internment camps found ways to practice their faith, despite it being discouraged, and Buddhist soldiers were crucial to the American war effort, both in Europe and the Pacific.

Jun 04 2019198 Iran-Contra, Part Three: Secret Wars

Congress had made its view clear with the Boland amendments: The United States government would not support the Contras in Nicaragua. However, the Reagan administration was determined to support the anti-Sandinista fighters. To get funds where they needed to be the administration concocted a complicated scheme involving missiles, Iran, hostages, and Hezbollah. It worked at first, with secret American arms sales leading to the release of an American hostage. However, complications at the Lisbon airport, more hostage taking in Lebanon, and the need for constant secrecy ensured that the scheme wouldn’t last forever.

May 24 2019197 Joshua Specht on Red Meat Republic

Beef occupies a unique place in American culture. In his new book Red Meat Republic Joshua Specht examines the history of the American beef industry. He examines how ranching and range land was seized from Native Americans, how beef shaped industrial and labor history, and the role beef still plays in American ideas of class, gender, and identity.

May 10 2019196 Iran-Contra Part Two: The Boland Amendments

In the early 1980s the Reagan administration changed how the U.S. engaged with Communism abroad. Instead of following a policy of containment, the U.S. would actively support anti-Communist insurgents around the world. This policy, which later became known as the Reagan administration, positioned the US as the supporter and benefactor of fighters like the Afghan Mujahideen and the Nicaraguan Contras.

However, Reagan’s policy of intervention didn’t garner universal support, especially in light of atrocities committed by the Contras. News of American intervention in Nicaragua angered many in the U.S. In 1982 and 1984 Congress attached amendments to routine appropriations bills that prevented the CIA and State Department from providing funds to the Contras. These amendments, known as the Boland Amendments, prevented the executive branch from taking further action in Nicaragua.

If the administration wished to support the Contras further, they would have to break the law.

Mar 27 2019190 Faro, the Hottest Game in the West

The image of cowboys playing poker has shown up again and again in Westerns. However, if you walked into a saloon in the late 1800s, you likely wouldn’t find poker, blackjack, or other contemporary casino games. Instead, you’d probably find a game of faro. The French card game (also known as “bucking the tiger” or “riding the tiger”) was popular throughout Europe and North America up until WWII. Faro was all but synonymous with gambling, and prominent figures like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were fans of the game. However, it is essentially extinct now.

Mar 04 2019188 Swingin’ on the Flippity-Flop

Find out what a badly-sourced article in the Toronto Sun, a fake list of grunge slang in the New York Times, and an oft-repeated anecdote about a floating bordello can tell us about better evaluating sources and looking at how we know what we know.

Feb 14 2019187 Presidential Pets

This week we look at the animal companions of America’s chief executives, including opossums, eagles, and very good dogs.

Nov 19 2018181 Thanksgiving Mummery

Thanksgiving, at least in New York City at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, used to look a lot like Halloween. Traditional trappings like turkey and family gatherings were certainly present, but it was also a day for children (and adults) to dress in costumes, make noise, and go from house to house demanding treats and pennies.

Sep 23 2018175 Approved by the Comics Code Authority, Part Two

From 1954 until 2011 the Comics Code Authority exercised control over what could and couldn’t be in comic books. The first version of the code was one of the most restrictive content regimes U.S. media has ever known, banning subject matter such as sex, drugs, and supernatural elements such as werewolves and vampires. The Code was revised in 1971 and 1989, before slowly fading away after 2001 and then being wholly abandoned by 2011. The Comics Code Authority seal is now, ironically, owned by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Aug 28 2018173 Roanoke

The disappearance of the Roanoke colony is one of America’s oldest mysteries. However, the story of the Roanoke colony was only a major pillar of American historiography after the 1830s, and later on in the 1800s Virginia Dare, the granddaughter of colonial governor and artist John White, became a symbol of the American South and white supremacy.

For more on the Roanoke colony check out Andrew Lawler’s excellent new book The Secret Token, which I heartily endorse.

Aug 20 2018172 Live at the Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, The Tempest and the New World

Shakespeare’s Tempest is a fantasy, but it’s backgrounded by European encounters with the New World. When the play was written in 1610 or 1611 European sailors had already been exploring the Americas for over a century. References to the New World show up in both the play’s text and themes, and scholars have often viewed the tempest through a colonial or postcolonial lens, though it still escapes easy allegory.

This episode was recorded live at The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, a Portland art space.

Aug 01 2018171 Live at Floyd’s, The Mythical Geography of the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest was one of the last areas to be accurately mapped by European and American cartographers. At various times mapmakers thought that it was near a Asian region called Ania, that California was an Island, or that a great inland sea took up much of the American west. When Lewis and Clark ventured westward, they had a clearer idea of the coastline, yet they were still taken by surprise when they encountered the Rocky anc Cascade mountain ranges.

Visuals to accompany this live event are here.

Apr 30 2018162 Michael P. Daley on Bobby Bluejacket

Michael P. Daley is the author of Bobby Bluejacket, a book about a man who, in 1948, was the subject of one of the most covered trials in Tulsa history. We talked about Bluejacket’s life in the Tulsa underground, his time in prison, and why figures like him are worth studying.

Dec 11 2017147 David Goldfield on The Gifted Generation

David Goldfield is an American historian and the author of almost twenty books. His latest, The Gifted Generation, chronicles the benefits that his peers received from the US federal government, and goes into detail about how the Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson administrations redefined the role and scope of what government does and means to Americans.

Dec 05 2017146 The Lost City of Vanport

This episode is a little different. It’s about a topic that I’ve previously written and spoken about, though not on the podcast. Vanport was one of the largest federal housing projects in the United States during WWII. It went up hastily and cheaply just outside of Portland, Oregon, producing supply ships in less than two months, and was Oregon’s first major African-American population center. In 1948, though, it was destroyed by a cataclysmic flood that wiped the then second-largest town in Oregon off the map entirely.


Aug 22 2017138 Confederate Statues

Confederate statues have been in the news lately. Memorials always reflect the time they were built in moreso than the time they commemorate, and the vast majority of confederate statues were built in the Jim Crow era, in the early 1900s as part of a neo-Confederate propaganda campaign to bolster the South’s reputation. Most of the statues were built quickly and cheaply by the Monumental Bronze Company, which mass-produced both Union and Confederate monuments.

Aside from glorifying white supremacy and slavery, the statues (in this podcaster’s opinion) are bad history. Eastern bloc memorials such as Budapest’s Memmento Park could offer some guidance about what to do with monumental propaganda to an oppressive regime.

Jun 05 2017130 Human Mail

Sending human beings through the mail is not generally allowed, but plenty of people have tried it. The most notable person in US history to mail themselves is Henry “Box” Brown who escaped slavery in Virginia via a shipping company, and emerged in Philadelphia. Other notable human parcels include W. Reginald Bray, who made a habit of putting strange things through the mail, May Pierstorff, who was mailed by her parents as a parcel, and Reg Spiers, an athlete who mailed himself to from the UK to London and later became a drug smuggler.

May 22 2017128 Quest For Thundercows

In 1910 the United States almost imported hippos as a meat animal. Had it done so, the US would have imported the single most dangerous large land animal on Earth and treated it like a cow. HR2361 also known as the American Hippo Bill, would have allocated $250,000 for the importation of hippos and other animals to the US. The bill had the support of former president Theodore Roosevelt, and even the New York Times favored importing hippos, calling it “lake cow bacon.”

May 15 2017127 Bummer and Lazarus, the San Francisco Superdogs

Bummer and Lazarus were a pair of stray dogs beloved of San Francisco in the 1860s. The two dogs were known for their exceptional rat-catching ability, and were a favorite topic of newspapers of the day. Nowadays the two dogs are often associated with Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, but Bummer and Lazarus belonged to no one. The dogs were their own, and are, very probably, the most beloved strays of all time.

Nov 24 2016107 Squanto, Tisquantum

Squanto and other Native Americans are a fixture of popular depictions of what has retroactively been termed the First Thanksgiving, such as in the fanciful, inaccurate 1914 painting pictured below, by Jennie Brownscombe. That popular image, reproduced so much in elementary school pageants and dioramas, is pat and unsophisticated. The actual story of Tisquantum (of which “Squanto” is an abbreviation) is much more complex. It is a story of slavery, travel, exploration, tragedy, and politics, all of which lurk behind and complicate the standard picture of the first Thanksgiving.


Nov 03 2016104 Thomas Jefferson, Mastodon Hunter

Thomas Jefferson loved mastodons, in part because he wanted to prove that American animals were not degenerate. In the late 1700s a French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, published a massive, multi-volume natural history called, appropriately Natural History. In it, Buffon outlined what he called his “theory of American degeneracy,” wherein he argued that all people and animals native to the Americas were, well, degenerate. This enraged Thomas Jefferson, who sought to prove Buffon wrong by finding evidence of American mastodons, an animal that the third president still believed was out there, somewhere, roaming the American west.

Below: Mastodon by paleo artist Charles Knight from 1897.


Oct 13 2016101 Kara Helgren on Witches, Puritans, and the Salem Tourist Experience

Kara Helgren has previously worked for the city of Salem, Massachusetts as a tour guide, leading visitors through the ominously-named Witch House. According to Helgren tourist expectations veered toward the lurid and macabre. Visitors expected tales of ghosts, black magic, and torture. Helgren (whose thesis was about the witch trials) gave them none of that. Instead, she crushed their dreams and broke their hearts with a bunch of historical accuracy.


Aug 25 201695 Live at the Jack London Bar: Teddy Roosevelt and the Mystery of the Missing Time Capsule

Teddy Roosevelt buried a time capsule in Portland in 1903. One hundred years later, Roosevelt’s time capsule was nowhere to be found. The box laid by the president that was meant to preserve history for 100 years could not be found a century later. However, time capsules are generally not valuable finds for serious historians or archaeologists. The artifacts preserved are generally out of context from people’s daily life, and therefore they lack the provenance that is of interest to future scholars. For the most part, time capsules serve mostly to get the public interested in history, rather than preserve it.

This episode was part of Stumptown Stories, a Pacific Northwest history collective in Portland, Oregon.


Aug 18 201694 The Know-Nothings, Part Two

In 1854 the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings made their debut into American politics. They ran candidates in 76 of the 82 available House of Representatives races, and won 35 of those seats. At the same time, they also became a force to be reckoned with in state and local governments. After their initial success, the Know-Nothings installed one of their own as the Speaker of the House and, at the local level, began passing laws and ordinances that restricted the rights of immigrants.

In 1856 they made a play for the Oval Office, nominating former president Millard Fillmore. As president, Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act that led to the dissolution of the Whig party and (indirectly) to the power vacuum that allowed for the Know-Nothings’ ascendancy. Fillmore did not identify with the Know-Nothings, but saw the nomination as a chance to form a national party that was untroubled by the issue of slaver.

Unfortunately for Fillmore and the Know-Nothings, slavery is possibly the most contentious and important political issue in American history. The issue of slavery (and secession and disunion) dominated the 1856 election. The anti-immigrant Know-Nothings continued to ignore the issue, and after 1856 the momentarily successful party slid into irrelevance.


Aug 11 201693 The Know-Nothings, Part One

Decades before the modern versions of the Democratic and Republican parties formed, the US also had a few other major political parties. One was the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Another was the Whigs, who had intermittent success before collapsing in the middle 1800s. Out of the ashes of the Whig party two other parties rose to take its place: The anti-slavery Republican party, and the anti-immigrant American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings.

The Know-Nothings opposed immigration to the United States, particularly from Catholics. Anti-Catholic paranoia has a long history in the US. Catholics (the thinking went) were more likely to be loyal to the pope than the country they lived in, were unable to work with people whom they deemed to be “heretics” and were, in general, less hardworking and virtuous than their fellow Protestants. This xenophobia, paranoia, and bigotry was prevalent enough that in the election of 1856 the Know-Nothings would contend as a major political party, albeit a failed one.


Jul 21 201690 The Fiji Mermaid

Today PT Barnum is remembered as one of the founders of modern advertising and one of America’s greatest hucksters. His first successful hoax was to successfully promote a taxidermy monkey sewn to a fish as the corpse of a mermaid. To do this, Barnum wrote fake letters from different regions of the country to various New York newspapers, and hired an associate of his to pose as an English scientist who had the mermaid in his possession. Using deceit, fake names, and fraudulent correspondence, Barnum successfully stoked interest in the so-called “mermaid.”

The fate of the mermaid is unknown. It was possibly destroyed in a fire, but Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has a specimen that is, possibly, Barnum’s original. After Barnum several other sideshows, museums, and curiosity shops copied the mermaid, and today many is the tourist trap cabinet of curiosities sports the horrific corpse of a monkey glued to a fish.

Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors


Jul 14 201689 Live at the Jack London, Robertson V Baldwin

In 1897 the US Supreme Court carved out an exception the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery and involuntary servitude. Robertson v. Baldwin held that merchant marine sailors could be arrested by law enforcement, imprisoned, and then returned to their ships. Essentially, forced labor in the United States was legal, as long as it was on boats. It was not until 1915 that Congress banned the practice.

This episode was part of Stumptown Stories, a Pacific Northwest history collective in Portland, Oregon.

Pictured below is a still from the 1915 Charlie Chaplin film Shanghaied, which came out the same year that Congress passed legislation guaranteeing certain rights for sailors.

Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors


May 05 201679 Cecelia Otto on the Music of the Lincoln Highway

Before the interstate highway system spread over the US, the country was knit together through a network of railroads and auto trails. One of the longest of these was the Lincoln Highway, a coast-to-coast collection of roads that linked New York to San Francisco at the dawn of the 20th century, and could take weeks for early automobiles to traverse. Given that this was a huge tract of land, people wrote songs about it.

Cecelia Otto is a classically trained singer who recently toured the remains of the Lincoln Highway and performed turn-of-the century popular music about the highway at various venues along the way. Otto wrote a book about and released an album after the tour, and is currently crowdfunding a project on the songs of World War I. I talked to her about her experience, how you crossed the country in an old automobile, and how popular music was distributed before electronic recording.


Apr 28 201678 A Statue of Crazy Horse

If it’s ever completed, South Dakota’s Crazy Horse Memorial will be the largest statue in the world. The gigantic structure will feature the Lakota leader’s face, upper body, and mount, and will dwarf every other monument and memorial on Earth. Crazy Horse’s head and headdress, for instance, will be larger than Mount Rushmore.

If, that is, the work is ever completed. The first blasts to transform Thunderhead Mountain into a memorial were in 1948, and since then, only Crazy Horse’s face has been totally carved. The memorial is also controversial among present-day Lakota, many of whom do not think that blasting into a mountain is the best memorial to Crazy Horse. One person who’d almost certainly opposed to the memorial is Crazy Horse himself. The Lakota leader did not allow himself to be photographed, and turning his image into a statue of epic proportions seemingly runs counter to what the man himself believed in.

Crazy Horse Memorial 2010

Apr 14 201676 The Yellow Kid

Nowadays, comic books are mainstream. Movies about superheroes dominate the box office, and you can’t go ten feet in a major retail outlet without seeing something related to popular comics culture. This is not new. Comics and comic books have always been an integral part of American popular culture ever since the 1890s, with the introduction of the Yellow Kid, America’s first popular comics character.

The Yellow Kid (created by former Edison employee R.F. Outcault) sported a shaved head (a common deterrent for lice) and a ragged, hand-me-down nightshirt as his only garment. He eventually became a star in 1890s New York City, and his distinctive image could be found on everything from cigar boxes to cookie tins. Eventually the Kid led to a fight between newspaper magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, who each tried to woo the public with their own distinct and competing versions of the popular comics character.


Mar 31 201674 The Wizard of Oz, Populism, and Dubious Fan Theories

You can be forgiven for thinking that L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is all about monetary policy and populism. More than a few scholars, critics, academics, and teachers, have reiterated that line, and found parallels in the narrative between Baum’s fairy tale and the state of American politics at the end of the 1800s. The Scarecrow (the theory goes) is the agrarian worker, the Tin Man (or Tin Woodman, if you’re going by the book’s terminology) is the industrial laborer, and the Cowardly Lion is… Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan. For some reason. Other perceived equivalencies include the Yellow Brick Road as the gold standard, and Dorothy’s silver slippers (they were changed to ruby in the Judy Garland film) as silver coinage.

This theory began in 1964 with an article titled The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism by high school history teacher Henry Littlefield. It has since taken on a life of its own, to the point where this podcaster first heard this theory from his freshman history teacher. However, there is no real basis for The Wizard of Oz being a satire, parody, fable, or any other kind of tale about populism. Baum’s own biography and a closer reading of the text do not support that oft-repeated theory.

Image via.


Mar 10 201671 Live at the Jack London, The Story of Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail is arguably the most successful education video game of all time. Created in 1971 by student teacher Don Rawitsch, the popular simulation began its life as a game played on paper with dice and cards. Eventually Rawitsch, along with two other student teachers, adapted the game for play on teletype machines. The game eventually migrated to what would now be called a PC, and something like 65 million copies of Oregon Trail have made their way to various machines across the country.

However, the Minnesota Educational Computing Conortium (MECC) that oversaw Oregon Trail’s distribution crumbled in the face of a hostile takeover and subsequent purchase by Mattel. The last real copy of Oregon Trail was released in 2001, and MECC is gone. The game now exists primarily on emulators and in the memory of people who played it as children.

This talk was part of Stumptown Stories, a history collective that hosts monthly events in Portland, Oregon.


Mar 03 201670 Shirtless Zeus-Like George Washington Versus Alexander Hamilton

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton is an antidote to the traditional (and boring) way that America’s founding fathers have often been portrayed. The Founders are often shown as almost godly (like in the statue of Washington pictured below), without flaws, above mere mortals, and removed from the normal experiences humanity in general and politics in particular. However, Hamilton, the rap musical about America’s first ever treasury secretary, acts as a sort of antidote to that. In it, the founding fathers are very human, and that humanity and complexity makes them all the more compelling and inspiring.

Also in this episode: Your humble podcaster getting yelled at by a Supreme Court Justice at the age of sixteen.

George_Washington_Greenough_statue (1)

Dec 17 201561 Puritans Versus Christmas

There is no war on Christmas. But there was.

Contemporary political commentators have, in the past, complained and ranted about a supposed secular war on Christmas, a crusade to erase spirituality and religion from late December, a campaign to turn the occasion of the Nativity into merely “the Holidays.” But, Christmas has always been a season more about revelry and celebration than spirituality. The holiday is a re-appropriating by Christianity of pre-existing Roman festivals such as Saturnalia and the birthdate of Sol Invictus the sun god. Christian reinterpretations are just that: Reinterpretations.

One group that knew this very well was the Puritans, who saw Christmas as a fundamentally ungodly holiday, and sought to ban it and all of its various trappings in both England and Massachusetts. Puritan leaders such as Cotton Mather (pictured below) saw the holiday not as something for the glory of God or Christianity, but directly counter to it. In Puritan-controlled areas shops and businesses stayed open on Christmas, and anyone caught celebrating the offensive holiday was fined the sum of five shillings.


Nov 05 201555 The Pig War

Nowadays the US-Canada border is one of the most peaceful international boundaries in the world, but in 1859 the US almost went to war with British North America in what is now Washington State. A war sparked by a pig.

The 1846 Oregon Treaty was poorly worded and it left San Juan Island itself in something of a state of limbo. This island was claimed both by the British Empire and the United States, and for several years American settlers and the Hudson’s Bay Company mutually occupied the island. However, an American frontiersman shot a British pig, and the squabble between neighbors threatened to turn into an international incident. The two powers were ready for armed conflict and, had a British rear admiral not disobeyed orders to engage the Americans, the conflict might very well have turned violent. In the end, it was a bloodless conflict. There were no casualties, excepting, of course, the pig.

San Juans

Oct 15 201552 Little Kill House on the Prairie

It’s October. For the next three weeks, we’ll be focusing on bloody, violent, and generally horrifying historical episodes. This week: The Bloody Benders, America’s first ever documented serial killers.

The Benders operated an on the Osage Trail (later called the Santa Fe Trail) where they allowed travelers to stay the night, resupplied pioneers with food and dry goods, and one of them, Kate Bender, promoted herself as a spiritual healer and fortune teller. They also killed several travelers, and buried their bodies in a garden (pictured below) that became known as “Hell’s Half Acre.” Probably the most famous person associated with the Benders is Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie novels. Wilder was very young when her father joined a posse to hunt for the killer family, and did not include them in any of her books. While she had no compunctions about including violent and unflattering portraits of Native Americans in her novels (including several references to massacres supposedly perpetrated by the Osage Indians), Wilder, it seems, demurred at the idea of including killer white people in her work.


Jun 18 201535 Clairvoyance and Free Love on Campaign Trail ’72

It’s very likely that Hillary Clinton will become the Democratic nominee for president in 2016. When/if she does, some talking head will likely call her “the first women to run for president.” That talking head will be wrong. Women have been running for president for decades. The first woman to do so was Victoria Woodhull, a former Wall Street trader, traveling clairvoyant, spiritualist, newspaper publisher, and advocate for women’s suffrage. Woodhull advocated strongly for free love, i.e., the ability for women to marry whomever they chose, and for the disentangling of marriage as a social institution from the law.

Woodhull obviously lost the 1872 election (Ulysses S. Grant won it) but many of her ideas about gender, women’s rights, free love, and marriage, have been integrated into what is now considered “normal.” Woodhull was a firebrand and a revolutionary at the time and, even though she lost that electoral contest, we now very much live in her world.



Related Links:

victoriacwoodhull.org is a site devoted to, obviously, Victoria Woodhull.

An 1871 report of one of Woodhull’s campaign speeches. (Requires login)

Woodhull was demonized for her support of free love. As in, cartoonists drew her as a demon. A famous caricature of her declared her to be “Mrs. Satan.”

Jun 11 201534 Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico

If you were out and about in San Francisco between 1860 and 1880, you might have seen a curious figure on the streets. Joshua Abraham Norton wore a uniform reminiscent of European nobility, made proclamations, and styled himself as “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” Norton seems to have been embraced by the city he “ruled” over, to the point where citizens actually used the currency that he issued. His proclamations were popular reading in the city at the time, and often reprinted and imitated by newspapers of the era. He’s best known for proposing a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, and renaming the Bay Bridge in honor of Norton has been proposed numerous times.

Norton today is remembered as an eccentric and benevolent monarch, and his grave, just south of San Francisco, proclaims him simply as “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”


Related Links:

Emperor Norton’s grave on Atlas Obscura.

Read a collection of Norton’s proclamations from the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, who have tried to suss out which ones are genuine and which are hoaxes or pranks.

Renaming the Bay Bridge as the Emperor Norton Bridge is a perennial topic of discussion, and (unsurprisingly) there’s a change.org petition out right now to do exactly that.

There’s a tour guide who apparently dresses up as Norton and does walking tours of San Francisco. That sounds absurd, and I’m totally signing up for one of those the next time I’m in the Bay Area.

Apr 30 201528 Attack the Rock

The foreboding form of Alcatraz Island looms just beyond San Francisco, an obvious symbol of isolation and punishment. Alcatraz was never the biggest, or worst, or longest-lived prison in American history, but it’s definitely the most iconic. The island fortress seems to invite resistance and escape attempts, a setting like Alcatraz demands a narrative just as striking. In 1946 a handful of convicts attempted to violently escape from the island, giving that dramatic setting a dramatic narrative to match it. The resulting conflict, known today as the Battle of Alcatraz, claimed the lives of five people and wounded just over a dozen others. Ordinary San Franciscans were able to watch from their city as guns, explosives, and conflict raged just beyond the bounds of civilization.

The image below shows the exterior of Alcatraz as U.S. Marines pelt the prison with mortars in an attempt to kill and suppress the rebels inside.


Related Links:

Watch 1946 newsreels of the events here and here, in all of their retro media glory.

Read more about the battle and other Alcatraz history here.

This map via Wired of how other Alcatraz escapees could have, possibly, maybe survived.

Mar 12 201521 Shanghaied!

In the late 1800s countless men were exploited by a system that used debt and indentured servitude to keep them tied to the shipping industry. The process of getting sailors into debt was called “crimping,” and it was practiced throughout the US and Britain, but was particularly prominent on the American West Coast. Quite a lot of mythology, folklore, and pseudohistory has grown up around the subject, most of it with no basis in the actual historical record. Nevertheless, Shanghaiing and crimping were very real, and until approximately 1915 the process of acquiring sailors looked almost nothing like how one would expect to hire labor on an open, fair market.

Pictured below are shipping papers from 1786. Possibly the most important part of the text is the following: In case they should, on any account whatsoever, leave or desert the said sloop without the Master’s consent, till the abovesaid voyage is ended, and the said sloop discharged of her loading, be liable to forfeit and lose what wages may at such time of their desertion be due to them, together with every their goods, chattels, &c. on board; renouncing, by these presents, all title, right, demand and pretensions thereunto for ever, for them, their heirs, executors and administrators. And it is further agreed by both parties, that eight and forty hours absence without leave, shall be deemed a total desertion, and render such Seamen and Mariners liable to the penalties abovementioned.


Related Links:

Shanghaiing Days by Richard H Dillion is a comprehensive, albeit dated, book on the subject, covering crimping throughout the US in the 1800s.

The Oregon Shanghaiers by Barney Blalock  deals specifically with Portland and Astoria crimps.

For an Oregon-centric view of Shanghaiing, check out Kick-Ass Oregon History’s two podcasts on the subject here and here.

Feb 19 201518 The Tulsa Race Riot

Probably the most violent singular example of post-slavery racial violence in the US happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. Mobs of armed whites burned buildings, killed African-Americans, and utterly destroyed what had been known as Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street.” For years the incident was not extensively talked or written about, but it is now more widely known as one of the most horrifying examples of domestic terror that the US has ever known.


Related Links:

The 2001 report commissioned by the Oklahoma state legislature on the riot.
Walter White’s 1921 piece The Eruption of Tulsa from The Nation.
The New York Times on the riot’s aftermath.
A report on the riot from 60 minutes.

Jan 22 201514 Nellie Bly Versus Phileas Fogg

Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days is not strictly science fiction, but it is a book that speculates about technology (specifically steamships and railroads) and what it’s capable of. Verne’s 1973 novel made the eighty day time look like something of an impossible feat, but in 1890 Nellie Bly, a reporter for the New York World beat fictional record set by Phileas Fogg. Bly set out to best Verne’s protagonist, and circumnavigate the globe in 75 days. She did even better than that, though, and went all the way around the planet in 72 days, doing Fogg better by more than a week.

The World front page

Related Links:

Read Around the World in 72 Days online.

Phineas Fogg Outdone in the Daily Alta California

View a map of Bly’s journey from American Experience.

Jan 15 201513 Nellie Bly and the Asylum

In 1880s New York Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Jane Chochrane)reported on the conditions inside an insane asylum by pretending to be mentally ill and getting herself checked into one. Bly’s account of Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum caused a sensation when it was published in the New York World, detailing poor conditions for the inmates, abuse by the asylum staff, and virtually no way to get off the island once one was brought there.

The photo below shows the asylum on Blackwell Island in 1893, about six years after Nellie Bly’s visit.


Related Links:

Listen to Nelly Bly, the Stephen Foster Song from Which Elizabeth Jane Cochran took her pen name.

Read Ten Days in a Madhouse online, or listen to it as an audiobook on YouTube.

Into the Madhouse With Nellie Bly: Girl Stunt Reporting in Late Nineteenth-Century America (requires login)

Nov 26 201406 Franksgiving

The United States has been a divided nation plenty of times. It’s been divided about slavery, about politics, about culture and, very importantly, about when to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Related Links:

Holiday Highlights, a 1940 Merrie Melodies cartoon, showed the date of Thanksgiving as November 21st for Democrats, and November 28th for Republicans.

Daily Kos, Huffington Post, and Washington Times on Franksgiving.

The 1941 bill that finally established Thanksgiving as an official federal holiday.

Nov 13 201404 BONE WARS!

Scientists are motivated by curiosity, by the desire to help their fellow humans, by compulsion and, sometimes, by irrational personal vendettas. Edward Drinker Cope and Othneil Charles Marsh were two leading paleontologists during the late 1800s, and discovered approximately 130 species between them, and were instrumental in confirming the then-new theory of evolution by natural selection. They also hated each other, and each tried to cut the other down to size with methods and tactics that simply would not fly in the scientific world today.

The 1897 painting below by Charles Knight is not at all a historically accurate depiction of dinosaurs, but it is amazing. It’s also apt. The art is called Leaping Laelaps, and uses Cope’s name for the dinosaur. The species was later renamed dryptosaurus, a name that Marsh gave it.

Laelops-Charles Knight-1896

Related links:

Cope’s backward elasmosaurus, with the head on the end of the tail.

A profile of Uintatherium, the prehistoric mammal discovered by Joseph Leidy, but claimed by both Marsh and Cope.

The World of Charles R. Knight is a website dedicated to the artist that briefly worked with Cope.