Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

And Yet More Shameless Self-Promotion

August 17, 2013 Leave a comment
Buy this book--please.

Buy this book–please.

My first book for adults is now in bookstores everywhere! Or at least in Minnesota! But it’s definitely available on Amazon and through the publisher. The title: Famous Crimes of Minnesota (hence its availability in the Gopher State).

True crime is not part of my usual oeuvre (assuming I even have one…), but an editor I worked with before pitched the idea, I didn’t have much else going on at that time, and it’s always fun to learn something new. And I got a trip to Minnesota out of it, which led to this earlier post.

Additionally, I will make royalties off the book—theoretically—which is pretty unusual for me, since most of my stuff is done work-for-hire. So please, buy the book so I can make the mortgage payments on my new house (an experienced chronicled here and here at my other blog, A Year in Santa Fe) for at least a few months.

And to pique your curiosity, here’s an excerpt, about the famous Northfield Raid, which led to the demise of the James-Younger gang.

In the years after the Civil War, the legend of Jesse James and his outlaw gang filled newspapers and served as the inspiration for poems and songs. James helped create the legend himself, writing letters to newspapers in between his crimes, sometimes denying them, other times painting himself as a Robin Hood who gave his ill-gotten gains to the poor. (Of course, he and those who made him into some sort of folk hero ignored the fact that the stolen money often belonged to hard-working common people, and not the “one percent” of the day.)

In 1876, James, his brother Frank, and the rest of their gang ventured out of their usual area for committing crimes. They targeted the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, with politics as well as money in mind. The gang heard that Adelbert Ames, former governor of Mississippi, and his father-in-law General Benjamin Butler had just deposited $75,000 in the bank. Ames had recently moved to Northfield to take over his aging father’s flour mill. The deposit though, may have just have been a rumor, as some say it never occurred.

To the James gang, the two Northerners were justifiable targets for robbery, given their treatment of Southerners during and after the Civil War. Most of the gang had fought under William Quantrill, leader of Quantrill’s Raiders, an infamous Confederate group that carried out guerrilla warfare in Kansas and nearby states. To James and the others, Ames was a carpetbagger who represented the Radical Reconstruction carried out by vengeful Republicans. Butler, in the mind of Cole Younger, was especially deserving of being robbed, after his harsh treatment of the citizens of New Orleans during the war. Younger later wrote, “We felt little compunction, under the circumstances, about raiding him or his.”

How much politics motivated all the James-Younger gang’s crimes has stirred some historical debate. T.J. Stiles writes in his biography of Jesse James that the outlaw’s reign of robbery and terror and was part of a calculated effort to restore Confederate power in the defeated South. Other historians downplay politics and see a thug who, like many thugs before and since, let greed and a thirst for public attention fuel his deeds. Minnesota may have been targeted in 1876 because the heat from law enforcement was too intense for them back at their home base of Missouri. And as in many criminal tales, the Northfield heist might have been the mythical “last big score”; Cole Younger said the proceeds would let the gang “start life anew in Cuba, South America, or Australia.”

The Northfield Raid in particular plays a significant part in the James’ saga, since it marked the end of the gang—though not the end of Jesse’s crimes. And in an odd twist, there is no direct evidence that the James brothers even took part! In his accounts of the crime, Cole Younger never mentions either by name, and the brothers never admitted they were there. But the detailed historical retellings of the crime place the James brothers in Minnesota in the days leading up to the crime, and few doubt their role in the Northfield Raid.

Not According to Plan

The gang began arriving in Minneapolis around August 23, 1876. Some checked into the Nicollet Hotel under assumed names, and there are reports of Jesse visiting a local bordello. Two others stayed at the Merchant’s Hotel in St. Paul. Over the next days, the gang hatched its plan, counting on the knowledge of their one Minnesotan, Bill Chadwell, to help them navigate their routes. Within a few days, the eight-member gang split into two groups and began heading out to scout the area around Northfield. Talking to a local farmer just outside the targeted town, one of the gang commented, “Why, according to your statement of the Northfield people, a very few men so inclined could capture the town.” The farmer agreed, perhaps giving the hardened robbers an even greater sense of confidence than usual.

By September 6, Cole Younger’s group was in Millersburg, 11 miles west of Northfield, while the rest of the gang was at Cannon City. The next day, they rendezvoused in Northfield. The plan was to send three men into the bank first—most likely the James brothers and Charlie Pitts, with Younger and Clell Miller to follow. The other three would stay at a nearby bridge. The men outside the bank were to keep the streets clear and scare off any would-be heroes while the others carried out the robbery.

From the start, however, the plan went awry. The three men assigned to go inside went in too early, before Cole and Miller reached the bank door to stand guard. When they did reach their position, local hardware store owner J. S. Allen was about to go inside. After Miller ordered him to turn around, Allen took off, shouting, “Get your guns, boys, they’re robbing the bank.” The townspeople would heed the call.

Meanwhile, inside the bank, things were also deviating from the plan. The robbers had entered with their usual bravado, shouting their intention to rob the bank and warning everyone inside, “If you hallo we will blow your God-damned brains out.” When learning the head cashier wasn’t there to open the safe, the gang turned to assistant cashier Joseph Heywood. But as Heywood explained, the safe was on a time lock and he couldn’t open it. Seeing that the door to the vault was open, one of the bandits entered it. Heywood quickly shut the door, trapping him inside—and unleashing the fury of the remaining two robbers.

Heywood soon felt cold steel on his neck, the blade of a knife one of the robbers wielded. “Open that door or we’ll cut you from ear to ear,” the bandit said. Heywood, a seasoned Civil War vet himself, broke free, but soon absorbed the blow of a revolver crashing against his head. The robbers continued to demand money, and one fired his gun. In the ongoing confusion, bank teller Alonzo Bunker tried to make a break for the door, and was shot in the shoulder for his attempted escape. Wounded, he managed to get outside, where more mayhem was unfolding.

The Gang Takes Flight

At almost the same the first bullet was fired inside the bank, Cole Younger set off a warning shot, to alert the gang members back at the bridge that the robbery was going wrong. Jim Younger and his cohorts at the bridge quickly reached the bank, firing their guns and telling the townspeople to go back inside their homes. But the people of Northfield were not about to let anyone, even the Cole-Younger gang, disrupt life in their town without a fight. Resident Elias Stacy had arrived on the scene with a shotgun, and its blast caught Clell Miller in the face. Manning, the hardware store owner, killed one of the robbers’ horses. A second shot from his gun hit Cole Younger in the thigh; a third proved fatal to Bill Chadwell, piercing his heart. Meanwhile, a bullet from medical student Henry Wheeler’s gun finished off Miller, while another wounded Bob Younger.

The men inside the bank finally came out, but not before one of them killed assistant cashier Heywood. T. J. Stiles speculates it was Jesse James who pulled the trigger, while Cole Younger later claimed it was Charlie Pitts. No one knows for sure. Whoever killed him, a newspaper reported that Heywood was left “with his brain and blood oozing slowly from his right temple.” Outside, along with the two dead robbers was Nicholas Gustavson, a bystander who was hit in the shootout and would soon die from his wound.

As Northfield residents surveyed the scene around the bank, the six remaining gang members began their flight. They had no time to destroy the local telegraph office, so news of the attempted robbery and their escape spread quickly. So did the offer of a reward from Minnesota governor John S. Pillsbury—$1,000 for each man, dead or alive.

At first the gang managed to outrun the news of their crime, passing through Dundas and Millersburg unchallenged. Outside Shieldsville, though, they exchanged shots with local residents who realized who they were. As the gang moved on, they reached unfamiliar territory. As Cole Younger wrote, “When we got into the big woods and among the lakes we were practically lost.” They moved slowly at times, stopping to treat Bob Younger’s shattered elbow, and abandoning their horses since the posse would be looking for men on horseback. They trudged on through the rain, at one point encountering a man named Dunning. Some of the gang wanted to kill him. Instead they let him go after making him promise not to tell authorities the gang’s whereabouts. Dunning agreed, but then almost immediately broke his promise when he reached Mankato.

Still eluding capture after a week on the run, the gang decided to split up. Cole Younger, in his account, says Howard and Woods left the other four. T. J. Stiles says it was Frank and Jesse James who separated from the gang, stealing horses and beginning their getaway to the Dakota Territory. They sometimes went by the aliases of Howard and Woodson. Along the way, both men were wounded by buckshot, but they managed to escape capture.

Pics of the gang--the dead and the surviving Younger brothers

Pics of the gang–the dead and the surviving Younger brothers

Cole Younger had directed the others to Madelia, where he thought they could get horses. Cole, who had stayed in the town before the heist, was spotted by a resident who recognized him, and soon another posse was after them. The posse cut them off from reaching the horses and the four robbers retreated into some bushes. Hearing a small contingent of the posse preparing to attack, the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts readied for a charge of their own. As bullets flew, Pitts fell dead, shot through the heart. Each Younger was wounded, and Bob called out, “I surrender. They’re all down but me….I’ll not shoot.” Sheriff James Glispin ordered his men to stand down, and later assured Younger that the posse would protect them from a rumored lynch mob. “But the only mob that came,” Younger wrote, “was the mob of sightseers, reporters, and detectives.”

Trial and Prison

In jail in Madelia, the Youngers had a string of visitors: reporters, Christian women seeking to save their souls, people bearing gifts of food and cigars. At one point, Cole Younger blamed his life of crime on his military service, and explained the Northfield robbery as revenge on the state for gambling losses the gang had suffered in St. Paul.

The trio was moved to the jail at Faribault, and in November 1876, the Younger brothers were formally indicted on four counts: the murders of Heywood and Gustavson, the assault on Bunker, and the robbery itself. Cole Younger maintained that he and his brothers had killed no one. Their lawyers said that as accessories to the crimes, they could face the death penalty, unless they pled guilty. The Youngers took their lawyers’ advice and each was sentenced to life at Stillwater State Prison.

Bob Younger served almost 13 years at Stillwater, dying there in 1889. His brothers, both before and after his death, held a variety of jobs. For a time, Cole was the prison librarian, and for about a decade was the head nurse at the hospital. Cole reported that the doctors he met were “staunch partisans…in the efforts of our friends to secure our pardons.”

The efforts of others inside and outside the prison won Jim and Cole Younger their release in 1901. Soon after his release, Cole Younger told a reporter he had “reached the limit of my capacity for taking punishment.” But unlike Jesse James, at least he had survived his punishment. Jesse had been shot dead in 1882. Frank meanwhile, teamed up with his old partner Cole for a legitimate pursuit. In 1903 they launched a show called the “The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West.”


The Barton Lies

August 16, 2012 Leave a comment

What, only fifth-least credible? Ooh, Bill must be pissed…

In my new role as seeker of all things biographical, I stumbled across a small news item: The History News Network had conducted an online survey, trying to find the least credible history book currently on the shelves. The top five turned up some heavy hitters: Bill O’Reilly on the right, Howard Zinn on the left. But taking the top prize was David Barton, with his biography of Thomas Jefferson (and a forward by Glenn Beck!), The Jefferson Lies.

Barton is not a professional historian. He is, like me, a History Nerd of sorts, delving into the past for his own enjoyment. OK, that’s not entirely true. Barton has an agenda (yeah, yeah, I do too, but finding the truth, at least as much as that’s doable, is at least part of it). Barton is also an evangelical Christian who thinks Christians should be running things, damnit, like they did in the good ol’ days, when our Founding Fathers created America as a Christian nation, based on the Bible. The same Bible that contains heavenly inspired writings and teaches us it is God’s wish to oppose the minimum wage  and a progressive income tax and government efforts to combat global warming.

Uh, yeah.

The Puritans, who took some of their laws–including ones that called for capital punishment–from the Old Testament: theocrats? Discuss.

Somewhere in the midst of his born-again zeal, Barton seemed to confuse the theocratic Puritans (though some would debate that adjective) with the FFs, who included several Deists and a few other guys who did not want religion shaping laws, as much as they might personally accept religious values. But don’t tell that to Barton or the folks who accept his version of history as, shall we say, gospel.

Barton caught the media’s eye a few years ago, though I had never heard of him until he clinched his recent dubious historical honor. Seems like some right-wing pols had found him useful for winning evangelical votes, going back to W. in 2004 and presidential candidate wannabes Bachmann and Gingrich this election cycle. The Ph.D.-wielding Newt even went so far as to say that he “”never listen[s] to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things.” (Which just goes to show what a Ph.D. is worth these days.)

The Jefferson Lies, critics said (including some conservative Christian scholars), is filled with several distortions and plain untruths about our 3rd pres and the author of the Declaration of Independence. Barton tries to paint Jefferson as Christian who wanted a Christian nation and did not want to build a wall between church and state—at least not at the expense of Christianity in the political realm. But in all his supposed exhaustive research, Barton apparently never came across the tidbit that one of the three things Jefferson himself said he wanted to be remembered for—along with creating the University of Virginia and writing that declaration thingy–was crafting Virginia’s Statue for Religious Freedom.

Flawed? Of course. But still good for one or two things…

Jefferson was a Deist—he believed a creator, call him/her God if you will, did indeed set things in motion in the universe. And then he/she gave humans free will and the capacity to think for themselves. So in the statute, Jefferson wrote: “All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities,” because “all attempts to influence it [a free mind] by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness.”

Thank god for those words! Because as we know, hypocrisy and meanness from religious types seeking to impose their way have been driven from the land.

The brouhaha over Barton’s book led his publisher to pull it from the market, though you can still buy it at Barton’s own website. And presumably the little media empire he has built, with a radio show and public speeches and a staff to help coordinate it all, still chugs along. Apparently spreading historical distortions in the name of religion pays. But of course, Barton’s fame—and perhaps hubris?—led to the public outcry against his brand of history. How many others out there, of all political stripes, stay beneath the radar and manage to poison the minds of voters, one lie at a time?

Courageous Writing?

June 24, 2012 Leave a comment

A first edition sells today for hundreds of dollars, in case you were thinking of adding it to your library.

As I mentioned previously, I’ve been immersed of late in a biography of John Kennedy, which has renewed my interest in the biographer’s craft (which, not coincidentally, is the name of the monthly newsletter I’m now editing; you can see a sample of an old issue here). I was particularly struck about all the scholarly ink spelled over who exactly wrote JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, which took the 1957 award in the biography/ autobiography category. I suppose professional historians take an interest in this kind of thing because, you know, they do their own research and writing and like to see others in their field rewarded for the same.

So here’s what the latest scholarship seems to suggest (at least as outlined by Robert Dallek in his An Unfinished Life): Kennedy relied on the research and first drafts of others (primarily Ted Sorensen) but wrote the final draft. Dallek sums it up this way: “Jack did more on the book than some later critics believe, but less than the term author normally connotes.”

Hmm. But only JFK’s name is listed on that prize, yes, not the “committee” Dallek says did the work.

What one of those babies looks like, because God knows I will never see a Pulitzer in the flesh…

Both Dallek and Sally Bedell Smith note that Joseph Kennedy’s journalist friend, New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, lobbied Pulitzer voters to make sure JFK got the prize. (Krock had previously helped turn Kennedy’s senior thesis from Harvard into the well-received book, Why England Slept.) Dallek says the voting committee had five books above Kennedy’s during their deliberations; Smith specifically mentions books on FDR and jurist Harlan Stone as biographies that were originally deemed more worthy. Yet Kennedy got the prize and increased prominence. The book and its success stirred this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, who was not very impressed with Kennedy’s liberal credentials (though to be fair, JFK never considered himself a liberal). To the former First Lady, the Senate’s rising star would have been more impressive if he had “a little less profile and a little more courage.”

I don’t know what other books were in the running for that Pulitzer in ’57. The Pulitzer website does not list the finalists that far back. But you can get an idea of some of the competition for that year by checking out the finalists for the National Book Award (NBA) in history. The biographies included what I assume is the same FDR bio that Smith mentions, James MacGregor Burns’s Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. (Burns went on to write a glowing pre-presidential campaign profile of Kennedy in 1959). Or it could have been another FDR bio, Frank Freidel’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Triumph. Also on the list: Old Bullion Benton, a study of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and Samuel Flagg Bemis’s John Quincy Adams and the Union, the second part of a two-volume biography by one of the most respected historian of the first half of the 20th century. (Interestingly, Benton and Adams make up one-quarter of Kennedy’s profiles.) Another finalist that year was Richard III, by Paul Murray Kendall; several sources say Kendall’s book was the runner-up for the NBA.

So, Kennedy had some stiff competition for his Pulitzer. Authorship aside, did he deserve it? I can’t answer that, but his experience could be another example of the importance of having friends in high places. After his lobbying efforts, Krock said in an interview, “I worked as hard as I could to get him that prize.” It would be flip for me to say, “Perhaps harder than Kennedy did in marshaling the work of his committee.”


But it does seem fair to say that Kennedy never felt any remorse about how the book was written or how it won the prize. Not like Krock later did. After explaining his hard work for Kennedy, the journalist added: “Those are the facts. I don’t take any pride in them.”

All Bio, All the Time

May 9, 2012 2 comments

At least that’s how much of my life has felt the last week or so, as work has led me to write another biography of another president (I’ve lost track how many this is; suffice to say, I know more than I care to about a lot of presidents).

You mean I can’t mention the threesomes?

This is one is about the much-beloved and –reviled JFK. I’ve written one about him before, and plenty about his involvement in the Cold War. I started this round of research with Thomas Reeves’s A Question of Character. Reeves said he spent much of his life enamored with Kennedy, but as a professional historian he wanted to puncture the myth of Camelot and get at the true essence of the man. And as most historians now know, even if most Americans don’t, it’s not a pretty picture: Papa Joe’s spending to help buy influence (and votes), the Mafia ties, the philandering, the lies about his health (and about his authorship of a Pulitzer-Prize winning book), the drug use. You read this and think, “This is the caliber of person we elect to the most important political position in the world?” Of course, all presidents have flaws. But if the truth had been known about JFK in his lifetime, would he have been the 35th president? And could he have taken on the saint-like characteristics  that some still cherish today if not for his assassination?

Probably not. And no.

But my book, alas, will not delve too deeply into the sordid underbelly of American politics and this president’s life. Though I do hope to show the kids how a public image can be oh-so-artfully manufactured. Surely that has only become more relevant in the 50 years since Dallas.

My other biographical endeavor has a totally different angle. I belong to a group called Biographers International Organization (BIO), the only craft guild/support group for those scribes who attempt to document others’ lives for a living (not that more than a handful actually make a living at it). Last year, in my defunct blog, I chronicled my experience at the BIO national conference in Washington, DC. I was moderator of a panel on writing YA bios, got to meet lots of interesting writers, and developed the sense that what we biographers do is something special, if not always as impressive to others as what novelists or poets or reality-TV stars do.

I’ll be at this year’s conference too, an unexpected development thanks to my new role in helping put out BIO’s monthly newsletter. I wrote some of my first pieces for the May edition, and found it quite gratifying to research all things bio and then write about it for adult readers who share my passion for biographies in particular and reading/writing in general.

Here’s some of my first scribblings for The Complete Biographer, commenting on the release of Robert Caro’s fourth volume of his The Years of Lyndon Johnson:

Along with the recent praise for the book have been profiles of the author almost everywhere you turn: a long piece in Esquire, stories by CBS and NPR. Some of the attention for both book and author, one BIO member swears, is simply the media’s excitement over getting to use penultimate so often, since Caro plans one more book to close out Johnson’s life (due in two or three years). Yet even the casual fan of biographies can see something approaching heroic in a man devoting almost 40 years of his life to trying to capture the essence of such a towering political figure as Johnson.

Caro’s dedication to and skill at his craft was apparent at the 2011 Compleat Biographer conference. Winner of that year’s BIO Award, Caro delivered a keynote speech that addressed the importance of place in defining a subject’s character. He had immersed himself in the West Texas hill country of Johnson’s youth—just one part of the research that has made Caro so admired. But don’t, Esquire writer Chris Jones says, call Caro obsessive. The biographer told Jones, “That implies it’s something strange. This is reporting. This is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to turn every page.”

When The Years of Lyndon Johnson is done, readers will have turned several thousand book pages—and know Caro has turned every page in the former president’s life.

40 years. Thousands of pages. The LBJ bio does strike some as obsessive, but to biographers, Caro is a master of our craft: a dedicated researcher, a striking writer, a seeker of the truth—as much as any historical writing delivers “the” truth.

My book on Hooke, scientist and coffee addict…

My new BIO gig got me reflecting on biographies in general: Reading my first in elementary school, almost always of athletes. One of Sal “the Barber” Maglie has always stuck in my mind. Writing biographies, from the long list of presidents to Robert Hooke (about whom I knew nothing beforehand) to a graphic-novel treatment of the life of Muhammad Ali.

Plutarch; yeah, they’ll still be reading my bios in 2,000 years…

Thinking about the biographers through ages, especially Suetonius and Plutarch. Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars was the first history book on ancient Rome that I ever read. As to Plutarch, his Lives still reach us today, even if we don’t know it, since Shakespeare used him as a source for some of his historical plays. Then there are the ancient biographies of a guy who had some worldwide impact: Jesus Christ. You may have heard of him? Of course the writers of the Gospels were not exactly trained in the nuances of objective historical writing…

I find it interesting that the primary biography of the New Testament, along with Plutarch’s writing, were intended to show the lives of other to make moral statements. Biographies often try to show the goodness in others to inspire us, as we immerse ourselves in their courage and wisdom. And other times they are cautionary tales that warn of the dangers of hubris and roads taken that lead to perfidy.

Every life is a narrative. We all crave narratives to explore, whether our own or others. I may never be a Robert Caro, but when I write my 5,000-word, watered-down presidential bios, I still aspire to reach the standards set by the best practitioners of my craft. And give my readers a narrative that satisfies some deeper need.

Justice for All…

March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m a liar.

Not something easy for a History Nerd to admit, given my vocational and avocational dedication to history, to finding the truth, as much as it can be known, and as much as it’s ever “the” truth.

But the reality is, in some of the words I have penned over the years I’ve said things I believed to be untrue, knew objectively were false, in the name of spreading civic values. Two book reviews in yesterday’s NYT showed me the error of my ways.

I’ve written and we are taught that our great republican nation is a country of laws, not men. (Of course, of late certain Republicans, Supreme Court justices, and Catholic bishops have preferred to stress the specific prerogatives of men, and give women less of a say in certain arenas, such as public health, but that’s another story…) That noble concept means, in a nutshell, that we govern our society and administer its courts by written principles that everyone can turn to, and can feel secure knowing they are applied equally to all, high and low, rich and poor.

All right, all right, stop laughing now. No, the book reviews didn’t just make me realize that the concept of laws, not men, is sometimes hokum. But the books in question take a look back at two recent legal battles that too clearly show how the system is too often stacked against the powerless, the marginalized, the detested.

Review #1 was of Flagrant Conduct by Dale Carpenter. The author looks at the details of the case Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned sodomy laws in the United States. The NYT review introduces us to the biracial gay couple at the heart of the legal dispute, and to the deputy who arrested them, a law officer notorious for inflating minor offenses into something major. Of the four officers at the scene of the “crime,” only he saw anal sex taking place. Factor in that one of the accused men was drunk and belligerent, and the couple was biracial, and you have a scenario in which the deputy chose to take the most extreme action—arrest the men.

Turns out no one really believed the deputy’s claim that he saw the men having sex, and the prosecutor wasn’t eager to touch the case. But political pressures kept it alive, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Seventeen years before, SCOTUS had affirmed a Georgia law making sodomy a crime. One of the justices in that 5-4 majority, Lewis Powell, later admitted he had made a mistake. Surely, if straight couples have an expectation of privacy in their homes, gay couples should  too? This time the court agreed.

The second review was of Anatomy of Injustice by Raymond Bonner. He looks at the case of a young South Carolina man who was sentenced to death for murdering an elderly, well-off, white woman. The accused murder was poor, black, and had an IQ of 61. Guess how this case turned out. Edward Lee Elmore was sentenced to die after the jury deliberated for under three hours, following severely underwhelming work by his public defenders. And it wasn’t like Elmore was equipped to provide much help in his own case. As reviewer Kevin Boyle notes, the accused’s mental capacity left him unable to tell time, “much less able to follow the intricacies of the case.”

Thankfully, Elmore had a savior, in the form of law student Diana Holt. She studied the details of his case and uncovered the prosecution’s many omissions and deceptions. The state’s attorneys were not looking to conduct a fair trial; they simply wanted a conviction. She also faced the harsh reality of the SCOTUS decision in Herrera v. Collins (1993), that said a person duly convicted of murder and given a death sentence could not claim a right to another trial if new evidence appeared proving his innocence. (In a dissent, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, “Nothing could be more contrary to contemporary standards of decency…or more shocking to the conscience…than to execute a person who is actually innocent.”)

But through her tireless work, Holt was able to convince a South Carolina judge to change Elmore’s sentence to life in prison. Next she won a new trial for him, based on his original attorneys’ incompetence. Elmore is today free, though first he had to go into court and confess to a murder he still says he never committed.

These two stories, along with other recent ones (here’s a doozy from Virginia, involving the grossly unrepentent county attorney Gary Close), plus the number of wrongly convicted Death Row inmates later freed, often through the work of the Innocence Project, belie so vividly those platitudes I and others have spewed:  A nation of laws, not men. Justice is blind. Innocent until proven guilty.

And the two cases featured in the book reviews also led me to this thought: Antonin Scalia is a blight on whatever good name the SCOTUS still has. Put aside his putative legal brilliance: the man is a bully, and as his comments on Blackmun’s dissent cited above show, his supposed wit rests too often on belittlement. I’m amazed at how many of the prominent “moral” Catholics in this country use their faith as a cudgel against the people they don’t like. In the Texas sodomy case, reviewer David Oshinky writes, Scalia “stunned” his audience with a facile comparison between imaginary laws on flag-pole sitting (!) and the rights of gay Americans. And in 2009, he seemed to gleefully restate the findings in Herrera, though in a losing cause. Troy Davis of Georgia was seeking another trial after many witnesses who first testified against him recanted and fingered another man for murdering a cop. There seems little question that Davis was a bad guy, but less proof he was a cop killer. The Court agreed to give Davis another trial. Scalia wrote, “This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”

Read that again, and then let it sink in. You can be “actually innocent,” and it’s still ok for the government to kill you, as long as you received a fair trial. Though as the Elmore case showed, that’s a big if. For Davis, the new appeal did not lead to a happy ending. A judge rejected all but one of the recantations, and he was executed in September 2011.

[One more Scalia tidbit, from 2011. As a devout originalist—we must rule based on what the Founders intended—he says the 14th Amendment does not provide equal protection to women, since it was only intended to protect black males. Boy, think of all that undeserved protection against sexual discrimination those broads have been able to finagle over the years…it must make his blood boil.]

I don’t think we should stop aspiring to be a country of laws, But let’s hold the humans calling the shots on so many parts of the judicial system—the cops, the prosecutors, the judges, and the pols who use high-profile cases in self-serving ways—to a higher standard. And let’s hope to god we have Democratic presidents for a while, so we don’t get any more Scalias.

Unknown Moments

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Coal miners battling for their rights in West Virginia. Scandal tainting the national pastime. Piranhas on the loose. All not-so-stellar moments in our country’s history, but ones presented to a vaster audience than most history books reach, thanks to the pen and camera of filmmaker John Sayles.

(OK, the last bit is not part of our history, but Sayles did write the script for Piranha in his days working as a hired gun for B-film producer extraordinaire, Roger Corman.)

The author and filmmaker

Sayles is also a novelist, and he was in town last night to discuss his latest book, the historical novel A Moment in the Sun. I haven’t read it, but I know the near-1,000 page tome covers, as usual, parts of our history most American don’t know about—and that some flag-waving types would probably prefer we all ignore. Why dwell on the details of stomping out foreign freedom fighters or denying blacks their rights, when we are at heart God’s chosen country?


The decidedly leftist Sayles does want to dwell on the details, as he writes about the only insurrection in U.S. history, led by white supremacists against the duly elected black officials of Wilmington, NC. And as he takes a look at the bloody—some might say ruthless and/or barbaric—squashing of a rebellion in the Philippines, as locals who had successfully battled Spain for independence had a tougher time against the Yanks. Both events took place in 1898 (though the Filipino insurrection stretched on for several years), in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war.

The new(ish) book

Sayler read a chapter (a whole freakin’ chapter; it was the longest reading by an author that I’ve ever attended…) which describes the life of a NYC “newsie” trying to sell papers announcing the start of that war. Newspapers, or one in particular—William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal—is often cited as the fanner of flames to get America into the war, after the mysterious explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. (Modern consensus—it was an accident, not some deliberate attack by Spanish forces, which then controlled Cuba.) And the refrain through the chapter was “War!” shouted out by our streetwise hero and the other kids trying to make a buck hawking papers.

I’m not an expert on the era, but I did notice one historical inaccuracy in the chapter: The narrator talks of the newsie putting one of his hard-earned pennies, a “Lincoln,” into a Mutoscope, an early motion-picture machine. Only problem is, the first Lincoln penny did not appear until 1909. Oops. But the chapter was filled with wonderful dialogue and a fine eye for historical detail—including the marked attention to ethnicity paid by the characters-from-many-backgrounds. We have, of course, transcended that today…

Emilio Aguinaldo--first pres of the Philippines, captured rebel leader

Afterward, Sayles and fellow author Francisco Goldman talked about the book, Sayles’s creative process, and a bit about his latest film, Amigo, which covers some of the same territory as the book. Sayles noted that he didn’t know about the war in the Philippines until his mid 30s—not a sign of his lack of intelligence, but of the general effort, deliberate or not, to whitewash that first major American intervention.

I dug out an old high-school textbook from the 1970s. Its references to the Filipino insurrection: one sentence about the Filipinos taking up arms “in open revolt against the United States” and another about the general news blackout regarding the “war to suppress Emilio Aguinaldo and his Filipino patriots.” And this from a book written by generally liberal—or at least mainstream—historians. In 2006, in a different kind of book, historian David Traxel wrote about the Progressive Era and the country’s role in World War I. Crusader Nation, its subtitle says, is about the “United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898-1920.” Which implies all was peaceful from the end of the Spanish-American War until 1914, but Sayles, and the tens of thousands of Filipinos killed by American guns, knew better. I found no mention of the insurrection in Crusader Nation.

But I found some telling quotes about the war, and America’s foray into imperialism, while writing a short historical play a few years back. It was called “Truth, Justice, And…” and it riffed on comments by-then president George W. Bush, suggesting that the horrors of Abu Ghraib (a bit before the even-worse horrors of Haditha), were an anomaly; violence, especially toward the innocent, is just not part of the American character. The play suggests otherwise, as do some of these quotes I found from some of the young American soldiers sent to battle the Filipinos:

“It was like hunting rabbits; an insurgent would jump out of a hole or the brush and run; he would not get very far…. I suppose you are not interested in the way we do the job. We do not take prisoners.”

“…legs and arms nearly demolished; total decapitation; horrible wounds in chests and abdomens, showing the determination of our soldiers to kill every native in sight. The Filipinos did stand their ground heroically, contesting every inch, but proved themselves unable to stand the deadly fire of our well-trained and eager boys in blue. I counted seventy-nine dead natives in one small field, and learn that on the other side of the river their bodies were stacked up for breastworks.”

“We burned hundreds of houses and looted hundreds more. Some of the boys made good hauls of jewelry and clothing.”

Some soldiers, though, then as now, were not altogether thrilled with their mission:

“They are fighting for a good cause, and the Americans should be the last of all nations to transgress upon such rights. Their independence is dearer to them than life, as ours was in years gone by, and is today. They should have their independence…”

(You can find these and other quotes here.)

Sayles said that much of our present position—I assume he means as an intervening nation—started with the war in the Philippines. It certainly made us an imperial power, which is what some American leaders wanted. Other voices, however, did speak out against taking on the “white men’s burden”; Mark Twain comes to mind. But then as now, the forces that speak for fighting wars when we have not been attacked always seem to get more play than those that oppose killing foreigners for exaggerated claims of “national security.” The Filipinos certainly learned that, even if most Americans–still–don’t.

The Real Dracula and Other History Stuff

February 5, 2010 2 comments

I am among the nerdiest of the history nerds. Need proof?

Historiography excites me, baby.

I didn’t know what historiography was until my senior year of high school, and I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t introduced to the basic concept, without the hifalutin’ name, before  then. You see, back in the 70s, nobody but professional historians and their collegiate charges really cared about the nuances of historical interpretation, the shifting social climates and the individual biases that shape the documenting of history. For the average Joe, history was still largely fueled by Official Story, god-bless-America interpretations of the past (and probably still is). Any attempt to pull back the curtain on cherished myths, to suggest Americans ever did anything wrong in their march toward fulfilling their destiny as God’s truly chosen people (sorry, 12 Tribes) was verboten. Or done only by those commie-inspired revisionists hell-bent on destroying the country and turning us over to the Russkies.

What’s changed since then? Well, educators actually introduce the idea of historiography to much younger students, as I’ve learned in the books I’ve written. They don’t need to know the h word to understand that historians change their interpretations of facts and people as new material is uncovered and old theories are proved wanting. And because of this, there’s a greater willingness to accept challenges to some of the American myths, though conservatives are still apt to sneer out the word revisionist when attacking the historians they don’t like, even if no one believes those historians get their marching orders from Moscow. Actually, both the right and left seem to use revisionist as an epithet. I dunno, to me revisionism is just accepting new facts and adapting accordingly. But whose facts do we accept? And what happens if we don’t agree which facts are true? (Maybe David Byrne should be the troubadour for the modern historian: “facts all comes with points of view, facts don’t do what I want them too…“)

Dig that 'stache!

What deep, contentious point of history got me thinking about all this? Dracula. The real Dracula that is, Prince Vlad III of Wallachia, Son of the Dragon, Vlad Tepes – Vlad the Impaler. Historical study of Dracula is not new: Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally pioneered it here in the States several decades ago, and certainly Romanian and other Eastern European scholars have recounted his deeds for centuries. Of course, the modern American interest is fueled by the prince’s sharing a name with a certain fictional bloodsucker you may have heard something about…

I’m doing a book on the real Vlad Dracula, with an emphasis on the horrible-but-true exploits that filled his three short reigns in Wallachia (no, not Transylvania; Vlad had plenty of connections to the other count’s stomping grounds, but he did not rule or build a castle there). The problem is, some of the sources on Vlad are, well, sketchy. Either they were written down years after his death, or they were based on oral history, or, most commonly, they were written by people with an axe to grind.

More stakes! We need more stakes!

The worst of the tales come from German propaganda printed during Vlad’s life and after his death. Gutenberg’s press let the proto-tabloids churn out grotesque depictions of Vlad’s cruelty toward Germans living in Transylvania.  Some of the deeds are corroborated in other places. Some are really exaggerated or just plain unprovable by more objective sources. The impalements by the hundreds – nobody disputes that. But forcing mothers to eat their own children; well… The German press, however, did the most to shape the image of Dracula as a blood-crazed (though not blood-drinking) madman.

Turkish sources are also not flattering, since Dracula battled the Ottomans and impaled a few of them along the way. Which was not a very nice payback for the fine education he received at their hands years before, when his father Vlad II, Dracul (dragon), turned two of his sons over to the Turks. Since the days of the Persians and Romans, rulers sometimes left their boys with putative allies or potential enemies, a diplomatic move meant to show loyalty to more powerful nations. Vlad would be less likely to disobey the Turks if his sons were in their care. The Turks, in response, had an obligation to treat the young princes well, unless their father screwed up. Around the time of Vlad III’s stay in Turkish hands, the son of another European ruler had his eyes poked out when Dad upset the Turkish hosts.

The remains of Castle Dracula, at Poenari; the one at Bran often labeled such is an impostor

Romanian sources, not surprisingly, are a little kinder to Vlad. Sure, he impaled people. But those were lawless times. He was just trying to bring a little order to a chaotic land. And rein in the boyars, nobles who tried to keep Wallachia decentralized and under their influence. And don’t forget all the pretenders to Vlad’s throne that he had to thwart. In an era when war and brutality were part of life, Vlad did what he had to do to secure his rule, strengthen Wallachia, and keep out those damn Muslim Turks always knocking at the door.

So, the modern historians sift through these sources, looking for parallel accounts that seem to offer more credibility than others, and paint as true a picture as possible of the real Dracula. But of course, the interpretations differ; that‘s what makes history such a fun bloodsport.

An illustrated version of Dracula's story, as retold by your humble narrator

One small conflict developed a few years ago. Florescu and McNally noted the parallels in the real Vlad‘s life and the details Bram Stoker incorporated in his book.  For a time, the two historians thought Stoker got some of his info from a Hungarian historian he knew. The character of Van Helsing, claimed by some to be Stoker’s alter ego, mentions the Hungarian by name: Arminius (last name Vambery). Stoker and Vambery did dine together several times, but there is no evidence in Stoker’s detailed notes for Dracula that he based the fictional count on Vlad the Impaler, other than some of the general bits of Romanian history and geography. Now, Stoker got plenty of things wrong, but he wasn’t writing history. And Stoker did not base his count on the real Dracula, as far as any blood-sucking tendencies. Vampire legends were common, and the author was already writing his when he learned about the real Vlad and used elements of his life and times in Dracula.

Another Dracula scholar, Elizabeth Miller, has worked hard to discredit the Vlad-Count Dracula connection, which other writers have hyped, so people will not associate the real prince with Stoker’s creation. She wants to “separate fact from hypothesis” and “vehemently challenge the widespread view that Stoker was knowledgeable about the historical Dracula”  (more on this here).

Does all this really matter to you and me, how we live our lives, or whether or not we enjoy Stoker’s book? No. But for the historian, it’s all part of what we do: Point out inaccuracies. Debunk myths.  Find the truth of a matter, as much as it can be found.  As much as there is any one truth. And of course, there never really is. Hence, historigraphy.

My Vlad book will talk a little about the different views of the 15th-century-prince, but only a little. The kids want to read about the blood and guts. But I hope I will help them understand that the fictional count and Vlad the Impaler have only the loosest of connections. And then I move onto another historiographical hotty: What really happened before the attack on Pearl Harbor? Who knew what? Incompetence or conspiracy? I’ll let you know when I find out.

[For the historically curious, a good oveview of historiography as a broad concept is John Burrow‘s A History of Histories. I especially like the bits on ancient and medieval history. See a good review of it here, which notes the shortcomings I was too ignorant to see, while still offering some overall praise. A perfect gift for the history geek in your life.]