October 30, 2012
One of the greatest religious movements of the 19th century began in the bedroom of two young girls living in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York. On a late March day in 1848, Margaretta “Maggie” Fox, 14, and Kate, her 11-year-old sister, waylaid a neighbor, eager to share an odd and frightening phenomenon. Every night around bedtime, they said, they heard a series of raps on the walls and furniture—raps that seemed to manifest with a peculiar, otherworldly intelligence. The neighbor, skeptical, came to see for herself, joining the girls in the small chamber they shared with their parents. While Maggie and Kate huddled together on their bed, their mother, Margaret, began the demonstration.
“Now count five,” she ordered, and the room shook with the sound of five heavy thuds.
“Count fifteen,” she commanded, and the mysterious presence obeyed. Next, she asked it to tell the neighbor’s age; thirty-three distinct raps followed.
“If you are an injured spirit,” she continued, “manifest it by three raps.”
And it did.
Margaret Fox did not seem to consider the date, March 31—April Fool’s Eve—and the possibility that her daughters were frightened not by an unseen presence but by the expected success of their prank.
The Fox family deserted the house and sent Maggie and Kate to live with their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester. The story might have died there were it not for the fact that Rochester was a hotbed for reform and religious activity; the same vicinity, the Finger Lakes region of New York State, gave birth to both Mormonism and Millerism, the precursor to Seventh Day Adventism. Community leaders Isaac and Amy Post were intrigued by the Fox sisters’ story, and by the subsequent rumor that the spirit likely belonged to a peddler who had been murdered in the farmhouse five years beforehand. A group of Rochester residents examined the cellar of the Fox’s home, uncovering strands of hair and what appeared to be bone fragments.
The Posts invited the girls to a gathering at their home, anxious to see if they could communicate with spirits in another locale. “I suppose I went with as much unbelief as Thomas felt when he was introduced to Jesus after he had ascended,” Isaac Post wrote, but he was swayed by “very distinct thumps under the floor… and several apparent answers.” He was further convinced when Leah Fox also proved to be a medium, communicating with the Posts’ recently deceased daughter. The Posts rented the largest hall in Rochester, and four hundred people came to hear the mysterious noises. Afterward Amy Post accompanied the sisters to a private chamber, where they disrobed and were examined by a committee of skeptics, who found no evidence of a hoax.
The idea that one could communicate with spirits was hardly new—the Bible contains hundreds of references to angels administering to man—but the movement known as Modern Spiritualism sprang from several distinct revolutionary philosophies and characters. The ideas and practices of Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century Australian healer, had spread to the United States and by the 1840s held the country in thrall. Mesmer proposed that everything in the universe, including the human body, was governed by a “magnetic fluid” that could become imbalanced, causing illness. By waving his hands over a patient’s body, he induced a “mesmerized” hypnotic state that allowed him to manipulate the magnetic force and restore health. Amateur mesmerists became a popular attraction at parties and in parlors, a few proving skillful enough to attract paying customers. Some who awakened from a mesmeric trance claimed to have experienced visions of spirits from another dimension.
At the same time the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish philosopher and mystic, also surged in popularity. Swedenborg described an afterlife consisting of three heavens, three hells and an interim destination—the world of the spirits—where everyone went immediately upon dying, and which was more or less similar to what they were accustomed to on earth. Self love drove one toward the varying degrees of hell; love for others elevated one to the heavens. “The Lord casts no one into hell,” he wrote, “but those who are there have deliberately cast themselves into it, and keep themselves there.” He claimed to have seen and talked with spirits on all of the planes.
Seventy-five years later, the 19th-century American seer Andrew Jackson Davis, who would become known as the “John the Baptist of Modern Spiritualism,” combined these two ideologies, claiming that Swedenborg’s spirit spoke to him during a series of mesmeric trances. Davis recorded the content of these messages and in 1847 published them in a voluminous tome titled The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. “It is a truth,” he asserted, predicting the rise of Spiritualism, “that spirits commune with one another while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres…all the world will hail with delight the ushering in of that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communication will be established.” Davis believed his prediction materialized a year later, on the very day the Fox sisters first channeled spirits in their bedroom. “About daylight this morning,” he confided to his diary, “a warm breathing passed over my face and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying ‘Brother, the good work has begun—behold, a living demonstration is born.’”
Upon hearing of the Rochester incident, Davis invited the Fox sisters to his home in New York City to witness their medium capabilities for himself. Joining his cause with the sisters’ ghostly manifestations elevated his stature from obscure prophet to recognized leader of a mass movement, one that appealed to increasing numbers of Americans inclined to reject the gloomy Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and embrace the reform-minded optimism of the mid-19th century. Unlike their Christian contemporaries, Americans who adopted Spiritualism believed they had a hand in their own salvation, and direct communication with those who had passed offered insight into the ultimate fate of their own souls.
Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox embarked on a professional tour to spread word of the spirits, booking a suite, fittingly, at Barnum’s Hotel on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, an establishment owned by a cousin of the famed showman. An editorial in the Scientific American scoffed at their arrival, calling the girls the “Spiritual Knockers from Rochester.” They conducted their sessions in the hotel’s parlor, inviting as many as thirty attendees to gather around a large table at the hours of 10 a.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., taking an occasional private meeting in between. Admission was one dollar, and visitors included preeminent members of New York Society: Horace Greeley, the iconoclastic and influential editor of the New York Tribune; James Fenimore Cooper; editor and poet William Cullen Bryant, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who witnessed a session in which the spirits rapped in time to a popular song and spelled out a message: “Spiritualism will work miracles in the cause of reform.”
Leah stayed in New York, entertaining callers in a séance room, while Kate and Maggie took the show to other cities, among them Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, where one visitor, explorer Elisha Kent Kane, succumbed to Maggie’s charms even as he deemed her a fraud—although he couldn’t prove how the sounds were made. “After a whole month’s trial I could make nothing of them,” he confessed. “Therefore they are a great mystery.” He courted Maggie, thirteen years his junior, and encouraged her to give up her “life of dreary sameness and suspected deceit.” She acquiesced, retiring to attend school at Kane’s behest and expense, and married him shortly before his untimely death in 1857. To honor his memory she converted to Catholicism, as Kane—a Presbyterian—had always encouraged. (He seemed to think the faith’s ornate iconography and sense of mystery would appeal to her.) In mourning, she began drinking heavily and vowed to keep her promise to Kane to “wholly and forever abandon Spiritualism.”
Kate, meanwhile, married a devout Spiritualist and continued to develop her medium powers, translating spirit messages in astonishing and unprecedented ways: communicating two messages simultaneously, writing one while speaking the other; transcribing messages in reverse script; utilizing blank cards upon which words seemed to spontaneously appear. During sessions with a wealthy banker, Charles Livermore, she summoned both the man’s deceased wife and the ghost of Benjamin Franklin, who announced his identity by writing his name on a card. Her business boomed during and after the Civil War, as increasing numbers of the bereaved found solace in Spiritualism. Prominent Spiritualist Emma Hardinge wrote that the war added two million new believers to the movement, and by the 1880s there were an estimated eight million Spiritualists in the United States and Europe. These new practitioners, seduced by the flamboyance of the Gilded Age, expected miracles—like Kate’s summoning of full-fledged apparitions—at every séance. It was wearying, both to the movement and to Kate herself, and she, too, began to drink.
On October 21, 1888, the New York World published an interview with Maggie Fox in anticipation of her appearance that evening at the New York Academy of Music, where she would publicly denounce Spiritualism. She was paid $1,500 for the exclusive. Her main motivation, however, was rage at her sister Leah and other leading Spiritualists, who had publicly chastised Kate for her drinking and accused her of being unable to care for her two young children. Kate planned to be in the audience when Maggie gave her speech, lending her tacit support.
“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began,” Maggie said. “At night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound.” The sisters graduated from apple dropping to manipulating their knuckles, joints and toes to make rapping sounds. “A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them,” she explained. “It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: ‘I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.’ Of course that was pure imagination.”
She offered a demonstration, removing her shoe and placing her right foot upon a wooden stool. The room fell silent and still, and was rewarded with a number of short little raps. “There stood a black-robed, sharp-faced widow,” the New York Herald reported, “working her big toe and solemnly declaring that it was in this way she created the excitement that has driven so many persons to suicide or insanity. One moment it was ludicrous, the next it was weird.” Maggie insisted that her sister Leah knew that the rappings were fake all along and greedily exploited her younger sisters. Before exiting the stage she thanked God that she was able to expose Spiritualism.
The mainstream press called the incident “a death blow” to the movement, and Spiritualists quickly took sides. Shortly after Maggie’s confession the spirit of Samuel B. Brittan, former publisher of the Spiritual Telegraph, appeared during a séance to offer a sympathetic opinion. Although Maggie was an authentic medium, he acknowledged, “the band of spirits attending [her] during the early part of her career” had been usurped by “other unseen intelligences, who are not scrupulous in their dealings with humanity.” Other (living) Spiritualists charged that Maggie’s change of heart was wholly mercenary; since she had failed to make a living as a medium, she sought to profit by becoming one of Spiritualism’s fiercest critics.
Whatever her motive, Maggie recanted her confession one year later, insisting that her spirit guides had beseeched her to do so. Her reversal prompted more disgust from devoted Spiritualists, many of whom failed to recognize her at a subsequent debate at the Manhattan Liberal Club. There, under the pseudonym Mrs. Spencer, Maggie revealed several tricks of the profession, including the way mediums wrote messages on blank slates by using their teeth or feet. She never reconciled with sister Leah, who died in 1890. Kate died two years later while on a drinking spree. Maggie passed away eight months later, in March 1893. That year Spiritualists formed the National Spiritualist Association, which today is known as the National Spiritualist Association of Churches.
In 1904, schoolchildren playing in the sisters’ childhood home in Hydesville—known locally as “the spook house”—discovered the majority of a skeleton between the earth and crumbling cedar walls. A doctor was consulted, who estimated that the bones were about fifty years old, giving credence to the sisters’ tale of spiritual messages from a murdered peddler. But not everyone was convinced. The New York Times reported that the bones had created “a stir amusingly disproportioned to any necessary significance of the discovery,” and suggested that the sisters had merely been clever enough to exploit a local mystery. Even if the bones were that of the murdered peddler, the Times concluded, “there will still remain that dreadful confession about the clicking joints, which reduces the whole case to a farce.”
Five years later, another doctor examined the skeleton and determined that it was made up of “only a few ribs with odds and ends of bones and among them a superabundance of some and a deficiency of others. Among them also were some chicken bones.” He also reported a rumor that a man living near the spook house had planted the bones as a practical joke, but was much too ashamed to come clean.
Books: Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rose of Spiritualism. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004; Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America. Boston: Beacon University Press, 1989; Nancy Rubin Stuart, The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox. Orlando, Fl: Harcourt, 2005; Reuben Briggs Davenport, The Death-Blow to Spiritualism. New York: G.W. Dillingham, 1888; Andrew Jackson Davis, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. New York: S.S. Lyon and William Fishbough, 1847.
Articles: “The Origin of Spiritualism.” Springfield Republican, June 20, 1899; “Gotham Gossip. Margaretta Fox Kane’s Threatened Exposure of Spiritualism.” New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 7, 1888; “Fox Sisters to Expose Spiritualism.” New York Herald Tribune, October 17, 1888; “The Rochester Rappings.” Macon Telegraph, May 22, 1886; “Spiritualism Exposed.” Wheeling (WVa) Register, October 22, 1888; “Spiritualism in America.” New Orleans Times- Picayune, April 21, 1892; “Spiritualism’s Downfall.” New York Herald, October 22, 1888; “Find Skeleton in Home of the Fox Sisters.” Salt Lake Telegram, November 28, 1904; Joe Nickell, “A Skeleton’s Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism”: http://www.csicop.org/si/show/skeletons_tale_the_origins_of_modern_spiritualism/.
October 25, 2012
In the fall of 1975, President Gerald Ford was finding trouble wherever he turned. He’d been in office just over a year, but he remained “acutely aware” that he was the only person in U.S. history to become the chief executive without being elected. His pardon of Richard Nixon, whose resignation after the Watergate scandal had put Ford in the White House, was still controversial. Democratic voters had turned out in droves in the congressional midterm elections, taking 49 seats from the Republicans and significantly increasing their party’s majority in the House. Now the presidential election was just a year away, and popular California Governor Ronald Reagan was poised to challenge Ford for the GOP nomination.
But his political troubles were only the beginning. On September 5, 1975, Ford spoke at the California state capitol in Sacramento. He was walking toward a crowd in a park across the street when a woman in a red robe stepped forward and pointed a Colt semi-automatic pistol at him. Secret Service Agent Larry Buendorf spotted the gun, leaped in front of Ford and wrestled Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a member of the Charles Manson family, to the ground before she could fire.
On September 22, Ford was at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when a five-time divorcee named Sara Jane Moore fired a .38 caliber revolver at him from across the street. Her shot missed the president’s head by several feet before Oliver Sipple, a former Marine standing in the crowd, tackled her.
And on the evening of October 14, Ford’s motorcade was in Hartford, Connecticut, when a 19-year-old named James Salamites accidentally smashed his lime-green 1968 Buick into the president’s armored limousine. Ford was uninjured but shaken. The car wreck was emblematic of the chaos he was facing.
Back in Washington, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller represented a problem. Ford had appointed him in August of 1974 mainly because the former governor of New York was seen to be free from any connections to Watergate. The president had assured Rockefeller that he would be a “full partner” in his administration, particularly in domestic policy, but from the start, the White House chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy Dick Cheney worked to neutralize the man they viewed as a New Deal economic liberal. They isolated him to the point where Rockefeller, when asked what he was allowed to do as vice president, said, “I go to funerals. I go to earthquakes.” Redesigning the vice presidential seal, he said, was “the most important thing I’ve done.”
With the 1976 election looming, there were grumblings from the more conservative Ford staffers that Rockefeller was too old and too liberal, that he was a “commuting” vice president who was more at home in New York, that Southerners would not support a ticket with him on it in the primaries, especially against Reagan. To shore up support on the right, Rumsfeld and Cheney, who had already edged out some of the president’s old aides, helped to persuade Ford to dump Rockefeller.
On October 28, Ford met with Rockefeller and made it clear that he wanted the vice president to remove himself from the ticket. “I didn’t take myself off the ticket,” Rockefeller would later tell friends. “He asked me to do it.” The next day, Ford gave a speech denying federal aid to spare the City of New York from bankruptcy—aid Rockefeller had lobbied for. The decision—immortalized in the New York Daily News headline, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD”—was yet another indication of Rockefeller’s waning influence. In haste and some anger, he wrote Ford a letter saying he was withdrawing as a candidate for vice president.
That wasn’t the only shakeup within Ford’s administration. Bryce Harlow, a former Nixon adviser, lobbyist and outside adviser to the president, noted the appearance of “internal anarchy” among the Nixon holdovers at the White House and the cabinet, particularly among Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and CIA Director William Colby. Kissinger was particularly incensed over Colby’s testimony in congressional hearings on CIA activities. “Every time Bill Colby gets near Capitol Hill, the damn fool feels an irresistible urge to confess to some horrible crime,” Kissinger snarled.
Harlow met with Ford’s White House staff, known to Kissinger as the “kitchen cabinet,” and the problem was quickly apparent to him, too. He advised Ford, “You have to fire them all.”
In what became known as the Halloween Massacre, Ford nearly did just that. On November 3, 1975, the president announced that Rockefeller had withdrawn from the ticket and that George H.W. Bush had replaced William Colby as director of the CIA. Schlesinger, too, was out, to be replaced by Rumsfeld. Kissinger would remain secretary of state, but Brent Scowcroft would replace him as national security adviser. And Cheney would replace Rumsfeld, becoming, at age 34, the youngest chief of staff in White House history.
Ford intended the moves as both a show of independence and a bow to his party’s right wing in advance of his primary fight against Reagan. Though advisors agreed that Kissinger’s outsized role in foreign policy made Ford appear less presidential, many observers viewed the shakeup as a blatant power grab engineered by Rumsfeld.
Rockefeller was one of them. Still vice president, he warned Ford, “Rumsfeld wants to be president of the United States. He has given George Bush the deep six by putting him in the CIA, he has gotten me out.… He was third on your [vice-presidential] list and now he has gotten rid of two of us.… You are not going to be able to put him on the [ticket] because he is defense secretary, but he is not going to want anybody who can possibly be elected with you on that ticket.… I have to say I have a serious question about his loyalty to you.”
The Republican presidential primaries were as bruising as predicted, but conservatives were infuriated when Reagan promised to name “liberal” Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate in a move designed to attract centrists. Ford won the nomination, narrowly. After Reagan made it clear that he would never accept the vice presidency, Ford selected Kansas Senator Bob Dole as his running mate in 1976, but the sagging economy and the fallout from the Nixon pardon enabled the Democrat, Jimmy Carter, the former Georgia governor, to win a close race.
At the time, Ford said he alone was responsible for the Halloween Massacre. Later, he expressed regret: “I was angry at myself for showing cowardice in not saying to the ultraconservatives, ‘It’s going to be Ford and Rockefeller, whatever the consequences.’ ” And years later, he said, “It was the biggest political mistake of my life. And it was one of the few cowardly things I did in my life.”
Articles: “Behind the Shake-up: Ford Tightens Grip,” by Godfrey Sperling Jr., Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 1975. “Ford’s Narrowing Base,” by James Reston, New York Times, November 7, 1975. “Enough is Enough” by Tom Braden, Washington Post, November 8. 1975. “A No-Win Position” by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Washington Post, November 8, 1975. “Context of ‘November 4, 1975 and After: Halloween Massacre’ Places Rumsfeld, Cheney in Power,” History Commons, http://www.historycommons.org/context.jsp?item=a11041975halloween. “Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, 41st Vice President (1974-1977)” United States Senate, http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/VP_Nelson_Rockefeller.htm. “The Long March of Dick Cheney,” by Sidney Blumenthal, Salon, November 24, 2005. “Infamous ‘Drop Dead’ ” Was Never Said by Ford,” by Sam Roberts, New York Times, December 28, 2006.
Books: Timothy J. Sullivan, New York State and the Rise of Modern Conservatism: Redrawing Party Lines, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2009. Jussi Hanhimaki, The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy, Oxford University Press, 2004. Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography, Simon & Schuster, 1992.
October 18, 2012
When Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner leaped from a capsule some 24 miles above earth on October 14, 2012, millions watched on television and the internet as he broke the sound barrier in a free fall that lasted ten minutes. But in the anticipation of Baumgartner’s jump (and his safe parachute landing), there was little room to marvel at the massive balloon that took him to the stratosphere.
More than 200 years ago in France, the vision of a human ascending the sky beneath a giant balloon produced what one magazine at the time described as “a spectacle the like of which was never shewn since the world began.” Early manned flights in the late 18th century led to “balloonomania” throughout Europe, as more than 100,000 spectators would gather in fields and city rooftops to witness the pioneers of human flight. And much of the talk turned to the French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard.
Known for being nervous on the ground but fearless in the air, Blanchard is believed to be the first female professional balloonist. She became a favorite of both Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis XVIII, who bestowed upon her official aeronaut appointments. Her solo flights at festivals and celebrations were spectacular but also perilous, and in the summer of 1819, she become the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident.
She was born Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant in Trois-Canons in 1778, not long before the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne began experimenting with balloons made from sackcloth and taffeta and lifted by heated air from fires in a box below. As the Montgolfiers’ balloons became larger and larger, the brothers began to consider manned flight. Louis XVI took an interest and proposed sending two criminals into the sky to test the contraption, but the brothers chose instead to place a sheep, a duck and a rooster on board for the first balloon flight to hold living creatures. In a 1783 demonstration before the King and Marie Antoinette and a crowd at the royal palace in Versailles, the Montgolfier brothers saw their craft ascend 1,500 into the air. Less than ten minutes later, the three animals landed safely.
Just months later, when Etienne Montgolfier became the first human rise into the skies, on a tethered balloon, and not long after, Pilatre de Rozier and French marquis Francois Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes made the first human free flight before Louis XVI, U.S. envoy Benjamin Franklin and more than 100,000 other spectators.
Balloonomania had begun, and the development of gas balloons, made possible by the discovery of hydrogen by British scientist Henry Cavendish in 1766, quickly supplanted hot-air balloons, since they could fly higher and further. More and more pioneers were drawn to new feats in ballooning, but not everyone was thrilled: Terrified peasants in the English countryside tore a descending balloon to pieces.
A child of this pioneering era, Sophie Armant married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a middle-aged inventor who had made his first balloon flight in Paris when she was just five years old. (The date of their marriage is unclear.) In January 1785, Blanchard and John Jeffries, an American doctor, became the first men to fly over the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon, flying from England to France. (Pilatre de Rozier, trying to cross the channel from France to England later that year, became the first known aviation fatality after his balloon deflated at 1,500 feet.)
Jean-Pierre Blanchard began to tour Europe. At demonstrations where he charged for admission, he showed off his silk balloons, dropped parachute-equipped dogs and launched fireworks from above. “All the World gives their shilling to see it,” one newspaper reported, citing crowds affected with “balloon madness” and “aeriel phrenzy.” Spectators were drawn to launches with unique balloons shaped like Pegasus and Nymp, and they thrilled to see men risk their lives in flights where fires often sent balloons plummeting back to earth.
“It may have been precisely [their] lack of efficiency that made the balloon such an appropriate symbol of human longings and hopes,” historian Stephan Oettermann noted. “Hot-air balloons and the gas balloons that succeeded them soon after belong not so much to the history of aviation as to the still-to-be-written account of middle class dreams.”
Furniture and ceramics at the time were decorated with images of balloons. European women’s clothing featured puffy sleeves and rounded skirts. Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s coiffed hair became all the rage among the fashionable. On a trip to the United States in 1793 he conducted the first balloon flight in North America, ascending over Philadelphia before the likes of George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
But not everything Blanchard did succeeded. He escaped a mid-air malfunction by cutting his car from his balloon and using the latter as a parachute. He falsely marketed himself as the inventor of the balloon and the parachute. He established the “Balloon and Parachute Aerostatic Academy” in 1785, but it quickly failed. John Jeffries, Blanchard’s English Channel crossing partner and chief financier, later claimed that Blanchard tried to keep him from boarding the balloon by wearing weighted girdles and claiming the balloon could carry only him.
Facing ruin, Blanchard (who had abandoned his first wife and their four children to pursue his ballooning dreams) persuaded his new wife to ride with him, believing that a flying female might be a novel enough idea to bring back the paying crowds.
Tiny, nervous, and described by one writer as having “sharp bird-like features,” Sophie Blanchard was believed to be terrified of riding in horse-drawn carriages. Yet once in a balloon, she found flight to be a “sensation incomparable,” and not long after she and her husband began ascents together, she made her first solo ascent in 1805, becoming the first woman to pilot her own balloon.
The Blanchards made a go of it until 1809—when Jean-Pierre, standing beside Sophie in a basket tethered to a balloon flying over the Hague, had a heart attack and fell to his death. Crippled by her husband’s debts, she continued to fly, slowly paying off creditors and accentuating her shows with fireworks that she launched from the sky. She became a favorite of Napoleon’s, who chose her the “aeronaut of the official festivals.” She made an ascent to celebrate his 1810 wedding to Marie Louise.
Napoleon also appointed her chief air minster of ballooning, and she worked on plans for an aerial invasion of England by French troops in balloons—something she later deemed impossible. When the French monarchy was restored four years later, King Louis XVIII named her “official aeronaut of the restoration.”
She had made long-distance trips in Italy, crossed the Alps and generally did everything her husband had hoped to do himself. She paid off his debts and made a reputation for herself. She seemed to accept, even amplify, the risks of her career. She preferred to fly at night and stay out until dawn, sometimes sleeping in her balloon. She once passed out and nearly froze at altitude above Turin after ascending to avoid a hailstorm. She nearly drowned after dropping into a swamp in Naples. Despite warnings of extreme danger, she set off pyrotechnics beneath her hydrogen balloon.
Finally, at the age of 41, Sophie Blanchard made her last flight.
On the evening of July 6, 1819, a crowd gathered for a fete at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. Sophie Blanchard, now 41 but described as the “still young, sprightly, and amiable” aeronaut, rose from the lawn to a flourish of music and flare of fireworks. Despite the misgivings of others, she had planned to do her “Bengal Fire” demonstration, a slow-burning pyrotechnics display. As she mounted her balloon she said, “Allons, ce sera pour la derniere fois” (“Let’s go, this will be for the last time”).
In an elaborate white dress and matching hat accessorized with an ostrich plume, Blanchard, carrying a torch, began her ascent. Winds immediately carried her away from the gardens. From above, she lit fireworks and dropped them by parachute; Bengal lights hung from beneath her balloon. Suddenly there was a flash and popping from the skies; flames shot up from the top of the balloon.
“Beautiful! Beautiful! Vive Madame Blanchard,” shouted someone in the crowd. The balloon began to descend; it was on fire. “It lighted up Paris like some immense moving beacon,” read one account.
Blanchard prepared for landing as the balloon made a slow descent, back over the gardens along the Rue de Provence. She cut loose ballast to further slow the fall, and it looked as though she might make it safely to the ground. Then the basket hit the roof of a house and Blanchard tipped out, tumbling along the roof and onto the street, where, according to a newspaper account, “she was picked up dead.”
While all Europe mourned the death of Sophie Blanchard, some cautioned, predictably, that a balloon was no place for a woman. She was buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, beneath a tombstone representing her balloon in flames, with the epitaph Victime de son Art et de son Intrepidite (Victim of her art and intrepidity).
Articles: “The ‘Balloonomania’: Science and Spectacle in 1780s England,” by Paul Keen, Eighteenth Century Studies, Summer 2006, 39, 4. “Consumerism and the Rise of Balloons in Europe at the End of the Eighteenth Century,” by Michael R. Lynn, Science in Context, Cambridge University Press, 2008. “Madame Blanchard, the Aeronaut,” Scientific American Supplement #195, September 27, 1879. “Sophie Blanchard—First Woman Balloon Pilot,” Historic Wings, July 6, 2012, http://fly.historicwings.com/2012/07/sophie-blanchard-first-woman-balloon-pilot/ “How Man Has Learned to Fly,” The Washington Post, October 10, 1909.
Books: Paul Keen, Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
October 11, 2012
With the election just weeks away and with the Democratic candidate poised to make his surging socialist agenda a reality, business interests across the country suddenly began pouring millions of dollars into a concerted effort to defeat him. The newspapers pounced, too, with an unending barrage of negative coverage. By the time the attack ads finally reached the screens, in the new medium of staged newsreels, millions of viewers simply did not know what to believe anymore. Although the election was closer than the polls had suggested, Upton Sinclair decisively lost the 1934 race for the governorship of California.
It wasn’t until decades later that the full extent of the fraudulent smear campaign became known. As one historian observed, the remarkable race marked “the birth of the modern political campaign.”
Sinclair had made his name as a muckraker, writing best-selling books that documented social and economic conditions in 20th century America. His 1906 novel, The Jungle, exposed unsanitary conditions and the abuse of workers in Chicago’s meatpacking industry, leading to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (and to Sinclair’s becoming a vegetarian for long periods of his life). Although President Theodore Roosevelt opposed socialism and thought Sinclair a “crackpot,” he acknowledged the importance of the author’s work, telling him that “radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.”
Subsequent Sinclair novels targeted New York’s high society, Wall Street, the coal and oil industries, Hollywood, the press and the church; he acquired a broad spectrum of enemies. He moved from New Jersey to California in 1916 and dabbled in politics with the Socialist Party, with little success. In the throes of the Great Depression, he was struck by the abandoned factories and farms with rotting crops that dotted the California landscape and the poverty among the state’s million idled workers. “Franklin Roosevelt was casting about for ways to end it,” Sinclair later wrote. “To me the remedy was obvious. The factories were idle and the workers had no money. Let them be put to work on the state’s credit and produce goods for their own use, and set up a system of exchange by which the goods could be distributed.”
Some friends and supporters convinced him to run for office once again, but as a Democrat. In 1933 Sinclair quickly wrote a 60-page book titled I, Governor of California, And How I ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future. The cover also bore the message: “This is not just a pamphlet. This is the beginning of a Crusade. A Two-Year Plan to make over a State. To capture the Democratic primaries and use an old party for a new job. The EPIC plan: (E)nd (P)overty (I)n (C)alifornia!”
Sinclair’s EPIC plan called for the state to turn over land and factories to the unemployed, creating cooperatives that promoted “production for use, not for profit” and bartered goods and services. Appalled that the government was telling farmers to burn crops and dispose of milk while people across the country were starving, he was convinced that his program could distribute those goods and operate within the framework of capitalism.
Aside from transforming agriculture and industry, Sinclair also proposed to repeal the sales tax, raise corporate taxes and introduce a graduated income tax, which would place a larger revenue onus on the wealthy. EPIC also proposed “monthly pensions for widows, the elderly and the handicapped, as well as a tax exemption for homeowners.” Though there were similarities to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, EPIC emphasized “the democratic spirit of each individual,” as one academic observed, and called for reforms on a national level.
“There’s no excuse for poverty in a state as rich as California,” Sinclair said. “We can produce so much food that we have to dump it into our bay.”
To his great surprise, Sinclair’s book became another best-seller, with hundreds of thousands of copies circulating around the state. More than 2,000 EPIC clubs sprang around California, and they organized massive voter registration drives. Within months, Sinclair became a legitimate candidate for governor. In August of 1934, after choosing Democratic stalwart Sheridan Downey as his running mate, “Uppie and Downey” received 436,000 votes in the primary, more than all of the other candidates combined.
That result sent a shock wave throughout the state. Sinclair predicted that his candidacy and his plan would meet stiff resistance. “The whole power of vested privilege will rise against it,” he wrote. “They are afraid the plan will put into the minds of the unemployed the idea of getting access to land and machinery by the use of their ballots.”
EPIC critics were perplexed by Sinclair’s vision of working within the framework of capitalism; why, for example, would investors, as historian Walton E. Bean wrote, “buy California state bonds to finance the public enterprises that would put them out of business”? Indeed, Sinclair acknowledged that the “credit power of the state” would be used to motivate “a new system of production in which Wall Street will have no share.”
Sinclair’s opponent in the general election would be acting governor Frank Merriam, a Republican who had endured a summer of unrest as new labor laws led to strikes that were designed to test the New Deal’s commitment to organized workers. Longshoremen in San Francisco closed the port for two months. When police tried to break through the picket lines, violence broke out; two men were killed and dozens were injured. Merriam declared a state of emergency and ordered the National Guard to preserve order, but labor unions were convinced the governor had used the Guard to break the strike. A citywide protest followed, where more than a hundred thousand union workers walked off their jobs. For four days, San Francisco had become paralyzed by the general strike. Citizens began hording food and supplies.
Working quietly behind the scenes were two political consultants, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter. They had formed Campaigns, Inc. the year before, and had already been retained by conglomerates like Pacific Gas and Electric and Standard Oil. The two consultants, like their clients, where determined to stop “Sinclairism” at any cost, and they had just two months to do it.
Newsreels footage of troops firing at so-called communist labor infiltrators led to popular fears that the New Deal had put too much power in the hands of working people, which might lead to a nationwide revolution. As the general election approached, the Los Angeles Times, led by editor Harry Chandler, began publishing stories claiming that Sinclair was a communist and an atheist. William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers spotlighted Merriam’s campaign and mocked Sinclair’s. Whitaker and Baxter fed the state’s papers erroneous but damaging Sinclair quotes, like the one spoken by a character in his 1911 novel Love’s Pilgrimage, on the sanctity of marriage, but attributed to Sinclair: “I have had such a belief… I have it no longer.” Of the 700 or so newspapers in California, not one endorsed Upton Sinclair. Merriam was advised to stay out of sight and let the negative campaigning take its toll.
But nothing matched the impact of the three “newsreels” produced by Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder of the motion picture business, who partnered with Louis B. Mayer and helped create Metro Goldwyn Mayer while still in his early twenties. Mayer had vowed to do everything in his power to stop Sinclair, even threatening to support the film industry’s move to Florida if the socialist were elected governor. Like the other studios, MGM docked its employees (including stars) a day’s pay and sent the money to Merriam’s campaign.
Using stock images from past movies and interviews by an “inquiring cameraman,” Thalberg produced alleged newsreels in which actors, posing as regular citizens, delivered lines that had been written to destroy Sinclair. Some actors were portrayed as reasonable Merriam supporters, while others claiming to be for Sinclair were shown in the worst light.
“I’m going to vote for Upton Sinclair,” a man said, standing before a microphone.
“Will you tell us why?” the cameraman asked.
“Upton Sinclair is the author of the Russian government and it worked out very well there, and I think it should do here.”
A young woman said, “I just graduated from school last year and Sinclair says that our school system is rotten, and I know that this isn’t true, and I’ve been able to find a good position during this Depression and I’d like to be able to keep it.”
An African-American man added, “I’m going to vote for Merriam because I need prosperity.”
The inquiring cameraman also claimed to have interviewed more than 30 “bums” who, he claimed, were part of a wave of unemployed workers “flocking” to California because of Sinclair’s plan. Stock footage showed such “bums” hopping off packed freight trains. (Unemployed people did move to California, but did not pose the social and economic burdens implied by the newsreel.)
Greg Mitchell, author of The Campaign of the Century, wrote that the newsreels devastated Sinclair’s campaign. “People were not used to them,” Mitchell stated. “It was the birth of the modern attack ad. People weren’t used to going into a movie theater and seeing newsreels that took a real political line. They believed everything that was in the newsreels.”
Not everyone believed what they were seeing—at least not Sinclair supporters. Some of them booed and demanded refunds for having been subject to anti-Sinclair propaganda; others rioted in the theaters. After a California meeting with movie moguls, the Democratic National Committee chairman told FDR, “Everyone out there wants you to come out against Sinclair.” But Roosevelt said nothing. Sinclair sent telegrams asking for a congressional investigation of what he charged was “false” propaganda in the movie theaters.
“Whether or not you sympathize with me on my platform is beside the point,” Sinclair wrote. “If the picture industry is permitted to defeat unworthy candidates it can be used to defeat worthy candidates. If it can be used to influence voters justly, it can be used to influence voters unjustly.”
Roosevelt, worried about his New Deal program, received behind-the-scenes assurances from Merriam that he would support it. The president stayed out of the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign.
On November 6, Sinclair received 879,537 votes, about a quarter-million less than Merriam. But, as Sinclair had predicted, officeholders eventually adopted many of his positions. Roosevelt drew on EPIC’s income and corporate tax structures to support his New Deal programs. Merriam, as governor, took some of Sinclair’s tax and pension ideas (and was crushed in the 1938 election by Culbert Olson, a former EPIC leader).
Sinclair was a writer and a man of ideas, not a politician. After his bitter loss in 1934 he went back to writing, even winning a Pulitzer Prize for his 1943 novel, Dragon’s Teeth. He was never elected to a single office, but he died in 1968 as one of the most influential American voices of the 20th century.
Books: Upton Sinclair, I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future, End Poverty League, 1934. Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, University of California Press, 1934. Greg Mitchell, The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, Random House, 1992/Sinclair Books, Amazon Digital Services, December 5, 2011.
Articles: “Charges Threat to Movie Folk,” Daily Boston Globe, November 1, 1934. “Eyes of Nation on California,” Daily Boston Globe, November 6, 1934. “Sinclair Charges Movie ‘Propaganda,’” Daily Boston Globe, October 29, 2934. “The Brilliant Failure of Upton Sinclair and the Epic Movement,” by John Katers, Yahoo! Voices, January 23, 2006. http://voices.yahoo.com/the-brilliant-failure-upton-sinclair-epic-15525.html?cat=37 “Dispatches From Incredible 1934 Campaign: When FDR Sold Out Upton Sinclair,” by Greg Mitchell, Huffington Post, October 31, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-mitchell/dispatches-from-incredibl_b_776613.html “The Lie Factory: How Politics Became a Business,” by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, September 24, 2012. “Upton Sinclair, Author, Dead; Crusader for Social Justice, 90,” by Alden Whitman, New York Times, November 26, 1968. “Watch: Upton Sinclair, Irving Thalberg & The Birth of the Modern Political Campaign,” by Greg Mitchell, The Nation, October 12, 2010. “On the Campaign Trail,” By Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, September 19, 2012. “Upton Sinclair,” The Historical Society of Southern California, 2009, http://www.socalhistory.org/bios/upton_sinclair.html
October 4, 2012
Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over, then winked her eye and said,
“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”
— Chicago folksong
There is no known photograph of Catherine O’Leary, and who could blame her for shunning the cameras? After those two catastrophic days in October 1871, when more than 2,000 acres of Chicago burned, reporters continually appeared on Mrs. O’Leary’s doorstep, calling her “shiftless and worthless” and a “drunken old hag with dirty hands.” Her husband sicced dogs at their ankles and hurled bricks at their heads. P.T. Barnum came knocking to ask her to tour with his circus; she reportedly chased him away with a broomstick. Her dubious role in one of the greatest disasters in American history brought her fame she never wanted and couldn’t deflect. When she died 24 years later of acute pneumonia, neighbors insisted the true cause was a broken heart.
Mrs. O’Leary claimed to be asleep on the night of Sunday, October 8, when flames first sparked in the barn next to the family cottage on DeKoven Street. The blaze traveled in northeast, tearing through shanties and sheds and leaping across Taylor Street, the heat so fierce that fireman Charles Anderson could hold his hose to the flames only when shielded by a door. His hat curdled on his head. All spare engines were called to the growing conflagration, prompting one fire marshal to ask another: “Where has this fire gone to?” The answer was swift and apt: “She has gone to hell and gone.” Residents noticed that a freakish wind whipped the flames into great walls of fire more than 100 feet high, a meteorological phenomenon called “convection whirls”—masses of overheated air rising from the flames and began spinning violently upon contact with cooler surrounding air. “The wind, blowing like a hurricane, howling like myriads of evil spirits,” one witness later wrote, “drove the flames before it with a force and fierceness which could never be described or imagined.”
Although the wind never exceeded 30 miles per hour, these “fire devils,” as they were dubbed, pushed the flames forward and across the city. By early morning on Tuesday, October 10, when rain extinguished the last meekly glowing ember, the city was ravaged: $200 million worth of property destroyed, 300 lives lost and 100,000 people—one third of the city’s population—left homeless. The Chicago Tribune likened the damage to that in Moscow after Napoleon’s siege in 1812. In a peculiar twist of fate, and one that would not go unnoticed by the city’s press, the fire spared the O’Leary family’s home.
Before the Great Chicago Fire, no one took notice of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, two Irish immigrants who lived with their five children on the city’s West Side. Patrick was a laborer and Catherine sold milk from door to door, keeping her five cows in the barn. Even before the fire died out on the city’s northern edges, the Chicago Evening Journal implicated her, reporting that it began “on the corner of DeKoven and Twelfth Streets, at about 9 o’clock on Sunday evening, being caused by a cow kicking over a lamp in a stable in which a woman was milking”—a scenario that originated with children in the neighborhood. Similar articles followed, many perpetuating ethnic stereotypes and underscoring nativist fears about the city’s growing immigrant population. The Chicago Times, for one, depicted the 44-year-old Catherine as “an old Irish woman” who was “bent almost double with the weight of many years of toil, trouble and privation” and concluded that she deliberately set fire to her barn out of bitterness: “The old hag swore she would be revenged on a city that would deny her a bit of wood or a pound of bacon.”
During an inquiry held by the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners to determine the cause of the blaze, Catherine testified that she went to bed sometime between eight o’clock and eight-thirty, and was sleeping when her husband roused her with the words, “Cate, the barn is afire!” She ran outside to see it for herself, and watched as dozens of neighbors worked to save adjacent homes, fixing two washtubs to fire hydrants and running back and forth with buckets of water. One of them had thrown a party that night—Catherine recalled hearing fiddle music as she prepared for bed—and a woman named Mrs. White told her that someone had wandered away from the gathering and slipped into her barn. “She mentioned a man was in my barn milking my cows,” Catherine said. “I could not tell, for I didn’t see it.”
The board also questioned a suspect named Daniel Sullivan, who lived directly across from the O’Leary’s on DeKoven Street, and who had first alerted Patrick O’Leary to the fire. Sullivan, known as “Peg Leg” for his wooden limb, said he had attended the party and left about half past nine. As he stepped out into the night, he said, he saw a fire in the O’Learys’ barn. He ran across the street hollering, “Fire, fire, fire!” and headed straight to the source of the flames, reasoning that he might be able to save the cows. “I knew a horse could not be got out of a fire unless he be blinded,” Sullivan testified, “but I didn’t know but cows could. I turned to the left-hand side. I knew there was four cows tied to that end. I made at the cows and loosened them as quick as I could. I got two of them loose, but the place was too hot. I had to run when I saw the cows were not getting out.”
After nine days of questioning 50 people—testimony that made up more than 1,100 handwritten pages—the board members issued an inconclusive report about the fire’s cause. “Whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night,” it read, “or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine.” Nevertheless Catherine O’Leary remained culpable in the public’s eye. None of her contemporaries bothered to ask the obvious questions that indicate her innocence: Why would she leave the barn after setting the fire—even accidentally—and go back into her home? Why would she not scream for help? Why would she risk losing her cows, her barn, and possibly her home without trying to save them?
One of Catherine’s sons, James, was two years old at the time of the fire, and would grow up to become “Big Jim” O’Leary, notorious saloon proprietor and gambling kingpin. Over the years he granted numerous newspaper interviews, complaining that, “That musty old fake about the cow kicking over the lamp gets me hot under the collar.” He insisted that the fire was caused by the spontaneous combustion of “green” (or newly harvested) hay, large quantities of which had been delivered to the barn on the eve of the fire. But the summer of 1871 had been one long and merciless heat wave in Chicago, with scorching temperatures extending into the fall, making it likely that the hay was thoroughly dry before being stored in the barn.
Patrick and Catherine O’Leary sold their cottage on DeKoven Street in 1879 and moved many times, eventually settling in on South Halstead Street on what was then the far South Side. In 1894, the year before Catherine died, her physician did what she’d always refused to do and gave a comment to the press:
“It would be impossible for me to describe to you the grief and indignation with which Mrs. O’Leary views the place that has been assigned her in history. That she is regarded as the cause, even accidentally, of the Great Chicago Fire is the grief of her life. She is shocked at the levity with which the subject is treated and at the satirical use of her name in connection with it…. She admits no reporters to her presence, and she is determined that whatever ridicule history may heap on her it will have to do it without the aid of her likeness. Many are the devices that have been tried to procure a picture of her, but she has been too sharp for any of them. No cartoon will ever make any sport of her features. She has not a likeness in the world and will never have one.”
Patrick and Catherine O’Leary are buried in Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Chicago, next to their son James and his wife. In 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution exonerating Catherine—and her cow—from all blame.
Richard F. Bales, The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2002; Owen J. Hurd, After the Fact: The Surprising Fates of American History’s Heroes, Villains, and Supporting Characters. New York: Penguin Group, 2012; Carl Smith, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
“Fire and Death in Chicago.” New York Herald, October 10, 1871; “The Chicago Fire: Vivid Accounts by Eyewitnesses.” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, October, 11, 1871; “The Chicago Fire! The Flames Checked At Last.” Richmond Whig, October 13, 1871; “The Great Fire That Wiped Out Chicago.” Chicago Inter-Ocean, October 9, 1892; “Lesson of the O’Leary Cow.” Biloxi Daily Herald, July 5, 1899; “Mrs. O’Leary Is Dead.” Baltimore Sun, July 6, 1895; “O’Leary Defends His Mother’s Cow.” Trenton Evening Times, December 1, 1909; “Alderman Tries to Exonerate Mrs. O’Leary and Her Cow.” Rockford (IL) Register Star, September 12, 1997.