June 27, 2012
In the spring of 1902 a woman calling herself Cassie L. Chadwick—there was never any mention as to what the L stood for—took a train from Cleveland to New York City and a hansom cab to the Holland House, a hotel at the corner of 30th Street and Fifth Avenue internationally renowned for its gilded banquet room and $350,000 wine cellar. She waited in the lobby, tapping her high-button shoes on the Sienna marble floor, watching men glide by in their bowler hats and frock coats, searching for one man in particular. There he was—James Dillon, a lawyer and friend of her husband’s, standing alone.
She walked toward him, grazing his arm as she passed, and waited for him to pardon himself. As he said the words she spun around and exclaimed what a delightful coincidence it was to see him here, so far from home. She was in town briefly on some private business. In fact, she was on her way to her father’s house—would Mr. Dillon be so kind as to escort her there?
Dillon, happy to oblige, hailed an open carriage. Cassie gave the driver an address: 2 East 91st Street, at Fifth Avenue, and kept up a cheery patter until they arrived there—at a four-story mansion belonging to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. She tried not to laugh at Dillon’s sudden inability to speak and told him she’d be back shortly. The butler opened the door to find a refined, well-dressed lady who politely asked to speak to the head housekeeper.
When the woman presented herself, Cassie explained that she was thinking of hiring a maid, Hilda Schmidt, who had supposedly worked for the Carnegie family. She wished to check the woman’s references. The housekeeper was puzzled, and said no one by that name had ever worked for the Carnegie family. Cassie protested: Was she absolutely certain? She gave a detailed physical description, rattled off details of the woman’s background. No, the housekeeper insisted; there must be some misunderstanding. Cassie thanked her profusely, complimented the spotlessness of the front parlor, and let herself out, slipping a large brown envelope out of her coat as she turned back to the street. She had managed to stretch the encounter into just under a half hour.
As she climbed into the carriage, Dillon apologized for what he was about to ask: Who was her father, exactly? Please, Cassie said, raising a gloved finger to her lips, he mustn’t disclose her secret to anyone: She was Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter. She handed over the envelope, which contained a pair of promissory notes, for $250,000 and $500,000, signed by Carnegie himself, and securities valued at a total of $5 million. Out of guilt and a sense of responsibility, “Daddy” gave her large sums of money, she said; she had numerous other notes stashed in a dresser drawer at home. Furthermore, she stood to inherit millions when he died. She reminded Dillon not to speak of her parentage, knowing it was a promise he wouldn’t keep; the story was too fantastic to withhold, and too brazen to be untrue. But she had never met Andrew Carnegie. Cassie Chadwick was just one of many names she went by.
February 21, 2012
It was, by all accounts, a glorious Wednesday morning on June 15, 1904, and the men of Kleindeutschland—Little Germany, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side–were on their way to work. Just after 9 o’clock, a group from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 6th Street, mostly women and children, boarded the General Slocum for their annual end-of-school outing. Bounding aboard what was billed as the “largest and most splendid excursion steamer in New York,” the children, dressed in their Sunday school outfits, shouted and waved flags as the adults followed, carrying picnic baskets for what was to be a long day away.
A German band played on deck while the children romped and the adults sang along, waiting to depart. Just before 10 o’clock, the lines were cast off, a bell rang in the engine room, and a deck hand reported to Captain William Van Schaick that nearly a thousand tickets had been collected at the plank. That number didn’t include the 300 children under the age of 10, who didn’t require tickets. Including crew and catering staff, there were about 1,350 aboard the General Slocum as it steamed up the East River at 15 knots toward Long Island Sound, headed for Locust Grove, a picnic ground on Long Island’s North Shore, about two hours away.
January 4, 2012
On the gusty afternoon of December 17, 1967, a group of five adults arrived at Cheviot Beach, near Portsea, Victoria, and strolled along the Bass Strait beneath the warm Australian sun. Harold Holt was eager for a swim, and after stepping behind a rock outcrop in the sand dunes, he emerged wearing a pair of blue swim trunks. Marjorie Gillespie and her daughter, Vyner, both in bikinis, turned to the water and noticed that the surf, at high tide, was higher than they’d ever seen it.
“I know this beach like the back of my hand,” Holt replied, and walked into the surf without breaking his stride. Immediately, he began swimming away from the beach. Martin Simpson, Vyner’s boyfriend, followed but stopped when he was knee-deep in the surf. “There was a fairly strong undercurrent,” he said, “so I just splashed around without going in too far.” The third man in the group, Alan Stewart, told the others, “If Mr. Holt can take it, I had better go in too.” But he stopped quickly when he felt a tremendous undertow swirling around his legs. He watched Holt swim out into what he considered “dangerous turbulence.”
Marjorie Gillespie had kept an eye on Holt as he swam further away, drifting from them until the water seemed to boil around him and he disappeared. Holt’s four companions climbed a rocky cliff and searched the water for traces of him. Finding none, they began to panic. Stewart went for help, and within minutes, three SCUBA divers were wading into the water. But the undertow was too strong even for them, and the currents made the water turbid and difficult to see in. They retreated from the surf, climbed a rock and scanned the water with binoculars until police and search-and-rescue teams arrived.
Within an hour helicopters were hovering over the coast, and divers, tethered by safety ropes, were stepping into the churning sea. By sundown, nearly 200 personnel had arrived, including rescuers from Australia’s army, navy and coast guard, the Marine Board of Victoria and the Department of Air. The largest search-and-rescue operation in the nation’s history was all for naught. Australia was paralyzed by news of the unthinkable: Prime Minister Harold Holt was gone at the age of 59.
January 3, 2012
At the beginning of the 19th century, the port of London was the busiest in the world. Cargoes that had traveled thousands of miles, and survived all the hazards of the sea, piled up on the wharves of Rotherhithe—only for their owners to discover that the slowest, most frustrating portion of their journey often lay ahead of them. Consignments intended for the southern (and most heavily populated) parts of Britain had to be heaved onto creaking ox carts and hauled through the docklands and across London Bridge, which had been built in the 12th century and was as cramped and impractical as its early date implied. By 1820, it had become the center of the world’s largest traffic jam.
It was a situation intolerable to a city with London’s pride, and it was clear that if private enterprise could build another crossing closer to the docks, there would be a tidy profit to be made in tolls. Another bridge was out of the question—it would deny sailing ships access to the Pool of London—and ambitious men turned their thoughts to driving a tunnel beneath the Thames instead. This was not such an obvious idea as it might appear. Although demand for coal was growing fast as the industrial revolution hit high gear, working methods remained primitive. Tunnels were dug by men wielding picks in sputtering candlelight.
No engineers had tunneled under a major river, and the Thames was an especially tricky river. To the north, London was built on a solid bed of clay, ideal tunneling material. To the south and east, however, lay deeper strata of water-bearing sand, gravel and oozing quicksand, all broken up by layers of gravel, silt, petrified trees and the debris of ancient oyster beds. The ground was semi-liquid, and at depth it became highly pressurized, threatening to burst into any construction site.
Today, engineers deal with treacherous ground by pressurizing their workfaces (though that solution still leaves tunnelers vulnerable to the problems that come from working in high-pressure environments, including bone-rot and even the bends). In the early 19th century, such measures were still decades away. The first men to attempt a tunnel beneath the Thames—gangs of Cornish miners brought to London in 1807 by businessmen banded together as the Thames Archway Company—had little to guide them.
The chief engineer of this first tunnel project was a muscular giant named Richard Trevithick, a self-educated man who had progressed from youthful fame as a Cornish wrestler by displaying a dazzling talent for invention. Trevithick had harnessed steam power to drive the first self-propelled engine to run on rails and designed the world’s first high-pressure steam engine. He was convinced that a tunnel could be hacked out under the Thames relatively easily. It did not take long for him to realize he was wrong.
November 8, 2011
In the summer of 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was on top of the world. Paramount Pictures had paid him an unprecedented $3 million over three years to star in 18 silent films, and he’d just signed another million-dollar contract with the studio. The portly comedian’s latest film, Crazy to Marry, was playing in theaters across the country. So his friend Fred Fischbach planned a big party to celebrate, a three-day Labor Day bash at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.
But by the end of the week, Fatty Arbuckle was sitting in Cell No. 12 on “felony row” at the San Francisco Hall of Justice, held without bail in the slaying of a 25-year-old actress named Virginia Rappe. Crazy to Marry was quickly pulled from theaters, and a nation was outraged to discover a sordid side to the off-screen lives of Hollywood stars. Behind Arbuckle’s troubles was a mysterious woman named Maude Delmont, a witness for the prosecution who would never be called to testify because police and prosecutors knew her story would not hold up on the stand. Yet what she had to say would be more than enough to ruin Arbuckle’s career.