Eugene and John Dillinger at the Movies

Posted in General, On This Day on July 22nd, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 7 Comments

July 22, 1934:  John Dillinger Picks the Wrong Movie

John Dillinger thought that he looked like Clark Gable…and who was going to tell him otherwise?  So the notorious bankrobber was eager to see his twin’s latest film “Manhattan Melodrama.”  Gable portrayed a suave, charming racketeer; he apparently saw his resemblance to John Dillinger.  The film tells the story of Blackie Gallagher and Jim Wade, devoted friends since boyhood; one grows up to a lawyer and the other a criminal.  If you can’t tell the professions apart, a lawyer might have better diction.  The gangster Blackie even kills to protect his friend, and then Jim has to prosecute Blackie.  But Blackie doesn’t mind going to “the chair” if it helps his friend become governor.  And Blackie and Jim are in love with the same woman; but since she is Myrna Loy that is the one plausible part of the plot.

So, imagine seeing this film, then stepping out of the Biograph Theater and into a FBI shooting range.  Wouldn’t it have been more merciful to have shot him before he saw the film?  Better yet, the Feds could have taken him to a better movie.  If the condemned get last meals, why not last films?

What else was playing in 1934?  The best film of the year was “It Happened One Night”, a delightful comedy starring that Dillinger lookalike as well as Claudette Colbert.  The usually wholesome Miss Colbert could also be seen luring men and kingdoms to destruction in “Cleopatra.”  (It would be comparative to Sandra Bullock as the Temptress of the Nile.)  If Dillinger preferred to leave life with a song and a dance, he would want to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “The Gay Divorcee.”  However, J. Edgar Hoover might have been touchy about that title.

Now, if Dillinger wanted to catch up on his reading, he could have gotten a little vicarious culture with “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.”  Fredric March, as Robert Browning, courts and rescues Norma Shearer (Miss Elizabeth Barrett) from her bullying and vaguely incestuous father Charles Laughton.  Mr. March was very cultured in 1934; he also was a Renaissance artist, lecher and gossip in “The Affairs of Cellini.”  (Cuckolding Frank Morgan wouldn’t be difficult–but it never seems right.)

But one film might have saved Dillinger’s life:  “Of Human Bondage.”  Seated in the theater, and withering in terror before the shrill, demented monster on the screen, the FBI agents would have realized that Dillinger wasn’t half as dangerous as Bette Davis.  They probably would have let him go with just a warning.

Vivat Ilex Aquifolium

Posted in General, On This Day on July 20th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 11, 1927: Louis B. Mayer Wants To Feel Classy

OscarsEvery year you torment yourself with the question “Will I really watch the Academy Awards again?” There are good reasons to do so. First, if you are a masochist, the gratification would be obvious: hours of stupefying boredom mixed with irritating attempts at entertainment. Then, there is the cultural obligation. If these people are “stars”, shouldn’t you know who they are? (Mastering the distinction between Shia LaBoeuf and Emile Hirsch could earn you the respect of teenagers!) And, those of us of a graying age have a morbid fascination seeing how our past favorites now look: who still are glamorous and who should sue their plastic surgeons?

Of course, you will want to hear the speeches. If nothing else, you will feel so superior. The usual speech at the Oscars is terrible: incoherent, rambling and too often neurotic. Surprisingly, most of the speeches are only 45 seconds in length; they do seem so much longer. Indeed, the Academy tries to impose a time limit on the speakers. Notice how the orchestra begins playing the 46th second of a speech, just as the year’s winning set designer is thanking his acupuncturist. If the speaker ignores that hint, one of those smiling models–who likely has a black belt in karate– will subtly pinion his arms and nudge him off stage. But despite this terror-imposed punctuality, a two-hour ceremony somehow lasts four hours or so.

Consider the irony: if our movies were as bloated and misdirected as the Oscars ceremony, Hollywood might still be orange groves near a small city named Los Angeles. Yet, Hollywood is one of the great and enduring success stories of America. In 1906, the perennial sunshine of Southern California was conducive for shooting film and tempted a New York-based studio to open a west coast office. Even then, filmmakers had a tendency to copy each other. By 1915, most American movies were made in California, and an agricultural community outside of Los Angeles had become the center and synonym for movies.

The world loved Hollywood’s films. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks by themselves ensured a trade surplus for America. As for the producers and studio heads–Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, Samuel Goldwyn and others–they were rich and powerful but still dissatisfied. Men of modest origins but not modest natures, they wanted honors and deference. In another time or country, they could have acquired titles of nobility; but 20th century America had none to offer. However, in 20th century America these producers were free to anoint themselves. So they did. On January 11, 1927 Louis B. Mayer announced the formation of a society whose chief purpose was self-adoration. Grasping for prestige, the organization’s name was the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Its first president was the preeminent leading man of the day: the popular and presentable Mr. Fairbanks. (His divorces were amicable.) As befits any prestigious Academy, there would be annual awards for merit.

The first awards ceremony was at a banquet in May, 1929. Fourteen awards were given out in 15 minutes. We would recognize most of the awards’ categories: best film, best actor, best actress, best director, etc. But the prize for “Best Title Writing” requires some explanation. Movies were silent, and any narration or dialogue would appear on title cards flashing on the screen. So, when the villain wants to have his way with Lillian Gish, a title card would express Miss Gish’s indignation: “You cad!” The first award for best Title Writing was also the last. In 1927’s”The Jazz Singer” Al Jolson had turned to the audience and said aloud, “You ain’t heard nothing yet.” The Hollywood film now talked.

The tradition of the terrible acceptance speech also dates to that first Awards ceremony. The winner for best actor was Emil Jannings. He was German but in silent films no one could detect his miserable knowledge of English. The advent of the “talkie”, however, ended his prospects in Hollywood. He actually was on a train out of town when the first Awards ceremony was held. Jannings wired his acceptance speech, saying thank you and adding “I therefore ask you to kindly hand me now already the statuette award for me.”
Of course, Hollywood could not resist filming itself. The highlights of each ceremony were compiled and distributed as news reels to be shown in movie houses around the world. Until 1952, that was the only way the public saw the Oscars; and through the wonders of editing, every winner was concise, eloquent and sober. So the public never heard Greer Garson’s acceptance speech after she won Best Actress of 1942 for her performance in “Mrs. Miniver.” Not even a transcript has survived, so only as legend and rumor is it remembered as the longest and worst speech in the history of the Academy Awards. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Miss Garson spoke for nearly six minutes. She began, “I’m practically unprepared” and then commenced a broad philosophical meandering about the nature of film. No one could remember the details; amnesia can be a mercy. Until Miss Garson, the Academy never thought of imposing a time limit on speakers. After her, the limit was set at 45 seconds.
Yet, as you can see on YouTube, some strange speeches did elude editing. Winning best actress for 1935, Bette Davis seems more vengeful than grateful. “I am very pleased: everyone who voted for me at the Academy and all the people who have wished this year that I get it.” In fact, Miss Davis was nursing a grudge. In 1934, she had received critical praise and popular acclaim for her performance in “Of Human Bondage.” Yet, the Academy had failed even to nominate her. The omission caused such an outcry that the Academy was cowed into an unprecedented concession: it would permit write-in votes for Best Actress. She still failed to win; however, the next year the Academy was wise enough to give the formidable Miss Davis the award for a film with a very accurate title: “Dangerous.”
Television has given the Oscars a worldwide audience and the winners the temptation to say whatever they want. We will hear their political opinions and learn the names of their agents, children and high school English teachers. Some will charm us with their wit, but more will amaze us with their lack of it. Others will mistake us for psychoanalysts and divulge neuroses we didn’t want to know. Of course, we will wonder why we are watching and make a determined resolution not to look next year. We made the same vow last year.

The Tower Tour

Posted in General on July 8th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Thomas Cromwell would never forgive my missing the Tower of London.  I was in the neighborhood, for the first time in 40 years, but I had to wonder if the Tower had changed.  I didn’t think that there had been any additional executions; however, there was always the risk of a new Six Wives theme park.  Would there now be a snack bar called Lady Jane Graze?

No, history still commanded some respect; the grounds looked reassuringly familiar.  Yet, there were changes awaiting me:  the exhibits had been updated.  For example, what is a torture chamber without sound effects:  the creaking rack, the ensuing screams while someone from Tudor human resources demands a confession.

And now, with interactive technology, you can be part of the history.  Have you ever wondered how good an archer you are?  I hadn’t but now I know anyway.  It seems that I qualify as a yeoman, and I could hit a mob of French cavalry or Gerard Depardieu.

In time, this interactive approach will be added to the Bloody Tower.  How would you kill the Little Princes?  Pick your method.

Poisoning them?  That is not English: deport yourself immediately.

Here are some of my stratagems.

A.  The “accidents will happen” approach would entail putting a cannon in their room.  While the boys are shooting at the Tower ravens, the cannon just might explode.   Granted, the damage would be bad for the building but not your reputation.  Dumb kids!

B. Let them kill themselves.  Send them off to France and Italy, with an unlimited expense account, where after a few years of being absolutely adorable they will succumb to alcohol and venereal disease.  The only risk in this plan is that Evelyn Waugh will sue you for plagiarism.

C.  Have the boys disappear, marry their oldest sister and not notice for at least ten years that your brothers-in-law are missing.  Then blame a dead enemy for the murders.  No, too implausible: that would never work.


The Ptomaine Entree

Posted in General, On This Day on June 21st, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

First, I want to wish a Happy Summer Solstice to all my pagan readers. The day meant little to my desert ancestors: “Hey, Abe. God is giving us another two minutes of daylight and heat prostration.”

And I doubt that the ancient Celts would have been especially thrilled with the solstice. “Och, we have another two minutes to enjoy our picturesque destitution.” (You have to be desperate to even think of fermenting peat, although the results seem to be effectively numbing.)

Let’s face it: the Summer Solstice was just the Greeks and Italians coming up with any excuse for an orgy.

And since it is now summer, let’s discuss food spoilage.

Francis Bacon knew there was a correlation between cold temperatures and food preservation, so he began a scientific study of the phenomenon. In his experiment of packing a chicken with snow, Bacon unfortunately discovered a correlation between cold, bronchitis and death.

However, history does not know who first made the correlation. It had to be someone who actually was familiar with cold and hot seasons, and observed–perhaps barely surviving–the climatic effects on food spoilage. Was it some Roman sentry along Hadrian’s Wall, who noticed that there was less morta in mortadella? Was it a Hun who discovered his raw horse jerky was less enjoyable in Italy than on the Steppes? I wonder if some Hun or Vandal shaman even gave health lectures to the troops…


Barbarian Warrior: Sacking Rome is exhausting work. I could use a lunch break. Say, this restaurant looks tempting. Let’s loot it.

Shaman: Yes, those sausages look good, but who knows what’s lurking inside them? The Romans can’t put up a defense, but their food could kill you. So, if you must have meat this far south, make sure that it is still alive when you bite it.

Indeed, some of the barbarians apparently were quite worried about food poisoning. Believing that any taste was a sign of spoilage, the Angle-Saxons insisted on boiling everything until it was a pulp. However, the Franks went to the other extreme. They actually liked what mold can do to food. Ce botulisme est delicieuse! The idea of the Petri dish probably originated at Cordon Bleu.

The Magna Clause

Posted in General, On This Day on June 14th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Your social studies teacher insisted that the Magna Carta was the foundation of every liberty we now enjoy. In fact, the actual document reads more like the bylines of a country club.

Is there is a traffic dispute in falconry? Check the Magna Carta to see which hawk has the right of way.

What is the proper etiquette when two nobles show up at St. Cuthbert’s Fair wearing the same style of armor? (Whoever paid more has the right to disembowel the haberdasher.)

What is the proper way to torture a Jew? (Divide your torture instruments into meat and dairy implements. The rack is considered dairy; eye gouging is definitely meat.)

So, how did the Magna Carta gets that liberal reputation? It is all based on a single clause, the 39th if you are counting. “No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” King John did have a vicious temper, so that clause was a good idea. Now, every free man in England was protected! In fact, so were the serfs–nearly half of the population–because they were the property of freemen.

Of course, such an all-encompassing right was not the actual intention of the Barons who coerced John into signing the Magna Carta. It was more of a begrudged generalization.

They certainly meant the privilege for themselves–the greatest nobles of the realm. But then the Archbishop of Canterbury, being the token literate and official stenographer, brought up a good point! What about the knights who served the great lords? They were Normans, too, and of good stock; some were even in-laws, the type who would marry the Baron’s ugliest niece. Include them, too, in the clause.

However, if you include those knights, you have to cover their families as well. But some of the knights’ children were marrying into the trades, people who actually were English. The grandchildren wouldn’t even be speaking French. Does the right extend to knights but not their in-laws? Barons hated all the complications of thinking.

The Archbishop had another idea; he had a monopoly on them. “Let’s use the term freemen. Yes, it is broad and vague, but tactful. Besides, it only limits the tyranny of the king. You nobles still have the right to terrorize everyone on your estates.”

And with that comforting thought, the Nobles approved the Magna Carta.

Wedding Announcements

Posted in General, On This Day on May 12th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

May 12, 1191:  Richard the Lion-Heart Marries Berengaria of Navarre

RichardIWe are still waiting for the marriage to be consummated.  Richard evidently was unfamiliar with the adage “Politics makes straight bedfellows.”  In fairness to Richard, he never misled that poor Spanish princess.  His mother did.   Eleanor of Aquitaine was worried that her 33 year old son had yet to marry.  He was King of England, a hereditary position, and heredity usually requires a certain physical exertion.  His younger brothers were married–even the gnomish John.  (Yes, his bride was the unwilling one.)  So Eleanor was determined to get her favorite son a wife.

On parchment (paper had yet to be imported from China), Richard would have seemed a great catch.  He was King of England and Duke of half of France: you had to go to Constantinople to find a Christian boy with a better resume.  Furthermore, Richard was handsome and chivalrous.  What more could a princess want?  Well, yes, apparently the princesses of France and Germany had heard about “that”.  But the royal family of Navarre either hadn’t or couldn’t afford to be choosy.  The smallest, most precarious kingdom in Spain could use the butchest son-in-law in Christendom, and so Berengaria’s troth was really plighted.

Richard, who had no compunction about trying to kill his father, somehow couldn’t disobey his mother.  All right… he would get married, but he wasn’t making it easy.  First, they had to find him.  Richard was off to the Crusades.  His last known address was Messina, Sicily.  So his 69 year-old-mother, with Berengaria in tow, arrived there in March, 1191.  Fortunately, Richard was still in Sicily but it was during Lent, and he wouldn’t think of getting married then.  But rather than wait a few weeks, Richard now was in a hurry to get to the Holy Land.  After all, there were Moslems and Jews waiting to be killed, along with any unfortunate Greek Orthodox bystanders.  However, if Berengaria was willing to tag along, Richard would find the time to marry her.  Perhaps, after he captured Jerusalem…or Mecca.

Eleanor no longer had the patience or stamina to goad Richard to the altar.  She returned to France, but Richard had not completely escaped the chiding females of his family.  The dowager queen of Sicily happened to be his sister Joan,  and she was quite prepared to organize a wedding in the Holy Land.  When Richard set sail, Joan and Berengaria weren’t far behind.  A storm struck the fleet, however, and the ship carrying the theoretical bride and the aspiring matron of honor was driven off course to Cyprus.  There the Byzantine governor–demonstrating why his cousin the Emperor wouldn’t  trust him in Constantinople–attempted to seize the royal women for ransom.  Of course, the chivalrous Richard had to rescue the two damsels in distress.  He incidently conquered Cyprus, too.   (The Byzantines would never get it back.)  What happened next defies explanation but would make a wonderful ad for Cypriot Tourism:   Cyprus–where even the unwilling get married!  Yes, on this day in 1191, Richard succumbed to formality.

Berengaria went along on the Crusade, perhaps mistaking it for a honeymoon, but soon decided to return to Europe.  At least, she now had the expense allowance befitting a queen.  France could be very comfortable for the rich and, of course, who could blame her for dropping by Navarre to flaunt her position.  Ironically, Berengaria never visited Britain, the only Queen of England with that unique omission.  (Of course, Richard was rarely there, either:  six months out of his ten year reign.)  The King and Queen had a platonic marriage; in fact, they rarely saw each other.    The Pope felt compelled to advise Richard on marital duties.     In similar circumstances other women might have  succumbed to therapeutic sins, but Berengaria never did.  She evidently was saving herself for Richard.

He died in 1199:  a minor arrow wound but a very bad doctor.  The widow was in her thirties, but she never was  interested in a second–or real–marriage.  Indeed, she would eventually join a convent.  As Mrs. Plantagenet, she already had eight years practice as a nun.

What If…

Posted in General, On This Day on April 14th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Welcome to SciFi-History. What if Galileo had experimented with electricity instead of celestial voyeurism. The Church would not have objected–so long as Galileo did not deduce that Jesus was a robot. Now, in this technologically advanced world, here are the events of April 14, 1865:

President Lincoln would have preferred watching Artemus Ward on HBO, but Mrs. Lincoln demanded that they go out for the evening. They teleported to Ford’s Theamax and began their standard quarrel over what to see. Her choice was “Our American Cousin”; he didn’t like foreign films. Robert had suggested “Naughty Nurses of Atlanta” but the President didn’t dare see that in public: a private screening could be arranged. The Lincolns would end up spending two hours debating the merits of the fourteen films before giving up and going home.

All the while, John Wilkes Booth had gone from theater to theater, lunging into seven Presidential boxes and firing away. So far he had killed a meat packer from Wisconsin, a postmaster, and the Siamese ambassador. He had also shot a critic from the New York Times, but that had been intentional.


Posted in General, On This Day on March 23rd, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

January 9, 1822:  Pedro’s Independence Day

Breganza HammockWould you rather be Crown Prince of Portugal or Emperor of Brazil?  True, it is a hypothetical question because neither position is now available.  In 1822, however, that was the actual choice and the dilemma forced upon Pedro Braganza.   Through an astute choice of parents, he already was the Crown Prince of Portugal.  Even by the usual standards of royalty, Pedro was unfamiliar with his realm.   The twenty-three year old had last seen his birth place in 1807, when the royal family fled an invading French army.  A squadron of British ships was awaiting the fugitives.  Since the French Revolution and Napoleon, the British navy had a sideline in transporting dispossessed dynasties to genteel exile.  Most went to England, where these royal refugees would be threadbare guests in some spare country manor. The accommodations, if not the food, were still preferable to a French prison.  But Portugal’s House of Braganza did have an alternative, a land an ocean away but where the family would rule rather than beg:  Brazil.

On a map, Portugal might look like the backyard of Spain; and much of Portugal’s history was dissuading Spain of that impression.  A few successful wars and a number of dynastic marriages had obliged Spain to acknowledge its neighbor as a tolerated in-law.  If Portugal was just an enclave in Iberia, it was an empire around the world.  The Romans had appreciated its navigable coasts and accommodating bays; the country was named for its ports.  Venturing forth, the Portuguese pioneered European exploration and exploitation: Africa, India, Indonesia and Japan.  But Portugal’s greatest possession–in size and wealth–was Brazil.  The colony was an empire in itself, encompassing half of South America; its economy buoyed by gold, diamonds and sugar.  And, in 1807, Brazil was comfortably far from Napoleon.

The Braganzas arrived in 1808 and established themselves in Rio de Janeiro.  The royal family was both pessimistic and practical about the likelihood of returning to Portugal, certainly not in Napoleon’s lifetime. So Rio would be the new capital and it underwent a building boom befitting this privilege.  The city soon boasted palaces, government ministries, parks and boulevards.   Rio would have an European veneer; but the charm and pleasures of the New World could not be denied.  Ruling this luxuriant realm, the Braganzas were seduced.  However awkward, they preferred Brazil to Portugal.  So long as the French were in Iberia, the Brazangas enjoyed a tacit abdication.

Napoleon probably would have preferred Brazil, too.  Iberia had proved a catastrophe, the French armies trapped in a savage guerrilla war.  (In fact, the term “guerrilla” originated there.)  The French were also losing a conventional war to a British army.  Napoleon was too vain to pick capable subordinates, and his generals in Iberia were consistently humiliated by the British general Arthur Wellesley.  An exasperated Napoleon evidently thought that invading Russia would be a pleasant distraction.  By May, 1814 Wellesley was the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon was the proprietor of Elba.  A liberated Portugal now awaited the return of the royal family…and waited.

The excuse from Brazil was that the Queen was too ill to travel.   That happened to be true, and no one would drag the Braganzas from a death bed vigil.  Ironically, when the Queen died in 1816, her body returned to Portugal but the rest of the royal family did not.  Portugal was not simply snubbed; it had been demoted.  In December, 1815 a royal edict from Rio had redefined the basis of the realm.  What had been Portugal was now the United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil.  If, as the edict decreed, Portugal and Brazil were equal and indistinguishable, then the King could rule from Rio instead of Lisbon.

In fact, King John VI did not care who ruled in Lisbon.  The British had liberated Portugal; they could administer it.  Yes, to London’s surprise, Portugal was a foundling on the doorsteps.  Britain certainly was not adverse to governing other peoples’ countries; just ask any Indian rajah.  But there is an etiquette to Imperialism, and the flippant Braganzas had flouted it.  Britain was stuck with Portugal; the alternative was letting the war-ravaged, impoverished country descend into chaos and revolution.  Britain would try to maintain an affable stagnation.  After some belated diplomacy, Rio did agree to subsidize the cost of the British administration. Furthermore, this whole arrangement was supposed to be temporary.  London meant it; Rio did not.

The administrative chores fell to William Beresford, the British general who had commanded Portugal’s troops against the French.   Now he was to defend Portugal against the Portuguese.  Neglected and shunned by their royalty, the Portuguese were not in a passive mood.  Some plotted the overthrow of the monarchy; but Beresford made a diligent policeman and those aspiring Jacobins were dissuaded with gallows.  However, the more popular sentiment was for a constitutional monarchy with an elected legislature.  In 1820 protests in one city soon spread throughout Portugal, and the overwhelmed regency simply conceded.  The bloodless coup is remembered as the Liberal Revolution.     At the time Beresford was in Brazil, once again haggling with the Braganzas over the terms of the British mandate.  He returned to Portugal to find a provisional government with no desire for his further services.  In fact, he was not even permitted to land.  Portugal declared herself free of the British, but Britain did not mind at all.  The Braganzas could deal with their own people.  For Beresford’s six years of aggravation, Britain solaced him with a Viscount’s title.

The provisional government demanded the royal family’s return.  If King John rued having to live in Portugal, at least he was spared having to work there.  An elected assembly was establishing a constitutional monarchy.  With the governance primarily left to the legislature, the monarch would reign rather than rule.   John might have appealed to the more reactionary powers of Europe; but neither Hapsburg nor Bourbon had any sympathy for an absentee monarch who only wanted to prolong his vacation.   Once, the Braganzas were back in Lisbon, however, their sovereign cousins would have accepted an invitation to invade.  To John’s credit, he preferred Portuguese liberals to foreign reactionaries.  (The same could not be said of all the royal family but that is another story and an ensuing civil war.)  So, in 1821, after 14 years in Paradise the Braganzas reverted to Portugal.  Only Crown Prince Pedro remained in Brazil, serving as regent.

While the Liberal Revolution guaranteed Portugal all the promises of the Enlightenment, that liberality did not extend to Brazil.  The new government did not like the King’s idea of a bipolar empire. This was a Portuguese empire, and Brazil was merely its colony. Brazil did not appreciate its demotion, and there was an increasing sentiment for independence.  At this very time, most of South America was in rebellion against Europe.  All Brazil lacked was its own Bolivar, and Prince Pedro was more than willing.  He had been ordered to return to Portugal, but he did have Braganza gift for delay.  Still Lisbon insisted; and on March 8, 1822, Pedro officially refused.  He was in rebellion against Portugal, and the rest of Brazil soon joined him.  He was the acknowledged if untitled sovereign; on September 7th, he formally declared Brazil’s independence.  Pedro would be the emperor of this new country.

Portugal did not graciously accede to this independence; but if it had exerted the full force of its army and navy on Brazil, would anyone have noticed?  Worse for Portugal, Britain was supporting Brazil.  Free of its French nemesis, Britain could now pursue its mercantile interests.  Trading with Brazil, without a Portuguese middleman, appealed to London.  British officers “took leave” to command Brazilian forces.  (With that sniff upper lip, British diplomacy could keep a straight face.)  Portugal made some effort at resistance; its garrisons in Brazil managed to be annoying before they finally surrendered.  In 1825, Portugal finally conceded the obvious.  Brazil was independent.

Dom Pedro I was not.  As it turned out, the renegade prince was still heir to the throne of Portugal.  When King John died in 1826, Lisbon declared Pedro the successor.  He begrudging accepted the throne, and within two months abdicated in favor of his seven year-old daughter.  Of course, Pedro would have a nasty younger brother who also wanted the throne.  There inevitably was a coup and a civil war.  Pedro would be embroiled in Portuguese politics for the remaining eight years of his life.  He ended up having to abdicate the Brazilian throne, leaving it to his six-year old son.

The reign of Pedro II lasted from 1831 until 1889, when Brazil politely declared itself a Republic.  For his exile, the second and last emperor of Brazil prudently avoided Portugal.

How John Law Enriched Your Vocabulary and Bankrupted Everything Else

Posted in General, On This Day on March 20th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

March 21, 1729:  Hell Gets a Chief Financial Officer

Mississippi Bubble finalWall Street did not pioneer the stock market crash.  No, that distinction belongs to France some 70 years before there was a New York Stock Exchange.  Yet, in a way the Crash of 1720 was America’s fault.   All those French investors were absolutely certain that there were gold mines in Louisiana, and that fortune was just waiting for them.  They had been assured of it by that widely-acknowledged financial genius John Law.

An economist by education, Law (1671-1729) actually earned his livelihood as a gambler; he may have been the pioneer of card-counting.  Law also was a convicted murderer; but since it involved a duel over a woman, the French only esteemed him the more.  The charismatic Scotsman managed to ingratiate himself with the Duke of Orleans and ended up as the comptroller of the French currency.

In that position, Law introduced the use of paper money in France.  The logic of the innovation was impeccable; paper money was easier to handle than bulky bullion and so would facilitate business. Of course, the paper money had to represent legitimate value and be redeemable for a guaranteed amount of gold or silver. However, the French government did not understand that specific principle; the printing presses of the Royal Mint produced reams of increasingly devalued paper.The notes were soon worth one-fifth of their face value.

But Law thought of a remedy for this: offering stock shares whose potential profits would more than compensate for the depreciating currency. At the time France claimed a vast tract of land in North America, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada: 828,000 square miles we know as the Louisiana Territory. Law persuaded the French government to grant him the exclusive mining and trading rights to the territory.  In so vast a territory, there had to be gold and silver mines.  Mexico had them, and the Louisiana Territory was almost next door.  The professional gambler thought he was playing the odds, and he managed to convince the French investors of a sure thing.  They would be fools not to invest in his venture, Compagnie d’Occident.

Their buying became a frenzy; the company’s shares went from 500 Livres in 1719 to 18,000 Livres in 1720.  Besides, as the French investors knew, their money was worthless so why not gamble with it.  The shares of Law’s company seemed preferable to the inflated currency.  However, even if Louisiana had gold mines, the price of the stock had become ridiculous.  And the tottering French economy would certainly not be saved by what Louisiana really had to offer:  crawfish.

The stock collapsed before the year was over, dropping to 300 Livres.  Bankrupt himself, Law found it wise to leave France.   Despite his notoriety–or because of it–he had no trouble finding sanctuary.  Any man who had done that much harm to France was always welcome in Britain.  (And in his flush days, Law  had “secured” a pardon for that murder charge.)  Law resumed his career as a gambler but could not resume his good luck;  he died in threadbare circumstances on this day in 1729.

The French monarchy itself had lost part of the Treasury in the market crash and would never regain solvency. Of course, it would continue to spend money as if Louisiana were made of gold.  (The monarchy’s IOUs finally came due in 1789.)  Historians refer to this scandal as the Mississippi Bubble.

Ironically, while the stock price was surging, the investors thought that they were rich–if only on paper. A term was coined to define the extent of their new wealth: millionaire.

A Compassionate Alternative to Hanging

Posted in General, On This Day on January 25th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

January 26, 1788:  Once You’ve Lost America, Where Do You Dump Your Petty Criminals?

AustraliaIn 1606, Dutch explorer Willem Jansz discovered a large land mass south of New Guinea.  From his tentative exploration, he found nothing to merit further interest.  The land was swampy, and the natives poor and hostile.  It would be another 36 years before the Dutch ventured a second expedition to this land.  Abel Tasman sailed along the western and southern coasts of what proved to be a very large island.  He found the lands there to be arid and uninhabitable.  Yet, however dismal, this territory required some designation on maps.  So cartographers gave it the generic name of Australis, the Latin for southern. 

Not until 1770 did anyone bother to explore the east coast of Australis.  British explorer James Cook found its land to be surprisingly habitable.  The climate was temperate and the soil seemed arable.  Eastern Australis could provide the basic requirements of a European colony.  Claiming the land for Great Britain, Cook named the territory New South Wales.  So Britain now had a distant island that offered a meager sustenance–and that proved exactly what Britain wanted.

In politics and science, 18th century Britain certainly was in the forefront of the Enlightenment.  But that energetic progress did not extend to British justice.  There the gallows was the usual recourse, dispatching thieves as well as murderers.  Still, there was some leniency in the system.  Shoplifters, poachers, prostitutes and debtors really did not deserve to hang.  For stealing food, seven years in prison was sufficient retribution.  The problem was that the prisons were teeming with these petty criminals.  Britain could make better use of them by transporting them to its far-flung colonies.  There, the felons could labor on government projects or be sold as indentured servants, working as slave labor for the length of their prison sentence.  The American colonies had served as a useful dumping ground for these criminals.  Indeed, Georgia had been founded expressly as a penal colony.  However, since 1775, those colonies proved completely uncooperative with any British policies.  With America lost, Britain found a use for New South Wales. 

In December1786, the British government authorized an expedition to establish a penal colony in Australis. Eleven ships–known in Australian history as the “First Fleet”– departed from Britain in 1787.  On board were 772 prisoners, of whom 189 were women, 247 marines as guards, and supplies to sustain the colony for its first year.  Sailing around Cape Horn and through the Indian Ocean, the Fleet reached New South Wales on January 18, 1788.  They first landed at an inlet called Botany Bay but the site lacked a source of fresh water.  Sailing a short distance north, the Fleet found a more promising site for settlement on January 26th.  It would be named for Britain’s Home Secretary:  Lord Sydney.  

The First Fleet would be followed by a Second Fleet, a Third Fleet and eventually no one bothered counting.  Each fleet had a cargo of criminals.  Over the next 80 years 162,000 shackled men and women would be transported to Australia.  Today, the Commonwealth has a population of 22 million.  Four million of them are descended from those convicts,  and January 26th is remembered as Australia Day.