Button Gwinnett

The Dastardly Past:  Button Gwinnett:


On May 15, 1777, signer of the Declaration of Independence Button Gwinnett engaged in a duel with General Lachlan McIntosh, who had publicly referred to Gwinnett as a “Scoundrell and lying Rascal.”  (Gwinnett’s signature is at the top of the left-most column of the Declaration–see below.) The duel, which took place in Savannah, Georgia, resulted in both men getting shot in the leg.  McIntosh’s was a flesh wound, but Gwinnett’s thigh bone had been broken.  Gangrene set in quickly and Gwinnett died in a matter of days.  He is buried in Savannah’s Colonial Park Cemetery, although the exact location of his grave remains a mystery.



Eddie Cicotte and the Chicago Black Sox

The Dastardly Past:  Eddie Cicotte and the Chicago Black Sox.


May 5 marks the anniversary of the death, in 1969, of Eddie Cicotte.  Cicotte was one of eight Chicago White Sox baseball players alleged to have thrown the 1919 World Series.  Cicotte was a right-handed knuckle-baller who, according to legend, was promised a $10,000 by team owner Charles Comiskey if he won 30 games that season.  When Cicotte won game 29, Comiskey is said to have had him benched for fear of having to part with the bonus money.  The embittered Cicotte was therefore willing to listen when approached by a gambling syndicate proposing to throw the Series.

While Cicotte was acquitted of criminal conspiracy charges in the aftermath of the Black Sox Scandal, he was banned from baseball for life.  He returned to his home state of Michigan where he worked for Ford Motor Company, then retired to a strawberry farm.

New York Doctor’s Riot

The Dastardly Past:  the New York Doctor’s Riot.


In April of 1788, a young boy peeps through a window into a dissecting room.  The medical student waves a dismembered arm at him and tells him it belonged to the boy’s recently deceased mother.  Upon investigation in Trinity Churchyard, the family discovers that the mother’s grave is indeed empty, and public sentiment boils over.  In the absence of regulated sources for cadavers, students of “physic,” as it was called then, had necessarily turned to robbing graves for bodies to dissect.  As long as the bodies belonged to the poor or to minorities, New Yorkers turned a blind eye.  This time an angry mob reacts against the desecration of their loved ones.  They march on the hospital and destroy the anatomy room.  The incident becomes so heated that it results in a two-day riot.  The militia and cavalry finally quell the mob, but not before almost 20 people die.

Murder on the Santa Fe No. 7

The Dastardly Past:  Murder on the Santa Fe No. 7.

On a routine Thursday evening in July 1898, thirty-five years old engineer Joe Williams and thirty-year- old fireman Will Whitaker were in the cab of the locomotive for the No. 7 of the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe passenger train, bringing it south to Fort Worth.  At 9:00 o’clock at night, they had little to think about other than completing their run to Galveston and maybe getting something to eat.

train pass

Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe train railroad pass.  Found at San Jacinto Museum of History online Trains to Texas exhibiti, http://sanjacinto-museum.smugmug.com/OnlineExhibits/Trains-to-Texas/

The train was pulling out of the station at Saginaw, a tiny town eight miles north of Fort Worth, when two men, part of a gang of five, climbed onto the locomotive, scrambled over the top, and fired guns into the cab.  Whitaker took a shot in the head and died instantly.  Williams was shot in the leg.  The killers climbed down into the cab, pitched the two victims out into the darkness, and attempted to drive the train themselves.  They did it poorly.  Witnesses, both on and off the train, reported that it began to run strangely, with many jerks, jolts, and unusual noises.  It eventually stopped at a cut in a hillside several hundred yards from the station.

saginaw station

Old tracks leading south from Saginaw station, 2016

Almost as soon as the villains brought the train to a stop, members of the sheriff’s department set upon them.  A gun-fight ensued, and all the gang member except one, a streetcar motorman name W. R. Petty, fled into the night with their lives but no loot.

A search party eventually found Whitaker’s body close to the tracks.  They found Williams alive some yards away.  He was in considerable pain but managed to relate what had happened.  Every hope existed for his recovery, but he died a several days later due to complications from his injuries.

The railroad’s general manager, C. F. Resseguie, expressed his outrage to the press at the profligate killing, and he offered a $500 reward on behalf of the railroad to augment the $50-per-head reward the state of Texas offered for the capture of the murderers.  Petty informed on the other members of the gang, and other witnesses were quick to come forward with critical information.

As lawmen pieced together the story, it became apparent that the gang completely lacked discretion in planning the job.  They discussed the details of their scheme several times in the open on the corner of 2nd and Main Streets in Fort Worth.  They dressed conspicuously and walked around as a group when they reconnoitered the station in the farming community of Saginaw and the route’s next stop at the stockyards in Fort Worth.  They even discussed their intentions with friends and co-workers, and at least one of them was thoughtful enough to tell his boss he was quitting his job as a hotel dishwasher the night before the robbery.

will whitaker

Grave of Will Whitaker, Goldthwaite Cemetery, Mills County,TX
Image from FindaGrave.com http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=whitaker&GSfn=will&GSbyrel=all&GSdy=1898&GSdyrel=in&GSst=46&GScnty=2686&GScntry=4&GSob=n&GRid=135326850&df=all&

With such a wealth of information to work with, law enforcement in Texas and the Indian Territory managed to apprehend all but one of the gang.  Petty, the informer, remained in jail for almost a year while giving testimony in the trials of his partners in crime.  He was later released and returned to civilian life in Fort Worth.

Two of the gang were convicted of conspiracy to rob.  One died within a few months of going to prison, the other was sentenced to two 99-year terms.  One of the men who shot into the cab of the train engine, twenty-five-year-old Jim Darlington, was convicted and sentenced to death.  He was hanged in front of 50 witnesses on the second floor of the Tarrant County Jail on July 28, 1899.

tarrant co courthouse

Later view of the Tarrant Co. Courthouse

On this day: Some Like It Hot

On this day:  Some Like It Hot


On March 29, 1959, the Mirisch Company released one of the all-time great movies, Some Like It Hot.  It starred Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and George Raft.  In the hands of anyone else it might have been just another romcom—albeit one set against the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  With Billy Wilder at the helm, however, it crackles with the sly worldliness and vaguely misanthropic humor of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin.  Among its most remarkable features are an extended Cary Grant impersonation, innuendo far ahead of its time, and a dress that is barely there.  A truly remarkable film on many levels.

In Defense of Cursive. Or Not.


When it comes to change, I like to think I’m a centrist.  Some things, like making single-malt scotch or a finely bound book, are best achieved using the old ways.  Other things, like dentistry with benefit of painkillers or communicating via electronic devices, have been life changing.  So I am having difficulty nailing down my reaction to the fact that schools are no longer teaching children how to write using cursive.

When I first heard about it, I was appalled.  Part of that had to do with the hours spent perfecting my handwriting so that I would not be the last kid in the class allowed to use a pen.  In my school you had to earn that privilege.  But part of it went deeper than that.  Then this week, I gave an addressed envelope to the young man at the UPS store and asked him to send it with a tracking number.  He could not read the address.  He couldn’t even get close, thinking “Stephanie” was “Daniel,” and “East” was “Oak.”

There I had it!  A tangible objection that went beyond the increasingly arcane Emily Post reasons of wedding invitations and handwritten thank-you notes.  If you can’t write in cursive you most likely can’t read it either.  This is will become less of a problem in the next thirty to fifty years as the cursive generations shuffle off, yet the notion still nags.  What are the implications for the use of archives and archival research?  Or the impact on the humanities in general?  Genealogical hobbyists need knowledge of cursive to read family documents, and cook’s too or else grandma’s recipe for snickerdoodles will be lost forever.  Graduate schools offer courses in Medieval paleography; will mid-twentieth century paleography represent the coming trend?

Further, is the abandonment of handwriting one that other first-world nations are following?  Or like never learning second and third languages, is it another symptom of being American?  Will the Axis powers of the future be able to thwart us, not with the use of microdots and Enigma machines, but with Spencerian penmanship?  OK, that’s a silly example, but the knowledge gap between the United States and other countries remains real.

Finally, there is the notion that brains process information differently using different techniques.  Cursive is said to work better for people with dyslexia.  Taking class notes in long-hand has been shown, in some studies, to improve retention.  Realistically, however, this may be clutching at straws, and probably only experts can give us an answer.  So I continue to straddle the fence in an uncomfortable position that is hard to maintain over the long term.  Please help me.  What do you think about it?  If you think about it at all?

Leo McKern

A Mystery Writer’s Almanac–Leo McKern

2017-03-12 15.24.03

On March 16, 1920, Leo McKern entered the world by way of Sydney, New South Wales.  After serving as a sapper in the second World War, he moved to England and became a critically acclaimed actor on stage and in films.  It is his work between 1978 and 1992 for which he is best remember, however.  In that time he gave life and voice to John Mortimer’s barrister Rumpole of the Bailey in forty-four episodes for ITV, which aired in the United States on PBS Mystery!  McKern grew to resent the idea that Rumpole eclipsed the rest of his notable career, but there are worse things than being remembered as Horace Rumpole, Defender of the Underdog, Baiter of Judges, Mocker of the Establishment, and Preserver of the Presumption of Innocence.  So poor a glass of your favorite cheap red (Chateau Thames Embankment) and drink a toast to Leo McKern and the shabby Quixote he portrayed.