The Snarky Art of Maurice Ketten: 1914 Kind of Funny

Whatever passed for comedy in a cartoon or joke in a daily publication in 1914 isn’t funny today. An example I tweeted:

Cue the sad trombone, right? I groaned so hard I scared my cat and probably pulled a muscle.

Here’s a cartoon from another publication that’s just as wince-worthy:

From the Chicago Day Book, 2/28/1914. *Sigh*
Syndicated 2/28/1914. *Sigh*


The perpetrator of the above meant for his ‘toon to amuse. Perhaps the mustachioed man of letters in 1914 obliged with a tobacco and brandy-scented chortle before he went off to read law and grouse about the suffragettes and the ethnics. Whatever the case, I can’t find a way to find it funny today, save through the lens of a modern man’s condescending sarcasm.

It’s easy to find groaners like that in every daily paper from 1914. It’s more interesting to find cartoons expressing a combination of visual and verbal wit that are still funny today.

In February, 1914 Maurice Ketten was publishing his cartoons in the New York Evening World. They were slotted in the Evening World’s “Magazine” section, aimed squarely at whatever the assuredly all-male staff of the paper thought women of the day might enjoy.*

Detail from "Fashion Fancies" by Maurice Ketten, NY Evening World, 2/28/1914
Detail from “Fashion Fancies” by Maurice Ketten, NY Evening World, 2/28/1914

Ketten’s drawings were large, single panels containing an array of captioned images connected by an umbrella idea expressed in the title at the top of the frame.

The Evening World published on this date a century ago published Ketten’s “Fashion Fancies.” If I tried to post the whole panel, the images wouldn’t be clear and Ketten’s captions would be unreadable, so I’ll just post the ones that amused me, like the one on the left. This word is often wielded as a bat with which to beat anyone who writes anything semi-funny or satirical online, but Ketten’s work contained a lot of easily recognizable and modern snark.

I can almost picture him walking certain districts of 1914 New York and passing various moneyed types in ridiculous new fashions and smiling to himself, socking ideas away.

"Why Not?" Maurice Ketten, NY Evening World, 2/27/1914
“Why Not?” Maurice Ketten, NY Evening World, 2/27/1914

In the previous day’s Evening World (2/27/1914), Ketten published a cartoon titled “Why Not?” If anything, it was even funnier than Fashion Fancies, containing the oddly modern idea on the right. Because why not just tattoo your monogram on all that open space on your dome? One hundred years later you don’t have to look too far to find someone who has actually done that or something similar. Okay, they’re usually in jail, but still, skull tats are probably a lot more common in 2014.

"Why Not?" NY Evening World, 2/27/1914
“Why Not?” NY Evening World, 2/27/1914

Ketten’s startled lady in futurist and cubist wigs on the left was perhaps my favorite from from the February 27th drawing. With spare pen strokes, he made a decent joke at the expense of two schools of art in vogue at the time with his innocently blank, bug-eyed character.

Ketten could make such a smart joke because he knew what he was talking about. His real name was Prosper Fiorini and he’d trained in one of the finest art schools in Europe. He was born in Florence, Italy in the 1870s (possibly 1875) and according to one brief biography, he studied at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris.

As relatable as Ketten/Fiorini’s style and wit in some cartoons could be to a 21st century reader, he was still a man of his time, drawing cartoons lampooning the idea of equal voting rights for women and implying that changing times would end up emasculating men. He was a little like an uncle who tells hilarious and relatable stories at family gatherings only to have one highball too many and start telling the racist jokes he assumes are as funny as his less offensive material.

It’s impossible in one short blog post to present a nuanced look at anything, particularly something like humor 100 years ago versus today. Not to mention the moment you start analyzing humor, it’s not only unfunny, it’s anti-funny. Also, a danger I’ve already encountered writing these posts is the impulse to extrapolate too much from a thin array of sources. Still, I decided to single out Ketten/Fiorini’s accessible work in the Evening World is because the contrast between his recognizable humor there and his sexist, very 19th century work elsewhere presents a tiny window into the state of things in 1914. History was about to turn on a dime, and even in the work of one cartoonist, you could see old perspectives grinding gears against new.

[New York Evening World, Feb. 28, 1914]

*I know it’s bad historianship or something to express judgments of a time that didn’t know any better. I’d be more even-handed if I wasn’t just doing this for the hell of it.

American Found Dead in Paris: The Mysterious Death of Henry Collett

It was a small but intriguing notice, published in several northeastern papers on February 27, 1914. The New York Sun’s item was cabled to the paper, not taken from a wire service. In the Sun’s brief account, a modern reader might scent a lover’s quarrel gone wrong. The more worldly New Yorker of 1914 may have assumed the same. The Sun’s article:

Man Found Dead In Room, His Companion Being Sought

Special Cable Dispatch to The Sun.

Paris, Feb. 26–Henry Collett, an American ship’s officer, 30 years of age, employed on the Hamburg-American liner Cleveland, was found dead in his room in a hotel here to-day. Death had been caused by a revolver shot. Mr. Collett arrived here from Marseilles on February 22 and hired a room at a cheap hotel for himself and an eighteen-year-old boy named Dubois. Tho man and boy made so much noise at the hotel last night that the landlord ejected Dubois. The latter called at the hotel early this morning and left shortly afterward.

At 11:30 o clock Collett was found dead in his room. The police are looking for Dubois.

The same day, the New York Times published its own item. It was the same story, but different.

From the New York Times, published 2/27/1914
From the New York Times, published 2/27/1914

Papers would put out morning and evening editions well into the 20th century (I can recall one of the 2 papers published in my hometown running two daily editions in my lifetime). The variation between the Sun’s possibly prurient tale and the Times’s less tawdry but sad story of Mr. Collett’s death being a suicide may have had more to do with when the papers went to press.

The Times story caught my attention for the headline. I was further drawn in by “In the pockets of the dead man were a letter bearing the name ‘Henry Collett, Worcester, Mass.’ and seven francs…”

I’m from the south but live in Worcester and threadbare as the tie was, I was still curious to know whatever else I could about the man who died in that Paris hotel.

I couldn’t really satisfy my curiosity the way I wanted, but I did find out a few things about a man named Henry Collett who lived in Worcester at the right time and was the right age.

In the 1910 Census, a Henry Collett in the right age range lived at 199 Hope Avenue in Worcester. He lived with the Mallett family and was listed as the head of household’s single brother-in-law. Collett was employed as an operator at a screw factory. He’d been born in Massachusetts, but his parents were French Canadian. Worcester’s population grew a great deal in the 19th and 20th centuries from Canadians crossing the border seeking better jobs.

I pass that address on Hope Avenue on a regular basis. It’s along the route to my kid’s school. At the end of Hope a traveler can follow the roundabout to the right and end up on Webster Street.  Hope Cemetery is on Webster. Dedicated in 1852, it is the final resting place of luminaries such as poet Elizabeth Bishop the father of rocket science, Robert H. Goddard.

Part of me wants to find out if Henry Collett was taken from his shabby hotel room on Rue Aux Ours about 100 years ago and put in the hold of another ship. If he made it back to Worcester, and perhaps to Hope Cemetery. It seems improbable, but you never know.

Was it really suicide? A single man in his thirties traveling the world, partying too much with an 18-year-old frenchman… questions there, too. What really happened, Henry, before the war came and erased questions about so many things with gigantic questions we still ask today?

If Henry Collett is in Hope Cemetery I have unanswerable questions to ask his headstone.

100 Years Ago Today: Meteorite Destroys Houses in Polish City of Kielce–Maybe

Published in Washington Herald, 2/27/1914
Published in Washington Herald, 2/27/1914

In February, 2013 a small asteroid exploded in the skies above Chelyabinsk in western Russia. The Chelyabinsk airburst was major news, in part because the modern Russian habit of installing dashboard cameras in private vehicles provided dramatic videos of the event.

Coverage of the Chelyabinsk event stands in stark contrast to the item clipped in this post. I screengrabbed the article from the front page of the February 27, 1914 Washington Herald. It may be hard to read, so here’s the text:


Huge Aerolite Fell in Village in Polish Province of Kielce

Warsaw, Russian Poland, Feb. 26.–A number of houses were destroyed by a huge meteorite which descended today in the village of Jendkovitzy, in the Polish province of Kielce. The aerolite emitted sulphurous fumes.

So it’s clear: the damned thing didn’t just destroy houses, it emitted fumes. According to this report, anyway.

I searched other American papers (including the New York Times) for further mentions and found the same item. I tried some searches of European publications, but they’re hard to access without paying. So I went to the English website for Kielce, today a city of over 200,000, and its history page has zilch on a 1914 meteorite powerful enough to destroy homes and dispense mysterious fumes.

Did it happen? There may be some Polish geologists or historians who know. I just think given the “sulphurous fumes” bit, we may be lucky some otherworldly gas didn’t cause World War Z in place of World War I.

Which was bad enough.

Reductions of Arms, Naval Holidays and Unexpected Eruptions of Insanity

On February 24, 2014, American Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed considerable cuts in US military spending. Hagel’s  cuts seem rational in light of the United States’ costly involvements in various conflicts for more than a decade. From a Defense Department press release:

Hagel called the reductions — including shrinking the Army to its smallest size since before World War II and eliminating an entire fleet of Air Force fighter planes — “difficult choices” that will change defense institutions for years to come, but designed to leave the military capable of fulfilling U.S. defense strategy and defending the homeland against strategic threats.

Hagel admitted there are risks in his proposal. For example, the Defense Dept. report says Hagel’s plan “calls for reducing to as low as 440,000 active duty soldiers from the current size of 520,000, while ensuring the force remains well trained and equipped.” Any reduction in troops for a country that’s had so many stationed overseas for so long seems risky.

There is optimism in the idea of making these cuts. They show strong confidence in our technological advantages and suggest reduced national posturing in favor of calm command of the situation.

That said, I was looking through papers from this date 100 years ago when I found an article that made me question my positive response to Hagel’s press conference.

Great Britain was the leading world super power in the early 20th century, though several nations nipped at its heels.

On February 26, 1914, an article published on American wire services detailed an address from the English First Lord of the Admiralty in which he urged an interesting plan for England and Germany. He proposed both nations take a “naval holiday” and halt construction of battleships for a year. According to the article, “Widespread interest was aroused by the proposal” and significance “attached to the offer,” which the lord made during a discussion of naval expenses and “the inevitably heavy increase in armaments if the rivalry continued.”

The article stated that the official’s plan came about because “the situation in Europe was much clearer […] than it had been for some time.”

The report continued, saying there were “strong evidences of a desire for peace and the greatly improved relations between Great Britain and Germany rendered the moment favorable for the resumption of the consideration […] of a naval holiday.”

Winston Churchill, circa 1914. From a copy of the Ontario Argus, 2/26/1914.
Winston Churchill, circa 1914. From a copy of the Ontario Argus, 2/26/1914.

The First Lord of the Admiralty speaking of Europe’s clear “situation” and good relations between his country and Germany was Winston Churchill, then 40.

Approximately 5 months after his address, World War I began.

In 2014 perception of our world situation is clearer than it would have been for anyone taking the temperature of the times in 1914. Anyone curious and engaged with access to the internet can get a better grasp on the situation in Ukraine in 50 minutes than 1914 English military intelligence might have had on tensions in Austro-Hungary in 5 months.

So it would be silly to use the irony of Churchill’s proposal coming a scant few months before the Great War to predict events in the world today. And the parallel is weak, if you poke at it–for example, America’s proposed draw-down of troop force is for the US alone. It’s budgetary, not pacific. Chuck Hagel didn’t invite China or Russia to do the same because the world situation seems just fine now; he knows it’s not.

Ignore the coincidence, then, and take what happened so soon after Churchill’s open hand to Germany as a word to the wise. In February, 1914, Churchill said there were “strong evidences of a desire for peace.”

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28. The war began on July 28.

Five months from now, everything will likely be fine and Hagel’s announcement won’t seem ironic. After all, in our hyper-connected world, how could things change that fast and a nation as powerful as the United States not have some warning?

Well… each year, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) issues a “Preventive Priorities Survey.” Its purpose is to evaluate possible future violent conflicts around the world. The survey also determines how likely a given conflict might be in the year to come.

The 2014 survey, issued in mid-December 2013, has a number of solid predictions for what they call Tier I, high priority conflicts, including:

-A severe North Korean crisis caused by a military provocation, internal political instability, or threatening nuclear weapons/long-range missiles

-A mass-casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or a treaty ally

-A highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure

-Renewed threat of military strikes against Iran as a result of a breakdown in nuclear negotiations and/or clear evidence of Iran’s intent to develop a nuclear weapons capability

-Increasing internal violence and political instability in Pakistan

Venezuela, which is currently in such a state of unrest that Pope Francis has called for calm and dialogue, was highlighted on the CFR’s 2014 conflict map. It was labeled Tier III, or “low priority.”

Ukraine, which in the last week toppled its President after months of protest, was not highlighted at all. Now the Russian military is on alert as tensions rise between Russia and the new, still wobbly Ukrainian leadership over the Crimea.

It isn’t that World War III may be right around the corner. That’s a stretch. But even today, Venezuela and Ukraine alone prove that international affairs can explode in remarkable, unpredictable ways. Those events can defeat the deeply informed minds in the United States Defense Department or the experienced analysts at the CFR and render their plans and warnings moot. Just as in the past, when a chain reaction of chaos blooming across Europe confounded–perhaps–a mind like Winston Churchill’s.

I wonder if Churchill ever thought of that “naval holiday” proposal as the Great War raged, and shook his head in dismay.


“Girl Comes to Fly”: Pioneering Aviator Elena Caragiani

From the New York Evening World, published 2/26/1914
From the New York Evening World, published 2/26/1914

From the New York World, an article published February 26, 1914:

Wants to See This Country from an Airship

Miss Helene Caragiani, a Roumanian aviatress, arrived to-day on the Olympic(.) Miss Caragiani has been an amateur flyer for three years. She is making her first visit to America and wants to see it through a bird’s eyes. Therefore she is going to write to the Wrights for the right to go up in one of their machines. She said she would at once make arrangements to get a machine and fly about the country.

“It is the best way to see any land, as a bird sees it,” remarked Miss Caragiani. “I love flying and I want to fly in this the land that first made flying possible.”

During her stay in New York Miss Caragiani will stop at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Americans may not know about Elena Caragiani today, but Romanian students still write papers about her, calling her a hero.

Elena Caragiani (
Elena Caragiani (

What the condescending news copy of 100 years ago doesn’t indicate is Caragiani was a badass. Check this out, from a website celebrating 100 years of licensed women pilots. This is worth quoting at length:

…Upon completing the courses, [Caragiani] applied to receive a pilot license at the Ministries of Education and Civil Defense but her application was rejected by Spiru Haret and General Crainiceanu. She decided to go to France. She joined the School of Civil Aviation of Mourmelon le Grand led by Roger Sommer. She passed all the exams and received her pilot license when she was 27 years old.

Her home country did not allow her to participate to airshows. She became a reporter for a major French daily newspaper, traveling to the Caribbean, Mexico or South America, then a war correspondent for Press Trust of Mexico. When Romania entered the war, in 1916, Elena asked to participate as a pilot to defend the country or to carry wounded in hospitals. Her request was denied. She became a Red Cross nurse in a hospital in Bucharest.

I bolded to the part I love. Caragiani wanted to fly for Romania in World War I, going head-to-head against the likes of the Red Baron. Because it was the early 1900s, she was subjected to more head-patting treatment (the tone of the New York paper’s article was probably as condescending to a thinking person in 1914 as it sounds today) and consigned to finding a role on the ground.

I couldn’t find a record of Caragiani ever meeting Orville or Wilbur Wright and flying one of their planes. One may exist in another newspaper database. I hope so. I like imagining the newly-minted flyer having a few moments to see that distant America from the air. It would have been a hell of a way to see the new world, then.

Elena Caragiani made the most of the role she had in the war effort. In October, 1916, the New York Times reported Caragiani and another woman were visiting New York. They were in charge of a fund “to be applied to the relief of the war sufferers of Rumania (sic)” under the sponsorship of the British War Relief Association.

Another famous flyer was in New York at the time, too. A young Amelia Earhart had just graduated from Hyde Park High School earlier in the year.

Caragiani continued flying and working as a journalist throughout the 1920s. She died in 1929. She was 42.

[Celebrate 100 Years of Licensed Women Pilots]

The Mysterious Disappearance of Catherine Winters


I hadn’t planned on another post tonight. Then in a last look at some Feb. 25, 1914 newspapers I happened on the now little-known story of Catherine Winters. This image caught my interest:

The Tacoma Times, 2/25/1914
The Tacoma Times, 2/25/1914

The story was about how an abandoned girl who called herself Rosie Davis was thought by some to be a missing child, Catherine Winters. According to the news brief, Catherine’s father, Dr. William A. Winters, had come to see the girl. He had confirmed she was not his daughter. The girl cried when he denied it was her.

This part of the article set me off on a search for more information: “… his missing daughter Catherine, for whom a nationwide search is being made…”

I’ve long been interested in missing persons cases and read a great deal about them. I’d never heard of Catherine Winters, who long ago vanished from the town of New Castle, Indiana. As the video at the beginning of this post may indicate, Catherine’s was perhaps one of the first cases to truly go nationwide.

Writer Colleen Steffen runs a website about Catherine’s disappearance, The following is from Steffen’s timeline of the case:


March 14: Eight-year-old Helen Millikan is abducted by an unidentified man in a rented buggy, driven out of the city, assaulted, then set free. The man is never found.

March 20: Nine-year-old Catherine Winters disappears sometime in the early afternoon. She had been selling sewing needles door to door to raise money for a church missionary society and was seen by many witnesses around New Castle. Her family raises the alarm that evening when she fails to come home for dinner and the search begins. Gypsies are the first suspects.

March 21: Catherine shares headlines with an overnight storm that wrecked buildings around the city. It’s the first of a historic system of storms that will cripple the Midwest for weeks to come, flooding entire cities and killing hundreds of people.

March 22: Dr. Winters is forced by doctors to rest after 60 straight hours of searching.

March 23: On Easter Sunday, churches across New Castle fill with prayerful petitioners for Catherine’s safe return. Afterward, “City Councilmen, business men, professional men, mechanics and laborers worked side by side all day Sunday, in the fields, woods, cemeteries, railroad and mill yards. All were devoting their best efforts, with but a single object in view—that being to locate the body of the missing girl, for it is feared she is dead” (New Castle Daily Times).

March 24: New Castle’s city council calls for the first town-wide meeting concerning the disappearance, and a far-reaching, highly organized and publicly funded search begins.

According to a newspaper quote later in the timeline, by June 6, 1913, “Pictures of the little girl have been published in newspapers and magazines from coast to coast. The telegraph and telephone lines have been burdened with stories of the Winters case for weeks.”

I don’t know if milk came in cartons yet (I suspect it was still delivered each morning in bottles) but it seems that the effort to find Catherine went almost that far. As the video indicates–as the fact the film in the video was even made indicates–attention to the case at the time was intense.

The story grows more tragic. Eventually, Catherine’s father, Dr. Winters, her stepmother and a one-armed man who boarded at their home were arrested. They were charged with “conspiracy to commit a felony by conspiring to kill the child by strangling or otherwise, and to destroy the body by burning.” Evidence found by investigators included, according to Steffen, “a hair ribbon, a child’s red sweater with what appear to be burn holes, and a man’s blood-stained undershirt behind a concrete block.”

In the end, that wasn’t enough. Charges were dropped in July, 1914, for lack of evidence. People would claim to be Catherine over the years, but the case ultimately faded from the news, unsolved.

As for the video, which is a fascinating and perhaps unusual document for the time, Steffen writes that it was kept by the Winters family, one of whom eventually rediscovered it in 1990.

Catherine Winters is the coldest kind of case. Her disappearance will remain unsolved. At least whenever someone grabs hold of the thread anew and brings light to the story, she’s never completely forgotten.

Sleuthing via Optography in 1914

Published in The Washington Times (and nationwide, by wire) on 2/25/1914
Published in The Washington Times (and nationwide, by wire) on 2/25/1914

It’s often surprising how similar the world of 1914 was to our world today. Then there’s a short article like this, reporting something crazy. In case you didn’t read the story in the screengrab: in mid-February, 1914, Tracy Hollander of Aurora, Illinois met a gothic fate. She was found beaten to death with a “grave stake” at St. Nicholas Cemetery. Police suspected Anthony Petras committed the crime. So, on the advice of a local “oculist,” authorities photographed the dead girl’s retina. They thought that might reveal “the last object within her vision before she became unconscious.”

The photo might have been a tactic meant to make Petras confess. It is also possible investigators made an honest stab at solving the crime with the crazy practice of optography.

Optography was just what the article described: making a photo of the deceased’s retina in hopes of capturing the last thing they saw on earth. It was an exquisitely Victorian idea, of a piece with post-mortem photography, where families sat for formal photos with carefully posed, recently deceased loved ones.

From the website for the College of Optometrists in London, UK:

The idea that one’s eye preserves the very last moment of life held a very powerful hold on the Victorian imagination. In particular it was suggested that optograms might be obtained from murder victims to help identify their assailant. This rather assumed they would have been attacked from the front at close quarters! From newspaper reports we know that in April 1877, only partly aware of what optography involved, police in Berlin photographed the eye of the murdered Frau von Sabatzky in case it could be of use. We know that news of the German experiments even reached London and that detectives investigating the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888 were presented with a proposal to try the technique. We do not know that this ever happened. Whether or not it was even attempted is highly questionable. Of course it would only have been effective if a victim were to be discovered and operated upon within moments of the killing.

It’s easy to understand the allure of the idea if you think about it for a moment, and it’s been revisited since the early 1900s. As the same College of Optometrists article goes on to say, as late as 1975 “police in Heidelberg, Germany, invited the physiologist Evangelos Alexandridis at the university’s Department of Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology to re-evaluate” the concept of optography with “a view to learning whether they might have a useful role in forensic investigations.” Alexandridis even appeared to produce some interesting results. They just weren’t interesting enough for experiments with the practice to continue.

Given how sophisticated cameras are today, it’s surprising someone hasn’t given optography at least one more try. Then again, there really isn’t a good Instagram filter for dead peoples’ eyeballs.

Take a Ride on the Lusitania! (History From an Ad)

Ad published 2/25/1914 in the New York Tribune
Ad published 2/25/1914 in the New York Tribune

A New Yorker thoroughly reading the Tribune on February 25, 1914 might have spotted this page 15 ad from the Cunard Line. The ad touted Cunard’s fleet of -tanias, calling them the fastest in the world.

And there, at the head, the Lusitania. If that Tribune reader had the means, they could have purchased a ticket for a March departure. They would have been on their way to the continent in less than a month. Travel records available via show the Lusitania was in port at New York twice that March, on the 6th and the 27th.

The Great War exploded across Europe in August, 1914. In a way, this ad for leisurely cruises to alluring European destinations underscores the speed with which those nations fell into conflict. By September that year the British Admiralty had requisitioned both the Lusitania and the Mauretania. By November, the Lusitania was making just one ocean crossing a month. On her return trips to England, she was carrying munitions manufactured in the “neutral” United States.

Then, on May 7, 1915, the German U-boat designated U-20 torpedoed the great ship 14 miles off Kinsale in the south of Ireland. It only took one torpedo. A second explosion ensued, likely from ignited munitions. About 20 minutes later, over 1200 souls went down with the ship.

The Mauretania would sail on. She was taken out of service in 1934, a victim of Cunard’s merger with the White Star Line (of Titanic fame), as well as the Great Depression. The “magnificent” Aquitania lasted until 1949 and she was scrapped in 1950.

[Additional information:]

The (Not Very) Mysterious Case of the Titanic Widow Who Was Not a Titanic Widow

I’m a history nerd. History was always one of my best subjects and I still wonder why I never followed an early impulse in my sometimes misbegotten collegiate career to minor in it. Whatever bent of mind one needs to think like a historian, I’ve got it.

I’ve often avoided blogging about historical subjects out of concern that others will assume anything tagged “history” is boring and avoid it. I don’t care anymore; it’s interesting to me.

I’m most interested in the last 150 years, in general. That’s may be the easy way out for anyone making a serious study of history and hey, that’s fine. As for me, I’m not in school and don’t give a damn about making a good grade.

The preceding explains this post and any future posts in this vein. Years ago I learned there were many online resources to view old newspapers and I’ve been a little addicted to whatever I could get my hands on ever since.

Up front: of course old newspapers are not reliable sources for historical data. They present fascinating snapshots of the world as it was at a given moment in time, where peoples’ heads were at. Lately I’ve been into papers published exactly 100 years ago, in 1914. I have a half-assed theory that the 14th year of a given century is often the flashpoint year. It’s the year when the engines of history kick it up another gear and it gets real, everywhere. Studying the way history sometimes rhymes or parallels current events is always, at the least, instructive.

I’ve been looking for signal events prior to the beginning of World War I in old papers, and there are some… however, it’s also easy to find other fascinating stories. The following is a good example.

Published in the Washington Herald and nationwide on 2/25/1914
Published in the Washington Herald and nationwide on 2/25/1914

The story detailed above seems like tragedy piled on tragedy. Herman Klaber’s widow lost her husband when the Titanic sank in April, 1912. Less than two years later, she found happiness again, only to end up dead at the hands of an ex-lover.

Look deeper and this story is a good example of why I noted that old newspapers aren’t always reliable sources for historical data. This is from Encyclopeda Titanica’s entry about Herman Klaber:

Herman Klaber was married in 19072 to Gertrude Ginsberg, a native of Sacramento, California. The Klabers had one child, a daughter, Bernice, who was born on 8 February 1910 in Portland, Oregon. […] After Klaber’s death on the Titanic, Gertrude took Bernice and went back to Sacramento to live with her parents. Gertrude never remarried after her husband’s death on the Titanic. She died on 17 March 1961.


Garbled reporting, that’s what. Here’s the real tale of the unfortunate Mrs. S. L. Johnson, also from Encyclopeda Titanica:

[After Klaber’s death] Cash awards of $1,000 went to Congregations Beth Israel in Tacoma and San Francisco, clerks and secretaries and hops yard workers. Sums of $25,000 went to nieces Dorothy Danhauser and Elsa Kaufman of Tacoma. Danhauser was a singer in Tacoma. She married a Sherman Clay piano salesman named Sidney Johnson, son of a Tacoma Times editor. In 1914, Dorothy and Sidney Johnson got married. The Johnsons honeymooned in San Francisco, where she was murdered by a spurned lover named Abraham Pepper.

So, the “Titanic Widow” was Herman Klaber’s niece. Her death was tragic (and worth a deeper dive for a true crime historian, maybe), but this proves something still true today: sometimes the first report is the worst report.

I could’ve blogged about this as a standing mystery, not a puzzle easily solved with a few more Google searches. A lot of people might have made those searches and untangled things in the comments, but most wouldn’t bother. It’s likely there were people reading papers in 1914 who remarked on the story, took it at face value and thought it tragic and never knew the finer details. With all the information we have at our fingertips now, we haven’t really changed much that way.

It’s an extra tangent to add to an already tangent-filled blog post, but the history of Herman Klaber the man is far more interesting than this snapshot suggests. If you read the full article at Encyclopedia Titanica, you find out Klaber was Tacoma’s “King of Hops.” He was one of the wealthier men aboard the Titanic, worth several million in today’s dollars. His body was never recovered. Klaber, Wa., the company town that depended on Herman Klaber’s hops harvesting business for its survival, faded. Klaber has its own zip code, but it’s farms and fields, now.

This is why I’m a history nerd, though. This tangle of things. One question about a dramatic headline published 100 years ago today led me to the Titanic and a glance at a northwestern company town that rose and faded in the aftermath of that disaster.


Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge: Random Song Challenge

I needed a break from my brain and writing guru/author/force of nature Chuck Wendig, whom I’ve informally adopted as my occasional assignment editor when not actually working, provided it with his flash fiction challenge of Feb. 20, 2014: “Take a random song (use iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, etc. to accomplish this). (…) That random song’s title is now the title of your short flash fiction.” I opened iTunes and the first title I saw was “Until the End of the World,” so… here goes. [Terrible Minds]

Until the End of the World

Lyrics for the song, "Until the End of the World" (screengrab, Pandora)
Lyrics for the song, “Until the End of the World” (screengrab, Pandora)

Julie sat on her big white towel and Tom ran toward the surf, kicking up sand. It was 11 a.m., 78 degrees fahrenheit, and the sky was clear. Tom stopped as his big feet splashed in the foam and turned. Julie shaded her eyes with her hand, watching him. She smiled. Tom smiled back, turned and ran into the ocean.

Tom plunged into the waves and swam slow with a steady stroke. He thought about the morning, running together before sunrise. Julie had worn her silly five-finger shoes, Tom his tattered New Balance. The sun was rising, gold with a crimson edge, as they entered the state park’s main trail and cruised toward the summit. Once there they paused, skins silvered with sweat. He kissed her forehead. She looked up, eyes bright: “Let’s go. Race.” And they were off. They didn’t talk much when they ran. The act itself was a conversation.

Tom loved Julie, but he hadn’t told her yet.

When Tom returned to shore, they were still the only people on the beach. He scanned the slope up to the state highway, the trail they’d walked, carrying a basket, bag, and towels. Wind stirred the Monterey Pines.

Julie said, “There’s no 3G.” She held out her iPhone for him to see.

Tom sat on his towel. “Huh,” he said, “there should be.”

“It’s okay,” she said. He wasn’t sure she meant it.

Julie opened the sunblock. “Want some?”

Tom smiled. “Yeah, but what if someone comes along?”

She smiled and said, “Pervert.”

Julie rubbed sunblock between his shoulder blades. Tom said, “Did you notice those shooting stars before we ran this morning?”

“I did,” she said, “Something to do with that comet?”

“Yeah. The Big One!” he said, laughing.

“I wish my phone worked here,” said Julie.

They ate turkey wraps and whole grain chips and drank white wine from clear plastic cups. Julie talked about her job. She was a teacher but wanted to make a change. “To what?” asked Tom.

“Stripping,” she said.

Their laughter startled birds gathered nearby in a conspiratorial klatsch. In an angry storm of white feathers, they flew out to sea.

Julie said, “It’s time for a change.”

Tom finished his wine in one gulp.

Later, well past noon, they lay drying on their towels. They’d gone into the water together and goofed around, shoving each other into breaking waves, and it was fun.

Julie sat up on her elbows and said, “I’m going to the parking area, see if I can get reception.”

Tom rubbed his neck. He wondered if he had a sunburn after all. He looked at the swelling sea. The wind was steady and strong. He watched sea birds struggling, high above the shoreline. He was uneasy. He didn’t know why.

He said, “Let’s go.”

On the drive back, Julie turned on the radio. The first station was static. “Weird,” she said. She pushed “seek.”

The digital readout cycled. It stopped on a man speaking Spanish. “Do you understand this?” She asked Tom.

“A little.”

The announcer tense and speaking too fast to understand. Tom heard “emergencia” and “presidente de los Estados Unidos.”

He turned off the radio.

“Why’d you do that?”

“We’re almost there. Whatever’s up, it’ll be all over TV. Check your phone again.”

“Weird,” she said, “still nothing. I always get good reception on the highway.”

She sat back. From the corner of his eye he could see her rubbing her thumb and forefinger together. He wanted to grab her hand and hold it tight, but he didn’t.

Once inside, they stood in Tom’s living room as he clicked through every channel. Nothing but blue screens or color bars. Some were old-fashioned snow. Tom picked up his old clamshell cell and called his Dad. “We’re sorry,” said a recorded voice, “your call could not be completed as dialed.”

Tom looked at Julie. “Nothing’s getting through,” she said, laying her phone on the sofa.

Tom checked his laptop. His internet connection was down.

Julie said, “We should walk around, ask people what’s up. This is weird.”

Tom took a bottle of Dewar’s from a shelf above his refrigerator. He poured two shots. “This is what we should do. I kind of need to.”

Julie nodded.

They drank until the sun was a fading and pale red flood of light across the ocean outside Tom’s wide living room window. Then they made sandwiches. They remained silent as they ate, standing at his kitchen counter.

Julie said, “What’s going on? What could it be?”

“I have no idea,” he said, “Terrorist attack? On communications?”

“Seems like it’s more,” she said.

A volley of shots ripped the twilight outside. Julie yelped and dropped her shot glass and Tom pulled her into the living room. “What the fuck?” he said. He glanced at the window and two shadows ran past. He led Julie into his bedroom.

They heard more shots in the distance, then yelling. Sirens wailed, grew closer. He was holding her close and could feel her heart thumping. “This never happens here,” he said. His voice was hoarse. He was dizzy from the scotch and adrenaline.

She looked up at Tom and opened her mouth as if to speak, but kissed him instead. It was a greedy kiss, hungry, and he almost stopped her. Then he couldn’t. Then he didn’t want to.

In his unmade bed they rolled in low blue light from the window. It was like crashing into a wave again, searching for peace in the roaring silence of the green blue below. They slid, grabbed and turned, and it was desperate and hard and necessary. The light of day went out of the room, pale fingerprints fading from sun reddened skin.

More shots shattered the newborn night outside. Sirens blared and reds and blues flashed by. Tom and Julie were several kinds of drunk and deaf to them.

Then they lay, stuck together, breathing hard. “I need to know what’s going on,” she said, “are we going to die?”

“I don’t know,” Tom said, “I don’t know. I’m scared.”

“I am too,” she said. “This is so strange, so…” her voice faded.

“I love you,” said Tom.

The scotch and stress and adrenaline had taken a toll. She was asleep.

Tom woke at 3 a.m.

His head hurt. And what a strange dream yesterday had been. He was certain now, as his head throbbed and he felt Julie breathe beside him, that there were explanations for everything. Sometimes the world went crazy, sure. Sometimes it just felt that way.

Tom put on his running gear in the dark. He touched Julie’s face but let her sleep. He wanted to see what had happened outside by himself.

As his feet hit the pavement, it occurred to him that he must still be pretty drunk. He wasn’t sure it mattered.

The shops and boutiques a block north of his place were in disarray. Someone had firebombed the old Sea Dog Men’s Clothing shop. Tom kept running north, toward the state park trails. He saw more destruction. A police cruiser crashed through a small health food store. A garbage truck on its side off the highway.

Tom kept running.

He’d run two miles or so when a flaming tongue of fire split the starless sky above and with a great roaring hiss arced out over the ocean. He stopped and watched it go, a warm flush of fear rising in his gut.

Tom turned and ran as fast as he could. He had to wake Julie. He had to tell her he loved her and make sure she heard it. That was probably all he’d have time to do.

False dawn bloomed to the west. Soon, there would be thunder.


Self-conscious note: the key to flash fiction is to do it, get it done, get it up–that’s my understanding, anyway. I think I went pretty literal with this song title inspiration and if I had it to do over again, might do something way less obvious. I’m going to leave this as a permanent blog post but will also copy the story to private files to give myself room to tinker with it later. I say this now so if I do that and publish it in another form anyone who bothered to look would say, ‘oh, he said he might do that.’  Also, Chuck’s challenge said 1000 words and I blew it there, the story proper is 1291. Lastly: if I think one good thing about this story (I’m at a ‘HATE IT’ stage as I write this note) it’s that if nothing else, it matches the mood of the song–linked in the note at the beginning–whose title inspired it.