Programming Note

I’ve decided to do more in-depth history posts on my Medium account. I’ll still post short pieces and quick hits here. I decided to do this because:

A. I really like Medium’s interface. Just from a writer’s point of view, it’s nice to work with.
B. There might be more visibility on Medium, better search engine placement. History done even halfway right takes time and thought. This is a fun subject for me and I don’t need prompting to pursue it, but I also, like any writer, want people to read my work.
C. Also an aesthetic judgment–I love the way Medium incorporates images.
D. I want to post a variety of content on HuffWire; I don’t want to turn it into a history blog, even if history is the main thing I’m into now.

So this space remains open for a variety of subjects, which is what I wanted when I created it. A “wire” delivers news, ephemera, whatever. This is my peculiar, personal version of one, and I like it that way.

Hearstian Hyperbole and The Redureau Case

Marcel Redureau, via Pays de la Loire.
Marcel Redureau, via Pays de la Loire.

I know a lot of crime history–not just American crime, either–but I’d never heard of Marcel Redureau until today. Redureau, 15, hacked 7 people to death on or about Sept. 30, 1913. His trial commenced in Nantes, France on March 3, 1914. Here’s how it was reported by the New York Times 100 years ago today, March 4:

From the NYT, 3/4/1914
From the NYT, 3/4/1914

The final line–“he was apparently not normal”–must have seemed ironic the day the item was published.

Hearst’s International, in an article about “Terrible Children,” wrote that the Redureau case led French papers to actively discuss what it termed with characteristic Hearstian reserve as a “red wave of child criminality.” Reasons for this horrific juvenile zombie horde apparently laying waste to European principalities before the Great War were thought to include “alcohol, inherited tendencies, non-moral education, the absence of religion and the anarchy of the times.” So killer emo/goth kids are nothing new, I guess.

Marcel Redureau’s crime was the subject of a book by author André Gide, The Ridereau Case (L’Affaire Redureau). Gide analyzed the course of justice in this case, and you can read some of his writing on it in English here.

It appears that Redureau, who reportedly had a normal childhood, was probably clinically and quite possibly legally insane. As noted here, the boy was sentenced to 20 years in prison, only to die after 4 months from tuberculosis.

Winter Was a Bitch 100 Years Ago Today, Too
The Abbeville (SC) Press and Banner, published 3/4/1914

The Winter of 2013/2014 has been pretty tough, hitting the south and mid-Atlantic a little harder than usual. (About the same here in New England, perhaps a little colder.) Apparently it was a bear 100 years ago today, too. And that storm a century ago didn’t even have some lame-ass name assigned as a marketing ploy by a weather forecasting service.

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*

Okay.

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:

AMERICAN KILLED IN PARIS
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:

METEORITE DESTROYS HOUSES.

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.

[Defense.gov]