Sans-Souci Palace, 1900s

February 23rd, 2014

A few years ago I bought a small box containing ‘magic lantern‘ slides, small glass plates with photographs on them, at an antique store in Minnesota.  They’re essentially for use in the slide-projector of the late 19th century and early 20th century, a way to share photos with an audience.   Five plates are in the box, and in the interest of procrastinating other work, I decided to finally scan them today.

Here’s one of the most impressive: the Chateau de Sans-Souci:

You’ll need to zoom in to see the full detail.  Unfortunately the low contrast makes some of the distant objects hard to see — thankfully, the  Sanssouci Palance is still there.

The internet is an amazing place, where I can, from my comfy office find a photo taken a hundred years later, from almost the same vantage point:

One photo, taken on a glass plate smeared with a photosensitive chemical, mounted in a rudimentary camera made mostly of wood; the other created by photons striking a tiny sliver of silicon, housed in plastic and metal box made by a country that was still buried in feudalism when the first photo was taken.   Here’s a map; the earlier photo was taken further south, you can see the pathway entrance on the right.   The recent photo appears to have been taken from just south of the intersection.  Don’t get me started on the fact that I can pull up an aerial photo from my computer and map out locations…

After two world wars and a century of rain and snow and vandals, Victorians and Millenials looking at the same things as though it barely changed (the urn’s gone, unfortunately).  Here’s a closeup of that distinct statue on the right, the Sphinx by Georg Ebengech, carved in 1755:

Lightning Jugglers, 1882

February 9th, 2014

After the juvenile amusement at the flowery term “jerking lightning’ that appeared in Dakota Death Trip a few months ago,  here’s an equally Zeus-like term from 1882:

The Lightning Jugglers

Cincinnati, March 16.– The telegraphers’ convention to-day resolved itself into a committee of the whole on the best method of forming a national organization.  After hearing the views of a majority of the delegates, the committee rose and the convention appointed a committee of five to draft a constitution in accordance with the views presented.   The committee has already begun its labors.  A night session was held, which was principally devoted to an interchange of views on disreputable telegraph schools.  The convention adjourned at 11 o’clock, to meet again to-morrow.

The awe regarding the nascent understanding of electricity — noting that electric lights were a pretty new idea, making telegraphy most people’s only personal interaction with loose electrons  – is clearly evident in the nicknames given to telegraph operators: they were the IT departments of the 19th century.

The Amsterdam Fortune, 1920s

December 8th, 2013

Norwegian immigrants in the 1920s saw their chance at financial independence: an Amsterdam bank ran ads in newspapers looking for descendants of Elizabeth Sabo, a Manx woman who ended up in Norway after a ill-fated cow milking expedition.

The Amsterdam Fortune was her brother’s, bequeathed to the 6th generation of her offspring, to be paid on New Year’s Day 1927 who whatever heirs can be found.   Hundreds of hopeful immigrants paid $10 each to retain a lawyer to collect their $3,000,000 each, but nothing ever came of it.   If the internet had been around back then, they would already know that the rule was — as it is now — if a stranger asks for money to claim an inheritance, it’s probably a scam.

All That Glitters, 1909

October 15th, 2013

One-hundred and five years ago today, a gold miner from California arrived at the doorstep of Herbert Chaffee, the president of the Amenia and Sharon Land Company, in Amenia, ND.  This seventy-something, gray-haired man called himself John Armstrong, and he believed Chaffee to be a long-lost uncle.   Having established their family trees didn’t cross branches, Armstrong brought up a deal that Chaffee couldn’t refuse: a loan with gold held as collateral.   This wasn’t just a few nuggets for a bit of pocket change: Armstrong’s collateral was over a hundred fifty pounds of gold worth $40,000 at the time.  At about 2,000 ounces, this would be over two million dollars of gold at today’s prices, but even at the inflation rate $40,000 is worth over a million 2013 dollars.  Chaffee offered $30,000, but Armstrong played it conservative and insisted that $25,000 was all he needed.

Gold scams have been going on for centuries, as long as people have ascribed a precious desire for the shiny gold metal.  All the gold that has been mined, ever, out of the entire history of mankind, would form a cube about 60 to 80 feet on a side, depending on who you ask.  That’s even accounting for the fact that gold mines are still in operation, and amateurs and professionals alike head down to the river with a pan and high hopes every day.

There’s other ways people intend to get their gold, though, and not on the open market.   The ridges on your coins harken back to days when people shaved off the edges of coins, making them imperceptibly smaller but still appearing to have their full value.  People would put coins in a bag and shake them around, causing a bit of gold dust to get rubbed off; other soaked coins in acid briefly to take a layer off, to be decanted from the corrosive fluid later.

Chaffee tried to head off being scammed: his son, Eben Chaffee, was a gold assayer, so Herbert brought Eben along to Minneapolis to evaluate the old miner’s gold.   The three men went to where the gold was stored, and a drill was used to get a small sample.

Just testing the outside of a bar of gold is the least reliable way of testing it:  gold leaf can be only a few atoms thick and a layer can make a chunk of lead appear to be a solid bar of gold.  Reports of desperate-sounding people peddling 5oz gold bars at malls has relied on this trick.  Scammers bought real bars of gold and filled the centers with a non-precious metal, keeping what they removed and selling the much-smaller amount of gold to gullible customers at full price.    So, you take a core as deep into the gold as you can get, also to make sure that the gold is of a consistent quality throughout and not just quality-gold on the outside.

Armstrong got the names of a few independent, impartial assayers to get the gold tested.  Eben Chaffee made arrangements to purchase some nitric acid, a component of the test for gold content, from an outside source to guarantee accuracy.   The three men took their little shavings to assayer W. H. Harper and had him perform the test.   Harper’s result: the shavings were the highest quality gold, almost completely pure.  The Chaffees cashed a check for $25,000 and gave Armstrong his loan in cash.

It’s no wonder that both Armstrong and Harper disappeared shortly after.

Their scam didn’t rely on adulterating the gold or covering base metals with precious ones.   Armstrong — not his real name — relied on a confidence game.  His story was believable: he, of course, had the name of a reliable assayer; and he was happy to let the Chaffee’s bring whatever testing materials along they liked.   Armstrong knew that once they got to Harper’s office the test was going to show the gold bars to be real gold,and then the Chaffees would be hooked.

Herbert Chaffee was out $25,000, over a million dollars in today’s money, and what he had to show for it was 80 pounds of polished brass.   The Chaffees missed one of the more obvious gold tests:  gold is a very heavy element, and a scale could have quickly identified the scammer’s metal as something other than gold.

And Armstrong, whose real name was so inconsistent in the papers that I’m not even sure which is correct, would have gotten away with Chaffee’s money if he hadn’t gotten caught performing the same scam on a woman in Ohio. Back in his home state of California, Armstrong paid his bail and was left to his own recognizance pending his extradition court appearance.

He missed the trial and a few days later a body washed up on shore.   Armstrong’s wife and a “business associate” were both quick to identify the body as Armstrong’s.  With little other evidence to go on, the case was closed…but police were suspicious at the circumstances of Armstrong’s supposed death.   Both California authorities and the Minneapolis detectives sent to extradite Armstrong believe it wasn’t the old “miner’s” body.  It was one last switcheroo, brass switched for gold, to let the con man get away.

Barkers and Beagles, 1930s

September 30th, 2013

When the TV show DuckTales debuted in September 1987, twenty-six years ago this month, it brought with it the infamous Beagle Boys and their matriarch, Ma Beagle. These were the main antagonists of Uncle Scrooge McDuck and his wards, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The whole world that DuckTales existed within was born from the pen of Carl Barks, the writer of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, with the debut of the pen-and-ink Beagle Boys hailing all the way from 1951.

In the book Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book a quote from Carl says the original Beagle Boys were based on “Capone’s gang and the different bunch of hoodlums around the country,” the kind of criminals that Banks would have read about in the news while growing up. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the combined impacts of Prohibition and the Great Depression brought out the worst in society, birthing the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger and his gang, and the Ma Baker Gang.

In my Dakota Datebook for today I write about North Dakota’s rare interaction with a famous criminal. Alvin Karpis was a second-rate car thief when he met the Barker Gang in 1931, and their partnership caused 5 years of mayhem throughout the Midwest. On September 30th, 1932, a couple Barker Brothers, Karpis, and some other accomplices crossed the Red River and robbed a bank in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Nobody was killed (although their hostages ended up the worse for wear), but that wasn’t always the case. The Barkers and Karpis had no problem killing bankers and policemen alike if they interfered with their robberies.

According to Barks and the Disney Comic Book, the creation of the Beagle Boys was a response to the previous antagonists in the Walt Disney comics: Huey, Dewey and Louie were the troublemakers, but the idea of showing kids as the rebellious anarchists wasn’t the family-friendly fare that the 1950s wanted. Barks created the Beagle Boys as a source of mayhem that can feel the effects of punishment, unlike the stars of the comic, and lose in the end.

Actually, not all of DuckTales’ Ma Beagle Gang originated from Carl Barks’ stories. Ma Beagle herself is a purely DuckTales creation, an evil counterpoint to the heroes, leading her dependents into a life of crime as opposed to Scrooge McDuck’s molding of Huey, Dewey, and Louie into proper citizens of Duckburg. Even in the Walt Disney Comics, the Beagle Boys were obsessively family-oriented. While Huey, Dewey, and Louie were siblings, they lacked parental figures. Uncle Donald and Uncle Scrooge were in charge, and according to the family tree the trio’s father was never even directly shown in the comics. The Beagle Boys of the comics were devoted brothers, with their criminal lineage going back for generations.

The addition of Ma Beagle to DuckTales brings that family connection right to the forefront: the Beagle family were the moral opposite of the adhoc family of Duck and McDuck protagonists of the cartoon. In the comics the Beagle Boys were known to be brothers, but aside from their identical resemblance their familyhood was never as explicit as in the cartoon. The addition of Ma Beagle as the leader of the gang created a villain, a specific leader that bound the Beagle Boy Gang together as a cohesive enemy.

Writing in Ma Beagle as the leader after-the-fact has its roots, probably unintentionally on the part of the DuckTales showrunner, in the original Barker Gang. There’s little, if any, mention of Ma Barker until her death in a FBI shootout in 1935. An FBI report from 1936 makes a big deal of Ma Barker’s involvement in her son’s crime, but before 1935 the Barker sons were well known to the police while the phrase “Ma Barker” never appeared in a single newspaper. The gang was regularly called the Karpis-Barker Gang, or just the Barker Gang, but “Ma” wasn’t added until the late 30s.

The addition of Ma Barker to the story appears to be the creation of J Edgar Hoover. The Barker Boys had at times moved their elderly mother with them as they traded one hideout for another, but while she was likely complicit in their crimes there is little evidence that she was involved in any, let alone as a mastermind of some criminal empire. One of the Barker accomplices said, “the old woman couldn’t even organize breakfast,” and Alvin Karpis himself described her as just an old lady they lived with. Hoover’s concern was that the press would not be very complimentary over finding out that a 61-year-old woman died in a hail of FBI gunfire. A story was concocted that she had died with a Tommy Gun in her hands — and like Carl Barks’ Beagle Boys, the FBI now had identified their enemy, a criminal leader defeated and justice served.

Esperanto in the US, 1910

August 11th, 2013

The 6th World Congress of Esperanto, held in Washington D.C. in August 1910, had reached its peak with an address by the language’s creator, Ludwig Zamenhof, on August 15th. Entitled “Lando de Libereco,” Zamenhof complimented the United States for being a land without tribe or church, a place of freedom and cooperation. A full English translation is here. Zamenhof and about 300 of his fellow Esperantists had come to the U.S. in hopes of reaching the ‘melting pot’ of American society, which in many ways resembled the construction of Esperanto. As such, 1910 was one of the ‘peaks’ in Esperanto interest in the U.S., reaching as far as North Dakota that year.

Zamenhof’s address describes the U.S. as a world power several years before WWI proved it, and his hope that America could help provide a foothold in making an international language was in the right place but unsuccessful. Much the opposite happened: the combination of the 19th century British Empire and the U.S.’ world domination in the 20th century only further established English as the lingua franca for international correspondence.

Zamenhof’s interest in leveling the world language playing field got him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize numerous times, and he reached serious contention also in 1910, losing out to the International Peace Bureau. Probably a good sign, Hitler described Esperanto in Mein Kampf as yet another of the ways the Jewish people (Zamnehof was Jewish) were setting themselves up for world domination, and the Nazi expansion further prosecuted Esperanto speakers. Those World Wars also disrupted the schedule of Esperanto World Congresses, and further weakened the spread of Esperanto. It received a bit of resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s, with the world-positive hippie movement and the infamous Shatner movie Incubus.


Despite the fading non-academic interest in Esperanto in the U.S., the United States branch of the language is still doing its best to spread the good word, but it finds itself awash in a flood of other constructed languages. Esperanto is the honorable great-grandfather of the modern Conlang community, a group of people who have been developing and spreading their own manufactured languages. While the Esperantists of the early 20th century had to spread printed text and schedule their conventions around the world, the internet has created a means for new languages to disperse around the world without the same limitations Esperanto experienced. In a sense, now Esperanto is but one drop in a pool of creative and innovative manufactured languages — practically the opposite of Zamenhof’s intentions. The Late Rev. Glen Proechel was a fluent Esperantist who dabbled in Klingon — in the early nineties Proechel worked on the Klingon Bible translation, wrote primers on speaking Klingon, and  ran a Klingon Language Camp in Red Lake Falls, MN (see a sample newsletter here), further blurring the line between what constitutes a “real” language. The Klingon camp may not be operating any longer, but the World Congress of Esperanto is still running, and in 2014 will be held in Buenos Aires Argentina.

Secession And The US

July 17th, 2013

That cool cat up there is “Wild Bill” Langer, voting in the 1940 election that would send Mr. Langer to Washington.    Nothing was ever easy for William Langer: when he got to Washington, Congress refused to seat him.  They cited a history of lawbreaking, bribery, an attempt to secede from the United States, felonies, and general ethical shortcomings as reasons why he was unfit to be a Senator.

Wait, back up a bit:  sedition?  Yup, as you’ll hear in my Dakota Datebook for today, Langer decided nobody was going to remove him from office, so he called out the National Guard and proclaimed that North Dakota had declared independence.   His intentions are a bit clearer when you combine the two; just signing a Declaration of Independence for political reasons isn’t all that remarkable.   However, Langer claimed he called in the National Guard because of protestors around the capitol grounds.  His executive order, however, covered the entire state.   When the leaders of a developing nation, fearing a coup through the courts, call out the military, declare martial law, and issue a declaration of independence, the international news starts to declare either fascism or rebellion.

In Langer’s case, all was forgotten the next day.   Even the Congressional records of his Senate hearings only briefly cover his Declaration of Independence.  The biography The Dakota Maverick barely mentions the event.  It’s almost like people would rather forget that Langer got that close to really following through on his intentions.

Whenever the U.S. has been heavily divided politically, the secessionists come out of the woodwork.  There are currently a number of active secessionist movements operating in the U.S., from Hawaiian royalty to white supremacists to Native Americans.  Some of it is honest interest in establishing an independent nation, but much of it is rhetoric to emphasize how important a policy or stance is to the group.   They believe in their position so much they are willing to leave the United States to prove how important it is.

In this way, Langer was late to the came with secessionist talk.   Two years earlier, North Dakota state senator William Martin passed a resolution to advocate for secession — not just North Dakota, but a huge chunk of the west.   His motivation was due to percieved abuse by Eastern financial interests of the poor western farmer, who had been hard hit by the Depression and hadn’t recovered despite the banking industry’s rebound (sound familiar?).   Here’s what Martin’s US would look like:

This is pretty clearly more about making a point than creating a functioning nation;  Martin knew it, and when the national news started calling his motion sedition, he downplayed it as rhetoric.   Martin’s archives at the State Historical Society are almost 100% letters of support from around the U.S., thanking him for pushing his opinion through a secessionist statement, because people stood up and paid attention.

The difference between Martin’s secessionist motion, or the micronation movements, or actual seditionists, is the lack of power.   Few have any actual position of power to actually put secession into motion.  They need a leader, with financial and military power, to back their separation.

This is why Langer’s secession should have been more terrifying than any other secessionist movement:  Langer had a vibrant set of followers in his wing of the Non-Partisan League; he had power over the National Guard and support form the leaders in the Guard; the Bank of North Dakota and the State Elevator both put the state itself in a position of economic power.    When Langer and his followers signed the Declaration of Independence, the Supreme Court hadn’t yet filed their motion to remove Langer from office.  ”Wild Bill” Langer was entirely in power, with all of his assets and support, when he declared independence.    Of all the United States secessionist movements that have gotten close to actually getting their way, Langer did them one better:  he actually had the power to execute it and then actually did it.

Amenia, ND, 1880s.

July 15th, 2013

If you head north on Highway 18 from Casselton, on your way to Arthur and Hunter, you’ll pass by the little town of Amenia.  You might not even notice it: the highway takes a bend to the east, and a thick shelterbelt blocks the view of town, other than the grain elevator peeking over the trees like a giant on patrol.

Eben Chafee was an old man when his family contributed a large chunk of money to what would become the Amenia and Sharon Land Company.   The investment group had bought railroad shares, which hadn’t done well in the 1870s, and they cashed in their stock to reinvest in something else West-related.   Rather than trains, the group bought land in Cass County, North Dakota, and send ‘ol Eben west to run the place.

Most of the other “bonanza” farms were merely owners, not farmers; the investors managed inventory and land and workers, but land was leased out, or crops were grown on a cost-sharing method, so there wasn’t a whole lot of tools lifted by the full owners of a bonanza farm.    Chaffee saw things differently:  sure, it was a lot of work to grow crops, and labor was expensive, but Chafee knew that the fertile land of North Dakota could be very profitable if the Amenia and Sharon Land Company controlled everything, from seed to trains.

They attempted to build their own rail line, but not much came of it; the big railroad companies were happy to run rail lines themselves where needed.   Everything else, though, Chaffee build himself: a network of grain elevators, towns full of general stores and blacksmiths and gas stations and hotels, everything needed to support an army of farmers hired to work the land for the Amenia and Sharon Land Company.

The company existed until the 1920s, well past the age of the bonanza farm, but the towns Chaffee built are still there.   Amenia may not be much today, less than a hundred residents on the census, but in its day the town was a industrial hub, providing a valuable service to hundreds of farmers, all for the profit of the Amenia and Sharon Land Company.

The town might not be visible, but Amenia was where this photo was taken — which was immortalized on a two-cent stamp commissioned for the 1891 Trans-Mississippi Exposition.   The stamp shows Chaffee’s farmers working the land with a massive horse teams all lined up.   This stamp bent the rules a bit: only in the past years have US Postal Service rules allowed for a living person to appear on a postage stamp.     In the “Farming in the West” stamp, however, it was quite certain that there were at least a couple of the people in the photo still living when the stamp was released.   Although the town of Amenia might not have the value it once did, the “Farming in the West” stamp still holds value to stamp collectors.

Learn more about Chaffee and the founding of Amenia in the Dakota Datebook story I filed for today.

The Steamboat Montana

July 5th, 2013

My Dakota Datebook today tells the tale of the Wreck of the Montana.   In June, 1879, a tornado hit the boat landing at Bismarck, wreaking havoc on the steamboats moored there.   Three were tied up; the Montana’s sister-ship Dakotah and the Col. Mcleod made it through with minor damage.  The Montana, pictured below, didn’t fare so well.

The Coulson Line had the largest, fastest, and finest fleet of steamboats on the Missouri River.   In early 1879, the newly-launched Montana was their flagship of a half dozen large riverboats.   She was 250 feet long, 48′-6” wide, and had a two-cylinder steam engine.  Each cylinder was 18″ across and had a seven foot stroke — a massive engine to push around the largest stern paddle wheel  ever made, eighteen feet in diameter and 36 feet long.  The size of the Montana provided plenty of room for both passenger cabins and cargo holds, and even with 500 tons of weight on board only drew 3 feet of water.

In June of 1879, Captain Buesen had climbed to the top of the Montana to make sure the smokestacks were secure — unfortunately, they were about the only thing that survived when the tornado hit, along with the hull.   The cabins were torn apart, the pilot house is tipped forward over the bow, mass destruction ensued.   Only four members of the crew were on board when bad weather hit, and all survived with minor injuries.  The Montana, however, had to be sent in for repairs.

After a season in the shop, the Montana was put back into service on the lower Missouri and possibly also on the Mississippi and Ohio for a time.

On June 22, 1884, however, the Montana made its last voyage.  Loaded with freight, the steamboat hit either a submerged log or a bridge piling and sank near Bridgeton, Missouri.  The captain at the time, Bill Massie, managed to limp the Montana onto a sandbar near shore where the boat finally sank to the bottom in only a few feet of water.  The shallow wreck allowed for much of the cargo to be salvaged.

The Montana, however, rises from its grave from time to time.   The wreck was never entirely salvaged; when the water level of the Missouri drops due to drought, like last fall, you can see the remains of the Montana’s hull in the muddy banks of the river.  This has been a boon to researchers, who have little left to go on for these huge steamboats of the Missouri.

You can learn more about the Montana in the book The Steamboat Montana and the Opening of the West, which I sadly have not read yet but is now on my list.


May 25th, 2013

I found this compelling article in the 18 June 1931 issue of The Beach (N.D.) Advance:

It reads:


All India is gossiping over Mahatma Gandhi’s unprecedented action in laying aside his spinning wheel and his h. e-uloo SHRDLU EATOISHSHSHRD.–Boston Transcript.

The article probably wasn’t run out of any newsman dedication to at least communicating part of the Gandhi spinning-wheel story.   More than likely, it was a case of professional schadenfreude.  Who would be so careless as to send out such a thing over the wires?  Those Boston newspapermen are running a shoddy ship, it seems.

You might want to blame static or some other signal interruption as the cause of such confusion, but there’s a clue here to prove the gibberish has an entirely human source.   You know the modern interface as the QWERTY keyboard — the reason we have to add QWERTY at the beginning is because then (and to a lesser extent now) people have devised other typing layouts for the sweet-spot of functionality, speed, and usability, so we name some keyboards by a pronounceable sequence of keys in order.

The top two lines of the Linotype keyboard are as follows:  ETAOIN and SHRDLU .  It would appear that the underpaid and underappreciated Bonston Linotypist messed up his text by hitting a few wrong keys — the “h. e-uio,o” part — and then signalled his failure by running his fingers down the keyboard to indicate the failed type.  Having done the keys out of order, or through some other carelessness, the text went out on the wires nonetheless.   What else is there to do when you’ve got a couple inches to fill and you’re just trying your best to run a ship-shape newspaper in far western North Dakota?  Run a bit of somebody else’s failure, and then get on with your day — another paper is due in only a few hours.