Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Senator Who Was Shot Over Slavery

About two years before the first shots deep in the South signaled the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, two men met on a field in California and dueled. The subject? Slavery. The duel was important because it showed how feelings over slavery in the United States were already tearing the country apart, even before 1861.

Photo of Senator Broderick
The men were pro-slavery Chief Justice David Terry of the California Supreme Court and Senator David Broderick (Democrat-California.) Two prominent and fairly well-known figures, their fiery positions and actions were a glimpse into what lay ahead in the 1860's.

Terry was from Kentucky; Broderick was born in Washington, D.C., but his family later moved to New York City. Even with the Republicans as the leading abolitionist party, there was still an anti-slavery section of the Democratic party. Terry didn't like this and leveled personal attacks on Senator Broderick. Terry said the abolitionist Democrats have no identity, that they were simply the followers of a single man, that they followed every whim of David Broderick. He even mocked them for saying they were supported by Stephen Douglas, D-IL., who tried to straddle both sides of the debate and went on to loose his bid for the presidency in 1860.

Terry said of Broderick, "Perhaps they do sail under the flag of Douglas, but it is the banner of the black Douglass, whose name is Frederick, not Stephen," Since Frederick Douglass was a freed slave, this was considered an insult.

A series of notes between the two men escalated the tension and the publicity. California at that time was truly the wild west and many newspapers announced duels as if they were a spectacle to behold.

So it was that on September 13th, 1859, Terry and Broderick faced off. They were at the San Francisco-San Mateo county line-Lake Merced. Dozens of people came to watch.

Broderick fired first, but his gun misfired. Justice Terry had better luck: he fired a bullet into Broderick's chest and the Senator died a few days later.

Broderick reportedly said from his deathbed: "They have killed me because I was opposed to slavery and a corrupt administration."

Terry went on to join the Confederate army and was killed in 1889 by the bodyguard of another Supreme Court Justice.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Day San Francisco Was Destroyed

San Francisco burns, 1906
Natural disasters are always life-changing events. Some are more remembered than others. One such event was the great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. As if the earthquake itself wasn't enough, hundreds died in the great fire that erupted and burned for four days and cost an estimated $500 million in early 20th century dollars.

On the morning of April 18, 1906, at 5:25 am, there was a small quake that was felt throughout all of the Bay area. About 25 seconds later, an estimated 8.3 earthquake struck the city, with devastating affect. Buildings crumbled, streets tore open like gaping mouths, and cries filled the air.

Once the shaking stopped, the real terror began: the fires. It spread from building to building without mercy; poorly constructed wooden fixtures collapsed. People were trapped inside with no means of escape. The streets liquefied and collapsed. There was nowhere to run.

The fire department was ill-equipped to fight the blaze. A few firemen fought with knapsacks, brooms, and a fraction of water from an operating hydrant at 20th and Church. But it wasn't enough. The fire continued to spread over the next four days. On 395 Hayes Street, the "Ham and Egg" fire would break out, destroying part of the Western Addition, the Mechanics' Pavilion, and City Hall. It then jumped to Market Street where the Winchester Hotel caught fire and collapsed.

Market Street as it burned
The Hearst Building at Third and Market streets became engulfed in flames and collapsed. At first the wounded were sent to the Mechanics' Pavillion, but when the fire approached they were evacuated. The same happened at St. Mary's Hospital. Shortly thereafter, the entire Financial District caught fire and began to burn.

The city in ruin
Postal Telegraph operators transmitted their last message to the outside world as army troops ordered them from the building at 534 Market St., opposite Second St., at 2:20 p.m. because of the approaching fire. Mayor Schmitz was confident that downtown could be saved, but fire broke out at the Delmonico Restaurant in the Alcazar Theatre Building. It turned to downtown and Nob Hill.

As the fire department began to dynamite buildings to stop the blaze, all they did was keep it spreading. In the end, they never put out the fire. It simply burned itself out. The estimated damage was $500 million dollars and the death toll was estimated at 1000. Three-quarters of San Francisco had burned to the ground.

Here is incredible footage of the aftermath of the fire, from The Library of Congress. If you can't view the video on your device, click here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Man Who Stole From Hitler

The long-lost photo album from Hitler's private collection

World War II. The last great, justified war was raging across Europe; thousands were slaughter by the the Third Reich and the Hitler propaganda machine.

John Pistone was a soldier in the war, and found himself in the Bavarian Alps, near Berchtergaden, Germany. Deep in enemy territory, he found himself in front of house that was abandoned quickly, one he recognized.

Adolph Hitler's home.

He and the other soldiers with him rushed in to the house, looking around, excited about where they were and looking for anything useful. While in the home, he noticed tables; there were hidden shelves beneath and none of them were locked. The shelves were full of photo albums and Pistone helped himself to one. Inside the album endless pictures of paintings.

After the war, Pistone returned with the book to the United States. Sixty-four years later, a friend noticed the book on a bookshelf and took a look. He did some research and contacted the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, who were in the business of restitution of other albums stolen from Jewish families by the Nazi's. They examined the book and noticing the stamp on the book's spine, "Gemaldegalerie Linz" and the number 13, realized what it was. The album was part of a series that was put together for the Fuhrer; he was planning a museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria.

All of the art Hitler wanted for his museum was stolen or confiscated. Pistone's book contained some of Hitler's favorites, including a photo of Adolf von Menzel's painting of Frederick the Great that hung in Hitler's office in Munich.

Pistone took what he thought was a souvenir. Instead, he preserved an important part of history at the same time he was saving the world.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Day the Airwaves Were Taken Over

Public broadcasts over the airwaves began, at least in America, through RCA in 1939. For the next 48 years, everything worked the way it should, the way it was expected. What came over the airwaves was meant to come over the airwaves. But all that changed in 1987, when, for a few minutes on one crisp, November evening, television screens in Chicago were taken over by an unknown, masked man who declared, among other things, that “I stole CBS.” It wasn’t the first attempted takeover of airwaves in America, but it was the most successful.

It all started on the evening of November 22, 1987, during a broadcast of WGN-TV News Network. Dan Roan, the sports anchor for the station, was going over the day’s highlight reel of football games. Suddenly, the monitors at the station, as well as the picture on the thousands of television sets tuned into the broadcast, began to flicker and wave. Dan Roan was gone, and in his place was suddenly a man wearing a rubber mask of TV character Max Headroom, a character that was only a head and shoulders against a computer generated backdrop, who spoke chaotically, with pitches going up and down, or getting stuck on a single word that repeated. The masked man stood in front of swaying, metal background; his presence odd and disturbing and he simply looked on, dancing slightly, as if staring right through the screen to the viewer at home. There was no audio, only a low buzzing noise. Then, just as quickly, he was gone. WGN-TV’s technicians retrieved the pirated transmission by quickly switching transmitters. The picture reverted back to Dan Roan, who was visibly flustered.

“Well, if you’re wondering what happened… so am I,” he simply replied.

But the night was just beginning for Chicago residents left scratching their heads.

Exactly two hours after the initial pirating incident, Chicago’s PBS affiliate, WTTW, was broadcasting an episode of the British TV series, Doctor Who. At 11:15 pm, the image of Doctor Who began to dance, then fuzzed out. Suddenly, the Max Headroom-masked man was back, standing once again in front of a gyrating, metal backdrop. This time, he spoke. His voice was highly distorted and his words were random, if not direct. He said, among other things:

“He’s a freaky nerd!”
“Your love is fading.”
“Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece printed all over the greatest world newspaper nerds.” (This was a reference to WGN-TV. WGN stood for World’s Greatest Newspaper.)
“They’re coming to get me!”

He also hummed the theme song to Clutch Cargo, a TV series from 1959. WTTW had no technicians on site that night, and were helpless to stop the pirated broadcast. It ended after 90 seconds, just after the masked man dropped his pants and was spanked by an unseen assistant. What follows is video from the WTTW broadcast. (The pirating begins at :31):

The FCC and the FBI quickly launched separate investigations into the incident. They concluded that since WTTW antenna was 1,454 feet above the ground, atop the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago, the pirater somehow overran the initial signal by sending out a stronger one, most likely beamed from another rooftop. However, no evidence could be found and there was nothing that could be done to find the masked man.

His identity and motives remain a mystery to this day, nearly 25 years later. His choice of Max Headroom as a mask is curious: The TV show that Max Headroom came from was set in a desolate future, where television corporations controlled everything, and those fighting against the evil regime sent out their messages via pirated television signals.