Monday, July 30, 2012

The Drunk Vice President

On November 8, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln won re-election, defeating Geogre B. McClellan, former commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. The race was extremely lopsided, with Lincoln winning all but three states (Kentucky, New Jersey, and Delaware) and securing 212 electoral votes to McClellan's 21.

Four months later, on March 4, 1865, inauguration day arrived. It was raining heavily in Washington, but that didn't deter the festivities and the gathering of roughly 50,000 people. The day began, as it did back then, with the swearing in of the vice-president in the Senate Chamber. The room was packed with various House members, justices, diplomats, and other high-ranking governmnet officials, including President Lincoln himself, who sat himself down in the front row.

Andrew Johnson
At noon, the room was gathered into order, the doors opened, and Lincoln's first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, entered with Lincoln's second vice president, Andrew Johnson. Lincoln's decision to replace Hamlin with Johnson had been based on three factors: Hamlin had been a very ineffective vice president during Lincoln's first term; Hamlin had strong ties to the Radical Republicans, a group of politicians who strongly opposed slavery during the Civil War and now, after the war, distrusted ex-Confederates, demanded extremely harsh policies for the South, and strongly opposed Lincoln; Johnson was a southerner and having him on the ticket spoke volumes more for reconciliation than any speech by Lincoln ever could.

After Hamlin's remarks, it was Johnson's turn to speak, and it was obvious that he was drunk. The night before, Johnson had been drinking with the secretary of the Senate and this day had consumed three more glasses of whiskey before the ceremony, in an effort to cure an "illness."

With Lincoln simply closing his eyes and his jaw visibly tensed, Johnson's speech rambled on from topic to topic. Sometimes he whispered, other times he shouted. At times he seemed to forget where he was altogether. Hamlin attempted to get Johnson to leave the dais, but he refused, or ignored him. According to the US Senate website, Johnson said, "I am a plebian. I glory in it! I am going to tell you here today, yes today, in this place, the people are everything." At the end of the speech, he grabbed the bible and said, "I kiss this book in the face of my nation of the United States."

Later, President Lincoln would write to a cabinet member, who had concerns over Johnson and his ability to lead, and tell them that everything was just fine and that Andrew Johnson "ain't a drunkard."

A little over a month later, on April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson became president. He is considered to be one of the worst presidents in American history.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Cat Mayor

Talkeetna, Alaska, a little over 2 hours from Anchorage, sits between three rivers: the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna. The tiny town was established 1918 and in 2010 its population stood at 876. Its a rough place to live, with not much to do. The only industries in town are flightseeing, camping, fishing and hunting.

Fifteen years ago, the town was holding its elections for mayor. The citizens of Talkeetna were unhappy with all the candidates and were unsure and unwilling to vote for anyone. Then an idea popped into their heads.

Mayor Stubbs Facebook photo
They decided to write-in a candidate. They chose a new-born cat with no tail. 

The cat won by a landslide.

Today, newly re-elected, Mayor Stubbs has been a boon for the tiny town. In the nearly two decades since his election, tourism has boomed. Papers routinely write about the mayor and the town has no plans to replace him.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Woman Who Had Nothing But Millions

When Huguette Clark passed away at the age of 104 in May 2011, she left behind a few things: a bewildered family, an unknown identity, and an estate worth roughly $400 million. She left it all to her family…and she left none of it to her family. It was the final twist in a life full of mystery.

Huguette Clarke as a child
Ms. Huguette Clark, born on June 9, 1906, in Paris, France, was the daughter of United States Senator William Andrews Clark. Senator Clark of Montana, who lived from 1839 to 1925, and served one full term as a Democrat from 1901 to 1907, was known as one of the Copper Kings and was always mired in controversy. He was elected to the senate in 1900, but gave up the seat due to a bribery scandal, involving other legislators, and that scandal spawned the 17th Amendment, which gave the direct election of senators to the people, instead of the legislators that Clark was bribing. He was dubbed one of the Copper Kings because he made his fortune in copper mining, owning mines in Montana and Arizona, as well as owning numerous banks and newspapers, investing in real estate, and other profitable ventures. He was, at the beginning of the 20th century, either the richest or second-richest man in America, possibly behind only John D. Rockefeller himself.

Senator Clark shocked the world by announcing, when he was 64, that he had married in secret three years earlier, and had a daughter, Andrée. Huguette Clark was born two years later and in 1908, the family moved into a massive 121-room house, located at Fifth Avenue and 77th Street. Essentially a New York City mansion, the massive residence was filled with the French painting collection of the senator. Already, the young Ms. Clark lived a secluded, yet wealthy and privileged life. In 1925, Senator Clark died, and Huguette inherited one-fifth of his massive wealth. At a total value of $3.6 billion in today’s money, Huguette’s one-fifth share was equal to $700 million. (When her mother died in 1963, she inherited almost all that fortune too.)

Things began to get weird after that.

The last known photograph of
Huguette Clarke, circa 1930
Huguette became a recluse, so much so that the last known photograph of her was taken in 1930. Very little is known of her during this time. She married briefly but had no children. Her only full sister, Andrée, died at age 16 and also had no children. So everything became hers and she became more withdrawn. Her amassed wealth included a $100 million oceanfront estate in Santa Barbra, CA; a $20 million country house in CT; three apartments in New York, whose total combined value is estimated at nearly $100 million; priceless paintings by such masters as Renoir and Monet, and an equally priceless doll collection.

In 1991, she decided to live in various hospital rooms under numerous fake names, perhaps to end the emptiness she must have felt from nearly a lifetime alone. In 2010, a reporter discovered that her three apartments in New York were empty and she became fodder on the internet and tabloids, as people tried to figure out exactly who she was.

Huguette originally had two wills made out, when she was 19 and 22 respectively, that left everything to her mother. Under New York state law, these first two wills should leave everything to her current relatives making claims now, nearly 50 of them, all somehow related to Senator Clark. On March 7, 2005, she hand-wrote a new will, leaving $5 million to her long-time nurse, and only those relatives of hers that were related to her father from his first marriage. Then, six weeks later, on April 19, 2005, she wrote a new will, leaving her family nothing. In the new will, her nurse now received $34 million. Her attorney and her accountant, who worked on both wills, each received $500,000. Her doctor got $100,000. Finally, a massive amount of money went to a charity that is run by both her attorney and accountant.

So the fight begins over this lost fortune as both sides try to figure out what happened in that six-week span and try to piece together the mysterious puzzle that was the life of Huguette Clark.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Day the Mississippi River Ran Backward

The Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is part of the largest and most powerful river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States, it runs southward for 2,530 miles. It drains 31 different states and is the fourth longest and tenth biggest river in the world. But in 1811 and 1812, a series of powerful earthquakes struck so hard that for one day, the mighty Mississippi ran backward.

On the early morning of December 16, 1811, the tiny town of New Madrid, Mississippi, was struck by an earthquake. With less than a thousand residents in the area, there was little damage and no deaths. Then, a few hours later, between 7:15 and 8:15 am, another quake struck, only much larger in magnitude. This second quake registered an 8.6, knocked people off of their feet, snapped trees in half, and destroyed buildings in the area. The quake caused fissures to open in the ground, and sulphur pockets erupted. Thousands of acres of forest were flooded by the rise in the Mississippi river.

A third earthquake struck the same region on January 23, 1812. This one was slightly smaller, registering an 8.4, but causing the same type and amount of damage. Thankfully the death toll was lower, since the area was still recovering from the last great quake.

But the earth wasn't done with New Madrid just yet.

The destruction of New Madrid, Mississippi
On Februrary 7, 1812, at 4:45 am, the fourth and largest earthquake struck. It registered an 8.8 and the town of New Madrid was destroyed in seconds. The quake caused depressions in the waterbed of the river, creating massive whirlpools. The movement of the ground under the New Madrid area also created a thrust fault, where ground on one side of a fault moves up and over the other side of the fault. This thrust fault caused large sections of the Mississippi to rise up, creating huge waterfalls, throwing at least 30 ships around like paper, and forcing the waters of the river to flow north!

The quake was felt thousands of miles away: In Boston and Toronto, church bells rang with the swaying of the ground; walls in Cincinnati, Ohio crumbled; sidewalks spilt and cracked like eggs in Washington D.C. In and around the New Madrid area, large islands in the middle of the Mississippi, once used by pirates, disappeared forever. Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee and Big Lake in Arkansas were created in one night, as the river flowed into newly created depressions.

Damage comparison between New Madrid, MS in 1812
and Northridge, CA in 1994
It took several hours for the Mississippi River to correct itself and begin flowing south once again.

Aftershocks continued for several years after the series of earthquakes officially ended in March, 1812.

What was once the New Madrid area is still an active fault line. Experts predict that in the next 50 years, there is a 40 percent chance of 6.0 earthquake or greater on the New Madrid fault line, and a 10 percent chance of an earthquake between 7.5 and 8.0. An earthquake of 7.5 or greater in this area today would result in the largest natural disaster in United States history.