The Haymarket Riot, Truth and Truthiness

Timothy Messer-Kruse became interested in US history textbook claims that no evidence linked the bombing and subsequent conviction and execution of seven defendants in the 1886 rally in support of working men. He did a lot of digging and found out otherwise. (He has now published two books on the Haymarket Riot.) He went to Wikipedia, which has been widely (but not uniformly) praised for the way in which it builds knowledge through crowdsourcing, to edit its entry for “Haymarket Affair.”   Interestingly, he got a good scolding for his effort. It seems that his sources and proof didn’t match popular wisdom.    You can read his account  here, in The-Undue-Weight-of-Truth.

Diamond Jim’s Demise

The Austin Chronicle recently had a short review of UT history professor H.W. Brand’s recent book, The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield which it describes as “a sudsy melodrama” about a “scalawag, a showgirl, and a pistol-wielding pretty boy.” 

By page 98, Fisk is dead, but you can’t really feel entirely sorry for him.  Fiske, a contemporary of such Gilded Age legends as “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall and Cornelius Vanderbilt, aka Anderson Cooper’s great, great, great grandfather, was one shady character.   In 1866, he and his partner Jay Gould fought off Vanderbilt’s attempt to take control of the Erie RR by issuing phony stock. Then in 1869, the two conspired to corner the gold market.  (Think of that today, with gold selling at upwards of $1800 per ounce.)

Although a virtual outcast following what became known as the Black Friday scandal, Fisk hung on. A huge man, extremely extroverted, and the owner of a large wardrobe of loud clothing, “Jubilee Jim” Fisk fell desperately in love with a young divorcée and “actress,”  Josie Mansfield. Enter Edward Stokes, a handsome, smooth-talking oil man, and who also claimed Josie’s affection, then colluded with her to extort money from the hapless Fisk by threatening to reveal the financial chicanery the “Barnum of Wall Street” had detailed in his hand-written love letters to Josie.  Failing that, Stokes put an end to it all and shot Fisk dead. After which followed a massive funeral featuring a 200-piece band and Fisk’s own state militia unit.

Are there any characters like that around now? In an interview in the Austin American-Statesman, Prof. Brands said the closest modern parallel to Fisk is Donald Trump. “Fisk carried himself about New York the way that Trump carries himself about the world.”

A Pox on the Past

How would you feel if government employees burst into your room while you were sleeping, forced injections on you, and took your sick babies away to a hospital against your will? On the other hand, how would you feel if you lived in a city filled with fellow citizens who refused to get vaccinated against smallpox, thereby putting you at risk? Historian Michael Willrich talks about his new book, Pox: An American History, in this episode of NPR’s talk show “Fresh Air,” and tells some startling stories about the early enforcement of vaccination laws during the smallpox epidemics of 1898-1904. In New York and Boston, immigrants who often associated state interference in their lives with the regimes they’d come to America to escape were forced to submit to vaccinations. In the South, black people were scapegoated for the spread of the pox:

“There was one episode in Middlesboro, Ky., where the police and a group of vaccinators went into this African-American section of town, rounded up people outside this home, handcuffed the men and women and vaccinated them at gunpoint,” says Willrich. “It’s a shocking scene and very much at odds with our daily-held notions of American liberty.”

Given the recent uptick in parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated for fear of autism (see journalist Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus for that story), Willrich’s book has a great deal of contemporary relevance; I’ll be picking it up at the earliest opportunity.