The Glorious Road to the Memorable 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

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Panem et Circenses. It’s a philosophy that goes back to ancient Rome. Literally translates from the original Latin as “Breads and Circuses,” it defines a strategy to mollify a potentially unruly populace by distracting them with basic needs and entertainment. It’s what you do if you’re not sure the sudden surge in pitchfork sales are destined for farms across your nation or a dense mob about to knock on your front door.

Such was the condition of France throughout the period of the French Revolution. The new government, recognizing its tenuous position, organized a series of festivities beginning with the Festival of the Federation held on July 14, 1790, a year to the day about that aforementioned mob stormed the Bastille. During the final stages of Révolution française, well after the Reign of Terror, the Directory ruled France. In 1798, a little more than a year before the coup d’état that ushered in a new triumvirate that included Napoleon Bonaparte, the Directory decided Continue Reading “The Glorious Road to the Memorable 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair”

First Man – A Titanic Odyssey of The Right Stuff

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What could be more fitting that, on the heels of the month where we celebrate the incredible voyage of Christopher Columbus, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on the movie First Man. The film depicts the life of Neil Armstrong and culminates in his historic voyage to the moon, a feat of exploration that, at the time and even today, has been compared with Columbus for its historical significance.

Imagine combining 2001: A Space Odyssey with The Right Stuff, then throwing in a pinch of Titanic at the end. That describes First Man.

First things first. Speaking of 2001, there’s a joke going around that Stanley Kubrik allowed Continue Reading “First Man – A Titanic Odyssey of The Right Stuff”

What’s More (Italian) American Than Baseball?

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It’s that time of year. “One, two, three strikes your out at the old ball game.” As we wallow in the World Series, who can help but remember the greatest of the greats. The line is long, but for some reason a lot of uniforms in that line sport pinstripes. Sandwiched in between Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on one side and Micky Mantle on the other side is the Yankee Clipper himself, Joe DiMaggio.

Joltin’ Joe was long retired and within a few months of renewing his relationship with Marilyn Monroe by the time I was born. Still, for some reason I always felt an affinity to him. In sixth grade the teacher gave us the assignment to write the biography of our hero. I chose Joe DiMaggio. What could I say. He’s Sicilian.

Continue Reading “What’s More (Italian) American Than Baseball?”

Charles Angelo Siringo, The Cowboy Detective – A Classic (Italian) American Archetype

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Ah, you’re wasting your time,” said the self-assured Butch. “They can’t track us over rocks.”

Sundance peered into the distance from behind the large boulder. “Tell them that,” he said, almost ashamed to disrespect the wisdom of his mentor.

Butch turned around to see for himself. He couldn’t believe what he saw. “They’re beginning to get on my nerves,” he said with a tinge of anger. Then, after a pause, added with heartfelt curiosity, “Who are those guys?”

“Those guys,” as they referred to in the 1969 classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, were Pinkerton Detectives. In the film, the Pinkertons chase the outlaws after their gang had robbed the Union Pacific train. Butch Cassidy identifies one of them as Joe LeFors. No matter how hard they try, they can’t escape the posse.

In real life, the Wilcox Train Robbery, as it has come to be known, took place in the early morning hours of a rainy June 2, 1899. At 2:09 AM, a number of masked robbers – from three to six, the accounts vary – held up the first section of the westbound Union Pacific Overland Flyer about a mile west of Wilcox, Wyoming. Officials immediately suspected Continue Reading “Charles Angelo Siringo, The Cowboy Detective – A Classic (Italian) American Archetype”

Declaration of (Italian) American Independence

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“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus/When he said the world was round…” So begins the lyrics of Ira Gershwin for brother George’s 1937 composition “They All Laughed.” The Gershwins wrote the song for the movie Shall We Dance, starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Frank Sinatra famously included the tune in his masterpiece Trilogy album, where he sings the closing lyrics “Who’s got the last laugh now?” with a knowing wink.

From Christopher Columbus to Frank Sinatra, it’s clear that Italians and Italian-Americans have had a tremendous impact on America. Over the next three weeks, we’ll focus on those names history books seem to have neglected.

Did you know Italian-Americans played a prominent role in the founding of America? For example, three of the first five American warships were named after Italians. These were Continue Reading “Declaration of (Italian) American Independence”

Celebrate! October is Italian-American Heritage Month!

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According to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of illegal lynchings between 1882 and 1962 was 4,736. This data was compiled by the Department of Records and Research, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama; and published in: Ploski, Harry, and Williams, James; The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on Afro-American, 4th ed. New York: Wiley, 1983. As you might suspect most of these lynchings (roughly 73%) were perpetrated upon blacks. It might astonish you, however, to learn the largest lynching event in U.S. history contained no black victims. Here’s how I discovered this fact.

A couple of weeks ago, Tim and Deb Smith’s “Mendon’s Historic Hamlets – Rochester Junction, Part 2” told the story of the death of Spencer Howe. The suspect, Nicolo DeNardo, fled the scene, but was later captured by police. The headline in the Democrat and Chronicle shouts “Struck Down by a Dago.” The casual use of that ethnic slur got me curious. Did other newspapers of that era also use it?

I quickly found out there’s an island called Dago in the Baltic Sea near the Gulf of Finland. Apparently, it was quite the popular place to wreck your ship in the eighteenth century.

I landed closer to my mark when I saw the following page two of the Friday, January 2nd, 1835 edition of The New York Evening Post. Here’s what it said: “Five Dollars Reward, for Continue Reading “Celebrate! October is Italian-American Heritage Month!”

Facebook and Free Speech

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There’s been a lot of talk among some in the media about the suppression of the First Amendment – every American’s right to free speech. Folks like to point to President Trump’s never-ending battle with his major media opponents. You hear a lot about Trump supporters shouting down national media celebrities. You can argue the anti-media crowd is merely exercising its First Amendment right to free speech, but that’s another topic. For all the ink spilled, one thing is certain: merely complaining about the press is a far cry from actually shutting down that press.

There is, however, another national actor that actually is shutting down the free press. And that could be a much bigger problem than the sum of all of President Trump’s tweets.

As of August 1, 2018, Facebook has blocked third-party tools from sharing posts on Facebook Profile pages. Professional journalists regularly use all social media platforms to distribute their content. To accomplish this most efficiently, they often use third-party tools as a one-stop vehicle to post to all their social media accounts simultaneously. It makes life easier. It allows us to exercise our free speech rights.

Lately, Facebook (and to some extent Twitter) has been shutting down our ability to exercise those free speech rights. I realize you can make the argument that Facebook is a private company and can do anything it wants. Indeed, the Supreme Court affirmed Facebook doesn’t have to sell me a cake if it doesn’t want to. But what I’m addressing here is not the letter of the law. Rather, I speak to the spirit of the law, or, more appropriately, the spirit of our constitution.

In the seemingly noble act of becoming a curator of the content that passes through it, Facebook has destroyed the one thing that attracted many to it: the ability to share their thoughts, ideas, and insights. In a sense, in order to prevent anyone from shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, they have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

This hit home most remarkably for both me personally and for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (“NSNC”), the organization in which I currently serve as president. In its July 3, 2018, issue, in conjunction with America’s celebration of its independence, USA Today was kind enough to print my editorial on the role of Revolutionary War pamphleteers in laying the foundation for what eventually became our First Amendment.

This op-ed proved quite popular (judging by the resulting explosion of my Twitter feed). To broaden its reach, the NSNC decided to boost the Facebook post of the article. Facebook rejected this, saying the piece was “political.” We don’t know how they came to that conclusion. Could it have been the word “Revolutionary”? Or maybe “War”? Our able communications officer remedied the situation and Facebook eventually ran the ad. We shrugged it off as an “Oh, well” moment and moved on.

But then August 1st hit. At least one of our members discovered “Facebook took down my column from earlier – including all the shares from my newspaper’s page – saying it violated Community Standards.” I read the column. I’m at a loss to explain how a story about a good Samaritan whose deed was captured by an onlooker in a picture that ended up going viral could violate Facebook’s “Community Standards.” It makes me wonder: Do I want to be part of a community that doesn’t encourage good Samaritanism? (In a delicious irony, the original picture was posted on Facebook.)

If you, like me, are a lover of free speech, then this sort of thing makes you cringe. I’m a good old-fashioned 19th-century liberal. That means, to borrow from William Blackstone’s Commentaries, (“Public Wrongs,” Book IV, Chapter 27, paragraph “Fourthly”), I’d rather see “ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”1 I may not be smart enough to run a billion dollar high tech company, but I know censorship when I see it. I’d much rather have to put up with the propaganda of three dozen fake Facebook accounts than see one innocent columnist’s work stricken from my Facebook feed.

So here’s the advice I offer – free of charge: ditch the computerized algorithms, allow folks the freedom to post any speech they want, and let the buyer beware.

Hamburger WhoDunIt Part VII: Those Amazing Menches Boys

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(The seventh part in a series of seven)

Brothers Charles and Frank Menches were prolific concessionaires. They didn’t start that way. By the time he was twenty, Charles had a “successful season” with the Bob Stickney circus. Contemporary reporters called him a “thoroughly proficient” trapeze artist.1 After spending several years as a high wire and trapeze artist with the Bob Stickney circus and the Old John Robinson circus, Charles decided to enter the concession business full-time with his brother Frank in 1884.2

Frank, six years younger than Charles, was no slouch when it came to athleticism, either. He was an award-winning bicycle racer, competing into his early twenties.3,4

Born in Canton, Ohio, the brothers dove into multiple business ventures at an early age. While working with the circus, Charles began dabbling in concession sales. Very quickly, he Continue Reading “Hamburger WhoDunIt Part VII: Those Amazing Menches Boys”

Hamburger WhoDunIt Part VI: A Day In Hamburger History – September 18, 1885 – Everything is the Same, Except, “You Are There!”

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(The sixth part in a series of seven)

“What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times… all things are as they were then, and you were there.”

– Walter Cronkite, at the conclusion of each episode of the CBS Series You Are There

On this day, September 18th, 1885, the last day of the Erie County Fair, Hiram P. Hopkins woke up to threatening skies. While the weather appeared ominous, he breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t see the clouds as presaging rain. Rather, he saw the southwesterly breeze as ushering in unusually warm temperatures. In exchange, he’d accept the oppressive humidity.

In the early morning, before the expected thousands of fairgoers arrived, Hiram strolled the grounds. Just a day earlier, the place was packed, the crowd so dense it was difficult to move. This morning the only people Hopkins could see were the many vendors prepping their booths for the final day. Popcorn, peanuts and candy sellers had a brisk business the day before. The same was true of those selling lemonade, pop, and sandwiches.

As he passed close to the grandstand, he noticed two young men fretting about. It was Continue Reading “Hamburger WhoDunIt Part VI: A Day In Hamburger History – September 18, 1885 – Everything is the Same, Except, “You Are There!””

Hamburger WhoDunIt Part V: CSI: Hamburg(er), N.Y.

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(The fifth part in a series of seven)

“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk..”

– Henry David Thoreau

And then there was one. Charles and Frank Menches were born in Canton, Ohio. Their father, Jacob Menches, an engineer in Prussia, immigrated to America and became a grocer in Canton. Their mother, Charlotte Hahn Menches, was originally from France. As young men, both boys were quite athletic. Charles as a well-regarded gymnast who travelled with a popular circus as a trapeze artist and high wire walker before he turned twenty.1 Frank, six years younger than Charles, was an award-winning bicycle racer.2,3

While the brothers’ lives contain several amazing stories, our focus here is on only one: Their role as (potentially) the first to sell a hamburg sandwich. How this story became known is itself a story. The brothers’ claim was widely known (the headline of Frank’s 1951 obituary reads “‘Inventor’ of Hamburger Dies.”4 The real story, however, lay hidden for half a century and was published decades after the brothers had passed away.Continue Reading “Hamburger WhoDunIt Part V: CSI: Hamburg(er), N.Y.”