Outlaw Tales of Oregon by Jim Yuskavitch

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Over the holidays a friend gave me book entitled Outlaw Tales of Oregon: True Stories of the Beaver State’s most Famous Infamous Crooks, Culprits and Cutthroats by Jim Yuskavitch. I must say I looked at it with a jaundiced eye since it looked like one of the books that you give children that has a sterile, sanitized version of history, somewhere between Paul Bunyon and George Washington cutting down an apple tree.

I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised. The stories were interesting, well researched and well written. They covered the nitty gritty of what the criminals did and made no excuses or whitewashing their actions for them.

The 12 stories covered a wide range of topics from vigilante gangs, range wars, mass murders, train and stagecoach hold ups and more. There are criminals that even the most casual reader wandering through the pages would recognize such as Black Bart and Butch Cassidy, as well as many that would only be familiar to a fan or Oregon history.

One of the stories that I really enjoyed was entitled Dave Tucker: From Bank Robbery to Redemption. It was about an embittered young man who robbed a bank, was captured and did time. But when he was released he reformed his life to such an extent that decades later he was made president of the bank that he had once tried to rob.

The author mentions some myths, such as one robber was reputed to be the first to say “Hands Up” during the commission of his crime, and then usually dismisses the myth. He has a fine eye for detaiuil noting one criminal was jailed three years for stealing $8, that Oregon had one of the first State Penitentiarys and that one character later committed the first train robbery in Canada, at the relative late date of 1904.

Another nice feature for me was that it mentioned so many cities, counties and areas that I was pretty unfamiliar with I got my map out and followed along to see where much of the action took place. Some of the town names are near where I live in Portland, and yet I had never heard of places such as Goble.

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It is interesting to see that it appears that there is an entire Outlaw series covering a range of states and I might get a few others to see what happened in a few other states, Alaska seems to be one that could be ripe with interesting crime, as does Montana. Interesting that the Montana cover closely resembles the Oregon cover.

Unusual Libraries

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If you like odd and obscure information the Atlas Obscura is the web site, and book, for you.  I avoided for years because I was sure that it was just one of those schlock sites that bait you in on shock headlines and then had very mundane articles that attempted to titillate.

There is some attempt at this at the Atlas, to be sure. The headline on the page I am looking at has an article about how during the siege of 1870 Parisians ate a host of animals from the zoo as well as ones such as cats and rats. However also on that page is articles on the search for Caligula’s pleasure ship, and a free speech issue that oddly enough involves an inflatable Mario plus many more.

A friend is a big fan and sent me a few stories. Then I saw a couple of additional articles that interested me and I started subscribing to its newsletter and now I look forward to the news letter every morning.

What brings me to raise this issue this morning is an article on libraries, but not just everyday libraries. It is about ten of the most unusual lending libraries. You always hear about community lending libraries that might offer garden tools or, well really that is about all I have heard about aside from books.

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Carnegie Library, Braddock, Penn.

I will not go into detail on all of them but they cover everything from seeds and fishing poles to umbrellas. While I knew about Andrew Carnegie and his huge role in the growth of libraries in America, the history of the Carnegie Library in Braddock, Penn. is very interesting. Originally it had not just books but billiard tables, a bathhouse, music hall, pool and bowling alley. It has naturally evolved over the years and now sports a major Art Lending Collection with offerings from local artists.

This type of information might seem useless, and it might be, but it also makes me wonder what is available in my area that I might be interested in. I will look around this afternoon and see; my lawnmower just bit the dust last weekend.

I noticed that book, Atlas Obscura: An Explorers Guide to the Hidden Wonders of the World is a New York Times best seller. I may have to add that to my birthday wish list.

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Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

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I knocked out one of my New Year’s resolution books, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson, about the devastating hurricane that hit Galveston in 1900. The book’s title comes from the main character Isaac Cline, the head of Galveston’s weather bureau.

I found it both very entertaining and very informative. Written in much the same style as Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, it intertwine Cline’s career, the history of weather forecasting and a good look at the people and city of Galveston at the turn of the century (or two.)

A brief history of hurricanes and a chronology of this particular storm as it moves across from the Atlantic into the Caribbean, precedes many chapters. Also included is how weather coverage, and even the considerations of whether air has mass and volume are dealt with, including some of history’s famous and not so famous. Along with Aristotle, Galileo, Christopher Columbus, Evangelista Torricelli,  Philo of Byzantium are Abalard of Bath all walk through the book. As do a large number of storms.

He provides a fascinating glimpse of the early days of the history of the weather bureau. It’s switching from control by the Army to Agriculture, its internal politics and how that impacted the reporting of hurricanes. In its early history there was certainly a colorful cast of characters ranging from embezzlers, grave robbers, pornographers and more. I may have to find a book on the department now that it sounds so fascinating.

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One interesting part of this is the rivalry between the native Cuban weather forecasters and the Americans who looked down upon them, and who now controlled the island after the Spanish American War. The Cubans called the storm correctly while the Americans missed by a good deal.

He story brings in number of other interesting people, some only for a second. Take for instance Sir Francis Beaufort, the developer of the Beaufort Wind Scale that is used to judge wind and storms. After he developed his system the British Royal Navy adopted it. The first captain to use it was Robert FitzRoy, himself an amateur meteorologist.  On his first journey with the scale he had onboard a young naturalist named Charles Darwin.

Others pace through the pages for a quick cameo, from Galveston resident and future award winning Hollywood director and writer  King Vidor, angle of mercy Clara Barton and publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.  One character that sounded very interesting, but mentioned only in passing was William Marsh Rice, an aging New York millionaire who decided to move his business from Galveston to Houston after the storm. Why was this interesting? It led to his valet and lawyer to hurry up their push to poison him and steal his fortune. If his name sounds vaguely familiar it is because his fortune founded William Rice Institute for the Advancement of Letters, or as it is better known today, Rice University.

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When the storm hits Galveston he clearly shows the devastation and impact on many families, including the Clines. You get a solid feel for how the geography of both Galveston the town and the water that surrounds it affected the impact of the storm.  Entire neighborhoods are destroyed. A moving wall of debris scours everything in its path, something that if I had seen in a movie I would most likely have scoffed at the idea.

The aftermath is heartrending. No space to bury bodies, and many unidentified or lost for every. Trains, bridges, ships, livestock, convents and more all washed away. It is nice to see how much aid and support came to the city, from the US Government, states, institutions (The Kansas State Insane Asylum sent $12.25) and individuals.

It’s interesting to note that at least two of the people involved, in the non-meteorologist category, traveled with portable barometers. I wonder how common that was? I now also now want to learn more about how they work.

Happy New Years

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It has been years since I made a real New Year’s resolution. The only ones I seem to be able to keep are ones like “I will eat more cookies” or “drink more beer.” Neither of which are in the spirit of what the resolutions are about. However those are ones that are within the realm of my abilities to meet. Not one such as lose all of the weight that I gained due to baking 15 dozen cookies over the holidays.

I am taking the leap this year and the difficulty level is 1. I want to read all of the books I have received as presents over the past few years. They are piling up and it’s not that they are not interesting, it’s just that others then get piled on top and I never seem to get to the bottom.

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I was twice embarrassed over the recent holidays by friends and family asking what I thought of a book someone had given me. In both cases I had not yet gotten around to reading them. To add insult to injury in both cases I was discussing some book that I had read. I know that this is just a prioritization of my reading list, which is if I had an actual list. In my defense I do not ignore all of the books, and have read a number of them, just apparently the ones that no one ever asks about again.

I just took an inventory of the books that fall into this category that are on the end table next to my sofa. I did not have the courage to look at the table in the bedroom or the bookshelves down stairs. Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James Hirsch, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning  of the Great War at Sea by Robert K Massie, QB: My Life Behind the Spiral by Steve Young, An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety  by Eric Schlosser, Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson and Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years by Mark Lewisohn

Speaking of New Years, I think all of the years I spent watching old Hollywood movies that had holiday parties has skewed my vision of what a New Years Eve party should be like. People dressed to the nines, funny hats, and lots of champagne, hilarity and hijinks. Instead they look like a church potluck, simply with more booze. It’s interesting how movies shape your vision of the world. When I was young I was surprised to find out that my father, who basically only wore suits and ties, and I have never seen him in a tee shirt to this day, did not have a top hat and tails like Fred Astaire. I thought everybody went to glittering balls and danced the night away. Reality can be so disappointing

Odd note of the week: Did you know that the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious means a fanciful formation and the word’s first documented use was in 1949?

Are you planning on mafficking this holiday season?

I often wonder how words end up becoming words. Also how they go out of use as well as how they came into use. Some are pretty obvious such as SCUBA and other acronyms that then take on a meaning. Not the history of every single word is interesting, and many that are are of no interest to me. However I came upon one that combined this interest with my love in history.  The latest is maffick. I have never encountered it before and doubt I will again, but it has an interesting history, according to A.Word.A.Day.

First what does it mean? I would be shocked if anyone knew and I asked a couple of friends from England and they had no clue. It is defined as to celebrate boisterously.  It comes from the breaking of the 217 day siege of the South African town of Mafeking on May 17, 1900 during the Boer War, (technically the Second Boer War.)

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I was aware of the war after finding a copy of Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War at the old Recycle Bookstore in downtown San Jose. It was the first time I had read anything about Africa aside from Tarzan novels and generic histories of Egypt. There was a whole world of colonization, Imperial policy, war and the use of concentration camps on civilians that I was completely unaware.  I still have the book somewhere in the house under stacks of other books that I will probably never read again and yet do not wish to give up.

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One of my favorite words in this category is gerrymander. I think that most people know that it means to manipulate the boundaries of a electoral district so that it favors a specific party or group. However I learned years ago that it was a portmanteau consisting of the words salamander and the last name of then Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. He redistricted the state to benefit his party in 1812 and someone noted that a few districts looked like salamanders. As a footnote it worked quite well for Gerry’s party.

Gettysburg: Day Three

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I have always been fascinated by the American Civil War ever since I read a book on it in fourth grade (mostly a picture book.) In the last several years by readings on this topic have fallen off a cliff and looking at my reading notes it has been more than four years since I last read a book on the topic. Sitting around the house are probably a dozen unread books on the war and so last week I picked up Gettysburg: Day Three by Jeffry D. Wert. I just loved the book.

There is a huge body of work covering the Battle of Gettysburg, from generalists such as Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton to Edwin B. Coddington’s excellent The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, and I have read about a dozen of them include the previously listed authors as well as a number of others. Included are the first two books on the battle by Harry W. Pfanz, but oddly enough not his third book which deals with the same topics as Wert’s book.

In Gettysburg: Day Three, I liked how he laid out the huge battlefield in small sections, laying out the terrain, the Corp and division commanders and then their field officers, all in small thumbnail descriptions. He broke out the individual sections of each area of the conflict and made it easy to follow the flow of combat. He goes to pains to talk about many of the artillery units and officers, and not just lump them into a general group. There are a number of features that helped bring out the battle for me that I had either missed previously or simply had not been covered in previous books. Before going further it has been years since I last read a book on this topic so I could have simply missed these items.  Among the pieces of information learned was: Brigadier General Henry Hunt, the head of the Union artillery, had a secret supply wagon train of 60 wagons that his superiors did not know about, with only the quartermaster Rufus Inglas in the know among top brass. I did not realize that Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s wound was from a nail. Was it fired from one of the artillery pieces that Confederate Major General Alexander Porter had following the troops during the charge? (Looking elsewhere it was from his saddle.) Speaking of Hancock, the one minor issue I had with the book is that he seems to have a smaller role than his reputation appears to have earned. But that is just a minor quibble. I had not realized that there was as chief of artillery for the confederacy, an officer named was a Brigadier man named William N. Pendleton or that colonel Alexander Porter was not General James Longstreet’s chief of artillery, but second in command. I later looked in a couple of other books that I had read on the topic and found that Pendleton was mentioned a number of times, but his impact was so minor it never registered.

The roles of George Meade and Robert E. Lee and their strengths and weaknesses during the battle are well examined as well as covering the limited role that the mounted arm or each army had during the third day. I believe that this book has reignited my interest in this topic and expect I will be reading more on it in the future, possibly starting with another of Wert’s books.

Boots and Saddles

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As previously mentioned my interest in the American Civil War has been reawakened after reading Gettysburg: Day Three. There was any number of men that served in the battle whose biographies or autobiographies I had not read and so decided to start there. And yet I ended up reading something that while centered on a Civil War officer, it was centered on his post war career. The topic was George Armstrong Custer.

I know that there is a whole field of study centered around him, but it has never really inflamed my imagination. Years ago I read Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell and while I remember that I enjoyed it a great deal I have only a faint remembrance of the book. I knew some basic facts about his war career-he graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point, was undeniably brave, having 11 horses shot out from under him during the war, and that he served under General Sheridan in his Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Oh, and I of course knew about his most famous post war battle, Little Big Horn.

There are a large number of well regarded books on Custer and yet the one that I selected was not one that I had gone looking for. Instead of some old, hoary historian’s look at his life I selected Boots and Saddles or Life in Dakota with General Custer, written after the disaster at Little Big Horn by his wife, Elizabeth (Libby) Bacon Custer. The book was one of several that she wrote both to lift herself out of the poverty she found herself after his death but also as part of an effort to rehabilitate his image, which naturally suffered a great deal after this death and the destruction of his command.

I greatly enjoyed the book and believe that it has to be looked at in two lights. The first is that it gives a great view of what it was like to travel with the cavalry in an area such as the Dakotas. There was a huge amount of detail that I had never realized, such as they had to bring along forage for the hoses when they started out in the spring due to the paucity of grass. When traveling, but not on campaign the units carried stoves, had laundresses, and a variety of camp helpers. Custer had two servants and over 40 dogs. The only soldiers’ wives that were allowed to accompany the troops, as opposed to the officers, were limited to ones that were employed as laundress, and so the men had to wait until an opening emerged in order to marry, or at least have his wife present in camp. Libby does a very good job describing life both on the road and in camp. Describing the countryside, their isolation, the difficulties of winter travel and the limitations of their diet are all well laid out.

One of the more amusing anecdotes was that an illegal bar near Fort Lincoln was called the Dew Drop Inn. I wonder how long that name has been in use in the United States. She also uses the term ‘hop’ to describe a dance. She claimed that the Indians had a superstitious respect for the telegram and that they were in very poor physical shape because they never did any work.

She also inadvertently points out some of the government’s many flaws in dealing with Native Americans. She talks about how the government wants them to go into agriculture and then laments later that nothing grows and what little does is consumed by swarms of grasshoppers. She discusses how they know that the Indian Agents are cheating the tribes by stealing supplies but that the War Department will do nothing for the starving Indians because to do so would shame the Interior Department, which handles the supplies.

Then there is the side of the book that talks about her husband. He had perfect musical pitch and tremendous recall for music. He was the best shot, the finest horseman and the strongest man in the unit. He was tremendously intellectual and read all of the time. The men serving under him adored him and that the officers were all one big happy family. It should be noted that several were related to him including his brother Tom, the first two time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Not having read very much about the man I really do not know what is true and what is not. I suspect a man that finished last at West Point and set a record for demerits, mostly for pranks, might not be the greatest scholar.

However her heartfelt love for her husband is very clear and the pride, fear, worry and concern that a military wife undergoes is also a strong undercurrent of the book. She deals with his death in just a few sentences but the strong emotion comes through. Accurate portrayal or not it is nice to know that the books not only were a literary success but that they provided for her for the rest of her life.