A Classy Post about a Loyal Dog with an Unfortunate Name

On the night of May 29, 1805 in the Montana wilderness, a group of intrepid and weary explorers got a shock when a large buffalo bull came charging across a river, pushed off a long, wooden canoe, and crashed his way through camp. The agitated beast stomped within eighteen inches of the heads of several of the sleeping men, causing a ruckus throughout the company before anyone had time to really react.

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Lewis and Clark and Seaman. St. Charles, Missouri. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Captain Meriwether Lewis journaled about the scare, expressing both his relief that none of the members of the Corps of Discovery had been hurt in the incident and his pride in his dog, whose fierce and heroic reaction to the buffalo had convinced it to change direction and run out of the camp. The dog referred to was a large black Newfoundlander named Seaman.

Said to be the only animal to have made the entire trip, Seaman was evidently a pretty special pooch. Lewis purchased his doggo for twenty dollars in Pittsburgh in 1803 while awaiting the completion of the boats for his upcoming journey through the vast wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase and to the Pacific Coast.

lewisandclarktrail
There may not be any Seaman on this sign, but we know he was all over the place on the trail.

Seaman was a great defender of his pack, a pretty good hunter of tasty squirrels, and a fearless retriever of whatever the men managed to shoot. He must have been an impressive animal because a Shawnee man wished to purchase him for three beaver pelts, an offer that made Lewis scoff.

The Newfie shows up sporadically in Lewis’s writings, but it’s clear from the mentions that Seaman was a favorite of all, filling the role of mascot for the expedition. And that’s kind of how he’s portrayed now, too. You can find Seaman statues and monuments all along the Lewis and Clark Trail, including St. Louis, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; Washburn, North Dakota; Great Falls, Montana; Seaside, Oregon; and many others.

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A less classy blogpost might find humor in stating that you can find Seaman all over the city of St. Charles.

You can also find him in St. Charles, Missouri, where the Corps of Discovery met up with Captain Lewis and Seaman to officially begin the journey to the west.

There, on the bank of the Missouri River, stands a fifteen-foot tall bronze statue of Lewis and Clark with their trusty canine companion. And in the last week or so, a lot more statues of Seaman have cropped up throughout the town, which this year celebrates its 250th anniversary.

To commemorate its Sestercentennial, the city commissioned local artists to decorate twenty-five statues of the famous dog that are now placed at local businesses throughout the town and that are starting to light up my Facebook feed as friends stumble on them and share obligatory pictures.

And I’m trying to be high-minded enough not to picture the meeting in which a member of the city’s promotions department pitched the idea that they should cover the whole town in Seaman. A number of other bloggers and journalists have been unable to resist the built-in, low-brow jokes. I find myself wondering whether the person who came up with the idea got fired, or got a raise.

Because people sure are talking about St. Charles, Missouri and its abundance of Seaman. I wasn’t the only person hunting him down for pictures on a pretty Wednesday afternoon. He is cute. And everyone loves a good doggo, even one with a possibly kind of funny-sounding name. You don’t have to be a dog person yourself to appreciate the aww factor of man’s best friend.

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Purple Seaman covered in popcorn on the streets of St. Charles.

The men of the Corps of Discovery certainly did. Even though hard times forced them to consume more than two hundred dogs during the expedition, Seaman made the entire journey alive and well.

Though it’s not entirely clear what happened to him after the trip, an 1814 account by Clergyman Timothy Alden writing about (then deceased) Meriwether Lewis, mentions the man’s dog who refused food and comfort, eventually dying of grief at the grave of his master.

It’s not a huge leap to assume that Seaman was the broken-hearted canine, a loyal pet that chased away a rampaging buffalo and became one of the greatest mascots in American history. He’s the kind of trusty companion worth remembering on the 250th anniversary of the town where his epic journey began, even if his name sounds a little funny. I mean, if you’re into that kind of humor.

 

All Your Kazoo Questions Answered

On January 28, 2019 American kazoo enthusiasts celebrated the 167th anniversary of their favorite instrument on what has come to be known as National Kazoo Day. I missed it this year, because I had no idea it existed. In fact, I’d given little thought to this funny instrument that anyone who can hum can easily master. But as I recently learned on a family spring break trip, there’s more to the humble kazoo than I had ever not even bothered to imagine.

electric kazoo
I can honestly say I never imagined this.

Looking to make some quirky vacation memories, my crew headed to the Kazoobie Kazoo Factory in Beaufort, South Carolina, the only producer of plastic kazoos in the United States.

As you might expect, it’s not a large operation, but the little factory does produce about one million high quality (they’re even dishwasher safe!) kazoos per year. More importantly, they give tours. And they answer all your kazoo questions—Yes. All of them.

It was there in the factory that I learned of African American Alabama Vest who conceived of the idea for the kazoo sometime in the 1840s and approached German-American clockmaker Thaddeus Von Clegg in Macon, Georgia to mock up a prototype. The two men then exhibited the new instrument, which they called the “Down-South Submarine,” at the 1852 Georgia State Fair. Though it wouldn’t be mass produced for another fifty years, the kazoo was born.

Or so the story goes. I tend to want to believe any story in which historical figures are represented on video as brightly colored kazoos with googly eyes, but it turns out the story might not really be all that reliable.kazoo patent

The first actual documentation of the kazoo comes from an 1883 patent issued to a W. H. Frost. Frost didn’t call his invention the “Down-South Submarine,” and it didn’t look a whole lot like the modern-day, boat-shaped kazoo found abandoned at the bottom of every kid’s toy box.

Something more similar to the classic design as we know it today was patented by George D. Smith in 1902. Within a few years, several factories had gone into production. The only remaining metal kazoo factory in the US can be found in Eden, New York, which claims to be the “Kazoo Capital of the World.”

If you ever spend spring break in New York (though I’m not sure why you would), you can tour The Kazoo Factory and Museum, too. I suspect you’ll have a good time. But for some great, silly family fun in Beaufort, South Carolina, I doubt you can beat Kazoobie Kazoos.

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Kazoo + Wazoo Horn + Bugle Bell = Wazoogle

At the end of the tour, each of the guests (and there were quite a few of us) got to make his or her own kazoo. Then we tested them with a moving rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” There were tears. Well, maybe not tears, but there were definitely giggles.

Next, we made our way to the store to trick out our new instruments with more kazoo accessories than I can honestly say I ever dreamed of. Yes, there are kazoo accessories. There are even electric kazoos, in case your death metal band is looking for that unique buzzing tone.

A few bands through the years have incorporated kazoos into their music, though the instrument hasn’t proven to have a lot of staying power on the professional music scene. It’s mostly been relegated to the bottom of the toy box. But on January 28, or thereabout, or really any day you want since the origin story is so sketchy anyway, consider digging out the kazoo you surely have lying around somewhere, and hum a little tune. It may not be fine music you produce, but it will probably make you giggle.

Considering Poll Dancing*

In 1936, Alf Landon did not become the president of the United States. Instead, Franklin Roosevelt handily won a second term. That surprised a few people. Mostly, it surprised the folks conducting polling for the Literary Digest, which had become accustomed, over the course of the previous five presidential elections, to getting it right.

One person that wasn’t surprised was journalist and ad executive George H. Gallup. He’d conducted a poll of his own, sampling a mere 50,000 likely voters while the Literary Digest received responses from 2.3 million of its subscribers.

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George H. Gallup. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In today’s culture surrounded by incessant talk of bias and misrepresentation of data, it might be fairly obvious the Literary Journal failed to take some things into account. It was certainly obvious to Gallup, who insisted that a large number of respondents didn’t matter nearly as much as making sure the collected sample was representative of a wide range of demographics. His rival pollsters (though they weren’t yet called that), were listening only to the folks who gravitated to their publication.

Gallup called the election of 1936 correctly and went on to develop the Gallup International Association, a world-wide collection of polling organizations, and later his own analytics company based in Washington, D.C. called Gallup, Inc. His name now represents the gold standard of scientific polls, and more often than not, they serve as pretty good predictors.

Of course, polls can still be wrong. The wording of questions can subtly introduce unintended bias, the timing of polls and the news cycle can interfere with results, or basic human nature can influence respondents to be less than forthcoming. But even knowing this can sometimes happen, I think opinion polls can still perform an important service in politics, in advertising, and in publishing.

 

phone
There will always be people (like me) who won’t answer their phones.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a professional pollster, and though I did fairly well in a statistics class in college, I’m probably not the person you want to call on to analyze your data. But I do have a question for you.

Some of you have been reading this blog for a long time, but others have discovered this little corner of the Internet more recently. For the benefit of those who don’t know much about me, let me first give you a little bit of background:

I am a writer of historical fiction who, at the advice of a friend, started writing this silly little history blog almost seven years ago. Much to my surprise and delight, some people kind of liked it and so once my first novel was under contract with a small press, I self-published a collection of some favorite posts from the first five years of the blog, as both a way to celebrate the silliness I seem to get away with in this space and also promote my forthcoming novel.

Then, like so many rotten small presses evidently do, my publisher essentially vanished, temporarily holding hostage the rights to my first novel. It’s a sad story you can read about (here) if you really want to. That’s when I decided to self-publish a companion novel to the first. It’s called Gentleman of Misfortune and I think it’s a pretty good book that you would like.

In less than a year my rights to the first book will return to me and I will finally share with the world another story that I am proud of and that I think you will like.

GofM-FrontCoverOnly
I don’t have cover art for the new book yet, but as the two novels are closely related, it will be something that jives with this.

This novel also had a title I liked very much and that I had a very good reason for wanting. As publishers will sometimes do, mine disagreed with me. After much deliberation, we came to a compromise and found a title we could both live with. So, here’s my question, in the form of a terribly informal, nonscientific poll:

Not knowing anything about the book outside of the fact that it’s a historical thriller closely related to Gentleman of Misfortune (I realize you may or may not have read it), which title do you find more compelling?

1. Smoke Rose to Heaven

2. Burned Over

If you have read Gentleman of Misfortune and the accompanying author’s note, or my other book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, which includes a preview of this finally forthcoming novel, then you probably can figure out which title is my original and which one is the compromise with a rotten publisher.

If that’s the case, please don’t let that influence your choice. I really am fond of each title. I’m just realizing that as this book returns to me, I once again have the freedom to choose and I’d love your (now hopelessly biased) opinion. You can either hop over to my Facebook page (here) and participate in the poll, or drop your choice in the comments below. If you feel really strongly one way or the other, you can even do both.

I know this poll wouldn’t hold up to the standards of George H. Gallup, and I might end up with the wrong title for the book, the one that means I’ll sell a handful of copies instead of the millions that will land me on the New York Times bestseller list. But that’s okay. I’d love your opinion anyway. Thanks!

*If you clicked on this post expecting an insightful consideration of POLE dancing, try this link instead. 😉

 

A Modern-Day Not-a-Fish Story

When in July of 1891, the ship Star of the East made it to port in Connecticut after a two-and-a-half-year journey, it brought with it a story of Biblical proportions. Among the ship’s crew was a relatively new sailor by the name of James Bartley, who had, in his short time at sea, become the center of one of the biggest fish stories ever told.

whale
Yes, dear reader, I am perfectly aware that this is a marine mammal and not actually a big fish. Thank you for your concern.

The previous February of that same year, the Star of the East, found itself whaling off the coast of South America, near the Falkland Islands. There, two longboats full of sailors tangled with a large whale. One of the two boats became upset by the harpooned creature, which was understandably also pretty upset. The crew believed two of the men, including James Bartley, lost to the deep.

That might have been the end of James Bartley’s story, but the crew managed at last to haul the great not-a-fish aboard their vessel and began the long process of dressing their catch, harvesting the valuable blubber. Before long, they noticed something strange—the dead whale’s stomach writhed as though it were about to birth an alien.alien birth

Because as anyone who has ever seen Alien can tell you, nothing good ever burst out of a creature where it didn’t belong in the first place, the sailors took their time getting the stomach opened up. When they did, out spilled James Bartley, alive, if not especially well.

Bleached by the whale’s intestinal juices, Bartley’s skin was white and shriveled and he spent the rest of his life mostly blind. As you might expect, he wasn’t in the best frame of mind either, and suffered the emotional effects of his marine mammal imprisonment for some time afterward. But apparently by July, he was ready to tell the world about his harrowing adventure and fulfill his role as the modern-day Jonah.

You might be a little skeptical of this story and you wouldn’t be alone. But the crew of the Star of the East backed up the sailor’s claims and Bible literalists jumped at the opportunity to share what they saw as scientific proof that anyone who wished to paint the Biblical Jonah story as allegorical was a dunderhead of the first rate.

Dubious details or not, the public loved the story of James Bartley and the whale. Even after the wife of Star of the East captain John Killam claimed in a letter fifteen years later that the story was entirely invented, the tale persisted, popping up every few years in small publications, Bible commentaries, and in Ripley’s Believe it or Not comic strip, complete with insistent claims that unnamed sailors and scientists say people get swallowed by whales all the time.

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Jonah is Spewed Forth by a Whale by Gustave Doré [Public domain]
Because it’s the kind of miraculous story people want to believe. So, it was pretty exciting when South African wildlife photographer Rainer Schimpf recently had a similar experience. While diving and photographing a sardine run near Port Elizabeth Harbor, Schimpf found himself head first inside the mouth of Bryde’s Whale.

Still, when I say it was a similar event, there were some important differences. First, there’s photographic evidence of the event. A colleague of Schimpf’s managed to snap a great shot of his flippered legs dangling from the side of the creature’s mouth. Also, this modern-day Jonah was not swallowed whole. In fact, in post-event interviews, the photographer confessed that he knew the whale could not swallow him. His only real concern was that the animal might drag him into the deep where he would surely drown.

Fortunately, the whale was clever enough to realize he didn’t care for the taste of wetsuit and was quick to spit out his accidental nibble as if it were a chicken bone, unharmed and with a great not-a-fish story to tell.

chicken bones
Not a bowl of sardines.

Because it is a great story. And so is the tale of James Bartley, even though it almost certainly didn’t contain even an ounce of truth. In 1991, a professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania named Edward B. Davis investigated the claim. He discovered that there really was a ship, though not a whaling vessel, called the Star of the East, and that it is plausible the ship might have been near the Falklands at the time of the alleged event. But what he also found is that among the thorough records available was not a single mention of a sailor by the name of James Bartley.

And that is where the not-a-fish story of James Bartley really does come to an end.

Wait—did you just make up a word?

Every week, or at least as closely as I can make it, I head out to a local restaurant where the waitress knows my order as soon as I walk in. I slide into the back room and take my place at a long table where, along with several other writers, I engage in the painful but necessary process of critique.

For nearly six years I’ve been subjecting my work, five or so pages at a time, to the scrutinizing eyes of more or less the same collection of critical readers.

We know each other well enough by now that the sting of harsh criticism isn’t too painful and any heaped-on praise is usually genuine. We each know the unique voices and styles of the others, share a great deal of respect for one another’s work, and have all become more skilled throughout our time together.

We’ve got a good thing going.

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A writer looking for just the right word.

My fellow critique partners focus on both the big stuff and the small details, asking me the tough questions about story structure and character development, as well as calling me out for awkward phrasing, run-on sentences that include fifty-eight overly sentimental words, use of ridiculous adverbs indiscriminately, exceptionally long lists, or for starting sentences with “but or “and.”

But they know that when it’s their turn to share, I will ask the tough questions too, like, “Wait—did you just make up a word?”

This very situation came up a couple of weeks ago. The writer (who shall remain nameless) smiled and explained that he did not just make it up, because it actually appears in previous works of his as well. I let it slide because the word (zorch) somehow fit the context remarkably well. And sometimes the word we need just doesn’t exist in the dictionary.

Other times, words that wind up in the dictionary are ones we don’t need. That’s what happened in second edition of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary in 1934. The story goes that in July of 1931, chemistry editor Austin M. Patterson made a note that the word density should be included on the list of words that could be represented by the abbreviations D or d.

Somehow the note got misplaced and ended up directed incorrectly to the printer. Before long, a curious word nerd could find, tucked into the Ds between Dorcopsis and doré, the word Dord, complete with a pronunciation guide and a definition suggesting that it was a synonym for density.

dictionary
So many words. photo credit: Merriam-Webster Inc. MW_Bookshelf_Unabridged_Vintage via photopin (license)

No one caught the problem until a word nerd extraordinaire and editor for Merriam-Webster noticed, almost eight years later, that Dord didn’t have an etymology. The resulting investigation resulted in the removal of the ghost word by 1940, but for almost ten years Dord was a perfectly good word.

And why shouldn’t it have been? English is, after all, a dynamic language. In recent years, English language dictionaries have added, on average, more than one thousand new words each year. So far, Dord hasn’t been one of them. Neither has zorch.

I am, however, pleased that the online Urban Dictionary includes three definitions for Merriam-Webster’s most famous not-a-word. The first states that it is a mistaken synonym for density. The third defines it as “a word that is incorrectly used or does not technically exist . . .” My favorite part about this definition is the clever accompanying sentence: “Urban Dictionary is not a place to learn, it’s just a load of dords.”

I’m sure my critique partners would be quick to point out that the previous sentence is a comma splice, but what matters more is the second definition, which uses dord as an adjective for describing something as literally dense. I suggest this should be taken one step further and used figuratively. For example, I might say to a fellow writer: “You must be pretty dord to try to use the word zorch.”

I think I’ll roll this out and see if it sticks. Maybe it’ll become one of Merriam-Webster’s thousand or so new words in its next edition.

What words do you wish existed?

Revision, Blogging, and Imaginary Fame

I confess I wasn’t going to post anything today. I love writing in this space and interacting with those readers who are kind enough to leave a comment, thereby publicly admitting that they have read my foolishness. Thursdays are blog days. Still, posting weekly sometimes gets a little overwhelming. Currently I am knee-deep in a novel revision of the type that never goes as smoothly as I think it will.

Part of the problem is that I get bogged down with little research questions. What, for example, besides the Bible, might a family have been reading aloud by the fire in 1836 in rural Pennsylvania? I am genuinely asking by the way, as this is a problem I’ve not yet managed to solve adequately. If you point me in the right direction, I promise to name you in the acknowledgments.

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Steve the Traveling Sock Monkey is ready to go!

I’m also in the middle of preparing to go on book tour.

That little sentence gets its own paragraph because it makes me giddy. The “tour” as I call it really is just a couple of bookstore signings tacked onto a trip to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival in (you guessed it) Augusta, Georgia, at the beginning of March.

I’m pretty excited about this because I do not live in Georgia. In fact, I have never lived in Georgia. I have never even lived in a state that borders Georgia. As thrilled as I am, I might as well be going on an international speaking tour.augustaliteraryfestival

Mark Twain did that. In the summer of 1895, the then fifty-nine-year-old great American humorist hit the road, delivering recitations of portions of his own impressive and hilarious works. He did this in front of large crowds all over the world from Australia to South Africa to Great Britain, where the report of his death was greatly exaggerated.Mark_Twain_circa_1890 It should probably be noted that he was not invited to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival, though admittedly, had it existed at the time, I’m sure he would have been welcome.

Twain embarked on his successful tour as a scheme to get himself out of debt. I’m hitting the road because I have a pretty great librarian sister-in-law who does live in Georgia and is the best cheerleader ever.

I’m pretty sure I won’t draw quite the crowds Mark Twain managed, but I do hope that if you, dear reader, happen to reside in the neighborhood of Augusta or Savannah, Georgia, maybe you’ll swing by to say hello. I’m probably not as funny and charming as Mark Twain, but I promise I’ll do my best.

I won’t be traveling as long as Mark Twain did, either. His great comedy tour lasted more than a year. Mine will be a long weekend. But because I imagine I’m famous (and sometimes coincidence works in my favor) I have a speaking engagement when I get back to the great state of Missouri, too. That one is sure to draw a crowd because I will be talking to an auditorium full of high school students who can choose to either attend my presentation or go to class. If I lose out to a physics lecture, I will be particularly disheartened.

Then finally, it will be back to work, answering tedious questions about life in the 1830s and writing, rewriting, revising, and yes most weeks, posting to this blog. Because Thursdays are blog days.

Huggin’ It Out for Millennia

It’s been about twelve years since the discovery of a Neolithic tomb near Mantua, Italy set archaeologists’ hearts aflutter. In this land associated with Shakespeare’s famous pair of tragically short-sighted and love-besotted teenagers, a team of archaeologists led by Elena Maria Menotti uncovered a six-thousand-year-old tomb for two. Inside were two skeletons, a male and female, with their arms and legs entwined.

And that’s when the team proved they’d paid attention in high school English class and demonstrated their worthiness to be involved in such a find by incessantly quoting Romeo & Juliet. Located in the village of Valdaro, the couple has become known as the Valdaro Lovers, and they represent the only such entwined remains ever to have been found.

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The Lovers of Valdaro. Dagmar Hollmann [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Although the couple did die young (probably somewhere around age eighteen or twenty) it seems unlikely they died violent deaths, each making the assumption the other has kicked the bucket because one of them was dumb enough to play opossum without bothering to clue in the other.

Unlike their Shakespearian counterparts, the Neolithic lovers evidently managed to survive the throes of perpetual hormonal concussion associated with human teenagers. While it’s not impossible that they died in one another’s arms, according to researchers, the bodies were most likely arranged in a peaceful embrace after death.

Their deaths may have been somewhat less tragic, but their eternal embrace touching. While most Neolithic skeletons are studied bone by bone, the Valdaro Lovers have never been separated, and I suppose that’s the way it should be.

We are living in a world in which the most often referenced example of literary love is a couple of teenagers who were convinced to commit suicide rather than survive the flush of their first intense crush. Separation, divorce, and heartbreak seems more common than a relationship that lasts a lifetime. So, it’s nice, especially on Valentine’s Day, to think of a couple whose love has survived millennia.

hug
Pretty sure my stress level went down just looking at this picture.

Besides, who doesn’t like a good hug? Research suggests that those of us giving and receiving regular hugs—at least 8 per day—are probably reaping some significant health benefits. Hugs lower stress, strengthen our immune systems, reduce pain, and boost oxytocin levels.

Apparently, that wasn’t enough for the young lovers of Vadaro, but they’ll keep trying. Thanks in part to the efforts of an association called the Lovers of Mantua, led by Professor Silvia Bagnoli, the two will remain forever entwined and on exhibit at the National Archaeological Museum of Mantua. This decision presents a difficulty when it comes to studying the couple, meaning their story—what pieces we might be able to find of it—may remain undiscovered. But it doesn’t really take fancy science to see the makings of a good love story.

Happy Valentine’s Day!