Trending in History: Giants and Jerkfaces

On October 16, 1869, on William Newell’s farm near Cardiff, New York, two men digging a well, hit something surprising with their shovels. What they eventually uncovered was a ten foot tall, 3,000 pound petrified man.

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Someone clearly had an unfortunate run-in with geode water. Excavation of the Cardiff Giant, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

For years, newspapers had been featuring reports of petrified men, believed to have come into contact with water from the inside of geodes. So no one had any doubt such a thing could happen. The good people of Cardiff flocked to see the giant, took selfies to post on Instagram and tweeted out the Syracuse Daily Standard article that dubbed the giant “a new wonder.”

Of course there were a few skeptics. Among them was Dr. Boynton, a local science lecturer who assumed the find was actually a large statue of historical significance. Noteworthy geologist and paleontologist James Hall liked this theory, calling the find, “the most remarkable object yet brought to light in our country,” a quote that once added to a picture of the respected scientist became a meme netting more than 120,000 likes and 15,000 shares on Facebook.

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Looks legit to me.

Many theologians got excited, too, pointing to the very large man as evidence supporting the literal interpretation of Genesis 6:4, which claims there were once giants on the earth. The news commentators and bloggers had a lot to work with.

But notably absent from most “media” coverage was the assessment of Yale paleontologist Othniel Marsh who stated upon seeing the Cardiff giant, “It is of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug…” Marsh wasn’t the only one to voice such outrageous ideas, but he might as well have not said anything, for all the good it did.

Most visitors adamantly claimed there was no way they would ever believe the giant had not once been a living, breathing creature. Because once a person’s decided to believe something, it’s hard to convince them not to.

Eventually, the man behind the humbuggery did confess. Cigar manufacturer, dedicated atheist, and cousin to Mr. Newell, George Hull admitted to having the statue commissioned and buried after engaging in a debate with a Methodist preacher over the literal interpretation of Genesis 6:4. He really just wanted to say, “Gotcha!”

As a bonus, he also made a pretty penny off his share in the scheme eventually selling his interest for nearly a half million adjusted 2017 dollars. He definitely fooled a lot of people and certainly supported the point that those who set out to make a point by fooling a lot of people, are kind of big jerkfaces.

Seriously, it was ALL OVER social media. #HumbugHull  #CardiffCon #GiantJerkface.

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P.T. Barnum, America’s favorite son of humbuggery, offered to buy the Cardiff Giant. When his offer was refused, he commissioned his own gypsum giant and claimed the first was a forgery. Like a boss. Public Domain, via Wikimedia

But I do think, unwittingly, Hull made another point, too. Because his giant was the fakest fake news of the day. That’s right, folks. We’ve ALWAYS had fake news. Just like we’ve ALWAYS had biased news. Because none of us, members of the media included, lives in a vacuum. Our experiences, our intentions, and our personalities, whether individual or institutional, all serve to inform our biases.

The media attention given to the Cardiff Giant rarely included expert voices that contradicted the sensational because sensational sells and improves SEO as its shared widely across platforms evidently designed to make otherwise reasonable and more or less kind-hearted people seem completely insane. So media outlets use (among other tactics) carefully worded headlines, precisely cut-off quotes, and selective expert interviews to make that happen.

So how do we combat this? First, I think we would all benefit from a deep breath. Then, the next time you think about clicking “share,” take a minute to analyze three things:

  1. The bias of the source (and, yes, there is one, see the previous paragraph)
  2. Your goal in sharing the piece (if it’s either to taunt or to yell, “Gotcha!” it’s possible you should reconsider)
  3. Whether or not the piece will further civil discourse (or whether you’re just behaving like kind of a jerkface).

I don’t mean to sound like I’m coming off heavy-handed here, though I admit that’s exactly what I’m doing. I don’t deny that I have an agenda. I want my social media feeds to be kinder, more civil places today than they were yesterday. I want to have informed conversations with informed adults who don’t always agree with me, but whose opinions are interesting and worth giving some serious consideration. And I want the media to stop reporting about how biased the media is, because, frankly, that’s super old news.

So I hope you’ll remember George Hull and the Cardiff Giant and give some thought to my terribly biased interpretation of the way we should view his story. I hope, too, that at some point you will begin to question the authority of a history blogger who insists that #GiantJerkface was trending on Twitter in 1869. And, last but not least, I hope you are careful to avoid contact with geode water (which I think sells for $7 a bottle at Whole Foods), because I’d hate to see you get petrified, and I read somewhere that can happen.

Anything You Can Do, Has Probably Already Been Done by a Fictional Character

On November 14, 1889, journalist Elizabeth Bisland began an epic journey. Departing from New York with little luggage and only six hours notice from the owner of the monthly family magazine Cosmopolitan (yes, the same one that now embarrasses you in front of your family at the checkout), Bismuth headed west across the US. Her goal was to race around the world in less than eighty days, faster than the fictional Phileas Fogg.

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Elizabeth Bisland, wearing her game face.  (New York Public Library Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But beating the eccentric Jules Verne character wasn’t all she had in mind, because the real purpose of Bisland’s trip was to outstrip fellow journalist Nellie Bly, dispatched by New York World the same day, heading east on a steamer across the Atlantic on her own Fogg-esque  journey.

The difference between the two was that Bly had no idea she was competing against anyone. She didn’t learn of Bisland’s trip until December 24 when someone in Hong Kong told her they thought she’d likely lose.

A few weeks ago, I set out on an epic journey of my own. A friend proposed starting a group on Facebook to motivate people who wanted to resolve to be better versions of themselves in the coming year. She suggested we all attempt to walk 2,017 miles in 2017.

That breaks down to about 5 ½ miles per day, which is doable for a fairly active person who puts forth some effort to get there. This is just the kind of challenge I love. I told her to count me in. Soon, because my friend is married to the kind of handy guy you’d like to have around to fix your computer, we had an app in which to log our daily miles, complete with a leaderboard so we could cheer each other on.

There are twenty-three of us in total. Some I know. Some I don’t. And we are, so far, a friendly, encouraging collection of people just trying to inspire each other and reach our individual goals, which for some, is not actually 2,017 miles this year. And that’s perfectly okay.

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Nellie Bly, ready to win, even when she doesn’t know she’s playing. By Library of Congress (umsystem.edu) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I love that we can encourage one another on our journeys. But if I’m being perfectly honest, I want to be on top of that leader board. Today, I am. Tomorrow is less certain, because there are two other participants jostling for that top position, and at least one other person has mentioned being a runner, which means that if we get a couple of nice days, that person could easily record a huge spike in mileage.

So every day I read all the motivational comments from my fellow travelers and I feel a little like Elizabeth Bisland, racing against someone who is (or was until they read this post) totally unaware of the competition. After Bly discovered Bisland, the tide shifted in the race. On her way to England, Bisland was informed that her fast steamship to New York had already left without her. This turned out to be false, but unaware of that, Bisland boarded a slower moving vessel.

In the meantime, Bly faced massive snows in the Western US, eventually overcoming them only at the tremendous expense of a chartered train on a southern route with purchased right of way across the country. Bly did manage to pull out the win, arriving in New York on January 25, 1890, 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes after her departure. Bisland completed the trip on January 30, defeated, but still ahead of Phileas Fogg.

There are, I think, a few of takeaways from this story. First, writers make stuff up*. All the time. Sometimes it’s plausible. Sometimes it’s really not, but often the writer has convinced readers to trust him so they feel like it probably could be sort of plausible in the right circumstances. And then readers go out and try it.

This is how we ended up with submarines (inspired by a journey 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, made up by Jules Verne), rockets (inspired by War of the Worlds, famously made up by H.G. Wells), and those headphones you use with your iPod (predicted in Ray Bradbury’s made-up Fahrenheit451).

This leads us to the next lesson we should learn from the story. Writers need to stop writing dystopian novels about a terrifying zombie apocalypse or the inevitable rise of sentient, power-hungry robots. Right now. Seriously, just stop. We’re begging you.

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The world does not need this. photo credit: dalecruse Seattle via photopin (license)

And the third thing we need to learn is that no matter how friendly, encouraging, or supportive the motivational group, if there’s a leaderboard involved, at least one person (and I’m guessing at least three or four in the case of my Facebook walkers), is gunning for that top spot. It isn’t that we don’t want you to meet your goal. We just want to do it better.

 

 

 

*There is an outside chance that Verne’s Phileas Fogg was loosely based on eccentric shipping magnate and one-time presidential candidate George Francis Train, who circumnavigated the globe in 80 days in 1870. But, really, by “eccentric,” I mean that his life reads much like a fictional story anyway. I suppose writers do sometimes borrow from life as well.

Something to be Thankful For

In May of 1897, American author and humorist Samuel Clemens (or Mark Twain) arrived in London as part of a lengthy world tour. There he was greeted by the news that his cousin, a Mr. James Ross Clemens, also in London, had been gravely ill.

The cousin recovered, but news spread across the ocean that Clemens had grown ill and was, in fact, on the verge of death. The news sparked tremendous worry and speculation that the beloved author would soon die.

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Samuel Clemens, who did not die in London in 1897, or in the great Facebook death glitch of 2016. By Photographer: A.F. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was Frank Marshall White with the New York Journal that finally set the record straight when he sent a cable to Twain inquiring after his health. The author replied, explaining the confusion between his identity and that of his cousin’s, reassuring White that he was perfectly healthy, and remarking that, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Twain would go on to live almost thirteen more years after the incident, which he found kind of funny. I mean it could happen to anyone, right?

And apparently it can. Because in the wee hours of the morning, on November 11, 2016, a Facebook glitch resulted in the reported deaths of a large number of its users, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The notice, appearing with a flower icon above the cover photo of an individual’s wall, read: “Remembering [your name]. We hope people who love [your name] will find comfort in the things others share to remember [your] life.”

The glitch was fixed quickly and the company issued a statement and apology about the sad notices. Mark Zuckerberg, to the best of my knowledge, is still alive and well, and, if you were unfortunate enough to come across your own death notice, then you can rest assured that the report of your death was an exaggeration.

I don’t know whether I was counted among the dead. I wasn’t awake at the time of the glitch, but no one offered any condolences to my family so I suspect I had a lucky escape this time.  And that’s something to be thankful for heading into American Thanksgiving tomorrow.

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I’m also thankful for Thanksgiving turkey. photo credit: US Department of State The Rio Grande wild turkey via photopin (license)

 

Have a happy and safe holiday!

 

Dear Coffee Shop Dudes: The Blogger Recognition Award

First published in London by editor John Dunton on March 17, 1691, The Athenian Mercury, ended with the following announcement:

All Persons whatever may be resolved gratis in any Question that their own satisfaction or curiosity shall prompt ’em to, if they send their Questions by a Penny Post letter to Mr. Smith at his Coffee-house in Stocks Market in the Poultry, where orders are given for the reception of such Letters, and care shall be taken for their Resolution by the next Weekly Paper after their sending

The publication was something wholly new to the English-reading public, whose own questions made up the content of the biweekly paper.

The public response was overwhelming, prompting Dunton to seek help from his mathematician friend Richard Sault, and eventually the allegedly well-read Dr. Norris as well as Reverend Samuel Wesley. Together this group formed the Athenian Society, know-it-alls who gathered over coffee to wrestle with the deepest concerns of their anonymous readers.

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Everyone knows a good emblem makes you seem far more authoritative. Frontispiece to the Athenian Oracle, a collection of issues of The Athenian Mercury. Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Questions were often of a scientific nature, like What becomes of smoke? (it dissipates), What do you think of the Milky Way in the Heavens? (it’s made up of a bunch of stars and it’s pretty neato), or Whether when a horse neighs, it is rejoicing or because he is angry? (He’s just sayin’ “hey!”, or possibly “hay!”).

Some were more philosophical, such as, What is death? (no longer alive, more or less), Why do men dream of things they never thought of? (minus Divine influence, they don’t), or Whether truth is always to be spoken (yes, of course, unless it shouldn’t, but definitely mostly yes).

Still others had to do with issues of the heart, including such gems as, A lady who is extremely troubled by corns desires to know the reason? (probably Divine punishment for breaking some poor fella’s heart) and Where is the likeliest place to get a husband in? (an advertisement in this paper would be a good place to start, but besides that, anywhere there are likely to be more men than women).

Often given credit for being the first advice column, the forerunner of Dear Abby and Ask Ann Landers, The Athenian Mercury ran for seven years, dispensing wisdom and advice, and even spawning a brief spin-off called The Ladies’ Mercury devoted only to questions pertaining to the concerns of the fairer sex.

 

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Dude in a coffee shop getting sage advice from the Internet. photo credit: Jerome Olivier thinkers via photopin (license)

Of course today print media has an uncertain future and its parts, including the traditional advice column, are falling by the wayside, but if you are in need of advice, there is certainly no shortage of it on the Internet. Upstart fake media outlets, weirdly specific discussion forums, and smarty-pants bloggers abound, ready to solve your biggest, most intimate problems.

And why not? They are probably just as qualified four dudes hanging out in a coffee shop, debating life’s greatest questions, like, Whether birds have any government? The answer, obviously, is yup.

Recently, I was asked to share some advice for newcomers to the blogosphere as part of the Blogger Recognition Award. The rules of accepting the award are as follows:

  1. Write a post to display your award.
  2. Give a brief story of how your blog started.
  3. Give two pieces of advice for new bloggers.
  4. Thank the person that nominated you and link to his or her blog.
  5. Pass the award on to 15 more smarty-pants bloggers.

So, here it goes. I started blogging because, appropriately enough, I took the advice of a friend who said I should. If I’m qualified to give advice (and again, using the measuring stick of four dudes in a coffee shop, I might be), then it would be:

  1. Blog consistently (as much as possible) according to a realistic schedule that you can maintain in the context of your life.
  2. Find a consistent niche that offers you lots of material that you’re good at writing about.
  3. Okay, this one is just a bonus, because I like you all so much. Don’t blog overtly about politics. Unless of course that’s just your thing, but if that’s the case, I don’t envy you.

And now for the best part. In answer to the question, What is worse than ingratitude? the Athenian Society was uncharacteristically quiet (literally answering “__ __ __ __ __”).  I agree with them on this one and I am very grateful  to Jasmine of How Useful It Is for passing this award on to me, along with the advice (and I’m paraphrasing here): If you get a blog award, pass it on already! Sorry it took me so long.

And now for the other best part. I’d like to pass the Blogger Recognition Award on to the following folks:

thekitchensgarden

witlessdatingafterfifty

The Book of Secrets

Cooking With a Wallflower

Zombie Flamingos

Cleopatra Loves Books

Serendipity

Reading Recommendations

Recipe in A Bottle

A Generous Helping

Maverick on the Move

What Should I Read Next?

James Harrington’s Blog of Geek and Writing

The Monster In Your Closet

History Present

Pat Wahler, Author

Okay, so that’s sixteen, but they are all well worth checking out. You can trust me. I’m a smarty-pants blogger.

 

 

I Just Thought You Should Know

On January 13, in the year AD 532 Byzantine Emperor Justinian attended a tense chariot race in Constantinople’s Hippodrome. The competing chariot teams were known simply as the Blues and the Greens, the colors they wore. But these were more than sports teams. They had become important political factions with which the people of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire identified. They had become the face which the people wore to interact with their leaders.

And on this particular January day, the people were angry. Three days earlier, some of the leaders of both the Blues and the Greens organizations were arrested and sentenced to death by Justinian for hooliganism gone too far. When two of the hangings were botched and a surviving representative from each of the Blues and the Greens was carried off to a church to seek asylum, the supporters of both groups united to petition for a pardon for the two men.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian with a model of the Hagia Sophia which he had rebuilt after it burned in the Nika Riots. By Byzantine mosaicist, ca. 1000 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mosaic of Emperor Justinian with a model of the Hagia Sophia which he had rebuilt after it burned in the Nika Riots. By Byzantine mosaicist, ca. 1000 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The pardon was denied, but Justinian did graciously plan a new chariot race for everyone to enjoy three days later. That may have been a mistake. From the start of the first race to the end of the twenty-second (of twenty-four), the crowd chanted quests for mercy for their leaders. And then, according to contemporary accounts, the chant shifted to “Long live the merciful Blues and Greens.”

Anyone who has ever been swept up in a sports rivalry will understand that when rival fans find common ground in a sports stadium, it’s time to get nervous. Evidently Justinian knew that. He took off, barricading himself in his palace.

That very night, to the cry of “Nika!” (victory or conquer), the rioting began. Large parts of the city burned and five days later the exhausted Justinian called on his loyal military leaders who successfully herded the rioting mob into the Hippodrome and slaughtered them. The Nika riots were over. Nothing positive had been accomplished. And 30,000 people were dead.

This is not a lighthearted story from history. And I apologize that this is not my typical lighthearted post, but I’ve had riots and the devastation they can cause on my mind lately. You see, I live in the greater St. Louis area. I don’t live in the suburb of Ferguson, but like its citizens, St. Louis is the city I call home and the residents of Ferguson are my neighbors. And I think I can safely speak for a lot of us who live in the area when I say that these past almost two weeks now, have been a terrible emotional strain.

My heart breaks for the family and friends of Michael Brown, who in their eyes was a gentle giant whose possible actions on the day of his death were very out of character. My heart also breaks for the family, friends, and coworkers of Officer Darren Wilson who are struggling to cope with the repercussions of what they see as an atypical action of a good cop. And my prayers are with the investigators charged with figuring out how this all went down to begin with.

But above all, my heart cries out for the people of Ferguson, the Greater St. Louis community, and this multi-colored nation of equals where there is still enough pain and mistrust bubbling beneath the surface that one tragic event can cause us to lash out at each other.

Because the Nika riots weren’t about chariot racing. They weren’t really even about seeking pardon for political leaders. They were about a people who felt they were being unfairly burdened by a government that wouldn’t hear them. They were scared for their futures and spurred on by an opportunistic movement to depose the sitting emperor.

I don’t think the Ferguson riots are entirely about the shooting of Michael Brown. If they were, then the media could move on while the very careful investigation stretches out and the crowds could return home (for many, many of them that’s not Ferguson, or St. Louis, or even Missouri) and await the findings. They could stop tearing apart the streets and keeping the children who should have started school last week, at home and scared.

The riots in Ferguson continue not because a white police officer shot a young black man, but because no matter what the investigation shows were the causes of that incident, and no matter where the blame lands, we live in a nation in which it still isn’t so hard to believe that our racial differences divide us to the point of senseless violence.

I’m choosing to write about this not just because it’s difficult to focus on much else in my corner of the world right now and certainly not because I have answers. But I write because I have been disturbed by the way the media has portrayed the Ferguson situation. In most instances the news has been negative and misleading.

Members of the media have been guilty of rushing to draw erroneous conclusions that have served to inflame passions. Coverage has focused on the unforgivable actions of a militarized police force that in reality has gone out of its way to minimize injuries to protestors even while sustaining injuries itself, often backing down when it seemed safe to do so, clearing streets and business areas where violence appears likely to spread, and, yes, occasionally asking members of the media to (gasp) comply with its instructions.

St. Louis Gateway Arch on a calm summer evening. By Blueberoo1987 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
St. Louis Gateway Arch on a calm summer evening. By Blueberoo1987 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
What we haven’t seen much of, and I think, because I live in the area, I hear more of it than the national and international media lets out to the world, is the number of area clergy walking through the crowds to be a calming presence encouraging peaceful protest and discouraging violence.  The media hasn’t focused much on the African American business professionals who mingle with the crowd to spread calm and sense in the midst of anger and fear.

What you may not have seen is the groups of peaceful protestors coming together with police to identify violent and criminal opportunists among the crowd, nor have you been shown the members of MIZZOU’s Phi Alpha Phi black fraternity cleaning up the streets and going door to door in Ferguson to register voters so that its citizens can bring about the change in leadership that will give them a louder voice in their community.

I write because I want you to know that I am proud of this community and of the people in it who understand that further violent or criminal actions only cause more harm. I have hope for Ferguson. It’s going to be a long road, but I believe that when the dust settles and the outside protestors, media, and opportunists go home, it will pull itself up again and stand together as a stronger community with citizens who understand each other a little better. Because I think the people of Ferguson see the damage this continuous rioting is doing and I think bit by bit, they are beginning take their town back from the riots. And bit by bit, they will find more effective ways to heal their wounds.

And I just thought you should know.