Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tapping the Admiral (or Sucking the Monkey)

Yesterday in class, while lecturing on the War of 1812, I was cataloging the many and varied sins of General Dearborn.  William Dearborn had been a true hero of the Revolutionary War, but 30-odd years after witnessing the surrender of Cornwallis, he was no longer fit for military duty.  I was describing him as old, decrepit, and obese...when it suddenly occurred to me that I am exactly the same age as General Dearborn had been when he failed to adequately defend Detroit.

Well, the years were harder on a man back then than they are today.  Nowadays, men age like the finest cognac.  Two centuries ago, men aged like milk.

None of my students will remember General Dearborn.  But I am pretty sure that ten years from now, if you ask any of them about General Pakenham--they will absolutely remember him.  They probably won't remember that I said most of the story was apocryphal, but at least they will remember something.  Students, like everyone else, remember only the things that interest them.

It was 1815, and British General Pakenham was leading the attack on New Orleans.  The city was being defended by Andy Jackson and one of the strangest armies in military history: Tennessee backwoodsmen, Choctaw Indians, slaves, assorted men swept up from the floors of bars, and Jean Lafitte's pirates.  Technically, these men were known as "Irregulars", but in truth, they  probably qualified as "Odds".

When the two armies met, the much larger British army fired its new Congreave's rockets at Jackson's men.  General Pakenham expressed surprise that such undisciplined and unprofessional troops didn't panic in the face of the frightening new weapons.  What Pakenham didn't know was that the defenders were a hell of a lot more scared of Andy Jackson than they were of British fireworks.

When the battle was over, the British were defeated, Jackson's men still held their lines, the war was over...and Pakenham was dead.

Pakenham had had a distinguished military career, so his body couldn't be simply left on foreign soil.  His body was disemboweled, and was carefully packed in a barrel of rum.  Actually, to get his body to fit in the barrel, his head had to be temporarily cut off.  (After last week's blog, I'm a little loath to mention this fact for fear that you might think that beheading is going to turn into some kind of a trend in this blog.  Honest, I promise not to lop off any more heads for at least another month.)

Pakenham was shipped home, his head was reattached, and he was buried on the family estate in Ireland.  That is the end of the story...but not the end of the legend.  In one version of the tale, it was a long and difficult voyage back home.  The sailors on the ship soon ran out of their accustomed daily grog ration and drilled a small hole into the cask in order to siphon off a little of the rum through a straw.   

This practice was called "sucking the monkey" and seems to have originated from British sailors drilling a hole in a coconut, draining out the coconut milk and replacing it with rum.  Have you ever noticed that the three dark spots on the top of a coconut look a little like a monkey's face?  The word coconut even comes from a 16th century Portuguese word for head.

Another version of the Pakenham legend has the barrel being lost during the shipment home and ultimately being sold to a plantation in South Carolina.  The barrel was tapped for a large party and enjoyed by all present.  ("I do declare!  This rum has a fine body and a good head.")  When the barrel was empty of rum, the owners wondered why it was still so heavy.  When they opened the barrel, the discovery broke up the party.

Nor is Pakenham the only British military hero attached to such a grotesque tale.  At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the British navy destroyed or captured most of the combined navies of France and Spain.  The architect of this monumental victory was Admiral Horatio Nelson, who unfortunately did not survive the battle. 

Preservation of cadavers, was a science that would not exist until the 1860's, when the sheer number of men killed during the American Civil War prompted the development of what came to be known as "embalming science."  Until then...the bodies went into barrels of spirits. 

Nelson was placed in a barrel of brandy.  The barrel was lashed to a mast and guarded by the ship's marines until the ship arrived in Gibraltar.  There, the barrel was drained of the brandy and refilled with wine.  The barrel was opened in England and the admiral's body was placed in a lead casket, which was placed inside a wood casket made from the mast of the French flagship L'Orient, then buried in St. Paul's inside a sarcophagus originally carved for Cardinal Wolsey. 

But those are just the facts--here is the legend:  during the voyage home, sailors drained the brandy and consumed it.  When the cask arrived in London, the brandy was found to be considerably less than full.  To this day, brandy is sometimes referred to as "Nelson's blood" and to the men in the British Navy, the phrase "tapping the admiral" means to obtain an alcoholic drink by theft.

Actually, history is full of such legends.  There is an Arab story from the 13th century in which treasure hunters found a sealed jar of honey in a tomb under the Egyptian pyramids.  After enjoying a leisurely meal from bread dipped into the honey, naturally, at the bottom of the jar, they discover the preserved body of a child.

I'm not going to tell my students any of these other stories, I still have hopes they will remember a little of the real lectures.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Felonious Assault on a…Train???

Most stories about the West are completely over dramatized to make them more interesting, but there are a few stories so gruesome and barbaric, that just the opposite happens.  Such is the case with Black Jack Ketchum. 

First off, his real name was Tom Ketchum.  Someone said he looked like a notorious Texas outlaw by the name of Black Jack Christian, and Tom just kept the nickname.  If you have seen the movie, The Princess Bride, then you will understand when I tell you that Tom Ketchum was becoming the "Dread Pirate Roberts".  There is a certain advantage to starting your career in crime with a built-in reputation attached to a different name.  When Doroteo  Arango began his life of crime, he took the name of an established local bandit and became famous around the world as "Pancho Villa".

Black Jack and his brother Sam robbed trains in Texas and New Mexico.  In the movies, train robbers always chase the train on horseback, leap to the moving train, then stop the train miles down the track.  After stealing all the money, somehow, their horses are always waiting alongside the track, showing no evidence of being exhausted after a several mile chase.  If trains had actually been robbed this way, the railroads could have protected themselves by stationing the conductor on the back of the caboose with a bucket of rocks.  Any outlaw on the back of a galloping horse would have been more likely to shoot his own horse than the train.

Black Jack was no fool, so he stationed his horses along the track, then backtracked to the closest watering station.  Those steam locomotives had to stop every 25 miles to take on water.  Ketchum and his men would sneak onto the train while it took on water, then once the train started up again, would climb over the tender and force the engineer to stop the train near their horses. 

On more than one occasion, Black Jack and his crew forced the engineer to uncouple the cars behind the express car, then moved the train far enough forward so that passengers could not interfere while they dynamited the safe. 

The Ketchum brothers always seemed to have a little trouble with dynamite.  On average, it took them about three tries to blow a safe open.  In one case, they probably decided to finally get the job done on the first try, so when the impressive pile of dynamite sticks exploded, it blew the express safe through the roof of the car and scattered the contents.  By the time the posse showed up, the robbers had made off with an estimated $50,000, and $10 bills were blowing in the wind around the wreckage of the train.

Not all the robberies were so successful.  Once, the gang hit a post office and was rewarded with only $9 while a rail station robbery yielded a measly $2 and a Winchester.  And even when the gang was successful—the train robberies would eventually net a career total of over $100,000--they usually spent most of the money quickly by bribing local officials not to reveal their location to federal marshals and railroad detectives.

The two brothers had an active career: they robbed trains, stores, post offices, and rail stations.  They worked together, rode briefly with the Wild Bunch, broke away and formed their own gang, but eventually quarreled and split up.   Sam Ketchum was eventually shot while robbing a train, and left behind by his men.  Captured, he died of gangrene on July 28, 1899.

Thomas “Black Jack” Ketchum wandered over to Arizona, where he murdered two men.  Not knowing that his brother was dead, Ketchum decided to return to New Mexico and rejoin the old gang.  When he couldn’t locate his brother and he was running short of funds, he attempted to rob a train single-handed.

Black Jack tied his horse to brush along the track, then hiked six miles back to the nearest watering station outside of Folsom, New Mexico.  He forced the engineer to stop the train at gunpoint, just two miles from the waiting horse.  However, it was here that the robbers plan fell apart.  The conductor, Frank Harrington, had been unarmed when Sam Ketchum had robbed his train in July, 1899, but now he carried a shotgun.

While Black Jack was forcing the engineer to uncouple the passenger cars, Harrington leaned out of the doorway of the passenger car and fired his shotgun.  The blast ripped open Ketchums right arm.  Ketchum ran off into the darkness, eventually reaching his horse, but he was too weak from loss of blood to mount up and escape.  As he began to lose consciousness, he lay down by the tracks and fell asleep.

The posse had no trouble capturing him. Subsequently, he was taken back to town, tried, and sentenced to ten years for assaulting a U.S. mail agent.  While awaiting a second trial, his arm became gangrenous and was amputated. 

At his second trial, Ketchum was found guilty of felonious assault on a train.  At that time in New Mexico territory, this was a capital offense.  Ketchum was the first—and last—outlaw sentence to hang for "assaulting a train". 

Unfortunately, Ketchums execution was not handled well.  It should have been: by the turn of the century, hanging had evolved into a science.  Largely due to the efforts of William Marwood, in London, there was a well-established method for executing a man by hanging. 

First, the man was carefully weighed.  Marwood had established the “Official Table of Drops” that set the distance a man should fall before the rope snapped taut and the mans neck broke.  This table is still in use in those areas of the world where hanging is still the means of execution.  Ketchum weighed about 175 pounds, so he needed to fall 86”.

A new thick rope was procured and carefully stretched with the same weight as the prisoner for 12 hours.  This would remove any ‘givein the rope at the time of the execution.  Then a hangmans knot was tied with 13 coils in the knot.  (According to legend, when black men were lynched in the south, the knot would have only twelve coils.  Even in death, the poor man would be denied equality with a white man.)  Finally, the coils of the rope were soaped to ensure that the knot would slide smoothly.

Unfortunately, New Mexico officials made two mistakes.  First, the only rope available in Clayton, New Mexico was a little thinner than the usual hanging rope.  Second, Ketchum had nothing to do while he sat in jail awaiting his trial and execution, so he ate—a lot.  His weight ballooned to over 200 pounds by his execution date, making the rope 8 to 10 inches too long.

The town tried to do right by Ketchum.  The night before his execution, he was asked if he wanted anything special to eat.  Ketchum turned down that offer, but asked instead for some female companionship for the night.  This request was denied as “the town treasury was insufficient to hire a lady of the town.”

The next morning, he ate a large breakfast, dressed in the new suit the town had given him, listened to some violin music, and finally promised all who had been involved in his prosecution that they were marked for death by his (non-existent) gang. 

At a little after 1:15 p.m. on April 26, 1901, the trap door under Black Jack Ketchums feet opened, dropping the man to his death.  He fell too far, too fast, and the rope was too thin--causing the rope to cut his head completely off his body.

A few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court looked into the matter and decided that this act was unconstitutional.  (Not the hanging—that was fine, despite its "complication".  In fact, the last man to be hanged in America was Billy Bailey in 1996.)  No, the crime of "felonious assault on a train" was found to be unconstitutional. 

Black Jack Ketchum was the only man ever "hanged" in the West for a crime other than murder.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dog Days on the Brazos

Mike rode out of the yard and down the dirt road leading to the state highway, accompanied by his dog, Steel.  The dog liked to follow the old rancher on his rounds, usually "following" him by staying about 50 feet in front of Mike.

This always upset Mike--he didn't like to believe that he was so predictable and set in his ways that even the damn ranch mutt knew what he was going to do, so every few minutes he would turn the horse sharply to the left or right and force the to dog race to catch up.  It was a short-lived victory however, since the old rancher was about as impulsive as a stalagmite.  About the time Steel had caught up with the horse and rider, Mike would turn the horse back to the original course and the dog would rocket back to his original position in front.

Mike caught up with the dog at the fence line as he carefully guided his horse over the the wide planks laid over the cattle guard.  Steel wouldn't get anywhere near the cattle guard, but would elect to crawl under the barbed wire fence.  Ten years earlier, while just a puppy, he had attempted to run across the cattle guard and his legs had fallen between the pipes, leaving the poor dog to painfully fall on his stomach and bang his nose.  Even after all these years, you could not have forced that dog to cross over the cattle guard if you had pulled him behind a tow truck.

At his age, the old rancher had few regular chores on the ranch.  He would go out daily and check on the cattle, ride along a section of the fence, check the water level in the stock tanks, and then do whatever odd jobs needed his attention that day.  Some days, he thought the only really useful things he did were count the cattle and exercise the dog.

As the old rancher was riding along the fence line, he had to stop while Steel measured the depth of the stock tank by going for his daily swim.  While Mike was waiting, a car coming down the road slowed and pulled over to the easement.  The door of the sedan opened and a woman stepped over to the fence and called to the rancher. 

"Hello," she said.  "Is that pretty barn down the road yours?"

Mike noticed that the car had Illinois license plates.  Ever since some damn travel magazine had published an article about the "picturesque ranches along the Brazos River" there had been a steady stream of camera-toting tourists.  The rancher could tell from the direction the woman was pointing that the building in question wasn't even a barn, but a galvanized metal building the county road crew used to store heavy equipment.

The old rancher got off his horse, turning his head to hide a smile.  Reins in hand, he walked over to the fence.  If there was a chance to pull the leg of a Yankee tourist, Mike would postpone all other forms of entertainment.

"Yes'm," he said.  "This is my ranch."  So far, Mike thought, that's the truth, even if it is not really an answer.

"Are you a cattle rancher?" she asked.

"Oh, yes mam," he answered truthfully.  "And I have the empty bank account to prove it."

"It is so pretty here.  Does your ranch have one of those cute western names?" the tourist asked.

All at once, Mike remembered a joke so old that his father had told it to him.  The only question in Mike's mind was whether he could keep a straight face while he repeated it.

"Yes mam," he said as he took his hat off with his other hand.  "It took my family a long time to agree on a name.  My wife Barbara wanted to call it the Bar-B, but I thought that was a serious case of the cutes.  I liked the Lazy-M, my son Andy wanted to call it the Rocking A, my son, Matt lobbied for the Double-T, and my daughter Megan demanded we call it the Flying G.  Eventually, we all compromised and just called it the Bar-B-Lazy-M-Rocking-A-Double-T-Flying-G Ranch."

"My goodness," said the woman.  "And where are your cattle? I don't see any."

"No ma'm," said the rancher.  "So far, none have survived the branding."

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Table for Two

The maître d’ looked up from his clipboard and called to the crowd gathered along the sidewalk, "Jack?  Party of two?  Your table is ready."

The waitress showed them to their outdoor table, leaving menus and promising to return shortly to take their order.  It was a beautiful day, and well worth the half-hour wait for the table with its view of the park. 

Even after the couple had been seated, they were both visibly tense.  The couple had only been dating for a little over a month and there were still those awkward, uncomfortable breaks in their conversation when they were alone. 

They were still smiling and talking softly, when the young girl walked awkwardly up to the table.  The first thing they noticed was that the girl was very pregnant--she was obviously due in the next week or two.

"Jack?" the girl asked.  "What is this?"  From the anguished look on her face, she was obviously hurt.  Her voice was both angry and pleading.  "Who is she?" she asked, pointing to the seated woman.

The young woman sitting across the table looked first at the young girl, then back at Jack.  With wide eyes, she asked, "Do you know her?"

Jack had not moved since the young girl had walked up to the table, his pale face seemed drained of blood as he began to stammer.  "I...I..I d-don't know..." he began.

"Jack!" the pregnant girl wailed.  "I've been calling you for weeks!  I've left word at work, I've left messages on your machine.  Why won't you answer my emails?  You've been avoiding me ever since you found out we were going to have a baby!  I love you!"

By now, the young girl was crying profusely.  As the tears ran down her face, Jack just sat there slowly shaking his head.

On the other side of the table, the young woman leaned forward, pointing at the man's ashen face.  "She obviously knows you, Jack.  Who is she?"
"But I've never seen her before...," Jack began.

The pregnant woman interrupted, practically screaming, "Jack!  You are the father of our child!"

Conversation had all but stopped in the restaurant.  At every table, people strained to listen to the drama, while trying, unsuccessfully, to appear as if they weren't listening.  No one looked at the three people at the central table, but heads were tilted carefully to catch every word.

By now, both women at the table were crying.  The young woman jumped up and ran from the table, out onto the sidewalk and down the street, only a few feet ahead of Jack as he ran after her. 

The young girl carefully lowered herself into a chair at the table, and buried her face into a cloth napkin.  The waitress came up and placed a comforting hand on the girl's arm.  "Would you like a glass of water?" she asked.

The young pregnant girl just nodded her head as she continued to sob into the napkin. 

By the time the young man arrived, the young girl was more composed and was repairing her makeup as the young man carefully moved through the crowded chairs to her table.

"Been waiting long?" he asked as he leaned over to kiss her cheek.

"No," the young girl smiled as she answered.  "I just got here."

As he sat down, he glanced toward the long line of patrons waiting for a table.  Turning back to his girlfriend he asked, "Then how did you get the table so quick?"

"Silly!  People always give a table to a pregnant woman!"