Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Pump Handle

Cholera is one of those diseases that the major industrialized Western countries no longer remember:  it is a malady of the third world or a long-forgotten past. 

The United States still has a few dozen reported cases every year, but no one has died from it in years.  We no longer remember the years in which over a hundred thousand succumbed annually, or that it was the disease that killed former President Polk.  Outbreaks in third world countries rarely make the news, since this is a problem no longer relevant to us.

Cholera is an infection of the intestines by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.  While the incubation period can be anywhere from just a few hours to several days after exposure, and the symptoms may vary greatly, in the most severe cases the victims die of dehydration after experiencing days of vomiting and copious watery diarrhea.

The disease is actually a hazard of urbanization and overcrowding.  Its spread is a result of the rapid rise of urban populations and the associated concentration of human waste.  And, of course, the eradication of cholera in the cities turned out to be a by-product of the solution to the urban human waste problem.  Having solved that waste problem, of course, we have forgotten exactly what happened.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, London was already a city of over two million people, who were crammed into a impossibly small amount of real estate—the most populous city on earth.  And it stunk...Literally stunk.  With no centralized sewage system, every building in the town had its own cesspool, all of which overflowed with human waste and were sporadically emptied—by buckets—into waste carts that simply dumped their contents into the Thames River.  The Thames, of course, was also the source of drinking water for London—so convenient!.

None of this particularly worried the health officials, who knew that disease was spread by "bad air"—the miasma theory.  Every educated person for millennia had known that harmful vapors that  were the result of rotting organic matter spread diseases like the plague, cholera, and chlamydia.  (By the days of Victorian England, some physicians were blaming obesity on the effect of inhaling the odor of food!)

In 1849, there was yet another outbreak of cholera in London, which began with the death of only twelve people.  A physician, John Snow, noticed something interesting about the outbreak.  The first case was a seaman who had just come from Asia.  A week later, the second case was a man who lived in the same room at the same boarding house cottage.  In total, all the victims lived in a row of cottages that shared a single well.  Snow reasoned it was highly unlikely that the "bad air" had hung around in the same room and the same buildings for a week. 

On examination, he discovered that a drainage channel for waste water ran in front of the house.  Despite the fact that the rock-lined channel had visible cracks that allowed the waste water to seep into the well, the cottage tenants continued to use the channel for an open cesspool.  While Snow had absolutely no idea how the disease spread (this was more than a decade before Pasteur would postulate his germ theory) Snow reasoned that the disease was spread by the contaminated water.

He published a paper on the subject—a paper that was almost completely ignored.  The city's health officials absolutely believed in the miasma theory of disease.  ('Hell, you could smell the filth in the air...')  Not surprisingly, the cholera outbreak spread, eventually killing 14,137 people in 1849.

In 1854, London suffered another outbreak in Soho.  While today this is a delightful area of town, noted for its galleries, trendy nightclubs, pubs, and small expensive boutiques, in 1854, it was a slum so packed with people that each room in the buildings housed an average of four people.  Centuries-old overflowing cesspools lay just a few feet away from public water pumps. 

The first case of cholera in this outbreak was a six month-old infant.  In the next three days, another 127 people died.  This triggered a panic and residents of London began fleeing the city in numbers not seen since the Great Plague of 1666.  Within a week, three-quarters of Soho had fled.  The Soho outbreak was far worse than average:  the area around Broad Street was quite literally decimated—one-tenth of the population died.

Snow lived in Soho, and he began interviewing the victims' families.  He also began marking a map with the location of the victims' homes and it did not take long for a distinctive pattern to emerge.  Almost all of the victims lived near a specific public water pump on Broad Street.  The infant who had succumbed first lived in a house with an overflowing cesspool located  just three feet from the well.

Unexpectedly, several of the victims lived closer to public pumps other than the one on Broad Street and there were no cholera cases among the workers at a large brewery adjacent to the pump.

Snow continued his interviews and discovered that the workers at the brewery were offered free ale while they worked, so they did not drink the water.  (Water from the well was used to make the ale, but the fermentation process killed the cholera germs.)  And the water from the contaminated Broad Street pump was popular with many Soho residents who, despite living closer to other public pumps, walked the extra distance because the "water tasted better".

Snow took his evidence to the public health officials who all but laughed at his novel ideas.  Still—if only to help pacify the hysteria—they ordered the removal of the pump's handle, effectively shutting down the well.

The popular story is that this immediately stopped the epidemic and public officials immediately recognized that Snow was correct.  Neither of these stories is actually correct.  By the time the well handle was removed, the epidemic was all but over, the contamination within the well was probably flushed out by this time.

Nor did the public officials change their minds about miasma.  Following the epidemic, public officials scoured Soho looking for the reason the outbreak had been so violent.  They focused their attentions on ventilation of homes, adequate windows, and looking for peculiar smells and odors.  It was only decades later than Snow's work began to be appreciated.  Today it is recognized as the beginning of the study of epidemiology.

Even less well remembered is that while Snow's insistence on having the pump handle removed did not really stop the cholera outbreak, it probably did stop the "next outbreak".  The very day the pump handle was removed, the infant's father came down with cholera.  And that cesspool was still leaking into the well.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Just what is Fascism, Anyway?

In 1990, Mike Godwin, an attorney, stated online that the longer a popular argument continued, the more likely it was that someone would compare something or someone to Hitler or Nazism.  Almost immediately, this became known as Godwin’s Law. 

And almost as fast, people began using the law inappropriately, saying that any mention of Nazi Germany meant that the speaker automatically lost the argument and that the discussion was therefore over.  At Enema U, there is an abundance of those who use this adage as a club designed to censor those they oppose, but pepper their own personal posts in social media with references to brown shirts” and fascists.  (Of course, most of these comments are directed toward the administration, so they are not completely inappropriate.)

Mike Godwin recently stated that in no way should his law be used to stifle thoughtful and informed comparisons to Nazi Germany.  And then, violating his own law, he added, "Or anything said about Donald Trump."

All of this is rather similar to what I call the "Fox News Law"—the more people talk at the same time, the more likely someone will be called a fascist.  The law can also be used with MSNBC, but since someone is called a fascist in damn near every show (and quite a few commercials) reference to it is less impressive since it's such a "target-rich environment.

In light of all of this, it might be useful to actually define fascism.  In an election where hyperbole has already bitten us in the ass, we need to be knowledgeable about our insults.

Defining fascism is a little more difficult than you might think.  Benito Mussolini gave a less than helpful official explanation:

1."Everything in the state".  The Government is supreme and the country is all encompassing, and all within it must conform to the ruling body, often a dictator. 
2."Nothing outside the state".  The country must grow and the implied goal of any fascist nation is to rule the world, and have every human submit to the government. 
3."Nothing against the state".  Any type of questioning the government is not to be tolerated. If you do not see things our way, you are wrong.  If you do not agree with the government, you cannot be allowed to live and taint the minds of the rest of the good citizens. 

This is a little restrictive, so there is a more general definition where fascism is defined as a form of government that generally uses several of a group of traits.  No single trait is absolutely necessary, and while fascist states vary, most have a majority of the following traits:

A Strong Charismatic Leader.  A dictator who has a strong following, not so much because of his intelligence or accomplishments, but because he promises everything to everybody.  Nearly all Fascist leaders promise to return a country to greatness.  This is a leader who understands the anger or disappointment of the masses, and offers improbable solutions.  And this is a little scary, since every politician seeking elected office strives to be exactly this.

Suppression of Democracy.  Fascist leaders go out of their way to outlaw political parties, cancel elections, and declare martial law to remain in power.  The irony in this is that many Fascist dictators—Hitler, Mussolini, Peron, Porfirio Diaz—came to power through free and fair elections—And then promptly found ways to stop having them (usually for what they claimed was the good of the people.

Anti-Labor.  Since labor unions are centers of power outside of the state, most fascist leaders find ways to suppress the unions, sometimes by co-opting their power and making labor unions part of the government.

Government Control of the Economy.  Fascist states usually believe in strongly regulating business, harnessing it supposedly for the good of the people, but actually for using it as a means of controlling the masses while enriching themselves.  Competition is not allowed, wages are set by the government, and productivity inevitably drops precipitously.

Super Nationalism.  There is certainly nothing wrong with patriotism, at least not until it blinds you to systemic wrongs and keeps you from making improvements—And when patriotism becomes mandatory, it is always wrong. 

Samuel Johnson's most famous line is "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."  I have always understood this to mean that it is only the demagogue, the despot, who seeks to further his cause by appealing to your love of your country. 

Xenophobia.  When someone tells you that all of our problems are caused by outsiders, by people who are different, it is time to put your hand firmly over your wallet and run.  I don't care how reasonable it sounds, this country simply does not need to build a wall along the Canadian border to keep the Frostbacks out. 

This is why the 21 Muslim countries of the Middle East—most of which easily qualify as Fascist states—tell their 350 million people that all of their problems are the result of the 6 million Jews in Israel. 

Collectivity Over Individualism.  This almost sounds good, as it is widely believed that the greatest good for the greatest number is the supreme goal of government.  But, it isn't, otherwise government is simply two wolves and a sheep discussing the dinner menu.  It is the responsibility of the many to protect the rights of the few and we need to be wary of the politician who talks about individuals surrendering rights for the good of society.

That last point was always the most difficult for my students to understand, to understand that protecting individuality is just as important to society as promoting the common good.  To help reinforce this, I used to get freshmen to join me in taking Steve Martin's Non-Conformist Oath.  I get them to stand and raise their right hands and repeat after me:

I promise to be different.  (There is unanimous compliance.)
I promise to be unique.  (By now, one or two students are starting to narrow their eyes and look a little skeptical.  Unfortunately, it is only one or two.)
I promise NOT to repeat things other people say.  (Few make it to the end of this sentence.)

Don't kid yourselves people:  It can happen here, and if it does, it will start in the ballot box.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

That's Why

The boy sat in the basement reading his book.  He was in his favorite room in the house, in part because he could stretch out on the old sofa and no one would tell him to get his feet off the couch, but also because the television set in the far corner of the room. 

When his parents had purchased the TV, they hadn't been certain where in the house it should be located.  They didn't want to put it in the living room, where their friends might see it, nor were they completely sure that owning a television was something that families should confess to their neighbors.  Not knowing where to put it, the television had spent the last couple of years in the basement.   The boy liked it down there where he could watch the adventures of Roy Rogers and Trigger, followed by Sky King and his Songbird every Saturday morning. 

Between the two shows, there was simply no contest:  he'd take Sky King any day.  The Songbird was actually a Cessna Bamboo Bomber; he knew this because he had looked it up at the school library.  It had taken a while, but with the help of the librarian, he had finally located it in a large book that showed all the aircraft of the world.

While he really wasn't interested in any of the other television shows, that didn't matter, for the boy had long since learned that if he watched more than about a single hour of television, his mother would yell down the basement stairs that he had to go outside for some "fresh air".  In his opinion, fresh air was overrated.  After all, this was Texas, and the air in summer was hot and humid.  The house wasn't air conditioned, so all the upstairs windows were opened to let out the heat while the basement windows were closed to hold in the cool.  Couldn't the fresh air find its way through those open windows?

He discovered that if he stayed quiet, he could stay in the cool basement and read his book.  (And frankly, the book was more fun than anything else he could think of doing, anyway).  The books were a great way to escape a small town in Texas.  Everybody in the books he read always had great adventures, but nothing ever happened where he lived.  He didn't even know someone who had ever had an adventure.  He'd asked his mother about that one day. 

"Mom?  How come there's never any adventures around here?"

"What kind of adventure?"

"Adventures like the ones in the books I read."

"Oh," his mother answered.  "Well, there's more adventure than you can handle in your own back yard, if you would just look for it."

That was always the kind of answer you got when you asked a parent something.  He had no idea why his parents wouldn't just admit when they didn't know something.  He'd been in the backyard, and there were certainly no adventures there.

There were a lot of things in the books he didn't understand.  When he had read a book about someone named Captain Hornblower, he had learned about sailing ships, and masts, and pirates.  The book had said that the best wood to make masts had come from America, but he didn't understand how.  He'd been thinking about this for a long time and he just didn't understand where the masts could have come from!—or for that matter, where telephone poles come from!  He had spent a lot of time looking at trees and he just didn't understand it.  The biggest tree he could find was a Live Oak tree, and he hadn't seen one yet that had a limb that was straight for more than about three feet.  How could you make a tall mast for a ship from a tree that was twisted like a pretzel?

He had noticed that telephone poles felt and smelled a little burnt.  The only thing he could figure out was that there must be some kind of machine that used heat and rollers to straighten the trees.  He wished he could see one in action.

The latest book he had read was equally confusing.  The Arabian Nights, a book so old that no one even knew who had written it, was certainly exciting and filled with the kind of adventures that he was certain he would never have.  Of course, it would help if his home town had any wizards or genies that inhabited almost every page of the books he read.

He liked the idea of genies.  He especially liked the idea of getting three wishes.  He was pretty sure what he would wish for.  To start, Sky King could teach him how to fly the Songbird.  Then, he might wish up an adventure or two.  None of this was likely to happen in Texas, since while there were still a few ogres around, there was a real shortage of genies.  He wondered why they had left.

The boy thought it might be fun to be a genie.  You would be as tall as a house and could work all kinds of magic, making wishes come true.  The boy was thinking of all the things he could do when the family parakeet, Pretty Baby, chirped from his cage in the corner.

On hot days, his mother moved Pretty Baby's cage to the basement, where it was cooler.  The boy had looked up parakeets in the encyclopedia and discovered that they came from Australia, a place that seemed to be even warmer than Texas.  The boy didn't understand how the bird could survive Australia but might die if it spent an afternoon in the kitchen.  He knew better than to ask his mother, and he really didn't mind sharing the basement with the tiny green bird, anyway.

"What do you think happened to genies," he asked the bird.  Pretty Baby could talk, but all he knew how to say was "Give me a kiss" and "I'm a Baptist", (the latter phrase having been taught to the bird by his church's preacher, who usually came home with his family after church on Sunday for lunch). 

Pretty Baby did not answer the question, but he did give the boy an idea.  Compared to the bird, he was as big as a house.  And he could do things for the bird—he could make wishes come true for the bird.

"Pretty Baby," he said.  "I'm going to be your genie.  I'll give you three wishes.  What do you want first?"

The first wish was fairly easy.  The boy walked over to the cage and opened the tiny wire door, and stepped back.  For almost a minute, the small green bird simply looked at the open door, then he suddenly hopped to the edge of the open door, surveyed the room and flew a few feet away from the cage and landed on the back of a nearby chair.  The parakeet sat there for a few seconds, then flew to the basement window where the morning sun was streaming in, and the bird hopped closer to the glass where it stared out the window.

It didn't take long for the boy to figure out the second wish, either.  Moving slowly so as not to frighten the little green bird, the boy moved to the window and slowly raised it.  A strong wind blew into the basement, carrying the scent of the yard into the house.  The boy could smell the grass and hear the lawnmower where his father was cutting the grass in the front yard.

Suddenly, gust of wind stirred the window curtains and blew dust into the room.  The tiny green bird immediately whirled around on the window sill and flew back to the cage, in through the cage door, and landed on the uppermost perch.  The boy walked over to the cage and, granting the third wish, safely latched the cage door shut.

"Now I understand," said the boy softly to the bird.  "That's why there are no more genies."

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Devil Dan, the Yankee King of Spain

It seems strange that such a person should now be forgotten, for General Daniel Sickles was absurdly popular during the last half of the nineteenth century.  His reputation had just the right mix of sex, madness, and political intrigue that—had he lived today—it might have landed him in his own reality show.  Or, in a prison cell.

Daniel Sickles was born into a wealthy family in New York somewhere between 1819 and 1825—Dan may deliberately have "confused" the dates to appear younger than he actually was.  After college, he studied law under Benjamin Butler, the Attorney General of the United States, and was elected to the New York State Assembly.  Obviously, Dan was destined for great things, if he could only avoid trouble with the ladies.

Unfortunately, Dan couldn’t:  his reputation was that of a scoundrel (albeit, perhaps one with a sense of humor).  He frequented whorehouses, made friends of pimps—even escorting one rather infamous madam through Tammany Hall—and seemed to develop a new love interest almost weekly.  One contemporary compared Dan’s morals to a rotten egg.

Although is not altogether surprising that he seduced the young daughter of the family he lived with, it is surprising that he married the young pregnant girl.  Even though he was more than twice her fifteen years of age, Dan married Teresa Bagioli against the wishes of both their families.  Besides her obvious beauty, it was said that she was worldly beyond her years and could speak five languages. 

Dan became the Corporate Counselor for the City of New York, and helped the city acquire the land that was to become Central Park.  That he might have personally prospered in the selection of this real estate is probably accidental.  Most of what Tammany Hall did was "accidental"

In 1853, President Pierce sent Sickles to London as Secretary of the legation under then  Ambassador James Buchanan.  Presented to Queen Victoria, he cut something of a dashing image at the Court of Saint James, and evidently he made quite an impression among several of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting.  Since Teresa was pregnant, he had left her behind in New York.  He did, however, take along to London his friend, the notorious madam and when he introduced her at court, he incorrectly identified her as having the same last name as one of his political rivals.  (This, too, was probably an "accident").

Taking advantage of his rank of Major in the New York Militia, Sickles insisted on wearing his dress uniform—complete with sword—to state occasions.  He even managed to cause a minor international incident when he snubbed Queen Victoria at a ball held on Independence Day.

On his return to Manhattan in 1855, he was elected to Congress.  He and Teresa took residence in a fine house just a pistol shot from the White House.  Almost immediately, there were rumors about Dan’s extra-curricular activities.  Surprisingly, there was soon a rumor about Teresa, as well.

The District Attorney for Washington DC was Barton Scott Key, the son of the prominent lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key.  Recently widowed, Barton Key was rumored to be the most handsome and eligible bachelor in Washington.  At the inaugural ball of President James Buchanan, Key became enamored with the young beautiful wife of his friend, Dan Sickles.

It was not long, before the flirtation became a serious affair.  Key rented a small, two-story house in the disreputable section of town, where freed Blacks lived—a part of Washington where no one in the upper social circles was likely to frequent.  (Currently, it is the site for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.)  (At that time, freed Blacks could live in Washington only if they paid a bond, and secured a sponsorship from a White man).  Crime around the capital was so bad, that Congressmen and Senators frequently armed themselves with derringers for safety.

Teresa and Key, arranged a set of signals:  if he was in residence in their love nest, he would hang a piece of white string out the upper window and if she wanted to communicate with him that the coast was clear for a rendezvous, he could see her handkerchief waved from her bedroom window, as he watched with opera glasses from his station on a bench across the street from the Sickles’ house.  This subtlety borders on modern spy craft—no one would suspect any of this…or?

Of course people knew what was going on.  An attractive white woman coming and going—if you’ll pardon the phrase—in the middle of the day, in a bad section of town will attract attention.  Dan heard the rumors, but when confronted, his wife always denied the affair.  But eventually, Dan received an anonymous letter spelling out the details of the affair and he confronted Teresa so forcefully that she not only confessed, but at his insistence, wrote out the all of the sordid details in a sworn affidavit.  (Dan, remember, was an attorney.)

The next day, Barton Key was sitting rather conspicuously on a bench neat the Sickles’ home.  Dan rushed across the street, yelling, “Key, you scoundrel!  You have disgraced my house—you must die!”

Dan fired his Colt revolver, wounding Key, who sought protection behind the trunk of a slender tree.  Reaching into his coat pocket, where he normally carried his derringer, he produced and threw….his opera glasses.  (Never bring binoculars to a gun fight.)  The opera glasses bounced harmlessly off Dan, who once again tried to fire his Colt revolver, but the gun misfired.  Reaching into his pocket, Sickles produced his large bore derringer and shot Key again.  Throwing the derringer into the street, he returned to the Colt revolver and continued to fire at close range at the mortally wounded Key until all the working cylinders had been fired.  Dan dropped his revolver, walked to the home of the Attorney General, and surrendered.

This was not exactly a private affair.  The attack literally took place across the street from the White House in what is today, Lafayette Park.  The street was full of prominent officials who had witnessed the cold blooded murder of the city’s District Attorney by a prominent Congressman.  The legal system should be swift and harsh—if for no other reason than the victim just happened to be the nephew of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney.  (Taney is still infamous for his profoundly racist majority opinion in the Dred Scott Case.)

Nothing about this case was anything but weird.  Dan Sickles was incarcerated, but not in prison, but in the warden’s apartment.  For his own protection, he was allowed to keep his Colt revolver.  (Yes, that Colt revolver.)  He received so many visitors, that it was damn near a constant parade.  Congressmen, Senators, judges, and a secretary even brought a note from his friend, the President of the United States.  And the press loved the story.  Before long, the popular version of the story was that Sickles had defended the virtue of all of the women of Washington from the lustful threat of a demon.

At the trial, Sickles defended himself, aided by Edwin Stanton, the future Secretary of War for President Lincoln.  The defense pleaded not guilty by reason of temporary insanity—the first use of this defense in the United States.  Stanton argued that Sickles had been driven insane by his wife's infidelity, and thus was out of his mind when he shot Key.
Dan Sickles was acquitted, publicly forgave his wife, and while he tried to stay out of public life for a short time, did not resign his seat in Congress, which he still held when the Civil War started.

Like everything else in his life, Dan’s military career is controversial.  He performed well at recruiting men, he was good at organizing his forces, but his fighting career is sketchy.  When Lincoln recommended his promotion to Major General, he became the only Corps commander in the Union Army who had not graduated from West Point.  While he performed well in some battles, his headquarters was infamous for being a cross between a saloon and a bordello.

Most controversial was his decision at Gettysburg to move his force—without orders—to a position to oppose Confederate General Longstreet, resulting in the near total destruction of the forces under his command.  Criticism of his actions was further complicated by his having received a wound that led to the amputation of his right leg.  While, today, he is the only major general not memorialized on the battlefield with a monument, he did receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1897.  (Ironically, in the popular reenactments of the battle at the end of the century, the last two surviving major generals of the battle were Longstreet and Sickles.  Now close friends, they would help each other climb Little Round Top).

After the war, Sickles was sent on several State Department missions.  He secured from Colombia compliance with a treaty that allowed American troops to safely cross Panama.   (A few decades later, Theodore Roosevelt would come up with a much better solution—he simply “took” Panama.)  In 1869, after the death of his wife, Teresa, Sickles was sent to Spain as our Minister with the secret instructions to purchase Cuba.  (McKinley solved that problem a few years later by “taking” Cuba.)

While Sickles was never quite able to buy Cuba, you have to say that our relations with the country improved dramatically.   Queen Isabella II had been deposed in 1868, formally abdicating in 1870.  Her son, Alfonso XII, was restored to the throne in 1874.  During this time, while the royal family took up residence in exile in Paris, they were still quite powerful in Spain, since the monarchy was so strong with the Spanish people that few doubted its eventual restoration.

During this time, Dan Sickles, as the U.S. Minister to Spain, spent most of his time in Paris—usually "with" the queen.    He was so obviously the queen’s lover that the European press frequently referred to Sickles as "The Yankee King of Spain".   While the Queen’s Consort, Francis, the Duke of Cadiz, did not particularly care (openly homosexual, he frequently hinted that none of their children were actually his), the Queen did not like the scandal.

So, Dan Sickles was married again, this time to Carmina Creagh, a member of the Queen’s household and the daughter of Chevalier de Creagh of Madrid, a Spanish Councilor of State.  While they eventually had two children, Dan spent very little time with his wife.  At one point, while they both lived in New York, they maintained two separate households for almost thirty years.

Dan Sickles returned to Congress for one term, but otherwise lived out the rest of his life on his military retirement pay.  Eventually, one of his neighbors was Mark Twain, who once said of the general, “I have been told that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.  That fits the general’s manner of speech exactly.  His talk is much better than it is...His talk does not sound entertaining, but it is distinctly entertaining."

Twain may have enjoyed the general's conversation, but he used to tire of Sickles' constant talk about his missing leg—he thought that "the general valued his lost leg a way above the one that is left.  I am perfectly sure that if he had to part with either of them, he would part with the one that he has got."

Dan Sickles spent the rest of his life in New York, passing away in May 1914.  He is buried in Arlington Cemetery and while his funeral in New York included a grand parade through Manhattan, his memory today is little more than a footnote in legal books.