Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

TCM’s summer film noir festival and online course

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015


Clear off your DVRs because they’re going to need all the space they can get this summer. Turner Classic Movies is running a film noir festival every Friday of June and July called, appropriately, Summer of Darkness. A full 24 hours of films noir will air starting at 6:00 AM each Friday. It begins on June 5th with Fritz Lang’s chilling 1931 masterpiece M and ends on August 1st at 3:00 AM with Hitchcock’s 1956 based-on-a-true-story mistaken identity picture The Wrong Man. In between are iconic films you’ve probably seen many times — The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, The Big Sleep, The Third Man, Blue Dahlia, Strangers on a Train — others you’ve heard of but not seen, ones you’ve never heard of and a smattering of modern classics like LA Confidential and Blue Velvet. Browse the full schedule here (pdf). The grand total by my count is a pantagruelian 121 movies.

But wait, there’s more! TCM is leaning into the fact that it’s already to all intents and purposes a film school that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year, 366 on leap years, and will be airing this treasure trove of film noir in conjunction with a massive open online course The Case of Film Noir.

In this nine-week course, we’ll go back in film history to investigate the “The Case of Film Noir” — the means, motives, and opportunities that led Hollywood studios to make these hard-boiled crime dramas, arguably their greatest contribution to American culture.

This course will run concurrently with the Turner Classic Movies “Summer of Darkness” programming event, airing 24 hours of films noir every Friday in June and July 2015. This is the deepest catalog of film noir ever presented by the network (and perhaps any network), and provides an unprecedented opportunity for those interested in learning more to watch over 100 classic movies as they investigate “The Case of Film Noir.”

Both the course and the associated films will enrich your understanding of the film noir phenomenon — from the earliest noir precursors to recent experiments in neo-noir. You will be able to share thoughts online and test your movie knowledge with a worldwide community of film noir students and fans.

Taught by Ball State University film noir and online education expert Dr. Richard L. Edwards, the course will provide links to public domain films noir so if you don’t have Turner Classic Movies, you can still participate. (Seriously though, get TCM if you can. In terms of sheer consistency and density of material, it’s the greatest channel on cable, bar none.) There will be live discussions on social media, but if you can’t attend you’ll be able to view recordings of them.

This is an amazing opportunity to explore a genre of film in the kind of depth that even college film classes can only dream of. Click here to enroll in the course.

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Explore the 18th c. consultation letters of Dr. William Cullen

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Dr. William Cullen was a chemist, surgeon, apothecary, physician, botanist, university lecturer and prominent figure in the Scottish enlightenment who was instrumental in establishing the reputation of the University of Edinburgh Medical School as the top medical school in Britain, if not the entire continent. Philosopher David Hume was a patient and friend. Physician and pioneering chemist Joseph Black was one of his students and remained a close friend throughout their life. The young William Hunter, the distinguished anatomist who brought us Smugglerius and whose collection formed the nucleus of the University of Glasgow’s famed Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, was Cullen’s student and partner for four years before striking out on his own. Anatomist Alexander Monro II, father of that Alexander Monro who dissected William Burke’s body after his execution, was another student and friend.

Cullen lived a long life working almost up to his last breath, only retiring as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in the autumn of 1789 when he was 80 years old, just a few months before he died. During his years in Edinburgh, he established his own private practice which was highly successful even though much of his work was conducted not in person but in letters. Physicians often consulted by correspondence at that time, and Cullen did us the great favor of keeping most of the letters he received from the 1760s onward along with copies of his replies, either handwritten or, after April 1st, 1781, made using the pressure copying machine invented by James Watt of steam engine fame.

That remarkable archive is now in the possession of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) and it is unique in its importance and immensity. There are 17 boxes of letters and 21 bound volumes of Cullen’s replies. Consultations were mainly the province of the wealthy (the cost was a whopping two guineas), but there are a wide range of patients and problems. There’s even a letter from James Boswell asking for help for a very ill Samuel Johnson. To make this treasury of medical history more widely available, the RCPE is working with the University of Glasgow’s School of Critical Studies to digitize the collection and make it publically available to everyone from scholars to people who love falling down research rabbit holes (not that we know anyone who answers to that description here).

[The Cullen Project] will not only render this material viewable as high-quality digital images and readable as diplomatic and normalised transcripts, but the texts will be fully searchable. Internal references to ingredients (materia medica), symptoms, conditions, treatments, preparations, actions and body-parts are being tagged using XML mark-up. Additional metadata for each item, including all associated dates, persons and places is being recorded in the edition’s innovative database.

For example, here’s a featured letter sent to Dr. Cullen by a colleague, Dr. John Cairnie, seeking advice on the treatment of a patient suffering from erectile dysfunction. The young man had suffered from numerous bouts of venereal disease starting when he joined the Navy at 12 years of age. He was now 27 and was unable to get an erection but was nonetheless experiencing unfortunately frequent ejaculations. Cullen replied a few days later and the prescription he suggested to cure the poor fellow was written on the back of the letter to the right of seal: “Take half-a-drachm of Camphor; half-a-drachm of prepared Steel; two drachms of Gentian extract, and a sufficient amount of Gum Arabic mucilage to form pills of nine grains each. Three to be taken every morning and every night.”

On the Facsimile tab of the entry are photographs of the letter, back and front. You can hover over them to zoom in. The Normalized Text tab has a corrected transcript of the letter which replaces abbreviations and numerals with full words. The Diplomatic Text tab has a transcript which cleaves to the original syntax. Every ingredient, disease term, body part, syndrome, etc. is a link to a definition and other instances in which they appear in the good doctor’s correspondence. Care to know more about 18th century testicle doctoring? Click the link in the word “testicle” from the transcripts and you’ll find another 134 references in Cullen’s consultation letters to testes, stones and the scrotum.

It is truly a most alluring Charybdis of a database. I defy anyone to read just one letter without being sucked into the link whirlpool. If your family reports you as a missing person, don’t blame me; blame The Cullen Project.

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Starring Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday

Monday, May 4th, 2015

While frolicking through silent movie history yesterday, I came across a veritable treasure of a comedic short. It’s called The Mystery of the Leaping Fish and it stars Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday the “scientific detective,” a parody of Sherlock Holmes who was a cocaine aficionado albeit nowhere near as rabid a one as Mr. Ennyday. The character’s name isn’t the only shameless, even joyful, drug reference. Our hero is not only an avowed drug user, he wears a bandolier of syringes filled with liquid cocaine strapped to his chest and injects himself every few minutes. He also has a large round box labelled “COCAINE” in large print that he grabs fistfuls of powder out of that he then buries his face into with Scarface-like gusto. His wall clock eschews hour markers in favor of four words at the cardinal points: eats, sleep, drinks, dope. When the single hand points to drinks, Ennyday’s manservant makes him the beverage of champions: equal parts Gordon’s Gin, laudanum and prussic acid (a solution of hydrogen cyanide).

This is no Reefer Madness. There is no stern moral conclusion about the evils of drugs. Fairbanks is his usual gregarious, athletic self, just sillier than usual. This was filmed in 1916 when drugs like cocaine, cannabis and opiates were readily available from pharmaceutical companies. Many states had laws against the sale and use of coca and opium and in December of 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act which in theory made it a federal crime. Authorized companies (pharma) and individuals (doctors, patients) could still dispense and use cocaine and opiates, however.

Douglas was still a comparative rookie when he made this wacky picture, having moved to Hollywood in 1915 and signed a contract with the newly formed Triangle Pictures where he worked under the D.W. Griffith point of the triangle (the other two points were Thomas Ince and Mack Sennet). His first film was released in November 1915. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was released just seven months later in June of 1916. By then, with fewer than 10 films under his belt, he already had above the title billing. It was the second time he worked with husband and wife writing team John Emerson and Anita Loos. Emerson directed the picture — very amusingly, I might add; there are some great comedic beats in there — and Loos wrote the intertitles with tongue firmly in cheek. Fairbanks made his own contributions to the script, something you see reflected in the beginning and closing sequences where he’s playing himself pitching the madcap story of Coke Ennyday to a studio writer who naturally tells him this is a ridiculous idea for a picture that will never be made.

(Loos would later go on to write the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a huge success in print, on stage and in film, with the most famous movie version starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Emerson would go on to be a huge parasite on his wife, sponging off her success, stealing her money, losing it all and stealing it again when she bounced back, all the while cheating on her and manipulating her with faked illnesses and endless drama.)

When Fairbanks rose to the loftiest heights of Hollywood fame, he reportedly came to hate this wild foray into drugged-out good times and tried to have it destroyed. With all the silent pictures we’ve lost to time and nitrate volatility and studios not giving a crap about their history, it’s remarkable that this bizarre little two-reeler survived even when the greatest star of the era wanted it gone.

Also of historical note is the relatively subdued racist angle. There’s a Chinese laundry guy/opium dealer stereotype, but it’s small potatoes compared to the blatant racism of the debate around the passage of the Harrison Act which was all about cocaine making black men crazy, aggressive, superstrong and driving them to rape white women, while the Chinese used opium to lure innocent white girls into drug addiction, illicit relationships and, inevitably, prostitution.

The movie really doesn’t care about any of that noise. It’s quite remarkable, because studios were consistently cowardly when it came to potentially controversial issues, even before the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the later implementation of the Production Code. The story was by Tod Browning, best known today for his ground-breaking and still creepy as hell talkie Freaks. He had run away from home to join the circus when he was a teenager, so he was not easily scandalized.

Anyway, without further ado, here is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish.

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Watch Too Much Johnson online

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Last night Turner Classic Movies aired the restored work print of Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson found in Pordenone, Italy, in 2008. It was the second film Welles ever made (the first was a short eight minutes long; the third was Citizen Kane) and had long been thought lost before the silent film experts of Cinemazero discovered the print that had been languishing forgotten in a shipping company warehouse since the 70s.

An adaptation of an 1894 play by William Gillette, Welles made significant changes to the original script of Too Much Johnson for an experimental staging by his Mercury Theatre company. The original plan was for the three reels of the picture to be introductions to each act, the first reel 20 minutes long, the remaining two 10 minutes each. The film was silent slapstick in the style of Mack Sennett’s early comedies and it would set the stage for a performance of the play done as a screwball comedy.

This was Welles’ first full experience of shooting and editing a movie. In 10 days of filming, he shot 25,000 feet of film. He took all 25,000 feet of highly flammable 35mm nitrate to his hotel suite at the St. Regius and edited it himself on a Moviola machine. Producer John Houseman and assistant director John Berry aided him in this slightly insane endeavor, and would later recall that nitrate film covered the floor of the suite reaching knee-high. There was at least one fire. Somehow, the men, the film, the hotel suite and the hotel, for that matter, survived this cockamamie scheme, and Welles managed to narrow down the 10 reels of footage to a rough working print just over an hour in running time.

He never did finish editing the movie. There may have been an issue with royalties — Paramount owned the film rights to the original play — and legend has it the Stony Creek Theatre, the theater near New Haven where the play was to have its trial run, did not have the fireproof projection booth and/or a high enough ceiling to show the film. However, Paramount has no record of sending Welles a letter asserting their rights and the Stony Creek Theatre started out as the Lyric Theater, a nickelodeon, in 1903 (the same year The Great Train Robbery altered the movie-going landscape forever) so even though it was purchased by a community theater group in 1920 and a proper stage and fly gallery added, it seems odd that it would have lost all its original film projection capabilities by August 16th, 1938, when the Too Much Johnson preview began.

Whatever the reason, the movie part of the Mercury staging of the play never did happen. Without it the play, which Welles had modified extensively assuming there would be introductory films, didn’t work and the New Haven trial was a flop. Although Welles made noises that the play would move on to Broadway, the debut kept getting postponed and ultimately dropped. The Mercury Theatre company had begun putting on live hour-long radio dramas in July of 1938, and in October of that year they pulled off the greatest radio drama caper of all time with the broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The huge reaction got them a sponsor (Campbell’s Soup) and two more years of weekly shows, so Too Much Johnson fell by the wayside.

The footage wound up in storage. Welles himself completely forgot about it until he found a print at his house in Madrid in the 1960s. He refused to show it publicly, saying that it made no sense without the play context, much like the play had made little sense without the companion film. When that print was lost in a fire, scholars thought this important transitional piece that had much to reveal about the development of Welles’ directorial approach was gone forever. That’s why the discovery of the second print in Pordenone was greeted with such joy by film nerds and Welles’ fans.

Too Much Johnson was restored by the geniuses at the George Eastman House with invaluable help from Haghefilm Digitaal in the Netherlands and had its world debut at a silent film festival in Pordenone in October of 2013 before making its US debut later that month at the George Eastman House. That viewing was for members only; the rest of us had to wait to get our eyeballs on it, so I was kicking myself for not realizing ahead of time that the movie would finally air on a widely accessible cable channel. It’s pretty great, too. I didn’t find it all that confusing, even though there are no intertitles and there are repetitive takes included.

The stand-outs for me are Joseph Cotten, who legs it over the rooftops of New York City with impressive gameness, grace and skill, the cinematography and the angled shots, surprising quick-cuts and close-ups that would come to define the Welles of Citizen Kane and after. Cotten makes Harold Lloyd in Safety Last, one of Welles’ inspirations for the picture, look like an accountant at a desk job. This was done with a shoe-string budget. There were no stunts, no carefully arranged shots that made a guy dangling from a clock a few feet above a platform look like he was dangling from a clock many stories in the air. Cotten and the man he has cuckholded, played with moustache-twirling zest by Edgar Barrier, scramble up and down Battery tenements, scooch around ledges and plank over chimneys with the greatest of ease.

Cinematographer Paul Dunbar pulled a rabbit out of a hat, making this two-buck-chuck of a film look way more expensive than it had any right to look. There are great shots capturing the geometry of the city (diagonal criss-cross fire escapes, stacks and stacks of boxes, background skyscrapers, hats covering the ground like confetti). Scenes set in “Cuba” were shot in a quarry over the Hudson River planted with palm trees Welles picked up at a local plant nursery. It’s downright eerie how well it all works.

But you don’t have to take my word for it just because I neglected to alert you to the impending airing. Thankfully the National Film Preservation Foundation has come to the rescue. When I posted about the restoration two years ago, the NFPF was raising money to digitize the movie and make it available for free on its website. Well, they were successful! You can watch the whole restored 66-minute work print online here. Being a particularly awesome organization, they have also uploaded an edited version which is an “educated guess” of how Welles might have pared down the footage for use alongside the play.

The NFPF version (I’ve only seen the work print all the way through) is actually better than the version TCM showed, in my opinion, because the score is so much better. They’ve added a proper silent movie score whereas the TCM version was a very repetitive, sloooooow, minimalist composition that doesn’t match the slapstick action at all. They’ve also provided phenomenal notes explaining the full context of the play, comparing the original to drafts of the Mercury version so it’s much easier to follow the story. So yeah. Two thumbs most enthusiastically up.

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Trajan’s Column up close and in stop-motion

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

National Geographic has devised some sort of doomsday mind reading device only instead of using it to enslave humanity like the rest of us would, they’ve chosen to hone in on one of my fondest dreams and make it come true: a proper close look at the helical relief that wraps itself around Trajan’s Column. Trajan’s Column, built in 113 A.D. to commemorate the emperor’s victories over the Dacians in two wars (101–102 and 105–106 A.D.), has a 625 foot-long frieze that winds around the 98 foot-high column shaft 23 times. There are 2,662 figures in 155 scenes plus scads of structures (pontoon bridges! forts!) and gear (weapons! army standards! exotic Dacian fashions!). The complexity of the carving, the density of characters and scenes, and, last but certainly not least, the monumental scale of the column make it an ideal candidate for digital exploration. Short of a surreptitious and illegal nighttime visit to Trajan’s Forum aboard a cherry picker, it’s simply impossible to see anything more than the pedestal close up in person.

Your best shot at a thorough look at the frieze in person is on the plaster casts in museums. The Museum of Roman Civilisation in the EUR neighborhood of Rome has a blessedly handy collection of casts of the relief separated into sections that are lined up in narrative order along three rows that you can walk through. Because the casts were made in the 19th century, the relief is in better condition than on the original column that has been exposed to an additional century and a half of pollution and erosion. The Victoria & Albert has plaster casts mounted on two central brick columns that makes them look like the column was cut in half. You can view it from ground level or from a gallery.

As far as digital options go, there are several excellent sites dedicated to Trajan’s Column. The University of St. Andrews has a phenomenal Trajan’s Column site that has a searchable database of images of the frieze that you can easily click through using a numbered map (after you click on a piece of the frieze, click zoom out to see all the images of that scene). It also has exceptional background information: explanations of numbering conventions used to identify scenes and figures, the drawings and casts that scholars have made to study the column, a detailed description of the column’s history, materials, construction method and more. The only problem is the photographs are small and it’s easy to lose your way in the details. There is no big picture view of the entire relief.

The German Archaeological Institute’s Arachne database has many images of Trajan’s Column, but they’re in black and white, watermarked and the interface is awkward, to put it mildly. Far more user friendly but still information-rich is the Trajan’s Column website created by Dartmouth College professor Roger B. Ulrich. The photographs are too small to quench my thirst. Google Art Project has a handful of good images of the plaster casts at the Museum of Roman Civilisation (this one of Trajan’s cavalry defeating the Sarmatian cataphract heavy cavalry is my favorite because you get to see the weird fish scale armour in detail), but nowhere near enough.

Wikipedia user MatthiasKabel has probably the best photographs of the complete column in situ on the web. Massive panoramas capture each side in exquisitely high resolution. They’re beautiful, but they’re just images, no information or key to help you interpret the riot of people, equipment and action. See them at the bottom of the Trajan’s Column entry.

The detailed view of the scenes flowing from one to the other has heretofore been lacking. That’s the gap National Geographic has filled. Their interactive graphic has a brief slideshow of highlights you can click through, but most importantly allows you to wind your way around the entire column, zooming in to examine whatever detail catches your fancy. They’ve created a simple color-coded notation system that categorizes the scenes by subject (marches, speeches, construction, etc.) and makes Trajan easy to spot because he’s been tinted yellow in all 58 of the scenes in which he appears.

As if that weren’t cool enough, National Geographic raised the bar to infinity and beyond by making a stop-motion animated video of how the column may have been constructed. There are several competing theories on the question, but none of their advocates have made a stop-motion video of them, so, you know…

But wait, there’s more! Damn that video was awesome, you say to yourself. I wish I could see how they made the magic happen. Well your wish has already come true, because there’s a making-of video. :boogie:

Lastly, because they’re a legitimate magazine with articles and what not, National Geographic has a story accompanying the great graphics that gives an overview of the history behind the column and of the Dacian culture Trajan all but obliterated from a perspective that is not imbued with Roman propaganda.

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25th anniversary Gardner Museum theft virtual tour

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

March 18th marks the 25th anniversary of the theft of 13 artworks from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In the early morning hours of March 18th, 1990, two men dressed as police officers entered the museum on the pretext that they were responding to a call. It was against protocol for the museum’s guard to let anyone past the security doors, but they talked their way in. They then proceeded to bamboozle the security guard so thoroughly that he all but tied himself up and gave them their pick of the priceless artworks on the walls.

Once inside, the thieves asked that the guard come around from behind the desk, claiming that they recognized him and that there was a warrant out for his arrest. The guard walked away from the desk and away from the only alarm button. The guard was told to summon the other guard on duty to the security desk, which he did. The thieves then handcuffed both guards and took them into the basement where they were secured to pipes and their hands, feet, and heads duct taped. The two guards were placed 40 yards away from each other in the basement.

The next morning, the security guard arriving to relieve the two night guards discovered that the Museum had been robbed and notified the police and director Anne Hawley.

The robbery took 81 minutes total. In the end, the thieves made away with:

  1. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), Rembrandt’s only seascape
  2. A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) by Rembrandt
  3. Self-Portrait (ca. 1634) etching by Rembrandt
  4. The Concert (1658–1660) by Vermeer
  5. Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) by Manet
  6. Landscape with an Obelisk (1638) by Govaert Flinck
  7. La Sortie de Pesage, pencil and watercolor by Degas
  8. Program for an Artistic Soirée (1884), charcoal by Degas
  9. Program for an Artistic Soirée, Study 2 (1884), charcoal by Degas
  10. Cortège aux Environs de Florence, pencil and wash by Degas
  11. Three Mounted Jockeys, ink and wash by Degas
  12. Bronze finial in the form of an eagle, French, 1813–1814
  13. Chinese Bronze Beaker or Ku, 1200–1100 B.C.

The total estimated value of the haul is $500 million. The FBI is still on the case. As recently as two years ago they announced they’d narrowed down the suspect list to members of a New England or Mid-Atlantic organized crime family. The also found the thieves had made an attempt to sell some of the artworks in Philadelphia 12 years ago. That’s the last time they appear on the record.

The Gardner’s offer of a $5 million reward for the return of the 13 purloined pieces remains open, and on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the theft, the museum has created a virtual tour in collaboration with Google Art Project. It takes you on a walk through the museum using Google Street View technology and stops at every blank space where the stolen pieces used to be displayed. High resolution images of the artworks and historical photographs of the museum before the theft flesh out the story of the artworks and their loss. It’s a wistfully lovely look at one of the most charming, idiosyncratic and beautiful museums in the world.

Follow the Gardner’s Instagram account for individual images and stories about the stolen works from now until the anniversary.

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Film of Eastland disaster found in Dutch newsreels

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

The wreck of the Eastland, 1915. Kaufmann, Weimer, & Fabry Co.

It was drizzling in Chicago on Saturday, July 24th, 1915, but the damp weather didn’t keep the employees of the Western Electric Company from hastening to the Chicago River wharf where they would board one of five steamers that would transport them four hours across Lake Michigan to the amusements of Washington Park in Michigan City, Indiana. The Western Electric annual picnic was particularly well-attended, with almost 7,000 employees, family and friends planning to go. The first chartered steamer to board passengers was the SS Eastland, a 12-year-old ship that had been designed without a keel and was top-heavy from inception. Diver and other rescue workers recover victim of Eastland disaster. Photo by Jun Fujita.Ballast tanks filled with water were supposed to balance out the weight, but nonetheless the Eastland had had multiple listing incidents over the course of its short career.

A month before the Western Electric picnic, the Eastland had more weight added to its top in the form of additional lifeboats, a reaction to the recent passage of the Seaman’s Act (itself a reaction to the sinking of the Titanic) which required increased lifesaving devices on ships. The act didn’t go into effect until the end of the year, but the steamship company decided to get the jump on it. It did not decide to lower the ship’s passenger capacity, however, although by the terms of the Seaman’s Act the Eastland would go from being licensed to carry 2,500 passengers to a capacity of 1,200.

Drawing of the Eastland disaster by political cartoonist and eyewitness to the events Bob SatterfieldUnaware that their ship had a history of top-heaviness, that it was even top-heavier right then than it had ever been thanks to all the new lifeboats and rafts on the top deck, and that there were twice as many of them as future regulation would allow, 2,500 picnickers boarded the Eastland. As soon as they got on the ship started listing. Still moored to the wharf, the steamer listed to starboard, then to port. The passengers thought it was fun at first and the captain thought he could fix it, so he didn’t order an immediate evacuation. At 7:31 AM, the Eastland rolled all the way onto its port side and capsized in 20 feet of water a few feet from dry land.

People who had been milling about on the upper decks were dumped into the Chicago River. Whoever was able to scramble over the starboard rail as the ship turned remained dry on the exposed starboard side of the capsized vessel. The passengers below deck (and there were many, particularly women and children), with the good sense but bad luck to stay out of the rain, were trapped. Disoriented in the sideways ship, crushed by falling furniture, fixtures and people, flooded by the water rushing into the interior, they died from drowning, blunt force trauma, and trampling.

Rescue workers recover body of victimEight hundred and forty-four people died in the hull of the Eastland. Twenty-two families were completely annihilated, and more than 650 families lost at least one member. Nineteen families lost both parents. One hundred and seventy-five women, three of them pregnant, were widowed; 84 men were left widowers. Of the victims who lost their lives, 228 were teenagers and 58 were babies or young children. Seventy percent of the dead were under 25 years of age; the average age of the victims was 23. The Eastland tragedy remains to this day Chicago’s worst disaster in terms of loss of life.

Kenosha used as a floating bridge to rescue Eastland passengersThe tugboat Kenosha, which was tied to the Eastland in preparation to tow it from the river to the lake, immediately changed gears to rescue. Captain John O’Meara had the tug moored to the wharf so passengers who had managed to climb onto the starboard side of the Eastland as it rolled could use the tug as a floating bridge to walk to safety. Divers were enlisted to search for survivors, or more realistically to recover bodies, inside the capsized ship. They had to break through the sides of the ship using cutting torches.

Rescue and recovery was only the beginning. With so many dead and so many more living rushing to the riverside clamouring to know the fate of their loved ones, storing and identifying the dead and alerting their families would become a logistical nightmare. Western Electric just happened to be incredibly well-positioned to live up to the challenge.

Western Electric ad in October 16th, 1915 issue of The Literary DigestThe Western Electric Company made equipment for the Bell System, a network of local phone companies either directly owned by or closely connected to AT&T. Originally formed to make telegraph machinery in 1869, the company went through several iterations before AT&T bought a controlling stake in the company in 1881. Western Electric became the exclusive manufacturer of AT&T telephones in 1882. By the early 20th century it was also manufacturing or reselling a wide range of electrical appliances like dishwashers, toasters, radios and vacuüm cleaners.

It manufactured the parts for the Transcontinental Line that linked sea to shining sea by voice. The first transcontinental phone call, from Alexander Graham Bell in New York City to Dr. Watson in San Francisco, was made in January of 1915, just six months before the disaster. (And yes, Bell did repeat his famous line, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you” for the test. Watson replied that it would take him a week since he wasn’t in the room next door this time.) Instantaneous voice communication across 3,000 miles was an exciting technological leap forward for Western Electric and its employees, and that buzz was part of the reason the picnic was so enthusiastically embraced that summer.

Hawthorne Works 1910sThe company had a paternalistic, almost Hershey-like approach to its employees. Productivity, Western Electric believed, could be improved by creating a supportive, active, family environment. The Hawthorne Works plant, built in Cicero, Illinois in 1905, had a band, gym, restaurant, library, baseball field, bowling alley and track field. Eventually it would have its own hospital, fire department and police. Employees were encouraged to join teams, be they baseball, soccer, bowling or chess. The company saw sports and friendly competition were a way for employees to get to know each other, to work together as a team, maybe even get a rivalry going on between people or departments that would egg them on to make more phones.

The company offered evening classes for all employees, men and women. The classes could be related to the job or purely for one’s edification. Then there were the social entertainments: dances, masquerades, movies, concerts, ice skating, and the culmination of the season, the annual employee picnic.

Ticket to the 1915 picnicOrganized by employee social clubs for the first four years, the fifth annual Hawthorne Works picnic in 1915 burst the boundaries of the clubs and became its own thing, generating a shockingly vast panoply of committees to attend to every little aspect of the day. Committees included Program, Judges, Prizes, Beach, Dancing, Tug-of-War, Amusement, Picnic, Transportation, Tickets, Photography, Grounds, Music, Publicity, Athletics and Races. It was the Transportation Committee that arranged with the Indiana Transportation Company to charter five large ships to carry the throngs to the picnic site.

Second Regiment Armory as temporary morgue. Photo by Jun Fujita.When the disaster struck, Western Electric employees who had been waiting to board their own ships for the party used some of the teamwork developed on the company baseball diamond to band together for the recovery, identification and notification for their fallen comrades. They and other volunteers set up temporary morgues in warehouses and in the Second Regiment Armory. They created multiple information bureaus to make a list of names of the dead and collect information from frantic next of kin. They had dozens of phones installed so the information bureaus could share data instead of duplicating each others’ work, and to receive the many phone calls from worried friends and family. They scoured hospitals for living and dead. They sorted an enormous quantity of personal belongings that had been taken from dead bodies in the hopes of identifying them, as well as from the inside of the ship.

That’s just scratching the surface. After identification there was relief, providing some financial support for the families of the dead. The Eastland Memorial Society has digitized a transcript of the August 1915 edition of the Western Electric News, a memorial issue dedicated to those who perished in the disaster. Read this page for the company’s account of its employees’ dedication, ingenuity and heroism in extremely trying circumstances. For a contrasting viewpoint, read Carl Sandburg’s very different take on events in the International Socialist Review.

Horrified rescue worker with victim. Photo by Jun Fujita.The wreck and its tragic aftermath were thoroughly documented by the press. Groundbreaking photojournalist Jun Fujita, the first Japanese-American photojournalist and one of the first photojournalists period, had just been hired by the Chicago Evening Post. He happened to be at work bright and early on July 24th, 1915, so he was able to run to the wharf as soon as he heard about the disaster. Fujita took pictures of the capsized ship and the crowd of passengers perched on top of it. He clambered onto the ship and got some very compelling shots of the rescue efforts, including one of a wharfman carrying the dead body of a child. The tough old dock worker with a horrified look in his eyes as he holds a young victim in his arms became a symbol of the disaster in the same way the firefighter tenderly cradling the bloody baby after the Oklahoma City bombing became an iconic image. Jun Fujita wrote a poignant essay about the day’s events as seen through the agonized eyes of the rescue worker with the dead child in his arms.

There was no film of the disaster known to have survived. That changed on Thursday. University of Illinois Ph.D. candidate Jeff Nichols was looking through that magnificent time sink that is Europeana, the digital database of Europe’s cultural patrimony, doing research for his dissertation on World War I propaganda when he saw the intertitle of a Dutch newsreel refer to the Eastland. Then he found a second clip in another newsreel. Both movies were uploaded to Europeana’s exceptional World War I site, Europeana 1914-18, by the EYE Film Instituut Nederland which has contributed hundreds of hours of archival footage to the database.

The first clip is a segment (starts 1:08) of a newsreel that otherwise covers World War I-related events, mainly in England. The only exceptions are the opening scene of Bersaglieri, an Italian light infantry unit famous for their signature black grouse feather hats and the brisk trot they use instead of a parade march, taking the town of Cormons on the border with Austria-Hungary, and the second scene of the rescue efforts around the capsized Eastland.

The second clip (starts 9:10), also a segment of a newsreel covering home front events, records the salvage crews working to right the Eastland on August 14th, almost four weeks after the disaster.

Hawthorne Works water tower and the mall that replaced the other buildingsThe Eastland’s owners were tried in a Chicago court for criminal neglect, but the jury acquitted them. The steamer itself was repaired, renamed the USS Wilmette, and used as a training ship for the Navy until it was finally broken up for scrap in 1947.

Hawthorne Works went the way of so much midwestern manufacturing. Employer to more than 40,000 people at its peak, the plant closed its doors permanently in 1986, and shortly thereafter the brick industrial buildings were demolished to make way for a hideous strip mall. Only the water tower and a cable factory, now used by the county as a warehouse, remain of the original campus.

Dorothy Fitzgerald, 3, victim of SS Eastland disaster along with her motherThe Chicago History Museum has a display on the Eastland disaster in the City in Crisis section of its permanent exhibition Chicago: Crossroads of America. Go to the Eastland Disaster Historical Society website for tons of information about the disaster and its aftermath. The organization was founded by the two granddaughters of a survivor of the disaster, and it is a labor of love and respect. Not to be missed is their meticulous reconstruction of the passenger list with links to more information and photographs about the victims and survivors.

 

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Read and see what Darwin read and saw on the HMS Beagle

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

HMS Beagle by P.G. King, 1890Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle in December of 1831 as a self-funded gentleman naturalist (Josiah Wedgwood II, son of the potter/industrialist and Charles’ uncle by marriage, actually did the funding) on what was supposed to be a two-year survey of the South American coast. He wound up spending five years on board circumnavigating the globe. Darwin was 22 years old and fresh out of Cambridge when his epic voyage began. While the Beagle crew focused on surveying the coasts, Darwin’s job was studying the local flora, fauna and geology. Even though he was an amateur who had only ever put together a beetle collection before, he proved adroit at collecting specimens, over the years amassing a great quantity of them from plankton to Megatherium fossils.

On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, 23 years after the Beagle’s return to England, but the things he saw and the extensive notes and journal he wrote documenting his trip would be invaluable to his understanding that species are not immutable, but rather evolve over time through a process of natural selection. An essential element of Darwin’s growth from talented amateur to scientist was the research library on the Beagle. There were 404 books on board, mostly non-fiction (one exception Darwin is known to have read was a Spanish translation of a racy French novel by Antoine-Toussaint Desquiron de Saint-Agnan about the adultery trial of Queen Caroline, estranged wife of King George IV), almost all of them the property of the ship’s young captain Robert FitzRoy.

Diagram of poop cabin with Darwin's annotations labeling the bookcasesThe books were kept in cases in the poop cabin at the ship’s stern. Darwin was quartered in the poop cabin, which means for five years he lived in this library. Little wonder, then, that there are obscure notes in his journals that can only be explained by identifying the book referenced. However, the catalogue of the library was lost and the books themselves were dispersed when the Beagle returned home in 1836.

Now a team of researchers led by John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the National University of Singapore, have compiled and digitized every last known title from the Beagle’s library.

Among the titles are all 20 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, seven volumes of the Natural History of Invertebrate Animals by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and James Cook’s three-volume account of a Pacific Ocean voyage in the 1770s. [...]

Reconstructing the library provides a more complete picture of Darwin’s world during the expedition. “Darwin literally lived in the library for five years,” said van Wyhe. “The science of his day was already quite sophisticated. All these geology books and all these books on fossils. Darwin could build on what was already known and what had come before.” [...]

The books onboard were identified through a number of methods including letters sent between crew members and their families, lines in Darwin’s notebooks and his surviving book collection. The final number of books digitised for the project is close to a number stated by Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle. In a letter to his sister during an earlier voyage on 16 March 1826, FitzRoy wrote, “I flatter myself I have a complete library in miniature, upwards of 400 volumes!”

Here is the complete Beagle library catalogued by subject, here catalogued by title. There are a total of 195,000 pages in the library with more than 5,000 illustrations.

Montevideo from the anchored Beagle, Conrad Martens, 1833If you’d like to see some of the sights Darwin saw during his voyage, you’ll enjoy another digitization project: Cambridge University’s scanning of the sketchbooks filled by the Beagle’s artist, Conrad Martens. He documented the sights with lightning drawings, most of them quick pencil sketches with some watercolors, during his altogether too brief time on board the ship. He joined the Beagle crew in November of 1833 at Montevideo and left after they reached Valparaiso in August of 1834 due to budgetary constraints. Leaf through Sketchbook III here and Sketchbook I here. (Those are in date order, despite the counterintuitive numbering.)

 

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Canada museum buys world’s oldest hockey stick

Sunday, January 11th, 2015


The Canadian Museum of History has acquired the oldest known hockey stick for $300,000. The seller was social worker Mark Presley who saw it mounted on the wall of a barbershop and bought it from barber George Ferneyhough in 2008 for $1,000. Fascinated by the small, clearly old hockey stick, Presley traced its ownership history and had it tested extensively to determine its age. (You can read the documentation of his research here.) He discovered that the stick was hand-carved out of a single piece of (what else?) sugar maple between 1835 and 1838 in North Sydney along the northeastern coast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The original owners were the Moffatt family, scions of Loyalist shipbuilder Captain James Moffatt, born in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, in 1737, who was one of the first settlers of Upper North Sydney’s Pottle Lake area.

It was a Moffatt, Charlie Moffatt, who had given George Ferneyhough the stick thirty years earlier. Presley tracked Charlie Moffatt down. Then 92 years old, Moffatt told Presley that while he never used it himself, he remembered the old handmade stick hanging on the porch of the family’s homestead on Pottle Lake until the farm with its two acres of waterfront property was expropriated by the government in the 1960s when the lake watershed became the protected potable water source for surrounding municipalities. Charlie’s father Warren told him he and his father Thomas had used the stick to play on Pottle Lake when they were young, and Thomas was born in 1837, so Presley realized this stick could well be very old indeed.

Initials “WM” carved into the blade of the stick when it was still new before any of the many layers of paint were applied indicate that the first owner was William “Dilly” Moffatt, Thomas Moffatt’s brother and Charlie’s great-uncle. Thomas and Dilly’s father John Mumford Moffatt probably carved the stick for his sons, and he did an outstanding job of it, starting with the lumber selection. Experts at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, studied the wood and found the direction of the pith indicates it was taken from a small tree growing outward and upward from a cliff or creek bank. This growth pattern gave the tree’s lumber a natural J-shaped curve. That made the stick easy and fast to carve and extremely strong since the blade was part of the natural sweep of the wood.

The Mount Allison researchers were also able to date the stick by its tree rings. No other antique hockey stick has been able to be dendrochronologically dated because you need a certain number of rings to establish a pattern that can be matched with a previously known chronology and hockey sticks don’t generally have usable ring groups. The experts determined the minimum number of rings they would need was 30. The butt of the Moffatt stick turned out to have 43 rings, a remarkable number for the small diameter of a hockey stick. Matched against a sugar maple chronology established from Pottle Lake trees and adjusted for additional rings and knots, the date the wood was cut determined to be between 1835 and 1838. The paint evidence supported that conclusion, with the first of the five layers being a natural “red earth” pigment based on iron oxides ground up with charcoal that was in common use in Cape Breton between 1800 and 1850.

That makes the Moffatt stick a good 20 years older than any other hockey stick known to survive. The stick previously thought to be the oldest was made between 1852 and 1856 by Glasgow-born Alexander Rutherford who carved it out of hickory at his farm outside Lindsay, Ontario. His son, Alexander Rutherford Jr., played with it before handing it down to his own son Melville Rutherford. Melville gave to his nine-year-old grand-nephew Gord Sharpe who kept it for three decades before putting it on display at Wayne Gretsky’s Toronto restaurant for a few years and then auctioning it off on eBay in 2006. It sold for $2.2 million Canadian. Sharpe gave the profits to a charity he founded and the buyer put the Rutherford stick on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Given that enticing precedent and needing money to fund his return to college, Mark Presley chose to follow in Sharpe’s footsteps and put the Moffatt stick up for sale on eBay in March of 2014. Excitement was rife with talk of millions of dollars (Mr. Ferneyhough was pretty disgruntled at the prospect) but the highest bid was $118,000 Canadian which failed to meet the reserve.

The Canadian Museum of History, provisioned with moneys from the donor-supported National Collection Fund, was able to make a deal with Presley to secure the world’s oldest known hockey stick for the nation, and boy are they happy about it.

“Hockey is Canada’s game — we developed it and we cherish it like no other country in the world,” said Mark O’Neill, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History. “The Moffatt stick is a unique and powerful link to the sport’s earliest days in this country, and is an example of the national treasures Canadians will see in their new national museum of history.”

“Our Government is proud that the Canadian Museum of History has acquired this important part of our history,” said the Honourable Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages. “Through its acquisitions, the Canadian Museum of History provides Canadians with greater access to our rich and diverse history. As we approach Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, this is an opportunity for all of us to appreciate our great heritage.”

The Moffatt stick will go on display in the museum’s new Canadian History Hall on the 150th anniversary, Canada Day (July 1st) of 2017.

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The Mauritshuis at a movie theater near you

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

When the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, Netherlands, closed for two years so the 17th century palace that houses the exceptional collection of Dutch Golden Age masterpieces could be restored and expanded, a selection of the museum’s most famous pieces went on tour. The Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis exhibition kicked off in Japan with 48 works and it was a smash hit. The show at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum was the world’s most visited exhibition of 2012 with 758,724 total visitors.

When it moved on to the US in 2013, the traveling exhibition stopped at the de Young in San Francisco, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and The Frick Collection in New York City where hundreds of thousands of people went to see Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Paulus Potter’s The Bull and Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, among other treasures. Early last year the show moved to Italy for its last stop at the Palazzo Fava in Bologna and then returned home to The Hague. Over the year and a half the exhibition was on the road, more than 2.2 million people in Japan, the US and Italy saw Girl with a Pearl Earring and friends.

On June 27th, 2014, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands officially reopened the Mauritshuis with much pomp and ceremony, including a living human Girl with a Pearl Earring’s symbolic return to the museum accompanied by six cavalrymen from the Cavalry Escort of Honour. The renovation doubled the museum’s space, thanks to the acquisition of the Sociëteit de Witte building, an Art Deco building across the street, and the construction of an underground tunnel between the old building and the new. The new building, unfortunately named the Royal Dutch Shell Wing after its sponsor, has a new restaurant, gift shop, educational workshop and will host temporary exhibitions. The original museum, built in 1641 as the residence of count John Maurice of Nassau, was extensively refurbished with new systems installed to secure and conserve the paintings in the collection.

So now the collection of almost 850 objects, mainly paintings, is up and running again after two years when 50 of the most prized pieces were traveling and only 100 of the other works in the collection were on display in a temporary Highlights Mauritshuis exhibition
at the Gemeentemuseum modern art museum. For those of us who haven’t had a chance to see the refurbished museum and its superstar with a pearl earring, the fine folks at Exhibition on Screen have made a movie about Girl with a Pearl Earring and the restored Mauritshuis.

Enjoying unparalleled exclusive access to this historical exhibition, the film takes the audience on a journey as it seeks to answer many of the questions surrounding this enigmatic painting and its mysterious creator, Vermeer. Using the recently completed and highly complex makeover of the museum as its starting point, the film goes on a behind the scenes detective journey to seek out the answers that lie within the other masterpieces housed in the collection.

To find a theater screening the movie near you, check this list. Showings begin on January 13th. Until then, here’s a quick preview. (Keep your eyes peeled at the 42 second mark for a quick glimpse of The Goldfinch, the small 1654 panel painting that became the surprise break-out star of the exhibition’s last American leg at the The Frick thanks to the success of the Donna Tartt novel named after and starring the wee bird portrait.)

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