The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack

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Today in History: Cannibalism

Posted by Gilbert Stack on December 23, 2016 at 6:50 AM Comments comments (0)

On this day (December 23) in 1972 sixteen survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 were rescued after spending 73 days in harsh frozen conditions at 11,800 feet in the Andes Mountain. Flight 571 had crashed in the Andes on October 23 with 45 crew and passengers (mostly a Rugby team and their friends and family). 18 people died in the initial crash and another 11 in an avalanche a few days later. The survivors did not have cold weather gear or food. They obtained water by placing snow on metal where the sun slowly melted it.

 

There was no food, either vegetation or animal life, at their altitude and after much soul searching, they decided to eat the bodies of their dead friends to survive. Efforts to explore their surroundings in search of help were frustrated by altitude sickness, snow blindness, dehydration, malnourishment and extreme cold. Many of the survivors had serious injuries such as broken legs and could not leave the crash site.

 

They determined that they had to send someone over the mountain or they would all die, so four of the survivors tried to make the trek. They almost froze to death at night but discovered the tail section of the plane and spent several days trying to power the radio with batteries they found there but their efforts failed.

 

To combat the freezing temperatures they jury rigged a sleeping bag and made a second effort to find help. Two of the survivors traveled for ten days before finally encountering humans who got word of the survivors to authorities who mounted a successful rescue operation.

 

Today in History: Party Prep Begins

Posted by Gilbert Stack on December 22, 2016 at 9:00 PM Comments comments (0)

On this day (December 22) in 1826 cadets at West Point smuggled two gallons of whiskey and one gallon of rum into the U.S. Military Academy in preparation for the party that would result in the notorious Eggnog Riot. (You will have to wait until December 24 to learn more.)

Today in History: The U.S. Gets a Lot Bigger

Posted by Gilbert Stack on December 20, 2016 at 5:15 AM Comments comments (0)

On this day (December 20) in 1803 the Louisiana Purchase was finalized in New Orleans. The transaction added 828,000 square miles to the United States at a cost of roughly $15 million ($250 million in 2016 currency). The territory included land from fifteen states and two Canadian provinces: all of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and portions of Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Texas, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Louisiana, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Sixty thousand non-Native Americans lived in the territory, half of whom were African slaves.

 

Napoleon was willing to sell the Louisiana Territory in part because his failure to re-establish slavery in San Domingue (modern day Haiti) had created a great setback to his plans to establish a western hemisphere empire. When war with Britain threatened to resume, Napoleon realized that he could not defend his American possessions from Britain and decided to profit from them while he still could by selling them to the United States.

 

The U.S. Constitution did not grant the president the explicit right to purchase new territory, but Thomas Jefferson successfully argued that his power to negotiate treaties implied the authority.

 

Today in History: A New King

Posted by Gilbert Stack on December 19, 2016 at 5:05 AM Comments comments (0)

On this day (December 19) in 1154, Henry II was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey. Henry was a strong ruler who restored order to England after the twenty year Anarchy of his predecessor’s reign. He rebuilt the government, reformed the legal system and famously struggled against the church’s efforts to centralize authority under the pope. He was the husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the father of Richard the Lionhearted and John. His mint reforms were the subject of my dissertation.

Today in History: New York City Burns

Posted by Gilbert Stack on December 18, 2016 at 8:35 PM Comments comments (0)

On this day (December 17) in 1835 the Great Fire broke out in a five story warehouse in New York City. The temperature was -17 degrees and the East and Hudson Rivers were frozen solid. Firefighters had to drill holes in the ice to access the water—which froze in the hoses as they tried to extinguish the blaze. The flames were visible in Philadelphia 80 miles away. The fire was so hot that copper roofs melted and ran like liquid spilling in great drops to the streets below. Ultimately 17 city blocks (50 acres) and between 530 and 700 buildings were destroyed. Two people were killed. The damage was estimated at $20 million dollars. 23 of NYC’s 26 insurance companies went bankrupt because of the fire and the insurance industry in nearby Hartford expanded to dominate New York, putting that city on track to become the Insurance Capital of the World.

Today in History: The Boston Tea Party

Posted by Gilbert Stack on December 16, 2016 at 6:40 AM Comments comments (0)

On this day (December 16) in 1773, American colonists calling themselves the Sons of Liberty, disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians and forcibly boarded ships in Boston harbor carrying British East India Company tea and dumped the cargo into the harbor. The disguises were the equivalent of 18th century ski masks—everyone knew they were not Mohawks but it was hoped that the pretense would keep individuals from being identified.

The tea was a game piece in Britain’s dual effort to raise more tax revenue from the colonies and help the British East India Company recover from severe financial setbacks it had encountered due to poor management both in London and in India. The tea tax was actually lower than the previous tea taxes—low enough to let the legal tea undercut the price of smuggled tea. The Sons of Liberty feared that this strategy would not only succeed in getting Americans to end their boycott of British tea but would also severely damage the businesses of American import merchants (most of whom were involved to some degree in smuggling). By destroying the tea, they prevented both “legal” competition with the smuggled tea and a tax that they believed had been unjustly imposed upon them from being collected.

The British responded with the Intolerable Acts, violating British legal traditions by collectively punishing all of Boston for the actions of the Sons of Liberty.

 

Today in History: The Bill of Rights

Posted by Gilbert Stack on December 15, 2016 at 10:45 AM Comments comments (0)

On this day (December 15) in 1791 the United States Bill of Rights became part of the constitution when it was ratified by the Virginia General Assembly. Since that time the Bill of Rights has stood as the premier barrier to despotism within the United States by clearly defining civil rights which the government cannot encroach upon.

Today in History: Black Friday

Posted by Gilbert Stack on September 25, 2015 at 5:10 AM Comments comments (0)

On this day (September 24) in 1869. Ulysses S. Grant broke the attempt by J. Gould and Jim Fisk to corner the gold supply in the United States. Fisk and Gould had been influencing Grant’s brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, with very generous gifts to keep Grant from acting to lower the price of gold. On September 23, Grant figured out what his brother-in-law was doing and warned him to immediately get out of his gold speculations. Corbin immediately ran to Gould to tell him that Grant was on to them. Gould told him not to worry about it.

 

The next day, “Black Friday”, Gould began secretly selling off his reserves while his partner, Fisk, was still buying. Gold started at 142 and rose to 162. Other stocks began to fall in response as people tried to get in on the gold rally. Purchases were largely financed on margin.

 

In the meantime, Grant learned what was happening and ordered the Secretary of the Treasury to start selling gold and keep selling it until the corner was broken. The treasury quickly put $4,000,000 in reserves on the market. The price began to fall.

 

Legend has it that when Wall Street’s Trinity Church clock started striking noon the price of gold was $160 and by the time it finished striking the price was $138. Lots of people lost everything. One man committed suicide. The corner was broken.

 

Gould is thought to have earned around $10 million on the attempted corner. Fisk ended up repudiating his trades (the ones entered as gold was rising) claiming that since he hadn't written anything down on the transaction slips they weren’t binding. He spent a lot of the rest of his remaining years in court with men suing him for their money.

 

Today in History: Bruno Hauptman Arrested

Posted by Gilbert Stack on September 19, 2015 at 7:20 AM Comments comments (0)

On this day (September 19) in Bruno Hauptman was arrested for kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh’s son. The 20 month old child was taken out of his room on the night of March 1, 1932. A ladder and a ransom note was left at the scene. With the help of a controversial figure named John Condon (who claimed he had been contacted by the kidnappers) Lindbergh paid a $50,000 ransom to recover his son. The boy was not returned and his body was found in a woods near the Lindbergh house shortly thereafter. The coroner determined that he had died of a head injury and it was theorized that the kidnapper had dropped the child while carrying him down the ladder from his bedroom.

 

The trail to the kidnapper/murderer(s) went mostly cold. Gold notes which had been used to pay the ransom occasionally appeared in circulation, but it was not until September 1934 that one of the gold notes led the police to Bruno Hauptman. A search of Hauptman’s garage produced $14,000 of the ransom money, a note with John Condon’s phone number on it and wood that matched the wood used to construct the ladder used in the kidnapping. Despite this evidence, many people, led by Hauptman’s wife, continued to insist that he was innocent. Despite these protestations, he was eventually found guilty and executed by electrocution.

 

Today in History: The Original Great Depression

Posted by Gilbert Stack on September 19, 2015 at 7:20 AM Comments comments (0)

On this day (September 18) the original “Great Depression”, the Panic of 1873, began. The Panic was sparked in part by the decision of the German government to stop minting silver thalers in 1871 and is a lesson in the Law of Unintended Consequences. Germany’s decision caused a sharp reduction in the price of silver, much of which was mined in the United States. The reduction in the price of silver cost the U.S. government lots of money because by statute it maintained both silver and gold currencies and purchased silver at a set (and now grossly inflated) price. To reduce this cost, the U.S. passed the Coinage Act of 1873 which put the country on a de facto gold standard.

 

The U.S. economy had been enjoying an investment boom after the civil war with the majority of that investment going into railroads. The sudden devaluing of U.S. silver mines somewhat destabilized the U.S. economy encouraging investors to pull back on long term investments like railroads. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Jay Cooke and Company which was in the final stages of securing a $300 million dollar loan to build the Northern Pacific Railway (billed as a Second Transcontinental Railroad) when suddenly it had trouble meeting its obligations. The loan fell through and Cooke was forced to declare bankruptcy. This set off a chain reaction of bank failures that quickly spread around the world.

 


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