Monday, February 18, 2019

Lewis and Clark (and York)

When I was a kid I was in a lot of school musicals.  I still remember some of the songs.  I remember being one of four kids in a nativity musical and singing a song called "If I Were a King."  (I was raised Catholic.)  I tried to look up some of the musicals so I could reference them in this blog post, but as someone born in the 1980s, I couldn't find many of them.  The suggestions for middle schoolers nowadays include a Shrek musical, which is way past my time, and I can only Google middle school plays for so long before I start to worry that I'm on some sort of list.

If you'd like to be on a list, too, then check this out!  This is a video of some random middle schoolers singing the opening song from "The Adventures of Lewis and Clark."

This is a play I remember performing in, and I was able to remember some of the songs, too.  ("Oh my name's Napoleon Bonaparte / And have I got a deal for you. / I'm in danger of being blown apart / So I make this appeal to you!")  (God, these Shrek kids of today are missing out...)

As I mentioned, I was born in the 1980s, when we learned a version of history that often left out important people.  For example, I don't really recall either York or Sacajawea in "The Adventures of Lewis and Clark."  Then again, I was probably like ten years old.  I remember there was a dog.  Maybe the dog was supposed to be Sacajawea.

Pow-wow?  More like bow-wow.

Okay, I went and looked it up, because I have no memory of York or Sacajawea in this play, only Lewis, Clark, and a talking dog.  I'm probably on some more lists now.  Turns out, Sacajawea was in the play.  Also, the dog's name in the play is Scannon, a hilarious historical error.  (The dog's real name was Seaman.)  The dog has its own song in the musical, called "It's Ruff," which is more than we can say for York, although I was glad that York was mentioned at all.

You've probably heard of Sacajawea, but who the hell is this York guy I keep mentioning?  I'll let the musical, The Adventures of Lewis and Clark, explain.  This is actual dialogue from the Lewis and Clark play, glossing over York's slavery using the dog:

YORK: I’m certain that I am the slave who made the trip. They call me York.
SCANNON: Ruff! Ruff! I am the dog, Scannon. Could you tell?
ALL: Yep! He’s the dog all right! No doubt about it!

This post is about York, the second Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition that history forgets.  Sacajawea got her own $1 coin but York got nothing.  Hell, the dog got more statues than York did; Wikipedia mentions at least 14 statues for the dog and only 4 for York.

Not pictured: York.

York (named most commonly "York William Clark," though it should be noted that this was only because William Clark was the man who owned him) was born in 1770 in Virginia, on a modest plantation called Mulberry Hill, one of several estates held by the Clark family.  He was born the same year as William Clark and the two grew up side-by-side, as playmates, except one was a goddamn slave and the other was William Clark.

When Clark's father died, he willed York to William.  They were 14 at the time.  Following Clark's death, the family moved to Kentucky; despite being an able-bodied man, York was trained not as a laborer, but as William Clark's personal manservant.  And when President Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis to explore his newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase, Lewis appointed Clark as second-in-command, and Clark dragged York along.  ("Is it cool if I bring my dog?"  "Sure, I'm bringing my slave, so why not?")

Their party was described as being made up of "nine young men" from Kentucky who were old army buddies, what Jefferson called the "Corps of Discovery."  The actual Corps included a total of about thirty people but it failed to include many of the civilian guides and volunteers.  And by volunteers, I mean the wives, slaves, and other disenfranchised people who agreed to go on the trip.

And Lewis's dog.  Can't forget the dog.
Look at him, sharing his spotlight with Sacajewea.
Good boy! 

The Lewis and Clark expedition began in 1804, when York was about 34 years old.  Records indicate he was married, but his wife was left behind in Louisville. Clark's journals mention him frequently, calling him a "servant." A roster from Camp Dubois in the spring of that year lists "2 of us & york," as sharing one tent, indicating that Lewis, Clark, and York operated as one unit in terms of sleeping and boat arrangements within the Corps.

As the only Black member of the party, he faced a degree of racial discrimination, including an incident within the first month where one of the men threw sand at York, which according to Clark’s journal, resulted in him “nearly loseing [sic] an eye.”  (Note: Clark had been homeschooled and his spelling was atrocious.  He famously spelled "Sioux" twenty-six different ways in his own writings.)

But as the trip progressed, York became an invaluable member of the team.  He helped with all of the various tasks, including the preparation of the captains' food, putting up the captains' tents, and being involved with scouting and hunting trips.  (From Clark's journal: “Derected My Servent York with me to kill a Buffalow.”)  That last item is fairly significant, since in his home state, York, as a slave, would have been prohibited from using firearms.  On the expedition he experienced a remarkable degree of freedom.

Clark's journals reveal that York knew how to swim (unlike many of the corpsmen, and especially unusual for a Black man of that time period), enjoyed messing with the Indians (York was a practical joker and told several tribes he was a tame bear who ate children), and was allowed to ride on horseback.  He was famously caring of the other members of the party when they got ill, staying by Sergeant Floyd's side when he died of appendicitis.  (Floyd was the only member of the party to actually die during the entire two and a half year expedition.)  He seemed to care deeply for others; during a flash flood in Missouri, he was separated from Clark, and Clark wrote of the incident: "I found my servent in serch of us greatly agitated, for our wellfar.”

Working alongside the other members of the party, he soon began to enjoy the same sort of privileges that they did, including having several locations named after him (a tributary named York's Dry Creek and the York 8 Islands), and being given a vote of where to spend the winter in 1805-1806.  (A record of the vote shows that only the men of the Corps were given a vote, with two exceptions: York and Sacajawea.)

His relations with the various Native tribes was mixed.

Lewis wrote of Sacajewea's tribe: “[T]o the Indians, every article about us appeared to excite astonishment in ther minds; the appearance of the men, their arms, the canoes, our manner of working them. the black man york and the sagacity of my dog were equally objects of admiration.”

 That fucking dog, man.
Note how York and Seaman are posed in this statue...

The Arikara, Mandans, and Hidatsas all seemed to like York, saying he had "big medicine."  (York was famously skilled in cooking and field medicine.)  Apocryphal tales abound of York sleeping with many Native women with the blessings of their husbands, although there is no historical evidence for this and the tales of a Native man having a cuckold fetish with a Black man really feels like it might just be titillating gossip.  (Clark's journal never mentions any of York's sexual exploits.)

It's worth noting, though, that York was generally not "respected" so much as he was "entertaining."  Clark asked him to dance for the Natives, and allowed them to rub sand on him in an attempt to "rub off" the black.  Not all tribes viewed York favorably; the Nez Pearce found him to be threatening, his dark skin reminiscent of war paint to them.

In any case, York's presence seemed to be more useful than detrimental, and the expedition was considered an overwhelming success despite all of the STDs and mercury poisoning.  They returned to St. Louis in September of 1806 after two and a half years exploring, and one publication wrote, "Even the negro York, who was the body servant of Clark, despite his ebony complexion, was looked upon with decided partiality, and received his share of adulation."

 A statue of York in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
He was renowned for his hunting skills.

After nearly three years of living with more rights than he'd ever known, York found it hard to re-adjust to life as Clark's manservant.  He requested his freedom for "services rendered."  (The other men on the expedition received a hefty cash bonus and 230 acres of land for their trouble.)  Clark refused.  Two years after the expedition, Clark had moved to St. Louis to continue work as the "chief Indian agent" for the Upper Louisiana Territory, but York's wife was in Kentucky, and he hadn't seen her in years. Clark wrote, "If any attempt is made by york to run off, or refuse to provorm his duty as a Slave, I wish him Sent to New Orleans and Sold, or hired out to Some Severe master untill he thinks better of Such Conduct."  Another letter states, "York is insolent and Sulky, I gave him a Severe trouncing the other Day and he has much mended Sence."

 Nothing like a Severe trouncing to increase morale!

After years of tension between the two, Clark hired York out to a cruel man named Young as a day laborer.  York is not mentioned his any of Clark's writings after 1809; his nephew mentions him in an 1811 letter, saying that his contract work expired but that he could re-negotiate it.  During this period, York's wife's family moved to Mississippi, and presumably, they never saw each other again.

The next time history speaks of York is in 1832.  According to Clark, sometime around 1815 or 1816, more than a decade after the expedition, Clark freed York, giving him with six horses and a wagon to operate a freight service between Nashville, Tennessee, and Richmond, Kentucky.  However, York's business did not perform well.  Two of the horses died and the others all got sick, possibly poisoned.  York was a freed Black man living in the south, his family and friends estranged, his heyday over.  By many accounts he became a heavy drinker, eventually succumbing to cholera and dying sometime between 1825 and 1832.

No pictures exist of York; the statues of him are pure conjecture.  My personal favorite is the one above, a bronze statue on the campus of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.  Shown, as usual, with his rifle and a fresh kill, this statue is among the least detailed, choosing not to focus on York's face, but instead on his back.

Lash marks inscribe one of William Clark's maps of the Louisiana Territory that York helped explore during the course of an 8,000 mile, two-and-a-half year journey.  Lewis and Clark were hailed as heroes and years later would get commemorative stamps, coins, and middle school musicals.  And York?  York has less statues than the dog.

In 2001, York was post-humously granted the rank of honorary sergeant in the Corps of Discovery by President Clinton.  A small gesture, but a necessary one.  York may never get as much credit as he's due, but this, at least, is a start.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Barnum's Forgotten Performers

For the remainder of February, this blog will be celebrating Black History Month by profiling some lesser-known figures in history who I think are worth a few hundred words (or more, but let's see how quickly my fingers get tired).

Today's post is going to focus on the Black performers of P.T. Barnum's famous sideshow: Christine and Millie, George and Willie, William (aka "Zip"), Ella (aka "Madame Abomah"), and, of course, Joice, none of whom made it into the movie.

If you love musicals as much as I do, you already know what movie I'm talking about.  The Greatest Showman was a visually appealing, light-hearted, and entertaining film.  It was colorful, fun, and poppy.

It was also wildly inaccurate.  And some critics went so far as to call it vapid, pandering, and "godawful."   Others acknowledge that while it's a "feel-good" musical, it "blithely ignores" the more problematic elements of Barnum's sideshow.  I sure hope you didn't actually click either of those links, because spoiler alert, a lot of movie critics bitched about the same things I'm about to.
Aside from borrowing real people's names, the movie had little basis in reality.  It favorably portrayed P.T. Barnum, going so far as to showing him saving his business partner from a burning building and being faithful to his wife, both things that never happened.  P.T. Barnum was, at his core, a ruthless businessman who was more than happy to engage in less-than-legal practices to make money.  Show business demanded it and he was all too happy to acquiesce.

Like whoever the fuck produced this movie.

Throughout the course of the film, his critics frequently declared Barnum to be a liar and a humbug without explaining why, since over the course of the movie, we never see him lie to anyone aside from the greedy bankers.  In real life, one of his most famous attractions was the Fiji Mermaid, a monstrous humbug of fake taxidermy made by sewing an ape onto a fish.  The Fiji Mermaid is never shown or talked about in the movie, even though it seems imminent at one point, when one of Barnum's adorable daughters suggests he put one in the museum, and another daughter scoffs that mermaids aren't real.

Barnum's "FeeJee Mermaid" was total nightmare fuel.

But this post isn't about Barnum.  It's about the performers in his show that didn't make it into the movie.

One of the things I noticed in the movie was what I considered a remarkable degree of whitewashing.  Putting aside the fact that none of the dark-skinned characters had any speaking parts, the movie decided to plow ahead with addressing the racial tensions at the time by having a black trapeze artist and Barnum's business partner fall in love.

The movie introduces a pair of trapeze artists who are supposed to be brother and sister despite looking nothing alike.  The woman, a character named Anne Wheeler, states that "the audience won't like us."  (Why are they even applying for the show at all if they think society's racial tensions will prevent them from succeeding?  I don't know, either.)

 oBvIoUsLy ReLaTeD

I mentioned my complaints to a friend, Joe, who is Black.  Joe reassured me that this was an accurate representation, and that the brother and sister were dark-skinned and light-skinned, respectively.  I had heard someone else say that, too, but when I actually researched it, I discovered that the first "trapeze" artist was Jules Leotard (yes, of the famous leotard you see gymnasts wear!) and that literally all of Barnum's trapeze artists (then called "aerialists") were white.

 c. 1896
The Silbons were among the first aerialists of Barnum's Circus.

There was no Anne Wheeler at all.  She was a complete and total fabrication designed to touch on the issue of race within the movie with butterfly-light wings.

As light as the skin of the actress they chose to be their representative "Black" character...

For the rest of the movie, we watch the supposed tension of a supposed mixed-race couple trying to find their place in the world, while P.T. Barnum cheerfully dances around, often with a drink in hand, which is baffling considering that the real P.T. Barnum was pro-temperance and went on a lecture tour denouncing the evils of alcohol.

Then again, Barnum was a notorious hypocrite, as well.
For example, he was a loudspoken abolitionist later in life.
I'll explain how that's hypocritical in the moment.

The Greatest Showman was to the real P.T. Barnum as Oliver and Company was to Oliver Twist.  Mind you, again,  I liked the movie.  It was everything to me that La La Land promised to be and wasn't.

But I couldn't help but notice the racism in not addressing P.T. Barnum's racism.  Glossing over Barnum's prejudice (and his willingness to exploit racial tension to create an "edgier" show) is hugely problematic.  Yes, his show was integrated, but make no mistake: that wasn't because he was a great guy who loved everyone equally.  It was because doing so made his show more shocking, and people came to him to be shocked.  Barnum did not care for Black people, no more than he cared for any of his employees.  His "freaks" were nothing more than property to him.  Literally.


Barnum started his career as a showman at the age of 25, when he'd recently gone bankrupt.  He decided to turn things around by buying Joice Heth, an ancient woman, from failed showman R.W. Lindsay, for $1,000.  Joice Heth's precise date of birth is unknown, but at the time Barnum purchased her, she was probably in her seventies or eighties.  Blind, toothless, partially paralyzed, and sickly, she looked ancient, and Barnum created a character out of her: she had been, according to Barnum, George Washington's nurse-maid, and was 161 years old. 

He showed off a bill of sale to "prove" her age.  And Joice went along with it.  In part, because she had to.

Barnum wrote:  "I soon got Joyce [sic] into training, and from a devil of a termagant, converted into a most docile creature, as willing to do my bidding as the slave of the lamp was to obey Aladdin. I soon discovered her weak point. . . .WHISKEY. Her old master of course, would indulge an old bed-ridden creature no such luxury, and for a drop of it, I found I could mould her to anything.”

She was described as friendly and talkative to her fans, and part of her act included telling stories about George (including the famous cherry tree incident), while another part involved singing hymns.

When ticket sales slowed, Barnum "leaked" a rumor that she was an automaton, then encouraged people to come his museum to see her, touch her, and prove to themselves that she was, in fact, alive.

She passed within one year of her purchase by Barnum, and Barnum, always eager to leap on any sort of opportunity, went ahead and sold tickets to a public autopsy for 50 cents each.  On February 25, 1836, Heth’s corpse was cut open in a saloon in front of 1,500 spectators.

Nowadays, Joice Heth's Wikipedia contains only three paragraphs, and primary sources on her life are scant.  (The Lost Museum has a Joice Heth exhibit, mostly made up of reviews.  Only two pictures of her remain today.)  But it was Joice who launched Barnum's career and dug him out of poverty; using Heth, Barnum earned about $1,500 a week for her shows.


You've probably never heard of William Johnson.  Or rather, you have, but not by his name.  Billed as the "What-Is-It?" and later as "Zip the Pin-Head," William Johnson was the first of the "pin-head" movement of freaks.  "Pin-head" was the term coined by Barnum to describe people with microcephaly, the most famous one being Schlitzie, who you might remember from Revenge of the Freaks.

But William Johnson did not appear to have true microcephalism.  His head was a weird shape but it was emphasized dramatically by his haircut, which was styled in a little pointed tuft, a 'do later pin-heads would also adopt.  Barnum "recruited" William for the Circus in 1860, giving him $100 a week to perform and $1 a day of "hush money."

What were they hushing, you ask?

Well, William's act involved being placed in a cage and wearing a furry suit and screaming at people.  He would only screech grunt, no speaking, and cavort about like an animal or a madman.  Also called the "Monkey Man," his later stage name, What-Is-It, was coined by Charles Dickens, who asked that question to Barnum when he saw the "act."

 I like to believe he was asking what the hell the act was, not what William was.
William was not noticeably disabled out of his costume.

Despite the humiliation of it, William appeared to have enjoyed himself at the circus.  He played a fiddle (badly... and then charged people to make him stop).  He teased the audience by flinging their coins back at them (encouraging them to throw more into his cage, which he collected for himself), and by shooting off a prop pistol to scare them.  He liked the stage and performed into his eighties; he acted as a sort of grandfather figure to other freaks, and never passed up an opportunity for a bit of lime light.  Famously, he attended the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, offering himself as "evidence" of a missing link.  This was probably merely a publicity stunt, because his famous last words were, "We fooled 'em an awful long time, didn't we?"

He is credited with saving a drowning girl off of Coney Island in 1925, an act that might have been his demise, as he caught bronchitis and died in the spring of 1926.  Described as fun-loving, surprisingly clever, and a real showman, William might have been as successful as Barnum if not for his deformity and his skin color.  His funeral was attended by hundreds and at the time he was one of the oldest freaks in Barnum's entourage.


Millie and Christine were a pair of conjoined twins who made periodic appearances at Barnum's Circus between 1855 and 1875.

Born to slavery in 1851, the girls were exhibited at the North Carolina State Fair at the age of two, and passed hands for large sums of money at least four times before they came to Barnum.  Their original owner, a man named McKay, sold them to Pervis, who sold them to Brower, who sold them to Joseph Smith, all within two years.  While on display in New Orleans, they were kidnapped by a swindler who went on to display them across the globe.  This was in 1855, during which time they appeared at Barnum's Circus.  (Take note of this.  It's important later.)

Fortunately, they swapped hands yet again.  A man named Professor Millar bought them in 1855 and was able to track down Mr. Smith to "return" them in 1857, after a tour of Canada and Europe.

To give credit where credit is due, Joseph Smith seemed to have a good relationship with the family.  He went with Millie's and Christine's mother to get them in Europe after Professor Millar contacted them, and brought them home; he and his wife, Mary, tutored them in various arts before they went back on tour.  They were well-educated and reportedly knew five languages.  Their true love, though, was song; Millie was a contralto and Christine was a soprano, and the two could harmonize well, leading to their moniker "The Two-Headed Nightingale."  If that sounds familiar, it's probably because one of their contemporaries, Jenny Lind, was an opera singer called the "Swedish Nightingale," and went on a tour of America with Barnum in the 1850s.  Their "nightingale" title was almost certainly a reference to Lind, who Barnum was incredibly fond of.

Bills that espoused talent over freakishness tended to white-wash the performers to draw larger crowds.
Much like The Greatest Showman.

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the girls, who, like William, were necessarily enterprising.  At the age of 17, they wrote a brief autobiography (22 pages) that was sold at their appearances for a quarter, from which they kept all the profits.  They returned to Barnum's Circus and went on various tours, retiring in their thirties and moving back onto the farm on which they were born, which their family was actually able to purchase thanks to their success.  They remained close to the Smiths and took care of Mrs. Smith after her husband died.  Between their emancipation and their retirement, they had amassed a quarter of a million dollars.

It's worth noting they were not merely successful business women and talented singers, but that they were philanthropists, making sizeable donations toward Black churches and schools.  One of their common outlooks on their condition was, "God decreed, and [we] agreed."


Remember how I mentioned that Millie and Christine, who were born in 1851 and kidnapped in 1855, showed up at Barnum's Circus?  Well, this wasn't by accident.  In fact, Barnum's circus had a bit of reputation for kidnapping performers.  Black performers were the easiest to exploit because, before 1863, they were property in southern states, and many would prefer to live as Barnum's (underpaid) indentured servants than as slaves.  What's more, a lot of the "freaks" had mental disabilities, which allowed Barnum to easily exploit them without their knowledge.

Millie, Christine, William, and Joice had no known mental impairments (unless you count Joice's age and alcoholism).  But the same cannot be said for Willie and George.  A pair of albino twins, they are featured in The Greatest Showman as background characters without speaking lines, probably to hide their tragic backstory from the playful, carefree central plot of the movie.

In 1899, someone kidnapped two mentally handicapped boys who were working in a cotton field by offering them candy.  Classic, I know.

In fairness, I should mention that the actual kidnapper was not P.T. Barnum himself, who at that time was already dead. Willie and George were kept by a showman named Al G. Barnes (shown in a photo below), who owned his own show, which was later bought out by Barnum's.  But Barnum historically didn't really give a shit where the "performers" came from; they could be from Mars, for all Barnum cared, so long as they earned the show money.

Speaking of which...Willie and George, ages 6 and 9 at the time of their kidnapping, were billed as "Eko and Iko: Ambassadors from Mars" by Barnum's Circus (then called Ringling Bros).  Their family found them in 1927, when the circus came to their home town of Roanoke, Virginia, by which time they had been "in the business" for almost three decades and knew no other life.

 c. 1927, shortly after reuniting

Their mother hired an attorney and attempted to sue the circus for the exploitation of her children, as well as their backpay, which was being kept by the circus, who handled all financial matters for the brothers.  The lawyer was able to finagle a settlement, but who knows how much the brothers might have had.  During their time with Ringling, they were estimated to have made a half a million dollars for the circus.

In any case, after their mother's lengthy legal battle, they earned enough to buy a house for their mother and eventually retire.  George passed in 1972, and Willie lived to be 108, passing away in 2001.

Their story has long been a part of Roanoke's history.  Their story was the subject of national best-selling book, Truevine, published in 2016.

Honorable Mention:

Although she joined up with Barnum's Circus after he passed in the 1890s, I would be remiss if I didn't include here Ella Williamson. 

Born a free woman (within a year of the Emancipation Proclamation), Ella has giantism.  She worked during the day as a nanny, but was billed as a bloodthirsty Amazonian woman by various managers.

 Pay close attention to the wording of this poster...

Standing at 6'10" or so, everyone insisted she was 7'6" (Barnum and his associates always exaggerated), and with the stage-name "Madame Abomah," she toured the world, eventually ending up at Barnum's in the 1920s, where she inexplicably disappeared from history in 1925.

Known for her elegant clothes, good posture, and lady-like mannerisms, Ella Williamson, as far as I can determine, never worked directly with Barnum himself, but his circus and his family certainly profited from her performances, which included such songs as "All Coons Look Alike to Me."

 oBvIoUsLy ReLaTeD

The Greatest Showman was universally agreed to be a feel-good film that maintained its feel-goodiness by turning a blind eye to some of the more uncomfortable topics of the day.  And I get it.  Feel-good movies have a place in our society.  But they should never take a place so big that it obscures problematic or shameful parts of our past.  It's only through the examination of this past that we can grow and learn from it as a society, and ensure it does not repeat itself.

P.T. Barnum got a movie.  But why not Millie and Christine, or Willie and George?  Why not Ella, or William?  Why not any of the people under P.T. who have equally fascinating stories?

Good news: Willie and George might have a movie in the works.  Based on the book Truevine that tells the tale of their kidnapping, exploitation, and life after Mrs. Muse's legal battle for their rights, this is one tale that doesn't shy from the intense racial tension that our country has battled with for centuries.  And while it might not necessarily be a "feel-good" tale, it's one I, at least, am very much looking forward to.

 Their names-- their real names-- deserve to be known, just as widely as Barnum's.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Dual Nature of Humanity

Last year, in a post about historic revisionism, I made a passing remark about inaccuracies in the musical Hamilton.

I love the musical Hamilton.  Love it.  It's one of my go-to, feel-good soundtracks.  But like most musicals it required a little bit of tweaking to get the perfect story arc.  This isn't a uniquely Hamilton trait.  The King and I is a musical based on a novel based on some memoirs and God knows that they changed a lot.  Annie Get Your Gun is also a heavily fictionalized work based loosely on the life of Annie Oakley, a sharpshooter orphan who escapes from Miss Hannigan's Home for Girls by joining Daddy Warbucks's Wild West Show.

Cats had some minor inaccuracies about cats.

Anyway, for all of the various inaccuracies that Hamilton has, the one I referenced was "The Ten Duel Commandments."

This isn't a real complaint because there's no ten duel commandments and also this is one of the best songs in the musical.  But it might interest you to know that Ireland, at least, did have twenty-five rules for duels.  And in fact nearly every culture has had some sort of duel system.

The concept of two people getting so angry at each other that they resort to an actual feral fight makes sense to me.  That sounds natural.  That sounds like something all animals do.  But humans invented rules for getting blood-lusted and fighting to the death.  Which is funny, if you think about it.

We are the most extra species.

Dueling is older than you think.  It evolved from the practice of single combat, which is the practice of having two people fight instead of an entire army or faction.  You might remember the most famous of single combats as David and Goliath.

Dueling with pistols probably came about as early as the 1300s or 1400s.  (The first recorded use of a firearm was in 1364.)  Pistol dueling erupted in popularity in the late 1700s, when dueling pistols became standardized.  Around the same time, in 1777, the "Twenty-Five Duel Commandments" came out of Ireland.  This code was to be kept in a gentleman's pistol case.  The fact that anyone carrying around a list of rules for killing another man was called a "gentle man" is hilariously ironic.

Mind you, various provinces had various laws.  There's even a name for laws governing duels: code duello.  (Note to self: This would be a cool drag queen name.)

In the course of my research for this article, I found myself dragged into multiple cultures' honor-based single combat traditions.  Shout-out to the Scandanavian hólmganga and the Sasanian mard ō mard, as well as to the King Naresuan of Siam and the crown prince Mingyi Swa of Burma, who engaged in single combat atop war elephants.

If no war elephants are available, you can also engage in single combat by throwing billiard balls at each other, as did two Frenchmen in 1843, or by challenging your partner to eating a sausage, as one prominent scientist supposedly did to Otto von Bismark in the 1860s.

Children's card games are a good way to demand satisfaction.

It became clear that single combat and dueling was far too great a topic for a single blog post and I would have to limit myself.  For this single article, I choose to focus on southern North American pistol dueling.  This type of dueling, which is the kind you're likely most familiar with, hit the height of its popularity between the 1770 and 1870s.  It was part of a cultural "honor code," which nowadays we'd probably call toxic masculinity, especially since a lot of psychologists have noted that honor codes tend to make people more trigger-happy, both literally and figuratively.  It makes sense.  Why buy a dueling pistol if you're not going to demand satisfaction with it?

Prior to the rise in popularity of dueling pistols, men carried swords by their sides.  Dueling pistols were rather more convenient in terms of a weapon to hang from one's belt.

Dueling pistols referred to a fairly specific type of pistol.  They came in matched sets to ensure the stakes were equal; they had a small bore, designed to wound without killing; they were flintlock and lacked sights, thus making aim dependent on the marksmanship of the person firing.  (The typical ten paces, which would be 16 to 18 feet apart, was not really very far, and from that distance, you could easily hit someone if you had moderately good aim.)  The standard dueling pistol is described as "a 9 or 10 inch barreled, smooth bore flintlock of 1 inch bore, carrying a ball of 48 to the pound." Dueling pistols were closer to BB guns than modern day handguns.  Because, ultimately, people who engaged in duels most likely did not want to actually kill each other.

And in fact most of the duel rules involved attempts to settle the dispute.  Once challenged to a duel, both parties would appoint a "second," whose job it was to do everything within their power to reach a negotiation between the two parties who were dueling.  The seconds were middlemen and while there was no direct communication between dueling parties, the seconds were bound to attempt to rectify the dispute as well as compromise on the duel conditions in such a way that would be satisfactory to both parties and the least likely to actually kill anyone.  The seconds arranged the when and where of the duel, relaying messages between the duelist and the second of the other duelist.  (Hilariously, they also agreed upon a dress code and whether or not refreshments would be served.)  In 1864, for example, Mark Twain was nearly in a duel with his editor, but the dispute was resolved through Twain's second (who lied about how good Twain's aim was).

Despite all the attempts to resolve disputes and all of the rules designed to make duels fair and sportsmanly, people died all the time.  In fact, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, between 1798 and the Civil War, the U.S. Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did to more than 60 years of combat at sea.  George Washington himself told officers not to accept duels, as he felt it was a needless loss of soldier life.

Death by pistol dueling is no laughing matter.
Unless it's a clown duel.

But that didn't stop Hamilton and Burr, whose famous duel we are singing over two centuries later.  Burr issued the duel and Hamilton accepted despite claiming to be morally against dueling.  In most accounts you'll read, Hamilton fired his pistol to the sky, throwing away his shot, while Burr shot Hamilton, resulting in his death.  (Hamilton's son, Philip, had died in a pistol duel as well, three years prior.)  Generally Hamilton is lauded for his actions, which people see as noble.

But there's more to it than that.  See, first of all, the dueling pistols were not standardized.  They bore hidden hair-triggers, as well as sights.  Sights (what we, in modern times, would call scopes) tend to be banned from pistol duels because they ensure that blood is drawn.  The whole point of a duel is for the shot to be based on the accuracy of the firer, and having an aiming mechanism renders that pointless.  As for hair-triggers, well, a hair-trigger allowed for a person to fire faster, using less pressure on the trigger, giving an advantage to the firer.  The guns used by Burr and Hamilton belonged to Hamilton's brother-in-law, and Hamilton knew about the hair trigger.  Did Burr?  Also, why use guns with two illegal modifications when Hamilton already owned two standardized dueling pistols without those modifications?  And why would Hamilton own two sets of dueling pistols if he was as against dueling as he claimed to be?

My point is, Hamilton was far from perfect.

Then there's the matter of the glasses.  Hamilton famously wore glasses to the duel, and made a show of adjusting the glasses, looking through the sight, and fiddling with his weapon before the duel.  He gave every indication that he planned to shoot Burr.

The story of the duel is that Hamilton shot into the air instead of at Burr, but that, too, is wrong.  Hamilton shot high, but not straight up.  He shot about 6 feet above Burr's head, according to his second, Pendleton.  After being shot by Burr, he informed the doctor that he had not meant to shoot at Burr, but this would have gone against the code duello the pair had set, which would not only mean that he lost the duel but did so dishonorably.  (When Burr heard Hamilton's claim that he had purposefully misfired, he said, "Contemptible, if true.")  

Burr had very few nice things to say about Hamilton.
Side note, I looked up so many goddamn Hamilton memes for this post. 

It's worth noting, by the way, that there's a practice of sacrificing your shot called deloping.  Although forbidden by the 26 Commandments, this practice is common enough to have a name; it involves shooting one's pistol to the ground.  This signifies that you don't want to shoot your opponent, but you have enough honor and manliness to have faced him on the dueling field.  Shooting at the ground is a great way to throw away your shot because you aren't raising your arm, a gesture that could easily be misinterpreted as aiming to fire.  If Hamilton intended to throw away his shot, which would go against the code duello and also be an ironic twist to the Hamilton lyrics "I am not throwing away my shot," then why didn't he delope?

Some argue that perhaps he did intend to shoot Burr and, the wide shot was a result of the hair-trigger, which would have made the gun far touchier.

Others argue that he was suicidal and intended to be shot.  (It was well known he fell into a deep depression after the death of his son, Philip, who had been killed on the same dueling field.)

And still others argue he was attempting to discredit and politically destroy Burr by having Burr hurt him in a duel.

We'll never know.  But the consequences are the same.  Hamilton died before his time, and dueling fell out of vogue.  The last fatal pistol duel in England was in 1852; in the United States, dueling was federally outlawed in 1839, though many states had already outlawed it themselves.  (Hamilton and Burr had had to duel in New Jersey, since it was illegal in New York.)

Never fear.  If you're the type prone to blood-lust, there are still circumstances where you can get that energy out.  Dueling was present at the 1908 Summer Olympics (with non-lethal wax bullets).  If you Google "Texas mutual combat law," you'll get the following information: "In essence, dueling is still legal according to sections 22.01 and 22.06 in the Texas penal code. The law states that any two individuals who feel the need to fight can agree to mutual combat through a signed for or even just verbal or implied communication and have at it (fists only, however)."

It would be easy to scoff and say it's a "Texas thing."  After all, Texas is well-known for its love of guns and machismo culture.  They invented the "quick-draw" style of dueling.

But it's not merely Texas.  Washington state allows for mutual combat (with police referees!).  And in fact, there is no official federal law that bans mutual combat in the United States.  That's right.  Single combat is still a thing.  It probably always will be.  Because human refinement only goes so far, and even the greatest among us, even brilliant minds like Hamilton and Twain, occasionally succumb to their more primal instincts.

We think humans are special because we're enlightened.  But suppressing our base instincts doesn't make us truly enlightened.  We are a double-faced species; we pretend to be civilized but when you get right down to it, all humans have a capacity for violence.  

But enjoying fighting does not have to be opposed to our own humanity.  The primal urge to physically defend ourselves when we are offended and the desire to be "enlightened" are not mutually exclusive.

The question is not whether or not we should duel.  It's whether or not we can find safe outlets for our natural love of violence; it's whether or not we can settle disputes in ways that don't result in death.

Jell-O wrestling, or gladiatorial nerd combat with foam weapons, for example.
As the founding fathers intended.

I think that the 1908 Summer Olympics and mutual combat law are on to something here.  Hamilton didn't have to die in his duel with Burr.  If they had used wax bullets, or engaged in pugilism instead of pistol dueling, then who knows what more Hamilton and Burr would have accomplished in their lives?  

The Duel Commandments were written for a reason.  They were an early attempt to rectify our natural love of violence with our social and civil need for law and order; they were an attempt to remove the impulsivity from violence.  The dual nature of the duel commandments is not paradoxical to me.  I think we can eat our cake, and have it too.  There is a way to harness violence, and turn it into something that is not destructive; we just need to put our anger aside long enough to think outside of the box.  What makes us human isn't our lack of emotions, after all, but how we choose to act on those emotions.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Animorphs Was my Favorite Book Series

The first Harry Potter book was published in the United States in the summer of 1998.  (It had come out a year earlier in the UK.)  I think I was about 12 and I remember hearing about it, because my mother worked in a book store.

"I just read a book about a boy who finds out he's a wizard," she said.

"That sounds dumb," I replied.

That Halloween, my little brother went as Harry Potter, with a cape, a lightning-bolt scar, and a golden broom.  No one had any clue who he was because Harry Potter books were not part of the cultural zeitgeist yet.

In any case, I was already deeply invested in a sci-fi series called Animorphs.  Animorphs was first published in 1996.  I had picked up Animorphs #2 at a large chain store (a Wal-Mart or a Target) because of the cover, which featured a blond-haired person transforming into a gray cat.  (I was blond and had a gray cat.)  I was immediately hooked.

Animorphs books were written similarly to R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books.  They had no pictures, but they also had large, easy-to-read sans serif fonts,  and short chapters (only a two or three pages each) with cliff-hanger endings.  This made them easy to binge-read; a single Animorphs book was usually between 100 and 200 pages, but could be read in a single day.

I was very into Animorphs, right down to having a pair of gerbils named after two of the characters.  (Elfangor and Aximili.)  The book dealt with themes I liked very much: changing into animals, having secrets, high-stakes urban guerilla warfare, alien invasions, and intense emotional stakes.

Lol, gorilla warfare.

The plot, for those not familiar with it already, is as follows.  A group of teens encounter an alien who reveals to them that another alien race is secretly invading earth.  The invading aliens, called Yeerks, are parasitic worms who crawl into people's ears and take over their bodies.  Because Yeerks interface with the brain directly, they can access people's thoughts and memories, and control the body like a puppet, leaving the host in a "locked-in" state.  There is no way to tell who is Yeerk-controlled.  The alien gives the teens the power to turn into animals and, with his dying breath, begs them to fight against the invading aliens, at least until back-up arrives.

The demographic for this book was preteens.  Despite the simple language of the book, the themes were complex and often exceptionally dark.  In Book #1, for example, after the alien dies, the teens hide and watch as a bunch of Yeerk-controlled aliens show up and eat their new friend alive.  There was a whole race of ravenous, cannibalistic termite-like aliens who would become bloodlusted and eat animals alive if they became sufficiently wounded.  That happened, like, every other book.

Here are some other nightmare highlights from the series, courtesy of Reddit:
  • There are graphic battle scenes, including such classics as Jake getting eviscerated while in the form of a tiger, and a termite alien getting severed in half and then the front half eating the back half.
  • In the first book, Tobias is imprisoned in the form of a hawk and slowly loses his own humanity, eating roadkill to survive.  When he regains the ability to turn into a human, he can no longer form human facial expressions.
  • Marco's mother faked her own death and is actually controlled by an alien.  Eventually, the kids confront her, pushing her off of a cliff to kill the alien while a sobbing Marco is held down by Jake.
  • In the form of a fly, one of the characters gets swatted and is smeared against a ceiling.
  • One of the characters almost gets trapped as a flea and when he tries to change back into a human, turns into a giant flea that begins to collapse under the weight of its own body.
  • The heroes recruit disabled kids to help them since the Yeerks have no need for disabled bodies.  The ability to morph fixes many of their disabilities but they have to continue to live their lives as disabled so that no one finds out.
  • One of the kids the Animorphs recruit turns on them, so they imprison him in the body of a rat.  For two hours, the kids sit with the rat as it begs to be let go, then abandon it on an island completely alone.  The island is rumored to be haunted because of the psychic screams of the human trapped in a rat's body.
  • One of the main heroes, Rachel, contemplates sticking a fork into the ear of another person and twisting it.  (The person is David, who is later imprisoned as a rat.)
  • One of the characters end up shrunken in her own friend's stomach and experiences her eyeballs being digested out of her head with stomach acid.
  • An alien spends a few centuries hanging from the parasitic tentacle of a much bigger alien, surrounded by millions of rotting corpses attached to its other moon-spanning tendrils. They engage in mental warfare until one finally absorbs the other completely.
  • A peaceful robot willingly removes its inhibition against violence to help in the war, only to slaughter a huge number of alien-controlled humans so gruesomely that nobody dares think about or speak of it again and it is the only thing left undescribed in a book series that already describes entrails getting torn out and skulls getting smashed.
  • The kids discover Atlantis, then discover that Atlanteans are inbred mutants who paralyze any humans they find, dissect them alive to figure out how their organs work, then stuff the corpses as kitschy museum displays for their children.
  • An ordinary ant gets transformed into a human child. It has no idea what’s happening and is so overwhelmed by its huge new brain and sensory input that it can only scream until it dies.
  • Rachel morphs into a starfish, gets split it half, and ends up as two Rachels. One is a complete psychopath. The other gets to tell the last chapter, when they get reunited, and is terrified that the bad one is a part of her again.  She cuts off her own arm and beats the first Rachel with it.
  • When the kids turn into ants or termites they are subjected to a hive mind and temporarily lose their sense of self.  Cassie  freaks out so bad she begins demorphing inside of a piece of wood.
  • One of the kids gets taken by a Yeerk and the kids tie up Jake until the living slug inside of him starves to death.  During that time, Jake is in a locked-in state with only his captor for company.
  • The alien, Ax, gets sick with a brain tumor and one of the kids does brain surgery on him in her barn using a bone saw.
  • Torture and genocide.  Like, plenty of it.
If you want more, here's a list.  And this list isn't even comprehensive.


If you're interested in reading the books as an adult, have at it, I say!  The language is incredibly simple; they are children's books and they read like children's books.  I tried to re-read them as an adult and had a hard time of it because of the simplicity of the syntax.  But if you're okay with that, then the broader themes and plots are worth it.

I also want to give credit where credit is due to the author, who did an incredible job of parsing out the scientific elements of her work.  The ability to change into animals, for example, involved the reconstruction of DNA base pairs; extra mass, which can't be destroyed or created, went to another dimension called zero-space.  Zero-space acted as a sort of interdimensional closet and also explained how aliens had the ability to go faster than the speed of light; they couldn't.  They made space jumps with z-space.  I loved that the author, K.A. Applegate, took the time to explain the how-it-worked of her books.  Too many books for middle schoolers fail to do this; K.A. Applegate never underestimated the ability of her readers, despite their age, to grapple with complex ideas or moral ambiguity.

Considering this post has, so far, been a glowing review of the Animorphs books, you might wonder why I began it by talking about Harry Potter.

The reason for this post was a recent comparison of these two authors on Facebook.  J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is extremely vocal on social media, and continues to generate headlines despite the fact that her book series ended back in 2007.  A vocal proponent for socially liberal ideals, J.K. Rowling has also been criticized for jumping onto nearly any bandwagon she can in order to continue to generate headlines for herself.

The first little problem we saw was when Hermione, one of Harry Potter's best friends, was cast with a black actress for a stage play.  J.K. Rowling immediately pointed out that she never specified that Hermione was white.

Except yes she did, in the third book.

Since then, J.K. Rowling has gone out of her way to insist that characters throughout her books are gay, Jewish, or black.  Never mind that she never shows us that in the books, or that her hollow excuses are transparently false.  While she maybe mentioned that three of the characters are black in passing, and there's an implication that Anthony Goldstein is Jewish, her decision that Dumbledore was gay felt very after-the-fact.

K.A. Applegate's six heroes are Jake and Rachel (Jewish), Marco (Latino), Cassie (black), Tobias, and Ax (who is an alien).  Applegate doesn't pull a Rowling and claim they're Jewish because they have Jewish names.  (Rowling famously insists her books include Jewish representation because of a single background character named Anthony Goldstein.)  Applegate's books actually show the characters interacting with their world.

The alien turns into a gender-fluid human obsessed with cinnamon buns.
God these books were so good.

One of the most interesting examples (in my opinion) is when the Animorphs begin recruiting disabled kids to their cause.  Their reasoning is sound: Yeerks seek out the best hosts and would not bother with someone with a disability.  Blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound hosts are of no use to the parasitic slugs.  The reaction of the disabled kids they try to recruit is a wonderful tapestry of humanity.  The disabled kids are presented as individuals and have individual reactions.  Some are thrilled to be recruited; others are disgusted and feel exploited.

I don't know whether Applegate's inclusion of disabled characters was an active attempt toward inclusivity, or whether it was a happy coincidence thanks to the motivation of the books' antagonists.  Either way, it was well-executed.  As a kid I never felt like any character was shoe-horned in.  It's only as an adult I've started noticing how goddamn inclusive these books were.

Lately there's been a lot of talk about Tobias (the fifth Animorph) being trans, which... doesn't really add up at all.  (I guess you could argue he's forcibly trans-hawk, since he's trapped in the body of a hawk for like 30 books.)

But K.A. Applegate, when asked, simply said she's not going to weigh in on Tobias's backstory beyond what is canonical in the books, adding that she wished she had worked harder to include more LGBT+ representation. 

This is a far cry from Rowling, who always responds to criticism about representation by throwing some darts at a board and saying, "Actually, if you read closely, [throws dart]  Dobby is actually [throws dart] Native American, and [throws dart] Hagrid is [throws dart] asexual."  She's probably received more criticism for her desperate attempts to retcon her own works than she has for the lack of representation in the first place.

And then there was the whole TERF issue.  For those not in the know, TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and recently, J.K. Rowling liked and responded to some Tweets on social media that suggested that trans women should not be allowed into women's prisons.  (One Tweet said that "foxes have no place in hen houses."  Implying that trans women are not only not women, but also are predatory in nature.  Baaaad.)

Then this happened:

K.A. Applegate was my favorite author as a kid.  As an adult, I see her as someone who has gracefully landed on the right side of history but without the desperate pandering that J.K. Rowling demonstrates.  And a lot of people agree.

Don't get me wrong.  I don't think you HAVE to have representation in fictional works.  It's nice when it's there, but my real issue is that Rowling is trying to FORCE representation. It feels artificial.  And that isn't good representation, if it's representation at all.  Inclusivity is a wonderful thing, when it's done correctly.  And J.K. Rowling isn't doing it correctly.

Rowling was an author who grew with her works.  We watched her writing get better.  As a developing writer myself, I feel her pain.  Sometimes, you look back at your works with a slight cringe.  You think, "Why didn't I include X?  Why didn't I mentioned Y?"  When you're a writer, every work you write becomes the best work you've ever written, and earlier works get worse and worse comparatively.  It's hard, to see the flaws revealed in a beloved piece of writing you put a lot of work into.

But ultimately, Rowling needs to stop defending her old shit.  It's over.  It's done.  It's cancelled.  There's nothing more terrible than watching an insecure author interpret their own works.  It takes away the soul of the books.

Applegate, I'm happy to say, has never done this.  She has been criticized quite a lot for the ending of her books, which most fans (myself included!) hated.  She stood by the ending of the Animorphs series with her head held high, and when she was finally pressed, she not only defended the ending, but explained why she did it that way:

Bravo, Applegate.  You inspired me.  I hope I can someday defend my own works with as much grace as you have.  

Speaking of my own works, I would like to take this opportunity to give a shameless plug to what is (currently) one of the best long-form things I've ever written.  Divergence is an Iron Man novella and I'm actually pretty damn proud of it.  But I'm also aware that, as my writing matures, someday, I might look back on it and wince at the mistakes I made, either through omission or ignorance.  And that's okay, because that means I'm getting better.