The Earth Gazers: A Book Review

Earth Gazers book coverA fascinating book. Couldn’t be more interesting. Potter’s story begins with Charles Lindbergh in Cape Kennedy watching the launch of Apollo 8. That scene describes the range of the book, from Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic to the Apollo missions to the moon.

Included are the popular heroes of aviation and space history: Lindbergh, Alan Sherman, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. But we are introduced to others whose legacy is more obscure, like the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who “lived on bread and water, his hair uncut, his clothes eaten away.” In 1903 he wrote a  paper on the mathematics of space flight.

The Lindbergh story alone makes the read worthwhile. Most of us know about the Spirit of St. Louis, the kidnapping and murder of his son and the World War II era speech that forever after tagged him as an anti-Semite. But I knew little else about him. Turns out in later life he devoted himself to saving endangered species. He became something of a recluse, although that didn’t stop him from visiting Europe to see the two or three families he had produced with German mistresses.

Lindbergh's grave

Lindbergh’s grave in Hana, Maui

Rocketry and space exploration needed war to advance. The rockets that would launch both American and Russian spaceships were derived from those built by the Nazis during World War II. While the scientists responsible may have had visions of visiting the Moon or Mars, the Nazis paying the bills were looking for weapons to knock out England. After the war, the German scientists were divided up between the U.S. and Russia like the spoils of war. One, Wernher Von Braun, was to the become the engineering rock star of the U.S. space program.

Many of these scientists were an important part of the two countries accomplishments in space. The Cold War fueled the space race and was the reason that the U.S. and Russia made billions of dollars available to their programs. Von Braun for one knew how to play this game, dredging up the frightening prospect of being behind Russia whenever approval or funding was needed. And as Cold War fever cooled in the late 60’s and 70’s, so did government interest in space programs.

Potter goes beyond the dates and accomplishments of the various noteworthy and record-breaking flights and focuses on the experience of the pilots, astronauts and cosmonauts.

For example, Lindbergh, toward the tail end of his sleep-deprived trans-Atlantic flight, described feeling that the fuselage behind him was filled with ghostly beings “vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane.”

True to the title of the book many of these astronauts try to put into words what it was like to see the earth from a perspective that only a few dozen have ever had. Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, a member of the first space crew to leave earth’s gravitational pull, said, “We were the first human beings to see the world in its majestic totality. This must be what God sees.’” Gemini astronaut Mike Collins described his sighting of his home planet as follows: ”The little planet is so small out there in the vastness that at first I couldn’t even locate it. And when I did a tingling of awe spread over me. There it was shining like a jewel in a black sky.”


Earthrise (NASA photo)

For some it was a religious experience. Many returned home and became environmentalists. I doubt that few if any of these explorers of the heavens would buy into Trumpian climate change denial. They came back to earth feeling the need to protect it and, in spite of the nationalism that often surrounded the space program, the experience left them with a more global view.

Blue Marble

Blue Marble

NASA was a micromanaging sort of organization and one of the aspects of this narrative that I enjoyed was the stories of the astronauts who as a group were not that keen on being told what to do. When John Glenn heard that NASA didn’t want their astronauts taking “tourist photos” from space, he went out and bought a $20 camera to sneak on board with him. Another of the astronauts hid a corned beef sandwich in his space suit to better enjoy the flight.

As a baby boomer who came of age during the space race, I always figured that NASA had everything under control before they zapped a man or two up into the cosmos. Wrong. There were a frightening number of failed tests and problems associated with many of these flights. When Frank Borman’s wife Susan was advised by a NASA official that he had a 50/50 chance of returning safely she actually began planning his memorial service.

This is not my usual reading fare. I doubt that I ever would have found my way to the shelf where this book is placed in most book stories. I got it as an unexpected premium after making a donation to a listener-sponsored radio station (thank you WFMU). Sure glad I did. Potter tells the story brilliantly and has crammed in as many interesting facts and anecdotes as you could possibly fit onto 400 pages. It may seem weird to describe a book about aviation history as a page-turner, but trust me on this one.



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Guns in America: ‘Well Regulated’ Militias and the Right to Bear Arms

If you ask Americans who own guns why, the most common answer, according to the Pew Research Center is protection. Sixty-seven percent of the gun owners queried by Pew gave that answer. Another 38% cited hunting and 30% sport shooting. (Some gave more than one answer hence the total is more than 100).

colonial militia

(image by Craig Sybert)

None of that was on the mind of James Madison, the founding father most closely associated with the 2nd Amendment, the right to bear arms. Back in 1789, the United States was a confederation of independent states that had banded together to free themselves from an English overlord. The framers of the Constitution were Federalists and anti-Federalists, divided over the issue of how much authority (and muscle) should be placed in the hands of the newly created federal government.

Madison, who is considered the father of the U.S. Constitution, was initially a Federalist, although he was to abandon the Federalist Party in the future. The 2nd amendment was positioned as a states rights issue, a level of protection for individual states and their citizens against the possibility of an over-aggressive or over-assertive federal government. Hence the wording:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

1821 militia drill

A militia drill in Massachusetts in 1821 (New York Public Library Digital Collection)

Most of us at this point in time do not see ourselves banding together with our neighbors and taking on the federal government in a firefight. Yet that idea of a militia has not disappeared the way you might have expected, or hoped. There are still 23 states that maintain separate organizations that are the successors of the state militia. They are now called State Defense Forces and rather than manning the trenches to fight off a federal invasion they are mainly mobilized in the event of a natural disaster.

A scarier group, however, are the militias that have been formed that in fact still think of themselves as a force to stave off the feds. For the most part these are secluded, secretive and extremist, running the gamut from libertarians to white supremacists and Nazis. The South China Morning Post estimates there are 165 of these organizations in the U.S. One example is the group that armed themselves and took possession of a wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016. They were protesting federal ownership of the land and wanted it turned over to the states. Another product of these anti-government militias was Timothy McVeigh, the Operation Desert Storm veteran who murdered 168 people and injured hundreds more when he bombed an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. His goal was to incite an uprising against the federal government, McVeigh, a white supremacist, had been involved with militia groups in the Midwest. Likely those militia groups were not what you would call well regulated. But just as likely, they would see themselves as the type of organization that the 2nd Amendment was aiming to protect.

Civil War battle

New York State militia in the Battle of Bull Run 1861. (New York Public Library Digital Collection)

While these militia groups are a lunatic fringe, the question of whether the 2nd Amendment guarantees gun ownership rights for individuals has been a topic of debate in mainstream American politics for a couple of centuries now. Right-wingers and gun-lobby groups like the NRA say yes; gun control groups say no. The Supreme Court says: errrr…. maybe.

There were three cases heard by the Supreme Court in the last quarter of the 19th century in which the court ruled that the 2nd Amendment did not guarantee the individual’s right to bear arms and that individual states were within their rights to regulate gun ownership.  So while the 2nd Amendment was created with states rights in mind, the court was ruling that based on states rights individual states could set controls on guns without being in violation of the constitution. In 1939, the court ruled against an individual who was appealing his arrest for violating the National Firearms Act noting that his possession of a sawed-off shotgun had little to do with preserving “well regulated militias.”

In 2008,  in a case involving the District of Columbia, the court headed in the other direction saying the 2nd Amendment did in fact protect the rights of the individual to own a firearm. The court ruling invalidated a law that forbade handgun possession in the District of  Columbia. In a similar case in 2010 involving a handgun ban in Chicago, the court, by a slim 5-4 vote, ruled that states cannot infringe upon the individual rights granted by the 2nd Amendment. 


(Image by James DeMers)

The 2nd Amendment is a one of a kind law. Only two other countries, Mexico and Guatemala, address the issue of the right to bear arms in their constitutons. And those laws come with much more restrictive clauses. Mexicans can buy guns, but they can’t buy military weapons and they are restricted in being able to carry weapons into “inhabited places.” In Guatemala, government approval is required to buy a gun and there are restrictions in how much ammunition you can own. Six other countries, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua and Liberia, once had gun ownership rights in their constitutions, but they have all since thought better of it.

While you can debate the intent of the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I don’t think any of our founding fathers would have been interested in protecting the rights of the guy who brought more than 20 rifles and a revolver into his Las Vegas hotel room and fired some 1,100 rounds at concert goers killing 58 of them. Nor would they have wanted to protect  the rights of the guy who used a semi-automatic rifle and revolver to kill 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, nor the two murderers who brought four guns into Columbine High School and killed 12 of their fellow students. 

Yet, citing the 2nd Amendment, our federal government has chosen not to implement any of the restrictions that are in place in virtually every other country in the world. And as a result our record of mass killings and gun violence is pretty much unparalleled.

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‘Put your make up on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City’

Welcome to Atlantic city

Atlantic City is one of America’s oldest and grandest resorts. As far back as 1874, some 500,000 people were taking the train from Philadelphia and New York to take a stroll on America’s first boardwalk.

Tourism peaked in the early decades of the 20th century. Shortly after the turn of the century, Atlantic City experienced a building boom with numerous large beachside hotels being erected. The 1920’s was the heyday for tourism, especially amongst those who sought to find their way around Prohibition. Since then the city’s fortunes have waxed and waned.

By the 50’s and 60’s the city was in decline. As more and more Americans took to the road in their family automobiles and airline travel grew in popularity, more travel and vacation options became available. At the same time Atlantic City was suffering from the crime and poverty that plagued many east coast cities at the time.

View of Atlantic City from Brigantine

In 1976 New Jersey decided that gambling was the answer to reviving the city’s tourism industry. The first casino opened in 1978 and several more followed. At the time, casino options for Americans were Las Vegas or Atlantic City.

But by the 2000’s, casinos opened in metro New York and Philadelphia as well as Connecticut. Those were the areas where most of Atlantic City’s visitors came from. Tourism declined, as did casino revenues and local employment. This decline reached its peak in 2014 when five of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos closed. At the time Politico headlined a story about Atlantic City “Detroit with a Boardwalk.”

But it turns out the doomsayers may have spoken too soon. A.C. is anything but the ghost town some predicted, as evidenced by the photo below taken two weekends ago.

.Summer weekend in Atlantic City

While you can build a casino just about anywhere, what you are never going to have in Yonkers or Wilkes-Barre or Mashantucket, Conn., is the ocean and the beautiful sandy beach. And on top of that, two new casinos opened in Atlantic City this year, revenues are up and Stockton University just built on Oceanside campus that opens this fall.

Hard Rock Atlantic city

The new Hard Rock Hotel and Casino opened in June.

If you’ve played monopoly, you know the names of many of the streets in Atlantic City since the popular board game, which was first marketed in 1935, was based on the Jersey resort. And you will also know what the most valuable property is. Here’s a virtual tour of the Atlantic City boardwalk.

Atlantic City boardwalk

Boardwalk pushcart, Atlantic City

The Atlantic City rolling chair, originally introduced on the boardwalk in the 1880’s

Steel Pier, Atlantic City

Steel Pier

Steel Pier 2018

1913 Steel Pier

Steel Pier, 1913

Atlantic City helicopter

Helicopter tour taking off from Steel Pier

Fralingers Salt Water Taffy

Joseph Fralinger began selling salt water taffy at his boardwalk stand in 1884.

Bankrupt Trump hotel

All that’s left of Trump is the M and the P.

Home of the Miss America pageant

Boardwalk Hall, built in 1926, began hosting the Miss America pageant in 1940

Ripley's believe it or not

New Jersey Korean War Memorial

New Jersey Korean War Memorial

And some not-so-classic Atlantic City


Atlantic City sunset

Back bay sunset


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In the National Parks: Gurgling, Spewing, Oozing

Yellowstone National Park – Montana, Wyoming, Idaho

Old Faithful

Yellowstone National Park has the largest collection of geothermal features in the world, more than 10,000. That includes 500 geysers, a number which surpasses all other areas. Here’s a dozen or so of those geothermal features.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot SpringsMammoth Hot SpringsMammoth Hot Springs

Liberty Cap

Liberty Cap, a dormant hot spring cone

Palette Spring

Palette Spring

Fountain Paint Pots

Celestine Pool

Celestine Pool

Silex Spring

Silex Spring

Fountain Paint Pot

Fountain Paint Pot

Clepsydra Geyser

Clepsydra Geyser

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic SpringGrand Prismatic SpringGrand Prismatic Spring

Old Faithful

Old FaithfulOld Faithful

Excelsior Geyser Crater

Excelsior Geyser Crater at Midway Geyser Basic

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In the National Parks: Where the Buffalo Roam

Yellowstone National Park — Montana, Wyoming, Idaho

Bison in Yellowstone Park

Well not exactly buffalo. The American bison was one of the many things that the Europeans who came to this country misidentified. Today, Yellowstone hosts the largest bison population in America. There are about 4,800 bison in the park, for the most part roaming freely. The majority of them are in the Lamar Valley where these photos were taken.

Herd of American bison

Bison family

Bison in Yellowstone Park

Bison family

More Yellowstone wildlife

Baby elk at Mammoth Hot Springs

This young elk is trying to figure out the signs in Mammoth Hot Springs Village.

Adult elk at Mammoth Hot Springs

While mama keeps a wary eye on me

Yellowstone pronghorn


Yellow-bellied marmots

These yellow-bellied marmots have made a home for themselves under a Yellowstone Park outhouse.

Osprey nest

This osprey nest is in the Yellowstone Canyon area

The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in nearby West Yellowstone, Mont., is a non-profit that hosts rescued animals that are no longer capable of living in the wild. Some came from Yellowstone and some from other national parks. Here are some of the center’s inhabitants.

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear

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Guns in America: Prominent Americans Shooting Each Other Up

In 1804 the vice president of the United States shot and killed one of the founding fathers and the former secretary of the treasury in a duel. Gun violence, something that would continue to plague our society some 200+ years later, was already taking its toll on this young nation.

Site of Hamilton-Burr duel

Hamilton statue at the site of the Weehawken Dueling Grounds.

The conflict between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had been going on for years. In 1804, Burr, with his VP term expiring and with the knowledge that Jefferson would drop him from the ticket, ran for governor of New York State. A third party quoted Hamilton in some scathing criticism of Burr that demeaned his character. Burr demanded an apology. He didn’t get one. So he delivered the challenge. Hamilton, though a self-styled opponent of dueling, accepted nonetheless because he feared the consequences to his future and reputation were he to refuse.

Weehawken Dueling Grounds rock where Hamilton laid his head.

Hamilton laid his head upon this rock after being shot in Burr duel.

So they headed out to the dueling grounds in Weehawken, N.J., with their seconds, their pistols and their adherence to the Code Duello, the rules of dueling. Each fired a shot. It has been widely speculated that Hamilton intentionally fired over Burr’s head. We’ll never know for sure whether he intentionally “wasted” his shot because Burr didn‘t waste his.

Many in America had grown weary of this means of dispute resolution and Hamilton’s death came as a shock. A jury in Bergen County, N.J., indicted Burr for murder but the charges were thrown out by the N.J. Supreme Court. Many urged lawmakers to ban the practice, but in fact dueling was already illegal in both New York and New Jersey. The reason they chose to square off in Weehawken is because New Jersey was perceived to be lax in enforcement. The duel ended Burr’s political career although he did serve out his term as vice president. It also represented something of a turning point in that the practice began to decline in the northeast. Not so the south. That region of the country, which to this day supports unlimited private ownership of guns, continued to be the setting for numerous duels up until at least the Civil War.

Plaque at Weehawken Dueling Grounds

Burr and Hamilton were not the only prominent American leaders to kill or be killed in a duel. There were senators, congressmen, military leaders, and then there was Andrew Jackson. Jackson boasted that he had been in 14 duels. Some historians have pegged that number at 2. Ah, but we live at a time when presidential braggadocio seems the norm. His most famous duel occurred in 1806 against Charles Dickinson.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Dickinson was a lawyer, horse breeder and like Jackson, a plantation owner. Despite his young age, 26, he had already participated in numerous duels. The fact that he was still alive suggested he was good at it. What motivated these two men to risk their lives? It all started with a dispute over a bet on a horse race. Their animosity bubbled over from there. Dickinson called Jackson’s wife a bigamist. (Her first marriage had not been dissolved yet when she married Jackson.) Then he published a statement in the Nashville Review calling Jackson a “worthless scoundrel, a poltroon and a coward.” (I’m good with the scoundrel bit.) Jackson made the challenge, Dickinson accepted and off they went.

Dueling was also outlawed in Tennessee, so this one was moved to Kentucky. As per the rules Dickinson took the first shot and lodged a bullet in Jackson’s chest, damaging a rib or two but missing his heart. Jackson then cocked his gun and misfired. If you were to play by the rules the duel should have ended there. But Jackson re-cocked his gun and shot Dickinson fatally. Jackson’s behavior was widely disparaged and seen as cheating. Twenty years later he was elected to the first of two terms as president.

Button Gwinnett

Button Gwinnett

Button Gwinnett is primarily noted in American history as one of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence. The British born Gwinnett was something of a failure as a merchant and as a planter. Yet he turned out to be a successful local politician. He rose to a position in the Georgia Provincial Congress where his chief rival was Lachlan McIntosh, Scottish American Revolutionary War veteran who was a landowner and slaveholder. By 1877 Gwinnett had become president of Georgia filling the vacant position after his predecessor had passed away. McIntosh meanwhile had become a brigadier general in the continental army, a position Gwinnett had also sought. As head of the Georgia Provisional Congress Gwinnett ordered McIntosh to lead an invasion of East Florida, which at the time was controlled by England. It failed. They blamed each other and when McIntosh publicly pronounced Gwinnett a “scoundrel and lying rascal” the challenge was on.

The duel took place at a Georgia plantation. Each took a shot. Each was hit. Gwinnett died. McIntosh lived.

Henry Clay

Henry Clay

One of the more ridiculous episodes occurred in 1826 involving secretary of state and presidential hopeful Henry Clay, who described himself as an opponent of duels, and Virginia Senator John Randolph. It all started with a speech on the Senate floor in which Randolph referred to President Adams and Clay as “a puritan with the blackleg.” I have no clue what that means but it is apparently highly insulting because after some debate about whether Senate rules prohibited challenging Senators for comments made on the Senate floor, Clay did indeed issue the challenge and Randolph accepted. Virginia was another state where dueling was illegal, but our lawmakers and cabinet members paid that no mind and squared off there anyway. Randolph rationalized that he wouldn’t be breaking any law since he had no intention of hitting Clay. Each fired one shot and the only victim was Randolph’s jacket. They set up for another round. Randolph hired in the air. Clay put his gun away. Game, set, match. They lived happily ever after.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

One 19th century American president who you might not expect to have been found on the dueling grounds is Abraham Lincoln. Yet a young Lincoln, who was simply a country lawyer in 1842, ended up in a dispute with the Illinois state auditor James Shields related to the bankruptcy of the Illinois State Bank. Lincoln wrote a letter under a pseudonym that was published in the Sangamo Journal attacking both Shields’ actions relating to the bankruptcy and his character. Shields squeezed the publisher for the identity of the author and when he found out demanded a retraction from Lincoln. Upon being refused he issued the challenge and Lincoln accepted.

Illinois was yet another state where dueling was illegal so they headed off to Missouri. Both of these men had seconds who were determined to keep their charges alive. While both showed up at Bloody Island, Mo., at the appointed date and time, a negotiated settlement kept an actual duel from taking place, one that might well have altered the course of American history.

Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens

If you think Lincoln an unlikely duel participant, consider Mark Twain. The story of Mark Twain’s duel has been told by Twain himself. His real name was Samuel Clemens and early in his career Clemens worked as a journalist for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, Nev. (Nevada, by the way, also outlawed dueling.) The Enterprise’s main competitor was the Virginia City Union owned by James Laird. Clemens wrote a story which he claimed that he never intended to publish that, among other things, accused the Union of reneging on a pledge to support a Civil War charity. When Baird called Clemens a liar, Clemens issued the challenge and Laird accepted.

So Clemens and Laird show up at the dueling grounds and Clemens admits to his second Steve Gillis that he didn’t know how to fire a gun accurately. By way of demonstration, Gillis takes the gun, fires a shot at a bird and beheads it. Laird drops by, sees the dead bird and asks who fired that shot. Gillis assures it was Clemens and elaborates on his client’s marksmanship. Laird gets the idea. He apologizes and the duel is over before it began. At least that’s how Mark Twain told the story.


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Guns in America: The Americanization of the Duel

When the first European explorers found their way to these shores they brought the first firearms to a gun-free society. When the first colonists settled in, they imported another piece of European culture, a rather definitive dispute resolution practice known as dueling.

The duel goes back to medieval times. It was a sort of primitive alternative to courts. In the Middle Ages they believed God would decide who was right and that his opinion would be represented by the winner of the man-to-man combat. Originally duels were fought with swords and in the earliest versions if the loser came out alive he’d be executed anyway.

By the 17th and 18th century, the nature of dueling evolved and became a aristocratic exercise based on honor. There were specific rules about who challenges who, who picks the weapons, how the process would unfold and when it had reached a satisfactory conclusion. It was not necessarily fatal. Some historians claim a fatality rate of only about 20%. And as pistols began to take the place of swords in the 1800’s their cumbersomeness and lack of accuracy made them far less lethal than you would expect.

dueling pistolsDid dueling catch on in America? The first colonists came to these shores in 1619. By 1620, their Plymouth colony had seen its first duel. Like so many of the customs we imported from Europe, dueling in the new world would eventually take on a distinctly American style.

  1. The democratization of dueling

That first duel in the Plymouth colony was between Edward Lester and Edward Doty. What was totally unique about their duel is that they were both servants. They chose to settle their dispute with a sword fight. Each received a non-deadly wound and they called it a day. But the Plymouth colony didn’t let it go at that. They were sentenced to be tied together hand and foot for 24 hours without food or water. Partly at the behest of their master, they were released after an hour.

One should no overstate the egalitarianism of American dueling. There were no farmworkers or laborers challenging their bosses. It was still the domain of the moneyed classes but rather than being all about landed and hereditary aristocracy, the participants in American duels were often politicians, lawyers and even journalists.

2. The duel as public policy debate.

In Europe most duels were either about a woman or some personal affront that the haughty offended gentleman considered a challenge to his honor. In America the challenge to a duel often came as a result of a perceived insult hurled as part of a public policy debate. This is of course the country where one of our founding fathers was gunned down in a duel with a sitting vice president. Senators were known to turn to the pistol and hurl a challenge across the aisle. Duels were held over the issue of slavery. Newspaper editors saw this a way to settle disputes with their rivals. And since the politicians and lawyers who were active duelists were public personas, their challenges and responses were often made very publicly, even published in local newspapers like some sort of legal ad.

3. Making our own rules.

The go to guide for dueling was written by a group of Irishmen in 1777. Known as Code Duello, it was also called the 26 commandments. It starts out thus: “Rule 1. The first offense requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. Example: A tells B he is impertinent, etc. B retorts that he lies; yet A must make the first apology because he gave the first offense, and then (after one fire) B may explain away the retort by a subsequent apology.” Huh??

We as Americans like to make our own rules. So we did exactly that. In 1838 “The Code of Honor” was published by John Lyde Wilson, the former governor of South Carolina. Wilson’s guide, published at a  time when dueling was starting to decline, offered extensive advice as well as rules for both the combatants and their seconds. He even touches on the appropriate demeanor: “The principals are to be respectful in meeting, and neither by look or expression irritate each other. They are to be wholly passive, being entirely under the guidance of their seconds.“  Wholly passive that is, until you plug your opponent with a bullet. Just no trash talk!

4. Posting

Another American addition to the dueling process was “posting.” This was primarily done in the Southern states and was intended to humiliate the challenged gentleman who passed up on the opportunity to duel. It involved a written a statement with the person’s name, identifying him as a coward, and posting that statement for public perusal or publishing it in a newspaper. The fear of posting no doubt led some to head to the dueling grounds who were otherwise not so anxious to do so.

gunslinger   5. The quick draw duel

Perhaps the most uniquely American iteration of the duel was the quick draw duel. A product of the Western frontier this is just a straight out gunfight. No rules, no seconds, no negotiations, nor processes. Just stand face to face and whoever draws their six-shooter the fastest and gets in the first accurate shot lives to see another day.

Dueling was essentially illegal throughout most of the world and had been for centuries. As early as the 13th century the Roman Catholic Church had taken a position in opposition to dueling. In France, one of the most active dueling countries in Europe, King Louis XIII outlawed the practice in 1626 and that’s been the law of the land ever since. Yet between 1685 and 1716 there were 10,000 duels in France.

In the U.S., Benjamin Franklin was an opponent of dueling. He wrote:  “How can such miserable Sinners as we are entertain so much Pride, as to conceit that every Offence against our imagined Honour merits Death?” George Washington was not a fan either, though for more practical reasons, as he could not afford to lose his soldiers to duels.

By the beginning of the 19th century and after the national shock of the Hamilton-Burr duel, the practice started to decline in the north. Not so the south where dueling continued to be a common occurrence until mid-century. In 1839, after another congressman was killed in a duel, the practice was outlawed in Washington D.C. Not in Maryland though and Bladensburg Dueling Grounds in Comar Manor, Md., hosted many duels between Washington based pols.

Some 18 states had outlawed the practice by the middle of the 19th century. But it was likely less the law that brought an end to dueling as much as it was the Civil War, the widespread bloodshed experienced throughout the country and the breakdown of southern plantation society.


In next week’s post I’ll take a look at some of the prominent 19th century Americans who shot each other up at the dueling grounds.

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Guns in America: Who Fired the First Shot?

Americans are armed to the teeth. And I’m not just talking about the military. It has been estimated that while 4 percent of the world’s population lives in the U.S., we own 42% of the world’s privately owned firearms. Not coincidentally, mass shootings occur here at a rate that is 11 times higher than any other developed country.

There are 265 million firearms in America and half of those are owned by just 3% of the population. The degenerates who have been shooting up our churches, out schools, our nightclubs and concert venues usually have one thing in common. They’ve accumulated a personal arsenal.

It has even gotten to the point where other countries are warning their citizens about traveling to the United States because of the preponderance of gun violence. Those countries include Canada, New Zealand, China, the Bahamas and the United Arab Emirates. Yet we have a government that refuses to adopt any level of gun control no matter how many of our children get slaughtered in their classrooms. How did we grow into a society committed to lethal weapons?. Where did it start? Who fired the first shot?

colonial era musket

The idea that Columbus discovered America has been widely disputed. But you could make a claim for Columbus’ party as being the first to use a firearm in America. Apparently as his armada of three ships approached the New World a cannon was fired from the Pinta to announce the sighting of land. This practice was somewhat common among the European adventurers who landed on our shores, not always for the sake of the public service announcement but also to instill the fear of God in the natives.

The Spanish conquistadores tramped about the New World armed. As Ponce De Leon wound his way through Florida is his misguided mission to find the fountain of youth, he was accompanied by arquebusiers. They were foot soldiers who hauled around a sort of portable cannon called an arquebus. As a firearm it wasn’t very practical, being heavy and requiring a lighted wick to fire, but it sure as hell could scare the crap out of any poor soul who had never experienced the sound of a firearm.

The first guns to take up permanent residence in the U.S. came aboard the Mayflower in 1520. While I don’t consider the NRA to be a credible source about most things, they may be right about the Italian made musket that they house in their museum of guns which they call the Mayflower Gun.

colonial musket and hatWhile our vision of the early American settler might involve a guy toting a musket around on his shoulder, that notion was challenged by Michael Bellesiles, a former professor of history at Emory University.  In his book, Arming America: The Origins of National Gun Culture, he claimed that individual gun ownership was not that common among colonials, noting that the muskets of the time were not that useful for either personal defense or for hunting. His research purported to have found that between 1763 and 1790, only 13 percent of men in New England and Pennsylvania owned guns and that half of those guns were useless.

Bellesiles argued instead that America’s love affair with guns occurred in the latter half of the 19th century with the romanticizing of the cowboy and the popularity of wild west shows with the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley. Bellesiles work set off a furious debate in historical circles as he was attacked by, among others, the same gun touters in the NRA who continue to attack and discred anyone who seeks to limit gun ownership. Other historians did indeed find errors in his work and Columbia University withdrew the Bancroft history prize that it had awarded to the book. Bellesiles himself has never backed off of his conclusions.

The first Europeans who came to this country found a gun-free society. So it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the native population of America was victimized by the gun-toting explorers and settlers who arrived from Europe. But it was the diseases that the Europeans brought with them, more so than the guns, that were devastating to a native population that had no immunity to Old World ailments. The American Indians did enact some small revenge by providing some European adventurers with a particularly virulent strain of syphilis that they brought back home with them.

David J. Silverman, a professor of history at George Washington University and author of Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America, suggests that Native Americans were among the early adopters of gun culture in America. “Indians were generally awestruck when they first experienced the firing of a gun. But it took little time for them to grow accustomed to the sound and flash, and to learn the practical applications of this tool. They traded for firearms in large quantities and used them in warfare and hunting because they recognized that guns were superior to the bow and arrow especially for setting ambushes, besieging fortified settlements and hunting deer.”

He describes a competitive gun market in early colonial America with different tribes competing to participate in the gun trade and some Old World entrepreneurs competing to take advantage of this new-found bull market. Silverman even suggests that Native Americans played a role in bringing gun violence to American society claiming that Indian gunmen terrorized some regions.

So while no one is exactly sure where to find the foundation for the gun-infested society we are now living with, one thing is clear. The issue of private ownership of guns has long been a contentious and divisive issue in the U.S.


In next week’s post I’ll look at how Americans embraced the European custom of dueling and then remade it in our own image.


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A Few Curious Bits of Baseball History

baseball exhibit at Denver Museum

Play Ball exhibit at History Colorado Center, Denver, featuring the Marshall Fogel collection of baseball artifacts.

In an era before multi-year, multi-million contracts, ballplayers were happy to get endorsements, for just about anything.

Nellie Fox endorses chewing tobacco

Dizzy Dean cereal ad


Evolution of the glove


Colorado baseball then


Denver baseball team's bear mascot

Opening day 1923 and the Denver Bears are led onto the field by their mascot

Colorado baseball now

Rockies opening day ticket

Ticket to the first Colorado Rockies game in 1993

Coors Field wall photo

Coors Field, Denver opened in 1995

Colorado Rockies star players

Rockies jerseys

Breaking barriers

1934 Kansas City Monarchs

In 1934, at a time when baseball was completely segregated the Denver Post tournament invited the all-black Kansas City Monarchs to play the white House of David team

Bayly-Underhill co-ed baseball team

The Bayly-Underhill company sponsored a co-ed baseball team circa 1910-1915

New York baseball before MLB’s Manifest Destiny


New York Giants 1911 championship trophy

New York Giants 1911 championship trophy

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Take Me Out to the Ball Game


Citi Field

Take me out to the ball game

The seventh inning stretch

Take me out to the crowd

New York Mets game at Citi Field

Buy me some peanuts and an over-priced hat

New York Yankees merchandise

I don’t care if I never get back

Willets Point station after a Mets game

Let me root, root, root for the home team

Rooting for the home team at Yogi Berra Stadium

If they don’t win it’s a shame

TD Bank Ballpark scoreboard

For it’s ONE

a swinging strike


Palisades Credit Union Park scoreboard

THREE strikes

Strike three looking

You’re out!

Strike three

At the old ball game

game over

(Photos taken at Yankee Stadium, Bronx, N.Y.; TD Bank Ballpark, Bridgewater, N.J.; Citi Field, Queens, N.Y.; Yogi Berra Stadium, Little Falls, N.J.; and Palisades Credit Union Park, Pomona, N.Y.)

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