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Archive for January, 2012

Prohibition and the Rise of the American Gangster

Mug shots of the conspirators with vital statistics, 04/24/1929 (Department of Justice. Bureau of Prohibition. Seattle Office. ARC#298444)

As Prohibition commenced in 1920, progressives and temperance activists envisioned an age of moral and social reform. But over the next decade, the “noble experiment” produced crime, violence, and a flourishing illegal liquor trade.

The roots of Prohibition date back to the mid-19th century, when the American Temperance Society and the Women’s Christian Temperance League initiated the “dry” movement. In 1917, Congress passed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to implement nationwide Prohibition.

After the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919, Congress followed with the National Prohibition Act. Commonly referred to as the Volstead Act, the legislation outlawed the production, distribution, and transportation of alcohol. Prohibition officially went into effect on January 16, 1920.

But while reformers rejoiced, famous gangsters such as Al Capone capitalized and profited from the illegal alcohol market.

From Los Angeles to Chicago to  New York, organized crime syndicates supplied speakeasies and underground establishments with large quantities of beer and liquor. These complex bootlegging operations used rivers and waterways to smuggle alcohol across state lines. Eventually, other criminal enterprises expanded and diversified from the bootlegging profits.

As organized crime syndicates grew throughout the Prohibition era, territorial disputes often transformed America’s cities into violent battlegrounds. Homicides, burglaries, and assaults consequently increased significantly between 1920 and 1933.… [ Read all ]

Facial Hair Friday: A Liberal Arts Education

Hon. Josiah B. Grinnell, Iowa, ca. 1860-1865 (ARC 526530)

Among our extensive collection of Mathew Brady photographs is this one of Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, whose sideburns appear to slide down his cheeks towards his cravat.

The Honorable J. B. Grinnell’s name may seem familiar if you have ever browsed college catalogs, or if you are an alum of Grinnell College, located in Grinnell, Iowa.

Although Grinnell was born in Vermont,  he packed up his sideburns and went West in 1854 to set up a Congregational church out in the wilds of the Iowa terrriroty. The town and college that he helped set up both bear his name.

After Iowa became a state, Grinnell served as a state senator and was a delegate to the Republican National Convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for President. In 1862, Grinnell was elected to Congress.

Grinnell crossed paths with Horace Greely, whose neard has been featured on Facial Hair Friday before. Grinnell, along with “Liberal Republicans” and Democrats, supported  Greeley for President—presumably for political reasons rather than a shared love of sideburns.

Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau, ca. 1860-1865 (ARC 528580)

But not all was peaceful in the world of politics and facial hair. On June 14, 1866, Grinnell was assaulted by fellow Representative and sideburn-lover Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau. The Kentucky man beat the unarmed Grinnell with an iron-tipped cane after an incident on the House floor … [ Read all ]

Secession, Congress, and a Civil War Awakening at the Archives

The U.S. Capitol under construction, 1860 (National Archives Identifier 530494)

As a new year begins, the 112th Congress reconvenes for a second session of legislative activity. Representatives and senators from across the country are again descending upon the Capitol, ready to commence debates, proceedings, and hearings. This is how the legislative branch of the Federal Government always functions, right? Well, not always.

On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, the 36th Congress consisted of 66 senators and 234 representatives. There was a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and every state in the Union was effectively represented.

But once South Carolina issued its ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860, a surge of southern legislators began withdrawing and retiring from Congress.

By the time the 37th Congress convened in March of 1861, six states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—had already joined South Carolina and left the Union. This prompted Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina to follow.

When the torrent of secession finally concluded, vacancies existed in both chambers of Congress. The mass exodus of southern Democrats, coupled with the commencement of Union-Confederate hostilities, shrank the Federal legislature to 50 senators and 180 representatives by the beginning of 1863.

Southern secession transformed Congress in many ways. The dozens of unfilled vacancies in the Senate and the … [ Read all ]

Facial Hair Friday: Two names and almost two beards

Col. David H. Strother, ca. 1860-ca. 1865 (ARC 530168)

Today’s featured facial hair is a fan find! Thank you to Paul H. for alerting us to this wonderful forked beard.

In fact, this beard really looks like there’s enough hair to be two beards. Perhaps Colonel Strother had a beard for each of his names?

Before his stint in the Army during the Civil War, David Hunter Strother had toured Europe to study art and was a successful magazine illustrator and writer. He published his artwork under the delightful nom-de-plume of “Porte Crayon.”

When the Civil War began, his artistic talents meant he was assigned as a topographer in the Army, but by 1864, Colonel Strother was chief of staff to his cousin Gen. David Hunter. He was involved in the shelling of the Virginia Military Institute and later promoted to colonel of the Third West Virginia Cavalry.

He wrote about his wartime experiences for Harper’s Monthly as “Personal Recollections of the War.”

After the war, he continued to work as an artist until 1879, when he was appointed by President Hayes as General Consul to Mexico City, a post he held for the next six years.

In 1940, the “Porte Crayon Memorial Society” lobbied to have a mountain in  Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia named after Strother.  Mount Porte Crayon is not for casual day hikers, however. … [ Read all ]

Unbreakable: Remembering the Code Talkers

Navajo Code Talkers Henry Bake and George Kirk, 12/1943 (ARC 593415)

Keith Hill passed away yesterday at the age of 87. He was  president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association and Congressional Silver Medal recipient. At 17, he joined the Navajo Code Talkers, a group of men who used their Native American language to communicate and coordinate the movements of Marines in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Hill started with the U .S. Marine Corps in December of 1943, and he fought at the Marshall Islands, Sai Pan, and Iwo Jima. Over 400 over Navajo Code Talkers also served.

Encryption could be a complicated and time-consuming task. A quicker and more secure means was needed.

Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary, had presented the idea of Navajo speakers to the Marines. He was a World War I vet who knew that the military was looking for a quick and secure way to send messages. Using speakers of a language that few outsiders ever heard—and that fewer than 30 outsiders spoke—seemed like a plausible solution.

Why Navajos? There were very, very few speakers of the Navajo language outside the tribe, with exception of a limited number of scholars and missionaries (Johnston estimated 28 people), so it was unlikely anyone else would recognize the langauge and be able to translate it. Even among other Indian tribals, the language was considered different.… [ Read all ]