Far Side’s Fractured History

I like to spice up my classroom presentations with appropriate cartoons. In my post yesterday, I mentioned some of my favorite comic/cartoon sources: “Peanuts,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Mallard Fillmore.” I failed to mention another one that deserves recognition—Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.”

Larson’s humor is often zany, but so much the better when he chooses to rewrite history. Now, normally I’m not a fan of revising history without solid evidence, but for the sake of humor, I can laugh along with certain comic revisions. It’s like being able to enjoy a National Treasure movie even though all of the history is pure bunk.

Sometimes Larson’s humor is subtle, and you have to know some of the history yourself to appreciate it. For instance, we know Manhattan Island was sold for what we now consider a mere pittance. Here’s how Larson envisions the native chief explaining that decision:

Then there’s Patrick Henry’s iconic “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. Larson imagines he practiced it first:

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” cautioned an American officer at the Battle of Bunker Hill. That advice was not welcomed by one particular British soldier:

Then there is the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. Perhaps he crossed other things as well:

And haven’t you always heard of this famous expedition being called “Lewis and Clark,” never “Clark and Lewis”? If only Clark had listened to his mother:

No, Lincoln didn’t throw together his Gettysburg Address as a last-minute jotting on the train to Gettysburg, but if he had, he might have gotten some help with it:

Everyone’s heard of Custer’s Last Stand, but why do we focus on that one? His parents were probably more interested in this instead:

For the more literary among us, here’s a take on the problems that can overcome a writer:

And if you’re a military man not used to writing as much as someone of Poe’s stature, the wording may be even more difficult. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was looking for just the right words to inspire the Filipinos that he would one day come back and free the islands from the Japanese invaders:

I’m glad he came up with something better.

Hope you enjoyed this little foray into fractured history. In our day of cultural and political polarization, we need to be able to step back once in a while and simply smile.

A Tale of Magnificence & Depravity Well Told

When I was on my “Irma Vacation” a couple of weeks ago, I stopped by a Barnes and Noble to browse the history books. Often, when I’m in a bookstore, I feel a little rushed. This time, with nothing but time on my hands, I did some genuine browsing.

I came across Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. I had been tempted to buy it before; after all, it is advertised as a #1 National Bestseller and was a finalist for the National Book Award when it appeared in 2003. But I always had too much else I needed to read.

This time I took the plunge, knowing that I would have ample time to read over the next few days. It was a plunge well worth taking.

The White City in the title refers to the Columbian Exposition of 1893, when Chicago dazzled the world with a fair that was unequaled, even by the previous fair in Paris.

It was Chicago’s chance to prove to the nation that it was more than a backwater city known primarily for slaughtering animals. The goal was to show off its sophistication and energy in a positive light.

The book is a dual biography. Daniel Burnham was the architect charged with the responsibility for making this fair a reality in the short span of two years. The difficulties he faced and the tragedies he overcame along the way tell a tale of persistence and faith in a dream of excellence.

The Exposition was a marvel to behold at the time. People cashed in their life savings to be there. They were inspired by the magnificence of the buildings and the grounds, the latter the brainchild of Frederick Law Olmsted, who had also created New York City’s Central Park.

One can understand the awe that overcame the fair-goers at a time when architectural magnificence such as this was in its infancy in America.

The most popular structure of all was a brand new architectural marvel called the Ferris Wheel. This first one had cages that could hold crowds of people all at once. No one had ever seen anything like this before.

So why the title of this book? Why is the word “devil” so prominent?

While all this magnificence was taking place, right next to this Exposition, a man was silently murdering women and no one even noticed it was happening.

His name—well, actually the pseudonym he used—was H. H. Holmes, a clever deceiver who slyly constructed a building where he could carry out his depravity, complete with a soundproof room into which deadly gas could be released (shades of Hitler?) and his own furnace in the basement where bodies could be quietly disposed of.

He was America’s first serial killer.

This part of the tale is chilling, of course, and was one reason why I had always been reluctant to buy the book. I wondered if the author was just being a sensationalist, perhaps glorifying this man’s evil.

But that’s not the case.

Larson doesn’t glorify Holmes; neither does he go into gory details. What he does do is show how magnificence and depravity can exist side by side and how we can sometimes be completely unaware of what’s happening.

Holmes got his due. He was executed for his crimes, and Larson clearly shows the heroic nature of the detective, Frank Geyer, who relentlessly pursued the evidence that would convict Holmes.

The book is one of those page-turners: elegantly written, meticulously researched, and truly deserving of the accolades it has received. It’s what history writing ought to be—solidly fact-based, engaging, and respectful of Biblical morality and the consequences of sin.

You might want to get a copy for yourself.