Sunday, July 24, 2011

A black cat crossed my path, and I stopped to dance around it widdershins

Witches. Old wrinkled ladies with warts on their noses, flying on broomsticks, with pointy hats and stripy socks. Everyone has seen old melty face herself, The Wicked Witch of the West, zipping around trying to steal red shoes. That's what witches are like right? Not really. But Witches and Witchcraft have fascinated and terrified people for decades, no time more so then during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692.

Salem, Massachusetts was a simple, staunch Puritan community where life was governed by the Church. Music, dancing, celebrations of Christmas and Easter were forbidden because they were believed to have Pagan roots. (Christmas and Easter do in fact have a strong connection with the Pagan religion, but that's a different blog) Toys and dolls were forbidden as well because they were seen as a waste of time. Sounds like a really happening place doesn't it? 

Enter Cotton Mather. Mather was a  minister of Boston's North Church (Not the same church we talked about in the Adventures of Paul Revere. What can I say? We didn't name stuff with much originality back in the day. Probably because of the lack of singing.) Mather was a firm believer in that witchcraft was alive and well and abound in the New World. He felt it was his duty to put an end to all witches. 

In 1692 Betty Parris, age 9, and Abigail Williams, age 11, began to have "fits".The girls threw things, screamed liked wicked little banshees, and contorted themselves into strange positions while crawling under furniture. (Sounds like a frat party I went to in my college years) A doctor could find no signs of disease, because you know little girls can't have fun or demand attention, so they must be sick or possessed. These little demons, pun intended, led the charge to one of the darkest hours in American History. 

The first three people accused were Sarah Osborne, a woman who rarely went to church meetings, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar which means of course she's a witch, and Tituba, an African slave would belonged to the Williams family.  Remember midwives and any single woman who practiced herbal healing was considered a witch as well. So for some of them the activities that caused them to be accused of witchcraft were actually meant to help the community. For many it became a death sentence. 

There were 'tests' the accused had to go through to prove their guilt or innocence. (I can't say women because Giles Corey was also accused, convicted, and crushed to death as a witch.) The dunking is the most famous of all the test. An accused was dunked in water while strapped to a chair. If you floated, you were a witch. If you didn't, you were innocence. Of course if you didn't float, you drown. So that was the down side. Not guilty but dead as a door nail. A grand total of 20 people died in the trials, all because of the paranoia of men like Cotton Mather and the whims of a few attention starved young girls. 

Were these people 'witches' ? Probably not in the sense we know the word to mean now. They did not practice Wicca or Paganism as modern witches do. However, some may have been workers of herbal medicine. Most worshiped the Puritan religions,with most likely Tituba being the exception. 

Salem has began to embrace it's history as America's Witch Trial spot and has become the home to a large Wiccan Community, including Laurie Cabot one of the religion's superstars. Halloween is a huge affair there with an annual Psychic fair and other haunted magical events. What a great way to take a bad history and make something magical out of it. 

Blessed be my blog readers. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Stop a bullet cold, Make the Axis fold

Who is the coolest comic book hero of all time? She is so cool she doesn't even get a new movie and David E. Kelley tried to turn her into a weeping PMS like chick in a plastic corset. She has an invisible jet. I'm can't see the jet. Don't ask me how she gets in it or finds it parked on the tarmac, because I just don't know. She has a lasso of truth and can stop bullets with some fancy jazz hands.

Did you guess Wonder Woman? You did? Then you're right. (Yes, I am a huge freaky Wonder Woman girl. So there) She is considered one of the D.C. Trinity.

Ok, I know what you're thinking. What does Wonder Woman have to do with American History? Well skeptical Sally, I'll tell you. Like Captain America and Superman, Wonder Woman was created during war times. She, like her male counterparts, became a symbol of truth, justice and the American way. (Too all the D.C. reps reading this blog sorry for the copyright infringement but come on there is no better way to put it.) Comic Books and some of the most popular heroes are an essential part of American History. Work with me here, people.

Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston. At the time the comic book market was dominated mainly by male superhores, The Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton for me please) and The Man of Steel leading the pack with Captain America coming in a close second. Green Lantern is in there somewhere but I never liked him anyway. Marston wanted to created a whole new type of hero, someone females could look up to. He wanted his hero to thrived off intelligence and love. Batman has a tendency to hang people of a build and Cap just blasts Red Skulls minions.

It was actually his wife who gave him the idea for that hero to be a woman. And so Wonder Woman a.k.a Diana Prince a.k.a Princess Diana was born. Marston wanted Wonder Woman's strength and brainpower to be something young girls could look at and strive for in their own lives. He wanted her to be "distinctly feminist role model whose mission was to bring the Amazon ideals of love, peace, and sexual equality to a world torn by the hatred of men." Not bad for a guy in the forties.

When Wonder Woman first appeared she was kicking Nazi butt, like ya' do. She was the Allied forces secret weapon, as secret as you can be in a red, white, and blue bathing suit. In the original comics she even had a skirt on that bathing suit bottom. Now she is clad in a blue jacket, red and gold top and dark pants. Personally, I think she looks like she held up a Hot Topic, but what do I know. I miss the bathing suit.

Ok so what is with the lasso of truth. Actually Marston also invented the polygraph. Yep, Wonder Woman's creator invented the lie detector test. He gave Wonder Woman the lasso as a type of polygraph for her to use on her enemies. Through his experiences on the polygraph Marston was convinced women were more honest and reliable than men. Thus Amazons on Paradise Island (No I am not making that up, in the early years of the comic book that was the name of Diana's homeland) had the power to extract the truth from their enemies utilizing the lasso.

One thing that separates Wonder Woman from her male counterparts is she has actually killed people in the comic books. Batman and Superman rarely ever kill, even if the villain deserves it. Wonder Woman never shys away from killing. She weighs the pros and cons but ultimately will do what is necessary.

In 1972, Gloria Steinem, famous feminist and champion of women's rights, placed Wonder Woman on the first standalone cover of Ms. magazine under the caption "Wonder Woman for President."

So you see how something that many people brush off as childish and a few silly lines of ink and color on some paper can really be an important piece of American Iconography. Wonder Woman was a champion for women's rights before the issue of women's rights ever really came into focus. What started as a way for every day Americans to defeat the Nazis and the evil lurking on their doorsteps, same with the boys of this club, morphed into something more.

In May of this year, IGN placed Wonder Woman 5th on their top 100 Comic Book Heroes of All Time. (For the record she beat out Captain America and Green Lantern) For me and many other young girls, she's number one.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I got bucked at The Mustang Ranch

Step right up boys and girls, it’s time for a little hometown history today on History’s Mistress. Nevada is a state with sweeping mountain ranges of blazing reds and startling browns and tans. It’s a state of wide open spaces and long stretches of desert plains. We have neon and glitter. We have coyotes and mountain lions. We have lakes and amazing blue vistas. We have sunsets that will knock you down on your ass with the sheer beauty of them. We also have legalized prostitution.

The Mustang Ranch, subject of the loosely based movie Love Ranch, is the oldest brothel in America as well as Nevada. It was opened in 1951 and called The Mustang Bridge Ranch. Prostitution was illegal in Storey County at the time but infractions were not always enforced. Most of Storey County, and sections of the state of Nevada for that matter, were and still are empty wide open spaces.

At this time the brothel was constructed of several double wide trailers. (When your intrepid blogger was on her way to college in Reno, My father and I passed a large double-wide in the middle of the desert painted pink with an enormous yellow chicken on its side. I asked my father, who was driving, what it was. He gave me an “are you kidding me” look and informed me it was a brothel. I was 18 at the time and despite living in Las Vegas for eight years I had never seen one before. I thought all brothels looked like Dolly Parton’s house in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. My education had begun.)

In 1967, Joe Conforte and his wife Sally took over the Mustang Bridge, renamed it simply The Mustang Ranch, and an infamous Nevada legend was born.  Storey County legalized prostitution in 1971, some say because of the influence of Conforte. Conforte owned a trailer park not far from the Ranch and kept the rents low as long as the tenants back any initiatives he might want support for. Also it was believed, but not proven, that he kept the local sheriff in his back pocket.  
In 1975, The Mustang burned to the ground. Most people believe it was arson. This did not deter Conforte at all who went ahead and rebuilt the ranch immediately. This time the building was not made up of double-wides and Conforte took this rebuild as a chance to introduce “theme rooms.” A safari room complete with Jacuzzi and its own sauna was one as well as the Italian room, an homage to Conforte himself, which was equipped with a $40,000 mirror. A princess room and a Jungle room were also available for parties. Elvis would have been proud.
In early ’76 the Washoe County grand jury investigate dgood old Joe and his madam wife Sally for unlawful influence but couldn’t find enough evidence to make any charges stick.
1976 proved to be an eventful year for the Confortes as boxer Oscar Bonavena was shot and killed outside the Ranch. The official report is that Joe’s bodyguard offed him, but general local consensus is that Joe himself shot the boxer in a rage for sleeping with Sally. Fun times at the Mustang.
After a series of court cases for tax evasion, bribery and extortion, Joe skipped the country and left the Mustang in the capable hands of Sally. Or so he thought. Sally filed for Bankruptcy in 1990. The Ranch was taken from the Confortes by the IRS, its doors padlocked and memorabilia sold off to pay the debt. The Mustang was sold to Mustang Properties, Inc then to A.G.E Enterprises. Both companies were found to be shell corporations owned by Joe Conforte.
It was opened once again at the end of 1990 but was padlocked once more in 1999.  Contrary to popular urban legend and strange email chain letter that was circulated at the time the Mustang was never run by the U.S. Government.
The Mustang Ranch is once again open for business in just outside Sparks, Nevada about 15 minutes from the Reno-Tahoe airport. It was bought by the current owners on eBay. No, I did not make that up and yes, you did read it right. They bought what is the possibly the most famous brothel in history on eBay.
Nothing is more scandalous, at least to some people, then a brothel.  So for fun let’s look at some of the rules the working girls had to adhere to back in the heyday of the brothel.
4. Girls are not allowed to read, knit, crochet, etc at any time in the parlor.
10. A man can have a 69 for $15.
11. No kissing and no butt.
18. No fidgeting in line.
Got to love Nevada!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Down on the corner of Hollywood and Crime...

Murder! Mayhem! Drunken Debauchery! No, I’m not talking about the Kardashian’s annual Christmas Party, I’m talking Hollyweird of yesteryear. Hollywood has always been a land of what’s going on and who’s doing it with whom. Seriously, modern day scandal-mongers have nothing on the days of old.

In the early heyday of Hollywood, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of Tinseltown’s favorite comedians. A large man, Arbuckle clocked in at 250 to 300 pounds and stood 5’10”. His stature helped to rocket him to success as he use it in his physical comedy. By 1921, Arbuckle signed a one million dollar contract with Paramount, the largest of its kind at the time.

In September 1921, Arbuckle took a break from his hectic shooting schedule and decided to get down and party with some friends. (It is worth noting that he was suffering from second degree burns on his butt from an accident on the set at the time. This has no bearing on the following scandal other than I think booty burns are kind of funny. ) He drove to San Francisco with two friends and rented three rooms in the St. Francis hotel.  

The party got started early with young starlets and dashing leading men, day players and questionable chaps from down the way all drinking bathtub hooch and dancing the hoochie-coochie. By three in the afternoon, Fatty excused himself in order to get dressed for sightseeing with friends.

Here’s where the story takes a nasty turn. One of the party guests happened to be a 26-year-old aspiring actress named Virginia Rappe. There are two conflicting stories as to what really happened to Rappe in those rooms. One story belongs to Bambina Maude Delmont. Delmont, a woman known for setting up celebrities in order to blackmail them(think of her as the precursor to paparazzi and Access Hollywood) stated she saw Arbuckle herd Rappe into the bedroom. She claimed he menacingly said, “I’ve waited for this a long time.”  A few minutes later Delmont claimed all the party heard screams coming from the other side of the door.  According to sister sledge, when Arbuckle exited the room Rappe was found naked and bleeding behind him.

Next up on wheel of honor, we have Fatty’s side of the tale. Fatty went into the room to change and found Rappe praying to the porcelain god in the bathroom. He helped clean her up and put her in bed to rest and returned to the party for help. Arbuckle claimed that when he returned with help, Rappe was tearing at her clothes. (This apparently was something she did when really hammered…which was often.) With others to “look after” Virginia, Fatty got dressed, headed out for sightseeing and then went home to La-La land.

Three days later Rappe was still experiencing stomach pains and was taken to the hospital. (She wasn’t taken earlier because her friends figured she was sick from the rot gut she had consumed at the party) She died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder, which was common in back alley abortions, and according to her friends Rappe had had such a procedure a few days earlier. Arbuckle was soon arrested and charged with the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe.

Those charges against Fatty spiraled out of control, thanks in part to William Randolph Hearst and his yellow journalism. The media portrayed Fatty as a gross lecher who used his weight to overpower innocent young girls and assaulted them. The newspapers first reported he tried to rape the girl by crushing her, then that he had had so much to drink he couldn’t get it up and had to utilize whatever was nearby. In some cases the papers said it was a champagne bottle. In other instances it was a coke bottle.

It took three trials for Fatty Arbuckle to be acquitted of all charges but his career never recovered. He directed some shorts under the name William Goodrich but rarely acted again. In 1932, he signed a contract to shoot two short films. After those were completed, he was signed by Warner Brothers in 1933 to a feature length film. The night he signed the contract, Fatty died of a heart attack in his sleep. He was only 46 years old.

The saddest part about Fatty Arbuckle’s tale is the sheer fact that no one really knows what happened. Some believe that Fatty was innocent as there was no evidence that Rappe was sexually assaulted. Fatty was known throughout the back lots as a gentle giant who was so shy he rarely raised his voice.

I guess we will never know what happened that day at the St. Francis and Fatty Arbuckle will continue to be a tale of murder and mystery to stand alongside the Black Dahlia or the death of Marilyn Monroe.

You can find the surviving films of Fatty Arbuckle on Netflix and Amazon. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Red, Reb, Rose

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…expect if you are Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow and you’re in a stinky Union prison.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a widowed woman from Maryland who was the toast of Washington D.C. society. She was also one of the Confederacy’s most renowned spies. Using her contacts in society, Rose exploited the fact that Union men spoke freely in front of her. Just another case of men discounting the intelligence and ingenuity of women. Southern President Jefferson Davis credited Rose with helping General G.T. Pierce Beauregard win the battle of Manassas. (Manassas is the Confederate name for the Battle of Bull Run.)

At the onset of the war our intrepid blog topic developed a close relationship with Lt. Colonel Thomas Jordan and the pair created a 26 symbol cipher that allowed Rose to pass information about the Union’s troop movements as well as any fortifications in Washington that might be able to be exploited by the South. In fact, Rose’s house was “within easy rifle-range of the White House” according to Beauregard. Now you have to remember that although Washington D.C. was the capital of the United States a.k.a the Union, the town is actually situated smack dab in the middle of the South. Richmond, the capital of the Confederate United States of America was right across the Potomac. Give or take a couple miles. (Trust me, if you say the name Beauregard in a faux southern accent it makes this blog even better.)

By July 1861 Alan Pinkerton, who was the head of the newly formed Secret Service, discovered Rose’s extracurricular activities and placed her under house arrest. Did that stop her? Heck no! Rose was not finished spying for her beloved Confederacy.  She continued passing any information she could glean to the other side of the Mason Dixon line. It was believed she was getting information from a powerful Massachusetts senator, Henry Wilson. He was an easy target because they were bumping uglies. Sex makes men stupid and chatty and Rose was hot, in that Civil War hoop skirt wearing kind of way.

Pinkerton decided to have her moved to the Old Capital Prison.  Most likely because he got frustrated with the inability to get her to stop spying and figured sticking her in prison would help. It didn’t. Rose still managed to send out information to the South, in many cases concealed in the bun of her female visitors. Lesson to the men reading this blog, chicks are really smart and we can fool you every time. Fed up with her, the Union banished Rose to the South, hypothesizing that she would do less harm to the Union cause if she was out of the North.

This sort of worked. Davis sent Rose to England to garner support for the Southern Cause. However on the way back to the United States, her ship was run aground in the Cape Fear River. (Not to be confused with the movie of the same name.) Rose and two other passengers attempted to escape via lifeboat, against the Captain’s wishes. The lifeboat capsized and Rose immediately sank, weighed down by the gold she carried, which was sown into the linings and layers of her clothing. Her body was rescued from the river the next morning and she was brought south for burial.

What is most interesting about Rose O’Neal Greenhow is the sheer fact that she was only a spy for a few short months before Pinkerton caught her. Sure, the intel she provided Beauregard helped him win Bull Run but in the grand scheme of the war, she really played a small part. But still, she was the South’s Wild Rose and will always be remembered as such.

See, chicks rock. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Mr. Revere's Wild Ride

There seems to be a lot being said about Paul Revere and his wild ride in the news and on T.V. lately. What with Sarah Palin’s interesting gaffe on what Paul Revere actually did to Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers singing ‘Me and Paul Revere’ at a Capital Fourth in D.C. (I recommend to anyone listen to the song. It is told from the point of view of the horse and wicked Americana at its best.)

Good old Paul was a respected watchmaker and silversmith. That was his vocation when he lived, breathed, and worked in Boston. That’s not however what he is most known for. So what did Paul Revere really do? Did he ride through the town shouting The British are coming? Did he stick a feather in his cap and call it macaroni?  Did his dance a jig in the middle of town in his smalls(underpants)?

In 1860 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem for the 100th anniversary of the crazy little horse bound jaunt of our blog topic today. Poems were what guys did back in the day to pick up chicks. OK not really but you can imagine it probably helped. “Hey baby let me buy you a drink…I wrote a poem about Paul Revere.” See, instant panty dropping stuff.

The most famous line in the poem is probably “If the British march by land or sea from the town tonight, hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch of the North Church tower as a signal light – one, if by land, and two, if by sea.” This line tells a little of what the heck Revere was really doing on the back of Larkin’s horse. In addition to being a silversmith, Paul Revere was a member of the Mechanics, a group of men organized to spy on those tea-drinking, crown lovers hanging out on our not-yet-free shores. Prior to the famous ride, Revere also worked as a courier of sorts carrying messages in 1774 and spring of 1775 up and down the colonies. (Some of you may remember this little line as being used to fool the bad guy in the movie National Treasure.)

Now here comes the fun part. On April 18th, 1775 Paul was sent for by Dr. Joseph Warren to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the British Grenadiers were coming to arrest them. Paul borrowed a horse from a man named Larkin and lit out for Lexington. However he did not ride through the town shouting “The British are coming” because frankly he wanted to keep it low-key and not draw too much attention to himself or the people he was trying to warn. Shouting through the town would have been like waving a big red flag and shouting “Hey you big British meanie heads come and get me.” Not good.  He actually went door to door warning the people of Lexington.  When he made it to the house where Adams and Hancock were staying, he told by a sentry, aka a British soldier, to stop making so much noise. To this Revere cheekily replied “You’ll have noise soon enough. The regulars are coming out!” Translation…we are going to kick your British fanny.

After warning Lexington, Paul decided to ride off and warn Concord as well. On this leg of the tour he was joined by William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott. Unfortunately, the trio never made it to Concord as they were caught and arrested. Prescott and Dawes escaped rather quickly but Revere was held for several hours before he was ultimately let go.

So as you can see, there was no macaroni in any one’s cape. There was no shouting like a drunken baboon about the British coming; frankly at this point everyone was still British as we hadn’t declared our independence yet. There were no ringing bells or warning shots fired. Just a man, a horse, and some good old fashioned Fuller Brush techniques coming to the rescue.  Not bad for a silversmith from Boston. 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

My name is Andrew Shepard and I am the president...

One of my favorite places to visit is Washington D.C. and one of my favorite films set in Washington is "The American President" starring the amazing Annette Benning and the talented Michael Douglas. Whenever I watch this film I am always struck with thoughts of the presidents that have come before...and their first ladies.

My very favorite first lady is the indomitable Eleanor Roosevelt. How can you not love a woman who said such insightful things like "No one can make you feel inferior without your permission" and "A woman is like a teabag, you never know how strong she is until her put her in hot water."

Old Eleanor, nicknamed granny by her own mother for being a rather homely thing, may have not been the most glamorous first lady our snazzy little country has ever been graced with, she is in fact perhaps one of the most amazing.

The biggest scandal to hit Eleanor's life was her husband FDR'S affair with her social secretary Lucy Mercer. The affair happened over several years, most accounts place the beginning of the affair between New Deal boy and little miss hot pants at around 1914, and supposedly ended in 1918 when Eleanor found some love letters. Eleanor made him promise to never seen Lucy again and for that little consolation she would stay married to him. However, when FDR died in April 1945, he was with Lucy Mercer. So much for keeping his promise. Just another case of older man, younger woman getting busy and him dying of a cerebral hemorrhage. To add insult to injury, Eleanor found out that their daughter Anna was helping her father sneak around with "the other woman." Still, Eleanor did what was expected of a dutiful wife and stood beside the coffin. She is even buried next to him in the Roosevelt Hyde Park home. (FDR also had an affair while in office with his assistant Missy LeHand..."Mister President I don't want to push your wheelchair.")

Another speculative hanky panky scandal associated with one America's most formidable ladies is the thought she was in fact lesbian and was carrying on an affair of her own with journalist  Lorena 'Hick' Hickok. While there is not evidence that such an affair actually occurred, many historians look at Eleanor's busy schedule as evidence that she didn't have time for any kind of affair, Hick did in fact live in the White House for years in a room right across from Eleanor.

What makes Nell so great? Well, she was truly a woman ahead of her time. She was a champion  of Women's Rights and Civil Rights. In 1939 opera singer Marian Anderson was scheduled to sing a concert at Constitution Hall. The Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the woman sing...because she was black. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her post immediately upon hearing the news. Now any other woman would have been happy to leave it at that. Not Eleanor. She went on to sponsor a concert for Anderson anyway...on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Go Eleanor and Go Marian!

Plus to top all that cool stuff, she served hot dogs to the King and Queen of England when they visited the White House. (For those of you keeping score, the King and Queen in questioned are the one portrayed with aplomb by Helena Bohman Carter and Colin Firth in 'The King's Speech')

So I hope this gives you a taste of one of the coolest ladies in American History and why I love her. She is a role model for the ages and one seriously bad-ass chick.

(Fun little side note, the theme from "The American President" was used at the funeral of Ronald Reagan.)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Dirty Birdie Intro...

I am having an affair. It's dirty. It's lusty. It's tawdry and wild and wanton. And it's been going on for years...decades even. My lover is rich and full-bodied, and oh so naughty. My lover is...History.

That's right. I love me some history. I find history fascinating. It's a whole new world of goodies waiting for you to check out. 

Think about it, by looking at history and learning all the fun facts and funky stories, you get a secret look into the lives of people who came before. In the case of American History, we get a chance to see what happened to make us who we are today. Pretty cool, right?

Plus history is chocked full of dirty stories, sex scandals, and murders galore. In this blog, each post will deal with a topic and we will explore what makes that sliver of history so fun. 

So get ready, pull up the page, and rock out history style. I am perfectly happy sharing my lover with you.