Wednesday, March 16, 2011

PT Barnum and Joice Heth

You cannot spend much time in business, in business school or doing anything involving money without someone invoking PT Barnum's quote: "There's a sucker born every minute." This is a universal axiom if there ever was one.

One of the earliest of Barnum's schemes was a show he had in New York City where he presented Joice Heth, an 80 year old blind ex-slave who was almost completely paralyzed. He claimed that she was over 160 years old and was George Washington's nanny. She'd tell stories about Washington's youth and went into details about his childhood including the fabled story about the cherry tree. This was the year 1835 so a lot of Americans were very curious about our first president and would pay a lot of money for just a brief connection with him. Barnum was providing a service to meet their need ... right?

What is amazing about this story is that he even figured a way to make money off of this scheme once rumors become popular that the story was a fraud. He started to augment the rumor himself claiming that she was an actual machine, an android in modern terms. This made the crowds and profits even larger.

After she died a year later, he charged an admission fee to her public autopsy at a saloon with over 1500 spectators watching. When the surgeon revealed that she was probably only 80 years old or so, Barnum just acted incredulous claiming the body wasn't her. Business people haven't changed much. A modern equivalent of this scheme would be like a banker convincing a bunch of people without jobs or verifiable incomes to take out loans and then packaging those loans into an "investment" and then selling those loans for a profit. It is amazing what a good showman can do.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Henry Lee Lucas

For years I have been avoiding the horror film Henry: The Portrait of a Serial Killer. I know a couple of guys, my age, that tried to watch it one night and had to turn it off because they were too scared, "freaked out" I think are the words they used. Every time I walked by it in a video store, I'd say to myself not tonight. I don't think I am in the mood for that. Once I became a Netflix subscriber, I put it in the bottom of my very large queue. It came in the mail a few days ago and I watched it today. It is scary and quite gruesome, but very dated. This genre has been done so many times over since this film was made in 1986 that it is seems a little stale. One of things you notice is that the grisly murder scenes are shot in the same exact way as every other scene, no close-ups, no distorted angles ... very little manipulation is happening here. This makes it very real, too real, maybe, considering the subject matter. There is no formula followed in this film. No hero comes to save you, no comic relief, no young girl is left to battle the monster to a cheerful end. There is no hope. No excuses either. The director and screen writer make no attempt to explain why Henry is the way he is. Watching this, you are more likely a shocked observer than a watcher of entertainment and it is quite disturbing. Much of the criticism I have read about this film complain about it's lack of flash, "it is boring," or it's lack of redemption or any police involvement. All of these criticisms I find are its strength. When violence is done in film, it should not be with flash or style and should be shown as it really is: horrible, painful and senseless.

The film's director, John McNaughton, was given a shoestring budget of $100k to film a horror film on any subject of his choosing and in any method he'd like. He had never directed a horror film or any film. Prior to this, he was the delivery man for a video rental equipment company. He had no idea where to start. He then saw an episode of 20/20 on the killers Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole. Lucas confessed to over 600 murders while a drifter in the 1970's, but only 350 of them were actually ever linked to him. Over 100 of them he collaborated with Toole. The 20/20 episode was the first time McNaughton had ever heard the term serial killer. . McNaughton had his inspiration. Henry has been called America's first serial killer due to the fact that most Americans didn't even know what a serial killer was until this film came out.

Not much of the film is accurate. Henry had a glass eye. His girlfriend, Toole's sister, in real-life was 12 while she is a full grown woman in the film. McNaughton didn't want to put a young actress through the trauma of portraying her. Henry did most of his murdering in the American South from Florida to Texas (Surprise!) while the film takes place in Chicago. Why? Because McNaughton lived in Chicago. Most of the victims in the film are portrayed by unpaid volunteers, not actors. He simply asked his friends to help out. Henry and Otis met in Florida where Otis was a male prostitute. In the film, they meet in prison.

Henry is often called The Confession Killer because of the number of killings he confessed to. When he started to confess to these murders, he wasn't taken seriously until they noticed he had key information that only the killer would know. Because of this, he became famous and eventually very demanding. His demands included a television and VCR for his cell among other things. The Henry Lee Lucas Task Force was formed to research the confessions. Many of his confessions were lies causing the Texas police and FBI thousands of man-hours. McNaughton wanted to make the sequel, Henry II, about the task force but that film's producers only wanted another film about a bunch of other killings. It sounds like McNaughton's idea for a sequel might have been a good idea. Henry II was released in 1998 and I hear it is just an awful slasher film.

It took the original film four years to get by the censors. Originally the MPAA gave it an X rated, when the produced appealed this, they responded by giving it an XXX rating. It was finally released, due to so much critical appeal and festival fanfare, in 1990 with no rating at all. Several seconds of film were removed from the family massacre which I am probably grateful for. The scene is awful enough.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Jefferson's Moose

We hear a lot about Thomas Jefferson the writer, the politician, the philosopher and even the slave owner. But we don't hear a lot about Jefferson the scientist. The natural world was one of his obsessions, so much so that he kept a room in the White Room strictly dedicated to his collection of fossils. Among them were some of the recent fossils and bones of a mammoth. One of the reasons that Jefferson was obsessed is that he wanted to prove the famous French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wrong. This was such an obsession that it was mentioned in a eulogy at Jefferson's funeral.

Buffon wrote a fairly prominent article about "American degeneracy" where he claimed that natural objects, fauna, wild life and even people, in the New World were inferior to those of Eurorasia. He stated:
"That the animals common both to the old and new world, are smaller in the latter; that those peculiar to the new, are on a smaller scale; that those which have been domesticated in both, have degenerated in America; and that on the whole the New World exhibits fewer species."
He believed that the cold weather and the humidity resulted in smaller and inferior creatures. This probably arose from the fact that most of the French, when visiting the New World, visited Quebec (cold) or New Orelans (humid). He had a very limited dataset so he postulated incorrectly.

Jefferson was so incensed by this that, as President, sent 20 men into the forests of New Hampshire to find a bull moose. He ended up having a carcass shipped to France and Buffon retract his statements, but the idea of New World inferiority lived on for decades if not for centuries.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The White City Progeny

A few years ago, my wife and I were volunteering at Vermont Public Radio, answering the phone during a fund drive. While the phones were quiet, one of our favorite on-air personalities, George Thomas (the jazz DJ), stopped by for a chat. He had noticed that Beth was reading Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White City. We were fascinated to learn that Daniel Burnham, the main character in the book and the architect of the White City (1894's World's Fair grounds), was George's grandfather. How often does that happen? You pick up a non-fiction book and you discover that one of the amazing people discussed in the book is the grandfather of someone you know. How cool!

I picked up the book last month and starting reading. Of course, I knew that Burnham was George's grandfather, but then I realized that one of the other characters was the grandfather of someone else I knew. Again, how cool! When I lived in Boston, over a decade ago, I was a member of Ferry Wheelers Bicycle Club hosted by Ferris Wheels Bike Shop in Jamaica Plain. The first outing I ever went on with them was a bike ride from Jamaica Plain (Boston) to the town of Walpole to see the world's largest travelling Ferris Wheel. Why? Because the owner of Ferris Wheels, Jeffrey Ferris, was the grandson of George Ferris, the creator of the first Ferris Wheel.

The 1893 World's Fair, aka the World's Columbia Exposition, was a huge opportunity for Chicago and the United States to show their stuff. It was the 400 year anniversary of Columbus's landing in the new world so the US wanted to show the world that we could complete on the world stage. For the prior World's Fair, in Paris, the Eiffel Tower was built and awed the world. Burnham needed something to out do it. George Ferris's Chicago Wheel was it. It had 36 cars that were basically Pullman train cars. Each car could sit over 100 people, with seats over 60. It was the hit of the fair. It must have been amazing to see. It would put our regular run-of-the-mill carnival Ferris Wheel to shame.

Ferris Wheels are not the only American standard that came out of the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition. Out of the Fair came: shredded wheat, alternating current, chewing gum, Cracker Jacks, Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats, spray paint, zippers, hamburgers and the first time chocolate was mixed with caramel. The fair was such a success that the Federal Government introduced a new holiday called Columbus Day.