Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America

Khalid Elhassan - October 26, 2023

America could have had herds of wild elephants roaming its wilderness today. To the dismay of pachyderm lovers, however, it never came to be, because of a decision by President Lincoln. Thanks a lot, Honest Abe. Below are twenty five things about that and other fascinating but lesser known decisions and events that shaped America and impacted the lives of prominent Americans.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Rama IV, as depicted in ‘The King and I’. Movies Anywhere

The Real Life King from The King and I Offered to Populate America With Elephants

Other than in his home country, relatively few people these days know of King Mongkut, titled Rama IV of Siam. Of those who recognize the name, most probably recall it as that of a character in The King and I, a 1950s musical remade into a movie about his (fictionalized) relationship with English governess Anna Leonowens. Rama IV (1804 – 1868) was actaully a real life nineteenth century monarch who ruled Siam, now Thailand, from 1851 until his death in 1868.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
King Rama IV. Wikimedia

A modernizer, King Rama IV opened his kingdom to Western influences, and initiated the cultural and technological modernization of Siam. So much so that he became known as “The Father of Science and Technology” in his country. His modernization held off Western encroachments – at least temporarily. He sought recognition as an equal among the world’s rulers, and corresponded with many of them. As seen below, in one of those correspondences with a US president, he offered to populate America with herds of elephants.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Nineteenth century Siamese troops, with war elephants behind them. Pinterest

Lincoln is the Reason Why America Doesn’t Have Elephants

New American presidents routinely receive diplomatic congratulations and gifts. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln received an extraordinary overture: an offer from King Rama IV of Siam to populate America with wild Asian elephants. The offer came as part of a package that included huge elephant tusks, an expensive handmade sword, and photos of the Siamese monarch and his daughter. The gifts, sent before the results of the 1860 US presidential election were known in Siam, were not meant for Lincoln per se, but were sent to “whomsoever the people have elected anew as chief ruler in place of President Buchanan“. Elephants were and remain valuable beasts of burden in Asia, and in a letter, the king offered them to America. He would send young male and female pachyderms, who could be turned loose to breed in America’s wilderness. As he put it:

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Abraham Lincoln said “no” to populating America with wild elephants. PETA

“[A]fter a while they will increase till there be large herds as there are here on the continent of Asia until the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them of benefit to the country“. Lincoln wrote back to politely decline the offer: “This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States. Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce“. Imagine: but for that refusal, America today might have herds of wild elephants roaming free in its forests and wilderness.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
The Statue of Liberty. History Network

The Statue That Defines America

The Statue of Liberty has long been an icon of freedom and of the United States. Nowadays, the highest point that the public can access is its crown, but that’s not how it always was. For the first few decades after it was erected, visitors could go up the statue’s upraised arm, until they reached its torch. That ended in 1916, because of the first foreign terror attack on American soil. The torch has been inaccessible to the public ever since. For that, we have Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to blame.

It happened on Black Tom Island, an artificial landfill in New York’s Harbor, just off the New Jersey shore and next to Liberty Island, home of the famous statue. In the early twentieth century, Black Tom housed one of the East Coast’s biggest munitions depots. When World War I started, its warehouses could barely keep up with the combatant’s orders for munitions. One combatant who did not like that was Imperial Germany, who as seen below, decided to do something about it.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
The Statue of Liberty in 1912, with Black Tom Island in the background, to the right. New York Public Library

The Kaiser is Why Tourists Can’t Access the Statue of Liberty’s Torch

Technically, both sides in WWI were equally free to buy American munitions. In practice, however, only the Entente, whose navies controlled the sea lanes, could ship munitions from America to their armies. So the Germans sent saboteurs to America to disrupt the delivery of munitions. On the night of July 30th, 1916, Black Tom Island had about two million pounds of artillery and small arms munitions in freight trains and barges. Sometime after midnight, guards noticed a series of small fires on the piers. Aware of the risk of explosion, they took to their heels.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Aftermath of the Black Tom Island explosion. National Park Service

At 2:08 AM, July 30th, 1916, a massive explosion rocketed debris for over a mile, shattered windows up to 25 miles away, and caused about half a billion dollars in damages. The actual death toll is unknown, as there were many housing barges nearby, and many victims were probably incinerated. The blast and debris struck the Statue of Liberty, and popped rivets in its upraised arm holding the torch. That part of the statue has been closed to the public ever since.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Nineteenth century courtship, in the presence of a chaperone. Bridgeman Images

Nineteenth Century Romance in America

The nineteenth century is often perceived as a particularly uptight epoch of stifling social mores, and extreme prudishness. Compared to what had gone on before and what came after, it was a buzzkill period, at least for young people. Far as interactions between the sexes, especially interactions that involved unmarried young women, the fixation on propriety was not conducive to romance. The era’s courtship rituals did not lend themselves to spontaneity. Especially with ever present and often dour chaperons who cast a baleful eye upon all young men in the vicinity.

With such social dragons on guard, aspiring beaus found it difficult to even approach the objects of their desire, let alone romance and sweep them off their feet. So men discretely slipped young women “escort cards” when their chaperones were distracted. Such “escort cards” were not business cards, with the contact information of those who offered sexual favors for money. Instead, they were printed cards that allowed nineteenth century guys to cheekily get around the rigid rules of social interaction between the sexes, and ask a woman if they could, literally, escort her home.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
An escort card. National Public Radio

Gilded Age Tinder

Nineteenth century escort cards often inquired: “May I see you home?” Some abbreviated that along the lines of “May I.C.U Home?” Others went for cute rhymes like “If You Have No Objection, I Will Be Your Protection“. Yet others simply got down to the point: “Not Married And Out For a Good Time“. Romantic – or randy – men needed to bypass social mores that frowned upon guys simply approaching women with whom they were unacquainted. Hence, escort cards. If the woman was piqued enough to want to read it, she might hide it inside her glove or fan. The cards cost about a penny each, so young men – especially those who cast their net as wide as possible – tried to recycle. Some asked that the cards be returned if the woman was not interested.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
A reusable escort card. Imgur

If she was interested, the era had a romance code between the sexes, to surreptitiously communicate without alerting a young woman’s chaperone. Different winks, based on their number, which eye was used, and the kind of eye motion, could mean different things, from compliments, to warnings, to declarations of love or hatred. It seems pretty tame by modern standards, but in America back then, parents were greatly alarmed about such secret communications. They feared, often with reason, that the wrong kind of man with the wrong kind of intentions could lead an innocent young woman astray.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Benjamin Rush. National Library of Medicine

The Founding Fathers’ Other Benjamin

Benjamin Rush (1746 – 1813) was not a famous Founding Father. He was not even the most famous Benjamin of the bunch. Still, he was famous enough in the America of his day. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush was a politician, doctor, humanitarian, social reformer, educator, and the founder of Dickinson College. In the American War of Independence, he served as Surgeon General of the Continental Army. Rush was an antislavery activist, and by the era’s standards, he was as liberal as it gets. However, his quest for racial justice took him down some odd paths. For example, he argued that blacks deserved freedom and equality because they were actually white people – just ones with a weird illness.

Rush reasoned that black people were whites afflicted with a leprosy that darkened their skins, enlarged their lips, and turned their hair woolly. He even coined a term for the disease: “negritude”. To end discrimination, he advocated a cure that would rid blacks of their supposed illness, and transform them back into whites: acid. Rush wanted to “burn away the black” with acids, to remove the dark skin and woolly hair, and reveal the wholesome and healthy whiteness beneath. The man wanted to help – and it should be remembered that he was an implacable foe of slavery and an early advocate of abolition. However, it is a good thing that his “cure” for blackness was not adopted.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
A Davy Crockett. Gizmodo

When America Fielded Nuclear Bazookas

Atomic bazookas are as “America” as America gets, and in the Cold War we developed and deployed them. The Davy Crockett Weapon System was a smoothbore recoilless rifle that fired a tactical nuclear explosive. The M-28 version had a range of 1.25 miles, and the M-29 version doubled that, with a range of up to 2.5 miles. Developed in the 1950s, over 2000 Davy Crocketts and their launch systems were deployed in West Germany and Korea from 1961 to 1971. The weapon was notoriously inaccurate – although in light of its warhead, pinpoint accuracy was not a necessity.

The Davy Crockett’s deadliness stemmed more from its radioactivity than from its explosive yield. The warhead produced an instantly lethal dose of radiation within a 500 foot radius, and an incapacitating and likely fatal dose within a quarter mile. As such, the weapon was more of a broad area radiation dispenser than a surgical smart bomb. In addition to the long term contamination hazard, it was dangerous to its own users. The firing team and other NATO personnel nearby could fall victim to radiation from their own side’s nuke.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
A Davy Crockett launcher on a Jeep. Pinterest

Three Soldiers Running Around With a Nuke

Lethal radiation to one’s own side was bad enough. However, the Davy Crockett’s greatest danger was the fact that it was deployed at all – and very low down the chain of command at that. The weapon was placed under the control of three soldiers in a Jeep. In practice, in the heat and confusion of battle, they would have been able to fire a nuclear weapon it at their own discretion. Shockingly, it took ten years before the Pentagon reasoned that it might be unwise to give a lieutenant, a sergeant, and a corporal, the ability to initiate what might escalate into a global nuclear holocaust.

The West Germans in particular were enthusiastic about deploying the Davy Crockett with their ground forces. However, they were turned down by the US: the manner in which they proposed to incorporate the weapon into their defensive strategy would have made its use nearly automatic as soon as war began. That was undesirable, because it would have eliminated NATO’s option to fight without nuclear weapons, and the risk of an escalation from tactical nukes in the battlefield to a worldwide nuclear Armageddon.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Frank Reno. True West Magazine

The Notorious Reno Brothers

Frank Reno (1837 – 1868) was raised in Jackson County, Indiana, by strictly religious parents who made their children observe all the strictures, attend church regularly, and spend their Sundays in Bible study. It backfired with Frank and his younger brother, John, who rebelled and turned bad. By their early teens, the brothers were notorious delinquents. They drank, brawled, cheated travelers in crooked card games, and were suspected by the community of horse theft and a series of arsons around the county.

To avoid a backlash, their father took Frank and John and two other sons to live in Missouri for a few years. They returned to Indiana in 1860, but they had not been forgotten. To escape angry neighbors, Frank and John enlisted when the Civil War broke out. They became serial bounty jumpers. The brothers would join a regiment to collect enlistment bonuses, which steadily grew as the war progressed, and desert at the earliest opportunity. They then enlisted in another regiment elsewhere with fake names to collect more enlistment bonuses, and repeated the cycle.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
A Reno Gang train robbery. Daily Telegraph

America Had These Siblings to Thank for its First Peacetime Train Robbery

Frank Reno returned home in 1864, and with his brother John and a collection of horse thieves, safe crackers, counterfeiters, gamblers and other ne’er do wells, formed the Reno Gang. They started off with post office and store robberies in southern Indiana. Frank and two gang members were arrested, but released on bail. One agreed to testify against Frank, but was murdered before the trial, and Frank was acquitted. After the acquittal, Frank and his gang grew more violent. They effectively took over the small town of Rockford Indiana, whose Rader House hotel became their headquarters, and robbed and murdered unwary travelers who checked in. They soon expanded their reach and ambition, and began to rob trains and banks, and raid communities throughout the Midwest.

After the gang’s first train robbery in 1866 – America’s first peacetime train robbery – a passenger identified Frank’s brother, John, and two other gang members, who were arrested. The witness was shot dead soon thereafter, at which point the other passengers refused to testify and the charges were dropped. In 1867, the Reno Gang demonstrated its disdain for the law when it attacked and robbed a county courthouse in Missouri. For that crime, Frank’s brother, John, was eventually convicted and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. A vigilante group formed to hunt down the gang, so in early 1868 they fled to Iowa. There, they attacked and robbed two county treasuries on successive days.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
A Reno Gang train robbery. History Network

The End of the Reno Gang

The Reno Gang were arrested, but they broke out of jail and fled back to Indiana. There, they resumed train robberies, one of which netted them $96,000, a princely sum that gained the gang worldwide fame. Pinkerton Agency detectives learned of Frank Reno’s plans to rob another train. Forewarned, they staged an ambush, and soon as the gang boarded the train on July 9th, 1868, the detectives opened fire. Most of the gang escaped, but a captured member identified two others, who were arrested the next day. The train that was supposed to take them to jail in Seymour, Indiana, was stopped by masked vigilantes, who lynched the three prisoners by hanging them from a nearby tree.

Three more gang members were captured soon thereafter. The train that took them to the Seymour jail was again stopped by vigilantes, who hung the prisoners from the same tree. Ever since, the grisly site became known as Hangman’s Crossing. Frank Reno fled to Canada, but he was captured in Ontario and extradited back to America, where he was held with three other gang members in the Floyd County, Indiana, jail. On the night of December 11th, 1868, scores of masked vigilantes marched on the jail and forced the jailer to surrender the keys. Frank Reno was dragged from his cell in the early hours and lynched, followed soon thereafter by the rest of his criminal cronies.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
‘The Landing of the Pilgrims’, by Henry A. Bacon, 1877. Wikimedia

Did the Pilgrims Really Land at Plymouth Rock?

The Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower made it to Massachusetts (their initial destination had been the Virginia Colony) in December, 1620. They landed at Plymouth Rock, which became an object of reverence associated with the earliest history and origins of America. French traveler and author Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835: “This Rock is become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns of the Union. Does not this sufficiently show that all human power and greatness is in the soul of man? Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant, and this stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation, its very dust is shared as a relic“.

Souvenir hunters broke off pieces of the granite stone over the years, until all that is left today is about a third of what had originally weighed around 20,000 pounds. But did the Pilgrims even make landfall there? There are two surviving firsthand accounts of the Pilgrims’ arrival and the foundation of their colony. Neither of them mentions what we know today as Plymouth Rock. Indeed, for more than a century, the rock was not mentioned in any known records. It was not until 1741, 121 years after the Pilgrims landed, that a 94-year-old descendant of a Pilgrim who arrived in 1623 reported that the rock was where the original settlers had landed. In light of that, the narrative of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock might just be a myth.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
A nineteenth century seance. The Atlantic

When Seances Were All the Rage in America

In nineteenth century America and Europe, a myth about the ability of mediums to communicate with the dead grew in popularity. Seances – attempts to communicate with the spirits – were one of history’s more macabre pastimes. From the mid-1800s through the 1920s, a rise in spiritualism led to an increased belief in the feasibility of communications with the deceased. So seances became a growth industry, and mediums who claimed an ability to contact and speak with the spirits of the departed proliferated.

Attempts to contact and communicate with the dead have been made since the dawn of recorded history. Those who claim an ability to speak with the departed often elicit extreme reactions. Believers think they offer comfort to the bereaved, while skeptics view them as despicable predators, out to exploit the bereaved. The Bible falls in the latter camp: Leviticus expressly forbids the use of mediums. The rise of Christianity caused mediums to nearly vanish for centuries, but as seen below, they made a comeback in the late nineteenth century.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
A nineteenth century seance. The Old Operating Theater

Nineteenth Century America Was an Intellectually Turbulent Time

Religion and rationality, faith and science, clashed as never before in nineteenth century America. It was an intellectually turbulent time, in which new ideas such as the theory of evolution challenged long held religious assumptions. Against that backdrop, many turned to the supernatural for reassurance and comfort. Mediums met the desire for the supernatural with popular performances that included ghostly materialization, ectoplasm, table rapping, and other spooky stuff. People ate it up. Audiences ranged from big enough to fill huge theaters, eager for a spectacle, to small ones at intimate private gatherings of bereaved family members and friends, desperate to commune with a recently deceased loved one.

Needless to say, mediums had no ability to actually communicate with the dead. Seances were either outright scams by cynical charlatans and con artists who exploited the gullible and the grieving, or pious fraud by spiritualists who sought to enhance faith in their belief by any means available. It started in Upstate New York, in 1848. There, two young girls, Maggie and Katie Fox, convinced their parents and neighbors that they could communicate with the dead, who answered questions with a series of knocks. Of course, the knocks were not actually made by the deceased, but by the girls.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
The Fox sisters, from left to right, Maggie, Katie, and Leah. Library of Congress

The Birth of the Séance Craze That Swept America

The Fox sisters’ séances began as a prank. However, they turned serious when an older sister of Katie and Maggie Fox, Leah, saw the potential for profit. So she began to book her younger siblings for sessions with people who were eager to pay for a chance to communicate with their departed loved ones. The girls’ act took off, and soon Maggie and Katie Fox began to tour America. They kept it up for decades. Other charlatans saw the Fox sisters’ success, jumped in on the act, and claimed to be mediums themselves.

Finally, in 1888, a guilt-stricken Maggie Fox confessed to the fraud, and let the world know that it was all a sham. She demonstrated to an audience just how she and her sister had produced the knocks, with her big toe against a poorly balanced stool. That should have put the kibosh on séances, but it did not. Even after the con’s originator confessed that it was a con, and demonstrated how the con had been performed, the conned continued to believe in the con. Spiritualism and seances took a hit, but quickly rebounded and became even more popular.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Gouverneur Morris. History Network

The Founding Father Who Stuck a Whalebone Up His Manhood

Gouverneur Morris (1752 – 1816) became known as the “Penman of the Constitution” after he wrote its Preamble. He was also a passionate opponent of slavery. Morris particularly loathed the constitution’s Three-Fifths Clause, which boosted the representation of slave states. As he put it: “The inhabitant of Georgia and S.C. who goes to the coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice“. Morris was also a randy goat, who couldn’t keep it in his pants.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Whale baleen. Silhouettes Costumes

Morris’s many lovers included mistresses of Prussian and French royalty, Italian noblewomen, and German bankers’ wives. He lost a leg when he fled from a cuckolded husband, either because he jumped straight off the bed and out a second floor window, or because he was struck by a carriage in his flight. A lost leg did not slow down Morris’ fornication, which prompted John Jay to say: “I almost wish he had lost something else“. Fast forward three decades, and Morris’ affairs had left him with a severe urethral obstruction: his male member was all clogged up. In his desperation for something to clear up the clog, he turned to a drastic treatment. He broke off a bit of whalebone baleen from his wife’s corset, stuck it up his urethra, and twirled it around. The baleen barbs shredded him from the inside, and he died from the resultant infection.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Media coverage of the 1919 anarchist bombings. New York Tribune

When America Lost its Head Over Anarchist Fears

Many know of the 1950s Red Scare, when demagogues like Senator Joseph McCarthy whipped America into a panic over communism. Many careers and lives were ruined in modern witch hunts, as those suspected of communism – or those simply accused of being communist even though they were not – were persecuted, boycotted, and blacklisted. However, that 1950s panic was not the only time that America went into an anticommunist hysteria. The country had experienced another Red Scare, just as intense but far less known today, in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Early twentieth century America widely feared radical leftists. Once America joined the war, many conscientious objectors were locked up. By the end of WWI, fears of radicalism combined with distrust of foreigners in general, whom Americans blamed for the war.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Poster for a 1919 propaganda film, ‘Bolshevism on Trial’. Select Pictures

The recent – and bloody – Bolshevik Revolution in Russia did not help. Things got worse when followers of an Italian anarchist sent dozens of mail bombs to prominent Americans in April, 1919. Two months later, on June 2nd, the anarchists set off nine bombs in eight cities across the country. They were accompanied by flyers that read: “War, Class war, and you were the first to wage it under the cover of the powerful institutions you call order, in the darkness of your laws. There will have to be bloodshed; we will not dodge; there will have to be murder: we will kill, because it is necessary; there will have to be destruction; we will destroy to rid the world of your tyrannical institutions“. A major panic that came to be known as the First Red Scare swept America.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
America kept its wartime conscientious objectors locked up, even after WWI ended. University of Michigan

America Was Pretty Tense in 1919

The summer of 1919 was tense in America. The Spanish flu would eventually kill as many Americans as Covid-19, in a population about a third the size of 2023’s, race riots raged, and strikes abounded. Add anarchist bombings, and many began to imagine a vast communist conspiracy to tip America over into revolution. In response, US Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, whom anarchists had tried to bomb twice in 1919, set out to suppress radical organizations. From late 1919 through early 1920, he organized nationwide police actions that came to be known as the Palmer Raids. Wartime laws such as the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 had criminalized many forms of speech. The Sedition Act in particular had criminalized disloyal language, whether spoken or written, against the US government.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Some of those rounded up by Attorney General Palmer. Pinterest

With many Americans terrified of a Bolshevik-style revolution, Palmer weaponized those statues to go after radicals. As tensions mounted, he startled the House Appropriations Committee with alarmist testimony. Palmer falsely stated that radicals planned to “rise up and destroy the government in one fell swoop“. He requested a huge budget increase to prevent that, but the committee eventually gave him only 5% of what he had asked for. Thwarted but undaunted, Palmer ordered the arrest of a New York anarchist group, and charged them under a Civil War law. A federal judge swiftly tossed out the case on grounds that the defendants wanted to change the government through their free speech rights, not violence. Criminal statutes did not get Palmer what he wanted, so he turned to immigration laws.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Attorney General Mitchell Palmer. ThoughtCo

A Wave of Government Abuses Swept America, and Birthed the ACLU

The realization that the penal code did not furnish him with the tools he wanted did not stop Attorney General Palmer for long. He turned to Plan B: the use of immigration law to go after alien leftists, who could be deported regardless of whether they were violent or not. A 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover was ordered to investigate and identify the targets. That November, Palmer oversaw a nationwide police dragnet that went after labor activists, socialists, communists, and anarchists. The operation particularly focused on Eastern European Jews and Italian immigrants, and sought to deport them along with other “undesirable” foreigners. Basic civil rights were ignored, and Hoover later admitted to “clear cases of brutality“.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Contemporary coverage of the Palmer Raids. Connecticut Explored

Roughly 10,000 were rounded up across the country, of whom approximately 3500 were held in detention. Eventually, 556 resident aliens and naturalized citizens were deported. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded in response to the raids. It released a report that carefully documented illegal arrests, entrapment, and unlawful detentions. At the time, however, most of the country, still in grip of panic and a Red Scare, applauded the Palmer Raids. Finally, in June, 1920, a federal judge decried the Department of Justice’s actions, and ordered the release of seventeen detained aliens. He wrote: “a mob is a mob, whether made up of Government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals and loafers and the vicious classes“. That finally brought the raids to an end.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Jewish immigrants arrive at Ellis Island, 1910. Imgur

Ellis Island Myths

Ellis Island, America’s most famous immigration station, processed more than twelve million immigrants between 1892 and 1954. In popular culture and many families’ lore, Ellis Island is where many immigrants had their family names changed. Immigration officials, who often could not pronounce, let alone spell, many foreign names, supposedly changed them arbitrarily to something that sounded more Anglo-Saxon. It never happened. Immigrants did not have their names changed at Ellis Island. For starters, inspectors there did not even write down the names of immigrants. Immigration officials did not create records of immigrants, so there was no need to come up with any presumably easier-to-spell names.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Italian immigrants at Ellis Island. My Lawyer in Italy

There were no visas back then, so immigration officials simply went by ship passenger manifests that had already been filled out at the port of embarkation. Immigrants simply stood before an immigration clerk who had a ship manifest open before him, and answered his questions. The clerk did not write down names. He simply wanted to make sure that the answers matched the information in the ship’s manifest. Agents who filled out ship manifests when immigrants boarded ship simply went by whatever the immigrant told them. It was at that point that some immigrants changed their names to a more Anglo one. More often, immigrants changed their names after they arrived in the US to sound more American, and fit in better. There was no official name change process back then: somebody would just start to use a different name, and that was it.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Hippos. Flickr

Hippos in America

America faced a meat shortage in the early twentieth century. As the population burgeoned, the price of beef skyrocketed as industry struggled to meet increased demand. Between natural increase and waves of new immigrants, America had many more mouths to feed, and many of those mouths wanted meat. Unfortunately, while that was going on, cattle ranges had been ruined by decades of overgrazing, herds shrank, and the number of cows in the country dropped by millions every year. What came to be known as the “Meat Question” was a serious issue at the time, never far from the minds of consumers, pundits, and politicians. Things seemed so dire, that there was even serious talk of a potential famine unless a solution was found.

Against that backdrop, somebody had a bright idea: hippopotamuses. Why not import hippos from Africa, set them loose in the Gulf Coast’s deltas and swamplands, and eat them? Hippos were full of blubbery goodness, so why not turn America into a nation of hippo ranchers? To many, that seemed like a great answer to the Meat Question. A US Department of Agriculture researcher figured that the answer to the country’s meat shortage lay in the exploitation of unproductive lands to produce food. Gulf Coast swamps were highly unproductive, but that could change if hippos were introduced there. Free range hippopotamuses set loose in the bayous, especially those of Louisiana, could easily yield a million tons of meat per year.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Serious plans were made to feed Americans hippopotamus meat. Weird Universe

Ranching Hippos in America

The notion of ranching hippos in America sounded crazy, but many thought it was necessary. The New York Times gushed about how fatty hippo meat could be cured into “lake cow bacon“. A Washington Post editorial noted that eating crabs and raw oysters was no less weird than eating hippo meat, but people did it all the time. It added: “Proposals which at first may look odd and chimerical to the mass of our readers will be seen to be matter-of-fact propositions when they become familiar“. Another publication endorsed the plan: “This animal, homely as a steam-roller, [is] the embodiment of salvation … Peace, plenty, and contentment lie before us; and a new life, with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigor, new romance, folded in that golden future when the meadows and the bayous of our Southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami“.

Teddy Roosevelt was one of many prominent Americans who endorsed the plan to ranch hippos. In 1910, a Louisiana congressman introduced HR 23261, which came to be known as “The Hippo Bill”. Louisiana seemed particularly suitable. Its waterways were clogged by invasive hyacinths, and hippos would gorge on them. They would thus clear the waterways, and simultaneously furnish Americans with millions of tons of meat. Gulf Coast hippos would also end Chicago’s monopoly on meat packing, a desirable outcome for much of the rest of America. Unfortunately – or fortunately – the Hippo Bill languished in committee. Then World War I broke out a few years later, and it took attention away from the plan. The Meat Question was eventually answered in a less spectacular way than setting hippos loose in Louisiana’s and the Gulf Coast’s bayous. The Department of Agriculture simply expanded pastures, and cattle ranchers stocked them with boring cows.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
The Brooklyn Theatre. Bowery Boys History

A Tragic Theater Fire

About a thousand playgoers were crammed into the Brooklyn Theatre on the night of December 5th, 1876, to enjoy The Two Orphans, one of the nineteenth century’s more successful melodramas. All was normal until the intermission between the fourth and fifth acts, around 11 PM. With the curtain down, the orchestra played, and the actors and stage personnel prepared for the next act. As the theatergoers waited for the play to recommence, they heard shouts and what sounded like a brawl on the stage behind the lowered curtain. It was the start of a tragic disaster.

Some scenery offstage had been set alight by a lamp, and theater carpenters who first spotted the flames tried to beat out and smother it. That did not work, and the fire spread. As the curtains rose for the final act, backstage employees tried to bring the fire under control. At this point, the most commonsensical course of action would have been to tell the audience to exit the theater, since it was on fire and all. However, some folk overthought things. They figured that telling the theatergoers about the fire could cause a panicked rush to the exits, and lead to disaster. So they decided to downplay the danger – and brought about an even greater disaster.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
The Brooklyn Theatre fire. Harper’s Weekly

Shouting “Fire!” in a Crowded Theater is OK if There is an Actual Fire

Flames swiftly spread backstage in the Brooklyn Theatre. However, some crewmembers decided that the greater danger was not the fire, but panic among the audience. So the actors continued their performance, and downplayed the risk. As the fire spread, two actors urged the audience to stay in their seats. As the smoke and flames became obvious, a theatergoer yelled: “Fire! Fire! The house is on fire!” Lead actress Kate Claxton tried to calm things down, and stated: “There is no danger. The flames are part of the play“. No sooner did she say that, than a piece of burning wood fell at her feet. Claxton screamed in terror as she jumped back. The audience reacted with the very panic that the crew wanted to prevent. Those in the balcony stampeded for the stairs, and many were crushed in the process.

Wildly Bizarre Decisions that Shaped Early America
Aftermath of the Brooklyn Theatre fire. Brooklyn Public Library

The Brooklyn Theatre did not have enough exits to swiftly evacuate a thousand panicked theatergoers. To relieve the pressure, an usher opened a rarely used backstage door. Some managed to escape that way, but it worsened the disaster: it increased the airflow to the stage and fed the fire, which swiftly grew in intensity. Those in the cheap seats highest up had it worst of all. They were trapped in dark foyers and difficult-to-navigate stairs. Backstage, some actors made it out, but others stopped at the dressing rooms to change, were trapped, and perished in the disaster. Many fell to their deaths from the balconies, were crushed, suffocated from the smoke, or were burned to death. The official tally was 278 deaths, but some accounts reported more than 300 fatalities.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Battlefield Trust – Lincoln Rejects the King of Siam’s Offer of Elephants

Atavist – American Hippopotamus: A Bracing and Eccentric Epic of Espionage and Hippos

Avrich, Paul – Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (1991)

Brooklyn Eagle, December 20th, 1876 – The Inquest: How Three Hundred People Met Their Death

Cannato, Vincent J. – American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (2009)

Cracked – 3 Small, Random Decisions That Shaped America in Insane Ways

Damn Interesting – Davy Crockett: King of the Atomic Frontier

Dickinson College – Benjamin Rush, Race, Slavery, and Abolitionism

Dunninger, Joseph – Inside the Medium’s Cabinet (1935)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Gouverneur Morris

Emerging Civil War – Reality vs Myth Regarding Abraham Lincoln’s War Elephants

FBI – Black Tom 1916 Bombing

History Collection – 30 Tragic Facts About Mary Todd Lincoln

Indiana Genealogy Trail – Jackson County Indiana: The Legend of the Reno Gang

Legends of America – Reno Gang & the 1st Big Train Robbery

Library of Congress Research Guides – Brooklyn Theater Fire (1876): Topics in Chronicling America

Mann, Walter – The Follies and Frauds of Spiritualism (1919)

Murray, Robert K. – Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920 (1955)

National Geographic – Saucy ‘Escort Cards’ Were a Way to Flirt in the Victorian Era

National Public Radio – When Flirtation Cards Were All the Rage

New York Public Library – Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One that Was)

Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Mar., 1964) – A Study in Nativism: The American Red Scare of 1919-20

Smithsonian Magazine, November 1st, 2011 – Sabotage in New York Harbor

Smithsonian Magazine, November 22nd, 2011 – The True Story Behind Plymouth Rock

Spartacus Educational – Frank Reno

US Army Weapons Command – Project Management of the Davy Crockett Weapons System, 1958 – 1962

Wired – The Crazy, Ingenious Plan to Bring Hippopotamus Ranching to America