Billy Possum

Billy Possum

You may already have heard the inception myth of the teddy bear. Teddy Roosevelt, the definitive POTUS and all round man’s man, out on one of his regular hunting trips, refuses to kill a female bear as it has a young cub. A political cartoonist uses the story to illustrate Roosevelt’s humanity and sense of moral duty to protect lesser beings, two companies start making toy bears based on said cartoon, then for some reason this fad turns out to be the one in a thousand that becomes a permanent fixture. It doesn’t particularly matter that most of the story is probably not true, or that the bear was, in fact, killed, by 1909 the teddy bear is already embedded in popular consciousness, The Teddy Bear’s Picnic is one of the most-played bits of sheet music (though it – bizarrely – doesn’t have lyrics yet) and toymakers worldwide are producing masses of different stuffed toy animals, hoping to catch the next craze before everyone else.

Into this world let’s bring our new president – the portly mustachioed figure of William Howard Taft, newly elected President of The USA, who wanted a bit of that teddy bear action. From an article on the generally excellent Mentalfloss:

In January 1909, the president-elect was honored at a banquet in Atlanta. At Taft’s request, the main course was “possum and taters”—a toasty pile of sweet potatoes topped with an 18-pound whole cooked opossum. (Taft gobbled up the roasted marsupial so quickly that a nearby doctor advised him to slow down.) When Taft’s belly was stuffed, local boosters presented the president-to-be with a small plush opossum. The toy, they told Taft, was destined to be the next big thing—it was going to replace the teddy bear. They dubbed it “Billy Possum.”

To find out what happened to the billy possum, and why it never took off, take a look at the full post or listen to the story on the 99% Invisible podcast.

Eight things you might not know about the Ford Model T

ford model t

1. Though it is undeniably the driving force behind the adoption of automation in industry, the Model T wasn’t the first car made on a production line – that was the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, beginning in 1901.

2. Famously the Model T was available in “any color as long as it’s black” – however for the first five years it wasn’t black at all, but came in gray, green, blue, and red varieties. The uniform black paint was adopted in 1913 in order to save money on materials and production.

3. To start your Model T you had to turn a crank which could kick back and break your arm or (very occasionally) exit at missile velocity. The choke and throttle controls were mounted on the steering column, and needed to be set as soon as the engine started, so you had to run back and do this before the engine died.

4. The car had no speedometer, one gear and only one door. All models were, however built with a jack stand on the rear axle, which allowed the owner to remove the rear wheel and place a flat belt on the hub in order to power farm equipment.

5. Early models had their seats stuffed with dried moss, which undoubtedly was very comfortable, but which led to a recall when it was found to harbour hoards of tiny, biting bugs

6. The Model T was produced with fundamentally the same design for almost 20 years – and the worlds (and roads) of 1908 and 1927 were markedly different. Henry Ford was furious when any engineers suggested the blueprint be changed.

7. At $300 in 1925, it was the first car which was affordable for blue collar workers in America, and he also paid his workers a wage which far surpassed what they could get elsewhere. Before we hail him as a hero of the modern age however…

8. Henry Ford’s racism and antisemitism are surely widely known at this point – but the extent of this and its bizarre implications still beggars belief. Not only did you have to be a white male protestant to work on his factory floor, and sign a “morals contract”, but he invented and publicised square dancing purely in order to counteract the black and allegedly jewish jazz culture of the 1920s. To describe him as a crackpot doesn’t really do him justice – these are the actual words he used (in “The International Jew”, a favourite of Adolf Hitler) to describe the popular culture of the times;

“Many people have wondered whence come the waves upon waves of musical slush that invade decent homes and set the young people of this generation imitating the drivel of morons. Popular music is a Jewish monopoly. Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.”

Further reading here:

Two-part biographical podcast on Ford here and here.

Jack Johnson

jack johnson

A truism that bears continual restating; the Edwardian / “progressive” era was really, truly racist. Even the most diehard bigots these days would be unlikely to begrudge a black man his boxing career, but it took the best part of a decade of being the best boxer in the world, and two years of stalking his opponent, before Jack Johnson was able to compete for (and win) the world heavyweight title from Canadian Tommy Burns.

This was not, of course, allowed to pass unnoticed. The next two years saw a host of competitors put up against Johnson as “the great white hope” until finally superstar world champion James J Jeffries was brought out of retirement to challenge Johnson in “the fight of the century” – the film of which was distributed across the USA. The viewing of Johnson’s victory sparked race riots, which led to a nationwide ban on the distribution of fight films. Nearly a hundred years later, it would be entered into the National Film Registry.

A decent podcast about Jack Johnson can be found at Stuff You Missed in History Class – usual provisos about excessive advertising apply.

The best laid plans


The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

April 18 – The San Francisco Earthquake (estimated magnitude 7.8) on the San Andreas Fault destroys much of San Francisco, California, killing at least 3,000

As Hurricane Florence bears down on the East coast of the USA, it would be amiss not to mention what happened across on the other side of the continent 112 years  ago. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 remains vivid in a culture that has built (and built fairly high) on the ruins left behind after the 7.9 magnitude quake and (more importantly) the subsequent fires which killed up to 7000 people.

This clip shows quite what level of devastation the city suffered

…and this is perhaps the best documentary about the event, from PBS.

The Russo-Japanese War

russo-japanese war

Even if it isn’t the most well-known war in the west, overshadowed by the events of a decade later, the Russo-Japanese war nevertheless led to the abortive 1905 revolution in Russia, the takeover of Korea by Japan, gave Theodore Roosevelt a Nobel Peace Prize, and laid some of the groundwork for the worldwide complications of WW1. I only wish there were a decent documentary about it on Youtube – aside from this short, stuffy clip, all I can find are insufferable animated explainers.

Mata Hari

Mata Hari (1876-1917) 1905 (b/w photo)

In 1905 the tail-end of the Belle Époque in Paris, home to Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. denis found a new star – a Javanese princess, of princely Hindu birth, immersed in the traditions of sacred Indian dance since childhood, newly arrived in France to demonstrate exotic stripteases where she removed a series of veils until she was only wearing a bejeweled bra and headdress. The newspapers went wild – she was was “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair,” her face “makes a strange foreign impression” and her dance was “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.”

Of course Mata Hari was actually Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, a divorced mother of two from Leeuwarden in The Netherlands. In her very unhappy marriage to Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, Mata Hari had spent a few years in Java, and escaping her husband’s alcoholism, violence and keeping of a concubine, she had immersed herself in local culture, adopting an artistic name which meant “sun” in Malay.

The most famous part of Mata Hari’s story is its tragic ending. Her execution for treason by firing squad in 1917 has left her a reputation as a double-crossing femme fatale, which in truth she probably did very little to earn. A number of films have been made of this latter part of her life, mostly benefiting from the fact that you cannot libel the dead. Perhaps she would have enjoyed her notoriety still lingering a hundred years after her death, or perhaps she would have said this unfairly negates her life of self-creation and struggle.

This documentary is the best I can find currently available on her life.

The Congo Horrors


He hadn’t made his rubber quota for the day so the Belgian-appointed overseers had cut off his daughter’s hand and foot. Her name was Boali. She was five years old. Then they killed her. But they weren’t finished. Then they killed his wife too. And because that didn’t seem quite cruel enough, quite strong enough to make their case, they cannibalized both Boali and her mother. And they presented Nsala with the tokens, the leftovers from the once living body of his darling child whom he so loved. His life was destroyed. They had partially destroyed it anyway by forcing his servitude but this act finished it for him. All of this filth had occurred because one man, one man who lived thousands of miles across the sea, one man who couldn’t get rich enough, had decreed that this land was his and that these people should serve his own greed. Leopold had not given any thought to the idea that these African children, these men and women, were our fully human brothers, created equally by the same Hand that had created his own lineage of European Royalty.

Of all the unfathomable atrocities of the 20th century, there are but a few that feel entirely separate from the tides of history and ideology. The genocide perpetrated on the orders of Leopold II of Belgium for his own personal profit is surely one of the most relentlessly bleak stories of all time, but still one that should be more widely known. Here is a brief article about the genocide:

Father stares at the hand and foot of his five-year-old, severed as a punishment for failing to make the daily rubber quota, Belgian Congo, 1904

…and here is a clip from a documentary about the genocide.


It goes without saying that none of this is easy to read or watch.

Strychnine, Egg Whites, Brandy and a Human Zoo: The Terrible 1904 Olympics

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The third modern olympiad, despite the dropping of such noble sports as kite flying, pigeon racing, cannon shooting and fire fighting, is still talked about as one of the strangest and most misguided sporting events in history.

A few reasons:

  • The games was moved from the fairly reasonable location of Chicago to the comparative backwater of St Louis, Missouri in order to coincide with the Worlds’ Fair being held there. Consequently most countries didn’t take the event seriously enough to send any athletes
  • The fair featured a ‘human zoo’ where African exchange students dressed up in tribal costumes and acted out an imagining of tribal life for paying visitors. This apparently not being dehumanising enough, the games organisers made these non-athlete exchange students compete in sporting events, in order to demonstrate that “the savage has been a very much overrated man from an athletic point of view” (to repeat once more, 1900s America was really racist)
  • A lack of clarity as to what constituted the ‘Olympics’ meant that the competition ended up stretching over an indeterminate period of time up to around 6 months
  • Some competitors were discovered to be imposters, including local boxing hero Caroll Burton.
  • George Eyser earned three gold medals in gymnastics, despite being encumbered with a wooden leg

The most bizarre and unforgivable moment in the games, however, was the marathon, which proved to be a perfect storm of poor planning, pseudoscience, lack of concern for human wellbeing and sheer bad luck. – a few highlights from this truly astonishing account of the race:

William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon we he collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging; the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. Had he gone unaided an hour longer he might have bled to death. John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs… At the nine-mile mark cramps plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed… Hicks came under the care of a two-man support crew at the 10-mile mark. He begged them for a drink but they refused, instead sponging out his mouth with warm distilled water. Seven miles from the finish, his handlers fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites… Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head and was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, “someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.” The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.”… Hicks’ trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down… He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was still 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged for something to eat. Then he begged to lie down. He was given more brandy but refused tea… His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner.

Some more on this here:

The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever (

Citrus, Altus, Fortius, Horrendius (The Memory Palace)


The Panama Canal

Panama Canal Construction

A man, a plan, a canal; Panama! Not just a palindrome, but a rejected heading for this blog post. 1904 saw the apex of Theodore Roosevelt’s super-sized presidency with work finally beginning on the digging of a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – a project whose scale remains impressive in 2018.

Here is a History Channel documentary on the building of the thing


…and here’s Teddy hanging out at the site, having dug the entire thing himself without catching malaria or yellow fever or even getting a smudge on his snappy suit.


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