When the “Big Cheese” Came To the White House

Jefferson's Cheese (top with this)

How do you express your appreciation to the President of the United States? Sending a positive letter is nice. A card or telegram works, too. But 214 years ago, folks in one town devised a unique gift … which turned out to carry malodorous consequences. And it inspired an even bigger, even smellier presidential gift 34 years later, which went on to serve as the inspiration for two episodes of a popular 1990s TV series. That’s a lot of legacy from a single token of appreciation. And here’s how it all started. Continue reading

The Most Hated Man in Tennessee

Brownlow -- good facial

Folks in the Volunteer State disagree about many things. Are you a Vanderbilt fan, or do you root for the University of Tennessee? Do you vote for the Democrats, or the Republicans? (The state swings both ways.) Appalachian bluegrass, or Memphis blues?

But people there unanimously agree on one thing: Parson Brownlow is the most hated man in Tennessee history. Nearly 150 years after his death, just mentioning his name can trigger a firestorm of epic proportions.

He passionately despised (in no particular order) Baptists, the Devil, Democrats, Confederates, Andrew Johnson, and basically anyone who disagreed with him. And he fought them all with every ounce of energy he possessed. Continue reading

How Ants Turned a Broke GI Into a Millionaire

Kid looking at ants

When Milton Levine returned from World War II, he had some very common, but very pressing, problems.

Milton - WWIIFirst, he didn’t have much money. That was doubly urgent because he brought a lovely young war bride from France with him.

Second, he didn’t have a job. With 15+ million service members returning to civilian ranks at the same time, and with the economy shifting from wartime back to peacetime footing, there just weren’t enough jobs to go around. Plus, he had led a platoon that built combat bridges in Europe; that skill set wasn’t in high demand Stateside. Continue reading

A Child’s Stolen Oscar

Child with Oscar

Every once in a while, history provides a story where good triumphs in the end. Not always; just often enough to keep you from becoming a cynic. With the Christmas season in full swing, this is the perfect time for just such a tale. So grab a cup of eggnog, sit back and learn what happened when a child’s Oscar was taken by a thief.

I’m a fan of classic movies, the old black white films from the 1930s and 40s you see on TCM. It was a time of unrivaled talent on the silver screen. And Margaret O’Brien’s cheerful face was right there alongside the greats from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Continue reading

Tiffany’s Extreme White House Makeover

entrance-hall-1882Chester Arthur never ran for president, but he got the job anyway. And the first time he walked into the White House as its new resident, he didn’t like what he saw.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To fully understand what Arthur did to the place, you must first understand why.

To say the White House was rundown by the early 1880s is an understatement.  Let’s be blunt: it looked like a shabby hotel on a courthouse square in a little county seat town. Continue reading

The Scoundrel Who Visited His Lost Leg

Sickles - use at top

If an election were ever held for the title “Bad Boy of American History,” Dan Sickles would be a serious contender.

He served in Congress; married a woman half his age; publicly murdered her lover, then beat the rap by pioneering a legal defense that’s still used today; became a Civil War general, losing a leg while nearly losing the Battle of Gettysburg at the same time; dabbled in diplomacy and fooled around with a queen; filled his pockets with money that wasn’t his; received the Congressional Medal of Honor; and lived to the ripe old age of 94.

Oh, and he did something very weird with his lost leg, too.

That’s a heap of living. So let’s meet one of the most complex, contradictory characters to ever grace the American scene. Continue reading

The Only Submarine Ever Sunk By Its Toilet

U-1206  use this oneWhen you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. Even when you’re 200 feet underwater.

But 70 years ago, answering Nature’s Call actually sent a submarine to the bottom of the ocean. You have to hear this bizarre tale to believe it. And I swear every word is true.

Submersibles have been destroyed a host of ways over the years. Depth charges, naval and aerial bombings, collisions, even mechanical troubles have all dispatched them to Davy Jones’ Locker.

But one holds the, uh, distinction of being the only sub done in by its own potty. Continue reading

Did the Kremlin Love Lucy, Too?

Was America’s favorite redhead really a Red?

o-LUCILLE-BALL-570

Lucille Ball was no stranger to pressure. For years, she had appeared on stage and in live radio broadcasts. She had performed hilarious stunts before movie and TV cameras alike with equal ease.

But nothing, nothing at all, was like the pressure facing her on Friday evening, September 11, 1953. Because everything (and I do mean everything) hinged on the response that would greet her when she walked out before 300 people in the television studio audience.

Lucy found herself in countless zany predicaments over the years. But this one beat them all. And here’s the true story of how she got in it. Continue reading

The President’s Love Child

My father left, he never even married mom. I shared the guilt my mama knew.”

-Love Child, Diana Ross & The Supremes

Warren_G_Harding

We Americans idealize our presidents. We place them on lofty pedestals while forgetting that the men depicted in the marble statues were once real humans. All too human, in some cases … especially when it came to fooling around.

The problem was present early on. Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one, and probably more, of his slave Sally Heming’s children (although the evidence suggests the affair didn’t begin until after Jefferson’s wife Martha had died.) Continue reading

The Body In the Trunk: Who Killed Elsie Sigel?

How racism, a famous grandpa & Yellow Journalism created a Turn of the Century Whodunnit?

Trunk

The late Victorians and Edwardians relished a good murder. Consider how our British cousins were fascinated by Jack the Ripper’s killings. The same was true on this side of the pond. When fame, notoriety and crime were rolled into one story, reported by sensational Yellow Journalists to boot, the public couldn’t get enough sordid details.

elsie drawing ofBut seldom was their fiendish appetite indulged as intensely as it was with one Big Apple homicide in the early 20th Century. Almost entirely forgotten today, it was a forerunner of the O.J. Simpson-Nicole Brown Simpson media circus that would follow 85 years later. And it carried ugly consequences for one group of people. With that introduction, let us return to the summer of 1909.

If the telegram was meant to reassure her parents, it didn’t work.

“Will be home soon, or Sunday evening,” it said. “Don’t worry.” It carried the initials EJS.

But the parents did worry, because until then, they hadn’t seen or heard from 19 year-old Elsie J. Sigel for several days. Continue reading