Tom Goes Crazy for 1865, and 1915, too, Does Some Research and Shares it With Us

My daughter Darlene is in San Francisco this week, taking part in one of the satellite celebrations of the sesquicentennial of the establishment of her alma mater, Cornell University. (She had considered going to the one on Hong Kong, but figured that the one in San Francisco would be just as culturally diverse and she wouldn't have to be on a plane for 16 hours.)

Ezra Cornell was Bill Gates-rich from owning Western Union. To his eternal credit, his university was co-educational from the jump. (The other seven Ivy League schools didn't allow women to matriculate until at least the 1970s! Columbia didn't integrate along gender lines until 1982. Double exclamation point!!)

Eighteen sixty-five was one of those important years where history clicks forward a notch. During that year, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery; Wild Bill Hickok shot and killed a man in what is considered the first-ever Old West gunfight; the Civil War came to an end; extra-creepy Lewis Carroll published "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"; the Salvation Army was established; and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Sometimes mistakenly presented as the ultimate irony is the fact that on April 14, 1865, President Lincoln signed into law a bill that established the Secret Service. That night, he was shot and killed. The Secret Service was actually established to fight rampant counterfeiting. At the end of the Civil War, it's estimated that one in three of all pieces of American currency was counterfeit. The Secret Service was created to clean up that mess. It wasn't until the assassinations of Lincoln, then Garfield and then McKinley that the Secret Service was also assigned to protect the President (and others).

While I was doing the research, I found that, 100 years ago (in 1915), the United States House of Representatives voted down a proposal to allow women to vote. That's 1915, not 1815. Over the past century, that legislative body has become much more open-minded and progressive. Nowadays, it votes on a regular basis to strip millions of Americans of their health-care coverage. It also refuses to do anything about the millions of people who are in this country illegally and then cries like little bitches when the President attempts to tackle the problem.

The House sucked then and it industrial-strength sucks now. However, in between—50 years ago—it voted by more than a two-to-one margin to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the companion piece of legislation to the Civil Rights Act that had been passed the year before. Fortunately for Arizona, Barry Goldwater (who had joined with the Southern racists in voting against the Civil Rights Act) was no longer a Senator. His successor, Republican Paul Fannin (and Democrat Carl Hayden) both voted in favor of the Voting Rights Act.

No matter how many ways his supporters try to spin it, Goldwater's vote remains a stain on his legacy and laid the foundation for Arizona's connection with crackpot politics. The term "states' rights" might have meant one thing when the Constitution was being drafted, but in the 1960s, it meant "institutionalized racism." Today, it means, "I just hate it when the federal government does something right."

Also in 1915:

•Alexander Graham Bell made the first transcontinental phone call. Bell was in New York and he called (this is way cool) Mr. Watson in San Francisco. In a few years from now, they'll be teaching disbelieving school kids that, back in the old days, people actually used telephones to speak to one another.

•Thomas Edison invented the telescribe, the forerunner to the phone answering machine. Those same kids will scoff at the notion that people used to leave voice messages for one another.

•The Germans not-so-wisely torpedoed the Lusitania, killing 1200 people and eventually dragging the United States into World War I.

•French fighter pilot Roland Garros was shot down over Germany. He and German Anthony Fokker had both been simultaneously working on the problem of shooting a plane-mounted gun without shredding one's own propeller. Garros would eventually escape his POW camp and return to the air. He was shot down and killed one month before the end of the war and a day before his 30th birthday.

The clay-courted tennis stadium in Paris where they hold the French Open is named for Roland Garros.

•Finally, it must be mentioned that in 1915, a guy named Frank Holt, who had been a teacher of German at Cornell, planted a bomb in the United States Senate cloak room. It exploded, but no one was hurt. The next day, he went up to New York and broke into the mansion of financier J.P. Morgan, with whom Holt was angry because Morgan was supporting England in the war against Germany. Holt shot Morgan twice, but Morgan still managed to subdue the would-be assassin. (While Morgan held Holt down, his butler conked Holt out cold with a piece of coal.) Holt committed suicide in jail.

It turns out that Holt was actually Erich Muenter, who, while a professor at Harvard a few years earlier, had killed his wife and then escaped. The word is that when Cornell officials learned that Holt was actually Muenter, they denied him tenure but did nothing else. They figured that since he had started out at Harvard, he had already suffered enough.

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