Showing posts with label 19th century. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 19th century. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Bass Reeves, the Fiercest Lawman in the Old West

Widely considered to be the inspiration behind the fictional Lone Ranger, Bass¹ Reeves lived a larger than life existence of adventure hunting criminals in the old west. One of the first African-American Federal Marshals, Reeves caught more than 3,000 outlaws, all without sustaining a single gunshot wound, or being able to read.

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Bass Reeves, sporting a truly epic
moustache.
Born in 1838, Bass spent the first few years of his life enslaved in the newly minted state of Arkansas. He and his family were owned by William Reeves, a wealthy farmer and popular southern politician. William Reeves eventually decided to relocate to Texas, and Bass was assigned to be a valet to Reeves' son, George. When George went off to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War in 1861, Bass went with him.

Bass' time serving with the Confederacy was brief. Though dates are unsure, it is generally agreed upon that in some point between 1861 and 1862 Bass escaped after an altercation with his master during a card game. From Texas, Bass fled to Indian Country, the land that would later become the state of Oklahoma.

While in Indian Country, Bass became friendly with members of the Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek Nations, learning their languages, tracking techniques, and fighting for the Union with them.

Bass was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and when the war ended in 1865 he married, bought a farm in Arkansas, and proceeded to have ten children. Bass was a successful farmer, but he was more well known for his skill with languages and knowledge of Indian Country. In 1875 he was made a deputy US Marshal, and charged with the responsibility of cleaning up Indian Country.

Indian Country at the time was a pretty lawless place. Because it wasn't under the authority of any state government criminals could only be prosecuted by the federal government, and could only be chased down by federal authorities. While tribes were allowed to organize their own law enforcement, they only had jurisdiction over Native Americans, leaving white and black criminals the responsibility of the harrassed and understaffed US Marshals.

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Isaac Parker, the 'Hanging Judge'. Parker earned
this epitaph from the many criminals he sentenced
to the noose during his vigorous efforts to rid the
West of crime.
In May of 1875 Isaac Parker, later known as 'the hanging judge' was put in charge of a portion of the west that included Indian Country. He authorized the hire of some 200 deputies, and Bass Reeves was one of the top picks. From there he set out on a more than 30 year career that would see him become one of most famous lawmen of the Old West.

Life as a U.S. Marshal was busy. Bass would spend weeks away from his family, hunting down outlaws. When he finally caught his man, Bass would return to the courthouse at Fort Smith. He would spend a few days with his family back in Arkansas, then head back out.

Bass was at something of a disadvantage when it came to crook catching, because, as a former slave, he had never been taught to read. Because of this, he had to have warrants read to him. Bass would memorize the contents of several warrants before heading out on a manhunt. These manhunts could last months, giving Bass ample time to forget the contents of the warrants, but Bass was a sharp cookie. Despite the fact that he had to rely on his memory, he never brought back the wrong man.

There were times when Bass even used his illiteracy to his benefit. It was well known that Bass couldn't read, and there were several instances of Bass being captured by outlaws, and asking them to read him a letter from his wife before they shot him. Bass would take advantage of their moment of distraction to draw a gun on them, and take them in.

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Bass Reeves
Bass was bold and imposing, standing at 6'2, but he was also a master of disguise. A famous story recounts how he disguised himself as a bum, dressing himself in rags and a hat riddled with bullet holes. He came up to a homestead belonging to the mother of two outlaws Bass was hunting. He spun a sad story about how he was being hunted by the marshals, and how they had shot the hat right off his head. Sympathetic, the woman let Bass into her home, and suggested that he should team up with her two sons. Bass agreed, and when the two outlaws came home Bass agreed to join them. However, when everyone was asleep Bass handcuffed the two brothers together. When they woke up the next morning they were angry, but Bass still managed to haul them back to Fort Smith, despite being pursued by the men's irate mother.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass found himself abruptly out of a job. Marshal duties were taken over by the new state government, who did not allow African Americans to serve. Bass joined the Muskogee Police Department, and spent two years as a beat cop. Legend says that there was never a single crime on his beat.

In 1909 Bass was diagnosed with Bright's Disease. He died a few months later in  January of 1910. 

Bass was one of the most effective lawmen of the time. He caught over 3,000 criminals, and it is notable that of that number, he only ever had to shoot fourteen of them. He is widely considered to be the inspiration behind the popular cartoon character, the Lone Ranger, though this has never been confirmed. Either way, Bass remains an Old West legend.


¹Pronounced with a short 'a', like the fish, not with a long 'a' like the musical instrument.

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Monday, February 4, 2019

The Statue of Liberty Was a Completely Useless Lighthouse for Sixteen Years

A gift from the French government to assure the United States that they were, in fact, still friends, the Statue of Liberty was never meant to be a lighthouse. Still, for the first sixteen years of its American life, Liberty Enlightening the People served as a lighthouse, 'helping' to guide sailors into the New York Harbor. Or something like that.

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Statue of Liberty Lighthouse, 1890.
As mentioned, the statue wasn't supposed to be a lighthouse, but when the idea was posed to Frederic Bartholdi, the statue's designer, he seized on the idea with enthusiasm. A statue that not only held a torch, but held a torch that lit up and literally guided people to safety was pretty cool, and everyone else agreed, especially when it was proposed that the statue would be illuminated by the newfangled electric light.

The Statue of Liberty was the first lighthouse in the United States to be lit with electricity, with all other lighthouses running off old fashioned kerosene lamps. However, Bartholdi's original design didn't include any convenient places to shine lights out of, save for the lady's tiara. Bartholdi and his engineers (noted among them, Gustav Eiffel) set to finding a creative solution, or two.

Bartholdi's first idea was to install flood lights along the ledges of the torch. This would cast a bright light out to sea, illuminating the way for passing vessels. This idea, however, worked too well, and was rejected because it was feared that the light would blind sailors, and cause shipwrecks. Instead, windows were cut into the torch, and electric lights were placed inside, lighting the torch from within.

The lights were initially powered by a steam electricity plant and dynamo generator at no cost to the United States government. While the United States were thrilled to have a cool statue, they weren't too keen on paying for the lighting costs. Part of the illumination agreement was that the power plant and first week of illumination would be donated by the American Electric Light Manufacturing Company. The statue was lit up on November 1, 1886. A week later, it was dark again.

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Statue of Liberty today
Soon after going dark, President Grover Cleveland made the Statue of Liberty the problem of the Lighthouse Board. The Lighthouse Board weren't too happy with this assignment, given that the statue was expensive, difficult to light, and did no actual good as a navigational aid. There was no amplifying lense in the torch, which meant that the light was very weak. Proponents of the lighthouse claimed that the light could be seen for 24 miles out to sea. In reality, the light didn't make the 8 miles to Manhattan.¹

The first and only lighthouse keeper, Albert E. Littlefield, was hired in December of 1886. Littlefield was chosen because of his expertise with electricity, and under his care the lights kept shining for sixteen years. Though he made improvements that made the lighthouse less expensive, the Statue of Liberty was still a huge drain on Lighthouse Board resources, and it ceased to serve as a lighthouse on March 1, 1902.



¹For those who aren't lighthouse aficionados, a good lighthouse can be seen 30-40 miles away

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Statue of Liberty Lighthouse
Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty, NY

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Damn, Girl-Ching Shih the Terror of South China

One of the most feared pirates of the nineteenth century, Ching Shih¹ and her Red Flag Fleet terrorized the South China Sea until 1810, when she gracefully retired after having been elevated to the nobility, and negotiating a pardon from the Qing government for herself, her husband, and most of her men. She was one of the most successful pirates of all time, but she's barely known outside of the country of her birth.

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Contemporary depiction of Ching Shih
Probably born in 1775, Ching Shih originally hailed from the Guangdong province in southern China. As is typical for most women of this era, very little is known about Ching Shih's life up until her marriage. All that is known about her is that she was working as a prostitute in a floating brothel when she caught the eye of notorious pirate lord, Zheng Yi.²

There are a couple stories about how these two became a couple. The first one being that Zheng ordered his men to raid the brothel, and spirit Ching Shih away. The other story is that Zheng simply asked her to marry him, and Ching agreed on the condition that she would share in the leadership of the fleet. Whatever the truth, in 1801 Ching and Zheng were married, and they shared in command for several years.

When she was married to Zheng, Ching helped him to unite several small pirate bands into a much larger federation they called the Red Flag Fleet. At their largest, the fleet had more than 70,000 men, and 1,200 ships--significantly more ships than the pitiful Chinese navy.

Unfortunately, Zheng died in 1807, leaving Ching a widow in a precarious position. She was the head of a large fleet of rowdy ne're-do-wells, and she needed to consolidate her power quickly. She did this by recruiting her husband's former advisors, and becoming intimate with her husband's second in command, and adopted son, Cheung Po Tsai.

The relationship between Cheung Po Tsai, Zheng Yi, and Ching Shih is mysterious, complex, and a little headache inducing. Zheng Yi and Cheung Po Tsai were very close, close enough that Zheng  adopted Cheung. They were also lovers. Ching had also adopted Cheung, and they would later marry, and have at least one child. The affair was incestous to say the least, and lecherous imaginations can spend many a happy hour imagining what the trio got up to when all parties were still living.

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Cheung Po Tsai. Like any pirate worth
their salt, it is rumored that he hid large
amounts of treasure in a cave.
With Cheung Po Tsai, Ching really started to consolidate her rule. She brought even more pirates into her fold, and she began to keep 'order' on the seas with a very strict set of rules. Sailors who went ashore without leave had their ears cut off. Pirates caught stealing booty were beheaded.Villages who paid tribute to the fleet were considered under Ching's protection, and anyone who raided or plundered a protected village was beheaded.

Particularly progressive were Ching's rules regarding the treatment of female captives. Men were required to keep all pertinent body parts in their pants on pains of death so far as female captives were concerned. Sexual assault resulted in the man in question being beheaded. Consensual sex resulted in the man being beheaded, and the woman being thrown overboard. Pirates could marry a captive, and the woman would be made a full member of the fleet. Captives nobody wanted to marry were set ashore.

As idyllic as some of her policies were, Ching was still undeniably a pirate, and pirates are notoriously bloodthirsty. In addition to all the beheadings, Ching was noted for giving violent ends to targets who resisted her. Villages that submitted to her fleet immediately, and paid tribute, were spared and protected. Villages that resisted saw their homes burned, their men killed, and the village leader nailed to the dock by his feet, and beaten to death. Sailors on captured ships were given the option to join the fleet, or be beaten to death. More than one captured captain committed suicide rather than have to deal with being captured by the Red Flag Fleet.

Ching was a major shipping disruption in the area, and the Qing government wanted to see her gone. Unfortunately, the Chinese navy of the time was composed of repurposed merchant ships unsuited to combat. They went so far as to enlist the help of their foes, the British and Portuguese, but they were unable to capture Ching.

Come 1810, things were starting to change. While Ching and the Red Flag Fleet were still dominating the seas, there was a new metaphorical sheriff in Beijing, and he was frighteningly competent at hunting pirates. As several big name pirates began to fall, the Imperial government offered amnesty to any pirates who laid down their swords. After watching their friends be captured and executed, Ching and Cheung decided to take them up on the offer.

Cheung was initially sent to handle negotiations, but was unsuccessful. When talks stalled, Ching walked unarmed into the governor's office in Guangdong with a posse of seventeen, also unarmed, pirates. When negotiations where completed, Ching had gained clemency for all but 400 of her pirates, of which only 126 were executed. In addition to keeping their lives, they were also allowed to keep their ill gotten gains. Ching and Cheung retired especially handsomely. Both were raised to the nobility, and Cheung was made an officer in the Chinese navy.

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Chinese junk ships, the type of ship Ching used.
Negotiations almost stalled when the governor required that the pardoned pirates kneel before him in homage. The pirate masses definitely weren't going to kneel in front of the governor, so the governor reduced his requirement to just the leaders, Ching and Cheung. This was a pretty non-negotiable point on the part of the governor, but Ching and Cheung weren't too keen on the humiliation. To satisfy the pride of all parties, they convinced the governor to dissolve the adoption that made Ching Cheung's mother, and had the governor marry them. At the end of the ceremony, the couple traditionally knelt in thanks to the officiant, neatly solving the kneeling problem.

After negotiation her retirement from piracy, Ching returned to Guangdong. She and Cheung had one son, and after Cheung died Ching opened a casino/brothel. She lived to see her son grow up, and her grandchildren be born. She died in 1844 at the age of 69.


¹It should be noted that there are multiple spellings for all of the names mentioned in this narrative.
² Ching Shih was not Ching's birth name, it literally means 'Widow of Cheng' (Zheng).


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Sources
Ching Shih, the Former Prostitute Who Became the Greatest Pirate Who Ever Lived
Meet Ching Shih: the Prostitute Turned Pirate Who Banned Rape in Her 50,000 Man Fleet
Ching Shih Pirate Biography and Facts
Ching Shih
Ching Shih (1775-1844)
Ching Shih: From Prostitute to Pirate Lord
Cheung Po Tsai and Ching Shih: Pirate Monarchs
Cheng I Sao
Cheng I Sao, Female Pirate Extraordinaire