Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dannemora prison break teaches geography

            War may be a good geography teacher but so is a riveting prison break! Just as war taught many a geographically challenged person where Vietnam, Bosnia and Kuwait are in the world, a June 6th prison break taught many others where Dannemora, Malone and Constable are in New York State.

            Following the escape and capture of two prisoners from the Clinton Correctional Facility, maps showing the location of these three North Country communities were ubiquitous—printed in newspapers, broadcast on television, and posted online. The geography lesson was well taught.

Mess Hall in Dannemora"s Clinton Prison in 1912

            For those who desire to enrich their geography lesson, this additional information may be motivating. The state prison where the escape took place is located in the village of Dannemora, which grew up around a prison the state built in 1845 for the purpose of employing convicts in the mining and manufacturing of iron. The prison grounds were located on 26 acres and contained a steam forge, a rolling mill, and a steam separator capable of working 600 tons of ore monthly. At first the iron ore came from a state-owned mine but subsequently the ore came from privately owned sources.[1]

Dannemora's Clinton Prison in 1910
            The prison grounds and the part of the village that surrounds the grounds are also located within the town of Dannemora, in Clinton County. The town was formed from Beekmantown on December 14, 1854 and named for a celebrated community in Sweden where a large iron mine was located.[2]
            The town of Malone where the first escaped inmate was shot and killed is in Franklin County and was formed from Chateaugay on March 2, 1805. The village of Malone, incorporated in 1853, is the county seat.[3] Malone was the birthplace and only home of William Almon Wheeler, who served as the 19th vice president of the U.S. with President Rutherford B. Hayes.[4]

            The town of Constable where the second escaped inmate was apprehended was formed from Malone on March 13, 1807. The town’s northern border is the international border between the U.S. and Canada. From Constable, Montreal is about 50 miles to the northeast.[5]

[1] John Homer French, Gazetteer of the State of New York (Syracuse, NY: B. Pearsall Smith, 1860), 238.
[2] Ibid., 237.
[3] Ibid., 312.
[4] Herbert C. Hallas, William Almon Wheeler (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013).
[5] French, Gazetteer of the State of New York, 310.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Lilliputian politicians

            Sometimes politicians we love to hate take such reprehensible stands on subjects dear to our hearts, we are compelled to reach into our grab bag of 19th century retorts for a response—“Lilliputian politicians” often fits the bill.

Illustration by Milo Winter (1888-1956). 

            This phrase was very popular with editorial writers and cartoonists in the 1850’s. An 1853 editorial in The New York Times inveighed against “the tribes of Lilliputian politicians” that were robbing the U.S. Treasury.[1] The Brooklyn Eagle told its readers in an 1854 article that “Lilliputian politicians” were advocating a 10 hour working day and a requirement that employers pay their employees weekly, and in cash.[2]

Created on wove paper by John L. Magee. Library of Congress.

            The 1856 lithograph above, blamed Lilliputian Democrats for the violence against antislavery settlers in Kansas after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In the cartoon, a bearded freesoiler has been tied to the Democratic platform. From left to right, U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas and President Franklin Pierce are forcing a black man into the freesoiler’s mouth, and presidential nominee James Buchanan and U.S. Senator Lewis Cass are restraining the freesoiler.

From an 1896 edition of Gulliver's Travels.

            Lilliput is an island nation that appears in Part One of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel, Gulliver’s Travels. The inhabitants of Lilliput are less than six inches tall. Lilliput’s emperor chooses his high government officials on the basis of acrobatic skill—how well they can dance on a slender white thread which is two feet long and stretched taut about twelve inches from the ground. Whenever there is a vacancy in the government, five or six candidates petition the emperor for the job and then dance on the thread. Whoever jumps the highest without falling is selected for the position.[3]

Illustration by Milo Winter (1888-1956). 
            There are two political parties on Lilliput. They hate each other so much they will not eat, drink or talk to each other. They distinguish themselves by the height of their heels. Gulliver learns that the high heels have the most respect for Lilliput’s constitution but the emperor only uses low heels in his government. The heir to the throne has a tendency to like the high heels—one of his heels is higher than the other, which makes him hobble when he walks.[4]
            Today, when it comes to controversial issues such as those involving same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration reform, fair trade agreements, global warming or health care, who are the Lilliputian politicians? Who is jumping the highest for public favor? Do they have low or high heels? Do some of them hobble?

[1] “Is the Whig Party Dead?,” New York Daily Times, July 19, 1853.
[2] “The Working Men and the Demagogues,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 16, 1854.
[3] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1912), 30–31.
[4] Ibid., 43.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Inflation calculators and the “good old days”

            The next time friends get excited and express amazement at how little things cost and how much less people were paid in the “good old days,” settle them down with a couple of clicks on an inflation calculator. Often, the low prices and salaries, when adjusted for inflation, are not THAT low!
            Recently, a friend forwarded me an email from an excited acquaintance of his who was amazed at some 1910 statistics he had come across. Some of the data was truly staggering. For example, according to the email, the 1910 life expectancy for men was 47 years—in 2010, men could expect to live 76.2 years.[1] Again, in 1910, only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school—in 2009, 85 percent of adults aged 25 or over reported having a high school diploma.[2]

Cartoon by Otto Lang in "Judge" magazine (1890-1910). Library of Congress.

            However, after the figures in the email were fed into an inflation calculator, the “amazing” 1910 prices for sugar, eggs and coffee, and the salaries for accountants and mechanical engineers, were underwhelming.
            According to the email, in 1910 sugar cost four cents a pound, eggs were fourteen cents a dozen, and coffee was fifteen cents a pound. But, an inflation calculator indicated that in today’s dollars, sugar would cost about $1.00 a pound in 1910 (at a grocery store today, sugar can be purchased for 49 cents a pound); eggs would cost about $3.50 a dozen in 1910 (in a grocery store today, eggs can be purchased for $2.06 a dozen); and coffee would cost approximately $3.75 a pound in 1910 (coffee can be purchased for $3.68 a pound in one of today’s supermarkets).[3]

Library of Congress.

            According to the email, an accountant in 1910 could expect to earn $2,000 a year, and a mechanical engineer might earn $5,000 a year. But, an inflation calculator showed that in today’s dollars, an accountant in 1910 could expect to earn about $50,060 a year, and a mechanical engineer in 1910 might earn approximately $125,150 a year.[4]
            The 19th century Scottish historian and essayist, Thomas Carlyle, once said, “you might prove anything by figures.” The use of an inflation calculator can add a new dimension to the numbers game and give new meaning to the prices and salaries paid in those “good old days.”

[1] “Life Expectancy,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed April 18, 2015, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/life-expectancy.htm.
[2] U.S. Census Bureau, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009,” February 2012.
[3] “The Inflation Calculator,” accessed April 17, 2015, http://www.westegg.com/inflation/ This calculator can be used on dollar amounts from the years 1800 to 2014. The following is another calculator that can be used for dollar amounts from the years 1913 to 2015. “Inflation Calculator: Bureau of Labor Statistics,” accessed April 17, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.
[4] “The Inflation Calculator.”