Saturday, May 29, 2010

May Update

T.S. Eliot's specific problems with the month of April have been well documented by lazy sportswriters on deadline, the same sorts of hacks that cleverly allude to the exact number of acts in American lives, and start out blog posts with obtuse and clumsy references to various English language literary figures. Eliot, of course, had more immediate concerns, as has been noted in this Stefan Collini review of the hotly anticipated volume of Eliot's letters illuminating his struggles with his wife's mental health, the problems of interwar banking, and running The Criterion literary magazine that left him in fear of retribution from neglected contributors as the following quotes reveal:
Conducting a review after 8pm in the back room of a flat, I live qua editor, very much from hand to mouth, get myself into all sorts of hot water and predicaments, and offend everybody.

I can only say that there are others – in fact nearly all of my contributors at one time or another – whom I do not dare to meet in the street.

Eliot never knew if his next foray to the corner shop could
lead him into a brow-beating from Wyndham Lewis or a
cudgel-wielding Ezra Pound

May, however, is a fairly dry time for a blog concerned with Northwestern and Chicago sports, with the football and basketball teams off and the Cubs enmeshed in early-season doldrums that leave fans with no choice but to decide whether a burgeoning appreciation for Carlos Silva is largely the result of Stockholm syndrome. Late spring is, of course, a time for Finals, with the Northwestern Women's Lacrosse team steamrolling their way into a sixth consecutive NCAA championship game, the geopolitical ramifications of a Slovenia divided against itself in the Goran Dragic/Sasha Vujucic rivalry, and the minor matter of Chicago's ice hockey team playing for the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup originally created at a time before Canada's Dominion Status would be brutally challenged by the high-handed actions of Governor-General Byng.

This photo, which has been running all over the Chicago Tribune's website all week in
order to drum up interest in the Hawks' Cup run, has revealed the troubling
transformation of Rocky Wirtz into reliable movie villain Eric Roberts. Roberts is has a
top ten menacing IMDB resume as evidenced by the following selection of Eric Roberts
movies consisting of two words: Dead End, Rude Awakening, Blood Red, Descending Angel,
The Grave, Most Wanted, Hitman's Run, Killer Weekend, Depth Charge, Royal Kill (bonus
points for being also known as Ninja's Creed), The Butcher (in which he apparently plays
a character named "Merle Hench"), and Making Sandwiches.


In 1875, James "Big Jim" Kenally found his counterfeiting operation threatened by the arrest of Benjamin Boyd, the main source of his fake currency. Kenally had not reached the pinnacle of becoming a minor regional criminal kingpin without being able to hatch schemes, and he soon came up with a cunning plot of elegant simplicity: hire underlings to break into Lincoln's tomb, steal the president's body, and hold it for ransom until the federal government agreed to release Boyd who would then, presumably, resume his position in the Kenally organization.

Thomas Craughwell's Stealing Lincoln's Body enumerates the pitfalls of presidential grave robbing for ransom schemes. The most interesting chapters, though, are the early ones detailing the history of American counterfeiting and the rise of the Secret Service as a way to combat it. The list of counterfeiters involves characters such as Mother Roberts, described by Craughwell as a "shapely widow" who got caught by an undercover Secret Service agent after an inopportune striptease revealed a cachet of counterfeit bills secreted in her bustle.

Chicago became a natural hub for counterfeiters. After all, this was the Chicago of "Bathhouse John" Coughlin and Mike "Hinky Dink" Kenna, where the line between politician and criminal mastermind was as porous as the line between Nicolas Cage and human cartoon (incidentally, the two funniest things about Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans other than every single Nicolas Cage facial expression is his consistent inability to constrain his amusement that a low-rent criminal henchman has the street name "G" and his attempt to shake down a goateed, purple-shirted Kool-Aid man).

A collage of Cages for your home or garden. The final Cage is of
course from international blockbuster Zandalee, immortalized
in this fantastic review that contains clips of his spectacular
entrance scene which will forever change the way you use the
phrase "you got the power tie."

Needless to say, the nineteenth century Chicago underground is a goldmine of tremendous nicknames including "Red Jimmy" Fitzgerald, "Hungry Joe" Lewis, who successfully swindled no less than Oscar Wilde, and "Foxy Ed" Cullerton, who completed the crooked alderman decathalon by securing nomination in 1892 by both the Republicans and Democrats, reassuring his constituents that they are in safe hands because he has stolen enough already. Among counterfeiters, the key players included a boodle carrier known only as "The Flying Dutchman" and his arch-rival Lewis "Mysterious Bob" Roberts who successfully created the definitive ambiguous but clearly up to no good nickname-- the only mystery is whether Bob would be most likely found passing dirty money, creating a complex numbers racket, or using a diverse stable of poisonous animals as an undetectable means of assassination, baffling detectives unable to understand how a dozen asps, three funnel web spiders, and a Portuguese Man o'War successfully entered a Cincinnati tenement.


The book is also a valuable resource on presidential grave robbing in the nineteenth century. According to Craughwell, a disgruntled gardener made a run at Washington's skull after being fired from Mount Vernon's crew in 1830; in 1878, thieves made off with the body of John Scott Harrison, the son of William Henry Harrison and father of Benjamin Harrison, selling it to a medical college. Vengeance, money, ransoming prisoners-- proof that nineteenth century grave robbing covered the entire gamut of human motivation.

In order to detail the securing of the Lincoln tomb, Craughwell looks at other burials, especially George Pullman. Pullman, known as the inventor of the Pullman Dining Car and a hard-heartedness towards strikers that is tough even by the standards of nineteenth century captains of industry and their truncheonous negotiations, declared that his grave would feature an eighteen inch thick slab of concrete and a steel cage proving that the true measure of the success of a man is if he is so hated at his death that he is actively concerned with corpse desecration.

The Pullman Crypt, c. 1897

With an endless stretch of months until the football season blessedly resumes and a season of baseball mediocrity on the horizon, expect what has been described as by the literary heirs of T.S. Eliot and his Criterion cronies as a "cruel summer."

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